Alert signals rang out across the control room of Space Tracking Station Galileo. Within moments a pair of operators had trained powerful scanner beams on the unidentified space object that had triggered the alert. A sophisticated auto-analyser rattled out the details on a strip of info-tape.
Object classification: Alien missile armed with Neutomic Warhead
Projected impact area: Western United States
Time to impact: 47 Minutes
Like a well-oiled machine, the staff at Galileo switched to full red alert. The emergency communications channels were soon singing with countless urgent messages. One of them was directed to the World Space Patrol requesting interception and destruction of the missile while it was still in space. Unfortunately, the nearest XL cruiser was more than three hours away at maximum speed.
Plan B was implemented and the Tracking Station advised that out of the numerous strategic rocket bases around the globe, Base Concord was in the most advantageous position to launch an interceptor strike.
In Base Concord’s central control room, Controller Giddings sat before the Variable Geometry Rocket control unit. The launch order had just come through from the World President and had been verified as authentic.
Giddings flexed his fingers and proceeded to program the VGR for liftoff. Interception must take place at an altitude of no less than 80,000 feet in order to avert collateral damage. Fortunately there was no risk of fallout from the Neutomic Warhead, but if the interception failed, the damage and loss of life would be incredible.
With the sequence complete, Giddings set the four-letter emergency destruct code, S-T-A-R, then locked in the flight program and pressed the auto-launch control.
Outside on the launching apron, the VGR gantry began to swivel skyward. When it reached the correct angle the gantry split apart, exposing the gleaming white spear-shaped VGR.
Then with a roar of its exhaust, the VGR shot off the launch pad and screamed into the atmosphere. With each passing second it gathered more and more speed. Mach 1. Mach 2. Mach 3.
As the reverberation of the sonic boom faded away, Controller Giddings stared at the monitor screen. The VGR was already nearing the edge of space. In a few moments it would deploy the variable geometry wings and begin travelling on a horizontal course towards the point where the alien missile was projected to enter the atmosphere.
Sure enough, a green light illuminated on the control console indicating successful transition to horizontal flight. Now it was just a matter of timing. One explosive projectile on course to intercept another. But if it missed…
The Controller looked at the countdown display. Interception in less than 30 seconds. Giddings felt the beads of sweat begin to break out on his forehead. He had trained for moments like this, but when it was real and unfolding in front of him, it was a very different experience.
15 seconds to go.
And then – disaster! A red warning light flickered wildly and a klaxon blared from the console. The alien missile’s entry velocity had been slowed more than had been anticipated. The VGR was going to pass right underneath it and soar uselessly on while the missile reached the ground!
10 seconds to go.
Giddings acted on instinct, his mind barely having time to process anything other than a blinding impulse that was just crazy enough to work.
Like lightning, he keyed in the code sequence: S-T-A-R.
3 seconds to go.
As the countdown struck zero, Giddings stabbed the destruct button.
At that very moment the VGR, which had been passing harmlessly about 300 feet below its intended target, exploded violently. The alien missile flew directly into the explosion a second later, causing a chain reaction that detonated the Neutomic Warhead. The resulting explosion was registered on instruments over 3,000 miles away.
As spectacular as the detonation had been, the blast failed to cause any collateral damage. The VGR had succeeded, if not exactly in the manner intended.