Field Work

26 05 2007

Tahir Full2

“…the e-suits were standard issue, meaning if it didn’t fit, lock, zip or shut, it was up to you to make it fit, lock, zip or shut. The outpost maintenance crews were already overworked with stopping the breakdowns within the vehicle fleet, so kickers, such as the surveyors, the science teams etc., all had to do custom repairs and upgrade modding themselves. This led to a broad variation on the e-suit practicality and aesthetics, as each division worked on their own design to make their job just that little bit easier.”

It was a one-man mission, although it was a two-person job. Ruslan was exhausted. There were more vehicles in the repair shop than not, which was nothing new. So it was appropriate, then, that without enough two-person vehicles to drag this far out from the grid, the second person for the job would be requisitioned by the vehicle shop to help clear the backlog of repairs.

And so here was Ruslan, alone, clocking dozens of kilometers and hours on a KOVTAR scantily refitted with disposable sheets over its leg actuators, hoping not to break down this far from the colonies.

He was a good twenty-five klicks from the nearest of the colony pods. This far out, spectroscopic studies from orbit had shown a good probability of metals subducted beneath basalt sheets. Every few kilometers Ruslan would park the KOVTAR, set up the drill equipment strapped to the rear cabin of the walker, and take a core sample. It was tough, though laborious, work. Two people were needed to manhandle the equipment, although he managed that well enough alone; more of a concern for him, though, was the need for somebody else were something to happen to him, so far from help.

He put these thoughts to the back of his mind. The treasure was out here, somewhere, seeded beneath the regolith during the formation of Fram billions of years ago, waiting those geologic ages of inactivity for his drill piece to bore through the basalt of great impactors.

Ruslan had a good eight hours of oxygen left of the eighteen hour maximum reservoir carried by the e-suits. He would have power enough to last through the thickened twilight of Fram’s night, although even in the absence of sunlight for the photosynthetic receptors, he could in emergencies link with the power source of the KOVTAR. During the last nine hours his e-suit had fed hungrily on the light of Alpha B, and had converted that energy and the waste products of his body into stores of genetically-engineered algae. This algae produced oxygen, extending the suit’s so-called “battery life” by fifty percent; it was also edible, though the taste and consistency deterred most.

He had only two more samples to take; despite this, the exhaustion was piling on his shoulders and pooling behind his eyes. Ruslan, not for the first time, found himself missing Home. Even during the worst times in the fresh water mines, work was never such a bone-jarring, spirit-crushing affair. There was such little redundancy built into the enterprise of colonizing other stars that merely existing required sacrifices not made by humans for generations.

And then the KOVTAR crested a ridge, and Ruslan caught his breath. He was instantly reminded what it was all for.

He dismounted, and walked a half dozen paces ahead of the machine. Ahead of him, the terrain sloped down steeply, running away into the distance toward a string of craters. To his left and right, several hundred meters away, ridges of bedrock rose sharply from the regolith, framing the horizon with unnaturally straight lines.

In the gap between these ridges, the ring of Fram rose from the horizon – a muddy brown arc which curled along the bowl of the sky at right angles to the horizon, up and above Ruslan’s shoulder. The ring was fuzzy, for the most part indistinct, but as he watched it now he saw larger pieces, in higher orbits, caught in the light of Alpha B, which was now below the horizon. He saw hundreds of these objects, brown rocks highlighted in bright golden lines, made misty by the dust of the ring.

Through the ring he could see Alpha A, from which Fram receded with each moment. Its light, diminished by the ring and by distance, was now like that of a full moon on Earth, or the light of Saturn through the night clouds of Titan. Its light caught the edges of the methane clouds above the horizon, and shot a spectrum of colours through these.

He looked down, to his feet. Rust-coloured regolith was ground into the surface of his e-suit, as far as his knees. Behind him he saw footprints, crisp in the duricrust – the only footprints for twenty-five kilometers, the only footprints in five billion years.

His footprints.

Ruslan smiled, and felt all the worries of the world washed away by the beauty of the moment. But these moments had always existed here, on wind-swept Fram, for the billions of years it had existed and looped between the suns. Its moons had risen and set, eclipsed, and had been lit by the light of three stars for five billion years – yet human eyes had only seen these sights for less than three months.

Could such moments have ever existed, without mind, without consciousness, here to witness them, to appreciate them, to understand them? The thought enfolded Ruslan, dwarfed him. He was reminded of a puzzle posed to him when he was younger: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

This was why man went to the stars. This is why we walk the razor edge of dieback.

The crescent of Sverdrup crested the horizon, illuminated by the light of two suns. Complex shadows were cast across its surface.

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UC-104 Utility Crane

20 05 2007

UC-104 Crane

“…the UC-104 roamed the desolate rubble-strewn plains, in its wake lay the stripped-back solar panels from the outpost ships. It was eventually destroyed upon the wasteland in a shower of debris from Amundsen as the moon arced over Fram; but its battered, shattered carcass remained to become a feature and monument to the stark world they had endeavoured to settle.”

I was watching the UC at work. The big boom crane swung across, stacking the solar panels where the KOVTARs – their light COILs replaced by load-bearing clamps mounted on stubby arms – could access them. This was raw functionality; utilitarianism and modular designs were foremost, while aesthetics were distant.

The KOVTARs and the UC had the easiest work of the terrain. Bipedal – quadrupedal, in the case of the heavy UC – locomotion suited this planet much better than did the caterpillars and wheels of the haulers and ATVs, though it was by no means the perfect answer to Fram. In the mid-term, the goal was to remove the Colony’s reliance on these latter altogether: arterials, constructed of carbon ribbon, would connect the Outposts, mining sites, supply depots and the spaceport; maybe we would even construct our own vehicles, the first of a new generation that we didn’t haul all the way from Sol in prefabricated pieces, walkers like the KOVTARs or maybe even hover vehicles, short-range aerial vehicles, VTOLs or helicopters, to take advantage of Fram’s thicker atmosphere…

But that was a way off. The Colony was still establishing itself, trying to subsist on what we’d brought and buy ourselves enough time to set up the infrastructure to start living off the resources of Fram.

The boom locked into place, and the winch, bearing the rhomboid shape of a solar cell panel, lowered to the pair of KOVTARs below.

We were weeks behind on our timetable, months in some areas. The spaceguard project was the most worrying: we weren’t sure if we’d have the anchor station in a suitable, stable orbit by the time the Mayflower arrived. Even work on these solar fields, our big project now that the mining rig was running, was going around-the-clock.

Eventually, these solar stations would reflect enough energy to power the anchor station in orbit. But for now we needed them not for energy (we had four of our own stars, bottled up behind magnetic fields) but to target the objects in the ring system above, wrapped in reflective blankets by our orbiter crew, and push them into more stable orbits.

The orbiter mission had identified dozens more objects that needed their orbits modified by us, many more than the ground stations had observed. We had a lot of work ahead of us. These stations needed to be ready within a week, so we could make NFO safe for the anchor station (and, not to mention, the skies safe for us kickers down here).

Another convoy of haulers came rumbling towards our base camp. More solar cells, stripped from the Outposts, were stacked in their trays, meters high. There were replacement crews, too, to keep the operation going through another shift. But there were no replacement KOVTARs, or a replacement UC – the operators could be rested, but we didn’t have enough machines to keep up with this timetable.

We’d been lucky so far, but surely something would break down soon. And when that happened, we probably didn’t have enough parts, or time, to recover…





Alpha-4 Mining Operations

20 05 2007

COIL-MMR Operation

“…what you’ve got is a fairly ungainly machine, the COIL Mobile Mining Rig is especially difficult to move around with any precision. It was originally a tracked vehicle, but we stripped it once the grit made it more of an issue to maintain. Moves at about twenty klicks an hour, fully loaded. We’ve found it seems easier if the chemical tanks are transported separately, and it keeps the strain off the deployment elevators in transit – the thing would be useless if it arrived at its destination with a warped or bowed elevator strut…”

Chemical Mining Rig

“…automate the test burn of the COIL from the ad-hoc interface, and maintain safety protocol. Things have gone wrong with the COIL modules, so err on the side of caution. Once tested, vent the modules, deploy and connect a standard A44-10 module. Keep it on 4x scan, check it every fifteen or so. Keep it synced to your comms and store the packets on one of the drives in the modules hard disk. Commence forty-five minute bursts then wait for cool-off.”

COIL Mining Overseer - Donning Ceramic armour

“…remember to check and double-check the cleats and lining joins in the maintenance suit. Ensure every article has been inspected and cleared before use and before stowage. Also ensure the COIL module is deactivated, sluiced and syphoned from the main tank before any maintenance is completed on the rig. Watch your partner, keep an eye on the pressure and exhaust dials and keep the A44-10 cyclic to give you the heads-up if you’re about to hit something you shouldn’t…”

We kicked off mining ops at planetfall plus forty eight. That’s Solar days, of course, because no one had worked out a calendar for the crazy days Fram lived through this side of the barycenter. The first COIL MMR – we brought two – was set up east of Alpha-4, in the base of a crater named Yom Kippur where the regolith had been fused into a basalt sheet and, just ten meters beneath the surface, seismological surveys had found sublimated bedrock, fractured by the impact which created the crater. Core samples showed up lots of magnesium, aluminium, scraps of iron, and lots of fused oxygen: exactly what we needed.

It was nearly seven weeks after planetfall – two weeks since the massive operation to relocate Alpha-2 had wrapped up, and just over a month until the supply ship arrived in orbit.

The COIL was supposed to move twenty klicks an hour; Yom Kippur was only seven klicks from Alpha-4, but of course, the regolith completely frammed the caterpillar system. It ended up taking us two days to get the rig in place, including the time to strip the tracks, and to set up the refinery.

The rig was kicked off just after Alpha A had set – the only object in the sky was Alpha B, growing brighter by the week as Fram drew closer. A wind slowly kicked up after A-set. This would become more of a problem as Fram reached the extremes of its orbit: one star, whether it be B now or A in eighty years, would heat one face of the planet while the other star was too distant to heat the other. The wind was the result, great pressure systems the size of continents, as excited air particles moved from hot to cold.

Gaseous chlorine was mixed with molecular iodine and an aqueous mixture of hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide. These chemicals were injected from the massive tanks, enclosed by gantries, which formed the superstructure of the rig. There was a burst of heat.

The laser burst itself was invisible, operating on infrared wavelengths. But we could see the results with each pulse: the regolith under the resonator was blown away, or fused into the basalt. With each burst, the products of the chemical reaction were separated by the rig: oxygen, water, and potassium salts were pumped away into tanks stacked at the far end of the rig, furthest from the refinery. These would be collected by the haulers and transported to the Outposts, to slowly open up the closed-loop life-support (CLLS) systems.

Slowly, the COIL rig made progress: there would be a supersonic pulse of laser energy, a blast of energy and heat, and then robotic arms would remove and sort the debris. It moved the slag off to the side, to be used later for construction of the carbon highways between the Outposts, mines, and spaceport, and the material to be processed was fed onto conveyor belts and moved down the length of the rig to the refinery.

A lot of people were standing around. It seemed as if all the e-suits in Alpha-4 were here, used by whoever could find a bureaucratic reason to be present for the deployment and firing of the Colony’s first mine. Many were searching the sky, looking for the supply ship or looking for Sol or simply enjoying the alien sky.

One of the rig’s maintenance teams had set up a sign on the upper gantry enclosing the chlorine stack; now that the rig had been firing for several minutes, a floodlight flickered on an lit up the sign. It said simply:

COIL MMR-001
brought to you by the
Engineering Corps of Alpha-4
“Keep HOPE Alive”

It was a pun – Human Outer Planetary Exploration was the over-arching term used to colonise the planets and moons of Sol in the heady days the species expanded from its homeworld. We were smiling, privately, unreadable to one another by the faceplates of our e-suits; and we all hoped the double-meaning would reach every colonist on Fram…





Supply & Demand

16 05 2007

Clerk

"…Nassimatissi was Quartermaster-Alpha for Outpost Alpha-3. He was the first to calculate and vocalise that, if things kept going the way they were; the colonial equipment continually being subjected to dust-related breakdowns, they wouldn’t have the propensity to expand at a rate requisite to an operational colony of that size.

The first stocks to rapidly drop in number were seals and filtration sleeves for the heavy movers. The KOVTARs kept throwing their actuator seals after gear aggravation by the dust, not to mention the maintenance they required after a few days out on the surface. The M-1010 catepillar tractors had a poorly designed engine manifold, at least for this landscape, which led to the fleet of twenty being garaged while the defects were patched up, dust-proofed and spot-welded. Stopping damage from happening was one thing, repairing what had already occurred was another.

…Nassimatissi hoped that the supply frame had more welding rods stowed within its silent bays. Vacuum caulk would stop a starship from turning inside out, but it wasn’t enough to put together an outpost or keep the ground fleet operational."

We were working in the plant room when we saw the Colony’s QA – I couldn’t remember his name, but Mierhof insisted it was Nassimatissi. He was with QA4, too, of course. Oddly, Alpha-4’s Quartermaster noticed us, but Nassimatissi did not.

We couldn’t eavesdrop in the plant room, of course, not near the massive carbon filters. The Quartermasters were walking between the filters, inspecting each of the spheres before moving to the next. There were sixteen spheres in this plant room, for Alpha-3’s hydroponic dome, each sphere easily the height of two men. The Quartermasters seemed to be checking the filtration: maybe someone got sick from the food, or maybe, with plans to connect each Outpost and our mining operations, we were running out of carbon, too.

Mierhof didn’t care – he seemed to think that, with our mining operations setting up, the Quartermaster-Alpha had better things to do than micromanage the hydroponic filtration of each Outpost of the Colony.

But I cared, because Nassimatissi, who had become somewhat of a celebrity across these fractured microcommunities, was not as impassive as he’d been made out. His face was furrowed, even when examining something as trivial as these carbon filters, with the edge of worry.

We had only five weeks to go until our supply ship arrived. They said that when Alpha A set, through a telescope, you could see the glow of the ship decelerating. People were excited, for different reasons: either for the resources, raw or prefabricated, which would ease the current bottleneck; or, more disturbingly, for the lifeboat the supply ship represented.

Our colony pods, now the center of our Outposts and the source of our warmth and light, would never again see the Quoqasi which bore them to this place. But the supply ship represented a second interstellar engine, and a second cargo module.

Many had begun to feel that all of our setbacks and problems were pandemic, and emblematic of what was to logically come next: a dieback, mass death caused by the collapse of life-support loops or a reactor accident or an impactor. These were the people who saw the supply ship as a lifeboat to Sol.

I cared – no, I worried – only because Nassimatissi seemed resigned, even defeated. And that suggested he was one of these latter.





Fram Seismological Survey

15 05 2007

Geologist

A44-10 Module Operations Guide: P4.C2 – the A44-10 requires two operators to install. Position A44-10 Module with [-12-.12a.12b.12c.12d] foot-plates unlocked. Select [-on.ini.fireDpin.deploy…y/n]. Once Drillpins have been deployed, select [ -ini.bore.deploy…y/n]. Once Bore [13d.13f1.13.f2] has been deployed, select [ -ini.seis/sen.deploy…y/n]. Once Seismic Sensor has been deployed, the A44-10 can be used immediately.

See >A44-10 Monitoring System

One of the footplates wouldn’t unlock properly, which saw Mierhof and myself, one on each side of the rig, rocking it back and forth until the whole thing settled into the regolith. Mierhof was breathing heavily and swearing, which cracked and distorted the link between his e-suit and mine. He told the rig to get “frammed”, which was turning out to be one of the first linguistic divergences from our home – that bright yellow spark that had attached itself to Cassiopeia, which we still called “Home”, despite being here for the long run.

The drill bits and bore deployed just fine, though the regolith, blasted by micrometeorites for longer than there had been a human race, offered no real resistance. There was a thump thump thump we felt through our boots but couldn’t really hear: this was the bore hammering down through the soil.

It had been three weeks since planetfall: the four colonisation pods of Quoqasi had settled and begun to expand into small, pressure-locked towns, and even now we looked over the horizon and saw a pair of KOVTARs walking in their ungainly gait under the double crescents of Sverdrup and Nansen.

Mierhof was glad to get away from those things for a few days. He was adjusting the rig, but all I could hear was the shift of dust over the ground. That dust had thus far been a nightmare – it was incredibly abrasive, and we hadn’t brought enough spare parts to replace all the seals and gaskets the stuff wore down, much less the foot actuators of our KOVTARs.

The survey showed up much of what the eggheads back Home had expected, when the first probes to Alpha Centauri had returned their information packets to Earth. It was very similar to Luna, Earth’s Moon: the regolith was only a few dozen meters thick, composed of comminuted rock formed by regular impacts; underneath this was fractured bedrock, kilometers thick. Some of this bedrock was exposed, in places on Fram’s surface, like the deeper craters, or sublimated beneath basalt plains formed by the heat of great impactors.

What was beneath the megaregolith the A44-10 would not tell us, though if we were right, the upper mantle would compose silicone, magnesium, aluminium, iron, calcium, and oxygen, baked into the rocks. This was the stuff we needed, both to expand our colony and to open up our closed-loop life support systems.

Nothing on the rig gave us a clue about the core or mantle. Somewhere down there, buried deep, was a massive ball of iron, larger than Mercury. We knew this because Fram had a magnetosphere, a magnetic field almost as strong as Earth’s, despite being a much smaller world. We settled here because the magnetosphere protected us from the charged particles pumped out by Alpha A and B. Without that iron core, Mierhof would be more than frammed.

But the rig did show us that nothing was moving down there, no superheated magma ocean or asthenosphere, no plate tectonics or lithosphere. Not that anything would be moving, if the iron core hypothesis was right. Everything that could happen to Fram, geologically, had already happened: now it was still and silent, waiting for the next impactor.

Mierhof ran the subterranean radar pulses for a while longer, though we hadn’t found anything unexpected and nor had any of the other seismological survey teams. We didn’t have to worry about earthquakes or volcanoes, nor did we have to worry about high-energy electrons and protons destroying Fram’s crappy atmosphere and giving us cancers. But we did have to worry about the basics: air, food, water, warmth, and spare parts…





Outpost Alpha-2

14 05 2007

Unmanned Aerial Survey Drone

“…one of the major setbacks on Fram was Outpost Alpha-2, one of the four Colony Pods brought to Fram by the Quoqasi. Plagued by continual damage from falling orbital debris, Alpha was eventually scrapped and abandoned for a resettlement in a safer area, several kilometres away.”

The first deaths happened a few weeks after planetfall.

Alpha-2, the second of the four colonisation pods, which had set up on the highlands north of Alpha-3, was hit by a rock that, after burning up in the thick atmosphere, was hardly the size of a clenched fist. The colony lost five people who choked to death on a mixture of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen and argon. That brought the total numbers on Fram to 3, 994, although a woman over at Alpha-4 was seven months pregnant (there had been several miscarriages due to deceleration and atmospheric entry).

The rock missed the modules which composed the Outpost, and missed also the pod from Quoqasi. Instead it hit the airbridge which linked the fusion reactor, under the blister of the Quoqasi pod, to the hydroponics dome. If it had hit the fusion reactor, Humanity’s adventure in Alpha Centauri would have ended there.

Alpha-2 had been battered by micrometeorites since it had landed. The other three pods had put down either in the base of a crater, or at the base of the highlands which ran north of the ten-by-ten grid chosen from orbit to colonise. This way they were protected from the rain of rocks by Fram’s geography: anything from Amundsen would have to come in from the west – Amundsen’s orbit was retrograde – and the other Outposts kept themselves sheltered from that direction.

This way it wasn’t necessary to bury the Outposts in regolith, like the first colonies on Mars had to because of the solar wind. The debate now was to bury Alpha-2, or to relocate the entire Outpost, just five weeks after it was set up.

Eventually, the colonists elected to move the entire Outpost before it grew too big to be relocated. Extra habitat modules were erected at Alpha-1, Alpha-3 and Alpha-4 to house the nine hundred and ninety five people of Alpha-2 while the tractor haulers moved the modules to the southern mouth of de Lacaille Canyon, a half dozen kilometers north-west of Alpha-1. Now the four Outposts formed a rough diamond, with Alpha-2 near the middle, and no outpost was more than six kilometers from another.

Nothing was really going to plan, yet. The KOVTARs were breaking down, the haulers had problems moving through the dust over such huge distances, the life-support systems of the other three Outposts were overworked, and everyone wanted to get outside and see the suns and moons and horizon after five years cooped up in a spaceship. There weren’t enough spare parts, there weren’t enough e-suits, and the deep-core mining wasn’t yet up and running, so there were no resources to produce replacements.

Slowly, a dark, subtle despair was setting in. The deaths at Alpha-2 exacerbated the feeling that, for some colonists at any rate, Fram was not like any other colonisation project in the Solar System – there, in even the most ambitious projects before Fram, help had been at hand, only a few months away. Fram was beginning to feel oppressively far from Home, and, once the supply ship arrived, the Colony would be entirely cut off from Sol…





Boundary Riders

13 05 2007

Unto The Horizon (3-4)

“…short straw went to Mierhof, who periodically unclogged the stabilisers on the KOVTAR. It was hot inside the suit, but the gravity kept the dust to a minimum. With the outpost nearing completion and the first supply ship since planetfall arriving within three months, these were tough but exciting times for those anchored here, in this lonely part of the galaxy.”

Sze Leng guided the KOVTAR across the regolith. It was approaching noon in Fram’s dangerous summer, where the planet intersected its own orbit and was crossing the Lagrange point that marked the center of rotation for the binary. Alpha A was rising ahead, while B was slowly dipping below the horizon behind the KOVTAR. The ring system was a fuzzy line that bisected the twin stars.

Amundsen was high in the ruddy sky, a misshapen lump of rock tearing itself apart. The moon was like an iceberg, cracking and splitting amidst a icepack of its own making. The light from Alpha A was partially eclipsed by chunks of Amundsen, but these chunks were counter-lit by Alpha B. The other two moons were in conjunction below the horizon.

Sze Leng walked the KOVTAR up the slope of a crater. The regolith crunched under the walker’s footpads. The lip of the crater was almost indistinguishable from the incline; this was an old impact site, maybe five million years old, the crest and ejecta lines worn smooth and dusty by the wind. She paused the KOVTAR at the lip, the gears whinnying to a stop. There was a momentary grind of dust in the ankle actuators.

Shadow had pooled in the basin of the crater, where the light of neither star, suspended above opposite horizons, could reach. Sze Leng saw how large the crater was, easily a kilometer across, though not the largest on Fram’s ugly surface.

Sze Leng dismounted, climbing down the KOVTAR’s long legs. She looked back the way she had come, toward base camp – so far, two small habitat domes and the skeleton of a hydroponics dome – and the hulk of the colony pod around which the Outpost was clustered. There was a line of footprints in the regolith, crisp and distinct, glistening white at the edges where the dust had been churned up and the layer of methane ice, inches below the surface, revealed.

She shivered, in spite of her environment suit. She looked back into the crater. There was vegetation, of a sort, down there: a type of basic, hardy, alien grass which grew in the shade of Fram’s craters where the only scraps of hydrogen on the planet pooled during the winters.

szelengsmall.jpg

Sze Leng left the KOVTAR at the lip of the crater, and slowly worked her way down…