A Stroke of State

11 05 2012

Today marks five years since the first post in Orbital Shipyards, a not-insignificant anniversary! To celebrate the fifth birthday of Orbital Shipyards, presented here is a full-length short story set in the OS universe, featuring many familar characters – and some new ones as well.

As always, please feel free to share your thoughts, opinions and feelings regarding the colonisation of Fram.


A Stroke of State

An Orbital Shipyards Story

Dave Blades

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Foundation Day

4 11 2011

There was the collective murmur of several hundred excited conversations, competing with the sound of jazz music from the speakers.

“It’s like polarization modulation.”

Stepan Eshkol and Elzette Skovgaard stood together awkwardly, cradling their drinks. Stepan pushed his glasses up his nose and articulated analogies for the clashing sounds of the party, while Elzette watched him discreetly from the corner of her eye. The glimmer in those eyes suggested that she was already abuzz from the kava. She tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear.

Jacques Renard slipped past them. He saw Ruslan Rusakov, whose arm was wrapped around the shoulders of Xu Sze Leng, and both were engaged in conversation with Allesandro Mierhof and another colleague whose back was to Jacques. Mierhof was quite animated, speaking loudly and gesturing with his hands. Jacques caught Ruslan’s attention. Jacques gave a smile and a nod, which Ruslan coyly returned. Ruslan mouthed the words: thank you.

The crowd was densest around the bar. Here they served a number of juices, grown on Fram for the first time from seed stocks frozen during the trip on the Quoqasi. There were limited supplies of these first crops, but the occasion merited their enjoyment. There were orange, strawberry, carrot and tomato juices, and these were poured atop ice and shots of kava. Vessels containing sticks of celery flanked the bar.

“I won’t lie to you,” Mierhof exclaimed over the hum of the crowd, “I do miss a good drink. Honest to goodness alcohol. It’s been years!”

Vetsera Lindenmeyr and Leroy Stohlberg wormed their way through the crowd, Vetsera leading and, holding hands, pulling Leroy behind her. They stopped at the bar and Lindenmeyr ordered two drinks; Stohlberg wrapped his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. They giggled. Both smelled of smoke – a blend of zornia latifolia, pedicularis densiflora, Egyptian water lily and Turkistan mint.

Yi Jianyu and Harlan Zimmerman were speaking with Konrad Faraday, describing the progression of Fram through its orbit in the time since Planetfall.

“Winter is coming,” Yi said. “One Earth year is less than a third of a Fram year.”

He held two fists up to demonstrate the orbit of Fram around Alpha Centauri B.  He described the dropping temperatures as Fram receded from Alpha B. Yi was oblivious to Faraday’s boredom.

Spread across one wall of the cargo bay was a softscreen, on which footage of the Foundation Day festivities was cycling. Disinterested members of the crowd watched this footage. There were gala balls in each of the colonies, and Charles Clarendon and Gina Divero – representing the Presidium – were celebrating on Port Mayflower. Smiling for the cameras, Gina and Clarendon were shaking the hands of Tomasz Borzęcki and Chesney Perrine – both of whom had been named in the Colonial Honours List.

The youngest recipient of that award was in the arms of his mother. Peregrine, with a thin clutch of dark hair, looked upon the ball with curious but tired eyes. He shied away from the most enthusiastic of partygoers, and laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Sanna Winslow hitched him up on her hip as she spoke with well-wishers.

On the softscreen now was the sombre procession of images of those who had died in the past year: twenty-nine faces, happy and smiling, lives cut short in the accident at the mining site, the loss of the Harry Gold in a solar flare, the depressurisation of Alpha-2, cut short by suicide and by murder. Sanna pointed out the face of her late husband to Peregrine.

Naftali Nassimatissi stepped around the bar. He tapped a spoon to his glass of tomato juice.

“I don’t really have anything prepared,” he began, to a ripple of polite laughter. “We’ve seen tough and we’ve seen wonderful times. We’ve all seen triumph and tragedy. I think what says it best is that, nine months ago, we were enduring rationing – and tonight we have fruit and vegetable juice.”


“I’ve heard many people tonight discussing this anniversary, and some saying that we should move away from the Earth calendar. I just want to say that we still call Earth ‘Home.’ I don’t think it’s wrong to celebrate these occasions.”

He raised his glass to the crowd.

“So, here is to our first year on Fram. May there be many, many more.”



The murmur of the crowd returned, and the Foundation Day celebrations continued into the night…


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.


15 06 2010

Stohlberg held a lettuce frond delicately between his fingers.

“I appreciate you taking the time to come down here,” Lindenmeyr said.

Stohlberg shook his head slightly. “Not at all. Truth be told, a lot of our digging equipment was seconded by the Stephenson Project. There’s less work for us now, out at the open-cut site.”

Lindenmeyr and Stohlberg each wore light-weight, long-sleeved ponchos. Lindenmeyr explained that metal halide light lit the hydroponic bay; metal halide emitted more light in the blue spectrum, which accelerated plant growth, but was a carcinogen to exposed human skin.

“We light each of the bays for eighteen to twenty hours each day,” Lindenmeyr said. “Between the halide light and the lengthened days, we’re producing crops in greater yields than on the Quoqasi. The hydroponics facilities in Alphas One, Three and Four are together producing a sufficient excess to feed the population of Alpha-2.”

“I see,” Stohlberg replied. “I feel drunk.”

“That’s the cee-oh-two. We keep the levels pretty high in here, again, for the plants. It’s not dangerous, but it takes some getting used to.”

He looked up from the lettuce and saw, stretched a hundred meters ahead of him, row upon row of plants, aglow in the artificial blue-white light. The greens were simply breathtaking. Lindenmeyr remarked that it was not a colour seen outside the hydroponics facilities; not in the Colonies nor on Fram itself. She spoke of a psychological study done on the journey to Alpha Centauri that had shown that the botanists who worked in the hydroponic labs were on average happier than their peers.

Stohlberg nodded, and asked her, “What is grown here?”

“Lettuce, pak choi, asparagus. Carrots, tomatoes. Mushrooms. Spinach. Plants with high levels of vitamins and minerals. Our staple is soy, of course. Those versatile, little beans pack a lot of nutritional value for the space it takes to grow them.”

Lindenmeyr explained the process behind the hydroponic crops. She called it Soilless, Controlled Environment Agriculture. The plants existed on a nutrient solution that flowed constantly past their roots; she pushed back the overhanging fronds of a head of lettuce and pointed to the bank in which the plant sat. Here there was a shallow channel of water, running through a bed of clay aggregate pebbles upon which the roots rested. The pebbles were not entirely submerged by the solution.

“Thus, the roots are well oxygenated while still fed by the nutrient solution.”

Stohlberg watched the nutrient solution move past the roots of the plants in this bank. Lindenmeyr rattled off a list of elements made soluble and dissolved into the water: essentials like iron, manganese, magnesium and zinc; and macronutrients like potassium nitrate and calcium nitrate. There were also sulphates mixed in for the sulphur.

“I didn’t realise until now just how much of what we dig up in the mines goes into our bodies,” Stohlberg commented. “From the Earth we come, to the Earth we return.”

Lindenmeyr frowned. “An anachronistic adage.”


Lindenmeyr pointed to the banks arranged in long rows along the length of the bay. Each of the rows was inclined at an angle, which allowed the nutrient solution to run easily and prevented the solution from pooling. Stohlberg noticed that these rows were not continuous, but that the banks were segmented every ten to fifteen meters; this, Lindenmeyr replied, was to prevent the depletion of nitrogen which occurred when too many plants were nourished from a single nutrient feed.

“There are plant rooms attached to each of the hydroponic bays,” Lindenmeyr said. She pointed to the wall on their right. “Enormous carbon filters through which we run the nutrient solution. There we can monitor pH levels, salinity, flow rate.”

“And top up the solubles?”


Stohlberg lowered his nose to the lettuce frond and sniffed deeply.

“Sera, this is wonderful. But I don’t know how a geologist could help here. Fram is thousands of years away from having soil – maybe tens of thousands. Sure, the regolith has magnesium, potassium, sodium, chloride. But there’s no nitrogen, and it’s completely unable to retain moisture.”

Lindenmeyr looked up at Stohlberg with an amused grin. “I’m a botanist. I know that!”

Again, she carefully pushed back the lettuce heads and scooped a handful of the pebbles from the nutrient channel. They were a variety of rich colours, Stohlberg saw now: brown and red and terracotta. Lindenmeyr described how the pebbles had been baked from the clay of Earth and Mars – the rusty red pebbles were clearly Martian – and had been carried with us on the journey from Sol. After each crop rotation the pebbles were washed in a solution of hydrogen peroxide.

Lindenmeyr cracked open a pebble; Stohlberg saw that it was porous, and criss-crossed by tiny lines invisible from the exterior.

“Are those fracture lines? From firing in the kiln?” he asked.

Lindenmeyr shook her head. “No. This is root growth. From thousands of generations of crops grown in the same clay aggregate. For almost six years.”

She explained that this root growth did not have a detrimental effect on subsequent crop yield, but only if the pebbles were sterilised in hydrogen peroxide after each harvest – an enormous investment of hydrogen and oxygen.

“If we were to use a local product as a medium,” Lindenmeyr spoke enthusiastically, “we could further tighten down the life-support loop by cutting out the hydrogen peroxide wash completely.”

Stohlberg nodded. “But there’s no clay on Fram.”

“There’s basalt.”

He grinned. “I’m a geologist. I know that!”

He listened while Lindenmeyr explained the need for a mixture of perlite and vermiculite – fusions of basalt and granite – superheated until expanded into glassy pebbles. If produced in sufficient quantities, the hydroponics facilities of the Colonies could simply discard the clay aggregate and use the disposable perlite/vermiculite mix.

She asked, “Do you know how many tonnes of H and O that would free up?”

“You won’t get much from the open-cut site,” Stohlberg continued, oblivious to her question. “The tails are being ransacked for uranium. And the Yom Kippur site is well past the bedrock. Actually, I think the Stephenson dig sites are the most promising – they’ve had a lot of trouble with basalt sheets around Charlotte Station.”

Stohlberg smiled, leaned down and kissed Lindenmeyr on the cheek.

“I’ll get to work!”


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…

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.

Charlotte Station

14 10 2007

Exactly one week before the Mayflower would arrive, the mining site cracked through the crust and started digging into the upper mantle. Immediately we started bringing up unprecedented amounts of silicone and aluminium, which partially offset how late these resources had started coming in.

Thankfully, some bright spark back Home had pushed for the essential components for the anchor station to be carried with us, prefabricated. At the cost of reaction mass we hauled most of the ground station with us: all that had to be built were the tethers to the body placed in geosynchronous orbit by our orbiters. We had started running simultaneous missions to get that part ready for the Mayflower, and at any time now we had at least two of our six orbiters up above us.

By the time we finished Charlotte Station, our impression on this ancient planet had grown to be quite considerable, though it must be said that it was much less than we had intended, three months after planetfall. There were four cities, growing out of, and over, the colony pods; we had an underground mine and were planning a second, open-cut site far to the north; an active spaceport with limited launch facilities; and now Charlotte, our ground station for the space elevator. Connecting these were the beginnings of our carbon highways, slowly spreading out from the cities like cracks in ice.

Our timetable, written by the same learned people who foresaw the need for a prefabricated ground station, put the completion of all components of the space elevator at a date already more than three weeks past. We had yet to stabilise the geosynchronous orbit of Wilbur, that silicate hunk of Amundsen that we had captured and slipped into orbit directly above the ground station. And, of course, while the Mayflower was itself enclosed by the structure which would unfold to become our space station and shipyard, it still required a basic dock to tether itself to when it arrived, which we hadn’t finished.

It would be a close thing, but that had been how this colony had started, and got by in the time since. There was growing optimism in everyone here. Some of us began to believe that we had passed the worst of the bottleneck – that the arrival of the Mayflower would mean the end of rationing and the end of double-shifts. But this optimism was not yet widespread. Many still feared the one event which would instantly destroy our modest progress. More of us would simply not allow ourselves to hope.

And then the solar station misaligned while painting an NFO, nudging one of the objects tagged by the orbiters in the wrong direction. It orbited Fram sixteen times, each orbit dropping lower and lower, before it slammed into the Quoqasi – still in the orbit we had left it when we made planetfall. The ship which had borne us across the unimaginable distance between Sol and Alpha Centauri was snapped in two, and the entire bow section was decompressed…