Thursday, 12 April 2012

Chapter 9 – March 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730325.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [244] [008] [+/- 21%]
Calculating velocity... 107925285 [+/- 16%] km/h
Calculating distance... 621494228499 [+/- 21%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 982 [+/-  30%] days
Calculating signal lag... 24 [+/- 15%] days
Priority override...HIGH

Gateway Station, Earth orbit

The station hadn’t seen this much activity since it was first built. The plans for the Paladin warship, the first of its kind, still hadn’t been finished. To meet the deadline preparations for its construction had already begun. Through the observation screen in his office, Fuller watched dozens of pods scurry about. At this distance they looked tiny, the detail of their form only resolving when his rested upon them and his focus zoomed in automatically. This great frenzy of effort in welding together the massive gantries between which the new ship would be built.

It looked like a cheap and badly co-ordinated fireworks show. The reality was the opposite of both. To jump start construction the Europeans had agreed to provide one of their new large freighter hulls. For a price naturally. They now rushed, working double shifts to complete the hull. Once space worthy it would be towed from the Luna shipyards to the station.

Fuller ordered the ring of Guardian defence pods expanded to include the new construction site. He also diverted regular shuttle traffic around the station. That precaution would only prevent casual investigation and as it turned out, not even that. Already the news feeds were buzzing with the news of secret construction up here at the station. The press office leaked a story about an experimental ship being developed for exploring the outer planets. People seemed to be buying it for now, but Fuller doubted the cover would last for long.

Far beyond the partially assembled gantries he watched the flare of a shuttle’s engines as it arched into high orbit. Fuller accessed the station’s network, retrieving the shuttle’s details. It was another Indian shuttle. The manifest appeared as classified, at this rate both the Indians and Chinese would use their undisclosed cargo quote long before the year ended. Traffic to and from L1 station increased sharply over the past few weeks. Data transfer also rose. It was all secure traffic, although everyone tried to secure their communications, so he couldn’t read too much into that. They definitely seemed like they were pushing to launch their ship soon. Not for the last time Fuller worried about what the Asian Alliance planned. And not for the last time he wished he had the Long March as part of his trade mission.

With an effort he returned to more pressing concerns. The negotiations with the ESA and NASA ended well, although they took an odd turn. They refused to transfer the existing small freighters they operated. Their claim that they required all of them to maintain their current operations didn’t ring true. On the plus side they had offered to build eight of their newer, larger cargo ships. The same class the Paladin would be built from.

The new ships would cost the UNOC of course. Again the Europeans and Americans provided favourable terms, they agreed to lease the ships and provide crews. All in all it was good progress in so short a time, but it would only provide about a third of the total lift capacity the mission needed.

Sometimes he wished he was still with USAF. Sure he it had its political component. Often the military found themselves caught between congress and the President, but that paled compared to the multitude of nation states he now found himself dealing with. Still one look outside at the station he commanded would dispel those thoughts. None of the national forces compared to the command he now held. Enabling the United Nations to fulfil its mission of keeping the world stable felt right.

A few days ago Fuller visited Beijing and spoke with the Chinese. Then he flew to Delhi and spoke with the Indian Space Ministry. Both reiterated their promises,  each would provide a large freighter. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he pushed they wouldn’t budge in increasing that promise. That disappointment was tempered by a surprise communication from the Japanese. The Japanese formed the other major power in the Asian Alliance. They would supply two more freighters. Unfortunately they were small vessels, similar to the ones in use by the ESA and NASA. Still it brought them another step closer.

He’d also travelled to New York and battled with the Security Council. Fuller pushed for them to lift the restrictions on using privately owned transport vessels. He had argued in vain, even the Americans and Europeans wouldn’t back him on this. They did allow a small concession. He could now purchase vessels from the corporations. He’d already ordered the financial team to investigate any ships for sale, or having new ships built. His concern here was that it would probably be possible to only by one or two vessels without raising too much interest.

His last port of call had been the Russians. Again it had been a meeting of mixed results. Although no matter what the business it was always fun to catch up with old friends. They talked until late in the night. His only escape from the drinking session was a quick call to ex-wife to arrange a visit with his daughter later today.
It wasn’t a surprise when the Russians said they couldn’t help directly.  They didn’t build freighters. They were the market leader for shuttles, atmospheric capable ones in particular. The load capacity of a shuttle just wasn’t adequate to use for long range transport. They did however raise a novel suggestion for the mass driver system they had prototyped out at one of the near Earth asteroids.

Originally the Russians had wanted to deploy the system for use on Earth, but with the near completion of the space elevator had been buried in red tape. Naturally the elevator project had overrun its schedule by several months since then, much to Russians ire. They did however continue with their prototype.

They were convinced that the system could launch standard cargo pods of around twenty tons to Mars orbit. Fuller checked their simulation data and it seemed feasible. It would actually be more economical than using freighters, but much slower. A freighter could use its engines all the way there. Journey time would be about three months, with the mass drivers it would take twice as long, although without the fuel expenditure.
Fuller asked the Russian team to continue their research and keep him updated. It occurred to him that it could make an effective heavy weapon, if they needed it. Anyway, the thought of sixty thousand cargo containers catapulting their way through space and arriving in Mars orbit unsettled him.

With that thought his attention was caught by the reminder tone in his head. All too easily time slipped away. This interruption was one he didn’t mind at all. He returned to his seat and activated the immersion inputs.
He didn’t like full immersion, it didn’t feel right. He would avoid using it where possible. All too often these days it was the only way he could see his daughter Mary. She was his first daughter from his second wife. The other daughter was now all grown up had no time for her father. Virtual or otherwise.

His office blended into his daughter’s virtual play room as the input overrode his biological senses. Mary’s birthday was coming soon. She’d be eight, he made a mental note to not forget. At least the virtual secretary was good for something. It would even help him pick a suitable gift.

In the virtual world he hugged his daughter as she excitedly jumped up at him with a cry of “Daddy!”. He thanked the stars that the bitterness between him and his ex had not washed onto her as well. The implants provided the tactile response, it felt like was really holding his daughter. He could even smell her scent. It was almost real. Real or not, it was much better than not seeing her at all.

Jenkins Bar, Al Paso

Even fifty years ago the bar would have been considered old fashioned, out of touch. Now, in this modern, more sterile age it was an anachronism. Small and dimly  lit, even with the few people in the bar it felt cramped, claustrophobic. Some would have disagreed, they would have said it was cosy, homey even. It even sold draught beer, a rarity now except for a few micro-breweries and hobbyists.

Michael Richards wondered how it managed to stay open. Even now the evening crowd consisted of him, the giant opposite him and two other customers. They both leaned against the far end of the bar. He suspected that it might have something to do with his friend currently draining the grimy pint glass in one mighty swallow. Michael drank a more moderate mouthful. It didn’t pay to try matching Pa Jackman drink for drink. He’d made that mistake only once. The morning after and Rachel’s lack of sympathy enough to reinforce the lesson.

“And another toast to the lovely Chinese lass!” With that and a chink of glasses being touched he finished the pint. Then immediately  slammed the empty glass on the bar and ordered another. Michael shook his head, declining the implied offer.

“I hear she’s been promoted. She’s now the mission commander for that big rocket their building.”

“She is? Good for her. She saved me and my boy up there. And she did me a good turn.”

“To Commander Zhong.”

“To Commander Zhong. Bless her little commie heart.”

They both leaned back in the high stools, drank some more.  Michael first met Pa Jackman over thirty years ago. Pa Jackman had been a close friend of Michael’s father. He seemed the same now as he did then. His face might have a few new lines, but his physical presence still filled a room. He remembered how small he had felt, it was like being in the presence of a giant from the stories his mother would act out for him.

“What you grinning at?”

Come to think of it, he still felt small compared to him even now. “Just remembering the good old days.”

“To the good old days!”

“The good old days!”

Another drink and collision of glass. Pa reached into his jacket, a battered old leather inherited from his father. You didn’t see many real leather jackets these days, not on American streets at any rate.

Pa Jackman’s father formed Stellar Collectors before Michael had been born. It remained a small family concern, never reaching the heights of the Luna Mining Corporation. That didn’t matter to the Jackmans they loved the life. Michael often thought that they’d never tried to grow beyond that stage. Michael had asked Pa a few times, but the question was deflected. They’d surveyed one of the near Earth asteroids and struck abundant veins of rare earth metals. Others had been found since, but the find was easily worked by a small crew. And demand kept high enough by a growing and ever more prosperous population to stay profitable.

The whole family lived on the mining base. Michael sometimes wished that he could so the same, to wake up in the morning every day to sunrise against the studded velvet background would be simply amazing.
“You should come planet side more often. It’s good to catch up.”

“I come here more often than I’d like. If it wasn’t for these yearly tax interviews I wouldn’t come down here at all.” He sighed, the sound seemed hollow compared to his usual booming vigour. Michael understood the frustration. The Texas state government had instigated these annual tax reviews ten years ago. Every year Pa had to attend a meeting to go over his tax returns in person. “Gravity no longer suits me. It hurts a little more each time I come back.”

A sudden pang, memories of his own father flared within him.

“Now don’t give me that look boy. I ain’t dying. But I’m not comfortable in full G.” He beamed a broad grin. “Besides it gives you an excuse to see the old homestead. It’s been too long since you last visited. There’s been some changes since you last visited. It’s ain’t far, less than a day’s flight.”

“Sounds good. “ Michael thought for a few seconds. Now was as good a time as any. “I have something I want to discuss with you.”

“Are you getting all serious on me? I thought we were just having a quiet drink?”

“Well we are having a drink. I need to put a consortium together.”

“Must be something big if you can’t do it alone.”

“You have no idea.”

“All right then tell me all about it. But only of you finish that drink and start another.”

“Deal.” Once the next round was served Pa took another long pull of his beer. Then pulled a cigar from the inside pocket of his jacket. He took his time lighting it and exhaled a thick cloud in Michael’s direction.

“I can’t believe you just lit that. How much is the fine these days.”

“Ten grand. And worth every cent. No-one here is going to say anything though. So, what is this big thing you want to talk about?”

“Aliens.” The look on Pa’s face was worth the visit alone.


“Yes. Aliens. They’ve sent a message. The UNOC have verified it as genuine.”

“If its real why isn’t all over the feeds?”

“They’re suppressing it.”

“While that doesn’t surprise me, why?” Another large swallow and puff of smoke. “And how do you know it’s real?”

“I’ve got an inside source. Of course I’ve already had it verified independently.”

“So what does this have to me? Or my company?”

“The aliens are looking to trade. They want almost a quarter of a million tons of resources. Metals, minerals, carbon nano-tubes and fuel. In exchange they’re willing to provide new technology. The UN are putting a trade mission. I want to beat them to it.”

“You’re really serious.”

Michael nodded and drank some more of his beer. “I am. I can’t fill the list alone and I’ll need more ships.”
“All right then youngster.” His voice modulated into his business voice. “Tell me more. But I’m gonna need more than just your word that this is for real.”

Michael started to lay out his plan.

Long March vessel, L1 Station

Hui slipped into the ship’s interface. It felt comfortable, familiar, like an old friend. This was really the chief pilot’s job, however she had pulled rank. The fact she was the more experienced pilot was little comfort to him. For this, the maiden voyage, she wanted direct control of the helm. She realised the younger pilot felt slighted by her decision, but he’d have plenty of time to pilot the ship on the three month journey.
She felt the implants connect to the ship’s systems. Although the inputs were exactly the same as in the simulator, it felt different, more solid. More real. She knew this was just her primitive brain colouring the software, but she didn’t mind. It felt good.

When connected to the shuttle’s systems, it felt very different. There it was like the shuttle was an extension of her being. In this massive vessel she became part of it. She forced her will to suppress the perception. The last thing she needed now was to become subsumed by the ship. Implant subsumation was rare these days. Not since the net and connected implants became regulated and safety limits set. There was still the odd hacker who thought their brain could handle all the inputs in the world. They never got to try a second time.
The ship systems were so large and complex that the connections equalled that of a major city network. The amount of information flowing enough to drown the unwary. For this reason the ship’s controls had been segmented into areas of responsibility. This reduced the flow of data to a level manageable by the individuals. As Mission Commander she should be connected to the central hub, for now this honour had been delegated to Major Himani, her second in command.

For now she happily bathed in the pilot’s nexus. In the virtual space she was surrounded by data, all of it warm and welcoming. She had insisted and piloting the Long March out of the shipyard and out of Earth space. Then and only then would the disgruntled pilot would get his turn.

“T-minus 5 minutes and counting.”

The flight controller’s voice pulsed a soothing green thread from its source to the ship’s data net. The launch countdown had been smooth so far. Only one delay caused by a malfunctioning pump in the engine coolant had interrupted the sequence. The pump was swiftly replaced and the countdown resumed.

Hui took a moment to think of her parents. She could imagine how proud they would be of her at this moment. Just thinking of them caused emotion to swell within her. She wished her brother could be here to see her. He always teased her about following in his footsteps, well not this time, she thought with sadness.

“Docking clamps released. Life support switched.”

She watched the checklist, like the voice it pulsed a soothing green. The core systems continuously ran automated tests, constantly looking for errors. In the virtual space near her own, she could see other pods, the other bridge crew running their own checks and tests.

“Engine warm up complete. Coolant pressure remains nominal.”

She ran through her own checks. Streams of data cascaded around her. She modified the visualizers to match her preferences. The pilot’s own settings seemed too harsh for her tastes.

“Ignition chamber shielding active. Magnetic accelerators charged.”

The Long March was the biggest ship ever launched in space. Due to the rush in preparing the launch it actually massed significantly lower than originally planned. This meant the journey would take nearly three weeks shorter.

She was still worried about the mission. Or the lack of weaponry in particular. The army and the navy had both provided various point defence systems. The navy rail guns and DEWs were already built with networking for use on warships, so they should integrate with the Long March’s systems easily. The army air defence systems were small standalone units, lacking the same network integration of the naval versions. These wouldn’t integrate as easily, but they would probably do well as defence platforms for the Mars base itself.

General Po Ling had managed to secure more than she initially feared. He managed to procure several of the latest combat and recon drones. These not only provided extra eyes and firepower, but extended the reach of the Chinese forces.

She still wished she had more though. The weaponry should be sufficient for one or two engagement, but any extended battles would quickly exhaust their munitions. Her mission was so reliant on the planned resupply missions it kept her awake at night.

“T minus 60 seconds. Command control switched to Long March.”

Major Himani acknowledge receipt of ship’s control and ordered Commander Hui to prepare the vessel to leave the dock. She activated the manoeuvring thrusters, their power miniscule compared to main engines. They couldn’t fire the main engines until an hours travel away from the station.

“Good luck Long March you are cleared to launch.”

Hui aligned the thrusters and delicately edged the vast ship out of it’s dock. Streams of data streamed in front of her, every scrap of information about the ship’s movement not even a glance away.
“We are clear of the dock.” She reported. The thrusters would pulse the ship on its course for an hour. Then she would initiate the first main engine burn. That burn would push her, two hundred crew and one hundred and fifty thousand tons of mass to Mars.

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