Author: J.D. Rice

The cracks on the planet’s surface grow slowly at first, and silently. From the safety of my spacecraft, I suppose even the most violent of eruptions would be silent.

It doesn’t take long before the magma begins to appear, bubbling up from the surface, erupting into great plumes. But as the cracks continue to spread, like the tendrils of some great beast trying to consume the planet, the lava dips back below the surface. The atmosphere is similarly thrown into chaos, blown away by the force of the eruption one minute, then sucked back in as the cracks deepen.

I hold the detonator in my hand, my knuckles white.

The gravity bomb is doing its work.

In mere minutes, the surface of the planet is completely obscured. Water vapor and volcanic ash swirl and mix and hide the crumbling surface from view. The cities are surely all destroyed by now, the people wiped out in a sudden, unexpected cataclysm. I know I cannot hear their screams, but their voices echo in my imagination all the same.

I watch in numb horror, in morbid fascination, in terror at my own actions, as the entire event plays out. The planet soon to be replaced by a quiet, dark singularity. Same matter, same gravity, but not a remnant of the planet and its people remaining.

It takes less than an hour.

When all is finally still, I try to take a deep breath. The best I can manage is a short gasp, as if my body has forgotten how to breathe. Each breath that comes after is labored, forced in and out by a body that knows it must live, but with a mind that cannot possibly function after witnessing such destruction. It’s a burden a rational mind should never have to bear, a decision that I know I will regret for the rest of my life.

And still. . . I’d do it again.

I wasn’t driven to this choice by madness, but by reason. A clear, logical choice.

It was them or us.

Deep in the belly of this ship, locked behind a thousand security measures designed to prevent tampering or sabotage, is a device – the Temporal Observation Matrix, or Tom, as my fellow scientists have called it. It took our thinktank decades to develop, years to test, and for me. . . only a few short minutes to reveal the horrible truth.

This planet, this species, they would be our undoing. In a few short years, we would come into conflict – an unavoidable, unspeakable conflict. And they would win. They would destroy our homeworld. Not in a sudden, brilliant collapse. But slowly. Haphazardly. In the name of ending the war and winning the peace, they would gradually end us. With as much unintended suffering and good intentions as you can imagine. Slow and painful. The opposite of the death I just granted them.

What else could I have done? It was them or us.

I tell myself this same mantra, over and over, even as I suppress the urge to hurl the detonator against the wall. Even as my body twitches, every neuron screaming for me to run before this goes any further. But I know I must continue.

There are still the colonies to consider.

My hands move, urged on by the part of my brain that is still able to isolate itself from my emotions, and I begin pulling up the local charts for this star system.

Yes, there will be colonies. There will be research labs, satellites, biospheres, colony ships, little nests of resistance where this species can survive, regrow, and come back for revenge.

I have to do it again.

And again.

And again.

As many times as necessary.

My chest feels tight as I let my hands do their work, charting a course all across the system to snuff out each and every one of them. My FTL drive will get me there before the light of the planet even disappears from their satellites. And I’ll end them. Quickly. Methodically. Without suffering or pain.

Tom has shown me the only path to survival.

Even as I hesitate to ignite my engines and make for my next target, Tom is down there. Gathering the data. Reading the future. Assuring me of the rightness of my actions.

It was them or us.

But somewhere, in a part of my mind I won’t acknowledge, I know the second half of that terrible platitude.

Maybe it should have been us.