Escape Velocity


Centaurus Constellation

Centauri A-B System

~ 2,450,000 B.C.E

It was an unfortunate day to be sentient.

Small blue-tinged mammals looked up perplexedly from their fretful grazing as wave after terror-stricken wave of batlike fliers screeched overhead. It was another in a series of bizarre events that had begun that morning with a blaze of light through the thick canopy, followed by a strong ground-lurch. The herbivores' collective memory had never encountered anything quite like it. As a nearby clan of proto-sapiens hunched back down to scoop a last cluster of berries, they vaporized as the massive shockwave ripping along behind the birds liquefied the tubers in their stomachs.

Across a wide swath of the violet-tinged moon, creatures with eyes well-adapted to prevalent dusk tumbled, squawking, to the ground, flash-blinded by another giant bubble of light swelling hundreds of kilometers into the thick air. Within minutes, the flash was eaten up by a charcoal-clogged mushroom cloud that boiled high into the upper atmosphere. Sprouting like a gigantic zit above the verdant surface, the million-ton spray of debris finally expended its thermal energy in the thermosphere and ripped into planet-spanning mud-colored tentacles, driven by the jet stream.

Orbiting a gas giant doomed its small passengers to a rough life. The planet's massive electromagnetic aura was only partially countered by a powerful, dueling magnetosphere, and whirling into the giant's shadow produced months of plant-killing, starvation-inducing twilight.

The mother giant also held the unenvious distinction as the largest asteroid sponge within two light-years, sucking up cosmic drifters as it spun through bands of interstellar dust. Its swirling, blue-banded surface frequently sported dark, ugly scars, as sometimes did the surface of any moon unlucky enough to be in the way.

Mushroom clouds flashbulbed across the forested plains as more nuggets of the disintegrating rubble-pile asteroid crashed to earth, walking through the massive stands of trees like a barrage of otherworldly artillery. Thousands of acres of old-growth trees snapped in half under the blast waves, then exploded into fire from the heat. The infernos sapped moisture from the plants and air around them until they grew into massive, weather-creating firestorms. Tornado-strength updrafts hurled burning tree-trunks high into the atmosphere, which, coupled with an incessant rain of incandescent impact debris, sparked firestorms across the entire hemisphere.

Gaping radial cracks split open for thousands of meters away from the craters, carving the ground into giant chunks. Liberated from gravity's grip, many of the monoliths bucked heavily into the air, spilling untold amounts of flaming soil down their flanks as they were forced upward by fantastic electromagnetic forces permeating the core, the soil, and the air itself.

Incinerating untold species of roosting lizardlike-fliers against its bow shock, one shell in the interstellar fusillade arced down among the soaring crags and gigantic floating mountains of the tectonic mountain chain north of the great sea. Chunks of near-pure floating superconductor directly above the blast vaporized instantly, adding a massive surge of electromagnetic energy to the devastation. Animals hundreds of kilometers away fell as the pulse fried their internal guidance systems.

Floating mountains hovering horizontal to the blast skidded sideways and slammed into their fellows, breaking apart in a cascading cloud of floating particles, some the size of large trees.

One suspended block suffered a particularly interesting fate. Some thirty degrees off the vertical crest of the shockwave, it floated just far enough from the impact to escape immediate destruction. Flat-sloped on the blast side, angled on the other, made of near-pure mineral, it caught the sweet refraction spot of the shock wave and shot upward. Untethered from the earth, resistive to the moon's relatively weak gravity and buoyed by the magnetic field beneath it, the rock joyously hit escape velocity. Final impurities cracked off and fell behind to join lesser fragments as the AWOL chunk muscled through the final wisps of atmosphere to clear Pandora's orbit and enter the gas giant's. Breaking out of the lush moon's electromagnetic shadow, the pure chunk of superconductor rammed headlong into the full power of Polyphemus's magnetic field.

Physics ensued. The tremendous magnetic force zinged the wayward rock off at a right angle, slingshotted at some fifty kilometers a second into deep space, and what lay beyond.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
Not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched –

"High Flight" [Abridged]

To be continued.

[Author's quibble: FF-dot-net doesn't like my double-dash scene breakers? They were a lot less tacky than the big lines. Oy.]