Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Chapter 16 - October 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020731025.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [246] [007] [+/- 14%]
Calculating velocity... 64755171 [+/- 10%] km/h
Calculating distance... 155256997817 [+/- 15%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 780 [+/-  12%] days
Calculating signal lag... 6 [+/- 7%] days
Priority override...HIGH

UNOC Research Facility, near Moscow

“The aliens launched from their home world around five thousand years ago. They have been travelling outward along the Orion spur of the Sagittarius arm of our galaxy ever since.”

A new package arrived from the aliens yesterday. With their improving knowledge of the VM, the research team quickly integrated the new data. Doctor Samir now conducted a show and tell, not just for General Fuller, but the visiting representatives from the Security Council as well. 

Behind Doctor Samir a map of the galaxy highlighted an offshoot from one of the spiral arms. A short distance away from the highlighted area the position of the Solar System was also highlighted. It looked such a short distance on the projection. Fuller knew from the earlier briefing on the same topic that short distance represented some four hundred light years.

“They haven’t provided any details of their home world. They seem to be shy in providing location data.” I would be too, thought Fuller. “We have learned a little bit more about them. They remain in continued contact with their home world. The transfers of information the refer to indicate they have some form of faster than light communication.

General Mike Davis, Fuller’s old friend from the USAF, interrupted the briefing. “How certain are you of that? Are there any details of how they manage it?”

“For the first question, we’ve inferred it from other information they have provided. Some of them are scientific discussions between the travellers and their planet. The nature of these conversations are almost conversational, certainly not ones that could be conducted with signal lag of years.”

“So there’s no actual evidence?”

“Not as such, no. We will be trying to clarify this with our next response. With the reduced signal lag, it’s becoming much easier to add follow up queries.”

The General nodded and Fuller silently agreed. Even just within the Solar System, instantaneous communication would be an immense boon.

“We have also learned that the aliens have encountered three other species capable of space flight.”
This caused a slight stir amongst the audience. “Do they where these other aliens are situated?”

“No. As I say, they seem to prefer to keep locational data to themselves. In fact, one of the points they made clear in their early communications, was they would keep information about us, especially our location confidential. It seems they are very aware of the fear first contact can engender.”

Fuller heard the barely audible snort from General Po Ling.

“It’s partly this and the other measures they take to try and ensure a smooth first contact that leads us to believe that they have some method for communicating between ships and their home planet.”

“Ships? There are more than one of these alien ships out there?” Po Ling did not seem happy at this thought.
“Almost certainly.” Samir answered oblivious to the General’s tone. “The history they have shared with us so far does indicate that other ships travelled outward and inward along the spiral arm.”

“As I say, details on these other voyages are scant.” With a tiny gesture the view focused on a smaller area of the spiral arm. “However we have managed to piece together some information about this ship’s travels. We’ve had to make some guesses to fill in the blanks, but they seem reasonable based on the data we have.”

“They’ve been travelling outwards along the Orion spur. Analysing the data we’ve collected on their ship we’ve established that their best speed is just under twenty percent the speed of light.”

Mike Davis whistled appreciatively.

“However, we don’t think their basic drive technology is that different from our own.”

That caused some surprise.

“What makes you think that?” A question from General Falak Chandar , the Indian representative.

“Their shopping list. Helium-3 is by far the biggest thing they have asked for. That indicates it’s a consumable. The only use we can think of that would require large amounts would be as a fuel source. Our fusion drives already achieve about eighty percent efficiency from the same fuel. Looking at the quantities they’ve requested and the distances they’ve travelled, they’re attaining better efficiency, but not by much.”

General Chander looked like he was about to ask another question, but Samir spoke beat him to it. “What they do seem to have is much better materials technology. They seem to be able to burn their drives for longer time periods than we can. We think they can run them continuously for years. It takes them probably about three years to reach maximum speed, burning nearly half their fuel.”

This time Chander managed to interrupt. “Why are you so certain?”

“Three years is how long it’s taking them to perform the braking manoeuvre to reach Mars.”

“This is interesting information, but what does it give us?” Mike Davis asked.

“Two of the technologies they have offered us are high energy resistant materials and autonomous repair agents,”


General Fuller guessed what his old friend didn’t. “With those we’d be capable of interstellar travel ourselves. Within a reasonable time frame.”

Samir nodded.

UNOC recon drone, approaching Mars

The drone’s brain was relatively uncomplicated. It lacked some of the enhanced features of the expert systems found in larger ships and installations. It didn’t really need them, its task was simple. It had to travel to the designated target, then sit silently gathering information.  

In an attempt to approach Mars stealthily it shut down its ion drive when it reached the halfway point.  As it coasted along it carefully didn’t transmit any radiation at all. With its engine shut down, its heat signature barely registered above the cold vacuum of space.

Unfortunately its subterfuge was in vain. The bright track of its launch gave away its destination to watching sensors back on Earth. A coded message travelled the distance weeks before the drone arrived. Unable to use the active sensors that would give away its position, it had no idea that an equally silent Chinese drone waited in high orbit and drifted closer.

The drone was American made. Not the best in their arsenal, but the best they offered for export. The Americans recently developed a new cyber defence. This new defence might have saved the drone from its fate, but the Americans couldn’t risk sharing this technology with the UN.

An intense microwave burst swept over its body. It examined the new signal. A standard analysis indicated that while strong, this beam was a tracking radar and not sufficiently powerful to detect it.  The internal reaction to the sudden spike then calmed and it resumed its silent watching and listening.

It didn’t realise that the burst wasn’t really a radar sweep. This signal actually contained a code. The burst overwrote its secure memory. This memory held its self-check state used for checking its system integrity.
With the new technology this wouldn’t have been a problem. The secure memory would be hard wired. Every chip grown uniquely for each drone.  The circuit created would be so small even a nano-bot intrusion couldn’t alter it without breaking the delicate wiring.

Several milliseconds later the UNCO drone next executed its self-diagnostics. It did this several times a second to ensure that its systems had not been penetrated. This time it wasn’t the diagnostics routine that started, but the violating code. The code opened a new communication pathway, a line of sight laser link to the Chinese drone nearby. It didn’t know that it had been enslaved to a new master.

LMC Shipyard, Luna orbit

Sparkle Dust was one of Jacob Manning’s pet projects. Stealth in space was actually pretty difficult, especially for vessels that had to provide life support. The heat generated was too difficult to hide, especially against the cold background of space. Similarly all but the weakest of drive systems emitted too much radiation to remain hidden.

Robot drones and probes were another matter. With their low power requirements they could conceal themselves easily in the cold darkness. There engines would still give them away if used, but the lower mass meant less powerful engines can be used. If the initial launch was masked in some way they could be next to impossible to detect.

The idea came to him while staring at a cloud. It always amused him at how contrived that sounded but it was true. He’d been staring out of the window while waiting for a meeting at the company headquarters. A passenger shuttle flew through the clouds, disrupting the vapour as it passed through. From that the idea was so simple it was almost elegant.

Except that it didn’t work.

His original idea was to create clouds of dust around sensitive targets. Early simulations showed that this wouldn’t detect the smaller drones. They could still slip through a cloud, barely causing a ripple.

The evolution of the idea came from one of the engineers, himself now working on the alien project. Instead of dust he suggested tiny robots. These robots with needed two simple components: a micro-scale piezoelectric motor wrapped with a pressure switch. When touched the robot would spark, consuming itself in the process, but in doing so creating a burst of light.

The amount of light was relatively small, but as an object passed through the swarm the robots would spark in a pattern revealing the shape of the object and its course. Sensitive optical sensors could easily map the sparkle pattern.

The project reached the testing phase. Pure fluke had put the test at the shipyard rather than the originally planned, and more discrete asteroid base. At midday the swarm deployed into high Luna orbit. Soon it moved in parallel with the shipyard’s own orbit.

In his office Jacob observed the test from a virtuality created in real time from the shipyard’s sensors and the satellites launched for extra coverage.

Everything started well.. The swarm barely registered on the radar, a secret cloak to counter hidden drones. The test drone launched from the shipyard, it would orbit once around the Moon and then enter the swarm.
Jacob waited patiently for the orbit to complete. He allowed himself to be distracted by a report about UNOC security preparations for their trade mission. His distraction lasted only a moment. A sudden bright flare snatched his attention. He looked at the light, cascading data showed it was the same position as the sparkle dust swarm.

His first thought was that the test had failed, that there was some fault.

Seconds passed and the flare began to assume a definite form. At first he thought that it looked like a crumpled heat shield. Then  he realised the shape was moving. Amazed, but not yet alarmed, Jacob watched the shape. It didn’t seem able to hold its structure. Almost like a sheet in the rain. When he realised the shape was heading for the shipyard he felt alarmed.

New vague shapes appeared in his view from behind the fading shroud. The sparkle swarm had burned most of it substance, only a few remained to provide brief glimpses of these new objects. The system lacked the data to identify the new targets. Their speed was high. Their course uncertain, but it calculated a high probability that the shipyard would be hit within minutes.

Only now did the shipyard’s command crew realised the threat.  They broadcasted emergency messages to all nearby traffic. They initiated the collision alarm protocol. Bright spots flickered into life across the station’s surface as the point defence systems powered up. As they activated strobes of laser and maser targeting systems began sweeping the volume around the station.

It looked impressive. In the virtuality it was if the shipyard itself had come to life and now celebrated with a spectacular light show. The reality was that these point defences were designed to handle minor meteor threats. The computer now identified the incoming objects as massive asteroid fragments. It also asserted that they were rocky, rather than metallic. That provided no comfort. A million tons of anything would smash the station to pieces.

The data construct representing the shipyard pulsed with the strident alarms. Images from the internal camera feeds showed the shipyard crew and workers rushing to shelters. Their movements hurried, but disciplined. Regular safety and evacuation drills honing their reactions. Throughout the station internal blast partitions and emergency seals cut the passageways into separate sections. If there was a hull breach then the station would not lose all of its atmosphere.

Jacob looked at the first rock. It was by far the largest of the fragments. Half a mile in width. A hull breach would be least of their problems.

The only nearby ship was the “Mary’s Jest”, one of Pa Jackman’s fleet. It was heading to the station for a refit before its transfer to the UNOC. Its main drive blossomed with fierce heat as the ship changed course. The ship’s navigation computer transmitted its new flight path. The pilot was trying to intercept the plummeting mountain. Jacon scanned the course details, checking the impact estimates. The time estimates were close. Too close.

The ship’s drive unleashed furious energies, almost blinding to look at. The output was way beyond certified safety limits. It picked up speed, but it turned too slowly.

The computer announced some good news. The cluster was tightly grouped. The suicidal charge of Mary’s Jest might be enough, if it could turn in time.

He focussed on the freighter. From its shape he recognised it as a water tanker. The tanks would be empty, but even empty they would be pressurised with inert gas.


There wasn’t enough time to follow command protocol. He cast a voice message to the ship’s captain to warn him what he was about to do.  He seized control over the nearest DEW turret. His own command profile granted him instant access. Overriding its safety controls he targeted one of the giant bulk tanks on the far side of the ship.

The ship’s captain tersely acknowledged his message as Jacob fired the particle beam.
The energy lanced into the tank, taking an agonising second to cut through the reinforced skin. It burned a small hole, through which the inert gas erupted. The gas pushed the ship sideways, forcing it into the lead rock’s path.

The ship smashed into the tumbling rock. There was no explosion. The ship’s front crumpled as it collided, disappearing into a cloud of debris . The engines kept pushing the dying ship into the surface which rippled under the impact.

The rock’s spin increased. Jacob monitored the path of the rocks. No change. The first rock spun into the rock behind it. A new collision with a vast explosion of fragments. Both rocks slowed imperceptibly. The computer noted the tiny differential. The remaining rocks smashed into the two in front. The computer adjusted the predicted paths. It was working. The big chunks would fly past the shipyard. Smaller fragments would reach the shipyard, but most of them would be vaporised by the DEWs.

Jacob scanned the new chaos of debris, searching for an escape pod. Hoping he would find it.

He didn’t.

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