Spaceflight: The Story

After some prototyping, we decided to move forward with a choose-your-own-adventure game, where the main character (Ellie), is stranded in space with Alice with a limited oxygen supply. You complete tasks and make decisions throughout the game that will lead to different outcomes.

Here’s a sample of a single narrative branch.

I. The Black Screen

Darkness. A dampened, mechanical hum tickles your ears, almost like you’re imagining it. A digital screen emerges slowly of the black void before you, and turns on. Yes, it is a simulation of you watching TV (in the near future), in which you can use arrow keys to interact. Here are the channels:

  1. A movie of the 1969 moon landing.
  2. An early 20th century b&w space movie, with very poor special effects (Think ufos on strings);
  3. A modern cinematic that features a space elevator. (Main constraint is that it can’t feature cgi more detailed than what’s in our VR simulation);
  4. A 3D simulation of a Liftport’s space elevator that we’re ripping off from the Univ. of Glasgow.
  5. Excerpt of a biopic on Alice, the wealthy patron (“Hey! That’s you!”).

I imagine this going on for about 30 seconds to a minute, the time usually necessary to acclimate yourself to VR. This is used chiefly to set the tone. Yay expo dump. As you watch the clips…

“Eli?” After the sibilance of the black and white talkies, her voice sounds of sweet molasses.

A LIST OF DIALOGUE OPTIONS appear, which the user can toggle through and select. I’ll ignore player choice for now, for the sake of this draft.

“Bored of our movie selection already?” you say. The complex mechanical hum is louder, less muted. It’s like a turbine whirl almost beyond my auditory range, if that makes sense.

“No, well yes,” she pauses. “Anyways, do you think we can do the next broadcast before we arrive?”

“We’d have to slow down the elevator.”

“Well we’d not only take some idle time out of our ride, but also take our minds off of the whole vertigo thing, which I doubt I’m handling as well as you. Of course, that’s if we can even modify the elevator’s operation.”

Meanwhile…the channel feed is replaced by a 3D wireframe model of the SPACE ELEVATOR. As the voice continues, you examine some specs. Some info includes:

  • the platform’s current deceleration and velocity (-3m/s^2, 982m/s).
  • Platform location relative to EML-1 (eta ~5 minutes)
  • Time on Earth
  • Earth Moon Sun placement

You quickly find you have manual control over the elevator….

“…Ely?”

On cue, the mechanical hum changes, with some harmonics deepening and others outright stopping.

“Done.”

“Great! Two birds with one stone!”

The screen shuts off, the negative of the last image still visible in the black void. It’s time to see what your surroundings look like as the background beyond your helmet comes into focus…

II. The Elevator

From a vertiginous height, you see the moon, a bone white crescent pocked with craters. Right next to your head, a vibrating black ribbon of unimaginable length blasts by at an imperceptible speed before you, vanishing into the moon. You want to trace its path, but an enormous force pressing you into the floor denies movement. For now.

A tether dangles from the front of your suit, through which a human sized tug sporadically pulses. Times passes, the mechanical whirring continues to slow, and you have less trouble moving your torso. You try standing up again, using a nearby railing to successfully prop yourself up.

Your boots are buried out of sight beneath your ultra wide field of view visor. The platform beneath you looks like a cross between a steel scaffolding, freight elevator, and a satellite, with the dimensions of a five story tall textbook. The humming emanates from a bulky, modular core that straddles the infinite black ribbon which, at its opposing extremis, vanishes into the Earth. The economical metal skeleton is heavily outfitted with solar panels, carbon nanotubes, mining apparatuses, latticed new age composites, and enough curves and patterns to defy comprehension. It is a testament to human ingenuity only few can truly appreciate. Only someone like you.

The elevator stopped decelerating. Weightlessness.

“How much time you need?” I ask, grasping the rods that comprise the floor as makeshift rungs on a ladder. You notice that the more you contact the platform, the louder the mechanical humming sounds. You swing below to platform and see Alice affixed to a lower platform. She wears a suit to match yours, her face occluded behind a vast, dark fishbowl. She tensely clamps onto both the tether joining you two, and a nearby metal pole.

“Tell me when.” She looks behind her and adjusts her position, in search for the optimal starscape.

In turn, you wrap your limbs around the nearby scaffolding. Secured, you turn on your external camera and aim your visor at Alice.

“Recording.”

A long, audible breath fills your helmet. A reflexive hand shoots up, searching for hair to brush, before stopping short at the glass dome. Another breath. Her hands smoothes down her suit to no avail. Another ritual stymied.

“Hello friends.” Her voice is impossibly cheery and sweet, if not patronizing or even condescending. But she’s not talking to you, she’s talking to them, the earthbound who’ve yet to lose themselves to the rapture of space. Her tone must be more appropriate when not preaching to the choir, but it’s hard to see it.

“It’s been a real privilege to be in space. To update you, we’ve finished what we had to do on the lunar base, and are now riding all the way up to Earth-Moon space station. It’s been quite a ride.”

Having been drifting off the platform at this point, she pulls her body back down. “Speaking of which, this space elevator is a neat trick isn’t it?”

She adjusts again. You do too. Remaining stationary is nontrivial.

“Clearly we’re in a zero gravity environment.” She takes her utility tool off her belt and presents it before the camera in her outstretched glove and releases. Oddly, it moves more horizontally than it should.

“However,” Eli trails off in contemplation.

“Anyway, what’s really happening is that we are still moving many hundreds of meters per second away from the moon, and — Eli!”

You dozed off for sec, and return your gaze.

“Thank you — that this platform is really slowing down at the same rate as the weight of lunar gravity at our height, which is — what’s our height Eli?”

“That was the Debris Avoidance system, Alice. Moves the elevator tether out of the way of anything dangerous.”

“Oh wow, nothing to worry about though right?” If she is grasping tighter to the platform supports, you can’t tell.

“I should hope not. Installing systems that could detect anything larger than a centimeter in orbit was a precondition for building this mining operation.”

“Cool.” You feel the muffled drone of the elevator in your limbs.

“Let’s say 54 thousand kilometers?” You add.

Her helmet nods. “Yep. 54 thousand.”

She pauses. Her hand climbs up to her helmet again, and she quickly drops it.

“So I was planning on talking about how the moon slightly outsizes the Earth, and how this affects our local gravity,” she says. “But the moon and Earth look a bit…small from here. So, unless Eli has anything to add.” That was a cue.

Radio static. You jump. “BZRRP COPY OSIRIS, DO YOU READ?!”

It’s Mission Control. You must have been in a radio blackout zone, somewhere between range of the lunar base relays and your ship’s comm system.

“Say again.”

“COLLISION IMMINENT.”

“Repeat!” You mute Alice’s channel.

“DEBRIS AVOIDANCE INSUFFICIENT FOR LUNAR ICE DEPOSIT IN HALO ORBIT AROUND THE STATION. BRACE FOR — ”

Silence. Chills crawl down your back. You un-mute Alice.

“ — Then we’ll pick up with the electrolysis and what we’re doing with all that mined lunar ice at the top.” She sounds like she’s smiling. “See you next time!”

A tremor rattles the platform, which immediately triggers the braking. Alice dislodges her arm from the platform’s supports and staggers over to you.

“You literally just said — ”

“I know what I said,” you retort.

The force intensifies. Tremors. You prepare a tether and connect it yourself. She’s crawling over. You squat and fall back into your Manned Maneuvering Unit. Your breath is frantic. You strap yourself in and struggle to stand with the added weight. Alice too is struggling to put on the massive backpack. You fall to your knees.

Breaking intensity is beyond regulation. You toss the other end of the tether to Alice and undershoot. Alice reaches for tether clip. You look up and make out a dynamic cluster of reflections where the station should be.

One final tremor knocks out the breaks, returning you to weightlessness.

“We’re going to overshoot.”

You look up again and note you’ve cut the distance in half. You can start to make out the source of the fragments. Metals and glass shimmer like a sequin dress. It’s beautiful, if you forgot how horrifying it is. It occurs to you that Alice has been hyperventilating this whole time.

You have too.

“The breaks, they, they may come back on after the station, right?”

You nod. You’re not looking at her.

The moment you recognize the pico gravity station has been shredded to pieces is the same moment you launch off a derailed platform.

Judging by the crack in your visor, your nauseating spinning, and the searing pain in the back of your skull, you must have hit something.

Breathing doesn’t sound the same. Everything’s quiet and loud. Something’s pulling on your waist. You feel warm. You’re soaking in a vat of honey. What do all frequencies at once sound like? Your right ear seems to be getting preferential treatment. Are you O.K.? The inhomogeneity drives you mad. You’re in space. Y R U IN SPACE? Eli? Lights are vying for your attention. They’re very irritating. You wish them out of existence, but they don’t listen. Answer me? I don’t think you’re spinning anymore. Help me stabilize our ¿Who is I? There’s only YOU. Eli! Maybe you should focus. The sounds refuse to leave you.

“Are you O.K.?”

“Yes.”

“Can you move?”

“Yes.”

“Can you help me?”

“Yes.”

Cracks branch through your visor. A dull paste lines all of them, designed to seep through openings and harden in times like these. You know it won’t hold.

You’re in a space station module, but with the odd detail that half the hull is blown open. You’re alone. You check Alice’s vitals on your HUD and see that you’re both still obtaining readings, and that she’s fine.

Your radio wakes up. “I’m glad it was a nap.”

“Where are you?” you ask.

“Assessing the situation,” she says.

The situation doesn’t look good. Although the space tether remains intact, the station, spacecraft, and fuel production facility on the lunar ice deposit are critically damaged. Any life support modules have depressurizing breaches. She has about two and a half hours’ worth of air left, and is out of ideas.

“What do you know?” she asks.

You tell her about the mission control broadcast.

“Oh so you think the impact set off a reaction in fuel repository that blew up the whole thing.”

“It would cause an unavoidable debris shower.”

Either you or her are breathing louder. “So what now?”

You agree with her outlook. Your best chance of rescue would be the Odyssey, which is currently docked at the Tiangong Space Station in Low Earth Orbit. The fastest recorded trip from the ground to the moon would have been about 4 hours, but it could be faster now. Maybe that the trip is from Low Earth Orbit to where we are at the Earth Moon First Lagrangian Point will shave off some time. However, it’s unlikely you both have enough oxygen to last.

“I’ll search the area. Maybe there’s something I can come up with,” you say, straining as you stand.

Your hand searches for the throttle on your own MMU. You accelerate, but you seem unable to move forward without turning. Something is off. You check the fuel gauge and find it’s malfunctions: empty, though you know you couldn’t move were that true.

“Could I borrow your MMU?”

A pregnant pause. “I’m not going to say no, but do you think it’s possible to fix yours?”

“You won’t be stranded for long,” you reassure half-heartedly. And with that, you’re off.

Alice is right. The situation outside is dire. You look back at Alice inside the module and see it’s part of the station,a ring-like structure with with a quarter seared off. Every module shows signs of fracture, with a subset of charred and horrendously warped.

The tether is still taut, the you spot deformities streaking the black ribbon near the blasted parts of the station. An elevator derailment makes sense now. The immediate area is littered with debris, slowly orbiting the tether. Curiously you see the debris parting into two hemispheres, the gulf subtly but noticeably deepening in between the Earth and moon.

You plan on fixing the crack in your helmet. Things you need: Glass repair filament; a heating source, ideally some sort of blow torch; a strong cutting utensil, if not a diamond burr. Glass repair in space isn’t unheard of you, so as long as these objects haven’t been compromised or lost to space, then you should be fine.

You search, and search, and search, and search, but are unable to find any of the ingredients you need. You feel a burning at the base of your skull and find it difficult to remember what you’re doing. Maybe you should get back to Alice.

“You should take my air,” you say.

Her response is immediate. “You’re not thinking clearly. There’s no reason to give up now.”

“I’m thinking clearly enough to know we’re both not going to make it. There are no other options, we’ve both looked. But that doesn’t mean one of us won’t make it. We should at least try.”

You hear her protest, but you try not to listen. You already know what to do, and to weaken your resolve would cost another life. You seal up your oxygen supply and prepare it for removal. The air constantly trickling behind your ear stops. You turn off your comm. and you wait.

— Alex

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