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.”

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Chapter 3 - September 2072

Richards’ Home,  Outside Johannesburg

Even this early in the morning, the sunlight was bright as it flooded into the large, open plan kitchen. Rachel had already left, she had a war meeting before the real event , a meeting with the Mayor to push forward zoning changes to allow new and better housing to be built in the township. Michael really didn’t like her heading outside the safe zone, but she insisted that was the only way to make real progress. At least she was sensible enough to agree to the security detail that he provided. She was idealistic, but at least saw the truth of threat she tempted with her activities. Popular as she was with the local poor families, there were still the criminal gangs and even more criminal politicians who would happily see her out of the way.

The heavy security also had additional benefits. Namely protecting the street projects she regularly visit better than the often corrupt and underfunded police could. Michael also worked his influence behind the scenes. It was difficult to break the cycle of corruption, but he did what he could. A similar process of corporate sponsorship and political binding had worked well in Kenya. The UN intervention force had now deemed it safe to leave. The country could now claw its way towards prosperity. Michael and Rachel both felt a similar model could work here in South Africa.
Michael sat alone in the kitchen, he chewed some toast and drank fresh orange juice as he skimmed through his messages on the wall screen. The implants required too much focus to be used first thing in the morning.

A message from his friend Pa Jackman was a highlight in amongst the various spam and scam messages. The detection filters were updated daily, but some always managed to slip through. Senior was out of the hospital and back in orbit. The Chinese shuttle pilot had not only rescued them, she also applied a corrective burn to the drifting freighter. It would travel slowly, but by November it would drift back into range of the Earth’s gravity well and enter an extended orbit. This single act saved Senior a small fortune and meant he’d be able to board the vessel with a salvage team and hopefully make repairs and get the old girl running again.

This was good news. Michael composed a quick message to wish him well and to promise to call when he was on Earth again for drinks. It would be fun to catch up with the old man.

He then skipped through some more junk mail before something caught his eye. At first glance he thought it was a joke, something about aliens communicating via some radio message. Now that he thought about it he seemed to recall hearing something on the news about it. He also remembered that the UNSC and pretty much every official space agency in the world had stated that it wasn’t genuine alien contact and most likely a prank of some kind.

Glancing again at the message he could see that the sender was one of his research staff. He shook his head, they should know better than to send him crap like this. He started composing a sarcastic reply when he noticed the comment beneath the forwarded link. It simply stated – “The numbers don’t add up.”

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

Hui Zhong grunted with the effort of squeezing her spare first uniform into the travel case. If she hadn’t picked up a few gifts for her parents then it would have fitted easily. The thought of a surprise trip to the mainland had inspired her to get something for the two important people in her life. After all, she had seen them only four months ago and she wasn’t due for her next leave for at least another two months.

She just wished her brother... She stopped that thought almost before it started and concentrated on her packing.
The pleasure at seeing her parents again so soon was tainted with a slightly bitter taste. The sudden orders, commanding her presence at CNSA headquarters back on Earth worried her. Maybe she was to be reprimanded for assisting the freighter pilot? She had overstepped her bounds by initiating the course adjustment. Thinking back it was a foolish thing to do, but the old man in charge of the ship seemed grateful.

The China National Space Agency was officially a civilian agency, but as with many things in China, the distinction often becomes a little blurred. The CNSA was in fact more of a hybrid, outwardly it seemed civilian and most of its work was scientific research, exploration or assisting the limited Chinese commercial enterprises in space. The bulk of the staff, like her, transferred from the  military and even while at the CNSA were still subject to its discipline.

No matter how many times she turned the orders over in her mind, she could think of no reason why they would need to speak to her in person. Anything routine could surely be handled over the comms.

So she fretted as she packed. She couldn’t even fly herself to Earth. The technicians already booked her shuttle into a maintenance cycle, taking advantage of her few days away to get additional work done.

She continued to worry as she sat in the unfamiliar passenger pod and the shuttle departed for Earth orbit.

UNSC Research Facility, near Moscow

General Fuller stepped from the hover-jet onto the baking roof of the research building. The building itself was dull grey, flat and very large. Similar buildings could be seen on the other side of the runway. In some of those buildings recruits trained to become the next UNSC pilots, or commandos. In others shuttle craft were being maintained or tested for active duty.

There was no need to have travelled all the way out here, the lead scientist could easily have briefed him over the secure comm-link. The scientist’s excitement at what they had discovered was infectious. So Fuller ordered immediate transportation and here he was.

The team had made a significant breakthrough, he knew that already.  Walking into the central lab, seemingly a chaotic mess of computers and screens he could see if shining from all of their faces as well. The air stank of unwashed clothes and bodies, they’d been putting in the hours, but in this moment, all that fatigue was magically lifted away.

The General gave silent thanks that his own office was equipped with a shower and washroom and tried to breath through his mouth.

The lead researcher bounded up to the General, the grin threatening to split his face in two. Fuller took stock of the team. There was a dozen staff, mostly civilians, but a few uniforms stood out. Their wearer’s at least had tried to smooth the creases and present some semblance of order. He saw they were all gathered around a small cluster of computers. The physical presence of the machines seemed odd in this networked world.

“Well don’t keep me in suspense Doctor.” Fuller kept his tone light, despite the impatience he felt. “What have you discovered?”

If he didn’t know better he would have thought the doctor high with the speed he spoke. “It’s simply amazing. Not what we expected at all. Here come see.” With that he lead Fuller through the small crowd.

“Firstly it isn’t a message. Not in the conventional sense.” He gestured to one of the screens, on it Fuller could see a complex flow diagram. “When we decompressed the signal we tried to parse the message, but it didn’t make any sense. It was a frustrating few days I can tell you. We had to separate the signal onto a closed network which limited the processing capability we could bring to bear. It was like working in the past.”

“Fortunately the tech guys – “ He waved at three individuals who were dressed more casually than even the scientists and sported more facial hair. “ – scrounged all the spare equipment they could lay their hands on. We discerned a pattern, but we couldn’t figure out what the pattern meant.”

That smile beamed brightly again. “Last night we noticed there was repetition in the data. One of the processing jobs also discovered that the pattern was repeated at different levels. It was a fractal pattern."

“You’re losing me Doctor.”

“A fractal pattern repeats itself at different scales. So if we took a small chunk of data we would see a pattern emerge, take another larger chunk of data and the pattern would emerge again, but on a higher level.”
“It was this that made us realise we actually had two separate portions of data. The first lacked these fractal patterns that the other part had.”

“That’s not the exciting bit though!”

Fuller couldn’t help but smile, it was like watching his son on Christmas morning.

“The first part contained no repetition, but the second contain numerous repetitions. Those repetitions were of the parts in the first section. Do you see what this means?”

“Sorry Doctor, I don’t.”

“The first part is the key. It is the Rosetta Stone for the second part, which is the real message. It is the vocabulary we need to understand. So we focused on the first part, trying to assign meanings to the distinct elements. Some were easy to understand as they took their form from the original Arecibo message. This gave us something to work from. Then we discovered that others seemed to be mathematical symbols and concepts.”

He paused, wiped his hand down his face.

“It was then Professor Morgan made the crucial leap. She was the one that realised that the message isn’t a message. Well it is, but not in the normal way we would understand it.”

Fuller frowned. “I’m not following, what do you mean?”

“Ordinarily a message is the presentation of some information. It’s limited in its form. You can send a different message to try and make the recipient understand, but what if the communication is at such a distance that back and forth communication is impractical. This is where these aliens, or whoever is the source have been very clever.”
“The first part isn’t a dictionary for a written language. It is the building blocks for a processing system, a programming language if you will. But one that does more than just describe operations. It is also acts as repository of information. So the system represents both data and processing in one elegant solution.”

“For example this symbol here represents humanity, one of the numeric symbols can be used to indicate a single human, or a group.”

“The second part is even more exciting. If the first part is a programming language, the second is the program itself. But more than that. General, are you familiar with the concept of a virtual machine?”

“I can’t say that I am.”

“A virtual machine is a computer, but one that doesn’t require hardware to run. It’s like an emulation of a computer that can be run on another computer.”

Now it made sense. “So this second part of the signal is actually an alien computer?”

“Yes General.”

Sudden alarm bells went off in Fuller’s mind. “Have you run this computer?”

“Don’t worry General, we’ve made sure any testing has occurred on isolated machines and closed networks. There are no pathways for the code to travel. We’re also running the VM in secure partitioned space within the host computer. There are additional layers of security to prevent any contamination to other systems and no physical or wireless links it can use to travel.”

“So what have we learnt from it?”

“So far, very little. We believe this is the core program that allows us to communicate with each other. We’ve shaken hands so to speak, this should allow us to let them now we are ready to start talking.”

China National Space Agency HQ, Beijing

Hui Zhong sat outside the Director’s office. On arrival at the CNSA headquarters she had been ordered to attend the Mission Director, up on the top floor. She had arrived in plenty of time, politely declined the offer of a drink from the prim, but radiantly beautiful secretary and now she waited.

Throughout the journey here she had turned recent events over in her mind. The only error she could think of was overstepping her authority in helping the stricken freighter. Her duty had been to rescue the crew, not aid their operations. Even that didn’t seem to deserve personal attention from the Director himself.

 At least it meant she could visit her parents after the meeting. No matter how severe the dressing down she was about to endure, the thought of seeing her parents lifted her spirit. She stopped picking at the hem of her skirt, and sat up straighter. She continued to wait, but with more resolve.

Eventually  she was about to give in to the dry mouth and request a glass of water when the door opened. The Mission Director stepped through. He was short, but powerfully built. His stocky frame filled the dark green uniform that he wore. Even transferred to this officially civilian agency, he still wore his air force uniform with pride.

Hui snapped to her feet, she wasn’t sure if she should salute or not. Quickly she decided that showing the proper respect was always the better course. The salute earned her a smile and after a terse nod to the secretary, she was invited into the office.

The office itself was a splendid, open room. What appeared to be rare art adorned the walls and his desk was a dark, rich wood, obviously ancient and valued. He sat in a chair that almost swallowed him. The comic sight almost overcame her nervousness.

His voice belied his physical presence and was almost musical. “Please sit senior pilot.”

She did as ordered.

“Have you been offered tea? Or coffee?”

“I’m fine, thanks you sir.”

“To business then. Firstly I would like to thank you for coming so quickly. I have been reading the reports of your recent missions. I’ve paid particular attention to your performance.”

Hui kept her face flat, expressionless, trying not to give anything away.

“In reading your latest performance review and in light of recent events, I have come to a decision. I have already spoken to your immediate superior and he agrees with my proposed course of action.”

Here it comes, she thought and prepared to take the dressing down.

“It’s not common knowledge yet, but the current mission commander has failed his latest medical assessment.  Unfortunately he has to be grounded from space operations with immediate effect.”

“This of course leaves us with the hard job of finding a replacement and quickly. This cannot be allowed to delay the mission launch. We would like you to be the Mission Commander for the Mars mission. “

“You have the necessary skills. You are already a senior officer on the mission, so you’re already familiar with many aspects of the flight. You are the person we need for the job. Do you accept?” He stretched his hand across the desk, offering it to her. That same large smile spread across his round face.

Hui was stunned, this was not at all what she expected. She hesitated for only a moment before placing her smaller hand in his. “I would be honoured sir.” She stammered slightly.

“Excellent. Now you have much preparation to do before assuming your new duties. Not least of which is acquiring your new uniform.” There was a discrete tone inside her head of an incoming data packet. “Your orders have been updated, you have three days leave to prepare and then you return her to begin your briefing.”

“Thank you sir.” She couldn’t wait to tell her parents, they would be so proud.

United Nations Security Council, New York

General Fuller glanced at the briefing notes on his roll-screen before continuing. “The Space Command research team have examined the virtual machine received from the aliens in more detail. They have established that the machine provides a common mechanism for communications between us and the aliens.”

“It has a process that we follow, like a software wizard, that it uses to refine the principals it uses for communication. Remarkably it does this not just by adding to its stored data, but also by transforming the transformation pathways by which it uses that data.”

“Are you saying this thing rewrites itself?” An interruption from Eva Mendes, the EU representative.

“Exactly. The team found that the virtual machine followed a set flow each time it is run, until that process is completed. As an aside, the research team in Geneva might want to look at the data we’ve collated, it might be useful for them.” A few knowing glances around the table. Even as UNSC commander he didn’t know the details of what the Geneva team’s research, but he did know that their remit included exotic processing methods.

“What is the purpose of this process?” This time the question came from his old friend Mike Davis.

“The first stage rebuilds the original Arecibo message, this time using its own symbols. We believe this helps clarify some of the base assumptions the aliens have made when putting this package together. From just this stage we have identified common methods for some basic mathematics, the elements and some details about the Solar System. I am told that it is exceedingly elegant.” The infectious enthusiasm from the research team had definitely rubbed off on him. “But that is nothing compared to what comes next.”

“The bulk of the machine is an intelligence test of sorts. No, that’s not quite correct.” He paused for a moment. “It tries to determine what our understanding of the universe is. That and how we perceive our place in it. Some of the questions hint at differences to our standard models. We’re being very careful about how much to read it into this. It may be that they’re just questions to see how we respond, rather than trying to see if we have the same level of understanding that they do. But it has certainly got our scientists very excited.”

“As you’ll see from my official report I’ve recommended that we induct some relevant experts in various fields such as particle physics, cosmology and theoretical mathematics to provide independent analysis.”

The Indian representative asked a question this time. “What can we infer about the aliens from this system?”

Fuller took a moment to think about that. He had asked the same question of his team and while there were as many theories as team members, no-one was certain enough to commit.

“At the moment we can’t say with any certainty what, if anything, this represents about the aliens themselves. It does seem to show that they have communicated with new species before, or at least have given it a great deal of thought.”
“Their tests if you will also show a preference for using spatial thinking like geometry to describe complex subjects. Of course, it could be that this is an easier method of sharing information as it less culturally centric.”

“What happens when the process is completed?” This time the interruption came from the Chinese Air Force General.

“The virtual machine appears to package up any changes to itself and then expects that to be transmitted to its source. From our initial inspections it looks like the machine will incorporate further data packages from the source.  We assume that these will expand the knowledgebase it works from, as does our interaction with it. It is likely that new processes and methods can be added. The system appears to be very flexible. Obviously we haven’t been able to test this yet. We need clearance from this council before sending any response.”

Fuller let that hang in the air for a moment, it was Eva Mendes who took the bait. “What is your opinion on this General?”

“I think we should reply. In my report you’ll see the a full breakdown of the data we would input to generate the package.”

The Chinese representative interrupted again. “Doesn’t some of this information reveal any technological weaknesses we have compared to them?”

“Indirectly it does. However, while I certainly wouldn’t want to assume the aliens are benign, we can’t assume they are hostile either. So far they haven’t demonstrated any hostile intent. Of course that could be a ruse, but the situation works both ways. The more information we receive from them helps us. Even if they are presenting some facade, the little bits we have gleaned have already sparked some eager discussion in a few scientific fields.”

“If they do have hostile intent then not replying is not likely to change that. My recommendation is that we send the reply.”

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael enjoyed the meal. He didn’t enjoy the company as much. Usually the commercial director handled the dealings with the UNSC bureaucrats. Every now and again though, it was useful to take a personal interest, fluff their feeling of importance a little.

Discussion over lunch concerned the upcoming tariff changes for orbital cargoes. Once again the import duty was going up, annoying but not unexpected. He let the man opposite him rattle off the justifications, trying to not let the sound of his voice spoil the fine wine they drank.

He had to hand it to the UNSC. They were careful to squeeze as much as they could from orbital traffic, but never too much. They generated enough income to be the only self-sustaining agency within the United Nations and to allow expansion of their assets. Despite the increases they made sure that resource imports were still competitive with the dwindling Earth based resources.

As the meal concluded and pleasantries were exchanged over the concluding coffees Michael remembered the odd message he had received earlier in the month.

“So how about this alien message?” He asked.

“I can’t discuss that.” A curt response, but an interesting one. If it had been a derisory laugh or comment that would have been the end of the matter, but now his interest was piqued.

Hui Zhong’s family home, near Beijing

Hui disembarked from the train a stop earlier than the one closest to her family home. She wanted the extra time to help sort her jumbled mind from its confusion. She already visited the tailor, her new uniforms would be finished in two days. Such quick service would cost extra, but she didn’t mind.

Her mood oscillated between a feeling of pride and nagging doubt. The pride was a swelling that made her feel two metres tall! Then a stab of doubt would worm its way into her mind. The mantle of command came with being an officer, but as a pilot she rarely had to exercise that command. She was the focal point of a well oiled team that required little control from her.

The doubt questioned her ability to command the mission. The paramount importance of the mission weighed that doubt with leaden dread.

Her parents must have been waiting for her. She couldn’t see her father, he no doubt was resting in his favourite chair watching some documentary on the wall-screen. Her mother was there though, small and demure at the gate to the well tended garden. The sight of her dispelled the cloud of doubt.

As her mother called out in greeting, the door opened and her father walked unsteadily into the sunshine. Both in their seventies, they had witnessed the rise and current triumph of modern China They had witnessed the early spurts of growth in the economy. A clever blending of capitalist strengths and party stability created a powerhouse.
The re-unification of Korea, with agreement that the North would unite with the South and as part of the deal, the American forces left the peninsula.

The next step was the conquest of Taiwan. This was less subtle.The American’s weakened forces in Japan and the Pacific able to do little to stem the Chinese wave. The world complained, but the deed was done and no country on Earth dared challenge China’s new found dominance.

From that moment the Chinese nation dedicated their efforts to making deals and soothing the rampant fears of their neighbours. It took thirty years, but the strategy worked. The Asian Alliance now boasted China, India and Japan as its leading members.  Three of world’s six greatest economies, all working together.

The Europeans and the Americans shrank in their influence, they were not weak, but lacking the strength and influence they once wielded.

The only mar on this great march of progress was the commercial enterprises in space. Here the alliance had lost ground, with foreign business and the United Nations swallowing the lion’s share.

And now as she quickened her pace to greet her parents, she knew she would be the one to help break their hold. To be the one to lead this next great step of China’s long march.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Chapter 2 - August 2072

BBC World News Feed

Aliens make contact?
The net is buzzing with the news of the first alien contact. Two weeks ago a signal was received all over the world. Reports have been confirmed from commercial vessels in space, communication satellites and even ham radio operators. The message appears to be a reply to a radio message beamed from the Arecibo Radio Telescope a hundred years ago. 

When contacted for comment on the message’s authenticity both the European Space Agency and the United Nations Space Command declined to comment, both stating that they do not comment on practical jokes.

These official denials just seemed to have fuelled the story, with many commentators on the net accusing the official agencies of a cover up.

Activate to discover more on this story.

United Nations Space Command HQ, Moscow

General Fuller tried to force his concentration back to the squadron readiness report displayed on the roll screen in front of him. In Earth orbit, based on Gateway Station, the UNSC squadron of Dark Hawks were held in constant readiness. Officially and by treaty they formed the only active military combat unit in space. Fuller had his doubts about that, it wasn’t hard to arm a shuttle. Or any other space vessel for that matter.
His focus drifted from the report again. The Security Council had spent almost a week in deliberation, then had finally agreed to reply to the message. The reply had been beamed from the orbital radio telescope and now it was a matter of waiting. At least Fuller had managed to tight beam the response, the alien signal might have been broadcast for everyone to hear, but the reply would be more discrete.

The council had also ordered a blanket cover for the message which was already all over the net and even the more respected news feeds. The UNSC and associated government space agencies were instructed to refuse all comment when asked. Meanwhile a separate team would assemble evidence to establish the message as a fake and the Security Council’s cyber defence teams were already patrolling the net and removing any realistic evidence proving the message real.

Pissing in the wind was an expression that seemed appropriate. Proving the message was genuine wasn’t difficult, the message itself wasn’t hard to read. This wasn’t crop circles, but real science. Simple science at that. Even the layman could comprehend the concept of triangulation.

Although, maybe the banality of it would be enough to keep the story buried. Like most people, even Fuller had expected first contact to be something more dramatic. Maybe that would be enough to confuse the story.

Still, that wasn’t his problem right now. His research team would continue to investigate the signal until a reply was received. Everyone was hoping the reply would bring more useful data, maybe even some clarity for who they were dealing with. In the meantime he still had his regular job to perform. He would continue to make sure that his forces were ready to maintain the strict orbital protocols to prevent any possible re-occurrence of the orbital cascade disaster.

Luna Mining Colony Base, The Moon

“You didn’t have to travel out here sir.” LMC’s Chief of Security greeted Michael Richards as he stepped out of the shuttle.  “But as always it’s good to see you.”

“For something this serious there’s no choice. Besides, “ Michael couldn’t help but grin as they shook hands, despite the seriousness of the reason for his visit. “I don’t need a reason to come here. I think the low G suits me.”

Michael really did enjoy visiting his operations here on the luna surface. It was the linchpin of his empire, but it was more than that. The low gravity and amazing views made this visits such a joy, even in these circumstances.

It was a pity that Rachel didn’t share his joy, she had made the effort, but low gravity disagreed with her. Every time she left Earth she was space sick. She had tried a wide variety medications, even hypnotherapy, but nothing helped.

The administration offices of the facility were tiny compared to the engineering and mining sections. This was as it should be, especially with many of the administrative functions being automated by expert systems.

 Michael took his time on the short walk, taking a moment to greet each of the staff individually. His implant flashed pertinent personal information for the few he didn’t recognise. His staff appreciated this little courtesy and he felt it right he should at least give them a little of his precious time.

Entering his office, much smaller than the one in Johannesburg, he activated the privacy field. The privacy field created magnetic and sub-acoustic distortions, defeating any surveillance devices that might be lurking. Security swept this office and all areas regularly for devices, but it never paid to be too careful.

“So what happened?” Michael asked as Jacob closed the door.

Jacob Manning was British born, ex EU special forces. His small wiry frame belied the many commendations of bravery he had received. They had met seven years ago when Jacob had led the security team protecting an EU delegation visiting South Africa for trade negotiations. They had immediately become friends, unusual in their respective lines of work. When Jacob had left the forces a year later, Michael immediately offered him a job, as Chief of Security here at the Moon base.

As well his combat experience he also brought extensive knowledge of cyber security and intelligence gathering. A rare combination of skills that often proved valuable.

Jacob took a seat opposite Michael. “The attack occurred just before midnight last night. Simple data probes at first, teasing our external network connections, hunting for weaknesses. In less than a second they found a point of entry. The press relations network. It had the usual firewalls and port guardians, but there was a combinatorial flaw in one of the firewalls. A problem with certain media sharing and this specific firewall. We’ve already spoken to the software developers and they’ve patched the problem. The fix is being applied as we speak.”

Michael nodded, Jacob paused, marshalling his thoughts before continuing.

“Once they found a point of entry they surged the attack on all fronts, crude stuff, data bombs and access queries flooding all of the external connections. It was a smokescreen to keep us busy, while the more sophisticated attack wormed its way into the company network.”

“How far did they get?” The important question.

“Luckily not too far. They got into the internal data sites, open information on work policy, human resources, that kind of stuff. The back-up cut offs kicked in when they tried accessing the restricted data.”
Michael leaned forward. “And Project Green?”

Jacob shook his head. “As I say, we got lucky. They didn’t mask the data probes with the secure wrapper, as soon as they tried to push into the restricted partitions, the system smelled a rat and severed all of the external connections.”

“It’s worrying that they found a way in at all, but it could have been far worse.”

Michael agreed, but they might not get so lucky next time. “So what can we do?”

“We’re already paying for the best commercial cyber security packages available. They’re responded well, but there’s always a flaw somewhere. There’s some experimental monitoring systems being worked on, which might help, but they’re pretty much untested. In my opinion, that would be too much of a risk.”

“Another option is to hire some lone guns to sit on the network, provide some close eyes on, maintain more of an active presence that can react if it needs to.”

“Lone guns? You mean hackers?”

Jacob nodded. “Yes, the security companies provide a similar service, but they rarely have the same level of talent as the so-called cyber mercs. They’re expensive, but the good ones are experienced on both sides of the fence.”

“Do you know any good ones?”

“I have leads on a few. It’s not cheap though, probably fifty grand each per week. It would need to be cash, but I’m sure accounting can filter the funds through something appropriate.”

“What about the source, do we know who?”

“Nothing definite. The main suspects are the same – the Chinese. But the actual operation was likely to be Russian Mob, or other freelancers. Declaring war on them would be like trying to fight the whole net. We need something more specific.”

“Can the lone guns provide that?”

“Maybe, but I doubt they could guarantee it. If they did, I’d say they were full of bullshit and not hire them.”
Michael adjusted his posture in the high backed seat while he pondered. “All right, we can’t take the risk. Project Green must remain secure, at all costs. Setup a black fund with three million and get some outside help. Keep pressuring the security companies to up their game. Also get some of these lone guns to run infiltrations on our network, see if there are any other holes that need patching.”

Jacob stood up. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

Michael joined him. “In the meantime, I’m going to take a quick tour of engineering and mining before catching the shuttle back. I’d like to be earth-side before tomorrow, you know how Rachel doesn’t like me to be off-planet for too long.”

Gateway Station, Earth orbit

Squadron Leader Miles Noland escorted General Fuller through the hangers of Gateway Station. After actually reading the readiness report he was disturbed to see that the squadron readiness was only seventy-five percent, a full ten percent below the operational norm. As the only operational squadron of armed shuttles it was vital to maintain adequate readiness.

The squadron’s role was to keep Earth orbit and nearby space clear. They were mandated by UN treaty to provide rescue services and armed intervention, if necessary, for any orbital treaty violations by nations or corporations. The squadron had been operational for eight years, so far no armed intervention had been necessary. Routine customs checks to enforce the rigid UN import and export tariffs however, were common place.

They moved past the new shuttles, each hanging from their launch cradles, partitioned by blast shielding. Each was painted a dark blue, so dark it was almost black.

In the last year the new Dark Hawk shuttles had replaced the older White Star shuttles. The White Stars had been civilian passenger craft, barely capable of reaching high orbit with rudimentary weapons strapped to them. The new Dark Hawk’s were a significant step forward in capability. They could perform heavy lift operations from the surface to the Moon if necessary. They could also transport a platoon of armoured commandos if needed. While still based on a civilian shuttle airframe, the weapons systems were better integrated, making them a much more effective platform.

Of course, as with any new system there were teething problems. This became apparent with the squadron’s reduced state of preparedness.

Another improvement was basing the squadron on Gateway Station instead of the airfield outside Moscow where the training and reserve squadron was based. The station was originally built as a cargo transfer facility by the United States as part of their effort in the Moon colonisation missions. The UN took over and swiftly expanded the station, as well as being the operational base for the UNSC, it housed the primary cargo and passenger transfer terminal for Earth orbit. That would soon change with the completion of the Space Elevator project and then the base would be solely used by the UNSC.

He brought his mind back to the matter at hand. “So what is the situation here Squadron Leader? What’s causing the operational readiness hiccups?”

“It’s the new birds General. The weapon mountings are experiencing vibration damage when in atmospheric flight. It also looks like high stress manoeuvres are also causing other problems.”

Fuller had read the reports. Part of his concentration was distracted by moving in the zero-gravity. He’d been working with space operations for thirty years, but he was never comfortable floating through the air. He always felt clumsy when he moved. The passenger sections of the station used magnetic flooring to keep people grounded. Here in the hangers, it wasn’t used, the technicians preferred the advantages zero gravity provided for their work. He faced the other officer.  “What is the solution?”

“We’re already working with the Russian manufacturer. The Mig-Sukhoi plant is making the required airframe repairs. They’re currently taking two weeks to make the fixes, half the squadron have been completed, so there’s still twelve birds to do. And the training and reserve squadron back on the surface.”

“The deliveries for the new birds are also slower than the original schedule.”

Noland paused for a moment, as if unsure whether to say what was on his mind.

“The plant should be building a new bird every three months, that includes the extra work for the extra problems we’ve encountered. We know they’ve expanded the plant, the time to build the new birds should have gone down, but instead it has doubled.”

“I’ll speak with legal team, get them to chase the Russians. If necessary I follow up in person with the Russian representative.” Fuller would, but the results would be likely be unspectacular. The UNSC was very reliant on the Russians, the bulk of its budget was spent there, which did help smooth things, but sometimes things took longer than planned, especially in Russia. It was interesting about the reduced pace, he would investigate further, see what the Russians were doing with that spare capacity.

“How about the patrol schedule?” Fuller asked and was immediately interrupted by the shriek of an alarm over the PA system. The alarm also buzzed within their skulls through their implants.

They both adopted the flat stare of people accessing their implants as they both called up and reviewed the emergency situation report. An old cargo vessel from the Stellar Collector Corporation was drifting along an escape orbit. The main drive and life support had failed, cause unknown. The three crew members had made it to their pressure suits and had twelve hours of air. The main drive had failed in the middle of a course correction burn that should have pushed the craft towards Earth orbit. The burn had failed, so the ship would pass by Earth and then continue into interplanetary space.

Fuller checked the vectors, the vessel was fifteen hours flight away, even at maximum burn for one of the shuttles. The moon was on the wrong side of the planet for any of the people there to be able to help in time. That left L1 Station.

Damn it! He’d been pushing to have a detachment of UNSC shuttles stationed at L1 for years. It was a superb strategic position. The Chinese and their allies always stonewalled the request and he’d failed to get enough traction to force it through the Security council.

Activating the comms implant, he voiced a message to the command deck. “Patch me with L1 station command. Let’s see if the Chinese can help.”

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

Hui Zhong relaxed, stretched on her bed in her quarters when the emergency call came in over the comms. Her quarters were small, tiny compared to the extravagant spaces she had been shown when she visited Gateway Station. Here at L1 space was at more of a premium and while the space allotted to her was small, it was sufficient for her needs. A bed, small desk and chair, a few uniforms and even fewer personal items didn’t need much space.

Above the bed, on a plain shelf was a holo-projection of her parents, smiling at her from her last leave on Earth. Leave was only short and infrequent, so she cherished the memories of the rare visits. She was doing vital work, but that didn’t mean she missed her family. Her parents were old fashioned, they still use actual text emails for their communications. That quirk just made her love them even more.

The alarm buzzed discreetly inside her skull. She immediately accessed the emergency orders. A rescue mission was needed, a freighter with three trapped crew. Once again the cost-cutting of the greedy corporations had caused a problem. That wouldn’t prevent her doing her duty. Her duty was clear, any nearby agency was required to assist in any mayday call.

The habitat modules were spun on their axis to provide the illusion of gravity. She ran against the spin towards the shuttle bays. After scrambling down the access ladder she was once again in zero gravity and nimbly propelled herself along the walls, using the handily placed rungs to guide her movement.

She quickly reached the shuttle, there she found the technicians bustling to prep the shuttle for launch. At the rear three black clad marines loaded the cutting equipment they might need into the cargo pod. They trained continuously to board space vessels either as a hostile mission, or for rescues, their training and experience would be essential.

Within minutes they had launched. The course to the drifting freighter was locked into the navigation system. Normally they would conserve fuel by burning fuel only for course corrections and the initial boost. This time they would burn all the way to the target, the timing would still be tight.

At the time of the incident the crew had made it into their suits, that would give them twelve hours of air. Over an hour had already passed since then, even at full burn it would take ten hours to reach the stricken ship. That left them less than an hour to gain entry and rescue the crew when they arrived.

LMC Transport, Approaching Earth orbit

Michael Richards was catnapping on the shuttle ride, trying to regain his energy before landing back in Johannesburg. There was a company event that evening, he was due to give a speech, the press would be there and wanted to be at his sharpest.

The pilots’ voice over the intercom startled him from his dreams. “Sorry to disturb you sir. I thought you would want to hear this.” Michael dragged himself upright, he had known Jeff for many years, he wouldn’t disturb him without good reason.

Wiping the sleep from his eyes he asked “What’s up Jeff?”

“Some flash traffic on the net. One of Stella’s freighters is in trouble.”

Fully awake now. The space exploitation industry was worth many billions, but it was a small family, for the commercial participants anyway. Stella was the nickname for the Stellar Collecters. They  were a small business, mineral extraction from one of the metal rich Near Earth Orbit asteroids. They only had the one freighter, the other was in dry dock at the EU/US Moon Shipyard. That meant it was Pa Jackman, Senior to his family in charge of the vessel. A man he had met many times.

“What’s the problem?”

“Major systems failure, they’re dead in the water. “

“Where? Can we help?”

“No sir. It’s on the far side of planet on a divergent course. The Chinese are the nearest and they’ve already launched a shuttle. They should rendezvous before we hit atmosphere.”

“Thanks Jeff. Let me know if you hear anything.”

“Will do sir.”

American News Network, Offbeat section

The aliens are coming!
Researchers at the American UFO Institute have announced the conclusive proof of contact from an alien race. In a presentation the owner of the information feed showed us some grainy images [Activate to view images] and played a digital signal that they claim originates from outside our Solar System.

When contacted for their comment officials from NASA and the US Air Force both declined to comment. They both stated that they could not comment on imagined UFO activity.

Activate to view the alien message.

Shuttle Zheng He, Leaving Earth orbit

The drifting freighter was now in visual range, without needing magnification. Hui voiced a crisp instruction to the Marine officer to prepare for contact. Her co-pilot scanned the immediate area, looking for debris that might cause a hazard to their approach.

She took her time examining the vessel. She could see no damage, no obvious cause for its distress.
The braking manoeuvre had started four hours earlier and their speed now matched that of the freighter.  At the same relative speed, it was now easier to manoeuvre closer. She opened a communications channel to the freighter, trying to establish a connection. There was no response, even the automated system were silent.

She locked onto the frequency of the suit’s emergency channel, tried again. Still no response.

She checked her sensors, the ship was cold. No heat traces.

Hui informed the marines of the lack of response, they were still within the time envelope for the mission, the trapped cxrew should still have air. She hoped there would still be time.

While the marines depressurised the cargo pod Hui brought the shuttle in closer. The side airlock on the crew module looked clear, she spun the shuttle so the rear faced the airlock.

The marines, insect like in their shiny carapace suits pushed themselves into space, then clamped themselves to the freighter hull as they landed. They cycled the airlock, with no pressure inside the ship, the cycle passed quickly.

In less than a minute the marines were inside the ship. They moved as quickly as they could in their bulky suits to the flight deck. It took another two minutes to reach the flight deck. There they found the three suited bodies, the life support panels showed dangerous levels of CO2 in suits’ atmosphere. Deftly the marines attached replacement air breathers, pumping oxygen into the suits, flushing the poisonous gas out.

“They still have pulses.” The marine officer reported, causing an outbreak of smiles back on the shuttle. Hui sent a report on the net to Gateway and L1. The crew would need medical treatment, but they’d be all right. She’s saved the greedy foreign devils and she enjoyed the small feeling of pride within her.

United Nations Space Command HQ, Moscow

Even in Moscow the summer was sweltering. Each year it seemed to get worse. Not for the first time Fuller was grateful for the air conditioning in his office. Near the end of the month a reply had finally been received from the aliens. The techs had recorded the message, and where busy analysing it now. So far they had no idea what the message contained, but their best guess was that it was some kind of computer program.
In the meantime the general focused on other pressing matters. He followed up with the Dark Hawk production issues. The Mig-Sukoi contact provided no clear answers, so he called on a friend at the Russian Defence Ministry.

Over strong coffee he learned that the Russian Air Force was expanding its orbital capabilities. It was being done quietly in response to Chinese expansion in the same arena.

That information didn’t help with the production problems, but his friend was able to apply some pressure. The project mnager reluctantly agreed to speed up the upgrades and see what he could do about the new builds.

This intelligence meant there was a new problem to worry about. The last thing he needed was the Russians and the Chinese facing off on his turf. He worked late into the night pouring over intelligence reports, trying to find some concrete evidence. He would need something solid to before going to the Security Council.

Really he was waiting. Waiting to learn what the new message contained.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Chapter 1 – July 2072

United Nations Space Command Headquarters, Moscow

General David Fuller flattened the roll-screen on the desk in front of him. He had the same cranial implants as most people these days, but he liked the tactile feel of the paper-thin screen. He could feel it respond as he touched it to activate the briefing notes he had hastily compiled only minutes before.

He filled a glass of iced water from the pitcher in front of him and watched various uniformed aides bustle about, preparing for the imminent arrival of the various Security Council representatives.

Outwardly he presented his usual face of calm authority, inwardly though, he felt anything other than calm. In all of his ten years as commander of the UNSC he had never had to brief anyone on anything as earth shattering as this. Even his briefing of the President of the United States as a Colonel in the Air Force on the low Earth orbit cascade event twenty years ago, paled in comparison. With another sip of water he glanced at the clock, the time was approaching one in the morning, the representatives would arrive soon.

The first to arrive was Mike Davis, an old comrade from his days in the air force. They had both been colonels back then, at the tail end of his twenty year service. Mike had stayed with the air force, continuing to serve his country. Like David, he was a general now.

Times had changed since then of course, from the fledging agency reliant on assistance from the various national space agencies , air forces and corporations, the UNSC had grown into the dominant force that regulated space travel, in Earth orbit at any rate.

Mike spoke a quick greeting to his aide, before walking up to David who rose to shake his friend’s hand.
“Quite something eh David?” His opening statement had the usual wry tone of understatement.
“I never thought we would see the day. All these years of searching and nothing. And now this...”

General Fuller was interrupted by the arrival of the other delegates, every permanent member of the Security Council had sent an official. Mike nodded and returned to his seat next to the European Union representative. She was a striking woman called Eve Mendes, she had been the EU’s representative to the UNSC almost as long as David had been its commander. They conferred briefly in hushed towns while everyone else took their places. Within moments they were all seated and their aides retreated out of view. A few helped themselves to water, all waiting for the general to begin.

He took a calming breath, cleared his throat and began. “Six hours ago an orbital radio telescope received a signal. From our initial analysis the signal appears to have three repeating components. Each repeats the same sequence three times before the next is received. The overall message is repeated, again three times before the signal ends.”

“ The first part is an exact duplicate of the radio message transmitted from the Arecibo telescope back in the 20th century. We believe this is intended to get our attention and to clearly identify the signal as not being natural in origin.”

 “The second component of the message follows the same pattern as the original Arecibo message, but the content is changed. Different.”

“Different how?” The precise English was spoken by the Chinese delegate.

“We’re still analysing the data and not everything in the message has been changed, but here’s what we have extracted so far.”

Fuller stabbed at the roll screen before him and a discrete projector, blended into the ceiling blossomed into light. A clear image representing the original message was displayed on the cream wall beside him.
“Looking at the original message,  we can see it was comprised of seven segments.” He touched the pad again, the top row of some spaced dots in the message became highlighted. “The first section are the numbers one to ten, represented in binary format. This part of the message is unchanged.”

Another stab with his finger and the next portion becomes highlighted. “This next section shows the numbers one, six, seven, eight and fifteen. Again, these are represented in binary.”

“We’ll have to take your word for that General.” A light hearted interruption from the South African representative. “It just looks like a bunch of dots to me!” Some polite chuckles in response around the table.

Fuller offered a brief smile and dived straight back in. “It’s here that we see the first change in the message. In the second message the numbers are one, six, twelve and fourteen. In the original message the numbers represented hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorous – the elements found in DNA. In the new message, assuming the same atomic number classification we use, the numbers represent hydrogen, carbon, magnesium and silicon.”

Another interruption, this time from the Indian representative, him and Eva from the EU were the only civilians in the room. “Why would we have to assume that the atomic numbers would follow the same pattern?”

He doesn’t know, Fuller thought to himself in surprise. Even though this was the first briefing on the contact he had assumed that all of the representative governments already knew, after all the message had been sent in the clear, anybody could have received it. The Chinese delegate whispered quickly into the Indian’s ear, who paled slightly in surprise, before motioning for Fuller to continue.

“The next part is unchanged in the new message, in the original it describes the molecular formula for the nucleotide in DNA. We believe that whoever reconstructed the message, didn’t understand this section, or it has no relevance to them, so left it as is.”

He paused for a moment, drank some more chilled water before continuing. “Here in this next section the original message shows a crude representation of the double helix. The vertical bar between the helix shows a rather inaccurate count of the nucleotides. This central bar is unchanged in the new message, again we think that the sender didn’t understand that part of the original message.”

“However, they did change the double helix. The representation is crude, but the image appears to be intersecting six sided polygons. Our research team haven’t come to any conclusions about this yet, although one did remark that the structure was reminiscent of some plant cells.”

“Next we have a picture of a human in the middle, the dots on either side are binary representations of the average human height on the left and the population of Earth on the right. The number was just over four billion back then, less than half the current world population. Again, both numbers are unchanged in the new message, but the figure is different. It looks like a flattened sphere.”

Another pause, everyone sat rapt, watching him. He presses the control to move the highlight and continued.
“Below that we have the representation of the solar system, with the sun as the largest block to the left and nine planets in a line to the right. Earth is lifted to signify that is our home planet. Back then the ninth planet was Pluto, it was still considered a planet. We now know Hades, discovered in 2043 as the ninth planet in the solar system.”

“This diagram of the solar system has been altered in the new message, it shows ten planets and it is the fourth planet that is highlighted. We don’t know at this stage whether this represents their home system, or if it represents our solar system in some way.”

“Finally we have an image representing the radio telescope the message was transmitted from. This also has been changed, it now shows a disk or flattened sphere, similar to the picture that replaced the human image. We’re not sure if there’s any connection.”

“As I stated at the beginning, we received the message only a few hours ago, so there’s still a lot of investigation to do and no real analysis has been performed yet. I’ve taken the interim measure of declaring this a code black issue, so only UNSC personnel and Security Council members can access the data.”
“That being said, the message was broadcast in the clear and could have been received by any number of civilians or agencies. This won’t remain a secret for long.”

General Mike Davis leaned forward. “Earlier you mentioned the message had three parts, the first the original message, the second the new message. What is the third”

Fuller turned off the projection. “We don’t know. Our best guess at the moment is that it is a formula of some kind. The crypto guys and some math geeks are digging into it now.”

Eve Mendes then asked. “How do we know the signal is genuine? It doesn’t seem that difficult to put this message together.”

Fuller nods in reply, it was the first question he asked the techs that had brought this to him only a few short hours ago.

“While we don’t have exact numbers yet, we do know that the signal originates outside the solar system. How far we don’t know and ideally we need the signal to repeat to get a better triangulation. However, the early indications are that the source is some distance outside the solar system, but not by much and that it is moving towards us.”

Shuttle Zheng He, L1 Station

Senior Pilot Hui Zhong adjusted the approach vector of the shuttle, aligning it on the path to the L1 station. This station was the pride of the Indo-Chinese space effort, first built over thirty years ago to support the international effort to colonise the Moon.

The station itself was constructed in the first Lagrange point, an area in space that due to the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Moon allowed any station positioned there to remain in a stable position. This means it doesn’t require any expensive constant course vectoring. That made it the ideal spot to support the early moon missions.

Much had changed since then, the international partnership soon frayed thanks to commercial concerns. The Moon was now the possession of the Americans, the Europeans and their corporate lackeys. They lacked the honour of the businesses that supported China’s growth.

Now the station was once again the fulcrum for their next great effort. L1 was the launch point for the next great march, the journey to Mars and then to Jupiter. And she was proud to be part of that effort, the effort that would be break the frustrating corporate dominance in space.

The narrow view slits in front of her offered poor visibility. The cranial implants gathered sensor data directly from the shuttle, allowing her to view the space around her from a myriad of views and wavelengths. It was a glorious view.

She loved it out here in the black. There wasn’t a feeling like it. The paradox of the darkness of space, studded with the dense blankets of stars always inspired a feeling of wonder within her. Many found the dead silence, broken only by the occasional transmission oppressive, but she basked in it. Only out here did she find the solitude she craved.

Her young co-pilot, having flown with her many times on the regular supply runs from Earth to the station, knew well to keep himself to himself. He kept the chatter to a minimum,  speaking only if some business needed to be conducted. She was pleased that he allowed her to enjoy the peace of the journey.
They were already two hours from Earth orbit, having been cleared for transit by Gateway station and were now less than three hours from L1 station.

She scanned the space around her, no other traffic for thousands of kilometres in every direction. The location of the station ahead was clearly highlighted in the view from her implants. The nearest object was the navigation buoy positioned ten thousand kilometres from the station. The radio beacon pulsed an energetic gold, providing clear guidance for the approach to the station.

The time passed quickly, an hour out from the station they passed the silent watchers, an array of passive sensors unmarked on any UNSC charts. This was the stations first line of defence, a tripwire for any stealthy approach to the station. Technically this was a violation of the orbital treaties, that didn’t bother her.
As they approached the station, a light winked into view positioned on the station itself, over the comms the clear voice of the flight command entered her mind.

“Shuttle Zheng He. Approaching clearance point. Vector in the green. Transmit confirmation.”

Hui concentrated, triggering the personal clearance system, an implant that combined her heart signature with her DNA fingerprint, transformed by the code of the day she thought of when activating the implant. The unique code was transmitted along the secure channel, identifying her as the senior pilot on this shuttle. Pressing a control on the panel in front of her did the same for the ship. It was one of the few actions that couldn’t be controlled through her implants. Her co-pilot also transmitted his personal identification. The command deck on the station winked green in acknowledgement.

“Continue on course. Prepare for docking handshake in one-five minutes.”

Hui checked the time display in her head, setting an announcement due one minute before the docking initiation. The station was now clearly visible to the shuttles sensors. It lacked the sterile, clean symmetry of Gateway Station. Even at this distance it looked battered and old. It was a jumble of gantries and modules, almost haphazardly thrown together.

L1 station was currently home to nearly three hundred engineers and military personnel. Most of them were Chinese, although a growing number were Indian. Even a few Japanese has recently transferred to the station. The reason for this combined effort lay beside the station.

A vast vessel, still under construction shadowed the station. Named “The Long March” in memory of the great revolution and the ancient rockets that first launched China into space. This was the ship that would take them to Mars and then on to Jupiter. And Hui would be the chief pilot for this great ship, the largest space vessel ever construction. It dwarfed even the new mega-freighters of the Luna Mining Company.
The light from the command deck bloomed again.

“Initiate docking handshake.” Travelling with the voice communication a red datastream stretched from the station to the shuttle. Hui activated the docking system, allowing the incoming transmission connect with the shuttle’s systems. The datastream turned green as the connection was made and verified.
From this point on the approach was completely automated and Hui could only watch as the shuttle was brought into the great hope for her country and people.

Luna Mining Corporation Headquarters, Johannesburg

Michael Richards stood at the sidelines and watched the well dressed crowd. More accurately, he watched his wife, Rachel, work the crowd. In her late forties she had managed to maintain the figure and looks that made her such a success as fashion model all those years ago. He knew that many considered his marriage to be one of convenience. Him, as one of the richest men in the world and her one of the most desirable, even now. She was also rich in her own right, but her wealth was dwarfed by his corporate fortune.

The truth was an even bigger cliché, although in a good way. They fell in love and married quickly and neither regretted it. Business occupied most of his time, for her it was the quest against poverty and injustice. He didn’t follow the same passion, but for her he was happy to put the resources of his empire to support her. Besides the company had a history of philanthropic deeds.

It might be his building, but tonight was her evening.

He enjoyed watching her mingle, admired her natural charm and grace. She really turned it on for these fundraisers. Here in the global headquarters of his business, a business worth more than most national economies, it was easy to forget the squalor that existed a few scant miles away.

Unlike most mega-corporations, his was still a family owned business. He was the chairman and majority shareholder. The company wasn’t called the Luna Mining Corporation at the start.  It was the Australian Mineral Company and was founded by his great-grandfather nearly a century ago. The business had started in mining in the Australian outback, then in his grandfather’s time as the Australian mines started to run dry they diversified into Africa. By the time his father took over the business even the African reserves were becoming harder and harder to access.

His father, Peter Richards had taken the biggest gamble in the history of the company and sought new fortunes in a new arena – in space.  In the early 21st century the commercialization of space had begun in earnest, but was still centred around communications. A few bold pioneers ventured to some of the near-Earth asteroids and proved the feasibility of extracting mineral resources and bringing them back to an every hungry Earth.

Peter Richards has seen these first efforts and joined them with his own. He saw a wider opportunity, there was money to be made not only in extracting resources for the factories on Earth, but in providing supplies for the expanding space industry. He gambled the company’s fortune on establishing a small colony on the Moon. Itself only recent colonised by an international coalition of space agencies.

Once on the Moon the colony started to process Helium-3, as well as water and rare minerals. Water and the minerals were immediately profitable. Many back on Earth considered the processing of Helium-3 as folly. After all, Helium-3 could be created on Earth quite cheaply. At the time fusion power was limited to huge complex ground based reactors, then smaller reactors became a reality and fusion drives became the de facto propulsion system for space ships. The demand for Helium-3 surged dramatically and Peter’s gamble paid off. Since then the company dominated the Helium-3 market and were able to sell it at a low enough price to discourage competition.

The company, now called the Luna Mining Corporation still maintained its ties with the African continent. The early promises of AI and robotics have failed to deliver. Manual labour was still needed out in space, robots were only suitable for some of the work needed. The corporation, unlike many had a fair reputation in Africa. Africa also still had the advantage of minimal employment safety law that made European, American and even Asian workers too expensive to use for such dangerous work.

Compared to other companies they paid a reasonable wage and treated their workers fairly. They also invested heavily in the governments of the nations they dealt with, helping improve the local infrastructure and stability. That relationship continued to pay dividends and was one of the reasons Michael was happy to support his wife’s endeavours.

Now it was Michael’s turn at the helm, his father having died within the last few years ago. Some new form of cancer the doctor’s hadn’t seen before. It was chalked up as one of the dangers of spending extended periods of time in space, in poorly shielded vessels. Of course, safety was much improved now from those lessons learned, but too late to save his father.

Already Michael was looking to build on his father’s legacy and he had steered the company through the aftermath of the low-Earth orbit cascade event. Coming out the other side stronger, having consolidated the assets of some of the other independents who hadn’t survived so well.

Movement in front of him brought him out of his reverie, the crowd was arraying themselves in front of the podium. His wife was already on the low stage, beckoning him to join her. It was speech time, he put on his best smile and made his way to the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. Thank you all for coming tonight in support of this vital cause. It always fills me with great hope when seeing the wonderful generosity you all show at these gatherings ...”

United Nations Security Council, New York

General Fuller left the Security Council meeting frustrated. Despite his protestations they had ordered that the alien contact remain secret from the general public. He knew that this was futile. He told him them in no uncertain terms that this would be a wasted effort. The signal had been sent for all to hear, already radio hams and research facilities across the globe were investigating the signal. It was already available on the net for anyone to download. It would not be long before some were able to verify it was authentic.

In the few days since receiving the signal, there had been only one major breakthrough. The third and final part of the signal had been deciphered. One of the computer technicians had made the breakthrough. It was a complex algorithm, a method for compressing data. Burst transmissions had been used for over century to transmit large quantities of data in a short burst. This new system did the same, but with a level of compression previously unimagined.

On its own it represented a leap forward for communications, what other technologies could they learn from further contact?

It also contained a response, a message to be sent to confirm that the signal had been received and understood. The Security Council was now deliberating whether to send the response, but General Fuller, commander of the UNSC, would not be part of those discussions.