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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 5, 2006 19:14 EDT



    Roger had been as good as his word. In less than fourteen hours Gries and Cady had been flown over to France on one of the C-17s that was supporting the Stryker brigade out of Stewart. Only one battalion had been off-loaded and mated up with their vehicles but there was another already queued up to land.Shane had stopped by the local French "unified defense" headquarters, which was located in a small industrial building on the outskirts of Le Havre. Even in the worst conditions in Iraq, headquarters units had always been pretty button down and operational. When he went to the headquarters to try to get some intel on the situation, he'd found utter chaos. Nobody recognized his priority, or cared. Nobody seemed to have any idea what was happening or what to do about it if they did. He'd seen one three star French general wandering around the operations room asking everyone if they had a pencil sharpener; he seemed to have forgotten why he needed a pencil sharpened and was simply concentrating on a task he could perform.

    While there were plenty of people willing to talk, nobody seemed to have picked up any information about the probes. Repeatedly, units had reported contact and then gone off the air. Areas where probes had hit—they sort of had those mapped out through negatives: military and police units that didn't respond—had lost all communications. Refugees that had made it to units still in contact reported that the probes were "eating" vehicles and even buildings. That was about all the intel they had.

    After a fruitless hour in the command center, Shane and Thomas, who had managed to use their priority to secure a Humvee, joined the convoy of Stykers and support vehicles headed to the Calais area. Nobody knew why they were heading to Calais and after seeing the chaos in the headquarters Shane was pretty sure even the French weren't sure why the Strykers were heading to Calais. But those were the orders.

    The drive was unpleasant. Despite cops trying to stop people using the limited access highway, civilians were out in force. Everyone seemed to have some place to be they thought better than their homes in the emergency. The convoy was caught in a traffic jam for an hour outside Calais before the battalion commander ordered the combat companies to head off-road. The support vehicles and logistics could catch up later. They thumped down off the limited-access highway, cut through some fields ripe with winter wheat, hit a few side roads that weren't quite as crowded and finally reached their assembly area which was another light industrial park near the town of Coulogne.

    Cady drove the Humvee over to where the battalion staff was setting up a forward tactical operations center. Shane had paid his compliments to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Schon, when he'd first linked up with them in Le Havre and scrounged a vehicle. Schon was a bright officer with the tall, lean, clean-cut look that was de rigeur for modern infantry commanders. Shane had recalled a paper the commander had written in Command and General Staff on operational maneuver in the defense and had mentioned it, which the commander took as the intended compliment. They got along. They knew some of the same people and they both came out of the same school of modern military hard-knocks. Schon had had a company in Iraq as well and saw in Shane a fellow, only slightly junior, up-and-coming officer. He'd spent a few minutes picking Shane's brain about the anticipated threat and had come away if anything more depressed.

    Now they were in position and Shane got out to watch the battalion maneuver into defensive positions. Nobody knew exactly what they were defending, as such. But they spread out with a defense geared on a generally easterly axis, the Strykers and a platoon of Abrams tanks that had been sent in support finding hide positions along the slight slope of a hill.

    "How do these things attack?" Major Forrester, the battalion operations, officer asked as Shane and Cady walked up to the huddle by the command Humvee. "Ray guns or what?"

    "Major Gries?" the colonel asked, looking over at the attached "expert."

    "That's what I'm here to try to find out, sir," Shane admitted. "We've never seen any evidence of directed energy weapons, but the views we've gotten have all been on dead planets and the Moon. And not many of those, sir."

    "We have gotten no word on their method of attack as well, sir," Lieutenant

    Leroie said. The French liaison shrugged. "Every unit has gone off the air shortly after contact. Including the Euro-NATO F-16 squadron."

    "What's the update on the invader's position?" the colonel asked Captain Carson, the intel officer.

    "The last update I got was when we left, sir," the captain replied. "They'd apparently wiped out everything around Paris and Tours as well as entering Belgium and Germany. It's all negative intel, though, just where units weren't responding. They have picked up some swarms on radar, but they're mostly staying low and the radar has all gone down, quick. So have radio, land-lines and even cell phones. We had an AWACS up with F-15 escort, but they took that out nearly four hours ago."

    "Where was it?" Shane asked. "Where was it orbiting, that is?"

    "I dunno," the intel officer replied, shrugging. "Why?"

    "Well, if they were in and around Paris and it wasn't, why'd they go for it?" Shane asked.

    "Good question," the colonel replied. "I guess we'll have to find out, won't we? How hard are these things to kill, do you think?"

    "They're flying, sir," Cady interjected. "Hard to hit even if what we have can kill them."

    "We don't have a clue what they're made of," Shane admitted. "It could be super unobtainium for all we know. No data at all, Colonel."

    "I guess we'll have to gather some," the colonel said. "Major, I'd like to speak to you for a moment."

    He put his hand on Shane's shoulder and led him a bit away from the staff.

    "Did I put my foot wrong, sir?" Shane asked.

    "No," Colonel Schon said. "Not at all. I wish we knew more, but that's like wishing this wasn't happening. No, it's about your mission. Could you define it for me, again?"

    "To observe first contact, evaluate the threat and report," Shane replied.

    "Basically, we're an eyeball recon for the Neighborhood Watch team."

    "Exactly," the colonel said, his face working as he considered his words. "So, when we first make contact with these things, what are you going to do?"

    "Observe the effect of our weapons, sir," Shane said, confused.

    "Major, every single unit that has made contact with these things has dropped out of the net shortly after first report," the colonel pointed out. "What does that tell you?"

    "That they're pretty damned bad news, sir," Shane replied.

    "What it tells me is that we're going to get butt-fucked," Colonel Schon said. "Fast and hard. I don't know how, but we will. And your job is to . . . ?"

    "Get the word back. Why, sir?" Shane said, his stomach sinking.

    "That's right," the colonel said. "Concentrate like fire on that mission, Major. Concentrate hard. Nobody, but nobody, has succeeded in it. And the United States has to know what these things are. How they fight. How we can fight them. I'm going to lose this battle, Major, sure as God made little green apples. Sending us here is pissing in the wind. My one and only hope is that while I may fail in my mission, you succeed. If you do, it might make losing my battalion, losing my troops, worthwhile. Do not fail me. Do you fully comprehend what I am saying."

    "Yes, sir," Shane replied, swallowing.

    "I didn't have many Humvees to spare," the colonel said. "I gave you that one for a reason. Use it."

    "Yes, sir," Shane repeated.

    "That's all."



    "What was that all about, sir?" Cady asked when Shane waved him towards the Humvee.

    "The colonel was clarifying our role in this battle," Shane said, sitting down in the passenger seat as Cady climbed in the driver's.

    "And that is?" Cady asked.

    "Master Sergeant, I don't often say this," Shane replied. "But when we make contact, you just obey my orders like lightning. Understand?"

    "Yes, sir," the master sergeant said, uneasily. "I usually have a fair understanding of them, anyway, sir."

    "Well, here's a portion of your commander's intentions," Shane said. "Keep a careful eye on how to drive the fuck away from here and get to someplace where we can make it back to the States. Or at least England. You work on that for the time being."

    "And what will you be working on if I may ask, sir?" Cady said, trying not to smile.

    "I'll just be sitting here and worrying like hell."



    "Lieutenant Colonel, can you hear me?" Ridley felt a searing pain in his left shoulder and decided to lie still and pray it would go away. His head still hurt, badly, and he had quit trying to cope with the pain in his feet and toes more than ten or more hours ago.

    "Bull! Can you hear me, sir?"

    "If I open my eyes there had better be somebody there and this not be a hallucination!" Ridley said. He cracked his eyelids slowly, and instinctively tried to hold his left hand in front of them to shade his eyes. That didn't work. His left shoulder complained by sending a sharp twinge of pain through his upper body. "Fuck!"

    "Sir, don't move until we know how bad you are," Rene said.

    "Rene! I thought you were dead?"

    "Uh, yes, sir, same goes for you. Although, you are the first survivor I've been able to find." Rene leaned slowly over Ridley and surveyed him. His helmet was cracked completely through all the way from the front of his forehead to the back of his neck. Rene separated the helmet and threw it aside. There was a tree limb about a half-inch in diameter sticking out of Ridley's left shoulder and his upper left side was covered in blood, but he didn't seem to be bleeding any longer. Rene slowly removed Ridley's socks. His left foot was swollen and likely broken and three of his toes on his right foot were turning brown and blue.

    "You look rough, sir." Rene straightened and adjusted the makeshift sling around his left arm.

    "Shit, Rene, you don't look so hot either." Ridley opened his eyes completely and waited for his vision to adjust. He wiggled his fingers on both hands and realized he had complete control over his right arm and hand. He moved both legs and wiggled his toes—that hurt like Hell.

    "I'm not sure you should move, Bull."

    "Aww shit, just superficial stuff, I think." Ridley adjusted the way he was lying on the ground and then forced himself to a sitting position with his back to the tree. He rolled his neck left and looked at the stick protruding his left shoulder. "Reckon I ought to pull that out?"

    "No, sir, I wouldn't do that. It might start bleeding again. From the looks of it you lost a good bit of blood from it going in." Rene sat down and leaned against the tree beside the lieutenant colonel.

    "How bad are you, Rene?"

    "Left collar bone is broken and I have some cracked ribs I think. My right knee is twisted pretty badly, but I can walk. My left eye is hard to keep open but I'm managing it."

    "Yeah, you look rosy. I don't know if I can walk or not, but I can try if we need to." Ridley felt the stick in his shoulder and decided to leave it the Hell alone.

    "That's just it, Bull. I'm not sure where we would go." Rene sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.

    "Any idea where we are?"

    "Yeah, I think we're about eighty kilometers north of Bethune and maybe ten or twenty south of Calais."

    "What about the aliens? You seen any since you been on the ground?" Ridley felt through his torn garments hoping to find water or an MRE or something—no luck.

    "None. They all seem to have headed off to the east right after we went down."

    "Hmmm. Hey, tell me something. Just how the Hell did you survive that fall?"

    Ridley tried to grin.

    "I was tossed into one of those things chest first. I bear-hugged it and hung on for dear life, until it crashed into the treetops. I fell from there. And you?"

    "Hell if I know!" Ridley laughed and then grimaced in pain.

    The two men rested in silence against the tree for a few minutes more. Ridley finally decided to test his strength and forced himself up to his feet. He could put all his weight on his right foot with pain that he could endure from his toes, which were mostly numb now. But his left foot would not support his weight for more than a few seconds without sending unbearable pain up his body. Ridley sat back down.

    "Rene, you think you could tie a splint around my foot with that bum collarbone of yours?"

    "We'll do what we can, sir."

    Ten minutes later the two men were hobbling along through the woods of France trying to make their way north toward Calais. They had been told that would be the rearward evacuation point for the attack. Ridley leaned heavily on the rough walking stick that Rene had found for him, but was able to walk slowly. At their present pace they figured to reach Calais in a couple hours, but with any luck they would find help long before that.



    "No, sir, it doesn't sound good," the medic replied to Ridley and Rene's questions. "Everything I've heard so far is that all communications have been lost with the troops as soon as they make contact with the aliens. You two are the first survivors I've come across yet." Fortunately, the two of them had stumbled across a highway and decided to follow it. Before long, an evac convoy heading north to Calais came along and rescued them.

    "That sounds about right, Specialist. We lost contact with the AWACS long before we ever made contact with the boomerangs," Rene said.

    "Boomerangs, sir?" "That's what they look like," Ridley grunted. "Shiny, metal, and the shape of a fat boomerang about a meter or so across. The damn things ate our entire flight squadron of F-16s. The two of us are, as far as we can tell, all that's left of the NATO-Euro Falcons." "Just sit tight, sir," the medic said, tying a last bandage in place. "They'll take care of you in London. I wouldn't want to mess with that stick if I didn't have to."



    "There," Specialist Werry said, waving at the treeline. "What was that dot?" Werry was twenty-two, with light brown hair cropped to stubble on the side, fair skin that refused to brown no matter how much time he spent under searing desert skies, and a scar on his cheek courtesy of an Iraqi improvised explosive device. His unit had been one of the last to leave Iraq and he found it odd that they'd been chosen to "show the flag" in France. Couldn't somebody else have been chosen to help out the French? Preferably somebody that didn't still, literally, have desert sand in his boots?

    "What dot?" Sergeant Cordette asked. The light-brown infantry sergeant wasn't much older than the specialist but he had two extra tours of being shot at and blown up. In about a month he would have been trying to decide whether to end his second hitch and try the college and civvie route or reup and become a "lifer." But with the state of emergency the choice had been made for him. One less stress in life was fine by Eshraka Cordette. He was looking north and looked to the east as the specialist waved in that direction. The two soldiers were forward of their company, holding down a look-out point a hundred meters towards the treeline. It could have been worse, but Cordette wasn't sure how.

    "There was a dot," Werry said. "At about eleven o'clock. It just popped up then back down."

    "I don't see," the sergeant said, shielding his eyes. Then he did. Everyone did. His mind immediately identified it as a flock of starlings; that was sort of what it looked like climbing up over the trees. But it wasn't; starlings didn't fly like that. Starlings swooped and whorled as they flew. These things moved around within the . . . flock but their movements were erratic or responding to some pattern he couldn't identify. And the . . . swarm wasn't swirling as such at all. It was flying in a straight line for their position.

    "Contact!" Cordette bellowed, dropping into the belly of the Stryker and swiveling the M240B towards the swarm of probes. "Open fire!"



    Shane saw them even before the lead units, because of to his slight elevation over them. He listened to the familiar rattle of M-4s and machine guns start up and watched for a moment to gauge their effect. Not damned much.

    "You watching the tracers, sir?" Cady asked, not taking his eyes off the approaching swarm.

    "Yeah," Shane replied quietly. You couldn't see bullets, of course, but you could follow the red lines of the tracers. They were approaching the swarm, and the probes were tight packed enough that some of them were going to be hit, but they would just . . . disappear.

    And there wasn't much time to fire. The probes had seemed to be moving slow but they weren't. They were on the lead unit in less than a second after it had opened fire and they swarmed around the Strykers like bees attacking a wasp. Shane could see portions of the armor flying off and as it approached the probes it would . . . deform and then just vanish. Six or seven of the probes had stopped in the air over each of the Abrams and as he watched, the refractory metal, mostly depleted uranium, of the powerful tanks was peeling away like skin from a grape. A soldier, probably a medic, was running across the battle, if this massacre could be called a battle. As he did so a probe swooped down and he was suddenly decapitated then levitated into the air. His rucksack seemed to explode outward, his weapon flying up towards the probe along with bits from the ruck and LBE. Then the sodden corpse fell thirty feet through the air to slump to the ground.

    Shane had only gotten a brief glimpse of all of this, fragmentary images, when one of the probes dropped right on the command Humvee. It had broken away from the swarm and seemed to ignore most of the vehicles around the Humvee, making a beeline for it. It was followed by a handful more. He saw Colonel Schon and Major Forrester along with the Humvee driver all similarly decapitated and levitated as the Humvee shuddered and began to dissolve.

    Surprise is a function of the mind of the commander . . . "Get us out of here," Shane said. "NOW!"

    "What?" Cady asked, looking over at him.

    "GO! Go west! Now!"

    Cady put the Humvee in reverse, made a flying three-point turn, and headed down the road through the light industrial park.

    "You know where we're going?" Shane asked, pulling off his dogtags and tossing them out the window.

    "I don't know why they sent us here," Cady said, looking over at him as the captain similarly began tossing ammunition magazines out of the window. "But there's a . . . What are you doing?"

    "I'll take the wheel," Shane said. "Start getting rid of every scrap of metal you have on your body, starting with your dog tags. Right NOW!"

    Cady blinked, then relinquished the wheel with a blurted: "Holy shit!"

    "Those things eat formed metal," Shane said, trying to steer the Humvee down the twisty road. "They ripped the dog tags off the colonel so fast his head went with them. We need to get rid of everything. As soon as one gets to us, we're going to unass this vehicle, too."

    "We should call in," Cady said.

    "They zeroed in on the command track," Shane replied tightly, as Cady took the wheel back and started tossing magazines out the window one handed. "Why?"

    "I dunno," Cady said. "You're the brains of this outfit, sir."

    "Radios," Shane snapped. "They eat metal but they zero in on radios. Unless you're radio silent you're just a big metal popsicle to those things." He popped open the hatch for the gun mount and climbed through. "Keep pulling metal off your body!" he yelled, pulling off his watch and tossing it away. "Rings, necklaces, bracelets, watches. Like you're going through a scanner at security!"

    "Coins!" Cady yelled back. "What are you doing?"

    "Keeping an eye out for them," Shane yelled, emptying his pockets by the roadside. He thought about what other metal he had and then looked at his West Point ring. Graduates were disparagingly referred to as "ring knockers" because you weren't anybody unless you had "the ring." He contemplated losing it. Then contemplated losing a finger. The finger won. But instead of tossing it aside, he put it in the shoulder pocket of his digi-cam uniform. Even if they ripped it out, all he'd lose was a pocket.

    The battalion had been obscured by the buildings but Shane could see a few of the probes up over them in the air now. As he watched, a building collapsed and he couldn't figure out why until he realized the damned things were ripping the rebar right out of the concrete walls.

    Nails. Wiring. Cars. It was all going into those damned probes. Every damned scrap of metal. They didn't seem to be killing people except as a byproduct. But they would. Metal was civilization. And . . . one . . . three . . . more were headed for them.

    "Pull over and unass!" Shane yelled, dropping into the Humvee and opening his door. He was rolling on the road before it was at a full halt.

    So was the master sergeant, as it turned out, and the Humvee continued forward, still in drive, as five of the probes came up with a thunder of air. The Humvee began to shake and tear apart and the master sergeant let out a curse as he was jerked into the air. The seam on the seat of his pants ripped and his boots came apart as the eyelets were ripped out. Then he dropped through the air to land hard on the asphalt.

    "Son of a BITCH!" Cady snarled, looking up at the probe, which was hovering not much above head height. His wallet was firmly attached to the underside. As Shane watched, the wallet ripped apart and a bit of metal was briefly visible, then the wallet dropped through the air, just another scrap of useless garbage to the probe.

    "My COIN!" the master sergeant raged. He looked around for a weapon and finally settled on a timber by the side of the road. "That was my battalion coin you BASTARDS!" The master sergeant hefted the heavy construction timber and jumped in the air as the hovering probes drifted over them, apparently searching for more scraps of metal. The four by four hit the surface, hard, and rebounded leaving a large dent. The master sergeant cried out in pain as the timber vibrated in his hand and dropped it.

    The probe, however, shuddered for a moment then drifted sideways. It shuddered again and then there was a brief burst of sparks and it dropped out of the air.

    "Congratulations," Shane said, getting up from his crouch and examining the fallen probe with interest. "You've proven they can be killed."

    As the master sergeant hefted the timber again, the remaining four descended on their fallen brethren. Before he could get in another whack they lifted it, whole, into the air and began to strip it apart. Shane could see bits flying off towards the other four probes but as they approached them the bits seemed to dwindle and then disappear. One thing he noticed was that the probes seemed to be getting . . . fatter. They were sleek boomerang wing shapes but as the fallen probe was disassembled they seemed to be getting more material on their surface.

    As soon as the wounded wing was fully disassembled three of them flew away. The last one, however, continued to hover at about ten meters off the ground and Shane watched as it seemed to change shape. The center got thicker, the metal appearing to move inward from the wings towards its middle. Then a dimple appeared and the thing began to twin, joined wings stretching out from the middle, which got flatter and flatter. Finally, all that was left was a small joining between two of the probes and then that separated.

    As soon as it did, the two flew away, ducking down to rip apart Shane's boots and shoulder pocket in passing. The stone from the ring dropped to the ground about fifty meters away, carried in a ballistic arc as the things accelerated to cruising speed in an instant.

    "Bastards," Shane said, walking over to the stone. It was a synthetic ruby, all he could afford on graduation. He buffed it and pocketed it in thought. Rubies were nothing more than pretty aluminum dioxide. Either they didn't like aluminum or unformed metal . . . There was a thought there, but he wasn't sure what it meant.

    "You were saying you had a plan for getting out of here?" Shane asked distractedly.

    "Well, I was planning on driving back to the airbase at Le Havre," Cady replied, tossing the four by four back to the roadside. He'd been holding onto it in case the damned things got lower. "But as a last ditch, it's all lost, go to hell plan, we're about five miles from where the Channel Tunnel comes out on this side. I figure that might be why they put us here; to defend the tunnel. If they're not to England, yet, we can run the thirty or so miles from one side to the other. Better than swimming."

    Shane thought about the long tunnel, then about the things eating the very metal out of the walls. Flooding. Refugees. On the other hand . . . "I don't have a better idea," Shane said. "Where's this tunnel entrance?"

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