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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Saturday, July 15, 2006 16:54 EDT



    The Army standard for the five-mile run is forty minutes. Shane figured it had probably taken them somewhat less than thirty to reach the massive entrance.

    And that was with a stop at a devastated town to pick through a store for running shoes. Ones with no metal in them.

    The channel tunnel was a miracle of modern English and French cooperation and engineering. The "Chunnel" in actuality consists of three tunnel-railroad connections that run under the English Channel, connecting Folkestone, England, and Calais, France. When the Chunnel was being constructed both French and English citizens had a fear of being so far beneath the water and there was a popular myth that the North Sea would collapse it and fill it in with disaster-movie effect. That myth was explained away once the public realized that the Chunnel was actually constructed beneath a mostly water-impermeable layer of chalk at 150 feet below the bottom of the English Channel seabed. The odds of water from English Channel leaking into the Chunnel were proven to be basically nill-that is unless structural integrity were lost in the super high density shotcrete reinforced regions of the tunnel.

    The tunnels are 31 miles long with two rail tunnels, each 25 feet in diameter, and a central tunnel, 16 feet in diameter. The central tunnel is used for maintenance and ventilation. Two of the tubes are full sized and accommodate the various rail traffic. The smaller service tunnel has several "crossover" passages that allow trains to switch from one track to another. These connecting tunnels serve as emergency escape routes when necessary. In fact, they were used as refuge by thirty-one people as a safe haven during a Chunnel fire back in the late 1990s. The escape route system worked well and all of the trapped people survived. But the Chunnel escape system was designed for fires in sections of it, not for metal-eating alien probes swarming through the entire construct. Most likely, the cross-over escape tubes would only appear as that much more tasty metal for the bots to gather. Shane was considering what would happen to the tunnel's structural integrity when those bots started yanking metal support from the concrete walls.

    The entrance, and indeed the entire track, was walled off by a high metal fence. It was proof positive to Shane that the probes hadn't gotten there yet that the fence was still standing. It was also a hell of a thing to try to cross. Others, however, had had the same idea and already holes had been dug under the fence. There was only a trickle of people going through the holes and Shane and the master sergeant, apologetically, pushed their way to the front and through one of the holes.

    As soon as they were in the tunnel, they began to run again, weaving in and out amongst the light crowd. There was a two-meter wide walkway on the north wall with a meter-and-a-half drop down to the railbed. About a hundred meters inside the entrance there was a door on the wall with an "exit" sign.

    "Take that?" Cady asked.

    "Clear enough in here," Shane said. "I've been on this thing, I know where it goes. But there's a spot up here about five or ten miles on where we'll have to do some climbing. Some sort of big cavern."

    They saved their breath for running the rest of the way. They were among the few who were steadily running. Most of the rest looked as if they'd run as far as they could and now were just grimly determined to walk the rest of the way.

    But about a mile into the run, Shane heard the rapid pad of feet behind him and a man in running clothes passed them at a good clip. He was shorter than either of them, but he had long easy strides and easily outstripped them, disappearing back into the crowd ahead.

    "Marathoner," was all Cady said.

    "I never thought the Army running program would come in this handy," Shane replied.

    Cady just grunted.

    Shane had gotten well into the rhythm of the run. He was feeling good about that if nothing else; there was a mind numbing pleasure to just running. But dodging the people around them, young, old, male, female, mothers carrying their children, was a pain in more ways than one. Shane had seen civilization end in less than an hour. And even if these people made it to England, the Channel wasn't going to stop this invasion. Nothing would. Most of the people he saw around him were going to die. Of starvation. Of exposure. Of disease. At each other's hands. The fabric of society was going to crumble and with it everything that had kept these shocked people alive in a technological womb. The law of the jungle was here again and probably here to stay. Unless somebody, and he knew which somebodys he was thinking of, could figure out a way to win. At the moment, he didn't see one. But that was what the eggheads were for. All he wanted to do was get back to the States and dump it on them. Strykers and Abrams clearly weren't going to win this one.

    As they got deeper into the tunnel they began to see vast condensation-covered pipes lining the walls, which radiated cold. Shane glanced at them and then at Cady and shrugged. He wasn't sure, but he thought they probably went through to the ocean high above. The pipes were steel and the concrete in the walls most undoubtedly had steel rebar in them. That was all he needed to know.

    They passed through the French crossover tunnel, which was a bit of a pain, though uneventful. They had to hop over the train rails of the scissors crossing at the crossover point, which slowed their pace. The slowing of their pace and the widening of the crossover cavern allowed the few runners who were still pushing through to spread out a bit. It also gave Gries and Cady the opportunity to isolate themselves a bit from some of the other runners. Not that they did not want to help, but their mission was more important on the scale of helping humanity survive as opposed to helping a few humans survive.

    Shortly after they'd gotten back into the rhythm of running, they began to see the first signs of organization since the battalion had been wiped out. A group of English soldiers in camouflage dress were clustered around one of the pipes, rigging it with explosives. The group of sappers were surrounded by guards who directed the hurrying refugees into the exit doors rather than let them continue down the walkway.

    Shane and Cady slowed to a walk as they approached the soldiers and held up their hands as they walked forward.

    "Please enter the car, sir," a British private said politely, gesturing at the open door. "Buses are being shuttled down to-"

    "Bad idea," Shane said. "Private, I'm Major Gries with the Neighborhood Watch organization. I need to talk to your officer right GOD damned now."

    "Sir, we're supposed to…"

    "I said right now, Private," Shane snapped.

    "Yes, sir," the soldier replied unhappily. "Sergeant!"



    "Leftenant Porter," the lieutenant in charge of the demolition squad said, saluting the disheveled American major in ripped uniform and pink and blue running shoes. "Royal Sappers. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir, but..."

    "We don't have time, Leftenant," Shane said, saluting in return. "Do you have commo to higher?"

    "Yes, sir, there's a phone…"

    "Get me to it," Shane said. "And get ready to pull out. You do not want to be here even as we speak."



    "Lieutenant Colonel Forsythe, Royal Engineers. To whom am I speaking?"

    "Colonel, this is Major Shane Gries, Neighborhood Watch," Shane said, sighing to finally be in contact. "Sir, you need to pull out your demo squads, right now, sir. We were present for the assault on the Stryker battalion as observers.

    If we don't make it, please immediately inform the Neighborhood Watch group that the probes simply eat formed metal and then reproduce. That is their only attack. But, sir, your men are going to die down here. The probes rip rebar right out of concrete walls and will eat those big pipes as soon as they find them, flooding this tunnel. And they're going to find this tunnel, soon, sir. They also pluck bullets fired directly at them right out of the air. They appear to ignore carbon-the master sergeant killed one with a stick. But, sir, this tunnel is about to start flooding as soon as one of those things finds a pipe. Sir, is this clear, sir?"

    There was a pause and then a sigh.

    "Thank you, Major, yes that is clear," the colonel replied. "My orders, however, are also clear. The pipes have to be rigged. However, I will give orders that you are to be brought to the surface as rapidly as humanly possible. And I will send on your observations. That is the first clear intelligence that we have gathered on their attack method. Did anything work?"

    "Shooting them didn't, sir," Shane said. "There's a type of bullet I saw that might work, but…, sir, I don't have time for this, sir."

    "Agreed, Major," the colonel replied. "Give me the leftenant."



    "Was it bad over there, sir?" the private driving the truck asked.

    The vehicle was a railway support truck that ran on the rails of the bed. As they drove down the tunnel, Shane could see soldiers rigging pipes every mile or so. It seemed like overkill. And unnecessary.

    "It defies description, son," Cady responded for him. "And I'd put your foot down if I were you."

    "Why, Master Sergeant?" the private asked nervously.

    "Because these things eat metal, Private Thorgate," Shane replied, distantly. "And as soon as they get in the tunnel and find one of those pipes on the French side, it's going to flood. How well can you hold your breath?"

    "Not well, sir," the private said, pushing his foot down. "Sir, all those sappers-"

    "Are dead as yesterday's news," Shane replied.

    "Oh fuck," Cady said, quietly.

    Shane looked over his shoulder and could see lights going off behind them in a shower of sparks. But in the sparks he could see, as well, a wall of water.

    "Floor it!" Cady yelled, pushing his foot down over the private's and shoving the accelerator of the truck all the way down.

    "The sappers!"

    "They're dead!" Shane yelled. "And so are we if we don't make it out of this damned thing!"

    "Probes," Cady said, looking over his shoulder. There was no "driving" the truck; it was on rails. All you had to do was push the accelerator or the brake. The private had taken a look over his shoulder and made the decision not to try to use the brake.

    Shane looked back and he could see one of them. But it seemed to be caught in the water rather than flying or… assimilating. As he watched it was slammed against the wall of the railbed and began to come apart like a child's toy.

    He got a brief glimpse of the interior, which was just so much metal bits. He also could see bodies being washed on the wave, which was still down in the railbed. Of course, so were they. And the bodies were being torn apart just like the probe. Some of them were civilians from the clothing, but others were in uniform. The sappers hadn't made it out.

    The water got closer and closer despite the fact that the truck was hurtling along at well over a hundred miles per hour. But just as it seemed the water would catch up-it was less than thirty meters behind-they entered the broad crossover cavern and it spread out through the cavern, receding in the background as they started to climb up the slope to light and air.

    They rocketed out of the mouth of the tunnel doing nearly a hundred and twenty and as soon as they were out Cady took his foot off the pedal.

    "I'm getting damned tired of running away from these things," the master sergeant said, angrily.

    "Then figure out a way to fight back," Shane said.



    The C-130 lifted from London just as the probes began to spread across the English Channel. The giant cargo plane was filled with shell-shocked and wounded soldiers and civilians packed in as tight as they could fit. Gries and Cady made their way to the back of the plane, taking stock of the people on board and gathering intel from their stories. As they made it to the back of the plane Shane noticed in the dim lighting of the cabin a lieutenant colonel in flight gear with a bloody stick poking out of his left shoulder. The man looked like he had seen better days. Shane saluted him.

    "Major Shane Gries, sir. This is Master Sergeant Cady."

    "Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Ridley." Ridley half saluted the major and the master sergeant. "This Belgian fellow here is Flight-Lieutenant Rene Lejeune."

    "Sir, if you don't mind my saying, you look as though you could use some medical attention." Gries nodded to the stick.

    "Well, they promised to take that damned thing out in London, but I guess it's been in there for more than a day now so it can wait till we get to the States," the lieutenant colonel said dryly.

    "What happened to you, sir?" Gries asked.



    Ret Ball: We have yet to hear any word from Europe. We can only pray that the NATO troops there are holding their own. Next caller, Frank from Albuquerque, you're on the Truth Nationwide.

    Caller: Hi, Ret! The media is only coming across on local stations and over Internet broadcasts! My satellite dish gets no signal and my cable company only has the local channels active. I don't think the infrastructure is there any longer to get the news from around the world. Are we being pushed back to the pretechnology era?

    Ret Ball: That is a really good question, Frank. Are we? What is the intent of this alien threat? Aha, Megiddo is on line two. Go ahead Megiddo, old friend, you are on the Truth Nationwide.

    Caller: Hello, Ret. I've been listening to all of the military channels with my spectrum analysis equipment and I can tell you that the units that were deployed have stopped transmitting.

    Ret Ball: How could you know that Megiddo? The forces were deployed in Europe.

    Caller: Oh that, I've been DXing by listening to signals bouncing off the ionosphere. I'm sure others out there have noticed this. Not long after the deployment there was plenty of encrypted communication taking place. But now… there is nothing.

    Ret Ball: And why do you think that is, Megiddo?

    Caller: I think it's obvious, Ret. Those units no longer exist; they have been destroyed.

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