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…



26 04 2011


“The Remokon-90 “Dust Devil”, a quad-tracked pinnacle of autonomous microwave-grading technology, ushered about a new age in what had been previously been labour-intensive and dangerous expansion efforts by the colonists of Fram.  Fed telemetry and geological scans, the Dust Devil worked around the clock turned vast tracts of uneven lunar terrain in smooth, glass-like foundations.  The Remokon-90’s onboard computer could be accessed and remotely controlled, but due to its rugged performance and impeccable results, many of Fram’s large-scale terraforming become the realm of robotics.  Thanks to the Remokon-90, any project involving automated machinery was henceforth affectionately known as “the devil’s work”.

Chesney bounded across the surface of Amundsen in long, loping strides.

Both stars had set, but the light of half-illuminated Fram lit the surface of the moon. It was a strange, muted light, a light that evoked childhood memories in Chesney of the thick smoke of wildfires and the twilight of a sun choked by ash and soot.

To her right was Wisting Base and, beyond that, the straight shadow of a rille defined by its far horst. Rising over these was the crescent of Fram and, curving around the edge of the disc like the bow of a parenthesis, the highlighted arc of the planet’s ring.

As Chesney looked into the light cast from the ring and planet, the regolith which covered the visor of her helmet caught the light. She reached for the soft-bristled brush hooked to her belt; she could not easily brush the particles away with her glove without scratching away the visor’s protective coating.

Ahead of her was the Dust Devil, a ’bot the size of a tank, motionless and dark.

Chesney worked her way toward the Dust Devil parallel to the runway. There was little to this runway, yet – maybe a hundred meters of glazed regolith. This glossy, dark grey path stretched past Wisting Base and ended at a point beneath the Dust Devil. Chesney carefully loped around the recovery equipment for the CATOBAR system: the cylindrical shapes of friction brakes and several coiled arrestor cables. These lay assembled to the side of the runway, and some pits had been dug for the brakes and their motors; but the recovery system was not yet ready to be installed.

“What do you see, Chesney?”

Chesney winced. She looked over to Wisting Base, watched a rover move over the far rille toward the collection of pressurised cylinders, imagined her mission commander watching her on the monitors of the control room.


“I can’t see anything moving.”

Which wasn’t entirely accurate; regolith cast up by the Dust Devil was still settling on either side of the vehicle, falling in perfect, slow parabolas in the moon’s negligible gravity.

“I’ve tried remotely resetting the firmware,” the voice in Chesney’s earpiece stated. “Still getting the same error.”

As Chesney approached the Dust Devil, she saw that the grounding pitons had fired: at points along the length of the vehicle, wires had shot from the Dust Devil into the lunar surface.

“The electrostatic pitons have fired,” she reported back to control.

As the Dust Devil ploughed through the dry regolith it built up a significant tribolectric charge; insulted by the regolith and existing in a vacuum, this charge could not be easily grounded. When in standby mode the Dust Devil deployed these pitons to discharge the electrostatic build-up into the bedrock, where there was a higher proportion of conductive iron.

Nevertheless, as Chesney reached out to place gloved hand on the vehicle’s caterpillar track, there was a brief arc between her hand and the dusty track. She instinctively pulled back her hand.

It took a moment for her suit’s systems to respond, and, during this time, the mission commander’s voice was lost in a wash of static.

“I’m fine,” she said.

She ran her hand over the rear fantail, a bridge suspended between the larger rear caterpillar tracks in which were installed a series of magnetrons. Chesney pulled down a hatch that revealed a hibernating terminal; she awoke this terminal and established a wireless connection with her tablet. She immediately began to run diagnostics on the magnetrons.

“Start with the magnetrons,” the mission commander instructed. “Start with a series of diagnostics.”

Chesney rolled her eyes but held her tongue.

Three rows of magnetrons pointed downward from the Dust Devil’s fantail, and these fired microwave energy into the regolith beneath. At the right power and frequency, these microwaves sintered the regolith and fused it into a half-meter thick seam of lunar glass. This glass was like an artificial basalt, and would, once complete, provide a good foundation for Wisting’s landing strip.

The process relied upon the high level of iron in Amundsen’s otherwise silicate regolith. Deposited here by billions of years of micrometeorite impact, these nanometer-scale beads of pure iron efficiently concentrated the Dust Devil’s microwave energy and heated up the surrounding silica, sintering this loose dust into large clumps and, eventually, solid structures.

Where the Dust Devil had inexplicably halted its programmed sweep, the sintered regolith was thin and cracked easily beneath Chesney’s shifting feet.

“I’m getting nothing unusual from the magnetrons,” Chesney reported. “I’m leaving the system to run a clean-up, but the diagnostics showed nothing.” She clipped the hatch and precluded what she knew would be her commander’s next comment. “I’m heading forward to inspect the dozer and guidance systems.”

The Dust Devil had four large tracks arranged in two sets of two. Set between the forward tracks was a simple dozer blade that levelled and compressed the regolith before it was sintered by the microwaves. Above the dozer was an elevated fin that resembled the twin tailbooms of an aircraft; within this blade were the Dust Devil’s guidance systems: ground radar, forward-looking infrared cameras, electromagnetic and visual spectrum sensors, and path planning intelligence.

Here again Chesney ran a series of wireless diagnostics. She accessed the firmware’s log, and found the same error message as that relayed to the control room.

“Yes, that’s what I’ve got on this end,” the mission commander dryly noted.

“It’s like it’s gone into sleep mode.” Chesney placed her tablet delicately on the upper surface of the guidance fin. “Can you check the program logic from there? Under what criteria would the Dust Devil shut itself down?”

“Mmmhm. While I’m doing that, check the dozer blade.”

With some difficulty Chesney crouched on one knee, bracing herself against the caterpillar track so that she didn’t bounce off the regolith in the low gravity. Like a ship riding a bow wave, the angled dozer blade had ploughed deep into the regolith, and banks of dust had piled on either side. Within these piles there were a few larger, brecciated rocks, but none large enough to halt the Dust Devil.

Chesney absentmindedly picked up one of these larger rocks; saw that while it was fractured it was not a breccia at all; realised that it was striated, igneous basalt. She frowned. Intersecting the banded strata, however, Chesney noticed an imperfect but regular zig-zag; she held the rock up to Fram’s light and saw that these lines were impressed into the rock.

“Oh my God,” she whispered.

Chesney slipped the rock into a sample bag on the thigh of her suit, excitedly ran her fingers through the regolith around her. She found a number of striated basalt pieces, each with the same faint impressions. Chesney’s heart thumped. They looked like adpressions. Common plant fossils. And the shape of the fossils reminded her of the anaerobic methanogens on Fram.

“Those shutdown protocols,” she gushed excited into her mike, “do they include detecting something…biological?”

Not Because They Are Easy But Because They Are Hard, Part One

7 02 2011

Wurundjeri was assembled at the LFO Assembly Station in Fram orbit.

Her various stages were pieced together at Port Mayflower; like the legs of a spider spinning a lengthening lanyard, zero-gravity cranes connected each module with the next and the whole vessel extended from Wilbur. From Port Mayflower she was slipped into an elliptical orbit; around her were the various components and modules, pushed about by Grapes and orbiters, that constituted LFO Assembly Station.

It was a pencil-thin stack of components. Cylindrical modules ran the length of a core of scaffolding; some of these modules were connected at right angles to the central stack. Flaring from the flanks were the dragonfly wings of solar panels. Wurundjeri was an asymmetric, delicate, functional design.

Some of the modules were constructed on Fram’s surface, and were too large to send into orbit using the space elevator. These modules were launched using rockets: heavy lift vehicles adapted from those boosters we had used to send our orbiters into space before the arrival of Mayflower. The launches were spectacular, dreamy – voluminous, grey-white HLVs balanced on a tongue of fire and smoke subdued by the thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide. The Fram Departure Stage, Ascent and Descent Stages were lofted into orbit in this manner, in three separate launches over the space of six weeks.

The FDS was at the stern of Wurundjeri. This was a fifty ton, cylindrical module wrapped in solar panels that flared at its end to shield the ship from the engine exhaust. In its base were mounted three small drive nozzles, which drew upon forty tons of propellant stored within the FDS. At the other end of the module was the stage docking system, which connected to the central stack.

Clustered around the scaffolding that was the central stack were various mission modules. There were pressurised logistics modules, containing supplies and equipment for the lunar mission; habitat modules to form the core of a lunar base; and cargo landers to deploy these modules safely to the surface. These modules were arranged in two rows along each side of the central stack, nose to tail, their sides pressed up against the stack. Eight sets of solar panels were positioned perpendicular to these modules. These two groups of four panels formed the Y axis of the ship, like dorsal and ventral fins, while the mission modules formed the X axis.

Toward the bow of Wurundjeri were two more modules, each smaller than the various cargo and habitat modules. These were the combined ascent/descent stages, huddled together in a protective sheath, and the crew transportation vehicle. Both modules were set into the central stack along the X axis and thus in line with the rows of mission modules, but they were connected at a perpendicular angle, so that their noses nestled into the central scaffolding.

The Ascent/Descent Stages were simple vehicles, not essentially different in purpose and execution to the earliest of man’s lunar modules. The protective sheath was mounted high up on the descent stage, such that most of the descent stage was exposed. There was a single, throttleable engine at its base and a grid of manoeuvring thrusters around the cylinder. There were five legs mounted in a star around the circumference of the cylinder that would deploy prior to landing. Between these legs were solar arrays. Upon the power of this stage would the entire module make a controlled descent to the surface of Amundsen.

Sitting atop the descent stage was the ascent stage, a large, bulbous sphere. This sphere contained the crew cabin and a separate air lock from which the crew could egress to the surface. At the north pole of this sphere was a docking port, which connected with the central stack; at the south pole there were four, bell-shaped engines. Feeding these engines, mounted one atop the other, were spherical propellant tanks. While the Wurundjeri remained docked at Port Mayflower, the entire ascent stage was encapsulated beneath the chequered payload sheath.

The Crew Transportation Vehicle was the name given by mission control to the orbiter attached to the Wurundjeri, the David Greenglass. The CTV would ferry the crew to Wurundjeri, and remain in orbit with the central stack after the mission modules and A/DS descended to the surface.

It had taken almost two months to assemble Wurundjeri. As she prepared for her mission to Amundsen, her hull was painted in alternating bands of light grey and black, and the designation of each of her modules stencilled in white. The last equipment and propellant stores were shipped up from the Colonies, and the crew prepared to step onto Amundsen…


25 03 2010

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

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

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

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

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

“Payload bay doors show green.”

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

“I confirm,” he replied.

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

“I have positive contact.”

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

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

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

Ethel, Mayflower. Board’s green.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Its Limits

5 03 2010

“…Pushing the AMUF to its limits, the Karst-manufactured MREM-C (Multi-Role Earth Mover Component) module was one of the most useful machine upgrades in the colonial motorpool.  Instrumental in carving channels for the intercolonial light-rail system, the MREM featured a robust chassis that offered remarkable durability in the toughest of conditions.  Working in tandem with M10-10 catepillar rigs, the MREM teams were an undeniable asset in infrastructure projects.”

There was the AYLI before us, perhaps fifty meters away, its legs dusted brown with regolith. It was trapped in a pass probably too narrow for the skill of the driver. There were two figures standing at the feet of the walker; their e-suits were dark and clean compared to the legs of the AYLI.

“It’s not an AYLI,” Gingrich said condescendingly.  “An MREM.”

She pronounced it ‘em-rem’. I didn’t much care what random string of letters the super-corporates back in Sol had given the thing.

“Irrespective, these framming Twos shouldn’t have brought the thing so far from the Colonies.”

A quick glance at the GPS showed that we were three kilometres north-west of what amounted to Alpha-2, in the foothills of Henderson Ridge. The ridge had formed from the ejecta spewed out in the impact which created the crater in which our four Colonies were sited. It was relatively rough terrain, as far as Fram went: there were many large bolides scattered about, yet to be worn down by the winds and regolith, and benches of bedrock punched upwards by the force of the impact to the south-east.

The MREM had broken down in the shaded lee of a wadi, where several boulders formed a rough wall of chocolate-brown rock. The suspension on our Sprat worked overtime as we crossed the broken terrain.

Gingrinch was speaking to the two e-suited figures, although I wasn’t on that frequency and couldn’t hear their conversation. I angrily engaged the footbrake and began to circle the walker on foot. What point was there talking to them? The problem was obvious – not that the teeth of the lead road wheel in the left leg track assembly had been worn smooth, popping out the track sprockets; but that morons from Alpha-2 were given any equipment from the May, when they clearly had not the faintest idea how to use it.

I grabbed some equipment and spares from the stowage bins on the flanks of the Sprat, and went to work levering the remaining track from the guide wheels.

Gingrich eventually walked over, watched me work. She didn’t contribute. Of course. She came onto my freq and explained that the pair driving the MREM had come up into Henderson Ridge to site a good location for a weather station above De Lacaille Chasm.

“What a pair of clowns,” I said, although I looked from the corner of my eye to make sure they weren’t on our freq. “AYLIs, MREMs, whatever, they’re meant for hard-surface duty. In the Colonies. On the highways. What framming idiot takes them out here, into the countryside?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, but Gingrich answered. She stood there, watching me work, hands on her hips, and actually argued their logic to me. A wretch. God, I was so sick of her.

She was engaging at length about the purpose of humanity to spread life throughout the Universe. Surely there were better places in that Universe for walkers to break down.

“Humanity?” I asked. “Nothing more than a few layers of translucent membrane stretched across a scaffolding of calcium, with some watery, soft tissue sandwiched between. No purpose there at all.”

She tried to rebut.

“And why the fram,” I continued, cutting Gingrich off, “did we even bother bringing KOVTARs? What was the point? If every monkey is going to run about in these fancy new toys, break down somewhere they shouldn’t be, and wait for us to come help them?”

Finally – with a suddenness that made me grunt with overexertion – the track links came off, and tumbled to the ground. I leaned over to pull the tracks out in a straight line. I would have to remove the worn road wheel, clean out the regolith, install a new road wheel with fresh teeth, and then run the tracks back through the idlers.

I struggled with the weight of the track, even in the low gravity. And still Gingrich stood there, watching; still she crapped on about utterly inane stuff. I threw the track back to the ground.

I felt an anger wash over me that I couldn’t stop. “Are you going to help? I mean, at all?”

Gingrich laughed.

“You’re a halfwit,” I said, in a cruel and resigned voice.

“And you’re a framwit.”

The anger exploded behind my eyes like fireworks. My muscles felt like taught steel wires. Somehow, the wrench was back in my hand, and I spun toward her.

And that was all there was – an arm swung, a wrench bloodied, a tight spray of cavalry brown blood over the grey regolith. And I had committed the first murder in the planet’s history.

Oh, God.

The Twos, resting in the shade, suddenly jumped to their feet. I couldn’t hear what they were saying; they were on the general freq. I looked down at Gingrich, motionless, the mask of her e-suit askew and blood oozing from her temple. I felt nothing.

I changed to the general frequency, and walked toward the morons from Alpha-2, those ungrateful, lazy, bloodsucking parasites from Alpha-2. I waved the bloodied wrench. “And neither of you are worth the bullet it would take to shoot you.”

I threw the wrench away. The next thing I knew, I was on the Sprat, driving north, my body shaking uncontrollably…

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…”