BY DAVE MOORES
Copyright is held by the author.
THE MILKY-WHITE world hung motionless as we fell in towards it. Against the blackness of space it stood out clear and sharp and was almost full, the light of its sun coming from somewhere over our left shoulders. But no continents or oceans here. Instead, the cold perfection of a mathematical construct.
Wilson spoke. “Retrofire in 90 seconds. You’ll see the 100-metre grid before then.”
Concentrate! My sweaty hand gripped the reaction-jet controller. The zero-gravity sensation of space-flight was new to me and a suspicion of nausea was rising in my throat.
Yes, now I could see the grid. A fine tracery of tiny squares sliding past, and suddenly up and down had a meaning again and the thing was no longer an object away in space but a world below, with dangerous gravity and a hard surface. A two-second burst on the jets to get us swinging. Watch those instruments! Ninety degrees, 120, 180. Another two-second burst to stop the swing. Now pick up the crosshairs on the head-up display, 35 seconds left to get that little circle in the centre of the cross and hold it.
Drifting right. Quick squirt on the jets. Damn, overcorrected! Bring it back. Too much again, too much! I can’t do this!
Wilson’s hand flashed across and turned down the gain. Better, better, hold it there, brace yourself . . . Slam! Retrofire, zero to three gravities in half a second, held for 180 seconds that seemed like an hour, then Wilson’s voice saying, “My controls,” and I felt that we might yet hang on to the land of the living.
G-forces back to normal levels again, and a horizon outside the window, with the 100-metre grid stretching away into the distance. A perfect, empty place with nothing but the grid to give the eye some clue to scale. Down through the last few hundred metres, a final burst of G, then free fall the final couple of metres, ending in a solid thump on terra firma. Wilson unstrapped, turned a row of switches to off and we watched various gauges and digital displays return to their own particular versions of zero. The cabin air smelled of perspiration and warm electronics.
Wilson got out of his seat, walked to the corner, took a bottle of Scotch and two glasses from a shelf, and poured two stiff ones.
Upstairs the doorbell rang. “Bugger,” he said, “I’d better leave you in the dark.” He loped to the other end of the room, turned the master switch on a console, and the view outside the cabin windows vanished. Then he turned out the lights and closed the door behind him, leaving me to consider in the gloom, the fantastic device he had just demonstrated.
I’d run into Wilson earlier that evening at a meeting of The Aerospace Society. I remembered him from our apprenticeship days as a rich young man with a huge ability for mathematics and a love of risk taking; hang-gliding and rally-driving as I recalled.
After the usual “do you remembers” and “whatever happened tos,” I asked Wilson what had brought him there tonight. His dark eyes glanced around. To look at, he didn’t fit the mould of the moneyed playboy, more the cloistered researcher, with his spectacles and thin, pale features.
“There’s an amateur interest I’m pursuing. Thomas, tonight’s speaker, is supposed to be right up there in the artificial gravity research community. What about you?” I told him that as a full-time member I came to these monthly meetings out of habit.
I knew the basics of the story. Even AG’s inventors at General Dynamics didn’t understand how it worked. All they knew was that through the application of quantum phenomena, a gravity field could be generated using almost no electricity. This totally defied the tenets of classical physics and had untold implications for power generation, not to mention weaponization. There was huge competition among nations and major corporations for the services of anyone who’d had a role in the technology.
That talent pool had shrunk precipitously last year when a gravitron at MIT had spontaneously cranked itself up to 1000G and brought down the building on itself and the research team.
Thomas turned out to be a polished and knowledgeable speaker, but he seemed genuinely apologetic that, although AG had been around for over five years, science was only now on the verge of being able to manipulate the phenomenon. The sooner the better. Nobody wanted another MIT event.
When Thomas had finished, Wilson asked a couple of very pertinent questions, and drew a penetrating look from a beefy, sandy-haired man in the audience.
Wilson whispered to me, “That’s Murphy, left National Labs 18 months ago. Rumoured scandal about falsifying results. Wonder what he’s into these days?”
On the way out, as I was about to say goodnight and see you again maybe, Wilson paused and snapped his fingers as if deciding something. “Look,” he said, “I always thought of you as straight arrow kind of guy. Can I share something in confidence? You want to come and see?” He seemed exited and tense, and I was intrigued so I told him his secret would be safe with me. He hailed a cab and we climbed aboard.
Wilson took a deep breath. “Okay then. After what I’ve heard tonight my suspicions are confirmed. I’m at least two jumps ahead of the game as far as field modulation goes. I’ve taken computer control to the point where, one: I can modulate the field-strength to one part in 10,000, two: vary it rapidly in real time, and three: I can produce a field with well-defined boundaries. I have to do that, otherwise I’d cause traffic accidents in the street outside and,” here he gave a wry grin, “probably have the sewers running backwards. Ah, we’re here.”
Inside, he took me straight downstairs to the basement. Two high-end Cray parallel processors were embedded in a console at the back of the room. Keyboard, screen, and what looked like terabit solid state memories, duplicated as well. A cable harness as thick as your arm ran from the console along the baseboard and behind some heavy curtains, which closed off the far end of the basement.
“This is where it all happens my friend,” said Wilson, drawing the curtains back with a flourish.
I immediately grasped what he had done. There were two aircraft-type seats, a crowded instrument panel, a variety of controls and two panoramic windows, now grey and blank. It looked like an amalgam of airliner cockpit, spaceship and Ferrari. A 10-year-old’s dream. Wilson had combined his love of planes and fast cars with his undoubted mathematical ability to create the World’s first artificial gravity driven simulator. The hardware had all been available. His brains and money had done the rest.
“Three General Electric gravitrons, one for each axis, positive and negative G. Holographic displays for the windows. So get strapped in and we’ll take a ride. My best yet is a Piper Cub. Ninety-year-old design and they’re still building them. I had to get a vast amount of data from the makers and then it took three months’ programming.”
He went back to the console and switched on. Outside was a small airfield. Cumulus clouds moved slowly across the sky and cloud-shadows chased each other down the runway. A breeze blew the tall grass into waves. Wilson joined me, then I nearly jumped out of my seat as I felt the breeze rock, yes rock, the little aircraft as it stood on the apron. The gravitrons were working.
Ten minutes later I sat there amazed. The simulation was perfect, right down to the bumps from thermals coming off a ploughed field on the approach. A thought struck me. “Can you crash this thing?”
Wilson smiled. “Thought you’d never ask. Those gravitrons are rated at 100G. And I don’t believe in safety cut-outs. When you fly this baby, you fly it for real.” Hence my sweaty palms when we’d done the planetary landing simulation as an encore.
I swallowed. “Eh, suppose I just walked out of the field?”
“Suppose,” he replied, “that you are, say, a thousand metres up, then the AG field has put your body in state of high potential energy relative to the local datum. Walk over that chalk line on the floor and it would be like walking off the Empire State Building, only much, much quicker. Makes sense?” I swallowed again. Nice of him to mention that.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. I snapped out of my ruminations as the lights went on. I hadn’t moved from my seat in the simulator. Wilson entered, followed by Murphy, late of National Labs, now carrying a small but convincing gun.
Murphy scanned the room with intense interest. “All right. I’ll do the talking. Some friends of mine far away need expertise. Call me a talent scout. But now it looks like I need transportation for two. That could be inconvenient.”
Wilson looked carefully at me, then at Murphy. “You may as well see what you’re getting then.” He reached behind him to the console, turned on the master switch and snapped the key clean off. “Take her up Dave.”
I did so, to an altitude of five kilometres above the imaginary planet, then hung there, matching thrust to weight. What now? Murphy was still in control.
“Remarkable,” he said, advancing a couple of paces, “they’ll be fascinated in Beijing. Now bring it down, friend, then maybe I’ll consider taking you with us. Your call. You want to live?”
I just sat and looked at him. There was no way he was going to threaten Wilson, his prize catch, to get my co-operation. It looked like a standoff.
Murphy’s voice grated and he raised the gun. “Suit yourself, I don’t have time for games.”
Was my extrapolation of Wilson’s reasoning valid? I was looking down the barrel of the gun as Murphy fired. I saw the bewilderment and fear on his face when the slug ricocheted off somewhere, and at that moment Wilson spun, caught Murphy with his shoulder and hurled him across the chalk line. Murphy hit the ceiling.
You may like to work out for yourself the terminal velocity from five Kilometres. Assume normal Earth gravity.