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.”

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