Posted by: Coots, Firewall Proxy <Info Msg Rep>
This guide is for those of you just re-instantiated and still acclimating to offworld living. It represents the accumulated knowledge of each of us that’s fucked something up or seen things get fucked up and added their experience to the collective. It’s been sanitized for op-sec so we can share it without burning anyone, of course, but everything you learn here could be useful to you someday—maybe even today. If you take anything away from this, it’s to always check your assumptions. Even the basic things can trip you up big time if you neglect them.
Phrases like “things are looking up” and “look at the upside” once meant something like “consider the good in the situation,” but they went through an ironic shift in the solar system’s early space-colonial culture, mutating in the microgravity of early tin-can stations to mean a variety of practically sarcastic sentiments, typically something like “be careful” or “let’s be realistic.” The joke (that is, that there is no “upside”) wore off in a hurry, but use it with some original space colonists or old-school veteran habtechs and you might break some ice. Try it sarcastically as a harmless bit of jargon (“look up, at least we’ll die quickly”) or transform it a little (“that bastard’s always looking up”) to fold yourself into a habtech conversation.
Directionality depends entirely on your frame of reference. In microgravity, everything is pretty much arbitrary, especially in interplanetary space. The ﬁrst space stations in orbit around Earth used a coordinate system based on the nadir-zenith axis. Nadir pointed to the Earth, while Zenith pointed out into space. The plane perpendicular to this axis was used to deﬁne “port,” “starboard,” “forward,” and “aft.” Internally, up and down were called “overhead” and “deck” and corresponded to zenith and nadir, respectively.
Current cluster and beehive colonies are much more complicated in geometry than those early tin cans, so most adopt a local x-y-z coordinate axis at the volumetric center and indicate location on a three-dimensional frame. For example, it is common to deﬁne a series of levels (the z axis) and a two-dimensional coordinate grid (the x and y axes) on each level. Within an enclosed volume, “overhead” is in the direction of the “top” level and “deck” is in the direction of the “bottom” level.
Spin-generated artiﬁcial gravity can add an entirely new dimension of complexity to this problem, as points on the internal volume rotate with respect to a ﬁxed observer on the outside. To simplify matters, most stations adopt a locally ﬁxed two-dimensional coordinate system akin to latitude and longitude within the rotating volume. Large habitats, like O'Neill cylinders and Bernal spheres, typically assign an arbitrary North and South aligned with the axis of rotation, with East and West divided up accordingly. “Sub-surface” levels within the rotating structure are treated as if they were on Earth. Some are better organized than others.
Torus stations commonly lay out the volume as if it were “unwrapped” on a planetary surface, with “overhead” pointed towards the rotation axis and “deck” away from the rotation axis. Internally, torus stations function not unlike submarines or subterranean bunkers, depending on how the internal volume is utilized.
For external observers, such as repair crews, a grid coordinate system ﬁxed to the non-rotating structural frame is typically used. For operations involving the exterior of the rotating volume, the direction of rotation is referred to as “spinward” and “anti-spinward” is the opposite. Some torus stations also use the terms “spinward” and “anti-spinward” because they are convenient for their layout.
If any of this is confusing to your ﬂatlander sensibilities, don’t worry, you’ll pick it up quickly. Your muse can handle your direction-ﬁnding and coordinate-mapping anyway, and most stations provide helpful e-tags and AR guides for visitors.
Gravity Transition Zones
The closer you get to the rotation axis, the less simulated gravity there is. Once you get to the very center of the volume, you’re back in micro-g. It’s as simple as that. This can screw with your head, though, if you’re not adapted or properly trained for it. The important thing is to understand what kind of situation you've got, prepare yourself for it mentally, and—pardon the pun—roll with it.
Most large volume habitats have trams or moving rails that control your rate of “descent” into artiﬁcial gravity and help keep you from getting motion sickness. If you’re coming from a counter-spun section that is ﬁxed in microgravity, the “hub” is close to the axis of rotation, so it’s just a matter of ﬂoating to the exchange station and grabbing a handhold or rail when it passes by. The rate of rotation is slow enough that most individuals shouldn't have a problem. If the entire structure rotates with the habitat, the hard work is done for you.
No matter what, be careful about pushing off the walls and getting stuck ﬂoating in the internal atmosphere with no easy way back. Well-managed stations will have someone to come help you, or the natural air ﬂow may eventually push you within reach of something, but there’s not always a guarantee. Rumor has it that a drunk spacer only managed to rescue himself from such a predicament by using his own piss as a propellant.
A centrifuge on a spaceship or a small torus habitat, on the other hand, will require that you traverse a ladder or ride an elevator in the radial direction. The whole structure is moving, so you don’t really have any other options. Unless it’s an emergency, move at your own pace. Go too fast and you’ll make yourself sick as the gravity gradient increases (or vice versa).
Moving in Microgravity
The baseline human body is derived from millions of years of evolution in Earth gravity. Bipedal locomotion gave us the balance of speed, agility, and the ability to look over obstacles that allowed our species to rise to dominance. In microgravity, those advantages are essentially negated. Moving about requires you to change the way you think and train your body to react accordingly. At least we still have that advantage—the adaptability of the transhuman mind.
Newton’s Law reigns supreme up here. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In terms of physics, motion in microgravity is fairly simple. You decide where you want to go, determine the optimal route, and apply the necessary forces in the correct vectors to arrive at your location. Learning to do all that in your head without thinking about it is the hard part.
If you want to get somewhere fast, push off the opposite wall as hard as you can with your arms or legs. Be careful, though, because you’ll have to cancel out that energy at your destination, either through absorbing the impact without rebouncing or a capture device like a rail, handhold, or grapple. You could always make it easy for yourself and obtain personal cold gas jets for reaction control, but true veterans think those are for children, the inﬁrm, or the hopelessly eccentric.
Assuming time is not an issue, the best advice is to take it steady and take it slow. Most habitats in microgravity are adorned on their interiors with rails, handholds, grapple ﬁxtures, and fabric fasteners (like velcro or grip pads). You can use these to traverse the interior with a measure of stability and control while you get your bearings. It is not uncommon for habitats to color code these items as a matter of trafﬁc control and to help maintain orientation. Morphs in a hurry can ﬂy through the center of the volume and are assumed to be capable of navigating themselves. Use your legs for power and your arms for control and course correction to get the best efﬁciency out of your body. If you happen to be in a bouncer morph or have prehensile feet mods, you get the best of both. And if you think bouncers and neo-hominids are wiz for microgravity, try out an octomorph sometime.
Once you feel like you know what you’re doing and any feelings of space motion sickness are gone, ﬁnd a quiet spot with a minimum of protrusions to practice free-ﬂying. Learn how much force you need to apply to move your body and still be able to control your stop. Do this over and over again until it becomes muscle memory. If you need it in an emergency, you won’t have time to think about it. Also, take some time to learn how to recover from a free space—an open volume where you can’t grab or push off something. The ﬁrst time you try this, you’re likely to panic and ﬂail about to no avail. As dumb as you’re going to feel afterwards, that’s your mammalian, 1-g brain reacting naturally to a new situation. Experience that for the ﬁrst time when your survival doesn't depend on it. Once you've calmed down, start using physics to help yourself. If you are in a spin or tumble, extend your arms and legs all the way out. Conservation of momentum will slow you down. Atmospheric drag will begin to slow you down, too. Once you locate the nearest surface or object you can safely grapple, slowly point your body in that direction and do the breaststroke. Use your arms only and be careful to bring your hands back up along your body to reduce any counter-motion. It’s neither pretty nor efficient, but it will get you there if you don’t overexert yourself or help doesn't reach you ﬁrst. If the air is circulating, release a small object to locate the prevailing currents and use them to your beneﬁt. Every little bit can help in this kind of situation.
Up to this point, we've assumed that you’re inside a pressurized volume. In vacuum, your options are even more limited. Without reaction mass or something to push off, you aren't moving. End of story. Safety tethers and emergency gas jet packs with just enough fuel to recover you from a spin and push you back towards your habitat are standard fare, even if you’re traversing in nothing but a soft suit. This is intended to provide you with a proverbial safety net (though some habitats have been known to deploy the real thing) for a minimum amount of mass penalty.
Just remember: it’s all about inertia.
Donning a Spacesuit
You've seen the public-service videos and you've heard the habitat orientation spiel, but it’s worth the refresher. You need to know how to don a spacesuit.
A trainer in Mars orbit used to harangue us with this bit: “We don’t hurry up and put on our spacesuits as fast as we can so that we don’t die,” he’d say. “We don our suits. It’s faster.”
The lesson there is a good one: Get the thing on right and simple. Do it right and you’ll be safe. Do it simple and you’ll be quick. Anything else risks adding unnecessary bullshit to the proceedings. When you need a spacesuit, you want a minimum of bullshit between you and wearing that suit properly.
You want to sound like a spacewalker? You want habtechs and cosmonauts to think you know the ropes? Use that word, don. It’s jargon to them.
Those simple mnemonics they give to kids about spacesuits are good ones. They work and they’re true. “Feet ﬁrst!” says one. “Bottoms up!” goes another. Good advice, there. Or as that old Martian used to put it, your helmet needs something to attach to, so get all your gear on ﬁrst. Otherwise you’re balancing a helmet with one hand and trying to suit up with the other. Your helmet is your reward for proper procedure. Short cuts lead to slow leaks.
Most of the non-combat damage done to spacesuits consists of tiny holes or tears. What do you do if the microhabitat of your spacesuit gets one of these tiny tears? If you've got it, you apply a putty seal straight from the tube. If you don’t, you press down on the tear until your own skin is plugging the hole. If you’re bleeding, coagulating blood is nice and sticky, so let it help seal the tear. The skin that’s exposed to vacuum will hurt like a bitch later, but that is one small price to pay and one giant save for your suit’s resources and your life.
If your spacesuit suffers more catastrophic damage, your number-one concern is containment. A good suit allows you to compartmentalize—sealing off an exposed limb, for example—for the sake of your suit’s life-support systems and your overall survival. If your suit can’t or won’t compartmentalize, then it’s time to talk about handling decompression and exposure to the vacuum of space.
A lot of spacers swear by smart vacsuits—and for good reason. The obvious advantage is that you don’t have to change your kit when you need to take an EVA—you just trigger the smart fabric and whatever outﬁt you’re wearing transforms into a vacsuit. This is especially useful in emergencies. Where it really shines, though, is when something happens that knocks you unconscious. You can set your muse or the smart fabric itself to automatically switch into vacsuit mode if there’s ever a loss or contamination of atmosphere. They call that feature “survival for dummies.”
More than knowing how to don a suit, having an inkling of where you can ﬁnd the nearest suit is even more important. Your muse and/or the habitat’s safety subsystems can point you towards the nearest suits in a ﬁx, but what if you’re stuck in an unfamiliar station that just suffered an environmental failure? The place to look is by the exits. Just about any airlock is going to have a vacsuit closet nearby, and these almost always have emergency access features, even if they’re normally locked and restricted away. Vacsuits used to be tailored to the individual and it was bad form—not to mention kinda gross—to use someone else’s, but these days most suits will mold to ﬁt your body shape and the cleaning systems are good enough that it’s kosher to share. When all else fails, vacsuits tend to be a standard blueprint that comes with almost any fabber for safety reasons, so you can probably print one up if you need to—hopefully you’ll have enough air to wait it out.
How to Handle Decompression
Your spacesuit has snagged and torn on the shrapnel inside a derelict habitat. Some lunatic’s explosive device has breached the hull of your spaceship and you've tumbled out into space. You've been put in an airlock by people who want you dead and soon you’ll be ejected into the black nothing between the stars. Here’s what you do.
Above all, do not hold your breath. The gases in your body expand as they decompress, and if you trap air in your lungs, the soft tissues just tear or rupture as the gases push out against them. Blood vessels in the lungs may burst. Even morphs built with tough lungs are likely to ﬁnd that holding a breath is more painful and no more useful than letting that breath go, so exhale as you decompress. You want your airway to be open so your lungs can vent.
Now that you’re doing the right thing with your lungs, let’s be clear about what decompression is. The dangers of decompression in space are separate from the dangers of exposure to vacuum—separate them in your mind. Decompression is dangerous whether the vacuum of space gets involved or not.
In a “normal” environment, your body operates under the weight of atmosphere pressing down on it. Decompression is a change in the weight pressing down on you. Like releasing your grip on a wad of paper or a plastic bag half-full with water, when the pressure on a morph is released, the morph expands. As internal gases expand, most morphs swell and bloat. This usually looks worse than it is.
The most common form of decompression you’re likely to worry about is the change from roughly one atmosphere—the standard mix of gases that make up a typical habitat’s air, based on old Earth norms—to no atmosphere; the transition from a habitat to open space, in other words. Decompression is also what happens, though, when a diver comes up from underwater. The weight of water and the atmosphere above that water compresses the morph, and deeper dives mean more water and more weight pressing down. A diver coming up from under the Europan ice might have to decompress from multiple atmospheres’ worth of weight, while a spacewalker in an accident only decompresses from one atmosphere to zero. The trick is to decompress slowly for safety. This is why divers come up at a measured rate, to transition through multiple atmospheres worth of pressure gradually.
The risk of decompression sickness—or DCS, what we used to call “the bends”—is that expanding gases will shift around inside your guts. Your gastrointestinal tract expands, your organs get shifted around, your nerves get pressed on. It feels lousy, but in a sturdy body the risks are manageable.
The big risk isn't decompression, but rapid or “explosive” decompression, caused by moving too quickly from one volume of pressure to another. Like, for example, being blown out into space. The sudden expansion of gases in a decompressing morph puts strain on organs and internal systems, causing those soft-tissue tears and possibly shifting guts around in a way that can make it hard to breathe or swallow. Gases can get from the leaking lungs into the delicate blood vessels in the pulmonary tissue and end up as air bubbles in the heart or brain, which can kill even a healthy body.
Explosive decompression doesn't end in a gory whole-body explosion, like you see in vids, but it’s bad. Even in a rugged morph, decompression can cause deep internal damage that’s expensive or impossible to repair.
Something to else to worry about during explosive decompression: the explosive part. Debris is ﬂying, possibly cutting or piercing you. Fog may form as gases under different pressures and temperatures collide, blinding you. Those gases slamming into each other can roar, deafening you. You’ll probably be screaming, which at least means you’re not holding your breath.
The only things you can do during explosive decompression to minimize the damage are exhale slowly, keep your calm, and be lucky. Where your diaphragm is pushed to by expanding gases is really out of your control.
Properly handling decompression is only part of the space-inhabitant’s nightmare scenario, though. If you survive the sudden decompression from one atmosphere, you still have the problem of surviving the lack of any atmosphere at all.
How to Survive in Vacuum
Contrary to the sort of popular rumors that still circulate among the citizens of large and posh stations, where it’s actually possible to be so far removed from the dangers of the vacuum just outside the sky, the vacuum of space doesn't equal the instant death of a fragile biomorph. In some places, habitats are so stable and safe that whole swaths of the population don’t know anyone who has had ﬁrst- or second-hand contact with the vacuum of space. In other stations, superstition and fear simply trump the safety videos and emergency procedures that are normally ubiquitous in modern existence.
You need to be better informed than those people. You need to know what happens (and what to do) if your morph gets dumped into the empty void. First, let’s dispel some rumors. Vacuum doesn't boil your blood or freeze your ﬂesh. The decompression to zero atmospheres doesn't make your body explode—skin is simply tougher than that. The dangers of vacuum are serious but they’re not so grotesque. Vacuum doesn't have a temperature of its own, so space is not really that cold. It’s a great insulator too, meaning that your core body heat doesn't get sucked away. Without an atmosphere to transfer heat away, the risk of exposure is somewhat mitigated. The saliva on your tongue may boil off, as it’s not pressurized like your blood is, and you may get some frost on your skin. Sunburn from direct contact with the sun’s ultraviolet rays is a more immediate danger than perishing from cold. You’ll suffocate long before you freeze.
Your body is swelling during all this, too, pinching nerves and aching like hell, so don’t count on a lot of manual dexterity. If your plan for surviving an unpressurized spacewalk involves working a zipper or most portable electronics, you may be fucked. This is another reason why outer-hull control surfaces tend towards large, highly visible buttons. The most important survival tip for vacuum exposure is not to hold your breath. With no external air pressure, the alveoli holding oxygen in your lungs will burst. This will hurt and may damage your ability to breathe should you get back to an atmosphere. So the very ﬁrst thing you should do is exhale completely and get those gases out of your body. Realistically, rapid decompression is almost more dangerous than vacuum exposure. You may not have enough time to exhale in a sudden blowout, meaning that your lungs and eardrums may burst, your sinuses and soft tissue areas may be ruptured, and you’re more likely to succumb to hypoxia more quickly.
After your body has pumped the last of its oxygenated blood to your brain, you’ll lose consciousness. With the stress of shock and hypoxia that your body is going through, you’ll have only a limited amount of time before you pass out. For ﬂats, this can be as short as 15 seconds. Morphs with basic biomods can retain consciousness for a minute or more. After you lose consciousness, you've got maybe another minute or two in a typical morph before you’re well and truly dying.
The trick, then, to surviving exposure to vacuum is to be rescued. That sounds foolish, but it is vital—plan for rescue. If exposure to vacuum is a foregone conclusion, do what you can to avoid being blown free of the craft or station. You want to be somewhere reachable and not drifting away from rescuers at the speed of a blowout. Call for help and keep transmitting so they can triangulate your location from your signal if need be. Curl up into a fetal position, especially if you’re bouncing around among a cloud of debris. Even if you die, your muse can still help others ﬁnd your body and recover your stack.
Recovery from vacuum exposure can be quick—some rescued subjects spontaneously resume breathing when exposed to atmosphere—with few or no long-lasting side-effects, as long as you minimize lung damage during decompression and are rescued before suffering brain damage from massive oxygen deprivation. If you’re lucky, you’ll pass out in space and wake up in some medical bay somewhere. If not, well you’ll hopefully still wake up in a medical bay, just sleeved in a new morph after they recovered your stack. If they didn't get your stack, well, you had a backup, right?