Observations of a Small Object in Decaying Orbit12 min read

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Bullying, Civil unrest, Death or dying

When Sam was four, he lived against the hull of a giant cylindrical starship with his mother and father. Sam’s mother helped run the ship, and Sam’s father took care of Sam. Every day, Sam and his father went to the park in the Green Belt to play catch in the grass under the simulated sunlight, and at night after this mother tucked him in, Sam watched the stars creep from left to right across the window in his bedroom floor until he fell asleep. 

Sam was still four the day everything changed. 

After that day, Sam slept in a bunk stacked between the boy above and the boy below, in the windowless compartment between the waste-recycling facilities and his family’s old rooms. The rooms belonged to a different family now. A family who deserved them. Sam’s parents did not deserve them because his mother was a bad person.

Sam couldn’t stay there because, alone, Sam was no longer a family.

His new home was hot from the machinery all around it, but he shivered under his thin blanket. He was always cold. 

The woman who had brought him to the bunk room told Sam he must not think about what things had been like before. It would make him sad and make other people remember. Now was all there was left. She seemed nice, but she left Sam and never came back. He tried to do what she said, but the lady’s words didn’t keep memories of his parents from coming back at night, playing on a loop in his head whether he closed his eyes or not. The only thing that stopped Sam from remembering was thinking about something else, so he counted in his head until the numbers grew too big to hold, and he fell into a shivering sleep. 

When Sam was five, the ship celebrated the first Anniversary of the Revolution. His teacher stood in front of the class and read out the names of the Command Council, who had betrayed everyone on the ship. They were why the Revolution had to happen. She paused when she read Sam’s mother’s name and looked at him. The cold in Sam’s chest—that he almost didn’t notice some days now—dropped to his stomach.

When she finished the list, the teacher told everyone to line up for assembly. Sam hit every palm, shoulder, and elbow on his way to the back of the line, but even though the teacher stared at him the whole way, she must not have seen.    

When Sam was seven, he wrote an essay for the Anniversary. His new teacher made him read his to the class. Sam stood in front of a dozen pairs of hostile eyes and read what he had written about justice and the mercy of the Revolutionaries who had only executed the guilty, had only done what was necessary to save the ship from the Command Council. The Council who would have doomed every passenger aboard. Sam didn’t say how the ship would have been doomed, or why the Council had been so awful. He didn’t know. By the time he was old enough to think of those questions, he was old enough to know better than to ask.

His new teacher applauded when Sam reached the end of his essay, and, under his watchful gaze, Sam’s classmates did too. The teacher sent his essay to the headmaster, who had Sam read it in front of the entire school. A few days later, he read it in front of a camera, and the recording was broadcast to the entire ship. 

After that, some people were kinder, but most were worse. Sam’s classmates in particular found a hundred subtle ways to remind him he was tolerated among them only on the sufferance of soft-hearted adults, and when that indulgence someday snapped, he would spiral untethered into the merciless vacuum of their resentment. 

Nights were the least safe. Sam was used to the cold now though and didn’t shiver while he lay awake and counted squares or cubes or primes, waiting to find out if tonight the other boys would strike from the dark or fall asleep. 

For several years, Sam found numbers to be good company, and no one objected to his choice. They gave his classmates little reason to plague him, and adults saw mathematics as a gateway to solid, practical work that might attempt to compensate for his mother’s crimes. 

When Sam scored the highest calculus grade in the school, the headmaster called him into his office to make sure he understood he should not harbor ambitions for advanced study. The son of a traitor, Sam would never be permitted to delve into astral-navigation’s mysteries. Engineering would also be looked at askance by many. Sam should focus on a future in ship maintenance. Sam nodded to show he understood.  

When Sam was twelve, his class went on a trip to the Green Belt. The minute the grass and soil smell hit his nose, Sam was four years old, playing catch with his father for the last time.

Sam wasn’t very good at catching. His father said it was because he didn’t pay attention. “Watch the ball, Sammy,” he’d said. “Watch the ball.”

But Sam was tired and mad, and instead he hurled the ball as high and hard as he could, so high it would never fall back down, and no one would be able to catch it ever again. A moment later, it landed with a thump at his father’s feet, and Sam flung himself backward onto the grass, so choked with frustration he could not even scream his outrage. Normally, this would be when Sam’s father told him it was time to go home for a rest, but that day, he lay down beside Sam instead, and they looked at the sky together.

When Sam’s breathing calmed and his feelings cooled, his father showed him how to hold up his hand to block the light from the sun-rods and squint until he could just make out a flash of green: the park on the other side of the cylinder. Sam didn’t understand how people in a park stuck to the sky wouldn’t fall off it, but he listened while his father tried to explain. Then Sam told his father a funny story he had just made up about a little boy named Mas who walked on his hands and talked backward. But his father didn’t laugh.

When Sam looked, his father wasn’t even listening.

He was watching a group of people run across the grass.

They weren’t supposed to do that. Everyone was supposed to stay on the paths. But Sam and his father were also on the grass. Maybe they were in trouble for that? The running people looked angry. They all moved together, and they didn’t shout or laugh like they were having fun. Except for their boots on the ground, they didn’t make any noise at all.

Until one of them saw Sam’s father and shouted.

His father grabbed Sam by the arm and shoved him into a hedge. The sharp ends of branches scratched at Sam’s face and hands, and he cried, but his father shushed him, his voice tight and hard.

“Stay there. Stay down. Don’t make a sound. No matter what happens, don’t move until Mommy or I come get you. Do you understand?”

Sam didn’t understand, but he nodded.

His father turned and ran. Sam watched him, saw his father notice he still clutched their ball. The running people got closer. His father looked from them to the ball, and back at Sam. Sam’s heart leapt. Maybe his father would come back.

His father caught Sam’s eye, held up the ball, pointed to it. He didn’t make a sound, but his lips said: “Watch the ball.” Then he threw it straight up: as high and as hard as he could.

The running people closed in. Sam’s father held his hands above his head. Like he was reaching for the ball.

Sam watched the ball grow tinier and tinier against the bright artificial sky. Even when it got lost in the glare, he kept watching. He stared until his eyes watered, and tried not to watch anything else.

He watched the ball until the running people found him, crowded around, and blocked his view. Then he screamed.

A hard elbow hit the side of Sam’s head and jolted him out of the memory. 

“Oy! Move your ass, traitor.” 

Sam was no longer four. He moved his ass. 

He found an out-of-the-way spot, near—but not inside—a low hedge, and looked up. Holding up his hand and squinting, he pretended he might be able to see a little boy in a park on the other side of the cylinder.

Instead, he saw a tiny shadow cross the sun-rods from left to right. Like an anti-star across a window. 

Sam held his breath and counted until it disappeared. One-one thousand, two-one thousand… Counted again until it came back. One-one thousand, two-one thousand…

He counted until the teacher’s whistle blew that it was time to leave.

By the time Sam was fourteen, three boys remained in the bunk room. The other two spread into the corners, leaving Sam in the middle. Alone, Sam hung his tablet from the underside of the bunk above, filled it with numbers, and looked for the ball. 

The ship is a cylinder of radius R that spins at a rate of x rpm in order to maintain simulated gravity against the inner hull of 1g.

A sphere of radius r and mass m would need to reach velocity v in order to overcome centrifugal force and establish its own orbit around the core.  

A sphere of mass m with an orbital period of s seconds would imply an orbital distance of d from the center of mass. Solve for d. 

Taking into account the coefficient of friction between a sphere of mass m and radius r and an atmosphere of density ρ, how long would the sphere maintain a stable orbit…

Through the numbers, Sam watched the ball trace a path around the ship’s central core, but he could tell it wouldn’t stay there long. He saw the ball waver in his equations, snared by the force that flung the passengers and all their worldly goods against the hull’s fragile shell, the only thing that kept them all from fracturing and hurtling into space. 

He saw it would land in the Green Belt in the middle of the night. 

He had to catch it.

The hard part was sneaking away after lights out. Ten years had taught Sam that while it was okay for most people to break some rules sometimes, and okay for some people to break most rules all the time, it was not okay for him to break any rules at any time. Because when Sam broke a rule, it wasn’t because boys would be boys, or because everyone made mistakes. For Sam, breaking a rule was defiance against the Revolution, evidence he still carried the corruption of his parentage, a suspected rot he was constantly inspected for, to be routed out with force and relish. 

Sam was a bright and compliant child and made this connection early. But no one could follow all the rules all the time. Not even Sam. 

So he turned his intelligence to not getting caught. 

Sam waited for the other boys to fall asleep. Waited for the teacher in charge to turn out his light. All the time, he counted the seconds against the numbers in his head, watching the ball. At last, all was quiet. He slipped from his bunk and out the door. 

Sam’s bare feet slapped the deck plates, as he ran, fast as he dared, toward the Green Belt, still in his night clothes. If he were caught, he could say he had gotten turned around on his way to the head, or that he had been sleep-walking. Sleep-sprinting. Sam was late, and the numbers streamed down to zero faster than he could run. They showed him the ball plummeting to the grass when he was still three decks away.

Sam had never been good at catch.  

But he kept running, following the numbers to a spot on the far side of the park, where he fell to his knees and searched the damp grass with frantic fingers until he found a perfectly hemispherical divot in the soil. His breath caught. Out of numbers, he reached blindly: crawling in an outward spiral from the tiny crater, staining the knees of his pajamas as he fumbled under bushes, in flower beds, dug into the soil with frozen fingers.

He couldn’t find the ball.

Sam was still looking when the sun-rods glowed with morning, and he heard the crunch of the groundskeepers’ approaching boots, coming to ensure all was immaculate before the ruling Synod took their daily constitutional. 

Shivering, face wet with silent tears, Sam looked at the brightening sky. 

A shadow passed before the simulated sun.

Just a flicker, but enough to ignite a tiny warmth in Sam’s chest. He hadn’t missed it. The numbers had been wrong. One-one thousand, two-one thousand… He watched and counted again for a long as he could, scrambling out of sight only seconds before the Synod walked by.

Full of new numbers, Sam’s head spun with adrenaline and emotion. He made his way—unthinking, unseeing—back to the head, where he locked himself in a shower cubicle and stripped under the spray. The water had not felt this warm since his mother had bathed him as a child, and for once he did not shiver against the tiles. Instead, he scrubbed at his pajamas with the gritty soap from the dispenser, erasing the evidence of stained knees, hems, and cuffs.

He was not caught, although the wet pajamas generated their own species of abuse for a few weeks, until another boy violated the pack’s unspoken code. 

Sam barely noticed. He watched the ball.

Sam was careful not to raise suspicion, but careful was not the same as perfect. On his fifteenth birthday, he spent all night in the Green Belt. He knew the numbers so well now he could see the ball even in the pitch black: a tiny shadow against the leviathan’s spine. He returned to his bunk exhausted, just before dawn, and fell asleep the moment his head touched the pillow, warmed by the insights of his restless dreams. 

When he opened his eyes, his first thought was he had slept through the alarm. All the lights were on, and the other two boys were gone. Then the headmaster walked in, flanked by two adults whose faces Sam did not know, but whose guard uniforms spoke to sinister purpose. 

“Sam,” said the headmaster. “Come with us. The Synod would like to speak to you.” 

The guards approached. Sam was alone, outnumbered, and out-massed. He was four years old and hiding in a hedge. He was seven and cornered in his bunk. He was twelve and the headmaster was telling him that no matter how hard he studied, he would never be more than a menial, because his loving parents were terrible people.

Sam was all those things. Which meant this thing was nothing new.  

He waited for the guards to get halfway to him, and then ran straight at the headmaster. When the old man flinched back, Sam used the gap he’d made to scramble up the side of the empty bunks and scamper-crawl to the door and out.  

Thanks to countless nights of sneaking, he knew the ship’s passages and maintenance ways by heart. He hid, closed his eyes, and watched the ball.

In the numbers, the ship vanished, and he could see the ball circling the central core against the backdrop of the countless stars beyond, overhead, and underfoot. As night fell, the numbers become a path, and Sam followed it back to the Green Belt.

No memorial or sign marked the spot where Sam’s father had last stood. He had not been on the Council, and his death was not part of the Revolution’s story of carefully tailored justice. So he had been erased, the bushes where he had hidden Sam ripped out and recycled long ago, but Sam felt a lingering warmth when he stepped into the phantom impressions of his father’s shoes. 

Sam looked up, held his hands high, and imagined a little boy in the park on the other side of the cylinder. A boy who was not so little anymore. Who stood on his own two feet and looked back at him, hands outstretched.

The stars beyond the hull were infinite and dazzling. Sam closed his eyes.

He heard footsteps. Adults ran and shouted at each other, at him. Sam ignored them and watched the numbers spin against his eyelids. 

He saw the ball break orbit, fall, and gather speed. Moved his hand a fraction to the left. Splayed his fingers wide. 

Sam felt a slap against his outstretched palm.  The warm flicker in his chest bloomed with the light of infinite suns, and Sam laughed.

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