EXCERPT: We Interrupt This Broadcast by Mary Robinette Kowal

CATEGORY: Mathematical Destruction Scenarios

RULE 2000.x: Always Double-Check the Calculations

SOURCE: Fidel Dobes, computer programmer

VIA: Mary Robinette Kowal

Math is the language of geniuses with secrets. Beyond the basics of arithmetic, there are few people who really understand what to do with numbers or how calculations work. For someone with a keen mathematical mind, math is the silent weapon that few will even bother to scrutinize.

For Fidel Dobes, math is what he does best. His calculations are the starting points of his computer programs, and his programs are some of the best in the world. They are the secret programs that guide nuclear weapons systems for the U.S. government. The programs behind the big bombs.

Fidel’s story is the story of one man living in the aftermath of World War II’s heart-wrenching destruction. It is the Cold War. Computers run on punchcards. And America has reached a new level of paranoia. Can anyone with a conscience live with the knowledge that their work is advancing the newly massive American war machine?

We offer you the tale of a math genius who fights madness with madness. It’s insanity—squared.


We Interrupt This Broadcast
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. The last thing he needed was to cough blood onto the Beluga program source cards. Across the cramped lab, Mira raised her head and stared with concern. He hated worrying her.

Fidel’s ribs ached with the force of the cough. He held a handkerchief to his mouth, waiting for the fit to pass. For a long moment, he thought he would not be able to breathe again. The panic almost closed his throat completely, but he managed a shuddering breath without coughing. Then another. He straightened slowly and pulled the cloth away from his mouth. In the glob of sputum, a bright spot of scarlet glistened.

Damn. That usually only happened in the morning. He folded the handkerchief over so it wouldn’t show, turned back to the 1402 and continued loading the source cards into the sturdy machine. Its fan hummed, masking some of the ragged sound of his breathing.

Mira cleared her throat. “Would water help?”

“I’m fine.” Fidel thumbed through the remaining manilla cards to make certain they were in the correct order. He had checked the serialization half a dozen times already, but anything was better than meeting Mira’s worried look. “The T.B. won’t kill me before we’re finished.”

Mira pursed her lips, painted a deep maroon. “I’m not worried about you finishing.”

“What are—” No. He did not want the answer to that question. “Good.”

She sneezed thrice, in rapid succession. On her, the sneezes sounded adorable, like a kitten.

“You still have that cold?”

She waved the question away, turning back to the 026 printer keyboard to punch a row of code into another card. Her dedication touched him. The Beluga program was huge and the verifier had tagged a score of corrupted data cards. He did not have time to send the cards back to one of the card punch girls upstairs—as if this were even an official project—and still be ready for broadcast. He had only one chance to intercept Asteroid 29085 1952 DA before it hurtled past the Earth’s orbit.

It had been a risk bringing Mira into the project, but when she asked for details he’d implied that it was classified and she left it at that. As far as the government was concerned, she had the security clearance necessary for the clerical work for which he’d officially employed her but then, the government didn’t know about Fidel’s Beluga program. They knew that he used this forgotten corner of the Pentagon’s basement to do research on ways to control spacecraft through computers. The additional program that he had devised to fit into the official project was something he had managed to keep hidden from everyone. So many times he had wished for someone to confide in and had nearly told Mira. But fear kept the words inside. Despite the years that he had known her, despite the strength of her mind, he feared that if she knew what he had created, he would lose her.

Ironic, that he now kept her close to be certain she was safe.

Fidel loaded the next set of cards into the feeder and stopped. On the top card, someone had drawn a red heart. He brushed the heart with his index finger; it was a smooth and waxy maroon, like a woman’s lips. The next card had an imprint of lips as if she had kissed the card. The one after that was blank.

He looked up across the lab, to Mira. She met his gaze evenly with a Mona Lisa smile.

Suddenly too warm, Fidel broke eye contact and loaded the cards, the nine edge face down. What kind of life would he have been able to give her anyway? Not a long life together, not happily ever after. Nine months in a sanatorium had done nothing for him except give him time to read the news out of Washington and brood.

Only his correspondence with Mira had kept him sane—knowing that she had agreed with him about the outrages against humanity. And what a relief it was to know that his was not a lone voice crying out: How dare they!

He had known what the Manhattan Project was when he had worked on it, but they were only supposed to use the A-Bomb once. The threat of it was supposed to be deterrent enough, and yes, yes, he had known that it would involve a demonstration. For that, he had remorse, coupled with acceptance of his sins.

[End Excerpt]