Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Chapter 14 - August 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730825.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [246] [007] [+/- 16%]
Calculating velocity... 86340228 [+/- 12%] km/h
Calculating distance... 256275064465 [+/- 17%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 842 [+/-  15%] days
Calculating signal lag... 10 [+/- 9%] days
Priority override...HIGH

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

The familiar sight of the station slowly grew larger in her visual sensors. It wasn’t yet visible with the naked eye, but the spark of its electronic life provided a beacon. It felt good to be back. Hui enjoyed the relative solitude of the shuttle’s journey from Mars, the small crew kept to themselves for most of the journey. Although even she looked forward to stretching her legs in something larger than the shuttle’s cargo bay.

The view of station differed greatly from when she had left, nearly six months ago. The bay in which the Long March had been constructed was now partially filled with the first resupply ship. She examined a close-up of the new ship. In less than three months this vessel would launch, carrying much needed supplies and munitions to the fledgling Mars station. It would also carry the first Chinese armed shuttles, themselves being rushed into production. Once again Hui would be on the bridge, returning to Mars once again.
She had two more such journeys to make. The thought wearied her. At first it seemed like a pleasant diversion, but even her desire for solitude had its limits. Such thoughts had been banished by a surprise communication from General Po Long. In a formal statement he informed her that the honour of recommending the name of the new vessel would be hers.

The very thought filler her with pride. The CNSA could choose to ignore her recommendation, although that had never happened. Hui had spent much of her off hours on the flight back trying to think of a suitable name. The task proved more difficult than she thought. Her first instinct had been something to honour her brother. She’d chided herself for that, for this great enterprise something monumental was needed.

She’d have to decide soon. CNSA command expected her planet-side in two days time. She anticipated several days of endless briefings. At least she would be able to visit her family. The thought of that warmed her more than the honour of naming the ship.

Only a small course correction was required for the final approach. In her augmented view the shuttle lay centred on the approach vector. She nodded to herself in satisfaction. Despite the vast computing power available to her, there was always a satisfaction in doing things for herself.

 Closer now she could see the second ship, this one on the other side of the station. This ship was smaller, uglier than the re-supply vessel. She recognized its form as a deep space transport. This class modelled on the same lines as the NASA/ESA light freighters. The Chinese version was superior, with both increased cargo capacity and more powerful engines. She remembered these squat vessels with some fondness. Her first tour in space had been as a navigation officer on one of these ships.

The new course also brought the vast solar sail into view. The sail seemed still, yet she could see that it was being shaped by pressure from the solar wind. Its primary purpose was hiding the construction happening here at the station. It effectively blocked the view of the station both from Earth and the Moon. It was however, a real experiment as well. Solar Sails had been used on a few planetary probes, mostly to the outer Solar System. They provided a cheap method of propulsion, but so far only for low mass probes and long range drones. This new experiment intended to see if the sails could be scaled up for larger masses, where speed wasn’t of the essence.

The massive sail did have one drawback. It completely obscured the view of Earth from the station. A view she often liked to contemplate. Her implants could compensate for the blocked view, but it didn’t feel the same. It also shrouded the station itself in shadow, giving it a menacing, more angular look.
Just a trick of the light. She shrugged then responded to L1 Station’s traffic control. She slipped easily into the familiar routine. Altered view or not, it felt good to be home again.

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael realised that his reaction to Rachel’s near-miss wasn’t helping. He wished he could moderate this feeling. In all his life he’d never felt this irrational. The time since Rachel returning home hadn’t gone well. An understatement if ever there was one. Throughout their marriage they argued only rarely, that changed since the explosion. 

His irritation from the latest argument disturbed his focus as he delved into the datascape. This datascape lacked the elegance of the alien virtual machine, but was complex enough in its own right. Unlike the alien VM, this was a complexity he understood . This was his finances, the data for his personal and corporate wealth, all modelled for the past, present and future. For once, it was not giving him the answers he wanted.
Since the success of the combined intervention in Kenya, both Rachel and he wanted to apply the same model here in South Africa. Negotiations progressed slowly with key politicians and business leaders throughout the country. In recent months, the assistance of Monica Abbots, herself well respected throughout the political body helped to advance this agenda.

The LMC would be the major partner in this venture, along with several other major corporations. With Rachel’s own contacts and that of the government they had been working together with a planned convergence sometime within the next five years. A key difference from the Kenya operation was the lack of United Nations support. South Africa had problems, none of them serious enough for the UN to intervene directly.

They’d tried the African Union, but lacked the resources to help as well. They were already stretched by peace enforcement operations across Central Africa. At least they would offer some political support, if nothing substantial. South Africa would have to solve this problem alone, with corporate help.
The plan, after surviving many fits and starts, slowly came together. A single bomb blast changed everything.
The change wasn’t Rachel, she remained keen to go back to her work. Not just fundraising as Michael would have preferred, but street aid as well. That was too much for him, he insisted that it wasn’t safe. He was right, but he also knew he was wrong. She tried to be reasonable with him. She would take extra security with her.

He’d dismissed the idea. Increasing her security detail would help, but wouldn’t guarantee her safety. She responded that was always the case. But why take the risk again? He’d let the anger get the better of him. Would he give up his work because of a threat? He knew he wouldn’t and he knew he was being unreasonable expecting that from Rachel. Besides, on this occasion it had been corrupt police who had been the attackers. He continued the argument, trying to force her with the force of will. Open warfare between his private security forces and the police would not help the cause at all. Not unless his forces were part of a wider solution. On this point she conceded.

There, for now, they had left the argument, but it would soon boil into life again. Was there a way of bringing real safety to the streets of the townships?

Boots on the ground were not a problem, in theory anyway. Over the past two years he and Jacob worked closely with a European PMC, they’d drawn up a plan for a country wide intervention. They had the forces to do it. Alongside a purge of most of the corrupt officers in the police should help stabilise the situation on the streets.

There was even a plan to bring some of the gangs into the solution. Some of the gangs existed to provide protection for their communities. With training and assistance they could be a valuable asset.
The real problem showed in the data that flowed around him. The alien contact provided a golden opportunity to be sure, but it was a costly venture. The rewards for which would be in the long term. In the short term he was haemorrhaging money. To attempt this social intervention at the same time would be financial suicide.

Rachel would understand, he knew she would. She would also go back to her projects, to stop that would destroy their marriage. That thought wiped the irritation from his mind. There would be a way. He just needed to think.

The solution was simple, dangerously so. He needed to spread the risks he was taking. He needed to encourage others to invest. That would reduce his own costs. Unfortunately implementing such a strategy wouldn’t be so simple. Adding investors to the intervention simply wouldn’t work. There were too many delicate sensibilities involved. To get where they were now had taken a tremendous amount of negotiation. Adding someone knew to mix could break the fragile alliance. He also knew all too well the government couldn’t afford to spend more on the project.

The alien venture though. That had more potential. It wouldn’t require too much funding. The difficulty here was maintaining secrecy. He expanded the model as he included new data. There was much to consider.

Luna Mining Colony Base, the Moon

Jacob Manning relaxed in his access pod, the relief immediate. His limbs still ached from the recent visit to Earth. Everyday he spent an hour a day in the gym. He exercised not just to remain in fit condition, but to counter-balance the debilitating effects of spending most of his time in low gravity. Unlike the early astronauts they also had chemical and nano-bot supplements that helped combat the bone and tissue degradation.

He really should try and spend more time on Earth as well. Supplements and gym time were no substitute for actually living in full gravity. These days it seemed that it took an emergency or meeting a contact that could only be done in person to get him away from the Moon base.

He liked to be busy, but the past few months proved difficult. There was no easy time in sight either. The recent security scares and expanded operations stretched Jacob and his team to the limit. Various private military contractors helped carry the load for some of the low level work. But there are some things only he could do.

One of those things had necessitated his trip to Earth. On the face of it an overnight visit to one of the cruise liners that sailed in international waters. These floating palaces provided the ultimate luxury for the very wealthy. Or even just the well connected.  Thanks to loopholes in maritime law any vice could be indulged safely, without fear of interruption or embarrassment on these vessels.

A promising communication from one of his contacts enticed him to one of these ships as it sailed around the South China Sea. Concealed amongst a multitude of businessmen and rich playboys he met with his contact. The contact was a low grade officer in the Indian air force. She was bitter from many years of being overlooked for promotion and now just sought funds for her retirement.

The intelligence she had to pass along was a huge mass of data, covering the Indian shuttle ferry missions to L1 station. The high price Jacob paid for this information was already paying dividends. It formed the piece of the puzzle he needed to clarify that itching feeling he’d experienced for the past few weeks.

It was here, in his private datascape that he assembled the puzzle. He was not alone, he had some help. An expert system of his own devising, one he constantly tweaked and improved provided substantial data analysis. Like the network used to house the alien VM this expert system lived on its own network. It had no external connections. This private space was designed for one purpose, to aid Jacob as he planned.

The musings and scenarios contained in this system could never be allowed to go public. The only way to ensure that was to prevent any external access. While that made the system more secure, it did have its downside. The information flow he took for granted with any other system was not available here. Any new data had to be vetted and then inputted manually, or at least via a separate secure system.

Jacob designed the expert system for one purpose, to look for connections. A simple task that even after a century of data mining had not been perfected. He’d started with a commercial indexing system and over the years built it into a companion. A rapid companion that existed only to hunt for information and the links between things.

Now he lay amongst the data, letting the information surround him. The system went to work, stringing tenous connections at first. These solidified as the sytem became more certain of its suppositions. He used his own skills to tweak at those connections, or to add new ones. Their efforts combined a more comprehensive picture emerged.

The first piece of the puzzle had been the accelerated launch schedule of the Long March mission. Even after the launch there had been increased traffic to and from L1 station. Something major was happening out there. Contacts at the UNOC fed other interesting titbits about the Chinese and their allies. Rumours and hints, frustratingly nothing concrete.

Digging further into the UNOC didn’t reveal much else. If they knew what the Chinese were up then they were keeping it quiet. These investigations did lead him to Paladin. While he lacked specifics he discovered that it was the Plan B if the alien contact went south. For his investigation it proved a dead end, while the Asian Alliance were involved in the project, there was something else going on.

He followed a new trail. This time with the Security Council. This proved a trickier approach. The contact he had made had dried up. Again all he could glean where hints and rumours. They made it clear that the Chinese and their allies were very much against the planned trade with the aliens. The question now was, what would they do about it? How would they react if they learned that the LMC planned their own trade?
He pulled back to the data he had. Since their arrival at Mars they had just sat in orbit. The orbiters already at Mars detected little activity. Only a single shuttle left the ship and headed back to Earth. What were the Chinese up to?

The shuttle manifests provided some clarity. The shipping logs formed a long list of the usual supplies for running a space station. Some of the cargos less so. Jacob now had evidence that the Chinese were stockpiling sophisticated weapon systems at L1 station, maybe Mars itself. Even more concerning is that the manifests also indicated that the Chinese were building another long-range vessel. Was that destined for Mars too?

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