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Von Neumann's War: Chapter One

       Last updated: Saturday, January 7, 2006 18:55 EST



Time: Present minus twelve years

    The teachers looked up at the rocket towering over the exhibit and then at each other.

    “Duct tape?” the female teacher asked. Usually she taught junior high school science classes, especially “female health” and “earth sciences.” It was the first time she’d ever seen a…what was it the boy called it… a “sounding rocket.”

    “Only for support of the outer casing,” the young man said, smiling broadly and scratching at his nearly white hair. “The primary casing is cardboard. I wanted to make a rocket entirely from discarded and readily available materials. The term is ‘off-the-shelf.’ NASA hardly ever uses anything that anyone else uses and I think that’s a damn shame. There are so many things around that you can make rockets out of. The igniter is a spark plug from my daddy’s old Chevy. The energy components, the fuel, are made from common household materials. I made the fins in shop-class when we were working with sheet metal; I brought in a hood off a car in my Uncle Bubba’s backyard and cut it up. You can see the original paint! And the payload is a sodium tracer round made out of an old Jack Daniels bottle I found under the porch.”

    “So, when are you planning on putting the fuel in?” she asked.

    “Well, it’s solid fuel,” Roger Reynolds replied, as if she were dense. “You can’t just pull it out and put it in.”

    “So…it’s fueled?” the woman squeaked. She suddenly realized while all the, many, rocket scientists who were judging the Northern Alabama High School Science Fair had chosen to examine exhibits a long ways away from this one.


    Roger went on to the International Science and Engineering Fair where he placed in the top five overall and first in his category. He also won a scholarship and a job at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. There he was described on his performance evaluation as “precocious”. In private he was described as “that young snot-nosed pain in the ass. And keep him away from the fuel…”



Time: Present minus one year – first Russian Mars Probe failure

    As the Improvised Explosive Device turned his lead Humvee into expensive confetti, Captain Shane Gries, USA took just one more moment to consider how very much he hated all academic eggheads.

    Captain Gries was tall, 6’ 2”, and slim with a square cut jaw, mild blue eyes and light brown hair cut to stubble at the sides. Behind his back his men called him “The Greyhound” both for his looks and his running speed on morning PT. He had been raised in the Iron Range of Michigan, one of the coldest, snowiest and hardest localities in the entire United States. As a teenager, he’d spent more time hunting the massive bucks to be found in the Iron Range than he did cracking books. Despite that fact his grades were excellent. Between those, and a friendly congressman he had gotten an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. His ability at track and field hadn’t hurt.

    At West Point he’d studied another type of hunting, the hunting of armed enemies of the United States. And he’d studied hard ever since. His first unit assignment as a brand new shave tail had been to the First Infantry Division two days before it crossed the Line of Departure and entered Iraq in the first Gulf War. He’d been sent in to replace another lieutenant who had “cracked under pressure” at the thought of actually being in combat.

    He’d been carefully instructed by his company commander on his duties the day he arrived. In a flash, as he always did when the shit hit the fan, he recalled the lecture as the first rounds from the ambush cracked across the road.

    “You have no clue what your job is supposed to be,” Captain Brantley said. To Shane, at the time, he had seemed immensely old and grizzled, probably, gasp, thirty or so. “You have no clue what you’re supposed to be doing and no clue how to function in combat. It’s my miserable job to teach you. But I don’t have time before we cross the LD. So you’re going to have to learn from your NCOs. The way you’re going to do that is to ask them what to do, listen carefully, then repeat what they say. Second Lieutenants are the lowest of the low. First Lieutenants think they have a clue. By the time you’re up to captain, if you survive that long, you’re going to realize you never will have a clue and all you can do is make it up as you go along. But by then, the ones that are the worst at making it up are gone. And you’ll have to make it up as you go along.”

    The scene flashed as a gestalt while his mind simultaneously processed the nature of the ambush. Within a second he’d assimilated the nature of the situation, enemy force, friendly force and secondary conditions. Of course, by then his troops were already returning fire.

    The American Occupation Force, Iraq, had long experience of ambushes, especially in the “Sunni-Triangle”. The Triangle consisted of the area surrounding Baghdad situated more or less in the middle of the country, and delineated by the cities of Al-Najaf, Baghdad and Tikrit.

    American forces had developed a standard initial response that came down to one phrase: “Overwhelming firepower.” As soon as they took direct fire, they returned it with everything the unit had to offer from pistols to the Mk-19 automatic 20mm grenade launchers on the “gun” Humvees. And they’d been so tightly drilled, and experienced so many ambushes, that the response was automatic at a level that had them returning fire in less than a second. Even if they’d been napping at the moment of the ambush.

    It was Shane’s job to determine, in brief seconds, what the response beyond “initial” would be. He had to determine from the volume and position of fire whether the best response was to sit it out and return fire or assault the ambush. And he had to do all of this while dealing with the “surprise” of the situation. Moments before he’d been cruising along minding his own business. Now he had to react, intelligently and thoughtfully, but in less time than most people took to decide between a mocha and a caramel latte. While bullets were bouncing off the armor on his Humvee and Rocket Propelled Grenades, which would tear though the armor like paper, were flying past.

    But Shane was very good at combat gestalt. Even back in the first Gulf War as a “clueless” shave tail he’d been good at it. He knew he was clueless, but you generally were in war, you never had all the information you’d like, and he was good at working with what he knew.

    He knew his primary mission was securing the group of International Atomic Energy Agency scientists that had been “inspecting” a possible covert nuclear site. The group of fifteen international eggheads had been a pain in the ass all day. His job was simply to get them to the site and back, intact. But they assumed that “escort” meant that he was supposed to supply them with food, by which they meant something better than Meals-Ready-To-Eat, water, bottled not from the five gallon water cans on the Humvees, snacks, pop, caviar, champagne, candy or whatever they’d thought of that moment. And to carefully lead them around by the hand, bowing and scraping as a good little grunt should.

    He figured there’d be a bit of a reprimand in the future for not supplying their every need, want and desire. But not nearly as large of one as he’d get for letting the group get wiped out. And as he considered the situation, he could see the egghead idiots popping out of the Canadian Light Armored Vehicles that were their protection.

    He knew that the narrow road they had been forced to use in this section was blocked by the shredded Humvee. Even if the Humvees could creep past, or fly past, the way most of the drivers would handle it, the first vehicle had slewed sideways from the explosion, creating a narrow gap that the LAVs couldn’t negotiate. And they probably couldn’t push it aside, either. LAVs didn’t have the gription. Therefore, they couldn’t simply drive out of the ambush.

    He knew he had all three platoons of his company that were on the jaunt mounted in Humvees, some armored and some unarmored, with Second Platoon, that had just lost it’s lead Humvee, on point, then First, then the LAVs, then his command group, then Third as ass-end-charley. Third was short a squad, which was back in Fort Samson pulling guard detail. First and Second, except for the usual sick, lame, lazy and wounded, were up to strength. Of course, Second had just lost half a squad in a Humvee.

    The ambush seemed to be about fifteen to twenty shooters, at least five RPG grenadiers with the rest firing light weapons, AK variants. There did not appear to be any automatic weapons, either light, medium or heavy. The ambush did not appear to have indirect fire support: usually by now there would be mortars crumping down. They were firing from the ground and second level of a three story building on the right hand side of the street. The building, based upon usual construction, would have walls made of unbaked brick faced with, in this case, fake marble. They could be penetrated even by light arms and the Mk-19s had blown several holes in the walls already. There would be rear entrances and probably windows on the side.

    All of this, and the lecture from his first company commander, flashed through his mind in the first moment of the ambush in one continuous gestalt. Surprise occurs in the mind of the commander. Shane had learned, long before, to never be surprised. He hadn’t managed the Zen trick of constant wonder, to be in each moment, treating each new moment as a constant surprise, but he was darned close.

    So. And so. He had been carrying his mike in his hand, standard procedure in Ambush Alley, and he picked it up and keyed it exactly two and one half seconds after the detonation of the IED. One second to assess, one second to plan. Two and a half seconds were a long time in combat, but he’d needed at least that much time to ensure he had all his facts in order. And, hell, the half second was lifting the mike. He’d give himself that as a Mulligan.

    “Second platoon, lay down base of fire on ambush. First platoon, deploy and secure the science detail. Ensure the safety of mobile personnel…” as he was speaking an RPG penetrated the side armor on one of the LAVs which began to belch diesel smoke and spill scientists out the back like suit-covered maggots, “and recover wounded from damaged vehicles. LAVs, lay down base of fire. Third platoon; set one squad as security. Remainder dismount and assault ambush from right to left, clearing the building.”



    “Top! What are you doing?” Specialist Fort yelled as First Sergeant Thomas Cady bailed out the side of the Humvee into the buzzing fire of the AKs.

    “My job,” the First Sergeant replied.

    Thomas Cady was in many ways the antithesis of his commander. He’d been raised in government housing in Decatur, Georgia where the choice was working in the 7/ll or being a crack dealer. His mother had managed to raise five kids, all from different fathers, on the basis of welfare and occasional child support payments. Thomas was pretty sure “his” father wasn’t even his genetic dad; they didn’t look a bit alike. But the man, who was white whereas Thomas was as black as the ace of spades, had been the only one of the five to make regular support payments. And he’d even visited his “son” and made sure he had regular presents for Christmas and his birthday.

    Maybe it was the example of somebody with some honor and class or maybe Arthur really was his dad. But whatever the reason, Thomas had managed to keep his nose clean. His grades in school weren’t the greatest, but they were good enough that the Army would accept him. And one of the services seemed to be the only way out of the rat hole that was life in Decatur. He didn’t want to chip paint in the Navy, his AGT scores weren’t high enough for the Air Force and the Marines were full up when he tried to join.

    So two months after graduating from Columbia High School in Decatur, Georgia, he’d raised his right hand and never looked, or been, back.

    Over the succeeding fourteen years, he’d gotten married, twice, divorced, twice, had two kids, both by the first wife after which he got a vasectomy, and made sure he not only kept up with the payments and gifts but that he visited his kids as often as his career made possible. He’d also dialed in on his career and his neglected education, picking up an associate degree when he was still a buck sergeant, then his bachelors a few years later. He was currently working on a masters in history when he wasn’t doing his primary job.

    His primary job, in his opinion, was to enable his commander’s orders. That meant, to First Sergeant Cady, anticipating the captain’s orders then ensuring that all the little details got filled in. Whether the order was “get chow to the men in the field” or “wipe out those rag-head motherfuckers in the building.” He’d been with Captain Gries for less than three months but Greyhound was one of those officers with whom First Sergeant Cady “clicked.” He knew the primary mission was securing the scientists. But he also knew that Captain Gries wasn’t going to sit on his hands. Some officers froze when they got shot at. Some hunkered down and returned fire, hoping that the rag-heads would run. Gries believed in the infantry motto: “In the Absence of Orders, Assault!” Which meant some rag-heads were about to get the shit kicked out of them if they didn’t run now.

    He also anticipated that Captain Gries would use Third for the assault. The First Sergeant’s vehicle was forward with First Platoon so if he wanted to get it stuck in the rag-heads, he’d have to make it to the back of the ambush. And along the way, he could do some little things to clean up the captain’s orders. If he shagged his ass.

    Behind Sergeant Cady’s back, the men called him “The Gazelle.” Like his commander, the spade-black NCO was tall, 6’ 4” and a runner. But unlike the wiry captain, Cady looked like an NFL linebacker with a huge torso and massive shoulders. Despite weighing in at nearly two hundred and fifty pounds, he was, if anything, faster than the captain in a sprint.

    He used that speed to good effect less than a second into the ambush, rolling out of the Humvee and darting to the rear, his M-4 pointed towards the ambush in his left hand like a giant pistol. As he ran he spotted targets, firing at them in three round bursts as he pounded towards the LAVs in the middle of the column. He knew he wasn’t hitting anything, but the combined firepower of the unit was suppressing the fire from the rag-head ambushers and that was the point.

    As he pounded past the first LAV one of the scientists stumbled out into the fire and stopped, looking around with an expression of acute stupidity. He was a very smart guy, a Swede who had something like six PhDs. But he was in a situation for which he’d never prepared himself, mentally or physically.

    “Get out of the line of fire,” Cady bellowed. He slung the M-4 and in one continuous motion snatched the scientist off his feet by his suit collar, barely slowing in the run as the overweight physicist was lifted into the air to drag along behind the NCO with only his toes touching the ground.

    The far side of the road had a low wall surrounding a vacant lot. Cady wasn’t sure why anyone would put a wall around a vacant lot, but you saw that sort of thing a lot in Iraq. Some of the guys from Humvees that were drawing heavy fire had already bailed out and unassed to the wall. Cady just adjusted his run to the right a bit, switched hands with the physicist and tossed him over the wall towards one of the defending squads.

    “Keep an eye on him, Reese,” he yelled as he continued down the wall. He ducked a bit since people were firing right past him, but he figured none of his men would dare blue-on-blue him. “And if you see any more of these shit-heads, get them under cover!”

    “Top’s coming down!” Sergeant Reese yelled to the rest of the fighters crouched behind the wall. “Check fire for Gazelle!”

    Two more scientists were out in the road, one down with a bullet in his leg and the other bending over him, waving his hands around as if reciting a magic spell. What was actually going on, Cady knew, was that the second scientist had no idea what to do for a guy with a three finger thick chunk blown out of his thigh. It wasn’t gushing arterial blood, though, so the guy’d probably live. If he didn’t go into shock and die from that.

    Cady just sighed and grabbed them both by their suits, the casualty by the front and the other guy, who Cady recognized as the detail head, by the back then darted to the wall and tossed them both over. The detail head, a supercilious and scrawny French asshole who’d been a particular pain in the ass, actually spent some time in mid air. There was a nasty crack when he hit the ground.

    “Medic!” Cady bellowed, heading down-range to Third’s position. “And bring a splint!”



    Captain Gries saw First Sergeant Cady toss two guys over the wall on the left hand side of the road and nodded.

    “Top’s up to form,” he murmured, as the massive NCO continued his sprint towards the rear of the column.

    “Sir, we’re taking a lot of fire here,” Specialist Reynolds said, nervously. “Maybe we should unass?”

    “Negative,” Gries replied, glancing over his shoulder. He could see the point of Third Platoon, which had been almost entirely outside the ambush, heading around the side of the building. And the fire from the ambushers had already started to slack off. They were either running or being effectively suppressed by the counter-fire from the infantry company. “We’ll be clear soon.”

    He paused as the First Sergeant switched from the left side of the street to the right, actually running into the ambush fire, and cracked open his door.

    “How’s it going, Top?” Shane yelled as the NCO, who was carrying about seventy pounds in armor, weapons, water and ammo, thundered past like an Olympic sprinter.

    “Cool as shit, sir!” First Sergeant Cady yelled back, his face splitting in a grin of white teeth that were startling against his skin. “I think I broke Dr. Caseaux’s arm!”

    “Hoowah!” Shane yelled back. “Don’t let ‘em get away, First Sergeant!”

    He closed his door just as a round bounced off it then felt the vehicle shake from a series of impacts; someone was trying to track in on the running NCO.

    “Gotta lead him, more,” he muttered to no one in particular as the armor on his window spalled from a direct hit, leaving the deformed 7.62 round stuck in the thick plexiglass about five inches from his head. “Missed me, missed me, now you gotta kiss me…”



    First Sergeant Cady rounded the corner of the building and got to the side door while Third Platoon’s point, Specialist Charles Walters, was still kicking at the door with his boot.

    “Scat,” Cady said, slapping the specialist on the shoulder while his foot was in mid-air preparing for another kick. The slap sent the specialist stumbling to the side four feet and onto his back, but if he noticed it wasn’t apparent; he was up on his feet again before Top had gotten in his first kick.

    It only took a single kick from one of Top’s size sixteens, though, for the light wooden door to open, splintering away from its hinges and onto the floor.

    “Stack up!” Sergeant Gregory shouted. The Squad Leader of Second Squad, Third Herd, Gregory was a relative newbie in Iraq and still worked “by the book.” The book said that the point took the door down then the remainder of the squad “stacked”, closed up with each other to enter the room with each member of the squad having a particular area to cover on entry.

    He’d never actually been in an entry with The Gazelle and wasn’t prepared for the actions of the massive First Sergeant, who blocked the squad then tossed a frag through the door.

    “Back,” Cady said, waving the stack back along the left wall. He’d tossed the grenade well back and to the right, so the fragments were unlikely to penetrate the left wall. But frags were tricky; you never knew how they’d bounce. He crouched by the door with his left shoulder leaned towards it, weapon at tactical, and depended on taking any bouncers on his armor.

    The grenade went off with a “crack” and there was a small secondary that blasted dust out of the door and a hole in the right wall.

    “They put IEDs in the door,” Cady said, glancing over his shoulder at Gregory as he darted into the dust. “You either do a close check or you try to detonate it.”

    “Got it, Top,” Gregory panted as the stack moved into the room. He knew the First Sergeant had been at the front of the column when the ambush went off. How in the hell he’d suddenly appeared the sergeant couldn’t understand. He kept doing that, just appearing out of nowhere. It was uncanny.

    The room beyond was empty of anything but junk and cobwebs with an open door on the far side. That led to a narrow corridor but just beyond the door there was a staircase that led up.

    “Specialist Thomas,” Gregory said, tapping the soldier directly in front of him. “Secure this location with primary direction of security…”

    “Follow me, sergeant,” Cady interjected. “Bring your squad.”

    The First Sergeant bounded to the first landing in two massive strides, turning to cover the top as fire started to die away upstairs.

    “Oh, no you don’t,” Cady said. “You’re not getting away from the Gazelle.”



    “Romeo Three-One…this is Echo Two…Five.”

    Captain Gries sighed and picked up the mike.

    “Johnny, this is the CO. We’re encrypted. Go plain.” The Third Platoon leader was a butter-bar and this was only his second fire-fight. He tended to get flustered.

    “Sir, we’ve performed entry on the side of the building,” Second Lieutenant John Crevasse said, nervously. “The First Sergeant entered with my Second Squad. First Squad is in support.”

    “Roger,” Gries said, looking down the road. All the scientists were either still in the vehicles or over the wall and at least out of sight if not out of danger. He could see one trooper down on the road with a couple of troops pulling him out of the line of fire, but so far casualties appeared to be light. “Move yourself and First squad to the rear of the building. Do not enter. Try to find a point that you can interdict movement out of the building. Second Platoon, detach one squad to cover the left side of the building. Let Top clear the second floor then we’ll see what’s what.”



    “Specialist Nelms!” Crevasse yelled.

    “Hoowah, sir!” Specialist Nelms raised his head up in response and rushed to the Lieutenant.

    “I’m moving first squad to cover the rear of this building but with all these goddamned buildings in the way I’m not sure we can cover it from ground level. I want you to get the high ground and give us some cover.” Lieutenant Crevasse pointed to the south and across the street at the five-story office complex.

    “Yes, sir! Got the high ground, sir!” Specialist Nelms hefted his Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle and trotted across the street, looking for a good snipe-point.

    He weaved in and out of the shadows like an expert hunter, which he was. He had grown up in central Texas hunting whitetail and mule deer. It was only recently, however, that he had been stalk-hunting terrorist insurgents. Deer didn’t shoot back with cheap imitation Russian or Chinese RPG-7s – and cheap or not they still would kill you dead as doornails. Specialist Nelms had just happened to be one of the lucky few that scored 50 out of 50 on the annual corps marksmanship test. Before that he had a pretty cushy job in the motor pool. But a perfect score was a perfect score. The military being short on snipers, he was handed a Barrett and shifted to a line unit.

    Nelms moved quickly to an alleyway that led to a blown out wall in the five-story building. He slipped through the hole in the wall and cautiously made it to the stairwell. It was his job to make it to high ground and cover for First squad, the Second platoon detachment, and Top. Specialist Nelms didn’t want to let them down – especially not Top. He liked Top and believed in the First Sergeant’s Credo: Do unto others before they do unto you.



    First Sergeant Cady stopped again at the second landing. The stairs continued upwards to the third floor, but he hadn’t seen any fire from up there. There was a door at the top of the landing and he tried the knob. Unlocked. He opened the door slowly, checking for telltales of an IED and finding none, then peeked around the corner. There was a corridor with several doors. From some of the open doors he could hear Arabic voices and the occasional crack of gunfire.

    “We’re going to clear room-by-room,” the First Sergeant said over his shoulder. The guy directly behind him was Specialist Herr, the squad automatic weapon gunner. The First Sergeant held out his M-4 and snatched the SAW out of the gunner’s hand. “Feed me.”

    With that he stepped quietly down the hall, moving remarkably silently for his bulk, until he got to the first door. He waved his hand to stop the stack behind him and armed another grenade, tossing it into the room carefully at the level of the floor then stepping well clear of the door.

    The grenade went off with a bang and the First Sergeant darted through the door while the fragments were still pinging around the room. There were three tangos in the room, one on the ground screaming from fragments in his legs, most of a body next to him and the third just turning away from the sandbagged position by the window.

    Cady targeted the shooter by the window with a burst of fire that spun him to lean out the window then backed into the hallway.

    “Two Tango KIA,” he said into his squad radio, “one Tango WIA. Room clear.” Herr darted past him and kicked the wounded tango’s weapon aside, dropping to one knee to slip plastic cuffs on the terrorist’s wrists.

    The stack had passed the First Sergeant and he watched as they cleared the next room. As the first two members of the stack entered the room, a tango darted out of one of the rooms down the corridor. He headed for the far end, though, where there were presumably more stairs, rather than trying to fight the American troops in the hallway.

    Cady had too many bodies between him and the tango to target the ambusher, but privates Jones and Mahoney from the stack engaged him, tossing the terrorist to the floor. He was only wounded, though, and still tried to crawl to the doorway at the end.

    Cady moved forward as the stack entered the room, dropping to one knee on the far side of the door to cover the hallway. He’d barely taken a knee when the bulbous round of an RPG peeked around the corner of the third door down.

    Now, body armor will stop a lot, but it’s not going to stop an RPG. And the grenadier wasn’t in sight. That didn’t stop Cady, though, he just laid the sights of the SAW on the round itself and fired, throwing himself to the floor immediately afterwards.

    The 5.56 rounds from the SAW impacted on the casing of the grenade, throwing it upwards just as the grenadier pulled the trigger. The round fired, frying the grenadier with backblast from the floor and filling the room beyond him with more blast and flame. The round itself impacted with the ceiling and, being within its minimum safe-arming distance, bounced off the ceiling and skittered down the hallway with a whistling sound.

    Cady rolled into the doorway, tripping a member of the squad who was on his way out. He grabbed the troop, who turned out to be Sergeant Gregory, and threw him into the room, toppling two more members of the squad in the process.

    The RPG slithered down the walls of the corridor until it impacted on the far end. Herr had just stepped out of the first cleared room when it past and he caught fragments in his legs and right arm while the explosion blew him off his feet.

    “I’m hit!” Herr called, rolling back into the room. “Medic!”

    “Stay there!” Cady called, rolling back into the corridor. He ignored the intervening doors, pounding down the hallway to the door where the RPG gunner had been and tossing another grenade into the room. As soon as it was out of his hand, he jumped back, throwing himself to the ground with his back to the left-hand wall opposite the previous room.

    The grenade went off with a crack followed by a massive secondary explosion; he’d managed to roll it right into the ready ammo for the RPG gunners. The purple-orange explosion blew out the interior walls of the room, filling the corridor with smoke and dust and momentarily deafening the First Sergeant. He rolled over backwards, coming to his feet and spinning to the previous room. He peeked around the door but there wasn’t anything to worry about there; the explosion had blown in the walls to that room as well and the terrorists were lying on the ground, writhing in pain.

    Stepping into the room, he could see into the one that had held the RPG gunner and through holes into the last room in the hallway. He dropped to one knee and scanned the opening, looking for targets. A tango was just getting to his feet and the First Sergeant spun him to the ground with a short burst before springing to his feet and darting through the hole in the wall into the RPG room. There was a massive hole in the floor near the corridor wall that he had to negotiate around carefully. There were also two or more bodies, bits really, scattered around the room.

    He passed through, staying away from the windows where occasional “friendly” rounds continued to crack, to the far hole. There wasn’t any definitive movement, just the one tango he’d targeted on the ground. He tossed a grenade through, anyway, backing away to avoid the fragments, then exploding through the hole as soon as the grenade went off.

    There had been one tango by the windows on the near wall, but he was riddled with fragments and coughing blood, his AK on the floor by his hand. Cady kicked it away then made his way across the creaking floor to the door, peeking into the corridor then ducking back as rounds cracked from the far end.

    “You shoot me, Gibson, and I’ll put you on vehicle painting duty for the rest of your natural life!” the First Sergeant bellowed.

    “Sorry, Top!” the private called back.

    “Coming out!” the First Sergeant yelled. “Somebody come through and tag these tangos! And somebody else get Herr’s ammo!”



    Specialist Nelms sighted the building that First squad was taking rear cover positions on. He could see and hear a lot of action taking place on the second floor. And a lot of shouting; the First Sergeant’s accent was clear even through the bellows.

    The second room that he came to on the fifth floor had a jagged hole, a remnant from previous street fighting, down near the floor. He set the Barrett down and peeked through, careful to keep his silhouette away from the window. The hole was wide enough that he could cover the entire roof of the building across the way and get an angle into the side street.

    Sure about his snipe point he slid the Barrett forward and snuggled it into his shoulder, peering through the BORS sniper scope and tracking for targets. He scanned the street and the side buildings until an RPG or a grenade going off in the building across the street caught his attention. The walls around the explosion were being pock-marked by fire from somewhere to the side. And it was increasing.

    Nelms calmly but hurriedly scanned in the direction of the sound of the AK fire and there they were. Seven insurgents had dug in on the third floor of the building, or what was left of it, and were zeroing in on Top and the stack as they tried to move from the interior hallway to the exterior rooms where the other insurgents were taking cover.

    Breathe in…out one, two, three, squeeze. The trigger on the Barrett depressed and Specialist Nelms tracked the round. The rifle used the venerable .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun round or “50 BMG.” Developed during the First World War, the round was extremely powerful with massive overkill on “soft” targets like Iraqi insurgents. When the target was hit, the bullet, quite literally, blew the tango apart. The upper torso of the Iraqi insurgent blew upwards and to the left, trailing unidentifiable pieces, while the severed legs and pelvis dropped out of sight.

    The Barrett had pushed him back at least three inches, despite the fact that he was stretched out on the ground, but he brought it back into battery automatically and retargeted. Breathe…squeeze!

    This time he’d hit high and the round punched through the terrorist’s upper chest, spreading a red stain across the wall behind the muj and covering his buddies with blood. This time the impact tore away the connective tissue and bone on the right side of the Arab’s throat and upper chest and when he fell backwards his head flopped off to the side.

    Nelms contemplated the sight for about an eighth of a second with dispassion. It was an interesting example of ballistics and he wanted to make sure he’d seen it correctly. With the exception of casual professional interest, he had no other feelings about the shot. He sometimes wondered if that was because of all the hunting he’d done or because of the nature of the enemy. He, like most of his fellow soldiers, really did not like the Iraqi insurgents. They had no particular honor in their fighting methods, most of them weren’t even from Iraq and, in general, they were incompetent at anything but setting roadside bombs. To Nelms the man that he had just shot was less than a human and killing him felt more like stepping on a cockroach than murder.

    Nelms pulled the sniper rifle in and up and rolled to the right and then bear crawled to the window at the far end of the room; the signature from a Barrett could sometimes be very noticeable so the experienced snipers had called for no more than two shots from a single position. Quickly he dropped the bipod of the rifle on the windowsill, targeted, and fired twice.

    He held still to see what the remaining insurgents were doing. Through the BORS he could see the last two of them scanning for him and covering at the same time. They were preparing an RPG. Nelms didn’t pause this time to breathe he just opened fire on them with the rifle forcing them to cover. The commotion drew attention to the insurgent terrorists’ location and two bursts of SAW fire from First squad took care of them. Nelms ceased fire and continued to scan for targets.



    “Top this is Bravo Six,” Gries said, glancing at the building. He had been able to track the First Sergeant’s movements pretty closely by the carnage apparent from the windows. “I’m sending a squad from Second in through the bottom floor. Be advised, there’s no more fire coming from the building; the tangos have done a runner.”



    “Roger,” First Sergeant Cady said over the tac-net. “We’ll just tag and bag, then.” He looked down the corridor and thought for a second. “Gregory, we’ve got this floor, Second’s got the bottom. Tag and bag!”



    Shane was checking his e-mail when the Third Battalion CO, Lieutenant Colonel Mark M. Markum entered his office.

    “Nice job on that ambush,” the colonel said, sitting down in a rickety Iraqi chair one of Shane’s troops had “liberated” and installed in his office. “The news media is making it look like definitive word we’re unable to ‘ensure the security of Iraq during the upcoming election’ since we couldn’t even guard these scientists. But that’s par for the course.”

    “We had three wounded and one dead,” Shane said, shaking his head and taking a sip of pop. “I’d like some way to figure out when we’re going to be ambushed.”

    “Science fiction isn’t reality,” Markum replied. “All we can do is keep killing the insurgents and hope they get the picture. When the Iraqis take over for good and all…well we’ll see what they can do.”

    “I’d like another citation for Cady,” Gries said, changing the subject.

    “He do another Terminator?” the colonel asked, chuckling. “I remember when he was just a sergeant in Second Brigade. Look how little Thomas has grow’d.”

    “Well, he deserves it,” Shane said, sighing.

    “You don’t look happy,” Markum replied. “You didn’t take that many casualties this time for how hard you got hammered. So what’s up? Oh, your majority?”

    “I suppose I shouldn’t be pining on it,” Shane said. “I was just hoping I’d have mail. I was on the list. I thought I’d have my leaves by now.”

    “As soon as you get your leaves you have to transfer out of the company,” the colonel pointed out.

    “I’m aware, sir,” Gries said, smiling faintly. “And, yeah, I don’t want to do that, either. Tough call, huh?”

    “Giving up your command for the shittiest rank on earth?” Markum said, grinning. “Yeah, it’s a tough call. Career or the only fun to be had in the Army, command?”

    “Fun,” Shane said, darkly. “I’ve got letters to write tonight. But, yeah, command is as good as it gets. I don’t know whether I should be hoping I get my major leaves or sorry if I do.”

    “Well, you’re going to have to decide soon,” the colonel said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small cardboard rectangle with two sets of major’s leaves on it. “I got the mail, not you.”

    “Crap,” Gries whispered, shaking his head. “What now?”

    “You’ve got fifteen days to perform change of command,” the colonel said, smiling. “Then you’re on temporary orders to deploy back to rear det at Ft. Stewart. The rest of your orders, I’m given to understand, are somewhere in somebody’s inbox awaiting ‘determination.’”

    Shane frowned at that and glanced over at his commander.

    “I’m up for CGSC, right?” Gries asked, referring to Command and General Staff College. The Army’s premier course for “middle managers”, CGSC was a pre-requisite for promotion beyond major just as War College was a prerequisite for flag rank. It could either be taken as a correspondence course or on-site, the “full” course, at Ft. Leavenworth. The latter was much preferred, promotion-wise, to the former and Shane had been given to understand that as soon as he had his majority he was on the list. He’d been a very good boy in the Army, not only getting all the little merit badges he was supposed to get, the airborne wings, the Ranger tab, but he’d never gotten anything short of a “walks on water” review. With the star on his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, meaning he’d been to war, as an infantry officer, twice, he was a shoe-in for full bird at the very least, assuming he didn’t really screw up. Since he didn’t screw the wives of subordinates, the daughters of generals or males, he figured he was golden. If he could get the “full” CGSC course.

    “Got no idea,” the colonel replied. “All I know is you need to start clearing your company so you can boogie on back to Stewart and the world. Me, I’m stuck here for the next five months.”

    “How do I get out of this Mickey Mouse organization?” Shane said, trying to smile.

    “You can’t,” Markum admitted. “You’re also on stop-loss.”



    “So, what’ve you got Mr. Hamilton?” Dr. Simms asked as he flipped through the three hundred pages of data Jack had just dumped on his desk.

    “The data from the Hubble Telescope run we made last month on the Martian surface albedo doesn’t match the data we took last year,” Jack said, furrowing his brow. He had hopes of completing his dissertation with this run of data but for some reason the albedo he measured this year with the aging space telescope was completely out of synch with last year’s data. Furthermore, it didn’t match in very odd ways. If he had tainted the data some way or if the Hubble was failing again, all his four years of research could be wasted – or at least delayed another year or two. And damnit, Jack was ready to graduate and start making money. As much as an astronomer ever made, anyway.

    “Let’s not be rash, Jack,” Dr. Simms continued scanning the spectral graphs in the stack of printouts. “I know the Earth-based data won’t be as defined as this, but have you considered getting Sandi over at Flagstaff to make a measurement for you? At least then we would have something to compare the Hubble data to. You could implement that filtering technique of yours to clean it up some.”

    “Well, I hadn’t thought of Sandi,” Jack admitted. “But I did try it with my sixteen inch setup at home. There just isn’t enough aperture for the measurement. I’ll call Sandi and see if she can help me out.”

    “Who knows, Jack, they may already have the data for some other measurement. Don’t give up yet.” Simms tapped one of the figures and chuckled, “But I don’t think this can be right. That is a lot of silicon. It looks like a computer factory.”



Time: Present minus eight months – first European Mars probe failure

    It had taken Jack about four months to collect all of the data he needed. Fortunately, Dr. Sandi Thiaput at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona had made several measurements of the Martian albedo for another project the previous year and Sandi emailed the raw and post-processed data to him. But a new measurement had to be ordered and put in the experiment cycle. It was more than three months of merely waiting for his turn at the telescope. When the time came and the system had been set up to make new Martian surface albedo measurements, Jack logged on to the telescope control page and took over the system; he could manage the telescope at the Lowell Observatory from his office at John’s Hopkins University via the Internet.

    The measurement involved taking several exposures over several hours each and the need for multiple measurements required several nights of telescope time. Jack had lost about a week of sleep by the time the final data was crunched through his filtering algorithms and massaged into a form that made sense to the human eye.

    As the algorithm ground to a halt the computer pinged to alert that it had completed processing the data. The ping startled Jack awake. The graph that was displayed on the screen really woke him up.

    “Dr. Simms! Dr. Simms!” Jack screamed as he burst into the little rotund professor’s office. “It’s real! The reflectance albedo of Mars has changed in the past year!”

    “Calm down, Mr. Hamilton, and let me see what you have there.” Dr. Simms nodded for the graduate student to sit as he took the stack of printouts from him. The graph on the top page showed the reflectance of Mars as of the previous year in black and the most recent measurement in red. The red and black curves were clearly different in both shape and magnitude.

    “You see what I mean? The planet is…well…brighter! And it has different compounds on the surface than before.” Jack rose from his seat, leaned over his advisor’s desk and tapped his finger on the red curve.

    “You’re certain this data is correct?” Dr. Simms asked, stroking his beard as he pondered the graph. “You sure Sandi isn’t just playing a trick on you of some sort? She’s been known to do that in the past. This looks … this can’t be! It’s either the most remarkable data in history or…but that’s the spectrum of…this can’t be right!” he said as he grabbed a materials reference book from his shelves.

    “You can go ahead and look it up if you want, doctor, but I already did that,” Jack said. “It’s aluminum and lots of it! There is also steel, carbon based alloys of all sorts, silicon, and even what looks like gold. And most of all, it must be highly polished for the albedo to be that high. And there has to be lots of it!”

    “This can’t be right-“



    “This can’t be right,” Shane muttered, glaring at the e-mailed copy of his orders.

    “What’s wrong, sir?” Captain Tyler asked. The two had been in opposite cubicles since Gries had returned from Iraq. From CO of an in combat company to Assistant S-4 would look lousy on a review, but it was just a holding position while DA figured out what to do with him. Usually, that sort of thing was worked out months in advance of a captain’s promotion, but in Shane’s case, something had gotten in the works. He’d been on the horn to DA nearly daily, trying to find out where he was going, CGSC, a major’s position “commensurate with career progression” or what. In the meantime, he’d been Assistant Rear Detachment S-4 (Logistics) officer, Field Grade Officer of the Day at Division Headquarters and any other jack-shit detail a field grade officer could get shafted with.

    And now this.

    “Orders,” Shane said, angrily. “I’ve got my orders.”

    “And they’re, sir?” Captain Tyler asked. He was the “real” assistant S-4, a supply officer who knew his career prospects were limited to maybe making full bird colonel in charge of an out-of-the-way depot instead of the strong possibility of stars. Despite that the slight officer couldn’t resent Major Gries; the guy was just too damned nice.

    “Pentagon,” Gries said, steamingly pissed off. “Deputy Assistant Project Officer, Infantry, Defense Design and Acquisitions Bureau.”

    “What does that mean, sir?” Captain Tyler asked, carefully, aware that the normally laid back major was right on the edge of going off.

    “I have no fucking idea,” Shane replied, sharply. “But it’s sure as hell not Command and General Staff.”





    Ret Ball: You are listening to the Truth Nationwide, the largest syndicated talk-radio program on late night across this great country. We have open callers tonight. Whatever topic you wish to discuss we want to hear it. Kim from Tampa, Florida you are on the Truth Nationwide.

    Caller: Oh my gosh, it’s so great to be on your show Ret. I listen to you every night and you really do have your thumb on the pulse of the world.

    Ret Ball: Thank you, Kim. What do you want to discuss tonight?

    Caller: Well, I was wondering about something. With the war over in the Middle East and all we don’t see much on the regular news anymore, but have you seen the stories about the European Space Agency and the Russians losing their Mars spacecraft? I mean, I saw a little blurb about it on CNN but there were no details. Why have we lost several probes from different countries all within the past year?

    Ret Ball: Ah yes, I have seen a few articles about this at but they explained away any unusual circumstances.

    Caller: I’ll have to check that article out, but isn’t that typical. They always explain away everything. Thanks Ret, keep fighting the good fight.

    Ret Ball: Thank you Kim. Let’s see, the next caller is, AHA! Our old friend and regular caller, Megiddo from underground. Go ahead old friend, you are telling the Truth Nationwide!

    Caller: Greetings and salutations, Ret! It’s good to hear that there are people out there with their eyes and ears open. Indeed, we’ve lost several probes at Mars and it’s only a matter of time before we start losing all of them there. Have you observed Mars lately, Ret?

    Ret Ball: Why I guess I haven’t, Megiddo. Why? Tell us what is going on, old friend.

    Caller: Well, I have been watching since the first European probe was lost and something about the little red planet looks…different. Ret Ball: Different? How so?!

    Caller: The albedo is shifting, Ret, shifting in a way that is clearly the result of intelligent design. I’m telling you, Ret, the CIA knows about this and they’re covering it up, spending all their time trying to track me down instead of facing this critical threat to our very lives! Our solar system is under an invasion from an Extra-Terrestrial intelligence as we speak. The government is never going to warn us in time to take action; it’s all up to you, Ret. This is your hour! You must spread the Truth, Ret!

    Ret Ball: I see. So the government is behind a cover-up of an ET invasion. Typical of them, Megiddo my old friend. Well, I’ll have to get my telescope out and go take a look at the red planet for myself! We will speak the Truth! No matter what forces come against us! You’re on the air…



Time: Present minus four months – loss of first U.S. probe

    “Well, Tom, you work for NASA, you tell us,” Roger said with a sly grin. “Alan and I are just lowly space defense contractors and wouldn’t know anything ‘bout no NASA rocket science.”

    Dr. Roger P. Reynolds was born, raised, and educated in his home state of Alabama. Although he was well known in the space reconnaissance community as somewhat of a space systems engineering genius, outside of those classified rooms you would never know it. In his late thirties with a runner’s build a more seemingly stereotypical educated southern redneck you could never find – right down to his slow southern drawl and his Roll Tide necktie and ball cap.

    “That’s right. Us here Huntsville Alabama hicks don’t know nuthin’ bout no rocket science.” Alan said in his best southern drawl, laughing. Alan Davis, unlike Dr. Reynolds, whom he thought of as “his sidekick”, was only first generation redneck; his parents had moved to Huntsville when he was seven. Now at thirty-seven years old there were still hints of his Yankee dialect in his speech. Alan stayed a North Alabamian and went through college at the local university earning master’s degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering before “going corporate” and getting a job doing mechanical and electrical engineering on space defense projects for the Space and Missile Defense Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

    “Why would all the probes there suddenly quit workin’?” Roger said more seriously as he swirled the pitcher of beer in front of him and started to pour more into his glass. The Hooter’s waitress passing by slapped him on the hand and took the pitcher away before he could pour a drop.

    “That’s my job,” the slim brunette said.

    “Ha, serious job security issues you got there, honey,” Alan said with a laugh as he offered his empty beer glass up as well. “Yeah, Tom,” he continued. “You tell us how that could happen.”

    Tom leaned back on his stool and took a big draw from his beer glass. “Well, personally, I think we should nuke Mars now. There ain’t no electromagnetic phenomena or anything that could do it. Haylfahr, iffin it wore solar flares or somethin’, it’d be affecting satellites here at Earth,” he said in his horrible attempt at an Alabama accent.

    Dr. C. Thomas Powell Ph.D. was a Californian only recently transplanted to North Alabama. Tom was the elderly “gray beard” of the bunch. In his early fifties and with slightly graying dark hair he represented an archetype of overeducated academician who would rather spend his time solving fourth order sets of coupled differential equations than eating when he was hungry. He was originally from the California Institute of Technology and had been transferred from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So, the Alabama “hicks” had to give the expert rocket scientist from JPL a hard time.

    “‘I don’t know’ is the only answer I can come up with, guys,” he said more seriously. “And you’re not the only ones asking, trust me.” With that, Tom shrugged and hit his beer again.

    “You know, I’ve been catchin’ up on some of my newsgroups the past few days,” Roger mused. “And the weirdest thing is that some of the amateur astronomy groups are saying that the actual color of Mars is changing. Now I don’t know that I believe that since that would require some major changes in either the surface or the atmosphere of the planet.” Roger grabbed a buffalo wing from both ends and twisted it counter-clockwise then pulled both bones from it leaving nothing but the meat of the chicken wing in one strip. He dipped it in the hot sauce then in the ranch dressing in front of him. “I guess we could calculate the surface change requirements, if we knew the extent of change that was being claimed.”

    “I don’t think I believe that shit,” Alan replied.

    “No, the calcuflation fwool be feasy,” Roger said with a mouthful of buffalo wing.

    “No you idiot,” Alan said. “I don’t believe the color of Mars is changing.”

    “Well, that part I’m not sure about either. But I know that we ain’t talking to any of our probes there anymore.” Tom tried the trick with a wing and it squirted out of his hands and onto the floor. “Shit!”

    “I got it,” their waitress said, swaying over to wipe up Tom’s mess.

    “All I know is that the newsgroups are saying that there is a visible difference in the appearance of Mars.” Roger demonstrated the wing trick once again for Tom. “And, yeah, the guys on the newsgroups are amateurs, but they’re not stupid and they can’t all be nuts. ‘Amateur’ astronomers have better hardware than most professionals did in the 1960s and even later.”

    “Well, then we should try to calculate the significance of that change,” Alan demonstrated the trick also then washed down the wing with beer. “They don’t have wings at JPL? Hell, Tom, it ain’t rocket science.”

    “I’ll never figure that out,” Tom said, ruefully. He picked up his next wing and simply bit into it.

    “Are y’all talkin’ ’bout Mars?” their regular waitress asked with a smile as she approached, picked up the pitcher, and began refilling the glasses.

    “Yeah, Rog here thinks its changing colors on us,” Alan said.

    “Oh, it’s!” the waitress replied. The three men stopped what they were doing and gave their undivided attention to the young blonde Hooter’s waitress – as if they hadn’t been already. She was pleasantly stacked with shoulder length hair, blue eyes and long legs that ran straight up to a nice pair of assets. Her nametag read: Traci. It was also hard to read since it pointed more or less straight up.

    “How you know that?” Tom asked.

    “Oh, my advisor and I looked at it last night in PH 489,” the blonde said nonchalantly, as she refilled their glasses. “Y’all want another pitcher or anything?”

    “Sure, and some more wings…PH 489?” Alan said, scratching his head.

    “PH 489…hey ain’t that a senior level Special Topics class?” Roger asked.

    “ORDER IN!” Traci yelled as she slid the order for the wings down a wire into the kitchen. “Yeah, it’s a senior level physics elective. I’m helping with the astronomy for poets class in order to get time on the ten-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope in the UAH observatory. After the freshman business and art majors are through, I use the telescope to make some real observations. I’ve been watchin’ Mars for my project. I’ve got about two semesters worth of data.”

    “Traci,” Tom said, peering at the girl’s breast-perched nametag. “I remember you. You’re a physics major or an optics major or something like that?”

    “Tom, you never pay attention,” Roger said with a smile. “That’s the whole problem with NASA; attention to detail. She’s an astrophysics grad working on her masters. So, you’ve been watchin’ the red planet, hey. What have you found - any canals or little green men, little funny lookin’, big-headed aliens that go aaackk aaacckk aaack?”

    “You’re funny,” Traci said, smiling thinly. “Over the period of this semester I haven’t noted any visible difference. But if you take images of Mars from a semester ago then compare it to the way it looks now, it’s different.”

    “How so?” Roger asked.

    “It’s less red,” Traci said, definitely. “The color has blue-shifted significantly. It looks more gray now. It might be my imagination but I think the albedo is up, too. Too bad the University At Home can’t afford a real spectrometer, ‘cause I’d really like to see the detailed spectral content from Mars, like down to at least tens of nanometer resolution.” She paused in thought then winked at Tom, springing up and down so her large and obviously unnatural breasts bounced charmingly. “If there are big tentacled aliens coming to town, do you think they’ll like my hot and spicies?”

    “Uh…” Tom said, his higher brain functions momentarily circumvented.

    “Traci, could I get copies of those im-im-images?” Roger asked. He was just a tad more suave than his fellows, but even he stumbled over “images.” The two large images in his mind at present had nothing to do with Mars.

    “Sure,” Traci said, just as seriously. “What’s your email address?”

    “Thanks,” Roger dug a business card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her.

    “Nuke Mars NOW!” Tom said, coming abruptly back to the moment. “Wait a minute. The University At Home?”

    “Never mind him Traci,” Alan said with a grin. “He’s a foreigner from the left coast. They’re not all that swift if’n you know what I mean.”

    “I forget you’re from California, Doctor Powell,” the waitress cooed, causing another meltdown. “I meant the University of Alabama in Huntsville or UAH. We affectionately refer to it around these parts as…”

    “The University At Home,” Roger and Alan chimed in.

    “I get it,” Tom said, grinning.

    “I’m so glad for you,” Traci replied, widening her eyes in mock surprise. “After all, it ain’t rocket science.”

    Roger and Alan tried not to fall off their stools laughing as the waitress bounced over to get their order. Tom just sighed.

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