In the Absence of Gravity

In the Absence of Gravity
A Harry & Ferghal Adventure
by Patrick G. Cox

“Right lads,” the Lieutenant smiled as he surveyed the young men reporting for training, “its time to put all the theory into practice. Have you got everything? All the proper kit for your suits?”

“Aye sir,” answered the younger of the pair, a Midshipman of some fifteen summers. Harry Nelson-Heron was a well developed youth, just a little under six feet tall and with a serious look in his handsome face. He had an air of competence about him which belied the fact that he was very much a complete stranger to these surroundings, indeed to the century he now found himself in. For all his appearance though, privately Harry was finding it very difficult to take in all that he needed to ‘catch up’ and at the same time, desperately trying not to let his companions in this scrape, Ferghal and Danny, see just how unsure of their position he was. They expected him to show them the way and to provide leadership and he felt he could not let them down in this difficulty.

His companion, a slightly older youth in the uniform of a TecRate, nodded his agreement, echoing the strangely old fashioned response of the Mid. Like Harry, Ferghal O’Connor had arrived somewhat unexpectedly and rather violently in this century and this vast star ship and was finding it quite difficult to absorb all that was necessary for them to adjust to their new surroundings and role.

The Lieutenant studied them carefully, from his briefing note and the ship’s grapevine he knew that this pair of young men had arrived on board during the ship’s transit of the Near Earth Gate. An anomaly in the gate function had created a strange ‘backwash’ which had evidently torn a hole in space/time and caused the transfer of equipment from the hangars of the starship to a ship or ships some four hundred years in the past – and snatched these two, some cannon, parts of the ships and their companion, a boy, into the hangar. They had been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the Wardroom, but this was his first opportunity to actually work with either of them. His superior had been careful to assure him that, although they were from another time period altogether, they were both intelligent and had performed very well in catching up the knowledge and technology gap between the Royal Navy of eighteen hundred and four and the present day of two thousand two hundred and four. Still, he reflected, they seemed eager to learn and to be reasonably confident in their approach to this.

“Good. Come with me then, we’ll don suits and get you used to wearing and moving in them in normal gravity and atmosphere. When you’re comfortable with that, we’ll shut down the gravity in the compartment and see how you go in Zero-G,” he laughed, adding, “It takes a bit of getting used too – I hope you’ve not had too much for your lunch.”

Harry nodded with a smile, “Indeed sir, we were warned that walking in the void sometimes induces a sickness as debilitating as the seasickness.” He grinned adding, “I hope the cure is as simple as the one we were given for that – a dose of grog easily confuses the senses but in so doing it certainly made one less susceptible to the motions that caused the sickness.” For all his concern and his fear that he might fail in his self appointed duty to the others, Harry was enjoying these new adventures and his innate curiosity and eagerness to learn new things helped considerably. He was also possessed of a strong sense of humour – what Irishman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century could not be – and it occasionally got him into trouble. Some who had not had time to get to know him sometimes also mistook this for frivolity, but it masked a powerful intellect, one which was accompanied by an iron will when once his mind was made up.

“I bet it did,” laughed the Lieutenant, “but, sadly, you won’t get any grog inside one of these.”


Harry and Ferghal had seen parts of the full EVA suits in the classroom. They had also seen pictures of them and detailed drawings of all the important attachments, installations and the controls. Confronted with the real thing for the first time; it took on a different and, not entirely comfortable, dimension. Harry studied it for a moment in silence.

“It is not unlike Mister Smeaton’s diving apparatus,” he said at last.

“Sorry, you’ve lost me there,” queried the Lieutenant. “Are you saying you fellows had suits like this in – whenever it was – you came from?”

“No sir,” Harry looked surprised, “Mister Smeaton’s diving apparatus allowed a man to work beneath the sea for a short period, his air supplied from a boat on the surface by means of a pump.” He walked around the suit and studied it more carefully, adding, “Yet, it also has the appearance of the armour worn by the knights in the wars of the Plantagenet age.”

“Ah, right. Well, yes, I suppose in some ways it is similar,” the Lieutenant was a bit nonplussed by the reaction of his students, especially as he had been briefed to expect them to have no experience of space suits, let alone the construction of one. He tried again, “Well, there are a few things you need to remember about these, most importantly it can support life for up to seventy-two hours if you really work to conserve energy – and provided you can manage your own body functions carefully.” He gave them a grin, “Seventy-two hours means that it has to function as your entire world. You have to be able to relieve yourself, drink fluids and take in basic food, all without opening the suit. It processes everything for you, provided nothing goes wrong. It will supply you with clean air, keep you at a comfortable temperature, feed you and remove your waste, assuming you have fitted yourself into it correctly.”

“I understand that sir,” replied Harry carefully, privately thinking that the suit would be very restrictive and did not appear to be all that comfortable to wear. He was also curious since, from reading the manual for the suits, he knew that it processed the wearer’s body wastes and was intrigued to know how this could be done. “But our classroom lessons told us that any malfunction can be corrected from within provided the wearer knows how to do it.” He indicated the suit and continued, “But what is not clear from this is how that is done when once one is inserted into this suit, or how one uses the commode when one requires it.”

“Right,” the Lieutenant decided it was time to grasp the nettle and let them find the answers for themselves, “the best way to explain that is to let you get into it completely. Now, the first thing you will notice is that you will need to strip down from your normal clothes and wear these special overalls.” He handed them each a lightweight overall and indicated a locker where they could deposit their uniforms, “When you have those on, we can put you into the suit.”

A bare few minutes later the pair were stood in front of him again wearing only the coverall, Harry remarking on the fact that the zipper extended through the crotch and seemed to have rather more sliders than was necessary.

“Well, yes, it does seem a little strange at first,” the Lieutenant laughed, “but in a moment you will see why.”

Leading them to the first suit, he showed Harry how to open the suit, opening the locking mechanisms and hinging the entire chest plate and helmet portion backwards. This allowed individuals to insert themselves into the suit and settle their feet into the attached boots which immediately adjusted to embrace the wearer’s foot. This drew a gasp of surprise from both youths, but it now dawned on them that the reason for the strange opening arrangement in the coverall was so that they could use the built in facility inside the suit without mishap. Inserting their arms into the apparently armoured sleeves they discovered that the underside of the sleeve was constructed in such a way that the arm could be withdrawn into the suit again without having to open the whole to do so. They followed the instructor’s directions carefully and closed the breastplate section which immediately brought the helmet over their heads and sealed them into a totally encapsulated environment.

“Good going lads,” the Lieutenant’s voice filled the helmet as the suits systems automatically activated. “Feeling comfortable in there?”

“Aye sir,” both chorused.

Trying out their movements they discovered that the suits were constructed so that the life support plant was situated on their backs with a control panel on the front of the suit and another fitted internally. While the ‘body’ comprised a number of rigid elements, these were linked together by flexible panels and all the joints allowed very free movement, again in much the same manner that enabled a knight in armour to move freely. The Lieutenant explained carefully the areas protected by rigid members and those parts apparently unprotected, but constructed to permit maximum agility.

“Good, now then, just relax and concentrate on the readouts on the heads-up display. You should have a power readout showing a hundred percent? Got it? Good, then an environment reading just below that which should tell you the systems are stable.” He waited until they gave him an assurance they had this. “Right, for now we’ll concentrate on learning to move around in one of those. Release yourselves from the suit clamps – that’s it, now walk across the compartment please to the bulkhead and then come back.”

Clumsily at first, the pair complied, but soon found that the best way to move was to work with the suit and not fight it. By the time they got back to the waiting instructor they were both grinning from ear to ear. “Now I know how it must have been like for the unhorsed at the Boyne,” Harry laughed and Ferghal guffawed in response.

“Aye, a hot and tiring walk through the bog in one of these would finish anyone off fair quickly.”

“Well done lads,” the Lieutenant was relieved to see them mastering this so well since in space there was no room for mistakes, although their talk of ‘the Boyne’ and being ‘unhorsed’ went over his head, “Remember these suits are designed to work in Zero-G, so we will have to let you experience that in a moment. First, check all your readouts please.” He completed rigging in his own EVA suit while they checked the readouts and carried out the tests he told them to perform.

He waited until they confirmed that the suits systems were all indicating that everything was fully operational. “OK. Now then, we’ll go through to the training hall in a moment, but first I want you to check with you. Are you familiar with Newton’s Third Law of Motion?”

Harry confirmed this, saying, “Aye sir. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

“Absolutely correct Mister Heron. And it pays to remember that in Zero-G that applies to every movement.” He glanced at Ferghal, “You got that TecRate O’Connor?”

“Aye sir, Mas.. I mean Mister Heron and I learned that from the Reverend Mister Carrigan, sir. He tried several times to demonstrate it to us, but without success.”

“OK,” the Lieutenant nodded, “Well, has either of you done any swimming?”

“Aye sir,” said Harry, “a little on our voyage through the South Seas.”

“Right, so let me ask you this. Did you ever hold onto the side of a boat and push away from it hard with your feet?”

“Aye sir.”

“And what happened?”

“Why, I shot through the water with some force,” replied Harry.

“And what happened to the boat?”

Harry thought for a second, “Of course! It was pushed in the opposite direction,” he grinned, “I see what it is you would have us understand sir. The water would have slowed both myself and the boat – but perhaps the same force expended where there is neither air nor water would have a more dramatic affect?”

“Right on,” the Lieutenant smiled, “In theory you would continue to accelerate until your trajectory took you close enough to some large gravitational field which would then either slow you down or draw you in.”

“So,” said Ferghal slowly, “If I understand this a’right, if we move too sudden or too violently in these suits while in the void, we could propel ourselves away from the ship and plunge deeper into the void?”

“Exactly. Now we will go to the training hall and you can experience Zero-G in a closed environment where there is no danger of you drifting off into deep space. Follow me.”


The Training Hall was in fact a series of large cubic enclosures with dividing bulkheads that could be withdrawn to make a larger space if needed. In the compartment adjoining theirs a squad of Royal Marines was busily engaged in a session of unarmed combat, separated from them by a clear screen of laminated polycarbon which Harry and Ferghal still thought of as glass. They lumbered into the enormous space in the Lieutenant’s wake and took up positions near the centre of the compartment facing the glazed division. Several of the Royals paused in their exercises to point at them and apparently make amusing comments, but their Sergeant soon put an end to that and had the squaddies working even harder.

Harry listened as the Lieutenant contacted Engineering Control and gave the Compartment Address, “Control, shut down the gravity field generators on Deck Zero Four in compartment Four-Six-Seven-Bravo-Sub-Alpha. EVA Suit exercise in progress.”
Too late Harry registered that the hatch they had negotiated to reach this compartment had been labeled 467BB. “Lieutenant...” he began.

In the adjoining compartment the Royals seemed to have all become airborne, their various trajectories producing some spectacular midair collisions as the Squadies hurtled across the space, propelled by their own exertions as the gravity shut down. He and Ferghal both stifled their giggles as the Lieutenant realised the mistake and called up Control to have gravity restored.

It was no good – the sight of the purple faced Sergeant colliding with the bulkhead had them both crying with laughter – even as the situation was reversed and the Royals descended as swiftly to the deck. It was some minutes before Harry and Ferghal were able to concentrate on their own exercise as the reality of the Royals situation became apparent. Harry asked the obviously embarrassed Lieutenant, “Sir, perhaps we should go to their assistance?”

“Negative Mister Heron,” the Lieutenant replied, “The Medics are already there and we would just get in the way. Your training can continue – they’ll be OK, I doubt there are any serious injuries from the look of things.”

The activity in the next compartment was a distraction however, as Harry and Ferghal tried to get to grips with the fact that they were now floating about the compartment. Trying to avoid the fate of the unfortunate Royals in exerting too much force in their efforts proved harder than Harry expected. This distracted them from considerations of what effect the lack of gravity would have on their stomachs and neither suffered more than a moment of queasiness.

Harry turned a somersault over Ferghal and laughed for sheer joy of living, “Now there is something I could not have done on Spartan,” he crowed, dodging Ferghal as the latter tried to emulate him. It was immediately evident to the Lieutenant that, for the two youths at least, the exercise was one great adventure. Amused by their antics he watched and wondered what it would be like the first time they, as Midshipman Heron so quaintly phrased it, ‘Walked in the void’. He had a feeling that this pair would have a lot to teach their companions, not least their attitude toward meeting any and every new challenge set before them. Clearly this was, for them, a wonderful adventure, one they intended to enjoy to the full.

“To be sure,” laughed Ferghal, watching Harry, “an’ it would be difficult on the lower gundeck to find the headroom.”

“True,” responded Harry, suddenly aware of a looming bulkhead, and desperately trying to turn to avoid colliding with it. “Oh dear! I forgot the rest of Sir Isaac Newton’s law – once in motion the trajectory of a moving body will remain linear.” A grunt escaped him as he collided with the bulkhead and made a desperate attempt to avoid shooting off in a new direction.

“Unless the bulkhead intervenes,” laughed Ferghal, as Harry’s suited figure cannoned off the bulkhead, “Have a care Master Harry, lest we join the Bullocks in the Infirmary.”

Later, in the Gunroom, Harry felt able, having ascertained that no one had suffered serious injury by visiting the MedLab, to give a rather droll account which drew guffaws from the other Midshipmen and frowns from the Royal Marine officers who shared their space. “I think it is perfectly demonstrated,” Harry advised his new friends with a straight face and a merry laugh in his eyes, “In the absence of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton’s third law really does bite.”

© 2007 Patrick G. Cox

Patrick G. Cox spent thirty-six years in the fire and emergency services, reaching a senior position and rank. He has published a book on Marine fire protection, several technical papers, and speaks at conferences on Fire and Explosion Investigation. He lives in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, UK, where he is a Reader at Tewkesbury Abbey, is divorced and has three grown children. He writes fiction for fun but would like to focus more attention on it now that he has more time to do so. Patrick blogs under the pseudonym The Gray Monk.