Lost on Kepler 852-b (Chapter 2: Descent and Discovery)

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            All right, so now I have to descend this massive cliff that looks like fucking El Capitan in Yosemite Park. Problem is… ever since I fell through a roof when I was eighteen while trying to impress my girlfriend with a rooftop picnic, complete with uneaten chocolate and scattered flower petals, I have a visceral fear of heights. My limbs start shaking violently while I look over the edge.

            Second problem is that I’ve never done any serious rock climbing in my life. When I was twenty-nine, I took my wife to one of those indoor rock-climbing places on one of our first dates. We did something she called, “Free soloing” which means we climbed without ropes. She looked sexy as hell as she kicked my ass, navigating those colored, amoeba-handles like a monkey. I had already started falling in love with her by then. I’m fairly strong, and I can hold my own when it comes to leisurely-athletic actives but I learned an important lesson that day when it comes to rock-climbing: it’s more about technique than brute force. Better to stay close to the wall, be patient, and take your time. I also learned: don’t climb too aggressively or your hands and limbs will get sore, become useless, then you’ll become careless. Careless = bad.

            My fear of heights and my lack of climbing skills means that I don’t want to be climbing when it’s dark, and I don’t want to construct one of those suspended-sleeping-hammocks in the middle of the cliff. 1.) Because fuck that 2.) Because that would be dangerous and I wouldn’t sleep. I’ll become sleep-deprived, probably make a mistake later, and die.

            So I need to figure out how much daylight is left and how fast I climb. If I don’t have enough daylight I’ll descend tomorrow at the butt-crack of dawn.

           While these thoughts rush through my head I realize something that fills me with terror: the clicking has stopped, my surroundings are now completely silent. It feels like that cheap-horror-film moment right before one of the less-important characters gets pulled into oblivion/another second-rate film. But despite being scared shitless, I have an idea. This silence gives me an opportunity to test something out…

           I find a rock nearby, open the stopwatch on my tablet, walk to the edge of the cliff, then press ‘start’ as I simultaneously drop the rock. I wait and listen for the faint impact: 5.6 seconds. I do this five more times and take the average: 5.4 seconds. With this information I can do some physics…

            Besides this rock trick, the only other thing I remember from physics class back in high school is when I wrote in the margins of my final test: Stay positive, stay positive, stay positive. When I received my ‘F’ back I saw that teacher, Dr. Wilson, had written next to my margin message: Do work! Do work! Do work! I know you can graduate! Well, Dr. Wilson, even though I dropped out of high school, here I am, dropping rocks on an extraterrestrial planet and doing work. Are you happy now?!

            On my tablet I verify that this planet has about the same gravitational field as earth, causing objects to fall at the rate of 9.8 Newton/kilogram (there must be a built-in gravimeter inside it). Assuming that Kepler-852b also has the same air resistance (please Space Jesus make this be true, please), I draw a picture on the tablet. I’ve decided to give this El Capitan Yosemite-like cliff a name for eternity, Ohfuckme: 

            Since the acceleration of an object depends on both the force and the mass, the mass cancels out and I get an acceleration of g meters per second squared. Then I search “Finding the height of a cliff through dropping a rock” and find another equation on the tablet for finding the height and write h = gravitational force (triangle – t) squared divided by 2. So my height is 9.8 times (5.4)squared, all divided by 2 = 142 meters. Fun fact: I impulsively type in 142 meters into the search bar and find an image of “The Killing Cliff” a cliff on Traelanípan (an island between England and Iceland), also known as the “The Slave Cliff,” where legend says that Vikings used to push slaves and criminals off. Interesting! Here it is: 

            El Capitan Yosemite is actually 900 meters/3000 feet high, about six times higher than the cliff I’m about to descend. All right, so I exaggerate a little bit.

            Now to determine how much daylight is left with the help of the trusty tablet. C’mon Walter, focus.

            Unlike earth, which rotates once every 24 hours, this planet rotates once every 48 hours. Why is this? I learned on part of the voyage here that the rotational speed of a planet is determined by the initial angular momentum of the planet when it was formed (my wife and I attended an optional ‘science talk’). Our earth probably collided with another planet back in the day, which gave us our moon and likely slowed down the earth’s rotation. Maybe this Kepler 852-b was hit by a couple of planets…or yo mama’s fat ass. In any case, I found an application on the table called: “Determine Time of Sunset on Planet.” It instructed me to take a video of the planet’s horizon then to shift up to the planet’s sun. While I am doing that I see the tablet calculating the angle. Then I have to type in my latitude location (assuming the crashed ship didn’t land too far off course, I use the latitude that we learned in the voyage briefings: 31 degrees). Okay, so the application determines that I have about 10 hours of daylight left. Side note, due to this planet’s relatively large tilt (44 degrees, almost double our Earth’s tilt of 23.5 degrees) and fast revolution (1 full rotation every week), the seasons change much faster than on earth, but I’ll worry about that later (the temperature has been getting steadily colder). 

            Final step: let’s see how fast this little boy can move.

            Luckily, the 300 yards of iron filament and 30 yards of rope that NASA gave me has little marks every meter. Thank you, NASA, for thinking of this detail.

            If I can descend an average of 20 meters/65 feet per hour, I should be able to make it to bottom before sunset with some time to spare (3 hours to reach the ship). But that’s probably giving me more credit than I deserve.

            Now, the most important part, how to descend with all my shit. I type into my tablet search bar: how to descend a cliff. Yes, I’m an amateur.

            The first video that popped up was Rappelling basics 101. All right, what’s rappelling:

            Descend a rock face or other near-vertical surface using a double rope coiled around the body and fixed at a higher point; also known as abseil. Knowledge!

            Looks like I’m going to have to make a harness using the iron filament and the net. This is going to crush my nuts. But better to have crushed nuts and continue being alive. 

          Also, I’ll need this rappelling/abseil thing to be retrievable. So I watch another video on How to Rig A Retrievable Rappelling Anchor. Yes, these tablets have millions of videos. Thank you again NASA, you intelligent, resourceful motherfuckers!

            Okay, so I have to construct a Ghost Knot, which is a knot that will keep me from falling down the cliff as I descend, but will also be retrievable if I pull hard on it a bunch of times…

            The clock is ticking, as usual, so I immediately create an anchor at the top by cutting then tying long strips of the iron filament to two trees, creating a triangle (to distribute the weight that will pull on it during the initial descent). These iron filament strips will have to be left behind.  

            So I take the center part of the rope, which I’ve doubled up in the shape of a ‘U’, and wrap it around the anchor, so it is in the shape of a candy cane. Then I take one of the ropes of the ‘U’ (the two are parallel to the candy cane) and thread it through the bottom of the ‘U’ candy cane, simultaneously pulling on the other rope to form the knot. I do this eight times. Ghost Knot…complete. When I want the rope back during the decent I’ll have to tug on one of the ropes repeatedly, waiting to feel a ‘pop’ as each knot breaks, until all the knots are popped and the rope falls down to reunite with daddy. 

            But now I need to create something to relieve the tension of the rope as I descend, so I don’t undo the Ghost Knot unintentionally as I climb down the cliff and become a ghost. I’ll be trying to limit how much I pull on the rope by holding on to the crevices and rocks, but looking down I see that the cliff doesn’t always have places for me to hold on to, so I’ll have to rely on the anchor at the summit (or wherever I tie myself to later on) to support my body and supplies.

            I type into the tablet: essential rappelling supplies. I find something that resembles a “belaying device,” that looks similar to something attached to my multi-use knife. I’ll use that. I thread my double rope through this. I’m shaking as I do this, palms sweaty, knees weak, about to vomit my mom’s spaghetti.

            Remember Walter: always keep yourself perpendicular to the rock. Don’t waste energy. Track your progress.

            In order to prevent the iron filament and net from cutting into my groin, I will use my sleeping bag as part of the harness. Ah yes, much better. My nuts will be saved! Also, I cut up a bunch more of the iron filament to create five, make-shift carabiners, which will lock me into the rope. Let’s do this…

            6 hours later…

            I moved faster than I thought I would, fast enough to justify a descent today instead of waiting until tomorrow, but that wasn’t fun, and I don’t want to talk about it. I’m exhausted. But the Kepler 852-b sun is about to set and I’d like to reach the ship before nightfall. I eat an energy tube (29 left) that tastes like bubble-gum cough syrup (maybe NASA didn’t think of everything, unless there’s a trade-off between taste and dense caloric content) and jog in the direction of the ship. My surroundings are still silent.

            The terrain is similar to earth’s grasslands, with a few rocks here and there. After two hours of jogging, I see something that looks like a piece of the ship, a wing, jutting out of the ground. Remember, the ship was transporting 300 humans. The thing’s fucking huge.

            I arrive at the ship, stupidly expecting a welcoming party. “Mr. Wanky! You’re alive! Where the hell were you?!” But there’s nobody here. It looks like the thing has been gutted. While wandering around yelling, “Is anyone there?” I see something that makes me fall to the ground, to my knees…

            Bones. Human bones. But not the kind of bones you’d expect, with remnants of bodies on them, but shiny-white bones, as if they were sucked clean after a chicken-wing eating contest. They are scattered throughout the wreckage. What the fuck happened?

            I barely make out what the ship used to look like. Something really big must have attacked this ship after it crashed.  

            I have to hope that some people escaped. There are a lot of bones, but not enough for 300 humans, I think. I have to alert the survivors that I’m still alive. I have to make a fire.

            What I’ll do is that I’ll make a fire and hide in the wreckage. That way if a monstrous alien comes back to eat me, I’ll be hiding, and hopefully be safe. I’m banking on the aliens here having a weak sense of smell, because I already smell like a rat’s ass.

            I scout the wreckage and find a little cavern high up in a pile of rubble. I hide all my supplies there, then I look for flammable things. After an hour of searching I find some books (the ship contained a hard-copy library). There are also some twig-like sticks on the ground outside the perimeter of the crashed ship. After watching a short tutorial on: best way to construct a fire, I tear out the pages (The Martian by Andy Weirand shove them under a little twig-hut. Then I make the fire using the iron bar, also called a ferrocerium. The alloy (70% cerium and 30% iron) gives off sparks when scratched by my carbon-steel blade. The tiny shavings are oxidized as I scratch, ignite the paper, and bada-bing, bada -boom: fire. But the fire is green and smells like trash. Hmmm, does that mean it’s toxic? I run back to my hiding place. The sun has completely set. Time to wait.

            For twenty minutes I stare at the little green fire, praying to Space Jesus again, watching the smoke twist up into the star-filled sky. Thankfully, the twigs (I typed in: what is green fire? into my tablet: potentially contains copper sulfate or boric acid) burns slowly. Please let a human see this and know I’m alive. Please let me wife see this, if she somehow made it out….

            I hear a bizarre sucking, slithering, clicking sound at the edge of the shadows. The clicking and sucking sounds just like the noises that I heard at the top of the Ohfuckme mountain. I hold my breath.

            Something massive emerges from the shadows. I do my best not to scream in horror and despair…

…Chapter 3…coming soon…subscribe below

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