Silent Screams or Ghastly Dreams in the Vacuum of Space:
An Interplanetary Voyage in 1866
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of Space, or so they say. Now I’m learning what they don’t say – that even in the middle of this muting vacuum, you can still see a scream. Particularly a scream of mortal terror. And even if you can’t hear a scream out here, if you know the silent shouter well enough you might even be able to feel their scream. If you are, your own sense of empathetic fright may convulse the knot in your stomach; more sharply by virtue of the fact that you cannot hear the scream that you are witnessing. You can see your comrade, your helmet-less friend hurtling past fiery suns and the ghosts of stars, releasing his last burst of oxygen in an eerily quiet scream. Painful though Donovan’s death clearly was, and robbed though it was of the glory of recognition that accrues to most final orations, one thing can be said for the way Donovan O’Malley left our galaxy. O’Malley did not go gently into that good night.
At least, those were my thoughts before I awoke in a cold sweat. Had the brutal horror I had just witnessed merely been a dream? But it seemed so vivid – perhaps it had happened – perhaps I passed out right afterwards; I had to know. Rising up from my bed, I saw Donovan sleeping soundly, undisturbed (I even envied him for this.) His safety in our cabin aboard the HMS Britannia Universum was demonstrated by his heaving chest, and by his occasional snore. All was clearly well, though O’Malley should probably get his Pickwickian Syndrome examined. There was no catch, no hitch. Unless this was the real dream, a sleeping break from nightmarish reality. Or unless – a more intriguing source of anxiety – unless time isn’t totally linear. For instance, if I had just seen Donovan’s future.
It had been such a vivid dream. Nothing seemed amiss, or distorted in the way that so many rapid eye movement adventures tend to be. The Britannia Universum looked the same way that it does in my waking moments. Brunel hadn’t taken any chances in designing this ship. He used all the cutting edge technologies that enabled us to grace the cosmos, but he had numerous backup plans. Our seven helium fired hot air balloons made us an easy mark for any pyromaniac with a flare for the dramatic. Even these seven wouldn’t be able to carry the weight of the Britannia Universum without assistance from our sails, smokestacks and paddlewheel-propellers. First consider the masts; our four traditional masts looked like any you’d find at Sea, but examine their sails. You will see that although their silhouettes seem perfectly ordinary, seaworthy even, each sail is split into four quadrants (and that each is separated from the others by a diagonal X). The sails, moreover, are not made of cloth, canvas or anything of the kind. These sails are made of photons, and implement the ideas of Kepler, Maxwell and Verne, far sooner than the latter two could have dreamed. We harness solar radiation to power our paddle wheel-propellers, which also run on coal fired steam whenever it is necessary. Our coal supplies stretch much longer thanks to the solar sails though, which is fortunate, since the Cosmos are not yet ordered enough to contain regular, predictably spaced refueling stations. That said, we have found that, in a pinch, asteroid rock can be at least as effective as coal from Earth, as long as you have a qualified Planetary Geologist aboard, who can lead you to the most useful seams containing ‘Space coal’ as we’ve coined it.
The smokestacks were billowing and our photon sails were at full mast in windless space, capturing every solar kilowatt they could get their silicon cells on – but that wasn’t my concern, of course. The mostly turquoise and gold painted wooden, magnesium and glass hull wasn’t a concern either – that is to say, I was unaware of anything that might be wrong with it. The point is, the presence of these accurate details, which were so totally unchanged from what I’d see in my conscious hours, made it all the trickier in hindsight to accept the relieving knowledge that it had all been a nightmare. My true focus in that nightmare was the fate of Donovan O’Malley. Without fear of being blinded by saccharine sentiment, I even venture to say that Donovan is the greatest friend I’ve ever known. He saved my life on three different occasions; hermetically tight jams he got me out of. I had always wanted to repay the favors, all three of them, without contemplating that in order to get the chance of doing so, Donovan’s life would have to be in terrible jeopardy. Little did I know when the chance would come. He was outside of the ship, naturally, for how could tragedy have struck otherwise – floating around on a cable. Always a bit of a daredevil, and a reckless bastard to boot. But he couldn’t have been blamed too harshly for taking this risk – we all spent time dangling on cables. We did so when we needed to in order to maintain the ship, but blast – we also dangled for the sheer enjoyment every now and then.
Waking up from my cold sweat, it struck me that going on cable excursions on a whim was a frivolously dangerous enterprise. After ascertaining that Donovan’s unmarred, peacefully breathing body was still very much alive, I closed my eyes again, and I could still visualize the images that had just been in my dream. I could see Donovan’s cable rapidly unfurling. As Donovan pulled on the cable with all his might, and flipped over himself in confusion he must have pressed a fateful button on the neck of his spacesuit, a fateful button that ejected his helmet just before the taut cable cracked with a reverberating bang. That bang was close enough for me to hear, even in Space’s vacuum – but not the scream, Donovan’s scream that was all the more frightful because it had been silenced. Silenced by a cruel, cold, uncaring univ –
“Are you alright? You’ve been staring off into the distance all morning. Typically you eat your bacon and hash brown breakfast like a ravenous pigeon, or hyena – but today you haven’t touched a scrap of the stuff.”
“I’m not hungry Donovan.”
“That is an answer that only begs further questioning. Why aren’t you hungry?”
“Oh let it alone. Mind your own business.”
“Back in London it would be solely your business. But you know, we’ve got a big day ahead of us. Mining an asteroid for space coal, which is enough for a day’s work already. But we’ve also got various other items on the agenda.”
“Who are you now, the captain? The first mate?”
“No, but as a crew-mate, I don’t want to be killed by an undernourished, fatigued, anxious layabout.”
“Who is simply too vain to admit that something is bothering him. And sure, he might be ready to take his secret concerns to his grave in Davy Jones’ Airlock. But he won’t be dragging me there with with him. No sir.”
“What is this? Why are you referring to me in the third person?”
“Just eat your damn bacon. You never know when your next meal will be hard tack. We’re lucky to have savory provisions, make something of them. The key point is that I don’t need you fainting.” I resented his impudent interference, but he had a point. And the bacon was a sizzling alternative to any hard tack that I might eat in the future. In the future – that dangerous time that I’d like to control by anticipating and preempting.
“Anyhow, I’m going for a cable ride,” Donovan said.
My fork, which had just speared some delectable bacon, was halfway to my mouth, frozen in mid-air, until my fingers dropped it, clattering on the plate as it fell.
“There is definitely something amiss. What’s the matter with you?”
I tried to compose myself. I looked Donovan in the eye, and then looked away. Before telling him what needs to be said, perhaps a helpful question is the best place to start. “Is this cable ride a maintenance job?”
“No, can’t say it is.”
What next? I should try to start out with some simple observations that’ll sound cool and mundane. But what should they be?
“You still haven’t told me what’s bothering you.” I picked my fork up and resumed chewing the bacon. “I see,” Donovan said. “That’s how it is, is it? Fine. Hold your own counsel. What do I care?”
“I hear that Captain Sinclair doesn’t like it when we go jumping around on the cables when we don’t need to for mission related purposes.”
“Doesn’t he? And why the devil not?” O’Malley was looking intently at me, scrutinizing my visage.
“Oh any number of reasons. It keeps the crew off task, endangers the safety of the cables from over exertion – and might even endanger our own safety as well.”
“Over exerted cables? Nonsense.” O’Malley was smirking now as he rose from the table.
“Don’t go!” I shouted. “By thunder, it isn’t worth the risk! You’ve been asking what is wrong with me. Well if you insist I’ll tell you. Last night I had a vivid dream – every detail of the ship was the same, nothing seemed off – and you were dangling along a cable which came undone, and sent you hundreds of meters away from the ship. You must have accidentally pressed your helmet eject button under your neck in the commotion. As the cord snapped, your helmet flew off, and you’re last breath was a scream before you suffocated in deep space.”
“Listen Chuck," O'Malley adjusted his tone, "listen Charlie, listen to me – we’ve got a doctor aboard this ship. And we’ve got a couple phrenologists too. I recommend – as your friend I insist that you go talk to them.”
“You think that my dream makes me crazy?”
“No, anyone could have a dream like that. What worries me is the way that you’re interpreting it. It’s a dream.”
“Could be. Could also be a premonition. A glimpse into the future.”
“See, that’s exactly what I mean. And answer this – if it is a glimpse of the future – even if it is, why should that prevent me from going on a cable spin? If its going to happen, it’s going to happen whether I like it or not. If it is a glimpse of the future.”
“That’s nonsense – you can’t die from a snapping cable if you stop harnessing yourself to cables.”
“We have to harness ourselves to cables. How else would we do external maintenance jobs?”
“But in my premonition–”
“In your dream.”
“In my, whatever you want to call it –”
“What we call it is hardly a trivial point.”
“We don’t know what it truly is. And in it, you were not doing a maintenance job. I was aboard the ship, and I wouldn’t have been during a maintenance job. You were there by choice, by the same choice you are prepared to make right now.”
“You don’t even know that much if we grant that it was a premonition. It could be fifteen cable rides from now.”
“That may be, but if so, it is your continued devil-may-care approach that’ll do you in. Don’t interrupt,” for Donovan was ready to when I added, “And regarding your rather solipsistic dodge on the inevitability of *the* future, let’s consider another possibility. That this premonition showed *a* future, a possible outcome.”
“Well if it was only about *a* possible future, then why would you get so worked up?”
“Because it is a far more probable future if you persist in going on cable rides. It might even be dead certain, unless you start protecting your own hide, and your own lungs from suffocating in cold deep space.” Donovan shook his head. He was making his way out of our dining hall, and I was following him.
In order to orient yourself to the lay of the ship, you need to first understand the reason why we needed so many diverse technologies to propel us through deep space. In part it was because we were the pioneers of Space travel, transiting through the stars in the summer of 1866. As such, we needed every marvel of cutting edge, secret technology Brunel was able to devise, from our paddle-wheel propellers to our solar sails.
In addition to the technological constraints of Nineteenth Century Space Travel, Brunel insisted on making our ship unreasonably large. Five-fold larger than Brunel’s sea-bound Great Eastern, the HMS Britannia Universum was big enough to be self-sufficient for nearly indefinite periods of time. In addition to our foodstuffs, we also had our very own greenhouse aboard – yet this greenhouse was not growing superfluous flowers. It functioned as a great indoor farm, replete with hundreds of crops. We also had sections of our cargo where we carried livestock. No less than half of the space on our ship was devoted to food; growing it, raising it, storing it and cooking it. This was a necessary guarantor against deprivation in the cosmos. It was a wonder we were able to fit everything else – living quarters for the ‘Space Sailors’, miners, Planetary Biologists, Astronomers and other scientists, along with their equipment. But as I said, this ship was five times the size of The Great Eastern, and The Great Eastern is a massive ship – bigger than any ship prior to the HMS Britannia Universum. And when we recall that this was also the first ship to not only fly, but also travel into space, its record breaking size probably strains your credulity past breaking point.
And yet I was there, so I have the burden of having to explain that, though Brunel’s achievements strain credulity past breaking point, the man was a genius. I never met him, of course. He died a year after the completion of The Great Eastern. But that wasn’t the end of the story, of course. Through a series of shady transactions I know very little about, the White Star Line purchased Brunel’s blueprints for truly insane project. The cost of obtaining the blueprints was probably mitigated by the fact that no other shipping company would have touched the plans with a 50 knot rope. A ship 3,460 feet in length— that would be mad. Flying would be mad. Flying into space madder still – even if the craft (unlike ours) were lighter than most sailboats. This? Must have seemed a like a highly questionable scheme to deliberately lose money, to the tune of more pounds sterling than the Queen burns through in a decade. How did the mad quixotic heavily loaded fools pull it off? Search me if I know.
But I was there. And Brunel was a genius. And John Pilkington and James Chambers had cash to spare, especially once they drew interest from the newly instituted British Raj, as well as from the Colonial Office in Whitehall. Naturally, Civil Servants, Ministers, MPs and Viceroys were precisely the sort of stolid unimaginative types who would have been provoked out of their languor and burned Chambers at the stake after he proposed state support for a scheme to launch the largest ship in human history into Space. Ordinarily. And yet, as we’ll see, with two thirds of the construction already completed, the scheme had more credibility. More crucially, our ship would render crucial services to Queen and Country.
Moreover, various innovations (other than our solar sails) made the functioning of our ship feasible. The first was to use a combination of balsa wood (which doesn't get used for most ships), glass and magnesium for various sections of our hull. These materials were the lightest ones available – vastly lighter than conventional materials like plywood, iron and steel. This helped counteract the effects of scale, and brought our mass down to a point where powerful paddlewheel propellers could lift us into the skies, and thence into Space. The other innovation was the paddlewheel propeller- just as it sounds, the turning of the wheel acted with overwhelming force (unhindered by water in the way that seafaring paddle-wheels typically are) to rapidly spin. We also relied on two coal powered jet engines. All of these technical wonders acted in concert. Of course, the multitudinous technologies are less impressive when we remember that each one required the others. Balloons alone, paddle-wheel propellers on their own, and jet engines on their own couldn’t have done the trick. Not with a ship of our size, and not with the technical limits of our epoch.
It was just my luck that, as Donovan O’Malley was preparing his harness and helmet for one of his chord journeys, we were both called to the top deck to discuss this mission.
“Yes yes, I know you may think our historic venture into Space is all fun and games. But it just so happens that seven million pounds sterling are riding on our success, as well as, quite possibly, our future hold over India. We have a mission, gentlemen, and that mission must be accomplished!”
“I understand, Sir, that we are looking to find the precise locations of sun spots. What I still don’t, and can’t for the life of me understand, is why the location of sun spots would be worth such unfathomable sums, let alone determine our future hold over India,” Donovan asked.
“That is because you haven’t been paying attention the last fifty times I’ve discoursed on the subject.” Our Captain Stewart did not suffer fools gladly, and I counted Donovan as lucky for getting such a light rebuke. “Very well,” Stewart sighed. “We are traveling to a point that is slightly closer to our Sun than Venus, which is really as close as we feel would be safe. We may fry, boil, bake, char – pick your cooking metaphor – if we get as close as Mercury is… But we are flying as close as we can to our Sun in order to measure her spots because we are testing a theory that may explain and even predict variations in the Indian Monsoon cycle. Variations that can, and indeed, that have destroyed immensely valuable crops and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands – nay, millions of people. Famine struck the Northwest Frontier of the Raj just five years ago. Today another famine is gripping the subcontinent.”
“And Her Majesty is concerned about the well being of her subjects? Concerned enough to finance this expedition?”
“Perhaps concern plays a role in it. But not half the role of tea, cotton and other key commodity crops whose regular passage to London is certainly threatened by these climatic variations.”
“And what is the theory?” I asked.
“Wolf, can you quickly elucidate your theory?” Captain Stewart implored our astronomer.
“Certainly. Well, I’ll try to be quick. The key point is that we can find a direct correlation, and I believe, a determinative one, between the number of sunspots at any given time, and climatic patterns affecting crop yields throughout the world, particularly the Monsoon - Cyclone cycle in the Subcontinent.”
“Are there any alternative theories to explain the droughts and famines?” I ventured to ask.
Wolf laughed scornfully.”Bah, yes, of course there are. Roxburgh and his intellectual successor, Edward Balfour, blame British policies of deforestation, land management, and the burden of tax collection on the Indian peasantry, if you please! Of course anyone arguing that, including Balfour has gone crackers! Not to mention that such unscientific allegations smack of treachery. The work of Imperial Russian agents, perhaps, who found disloyal English scientists who were willing to help them sow discord among Her Majesty’s Indian subjects. ”
“That is a serious charge sir!” The Captain cried out. Intensely patriotic though he was, our Captain was uncomfortable with libel.
“Well, I have my suspicions, but you are right, no proof beyond that. At any rate, the Dessicationist theory is unsound. But my sunspot theory explains what the Dessicationists fail to explain.”
“And so, the idea is that if we can measure the sunspots, we can prevent millions of people from dying?”
“Well perhaps. The main idea is that we can reduce pressure on the Raj to withdraw land from cultivation of key commodity crops like tea and cotton, or to cease exports of said commodities along with foodstuffs to the Mother Country. There would be far less reason to take such drastic measures if we can accurately predict when the droughts will come, prepare for them more adequately, etc.” Captain Stewart cut in. The man was not one who spewed humbug – he saw the situation clearly and explained it as he saw it.
“And that’s worth seven million pounds sterling to the Empire?”
“Oh, far, far more than that, and remember, Her Majesty’s Government didn’t even supply most of those funds. Just the three million quid or so that made the difference.”
Soon after that our pep talk had concluded, and Donovan returned to the harnessing station. “Donovan, don’t do it!”
“Bah! You, sir, need to see a doctor. And a phrenologist! Heed my advice Charlie.”
“Heed mine Donovan!”
I considered the situation. If my dream was a premonition of a potential future outcome, which becomes all the more certain the more often Donovan goes on his cable excursions, how would I insure that this particular excursion wouldn’t be the fateful one? Well, in the dream, I was watching from inside the safety and comfort of the ship.
Beyond superstitious conjecture, accompanying Donovan on my own cable would place me at the scene, on hand to help the marked fellow if it came to that. I took a big gulp of air and then said, “Very well, if you insist on going through with this foolery, I will too.”
“Why the devil would you if you think its so unsafe? What leg do you have to stand on now, whenever you implore me that the cable is too dangerous?”
“In the dream, I was watching from the ship. If it was a premonition, one way to increase the odds of its happening is for you to harness yourself to a cable. An additional way to increase the odds is for me to stay aboard when you do so.”
“You know Chuck, you almost speak logically in a marvelously mad way. Very well. You won’t regret it.”
And so there the two of us were, harnessed to our respective cables, swinging by Venus and her brilliant streaks of cloudy white, peach orange and even azure blue.
I tried not to focus too much on this incredible sight, lest it distract me from my charge, Donovan O’Malley. His cable seemed dependable enough, and so did mine. With the exception of seeing Venus (and it was a grand exception) the first twenty minutes on the cable were fairly uneventful. What I took for a premonition was merely a dream. It has no significance or relation to reality. I finally felt that I could exhale.
It is a rum thing for nervous folk, but sometimes the moments of our lives that grant us permission to exhale directly precede the instant when the cables begin to wildly unfurl.
Falling into deep space, I saw the ship growing more and more distant. Donovan was a distant speck, in close, safe proximity to the ship. Don’t click the eject button, don’t click the eject button. I may be flipping over myself as the chord unravels, and although I can’t control where I may go in this chaos, I must avoid clicking the eject button. My helmet must remain firmly on my head.
Was I watching Donovan in my dream? Was I even able to discern his face clearly? Is it possible that the premonition concerned me? Was I the silent screamer in the vision— and will it come to fruition in the next few seconds?
To be continued…