Aurorae

25 03 2010

“The MSB Aurora. Can’t remember what the ‘B’ stood for. Modular Service…something. Anyway, controversial things. We set them to work mining the ring of hydrogen and oxygen. There were only a handful of them, and they were small. What amount of volatiles they collected was mostly converted to their own reaction mass. Very low bang for buck. But we didn’t have any other use for them – yet – and we figured it was better to put them to work, see, than have them sitting around in storage…”

The orbiter Ethel Rosenberg rolled over gracefully, exposing its flat belly to the light of Alpha-A.

The payload doors along the orbiter’s dorsal surface opened. Interior light spilled from the joins and illuminated lines of ice crystals. The crystals spun away in a spiral as the Ethel Rosenberg continued its roll.

“Payload bay wasn’t fully depressurised,” Borzęcki spoke into the mike. “No matter.”

Now the fuselage clam-shelled open, and Borzęcki could see straight down into the payload bay of the orbiter. He touched the controls of his MMU, and two of its ten thrusters fired. He inched downward toward the opening doors.

“Payload bay doors show green.”

Borzęcki’s eyes lifted to the bow of the orbiter; there, in the command module, he could see the silhouettes of the commander and pilot. Borzęcki formed two thumbs-up as best he could in the pressurised suit, and waved them toward the shapes of his crew.

“I confirm,” he replied.

The two Auroras were aligned facing one another, and they only just fit into the payload bay. Their hulls were painted a shade of blue Borzęcki had not seen for years – a flat, late autumn afternoon blue – while their manipulator arms, ramscoops and processing modules were painted a pale cream. Borzęcki fired his forward thruster once, cutting his momentum, then twice, bringing him to a stop at the rear of the payload bay.

“I have positive contact.”

Each Aurora was the size of a satellite, maybe twenty-five feet in length. Borzęcki placed his gloved hand against the drive nozzle of the Aurora he stood behind. From his perspective, looking along the length of the craft, the main hull formed the shape of the letter H. There were two internal cargo modules set inside a rounded double-hull; connecting these two pods was the flattened engine. In the gaps formed by the vertically-aligned cargo pods sat the various, mission-specific modules.

Borzęcki crawled forward carefully and moved his way along the dorsal surface of the closest Aurora. Mounted asymmetrically along the upper surface were the AI unit and an articulated manipulator, folded at each of its joints and locked in place. Borzęcki held his wristpad over the AI hub and checked the network signal.

After a few moments, the capcom’s voice came through Borzęcki’s earpiece:

Ethel, Mayflower. Board’s green.”

Borzęcki struggled backwards until his boots made contact with the orbiter hull. The manipulator arm set into the orbiter bay closest to Borzęcki started to whir; he felt this movement through his magnetised boots. The arm began to extend, and the Aurora – secured at its base to the end of the manipulator – rose slowly from the bay.

Borzęcki made a visual inspection of the ventral surface of the Aurora. Here the diffusion plant had been installed. There was a ramscoop mounted forward of the Aurora, a simple, boxy module jutting forward and beneath the bow of the craft like a challenging jaw thrust forward. Behind the ramscoop were twin booms which would deploy perpendicularly downward of the hull. For now, these booms were locked in place beneath the hull.

The orbiter’s manipulator arm was clamped around a load-bearing dock set inside the ventral hull, between the processing module and the drive nozzles.

“Seal looks good,” Borzęcki spoke into the mike. “She’s just popped out of the payload bay.”

A line of light crawled down the Aurora, like a terminator crawling across the face of a globe. The light of Alpha-A was sharply demarcated by the shadow of the payload bay door.

Before the orbiter manipulator disengaged, Borzęcki made a visual inspection that the ramscoop apparatus had properly deployed. Port Mayflower sent the activation signal to the Aurora. The lock holding the twin booms in place beneath the Aurora slid back to where the booms joined the hull. Then they lowered, silently.

These were the magnetic loops: when activated, the wands would generate alternating positive and negative currents. This action created a magnetic field which charged particles within the field and channelled those particles into the ramscoop. The resulting magnetic field was weak, but this weakness helped filter the fines from the solid particles. Once through the ramscoop, the processing module would sort silicate and metal from precious volatiles; oxygen would be converted into lox to fuel the Aurora, the hydrogen would go into storage in the twin cargo modules along the flanks of the Aurora.

Borzęcki  said, “Okay, everything looks good from here. Go for deployment.”

The commander confirmed, followed moments later by capcom. They ran through the checklist. Then manipulator arm disengaged. Centrifugal force imparted by the Ethel Rosenberg’s roll worked on the Aurora, and it drifted up and away to the left.

When the Aurora was obscured by the payload bay door, Borzęcki stepped carefully toward the second craft, and worked his way up onto its dorsal surface…

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