Sunday, 25 March 2012

Chapter 2 - August 2072

BBC World News Feed

Aliens make contact?
The net is buzzing with the news of the first alien contact. Two weeks ago a signal was received all over the world. Reports have been confirmed from commercial vessels in space, communication satellites and even ham radio operators. The message appears to be a reply to a radio message beamed from the Arecibo Radio Telescope a hundred years ago. 

When contacted for comment on the message’s authenticity both the European Space Agency and the United Nations Space Command declined to comment, both stating that they do not comment on practical jokes.

These official denials just seemed to have fuelled the story, with many commentators on the net accusing the official agencies of a cover up.

Activate to discover more on this story.

United Nations Space Command HQ, Moscow

General Fuller tried to force his concentration back to the squadron readiness report displayed on the roll screen in front of him. In Earth orbit, based on Gateway Station, the UNSC squadron of Dark Hawks were held in constant readiness. Officially and by treaty they formed the only active military combat unit in space. Fuller had his doubts about that, it wasn’t hard to arm a shuttle. Or any other space vessel for that matter.
His focus drifted from the report again. The Security Council had spent almost a week in deliberation, then had finally agreed to reply to the message. The reply had been beamed from the orbital radio telescope and now it was a matter of waiting. At least Fuller had managed to tight beam the response, the alien signal might have been broadcast for everyone to hear, but the reply would be more discrete.

The council had also ordered a blanket cover for the message which was already all over the net and even the more respected news feeds. The UNSC and associated government space agencies were instructed to refuse all comment when asked. Meanwhile a separate team would assemble evidence to establish the message as a fake and the Security Council’s cyber defence teams were already patrolling the net and removing any realistic evidence proving the message real.

Pissing in the wind was an expression that seemed appropriate. Proving the message was genuine wasn’t difficult, the message itself wasn’t hard to read. This wasn’t crop circles, but real science. Simple science at that. Even the layman could comprehend the concept of triangulation.

Although, maybe the banality of it would be enough to keep the story buried. Like most people, even Fuller had expected first contact to be something more dramatic. Maybe that would be enough to confuse the story.

Still, that wasn’t his problem right now. His research team would continue to investigate the signal until a reply was received. Everyone was hoping the reply would bring more useful data, maybe even some clarity for who they were dealing with. In the meantime he still had his regular job to perform. He would continue to make sure that his forces were ready to maintain the strict orbital protocols to prevent any possible re-occurrence of the orbital cascade disaster.

Luna Mining Colony Base, The Moon

“You didn’t have to travel out here sir.” LMC’s Chief of Security greeted Michael Richards as he stepped out of the shuttle.  “But as always it’s good to see you.”

“For something this serious there’s no choice. Besides, “ Michael couldn’t help but grin as they shook hands, despite the seriousness of the reason for his visit. “I don’t need a reason to come here. I think the low G suits me.”

Michael really did enjoy visiting his operations here on the luna surface. It was the linchpin of his empire, but it was more than that. The low gravity and amazing views made this visits such a joy, even in these circumstances.

It was a pity that Rachel didn’t share his joy, she had made the effort, but low gravity disagreed with her. Every time she left Earth she was space sick. She had tried a wide variety medications, even hypnotherapy, but nothing helped.

The administration offices of the facility were tiny compared to the engineering and mining sections. This was as it should be, especially with many of the administrative functions being automated by expert systems.

 Michael took his time on the short walk, taking a moment to greet each of the staff individually. His implant flashed pertinent personal information for the few he didn’t recognise. His staff appreciated this little courtesy and he felt it right he should at least give them a little of his precious time.

Entering his office, much smaller than the one in Johannesburg, he activated the privacy field. The privacy field created magnetic and sub-acoustic distortions, defeating any surveillance devices that might be lurking. Security swept this office and all areas regularly for devices, but it never paid to be too careful.

“So what happened?” Michael asked as Jacob closed the door.

Jacob Manning was British born, ex EU special forces. His small wiry frame belied the many commendations of bravery he had received. They had met seven years ago when Jacob had led the security team protecting an EU delegation visiting South Africa for trade negotiations. They had immediately become friends, unusual in their respective lines of work. When Jacob had left the forces a year later, Michael immediately offered him a job, as Chief of Security here at the Moon base.

As well his combat experience he also brought extensive knowledge of cyber security and intelligence gathering. A rare combination of skills that often proved valuable.

Jacob took a seat opposite Michael. “The attack occurred just before midnight last night. Simple data probes at first, teasing our external network connections, hunting for weaknesses. In less than a second they found a point of entry. The press relations network. It had the usual firewalls and port guardians, but there was a combinatorial flaw in one of the firewalls. A problem with certain media sharing and this specific firewall. We’ve already spoken to the software developers and they’ve patched the problem. The fix is being applied as we speak.”

Michael nodded, Jacob paused, marshalling his thoughts before continuing.

“Once they found a point of entry they surged the attack on all fronts, crude stuff, data bombs and access queries flooding all of the external connections. It was a smokescreen to keep us busy, while the more sophisticated attack wormed its way into the company network.”

“How far did they get?” The important question.

“Luckily not too far. They got into the internal data sites, open information on work policy, human resources, that kind of stuff. The back-up cut offs kicked in when they tried accessing the restricted data.”
Michael leaned forward. “And Project Green?”

Jacob shook his head. “As I say, we got lucky. They didn’t mask the data probes with the secure wrapper, as soon as they tried to push into the restricted partitions, the system smelled a rat and severed all of the external connections.”

“It’s worrying that they found a way in at all, but it could have been far worse.”

Michael agreed, but they might not get so lucky next time. “So what can we do?”

“We’re already paying for the best commercial cyber security packages available. They’re responded well, but there’s always a flaw somewhere. There’s some experimental monitoring systems being worked on, which might help, but they’re pretty much untested. In my opinion, that would be too much of a risk.”

“Another option is to hire some lone guns to sit on the network, provide some close eyes on, maintain more of an active presence that can react if it needs to.”

“Lone guns? You mean hackers?”

Jacob nodded. “Yes, the security companies provide a similar service, but they rarely have the same level of talent as the so-called cyber mercs. They’re expensive, but the good ones are experienced on both sides of the fence.”

“Do you know any good ones?”

“I have leads on a few. It’s not cheap though, probably fifty grand each per week. It would need to be cash, but I’m sure accounting can filter the funds through something appropriate.”

“What about the source, do we know who?”

“Nothing definite. The main suspects are the same – the Chinese. But the actual operation was likely to be Russian Mob, or other freelancers. Declaring war on them would be like trying to fight the whole net. We need something more specific.”

“Can the lone guns provide that?”

“Maybe, but I doubt they could guarantee it. If they did, I’d say they were full of bullshit and not hire them.”
Michael adjusted his posture in the high backed seat while he pondered. “All right, we can’t take the risk. Project Green must remain secure, at all costs. Setup a black fund with three million and get some outside help. Keep pressuring the security companies to up their game. Also get some of these lone guns to run infiltrations on our network, see if there are any other holes that need patching.”

Jacob stood up. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

Michael joined him. “In the meantime, I’m going to take a quick tour of engineering and mining before catching the shuttle back. I’d like to be earth-side before tomorrow, you know how Rachel doesn’t like me to be off-planet for too long.”

Gateway Station, Earth orbit

Squadron Leader Miles Noland escorted General Fuller through the hangers of Gateway Station. After actually reading the readiness report he was disturbed to see that the squadron readiness was only seventy-five percent, a full ten percent below the operational norm. As the only operational squadron of armed shuttles it was vital to maintain adequate readiness.

The squadron’s role was to keep Earth orbit and nearby space clear. They were mandated by UN treaty to provide rescue services and armed intervention, if necessary, for any orbital treaty violations by nations or corporations. The squadron had been operational for eight years, so far no armed intervention had been necessary. Routine customs checks to enforce the rigid UN import and export tariffs however, were common place.

They moved past the new shuttles, each hanging from their launch cradles, partitioned by blast shielding. Each was painted a dark blue, so dark it was almost black.

In the last year the new Dark Hawk shuttles had replaced the older White Star shuttles. The White Stars had been civilian passenger craft, barely capable of reaching high orbit with rudimentary weapons strapped to them. The new Dark Hawk’s were a significant step forward in capability. They could perform heavy lift operations from the surface to the Moon if necessary. They could also transport a platoon of armoured commandos if needed. While still based on a civilian shuttle airframe, the weapons systems were better integrated, making them a much more effective platform.

Of course, as with any new system there were teething problems. This became apparent with the squadron’s reduced state of preparedness.

Another improvement was basing the squadron on Gateway Station instead of the airfield outside Moscow where the training and reserve squadron was based. The station was originally built as a cargo transfer facility by the United States as part of their effort in the Moon colonisation missions. The UN took over and swiftly expanded the station, as well as being the operational base for the UNSC, it housed the primary cargo and passenger transfer terminal for Earth orbit. That would soon change with the completion of the Space Elevator project and then the base would be solely used by the UNSC.

He brought his mind back to the matter at hand. “So what is the situation here Squadron Leader? What’s causing the operational readiness hiccups?”

“It’s the new birds General. The weapon mountings are experiencing vibration damage when in atmospheric flight. It also looks like high stress manoeuvres are also causing other problems.”

Fuller had read the reports. Part of his concentration was distracted by moving in the zero-gravity. He’d been working with space operations for thirty years, but he was never comfortable floating through the air. He always felt clumsy when he moved. The passenger sections of the station used magnetic flooring to keep people grounded. Here in the hangers, it wasn’t used, the technicians preferred the advantages zero gravity provided for their work. He faced the other officer.  “What is the solution?”

“We’re already working with the Russian manufacturer. The Mig-Sukhoi plant is making the required airframe repairs. They’re currently taking two weeks to make the fixes, half the squadron have been completed, so there’s still twelve birds to do. And the training and reserve squadron back on the surface.”

“The deliveries for the new birds are also slower than the original schedule.”

Noland paused for a moment, as if unsure whether to say what was on his mind.

“The plant should be building a new bird every three months, that includes the extra work for the extra problems we’ve encountered. We know they’ve expanded the plant, the time to build the new birds should have gone down, but instead it has doubled.”

“I’ll speak with legal team, get them to chase the Russians. If necessary I follow up in person with the Russian representative.” Fuller would, but the results would be likely be unspectacular. The UNSC was very reliant on the Russians, the bulk of its budget was spent there, which did help smooth things, but sometimes things took longer than planned, especially in Russia. It was interesting about the reduced pace, he would investigate further, see what the Russians were doing with that spare capacity.

“How about the patrol schedule?” Fuller asked and was immediately interrupted by the shriek of an alarm over the PA system. The alarm also buzzed within their skulls through their implants.

They both adopted the flat stare of people accessing their implants as they both called up and reviewed the emergency situation report. An old cargo vessel from the Stellar Collector Corporation was drifting along an escape orbit. The main drive and life support had failed, cause unknown. The three crew members had made it to their pressure suits and had twelve hours of air. The main drive had failed in the middle of a course correction burn that should have pushed the craft towards Earth orbit. The burn had failed, so the ship would pass by Earth and then continue into interplanetary space.

Fuller checked the vectors, the vessel was fifteen hours flight away, even at maximum burn for one of the shuttles. The moon was on the wrong side of the planet for any of the people there to be able to help in time. That left L1 Station.

Damn it! He’d been pushing to have a detachment of UNSC shuttles stationed at L1 for years. It was a superb strategic position. The Chinese and their allies always stonewalled the request and he’d failed to get enough traction to force it through the Security council.

Activating the comms implant, he voiced a message to the command deck. “Patch me with L1 station command. Let’s see if the Chinese can help.”

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

Hui Zhong relaxed, stretched on her bed in her quarters when the emergency call came in over the comms. Her quarters were small, tiny compared to the extravagant spaces she had been shown when she visited Gateway Station. Here at L1 space was at more of a premium and while the space allotted to her was small, it was sufficient for her needs. A bed, small desk and chair, a few uniforms and even fewer personal items didn’t need much space.

Above the bed, on a plain shelf was a holo-projection of her parents, smiling at her from her last leave on Earth. Leave was only short and infrequent, so she cherished the memories of the rare visits. She was doing vital work, but that didn’t mean she missed her family. Her parents were old fashioned, they still use actual text emails for their communications. That quirk just made her love them even more.

The alarm buzzed discreetly inside her skull. She immediately accessed the emergency orders. A rescue mission was needed, a freighter with three trapped crew. Once again the cost-cutting of the greedy corporations had caused a problem. That wouldn’t prevent her doing her duty. Her duty was clear, any nearby agency was required to assist in any mayday call.

The habitat modules were spun on their axis to provide the illusion of gravity. She ran against the spin towards the shuttle bays. After scrambling down the access ladder she was once again in zero gravity and nimbly propelled herself along the walls, using the handily placed rungs to guide her movement.

She quickly reached the shuttle, there she found the technicians bustling to prep the shuttle for launch. At the rear three black clad marines loaded the cutting equipment they might need into the cargo pod. They trained continuously to board space vessels either as a hostile mission, or for rescues, their training and experience would be essential.

Within minutes they had launched. The course to the drifting freighter was locked into the navigation system. Normally they would conserve fuel by burning fuel only for course corrections and the initial boost. This time they would burn all the way to the target, the timing would still be tight.

At the time of the incident the crew had made it into their suits, that would give them twelve hours of air. Over an hour had already passed since then, even at full burn it would take ten hours to reach the stricken ship. That left them less than an hour to gain entry and rescue the crew when they arrived.

LMC Transport, Approaching Earth orbit

Michael Richards was catnapping on the shuttle ride, trying to regain his energy before landing back in Johannesburg. There was a company event that evening, he was due to give a speech, the press would be there and wanted to be at his sharpest.

The pilots’ voice over the intercom startled him from his dreams. “Sorry to disturb you sir. I thought you would want to hear this.” Michael dragged himself upright, he had known Jeff for many years, he wouldn’t disturb him without good reason.

Wiping the sleep from his eyes he asked “What’s up Jeff?”

“Some flash traffic on the net. One of Stella’s freighters is in trouble.”

Fully awake now. The space exploitation industry was worth many billions, but it was a small family, for the commercial participants anyway. Stella was the nickname for the Stellar Collecters. They  were a small business, mineral extraction from one of the metal rich Near Earth Orbit asteroids. They only had the one freighter, the other was in dry dock at the EU/US Moon Shipyard. That meant it was Pa Jackman, Senior to his family in charge of the vessel. A man he had met many times.

“What’s the problem?”

“Major systems failure, they’re dead in the water. “

“Where? Can we help?”

“No sir. It’s on the far side of planet on a divergent course. The Chinese are the nearest and they’ve already launched a shuttle. They should rendezvous before we hit atmosphere.”

“Thanks Jeff. Let me know if you hear anything.”

“Will do sir.”

American News Network, Offbeat section

The aliens are coming!
Researchers at the American UFO Institute have announced the conclusive proof of contact from an alien race. In a presentation the owner of the information feed showed us some grainy images [Activate to view images] and played a digital signal that they claim originates from outside our Solar System.

When contacted for their comment officials from NASA and the US Air Force both declined to comment. They both stated that they could not comment on imagined UFO activity.

Activate to view the alien message.

Shuttle Zheng He, Leaving Earth orbit

The drifting freighter was now in visual range, without needing magnification. Hui voiced a crisp instruction to the Marine officer to prepare for contact. Her co-pilot scanned the immediate area, looking for debris that might cause a hazard to their approach.

She took her time examining the vessel. She could see no damage, no obvious cause for its distress.
The braking manoeuvre had started four hours earlier and their speed now matched that of the freighter.  At the same relative speed, it was now easier to manoeuvre closer. She opened a communications channel to the freighter, trying to establish a connection. There was no response, even the automated system were silent.

She locked onto the frequency of the suit’s emergency channel, tried again. Still no response.

She checked her sensors, the ship was cold. No heat traces.

Hui informed the marines of the lack of response, they were still within the time envelope for the mission, the trapped cxrew should still have air. She hoped there would still be time.

While the marines depressurised the cargo pod Hui brought the shuttle in closer. The side airlock on the crew module looked clear, she spun the shuttle so the rear faced the airlock.

The marines, insect like in their shiny carapace suits pushed themselves into space, then clamped themselves to the freighter hull as they landed. They cycled the airlock, with no pressure inside the ship, the cycle passed quickly.

In less than a minute the marines were inside the ship. They moved as quickly as they could in their bulky suits to the flight deck. It took another two minutes to reach the flight deck. There they found the three suited bodies, the life support panels showed dangerous levels of CO2 in suits’ atmosphere. Deftly the marines attached replacement air breathers, pumping oxygen into the suits, flushing the poisonous gas out.

“They still have pulses.” The marine officer reported, causing an outbreak of smiles back on the shuttle. Hui sent a report on the net to Gateway and L1. The crew would need medical treatment, but they’d be all right. She’s saved the greedy foreign devils and she enjoyed the small feeling of pride within her.

United Nations Space Command HQ, Moscow

Even in Moscow the summer was sweltering. Each year it seemed to get worse. Not for the first time Fuller was grateful for the air conditioning in his office. Near the end of the month a reply had finally been received from the aliens. The techs had recorded the message, and where busy analysing it now. So far they had no idea what the message contained, but their best guess was that it was some kind of computer program.
In the meantime the general focused on other pressing matters. He followed up with the Dark Hawk production issues. The Mig-Sukoi contact provided no clear answers, so he called on a friend at the Russian Defence Ministry.

Over strong coffee he learned that the Russian Air Force was expanding its orbital capabilities. It was being done quietly in response to Chinese expansion in the same arena.

That information didn’t help with the production problems, but his friend was able to apply some pressure. The project mnager reluctantly agreed to speed up the upgrades and see what he could do about the new builds.

This intelligence meant there was a new problem to worry about. The last thing he needed was the Russians and the Chinese facing off on his turf. He worked late into the night pouring over intelligence reports, trying to find some concrete evidence. He would need something solid to before going to the Security Council.

Really he was waiting. Waiting to learn what the new message contained.

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