Deep Space Automated Tracking System
Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Calculating destination vector...   [+/- 18%]
Calculating velocity... 107925285 [+/- 14%] km/h
Calculating distance... 466081818271 [+/- 19%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 922 [+/- 20%] days
Calculating signal lag... 18 [+/- 14%] days
Impala Deep Mining Offices, Hopetown
“We’re already closing three of the mines. It’s costing too much to get anything up. We’re picking scraps from the workings, a few small veins. We just can’t compete with you boys in orbit.” Jack Kruger spoke with resignation in his voice. His face lined prematurely from worry, but his body still tall and trim. He preferred to work closer to the mine. “I’ve not seen you a long time Michael. The first time I see you in years and you try to convince me to keep working the mines. Are you trying to put me out of business?”
“Of course not Jack, you should know me better than that.” Impala Deep Mining was one of the few remaining mining concerns in South Africa. Or at least one of the few that still dug into the South African rock. Times were hard for the planet side mining operations, old workings running dry. For many minerals and ores it was cheaper and easier to extract them from asteroids.
“Why else would you ask me that? It’s the only reason that makes sense.”
“The price of chromium, platinum and many other metals is rising.”
“So? A small blip on a downward trend. It would need to climb much higher for those mines to still be viable.”
“It is going to climb much higher.”
Jack sat back in his chair, sipped at the hot coffee. It was dark and unsweetened, the opposite of how Michael drank his. His first thought was that this was a joke, but Michael wasn’t the joking type. “How can you know that? What’s going on?”
“How secure is this office?”
“Well we have it swept weekly, just yesterday in fact. Why? What do you know?”
“I need your word Jack. This has to stay just between us.”
“What kind of shit is that Michael? How long have you known me? I knew your father before you were born.” He snorted. “I should have listened to him all those years ago. Diversified when I had the chance. I guess its too late now.”
“Stop being mysterious Michael. What the hell is going on?”
“Have you been hearing any rumours recently Jack?”
“Rumours? Nothing specific. Nothing that relates to my business...” He looked thoughtful. “Wait a minute. The UNOC. There was something about them trying to buy some metals. Setting up their own strategic reserve or some such.”
“Indeed they are, they’ve not had any success buying anything yet.”
“Why? You holding out on them?”
“Me. And a few others.”
“How many others?”
“Enough, for now at any rate.”
“So how does this affect me?”
“As you’ve already seen the price for the resources are going up. This is just the beginning. The UNOC are actually planning to buy a lot more than the options they’re sniffing for at the moment.”
“How do you know this?”
“We’ll get to that. First how much does the price need to increase to make it worth keeping those mines operational?”
Jack took a moment to calculate. “If the price doubled, that would do it.”
Michael smiled. “I made it a seventy-five percent increase.”
Jack smiled in return. “The price would need to sustain for several months to make it worthwhile.”
“No, it just has to stay high long enough for you to sell the stock.” Michael transmitted a list of quantities to Jack. “Take a glance at those. Can you meet those quotas in a year’s time?”
Jack took a few seconds to answer. “It’ll be tight, but achievable. We’ll need to rehire a lot of workers. There’ll need to be overtime, but the lads won’t mind the extra wages. The big problem will be keeping the mines running for that long.”
“Actually, the biggest problem is going to be keeping it secret.”
Jack looked surprised at that. “What the hell is going on Michael?”
“It all started with a radio signal...”
CNSA vessel Long March, en route to Mars
Signal lag to Mars now reached ten minutes. The red planet now apppeared larger on the view screen than the blue orb of her home planet. The lag made proper conversation impossible, so here Hui sat in her small cabin recording a message to her family. Today was always a difficult day, even more so now she was millions of miles from home.
She started her message with a recording of the view screen, showing the enhanced images of their destination. Next she recorded a brief greeting. The usual “hello” and “how are you?”, small talk to preface the real reason for today’s message.
Her brother had been a fighter pilot, he served in the brief border skirmish against Vietnam only five years ago. He had been a pilot in the air force for six years. This was his first combat posting. Hui remembered how he had been her idol and how he always teased her that she just followed in her footsteps. It was both a joke and true. Much as she loved her mother and father, he was the bright spark in her life. The person she relied on when times were tough.
That fateful evening he lead a combat air patrol near the border. His flight formed the second line of defence against any Vietnamese incursion. Swarms of drones formed the primary buffer. Everyone, from the lowliest private to the highest dressed Generals had expected a quick, easy campaign. The Vietnamese had been foolish to try and secure their claims in the South China Sea. Everyone assumed the Vietnamese were bluffing.
The Vietnamese attack came when the sky darkened. Their own drones surged across the border. Unfortunately the drones were Japanese built and the Chinese cyber teams new their workings. They neutralised the drones within minutes of them entering their airspace. The follow on wave of manned fighter bombers didn’t know that their escorts had been subverted. Only two made it through the Chinese drone cloud. Both planes were damaged they detected the fighter patrol and in desperation, they engaged.
The Chinese only suffered one casualty in that short engagement. Her brother. He managed to evade the first missile only to have the second clip his wing. His plane plummeted in a flat spin. He followed his training and tried to eject, but the primary release mechanism failed. He tried the second, it fired, too late as his plane smashed into the ground.
Hui, just a raw recruit then, heard the news after landing the transport plane at the same airbase her brother was based in. She’d hoped to surprise him when he returned from his mission. The surprise was hers as the base commander called her into his office.
Soon after she transferred to space command. Her application was rejected several times before she was finally interviewed. After the interview she was invited to complete the tests. Even with her grief, perhaps because of it she’d excelled at the tests and had been admitted. She’d then discovered the freedom she now only felt when in space. Even now on this terrible day, she still felt that peace.
Hui was now deeper into space than she, or most pilots for that matter, had ever been. It felt almost magical, even with her implants there was a comforting loneliness out here. Once beyond the pulsing rainbow glow of the ship, it’s crew and systems, space was dark. She imagined it was almost as dark as in the old days, before enhanced reality.
She gazed out beyond the ship. Slender tendrils of data travelled ahead of them. These were the links between the handful of orbiters around Mars and their command stations back in Earth orbit. She could also see two even thinner lines stretching weakly into the outer solar system. She guessed they linked to the planetary observatories around Jupiter and Saturn. One day she might see them up close for herself.
It was nice. It was comforting, but she knew it was just delaying the inevitable. She switched on the recording and began to speak to her parents. She didn’t notice the tear until it fell from her face.
United Nations Orbital Command HQ, Moscow
General Fuller worried as the prices kept rising and the companies steadfastly refused to sell. The price didn’t shoot up, there was no panic, but it kept creeping higher. His worry was that this was some deliberate plan, that they knew something.
Relief finally came near the end of May, just as the Russian summer began its humid campaign. Summer seemed to start a little earlier each year. And with each cycle it became hotter and wetter.
The Finance Director had informed him that the Schaeffer Brothers had finally agreed to sell options of their production for the coming year. It was a small step, but at least some forward progress. The prices continued to rise and the other companies were still holding out. Already the budget for the mission was strained. That meant another session with the council to increase the funding. He didn’t relish the prospect.
That small relief proved to be the high point of the month. Production on Paladin had stalled. The reinforcement structures added to the interior of the ship had been discovered to have microscopic defects, Nearly half of the struts would need to be cut out and replaced. They should have been checked before construction, they had been overlooked in the rush. He shouldn’t have shouted at the supervisor, maybe he was more tired than he thought. At least the defective struts could be smelted and recycled.
To compound the problem the armour plating production had been slower than expected. Some of that armour had to be put in place before the new weapon systems and hanger decking could be added. The whole process had slowed to a crawl, putting construction two weeks behind schedule already.
Repeated calls to the manufacturers had yielded little except empty promises so far. Fuller decided he would visit the plants in person, and get to the bottom of the delays. It would mean another week of travel, missing his weekend with his daughter.
Fuller held the latest piece of good news in his hand. He looked at the long range false colour image of L1 Station. The image clearly showed the station itself in crisp detail. Alongside a freighter could be seen, just a metal skeleton gleaming in the dark. The schematic matched the type the Chinese had promised for the trade mission.
On the far side of the station he could see the silhouette of another vessel. This ship appeared further along in production. The bulge of the huge engines visible at the back of the ship. A patchwork of hull plating covered the ship. It was also large, not as big as the Long March, or the LMC mega-freighters. It was still larger than the freighter being constructed for the UNOC.
Examining this new vessel Fuller could see the enlarged fuel tanks. Those and the oversized engines indicated this ship was intended for a long range mission. Fuller did not like the thought of the Chinese and their allies amassing whatever around Mars.
It was time to find out what the Asian Alliance are planning.
Hope Township, Johannesburg
Rachel Richards loved being here on the street. She knew that her wealth and connections were the most important work for the various charities she worked with. Here she could see the results of that effort. Here she could see the difference she made. Rachel realised that Michael didn’t like her visiting these dangerous streets, but she couldn’t not come.
The Government did try to help the poor ensnared in the shanty towns that festered in and around the cities. As bad as it looked, she knew that it was actually better here than in other parts of Africa. The reasons for the poverty were many. Lack of economic opportunity was the most significant problem. Africa lacked the growth the rest of the world had seen, especially since the mining industry had slipped into decline.
Poverty brought desperation with it, that soon fuelled a crime epidemic. The criminals formed gangs for protection, at first from each other and then from the police. These days the police were more likely to be working with the gangs. The gangs had the money and the influence. A succession of governments had tried to battle the corruption and the violence, with only limited success. Rachel understood her history, what South Africa and other African nations faced was the same as the terrible civil strife suffered in Central and South America in the early 21st Century.
Only Africa didn’t have a powerful neighbour that cared enough to eventually step in. It took two decades of war to restore order. Here the only external help came from the UN and companies like those owned by her husband. Over the past few decades the UN had increased its strength around the world, but here their power was limited. The UN forces, well trained and well equipped were a limited resource and really designed for quick interventions.
A few years ago a bold experiment had managed to turn the tide in Kenya. A partnership had been formed between the newly elected government, big business and one of the large PMC’s. The United Nations hadn’t supported the idea at first. Private Military Corporations already served alongside most national forces, but never for a major peacekeeping operation.
Despite the naysayers the experiment had worked. Kenya was now one of the more prosperous nations in Africa. The economy was growing. Crime now reduced to a level that could be managed by the new police force. The people now had some hope and just as importantly, a restored faith in their government.
Rachel wanted to see the same process happen here. Michael had promised to provide the business backing. She now just needed to convince the government to summon the political will to make it happen. That was proving an uphill battle. While money talks, once in the pocket of the gangs, it proved difficult to break free.
A disturbance in front of Rachel pulled her from her thoughts. She looked about, she might make light of it with Michael, but she knew he was right about the danger she put herself in with these visits. Today she was helping to hand out food and clothing parcels. Her foundation teamed up with many local charities, between them covering a wide range of issues. From helping prevent malnutrition in families as they were today, to rehabilitation and drug recovery programmes.
She scanned the crowd around her. The black carapace armoured soldiers stood out from the threadbare rags of the locals. The large security team that followed her everywhere provided benefits beyond keeping her safe. They helped with crowd control and for the short time she was in the township provided some measure of safety for the locals. Even the gangs new they were not to be messed with lightly. Although it had taken a few bloody lessons for them to learn.
No matter what the situation a handful of these bodyguards always remained close to her person. She saw them close in, their presence reassuring her. The disturbance kept moving nearer. Above the crowd she suddenly saw helmets, black like her guards, but battered, dull. The crowd parted before them, as they became revealed she could see the uniforms of the Police. She could see shotguns and assault rifles gripped tightly in their gloved hands.
Her guards responded quickly, those nearby moving tight in around her. The others that had been helping hand out the care packages moved to intercept the advancing officers. Sian Moltern beat them to it. A small determined lady, she marched up to the lead officer demanding to know what they were doing. He didn’t break his stride, smashing her to the ground with the butt of his shotgun then stepping over her moaning body.
An armoured hand touched her shoulder. “We’re leaving Mrs Roberts.” Rachel didn’t argue. She could hear the screams of the crowd growing as the police forced their way through. A single shot rang out. Followed by another. Her guards lead through the rear entrance. She expected to see more police here, if this was a raid, surely they would cover all the exits.
The bodyguards pushed her towards her car. She didn’t hear the explosion, all she saw was a bright flash of light and then only darkness.