Outward: Chapter 15: Vigil

The entire front wall of the room was covered in large, bright projection screens representing a wealth of complex technical data into a series of colorful graphics. The most prominent contained a computer rendering of Earth surrounded with rings angled in various ways. Along each of these rings a dot crept along at a deceptively slow pace. Deceptive because the objects they represented, thousand-pound assemblies of cutting-edge hardware festooned with massive solar panels, were actually rushing forward at several miles a second.

MOJO-5 was currently zipping high above Colorado. MOJO-8 was midway through its crossing of the Atlantic. MOJO-4 raced across Siberia, MOJO-3 across India, and MOJO-6 across Brazil. MOJO-7 sped over The Sudan. Young MOJO-9 jerked towards France as its maneuvering thrusters kicked in; a series of maneuvers over the course of a week would gently guide it into the orbit waiting for it. And somewhere over the Pacific, MOJO-2 was tumbling, its telemetry antenna occasionally pointing towards a ground station long enough to successfully transmit a status update.

MOJO-1, of course, was nowhere to be found, having finally been deorbited several months prior. It had been the only prototype model that had actually been launched into orbit, and most of its service life had been spent conducting a series of low-power test firings to validate the basic operational concept of the MOJO system. The only “real” action it had taken part in was the fateful first public MOJO firing, and even that was only because it had happened to be at the right place at the right time; the Secretary of Defense had been rather insistent on not waiting another fifteen minutes for MOJO-4 to move overhead. Nowadays all that was left of MOJO-1 was a few bits and pieces that had survived splashdown and were now display in the front lobby of corporate headquarters.

The screens next to the central display cycled through information about each of the satellites in turn. Currently the orbital speed of MOJO-3 over the past 28 days was being shown, below a graph of MOJO-5′s power reserves over the same time frame. After lingering for a minute they shifted to MOJO-9′s solar power collection efficiency and MOJO-6′s altitude above mean sea level.

All of this information was replicated on three of the four monitors ringing Nate Johnson’s desk. The fourth monitor, and the one currently holding Nate’s attention, was displaying World of Warcraft.

The job of monitoring the health and status of a one-of-its-kind satellite constellation had sounded much more exciting and glamorous before he had been hired. For the first day or two, the torrents of information at his fingertips was enough to keep him enthralled. By day three, it was still pretty interesting. By day five, he found himself checking Facebook about once every ten minutes.

The problem with the job was, well, that there weren’t any problems. If there had ever been any bugs in the MOJO command and control system, they had been worked out long before his arrival. Things just ticked along smoothly, day after day, which left him plenty of time to level up his paladin.

He briefly glanced over at one of the other screens as it flashed. MOJO-6 was beginning a preprogrammed maneuver, its reaction wheels turning in one direction so Newton’s Third Law would rotate in the opposite direction, moving its main antenna array into position. Nothing notable, just a standard part of the pre-firing sequence.

A few minutes later, another flash as MOJO-6 fired, discharging its capacitors through the main antenna array and towards some point on or above the Earth’s surface below. Soon its firing sequence would be complete, and the reaction wheels would kick in again, pointing the main antenna array away from the Earth surface for safety reasons. As a precaution against a malfunction, the MOJO satellites normally flew pointing away, so that an accidental firing — which had never happened, as far as Nate knew — would send the blast of energy harmlessly off into space.

Firings happened several times a day on average, routinely enough that it took a few minutes until there was a lull in his paladin’s battle and Nate realized an oddity in MOJO-6′s latest activation.

Specifically, that it was only MOJO-6 that had fired. Standard procedure was to have three or four of the MOJOs fire simultaneously at a target. A single energy beam didn’t by itself do a whole lot. Granted, Nate certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. But the real power came when multiple energy beams converged on a point, cramming enough energy to….

Well, Nate didn’t entirely understand the physics behind it, but he had seen Ghostbusters enough times to know the dangers of crossing the streams. Dangers if you were on the receiving end, of course. He and the rest of the crew at the secondary watch center were perfectly safe, as was whoever paid Forney Junip to fire MOJO at something.

Nate minimized World of Warcraft and dug up the day’s list of planned MOJO activations, something that the planning division e-mailed to all watch personnel on a daily basis. He was curious about who would have requested a firing of only one satellite. The sales department was trained to stress the importance of at least a three-beam convergence, both because of the huge increase in destructive power and because Forney Junip charged by the megawatt-second.

He skimmed through the list. The Department of Defense had requested a few quads in Afghanistan, presumably against some Taliban strongholds. The stated rationale for military jobs was always pretty vague. A mining company signed up for a trip in West Virginia; MOJO had proved to be a cost-effective way to do mountaintop removal. China had bought two trips of its own for similar operations in that country. There was even the rare duo, this one somewhere in Russia. That was probably a operational demonstration of MOJO’s capabilities. But no singletons.

Nate found himself trying to decide whether it was time to hit the panic button. This was starting to shape up like an accidental firing. One that had aimed MOJO-6 at something, no less. That could be very bad. Forgetting entirely about his paladin, he turned his chair to the watch console and brought up the activity logs for MOJO-6. The screen filled with brief descriptions of everything MOJO-6 had done over the past twenty-four hours. He expanded the third one down, the rotation before the most recent firing, and brought up the targeting coordinates.

Every job entered into the MOJO system ultimately come down to four coordinates used to aim the satellites: latitude, longitude, altitude, and time. There was also parameters like power level and duration and frequencies, but those didn’t factor into the aiming phase. The control system did a bunch of complicated math to figure out what angle to point each of the involved satellites at to make sure their beams converged on the targeted point at the specified time. The logs showed both the target coordinates and the alignment vectors that had been used to aim MOJO-6 just now.

Nate swiveled back to his desktop computer and brought up Google Earth. He plugged in the latitude and longitude. The globe on screen spun around to show a point somewhere in central Florida.

Crap. His hand was halfway to the panic button when he stopped short. Latitude and longitude weren’t enough to figure out the impact point of a singleton firing, since with no aerial detonation to absorb and redistribute to energy, the beam would continue on to the surface. Since the satellite wouldn’t have been pointed straight down, the impact point wasn’t necessarily match the latitude and longitude; instead, he had to factor in the altitude, then figure out where the line from MOJO-6′s position at the time of firing through the target point would strike the surface. Luckily the monitoring computer would be able to crunch those numbers for him too.

He spun back around and checked the third coordinate, the altitude. It was a large number. A very large number. Absurdly large, even. There was something clearly wrong about it. A thought struck him. He asked the computer to show the alignment vector used to orient MOJO-6 at the time of firing. Moments later, the screen displayed a graphic of the Earth, MOJO-6, and an arrow pointing along where the energy beam would be pointed.

Nate blinked. His suspicion had been correct.

Before he could act on it, one of the monitoring screens flashed. MOJO-4 was beginning a maneuver. Nate watched the screen with a level of interest he hadn’t even displayed when his guild had attempted its first raid on Molten Core. There wasn’t any maneuvering activity on the part of any of the other satellites. The system was preparing for another singleton firing. Another singleton firing that hadn’t been included on the morning’s list.

Nate rushed back into the logging system, bringing up recent activity for MOJO-4. He opened up the targeting coordinates. Another anomalous value for the altitude coordinate. He graphically plotted the alignment vector MOJO-4 had just reached. It matched the pattern.

Not panic-button worthy, Nate reflected with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief, because there certainly weren’t going to be people having the sudden delivery of a terrajoule of energy ruining their day. Disappointment, because he didn’t have a genuine reason to lift up the plastic shield and slam his fist on the big red button that would immediately deactivate the entire MOJO system.

He did, however, have an excuse to call someone up. He ran a search on the personnel database, watching the monitoring screens as they showed MOJO-4 beginning to fire. The search returned. He lifted up the handset and punched in the extension on the screen.

“Hello, MOJO operations planning, Lucinda speaking,” answered the voice on the other end. “How may I help you?”

“Hey Lucy,” he replied, “this is Nate Johnson, over at secondary watch. I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yes?”

“Who’s paying us to fire MOJO out into space?”


Chapter word count: 1,681 (+14)
Total word count: 26,452 / 50,000 (52.904%)