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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 3, 2006 21:13 EDT



    âœWaiting sucks,â? Major Gries muttered under his breath while he flipped through an unclassified white paper about synthetic gecko skin. This small five employee company in New Mexico had decided that they had a new invention that would allow infantrymen to walk up walls, trees, windows, you name it. But, Gries was having a hard time getting in to see the scientists that was supposed to be there to meet him. Apparently, the secretary of Gecko-Man, Inc. explained to him, Dr. Forrester had forgotten that today was Wednesday and that he was supposed to be there for a meeting.

    âœMajor Gries,â? the secretary told him. âœI just contacted Carl, uh, Dr. Forrester, again and he was in his car on the way here. He apologizes for his confusion and says you should make yourself at home. Would you like some coffee?â?

    âœYes maâ™am that would be nice.â? Shane said.

    âœNormally, one of the other engineers could show you around, but everybody is at a preliminary design review in Clarendon this week. Sorry.â? Carolyn Breese finished filling a Styrofoam cup with hot black coffee. âœSugar or cream?â?

    âœBlack is fine, maâ™am. Thanks.â? Gries sat back down into the folding chair against the wall across from the secretary a bit annoyed now that he realized there was going to be a considerable amount of time killed in small talk with Mrs. Breese. That was not a real bad thing and Shane was not the type that was too stuck up or important to spend time talking to a little old lady. In fact, she kind of reminded him of his mother. But, he had a lot of work to get done and he had a three p.m. flight from Albuquerque to LAX that he had to make. He had hoped he would have time to get lunch from some place other than the airport - that didnâ™t look promising now. Airport food was killing him and making him soft. Shane hoped that he could get in a ten kilometer run sometime tonight but most likely he would end up on a hotel treadmill, which got old fast.

    After about forty-five minutes of chatting with Mrs. Breese, Forrester finally arrived. The scientist was stereotypical of the âœgraybeardâ? type. Five foot nine perhaps and Shane guessed that he would weigh in at about two hundred and thirty pounds, not much of it muscle. His hair, although short in length, was extremely unruly and did not appear to have been touched by a comb in years. The most stereotypical part about the scientistâ™s appearance was that he was wearing slacks, a shirt and tie, but at the same time was wearing running shoes. Running shoes, Gries laughed to himself. This guy hasnâ™t run anywhere but to the fridge and back in his life. Shane smiled and offered his hand.

    âœHello Major. Sorry Iâ™m late. It simply slipped my mind about our meeting today. Iâ™m Carl Forrester,â? he shook Shaneâ™s hand, smiling happily in return.

    âœHi, nice to meet you, Dr. Forrester.â? The humor in the manâ™s appearance was enough for Shane to forget about being angry that he had been kept waiting.

    âœCome, come with me,â? Dr. Forrester told him leading him down the hallway. The little laboratory was located in an old strip mall that had gone belly-up. The walls had holes and raw unsanded white spackle and sheetrock mud splattered at random as if someone had made a piss poor attempt at fixing them.

    There were filing cabinets, one Moesler safe with little green magnets on each drawer saying CLOSED, books, and spiral bound reports stacked all along the floor and on top of the cabinets.

    âœHere weâ™re,â? Dr. Forrester pecked in some keys on a cipher locked door then swung the door open to a makeshift laboratory that was filled with workbenches, a Snap-on toolbox, a few computers with wires running from them into aluminum boxes, and rolls and rolls of what looked like orange sandwich wrap â“ Shane recognized it as Kapton. He had already been to several composite armor companies and recognized the polyimide material that was used in most of the next generation armor labs.

    âœThis is a sputtering chamber where we grow our synthetic gecko skin,â? Forrester pointed at a large enclosed chamber with a computer control panel on the front of it. There were several manipulators, spinning tables, and stylus arms inside the large enclosed device.

    âœWhy donâ™t you give me a little background before we get into the show? Iâ™m not certain I understand how this stuff is supposed to work.â? Gries requested.

    âœAh, great, great.â? Forrester motioned to a workbench stool with a stack of papers on it. âœYes, yes, have a seat.â?

    Shane looked at the bench then around the cluttered laboratory for a place to set the papers. He carefully picked them up and sat them in the floor. Forrester had already turned away from him and was erasing a whiteboard across the room. Shane chuckled to himself again and sat down.

    âœYou see, a few years ago some fellows at Berkeley and at Carnegie Mellon had the idea that being able to emulate a gecko and walk up walls and across ceilings might, and Iâ™m sure youâ™d agree, be a fun and useful thing.â? Forrester stopped long enough to grin from ear to ear at Gries. âœThink about it. If we could create a material that enabled us to have the nimble little lizard's incredible grip, wow, the applications would be endless.â?

    âœThe efforts of those fellows made the idea a step closer to reality as they were clever and worked out how to make a material coated with synthetic gecko hairs. Uh, Iâ™m getting ahead of myself. Let me seeâ¦â? Dr. Forrester ran his fingers through his unruly hair. âœAh yes, the hairs on gecko feet biologists call them setae. These little setae are the key to its remarkable grip on just about any surface, rough or smooth, wet or dry and the things are so sticky that the little lizards can hang from a ceiling with their entire weight held up by a single toe. Isnâ™t that just marvelous?â?

    âœYes, Iâ™ve seen little geckos do that trick before. The ones they call leopard geckos are all over Iraq.â? Shane added.

    âœIraq, yes indeed, leopard geckos, hmm, marvelous.â? Forrester chuckled and his belly jiggled like Santa Claus. âœWell, it wasnâ™t until as recently as last year that we understood how these little guys can do such a nifty thing. In fact, there was some very, shall I dare say, heated, debate about why geckoâ™s setae were so fantastically sticky.â?

    âœReally,â? Shane asked, trying not to let his eyes glaze over or check his watch.

    âœOh, indeed. There was one school of thought that there was some gluey chemical interaction taking place between their feet and the surface they walked on. But that didnâ™t pan out. This really clever fellow, uh, named Ron Fearing, and a few of his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley finally figured it out. Can you believe that it turns out to be an electromagnetic interaction between the geckoâ™s feet and the surface molecules, wow!â? Forrester said excitedly.

    âœOh yes, believe it or not, the adhesion is in fact due to very weak intermolecular attractive forces called van der Waals forces. Amazing, isnâ™t it?â? He chuckled again and spent the next few minutes drawing a diagram of the gecko setae and explaining the van der Waals attraction.

    While his back was turned, Shane stifled a yawn and did check his watch. He had no more than an hour he could spend here and it was airport food for sure. If he didnâ™t make it through security, fast, it would be soggy sandwich time.

    âœThe way it works is that the gecko setae measure tens of microns across and at their tiny ends they split into lots of even more tiny, thinner, extremely flexible hairs, each just hundreds of nanometres in diameter; now, isnâ™t mother nature just incredible?â? The scientist added, looking over his shoulder at his audience and apparently failing to notice that Shaneâ™s eyes were creeping closed.

    âœThese little hairs then broaden out into flat spatulas, just like egg turners, at their tips. The wonderful little buggers can bend and conform to the surface of the wall at the molecular level and believe it or not again, this maximizes the surface area contact between the spatula and the surface which in turn maximizes the van der Waals attractive force. I just canâ™t hardly believe it, can you?â? Forrester seemed almost giddy.

    âœUh, no?â? Shane added uncertain if the question had been rhetorical or not. He restrained the desire to check his watch watch again. The guy wouldnâ™t be hurried by it he was sure.

    âœFinally, these other fellows Iâ™ve been talking about figured out how to synthesize the gecko skin. Wonderful ingenuity, wonderful,â? Dr. Forrester said enthusiastically. âœModern vacuum deposition, lithography technology, and some other materials technology allowed them to build synthetic gecko setae made from a material called Kapton that you see there in those orange rolls behind you. They made little gecko hairs that measures about two microns in height and about a tenth that in diameter. That is about the same dimensions as gecko hairs are. They made tape that was covered with this gecko hair with a mould created by a lithographic process. And the most wonderful part is that a piece of tape one centimeter square holds around 100 million of these little artificial gecko setae and can actually support a weight of one kilogram. Wow! That suggests that a pair of gloves made of this stuff is all it would take to support the weight of a human being!â?

    âœWhatâ™s the catch? That sounds too good to be true.â? Shane leaned forward at that statement. Second-floor entry wasnâ™t required that often, but various forms of climbing did occur in infantry combat. A pair of lightweight âœsuper climberâ? gloves would be a great addition to the infantrymanâ™s pack. Well, it would add a smidgeon of weight, butâ¦no, they could get rid of most ropes, which would drop weight. Weight had been a bug-a-boo in the infantry field all the way back to the days of Sargon.

    âœAh, very astute, very astute, major.â? Forrester replied and frowned. âœThe previous researchers have never been able to produce a synthetic gecko skin that worked more than a few times. The little gecko hairs get crushed or dirty or something and the material stops sticking to things. Very astute.â?

    âœSo, it only works a few times then you fall off the wall. Hmm, that could be hazardous for Geckoman the superhero I would think,â? Gries smiled and was somewhat disappointed. Even if they could draw it out, they probably wouldnâ™t be good for more than one use. Start talking about disposable gloves and it would be a pain.

    âœOh, yes, Geckoman, funny.â? Forrester chuckled like Santa Claus again. âœBut you see, weâ™ve figured it out! I think we can deliver a material that will be completely reusable and work for tens of thousands of uses, maybe even indefinitely if itâ™s cleaned after every few hundred uses. Here watch this.â? Dr. Forrester rummaged through some equipment on one of the cluttered work benches and found what looked like a typical toyâ™s remote control box.

    Forrester flipped some switches and Shane nearly jumped out of his seat as a bright blue toy monster truck slammed into his stool. Forrester continued to flip the control levers on the box then seemed to get control of how to steer the little monster truck. Shane noticed that the wheels of the truck were âœoversizedâ? to say the least. In fact, the wheels were so large that they stuck out in front of and above the little vehicleâ™s frame. The little toy truck must have been modified with a more powerful motor just to turn those big things over.

    âœWatch, watch!â? Dr. Forrester said as he drove the little monster truck across the room and right up the wall.

    âœHoly shit!â? Gries grinned. âœCan I play with that?â?



    "Sure, go over and pull it off the wall, major." Dr. Forrester replied.

    Shane crossed the cluttered room being careful not to trip on some piece of equipment and break it or his neck then grasped the toy truck. Shane pulled at the truck and it failed to unstick itself from the wall. He got a better grip on the truck and pulled harder â“ the truck stuck steadfast. He wasnâ™t sure he could get it off if he planted his feet.

    "I love that bit!" Forrester gave a deep belly laugh. "Iâ™m sorry, Major Gries. I couldnâ™t resist. You see, we figured out that the gecko is clever indeed. He has to twist his foot in a certain motion to release himself â“ we think. So, you have to do the same with the synthetic material. Thatâ™s why I drove the truck up the concrete wall instead of the drywall â“ I take it you noticed all the spackle in the building."

    "Yes, I did."

    "Well, letâ™s just say weâ™ve had a lot of fun with that trick, ha ha." He laughed again. "You know, it took us forever to develop a tire that would spin with just the right motion that would stick when you wanted it to and not when you want it to. Roll the truck forward and pull up and forward at the same time."

    Gries did and the little truck went schaluurrpp and popped right off the wall.

    "Well Iâ™ll be damned." He rolled the truck over in his hands. "How do the wheels get unstuck enough to roll?"

    "Like I said Major, that took us a long time to figure out. Geckos do it, so we just studied how they walked on walls and had to mimic that type of action with the wheel rotation. It wasnâ™t easy." Forrester chuckled.

    "Can you make me a bunch of this stuff, I mean tires for little Recon trucks, boots, gloves, sticky-balls, bags, rolls of the material, you name it?"

    "Well, Major, you see weâ™re but a small group. To mass produce this would probably take start-up costs of a few million dollars or more. That little truck alone cost us about four hundred thousand dollars and thatâ™s not counting the development cost for the synthetic gecko skin."

    "That seems to be the way life goes doesnâ™t it?" Gries said with a sigh.

    "Indeed, major. Indeed."

    Shane looked at the truck, turning it over and over in his hands. They were starting to use trucks like this for recon, especially urban recon. He thought about the ambush heâ™d been in and running a couple of these, suitably loaded with explosives, up the walls and into the rooms the rifs had been using. If the stuff was really durable, it would be useful for way more than just climbing. Hell, it was a replacement for velcro. Zippers even. Natick was the Armyâ™s clothing and gear development center and Natick would go nuts playing with this stuff. Furthermore, they didnâ™t always have to jump through all the acquisition hoops for experimental stuff.

    This would require a start-up investment, though, and Natick couldnâ™t swing that. DARPA, maybe. What Geckoman really needed was a venture capitalist to jump-start the company. And somebody to actually run it, for that matter. Keep the spackling on the walls, make sure people made appointments.

    "Iâ™m just one step in the process," Shane said, slowly, still turning the truck over and over as he thought, "but you have my support. Iâ™m going to recommend this for an acquisition investment, but youâ™ll probably get more money, faster, if you could get a private investor." He looked up at the manâ™s suddenly fallen face and grinned. Even frowning Forrester looked funny, like a clown wearing a frowney face.

    "Hey, itâ™s never easy," Shane said, still grinning. "But, yeah, this stuff is major interesting and Iâ™m going to push for a fast track. But fast-track is usually for acquisition of stuff thatâ™s Off-The-Shelf. I know a guy on the DARPA side, though, the Tactical Technologies Office or TTO. They might be able to fund, I dunno. Iâ™ll talk to my boss and DARPA when I get back, thatâ™s all I can promise."

    "I appreciate that," Forrester said, almost seriously. "Iâ™ve been trying and trying to find an investor for this, but nobody can see the possibilities."

    "Then theyâ™re blind," Shane said, still turning the truck over and over.



    The telescope sensors came online and began to slew the telescopeâ™s axis. Location information from the star trackers fed into the pointing software and realized that the planet was outside the slewing capability of the telescope mount. So, a subroutine triggered the attitude control system of Percival to fire the ACS thrusters and spin the reaction control wheels to align the spacecraft axis with a Mars line of sight. Then the software guided the telescope to bring Mars into the field of view.

    The shiny gray planet was centered on the telescope guidance sensor array and the software then activated the ACS and RCS systems to maintain center field of view lock on the little planet. The locations of Phobos and Deimos were mapped to the pixel location on the wide field focal plane camera and the software subroutine began a continuous track on the small moons.

    A similar acquisition and tracking routine was completed with the High Gain Antenna and Earth line of sight. Feedback between Earth and Percival was fed through the omni-directional Low Gain Antenna until signal lock was obtained with the HGA. Testing of the HGA and the telescope sensors was conducted by ordering the spacecraft to capture images and spectral data of the distant planet and download the data through the HGA-to-Earth link.

    After an exhaustive checkout procedure it was determined that all of Percivalâ™s systems functioned properly. Neighborhood Watch was operational.



    "So, what is it you think we should be doing, Ronny." Roger looked out Dr. Guerreroâ™s second floor window at the front entrance to NRO that they always show on the news when referring to the nationâ™s space reconnaissance office. Heâ™d been in the building before but never in so rarified an environment.

    "I donâ™t know, Roger. But we should be doing something." Ronnyâ™s Cuban accent was still obvious after a life of living in the United States. Sometimes that caused people to automatically assume he was a bit dim, a mistake they rarely made twice.

    "The President and his advisors agree that we shouldnâ™t just sit on ourâ¦butts for the next four months," Dr. Fines, added, frowning and looking at the wall rather than the engineer.

    "Weâ™ve assembled a team of the nationâ™s most brilliant DOD and NASA engineers, so, the President wants them to continue preparing forâ¦whatever is to come."

    Fines had been in multiple meetings with the President, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs since the launch of Neighborhood Watch and everyone had been in agreement with that basic statement. The President had been particularlyâ¦blunt.

    "George," Ronny Guerrero said leaning back in his leather executive chair and placing his hands behind his head. "I think we should take the core group and let them have free reign to brainstorm. Perhaps they might identify more key players that should be involved in the future. But their mission should be to just brainstorm. When we get more data from the probe we can downselect to more likely scenarios."

    "That almost sounds like a pork barrel, Ronny." Fines shook his head.

    "Well, that is what I think needs to be done." Ronny leaned forward reaching for his coffee cup. It had the NRO symbol on one side and "Boss Mon" imprinted on the other. There were some that wondered about having a former Cuban national in charge of the nationâ™s surveillance satellites. But, on the other hand, he had quite a few people in the building who had been rooting for him for years. The mug had mysteriously appeared on his desk the day after he took over. Given the security on the room, that had taken some doing. He was still considering the security implications.

    "Ok then," Fines said with a sigh. "Iâ™ll tell the President that weâ™re working on possible scenarios. Weâ™ll get the funding, somewhere, to maintain the team with a small material, research and support budget."

    "Good. Roger, why donâ™t you get the right group of guys together and start thinking about our situation," Ronny said, nodding at the engineer.

    "Iâ™ll get right on it." Roger replied. "Iâ™m going to need to get a secuity waver, though," he added, trying not to smile.

    "Whatâ™s that?" Dr. Fines asked, seriously.

    "Weâ™re going to have to get the Huntsville Hooters restaurant designated as a secure facility."



    "So Rog, you ever heard of CASTFOREM?" Alan Davis refilled his coffee cup and sat down in the breakroom of the Neighborhood Watch office suite in one of the commandeered buildings of the Redstone Arsenal in north Alabama. Ronny had missed the humor in Rogerâ™s request and had meanly to give a waiver for Hooters. It was a joke after all.

    Besides, it wasnâ™t open twenty-four hours and that was, just about, the schedule theyâ™d been running. The team had been brainstorming, researching or cautiously picking the brains of scientists and "futurists" just about 24/7 for the last couple of weeks. And he thought theyâ™d have some downtime!

    "CASTFOREM? Cast-forum, Castfor-em⦠Donâ™t reckon I have Alan." Roger took the empty pot that his friend had just sat back down, frowned, then refilled the coffee maker with water, a new coffee filter, and more coffee. He added twice the amount of coffee grounds suggested on the Folgerâ™s bag â“ he needed the caffeine.

    "Well, it turns out that there is this software code that was developed for wargaming and simulating new technologies and how they impact possible battle scenario outcomes," Alan said, yawning and taking a sip of coffee. He frowned at the burnt taste. "Stands for Combined Arms and Support Task Force Evaluation Model. Itâ™s the approved code for the Army. Here, look at this." Alan handed his friend and boss a printout of some PowerPoint slides.

    "Hmm, â˜CASTFOREM is a brigade force-on-force, closed-loop stochastic combat model comprised of and captures output data for: Command and Control, Communications, Combat Service Support, Engineering, Surveillance, Engagements, Maneuvers, System/Environment.â™" Roger read out loud then muttering to himself as he scanned the bottom of the page. "Gotta love that bureaucratese. â˜CASTFOREM is a highly robust simulation tool that can model individual entities at resolutions required to address the study issues.â™ In other words, you plug in the parameters and it tells you if you win or lose."

    "Iâ™ve been talking to a small alphabet soup company here in town that has been modeling the Future Combat Systems with this code." Alan pointed out the three letter company logo on the printout. "He thinks that he could modify the code, relatively soon, so that we can simulate damned near any type of magic weapon or concept. And, in turn, the simulation will tell us how it impacts the battle scenario."

    "Yeah, but can it model an alien attack from space?" Roger looked up from the page raising his left eyebrow.

    "Well, I didnâ™t exactly ask him that, but he did say if you wanted to give the enemy rayguns and teleporters you can â“ with some slight mods to the code that is." Alan mixed sugar and cream into his cup and took a sip. "He did say it would be expensive."

    "Oh yeah? How much?" Roger flipped the switch and the coffee maker started gurgling.

    "He said about two hundred thousand dollars for a month of modifying and simulation running." Alan smiled as Rogers concerned expression changed to humor.

    "Small businesses are great ainâ™t they? Two hundred thousand, hmmph, I was expecting you to say something like a million dollars or more." He grinned and opted for a Mountain Dew out of the vending machine instead of waiting on the coffee. "Wish we had Jolt Cola in this thing," he muttered.

    "So what do you think?" Alan asked.

    "Future Combat Systems, hunh? That suggests that they have at least a Secret clearance right?" Roger popped the soft drink can top.

    "Yes. So, do I bring them in?"

    "Bringâ™em in," Roger nodded. "In the meantime, how many alien invasion movies have we watched thus far?"

    "Well, so far, weâ™ve seen thirteen of the eighty-seven movies and television shows we compiled." Alan counted in his head for a second. "No, wait, make that fourteen."

    "Well, letâ™s keep at it."

    "At the six to seven movies a day that weâ™re taking in, it should take us about fourteen or so days to finish. That is, assuming we work weekends. Again."

    "Good assumption," Roger said taking a swig and swishing it around in his mouth.

    "Whoâ™d ever thought that the NRO would pay us to sit around and watch alien invasion movies?" Alan finished off his coffee.

    "Nice work if you can get it, right?" Roger said with a smile. "Iâ™ll meet you in the conference room and weâ™ll get back at it. Iâ™m gonna stop by the secretaryâ™s office and have her order us some pizzas. Why donâ™t you get these CASTFOREM guys briefed and modifying their code? They should be ready to start simulating flying saucers and such in...How long did you say?"

    "Fourteen days."

    "Right, fourteen days." Roger finished off his Mountain Dew and threw the empty can at the wastebasket in the corner of the breakroom. He missed. "By then we should be done with the movies. Then we start cracking the books."




    Tina had spent the last few months staying with her friend Charlotte since her mom had been temporarily transferred to Florida. Her brother Carl had been staying with one of his buddies – he and his mother hadn't really been that close since the divorce anyway, so the separation from their mother didn't really impact him as much as it had Tina.

    Tina, on the other hand was close to her mother and although she liked Charlotte better than a sister, she really missed her mother and wanted to go home for a while. Her mother, Alice, was the quintessential soccer-mom (actually a cheerleader mom in Tina's case) and for her to be away for so long a period of time was hard for both of them. But Tina understood, or at least Alice hoped she did, that only something really important could keep her away from her family for so long.

    Fortunately, Alice had gotten a two-week vacation and had planned to spend all of it in Denver with her kids. Of course, Tina's sixteen year old brother Jason had more important plans than to be hanging around with his thirteen year old little sister and his mother on a Saturday night. So Tina and Alice were hanging out by themselves at home for the first Saturday evening in over four months. Oh sure Tina had visited her mother in Florida for the launch of the rocket her mother had worked on, but that wasn't the same.

    "So, what did you want to do tonight?" Alice propped her feet up on the ottoman in front of the couch. "It feels so great to be home."

    "Uh huh," Tina looked up from the television and nodded. Tina tapped the view button on the remote so that the time was displayed on the upper left corner of the screen. "Well, if you don't mind I'd like to watch my show in five minutes. But after that, I don't care. Maybe we could rent a movie or something?"

    "Sure, what show is it that you want to watch?" Alice was almost afraid to ask.

    "Weeelll," Tina hesitated. "You're not gonna believe this but Charlotte got me hooked on it. It's on the Cartoon Network and is called Justice League Unlimited."

    "Oh yeah, what's it about?" Alice had always thought that Charlotte was a good influence on her daughter, so this intrigued her.

    "It has all the superheroes in it. You know, Wonderwoman – she's my favorite – Superman, Batman, Supergirl, the Martian Manhunter, Flash, and every superhero you can think of." She replied sheepishly.

    "Oh yeah, does it have Spiderman in it?" Alice asked then misinterpreted her daughter's expression. "I just like Spiderman, okay?"

    "Uh, no, mom. Spiderman is Marvel and Wonderwoman is DC. Charlotte had to explain that to me too, so don't feel bad."

    "I see. Well, let's watch it then."

    Tina flipped the television over to the Cartoon Network just in time for the animated series to begin. Alice was glad that her daughter's "show" was on the Cartoon Network rather than on HBO, MTV, or some other programming that might have questionable content, because, as it stood Tina was thirteen, but she had all the signs of being a twenty something girl gone wild sometime within the next week or so.

    The program began with a couple of climbers going up the side of a mesa somewhere in a desert in the States. When the couple crested to the top there was an alien spacecraft there. Alice became more interested in the program.

    The spacecraft began producing little probes that would self-replicate and their numbers began to increase nonlinearly.

    "Wow! This is a full scale Mega Alert!" Tina said right after Superman made a similar statement in the program.

    "What does that mean?" Alice asked her.

    "Oh, that means they call all known superheroes to the trouble spot!" Tina said her eyes glued to the television as the costumed superbeings began slugging it out with the alien self-replicating robot threat.

    The entire cast of DC superheroes – there must have been hundreds of them – and the military fought these things throughout the program. The extreme might of the comic book legends was no match for the strength of massive numbers and immediate self-replication of these alien bots.

    Then one of the superheroes had the presence of mind to send Superman off to find Dr. Ray Palmer, also known as the Atom. The Atom is a scientist who can control his size down to an atomic scale. He recognized very quickly that these alien bots were replicating themselves with nanotechnology and explained that they were most likely Von Neumann Probes. He then explained that the scientist John Von Neumann suggested over fifty years ago that self-replicating bots would be the ideal way for interstellar space travel. He went into further details about how the nanotechnology might work. The fact that Tina was watching a show about such high tech concepts thrilled her mother. It beat E!, MTV, or FUSE hands down. She would never say anything bad about the Cartoon Network again.

    In the end the Atom figured out a way to defeat the alien probes from deep within the probes control computer. Tina was edutained.

    Alice was excited that her daughter was watching such imaginative and educational programming – she had been right about Charlotte – and she needed to make a phone call to Huntsville, Alabama. Right now.



    "The computer just finished running the latest battle scenario, Rog. You want to hear the results?" Alan flipped through a stack of papers half reading the data.

    "Let's hear it," Roger turned away from his laptop for a moment and gave his undivided attention. Besides, checking the status of Percival one more time this hour wasn't going to help get it to Mars any faster.

    "Well, in this case we made the aliens ten times harder to kill than human soldiers. We increased the armor coefficient by ten and we gave them rayguns that have an output intensity of a gigawatt per square meter. We gave them terabits per second communications capabilities and unlimited MASINT." Alan continued to read off the list of unbelievable abilities they had given to the alien threat to be simulated as the red forces.

    "Yeah, what do we have?" Roger leaned forward in his office chair and tipped the little kinetic desk gadget on the corner of his desk. A little Space Shuttle attached to a metal rod at one end and a metal ball at the other end zinged around inside a little metal ring in all three dimensions. Roger stared at the motion for a second.

    "Well, we started out with just what we can deploy today." Alan scanned the printouts of the simulation results. "Then we added nukes, tac-nukes, RF weapons, directed energy systems, experimental missiles and aircraft, chem-bio, and so on."

    "And?" The little Space Shuttle slowed then stopped. Roger tapped it with his right index finger and sent it whirling again.

    "Blue forces totally consumed by the red forces threat." Alan read from the report.

    "No shit."

    "No shit. What now?" Alan shrugged his shoulders looking up from the report and noticing that Roger was only partly paying attention to him.

    "That was a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar obvious answer, hunh?" Roger sat quiet for a moment longer, spinning the little desk gadget again. "Let's have some fun with this and model in some other stuff. I mean magic stuff. Try something like in Independence Day, or The Puppet Masters or War of the Worlds or something."

    "Well, we tried chem-bio agents like in those last two you mentioned and no luck," Alan said with a frown. "To be realistic, we have no idea about their physiology so there is little way we can put in an agent with a high confidence. Oh sure we could fudge it in the simulation if you want to win, but it wouldn't be based on reality."

    "Like any of this stuff is? We don't have a clue what we're up against here. Hell, their might just be some ten million year alien varmint hatching planet wide there – who knows?" Roger shrugged.

    "Well then, since it's all made up anyway, I'll add some miracles to see what happens." Alan scribbled on the printouts.

    "Do that just to see what happens if we were to find that, I dunno, toothpaste, or bad breath, or something as equally unlikely kills them. Who the hell knows? What about cyber?" Roger sat back in his chair now board with the desk gadget.

    "We tried that and in the same train of thought is why it had little impact. Again, I'll fudge a run for you." Alan scribbled some notes on the printouts again then began tapping his head with the pen.

    "Hell, give us transporters and antigravity just to see what happens." Roger sort of smiled while at the same time looking disappointed. "Hey how about adding power armor like in Starship Troopers and Ringo's Posleen war books or the veritech fighters, hovertanks, and cyclones in Robotech." "I'll get right to it."

    "Oh, by the way, Alice Pike called me Saturday night with an interesting bit of information. Apparently John Fisher's daughter strikes again."

    "Refresh my memory…John Fisher's daughter?" Alan asked.

    "You know, she is the thirteen year old amateur astronomer that captured the images of Mars with her eight inch telescope that we're putting in the final report to Ronny."

    "I didn't realize that was John's daughter. How about that?" Alan said. "Apple didn't fall too far, hunh?"

    "Well, like I said, she's made another unwitting contribution to the Neighborhood Watch." Roger said.

    "How so?"

    "I didn't realize this, but John and Alice have known each other for years and their daughters go to the same school together. It appears that John's daughter has gotten Alice's daughter to watching sci-fi and cartoons – apparently this is a big deal to Alice. Anyway, Alice and her daughter watched an episode of the cartoon called Justice League Unlimited this weekend. Alice said that we needed to see that episode."

    "Really? JLU, yeah I've seen commercials for that, but I haven't had time to watch one of them yet." Alan said. "Did she say what the episode was about?"

    "Yeah she did."


    "Von Neumann Probes attacking Earth."



    "What'd ya mean that nothing helps?" Alan Davis just could not believe that the combination of powered armor suits, super cyber weapons, SuperCrest (as they had called the alien chem-bio agent as a joke on Roger), ultra high bandwidth communications, and even through-the-Earth transporters were not enough to beat the simulated alien red forces. After a month of modeling, no blue force winning scenario had been modeled.

    "Well, here, watch the big screen and you can see the results for yourself," the programmer from the CASTFOREM simulation group explained. "We used D.C., Atlanta, LA, New York City, and Seattle as the central points of attack and had the red forces spread radially outward from there as blue forces were depleted. Now, we did have to assume a continuous supply of red forces from space." The software engineer tapped a few keys and nodded to the screen.

    The big screen on the wall of the War Room – as it had come to be known – displayed a map of the United States with multiple blue forces gathered at scenario battle theaters scattered across the country. A tiny red dot appeared at each of the cities mentioned and they began growing into red blotches that oozed outward. As more and more red began to spread across the map engulfing the blue forces, a window on the side displayed a tally of casualties and capabilities losses. The numbers were staggering and in the tens of millions and growing each second.

    "This even uses the transporters, right?" Alan asked.

    "Right. You see here that just about a year after the initial attacks begin, the war is over. Red forces win and spread to the rest of the world, pretty much no matter what miracles we use."

    "There has got to be a way to win this thing." Alan scratched his head while he stared at the big screen.

    "Well, there is." The software engineer said.

    "Don't keep me hanging," Alan replied.

    "You have to cut off their infinite re-supply of troops from space."

    "Now how the hell are we gonna do that?" Alan asked with a frown. "Where is Superman when you need him?" he muttered.



    "That's right Mr. President, every wargame that we've developed so far says that we cannot win an all out invasion within the first year." Ronny Guerrero explained to the President and his senior staff.

    "You mean your boys down in Alabama have come up with no brilliant ways to beat this thing?" the NSA asked.

    "No ma'am and as I understand it, nobody at the Pentagon has come up with anything either. The suggestions of the Neighborhood Watch team is that we need a larger all out defense development effort to determine if there are possible solutions available." Dr. Guerrero paused to measure the President's reaction.

    "You mean something big like the Manhattan Project, don't you?" He asked.

    "Well, sir, I think it would have to be bigger than that and Star Wars and Neighborhood Watch combined." Ronny said trying to make no facial expressions, but it was hard for him to hide the grimace.

    "Well, keep moving ahead at the level of efforts you have now and add a little to have your team figure out how to set a program like that up. But we'll wait until we get the recon from Mars before we embark on such a mammoth economic drain. Who knows how that would affect the economy right now?" The President replied.

    Ronny held his expression blank, but thought that the President should be more concerned about our survival than the economy. He's still not understanding the severity of what we might be facing, he thought.



    The NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH team leaders and data reduction staff gathered around their respective consoles at the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC) at NASA Marshal Space Flight Center. There were others riding consoles at DSN locations around the world and at various relay satellite ground stations. Of course, only people who knew all about NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH were aware that any signal was being received from Mars. In fact, the stations being used were all "shut down for repairs."

    Roger Reynolds sat quietly at the HOSC trying to make heads or tails out of the previous image that had just completed downloading. The image was taken minus two hours from Percival's closest approach to the planet's surface. The telemetry data received to that point suggested that Percival should get as close as about fifty-four kilometers from the surface. At that altitude an image from the high resolution point camera would have a resolution of about ten centimeters – small enough to see a license plate but not read it. The probe was approaching Mars fast and would go from 50,000 km away, through the closest approach, and to 50,000 km past Mars in a period of less than two hours.

    Data from spectral analysis taken at further distances from the planet had already been downloaded. There were gases and metals but no signs of organic substances such as methane or ammonia. As the spacecraft approached closer to the planet the high resolution camera took priority on the download list.

    Mission timeline approached fifteen minutes from minimum distance as the latest image dinged complete. The image had been taken sixty minutes to closest approach and had taken about forty-five minutes to download. As soon as the image download was complete, download of the next image in the sequence began.

    Roger pulled the approach minus sixty minutes image up and ran the post processing software. The image sharpened on the screen in front of him and on several monitors simultaneously throughout the HOSC. "Holy shit," he muttered under his breath. At minus sixty minutes from Mars the spacecraft was about 50,000 km from the planet and so the image resolution was about 60 m per image pixel. And at 60 m per pixel all Roger could say was… "Holy shit!"

    "Roger, am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" Dr. Guerrero asked pointing at a section of long straight lines interlaced in a grid-like pattern. Years at the NRO had trained him to notice artificial features in space reconnaissance imagery and Ronny recognized what he was seeing. But he couldn't believe it.

    "Roads perhaps? Or maybe high rise buildings? But, these things are a couple hundred meters wide! I don't understand what I'm seeing yet. The scale is just too…large," Roger replied. The next image in the sequence had begun downloading and thus far the mission was going as according to plan. The currently downloading image was acquired at 13,000 km from Mars with a resolution of about 20 m per image pixel. Roger had the raw data displayed as it was downloaded. The first few rows of the image filled in across the screen as the mission timeline ticked by, but with no post-processing it was hard to determine what they were seeing. But it appeared like a very large cityscape or industrial center, but very, very large.

    "How could objects this big be manufactured from Martian soil so quickly and across the entire planet?" Alan asked over Roger's shoulder.

    "Dunno?" Roger said, stumped. "Magic, I guess."

    "Maybe we'll understand it better when the image is finished and we can clean it up some." Ronny scratched his head and took a sip from the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of him. "But, it looks like a civilization. A big civilization. That just…sprang up."

    "How much longer do we have to wait to get the rest of this 20 m resolution image?" Alan asked.

    "Well, it has been downloading about fifteen minutes or so. It'll take about another thirty. I'm gonna grab a coke, I'll be right back."

    Roger stretched and stood from his chair. He pulled the headset off and rolled his head left then right. Then he placed his headset down on the back of his chair.

    "Mission Command, Watchdog reset on HGA requested. I've got an extreme load on the high-gain dish gimbals." The C&DH console rider shouted over the mike, loud enough for Roger to hear it sitting on his chair.

    "Mission Command, we've got an Attitude Determination and Control Systems Alert. The star trackers are giving rapid angular acceleration of the spacecraft." Another console report came in. "Momentum wheels are spinning erratic and the ACS thrusters have fired."

    Then multiple alerts at once were being reported. Roger sat back down and donned his headgear.

    "Roger that, Watchdog reset. I'm showing no contact with Percival. I repeat…no contact with Percival. Has anybody got anything on their monitors?"

    "Low bandwidth telemetry shows that multiple Watchdog software and hard resets were triggered. No further telemetry from the LGA is being received," the C&DH console operator said.

    Roger waited patiently for reports from all consoles, but he was not at all happy with what he was hearing.

    "Nothing from the low-gain antennas?"

    "Negative, Roger."

    The final assessment was that contact with the probe had been lost.

    "Okay, let's start up the re-connect protocols and follow the procedures." Tom Powell sat back in his chair and made a Jetsons space car noise blowing air through his pursed lips as he looked at something on his monitor. He muted his mike and turned toward Roger, Alan, and Ronny.

    "You know, when I came up with the idea for that Nuke Mars Now bumpersticker when all those probes started disappearing, I meant it then and I reiterate the sentiment now. Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action, NUKE MARS NOW! I knew everybody should have listened to me!"

    "Why?" Alan asked.

    "Well, I've already compiled the Alert signals – there wasn't that many of them - and the last one was of massive spacecraft bus structural integrity loss. The first Alerts were from the exterior boxes then they moved structurally inward to that final alert. All this took place in about a second or so. It looks to me like the spacecraft was dismantled from the outside inward. Fast. Something took it apart at a relative velocity of about 15 km/s to the planet. I mean, something flew up to it, matched velocity with it, then ripped it apart."

    "Tom, don't jump to conclusions," Alan said. "Even if it flew apart, couldn't they just have shot it down – not that that is any better mind you - or couldn't the spacecraft just've failed. I mean it could have just hit a micrometeorite or something."

    Roger looked at the big mission clock on the overhead screen. The mission time display told him that the telemetry commands sent back to the Mars probe should be getting there in about eight more minutes. Be patient, he thought to himself.

    "Sure," Tom argued. "But I don't think that's what happened. The data doesn't support it. Nuke Mars Now!"

    "Tom," Roger said.

    "Yeah?" the rocket scientist replied, angrily.

    "It's on the table. Now shut up."

    The eight minutes passed then another ten then another thirty and no response came back from Percival. More command signals were sent out – still no response.

    After hours of searching for signals from the probe, the team finally decided that the spacecraft was lost. Most certainly the folks at the DSN would continue listening for the spacecraft for days, but as it stood at the moment, reestablishing contact seemed unlikely.

    Roger and Dr. Guerrero had continued to check systems, talk to team members and just plain wait. The two of them had been hold up in the HOSC support room for more than twenty-two hours and it was time one of them said what they both had been afraid to. Roger rubbed his eyes then yawned. He turned to the DDNRO who was adding another packet of sweetener to his coffee cup.

    "Well Ronny, it looks like somebody didn't want us getting any closer to Mars."

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