Planetfall +91

29 01 2008

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.


Mopping Up

24 01 2008

Quoqasi Cleanup

“…grazing the skies below, the orbital operations to recover debris from the Quoqasi destruction continued as Texas was chased down.  What couldn’t be salvaged was shunted into the atmosphere, to be burned up upon re-entry.  We had come too far to be ambushed later by rogue pieces of dead starship, travelling at a deadly speed…”

We brought six orbiters with us from Sol. Initially we’d only been able to put four in orbit, but once the mining site injected enough quartz, silica, and graphite into our resource pool for us to manufacture ceramic heat tiles, the last two were rushed into service.

Two went after Texas; two went after the decompressed stern of Quoqasi, still in a lateral spin after being sheared from the bow; two went out ahead to meet the Mayflower.

No human eyes had been laid on the Mayflower in five years. She was an automated starship, thrown from Sol three months after our own departure in the Quoqasi – she’d trailed us through the long, cold, interstellar night. We didn’t know what condition she was in, how she had fared through her trip, what her current mass was or how profound the Pioneer Anomaly had been on her voyage – we needed to know these things so that we could shunt her into a perfect orbit.

So the last two days before her arrival were the most hectic they had ever been at mission control. We needed to calculate the May’s orbit, we needed to clear that orbit of pieces of the wrecked Quoqasi, and we needed to slingshot Texas the hell out of NFO for good. No one slept, not even the orbiter crews, which was dangerous and reckless but we had no other choice.

All this was further complicated thirty-two hours before orbital insertion – true to the nature of our existence on Fram to date, all our servers crashed, overloaded by the comms and data traffic between ground-based observation sites, satellites, the labs in the Colonies, and of course our intrepid orbiters. It took two hours to get everything back on line, during which objects in orbit were lost from our screens and the May rocketed ever closer to Fram.

The orbiter crews did as much as they could without telemetry and guidance from the ground. But our plan with Texas had been to use the solid-fuel boosters in concert with the ground-based solar station. During those two hours the station couldn’t track Texas, and we lost precious time and a crucial amount of thrust. Fifteen minutes after our systems came back online, simulations showed what we had feared for five straight days – an eighty-six percent chance of coincidence between the orbit of Texas and the orbit of the Mayflower.

We thought of altering the asteroid’s orbit, if we couldn’t move it completely – a couple of degrees from its current latitude would swing it across Fram’s equator and, eventually, over several weeks, approach a circumpolar orbit. But it was an impermanent solution, made useless by the Mayflower’s own complex orbit: to avoid the ring of Fram, the May – like the Quoqasi had – would graze the atmosphere above the north pole, bleed away the last of its inertia through atmospheric breaking, and slide through its own circumpolar orbit until it could readjust its attitude to match the geostationary orbit of Wilbur, beneath the ring.

So instead we did something we probably should have tried all along, had we been as inventive in the hours after we’d lost the Quoqasi as we were forced to be in the hours before insertion. Counter to all conventional logic, we started manoeuvring Texas lower, down towards Fram, and we put as much force behind it as we could.

Texas hit Fram’s atmosphere at a shallow angle, much shallower than the reentry of our orbiters. It slammed into the thick blanket of carbon dioxide which encircled our world, and started to break up and burn. We were terrified, nervous, anxious – our mainframe had crashed just hours earlier and we were all exhausted and deprived of sleep, so we feared our calculations could be wrong.

But then it happened: the altimeter climbed, confirmations came in from a dozen sources, and everyone in mission control cheered. Texas had skipped from the atmosphere like a stone across a pond, and our computer overlaid a red arc – a course projection – tracing a line from the icon of Texas back up into the ring.

“Sure looks good from up here,” came the disembodied voice from one of the orbiters salvaging Quoqasi. The voice was heavily chopped with static, and harsher syllables were distorted entirely. “Plenty of smoke still across the atmosphere, but I can see the thing rising. God, what a beautiful sight.”

“Amen to that,” replied a joyous capcom, over the shouting.

The Mayflower was in good condition, no worse than Quoqasi had been when it arrived. Its armour of Kuiper ice was largely intact, although pitted on a microscopic level by its passage through the cosmic medium. The orbiters could not immediately identify any weaknesses in this outer hull; most of it would ablate away when the May roared across the pole. We began to redeploy the Texas orbiters to meet the Mayflower – the four orbiters would work in tandem with each other and with the May’s own vernier rockets to guide the cargo ship into its orbit.

At planetfall plus ninety-one, the Colonies stopped. There wasn’t a functioning e-suit still in the racks, an operating vehicle in the garage, nor anybody unable to get outside not clustered around a monitor to watch the televised broadcast of two points of light – one Wilbur and one the Mayflower – draw closer and inevitably together in the sky, until at last they merged and became one source of light…


18 01 2008

Texas Crisis Meeting

 "…’Race Headquarters’ was the affectionate title given to Ground Station Alpha-1, a round-the-clock hive of activity dedicated to rectifying the mess made by the wayward rock known as Texas.  Fram’s top orbital engineers cross-checked data relays with the settlements’ best physicists as radio chatter from the orbital crews high above crackled endlessly.  Both Texas and the decaying Quoqasi needed cleaning up.  And fast…"

The rush was on.

Over the gentle curve of Fram’s horizon we could see Texas, the body we’d tagged and wrapped last week, and which had been sent spiralling downwards by those idiots in the solar station. Texas was another two hundred and sixty something orbits from entry into the atmosphere, and it was moving in a slow tumble – all the energy imparted by the Quoqasi when Texas smashed clean through her, eight hours ago.

I willed Texas closer, or rather, our orbiter closer to Texas. Time was running out. We’d catch up with the body in another two or three orbits, but by then it would be so deep in the gravity well of Fram that our solar station had no chance of moving it higher. We would have to dock and capture, EVA, strap solid-fuel boosters to it, and try and stabilize its orbit.

We didn’t have enough reaction mass to bring it out of the gravity well, only to stabilize its orbit. There was a rush because the lower it slipped with each orbit, the deeper it fell into the well, and the harder it was for us to stabilize the orbit. Texas wasn’t huge, nothing on the scale of the bodies that created the largest craters on Fram’s surface, but it was a lot larger than the object which had ripped through Alpha-2, all those weeks and lifetimes ago.

Our projections put Texas, were we unsuccessful, crashing down about eight hundred kilometers north east of our settlement. A new crater would be punched in Fram’s surface, the latest in a long history of bombardment, fresh and crisp in the duricrust. Regolith would be thrown into the sky, carried by the wind fronts gathering in strength the closer the planet drew to Alpha B and the further it receded from Alpha A. Light would diminish, the air would become as abrasive as the upper regolith, and we’d have no chance of unfurling the nanoribbon from Wilbur to Charlotte.

The Mayflower would be here in five days. Its fusion torch was now distinguishable from Sol, an arc second or two away from the star which had hurled it toward us, an optical binary in our skies. As it was, even if we stabilized the orbit of Texas, we had five days to send it back to where it came from: in its stable, lower orbit, our window for launch and recovery was ruined by the piece of misaligned rock, spinning around our planet just above the atmosphere.

Hundreds of kilometers ticked by as the orbiter rushed toward Texas. Fram slid by beneath – bland, featureless, a dusty world pocked by endless bombardment, swallowed by carbon dioxide and clouds of argon and methane.

Then we saw the Quoqasi, or rather, what was left of its forward section. It was below us, trailing ice crystals and debris. It had snapped just behind the centrifugal shucks for the colony pods – devoid of these and now its main drives, we saw only the forward repellers and a long, thin strut, the spine of the ship. The whole wreck was glowing a cherry red, brightening to highlight of pink and orange at the edges. And then flames leapt from all along its length – not flames, I realized, but superheated plasma, the atmosphere of Fram setting the wreck ablaze as it plummeted in an uncontrolled reentry.

We watched the ship which we had all boarded five years ago above Jupiter, the ship we’d lived within for all those years, the ship which had carried us across light years on the greatest adventure in human history – we watched this ship break up, section by section, level by level, and the component pieces scattered across a burning sky, trailing fire.

I set my eyes toward Texas, and counted down the kilometres.