Chapter 11 Begins With Destruction

(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.



(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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header image credit: user:AndreyС / 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 / 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 / via Pixabay License

Coffee and (Out of) Control (Beta/WIP)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


Anna did not talk to Jaci in the morning. When she awoke, she was alone, and she half wondered if it had all been in her imagination. She swung her feet out of the bunk and sat up, then stood up and stretched her arms over her head. The chamber was sized for Kwakitl, so she had to bend her elbows to keep from smacking the ceiling, but after sleeping curled in the short bunk she needed to get the kinks out of her joints. She ran her hands through her hair, remembering how it had looked in the mirror the previous night, and wondered why the cab’s designers didn’t see fit to put a doorway direct between the dormitory and lavatory. With that thought, she realized that for the first time in a long time she was self-conscious about going out into the main room in a state of just-awakened disarray.

Get over it, Anna. This was ridiculous. She palmed the door open and stepped out to face the others.

Morning sunlight flooded the primary chamber, golden through tinted windows. Laxmi, Jaci, and Ca-Tren sat on couches facing each other, finishing off the remains of a breakfast they had shared. Jaci looked up at Anna’s entrance and smiled.

“Good morning, sunshine!”

Anna grunted a response, not meeting his eye, and shuffled over to look out the windows. “Is there coffee?”


Coffee and Control

(2,189 words; 8 min 45 sec reading time)


It’s no secret Anna likes to be in control of the situation. She’s a pilot, after all; control is central to what she does. She has felt out of control for a while now, however, and her own emotional state is just one more area where this is true. She feels a need to reign things in and get back on track.

But first, she needs coffee. They’ve been relying on emergency ration freeze-dried coffee that is at least three years old, so right about now she would do anything for a decent cup of coffee.

I’m just going to say it, this scene was not easy to write. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been grumbling about it a small bit. But only a small bit. I’ve wanted to write this, I just haven’t known how. That said, however, I’m happy with where it ended up. Have a read, then let me know what you think. Did I handle it well? Do you like where it’s going? Or is it all wrong? Where do you want this to go?

Normally, after six scenes, this would mark a chapter end, but I’m not quite there yet. There’s one scene left in this chapter. What do you think will happen? Pour yourself a cup of coffee, enjoy the scene, and let’s talk.

header image credit: Oleg Gamulinskiy / via Pixabay License

The Climber (Beta/WIP)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)


The terminator, dividing day from night, advanced westward across the oceanic expanse several hundred kilometers below, though from the cab’s altitude the sun continued to shine through the large, curved left-hand window, illuminating the interior. That window automatically dimmed its view, providing relief from the otherwise relentless solar glare, and Anna noted among the console dials she had earlier designated as probable environmental controls that one of them slowly adjusted its color bar in step with the window’s dimming. Satisfied they were not immediately about to die, she turned away from the console.

Ca-Tren remained glued to the view through the windows. Laxmi and Jaci, however, both appeared to have succumbed to exhaustion from their near-constant stress. Each had claimed a lounger and stretched out upon it, sleeping or perhaps just resting. Anna moved to the inner wall of the cabin to investigate the four small doors set into it.

This was the only straight wall inside the cabin. Behind her, the main outer wall curved in nearly a complete semi-circle, closely matching the outer wall beyond of the tubular cable up which they traveled. The inner wall, a bit more than twenty meters wide, bisected the diameter of the cable, or nearly so. The cable was closer to thirty meters in diameter, so Anna figured the cab took up a bit less than half of that cross-section. Perhaps the answer to what took up the remainder would lie behind these doors.


The Climber

(1,915 words; 7 min 39 sec reading time)


Anna has had one hell of a day. In fact, it’s been a hell of a couple months, and she hasn’t had many opportunities for true rest since crash-landing on the planet all those weeks ago. Now she, Laxmi, Jaci, and their Kwakitl friend Ca-Tren are finally on the space elevator, riding the cab — or climber, more accurately — up the cable toward geostationary orbit, and they’ve figured out that the journey is likely to take about five days.

Nothing to do but chill in the meantime, right?

But you know Anna, she can’t rest until she’s investigated her environment, made sure everything’s safe. “Satisfied they were not immediately about to die,” she does finally start to relax, and even let her hair down a little, figuratively speaking. Well, maybe literally speaking; in this scene she gets her first glimpse in a mirror in a very long time.

More to the point, however, with the immediate danger at bay, it’s time for Anna to take stock of her own emotional state. It’s no secret that she and Jaci have been growing closer lately, but circumstances haven’t allowed them much time to explore that, nor even to figure out just how they feel about it. How does Anna feel about that? She isn’t too sure herself.

So, reach back into the climber’s well-stocked bar, pour yourself a cold one, and click that link to find out. Then drop a comment and let me know what you think.

header image credit: Alex Myers / via Pixabay License