2222 Piracy in the Asteroid Belt

Long range cargo vessel LRV Void Wanderer en route from Mars orbit to trojan asteroid 911 Agamemnon carrying valuable high-tech metamaterials, filaments, and components destined for autofabs supplying the mining operations on Agamemnon. The ship is about to enter the pre-ordered in-flight refueling matter stream lane.

Crew:

- Captain Priya Nair, station id CMD (Command): age 52, Master's in Space Command and Operation from the Thiruvananthapuram Space Institute / Kerala. Lead several successful missions for the Kerala Space Agency before moving to the belt. Fluent in Malayalam, English, and has learned conversational Mandarin to liaise with other space agencies. Nair’s training in classical Kerala dance forms like Kathakali and Mohiniyattam has instilled in her a sense of rhythm and awareness of her body that proves invaluable in the zero-gravity environment of space. She also practices 0G yoga to maintain her physical and mental well-being amidst the stresses of space travel.

- Flight Engineer Tarek Al-Kazemi, station OPS id (Operations): age 38, MSc in Aerospace Engineering, Queen Noor University of Minerals and Automation, Dhahran. Specialized in propulsion systems at the Kalifate Space Agency Kuwait City. Innovator of a micro-repair drone system for in-flight emergencies. Fluent in Arabic, proficient in Mandarin. Al-Kazemi still has a keen interest in remote mineralogy and enjoys photographing celestial bodies from the ship's observation deck where he operates a privately owned phased array synthetic aperture telescope (PHASAT). His channel where he shares his remote mineralogy photos and spectra has 7 million followers, a mix of academic enthusiasts, industry professionals, and a growing community of space aficionados drawn by his unique blend of scientific expertise and captivating visuals.

- Cargo Specialist Ling Wei, station CTL id (Control): age 93, PhD in Logistics and Supply Chain Management, National University of Singapore. Orchestrated logistics for Singapore's first Mars-bound supply mission and many other missions since. In-flight, Ling serves – among other things – as the mission-controller, a critical role where she oversees the validity and accuracy of all operational commands, actions, and events, ensuring the smooth execution of mission protocols. Fluent in Mandarin with basic knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia. Ling is passionate about space conservation. She is actively engaged in initiatives aimed at mitigating space debris and ensuring the sustainability of space travel. She is serving on the Void Wanderer to study the effects of stream-head particulates – high-velocity and dense residual matter that escape at the beginning of an in-flight resupply phase. These particles might pose a significant navigational hazard and may even contribute to a system-wide Kessler syndrome in the far future if left unchecked.

Message log via ComLaser:

CMD Nair: "Approaching MSRC." (Matter Stream Resupply Corridor).

CTL Ling: "Pre-MSA established." (Pre-Matter Stream Alignment trajectory).

CMD Nair: "OPS: begin MRI." (Matter stream Receiver Initiation. Instructing engineering to power up the matter receiver).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Deploying receiver." (Confirmation by engineering).

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "MRI complete."

CTL Ling: "Confirm MRI." (A critical event confirmed by a second person).

CMD Nair: "Entering stream on RCS." (Employing Reaction Control System thrusters to match the matter receiver with the stream).

[Short Pause]

CTL Ling: "Confirm MSD with 83." (Matter Stream Docking / lock-on with 83 % efficiency).

CTL Ling: "Lots of scatter, their focus is getting worse and worse. I'll file a notice. But we also had better days, we’ve lost 1200 klicks of hazardust." (Navigational Hazardust: colloquial for uncaptured potentially hazardous matter stream particles, klicks = kilometers).

CMD Nair: "Control: send it." (Captain acknowledging the complaint to Jade Rabbit Matter Stream Co., the matter stream provider).

CTL Ling: "@JadeRabbit QACC Luminosity 5.3 Focus 83 down from 85 sustained below expected 90, burning our receiver at 11 ppms." (Human made Quality Assurance Customer Complaint in addition to automated communication between emitter end receiver, because the faulty stream is producing additional hazardust and stray particles are wearing down the receiver hardware rapidly at 11 parts per million per second, a gentle hint at potential damage claims).

CMD Nair: "I have a blip on CSA, OPS: please check." (CSA: Composite Situational Awareness, the AI aggregating many signal sources to infer interesting events early even if they are below noise level on individual detectors).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "PHASAT gives a weird reading." (His private remote mineralogy telescope).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Woah, something just emerged on IR behind the bow MS emitter, 80 k klicks, doppler sees accel matching our vector." (IR: the infrared telescope).

CMD Nair: "Maybe a maintenance unit ... but they won’t appear out of nowhere. OPS: any reason why LIDAR did not pick it up? Sensor edge case?" (LIDAR: an active sensor using a phased laser emitter. Meaning the object might be at the edge of the sensor range).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Nope, it’s squarely in our view. Must have been there for a long time. Like it deflected LIDAR. Only showing up when it lit the drive." (When they started their drive).

CMD Nair: "Control: any id?"

CTL Ling: "No transponder signal." (All vessels – big and small – broadcast their identification code. Switching off the transponder is an indication of hostile intent. They could of course run their transponder with a fake id, but that would ease tracking from afar).

CMD Nair: "Control: hail them."

[Short Pause]

CTL Ling: "No response. Neither voice nor AMES." (Human – voice – communication attempts and the Autonomous Maintenance and Engineering System, a widely used system designed to execute maintenance and repair tasks for deep space infrastructure without the need for human intervention).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "It's kind o' big, not a drone. Closing quickly at 3g. CSA thinks it's a mil grade core over there." (The Composite Situational Awareness AI deducing from various sensors and known emission profiles, a military grade reactor core).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "They’re on a 0-intercept. ETA 40 minutes." (Zero-intercept: expected to match trajectory if nothing changes, ETA: Estimated Time of Arrival).

CMD Nair: "Control: how is our re-supply status?"

CTL Ling: "We are at 10% reaction mass. 12% in 20 minutes. Reactor fuel is 50 kg B and 2 tons H, unchanged." (Still some reaction mass for the drive and boron-11 plus hydrogen for the fusion reactor left, but not much refueled yet since the resupply phase hast just started).

CMD Nair: "OPS: get me a visual."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Visual coming up... there it is. A Sakana, holds are packed, but no standard containers, dark, no markings." (Sakana class cargo vessel, apparently with specialized containers in its cargo holds).

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "PHASAT shows an anti-rad coating. Still on intercept." (anti-rad: radiation absorbing or deflecting).

CMD Nair: "Any signs of weapons or hostile intent?"

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Hard to say. They are coming at us under high power, no comms, no transponder, but stealth coatings and some containers look like ... well, launch cells, actually. Looks veeery suspicious." (Launch cells: standardized missile containers which start their payload directly from the built-in tube).

CMD Nair: "Control: anything to add?"

[Short Pause]

CTL Ling: "Stats has it at 92% unfriendly, 5% their malfunction, 1% ours." (Statistical analysis indicating a high probability of hostile intent with a low chance of this just being a misunderstanding due to equipment failure).

CMD Nair: "Ok, then ... general notice: considering past events, lack of communication, their setup and vector, I declare the contact hostile. While this com-log goes live to base anyway, Control: please file an additional MSR for this declaration." (MSR: Mission Status Report).

CMD Nair: "OPS: anyone else close enough to help?"

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Not within 30 LS" (30 light seconds = 9 million kilometers).

[Short Pause]

CMD Nair: "Control: send status updates to base continuously. Laser and radio."

CTL Ling: "Sending."

[Short Pause]

CMD Nair: "OPS & Control: please authorize S-POD activation." (S-POD: short for SURPRISE-pod: Space User Response Protective Reactive Interplanetary Security Equipment. But that is a political name. Spacers are aware that no one would really be surprised by the equipment, so they prefer a less ridiculous and shorter term: S-POD).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "S-POD use authorized." (Use of the defensive equipment must be approved by 2 officers and the control role on their own stations – their virtual consoles).

CTL Ling: "That’s probably a first ... [Short Pause] ... what if it’s a malfunc... ok, authorizing S-POD."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Activating S-POD ... [Short Pause] ... self-test ... [Short Pause] ... done ... [Short Pause] ... it’s online ... evaluating situation ... [Short Pause] ... er, ..."

CMD Nair: "I see it, 'Low threat level', pff AIs..."

CMD Nair: "OPS: at ETA minus 20 minutes, break MSD and accelerate at max to 2 minus 20" (Detach from matter stream 20 min before contact and accelerate straight at the enemy, 2 minus 20 meaning 2 o'clock to the right and 20 degrees down).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Towards them, really?"

CMD Nair: "Assuming they are at their max, I want to add as much delta-V as possible." (Delta-V: difference in velocity. Being faster than the others might prevent them from docking, just in case this is their goal).

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "MSD off, powering up, prepare for MES." (Main Engine Start).

CMD Nair: "Ack."

CTL Ling: "Ack."

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "MES. Accelerating." (Main Engine Start).

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Missile launch ... ETA 90 seconds." (Approx. 90 seconds flight time).

Unidentified: "Cut your drive NOW. Reverse accel to match course."

CMD Nair: "Control: any ideas? OPS: Can we dodge that?"

[Short Pause]

CTL Ling: "No options."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Nope."

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Missile ETA 60 seconds."

CMD Nair: "Well ... OPS: cut the drive. Turn around. Match course."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Prepare for 0G and RCS."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "MECO." (Main Engine Cut-Off).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Missile decelerating, matching course."

CMD Nair: "S-POD still at 'Low threat level', WTF, we have a hostile missile hovering. That not enough? OPS: run a diagnostic on the POD."

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "S-POD self-test complete ... triggering re-assessment ... [Short Pause] ... says: 'Assessment complete: low threat level'."

CMD Nair: "OPS: turn 180, accel 2 g."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Captain...?"

CMD Nair: "Do it."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Prepare for RCS and MES." (Maneuvering by Reaction Control System thrusters, Main Engine Start).

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "MES." (Main Engine Start).

Unidentified: "What are you doing? f**k."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Another missile launch. Missile 1 maneuvers ... closes in."

[Loud blast sound and alarms.]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Missile 1 went off at 100 m, conventional, estimate 20 kg, unfocused, showering us with shrapnel, minor damage." (Apparently the explosion had a spherical distribution and was not configured for a focused effect. A deliberate choice by the attacker to send a strong signal rather than do irreparable damage).

CMD Nair: "A warning shot. If that’s not enough, then I don’t know. Cut the drive."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "S-POD now shows 'High threat level', engaging ... [Short Pause] ... PDL cell open." (Point Defense missile Launcher).

CMD Nair: "Well, that worked. Finally, we got the PODs attention."

CTL Ling: "I detect lots of AMES signaling inbound."

CMD Nair: "What is it?"

CTL Ling: "Traffic goes to the S-POD, primarily."

CMD Nair: "Control: shut that down. Disable AMES-Com."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "The S-POD is disengaging ... [Short Pause] ... back to 'Low threat level' ... what?"

CMD Nair: "Any way to override it?"

CTL Ling: "I am trying. S-POD is unresponsive ... uh, it's like they know exactly how to disable it via AMES."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "The S-POD just vanished from CnCC. Can't even talk to it now." (CnCC: the Command & Control Console displaying all ship components and software modules).

CMD Nair: "OPS: launch a relay-drone and activate the link. Direction: find the spot in the sky where the sun will be from our of point of view in 7 minutes."

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Drone launched."

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "1 minute to 0-intercept."

[Pause]

Unidentified: "You are hereby ordered to power down the core and go to aux. If we see one erg from your radiator, you’re toast." (Aux: auxiliary power from power banks. Erg being a small energy quantity, this means that they would detect if the reactor were still running by looking at the infrared waste heat emitted by the radiators).

CMD Nair: "OPS: do it."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Prepare for aux power."

[Short Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "And ... we are on aux."

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "CSA has them hovering at 100 meters. RCS-ing" (CSA: the Composite Situational Awareness AI reports that they shut down their main drive and are now closing in on RCS thrusters).

[Pause]

OPS Al-Kazemi: "They stopped at 30 meters at our 5 minus 45" (5 o'clock meaning at the back of the vessel and 45 degrees down with respect to its axis. Top and bottom are defined by the arrangement of the acceleration seats, a rather arbitrary, but necessary definition).

[Short Pause]

CMD Nair: "The external cams show figures in APEX suits on EVA ... [Short Pause] ... 3 ... they are coming closer." (APEX: Armored and Powered EXoskeleton space suits, EVA: Extra Vehicular Activity, in other words: they left their spacecraft to come over in heavily armed space suits. Originally APEX was a product name, meaning the apex-predator among the space suits. Later APEX became synonymous with the entire class of powered suits for space combat. An APEX essentially now being a short-distance one-person micro space vessel in its own right).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Looks like one is approaching the ventral com-cluster. Two others are heading for the front hatch." (Ventral: on the lower – belly – side in relation to the main axis of the vessel. One of the two communication clusters, ventral or dorsal, should always be in contact with the base regardless of the ship's orientation in space).

CMD Nair: "Control: can we hit them with a container? Can we blow one up or get a container between us and missile 2? Ideally both at the same time."

CTL Ling: "I need three minutes to detach containers and give them a boost. But I have to move the pusher for the aft container." (Container pusher: a small tele-operated vessel used to move containers around in zero gee).

CMD Nair: "Control: do it. OPS: stop the relay-drone. Reverse its course and send it on a close miss with the Wanderer in three minutes. Prepare for terminal maneuvering. Sync the timing with the container activity."

Unidentified: "You are ordered to clear the hatch and stand by for cycling. Don't get creative. This is not our first mission. We've seen it all. Containers thrown at us. Drive as a weapon. Com-laser blinding. Drone ramming. Younameit. Seriously, we take no risks. Any threat to our mission and the missile will blow you apart. Bridge first. Don't even think about it."

OPS Al-Kazemi: "Second missile maneuvering, approaching CLM ... 20 meters ... should come into view now ... there it is ... that's a pretty Suzume Mark 8." (CLM: Command and Living Module, Suzume: a standard short range intercept missile with enough brains, sensors, and propulsion to follow any target autonomously, especially civilian freighters).

CMD Nair: "Control: stop the container activity. The missile is on top of us. They could detonate it without being hit themselves. Our body shields them. Their 5 minus 45 position was well chosen."

CTL Ling: "Ack, activity stopped ... [Short Pause] ... I lost all inbound radio signals ... checking ... cam shows someone right on top of the array." (Array = phased array antenna, a flat piece of the hull with metamaterial coating that serves as an electronically steerable antenna for sending and receiving of directed and broadcast signals).

OPS Al-Kazemi: "And ... there goes the com-laser ... they disabled it. The relay-drone link is still ..."

Relay drone: "This is LRV Void Wanderer. Link disconnected. Switching to auto."

Relay drone: "This is LRV Void Wanderer. We are under attack. Crew in immediate danger. This is an automated distress signal."

Relay drone: "This is LRV Void Wanderer. We are under attack. Crew in immediate danger. This is an automated distress signal."

Relay drone: "This is LRV Void Wanderer. We are under attack. Crew in immediate danger. This is an automated distress signal."

[End of Log] LRV Void Wanderer and her crew were never seen again.

In 2222, the interplanetary transportation industry is rocked by an unprecedented event: the first pirate attack on a transporter in flight between planets. This audacious act is not an isolated incident. Over the next decade, such heists escalate in frequency and boldness. Pirates, equipped with advanced stealth and boarding technologies, target valuable cargo and passengers, causing significant losses and amplifying fears among travelers.

The motivations behind these attacks remain enigmatic. The vast resources invested into the pirate infrastructure, including secret bases, suggest that the piracy is not merely about resource gathering or financial interests. The loot hardly justifies the investment. Speculations arise that this piracy is part of a broader economic or political warfare. The Anti-Expansionist terror movement, which has been gaining traction, is suspected. It's believed that states on Earth dominated by Anti-Expansionist ideologies might be orchestrating these attacks.

The pirates' modus operandi reveals a strategic approach. They typically strike victims far from any bases, especially during stretches of their journey where transports are bound to specific paths due to in-flight matter stream resupply. This makes interception easier despite the vastness of space. The primary targets are the routes between Earth space (including Earth orbit, the Moon, and L4/5) and the asteroid belt. There are also sporadic attacks on long-range lanes to Jupiter and the trojans. These shippings, though less frequent, are even more vulnerable due to their heightened in-flight resupply requirements. Earth orbit is not directly affected by piracy as resources come primarily from asteroids in earth's orbit and from the moon. The earth-moon space is safe.

The piracy problem is a divisive issue on Earth. While it doesn't directly affect the majority of Earth's inhabitants, the high-tech sector and the affluent who rely on products from Earth's orbit are concerned. The continued development of the orbital economy would be threatened if Earth-Moon space were cut off from the asteroid belt. However, a significant portion of Earth's population, especially those not benefiting from orbital expansion, lean towards Anti-Expansionism. They oppose active measures against the piracy, citing the cost-benefit disparity for Earth's inhabitants.

The economic impact of the piracy is profound. Interplanetary trade dwindles, posing significant challenges for the Palladian League and other interplanetary bases. The League, representing the interests of those beyond Earth's extended orbit, pushes for aggressive action. However, their operations, while dominant in the interplanetary economy, are small in absolute terms. The vastness of space and the limited human presence beyond Earth's orbit make their efforts challenging.

In response to the growing threat, transport companies retrofit their vessels with defense systems, including automated turrets and reinforced hulls. Some even hire private security forces to escort their ships on particularly vulnerable routes. However, this early self-armament is illegal, and the space patrol, the primary law enforcement agency in outer space, takes action against companies that engage in such practices. This enforcement, coupled with the vast expanse of space and the pirates' growing sophistication, poses significant challenges for the space patrol.

Earth's stance on the issue is ambivalent. There are many anti-expansionist minded people despising the interplanetary economy. Even more are indifferent as the problem does not affect them directly. So, the Earth is split, often leaning towards a wait-and-see attitude, while the League pushes for strong action resulting in disagreements and controversial arguments between Earth and the League. The giga-corporations, which sponsor most of the League's members, eventually compel the World Council to act.

Recognizing the severity of the situation, the World Council initiates a comprehensive legislative process. The proposal to address the pirate threat navigates a complex web of interests, factions, nations, and corporations on Earth. Coordination with the Palladian League becomes essential. Intense debates ensue, with various stakeholders championing their own agendas and concerns. The process is a testament to the intricacies of interplanetary politics.

After extensive deliberations, the World Council introduces the Interplanetary Pirate Laws. These regulations mandate stricter penalties for piracy and establish a dedicated anti-pirate task force within the space patrol. Moreover, the World Council launches the Space User Response: Protective Reactive Interplanetary Security Equipment (SURPRISE) Program. This initiative allows civilian ships to be equipped with sealed weapon pods, controlled by an internal AI. The AI's primary function is to ensure that the weapon systems are used appropriately, minimizing the risk of misuse or accidental discharge. While civilian users bear the cost of these weapon pods, they, in return, get access to advanced weaponry and obtain a license to install and utilize them.

Initially, the SURPRISE pods prove effective, bolstering the defense of many civilian vessels. However, this success is short-lived. Pirates, seemingly possessing intricate knowledge of the AI and hardware specifications, succeed in hacking and disabling the pods remotely. This vulnerability suggests a deeper concern: potential infiltration or compromise of the SURPRISE pod producers. The pirates, operating vessels that rival the space forces of medium-sized states, clearly have substantial backing. This support not only equips their pirate vessels and covers initial operating costs but also supplies them with insider information. Such capabilities suggest significant secret intelligence gathering, hinting at the involvement of major corporate or even state actors.

The cycle of compromise and countermeasure persists for several years. SURPRISE pods are disabled, then hardened and redesigned, only to be breached again. In an attempt to break this cycle, suppliers are switched several times, but the pattern persists.

The piracy problem fits into the wider picture of anti-expansionist activism, a major movement at the time. But it may well be that the factions behind the pirates are just free riders using Anti-Expansionism as cover for economic warfare and extorsion. Despite the concerted efforts of private companies, the Earth based Space Force, and initiatives by the Palladian League, the piracy problem only worsens. 25 years after the first incident, traffic between Earth and the asteroid belt becomes economically untenable as insurance policy costs skyrocket.