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Aurelius

Aberrant: Infinite Earth - Cosmos Nova - Ice Giants [Complete]

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((OOC Note: Although the first two posts in this fiction are technically discussing the time between the two fictions, Ice Giants officially picks up one year, ten months, and seven days after Cold Jupiter left off.))

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My flight from Tyche to the outermost edges of the solar system (as measured by Neptune’s orbit) winds up taking me only 5.8102 x 107 seconds, which OK, yes, that’s a long time, but I think anyone would agree that it’s a significant improvement over 7.0186 x 107 seconds. More than four month’s worth of improvement, in point of fact. Needless to say, my average acceleration has gotten better during my travels.

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By the time I reach the last few hundred thousand kilometers of the roughly fifteen thousand astronomical units I must cross in order to reach my destination, my average acceleration over the entire length of the journey has reached a whopping 2.651 m/s2, which is only around 27% of one standard gravity. This is still only my average acceleration, however. My actual acceleration by this point is 17.6667 m/s2, which is pretty nearly two full g’s of thrust. There are two reasons for the discrepancy between my actual and my average acceleration.

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The first reason is that, aside from a few semi-fantastical exceptions that are still not out of the “really neat idea” phase, let alone the design phase, there are no propellants or engines in existence that can maintain constant acceleration, over a scale of years, larger than a very small fraction of a meter per second squared. My own ability to propel myself through space is no exception. At “full burn”, I can maintain constant acceleration for approximately sixty-six hundred seconds at a time before I’m “all out of juice”, so to speak; if I take it easy and go at half-strength or less, the span of time over which I can maintain constant acceleration increases in inverse proportion.

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Usually I just go full-burn until I’m all worn out, though, because something I’ve gotten even better at than generating thrust or listening for radio signals is regenerating my power levels (or battery charge or whatever it is that keeps us novas going). It generally takes me less than fifteen thousand seconds to regenerate fully, so I can typically manage slightly more than four full-burn sessions per twenty-four hour period. The actual percentage works out to pretty nearly 30% of every day that I can spend at full-burn, which in turn works out to roughly 30% of each week or month or year. And 30% of 17.6667 m/s2 is 5.3001 m/s2, which in turn is my maximum average acceleration.

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I’m sure it’s readily apparent to anyone, but this is exactly twice the acceleration I quoted above as being my overall average, which brings me to the second reason for the discrepancy between that number and my actual acceleration. I know I’ve covered this before, but it’s worth going over again: in space, once an object is in motion it will remain that way until acted upon by an outside force. What this means in practical terms for me is that, unless I want to crash into another moon while traveling at several kilometers a second (or actually, a whole hell of a lot faster than that, given how long I would’ve been accelerating by this point), I have to start DE-celerating at about the halfway point of my journey. In essence, I must spend the first half of my journey building up speed and the second half shedding it all. The net result, from a mathematical perspective, is that my effective average acceleration over the entirety of my journey can be no faster than one-half of my maximum average acceleration. And one-half of 5.3001 m/s2 is 2.651 m/s2.

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And there you go: basic astrodynamics. Bet you feel smarter already.

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Something that really confuses me for a kind a long while is that my trip seems to be taking even less time than it should, even if I account for the steady increase in my average acceleration. The difference isn’t huge – especially not at first – but the discrepancy gets worse over time until I just can’t ignore it. After a while, though, I figure it out: time dilation.

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By the time I reach the midpoint of my journey and have to turn it around and start shedding speed I’m travelling at fully seventy-six thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seven kilometers per second (that’s just shy of seventy-seven kilometers for every one-thousandth of a second, for those keeping score). A different way to say it is that I’m moving at exactly 25.68% of the speed of light. Of course, my average speed over the entire trip works out to only 12.84% of light speed, but that’s still really fast. Fast enough, in fact, for relativistic time dilation to begin to matter.

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Overall, the net effect of the relativistic time dilation between my own frame of reference and any stationary observer is about 0.008 seconds per second. That probably doesn’t seem like much, but it starts to add up after fifty-eight million seconds. As a result, to me the entire trip winds up seeming as though it’s taken 5.762 x 107 seconds, rather than the 5.8102 x 107 seconds that it seems like it should have (and that it did take, from the frame of reference of any hypothetical earth-bound observer who might’ve been watching me during my travels). Again, the difference isn’t large, but it’s still strange to think that I’ve effectively moved more than five whole days into the rest of the human race’s future.

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I realize very early on in my twenty-two month journey that my path to earth puts me on an almost straight line to Neptune and, after not very much deliberation, I decide to make a detour there. The necessary course adjustments for this are small: at its current location along its orbit, Neptune is a little less than 1.5 million kilometers shy of thirty astronomical units away from the sun, but that’s almost nothing when measured against the nearly fifteen thousand astronomical units I will have traveled by the time I get there. I have to put on the brakes just slightly earlier than I would have otherwise, but it’s really not a big deal.

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Time, as you might imagine, passes slowly (even with the time dilation). I listen regularly to intercepted transmissions from earth, of course, but even this becomes tedious and dull after a while. Soon, I’m listening primarily for informational reasons, rather than for any sense of comfort or entertainment it might once have brought me. I also spend a lot of time watching and observing.

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Tyche is positioned towards the outer edge of the “inner” Oort cloud, and so it follows that the majority of my journey takes me through the Oort cloud itself. Now, it isn’t as though there are asteroids blocking my path every third gigameter or anything like that (it isn’t called “space” for nothing, after all), but there are asteroids between me and my objective and I really do not want to find out what it’s like to run into one of them while traveling at relativistic speeds. So, needless to say, I spend a lot of time and effort maintaining a watch for any asteroids that might pose a collision hazard.

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This is even harder to do than it probably sounds. Aside from the fact that it’s hard to keep an eye out for much of anything when you’re moving at a significant fraction of c, the thing about asteroids is that they’re extremely small (on an astronomical scale) and most of them are incredibly dim as well. My remote-sensing ability, I’ve found, has a hard time ‘spotting’ anything less massive than a small moon, and most asteroids are less than one kilometer on a side. Eventually I develop a technique for simply picking a route and scanning for anything that’s sitting in the middle of it, period, never mind what it is or any other particular details about it. Using my remote-sensing abilities as thousand-AU long ‘feelers’ seems to work a lot better than trying to perform a detailed scan of every chunk of space dust between me and my destination. And of course I use my eyes, which seem to become more acute all the time. In the end, I never come closer than several million kilometers to any of the Oort or Kuiper belt asteroids.

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It’s as I’m passing relatively near to one of these asteroids that I first begin to get an indication of how massive my post-human nova body is. When I was in orbit around Tyche its powerful gravity well must’ve been drowning everything else out, because I never noticed it there, but out here in the void between planets it slowly becomes obvious to me that I’m carrying around a measurable gravity field with me – which seems kind of impossible. Sure, technically, everything has its own gravitational field that attracts everything else, but anything smaller than a kilometer or so in diameter has a gravitational attraction that’s so weak it’s hardly worth noticing. On the other hand, the field I seem to be generating is significantly more than ten orders of magnitude greater than anything a normal human would be generating. I remember enough Newtonian physics to run some calculations based on my observations, but the numbers I come up with don’t make sense. Trillions of kilograms worth of mass shouldn’t be able to fit into a human-sized form.

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That’s another thing: my memory is really good now, and even the biggest numbers don’t seem to give me much trouble anymore. I’ve got a background in engineering, but I’m no physicist and I’m certainly no expert on astrodynamics, rocket science, or Newtonian or Einsteinian physics, and yet I feel like I’m doing pretty well in all of these fields, and a couple of others besides, due solely to the fact that I can clearly remember everything I’ve ever heard or read about the math and science underlying these fields. Coupled with my post-nova affinity for very complicated mathematical calculations, I find I myself able to calculate things like how many Newtons of force I’m exerting on that asteroid over there, thirteen million kilometers and some change off my two o-clock. Too weird.

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I’m not going to lie: leaving Tyche behind me felt really good. That place had begun to feel like a prison I’d been consigned to as a punishment for making such a mess of things during my eruption as a nova. Flying out of its gravity well felt like emancipation.

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Reaching Neptune – technically just another gas giant not all that much different from Tyche – feels incredible, on the other hand. For one thing, it marks the point where I officially return to my own solar system, and after being gone so long that alone is a pretty amazing feeling. For another, I got to Neptune on my own power, using my own skill and ingenuity, so instead of feeling like a punishment it feels like a true accomplishment. Plus, it’s Neptune. And it is gorgeous.

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I spend probably longer than I should just floating over Neptune’s methane-blue cloud layers, staring down into its opaque depths and examining it inside and out using senses I wasn’t born with. I completely lack the science to explain what I learn, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. The upper atmosphere is about what you’d expect: hydrogen and helium, mostly, with condensed methane clouds floating here and there, along with some ammonia much lower down. Below that, though, the hydrogen and helium give way to increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia, and finally water. I recall having read that Neptune is supposed to have a lot of water in it (it’s one of the main reasons Neptune and Uranus are sometimes called “ice giants”), but I’m still kind of surprised to find so much of it.

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A part of me is tempted to try flying down into that atmosphere. This is something I would never have even thought of trying with Tyche, but a lot of time has passed since then and I’m both faster and stronger, but even more importantly, I'm more confident now than I was then. Still, I stay where I am, mostly because of the Neptunian winds. I’m sure you’ve read about them before, and the accounts do not lie. The slower cloud bands down there are moving at several hundred kilometers an hour; the fastest are moving at over two thousand. Yeah. No thanks.

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There isn’t really any spot where the cloud layer stops; it just reaches a critical point at somewhere around two or three thousand kilometers beneath the topmost cloud layers, and at that point there ceases to be a difference between the clouds above and the liquid below. At the boundary zone, such as it is, the pressure is tens of thousands of times as dense as earth’s (although I don’t realize that at the time, but only after I get back to earth and can get a basis for comparison). It’s incredibly hot that far down too, and it only gets hotter from there.

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Below the critical point, things get weird. The water, ammonia and methane all start doing weird things that I can’t really explain or describe properly. I’d like to get a better handle on materials science at some point and then head back out there – to Neptune and Uranus both (and to Jupiter and Saturn, for that matter) – and take another set of readings, because I really wish I could explain, at least to myself even if not to anyone else, what Neptune tells me about itself as I float just over forty-five thousand kilometers over its surface. I could swear I feel something like diamond rain going on down there, and about eight or nine thousand kilometers deep the water feels like it’s solid and still fluid at the same time - like it's two things at once and something else again. I don't know; like I said, I can't really describe it.

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Further down than that and things get even weirder. I'm not even going to take a stab at explaining it. The core is composed of heavier, “rocky” elements like iron and nickel and stuff, and even though it only constitutes less than 6% of the planet’s total mass it’s still something like 20% more massive than earth. I have to remind myself that this is one of the smaller gas giants in the solar system.

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I spend much less time on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, and no time at all at any of the other moons (which are mostly just big asteroids caught in more or less stable orbits around the gas giant). Next to the majesty of Neptune itself and my mounting desire to continue my trip in-system and reach the planet of my birth, Triton’s frozen surface just isn’t that interesting to me. I float over it long enough to confirm the presence of liquid subterranean oceans beneath its surface, but that’s all.

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Still, the stopover at Neptune has reignited my passion for astronomy and my fascination with the planets that share a solar system with our planet, and now I’m feeling the urge to go exploring. A quick check tells me that Uranus, the next planet in, is only 18.12 astronomical units away from where I am now, though it’s also a bit out of the way (from where I’m standing on Triton’s surface, Earth is pretty much directly underneath the constellation of Leo, whereas Uranus is hovering off to my right, over Orion). I do some calculations and figure that a stopover there would add about 8.6 astronomical units to the trip distance between Neptune and the Earth, which is equivalent to about eight extra days of travel time at my current rate of speed. That’s not nothing, but bear in mind that I’ve just completed a journey of nearly six hundred and sixty-seven days just to get this far; eight more days seems like a small price to pay to see yet another planet that’s never be seen before by human eyes (and ignoring, for the moment, the fact that I’m not strictly speaking human anymore).

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My decision made, I lift away from Triton’s surface and accelerate to escape velocity, setting course for the distant, pale blue dot that is Uranus.

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There’s really not much to tell about my flight from Neptune to Uranus, other than it takes one million, four hundred thirty, two hundred and eighty-seven seconds before I have to start worrying about inserting myself into the seventh planet’s orbit. Which turns out to be waaay more difficult than I’d anticipated. I manage not to crash into anything or, you know, die – but it’s a close thing.

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See, one of the unusual things about Uranus is that it basically sits on its side, relative to every other planet in the system. This means that its orbital plane is pretty nearly 90° off from the plane of the ecliptic, which is what I’m flying in on during my approach to the planet. As a result, orbital insertion winds up being anything but a smooth or gentle process (like it was with Neptune), and there’s a hairy few hundred seconds there where I’m not sure I’m going to pull it off.

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Of course I manage it in the end, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell this story, would I? Once my not-nerves have calmed down a bit (it’s obvious I don’t have anything that could rightly be called a nervous system anymore, but something makes me feel all jangly for a little while), I start to take a look around. Uranus has more moons than Neptune does, and though none of them are as large as Triton, four of them are more than one thousand kilometers in diameter. Also, while Neptune has rings, they’re super-thin and weren’t that much fun to look at; Uranus, on the other hand, has a much more substantial set of rings (I can only imagine what Saturn’s must be like, after seeing these). So there’s lots to see here.

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I won’t mince words, though; Uranus and its moons are nice enough, but in the end I have to say it’s all sort of boring in comparison to Neptune or Tyche (and considering I almost died just getting myself into orbit around it, I’m a little annoyed about this). Uranus is noticeably less dense than Neptune and, perhaps as a result, there’s just less going on inside of it. Don’t get me wrong, what is happening down in its guts is still pretty fascinating and if I didn’t have Tyche or Neptune to compare it to I’d probably be completely amazed by what I’m sensing down there. As it is, though, it all feels a little pedestrian.

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In most respects the gas giant is a near-twin of Neptune, only calmer, sleepier and, as a result, less interesting. There’s a lot of the same complex chemical processes going on down in its guts – most of which I can’t really follow or understand – but there isn’t the… well, I guess you’d call it “weather” that’s present on Neptune. Everything’s placid, and kind of dead, in a way that wasn’t true of Neptune. I don’t like it, I decide.

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Still, I have to admit that this planet would probably make a much better spot for colonization than Neptune would, if and when humanity ever gets around to colonizing this system. Aside from having a tricky orbital insertion problem, Uranus would be much kinder to any colonists who wanted to use it for gas mining or the like than Neptune would. Not that I’ve been there yet, but I can only assume that Jupiter and Saturn would be even worse. Uranus, though, has relatively low wind speeds (though the fastest of them are moving at several hundred kph!), almost no weather to speak of, and “surface” gravity is only about 88% of earth’s. Also, the rings really are pretty cool looking.

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Uranus’s moons would also make excellent spots for colonies and there’s a whole bunch of them. I spend a little bit of time checking out the four largest of them: Oberon, Titania, Umbriel, and Ariel. As in Triton, Oberon and Titania both have subterranean oceans under their surfaces. I wish, looking back, that I’d realized I possess the ability to scan them for life signs (something I never figure out until after I’m back on earth); scientists are always talking about how there might be life in moons like these – although they’re usually talking about Europa when they do – and maybe I could’ve found the first signs of extraterrestrial life if only I’d known what to look for. It makes me want to head back out there some time and take another look.

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In the end, I spend around eighty-six thousand more seconds in orbit over Uranus than I did over Neptune, even if only because I’m determined to make the trip worth it, if for no other reason. But finally I decide it’s time to head out again. My plan – back when I’d first set out from Neptune’s skies – was to hit Uranus and then Jupiter, and maybe even Mars and Venus, before finally returning to earth. I realize now that’s just stupid. Both Jupiter and Mars are farther away from me at this point in their orbits than the Earth is, and Saturn is practically on the opposite side of the sun from where I’m standing on Oberon’s frozen surface. Even if I skipped Jupiter and Saturn and just hit Mars, I’d still be adding at least another week to my travel time before reaching earth.

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Maybe it’s my disappointment that Uranus wasn’t as awesome as Neptune was, but suddenly my “urge to go exploring” is gone and all I want is to get home. I can hardly believe after all this time that I’m so close to the planet of my birth – even though “this close” is more than nineteen astronomical units away in this case. So this time, when I lift away from the surface of the moon I’m standing on, the little blue dot I point myself at as I accelerate to escape velocity is planet Earth.

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