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.

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