The Juggernaut — Chapter 2
The nanite deployment pod operated as designed, and made a flawless descent, impacting within a few kilometres of the highest point of the East Antarctic ice sheet, burying itself several metres below the bottom of the crater its impact had made in the ice. Its descent had not gone unnoticed, but given that it was mid-winter meant that no sensible researcher was willing to go out on a days-long trip into the seemingly endless darkness to look for a crater in the ice with a rock at the bottom of it. By the time that the sun finally rose, any crater would be long-since erased by the icy wind. The researcher who observed the meteorite logged the event in her diary and then dismissed the occurrence from her thoughts, and eventually it faded from her memory.
The nanites activated the deployment pod’s tiny bootstrap fusion reactor and set about their work. Despite the low temperature, the nanites would be unimpaired, and the ice provided a vast reservoir of hydrogen that could be scavenged for deuterium and tritium for the reactors. Most of the nanites descended through the kilometres of ice until they found the long-buried land beneath it, and began to scavenge carbon and other elements from the coal deposits they found there to build yet more nanites — a great number would be needed for this task.
However, a small number of nanites rose to the surface and assembled themselves into a small, insect-like macroscopic structure. They noted the signals from the artificial satellites that the native sentients had emplaced. It didn’t take much effort to decode many of the signals, though some were impenetrable given the lack of quantum processing capabilities. Amongst all the chatter, they isolated a series of high-precision satellite-broadcast time signals that could be used quite easily to provide a fairly decent geolocation capability, so they took full advantage of that. Making their way to the coast, they eventually found native lifeforms of significant complexity. Most of the more complex, motile lifeforms were semi-aquatic, and it was the work of an instant to compare each to the description of the local sentient lifeforms and eliminate each as a match. Of the life forms, the land-based creatures were too sluggish to be of much use, but the flying creatures had considerable potential. The nanite cluster visited one bird after another, depositing a few nanites upon each, before the cluster was so diminished that it had effectively vanished altogether. It took some effort to locate the birds’ brains and then to interweave themselves amongst the neurons and begin to decode and establish control over the creatures’ minds. Fortunately the birds’ immune systems largely ignored the nanites given their alien nature and diamond construction, and the little reaction that did occur was easily suppressed. It would be a significant fraction of a local year before the nanites mastered the process of controlling birds, but after that, they subtly controlled their birds so that nanites could jump from one individual to another, secretly spreading themselves across the planet, though they were always careful to avoid causing their birds to act in unnatural ways, lest the local sentients be observing. By the time the automaton was due to be completed, the nanites should have an unobserved presence in every wild bird and bat on the planet.
The nanites beneath the ice replicated themselves until their numbers could be measured in the millions of tons, though the tiny bootstrap reactor could not supply the power for all of this growth by itself. As the nanite replication continued and accelerated, some of the nanites began to build one of the fusion reactors that would ultimately power the automaton, and others began to build a temporary heat distribution system to spread the heat produced by the construction over a wide area, both for reasons of stealth and to avoid melting the ice, which was a useful scaffold in itself. When the first huge fusion reactor was completed and started, it provided enough power to complete the main nanite growth phase as well as the construction of the automaton.
The vast mass of nanites descended deep into the Antarctic continental land mass, all the way down to the semi-molten mantle, scavenging the materials they needed to construct the automaton. The nanites were made from diamond, which was well able to withstand the temperatures and pressures involved, and their tiny individual size allowed them to work where a larger mine would have collapsed. A great deal of magnesium, carbon and silicon was extracted to build the framework, along with other trace elements, and large amounts of tungsten, uranium and boron were collected to construct the armour. Copper, Aluminium, Nickel, Manganese and Boron were collected to construct the automaton’s shape-memory-alloy musculature. Of course, the whole automaton was vastly complicated given its vast size, with peltier, water and lead-bismuth cooling, and scale-like armour made from tungsten-depleted uranium with a boron-carbide coating that was interpenetrated with sensors and weapons and their replacements. The interior had some voids required for the serpentine body of the automaton to flex, but not that many, and none were particularly large. Given the flammable nature of the light magnesium alloy of its frame, the nanites flooded the interior voids with nitrogen.
While the automaton was forming, the nanite-controlled birds were busy. On locating humans, they infiltrated the human’s communications systems, effectively gaining access to the entire public internet. They saw a great many things, both on-line and in the real world, that would assist greatly in compensating for the resistance that the humans would no doubt attempt. However, since they lacked quantum computing capability, it would take direct observation of user logins or physical infiltration in order to penetrate secure networks, and the latter was forbidden by their orders. The scout nanites kept their construction comrades up-to-date with the latest news from the human world. The nanites noticed early on — but were not programmed to care — that the assumptions that had apparently led their masters to order this mission were incorrect.
A small group of people had gathered near the Dome Argus, the highest point of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, alongside two helicopters; one small American machine from the Amundsen-Scott station at the south pole, and a large Russian cargo helicopter from the Vostok station, from which a quantity of ice-boring equipment had been unloaded and was presently in operation.
“Anyone wanna bet on what we’re going to find down there?” American geologist Joe Ingleton asked the group of eight people gathered around the drilling equipment. The temporary base had been established, the sun was up — and would be for the next few months — and the weather was especially pleasant, with little wind and a light overcast that took the edge off the sun-glare from the ice. The scientific team had gathered around the drilling gear for the momentary lack of anything else to do.
“Let’s hope that it’s not a supervolcano, Joe,” fellow American geologist Alice Brannigan replied. “But I’m afraid that that’s the most likely explanation given the area that’s experiencing the temperature elevation.”
“If it is, then we’re all in the shitter,” Australian geologist Rebecca Goudge added. “But as much as I’d hate to be right, I’ll have to put my bet on that too.”
“Nyet,” Russian geologist Vasily Petrovitch dissented. “Warmer area is too large and too even,” he added in accented English. “I bet we find nothing.”
“Is little green men,” Russian helicopter pilot Irina Pasternak quipped in even more heavily accented English, drawing laughs from the assembled scientists.
“Will know in a few hours,” Alexi Pajari, the Russian scientist in charge of the drilling apparatus added. “Drill is going well.”
The nanites had observed the arrival of the two helicopters carrying the geologists and their drilling equipment. Evidently their stealth measures hadn’t been quite sufficient — it was harder to conceal the heat produced as a byproduct of construction than it was to fool the ground-penetrating radar that had been directed at the site in the last month or so. Had the humans’ ground-penetrating-radar not been fooled by the nanites’ ECM, analysis of the humans’ psychology suggested that a very different response would have been mounted — instead of this small assortment of geologists, a military force would likely have been sent.
The automaton was approaching completion, construction having taken a little over three local years, and since the humans had begun to pay attention to the area above the construction site, the nanites had prioritised construction that would make the automaton operational, even if certain aspects of its construction were incomplete. Additional nanites had been built to accelerate resource gathering, and the additional resources were stored within the automaton pending their processing into finished forms should an early deployment be necessary — the automaton could be completed while en-route to its first target.
The ice drill crept ever closer to the automaton. Random chance had put the drill head on a direct collision-course with the automaton rather than passing to either side as might have happened, and the nanites couldn’t deflect it without risking tipping off the humans that they were there. All they could do was get the automaton operational, and should contact be made, they would have to set the automaton moving. That the humans would also have to die lest they report the presence of the automaton to their governments was a regrettable necessity — the nanites’ orders were to not kill any local life forms, which included humans, save where necessary to further their mission. All they could do was wait on the chance that the humans would give up before the drill reached the automaton or that the humans would misinterpret the results of their drilling, though the odds of that were low.
In order to bring the shape-memory-alloy muscles on-line as soon as possible, the six reactors had all been ramped up to high output, and once the muscles were at the right temperature, the reactors were powered back to a lower level, yet that took time, and the excess heat generated had to be pumped to the automaton’s skin, raising its temperature greatly, such that only the pressure of the vast quantity of ice and water above it prevented the water from boiling.
The drill bored through the last of the ice sheet concealing the automaton, dropping suddenly through the thin envelope of liquid water that surrounded the automaton that had just reached its operational temperature, and then catching on the edge of one of the boron-carbide coated armour scales.
Alexi and his assistant Georgiy had just attached another length of pipe to the drill when the drill shaft abruptly dropped almost a metre, before the drill jammed, making the drilling rig kick sharply and stalling the diesel engine driving it.
“We’ve hit something!” he yelled in Russian. “Well short of the bedrock!”
A blast of steam and hot water erupted from the borehole like a geyser as the superheated, pressurised water below boiled abruptly. Alexi and Georgiy were hit by hot water, but their clothing and the cooling afforded by the length of the icy borehole prevented them from being badly burned.
“Aieee!” Georgiy screamed as hot water splashed on his face.
“Yob tvoyu mat!” Surprised, Alexi yelled a Russian profanity, ducking away from the jet of hot water and steam.
Robert Wilson, the American helicopter’s co-pilot and medic stuck his head out of his tent, pulling the sleeping mask away from his face. “Is somebody hurt?!” he called.
Alexi wasn’t badly hurt, and Georgiy didn’t really speak English, so Alexi asked in Russian, “Georgiy, are you hurt? Do you need medical attention?”
Georgiy echoed Alexi’s earlier Russian profanity. “No,” he continued in Russian, feeling his face. “It’s not bad.”
“No, we don’t need medical attention!” Alexi called back to Robert.
The other members of the expedition began to emerge from their tents, woken by the commotion, and all of them approached the drilling rig, asking Alexi and Georgiy what had happened in both English and Russian, not giving them time to respond.
“HEY!” Joe bellowed over the clamour “Let them speak!” he added when everyone turned to look at him.
“Drill hit something big and hard enough to stall,” Alexi said in English. “But is five hundred metres from bedrock according to radar image.”
“Did you tell them that it’s hot down there?” Georgiy asked Alexi in Russian.
“Nyet. Spasibo,” Alexi thanked his associate, then continued in English. “Is very hot down there,” he added. “Hot water came up when drill broke through. Is fortunate was cooled by much ice.”
“A magma intrusion, do you think, guys?” Joe asked.
“You know that nothing like that appeared on the radar image, Joe,” Alice disagreed. “That sort of thing doesn’t grow in the few days since the image was taken.”
“And we’re not standing in a melted crater either,” Rebecca added. “A volcanic event of that scale would have melted the ice all the way to the surface.”
“Is little green men,” Irina quipped again, only half-joking. “Can hide from radar, but can’t hide from infra-red or drill.”
The geologists all looked at Irina, trying to think of any more reasonable explanation with which they could refute her outrageous hypothesis.
“Fuck me if she might not be right,” Rebecca said. “What natural geological process would generate that much heat without melting a bloody great hole in the ice, is hard enough to stop the drill, yet doesn’t show up on ground-penetrating-radar?”
Alice frowned at the Australian geologist’s profanities. “I can’t think of anything. Joe?”
“Damn if I know either,” Joe replied. “What the hell do we do about it, whatever it is?”
“What do we do about it?” Alexi echoed rhetorically. “Is easy! We… what do Americans say…? Ah! We ‘pass the buck’!”
Joe laughed. “Okay, Alexi, good point,” he said, opening his jacket and reached inside for his satellite phone. “I’ll call my people if you call yours.”
“Da,” Alexi nodded, and began to unzip his jacket so that he could extract his own phone.
<We have been discovered,> the surveillance nanites on the surface transmitted. <Launch recommended.>
<We concur,> came the majority consensus, overriding the small minority that recommended delay in order to complete construction. <Launch!>
The automaton’s motive force was provided by a shape-memory-alloy that was largely Copper, Aluminium, Nickel, Manganese and Boron, though also doped with many other elements in order to reduce its phase-transition hysteresis. While such alloys typically have very poor response times when constructed in large masses, the automaton achieved a good response time by dividing its memory metal actuators into a myriad of thin cables, each with its own coating of peltier devices, each whole actuator set embedded in a bulk temperature-regulation enclosure. With such extensive subdivision, the temperature of the entire bulk of each actuator could be controlled quickly and precisely. The nanites had kept the actuators very close to their transition temperature of 97°C, and the bulk of the automaton at a slightly higher temperature than that, so that it was a simple matter to reverse the peltier devices that were cooling the memory metal and to heat them the fraction of a degree required for them to change state, and millions of tons of memory metal responded in less than a second.
The automaton was cocooned beneath over three and a half kilometres of ice, and when it began to flex its metal muscles, its muscles and framework emitted a low-pitched groan as they were put under the stress of lifting not only the automaton’s own mass, but also the millions of tons of ice above it.
A low-pitched groan emanated from the ice, barely audible, but felt in the legs and chests of the gathered expedition members. The ice itself groaned and crackled with higher pitched sounds, new crevasses racing across the surface of the ice. Then two large patches of ice began to rise, one several kilometres away, but the other less than a kilometre distant, and the expedition members all staggered as shocks raced through the ice beneath them. The drilling rig rose into the air, almost straight up for twenty or thirty metres before the great length of drill shaft began to flex and the rig began to side-slip and then descend as the drill shaft continued to emerge from the ice.
Each of the team members responded to the unexpected occurrence in different ways. Alice simply raised her hands and shrieked with shrill surprise.
Irina stood startled for a second, and then bolted towards the big Russian helicopter, screaming, “Come on! Everybody into the helicopter!” in Russian, but not waiting to see if anyone was following.
Rebecca also stood surprised, looking around, and then dashed directly away from the two rising sections of ice as fast as she could, out onto the open ice and away from the tents, in no particular direction other than away, without looking back.
Robert dashed toward the American helicopter, and the pilot of that machine, Peter Rekdale, who had been sleeping in his tent through all the previous commotion, staggered out, only half-dressed by Antarctic standards, looking around in confusion. “What the fuck?” he yelled in confusion.
“Pete!” Robert yelled to his pilot. “Pete!! Get your fat ass in gear and get to the chopper, you lazy dipshit! The ice is coming apart around us!”
“Holy shit!” Pete yelled as he took in the situation, then heaved his overweight body toward his helicopter, panting heavily before he had taken ten steps.
Joe had begun to run also, before he saw Alice standing and staring in incomprehension at the rising ice and screaming like a banshee. He ran back to Alice and tried to grab one of her flailing arms, but she scarcely recognised him in her hysteria.
Alexi fell as he lost his footing, landing heavily on his back and cracking his head on the heaving ice. He lay stunned for a few moments.
Georgiy bent his knees and rode with the heaving of the ice like the seasoned sailor and oil-rig roughneck that he had once been, and pulled out a compact digital camera, powered it up, pointed it at the more distant section of rising ice, and began recording a movie.
“Ty chto mumu yebyosh?!” Vasily swore at Georgiy, using a particularly vulgar Russian phrase usually translated (much more politely) as ‘drink up’ or ‘What are you waiting for?’ when addressed to a drinking comrade who isn’t drinking, then added in further Russian, “Get to the helicopter!”. He stared a moment longer, then moved to assist Alexi.
“Yob tvoyu mat, Vasily,” Georgiy swore back in Russian. “We’re all dead anyway,” he predicted fatalistically, not ceasing his recording. “You die your way, I’ll die in mine.”
As Irina and Robert were rushing through an abbreviated startup of their respective helicopters, skipping whole sections of their checklists in their haste to get off the ground, a vast black shape erupted from beneath the ice several kilometres away, huge chunks of ice slipping off its rounded sides as it rose into the air, falling to smash on the still-intact ice below.
Alice pointed and screamed even more hysterically, if that was possible, as she saw the vast shape like an immense snake heave itself out of the ice a couple of miles away, its body apparently a third of a mile across, sheathed in glistening black scales each seemingly the size of a tennis court. As the massive chunks and slabs of ice that it had lifted fell away, Alice and Joe could see that its uppermost end appeared to end abruptly, almost as if it had been cut off perpendicular to its longitudinal axis.
Each helicopter whined as its engines and rotors began to turn. Pete was running toward his smaller helicopter that his co-pilot was firing up, but his bulk and lack of fitness caught up with him, and he slowed despite the fact that the end of the vast black serpentine form was still rising and arching back toward their encampment. Nearby, a black conical form was pushing up out of the ice, narrow at first, but widening as it emerged, ice tumbling and new crevasses radiating away from it.
Vasily fell into a crevasse that opened beneath his feet as he hurried toward Alexi, his screams echoing from its sides until they were abruptly cut off as the ice continued to shift and collapse.
<That one has a high probability of escape,> the nanites crewing the automaton’s sensors reported, indicating one of the humans, who was already out of range of the ice falling from the automaton’s body.
<We must intervene. We must remain unknown to the human authorities as long as possible, so it cannot be permitted to report to its fellows,> was the consensus. A range of options was considered, and one was selected.
As the tail of the immense serpent erupted from beneath the ice, it twitched back, its tip tracing an ovoid in the air and descending into the ice once more, then flicking up to propel several thousand tons of ice in a spray directed toward Rebecca. A solid block of ice weighing several hundred tons hit her, shattering but also crushing her instantly as other huge blocks and chunks of ice rained down and disintegrated around her remains, her blood staining the ice where she had fallen.
Irina had the rotors of her helicopter up to speed, and she lifted her collective to take off. The sluggish helicopter struggled into the air, but was met by ice once more as the rising tail of the vast serpent caught up with the aircraft, and the helicopter tilted sideways, losing altitude, Irina screaming profanities at it in Russian until it impacted on its side on the ice and burst into flames.
The American helicopter, further from either end of the vast serpent than the Russian helicopter, was still powering up when a vast block of ice fell from the rising tail and smashed it flat without even a puff of smoke or trickle of fluid to indicate where it had been. Pete, having run out of puff in his race to get on board, was spared this fate as ice rained down around him, the air squeezed out from between the ice sheet and the falling block blasting him backward several metres.
As the truncated end of the immense serpent continued to arch back over the camp, toward the rising tail, Joe, Alice, Pete and Georgiy were witness to a vast, conical block of ice sliding from the serpent’s mouth and falling beyond the more slowly rising tail. Joe’s groans of fear joined Alice’s continual shrieks as the vast round maw arched toward them, but the mouth passed over them, the rising tail entering the maw like a serpent swallowing its own tail, then, with a vast, resounding thunderclap, the tail slotted into the mouth, ice and water jetting out from the gap between them, the serpentine form now having become a huge torus several kilometres high.
Since the head had been arching over faster than the tail, this momentum translated into the whole torus beginning to move in the direction that the head had been moving, and as the thing began to roll, the tail began to descend once more, but the body on the other side of the encampment continued to rise, huge slabs and chunks of ice continuing to be lifted and tossed aside as the body rolled out from beneath the ice that had concealed it, distortions of its body providing forward impetus.
The last three members of the expedition died as thousands upon thousands of tons of ice displaced by the vast serpent’s movement cascaded down across their encampment, leaving only Alexi miraculously unharmed between several vast blocks of ice as he was finally able to summon the strength and coordination to sit up. Then the serpent’s continuing movement lifted the ice beneath the geologist, propelling him upward along with the ice and along the route of its movement, before the ice tipped over and Alexi found himself falling amidst chunks of ice and the crushed remains of the American helicopter toward the inner surface of the serpent, which was steaming as ice and water flowed down its sides. Then he impacted the serpent himself, thousands of tons of ice falling on top of him.
The automaton rolled hoop-like from the Dome Argus toward Berkner Island, which lay between the Ronne and Filchner ice sheets. It achieved a top speed in excess of a hundred kilometres per hour, travelling the 1750 kilometres from the Dome Argus to the sea in a little less than 24 hours. The ice cap was an ideal medium for it to roll across, as it was soft enough to give beneath the nearly billion-and-a half-tonne mass of the automaton, smoothing out the potential bumps and jolts. As it approached the rocky ground at the end of the Transantarctic mountain range, it stopped to resume its linear configuration before slithering like an immense snake into the waters beneath the Ronne ice shelf.
The automaton slowly headed north along the Atlantic mid-oceanic ridge line, using the continual geological activity there to mask the seismic signature of the movement of its billion-and-a-half tonne mass. The buoyancy of the water also served to reduce its effective weight to a ‘mere’ three hundred or so million tons, further reducing its seismic signature, and the heat from the ongoing geological activity along the mid-oceanic ridge served to conceal the automaton’s own heat signature. The nanites took this time to complete construction of the automaton using material stored in anticipation of the arrival of a human presence at the construction site.
Tens of thousands of tons of nanites remained in the long pit in the ice from which the automaton had emerged, since the interest humans had directed toward the Dome Argus had prompted replication of more nanites than would be needed to operate the automaton in order to complete it more quickly. These nanites were no longer needed for construction of the automaton, but they used the power from the deployment pod’s bootstrap reactor — which had remained outside the immediate vicinity of the automaton’s construction — along with some of the energy stored in the coal reserves far below the ice to power their restoration of the Dome Argus to something resembling its original state, and to hide the trail gouged into the ice by the automaton’s passage to the sea.
The deceased geologists’ associates at their respective bases checked in with the expedition as they had done many times since they had arrived to begin drilling, and the nanites had had plenty of opportunity to listen in on the conversations, to identify the speakers and to memorise details and use the public internet to find out as much as they could about these humans. The nanites simulated the deceased expedition members voices and engaged in conversations with the humans at their bases of origins, keeping the conversations fairly terse lest inconsistencies be discovered, yet not so much that lack of personal context would also raise suspicion.
With the traces of the presence and passage of the automaton concealed, the nanites disassembled the deployment pod and its reactor, and, since while individually as intelligent as a human or one of their creators, they had no sense of self-preservation, they all self-destructed in order to complete the concealment of their presence.
A couple of days after the remaining nanites had finished cleaning up and had self-destructed, a search party arrived at the Dome Argus. Once there were no nanites with which they could hold a conversation that would allay any suspicion of foul play, the abrupt lack of communication from the expeditionary teams triggered the deployment of a search-and-rescue party.
All that the rescue party found was a huge sinkhole (though quite small compared with that originally left by the automaton) that had apparently opened up beneath the expedition’s base camp and had engulfed men and machines alike, the collapse of the surrounding ice walls crushing the people and equipment who had fallen in.
The search and rescue team were convinced by the elaborate sham that the deaths of the expedition members was the result of a freak, tragic accident. Over the following days, while the weather remained good, other geologists arrived and concluded that Antarctica was not as volcanically inactive as previously thought, and that the lost expedition had unwittingly built their camp right on top of an intermittent hot-spot, and had fallen to their deaths when the heat had undermined the ice beneath them to the point where the ice would no longer support its own weight.
Since the investigators had ‘evidence’ that the Dome Argus expedition members had been alive and well at the time, reports from the Argentinian Belgrano II station near the Filchner Ice Sheet of unusual seismic activity in the area a week or so earlier wasn’t correlated with the Dome Argus tragedy — until much later.
North Atlantic Ocean
The automaton had slowly made its way northward along the mid-Atlantic oceanic ridge, the ridge’s geological activity masking the seismic signature that the movement of a 1.5 billion ton object made, then had turned left, creeping even more slowly westward while the automaton was completed.
The committee of nanites that was running the automaton had been planning their course of action during the automaton’s construction phase. The discovery of the public internet has been fortuitous for the wealth of information it contained. Atomic weapons were the greatest threat that the automaton faced, and this threat had to be minimised. To that end, the nanites had devised their plan of attack. Now that the automaton was completed as instructed, the attack could be initiated.
The automaton reared its head up from the sea floor until the rim of its gaping mouth was above the waves. The water within the mouth descended as it was pumped out and into the surrounding sea, and then the automaton launched thirteen of its stockpile of sixteen scramjet-propelled atomic weapons, not all at once, but in a sequence timed such that all of the missiles would reach their targets at the same moment.
The missiles were launched from a railgun in the automaton’s mouth, which gave them the initial airspeed they required to ignite their scramjets. The scramjets themselves adaptively reconfigured themselves in flight so as to maintain the correct profile for maximum power and efficiency. The missiles ignited their engines almost immediately after firing, but ramped up their engine power as they gained in altitude so to as to reduce the thermal signature of their launch. It was only when they had reached the rarefied upper atmosphere that they went to full power and headed toward their targets at over mach 18. They actually left the atmosphere entirely, shutting down their scramjets as the air ran out, travelling on a ballistic path.
The missiles were equipped with a sophisticated suite of ECM, ECCM, sensors and point-defense railguns. The missiles’ ECM effectively negated any reflections from incoming radar, and the railguns proved unnecessary in most cases.
The missiles reentered the atmosphere and reignited their scramjets once more as they descended toward their targets, their sacrificial heat shielding ablating in a white-hot trail as they descended through the thickening atmosphere.