Excerpt from THROUGH STRUGGLE, THE STARS, by John J. Lumpkin
Copyright 2011. © All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.
The Bluegrass Cat was a modular container hauler, a design that had barely changed in 50 years – a control deck and living quarters at the top and a fusion candle at the tail, connected by a long shaft, which mounted dozens of cargo pods, some of them rotating slowly around the ship's axis. She was long, thin and ugly: a freight train in space.
Her cargo to Zhuxing, the Chinese colony world orbiting Zeta Doradus, had been precision tools manufactured only on Earth, and she was departing with a load of Zhuxing's native version of blue-green algae. This particular species was neither blue-green nor algae, but the microbes, reddish under a microscope, played a similar ecological role. They were one of the most efficient natural photosynthesizers yet discovered, and, without them, Zhuxing would have been an uninhabitable wet rock. They would fetch a high dollar on some of the colony worlds where oxygen was wanting.
On this run the Cat carried a second cargo, two bored American intelligence officers who had spent the last sixteen days monitoring government communications on Zhuxing while the ship sat moored at an orbital freight terminal.
The Cat's American owners, sympathetic to Washington's interests, provided free, no-questions-asked transit to government agents on some of its vessels. It was a secret arrangement, and a good one for both sides; U.S. intelligence agencies could quietly move around their people to foreign planets without setting up cumbersome front companies or relying on passenger liners, and the shipping line found itself deliciously free of certain regulatory pressures that its competitors faced.
The officers had been picked up from their station on Guoxing, an older Chinese world, three systems upstream toward Earth, and their time over Zhuxing had coincided with a visit to the surface by the Chinese premier. They came away with vast stores of intercepted communications related to his stay. The senior officer, a veteran spook named Donovan, was fluent in Mandarin, and he had gone through what seemed the most promising intercepts, but he had so far come up with mostly dry bureaucratic messages that didn't interest him in the least. The most compelling, in his opinion, was an unedited news recording of the premier giving a fiery speech in a hotel ballroom on the dangers of Japanese aggression. Its vehemence was exceptional; China and Japan, Earth's top two powers by most measures, were locked in a cold war, but it was unusual to hear such a high-level official indulging in what could be only regarded as racist remarks.
The remaining intercepts would be for Earthside computers to decode and analyze in hopes of finding some useful tidbit that would provide the State or Defense or Colonial Affairs department some advantage, somewhere, somehow.
Only the officers had to get it home. Transmitting this much bulk data from a mere freighter through the wormhole communications relays back to Earth had some chance of attracting the Chinese government's attention. The network of artificial wormholes that allowed ships easy travel between the stars also served as the sole communications conduit between them. Buoys on either side of the wormholes received and transmitted vast amounts of information: News, sports scores, love letters and coded government transmissions all had to pass through them. While a starship would take months to traverse the expanding sphere of worlds accessed by the wormhole network, a message could cross it usually in less than a day, bouncing from one buoy to the next at the speed of light. But most buoys had government taps, monitored by software ostensibly looking for threats to national security. Zhuxing was several systems downstream from Earth, and all the buoys in between were under the authority of the government in Beijing. And without the chain of wormhole relays, transmitting a message home from Zhuxing through empty space would require a wait of 38 years.
So the data had to be hand-carried, and now the microbe-laden Bluegrass Cat was among a half-dozen ships waiting in line outside the Zeta Doradus wormhole, located in the leading Trojan point of the planet's second moon. This was the wormhole that initially opened the system to colonization and ultimately led back to Earth. The other two wormholes in the system led to stars further out, where China hunted still more colony worlds for its cramped millions.
In the Cat's stateroom, the junior of the two intelligence officers, Rafe Sato, reflected that he would never get back the last six weeks, or the twelve more it would take to return to Earth. Rafe, whose roots were part Hispanic, part Japanese and all Californian, had known there would be drudgery on the job; stealing secrets was not as dramatic as the movies would have the masses believe. He'd spent most of the trip out on his computer, taking some refresher courses to keep his technical certifications up to date. After they orbited Zhuxing, Rafe's chief role was to handle the comm intercept gear while Donovan told him where to listen.
But, damn, this mission had been especially dull.
Rafe and Donovan's agency had no permanent presence on Zhuxing, and the American cultural mission was all of two people, both surely followed round-the-clock by Chinese security. Nor had the agency had any luck obtaining permission for one its front companies to operate on the planet.
That leaves it to us, thought Rafe, wondering why this Han bigwig was worth following.
On the upside, the Hans had been overconfident about their security; the premier and his staff transmitted most of their messages to orbit via microwave rather than laser. Laser comms were almost impossible to intercept without hacking into a communications satellite.
And Rafe Sato had done just that, for all the good it did. What's the use of a good hack if all you get out of it is garbage?
Donovan tapped a button on his handheld and inclined his head toward Rafe.
"Did you read this?" he asked. Rhetorical; he was reading text projected on the inside of his eye.
"Read what?" Rafe asked.
"The Japanese are going to settle around Xi Pegasi after all."
It rang a very small bell. "Xi Pegasi?"
"It's an old star that's going subgiant," Donovan said. "They found a marginally habitable planet there. It must have been almost covered with ice until a few hundred thousand years ago, just at the far edge of the star's habitable zone. Another microbial-life-only planet, like Zhuxing. Now the star is getting bigger, and warmer, and the ice is melting, and the Japanese are going to colonize it."
"That's what, the Sakis' sixth planet? How many do they need?" Counting colony planets was at the heart of nationalism these days. After Japan, China had five and Europe had four. The United States had three, plus an Australia-sized continent on one of the Chinese worlds.
"That's not the point. The planet is going to boil in a few thousand years as the sun keeps getting brighter," Donovan said. "Not a very good place for a colony."
Rafe thought it over briefly. "Recorded history is a few thousand years."
"It's still rank foolishness. That's such a short window in the lifespan of a species. Someday, tens of millions will die there if they can't evacuate them all."
Donovan was a decent boss, but he liked to argue for the sport of it, and Rafe wasn't in the mood to engage him right now.
"Well, I imagine they'll figure something out long after we're dead and gone," Rafe said. "But if it will make you happy, I promise you I won't settle there."
Donovan chuckled. "Fair enough."
"What are they going to call the planet?"
"Hinomaru. A rather nationalistic break for them, don't you think?"
Most of the other Japanese worlds had more bucolic names. Hinomaru was the rising red sun on a white field, the Japanese flag.
"Sure," Rafe said. Humor the boss.
Donovan kept at it. "I tell you, this rush for –"
He was interrupted by the voice of the Cat's captain on the ship's intercom:
"We just got put on indefinite hold by traffic control. Don't know why."
This was unusual, and Rafe swore to himself – as if the trip home wasn't long enough already. He switched his handheld to monitor one of the Cat's external cameras, sending its images to his ocular implant. The first camera was pointed at Zhuxing; his vision filled with a startling, beautiful picture of blue oceans, white swirls of clouds, and a great rust-colored equatorial continent, with a patch of green and brown reaching inland from its western coast.
He hit a button, flicked through three views of nothing but fields of stars, until he found the camera pointed at the wormhole. He made out the guidance rings, an idle robotic ballast tug, and the thin disc of the wormhole itself. He transmitted the image to Donovan.
There. A small Chinese warship, some kind of corvette, emerged. It had scorches on its hull, and a long rent along one side. Several sections opened to space.
"Ouch," Donovan said.
The ship did a quick pivot, almost as if it was looking over its shoulder. After a few minutes, it went back through the wormhole, apparently satisfied the formation of waiting freighters posed no threat.
Rafe started to speak, but Donovan shushed him.
A big warship came through. Had to be 20,000 tons. A Chinese flagship.
It too had taken a beating. Its nose was smashed inward; it bore scorches and pitted areas, and one of its main gun batteries was wrecked. Three more warships followed the battleship, two of them also showing significant damage.
"Let's get out a flash message," Donovan said to Rafe. "Then call up Jane's and try to identify those craft." Neither he nor Rafe recognized the ships. They were civilian intelligence officers, not military.
"There must have been some kind of battle," Rafe said. He typed a brief message into his handheld.
Eyeballed Chinese PLA Star Navy fleet entering Zeta Doradus from GJ 2036 keyhole. Several vessels have sustained significant battle damage from unknown engagement. Description of ships to follow.
Rafe hit the send key. Inside his eye, text scrolled: Encoding … Transmitting … Destination network reports all outgoing messages will be monitored and approved for transmission. Do you still wish to send?
He swore and typed in "No." He turned to Donovan. "They already shut down the comm buoy to unmonitored message traffic. We'll have to carry this one home too."
He was right. With a human reading every message going through the buoy, they were risking notice even by sending a short, coded message. They would have to wait until the Bluegrass Cat reached the Solar System in twelve weeks before they could transmit.
Two more ships came through the wormhole. The first was undamaged and had no visible weaponry – a fleet tender, probably. The second, however, was not Chinese in manufacture; it lacked the distinctive forward sphere that dominated Chinese military starship design. Rafe commanded the ship's camera to follow it as it passed by the Cat. It was a long dart of a warship, also badly damaged.
Donovan's eyes narrowed as the ship's side was illuminated by Zeta Doradus. He saw a white field with a red circle, with rays extending in all directions.
Hinomaru. The rising sun.
Donovan touched some buttons on his handheld, activating the comm implant in his head. "Captain, what's the transponder from the last ship through say?"
A pause. "It's coming through as Chinese Star Navy," said the captain, his voice full of queries he didn't have the guts to ask. Donovan cut the connection with him. The camera feed went out; the Chinese authorities had ordered all the waiting vessels to shut their eyes. It didn't matter; he could put together what happened. The cold war between Japan and China had warmed up significantly. The Japanese warship was a Chinese prize.