(The Silence of Ancient Life, continued)
The blue-green expanse of ocean covered the planetary disc, horizon to horizon, broken only by white wisps of cloud cover and the approaching dark terminator of night. The dissipating cyclone spun its radial ferocity in trailing spirals, peaceful grace from orbit’s distant remove. Where the blue and white of the planet met the blackness of space, a hazy glow hinted at the atmosphere, razor thin from this altitude. For a moment Anna flashed back to her view of this scene upon first arrival, months ago, when all seemed full of promise.
Intermittent bright flashes and sparks interrupted the velvety darkness around the planet, a silent light show of shrapnel collisions against the backdrop of the disintegrating ring station behind her, yet her focus remained on the solitary human figure spinning away toward the distant surface, limbs unmoving. She held on to the small antenna that saved her from a similar fate, legs dangling, her other arm still outstretched toward Jaci in vain, fading hope. Her heart thumped rapidly in her chest, her breath fogged her visor only to have the oxygen flow clear it. She still couldn’t quite believe that he had slipped from her grasp, that he was gone.
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(1,918 words; 7 min 40 sec reading time)
And thus begins Chapter 11 of The Silence of Ancient Light, with dashed dreams and fading hope as disaster unfolds all around. As you’ll recall (spoiler alert! If you haven’t yet read through the previous scene, you must do so before proceeding with this one! Indeed, you should do so before reading further in this blog post), the previous chapter ended with the loss of a major character, and the new chapter begins with our precious few survivors hanging on by the most slender of supports — a bent antenna, anyone?
The shockwave from the severed space elevator cable has arrived at the ring station in orbit, followed closely by the lifting segments of the cable itself. Recall that the cable was severed near its base at the surface of the planet, 41,100 km below the station’s orbital altitude. Approximately 10,000 more km of cable extend farther out from the station, with a counterweight at the top end. That counterweight, with the same radial velocity as the station and the enter cable, is thus orbiting faster than a free object at that altitude would. If the elevator cable were not holding it down, it would spin off to a higher orbit, or perhaps escape the planet’s gravity well entirely. Thus, that centrifugal force on the counterweight’s mass is what holds up the cable, relieving the station of the need to support it. If the cable is no longer tethered at ground level, what happens? We explored this first in my post Is This Plan B? Or Plan C? (Chapter 10 Begins)
The ring station orbiting Kepler 62f once had twelve elevator cables between it and the planet’s surface, set at equidistant intervals around the equator. This was once a society very busy with ground-to-orbit commerce! Today, most of these cables are in disrepair, or in ruins, and parts of the ring station are ruined as well. However, as we know now, at least one still works, or did up until this part of the story.
If the cables are equidistant around the globe, and the station’s geosynchronous altitude is 41,100 km, and the planet’s diameter is 17,862 km, then basic trigonometry tells us that the distance between elevators at the station is 26,196 km. When the severed cable lifts, it doesn’t lift straight up, due essentially to Coriolis forces acting upon its length. Instead, it will tend to precess westward, trailing behind the rotation of both the planet at its base and the station at its top. Hypothetically, if the cable were to precess westward in a straight line, it would impact upon the next cable to the west, most likely severing that one as well. However, its more likely that it will tend to curl up as it lifts, which is not likely to be beneficial to the structural integrity of the carbon nanotube filaments that are its major strength component (carbon nanotubes have amazing longitudinal strength, but could easily be shattered by perpendicular shear forces, which is why the cable has an outer protective shell).
When this curling cable ultimately reaches the station, it likely is no longer a single component, but will already have been shattered into multiple segments. Some of these will fall back to the planet, causing massive damage along the equator (mostly ocean, but certainly tsunamis will result), but others will indeed impact the station for a good portion of its length. Meanwhile, the counterweight is still lifting on the station at the point where the cable meets it, and without the cable providing a downward force, that counterweight will likely pull the station apart, too.
Not a good place to be when it happens. Now imagine having to attempt a rescue in the midst of everything falling apart into millions of razor-sharp fast-moving shards of shrapnel around you.
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(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)
Launching herself across fifty meters of emptiness between two spacecraft without a tether or a mobility pack, in nothing but an environmental suit not quite rated for hard vacuum, struck Anna as perhaps the most foolhardy thing she had ever done in her life. The moment her boots left contact with the surface of the orbital ring station, she knew two things for certain: first, her instructors at the EASEA academy, thirty-five years earlier, would never have sanctioned such a risky maneuver; and second, it was going to work. Her aim was true, and after twisting around her center of gravity she watched the lander’s airlock grow steadily closer between her boots. Roughly a minute later she landed, absorbing the meter per second momentum with her legs, crouching to soften the impact and grasp the airlock handles.
Moments later she had the outer hatch open and pulled herself and Ca-Tren inside. When she secured the hatch and saw the main status indicator switch from red to yellow, with Englese labels clearly explaining the status meanings, Anna first experienced a brief moment of disorientation and finally a sense of coming home, after the past week of interpreting ancient alien control indicators. No more wondering what pressing a certain switch might do or what a blinking light meant; Anna knew these controls as well as she knew the back of her own hand.
Under normal circumstances, re-pressurizing the airlock following an EVA would be an eight-minute procedure, but time was of the essence here, so Anna mashed the big red emergency button with her palm, then held onto the handle to avoid being blown around the small chamber as oxygen and nitrogen rushed in. Forty-five seconds later, the status indicator turned green, and she opened the inner hatch to the warm, familiar glow of lighting designed for human eyes.
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(2,674 words; 10 min 41 sec reading time)
The lander has arrived under autopilot, and salvation lies a mere fifty meters away. One giant leap, but the consequences of missing are severe indeed. Of course, from the snippet above, you already know that Anna makes it, but she needs to do this trip several more times to get all of her crew to safety. Furthermore, time is rapidly running out, as the shockwave from the severed space elevator races up the tether shaft toward the station.
We explore a few concepts related to microgravity in this scene, including momentum and inertia, and Newton’s third law: for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Leap across the void and miss your target by merely an inch, and even if your motion wouldn’t carry you on past (which it would), no amount of reaching or kicking or twisting will move you closer. Without something to push against, if it’s out of reach, you’re toast. An astronaut in free fall can twist and turn herself around her center of gravity, but she cannot otherwise move herself up, down, forward, back, or sideways.
For those of you just now discovering The Silence of Ancient Light, and hopefully inspired to read more, I encourage you to click that link for an overview that includes links to all the individual chapters and scenes published so far. Each scene also includes links to the scene before and after, so it’s easy to read through without having to return to the table of contents. This is still a work in progress, of course, an unfinished first draft, but I assure you that we are now in the third act, rapidly approaching the dramatic climax, so (hopefully) you will not have to wait too much longer for the exciting conclusion! Also, as it is a first draft, please feel free to comment and critique the work as a beta reader, if you are so moved. Or, if you prefer, just enjoy the story as it is, knowing you are getting a sneak peek before final publication of the finished product.
And don’t forget to hit that Follow button! I promise I will not divulge your email address to another soul, I am not in the business of selling contact lists to anyone, and I will not spam you; it is merely used so that you can receive a notification whenever I post something new, and you can opt out at any time. And, sadly, I don’t post nearly often enough, so you are not likely to be overwhelmed by emails.
(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)
“Laxmi, Jaci, come in.”
“Laxmi here. Go ahead, Anna.”
“I’ve identified our exit. I’m coming back. Time is tight, so get Jaci suited up and have him ready to go as soon as I get the door open. It’s a bit of a narrow squeeze, and we need to be sure he can fit.”
Anna slipped through the broken window out of the sunlight and back into the darkened station. She kicked over to the door through which she had entered, closed it behind herself, and then across the empty gate lounge to the agent’s console. Silent alarms continued to strobe red throughout the otherwise dim room. On the console she tapped at the alien icons, cursing silently when she found herself in incorrect menus, but after a couple false starts was able to retrace the steps to the room’s environmental controls. A few minutes later the sound of the klaxons accompanying the alarms reached her, quiet but steadily gaining volume, as air began to fill the space.
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(1,818 words; 7 min 16 sec reading time)
Anna has found a way for them out of the orbital ring station, but it involves using an entire room as a makeshift airlock — which takes time to evacuate and then refill with air each time — and climbing carefully out of a meteorite-shattered window, past possibly sharp edges just waiting to tear a hole in a spacesuit, into the void of space. Then what? The lander is on its way, but it cannot dock with the station. How close can Anna remotely navigate it to their location, using a handheld tablet computer with a rapidly failing battery? Will they be able to step across the gap, or will they need to take a leap of faith, trusting their aim as they launch themselves toward salvation without any safeties? Off by just a degree, and they will continue into the void without hope of any rescue, an endless jump into oblivion.
And, because they only have two flimsy spacesuits for the four of them, Anna will need to make this leap five times, bringing the extra spacesuit back for the next member of her crew each time.
Meanwhile, the tether cable of the space elevator, severed at its base, continues its relentless curl up toward their location in orbit, threatening at a minimum severe damage to the station around them, if not smashing it to bits. It’s unclear how much longer they have before the first shockwave reaches them.
Will they make it?
On another note, this scene marks more than 100,000 words written so far for The Silence of Ancient Light. To think, when I started this adventure, I thought it would be a short story, or perhaps a novella at best!
(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)
Small wonder the room was devoid of air. The chamber clearly had been meant as some sort of view lounge, with larger than usual windows providing unparalleled views outside the station, but those windows had shattered in some micrometeorite collision long before, perhaps hundreds of years before Anna set foot inside. As she floated deeper into the room, glints of reflected light sparkled from chunks and beads of polycarbonate embedded in the interior wall opposite the windows, providing a clue as to the force with which the collision must have occurred. Similar windows manufactured for use on human spacecraft could easily withstand the impact of a bullet fired from a handgun, but even the most powerful rifles achieved muzzle velocities less than half this station’s speed as it orbited the planet. Over a thousand years earlier, Anna recalled, there had been a shooting war around these parts. How many spent bullets and projectiles from that conflict remained in orbit, speeding endlessly around the planet, until eventually they met up with some other object speeding the other way, such as this station window? After all this time, would their orbits have decayed enough to sink down toward the planet? At forty-thousand kilometers altitude, there was no atmospheric drag to slow them down.
Could a stray thousand-year-old bullet have been what hit the shuttle? Or Tak, all those months ago?
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(1,254 words; 5 min reading time)
Are you a fan of The Expanse? Of course you are, silly question. Obviously, so am I. But one question that I had, repeatedly, while reading the books and perhaps even more especially while watching the show, had to do with all those PDC rounds fired off by the Rocinante and other warships. You recall the Point Defense Cannons, firing 40mm armor-piercing slugs at a rate of thousands of rounds per minute per gun in efforts to shoot down incoming torpedoes and missiles. Each ship might sport dozens of such guns, computer-controlled, all firing at once to lay down a “curtain of steel.”
That’s a lot of steel slugs, all expelled with a muzzle velocity that is probably close to 2,000 m/s, fired off in all sorts of directions. To say nothing of the railgun rounds, heavier tungsten slugs expelled at much higher velocities, though not in as great quantities. And most of those PDC rounds don’t actually hit any targets, since their design is more about filling space with steel.
So what happens to the expended rounds?
Basic Newtonian physics tells us that in a vacuum those slugs will continue their momentum essentially forever, or until they finally do come up against some other object, such as an asteroid or moon, not to mention a satellite or spacecraft that is unlucky enough to be on a crossing trajectory at the wrong moment. At 2,000 m/s, plus whatever velocity the ship had at the moment of firing (depending upon the gun angle relative to the ship’s vector), the rounds don’t have enough momentum to escape the Solar System, so they aren’t flying off into interstellar space.
No, instead, they’re basically orbiting the Sun forever, until they happen to pass close enough to some larger body with a gravity well, such as a planet, at which point they either are captured into orbit around the planet or burn up in its atmosphere.
Space is big, as Douglas Adams once said. Really, really big. And it’s mostly empty. So, we can take our chances and just assume that the odds of one of those spent slugs crossing our path are very low. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of these slugs flying around in this scenario, on essentially unpredictable paths.
No doubt it will become someone’s job to chart those paths, and some agency’s mission to publish notices of hazards to spacefarers.
Now imagine this shooting war all happened in orbit around a planet, as opposed to somewhere out there in interplanetary space. Again, hundreds of thousands of rounds fired from ships that are already traveling 3,000 m/s themselves, because that’s their orbital speed. Depending upon whether these shots are fired prograde, retrograde, transverse, or otherwise, chances are they won’t stay in the same orbit as the ships that fired them.
But they will stay in orbit.
Oh, some will degrade enough to be caught in the atmosphere, and none of them are going to make it to the ground. But none of them are likely to escape the planet’s sphere of influence, either, so they may be in equatorial or polar orbits, they may be in higher or lower orbits, their orbits may be highly eccentric, but they will be in orbit.
And they will still be there a thousand years later, when some unsuspecting astronaut comes along to investigate the sad ruins of an ancient space station, a relic of that forgotten war.