Many science fiction authors want to write stories about futuristic ground combat: troops armed with ray-guns, giant tanks, lots of tactical maneuvering, that sort of thing.

This works until some obnoxious reader asks out loud why doesn't the futuristic army use futuristic weapons? Like, for instance, nuclear warheads.

The author doesn't want to do this, since this makes the entire war last about five minutes and one paragraph. That ain't the story the writer wants to tell. They want to write heroic stories about the valor of star soldiers, not bleak post-apocalyptic hell-scapes.

The standard hand-wave to avoid this unhappy state of affairs is to postulate a Nuclear Damper.

What it that, I hear you ask? Simply a hand-waving unscientific technobabble gadget that magically prevents nuclear weapons from exploding. This is enough of a fig-leaf so that the author can get busy writing the space-grunt stories without worrying about obnoxious readers. It typically takes the form of a gadget which projects a spherical force field when you turn it on, inhibiting any and all nuclear ordinance that is closer than X kilometers from the gadget.

A reverse version of the gadget can have the same desired effect: something that can remotely and prematurely detonate nuclear weapons while they are still in the owner's launch silo and surrounded by friendly troopers. This is a reverse physical effect from the first type of gadget (it causes an explosion instead of preventing one), but it has the same end result. Nobody is going to be carrying nukes into combat as long as either gadget is present.

The standard nuclear damper technobabble is to mutter something vague about how it alters the strong and/or the weak nuclear forces. While waving your hands frantically since there isn't even a theoretical way to do something so outrageous.

A close relative to the nuclear damper is the Bullet Damper. That gizmo prevents firearms, artillery, and explosives from operating. It is used by scifi authors who want to write about characters traveling in starships but who fight using swords.


      I'm glad you're using the right term.

     A nuclear damper is a device that prevents nuclear fission from cascading above a certain level — some say it strengthens the strong nuclear force, or makes neutrons obey it.

     A nuclear dampener is a moist toilette that has to be disposed of by the radiological hazards unit, and man, are you going to hate the paperwork involved, Serviceman Chung.

     (I came up with the distinction because I had so many freelancer submissions that used nuclear damper and nuclear dampener interchangeably, often in adjacent paragraphs! Once I made it funny, it became easier for them to check for…)

From Ken Burnside (2021)


Science fiction with nuclear dampers include:

  • HAMMER'S SLAMMERS: nuclear dampers allow David Drake to write about futuristic interstellar mercenaries, who do NOT simply lob nukes at each other

  • THE IRVHANK EFFECT: an object lesson on how the advent of a damper is not going to automatically end all warfare

  • NTH MAN: this comic-book super hero at one point neutralizes all the world's nuclear weapons. Which immediately starts World War III using only conventional weapons

  • TRIGON DISUNITY TRILOGY: some well-meaning but stupid peaceniks invent a nuclear damper to prevent nuclear war. Unfortunately it also prevents nuclear power plants from operating, which is a problem since Peak Oil strikes and renewable energy sources are not ready for prime time. This results in the fall of civilization

  • NO TRUCE WITH TERRA: invading aliens use a nuclear damper to prevent humans from using nukes. The aliens are more or less immune to humans arsenal of non-nuclear weapons.

  • THE FOREVER WAR: the "stasis field" is used as a last ditch defence against an overwelming alien infantry attack. It not only renders nukes useless, but also pretty much any weapon more advanced than a sword

  • FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE: the battlefleets of The Mule use a "nuclear-field depressor" to neutralize the Foundation's warships. This should not be enough of a weapon to defeat the Foundation, and it isn't. The Mule is winning by covertly using a different weapon that drains the Foundation's military personnel of their will to resist.

  • WET BLANKET: a scientist discovers a method of changing the laws of physics so that nukes won't work any more, and does the obvious thing

  • MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM SEED: Neutron Jammers suppresses nuclear fission reactions. Luckily Neutron Jammer Cancellers can block hostile neutron jammers.

  • CIBOLA BURN: Chrisjen Avasarala sends Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to the planet Illus, to try and defuse a situation between a corporation and colonial squatters before people start shooting each other. Unfortunately some ill-advised tampering wakes up some alien paleotechnology. Among other things, it uses a nuclear damper to shut down the engines on the orbiting ships. Things get tense as the orbits start to decay.

  • PERRY RHODAN: In the first three novels of the series the protagonist uses alien anti-neutron screen technology to prevent a nuclear war from destroying all life on Terra

  • DAN DARE: in the original Venus Story, the Treens and the Therons go to war. However, their ray fields not only inhibit nuclear reactions but electrical and mechanical devices as well. The war instantly grinds to a halt.

  • STRIKER: in this mercenary miniatures game for the Traveller RPG, dampers are used to neutralize incoming nuclear warheads. But dampers are also used to keep Californium-251 bullets fresh.


Hammer's Slammers

      "Six aircraft approaching from two-eight-three degrees," Central mumbled. "Distance seven point ought four kays, closing at one one ought ought."
     Pritchard risked a quick look away from where the gun pointed toward a ridgeline northwest of them, an undistinguished swelling half-obscured by the heat-wavering pall of smoke. Thirteen other tanks had crested the hill before Central froze them, all aiming in the same direction. Danny dropped below his hatch rim, counting seconds.
     The sky roared cyan. The tank's vision blocks blanked momentarily, but the dazzle reflected through the open hatch was enough to make Pritchard's skin tingle. The smoke waved and rippled about the superheated tracks of gunfire. The horizon to the northwest was an expanding orange dome that silently dominated the sky.
     "Resume advance." Then, "Spectroanalysis indicates five hostiles were loaded with chemical explosives, one was carrying fissionables."
     Danny was trembling worse than before the botched attack. The briefing cubes had said the Densonites were religious nuts, sure. But to use unsupported artillery against a force whose satellite spotters would finger the guns before the first salvo landed; aircraft—probably converted cargo haulers—thrown against director-controlled powerguns that shot light swift and line straight; and then nukes, against a regiment more likely to advance stark naked than without a nuclear damper up! They weren't just nuts—Thrush central government was that, unwilling to have any of its own people join the fighting—they were as crazy as if they thought they could breathe vacuum and live. You didn't play that sort of game with the Regiment.

The Butcher's Bill

     "Go ahead," said Fire Central in a voice bitten flat by the two-kilohertz aperture through which it was transmitted.
     "Got a red-pill target for you (red-pill = nuclear artillery shell)," Smokey said, putting one ivory-colored fingertip on the holotank over Thomasville to transmit the coordinates to the artillery computers. "Soonest."
     "No damper fields?" Central asked in doubt.
     "They aren't going to put up a nuclear damper and warn everybody they're expecting attack, old son," said Major Soames tartly. "Of course, the least warning and they'll turn it on."
     "Hold one," said the trooper in Fire Control.
     There was a loud squealing from outside the interrogators' vehicle. One of the twenty-centimeter rocket howitzers was rotating and elevating its stubby barrel. Ordinarily the six tubes of the battery would work in unison, but there was no need for that on the present fire mission.
     "We have clearance for a nuke," said the console with an undertone of vague surprise which survived sideband compression. Usually the only targets worth a red pill were protected by damper fields which inhibited fission bombs and the fission triggers of thermonuclear weapons.

The Interrogation Team


The Irvhank Effect

Scientists Irv Farmer and Hank Jeter stumble over a way to create a nuclear damper effect. They figure it can be used covertly by them to end warfare on Terra. Which only goes to show how breathtakingly naive they are.

      Like a lot of discoveries, this one had been more accident than design. Several things went into it: the fact that, by some accident of engineering, the lab apparatus had a backup and the overhead lighting didn’t; the fact that Hank Jeter’s great-grandfather had worked as a railroad chief porter during the 1920’s; and the fact that Hank was seeing what time it was at the exact moment when a drunk slammed into the power pole out on Rhawn Street.
     The lab was in an interior room, with no windows, and the sudden darkness was Stygian. People swore in disgust. Somebody tripped over a stool, which fell with a crash. “Where’s the flashlight, goddamit?” somebody else said.
     Hank didn’t need it; not, at least, to look at his watch. That watch had been in his family since his great-grandfather’s day. As a matter of fact, it was a conductor’s watch, but great-grandpa had bought it all the same, just as soon as he could afford it. He loved it, and why not? It had been keeping good time for more than sixty years now, a big, old-fashioned stemwinder with a long, thick gold chain, perfect for wearing in a vest pocket. It had a radium dial that glowed in the dark.
     Except it wasn’t glowing now. Hank held it so close to his face that it almost bumped his nose, squinted until his eyes crossed. Nothing.
     Just then, someone found the flashlight. It was pointed straight at Hank’s face when it got turned on. In total blackness, it was like a magnesium flare exploding. Hank yelped and nearly dropped his watch.

     One drink became several. After a while, Irv said, “What time has it gotten to be?”
     “Why are you asking me? You’ve got a watch on your wrist,” Jeter retorted in mock anger. “Just because I’m black, you make me do all the work.”
     “Oh, bull. If I didn’t ask you to haul out that brass turnip of yours, you’d sulk for a week.”
     “A likely story.” Chuckling, Hank looked at his great-grandfather’s watch. “It’s twenty to seven.” He frowned. “That’s funny.”
     “No it isn’t. I just remembered I’m supposed to be in Southbridge at seven, and I’m never gonna make it.”
     “No. Look at the dial.”
     “I’ve seen it a million times, thanks.”
     “It’s glowing,” Jeter said. “Well, I should hope so. It’s a wonder you don’t futz up half the experiments in the lab with the radioactivity in that damn thing.”
     “You have no respect for an heirloom, my man. The point is, though, when the electricity went out this afternoon, I was looking right at it and there was nothing to see, just black.”
     “Probably you were looking at the back side and didn’t realize it in the dark,” Irv suggested.
     “Hey, no, man, I’m serious,” Jeter said. “I had it out before the power blew. I can’t remember the last time I looked at it in the dark; I just figured the radium paint had worn out or something. Now I don’t know what to think.”
     Irv Farmer stared owlishly at his friend. He had drunk just enough to take him seriously; a little more and he wouldn’t have cared one way or the other, a little less and he would have rationalized everything away. Instead, he said, “All right, I give up. What happened?”
     Hank shrugged. “Just one of those things, I guess.” Being almost twice Farmer’s size, he hadn’t been hit as hard by his shots of Hiram Walker’s. As long as everything seemed back to normal, he was happy enough—relieved might be a better word.
     Irv finished his porter. “Let’s go back and see if we can duplicate it,” he said suddenly.
     It was Jeter’s turn to gape. “Probably nothing there to duplicate.”
     “Then what have we lost? A little time.”

     “To turn the lights back on. I’ve got an idea.” Farmer rummaged around until he found a Geiger counter. He held the Geiger tube up to the watch. The lazy clicking of background radiation, present everywhere, did not change. Irv and Hank looked at each other.
     Irv started turning off pieces of lab equipment. The Geiger counter immediately began to chatter.
     “Do you know what we’ve got here if we can find out what makes this tick?” Farmer said softly, oblivious to any thought of wordplay. “We’ve got a Nobel prize right in our laps, that’s what.”
     Hank Jeter regarded him most soberly. “It may not be anything nearly as trivial as that,” he said.

     Lack of understanding, though, was not the chief reason they kept things to themselves. The more they played with what they had begun to call the Irvhank Effect, the more they realized just how big a thing they had stumbled across. That first field of theirs was a very strong, very tight one: it damped all radioactivity above background level, but it only had an effective radius of about ten meters.
     ‘‘We could clean up Three Mile Island with this,” Irv said. Hank only grunted. He had bigger things in mind.
     Their early tries at altering the field only succeeded in eliminating it altogether. It was Irv’s turn to think more progress impossible, Hank Jeter’s to keep pushing. After a good deal of frustration, they finally found the components of the system they had to modify to change the strength of the Irvhank Effect. They also found that each weakening of the field increased the range over which its effect spread.
     It took many months of work before they got the kind of field Hank had conceived of the moment he heard that quiet Geiger counter: one weak enough to allow the barest chain reaction, the level found in an atomic pile, but strong enough to prevent the catastrophic fission of nuclear weapons.
     That was the one that sent the two of them into the Nevada desert, to see if their circuits did what they were supposed to (they take the gadget next to Nellis Air Force Range and Nuclear Testing Site. The newspaper had an announcement that a nuclear test was scheduled for 10:52 on that day. The gadget successfully prevents the nuclear device from detonating). Actually, the trip was conservative; if their haywire calculations were right, at that level the field should cover most of the United States. When they found out that the device worked, they hooked it up to wall current and let it run night and day.
     “Let the Russians roar,” Hank declared. “Those sons of bitches aren’t going to blow us all away now, no matter how much they want to. Do you know what we’ve done, Irv? We’ve declared peace against the whole world, and we’ve won.”
     As things worked out, the Russians, weren’t doing much roaring of late. They were grumbling, mostly among themselves. It was Irv who noticed the name of a prominent Soviet general in the “Milestones” column of Time.
     “‘Retired,’” he read. “‘Marshal Pavel Serafimov, 62. Western intelligence sources believe that Serafimov, a leading expert in nuclear weaponry, was forced into early retirement because of the unexpected difficulties the Red Army is having with the warhead of the new SS-26 ICBM.’”
     Hank’s smile was blissful. “We aren’t just covering the USA, then. I sort of suspected you were too cautious with your numbers, Irv. If the Russians’ bombs won’t go off even at home, we’ve got the whole planet blanketed. Now we don’t have to worry about a nut in the White House or the Department of Defense, either. To say nothing of the Israelis, the South Africans, the Pakistanis, the Argentines—how long do you want me to go on?”
     “No need, no need,” Irv said. “I think it’s about time we looked into publishing.”

     You have to understand that I’ve pieced all this together. Obviously, I wasn’t there when the two of them discovered the Irvhank Effect. There are still lots of things I don’t know about it. And, as I’ve said, they were careful about covering up what they were doing, for amateurs anyway.
     I tell you frankly: a lot of people were tearing their hair, trying to figure out why none of the bomb tests would work. After the first couple of failures, we were also going out of our minds trying to keep the Russians—to say nothing of Congress—from learning things were on the fritz.
     Of course, it turned out the Russians had troubles of their own, but we didn’t know that then. You can imagine how relieved we were when we found out. At least they weren’t responsible for screwing us up.
     But who was?
     It took a lot of time—people time and computer time—before a possible answer emerged. Again, I don’t have the details, just what I got in my briefing. Apparently, somebody was smart enough, or desperate enough, to ask for a computer search of any and all anomalies having anything to do with radiation, and then to stick pins in a map to see if there was a pattern. Sure enough, there was.
     Some of the items had made the newspapers, others hadn’t. The day when all the nuclear plants east of the Mississippi hiccupped for six seconds was one of the latter. With everyone loving nuclear power so much these days, most of the plant directors had covered up as best they could, especially since they didn’t know what had gone wrong either. But those people are amateurs too.
     Other things were less spectacular—high-energy physics experiments gone awry, disappointingly ineffective cancer treatments, and so on. Those were also more localized. They gave us an idea of where the center of the problem-circle was. We were able to start putting together a list of names.
     Two people on the list, it turned out, had been vacationing in Las Vegas on the morning when a bomb test was inexplicably late. That was enough to be worth looking into, anyhow, and that was when I got my orders.

     As it happened, I went to Irv Farmer’s condo first, while he was at work. Jackpot the first time, too; I found the half-written paper on the Irvhank Effect in the typewriter, with all the notes beside it. I skimmed through them. The machine itself, I learned, was at Hank Jeter’s apartment, under the bed.


     I took all the documents and stuffed them into the repairman’s bag I carried in case anyone got curious about what I was doing wandering the halls. Then I went out and goofed around for several hours. I knew just what Irv Farmer would do when he got home and found his place burgled—he’d rush over and tell Hank. That was fine. I needed to talk with both of them.
     My timing was right. I heard two voices when I paused to listen outside the door. I went on in. Apartment-house locks aren’t made to keep out the likes of me.
     “Don’t do anything stupid,” I advised the two of them as I shut the door behind me. I was mostly talking to Jeter, nobody’d told me what a mountain of beef he was. “This in my hands is a silenced UZI machine-pistol with a forty-round box. A burst will make a noise like Donald Duck sneezing and leave you both hamburger.”
     I had to give Irv Farmer credit. He went white as a sheet, but his voice came out steady: “I thought you weren’t supposed to fire bursts through a silencer.”
     “For emergency use only,” I agreed, “but your friend there on the sofa is big enough to qualify.”
     “If you want money, my cash is in the silverware drawer in the kitchen,” Jeter said. He didn’t sound as though he believed it himself; even in the US of A, robbers don’t pack UZI’s with silencers. When I just stood there, he sagged a little. “Who are you with?”
     “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Believe it or not, at the moment all I intend to do is have a chat.”
     Hank was still a bit stunned; Irv was quicker on the uptake. “If you’re the one who was at my place”—he paused, and I nodded—“then I think we know what you want to, ah, chat about.”

     I nodded again. “No doubt. Tell me, can your gadget, say, protect the United States from nuclear attack but leave the Soviet Union open?”
     “No way,” Farmer said. “The whole planet gets protected at that setting. It’s in the nature of the field.”

     I would have believed him even if glancing over his notes hadn’t led me to the same conclusion; you could read his sincerity in his face. “So what exactly is it you’re accomplishing, then?”
     That roused Hank Jeter. “Putting an end to the possibility of nuclear war,” he growled. The look he sent my way said that even somebody like me should be able to figure that one out for himself.
     I shrugged. “And so?”
     “What do you mean, ‘And so?’” he said. “And so peace, of course.”
     “We’re at peace now,” I reminded him. “We have been since 1945, more or less.”
     “A peace based on terror,” he said scornfully. “That kind of peace never lasts, and the kind of war we can fight with today’s weapons is too terrible to imagine.”
     “There I agree with you,” I said, and saw I’d surprised him. I went on, “But what makes you think that turning off all the nuclear weapons is going to do anything to promote peace?”

     He looked at me as if he thought I was crazy. He probably did. “We won’t be able to blow ourselves away, that’s what.”
     “With all the germs and gases stockpiled, I wouldn’t even bet on that,” I said. “Let it go, though. Just tell me this. Suppose you’re the President of the Soviet Union. And suddenly your missiles and the Americans’ missiles are only so many big Roman candles. You take a look toward Western Europe. You’ve got about a 3-1 edge in tanks, 2-1 in planes, maybe 3-2 in ground troops. Nothing much is going to happen to your country if you move. So what do you do?’’
     “Nothing much is going to happen?” Irv echoed. “You’re still going to get the hell bombed out of you, and invaded if you start losing.”
     “By Russian standards, that’s nothing much,” I said. “And the last people who made a go of invading Russia were the Mongols. Hardly anybody on this side of the Atlantic remembers that the Russians did the dirty work in World War II after the Germans jumped ’em. They took eleven, maybe thirteen million armed forces deaths, plus another seven million or so civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
     Irv and Hank were both staring at me now. They grew up with Vietnam: fifty-odd thousand dead, spread over a dozen years. They were too young to remember how easy it was to fight a really big conventional war.

     I said so, adding, “Why do you think we haven’t fought the third World War yet? It could have started any time: over Korea, or Hungary in ’56, or the Berlin Wall, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in ’81, or Vietnam, or the Middle East half a dozen different times. For that matter, why doesn’t China try to take most of Siberia back from the Russians? Their maps claim it, you know.” They plainly didn’t.
     I said, “Aside from anything else, there’s another reason to keep away from World War III—we’d probably lose. The Russians outweigh us by too much in conventional weapons, and the geography favors them.”
     “China,” Farmer said. He’d been paying attention, some.
     “Maybe, just maybe,” I admitted. “But that’s a deal with the devil, too, the same as the one we had with Stalin to beat Hitler. We’d probably just be setting up the next round.”
     “You have one sick view of human nature, man,” Hank Jeter said.
     I shrugged. “I suppose so, but I’m afraid I’ve got an awful lot of history to back it up. Seems to me the only thing that’s kept such peace as we’ve got is the terror you were sneering at. What else is strong enough? And what’s going to happen when people find out there’s nothing to be afraid of any more?”

     If I sound like I was pleading with them, I was. I’d never gotten a set of orders I liked less, and I was looking for some excuse to break them. But try as I might, I couldn’t find one. Maybe Irv and Hank could. After all, they were bright enough to have created this flap in the first place.
     No luck, dammit. They hadn’t thought out the consequences any further than keeping the bombs from falling, and that wasn’t far enough. Any minute now, somebody was likely to realize that things weren’t going bang because they couldn’t go bang. Then it would be time to hold onto your hat, assuming you still had a head to wear it on.

From THE IRVHANK EFFECT by Harry Turtledove (1987)

No Truce With Terra

(ed note: Terra has been covertly invaded by dastardly aliens using the teleportation technique. The aliens set up a nuclear damperfield to prevent Terra from plastering them with every h-bomb available. The aliens then initiate a terraforming attack, and smugly wait for Terra to be conquered.

By frantically utilizing all their scientific resources, the Terrans manage to make contact with a friendly alien race called the Dax. They have a plan to save Terra.

The invader aliens are amateurs. The Dax use a couple of tactics to panic the invaders into making a fatal mistake. First the Dax use one of their weapons to bring the terraforming attack to a screeching halt. Then a second weapon starts destabilizing the invader's teleportation gear, threatening to cut off their escape route. Lipscombe is with a commando detachment, observing the invaders.)

      Lipscombe had become nervous, weary of his pipe and was studying the terrain through his binoculars.
     Directly in front of him, in the center of the highway, a single commando leaned negligently against the ruined half-track. The man had a rocket rifle tucked beneath his arm and a limp cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. His face was tough, hard, and mahogany colored. Lipscombe had the impression he was humming to himself, completely relaxed–he died before he had a chance to tense.
     One moment he was there; the next, his body gushed sudden steam, flared brightly and was gone. The twisted remains of the rifle fell slowly to the ground and a puff of vapor drifted away with the wind (the invaders are panicking, using a too-powerful weapon to kill individual soldiers).
     A second later, another soldier, full length in a hollow in the ground, flared like a heated match head. When the vapor drifted away only a patch of blackened grass remained.
     Lipscombe felt a paralyzing terror. There was nothing one could do against this, nowhere to run and no hope of escape.
     He was aware of another flare of fire some distance to his right, a single soldier running wildly across the grass and throwing away his rifle as he ran.
     There was a single slapping report and the running man staggered in mid-stride and pitched forward on his face.
     Lipscombe guessed, dully, that the man had been shot out of hand. Panic was infectious and, no doubt, the commando Captain had made sure by his action that the trouble did not spread.

     He had no time to moralize for, at that precise moment, the horizon lit with a searing whiteness which seemed to dim the sun and he closed his eyes involuntarily.
     When he opened them an ominous but familiar mushroom was boiling skywards. Before he could hazard a reason, there was another flash, then another and another.
     He put both hands over his eyes and tried to press his prone body into the surface of the road.
     There was a gigantic and metallic clap of thunder and a remote but clear impression of heat. Wind howled over his head, swirling dust stung the exposed parts of his body. Somewhere there was a tinkling of glass and something crashed heavily into the roadway. The building beside him groaned, swayed and straightened and then the wind slowly subsided.
     Cautiously he opened his eyes and raised his head. The air was still thick with dust and the sun looked blurred and sullenly red. On the horizon, seven gigantic pillars of black smoke were already leaning sideways with the wind.
     Seven! Seven H-bombs. But how? (since the invader's nuclear damperfield prevents H-bombs from detonating)

     He became aware of cheering in the distance, of men running together and embracing, of rifles, tin hats and equipment being tossed high in the air.
     On the highway three soldiers and a civilian were dancing and waving their arms wildly.
     He though, It’s all over. Nothing could stand up to seven H bombs. The invaders are gone—gone.

     Clearly the invader had assessed Earth carefully before invading. Had studied her technical and cultural level and knew she incapable of real resistance to a violent imported ecology.
     Then along came Dax with a device which had stopped that ecology dead in its tracks. Understandably the invader became alarmed: how had the defenders come up with a device far beyond their technical capabilities? Before they could get down to causes, however, another device, also beyond the capabilities of the defenders, began to threaten their means of retreat to their home world.
     The invader, as Dax had pointed out, was a non-participant aggressive and, as such, had no military background for reference. The result was, faced with two incomprehensible dangers at the same time, near panic. Here, of course, was the point where the readings on aliens direct weapons became important. They required enormous and wasteful power, so much power in fact, that all other devices had shut off to supply them. One such device, was a damperfleld which prevented nuclear weapons from becoming critical.
     In a nutshell, by brilliantly applied psychology, Dax had bluffed the invader into committing his major weapons knowing full well what would happen if he did. A noose had been held up, the invader panicked into sticking his head in it and then panicked again into pulling it tight. Looking at it from any angle the invader had rushed into destroying himself and had obligingly complied.

From NO TRUCE WITH TERRA by Philip E. High (1964)

The Forever War

The stasis field does all sorts of weird things with the laws of physics. But it does prevent nuclear weapons from detonating.


      “Yessir, except for those damned swords.” For use in the stasis field. “No way we can orient them that they won’t be bent. Just hope they don’t break.”
     I couldn’t begin to understand the principles behind the stasis field; the gap between present-day physics and my master’s degree in the same subject was as long as the time that separated Galileo and Einstein. But I knew the effects.
     Nothing could move at greater than 16.3 meters per second inside the field, which was a hemispherical (in space, spherical) volume about fifty meters in radius. Inside, there was no such thing as electro-magnetic radiation; no electricity, no magnetism, no light. From inside your suit, you could see your surroundings in ghostly monochrome—which phenomenon was glibly explained to me as being due to “phase transference of quasi-energy leaking through from an adjacent tachyon reality,” so much phlogiston to me.
     The result of it, though, was to make all conventional weapons of warfare useless. Even a nova bomb was just an inert lump inside the field. And any creature, Terran or Tauran, caught inside the field without the proper insulation would die in a fraction of a second.

     At first it looked as though we had come upon the ultimate weapon. There were five engagements where whole Tauran bases were wiped out without any human ground casualties. All you had to do was carry the field to the enemy (four husky soldiers could handle it in Earth-gravity) and watch them die as they slipped in through the field’s opaque wall. The people carrying the generator were invulnerable except for the short periods when they might have to turn the thing off to get their bearings.
     The sixth time the field was used, though, the Taurans were ready for it. They wore protective suits and were armed with sharp spears, with which they could breach the suits of the generator-carriers. From then on the carriers were armed.

     Inside the base, we relied on individual lasers, microton grenades, and a tachyon-powered repeating rocket launcher that had never been tried in combat, one per platoon. As a last resort, the stasis field was set up beside the living quarters. Inside its opaque gray dome, as well as enough paleolithic weaponry to hold off the Golden Horde, we’d stashed a small cruiser, just in case we managed to lose all our spacecraft in the process of winning a battle. Twelve people would be able to get back to Stargate.
     It didn’t do to dwell on the fact that the other survivors would have to sit on their hands until relieved by reinforcements or death.

     We had more than a half hour before the drones would strike. I could evacuate everybody to the stasis field, and they would be temporarily safe if one of the nova bombs got through. Safe, but trapped. How long would it take the crater to cool down, if three or four—let alone sixteen—of the bombs made it through? You couldn’t live forever in a fighting suit, even though it recycled everything with remorseless efficiency. One week was enough to make you thoroughly miserable. Two weeks, suicidal. Nobody had ever gone three weeks, under field conditions.
     Besides, as a defensive position, the stasis field could be a death-trap. The enemy has all the options since the dome is opaque; the only way you can find out what they’re up to is to stick your head out. They didn’t have to wade in with primitive weapons unless they were impatient. They could keep the dome saturated with laser fire and wait for you to turn off the generator. Meanwhile harassing you by throwing spears, rocks, arrows into the dome—you could return fire, but it was pretty futile.
     Of course, if one man stayed inside the base, the others could wait out the next half hour in the stasis field. If he didn’t come get them, they’d know the outside was hot.

     The Taurans started firing rockets, but most of them seemed to be going too high. I saw two of us get blown away before I got to my halfway point; found a nice big rock and hid behind it. I peeked out and decided that only two or three of the Taurans were close enough to be even remotely possible laser targets, and the better part of valor would be in not drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I ran the rest of the way to the edge of the field and stopped to return fire. After a couple of shots, I realized that I was just making myself a target; as far as I could see there was only one other person who was still running toward the dome.
     A rocket zipped by, so close I could have touched it. I flexed my knees and kicked, and entered the dome in a rather undignified posture.
     Inside, I could see the rocket that had missed me drifting lazily through the gloom, rising slightly as it passed through to the other side of the dome. It would vaporize the instant it came out the other side, since all of the kinetic energy it had lost in abruptly slowing down to 16.3 meters per second would come back in the form of heat.

     Nine people were lying dead, facedown just inside of the field’s edge. It wasn’t unexpected, though it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to tell the troops.
     Their fighting suits were intact—otherwise they wouldn’t have made it this far—but sometime during the past few minutes’ rough-and-tumble, they had damaged the coating of special insulation that protected them from the stasis field. So as soon as they entered the field, all electrical activity in their bodies ceased, which killed them instantly. Also, since no molecule in their bodies could move faster than 16.3 meters per second, they instantly froze solid, their body temperature stabilized at a cool 0.426 degrees Absolute.
     I decided not to turn any of them over to find out their names, not yet. We had to get some sort of defensive position worked out before the Taurans came through the dome. If they decided to slug it out rather than wait.

     With elaborate gestures, I managed to get everybody collected in the center of the field, under the fighter’s tail, where the weapons were racked.
     There were plenty of weapons, since we had been prepared to outfit three times this number of people. After giving each person a shield and short-sword, I traced a question in the snow:

Good Archers?
Raise hands.

     I got five volunteers, then picked out three more so that all the bows would be in use. Twenty arrows per bow. They were the most effective long-range weapons we had; the arrows were almost invisible in their slow flight, heavily weighted and tipped with a deadly sliver of diamond-hard crystal.
     I arranged the archers in a circle around the fighter (its landing fins would give them partial protection from missiles coming in from behind) and between each pair of archers put four other people: two spear-throwers, one quarterstaff, and a person armed with a battle-ax and a dozen throwing knives. This arrangement would theoretically take care of the enemy at any range, from the edge of the field to hand-to-hand combat.

     Actually, at some 600-to-42 odds, they could probably walk in with a rock in each hand, no shields or special weapons, and still beat the sh*t out of us.

     Assuming they knew what the stasis field was. Their technology seemed up to date in all other respects.

     For several hours nothing happened. We got about as bored as anyone could, waiting to die. No one to talk to, nothing to see but the unchanging gray dome, gray snow, gray spaceship and a few identically gray soldiers. Nothing to hear, taste or smell but yourself.
     Those of us who still had any interest in the battle were keeping watch on the bottom edge of the dome, waiting for the first Taurans to come through. So it took us a second to realize what was going on when the attack did start. It came from above, a cloud of catapulted darts swarming in through the dome some thirty meters above the ground, headed straight for the center of the hemisphere.
     The shields were big enough that you could hide most of your body behind them by crouching slightly; the people who saw the darts coming could protect themselves easily. The ones who had their backs to the action, or were just asleep at the switch, had to rely on dumb luck for survival; there was no way to shout a warning, and it took only three seconds for a missile to get from the edge of the dome to its center.
     We were lucky, losing only five. One of them was an archer, Shubik. I took over her bow and we waited, expecting a ground attack immediately.

     It didn’t come. After a half hour, I went around the circle and explained with gestures that the first thing you were supposed to do, if anything happened, was to touch the person on your right. He’d do the same, and so on down the line.
     That might have saved my life. The second dart attack, a couple of hours later, came from behind me. I felt the nudge, slapped the person on my right, turned around and saw the cloud descending. I got the shield over my head, and they hit a split second later.
     I set down my bow to pluck three darts from the shield and the ground attack started.

     It was a weird, impressive sight. Some three hundred of them stepped into the field simultaneously, almost shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter of the dome. They advanced in step, each one holding a round shield barely large enough to hide his massive chest. They were throwing darts similar to the ones we had been barraged with.
     I set up the shield in front of me—it had little extensions on the bottom to keep it upright—and with the first arrow I shot, I knew we had a chance. It struck one of them in the center of his shield, went straight through and penetrated his suit.
     It was a one-sided massacre. The darts weren’t very effective without the element of surprise—but when one came sailing over my head from behind, it did give me a crawly feeling between the shoulder blades.
     With twenty arrows I got twenty Taurans. They closed ranks every time one dropped; you didn’t even have to aim. After running out of arrows, I tried throwing their darts back at them. But their light shields were quite adequate against the small missiles.

     We’d killed more than half of them with arrows and spears, long before they got into range of the hand-to-hand weapons. I drew my sword and waited. They still outnumbered us by better than three to one.
     When they got within ten meters, the people with the chakram throwing knives had their own field day. Although the spinning disc was easy enough to see and took more than a half second to get from thrower to target, most of the Taurans reacted in the same ineffective way, raising up the shield to ward it off. The razor-sharp, tempered heavy blade cut through the light shield like a buzz saw through cardboard.

     The first hand-to-hand contact was with the quarterstaffs, which were metal rods two meters long that tapered at the ends to a double-edged, serrated knife blade. The Taurans had a cold-blooded—or valiant, if your mind works that way—method for dealing with them. They would simply grab the blade and die. While the human was trying to extricate his weapon from the frozen death-grip, a Tauran swordsman, with a scimitar over a meter long, would step in and kill him.
     Besides the swords, they had a bolo-like thing that was a length of elastic cord that ended with about ten centimeters of something like barbed wire, and a small weight to propel it. It was a dangerous weapon for all concerned; if they missed their target it would come snapping back unpredictably. But they hit their target pretty often, going under the shields and wrapping the thorny wire around ankles.

     I stood back-to-back with Private Erikson, and with our swords we managed to stay alive for the next few minutes. When the Taurans were down to a couple of dozen survivors, they just turned around and started marching out. We threw some darts after them, getting three, but we didn’t want to chase after them. They might turn around and start hacking again.
     There were only twenty-eight of us left standing. Nearly ten times that number of dead Taurans littered the ground, but there was no satisfaction in it.
     They could do the whole thing over, with a fresh 300. And this time it would work.

     We moved from body to body, pulling out arrows and spears, then took up places around the fighter again. Nobody bothered to retrieve the quarterstaffs. I counted noses: Charlie and Diana were still alive (Hilleboe had been one of the quarterstaff victims), as well as two supporting officers. Wilber and Szydlowska. Rudkoski was still alive but Orban had taken a dart.
     After a day of waiting, it looked as though the enemy had decided on a war of attrition rather than repeating the ground attack. Darts came in constantly, not in swarms anymore, but in twos and threes and tens. And from all different angles. We couldn’t stay alert forever; they’d get somebody every three or four hours.
     We took turns sleeping, two at a time, on top of the stasis field generator. Sitting directly under the bulk of the fighter, it was the safest place in the dome.
     Every now and then, a Tauran would appear at the edge of the field, evidently to see whether any of us were left. Sometimes we’d shoot an arrow at him, for practice.
     The darts stopped falling after a couple of days. I supposed it was possible that they’d simply run out of them. Or maybe they’d decided to stop when we were down to twenty survivors.

     There was a more likely possibility. I took one of the quarterstaffs down to the edge of the field and poked it through, a centimeter or so. When I drew it back, the point was melted off. When I showed it to Charlie, he rocked back and forth (the only way you can nod in a suit); this sort of thing had happened before, one of the first times the stasis field hadn’t worked. They simply saturated it with laser fire and waited for us to go stir-crazy and turn off the generator. They were probably sitting in their ships playing the Tauran equivalent of pinochle.

     I tried to think. It was hard to keep your mind on something for any length of time in that hostile environment, sense-deprived, looking over your shoulder every few seconds. Something Charlie had said. Only yesterday. I couldn’t track it down. It wouldn’t have worked then; that was all I could remember. Then finally it came to me.
     I called everyone over and wrote in the snow:

Get nova bombs from ship.
Carry to edge of field.
Move field.

     Szydlowska knew where the proper tools would be aboard ship. Luckily, we had left all of the entrances open before turning on the stasis field; they were electronic and would have been frozen shut. We got an assortment of wrenches from the engine room and climbed up to the cockpit. He knew how to remove the access plate that exposed a crawl space into the bomb-bay. I followed him in through the meter-wide tube.
     Normally, I supposed, it would have been pitch-black. But the stasis field illuminated the bomb-bay with the same dim, shadowless light that prevailed outside. The bomb-bay was too small for both of us, so I stayed at the end of the crawl space and watched.
     The bomb-bay doors had a “manual override” so they were easy; Szydlowska just turned a hand-crank and we were in business. Freeing the two nova bombs from their cradles was another thing. Finally, he went back down to the engine room and brought back a crowbar. He pried one loose and I got the other, and we rolled them out the bomb-bay.

     Sergeant Anghelov was already working on them by the time we climbed back down. All you had to do to arm the bomb was to unscrew the fuse on the nose of it and poke something around in the fuse socket to wreck the delay mechanism and safety restraints.
     We carried them quickly to the edge, six people per bomb, and set them down next to each other. Then we waved to the four people who were standing by at the field generator’s handles. They picked it up and walked ten paces in the opposite direction. The bombs disappeared as the edge of the field slid over them.

     There was no doubt that the bombs went off. For a couple of seconds it was hot as the interior of a star outside, and even the stasis field took notice of the fact: about a third of the dome glowed a dull pink for a moment, then was gray again. There was a slight acceleration, like you would feel in a slow elevator. That meant we were drifting down to the bottom of the crater. Would there be a solid bottom? Or would we sink down through molten rock to be trapped like a fly in amber—didn’t pay to even think about that. Perhaps if it happened, we could blast our way out with the fighter’s gigawatt laser.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1974)

Foundation and Empire

      Ovall said baldly, harshly, “Mnemon has been bombarded from space by treacherous attack.”
     Randu’s eyes narrowed, “The Foundation?”
     “The Mule!” exploded Ovall. “The Mule!” His words raced, “It was unprovoked and deliberate. Most of our fleet had joined the international flotilla. The few left as Home Squadron were insufficient and were blown out of the sky. There have been no landings yet, and there may not be, for half the attackers are reported destroyed—but it is war—and I have come to ask how Haven stands on the matter.”
     “Haven, I am sure, will adhere to the spirit of the Charter of Federation. But, you see? He attacks us as well.”
     “This Mule is a madman. Can he defeat the universe?” He faltered and sat down to seize Randu’s wrist, “Our few survivors have reported the Mule’s poss…enemy’s possession of a new weapon. A nuclear-field depressor.”
     “A what?”
     Ovall said, “Most of our ships were lost because their nuclear weapons failed them. It could not have happened happened by either accident or sabotage. It must have been a weapon of the Mule. It didn’t work perfectly; the effect was intermittent; there were ways to neutralize—my dispatches are not detailed. But you see that such a tool would change the nature of war and, possibly, make our entire fleet obsolete.”

     In the sudden, frozen silence, Bayta found the cubicle once again empty. The nuclear glow of the walls was dead, the soft current of conditioned air absent.
     Somewhere the sound of a shrill siren was rising and falling in the scale and Randu formed the words with his lips, “Space raid!”
     And Ebling Mis held his wristwatch to his ears and shouted suddenly, “Stopped, by the Ga-LAX-y! Is there a watch in the room that is going?” His voice was a roar.
     Twenty wrists went to twenty ears. And in far less than twenty seconds, it was quite certain that none were.
     “Then,” said Mis, with a grim and horrible finality, “something has stopped all nuclear power in the Time Vault—and the Mule is attacking.”
     Indbur’s wail rose high above the noise, “Take your seats! The Mule is fifty parsecs distant.”
     “He was,” shouted back Mis, “a week ago. Right now, Terminus is being bombarded.”
     Bayta felt a deep depression settle softly upon her. She felt its folds tighten close and thick, until her breath forced its way only with pain past her tightened throat.
     The outer noise of a gathering crowd was evident. The doors were thrown open and a harried figure entered, and spoke rapidly to Indbur, who had rushed to him.
     “Excellence,” he whispered, “not a vehicle is running in the city, not a communication line to the outside is open. The Tenth Fleet is reported defeated and the Mule's ships are outside the atmosphere. The general staff—"
     Indbur crumpled, and was a collapsed figure of impotence upon the floor.
     The next day, the ugly, battle-black ships of the Mule poured down upon the landing fields of the planet Terminus. The attacking general sped down the empty main street of Terminus City in a foreign-made ground car that ran where a whole city of atomic cars still stood useless.

From FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

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