I’m so glad I didn’t know any of this when I first met Nicole.
We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of, right? I mean, I was an assassin, may Zarquon forgive me. Thirty kills to my name, twelve sanctioned, eighteen ‘in the line of duty’.
And Nicole had no idea what twisted path her future held for her.
The Fates certainly have fun screwing with us mortals, don’t they?
Enough of that.
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Minister Whitmore had a problem.
Which meant that Nicole Crozier, as assistant to one of her assistants, had a problem.
The problem was easy to define: the Primus wanted to destroy the home of two people on Earth.
That wasn’t the problem, though.
Hitting a target on Earth was actually pretty easy. A basic problem in orbital physics, really.
Being at the top of an 11 KPS gravity well helped. Anything that could overcome the paltry 2.4 KPS ‘lip’ of Luna’s gravity would, essentially, fall to Earth. The rest was just fiddly bits and targeting.
Targeting was a little trickier. You had to account for Luna’s around the Earth, the rotation of the Earth, the Earth’s motion around the sun, potential impact of the solar wind, and so forth. Given a big enough computer, and the right data, it was just a question of entering the right numbers.
Crozier had it all figured out. If they boosted a thousand-kilogram KEW out of the Lunar well, accelerated it to twenty-five kilometers per second, it would impact on target with the force of a fifty-kiloton nuke. Easy enough.
Of course, that involved constant acceleration, and not just that due to Earth’s gravity.
Nicole’s superior had informed her that wasn’t acceptable.
“It has to look like a natural event.”
So back to the drawing board.
Meteors had speeds in space that ranged from eleven kilometers per second to forty-two KPS. Fifty wasn’t unreasonable, and definitely achievable. Hell, just putting a stationary object in the orbital path of the planet would give a relative acceleration of twenty-nine KPS. If they got far enough ahead in the orbit of Earth just dropping in the KEW would be easy enough; a thousand kilos of iron was about 0.13 cubic meters. A tapered cylinder a meter long and forty centimeters across would do nicely, and would provide a little extra material for the inevitable burn-off. It would only need the slightest nudge to set it on its way, and orbital mechanics could take over with just a hint of course correction on the way.
Nicole’s superior scratched that idea, too, when she told him about it and the timeline.
“Takes too long. Elegant, but this needs to happen Friday night.”
“That’s two days from now!”
Okay. If you can’t go small, go big. Meteors came in all sizes, so who’s to say that the one that just happened to smack the house in question wasn’t a few meters across?
If she scaled the original design up to four meters long and one meter in radius, then she’d have a KEW that weighed just under a hundred thousand kilograms. That would make a serious splash at any speed, but if she could get it up to even twelve kilometers per second it would hit with the force of a 2.5 megaton nuclear weapon.
She worked the problem.
Iron? Plenty of that, and shaping it shouldn’t take terribly long. It didn’t have to be particularly sleek. That was first on the list, to get production going. A few quick messages and she was assured that she’d have it no later than Thursday afternoon.
Next was how to get it onto the trajectory. Easy; give that problem to the computer. Make sure that the origin point would be out of observation range of anyone on Earth, or the habitat, otherwise the gig would be up. Precise targeting would be challenging, but possible. She wouldn’t be able to do too much to change the trajectory once it was placed. It was, after all, a murthering great lump of iron. With one of their standard KEWs, she could hit a moving target as small as ten meters. If she ended up within a kilometer of the target with this, she’d be satisfied.
Then she set about arranging transport: lining up a ship, ensuring their political reliability, and so on.
Only when she had every piece in place did she return to her superior.
“Very good, Nicole. I’m glad you figured out how to make it work.”
“Yes, sir, thank you. Sir, one concern.”
“The intent was to destroy a single, fairly isolated habitation, correct?”
“Sir, that was with a nominal impact of 50 kilotons. This is 2.5 megatons.”
“That much more effective. So?”
“Sir, we’re going to kill thousands, maybe more.”
“Let me educate you, Nicole, something you’ll need to keep in mind if you wish to have any sort of career in the Ministry.”
“Don’t repeat this, but this order, and any order like it, can only come from one person.”
“No, Nicole. The President is purely a figurehead, meant to distract from the true seat of power. No, the order comes from the Primus, and this Primus doesn’t care about your life or anyone else’s. I heard that she had her own brother put on the surface without a suit.”
“That’s the Primus. As little as she cares for the lives of Artemesians, she cares for groundhogs even less. She’ll look at killing more of them as a bonus, not a problem.”
Nicole thought about that for a moment.
“You need to practice your neutral look, Nicole. Your face is giving you away. If you’re thinking about trying to fiddle with the targeting, don’t. Not unless you’d rather be the next one the Primus decides gets to breathe vacuum. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, unhappily. “I understand.”
“Good. I understand you’ve made all the arrangements?”
“I’ll take over. You go home, take a couple days off.”
“I’m protecting you from yourself. Go home.”
She did so. Her sleep was troubled.
The KEW was set on its way exactly as scheduled.
Los Alamos was built just to the East of a natural feature called Valles Caldera, the remains of a dormant volcano nearly twenty kilometers across. Over the years, the city had overspread much of the caldera floor, providing the population with a huge quantity of geothermal energy. The most scenic areas were preserved as parks and green spaces. When Kendra had bought her ranch, she had chosen to be as far away from the newly expanded city as practical, but she was still within the caldera, towards the southwest rim.
The guard at the house had been reduced to ten, from a regular staff of thirty-six. Eben Waters had been left in command, reporting remotely to Audrey Vanek on Diana. The house wasn’t sitting empty, though, as Kendra had offered it for use to OutLook as a safe house. Montana had been increasing their presence in the Sonoran Republic in the years since the relationship between OutLook and HLC had been revealed; it simply made too much sense not to do so. And, while there were plenty of safe houses scattered through the country, Kendra and Cass had reasoned that allowing OutLook to use the visitor’s wing was just a good use of resources.
Today, the house had seven OutLook agents in residence, as well as three people who were under their protection. Judith Bastin was being transported from California to Dallas; she was a key witness in a corruption case. Andrew Greeson was another witness, though far less willing, and as a result had two handlers instead of Judith’s one. The third was Brian Cole, an inventor, who had devised an improvement to the PLT system used by HLC. Cass’s deputy had asked that he be escorted from his home in Aberdeen to the Optics lab in Los Alamos.
Just before midnight, Waters was making his final rounds before turning in. His deputy, Joel Higginbotham, was trailing him as he went through the building. Two agents were roaming the grounds, with one inside. After the change of shift, the only patrol would be two rovers inside the building, as SARAH’s Case Theta would be activated and she would lock down the exterior. SARAH also maintained contact with the local police and air traffic, keeping an electronic eye out for potential threats.
“O’Connell, come in,” said Waters over the radio.
“O’Connell. Go ahead.”
“East wing, headed toward the kitchen.”
“You can grab a snack after your shift, Jimmy.”
“You’ve turned into a jerk since Sanzari and Vanek left, you know that?”
“Tell it to the Marines. Report.”
“All quiet this wing. I’ll do a quick swing through the guest quarters, but they were all tucked in tight my last time by.”
“Good job. Out. Winecoff, report.
“Winecoff, all clear on the North perimeter.” The two outside roamers patrolled a rough ellipse around the house, counterclockwise.
“Check. Ewald, report.”
“Ewald. Saw a couple mule deer, but that’s it.”
“Head into the barn. We’re locking down in two minutes.”
He got acknowledgements from both, then turned to Higginbotham. “You’ve got Crowley and Schacher tonight. Last time Crowley was on the overnight, I caught him napping in the library.”
“Yeah, Dave’s just a bit lazy if he thinks he can get away with it, and nothing ever happens here.”
“Stay on him. I’ve thought of asking SARAH to track him, but I want to give him every chance not to screw up.”
“SARAH, report condition outside.”
“Both guards are approaching the house. All quiet, except for the mule deer eating Kendra’s flowers. She’s not going to be happy about that.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t come down today.”
“She did, but she didn’t stay. Didn’t you hear? That starship of theirs is on active duty now. Left on a mission this morning. I don’t think we’ll see Ms. Kendra until Ms. Aiyana returns in a couple weeks.”
Higginbotham shook his head. “That’s not a job I’d choose. I want to stay right here, on the ground.”
“I’m with you on that.” They’d arrived at the kitchen, which was located between the two wings and thus had become the logical meeting place. O’Connell was already there, making a piled-high sandwich, and a moment later Winecoff and Ewald walked in. There was a bit of chatter, then Waters said, “Okay, Joel. You got this?”
“I got it. SARAH, activate Case Theta.”
“Case Theta act – Alert. Diana reports meteor detected. Impact zone includes Los Alamos. Evacuation recommended.”
“Time to impact?”
“Diana is calculating.”
Diana’s voice broke through. “Impact imminent. Take shelter. Impact imminent. Take shelter. Impact…”
The seven shocked guards looked at each other, then Waters took over. “Joel, take care of the guests. O’Connell, get Collins, Clowers, and Bouldin. Winecoff, Ewald, get to the garage and get two vans fired up. Move, people!”
O’Connell was the first moving.
“Impact in ten seconds,” said SARAH.
“Ah, shit,” said Waters.
“It figures that I make the perfect sandwich and –”
Crozier’s KEW ended up missing the coordinates by over eight hundred meters; considering that it had traveled nearly a half million kilometers it was hugely impressive. She had also miscalculated the amount of material which would melt away during passage through the atmosphere; traveling at fifty-two kilometers per second, it barely warmed.
It hit with the impact of a 3.2 megaton nuke, not 2.5.
The resulting fireball was two kilometers across and completely vaporized the house and all the contents, digging a crater over five hundred meters across and two hundred deep. Everything within that fireball simply disappeared in a fraction of a second, the temperature flashing to twenty million degrees.
Radiating out from the crater were trees and buildings were blasted flat, then burst into flame as the thermal wave passed. Any structure beyond seven kilometers barely stood, windows blown out, the contents thrown out and upwards, creating an immeasurable debris field, burning, falling from the sky, scorching whatever would still burn.
Los Alamos was a city of nearly eighty thousand people.
Over twenty thousand lay within the blast radius of the explosion.
Two thousand four hundred and five survived.