“The Answer”

A story from back in the day when people seemed to take nuclear war more seriously than many do today.

Review: “The Answer”, H. Beam Piper, 1959.

 Like several other Piper stories (“Time and Time Again”, “The Edge of the Knife”, “When in the Course . . . “, “Flight from Tomorrow”), this story features nuclear war. It was published in the December 1959 issue of Fantastic Universe Science Fiction

While it shares, with the Terro-Human Future History, the idea of the survivors of a nuclear war between America and the USSR going to the less damaged Southern Hemisphere, it is not part of that series.

The story opens with Lee Richardson dreaming of a slim woman with graying blonde hair and her dachshund. (Rather autobiographical given that Piper was separated from his wife and beloved pet dog when he wrote this story.) Richardson is woken up Alexis Pitov. They speak, as they always do, German with each other.

Alex tells him the test is still scheduled to be held, nervously supervised by one Eugenio Galvez.  It involves a “negamatter” warhead on a rocket to be launched in three hours. However, if the generators providing the magnetic containment field fail, fifty kilos of negamatter will explode. (In this story, negamatter is just another name for antimatter.) 

Richardson says he never thought he’d ever “run another nuclear-bomb test as long as I lived.”  Pitov is shocked he would refer to it that way. “It’s purely a scientific experiment,” he says. To which Richardson replies, “Wasn’t that all any of them were? We made lots of experiments like this, back before 1969. That year the US and USSR were reduced to rubble in the Third World War.  A quarter of a billion people died including that slim woman Anderson dreamed of and their dog. Alexis fiancé died in Odessa. 

Richardson apologizes for his remarks, but he is reminded of the past:

’Before the Auburn Bomb.’ 

There; he’d come out and said it. In all the years they’d worked together at the Instituto Argentino de Ciencia Fisica, that had been unmentioned between them.”= 

Pitov asks if he’s been thinking about those days lately? Was he dreaming about them? No, says Richardson. But Pitov says “I think about it too” and goes on to ask

’You saw it fall, didn’t you?’ 

’That’s right. From about thirty miles away. A little closer than we’ll be to this shot, tonight. I was in charge of the investigation at Auburn, until we had New York and Washington and Detroit and Mobile and San Francisco to worry about. Then what had happened to Auburn wasn’t important, any more. We were trying to get evidence to lay before the United Nations. We kept at it for about twelve hours after the United Nations had ceased to exist.’ 

Pitov says he doesn’t understand the war and never will. He knows the Soviet government didn’t launch that missile. The Soviet premier was astounded when news of a US missile strike arrived. He thought the destruction of Auburn, New York was done by a Soviet missile launched in retaliation for an American first strike. 

No, says Richardson, Auburn was hit an hour before America launched its missiles. The American government could never understand why the Soviet first strike only launched one missile. 

Pitov pleads for Richardson to believe him, and Richardson says

Yes, I believe you. After all that happened, and all that you, and I, and the people you worked with, and the people I worked with, and your government, and mine, have been guilty of, it would be a waste of breath for either of us to try to lie to the other about what happened fifteen years ago. 

But Richardson still wonders who launched the strike on Auburn. Pitov says he’s tortured himself for 15 years about that question. Maybe it was a group of Soviet dissidents who triggered a war hoping to destroy the Soviet regime. Could they have built an ICBM with a nuke asks Richard?  He knows there were “fanatical nationalist groups in Europe, on both sides of the Iron Curtin” in those days. 

Yes, agrees Pitov, and China and India or Japan or the Moslem States would have had a motive too, a return to “the old ways and the old traditions”. If it was any of them, they went down too.  The trail’s cold, says Richardson. They can only say it had to be a nation in the Northern Hemisphere. 

In the wake of the war, Australia is picking up cheap real estate in the East Indies. The Boers have moved north again. Brazil now calls itself the Portuguese Empire. Pitov and Richardson work for the Argentineans. 

The two go by jeep to the launch site, present their papers to watch. There are news crews from several countries to film the launch. The Argentinean government wants no question that they are testing a weapon. 

A reporter asks them if negamatter can be turned into a weapon. Anything can be used as a weapon, says Pitov. But, if Argentina wanted to build something like a nuclear weapon, unlikely given memories of World War III, there would be more efficient and cheaper ways to do it. You could build 20 nukes for the cost of this project.  

The purpose of this experiment, Pitov tells them, is to try to find out about the basic structure of matter. The negamatter on the rocket is, in fact, the surplus product of experiments conducted with manufactured negamatter. Argentina doesn’t want to keep it on Earth, so they are sending it into space. They estimate about 20 percent of it will react with the atmosphere. The rest will fall to Earth far away and explode spectacularly. While the two scientists are certain no negamatter exists in our galaxy, there might be stars, planets, and entire galaxies elsewhere made of it. 

(Spoilers ahead)

The rocket launches and the magnetic containment fields shut off as planned with the expected explosions. Monitoring on various instruments the atmosphere explosion and the one on the ground, Richardson is instantly struck by its similarity to the Auburn Bomb.

Pitov makes a call to see what radiation is being picked up. Surprisingly, not much – just some gamma rays and some cosmic radiation. Now Richardson and Pitov know what produces cosmic rays, matter-negamatter annihilation. 

Richardson remembers Auburn. There were no instruments around to measure cosmic radiation at the time, and they just detected gamma radiation after the blast. Pitov asks why Richardson is talking about Auburn and then realizes Anderson suspects Auburn was destroyed by a similar event. 

A drone takes more measurements over two hours. The two work through the night examining the collected data. At dawn, Richardson says the event was exactly like what destroyed Auburn.  But nobody knew how to make negamatter then, objects Pitov. 

Nobody, and nothing, on this planet built that mass of negamatter. I doubt if it even came from this Galaxy. But we didn’t know that, then. When that negamatter meteor fell, the only thing anybody could think of was that it had been a Soviet missile. If it had hit around Leningrad or Moscow or Kharkov, who would you have blamed it on? 

And there the story ends.

I think Piper’s idea of a nuclear war being triggered by a comet strike, albeit an exotic comet, was decades ahead of its time. It would not be for another two decades that the idea of asteroid impact killing the dinosaurs popularized the notion that such collisions were more common than realized. The 1994 impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter led to more discussions of the possibility of meteorites and comets hitting Earth in the future not being as remote as thought.

In June 2002, the so-called Eastern Mediterranean Event, a meteorite exploding in the atmosphere, could have triggered a nuclear war between Pakistan and India if it had arrived a few hours earlier.

Piper is sometimes thought of as a conservative or libertarian writer but, here again, we see him worried that nationalism could bring about apocalypse. The Terro-Human Federation is an attempt, through a type of global government, to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

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