gravel boats

I’ve blogged this chapter at least once before. It’s one of my favorites.

Here it is, after the fourth draft.


== 2064: Nan Garde, Haitian Dominican Protectorate, Earth

John looked at the team.

His team. It was a weird thought. He hadn’t commanded men in almost eight years.

The faces that looked back were serious, competent – and enthusiastic. They were all volunteers. There were some in the Boardroom Group, he knew, who didn’t understand or didn’t fully trust Dewitt and his men. The idea of Earth troops just switching sides made little sense to them. John, having been an officer in the US Army, understood perfectly. The men, like him, hated the PKs – and hated the way the alliance with them had corrupted the ideals of the Army, and of the United States. Or maybe it was the other way around? Maybe it was a corrupt United States, a withering of the ideals of freedom and independence that had lead to the stagnation of the Army and the alliance?

He looked at the men. He should say something. But what did one say to men who one was taking into battle against their so-recent allies?

What had George Washington said to his men when he’d taken command of the troops during the siege of Boston? How had he motivated the former loyal British subjects to open fire at their former countrymen?

John had no idea. So he gave and went with a joke. “Gentlemen, synchronize your watches.”

It fell flat. “Huh?”

“A joke – an old movie thing. Back in the day watches – they were like phones that just told time – weren’t synchronized.”

“Are you serious? What a fucking retarded system.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged. So much for his stand up career. “Anyway – everyone good to go?”

There were nods around the room. They stood as one. Like everyone else John grabbed his bag – a surprisingly heavy duffel bag – and heading out to the rented minivans. Even for the short walk to the vehicles they were dressed in their tourist clothes. Here on Earth there were eyes everywhere.

Their debit cards were real, but their IDs, carbon ration permits, travel vouchers – none of the rest of it would stand up to inspection if they were stopped. Which was why, in case they needed to bribe any local officials, they had pockets full of old fashioned paper money and food ration chits. Which were just as fake as the IDs.

John stepped inside the van and slid the door closed. Sargeant Lumus turned the vehicle on and drove. Behind them the other van pulled away, heading in a different direction.

* * *

Overhead the gravel boats continued their approach.

In gravel boat number one a timer counted off the millionths of a second since 1 January 1970 and then, at a preprogrammed time, gave an order. The AG drive sprang to life, braking some of the kinetic energy and storing it in the flywheel batteries – but not nearly as much as in the usual flight profile for an Earth reentry. The software had been hacked together out of off-the-shelf components: some of Darcy’s open-sourced navigation package here, a physics simulation engine originally from a game involving rabbits throwing pine-cones at each other there, an almost-century old GPS drivers bolted on the side thusly. But it worked. The drive sucked up enough velocity to exactly counterbalance the accelerating tug of gravity. That was key: hitting the atmosphere too fast would ruin everything.

The systems in the other gravel boats ran the same software and took the same actions.

A few moments after the AG drives turned on each boat started spitting puffs of nitrogen from cold-gas maneuvering rockets. One by one the boats finished their maneuvers – each was now oriented small-end downwards.

The nosecones welded to the leading edges of the cargo container boats were crude: the level of precision involved was only a bit greater than that achievable by a shade-tree mechanic banging a recalcitrant car hood into shape with a slap hammer and a leather bag of shot. The cones were fabricated from standard Aristillus deck planking – a steel alloy of no particular account refined in the solar furnace mills.

The nosecones of the gravel boats were laminated with a carbon phenolic sheets. The sheets had originally been brought to Aristillus by a motorcycle enthusiast who’d planned to use the carbon fiber to make “Manchurian style” street bike fairings. When he found more lucrative work in the atmosphere processing trade the sheets on ended up listed on moonlist.ari where they’d languished – until recently.

As the gravel boats – spaced out in a rough circle – entered the thermosphere the first few molecules of air started to impact the nosecones, but the density was so low that it would have taken specialized sensors to even detect it. Sensors that the boats did not have.

After a 400 kilometer fall through the thermosphere the boats entered the mesosphere, still punching downwards towards the rapidly growing Carribean ocean at almost Mach 30, dropping over 10 kilometers in height every second.

The air was still sparse enough that a human without a space suit would pass out immediately and die almost as quickly as on the surface of the moon, but there was just barely enough air that the maneuvering vanes at the rear of the boats began to click-click-click as they moved to fine tune their paths.

Ten seconds from ground.

The air around the boats grew in density. It ramped up rapidly. Now 0.001 atmospheres, now 0.01, now 0.1 atmospheres.

The hypersonic impact of the falling ships against the air was so powerful that the air itself began breaking apart. Ozone, molecular oxygen, water vapor, even triple bonded molecular nitrogen all shattered, throwing off a cascade of atoms, ions, and raw electrons.

Subtle luminous hints in front of each gravel boat soon grew and brightened, turning into fiery disks just millimeters in front of each nosecone. Inside each boat the software noted that the rate of successful radio packet transmissions had fallen from “six nines” to fifty percent, and then below a key threshold. The ionization blackout caused different subroutines to be loaded and executed. Each boat switched from GPS to inertial navigation. Ring laser gyros that had been designed fifty years previously, open sourced a quarter century ago, found in archives two weeks ago, and fabbed, tested, and installed a week previously now directed the gravel boats.

Seven seconds from ground.

The boats crossed the boundary between the meosphere and the stratosphere and the density of the atmosphere kept climbing – now up to 0.3 atmospheres.

On gravel boat number three – the one aimed for the southern-most guardhouse – a wrinkle in the hastily applied heat shield resulted in an uneven flow of superheated air over the nosecone. The uneven force force tugged on irregularity harder and harder and then in a millisecond tore a fingers-width of ablative panel away from the underlying metal.

With the carbon laminate gone the underlayment burned through nearly instantly. Once the underlayment was gone a pencil thin jet of 6,000 degree Kelvin ionized air began burning through the steel nosecone, quickly vaporizing the metal and contributing traces of lunar iron and to the emission lines of the blazing glow.

Six seconds from ground.

Once the superheated jet burned through the nosecone the destruction snowballed catastrophically. The hole in the heat-shield exploded from pencil sized to fist sized as the steel nosecone crumbled and the heat shield edged rolled into the hole. The rapidly growing hole created turbulence, which created drag, which caused the boat to lean to one side during its fiery descent.

Five seconds to ground.

Maneuvering vanes automatically fought to adjust boat number three’s angle, but they’d lost the battle before it began. The boat pitched sideways and started rolling. Air resistance and AG breaking had slowed the boats from Mach 30 to less than Mach 15, but even at that speed the intense heat of reentry was more than enough to weaken the ship. The gravel boat tumbled and cargo containers tore apart, throwing AG drive bits, half-melted container pieces and more than a ton of lunar gravel in all directions.

Three seconds to ground.

One large chunk of battery pack hit another gravel boat which was plunging through the atmosphere encased in its own pillar of fire. The battery pack tore away a maneuvering vane at the rear end. The second boat teetered and swam for a moment before righting itself and again riding its shield of fire down.

Another piece of debris, a large segment of cargo container wall, hit another, less lucky, boat. The thrown piece of wreckage sliced into the wall of the target boat before flying past. The cut was not surgical – it was rough and brutal. The edges were puckered and curled and immediately caught air. In seconds the third boat was torn apart by the far-hotter-than-a-blast-furnace ionized air.

One second to ground.

Piece of the third boat sprayed in all directions, heading at a half dozen sister ships.

But Before the propagating wave of destruction could continue, the process ended.

Traveling at many times the speed of sound the boats hit their targets.

Guardhouses three and four didn’t get their allocated deliveries, but the twelve other targets – everything from the armory, the main gate, the electric transformers, and the motor pool, down to the bridge that provided the shortest path from the barracks to the prisoner cells – took immense impacts. The energy delivered as each 160 ton container hit at Mach 15 was almost precisely a kiloton. The crisp equivalence to a measure of nuclear yields was an accident of math – fill a container that’s THIS long with an AG drive and associated hardware and then fill the rest with gravel, cancel its orbital velocity so that it falls towards the Earth from a height of 400 thousand kilometers, strip away a bit of the energy in the atmosphere, and what’s left just happens to be around four thousand thousand thousand Joules.

Whatever the math, the gravel boats struck like nuclear bombs. Small ones, to be sure – each only a sixteenth of the yield of the Little Boy device that had exploded over Hiroshima a hundred and twenty years earlier – but like nuclear bombs none-the-less.

John was prepared – as were the rest of the men.

But even behind his shaded goggles and earplugs John winced at the flash of light that seemed to come from all directions at once and which lit up the palm trees around him from a weird unnaturally low angle with a strange yellow-white light.

Before the flash had fully faded the ground wave hit and John was thrown to the ground. After a few seconds, when the rumbling stopped, Sergeant Harbert stood and brushed himself off. John followed, then pulled his goggles off and looked at the sky. Fourteen bright pillars connected the earth and the heavens. As he watched they began to fade from white to yellow to red.

A moment later the atmospheric shock wave blew past them. The palm trees around them shook and swayed and it seemed like the two or three car alarms that hadn’t already gone off behind them joined the tens of thousands that were already blaring.

Above them flocks of birds circled, confused.

John leaned into the wind, and checked his phone.

It confirmed what he already knew by heart – they had exactly one hour.


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