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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 3, 2006 21:11 EDT



    "Mr. President, Joint Chiefs, advisors," Ronny Guerrero began the debriefing of the top advisors and leaders of the United States of America. The briefing was held in the secure room just down the hall from the Oval Office and was at the highest security protocols. Ronny had completed the mission that he had been asked to do. Any other government team lead would probably have failed where he had succeeded. Success, however, was a bit moot at this point. Ronny had to tell the President of the United States what they had discovered and that the discovery might very well be the end of the human civilization, as it was called. The Mars mission was an easier task.

    "Although we lost all contact with the Mars ISR probe, we can report that the mission was a success to some degree. We were able to piece together the timeline of events and the details of the mission and data collected are shown in the classified final report you have in front of you." Ronny held up a copy of the NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH Final Report.

    "Analysis of the alert messages in the telemetry data from the probe suggests that at 1 minute and 4 seconds after reaching its closest approach altitude of about 54 kilometers at a Mars-relative velocity of about 15 km/s the spacecraft was completely destroyed. All systems were functioning properly and no unusual loads were being created by any of the spacecraft systems. Then within a period of less than a second the spacecraft was lost. This at first appears to suggest that the spacecraft was, for want of a better term, 'shot down,' that is, destroyed in an act of immediate and catastrophic destruction. The spacecraft was well above the atmosphere and a micrometeor impact would not have been as catastrophic. An analysis of the sequence of alerts suggests that the spacecraft was pulled apart from the outer periphery equipment inward to the spacecraft structure. In other words, something dismantled it in about a second." Ronny flipped through the report in front of him to the data section.

    "If you'll turn to the data section there is more startling information. We were able to capture a complete image with 60 m per pixel resolution and a partial image of 20 m per pixel resolution before contact was lost with the spacecraft. The imagery was obtained by the spacecraft and downloaded just before its destruction and it shows a dramatic change in the surface of Mars."

    Ronny flicked his laser pointer at the reconnaissance image on the screen.

    "There are vast grids and infrastructure like textures and structures on scales of tens and hundreds of kilometers. There are several single structures many times larger than the Great Pyramids of Giza. Impact craters as large as cities have been excavated and built upon and their specular content has dramatically increased suggesting refined materials.

    "The general reflectance of the region in the imagery shows that the region is much more specular than Mars should be. The large specular regions suggest shiny, most likely metallic, structures, consisting of synthetic, smoothed minerals or concrete, or glass covered structures.

    "Also, a fractal analysis of the imagery has been conducted and the fractal dimension of these images is that of an artificial landscape; it could conceivably be of natural origin.

    "In summary, it's very little doubt that the changes in Mars are due to intelligent design. There are, in fact, now canals, as well as roads and buildings, on Mars.

    "Alarmingly, the structures are much larger than human standards and even in Martian gravity must require advanced knowledge of manufacturing principles. Also, these structures must have been constructed in a period of no more than about 2 years as no changes in Mars were detectable before then. This suggests rapid construction on a planet-wide scale, which is far beyond human capabilities.

    "Finally, the NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH team has discussed at great length the data and implications of this occurrence. We have gathered a team of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, exobiologist, cosmologists, and others, and after much debate, it's our opinion that our new "neighbors" can only be considered as hostile; they first destroyed all of our probes that were already there, second, moved in on a massive scale without contacting us although they knew we were here, having destroyed our probes, and third they destroyed our ISR probe while they must have been able to realize from its trajectory that it would flyby Mars causing it no harm.

    "This conclusion is alarming. The rapid occurrence and large scale of the phenomenon suggest that the implementation was automated and likely mechanized. It's our best guess that self-replicating automatons would be most suited for this amazing task. This suggests either robots or insect-like culture and capabilities. The most likely candidate description that comes to light is that of Von Neumann Probes as described by the Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann in the previous century."

    "What are Von Neumann probes," the NSA interrupted.

    Ronny paused and caught his breath for a second.

    "Well madam Security Advisor, the mathematician John Von Neumann described that the best suited approach to interstellar travel would be to send self-replicating robots to the new star system. One or a few robots would land at the new star system and use in-situ resources to replicate itself until it reached a critical number. This critical number being that which is required to construct a civilization infrastructure for the real inhabitants that would arrive much later when the new star system has been equipped and ready for occupation. The implications of that are…quite frightening." Ronny paused again.

    "Frightening indeed," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs muttered. "Can I send a couple of nukes now?"

    "Terrifying if you ask me," the NSA responded.

    Ronny nodded acknowledging the comments.

    "The worst part, General, is that such automatons would be driven by one of two goals – replication for further interstellar movement or preparing the new system for colonization. In either case, then we can only assume that Mars is not where they will stop. The Von Neumann probes would use every in-situ resource within a solar system for either goal. The point here being, whether they intend to colonize or simply are 'passing through' there is no indication that they will not do the same thing to Earth that they have done to Mars. Whether their intentions are hostile or simply…uncaring, the damage to the earth will not be survivable by the human race.



    "We suggest tasking the Hubble Space Telescope to look at the spectra and albedos of the outer planets and possibly Kuiper Belt Objects to determine if Mars is the only planet within the Sol system being transformed.

    "We also suggest that we begin to prepare for an invasion that could occur at any time. We have no way of knowing or understanding the alien devices' motivation or timeline. What is the critical mass required before they move to the next target planet? Perhaps the Hubble experiment will give us some insight. Or perhaps they will move from Mars to the Moon first, if we're lucky. Who knows? We're not certain of any of these things, but we're certain that these are aliens. We're also pretty certain of the Von Neumann probe theory although it could be some sort of biological equivalent. And finally, several of our team members concur with the Chairman: Nuke Mars Now. However, given the scale of the change and the fact that our probe was intercepted well outside of any reasonable engagement range it's unlikely that we can, in fact, get a nuke onto the ground."

    "In other words," the President said, sighing. "We're too late."



    "Sorry I'm late," Roger said, sitting down at the table in Hooters with a sigh. "Ronny called. He wants us to start using the Hubble to look for more traces in the system."

    "We're systems engineers," Alan said, frowning. "Why us?"

    "Not we three in particular," Rogers corrected, looking over at Tom with a raised eyebrow. "He wants the group that's doing it reporting to us. Then I report to Ronny and he sends it on. And we just got Asymmetric Soldier dumped on us, too."

    Project Asymmetric Soldier, from the perspective of the team, might be the critical linchpin of the defense of the world.

    Project Asymmetric Soldier was put into play because it was decided that any invasion from space by the phenomenon would be extremely one sided in their favor. Asymmetric Soldier was based on the concept of "asymmetric warfare." The general idea was to try to fight battles using your strengths against an enemy's weakness. The concept was much touted by groups that had fought the United States over the years. The known problem with asymmetric warfare was that it rarely worked. The project was already notorious for being referred to by its acronym – AS, pronounced like the name for a male donkey – and various variations.

    Asymmetric Soldier was a research, development, and engineering as well as strategic and tactical investigation into how to prepare for the invasion, begin preparations, and search for fast turn-around technologies that could be used against an invasion on a planet-wide scale. While it was probably the only hope of survival of the human race, no-one involved, especially given the CASTFOREM data, gave it more than the chance of a snow-flake in hell. However, every bit of data they could gather would refine and improve AS's chance of working.

    "Why are you giving me the fish-eye?" Tom asked, frowning. He picked up a wing and tried to get the bone to fall out with a twist, ending up with mashed chicken mess. "I will succeed in this endeavor. As GOD IS MY WITNESS, I WILL FIGURE OUT THE CHICKEN TRICK! If I can figure out the chicken trick, maybe I can figure out…the rest…" he ended with a sigh.

    "We're going to need planetary guys, astrophysicists…. You're from CalTech, you know all those types," Roger ended with a shrug. He picked up a wing, expertly stripped out the chicken and double-dipped.

    "I seriously need a beer," Alan said, sighing and reaching for the pitcher. "I thought we could chill for a while. And now we need asshole physicists…"

    "My job," Traci said, slapping his hand away and picking up the pitcher. "And quit bad-mouthin' my future career. Besides, why do you need an astrophysicist? You guys are systems engineers. What the hell do you know about stars and planets? Nothing, that's what. You had to get me to convince you the albedo of Mars was changing! Hah. Rocket scientists couldn't even tell that Mars was changing color until a Hooters girl pointed it out!"

    "Funny, but, Roger here is really more of a telescope designer than a rocket scientist, although he plays one on t.v.," Alan said, giving her a forced smile as he picked up the refilled pitcher.

    "Hmm." Roger grunted; he was made a little bit nervous by the fact that Traci knew so much about what they had been doing. Security matters were still important. Roger started pondering a debriefing scheme or cover to lead Traci away from the Neighborhood Watch line of thinking.

    "Why's everybody so glum? You're at Hooters!" Traci said, bouncing up and down so she jiggled pleasantly. "And check out my hot and spicies if you need a boost! What happen, somebody cut your funding again?"

    "No, funding's not a problem," Roger said, looking at her thoughtfully then over at Tom. Roger was beginning to formulate a plan.

    "Traci, honey," Tom said, seriously, stroking his beard and not even bothering to look at his nominal boss, "how far along are you on your masters…?"



    "Hweet, Gries!" Captain Sparling half whistled, waggling a finger at the major.

    Shane hit the close key on the window showing a new and improved tac-net concept, logged off the secure computer systems, then slid his chair across the corridor to the captain's cubicle. In the last six months he'd tried to keep in shape by running. But his schedule was such that he knew he was getting swivel-chair spread and a beer gut. He had to get out of this racket, somehow.

    At the same time, he had to admit it was fascinating. Yeah, most of the ideas he'd had pitched, thrown and hurled at him since joining the DARPA Special Technologies Office had been pie-in-the-sky where they weren't downright scary in a "if it's stupid and it gets you killed, it's stupid" way. But a few of the ideas, like the synthetic gecko stuff and the third generation tac-net he was examining, were pretty damned hot. The faster they got in the hands of the troops, the better, although, he was still thinking about the uses for that gecko skin. The problem was settling on just one. He'd figured out a way to use it for sealing troop doors on personnel carriers.

    "I hate these things," Captain Sparling said, waving at his computer. "Sure, they increase productivity. Sure, they make communication easier. But that's a two edged sword."

    "Yes, sir?" Shane said, frowning and carefully not looking at the captain's computer. He'd learned that was a bit of a no-no. The team, given the way that data was compartmentalized, really should have had separate offices. Instead, they just tried not to read over each other's shoulders. They had been trying to get moved over to the main office in Arlington where there was more room available, but the political nature of this program required them to be stationed at the Pentagon.

    "You're on TDY," Captain Sparling said, sighing. "Dump everything you're working on and get packed. You're going to Huntsville, Alabama. Redstone Arsenal. God knows who'll be handling what you're doing now."

    "What's there, now?" Shane asked. He'd been to Huntsville a couple of times in the course of his duties looking at projects. Not in the last month, though; the town had virtually shut down from his perspective.

    "Something called 'Asymmetric Soldier'," Sparling replied. "The name is classified Secret and the purpose is Top Secret, Compartmented. And I don't even have the compartment name. But you are detailed to it 'for a minimum of ninety days.'"

    "Crap," Shane said, sighing. "Well, I guess ours is not to question why… When do I leave?"



    Ret Ball: Aha! Megiddo my friend, where have you been? Did you hear Hiowa Lend's report last Sunday?

    Caller: Yes Ret, I did. And she was absolutely correct.

    Ret Ball: How so?

    Caller: There is no denying it now. Mars has changed. It has been terraformed by aliens. It's no longer the Mars we used to know.

    Ret Ball: I see.

    Caller: It's only a matter of time before more happens.

    Ret Ball: Such as?

    Caller: Have you noticed that the Space Telescope Science Institute is no longer posting new images form the Hubble of Mars?

    Ret Ball: They aren't?

    Caller: No. In fact it has been nearly a year and a half since any new Martian images have been posted. That is somewhat, unusual.

    Ret Ball: Really?

    Caller: Yes it's. I'm telling you that the CIA has commandeered the Space Telescope Science Institute and corrupted them.

    Ret Ball: To what ends, Megiddo?

    Caller: I'm not certain, Ret. I just don't know But I suspect…to communicate with their alien masters. The Roswell landing was not a crash, Ret. It was a controller, sent to make contact with our government and begin the conquest…




    "Holy crap," Roger said, quietly, as the image from the Hubble filled the oversized monitor.

    The Hubble Space Telescope had been for all intents and purposes commandeered by NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH. Multiple observation cycles were implemented on the outer planets and the data gathered there was not very promising. Albedo shifts had already been measured on Callisto while the returns from Rhea and Hyperion at Saturn were less conclusive. Titan looked iffy, but the standing hypothesis was that it was a function of that planet-sized moon's dense atmosphere.

    The returns from Io and Europa, though, couldn't have been more conclusive. Among other things, Europa and Io both now had noticeable atmospheres; the halos were distinct in the image.

    "You're going to owe me a year's salary," Traci said, chortling quietly at the scientist's disbelief. The current Io image was sharp enough that major features of the distant moon could be distinguished and it was apparent that the entire face had been radically altered. In fact, it looked as if one section had been deep strip-mined. For the change to be visible at this distance, even with the resolution of the Hubble, the structure had to be at a minimum four hundred kilometers across.

    "I think we should run a sharpening filter on the…" Roger said, reaching for the mouse on the image analysis computer.

    "My job," Traci said, slapping his hand aside. "You rocket scientists and telescope builders can't do planetary measurements worth a flip. I'm not so sure the image can be any sharper. The aliasing seems to me to be due to being at the limit of the sensor's resolution."

    "Traci dear, I've been analyzing IMINT imagery for more years than you've been in school," he said.

    "You're not that old. And, what's mint imagery?"

    "IMINT, it stands for 'image intelligence'. Astrophysicists." Roger shook his head.

    "Well, all I know is that the astronomical imagery data from the Hubble looked better before you ran that filter again." She pointed at the now blotchy image on the monitor. Traci hit the undo button in the software menu to restore the image.

    Traci had proven to be well worth her weight in gold. She had gotten in touch with the right people at the Space Telescope Science Institute and was trained on the Hubble-cycling protocols in just a few short days. She had gotten a lot of help from a fellow named Hamilton there. Jack Hamilton had been the first person to really detect the change in the Martian albedo and had been aware of the problem from the beginning. The STScI had been gagged by the President to keep the space telescope data quiet, so Jack and his professors had been briefed into the Neighborhood Watch from early on.

    Traci had a command station set up in the HOSC at Huntsville and had it connected and encrypted through the program's protocols. So between the folks at the STScI and the command station in Huntsville, the Hubble Space Telescope was being tasked one hundred percent by the Neighborhood Watch and Traci was doing the driving – with a little input from Jack and, of course, Roger. Traci found albedo shifts in Europa, Io, and Callisto, which suggested major changes from previous data taken a couple years before.

    Rhea and Hyperion at Saturn were different; different albedo changes and the structures appeared to be degraded. It was possible that Titan had been affected as well but the dense atmosphere made the data less discernable.

    Traci was not quite sure what to make of the Titan data. The moons of Uranus had similar changes.

    Ariel in particular had a surface albedo much greater than ever before measured. Likewise were the moons of Neptune. Triton specifically had obvious changes.

    The albedos of the Kuiper Belt Objects including the Pluto-Charon system were harder to determine changes since there was less highly accurate albedo data available. However, some preliminary investigation suggested that Pluto was slightly brighter.

    These experiments took the better part of the month following the NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH Final Report briefing to the White House. At the same time they'd gotten to work on Asymmetric Soldier.

    Billions of dollars were pumped into the Project in less than three months. The north Alabama Defense and Space industry infrastructure made for a perfect central location for the AS project development and management. The first tactical and strategic suggestion developed from the project was to gather the nations space/defense talent at multiple locations across the country and in as fortified locations as possible.

    Asymmetric Soldier wings were set up at Cheyenne Mountain, in Wyoming, at a base in Montana, at Area 51 in Nevada, at Langley, Virginia, at CCAFS, at Vandenberg AFB in California, at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio, at White Sands, Los Alamos, at Clear Lake City, Texas, at Whiteman AFB in Missouri, at the AFRL in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in two locations in Alaska, at Hickam AFB in Hawaii, Thule AFB in Greenland, the old Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico, and three U.S. Navy nuclear submarines and two air craft carriers were designated as mobile research posts.

    Thus far, with no actual data on the threat, AS was mostly spinning its wheels. With no better than the 20m resolution they'd gotten from Percival, they couldn't even determine what the probes looked like. They could be some of the large structures they'd seen on Mars or they could be much smaller. The team had no idea how they moved, how they fought or how they thought. All they could do was look at current and projected military hardware and try to apply it to the little bit they did know. It was a frustrating process. And, deep in their bones, everyone on the team knew it was mostly a fruitless one as well.

    The aliens were coming and nothing appeared capable of stopping them.

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