Thursday, 29 March 2012

Chapter 4 - October 2072

United Nations Space Command HQ, Moscow

General Fuller looked up before the door to his office opened, warned in advance by an urgent message from his secretary. There wasn’t many people who could arrive unannounced and proceed straight through without appointment. Unfortunately General Po Ling wasn’t one of those he wanted to see right now, his arrival surely wouldn’t herald good news.

He rose from behind his desk and courteously greeted the Chinese General. Po Ling and his Indian counterpart argued strenuously against sending the message back to the aliens, but in the final vote they were outnumbered. Fuller would be willing to bet that they wished they still had veto powers. Those powers had been eroded and finally removed from all permanent members after the Taiwan conflict. In most issues they could usually count on enough votes to force their agenda through, but on this occasion they failed.

That wouldn’t stop them manoeuvring though.

“Good afternoon General. Please sit. What can I do for you?”

They both sat, facing across the table, like adversaries across a chess board. The United States might have lost that power play before Fuller’s time, but now the United Nations was involved in the same, if a little less visible struggle.

General Ling got straight to business. “General Fuller, you got your way. You have transmitted the message back to these aliens. You have put this planet and everyone on it at risk.”

“General, you’re over dramatising, there is no evidence...”

With a harsh tone Ling interrupted Fuller. “No you do not know. With your greed for new technology you have invited this threat upon us.” He calmed himself and sat back in his chair.

Fuller took the pause to counterattack. “And you cannot be certain that they do have hostile intent. If they are hostile ignoring them will not stop their attack. By replying to them we gain the opportunity to learn more about them. Maybe discovering something vital if we do have to fight them.”

“We should not be answering their questions making it easier for them to find out what our weaknesses are!” He visibly made an effort and calmed himself. “I did not come here to fight with you. The decision is made, but there is still time for prudent action. We don’t know when these aliens will arrive, but the signal still originates outside of our solar system and the velocity is clearly subliminal?”

“That’s correct.” Fuller matched Ling and relaxed his tone.

“So we still have time. I have come to make a deal General Fuller. If you will listen?”

Fuller nodded that he would.

“While you have the votes for the moment, we can continue to resist every step of this program. We can make things very difficult. But – “ Here he raised his hand to forestall Fuller’s rejoinder. “ - we do not have to follow this path. I’m sure you would agree that it would be prudent to have a back-up plan?”

“A back-up plan?”

“Indeed. We should prepare in case these aliens are not as friendly as you seem think. We will be presenting a resolution to the Security Council to put things in motion and we expect your support.”

Fuller thought for a moment, the Security Council would no doubt see this as a sensible course of action.  “Any preparations would have to come under the control of Space Command.”

The Chinese General smiled and nodded in response.

“Then I think we can help each other. Can I offer you a drink General?”

“That would be most kind.” Ling smiled, he had got what he wanted.

China National Space Agency HQ, Beijing

The large briefing room seemed desolate with just the three of them. Hui sat next to the Mission Director, a small audience that watched the young officer present the mission briefing.

“This will be the first manned mission to Mars since the joint US and ESA mission in 2051. That visit was only transient, a final statement from waning imperialist powers. There have been several automated missions since then. All part of the continuing search for microbial life. As we all know there have been repeated hints, but never anything conclusive. Maybe the Russian mission to Titan will have better luck at discovering the first non-terrestrial life.”

It was a wasted jibe, he coughed to cover the silence and hurriedly continued.

“While publically we have announced that this mission is to establish a permanent base in Mars orbit and begin exploitation operations, it does consist of a second concealed element. We are indeed setting up a permanent presence at Mars. This base will be the launch point for further operations not just at Mars, but in the asteroid belt and ultimately to Jupiter as well.”

“The primary mission is to leapfrog the private commercial interests that have come to dominate the Earth-Moon sphere.  As well as mineral resources we are looking for a more economical source of Helium-3 to break our reliance on the Luna Mining Corporation. These enterprises have established themselves in a strong economic position. We need a bold move with a view to the long game to regain our dominance.”

“As you know we have partnered with India and Japan to ensure that this mission is a success. It is imperative that this Asian Alliance mission ends with success.”

“Stage 1 of the mission is the Long March vessel, this will transport the orbital station to Mars. This is the largest space craft ever built. It will transport the orbital station to Mars and while the base becomes operation resupply missions will be prepared.”

“Two follow up missions will carry mining and ore processing robots to start operations on Mars and nearby asteroids. Once operational additional privately funded Asian corporations will join the operation, until then the mission will be under CNSA command. The resupply missions will also bring additional fuel and materials to outfit the Long March vessel for the ultimate goal, the trip to Jupiter.”

“Once add Jupiter additional surveys of the moons will be undertaken while Hydrogen and Helium skim mining operations will be started.”

The officer paused the briefing.

The mission director took the pause to turn to Hui and say. “This isn’t part of the mission briefing, but the real goal of this mission isn’t just to win economic advantage. We are establishing permanent human colonies, first on Mars, then in the outer system. This mission is the first very long step for our people.”
Hui digested that for a moment. It was a bold plan. The world population had already topped ten billion people. And was still rising. Most of those people lived on the Asian continent. A solution needed to be found. Could this really work? She would certainly try.

“Mission Commander Zhong, do you have any questions?”

Hui had many questions and a long day stretched ahead of them.

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

“Doctor Stevens, what’s the current status of Project Green?” Michael Richards didn’t like conducting meetings with telepresence, it always felt strange. It seemed to so real and surreal at the same time. He did have the option of dialling back the simulation, make the session more a form of video chat. That too had its flaws, with full immersion he bathed in the shared data, was able to absorb it almost subliminally.

Project Green was to be his legacy. His father had gambled and won with Helium-3, for Michael it would be biomass. Operations in space developed daily, dwindling resources on earth forcing expansion into space in search of profit. The United Nations earned a good income from the orbital tariffs, so happily supported this growth.

This effort required considerable support and resources of its own. Some resources like metals and water were relatively easy and even cheaper to obtain in space. Many other companies, as well as the Luna Mining Corporation made their fortunes extracting and selling these.  With his father’s foresight, the LMC also dominated the fuel market with their Helium-3 extraction.

However some resources still had to be transported from Earth, such as food. Transporting anything from the surface was expensive, the space elevator when completed would reduce that cost. Even so, it seemed like such a waste to Michael and also a golden opportunity.

Early experiments with hydroponics had been modestly successful, but over time the crops had failed. There were various reasons why, the big problem was low gravity. The plants would grow normally to start with, but as soon as they gained any size it was discovered that the plant’s growth became stunted. Some of the government agencies like NASA and ESA still maintained farms, although the food grown wasn’t good quality, it did provide some assistance in life support for larger structures.

The LMC simply through economies of scale dominated this part of the industry as well, but the profit margins were low. The rapidly increasing Earth population continued to push food scarcity and prices up. If someone was able to establish a way of producing food away from Earth then that would change the game.
So Michael Richards had started Project Green. This was an umbrella project that investigated a myriad of different approaches to creating food. He had invested heavily in espionage missions to aid these efforts. Unfortunately much of the research on Earth wasn’t applicable to what would be useable in space.

He returned his attention to Doctor Steven’s report.

“As expected the hydroponics results have been limited at best. There are some genetic strains of various crop plants that might prove more successful.”

“Creating soil from the regolith is working as expected and provides a cheaper growth base than the hydroponics. However the plants still suffer from issues with the low gravity. Some smaller plants like vegetables can be grown with some success, although not as well as back on Earth.”

“As you know, growing the plants isn’t the problem. The quality of the plants and sustained growing are the key issues. The larger, or more complex the plant, the more significant the problem. It’s not just a structural problem, the plants aren’t just feeble they lose much of their taste and nutritional value.”

“Genetic alteration of crop plants has provided some promising initial results, but complications arise. Making the plants more suitable for growth seems to make the plants less palatable for consumption.”

“We need to make this work Doctor, what else can we try?”

“There is, we’re approaching the problem from two different directions. The first is to try maintaining the plants somehow, so the plant is restored as it grows. We’re testing nano-machines to rebuild the cell damage from the low gravity. The other  method is to use engineered bacteria to do the same thing. Bacteria doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problems that larger organisms do.”

Michael viewed the data streaming into his awareness. The early tests looked promising, but so had many other experiments. He found it very frustrating, there had to be a solution.

“The other approach I think is more promising, in the short term at least. Simpler organisms such as bacteria and algae handle the low gravity better than the macro-organisms. So a recombination approach might work, the difficulty here is making the gloop palatable.”

This approach had been tried before in the early days of the Moon colonisation, but had proved unpopular. He then asked about the final strand in their research bow. “And the vat grown meat?”

“Surprisingly this has been the most successful part of the project so far. The meat is grown from engineered cells in special vats to stimulate growth. The meat is maintained with micro-probes and actually tastes quite nice. Of course the problem is here is the cost. With the reduced land being used for meat production on Earth, meat is becoming a luxury item, so maybe it will eventually become an affordable alternative. Mass production will drive the price down as well, but we’ll continue to look into ways to make the process more economical.”

“Thank you for your time Doctor. Keep up the good work. Please make sure to submit the accounts for approval before the end of the week.”

“Thank you Mr Richards.”

Michael closed down the tele-presence, the software shut the simulation input slowly, over a few seconds so that the real-world inputs didn’t overload his system. He checked his calendar for the next item on his to do list.

Shuttle Zheng He, approaching L1 Station

It felt good to be back in the cockpit of her shuttle. The cramped space felt familiar, safe. During the two weeks of endless briefings the shuttle had been upgraded. It no longer had the cargo pod and the passenger pod had been reduced in size. The shuttle’s engines had been replaced, additional fuel tanks and life support had been installed. The shuttle was now equipped for long range, able to travel comfortably between Earth and Mars.

After the first mission she would have to journey back to Earth for the follow-on missions. In the coming year she would visit Mars twice, the first person to visit the red planet more than once.

As she followed the course back to L1 Station there was little she needed to do. Only the occasional minor course correction were needed, although she periodically checked the flight path against the navigation waypoints to be certain.

In the long silence she had time to mull over all the information she had received. She was eager to take charge of the mission, but there were problems to be solved. Or solution opportunities as one of her tutors used say.

The most obvious risk was the length of the supply line. Even L1 Station was reliant on supply runs from Earth. The scientists were working hard on minimizing that requirement for this mission, but if anything went wrong...

Gateway Station, Earth orbit

The view of Earth filled the sky. Fuller relaxed, just taking a moment for himself as he gazed onto the cloud wrapped blue world below. It was a fine view and one of the real perks of his visits to the station.
This month’s inspection of the ready squadron here on the station was an improvement on the last one. He was pleased to see that the Russians had made good on their word. The airframe upgrades were being delivered at a faster pace. The new birds weren’t being delivered any quicker, but that wasn’t unexpected. The squadron’s readiness rating had improved and that was the main thing.

October had nearly ended, but still there was no reply from the aliens. It worrying him, but without any prior timeframe there was no way of knowing whether there was delay, or if he worried for no reason..
Really he had more pressing concerns. A week ago the Chinese made their move. They submitted their resolution for preparing a plan if the aliens proved to be hostile. The support for the resolution wasn’t enthusiastic, but was voted through without incident. Fuller had played his part, recommending that having a back-up plan was a sensible plan.

He now needed to put that plan together. He didn’t want to weaken the research effort by putting his own team on the job. He did, however have to take it seriously. Maybe he could enlist some help from the other space agencies and air forces. Make it a theoretical challenge, get some extra help without widening the need to know circle.

He’d find a solution, but for now he enjoyed the view. It was spectacular.

Richards’ Home, outside Johannesburg

Rachel fused over Michael’s tie as they both dressed. She was already dressed in her favourite cocktail dress, he loved seeing her in that dress so put up with the fussing with good grace. Although he felt hungry, he resisted the temptation to nibble. Experience taught him that staying hungry helped him through these functions. He preferred to eat earlier in the evening, but it was a small sacrifice to make for Rachel.

She finally finished straightening his tie, and then went to check her face one last time. An incoming message buzzed inside his head, demanding attention. Waiting for Rachel to finish he scanned the message list. The latest was from Jacob Manning, head of security up at the LMC Moon base.  Jacob wasn’t one for idle messages and whatever he wanted to say he hadn’t included any details in the terse message.

“Honey, will you be long?”

“Twenty minutes, I promise!”

Her timing was usually pretty accurate. He would call Jacob now, see what’s going on.

“No worries, I’m just going to make a quick call.”

He went into his office and activated the comm link. Through his implant he watched the datastream establish a connection, then change colour as the secure systems were engaged.

Jacob stepped into view, still in the office from the look of the background. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Jacob not look ready when he answered a call.

“Good evening Jacob. What’s up?”

“Hello Mr Richards.” No matter how many times Michael told him to call him by his first name, Jacob always deemed that too familiar. Especially when discussing work business.

“Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I have a couple of items for you that probably shouldn’t go through the internal mail.”

“The first was that thing at the UN you wanted me to look into. I haven’t found anything definite yet, but there’s something going on. There’s a lot of activity and it’s not been talked about. Not even by people who normally like to show off. That’s suspicious in itself. I’m also hearing that the UNSC has been contacting some high level planners at the major air forces. Again it’s been kept hush hush, but I’ll try digging a little deeper.”

“The other item is something I’ve stumbled into. Apparently the Asian Alliance mission to Mars isn’t all that it seems. I have a source that claims that it’s something pretty big and directly aimed at us.”

“In what way aimed at us?”

“That she didn’t know, but I’ll do some checking around and see what I can find.”

“Ok, keep me informed.”

“Will do Mr Richards. And enjoy the party.”

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