43 Seconds - Story Ideas and Trivia

I came up with the idea for 43 Seconds while mixing batter for my wife’s birthday cake. The two have nothing to do with each other, except that there’s a certain zen-like meditative span while the beaters churn concentric spirals in the bowl.  In my case, this was the perfect time to daydream of space adventures.  

Spoiler Alert - if you haven't read 43 Seconds, the next few paragraphs contain random babblings about key plot points.

I’d already had the basic idea of a test flight for an unproven technology, but the question that popped into my head amidst the spattering chocolate was, “What if James has to steal the ship to test it?” That spawned a torrent of follow-up questions. “How would he do that by himself? Does he have accomplices? Why are they helping?” Next thing you know I’ve got Ananke, and Hitoshi, and someone who doesn’t want him to go.

The story evolved quite a bit since the original concept.  Here’s a few glimpses into where different aspects originated:

He could see the Skyway3 news filtering across his audience. Feeds were tapped and haptics signaled notifications. Eyes darted to wearables and looked back to him.

The idea of real time social media updates streaming in while James was giving his speech came from a real-life example detailed in Ron Johnson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In his example, a person was giving a public apology via press conference while monitors displayed Twitter responses. It didn’t end well.

"I mean, we’re talking disco-era technology, here. It was pricy, and it folded."

James and William’s debate was fun to write, since it was in response to the question, “Why wouldn’t you want an instantaneous near-lightspeed drive?”

The Sandpiper’s strobes pulsed red and green along the pavement while James finished his pre-flight checklist and chatted with the tower. 

Sandpiper was the name of the airline in the 90’s TV show Wings. Ah, nostalgia.

“Proceed to whiskey three-five, HPC359.”

All of the air-traffic-control jargon is real, but simplified. It was also an opportunity to see James’s nostalgia for the golden days.

"I remember titanium spirals corkscrewing through cobalt and chromium, the light catching the edges of each turn."

I have a very cool glass paperweight from a trip to the Corning Museum of Glass. It’s clear with blue and white swirls. This formed the inspiration for Ananke’s comments on Earth’s appearance from space.

"Will’s got a vintage Twin Otter that’s a blast to jump out of."

The DeHavilland Twin Otter that James mentions for skydiving is a real plane used by the United States Army Parachute Team.

The speck became an asterisk and bloomed into a proper space station, with a large central dome radiating into six landing pads.

The LEO transit station fuels and stocks vehicles parked there, a bit like loading food and drink onto aircraft at airports. The central hub has a very airport-like waiting area. The original scene was extended and covered all this, but was cut because it didn’t advance the plot.

Earth-Sun Lagrange Two was a popular place. Anything placed there would take one year to circle the sun, the same as the Earth.

Earth-Sun Lagrange Two is a real place. In real life, there are several probes, telescopes, and spacecraft currently at Earth-Sun L1 and L2. ESL2 is somewhat unstable, but I’m assuming the Hayden-Pratt test facility is capable of making its own course corrections.

“Fun fact,” Hitoshi said. “The biggest asteroid that thing’s ever fired on was only twelve meters.”

As I realized ships were routinely achieving fractions of lightspeed, the implications of catastrophic collisions with Earth became a problem. Earth would need to have a “no wake” zone similar to speed boats near shore, and a way to enforce it. The UNSDEF array concept was born. 

The Comet looked big from the control room, but as they approached it loomed spectacularly large. Nose to tail it measured fifty-two meters. It was rare to be outside of a spaceship, and easy to forget the true size of one when you were accustomed to the cockpit view.

Once I was at an airshow where a ladder was set up next to an F-14.  You could climb up and peer down into the cockpit.  I recall just how big the ship was, compared to what I was used to seeing in movies. The Comet is much bigger than an F-14, but the idea of scale is the same.

Bernard’s Beauty, you are cleared for launch”

Yeager named his Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis, after his wife. It seemed appropriate for Hitoshi to name the Comet Bernard's Beauty.

The Earth was a brilliant sapphire to his starboard, and Mars was a copper star forward.

I admit that I'm such a nerd that I plugged the story's date into a solar system simulator to determine the distance between Earth and Mars as well as how they would appear from the cockpit of the Comet.

There was no physical sense of speed—with Riggs there wasn’t even acceleration

The Riggs drive is a fictional variant of the Alcubierre drive. It works on a similar concept, but different execution. RF drives received some press last year, although conventional thinking still says reactionless drives are impossible. If you want to approach significant fractions of light speed, you need a way around the rocket equation, however, which limits how fast you can go based on your exhaust velocity.

“Are you crazy? You’ll be dead in less than a minute if you fly that ship.”

As an engineer, I have to say that what James and Ananke are doing is insane, but it wouldn't be a fun story with careful, pragmatic heroes.

“You were thinking in objective time. We would have been dead within the first seven seconds, on our timeline."

I got all the way to end of the story before it occurred to me that forty-three seconds would pass in just a few seconds for the crew due to time dilation. So, if you didn't die nearly instantly you were doing better than the last run. 

“We’re in trouble.” Red icons began spilling across the left screen. “Primary and tertiary are already in resonance."

For a famous example of resonance in a mechanical system, watch the video of the Tacoma Narrows bridge ripping itself apart. It's not quite how resonance between Riggs waves works, but it's the general idea.

Hope you enjoyed the story! More posts to come on the process of creating the cover, and self-publishing.