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Railgun to the Sun

The gently rolling hills stretched to the horizon. Jansen shielded his eyes from the noon sun to get a better look at what Adams was pointing to along the base of the wind turbine towers. From his vantage, the level track looked to be over a mile long before it rose precipitously up the highest hill in the area.

“Who knows about this?” Jansen asked, once he knew what he was looking at.

“You and me,” Adams answered matter-of-factly.

“But you didn’t build this alone?”

“Mostly I did. I had the dirt work done when the wind towers went up. After that, it’s been ten years of me putting in a few feet of track a day. That adds up. Almost a mile and a half.”

It was times like these Jansen wished he hadn’t given up smoking. When he’d first joined the Nuclear Regulatory Agency twelve years ago, a cigarette had seemed to make the burden of dealing with thousands of tons of nuclear waste a bit more bearable. Staring down the mile-and-a-half-long track that in reality was a giant homopolar motor, Jansen sensed a cigarette would soothe a whole lot of the headache he knew was to come.

“Jack, you can’t just build something like this without permits. Without letting someone know.”

“It’s my land. I permitted the construction of a rail along the turbines. It was all in the initial plans. Nobody raised an eyebrow at the time.”

“Those plans called for a rail. You didn’t tell anyone you were building a railgun.”

“True. I didn’t say that.” Adams admitted, shrugging his broad shoulders. “You gotta understand, Randy. Folks thought I was crazy fifteen years ago when I bought this land to put in a wind farm. Folks called me Don Quixote. You think telling them I was building a railgun would’ve made that all easier?”

“They’d never have let you do it. The Feds would’ve been all over you.” Jansen scratched at the back of his sunburned neck. “They’re going to be all over you now. I’m going to have to let the Hanford folks know.”

Adams chuckled. “Well, that’s why I brought you out here. I gotta get the word out. You’re the only Fed I know, and you need to convince them I’m not a crank. My railgun to the sun is real—and it’s ready.”

“Railgun to the sun,” Jansen repeated, wishing he had a cigarette to take a long, slow drag on. “Sounds like a 1950s B movie. A railgun to the sun. A nice Popular Mechanics cover story, but it’s too extreme. Especially on this scale. It’s dangerous as hell. It’s a damn crazy dream. The Feds will make your life miserable until you give it up.”

“Or, until I give it to them.”

Jansen gave the big, broad-shouldered man a long look. “That’s even crazier. Why would they take this on? It’s like a high school science project on steroids. The liability is off the charts.”

“They’ll want it. It works.”

“How can you know that?”

Adams abruptly turned and strode to his pickup truck a few yards away. He waved Jansen over and indicated a roughly coffin-sized slab of metal sitting in the bed of his truck. “You see that. There’s one of those on its way to the sun. A ton of solid steel traveling 10,000 miles an hour. That’s why the Feds will want it. It works.”

Jansen placed his hand on the steel block. “You fired one of these? When?”

“You should be able to figure that out, Randy?”

Jansen stared blankly back for a moment. “Jesus, Jack. This is what scrambled NORAD last week. You’ve got half the militaries in the world pointing fingers at each other. We’re blaming the Chinese. They’re blaming us and the Russians, too. You could’ve started a war!” Jansen shook his head in disbelief. “They are going to lock you up for a thousand years. How are you going to justify doing this?” Jansen paused knowing at that moment he’d start smoking again. “Why’d you bring me into this?”

“Not because we were lab partners in graduate school,” Adams explained with a smile, “though that helped narrow the field when I realized my railgun to the sun was the only viable solution for disposing of nuclear waste. You, better than anyone, know how fragile and temporary our containment systems really are. Getting that waste off-world, launching it into the sun, is the only practical answer.”

“Practical? It’s too damn sci fi. Too risky,” Jansen warned. “You may have a proof of concept here, and the Feds will be all over that—for the wrong reasons. Generals will love this, but politicians will crap themselves. One bad launch and you’ve got a major, possibly international, catastrophe.”

“That’s always a possibility,” Adams acknowledged, “but it’s a certainty that the nuclear waste we have now will overwhelm our current systems sometime in the not-too-distant future. I think my railgun gives us better odds in the long run.”

“What politician ever thinks in terms of the long run?” Jansen demanded, feeling that deep, clawing urge for a cigarette.

“The ones who don’t want their statues to be crapped on by radioactive pigeons.”

“God, I need a cigarette,” Jansen said.

“And I need an insider,” Adams insisted as a shrill whine sounded from his wristwatch.

“It’ll never happen, Jack.”

“It already has.” Adams checked his watch and pointed to the railgun. “It’s happening again in less than a minute.”

Jansen followed Adams’ gaze back to the railgun. “Don’t do it. Stop it, Jack. You could start a war.” But Jansen heard the weakness in his voice. He wanted to witness this.

A growing thrum of accumulators fed by the cyclopean limbs of hundreds of wind turbines filled the air. As the charging built to a crescendo, Adams held up the fingers of his right hand and counted down.

For the briefest moment the entire railgun shimmered. Then a blazing flash seared along the track and leapt into the sky like a rising sun.

An instant later a sonic boom echoed over the hills, and Randy Jansen knew he would never need another cigarette.

He’d seen the light. A new day rocketing past the old.

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