Yesterday, I took a scene from one of my favorite books, and explored it in a bit of flash fiction called “The 30-second bomb”. It’s a little darker than my usual stuff, but I hope you like it all the same. I’ve also included an audio version here.
“I am a thirty-second bomb.”
The creature pulled itself up onto diminutive legs and regarded those before him. As expected, a few people got the message and began to run. Some others began to wail and scream, as they searched for the exits. The rest merely gaped at him.
He understood their surprise, though, of course, he’d never seen it before. Just moments earlier, it had been ripped from the belt of a powered-armor suit. Its earliest memory was the pin being pulled out as a metal hand jerked him away from its housing, and hurled him into the room. It crashed through glass and thumped against the cheap plaster of the tenement wall on the other side of the room. The creature had only seconds to get its bearings before standing up and announcing its purpose. Some of them still didn’t get it.
He repeated the fact, as was its job, “I am a thirty-second bomb.”
More people got the message now, and turned to run. A thin, young man pushed past an elderly couple, grabbing the woman by the shoulder and throwing her to the ground as he squeezed through the crowd. The old woman was dressed well, her careful presentation ruined by her fall. She had a large, floppy red hat that bounced with her and stayed on despite the drop.
The room was too thickly packed for this many people. That was, perhaps, the reason why he’d been chosen. It saw rows of chairs toppled over and beyond them, overturned benches. The creature wondered briefly if this was a church or a rally. It was certainly a meeting place of some sort.
It was more likely a church, given the nice clothes of the woman who was now being stepped on as others pushed past her. Her partner was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he’d been lost in the shuffle, pulled away from her and unable to return. Perhaps he left her, thinking they would meet up again outside, after he’d saved his skin.
A small child was wailing in the back of the room. Definitely a church. People might gather in groups to protest, but they only bring children and wear their Sunday best when they were going to church. The creature wondered what day it was, and whether the savages it was about to destroy would even follow the same religious calendar its people did.
It wondered briefly about its people, having no recollection of them. Who were they? What were they fighting for? Was it wrong that it identified with a group it had never known? Was it one of the bad guys?
For just a moment, through a break in the mob, it saw the child. Standing very still, fists clenched by her sides, the little girl simply stood and wailed. She didn’t ask for mommy or call for help. She just cried. The small creature settled on it then. It was one of the bad guys. But even so, it had a job to do.
The child disappeared as the throng swelled up again around her. People choked the doors with their bodies, as they pushed, pulled, and climbed over each other. A bubble of an idea percolated through its mind (if one could call a jumbled collection of neural potentials a “mind”), and broke through in a moment of clarity. It wondered why it was sentient.
Surely it wasn’t necessary for a bomb to have sentience. All it had to do was stand there and count down thirty seconds. It knew for a certainty that it had no other jobs. It had legs, but there were no instinctual orders to follow people, lodge himself near a supporting wall, or any other actions. Its orders were simple and clear. Count down, then blow up.
Why would its makers require him to have sentience? What could they possibly gain by having him think? Surely complicated thought was a delicate and complicated thing to install in a creature, so why would they waste it on something that was only going to destroy itself?
Worse than that, what kind of monster would create a creature, give it the spark of intelligence, and then give it the certain knowledge that it would be destroyed; or that it would be the destroyer of others? What kind of creator makes a creature that was born to destroy others, and then gives it that knowledge along with the ability to understand what that means?
It saw the child again through a break in the crowd. Someone had knocked her down, and she was sitting while the hitching sobs racked her tiny body. Through the shouting, it heard someone say that the doors were blocked. Something had destroyed the room outside which lodged pieces of the ceiling against the doors. One of them was shouting “No escape!”
The old woman was dead by now. The small creature was fairly sure of it. She had stopped moving, despite the danger she was in. The floppy hat remained resolutely on her head, and was now stained several shades of red.
The creature wondered briefly if there was a purpose to its consciousness that it simply hadn’t figured out. Assuming that its creators were not simply monsters, there had to be some reason for them to create him as it was. If it was given the ability to doubt, perhaps that was part of its reason.
What if its purpose was to terrorize them? What if the goal of its existence was to break its programming and refuse to go off? Even as it thought the question, it knew there was no point. It had orders, as tightly ingrained as the ticking of a watch. When the countdown reached zero, it would detonate.
An obese man trundled past the creature as fast as his legs could carry him. He was dressed in fine silks, and looked like a man of importance and virtue. He tripped on the old woman’s arm as he ran, and fell into a stack of chairs. The creature counted in a detached way, the people who had died under the feet of their panicked neighbors.
All of these questions were just a dodge, a way of distracting the creature from a deeper question that it didn’t want to consider. Wondering about its existence was just a way to keep from questioning its main purpose.
What if it had no payload? What if the creature was actually a hollow shell? It had weight and heft to it, to be sure, but all that could be a ruse, or the infrastructure needed to support a consciousness. What if, when its time was done, there was no explosion to be triggered?
These people had run come here in the spirit of communion. They came to visit in peace and worship their shared deity. Now they were running over each other, killing each other.
Would it be any worse for them if the bomb didn’t go off? Would they thank their maker for letting the creature be a dud? Or would they stand there, looking at the inert creature, and realize what they had done?
Would they face each other and see the scratches and bite marks? Would they be able to look people in the eyes, knowing that they had trampled friends and family members? Was this the true purpose of its sadistic masters?
Was this why the creature was given intelligence? Just so it could stand as mute witness to the atrocities one man visited on another when he feared for his own life? Was this creature built just to inspire and record their inhumanity?
The creature didn’t want to be part of it anymore. It turned to look for another window. It knew it would detonate when the time came, but it was given legs, and it had the power to use them.
The small bomb began walking over to a nearby wall just as one of the others had the same idea. She pointed at the creature, “Throw it out of here!”
No one wanted to step forward at first, to be the closest to the blast with only six seconds to live. The girl who had pointed him out pushed past the others and ran for the creature.
She pulled it up, and dropped it again, surprised by its weight. The creature seemed to fly so effortlessly when the soldier threw it into the room.
Two men ran to help her. They lifted the creature easily, and carried it between them. The creature thought idly that this might be its purpose. To see these humans triumph over the greatest adversity.
The two men made for the window, carrying the bomb between them. As they passed the old woman, one of them slipped and fell to the ground, pulling the other down with him. The bomb fell on the old man, and it heard a snapping come from inside his chest.
The screaming rose again as a shrill panic overtook the people. The other man abandoned the bomb as the entire group found a renewed sense of terror. They surged away again, not for the exits, but simply to get as far away as possible from the bomb. In the group, it could see a man hold a child before him.
The girl who had been following the two men now stooped next to the fallen one. She grabbed for the bomb and, with all her strength, pulled it over to the window.
The girl heaved the creature up onto her shoulder like a shot put, and took one step closer to the window. She tottered as she neared it, buckling under the weight. She heaved it up once to throw it out the window.