Trans-Neptunian Objects

Nils Lucilius was starting to feel a little light headed as she waited in the very dim, hard vacuum of the vestibule. A liminal space between the main body of the airlock and the surface of the trans-Neptunian planetoid Anguta. It had been about a month since she had last been tasked with surface duty. That along was enough to vex her, but her brother Pallas was pissing her off again. Pallas had managed to get out of the hardest maintenance cycles — just like before he had left to join the navy.

Nils knew her dizziness might be more serious than mere nerves. She wiggled her chin to bring up the dim heads up display. Near her chin, near the seam between her helmet and the rest of the hardsuit, there was a long and cold metal switch. She tapped twice. A light orange display that filled her helmet with light. Lamentably, the primitive display was not as usable or as reactive as an Extraocular Augmented Reality, or EAR, interface. The layers of clear material between the light emitting region and the inside of her helmet distorted the simplified characters, a unfortunate consequence of using cheaper materials as the thick plastic layers warbled and jumbled the text. Nils had given up trying to convince her parents that she should get an EAR implant, let alone the non-invasive contacts that could just lay over her iris. “If every gram counts do they let Pallas fill cold storage with kilograms of spacecraft models?” She angrily muttered to herself.

As she glanced at her hardsuit’s status, she noticed that the oxygen levels were low. Pressure? Suboptimal.

Nils quickly ran through the mnemonic for hypoxia out loud, “Early RAT is Late to BED.” As she said the mnemonic to herself she tapped her chin against the long metal switch in a little melody, and keyed up the quick access bio-checks. As her suit begin analyzing the data, the temperature notably increased. She could hear a new source of whirring as the cooling fan over the onboard computer began pushing heated coolant along the length of her hardsuit towards the radiators behind her head.

There was heat on the back of her neck, but it was comfortable. She smiled at the simple pleasure as the system struggled to keep up with the modest heat load of her onboard computer systems. In short order little beads of sweat begin appearing on Nils’ forehead.

In a fit of rage Nils raised her hand up to one of the dull metal bulkheads, in the direction of the makeshift cosmodrome where her brother waited on a refueling rocket, and yelled out, “you’re a waste of propellant Pallas!”

Ever since he got back from the Pluto Orbit guard he had been keeping the hab spaces up to milspec — as he liked reminding his sister. Brisk temperatures, lower partial pressures, and a dogged insistence on volumetric discipline. Nothing could stay out, nothing could not be packed down to the absolute minimal cubic millimeter. Pallas also brought a rather sketchy group of friends along. They gave Nils the creeps, and she was not one to let it do unremarked. This had been quite the source of conflict, but Nils and Pallas’ parents inevitably sided with her brother. Of course she had to give his old hab space up for his buddies. It did not matter she had turned it into a lab space, Pallas wanted his old hab and so he got it.

Nils could almost imagine her parents were with her right now, chastising her. “Now Nils, you cannot keep working on your wild ideas while your brother is back with the family.”

Nils sighed, maybe she was still bitter and surprised at how they had reacted when Pallas had left their family refueling station to join the United Planets Orbit Guard on Pluto. It had caught her off-axis when they let him go without any fuss, and then he went near radio silent. Five years later he sends a message that he’s coming home — and bringing fifteen or so of his comrades. Some vague story about saving up resources away from Pluto for a few years before paying their way back down the well on Pluto-bound hauler. Nils did not think it made any sense, but her protests had gone unheeded.

Her parents had not been moved by her pointed accusations of favoritism and would just tell her, “now Nils, please understand Pallas’ unique situation.” Of course, Pallas’ friends had paid licensing fees to launch propellant tanks into a low orbit and meet up with passing haulers, and that eased any concern her parents might have otherwise felt about the unexpected guests.

Most of the other non-family members had been driven away from Anguta by an entrenched feud. So, Nils had convinced herself it would be a welcomed change of pace. Then they showed up, disabused her of naivete, and trashed her experiments. She wasn’t sure if she would ever forgive Pallas for what his friends did to her lab equipment.

Nils sighed. Her lab was barely tolerated by the rest of the family, and she only really had been allowed to carve out free time by being the best with the computer networks. As the last go-between that wasn’t caught up in the family feud between the cousins, she had become even trusted by the others. Being relied upon was stressful, though she bared this stress because she knew it was only a matter of time Anguta would no longer be a consistent refueling stop for anyone — the last consistent trade route which visited Anguta had an inevitable end date. Nils found it strange then, that she had real mixed feelings. She would finally get to pursue her research interests on Pluto, but leaving the only home she’d ever known was still hard. Even saddled with arbitrary restrictions on the technology she was allowed to use, or her parents’ obsequiousness to the ever changing whims of her brother Pallas, she was still saddened by the prospect of irreversible change. The whir of the cooling fans stopped, pulling Nils’ out of her own train of thought. The report was finished, and she gave it a quick once over. All biostats and life support systems checked out and she was good to go about her long maintenance cycle on the icy surface.

Nils awkwardly turned to look at the airlock door behind her. Door closed — check. She chinned a switch and a red square on her HUD’s checklist turned green as she shuffled in the hardsuit toward the exit hatchway.

The near total lack of light when exiting a hab airlock was always a bit surreal. The surface of Anguta was only really discernible by absence of stars. The methanol contaminated, red-tinged, ice sheet itself was nearly invisible. Above the short, vaguely curved horizon, was a pinprick of bright light. Nils was not in the mood to spend any mental energy or time to find out if that was the radiators of the incoming AG hauler, or Sol itself. Sol or not, it was a bright dot, smaller than a finger tip of her dark gray hardsuit, and the only real source of light besides the entrance to the hab structure behind her.

The largely featureless, smooth, and bulky flat gray hardsuit puffed out a good five or so centimeters from the exterior of her arms, and even more from her feet. It had a large square pack almost half her total height and spanned the width of her shoulders. Starting about halfway up her back and extending far above her head, it would have been awkward anywhere with more gravity. One only issue, that weighed on her mind as little as the back weighed in the low gravity environment outside of the ring-habs: if she bumped into anything with the top of the pack, the lever arm would likely throw her against the ice. Once on her back, the radiators would cause the ice to sublimate, and it would be just like a little rocket had been strapped to her back. She had to take care, then, not to explore in spaces she was not dead certain she could fit through.

Nils tapped a few more controls with her chin. A virtual keyboard appeared and automatic lights scattered along the dark surface of Anguta. A few more chin motions and a command was typed out. Nearby lights activated to mark the safe and explored path to the massive spherical propellant tanks in the distance. These lights were only one eighth the power of the reading lamps on the ring-habs, but against the void-black that swaddled her it was like the stars themselves had materialized along her path. As she stepped along the path she was greeted with a moment of intense panic. For an instance she was overcome with this dread feeling she would fling off into the void at any moment. She took a deep breath, and pushed away her sudden space-based vertigo. The panic receded as she took another deep breath.

In through the mouth and out through the nose, “You’ve got this. You’ve done this a hundred times.” As she trudged along the path she strained against the assisted strength modules in her hardsuit. A futile effort. With each step she tried to lightly step across the icy surface, she inevitably pushed too hard and would lift a few centimeters above the ground. When she landed from her skip, she would then overcompensate again. The slow hop-skip walk was endlessly repeated as she moved down the path. In short order she was exhausted — if she had saved her energy and not tried she control her movements she felt the sickly pit in her stomach of the returning vertigo.

During her hike her mind was focused on a single thought: I hate you Pallas. It became her mantra. It took about a half hour, and she was still around twenty five meters away from the first propellant tank. She was covered in sweat and had used about a quarter of a liter of drinking water, so she decided to take a short break.

The ice on the other side of her lighted path was hard to see, but as she looked out at her surroundings she could tell it had become a much brighter orange-yellow color. As she looked up into the night sky she saw that Sol had somehow crept closer, and was more of a dot with glittering rectangles extended from the bright point at the center. In her exhausted state it took a while, but she eventually realized the white-orange light was emitted from the long, thin, and very hot radiators of the incoming fusion hauler.

Fusion haulers were hungry spacecraft. They could cut through kilotons of propellant that made an envelope around fusion pellets to provide additional thrust as the gases were ionized and heated to hundreds of thousands of Kelvin. Massive amounts of propellant, along with the significant maintenance requirements, was why a place like Anguta even existed. But, instead of doing surface duty like he was scheduled, Pallas and his pals would get to launch themselves into orbit and perform the refuel and spot-checks manually — autonomous units just wouldn’t cut it. Nils keyed up a few more screens with her chin. A rough trajectory of the fusion hauler appeared, extended outward from the moving star in the night sky, and curved back around the horizon. She chinned again and the launch and intercept of the refueling craft was shown in a dashed line with an intercept location marked. The actual orbital parameters were hidden under the multicolored pattern of a seal code, but Nils didn’t need the information to make an approximation. From her estimate of the orbital intersect, she figured Pallas should have already launched from the cosmodrome beyond her horizon.

With almost perfect timing the refueler arced over the horizon. A huge red conical plume extended from behind the refueler and mixed with the light of the radiators from the incoming fusion hauler. As the heated gas expanded and cooled, it acted like a patch of atmosphere over a hot plate, and bent the light around in a wavering bubbling dance as it fled into expansive nothingness. The refueler itself was essentially a series of shiny aluminum cylinders, wrapped in a lattice of metal struts, with a few cold-gray radiator fins near the top where the hab and control systems were located. The plume was not particularly bright, but it filled the surface of the ice around Nils with its reflection, and easily overpowered the dim lights that illuminated her path. Nils was suddenly aware of the vast emptiness of Anguta itself, as she looked along the ruddy surface of the trans-Neptune world that stood against the starry permanent night above.

Nils thought she saw something. Something that made the pit of her stomach drop out. Something that she couldn’t even voice for fear it would somehow make her flight of fancy reality. She grabbed at the thick plastic plate over her chest to find the equipment pouches on the outside of her hardsuit. She fumbled for the range finder. With the fat fingers of her hardsuit, she struggled to activate the device and align it with the viewfinder on her HUD as she tried to magnify her view of the refueler craft before it burned out of range. Instead, she was just greeted with the messages of failure laid across her HUD.

Loading…. Loading…. Line of Sight Loss…. Loading…. Loading….

It took Nils a solid minute of this before she could get the rangefinder properly aligned, and as the device zoomed towards the two spacecraft it displayed the image on her helmet. Nils gasped. “No no no noo nooo no, Pallas, what have you done?” Black and yellow with a skull in the center. The golden age of piracy had been over for three quarters of an Earth century, but that flag had been seared in Nils’ mind as a child growing up to hear the stories of the lawless denizens of Salacia attacking fusion haulers. Before the days of the Alcubierre-Li drive, before the interstellar war. When Anguta was a scientific research station. Those dread days had been long over, and space piracy was about as survivable as five minutes on the surface of Anguta without a vac suit.

A static crackle burst through her radio headset. Though distorted, Nils could recognize her only brother’s voice. Her eyes teared up and she could feel her head pound as she dropped her knees into the ice.

“We have a firing solution with a coil gun trained at your crew quarters.” Pallas announced. “Do not try to escape. Do not try to evade. Let us board or we will open fire.”