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Teary-eyed, Tia pointed to the sky.

“Look at the contrails! Is it me or is there something wrong about them?”

As the five contrails started to curve towards horizontal flight, their curves started to look strange. I did not dare believing what I thought I was seeing. 

“Tia, I am a hopeless coward and a bit of a safety measures nut. It’s a habit. When I disabled the missiles, I also reprogrammed the target coordinates to a point about four hundred kilometers due west, in the opposite direction from the coast. Just as a precaution. A duplicate safety measure, if you will. I thought it’s worth a bit of extra time. Unless I’m hallucinating, they haven’t checked the targeting subsystem before launching.”

Now it was apparent that the missiles were turning around.

I looked at the Azov just in time to see the terrorist squad gaping at the sky in disbelief, their guns lowered or even dropped at their feet, right until the moment the ship was hit by a series of generation-old “smart” laser-guided munitions.

Ships bow section and the bridge tower have instantly become gigantic orange flowers, blooming over the black ocean. The ship was hit again and again in a matter of seconds, containers and unidentifiable chunks of shredded steel flying in all directions. The shockwave made us wobble, despite the shuttle’s force field protection.

“The Navy fighters are launching heat-seeking missiles, trying to intercept enemy missiles before they accelerate beyond reach” AI said in its neutral tone.

“Do they have a chance?” 

Tia’s voice was soft and anemic. Now that the fighting was over with, and she has ceased to be  a well-trained killing machine with scary-fast reflexes, she has become human again. A human in shock from what she was seeing. Just as I was – except the part about the well-trained killing machine, which obviously didn’t apply to me.

“They would not have a chance if the nuclear missiles were flying straight, but because they are turning around they are not accelerating as fast, so it is possible, though not very likely, that some interceptors will reach their targets”

“I think it’s time for us to go,” I said, getting to my seat, nervously strapping myself in, and motioning for Tia to do the same, “the skies are becoming too crowded here, with fighter planes, interceptors, ballistic nuclear missiles and such… I don’t think this environment is very healthy even for the alien craft. We can’t do anything else here, and we do have to take care of the Arabella in the Mediterranean still…”

I made sure the pause was long enough to adequately punctuate the occasion. Then I pushed the harness buckle in with a satisfying click. 

“Ship, take us out of here!” 

I glanced at Tia and actually smiled, despite still being shaken.

“You know, since watching Star Trek reruns as a child I wanted to say something like that…”

As we accelerated, I realized that we were moving in the same general direction as the nuclear missiles were. This didn’t seem like a very good idea. As a matter of fact I have suddenly developed a distinct urge to keep as far away from all very bright objects lately. Especially considering the fact that those five bright dots flying in roughly parallel heading to ours had a very good chance to significantly increase their brightness in just a few minutes, if you get what I mean. I’d rather not be close by when it happens.

I opened my mouth to convey that line of reasoning to the ship, when the trailing dot has momentarily increased its brightness and then fizzled out. Seconds later the same fate befell another one.

“Ship, what has just happened?” I asked.

“Two of the nuclear-tipped missiles were intercepted by heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The others are now moving too fast to be intercepted, by my estimation”.

“Ship, I don’t want to be too close when the nuclear detonation happens. Please make sure we are far enough and are shielded from all kinds of nastiness coming from it, OK?”

“We will be sufficiently far to withstand the shockwave, the heat and the radiation. You should not worry.”

Needless to say, I was worried. Nothing gets me more worried than a casual “don’t worry” said in the context of a nuclear explosion. 

Tia’s left brow went up, which looked quite comical.

“You said detonation, singular, but there are three missiles? How come?”

“I don’t know for sure, but the target coordinates are the same for all missiles, so one of them is going to detonate first with two others very close to it. My bet is that the other two will be vaporized. Nuclear explosion is a very intricate thing, it doesn’t just happen. You whack the bomb out of balance and it’s just going to fizzle out. Without precisely compressing the fission material into the critical mass density it won’t explode. Not that a single nuclear explosion is nothing to write home about, but my hope is that we are not likely to see more than one.”

I wasn’t as confident about that as I hope I sounded, but this was going to be tested very soon.

And we did have a first row seat for that one. I suspect the love for theatrics that Theo was showing, and his scientific curiosity had rubbed off onto ship’s AI personality. It clearly didn’t need to keep us that close to the explosion. It assured us that we would be safe, that the light would be filtered and radiation blocked, and the shockwave would be nothing to its force fields, and that it was just the fastest and direct route to our destination anyway. But I think it either wanted to look at the explosion up close, or at us crapping our pants. Or both.

I really doubt that there is or ever was another human that had seen nuclear explosion that close and survived to tell the tale. Too bad I had to be the one. Setting aside the question of sanitary state of my undergarments, I’m just not talented enough to do such a description justice. I can just say that it was an overwhelmingly horrifying and beautiful sight at the same time. The sheer power of the nuclear fire devouring itself was beyond my ability to describe it. It looked like we were flying right underneath the expanding mushroom cloud. It was so  terrifying that I forgot how to breathe. Respiratory function has only came back to me after I started feeling dizzy from the lack of oxygen.

By the time we passed the explosion it had developed into the classic mushroom shape, with a Tsunami wave rushing out from the epicenter, so small in comparison that it seemed almost insignificant. I didn’t even try to imagine what would happen to anyone getting into its path. I sincerely hoped there would not be many that did.

Soon the cloud was behind us. I couldn’t stop staring at it until I heard repeating clicking sounds beside me. I looked at Tia: she was methodically inserting fresh rounds into the magazines she had emptied before. This girl meant business, all right. I told the ship to take care of the “all clear” message and warn the authorities about a possible tsunami hitting the coast soon. I had no idea about how bad it would be, but I’d bet it’s better than several nuclear detonations above coastal cities.

There was something in this moment that I wanted to cherish: for a little while there was an oasis of predictability and order. Quiet whisper of steady hypersonic flight, regular clicking of rounds going in the magazines, nobody shooting at us or trying to detonate nuclear warheads. I could ponder in silence about what we just went through.

“Do you realize,” I turned towards Tia, “that this was the single brightest and greatest moment of both our lives?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, It’s all going to be downhill from now on. Just think about it for a moment: we have actually saved millions from certain death. I know a humble person is not supposed to say things like that, but we really did. Yes, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, we’re not special or anything…”

“Speak for yourself,” muttered Tia as if to herself.

“Wwe didn’t actually deserve this in any way, but we could have failed and we haven’t – and that has to account for something.”

Tia looked at me in a strange way. I’m not sure what she was thinking, but what she said was sobering.

“I know this is a cliche, but I was just doing my job. Literally, this is what I have signed up for. Not doing what I did would have been treason. And you were basically trying to survive. Remember, you have also saved yourself. Your only hope to ever return to normal life is to defeat the Horsemen, so it’s not like you have a choice. And neither do I. That doesn’t diminish what we have done, and I fully expect them to pin some medals on us if we survive, but you have to see  things in some perspective. Plus, we’re not out of the woods yet, there is another ship with a nuclear device, and we have to assume that this time they know we’re coming.”

I hadn’t thought of that. But Marc apparently has. When he reconnected his voice sounded very tense.

“Man, that was really something. All networks are streaming the footage of the nuclear explosion and the ship blowing up that airforce has released. I don’t know exactly what you did to stop the nuclear strike, but keep doing that!”

“I guess we were just lucky,” I said.

“Then make sure you have enough luck to spare, because I have some bad news: I’ve been looking through the Arabella’s cargo manifest, to see what can they rig in order to defend themselves or deliver their payload faster, and it turns out they have four industrial construction drones in their cargo hold. These things come sami-assembled. You just need to unfold them and tighten some bolts and so on. Two people can configure it for flight in half an hour. Those are heavy lifters, any one of them can carry a nuclear warhead to a distance of about three hundred kilometers before the battery runs out. You have to account for that option.”

“What are the coordinates of the Arabella?”

Marc sent a string of numbers which our ship has translated to a red marker on the map displayed on the wall. 

“Ship, how soon can we be there, and what would be the distance from the Israeli shore at that moment?” 

“We will approach Arabella IV within two hours and twenty minutes, and they will be approximately 350 kilometers from shore at that time.” 

I was thinking about what I would do if I were a terrorist trying to smuggle a nuclear bomb into a port, having just learned that at least a part of the plot has been compromised. The million dollar question for me would be whether my whole operation is blown and it’s worth it to make a desperate attempt to deliver the bomb by a drone, risking to get it shot down with a high degree of probability, or there is still a chance this part of the operation could proceed undetected? The failure of the American mission doesn’t necessarily mean that Israeli attack was discovered. It took me a few minutes to think of the optimal plan, or a reasonable approximation thereof. I think what I would do is to get the drones ready, all four of them, strap the nuclear bomb on one of them and strap empty containers to others, but keep them on the deck, in the hope that the plan can proceed undiscovered. If nobody stops the ship, it can arrive to the port and detonate as planned. But if things go pear-shaped and an attempt is made to intercept the ship, all four drones would be sent towards the shore at top speed, very low over water to defeat radar detection. There would be a single bomb and three decoys, allowing for a small but real chance for the bomb to make it through. 

I told Tia of my thoughts and asked for her advice about how to deal with it.

“A tough one,” she said. “First, we have to assume they are waiting for us. So there is a very little  chance of a surprise attack. We still have the invisibility and force field factor going for us, but if their friends from Azov had communicated anything about our attack, they know they can see us in infrared, and if they concentrate their fire on us and saturate our shields, it’s going to be difficult to return fire. Plus, our weapons won’t be any good against the rugged construction drones. My bet would be to try and make them panic, so they do launch the drones, and then just ram them with our ship. Those are neither military craft nor rockets, they should be easy to disable. Ship, can you ram a construction drone and survive multiple prop strikes? Is it going to be a challenge for your shields?”

“I do not foresee any danger from a propeller strike if we try to ram the drones. However if the terrorists manage to detonate the bomb remotely, or if we trigger detonation accidentally when ramming the drone, we will not survive being at the epicenter of a nuclear explosion.”

Red cap to the rescue! I dove into the Operation Wormwood files to see what I could learn about the weapon: being instantly vaporized didn’t exactly fit my plans for today. There were three interesting facts that I have learned from the files. 

The first one was that there would be no Horseman on board. The plan was simple enough for the aliens not to risk their lives in what was truly a suicide mission. So they were on their own. 

The second fact was that the Horsemen didn’t really trust the terrorists with detonating the device at their leisure. It had a location-based detonator, which would arm the bomb 250 kilometers from shore, and trigger the explosion when it was close to the target location. It would refer to both American GPS system and Russian GLONASS equivalent, to determine that it was within a kilometer or two from the designated spot. Once the device was armed, remote detonation might be possible, but only after the automatic arm radius has been reached. It had to actually arrive close enough to the target to detonate, unless emergency manual detonation is triggered remotely.

The third fact was the most disturbing. Apparently there might be two nuclear bombs planned to be on board.  This was new technology to the Iranians and it was quite finicky, so there was a real chance of a malfunction, in which case the bomb would fizz out. Azov had five missiles, so there was enough redundancy. Arabella’s team took care of redundancy by having two weapons. This was a serious complication. Suddenly it was clear that they have options.

“Ship, how much abuse can you endure? What would it take to breach your shields, beside a nuclear bomb?”

“I can take a substantial amount of damage and deflect or absorb it. Kinetic rounds of any size are not a problem. But there are limits to what my shields can absorb. Portable anti-aircraft weapons should not be a problem, but several modern air-to-air missiles exploding in a quick succession can overwhelm my shields.” 

Suddenly I had an idea.

“Ship, can you go underwater?”

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