Heller, towing "billions of tons of silvery ice" in his souped-up tugboat, begins the process of decelerating from close to lightspeed as he reaches his destination.
"Check these figures, Corky," and he read them off. "How does that strike you?"
"Well, sir, it isn't going to strike ME. The mass will hit the north pole of the planet at an angle of thirty-three degrees in the direction southward on east longitude 36.5. By gyroscopic precision, it will tend to shift the spin of the internal core slightly and move the magnetic poles closer to the Earth's axis."
I was wondering how an impact on the Earth's free-floating crust would penetrate 1,700 miles' worth of mantle and 1,370 miles of outer core to affect our planet's inner core, but now I know: gryoscopic precision.
"And your conclusion on the effect of this?" said Heller.
"It will cure the tendency of the southern pole to wander over water, thus melting the place and causing continental submergences. The liability is that it will probably hit some polar bears."
New theory time, attempting to work out Hubbard Logic:
1. The south pole is cold
2. The south pole is moving.
3. Therefore, if the cold south pole moves away from all the ice in Antarctica, the ice will melt and flood the planet.
4. The cold emitted by the magnetic south pole will not freeze the water it travels over.
Heller assures the tug that warning the polar bears about the billions of tons of ice about to squash them won't be necessary, the species is already extinct. That's depressing, but not as depressing as what we'll see shortly
Right when they need to start the tricky maneuvering and deceleration to set their enormous icy payload on a "safe" vector, the tug's sensors pick up some "magnetic turbulence" a half million miles from Earth - "THE ASSASSIN SHIP!" Don't worry, Heller has a plan on how to deal with this new threat.
"Blast," said Heller, "I didn't expect him this soon." He picked up a microphone. He spoke into it. "Calling Apparatus vessel."
There was no answer. He verified that he was on Apparatus intership frequency, limited range. "This is Tug One, the Prince Caucalsia, Exterior Division. I do not wish to be interfered with."
Yeah. "Hey, enemy ship? I'm busy right now, let's fight later."
There was no answer.
Heller tried again, "Apparatus vessel, this is Jettero Heller, Grade X, Voltar Fleet, operating under orders of the Grand Council. You are directed to reverse your course and forgo interference with this tow."
"I mean it, guys, I'm really busy with this big, distracting payload. I'm in no position to fight right now. So go away."
No answer! And there should have been. We were returning to the planet, and leaving it was all they were supposed to prevent.
Stop pointing out the plot holes, Gris, that's my job. Well, more of a hobby...
And then it dawned on me that that assassin pilot and his mate had also received orders to kill Heller!
Why would they need additional orders to do that if they were already supposed to blast any ship leaving the planet? Why would they let him leave if they were supposed to kill him? Did they know he'd be making a short trip in-system before coming home?
The ship just kept on coming to meet us.
"Oh, blast!" said Heller. "I can't abandon this tow!
Sure you can. The ice doesn't need you to tug it anymore, it'll just keep on going at whatever speed and heading you left it at. Alter course, give it a little nudge, then cut the traction beam so the ice flies off into deep space. Kill the assassin ship, then use your time-raping engines to catch up with the ice and get it back under control. Sure it's inconvenient, but less so than trying to dogfight with a billion tons of ice attached to your rear bumper.
That crazy idiot is going to cause a catastrophe!"
It's the assassin pilot's fault a billion tons of ice are going to hit the planet. Even though that was Heller's plan to begin with.
So, space fight. The assassin ship is clearly visible because its hull is silver to protect it from radiation, while the tug is not silver and therefore invisible (and irradiated), except for the billions of tons of ice directly behind it and the "magnetic turbulence" it's emitting. Heller turns a dial and hits a button, and suddenly another ship appears a thousand yards ahead, looking just like Tug One! Gris is spooked until he realizes it's the result of what's "obviously an electronic illusion projector, so common in Voltar celebrations and displays." We haven't seen one of those since the going-away party in Book One, because of course the aliens don't use such technology to make kickass holographic displays for their spaceships or computer systems. Computer screens and tape-based data storage are where it's at.
To the assassins, it must have looked like the tug had simply turned its silver coat on!
The deadly ship was off to our left. It was turning.
The shot was well above the illusion.
IT FIRED AGAIN!
The shot was below the illusion.
Flame burst right in the middle of the illusion tug!
Heller threw a switch.
The illusion vanished!
Yeah. The Apparatus' finest "assassin pilots" took three shots to hit a target that wasn't trying to evade, or even altering its course or speed in any way.
For a moment Gris and Heller think they're clear, but evidently the enemy pilot noticed the lack of debris, or are still picking up the tug's "magnetic turbulence," 'cause I guess Heller kept the engines on. The assassin ship fires again, hitting the tiny, unarmored tug with a cannon designed to blow holes in battleships. The tug is instantly reduced to a glittering cloud of debris and-
Oh, excuse me. The tug just takes a bit of damage to one specific system - the traction beams, naturally.
Heller slams on the Space Brakes, then starts going evasive. The enemy ship, meanwhile, makes the odd but convenient tactical decision to move closer to the now uncontrolled mountain of ice while continuing to fire. Heller generates another illusionary double, close to the ice mass so that a stray shot hits that instead of anything else. Then Heller moves the illusion right next to the ice, taking care so that it's directly in front of the assassin pilot.
Apparently these electronic illusions are able to fool even Voltar's sophisticated sensor systems, because Gris realizes that the assassin ship's instruments must be fully occupied with the phantom ship before it. Gris' psychic powers furthermore tell him that the enemy pilot is relying solely on those instruments and flying blind, rather than bothering to look out the friggin' window to spot the big honkin' ice comet. And the assassin pilot's strategy seems to be to close point-blank with its target and pull the trigger, a target which is at this point being projected onto the surface of the comet.
All this to say:
The assassin ship made one more charge.
A HUGE GOUT OF ORANGE AND GREEN FIRE!
The flying cannon had plowed straight into the ice mass and exploded!
Your spaceship doesn't need conventional weapons when your enemies are willing to kill themselves.
So that's both assassin ships dead. Heller can now come and go as he pleases; even Gris, assuming he ever escapes, doesn't need to worry about anyone under orders to kill him on Earth, just the mob of people wanting to kill him for other reasons. But I can't help but feel like I'm forgetting something...
Billions and billions of tons of ice were hurtling straight at Earth, out of control.
"Oh, Lords," said Heller. "There it goes without its last correction!"
Corky informs him that the "aft cable ends of the traction beams are totally fused," and will explode if used, and unfortunately Heller doesn't have the tools to repair them on board. The ship has no bombs or anything, and of course the tugboat can't try to physically push the mass off-course because it's too loose. For five minutes they can only fly alongside their payload, watching as it coasts over Canada and Greenland towards the North Pole, Scandinavia, and Russia.
Heller drew a long sigh. He looked over at the ice. He looked at the planet surface. He looked at the instrument panels.
"Well, it's a good thing we had it slowed down," he said. "There's nothing I can do."
He worked the controls and we drew off.
Gris can only imagine the bulletins and TV reports flying around below, as surely even Earth's primitive astronomers have picked up the comet headed towards them (but not the space battle around that comet). They watch as it approaches the planet to strike a glancing but terrible impact, passing the north pole entirely and just missing Sweden and Finland.
The ice mass struck the upper atmosphere. Racing, it began to change its form. At thirty miles a second it had not long to go.
It missed Finland.
It seemed to be spreading out, its mass tumbled by the resistance of air.
Ahead of it I could see now what appeared to be a large inland lake, blue in the brown of Russia. Some of it would hit that lake.
I've no idea which lake Hubbard's referring to; there's a few candidates, but it all depends what vector this thing's coming in on, and where the lake is, which of course remain vague.
In slow, slow motion as it appeared from on high, it was racing down the last few miles.
It seemed to generate an enormous flash like electricity!
An instant later, the mass seemed to have quadrupled in size! A piece of it had hit the lake!
Like a scythe it was sweeping onward!
Travelling at a low angle, it was levelling everything in its path.
If this were xkcd I'd break out some physics formulas and crunch the hell out of some numbers. The first problem is that the numbers here are vague, we don't know the exact size of the object besides "billions and billions of tons," or how dense the little ice chunks are packed by the traction beam. A bigger problem is that my high school Physics class degenerated to the teacher referring questions to a particular student, so the square-cube law confounds me.
So I'll cheat.
This pretty neat website lets you simulate cometary impacts. It has the density for a bunch of ice built into it, and we can easily enter our speed of 30 miles per second. If we assume that the impact angle is somewhat close to what Heller intended, it'd be 33 degrees. The closest "lake" to Moscow is the Uchinskoye Reservoir, which I can't find the statistics for, so I'll sub in the Rybinsk Reservoir's average depth of 18 feet. As for the size of this gift from Heller, Halley's Comet has a mean width of 10 kilometers and a mass of something like a hundred billion tons, so let's crudely halve that.
According to Impact: Earth! such an event would leave a 28-mile-wide crater. If we were standing a hundred miles away from poor Moscow, half a minute later we'd be hit with a magnitude 9.2 earthquake, flattening most building and badly damaging even reinforced structures. Well before that, four seconds after impact, we'd see a 74 mile-wide fireball 84 times brighter than the sun, igniting all the vegetable matter around us, our clothes, and gracing us with third-degree burns. Three minutes after impact our charred remains, buried by the ruins of our home, would be coated with what would eventually be 5 feet of debris. I'm not sure how that'd hold up to the 1,730 mph winds generated by the impact, or how the wind would arrive five minutes after the debris.
One second there was a city.
The next, there was only jumble!
And fire, and ash. Going by demographics from 1990, roughly fourteen million people died in the Moscow region alone...
The scythe swept on!
Waves of cloud were racing ahead, southward. They were growing less and less as they progressed toward the Black Sea.
Dust and debris were settling below.
...plus however many were snuffed out by the debris cloud crashing through Tula, Kursk, Belgorod, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovosk, Sevastopol'...
And then I saw what it had done.
The recoil had flattened Leningrad.
And burned. 400 miles away the earthquake's effects are negligible, but you get the same ignition effects, and 242 mph winds aren't kind to buildings. So add about five million from St. Petersburg, plus all the other cities... what, 25 million dead?
Everything that was European Russia had been levelled!
That whole nation was no more!
Our book's hero has just killed more people than Hitler and Stalin combined (Mao's still going to be hard to beat, though).
There went all of Rockecenter's uranium profits, with the removal of the threat of atomic war!
Oh, Gods, I was in trouble now!
And after all that death and destruction, it feels sorta odd to berate Gris for assuming that uranium can only be used for nuclear weapons, that the Asian half of Russia poses no nuclear threat, or that other nations like China won't be enough to continue the nuclear weapon craze.
But there you have it. Heller set off trying to save our melting ice caps, but resolved the Cold War instead. And killed many, many, many innocent people.
Don't worry, the author will do his best to put a positive spin on all this.
Back to Part Sixty-Three, Chapter Seven