Sunday, March 29, 2015

Space Opera

Commander Vine’s plan to confront the aliens was a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. I knew this because I had designed it myself. All the while I had been aiding the psychologist Jung and our manager Tina with their tentative psy-ops strategy, I had been covertly working directly for Vine on his alternative.

I had had no choice – orders! – but I wondered how my colleagues would take it when they found out. I had an awkward feeling about that in the region of my guts. The feeling puzzled me: was it in anticipation of a difficult moment to come? Or could it be guilt? I couldn't figure it out so set it aside: there was stuff to do. Once the Admiral had approved Vine’s plan he saw no advantage in delay. The show was about to begin.

We had been very, very cautious in our battle plan – ascribing to the enemy the ability to successfully disable anything we put up in their view. We intended an invasive reconnaissance: a close look at what we were dealing with .. which would also conclude with their complete destruction. Our strategy would admit no countermeasures at all.

The command centre was at the ship’s centre of mass, minimising the effects of spinning Constellation in combat. At one end was a large screen, where computed projections of the battle space were displayed - I could do considerably better of course, through my augmentation. Vine was seated at his console to my left with Jung on his other side. I noticed Tina at the back occupying one of the ‘hot desks’. She looked diminished somehow, and was staring fixedly at the screen.

I felt that gnawing feeling more strongly now. Once things started up, it was impossible to know how events would unfold. This could literally be the last few minutes of my life!  I looked around but no-one else seemed as concerned. Vine caught my eye and smiled – a hard smile. He seemed to be having the time of his life. I really couldn't figure him out, didn't he realise how badly this could turn out? I put it down to lack of imagination.

The first overt sign that the operation had started came as a firework detonated on the screen, orbitally forward of the planet. In my machine-augmented mind I could see the dense shell of tiny tungsten ball-bearings expanding from a point. The event had been carefully calculated: in a few minutes the planet's orbital path would puncture the ever-growing shell we had created, and some minutes later it would find itself momentarily at the centre of a spherical surface composed of tiny, shiny balls of the most refractory metal known.

These motes of tungsten were entirely passive. With no electronics, power supply or device-functionality, their only function was to reflect. With telescopic sensors on our ship and at other similarly distant locations, we could image any electromagnetic emissions from the alien outpost, either active or involuntary, across the spectrum.

Even if our opponents used high-powered beam weapons to try to clear the cloud, it was so vast and so refractory that success could not come rapidly. And we only needed it for twelve minutes.

The next phase of the plan required even more exquisite timing. Imagine a tangent line to the planet, brushing its surface ever-so-lightly at the aliens’ exact location. Extend it in both directions around one million km. At one end place a Terawatt gamma ray laser battery, at the other a telescope array.

Now, a small correction: put both the laser and telescope on trajectories where they’re below the planetary horizon as seen from the enemy base. They’re rising slowly, led by the laser battery. The plan is driven wholly by the speed of light.

In my body-hugging command chair, visualising a dynamic near-space model in real-time, I watch the clock tick down to t = zero.

The laser battery icon intersects the tangent line (the detector hasn't quite got there yet). A thin blue line emerges from the battery. This is all computed – Constellation can’t ‘see’ faster than the speed of light and in any case most of the action - from our vantage point - will be occurring behind the planet itself. The gamma beam crawls across space at this scale – physics assures us that the aliens can  see neither it nor the laser battery yet. The first they'll know will be when the beam strikes.

I check the beam attributes. It’s lensed to focus down to as near a point source as diffraction allows at the target. The straightness of the line is an illusion: in reality the spatial position will be rastered along an X-Y grid normal to the beam for total target illumination hundreds of times per second. At this stage the power is relatively low, we seek information not destruction. But that won’t last.

Three seconds have gone by and the beam has now encountered the alien base. If they could see gamma rays, and maybe they can, it would seem to them that a supernova has gone off exactly on their horizon – a brilliant point source flickering hundreds of times per second.

And now I visualise the detector sliding into position at the other end of the tangent line, just in time to pick up those gamma rays which scattered through the target, giving us an ‘x-ray movie’. Other detectors, out of sight of the enemy base, are viewing the scene from reflections off our convenient tungsten mote-cloud.

It is hard to see what the aliens can do about this. Our devices are more than three light seconds away and moving in a complex choreography which keeps them aligned, but makes their positions impossibly difficult to predict and target.

Four seconds into the mission and there has been no time for any real telemetry to get to us yet: everything is still simulation. If the aliens had even the fastest contingency plans, it’s getting way too late. They have been under gamma illumination for just over one second and those Terawatts are beginning to crank up. The plan calls for an exponential power ramp to full capacity of the laser battery in three seconds. This is to allow time for the telescope to track weapon effects and then deploy filters to avoid its own complete destruction.

What is the best the aliens could do? We asked ourselves that a hundred times and ran many simulations. The only tactic which had a chance of working was a reflex screen deployment to somehow block or reflect the incident radiation. It takes metres of heavy nuclear materials to absorb gamma radiation, and while you were doing that you would probably be quite preoccupied .. so we had one last surprise.

I checked my simulation and there it was. Compared with the gamma wave-front, this was slow-moving indeed, but it had had a lot longer to travel. We had launched the fusion weapon hours ago: it had now reached the planetary vicinity on a curving, grazing trajectory which would momentary bring it over the alien base at around 1,000 metres altitude. It was travelling at 300 kilometres per second.

The simulated flash on the screen surely didn't do justice to the reality: a multi-megaton blast optimised for neutron radiation (and of course a very hard gamma pulse) which by now must have already occurred. The enormous forward momentum of the missile would ensure that most of its debris would miss the ground and indeed exit the system. We wanted the base in tiny non-functional pieces, but retrieving those pieces was the kind of exploratory reconnaissance Vine had always had in mind.

At t plus six seconds the final act of our destructive play unfolded. Hidden by terrain from our cataclysmic thermonuclear vandalism, a hardened drone lifted out of a nitrogen ice trench and ferried a full surveillance suite towards the hopefully now ex-base.  We waited the minutes it would take before we got our first view on the ground.


Ⓒ Nigel Seel, March 2015.

This story follows on from the previous Gifts Differing.


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