For several minutes I just sat there admiring the incredibly intricate patterns of stars, more stars than I'd had ever imagined existed, gleaming out of the absolute black of space. More than black, really, for the word doesn't do it justice; it was Utter Absence of Light. Against it the stars didn't "shine," they scintillated like a million diamonds in sunlight. The seat I was strapped into might itself have been floating through the heavens, so invisible was the Futaba's crystal hull.
And then, just as I was getting my runaway pulse back under control, the universe around us seemed to turn inside out again, until the stars were black pinpricks against a painfully snow-bright background, and I had to shut my eyes against the brilliance. When I cautiously reopened them space was again black.
I felt a tug on the harness holding me and looked up to see Rann unbuckling it. My mother was already shakily rising to her feet, still staring out at the impossibly clear dusting of stars. "We're not there already, are we?" I ventured nervously. I might have lost track of the time, but my bladder at least told me that we hadn't yet been in space for the twenty-four hours Rann had said the trip would take.
"Look behind you," he answered, a big grin plastered across his face. I heard my mother let out a prolonged gasp.
It wasn't only my mother that found herself forgetting to breathe. A huge yellowish globe was stretched out before us, its edges just fuzzy enough to seem slightly out of focus. Circling it was a set of rings, their detail and delicate pastel colors utterly indescribable in comparison to the digitized photographs relayed back by Voyager II twenty years earlier. Off to one side was a gleaming, pearl-sized object that I realized was the sun. "Welcome to Saturn," Rann announced grandly.
"Saturn..." my mother breathed, half-afraid to believe her own eyes.
"It was along the way," Rann explained, giving me a discreet wink, "so I thought we'd stop by for a few minutes. I'm sorry we can't move in closer, but its gravity would make us pretty uncomfortable."
We slowly circled the planet for about twenty minutes, my mother and I just drinking in the view. Briefly I kicked myself for not having any film in my camera (which in any case was packed away somewhere in the back), and then realized that it might be rather difficult to get color slides processed on another planet.
"Had enough?" Rann finally asked my mother.
"I could never have enough of this," she said, still dazed. "Do you think we could we come back here someday?"
"Sure, whenever you want." My mother unwillingly nodded her assent to our departure. "Then let's go home," he said, and we permitted him to point the craft away from the now-miniscule sun and once again leave the laws of physics behind. This time I realized to my amazement that I could actually see some of the stars moving, ever so slowly.
"Just how fast does this thing go, anyway?" I demanded. "Even at light speed it should have taken over an hour to get to Saturn from Earth. Seventy-three minutes, to be reasonably precise," I added smugly. I suppose I'm the most unromantic person on Earth in some ways; while my mother had been soaking up the view I'd almost automatically calculated the necessary speeds in my head.
"You would have to ask me that," Rann groaned. "All right, let's see if I can do this. Deshtiris is thirty-five light-years from Earth, and it takes just slightly under twenty-four hours in the Futaba."
It didn't take me long to figure out that one: about twelve thousand eight hundred times the speed of light. It was hard enough to imagine the speed of light, but this was mind-boggling. I was even having trouble keeping the decimal point under control, something I don't usually have a problem with.
"Hold it," I protested. "At that speed we would have reached Saturn in a fraction of a second. But we took several minutes."
"That's true," Rann admitted, looking a little bit boggled himself. "I don't take the Futaba up to full speed inside a solar system. The distances are so short that it would be almost impossible to stop at the right place."
"So how fast was that?" I teased him. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
"Kiri programmed most of this stuff into the Futaba's AI," he confessed. "I just tell it where we're starting and stopping, once we leave the atmosphere." Great, I thought. Well, I supposed it beat trying to fly through a star.
"Why don't we head back into the living quarters and relax for a while," he added, hastily changing the subject. "We've got almost twenty-four hours of space ahead of us, and you won't really see much now except moving stars." My mother reluctantly vacated her window seat, and we allowed ourselves to be led off to Kiri's remarkable home away from home.
"I wonder if we made the news," I said, making myself comfortable on a luxurious sofa while my mother settled into an easy chair. Rann paled noticeably at the suggestion, and I belatedly realized that this was probably not a good time to bring up the subject.
"Let's find out," he said, trying unsuccessfully to sound casual, and with a small remote switched on what turned out to be a television set sitting in one corner of the room. He hadn't flipped through many channels before we spotted ourselves lifting off via a grainy black and white videotape, apparently shot from one of the police cars. Then the scene switched to high quality color as we found ourselves staring directly into the Futaba from the helicopter.
"Oh my," my mother said as Rann made his grimace at the camera. Then we were rising out of sight while the cameraman fumbled frantically to keep us in view.
"Jeez," Rann mourned. "I've really done it this time."
A blue light on the top of the television lit up. "What's that?" I asked, pointing. Rann now looked distinctly ill.
"It means we have an incoming message," he mumbled, and reluctantly pressed a button on the remote. The Empress' face appeared on the screen, or rather in it, since unlike the television broadcast this was in full 3D. I'd never seen anything like it. It was as though she were actually there in the television (or "telecom," as I eventually learned to call it). In fact, her face was so close to the screen that it threatened to emerge right into the room with us.
"RaaaAAAAAAAAAANN!!!!!!" If you've ever seen a plant wilt in the heat you can picture his reaction.
"Hello, Empress," he quavered.
"Rann, have you seen the news?" She didn't even have to specify which news. Her face was twitching, and I wondered if she were going to break a blood vessel or something.
"We were just watching it," he babbled. "I'm really sorry about what happened. I didn't know we'd end up on the evening news."
"The network evening news," she corrected him. The twitching was getting worse. For a moment I was afraid she was going to have him publicly disemboweled or something, and then she broke down completely, howling helplessly with what I finally realized was laughter, tears running down her face. "And you-- and then you-- Oh, Rann!" Then she disappeared below the screen, though I could still hear her baying, as well as what sounded like her pounding on something. Rann looked as though he'd been poleaxed, with absolutely no expression left on his face at all.
Another person appeared, a young man of about her age, his grin practically splitting his face in two. "Now look what you've done," he chuckled. "Trust me, though, it'll be okay. These things happen. Besides, nobody's going to believe that footage after the face you made. You might want to keep out of Valkar's sight for a while, though; he's more than a little incensed about the whole incident. But you're missing the best part. Now get back to the news before it's all over." He broke the connection, and Rann dutifully returned us to the station we'd been watching.
We found ourselves watching a newsroom interview. Two men were addressing the camera: one was obviously the host, the other an older, excessively dignified personification of pomposity dressed in a tweed jacket, puffing on an unlit pipe, and who was introduced to us as Dr. Willard S. Halpenner, a recognized authority on "alien landing hoaxes."
Our host informed us that Dr. Halpenner had "scientifically analyzed" the videotapes provided by the authorities and identified them as obvious fakes. "Obvious fakes?" I muttered in disbelief.
The grainy video once again took over the screen. "You'll notice," the Doctor's disembodied voice informed us, "that this alleged 'spaceship' doesn't have a propulsion unit." The video frame froze, and a pointer helpfully appeared out of nowhere. "The object is entirely transparent, and the only contents visible besides the occupants and these seats," and the pointer moved accordingly, "are in this tiny area under the floor. That's clearly insufficient room for a propulsion unit capable of moving an object of this size at the velocities described. The laws of physics simply don't allow it." I heard Rann snicker softly; apparently he was returning to something resembling a sentient state, however slowly.
"And then there's that second tape," he continued. Once again we saw ourselves onscreen, the image now fixed on Rann. "Let's be serious. What sort of space alien, possessing the capability of interplanetary travel, would pause to make a silly face at a cameraman? Now, really."
"Pthhhbbt," I observed.
"So this so-called 'spaceship' is a scientific impossibility, then?" We were back to the talking heads. The Doctor took a long pull at his unlit pipe before speaking.
"Well, Brad, as the famous detective Hercule Poirot once said, 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' " I stared at the screen in utter disbelief.
"That was Sherlock Holmes,* you witless cretin!" I roared at the hapless telecom. Rann looked at me as if I'd gone crazy. My mother, of course, was used to me by now.
We left them discussing the thorny issue of why at least nine experienced law enforcement officers with excellent records would go to such trouble to perpetrate a hoax. I heard later that the network (and the eminent Dr. Halpenner) were sued for a very large sum of money by the slandered officers, though I never did hear how the case turned out. I hope they won. Big-time.
A now much-relieved Rann disappeared for a few minutes, to return with some fruit juice and a plate of rice crackers. "There's plenty of food if you're hungry," he said apologetically, "but I thought you might want to go easy at first after all the excitement." As we snacked, I noticed my father's face on the telecom screen, and found that they were discussing the very real disappearance of my mother and myself. There was a clip of my father raging over the "kidnapping," as he called it, and my mother looked visibly distressed.
"It's okay, Mom," I reassured her. "We're in a different star system by now." She seemed disoriented, and I realized what a shock all of this must be for her. "Look at it this way. Dad's going to wonder for the rest of his life how we got away from him." She grinned weakly at that. "It's going to be all right. I promise."
Later Rann told us his side of the story, about how he hadn't received my first message at all, and the second barely in time to make the rendezvous. He'd asked Kiri on very short notice for use of the Futaba, telling her in a few words what was happening. Her response had been, "What the bloody hell are you doing loitering around my office? Get moving, you silly ass!"
On the way he'd answered my second message in a glowing affirmative, assuring us that he'd be there in time, and was horrified to discover that we hadn't ever received it. Only much later did I hear how a diligent university network technician somewhere in Bemidji, Michigan had discovered a mysterious program residing on his DNS server and removed it, after which he'd spread the alert on the Internet. It had taken one of Qozernon's best programmers almost a week to come up with a virtually undetectable substitute, after which things had quietly returned to normal.
* In The Sign of the Four. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|