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THREE

The Mockingbird was an obsidian cigar-shaped lance covered in shiny blue radiator panels contoured underneath a network of black meta-material overlaying room temperature superconductor coils and arrayed in a grid with regularly spaced circular holes. History aficionados would no doubt remark on its strong resemblance to a twenty-first century thermonuclear submarine, sans the fins, sail and propulsors of course. The design of the craft was the product of centuries of tinkering with vacuum fluctuations. Sascha was an expert in geopolitics and remote sensing/satellite surveillance. He had never really taken the time to learn in depth how the ship achieved faster-than-light flight, only that it involved a fusion bomb driven x-ray laser being pointed at the back of the ship from a distance of one hundred meters, that energy being converted into electrical power and that power being used to modulate vacuum radiation in a such a way that it caused the ship to quantum tunnel from point a to point b across potentially essentially any arbitrary distance. The technology was still experimental but most tests had been successful. One had blown up the unmanned prototype; but he had been reassured that the faulty software patch that had caused the beam targeting malfunction had been addressed and thoroughly resolved.

Little comfort as he climbed down into the Mockingbird’s circular airlock. White light paint ran from deck to ceiling in four narrow stripes at the cardinal directions. Stepping down off the ladder, Sascha was handed his duffel bag. He walked through the airlock to follow the last person who had entered the ship as he walked slowly forward, through a corridor. Stepping through an open hatch, they came to a flight of metal stairs and took them down a level. From there, they came upon a conference room with a sapphire table. The paint on the wall was showing a news station from the Cera Space Station, a Dipole Government subsidized and overseen residential and near Earth asteroid mining platform in geosynchronous orbit, high above them. The treasurer of the CSS city council had been implicated in a bribery scandal and was being pressured to resign. Unsurprisingly, he was refusing. One thing space travel had laid bare was that human nature didn’t change no matter what the altitude. High up, far from direct influence from the Dipole Government on the ground, a certain perception of immunity from the rules pervaded all space outfits. Sascha gave the wall a few moments of his attention and then followed the other man forward into an electronic, gravitational, and neutrino radiation processing room where two rows of stations lay empty, save for a single duty officer watching lines trace on a green display. They passed through here and veered right and then left into a parallel dormitory corridor where they would rest.

The rooms were nice enough. You could tell they had been hastily refurbished to suit a team of civilians with high status. On one of the nightstands of each was a small quartz vase with a purple flower in it. The four bunks of each room were made up with high grade inflatable mattresses and sheets and blankets bearing the seal of the Dipole government were laid on top, none of which was standard issue for the military. Sascha knew; he had been in it for six years. The man in front of him, some kind of engineer, placed his suitcase just inside the door of one of the rooms and proceeded forward. There were three others in that room. Sascha followed him to the next room, where he saw a full compliment of bags in there as well. He went forward again to the next room and sticking his head inside, saw that two bunks were unclaimed. He dropped his duffel bag by the lower bunk and went back into the corridor to look for a head. Two glowing signs up above up the hall pointed out the womens and mens bathrooms. Once inside the mens room, he evacuated his bladder and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked out of place in his button down and tie. He took the latter off and left it in his cabin. Then, he leaned against the bulkhead in the corridor to wait for someone who knew where they were going to give him directions. Presently, his contacts flashed. He looked at the message in his inbox to the left of his vision. It was a message from Alexander Curie from DVPACO.

All hands, meet in Conference Room 1 at 1300 ZULU.

ZULU meant Greenwich Mean Time. Sascha checked the time by blinking three times. 1245. No wasting any time, he saw. Going back to his cabin, he changed into business casual flexpants and a blue long sleeve pullover because it was a little chilly in here. Retrieving a slate from his bag, he headed aft to the conference room he had passed through earlier. When he got there, after confirming It was the right room, he went inside and saw that he was the only one in there. Taking a carbon fiber mag glide seat close to the center, he reclined and folded his hands in his lap, watching the silent news program on the bulkhead. Captions appeared on the bottom as a reporter talked. The hum of the life support fans was overlayed upon a fainter, low frequency vibration reverberating through the hull. Mockingbird’s fusion powerplant.

A short time later, a man in a smart suit came in, nodded at Sascha, and took a seat on the opposite side of the table. Sascha looked at his slate to check his notes from the meeting before his flight. As he reviewed, the room gradually filled up. At last, he looked up and saw that he was surrounded by scientists, engineers, and military officers and enlisted skymen and that behind the people seated at the long table, it was standing room only. The Mockingbird’s compliment was fifty so he assumed the conversation would be projected by a public address system to people who couldn’t fit in the room. He learned that this was indeed the case, that crew members would watch from the railgun ammunition bay and the crew mess.

Sascha recognized Scott Gomez from earlier seated close to the other end of the table. He was sitting next to Andrew Potter who was scribbling notes on a piece of paper. One chair on that end had been saved for someone who Sascha assumed was the captain. Setting his stylus down on the metal table, he waited expectantly for the briefing to begin. He checked the time on the wall. Beneath it were the small letters ZULU. 1258. He surveyed the rest of the faces in the room. A few glanced at him as he did. As a senior intelligence official, he knew how to read people. What he sensed here was palpable fear. The attitude of the group had changed since their liftoff. He supposed part of it was likely the prospect of intergalactic spaceflight. They would be only the second group of humans to ever attempt it. No one actually knew what had happened to the first. For all they knew, the Brazilian expedition was in a billion pieces spread across a thousand light years. Despite what it might portend for him, he hoped that was the case. The Brazilians’ R&D had been more hasty than the Dipole Government’s. If there were hazards to tunneling, they were more likely to have encountered them. The distances involved were far greater than those that had been attempted in test runs of unmanned systems. The confirmed record right now was five thousand light years. The Brazilians had travelled to a point six times that distance… and the Mockingbird would do the same. To aid navigational precision, the trip would be made in one hop from the solar system.

Captain William Reeves, commander of the Mockingbird, came in, given away by the command hat he took off as he entered. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said. The crowd at the end of the table parted for him to take his seat. As he did, he set his hat on the table. “This,” he said, “is the most serious mission I’ve embarked upon in my fifteen year career. You and I are in a race to intercept an experiment being prepared to take place on a scale dwarfed only by its unconscionable recklessness. In this endeavor we will succeed. I know we will… Because we must.” He tapped a silver remote control and the news on the wall switched to a slide presentation. A fuzzy image of an object orbiting Deimos, one of the oddly shaped moons of Mars, appeared on the wall. Like the Mockingbird, it’s skin, though out of focus nevertheless displayed a repeating specular pattern consistent with a vacuum fluctuation FTL drive. “Satellite intelligence confirms that the Brazilian spacecraft, the Orisha, departed Deimos orbit at 0530 ZULU yesterday. A burst of x-rays consistent with a shaped fifty kiloton fusion detonation was observed at an altitude of 26,270 kilometers at 1805 ZULU. Intelligence from the German Federal Intelligence Service indicates that the vehicle had a mass of approximately eighteen thousand metric tons and a volume of five hundred thousand cubic meters. Mr. Curie?” Alexander Curie, representative from DVPACO, the Dipole Government Vacuum Phenomena Assessment and Control Organization, and mission leader, rose briefly from his chair and bowed slightly.

“We assume that the Brazilian design adheres to essentially identical design principles to the Mockingbird. The main differences between their FTL equipment are believed to be in terms of quality control and the thickness and durability of the superconducting components used in the skin. Mockingbird uses less because the Dipole Government has been developing Mockingbird for a long time and so our superconductors are more effectively bound to their substrate. Based on German intelligence it appears the Orisha has only been under development for perhaps four years, using data stolen from Langjökull.” Langjökull was the Icelandic company that was the main contractor for the Mockingbird’s primary FTL components.

“Binding metallic hydrogen to a suitable substrate under the intense Lorentz forces produced by FTL operation was a significant challenge and we have strong reason to believe the Brazilians only penetrated about half of the relevant files. The remaining data has never entered into the public domain. This allows us to estimate the mass of the space vehicle itself and the mass of the device, which is likely contained within an internally stored module. We estimate the logic bomb to have a mass of roughly four thousand metric tons, or roughly seventy-five percent of the mass of the Mockingbird. Given this mass, we estimate the yield for such a device, based on admittedly conservative estimates of industrial and research capital available to the Brazilians, again provided by our friends in Germany,” he nodded at Sascha, who had been a central figure for years in characterizing the capabilities of the Brazilians’ logic bomb program, “to be on the order of ten to the fiftieth Joules, or approximately one million times the energy released by a gamma ray burst. Observed from Earth, at a distance of thirty thousand light years, it would be as bright as a full moon. Surface UV flux in thirty thousand years time is predicted to increase by less than one percent, factoring in ozone depletion. Based on prevailing climate models, global cooling initiated by atmospheric nitrogen oxides is predicted to be less than one degree Celsius for a period of roughly fifteen years.

“However…” Alexander paused for effect. “Thirty thousand light years is technically not true intergalactic space. It’s still within the faint outskirts of the Milky Way, and any extraterrestrial galactic residents within the Outer Arm could experience significant climate disturbances if certain conditions that are impossible to anticipate are met. Nearer civilizations could experience even more pronounced climatic disturbances. The reason the Brazilians have chosen such a nearby spot is believed by the Germans to be because the aforementioned more primitive superconductor bonding they’re using imposes limits on the number of times they can safely use their FTL. Mr. Ivanov,” he gestured to Sascha, “from the German Federal Intelligence Service,” Sascha nodded, “thinks that based on his personality profile, and the fact that he is actually onboard the Orisha, President Oliveira will prefer to play it safe and retain the option to use the Orisha again, even though he must be well aware that the Dipole government will view his use of a logic bomb as an act of war and that this action by his government will certainly serve as the remaining incentive needed to gather the international political will to carry out bombardment of key Brazilian military and industrial facilities throughout the solar system and ensure an act like this won’t be possible again for at least… Sascha?”

“Likely another ten years,” Sascha said. “Twenty if we take out the Orisha too. The logic bomb and FTL programs have used up the equivalent of a quarter of Brazil’s annual military spending with profound adverse consequences on the Brazilian economy. Strikes by us along with our ongoing sanctions stand a fifty-five to seventy percent chance of pushing Brazil into a depression. Further likely measures to neutralize the Brazilian logic bomb threat are highly discussed in the news but the majority of personnel onboard are not cleared for a sensitive discussion of it, regrettably.” He didn’t really find it regretful. The geopolitics of regime change through covert action and military strikes was a subject best discussed among the relevant participants in the planning and implementation stages. He looked at Alexander. “Mr. Curie.”

“Captain.” The captain tapped the remote and a schematic of a cylindrical device appeared.

“The logic bomb,” Alexander said, “relies on the Sanders Principle. As far as the public is concerned, this principle has been a theoretical curiosity of some concern for the last twenty years. The truth is that we’ve known that it was possible for fifteen years and known that it was within the near term engineering capabilities of the human race for nine years. The fear since then was that Oliveira might also realize it was possible and execute a crash program to build a device and copy Blackbird’s technology. That is the reason the Dipole government’s FTL research has remained heavily redacted in the public sphere. Put simply, we were hoping Oliveira’s regime would lose power soon enough to realize the potential of the technology in a timely manner. Unfortunately, our worst fears were realized instead. Now he has the bomb and intends to use it.

“The Sanders Principle has its basis in the inherent granularity of space-time and the aliasing artifacts that arise when a singularity is created. By placing an artificial black hole into a wormhole and allowing the wormhole to collapse gravitationally, an exponential error in the program governing vacuum energy at the entrances of the wormhole results in the conversion of space-time into pure energy, liberating more energy than an entire galaxy of stars. The problem, however, is that the maximum speed of space-time is infinite and our limited understanding of the rate at which this error will be propagated by moving space-time means that there is an unconstrained possibility that this error will propagate at a rate that the program of the universe simply cannot support. The anti-aliasing code used by the universe’s program may, key word may be unable to cope and simply crash. If that program crashes, reality crashes. If that happens, there are two possibilities. One: the crash is limited to a small volume around the original wormhole mouths. Two: the whole universe crashes and we all die. In a nutshell. So, to put it succinctly, Mr. Oliveira is a giant asshole.” He looked at Sascha. “Pardon my German.” Sascha nodded. “It is therefore critical that we intercept Mr. Oliveira and destroy his device. That’s where you come in, Captain Reeves.”

“Thank you, Dr. Curie. The Mockingbird carries an armament of two forward facing railguns in the ninety megawatt range. One shot will be enough to pulverize the Brazilian ship. Our ship is capable of a large number of FTL jumps and so we will first approach the Brazilian spacecraft at a range of a few hundred million kilometers, use our neutrino gear to pick up their reactor, and then jump in to close range and kill the ship and the bomb she’s deployed if they’ve reached that stage. Questions so far?”

Scott Gomez raised his hand. “Captain, how exactly do we know where they’re jumping? Furthermore, what if the Orisha jumps again, into deeper space and we can’t find her?”

Captain Reeves gestured to Sascha.

“The specifications of Orisha’s initial jump were obtained through interception of orders from the Brazilian sky base at Arsai Mons,” Sascha answered. It appears very likely that the orders are authentic and undistorted. If their FTL gear is as accurate as ours, they should be able to land within a spot three hundred million kilometers wide. If she’s there, our neutrino gear will pick her powerplant up.”

“Assuming it’s operating,” Scott said. Sascha nodded uncomfortably.

“Correct.”

“How do you define very?” Alexander Curie asked.

“Sixty-five percent.” A loud rustle went around the room.

“And if it’s not?” asked Alexander.

“Then we’ll try to pick her up on radar,” Captain Reeves said.

“Solar reflectivity?” someone Sascha couldn’t see asked.

“Telescopes haven’t detected any stellar mass objects within fifty light years,” Reeves replied. “Infrared is out too; intelligence suggests they’re cooling the hull to evade long range detection.”

“What’s the range of radar?”

“With their expected cross-section and our gear, maybe a million kilometers.” Another rustling, this one softer, went around the room.

“But about my original question,” Scott pressed. “What if they have indeed jumped twice?”

“Then we jump back and pray our intelligence assets have discovered their true destination,” Reeves said.

“Unless they choose their second destination at random…” Sascha said. A silence fell over the room. “That’s what I’d do.”

At last, Reeves cleared his throat. “Then we’ll have a serious problem,” he said. More silence.

After what felt like an eternity, “What are our rules of engagement, Captain?” It was Leonard Bishop, a theoretical physicist from Cornell.

“Our rules of engagement are to shoot on sight. We’ll look for survivors with a drone afterwards and be on our way, all without closing to less than five hundred kilometers. We can’t risk shrapnel damaging our FTL. Mockingbird is one of a kind and if we lose our propulsion, we’re going to die out there. Any questions?”

Dead silence.

“Launch will be at 1410 ZULU. We’ll deploy our FTL five hours after that.” He looked around the table and, after a pause, nodded. “All right. I’ve got some work to do before we jump. All gold team crewmembers to your stations. All hands will be on deck when we jump and will remain so until the main military engagement is concluded. That is all.” With that he rose from his chair, the crowd of scientists, officials, and skymen parted, and he disappeared into the corridor.
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