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.

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?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Chapter 13 - July 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730725.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [245] [008] [+/- 17%]
Calculating velocity... 97132756 [+/- 12%] km/h
Calculating distance... 318440028556 [+/- 17%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 870 [+/-  16%] days
Calculating signal lag... 12 [+/- 10%] days
Priority override...HIGH

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael Richards engulfed himself in a datascape unlike any he had ever experienced before. The complexity of it dwarfed even the international financial models he used. The richness of it beat any game or simulation he had ever seen. Including some experimental simulations. This was the VM from the aliens in all its glory. Their response to his contact arrived and expanded the core VM, into this.

It is that VM that he now immersed himself in, or at least it was a static replication of it. The research team had baked out a simulation of the virtual machine. This was more a snapshot of the VM, than the adaptive entity that excited the researchers so much. Michael had insisted on precautions, and in fairness to the team, they had agreed. Letting the VM loose on an open network, even a secured one was too much of a risk. At least until they had more of an understanding of what they were dealing with.

Michael didn’t really comprehend what he was experiencing. The data formed shapes much too complex to grasp. Occasionally he glimpsed small pieces of it that made sense, but most of it remained a confused jumble. He spent a lot of time within virtualities, he was familiar with many datascapes, but this. This was something new.

Through the UN’s natural language interface the data became more comprehensible. However, it also seemed to lose layers of nuance in the translation. This interface did provide him with the salient facts of the new message.

The aliens would trade with him. They didn’t mention whether that trade would be shared with the UN. He’d try and find out with his next reply. They’d also learned that the aliens wanted to learn more about human social structures. Specifically political decision making processes. Although it appeared that the aliens had some difficulty understanding the concept. Or at least they had trouble articulating it. Michael believed his trade offer had sparked this new interest in the aliens.

He’d tasked the team with finding a way to interact with the data directly. To try and access the hidden meaning and by doing that gain a greater understanding of the aliens. He sought some advantage over the UN in their dealing with the aliens, at the very least it made sense to try and understand who you are dealing with.

Michael’s ego wasn’t so great that he thought he would unlock the puzzle himself. He’d already ordered Jacob to move two of the more imaginative data jockeys from his team to the research team. Maybe a more intuitive approach would compliment the researchers’ analytical methods. With all his projects he liked to get a taste for it. To see the shape of it in the datascape. In its own way the data around him formed a beautiful pattern. He delved deeper, allowing himself to be swallowed by the datascape.

A shrill alarm cut through his reverie. He checked the source of the call, St Mary’s. He paused the simulation, allowing it to fade from his focus so he could take the call.

“Mr Richards?”


“Mr Richards, this is the duty Sister at St Mary’s. I run the ward your wife is on.”

“Yes.” He knew this. “Is there news?” Please God, let there be good news. He didn’t attempt to disguise the tremor in his voice.

“Mr Richards, we’d like you to come in to the hospital. Your wife is awake.”

United Nations Security Council, New York

Another long day of briefings and meetings at the Security Council. The day wasn’t finished yet and already General Fuller felt tired. Perhaps weary would be a better description. A headache shrouded his thoughts.
The latest communication from the aliens caused quite a stir. Never had they been so direct with their questions. They wanted to know how human society fit together. What was the chain of command for human decision making. They’d even requested details on specific human organisations. It was the questions about the United Nations and its role in controlling the human race that caused the most uproar.

As usual it was the Chinese and Indians making the most noise. Here, they claimed, was proof that the aliens sought a human weakness that they could exploit. For once Fuller thought that they might have a point. The details of some of the questions couldn’t have been drawn from the information they had sent to the aliens in previous communications. So where were they getting the extra information from?

The debate lasted all morning and carried on through lunch. It delayed the meeting that was about to start. Everyone was spooked, even those, like Fuller, who advocated continued contact. Eventually a consensus was reached. They would continue contact. The response would include details available from any sanitised press release. In other words, they would present a version of the truth of human geo-politics, if not the reality.

Now Fuller had another meeting to attend. Paladin up in orbit was coming together. The problems over the past two months had been ironed out. It had taken a lot of effort, but the project was just about back on schedule. However, one thorny, political problem remained.

The world’s nuclear arsenal had been reduced considerably through successive arms reduction treaties. While the actual numbers had been reduced, research had continued. Several advances had made  individual weapons much more powerful. New technologies like accelerated plasma and enhanced fusion reactions created weapons of terrible power.

The nuclear club increased in number quickly during the first half of the 21st century. Many small nations invested in the capability to have their own nuclear inventory. Those numbers reduced again, slowly by treaty. Now these weapons once again identified an exclusive club. The irony of this was that fusion power is relatively ubiquitous. Although most fusion generators came as sealed units, and built with many safety measures, it wasn’t difficult to turn one into a weapon. The UN agency directed with monitoring these generators was huge, it made the Orbital Command look small. Only constant surveillance prevented these being turned into weapons.

Paladin would form the main defence if the aliens proved to be hostile. That meant it needed to be armed with the best weapons humanity possessed. The UN had no stockpile of these weapons itself, they would have to come from the members assembled in this room. All of the nuclear powers were present: the European Union, United States, Brazil, Israel, Russia, India, the Islamic League and Korea.

Each member provided an assessment of their inventory. Unsurprisingly these assessments lacked full disclosure. Individual nations wanted to make sure they had a reserve stockpile, whether for against their enemies on Earth, or as a last resort if the aliens did reach Earth.

Paladin’s requirements were limited, s and some country’s weapons were easier to integrate than others. If it was up to him, he would take the weapons from those countries. Those countries wouldn’t be happy with providing the bulk of the weapons, making themselves disproportionately weaker. That made Fuller’s job more difficult. Ahead lay what was sure to be a vigorous discussion over who would provide what. Paladin would get its weapons, Fuller would make sure of that, but it would take some careful negotiation.

One new piece of intelligence did colour his thoughts. Production on these weapons was universally kept to a minimum. Most effort lay in maintaining existing systems and research. India and China however had several indications that they were resuming production of some of these systems. The Japanese in contradiction to its own constitution also appeared to be assisting.

Interestingly, China and India’s assessments of their arsenals were the more honest out of all the represented nations. Hopefully that indicated they were willing to make a deal. He did wonder if the new weapons were intended to make up those they would lose to Paladin, or if they were needed for another purpose.

St Mary’s Hospital, Johannesburg

“Honey it’s ok, I can manage.” The firmness in Rachel’s voice betraying her frustration.

“You woke up less than a week ago. I think it’s too soon...”

“The doctor said I was fine to go home...”

“As long as you rested.” Michael continued to pack his wife’s belongings. His voice rose rising his own annoyance.

“I will rest.”

“Attending a charity dinner is not resting.” Michael revealed the source of his anger. Rachel had only been awake a week and they were already arguing. He knew it was his own fault, she didn’t like to be coddled, or told what to do. Normally that’s what he liked about her. But after watching her look so fragile for those terrible weeks, he wasn’t about to back down.

“I’ll be fine.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway, the dinner has been cancelled.”

“Cancelled! How dare you..”

“I cancelled it two weeks ago, while you were still in a coma.”

The silence remained between them. He continued packing with short angry motions. She faced away from him, slowly dressing, each movement painful. Her saw her pain and moderated his tone.

“I don’t want to fight with you Rach. You don’t know what I went through. You nearly died. The thought of losing you. It was too much.”

Michael’s pain matched her own and Rachel saw that. She stood and tried to step towards him. She stumbled, instinctively he caught her, stopping her fall.

“I just want you to be all right. “ He tried to mask the tears in his voice. It seemed silly to him, why the emotion now? She held him and it felt good, safe.

“All right. If it’s cancelled I can’t go anyway.” Accepting. “But I will be going back to work soon.”

That would be an argument for another day, for now he was happy that she was coming home.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Chapter 12 - June 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730625.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [247] [005] [+/- 18%]
Calculating velocity... 107925285 [+/- 13%] km/h
Calculating distance... 388375613158 [+/- 18%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 899 [+/-  18%] days
Calculating signal lag... 15 [+/- 13%] days
EZRead POI: Massive energy output detected
Priority override...HIGH

Skywatcher 4, High Earth orbit

Every second of every day the satellite’s computer re-orientated its optical scanner. It followed a simple, well defined  process. First, aim at the next portion of the sky in the sequence. Second,  grab an extended exposure and store it as a fractal image. Next it performs a simple comparison of the image with the last one it stored from the same angle. If it finds any differences then flag them. Finally it sends the latest image along with any flags to the server.

It was one of a cluster of twelve satellites, all built for the same purpose. The Skywatcher project is a UN sponsored effort to continuously monitor the heavens. Its mission to look for nova, the last gasp of dying stars.

This particular section of the sky had been recorded every twelve minutes for two years. No anomalies had been discovered in this section so far. Until now.

The computer, built specially for this task, scanned the image. It detected a large bright object. An object it hadn’t seen before. An object so bright it would be a supernova on a scale never seen before. The computer didn’t get excited, it flagged the change and then piped the image to its controlling server.

CNSA vessel Long March, Mars orbit

Her vision augmented by her implants, Hui could see Mars below through the skin of the orbiting ship. Compared to the same view of Earth, it looked barren, lifeless. There was no movement in its thin atmosphere, no clouds of life bringing water. The planet’s ruddy surface lacked Earth’s emerald and sapphire variation. Only the tiniest splash of white at the poles broke up the dullness of it. It was the most wondrous thing she had ever seen.

As the ship settled in Mars orbit, Hui ordered the launch of three recon drones. Already in orbit sat two different orbiters. These both acted as small motherships for robotic explorers on the surface. They collected the data from the surface and beamed it back to Earth. Unfortunately for her mission, both orbiters had short range radar systems to detect any dangerous debris. These could send details on the Chinese operations here.

Two of the recon drones quickly intercepted the orbitors. A high energy maser, fired from the Long March blinded their radars.  The drones then deployed micro-cyber drones. These tiny robots attached themselves to each orbitor, cut microscopic holes through the shell and connected to the radar. By the time the problem with the telemetry was noticed back on Earth, the micro-drones attached themselves to the satellites and hardwired a fake input for the radar. The operators back on Earth would see what Hui wanted them to see.

Now it was safe for the Long March to continue its mission. Hui initiated the release protocols. She watched as the station module, attended by several tugs, separated from the ship. Slowly the module was towed into position. Over the next few hours, smaller modules were attached to the core, the basic structure of the new station quickly taking shape.  The three individual shuttle hangers were the last major structures to be added before the two shield disks unfolded and positioned above and below the station.

Once the disks were in place the long process of attaching and activating the point defence batteries could begin. Hui turned her attention from the construction datascape and focused on the recon probes launched when they first arrived. Two of them continued to shadow the orbiters. The micro-done overrides should prove adequate, but in case they didn’t the drones could quickly engage and destroy the orbiters. If that happened, the deception would be over.

The third drone followed a different course. This one headed on a wide arc towards the outer Solar System. A new positional track on the incoming alien vessel arrived from command Earth-side. Once fed into the drone it to adjusted its course. In a combat situation Hui doubted that the drone would provide much benefit against the aliens. That wasn’t its mission. At the moment they had little information about the alien ship, or its capabilities. The recon drone would help change that. She hoped so.

After two long days Mars station was now habitable. The crew now transferred to the station from the ship. Her shuttle was now being prepared for the journey home. She would have preferred to stay here, in orbit above the red planet. Through her implants, what had once been a quiet cul-de-sac of dataflow had now transformed into a major hub. The ship and the station flowed with data, filling the volume around them. New slender, hidden threads stretched to the deployed drones. It looked like spring had come to the Mars winter.

Reluctantly she handed command over to Major Himani. He would supervise the preparations. She had to return to Earth, make sure the first re-supply mission was ready in time and then lead that mission back here to Mars.

St Mary’s Hospital, Johannesburg

Michael Richards watched his wife, still lying unconscious on the bed. The chair he sat in was uncomfortable, but he didn’t notice. He cradled her hand gently. It hurt him to see her lying there. He’d never believed in God, but now he found himself praying. The clinical part of his mind knew it was a wasted effort. Another, less logical place clutched at the chance, the miniscule chance that his prayers would have some effect. Right now, anything that didn’t make him feel useless was welcome.

The austere surroundings might belie the fact, but this was one of the finest hospitals in South Africa. The place was an anachronism in this time with nuns as nurses and doctors doubling as priests. Their belief in an ancient religion didn’t preclude them from using the latest technology in healing the sick.

His wife’s doctor, an old priest from Rome itself, assured him that everything that could be done, was being done. Smart drugs and nano-bots had been injected into his wife’s system. They would boost the natural healing, repairing the terrible damage from the inside. On the outside plastic skin and tissue foam had been used to seal and patch her wounds. Already the cuts and bruises that marred her beautiful skin were starting to fade. Although she still remained unconscious.

The doctor told him not to worry. She was better off in the state she was currently in. There she would feel no pain and her body could devote all its energies to healing. He had said that even she wasn’t in a coma, they would likely have induced one as part of her treatment.

Confident as he sounded, when Michael asked when she would awake, the Doctor had no answer.
Michael tried to keep himself busy, to occupy his worried mind with work. He had plenty to keep him busy. Monica Abbot kept her word. The LMC research team now possessed all the data the UNOC had. She assured him that would continue to be the case. He took the time to review the data. He noticed how limited with the truth the UN had been with their responses to the aliens. It was obvious that the UN were trying to conceal human capabilities from the aliens.

His research team quickly set up their own quarantined network and ran the VM. As with the UN team they had been amazed at the workings of the VM. How could something so adaptable be delivered so simply?
On his instruction the team contacted the aliens themselves. They were less restrained with the accuracy of their responses. Michael hoped that would gain some leverage over the UN if it became a bidding war. The message now sent, they had to wait for the reply.

The consortium stalled in its expansion. The business with refusing to sell the options on production had gone to plan. Slowly and as the prices rose they agreed to small sales with the UNOC. They’d allowed the Schaeffer Brothers to take the lion’s share of the deals, providing them with the funds they desperately needed.

Unfortunately his approaches to the NASA and ESA shipyard hadn’t proceeded as well. They’d rebuffed his deal, politely, but a refusal nonetheless. They explained that their order book was full from the business with the UN. They didn’t have the capacity to do anything further. It wasn’t a big problem, but it did slow things down a little.

A further upset came from another attempted penetration of his company’s networks. This time it was targeted at the shipyard. The cyber-mercs had thwarted the attack. They had even traced the attacks to some individuals in Russia and Indonesia. Arrangements had already been made to discourage those individuals from further attempts. There were plenty of other hackers for hire though.

The level of sophistication of the attacks worried Michael. Jacob Manning had reported that the techniques and programs used were new. Hackers only revealed their new toys when the stakes were high. That meant a major player. Almost certainly the Chinese, although frustratingly no proof of this. Michael agreed to continue funding the extra security for the networks.

With the ordinary daily business as well, Michael had never been so busy. Nor had he ever felt less interested in it. It took a huge effort to focus on these concerns. But every evening he was back here, in this small white room. Only the most urgent communications were permitted to disturb his vigil. Helpless he just stared at the still form of his wife and prayed that she would return to him.

UNOC Research Facility, near Moscow

“I hope you’ve got some good news for me Doctor Samir.” General Fuller did make an effort to keep the frustration from his voice. His attempt wasn’t completely successful, luckily Samir didn’t seem to notice. Before flying here to the research centre he had scanned the latest intelligence reports from the CNSA operations at L1 Station. A giant sheet had been constructed next to the station. The sail made from wafer thin woven metallic threads stretched over a thousand square miles. When asked the CNSA official had informed Fuller that it was experiment in solar sail propulsion. They had anchored it to the station with delicate sensors to calculate the thrust generated by the solar radiation.

This, on the face of it seemed a reasonable enough explanation. It was just a coincidence that the sail obscured any activity at the station, from both Earth and the Moon.

Fuller also received news that the Long March reached Mars and was now in orbit. He used UNOC authority to access the feeds from the Russian and ESA orbiters. Their local radar feeds showed the Long March sitting in high orbit. There was some tug activity, but nothing substantial. Why the Chinese fly all the way to Mars and then sit there doing nothing? Something didn’t feel right.

On that feeling, Fuller ordered the launch of a probe. He even authorised the use of an expensive chemical booster to give the probe extra acceleration before the weaker ion drive took over. The extra thrust would mean the probe would arrive at Mars two weeks earlier. It couldn’t arrive soon enough for Fuller’s wish.
Another data package arrived from the aliens. It had arrived soon after the enormous energy signature of the alien ship’s braking manoeuvre. The energy output was incredible, it could even be seen with the naked eye. A new star now visible in the heavens.

“Neither good nor bad General.” Samir’s reply brought the General back to the present. “But most definitely interesting.” As he often did after receiving new data, Samir wore an enthusiastic smile.

“Ok Doctor. What have we learned?”

“Since learning that the aliens were actually travelled here, we wondered how they were doing it. They don’t appear to have faster than light travel, so how could they survive long enough the travel between the stars?”
“I remember. You theorised something about generation ships. Successive generations of aliens living and dying between the stars? ”

“Yes General. Although it seems our guess was way off the mark. It’s much better than that.” It seemed impossible, but his smile grew broader. “According to their latest data package, they have the technology to translate their intellect into their computers. They have no physical body. Do you know what that means?”

“That they don’t have to worry about life support?”

“Exactly, that reduces the ships mass considerably. Their ship just needs engines and a network. They could support a population of millions for little extra energy expenditure. But much more than that, they’re practically immortal.”


“Think about it General. It’s the body’s decay into old age that causes death. It’s the physical break down of the brain that results in the loss of mental faculties. Imagine having a body that can be repaired as good as new. Their ship is that body. It might break and wear down, but as long as the network is maintained the aliens continue to exist. And the ship can be repaired. That must be why they want the items they asked for. They’re materials for renewing the ship.”

Fuller thought about it for a moment. Technology like that would be worth a fortune. “So the aliens download their minds to their computers?”

“In essence - Yes. Of course their computers are much more sophisticated than ours. I’d give anything to see how they physically operate. But even looking at the VM which runs on our technology, the processing capability is simply amazing. On more advanced hardware, especially hardware that could reconfigure itself. Well the possibilities are endless!”

“And the minds that are stored? Are they really the aliens? Or just some simulated likeness?”
“That I cannot answer. A question for the philosophers really.” Another smile. “To my mind, anything that can be replicated in every detail is as real as the original.”

“So the aliens run the ship from inside their own network?”

“We’re not sure. Although it does look like they have created their own independent virtual machines for specific purposes. These probably do most of the work, the aliens are more like travellers, although we they decide how the ship operates.”

“These virtual machines, are they AI’s?” Artificial Intelligence had been the holy grail of computing for more than a century. Computers had become more capable, smart even, but none had demonstrated any indication of self-awareness.

“It’s difficult to say, they’re certainly more sophisticated than the VM used for communication. They’ve indicated that there is a demarcation between the alien minds and the VM’s that they create.”

“Demarcation how?”

“The minds are more complex, more detailed. We don’t know why.”

“But you have a theory?” This time Fuller smiled.

“We think it is the replication process. Somehow the process records the physical structure of their brain as well as the software, or the mental processes if you like. Quite why they can’t replicate that artificially we don’t know.”

“Ok. What about their decision making process?  Command structure? Do we know anything about that?”

“No General. We still don’t know much about their social structure. Although they have started asking about that. When they ask us about something, it seems to indicate what they are going to tell us about themselves in the next package.”

“They did ask something strange though.”

“Strange? In what way?”

“They’ve asked if humans are a unified race. It was a specific question as well. That in itself is very unusual. Usually they provide scenarios and use our responses to glean information about us. Rarely have they been this specific.”

The Doctor was right, that did seem a bit out of place. Fuller wondered what had sparked that particular question. “Thanks Doctor. Can you compile a briefing package? I need to brief the Council this afternoon on the latest contact.”

“Sure thing General.”

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Chapter 11 - May 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730525.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [247] [005] [+/- 18%]
Calculating velocity... 107925285 [+/- 14%] km/h
Calculating distance... 466081818271 [+/- 19%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 922 [+/-  20%] days
Calculating signal lag... 18 [+/- 14%] days
Priority override...HIGH

Impala Deep Mining Offices, Hopetown

“We’re already closing three of the mines. It’s costing too much to get anything up. We’re picking scraps from the workings, a few small veins. We just can’t compete with you boys in orbit.” Jack Kruger spoke with resignation in his voice. His face lined prematurely from worry, but his body still tall and trim. He preferred to work closer to the mine. “I’ve not seen you a long time Michael. The first time I see you in years and you try to convince me to keep working the mines. Are you trying to put me out of business?”

“Of course not Jack, you should know me better than that.” Impala Deep Mining was one of the few remaining mining concerns in South Africa. Or at least one of the few that still dug into the South African rock. Times were hard for the planet side mining operations, old workings running dry. For many minerals and ores it was cheaper and easier to extract them from asteroids.

“Why else would you ask me that? It’s the only reason that makes sense.”

“The price of chromium, platinum and many other metals is rising.”

“So? A small blip on a downward trend. It would need to climb much higher for those mines to still be viable.”

“It is going to climb much higher.”

Jack sat back in his chair, sipped at the hot coffee. It was dark and unsweetened, the opposite of how Michael drank his. His first thought was that this was a joke, but Michael wasn’t the joking type. “How can you know that? What’s going on?”

“How secure is this office?”

“Well we have it swept weekly, just yesterday in fact. Why? What do you know?”

“I need your word Jack. This has to stay just between us.”

“What kind of shit is that Michael? How long have you known me? I knew your father before you were born.” He snorted. “I should have listened to him all those years ago. Diversified when I had the chance. I guess its too late now.”

“Maybe not.”

“Stop being mysterious Michael. What the hell is going on?”

“Have you been hearing any rumours recently Jack?”

“Rumours? Nothing specific. Nothing that relates to my business...” He looked thoughtful. “Wait a minute. The UNOC. There was something about them trying to buy some metals. Setting up their own strategic reserve or some such.”

“Indeed they are, they’ve not had any success buying anything yet.”

“Why? You holding out on them?”

“Me. And a few others.”

“How many others?”

“Enough, for now at any rate.”

“So how does this affect me?”

“As you’ve already seen the price for the resources are going up. This is just the beginning. The UNOC are actually planning to buy a lot more than the options they’re sniffing for at the moment.”

“How do you know this?”

“We’ll get to that. First how much does the price need to increase to make it worth keeping those mines operational?”

Jack took a moment to calculate. “If the price doubled, that would do it.”

Michael smiled. “I made it a seventy-five percent increase.”

Jack smiled in return. “The price would need to sustain for several months to make it worthwhile.”

“No, it just has to stay high long enough for you to sell the stock.” Michael transmitted a list of quantities to Jack. “Take a glance at those. Can you meet those quotas in a year’s time?”

Jack took a few seconds to answer. “It’ll be tight, but achievable. We’ll need to rehire a lot of workers. There’ll need to be overtime, but the lads won’t mind the extra wages. The big problem will be keeping the mines running for that long.”

“Actually, the biggest problem is going to be keeping it secret.”

Jack looked surprised at that. “What the hell is going on Michael?”

“It all started with a radio signal...”

CNSA vessel Long March, en route to Mars

Signal lag to Mars now reached ten minutes. The red planet now apppeared larger on the view screen than the blue orb of her home planet. The lag made proper conversation impossible, so here Hui sat in her small cabin recording a message to her family. Today was always a difficult day, even more so now she was millions of miles from home.

She started her message with a recording of the view screen, showing the enhanced images of their destination. Next she recorded a brief greeting. The usual “hello” and “how are you?”, small talk to preface the real reason for today’s message.

Her brother had been a fighter pilot, he served in the brief border skirmish against Vietnam only five years ago. He had been a pilot in the air force for six years. This was his first combat posting. Hui remembered how he had been her idol and how he always teased her that she just followed in her footsteps. It was both a joke and true. Much as she loved her mother and father, he was the bright spark in her life. The person she relied on when times were tough.

That fateful evening he lead a combat air patrol near the border. His flight formed the second line of defence against any Vietnamese incursion. Swarms of drones formed the primary buffer. Everyone, from the lowliest private to the highest  dressed Generals had expected a quick, easy campaign. The Vietnamese had been foolish to try and secure their claims in the South China Sea. Everyone assumed the Vietnamese were bluffing.

The Vietnamese attack came when the sky darkened. Their own drones surged across the border. Unfortunately the drones were Japanese built and the Chinese cyber teams new their workings. They neutralised the drones within minutes of them entering their airspace. The follow on wave of manned fighter bombers didn’t know that their escorts had been subverted. Only two made it through the Chinese drone cloud. Both planes were damaged they detected the fighter patrol and in desperation, they engaged.

The Chinese only suffered one casualty in that short engagement. Her brother. He managed to evade the first missile only to have the second clip his wing. His plane plummeted in a flat spin. He followed his training and tried to eject, but the primary release mechanism failed. He tried the second, it fired, too late as his plane smashed into the ground.

Hui, just a raw recruit then, heard the news after landing the transport plane at the same airbase her brother was based in. She’d hoped to surprise him when he returned from his mission. The surprise was hers as the base commander called her into his office.

Soon after she transferred to space command. Her application was rejected several times before she was finally interviewed. After the interview she was invited to complete the tests. Even with her grief, perhaps because of it she’d excelled at the tests and had been admitted. She’d then discovered the freedom she now only felt when in space. Even now on this terrible day, she still felt that peace.

Hui was now deeper into space than she, or most pilots for that matter, had ever been. It felt almost magical, even with her implants there was a comforting loneliness out here. Once beyond the pulsing rainbow glow of the ship, it’s crew and systems, space was dark. She imagined it was almost as dark as in the old days, before enhanced reality.

She gazed out beyond the ship. Slender tendrils of data travelled ahead of them. These were the links between the handful of orbiters around Mars and their command stations back in Earth orbit. She could also see two even thinner lines stretching weakly into the outer solar system. She guessed they linked to the planetary observatories around Jupiter and Saturn. One day she might see them up close for herself.
It was nice. It was comforting, but she knew it was just delaying the inevitable. She switched on the recording and began to speak to her parents. She didn’t notice the tear until it fell from her face.

United Nations Orbital Command HQ, Moscow

General Fuller worried as the prices kept rising and the companies steadfastly refused to sell. The price didn’t shoot up, there was no panic, but it kept creeping higher. His worry was that this was some deliberate plan, that they knew something.

Relief finally came near the end of May, just as the Russian summer began its humid campaign. Summer seemed to start a little earlier each year. And with each cycle it became hotter and wetter.

The Finance Director had informed him that the Schaeffer Brothers had finally agreed to sell options of their production for the coming year. It was a small step, but at least some forward progress. The prices continued to rise and the other companies were still holding out. Already the budget for the mission was strained. That meant another session with the council to increase the funding. He didn’t relish the prospect.

That small relief proved to be the high point of the month. Production on Paladin had stalled. The reinforcement structures added to the interior of the ship had been discovered to have microscopic defects, Nearly half of the struts would need to be cut out and replaced. They should have been checked before construction, they had been overlooked in the rush. He shouldn’t have shouted at the supervisor, maybe he was more tired than he thought. At least the defective struts could be smelted and recycled.

To compound the problem the armour plating production had been slower than expected. Some of that armour had to be put in place before the new weapon systems and hanger decking could be added. The whole process had slowed to a crawl, putting construction two weeks behind schedule already.
Repeated calls to the manufacturers had yielded little except empty promises so far.  Fuller decided he would visit the plants in person, and get to the bottom of the delays. It would mean another week of travel, missing his weekend with his daughter.

Fuller held the latest piece of good news in his hand. He looked at the long range false colour image of L1 Station. The image clearly showed the station itself in crisp detail. Alongside a freighter could be seen, just a metal skeleton gleaming in the dark. The schematic matched the type the Chinese had promised for the trade mission.

On the far side of the station he could see the silhouette of another vessel. This ship appeared further along in production. The bulge of the huge engines visible at the back of the ship. A patchwork of hull plating covered the ship. It was also large, not as big as the Long March, or the LMC mega-freighters. It was still larger than the freighter being constructed for the UNOC.

Examining this new vessel Fuller could see the enlarged fuel tanks. Those and the oversized engines indicated this ship was intended for a long range mission. Fuller did not like the thought of the Chinese and their allies amassing whatever around Mars.

It was time to find out what the Asian Alliance are planning.

Hope Township, Johannesburg

Rachel Richards loved being here on the street. She knew that her wealth and connections were the most important work for the various charities she worked with. Here she could see the results of that effort. Here she could see the difference she made. Rachel realised that Michael didn’t like her visiting these dangerous streets, but she couldn’t not come.

The Government did try to help the poor ensnared in the shanty towns that festered in and around the cities. As bad as it looked, she knew that it was actually better here than in other parts of Africa. The reasons for the poverty were many. Lack of economic opportunity was the most significant problem. Africa lacked the growth the rest of the world had seen, especially since the mining industry had slipped into decline.
Poverty brought desperation with it, that soon fuelled a crime epidemic. The criminals formed gangs for protection, at first from each other and then from the police. These days the police were more likely to be working with the gangs. The gangs had the money and the influence. A succession of governments had tried to battle the corruption and the violence, with only limited success. Rachel understood her history, what South Africa and other African nations faced was the same as the terrible civil strife suffered in Central and South America in the early 21st Century.

Only Africa didn’t have a powerful neighbour that cared enough to eventually step in. It took two decades of war to restore order. Here the only external help came from the UN and companies like those owned by her husband. Over the past few decades the UN had increased its strength around the world, but here their power was limited. The UN forces, well trained and well equipped were a limited resource and really designed for quick interventions.

A few years ago a bold experiment had managed to turn the tide in Kenya. A partnership had been formed between the newly elected government, big business and one of the large PMC’s. The United Nations hadn’t supported the idea at first. Private Military Corporations already served alongside most national forces, but never for a major peacekeeping operation.

Despite the naysayers the experiment had worked. Kenya was now one of the more prosperous nations in Africa. The economy was growing. Crime now reduced to a level that could be managed by the new police force. The people now had some hope and just as importantly, a restored faith in their government.
Rachel wanted to see the same process happen here. Michael had promised to provide the business backing. She now just needed to convince the government to summon the political will to make it happen. That was proving an uphill battle. While money talks, once in the pocket of the gangs, it proved difficult to break free.

A disturbance in front of Rachel pulled her from her thoughts. She looked about, she might make light of it with Michael, but she knew he was right about the danger she put herself in with these visits. Today she was helping to hand out food and clothing parcels. Her foundation teamed up with many local charities, between them covering a wide range of issues. From helping prevent malnutrition in families as they were today, to rehabilitation and drug recovery programmes.

She scanned the crowd around her. The black carapace armoured soldiers stood out from the threadbare rags of the locals. The large security team that followed her everywhere provided benefits beyond keeping her safe. They helped with crowd control and for the short time she was in the township provided some measure of safety for the locals. Even the gangs new they were not to be messed with lightly. Although it had taken a few bloody lessons for them to learn.

No matter what the situation a handful of these bodyguards always remained close to her person. She saw them close in, their presence reassuring her. The disturbance kept moving nearer. Above the crowd she suddenly saw helmets, black like her guards, but battered, dull. The crowd parted before them, as they became revealed she could see the uniforms of the Police. She could see shotguns and assault rifles gripped tightly in their gloved hands.

Her guards responded quickly, those nearby moving tight in around her. The others that had been helping hand out the care packages moved to intercept the advancing officers. Sian Moltern beat them to it. A small determined lady, she marched up to the lead officer demanding to know what they were doing. He didn’t break his stride, smashing her to the ground with the butt of his shotgun then stepping over her moaning body.

An armoured hand touched her shoulder. “We’re leaving Mrs Roberts.” Rachel didn’t argue. She could hear the screams of the crowd growing as the police forced their way through. A single shot rang out. Followed by another. Her guards lead through the rear entrance. She expected to see more police here, if this was a raid, surely they would cover all the exits.

The bodyguards pushed her towards her car. She didn’t hear the explosion, all she saw was a bright flash of light and then only darkness.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Chapter 10 - April 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020730425.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [246] [008] [+/- 19%]
Calculating velocity... 107925285 [+/- 15%] km/h
Calculating distance... 543788023385 [+/- 20%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 953 [+/-  25%] days
Calculating signal lag... 21 [+/- 14%] days
Priority override...HIGH

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

It took a few seconds for the security locks to complete their redundancy checks. Michael Richards waited patiently for all the security locks to engage before he started the meeting. Jacob Manning had assured him that the communication is as secure as it could be.

The consortium now comprised of three companies. Euromin agreed to join the effort a week ago, they were another of the few small mining independents. They also added two small freighters to the fleet. Michael wasn’t worried about transport capacity, he’d already authorised the construction of two new mega-freighters. With the three he already had in service, plus the fleet of smaller freighters they had sufficient transport capacity to ship all of the trade resources to Mars. The problem was the time taken to ship the resources to Mars would take those ships out of action. This would disrupt the regular delivery services, which would harm the expanding space economy and their combined interests. So, more freighters would need to constructed.

Frank Bowman stood only five feet tall, with a round face and rapidly retreating hairline. He was the owner of Euromin, one of the few European space concerns. He had good contacts with the EU politicians and the ESA itself. That made him a more useful partner than the scale of his operations implied. He had reported  the UNOC’s approaches to purchase freighters.

Michael took the information and offered them a deal. They would sell their old freighters to the UN, then for the same price the LMC would replace them with their own. The two independents would gain newer, better ships without cost to themselves. The deal would lose the LMC some up front profit, but a greater share of the private transport fleet would become LMC built. That meant they’d need parts, repairs, upgrades and servicing, all provided by the LMC. Everyone agreed it was a good deal all round.

It did however inspire Michael to present a new opportunity to the consortium and that was the reason for this meeting. Certain the security was in place, he began the meeting.

“Thanks for meeting on such short notice. As you already know I’m meeting with the Schaeffer brothers this afternoon. If that goes well we’ll have secured over sixty percent of the space based extraction facilities. We’d also control nearly ninety percent of the private transport capacity.”

Pa Jackman was quick to interrupt. “The brothers are the most independent of us. They’ve never worked nicely with others. What makes you so sure they’ll join us?”

“Partly for the deal I’m about to explain you. Mostly because they need our help. Thanks to my sources I happen to know that the brothers are in some financial trouble. As you know, the brothers might run the business, but it’s the sister that runs the finances. She made a very unwise investment in a new Indonesian data centre, the usual offshore data hosting. It seemed like a solid investment, unfortunately for her it was a setup.”

Michael paused a moment before continuing. “It’s all a play for the asteroid they’re mining. It’s one of the few stable orbit asteroids between here and Mars. It’s only a short distance to Mars, but the Chinese want it as a support base for their Mars operations. It will be just a small emergency base, but as we know they don’t like to share territory. I’m going to offer them a way out of their predicament and the opportunity for some revenge.”

Both Pa and  Frank nodded in acknowledgement.

“So, onto today’s main agenda. I also hear that the UNOC are due to be starting to purchase the goods, or at least options on them this month.”

“Your people hear a lot.”

“That they do Frank. I still wish they’d hear more.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Pa Jackman.

Michael continued. “This presents us with an opening for a little extra profit. They will need to approach all three of us and the Schaeffer Brothers for most of the items on the alien shopping list. They’re going to want to do this quietly, they won’t want the price to increase too quickly and upset the market.”

“So we hold off, say no deal and wait for the UN to offer a better choice?”

“Exactly Frank. Although we’re going to be hard pressed to supply our own run, the UN’s mission and regular demand. We’re going to have to increase our production.”

“Even doubling our production isn’t going to be enough.” Pa Jackman again.

“That’s true, but it would come close. We also need to start buying up options from the other companies. If we can get in early we can then sell them again once the price goes up. And we should look at the few remaining planet-side mines.”

“That’ll be expensive. Most of them have closed because they cost so much to work. They just can’t compete.”

“Yes it will, but with the price increases it should work. Besides I still own some of those mines.”

“I see, an opportunity for you to shift some dead weight. All right, it doesn’t hurt me any. Agreed.”

“And you Frank?”

“It doesn’t harm me either and some extra profit is never a bad thing. I’m in.”

CNSA Vessel Long March, en route to Mars

Hui Zhong shut down the connection to CNSA Command. She’d filed her daily report, all systems were nominal, everything on track. In return General Ling had updated her on the Earth-side of her mission. Construction of the first re-supply ship had begun, along with the freighter for the UNOC. The first re-supply would transport the conventional weapons system to augment the few she already had. The third would carry the nuclear arsenal and the General himself.

Now she had a few minutes on a private connection with her family. When the connection finally established she saw her mother and father snap into view. The sterile background for official communications melted into the warmer view of her parents living room.

“Hi mum. Hi dad.” Her words took several seconds to reach her home back on the blue globe behind the ship. Within the next few weeks as the communications lag increased and became minutes all conversations except priority mission messages would become recorded. She would have to make the most of these last few direct conversations.

She could see the moment of discomfort on their faces as they adjusted to the new virtual environment. It lasted as long as it took for the signal to reach Earth and back again. She saw their faces light up with joy. As always, seeing their happiness inspired her own. “Hello sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Are you well? Is it too cold up there?”

“Not in the ship, only outside.” Her mother always asked the same question. She knew space was cold, so she worried. “It’s actually kept quite cosy. Anyway, I have some big news. Since I last spoke to you I have become the furthest travelling Chinese woman in history.”

Her mother smiled with pride. “That’s great!”. Her father’s pride was less effusive, but just as real. “Good job, your brother would be so proud.”

Hui would like to think that was true, it probably was, but he would have masked it with some mockery. He didn’t like to show obvious affection, but whenever she needed him, he was there for her. Not any more though.

“How’s the food?”

“Everything comes from a packet. It’s warm and filling, but not as good as your cooking mum.”

“Well, the next time you are home, I’ll cook you something special. Prawns and soup, your favourite. When are you coming home?”

“I’ve told you mum. We’ll arrive in six weeks time, I’ll need to spend a couple of weeks helping with setting up the base then I’ll fly home in the shuttle.”

“The shuttle? It’s a long journey for a shuttle isn’t it?” Her father was always the one to ask the practical questions.
“It’s been specially adapted for the trip. I’ll be fine. I’m actually looking forward to some quiet time alone.”

“Alone? You’ll be flying alone?” Her mother was always quick to worry.

“I’ll be fine. I can’t spare a pilot to fly back with me. The ship can fly itself if it needs to.”

“But what if something happens to you? Who will help you?”

“I’ll be fine mom. I’ll be flying alone, but the shuttle crew will be there as well. There’s always a flight technician and a navigation officer as well. They just won’t be in the cockpit, so most of the time I’ll be alone.”

“Ok dear. We miss you. Did you hear about Mei-Mei?” Her mother started to tell her the local news. Hui let the cadence of the gossip wash over her, driving the stress of command away.

United Nations Orbital Command HQ, Moscow

It felt good being back in full gravity again. The ESA had delivered the freighter hull to Gateway Station. Most of Fuller’s time for the past few weeks had been spent reviewing and approving the plans for Paladin. It was a rush job, everyone was aware of the fact, especially Fuller.

As much as possible the ship’s system would be made from existing parts.  This would help keep things easy. Hopefully reducing complications from any unknowns. The primary weapons would be rail guns and DEWs provided by various nations’ navies and air forces. Smaller point defence systems also came from the same sources. They had no idea what they would be up against they’d need most powerful weapons available. All of the major nuclear capable powers had agreed to provide some of their inventory for the mission. Although not without a few conditions. These would even include some of the latest fusion warheads. Paladin once it launched would have more firepower than all of the weaponry used in all the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Assembly on new lightweight armours, commonly used on latest main battle tanks was being rushed through production. This would be applied over the ship’s hull, providing additional protection. For further reinforcement additional structural support was being added and ceramic foam pumped between the armoured layers.

He’d received an offer from the Geneva research team to help automate the whole ship. Even with a minimal crew, life support systems would take up a considerable proportion of the ship’s mass. The offer was tempting, but so far nothing concrete had come from the Geneva labs projects. Even with the new data from the alien signal. It just wasn’t worth the risk to try something so radical.

The crew for Paladin had started the simulation training at the main base, just outside Moscow. The thirty crew all came from the UNOC. The Security Council members would also provide advisors, part of the conditions for supplying the nuclear weapons. They would not form part of the crew, or the chain of command, but Fuller insisted that they complete the simulator training.

One deck was being converted into hanger space so Paladin would also carry a small squadron of Dark Hawks. The same launch cradles used on the station would be retroffited to the ship. These would be supplemented by combat and recon drones. The crew would be taken from the Gateway squadron, so replacements were also being fast tracked through the programme to make up the numbers.

Progress had also been made on acquiring transport vessels as well. Three of the private businesses had agreed to sell their freighters. So the UNOC now had five new freighters, adding another sixty thousand tons to their lift capacity. They were older models to be sure, but the engineers who checked the vessels declared them to be well maintained.

Progress on purchasing the trade resources hadn’t gone so well. Fuller had ordered his finance teams to start the purchase plan. The plan was to make the purchases in small amounts, to try and limit the increase in price the increased demand would cause. Except for a few of the smaller independents, all had refused to sell options on their production. Not just for this year, but for the next two years as well. Not only that, the prices of several key resources had already started to climb. They’d tried purchasing from the open market, they’d managed to secure small amounts, but also pushed the prices up further. They would keep trying, but Fuller had to now consider other options. He also now worried what was going on, this wasn’t expected behaviour, had word of the mission leaked?

One option would be to secure the resources directly, get the Council to authorise seizing the goods. That wouldn’t go down well with the public and risked exposure of the alien contact. He was surprised that it had remained a secret for this long. The UN web security teams had worked overtime suppressing feeds, that in itself just added to the speculation. The Chinese and their allies had helped these efforts with their own teams. That had muddied the waters. So now it was all an Asian conspiracy. Distraction enough from the real story, he doubted it would last long.

Although it did make Fuller wonder what it is the Chinese and Indians were really trying to hide.
The other option was the strategic reserves. Every nation maintained a stockpile of important resources for their industries. Some stored more than others, but if his data was correct it would provide a large proportion of what was needed for the trade. Accessing these reserves would have to remain a final option. News would quickly get out, causing panic in the markets.

All this activity kept the General busy. He didn’t mind, he liked to be busy, but it did keep him up in orbit more than he would like. At least here on the surface he could visit his daughter in person.