The Teacher stood at the mouth of the cave and gazed up at the midnight sky. Stars like jewels shone out over the freezing Afghan desert. Deep inside the caverns behind him, his followers were gathered around warm fires, talking quietly and preparing to sleep.
From beyond the memory of living man this land had been a waste land. Once again the foreigners had come with their killing machines and alien ways. In response the zealots, with their AK-47s and home-made bombs, led young men astray in a suffocating blanket of dogmatism and conformity.
The Teacher had been ignored for so long, condemned as an apostate and a heretic. Yet recently the war-weary population had begun to turn to him, crowds gathered where he preached his message of charity, sharing and selflessness. Tomorrow he and his band of followers would go to the Capital, and perhaps the masses would choose his way.
The Teacher looked up and saw a bright meteor-trail in the velvet western sky. Unlike the sin and ugliness on the ground, in the heavens there was only beauty.
My fact-finding trip to Space Command was almost over. In air-conditioned comfort hundreds of feet below the blistering Colorado sun, I had seen the armchair pilots in their funereal hall, flying their surveillance drones half a world away.
My host, a USSTRATCOM General, listened intently on his earpiece then beckoned me to an inconspicuous door at the side of the corridor.
‘Senator, you’re in luck today,’ he said, ‘We’ve just been granted a kill order on a well-known terrorist leader.’
The general led me into a cramped control room with displays showing orbital trajectories around the Earth. There was a large central screen, currently dark.
‘You’ll be able to watch in real-time,’ the general continued. ‘It’s the one they call the Teacher.’
He showed me to a comfortable executive chair with a good view of the action.
‘This is a weapon system we don’t get to deploy too often,’ he continued. ‘In the tech press they call it God’s Rods but I doubt you heard about it.’
I shook my head – no, this was certainly a new one on me.
The general elaborated. ‘Imagine a bunch of telegraph poles in low-earth orbit, perhaps 200 miles up. These poles are hooked up in pods to a command module and are made of tungsten, ceramic composite, whatever – it depends on the mission. They have guidance fins and GPS and a high-rate video on the front.’
On the screen the blue blob of the command module, orbiting over Saudi Arabia, had released a smaller red dot which was visibly dropping away. On a second screen we could see a simulation of the view from the de-orbiting weapon system, as Iran scrolled beneath it far below.
‘It’s currently travelling at just under five miles per second and dropping down. At 40,000 feet it’ll be pulling 30g deceleration but even at impact it’ll still be doing Mach 10.’
Something was worrying me. The target, the Teacher: I had read something about him.
‘Isn’t this guy the new face of Afghan religion, the leader of the non-jihadist peaceful way? ‘
The general frowned at this and waved his hand dismissively.
‘Something like that, yes. He has got an otherworldly charisma, that’s for sure. If he was prepared to back the current administration we could use him, but he won’t. He’s got everyone fired up on his new faith project. We can’t stabilize the Government and get out of there while he’s effectively obstructing us.’
I found this hard to buy. I recalled that journalists had described this Teacher as a good man, opposed to violence and corruption on all sides. Leaving aside the ethics of it, if we took him out this would set us back years, completely discredit us.
‘You’ve got to stop!’ I exclaimed angrily, ‘When this comes out we’ll lose the last shreds of our dwindling moral authority over there. Abort this mission now!’
The general looked at me slyly and pointed to the screen.
‘I see that God’s Rod is currently at 50,000 feet and 40 miles out. It will impact in 20 seconds. ‘
‘Listen, Senator,’ he continued breathlessly, ‘This thing weighs twenty tons and it’ll hit at 10,000 feet per second. There are no explosives on board – it’s a kinetic strike weapon only, made of natural rock-like materials. When it hits, it will dig one hundred, two hundred feet into that cave complex and it’ll be like a small tactical nuke went off: no-one will survive. But it’s the middle of the desert: only nomads will notice and nothing will be traceable back to us. Trust me; there’ll be no evidence at all at the scene. We’ll probably say the Teacher’s followers had a weapons dump there.’
The simulation screen suddenly went off-line – the general whispered ‘Bingo’ under his breath. Then he turned to face me.
‘One last treat for you, Senator. You remember that camera on the Rod? It runs at 50,000 frames a second, slowing time by a factor of 2000 for the last ten milliseconds. The signal bounces to our nearby surveillance drone and then up to the satellite. You wanna see a twenty second movie?’
Without waiting for my reply he nodded to one of the technicians and the central screen lit up. The rod was one hundred feet from the cave mouth and maybe thirty feet in the air. The onboard laser starkly illuminated a motionless, robed figure with long-hair and a beard. His air of authority was evident despite the bizarre viewpoint.
The Rod now ambled towards the Teacher at a leisurely walking pace. Despite the twenty tons of death barreling in at 7,000 mph, in ultra-slowmo everything was tranquil, easy and calm. The image of the Teacher slowly grew in the center of the screen, his intelligent, watchful gaze never faltering. It seemed unimaginable that he genuinely did not know what was about to happen.
The missile gently slid into his side and the screen blanked, then cut to the view from the circling drone as a mushroom cloud lifted over the rocky bluff, searing-white in the infrared.
‘Show’s over, folks,’ said the general, as he ushered me out of the building.
As I climbed into my car, still in shock at what I’d seen, he gave me a beaming, ironic smile:
‘Seems like the Romans and zealots have won it again, wouldn’t you say, Senator?’
2. Atmospheric Re-Entry, (PDF), John C. Adams, 2003.