from The Adventures of Luke Cellardweller
by D. K. Leidy

Luke was sweating, and not from the millions of thoughts racing through his overheated brain. The culprit was the heat radiating from the dim, glowing metal near the core of this big rock -- that's all it was: a rock, not even a planet -- which was beginning to trump the state of the art, Nullentropic (TM) air conditioning system of the elevator car. Gazillions of thoughts fired through his brain, drowning out the frantic screams of alarm coming from the cabin and from his senses.

Elevator? He balked. Then all I need to do is push the button for the 10,000th floor. He scanned the wall. No such button. And yet this big metal coffin did retain the basic functionality of those ancient steel cages he remembered from the twentieth century cellu-films of his misspent teens. The enclosed cabin. The thin cable connecting it to a pulley at the top -- dozens of miles away in his case -- but this one a seven-strand cable of spiderweb-thin strands of dynanium alloy, rather than several inches of multibraided steel. The counterbalancing cabin tied to the other end of the cable. How did anyone ever feel safe back then suspended by something as flimsy as steel? Luke shuddered in spite of the heat.

Luke Cellardweller pondered his situation. A poor working stiff on the transport engineering team attached to the mining colony on this tiny asteroid -- a 20 mile thick chunk of porous iron. He had volunteered to test the first elevator shaft they had drilled through the asteroid. He had volunteered partly for the bonus, but mostly to get out of sight of his boss for a few hours. But something went wrong, and here he was, stuck pretty much in the exact center of this godforsaken chunk of metal. A little musical ditty passed through his brain, something about "a three hour tour, a three hour tour."

Finally the ringing roused him. Luke pressed the vidphone button on the wall in front of him, and saw his supervisor's face, drained of blood. "Bad news, Cellardweller," the voice squeaked out of two tiny speakers, "the controller routine misfired partway through the test and clamped the brakes onto the cable. You're presently one mile from the center core. We're working to override the routine and have it pull you back up, but for now you might want to try the auxiliary motor to get out."

Hell of a shakedown cruise, Luke thought to himself. He ventured to complain about the heat swamping the AC. Big Bad Mongo, as Luke was accustomed to callling his super -- although never out loud -- momentarily regained a flash of his usual annoyance. "Just push the glorking button and haul your ass out of there."

Then Mongo caught himself and added, visibly straining to remember some long-forgotten lessons in anger management that Luke figured he must have picked up in some 12-step program long long ago, "we'll pull you out of there. Cool your jets."

Luke looked down the list of buttons on the wall and tried to decipher which of the non-verbal glyphs that had been scientifically designed to signify "auxiliary motor" to Cetis, Arcturans, or any other of the Federation's 53 founding peoples who might find themselves on a mining colony freight elevator. It didn't help that the paint on the 2cm buttons was peeling from the heat. He punched one. Big Mongo's ugly mug vanished into static, the lights flickered, the imperceptible hum of the AC was now perceptibly gone. Darkness. Now I'm buggered he thought. No amount of punching and repunching any of those damn buttons helped. The lights failed. The gravity augmenter bought the farm.

It started to get hotter.

Possibilities flashed through Luke's brain. The only one that survived even a cursory reality check was escape. He punched the button next to the exit door, made more difficult by the fact that he was now floating in this tin can. Nothing happened. Either the software kept it closed (the so-called "safety" interlock) or the electrical system.... Okay, obviously the electrical system was screwed, as was he himself. Luke pulled his Arcturan space cadet's knife from his overalls.
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Just like a blast furnace, Luke thought after he managed to pick his way through the third of the three security hatches. Luke knew blast furnaces only too well. He could only barely stand to touch the metal of the outer door through four layers of gloves, and clambered onto the conical top of the elevator car. He grabbed the dynanium cord and started to climb.

Climbing, hand over hand, Luke passed the time trying to reconstruct those parts of his University Mechanics lectures relevant to his current jam. He even tried desperately to patch over those bits of the lectures that were irretrievably lost to his endless distraction by the exoticly cute Tau Ceti exchange student who always sat two seats over and one in front, just out of reach of the occasional discrete glance.

A loose half-kilo hunk of burning magma drifting slowly past his ear forced Luke's brain back on track.

Luke remembered a hollow massive spherical shell projected on the classroom stereoboard. I suppose I can accept, he thought, that if you were in the very center of that sphere, a chunk of the shell above your head would tug you upwards with the same force that the chunk below your toes would pull you downward. He remembered chasing down his prof, Dr. Koon, in his "anti-G" lab at the University to get homework help, although Luke always thought that the "anti-G" sign on the lab door was a practical joke, as was the prof's line about the mini-black-hole simulator always being "away at the shop, getting fixed".

Luke considered all the chunks of mass making up all the bits of this massive shell: pieces on diametrically opposite sides of his body cancelling each other out. All right, he reasoned to himself, I accept that, at the center of the hollow sphere you would feel no gravity. I don't like it, but then I never did buy that crap about Australians on the other side of the Terra not noticing that they were walking upside down. But had Koon actually insisted that there would be no gravity anywhere inside that hollow shell?

Luke pictured himself transported so that his head was much closer to the surface of the shell. Wishful thinking, he smiled. He allowed the hypothetical chunk of mass above him to shrink a bit and the hypothetical cancelling piece below him to increase, so that their competing tugs exactly cancelled. He strained to sketch a picture in his head that convinced him that all of the competing, canceling chunks of mass in all directions fit together exactly to recreate the original hollow shell. The Ceti student turned around and winked at him.

Boom, he thought, I've done it. No matter that Newton would have polished it off in his sleep, filed it in his drawer, and then forgetten it for twenty years. Well, that's half the problem, he thought, and, with the added spring in his step from the effort, he pulled hard on the dynanium fiber, firing himself into a decent upwards jump before grabbing the fiber again and continuing on his way. Luke wondered if he could be a world-class pentathlete in this gravity, but the pole vault event troubled him: could he stay on the ground firmly enough to plant the pole?

Luke set off to complete the deal. What happens if we construct an entire planet from such shells? He imagined a matryoshka doll of eggs within eggs, with himself the tiny doll in the middle. Again, he thought, in the center of all these shells, no gravity. But what about if I'm stranded partway out? Like now, he thought. He started to sob like a baby.

Okay, he said, suddenly breaking into a more profound sweat, his worksuit only barely keeping a step ahead of the odor pouring out of his pores, I have crawled, calmly and rationally, out between two of the nested shells. The ones outside don't count, because I am inside all of them. And it doesn't matter that I am not at the center of any of them. But what about the ones inside?

Luke thought about Newton again. Masses cancelling. Something about the effect of two chunks of matter on a straight line with themselves and you having the same effect as if both were in the center of the sphere. So, the hollow shells I crawled out of will be pulling me back to the center, but their pull will be less than the pull of the whole asteroid once I crawl out of this hole. This gave Luke some hope: his stomach would probably settle down once it's no longer floating around in sub-g territory. Oh to be back home with his own gravity augmentor, his feet up on the coffee table, sucking on a beer and watching the tube.

Luke's spirits rose as his climb became harder. Experimental confirmation, he smirked to no one in particular. And indeed, it took more effort to pull himself up the rope. Luke remembered something about the force increasing in direct proportion to his distance from the center. The exercise is left to the reader, Luke thought, and, catching himself smirking again, he thought about Earth.

84 minutes, he thought. That's how long it would have taken on Terra: 42 minutes from New York to China, 42 minutes back. 21 minutes to the oblivion at the center of the Earth. Would have been a hell of a ride, though. Going to hell in a bucket. It was that fiery hole in the center that kept mankind from attempting such a technological boondoggle on Terra. Leave it to them to pioneer it here, when I could be dying in a quick little bonfire a lot closer to home.

Asteroids are another matter entirely, he thought. No air, no soil, no water, but at least you could laser-blast a clean hole through them, even fall through the elevator shaft without melting beyond recognition. Does get a little toasty in the center though. Thank goodness for that. Geothermal energy helps supplement the meager light this distance from that dim, tiny double star we're circling.

Luke paused and looked up. A small circle of light was off in the distance that hadn't been there five minutes ago. Luke experimented with a few upward leaps, jerking himself upward by his arms to start the leaps. But the years of living on one wretched mining asteroid after another, and his own lazy personal habits had clearly taken their toll on his pecs. After only a handful of such attempts, he found the results less effective than the slow methodical hand over hand climb. He fell back on that.

Why doesn't that damn pager ring, he muttered. Oh yes, Physics 308, Electricity and Magnetism. Shielded by all this metal in this desolate chunk of rock. Luke remembered the cellufilms and the ancient Terrans trying to talk on their chintzy communications devices when their ground-dragging hoverships went through tunnels. I'm returning to mankind's roots, he mused.

Hanging there, his heart began to sink as he felt a lurch in the cable and the bore-drill markings on the walls of the shaft begin to slowly drift upward, past his field of vision. Oh, no, not now. Someone had apparently discovered the auxiliary winch brake that had doomed him to this spot in the sixth circle of hell and had released it. The formerly perfectly balanced system of elevator cabin and counterweight now became uneven as both cabins lay near the center of the asteroid, nearly weightless, and his own much larger weight pulled him back to the center. Back into hell.

Panic set in. Faster and faster and faster he climbed. The bright white spot at the end of the tunnel vanished. The heat increased. The counterweight cabin, connected to the same cables as his own former transport, passed that cabin and began to approach him. Luke felt a light rush of what passed for air on this piece of rock whisp past him as the two cabins passed. He braced for impact. Sure, there was enough room for the two of them as the counterweight passed him, but he worried about the sensor jets on the side, designed to keep the cabin from running into either its own cousin or the sides of the tunnel.

The counterweight bore down on him. He cringed, facing away from the cabin as its tapered end approached. He felt a fire rip along his side as it passed. He felt the molten plastic of the inner layers of his monkey suit sticking to his elbow, burning a hole in his skin. He instinctively reached for it, losing his grip on the cable.

Luke felt too stupid to even curse his luck. His momentum kept him hurtling toward the center and toward the damned elevator cabin that had deposited him here in this hellhole, but out of reach of the thin, invisible cable. He occasionally found himself scraping against the semimolten sides of the tunnel. After a minute he noticed that the cabin he was chasing was starting to get bigger. Now he cursed his luck.
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The minutes that passed while the cabin came yoyoing back to slam into him were a blur to him later as he tried to piece it all together in the burn clinic. He did remember the impact of the crash, and remembered waking up, clinging desperately to the top cone of the elevator car. He remembered the final delirious realization that he was not going to spend the rest of his soon-to-be-foreshortened life oscillating like a mass on a spring as Koon's mathematics had predicted. The crew had overridden the controller and the cabin was rising at a nearly steady upward rate. They were yanking him up.

He was so overjoyed that he was all ready to get down and kiss the porous metal "dirt" of this god-forsaken asteroid when he got to the surface. Almost ready to jump 15m in the air when he got there. (The record for this asteroid was only about 10.) And then he saw Big Bad Mongo's scowling countenance meeting his after the crew pulled him out the last few meters out of the tunnel.

He knew what that look meant. A quick glance down at the burnt shreds of the outermost layer of his coveralls confirmed why Mongo was glaring at him. The only question was how many weeks he'd have to slave to pay off all the damage.

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Copyright 2002 by the author