Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 4

The cockpit remained deathly silent and almost pitch black.  While Julia wasn't one of those kids who hid under the covers when it got dark, this darkness scared her.  It meant that the computer was still offline.  The computer wasn't monitoring her course and speed, wasn't maintaining the heat and oxygen levels, or sending telemetry back to Mission Control.  Worse, since the communications system was encrypted, shouldn't couldn't even call NASA for help.

First things first.  It's going to get uncomfortable in here very quickly.  I'll put on my spacesuit to keep comfortable and make sure I have enough oxygen.  Then I have to think.

Julia wrestled the EVA suit out of its cabinet and put it on.  There was a battery pack under one of the panels that powered the computer.  Maybe if she disconnected and reconnected it, the system might come back from the dead.  The EVA gloves made the job difficult, but she managed.  She reached in and disconnected the negative battery terminal.  Julia counted off thirty seconds to herself before reconnecting the terminal, then closed the panel and looked at the display.  It blinked to life.  Soon she watched as the system diagnostic began, then the module's operating system came to life.  The comm display turned black and displayed a series of red letters.

"This computer is under control of the Russian government.  You will remain on course and alive as long as your government continues to work with us.  You will now be given 30 seconds to discuss this situation with your Mission Control, at which time all communications from this vehicle will be terminated."

The message remained on-screen for a few seconds before switching to a comm display with Mission Control.  Charlie's face filled the screen, his eyes looking like someone had a gun to his back.

"Commander, are you OK?"

"Yeah, Charlie.  I'm fine.  A little computer trouble, it looks like."

"Yeah.  Chalmers is on his way in.  I thought you were dead.  We didn't get anything out of the module until just a moment ago, when it started transmitting crazy messages about the Russians being in control of the craft."

Julia shrugged.  "From what I can see, it's true. They tell me everything stays working until our governments work things out.  The minute that falls through, they shut me down."

"We won't let--"

The display went black, and the red text came on again.

"We regret this situation.  Your government did not choose to disclose its discovery with us.  We cannot allow you to have this object to yourselves, even if this means killing you."

Julia sighed.  "I regret this situation, too.  It's not like it was my choice who gets to see this thing and who doesn't."

The display scrolled.  "We know.  We have monitored your communications."

"You mean you've been listening since I launched?"

"Yes.  We have seen the pictures.  You will not hear from us again for some time."

The display went black.  I have to be quiet.  They've proven that they can listen in to anything I say, even here in the cockpit.  The politicians in DC will never negotiate with the Russians.  I'm as good as dead.  I need to think about what else I can do here.  How can I gain control of the computer?

Julia considered the situation, sitting there quietly, trying to look as scared as she was, in case the Russians were watching.  The computer controlled most aspects of the command module.  She could disengage it from thrust control.  That was handled through physical switches that the Russians couldn't turn back on.  If she kept the EVA suit on, it wouldn't matter if they turned off the heat and oxygen - at least as long as the suit had power and oxygen left.  That left only communications.  That was all digital, all computer controlled and encrypted.  The Russians had her there, unless she could think of something - or the gang back at NASA did.

She pulled the computer tablet out of the cabinet.  It contained all of the schematics, manuals, and other documentation for the command module.  Maybe she could find a solution in here.

The comm display lit up.

"What are doing, Commander?"

She flashed it what she hoped was a bored look.  "You've left me with no communications and no access to the computer.  I thought I'd pass the time by reading a book on this tablet."


The display went black again.

She began scanning the computer section of the documentation, carefully, slowly.  She wanted them to think she was reading a mystery novel or a romance, not the technical data about Mars One.  She skimmed the sections on rebooting, running diagnostics, emergency power-off... If she got desperate, that might help.  It might at least keep the Russians from crashing her into an asteroid or something.

The stuff in the books was dry, but concise and to the point.  It was meant to give an astronaut critical information in an emergency.  You'd never find this on the bestseller list, but right now this book was more interesting to Julia than the last 50 bestsellers combined.  It might just save her life.

The Emergency Recovery section looked the most promising.  It talked about how she could bring the computer up in a self-repair mode, using a system image stored on the tablet.  Perhaps she could use this.  A plan began to form in her head.  Switch to manual navigation, pop on the EVA helmet and gloves, hook up the tablet, and start the recovery process.  Maybe it would wipe the Russians right out of the system!

The display lit up again.

"Enjoying your technical manuals, Commander?"

"Immensely," she said.  She felt as though she'd been punched in the stomach.

"We enjoyed them as well.  That recovery image contains a self-destruct sequence."

"I see."  A tear rolled down her cheek.

She could regain control of the module and maintain life support for a short while, but not long enough to complete the mission.  Not even long enough to return to Earth.  No, her fate was in the hands of a bunch of Washington bureaucrats.  Suddenly, the cockpit seemed ten degrees colder.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 3

Julia was dreaming that she was walking through a field of flowers when the beep from the timer woke her up.  It was time to reconnect the antenna and talk to Mission Control.  She connected the cables, made sure they were snug, and keyed the transmitter.

"Mission Control, this is Mars One, do you copy?"

"Mars One, this is Mission Control.  Please stand by for the Director."  She recognized the voice as Charlie Ranker, a veteran on the late-night shift.  They'd talked many times when she manned the ISS seven years ago.

"Mars One, Chalmers here.  How are you doing up there?"

Julia cleared her throat and took a deep breath.  "I'm fine.  All systems behaving normally."

"I've gotten some help from the NSA.  We're going to send you some new firmware over the data link.  We found some anomalies in what you're running now.  It's probably nothing, but--"

"Better safe than sorry," Julia nodded, "I know."

"Just to be safe, I need you to take out that envelope I handed you before you left.  Open it.  Read the first set of instructions and follow them.  I'll be waiting."  The comm display went dead.

She unzipped her coverall and pulled out the envelope.  Carefully ripping it open to avoid loose paper floating around the cockpit, she slid the letter out and unfolded it.  It contained instructions for changing the encryption code on the voice and data communication system.  Chalmers said they'd do it again when she reached Mimas, and again on the approach to Earth.  She changed the codes, folded the letter, and slipped it back into the envelope.

She keyed the transmitter again.  The comm display lit up with Chalmers' face.  

"Good, the code we're using now is known only to me and the tech I trusted to create it.  It's unlikely the Russians, Chinese, or anyone else can hear us now.  I'm transmitting you a hash code for the firmware we're sending up.  If the hash code on the firmware you get doesn't match this code exactly, you pull the data antenna cable, change to the next code, and call me back.  Got it?"

"Yes, sir.  I see the computer pulling in the file now.  How long is this going to take?"

"The engineers tell me it'll be about two hours before the file makes it up there.  It's a complete rewrite of the firmware for the thrust system.  The NSA found back doors in it that look like a variation of some Chinese code they've seen before.  The new stuff is clean."

Julia shivered.  Her paranoid fantasy of another country hijacking the command module and crashing it inside their borders might not have been so far off the mark.  If the Chinese managed to get something into one of the most sensitive control systems in Mars One, who knew what else they might have managed?  And what about the Russians?  Or anyone else for that matter, like some extremist religious group?  She'd flown many missions for NASA, and occasionally had a bout of nerves when something didn't go quite right, but this was all out fear.

"Julia?  Did you get that?"

She shook her head and looked at the screen.  "No, sorry.  Just feeling sorry for myself."

"Understandable.  I'm sorry, too.  The FBI and NSA are all over the facility, trying to figure out how that code got in the system.  We're hoping we can find out who did it, so we can learn more."

"You mean, like what else they might have sabotaged?"

He nodded, and frowned.  "Exactly.  We'll get the bastard.  You're the best we've got, Commander.  NASA can't afford to lose you.  We can't lose the command module, either.  It'd set the Mars project back about a year."

"Haven't we already set it back?"

"Yes, but not as much as you'd think.  If we can get you both back safely to the platform, we can refit the module in a couple of months and certify you to get right back on board... tested module, tested pilot.  Best chance of mission success."

She hadn't dared dream that Chalmers would still let her do the Mars mission after sending her on this one.  The smile couldn't be suppressed.

"I knew you'd be happy to hear that, Commander.  I didn't send you on this trip as a punishment.  I sent you because we were up against a wall and I needed the best pilot I've got.  That's you."

"Thanks.  Now, can you tell me some more about this mission?"

"Let me sit down."  The camera moved a bit as Chalmers found his way to a chair and readjusted it.

"We don't know a lot.  We know this thing, whatever it is, is metallic.  The signals we got from the probe we crashed near it tell us that much.  They also tell us its dimensions are too perfect for it not to have been machined somewhere.  Whether that's here on Earth, and we're sending you on a wild goose chase, or somewhere else, we just don't know.  There was a very short pulse of radio energy picked up on the radiation sensors, but it was faint and fast.  It barely registered. This means it's probably got some kind of technology in it.  No idea what.  Hell, the damned thing might even be some kind of bomb or torpedo.  Look at it."  The screen flashed the image of the object again.

Julia studied it carefully.  The image was fuzzy, which was no surprise given that it was taken by a camera on a space probe being crashed into the surface of Mimas.  The object was rounded at the top, roughly cylindrical in shape, fatter in the middle, narrower at the bottom.  The bottom looked to be perfectly flat.  There appeared to be four rings carved into it just below the domed top - or maybe they were some kind of decoration.  It was hard to tell.  Julia couldn't help but think the thing looked something like a high-tech bullet or torpedo.  This did nothing to calm her thoughts.

"So, what if this thing actually isa bomb or torpedo of some kind.  Do you really want me hacking it out of the ice, hauling it onto the ship, and dragging it back home.  What if it's some kind of alien nuke, and wipes out half the eastern seaboard?  Or worse?"

He sighed.  "We've been debating that with the Oval Office since we told them we found it.  The President isn't too keen to have his administration known as the one that brought alien destruction to Earth.  To be honest, we haven't figured out what's going to happen once you get it back to the orbital platform.  It might have to stay there until we know what it is and what to do with it."

"And me?  Do I have to babysit it?"

"Not exactly, but if the thing is some kind of radioactive or biological weapon, we can't let you come back down to Earth.  We'll need to send up some scientists and doctors to check you, and the object, out when you arrive.  If you get the all-clear, you come home immediately."

"Great..."  She began to see visions of months in space, dying of some alien radiation sickness or plague.

"It's probably not a bomb, you know."

She thought some more, looked at the screen, and nodded.  "Yeah, 'cause it doesn't look like one."

They discussed the approach, landing, and retrieval of the object.  They walked through how she would extract it from the ice, get it aboard the craft, lift off, and return home.  

Julia also told Chalmers all of her ideas on just how the Chinese or Russians might try to sabotage the mission.  Chalmers said his people had considered all of those, and were making contingency plans around them.  They also had a few more she hadn't thought of, and were deciding what could be done about those, too.  Julia wanted to ask him what they'd come up with, but realized that she was scared enough as it was.  Better to imagine them as far-off remote possibilities than to know the truth, especially if it was something like them poisoning her air or water supply.  Oh God, I hadn't thought of that...

"Looks like the firmware's been transmitted.  Please check the hash code against what I sent you earlier, and then read it back to me.  Let's make damned sure the file is intact, Commander."

Julia verified the letters and numbers of the hash code, and they seemed to match.  She checked them a second time before reading the codes from the file aloud to Chalmers.

"Yeah, that's what we sent you.  Here's how to apply it."  They walked through the checklist for applying the firmware update, with Julia echoing back each step before doing it, and repeating it again after it was finished.  

"I'm going now.  The engineers are going to reboot the main computer.  You'll lose communication and some other functions for a few minutes while the computer runs a POST and boots up.  Charlie will go through the diagnostics with you when it's up.  We'll talk again when you're near Mimas, on the next encryption codes."

"Understood, Director.  Thanks for everything."

"You're welcome, Julia.  Talk to you tomorrow."

"Commander, it's Charlie.  We're ready to reboot your computers.  You OK with that?"

"Not really, Charlie.  But the sooner we get the Chinese code out of them the happier I'll be."

"Us, too."

Julia watched as the comm display went black, along with almost all the other lights and displays in the cockpit.  The whole thing seemed to take an incredibly long time.  Shouldn't something be flickering or beeping... or something by now?  It wasn't.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 2

"Do you think they'll make a move for the object?"  Julia felt a chill pass through her.

Chalmers nodded.  "It wouldn't surprise me if every nation on Earth did.  We made a deal with the ESA and the Canadians to give them access to it.  President Rose doesn't trust the Russians or Chinese after that incident with the computers on the B-2.  There's no way he'll share it with them.  You need to be ready for anything."

"What aren't you telling me?"

"You know as well as I do that the Chinese have some expert hackers.  So do the Russians.  And the Israelis.  Thanks to the last couple of administrations, we had to outsource most of the components in that craft.  What are the odds the Russians didn't slip some kind of backdoor malware in the computers, or that the Chinese didn't steal our encryption codes when they busted Canaveral last month?"

"Tell me you've changed the codes, or I'm turning this thing around."

He sighed. "It's not as easy as that, Commander.  Some of those keys are in firmware.  We can't change them.  We changed what we could, tuned your radios to different bands, and added some electronic countermeasures.  Your systems are as secure as we could get them before you launched."

Julia shook her head.  "What you're saying is that if they really want to stop this mission, I probably can't prevent it."

"Yeah.  That's about the size of it."

"Great.  Just great."

"The engineers had a recommendation.  When we're done here, open panel A3-02.  Pull the red wire out of the socket it's in.  That will cut the data communication.  If they can't send data your way, they can't hack your systems or get anything out of them.  Then again, neither can we.  In about six hours, we'll need you to plug it in again for a while so we can feed some new navigation instructions to the computers. I'll signal you in audio when we're ready."

"Fine.  Tell those engineers I want them to think like hackers and killers.  If they had access to our systems and wanted to kill me, crash Mars One, or vent my fuel, could they do it?  If they can, what can I do to stop them, or catch them trying?"

"Will do, Commander.  Mission Control, out."

"Mars One, out."  The screen went black.

Julia didn't wait for the egg-heads back home.  She pulled up the schematics and started looking at them like an attacker.  Which systems had the most firmware?  Which ones hadn't been modified recently and might have back doors in them?  What would be the best way to get the object, and keep the pilot from getting it back to NASA?"

She found the answers to her questions more depressing than she expected them to be.  There were at least a dozen ways she could sabotage Mars One from the ground.  Vent the fuel.  Vent the oxygen.  Disable the flight controls.  Cut the power to the cockpit.  The only thing that didn't depress her was the realization that even if hackers were in the system, they probably wanted the Mimas Object.  That meant they'd leave her alone until she had it, and brought it back home.  That's when they'd make their move.

"If it was me," she said to her reflection in the black computer screen, "I'd wait until we were on approach to dock with the orbital platform.  I'd cut the oxygen to the cockpit and suffocate the pilot.  Then I'd land the command module somewhere nearby and take the object from it.  There'd be no point in killing me before that, because they'd have to mount their own expedition to get the thing.  Better to wait until I got it home, then pounce."

She debated sharing this with Chalmers, but as crafty a politician as that guy was, he'd have already thought of it and had the engineers hard at work to prevent it.

There was nothing to do now but wait for the call from Mission Control.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Mimas Object - Part 1

The following is a "discovery draft" of a story about The Mimas Object.  I can't tell you what that object is yet, but its discovery kick-starts the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms universe.  Since this is a discovery draft, a kind of "first draft to help find the real story," please read it with that thought it mind.  I hope it doesn't meander or get too dull, but it may require some serious rewriting before it's finished.  I thought it might be interesting to share a "story in progress" in this universe.

Commander Julia Winters put on her flight suit and got into the transport.  She sat there in silence as the vehicle carried her to the launch platform.  This was a historic mission, just not the one she'd been planning and dreaming.  Instead of being the first human to set foot on Mars, she was about to become the first human to set foot on some moon no one had ever heard of.  The director promised her this would be a bigger mission than she could imagine, but Julia couldn't see how.  What made it even more infuriating to her was that they'd chosen Carl Douglas to replace her, of all people.

The tower called for pre-launch checks, and Julia went through the checklist almost robotically.  It was a short trip up to the orbital launch platform, and she'd made it several times before.  The countdown completed.  She heard the rumble of the rockets and felt herself being pushed into the chair.  A short time later, she was weightless.

The module docked with the platform and the airlock was opened from inside.  An engineer she barely remembered, his name started with a J, smiled at her.

"Miss Winters, happy to have you aboard.  I'm a big fan."

"Thanks.  Any idea what this mission's about?  They wouldn't tell me."  She unstrapped from her seat and floated through the airlock.

"No, ma'am.  All I know is that they had us strip that vehicle down to the bare minimum weight and equipment.  They also had us put in some special heating and digging equipment, and a lead-lined box.  Wouldn't tell us what any of it was for."

"Stripped down?  What did you strip down?"

His eyebrows popped.  "You don't know?"


"The Mars vehicle.  They had us strip it down and refit it.  It was the only close to launch-ready."

This sent a chill down Julia's spine.  They'd been trumpeting the Mars mission in the media for months now.  Julia had visited dozens of schools, state fairs, local television and radio stations, and had a million photos snapped of her.  People were already calling her "The First Woman on Mars" even though she hadn't left yet.  What would make them gut their pride and joy in such a hurry?  She couldn't imagine.

"Can you tell me anything else, uh..J-"

"Steven Jerrold, ma'am.  No, that's all I know.  They told us what to strip out, what to put in, and set us a ton of fuel.  If I had to guess, wherever you're going's a lot farther out than Mars."

"OK, thanks.  Lead the way."

Jerrold let her through the maze of pods and modules that made up the orbital launch platform.  She'd ferried a number of these up herself on previous missions, but hadn't been inside them before now.  It felt somewhat haphazrd, but still somehow planned.

"I'm supposed to signal them when you're sealed inside."

Julia climbed into the module and sealed the hatch behind her, giving Jerrold a thumbs up when she was strapped into her chair.  She looked around the module.  Jerrold wasn't kidding.  At least two-thirds of the equipment they'd installed in it for the Mars mission was gone.  It reminded her of the time someone stole her car and left it across town.  When she went to look at it, the thieves had nearly completely stripped it.

"Commander Winters, this is Mission Control.  Do you copy?"

"Mission Control, Winters here.  What the hell's going on?"

"Please switch to channel 5."

Channel 5 was reserved for encrypted communications.  They'd given her a code to use before she left Earth.  She switched the transceiver to the channel and punched in the encryption code.

"Are you receiving, Winters?"

"Director Chalmers, is that you?"

"One and the same.  Are you alone now?"

"Yes.  Mind telling me what the hell's going on?  What's going on?  First you tell me I'm off the Mars mission, now I find out you've gutted the ship and filled it with rocket fuel."

"If you'll cast off from the station, I'll explain."

Julia signaled to Jerrold that she was ready to depart.  He got on his radio, probably confirming with Mission Control.  She heard a buzz and click.  The vehicle drifted away from the platform.

"Commander, Mission Control is going to get you on your way.  Please sit back and relax a moment, then I'll answer all your questions."

The module lurched forward as the main thrusters fired.  She watched as the launch platform disappeared in the distance.

"Now can you tell me what I'm doing out here?  I'm supposed to be the First Woman on Mars, not the first woman to -- whatever it is you're sending me to."

"You're going further out into the solar system than any human's ever gone.  We're sending you to Saturn's moon, Mimas."

"Why?  From what I understand, that thing's kind of big ball of ice.  What would make it more important than Mars?"

"Watch your display, Commander.  I'm sending you an image."

Julia watched as the screen began filling in an image of a high-detail radar scan, presumably from the space probe that passed Mimas a couple of months ago.  In the middle of the scan was a metallic object.

"So there's an asteroid embedded in the surface, so what?"

"Watch this," Chalmers told her.  The image on the screen enlarged in size, centering on the object.  As it did, she shuddered.  The dimensions and shape of the thing were too perfect, too precise.  It couldn't be naturally occurring.  It had to be man-made... or "something" made.

"Oh my God," Julia said, putting a hand over her mouth.

"Quite right, Commander.  We told the public that we lost control of the probe, but in reality we sent it there to crash on the surface, scanning all the way down.  Before it smashed itself to bits, we got this image from the high-res cameras."  The display gradually revealed a detailed photo of the object, with unusual writing on the surface.  "You know what this means?"

"We're not alone."

"Indeed.  You wanted to know what could be more important than Mars?  You're looking at it.  We think this is either an incredible hoax to keep us from going to Mars, or possibly the first evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence.  We won't know until you get there and bring it back to us."

Julia sat there in silence, staring at the image on the screen.



"Are you OK?"

"Yeah.  I was just wondering, what is that thing?  Who put it there?"

"We have no idea.  Exciting, eh?"

"Terrifying.  Is that why you made me cast off before telling me?"

"No.  That was about security.  We're worried that the Russians and Chinese might have picked up some of the probe's transmissions, since the encryption was pretty weak to preserve computing power.  We don't want them to know we're going after it."