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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Thursday, June 22, 2006 23:21 EDT



    "This image here was taken when we first noticed the landing tubeway at the Moon." Traci pushed her glasses back up on her nose and chewed on the end of an ink pen.

    She had worked so many around-the-clock shifts tracking the lunar invasion over the last ten weeks that her eyes just couldn't handle her contact lenses anymore. She needed a full eight hours of sleep to get her contacts back. She didn't foresee getting that anytime soon. In fact, she had slept on a couch in Roger's office the past two nights and had showered in the fitness facility across the street at least three times a week rather than at her apartment. Her job was monopolizing all of her waking moments.

    "Yes, I've seen this image, Traci." Roger looked over her shoulder at her computer screen.

    "Okay, now look at this one taken two weeks later. See anything interesting?"

    She waited for Roger to analyze the image for a moment.

    "A dust cloud!" The image now revealed a cloud of lunar dust just large enough for the Hubble imagery to resolve encircling the landing zone. The tubeway was no longer there either.

    "Uh huh, now look at the image at six weeks after the landing." Traci clicked a button on the mouse and another image popped up.

    "Ok, the cloud is a little bigger." Roger leaned in closer over Traci's shoulder to see the screen better. The scent of the former Hooters' waitress's perfume wasn't lost on him. She might not have been home in three days but she still looked and smelled good.

    "And this one taken yesterday at about ten weeks from the landing." Traci didn't seem to mind Roger leaning over her shoulder. He was always all business anyway. Damnit.

    "Again, it's larger than the previous one, but the growth in diameter is smaller."

    "Yeah, I really need close-up pictures to really track this, but from this data I've calculated a growth rate," Traci said. "The surface area of the moon is about 152,000,000 square kilometers, give or take. So if you turn that into a circle with that area, then the radius of that circle is about 6,956 kilometers. And at the present growth rate of this cloud it will reach that radius at about five hundred and fifty days from the initial landing."

    "What is that, let's see five fifty divided by three sixty-five is . . . uh . . . about a year and a half," Roger muttered.

    "The size of this thing is still only about six hundred kilometers in diameter right now. The big growth starts sometime around nine months to a year." Traci chewed the pen's cap reflectively.

    "Good work, Traci. This tells us we still have a few months more than a year to prepare." Roger patted her on the shoulder. "Hey, why don't you take a couple days off and get some sleep."

    "I'm okay. You're the one who needs to take a break. You've been doing this a year or more longer than I have." She took her glasses off and massaged her nose and eyes.

    "You might be right. But until I get a closer look at these things I don't see that happening. I wish I could see them with a few centimeters resolution."

    Roger mulled the thought over in his mind while at the same time considering sleep. "Well, why don't you just send a telescope up there and orbit the Moon so you can do just that?"

    Traci put her glasses back on and sighed. "How long would it take to send a probe to the Moon?"

    "Well, rocket wise we could get a small probe there in a few days. It would take maybe three months to build it and integrate it into a launch system . . . hmm . . . and from the Moon we could get basically real-time video-well maybe a few seconds delayed. That's a really good plan."

    "Why haven't you considered it before?" Traci asked.

    "Think about it and you'll figure it out," Roger replied, darkly.



    "Well, you see Mr. President," Ronny explained, "we really had no way of knowing how long these things were going to stay on the Moon and were not sure we had time to go forward with a lunar mission. Fortunately, Dr. Reynolds has surrounded himself with good people. His lead astronomer was able to measure the growth rate of the lunar dust cloud to project the timeline. If we assume they'll do like at Mars and wait until the planet is mostly covered, that gives us at least fifteen months from today. Also, Dr. Reynolds' launch team has been working around the clock to get as many launch systems ready and waiting as possible since the beginning of Asymmetric Soldier funding."

    "Good, Ronny, good. So how long before we can get a better picture of what is going on?" The President looked tired and Ronny could tell he needed to cut this briefing short.

    "Within the next three to four months, sir."



    "Well, Roger, as far as the propulsion part of the mission is concerned it's relatively simple,"

    John Fisher was explaining. Tom Powell sat beside John in Roger's office nodding his head in agreement.

    "Okay you have the floor."

    "We'll launch on a single Delta IV CBC with two solid strap-ons. We use a single standard RL10B-2 to circularize then kick to the Moon and once we get to the Moon we'll use a bi-propellant thruster, just like on the Clementine mission, to put us in an orbit at about ten kilometers from the lunar surface." John paused long enough to gauge Roger's reaction.

    "I've already got a team at Ball about two months into a spacecraft bus build that will work. I knew that we would want recon sooner or later so I kept the momentum going after the last mission. All we need are the science instruments and we'll be ready to go."

    "Amazing foresight. John. I should have been thinking about this option." Roger hung his head and exhaled. He felt really tired and dull minded.

    "Rog, you can't do everything, you know. I mean, that's why you hired us, right?"

    "I guess you're right," Roger said, nodding.

    "One more thing, Tom here has worked out the trajectories so that we'll come in on the opposite side of the Moon from the landing zone. This might give us a better chance at sneaking up on these things," John added. "Does that cover everything, Tom?"

    "As near as makes no difference. I would emphasize that we can really make use of the Clementine science instrument package design. It was small and put together in a hurry, just as we need to." Tom rubbed his beard.

    "Yeah, if we find a telescope in the eight-inch range in the next few days, we could launch in less than three months," John added.

    "Clementine . . ." Roger mumbled. "Why is it that is bugging me . . . Clementine . . . that's it!" Roger pulled his laptop closer to him and started scrolling through files until he came across a pdf file labeled Clementine Lunar Mineral Survey.

    "What's it, old boy?" Tom raised an eyebrow.

    "I know why they landed at the Sea of Vapors!" Roger opened the pdf file and scrolled down to a figure in the paper showing the near side and the far side of the Moon side by side. The mineral content was color-shaded on each lunar surface image. The far side of the Moon was mostly blue and light green and had absolutely no red on it. The near side, however, had two big red splotches on it and the brightest one was centered on the Sea of Vapors. Roger turned his laptop around for the other two men to see. He pushed it over to the edge of his desk and let them study it for a while.

    "What is the red supposed to be, Roger?" John asked.

    "It's titanium oxide. Whatever they are, they like titanium!"



    The lunar reconnaissance mission development and launch went off without a hitch. The Neighborhood Watch team had just gone through a much harder drill with the design, build, launch, and mission with Percival and the Mars effort. Compared to Mars, a lunar probe was a piece of cake. Having John Fisher pushing the program and the damn near infinite budget didn't hurt either. The launch went without a hitch and had taken only ninety days to prepare.

    "The deceleration burn just started," John heard Telemetry report over his headset. He looked up at the big screen display in mission control showing the graphic for the spacecraft entering into a lunar orbit on the opposite side of the Moon as the centroid of the alien dust cloud. The cloud had grown in the past three months to about six hundred kilometers in radius. Traci's dust cloud growth model was still dead on accurate.

    "Roger that," John replied. "Lunar insertion is go. Let me know when the burn is complete."

    Roger Reynolds and Ronny Guerrero sat in the VIP lounge watching and listening as the little lunar probe slowed down and circularized its orbit around the Moon.

    The low resolution near real-time video-there was actually a three-second delay due to the buffer size and the speed of light limit-was continuously displayed on one of the big screens beside the telemetry and tracking map screen. The probe had three small cameras placed around it for star tracking and with hopes that whatever took Percival apart might get captured by one of the small cameras. One image of the Moon filled a screen.

    An image of a star field filled another. And an image with Earth in the background filled the third one. Ronny and Roger didn't take their eyes off those screens until the imagery from the telescope was brought online.

    "Burn is complete! Lunar orbit's circularized and stable at approximately ten kilometers above the lunar surface," came over the speaker in the lounge.

    "Okay, the cloud is a little less than half an orbit away so that is about fifty minutes or so. And we're going into the far side of the Moon now and will lose contact with the probe for that portion of the orbit," Roger told Ronny although it was a piece of information both of them had known for months. It was something to say in the silence. The silence seemed to increase the stress.

    "It's okay, Roger; we'll get a good picture of them," Ronny assured his junior colleague.

    "Right," Roger said, sitting back quietly. After about a minute of that, he leaned forward and began clicking his teeth with his tongue.

    "Dr. Reynolds," Ronny said, softly, not looking up from the report he was reading, "if you persist in that annoying noise I will be forced to call in a guard and have you shot dead."

    "Yes, sir," Roger said, composing himself and sitting back. After about a minute he began tapping his foot on the floor. Quietly but persistently.

    "Dr. Reynolds . . ."

    "Sorry, sir," Roger said, concentrating on the blank screen.

    "Were you diagnosed as ADHD when you were in school?" Ronny asked, still not looking up.

    "No, sir," Roger replied, trying not to grin.

    "I believe there's an exercise bike downstairs. Why don't you come back in, oh, twenty minutes."

    "Yes, sir."



    Roger had just gotten back when the datastream from the probe picked back up. The little lunar spacecraft had made it around the far side of the Moon without a hitch and was sending back plenty of recon data.

    "There is the dust cloud in the low res camera's field of view," Traci said over the speaker.

    "The main high res imagery is coming through now."

    Ronny and Roger watched as the image with thirty-centimeter resolution downloaded to the central screen. The low resolution video continued to stream on the other three monitors.

    The high resolution image was showing that the dust cloud was floating and shimmering with glints of larger objects moving around in them.

    "Traci, this is Roger," he said, donning his headset.

    "Hey, what do you need?"

    "Could you zoom the display magnification on the high res image to maximum so we can see better detail back here?"

    "Hold one . . . how's that?" she replied.

    The image lurched, then zoomed in to the maximum display resolution with a ratio of one hundred to one, or one centimeter on the screen being the same as one meter on the surface.

    Roger popped open his laptop. He had previously hooked it into the video feeds of the imagery display monitors. He toggled a few menu buttons then the image being displayed on the monitor with the high res data was now being displayed on his laptop. He pecked the left touchpad button and the real-time image froze.

    "Now I'll just zoom in a bit here and . . . there." Roger turned his laptop monitor toward Ronny. "Look at that, will ya?"

    "Little flying things," Ronny said, a furrow appearing between his eyebrows.

    "Yeah, they look almost like a boomerang or something or a flying wing. And at this resolution that must be about four pixels across so that thing is about a hundred and twenty centimeters wide. But, God, they're all over the place."

    "Warning Flight! I have a Watchdog reset on telescope gimbals!"

    "Flight, I've got three Watchdog resets on structure."

    "Here we go, Ronny. Let's hope the antenna holds long enough for us to get a close up."

    Roger crossed his fingers and stared closer at the three low resolution video streams. He pecked his computer and set it on ready to grab a video frame. Of course if he missed it they could replay the video after the fact.

    "There, Roger." Ronny pointed at screen two-the Earthward viewing one.

    "Got it." Roger tapped the touchpad.

    The image stream stopped.

    "Flight, we had multiple Watchdog resets then no telemetry at all."

    "Roger that, no telemetry. Continue the reconnect protocols, but I think we can assume the probe was destroyed," John said with a sigh. "Well, at least we know what we're up against."



    "The best we can tell is that it appears they're made of metal. A composite material most likely wouldn't be this shiny," Ronny explained to the President over the phone.

    "So, what does that mean?"

    "Well, sir, we haven't really had time to analyze the data completely, but we're certain that they're using in-situ materials from the lunar surface to replicate themselves. That means this thing is most likely made of titanium and aluminum."

    "Then that means they won't be impervious to our weapons," the President said.

    "Possibly. It might be some sort of super-alloy. But more likely they're simply making themselves from whatever's available. They undoubtedly need some trace metals for their internals, although we have no idea what they are at this point. But, yes, Mr. President, they might be individually vulnerable. However, there are a bunch of them. Mr. President, the U.S. needs to go on a full war footing right now."

    Despite the official declaration of war all that had really happened was an increase in funding and the call-up of the National Guard and Reserves. To the greatest extent possible, it had been business as usual.

    "We need a much larger Army, more redoubts, we need to throw anything we can at the problem and open it up fully so anyone can get in on the research."

    "That's going to need some discussion, Ronny," the President said. "Among other things, you're not the person who should be advising on that."

    "Sorry, Mr. President," Ronny said, gritting his teeth but biting back the reply.

    "You need to be in the meeting, though," the President said, sighing. "Get up here and bring Dr. . . . What's his name? The redneck?"

    "Dr. Roger Reynolds," Ronny replied. "He's right here, sir."

    "Both of you get up here," the President said. "I'll schedule a full Cabinet meeting this evening with the heads of the Senate and the House."



    The meeting was in the cabinet room with every cabinet member present as well as the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. Everyone except Roger had brought an aide. He supposed he'd be counted as Ronny's aide, or even his second aide, since Ronny had one sitting in a chair behind him, but he was planning on saying his piece.

    "We've refined the data a bit since I spoke to the President," Ronny said, concluding his fifteen minute presentation. "We now have a clearer understanding of the threat. They're definitely Von Neumann machines and they're definitely consuming the surface of the rocky bodies in the solar system one by one. There is no indication that they will ignore the Earth. At present, no model that we have shows survival of the human race, or at least civilization, in the face of this threat. We're looking at end game for the ten-thousand year history of post-hunter-gatherer society, ladies and gentlemen."

    "It can't be that bad," the secretary for Health and Human Services said, shaking his head.

    "You can't say that just because they ate the Moon and Mars that they're coming here! And even if they do, we've called up National Guard and the Reserves. What more do you want?"

    "We need to rationalize production," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said.

    "We need a national industrial board."

    "We've got one," the chairman of the Office of Management and Budget snapped.

    "And they're already screwing up the economy-"

    "Economy be damned," Roger said, trying to bite back the comment as he made it.

    "Dr. Reynolds," the President said angrily. "If we don't have an economy, we don't have the money to pay for your pet projects . . ."

    "Mr. President-" Ronny started to say placatingly.

    "No, let me," Roger said, looking the President in the eye. "Mr. President, there was a book a while back, written by some yuppy economist."

    "Yes?" the President said, raising an eyebrow. He very well could be called a "yuppy economist."

    "It was a pretty selfish book," the scientist said, shrugging. "Basically, it was about how to plan to manage your money so there wasn't any left over for your kids. 'Die with your last dollar' or something like that. But it's important here, Mr. President."

    "Why?" the national security advisor asked.

    "Every other time we had a national emergency, we had to keep one eye on what the future might hold," Roger said, looking her in the eye. "If we lose this one, there is no future. No econony beyond glass beads," he said, looking at the chairman of OMB. "No agriculture," he said, looking at the secretary of Agriculture. "Not beyond digging small gardens with sticks. No housing," he continued, looking at the HHS secretary. "Not beyond caves and stick houses. And not much of that, looking at the Moon and Mars. A few humans scrabbling for survival in the metal monster of a city the machines will create, living hand to mouth, eating each other to survive. Mr. President, if the last dollar equivalent in the world is spent to kill the last machine, that will be a dollar well spent!"

    "Mr. President?" the national security advisor said, quietly.


    "We're already looking at the inflation index skyrocketing," she said.

    "Effectively, in a survival economy, which is what we're approaching, you have to draw money out of the economy or it overheats as there's more and more competition for survival materials. One way to do that is to crank taxes up and put them into non-useful or disposed costs; personnel and equipment that's not going to last. You worry about how to recoup if you win, if the survival situation goes away. You don't print more money, you take it out of circulation."

    "There's that," the chairman of OMB mused. "And, frankly, Mr. President, while rather hotly presented, what Dr. Reynolds said makes sense as well. The images from the Moon are more . . . graphic than those from Mars. As are the growth curves. If the same thing happens, unchecked, on Earth, well . . ."

    "Agreed," the President said with a sigh. "Senators, Congressmen? We're going to have to pass bills for this. We'll have to increase the taxes, begin a draft-"

    "Mr. President?" the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense both said simultaneously.

    "Yes?" the President said, looking at the secretary with one hand up to the Chairman.

    "I think we're both going the same place, Mr. President," the secretary said with a glance at the Chairman. "There's simply not time, or materials, to make a draft worthwhile. Funneling the money to civil defense and, frankly, organized militias will be more worthwhile. Some increase in Defense, yes, but we're still in the making the tools to make the guns stage. More money and facilities at the scientific redoubts. They'll have to try to survive even if everything else falls."

    "And culture," the secretary of the interior said, firmly. "If we lose everything else, let's keep the knowledge of how to rebuild it alive."

    "Food," the secretary of agriculture said, frowning. "And storage facilities. Even if these things get a piece of us and we win, food will be at a premium."

    "Distribution," the secretary of transportation said, nodding. "That's going to be all screwed up. That was a problem for the Russians, right after independence. They had plenty of food, but the distribution was all screwed up."

    "Refugee housing," the director of Homeland Security said, nodding. "And supply . . . On the largest scale ever considered . . . There are never enough tents . . ."

    Roger looked over at Ronny and nodded faintly. It was late, but the "government" seemed to finally understand how deep a crack they were in. Maybe, if the probes gave them enough time, there might be a chance.



    Ret Ball: Tonight we have a very special program with both Hiowa Lend and Megiddo on the line. Hiowa, you first.

    Hiowa Lend: Right, Ret. Jumping right into it. My astronomer friends have been doing an analysis of the Moon for me and they tell me that the surface albedo has changed ever so slightly and that it's now brighter by what appears to be a couple of percentage points.

    Ret Ball: Really? What does that mean, Hiowa?

    Hiowa Lend: Well Ret, it means that whatever happened to Mars, is now happening to the Moon.

    Megiddo: If I may Hiowa?

    Hiowa Lend: Feel free, Professor . . . uh . . . Megiddo. Are you sure that your communications are secure, my old friend?

    Megiddo: I assure you that the government is quite unable to trace my call. I helped design the original Bell system and I know all the tricks.

    Ret Ball: Very well, my friend, go ahead.

    Megiddo: I've made similar measurements of the lunar surface color and reflectance albedo as well as its absorption spectra. It's being mechanized, Ret. Something is indeed terraforming the Moon. This is way too close to home and I suggest it's time we all take to remote underground locations. Had the CIA not covered this up for so long we might have been more prepared for it. Ret, you must move immediately to your secure bunker. Time is of the essence.

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