The control room was tense, there being little trust that this thing would actually work.

“All stations report green lights, sir.” The control officer said to Commander Flagg.

“Well, then, let’s crack this whip!” the Commander said in his loudest and most enthusiastic voice. The sentiment was not shared with any of the PhDs that crowded the room.

The robot voice began the countdown from “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

The “anchor” for the half-inch diameter by almost 500-mile-long graphene cord was a massive space-bound structure. Unmanned and equipped with sensors and rockets, it circled in geosynchronous orbit the same 500-mile distance from the catcher’s mitt on the surface of the Earth. With the motion of a servo on the side of the anchor, the downward movement of the cord began.

1000 miles above the surface, the “knot” at the end of the cord moved slowly at first. As the bend just below the anchor raced faster and faster toward the surface, urged on by gravity, the knot doubled that speed, heading for the catcher’s mitt.

The idea was as simple as the machine was complex, and even if it failed, it would be retried over and over until it worked: it was just that needed.

Carrying anything into orbit has always been expensive. When the space program began so long ago, the cost was thousands of 1960’s dollars per pound of payload, and while the efficiency of rockets had improved by factors of multitude, the damage to Earth’s atmosphere was getting worse and worse with each launch and no end in sight. A new way was needed to get resources into orbit without the polluting gasses needed by rockets, and it was needed now.

The receiver was a remarkable piece of kit. A quarter of a mile in diameter, if the knot hit it anywhere in its circumference, mechanical hooks would immediately capture the end of the cord and stop it in its tracks. It would freeze the knot’s motion and bind it to the Earth with more force than should mathematically be necessary.

Due to the simplicity of the method, though, the knot would stop moving of its own accord the instant it touched the catcher’s mitt. Like a leather whip of smaller size, when the tip of the rope came to the end of its tether, it would be basically motionless for an instant before gravity and momentum would take over and the mass of the rope would begin to pull the tip away again.

It is at that instant that the main rockets on the satellite would fire and pull on the cord straight out into space, taking up any slack or stretch. Of course, the whole apparatus won’t go far, and even with massive rockets pulling as hard as they can on the secured cord, nothing should move more than a few feet, at most.

The strength of the high-tech cord and its manufactured lack of stretch means that the inertia that would normally be increasing on the anchor from the rockets pull will be nearly unchanged, however hard the rockets try to pull it.

The rope may whip around and steady itself for a bit, though, and during that time, the rockets will take up the tension. When the whole thing is stable, equilibrium will have been achieved and the balance between the weight of the rope and the pulling of the satellite’s orbit will be equal.

…and bingo! The whole thing is ready for the construction of the “Space Elevator,” which will use only clean electricity to move product and people into orbit for pennies on the dollar.

That was the plan.

It took fifteen minutes for the operation to be half over, and all anyone could do was watch and take measurements on the height and speed of the rope. After the whole process began, there was nothing that could be done by way of adjustment. The rope would do what it would do and all the PhDs in the world couldn’t change any aspect of the outcome.

The glow of the speeding rope’s bend point and the trailing tip could clearly be seen out the windows of the control room on Earth. It was moving so fast that friction heat was building up like a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere, glowing red, orange, and white as it passed through the layers of air on its way to the catcher’s mitt.

Now the cord had three quarters of its length pointing straight down and one quarter of it speeding ever faster towards Earth.

Now closer.

Almost there.

      1. Thump.

That was it, just a kind of dull thud about eight inches from the middle of the receiver, which captured the knot without struggle of any kind, the mechanism doing its job faithfully and coolly.

The rockets on the anchor fired, pointing directly away for the cord’s tip and the whole contraption moved about a foot before they shut off.

Everyone in the control room finally exhaled and watched the monitors for long seconds before Flagg finally broke the silence with a great, “Woo-hoo!” Again, the sentiment was not shared by the PhDs. They simply sat in silence waiting for something to go wrong.

It was quiet as they looked at each other across the room and tried to deal with the fact that nothing unplanned had occurred. The thing had worked perfectly, just as designed, and there was nothing for them all to do but to check the readings and confirm that, yes, the cord was stable and quiet.

Strange that such an inherently violent action as a whip crack should end in a basically motionless cord, firmly attached both to Earth and outer space. Maybe they would celebrate later, after an appropriate amount of time had passed to convince them that it really had worked.

Construction would begin immediately as the trip of the number one “spider” would slowly crawl its way skyward up to the anchor, dragging a second, tiny cord along with it.

The machine known as the spider was a rope-climbing robot designed to grasp with the top mechanism and push with the bottom in turn, to climb the cord more like a man on a rope rather than a spider on a web, but the nickname stuck just the same. The reason it was the number one spider was because ever-larger spiders would make the round trip up to space and back, up to a designed number 58, which would be the last of the construction robots to make the trip before the first real paying customer went up.

It was long minutes before strange readings came back from both the catcher’s mitt and the space station, but they came simultaneously. They came at the speed of light and all the planning by all the PhDs made no provision for them.

The idea of an electrical “ground” for the vacuum of space surrounding the Earth had never been imagined, because the very word “vacuum” presumed space to be completely devoid of any type of substance, any type of condition or way of being that could be recognized by anyone familiar with the physics involved.

They were wrong.

In the minutes since space and planet were literally connected, a build-up of undefined energy surged top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top, meeting in the thin upper atmosphere at the center of the highly conductive graphene cable where the flare started.

Although suspended in comparatively small quantities in the troposphere, the thin oxygen ignited a plasmatic fireball spreading like, well, wildfire outwards from the cord and down toward the more oxygen-rich layers of atmosphere until very quietly and very completely, every species that existed simply ceased.

The waters in the oceans flashed into their component atoms and a thick layer of glass covered the glowing mass of the Earth. For a measure of time that made no difference to anyone how long it took, the third planet glowed hotter than the sun that it revolved around, burning the moon to cinders and removing all local proof that there was ever a human race.

And then the fire went out, snuffed by the cold emptiness of space that rushed into the area that had once housed history.