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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Saturday, July 22, 2006 23:56 EDT



    "You know what they say about Greenland, Top?" Major Gries adjusted the collar on his parka and pulled his toboggan down over his ears better as he tore open one of the new plastic-wrapped MREs and tried to eat the PowerBar without breaking his teeth. Even though he'd held the damned thing under his arm for the last fifteen minutes it was still hard as a rock from the extreme cold.

    "Other than it being goddamned cold, no, sir, what's that?" Cady asked as he bit down into some armpit-warmed granola.

    "Well, Top, legend has it that there is a beautiful woman hiding behind every tree in the land."

    Cady scanned the horizon in front of him and didn't see anything taller than a yellow poppy. He knew from the fifteen kilometers that they had already hiked that there hadn't been any f'n trees nowhere.

    "Right, Major." Cady nibbled on the granola and worked his frozen fingers. Shane surprised him by handing him his new issue plastic field binoculars.

    "Would you look at that?" Gries nodded to the west and choked down the bit of frozen PowerBar.

    "Son of bitch. You think that tundra bird even knows what he's sitting on?" Cady laughed at the sight. Specialist Nelms had crawled to the peak of the next ridgeline to take up the forward recon point and had remained so still that Cady and Gries were taking bets on if he was frozen to death. The specialist had been still for so long a small flock of tundra birds had wandered near him and one of them was presently perched on his head.

    "Why doesn't he move?" Gries asked.

    "Look to the north of him about two hundred meters, sir." Cady handed Gries back his binoculars.

    "Hmmm." Gries scanned to the north of Specialist Nelms and found the rest of his squad.

    Staff Sergeant Gregory was moving fast through the tundra valley toward Gries and Cady, his fully automatic HE ball gun at the ready. Gregory stopped about halfway between Nelms and Gries and started making hand gestures and signals. The ground around him started to come to life as the rest of the squad rose from their camouflaged positions. Staff Sergeant Gregory continued giving orders to the seven soldiers and then suddenly he stopped, knelt, and became motionless.

    "What the hell? Want me to check it out, sir?"

    "Let's hold it up, Top. Something's going on here." Surprise occurs in the mind of the commander, Shane thought. He scanned the edge of the ridge from north to south. Top had his binoculars out now and was doing the same.

    "I don't see anything, but something has them spooked, sir." Cady didn't like this damned tundra. There was nothing to hide behind. No place to take cover. There was an occasional yellow poppy, grass, lichen, or sedge bush, but nothing substantial enough to stop a bullet or just to simply lie low behind.

    A flock of birds rose up squawking from the other side of the ridge, startling Gries at first since they seemed so much closer through the binoculars. Once his sense of distance adjusted he noticed the birds around Specialist Nelms take flight as well. Then a herd of reindeer crested the ridge. The reindeer ran at a ground-eating canter past the troops in the valley southwestward and did not appear as though they would be slowing down anytime soon.

    Then Shane noticed more movement on the crest of the ridge on both sides of the specialist. And the ground continued to look as though it was moving. Gries focused the binoculars again, thinking they were out of focus, and then he realized what he was seeing as the sunlight started to glint and glare back at him from the ridge.

    Forty or fifty little shiny boomerangs crested the ridge one after the next, right past and over Nelms. The boomerangs looked as though they were walking on the surface but from what Gries could see the things had no legs. The alien probes were moving slowly and although in random paths they all seemed to be moving in the same general direction-right for the troops and directly at Gries and Top.

    "Shit!" Top muttered and reflexively grasped the big ornate oak warrior club that Alan Davis had given him.

    "Well, we wanted to get close." Shane watched as the alien boomerang-shaped probes skittered and swarmed like ants over the hill and poured down over his squad in the valley. "Don't move, boys. Don't move."

    The subswarm of boomerangs made no noise as they moved except occasionally when they would do something that would cause the dirt to roll, churn, and be blown aside like from a leaf blower. But they didn't do this often.

    "I think the little dust clouds must be when they find something they like," Gries whispered.

    "Well, I hope there ain't nothing on a ground pounder that they find appetizing, sir."

    "Roger that, Top." Shane nodded. "Looks like they're gonna head right for us. I guess we're gonna find out if the shakedown worked."

    "Should we move, sir? Or are you wantin' to dance with 'em again?" Cady asked.

    "Too many to dance with, Top. But they don't seem to be bothering the rest of the squad and we came here to get intel and a bot!"

    "Somehow, sir, I knew you were going to say that." Cady felt his HE ball minigun to make sure it was ready to go. The geeks had done a good job with the first production model. It wasn't even a fourth as heavy as a real minigun and Cady could carry it and all the air packs and HE ammo for the thing he wanted without being weighted down. Then he felt up his warrior club one more time, fondling it for confidence. "We wait, sir?"

    "We wait . . . quietly and very goddamned still." Gries made himself comfortable on the ridge as if he were getting ready for a nap. A light bead of sweat rolled on his forehead even though it was only five degrees above zero.

    "Yes, sir! Still as a goddamned rock, sir." Cady didn't like this at all.



    Shane was quiet as a mouse, but he was nervous as a freaking cat as the subswarm of shiny meter-long stubby boomerangs blotted out the sky as they crawled over him. Although he could see very closely-very closely-that the bots had no legs-it felt like they were walking over him as they went by. He could literally feel something stepping on him. And he could hear the faintest rustling of the tundra from the alien bot herd. Whatever they used to stir up the ground made a slight perceptible noise from that close a range.

    He and Cady had seen the things rip metal right out of concrete with some sort of invisible grasp, so he figured that they used the same force for crawling and flying. Dr. Reynolds would be better at answering that question and, Shane knew he had to catch one of these things so that Roger could do just that.

    The fifteen minutes it took for the boomerangs to crawl over them seemed like at least seven years. Shane could no longer hear the faint rustling noise but that could mean they were only a few tens of meters away. He raised his neck slowly so he could see the subswarm over his feet. The bots had gotten more than thirty meters away and appeared to be paying them no attention. Shane motioned to Cady to hold fast for five more minutes.

    By the time Shane thought they had given them enough time Staff Sergeant Gregory was easing quietly up beside them. He tapped Cady on the shoulder and made some subdued hand gestures and then pointed to the southwest. Cady relayed the same message to the major. The probes were now two hundred meters southwest of them.

    "Good work, Gregory." Shane rolled over to see the small swarm of the alien boomerang-shaped probes still traipsing across the tundra as though it were an evening stroll for them. Who knew? It might have been just that. "Gregory, are there more behind them gonna come over that ridge behind us anytime soon?"

    "No, sir," the staff sergeant whispered. "As far as we can tell the main swarm is still four or five clicks northeast."

    "Good," Shane whispered. "Then that's our target."

    "Understood, sir," Top whispered and nodded. Down to business, he thought.

    "Orders, sir?"

    "Let's stay on their tail. Get me two or three runners out ahead of them and set the trap. Then we'll ambush them, trying to kill all of them but one completely and we'll just knock that remaining one out. We better do it all at once, since those damned things can fly. Let's do it, Top."

    "Yes, sir."

    Cady grabbed Staff Sergeant Gregory by the shoulder and motioned for him to crawl back over the ridge. He dragged the minigun beside him with one hand and eased over the edge. As the two men crested the ridge and out of sight of the probes Cady rose to his feet and slung the composite HE ball minigun on his back. That was one piece of equipment he was never letting go of.

    "All right Gregory, you heard the boss. Go fetch Specialist Nelms and have him meet me down the valley five clicks south-and tell him he better beat me there. You and three others get back here and stay with the major. Put your two fastest long-distance runners on the west side of the probes and tell them to get a half click ahead of them and stay that way until they can see us through the binoculars closing in on them. When they get the signal they're to put out the friction mines as fast as they can and then hunker down, ready to fight. Put the other two on the west side pacing with the probes. Make sure all of them are ready with the riot grenades. Got it?"

    "Got it, Top."

    "All right then, move!"



    The President and the Joint Chiefs studied the spysat photos of the European and Asian continent in dismay. There were already major central "hive-like" structures that were a hundred to three hundred kilometers in diameter at several major cities in Eurasia. The largest still seemed to be Paris and now that city was growing upward. More and more the recon photos showed the mammoth floating structures around the large central hive cities. Nobody had any clue what the giant floating structures were or what they were for. The alien probes had completely transformed Europe and were stretching into Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and were starting to stretch across the Atlantic into Greenland.

    "Mr. President," George Fines, the presidential science advisor entered the War Room with the SecDef.

    "George, Jim, what's happening?" The President could detect the look of urgency on their faces.

    "Sir, about seven minutes ago our nuclear watch seismographs detected seismic wave activity that could only be caused by multiple detonations around the globe. The detonations were of very large nuclear devices and it appears that there must have been more than fifty of them. Following that by about four minutes there were several more, perhaps ten, detonations detected." Fines reported.

    "Where were the detonations?" General Mitchell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs asked.

    "There's no way to know until the next downlink from the Neighborhood Watch sats come in. That'll be in about twenty or so more minutes before we get any pictures that were taken after the detonations." SecDef Stensby looked at his wristwatch to mark the time.



    Specialists Jones and Mahoney had been the two unfortunate enough to be the fastest long distance runners in the group. They had to get back up the valley and over the ridge where Major Gries was waiting, pace faster than the men taking the west flank, and cover about ten kilometers in the same time the other men covered five. They had to do all this while not giving their positions away to the alien probes-if the things were even paying attention to them.

    Major Gries understood what was being asked of his men and he set the pace at an easy march with light bursts of run here and there. Fortunately, the terrain of the early springtime Greenland tundra was easy to make time over and only the occasional ridgeline would put his other troops or the bots out of sight.

    Without radio communication they had to make certain that each member of the squad was in sight of somebody else within the squad so they could daisy-chain the communications back and forth to the major. Normally they could have used watches and timed it, but they left all metal at the evac point about fifteen kilometers east before this mission, watches included.

    Major Gries still wanted to give the alien probes a wide berth and be cautious about letting their rear position overtake the alien subswarm of the boomerang-shaped bots. Gries slowed the rear group to almost a stop and surveyed the tundra through the binoculars. At least this time I'm running after the damned things instead of from them, he thought.

    "Sir, it looks like Top is in position, but he hasn't signaled that he's seen Jones and Mahoney yet," Staff Sergeant Gregory whispered while looking through the binoculars at the large man brandishing a minigun like it was a paperweight. Of course, this one was, compared to a minigun that shot real bullets instead of paintballs filled with impact-mix-detonated HE.

    "Right. I can see our men on the west flank. Top is set up on the east. As soon as we get the signal from Top, we'll start closing in on the metal bastards."

    Shane rested for a second and tightened the lid on his plastic canteen. The subswarm of Von Neumann probes still looked like a herd or swarm or flock of creatures milling about the tundra and in no particular hurry. They seemed uninterested in the troops at the moment Shane hoped it stayed that way. It would make their job a whole hell of a lot easier.

    "Sir," Gregory whispered.


    "Top's giving us the go-ahead signal, sir. Orders?"

    "Staff Sergeant Gregory, check that all team members are in position and signal the slow advance." Shane tucked the canteen back in his standard insulated carrier pack and hoped it kept it from freezing since the sun would be going down soon.

    "Team's ready, sir!" Gregory said quietly.

    "Move out."



    Jones and Mahoney had just enough time to catch their breath when Top started signaling for them to get set up. The probes were headed in their general direction and would cover the kilometer or so up the small valley to the ambush point in probably fifteen minutes at the pace they were traveling. That would be just long enough to plant the special riot mines that Major Gries had brought along for the trip.

    The mines, as with everything else, had to have exactly zero metallic content. The weapons could be activated in several ways, all of which came down to direct motion and friction.

    Mahoney dropped to his knees, looking around and figuring out the best configuration for the mines. Among other things, they didn't want to "paint themselves into a corner." The only way to do it was to start at one side and work back to their position. They'd practiced extensively before deploying, but he still needed to get the lay of the land.

    "Mine one here," he said, pointing. He pulled out the carbon fiber digging tool, which looked like a cross between a knife and a spatula, and stabbed it into the ground.

    "Crap," he said as Jones dropped to his knees nearby.

    "What?" Jones asked, stabbing in himself. "Hey! It's fucking rock!"

    "Permafrost you hick," Mahoney replied digging some of the soil aside. There was only about four inches of soft soil at the point he was digging and then it turned to solid permafrost.

    "This sucks," Jones said, hacking at the ice-bound soil. "What the hell do we do now?"

    "Mound them," Mahoney said, thinking quickly. He dug down as far as he could get, opened up the hole so that the mine could slide in, slid it into the hole and then dug soil from around it until there was a large mound. Packing it in on the sides held the mine in place.

    "Now for the tricky part," he said. He took a long piece of carbon fiber that looked something like a thin whip and screwed it into the top of the mine. With the whip trigger in place he carefully pulled out the safety pin and pocketed it.

    "This really sucks," Jones said, as he got his second mine in place. "Nobody said nothin' about no permafrost shit."

    "I guess they thought it'd be melted off," Mahoney said. "Now shut up and dig."

    With the last of the sixteen mines planted Mahoney tapped Jones on the shoulder and motioned to back off to their cover point. The two specialists slipped back up the valley about thirty meters and took cover in a low spot in the tundra. Jones lay flat on a bed of yellow tundra poppies.

    "Did you signal Top?" Jones nudged the other specialist and pulled out his binoculars.

    "Shit, I thought you did. Hold," Mahoney raised to a knee and made a couple of quick hand motions. "Did he see it?"

    "Top gave thumbs up. Do the same and get the fuck ready." Jones set the binoculars on the poppy bed in front of him and took aim with the HE ball gun. Mahoney signaled and readied his HE ball gun and loaded a riot grenade canister in his potato gun.



    "Nelms, when you get the word I want you firing that potato gun as fast as you can, got it?"

    "Right, Top! Ready." Nelms had all ten of the riot canister magazines he and Top had brought strapped across his shoulders on their bandoliers and his potato gun at the ready.

    "Okay, hold one." Top looked to the north and gave the major the signal that they were ready to go and waited for the return signal to go ahead.



    "Sir, west side is ready," Sergeant Gregory informed the major.

    "Good." Shane readied his potato gun and the Kevlar and Spectra 1000 net that the Huntsville scientists had put together for him.

    "All right, troops, remember your orders. We shoot the motherfuckers dead! Every goddamned one of them but the one the major shoots with his special bag. I want suppression fire to keep those damned things from flying away and stay ready with the potato guns." Staff Sergeant Gregory gave a nod to the major. "Ready, sir."

    "Move out!" Shane gave the go signal to Top on the east flank while Gregory motioned the west flank on.



    The first two or three minutes were uneventful and nerve-racking as the rear and side flanking positions closed in around the little alien probes. The forty or fifty some-odd shiny metal boomerangs skittered over the ground as if they were cattle grazing. Perhaps that's what they were doing.

    But the ambush plan was perfect. The little bots sauntered unaware right into the minefield.

    The long whip was attached to a detonator. As soon as the first bot touched the whip it was bent slightly sideways. This released a shear pin, which in turn released a spring-loaded firing pin. The firing pin detonated the primer, which triggered a pre-charge. The pre-charge traveled downwards to a launching booster and a moment later the primary charge detonated.

    The first riot mine erupted upwards, then the primary detonated, spreading the Coyote glue into a small spheroid cloud that settled over several of the probes.

    "Fire!" Gries gave the word and the rear flank opened up on the unsuspecting bots.

    FWOOOMP! FWOOMP! FWOOMP! FWOOMP! Sounded the potato guns from all directions.

    Several riot grenades detonated just above the small swarm of boomerangs that spread the Coyote glue, covering a majority of the swarm sparsely, but enough to stick them to the ground and temporarily prevent them from flying away. And then came the rapid spikt spikt spikt of the HE ball guns, followed by the kerpow of the HE balls detonating against the bots and the tundra.

    FWOOOMP! FWOOMP! FWOOMP! FWOOMP! Several more riot grenades detonated and the confused bots triggered several more of the mines that Jones and Mahoney had emplaced. Top rushed to the edge of the gooey cloud, spattering away at the loose bots with the minigun. HE balls exploding at more than two hundred a second made an interesting visual and sound effect. The HE balls were proving effective against the bots. It appeared that the alien boomerang-shaped probes were no more or less fragile than earthbound vehicles and materials and the HE balls disposed of them in a nice little fireball of scattering bot shrapnel.

    Jones and Mahoney held their positions, firing both HE balls and riot canisters as fast as they could. Gries and the rest of the rear flank pressed inward until the major didn't think moving closer was a wise idea.

    "Check advance! Round 'em up!"

    Privates First Class Gibson and Letorres pushed the west flank inward. The Coyote glue would hold an individual bot for a few seconds while it tried to spin and wriggle out of the glue's grip. When that would fail, the alien boomerangs would propel upward very fast, stretching the glue to its elastic limit. Where a bot was held by a thick glob of the riot glue it would be yanked back downward into the tundra hard. The impact would render the probe useless in a shower of sparks. Gries noted how it looked like a special effect from a cheesy science fiction movie when the things malfunctioned or were knocked down. Several of the bots nearly reached the elastic limit of the sticky mess to freedom-nearly. But the flower that rises above others is cut down. Out of the mix they were natural targets for the HE ball guns, and the entire herd of the alien probes was nothing but cattle to the slaughter. The HE ball guns were performing well above Gries's expectations in dispensing destruction on the probes. He owed Alan Davis a beer.

    "That one on the edge, there!" Gries pointed. "I got that one." Shane took aim on the bot and depressed the trigger of the compressed air cannon. FWOOMP went the potato gun. Just as the bot stretched to the edge of the Coyote glue trap the canister Gries fired exploded open into a thick spider web of Kevlar and Spectra 1000 filaments with synthetic gecko-skin patches mixed in. The hi-tech net spread open and wrapped and tangled around the alien thing. The bot started spinning wildly, trying to free itself. Pieces of the composite fiber net began to fly off in multiple directions. And it looked like the bot had some capability of cutting through it since large portions were disappearing. If the thing had not been doused in Coyote glue before Gries fired the net, it would have gotten free.

    "Riot grenade!" Gries yelled and pointed at the nearly escaping bot.

    "Got it!" Staff Sergeant Gregory hit it with another net grenade, giving Major Gries time to reload his potato gun.

    As the last bot was blown the hell up, Gries flung his last net grenade around the captive one. It wasn't going to hold and Sergeant Cady realized this at about the same time Gries did. Like an Olympic sprinter Cady rushed the little alien probe, wielding his custom battle club. With one muted blow from the club the bot stopped resisting captivity, sputtered silent with a shower of sparks and fell back into a pool of the thickening riot glue with a subdued thud!

    "Cease fire, goddamnit!" Gries ordered as one of the specialists on the west flank fired an HE round way too close to Top. Cady dropped and covered as the explosion sent an aftershock through the cold and hardening Coyote glue. A finger of the glue plopped a few inches from Top's face.

    "Goddamnit Gibson, what have I told you about blue on bluing me?" Cady yelled.

    "Don't do it, Sergeant?"

    "You bet your ass, don't do it!" he yelled at the private.

    "Uh, Top," Gries grinned offering him a hand up from the ground. "Thought we were gonna take home a live one."

    "Sorry, Major, but I just couldn't see anyway we were gonna catch a live one. It was eatin' right out of that net the eggheads made us. I figured if I just banged it lightly, they might could put it back together. And I sure as hell didn't want that thing gettin' away and bringing back a few hundred thousand of his buddies. Besides I just tapped it."

    "Concur, Top." Gries knelt by the dented alien probe and poked at it with the barrel of his potato gun. There was a buzzing like an angry wasp inside and then another brief crackle of static electricity on its surface. It shuddered for a moment and then was still.

    "I think maybe we do have a live one," Gries said musingly.



    "Mr. Secretary, after making a quick analysis of the most recent spysat photos and comparing that data with the NSA Internet data as well as the seismograph detections, we believe we can say what is going on now." Ronny Guerrero's image came through the T1 datalink in real-time to the President's underground headquarters in Wyoming.

    "Well Ronny don't keep me hanging," SecDef Stensby replied. The entire presidential staff had assembled in the War Room of the underground headquarters for this debrief. They all were hoping for good news, but none were expecting it.

    "Right, sir. It looks like it was a firewall along the sixty-degree eastward latitude line. We've got signs of detonations in Mashhad, Iran; in Turkmenistan; Uzebekistan; Temir, Kazakhstan; Ural, Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Perm, Magnitogorsk, Tagil, Ukhta, Ifdel, and many other Russian cities with the first wave of detonations. There were also a few in Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. It appears that there were a total on the near order of one hundred and sixty strikes, most of them from multiple reentry vehicles," Ronny explained.

    "My God!" President Colby shook his head. "General, check me if I'm wrong but that's a significant portion of Russia and China's nuclear arsenal."

    "About that, sir," General Mitchell said.

    "Are we going to have nuclear winter on top of everything else?" the President asked angrily.

    "Uh, sir," the national security advisor said then looked at the secretary of defense.

    "Mr. President," the secretary said, carefully but definitely. "Let me state for the record that most secondary analysis of the original nuclear winter scenario indicate that it's overstated."

    The President frowned for a moment, then shook his head.

    "How overstated?" he asked.

    "The terms that comes to mind are deliberate 'political tinkering' and 'junk science,' " the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said bluntly. "Then a descent into urban legend. The total energy output of all of the nuclear weapons in the world at the height of the Cold War is lower than the output of the Mount Saint Helens blast. Even with fudging hard on secondary effects, nobody except the original scientists could come anywhere near a 'mini-iceage' scenario from a full-scale nuclear war. Upon review, even most of the physicists involved in the original study repudiated it. What we'll get from this blast is a slight reduction in temperatures, hardly noticeable except by fine study. As a matter of fact, given the destruction of the worldwide sensory networks, I'm not sure it will be testable at all. Oh, and some spectacular sunrises. And a slight increase in background radiation, but nothing that's going to cause two-headed babies; possibly a slight increase in cancer rates. Given that if we don't win, the human race is going to be wiped out, a slight increase in cancer rates is the least of our worries."

    "Point," the President said, nodding. "Did it work?"

    "Not the way they intended, sir." Ronny paused to flip through his data. "Uh, if you will flip to slide four of the package we just sent you, you'll see that the second group of detonations that took place a few minutes after the first were located in India, China, North Korea, and the far eastern parts of Russia."

    "Why does that mean that these nukes didn't work?" the SecDef asked.

    "We did not fire on those locations. Ergo, they must have fired upon themselves. We suspect the initial detonations tipped off the Von Neumann probes that the launch sites for these nukes were a threat and then they must have attacked those locations. That is the only explanation for nuking yourself that we can figure, sir," Ronny finished and waited for a response.

    "We were planning a similar tactic," General Mitchell said quietly. "I hate to say it, but I'm happy as hell that the Chinese and Russians beat us to it."

    "Do we know how effective the bombs were at destroying the probes?" the NSA asked.

    "All we know is what is in slide five." Ronny waited for them to flip to the last slide the Neighborhood Watch had sent over the T1 hotline. It was a slide containing several images from the last ten or so spyphotos they had received. The compilation slide showed multiple tubules of alien probes descending on Nagpur, Calcutta, Chengdu, Si'an, Beijing, Novosibirsk, Bratsk, Omsk, and Chita. The probes were consuming the Eurasian continent.

    "One of the most interesting things here is that the probes let the missiles fly and detonate as if they had no clue as to what they were or that they didn't care if they lost millions of bots. We guess that the missiles were launched from beyond the occupied regions and flew to the edge of the bots' territory."

    The President nodded. "I see."

    "Until now the bots had only imposed the no-fly zone over the occupied regions with a bit of cushion around it." Ronny let that sink in for a second and then continued.

    "It looks like now from data we've been able to gather that they're imposing a global no-fly zone. This is going to limit operations severely. And, of course, as reported in the media and on the Internet, contact has been lost with most of these areas," Ronny continued. "The last significant contact was from a blogger in Singapore stating that the probes had been reported approaching across the straits from Malaysia. Internet pings from the National Security Agency indicate that there are no remaining Internet nodes on the Eurasian landmass. With the exception of South America and areas of Africa, we appear to be alone in this fight, Mr. President."



    "Home," Jones said, sighing as he lowered his end of the mesh "stretcher" to the ground. The bot had turned out to weigh a good two hundred pounds, despite its small size, and they'd taken turns carrying it back to the cached Humvees.

    Besides the bot they'd managed to pick up about another two hundred pounds of assorted bits, including one bot that was blown in half, revealing the interior. It was, as far as anyone could tell, just a mish-mash of metal and what looked like glass, damned near solid, which explained the weight. The small team had had a time humping all the bits, and their gear, back to the Humvees.

    The bots had been carefully observed by satellite and it was noted that they'd stopped, presumably temporarily, on a strict line. For safety the Humvees had been left twenty kilometers west of the line and the attack point had been set up about two kilometers inside. It had been a long twenty-two klicks humping all those bits over the tundra.

    But the Humvees were still there, which meant they didn't have to hump it the whole hundred and fifty to the Thumb of God.

    "Keep moving," Cady said, grasping the whole bot and lifting it into the bed of the Humvee. "I'm not going to be happy until these things are back in the States. And not very then."

    "They're not radiating," Mahoney said. He was the team's designated electronics and intel geek and already had the devices the scientists had loaded them with out and operating. "No radio signals. No gravitational signals. No apparent subatomic particle stream."

    "Doesn't mean they're not talking to somebody," Cady growled. "Load it up and let's move."

    He dumped his ruck and the minigun in the back of the Humvee and got in the driver's seat, picking up the squad radio and donning the headset. The new system they'd been issued had no carrier wave for the bots to home in on and only radiated when used. The system worked over short ranges using the so-called ultrawideband Pulson chip technology and was theoretically too low-level and spread-spectrum a signal to pinpoint. Alan and Roger had really geeked out on them. Hopefully, they wouldn't have to use it.

    Shane climbed in next to him as Mahoney and Gibson climbed in the back.

    "Mahoney, you getting anything at all?" Shane asked as Top put the vehicle in gear.

    "I'm getting intermittent radio from east of the line, sir," the specialist replied, looking at the readout on the Gateway laptop. "Multiple frequencies, very short bursts. It'd be interesting to set up a full radio intercept site somewhere near here. I think Doc Reynolds is right; these things use plain old radio." As the Humvee bumped over the springtime tundra he kept hitting keys and nodding.

    "Interesting," the specialist said. "There was a big burst of signals about six hours ago, sir."

    "That when we hit them?" Shane said, then shook his head. "No, that was about four hours ago. Any idea why?"

    "Negative, sir," Mahoney replied. "Big burst of signals that went on for about three minutes. There was heavier signal traffic before, then it peaked in number of transmissions and power, went down to still increased levels. Then it fell way off. It's still down."

    "Let's hope that's a good sign," Cady said.

    "Concur, Top," Shane replied, pulling out one of the new combat field ration packs. The replacement for the MRE had a heater pack built in using a friction tab starter. He pulled the tab on a packet of fettuccine Alfredo with chicken and set it on his thigh to warm. "I've got beef stew and chicken romaine, Top. Take your pick."

    "I'll take the stew," Top said, his eyes scanning the horizon. "That romaine shit gives me the shits."

    The sergeant major was just finishing his beef stew, controlling the Humvee's wheel with his knee while spooning up the stew, when Mahoney made an interrogative noise from the back.

    "Sir . . ." the specialist said, hesitantly.

    "Go," Shane said, pitching his finished alfredo out the window.

    "I've got increasing probe signal strength," the specialist said. "Could we stop for a second?"

    "Hold it up, Top," Shane said, sticking his arm out the window and signaling with a closed fist for the two following Humvees to pull up.

    "What are you doing?" Gibson asked, pitching his own finished entré out the window.

    "Trying to pick out the stronger signal," Mahoney said. "And get a direction and maybe a location. I don't want them to have moved on us and have us run right into them."

    "That would be bad," Cady admitted, opening up the door and stepping out to look around the tundra. Overcast had moved in, turning the land into shades of gray.

    "Yeah. Sir?"

    "Go," Shane said, turning around in his seat to watch the specialist.

    "We've got a large amount of noise to the southwest of us, sir," Mahoney said, nervously.

    "Shit," Gibson said, opening up his own door and getting out.

    "And I think it's moving . . ."

    "Top!" Staff Sergeant Gregory yelled.

    "I see 'em," Cady called. "Sir, we've got probes inbound from the direction of God's Thumb!"



    "No word from the bot recovery mission yet sir, and uh, there is more, Mr. President," Vicki hesitated.

    "Let's hear it."

    "Well sir, SEAL Team six has returned from the French Riviera and have some very . . . disturbing photos."

    "Disturbing?" the President said, shaking his head. "Vickie, alien metal-eating probes are taking over the world. We're evacuating every major city in the U.S. My daughter just started sniffing around boys. Try to up the ante, Vickie. Feel free."

    "Yes sir. If you recall we sent in a team along the periphery and into the occupied zones with hopes of conducting recon on the areas with an emphasis on determining what happened to the people in the occupied territories. Well, Alpha Platoon SEAL Team Five was the only platoon that returned. And they suffered two casualties."

    "Yes, Vicki, quit beating around the bush about it." The President was getting tired and was ready for this nightmare to end. He didn't expect that to happen anytime soon-if ever.

    "Right, here." Vicki set a folder in front of him and then sat quietly. President Colby looked at the folder and at first was almost afraid to touch it-as if it were tainted with something bad. He glanced around the room at his top advisors and realized that they had all seen the pictures in the folder and they were nervous about letting him see it. He sighed, opened the folder, and spread the pictures out before him.

    "Jesus Christ!"



    Roger sat in his office looking at the photos that had been e-mailed to him from the SecDef's aid. He topped his glass off with a little more Old Number Seven and then thought about adding some Coke to it-but it was a passing thought. The Tennessee whiskey was nowhere near strong enough to make him forget the images in the photos. At first he had thrown up in his garbage can, then he cried, then he started drinking.

    He couldn't believe that the human race had been reduced to what he was seeing. But, seeing is believing. The thousand words these photos told were alarming, disturbing, very sad, and . . . grotesque.

    "Roger, do you have a minute?" Alice Pike tapped on his office door. "Uh," Roger looked up and tried to compose himself but Alice had already noticed the open whiskey bottle on his desk.

    "Is this a bad time?" Alice asked.

    "I guess the answer to that is yes. But they're all bad times now, aren't they. . . ." Roger shook his head and then capped the whiskey bottle and put it back in his desk drawer. "I'd offer you a drink but I know you don't really like the hard stuff."

    "What's happening, Roger?" She could tell he had been crying or sick or maybe both. "Is it Major Gries and Sergeant Cady? Are you okay?"

    "There is no word from the bot recovery team yet. But that ain't it. Shane and Thomas can . . . will . . . take care of themselves. If worse comes to worse, they'll kill a walrus, tan the hide and make a kayak to get back." Roger rubbed his chin, then pulled up his Crimson Tide ball cap and ran his fingers through his unruly hair.

    "Sit down for a minute. I need to tell somebody this . . . I guess I need to tell everybody but I just don't know where to start."

    "Tell everybody what?" Alice sat.

    "This." He slid his laptop around for her to see the scanned photos.

    "Jesus!" Alice gasped at the sight of a naked, lifelessly pale, and bloodied little girl or what was left of her hanging from a metal spike on a metallic wall. The spike protruded from her chest between her breasts where blood had dried around the impaling shiny metallic stake. Her left leg had been cut off above the knee and her right arm was missing. Her abdomen was open and her entrails were hanging out.

    Alan toggled the image viewer and a second image with a wider field of view showed several such bodies. The bodies ranged in age and sex and some were dismembered and naked. Some looked as if they had been butchered, their bodies carved open and their organs removed. And there were two healthy bodies still clothed in military attire reminiscent of SEALs or other recon forces uniforms-American uniforms. One of the SEALs had a spike protruding from his throat and the other was leaned against the wall beneath him with his forehead bashed in and bloodied. His head leaned limply to the left.

    "God, what is that!" Alice turned away.

    "This is France." Roger toggled the images again.

    "She can't be much younger than Tina . . ." Alice turned pale.

    The third photo showed an even wider field of view. The background appeared as a vast metal landscape. There were obvious engineered structures and there were piles of junk-metal junk. There was a large metallic box the size of a coliseum hanging effortlessly above the metalscape. The fourth and fifth images zoomed in below the floating object to a group of humans in rags and all of whom looked as if they had been starved to near death. Their bodies looked like something from a World War II film of the Nazi concentration camps.

    The starved humans were gathered around the wall where they were hanging bodies. Others were milling around with metal shards, scraping the bodies clean of skin, flesh, and muscle. The wall was a butchery block and the meat was human.

    "Cannibals?" Alice whispered.

    "Cannibals." Roger nodded.



    "We've got a problem," Riggs said over the video link. He was clearly unhappy about whatever information he was about to impart.

    "Are they on their way already?" Roger asked, frowning.

    "No, but God's Thumb's been taken down," Riggs said. "About an hour after the nuke attacks, a probe group hit the base. The base sent out a distress call over the land-lines and then went silent. They're working on getting somebody in there right now."

    "Does it appear to be related to Shane's mission?" Roger asked.

    "Might be, might not," Riggs said. "But we have to assume that Major Gries' team has been lost. We'll try to get some recon assets in there to see if they can be recovered but . . . it doesn't look good."

    "It ain't over 'til it's over," Roger said, unsmiling. "Like I told Alice, I'm sure that Shane and Cady will make it through. They're . . . resourceful."



    "This is so not good," Gibson moaned.

    Surprise happens in the mind of the commander, Shane thought. And you never know what the hell you're doing. So do something.

    "Unass the vehicles," Shane yelled, watching the approaching probe swarm. There were at least a hundred probes in the swarm, but they didn't appear to have detected the team, yet. They were just tooling along at about a thousand feet above ground level and headed vaguely northwest. They might even head right by. Then again, they might not. But if they acted per normal probe SOP, they were going to home in on the Humvees. He looked around and nodded. There was a very small promontory off to the left, about fifty meters away. Perfect. "Grab the samples and all the spare ammo and mines, including the scatterables! Head for the hill!" He gave Gibson a shove towards the rear of the Humvee. As soon as the p.f.c. was moving, it seemed to break everyone else out of their frozen immobility.

    The major hefted his potato gun and started hastily pulling gear out of the back of the Humvee. They had brought far more ordnance than they could pack into the ambush for reasons Shane hadn't considered at the time. Included in it was the scatterable "probe killer" mines designed to be picked up.

    "Leave the emplaced mines," Cady yelled, expanding on the commander's intentions. "Take the catcher grenades for the potato guns! Leave the food! Mahoney, grab as much of your gear as you can carry! Concentrate on the data you've gotten and anything that can let us track!" He grabbed his minigun and two spare ammo canisters, then picked up the intact probe. "Jones! Forget the glue mines! Grab the case of scatterables and you and Letorres get ready to lay them in along the line to the hilltop. Nelms, grab your BDL and the case of ceramic rounds."

    All of the gear that wasn't to be carried was dumped out of the backs of the Humvees in an unmilitary mish-mash. But they had time to unload all the critical items and get most of the way to the hilltop before the probes seemed to notice the cluster of Humvees and turned towards their position, suddenly accelerating.

    "Nelms, get in position right on top of the damned samples," Cady said, pointing to the three bags of probe parts. "Jones . . ." he said, looking around.

    "On it, Top," the specialist said. He and Letorres hadn't even made it all the way up the hill. They'd stopped about halfway between the Humvees and the hilltop and now had the top off the case of mines. The scatterable mines were fist-sized bright-orange tetrahedrons, packed into the case in a solid mass. He dumped the mass out on the ground and then he and Letorres started spreading them out in a rough crescent around the defensive position. There were sixty of the mines in the case and spreading them took less than two minutes. The last few were tossed away to widen the crescent. They didn't roll far.

    In the meantime, Top had spread the rest of the troops into a rough cigar-shaped perimeter with the heaviest group in the direction of the Humvees. The troops carrying potato guns were on the outside of the perimeter with the four troops carrying carbines on the inside. He and Shane were in the center with the samples and spare ammo and then Nelms actually sitting on top of the pile of probe parts.

    The probes were stooping onto the Humvees by the time Letorres and Jones were back in the perimeter. The two were hastily pushed into position as the first Humvee started to shake and was lifted off the ground by the probes.

    "Okay," Shane said softly. "Wait until they're all down feeding and then open up. Nelms, I'll designate your targets."

    Cady had forgotten the case of glue mines in the third Humvee, which had been commanded by Staff Sergeant Gregory. Gregory had heard the sergeant major's order not to bring glue mines so he'd left them behind. But these weren't the whip-detonated mines. These were "probe trap" mines that they'd brought along in case there was a chance to test them. The chance occurred by . . . chance.

    A probe, detecting metal in the plastic case, swooped down and exerted enough pull to rip the case open. The pull on the metal within also released several of the friction pull triggers embedded in the mines. This, in turn, detonated the mines.

    Each of the mines was a quarter kilo charge of Composition B surrounded by about another half kilo of Coyote glue. While not quite as explosive as the more common C-4, Comp B was the standard filler in military rounds and about ten percent more powerful than TNT.

    The case erupted in a titanic explosion that made the Coyote glue within quite redundant and, indeed, virtually all of it was vaporized by the detonation of the twenty rounds in the case.

    The explosion, besides causing the troops to cringe and get a ringing in all their ears, not only vaporized the Coyote glue. It also vaporized the probe that had attacked the case and six others in the immediate area. In addition, fourteen more were rendered hors de combat, tossed away from the explosion to fall to the ground, shuddering and spitting sparks.

    The Coyote mines were not the only ordnance in the back of the Humvee, and the rest detonated in a long series of secondary explosions that threw material all around the area, concussing and impacting on more probes. A Coyote potato round was thrown from that Humvee to Shane's and detonated a small pile of other potato rounds that cast Coyote glue all over the probes assimilating the Humvee. Another case of "regular" grenades was caught in the explosion and a half dozen detonated sympathetically, killing most of the entrapped probes.

    Two probes, blown away from the series of secondaries, were pushed towards the hill while the soldiers on it were still cowering on the ground and trying to dig into the soil with their fingers. They instantly detected the nearest metal, which happened to be the same scatterable mine, and lifted it in the air.

    The probe on the right of the line of view happened to win the brief tug-of-war and lifted the half pound orange device to its base, ripping the metal from within.

    The metal was glued in place along one of the faces of the tetrahedron. As soon as the mine impacted on the surface of the probe a small packet of super-glue was ruptured, gluing the mine to its surface. The metal, when removed, opened a channel between two otherwise nonreactive chemicals. However, when they came into contact they immediately detonated, causing the surrounding C-4 to detonate in sympathy.

    The explosion tore the winning probe to bits, sending more metal scything in every direction, and the detonation and flying shrapnel ripped apart the wing of the accompanying probe, hurling it to the ground.

    The swarm and the soldiers recovered at about the same time. For just a moment both groups seemed to pause, as if to take stock and a breath. Then Shane opened his mouth.

    "Open fire!"

    Each of the potato gun "catcher" rounds was designed much like the scatterable mines. As they flew through the swarm, the probes, sensing metal, swooped down and caught them, pulling them into their metal embrace and then . . . died. After a bit of aiming, each of the potato gun firers stopped bothering and just threw the rounds towards the reduced swarm. Those that missed the swarm entirely were often picked up by probes while they lay on the ground, acting much like the scatterable mines.

    The probes were going absolutely frantic. Here was this huge target of metal and . . . at every turn there was MORE! Of course, the "more" was their fellows being blown to bits, but they didn't seem to care or even notice. They were flying all over the place, picking up bits of metal, reassimilating probes and . . . dying.

    Each of the potato-gun firers only had five magazines and they expended them in less than three minutes, reducing the swarm to a bare thirty or so individuals. Of course, the probes were assimilating the metal flying around them very quickly, but it took a bit of time to "twin." When one started to twin it tended to float upwards away from the fray. Each of these Shane picked out and had Nelms target with his 7.62 BDL sniper rifle. The rifle fired standard ceramic rounds, although he had a packet of "super rounds" if he needed more range. But at this range he was ignoring his scope and firing under it over open sights. The probes entirely ignored the ceramic round but the rounds did not ignore the probes. One round of 7.62 was more than enough to take down a probe. He got most of the "twinners" and those that he missed Cady directed the carbine teams to engage.

    Twenty, then ten, then only six probes were left, all of them trying to breed. The carbine gunners, Nelms, and Cady with his minigun took care of them with only two managing to twin and those two staying in the area to assimilate until blasted apart by the sergeant major.

    With that probe down, there were no more functioning probes in sight. Just a twisted field of shattered metal.

    "Damn," Jones said, standing up and looking out over the "battlefield." "We won." He paused and that didn't seem to be enough. "WE WON!"

    "Yeah, we did," Cady said, looking out at the masses of twisted metal scattered around the tundra. "But they got our wheels."

    "Alien bastards," Nelms shouted. "You killed our Humvee!"

    "Boss," Mahoney said, quietly. He'd set up his laptop, then taken a place in the line, but as soon as the fighting died he'd hurried back to his beloved electronics.

    "What?" Shane asked, somewhat loudly. His ears were still ringing from the detonation of the case of mines.

    "I think we've got a live one out there."



    The probe was upside down, lying sideways on another much more damaged boomerang. The only probe was missing the tip of one wing, but the wing looked . . . odd. The wing narrowed towards the tip, then flared outwards to a jagged break.

    "It was breeding or whatever," Jones said, bending down and prodding the thing with his carbine. It was shuddering and sparks were shooting off the exposed interior but it couldn't seem to fly.

    "There's something seriously wrong with it," the sergeant major said, frowning.

    "Yeah, Top, it can't fly," Jones pointed out.

    "More than that, shit for brains," Cady replied. "It's sitting on a big hunk of metal and it's not tearing it apart."

    "I guess we're going to find out if they can repair themselves," Shane said, his hands on his hips as he surveyed the trophy. "Top, bag and tag this thing. If we've got to dump some of the pieces out, we'll do it. Mahoney!" he yelled.

    "Sir?" the specialist called from the small hill where the rest of the team was still waiting.

    "Any sign of more of 'em?"

    "Negative, sir," the specialist called back. "There's some radiating off to the northwest and a lot to the northeast. But it's all more than twenty klicks off. That one's radiating, but very weak."

    "Keep an eye on it," Shane yelled. "Tag it and bag it-and make sure it's wrapped so it's not radiating-and then we're going to go find out if there's anything left of the base."



    There wasn't.

    They'd kept up a steady pace, walking through the strange arctic twilight and into the "dawn" as the sun began, once again, to ascend into the sky. As they approached the base at God's Thumb, though, it was apparent that the probes had been there before them.

    The region around the base was flat as a pancake so the control tower was normally visible from at least ten miles away. However, nothing of the base was apparent until they got into the last kilometer.

    "Holy shit," Jones said. The approach brought them in close to the massive runways that had been the original reason for the base's existence.

    Used as far back as WWII for antisubmarine patrols, the facility had been heavily upgraded during the Cold War to support long-range bombers. The runways were designed to launch loaded B-52s on their way to gut the Soviet Union, thus they were very long and made of very thick concrete.

    They were now . . . long, plowed-looking sections of dirt and crumbled concrete. "They pull the rebar out of the concrete," Shane said, balancing his end of the pole. There had been long carry-poles in the Humvees. On the way to the ambush it hadn't been worth carrying them, in Shane's opinion. But once the Humvees were trashed they'd picked them out of the debris. The long poles could be run through the handles on the catch-bags so the soldiers detailed to carry them didn't have to use their hands the whole time.

    And Rank Hath No Privileges when there was over three hundred pounds of probes and parts to carry sixty kilometers.

    "What are we going to do, sir?" Jones asked as they continued to follow the edge of Runway Road. The road itself had been torn to bits.

    "Get down to the main base," Shane said, gesturing tiredly at the cluster of buildings. "Find something to spell out 'Come Get Us!' Then leave it up to Roger and the rest of the guys to figure out how."

    The specialist nodded and continued to trudge forward. They hadn't been able to carry all that much ammo with them-it had been a trade-off between time, ammo and probe bits. Shane had edged towards time and probe bits over ammo, so if they had to fight the probes off again they wouldn't have all that much of a chance. Of course, the old man knew that, too. So mentioning it would be pointless.

    As they approached the main base, which was connected to a small port by road, it was apparent that it was, essentially, rubble. Not a single building was standing and all of the concrete roads had been torn up. Some of the roads, those with asphalt surfaces, were intact.

    "Jesus," Mahoney said as Shane stopped, raised a closed fist and lowered the burden to the ground.

    "Well, they don't rape or burn," Letorres said, drifting over to pick up a piece of paper that was blowing by in the incessant wind. "There's that."

    "But they sure as hell do loot and pillage," Sergeant Gregory said, nodding.

    "Anything useful?"

    "Training schedule," Letorres said, flicking the paper to blow towards the ocean. "About as useless as it comes."

    "Top, see if you can find anything to improve sheltering," Shane said, rubbing his shoulder. "Get out some perimeter. Mahoney, set up your boxes. I want at least thirty percent personnel up at all times; these things don't care about day and night."

    "Gregory," Cady said. "Take Jones and Letorres and do a survey for any shelter that's still standing. Just a couple of walls will do. Angle down towards the port. The rest of you, get the gear in a huddle and put in a perimeter. Nelms, center up again, potato guns out and carbines in. Let's get it moving, people."



    "Nothing, nada, zilch," Jones said an hour later. The three soldiers had moved southward through the base, looking for anything that could be used for shelter. But the vast majority of the buildings had been concrete from which the rebar had been pulled. They weren't even sure where on the base they were; the road signs were gone and most of the roads had been dug up for metal.

    "We need to get heading back," Gregory said, looking at the sun. Despite trying, the Huntsville team hadn't been able to come up with any really good nonmetallic watches.

    "I could use some rest," Letorres said, shaking his head. "I could swear that bit of rubble just moved," he added, pointing to a section of what had probably been wall.

    "Me, too," Jones said, drifting sideways and then taking a knee to target the pile of broken concrete.

    Gregory spun slowly in place, taking in the sky and ground, then turned back to the pile.

    "Slow advance," the staff sergeant said. "Jones, keep it covered. Letorres right and rear, I'll take left and rear."

    The three spread out in a rough triangle and approached the rubbled wall, which was about seventy meters away.

    When they were about fifty meters from the pile or rubble, Jones raised a closed fist, then stopped and took a knee.

    "What?" Gregory asked, keeping security left and to the rear.

    "Shit," Jones said after a moment. He stood up and let his weapon drop on its sling, cupping his hands around his mouth. "HEY!"

    The rubble seemed to shift slightly and then Gregory realized that it was a gray suit of ghillie cloth.

    "What the fuck are you guys doing over there?" the soldier under the ghillie cloth asked, raising up to take a knee. Except for wearing a mottled gray digi-cam uniform he was outfitted in essentially the same manner as the capture team. "You were supposed to be approaching from the east!"

    Gregory realized that in their perambulations they'd gotten over to the west side of the base and, apparently, snuck up on someone that was looking for them.

    "We're setting up camp over on the east side by the runways," Gregory said, waving in that direction.

    "Why?" the soldier asked, waving over his shoulder, then stepping down off the rubble. "Don't you want to go home?"



    "Lieutenant Cragar, Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team One, sir," the SEAL officer said, saluting Shane.

    "Good to see you, Lieutenant," Shane said, wearily returning the salute. "And, especially, additional bodies to carry all this crap. Don't get any metal around the red-marked bag; it's got a live one in it."

    The SEAL platoon had been set up near the port, with OPs out to watch for Shane's team. As it turned out, the teams had been less than two hundred meters apart and in the cratered landscape of the former base they had missed each other entirely.

    Cragar, though, had picked up the whole platoon and moved it to the recon team's site when the SEAL sentry had brought in Gregory and his team.

    "Holy shit," the SEAL said, shaking his head. "Good work, sir!"

    "It was an accident," Shane admitted. "We got bounced on the way back. They got the Humvees, we got a live one. I call that a win."

    "No shit," Cragar said, his eyes wide. "You won?"

    "Beat the crap out of them, sir," Cady said, his face split in a broad grin.

    "We can do it," Shane said, quietly. "We've proved that. The question is, can we do it enough."

    "Well, we've got transport out to the sub, sir," Cragar said, waving his platoon forward to help carry the probe samples. "It's going to be a bit rough. And you'll want to put these on," he added, holding out a plastic packet.

    "What's this?" Shane asked, looking at the pack. "Scopolamine?"

    "As I said, sir, it's going to be a bit rough," Cragar said, grinning.



    "Just climb in," the SEAL said to Cady, gesturing at the ocean kayak. It was colored in gray-blue digi-cam that made it almost disappear into the lapping water. The kayak had been drawn up on a pebbled shore but beyond the small cove the waves were crashing in foaming white water. "Keep your weight down or you're going in the drink and you really don't want to go swimming, even in the suit."

    The team had been hastily stuffed into immersion suits as soon as they got to the beach and now were boarding the kayaks as the SEALs loaded their samples and equipment.

    "I don't care for water, much," Cady said, clambering cautiously over the bow. "I'm too solid to swim good. My massive, godlike penis drags me down."

    "Got it," the SEAL said, grinning. He hung onto the side of the kayak and made his way into the waist-deepwater by the side of the small boat. "Slide your legs, and your godlike dick if it will fit, into that opening," the SEAL said, gesturing to the front seat.

    Cady managed to get into the opening although it was a tight fit. The SEAL pulled up something that looked vaguely like a cross between a poncho and a harness and hooked it over the sergeant major's shoulders.

    "Cinch that buckle in if you would, Sergeant Major," the SEAL said, gesturing at an unbuckled clasp. "Not too tight, but it's what's going to keep you from getting soaked."

    "Works for me," Cady said, sliding the straps out so they'd fit around his chest and then hooking up.

    "These things are stable as hell," the SEAL said as he pushed the kayak into the water. He slid along the side, using lines that were laced there for the purpose, until he got to the rear. Then he slid over the side and into his own compartment, hooking up and picking up his paddle. As soon as they were out from the beach he spun the kayak in a circle and made his way into the cove where several of the other kayaks were assembling.

    "Why kayaks?" Cady asked. "I thought you guys used Zodiacs. And do you want me to help paddle?" He'd noticed that there was one lashed by his seat.

    "I can handle it," the SEAL said. "You're pretty solid but this takes a certain set of muscle groups and it'd probably kick your ass after a while. And the reason we're using these instead of Zods is that the sub is about ten miles out. Paddling a Zod for ten miles is a bitch and a half. This isn't easy, but it's a fuck of a lot better than paddling a Zod. Especially in this shit."

    The kayaks had assembled about fifty meters offshore and about the same from the opening to the cove. As soon as the last kayak was with the group, Lieutenant Cragar waved to the south and they headed for the opening.

    "This is pretty rough, huh?" Cady asked as the kayak swooped up and down on the waves in the cove.

    "Light chop," the SEAL said. "Now, out there, we've got seven to ten foot waves. There's a storm coming in from the southeast, which is why they're running so high. It's gonna be interesting getting out to the sub. We surfed most of the way in."

    "There wasn't anybody at the base," Cady said as they cleared the cove and the first real wave hit them. The nose of the boat pitched up until it was pointed at the sky and the kayak rolled slightly to the side. Then it headed for the trough like a rocket, the bow digging into the oncoming wave and covering the front of the kayak in green and white water. Then they headed back up the next wall of water. "Jesus!"

    "Think of it as a free roller coaster ride!" the SEAL yelled against the stronger wind that was blowing in the open ocean. "Once we get out a bit it will get less choppy! We might even be able to use the sail!"


    "Hey, you want me to have to paddle the whole way?"

    Through the maelstrom of water Cady saw a spout and at first thought it might be a whale. But when two more came up he realized it was something else.

    "Is somebody throwing grenades?" he yelled.

    "Right," the SEAL called back. "Signaling the boat mission accomplished. We'll head out to sea a ways and then signal them in. It'll take a few hours. You just sit back and relax."

    The kayak was still pitching around like a live thing, but the SEALs seemed to have things in hand. And he wasn't getting seasick, which was a blessing. He never seemed to get air-sick, but the one time he'd been in a boat deep-sea fishing with a retired buddy, he'd gotten sick as a dog despite the pills he took. Whatever that patch was they'd put on him, it seemed to work. Not for Jones, though. He saw the specialist was bent over puking up his guts. The seat in the kayak was pretty comfortable and there was enough room for his feet. It was also warming up from his body-heat. Since the water was going to be around freezing, it must have been insulated somehow. It was nice and comfy except for the constant up and down, side-to-side motion.

    It had been a long damned mission. The sergeant major crossed his arms in front of him, bent his head and went to sleep.



    "We're here!"

    Cady lifted his head and rubbed his eyes to get some of the encrusted salt off. Sure enough, there was a submarine on the surface with people up on the conning tower.

    "We sure there are no probes around?" Cady asked.

    "No," the SEAL admitted. "But we better hope they ain't."

    The sub was big. Vast even. And the sides were rounded and looked very slippery. Then there was the fact that the waves were washing over the side.

    "How the hell are we going to . . ." Cady said, then shook his head again as the rear portion of the sub seemed to bulge upwards. In a moment two vast clam-shell doors had opened up and big cranes were lifting into the air.

    "They'd been working on this before the probes got here," the SEAL said. "It's an Ohio Class converted for covert ops. They changed the design a little for the new missions, but not much."

    One of the kayaks had paddled up to the side and the cranes let down lines that were hooked up to hard points on the front and rear of the kayak. Then the whole thing, kayak, people and gear, was lifted into the air and over the side of the sub to disappear behind the doors.

    There were two cranes in operation and before long it was Cady's turn. He grabbed the swinging line and got the hook attached to the eyelet on the front of the kayak then held on as it was lifted into the air. The kayak was swung over the doors and then hung suspended for a moment over a huge cavernlike hold that must have been three stories deep.

    "This is the old missile compartment," the SEAL said as they were lowered into the hold. "Go ahead and unstrap; we're going to unass as soon as we hit the bottom."

    Cady got the straps and poncholike arrangement off and as soon as the kayak settled into a cradle he climbed out. Some SEALs and sailors grasped the lines on either side of the kayak and lifted it off the cradle. The lines from the crane started retracting upwards to pick up another boat.

    Cady grabbed one of the handholds and helped the group carry the kayak to a rack, setting it on the third tier. Then he and the SEAL opened up the cargo compartment and he retrieved his pack and minigun.

    "Nice rig," the SEAL said, nodding at the weapon. "You'll want to clear it in here. The armory is on the forward bulkhead. We're bunked forward, I suppose I'll see you around."

    Cady wasn't too sure which way was forward at this point, but he saw the CO in conversation with a Navy guy with captain's bars. That made him a lieutenant in the Navy and since he was in khakis he must be from the ship.

    "The next one is the live one," the CO was saying as he approached. "How are you going to handle it?"

    "I'm not sure," the lieutenant said, shaking his head. "We'll leave it suspended away from metal and in view. But if it goes live once we're underway, we're going to have to take it out. And fast. If that thing eats a hole in the pressure hull or, hell, some of the pipes, we'll sink for sure."

    "We can destroy it easy enough," Shane said. "We'll just leave someone on watch at all times with orders to destroy it if it so much as moves."

    "Hook a mine up by it, sir," Cady suggested. "That way if it goes back to pulling metal, it'll pull that. Hopefully. And that will take it out."

    "And someone on watch," the lieutenant said.

    "Agreed," the major replied. "But not my people; we've been on continuous ops for the last few days. The SEALs aren't much better."

    "We just happen to have a spare platoon," the lieutenant said, grinning. "I think they've got a new mission."

    "Great." Shane nodding tiredly. "In that case, let's get my people cleaned up and bunked down. How soon are we going to reach the States?"

    "About forty hours," the lieutenant said. "We're going into Portsmouth."

    "Wake me up when we get there."



    "Hail the conquering hero," General Riggs said, putting a hand on Major Gries' shoulder as he stepped up behind him.

    "You know, sir, if this was a science fiction movie, there'd be all sorts of cool readouts and blinking lights and stuff," Shane said, shaking his head and waving at the window.

    "Sorry, Major, this is as cool as we could make it," the general replied, smiling.

    The room beyond the window looked like a cross between a very messy toy-maker's cottage and a metal octopus convention. Wires ran everywhere, tools were scattered at apparent random and there wasn't a cool readout in sight. Well, one. There was a plasma fusion screen with some sort of complicated control screen up. But the rest were mostly monochrome monitors that looked like somebody had raided a museum.

    All of this stuff was concentrated on the bits of probe scattered around the room. The "live" one was being kept under careful observation in an underground bunker wired with command and automatically detonating mines. It was still radiating in the RF spectrum but as deep as it was there was no way that radio was getting out. Since being brought off the sub it had been surrounded by Faraday cages to prevent communication. Assuming it didn't have a secondary "magic" communications system, the probes shouldn't know where it was located. Whether they would care was another question.

    Work on the "live" one could wait. For that matter they weren't even messing with the "whole" one that Cady had knocked out. The engineers and scientists gathered in the clean room were having a hard enough time with the bits that Shane had brought back.

    "You can tell they're baffled," Riggs said quietly. The glass was two-way and not particularly thick; he didn't want them being thrown off by the comment.

    "They don't scratch their heads, but they have other tells."

    "Roger tries to stick his hands in his pockets, and he fidgets," Shane said, nodding. "And Tom rubs his beard. Alan just throws his hands up in the air like . . ." He waited a moment and then chuckled as the environment-suit clad engineer straightened up and threw his hands up in the air, gesticulating wildly and clearly on the edge of shouting.

    "But I'll say this for them, they just won't give up. Roger has been in there almost twenty-four hours a day. I'm not even sure he has slept this week. He probably wouldn't have eaten if his girlfriend, uh, what's her name . . . Tami . . . you know the one with the huge knockers . . ."

    "Traci?" Gries asked.

    "Yeah, that's it, Traci. Anyway, she has brought them food and occasionally makes Roger quit to take a shower or a nap or something," Riggs grinned.

    "Damn, Traci huh? I had no idea."

    "Anyway, since Roger briefed us on France he's been . . . different. Hell, we all have, but Roger . . . well, I think he thinks it's his fault somehow."

    "France?" Gries asked.

    "Nobody has briefed you?"

    "Sir, we've been pretty much spinning our wheels since we returned. And like you said, Roger has been busy."

    "Shit. I'll get somebody to brief you as soon as I can. Europe is . . . bad."

    Roger looked over his shoulder at the two observers and shrugged. Then he tapped Tom on the shoulder and waved to Alan.

    The two soldiers met the engineers at the exit to the clean room and Danny raised an eyebrow.

    "Not going well?" he asked neutrally.

    "Not at all," Roger admitted. They'd been studying the probes for a week and hadn't been able to give one progress report. "We think we've found their motivator, the inertialess drive. But supplying power doesn't get it to work. And we've found something that looks like the brain, but it's a solid mass of silica and metal, mostly metal. And we've found what has to be their power source. But it's . . ." Roger paused and rubbed his bloodshot eyes.

    "Impossible," Alan said, flatly. "F'n impossible! It's a ball of hollow metal about the size of a baby's fist. No fuel, no external supply. Just . . . a ball of metal."

    "And it's got to, somehow, supply power equivalent to a multistage rocket," Tom pointed out. "The runs from it shouldn't even be able to handle the power. We know these things can accelerate at something like a hundred gravities. Even with their relatively low mass, we're talking about terawatts of power and there's no way that the power runs that we're seeing could handle that load. And we're still not sure what the tractor beam is generated by. Nothing in this thing makes sense."

    "The brain is the worst," Roger said. "It's unbelievably complicated. I mean you'd expect it to be, but this thing is light years beyond our current tech. I think it's basically a controller chip, but it's constructed in three dimensions. We've been trying to do that for decades but, besides the sheer difficulty and expense, the programming algorithms are a bitch. And the actual processing seems to be at the atomic level. We don't have the instruments to study it, here, much less make head or tail of it."

    "What do you want to do?" Riggs asked.

    "Give it to other people," Roger replied definitely. "We've got three of the brain cases, if that's what they are. We'll send one to the redoubt at the LockMart facility in Denver, another to MIT, and the last one to Georgia Tech. Tech's setting up a redoubt using some of our plans, so they could hold out even after Atlanta gets hit. Hopefully they can make some sense of it. I'm also going to request that all the data be turned into open source. We need anyone and everyone looking at this data. We don't know who might have the right way to look at it."

    "That will need authorization," Riggs pointed out.

    "I'll bring it up with the secretary, but I think I have that authority though I'm not sure," Roger said. "But we need to make this information open to the public."

    "They're going public with the fact that we sent a team into Greenland and it won a small battle with the probes," the general said, nodding. "If we start putting out data about the probes it will be obvious where it came from. I'll suggest making it a two parter. Do a dog and pony show with Shane and his team along with the bits of probes that we recovered. Civilian morale needs a shot in the arm; it's getting really low."

    "I couldn't believe the media when I got back," Shane said, nodding. "It's all doom and gloom."

    "There are plenty of people who have just given up," Riggs admitted. "And the media included."

    "Not that I particularly want to do a dog and pony," Shane added. "But I think it will help."

    "I'll call the Chairman," Riggs said musingly, then chuckled. "You know, a few months ago I was surprised he knew my nickname. Now I'm calling him just about every day. Or, more often, he calls me. Strange."

    "Hell," Roger said, trying to be humorous with his deepest accent, but his tiredness, fear, and somberness was hard to overcome. "Ah's a deputy secretary with the weight of the world on my shoulders. How strange is that?" He said through a very thin, pursed lipped halfhearted smile.

    "As strange as getting invaded by metal probes from beyond the solar system?" Shane asked, shrugging.

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