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.”

Applause.

“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.”

“Cheers!”

“Bravo!”

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





Exile

15 06 2010

Cane

We detected the beacon in the last hour of the dust storm. Mierhof thought that the beacon might be one of the many transponders scattered about the crater in which the Colonies were situated. But I knew that our crawler had ventured farther than that ring of transponders before the storm had hit.

I’d parked the crawler facing into the storm, which presented a smaller profile to the wind and the regolith it whipped so furiously. When the sky lightened, Mierhof checked the plastic sheets attached to the chassis behind the eight, all-terrain wheels – these sheets were a field modification, meant to keep the regolith from the axles and brake pads.

The eastern horizon was a wall of mahogany brown. The high pressure front was moving away to the east, leaving behind a featureless plain of soft, stirring dust. Above us, the sky was a faded grey-brown, and the ring barely discernable through this haze. The finest regolith was now suspended in Fram’s thick atmosphere.

Mierhof’s e-suit was layered with regolith when he squeezed through the airlock. “Right, let’s see what this thing is.”

He began geo-caching, feeding the beacon telemetry into the GPS.

We headed north-north-west for ten kilometres. Here we found a sharp-edged crater, its walls steep and inaccessible. I circled the crawler around the circumference of the crater. On the western side, the dust storm had deposited a bank of regolith which had lessened the outer incline. I worked the crawler laterally across this regolith ramp, angling toward the rim.

Beneath the crest we disembarked and continued on foot. We hiked upwards through a series of switchbacks. From the crater rim, I watched the dust storm receding to the east. Mierhof oriented himself toward the north, and looked from the GPS readout on his handheld to the horizon and back again.

“There,” he said, and pointed toward a knot of darker regolith about fifty meters below us and away to the north.

I thought that what he had pointed to was a bolide, perhaps of basalt but more likely a nondescript silicate, ejected from any number of impacts that scarred Fram’s surface. But as we drew closer, we saw the glint of sunlight on metal, and made out the shape of a Sprat.

The Sprat was leaning at an angle, and drifts of regolith had built up by its western side. I saw that the dust storm had begun to weather the paint from the edges of the frame. The buggy had been here for some time; even on its leeward side, the regolith had built up past the hubcaps.

Mierhof walked around the far side of the Sprat. He pointed at the ground but made no noise over our intercom. Where he pointed I saw a dark purple shape: a torso, the back of a head, and an arm, dusted by rust-red particles. The rest of his body was buried.

“Huh,” Mierhof said. “This must be that guy who killed that woman.”

“Cane.”

Mierhof pulled at the body’s right arm. On the inside of his arm was his wristpad. He brushed a gloved finger across the screen, and woke it from hibernation.

Mierhof read aloud from the screen:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou has drive me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face I shall be hid; I shall be a fugitive and vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.”

I was instantly reminded of something I had read once, long ago: that when community was synonymous with survival, exile was an especially lethal threat. How more true could that be, than here on Fram? I suddenly felt very far from home.

Mierhof unceremoniously dropped the man’s arm.

“I will not miss him.” He spoke with venom. “Let’s see if we can get this Sprat working. Head back to the crawler and get some digging equipment, will you?”





The Dictatorship of the Colonist

19 02 2010

It was Gina from Alpha-2 who organised the discussion of Fram’s political landscape at the +150 Conference. She argued passionately and articulately. She noted that the system of governance in place was that which had been used aboard the Quoqasi during the voyage from Sol.

“That was a totally different situation,” Gina spoke. “We lived in a closed system with crop failure as the greatest threat. Such a system should not be maintained in perpetuity, or by default.”

She was, of course, speaking disingenuously; there were much greater threats posed by the interstellar voyage, although the worst of those would have affected all the colony pods equally. But her point was well, if grimly, received.

The Colonies were governed by a centrist socialism. Communism in its less malign form had been an appropriate governmental model during the early colonisation efforts in the Solar System, in situations where there was little economic growth and correspondingly little private property. Everything – crawlers, KOVTARs, elevator cables, fusion plants, hydroponic domes – belonged to the Colony and was shared by each of the colonists. Labour was likewise undertaken for the benefit of all rather than the individual.

This was not some imposed ideological position, but rather the natural result of settling on another planet in another star system, carried by a starship with limited payload and thus limited stores and equipment. Our situation imposed constraints upon our governmental model, rather than our governmental model be made to fit a preconceived ideology.

The system against which Gina agitated was one of collective, representative leadership, organised in councils – soviets – of successive authority and responsibility. Each of the four Colonies was governed by a local soviet of five members, who were elected by the members of that Colony. These five members selected a member of that Colony to represent the Colony in the upper soviet. The upper soviet governed the four Colonies in an executive though not legislative or judicial sense. Finally, there was the position of supreme soviet, held by a single person who was directly elected by all the colonists of the four Colonies. The supreme soviet could only vote in situations where the upper soviet was deadlocked.

“It is a flawed system,” Gina spoke from the podium. “Deeply flawed. It functions as it currently does only through the vested interests of each of us in the continued stability of our colonisation of Fram.”

That “vested interest” was not some tenuous or abstract concept, came the reply from the floor: quite to the contrary, it was a fundamentally inculcated structure which conditioned the agency of each and every colonist. But the implications of Gina’s words were not lost.

Gina’s concern was one which had remained unspoken since the collapse of Alpha-2’s life-support loop – that the colonists of Alpha-2 were becoming, slowly and silently, disenfranchised. Alpha-2 lacked a speciality because of the trauma of its complete relocation, and because its infrastructure was made so much the poorer by the evacuation of its colony pod. It had been dependent upon the other Colonies in a way that none of the others had been, and as a result had contributed less to the colonisation effort. The vote of their representative in the upper soviet had become subtly marginalised.

“Because, in the end, support or opposition in the upper soviet comes from the support or opposition of its members. Individuals. What we are discussing here is the concentration of too much political power into too few hands.”

Here could be inferred Gina’s fear of the disempowerment of her Colony. Alpha-2 would need the support of two other colonies to affect legislative change in the upper soviet, or the support of one other colony and that of the tie-breaking supreme soviet. The election of candidates with dim views of Alpha-2 would threaten this delicate balance, and there were no checks or balances to the growing resentment of Alpha-2 among the other colonies.

Hers was a legitimate concern, which could not be dismissed as simple paranoia. Gina’s apprehension spoke to the need to effect changes in our government structure, changes which better reflected life on Fram rather than life on the Quoqasi. Debate began immediately, and drew more attention than the other workshops on the closing day of the Conference.

A number of reforms were proposed. Most of these proposals affected the supreme soviet: one suggestion was to impose a rotating membership upon the position of supreme soviet; another suggestion was to fill supreme and upper soviets randomly from a pool of eligible, candidate colonists; still another suggestion was to set fixed terms to each seat, and limitations on the number of terms a candidate could sit. Some anarchists even suggested that the upper and supreme soviets be abolished, that even these bodies represented the concentration of too much power.

Most of the supporters of this latter position were from Alpha-2, and the prompt, almost casual rejection of their proposal seemed to justify Gina’s concerns.

These were all imperfect solutions. None of these proposals addressed the fundamental issue of the dispersal of political power, and many actually diminished the agency of the citizen. Imposing limits on individual power was not of itself collective leadership. The problem, noted one commentator, was that Fram’s population was both too small and too large: too small to effectively implement a constitutional democracy, too large to ignore the politics and rely upon a loose meritocracy.

In the silence between rejection and counter-proposal, someone muttered that what we were doing now was as good as politics could get.

“What do you mean?” asked Gina, encouraged.

A tall, thin man from Alpha-4 stood up reluctantly. “I mean this Conference. Everyone meeting together like this, every so often, to discuss what comes next.”

The idea was seized upon. It was discussed, debated, developed. Word spread quickly, and experts from all fields dropped in from other workshops to contribute. And suddenly (or, at least, it seemed to those of us there), we were drafting language for a constitution.

The Conference would be the basis of our government. At regular intervals, a similar conference would be held; while the Colony was young, this interval would remain one hundred and fifty Earth days. These Congresses would be attended by a Central Committee of some two hundred members – fifty representatives from each Colony, nominated by whatever method that Colony chose – who would confer on any issue that fell outside the jurisdiction of a single Colony.

The +150 Conference, thus, became the First Congress.

“But think of the Texas crisis!” Gina implored. “We mustn’t assume that all decisions will wait for a scheduled Congress.”

Replacing the upper and supreme soviets was the Presidium, a body of sixteen full and eight candidate members. The Presidium directed the government between the Congresses of the Central Committee. Only full members could vote; candidate members acted as the tie-break, voting only when the votes of full members were deadlocked. Each Colony elected four full and two candidate members. The Presidium met only in plenums in the period between Congresses.

Despite comments made in jest – “revolution in one solar system!” or “dictatorship of the colonist!” – the authors consulted widely, and the draft was quickly composed. The constitution went to general referendum a week after the conclusion of the Congress, and passed in a landslide with an eighty-four percent majority.

Of 3974 persons, 3338 voted in favour of the new constitution.





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…





A Few Eggs

11 06 2007

Wounded

"…COIL mining was only a short-term initiative, at least using the MMRs. They’re very unstable machines, many parts seem faulty…or have next to nothing in the way of durability, not to mention a severe lack of safety features.

…Once the May’ gets here, we can leave these temperamental pressure-cookers to the dogs."

When we had our first accident with the MMRs, we got off pretty lightly. One of the chlorine lines burst, overwhelming the crew on the gantry stacks. We lost more than a dozen people straight away, though it could have been much worse. The chlorine or the iodine could have mixed, the oxygen by-product could have exploded, or the two components of the COIL could have met in uncontrolled circumstances and we’d have lost the whole rig.

Until the accident, we’d relied on trauma kits and first aid to deal with the injuries that cropped up: cuts, bruises, sprains, concussions, a broken leg. Suddenly we were dealing with things our e-suits couldn’t handle, or at least mitigate. Our inability to respond quickly was what cost those fifteen people their lives.

As with everything in the past fortnight, the hardware was the easiest part to fix. It’s strange to think that, a few weeks ago, all we thought of was spare parts and inventories. Sure, we still had frightening supply problems – we were all hungry from rationing, after all. And we were still on a knife-edge in terms of our capability to maintain even our basic existence, much less the expansion timetable we had for the arrival of the Mayflower.

But a chlorine line and a pump was easier to replace than fifteen of us. We weren’t Home; we’d left Home with four thousand people and, as awful as it was, our numbers where being whittled away by the harshness of our new life. Now, we were hyperaware of our own frailties, of how far from our Home we had come, of how alone and isolated we were, and of how close we were to collapsing under the weight of our own, human ambitions.

Home. Nobody called that star on the edge of Cassiopeia "Sol", not anymore. It was "Home", even for those of us dedicated to Fram and to Alpha Centauri and to seeing out what we had started here, in this place, whether that ended with the expansion of human civilization into other stars systems, or the slow death of a preemptive reach for the stars. I wonder, if we even live out the year, how many generations it will take to breed out that habit.





Birth of a Settlement

10 06 2007

Colony Pod

"…The colony pods were designed to be completely modular upon deployment. Once the kilometre-long vessels had blazed through the atmosphere and settled upon the surface, their structural options opened up exponentially. Specific modules, such as meteorological and aerospace laboratories, were elevated and stacked up in the higher sections of the pod, while geo-survey stations were constructed at the end of unfurled carbon-fibre road tiles, away from the thunderous activity within the colony pod-cum-settlement and all that entailed in its expansion."

 

It took fifteen minutes for the crawler to travel the half dozen kilometers from the new Alpha-2 site to Alpha-1. It would have taken twice that time if not for the carbon arterial which connected the two sites. Gina took some small pleasure in those fifteen minutes, a pleasure that went beyond simple convenience – it was pride, she realized, pride in those highways, the first of the projects entirely manufactured on Fram’s surface, from materials mined from Fram itself.

The Alpha-2 site was so far the only colony entirely connected by the carbon ribbons. Alpha-2 had been connected to every other colony through sheer necessity: it had been the first, simply because it made the relocation effort, already immense, that much easier and more efficient.

As the crawler drew closer to Alpha-1, though, Gina saw the progress made connecting that site to the others – perfectly straight lines fanned out from beneath the colony’s courtyard, tracing black parabolic arcs over the horizon toward the deep-core mining site, the launch facility, and toward the elevator ground station. Vehicles moved across these, she noticed, diminished by the distance.

The crawler fell into the deeper of the shadows cast by the superstructure of Alpha-1, cast by the nearer and brighter of the twin stars. Gina saw towers silhouetted in the brown light; atop the weather and radar stations she saw dishes, made of fine mesh, rotating. Although the modular components which had spread over the upper surface of the colony pod were entirely prefabricated, they impressed her no less than did the carbon highway upon on which the crawler’s caterpillar tracks now grinded.

These rectilinear shapes stretched far into the sky, like skyscrapers did in the magnificent cities on Earth. Where those buildings had been rooted to the surface of Earth, these component towers were based atop an immense slab itself almost half the height of the skyscrapers back Home. A kilometer in length, the colony pods, the foundation of these growing cities, were a hundred meters tall once embedded in the duricrust of Fram.

Gina also felt a pang of regret, and envy. The relocation of Alpha-2 had meant leaving the colony pod, borne across the light years by the Quoqasi, at the original site. It had simply been impossible to move, once it fell from orbit and grounded itself. It had been a near-impossible feat of logistics and raw payload capacity to relocate the fusion plant, and all the prefabricated components which kept the colonists of Alpha-2 alive. The immense size of the colony pod was the central feature of the other colonies – indeed, it was also a foundation for all subsequent expansion. By comparison, the collection of buildings and domes – separated by regolith-washed carbon sheets – which made up Alpha-2 looked ramshackle, primitive, like a clutch of Mongol yurts.

Forever more the inhabitants of Alpha-2 would be at a disadvantage. Already they’d slipped far behind the others in development, and relied heavily on the other sites for consumables, resources, even maintenance. The other sites had begun to develop their specialties – Alpha-1 the embryonic space program and solar fields; Alpha-3 the manufacturing powerhouse of the four colonies; and Alpha-4, responsible for both the deep-core and open-cut mines. There were projections circling in the soviets of the mid-term economic decline of Alpha-2, including social projections placing the citizens of Alpha-2 in a nightmarish second-class.

Each time Gina, representative of the Alpha-2 soviet, visited another of the colonies, she felt the regret of the one poor decision made by her contemporaries which had precipitated this situation. But for now there was nothing that could be done – everyone was struggling, everyone was on rations, everyone was tired, and everyone was doubtful of the future.

She saw workers, clad in e-suits, erecting more equipment atop one of the domes which studded that part of Alpha-1 immediately above the vehicle park. The colony had become the seat of the upper soviet, that which nominally governed the entire colonization effort on Fram. The capital was growing, exponentially, while Gina’s own fell further and further behind…