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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Saturday, July 1, 2006 19:18 EDT



    "Mr. President, ten minutes ago we lost all contact with the Transmission and Data Relay Satellite System in geosynchronous orbit. We're getting communications from multiple government and commercial sources worldwide that satellites in GEO are failing," the NSA briefed the President via phone from the Pentagon.

    "Vicki, does this means it's starting?" The President sat up in his chair in the Oval Office. "Just a minute, Vicki." He pressed the blinking light on his phone,

    "Yes, Judy?"

    "Mr. President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is here and says it's urgent."

    "Send him in."

    "Mr. President, the Neighborhood Watch has informed us that most of our high altitude space assets have been lost and our lower orbit platforms are starting to fail," Newly promoted five Star General Kevin Mitchell warned as he marched into the Oval Office.

    "I think it's time to move you to the predetermined safe location." Besidesthe over forty divisions that had been called up Mitchell was also in charge ofthe "organized militias." Most of them were more militia than organized, but they gave the vast number of armed citizens in the U.S. something to center around and while training had been spotty the response had been enthusiastic. Enthusiastic enough that despite increases in production, there was a nationwide shortage of ammunition, which was one of many "survival" items that, as predicated, had been heating up the inflationary indexes.

    "Hold on, General, I'm putting Vicki on the speaker. Okay, go ahead, Vicki. General Mitchell is here and has just suggested that I be moved to a safe location."

    "Hello Kevin," the NSA's voice said over the phone. "I agree Mr. President.We do not know where these things will come down and what they will do, but it looks like it's happening now."

    "Mr. President," Kevin interjected. "I think it's time to alert the Emergency Broadcast System while there still is one and we should try to get some recon somehow on where these things are coming down, assuming they plan to hit like they did on the Moon."

    "Mr. President, I was just handed a projection from Ronny Guerrero's group at Neighborhood Watch," Vicki said. "At the rate of loss of satellites, they predict that all satellites will be lost within the next hour. And that means all manmade satellites, not just U.S. assets."

    "There goes CNN," the President said with a faint, grim smile.

    "Mr. President, your orders, sir?" The general stood at ease in front of his desk. He seemed calm. But, then, he'd probably mentally prepared for this moment for a long time.

    "What was it the man said? 'I knew this would come, but not so soon'? Whew."The President looked around the Oval Office and sighed. He picked up a small metal picture frame containing a photo of his wife, son, and daughter and placed it in his coat pocket. "Okay. Evacuate the White House and have the civil defense plans put into place. Vicki, we'll meet you at Air Force One."

    "Yes, sir, Mr. President. I'm leaving now."

    Kevin led the President to the door and informed the Secret Service guards there, "Evacuate the White House. We're moving the President to the safe location." The Secret Service bodyguards went into immediate action.



    Tina and Charlotte were watching television from their apartment just outside the Army base in Huntsville. Alice and John were on base, where they had been assigned since the President's speech that warned the world of the alien threat. Tina's brother Carl had decided to move in with their dad.

    Since the President's speech Tina and Charlotte had been glued to the television-as had most of the world-trying to learn any and everything they could about the alien threat. The news media had used military analysts, scientists, and, most effectively, science fiction writers for possible speculation about the aliens.

    The program Tina and Charlotte were watching was nothing more than the millionth reiteration of things that had already been discussed to death. But then-



    "We interrupt this program to issue the following warning from the Emergency Broadcast System. The Emergency Broadcast System has been authorized by the President of the United States of America to issue the Emergency Evacuation and Shelter Plan as designated for the pending alien threat. Please respond in accordance with your predetermined evacuation protocol and report to your designated shelter area. We'll continue this broadcast and issue more information as-"

    The screen abruptly went black. A few moments later a local news anchorwoman, looking flustered, sat down at a desk.

    "We seem to be having technical difficulties with our satellite system," the woman said, blinking rapidly and then looking off to the side. "We'll be using the ground links to the Emergency Broadcast System to update you. Stay tunedto this station for further word on the alien invasion . . ."



    "Let's go, girls," Alice yelled at the two teenagers to hurry into the Humvee. "Ma'am, we really need to get back to the base ASAP," Master Sergeant Cady urged her.

    "Roger that, Thomas. Girls! Now!" She yelled as Tina and Charlotte rushed out the door of the apartment and Tina started back up the stairs as if she had forgotten something but then she thought better of it, adjusted her backpack, and continued into the vehicle.

    The base was buzzing with excitement and there were convoys of military vehicles on every roadway. Helicopters were buzzing in and out overhead as Cady drove Alice and the teens to the shelter on the Redstone Arsenal.

    The shelters were built back during the Cold War but since then had been used as storage facilities for explosives and chemicals. When the news of the threatof an alien invasion was released, every old Cold War fallout shelter and civil defense location across the country was refurbished and brought back onlineas part of the shelter system for the populace. The shelter system on the military base was assigned to the personnel involved with the local contingents of Neighborhood Watch and Asymmetric Soldier and their families.

    Alice, the girls, and Sergeant Cady met John Fisher in one of the makeshift control rooms for the ISR data analysis team. The room was an obvious afterthought to the shelter. The walls were 2x4 construction with cheap paneling and had been added to the large empty bunker by simply bolting the stud sill-plate to the concrete. The walls went eight feet or so high, then wereopen to the higher ceiling of the shelter. The makeshift control room had laptops strewn all around it on small tables and there was a bird's nest of cablingand wires running around the room. Four large flat-panel displays were mounted on two of the walls and cables draped from beneath each of the panels to a rackof servers and tele-communications equipment in the corner of the room. This rack seemed to be the nexus of the disarray of cabling.

    John Fisher and Alan Davis were staring at the large screens discussing the scrolling numbers and characters as if they could decipher it.

    Charlotte hugged her father.

    "Daddy, what's going on?"

    "I'm glad you made it darling. I owe Alice and Cady one. It looks like the aliens have decided it's time to move to Earth." John clicked a touchpad a few times and an image of Earth popped up on one of the flat screens. "You see these circular and elliptical lines here all around the planet?"

    "Uh huh."

    "Well, that is where we used to have satellites. As far as our space debris monitoring radars can tell, none of them are there. On the other hand, this. . ." He clicked a few more times on the touchpad, "is what the radars are picking up." A cloud of blips filled the region around the planet.

    "What does it mean?" Tina looked at her mother.

    Alice shrugged.


    "It means they're wiping out our eyes and ears and communications capabilities," Alan muttered. "John, I've got to get this to Roger. I'll be back in a few minutes." Alan popped a jumpdrive out of one of the laptops and hurried out.



    "Well, Mr. President, the cloud surrounding the planet seems to be gone," Ronny Guerrero explained to the President and the NSA.

    "That's good right?" the NSA asked.

    "Not really, ma'am. The latest data that we've been able to get back from radar at various locations around the globe has allowed us to make this compositeof the data." Ronny flipped the image up on his laptop.

    "Here you can see a large cylindrical swarm of small contacts. Each seems tobe less than thirty centimeters across, but there are estimated to be more than three billion of them in this tube that extends out from Earth nearly a thousand kilometers and is about three hundred meters in diameter. Analysis of the multi-static radar data suggests that there is only about one meter separation in any direction between these things within the tube. The cloud that was around the planet seems to have directed itself into the tube. Although there are still some few thousand of the contacts around the globe, most of them have converged into this tubule. And it's coming down. Now."

    "Yes, Ronny, I can see that, but where is this thing centered?" the President asked.

    "Well, sir, as best we can tell, it looks like somewhere just east of Paris, France."



    "Captain Holmes, sir. E-3 is enroute to target zone." Captain Eddie Holmes of the NATO E-3A AWACS contingent from Geilenkirchen, Germany checked the charts velcroed to his left thigh. "E.T.A. of twenty-three minutes."

    "Little green men, cap'n?" Lieutenant Tod Alvers said. "Reckon we'll see any?"

    "You heard the briefing, Lieutenant. They're machines. That scares me more than little green men. Living things implies that they might be reasoned with oreven be sympathetic, but machines on the other hand . . ." The captain marked a checkpoint on his map and keyed the crew frequency. "Davis, are we getting returns from this thing yet?"

    "Roger that, Cap'n. I've got the largest passive return I've ever seen. We haven't got the transmitter active and the ambient return looks like God's chaff cloud out there about three hundred miles east," Tech Specialist Davis replied.

    "Well, keep us posted up here and clear of those things, you hear me? I wantall data live on JTIDS starting now. And as soon as we're in range go active with the radar. The Pentagon wants as much information as we can get."

    "Roger, Cap'n. JTIDS link is operational. We're in range now, sir. Going active with JSTARS now." Davis typed in the proper commands on his keyboard to activate the radar systems on board the AWACS aircraft. His screen showed a cloud of metal that looked more like the return from a thunderstorm than from a squadron of flying machines. "Sir, we have zero resolution at this range. Just a large cloud, still trying to get a hard measurement. There must be billions of them, sir."

    "What are they doing, Davis?"

    "They're-" Davis stopped abruptly. "The cloud is changing shape . . ." "Captain," Lieutenant Alvers said, quietly but urgently, pointing toward the cockpit window.

    "Holy shit! Bank! Bank! Bank!"

    A swarm of meter-long boomerang shaped metallic objects consumed the aircraft and began ripping it apart. The aircraft metal on the empennage of the aircraft was rapidly stripped away. The cockpit and cabin pressurization gave way. Banking and diving the aircraft seemed to have no effect on the swarm's ability to match velocity and attack. Captain Holmes and Lieutenant Alvers banked and juked until the plane was pulled apart. Eddie looked out at the right wing and shook his head as it buckled; it was covered with meter-long boomerangs.



    "This is Bob Campbell in Paris," the CNN reporter said. "The reports of the alien landing are spotty at this time but it appears that they're approaching Paris. The French military has issued a statement saying that they're in position to defend the city and citizens should remain calm and in their homes. Thus far we have no reports of how the fighting is going and all communications from the area are cut off."

    "Probably because they lost," Roger said, sipping a beer as he watched the streaming video. With all the satellites down, the report from Paris was being fed through Internet pipe over trans-Atlantic cable links and it was flickery and scratchy, with the reporter's words occasionally coming in either beforeor after the video. "Our intel feed says that the French military's already lost contact with them. Lost it right after they said they were engaged. Nothing since then."

    "They're going to fight hard," Shane said. He was sipping a Diet Coke sincehe considered himself "on duty." Even if duty was watching the world end, live. "Everybody disses the French military. And, okay, their generals and politicians are fucked. But the troops are good and the junior officers are first rate.The good ones just can't get promoted past colonel."

    The producer had set up a shot with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The reporter was yammering about defense plans and evacuation plans, just to fill the dead air. But he paused and turned as dots came into view over his shoulder. "There appears to be something happening . . ." Campbell said as a Mirage jet thundered overhead, distorting his voice again. The cameraman swiveled to catch the jet just as it fired an air-to-air missile. The jet followed the missilein and as it passed over the tower it seemed to be swarmed by dots. More were descending on the tower, and in the background there was a wash of dust as a large building appeared to collapse.

    "I'm not sure what's happening," the reporter said nervously, then looked upand blanched. The screen suddenly went dark.

    "We're experiencing technical difficulties with our feed from France," the anchorwoman in Atlanta said, looking up into the teleprompter. "We'll try toget Bob Campbell back with his live report in a moment. We'll go temporarily toour expert military analyst retired Colonel . . ."

    "That was quick," Roger said, frowning as he picked up the remote and lowered the sound. "And somehow I don't think we'll be hearing from Bob any time soon."

    "Were those things all over the Tower like it looked?" Cady asked. "And I never saw the missile impact."

    "No, I didn't either," Roger said. "We were recording so we'll run it through some filters and tighten up the images as much as we can. But I'm not sure what we'll get. They were all over that Mirage like stink on a hog, though."

    "There's a Stryker brigade deploying out of Le Havre in a day or two," Shane said musingly.

    "You want to go have a close up look?" Roger asked, askance. "I mean, we don't know if anybody in France is alive or dead at the moment. I don't even knowif we're in contact with the Stryker brigade. And I definitely don't know how long they'll last."

    "Yeah, I want to go look," Shane said. "If I can get a good look at what they're doing, that's going to help, right?"

    "If you can get the word back," Roger pointed out. "We don't know if these things are eating people or what. I mean, that one report is as good as it's gotten. Nobody has gotten more word out than that."

    "I wouldn't mind going, sir," Cady said, setting down his beer. "But I'd like to get back, too. I don't want to die in France if you know what I mean."

    "How high a priority can you get us?" Shane asked.

    "For a Neighborhood Watch observer?" Roger replied. "Pretty damned high. Why?"

    "I think we should go," Shane said. "But I agree with the master sergeant. We definitely want to get back if there's a chance."

    "I'll make some calls," Roger said.



    United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Matthew "Bull" Ridley had only been assigned to the multinational NATO-Euro F-16 "Fighting Falcons" squadron asan instructor/observer. His main objective in soliciting the assignment had been to reach "full bull" colonel; the multinational position was a good resume builder. As an instructor, it also meant that he'd get plenty of cockpit time, whichwas a nice bennie. But promotion was the last thing on his mind at the moment; his present mission made survival a much higher priority.

    When the alien threat entered European airspace the NATO "unified defense" protocols were automatically activated. NATO had been toying with a combined force ever since the failure of the "EU Deployment Group." The EUDG had never really gotten beyond a very expensive headquarters and some garrison troopsbut the concept still remained. Accepting the inevitable, the European Union, virtually all of whose members were also members of NATO, revamped the concept as a NATO force. The division-sized "deployment force" was designed around the "pull-and-pick" scheme; when a mission was assigned it would pull available ground and support forces from the supporting countries.

    However, the force intended to have some dedicated units, notably support and air forces. After an exhaustive testing program, the "EU" unit chose, of all things, the American F-16 as their primary strike and air-to-air fighter. There were mutterings that the air forces should, by right, have come from a European country. However, since the "EU" force was composed primarily of American and British ground forces, had an American commander and was primarily funded by the United States, having an aircraft that could electronically interact with the American and British forces was paramount. The British Tornado was the only "European" system that met the requirements, European avionics being at least two generations behind the U.S. The F-16 was a far superior air-to-air fighter and a tad more capable at ground attack.

    Thus the assignment of an American colonel to instruct and, in this case, command, a "European" squadron made perfect sense, at least to NATO. As soon as the report came that the attack stream was headed for Europe, allthe remaining seventy-two F-16s in the multinational fighter wing were called to action. The squadron of multilingual and multinational fighter pilots were to bring support from the northwest toward the alien tubule that looked as if it would encompass Paris.

    Lieutenant Colonel Ridley decided that he couldn't leave the one F-16 that he had been training and instructing from on the ground. That just would not do. And besides that, this might be the best chance to gather intel on the threat that the U.S. would have. Matt hoped he could live long enough to get the intel home.

    Rumors were coming in that multiple French Mirage squadrons had been lost onthe southeastern front and the Falcons were beyond nervous. Very few of the European air forces had been as blooded as the Americans and Brits. Americans and Brits had maintained the Iraqi No-Fly zone in the face of Saddam's ground-to-air missiles, had carried the brunt of the battle in Bosnia and had operated against the Iraqi air-defense in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ripley, alone, had more total "combat stick" time than the entire French air force. And the Belgians and Germans on the mission totaled exactly zero combat stick. Matt had decided early on that his primary mission was to try to keep them calm. Sang froid. Just another training exercise. Right.

    "Okay boys, just like we been practicing. We're a gonna go in low at high Mach, pull up through those alien bastards to slow us down to firing speeds and let loose hell on them." Lieutenant Colonel Ridley nodded at his wingman and keyed in his weapons code.

    Weapons cache online, the computer told him with a ding.

    Ridley adjusted the radar controls and set the system on wide target search.

    "That's odd, there's no AWACS data," he muttered to himself.

    "Bull, I've got multiple bogies in-bound on us from the south, Mach Three Dot Five, Angels fourteen!" Belgian Flight-Lieutenant Rene "Low-Boy" Lejeune said over the radio in very good English. Rene had done well in training on the plane and had the instincts of a good fighter pilot. He kept good wing, for that matter. But he got a tad excited over the radio. Belgians hadn't figured outthe "phlegmatic" approach. Ridley looked over and could see his wingman waving at him and pointing downward and to the south.

    "Roger that, Rene," Ridley replied laconically. "Let's take it to 'em boys. Follow me through."

    Ridley eased his stick all the way forward and throttled up the F-16. As the g-forces pushed him back into his seat his stomach tightened and the airbags around his thighs slightly inflated.

    "Radar contact shows multiple bogie, vector one-one-seven, Angels fourteen. Careful, the system is showing them as vampires. Visual range . . ." the lieutenant colonel tried to keep both eyes on the radar and both eyes on the sky. That was a trick that most humans failed and at which fighter pilots excelled.

    "Contact, contact," a calm, French accented voice said. "Visual, Two o'clock, low."

    "Zehn Uhr!" a slightly more excited German voice said hastily.


    The two formations were closing at a combined rate of nearly four thousand miles per hour. One second there was only a shiny, slightly gray cloud. The cloud, like coming closer to a pointillist painting, suddenly became billions of dots and then the dots became a cloudy sky filled with meter long boomerangs that. . . were . . . freaking . . . everywhere!

    Ridley began yanking and jerking the joystick control at his side in a desperate attempt to weave in and out of the cloud of alien probes. The F-16 was in a supersonic dive at the edge of its operational capabilities, but the alien metal boomerangs zipped up effortlessly into the squadron and began tearing the manmade vehicles to shreds. Ridley watched as one of the boomerangs passed right through the empennage of the F-16 flown by Luftwaffe Captain Heinz Zwack, sacrificing itself to destroy the fighter. Two more exploding Falcons was all it took to tell him this was not a survivable tactic.

    "Full throttle and push through, push through!" he yelled.

    "Bull, we must slow to firing speeds!" Rene exclaimed.

    "Push through the first wave, Rene! Then bank just like we trained!" Ridley ordered. His orders were doing no good. The less seasoned pilots were anxious to go to missiles and guns and to do that they had to slow down. At Mach speedsthe alien boomerangs seemed to have a hard time maneuvering with precision, butas soon as the F-16s banked and slowed the little alien probes matched velocity vectors and ripped them apart.

    Ridley pushed the F-16 nose down so fast he thought the wings would fly right off and Rene stayed right with him. Maybe twenty or so of the other pilots matched the tactic as well. Ridley's eyes rolled up as a shiny metal boomerang zipped by his cockpit in a blur.

    "Jesus, that was close!"

    At the bottom of the dive the F-16s did a slow curving bank with little juking maneuvers thrown in to avoid the boomerangs. The dive took them mostly belowthe initial cloud of the alien probes, giving them a few seconds to slow and maneuver to firing speeds.

    "AAARRRGGGHHH . . . AAARRRGGG . . . UUUMMMMPHHH!" Ridley grunted and squeezed his abdominal muscles, calves, and thighs as the air bladders inflated as tight as they would go. Ridley bit down on the bite block hard and grunted again. Warning, warning, excessive g-forces, blackout danger! The cockpit chimed. "Nooo shhhiiittt! AAARRUMMMPPHH!" Ridley grunted through the bank and immediately went to the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System to fire the Aim-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. "Fire one, fire two, fire three . . ." Ridley rolled the fighter upward and painted as many targets as he could. His wingman and the other remaining twenty or so fighters were following suit. The Sidewinder missiles left sinewy and twisted contrails at Mach 2.5 upwards through the belly of the cloud of alien boomerangs. At the supersonic velocity of the deadly missiles the alien probes seemed to have some-not a lot mind you, but some-difficulty matching their velocity and attacking the missiles untilit was too late.

    Ridley watched for the split second it took for his first missile to explodeand fragment just in front of a subswarm of boomerangs. Several of the alien probes were blown into fragments and scattered into several other probes nearby, killing them with fratricide. Ridley also noted that as soon as the handfulof probes were destroyed several handfuls filled the void and swooped up the flying debris like a magnet picking up iron filings.

    "There are too many of them, Bull! I'm out of missiles and guns seem to haveno effect!" Rene said frantically.

    That was apparent. Rene had taken an angle shot at a stray boomerang. The probe flew right into his fire cone, actually seeming to bank towards the tracers,but the bullets just seemed to disappear as they closed the target.

    "Roger that, Rene! Let's make a dive for the hard-deck and try to get away from these goddamned things! Falcons evade and escape as best you can! Retreat!"

    "Oui, Bull!"

    Twelve of the F-16 Falcons remained and dove as hard to the surface as they could manage. Bull looked up and back, fighting the Gs to get a look at the enemy. Incredibly, the damned boomerangs were banking inside their curve. The F-16 was the most maneuverable fighter on the face of the earth at these sorts of speeds and the damned things were inside their maneuverability envelope!A good bit of the swarm had already banked around and were closing from the rear at well over the max speed of the Falcons. They looked like boomerang-form air-to-air missiles, without the smoke trail.

    Evasive maneuvers at subsonic speeds were proving fruitless. The boomerangshad the ability to match speeds and simply attach to the fighter' surfaces. Oneof the fighters behind him, Bull thought it was Lieutenant Granz's, was surrounded by six of the 'rangs and seemed to simply come apart. The mostly aluminum and sheet metal fuselage and wings of the fighters stripped off like friable plastic and vanished in midair.

    "Stay fast Falcons, they're closing!" Ridley warned. "Afterburner!" He kicked in his afterburner and yanked and banked to treetop height, then pulled up hard again, nearly blacking out. He couldn't look back at these speeds; all he could do was hang in there. He was flying practically nap-of-the-earth at high mach and the ground effect buffet was shaking his fighter apart.

    High inertia structural damage, the warning system cooed. Warning. Warning.

    "AAARRRGGGHHH . . . AAARRRUUUMMMPPHHH . . . UMMMP . . . UMMPPHH!" he grunted and squeezed his muscles as hard as he could trying to curl his toes right through the bottom of his boots. Ridley bit down hard on his bite block as a black spot appeared in the center of his vision and the tunnel started closing in. Then Thud!

    "WOOOHH . . . WOOOOHH . . . SHEEWWWWW!" he breathed and squeezed as another

    Thud and then Spang sounded through the aircraft. The fighter was already bucking from the air compression around it but these were solid hits. It sounded and felt like he was taking flak. Hell, he could be hitting treetops, he didn't know. He pulled up a bit to try to get out of the ground buffet and there was another, hard, Spang!

    "Bull, I'm hit, I'm hit. Ejecting!" Rene screamed over the net.

    Ridley rolled his head slightly to the right and saw his wingman's fighter fly into thousands of pieces just as his ejection seat fired. Almost at the same time he saw his own right wing fly apart and the ship immediately begin to go into "out of control" condition.

    Still not completely out of his tunnel vision and his mind hazy, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew "Bull" Ridley instinctively reached between his knees and pulled the eject handle. The process had been drilled into him and it had served him well once during the first Gulf War. The training would save him this time. Thwack, bang!

    Ridley was flung out of the fighter jet into the evening air at several hundred miles per hour just as the jet came apart below him. Fortunately, the fuel load didn't detonate. The g load and the spin were worse than any roller coaster.To Ridley's bemused astonishment and distaste, it seemed a lot worse than it did a decade and a half ago. Of course, that time he hadn't been at damned near Mach One and below Angels Seven.

    Then his chute popped and things slowed down for a second. Ridley could seethe chute from several of the twelve remaining NATO squadron pilots already deployed. He had made it much closer to the tree line than the others and most of them were a thousand or more feet above him. And then one by one their chutes began to fail. Ridley tracked the closest chute to him; he thought was Rene. Then he realized why the chutes were failing.

    The boomerangs swarmed the chute and the dangling payload and almost as soonas the swarm surrounded the downed pilot, his chute collapsed and he began a plummet toward the ground. The plummet appeared to Ridley to be more of a controlled dragging and tossing, like a dog shaking a chew toy in its mouth. Ridley strained hard to pull his right leg upward so he could reach his pistol. Just as he grabbed for it something invisible jerked it right out of his hands. The carabineer on his right shoulder ripped away from the harness. Then his clothes seemed to explode and be pulled away from him. The invisible force that grabbed him flung him sideways, slamming him into two shiny boomerangs that ripped the buttons and hasps from his flightsuit, again tossing him upward. Ridley's helmet thwacked hard into something. And then he felt a sharp stabbing pain in his left shoulder as he was spun face first into the top of a tree and into another alien probe. The faceshield of his helmet cracked and flew offas the buttons and other metal fasteners were ripped from it. The probe tossedhim up and outward into another one and this one yanked the shoes right off his feet, breaking three bones in his left foot and dislocating all his toes onhis right. With all the metal gone from his body, the probes left him plummeting downward.

    Fortunately, he was at damned near tree height. A final plummet through several thick tree limbs spinning and smacking him around ended with a skipping, scraping, bouncing, and rolling stop on the ground at the base of a tree. Ridley lay there on the edge of consciousness in pain from head to toe staring up at the sky.

    "So much for making colonel," he muttered, then passed out.

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