Sunday, 8 April 2012

Chapter 7 - January 2073

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

The piercing shriek of the alarm tore through the simulation and dragged Hui from the pure virtuality of the simulation back into normal reality. The sudden transformation of her frame of reference disorientated her. Her neural implants immediately dampened their inputs to protect her mind from information overload. Hui recognized the noise as a fire alarm and stumbled from the simulator pod to the nearest terminal. Without her implants she would need to access the station’s data net the old fashioned way.

Her shaking fingers stabbed at the touch screen as she thought. With the under-pressurised atmosphere used in space stations, the oxygen content formed a greater proportion of the air than was found on Earth. This increased oxygen level made fires on the station a greater threat than they would normally pose.

Her eyes struggled to focus on the screen in front of her, she was grateful the nausea in her stomach seemed to be subsiding. The implants slowly bloomed back into life and as she located the alarm with the terminal, her the enhanced reality flooded her mind once again. With the station’s data feed once again part of her conscious mind she felt whole, immediately more in control.

The fire started in one of the assembly bays. The bays were used to assemble components for the Long March vessel. They reduced the amount of work that the engineers had to do in vacuum. One of the welding units had shorted and sparked causing a minor flash explosion. Normally that wouldn’t be a catastrophe.
The expert system that monitored and controlled the station’s automation triggered its standard fire suppression protocol. In less than a second the bay was sealed off and inert gas pumped into the atmosphere. This forced the oxygen out of the bay’s atmosphere and prevented the fire from burning.

As soon as the alarm sounded the dozen engineers followed their training and sealed the emergency hoods over their faces. These thin hoods provided several minutes of breathable air while the atmosphere was cycled to suppress any combustion and then made the air breathable again.

Unknown to the expert system there was a fault in the atmosphere cycling in this section. Within seconds the system identified the problem and Hui could see the sequence of events, unfortunately too late for the men and women in the bay.

Instead of the inert argon, the flow regulator had seized, that microscopic failure allowed pure oxygen into the pulse chamber. The pulse chamber designed in such a way to replace the oxygen with the argon in the quickest time possible. The fault pumped extra oxygen in to the bay. The sudden introduction of the oxygen caused the fire to flare once again. The flare took less than a second, but reached such a temperature that it triggered an escalation in the fire suppression protocol.

When the inert suppression failed then the next stage vented the section completely. This duly dragged the sudden flames into space where they instantly dispersed into the endless vacuum. The fire had reached the melting point of the emergency hoods, the sudden cold from empty space flash froze these masks to the faces of the engineers.

Protocol dictated that the area kept sealed for an hour to prevent re-ignitions. Hui overrode the lockdown, allowing the marine damage control teams to enter and attempt to rescue the engineers. It was too late, the hoods had fused to their faces. The melted hood solidified to a crust that resisted the cutting tools the marines wielded. By the time others arrived with laser cutters it was too late.

Hui then strode to her office. By the time she arrived and sat down, the expert system compiled the report. She checked it through, affixed her identification and authorised its release to the agency.

Another terrible duty awaited her, one she had never had to perform before. She, like her parents, had been on the receiving end when her brother had been shot down over Vietnam. The flare of that loss still felt keenly after all these years. Now it would be her duty to inform the families of their loss.

United Nations Security Council, New York

What had begun as lively discussion quickly degenerated into shouted argument. The UNOC research team had verified the list of items the aliens wanted to trade. They had also made progress on what the aliens offered. There was another process embedded in the VM. When followed this process analysed human technological development and then provided options for what technologies would benefit humans the most.
When entering an honest appraisal the VM outputted a wide range of technologies, mostly significant, if incremental improvements to existing human technology. The list included nanotech, communications, life support technology, and self healing materials. These all excited the research team.

General Fuller found it significant that the list lacked any technologies that had use for weapon systems He wondered what that said about the aliens, or was it more a reflection of what they thought of us? Another anomaly was the lack of biological technology. The life support systems hinted at better chemical processes, but nothing directly biological. Maybe they just lacked enough information to judge human biological needs.

The researchers had tried to game the assessment, to see if they could influence the output. After days of trying their success was limited. The VM seemed to be able to cut through the deceptions. Instead of feeling disappointed with this result the researchers grew ever more excited with each new revelation of the VM’s prowess.

Unfortunately the Security Council, or at least certain members had not seen it in the same positive light.
“It is clearly a trick.!” General Po Ling gesticulated angrily. “As I predicted these aliens seek to pry our secrets from us and use them against us. They form a clear and present danger to our world and we would be foolish to help their agenda in any way.”

The Chinese and Indians as always formed a united front. Although not directly represented on the Security Council, many other Asian nations, those that benefitted from the Asian Alliance backed the stance. Fuller wondered at the reason for this stance, did they truly believe the aliens represented a threat?

The opposition came from their old rivals, the Americans and the Europeans. For many years they acquiesced to the Asian rise in geo-political dominance. Although not defeated, their voice on the international stage became much diminished.

For the Europeans it was a similar story. Once fragmented they slowly coalesced into a single entity. They become stronger for the unity, but their influence focused on their immediate borders, Russia, the Islamic League and to some extent the African Union.

Now these old western powers had glimpsed an opportunity. Whether it was to bolster their own influence, or for the benefit of all mankind as they claimed, remained to be seen. But for once they had taken a stand, shaken the status quo and now the Council seemed paralysed by this clash.

The Russian delegate had spoken little. For decades they played a delicate game. They were caught between the Asian giants and a powerful Europe. Both ancient enemies, now they benefitted by being a conduit between these great markets.

The final delegate on the council was the South African Minister, Minister Monique Abbot. Officially she represented only the nation of South Africa. Everyone also understood that she acted for the African Union on the Council. The African Union wasn’t a single entity in the same ways as the European Union. The African nations maintained their individual sovereignty, although acted together on many matters.

Along with the Russian representative she attempted to mediate between the two sides. As with the Russians this stance was primarily driven by necessity. The African nations depended on both the Indians and Europeans for much of their business.

The argument, lively as it was, remained a stalemate. The United Nations constitution stated that if the Security Council could not agree then the matter would have to be passed to the General Assembly. Secretly that’s what Fuller wanted to happen, but the Council did seem united on that single point. They wanted this contact kept secret. Only by keeping it secret could they maintain any semblance of control.
So with neither side willing to compromise and not wanting to hand responsibility to the General Assembly they would all be stuck here until a deal was struck.

It was going to be another long night.

South African Foreign Ministry, Pretoria

The call from the Foreign Ministry came as a surprise to Michael Richards. He’d been invited for a private discussion about sponsoring the rebuild of the aging radio telescope array. Decades before the array had been the pride of the scientific community in Africa. Now it was obsolete. Micro-satellites could do the same job of scanning the heavens at a much lower cost. It made no sense for the cash strapped South African government to invest money into this.

He’d politely declined, or tried to. The official had just as politely insisted. Eventually Michael had agreed to the meeting. The more he thought about it, the less sense the meeting made. Not only was the project pointless, why was the meeting taking place at the Foreign Ministry? The Foreign Ministry had no jurisdiction over the project.

As always he arrived punctually and an old secretary ushered into a finely furnished office. Some of the furniture looked like it had been made in colonial times. The collection must have been worth a fortune. Michael knew, he had some similar pieces in his own office. Other pieces he had donated to the museum in Johannesburg. The opulence provided a stark contrast to the run down township less than three miles away.
Michael surprise showed as the elegant women rose from behind the desk to greet him.  Michael had met Monique Abbots a few times over the years, always at top level functions. He didn’t know her well, but he knew her reputation. She was known as a straight dealer, educated and intelligent. For many years she represented South Africa ably at the United Nations.

 “Thank you for joining me, Mr Richards. Let me apologise for the subterfuge, but I wanted a private conversation with you. And for reasons you’ll soon appreciate, I couldn’t just ask you over the net.”
With a small gesture her aides discreetly left the room. She indicated one of two plush seats situated in one corner of the room. She crossed the room to a rich walnut drinks cabinet. “Can I offer you a drink?”
“Just a sparkling water. Thanks.” He replied while making himself comfortable.

She filled two tall glasses, after adding  ice, she handed one glass to Michael and sat down opposite him. She casually adjusted the hem of her dress.

 “I know you’re a busy man Mr Richards, my time is also limited so I’ll get straight to business.”
“As you already know we have received first contact from an alien ship. The first message arrive back in September and the ship that sent it is currently on route to our solar system. That ship will arrive in Mars orbit in three years time. Last week the Security Council sat in closed session to determine humanity’s response to this contact.”

“I thought this was all a hoax, that’s what being reported on the news feeds?”

“You know better than that Mr Richards. Your Head of Security has already informed you of the basic facts. He hasn’t been made aware of the events in that meeting. It is unlikely that she will be able to.”
She paused for a moment, to let that point settle. Michael waited without comment.

“The Council, after prolonged discussion agreed to respond to the aliens and to trade with the aliens for new technology.”

“Why are you telling me this Ms Abbot?”

“You’ve always been a friend to our country Mr Richards. I don’t mean just to this government, but to the people as well. You provide employment to thousands. You maintain your company headquarters here and your wife devotes much of her time to charity work in the townships.”

“However it is not just the ties to our country that makes you the person to tell these things. It is your wider ties with Africa as well.  Unlike the Europeans we have never quite managed to unite. We lack the strength to oppose the will of either the Americans or the Chinese.”

“What does this have to do with the alien contact?”

“The Security Council is suppressing the contact. This is probably the most significant event in human history. If the message is true, and I believe it is, then this can benefit the whole of mankind.”

“And the UN isn’t working to this goal?”

“I think General Fuller is trying to do just that. But his voice, even as the Commander of Orbital Command is a lone one.”

“So why not back him up?”

She sighed. “We simply cannot afford to go against the Chinese and their allies. At best we can maintain a neutral stance. The Americans and Europeans are pushing to take advantage of the situation, but along with the Asian Alliance they’re keeping the lid of secrecy on the contact. “

“Our feeling is that by restricting access the contact will only benefit a few. The Europeans are backing the Americans, but I think they can be persuaded to back a more open approach.”

“And the Chinese? Indians? And the rest of the Asian Alliance?”

“We can’t stop their interference inside the UN and it troubles us that they’re the only power with a significant heavy lift planned to Mars.”

“Well that may be true right now, but most vessels could reach Mars with some modifications and preparation.”

Ms Abbot smiled. “We were hoping you would feel that way. What we need is an independent group that can act in the wider interest, that isn’t under the direct control of the United Nations, or a hostile government. ”

“As soon as the Security Council gets wind that the LMC is trying to interfere with the contact, they will do everything to stop us.”

“With that we can help you. Assuming you can at least show some discretion with your operations.”
“It’s difficult to keep secrets in space.”

“Yet the Chinese and their allies seem to manage it.”

Michael wondered what she meant by that comment.

She handed Michael a small object. “This data pack contains all of the information the UN has on the contact so far. You will see that many of the items they want for trade fall within your company’s sphere of operations.”

She sipped her water. “There is also data on how we are communicating with the aliens. Our initial reply to them was tight beamed. They replied in kind, only the original message was broadcast. “

“You want me to contact the aliens myself?”

“That’s one option. Our goal is to make sure that this contact benefits everybody.”

“What’s to stop me taking advantage of this contact for myself?”

“Nothing, although I doubt even your corporation has the resources to do that alone. That’s where we can help.”

She stood and offered her hand. As Michael shook it she said. “We’ll meet again in a few weeks for your decision Mr Richards. Take the time to study the data and see what you can plan. I’ll look forward to meeting with you again.”

With that the aides returned and Ms Abbot was swept from the room.

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