KSK

First Flight (Chapter 103 - Coming Home)

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Again, KSK, I am truly honored.  Another excellent read, and I'm glad to see the Kerbals having as much trouble making that engine work as I had coming up with a suitable acronym.

As for smooth switching between Air Breathing to Rocket, not sure.  I never imagined the original MACE (made a version using config bashing for personal use, after all) would be 'smooth.'  More like, "Doesn't blow up during transition, but takes a few extra steps."

Regarding the original MACE, the way I'd config-bashed it together, it had higher thrust than the RAPIER in either of the two comparable modes, but weighed more than the RAPIER.  The ability to switch between Afterburning Turbofan and Rocket was only done manually, and while it worked okay one way (Air Breathing to Rocket), switching back, the air-breathing jet engine always ended up starting at low thrust.  Which, again, was one of the changes I'd had to the MACE, that the jet engine, for as much thrust as it could produce, had a stupidly long spool time both ways.  Everything balanced out, and designs (and this was from 0.90, granted) with the RAPIER were actually easier to get into space than those using the MACE.  Something about weighing an extra ton-and-a-quarter while providing 30 more units of thrust in jet mode, and 90 more units in rocket mode, all while gulping more fuel than, well, something really thirsty in your universe.

So it'll inevitably be interesting to me to see the different theories behind your MACE and the one I did so long ago.  I'll inevitably have to compare the two.  May even have to config-bash me a new MACE with the new overhauled parts...

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Not a problem Madrias and as always, thanks for the comments and kind words!

That's about my definition of smooth switching too! Any engine start-up which gives you a working engine at the end is a good start-up. :) 

My version of MACE is fairly blatantly cribbed from the Reaction Engines SABRE design. It's a rocket engine in both modes, or at least it uses the same combustion chamber in both. In 'rocket' mode, the combustion chamber is fed from the onboard LOX tank, whilst in 'airbreathing' mode, the chamber is fed with cold but not quite liquid air. Avoiding liquefaction makes the plumbing a lot simpler (you don't need an air condenser) and significantly reduces the amount of LH2 required in your cooler, since you're not having to deal with all that pesky latent heat.

To be honest, I'm not sure how the switchover is intended to happen in real life, so all this is largely based on gut feeling, but it seems like the place where things are likely to go wrong and story-wise it provides a convenient roadblock which I can use to spin out the spaceplane story thread a bit.

Stopping a rocket engine in mid-flight and then restarting it using effectively a different oxidiser (and a liquid rather than a gas to boot) doesn't sound straightforward and doing a genuinely smooth transition whereby the engine doesn't stop at all, seems even less straightforward.

If nothing else, the pre-burner is driving the compressor + LH2 pump in air-breathing mode, whereas it's driving the LH2 and LOX pumps in rocket mode. Managing that handover without spraying bits of gearbox, clutch (since I presume all three are driven on a common shaft) or impeller blade all over the inside of the engine sounds challenging all by itself. Then you either need to have an injector which can handle near-liquid air or LOX (and plumbing that can switch between the two) or a combustion chamber fitted with two injectors which can handle the (presumably) different flow patterns and flow rates from each. I'm actually thinking that a pintle injector (conical impingement injector in-universe) might be the way forward, although the idea of using one in such a high performance engine would probably make Wernher choke on his sandwiches.

I'm probably overthinking this but hey - it's fun! Plus it lets me use all sorts of cool and sort of plausible technobabble. :)

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On 2/14/2016 at 11:41 AM, KSK said:

Then Jeb turned to the third board and a shiver ran down his back. Labelled: ’We came in peace for Kerm and Kerbal’ , it didn’t have any pictures of space or spacecraft. Instead it was full of kerbals. 

This was a wonderful way of playing on the "Earthrise" phenomenon. Jeb wasn't the only one having an emotional reaction here-- simply outstanding. 

 

On 2/14/2016 at 11:41 AM, KSK said:

And on a different, less intense note, the next chapter is up! This is another one for Madrias - and everyone else who took part in the GAB (Great Acronym Brainstorm :) ) of October 2014...

I remember that. First Flight was so good it finally spurred me to stop lurking and sign up on the forums. If memory serves, the GAB was my very first post.

Thank you KSK, for all the beautiful words. :)

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On 2/15/2016 at 3:15 AM, KSK said:

Not a problem Madrias and as always, thanks for the comments and kind words!

That's about my definition of smooth switching too! Any engine start-up which gives you a working engine at the end is a good start-up. :) 

My version of MACE is fairly blatantly cribbed from the Reaction Engines SABRE design. It's a rocket engine in both modes, or at least it uses the same combustion chamber in both. In 'rocket' mode, the combustion chamber is fed from the onboard LOX tank, whilst in 'airbreathing' mode, the chamber is fed with cold but not quite liquid air. Avoiding liquefaction makes the plumbing a lot simpler (you don't need an air condenser) and significantly reduces the amount of LH2 required in your cooler, since you're not having to deal with all that pesky latent heat.

To be honest, I'm not sure how the switchover is intended to happen in real life, so all this is largely based on gut feeling, but it seems like the place where things are likely to go wrong and story-wise it provides a convenient roadblock which I can use to spin out the spaceplane story thread a bit.

Stopping a rocket engine in mid-flight and then restarting it using effectively a different oxidiser (and a liquid rather than a gas to boot) doesn't sound straightforward and doing a genuinely smooth transition whereby the engine doesn't stop at all, seems even less straightforward.

If nothing else, the pre-burner is driving the compressor + LH2 pump in air-breathing mode, whereas it's driving the LH2 and LOX pumps in rocket mode. Managing that handover without spraying bits of gearbox, clutch (since I presume all three are driven on a common shaft) or impeller blade all over the inside of the engine sounds challenging all by itself. Then you either need to have an injector which can handle near-liquid air or LOX (and plumbing that can switch between the two) or a combustion chamber fitted with two injectors which can handle the (presumably) different flow patterns and flow rates from each. I'm actually thinking that a pintle injector (conical impingement injector in-universe) might be the way forward, although the idea of using one in such a high performance engine would probably make Wernher choke on his sandwiches.

I'm probably overthinking this but hey - it's fun! Plus it lets me use all sorts of cool and sort of plausible technobabble. :)

If you'll forgive my bit of lore from my personal game here, the way my MACE worked was a good bit different, though I like that yours has a real-world counterpart, whereas mine's more Kerbal-Krazy in nature.

Mine had the primary engine, the Afterburning Turbofan, as a proper, honest-to-Kerm jet-engine running in the front half, and in the back, it had four small rocket nozzles surrounding the end of the turbine, but in the bypass-air stream from the main compressor fan. (config bashing was fun for me, so I liked the semi-complex nature of the design.)  The theory of operation was that the jet engine ran like, well, a jet engine up to its physical flame-out limit.  It'd climb while sucking in air, spraying in fuel, igniting it, and spraying the resulting hot gasses out through the center of the engine, between the rocket nozzles.  As the air thinned out (a use for that Atmosphere gauge in the cockpit), the pilot would throttle back to make the most of the jet engine (remember, this was 0.90, where jets could almost get to orbit with this trickery), run until (nearly) engine flameout, yank the blue lever in the cockpit, and brace for acceleration.  The theory there was that by pulling the lever (usually Action Group 1 for mode switching), you'd cut the fuel supply off of the jet engine, dump that fuel into the rocket's combustion chamber (obviously more complex than that, but I'm not as knowledged in rocket sciences and the technical parts), activate the oxidizer flow as well, and ignite the resulting mixture.

The result in game was a heavy, awkward engine that failed to match the elegance of the RAPIER, but could be gotten much sooner, required an action group to manually switch over the engine, had a stall-period on switching from rocket to jet, drank fuel and oxidizer at an astounding rate while being a rocket, and had obnoxious quirks in jet mode.

The quirks: Because I'd forgotten to install an alternator in the engine config file, there was no power generation in either mode.  The in-lore reason for that 'missing' part was simply that there was no longer any room in this engine housing to fit an alternator, and that it'd only be functional in jet mode anyway, so why bother with the added weight.  The engine alone, without any supporting hardware, was 4 tons.  It had a fuel-consumption equivalent to a Mainsail while providing the thrust of two LVT-45's in rocket mode, and because it was me who had bashed it together, the center of mass was not adjusted forward like the RAPIER, thereby it always resulted in a large amount of weight sitting squarely on the back of the airframe.

As mentioned before, I'm sorely tempted to try bashing together a new MACE with the updated parts.  Especially now that I should, at least in theory, be able to enable thrust-reversing if I use the right engine body.  I'll just have to remember to tell my pilots not to thrust-reverse when in rocket mode.

 

Edit: Okay, it's crazier than I thought.  Found an old config file, and it's not the revised and refined version mentioned above.  This thing's insane, but with some balance in mind.  4 tons of engine, a lot of thrust in jet mode (that will be getting tweaked because this thing puts out some insane thrust), and 400 kN of thrust in rocket mode, though I think it's actually balanced...  To do that, it chugs down twice as much oxidizer as any other rocket does compared to the liquid fuel consumption.  So much, in fact, that it's actually set up to show Oxidizer as the fuel resource being consumed in the lower left hand corner.  It's crazy, but I love it.  Oh, and that rocket mode has spool-down, too.  Makes precision a nightmare because it takes two or three seconds to spool down from full power.  But, it's a tool of pure brute force, not elegance.

Oh, and I made myself laugh because of my own flavor text from so-long-ago.

"Manually Actuated Combination Engine.  A hybrid of rocket and jet.  

You will go to space today.  While screaming."

I've been working to revise it for the new parts, and other than some quirks which showed up (not surprising seeing as how old this config file is), I think I'm happy with it.  It can and will throw spaceplanes into orbit, it's still just a little too overpowered (that will be fixed soon enough.  This thing climbs like a 0.90 jet... Which means in the modern aero and, um, frictional heating... Yeah, I destroyed four planes trying to fly this engine.  When you're getting re-entry heating on the way up, that's not a good thing.) but I'm working on that, and I think I'm gonna keep it in my game.  Crazy as it is, and quirky as it is, it does the job.

And reverse thrust is officially NOT better than airbrakes.  Awesome as it sounds to punch through thick enough air for the engine to breathe, then pop the reverse thrust, it's not... not that effective at slowing the plane down.  Great at slowing the engine down, but not the plane...

Edited by Madrias
Found one of the old config files, it's crazier than I thought.

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On 15 February 2016 at 8:15 PM, Ten Key said:

This was a wonderful way of playing on the "Earthrise" phenomenon. Jeb wasn't the only one having an emotional reaction here-- simply outstanding. 

I remember that. First Flight was so good it finally spurred me to stop lurking and sign up on the forums. If memory serves, the GAB was my very first post.

Thank you KSK, for all the beautiful words. :)

I think it probably was. :) And I'm very glad that First Flight had that effect because that way we all got to read Farlight as well.

Edited by KSK

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Bit of a string o' posts this, I'm afraid but they don't really work as a single longer post.

Madrias - you had me at 'Pull the blue lever and brace for acceleration'! Works very well with your flavour text. :) That last sentence too - I can just picture the look on your pilot's face when he/she tries to use that trick for landing. End of the runway fast approaching, half the airplane dumped on the tarmac about 100 metres back, the rest of it making horrible scraping, grindy noises...

Your MACE does sound different to mine but it sounds like a load of fun to fly too!

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On 9 January 2016 at 11:48 PM, 0111narwhalz said:

Now to find and (mis)interpret all the significant imagery! Let's make a game of it. My go:

Twelve green circles: Kerm cuttings. You can have one seed, and twelve cuttings, otherwise the Kerm at once becomes sentient and goes mad.

Twelve blue(?) lines, meeting in the center: The Twelve Pillars. Not sure 'bout the significance of the meeting. Maybe it symbolizes the Council itself?

That second one is getting pretty close! Just remembered that I never did give the Word of God answer to this, so here goes. From All the Proof They Needed, way back in Part 1:

"Picked out in white and green on a blue background, the flag was a stylised plan view of the Capital building itself. The twelve smaller circles around the centre green circle formed a flower motif symbolising Kerbin and each of the six white bars crossing at the centre of the flower, represented the people of one of its six major regionalities."

To that you could add that each of the bars connects two of the smaller circles, symbolising the ties between kerman and kermol in each Regionality. The more cynical kerbals would also add that the crossed bars are also a rather apt symbol of Governmental departments working at cross-purposes... :) 

On a related note, I've just figured out how the next chapter, Thin Red Line, is going to work. Just need to sit down and write it now.

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On 2/16/2016 at 2:29 PM, KSK said:

*snip*

Your MACE does sound different to mine but it sounds like a load of fun to fly too!

Oh, it's a ton of fun to fly, and there's danger potential at every step of the way now.  Open the throttle too far in the lower atmosphere?  Burn up from frictional heating.  Pull into a climb from high speed?  Snap the wings off.  Forget the engine has a 0.9:2.2 LF:OX reaction in rocket mode? Run out of fuel and burn up on re-entry.  As for fun, it's quite capable of that.  Although Jeb may disagree... I've actually gotten the usually-always-grinning Jeb to scream with this engine, just once, in 1.0.5.  Granted, that was before I detuned the jet thrust because something's wonky with my acceleration and/or altitude curves, because an engine that produces 220kN of thrust somehow ends up making about 400kN in the upper atmosphere...  Detuned for personal balance, though I quite liked the stupidity of an engine that emulates 0.90's Jet-To-Orbit strategy in the new aerodynamics.  I don't want it to be the only engine I use... Well, maybe I do, but for different reasons.  Oh, and if I ever use it in Career mode, I'd say it's kinda balanced there: this monster engine costs 100,000 funds...

Oh, and I've also removed the thrust-reverser.  Not useful at all.  All it's useful for is a self-destruct, which, with such an expensive engine, is a waste.  That, and it always had this sweet spot where it worked, but outside of that spot, it either destroyed the plane or was overwhelmed by forward momentum, just consuming fuel to not really slow down.  Airbrakes work far better.

On 2/16/2016 at 2:39 PM, KSK said:

*snip*

On a related note, I've just figured out how the next chapter, Thin Red Line, is going to work. Just need to sit down and write it now.

That sounds like it's about to get even more interesting...  I can think of many things with a thin red line, and not very many of them are good things...

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Ahh, and finally, I'm all caught up. Once again, KSK, can't say much that hasn't already been said, and your attention to detail re: MACE innards is astounding. 

 

But now I get to jump on the MOAR! Bandwagon too! :D

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:D Thanks!

Next chapter is about 50-60% done I think, but Real Life has been getting in the way of writing, so it's all been a bit slower than I would have liked. I'm on holiday next week though, so hoping to get the time to get it finished up.

This might provide a bit of inspiration too! On the off-chance that anybody else is planning to be there next week, if you spot an older, long-haired, slightly tubby guy in a Gagarin t-shirt*, he's always happy to find somewhere to have a coffee. :) 

* because I'm sure that'll narrow the field right down.

Edited by KSK

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28 minutes ago, KSK said:

:D Thanks!

Next chapter is about 50-60% done I think, but Real Life has been getting in the way of writing, so it's all been a bit slower than I would have liked. I'm on holiday next week though, so hoping to get the time to get it finished up.

This might provide a bit of inspiration too! On the off-chance that anybody else is planning to be there next week, if you spot an older, long-haired, slightly tubby guy in a Gagarin t-shirt*, he's always happy to find somewhere to have a coffee. :) 

* because I'm sure that'll narrow the field right down.

What day?

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Wednesday I believe but I'd need to check.

 

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Well, in that case, look out for a guy who (I'm reliably informed) looks a bit like Harry Potter with a beard and a beer gut wearing a brown leather jacket.

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4 hours ago, JakeGrey said:

Well, in that case, look out for a guy who (I'm reliably informed) looks a bit like Harry Potter with a beard and a beer gut wearing a brown leather jacket.

Wait a sec.... does that mean...

On March 2, 2016 at 4:42 AM, KSK said:

if you spot an older, long-haired, slightly tubby guy in a Gagarin t-shirt*...

* because I'm sure that'll narrow the field right down.

...KSK is Hagrid? :confused:

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Don't know what yeh talkin' about to be honest.

Jake - we can make this happen. Sling me a PM with a contact number if you want something a bit more guaranteed to get that coffee than 'looking out for a brown leather jacket.' :)

 

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A totally excellent day.  Hanging out with Jake - big thanks for making the trip down my friend - that's one afternoon that finished way too soon! Geeking out about spacesuits and Soyuz with one of the museum staff and generally getting to wander around a fantastic space exhibition. Some particular highlights from that:

A very early rocket engine from the days when the Soviet space program was the domain of enthusiastic amateurs and big dreamers. Made from a blowtorch and melted down cutlery and no, I'm not making this up!

Sputnik 3. If you'll forgive the blatant self-reference, I could totally see the KIS knocking something like that together. For that matter, the 'opened up' model of Sputnik 1 bore more than a passing resemblance (completely coincidentally) to the Kerbin 2 satellite.

Lunokhod! I had no idea that this was also intended to be a rescue vehicle for stranded Soviet moon walkers. Problem with the lander? No worries - we'll remote land a backup and send a Lunokhod over to pick up the stranded pilot. Possibly the most kerbal scheme I've ever heard  of!

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Those of you following Beyond The Next Frontier elsewhere on t'internet may also be interested to know that after much debate, and with some reluctance, we both agreed that going with a Nemesis The Warlock crossover would be a bad idea.

I will also create an Imgur album of the many, many pictures I took today as soon as I have the energy.

 

And thank you, KSK. It's the first time I've had a chance to talk about my story ideas face to face for a long time. And next time the first round's on me!

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If I remember right, Wattpad was one of the sites that Jake mentioned. I'll check it out - thanks!

Not sure if folks are going to be relieved or disappointed by this one but here goes with...

A Thin Red Line

It was, reflected Dunney, a great convenience that some of the equipment had been left behind after the latest expansion to the Probodyne facilities. 

A forklift truck rumbled slowly past, deposited its cargo and backed carefully away. Stacks of bricks and timbers sat on wooden pallets under lean-to shelters, their corrugated steel roofs extensively guttered. Other pallets held woven plastic sacks of sand, gravels and assorted other aggregates. Yellow-hatted kerbals squatted by the sacks, checking the labels stencilled on their sides in thick black type. Others were slitting open the sacks, dumping their contents onto shallow steel trays before wheeling them over to a row of heavy, free standing electric kilns.

A buzzer sounded. One of the workers hauled a kiln door open, pulled a tray out on its runners and began shovelling hot gravel into a wheelbarrow. Behind her, pairs of sweating workers loaded new trays into another kiln. Nearby, a row of smoking barrows stood by a pair of portable concrete mixers both resting on heavy weighing platforms. Directed by a clipboard wielding supervisor, a team of kerbals were busily loading the mixers, taking great care to shovel in just the right amount of sand or grit from each barrow.  

Above their heads, a Hope interplanetary probe hung from its towering scaffold, jointed metal legs and folded sample arm looming over them. The last of the array of plateaus, steps and angled ramps used for the drop tests had finally been chipped away and the space beneath the scaffold now resembled nothing more than a kerblet’s sandbox, albeit one large enough to satisfy even the most demanding kerblet. For the moment though, it was empty, with only traces of dark brown grit scattered over the neatly joined boards.

The rumbling, scrape-hissing noise stopped. With an effort, a pair of workers trundled the concrete mixers over to the scaffold and dumped their contents into the sandbox. The dirty gravel bore only a passing resemblance to Dunan soil but Dunney was unconcerned. Good matches on mineral composition, rheology and particle size distribution are all I care about. We can throw some dye in later if we need it to look pretty too. He watched the simulation team spread the heap of gravel into an even layer, one of them walking slowly over it, stopping at regular intervals to jab a slender steel spike into the mix.

Dunney clambered over the newly built brick wall surrounding the scaffold and knelt down beside the sandbox. He scooped up a handful of simulated soil, letting the now cool, dry grains run through his fingers and listening to spadefuls of fresh aggregates thudding into the mixers behind him. Tracing a line in the dirt with one finger, he watched the edges of the shallow groove crumble and subside. Hmmph - doesn’t look too bad. Let’s see how it does on the sample arm tests.

--------

Concrete gushed ponderously around the rebar, between the formwork panels, and over the heavy plastic sheeting that lined the bottom of the shallow, rectangular pond. The thick grey stream quivered jelly-like as it hit the already poured mass, too liquid to stand, too solid to splatter. A gang of kerbals armed with long-bladed spreaders, stood in the wet concrete, shovelling it into place and smoothing off the surface.

Erlin watched them work. Across the field, a group of great domed glasshouses were slowly taking shape, five arranged in a cloverleaf pattern, linked by tubular walkways, three others standing apart from the main complex. Cranes reared up against the skyline, steel girders suspended from lattice-work jibs, poised over the nest of scaffolding that surrounded the glasshouse frames. Construction crews swarmed over the steelwork, bright yellow hats dotted over the structures like clumps of flowers. 

Rows of low-slung, corrugated steel sheds squatted at the edges of the construction site, providing equipment storage and temporary accommodation for the workers. Much of the fresh produce from the Berelgan agricultural research institute had been requisitioned for the on-site canteen and Erlin strongly suspected that the building work had been deliberately timed to coincide with the harvest season for most of their main crops. In the distance, a line of trucks wound slowly along the narrow country road leading to the Berelgan, bringing more construction materials for the Project. 

Somebody coughed politely. Erlin turned to find Halsy accompanied by Gusemy and another kerbal, both very obviously equipped for outdoor work. He clasped Gusemy’s hand briefly in greeting before studying his companion curiously, taking in the shortened grey cloak worn over a heavier jacket. “Erlin. Pleased to meet you, Keeper.”

The stranger nodded. “And you also, Professor. Obrett Kermol, Accident Investigation Department.”

“Obrett and her partner were the reason for my last visit,” said Gusemy. “You remember the village we discussed?”

Erlin’s features clouded over. “All too well,” he replied. “And more often since then than I care to think about.” He dipped his head respectfully. “Forgive me, Keeper, but the Kerm - was it…?”

Obrett shook her head. “We tried,” she said sadly, “but there simply wasn’t enough left to work with, even for our most experienced Keepers. We couldn’t save the new sapling either - we think it was probably weakened by its battle with the older Kerm and by the time we got a team to it, it was beyond their ability to heal. What remains of the Grove is under quarantine - the Department was actually hoping for your advice on how best to reclaim it.”

Erlin lifted his head. “Of course,” he said, “I don’t have any immediate ideas I’m afraid but I’ll put a working group together as soon as we return from Barkton.” He looked at Halsy. “Would you mind?”

Halsy nodded. “I’ll get right on it, boss. Mallas is away until next month and most of Lowig’s group are at that conference. Willin and Lenoly are just back though and I don’t think they have anything else on for a while.”

“They certainly don’t now,” said Erlin. “We can do without Lowig for the moment I think… but we can discuss this later.” He looked at Gusemy. “We do have time for a short tour of the Project before we leave? Not that there’s a great deal to see at the moment.”

“All the better for a short tour then,” said Gusemy. He eyed the cement truck behind them, concrete still pouring from its hose. “It’s a lot bigger than I was expecting for all that."

“It’s bigger than I was expecting,” said Erlin ruefully. He pointed at the glasshouse frames in the distance. “We’d been working on it for quite a while of course - the KSA commissioned the Project after Pioneer 2, as a facility for developing biological life-support systems for long duration spaceflight. Director Lodan carefully avoided saying too much about the flights he had in mind but from the size of the facilities he wanted and the system specifications that he asked for, we had a pretty good idea that we were looking at voyages to Minmus and quite probably a Münbase of some description.”

Erlin gave a short laugh. “Then came Pioneer 4. And Obrick’s Speech. And all the updates to the Project plans.” He flicked his fingers at the construction crews busily levelling the freshly poured concrete. “Welcome to the first of our eventual low pressure laboratories.”

Obrett frowned for a moment and then nodded slowly in understanding. “Yes - and it would make more sense to have two.” 

“A reduced pressure and a low pressure,” agreed Erlin. “Crop plants aren’t going to grow at six percent atmospheric but the lower the pressure we can grow them in, the easier it’s going to be. And if we can get anything to grow at six percent - we’re thinking lichens at the moment -  it’ll be a valuable boost to soil conditioning and nutrient capture.”

Gusemy’s face cleared. “Duna,” he said incredulously, “you’re talking about building a Duna simulator?

“Yes,” said Erlin simply. “Self contained glasshouses - or as near to a glasshouse as we can manage for the low pressure lab. We may have to use artificial light to compensate for the smaller window area, although that might just make for a better mimic of ambient lighting on Duna.” He shrugged. “That’s one of the first things we’ll need to test once it’s built. Anyway, the idea is to have self contained buildings, isolated from the local environment - especially the local soil - that we can use to develop a Dunan agronomy. I suspect the KSA will also want to use it for kerbonaut training at some point.”

“What are you planning to use for soil?” asked Obrett. To her surprise, Erlin just grinned.

“The KSA have got a whole research team mixing up sands and gravels to put under one of their spare space probes. According to Dunney, they’re testing each mix using the same set of tests that they’ve already run on Duna and comparing their results with the data they got from Hope 4. He thinks they should be able to whip up the next best thing to actual Dunan soil at the actual colony site.”

Obrett blinked. “That sounds…feasible,” she admitted. 

Erlin nodded. “Even if Dunney’s crowd don’t get it quite right, it should be a pretty good approximation.” He checked his watch. “Anyway, we’d better get moving if you want to see any of the Project up close before we set off.”

--------

Think that’s about all I can do for now. At least the gingergrass is good for cooking even if it’s not crowding out the damsonwire as well as I’d hoped. Or the wretched knotweed. Seem to spend half my life keeping that under control. The kerbal’s eyes snapped open and automatically turned towards the ceiling, checking for spots on the leaf clusters overhead. Its hands fumbled for the tap on the pedestal in front of it and then, more confidently, reached out for a mug. 

Jonton sipped his water, scratching absently at the ridged weals running across his stomach. He briefly contemplated refilling the mug then, with a sigh, put it back on its shelf. Four mugs a day keeps the green spots away. But they don’t do a thing to balance the pollinator beds. They'd survive for one more day though. Bet the breadfruit fields could use a good working over instead. Hmm - just like the sapwoods needed checking last week. And the leatherbarks the week before that. 

He shook out his branches. Guess I’m starting to run out of excuses and Fred’ll never forgive me if I let the prickleberry season run late again. Reluctantly he let his awareness drift outwards through leaf and root and then down, down through the myriad scented soil. The kerbal's head slumped against its shoulders, eyes closing.

That's odd. Jonton floated amidst the invisible latticework, brushing gently against its strands, letting its forms and patterns come to him, feeling for a balance that already seemed to be there. He shifted, testing the food webs, the scented gossamer threads of prey and predation, nutrients and water; alert to any ragged patches, any unravelling or over-tightening. The pollinators are fine. Better than fine in fact. Maybe I am building that muscle memory because I definitely don't remember doing any of this. 

Carefully, Jonton drew back from the lattice, slipping wraithlike through its nets, then letting them fade into his subconscious. He cast his thoughts back to the breadfruit vines and sapwood trees, to the herbs and newly blossoming sunfruit. Something tugged at a corner of his mind - something about the sapwoods taking longer than usual - but the more he tried to remember, the more his thoughts slipped out of reach. The memories seemed curiously soft somehow, like a half-remembered tale of something else long forgotten.

Jonton shook his head. However I managed it, I certainly made a good job of it. A pity there won't be any silverlace for Joenie's birthday though - I'll have to find something else to show her. His branches rustled in happy anticipation. Which reminds me - I'd better have a look at Gerselle's worm trap.  

--------

Gusemy leaned against the gate and inhaled deeply, letting the mingled scents of leatherbark and sweetleaf fill his lungs. The scene was as idyllic as any on Kerbin, clouds scudding across a clear blue sky, casting dappled shadows on the meadows below. Kermol working the fields, their ponchos distant splashes of brown agains the greenery. Insects dancing in the grass, flitting from flower to flower, their soporific droning a melodic counterpoint to the rustle of branches in the wind.

And none of it made the slightest bit of sense. Least of all the star poppies by his feet.

Gusemy stared at them, curving away into the woods and, he knew, out the other side. Behind him, the trail of scarlet flowers marched unbroken across the landscape, shrinking to a thin red line before vanishing over the next hill. He caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye and looked up to see Erlin and Obrett walking slowly towards him, eyes down, following the line. 

Erlin squatted down, running his fingers over the nearest poppy, tugging gently at it’s petals. Obrett shook her head and joined Gusemy at the fence. She saw his raised eyebrows and spread her hands helplessly. “As far as we can tell, they’re absolutely fine.” She picked at a splinter of wood. “Even the sapwoods - and their surface roots are normally the most vulnerable.”

Erlin straightened up. “I’d want to take samples to be sure,” he said, “but everything looked fine to me too. Trees looked healthy and well cared for, good mix of undergrowth species, no obvious fungal overgrowth, dead spots or insect attackers. No trace of Blight at all in fact."

"We are in the right place aren't we?" said Gusemy. "These are the right woods?"

Obrett nodded. "No question. That new Grove was exactly where we expected from the KSA map. These woods should be dying but it seems that the KSA were right about that as well.

"Jonton," murmured Erlin. He looked at the others politely enquiring expressions. "The Keeper that we're due to visit. According to Lodan - and Kerm knows how he got mixed up in it - Jonton survived a Blight incursion but became 'unusually dependent' on his Kerm in the process." He tapped his fingers against a fencepost. "I got the distinct impression there was more to it than that - and Lodan admitted that that was his impression too but he'd told me everything he knew." 

"Maybe it was bad enough that he managed to persuade his Kerm to pull back from a second battle," mused Obrett. "Drew up a border and agreed to keep out of the other Kerm's way." She saw Erlin's bewildered expression. "I know - it doesn't make any sense to me either. The poppies are at about the right distance from the new village and they'd make a pretty distinctive border from a Kerm's point of view. I just don't understand why Kerm would need such a visual borderline."

"It sounds too good to be true," said Erlin. "We've been searching for a Kerm repellent ever since the first Blight reports - and now it turns out you can just ask them nicely not to fight?"

"Yes," said Gusemy thoughtfully, "And you contacted us before Pioneer 4 and, more to the point, before Obrick's speech. Project Starseed wouldn't be such a priority if we could prevent any further Blight that easily."

"Agreed," said Obrett. "I think there's more to this than we - or Lodan - have been told. I'm very much looking forward to talking to this Jonton."

--------

"I can't see them, Daddy - I can't see the worms!"

"I know, Joenie, I know. Let me think for a minute." Kerm, learning to see again is even harder than learning to not see. Okay, soil and worm trails. Jonton let the earth scents fill his  mind, leaning back into the synaesthesia that he'd taught himself to suppress. Colours bloomed in the darkness; blurred pastel greens, blues and greys rapidly overlaid by a dizzying lace filigree woven from a hundred clashing hues. Hastily he clamped down on his link to Joenie.

"Sorry sweetheart - are you alright?"

"I saw rainbows, Daddy but they're gone now." To Jonton's relief, Joenie's mental voice just sounded disappointed. "Do the worms live under the rainbows?"

"Sort of, Joenie." Right - soil only. Minerals, water, humus. Nothing else. He let the pastels wash over him, struggling to stay focused. Dimly, in the background, he heard ragged breathing, which gradually slowed to a more measured pace. Gathering himself, he opened the link again, feeding a thin trickle of colour along it. "Can you see anything?"

Joenie sounded puzzled. "I can see the sea, Daddy but worms don't live in the sea."

"It does look like the sea," Jonton agreed. Slowly the colours drifted past, blurring and streaking. "Do you remember the little sandpit you made with Mummy last week?" He  sensed Joenie nodding. "Well this is what the sandpit looks like to the tree." He and Joenie floated over a rectangular patch of greenish grey. "Sand looks grey and water looks green. Your sandpit is nice and wet after the rain yesterday, so it turns into that funny greeny-grey colour. Now let's get a bit closer."

Jonton let the rectangular patch swim towards them. Closer up, its edge was ragged, almost frothy, with shades of blue churned up and swirling into the grey-green; here like the foam on the crest of a wave, there like stirred milk, spiralling into a glass of sapwood. Feathery, pastel tunnels insinuated themselves deeper into the sand, twisting and turning for no readily discernible reason. Joenie stared entranced at the patterns. Gently, Jonton steered them towards the nearest tunnel, before checking their slow drift and waiting patiently. Before them, the tip of the tunnel turned blocky, jumping forward into the soil in abrupt fits and starts, grey-greens fading into colourlessness and emerging again, some distance away, all churned up and flecked with blue.

"Why is it going longer, Daddy?"

"Because it's a worm tunnel, sweetheart. Can you see where it changes colour? That's where the worm is - it's eating the sand and mixing it all up before... passing it back out again."

"Where's the worm?" said Joenie, "I wanted to see the worm." 

"I'm afraid the tree can't see the worms," said Jonton gently. "It can only see where they've been, where they've eaten the soil or where they've been talking to each other."

A sudden wave of curiosity washed over the mental link. "What do the worms talk about, Daddy?"

"Mostly about food," said Jonton. "Or sometimes one worm wants another worm to chase it." He sensed Joenie frown as she turned the idea over in her head.

"Do the worms want to play, Daddy? Like when I want Mummy to play chase with me?"

"I think they do, sweetheart. Or maybe they just get lonely and want another worm to keep them company. Shall we see if we can listen to what they're saying?" Jonton felt the link flicker suddenly. "Remember to talk to me please, Joenie. Moving your head too much will pull the leaves out." Carefully he reached out into the sand, straining to find the subtle chemical cues  without letting the great clamour of other signals intrude on his thoughts. Slowly, a string of irregularly shaped amber beads appeared along the worm tunnel, most of them pale and transparent, a few dark and rich where one of his sensory fibres happened to cross the pheromone trail.

"There you go sweetheart. The worm is playing chase - it leaves the yellow beads for the other worms to follow."

Joenie giggled. "I want some yellow beads for Mummy to chase!"

"Well, you'll have to ask her first, " said Jonton. The image of the worm tunnel flickered for an instant. "Hello, love."

"Mummy! Look at the worm talking, Mummy!"

"I can see it, sweetheart but we have to say goodbye to the worm now. It's lunchtime for intrepid explorers and Daddy needs to get ready for his important guests."

--------

Cinnamon. Nowhere near as bad as at that first village but bad enough. Obrett listened to Gerselle with half an ear, staring curiously at the rows of bunk beds as they walked past and into the sleep room. A pleasant-faced if somewhat careworn looking kerbal greeted them from his place by the Kerm trunk, legs and waist mostly hidden by unusually dense foliage. He raised a hand in greeting.

"Everyone, this is my partner, Jonton," said Gerselle, "Jonton, this is Professor Erlin Kerman from the Berelgan Institute, Keeper Obrett Kermol from the Accident Investigation Department..." Jonton looked up sharply as Gerselle continued, "and Ambassador Gusemy Kermol," She looked at Gusemy apologetically, "Although I'm afraid I didn't catch the name of his Grove."

"Welcome to our Grove," said Jonton, "Forgive me for not coming over to join you but I'm rather indisposed at the moment."

Obrett eyed the water stand placed conveniently next to him. Jonton noticed the direction of her gaze and sighed. "We might as well get this over with I suppose. How much have you already been told?"

"That you and your Kerm survived a Blight incursion," said Obrett carefully, "and that you'd become unusually dependent on your Kerm as a result."

Behind her, Gerselle snorted softly. Jonton nodded. "That's one way of putting it," he conceded, "even if it's a little simplified." He twitched his branches to one side and Obrett's eyes widened. Gusemy's jaw dropped for a moment, snapping shut with an audible click. Erlin swallowed hard, staring at the vines wrapped around Jonton's torso and legs. Tentatively, Obrett stepped forward.

"They look like healing vines," she said, voice only betrayed by a faint tremor, "but I've never seen them so developed. Was there an accident?"

Jonton shook his head and Obrett's eyes widened again at the mass of Kerm leaves anchored to his scalp. "Not a physical one, no. The vines attend to my ker... to my needs whilst I remain in Communion."

"You're in Communion now?" said Obrett, "Whilst you're still talking to us?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Jonton, "It's a long story."

"But one we need to hear I think," said Gusemy quietly. "Especially if it concerns the line of star poppies along the edge of your Grove, Keeper."

"It does," said  Jonton, "but please - take a seat. I have water here if anyone needs it." He waited until his visitors were settled before clearing his throat. "Before we start, you should know that the Twelve Pillars - through Chief Ambassador Donman - are already aware of the early parts of this story and have passed judgement on it. You see, it all begins with me breaking the Law of Territory and it doesn't get a great deal better from there." 

Jonton sketched out the struggle against Gerselle's Kerm, watching Obrett wince at his description of the sparks. He described the decision to plant a thirty-eighth Kerm in his Grove, the black leaf spots, the Shattering and it's aftermath. He told his horrified listeners about the melting shards, the beginnings of his slide into madness and eventual decision to go an-Kerm. Gerselle blinked back tears as he described the silverlace, Joenie's birthday and the anchor to kerbal reality that she was to provide. Finally he described the long process of learning to be Kerm, the mass Communions and planting the thin red line.

Gusemy rubbed his eyes. "That," he said, "is a catch and a half." He saw Jonton's raised eyebrow. "Sorry - we were discussing your poppy line before we arrived. It seemed like such an easy solution to the Kerm crisis that we thought there had to be a catch somewhere."

"Jonton," said Erlin. "You deliberately pulled back your territory to give that other Kerm room. I don't suppose you know any way of doing the opposite  - of peacefully repelling a Kerm from your own territory?"

Jonton shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he answered. "Not without causing it permanent damage."

Erlin sighed. "We were beginning to suspect as much," he said. "My team at the Berelgan have been searching for a repellent - something we can use to close-plant Kerm whilst keeping them apart - but without any appreciable luck."

"I'm not sure how much this helps on a Kerbin-wide scale then," said Gusemy. "With respect, Jonton, I think you've been extremely lucky." Jonton nodded in heartfelt agreement as Gusemy ticked off the points on his fingers. "Assuming we could get enough volunteers to try going an-Kerm and even assuming they were all successful, there's a huge moral and ethical issue here." He looked at Jonton. "For a Kerm of thirty-eight trees and one kerbal, you seem remarkably kerbal-like to me. Which makes me wonder what happened to your awakened Kerm personality." Gusemy lifted his hands. "You weren't to know and you did your best, but to even contemplate the possible destruction of nascent Kerm minds on a global scale." Gusemy's voice shook. "Nobody could - or should be forced to - countenance such a solution.

Jonton and Gerselle stared at him bleakly. Erlin was pale. Obrett just looked grim. "That might be an easy choice if it comes to it." She nodded at Jonton and Gerselle. "I've seen the aftermath of Kerm struggles that did not go as well as your own. Better one dead Kerm than two dead Kerm and a pair of insane or dead Keepers."

Erlin swallowed the bile at the back of his throat. "Then let us hope it does not come to it." He cast about for a change of topic. "You told us about learning about your umm, duties, as a Kerm, Jonton. I would very much like to hear about that if you had the time. Kerm micro-ecologies are a study of mine you see - actually being able to discuss them with a Kerm face-to-face would be a tremendous boon."

"And I," added Gusemy, "would be extremely interested in visiting your history of Kerbin if we had the time."

"That's another long story I'm afraid,” said Jonton. “Although you'd be more than welcome to stay the night and sit in with the first group tomorrow."

"First group?" asked Gusemy.

"Yes," said Gerselle, "Somehow, word got around after he shared our history with the rest of the village. Ever since then, we've had a steady stream of visitors hoping to see it too." She pointed at the rows of bunks lining the wall. "We had to make special arrangements."

Gusemy's face cleared. "Ahhh," he said, "I think we spoke to some of them on the way here.  They were looking for the Sage of Barkton - I presume we've just met him?"

Jonton stared at his feet. "Yes," he admitted. He looked up at Erlin. "You wanted to know about being a Kerm? If you don't mind a rather simple example, I could show you that now?" Erlin nodded enthusiastically. "In that case please take a bed and make yourself comfortable," Jonton looked at Gusemy and Obrett, "Please - you're welcome to join us, although I'm sure it'll be nothing new to you, Obrett."

Obrett was the first to lift her head into the leaf cluster above her pillow. Encouraged by her example and by Gerselle's assurances, Erlin and Gusemy followed suit. Even communing with her own Kerm hadn't - couldn't have - prepared her for Communion with two other kerbals by her side and Erlin and Gusemy were thunderstruck. The link wavered, began to fragment, blown this way and that by excited tempests of  thought and spiralling emotional storms. Eventually, aided by Obrett, they were able to form a stable bond and Jonton fed them a first tentative thread of colour.

"As I said, it's a little simplistic," Jonton said apologetically, "but Gerselle and I only intended it as a first lesson for Joenie. Our daughter," he added.

Obrett decided not to comment. What is there to say - I'm communing with two kerbals and some kind of... Kerm, whatever Jonton is now. Communing with children seems almost normal compared to that. She turned her attention back to Jonton, who was describing Joenie's sandpit. For a fleeting second, the landscape around her flickered into a familiar tangle of colour and she sensed Erlin and Gusemy reeling back in shock. The colours blanked out, replaced by a thick scattering of orange droplets.

"Worm pheromones," said Erlin wonderingly. "You know what this means, Gus? With enough time we could unravel everything. Entire micro-ecologies, mapped out to the last detail, ready for us to duplicate on Duna." His voice glowed with enthusiasm. "Experimental ecology - like this sandpit here, with an experimenter who can tell us what's happening in real time! No more clumsy sampling. No more fiddling around with chromatographs!"

"An experimenter who still has an entire Grove to tend," Gusemy reminded him. A wave of awed disbelief rolled through the link. "But still - today we learn that the deepest secrets of the Kerm are ours to decipher. Yesterday we  watched kerbals walking on the Mün. And tomorrow we visit the forgotten depths of our history. We live in an Age of wonders my friends - I only wish it were a more tranquil one."

 

"Imagine how much the kerbals could learn about their history, or their environment! This could be as big a paradigm shift as the day a kerbal sets foot on the Mun."

- JakeGrey.

 

Edited by KSK

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I don't know if it's Imgur or BT Openzone but I cannot get these pictures uploaded for love nor money, so here they are on Dropbox. Of particular note is the prototype rocket motor made from a modified blowtorch (which is now canon for the origins of the LV-1!), the lower half of a space suit that really ought to have been painted green and the infamous Space Toilet.

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Hmm, no activity here in a couple of weeks...

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Edited by CatastrophicFailure
stupid mobile editor don't work...

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:D

Working on it. I got a bit stuck with the next part so I did my usual unblocking trick and skipped ahead a chapter. That one is going OK so far and I plan to spend most of this afternoon on it. Soooo - probably going to be a while before the next update but it'll be a double-bill!  In the meantime, the next two chapters are called (in order):

  • Children of Kerbin
  • Shrinking the Ellipse

Free internet points to anyone who guesses the general theme for either. :) 

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