by Michael J Watkins


It is an hour before dawn, and the desert air is bitterly cold. The device is barely visible in the distance. It hangs from a skeletal metal tower and its vast energies are still contained, for now. Saul Hoffman lights another cigarette and looks at his watch. It is inappropriate to be bored, he thinks. So much depends on this single moment. So much depends on us. 

The observers are nervous, but there is surprisingly little conversation. Fermi tries to lighten the mood by offering bets on the gadget's yield. Hoffman offers ten kilotons, Teller fifty. A few think it will not fire at all. None say aloud that it will incinerate New Mexico, although Hoffman knows some think it will. But the calculations are good, the work is strong. This experiment is a remarkable piece of physics, and it has been accomplished so rapidly. The work of dozens of laboratories and thousands of men, scattered across the country, has converged on this place and time. A hell of a thing.

Groves looks disgusted with the undercurrent of frivolity. He has never truly understood the physicists under his command. But he understands what will be done here today, and what it will mean.

High speed cameras are trained on the tower. The men are issued masks, to protect their eyes from the flash. With the mask in place, the world is nearly black, and the men move like shadows through the darkness. Saul sees Feynman sitting in the cab of a nearby truck, without a mask. The windscreen will shield the UV, and later he will claim to be the only man to see Trinity with the naked eye.

Saul Hoffman does not think it wise to take that chance. The countdown starts, at last, and it marks the remaining minutes of an age. He recognizes Sam Allison's voice over the speakers. The clock reaches zero.

Nothing happens. It hasn't worked, thinks Saul, aghast. All our work.

The detonation, when it comes, it completely soundless. The dawn sky flashes white, as if all of reality has ripped apart to let the pure light of creation shine through. To his right, Bethe gasps and puts his hands to his eyes. Even with the mask, the light is painfully bright. Hoffman turns away and blinks away violet afterimages.

In the driver's seat of the truck, Feynman is grinning like a thief, his eyes streaming. Oppenheimer stands like a statue, his face unreadable. Teller looked elated. The mountains light up with actinic light, brighter than daylight. 

But even Groves knows something is wrong. He turns to looks at Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge, the test director.

"We're all sons of bitches now," says Bainbridge. Oppenheimer looks stricken.

The fireball is rising now, growing brighter, flickering with lightning, and the initial blast wave washes over them like distant thunder. His eyes are still streaming, but in that moment Fermi casts a handful of torn paper to the nuclear wind. The pieces fall across the sand, fluttering like leaves. Fermi watches their fall intently.

"About a hundred kilotons," he mutters. "And yet...."

Saul looks up to the rising fireball, now perhaps a mile above the desert. The edges are dark red, streaked with black, but in the very center he can see a brilliant white star, casting stark shadows through the enveloping cloud. Ten miles from the nuclear fireball, the heat is almost unbearable. Already there are signs of a stable vortex developing.

The physicists are mostly silent, watching the new sun burn above New Mexico, but the military men are anxious now. Clearly, the gadget has not performed as expected.

"What's happening?" demands Groves. But Oppenheimer is transfixed by the terrible beauty of his creation. The desert is as bright as day, but the shadows are dark black, shifting across the mountains as the fireball rises. Under an alien sky, Graves looks around and spots Hoffman by the truck. 

"Nitrogen fusion, probably," says Saul. "You should ask Enrico."

"I'm asking you."

"I cannot speculate. We should wait until we know more."


The wind is rising now, as air is sucked into the base of the maelstrom. The vortex is starting to turn clockwise, and the miniature sun at its heart is growing brighter by the second.

"You see the bright central region? Groves, I think atmospheric nitrogen nuclei must be undergoing fusion."

Groves looks pale. "Will it stop?"

"I don't know. It seems to be stable, for now."

Later, a fine rain of dust begins to fall east of Trinity. It is as light as talc: cooled fusion products from their newborn star, mostly magnesium and silicon. By Christmas, it has started to form drifts around Alamogordo, and the dust falls as far east as New York City and Washington.

Hoffman has a glass vial of Trinity fallout on his desk. His initial guess, in the aftermath of the Trinity ignition, was largely correct. The central fusion core burns atmospheric nitrogen to silicon-28, aluminum-27 and magnesium-24, with some oxygen-16 and carbon-12, and countless trace products. In the thermal plume from the fusion burn it rises high into the stratosphere and circles the world.

And the initial blast melted the desert, scattering radioactive glass across White Sands. The atomic glass is translucent green, flecked with a rainbow of colors, and quite beautiful. Hoffman has samples of it in his office, and a large crystal on his coffee table at home: quartz and feldspar, mostly microcline and plagioclase, with traces of calcite and hornblende. They call it Trinitite. It is weakly radioactive from neutron activation. The Los Alamos staff collect it, and give it to their girls as jewelry. Saul gave his wife a Trinitite crystal to commemorate the birth of their son, Daniel. She wears it in a pendant.

Hoffman often finds himself entranced by the glass. Remarkable, that a moment of such violence should produce something so sublime. He doesn't notice Fermi stop at his door. 

"The Hiroshima burn has not been quenched," says Fermi, without preamble.

Saul looks up from his notes, surprised. "They tried again?"

"Oppy got the wire this morning."

"They used B29s?"

Fermi shakes his head. "The planes could not carry enough mass, or approach the core closely enough. Wind shear. They tried to quench it from the ground."

Hoffman nods. All attempts to quench the Hiroshima fusion burn have failed. Trinity itself continues to burn nine months after ignition. 

"Do we have good observations?"

"Yes," says Fermi. "The data is interesting. Excuse me."

With that, he leaves. Saul returns to his work. In the weeks before the Enola Gay detonated Little Boy on Hiroshima, there was speculation that the uranium bomb would not initiate an atmospheric burn. Perhaps nitrogen fusion would only result from plutonium pits like that used in Trinity. But the result in Japan was the same as that in New Mexico. Saul is now revising his estimates of reaction cross-sections in light of the Hiroshima burn, based on the most recent aerial observations and radiation counts at ground zero. There is much to do, and tomorrow he is due to leave Los Alamos for the Pacific proving grounds and the Crossroads test. After the Crossroads test, they will know more.

They have taken to calling the pit of the latest experimental device the Demon Core. It has travelled ahead, and Saul will be glad to see it used. In his mind it has taken on an almost sentient malevolence, and once the core has been consumed it can take no further lives. 

The Demon took Harry Daghlian weeks after the Hiroshima laydown. The core is a subcritical mass of plutonium, barely fourteen pounds. Daghlian was performing neutron reflection experiments using tungsten carbide bricks. Working alone, he accidentally dropped a brick onto the core, which instantly went critical. He received a lethal dose of radiation and died twenty five days later, in agony. 

The Demon took Slotin next. Slotin and his colleagues were performing a similar experiment, this time using beryllium hemispheres to reflect neutrons back at the core and promote fission. Slotin was holding the hemispheres apart with a screwdriver when his hand slipped, and the hemispheres closed around the core. Once again, the core went critical. Slotin pulled the sphere apart, saving the lives on everyone else in the room. But Slotin died nine days later of acute radiating poisoning.

Now the Demon Core forms the pit of a fission weapon, and Hoffman will see it detonate above the Pacific. He wonders if the test will be delayed after the failure of the latest Hiroshima quench, but surely the program's momentum is unstoppable. The Soviets do not have a weapon yet, but Hoffman thinks they will succeed in a decade at most. 

Their Project might have ended the war, but there are other concerns now. 

Meanwhile, Trinity's core is ten meters across, a blinding white ball of plasma, and hotter than the heart of a star. Teller thinks it will shine until the end of time, like the American sun that now burns above Hiroshima. 

Daniel Hoffman dreams of Earth.

He once spent four months on Skylab, staring at stars and pissing in jars, as preparation for the Mars mission. At night, he watched fusion lanterns burning across northern Russia, brighter than any city lights, and the brightest of all on Novaya Zemlya. It has burned for twenty years, and it gives out more power than all the other burns combined. The Russians called the triggering device the Tsar Bomba.

He saw other lights burning across New Mexico, and more across the Pacific. One of those was the Crossroads fusion burn, a cauldron of superheated steam above the ruin of Bikini atoll. Saul had been there. Saul and fifty thousand others. 

And above it all, a brilliant red star burned within the horns of the Moon. 

At night, he dreams of Earth's false dawns, and in the morning he wakes to the reality of falling. He pulls himself out of his sleeping bag, and makes for the sanitary station, hoping Barnes hasn't used it before him. But Barnes is still asleep. Barnes sleeps better than he does. Sometimes Barnes sleeps through the wakeup call.

It took them nine months to reach Mars, in a collection of tin cans thrown together from Apollo Applications. It took six enhanced Saturns to put enough mass in orbit to support even this stripped down mission mode.

Somehow the two of them have stayed sane. They have avoided each other for most of the trip.  

Barnes spends most of his time in the Mission Module, Daedalus. The Mission Module is a Saturn IVB wet workshop that makes Skylab look spacious.  It holds their sleep cubbies, the sanitary and kitchenette stations, the computers and science platforms, and most of their consumables. It is usually too hot. It creaks with thermal stress, and it is filled with a constant electrical hum. The air is stale, tinged with ozone. 

Behind Daedalus lies the docking adaptor for the SII and the drop tanks that provided most of their delta vee. They have left the SII itself, now empty of fuel, in a highly elliptical Martian orbit, carrying its own instrument package.

Hoffman washes himself, as best he can. After nine months in space he feels constantly filthy. His fluid balance has shifted, and his legs are scrawny. His head feels stuffy, his sinuses ache, and his eyes feel gritty. Washing makes him feel better, but not much.

Barnes is awake, and they mumble to each other in an approximation of camaraderie. Both of them want to get the job done and get the hell out of here.

There are no windows in the Mission Module. Hoffman pulls himself forward, through the docking adaptor into the airlock module, and from there through the hatch into the Apollo. This is where Hoffman spends most of his time. He likes the Apollo. It's old technology, reliable and functional. The Command Module, Icarus, is attached to a Service Module adapted for deep space soak, and behind the SM they have a fully fueled SIVB, which will - hopefully - carry them home. The stack needs constant monitoring. There are two enormous solar wings attached to the Mission Module, but they are always short of power. And Hoffman is concerned about the temperature of the cryogenic propellants. They have a huge reflective blanket slung across the SIVB, but the pressure in the big hydrogen tank still fluctuates alarmingly. 

When he's not busy with housekeeping, Hoffman can at least look out of the Command Module's little triangular windows. Mars fills the sky, rust brown, alarmingly close. 

The entire stack is tethered to Phobos, in the geometric center of Stickney crater. Phobos is barely seven miles across, and the little moon's gravity is negligible. Over three weeks they have made a score of EVAs, and the Mission Module is crammed with surface samples and cores, all - hopefully - labeled for context.

Dan feels sorry for the little world. Phobos is a captured asteroid, a carbonaceous D-type, full of water ice. It is a worthwhile destination in itself, but it would have made a wonderful space station, he thought, for the exploration of Mars itself.

But this is mankind's one and only visit to Phobos. 

Later that day, he and Barnes make their final EVA. They assemble each other's suits, and float in the airlock, pre-breathing pure oxygen. Their suits are dirty with Phobos dust. 

"Gonna miss this place," says Barnes, as they make their way along the tethers.

"Copy that," mutters Dan. And he will, in a way. This is probably the only world, other than Earth, that he will ever touch. 

The Super is tethered to the regolith beneath Daedalus, an ugly cylinder resembling their SIVB in size and shape, wrapped in gold insulation. The configuration is no accident; the Super was launched to orbit by a two stage Saturn, as per its original military design. The insulation is already showing wear from solar radiation, but it has served its purpose. It is covered with a thin layer of Phobos dust, probably kicked up during their EVAs.

They go through the arming checklist without hesitation. They have practiced this part of the mission hundreds of times, in the weightless training pools at JSC. Hoffman is certain that he could perform the required operations blindfolded. Only his gloves make it difficult, and by the time they are finished his hands and fingers ache with strain. The flightplan assigns this operation eighty minutes, and they are finished in sixty four. Not their best time, but good enough.

In the time they have to spare, Barnes stares at Mars. His expression is unreadable behind his gold visor.

"Look at Tharsis," says Barnes, softly. "You can almost reach out and touch it."

Dan looks. The calderas of the great volcanoes are incredibly clear, reaching out of the thin Martian atmosphere, touching the edge of space. He wishes his visor wasn't so scratched.

He fumbles with his chest-mounted Hasselblad and takes another series of shots, although they're not on the checklist. 

He moves away from Daedalus, to the extent of his tether, into a region unmarked by previous EVAs. He runs his gloved fingers through the dirt of Phobos. It is a loose rock flour, impact gardened down to grains of powder. It holds water, in the shadowed regions, and in the deep interior. He pushes his glove as deep as he can, and his fingers emerge black with dust. There are organics here, relics of the early solar system. The building blocks of worlds.

The hole he's made is only a few inches deep, but it's the best he can do. Clumsily, he pulls a plastic envelope from his suit's thigh pocket. Slowly, carefully, he scrapes the contents into the trench and covers it over with regolith. 

Time delayed messages from Houston crackle through his helmet. Enough sightseeing, Dan. Time to rock and roll. With a sharp pang of regret, he follows Barnes into the airlock. 

Two hours later they release the tethers, and the Apollo's thrusters ease the entire stack away from the surface. The vehicle is already configured for transEarth injection, and everything in the Mission Module is secured, but they run a final check before lighting off the SIVB. When its time comes the J2 engine performs flawlessly. Gravity returns, briefly. They're strapped down in the Apollo CM for the burn, to maximize their abort options. If anything goes wrong - if, God forbid, something happens to the Mission Module - they can theoretically survive the trip home in the Apollo. 

The first burn puts them into an elliptical transfer orbit, ready for TEI. The Mission Module is a good observation platform, and all its eyes are now trained on Phobos, together with the instrument package on the discarded SII. Telemetry from the Super passes through Icarus and back to Earth on the hi-gain. Dan counts down the minutes as the radio signals crawl between worlds.

Back in low Earth orbit, he thinks, on the Soviet's Salyut 10, Dmitry Sokolov will be preparing for his own mission. The Soviets are going to Mars in style, with a dozen men in a huge nuclear powered station suspected to include a lander. They will spend perhaps two years at Mars, and a month on the surface. A real, full-up mission, what Apollo should have been. Daedalus is just another sprint to beat the Soviets to Phobos. Footprints and flags, thinks Dan.

He met Sokolov once, during a rare episode of detente. In a more peaceful world, he thinks they would have been friends. He already envies Sokolov his time on Mars. 

But the public wouldn't care what the Russians might find on the Martian surface. They would care what happened to Phobos. If the Soviets did it first, it would be Sputnik all over again. Or that damn Lunakhod, which had stolen Apollo's thunder back in '69.

The final signals from Earth reach them. Circuits close, first on their Apollo, then on Phobos.

Instantly, the Mission Module's radiation monitors surge. They can't see the detonation through the CM's windows, but they will watch the high speed footage later on the Mission Module's monitors. The Super ignites, a brilliant flashbulb in the dead center of Stickney. There's no fireball in the vacuum, but the fusion wave begins a fraction of a second later, propagating through the moon's broken crust. Carbon and silicon fuse first, and an instant later the reaction spreads to the hydrogen and deuterium in the moon's interior. The stellation reaction propagates too fast for the cameras to record.

Phobos ignites with a flash so brilliant that it washes out the Mission Module cameras. The ignition lights the entire surface of Mars, casting shadows the length of a continent across Tharsis, throwing fusion light into the darkest canyons of the Mariner valley.

There is an audible bang as the shockwave of high energy particles slams into the Daedalus stack.

"That's our lifetime dose, right there," says Barnes dryly.

When the screens clear, Phobos has thrown off perhaps a tenth of its mass. Some will escape into solar orbit. Some will rain down across the equator of Mars, and the rest will be recaptured by the newborn sun.

Phobos itself is a furnace of violent blue light. As Daedalus enters TEI, they have a clear view of the burn. 

Saul's ashes rain fusion light across Mars.

By the time Hoffman and Barnes reach Earth, Mars is already in meltdown. It begins in the equatorial regolith with massive outgassing of carbon dioxide, and spreads to the south polar cap. As the regolith breaks down, pressure lifts on vast subterranean aquifers, and the fossil oceans of Mars begin to wake from their ancient sleep. 

Within a year, the atmosphere has thickened by a factor of ten. When Dmitry Solokov becomes the first man to set foot on Mars, he walks under two suns, in the rain.

Aelita is the first child on Mars, and the last. She comes out with her father to watch the four sunsets, delighted to stand on the surface with the adults. She is bulky in her heat suit, and her mother hovers nervously as she clambers over the regolith. 

Daniel Hoffman stands with his Russian counterpart. They are not the named leaders of their contingents, despite how the others treat them. 

The Sun and Deimos have already dipped below the horizon, and Phobos is sinking fast. Tiny Phobos is so low that it orbits Mars faster than the planet rotates, and it sets in the east. Daniel stares into the sunsets until his eyes water.

"Look at it," he says. "Look what we did." 

"Your father worked on the first device," says Sokolov, "like my father worked on the rockets that brought us here. What would they think of us here together, two old men?"

"There was something dad always said before he died," replies Daniel, at last. "Imagine if the Bomb didn't  work at all, or that it worked too well, and was so powerful no-one would dream of using it." 

Sokolov shrugs. 

"But we were so unlucky," whispers Hoffman. Sokolov can barely hear him through the mask and the thin air. "So unlucky, that it was possible at all."

"You seem to think the universe conspires against us!" scoffs Dmitry. "Things are simply the way they are. How could they be any different?"

The last ship from Earth is still in orbit, a cramped Ariane carrying thirty people and, more importantly, a treasure trove of seeds. But they are the last. They will bring the planet's population to nine hundred, if they survive the descent.

It is, Daniel knows, not nearly enough.

"Well, then. Do you think any of us will survive?"

Dmitry shakes his head. "Of course not. We are too few, and this world is too harsh."

"You're probably right."

Sokolov rubs his arms against the chill and considers. "Although really it's no worse than a Siberian winter. If we do survive, our descendants are sure to speak Russian."

Aelita looks back at her father and waves. Her cheeks are flushed beneath her oxygen mask. Dmitry waves back, then looks at his friend and smiles sadly.

"You think we should not have kept her."

"Of course I don't think that."

"I wonder sometimes myself. But how has it ever been any different, really? And perhaps I am wrong."


Dmitry laughs. "It would not be the first time. Besides, she will have good days. And even if we die, perhaps we can leave something for this world in our passing."

He kicks at the brown sand. The regolith is coated with frost, and the rocks around their camp are rich with lichen. The atmosphere is warming and thickening by the day.

"Come," says Sokolov. He claps Daniel on the shoulder. "It will be dark soon, and there is much to do."

Aelita runs after them. She wears her birthday present proudly: a pendant set with a small green stone, a gift from Earth. Phobos sinks below the eastern horizon, and the thin air is growing cold. But the western sky is still painted with sunset light, and one light remains, painfully bright in the violet sky. It is more brilliant than any star, and it casts long shadows across the ancient sand.

Creative Commons License
Earthlight by MichaelJWatkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

If you enjoyed this story, feel free to feed my dog a biscuit.


  1. What an amazing story. I really like your writing style. It's a bleak tale, but the way you tell it is very compelling.

  2. Wow well that is some story! Sci in your fi indeed. I enjoyed this, and I agree it is bleak, which made me sad because once I realized what was going on I had so much hope. I had to read through it a couple times, as it is quite dense. I appreciate the historical background and the little side stories like the Trinitite and Feynman using the windshield to screen UV. Those are awesome. I spent a lot of time looking things up and that's fine with me, I learned what regolith is! It may be off-putting to some readers who are not into science and can't see where you might be going with such a historical beginning, but it's well worth the ride here.

    I'm so glad you shared this with us and I hope, really, that you will join us again.