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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: GRAVITIC SHOCK

PART TWO: ONE SIXTH GEE

The so-called “Cretaceous-Tertiary Event”, put an end to the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. A similar occurrence, a hundred forty million years earlier, the “Permian-Triassic Event”, killed off ninety percent of the planet’s species. There have been perhaps as many as a dozen of these “Extinction Level Events” in the history of the planet.

Human beings are the first species with the ability to understand these events. Since we’re about fifteen million years overdue for another one, we must also become the first with the ability to prevent them.

To establish perspective, the calamity which has brought us here together, the recent, horrific cataclysm in and around Ashland, Ohio—a perfectly natural tragedy that snuffed out fifteen million lives and created a sixth Great Lake in the center of the North American continent—doesn’t even come close to qualifying as one of these events.

—Dr. Evgeny Zacharenko

Addressing the Ashland Event Commission

Of the Solar Geological Society

Curringer, Pallas, August 9, 2095

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: GRAVITIC SHOCK

Taking a captured asteroid apart can be rather like dismantling a whale aboard 19th and 20th century factory ships on Earth’s oceans. If it’s small enough to move around, it’s small enough to turn beneath your tools and yield up riches, layer by layer, until it’s nothing more than a handful of worthless—and harmless—pebbles.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

“Homebase, this is ‘Clara Barton’ leaving ACCS Bay 13, Slip 5 as dispatched, two cases of G-shock, both young Pallatian women. Do you copy?”

All around her, it seemed, bright lights were flashing red and blue. From somewhere outside, she could hear the plaintive wail of a siren.

Despite calling itself “Clara Barton”, a name Llyra thought she recognized from her history lessons, the voice coming from the front of the vehicle was definitely male, low-pitched, and a bit gruff. She couldn’t see who was speaking. Strapped down, flat on her back, she was looking up through a plastic transparency at what appeared to be the ceiling of a cave ripping by overhead, surrealistically illuminated by flashing, whirling lights.

“Copy, Clara,” came a woman’s voice, filtered by some sort of communications system. “Treat as indicated and transport to L.E.I., stat.”

“We are in transit. Say again, Homebase, L.E.I.?”

“That’s correct, Clara, L.E.I.”

“L.E.I. Roger that, Homebase, this is ‘Clara Barton’, out.”

******

When the William Wilde Curringer arrived at the landing terminal of the Arthur C. Clark Spaceport, Llyra had to be carried off on a stretcher.

To her eternal chagrin, Jasmeen came off Billie on the stretcher right behind Llyra. After a brief, exciting ambulance ride they were both rather grateful they hadn’t had to watch through a front window, they were greeted by attendants and technicians from the Life Extension Institute, the facility responsible for keeping Llyra’s grandmother young.

Julie had called the facility while the ship was still in orbit.

It had been a good flight from Ceres, Llyra thought, up to a point—the point where she had to be carried off on a stretcher. On Ceres, the small corporation spaceship Billie had sent an automated landing pod down to the asteroid’s surface, which she, Julie, Jasmeen, and Wilson had boarded via the airlock of one of the project’s gamera, driven by Lindsay, while Arleigh had observed and offered unnecessary advice.

Goodbyes were prolonged and tearful; Billie had to make an extra orbit while they went on. Llyra’s mother, who would herself be leaving within the hour for Pallas, came to say farewell and express all of a mother’s misgivings about sending both of her children—or maybe it was all three of her children—more than a hundred million miles away. For Llyra, the worst of it was that her father didn’t come to see her off. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand, with her mother there and all, just that it hurt so much anyway.

When the little shuttle finally reached the Billie, in orbit about Ceres, Sheridan Sinclair had already been aboard for some time. “It is important to make certain,” he informed them grandly, “that all is made as commodius as possible for our most esteemed and honored guests.”

Two of his guests, Llyra and Wilson, hadn’t experienced anything gravitically more rigorous than the one tenth gee of Ceres. Two more of Sinclair’s guests—Julie and Jasmeen—had spent significant portions of their lives in gravity fields twice as strenuous as the one sixth gee the ship would gradually build up to during its voyage Moonward.

“It’s pretty clear,” Julie observed as they came aboard through an airlock in the vessel’s side near the pilots’ compartment, “that none of us is going to be wandering around very much for the next few hours.

The little vessel, she told Llyra and Jasmeen, was about the size of a small corporate jet on Earth. There wasn’t a lot of room, they agreed.

Sinclair conducted them to enormous, overstuffed chairs that did double service, he explained, as acceleration couches once Billie started moving under her own power. Instead of being designed the way Beautiful Dreamer had been, as a simple, utilitarian multi-leveled cylinder, Billie, a cylinder with a bulge at one end for the flight deck, looked to Llyra something like a wingless commercial airliner, or even an ancient bus from old movies she’d seen about life back on Earth.

“If you’ll glance forward, you’ll notice that there’s a bulkhead with a door. It’s intended as much for the privacy of this vessel’s passengers as for any security purposes. On the other side of it are the traditional work stations for a flight crew of three, the ship’s pilot, the ship’s copilot, and a flight engineer who also serves as communications officer.”

Aft of the flight compartment bulkhead were a dozen rows of three passenger seats with a broad carpeted aisle separating one of the seats from the others in each row. “Each seat features a screenfield generator on the seatback ahead of it,” Sinclair told them, “so we can offer various choices of programming, either in recorded form, or transmitted in real time from the Earth or the Moon. There are also several ports for different models of personal computer or media player.”

Llyra noticed that Wilson immediately got his computer out and logged onto the SolarNet, no doubt to commune with his dearly beloved (and embarrassingly boring) Amorie. Her brother would be as good as not even here, for the rest of the voyage, however long it happened to last.

“What’s this?” Llyra asked, as Mr. Sinclair showed them all of the technological gadgetry available to them. It was an oddly-shaped port beside a palm-sized door in the back of the seat ahead of her. Julie and Jasmeen were already watching an old 2D movie together, a classic 21st century western starring the legendary David Boreanaz and Lexa Doig.

“Virtual Reality,” he told her, opening the little panel. Inside was a fist-sized piece of tan fabric, porous and open as cheesecloth, covered with tiny, glittering metallic points connected by a mesh of fine wiring. Unfolded, it was obvious that the object was intended to cover the head and face. The wiring all came together in a slender cable ending in a plug that fit the peculiar port Llyra had asked about.

Reaching deeper into the recess, Sinclair removed a little plastic basket that stayed connected to the seatback by a lightweight bead chain.

“And here’s the software!” he exclaimed. The basket offered three rows of brightly-colored plastic objects about the size of an old fashioned twenty-five cent piece. “You can be a Roman gladiator, a West American cowboy, a British seaman in the Napoleonic Wars, or any one of fifteen other things.”

Llyra grinned. “How about a champion figure skater?”

“I’ll talk to the manufacturer,” Sinclair laughed, “as soon as we get home.”

******

The changes came, as nearly as Llyra could remember afterward, at some point after the Billie had gradually accelerated to about one eighth of a standard Earth gravity, halfway between that of Ceres and the Moon. Both she and her coach had managed to endure a much greater amount of gravity than that, Jasmeen having grown up in the one third gravity of Mars, and her young student having tried out Lunar gravity for a few hours, at least, in the centrifuge aboard the Beautiful Dreamer.

This was different, somehow. Although, later, nobody was ever able to give her an explanation for it that satisfied her. One moment, she was wearing white denim bell-bottomed trousers, streaked with tar, and a striped sailor’s T-shirt over her hairy chest. Her hands were large and callused. She was crouching in the fighting top of the H.M.S. Victory off the Cape of Trafalgar, on the Spanish coast, southeast of Cadiz.

It was about one o’clock, the afternoon of October 21, 1805.

With the long, heavy “Brown Bess” musket—a smoothbore military flintlock she’d just taken from the dead hands of a Royal Marine—she was trying to draw a bead on a French sniper high in the rigging of the nearby Redoutable, one of Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet that had engaged the Royal Navy. The French sniper was about to snuff out the life of England’s greatest hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

Llyra’s task was nearly impossible with the great warship rolling and pitching the way it was, even on these relatively calm coastal waters. The miniscule platform she occupied described a twenty-foot figure eight in the air over the main deck of the English flagship. In his gaudy uniform, bedecked with fresh ribbons and “stars of honor”, Lord Nelson had gone to considerable pains to make himself conspicuous to his men. In real history, the French sharpshooter had made the shot successfully.

This era of Earth’s history wasn’t exactly famous for its light, crisp precision trigger-pulls, nor for the quality of the iron sights it mounted on its firearms. Llyra would no sooner center them on the sniper, holding onto on a similar platform above his own vessel, when something would move—her ship, his ship, the sniper, her musket—and she would have to realign the sights all over again. The sea air was cold and tasted salty, and she was not too high above Victory‘s vast main deck to avoid being sea-sprayed from time to time. It was uncomfortable and made her worry about the charge in the pan of her flintlock.

At last she had a good sight picture and squeezed the trigger. The flare from the flashpan nearly blinded her as she forced herself to “follow through”, keeping the sights aligned even after the gun had gone off—highly necessary with these slow blackpowder ignition systems.

She felt no recoil, but heard the huge lead ball strike something meaty aboard the Redoubtable. The ships were nearly in collision. Redoubtable‘s yards deeply overlapped those of the Victory and both vessels seemed to be wrapped in sheets of flame. She hoped it was the sniper she’d hit. As the smoke cleared before her eyes, she could see that the Frenchman was no longer where he had been. Nelson still stood on the quarterdeck, pointing across the gap between ships and issuing orders.

She’d done it—she had changed the course of history!

Stripping the VR mask from her face, Llyra suddenly noticed it was hard to breathe. She had a pain in the left side of her chest as if her heart were being crushed in a vise, and her left arm ached to the elbow.

“Jasmeen! Grandma!” Her voice was clear and strong, they told her afterward, but it didn’t seem that way to her at the time. “I—I can’t breathe!”

Llyra watched as Julie, rising in one swift, graceful motion from the single seat across the aisle, snapped a few words at Sinclair, who leaped from his own seat a few rows forward and hurried aft. Both of them crouched down beside Llyra. Something was happening with Jasmeen, too, but by now, Llyra couldn’t turn her head or eyes to see what it was.

Sinclair stretched up to the overhead and struck a plastic panel with the heel of his hand. Llyra felt very cold and could see that her fingernails were purple, surrounded by gray skin. Sinclair shoved a plastic mask over her mouth and nose, then struck the panel above Jasmeen and started giving her oxygen, as well. Before very long, she sensed that her proper color was returning, but she was too weak to move.

“Wha—?”

“It’s called gravitic shock, my dear” Sinclair told her, Julie was still kneeling on the aisle floor beside Llyra’s chair. “Nobody knows a damn thing about it and there’s never any predicting who’ll get it and who won’t—although it seldom proves fatal.” He turned to Julie. “Both of these unfortunate young women have it, Miss Ngu a little bit worse than Miss Khalidov. It isn’t common, but it isn’t exactly rare, either. Most times, it wears off as they accustom themselves to higher gravity.”

Julie nodded. “I had it, the first time I returned to Mars from Pallas.”

In the row ahead of the two girls, and across the aisle, Llyra’s brother Wilson, wearing earphones and a hushmike, and intent on his SolarNet communications, was completely unaware that anything unusual had happened.

******

” … very careful, my dear Willie dear. As I told you, my father died in a conflict with rock pirates when I was only a three-year-old baby.” Soft and beautiful as always, and agonizingly desirable, she fluttered her impossibly long eyelashes at him, straight into the pickup.

Yes, yes, Wilson thought, rereading the most recent communication that his SolarNet account had received from Amorie. Yes, she told me all about that, at least a dozen times before now. It must be a very strange experience, hard to live with in some way he couldn’t imagine, growing up without a father. “My dear Willie dear” was new, however, and he hated it even worse than he did plain old Willie. If he married this lovely creature, would she be calling him her “dear Willie dear” forever?

But Amorie was going on. “Of course you have to understand that the pirates didn’t kill him on purpose. They seem to have some strange code of honor about that. They broke off their attack, sent us their condolences, and left a hundred platinum ounces behind. They’ll even punish their own over what they consider an unnecesary killing.”

“I see the way of it,” Wilson muttered disgustedly, momentarily forgetting that any reply he made to Amorie wouldn’t reach her for at least an hour, and that he wasn’t recording one, in any case. “They’ll gleefully rob you at the point of a Gatling or a particle beamer, but they’ll—”

“It was an accidental collision,” she insisted, with her lower lip curled in a little pout. “As much my father’s fault as anybody’s, I guess. And it killed three or four of their company, as well. But dead is dead, whatever people intend. So the first thing my mother’s elder brother, Uncle Anton did when he took command of our family ship was add a particle cannon, very efficient for carving up asteroids—or pirates.”

As Amorie laughed at her own joke, Wilson did, too. Now, that’s my kind of girl, the young man thought, soft, sweet, and terrifyingly ferocious.

At this particular moment, she and her asteroid-hunting family’s vessel were further away from the Earth-Moon system, where he and his own family were headed aboard the Curringer Corporation’s William Wilde Curringer, than he and his family were. Somewhere down near the orbit of Mercury, she’d told him. True, there were fewer profitable rocks down that far—hurricane-fierce solar winds would have swept most of the debris away at least three or four billion years ago—but what remained was brightly lit by the Sun in an enormous variety of radiomagnetic spectra, and was easy to detect in passive sensor mode.

“Running in passive mode can make the difference between life and death, sometimes,” Amorie’s newest message continued. “Most of the time in normal space, while you’re preoccupied, trying to spend as little reaction mass as possible, patrolling for some halfway decent find, the rock pirates will just hang in orbit somewhere and listen for the active radar and lidar noise that discovery and rendezvous with an asteroid require. The returns get shorter and shorter. Once the sound and fury stops, they assume you’ve found your target, and that’s their cue to swoop down, get the drop on you, and steal your find.”

Normally, Wilson enjoyed this kind of talk with Amorie very much. She didn’t shy away from all manner of dirtywork—and that included self-defense—when it needed doing. And she was the only girl he knew who converse with him about the mechanical and economic theory of asteroid hunting, even if she wasn’t much for practical details. But just now he wished she’d say something more personal to him.

After all, it might take days, even weeks or months to work their way back to the Moon. But he and Amorie were going to meet each other face-to-face eventually, and he very badly wanted to contemplate that moment, those hours, with her again, they way they had when he was on Ceres.

He paused Amorie’s message to begin making a reply of his own. He’d have to remember that business about rock pirates—and particle cannons.

******

Billie‘s course had been plotted from the beginning to bring her into orbit of Earth’s Moon with a minimum of dodging, backing, and filling to consume precious reaction-mass. There, at the appointed time and place, high over the crater-blasted black-and-white surface of the Moon, she made rendezvous with the strangest object in space that Llyra had ever seen, a long open framework of glittering metal, about the same length as the little spacecraft herself, and just large enough to propel her into.

Abruptly, Billie’s engines shut down, producing a silence more frightening, Llyra thought, than any loud noise she might have heard. For a blessed moment, all of the weight that had been crushing her was lifted, only to be replaced with the feeling that came when you hit a downdraft and your flying belt dropped you twenty feet in an instant. Only this instant seemed to last forever, as did the accompanying nausea.

When Billie was in the correct position, they could hear the thing lock itself into place on her hull with a series of terrifying bangs. Maybe she’d been wrong, she thought, about silence being more frightening.

The little corporate spacecraft had gone through its turnover some time earlier (Llyra couldn’t remember it clearly) and had finished working its way up to the one-sixth gee of Earth’s Moon. In spite of that, Llyra and Jasmeen were beginning to feel better and were holding hands for mutual comfort although they were still wearing their oxygen masks.

As soon as Wilson learned of the girls’ predicament, he hurried back to their row in concern. There hadn’t been much he could do to help them. In the end, he’d found them a website on the SolarNet that offered live webcam views of the most famous skating rink on the Moon. Unfortunately, there were hockey games being played on all six of its Olympic-sized ice sheets.

Now, Sinclair stood up in middle of the aisle again.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he told them, “we’ve just acquired our wheels, as it were, and are about to make a runway landing on the Moon. Since turnover, we’ve been travelling backwards, decelerating with the help of Billie‘s main engines. But the device we’ve just docked with will provide a very different kind of propulsion. You’ll begin to feel yourself pressed gently into your seatbacks, while the screenfields on your seatbacks will show you exactly what Billie‘s aft-facing cameras are seeing—the Lunar surface coming up to meet us, and our rapid journey down a two hundred-mile runway. At the Lunar terminal—”

“If you’ll pardon the expression,” Wilson suggested a bit sardonically.

Sinclair laughed. “Indeed, sir, ‘if you’ll pardon the expression’. But I was getting ahead of myself—which is a rather easy thing to do when you’re travelling backwards at several thousand miles per hour.”

Llyra and her companions laughed politely.

“This special frame we’re riding in,” Sinclair continued, “has a number of large wheels—fifty-six to be precise—along its sides. But it’s the frame itself that’s important. It consists of a battery of passive electrical coils that will interact magnetically with coils underneath the runway, slowing us down while keeping us close to the ground so the brakes on the wheels can eventually work. And should we fail for some reason to decelerate within the prescribed profile, a series of arresting cables will be raised across the runway to slow us.”

“But the pilots,” Ardith began. “How can they be expected to—” The notion of flying and landing the ship backwards always bothered her.

“Will be watching what they’re doing using screenfields of their own. To them, as to you, it will appear as if we’re all still moving forward.”

“Induction braking?” Wilson asked. “What do you do with the excess heat?”

Sinclair nodded. “There isn’t any excess heat, son, or we’d all disappear in a flash of vaporized metal and flesh. During our landing, all of the kinetic energy we shed will be converted directly into electricity.”

“And the same hardware,” Wilson said, “electrically launches a vessel when it leaves the Moon, using all of that stored energy from landings.”

“Just so,” Sinclair beamed at him. “The process is ninety percent efficient.”

“Why don’t we just land on our tail?” Wilson wanted to know. His computer held copies of every movie about space travel ever made, from the silent era until now. He was especially fond of those from the 1950s, when shiny spindle-shaped spaceships landed on huge triangular tailfins.

“Because the engineering to perform that single feat—not to mention the fuel required—would double Billie‘s penalty weight. It’s much cheaper and safer to use this electric orbiting/deorbiting cage.”

Wilson grinned. “Victor Appleton would be so proud.”

“The young scholar knows his classics!” said Sinclair.

Ever since the engine had shut down, Billie had been dropping toward the asteroid-shattered surface. From time to time, they heard the brief roar of smaller motors as she made minor course and attitude corrections.

“—But for all practical purposes,” Sinclair explained, “we are falling, ‘dead stick’, as the aviation-johnnies have it, toward the ground.”

“Excuse me,” Jasmeen muttered, “if I say yeek!

Wilson turned in his chair to look at her. “The trick,” he said, “is that we’re falling forward. The pilots are fighting right now to make sure we fall as parallel to the Moon’s surface as we can. Long before the tires touch the runway, the induction coils will have us and start to slow us.” He gave her an evil grin. “That’s the plan, anyway.”

“Even so,” Sinclair added, “the wheels will touch at something close to three thousand miles per hour. Marvelous tires they make nowadays.”

Outside, the Moon toward which they had been heading now became the surface over which they were travelling, a surface that could be seen to grow larger and closer with every heartbeat and blink of the eye. On their screenfields, the nose of the spacecraft seemed to come up gradually, as if she were an aircraft flaring before landing, and she suddenly began to shake violently, the noise of it becoming almost unbearable.

Now the whole structure of the vessel and the frame wrapped around it began to groan and shudder like a living organism being tortured. Through it all, instead of strapping himself back in, Sinclair calmly stood beside Wilson’s chair, smiling benevolantly aftward at Llyra and Jasmeen, then across the aisle to Ardith, and then back to the girls again. The harsh vibration and noise didn’t seem to bother the man at all.

Through the actual port beside her, Llyra thought she could see the deorbiting cage starting to glow with heat from the energy it was attempting to dissipate. Their conversion from kinetic to electrical energy, Sinclair had said, was only about ninety-eight percent efficient. Two percent of the energy they had to get rid of was no trifle. All systems, she knew, were imperfect and prone to failure sooner or later.

On the screen before her, they already seemed to be on the ground, a range of mountains ahead, rushing at insane speed to smash them. She looked over at Jasmeen and realized suddenly that she couldn’t see clearly, because her head and eyes were being rattled around too much. Even worse, she couldn’t hear anything but the terrible sounds of the spaceship coming apart around her—and what she hoped wasn’t her own screaming.

There came a bump, then silence.

Sinclair said, “That’s wheels down, dear friends! Welcome to the Moon!”

Llyra lost consciousness.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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