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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Four

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



    "So, you're telling me that these three men figured this out from information on the Internet?" the President asked Ronny. The new Deputy Director of the NRO—and still the Director of the Advanced Science and Technology Directorate—smiled and nodded.

    "That's right, but they're very smart guys, Mr. President," Ronny replied. He'd actually been briefed on where one of their "initial verifications" came from, but he decided to gloss over the astrophysicist Hooters' girl. Ronny personally liked that because he knew from his life's experience that you can never judge a book by its cover.

    "Fines, I thought you told us that the phenomenon couldn't be detected by small telescopes." The President turned to his science advisor.

    "Well, Mr. President, as far as I knew it couldn't," Fines replied and shrugged.

    "Mr. President, if I may." Ronny turned the Huntsville white paper to a page mid way through it. The page was marked at top and bottom Top Secret/Neighborhood Watch.

    "Look at this graph on page two, sir. You see, this curve shows that the growth of the phenomenon is nonlinear. The fellows from Huntsville who figured this out used data that was several months more recent than the Hubble data that NASA showed you. And if you follow this curve it tells us that the change in Mars' albedo is such that it's noticeable now with small amateur telescopes. Don't forget, sir, that some of the amateurs in the world have telescopes as big as some of the professional observatories. I fear we can't continue to hide this much longer. Before long, Mars isn't going to be red."

    The President traced his finger over the curve in the graph. It was a growth rate curve, flat for a while then climbing steeply upwards. Economists saw similar things all the time; he understood it well. He also understood that this could be bad. How, he wasn't sure, yet. But he knew it would be bad. Even in stocks, growth rate curves were bad. Eventually, something had to break. Eventually the environment could no longer support the growth and the surplus had to spread. Just where would this Martian growth spread when Mars could no longer support the growth?

    "So what do you need, Ronny?"

    "Well, Mr. President, the guys down in Huntsville have really spelled it out for us in this brief," Ronny replied, tapping the Top Secret document. "We need to commandeer the ccd cameras from the NASA Jupiter probe, some hardware from three of my programs, a commercial spacecraft platform from Ball, an antenna from a DARPA SPO program, and the nearest Delta IV Heavy or Atlas V launch that we can get. All this is already-paid-for hardware, but around-the-clock effort from about two thousand people for six months is required. The hardware costs are about $100 million plus the commandeered components, launch vehicle with integration is about $150 million, the labor is another $225 million, add about twenty-five percent contingency and we're talking $600 million total for the project. The schedule proposed shows a six month build time and a four-and-a-half-month mission time. Normally, with spacecraft design and construction you're talking about people working nine to five. Just increasing that to twenty-four hour schedules will cut the time but the money will go up fast. Dr. Reynolds underestimated our interest, however. I believe if we double the budget and distribute some more of the work we can get the probe ready in three to four months, but after that we'll be looking at diminishing returns. Not much we can do about the travel time to Mars. This is right at the edge of 'doable' boost for current systems."

    The President thumbed through his copy of the briefing one last time, sighed and set the paper down on his desk.

    "And what will this billion dollar spacecraft buy us?" he asked, leaning back in his chair.

    The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs whispered something to the NSA about a "contingency" and Ronny could tell the NSA agreed with whatever he had said.

    "Mr. President," Ronny replied, seriously. "I believe this is the only hope we have of getting intel on the situation on Mars. The telescope for the probe will give us a resolution of maybe as good as a few centimeters as it makes its closest approach to the Martian atmosphere. We could see solid detail of the phenomenon at that resolution. It would be like looking at data from a reconnaissance satellite. That's, essentially, what we'd be building here, an interplanetary reconnaissance satellite."

    "I see," the President replied. "If there turns out to be something bad there, what then?"

    "I don't know, sir."

    "Mr. President, Kevin would like to make a suggestion on that point," the NSA offered.

    "Well, Kevin, don't leave me hanging."

    "Right, Mr. President," General Mitchell said. "We could attach a fairly high yield nuke to the probe and attempt to steer it toward a central activity point. This might slow whatever this is down some," the general said.

    "Kevin, I'm not sure I'm ready for that just yet," the President said, rubbing his chin. "Besides, if this phenomenon has changed an entire planet, I'm not certain what a single nuke could do. Wouldn't you agree?"

    "Yes, sir," the Chairman replied. "I agree a hundred percent with that assessment. However, it does give us an option. Without it, we can't do anything but look at the threat."

    "I agree, sir," The NSA said with a nod.

    "Sir, if I may," Ronny interjected. "Adding that much mass to the probe will change the trajectory. How much, I'd have to run some numbers, but it might be enough to slow it down considerably. And as you pointed out, having the option or not might not mean much as we're addressing a planetary scale phenomenon."

    "I can see that, Mr. Deputy Director," the Chairman said, nodding. "On the other hand, if you can throw a probe to Mars, it means we can boost nukes later."

    "Look into that," the President said seriously. "I'd like the capability. Let's get this probe on the way to Mars, first, and as fast as we can. Kevin, in the meantime I want you and Vicki to come up with a real contingency plan. Sooner or later, the public is going to find out about this. What do we do then? I don't want to get caught flat-footed by a reporter on this issue a few months from now. And if it turns out that our new neighbors aren't friendly, I want to be prepared for that also."

    "One more thing, Mr. President," the DDNRO asked.

    "Yes, Ronny?"

    "We need this project to be in a location that already has plenty of scientists and engineers available and can support the security requirements as well as the manufacturing and integration. I would originally think LockMart's facilities in Colorado, but I'm not sure there are enough skilled and cleared engineers there to work three or four shifts continuously. If we pulled them from everything they're doing perhaps, but I don't know."

    "We need this on a military base in order to keep it protected and buffer it from the public—especially if they find out about it," the NSA replied.

    "I agree," the Chairman said. "And it needs an airport on-base or at least nearby. What about Patrick down in Florida? Or Vandenberg—the 30th Space Wing is out there."

    "I don't know if there are enough engineers there. Some would have to fly in and wouldn't that cause some suspicion?" the science advisor asked.

    "I don't want a lot of suspicion for now." The President looked at the white paper on his desk. "What are you asking me, Ronny?"

    "Well, sir, I think we'll need authority to commandeer a base somewhere, freeze the period of performance on some current space hardware contracts, then fly a lot of folks into that base. That is unless we can find a civilian facility with a lot of technical folks and the infrastructure to support them."

    "I see." The President picked up the white paper and handed it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "Kevin, I think the answer is right here in front of us. Make it happen."



    "General Riggs, sir, don't forget your tee-time in forty-five minutes at the officers' club," Sarah said, sticking her head in his office. The two-star was such a workaholic that he would "forget" appearances like charity golf tournaments if not badgered into them. But a certain congressman from the district his base was in would be on his team and his base was on the base realignment and closure list. Brownie points counted, even though the Redstone Arsenal was eleventh on the list. He had warned Sarah not to let him miss the golf tournament.

    Riggs looked up from his desk at Sarah, who was still standing in his doorway.

    "Thanks, Sarah," he said sarcastically. He looked at the little wooden box on the right side of his desk marked "in" at the stack of paperwork a foot high and leaning dangerously over the edge of the box. Then he looked at the nearly empty "out" box beside it and shook his head. "The things we must do."

    Sarah smiled.

    "You want me to send Colonel Roberts?"

    "Now, Sarah, what kind of message would that send to Congressman Fields? I'll go." General Riggs set his pen back in its holder by his nameplate, then stretched his arms. "I'll just check my e-mail real quick."

    Riggs turned to his laptop and looked out his window over the open court of the Sparkman Center at the people having lunch outside below.

    "If only it would rain," he muttered, but there was no chance of that; the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the clear Alabama sky.

    Sarah turned back to her desk outside the general's door, laughing, and was startled by the phone buzzing. Sarah picked up the phone but knocked her coffee cup off the desk as she sat back down in her chair.

    "General Riggs' office, this is Sarah, how can I help you?" She stretched the phone cord down and struggled to hold it to her ear as she attempted to retrieve her cup and mop up the coffee spill with a PostIt note. When that didn't work she reached for a box of Kleenex on the other side of her desk and in the process sent her jar of hospitality peppermints across the floor.

    "Hello, this is the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Mitchell would like to speak with General Riggs. Is he present?" the voice on the phone said. Sarah looked up over her desk quickly to make certain there was nobody hiding there with a candid camera.

    "Uh, yes he is . . . if you'll hold a second I will transfer the call," Sarah replied, unsure if the call was real or not. She timidly pressed the transfer digits. "Sir, I think you should take this call."

    "Who is it?" Riggs asked as his phone began to buzz.

    "Well, sir, I'm not real certain but they claimed it was the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

    "What? It's probably Fields messing with me." Riggs picked up the phone. "General Riggs here." There was a short pause, then a click.

    "Yes, General Riggs, please stand by for General Mitchell." There was another short pause, then another click.

    "Danny Riggs! Kevin Mitchell here. How are things down there in Huntsville, Alabama, huh?"

    "Great, General," Riggs said, frowning in puzzlement. Redstone Arsenal was a very minor base and he was surprised the general even remembered his nickname. "How may I help you, General?"

    "Well, Danny, we're gonna need your help. I've got a couple of fellas that are going to come see you first thing in the morning and explain this in greater detail, but for now suffice it to say that we need to put that base and the whole town around it to work for the next few months."

    "Anything we can do, General. What's this about?"

    "Well, why don't you call me back in five minutes on your STU at the number I just e-mailed you? I'll talk to you in a minute, bye."

    "Sarah! Get me the STU-III key out of the safe and call Colonel Roberts and tell him to put on his golf shoes!"

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