We had already drilled and installed pitons along the length of Wilbur; after we’d guided the Mayflower close to the body, we drew out tethers from her hull and connected them to the pitons. Then – with the ship’s thrusters, our orbiters as tugs, and by tightening the tension in the tethers – we drew the Mayflower in to attach to Wilbur. It took hours, but we didn’t want to compromise the hull or the integrity of Wilbur with our haste and eagerness.
Mayflower was a simply designed ship, even by comparison to the Quoqasi; she had a simple role, and was built to fulfil that role with a rugged reliability. In spreading its achievements to the planets of Sol, humanity had learned to value modular designs above anything sophisticated or specialized. Redundancy, reusability, and mission profiles were crucial; elegance was not. Both Quoqasi and Mayflower embodied this philosophy, although they magnified the scale, as befitted the first of mankind’s leaps across the darkness between stars.
Both ships comprised a drive stack which propelled the mission module – their drive stacks were of the same design and specifications, and in the modular nature of human design, they could thus be called sister ships, or of the same class. But their mission modules were vastly different.
Quoqasi carried a crew of human colonists, and the equipment and materials needed to begin life on another world: it was a colonization ship, composed of four separate colonization pods and all the apparatus needed to ensure their safety.
Mayflower, by contrast, was a supply ship. It required none of the equipment to maintain a crew – life support, complex redundancy navigation computers, communications gear, lifeboats, even sensors. Instead, where the Quoqasi hauled fragile humans and the pods which would begin the first cities in a new stellar system, the Mayflower carried raw payload. With only a pre-programmed course and basic telemetry data relayed from Sol behind it and the Quoqasi light months ahead of it, Mayflower had crossed the dark between Sol and Alpha Centauri alone.
Instead of the colony pods which clustered around the central spine of Quoqasi like berries on a stalk, Mayflower’s stack was enclosed in cargo pallets, serried in rank and level and size. These layers of cargo containers were enclosed by gantries and scaffolding – these were the prefabricated beginnings of Port Mayflower.
When Mayflower was mated to Wilbur, our teams set to work cutting through the last of its ablative hull. Tonnes of ice, formed billions of years ago and a handful of light years away, were cut into rectilinear shapes, and cast aside. Later, when the space elevator was completed, we would lower this ice to the surface, where it would be injected into our closed-loop life support cycles; for now chunks of it formed a shell around the station, and these pieces circled Fram in their own orbits.
Then we began to unfurl the station structure – booms and cranes of scaffolding, which had enfolded the cargo components of the ship like the articulated arms of an insect, began to unfold, extend, and straighten. Mayflower’s hull became the main body of the orbital station, and its fusion engine became the power source. As these gantries unfolded into docking stations, our orbiters were able to put to berth, and the crews went to work pressurizing those sections of the Mayflower which would become the manned areas of the station.
Along with the structure of our orbital shipyards, Mayflower had brought with it a long spool of carbon nanotube, manufacture of which was far beyond our fledgling industrial capabilities. We began the slow process of uncoiling the ribbon from the ventral stack of Port Mayflower to Charlotte Station.
Port Mayflower took shape – facilities carried by the Mayflower blossomed across the surface of Wilbur, and arms extended at right angles from the Mayflower’s spindly hull. These arms formed the flanks of our space docks: the smallest would enclose our orbiters, the largest were the beginnings of drydocks for the construction of the planned systemships.
On the far side of Wilbur’s surface we had planned to dock Quoqasi. The two ships would have been equal in length, and would have bracketed the asteroid with their wiry forms; instead, Quoqasi’s dock was cut to half its length, and the salvaged drive stack berthed here. Somehow, through all the chaos of the last week, we hadn’t let the death of Quoqasi affect us; we had been too busy, too stressed, too worried, and this had distracted us from facing its loss. Now, however, seeing that half-length drydock, and in the absence of existential crises, it all hit home.
We turned our high-gain antenna toward Cassiopeia and transmitted a narrow-band message to Sol, thanking them for sending the Mayflower. We did this as a formality, a tradition – Mayflower had left Jupiter’s orbit five years ago, just after we had in Quoqasi; and any message we sent them today would not be heard by human ears for over four years, nor would we receive a reply for closer to nine. Along with our grief for the loss of Quoqasi was the melancholy that came with the realization that Mayflower was our last physical connection to Home.
We had received our first and only supply ship; there was nothing else to look forward to, no promise to hold out for, no outside influence to pin our hopes on.
Now we were on our own.