- Spiral Fracture
Space is not really silent.
Yes, to ears that sense vibrations in liquids or gases it is. Few sensor devices–and no hearing organs of any living thing we know–can detect the whispering oscillations that pass through the sparse nebulae and dust clouds in a practical vacuum
But material vibrations constitute a mere drop among the torrent of energies that course undetected by sapient observers through the black spaces between worlds, stars, clusters, galaxies, and the distances between galaxies, whose vastness obliterates the meaning of scale. All this so-called “empty space” would feel like nothing but a quick and disorienting death to a naked human observer placed in its midst, but every square inch of it rushes with noise spanning an invisible, inaudible radio spectrum. Some of it is so potent and toxic to life that those who venture into the void frequently or for long risk disease and early death from the effects of cosmic radiation unless they travel in protective shells.
One such shell was the Goulet, a ship carrying passengers from Ganymede in an impatient sunward flight. Looking at it from a dozen miles, a hair’s breadth by interstellar standards, you’d only see the bright glint of the sun reflecting off the mirrored hull metal and the fluorescent spurts from its twin fusion engines.
Within the Jupiter system, the engines couldn’t be turned up to their full fury; but once Goulet rounded Europa and plunged off toward Mars, they’d be opened wide to the ship’s full 1/4-gee acceleration.
In the flight cabin, pilot Art Stephens and copilot Randall Krouse sat quiet, gazes flitting across instruments. Here a bare nudge of a lever, there a sparse word and a grunt of acknowledgement. Experience, and the sonic isolation of space flight, made anyone pensive and patient after long enough. Anyone at the controls of a space craft was bound to become as mute as the stars themselves until there was a need for speech. But here there was, so the pilot switched on the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, your captain speaking. As a token of respect to the Dauntless tragedy, we’ll be observing a brief thrust shutdown while in the vicinity of Europa. If you’re uncomfortable with zero-gee, please buckle in. Attendants on the common deck have anti-nausea drugs if you need them; they’re also stocked behind the wash sinks in your cabins.” He could hear and feel his own voice echoed back to him along the rigid internal structures of the ship, a reassuring reverberation that hinted at the solidity of their transport.
A looming shape below them cut a shadow from the myriad pinpoints filling the forward view. Europa was a mere three thousand klicks off, perfect for a little slingshotting. Even on a routine flight for an old hand, being so spot-on with one’s initial vectors was a matter of pride. Stephens and Krouse knew their reputation, and they watched Europa out their forward bubble like kings riding a great beast. A glowing arc formed at the razor edge of its bulk and began to spread as a sun burst over the horizon, still overbright at this distance. The plaz adapted in an instant: the sun became a dull orange disc, and the stars vanished. The pilot glanced at the clock display. “Cut thrust in ten,” he said to his companion. In response, Krouse’s hand glided to rest over a button on his console. “Ready.” A few seconds passed. “Mark.” He pushed the button in a sharp motion.
There had been a little pressure like gravity pushing them down and back into their seats. This faded to nothing as the engines gently reduced their thrust to zero, and all in the ship were weightless. The dull thrum of the engines diminished to silence. The only sound was an occasional creaking as the ship’s members shed the heat buildup from the fusion drives.
Stephens sat, hands folded, eyes down. Counting the seconds, he could almost insulate himself from the mental images of torn metal and flame. Every ship that passed through Europa’s influence, that burst over her terminator on a slingshot turn, would observe the same silence for sixty seconds. It was nothing special for this route. But the one-man crew of Dauntless was out here somewhere, burnt and frozen, Stephens his one living relative.
A hand on his shoulder yanked him out of reverie. Krouse’s. “You OK?” His face held haggard concern, looking much older than his fifty-five years. Stephens took a deep breath and nodded. “It never quite leaves me, but here…” He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was standing at an unmarked grave.
“Harry was too young,” Krouse responded. “Shouldn’t have gone like that.” But it was the game they all played, rocket jockeys and spaceliners and load-stars alike. Every day atop a rocket was a gamble, and eventually the odds could overwhelm even the most vigilant. Stephens patted Krouse’s hand on his shoulder and glanced again at the clock as the latter withdrew.
“Resume in fifteen.”
As the shutdown had been gradual, not abrupt, so the fusion engines started with a bare wisp of thrust at the threshold of detection. It took a full minute for them to build to their orbital thrust level. Jockeys wouldn’t bother, of course, but a ‘liner had to think of passengers. Starting and stopping too quickly would make them sick. Besides, it could be hard on a ship this size, jolting all those members and joints with the full violence of a spaceliner engine. Everyone in the ship felt gravity slowly return until walking and sitting and lying down became practical again, albeit with judicious restraint in such weak gravity.
The ship’s flight recorder captured every nuance of action in the cockpit, and in superfluous detail and precision it recorded input from sensors over all the hull and throughout the vital systems. Even the movements of passengers would be stored in the infinitesimal memory of the black box. Its engineers had in mind a meticulous record of every moment of flight, and the box was virtually indestructible. You could send it hurtling into the sun and it would be obliterated. Few other things in the solar system could effect its demise, as demonstrated by batteries of tests that might have seemed absurd to lay observers. For experienced spacemen, the meaning of it chilled the bones.
That impervious black box, which really wasn’t black but was in fact fluorescent orange for visibility, caught the minute variations in the sophisticated fusion drives, engineered for consistent and powerful thrust at the highest standard for commercial travel. It sensed the un-clicking of restraints throughout the passenger compartments and the flight deck, all the living bodies moving around to stretch their legs, save one.
It recorded the rustle of pages as the one seated, belted soul in the ship leafed through a favorite book, ignorant as all the others of the inaudible but colossal ribbons of energy coalescing around the ship from some infinity to the planet below. The ship sensors, and the recorder, captured hints of this building tension until its gradual swell reached a fierce crescendo, warping and folding the adjacent space and enveloping the ship in weird particles. And the murmuring symphony of ship’s audio the recorder stored was concluded by an abrupt cadenza of klaxons and sirens, screams and slams and thuds, as by an unseen hand the mirrored shell was wrenched, twisted, slammed against a solid wall of energy, then winked into nothingness over the slow, dim Europa morning.