Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor



Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2014 by Richard Wren.

Shorter Stories

Clear Drop

By Richard Wren

THE GLASS DOOR SLID OPEN SMOOTHLY and Rax Milor stepped into the capsule. It looked more like a conservatory than a shuttle, with its large windows on all sides. Pots of scented geraniums would not have looked out of place in this egg-shaped greenhouse. Not like in his day when it was mostly used for carrying goods and supplies across the ring. Then it was enclosed, dark and practical. Nowadays it was old, of course. A novelty ride rather than a transport system, and people wanted a good view around them.

A small brass plaque caught Rax’s eye. Ancient memories came flooding back in waves of nostalgia. Could that really be the original? He drifted over to inspect it:

“Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth. I did it.” —Jules Verne, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Rax had insisted on this plaque when he had designed the original system. It was a silly whim but others had obviously appreciated it. The plaque, or a close copy of it, must have survived many capsule replacements. He delicately stroked the tarnished brass surface. Original or not, this monument to whimsy bore the smoothed evidence of many curious fingers. He studied the worn surface for several minutes and then, with a kick of his ankle, floated back to resume his seat at one end of the capsule.

With no gravity, direction was a purely personal choice and Rax Milor chose to call his seat the top of the capsule so he could look “down” along the capsules’ length and beyond, to the planet Earth below. His view of the blue-green globe was unobstructed and perfectly framed by the farther hemisphere of the capsules’ windows. Behind or “above” him were the fastenings to the orbital ring, holding the capsule suspended over the world like a diamond from a silver bracelet. To his left and right the arching sweep of the ring dwindled into the distance. As it curved around to meet behind the planet, the ring resembled the two pincers of a fine pair of calipers holding the Earth in a delicate grip.

The ring had taken centuries to build and in Rax Milor’s youth had been the home of a good fraction of humanity. Factories, farms, homes, and spaceports had studded the ring like gemstones. Looking to his left, Rax could make out the thin line of the Artsutanov Tower, one of two links between the ring and Earth. The Clarke Tower was presently invisible on the night side.

But all this magnificent ring city orbiting the Earth was not part of Rax’s dream. As a young engineer he had been frustrated by the amount of time wasted in getting materials from one side of the ring to the other. With a circumference of over a quarter of a million kilometres, even the high speed transport system that ran throughout the ring still took over three days to complete the trip. Rax’s vision had been the ultimate shortcut. It had needed the harnessing of a new and experimental technology and the youthful, unknown Rax Milor had harnessed it.

His nostalgic reverie was interrupted by the arrival of other passengers. A class of school children led by their teacher were drifting into the capsule. Twenty or so other passengers entered after, each finding one of the seats positioned around the sides of the capsule in order to keep the downward views clear. It was going to be a fully booked trip. A “ride” in the transporter was the high point of many a visit to the Ring Museum. Rax smiled wistfully. The Ring Museum. What a fate for such an awe-inspiring engineering achievement. Nonetheless, it was true that few people had lived here now for many years. The universe moves on and the people move with it. Immense structures of metal and carbon were no longer needed. This was the last and the greatest of them. No wonder the children gawped and stared at the fantastic construction around them.

The teacher finally managed to settle them down into the couches. It was going to be a six hour journey and for them it started with a lesson in history.

There was a dull clunk from behind Rax. He knew the sound as the noise made by the fastenings releasing. The passengers turned in unison as the capsule started its fall. It was independent of the ring now and falling very slowly Earthwards. After five seconds of falling, the gap could still have been jumped by anyone on board. Several children bemoaned their disappointment before being drawn back to the lesson.

This slow build up of speed was the longest and dullest part of the trip. Rax Milor emptied his mind and slept.

When he awoke nearly two hours had passed. The Earth looked noticably closer and the ring had shrunk to a narrow band above them. Rax peered down through the capsule, straining to make out details of the world below. He knew what he was looking for but it had been so many years since he had last gazed with satisfaction on his creation. Yes—there it was! A shimmering region somewhere below them just on the limit of human visiblity. The Gluon field—Rax hated the popular term “force field.” This particular Gluon field was shaped like a funnel with the wide mouth opening up towards them. Within the hour they would be falling into it, but that was still fourteen thousand kilometres away. The capsule had only travelled half that distance so far but it was rapidly accelerating as Earth pulled it ever downwards. Rax estimated as much as twelve thousand kilometres an hour at that point. But that was nothing compared with what was to come.

The passengers were unaware of most of this. Some were talking, listening to music or sleeping. Several of the children had bought along holographic games to while away the time, with their teacher repeatedly telling them to turn down the size control for the images so as to not disturb other passengers. Eventually all were switched off as another lesson was about to start.

Rax watched the teacher’s projections with interest from his seat. The images showed the construction of the Funnels and the “Subway” as some wit had euphemistically called it. He remembered well the problems of keeping that tunnel through the Earth open. This was the shortcut that the ring needed. Only the newly discovered Gluon fields could prevent the tunnel from collapsing at the centre of the planet. Only they could extend beyond both tunnel mouths into blossoming funnels to keep the atmosphere out and guide the capsule through. Powered by geothermal energy, they were self-perpetuating and virtually perfect. Rax Milor had developed Gluon engineering and had changed the world. In more ways than one.

The teacher’s final image was of Milor himself as a young man. Rax felt self-conscious until he realised that no one could possibly recognise him. Not now.

The world below expanded before their very eyes now like a toy balloon being inflated. Their speed had quadrupled over the last half-hour and would do so again in the next ten minutes. Everyone had seen the faintly sparkling Gluon field now and its iridescent fingers were already surrounding the capsule.

Children were pointing excitedly at features on Earth and many passengers gripped their seats involuntarily, as those features hurtled menacingly towards them. Somewhere in that ghostly funnel was the entrance to the Subway but it was far too small to be seen.

In one unbelievably swift process, the planet became a landscape and the landscape became solid ground. With screams from several passengers, the capsule was engulfed in blackness. No one had seen the Subway entrance, it had happened far too quickly. By the time that most had realised they were underground, the entrance was already a thousand kilometres above them.

Rax wryly enjoyed their surprise and shock. Some of the passengers had got more thrills on this trip than they had bargained for. It was unfair to gloat, though. He had the advantage of knowledge. They would be reaching top speed as they passed through the Earth’s centre about now. Over four hundred thousand kilometres an hour, but they wouldn’t keep that for long as gravity slowed them now.

People were breathing more easily and laughing off the unsettling experience. Some fancied they could see a faint red glow in the darkness around the capsule. There was no time to consider this as, with an explosion of light, the capsule tore out of the Subway and was back in open space within a matter of seconds. The Earth shrank behind them, the reassuring blue-green globe again.

Less than two minutes to pass right through the Earth. This was what they had paid for and the folks back home will be envious when they hear about it.

The last wisps of the Gluon field were in their wake now and the long slog up to the ring was to come, losing all their speed as they climbed. At the end of the journey, the capsule would touch the ring at dead stop and the fasteners would grab it before it fell back again. Six hours to cross the ring and not a drop of fuel used.

Rax studied his fellow passengers. Some were already discussing which sights they should “do” next. Did they really understand the work that had gone into making these accidental tourist attractions? Probably not. Could so much be forgotten in such a short time? Was ten thousand years really so long?

But then solid matter like the ring was such a novelty these days. Why use matter when Gluon fields are far more adaptable?

The passengers were starting to stretch their legs. They shimmered and sparkled, each according to their particular personalities and fashion preferences. Rax Milor considered his own body. It’s steely sheen and understated glitter was fitting for an elderly and highly respected engineer.

Oh, yes. Gluon fields are far more adaptable.

He thought again of his little brass plaque. The final sentence escaped quietly from his mouth.

“I did it.” END

Richard Wren has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. He runs an Environmental Field Centre in the U.K. and teaches biology and astronomy.