Sunday, 29 April 2012

Chapter 15 - September 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730925.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [248] [006] [+/- 15%]
Calculating velocity... 75547699 [+/- 11%] km/h
Calculating distance... 201880720885 [+/- 16%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 813 [+/-  14%] days
Calculating signal lag... 8 [+/- 8%] days
Priority override...HIGH

Shuttle Shenfeng, beyond Luna orbit

Hui adjusted the attitude of the shuttle. Unable to use the fusion drive for fear of detection, she had to use the compressed gas thrusters. These provided enough thrust for manoeuvring.

This was one of new combat shuttles fresh from the assembly lines planetside. As with all pilots she experienced a thrill when flying any new craft. This new model was based on the same transport shuttle she’d flown countless times between L1 Station and Earth. Although it did lack the extended range of the specially modified Zheng Fe. That meant that it already felt familiar to her as she sat in the pilot’s chair and first powered up the systems.

The shuttle might have felt the same at first, but this craft had teeth. In conformal weapons pod beneath the wings and fuselage multi-role missiles awaited her command. The targeting systems integrated with her implants, anything she could perceive with her own senses, or those of the shuttle or any networked sensor could be used to target the missiles.

Under the nose a fixed line rail gun could spit hardened projectiles at a velocity it would take her fusion drive a year to reach. Above and below the fuselage, behind the cockpit DEW pods provided point defences against incoming missiles as well as additional light strike capability.

The shuttle’s skin also differed from the old model. The state of the art stealth covering gave the ship an insectoid look. Black and menacing. The absorbent skin could soak up the energies of most active scanners. Augmenting this passive system an active electronic warfare and stealth system provided additional counter measures aginst detection.

The first of its kind, and now was flying it on its first combat mission.

Hui thought back  to the days of briefings. They had become almost routine on her visit to Earth. From early in the morning until late at night she provided endless status reports to a variety of officers and officials from high command. The constant reviews and adjustments for logistics and plans began to numb her, making that final meeting all the more surprising.

In this meeting the attendants were brass heavy. Not only General Po Ling, but the Head of the Air Force, and even the Defence Minister all waited for her. This meeting changed the whole complexion of the mission. A new phase in the operation would begin. This change brought her here, on course to a commercially worthless lump of rock, drifting through interplanetary space.

The High Command and Ruling Committee decided that a more active campaign to prevent the trade was needed. This new campaign would need to be covert. Open conflict with the UN wasn’t a desired outcome, they said. Not yet.

They determined the weak spot as the Luna Mining Corporation. Their shipyard enabled directly and indirectly the trade mission as well as threatening the Asian Alliance’s expansion into space.  

The plan they described was simple. Knock one of the smaller rock asteroids into a Luna intercept course. Split the massive rock into smaller fragments, then watch as they smashed into the LMC shipyard. Even partial damage would slow the LMC production hampering theirs, and the UN’s plans.

While it looked simple in the presentation with its elegant graphics, the actual implementation was another matter. The first part of the plan had already been started before Hui had been briefed. A robot drone intercepted the asteroid. Microscopic robots then tunnelled into the rock. The robots had two objectives. The first to create a shaft to the centre of the asteroid, down which an explosive charge would be placed. The secondary objective created tiny hairline fissures throughout the asteroid, when the charge exploded they would guide the force ensuring fragmentation.

Moving the asteroid into a new orbit proved more problematic. The usual methods of attaching fusion drives or detonating a large nearby explosion were far too noticeable. Deep space tracking systems would spot the activity and the LMC would have plenty of warning and so be able to prevent or minimise the attack.

Thankfully the Russians provided the solution, although they weren’t aware of it. The Mig-Sukhoi corporation’s experiments with mass drivers provided a stealthy mechanism for accelerating the asteroid into a new course. According to the data stolen by the cyber-espionage teams the system had never been tested on an object so large. It was really designed for launching cargo pods at high velocities. Simulations had shown that the technology could be adapted to make a smaller velocity change to a much larger object.

Hui adjusted the shuttle’s course again. The journey here had taken four days, they drifted along unable to use the shuttle’s main drive. The initial burn masked by an old Indian freighter following a parallel course.
The mission also operated under full electronic emission controls, so no communications with home where allowed. Silently they drifted through the dark, now they now reached their target. The asteroid was dark, reflecting little of the Sun’s light. Even with her enhanced vision it was difficult to see. Only the slowly spinning bulk as it obscured the stars behind it gave any visual indication of its presence.

She checked the electronic threat indicators. Only the deep space tracking radar showed on the board. Out here the strength of the radar is too low to detect the shuttle. Even the huge lump of rock would barely register at this range. Using just the compressed gas jets she manoeuvred the shuttle above the asteroid. Once in position she sent a message to the marine engineering squad assembled in the cargo bay.

“We’re in position. You are go to deploy.”

She opened the cargo bay door. Without active sensors her enhanced view lacked the clarity she was used to. It didn’t feel right not having that extra awareness. Beside her the co-pilot focused on the volume of space around them. The shuttle’s computer did the same without pause, but an extra pair of eyes watching for danger provided some reassurance.

The engineers drifted out of the shuttle, tiny against the indistinct form of the asteroid. The first dropped towards the asteroid. He would access the robot drone directly, make sure that the tunnelling  was progressing on schedule. Once he completed the checks he would return to the shuttle, collect the explosive charge then drop it down the tunnel. His final task would be to hammer magnetized blocks across the surface of the asteroid. Along with the low latent magnetic field this would provide something for the accelerator to grip to and push the asteroid.

The rest of the team unfurled what looked like a large black cloth. It wasn’t really cloth, but a smart material designed to absorb radar energy. Once fully unfurled it stretched over a mile in each direction. Small magnetised blocks attached along its outside edge would allow it to be accelerated in front of the asteroid. It would then shroud the asteroid from detection until it was too close to the target for LMC to react.

Once the shroud was in place they pulled the accelerator from the shuttle. It had been modified heavily from the original Russian design. Long strips slotted together forming a cage that enclosed the asteroid in a tunnel. The acceleration cage took twelve long hours to construct. Adding the impulse units along the tunnel’s length took another four. Exhausted the team returned to the shuttle. Four fusion generators would provide the energy required to launch the three objects.

Hui nudged the shuttle behind the asteroid, out of the enclosing cage. First the accelerator launched the shroud. In sequence from back to front the impulse units activated pushing against the magnetised blocks. The shroud then quickly accelerated into space. All parameters looked nominal.

Next the asteroid was propulsed through the cage. Three of the fusion generators drained their energy output within minutes. Over a million tons of asteroid slowly gained momentum. The velocity change was tiny, but it should be enough.

She waited an hour then flew the shuttle into the cage. The propulsers triggered a final time and launched the shuttle stealthily back towards Earth orbit.  As the shuttle passed the asteroid the timer on the cage activated the nano-bots that immediately began eating into the framework, reducing the complex apparatus to dust.

LMC Shipyard, Luna orbit

The first vessel from the upgraded shipyard nosed its way slowly out of the construction bay. The assembled construction crew watched in silence as the fledgling ship crept from its nest. Michael Richards watched from amongst the crowd, his customary place on the podium now occupied by one of the security team. Everyone on the station, except those needed for the actual launch crowded together to watch the event.
He’d originally intended to present a speech to the team. Once he’d arrived, flanked by Jacob and his security team he changed his mind. This was a major milestone for the company, and he wanted to celebrate that. Being here with the workers that had pushed themselves with double shifts made him realise the celebration should be for them.

A loud cheer shattered the quiet, heralding the vessel’s exit from the shipyard. This ship would take its first voyage to the Stellar Collector Corporation’s asteroid mining base. This new freighter would be the first of Pa Jackman’s new fleet. His old ships, as they are replaced will then be transferred to the UNOC. It wasn’t one of the new mega-freighters, the vast bulk of one still under construction could be seen in shadow behind the station on the giant viewscreens. Even so, this new freighter still represented a significant upgrade for the old man. Within the next two weeks another vessel would leave this station and join its sister ship.

As the cheers died down Michael turned to the workers near him. He refrained from the rough back slapping, but he did take their hands, shaking them vigorously, a large smile spread across his face. He worked his way through the throng, his facial recognition system providing names for every person he greeted.

The company rule for no alcohol allowed on active shifts had been relaxed for this occasion. He’d brought pouches of champagne for everyone, these were now handed out and the cheers resumed. He didn’t manage to greet everyone personally, but he covered most of the two hundred people present. Another happy roar resounded as he announced that the day’s shifts would be cancelled. A day off for everyone.

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