Chapter Five: A Rock and a Slick Place

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Chapter Four

ch-5

Washington:

The office of the President’s Advisor on Science and Technology was not secure, at least not to the standard Secretary Anderson thought necessary. So Al had been forced to use a smaller, more secure, room on the third floor of the executive office building. He’d been assured that his regular office would be done before the day was out, but since there was no time to waste, urgency outweighed comfort.

Fortunately, three of the attendees of this meeting were not physically present. Only he and Dr. Anthony were forced to endure the tight space. The others had the advantage of sitting at their regular desks. Three screens sat at the end of the table, each displaying a different face, while Carter and Al shared a wide-angle camera, in a closet.

Joshua Lange, the Director of NASA Operations was on the right screen, the window behind him showing a bright Houston sky. General Victor Marquez of Space Command was in the middle, and the Air Force’s top weapons expert, Dr. Ward Danielson had logged in from a place called Camp Mars, Utah.

Lange was a former astronaut and held NASA’s top seat. He’d worked his way up the ranks to become the administrative head of the agency. Tight and focused, he still looked like a recruiting poster for the Astronaut Corps, with just enough grey in his hair to give his face a bit of wisdom.

General Marquez, who was about the same age as Lange, made the Director look soft by comparison. The General was all edges with a look that said he was only business. His intensity was intimidating, even through a camera.

Dr. Danielson on the other hand, was anything but focused-looking. He sat chewing a nail, looking like a curly haired beaver gnawing on a log. His skin hung in soft folds and his eyes bulged out of doughy cheeks. Somehow though, he managed to convey the idea that he was above this meeting, and that his importance should be self-evident to everyone.

Calling the meeting to order Dr. Stanley said, “Thank you for joining us gentlemen. I assume you’ve read the background information?”

Marquez and Lange nodded. Danielson snorted, “Of course.” Al raised an eyebrow and Carter struggled to hide a grin.

“Our objective is to construct a framework for Project Hammerthrow,” Dr. Stanley continued. “I understand it’s too early to flesh out any details, but we need to determine the scope of our efforts. I’d like to begin by letting Dr. Anthony give you an overview of the mission requirements.”

“What I discussed with the President,” Carter said, “is deploying a group of warheads that can be spaced out along the asteroid’s path to incrementally change its trajectory enough to avoid impact.”

“Why go to all that work?” Danielson asked. “We should blow it up and be done with it.”

“If we were to do that,” Carter explained, “we’d end up with a cluster of fragments that would be harder to stop.”

“We know the Chinese are working on a forced helium-cycle warhead,” Danielson said. “Our research shows that we should be able to produce detonations in the 1000 gigaton range. That would be more than sufficient to leave no debris.”

“The Chinese are substantially ahead of us in their development of those technologies,” Marquez said, “and as far as I know, they have yet to conduct a test.”

“Helium-cycle warheads?” Carter asked.

“By stimulating He3 under the right conditions, it’s theoretically possible to induce a helium-fusion reaction that would be orders of magnitude larger than a hydrogen bomb,” Danielson said.

“I think it’d be prudent to keep ourselves limited to technology we know,” Dr. Stanley said.

“We know it will work if we have sufficient He3,” Danielson said.

“I doubt President Hutton would be willing to wager the survival of humanity on experimental technology,” Marquez said.

“What about a conventional warhead?” Danielson sidestepped. “We’ve gotten into the ten to twenty gig—“

“Perhaps you misunderstood,” Al Stanley cut in. “The President has signed off on the deflection plan. Other options are off the table.”

“But—”

“I endorsed you for this meeting because you’re a weapons design expert,” General Marquez said. “Do I have to point out that you’re not the only one we have?”

Danielson sputtered and sat back, splotches of pink seeped into his otherwise gray skin as his blood pressure shot up.

“If I may ask a question,” Marquez said. “The United States and Russia deployed multiple warhead ICBM’s during the Cold War. These missiles could place several warheads within a quarter mile of discrete targets. This sounds like what you’re describing to me.”

“Possibly,” Carter said. “Are they still in use?”

“No,” Danielson said, still pouting. “We decommissioned them more than a decade ago.”

“At least we’ve conceptually got something there,” the General said, scribbling notes on his desk top.

“Depending on what we can determine about the asteroid’s composition, we’re going to need upwards of twenty-five pairs of warheads,” Dr. Stanley said.

“Assuming that it’s a homogenous nickel-iron body and not a pile of loose gravel,” Dr. Anthony said. “The most critical factor is how close to the asteroid we can detonate. If we can be sure we’ll place all of them within five hundred meters of its surface—“

“Let me get this straight,” Joshua Lange interrupted. “You expect to launch a swarm of individually controlled missiles to an asteroid, out in deep space and get them all to hit a five hundred meter window?”

“Precisely,” Carter said.

“Actually, if we assume several warheads per missile—“ Marquez said.

“Regardless, that’d still be at least fifty warheads individually targeting at the same time,” Lange said. “We’ve had enough trouble getting two Mars rovers down to the surface within a few hours of each other.”

“We routinely track over 20,000 satellites at Space Command,” Marquez said.

“But you only control a few at once, and they’re a damn sight closer to Earth, so you’ve got no propagation delay,” the NASA Director said.

“It’s also likely that subsequent missiles will have to be redirected as they approach,” Carter added. “This asteroid is spinning on two axes. It’s oblong and irregular shaped. If we range from the center of gravity of the asteroid, we’re going to have some impulses go off closer to the surface than others. This will affect the deflection rate substantially.”

“And risk shattering it?” Al asked.

“Potentially,” Carter said.

“Which is another reason to vaporize it,” Danielson said. “There’s no risk of miscalculation.”

Marquez sighed. “Doctor, we are following orders.”

“I think the President needs to have other opinions to choose from,” the weapons designer said. “She’s basing this solely on the recommendations of one man. No offense, Dr. Anthony.”

“That’s her right,” Marquez said. “She trusts Dr. Anthony’s expertise. You will either work on Hammerthrow as it is defined, or I will bring in your replacement.”

“Yes, General,” he said through clenched teeth.

“For the sake of discussion,” Marquez said, “What is the velocity of this asteroid?”

“At its closest approach we’re talking about a Delta-V of twenty-eight miles per second, give or take a bit,” Carter said.

“Then we have another problem,” the General said. “There are no military boosters that can get into that neighborhood. The best we can do with anything we’ve got, especially with a heavy payload, is around five to six.”

“How heavy is a nuclear warhead?” Carter asked.

“A multiple target warhead?” the General asked. “I can’t even guess, but it will be heavy.”

“The SLS is the only system that could get that kind of payload to escape velocity,” Lange said. “And from there to twenty-eight miles per second is still a reach. Not to mention that we can’t possibly have enough of them built before the end of next year.”

“We’ve got ample booster capacity to LEO,” Marquez said. “Perhaps we could assemble the missiles in orbit and integrate a departure stage there.”

“Orbital assembly?” Joshua asked. “That’s a slow process without having a platform.” He sat forward, his face growing large in the monitor. “You’re not suggesting that we use the ISS for this?”

“I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking,” Marquez said, “but that would be an ideal solution.”

“The hell it would,” Lange said.

“I agree with the General,” Dr. Stanley said. “We could send up components, and have NASA put it together. That’d give us the ability to start launching generic hardware and fuel before we’ve finalized the design.”

“Alpha is not tooled for that type of work. It’s a research laboratory, not a fabrication platform,” Lange said.

“I understand that,” Al said. “Could we send up military personnel to assist?”

“Absolutely no way. Working in microgravity is not something that can be done by amateurs,” he said.

“We do have personnel trained for the environment,” Marquez said. “We have two squadrons of TAV pilots.”

“Just because you can teach someone to not puke in their space suit, doesn’t mean they’re trained to do construction work there,” Lange said.

“Excuse me, what’s a TAV?” Carter asked.

“Trans Atmospheric Vehicle. He’s talking about the F-28 Starhawk,” Dr. Stanley said. “It’s a small space plane the Air Force doesn’t officially have.”

“I understand you have some reservations,” Marquez said, “but I’m sure we can provide manpower and expertise to work with your people.”

“I won’t sign off on this,” Lange said. “The potential risk would be unacceptable.”

“The risk in not doing it is certain,” Carter said.

“There have to be other options,” the Director said. “Some of that old Star Wars hardware is still operating. I know those ABM lasers were pretty rugged.”

“Lasers?” Carter jumped in. “A powerful enough laser could create a steam jet on the asteroid surface to deflect the asteroid.”

“Steam jet?” Marquez asked. “That implies thermal energy. The lasers in the SDI satellites are X-ray. They were designed to cut up a missile’s electronics like a Ginsu knife, but I seriously doubt they’d wok-fry your asteroid.”

“That makes sense,” Carter said, shaking his head. “Better penetration of the atmosphere.”

“What about lasers, though?” Lange said. “Could we build something here that would make the steam jet approach workable?”

“The problem would be to deliver enough of the beam’s energy to the target after passing through a hundred miles of atmosphere first,” the astronomer said.

“So that rules out beam weapons,” Dr. Stanley said.

“That isn’t entirely true,” Danielson said, looking at Marquez for permission before he said anything.

“Go ahead Doctor,” the General said.

“We’ve been experimenting with a way to bring about quantum detonation in non-reactive matter by stimulating it with a high frequency beam,” he said. “It’s worked well in the lab but we’re a few months from being able to demonstrate a practical model.”

“How have you managed to keep the beam from reacting with the atmosphere?” Carter asked.

“We haven’t,” Danielson conceded. “But it works well in a vacuum.”

“Which brings us back to the idea that it’d have to be built in space,” Al said.

“There isn’t room on the station. We’ve got nineteen people up there now. Three crew, and sixteen scientists,” Lange said.

“We’ll have to bring them down,” Dr. Stanley said.

“This isn’t like calling a cab,” Lange said. “It’ll take two shuttles just to transport that many astronauts down. We’re looking at ten weeks, minimum.”

“Ten weeks?” Carter asked.

“At least. We’re running an average of forty-two days between missions,” he explained. “We’ve only got six Shuttle II’s in the fleet, and a tight thirty week R-and-R on each one. The best we can do is a one-month rotation between flights if we don’t have anything that snags us. We’ve also got one crew module we could get mounted on an SLS booster and launched in six weeks or so.”

“That would be unacceptable,” Al said, watching Carter slip from shock to exasperation.

“It’s the best we can do,” Lange said. “The risks in pushing any faster are too high to take without lives on the line.”

“But lives are on the line,” Carter said. “Billions of them.”

***

Stormhaven:

“The interface is operational,” Mica said. “I am ready to initialize reprogramming at your command.”

Daryl Creswell had never been a religious man, but watching the floor of the assembly line he felt moved to prayer. Ever since he’d arrived at Stormhaven, he’d been in charge of programming the fabrication robots that made almost everything the community used. For the last several months, the main line and most of its feeders had been dedicated to the components that went into the Dancing Star and her sister ships.

Now that Colton had set the goal of producing enough of these transports to build a survival colony on the moon, he knew it was time to pass control of the line to Mica. Although the computer hadn’t been designed to run the lines, it had proven capable of almost any task it had been assigned. From a computer’s perspective there was no difference between modeling global climate change, and telling robotic assemblers how to do their job. It was all numbers, and when it came to that, Mica had no equal.

He didn’t have to feel good about it. In fact, he was close to terrified. The stately dance that he’d spent all his time creating, from the initial composite blending, to the last thermal rivet had been exclusively his responsibility.

As impressive as Mica was, it was about to rewrite every step of the operation. He looked down on the floor and asked Saint Vidicon, the cybernetic patron for all technology, to watch over and protect his robotic children.

In the distance, Sophie and her husband Glen, who worked in the shop as one of the engineers, were the only other humans in the building. They’d tethered their work sled to the railing above the floor.

“Ok Mica, it’s all yours.” Daryl closed his eyes and waited.

“Initiating download,” it responded.

Everything on the floor stopped. And stayed stopped.

He looked around, trying to see any sign of movement. Nothing. The ringing of the presses down one of the lateral heavy feeder lines echoed into silence. Time stopped. Daryl held his breath.

“Is anything moving over there?” he shouted across the chamber.

“No, nothing,” came Sophie’s reply. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, maybe she overloaded something trying to pick it up?” He’d started toward the control room when the ringing of the presses started again. Getting louder and faster as it ran through the start up cycle. Instantly he knew it was running hotter than before.

“Too fast,” he said. “The handlers will never be able to keep up at that speed.”

Then an army of whirling dervishes exploded into life all over the room, spinning and pirouetting in a terrifying dance of improbable motion. He watched the hundreds of autonomous robots slip past each other so closely that he expected to see twisted pieces of equipment lying in smoking heaps on the floor.

Several times he watched two gargantuan autobot haulers squeeze together by slinging their loads into a spinning cartwheel that made it look like the giant machines were physically passing through each other. He grabbed the rail, sucking in gasps of air each time they slid toward what looked like a sure collision, only to blow it back out a second later when they twisted themselves past and rolled on about their task.

He stared down on the demonic square-dance for several minutes until he realized that Sophie was trying to pry his fingers free from the railing. “Come on. You look like you need to get out of here,” she said.

“No,” he said. His eyes were huge, white edged in a caricature of terror that refused to be torn from the intricate waves of near cataclysmic encounters playing out below.

Laughing at his frightened expression, Glen grabbed his other arm and pushed him toward the control room. “It’ll be ok, she speaks their language.” Putting himself between the bulk of the fabricator’s body and the railing, he gave a firm shove and the two of them marshaled him away.

Inside, he stared in shock. Instead of the glowing consoles and visual readouts of the system monitors, everything was dead. Mica interfaced directly with everything, so keeping the screens active had been unnecessary. The control room was a silent and darkened crypt, a dozen onyx slabs that had formerly been command consoles, now stood as tombstones.

Frozen by the strangeness, he looked at the two of them. “Oh my,” he croaked. Glancing over Glen’s shoulder he saw the top of an autobot swinging its load of hull panels over its head while it rotated towards some other unlikely dance partner.

Sophia grinned and tried to keep from laughing. “Maybe you should call it a day. What do you think?”

He shook his head, but this time he managed to look away from the window. “I spent two years writing the codes for the ‘bots. I really didn’t expect there to be that much—”

“Difference?” Glen offered, trying to keep Daryl moving toward the door.

“Yeah that too, but they’re doing things that are just impossible.” He studied the floor fighting the urge to look.

“Actually it’s pretty cool,” Sophia said, pressing her face to the window and whistling in amazement. “Damn, those things had to scrape against each other that time.”

“What?” Daryl gasped, shaking loose from Glen to jump to the window.

“I assure you Dr. Creswell, I have maintained a twenty-five centimeter proximity tolerance because of uncertainty in the friction coefficient of the floor surface,” Mica responded.

“Twenty-five centimeters?” Daryl gasped.

“Yes. I set this distance as an acceptable safety margin given the variability of the environment. Unfortunately, this has limited the increase in operational efficiency to 296%, and not the 300% I had projected.”

“So, in five minutes you’ve tripled the production rate out there?” Glen watched the insane ballet for a few seconds.

“Not precisely true, but a close approximation,” it replied. “Within the hour I will have collected sufficient data from movement vector analysis to reduce this tolerance to five centimeters, and provide a cumulative five hundred percent increase.”

“Don’t bother.” Daryl sat on the corner of one of the deactivated consoles, rubbing his forehead. “Our suppliers won’t be able to keep up.”

“Perhaps we should offer to assist them in improving their efficiency?” Mica suggested, almost managing to sound disappointed at its lost opportunity to show off.

***

Northern Arizona:

The storm was worse on the ground than it had been in the air, and Agent Shapiro’s attitude had slipped steadily as a result. On the ground, without exception, the roads between Phoenix and the high mountain plateau that was his destination, had been closed.

This was Arizona. It was supposed to be desert, not frozen tundra.

Forced to accept that the weather had trumped the urgency of his mission, Shapiro found a Best Western in a little town just below the rim of the plateau and got a room. Calling in to explain his delay, he spent a night trying to sleep. What he’d originally planned to take just over an hour to drive, had now become an extra day of adventure. His only consolation was that if he couldn’t get in, Cavanaugh couldn’t get out either.

Just after noon the following day he pulled his SUV onto a graded dirt road that cut through a barren wasteland that looked like it had been transplanted from Mars. Glancing at the autonav he swore under his breath. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. Rutted and frozen, the road was just one more annoyance to him as it wound past the scrub juniper and into a vast open range that looked too barren and inhospitable to support life.

“Who in their right mind would put a corporate headquarters out here?” he grumbled.

About to turn back, he topped a ridge and caught his first sight of his destination. Spreading across a low-lying depression that might have once been a drainage basin, a series of concrete arches and earthen ridges sprawled for what appeared to be almost a mile.

His instincts suddenly urged that caution was better than bravado, so he slowed, pulling out his digital binoculars and tossing them on the seat. More eyeball information might be useful, he realized.

In the hope of finding some cover and a vantage point from which to do a little recon, he turned off the road onto a broken trail that headed east up a narrow cut below a small ridge. Bouncing and slipping forward, he instantly questioned the wisdom of his choice. The truck pulled hard, the four wheel drive light blinking on his dashboard as it scrambled, struggling for traction.

Feeling the ground giving way beneath his tires, he swung up the bank away from the rut and slid to a stop, his wheels tearing deep gouges in the slime. Thick globs of mud hurled up the sides of the vehicle. Slamming into reverse, he rocked down the slope until the back bumper dug into the ground behind him.

“Shit!” he hissed. Jamming forward again with a lurch and hoping to catch momentum, he floored the accelerator. Bouncing over what felt like buried boulders, he bounded onto the flat ground with his front wheels, but the back end hung in the muck with enough determination to stop him dead.

The sound of tearing metal marked the end of his motion with a bone-jarring finality. The white top of the main building of Stormhaven was visible over the tilt of his hood.

“Don’t these people believe in civilization?”

Swearing, he stepped out into the biting wind to survey his options. A small river of red-black liquid bled down the rutted embankment, pooling on a patch of snow. Transmission fluid. He stared at it, recognizing the gravity of his predicament.

The engine was still running even after he’d stopped, so at least he could use the heater to keep warm. He registered that as an important detail when a gust of wind knifed at the edges of his suit coat.

The buildings in the distance were within walking range, but standing here staring at them in the naked light of day, they possessed an odd certainty that lent the appearance of strength. A fortress, standing in a moat of harsh terrain. The direct approach might not have been his best course of action before, but now he wasn’t going to be putting on a good shock-and-awe act when his suit was already covered with mud halfway up to his knees.

All he could do was call for backup. If nothing else, the wait would give him time to do some old-fashioned eyeball surveillance. Hauling out his satlink, he sent a request for help, and then patched into the Homeland Security Surveillance Network. While the connection authenticated he sat on the hood of his SUV studying the buildings in detail. His field glasses linked into the computer and fed enhanced data into his view, while also sending real-time imagery from his back to the DHS network.

What he was seeing with his eyes wasn’t what the hardware was detecting. His computer struggled to analyze the images but kept coming back with a “No Data Correlation” message.

The satellites overhead had no better luck, reporting on radio signals emanating from the main area of the building. DHS systems in Virginia tried to cross match the RF signatures with known sources, but all he got was another “No Data Correlation” response.

Spectroscopic data from the satellites also showed substantial polymer outgassing behind several of the largest out-buildings. He couldn’t see them from his vantage point but it appeared to be some kind of plastics manufacturing facility. Whatever it was, it didn’t fit anything in the files, and their computers couldn’t venture a guess as to what type of work was really going on inside.

“Nobody’s tagged this before?” he wondered out loud. An alert message popped up in his field glasses asking if he required additional analysis. He sent a response up the system in search of expert help.

He expected he’d get a detailed report from the analysts in the Hole, but instead the reply advised him to stand by for tactical support units being dispatched from Colorado, with a projected ETA of twelve to twenty four hours.

He glanced at his watch. Tomorrow.

Rather than fuming in frustration, he decided this turn of events simply gave him an unavoidable opportunity.

Unfortunately the frigid wind-swept plateau provided no cover. So he sat in the open, in a previously shiny black government-issue spy-mobile, feeling like he should plant a flag announcing his arrival.

***

Chapter Six
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