As You Like It

23 08 2009

Walker Resize

“The AMUF-VL2 (Articulated Modular Universal Frame – Variable Locomotion: 2 modes) almost shelved the KOVTAR walkers the moment they were unpacked.  Referred to affectionately as "Ayli", itself an irreverent acronym of As You Like It, the machine offered complete customisation as a factory standard.  Manufactured by Karst, the industry giant behind the KOVTAR, the Ayli was easy to assemble, calibrate and operate.  Offering both upright and tracked movement, the machine fast became a common sight in all areas of the colony.”

Sze Leng filed into the Alpha-3 workshop, on the ground floor of the colony pod.

The workshop was now tucked just behind the cargo bays. The bays were most of the time open to the elements and atmosphere of Fram; the workshop was however pressurised, as it was difficult to service machinery with hands in gloves and faces behind breathers.

Sze Leng was grateful to be out of her e-suit, and could see that the others who had gathered in the workshop were too. Some absently scratched at their backs of their heads where the straps dug into the scalp.

Off to the side was a pallet freshly shipped to A-3 from Charlotte. It had checkerboard stencilling along the vertices. The rectangular face of the pallet facing Sze Leng was also stencilled with KARST AMUF-VL2 in a chipped white paint. Three vehicles had been unloaded, and mechanics were scurrying about them.

“Gather in,” came the quartermaster’s instructions. Sze Leng and her colleagues packed in closer to the quartermaster, who found a tool box to stand on. There were about a dozen KOVTAR drivers gathered around his tool box, all dressed in the standard grey fatigues.

“New toys from the supply ship,” the quartermaster started succinctly. He pronounced toys with a Jovian lilt – toyis – that bespoke his Asian ancestry more so than his features. “You fine folk will be the first in Alpha-3 to be checked out on them.”

One of the drivers down the front spoke up. “I saw one of these back Home. They’re not that different to what we’ve got now.”

The quartermaster smiled. “They’re new for us, but back home they’re probably as outdated as our earliest KOVTARs.” He shrugged. “Five years’ lag.”

Immediately Sze Leng spotted a series of improvements. Two of the vehicles parked close to their pallet were in various states of assembly – the control pod of one was being hoisted atop the frame, while another was being charged from a wheeled battery pod on the ground. Each vehicle would have reached to the knee joint of a KOVTAR.

“First thing you’ll notice is the size. Smaller than the KOVTARs, these MMU-Ts won’t entirely replace the ones we have now. Much as you might want them to. More like supplement them. Take the tasks the KOVTARs aren’t meant for so that they can focus on what they’re good at.”

The quartermaster stepped down from his tool box and ushered the group to the closest walker. Sze Leng spoke up.

“MMU-T, sir?”

“Manned Manoeuvring Unit – Terrestrial. The mechanics like that term, ‘mutts.’ Drivers might like something else. I’ve heard ‘ayli’ – ‘as you like it.’ Properly called the AMUF-VL2.”

He stopped next to the left leg of the Ayli. This vehicle was the closest to completion among those being assembled.

“See also the new movement system. Retains the hydraulic bipedal system, but here we have a pair of treads” – he pointed at each shin of the Ayli – “which can deploy on hard and paved surfaces. The MMU-T can achieve much higher ground speeds on, say, our carbon highways, or the cargo bays of the colony pods.”

One of the drivers asked: “how do the tracks hold up in the regolith?”

“Not much better than the COIL rig, I’m afraid,” the quartermaster replied. “But these give you more options. We don’t expect to use these too far from the colonies, at any rate. Not the deep-ranging kind of missions we’ve given to the KOVTARs. Those missions will go to the Sprats unless the terrain is dicey. KOVTARs are now mostly for construction or heavy lifting in places the UC can’t be.”

The quartermaster took a step forward and leant against the roll bar projected forward from the Ayli’s chassis. “Like the Webfoot, these front bars have impressive load-bearing capacity. Modular, too – we can fit slide cranes, a manipulator, forklift, even a scaled-back COIL. Also like the Webfoot, you can see that the footpads when in bipedal locomotion stabilise the weight of the walker and disperse it evenly. Much lower track-to-weight ratio than the stock-standard KOVTAR. Which is pretty important, because the power plant is smaller.”

Sze Leng was impressed.

“Three sixty-degree vantage from the canopy. More comfortable than what you’re used to, too, especially when lowered for tracked movement. As you can see over here” – the quartermaster pointed at the Ayli whose control pod was being winched onto its dorsal surface – “the canopy is fitted separately to the chassis. This means that we can mount it on a more efficient suspension system.”

“No more punches in the back?” Sze Leng asked.

The quartermaster smiled. “You’ll still feel each footfall if running at top speed. But at the power levels you’ll use most often, you could sit up there all day and not burden me with your whining.”

The quartermaster took a step back. “Right, who wants to go first? The controls are pretty similar to what you’re used to, as you can see here. Sticks on this side control your gears…”


Across the Sea of Stars

21 08 2009

CA-772 Grape OS

"The CA-772 Grape orbital utility pods were plentiful around the space facilities above Fram, proving to be of great use during the Texas crisis.  Pilots found their versatility in their relative simplicity; a primary computer-simulation projected itself upon the inside of the iconic domed cockpit, giving a stark vector-driven interpretation of the outside vacuum and objects.  Pilots appreciated this Spartan representation, with the ability to toggle target rendering of objects via distance in varying levels of overlay.  The Grape itself was powered via solar panels, which fed into the small ion propulsion engine and life support systems.  While not the most comfortable of vehicles, they offered a level of reliability and ruggedness unparalleled over Fram."

It had been almost a month since Mayflower had arrived.

It was a slow process to bring the material down from Wilbur to Charlotte. The ribbon that connected the two was much shorter than those which had been built on Earth; Fram was a smaller world, with less gravity and thus a lesser exit velocity, and possessed a longer rotational period. This meant that it took less than a day for a climber to run the length of the ribbon, compared to the week it took to run the length of the Earth elevators.

We wanted to bring down as much material as we could with our limited number of climbers. This meant that we had to intersperse the payload-laden climbers so as not to stress the cable: the closer our laden climbers were to the Wilbur counterweight, the greater the lean in the cable as coriolis force produced by Fram’s rotation acted upon the mass of the climber. We joked that one day we would not have to worry ourselves with this effect – as with each of our shuttle launches, the ascent of a climber robbed Fram of a fraction of its rotational momentum. At some indeterminate point billions of years in Fram’s future, assuming the space elevator continued to run, Fram’s orbit would slow to a halt.

We were powering the climbers by using the solar farm on the surface, which was not the most efficient method and reduced our capabilities further. Eventually we hoped to power the cable itself, using the conductivity of the carbon nanotube. Plans were drawn up in which the Quoqasi’s fusion plant, now useless, would be moved down to the surface and installed at Charlotte Station.

And so we unpacked Mayflower, day by day shuffling more material down to the surface.

Already Charlotte had grown into a bustling hive of activity, spread over hectares of carbon sheeting. KOVTARs worked at unloading the climbers during the night. In the marshalling yards were pallets filled with new equipment: fixed-wing cargo planes and their associated launch loops, a new generation of integrated tracked-biped walkers, over the horizon radars, hydroponic domes, mining lasers, and more. Most important were the tanks of consumables, twice as tall as a KOVTAR. These were painted according to their contents: blue for oxygen, green for nitrogen, red for deuterium, purple for iodine. Their edges were stencilled with checkers and their faces with the chemical symbol of their contents. These would open up of closed-loop life support systems and give us a redundancy we hadn’t enjoyed since leaving Jupiter, or power the fusion plants for years to come.

While the crew of Port Mayflower worked to unload our supply ship and send this material down to the surface, the Grapes went to work disconnecting components of the Mayflower’s payload. A pair of probes were nestled in the lee of the May’s cargo modules, fore of the drive stack. It had taken a fortnight to safely cut through the remains of its protective sheath of ice and disconnect them from the Mayflower, and another fortnight to perform diagnostic checks of their hardware.

These probes were themselves larger than an orbiter, each the size of a naval cruiser. They were of a similar dark grey to the hull of the orbiters and the Grapes, although sections of the engine were the lighter white-gray of beryllium. The nose of each probe was a cluster of instruments, spectroscopes, enormous optical and radio telescopes, and repeller fields like those which shielded the Quoqasi and Mayflower from the interstellar medium. Buried in the hull behind these were the probes’ central computers, replete with communications systems. Just behind the bulbous nose was a ring of a dozen small spheres, situated at points of the hour on a clock around the probe’s nose. These were sub-probes which would launch from the mother probe once targets had been identified.

The defining feature of each of these probes was the payload stage. Around the midsection of each probe were six spheres, each a hundred and fifty meters in diameter, clustered around the fusion engine like berries on a stalk. Here was the reaction mass which powered the fusion rocket that spurted from the aft of each probe. Three tanks carried deuterium while another three carried helium-3, mined from Europa and Luna respectively.

These probes were designed to travel on from Alpha Centauri, to two more points of light in our sky.

Their targets had been selected long ago, after the decision had been made to colonise Alpha Centauri. Their targets were closer to Fram than they were to Earth, but only just so; sending them to us with the Mayflower hadn’t saved them a great distance. Rather, carried by the Mayflower, they saved reaction mass that could otherwise be spent travelling to their targets faster.

Their targets were a pair of M1 class red dwarfs about three to four times as far from Alpha Centauri as Alpha Centauri was from Earth. We had a number of designations for these stars, depending on whether one ascribed to the Gliese catalogue of nearby stars, or the Bonner Durchmusterung catalogue, or the Draper, or the Hipparchos… Despite these various catalogue designations, we had no names for these stars.

One probe was to be sent to BD +15° 2620, otherwise known as Gl 526; the other to Gl 832, itself also known as HD 204961. These stars were respectively just under seventeen and a half light years and fourteen light years from Fram.


The probes would cover the distance at much greater speed than had the Quoqasi. Unencumbered by fragile humans and with a bounty of reaction mass upon which to draw, their fusion rockets would propel them at twenty-five gees of acceleration for four weeks. This would take each probe up to .90c – nine tenths the speed of light – a speed at which each would cruise before decelerating by a similar force and for a similar period at the conclusion of its interstellar flight.

At .90c, the probe to BD +15° 2620 would take nineteen years and two months to reach its destination; the probe to Gl 832 would take fifteen years and six months.

These stars were the next closest to Alpha Centauri on the road to a cluster of stars, coreward and trailing of Sol, which showed a good prospect for habitable planets. Surveys conducted from Sol using gravitational microlensing, observations of planetary transits of each star and variations in that star’s spectral lines had detected numerous orbiting gas giants. We knew, for instance, that Gl 832 had a gas giant named Bailey orbiting it at a distance of 3.4 AUs (we had named the planet but not yet its parent star). But our detection methods were limited by distance; the best way to determine if there were habitable, terrestrial planets around BD +15° 2620 and Gl 832  would be to get closer, or better yet, to visit the systems themselves.

The instruments buried in the nose of each probe would make observations of each system throughout its unpowered glide. These observations would be limited once each probe flipped end over end and decelerated; once this manoeuvre was complete, the probe would insert itself in an orbit that would bring it looping into the inner system. At this point the sub-probes would detach, and fire off to orbit and explore points of interest. They would send telemetry back to the mother probe, which would in turn tightbeam its findings back to Fram and to Earth. The most comprehensive of these findings, made while the probes orbited the target stars, wouldn’t reach us for thirty to forty years.

And so, as we continued to unload the materials sent to our colony by Earth, we prepared to send automated probes further on, across the sea of stars.

The Grapes transferred the probes to the orbiters, and the orbiters moved the probes half an AU from Fram before we sent the go order for the onboard computers to light the fusion torches. The workers unloading the latest material sent down from Port Mayflower noticed a new spark in the sky – at length this spark separated into two smaller points, one rushing toward a point eleven degrees down, the other seventeen degrees up, from the plane of the ecliptic…



A note on the use of the map in this post: this map was created by Winchell Chung of Project Rho, who kindly gave permission for its use to the authors of Orbital Shipyards. Copies of this map are available from Mr. Chung’s Project Rho Productions, and we highly recommend the quality of his work and direct our readers to his website and his store.