This story is attributed to Arthur C. Clarke.
“In deference to the next of kin,” Commander Cummerbund explained with morbid relish, “the full story of the super-cruiser ‘Flatbush’s’ last mission has never been fully revealed. You know, of course, that she was lost during the war against the Mucoids.”
We all shuddered. Even now, the very name of the gelatinous monsters who had come slurping Earthward from the general direction of the Coal Sack aroused vomitive memories.
“I knew her skipper well — Captain Karl van Rinderpest, hero of the final assault on the unspeakable, but not unshriekable, !!Yeetch.”
He paused politely to let us unplug our ears and mop up our spilled drinks.
“‘Flatbush’ had just launched a salvo of probability inverters against the Mucoid home planet and was heading back toward deep space in formation with three destroyers — the Russian ‘Lieutenant Kizhe’, the Israeli ‘Chutzpah’, and her Majesty’s ‘Insufferable’. They were still accelerating when a fantastically unlikely accident occurred. ‘Flatbush’ ran straight into the gravity well of a neutron star.”
When our expressions of horror and incredulity had subsided, he continued gravely.
“Yes — a sphere of ultimately condensed matter, only ten miles across, yet as massive as a sun — and hence with a surface gravity one hundred billion times that of Earth.
“The other ships were lucky. They only skirted the outer fringe of the field and managed to escape, though their orbits were deflected almost a hundred and eighty degrees. But ‘Flatbush’, we calculated later, must have passed within a few dozen miles of that unthinkable concentration of mass and so experienced the full violence of its tidal forces.
“Now in any reasonable gravitational field — even that of a White Dwarf, which may run up to a million Earth g’s — you just swing around the center of attraction and head on out into space again, without feeling a thing. At the closest point you could be accelerating at hundreds or thousands of g’s — but you’re still in free fall, so there are no physical effects. Sorry if I’m laboring the obvious, but I realize that everyone here isn’t technically orientated.”
If this was intended as a crack at Fleet Paymaster General “Sticky Fingers” Geldclutch, he never noticed, being well into his fifth beaker of Martian Joy Juice.
“For a neutron star, however, this is no longer true. Near the center of mass the gravitational gradient — that is, the rate at which the field changes with distance — is so enormous that even across the width of a small body like a spaceship there can be a difference of a hundred thousand g’s. I need hardly tell you what that sort of field can do to any material object.
“‘Flatbush’ must have been torn to pieces almost instantly, and the pieces themselves must have flowed like liquid during the few seconds they took to swing around the star. Then the fragments headed on out into space again.
“Months later a radar sweep by the Salvage Corps located some of the debris. I’ve seen it — surrealistically shaped lumps of the toughest metals we possess twisted together like taffy. And there was only one item that could even be recognized — it must have come from some unfortunate engineer’s tool kit.”
The Commander1s voice dropped almost to inaudibility, and he dashed away a manly tear.
“I really hate to say this.” He sighed. “But the only identifiable fragment of the pride of the United States Space Navy was . . . one star-mangled spanner.”