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Von Neumann's War: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, April 30, 2006 23:21 EDT



Time: Present minus twenty 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 that all the, many, rocket scientists who were judging the Northern Alabama High School Science Fair had chosen to examine exhibits a long way away from this one.

    "Well . . . duh."

    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 had 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 shavetail lieutenant 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 had 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 current 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" shavetail 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 its 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. Those 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 in his left hand pointed towards the ambush 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 Ph.D.s. 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 he lifted the overweight physicist into the air to drag along behind 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 on 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 midair. 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 counterfire 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 midair 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 butterbar and this was only his second firefight. 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 who 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.

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