Ross Cauvel

Exploring The Dark Circle - Part One

Ross Cauvel
Exploring The Dark Circle - Part One

Raffert sat in the pilot’s seat of his G-5000 space pod and watched a live video on his heads up display (HUD). It showed the exterior around the pod, which was an exhaust-stained landing pad, connected to a walkway leading up to a jagged-terraced condo tower.

He scanned the area for any signs of movement. Still nothing. He puffed his cheeks and let the air expel from his lips. Delays this early in the morning were annoying.

The G-5000 was an older model, hanging onto life by a thread thanks to Raffert’s mechanical aptitude and a slew of refurbished parts. The interior was fastidiously kept, with assigned compartments for safety equipment, personal effects and tools. The only sign of disorder was a creased photo tacked to the windshield, showing Raffert and his surf partner, Sandoon, floating in space some twenty years ago.

Sandoon was also Raffert's best friend. And if it weren't for that--Raffert wouldn't be sitting there waiting for him for the tenth time in a row. 

Finally, a dark figure glided across Raffert's HUD and the pod’s entry hatch slid open. Sandoon ducked inside. His gear was loaded high on his back and his rocketboard was tucked underneath his arm.

“I got caught up,” Sandoon said.

“Big surprise.” Raffert replied as he tapped commands and prepared for launch.

Sandoon slogged his gear to the pod’s aft. He hung his spacesuit in a locker and secured his rocketboard on the board racks. He returned to the cockpit, locked into his harness and activated his personal HUD.

Sandoon was always in charge of the music for the ride. He queued up a playlist called “Dawn Patrol” on the pod’s sound system. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar growled to life and reverberated off the titanium walls.

Sandoon air-guitared his best Hendrix impression. “New mix to get us stoked, whaddya think?”

Raffert rolled his eyes and immediately reduced the volume. He cared more about their task at hand -- going to surf a black hole. On his HUD, Raffert pulled up the Surf Forecast . All week he’d monitored the conditions of black holes. He left no area unchecked throughout the entire universe, but the models were tough to trust. They said one place might be better than the other. Eventually everywhere could get crowded with other surfers. Space was never stable.

“Did you check the forecast?” Raffert asked Sandoon. “Looks like Two Stars will be good.”

Two Stars was a blackhole located in the Agenia Galaxy, 70 million light years away. The blackhole had formed when two individual stars collided and merged together. This new massive star lived for billions of years, but eventually, like all other stars, its core finally depleted of fuel. So it collapsed into itself and Two Stars the black hole was born. 

“We always go to Two Stars," said Sandoon. "Let's try somewhere different. Go explore,”

“Explore where?”

“I heard there’s been new activity in the Vesta Galaxy. Something big.”

Raffert looked on his HUD to confirm the news, but he found no evidence. He was not happy with Sandoon's lack of preparation, if Sandoon had paid attention, he'd know Two Stars was the call. “Look Sandoon, this pod runs on ions, not hot air. We can’t chase after rumors. We need to make educated guesses.”

On screen, an indicator flashed with a green light and a message below:

EPIC CONDITIONS: TWO STARS.

Raffert pointed. “Look, Two Stars is the call. Pay attention.”

“Big surprise,” Sandoon muttered. 

Raffert fired up the G-5000’s turbines and set the coordinates for Two Stars. They lifted off Sandoon's landing pad and accelerated to 120,000 kph. Raffert’s fingers deftly adjusted the steering controls, as they dodged traffic. They exited the thermosphere in good time.

Raffert pulled up a live video feed of Two Stars. Darkness blanketed his HUD. Not a single star, planet or even debris was visible. At the black hole’s edge--the event horizon--Clusters of stars lined its border like a celestial picket fence. Observing them helped indicate the blackhole's current size and strength under the conditions. Two Stars was big, but some days it was stronger than others. At the time it collapsed, its mass was nearly 15 billion times the size of Earth’s sun.

Suddenly, they saw a streak of light sliced across the black hole. It was the exterior lights of a space suit. Someone was already there--surfing. They watched as the surfer ripped up and down the walls of gravitational pull. A trail of light arced behind the person, then disappeared.

“Wish that was us right now,” Raffert remarked.

The surfer made a huge turn. Raffert zoomed in and immediately recognized the spacesuit and rocketboard. It belonged to a girl named Seiko Kim.

Seiko coiled up and released into a massive spin. She whipped her board around and tweaked out her legs, switching through multiple grabs and boning them out with style. Her tracks swirled around the blackhole and streak away. She gracefully uncorked and regained her path.

Seconds later, an alert displayed on their HUDs.

THIS JUST IN - SEIKO TENSKI LANDS FIRST EVER 4,320 STALEFISH, MUTE, CRAIL, SLOB GRAB

“News travels fast,” Sandoon said.

“Yeah and look,” Raffert tapped the screen.  “15 million views already. Oh, great, that won’t attract any attention. Now it's going to be crowded by the time we even get there. This is why you have to be ready on time.”

Sandoon stayed quiet. He clicked on his HUD and tried to ignore Raffert's tirade, which continued.

“Everyone talks about Seiko. Seiko has a new sponsor. Seiko landed a new trick. Seiko is the GOAT,” Raffert shook his head. “Come on, I'm better than that."

A line of pods waited for the InterGalatic Transporter (the IG). The IG allowed pods to travel around the Universe in a fraction of the time. It bent space around a pod and propelled them to speeds faster than light. From here. It'd take less than ten minutes to get to Aegnia Galaxy, home of Two Stars. 

While they waited in line for The IG, Raffert unbuckled his harness and headed to the pod’s aft to check his gear. At the board racks, he ran his hand along the his rocketboard's rail. He’d spent last week smoothing out bumps and dents in its titanium sheath, making it as aerodynamic as possible again. He also checked its ion turbines and fuel converter for blockage. It was critical to keep them clear--otherwise he could be jettisoned into a black hole.

Black hole surfing was, of course, a dangerous activity. And Raffert took pride respecting those risks.

Back in the cockpit, Raffert saw their G-5000 was next in line. A robotic arm grabbed their pod, then dropped them into the propulsion tube. Raffert and Sandoon locked into their harnesses, and a female voice chimed over the speakers, “Departing to Aegnia Galaxy. Arrival time seven minutes, forty seven seconds. Have a safe and comfortable transit.”

“I love this part," Sandoon laughed and cranked the Dawn Patrol playlist back up. Mountain Song by Janes Addiction blasted through the cockpit.

The propulsion tube's doors slid open. The pod accelerated. It instantaneously surpassed lightspeed. There were no streaks of stars or planets like in the movies. The speed was spontaneous. There was a calm. A fuzzy white orb appeared ahead of them. The IG bent them through one galaxy after another. The journey was disorienting even to the initiated.

When they arrived at the Aegnia Galaxy, Raffert resumed control of the pod. In the distance, Two Stars loomed like a toothless mouth surrounded by a star-freckled face.

Raffert set autopilot on the pod, and they entered a circular orbit around Two Stars, maintaining their distance, so they wouldn’t get sucked in.

The black hole was obviously crowded now. Spacesuit lights from surfers scored the abyss. They illuminated incisions and surgical displays of surfing expertise on the black hole.

Seiko’s new trick had inspired people. In fact, hundred of pods waited in line for their turn. Raffert's G-5000 was the last to join.

“Everyone in the whole goddamn universe is here,” Raffert said.

“Sheep,” Sandoon replied.

Raffert weighed their options. If they waited it out, it’d be hours before they surfed. He couldn’t stand that. Should they go somewhere else? Raffert’s fingers pecked at his HUD, while he scanned the galaxies. He found another possibility nearby, Craters, a black hole likely to be less crowded, but also smaller and less powerful.

A red alert flashed on screen.

WARNING: 70% CHANCE OF ASTEROID STORMS AT CRATERS, PLEASE BE ADVISED

“Asteroid storm? Sounds like a walk in the park,” Sandoon said with a sideways glance.

“Might be worth a look,” Raffert volleyed back. He pulled up a live video of Craters, then zoomed and spotted a lone surfer, linking turns together. "See, one person, looks uncrowded."

“That guy’s nuts,” Sandoon said.

“Or he didn’t check the report.”

The surfer leaned into a massive turn, a smooth powerful arc. Raffert zoomed out and searched for signs of an asteroid storm. He pinpointed a grey mass lurching through space only seven kilometers away.

Sandoon jumped to his feet and started pacing. “That guy’s gonna eat asteroids for breakfast. We gotta go help.”

“Can’t. Too far. Too dangerous.” Raffert said.

The surfer pumped faster and faster to gain speed. He appeared to know something was wrong.

The asteroids poured across the event horizon. They accelerated and ignited into molten fireballs, illuminating the black hole with mortar fire in the dark space.

The surfer skillfully maneuvered in and out. He dodged the molten rocks. He was b-lining to the event horizon--his only chance of escape.

Sandoon shouted at the screen, “Come on, you got this!”

As the barrage of asteroids increased, the surfer tried to thread between two fireballs and was clipped. He spun uncontrollably, down into the black hole. But then reappeared. Somehow he had re-engaged his thrusters and blasted back out.

“Damn, that was impressive. Who do you think it is?” Sandoon questioned.

Raffert shook his head.

The storm took a turn for the worse. The asteroids created a wall of lava. There was no way around it. In an instant, the unknown surfer vanished. 

The G-5000 cockpit was eerily quiet. Raffert and Sandoon processed what they'd witnessed.

Sandoon dropped his head into his hand. “He was doing what he loved. What we all love.”

Raffert pointed at Sandoon. “Look, you're going to feed the fear. You know that's bad. This is why we always check the report. You don’t get in the pod without checking. It’s a requirement. It's how we stay safe.”

“You always check, Raffert. I know it.” Sandoon said.

“Doesn’t matter. We both check. Why should I shoulder all the responsibility? Why should I check the surf report? Rocketboards? Spacesuits? Why bring you along at all?” Raffert stood up and walked to the windshield. “I could’ve been surfing Two Stars hours ago.”

“You’re missing the whole point, Raffert. It's selfish. We just lost one of us. Why do you have to make it about yourself?”

“What'd you say to me?” Raffert walked over to Sandoon and leaned over, “Say it again.”

Sandoon coiled his legs, then thrusted his feet and pushed Raffert back. Then, he lept out of his seat and charged.

Sandoon tackled Raffert and landed on top of him, then immediately put him in a headlock. "Calm down, Raffert."

Raffert gave up and they both lay on the ground, breathing heavily.

“I told you before," Sandoon said. "I found a black hole ten times better than Two Stars."

“That's a rumor. You never check anything out.” said Raffert.

Sandoon got up and pulled a file from his HUD and put it on the main screen. He cued up a recording he'd made last night: a transmission from cargo pods.

The recording played over the pod’s speakers:

Did you see that?...Oh I saw it...Half the galaxy just disappeared...I saw it! It was gobbled up by a new black hole....Our entire fleet has been diverted around Vesta Galaxy...Have you ever seen one that big?…No, never...Make sure to pass along the warning, none of the news channels are picking it up yet, safe travels...You too...

Raffert stood up and asked, “What’s this?”

“It’s a recording I made. I was tapping into messaging servers from two cargo pods near Vesta Galaxy.”

Raffert got up off the floor. He buckled into his pilot chair and accessed a map of Vesta Galaxy on his HUD. There were no recent images or video. The last one was from six months ago. He pulled it up. There were no major black holes were visible, but he did notice three smaller ones. Was it possible they collided? Smaller black holes did have a tendency to move. If they’d crossed paths, they would’ve fed off each other and grown.

“The cameras in Vesta Galaxy went down six months ago,” Raffert observed.

“Forget cameras. If there were cameras, a hundred surfers would already be there, just like Two Stars.”

“You were right. They're sheep," Raffert replied as he looked at the myriad of pods waiting in line. "I should’ve listened to you. Let's go to Vesta."

Sandoon pumped his fist, “Let’s do this.”

Raffert punched in the coordinates for Vesta Galaxy. Their pod swooped out of line and set a new course.

By the time they returned to the IG Transport, Raffert and Sandoon had researched the Vesta Galaxy. They'd learned there were no habitable planets or colonies. The area was mostly used as a holding galaxy for cargo pods.

Raffert guessed what the new black hole might be like. He told Sandoon his theory that it might be three blackholes in one. As they approached The IG, he was in much better spirits. He turned up the sound system. The son was Kashmir by Led Zepplin and Jimmy Pages chunky opening riffs set the tone for another intergalatic voyage.

....Continue at Into The Dark Unknown Part 2