Today we are sharing a piece of prose from last year’s anthology. Thanks Evan Wollerton for this insightful piece!
One Small Step
J. Robert Oppenheimer stood outside of the Trinity military base on a hot July day. Despite this heat, chills ran down his spine, reverberating off of each individual vertebrate. Today was the day.
The spinning of the helicopter’s engine and the steady chop of its wings were drowned out by the thumping in his heart. His thoughts roared around him and the arid desert plain. It seemed as if no-one in the world existed except for him and his child, his life’s work; the universe, unwittingly, sat on the edge of its seat as the day of reckoning grew nearer and nearer. Mankind was on the verge of history.
The helicopter, piloted by two soldiers, two non-eventful beings in the eyes of the historian, dutifully followed orders and lifted off of the ground. Oppenheimer stood nearby as flecks of dust and rock blew out from under the aircraft. The launch site, surrounded by men in white lab coats and others in camouflage, was solemn in this moment. Some men prayed to their gods, others had no gods, yet others still thought of their loved ones. None of these lives were in danger. Yet all of the men knew that history was about to turn on its head.
As the helicopter took off across the desert, he reflected on the journey of mankind. Was this all that millions of years of evolution had led to? An arms race, a lust for war and death? It didn’t matter. This was evolution, in its purest form. This wasn’t unnatural. This was destiny.
The helicopter reached its target. Slowly lowering itself to the ground, the helicopter placed the bomb on top of a steel tower–designed for these specific tests–and flew back to the camp. In the seconds before it landed, the air felt thick with tension. No-one could speak. As the helicopter placed down and shut off its engine, he heard the pilot say, “All clear,” and an explosion unlike any the world had ever seen shook the land.
Upon detonation, the land rumbled and a blast of heat and wind shot across the plain, tousling his hair. The steel tower was incinerated in the blast. Then, a half of a second later: BOOM.
The sound caught up with the blast. Oppenheimer covered his ears and looked away. The image of fire spewing into the sky would remain in his mind forever. Several minutes later, he opened his eyes, and the explosion was over. A team of relieved scientists applauded and clapped him on the back. Quiet, respectful clapping echoed throughout the camp.
It worked… he thought to himself, as he looked out into the scorched plain. It worked!
As he looked around and his team of faceless scientists came to congratulate him, Oppenheimer looked to the sky. He couldn’t imagine what sort of victory this weapon could bring to the American people. And neither could he imagine the desolation it would bring to another.
He had created the bomb, a creature of God’s reckoning. The old words crept into his mind: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” And now he saw, for once, what great happiness, what great virtue, could be achieved through innovation: and what great sadness.
On the other side of history, a primitive hominid took shelter in a cave from the Earth’s blustery winds. The snow fell lightly, as if it were not an appendage of the freezing cold. Alone and adrift from society, the caveman knew he had to do something if he wanted to survive.
Picking up a rock, he struck a slab of stone to create a spark, and he struck it again and again, trying to fashion a tool for hunting out of the granite. Eventually, in his desperation, he began grabbing sticks and twisted branches, smashing them together, forcing them against the stone and throwing them at the ground. Eventually, as he berated the stones continuously, a spark became a flame, a flame became a fire; the caveman warmed his hands with that fire, and cooked his food, and used the light to explore the cave, to make it his own. That night, the caveman believed he had discovered a godsend, something that would allow himself to endure for eternity, never imagining that his invention would be used, over time, as a way of extinguishing the human life he believed he had preserved.