Time to Make a Precarious Exit

(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.


A Precarious Exit

(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!

header image credit: Edvin Richardson / pexels.com via Pexels License

Of Torchships and Compartmentalized Hearts

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


“Won’t it take hours to effect an orbital change and advance to our position?”

“Normally, yes, that would be the case. With the shuttle, that’s what we would have to do, firing thrusters retrograde to push down to a faster orbit and get ahead of us, then firing again prograde to lift the orbit and let us catch up to the shuttle. That would easily be a two-day maneuver, although in an extreme case we could push all the way down to the Karmann line and back up, and maybe it could be done in a few hours, at a huge cost in fuel the shuttle just didn’t have.”

“We don’t have a few hours.”

“No. But the lander, of course, has an engine designed for descending to the surface of a high-G world and then lifting back up to orbit again, with a fuel tank to match. The lithium saltwater fusion engine has more than enough thrust and specific impulse for a brachistochrone trajectory straight to our position, and we’ll still have fuel to spare afterwards.”


“Think straight-line. With enough thrust…”



(1,810 words; 7 min 14 sec reading time)


An engine designed for descending to the surface of a high-G world and then lifting back up to orbit again. A lithium saltwater rocket with enough thrust to accelerate quickly and enough specific impulse to keep on burning for some serious delta-V. Brachistochrone trajectories capable of ignoring orbital dynamics and just powering on through to where you want to go.

In other words, a torchship to make even Robert A Heinlein proud!

This really is the only way to get quickly from one part of a high orbit to another location on that high orbit that is 22,000 kilometers away without taking multiple days (multiple orbits) to get there. And to do it, you need either a ton (or, many tons) of fuel, or a very efficient engine. You need that unicorn of space drives, an engine that shift gears between high thrust and high specific impulse, two attributes that normally are exclusive of each other.

And there is a design out there to do this. The only problem today is that we haven’t quite mastered the trick of running a nuclear fusion reactor, which is the key component we need for this.

I’m going to talk a great deal more about this in a future blog post, very soon, but right now I’m very excited to present to you the next installment in the saga of our hapless heroes, The Silence of Ancient Light. You’ll recall that when last we saw our friends, Anna, Laxmi, Jaci, and Ca-Tren, they were stuck in an abandoned alien space station with no obvious way to get out, and with less than two hours before imminent destruction in the form of a severed space elevator cable would smash their part of the station into tiny bits.

Not good.

But you’ll recall that Anna, after all this time, finally found a way to connect Jaci’s handheld tablet computer to the alien station’s radio broadcast network, and from there create a digital connection to their faraway spaceship. What can she do with such a connection?

You’ll need to read on, of course, to find out, but my earlier comments are surely a big hint.

I’ll warn you now, there’s an emotional component to this scene that you may not expect. Jaci is going to reveal something…

But read on to find out!

header image credit: Ioulou Nash / pixabay.com under Pixabay License

What Frequency Do We Need?

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


“It’s not a Fourier transform! Or, not a straight-up one, anyway. I think we’re looking at a Hartley modulator circuit, and if I apply the Hilbert variant on the Fourier… Damn, no one has used that for years, does this app even have that function?”

“A Hartley modulator what?”

“I should have known when I saw the phase-shifted single-sideband signal with its own inverse! It’s a technique for radio broadcasting that was popular a couple-hundred years ago, and for a while it was popular with early digital signal processors, but those processors became obsolete a long time ago, somewhere around the turn of the millennium. We learned about this in…”

Anna trailed off as she madly tapped and swiped at options on the tablet. Laxmi looked at Jaci.

“Do you have any idea what she just said?”

“Nope, but I like her enthusiasm. I say we let her run with it and see what happens. I mean, we’re all probably gonna die anyway, right?”


Radio Frequency

(2,683 words; 10 min 43 sec reading time)


Would you know how to quickly hack into a WiFi network if your life depended upon it? What about if the WiFi signal not only didn’t use any encryption algorithm you’d ever heard of, but it was broadcast on a wholly different frequency band, using an unknown method of encoding digital data into a radio signal, and even if you can decode the signal, it’s based upon a language never spoken or written on Earth?

In other words, you’ve detected an alien radio network, but you cannot understand the nature of the information it is broadcasting, and yet you have about half an hour to figure out how to connect your handheld tablet computer to it and use it to send a signal. If you don’t manage this impossible task, you and your friends are all going to die.

No pressure, in other words.

The good news is that radio technology is ultimately based upon mathematics, and while the terminology and symbols may be different, the fundamental rules still apply. The aliens might not call it single sideband (SSB), but doubtless they too figured out this more efficient method of transmitting information over great distances with less power and bandwidth consumption. And while Fourier, Hilbert, and Hartley were all pioneers of mathematics and radio signal processing on Earth, the mathematical discoveries they made are likely to have been independently made by alien mathematicians and engineers as well.

It’s still probably a stretch to decode and tap into the signal in just half an hour, I admit. However, when the alternative is being blasted into the vacuum of space, there is quite the motivation!

Yes, I know, I greatly oversimplified things in this scene, and I threw a lot of technical terms around and probably badly mangled how all this works, but I hope you will forgive me and enjoy it regardless. Please give it a read and let me know what you think!

header image credit: user:WikiImages / pixabay.com via Pixabay License

Is This Plan B? Or Plan C? (Chapter 10 Begins)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


Beyond the open door, intermittent lights flickered on after a moment to break the darkness, revealing an ovoid chamber a bit less than ten meters deep. Most of the chamber remained dark, and when most of the lights that hadn’t failed switched from their initial white to red, the chamber appeared darker still. Poles, spaced a few meters apart, extended from ceiling to floor. Set into the middle of the floor, a round window provided some extra illumination, sunlight reflected from the planet far below. Panels of controls and indicators lined the walls, many of them with circular gauges flashing maroon colors.

An alarm klaxon, accompanied by a red light flashing on and off in one-second intervals, sounded from deeper within the chamber, slightly offset from the alarm still sounding within the cab, creating an unsettling echo effect. More alarms sounded from further away, through open hatchways at either end of the chamber, deepening the insistent reverberation.

The hiss of moving air, pumped into the chamber from vents in the walls, underlay the alarm, though not competing with it for volume. That was the sound Anna heard when the door first opened, she realized, that and equalizing pressure between the cab and the station chamber. Nevertheless, it took a few moments more for her heart rate to settle back to a normal rhythm even after she realized they were not all about to be sucked out into space or suffocated in a vacuum.


Plan B

(2,159 words; 8 min 38 sec reading time)


Chapter 10 begins!

Yes, we last left you with quite the cliffhanger. You thought they were all going to perish with silent screams into the vacuum of space, didn’t you? Well, probably you didn’t think that, because it would bring the story to quite the sudden end, and I’m sure it’s clear that we aren’t finished yet. There’s still time to get sucked out into space, though, but not quite yet.

You’ll note that the last scene ended with the explosive severing of the space elevator’s tether cable at the ground station. Since I posted that scene, of course, the new Apple TV+ show Foundation, based upon the seminal works by Isaac Asimov, premiered, and the pilot episode…

SPOILER ALERT! I’m about to discuss a very popular streaming show that has only recently aired, so if you have not yet watched it, and you plan to, I suggest you go and do so before continuing with this blog post!

The pilot episode also ends with the explosive severing of a space elevator tether cable, albeit at the top, near the orbiting space station level, not at the ground. I swear I had not seen this episode before writing my scene! Indeed, this particular dramatic event has been planned almost from the beginning of writing this story, a few years ago. And in any case, neither I nor Foundation can claim to be the first nor only fictional telling of a space elevator coming to such a dramatic demise.

In Foundation‘s episode, since the cut occurs near the top of the tether, at the geosynchronous orbit level, the tether falls back down to the planet (Trantor, in that case). We aren’t told how high up in orbit the station is, nor how large of a planet Trantor is (though we are told that it’s in fact a shell world, with many layers down in which people live, which is a fascinating concept I’ve seen explored in a few other places as well). However, we know from calculations that the station must be at or near geosynchronous height, and if Trantor has a density and mass anything like Earth’s, then that height is probably not too far off from the circumference of the planet.

In other words, as the tether falls, if it doesn’t burn up during atmospheric reentry, it will wrap itself completely around the planet, along the equator, causing massive damage as it does so. And, this is what we see happening, or at least what we are told happens.

Foundation got that right!

That’s not to say there aren’t other errors in the depiction. We don’t see evidence of a counterweight (with additional tether) extending beyond the station’s orbit, though to be clear I’m not sure it’s ruled out, either. Also, during the ride down the tether in the cab, we’re told the journey will take something like fourteen hours (I may have misremembered), which would mean it’s a very fast cab indeed. That’s not impossible, especially for a highly advanced civilization, of course, but a multi-day journey is likely more practical.

What else did they get right? The depiction of the planet from the orbiting station is spot on. Geosynchronous orbit is very high up, and from that altitude the planet is not going to loom close the way we see in images of Earth from the ISS. It will seem quite a bit smaller and farther away, though not as small and far as Earth seems in pictures taken during the Apollo missions to the Moon. As near as I can tell, it will look pretty much as Foundation depicts, so kudos to them for that, too!

Ok, enough blathering on about someone else’s story, for all it has that one similar element to my own. What is different here?

The tether from Kepler 62f is severed at the base, near ground level, not at the top. How will this change the outcome? In this case, the centrifugal force of the counterweight, which is a massive rock on its own tether about another 10,000 kilometers above the ring station, will exert an upward force on the entire tether, lifting it up out of the atmosphere, and at a minimum to a higher orbit, if not more. Needless to say, this is going to exert some significant shear forces upon the ring station itself.

Anna has already figured this out. She’s pretty sure the event will not be survivable. It’s time to evacuate, and quickly.

How quickly? Why doesn’t the break in the tether cause an immediate impact to the station?

The tether is under tension, and the break causes a shockwave of untensioning. That shock is going to travel its length, but it’s not instantaneous. In fact, much like the crack of a whip, the shockwave travels through the tether at the speed of sound, but more precisely, the speed of sound through the material of the tether. If the tether was made of steel, that would be about 5 kilometers per second (faster than through air), but the tether isn’t made of steel. The core is made of some sort of carbon nanotube, and surrounding that is a sheath of polycarbonate and composite materials, in efforts to provide lateral strength while maintaining low mass.

So how long before the shockwave hits the station? Anna makes a guess, but it’s only a guess. Our heroes have a small window of opportunity to escape, but they aren’t sure how small the window is, and furthermore, the means of escape appear to be very few. They don’t have any good options.

Read on, my friends, and find out what options they do have.

header image credit: user:WikiImages / pixabay.com via Pixabay License

Are We There Yet? (Arrival, Interrupted)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


Three plumes of rocket exhaust arced upward from the surface, through and above the clouds. Two of those plumes terminated in bright flares of booster engines lifting toward space, bright even against the daytime blue of the planet’s vast ocean. The third plume, already shredded and dissipating in the ferocious winds, lifted out of the hurricane itself, but instead of arcing toward space it veered below their view, toward the island and the cable. They could not see the cable itself, but they didn’t need to in order to know the rocket had crashed. An expanding mushroom cloud, torn ragged by the massive storm yet flaring with angry reds, oranges, and blacks, swirled around where the cable should be. Even from their great altitude, they could see lightning flashes of electromagnetic discharge within the churning smoke and ash.

Read more, including how we got to this point, at

Arrival, Interrupted

(1,817 words; 7 min 16 sec reading time)


If you click that link, you’ll immediately note that the text above is not how the scene opens, but rather it appears later. But it makes a decent hook doesn’t it? Action! Excitement! Danger!

Several things are happening here. Obviously, for those who are reading through from the prior scenes, Anna’s relationship with Jaci is developing, and yes, we’ll deal with that. Equally obviously, they’ve been ascending the space elevator for a while now, and they’re due to arrive at the orbital ring station. Does this scene’s title give it away that this is going to happen? Or, is there an interruption? Ok, this is at heart an action story, so there’s going to be drama that interferes with our heroes’ smooth plans. And what’s with those rocket plumes and that mushroom cloud? Is that going to be a problem?

Perhaps more important, how many of you noticed that it has only been two days since I posted the previous scene? Yes, that’s right, this scene nearly wrote itself in rapid fashion. I hope you find it as engrossing to read as I did to write.

This scene is also the final one for Chapter 9. You know what that means, don’t you? If not, or even if you do, you’ll just have to read it to find out, so click that link!

header image credit: user:JCK5D / pixabay.com via Pixabay License