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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, July 17, 2006 23:56 EDT



    "Mr. President, this is Dr. Carolyn Mayer from the National Security Agency's ELINT branch. She has compiled some information that we thought you would want to see," Vicki Johnson said as she introduced the forty-three year old blonde analyst to the President and the secretary of defense.

    The two men had been in the "War Room" looking over possible defensive and offensive strategies in the event the probes made it to the U.S. That would happen soon enough as far as anybody could tell, but with no recon on the situation in Europe nobody had a clue how bad the situation was. There were no orbital platforms and it appeared that the aliens were enforcing a no-fly zone over most of the Atlantic and eastern Eurasia. The Americas still had air travel below thirty thousand feet-nobody had tried to go higher. Naval boundaries seemed to be about the same. Anything traveling eastward past about the forty-five degree latitude line was never heard from again.

    The President looked up at the NSA and the pleasingly plump lady she had brought with her. He always found the diversity of individuals who came together in times of crisis to be intriguing. This young lady could have been a model for an oversized-women's clothing store, not a black program analyst.

    "Nice to meet you Dr. Mayer. This is Secretary Stensby." He motioned to the secretary of defense. "What is this all about Vicki?"

    "Dr. Mayer," the NSA motioned for the analyst to begin.

    "Uh, right. Here, Mr. President," Carolyn said. She pulled out her laptop and toggled to a map of Europe. "Here is where the probes have gotten to."

    The map of Europe was a standard map package with an overlay of red growing on it. The red blotch covered all of Western Europe and even had spread to Iceland.

    On the eastern side of the region the red covered parts of Russia all the way from Rostov in the south to St. Petersburg in the north. Stockholm and Helsinki were red also. Due south, all of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and parts of Saudi Arabia were red.

    "How do you know this, Dr. Mayer? We've been trying to get recon for weeks with no luck. About all we can discern is the no-fly zone." The SecDef shrugged his shoulders in disbelief.

    "Right. Well, you see, before all of this it was my job to track Al Qaeda operatives using electronic intercepts. Most of that has been using Ferret satellites, but I specialized in Internet communications. I spent the better part of the last four years finding and geolocating every Internet hub and router and every webcam in existence around the world. Oh, I only made a drop in the bucket, but I made a pretty good map of the world and had several known routers and webcams per region." Dr. Mayer paused for a second and toggled some keys on her laptop.

    "I see, so how does this help us now?" The President looked over at the painting on the wall behind his desk in the War Room. He missed the Oval Office. He missed being above ground and he hated all this hiding and waiting.

    "Ah yes, it's actually kind of simple, Mr. President. This map of red is a map of lost Internet routers, hubs, power grid stations, phone hubs, webcams, etc., all compiled into one graphic. I've even got several images from many of the webcams before they failed. Here." Carolyn turned the laptop back around for them to see.

    "What is that?" the SecDef asked.

    The President nodded.

    "It looks like a battleship aground."

    "Well, actually it's one of the aircraft carriers that we have been missing from the Mediterranean. And if you look here in the background you'll notice the Coliseum." She paused to let that sink in.

    "Rome! These things have picked up an aircraft carrier and set it in Rome!" SecDef Stensby was stunned. "What on Earth for?"

    "I don't know, sir. I'm a data collector and analyst not an exoroboticist. But this is just one image. Look at this one." Carolyn tapped the touchpad button."Hundred of ships, airliners, trucks, and cars and God knows what. It looks like a junkyard," the NSA said. "And from this image the landscape can't be identified. I've tried."

    "Then where is it, Vicki?"

    "It's Cairo, sir. This is a webcam that used to have the Pyramids in view. They're still there probably, just under a mountain of junk," Dr. Mayer said.

    "Jesus Christ!" the SecDef and the President chorused.

    "Vicki, has the Neighborhood Watch seen this?"

    "Not yet, Mr. President."

    "Get her down there. And I want a real-time feed of this map right here in this room. Hell, I want it in a similar room in every redoubt across the world."




    "They've spread too far to nuke now, Mr. President." Jim Stensby sat back in his chair looking at a printout of the map. Technicians were hard at work putting together a real-time version of the analysis for a display console.

    "You and I know that, Jim. And besides, we don't know if the people are still alive there or not. Nuking was never, is never an option until we know where all the people are." President Colby shook his head at the map. "What the Hell do we do now? What about the plan developed by the Joint Chiefs to have a firewall of nukes setup on each side of the country?"

    "The contingency is set in place, sir. If the probes cross the sixty-degree lat line moving west we'll fill the sky with nuclear airburst. If they cross the one-hundred-fifty degree line moving east we'll do the same."

    "Do you think that will work?"

    "Perhaps the first time, Mr. President. It might be a good tactic to buy us time. Without destroying the majority of them around the globe though, I'm not sure what good it would do. And like you said, what about all the people there? Like in France, are they still there? Are they still alive? Have all of the survivors resorted to cannibalism like the recon team discovered?"

    "Right. Those poor people…" the President muttered.

    "Well, let's pray the eggheads come up with something before the Chinese or the Russians or the Indians or whoever decide they're threatened enough to start setting off nukes willy-nilly," SecDef Stensby said.

    "I've relayed my concerns to the UN Security Council on several occasions but I'm not certain they listened. I'll resend a message across what is left of the world hot lines again with my concerns here." The President felt somber and was not sure of the chances that even if the message went through to the remaining world leaders that it would get through to them. "I just wish we knew more about what is going on around the world."



    "Ok, Ronny, this should give us a better idea of what is going on around the world." Roger Reynolds, wearing a clean suit and latex gloves, sat what appeared to be a miniature model of a satellite about the size of a coffee can with small solar panels wrapped around it on the clean room table-the culmination of about seven weeks of work.

    "How so, Roger? This looks like it would be any other satellite when it's built. Why won't the probes eat it, too?" Ronny adjusted the paper bonnet on his forehead so it would be more comfortable.

    "This is so cool," Alan said as he rolled the device over and examined it closer.

    "Uh, Ronny, you don't understand. This is the actual satellite. It's a picosat. We've minimized the metal content and made it mostly of composite and semiconductor materials. What metal it has is in the computer portions and only microns thick. Dr. Pike figured out a way to build a motherboard and bus with minimal amounts of metal. We used fiber optics to relay signals where possible. We've also shielded all radio emanations from the CPU so that it's damned near undetectable from a meter or two away. There are no radio transmitters on it. It's all optical. And our hope is that there isn't enough metal in it to interest the probes." Roger smiled at the little spacecraft.

    "How did you shield it without metal for a Faraday cage?"

    "Oh, that's the neatest part," Alan interrupted. "We used RAM."

    "Yeah, Ronny. We thought on that one a while and came up with making a cage out of radar absorbing material since we couldn't use metals. It works pretty well, actually; we're starting to use it in some places where we want shielding but don't want to put in Faradays." Roger pointed out some of the RAM materials inside a panel on the little spacecraft. Ronny's eyebrows went up as he nodded.

    "We even used inefficient highly resistive carbon wiring on the major wiring harness from the panels to the power supply to reduce the need for metal there."

    "How do we get intel down from it?" Ronny asked while taking a more detailed look at the little spy satellite's articulate components. "And what type?"

    "Okay, it has a ten-centimeter glass optic aperture. We plan to orbit at LEO around four hundred kilometers so that will be about three meters per pixel on the ground. We're gonna try a real ccd camera instead of film-well shielded from emissions. We also added a little commercial-off-the-shelf tip-tilt atmospheric distortion corrector in the optical path to clean up atmospheric scintillation and such. We should get good three-meter resolution images." Roger paused for a second and pointed out the primary optic and the optical train of the telescope.

    "I see," Ronny nodded again. "Very interesting, fellas."

    "And this little gadget here," Roger said, pointing to a black-composite material box with three small windows on the side, "is how we'll get the data out. It's a little diode laser communicator. We'll download each time it comes over our ground stations in the U.S. and that means any place in the country with a meter aperture telescope or bigger will work. We've also built several portable ones."

    "Uh, Roger, how does the picosat know where the ground stations are if they're mobile?" Alan asked.

    "That is the beauty of it," Roger said. "Tom has worked out the orbit model and each time we get a download it will get better. All we do is drive out in the path of the thing and send up a quick coded laser pulse train. The input to the optical system of the satellite detects it and turns on the downlink."

    "Won't that tip off the aliens?" Ronny asked.

    "Possibly, but we'll send a weak signal and only for a few hundred microseconds. Besides, Ronny, this is laser. It's monodirectional as hell. In fact, if we use a one-meter aperture beam-directing telescope on the ground, the laser spot size at the picosat including atmospheric spread of the beam will be less than four meters in diameter. We can spot the satellite passively with a telescope and fire the laser on boresight. And in case we can't get the mobile units in the right place at the right time, the onboard system tracks landmarks of four groundstation locations. When the computer recognizes those landmarks it'll link up automatically."

    "What type of bandwidth can we get?" Ronny asked.

    "Well, we based the point-to-point laser communications system on an old Ballistic Missile Defense Organization program called the Space Technology Research Vehicle-2. That system could achieve 1.2 gigabits per second at eighteen hundred kilometers. We'll only be at four hundred kilometers. So, rough calculations suggest about 2 to 3 gigabits per second. That's about one 4 megapixel image per second. We'll be in line of sight with the sat for about two minutes with each downlink, so, that's over a hundred images per orbit and that's about all the solid-state memory capacity the little picosat has anyway. We can also use them to send up a communication and downlink them back to a ground station. It 'ill give us some minimal satcom capabilities back." Roger watched for Ronny's reaction, but wasn't sure what he was thinking.

    "I like it," Ronny said, nodding somberly. "I mean, what's the point of being the DDNRO if you don't have any satellites? How are we going to put it up?"

    "How are we going to put them up, is the right question, Ronny," Roger said, raising one eyebrow and smiling.


    "That's right, them. We already have ten of them finished and ready to go."

    Roger grinned from ear to ear.

    "Very nice indeed!"

    "They're so small that we can put them all into two fairly small sounding rockets. John and Tom have already worked it out and one rocket is being put together out at Vandenberg and the other at the Cape right now." Roger said.

    "Why the two different launch sites?" Ronny wiggled uncomfortably in his paper jumpsuit.

    "We'll put half of them in staggered polar orbits and half of them in staggered standard orbits. We'll maximize our coverage that way. For that matter, we're moving the tech to make the sounders not on site into the redoubts. As long as the redoubts hold out, we'll continue to have limited sat-com and ISR."

    "Good, Roger, good," Ronny said, sighing tiredly. "We need the eyes. Although I'm almost afraid of what we'll see. When do we launch?"

    "Two weeks from today."

    "Good. Let's hope it works. You got a backup plan if it doesn't?"

    "Yep. We're almost through with a composite Corona setup. But I hope we don't need it because the information from that will be much less useful than from these little bad boys right here." Roger patted the little satellite lovingly as if it were his child.



    "Cady, you awake?"

    "Yes, sir?" the sergeant major answered as he raised his cap to look over to the major. Gries' feet were propped in the window of the open Humvee door and Cady could tell he was focusing on something in the sky.

    "They're here. Time to dance."

    "Yes, sir." Cady rubbed his face and straightened up in the driver's seat.

    "Where, sir?"

    "There!" Gries pointed at a spot in the sky just beyond the Tennessee River south of the airport. Then two F-16s zipped over the trees and touched down side by side. Those two were followed by two more and then two more and so on. The fighters taxied in to the parking area and parked in formation about a hundred meters from where the Humvee was parked.

    "Let's go, Sergeant Major."

    "Sir." Cady started up the vehicle and drove them up to the base of one of the fighters that had "Colonel Matthew "Bull" Ridley" painted just beneath the cockpit. There were also eight shiny boomerangs painted on the nose of the plane. The sergeant major noted that they were unusually small. The pilot obviously intended to add lots more.

    "Colonel Ridley, sir! I didn't expect to see you so soon, and congratulations,"

    Major Gries saluted the colonel as he climbed down from the F-16. "If the Major may make so bold, Colonel, sir, you're looking one fuck of a lot better than the last time I saw you."

    "Greetings, greetings Major," the colonel said, smiling as he returned the salute. "Good to see you too, Sergeant Major. At ease, gentlemen. No need to stand at attention for the newly promoted full colonel; kissing my ring is sufficient."

    "Yes, sir," Gries replied, grinning. "I'll keep that in mind. How're the shoulder and the feet, Colonel?"

    "Hurt like hell before it rains, but other than that I'm good to go according to the flight surgeon."

    "Hard to keep an old dog down, right, sir?" Cady smiled.

    "Damn skippy, Sergeant Major. Now, let me find Rene and get my boys situated and one of you two can buy me a drink."

    "We'll have to skip the drink, sir," Gries replied, shrugging. "Dr. Guerrero told us to get you and Rene over to the AS HQ asap. There's a liaison here waiting to get your squadron situated."

    "A woman she work from sun to sun but a cunnel's work is never done?" Ridley tucked his flight gloves into his new all composite helmet and started loosening the g-suit.

    "Sir, let's make sure your fellows are taken care of. That seems soon enough for me." Shane grinned thinly and turned to Cady. "Sergeant Major Cady?"

    "Sir?" Cady barked, snapping to attention theatrically.

    "Sergeant Major, it looks like that damned motor pool gave us another Humvee with shit tires. Looks like that right rear is running on the run-flat. How long do you think it will take you to get it fixed?" Shane asked.

    "Yes, sir, Major, sir! That is so totally my fault. I should've given that damned specialist at the pool an earful when we picked up that shit-ass vehicle this morning! I guess it should take, oh…" Cady paused and consulted his watch. "Carry the two…"

    "About an hour and a half," Ridley said smiling.

    "I'd say about an hour and forty-five minutes, Major, sir!" Cady finished.

    "Good, see to it, Top."

    "Colonel," Cady winked and saluted, then boarded the Humvee.

    "Now Colonel, let's see about your squadron."



    Support for the Huntsville Redoubt Air Support Squadron had been trickling in for the better part of the week before Colonel Ridley and the "Rednecks," as they were calling themselves, landed. Ridley had decided if they were going to be assigned to protect the rednecks down in Huntsville, Alabama, that they might as well fit in.

    An equipment hangar had been designated on the commercial side of the airport where the FedEx aircraft had been maintained before the alien invasion. The USAF was in full swing, commandeering and operating the fighter wing out of the commercial side of the airport.

    On the other hand, somebody had dropped the damned ball figuring out where thirty new pilots were going to bunk once they got there. Shane and Colonel Ridley spent the better part of an hour kicking people out of the Airport Hotel and having them relocated to hotels farther away. Ridley's reasoning being that in case of an air attack, the pilots had to be right there on call and only minutes from take-off; civilian contractors could stay anywhere. The entire town had pretty much been turned into a redoubt, so moving folks farther from the center of the base or the airport was not a major issue from a protection standpoint. Hell, Gries or Ridley didn't think it would matter much anyway having seen first hand how the probes attacked. But, of course, they never said anything like that.

    At times Shane had wished he hadn't sent Top off on a boondoggle, as there was nobody better at rattling cages than Sergeant Major Thomas Cady. Oh well, the colonel and the major did all right for themselves in that regard and the pilots were well taken care of.



    "Nice to meet you, Colonel Ridley. Major Gries has told us a lot about you." Ronny shook the fighter pilot's hand and offered him a seat.

    "Thank you, sir. The major here told me I should come visit but I had no idea that I would be assigned the fighter protection here." Ridley took a seat in one of the leather guest chairs in Ronny's office.

    "Well, we have the task of spearheading development of the technologies that might give us the edge we need to defeat these alien probes. And you, your Belgian friend, Major Gries, and Sergeant Cady are the only folks with any real experience with them. So I got you pulled down here."

    "I see," is all Ridley said realizing that this Dr. Guerrero must have pretty big pull. The squadron had originally been designated to the defense of Washington.

    "We hope you saw something that when you relay it to our team here, it will mean something to us. And at the same time we plan to use your squadron as a test bed for any new weapons or capabilities we can come up with," Ronny said. "Normally we'd run that sort of thing out to Dreamland for testing. But since most of the work is being done right here, we can shorten the feedback cycle by putting your squadron directly in touch with the designers."

    "Great, sir, we're gonna need something," Ridley admitted darkly. "My pilots are ready and willing to take on the enemy, sir. But I'll admit that right now we don't have the chance of a sparrow against an eagle. They took our ships apart like ants eating a grasshopper, but faster. Anything we can do to improve the situation has my full and complete support, sir. What do you want me to do?"

    "There are some very bright minds running around on this base and they'll be picking yours for anything that might help. Let the major show you around and get another debrief. He understands the lay of the land around here. And in general, pitch in however you can. Don't hesitate to ask questions; don't hesitate to make suggestions. Be foolish if that's what it takes."

    "Clear, sir. Can do. I'll have my guys do the same." Ridley began thinking about any way to fight the probes. Off the top, nothing came to mind.



    "Hey, Colonel," Shane said as he walked in the squadron office. He gave the Air Force officer a gesture that was more wave than salute. It wasn't disrespectful, just a friendly greeting between warriors. "How're you settling in?"

    "We're good," Bull replied, returning the waved salute. "We've gotten our full delivery of squadron equipment and we're finally at over ninety percent on personnel. We're missing some critical areas, but since they include weapons techs and avionics…"

    "And you're in one of the nerve centers for both…" Shane said, chuckling.

    "We've got civilian contractors out the ass in the area," the colonel replied, nodding. "So we're farming out most of it. I mean, the contractors around here come up with the next generation gizmos."

    They seem to enjoy working on "off the shelf" equipment for a change." The "off the shelf" equipment was the most advanced installed in any aircraft in the world. But the reality of electronics advances made it already obsolete by the time it was installed.

    "There are some big brains around here."

    "Tell me about it," Shane said, shaking his head. "As an infantry officer I, of course, can never feel the slightest hint of doubt about my overall intelligence, good looks and sex appeal. But I'll admit that from time to time I feel challenged in the intelligence area when dealing with some of these guys. But, speaking of which, is Rene around?"

    "Down in the briefing room," the colonel said, nodding. "He's conducting a class on threat assessment."

    "Well, it's nearly quitting time," the major replied, glancing at his watch.

    "What say we have our first debrief with the Asymetric Soldier team?"

    "A woman she work from sun to sun…" Bull said, shrugging. "Over at the comm facility? We've got secure rooms set up now."

    "Nah," Shane said, grinning. "We've got a better place…"



    "ORDER IN!"

    "Your primary debriefing area is Hooters?" Rene said, grinning.

    The Huntsville Hooters location had been changed. While a large portion of the Huntsville area had been designated "protected," the actual location of the Huntsville Hooters was outside that zone. After a certain amount of wangling, Roger had pulled the strings to get it moved into the secure zone and it now was placed directly outside the gates of the Redstone Arsenal, which was the inner ring of the redoubt.

    If Hooters fell, for all practical purposes the world was lost.

    "Take a look around," Roger said, sipping at his beer. "You'll see most of these same faces over the course of the next month or so. At this point, practically everyone in this city is working on one defense project or another. Most of the waitresses work over at the base or for one of the defense contractors and moonlight here. For that matter, most of the stuff we're doing isn't even classified anymore. The probes don't seem to care and the news media is too worked up about the city defense plans to pay much attention to what we do. So most of our security restrictions have been tossed. They always got in the way of communication anyway. And would you prefer to be sitting in a secure room sipping cold coffee?"

    "No," Bull said, laughing. He reached for the pitcher and a passing waitress slapped his hand.

    "My job, Colonel," the girl said, winking. "You're the CO of the Redneck squadron, right? How's the arm?" She continued on without actually waiting for a response.

    "See," Roger said. "There ain't no such thing as secret no more. So, Alan, Tom and I have read your reports. Why don't you and Rene give it to us again."

    "I…" The colonel paused and frowned. "I know what you were saying about clearances, but…"

    "You want me to call Ronny?" Roger said, frowning. "I suppose I should have gotten you briefed in. I'm not sure what my current title is…"

    "Deputy Secretary of Defense for Advanced Defense Concepts and Testing," Traci said, picking up a wing. "You never read memos, do you?"

    "Who's got time?" Roger asked frowning. "Did you say Deputy Secretary? Not assistant deputy's assistant secretary?"

    "That's right," Tom said. "You didn't get the memo?"

    "I dunno," Roger replied. "You're sure there wasn't an 'Assistant' in there, somewhere, or an 'Undersecretary'?" he asked, almost plaintively.

    "Nope," Tom replied. "You're on the manning chart as reporting to the secretary of defense."

    "I haven't talked to him but twice," Roger argued. "Who the hell said I was a deputy secretary?"

    "Uh, the President?" Alan replied. "I read the memo. You were appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate and it was in the newspapers. Hell, it made the evening news, briefly. It was a nice little write up."

    "Crap, I have got to start reading my e-mail." Roger sighed. "Anyway…" He paused at the expression on the colonel's face. "What?"

    "You're…" Bull paused and swallowed. "Somebody had better not be pulling my leg."

    "Somebody better not be pulling mine," Roger said, frowning at the far wall.

    "How the hell can I be a deputy secretary?"

    "They're not, Colonel," Shane said, grinning. "I read the e-mail, too. Hell, I saved the link to the Washington Post article."

    "You don't remember anything about this?" Tom asked, laughing. "I thought I was checked out!"

    "Ronny said something about coming to work directly for the Defense Department," Roger admitted, frowning in thought. "I just asked if I'd take a cut in salary and he said, no, the salary would be the same or better."

    "There was paperwork," Traci pointed out. "Sally put it on your desk. You signed it."

    "Sally's always putting stuff on my desk," Roger said, shaking his head. "I don't have time to read it!"

    "Colonel," Shane said, laughing and shaking his head. "You can assume that Roger has need-to-know. Director Guerrero said that I was supposed to show you around. These are the guys I was supposed to show you around to."

    Bull looked at the three, Tom with some chicken from his latest failed attempt to strip it off the wing speckled on his shirt, Alan with his Roll Tide ball cap and Roger, the "Deputy Secretary of Defense for Advanced Defense Concepts and Testing," in his jeans and polo shirt with a hole on the sleeve and shook his head.

    "Any other deputy secretaries of defense sitting at the table?" he asked and laughed.

    "Nope," Tom said, shaking his head. "I'm an assistant under deputy secretary and Alan's just a flunkie."


    "I told you you should have got that Ph.D."

    "So anyway…" Roger said, stripping off a wing and stuffing it in his mouth. "Whu doh ou sta't ah uh be'inin." He swallowed and washed it down with some beer. "I mean, why don't you start at the beginning and just tell us the story. What's a better place for that than Hooters? And have a beer, for God's sake! Who knows how long beer will be available. I mean, hell, we've already lost football! Hell, I'm so strung out I'd even watch a Canadian game, or arena, or Division II colleges, or high school, or shit, even NFL Europe at this point."

    "Yes, sir," Bull laughed, taking a sip and looking at the far wall. A Hooter's girl was just getting up on her tiptoes to shoot an order in and the thought that went through his mind was that she had very little metal on her body. If she got rid of the necklace she'd survive. At least the probes.

    "It was a couple of months ago," he temporized, picking up a wing. "My memory's not as clear as it was. I was debriefed then-"

    "It was a crappy debrief," Tom interjected. "They didn't know the questions to ask. And we're not going to be saying: 'Colonel, are you sure that your memory wasn't affected by the high Gs that you sustained?' "

    "You have read the report," Rene said bitterly.

    "Oh, yeah," Alan said, taking a sip of beer and shaking his head. "I'm pretty sure they wouldn't ask the same questions now, but it was a crappy debrief. Tell us. Have some beer, tell the story, then we'll toss it around."

    Bull nodded and took another sip.

    The replay of the events took about an hour, he and Rene contributing about equally, their hands occasionally rising in the air to show the maneuvers. Through it all, Tom carried the majority of the questions. He'd clearly studied the original debrief. Roger, Alan and Traci just listened, nodding from time to time.

    "Okay, let's go back over that," Tom said as Bull reached the point that he hit the ground. "You were closing at about-"

    "Seven hundred knots," Bull said, nodding. "We picked up a bit of speed in the dive, then bled off as we pulled up. Then we went to afterburners when I saw the attack plan was useless."

    "After," Rene pointed out. "We'd cleared the cloud when we went to burners."

    "After," Bull said, nodding.

    "And they banked to follow," Roger said.

    "Yeah," Bull replied, nodding again. "Definite bank. Tight, mind you. Motherfucking tight. I was in a good sixteen-G bank and they were turning tight inside of me, and I think they were at higher velocity. They had to be pulling twenty-five, thirty Gs."

    "Thirty Gs would be nothing to those things," Tom said, frowning. "They should have been able to stop on what would look like a dime and then come after you so fast you could barely see them."

    "Why?" Rene asked. "You knew they could do this?"

    "It's based on their interplanetary movements," Tom said. "We can, to a limited degree, trace their projected movement time from Mars to the Moon. And we can definitely trace their acceleration in and around the Moon and on their approach to Terra. They have an accel capability of at least one hundred Gs. There's no reason to think they would be limited…" He trailed off in thought.

    "Gravity interference?" Traci asked. "Does the reactionless drive react to gravity?"

    "It's what I'm thinking," Tom admitted, coming partially out of his trance.

    "Nah, I think it's simpler than that," Roger said, taking a sip of beer.

    "Atmospheric effects. At those speeds, the atmosphere is dense. There's significant nonlinear compressible flow. At those speeds and short darting maneuvers the flow might even become unstable and nonlaminar. They just can't move as fast in dense atmosphere. Or maneuver as fast. They've got loads of potential delta V, but that's counteracted by the atmosphere so their attitude correction and control is limited."

    "Makes more sense than gravitational interference," Tom admitted.

    "Then the higher they get, the faster they're going to be," Rene pointed out.

    "Get above about forty kilometers and they're going to be nearly as fast as in space."

    "Maybe," Roger said doubtfully.

    "Nah," Alan said. "They're not made out of superunobtainium."

    "Plasma," Tom said, nodding.

    "Say again?" Bull asked.

    "They're not going to be able to move at interplanetary velocities because of heating," Roger translated. "Like the SR-71? It had to be designed to stretch in flight because of atmospheric heating. Until they're completely out of the atmosphere, they're going to be somewhat limited. And that explains why they had trouble with the missiles, too."

    "It does?" Bull said. "I'd been wondering about that. I guessed it was maneuvering, but I wasn't sure why."

    "They've apparently got a limited range on this tractor field or whatever," Roger said. He looked at his nearly empty glass, looked around covertly and then reached for the pitcher.

    "I'll tell Casey on you!" Traci said. "CASEY!"

    "I've got it," the waitress said, walking over to their table. She topped up everyone's glass, looked at the depleted tray of wings, filled out a form and hooked it to the overhead wire. "ORDER IN!"

    "So you guys going to save the world today?" Casey asked. She was a tall brunette with hazel eyes, pleasantly mammalian, with narrow hips.

    "We're sure working on it, sweetie," Roger said.

    "Hey, congratulations on your promotion," Casey said, grinning. "This is the first time I've ever served a deputy secretary of defense!"

    "He's not letting it go to his head," Bull said solemnly.

    "Good thing," Casey replied, winking. Then she looked at him seriously. "Any word on when they're going to cross?"

    "We're looking at it," Roger said. "But right now, we're trying to figure out how to stop them when they do." He turned his attention back to his colleagues.

    "Okay, they're going to be maneuver-limited in atmosphere. That's good news. Not great, but it's something. And you said that when they were hit, the secondaries took out others."

    "When the Sparrow hit, it usually took out about three or four," Rene said. "But all the Sparrows didn't survive."

    "So far, they've apparently been ignoring carbon," Tom said. "We can probably tweak the Sparrows so they're less tasty. But it will be a major redesign."

    "Why not combine the mine concept with the Sparrows instead?" Traci said, frowning. "When they detect probes in the vicinity, they blow out mines."

    "Works," Roger said, picking up a Hooters napkin.

    "You've had a few, Mr. Deputy," Casey said, who was still listening to their conversation grinning, and pulling the napkin over. "Let me. Sparrow, mine. That work?"

    "Works," Roger said, nodding. "But you've got other tables."

    "Not tonight," Casey replied.

    "You're packed," Alan said, gesturing around.

    "Not… tonight," Casey repeated. "What's next?"

    "The guns definitely didn't work," Rene said.

    "They're depleted uranium," Roger sighed. "Those things really like heavy metals."

    "Ceramic?" Cady asked. He'd been quietly sitting sipping his beer, waiting for the big brains to stumble.

    "Way to go, Sergeant Major," Roger said, nodding. "Casey."

    "Ceramic bullets, Falcons."

    "Another major redesign at the plant," Alan pointed out.

    "Can't be helped," Roger said. "But I think we're staying way inside the box. What about directed energy weapons?"

    "They've experimented with mounting chemical lasers on Falcons," Bull said dubiously. "But you only get about twenty shots if I recall correctly."

    "Hell with that," Alan said loudly, then belched. "Use a shit load of dah-odes!"

    "Pardon me," Rene said. "A what?"

    "A diode array laser," Tom replied, taking a sip of beer as Roger pulled out another napkin and started sketching. "Instead of using chemicals to produce the laser, you use electrical energy and a diode. You can fire for as long as you have power and keep the diode system cooled."

    "Won't work," Roger said, shaking his head and looking up from the napkin. "You need at least a hundred kilowatts. The F-16 hasn't got the juice with all its other systems. And I can't see a way to shoe-horn in another generation system."

    "It would work for ground defense, though," Traci pointed out excitedly. "Really really well."

    "Put the diode in a high place," Alan said, his accent thickening. "Get a bitty nuke generator, one of them pebble-bed thingies from General Atomics. That'd give you all the power you need fer sure. Hell, we could even hook 'em right into the hydroelectric turbines on all the dams up and down the Tennessee!"

    "We could cobble together a multi-diode hundred kilowatt system pretty easy," Roger said, nodding. "Hell, multi megawatt for that matter. Targeting would be a bitch."

    "You're talking about if they attack, like, here, right?" Casey said.

    "Yeah," Roger admitted. "But, hell, if we could just fix the targeting it would be another good city defense system."

    "This is a laser, like in a laser light show?" Casey asked.

    "Well, lots more powerful," Roger pointed out. He knew that Casey wasn't up to the smarts level of Traci, but he didn't want to hurt her feelings.

    "And there's lots of them?" Casey asked, waving her hands as if to get people to see where she was going. "The probes I mean."

    "Yeah," Bull said, sighing. "They damned well fill the… Oh."

    "So you get one of those things that, like, moves the laser around…" Casey said, as if speaking to a moron.

    "And just paint the whole fucking sky," Roger said, slapping his forehead.

    "Jesus, you could just use any optical targeting system with cooled optics! Alan, see about getting the design specs for the SEALITE Beam Director off the MIRACL laser. We're gonna want something like that."

    "They're going to close fast," Bull pointed out. He gestured out the window to the general east. "If they're closing here, from the east, they're going to be coming over that big ridge. You won't have more than a minute from when they come in view and when you're under attack."

    "Well, we could mount it on top of Monte Sano Mountain; that's the highest point around here. And we could put one on Madkin Mountain and shit what's the name of the mountain out in Harvest with those towers on it.." Roger said.

    "Rainbow Mountain?" Traci asked.

    "We'd have to cut a bunch of trees." Tom tried another wing-no luck.

    "Balloon," Cady said.

    "Airborne, Sergeant Major," Shane added, grinning.

    "Sure," Alan said, looking up from his chicken wing. "Mount it on one of them barrage balloon sort of things. You'd have to stabil … stab-l… you know…"

    "Stabilization's easy," Roger said, frowning. "But that won't be all-weather. Why not just mount it in a plane? One big enough to carry the diode and the generator?"

    "C-130 would do," Bull said, nodding. Then he blanched. "Shit, I'm going to end up fighting from a trash-hauler!"

    "You missed something," Shane said.

    "What?" Roger asked. "I think it will work."

    "Back a ways," Shane replied. "The sparrow-thingy."

    "Sparrow-mines?" Casey asked.

    "What you got?" Roger said.

    "I was thinking about that nuclear Katyusha Alan was pitching," Shane said. "What about mounting the mines in some sort of rocket? One that released cluster bomb mines into the swarm?"

    "And it would be easy," Roger said, nodding. "Hell, why use cluster bombs? Mount them on K engine rockets. You can make those like…"

    "We could probably get up to about ten an hour, if we were just making K engines," Casey said, nodding.

    "What?" Alan asked blearily.

    "That's where I work, Rocket Ram-Jets, down off James Record Road by the quarry where the divers dive and the boys play paintball and the sheep are nervous,"

    Casey replied, smiling. "I mean, my day job. And we've been really falling off. Not many people are making home-built rockets right now. The K line is about shut down and we're mostly making Es. They've got some sort of military application. But if we hired some people, we could probably make about ten K engines an hour, twenty-four hours a day. Maybe more if we set up another line and could get the raw materials in place."

    "Casey," Roger said carefully. "Make a note for the… what am I?"

    "Deputy Secretary of Defense for Advanced Defense Concepts and Testing," Traci said, grinning.

    "…the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Advanced Defense Concepts and Testing to call your employer and give him a spec contract on full K production and probably upgrade of the line tomorrow. Please. Thank you?"

    "Call Rocket Ram-Jets," Casey said, slowly filling out the napkin. "K engine production. Good news, I even know the number."

    "She's feeding you beer," the colonel said, smiling. "Does this fall into the category of lobbying?"

    "I'm paying for it," Roger said, reaching for the pitcher and then pulling back as Casey, without looking up, reached out with her left hand and poured him another beer. "I think I'm covered."

    "Right you are, sir," Bull said, grinning.

    "An ABL," Roger said, nodding. "I'd say that's going to give us a throw to about sixty klicks. Inside that we've got the Falcons using modified Sparrows and ceramic bullets. Inside that we'll have the K rockets. They'll go to six klicks, straight up, so that gives us a linear ballistic of-"

    "About a factor of two as near as makes no difference," Tom replied without thinking. "Fired at a forty-five degree angle."

    "Twelve kilometers then," Roger said, nodding. "Then inside that we've got the probe mines, Gecko mines, Coyote glue, the M240B with ceramic rounds, what have you."

    "And if they get inside of that?" Traci asked.

    "Staffs," Cady, Shane and Alan all chorused. Then Alan hiccupped and slid off his stool onto the floor.

    "I think the meeting is adjourned," Roger said, picking up his glass. "Time to toast my promotion!"



    "Mr. President, from these satellite images taken by the Neighborhood Watch's new birds we can actually determine where the alien machines have spread." General Mitchell pointed at the flat world map on the flat screen.

    "That group down there in Alabama has come through again, sir," the NSA added.

    "Those are some very bright rednecks."

    "That's why I appointed Roger to his position, Vicki," the President said mildly.

    "Well, sir," Mitchell continued. "We see that the expansion wave has begun to touch into northeastern Greenland and that is getting close, sir. The AS Program has developed a first generation set of weapons that are entirely nonmetallic that they believe will be effective against the probes. Dr. Guerrero and Dr. Reynolds continue to request a recon team to capture and bring back some of the probes to study. I think northeastern Greenland would be the most likely place to make such an attempt."

    "Why do they want to catch one of these damned things?" the President asked.

    "It's Dr. Reynolds' theory that bullets and bombs might, and he emphasizes might, hold them off for a while," the NSA answered. "But simulations say that they'll have a limited long-term effect. The theory within the AS team is that we'll need something new, some tool that attacks the probes specifically and on a very large scale. To have any chance of doing that, we need one or more to study."

    "As the NSA said, sir." General Mitchell flipped the slide to a map of Greenland. "We can fly in low and fast to God's Thumb. The team will go from there to the edge of occupied territory and try to find regions with low concentrations of the probes. The plan is to find a small subswarm of the probes and kill or capture all of them. They intend to bring back any and all debris that can be managed and hopefully one or more full probes. The Huntsville AS team is leading the way on capture methods while the Denver and Boston teams are point units for analysis and countermeasures."

    "Jesus Christ, what if that just pisses them off and makes them follow the team back to the U.S.?" SecDef Stensby asked.

    "Well, sir, they've been building a pretty extensive underground bunker at both the Huntsville and Denver Redoubt and the plan is to do all of the research as deep underground as possible," General Mitchell said.

    "Okay," the President held up his left hand. "Peace, gentleman. We can argue this if we want, but the AS and Neighborhood Watch have done their job thus far. Let's not get in the way of that. Approve the mission, General, with whatever resources it needs."

    "Yes, sir." Mitchell moved on to the next slide. "One more bit of info from the spysats, sir, shows us that the aliens are doing something other than just creating replicas of themselves."

    "And that is?" the President put his hands on the table and thought to himself, Oh God, what now?

    "The Neighborhood Watch scientists took the hot spot data given to them from the NSA analysis and made those points the first targets for the space recon."

    Mitchell pointed the mouse at a spot in the center of a picture of Italy and it zoomed in on Rome, specifically the Coliseum. "Here, sir, there is obviously a major construction taking place. Where there used to be ruins there now stands a large metal infrastructure nearly a hundred kilometers across. It's similar to the images of Mars and now the Moon."

    "That is not good!" NSA said, biting her lower lip nervously. Where Rome used to be looked like one gigantic metal building.

    "This is only a small part of the story. The AS analysts have put together a mosaic of the red area from the spysat data and from that you can see that there are major central infrastructure regions tied together with vast pathways."

    The image of Europe showed bright spots where most of the major cities had been and they were all linked together like a giant shiny spider web. The probes were un-terraforming the planet-fast.

    "There are four extremely large concentrations of alien activity, Mr. President. The largest is just east of Paris where they first came down. The other three are in Casablanca, Morocco; Cairo, Egypt; and Moscow, Russia. The terraforming of Rome is small compared to what has been done at these other cities." Mitchell showed slides of each of the metal cities that were now hundreds of kilometers across.

    "Holy shit!" resounded through the briefing room.

    "Yes, sir, holy shit, sir. Zooming in on Paris we can see even more. In this image we see this big rectangular object here. This object is about a kilometer long and about half that wide. You see this shadow here, sir?" Mitchell paused to see if the President responded.


    "Well, from the angle of the sun at the time the image was taken, the analysts were able to determine that this thing, whatever it is, is about a thousand meters above the ground. It's flying, sir."

    "Flying?" the SecDef said.

    "Yes, sir. And from the data we have so far, there are many such mammoth objects that appear to be just floating in midair above these larger centers. They're not swarms; they're flying cities, Mr. President."

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