Author : Q.B.Fox
Peter Stovold had hoped to be the first person to solo circumnavigate the sun in his [Manchester Evening News sponsored] Solar Flare 2.
The timing had to be perfect; repeated Earth orbits before shooting off on a flawlessly planned course that used the planetary bodies and floating space hardware to help accelerate SF2 and, later, act as brake; finally completing one and bit revolutions, coming to rest on the moving target of the Earth.
But something went wrong on the homeward leg, as his elliptical path passed near locus of Venus’ orbit. The first signs were an unexpected change in heading; then, almost imperceptible at first, but soon decreasing rapidly, his velocity began to fall below the plan.
Stovold was baffled when he checked his computer. He was on the edge of Venus’ L5: the gravity hole that followed in the wake of the morning star. There should be no forces, at all, acting on the elongated bubble-shape of SF2.
The computer said something very large was tugging at them aft and slightly to port. But it was nothing he could detect and the computer model constantly changed its mind about the size and position of the body that must be causing it.
Solar Flare 2 had almost come to a halt when the cloud of particles, into which Stovold was being inevitably drawn, became sufficiently dense for him to notice them through the forward viewport. It was then that he realised that there was no massive object; no gravitation forces acting on SF2. Some other sort of force entirely was grabbing at his vessel from this quicksand of stranded, ancient particles; a trap set for unwary travellers since the formation of the solar system.
He had only half formed his next thought when the SF2 came to a sudden and complete stop, throwing him hard against bulkhead, with sufficient force to break a leg and a wrist, shatter his pelvis and crack six ribs.
“Our superstructure is made entirely of a special polymer, comrade.” Josif Samoilenko waved his arms effusively.
“We’re less than 1% metal, my friend,” his Ukrainian drawl like beet molasses.
“We are invisible to the cloud, like the ceramic Glock of spaceships,” he concluded, putting two fingers to his temple, pulling an imaginary trigger and slumping in his chair.
“There never really was a….” Ian Bennet began.
“But the timing has to be perfect, comrade,” Samoilenko rejoined, leaping Lazarus-like from his seat. “We have to fire the grabber,” he gestured with a claw-like hand on an outstretched arm, “at just the right moment. Once we connect to the Solar Flare all the forces change, our course changes….” He waggled his eyebrows knowingly.
“I’m the astro-engineer,” Bennet said patiently, “I understand all this, but I’m not sure you….”
“The timing has to be perfect,” Samoilenko continued unconcerned, “and that is why….” He paused for effect, removing his pseudo-communist, red-starred beret with a flourish, “…that is why we let the computer do it. No?”
“Timing,” the Ukrainian mused. “All the planets have to be in exactly the right place.”
“Strictly speaking you only need….” Bennet attempted.
“It is why we have waited for 12 years, no?” Josif interrupted, “we could have come earlier, but the timing was not perfect; it would not have been, as you say in London, economically viable.”
And then the computer triggered the recovery systems; cables shot out into the particle cloud towards the Solar Flare 2. Inside the desiccated body of Peter Stovold waited patiently to make his journey home, waited for his hero’s welcome, waited for the timing to be perfect.