Wings over the New World

1 08 2011


“…the newly-formed Special Aeronautics Department began as a small collection of office modules and scaffolding atop Alpha-1.  Their crowning achievement was taking the powerplant of a Sprat and turning it into the SAD-1, or ‘Sookybird’ as it came to be known.  A light, powered glider; manned by a single pilot and fired via a magnetic slingshot from a specially-designed flight gantry.  It was as much an exercise in raising the spirits of the colonists as it was a technical achievement.”

After the murder, we came to appreciate the limitations of satellite photography.

Cane had disappeared into that vast area beyond the colonies and seismological relay stations that we had slowly come to call the Periphery, and neither satellites nor trackers could find him. Only weeks later had a long-range team chanced upon the degrading, short-range beacon of Cane’s vehicle.

Satellite mapping of Fram was an ongoing task. We had since Planetfall mapped a swath of Fram, centred on the equator and ranging between twenty and twenty-five degrees north and south latitudes. We had accomplished this with only two satellites, locked in opposing orbits. There were, of course, over a dozen different satellites in orbit of our world, but most of these were space observatories examining the Universe in various wavelengths, or monitoring the Amundsen Ring for potential impactors.

Yet the ground resolution of the images provided by these mapping satellites was in some cases insufficient for our needs. There were other limitations beyond low ground resolution. The manoeuvrability of satellites was restricted to their planned orbit, in turn circumscribed by delta-vee and payload. Because of this, data collection was slow, as evidenced by the limited coverage of Fram’s surface achieved in the months since Planetfall. Data collection was also dependent on weather, and, although cloud cover was less a restriction on Fram than the worlds and moons of Sol, dust storms were common, and in the polar latitudes these storms were violent and long-lasting. Moreover, our pool of satellites was limited to those brought from Sol aboard the Quoqasi and the Mayflower; although we could potentially build more, the costs of construction and launch were prohibitive.

Thus, we turned to cheaper alternatives to supplement the data collection of satellites. Two contending alternatives were submitted to the Special Aeronautics Department: an unmanned aerial vehicle, and a low-altitude, manned aircraft. Various designs for each alternative were explored, from fixed-wing aircraft to VTOL rotorcraft, to airships, to both autonomous and guided UAVs. Almost every design responded to Fram’s thick atmosphere with differing wing shapes. Some of these shapes appeared to the eyes of creatures that evolved on a world of comparatively thin air as impossible, or delicate, as though no lift could possibly be imparted on such a shape. The most creative of designs was for a UAV with sets of wings like those of a dragonfly which, through a complex motion calculated to reduce drag, paddled through the air.

Fram’s atmosphere imposed further limitations. Its thickness provided more lift, certainly, but that density also required more of the aircraft’s engine for propulsion. Designers looked at jet engines, fuelled by SiH4, an oxidiser that readily burned in a carbon dioxide atmosphere. But silane was both difficult to manufacture and extremely toxic. Other methods of propulsion were examined, and these methods would be balanced by the requirements of power and endurance.

The advantages of a low-altitude photographic platform were readily apparent. Ground resolution would be increased, and data collection would be less constrained by weather. The ability to follow more complicated flight paths offered the geologists a better perception of the depth and scale of geological features; while increased resolution would help the xenobotanists identify clusters of methanogens. Moreover, these platforms offered real-time data – which would become important for search-and-rescue as we grew outward from the colonies and further explored our world.

And so there was some amount of compromise behind the accepted design: the SAD-1. It was a manned vehicle, which reduced its endurance, but also reduced the complexity of its design. The Special Aeronautics Department accepted that endurance was less an issue while the Colonies remained young, as most of the SAD-1’s work would be within two of three hours’ flight of its airbase atop Alpha-1. It was powered by solar-electric cells that lined the surfaces of its wings, and these electric cells could be powered by lasers beamed from the surface. The SAD-1 was propelled by two turboshaft engines mounted in the bases of its wings, which produced free turbine shaft power that spun rear-mounted propfans. Flanking the fuselage was a sophisticated sensor suite of electromagnetic spectrum sensors – infrared, ultraviolet, microwave – laser spectroscopes, and geomagnetic sensors. Mounted beneath the SAD-1’s fuselage was a super-wide angle camera, composed of four digital cameras mounted in overlapping optical axes.

At some point along the length design process, the name ‘Sookybird’ was attached to the SAD-1, and by the time of its maiden flight that moniker had stuck. The vehicle was launched from the upper heights of Alpha-1 using the same kind of electromagnetic catapult installed at Wisting Base on Amundsen. There were sparse crowds of interested onlookers, mostly colonists of Alpha-1, gathered along the ridge of the crater. Not many of those gathered appreciated the irony that the Sookybird’s first high-resolution mapping mission was of the Henderson Ridge, where Cane had murdered his partner and vanished into the Periphery…


27 07 2011


“…At the basic level, it is pure biology.  At the most pessimistic, it lowers productivity.  At the most positive, it salves the psychological hardships of our project.  But most importantly, at the sociological level, it is the very key to our future and one would be a fool and a tyrant not to let love bloom.”

Lindenmeyr came up behind Stohlberg. She reached for his shoulder and leaned on him. Their footsteps trailed away down the incline, crisp in the duricrust.

“Look at that,” he said, gesturing with that shoulder toward the landscape he was gazing upon. “That’s what I wanted to show you.”

They were standing on the northern lip of the vast crater in which the colonies sat. Below and to their left, maybe a kilometre and a half away, was the looming bulk of Alpha-4. There was the immense slab of the colony pod stretching its length away from them, dusted with regolith from a recent dust storm. The pod loomed over the small buildings that had sprouted at its base. Clutches of modules were stacked atop its dorsal surface. The light rail channel cut across the concave bowl of the crater away toward Charlotte Station.

Lindenmeyr pointed excitedly. “Hey, look, there’s Alpha-3!”

Stohlberg looked past and to the right of the elevator ribbon and saw, across the breadth of the crater and diminished by the distance, the vertical columns of lights of Alpha-3’s skyline. The far crater lip was seven or eight kilometres distant, and a bruised brown-purple colour. Alpha Centauri B had set, and the jagged shadow of Henderson Ridge was cast across the western hemisphere of the crater.

“The crater in which the colonies sit is what we call a simple crater,” Stohlberg explained. He held his hand out flat in front of him, palm toward the ground, and made a sweeping motion that mimicked the curvature of the crater floor. “There is a layer of shattered rock under the floor of the crater, brecciated rocks, along with glassy spatters of melted regolith, shocked quartz, spherulites, tektites. We also find fracture patterns in the underlying bedrock.”

“And the ridges?”

Stohlberg pointed at the ridges that parenthetically enclosed the crater. Along forty-five degrees of the northwestern lip, and one hundred and sixty degrees of the southeastern lip, the crater wall rose up into a series of elevated, serrated outcroppings. These were the Henderson and Innes Ridges.

“Mostly impact ejecta.”

Stohlberg explained that the impactor likely hit Fram’s surface at an angle – he made a cutting motion with his hand – and that the impact directed most of the ejecta to the southeast. Spalled bolides of basalt and impact melt formed opposing ridgelines that were weathered over millions of years by prevailing anabatic winds. More resistant resistant materials remained while the softer regolith was eroded away, leaving those irregular ridges.

Lindenmeyr pointed toward the Henderson Ridge off to their right. Nestled in the lee of the ridge and at the mouth of De Lacaille Canyon was Alpha-2 – a collection of mismatched modules connected by pressurised tunnels, bundled around the light rail terminus.

“The botanists of Alpha-2 have found that the methanogens live well in the complex terrain of the ridges. Plenty of places for volatiles to pool.”

“I guess they, those plants, have become more interesting since the fossils were found up on Amundsen.”

Lindenmeyr gave Stohlberg a playful, backhanded slap across his arm. “Lee! They were plenty interesting before then! I mean, my God: the first multicellular life to be found beyond our homeworld! That we should find something like that on the first world we settle has enormous implications for the likelihood and the frequency and the range of life in our galaxy.”

“Not to mention the possibility that these methanogens might not have evolved on Fram.”

“An anecdotal possibility, yes,” Lindenmeyr replied cautiously. “Once the tarmac and launch system are complete at Wisting Base, we hope to compare samples of the fossils they’ve discovered with the methanogens here. With a DNA analysis we might prove their relation, even identify a point of departure.”

Stohlberg was intoxicated by her enthusiasm.

Lindenmeyr explained that the botanists in Alpha-2 had begun to cultivate the methanogens, even to farm them in their own way. Using hydrogen as a reducing agent, these methanogens produced methane as a metabolic byproduct of carbon dioxide. This methane was captured and condensed into compressed natural gas, an important fuel source that supplemented the troubled colony’s energy requirements. Moreover, methane was crucial for the production of methanol, acetylene, ascetic acid and ascetic anhydride – industrial chemicals that would be of use to the colonies.

“Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas,” Stohlberg noted. “Much more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. We might put that to use in warming Fram.”

“There has been talk about that,” Lindenmeyr responded. She leaned into Stohlberg, conspiratorially. “The Presidium asked for a report on just that topic for the Third Congress. Did you know that, over a century, methane is twenty-five times more effective than a similar-mass emission of carbon dioxide?”

“I didn’t,” he replied, and looked down into Lindenmeyr’s excited eyes.

Stohlberg felt the urge to kiss her on the cheek, quickly, as was his habit; instead, he ran his fingers, hurting from the cold wind in fingerless gloves, through her short hair. Consciously or unconsciously, she nuzzled her head into his hand.

“I love your enthusiasm for your work,” he said. “I could listen to you all day.”

She giggled, a sound poorly translated through the mike.

“Me too.”

And, suddenly, Stohlberg remembered something he had read, long ago: that love was above all else the overwhelming urge to share thoughts. Here were a botanist and a geologist, exchanging their thoughts, discussing the great project of which they were a part, involving one another in their lives. Two humans, yes, standing on an alien world, at the edge of an impact crater millions of years old, gazing with pride and fascination upon their work.

And slowly, irrevocably – like the lithification of strata into eolianite, or the chemiosmosis of hydrogen in an anoxic environment – falling in love.

The Universe given mind and purpose.

Reflected in the faceplate of Lindenmeyr’s suit, Stohlberg could see the rotating silhouette of the bucket wheel excavator, illuminated by the crimson and purple dusk falling below the horizon. The machine was working along the open pit mine far away behind him and to the north, and was distorted by the curvature of her faceplate.

“Are you up for a hike? There’s something else I want to show you.”

Arm in arm, they started off north.


25 03 2010

Light Rail Channel

“…Project Stephenson, the task of connecting the outposts and mining stations, was the largest planetside undertaking since the construction of Charlotte Station.  Channels were carved through the uneven landscape to provide protection from meteor showers and to streamline loading and unloading of minerals and equipment required elsewhere across Fram.” 

The rail project was the next logical step in the effort to connect the four colonies with each other, and with the various installations scattered about the edge of the main crater. Project Stephenson was prioritised by the First Congress, and work began mere weeks after the close of that meeting. The project represented the most significant capital investment yet undertaken by our fledgling Colony; our other great undertakings – such as Charlotte Station, Port Mayflower, and the cable which connected them – had all been constructed using prefabricated materials, and according to designs drawn up in Sol.

The Stephenson rail network would be almost entirely produced from resources mined from Fram, and designed by us.

The highways of carbon sheeting had been a temporary measure, and one inconsistently applied at that. Each of the colonies had been connected to the central hub, Charlotte Station, although none was directly connected to another. Nor were the open-cut and COIL mines, or the solar field and launch complex, connected to the highway system. Moreover, these were surface roads, with all the problems entailed therein: windstorms would deposit regolith across the carbon sheeting, and these drifts could cut access until they were ploughed to the side.

Light rail was an elegant solution, though not one commenced without thorough consideration. For example, the Conference rejected the use of maglev systems. Most persuasive of the arguments submitted in favour of a light rail electrification scheme was the conservation of power and comparative ease of construction. A magnetic levitation system would involve the construction of high-temperature superconductors and magnetic shielding; moreover, the levitation and propulsion systems would have to be carried onboard the train, reducing cargo space and increasing weight. A light rail network could be connected to and powered by a Colony-wide power board.

We began by digging trenches ten meters deep and thirty meters wide. The inside faces of the channels were strengthened with inlaid carbon mesh. We modified one of our enormous UC-104s: its utility crane was stripped from the chassis and, instead, installed were two load-bearing arms ending in a single rotary bore attachment. Its legs locked in place and the body hung low as its arms dug up the regolith, eerily like a Martian handling-machine plucking victims from the ground in a Wellsian novel.

Our priority, as with the carbon highways, was to connect each of the colonies to Charlotte Station. The elevator ground station was located between each of the colonies and served as a natural terminal. We had to dig over eight kilometres of channels just to fulfil this limited objective.

The closer that we dug to Charlotte Station, the more difficult that task became; Charlotte was located in the base of the large crater in which all the colony pods had landed, and as such there was less regolith between the surface and the bedrock. In places we also struck fractured basalt sheets. Here KOVTARs equipped with portable COIL rigs broke up the densest materials.

It was important that the channels be deep and wide. Deep trenches afforded better protection from meteorites, and we would add a further parapet of exhumed material to the western lip of each channel. The trenches would be widest for the main lines of the network, those between the colonies and the Charlotte Station Terminal – on these lines we would lay two tracks, one for each direction. When we began construction on the ancillary lines, to the spaceport, mines and reactor, we would lay only a single track to accommodate comparatively less traffic.

Three rails were installed for each track. The Stephenson network used a third rail to provide 1,200 V of power to the trains. The conditions of Fram and the depth of the rail channels precluded the use of catenaries and overhead wires, thus necessitating the third rail. Here we used a covered, bottom-contact rail to prevent the kind of disruptions caused by wind-driven regolith that had plagued the carbon highways.

Yet the geographic conditions also gave us certain benefits. The distances between terminals were short – Charlotte Station was no more than three kilometres from any colony – which meant that there was no need to construct feeder stations along the line. Furthermore, our channels followed the general decline of the crater; trains running to Charlotte would run downhill. Our trains would be built with regenerative breaking equipment, which would generate power while breaking and return that power to the rail network for use by trains travelling uphill. Excess energy would be converted to heat and vented into Fram’s atmosphere – our first, if somewhat insignificant, terraforming effort.

But first we had to dig the channels, lay the track, and build the trains. That was many months of work. Still, our impression upon this ancient and dusty planet grew more profound…

Eyes and Ears

21 09 2009

Drone Prospector

“The MOPAD (Multiple Operation Personnel Aerial Drone), or ‘Moppet’, was designed initially as a geological survey unit to aid small groups of scientists and geologists in expeditions.  With a carbon frame, advanced photo-voltaic surface and a utilitarian onboard computer, the MOPAD quickly populated the fringes of the colonial outposts.  Trailing behind scientists and vehicle operators, they became the cybernetic pets of the new world.”

I watched a gust of wind come towards me over the regolith. Pulverised dust whipped from the tops of dunelets. The heat of the nearer Alpha B generated wind fronts which circled the planet; these were complicated by the lesser heat of the diminishing Alpha A.

I turned back to the Sprat. A line of footsteps were traced in the duricrust, from my vantage point back to Gingrich and the Sprat. Aside from the pattering of micrometeorites, this duricrust had not changed in billions of years.

Gingrich lifted a Moppet into the air; it drifted slowly upwards and away from her. It hovered at a point between Gingrich and myself, about three metres above the regolith. From my position, I could hear its soft engine.

“Where do you want to start?” Gingrich asked. Although she was maybe twenty meters from me, her voice was loud in my earpiece.

I looked at the panorama before me. I stood on the crest of a small elevation; before me was relatively flat, grey-brown regolith, stretched to the horizon. There were a series of hills off to my right and left, either formed over a basalt seam or the remains of the ridgeline marking a much larger crater.

“Well the benches need to be fifty meters wide.”

I looked at the GPS display on my tablet. This signal was relayed to me by the Moppet. The drone was connected to the GPS system directly through Port Mayflower, while also relaying a wireless connection with the Colonies’ computer over the southern horizon.

I pointed to the north, toward the far end of the elevation I was standing atop. “Let’s try up there. GPS says seventy five meters.”

Gingrich clambered back aboard the Sprat and kicked it over. She moved it north, to where I had pointed. This saved hauling the bulky seismic probe that distance on foot. The Moppet defaulted to hover above me while Gingrich drove the short distance.

Images from the growing satellite network deployed in orbit showed good signs of a vein of iron and nickel in this area. The seismic probe would confirm this, and if the vein were as close to the surface as satellite imagery suggested, an open-cut mine would be developed here.

In my ear, I could hear Gingrich groaning with the effort of unloading the A44 by herself. I turned around and looked back to the south, toward the Colonies. There was no glow of light on the horizon to mark their presence. Instead I watched a bead of light, a climber suspended on the elevator ribbon, moving slowly higher into the ruddy sky.

I held the view a moment too long.

“Come on,” I said to the Moppet. “Let’s get started.”

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…”

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…

Frontier Medicine

12 06 2007

Medical Bay

"…the medical bays were relatively small; each colony pod had ten or so, not counting the prefab-packs still in storage. They could be rigged onto M-1010 catepillar rigs to create mobile medico stations, which proved useful during the initial stages of colonial construction."

It was simple enough – a procedure practiced for hundreds of years, the doctors said. Sanna was nonetheless nervous, and the rest of the colony with her. She felt the weight of anticipation upon her, as heady as the painkillers.

“Okay, Sanna,” the doctor spoke to her, “we’re performing a lower uterine segment section. One cut, right across here.”

Sanna saw the doctor’s arm move, but could not feel the gloved finger draw a line across her abdomen. Her heartbeat quickened. She remember the epidural anaesthetic.

“Right above the bladder. There will be less blood loss, and it’s much easier for us to repair.”

Sweat had clustered on Sanna’s brow; someone wiped it away. She wished Lia had been here. She conjured Lia’s face, and imagined him stroking her jaw line, whispering reassurances. Lia replaced the doctor, drowned him out entirely: she heard nothing of the caesarean hysterectomy, the effect of interstellar deceleration on her placenta and uterus, or the statistics of miscarriages since leaving Sol.

Sanna blinked at the light, mounted on an articulated arm, which the doctor positioned over her. The vitals software beeped and clicked; she heard her own heartbeat pounding in her ears and emulated by the monitors in a shrill monotone. She felt dizzy, hot, like she would pass out; she wondered if this was anaesthesia, or analgesia, or simple fatigue.

There were no contractions, of course. Her pregnancy had been complicated – by the tail-end of Quoqasi’s deceleration, by planetfall, by the effects of rationing. These were the somatic problems; Lia’s death so close to full term was the most worrying. Sanna had been carefully monitored throughout her pregnancy, particularly after planetfall. When Lia was killed in the mining accident, the doctors began to prepare for surgery.

There was one quick, confident motion; a transverse cut across her swollen belly.

The anaesthetist scrutinized her readouts. She couldn’t see her smile, of course, but read comfort in her eyes and the way they softened at their outer edges. Sanna stared into her eyes, desperate for human contact; the anaesthetist reassured her without any words.

A sheet was draped across her body, below her breasts; above this she saw the doctor lift a purple mass, sticky with amniotic fluid. There was a cough, more of a choked splutter, and then the beep of her heartbeat and the buzz of electronics were replaced by a febrile, urgent crying.

Tears came to Sanna’s eyes, tears of joy and of sorrow, as, she saw, they came to the eyes of the doctors and nurses.

The doctor clipped and cut the umbilical cord. When her child was brought to her, Sanna again feared fainting. She looked into his eyes, grey like marble and misted over, but alive and curious.

“Peregrine White,” Sanna whispered. “Peregrine White Winslow.”

The anaesthetist leaned over to her. “He’s the first child of a new generation. This place is really home for him – he’ll never know Earth, or the light of Sol, or even the Ship. All he will know is Fram; everything else will be legend, the stuff the old-timers talk about.”

Sanna was lost. This child, her child, was the first for the Colony. For the first time she felt the importance of this child’s life – the first human to be born under a different sun.

“Miss Winslow,” the doctor said evenly, “In this moment, in this theatre, we’re at a milestone for the species. A hundred a fifty billion humans have existed throughout our history, up to this point – but your son is the first of us to be born away from the cradle of our species…”

She knew that she should feel proud, moved, happy, but she felt those emotions only as a background, projected dimly on her consciousness. All Sanna wanted was for Lia to be there, to hold his son, even just for a moment…