Saturday, 24 March 2012

Chapter 1 – July 2072

United Nations Space Command Headquarters, Moscow

General David Fuller flattened the roll-screen on the desk in front of him. He had the same cranial implants as most people these days, but he liked the tactile feel of the paper-thin screen. He could feel it respond as he touched it to activate the briefing notes he had hastily compiled only minutes before.

He filled a glass of iced water from the pitcher in front of him and watched various uniformed aides bustle about, preparing for the imminent arrival of the various Security Council representatives.

Outwardly he presented his usual face of calm authority, inwardly though, he felt anything other than calm. In all of his ten years as commander of the UNSC he had never had to brief anyone on anything as earth shattering as this. Even his briefing of the President of the United States as a Colonel in the Air Force on the low Earth orbit cascade event twenty years ago, paled in comparison. With another sip of water he glanced at the clock, the time was approaching one in the morning, the representatives would arrive soon.

The first to arrive was Mike Davis, an old comrade from his days in the air force. They had both been colonels back then, at the tail end of his twenty year service. Mike had stayed with the air force, continuing to serve his country. Like David, he was a general now.

Times had changed since then of course, from the fledging agency reliant on assistance from the various national space agencies , air forces and corporations, the UNSC had grown into the dominant force that regulated space travel, in Earth orbit at any rate.

Mike spoke a quick greeting to his aide, before walking up to David who rose to shake his friend’s hand.
“Quite something eh David?” His opening statement had the usual wry tone of understatement.
“I never thought we would see the day. All these years of searching and nothing. And now this...”

General Fuller was interrupted by the arrival of the other delegates, every permanent member of the Security Council had sent an official. Mike nodded and returned to his seat next to the European Union representative. She was a striking woman called Eve Mendes, she had been the EU’s representative to the UNSC almost as long as David had been its commander. They conferred briefly in hushed towns while everyone else took their places. Within moments they were all seated and their aides retreated out of view. A few helped themselves to water, all waiting for the general to begin.

He took a calming breath, cleared his throat and began. “Six hours ago an orbital radio telescope received a signal. From our initial analysis the signal appears to have three repeating components. Each repeats the same sequence three times before the next is received. The overall message is repeated, again three times before the signal ends.”

“ The first part is an exact duplicate of the radio message transmitted from the Arecibo telescope back in the 20th century. We believe this is intended to get our attention and to clearly identify the signal as not being natural in origin.”

 “The second component of the message follows the same pattern as the original Arecibo message, but the content is changed. Different.”

“Different how?” The precise English was spoken by the Chinese delegate.

“We’re still analysing the data and not everything in the message has been changed, but here’s what we have extracted so far.”

Fuller stabbed at the roll screen before him and a discrete projector, blended into the ceiling blossomed into light. A clear image representing the original message was displayed on the cream wall beside him.
“Looking at the original message,  we can see it was comprised of seven segments.” He touched the pad again, the top row of some spaced dots in the message became highlighted. “The first section are the numbers one to ten, represented in binary format. This part of the message is unchanged.”

Another stab with his finger and the next portion becomes highlighted. “This next section shows the numbers one, six, seven, eight and fifteen. Again, these are represented in binary.”

“We’ll have to take your word for that General.” A light hearted interruption from the South African representative. “It just looks like a bunch of dots to me!” Some polite chuckles in response around the table.

Fuller offered a brief smile and dived straight back in. “It’s here that we see the first change in the message. In the second message the numbers are one, six, twelve and fourteen. In the original message the numbers represented hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorous – the elements found in DNA. In the new message, assuming the same atomic number classification we use, the numbers represent hydrogen, carbon, magnesium and silicon.”

Another interruption, this time from the Indian representative, him and Eva from the EU were the only civilians in the room. “Why would we have to assume that the atomic numbers would follow the same pattern?”

He doesn’t know, Fuller thought to himself in surprise. Even though this was the first briefing on the contact he had assumed that all of the representative governments already knew, after all the message had been sent in the clear, anybody could have received it. The Chinese delegate whispered quickly into the Indian’s ear, who paled slightly in surprise, before motioning for Fuller to continue.

“The next part is unchanged in the new message, in the original it describes the molecular formula for the nucleotide in DNA. We believe that whoever reconstructed the message, didn’t understand this section, or it has no relevance to them, so left it as is.”

He paused for a moment, drank some more chilled water before continuing. “Here in this next section the original message shows a crude representation of the double helix. The vertical bar between the helix shows a rather inaccurate count of the nucleotides. This central bar is unchanged in the new message, again we think that the sender didn’t understand that part of the original message.”

“However, they did change the double helix. The representation is crude, but the image appears to be intersecting six sided polygons. Our research team haven’t come to any conclusions about this yet, although one did remark that the structure was reminiscent of some plant cells.”

“Next we have a picture of a human in the middle, the dots on either side are binary representations of the average human height on the left and the population of Earth on the right. The number was just over four billion back then, less than half the current world population. Again, both numbers are unchanged in the new message, but the figure is different. It looks like a flattened sphere.”

Another pause, everyone sat rapt, watching him. He presses the control to move the highlight and continued.
“Below that we have the representation of the solar system, with the sun as the largest block to the left and nine planets in a line to the right. Earth is lifted to signify that is our home planet. Back then the ninth planet was Pluto, it was still considered a planet. We now know Hades, discovered in 2043 as the ninth planet in the solar system.”

“This diagram of the solar system has been altered in the new message, it shows ten planets and it is the fourth planet that is highlighted. We don’t know at this stage whether this represents their home system, or if it represents our solar system in some way.”

“Finally we have an image representing the radio telescope the message was transmitted from. This also has been changed, it now shows a disk or flattened sphere, similar to the picture that replaced the human image. We’re not sure if there’s any connection.”

“As I stated at the beginning, we received the message only a few hours ago, so there’s still a lot of investigation to do and no real analysis has been performed yet. I’ve taken the interim measure of declaring this a code black issue, so only UNSC personnel and Security Council members can access the data.”
“That being said, the message was broadcast in the clear and could have been received by any number of civilians or agencies. This won’t remain a secret for long.”

General Mike Davis leaned forward. “Earlier you mentioned the message had three parts, the first the original message, the second the new message. What is the third”

Fuller turned off the projection. “We don’t know. Our best guess at the moment is that it is a formula of some kind. The crypto guys and some math geeks are digging into it now.”

Eve Mendes then asked. “How do we know the signal is genuine? It doesn’t seem that difficult to put this message together.”

Fuller nods in reply, it was the first question he asked the techs that had brought this to him only a few short hours ago.

“While we don’t have exact numbers yet, we do know that the signal originates outside the solar system. How far we don’t know and ideally we need the signal to repeat to get a better triangulation. However, the early indications are that the source is some distance outside the solar system, but not by much and that it is moving towards us.”

Shuttle Zheng He, L1 Station

Senior Pilot Hui Zhong adjusted the approach vector of the shuttle, aligning it on the path to the L1 station. This station was the pride of the Indo-Chinese space effort, first built over thirty years ago to support the international effort to colonise the Moon.

The station itself was constructed in the first Lagrange point, an area in space that due to the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Moon allowed any station positioned there to remain in a stable position. This means it doesn’t require any expensive constant course vectoring. That made it the ideal spot to support the early moon missions.

Much had changed since then, the international partnership soon frayed thanks to commercial concerns. The Moon was now the possession of the Americans, the Europeans and their corporate lackeys. They lacked the honour of the businesses that supported China’s growth.

Now the station was once again the fulcrum for their next great effort. L1 was the launch point for the next great march, the journey to Mars and then to Jupiter. And she was proud to be part of that effort, the effort that would be break the frustrating corporate dominance in space.

The narrow view slits in front of her offered poor visibility. The cranial implants gathered sensor data directly from the shuttle, allowing her to view the space around her from a myriad of views and wavelengths. It was a glorious view.

She loved it out here in the black. There wasn’t a feeling like it. The paradox of the darkness of space, studded with the dense blankets of stars always inspired a feeling of wonder within her. Many found the dead silence, broken only by the occasional transmission oppressive, but she basked in it. Only out here did she find the solitude she craved.

Her young co-pilot, having flown with her many times on the regular supply runs from Earth to the station, knew well to keep himself to himself. He kept the chatter to a minimum,  speaking only if some business needed to be conducted. She was pleased that he allowed her to enjoy the peace of the journey.
They were already two hours from Earth orbit, having been cleared for transit by Gateway station and were now less than three hours from L1 station.

She scanned the space around her, no other traffic for thousands of kilometres in every direction. The location of the station ahead was clearly highlighted in the view from her implants. The nearest object was the navigation buoy positioned ten thousand kilometres from the station. The radio beacon pulsed an energetic gold, providing clear guidance for the approach to the station.

The time passed quickly, an hour out from the station they passed the silent watchers, an array of passive sensors unmarked on any UNSC charts. This was the stations first line of defence, a tripwire for any stealthy approach to the station. Technically this was a violation of the orbital treaties, that didn’t bother her.
As they approached the station, a light winked into view positioned on the station itself, over the comms the clear voice of the flight command entered her mind.

“Shuttle Zheng He. Approaching clearance point. Vector in the green. Transmit confirmation.”

Hui concentrated, triggering the personal clearance system, an implant that combined her heart signature with her DNA fingerprint, transformed by the code of the day she thought of when activating the implant. The unique code was transmitted along the secure channel, identifying her as the senior pilot on this shuttle. Pressing a control on the panel in front of her did the same for the ship. It was one of the few actions that couldn’t be controlled through her implants. Her co-pilot also transmitted his personal identification. The command deck on the station winked green in acknowledgement.

“Continue on course. Prepare for docking handshake in one-five minutes.”

Hui checked the time display in her head, setting an announcement due one minute before the docking initiation. The station was now clearly visible to the shuttles sensors. It lacked the sterile, clean symmetry of Gateway Station. Even at this distance it looked battered and old. It was a jumble of gantries and modules, almost haphazardly thrown together.

L1 station was currently home to nearly three hundred engineers and military personnel. Most of them were Chinese, although a growing number were Indian. Even a few Japanese has recently transferred to the station. The reason for this combined effort lay beside the station.

A vast vessel, still under construction shadowed the station. Named “The Long March” in memory of the great revolution and the ancient rockets that first launched China into space. This was the ship that would take them to Mars and then on to Jupiter. And Hui would be the chief pilot for this great ship, the largest space vessel ever construction. It dwarfed even the new mega-freighters of the Luna Mining Company.
The light from the command deck bloomed again.

“Initiate docking handshake.” Travelling with the voice communication a red datastream stretched from the station to the shuttle. Hui activated the docking system, allowing the incoming transmission connect with the shuttle’s systems. The datastream turned green as the connection was made and verified.
From this point on the approach was completely automated and Hui could only watch as the shuttle was brought into the great hope for her country and people.

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael Richards stood at the sidelines and watched the well dressed crowd. More accurately, he watched his wife, Rachel, work the crowd. In her late forties she had managed to maintain the figure and looks that made her such a success as fashion model all those years ago. He knew that many considered his marriage to be one of convenience. Him, as one of the richest men in the world and her one of the most desirable, even now. She was also rich in her own right, but her wealth was dwarfed by his corporate fortune.

The truth was an even bigger cliché, although in a good way. They fell in love and married quickly and neither regretted it. Business occupied most of his time, for her it was the quest against poverty and injustice. He didn’t follow the same passion, but for her he was happy to put the resources of his empire to support her. Besides the company had a history of philanthropic deeds.

It might be his building, but tonight was her evening.

He enjoyed watching her mingle, admired her natural charm and grace. She really turned it on for these fundraisers. Here in the global headquarters of his business, a business worth more than most national economies, it was easy to forget the squalor that existed a few scant miles away.

Unlike most mega-corporations, his was still a family owned business. He was the chairman and majority shareholder. The company wasn’t called the Luna Mining Corporation at the start.  It was the Australian Mineral Company and was founded by his great-grandfather nearly a century ago. The business had started in mining in the Australian outback, then in his grandfather’s time as the Australian mines started to run dry they diversified into Africa. By the time his father took over the business even the African reserves were becoming harder and harder to access.

His father, Peter Richards had taken the biggest gamble in the history of the company and sought new fortunes in a new arena – in space.  In the early 21st century the commercialization of space had begun in earnest, but was still centred around communications. A few bold pioneers ventured to some of the near-Earth asteroids and proved the feasibility of extracting mineral resources and bringing them back to an every hungry Earth.

Peter Richards has seen these first efforts and joined them with his own. He saw a wider opportunity, there was money to be made not only in extracting resources for the factories on Earth, but in providing supplies for the expanding space industry. He gambled the company’s fortune on establishing a small colony on the Moon. Itself only recent colonised by an international coalition of space agencies.

Once on the Moon the colony started to process Helium-3, as well as water and rare minerals. Water and the minerals were immediately profitable. Many back on Earth considered the processing of Helium-3 as folly. After all, Helium-3 could be created on Earth quite cheaply. At the time fusion power was limited to huge complex ground based reactors, then smaller reactors became a reality and fusion drives became the de facto propulsion system for space ships. The demand for Helium-3 surged dramatically and Peter’s gamble paid off. Since then the company dominated the Helium-3 market and were able to sell it at a low enough price to discourage competition.

The company, now called the Luna Mining Corporation still maintained its ties with the African continent. The early promises of AI and robotics have failed to deliver. Manual labour was still needed out in space, robots were only suitable for some of the work needed. The corporation, unlike many had a fair reputation in Africa. Africa also still had the advantage of minimal employment safety law that made European, American and even Asian workers too expensive to use for such dangerous work.

Compared to other companies they paid a reasonable wage and treated their workers fairly. They also invested heavily in the governments of the nations they dealt with, helping improve the local infrastructure and stability. That relationship continued to pay dividends and was one of the reasons Michael was happy to support his wife’s endeavours.

Now it was Michael’s turn at the helm, his father having died within the last few years ago. Some new form of cancer the doctor’s hadn’t seen before. It was chalked up as one of the dangers of spending extended periods of time in space, in poorly shielded vessels. Of course, safety was much improved now from those lessons learned, but too late to save his father.

Already Michael was looking to build on his father’s legacy and he had steered the company through the aftermath of the low-Earth orbit cascade event. Coming out the other side stronger, having consolidated the assets of some of the other independents who hadn’t survived so well.

Movement in front of him brought him out of his reverie, the crowd was arraying themselves in front of the podium. His wife was already on the low stage, beckoning him to join her. It was speech time, he put on his best smile and made his way to the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. Thank you all for coming tonight in support of this vital cause. It always fills me with great hope when seeing the wonderful generosity you all show at these gatherings ...”

United Nations Security Council, New York

General Fuller left the Security Council meeting frustrated. Despite his protestations they had ordered that the alien contact remain secret from the general public. He knew that this was futile. He told him them in no uncertain terms that this would be a wasted effort. The signal had been sent for all to hear, already radio hams and research facilities across the globe were investigating the signal. It was already available on the net for anyone to download. It would not be long before some were able to verify it was authentic.

In the few days since receiving the signal, there had been only one major breakthrough. The third and final part of the signal had been deciphered. One of the computer technicians had made the breakthrough. It was a complex algorithm, a method for compressing data. Burst transmissions had been used for over century to transmit large quantities of data in a short burst. This new system did the same, but with a level of compression previously unimagined.

On its own it represented a leap forward for communications, what other technologies could they learn from further contact?

It also contained a response, a message to be sent to confirm that the signal had been received and understood. The Security Council was now deliberating whether to send the response, but General Fuller, commander of the UNSC, would not be part of those discussions.

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