Saturday, 7 April 2012

Chapter 6 - December 2072

UNOC Research Facility, near Moscow

Two months of frustrated waiting passed before the alien reply finally arrived. General Fullers had to use all of his self control to not harass the research team. After another two days they completed the integration of the new data. As soon as he received word that they had started extracting new information he jumped into a hover transport and sped to the research facility.

The team had not been idle during their wait as Doctor Samir eagerly explained while leading the General through the lab.

“The extra time examining the core VM has proved fruitful. We’ve learnt enough about its structure to be able to add our own interfaces. Perhaps graft is a more accurate term. Here General, take a look at this.”
Samir lead Fuller to a new terminal situated near the cluster used to run the virtual machine. The new terminal looked the same as any common terminal used throughout the world.

“What am I looking at Doctor?”

“This, General, is a standard library terminal. We’ve disconnected it from the data net, all we really need it for is the natural voice input module all such terminals have built in. It took many attempts, but we’ve finally connected it to the VM.”

“You mean you can speak to it?”

The large happy smile brightened the scientist’s weary face. “Exactly.” The smile faltered a little. “At the moment it only really works for input. We can translate our queries easily enough, but parsing the response is trickier.  The data language uses layered structures and connected patterns that combine simple precepts into more complicated meanings.”

Fuller just nodded, understanding wasn’t relevant.

“We’re more familiar with the system it uses to represent information, but it’s hardly conversation. The amount of information the system can represent with a small amount of data makes the VR data streams we use look clumsy in comparison.  Not only is this VM processing and assimilating data in a way we’ve never imagined, it also represents data in its own unique way. The computer geeks are going crazy.”

He looked embarrassed for a moment, surrounded by geeks, he even looked one himself. With a cough he continued. “Anyway, as you know another signal arrived yesterday. The length of the message indicated that this package contained far more information than the previous message.”

“How much more information?”

“It’s difficult to say, there’s no real correlation between the package size and the data it contains. The package isn’t just information, it contains new states and processes for the original VM.”

“Hazard a guess Doctor.”

“If you want an ass number General” Someone stifled a chuckle. “I’d say about two thousand times as much data. In real terms its probably an netpedia’s worth.”

“We’ve created two versions of the VM. One version is the original version, unchanged by our input. The other is the state after we sent the response package back in September. And then – “ Samir’s face lit up with enthusiasm again. “And then something wondrous happened. In both versions the VM transformed, for each the method of transformation was different. We recorded the full state transition in minute detail. From second to second the changes were different but the end result was the same. Both VMs ended up with the same configuration.”

“The new package must contain the data to restore the original state of the VM that sent the message in the first place. We tested that hypothesis and created a new version of the VM and entered different answers into it. The new state differed greatly, so we integrated the new signal, expecting it to overwrite the changes.”
“It didn’t. Somehow the VM integrated the new data and assimilated the new information and adapted it to its own different understanding. It seems the VM is a lot smarter than we originally thought. The possibilities are remarkable!”

“I’m sure they are Doctor. Now have we learned anything new about the aliens themselves?”

“Oh yes General. They’ve provided various pieces of information about themselves. They describe themselves as travellers. They explore star systems and make contact with beings they encounter. This confirmed our supposition they have communicated with other species before. The VM they use is too sophisticated to have never been used before.”

“Do they say where they are from?”

“Not in great detail. They’ve travelled outwards along the Orion arm. As far as we can tell from the navigation data, which only gives vague information about their course, they’ve travelled eight hundred light years in about five thousand years.”

“The ship has been travelling for five thousand years? How is that possible?”

“We don’t know. They’re aliens, who knows how long they live?”

“Even for a machine to last for that long is difficult to believe.”

“Some of the team think it could be a generation ship.”

He then answered the General’s next question, before Fuller spoke it.

“A generation ship is a small contained world. It travels slowly, much slower than the speed of light. It could take centuries to travel from one star to the next. During its long journey new generations are born on the ship and then die there.”

“So the aliens on the ship won’t be the same aliens that left their home planet?”

“We really don’t know, but if it is a generation ship then no, they’ll be the descendants. We haven’t managed to derive much from the VM about the aliens themselves, so we really don’t know.”
Fuller sighed, with each tiny piece of the puzzle they placed, the puzzle just gets bigger.

“Does the message say what they want?”

“It does. They seek information about us...” That’ll make certain members of the Security Council happy Fuller thought wryly. “... and they seek to trade. There is a list of materials they want, we’ve not identified them all, but most appear to be metals and other refined resources like carbon nano-tubes. They also want a large quantity of Helium-3, we assume that they’re using it as fuel like we do.”

“Would our fusion drives be powerful enough for a ship to travel that distance?”

“With enough fuel they could. It depends on the mass of the ship, but the engines are reasonably scalable.”
“However, it does seem odd. “ The Doctor continued. “All of the elements we’ve identified so far are fairly plentiful in space. They could easily extract these for themselves. So why trade?”

“Any theories?”

Samir smiled. “There’s an abundance of theories, just no evidence to back them up. “ He shrugged. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Or maybe it’s an efficient mechanism for establishing contact with new species.”

That made some kind of sense. “What are they offering in trade?”

“For information about ourselves they will provide information about themselves. For the physical materials they’re offering technology.”

“What information do they want?”

“We’ve not established the details yet, but it seems to be historical and cultural information. We think they want to learn who we are as a people, what makes us tick.”

“Any indications they want more sensitive information? Like our military capabilities?”

“Not that we’ve seen. We hardly scratched the surface yet though.”

“What about the technology? What are they offering?

“They don’t say, or if they do we’ve not made sense yet.  The only other part of the message we’ve established with confidence is that they are due to arrive in Mars orbit in three years time.”

Luna Mining Colony Base, The Moon

Michael Richards read the reports while sat at his desk. It always felt a little strange when seated in low gravity. More comfortable, but unusual. He could have done that back on Earth, but his last visit had been a couple of months ago and he liked to visit in person when he could.

The shipyard orbiting several thousand miles above his head had just finished the latest upgrades. He started with the latest progress report for this key facility. He immersed himself in the data flow. He saw that the recent work had effectively doubled its production capacity.

The huge construction bays could now accommodate two mega-freighter hulls. Except for the Long March vessel out at L1 station, these were the biggest space faring vessels in operation. At half a mile long they transported up to one hundred tons of cargo. Cargo like refined ores and minerals, essential feeding the industry both on Earth and up here in orbital space.

The expansion also allowed the shipyard to build smaller freighters used to transport consumables like food and water between the various facilities. The LMC also used them extensively for transporting processed Helium-3. These ships were dwarfed by the mega-freighters, although they still formed the bulk of the transport capacity in space.

New production lines also increased capacity for the tugs and shuttles. The tugs were small, short range craft used to move goods around facilities in orbit. The shuttles provided passenger and light goods transport. Unlike the Russian and EU/US shuttles, they weren’t built for atmospheric flight. The LMC still produced atmospheric shuttles back at the factory in Nairobi. This factory wasn’t being expanded.

According to his best economic modellers space based industry was expected to continue its meteoric growth. Michael still worried about the space elevator, that would cut into the shuttle ferrying business. Once beyond orbit the LMC transport fleet still reigned supreme and that wasn’t likely to change.

After reviewing the shipyard upgrades Michael switched his focus to Project Green. The illusion of data around him morphed with new input. He dived through the sub-chapters, checking the individual projects. The lack of progress frustrated him. The research team followed every avenue, it seemed that every effort to maintain life in low orbit encountered some new problem. At least the vat grown meat tasted good.

The final report wasn’t fed via the company datastream, but delivered in person by Jacob Manning. Jacob sat in the sleek chair opposite Michael, drinking chilled water from a LMC branded sealed pouch.
Michael disengaged from the data net and warmly greeted his friend. “Jacob, how are you doing?”

“I’m well Mr Richards, thank you for asking. You’re keeping me busy and that keeps me out of trouble.”

Michael smiled, more at the dry delivery than the oft repeated line. “So you have something you wanted to talk about? Something you didn’t want to say on the net? You do know we have the tightest security money can buy?”

“As the constant hack attacks can attest to. Although the cyber mercs we hired seems to have helped. We’ve not had any penetrations since the last attack in September. There’s been the usual attempts. Anyway, due to the source of this information I didn’t want to risk discussing this on anything that could be recorded. And until the quantum entanglement communications systems become a reality, that means anything that can be transmitted.”

Quantum entanglement formed the holy grail of the communications industry. Secure, impossible to intercept and in theory, even possible of faster than light communication it would be worth billions to whoever managed to get it working. The system had been demonstrated in labs, but the experiments never seemed to scale into anything useful.

“Ok, so what’s so secret we can’t trust the system?”

“That UN thing, with the so-called alien message you asked me to look into.”

Michael nodded. “I remember.”

 “It took some doing, but I’ve managed to develop a source with someone who has high level access in the Security Council.”

“It seems that the cranks on the net are right after all and the official statements just a smoke-screen. The message is genuine and it’s so simple to prove that it’s amazing the UN have managed to keep it suppressed for so long.”

Jacob stared into the distance for a moment. “I’ve sent you a list of a few reputable scientists who can confirm the veracity of the message. Along with the pertinent bullet points.” Michael scanned the list, he noticed a few well known names on that list from internationally renowned organisations.

“I recognise some of these names. How have they managed to keep this quiet with these people speaking out.”

Jacob shrugged. “The usual. They just dismiss the story with their own experts. They put pressure on the major news feeds to keep the story as a joke item. Any feeds that report the item seriously start getting attacked. Usual kid hacker stuff that could be anyone, but effective enough against the commercial sites. Most academic organisations rely on UN funding, so they won’t do anything to jeopardise that.”

“Did you find out anything about the message itself?”

“I did. The first message was just a general hello and some sort of program.”

“The message is a computer program?”

“Yeah, some sort of virtual machine that processes the data between the aliens and the UN.”

“You said the first message, there have been others?”

“One other that I could find out about. These aliens come in peace apparently and want to trade.”

“Trade? Trade for what? And what are they offering?”

“I’m still chasing the details, but they’re wanting a lot of processed resources, ores and construction materials like carbon nano-tubes. High tech raw materials. In exchange they’re offering information and new technology.”

“What information? And what sort of technology?”

“I don’t know and from what I hear the UN doesn’t know either. There’s a closed session next week, I hear that will be when they decide what the official response will be.”

Michael sat back, thought for a few moments. Jacob waited patiently.

“These people on the list. Do you think any of them would be willing to work on this privately? When I say privately I mean in all senses."

“It’s possible. I’ll investigate and check out any that seem trustworthy.”

“Something this big is going to change the world and we cannot be caught napping when it finally does break. Get on it and tell the research division I want a black project set up for this. They can plunder anyone they want, except from Project Green. You’ll handle the security?”

“Of course.”

“And keep digging at the UN. I want to know what they know. And soon.”

For now he had to turn his attention to something more important, a Christmas present for his wife.

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