The Pentagon War


Roger M. Wilcox

(Originally begun on November 1, 1980)

chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4
chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8
chapter 9 | chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12
chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16
chapter 17 | chapter 18 | epilog

— CHAPTER THREE: Backflash —

195 years A.C.

Once or twice in a lifetime, the esoteric world of theoretical physics intrudes upon the mainstream so forcefully that it cannot be ignored. In human history, the atomic bomb, the laser, the MRI scanner, and the protium-deuterium hot-fusion reactor; in Centaurian history, the quantum confinement-and-constriction field and the magnetic focuser; all these inventions stemmed from heady, basic research so far removed from daily life that no one could have foreseen them, and all were watersheds that changed the face of society forever. Today, thirty-three years after Jerry Redlands sent his classified data to all ears — only eighteen years after that data finally arrived at those ears — theoretical physics was about to reshape everything.

"This is Tricia Sanchez," the well-cropped woman spoke into her camera, "Reporting to you live from the outer Solar system, in between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. I'm floating here in one of the observation bubbles of a specially-charted liner. Behind me, out this giant window, you can see the distant work crews making their final checks on one of the most destructive devices ever assembled: a hyper bomb. The last time one of these monstrosities went off, thirty-three years ago, it destroyed an entire planet. But today, scientists and engineers in two separate star systems hope to use this bomb to build something never before seen. With me now is Dr. Monidas Chen," her camera panned slowly to her right, revealing the graying Indo-Chinese man floating next to her, "Whom some have called the driving force behind this experiment. Dr. Chen, it must be exciting to see all your work finally about to pay off."

The aging scientist chuckled slightly. "Much as I'd like to, I can't really call this my work. The Mad Scientist developed the hyper bomb, then the Sirians figured out the physics behind that 'hole in space' it created, then the Alpha-Centaurians came up with the plan we're putting into place right now. If anything, my team and I have only come in on the tail end of all this."

"Don't be so modest, Dr. Chen," Tricia commented, buttering him up for the camera. "For the benefit of our viewers, could you describe . . . in layman's terms . . . just what it is you're trying to do today?"

Monidas grinned sardonically. Layman's terms. Hyperspace physics was still an infant science; how could you explain the field equations whose in-depth analysis was required to even begin to get a grip on the substrate in which hyperspace existed, to an audience who'd never even learned basic algebra? But, he'd known he'd be on camera, so he had his oversimplified speech prepared. "First, a little background. Sirian theorists discovered that our universe has an upper limit to how much energy can be in one place at one time. We call it the Energy Density Limit, or EDL. You may have heard the word 'kugelblitz' bandied about on some science talk shows; the EDL is much lower, and much easier to attain, than the old kugelblitz threshold. The gamma ray beam from a hyper bomb exceeds the EDL, and the extra energy has to go someplace. Half of the gamma rays tunnel through the 4-dimensional hyperspace in which our universe exists, and enter a parallel space adjacent to our own. Like a burrowing gopher, the hole the tunneling energy digs through hyperspace stays open behind it. That was the hole in space they found in the remains of Namu, in the wake of the first hyper bomb detonation. The Sirians called it a hyper hole, and the name has stuck ever since."

He continued: "Now, the fascinating thing about the parallel space that a hyper hole leads into is that it isn't our universe. It isn't real space. Time, matter, and even distance are meaningless there.  Any object entering parallel space, by going through a hyper hole, would travel infinitely fast. And one of the obscure field equations that came out of the energy-density violation mechanics gave us a way to capitalize on that. Turns out that if you detonate two hyper bombs at the same time, facing directly toward one another, the two hyper holes they create will be permanently linked.  Anything entering one hyper hole will travel infinitely fast through parallel space and instantly emerge from the other hyper hole. What we are hoping to do today, with the help of a similar team of Centaurian scientists and engineers in the Alpha Centauri system, is create a permanent tunnel between the Sol system and Alpha Centauri, which radio signals and spacecraft will be able to traverse instantaneously."

"Fascinating," Tricia read her canned response from the prompter, "Sounds like taking a trip to Alpha Centauri will be as easy as taking a trip to, oh . . . Saturn!"

"If it all works," Monidas cautioned. "There are still a lot of unknowns; the sheer cost of all the positrons in a hyper bomb makes it impossible to do experiments. We're still not sure what happened to half of the gamma ray energy in the UV Ceti IV detonation, or how big the margin for error is for aiming the two bombs at each other, or even if the theory is just plain wrong despite our best analysis. Our big attempt today is the very first experiment in hyperspace physics — if you don't count the accidental experiment that ended the Mad Scientist's life."

"What's your opinion of the Mad Scientist?" Tricia asked.

What do I look like, Monidas thought, A social historian?  "The Mad Scientist was more legend than man, even when he was still alive. Kind of like Jerry Redlands. I've heard that the Mad Scientist really was crazy, that he tapped into some higher consciousness, that he'd secretly predicted his bomb would make a hyper hole before he set it off, that he could melt steel with his mind — all manner of wild rumors. What do I think?  I think he had some brilliant ideas and a keenly analytical mind, but that's all."

The camera panned back onto Tricia until Monidas was entirely out of frame. She was done with him. "Also with me here is senator Allison Maeda, who spearheaded the enormous logistical effort needed to pull this experiment off. Senator Maeda, how hard was it to coordinate all the things that had to be done?"

"It was brutal at times, Tricia," the raven-haired senator replied. She ate up the camera like she was born to it. "All we had to go on were two XRCP messages — one from Alpha Centauri A III to us, and one from Earth to Alpha Centauri — to synchronize the aim and the timing of these two hyper bombs. Our bomb will have to go off within a tiny fraction of a second of the Centaurian bomb. Can you imagine synchronizing two bomb blasts that accurately, with the other blast so far away that radio signals take 4.36 years to get there?"

Thank goodness for Coordinated Universal Time, Monidas thought from the other side of the room. UTC was tracked by atomic clocks in both systems, synchronized over a hundred years ago the old-fashioned way. Sol had made sure to send the Centaurians the exact UTC time at which they planned to detonate. Assuming no relativity errors had gone unaccounted, which was unlikely, both sides should hit the mark right on cue. It was the aiming problem that bothered Monidas more — hitting a 200-meter target all the way over in another star system was like hitting a virus-sized needle in an Earth-sized haystack, while the haystack was slowly moving.

"To say nothing of how hard it is to build a hyper bomb in the first place," senator Maeda went on. "Convincing a group as large and diverse as the Solar Federal Government to collect a quarter of a tonne of positrons, and hand them over to scientists who were using data from a project that was still partly classified — most of my colleagues on the senate floor thought it could never be done. It's been a real adventure for me. Five years ago, when we received the Centaurians' proposal, I'd never even been to Earth orbit."  She chuckled. "I'm still getting used to zero gravity. There are so many people I need to thank for this opportunity."

"Not the least of whom is Jerry Redlands," Monidas' voice intruded from the other side of the room. Puzzled by the interruption, Tricia turned to face him.

The senator flared. "Jerry Redlands was the biggest traitor in the history of humanity!"

"Redlands didn't betray humanity," Monidas countered, his voice rising, "He saved it!"

The camera pulled back to capture all of the drama. Tricia blended into the background against the curved, star-laden window, swallowing her resentment at having her limelight stolen. She knew her viewers' attraction to a heated argument.

"He splattered state secrets all over space!" Allison Maeda spat. "Do you know how many brave men and women devoted their lives to the Phased Antimatter Bomb project, so that Sol would stay strong for their children?"

"Oh, get off your high horse!" Monidas Chen answered. "Sol was already stockpiling positrons while the Mad Scientist's experiment was underway, just in case it succeeded. If you'd found out it worked as a planetbuster, and no one else knew how to build one, you'd have blown Sirius A IV apart at your first opportunity!  To say nothing of what you Henderson-Doctrine-waving fanatics would have done to Alpha Centauri A III. You can't tell me that Jerry Redlands' assassin was just some loon that Sol had nothing to do with!"

"You know," the senator growled, "One of the things that makes Sol great is that malcontents like you are allowed to utter such blatant anti-Sol sentiment. Try denouncing the government while you're on CN Leonis II some time!"

"Hah," the scientist grunted. "Free speech goes right out the window whenever the chips are down. Remember the Humans for Better Interspecies Relations? Over a quarter of them got rounded up and thrown into jail last century, just for talking to the Centaurians without Sol's permission. I'm sure they all appreciated Sol's 'guarantee' of free speech."

"If you like Human-Centauri so much," Maeda retorted, "Why don't you just go live there?"

On an invisible cue, Tricia stepped forward and broke up the two belligerents. "We're now less than two minutes away from the moment when detonation must take place. This is it!  We go now to Josh Grüben for a close-up view. Josh?"

The red light atop their camera winked out, and a new scene appeared on the monitor behind it. Framed against a starry background stood a vast array of red and black cables, lit by distant construction lamps. "Tricia," a man's voice came from the speakers, "I'm here in the cockpit of a mini less than half a klick away from what, in one minute and thirty-four seconds, will be Ground Zero for the biggest antimatter explosion in the history of the Solar system. The view you're seeing is from a camera mounted on a swivel boom outside my hull. The only thing between us and the action is the camera lens."

For dramatic effect, Josh pulsed the maneuvering thrusters, edging him around the mass of cables until their center resoved into an eight-meter disk of red cabling. "This agglomeration before us is the heart of the hyper bomb, called the lens. When the moment arrives, half a tonne of positrons and electrons will come shooting down those cables and meet in the center, annihilating each other and turning completely into gamma rays. There will be enough gamma rays to turn anything in their path supernova-hot, even the rocky core of an asteroid. Fortunately for me, those gamma rays are all going to come out of the electron side; the Mad Scientist found that out the hard way. That's the side with all the black cables.  We're looking at the positron side right now, where all the red cables are."

He drifted across until he viewed the disk head-on dead center; then, Josh counterthrusted until he'd achieved station keeping with it less than a kilometer away. "If all goes as planned, the blast should spread out flat until it's about a hundred meters in radius. We won't see the blast itself, or the intense gamma ray beam headed away from us, except where it interacts with material in its way — like the cabling in the lens itself. But the first thing we should see when the 'smoke' clears are the stars from Alpha Centauri's sky."

Monidas Chen's eyes stayed glued to the countdown in the corner of the monitor. A thrill of nervous anticipation shook him as it crossed the one-minute mark and ticked toward zero. This view, straight down the bomb's gullet from such close range, was a treat he hadn't expected. He could even make out one or two individual conduits in the lens; they all looked exactly as he expected them to. Even at this late date, when all had been checked and re-checked weeks ago, he couldn't shake the nagging sensation that he'd missed something. A good scientist or engineer of any stripe had to embrace caution and worry as his bedfellows, especially when the efforts of so many other people were at stake. The feed triggers? No, he reassured himself, they were all synchronized down to the femtosecond, with the the different lengths of wiring measured down to a tenth of a millimeter and all their propagation delays carefully calculated. The Mad Scientist himself had been sloppier when he'd wired up his own bomb. The field equation solutions? No, they'd been checked more often than any other piece of this puzzle. Only the solutions that predicted utter nonsense — infinite energies, imaginary time, etc. — had been discarded, and all other solutions for an EDL violation had been accounted for.

"Ten seconds!" Josh's voice rang in their ears. "Hold onto your hats!"

Five seconds. Monidas looked out the window at the point in space where he knew the hyper bomb would be going off, keeping the monitor in the corner of his eye.

Four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .

There was a flash of blue-white light from that point in space, and Monidas knew the light from this flash would have extended far past the visible, deep into the ultraviolet. Yes! It marked the hyper bomb's lens consuming itself, as a tiny fraction of the gamma rays it produced fried the cabling. And . . . odd, there was a second flash near the bomb at the same time, probably less than a kilometer away from where the lens had been. The picture on the monitor flickered for a split instant and now showed only a blank blue field with the words "No signal." Had the lens's ignition flash been enough to overwhelm Josh's camera?

"Josh!" Tricia yelled into her mike. "Josh, are you there? What do you see?"

No reply.

A tinny voice came over the liner's public address system. Compared with the broadcast-quality sound they'd become accustomed to, the harsh, filtered white noise of the P.A. speakers was jarring. "Tricia, this is the pilot. Josh Grüben's mini isn't showing up on my radar any more."

"We seem to be having technical difficulties, ladies and gentlemen," Tricia recited out of instinct. "Can anybody tell me what's happening to Josh?"

A barely-perceptible voice spoke in her earpiece. She stiffened. Only her makeup for the camera hid the color draining from her face. With almost mechanical calm, she said, "I've just been informed by the assembly crew that Josh Grüben's spacecraft was vaporized when the bomb went off."

Monidas gulped with a start. That was impossible! Josh was on the positron side of the lens! Both theory and the Mad Scientist's own blunder had proven that it was the electron side that the phased gamma ray beam would come out of. Both here, and 4.36 light-years away in Alpha Centau—

"Oh no," Monidas broke into a cold sweat. "The other half of the energy!"

"The what?" Senator Maeda glared at him.

"When the Mad Scientist's bomb went off, only half the energy from the matter-antimatter annihilation went into the gamma ray beam. The other half tunnelled into parallel space, which is what created the hyper hole. We didn't think it all the way through. By detonating two hyper bombs to make a linked pair of hyper holes, the parallel-space half of the energy from the remote bomb must have come back into real space through the new local hyper hole!"

Tricia felt sick in the pit of her stomach. But her viewers would have expected more: "Can you tell us, Doctor Chen, what you think happened to our cameraman Josh at that fateful instant?"

"We were so busy worrying about the area in front of the hyper bomb," Monidas went on, "So busy ensuring that nothing would get hit by the foreflash, that none of us entertained the possibility of a backflash! Your cameraman, Josh — his mini would've been hit by a gamma ray beam every bit as intense as the one that came out the front of the bomb. The whole spacecraft would've reached supernova temperature in a matter of microseconds. Every atom on board would have turned into a fully ionized plasma, possibly with some nuclear fusion occurring. There wouldn't have been enough time for Josh to feel any heat or see anything wrong before he disintegrated."

Another voice sounded in Tricia's earpiece. She tore herself away from the immediate tragedy. "Observers are on the scene at the site of the hyper bomb explosion. We take you to them now, live." As the camera facing her mercifully shut off, she crumpled slightly in the microgravity, visibly shaking.

The scene on the monitor showed a grainy, amateurish picture. With Josh gone, they now peered through the lens of whatever camera the assembly crew's own spacecraft had handy. Even with this low picture quality, though, the scene didn't look right. A gruff voice sounded in the speakers: "Look in the middle of this picture. We're at low magnification about five klicks away and about a klick off to one side of where the beam came out. I'm pointing straight at RA fourteen thirty-nine, Dec minus sixty fifty. We would normally be seeing Alpha Centauri in the center of the picture as a plain magnitude zero star. But right now, as you can see, there's only a dim starfield filled with background stars magnitude 4 and dimmer.  According to our S.I.'s nav database, not only are we not seeing Alpha Centauri, there's a little elliptical patch in the center of this picture where none of the stars match what we should be seeing."  The zoom increased. "I'm maneuvering to a different viewing angle now."

The stars shifted slowly in the monitor as the spacecraft carrying the camera drifted across the field. Monidas thought he glimpsed — yes, there it was again!  A star just disappeared. And there!  A new star winked into existence. And another!  Stars were appearing and disappearing along an invisible, elliptical boundary. The ellipse, he was sure, was only an illusion of their viewing angle; the real hole in space would be perfectly or near-perfectly circular. He felt his heartbeat quicken, the fate of the hapless cameraman all but forgotten. Then, a fiercely bright yellowish light, nearly as bright as the sun from their vantage point out here past Jupiter, edged into view past the invisible curved border.

"I think," the gruff voice resumed, "I think we're looking at Alpha Centauri B!"  The picture moved again. "And — holy damnation!  Is that a spacecraft?!"

Monidas leaned closer. Yes!  There it was, plain as day. Its shape was foreign, but the parabolic dishes were unmistakable. An unmanned radio relay!  Or at least, the front half of one — the relay's hull ended abruptly, right at the same invisible boundary where the stars winked in and out in the changing view.

"If the scientists are right," the gruff voice continued, "We should be able to communicate with that spacecraft. We're going to try sending a radio message to it. I'm switching the audio feed so we can listen in on the radio traffic."

For a brief instant, there was the dead silence of an unused digital radio channel. Then: "This is Mackelroy November three five Juliet Golf seven eight."  The spacecraft make and registration number. "We are a Solar vessel. Do you read us?"


We can see them, Monidas thought. Why can't we talk to them?

The gruff voice cut back in: "The XRCP messages we coordinated this experiment with didn't say anything about how to go about talking to each other after the detonation. We're going to try some different frequency channels."

Again, the brief silence followed by: "This is Mackelroy November three five Juliet Golf seven eight, a Solar vessel. Calling any spacecraft listening to the unidentified radio relay at our zero/zero. Do you read us?"

A second of silence. Two seconds. Then came a voice — or was it two voices? — that sounded like it had a cold in its nose. "This is observer carrier seven bee six eff, clan Draak(l)oo. We are in wide orbit around Alpha Centauri A, approximately sixty-four kilometers from the radio relay. We read you, Mackelroy Golf seven eight!"

"Roger that!" the local voice replied, reverting to the old phraseology.  "What's it like on Alpha Centauri A III these days?"

The distant voice piped in instantly: "Couldn't be better!  Clan Z(r)ii'i is still in charge. How's Earth?  We both seem to have 4.36 years of catching up to do!"

Monidas could barely contain his excitement. It worked!  It really worked!  They were in two-way radio contact with a spacecraft 4.36 light-years away, with no propagation delays!  Well, no obvious delays, at least. If the travel time for that signal across the linked hyper holes wasn't mathematically zero, it was as close to zero as mattered!

"Centaurian spacecraft," the local radio voice resumed, "We have a little present we'd like to send you. It's a low speed unmanned drone. So there won't be any surprises, we're unclamping it from our hull right now, and will be sending it toward your radio relay at twenty meters per second.  We'll aim it slightly to one side of the relay to ensure that it won't run into it if anything goes wrong. If the physics guys are right, it should go into our hyper hole and out through yours like they were on top of each other, like the space in between them wasn't even there."

The picture panned down until the liner's outer hull edged into view. A tiny sphere, lit with a crescent by the distant sun, drifted away and angled toward the invisible ring framing the Centaurian relay. It would reach that invisible ring in less than a minute. The fact that radio signals could bridge the gap undistorted made it all but certain that solid objects would do the same, but to actually see it happen for the first time . . .

As they watched, Senator Maeda drifted near Monidas and mumbled, "Sorry about my outburst back there, Dr. Chen. My constituents need to know how firmly I stand on . . . certain issues."

Monidas glanced sidelong at her. "Of the three major parties, yours is the most hawkish."

"About how long will these hyper holes last?" she asked.

"Theoretically?" Monidas replied, "As long as the universe is still here.  You know we sent an observing team to UV Ceti as soon as Jerry Redlands' message arrived, right?  Their first observations came back over XRCP just this year. The hyper hole is still there, the same size and shape as when it first formed. In fact, it's still in orbit around the center of mass."

"Center of mass?" Allison Maeda puzzled.

"The center of mass of the debris cluster," Monidas replied, "Where UV Ceti IV used to be."

"So for the forseeable future," Maeda concluded, "The nation posing the greatest threat to the Solar system will have a tunnel right into our own back yard."

Monidas glowered at her.

"Here it comes, the moment of truth," the gravelly voice chimed in from the monitor. The image had zoomed in, magnifying the drone to keep it visible; up this close, the indistinct edge of the hyper hole was too wide to be in frame. Now all that lay in the background beyond the drone were the Alpha-Centaurian stars and the radio relay. "Threshold in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . it's across!  Our drone's on the other side of the hyper hole, in Alpha-Centaurian space. And we're still picking up its radio beacon from this end!"

The distant Centaurian voice cut in: "This is observer carrier 7B6F again, we're picking up your drone on our radar and are tracking it. Looks like it made it through intact from our end!"

"And there you have it!" Tricia's voice blurted in from behind Monidas, startling him. The camera was back on. "The first ever solid object successfully sent through a pair of linked hyper holes to another star system, and it appears not to have suffered any damage. Officials say the next step is to send a manned spacecraft through the hole a few hours from now."

"Not quite," Monidas noted. "There's one other thing my team plans to do first. We're going to peer through the linked hyper holes from the other direction."

"Do you mean to tell me," Tricia looked genuinely puzzled, "That both sides of this hyper hole are linked to the new hole in Alpha Centauri?"

"Yes," replied Monidas. "Or at least they should be. There's nothing special about the two sides that are facing toward one another. Just as the near side of our hole is linked to the far side of the Alpha Centauri hole, so the far side of our hole should be linked to the near side of theirs. Unfortunately," he winced, "The spacecraft that will be doing that investigation doesn't have a video feed we can route to you."

"Well," Tricia noted, "Even if . . . our cameraman were still alive, he'd have been out of position to get a shot of the other side anyway."  She addressed her viewing audience. "We'll keep you posted of further developments in this historic endeavor. This is Tricia Sanchez, returning you to our studios."

The cameras off and the field broadcast concluded, Monidas Chen drifted over near Tricia and said in a low voice, "I'm sorry about Josh."

She glared back at him coldly. "You should be."

Against all the odds and all the unknowns, both the theory and the experiment were a success. Communication relays went into place, commerce commenced, rules and regulations for safe transit evolved. Within 17 years, similar pairs of linked hyper holes had joined Sol with Sirius, and Alpha Centauri with CN Leonis. Only seven years after that, Human-Centauri was likewise conjoined with both Sirius and CN Leonis, closing the circuit. Thus was born the Pentagon of populated space.

'map' of the modern Pentagon

The age of the starship was over; the age of quick and easy interstellar trade had begun.

But such drastically reduced interstellar travel times came at a price.  The mutual isolation which had shielded each star nation from its neighbors was now a thing of the past. The old suspicions and jealousies that had lain dormant for two centuries now took on a new urgency. Mutual trade, the new flowering of economic inderdependence, could only earn so much trust.

And worst of all, the hyper bombs that had made the Pentagon possible also carried with them the threat of its annihilation.

The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 4.
Roger M. Wilcox's Homepage