Traveler's Notes: The Longest Way Down

by M. L. Conymous (2007)(published in V/FT in 2015)

Everyone wants to do it again.

That's what the pros tell everyone that comes. Whether vec, biont or anything with a physical form, they always tell you the same thing. The reason that the activity I am about to try even exists is because of a transapient businessmind with a horrendous amount of money and a dream. A wild, crazy dream.

The 'sport' itself is called Vertical Shot, and it consists of free-falling down from stationary orbit along the space elevator at 51 Pegasi II. And I, crazy as I might seem, am about to try it.

Our spacecraft docked at the station, with the less insane passengers politely declining the offer, but with me and a few friends gladly taking it up. The other virtuals we took with us, with a collection of Siris Pearl modules that we bought from Djed. My temporary body floated through the airlock and into the capsule. The payment had been sent previously, and there was no need for protective gear. We chose the atmosphere we wanted inside our pods. The vecs were happy in hard vacuum, and some of my biont friends chose pure oxygen just for fun. I took the simple option and chose terra-standard oxygen-nitrogen. The pod was a five-metre long ellipsoid, with strengthened diamondoid windows, and a decel chair with morphing nanoplastics that moved to fit you. There were no controls, which was odd, because I have become conditioned to space pods having large amounts of controls by which one pilots them with the help of an AI. I strapped myself into the chair and enjoyed the view.

I was the first to go. Each pod was released in one-hour intervals, so it was lucky there were only five of us. The first thing I heard was a soft, muffled 'clunk' as the safety systems disengaged, and then a whirring sound as the station's electomagnetic accelerator sent me up to 100 mps, enough to escape the potential plateu of stationary orbit. And then —free fall. Zero gravity achieved without being in orbit. As I slowly sped up, I called up a holodisplay that showed my postion and speed. I was accelerating towards the planet very slowly, but that would change. Looking straight downwards through the bottom window, I could just see the glinting strand of carbon that continued down for 36,000 kilometres.

I was going faster now. Much faster. About halfway down, I was heading towards a small island in the Karmani Sea at two kilometres a second, which is so fast and so close to the planet that you can actually see the horizon moving upwards. Sure, I had been much faster in the spacecraft, with its conversion drive that had been ramped up to half c. But falling down the elevator gives you a sense of just how big and small a planet is. From up here, I could pick out continents, clouds and even the terminator line, slowly moving across the surface. The end of the elevator was still in night, but it would be morning by the time I landed.

Now I was past polar orbit, a thousand ks up. I was rushing down the elevator at ten kilometres per second, the planet growing in front of me before my eyes. It would only be a minute until I hit the top of the atmosphere.

And then — WHACK.

The pod thundered into the top of the atmosphere, heating itself to over 800K. The deceleration was tremendous, like a wave through my nano-reinforced spine. If I hadn't been in the decel chair, I probably would have broken something. The pod's buckymesh surface was glowing yellow-hot as the very air around me shocked into nitric oxide. For the first time in an hour, the figure denoting the pod's velocity was decreasing. A minute of stomach-wrenching deceleration later, and-it stopped. It was replaced with the standard gravitational attraction on the surface of a world.

Now traveling at a mere fifty metres per second, slowed by small arcjet retro rockets(how's that for an anachronism!) I punched through clouds over the island. It was morning, and the sun had just poked above the horizon. A few minutes later, I heard a soft 'clunk'. My pod had landed on the buckycrete pad. I stepped out into the beautiful sunrise. Now I can empathize with the pros.

Everyone wants to do it again.

Back to Stories by Author