Building the world of The Juggernaut
Building your own world has a certain appeal to any writer concerned about internal consistency and detail. In such cases, the writer can simply make stuff up, and need only expend a little further effort in maintaining consistency.
However, The Juggernaut is for the most part not such a story. It is set in the modern world, and since it is also not a story set in suburbia where the protagonists are ordinary folk, a lot of the details necessary to tell it must be meticulously researched.
However, the fact that I’ve started with our modern world doesn’t mean that there’s no world-building to be done — introduce a billion-and-a-half tons of automaton with a mission of destruction, and things will change a lot.
The plans I had for chapters 3 to 5 were relatively simple. Chapter 3: Nuke the capitols and a few other sites belonging to members of the Nuclear Club — the nations with atomic weapons — and in the aftermath, replace the US President. Chapter 4: The Snakebot appears, opens fire on US strategic sites, and eats a container ship to resupply. Chapter 5: The US sends an aerial strike force against Jormungandr, which is soundly defeated.
“Why nuke all those capitols?” you may ask… and the answer is “For a number of good reasons”. Not all of these good reasons have anything to do with the Snakebot of Doom either. Of course, an AI-controlled automaton would want to cripple the effective leadership of nuclear-armed countries to delay their use of nuclear weapons against it as long as possible, and additionally, if possible, trigger an all-out exchange between members of the Nuclear Club, which would at once rid the world of a great threat against it and accomplish a significant fraction of its programmed goals.
I chose not to have an all-out nuclear exchange, since a post-apocalyptic scenario at this early stage would deny me all sorts of opportunities to show the automaton’s capabilities and idiosyncrasies. The fact that there was no global crisis prior to the detonation of the alien nukes in my opinion increases the probability that the people in charge of the nuclear triggers will think rather than just shoot, even if that’s not what they’re supposed to do.
So, why else would I nuke a whole lot of capitols? Well… I’m Australian, that’s why. As an Australian, I’m not as familiar with the internal workings of foreign governments — such as the US government — as a local might be. No matter how hard I research, there is the possibility that I could make an error that an experienced US politician or perhaps even an educated citizen would not make, but by nuking the lot of them and making my new President a promoted freshman Senator, and his fiancée and VP a promoted freshman congresswoman, I can cover my ignorance of the arcana of US politics by making said arcana irrelevant — my inexperienced characters can be excused for the products of my ignorance more readily than if I had made up supposedly experienced characters.
I still had a lot of research to do. Google and Wikipedia were my main source here. I found out about the Designated Survivor, and while that posed a momentary problem — I wanted my President to be a greener newbie than the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs would be — I also learned that while the position of Designated Survivor has been something of a joke since the end of the Cold War, since 9/11, it has been treated seriously once more. Since I couldn’t find out where Designated Survivors have stayed recently, I had to make it up, but Vandenberg — one of my intended targets, as it is responsible for tracking objects in space — as a secure military facility was a reasonable place for the DS to stay.
So, once I had my target list, I had the problem of what the alien automaton’s nukes would do to its targets. I settled somewhat arbitrarily upon a yield of about 80 megatons. It is actually more militarily effective to throw a lot of smaller nukes, on the same principle as a shotgun — while the total energy delivered is the same whether concentrated into a single blast/slug or divided between many blasts/pellets, the damage caused is greater where there are more blasts/pellets. However, the alien adolescents who designed this thing weren’t thinking of that, and the one missile that actually mounted two warheads did so because the relative proximity of its two targets meant that it was easier to synchronise the detonations from warheads launched from the same missile in order to avoid warhead fratricide (the destruction of a warhead by the detonation of another nearby warhead) and two 40MT blasts were still quite adequate.
But what exactly would the warheads achieve? No-one has ever detonated a nuke this big. The Soviet Union detonated the 50MT Tsar Bomba, and contemplated a 100MT version, but never built it as far as anyone can tell. However, the Internet came to the rescue with Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap. Just enter the parameters of the blast, click Detonate, and see what would happen… For the interest of the readers of this article, I present links for the Washington DC blast, the Colorado Springs blasts and the Global Target Map. Of course, these don’t take into consideration things like ground reflection and shadowing, but they’re pretty good otherwise. It’s pretty terrifying what a really big nuke will do.
So, once I’d nuked the world clear of experienced politicians, I had to find a way to have my inexperienced US politicians not be in DC. The Designated Survivor had the best reason, but I’ve already explained why he wasn’t a good choice for me. What else could keep congressmen from DC on inauguration day, yet leave them able to take up the reins of government reasonably quickly? A severe bout of food poisoning would do the trick, with my freshman Senator and his freshman congresswoman fiancée victim and carer respectively. Another option was a birth in the family, and I went with this for the even lower-ranked Congressman Zeeman. It’s interesting that in the US house of reps, seniority goes by the date that the congressperson is sworn in, and when that is the same, it proceeds in alphabetic order, hence Julie’s quip that she should have changed her surname from Winchester to Aaberg, a surname that will occur at the top of most if not all lists of surnames.
On the other hand, seniority in the Senate goes by length of service in the senate and by the population of the senator’s state.
The cull was accomplished; what would happen next? Law enforcement, in particular the Secret Service, would have a strong interest in tracking down the President or his successor. I hope I’ve got their methods correct. I put Senator Atherton’s apartment at an undisclosed 5th Avenue apartment building, but if anyone looks at the evidence I presented in the form of the two cell towers that his cell phone had been connected to in the previous hours — real cell towers, by the way, researched using Google — it is possible to determine the exact building, since the building I had in mind is a real one. However, in the event that this story becomes unexpectedly popular, I doubt that either the owners or occupants of that building would want the publicity that explicitly stating the address would bring.
The automaton’s next step would be to begin its attack, and it chose New York City as the place to start. It was in its interests to cripple the US military and strategic sites such as weapons factories, and it did so by launching large-scale disintegrating railgun rounds against those targets. I have a good idea of the sites that it would have attacked, but long, comprehensive lists don’t make for good stories.
One of the problems I encountered was that of ballistics. On a small scale, at low launch velocities, the world can be considered flat, but when you scale up these factors, the earth’s curvature becomes an important factor. On the small scale, a launch angle of 45° achieves the longest range, but is that true when you’re talking about launch velocities on the order of kilometres per second? To find out, I resorted to Google again, and my research led me to Analytical Graphics Inc (AGI) and its Systems Tool Kit (STK), a software suite for Windows with a reduced set of features available free of charge that allows (amongst many other things, some requiring a paid license) for the basic kind of ballistic analysis I was interested in. I found some interesting things while playing with it. The higher the launch velocity, the lower the launch angle needs to be to achieve maximum range, but if you have a particular target in mind, a higher launch velocity than the minimum required means that the flight times are longer, not shorter. Additionally, when you get to a maximum launch velocity of about 7 kilometres per second, you can effectively hit any point on earth from any other point (though at a very shallow angle), and when you get to 8.5 kilometres per second, your shot can circle the globe and hit its launch point.
When I was researching atomic bombs, for the most part my research simply confirmed what I already knew about them. However, sometimes it pays to be thorough, even if you think that you know all you need to know on a subject, and this proved to be one of those occasions. While I didn’t directly discover anything about modern atomic weapons that I didn’t already know, I happened across a reference to metastable nuclear isomers. As it happens, certain isotopes of certain atoms are able to absorb high-energy electromagnetic radiation, and retain that energy for relatively long periods of time, not for less than a nanosecond which is the case for most isotopes, but for days to years. Metastable Tantalum-180 has a half-life of 10¹⁵ years, far longer than the universe has thought to exist. Metastable-two Hafnium-178 can store about 1.33GJ of energy per gram, equivalent to 315 kg of TNT.
The most interesting property of these isomers is that if stimulated by the right frequency of EM radiation, typically in the x-ray range, they can be made to release their energy. Hafnium-178m2 is reportedly able to be stimulated to give up its energy in a very short period of time.
Metastable isomers have been considered for use as non-fission explosives, as a sort of gamma-bomb, as well as in nuclear batteries that can store around a million times more energy per unit mass than any chemical energy storage device.
I promptly adopted the use of nuclear batteries for the Monopticon nanites. By having a combination of a number of different nuclear isomers, it is possible to store a large amount of energy, then gradually reduce that energy by having some of it reabsorbed by isomers with a lower energy capacity and reduced in frequency by fluorescence retransmission by other atoms.
Another potential use of metastable isomers is as a trigger for a fusion weapon. Instead of using atomic fission to trigger a fusion weapon, stimulated simultaneous release of the energy stored in a metastable isotope such as Hafnium-178m2 and conversion of the gammas emitted to lower-energy but more useful wavelengths of EM radiation by absorption & fluorescence using other atoms can provide the energy to compress and heat the Lithium-Deuteride and Lithium-Tritiide fuel of a fusion weapon sufficiently to cause a fusion burn in the absence of a fission sparkplug.
Of course, unless the metastable nuclei are all stimulated simultaneously, there will be a lot of metastable isomers floating around, releasing gamma radiation at random and making the blast quite dirty. However, unlike a fission bomb, the better the technology triggering the metastable-to-ground state transition, the more can be triggered simultaneously and the lower the residual radioactivity, making it less ‘dirty’.
I had originally intended for the automaton to resupply the steel it expended by devouring buildings, but when the story happened to lead to a container ship leaving port as the automaton was approaching, the opportunity of all that steel in one place seemed too good for it to pass up.
I wanted to have a real ship in the story, even if I made up its crew, so I googled around until I found a ship tracking site, looked at the Port of New York, and picked a ship that fit my needs that had been there on or around the appropriate date, and that just happened to be the Seoul Express. The details of the ship are accurate as far as I can tell, though I made up all the crew members. I also made up the Sandy Hook harbour pilot, though the Sandy Hook Pilots are also a real organisation.
When it came down to deciding what the fictional sailors would call the automaton, I had a look at mythology and fiction, and while the automaton visually more resembles a Cthonian from the H. P. Lovecraft horror stories, the name Jörmungandr seemed better known and just as relevant. Jörmungandr is a monster in Norse mythology, a serpent so huge that it can encircle the earth and bite its own tail, so heavy that even Thor, strongest of the Norse gods, could not lift it, and beneath whose head, Loki, Norse god of Mischief was said to be chained with his wife catching in a cup the poison that dripped from Jormungandr’s fangs before it could fall on his head. It was also said by the Norse that earthquakes were Loki’s struggles when his wife had to go empty the cup when it became full, allowing the poison to drip on her husband until she could return.
Given that Jörmungandr and the automaton share the trait of being able to take the form of an ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail, the name seemed appropriate, though I had the US news media change it just slightly from Jörmungandr to Jormungandr, simply because the umlaut is too complicated for most people to type quickly on a US-English Qwerty keyboard.
In Chapter 5, I describe the counterattack upon Jormungandr by the remnants of the USAF and elements from the USN. I did quite a bit of research using Google and Wikipedia to find out what aircraft were available and current, what their capabilities were, and what ordnance they could carry.
If Jormungandr launched heavy railgun rounds against US strategic sites, including air bases, how could any aircraft have survived at all? Well, firstly, Jormungandr wasn’t firing on the US Navy at sea, only their land-based facilities, and secondly, even in times of peace, the US Air Force doesn’t leave its aircraft on the ground all the time. In order to keep them functioning, aircraft must be maintained and flown, that being the only way to know that they’re going to work. Then, the US isn’t at peace at present — there are wars being fought right now, that involve US air power. Some US fighter aircraft are off in foreign airspace doing whatever it is they are there to do, but it might be only a matter of hours before some could be recalled to the continental US.
I do have the advantage that I am — or at least was some years ago — an armchair F-16 pilot. I used to play Falcon 4.0 (which is probably the most realistic modern fighter simulator ever written to date) frequently from its release in 1998 until 2005 when I substituted having a family for playing games, and only occasionally since then. However, while I can no longer remember exactly how to ramp-start a F16 (there is a good reason why even today pilots have startup and shutdown check-lists), I still remember the basics, and I know from personal experience just how busy a fighter pilot can be even when miles away from weapons range of their target. Few if any modern fighter-based weapons can be fired on a hair-trigger, especially as the consequences for doing so inappropriately can be severe. Systems must be armed, guided air-to-ground weapons — which run on batteries with a limited lifespan and which cannot draw on their launching aircraft’s power — must be started up, their GPS initialised, their gyros spun up to speed all before they can be launched effectively. Of course, they can be launched before they’re ready, but a miss is practically guaranteed should that happen.
Air-to-air missiles can be launched more quickly — they rely solely upon radar or infra-red seekers, and don’t need to spend the better part of ten minutes spinning up gyros, but their tiny warheads are intended to damage fragile aircraft while allowing the greatest possible manoeuvrability, and not to punch holes in the skin of something that propels itself by sliding skin-to-ground contact and weighs over a billion tons. The pilots would have had only a minimal air-to-air loadout, and using an air-to-air missile against a ground target such as Jormungandr would be almost unthinkable, and given Jormungandr’s size, probably technically impossible since the missiles’ seekers would be seeing a thermal target so large that they would not be able to pick out a small enough heat source to aim at.
By human standards, what Jormungandr does to the ejected pilots of the aircraft that it has downed is pretty much beyond the pale — for the most part, an ejected pilot in enemy territory is not considered a serious combatant. A pilot’s psyche is geared toward fighting in the air, and once on the ground, their goal is to return to obtain another aircraft. When confronted by ground troops, their training is to avoid action, to hide or flee, and only engage if there is no other option. Even if they succeed in joining up with friendly forces, they are far more valuable in the air to be asked to fight on the ground. Throughout human history, far more pilots have been captured rather than deliberately killed after they have ejected.
How can Jormungandr be so accurate? It fires unguided railgun flechettes, which should be subject to the vagaries of air currents and other factors, and over the ranges I write about, they shouldn’t be that accurate. Well, I did mention lidar. By emitting laser light in the UV spectrum, many types of atmospheric dust can be made to fluoresce, and by observing the drift of that dust along the potential flight path of the flechettes, the deflection that it will impart on those flechettes can be calculated for the entire trip. Of course, it also helps that there are bugged birds that can also observe the fluorescing dust, which helps increase the range.
Of course, the larger guided flechettes have the same pre-launch assistance, but they also carry a nanite and some sensors and movable control surfaces, and can compensate en-route for factors like target evasion, and given the variety and sensitivity of the sensors and the fact that each nanite is very intelligent even on its own, decoys are practically useless.
So, as Jormungandr bears down on New York, the President, who is staying there in his own apartment building which has been modified at great expense to become a white-house substitute, is evacuated. A real Secret Service protective detail may well have evacuated the president much earlier, but as I had conveniently nuked all the real current detail agents, the substitutes who had previously been fulfilling the Secret Service’s primary duty of enforcing laws against counterfeiting and other currency-based crimes could be excused for not having the experience or exposure to the institutional knowledge that might have led them to react more promptly.
Where would the President go? Camp David is reasonable. It is set up to be a White-House away from the White House, and only the lack of proximity to DC and all its other governmental infrastructure and to the news media’s correspondents makes it second-best to the White House itself. With the loss of DC, it is a logical choice given that New York appears about to become unliveable.
Finally, I should discuss Jormungandr’s jamming. Modern jamming systems gain efficiency by reading the enemy’s transmissions and retransmitting in such a way as to suppress the energy returned to the enemy, or to cause confusion by altering timings. However, while a modern jamming pod’s energy output may be in the range of a handful of kilowatts, Jormungandr is powered by six huge fusion reactors, each with an output measurable in the high gigawatt range. As it has multiple reactors for redundancy, if it doesn’t need to be compensating for battle damage, it has a large energy surplus. This allows it to jam human transmissions simply by an unselective broadcast transmission at power levels that no human equipment can match even on a single channel.
However, while simple broad-band broadcasting does provide effective jamming of an enemy’s RF gear, it also prevents its own RF communications and ranging. This is why it “inverts” its transmissions. By ceasing broadcast of jamming momentarily on particular frequencies, it can detect the reflection of those silences, or allow its lower-powered nanite scouts to continue to communicate even amidst all the jamming, by the relatively simple expedient of having a shared algorithm and cached single-use source of randomness to calculate where the jamming gaps will be.
Additionally, since modern threat receivers use the characteristics of known enemy systems, and can also analyse the pulse rate and power of an enemy transmission, and use logical rules to trigger a detection alarm even when the specific transmitter is unknown, and because Jormungandr’s normal RF emissions are, like an encrypted secure radio, frequency-diverse, channel- hopping and apparently random, modern threat receivers are not programmed to be able to recognise such a sophisticated tracking system, and so report nothing, while home-on-jam missiles use less-sophisticated processing that simply detects RF energy, and don’t really care that there’s so much energy or that the gaps Jormungandr uses for transmission and detection purposes are even present, let alone unable to be predicted. With so many individual emitters, there’s plenty of choice, and they’re each easy enough to isolate against the background. However, the relatively large, slow anti-radiation missiles are easy prey for Jormungandr’s point-defence rail guns.
So, to sum up, to write hard sci-fi involves lots of research, even — or more accurately, especially — when writing about the real world. Expect to feel like you’re wearing Google and Wikipedia out from overuse, but don’t neglect other sites either; there are often valuable little snippets of information waiting to be discovered in odd corners of the internet.