One of the things I like about this piece is how much it doesn’t feel like a story. I mean, it’s a tale being told by Stross himself about a conversation he had at a recent technology convention; a convention that exists, and that he actually went to. Furthermore, the bulk of this story is a non-fiction discussion on rocket propulsion, and it elides into fiction so gently, and presents a conspiracy so plausible and reasonable, that you want to believe the rest is true as well.
As I said, it starts with Stross at a convention chatting to a literal rocket scientist, discussing various types of chemical rockets and propulsion systems the USA and the USSR experimented with during the cold war. After Stross shows an interest in all this, he’s passed onto a man named Leonard who, he’s told, has quite a tale to tell on the subject.
In a reasonably accessible style, they start by establishing that the chemical propellants used in rockets today are not the most effective reactants available. (All these next chemicals and their dangers are real, by the way.) Solid rocket boosters use finely powdered aluminium, but powdered beryllium would be even more powerful; it’s just that beryllium in that state is really poisonous. Space shuttle engines would be better if you replaced the oxidiser with hydrogen fluoride, but that’s an incredibly corrosive acid and, as you might imagine, dangerous to experiment with. Especially when using them in rockets, which run the risk of exploding over the countryside. As for using dimethylmercury as fuel – one of the most lethal nerve agents in existence, a substance that penetrates latex, rubber, plastics and chemical warfare suits – it just doesn’t bear thinking about. At least by anyone sane.
“But during the 1960s some bright spark at ARPA got a bright idea and handed it to the CIA: why not pretend we were using some extremely high reactivity oxidizers and fuels in our latest missiles, and leak plans and blueprints to the bad guys’ spies? Obviously this wouldn’t play with the Soviets, but small fry like East Germany or North Korea or Iraq might fall for it. Worst case, it would send them on a wild goose chase; best case, they might really damage themselves trying to build and fly this stuff.
“So we brainstormed the most suicidal rocket motor we could come up with. And you wouldn’t believe just how mad it was.”
And oh, the suicidal rocket motor they come up with is indeed mad. But not as mad as when someone believes them.
A Tall Tail by Charles Stross
Availability: free online
Word count: 4,600
First published: Tor.com, July 2012 (available here)