Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Chapter 3 - September 2072

Richards’ Home,  Outside Johannesburg

Even this early in the morning, the sunlight was bright as it flooded into the large, open plan kitchen. Rachel had already left, she had a war meeting before the real event , a meeting with the Mayor to push forward zoning changes to allow new and better housing to be built in the township. Michael really didn’t like her heading outside the safe zone, but she insisted that was the only way to make real progress. At least she was sensible enough to agree to the security detail that he provided. She was idealistic, but at least saw the truth of threat she tempted with her activities. Popular as she was with the local poor families, there were still the criminal gangs and even more criminal politicians who would happily see her out of the way.

The heavy security also had additional benefits. Namely protecting the street projects she regularly visit better than the often corrupt and underfunded police could. Michael also worked his influence behind the scenes. It was difficult to break the cycle of corruption, but he did what he could. A similar process of corporate sponsorship and political binding had worked well in Kenya. The UN intervention force had now deemed it safe to leave. The country could now claw its way towards prosperity. Michael and Rachel both felt a similar model could work here in South Africa.
Michael sat alone in the kitchen, he chewed some toast and drank fresh orange juice as he skimmed through his messages on the wall screen. The implants required too much focus to be used first thing in the morning.

A message from his friend Pa Jackman was a highlight in amongst the various spam and scam messages. The detection filters were updated daily, but some always managed to slip through. Senior was out of the hospital and back in orbit. The Chinese shuttle pilot had not only rescued them, she also applied a corrective burn to the drifting freighter. It would travel slowly, but by November it would drift back into range of the Earth’s gravity well and enter an extended orbit. This single act saved Senior a small fortune and meant he’d be able to board the vessel with a salvage team and hopefully make repairs and get the old girl running again.

This was good news. Michael composed a quick message to wish him well and to promise to call when he was on Earth again for drinks. It would be fun to catch up with the old man.

He then skipped through some more junk mail before something caught his eye. At first glance he thought it was a joke, something about aliens communicating via some radio message. Now that he thought about it he seemed to recall hearing something on the news about it. He also remembered that the UNSC and pretty much every official space agency in the world had stated that it wasn’t genuine alien contact and most likely a prank of some kind.

Glancing again at the message he could see that the sender was one of his research staff. He shook his head, they should know better than to send him crap like this. He started composing a sarcastic reply when he noticed the comment beneath the forwarded link. It simply stated – “The numbers don’t add up.”

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

Hui Zhong grunted with the effort of squeezing her spare first uniform into the travel case. If she hadn’t picked up a few gifts for her parents then it would have fitted easily. The thought of a surprise trip to the mainland had inspired her to get something for the two important people in her life. After all, she had seen them only four months ago and she wasn’t due for her next leave for at least another two months.

She just wished her brother... She stopped that thought almost before it started and concentrated on her packing.
The pleasure at seeing her parents again so soon was tainted with a slightly bitter taste. The sudden orders, commanding her presence at CNSA headquarters back on Earth worried her. Maybe she was to be reprimanded for assisting the freighter pilot? She had overstepped her bounds by initiating the course adjustment. Thinking back it was a foolish thing to do, but the old man in charge of the ship seemed grateful.

The China National Space Agency was officially a civilian agency, but as with many things in China, the distinction often becomes a little blurred. The CNSA was in fact more of a hybrid, outwardly it seemed civilian and most of its work was scientific research, exploration or assisting the limited Chinese commercial enterprises in space. The bulk of the staff, like her, transferred from the  military and even while at the CNSA were still subject to its discipline.

No matter how many times she turned the orders over in her mind, she could think of no reason why they would need to speak to her in person. Anything routine could surely be handled over the comms.

So she fretted as she packed. She couldn’t even fly herself to Earth. The technicians already booked her shuttle into a maintenance cycle, taking advantage of her few days away to get additional work done.

She continued to worry as she sat in the unfamiliar passenger pod and the shuttle departed for Earth orbit.

UNSC Research Facility, near Moscow

General Fuller stepped from the hover-jet onto the baking roof of the research building. The building itself was dull grey, flat and very large. Similar buildings could be seen on the other side of the runway. In some of those buildings recruits trained to become the next UNSC pilots, or commandos. In others shuttle craft were being maintained or tested for active duty.

There was no need to have travelled all the way out here, the lead scientist could easily have briefed him over the secure comm-link. The scientist’s excitement at what they had discovered was infectious. So Fuller ordered immediate transportation and here he was.

The team had made a significant breakthrough, he knew that already.  Walking into the central lab, seemingly a chaotic mess of computers and screens he could see if shining from all of their faces as well. The air stank of unwashed clothes and bodies, they’d been putting in the hours, but in this moment, all that fatigue was magically lifted away.

The General gave silent thanks that his own office was equipped with a shower and washroom and tried to breath through his mouth.

The lead researcher bounded up to the General, the grin threatening to split his face in two. Fuller took stock of the team. There was a dozen staff, mostly civilians, but a few uniforms stood out. Their wearer’s at least had tried to smooth the creases and present some semblance of order. He saw they were all gathered around a small cluster of computers. The physical presence of the machines seemed odd in this networked world.

“Well don’t keep me in suspense Doctor.” Fuller kept his tone light, despite the impatience he felt. “What have you discovered?”

If he didn’t know better he would have thought the doctor high with the speed he spoke. “It’s simply amazing. Not what we expected at all. Here come see.” With that he lead Fuller through the small crowd.

“Firstly it isn’t a message. Not in the conventional sense.” He gestured to one of the screens, on it Fuller could see a complex flow diagram. “When we decompressed the signal we tried to parse the message, but it didn’t make any sense. It was a frustrating few days I can tell you. We had to separate the signal onto a closed network which limited the processing capability we could bring to bear. It was like working in the past.”

“Fortunately the tech guys – “ He waved at three individuals who were dressed more casually than even the scientists and sported more facial hair. “ – scrounged all the spare equipment they could lay their hands on. We discerned a pattern, but we couldn’t figure out what the pattern meant.”

That smile beamed brightly again. “Last night we noticed there was repetition in the data. One of the processing jobs also discovered that the pattern was repeated at different levels. It was a fractal pattern."

“You’re losing me Doctor.”

“A fractal pattern repeats itself at different scales. So if we took a small chunk of data we would see a pattern emerge, take another larger chunk of data and the pattern would emerge again, but on a higher level.”
“It was this that made us realise we actually had two separate portions of data. The first lacked these fractal patterns that the other part had.”

“That’s not the exciting bit though!”

Fuller couldn’t help but smile, it was like watching his son on Christmas morning.

“The first part contained no repetition, but the second contain numerous repetitions. Those repetitions were of the parts in the first section. Do you see what this means?”

“Sorry Doctor, I don’t.”

“The first part is the key. It is the Rosetta Stone for the second part, which is the real message. It is the vocabulary we need to understand. So we focused on the first part, trying to assign meanings to the distinct elements. Some were easy to understand as they took their form from the original Arecibo message. This gave us something to work from. Then we discovered that others seemed to be mathematical symbols and concepts.”

He paused, wiped his hand down his face.

“It was then Professor Morgan made the crucial leap. She was the one that realised that the message isn’t a message. Well it is, but not in the normal way we would understand it.”

Fuller frowned. “I’m not following, what do you mean?”

“Ordinarily a message is the presentation of some information. It’s limited in its form. You can send a different message to try and make the recipient understand, but what if the communication is at such a distance that back and forth communication is impractical. This is where these aliens, or whoever is the source have been very clever.”
“The first part isn’t a dictionary for a written language. It is the building blocks for a processing system, a programming language if you will. But one that does more than just describe operations. It is also acts as repository of information. So the system represents both data and processing in one elegant solution.”

“For example this symbol here represents humanity, one of the numeric symbols can be used to indicate a single human, or a group.”

“The second part is even more exciting. If the first part is a programming language, the second is the program itself. But more than that. General, are you familiar with the concept of a virtual machine?”

“I can’t say that I am.”

“A virtual machine is a computer, but one that doesn’t require hardware to run. It’s like an emulation of a computer that can be run on another computer.”

Now it made sense. “So this second part of the signal is actually an alien computer?”

“Yes General.”

Sudden alarm bells went off in Fuller’s mind. “Have you run this computer?”

“Don’t worry General, we’ve made sure any testing has occurred on isolated machines and closed networks. There are no pathways for the code to travel. We’re also running the VM in secure partitioned space within the host computer. There are additional layers of security to prevent any contamination to other systems and no physical or wireless links it can use to travel.”

“So what have we learnt from it?”

“So far, very little. We believe this is the core program that allows us to communicate with each other. We’ve shaken hands so to speak, this should allow us to let them now we are ready to start talking.”

China National Space Agency HQ, Beijing

Hui Zhong sat outside the Director’s office. On arrival at the CNSA headquarters she had been ordered to attend the Mission Director, up on the top floor. She had arrived in plenty of time, politely declined the offer of a drink from the prim, but radiantly beautiful secretary and now she waited.

Throughout the journey here she had turned recent events over in her mind. The only error she could think of was overstepping her authority in helping the stricken freighter. Her duty had been to rescue the crew, not aid their operations. Even that didn’t seem to deserve personal attention from the Director himself.

 At least it meant she could visit her parents after the meeting. No matter how severe the dressing down she was about to endure, the thought of seeing her parents lifted her spirit. She stopped picking at the hem of her skirt, and sat up straighter. She continued to wait, but with more resolve.

Eventually  she was about to give in to the dry mouth and request a glass of water when the door opened. The Mission Director stepped through. He was short, but powerfully built. His stocky frame filled the dark green uniform that he wore. Even transferred to this officially civilian agency, he still wore his air force uniform with pride.

Hui snapped to her feet, she wasn’t sure if she should salute or not. Quickly she decided that showing the proper respect was always the better course. The salute earned her a smile and after a terse nod to the secretary, she was invited into the office.

The office itself was a splendid, open room. What appeared to be rare art adorned the walls and his desk was a dark, rich wood, obviously ancient and valued. He sat in a chair that almost swallowed him. The comic sight almost overcame her nervousness.

His voice belied his physical presence and was almost musical. “Please sit senior pilot.”

She did as ordered.

“Have you been offered tea? Or coffee?”

“I’m fine, thanks you sir.”

“To business then. Firstly I would like to thank you for coming so quickly. I have been reading the reports of your recent missions. I’ve paid particular attention to your performance.”

Hui kept her face flat, expressionless, trying not to give anything away.

“In reading your latest performance review and in light of recent events, I have come to a decision. I have already spoken to your immediate superior and he agrees with my proposed course of action.”

Here it comes, she thought and prepared to take the dressing down.

“It’s not common knowledge yet, but the current mission commander has failed his latest medical assessment.  Unfortunately he has to be grounded from space operations with immediate effect.”

“This of course leaves us with the hard job of finding a replacement and quickly. This cannot be allowed to delay the mission launch. We would like you to be the Mission Commander for the Mars mission. “

“You have the necessary skills. You are already a senior officer on the mission, so you’re already familiar with many aspects of the flight. You are the person we need for the job. Do you accept?” He stretched his hand across the desk, offering it to her. That same large smile spread across his round face.

Hui was stunned, this was not at all what she expected. She hesitated for only a moment before placing her smaller hand in his. “I would be honoured sir.” She stammered slightly.

“Excellent. Now you have much preparation to do before assuming your new duties. Not least of which is acquiring your new uniform.” There was a discrete tone inside her head of an incoming data packet. “Your orders have been updated, you have three days leave to prepare and then you return her to begin your briefing.”

“Thank you sir.” She couldn’t wait to tell her parents, they would be so proud.

United Nations Security Council, New York

General Fuller glanced at the briefing notes on his roll-screen before continuing. “The Space Command research team have examined the virtual machine received from the aliens in more detail. They have established that the machine provides a common mechanism for communications between us and the aliens.”

“It has a process that we follow, like a software wizard, that it uses to refine the principals it uses for communication. Remarkably it does this not just by adding to its stored data, but also by transforming the transformation pathways by which it uses that data.”

“Are you saying this thing rewrites itself?” An interruption from Eva Mendes, the EU representative.

“Exactly. The team found that the virtual machine followed a set flow each time it is run, until that process is completed. As an aside, the research team in Geneva might want to look at the data we’ve collated, it might be useful for them.” A few knowing glances around the table. Even as UNSC commander he didn’t know the details of what the Geneva team’s research, but he did know that their remit included exotic processing methods.

“What is the purpose of this process?” This time the question came from his old friend Mike Davis.

“The first stage rebuilds the original Arecibo message, this time using its own symbols. We believe this helps clarify some of the base assumptions the aliens have made when putting this package together. From just this stage we have identified common methods for some basic mathematics, the elements and some details about the Solar System. I am told that it is exceedingly elegant.” The infectious enthusiasm from the research team had definitely rubbed off on him. “But that is nothing compared to what comes next.”

“The bulk of the machine is an intelligence test of sorts. No, that’s not quite correct.” He paused for a moment. “It tries to determine what our understanding of the universe is. That and how we perceive our place in it. Some of the questions hint at differences to our standard models. We’re being very careful about how much to read it into this. It may be that they’re just questions to see how we respond, rather than trying to see if we have the same level of understanding that they do. But it has certainly got our scientists very excited.”

“As you’ll see from my official report I’ve recommended that we induct some relevant experts in various fields such as particle physics, cosmology and theoretical mathematics to provide independent analysis.”

The Indian representative asked a question this time. “What can we infer about the aliens from this system?”

Fuller took a moment to think about that. He had asked the same question of his team and while there were as many theories as team members, no-one was certain enough to commit.

“At the moment we can’t say with any certainty what, if anything, this represents about the aliens themselves. It does seem to show that they have communicated with new species before, or at least have given it a great deal of thought.”
“Their tests if you will also show a preference for using spatial thinking like geometry to describe complex subjects. Of course, it could be that this is an easier method of sharing information as it less culturally centric.”

“What happens when the process is completed?” This time the interruption came from the Chinese Air Force General.

“The virtual machine appears to package up any changes to itself and then expects that to be transmitted to its source. From our initial inspections it looks like the machine will incorporate further data packages from the source.  We assume that these will expand the knowledgebase it works from, as does our interaction with it. It is likely that new processes and methods can be added. The system appears to be very flexible. Obviously we haven’t been able to test this yet. We need clearance from this council before sending any response.”

Fuller let that hang in the air for a moment, it was Eva Mendes who took the bait. “What is your opinion on this General?”

“I think we should reply. In my report you’ll see the a full breakdown of the data we would input to generate the package.”

The Chinese representative interrupted again. “Doesn’t some of this information reveal any technological weaknesses we have compared to them?”

“Indirectly it does. However, while I certainly wouldn’t want to assume the aliens are benign, we can’t assume they are hostile either. So far they haven’t demonstrated any hostile intent. Of course that could be a ruse, but the situation works both ways. The more information we receive from them helps us. Even if they are presenting some facade, the little bits we have gleaned have already sparked some eager discussion in a few scientific fields.”

“If they do have hostile intent then not replying is not likely to change that. My recommendation is that we send the reply.”

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael enjoyed the meal. He didn’t enjoy the company as much. Usually the commercial director handled the dealings with the UNSC bureaucrats. Every now and again though, it was useful to take a personal interest, fluff their feeling of importance a little.

Discussion over lunch concerned the upcoming tariff changes for orbital cargoes. Once again the import duty was going up, annoying but not unexpected. He let the man opposite him rattle off the justifications, trying to not let the sound of his voice spoil the fine wine they drank.

He had to hand it to the UNSC. They were careful to squeeze as much as they could from orbital traffic, but never too much. They generated enough income to be the only self-sustaining agency within the United Nations and to allow expansion of their assets. Despite the increases they made sure that resource imports were still competitive with the dwindling Earth based resources.

As the meal concluded and pleasantries were exchanged over the concluding coffees Michael remembered the odd message he had received earlier in the month.

“So how about this alien message?” He asked.

“I can’t discuss that.” A curt response, but an interesting one. If it had been a derisory laugh or comment that would have been the end of the matter, but now his interest was piqued.

Hui Zhong’s family home, near Beijing

Hui disembarked from the train a stop earlier than the one closest to her family home. She wanted the extra time to help sort her jumbled mind from its confusion. She already visited the tailor, her new uniforms would be finished in two days. Such quick service would cost extra, but she didn’t mind.

Her mood oscillated between a feeling of pride and nagging doubt. The pride was a swelling that made her feel two metres tall! Then a stab of doubt would worm its way into her mind. The mantle of command came with being an officer, but as a pilot she rarely had to exercise that command. She was the focal point of a well oiled team that required little control from her.

The doubt questioned her ability to command the mission. The paramount importance of the mission weighed that doubt with leaden dread.

Her parents must have been waiting for her. She couldn’t see her father, he no doubt was resting in his favourite chair watching some documentary on the wall-screen. Her mother was there though, small and demure at the gate to the well tended garden. The sight of her dispelled the cloud of doubt.

As her mother called out in greeting, the door opened and her father walked unsteadily into the sunshine. Both in their seventies, they had witnessed the rise and current triumph of modern China They had witnessed the early spurts of growth in the economy. A clever blending of capitalist strengths and party stability created a powerhouse.
The re-unification of Korea, with agreement that the North would unite with the South and as part of the deal, the American forces left the peninsula.

The next step was the conquest of Taiwan. This was less subtle.The American’s weakened forces in Japan and the Pacific able to do little to stem the Chinese wave. The world complained, but the deed was done and no country on Earth dared challenge China’s new found dominance.

From that moment the Chinese nation dedicated their efforts to making deals and soothing the rampant fears of their neighbours. It took thirty years, but the strategy worked. The Asian Alliance now boasted China, India and Japan as its leading members.  Three of world’s six greatest economies, all working together.

The Europeans and the Americans shrank in their influence, they were not weak, but lacking the strength and influence they once wielded.

The only mar on this great march of progress was the commercial enterprises in space. Here the alliance had lost ground, with foreign business and the United Nations swallowing the lion’s share.

And now as she quickened her pace to greet her parents, she knew she would be the one to help break their hold. To be the one to lead this next great step of China’s long march.

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