Monday, 9 April 2012

Chapter 8 - February 2073

United Nations Orbital Command HQ, Moscow

General Fuller watched his second in command, Colonel Vadim Sokolov as he left the office. Fuller had been ordered by the Security Council to take personal charge of the contact mission. It was to take absolute priority. So now the Colonel had to manage the day to day running of Orbital Command itself.

The contact mission itself had two components. The trade mission and the defence mission. The defence mission already earned the nickname of Plan B. Hardly an original name, but Fuller hoped it would remain the second option. A working party of defence experts from around the world were already assembling. They would take the original report Fuller had presented to the Security Council and work it into a plan. He didn’t envy them the long nights needed to get that plan together in time. However he did have a few late nights of his own to come.

Fuller’s immediate priority was the trade mission.  A reply to the aliens had already been tight beamed to their ship. Everyone now eagerly awaited their next data package. Despite Fuller’s objections they hadn’t completed the technology assessment honestly. As a concession to the Asian Alliance, more ambiguous responses had been provided in an attempt to conceal some of the human weapons capability. Plan B and its sudden generous funding was another major concession.

Yet another concession prevented the use of the private corporations in either mission.  This would make Fuller’s task problematic.  For the trade mission to succeed they had to accumulate the needed resources and then ship them to Mars, before the alien craft arrived.

The first problem was buying the resources. The amounts they needed amounted to a significant proportion of the current annual output. This would force the prices of key resources up, resulting in economic repercussions around the world. Somebody was also bound to notice the UNOC suddenly buying large quantities of industrial resources. Fuller had already passed along this particular problem to the accounting division. There the number crunchers and their expert system would assemble a purchase plan to minimize the ripple effects. The Intelligence Division would also try to come up with a plausible cover story.

He also asked them to look into ways the corporations could be encouraged to increase production. Increased prices was one thing, but resource shortages would be much more disruptive.

Another big problem was the available lift capacity. Like any military campaign, without logistics you had no campaign. Without adequate transports they couldn’t deliver the goods for the trade. The bulk of the available transport fleet was owned by the corporations and the Security Council restrictions meant he couldn’t just hire some of these vessels.

The ESA and NASA had a small transport fleet of six small freighters, used to ferry supplies to the Luna base and other orbital stations. They were small though capable of carrying five thousand tons of cargo each. To transport everything they would need at least fifty of these small ships. The Russians also had a couple of similar sized ships.

It really frustrated him. Fuller knew that three of the LMC’s mega-freighters could transport everything in one go. Even better the Long March vessel being built out at L1 Station could probably carry the lot. Naturally the Chinese and Indians refused to provide their new ship for this use. Even though everybody knew its destination was Mars. Not for the first time Fuller wondered what the Asian Alliance was planning.
There was some good news. The Chinese and Indians had both promised to provide freighters, construction would begin immediately. These were expected to be ready in a little over six months time.

Fuller had heard some rumours that the Europeans and the Americans were planning to expand their Luna shipyard. The expansion a bid to compete in the heavy lift market against their neighbours the LMC. He had a meeting with the European production manager later that morning to discuss how they could help with the mission.

He sighed. Another option could be to transport in multiple trips. It would burn a lot more fuel and require more support. The thought of leaving all that raw material in Mars orbit, with only the Chinese and their allies nearby was not a comforting one.

After some consideration, he composed a message to his own production facilities. They couldn’t build freighters, but they could produce many useful, if smaller machines.

Richards’ Home, outside Johannesburg

The bloated sun sat low and lazy on the horizon. Michael watched it creep slowly from view. He loved Rachel a lot, but sometimes he wished he didn’t have to go to these events. He knew it was selfish of him, occasionally it would just be nice to not dress up and just have a quiet night with just the two of them. He wondered if he gave her a cheque for a million dollars whether she’d agree to them not going to the reception. He quickly dismissed the idea, she’d accept the cheque and then make him go anyway.

He smiled at the thought, Rachel could be forceful when she wanted to be. In fairness his work was just as much to blame.

Monique Abbots had already messaged him to say she was looking forward to continuing their discussions. She also said that she hoped that he would provide the investment they were looking for in the radio telescope renovations. Her message also indicated that the renovations had UN approval both as a cultural investment and as part of the SETI program. He’d smiled, enjoying the irony in the cover story.

The crux of the matter was that she expected a decision. And that decision would need to be delivered at the dinner, later that evening. Michael always discussed any major decisions, business or otherwise with his wife. They continued their discussion while dressing for the function.

“Honey have you decided what you want to do?” Rachel’s voice was distorted as she applied her make-up.
“I really wish I had more information to go on. Every expert I have spoken to me assures me the contact is genuine. I can’t shake the feeling that it is a setup.”

“Could it be you don’t want to believe it’s true, it is pretty Earth shattering. I’m not sure I believe it myself. It seems like too extreme an idea for a setup, surely they would come up with something a bit more plausible? Besides, what would they have to gain?”

“Well we would have to invest a lot in this project. Even with our resources we couldn’t do it alone. We’d need to involve the other independents.”

“So you and the others could be exposed? Would that exposure be great enough to risk the company?”
“On its own? Probably  not. If it is part of a larger conspiracy it could leave us vulnerable to some other move.”

“And I suppose the secrecy makes it difficult to spread the risk?”

“Yes it does. There’s a few things we can do to spread the financial risk. I’ve already got the accountants working on these.”

“I still think there would be easier ways to trick you. Something like this would require a lot of setting up. Something would could go wrong too easily. And as your experts tell you, it’s not something that could be faked that easily.”

“I guess you’re right. As usual.” He hoped she heard the smile in his voice.”

“It sounds like you’ve already made your decision. I think you really want me to find reasons why you shouldn’t, so you can shoot me down.” He heard the smile in her voice. “Anyway I need something much more important. Zip me up” Rachel back walked into the bedroom. The back of her pale yellow dress hung open, revealing the tanned skin beneath. She looked stunning as always and Michael couldn’t resist a kiss as he did as she commanded.

“I guess I have. The risk is great, but the opportunity even greater. Plus I can’t help but be excited to be a part of such a historical event. I’d still like more data on what technology they are going to provide. Even the tantalizing glimpse they have provided indicates that some fields will be advanced twenty or even fifty years from our current position. And that’s a lot of profit for the company.”

She looked at him. “Monique is right. These advances shouldn’t benefit just the few. Even if you’re one of the few.”

“I agree. I’m not going to deny myself first mover advantage. And I won’t do the same for my partners. But the benefits should be available to all. It does require somebody to make those benefits available though.”
Rachel kissed him again. “I’m sure you will darling. So what’s the next step.”

“We go to dinner.”

China National Space Agency HQ, Beijing

Hui Zhong reported to the Mission Director’s office, less than an hour after landing at Beijing airport in her shuttle. The agency hadn’t said why she was needed back on the mainland so urgently. At least the urgency meant that she was allowed to fly her shuttle from the station. The first real flight she had piloted in months. She had really enjoyed those few hours in the cockpit.

Unlike her previous visit she didn’t have to wait upon arrival at the Mission Director’s office. The secretary lead her straight in. She recognized General Po Ling instantly. He led the Chinese space operation and represented China on the Security Council. That made him one of the most important people in China, if not the world. She wondered why somebody so important would need to see her. She snapped a perfect salute, first at the General and then at the Director. The General’s salute was slower, more casual.

The Director seemed ill at ease in the General’s presence and she thought she heard a slight stammer in his voice as he invited her to sit. “Good afternoon Commander. A pleasure to see you again. Can I offer you some refreshment?”

“Yes, Director. Some tea would be nice.”

The secretary immediately left the room. The General seated himself behind the desk, the Director pushed from his customary seat to the periphery of the desk. His discomfort increased visibly as he positioned a chair. Hui sat on the chair opposite Po Ling.

“Commander.” The General started. “We’ve brought you here for an urgent briefing.”

The secretary returned, placed the small cup of dark tea in front of Hui. With the same minimal fuss as with she arrived, she closed the door behind her.

“Everything we are about to discuss in this office is not be repeated to anybody not designated by my authority. Not even your XO, although he will be cleared within the next week. Or replaced if the situation warrants it.”

“Yes sir.”

“Good. Several months ago an alien message was received.”

Hui wasn’t sure she heard correctly. Then a vague memory of some vague news reports surfaced. She had assumed they were the result of some prank or marketing trick.

Po Ling must have sensed her doubt. “Yes Commander. Real aliens. It is not enough we have the Western powers to deal with, now we have another group of capitalists heading to our Solar System.” He shook his head in disgust.

“The fools at the United Nations, despite our advice have been in contact with the aliens. Less than three weeks ago the Security Council agreed to trade with these aliens. Their ship will arrive in Mars orbit in less than three years time. Your current mission has now changed in light of this.”

Hui nodded, still not sure what to say.

“The Long March vessel must be ready to launch next month.” Hui cursed in her mind and started to process what that meant. The launch schedule would be compressed from three months to just one. That would not be easy.

The General continued. “The Long March will fulfil its mission to establish a forward base at Mars. The base will not be used to prepare for the Jupiter mission, that mission is now on hold.”


Hui’s interruption was immediately cut off by the General. “The Mars station will prepare for combat operations. Your priorities are as follows. First stop any direct contact with the aliens, from any source.”

“Any source sir?”

“Any source. No human agency is to be allowed to physically interact with the alien craft. There will no trade. The second priority is to engage the aliens if they prove hostile. We will continue efforts to control the situation at the UN. If that fails you will be our strategic reserve.”

Pride and concern conflicted inside her. She concentrated on the immediate problem. “Sir. What assets will we have? We won’t have time to assemble much firepower before we launch. Even less time to integrate it into the ships systems.”

“Long March will launch before the end of next month and begin preparations. You will command the flight and then return to Earth. Immediately upon launch construction will begin on the first re-supply mission. This first re-supply will provide extensive weaponry for the operation. Not just weapon systems to integrated onto the Long March, but independent platforms as well.”

“What independent platforms General?”

“Armed shuttles and new drones. Unfortunately they won’t be ready for several months. The final supply mission will be constructed when the second launches. As part of the cover at the UN we need to construct long range freighters for their trade effort. We do not want to tip them off too early with what we are doing. This final resupply will include nuclear weapons. I will be accompanying you on that final mission to authorise the release of those weapons if needed.”

He offered a terse smile. “Don’t worry Commander, you still command the vessel and the mission.”

Hui doubted that, but he outranked her by at least a mile. “Sir, the first mission will need some offensive capability. The aliens – “ She found it hard to believe she was having this conversation.  “ – may not be arriving for three years, but the UN or any of the national space agencies or the corporations could arrive at any time. To secure the Mars region we will need some firepower.”

The General nodded. “I agree, but we lack suitable inventory to equip the vessel and maintain orbital defences. You already have a full cyber warfare suite onboard. I’ll requisition some point defence systems from the army and navy. I know it’s not ideal, but they will add some short range capability to the ship.”

“Thank you General. We’ll also need to increase the workload and a faster delivery schedule to get the ship ready on time. It’s going to be very difficult to motivate the crew into working double shifts, especially if I can’t tell the crew the reason why.” She paused and thought for a moment. “What if I imposed a communications blackout? I’d have to quarantine the shuttle crews as they are travelling to and from Earth, but the rest could be told.”

“I’ll consider it, but it does sound like a practical solution. Would additional manpower help?”
“Not with the construction. The engineering teams are all highly trained and have worked together for months now. New people could disturb that harmony.”

The General nodded his agreement.

“However additional shuttles and crews to increase the deliveries would help progress.”

“We’ll get that done. You are also authorised to promise an extra months pay for the crew. That should help with their motivation. The Director has a briefing package for you to study at your leisure. If you need anything contact the Director, he will arrange what you need.”

Po Ling stood. “Unless you have any questions I must go and brief the President”

Hui had plenty of questions, but none worth of delaying the General. “Nothing at this time General.”

“Well thank you Commander. And you Director. I’ll provide updates to you both as we get more intelligence.”

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