Walking the Planck

A short story by Glenn Della-Monica

I entered this story in the 2021 National Fantasy Fan Federation Short Story Contest. I didn’t win the award, but i was a finalist.

Focus: Science Fiction, Space Travel, Black Holes, Romance, Revenge

(c) 2021 Glenn Della-Monica

A black hole should never be considered trivial.

And traveling through one wearing nothing but a Planck suit, after one’s flabby ass has been summarily ejected from a filth-rate, pestilential freighter, was even less trivial.

Unfortunately, Machinist’s Mate Second Class Aldo Packford was now in just that position. The freighter Widow’s Fortune had been using the black hole’s event horizon for a slingshot maneuver when its captain, Mustavro Archibald Fieri, found a pair of underpants with Aldo’s laundry mark in the stateroom of Gwinnyth Fieri. That would be Mustavro’s granddaughter. A quick check of the ship’s security log showed Aldo in a nearby corridor just before Gwinnyth’s door opened.

That slight indiscretion now gave Aldo the benefit of experiencing firsthand just what a Planck suit could and couldn’t do. And not when doing routine exterior ship’s maintenance near a black hole, but when actually falling into a black hole! The infinite stretching and ultimate dissolution into a stream of unrecognizable goo were a couple of the things it could prevent through some Twenty-Third Century revelation based on Max Planck’s early Twentieth Century quantum discoveries.

The sensation of an ice water enema being administered, combined with that of electrified tinfoil on his teeth, was one of the things it couldn’t prevent. As rough as the ship’s cigar-butt-chewing medic had been, Aldo thanked his lucky stars that the captain had at least sent him packing with a catheter inserted. He felt the urine leave his bladder and sighed that at least it wasn’t filling up the legs and boots of his suit.

He knew he had about an hour to think about his sins. An hour of his time, that is. When the Planck suit finally did whatever those things did to fling him from the black hole, about nine years would have passed for those not as lucky as he was to be passing like a turd through the bowels of the universe.

Captain Fieri would have been required to notify the Guild’s Search and Rescue that a crew member had accidentally fallen into the hole, with the exact coordinates.  The report would read that his suit tether failed while making repairs during an extra-vehicular excursion, or EVA, as they passed the black hole or some other bullshit. S&R would do the math and send a team when and where they calculated the black hole would excrete him. It wouldn’t matter that Aldo was actually thrown off the ship. Those assholes at the Guild had legislated a five-year statute of limitations on what was known to crew members everywhere as “walking the Planck.” Captain Fieri would get off scot-free.

Mustavro jeered as Aldo was being suited up, “It’s only an hour of your time, but it will put you nine years and a parsec away from my granddaughter. No common, grease-rag ship’s mate is going to be with her. She’s getting her doctorate, and she’ll marry a Guild officer.”

At her tearful insistence, the captain had allowed Gwinnyth two last minutes alone with Aldo in the airlock before he was to be jettisoned.

“I’ll wait for you, Aldo. No one has seen the real me but you. I love you and always will.”

They had one last kiss, and then that toady, Master-at-Arms Gruther Swills, entered and started to bolt down the Planck suit’s dome.  Gwinnyth took Aldo’s hand and did something Aldo couldn’t quite see.

As the dome was a centimeter from mating with the suit, Aldo heard her say something that sounded like, “It’s our future.”

He saw Swills drag Gwinnyth out of the airlock, and then the hatch closed and sealed. The next thing he felt was the abnormal explosive decompression of an airlock that was not evacuated before the outer hatch opened. He was shot out into space toward the event horizon. Suddenly, his arm was almost pulled from its socket, and then a great weight slammed against his back. After that, it was enema and tinfoil time.

He forced himself to think about the only pleasant thing he had in his life – Gwinnyth. Sure she was overweight, but then, so was he. Her face was plain, with wide-set eyes and a slightly crooked nose. Her frizzy hair looked like she rolled it up at night in firecrackers and then lit them in the morning. But when he sat with her in the mess that first day out of port, she smiled a smile that captivated his heart.

She was on the Widow’s Fortune only because it was going to do the slingshot maneuver. She was doing her doctoral thesis at the prestigious Guild University, and her research was on black hole effects on matter in Planck suit fields.

Aldo thought of the irony of being matter in a Planck suit field. “If she’s still doing research nine years from now, maybe she can come to study me,” he thought wryly.

The Widow’s Fortune was owned by Gwinnyth’s mother. Her father had invested his life savings into the crappy tub with the thought of making money in the transport business. Her mother gave it the ironic name after her father’s unfortunate early death. After expenses, it made less than the former Guild salary her father drew before his freighter adventures. The only real benefit was that as the owner of a registered Guild vessel at the time of his death, the Guild gave free admission to the Guild University to his children.

Aldo loved every plump inch of Gwinnyth’s voluptuous body. Of course Aldo lusted after the svelte, beautiful women he saw on shore leave or among paying passengers, but they never gave him a second look. It wasn’t just that she was the only woman to pay attention to him, either. They had a real connection, and she enjoyed his knowledge of the ship’s mechanical workings.

When they kissed the first time, hidden from the rest of the crew’s prying eyes in the tool locker one night, he thought he was going to explode. Over the two-month voyage toward the black hole way-point, kissing led to petting and then to steamy trysts in her stateroom.

When she was sure that he really loved her, she took off her jumpsuit in front of him and slid into her bed. That night was her first time, and it wasn’t far off that for him, either. They didn’t paw. They didn’t grope. They lovingly caressed and kissed. Then, when she asked, he got on top of her, and they made sweet love for hours.

On their last, fateful night, they were interrupted by an intercom call from Captain Fieri. He was on his way to her stateroom with a message from her mother! Aldo threw on his clothing, but his undershorts had fallen under the bed, and he left without them. He exited her stateroom and turned into a nearby service hatch just as he heard the captain’s footsteps approaching in the adjacent corridor.

By the time the captain arrived, his granddaughter had just enough time to straighten out the bed and put on a robe. As Mustavro kissed her on the forehead, he dropped the message. He bent to pick it up and saw the underwear and Aldo’s name stamped on the waistband. Picking it up, he turned redder and redder as Gwinnyth burst in tears and pleaded with him not to do anything to Aldo.

Instead, Mustavro called the slightly-sadistic Swills and had him check the security system. As Mustavro knew he would find, Swills saw the image of Aldo in the off-limits area for off-duty crew, the section of the ship with the six paying-passenger staterooms. Mustavro and Swills only conferred for a couple of minutes in the corridor outside the security room before Swills dragged Aldo to the airlock where the Planck suits were kept.

There was no hearing. There was no trial. You only get one of those if some sort of justice is at stake. This wasn’t justice. It was an overbearing, pompous commander getting rid of an unstable suitor.

Protected by the Planck suit from the certain death that lurked mere meters away from the center of the field in which he now hurtled, he whimpered and sweated his way through the torturous hour. He was not a brave man. The most courageous thing he had ever done in the whole thirty-one years of his life was to be with Gwinnyth, and he didn’t regret a single second. Every time he had the urge to scream or puke, he thought of her smile … her loving caress … the way she looked into his eyes. It got him through that terrible hour, an hour that some didn’t survive completely sane.

Then there were stars again. He knew the suit was now broadcasting a powerful signal and that S&R would be with him soon.

Unless in the last nine years things have changed,” he thought with a start. “Nine years is a long time. Protocols could have changed, or they could have lost or forgotten my coordinates.”

The far-from-brave Aldo began to sweat again. He took a sip of water from the suit’s tube and tried to calm down. He hit the positioning jet on the suit and did a 360-by-360 pitch, yaw, and roll maneuver. No flashing S&R lights in the distance. He began to shake. Maybe they were not coming for him. Maybe that rat-bastard Captain Fieri had fixed it so no one was coming! The suit could keep him alive for almost two weeks, but it would be full of shit and piss by then, catheter or not. He didn’t want to die, alone in space sealed in a container of his own excrement!

He began to cry. Fieri had won, and he was going to die slowly in space.

Then, the tiniest glimmer of a ship’s running lights appeared. They grew brighter as it got closer. This was no S&R ship with flashing beacons. It was a private passenger ship. Aldo was perplexed. The vessel pulled alongside his suit, and he felt a grapple pull him toward an open airlock.

Once inside, the outer hatch closed, and he felt the buffeting blast of air that re-pressurized the compartment. Two men in private-company jumpsuits began to extricate him from the bulky suit. Aldo had never seen the logo on their backs, but he was happy to be alive and in their care.

A medic came in, gave him a quick once-over with a medical scanner, and then gently pulled out the catheter. The medic then led him to a shower unit in a compartment next to the airlock, where Aldo cleaned up. Waiting for him after the shower was the most comfortable jumpsuit he had ever worn.

He was still in a bit of shock and hadn’t yet asked anyone what was going on. No one had volunteered anything, either. Aldo was offered a hot cup of coffee by a crew member, and he began to sip. It was the best cup of coffee he had ever tasted.

Or maybe it’s just because I’m alive,” he reasoned. He’d heard that things tasted better, the sky was bluer, and the trees were greener after a near-death experience.

He took another sip. “Damn! This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”

Just then, a door opened, and a woman stepped through. She looked familiar, very familiar, but he couldn’t place her. She was not thin, but she was not fat, either. She had curves in all the right places, and her shoulder-length hair swayed like rain in the wind as she walked toward him. She looked to be about mid-thirties, a few years older than he was.

Then she smiled.

“Hi, Aldo,” she said. “Don’t you recognize the love of your life?”

Gwinnyth! It was Gwinnyth! A thin version of Gwinnyth with a straight nose and a model’s figure!

They ran to each other and embraced. “My sweet Gwinnyth has come for me, and she still loves me.” He was in shock again.

“H-how … how did you … you get here?” he stammered.

She caressed his cheek and explained, “My research was a success. It led to some important discoveries, and I have done well. Not well enough to afford this, though,” she laughed as she gestured to what Aldo now recognized as a private yacht. “This is the manifestation of a huge gamble. I bet I was right about certain things, and you just brought me the proof. I saw it in the airlock while you were showering.”

“What the heck did I bring you?” he protested. “The only thing in that suit other than me was a bag of piss.”

“Not inside the suit,” she mysteriously replied, “but just outside it. My research was into matter in a black hole in various parts of the Plank suit field. Plank suits were invented to keep people safe at the edge or inside the black hole’s event horizon. Dozens of people have been in black hole accidents, and countless thousands have been protected during EVAs near event horizons, but no one had ever strapped anything to the outside of a suit and then traveled through a black hole. Such travel has only been for survival.”

“When I was told you were going to be jettisoned, I got some of my research materials and packed them into a container. That’s what I tethered to your wrist, and when you were ejected, the tether zipped the package to you and held it there magnetically.”

“What was in the container?” a bewildered Aldo mumbled.

“Twenty-five kilos of carbon black,” was the answer. “It was stuck to you outside the suit, but inside the confines of the field. The black hole disassembled the contents on the way in and reassembled them on your way out of the black hole’s field.”

Aldo queried, “So what does that do?”

Gwinnyth put her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes as she said, “Up until today, the largest natural or synthetic gem-quality diamond has been a little over six thousand carats, or about a kilo and a quarter. That’s twice the size of the Cullinan Diamond. Anything larger in the lab and the structure picks up exponentially-more and more inclusions.”

Aldo looked at her with an ultimately dumbfounded expression. “So thanks for the mineralogy lesson, Gwinnyth. Pretend you’re talking to someone who just got his guts rearranged by a Planck suit and is a bit confused.”

Gwinnyth laughed as she explained, “Well, what the black hole and the Plank suit field rearranged the carbon into is a twenty-five kilo, near-flawless diamond. Actually, a VVSI one with an F color. That’s more than ten times the size of the largest known gem-quality diamond in the universe. Now that we know how to make one, there will certainly be more, of course, but the next one will be about nine years from now. This one is the first, and it will always be the first black-hole-created diamond. The consortium that took the risk with me to finance your rescue in this lovely ship already has offers for our “Fieri Diamond.”  It’s worth billions, and it is only the first of many products to be created this way. Honey, we’re now stinking rich!”

The disorientation of the Planck suit voyage, and now this! Aldo’s head was swimming. As if in a dream, Gwinnyth led him to her luxurious stateroom. The door closed behind them, and she quickly doffed her jumpsuit and slid under the satin sheets of the enormous bed.       

“Aldo, for you, it’s been a few hours since we made love. For me, it’s been nine years. I’ve waited for you. You were the first person to see past what I looked like and love me for who I was. I’ve spent the last near-decade making myself the best me I could for you. Let’s make the next couple of hours worth the wait.”

They were … and more.

Exhausted, they lay on the sheets and caressed each other. Aldo knew that as soon as he could find a ring, he was going to propose. He was the happiest man in space at that instant. What he didn’t know was that five minutes later, he was going to be even happier.

He mused, “So what ever happened to your grandfather?”

“Well, I testified against Swills, and he got a couple of years and the loss of his Guild rating. Mom said she didn’t want to see her father in jail and got me to agree to alternative punishment.”

“What was that?” Aldo asked.

“You’ll see. We made him sign a ten-year personal services contract in exchange for not prosecuting him. A captain who makes someone walk the Planck rarely does it with a witness pissed off enough to testify against him. Say, I’m thirsty. Get on the intercom to the mess and have the chef send us snacks and Mai Tais.”

Adlo did as requested, and four minutes later, the door chimed. Gwinnyth pressed a bedside button, and the door opened.

There in a steward’s uniform, looking like a whipped dog and holding a tray with drinks and snacks, was Mustavro.

Sometimes the universe is a beautiful place.

Ramblings and Published Works