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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Saturday, July 22, 2006 23:57 EDT



    "Hey, Danny," Roger said as he made his way into the general's office.

    Most of the personnel of Redstone and the Huntsville Redoubt had moved out of the rather cramped "secure" quarters and back into the buildings and offices of the base. Newly promoted Major General Danny Riggs was once again installed in his office in the Sparkman Center. And now was clearly too busy to play golf with any congressmen.

    "Hello, Mr. Deputy Secretary," the general said, grinning.

    "Am I the only one who didn't read the memo?" Roger asked plaintively.

    "Apparently," General Riggs said, still grinning. "I'm not supposed to know there was a pool going on how long it would take you to notice that people were calling you 'Deputy Secretary.' "

    "You grow 'em up, you let 'em wear shoes . . ." Roger said, shaking his head.

    "Besides, aren't deputy secretaries supposed to be pushing paper, not electrons?"

    "You've got some good administrative people around you," Riggs said seriously.

    "I made sure of that. And you're running most of Neighborhood Watch and Asymmetric Soldier. It's not a small program anymore, in case you hadn't noticed."

    "I had," Roger said, sighing. "And I'm going to see what I have to do to make it larger. We need a probe to study."

    "That's going to be interesting," General Riggs said, raising an eyebrow. "But I suppose we can get with SOCOM and see about infiltrating a CAG team into Europe . . ."

    "You sort of lost me past SOCOM," Roger said, frowning. "CAG?"

    "Combat Applications Group," Danny replied. "Delta."

    "Oh," Roger said, his brow furrowing. "Do we need to use Delta? I was wondering if we could just get some guys for Shane. He has some guys from his old command he says would be pretty good for it. And he knows the systems we're working on for it and the mission."

    Riggs leaned back in his chair and looked at the scientist soberly for a moment.

    "There's some operational issues there, Roger," the general said carefully. "I'm tempted to say 'Mr. Deputy Secretary' because, technically, you're my boss. This base is part of Northern Command, now, but you're, effectively, calling the shots for us and the rest of the redoubts."

    "I need to read that memo carefully," Roger said. "So if I am, what's the problem?"

    "Major Gries isn't part of my command," the general said, ticking off a list on his fingers. "He's temporary duty, as is Sergeant Major Cady. I'm not his commander. For that matter, I don't even know who does his evaluations. Maybe we should get that changed, but that's the way it is for now. And the base is not part of FORCECOM. I'm not somebody that they put in charge of shooters. Then there's the authority to perform a combat action in a foreign country-"

    "We're planning on Greenland," Roger said, sitting down and listening carefully.

    "Greenland more or less obviates that," Riggs said, nodding. "Planning on staging out of God's Thumb?"

    "Yes, sir," Roger said, nodding.

    "I call you 'Sir,' sir," General Riggs pointed out. "Okay, but what you're talking about is forming a direct action group under the control of this base, more or less under your direct control. That's . . . not how civilian control of the military is supposed to work and there are actually regulations to prevent it. And then there's the question of movement priorities, funding and all the rest."

    "We sent Gries to France," Roger argued.

    "He wasn't going in command of a group of shooters," Danny said with a sigh. "He was an observer. That's different. Lethal force and all that."

    "Danny, all we want to do is send ten guys or so to Greenland!" Roger said plaintively. "We're developing the weapons and trap systems right now! What do we do, rent a plane?"

    "It's not that simple and you know it," General Riggs said definitely.

    "So what do I do?" Roger asked. "Call Ronny?"

    "You don't work for Ronny anymore," the general pointed out. "And it's not impossible to do, don't get me wrong. But when you said 'make your team larger' you weren't just talking about size, you were talking about profile, whether you know it or not. And you'll be stepping all over a lot of feet."

    "I've been doing that since Alan, Tom and I came up with the mission, General," Roger said, shrugging. "I'm not afraid to step on a few more. Who do I call, or whatever?"

    "I know the way this is supposed to go," the general said, breathing out. "But I'm not sure how to do it fast. Except make some calls. How can I reach you, Mr. Secretary?"

    "On my cell?" Roger asked. "If it's secure, I'll move to one of the secure areas."

    "Right," Riggs said, looking distracted. "Let me make a few calls. Who does Gries want?"

    "I'll send your secretary a list," Roger said, standing up. "Thanks for your time, Danny."

    "Any time," the general said, giving him a half salute. "Oh, what are you planning on using to catch these things?"

    "The most incredible mish-mash," Roger said, shrugging.

    "Have you figured out how to track them yet?"

    "I think, I dunno. I'm workin' on it." Roger raised an eyebrow Spock fashion.

    "The solution will be . . . fascinating."



    Roger had been analyzing the data from all previous engagements including the loss of the probes at the Moon and Mars and the telecommunications sats around Earth. And he agreed with Shane that radio was the culprit. If it was an emitter in the RF through to microwaves, it went first. That meant something, perhaps something even more sinister than he could put his fingers on and his mind around, but . . . but it was lingering in the back of his mind that there was more to the radio emission attraction than he had completely grokked. What he had figured out was quite unfascinating technologically, but extremely fascinating from a "go figure" point of view. Roger had put together a team of electrical engineers and RF specialists including a group from the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology's Measurement and Signatures (MASINT) division. He had also gathered some expertise from the NSA's ELINT group and AFRL's MASINT branch that used to be the so-called Central MASINT Office or CMO-the CMO had been renamed years ago, but it was still the CMO to Roger. And to round off his team he had found a group of wireless networking engineers and several amateur broadcasting enthusiasts. His team had been working for months behind the scenes trying to detect and even hack into the alien machines' communications. Finally, one of the ELINT engineers found their communications method: Radio.

    That sort of surprised people. Most of the group figured that it was some sort of unobtainium quantum whatchamacallit but it turned out to be, more or less, plain old radio.

    More or less. Actually, it was a spread spectrum signal that worked a lot like 802.11b wireless data transmission protocol, only it was centered somewhere around 1.42 gigahertz. Roger could not place it but that particular radio frequency meant something to him.

    After weeks of analysis they had a real good handle on the signal the bots used to communicate with each other. Centered at 1.42 gigahertz in the frequency spectrum there was a string of very fine bands-almost impulse functions with zero width-all of which were spread from the kilohertz all the way up to the terahertz. The frequency spike transmissions did not remain locked at the same frequency either. They randomly jumped from one frequency to the next along the many spikes that the bots used spread across the radio and microwave spectrum.

    The unfascinating part was that spread spectrum technology was well understood and was a basis for ultra-wideband communications technology. The 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11h, and 802.11g protocols used the technology, although their allocated spectrum was not as spread out as the ones the bots used.

    The fascinating part was that the damned aliens used such a mundane technology that seemed so . . . so Earthly. Perhaps radio was a universal constant. After all, there were so many sources of RF in the universe that any advanced civilization should understand the technology quite readily. But, and the but here was significant, why would an interstellar traveling species limit themselves to speed of light communications? Perhaps the bots and their makers were limited to the speed of light limit. Once upon a time scientists would have said "Duh" to that pronouncement. For many decades the light limit was considered a hard and fast rule in physics. Recent theories, though, indicated that it might be possible to go faster than light, or at least to have FTL communications. But the alien probes still used radio. Perhaps it was a clue, and a good one if it was true, that the probes were not that much further advanced than humanity. Who knew?

    Now if he could just figure out that unobtainium grabber field that Shane had noted.

    What Roger did know was that they now had a way to track the bots' movements. Hopefully, before long they might even be able to decrypt the hopping spectral broadcasts and therefore learn more about them. But the spectrum hopping sequence seemed basically random or at least more encrypted than anybody at the NSA and the CIA had ever seen. They kept trying, though; maybe, just maybe, somebody would figure it out.



    "Hey, Major, Sergeant Major," Alan said, waving them towards the covered range. "We're still working on some of these weapons, but this is what we've got for you so far."

    Shane looked at the collection arrayed down the line and shook his head. "They look like toys," he said. "Or a redneck's back yard."

    There was a weapon that looked vaguely like a bazooka with a magazine that was apparently constructed mostly of PVC and duct tape. There were two plastic rifles that clearly had ancestry in something bought at a local Toys R Us, and a covered object on the far end.

    Waiting by the weapons was a large person Shane hadn't met yet. Very large. He both overtopped Cady and outweighed him. The guy was a fucking mountain with black, shaggy but short hair, massive hands and shoulders, and a long, lugubrious face. He looked like Abraham Lincoln on a bad day.

    "Well, that's what they is, Major," the man said in a slow Cajun drawl. "We'uns done did the best job we could with the time we got. When you guys go we'un gonna give you better stuff. But this is what you might call the prototyping period."

    "Major Shane Gries, Sergeant Major Thomas Cady," Alan said, waving at the two soldiers.

    "Doctor Phillip Krain, Ph.D. Lurch, Shane and Cady."

    "Pleased to meet you, Major," the man said, slowly reaching out and shaking his hand. The Ph.D.'s paw absorbed Shane's.

    "Pleased to meet you, Doctor," Shane said, realizing that if the guy wanted to rip his arm off he was going to be going around the rest of his life with a stump. "You're a . . ."

    "My specialty's chemistry," Krain said, shaking Cady's hand as well. "Exothermic reactions."

    "He's really good at getting things to blow up," Alan translated.

    "Call me Lurch," the doctor said. "Everybody does."

    "So what do you have for us, Alan?" Shane asked, looking at the weapons curiously.

    "Well, we've got the potato gun," Alan said, hefting the PVC and duct tape construction. "No metallic parts, fires either contact explosive or Coyote rounds."

    He lifted the device to his shoulder and fired downrange at a man-sized target. The round landed behind the target with a puff and a CRACK! at which he grimaced.

    "It's not terribly easy to aim . . ." he admitted. He looked back downrange and on the third round managed to hit the man-sized target at fifty yards. When he did, however, the center of the target disappeared in the resultant explosion.

    "Very nice," Shane said, frowning.

    "Change out the magazine," Alan said, pulling out the magazine and slipping in one marked orange, "and you've got . . ." He fired and this time managed to hit a target to the side, covering it in orange goop. "Coyote glue. It's reinforced with Spectra 1000. Small snips of it are mixed in and they interlock to increase the strength of the glue. The glue bonding itself is massive; it's the actual tensile strength of the glue, especially as it extends, that will cause failure. That and the site it's bonded to."

    "DuPont was pretty close about that stuff, as I recall," Shane said, his brow furrowed. "You get it from them?"

    "Uhmmm . . ." Alan said, looking over at Lurch.

    "Somebody sent me a sample," Lurch said, shrugging. "It was easy enough to reverse."

    "Oh," Shane said.

    "Under current government operating rules, that's okay," Alan hastened to add. "Critical defense needs and all that. DuPont, pardon the pun, was getting sticky. So Lurch-"

    "Fixed it," Shane said, nodding and then grinning. "Great. I guess you really know your chemistry, Lurch."

    "I like exothermic reactions," Lurch said, shrugging. "But I can do the rest."

    "He also did the contact explosive design," Alan said. "You've got no idea how hard it is to make a stable contact explosive for something like this. It helps that it's low velocity. You realize these things are going to be very short ranged, right?"

    "Yeah," Shane said. "What's next?"

    "These are paint-ball carbines," Alan said, hefting one of the small guns.

    "They've got internal air-packs, all polymer, and we've got back packs for more air. Air's the real killer with these, not the rounds. The rounds are very light, all things considered."

    He aimed the carbine at a new target and fired a series of rounds. These mostly impacted on the target, causing small bits of it to be blown out.

    "From the description the sergeant major provided we think these will take out a probe," Alan said. "They're a binary explosive. Making the paint-balls with dual chambers was the tough part."

    "It warn't that tough," Lurch said. "Makin' a lot of 'em's going to be tough."

    "We're working on an assembly line technique," Alan admitted. "But it's going to be . . . tricky."

    "Exothermic reactions," Lurch said, suddenly grinning. "Big exothermic reactions."

    "So what's the cover on?" Cady asked.

    "Well, that's Lurch's idea," Alan said nervously.

    "I like it," the chemist said, smiling again, his eyes lighting.

    Alan looked at the two and went over and removed the tarp.

    The weapon, if that was what it was, was the most bastardized thing Shane had ever seen. It had a long plastic barrel, a large breech and three lines running into it. The breech had a circular rear portion that looked something like the cylinder of a revolver. There was a trigger assembly and a shoulder stock, so it was clearly designed to be fired. But the lines ran to three large canisters so it was at the very least only semiportable.

    "We're working on reducing the size of the canisters," Alan said hastily, interpreting Shane's first question. "But right now, they're marginally portable with straps."

    "That I'd like to see," Shane said. Two of the canisters looked somewhat like SCUBA tanks while the third was simply a large plastic box.

    "I done it," Lurch said. "Black boy could."

    Shane blanched at that and looked over at Cady who apparently hadn't noticed the slur.

    "I bet I could, if it's worth it," Cady said, nodding.

    So much for not noticing.

    "Worth it," Lurch said, lifting some straps down from the walls and hooking them up. When he was done he had stuff dangling all over.

    He lifted the rifle, for want of a better term, and pointed it at a target. The weapon discharged with a rapid series of "phuts" that sounded like one continuous hiss. But that was quickly overridden by the sound of the rounds hitting the target, which began to disintegrate as the exploding rounds tore it apart in a continuous explosion.

    Lurch continued to play the weapon around the area, blowing away targets, target stands and a few wholly innocent bushes. The whole time his face was creased in a giant smile.

    "I like it!" Cady said, grinning just as widely.

    "It's basically a Gatling gun," Alan said, pointing to the cylinder on the breech. "The box is the ammo feed and the tanks supply air. It takes two air points to drive it, thus the two tanks. We should be able to double mount them with the feed box underneath."

    "I think you've made the sergeant major's day," Shane said, shaking his head.

    "He can probably heft it," Lurch said, setting the rifle down and then unslinging the canisters. "You wanna try, boy?"

    "I'll even let you get away with that 'boy' crack," Cady said, smiling. "But not forever, you Cajun hick."

    "We gonna get along," Lurch said, smiling and holding out the weapon.



    "Okay, Mr. Deputy Secretary," Danny said over the video link. "You're set up. Advanced Research Testing and Scouting Team Alpha has been authorized with a manning of one field grade officer, two company grade officers and fourteen enlisted personnel as direct action specialists and a group of support and administrative personnel."

    "Translate?" Roger said, smiling as his brow crinkled.

    "Shane's got a new command," Danny said, smiling in turn. "He requested certain personnel from his former command and they're on their way here as we speak. I've drawn a few clerks and support personnel from my boys and girls. He's only going to have about half his TOE personnel when those people are in, so he can pull for more personnel. Their primary mission is reconnaissance and analysis of alien methods and materials. Secondary mission is testing of new equipment and materials to analyze their utility for anti-probe defense. Tertiary mission is primary security for advanced design concepts personnel."

    "I thought we had lots of soldiers around to do that," Roger said with a grin.

    "We do," Riggs said, still smiling but this time a bit darkly. "But if the redoubt falls, their mission is to get you to a remaining redoubt, with your material and knowledge, alive."

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