Sunday, 13 May 2012

Chapter 19 - January 2074

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020740125.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [248] [010] [+/- 11%]
Calculating velocity... 32377585 [+/- 7%] km/h
Calculating distance... 62009551681 [+/- 12%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 690 [+/-  9%] days
Calculating signal lag... 2 [+/- 4%] days
Priority override...HIGH

United Nations Orbital Command Headquarters, Moscow

 General Fuller’s secretary led Monique Abbot through to the General’s office. She declined the offer of refreshments then took the offered seat.

“Minister Abbots. This is a surprise. We rarely see you out here.”

“I prefer to stay in New York, but I knew I would find you here General. Even at this hour. And it is only an hour’s flight.”

Fuller knew it was late, but he hadn’t realised how late. He sent a message to his secretary to go and get a few hours sleep. He returned his attention to the South African Security Council representative.

“It’s always a pleasure to see you. Now how can I help you at this late hour?”

“I wanted to speak to you in person about the new weapon control laws. “

That grabbed his attention. “What new weapon control laws?” His role wasn’t that of a lawmaker, he didn’t have a vote on the Council, even for space matters. However it was customary for him to be consulted.

“How much do you like your job General?”

He wasn’t expecting that tangent. “What do you mean Ms Abbots?”

“Relax General. I’m here for a conversation, I’m not threatening you in any way. I’ve come to warn you.”

“I think you had better explain what is going on.”

“Of course General.” She offered a small smile. “Early next month the Chinese are going to submit a new law. They want to restrict weapons above a certain yield from privately owned ships. They of course have Japanese and Indian support. The EU and the Americans will naturally vote against. They see private enterprise as a counter-balance for the Asian Alliance in space.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Before the vote on this, there’ll be another vote. As you know your command is due for renewal next year. We all think it makes sense that our current commander remains in charge for the duration of the alien visit.”

“You want me to toe the line to keep my job.” Fuller felt some anger, but also more than a little surprise. Monique Abbots had never seemed the type for this kind of play.

She replied with a grin. “Yes I do General, but not in the way that you think. General Po Ling will be visiting you in due course. He will want to you to support their bill. He knows you support private enterprise, however he’ll want your support. If he doesn’t get it, you’ll be replaced.”

“You want me to go against my publically stated opinion? Won’t that strike him as strange?”

“No it won’t. Not if you use the incoming aliens as your justification. You don’t have to be ecstatic about it, in fact some reluctance will help sell it. “

“I do think that private enterprise is the future. While I don’t want them to start arming themselves, there’s no indications that is happening. Beyond the light meteor upgrades the LMC have started. And after that near-miss of theirs I can hardly blame them.”

“That’s not something you need to worry about. That law won’t pass.”

“How can you be so certain?”

“They have three votes. Two guaranteed against. That leaves two floaters, myself and the Russians. My vote is against, they’ll expect that, especially with South Africa’s known ties with private space corporations, especially the LMC. So that makes the votes even, leaving the Russians.”

“They nearly always support the Chinese.”

“True, nearly always. However they will support themselves first. It is very much in their interests that this bill does not pass.”


“Well the point defences the LMC are buying are being supplied by the Russians, and they are a marginally higher yield than the proposed limit. That deal is worth a lot of money to the Russians. Not only that, they want to market their mass driver technology. They see that as a competitor to the space elevator. So they very much want to be seen as a friend to private enterprise.”

She smiled again. “Of course there’s also been a lot of backroom diplomacy. The end result is that the Chinese are in for a bit of a surprise.”

“And my continuing as Commander of the UNOC isn’t such a sure thing?”

“Not if the Chinese think you can’t be relied on. I know you’ve already been sniffing around their operations. If you’re not in charge you’ll find that very difficult. On this the Russians don’t have a stake, so will support their vote. At best abstain. The Europeans might even be pressured into voting against for concessions elsewhere. So play along with General Ling. Give him what he wants, Your term will be extended. We’ll then spring our surprise. Anyway. Think about it.”

“How will the Chinese react?”

“They won’t be happy, but what can they do?”

That’s what worried Fuller.

With that she stood. “Thanks for your time General.”

“Always a pleasure Minister.”

CNSA Resupply Vessel, en route to Mars

The failure of the asteroid strike still haunted Hui. She could accept that the LMC got lucky, but something nagged her about it. The lack of censor in her record didn’t help. It seemed that she required some punishment for her failure, if high command wouldn’t provide it then her own mind would. In her off hours she studied the data of the attack. Over and over again. Unfortunately all she had was some long range optical scans and the Deep Space tracking records from the UNOC.

The radar timeline showed what she expected. The asteroid fragments don’t show up on the radar until they were less than two hundred miles from the shipyard. Still something didn’t seem quite right.

She’d stared at the same sequence a dozen times, maybe more. Played it back in a full virtuality and on her rollscreen. A dozen times, maybe more. Each time it seemed the same. Then it struck her. The freighter started turning towards the incoming asteroid before it is detected on the radar.

Why would they do that?

Hui turned to the optical scans. She compared the scans from the time of the attack. Looking for any differences that might give her a clue. She spotted something, but not what she expected.

The new scans showed two sleek craft approaching the shipyard. Their silhouettes looked familiar. They looked like the Dark Hawks the UNOC flew. Had the UNOC made a deal to base ships there? Or were they paying some kind of visit. It seemed unusual, the UNOC rarely left Earth orbit.

She examined the close-ups, the resolution was frustratingly low, but detailed enough she could see some differences. She accessed the flight records for the time the images were taken, only 24 hours previously. Two shuttles being delivered. Apparently civilian models. The Dark Wings were based on a civilian airframe the Russians exported. Apparently that explained the delivery.

Two thoughts struck her as strange. The first that the LMC had its own shuttle assembly plant, so why buy Russian models? That makes little sense, the LMC and Russian shuttles shared no common technology. The second that these apparently civilian shuttles had the same conformal changes used by the Dark Wings.

Hui assembled her data. She appended her conclusion that the Luna Mining Corporation were buying armed shuttles, then sent the report to CNSA high command.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chapter 18 - December 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020731225.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [249] [008] [+/- 12%]
Calculating velocity... 43170114 [+/- 8%] km/h
Calculating distance... 85321413215 [+/- 13%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 724 [+/-  10%] days
Calculating signal lag... 3 [+/- 5%] days
EZRead POI: Pass Sedna orbit
Priority override...HIGH

Arabian Solar Farm offices, Bagdad

The first day of meetings went well. Michael never had reason to deal with the Islamic League before. They weren’t very active in the space industry. The ores and minerals they did buy were usually supplied by the Europeans. The ESA also handled the usual satellites that any nation needed to function.

For the first half of the 21st century the Arab and Islamic nations fought a series of wars, mostly against the Americans. After successive defeats and with rapidly declining oil revenues they began to consolidate. Iran was the last of the Islamic nations in the Middle East to join the League. In 2055 after brief war with Turkey and Israel they were soundly defeated and joined the League. From that moment the League covered from Tunisia all the way to Pakistan in the east.

The Islamic League grew ever more isolated as the years passed. They focussed their efforts on becoming self sufficient, reducing and eventually eliminating their reliance on other countries. Politically  they evolved a system that blended democratic representation with Islamic law. They built vast solar farms to provide power for themselves and export to Europe for international currency. Their quest for self sufficiency was a direct contrast to the rest of the world, but it seemed to work for them.

Huge areas of desert were transformed into farmland. They were able to grow enough food to feed their population. They no longer interested themselves in other nations’ business. Israel remained a point of contention, although with their alliance with Turkey had adopted a more defensive posture. A low grade war of wars still existed, but actual conflict ceased. So now the Islamic League looked inward, the rest of the world liked it that way and left them to themselves.

Michael Richards hoped that this isolated independent power would provide what he needed. Jacob provided some intelligence that indicated this could be the case. New factions, especially amongst the business community, looked to expand their interests. This new desire to expand could provide the opportunity Michael needed.

He met with Amir yesterday. Amir was a large powerful man, both physically and financially. He led the principal shareholders in the Arabian Solar Farms. Michael pitched the proposed trade mission to Amir over a series of meetings. At first with the aides and finally Amir himself. Michael was convinced that the businessman had some prior knowledge of the alien contact. It certainly hadn’t come as a surprise.

The business with the solar farms was purely for investment. Michael’s initial pitch had stuck to that line, however, there was a greater prize to be had. Samir had extensive political contacts and according to Jacob was exactly the man who could provide the weapons they needed.

Michael drank more of the sweet tea, placing the glass on the table in front of him as he heard the door open. He immediately stood as Samir entered the room. They shook hands with warm greetings.
“It is good to see you again Mr Richards. Please, come into my office.”

Michael followed Amir into his office. They sat opposite each other on luxuriant chairs. The office space was a large open space, the full sized windows providing a rich view of the city below.

“Would like any refreshment Mr Richards?”

“No, I’m fine thank you.”

“Straight to business then. I have discussed your proposals with my advisors. They seem to think it is a solid proposition. However. “ His voice lowered slightly. His aides discreetly left the office. “We are aware that you require more from us than you have told us.”

Michael nodded. “That is true. My intention was certainly that our business relationship would develop into something greater. I know it is not the custom to rush these things.”

Samir smiled, his full beard failing to hide the width of that smile. “Ordinarily it would be my pleasure to indulge a  partnership that matured over time. You are correct, that is how we prefer to do business. Time unfortunately for this venture is not in abundance.”

“So tell me Mr Richards, what exactly do you want from us? And please be candid.”

“The proposals I put to you yesterday are an important part. We do need financial investment to fund the trade. It is, as you’ve guessed, only a part of what we need.”

“Our intelligence indicates that the Chinese intend to try and prevent the trade with the aliens.”

“Before we go into that. Hasn’t the UN already agreed to trade with the aliens? Wouldn’t that interfere with your plans?”

“We’ve already contacted the aliens directly. They have agreed to deal with both parties. Besides, I don’t believe the Asian Alliance will allow the UNOC to make the trade. “

“And how do you intend to complete the deal if the Chinese and their friends are trying to stop it?”

Michael took a deep breath before replying. “We will fight them. I’m hoping it won’t come to that, but we need to be prepared.”

“So now we come to it. You want us to provide the weapons you need. Before we go into that, answer this question.  You believe the Chinese could stop the UNOC mission. Why won’t they stop you as easily?”

“That is a fair question. If the trade was to take place on Earth or even close by then our task would be difficult, suicidal even. In deep space their power isn’t so absolute. With your help we can match the Chinese and complete the trade. A trade that will benefit the consortium and mankind in general.”

“We also have an advantage over the UNOC.”

“What might that be?”

“We’re not part of the United Nations.”

“But you are subject to its edicts.”

“That is true, but we do not have committees populated with our enemies. The danger for the UNOC are the politics within, probably more so than the forces the Chinese are sending to Mars.”

Samir considered this, then nodded in agreement. “One more question. How do you plan on crewing the weapons? I can see how you can arm your freighters, but creating combat crews will be very difficult. Only a few countries operate combat ready vessels.”

Michael had been discussing this very concern a few days previously with Jacob Manning. They agreed to complete a full conversion on three of the small freighters. The crews for these ships would get full training. Jacob also secured the services of a European start up PMC. They were specialists in space security, comprising of experts from various air forces. These three ships would form the core of the fleet, a strike force allowing them to take the initiative, if needed.

The rest of the freighters would be upgraded as part of their maintenance cycles. Primarily this would be point defences and training would be provided on their use, against meteors. New weapon packages would be assembled in cargo pods, so they could easily be added when the time came. Meanwhile a cadre of weapon specialists would be trained in secret and deployed on the ships before they departed from Mars. It was far from the ideal approach, but it offered the best chance for maintaining secrecy.

The last piece of the puzzle was off the shelf expert systems. A number of systems for target tracking and engagement were easily available. They would need upgrading, Jacob already had a team working on this.
Michael explained this plan to Samir. Samir considered what he heard before replying. “That seems a reasonable plan. Expensive, but relatively low key. However, I don’t think we can provide all that you need and the bit we can is going to cost you.”

He stroked his beard. “You see, we maintain a small annual growth of our armed forces. Nothing too dramatic, we don’t want to  make our neighbours nervous. So if we start selling you large quantities of our inventory, we’d need to replace it and that would cause notice.“

He noticed that Michael seemed about to speak, so raised his hand to forestall him. “Please let me finish. Now after studying the problem with our defence ministry, they see a few options. Don’t worry, this was done in complete secrecy. We can upgrade some of our older patrol boats and surface to air systems. We can pretend they were scrapped when replaced with the newer systems we buy from the Russians. We would expect not to be out of pocket on these upgrades.”

Michael’s turn to contemplate. It wasn’t as good as he’d hoped, but neither was it as bad as he feared. “I’d like to see a list of the inventory we would gain from that?”

“Of course Mr Richards. First let us discuss terms. Rather than a simple return on our investment, we want something more.”

“More in what way?”

“We want to become full partners in this venture. We want to benefit from the new technology from this deal. We also want to join the consortium to help our businesses expand into space. Finally we also want you to use your influence to help us enter the African markets. It’s time the League entered the wider world again and you will help us do that.”

“Well that seems achievable, you are asking a lot, especially as you are not able to provide everything we need.”

“I can help you with that. What if we increased the financial investment? Some of it would be counted towards the cost of the naval and air defence upgrades. I can also put you in touch with a useful Russian contact. The Russians are past masters at selling weapons without others knowing. I can assure you they will help make up the shortfall. For a price of course.”

“Samir, I think we might have a deal.”

Monday, 7 May 2012

Chapter 17 - November 2073

Deep Space Automated Tracking System

Updating target track: UKX7834-101
Timestamp: 0020731125.23.59
Calculating destination vector... [247] [009] [+/- 13%]
Calculating velocity... 53962642 [+/- 9%] km/h
Calculating distance... 116403895260 [+/- 14%] km
Calculating time to intercept... 753 [+/-  11%] days
Calculating signal lag... 4 [+/- 6%] days
EZRead POI: Sedna
Priority override...HIGH

Luna Mining Colony Base, the Moon

“Are you certain?” Michael Richards asked. Jacob sat opposite him, he looked tired, very tired. He’d spent the past week investigating the near miss at the shipyard. A long sleepless week in which he had determined that the event was not natural occurrence. It was a deliberate attack.

“I’m certain.”

Thankfully the attack hadn’t caused any deaths beyond those of the brave freighter crew. A few small chunks hit the station, the holes quickly patched. The shipyard back up and running again in a few hours.


“Two things indicate that the attack was deliberate. First is the shroud that concealed the asteroid’s approach. We were able to retrieve some of the material. It’s a radar absorbent smart material. It’s able to adapt its temperature to the ambient temperature around it. It also adapts its surface in a chameleon like fashion.” He paused. “If we hadn’t been running the sparkle dust test at the right time...”

Michael nodded, they had been lucky. “Do you know who made the shroud?”

“Unfortunately not. There’s nothing unique about the technology, although it has been used in a novel way. It could have been made in Europe, America, anywhere.”


“China, India, Japan. Hell even Indonesia has the resources to make this stuff. It’s a standard stealth material, used on all manner of vehicles. It wouldn’t hold up against military grade active sensors, not at close range anyway. It didn’t need to. This was well planned and executed.”

Michael felt weary himself. He took a moment to compose his thoughts. It had to be China, nothing else would make sense. Without proof nothing could be done. Even with proof what options were there? The LMC might be one of the most powerful corporations in the world, but China was the superpower. Not only that, it was the leader amongst an alliance of super powers.

“You said there were two indications?”

“Yes, we were fortunate to find it. One of the asteroid fragments that hit the shipyard has a groove along its length. The groove is microscopic, but caught the light in a way that interested the repair crew. An industrial forensics team examined it. It’s a micro-fracture. The straightness of it indicates it was created by a tunnelling robot.”

Jacob rubbed a hand across his face.

“I ordered one of the tugs to examine further fragments, some of the smaller ones captured by the Moon’s gravity. One of them had the same groove. Somebody broke that asteroid apart.”


“Most likely to increase the probability of a hit. It would also spread the damage across a wider area, although with an object that massive, it would be overkill. Only I think something went wrong. They didn’t get the spread they wanted. That and the quick action of the crew of Mary’s Jest saved the station.”

Michael nodded. “Is there any way to trace who did this?”

Jacob shook his head. “Nothing concrete. But coupled with the build-up of Asian Alliance military assets at L1 Station and Mars, it has to be the Chinese and their friends.”

“Why the sudden escalation?” As soon as he asked the question he knew the answer.

“They see us the weak point. “ Jacob replied. “To take direct action against the UNOC would risk war. I don’t think they want open conflict yet. Without our ships there will be no trade. What worries me is that if they knew what you are planning they’ll escalate even further.”

“Further? You mean an overt assault?”

“Why not? Who would stop them? The UNOC?”

Michael nodded again, this wasn’t good. “So what do we do?”

“We need to prepare.”

“Prepare how?”

“I’ve had legal look into it. We should beef up our physical security. Not just the bases, but our ships as well.”

“You want to arm our ships?”

“Yes. As I said, I’ve had legal look into it. There are no laws against arming ships. There are restrictions on specific weapons, but we would have trouble getting hold of those. We already have point defences on the stations for meteor defence. We can use the same justification for doing the same with the ships.”

“Why would we need justification?” Michael asked. The question was really to buy time for him to think. He ran a business and yes that involved a certain amount of security work. Especially when working in countries like South Africa where violence was commonplace. He wasn’t quite ready to become commander in chief for a new space fleet.

Jacob could see the concern on his boss’ face. He understood the dilemma. “We don’t want to warn the Alliance that we’re arming against them. Defending our bases is one thing, but when we head to Mars the Chinese will already be there, we may have to fight them. In fact I believe we’re going to have to. Everything points to the Asian Alliance preparing to stop the alien trade at any cost.”


“Indeed. Not only do we need to arm, we need to do it without the Chinese or their allies finding out.”

“How do we do that?”

“I’m not sure. Yet. The meteor defence will get us started, but we’ll only be able to get point defence systems like the DEWs. We need to find allies who aren’t reliant on the Asian Alliance. I have a few ideas where we can start.”

Gateway Station, Earth orbit

General Fuller paced back and forth in his office, or rather he drifted back and forth in his office. Since construction began on Paladin he had spent more time than ever up here on the station. Slowly he got used to the micro-gravity. Now he no longer stuck to the magnetized pathways, he flew through the zero gravity like the rest of the crew.

On an impulse he’d called his daughters, invited them up here. With his rank he had access to the VIP shuttles, they could fly up in style. His ex-wife put a block for the youngest, stating it was too dangerous. He argued, space travel is safer statistically than crossing the street. She would have none of it. The oldest had better things to do than go into space. It wasn’t cool enough for her to waste her time on. He’d been disappointed, but at least the same VIP shuttle meant he could fly to the US and see his youngest.

He ceased his drifting and contemplated the viewscreen. In the distance he could see Paladin hulking shape. It was still far from completion, but the form was clearly that of a warship. Unlike the sleek ships used by the world’s navies, she reminded him of the giant warships from the 20th century. On the planet’s surface, all but the largest carriers and amphibious assault ships were designed for low observability. Graceful lines and low to the water, with Paladin’s large size, the tricks to defeat active sensors wouldn’t work. Instead she would rely on firepower, armour and active electronic defences for her security. Just like those ancient warships that once ruled the seas.

The bulk of her armour was obvious even at this distance. Her weapons weren’t installed yet, but they would be soon. In a few short months the ship would be combat ready. Fuller hoped she wouldn’t be needed.

The problem he faced now was the crew. The UNOC officers were progressing well through their training. Their basic familiarity training now complete. The logistics and research teams next created exercise programs to test their responses. Recently political pressure began mounting to make the observers more integral to the mission. The pressure this time came from the Americans and the Europeans.

Offline his old friend Mike Davis had talked to him about their concerns. They were concerned about the Chinese and Indians subverting the mission, to force a confrontation with the aliens. They wanted to make sure their officers had some say in the command process, to forestall any subversion attempt.

Fuller resisted the pressure, the ship had to remain under UNOC command. It did feel strange to have the Chinese, Indians and Japanese fighting in his corner.

Especially when you considered the latest telemetry from the drone he sent to Mars. He scanned through the data again now. It was a perfect match to the data being sent from the two Mars orbiters. Somehow the Chinese had subverted the drone and now fed him false data. Fuller needed to know what the Chinese were up to at Mars.

He remembered the Russian mass driver experiments out at their asteroid base. They should be able to launch a drone without and exhaust trail for the Chinese to track. A drone’s mass should be low enough that the mass driver would be able to send it to Mars as quick as an ion drive.

He connected to the Russian base, he would speak to Dimitri. Dimitri owed him a favour from long ago, it was time to call that favour in.

L1 Station, between Earth and the Moon

The failed attack on the shipyard sparked an inquiry. Hui had been summoned to Beijing to discuss what had gone wrong. Eventually the board determined that the LMC had been lucky. The operation proceeded as planned, the intervention of the freighter had been unfortunate. A new attack would be planned, along a different axis. No recording of failure had been attached to Hui’s record, but she couldn’t help but feel that failure now following her.

She immersed herself in the ship systems. The ship was much smaller than the Long March. This time she let the pilot do her job and only observed as the resupply ship exited its construction bay. The enormous bay dwarfed the vessel and it was an easy task for the pilot to leave and head into deep space.

Hui kept a close eye on the systems, but the crew knew their tasks. She performed another check on the inventory. Originally the ship was intended to transport the bulk of the weaponry to arm the Long March and Mars Station. Another failure, this time with the robotic mines meant that the Mars Station couldn’t mine its own water and metal.

So instead of weapons and ammunition, the first resupply ship was laden with water, metal plating and perishables for the crew. On the plus side they did have a dozen heavy rail guns in the cargo hold. They also had two of the new combat shuttles, with crews and maintenance. Along with twenty combat drones they would help expand the operational strike radius of the Mars beachhead.

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.