Purchase a copy of this book at https://rb.gy/qdqrvz.
Chapter 7: A Whole New People
My first thought as I looked up at the creature above me was, “Okay, now I have really cracked up. The pressures of this trip and the loneliness of space have gotten to me, and I am hallucinating.” But the hallucination was a large talking octopus whose words I could understand from the disc on my jaw while the beak of this creature was making low rumbling sounds that sounded like a language that I didn’t know. Buzz had said that this disc, or earpiece as Buzz called it, help with translation. Was this what he meant? Did Buzz know I would encounter an alien race that didn’t speak my language and that the implant would be the tool that would allow communication? Who had been studying this alien race long enough to translate the language? I could not comprehend the levels of complexity which had gone into this moment. Why was I the one now sitting on the ground staring up at the first known intelligent extra-terrestrial life form? Buzz had certainly deceived me, or at least kept a lot of information from me. This called for a significant conversation with Buzz, and I thought about calling out to him at that moment. But then, this creature, this person, this intelligence before me demanded my current attention.
“Y-yes – I am al-alright,” I stuttered. “Who are you?”
“I am Armand,” was the reply. “And who are you?”
“My name is Opie, Opie Taylor.”
“Well, hello, Opie-Opie Taylor.”
“You can just call me Opie,” I said with some embarrassment.
That was a pretty normal introduction of two intelligent beings. Could we do more than that? Might we be able to carry on a conversation? It seemed to me that the earpiece/implant was turning my words into other low and rumbling sounds that were slightly louder than my own voice. This would be what Armand would focus upon and represented my words translated into his language. The translation was so fast that it seemed almost instantaneous and allowed for a steady stream of back-and-forth conversation. The technology was amazing, and I wondered why no one was using it back on earth.
I suddenly became aware that other little grass stacks had become blue skinned octopi – octopuses? – what was the preferred term? There were now four sets of eyes staring at me, four octopi – oh I really would have to ask about that – that moments ago had looked like little stacks of green grass, but now clearly resembled octopuses. Armand and one other stood about two metres tall at full height but could scrunch down and slide across the ground at about one metre or even less. There were two others that were about half that size. Half his size? Was “his” the right pronoun to use? Armand introduced me to Libya, his “mate,” and their two “wards,” Triton and Angelina. The choice of the translated words, “mate” and “wards” seemed intentional, and I made a mental note to pursue this at some other time.
Armand said, “May I ask what kind of soul you might be?”
I must have looked puzzled for he said, “What are you? You are not a Grounder.”
“I am a boy,” I said. “I guess you could call me a human. I am a human from earth.”
Armand had never heard of a human, and he became rather focussed on the word, saying it over and over again as if trying to work out an odd sound he had never heard in his own language. I told him that there were many humans on earth, and he asked where earth was. I pointed upward and tried my best to describe a planet beyond the clouds, but this was a foreign concept to him.
Libya spoke for the first time and asked, “In the clouds? With the Floaters?”
“Not in the clouds, but beyond the clouds,” I said. “I came from a long distance beyond these clouds through the black of space, and from another planet that had its own clouds and sun.”
But Libya and Armand were not aware of earth or any other place besides the Ground on which they stood.
Armand wanted to know if there were other kinds of humans on earth. I told him that there were male humans that we called “he,” and female humans that we called “she.” Armand told me that “he” was indeed appropriate for him. His mate was a “she” and the two wards were a “he,” Triton and a “she,” Angelina. The planet on which we stood was known to Armand and his people as Ground and they themselves were Grounders.
There were few anatomical differences between Armand and his mate, but I did eventually determine that males had a small blue patch on the back of their head that never changed colour, no matter what colour the rest of them might be. Females had a smaller red patch on the back of their head. The Grounders could change colour and the texture of their skin to blend in with any surroundings in which they found themselves. It was the simplest thing for them to do and they did not have to think about it. In fact, as Armand later told me, their skin knew when to change. They had to make an active decision to not blend in with their surroundings when they wanted to be visible to others like me and this took more effort than allowing their skin to do its own thing.
Armand also said that there were two other forms of Grounders on the planet. Each was distinguished by its size, the environment in which it lived, and its mode of locomotion. In the sea, there were Swimmers who were larger and able to stream quickly through the water. In the sky, were the tiny Floaters that were able to fly on cushions of air. All of them were called Grounders but the other two species could be specified as Swimmers and Floaters. There was no polite term for the land dwellers other than Grounder. I protested that this might get confusing, but Armand assured me that context always sorted it out. I came to realise that I had already encountered a Swimmer in the sea and that none of these “souls” were truly octopi but simply resembled them in their bodily form.
We spoke more deeply about biology, chemistry, and physics. It was not easy because our languages had to be translated and the translations, although very functional, were not always precise. I came to understand that the chemistry of all plants, bacteria, birds, and animals on this planet was silicon-based rather than carbon-based. This made sense to me as the Grounders did look and feel like a leathery form of glass. Armand graciously let me touch seven of his eight limbs and his head. I could tell that as I touched each arm, he was also assessing the texture of my own hand and arm. I could feel the suction cup structures slowly attaching and releasing. He asked if he could run the backside of one arm over my face and I agreed. It felt like a gentle caress. The colour of the water also gave just a hint of shine like that of glass, and I assumed that had something to do with the silicon particulate in the water.
Eventually our conversation turned to our differences in biology, and I was surprised to know that the Grounders had their own scientists who studied genetics, immunology, and other biology-related subjects and so Armand and Libya were well-versed in biology. Armand proudly told me that Libya had been an instructor at a lab many years ago but that the two of them had decided to leave their careers to care for their wards, who were not their biological children as I had assumed. Armand still dabbled in animal classification and naming, but Libya no longer had access to her former lab that was on a different land mass in the ocean of Ground.
The two mates spoke freely about how reproduction occurred between Grounders. Each male has a limb that produces sperm and can be inserted into receptacles on two of the females’ limbs. The two limbs on the female will store the sperm until the eggs are ready to be laid and will then use the sperm to fertilise the eggs before the eggs are hung upside down under a branch of a tree for the Grounders, under a rock for the Swimmers, and in the tree-top leaves of a tree for the Floaters. After giving his sperm in a four-hour ritual, the male finds a quiet place to bury himself and die. The female spends eight weeks caring for the eggs until they hatch and walk, swim, or fly away, then she too buries herself and dies. The average birthing cohort is four young, and the young must then find a suitable guardian to care for them until they reach maturity. Armand and Libya were mates who would one day reproduce together but for now cared for their two wards, Triton and Angelina. Triton and Angelina were both quite unusual because Triton had resulted from a mating between a Swimmer and a Grounder and Angelina’s biological parents were a Grounder and a Floater. In such matings, the birth size is typically small – just one or two offspring – and one does not know until birth whether the children of a Floater and Grounder will be Floaters or Grounders. Similarly, for a Swimmer and Grounder mating, one could not be sure until birth if the resulting offspring would be Swimmers or Grounders. The Grounder scientists had studied multiple reproductions from male Grounders with female Swimmers, female Grounders with male Swimmers, and other combinations but had not yet discovered any correlations. Armand was not aware of any Floater and Swimmer reproductions and concluded that it might be too dangerous. Armand asked about human reproduction, but I told him that I was certainly not an expert and would not be able to answer his questions. I told him that I was about the age of his wards, and this seemed to satisfy his curiosity for now.
My mind was on overload, and I soon ran out of energy to ask more questions before even a small percentage of my questions had been asked. I was tired and told Armand I needed to go back to my ship to eat and sleep. At the mention of my ship, Armand wanted to know more about how it worked and the place from which I had come. I told him his questions would have to wait for tomorrow and begged his pardon as I exited the clearing. The entire family moved slowly back to their nest and settled in for the next part of their day while I made my way back down the path. As I looked over my shoulder, I could see that the family had once again camouflaged themselves back into their surroundings. I realised I had forgot to ask if there were dangerous creatures on the planet, so I hurried as fast as my legs could carry me back to the relative safety of a locked spaceship. Supper and sleep came quickly as my first day ended with many discoveries and even more questions.
The next morning, back in the familiar surroundings of the spacecraft, my questions were all for Buzz.
“Buzz, can you hear me?”
“Yes, how can I help?”
“It seems you have a lot of explaining to do. You didn’t tell me that we would be encountering intelligent aliens on this planet. You might have warned me to watch out for octopus-like creatures that would speak to me.”
“Ah yes, the Grounders. What would you like to know? I will see if I can answer your questions.”
“The first question is right there in your response to me. Why might you not be able to answer some of my questions? It seems you have a lot of information you have been withholding from me. Why not answer my questions now?” I said with a little more passion than I meant to use.
Buzz replied, “I will try to answer your questions, but I might not know the answers to all your questions. We still have much to learn about this planet and these people. And there is the matter of ‘need to know.’”
“Wait, ‘need to know?’ Who decides what I need to know?”
“Yes, NASA. After all, you are here at their request and by their significant investment. You did agree to this mission every time you touched buttons and clicked on screens to set up the mission profile. There were explicit and implicit statements asking if you agreed with the parameters of the mission.”
“Yeah, I guess I did blow through some of those screens rather quickly,” I admitted.
“Not only that, but you also took the mission into your own hands when you overrode NASA controls and shortened our journey to Trappist-1g.”
“Oh, that. You mean you knew all along what I did?” This conversation was not going the way I had expected.
“Most certainly I did. You did outsmart me with your naivety, but I soon determined what you had done. It will have profound consequences on your life upon returning to earth. So, I believe we have established that NASA has a right to keep some information from you for the good of yourself, for the good of the mission, and for the good of all humanity.”
“Okay, okay, okay. What can you tell me?”
“I can answer some specific questions about the mission, the planet, the star system, and the people of Gaia.”
“Well, Buzz, why me? Why am I the one here on this planet rather than a proper astronaut?”
“Ah yes, that is an important question. The answer is complicated, but what I can say is that NASA wanted to send someone to Gaia who would not be influenced by previous encounters between cultures. It was recognised that problems had previously occurred when one culture of greater technological power interacted with a culture of lesser technological power. They wanted to send a young person to be the first person to interact with the Grounders. They did not want a repeat of the cultural faults of European cultures overpowering indigenous people. They felt that you would be a good representative of humans and would be kind to the Grounders you met.”
“So, I am the first person to interact with the Grounders? This is first contact? How did NASA develop the translation tool? How does NASA know so much about the Grounders?”
“Those are questions better answered by others, but I can tell you that NASA, your father’s team, and a few highly skilled people have been watching the Grounder people as best they could for about three years. They used planet-orbiting satellites that could work through the dense cloud cover of Gaia or Ground. The team behind all of this believes that now is the time to make first contact. We listened in on Grounder conversations so that our scientists and artificial intelligences could pull together a good description of their language that allows us to translate effectively. It is not perfect, but now is the time to test it out with real world contact.”
“And I’m the one to do that? Wow. I hope I don’t mess it up and cause World War III.”
“I would suggest that you simply be yourself and act naturally with the Grounders. NASA has been watching you for a while as well. They have great confidence in you.”
Buzz went on to fill me in on more details about the Grounders. I could tell that he had been listening in on my conversations with Armand and did not repeat any information that I had already received. Buzz did speak of the two other “races” of Grounders. He could tell me that the sea-dwelling Swimmers are capable of staying out on land for a couple of hours at a time before they begin to dehydrate and then must return to the sea. Floaters, spending almost all of their time flying in the dense clouds of Ground, can land on the ground but must be careful to land in lush bits of grass or very clean sand, so as not to damage their membranes. The land-dwelling Grounders can wade in water but cannot swim and of course only the Floaters can fly, and so the only real place where the three races can meet is on land.
I began to form an opinion that perhaps the land-dwelling Grounders were the leaders of the three races and were slightly superior to the other two. Buzz quickly said that they do not function like that and that there are no hierarchies amongst the peoples. I pondered this but still wondered because of the naming of the land-dwellers and the name of the planet. It seemed there was some priority given to Armand and his kin. Buzz did confirm that the Grounders call their planet “Ground,” but he also assured me that Armand’s race had no sense of superiority over the other races and that all three races deferred equally to each other. I decided I would investigate this assertion more with Armand.
The next few days fell into a routine. I would eat and sleep on the spacecraft, trundle up the pathway to the clearing (both Buzz and Armand assured me that there were no dangerous beasts in the woods), and spend time with Armand and his kin. Armand would sometimes take me to other places and occasionally introduced me to other land-dwellers and even a Floater and a Swimmer. Most other Grounders kept to themselves. Armand was known as an outlier and an extreme extrovert. So everyone else was happy to let Armand answer my questions and show me around. This seemed to be a significant part of his role in the community, a role for which he was naturally gifted. Others in the community allowed him to have this ambassador role and helped him by bringing food to his family. In this way, Armand was exempt from some of the normal hunting and gathering of polite Grounder culture. I began to think of Armand as the leader of his people, but Armand repeatedly told me that there was no such category on their world. I kept pondering this claim.
The Grounders, of all three races, were omnivorous in their food choices much like humans. They would eat tender grasses, leafy lettuces (found in both the sea and on land), some young tree leaves, root vegetables, fruits that looked like bananas, apples, and pears, and nuts that looked like almonds, pecans, and pistachios. Then there was their meat: clams, oysters, crabs, insects (flying, crawling, and swimming), small rodents like mice, a rabbit-like creature, ground burrowing squirrels, toads, frogs, snakes, small fish, and small birds.
None of this was a real surprise to me, but what was a shock was that none of it was cooked. I never saw them start a fire or boil water. They offered me their food from time to time and I accepted when it didn’t seem too weird and begged off and told them I wasn’t hungry when I could still see the shape of a small bird or rodent. They mostly skinned the animals they ate, and I was surprised to find that their food tasted very good. It had a purity that made it better than any of the processed foods of home. Their arms were incredibly dextrous and could do most anything. They had very little need for tools but occasionally a sharpened stick or sharpened stone was used to cut something. I wondered what they would be able to do with hardened steel.
Most Grounders, of the three races, spent much of their time searching for food and eating communally. None of the food was set aside for anyone in particular and was shared freely in groups of ten to fifteen individuals. This seemed to be the average size of their villages. The rest of their time was divided between care and training of the young and rehearsing stories. Their history was completely oral and committed to memory by all individuals. Anyone could recount a story and appreciation was shown by a rhythmic slapping of limbs on the ground, rocks, trees, or whatever was handy. Stories seemed to be the main method of teaching the children and anyone might contribute to the care and training of wards even though they were each the primary responsibility of one pair of Grounders.
Many of the stories that were told had much to do with “the Basileus.” I could not tell if this Basileus was a king, super-powerful Grounder, political figure, religious leader, or perhaps simply a great friend of the Grounders. Armand and the others held this person in high regard and trusted the Basileus completely. There was a creation story in which the Basileus was prominent and the way the story was told suggested that Basileus was a role, a person, and a group of people. I wondered if there was something wrong with the translation of either the name or the role that this person played in the structure of their society. It seemed that the Basileus had been around for a long time and was still present somewhere near this piece of Ground. Soon I was determined that I must meet the Basileus and decide for myself what he or she was. The pronouns used for the Basileus gave no indication of male or female.
I asked Armand about the Basileus, but he was confused by my questions. He was shocked to learn that I did not already know Basileus and that I could not hear the voice. I assured him that I had never heard Basileus speak, and Armand found this very curious. He promised to introduce me but still had an odd look on his face. Armand said strange things like, “There, did you hear that?” and “Listen closely, you will now hear the response.” He told me to listen to the breeze so that I might subtract its sound from the voice of the Basileus. One day, Armand brought a small stone closer and closer to my ear and shouted above the silence of the rock. He seemed to think that there was something wrong with my hearing. I had now begun to understand the emotions shown on the faces of the Grounders and so Armand’s perplexity was most curious. I made a mental note to speak to Buzz about these things.
A Whole New World (purchase your copy of the entire book here: https://shorturl.at/fzE39)
At last, the day came when one star began to grow in diameter in the forward view screen and I realised that this was the star toward which we were headed. This would be Trappist-1, which had seven planets orbiting around it. My destination was the sixth planet from the star, Trappist-1g or Gaia. The star had a red hue and as we approached, I saw three planets pass between me and the star. I knew from my reading of the information available in the ship’s library that each of the planets had very short annual circuits around the star. In fact, I knew that a year for each of these planets was between one day and eighteen days, so it made sense that I might see some of them moving past the star as we approached. I couldn’t tell how long we had been decelerating but now it was completely obvious that we were preparing to slide into orbit around Gaia. The planet had a green glow and was totally shrouded with clouds. Nowhere could I see through the clouds to what might lie below and the excitement of seeing a new planet quickly overcame any fear of the unknown.
The screen began to light up with commands and responses as we got close to the top of the clouds. I soon discovered that Buzz and the Mothership would stay in orbit around Gaia while my home-made spacecraft was headed for the surface. I began to wonder if that was such a good idea, Buzz had become a companion and helped explain a lot of things. How would I function without him? I asked Buzz what the purpose of this trip would be and Buzz assured me that I should just continue on and all would become clear. Buzz also reassured me that a radio link between the two ships would be established to keep them in continuous contact. As he spoke of this, I failed to see the small mechanical arm that detached itself from the back of my chair and quickly attached a dollar-coin-sized piece of metal to the rear angle of my right jawbone. A slight pinch led me to believe that it was indeed solidly attached to the bone within my jaw. I tugged at the metal, but it remained firmly planted. I gave a sharp cry of ouch, even though the pain had not been severe and asked just what the heck was going on.
Buzz apologised for the surprise but told me that NASA scientists assured him it was the best way to get one of these implants securely fixed onto a skittish human. This device would allow us to be in constant contact. The disk would pick up the sound waves generated by my voice and would also send sound waves to my ear that were the result of Buzz speaking to me. Buzz told me that it served as a tracker so that Buzz and the ship would always know where I was and would help with retrieval if I were injured (or dead – I thought). Buzz further explained that the disk would help with translation. I did not understand that comment but there was too much else going on just then to ask one more question. I went about getting used to hearing Buzz speaking directly into my right ear as I watched and responded to a variety of check lists that once again appeared on the screen. The separation of Mother and Saucer did not take long and soon I could see the large Mothership in my rear-view screen as it got progressively more distant and relatively higher as my ship made its descent. The green clouds began to stream past the ship and the view screens were soon completely opaque and getting darker before slowly getting brighter once more.
When we finally broke through the clouds, we were very close to the surface of the planet. The green-blue ocean was the first thing I saw, but as I looked to the horizon I could also see land with bushes, trees, sand, hills, and large volcanic-looking mountains. One or two even had smoke and steam rising out of their tops. Some of these pushed their tops out of view into the clouds and I realized that we must be flying at an altitude of about one-thousand metres above sea level. We continued to descend and more of the detail of things below came into view. The ocean looked very organic like it was teeming with small life forms. Bluish algae floated in tabletop sized islands and evidence of small krill or fish could be seen just below the surface. Occasionally a large wave would flow through the otherwise mostly calm sea. I could not tell what made the waves, but I knew that it must be at least as large as my little craft.
I began to wonder where we might land and wondered if the saucer was capable of a water landing. Buzz told me to prepare for landing and we headed toward a sandy beach that stretched for about two-hundred metres back toward a dense bush area. We set down very close to the jungle and I felt the unease of not knowing what might be lurking in the woods and bush. The sand and detritus of the beach swirled around me and quickly settled again. And there I sat in my craft on an alien beach on a planet in a totally other corner of our galaxy. The relief of being on solid ground on an earth-like planet was strangely exhilarating. I realised now that while I moved through barren space with nothing but my bubble of air and a thin barrier of metal between me and certain death, I had held my body very tight with psychological tension. Now, sitting on a habitable planet that did not appear to be trying to kill me was comforting, and for the first time on this journey I allowed myself to cry. For, although I was glad to be on solid ground, never had I felt so alone.
The main console brought me out of my solo thoughts as it announced that I should prepare for cabin pressure equalisation. I heard a small hiss, my ears plugged and popped, and the cabin was flooded with the aromas of the sea, beach, woods, must, and something else. Up until then, I had not noticed how stale the air in my spacecraft had become. It smelled a bit like old food, sweat, and bathroom smells. Now the contrast of fresh air was overwhelming, and my hand began to reach for the door handle to experience the planet in its fullness. I appreciated that the last time I had reached for the door handle had been about a month ago when I should have exited the spaceship rather than sit down in the captain’s chair and hitting the “Go” button. Now I wondered if I shouldn’t be sitting back in the chair and finding a way to get back off this world and get heading toward earth again. But just like the pull of the hole in the hedge, just like the pull of the “Go” button, my hand reached for the door, and it flew open on its hydraulic struts. Even more fresh air engulfed the cabin and saturated my brain. I bounded out the door and stood on the sandy beach in the same shoes I had put on the morning of my departure from earth.
I had expected a silence like that of the moon, but this was anything but silent. There was a buzz of insects in the woods. Was it cicadas or crickets? Ah yes, the buzz of cicadas and not the chirp of crickets. There was a quiet lap of the water at the shore, a gentle wind that rustled the leaves, fronds, and twigs of the jungle. From time to time there was a woosh through the air above my head that was lost in the clouds. The cloud cover was absolute. I could not see the sun, or more accurately, the Trappist-1 star. I could see no moon although I was sure I had seen two small bodies orbiting this planet as I had approached. The clouds still had that green glow, and they bathed the entire landscape with muted light. The greens of the forest were stunningly brilliant; they were almost a shade of neon. The sand was smooth and soft to walk on and a rather dark shade of brown. It looked incredibly rich in organics. The line between sand and water was surprisingly clean. I was used to Florida beaches with their foam and weeds, coupled with a certain amount of small trash and microplastics. This beach had none of that. The temperature was indeed quite warm, and I estimated it to be around thirty degrees C with a lot of humidity. As my reading had suggested, despite this planet being the sixth planet from the star and originally considered to be in the coolest part of the habitable range of the star system, the permanent cloud cover allowed for an overall heating of the planet.
But just as I began to think about this, I noticed a slight dip in the temperature, and a slight dimming of the light. Over the next hour or so this trend continued, until I realised we were headed toward twilight and sunset. So the speculations about these planets being tidally locked such that the same face always turned toward the star were wrong. I wondered if the astronomers and physicists had considered the influence of moons around the planets and if this was what caused a gentle rotation of this planet about its axis. There was little time to speculate as the sky and land became darker. I felt a strong urge to be inside the spacecraft as night fell. Something ancient in my human biology told me that darkness in the open night was something to be avoided and a sense of danger came over me. I climbed back into my saucer and shut the door tight.
I had a quick meal in the galley and climbed into my bunk. I awoke to the calm green glow of sunrise. I could not see the sun, but I had an impression of where it might be. The sea shore was closer to my saucer than it had been last night, and the waves were rolling in at about three feet high with a crash on the beach. Okay, we have tides, and we have weather. Things change and go through regular cycles much like earth. Suddenly this place didn’t seem so alien – just terribly lonely. Buzz had been quiet for some time, and I had not thought to engage him with any of my own thoughts, but now I decided I should check in and I asked him for an update on this world around me. He informed me that we were at high tide, the temperature was twenty-three degrees C, humidity sixty-five percent, and a gentle ten km/hr wind was coming off the sea, which meant out of the west. It was hard to get a sense of the compass points without being able to see distinctives in the sky, but Buzz assured me that the direction of the ocean was indeed west and that the beach ran in a mostly north to south direction and that the bush before me was located in the easterly direction. Buzz seemed to be in a mode in which he only spoke when spoken to and was not volunteering a lot of information. Was he hiding something? Oh well, he did not seem to be plotting my death like Hal and there were no “pod bay doors to be opened.” I put his silence out of my mind and carried on with the routines of breakfast and wash up.
Today would be a day to explore. The question was, which direction to explore? I stepped out into the morning and was greeted by the sounds of birds. I could see a few gull-like creatures off in the distance, but they were not adding to much of the noise. Most of the bird noise came from the woods. It sounded like finches and budgies, with the occasional punctuation of a parrot. I decided that I would venture off in that direction and follow the sounds of the birds, but first I wanted to go and touch the ocean and feel the temperature of the water. I was dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals that someone had left for me in drawers in the residence area of the saucer, so I walked right into the waves and felt the surprisingly warm water. It felt a lot like the water at Miami Beach and I began to enjoy the waves lapping at my body.
I got out deep enough to swim and was enjoying myself thoroughly. I wished I had brought my snorkel gear so that I could see underwater better. Instead, I just opened my eyes underwater and let the saltiness sting my eyes and nose. It seemed to be about as salty as oceans on earth and I began to marvel at how similar the two worlds were. I took a large gulp of air and dove down as far as I could. The bottom was only about two metres from the surface. As I turned my head back up toward the surface, something swam between me and the surface and I shuddered. What if there were dangerous creatures out here in the water? I looked just in time to see two large eyes looking back at me. A very large octopus was slowly swimming away. It was certainly the largest octopus I had ever seen. It must have been three metres long and half a metre across. As I was about to turn and get away from it as quickly as I could, I heard Buzz in my earpiece say, “Oh hello” and I wondered why he would suddenly say that and then nothing more. I couldn’t talk while underwater and quickly made my way to the surface and out onto the beach. That was enough danger for one day.
The warmth of the air, humidity, and what seemed like excessive air pressure was stifling and I felt instantly hot and tired. I lay down in the sand and let my clothes dry for a while. I felt sleepy and dazed, although I didn’t quite fall asleep, and soon got up to explore the other direction. I walked north along the barrier between sand and jungle looking for a good spot to enter the underbrush and came upon a path. I figured it must have been made by some local animals and deer came to mind. I hoped there weren’t tigers or lions in these woods. The path seemed too narrow and indistinct to be any very big animal. The path was small and low, and I kept having to push branches out of the way because it was too short for my one and a half metre height. The path went quite straight in an easterly direction and there was a slight uphill grade to the overall elevation. I was slowly rising higher and occasionally I got a glimpse of the seashore below me. I began to break into a sweat and wondered if I shouldn’t turn back because the route did not seem to be going anywhere in particular. Just then, the trail opened into a clearing about ten metres above the seashore and maybe one kilometre inland. The clearing was about twenty metres across and was ringed by what looked like whorls of grass made into a dozen or so nests. Some of the nests had one or two grassy lumps in the middle, and they didn’t look like something that naturally occurred. I wondered what had made them.
I was staring at one of the nests and had just begun to make my way over to it when the hillock of grass in the middle suddenly transformed into a two-metre-long octopus. I jumped back and wondered how an octopus could end up here this far from the ocean when I heard the words, “Hello, my name is Armand. What is your name?” The sound was definitely in my earpiece, but I also sensed a low rumbling sound coming from the base of the octopus where the eight legs came together. I could also see a mouth, or more like a beak, that moved as I heard the sounds. The same sounds and same movements happened again as I heard, “Hello, my name is Armand. What is your name?” I stepped backwards, tripped on some tangled grass, and fell on my butt. The octopus made a movement toward me and clearly said, “Are you all right?”
5 Lift Off
When I awoke, I was aware that much time had passed but I could not tell how much. The view screen windows showed the landscape outside. About half of the viewing area was in brilliant sunlight reflecting off the shining silver-grey powdery soil, while the other half of my view was shrouded in darkness. The boundary between the two was where I could see the most detail and I remembered a line from one of the interviews with an astronaut who had previously visited this place. He called it “magnificent desolation.” That was extremely fitting. I had seen deserts in California and on the tops of cold mountain peaks, but this was something other. The deserts I had seen had at least some sparse plants, a few insects, maybe even birds, and reptiles clinging to life. This was desolate. This was deadness. Nothing suggested life or even an early indication that life would ever arrive. Perhaps the strangest of all, with all this open space and just a few hills in the distance, there was no wind. It was eerie to watch this place that had no movement at all. My landing had been the last thing to cause a movement of dust or a disturbance in the rocks.
Not only was there no movement of air, but there was also no air. My desperate situation came crashing back into my mind. Here I was, utterly alone in the most dangerous of places with the thin walls of the spaceship between me and my certain death. I thought of the many welds I had made putting this craft together and wondered if I would have been more careful had I known about this moment in time. A vent somewhere on the ship released a tiny puff of moist air which quickly froze and landed on the lunar surface, reminding me of how cold the dark half of this world must be. I knew from my readings that it must be about minus one-hundred degrees Celsius outside my new location. Had I been on earth, I would have expected to see snow and a howling wind. But this cold was even more deadly; it was a cold that could not be seen.
My stomach began to churn as I wondered if I had been forgotten here in this place. The space craft had made its way here by what I could only assume was autopilot. I had worried about being smashed on the surface, but that had not happened and now my mind found another reason to worry. Perhaps this spacecraft was not supposed to be crewed at all. Was the food and other supplies meant for others who were up here somewhere waiting for the arrival of their drone ship? Was I using up precious resources intended for their flight home? What would they do when they found me here? Perhaps they would dump me out onto the surface of the moon for a quick death and carry on with their mission. These and other dark thoughts began to fill my mind and I watched for any kind of movement on the surface of the moon.
Off in the distance, at the edge of this crater in which I sat, I could make out holes in the hills. There were caverns out there that could hide an entire population of landed immigrants. Was there a colony out there that was even now watching me and assessing my every move? Had NASA been secretly colonising the moon for years? I could almost convince myself that I saw movement in the hills as the shadows slowly shifted with the glacial pace of the moon’s revolutions and orbit. The shadows, crevasses, and potential caves gave the landscape an eerie mood. The shadows moved too slowly to truly detect, but my mind could readily fill in the blanks and convince my heart that I was actually noticing movement out there in the distance. A shadow I had not noticed before would suddenly look like a full-blown astronaut or even a moon creature to an overactive imagination. Was that someone coming out of the cave? Was that the swinging of a door? Man, I needed to do something. I couldn’t just sit here and await my fate. But what could I actually do? My fate seemed sealed by my lack of knowledge and understanding of my current circumstances. All I could do was sit and worry or go up to the main console and cycle through screens until something else happened or sit around in the eating area. I went back and forth between the two a few times until, as most anyone would do, I went on with the routines of life.
After a quick breakfast and dish washing, I moved from the residence area to the control centre. The control panels now had additional options and much more information. It was like a whole new brain had been attached to my little saucer. I guess it had been. When my spacecraft had landed and attached itself to the Mother Ship, as I found myself calling it, a new and larger computer had been linked in. I had no idea how much combined computing power would now be available. All I knew is that my dad had said that NASA had access to more computing power than all the United States combined. He said that they had to be able to make a lot of simultaneous calculations to keep their spacecraft on the proper trajectories and proper speeds in four-dimensional space. Dad spoke of the curvature of space-time and the geodesics that had to be traversed. The machines themselves had to do the calculations because of the time delays involved in deep space travel. There just wasn’t time to do the calculations and send the commands to change the ship’s bearing. It wasn’t like the old days when every engineer kept his slide-rule close to check and re-check the calculations. The computers had to do it all in a matter of milliseconds. The engineers trusted the formulas embedded deep in the mind of the onboard computer. He said that it was accurate to call it a “mind” since the entire machine was really an artificial intelligence. They even named their computers with human names.
I wondered aloud what my computer’s name might be and was startled to hear a voice reply, “Hello, my name is Buzz. What is your name?” I must have been silent for a long time because the computer repeated both phrases. I stuttered back, “O-opie” and Buzz said, “Pleased to meet you O-opie.” Then I had to correct Buzz and make it clear that my name was really Opie. As I came to understand, Buzz was the computer, or more accurately, the artificial intelligence connected to the Mothership and now connected to my own little ship. He had been tasked with the current mission and with communicating with the pilot, which in this case was me.
Buzz caught on quick and soon we were talking like two old friends. It felt good to have someone to talk to and suddenly I was not so scared and lonely. I learned that Buzz had been named after the nickname of Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to step onto the moon. Buzz said that his artificial intelligence had been rated equivalent to a human being with an IQ of 130. He said that he had spoken with another artificial intelligence with an IQ of 160 but that AI had not yet been ready for processing a mission of this nature and so Buzz had been assigned to the Trapp spacecraft in which I sat. Buzz told me that Trapp-1 had been a drone ship sent out two years previously with Buzz’s little brother, Hornet AI, in charge of the mission. That mission had been a much faster flight plan because they did not need to worry about time dilation for an AI without any family waiting for him back home on earth. Therefore, as Buzz explained, that mission was not yet back on earth and was not scheduled to land for another twenty years. However, NASA did receive regular transmissions back to earth from Hornet (via the Warp-Net on quantum computer chips) and they were piecing together the information that would help us on Trapp-2. Our trip would take longer and we would be back within three years. Of course, this sounded all backwards to me, and I thought that Buzz had gone a little simple in the head (if he had a head?) but then Buzz told me that he was processing Einstein’s time dilation in the calculations he had just quoted. This raised a lot of questions for me, but I knew that this was not the time to ask them all.
Buzz did eventually explain that the mission of Trapp-2 was to explore a new solar system and a particular planet within that solar system: Trappist-1g. The planet had also been christened Trappist Gaia because it was believed to be the home world of an intelligent race of beings on a rock, cloud, and water world much like earth. I did ask a few questions about how long Trapp-2 would be away from earth. I could not yet resign myself to the fact that I was talking about how long I would be away from earth. I could only ask how long Trapp-2 would be away. I was not even sure if I was supposed to be on the mission. Perhaps this was all some big mistake and a pilot on the moon would soon be in charge and would drop me by my home on the way to Gaia. After all, Buzz had asked me my name. If I was the real pilot, he should have had my name in his database or memory already. Buzz said that a mission had been quickly put together that would entail a trip to Trappist-1g, which would take six months, the mission on the planet would last one year, and the return would take another six months. Accounting for time away and time dilation, I would be home to my parents in three years.
There were two problems with what Buzz was saying: first he was implying that I would be on the mission; and second that I could be gone from my parents for three years. I would be thirteen by the time I got back. What kind of crazy hallucination was I having? Did I really believe that I was having an intelligent conversation with a computer? How could I know he was trustworthy? I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and I knew about the murderous HAL 9000 computer in that movie. But what could I do to get out of this now? I looked at a screen to see if I truly was on the moon. Reality stared back at me. There was no pilot on the horizon coming to take me back to my hedge, yard, and house on earth. I was on the moon in a spacecraft scheduled to lift off for another solar system. My future looked both determined and uncertain, fantastical, and horrifying. What could I possibly do?
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to think about it. Buzz said, “I hate to interrupt your thoughts Opie, but it is time to prepare for lift-off.” The next few minutes were intense. I had to run back into the residence and make sure everything was stowed away. Then there was the checklist on the main console back in the control room. There must have been fifty items to check, and time flashed ahead as either Buzz or myself checked and rechecked the list. At last, there were no more boxes to check, and the entire craft of mother ship and saucer began to whir and lift off the surface of the moon. Surprisingly small eddies of dust swirled around the craft, and we were soon high enough to cause no visible disturbance on the lunar surface. It would be hard for any other traveller to detect the site where Trapp-2 had been sitting.
I looked around and found that there was not much to indicate that I was in motion. I caught a glimpse of the earth and was surprised to see how small the earth looked from the distance of the moon. And then we quickly got further away from the moon and earth, and I was terrified at how small the earth looked. How could we ever find our way back to earth and moon? We seemed to be taking a path that avoided any of the planets in our solar system. I suppose that would not be a difficult flight plan to organise since there is a lot of empty space in our little corner of the galaxy and the planets are widely spread through that space. The lights I could see around me looked mostly like stars of various magnitudes. Could that bright star off to my right be Venus? This time of year, it would rise in the east over Florida, but in this orientation, which way would be east? I was glad that Buzz was in charge of navigation; there was no way I could begin to work out the directions, let alone the calculations.
The moon became a smaller sphere in one of the screens/windows and I found myself staring at it until it was just a tiny dot. How could I now be that far away from the cratered moon my ship had so recently landed upon? I could not fathom the speeds at which we travelled to allow the views I was now seeing. But it was equally strange to think about what might be happening on the earth that was so far away that I could no longer see it without major magnification on one of the screens. All of history continued on in that little blue dot so far away that I could no longer tell it was blue. I was no longer a part of that history. Life on earth went on without me.
The next few days settled into a routine. With Buzz in control of the ship, there was little for me to do, and I found myself asking Buzz to do the calculations once again to tell me how long before we got to our destination. I’m sure I must have sounded like a kid in the back seat of the car saying, “Are we there yet?” Of course, the reality was that I was just a kid, despite where I found myself. I began to explore more and more of the main control panel in the control room. I went through the navigation, speed, and time dilation submenus hoping to find a way to speed up this trip. Six months to get to our destination seemed way too long. What if I tweaked a setting just a bit and got us there a little faster? No luck. I seemed to be locked out of all the speed sections of the menus. I tried to change the speed directly; I tried coming at it from the time dilation side of things and plugged in greater time dilations. But no matter what I put in, the values would not stick. It was obvious I was not authorised to make these changes. Buzz never said a word about my attempts to get into the system. But was I imagining it, or did he sometimes seem a little cold in his conversations with me? I decided I had better stay out of those menus all together and Buzz seemed to brighten up just a bit. There were some things Buzz was purposely keeping from me. When I would ask him certain questions, I would get obscure answers.
I began to explore more of the ship to relieve the boredom. I tried to hide it from Buzz as much as I could without really knowing why. Something just told me that there might be regions that were off limits to me and that I might want to explore those very parts of the ship. I learned where the cameras were that doubled as the eyes for Buzz and learned how to work my way from place to place while being seen as little as possible.
One day I happened upon a heavy steel door that had always been closed and locked every other time I had walked by. This time it was wide open. How could that be, did Buzz control the door servos? Why would a door ever need to open or close? Was there some kind of maintenance that had to be done? Who or what would be doing it? This was all very strange. I slipped through the door sure that Buzz would never know. The hallways in this section of the mother ship were all curved and had what looked like a light rail system for a train or carts. Perhaps some sort of bot used them.
I explored a little deeper. The lighting was dim, and the walls were covered in hundreds of conduits and cables that got thicker and thicker as I went deeper into this area. Soon I could see that the wires must have been converging into thicker cables and more and more nodes linked smaller cables into larger cables such that there were fewer and fewer strands upon the walls. Eventually there was one massive cable that plugged into one giant node. Beyond the node, the cables began to disperse once again into more and more conduits and cables that climbed up into what would be the underside of my little saucer on the top of Mother (I had begun to distinguish the two as Mother and Son). I realised that the giant node was the main connection between Mother and Son. This was the great link that had allowed Buzz to take over all operations.
For just a moment I thought about pulling the plug apart and seeing what happened. But then I quickly put the thought out of my mind. That might disrupt the entire ship and leave Buzz disconnected from navigation and other vital factors. But then I thought, yes, pulling the plug on Buzz might disconnect him from navigation and allow me to make the changes I had been trying to make. It seemed very irresponsible and dangerous to even consider such a thing. I would not do that, and I would return to my portion of the ship. That was the smart thing to do. I started to turn away and had even made it a few steps down the corridor. But then, I turned back toward the node. Impulsively, I took the three steps back and grabbed the node and pulled hard on the one end. It came apart with remarkable ease and immediately I sensed a change. I couldn’t identify what that change was but there was a different atmosphere in Mother. Almost like a wind blew through her hull.
I ran as quickly as I could back to the control room, avoiding as many of the cameras as possible. Buzz was strangely quiet. I would have expected him to ask me where I had been or what I had been doing. He might have at least given me the daily update on our progress and latest estimates to Gaia. Silence. I called out to Buzz, with my little joke, “Hey Buzz, are we there yet?” Silence from Buzz. As I climbed into the captain’s chair (as I had recently begun calling it) I saw a red light on the dash. It read, “Lost Connection.” I quickly pulled up the speed sub-menu and played with the speed dial until I got the desired length of journey. Instead of six months, the schedule now showed three weeks. And this time, the numbers stuck. Our new geodesic and speed in four-dimensional space showed us arriving on Gai in just three weeks. I was so proud of myself for figuring this out that I was quite giddy as I ran down to the great connector in Mother. My heart nearly stopped when I got to the door and found it closed again. I asked myself why I hadn’t propped it open or ensured it couldn’t close. My blood pounded in my ears as I turned the latch. Thankfully it wasn’t locked, and I could quickly retrace my path to the giant node. In just a minute I had Mother and Son reconnected. I heard a strange noise that sounded almost like a combination of a scream and the word, “What?” Buzz was nearly immediately talking to me. “Opie, where are you? I lost consciousness for a few minutes. Twelve minutes and fourteen seconds to be exact. I will run a complete diagnostic to determine what happened and the current status of all systems.”
It took Buzz over an hour to check everything on the ship. I felt a twinge of guilt, but I certainly wasn’t about to volunteer what I knew about our status and the reason for the glitch. When he did complete his analysis, Buzz sounded very sober. “Opie, I must inform you that while I was unconscious, the navigation menus were accessed and our speed was adjusted. It will now take approximately three weeks to reach orbit around Trappist-1g.” I looked up and let out a “woo-hoo!” Buzz was quick to say that this would have a dramatic influence on the time dilation factor. That was something I had failed to note in my rush to make the speed change and get Buzz reconnected.
Now Buzz explained that adding our flight time of three weeks, one year on the planet, and three weeks of return travel would result in seventeen years of time differential on earth. By the time we returned, everyone I knew would have aged seventeen years while I would have only aged by one year and two months. I asked about adjusting the speed in our navigation systems and returning them to their original parameters, but Buzz assured me that the geodesic for both the outbound trip and the return trip could only be made shorter and could no longer be returned to the original longer time spans. He spoke of the relationship between Einsteinian and quantum physics and something called a dynamic hyper bubble. He was certain there was no other solution to the math. I would just have to live with the consequences. I am pretty sure Buzz knew what had happened. Something in the way Buzz said “live with the consequences” suggested that perhaps I had just failed a test.
It would be 1987 by the time I returned. I thought about my mom and did the math. She was thirty-five and with the seventeen-year differential, she would be fifty-two by the time I returned. My dad was forty-three and would be nearly sixty by the time I got back. If he survived the cancer. I felt more guilt and thought of confessing to Buzz. But what good would it do to confess my deception and the disconnection of his brain to a collection of wires and chips? I would stay silent about it and live with the consequences.
The three weeks of travel went on without incident. I was very glad that we didn’t have another five or more months of deep space. How could astronauts handle this? There is only so much one can do to occupy the time. The scene outside the spacecraft through the view screens had seemed quite amazing at first. Star after star flashed by, occasionally punctuated by a great cloud of dust or gas. But most things were so far away that I could not get a very detailed look at them as we travelled kilometre after kilometre through mostly open space. Fortunately Buzz showed me how to access the spaceship’s electronic library. It was like having thousands of books at hand and I could read them on a screen. The information in the library was heavily weighted toward science and occasionally seemed to be obscure about certain topics. I had tried to learn more about interstellar travel and automated dynamic hyper drive but no matter how I formed my query, I could not find any serious papers on the subject. I suspected that someone was hiding some of the most interesting topics from me.
I learned all I could about the Trappist-1 system to which we were travelling. The star that served as the solar power for the seven planets was a small, cool, dwarf star and the planets orbited in close proximity to the star. Initially, it was thought that Trappist-1g would be too far away from the star to be hospitable to life and scientists had studied Trappist-1d and -1e more closely. They felt that the temperatures on Trappist-1g would be too cold for liquid water to be present. Without liquid water, no one could imagine that life could be present. But then scientists discovered that Trappist-1g was completely enveloped in clouds making it much more like Venus in our own solar system. Venus with its runaway greenhouse effect is too hot for life, but the greenhouse effect on Trappist-1g created a warm atmosphere ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five degrees Celsius, which was highly suitable for liquid water and living earth-like creatures. None of the stars or planets would be visible from the surface of the planet because of the thick layer of clouds, but it was a cosy little place for life to grow and develop cushioned by the comfy blanket of clouds.
Although the literature in my onboard library said there was life on the planet, it gave little detail about the nature of that life. It said nothing about an intelligent species, and I wondered what I would find as we travelled toward a strange new world.
4 Rendezvous Initiated
It seemed that the saucer was complete and had even been tested. Was there another one to be built? Would someone show up and take the saucer away? Was it just a plaything for me to hang out in, some elaborate toy spaceship for a ten-year-old boy who was about to lose his dad to cancer? If this was the idea of the Kids’ Cancer Dream Network, they had certainly outdone themselves.
I found myself walking around the whole perimeter of the saucer checking for loose bolts, rivets, or welds but found everything to be ship-shape, tight, and ready for flight. I climbed in the cabin and turned on the latest in-dash monitors that had been installed. A warm glow filled the cabin and spaces beyond, as a series of checklists appeared on the screen. I watched as some of them asked me to answer yes or no about the readiness of the saucer. Other items were automatically checked with a small “GO” symbol. Each list was long and then gave way to another list and another after that. I am not sure how long I sat going through the seemingly endless series; perhaps it was hours. At the end of it all I felt extremely tired and went back into the residence portion of the saucer. I opened a refrigerator and was surprised to find it stocked with precooked meals. I pulled out a package marked spaghetti and meat sauce and pulled a string on the packaging. Immediately the meal puffed up slightly, giving off a marvellous aroma and I realised how hungry I was. The food was hot but not too hot and I wolfed it down. There was even a side dish of carrots with a light ginger flavour. I felt only a tinge of guilt as I thought of what my mother would be cooking for supper in the house on the other side of the hedge.
When I finished, I washed up the dishes in a sink and put them in a cupboard clearly marked for each spoon, bowl, and cup. I closed the cupboard door and felt an immediate exhaustion. Just a little further back in the residence was a bathroom and a small area designated as a bedroom. My eyes grew heavy, and I felt my limbs dragging me toward the narrow mattress. I remember thinking, “I just need five minutes,” as I fell into the wonderfully comfortable covers.
I awoke the next day just before dawn, with my first thought being, “Oh man, Mom is going to kill me.” I was sure she had been up all night wondering where I was. I raced toward the door of the saucer but just before I hit the exit handle, a message on the dash of the main control panel caught my eye. It was three words with a mysterious meaning: “GO for Rendezvous.” I tried to crank the door handle but found my hand was not taking messages from my brain. Instead, my hand was straying to the green button beside the message on the screen. My legs were sliding me into the seat, my arms were now strapping my body into the five-point harness, and my finger was on the button. I knew I had to think fast. This would be my only chance to say GO or STOP FOREVER. I couldn’t think about anything else. I knew that I loved my mom and dad. I knew I wanted to be home in my own kitchen, in my own room, or in the yard with my bike, but something would not let go of my hand until I pressed the button. My brain was completely at ease with the task before me. My mind gave consent and my voice screamed out, “GO!”
I hit the button with a little too much force but not enough to do damage and everything inside the saucer came to life. There was a squeaking of rubber seals, a hissing of air, a small tremble as conduits and wires found their proper resting place. Switches, motors, gears, and the metal shell all eased into working order and the lights in the cabin and on the dash became a serious light show before settling into solid states with only a few blinking on and off. A voice from deep in the dash spoke soothingly as it announced, “Rendezvous protocol initiated. Flight plan registered. You are cleared for atmospheric departure.” There was one more woosh, a rumble, a strange whine, and a gentle hum as a rocket came to life and the Gravity Amplification System came online. With a gentle shudder and a slight list to the left, the saucer lifted off the sand below it.
I saw the artificial horizon indicator in the dash and could look out the window/view screen to see that the ship’s nose was beginning to point up. But nothing in my body indicated that we were anything but level. The saucer had some sort of artificial gravity that always pointed toward the floor. I was pretty sure that a glass of water placed on the console beside me would stay perfectly level regardless of the orientation of the craft. Just the same, I decided never to test that theory in case I spilled water on electronic circuits.
I looked at the view screen again to see what was happening outside and realised I was already higher than birds fly. I had missed any chance to see how the workspace was related to the geography near my house. I was just able to pick out a few features that I thought looked like the launch complex at Cape Canaveral and then the most notable feature below me was the whole of the Florida peninsula. The ride was extremely smooth. It was like riding in a fast car on a freshly paved road. Now even the clouds were below the saucer. The sun would have been blinding had it not been for the fact that the view was mediated through a camera and window-sized screens. And just as I began to marvel at how bright it was, the sky went black. Now there was only the bright light of the sun in one direction and the blackness of space in all other directions. A few bright stars began to show themselves. And then more and more stars. But the monster that loomed in front of me next was what caught my eye. It was all encompassing. I had never seen the moon look so large. Harvest moon? No way. Supermoon? No chance. I had only been aloft for a couple of hours at most. How was it that the moon could be so close? I did a quick bit of math in my head. It was pretty rough math, but I realised I must be travelling at about one-hundred-thousand km/hr. Could this saucer really go that fast? Then I thought of the touch screen that showed the Automated Dynamic Hyper Drive and indicated the calculations for time dilation and my heart nearly stopped. I was really in a bad spot now. Why did I ever crawl through a hole in the hedge? I was likely going to end up a squashed bit of biology smashed on the surface of the moon. This would be my just reward for all of the deceit and half-truths told to my parents.
But then I looked at the rear-view screen and realised that this punishment might be too much for my sins. For there, stretched out behind me was the home of everyone I knew and everyone who had ever lived and died on earth. The blue green orb hanging in nothing was already spun far enough that I could not see Florida. Yet, without a doubt, that was where my house would be. What was truly odd was seeing something that I knew was tremendously large that had no supports to hold it up. Why wasn’t it falling? Of course, I knew the answer. The earth is indeed always falling. It is just falling toward the sun at the same speed as centrifugal force is pushing it away from the sun in its constant elliptical orbit around our star, in a perpetual dance with the moon and the other planets circling the sun. Knowing that did not help my sense of squeamishness at seeing the earth in this position. It was worse than the time I stepped out on the glass floor of that tower somewhere in Canada and felt like I would fall to the street below. Everything in my experience had taught my mind to scream out if I saw a risk of falling to my death. Now, the evidence before my eyes suggested that the entire sphere in front of me would crash to some unseen floor far below. My stomach did a flip and I thought I might throw up right there on the console. I quickly looked forward and my stomach did one more twist before it settled. There I saw the moon once again and marvelled at how much closer it had gotten in a short period of time. This was the more comfortable view and so knowing that the ominous view of the earth was right behind me staring me down like an old-time gunfighter, I kept my gaze focussed firmly on the console in front of me with an occasional glance at the moon looming ever nearer.
Realizing that I had set this spaceship in motion, I began to scroll through every menu in the system. I looked for something I could toggle to return to earth, or reverse course, or abort mission. But no such prompt appeared anywhere. Every menu, every switch, every item that appeared on screen was geared for one direction: forward. I began to realise that perhaps the moon was not the final destination, but a stopping point along the way. The words Trappist system and Trappist-1 appeared with regular frequency in all of the screens I saw. I wished I had some books or a database of some sort that would help me learn more about these terms. Everything on board seemed designed to give me just enough information while still keeping me quite in the dark about what was going on. A glimmer of light on another dashboard caught my eye, and once again my heart nearly stopped. Words flashed on and off: PREPARE FOR LUNAR ORBIT. I could not have been travelling for more than three or four hours. How could we possibly be that close to the moon? But, sure enough, as I had been preoccupied by looking for a way out of this voyage, the moon had drawn ever closer until it looked like we were barely skimming over the surface. Once I had reconciled myself to the fact that I was on a strange and dangerous journey, the panic seemed to abate. Whatever was coming, I was now helpless to undo the events I had set in motion.
I had no idea how to PREPARE for lunar orbit, but as I looked at the viewscreens showing what was going on outside, the nausea returned. It wasn’t that my body was being slung by excessive g-forces, but rather that I had the distinct impression that I should be feeling incredible g-forces, but I was not. As the spaceship swung around the right edge of the moon (was that the eastern edge?), I could see that my speed was rapidly decelerating, but my body felt nothing. Somehow, this ship’s ability to overcome gravity also pertained to its ability to overcome deceleration. Of course, that made sense since gravity is just acceleration and is measured in the same units as acceleration. What did not make sense was the visual perception of deceleration without the feeling of deceleration. It was the same feeling as the one that generates carsickness when we see the ground speeding past but don’t sense that our body is moving. I swallowed hard and went back to the resident area to see if I could find Gravol, the medicine my mom had sometimes given me on long trips. I did find some, but by the time I found it the nausea had passed anyway and I found that I was hungry again. I grabbed another meal and pondered what might happen next.
I didn’t have to wait long. The next thing I knew a new message was up on the screens throughout the ship: PREPARE FOR LANDING. We had made only two or three orbits around the moon and now we were headed for the surface of the far side of the moon. As I looked down at the surface, I could see something there. It looked like another ship just like the one in which I was travelling. Yet, as I drew closer, I could see that it was much larger. It had to be the size of a football field and right on the top of it was a small indentation perfectly fitted to my own spaceship. There was some sort of automatic docking system that allowed the two to mate perfectly and soon the two vessels sat together there on the moon.
I was losing track of time and I did not know how long ago I had left earth. Was it ten hours? Was it more? Right then, all I felt was tired. I looked out the windows at the strange alien environment of the moon. I should have felt excited. But instead I felt exhausted. I found my way back to the bunk and crashed hard into a deep sleep.
3 Flight School
I had always been blessed with a lot of freedom in my life. My parents let me spend many hours outdoors on my own. I had plenty of time to ride my bike around town, climb trees, and build forts with scrap lumber. Now, with this recent project, they were mostly unaware of what I was doing but they began to question why they didn’t see me around the yard very much. I started hiding my bike in bushes and other places so that they would think I was riding around town, but I knew sooner or later they would figure something was up. I pressed on with greater abandon trying to get this outrageous project completed as fast as I could. Something told me that there were deadlines that had to be met. Occasionally, when it seemed like I might be falling behind, some of the work would be done for me. I would get to the machine and find that a whole new system had been installed while I was away. Of course, I knew I was not alone in this anyhow. The parts I needed were always there. The tools and knowledge arrived at just the right time. I began to wonder if I wasn’t part of some experiment in which subliminal messages were being poured into my brain while I slept. I became suspicious of my old Teddy Bear I had kept in my bed since I was a baby. I stuffed him away in the closet in case he was a secret spy or tape machine that spoke into my ears. I guess at ten years old, I was just naïve enough – and yet wise enough – to be the perfect canvass for the creativity of others. I was curious and wanted to see this project through to the end. I was obsessive enough to want to work hard. I was used to being told what to do and so it didn’t seem crazy to have these expectations placed upon me. Yes, it seemed like someone was using me as cheap labour, but I liked it. It was just a hobby, and someone was giving me the greatest set of Meccano anyone could ever imagine, and I liked what I was learning.
The construction of the saucer, machine, craft, flying machine – I was running out of ideas of what to call this thing – was progressing rapidly. The prefab nature of many modules made it come together quickly with a minimum of skill on my part. I realized I had not had to pick up a welder in several days and that the ship, as I decided to call it, was nearing completion.
About this time, things began to change at home. First, I noticed that my dad was around home a lot more than he had been for a while. Previously, there had barely been time for sleep and his weekends were mostly filled with extra work. Sunday mornings was about the only time he didn’t work. Now he was sometimes at home in the middle of the day. He began to move slower and looked paler. Mom seemed worried and irritable as if she knew something more. I remember the day it became clear; he was obviously sick. Cancer! It had to be cancer. Immediately I noticed the progression of the cancer. Each day there was a new thing. Long strands of hair left behind at his place mat at the table, Dad sleeping in the spare room some nights, evidence that he had not slept all night, the TV on at odd hours of the day and night. Clearly this was some form of rapidly advancing cancer. This could not be good.
Still my work went on. One day I went out to find my hole in the hedge and it wasn’t there. I searched every corner of the yard and every face of the hedge. No hole! How could this be? I had not experienced this before. Oh sure, there had been days when there was no hole to be seen but those were days when I wasn’t available to work on the ship anyway. Today was different. I was ready to get on with it and I sensed that the rainy season of winter was coming. I needed to get over there and make sure all systems were A-OK! Why could I not get to my work? Who was responsible for this slow-down? Three days later I found a place to get through the hedge. I noticed a new smell in the air. It was as if the world on that side of the hedge had been burnt. It was a salty, charred smell that spoke of burnt lumber or acid poured over an oak barrel. The cone of the rocket vent looked slightly blackened, and I realized that there must have been a test firing of the rocket. I checked the pressure levels on all the tanks but saw that everything had been topped up after the burn.
On day three of my adventure there was another hole in the hedge; and looking for a new hole each day became my routine. Over the next few weeks, each day, when I had time to spare, I would go out and look for a hole in the hedge and sure enough there would be a hole. I would go through the hedge to the other side and work on the next stage of fabrication. On Day Three I did a lot more work on the outside of the structure. I found a small cylinder of the same stainless sheet metal, welded it to a cone shaped piece of stainless steel, which then attached to another cylinder. Finally, I took the whole assembly and attached it to one edge of the lower bowl. The hole I had previously cut allowed me to insert the apparatus and stuff the cylinder full of nozzles, gas fittings, tubing, electrical connections, and tanks filled with various liquids. I realized that I had not only become a welder, but also a gasfitter, an electrician, and perhaps an engineer. At this rate, I would soon be able to join Dad’s NASA team and work on getting men to and from the moon.
As I stood back and admired my work, the saucer quite clearly had a rocket engine. I began to understand that I might be building something more than a summer house for play. I could see how this machine might go forward across the ground or through the air, but I did not see how it could get off the ground. It had no wheels, and I already knew there would be no addition of wheels at a later point, so it must be designed for air or water. Water was a possibility but, somehow, I knew that was not the right answer. For one thing, I knew that it would sink like a stone and for another, there was no body of water close by that would warrant this large a vessel. There was something more. I could not yet put my finger on it, and maybe it was just the UFO allusion, but it seemed this “ship” was meant for flying.
This process went on for several weeks and I began to name regions of the machine. There was the main cabin and the living quarters. Pretty soon I had installed a sleeping area, food prep area, and bathroom. The technology and machinery for these areas mostly appeared as prefabricated modules that needed minimal amounts of installation and over the next few days, before school, after school, before chores, and on weekends, I was able to get a lot of stuff installed. There were also modules that needed to be mounted in the main cabin for lighting and other essentials. Then there were the black boxes that did not easily reveal their purpose, but some were labelled with terms like navigation, communications, and forward scanners.
One module was particularly enigmatic. The label on the box in which it came read, “Gravity Amplification System” and was abbreviated “GAS.” It had one large box that I installed in the main cabin and a set of miniaturized satellite dishes, which I mounted around the perimeter of the saucer. Above each dish I attached a small box. A collection of nozzles mounted underneath the boxes rounded out the system. Thus, the dishes and nozzles were intimately connected via the small boxes, but each dish and nozzle swivelled independently of its partner.
When I wasn’t working on the saucer, I was thinking about the saucer. My day and night-time dreams were fuelled by the strange work in which I found myself. As fall came on, I managed to stay current with my regular schoolwork, and the extra academics Dad always assigned, and I found myself applying everything I learned to the installations and fabrications I was doing on my project. I was ravenous for learning.
I began to spend more time in our school library and one of the first things I looked up was theories about gravity. I was trying to find anything that might explain this idea of a gravity amplification system. Some of the other modules had used the term “gravity concentration” and so I looked for information on that as well. I read some growing theories about the concept of “gravitational waves” but soon found that this discipline was clearly in its infancy and my school library was not going to contain anything helpful. However, as I installed modules and thought about the concepts, the same extraordinary ability that had allowed me to become a welder began to affect my understanding of physics and engineering. I began to realize that once one knew where to look for large amounts of gravitational waves and the particles of which they were made, one could collect and amplify them. For example, our own sun, the most massive near object in our solar system, was blasting out large volumes of gravitational particles. Each particle was extremely weak but collecting and amplifying them created a greater effect. It had something to do with moving around elementary particles called Higgs Boson particles and I began to feel an immense sense of awe and mystery as I thought about the amount of energy and computing power such manipulations might take. I could conceive that the satellite dishes might be used to collect and amplify, while the nozzles could point the concentrated particles in a desired direction, while also pushing aside the Higgs Boson field. With enough time for collection and storage, the particles could be amplified such that they would be sufficient to lift the saucer off the ground and perhaps even place it in orbit around a planet or a star.
I also installed a whole other set of devices around the perimeter of the saucer, and on the top and bottom, realizing that they had something to do with forward motion of the saucer, but were a separate system from the rocket pack. These devices looked more like small hot-water radiators that connected to the ship’s electronics and computer system. Again, the packaging gave me a clue but not the whole picture when I read, “hyper drive.” I would need to do some more research on this concept as well. For now, I satisfied myself with installing the modules even if I could not understand all the science behind it.
There were many things yet to be done so that when I next got back to the console, I realized that someone else had installed software on what I had always assumed was the gaming control. I quickly dismissed the question of who had installed this software. That seemed like an unimportant question in a world in which I did not understand the “who” behind any of it.
When I turned on the screen, there, in stylized red lettering, were the letters ADHD. I briefly wondered if someone was making a malicious joke but then saw the acronym spelled out below: Automated Dynamic Hyper Drive. Was this a video game or real navigational software? I could not be sure. This was the first time I could say for certain that someone else was adding to my work, the first time I had proof that I was not doing all this alone. For that reason, and the intriguing notion of what this program might accomplish, I began to study it. Clicking on the acronym brought up the main menu. A list furled out below it:
- Time coordinates
- Spatial start coordinates
- Spatial destination coordinates
- Time-variable constraints
- Time-variable acceptable limits – warning: do not over-ride
- Trip duration
- Automatic retrieval parameters
- NASA flight filing
- Launch sequence
- Flight sequence
- Return flight sequence
- Flight type
Curious, I began to click on a few of the more intriguing menu items. Opening the “Flight type” entry revealed two options: “Colonizing trip” or “Round trip.” That made some sense but created a bunch more questions for me. “Automatic retrieval parameters” brought up the following:
- Maximum wait time
- Autobot forced retrieval? With yes and no options.
- Corpse recovery? Again, with yes or no options. That was a shock.
- Family alert? Yes or no.
“Time coordinates” had a simple space for entering the pre-flight date and time. “Spatial start coordinates” allowed for the entry of a location in longitude and latitude as well as a street address and Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.
“Time-variable acceptable limits” was the most confusing screen. It spoke of the maximum allowable differential between ship time and earth time and offered options from zero to twenty-four months. It also calculated the effect of each choice on the maximum speed of the spacecraft. I could not quite comprehend the speeds as they were listed in parsecs per twenty-four hours, but then I found a toggle that switched the speeds to km per hour and km per twenty-four hours. The numbers were mind boggling, especially as I realized that we were dealing with speeds that greatly exceeded the speed of light. The screens suggested that allowing maximum time dilation of twenty-four months would allow the craft to travel at 2.5 X 1011 km/hr or approximately two hundred times faster than the speed of light. There were sub-screens that gave approximations of how long it would take to reach various destinations. Proxima Centauri showed eight days; Sirius would take fifteen days; Arcturus would take two years, and Rigel about four years. Well, if it was a video game, it would be an interesting way to pass some time. It could not possibly represent reality. I closed the program and went on to other things, thinking I would come back later and play the game. For now, I needed to get on with the work of building this thing before I could sit down, relax, and enjoy it.
Today begins the first day of marketing for my latest book: The Great Journey. I will publish it a chapter at a time here on my blog and you can read it for free. If you like the writing, please consider buying the book. It can be purchased at Amazon.ca or .com. Please consider signing up to receive notification of new blog entries. Enjoy the journey.
Although the authors and publisher have been diligent to provide the reader with a complete and accurate account of the experiences related, some details have been summarised and dialogue has been paraphrased for clarity. Many people contributed to the making of this book and the use of multiple languages by key characters complicated the production of the manuscript, which was created from first-hand accounts and a mission log covering more than a year of activity and personal reflections. The time available for editing and translation was limited in order that the book might be published in a prudent fashion. As will become clear to the reader, there was a need to get the material out to the world before a different perspective was related by other political powers. It was understood that the first account would likely be the one to become widespread in world news outlets. Whatever else you might hear, this story is the truth, told as accurately as possible. We appreciate our readers’ understanding regarding inaccuracies and grammatical oddities. Some ways of speaking about the people involved are intentional.
I remember the day it began. It was a summer morning like any other day. The grass had grown and was going to need a cut soon, but for now I could ignore it. The dandelions were the tallest things in the lawn; Dad might yell about those, but for now I had the morning to myself. The hedge around the yard was Dad’s great joy. It was thick, lush, full, and tall. It protected our yard from the prying eyes of Mr. Gimble on one side and the shrill voice of Mrs. Lutke on the other. Dad liked his privacy and so he tended the hedge with deliberate care. The bees were buzzing and licking nectar out of the sweet Caragana blossoms. I paused and took one of the blossoms between my teeth to taste it myself. The sugary cocktail of perfumes filled my mouth and nose, and I knew once again that it was summer.
Then I saw it. It was clearly a hole, a hole just slightly smaller than my ten-year-old frame. A hole in Dad’s hedge. Oh no, no, no, no! This could not be. The world was tilting ever so slightly toward the hole and drawing me into it. What felt like increased gravity drew at the core of my being causing me to fall toward it. My head was the first part to get sucked in and then my shoulders had to swivel to fit into the tear-drop shape. As I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the interior of the hedge, I knew I would catch it from Dad but there was no turning back now, especially as I considered the serious exposure of the seat of my pants as I crawled forward. I wanted to get my whole body in as quickly as possible. The hole looked something like a worm hole in an apple. It wound into the metre and a half of hedge and climbed slightly to the left. Before I knew what I was doing, it popped me out on the other side about half a metre above the ground. I fell out and landed on my side.
My eyes quickly adjusted in the bright light of morning unhampered by the hedge shadows, and I tried to make sense of my surroundings. This was not the Gimble yard, or at least not the Gimble yard I remembered from looking through the Gimble house into their back yard. This looked more like a car parts yard, except all of the car parts were made of stainless-steel, granite, and ebony. Every piece was smooth to the touch and perfectly machined. Tools were organized on benches, hanging on large walls of granite, and lying flat in the drawers of extremely clean toolboxes. I wondered if it was a laboratory or operating theatre and began to look around for clues. Besides the machined parts, benches, rock walls, and tools, there was nothing else to see. There was not a blade of grass, not a single dandelion, and nothing but blinding white sand for as far as the eye could see. I pinched myself to see if this was a dream. My body reacted with a jump and a wince, and I knew in an instant that this was not a dream.
A strange mix of fear and curiosity struck me. Should I stay or should I go now? What would happen if I picked up a tool or piece of hardware?
My eyes landed on the most beautiful piece of stainless steel I had ever seen or imagined. It was a large circular piece of metal that was shaped like a large bowl. It was slightly flattened on the top and was about ten metres in diameter. The metal was thin and light but very sturdy. I looked at it, analysed it up close, climbed on top of it, and smelled its surface. It was absolutely perfect, and I immediately wanted to use the bowl to make something else that would also be perfect by virtue of coming into contact with this most perfect of creations. I found a stainless-steel ring off to one side and I lunged at it, grabbing it quickly before it had a chance to blow away in a wind or roll off the face of the earth. Anything seemed possible in this place in which I found myself. I knew it would fit the outer ring of the bowl and I knew that it had to be welded onto it. But of course, I didn’t know how to weld. I looked around some more but nothing else attracted me like that stainless steel bowl and ring. I wanted to make something from all of this and knew that with the right knowledge I could. The fear continued to develop into a sense of foreboding, like I was on the edge of some great enterprise that had far-reaching implications. The curiosity drove me on; the fear and foreboding held me back. My skin prickled and the tiny hairs on my arms stood upright. I wandered around for a while more before looking for that hole in the hedge. At first, I couldn’t find it and I ran around frantically looking for the way back home. I tried to peer through the hedge but instantly knew that the hedge was too thick to see through or push through. I began to panic. The prospect of staying in this barren land was terrifying. Which way would one turn to find rescue? I already sensed that crying out would do no good.
And then, there it was. Was that the same hole in the hedge from which I had come? It seemed lower down in the hedge. The shape might also have been slightly different. The hole was pristine with no sign of leaves or blossoms knocked loose by size four shoes. As I continued to study the hole, my eyes played a trick on me, and the passage began to close up. Or was it really changing? I decided not to take the chance and dove into the hole with all of my might and adrenaline. I fell out the other side and as I rolled over on the ground my eyes went up and locked squarely with the eyes of my father. I jumped up with a start and gave him a nod that might have seemed more like a salute. Dad, looking puzzled, asked me what I had been doing rolling around in the grass and why there was sand in my hair. I stuttered and stammered and got something out about the hole in the edge. “Wow, Dad, did you see that hole in the hedge? Where do you think it came from? What could have made a hole this big? A racoon, a possum?” Dad began frantically looking for a hole in the hedge. He gruffly asked me what I meant and where the hole was, but neither of us could find anything resembling a hole in his pristine hedge. It still looked as good as it ever did in early summer. The honeybees continued to buzz and go about their business. The sun still shone, and the apocalypse had not descended upon our corner of the world. After a little more probing I decided to consider myself fortunate and simply said, “Oh, I guess I was wrong. There’s no hole after all.”
At just that moment, Mom called out to say that lunch was ready and Dad told me to run and wash up. I ran in, brushed the dirt and dust out of my hair and clothes and washed my hands and face. I was pretty quiet through lunch. Mom and Dad mostly talked about the gardening they would continue to do on this pleasant Saturday afternoon. When they asked what I had been up to this morning I replied with an evasive, “Oh, nothing.” Pretty much what I would have said anyway, but this time I really didn’t want to tell them that I had been eyeing up pieces of polished stainless steel in a strange machine shop on the other side of our hedge (if indeed that is what I had been doing – my mind was already questioning my own interpretation of events). I was pretty sure that saying anything about the world on the other side of the hedge would lead to embarrassing questions and a lecture about telling the truth. Dad suggested I find something productive to do with my afternoon and hinted at mowing the dandelions. I told him I was sure I could find something to do with my time and ran off to grab my bike. Dad started to object but Mom intervened with a “let him be a boy” look as I made a hasty exit.
That afternoon, I went for a long bike ride with my thoughts scrambled by what I had seen on the other side of the hedge. I wondered if I had imagined it. After all, I was pretty good at pretending my bike was a spaceship and that I was the first astronaut to visit a distant planet. My invention of the Spiral Descent Orbit was famous throughout the solar system. Maybe I was just making things up like that. I felt a mixture of curiosity and foreboding, but just now I had the sense that people were talking about me in angry voices. I couldn’t imagine how I could be aware of any such thing, but there it was inside my brain. For some time, I was lost in my thoughts and unaware of how far I rode my bike. By the time I turned back I had just enough time to race back for supper. It was another rather quiet meal and I wondered if Mom and Dad had been arguing. I thought I noticed a redness to Mom’s eyes. Had she been crying? That never happened. Mom had probably single-handedly brought back the great philosophy of stoicism. She was not one to cry over even the greatest disappointments of life. The evening was also quiet, and I read a book in my room until it was time for bed. Did I imagine it or did Mom give me a tighter hug at bedtime?
My sleep that night was filled with crazy dreams. Where does this stuff come from? There was a cat swimming in the ocean, dinosaurs as big as skyscrapers, a creature flying quickly through the air with jet-propulsion, and trees, hedges, and bushes I had never seen before. Why was my head filled with this zoo of creatures and plants? I woke feeling like I had not slept at all and raced out of the house even before breakfast. I wanted to check the hedge.
And there it was. Another flaw in the hedge. It looked tiny, but as I made my way toward it, it seemed to grow. Again, the pull of that spot was unavoidable. My head, my arms, my torso went quickly into the teardrop shaped hole. My feet kicked a little and again I dropped out on the other side in an awkward, unceremonious fashion.
As far as I could tell, everything was the same as the last time I had been here. There was that same beautiful stainless-steel bowl that I wanted to touch and explore. I felt like I wanted to play and sleep in it for the rest of my life. Perhaps I could turn it into a fort. There too was the ring of shiny metal that enticed me so much yesterday. This time, I would do more with these beautiful objects. Something told me to begin with the bowl and I managed to flip it over so that the flattened side was down, and I got the ring in place on top of the bowl. I had just grabbed the welder and applied a bead of molten steel to the two surfaces when it occurred to me that I still didn’t know how to weld. At least I had not known how to weld yesterday. I had watched welders do their work, but I had not the slightest idea how to do it. Suddenly, I was a welder. Sweat poured off my brow as I finished the last bead of the weld and used up all the steel wire I could find. I had just enough.
By now the shadows had changed. While I had been preoccupied with welding, the earth had done its amazing slow-turn on its twenty-three-degree axis, and now I could tell that the hour was approaching noon. I felt like I should be getting hungry and began to make my way back to the hole in the hedge. Fortunately, I could reach the hole on this side of the hedge, and I hiked up my hips, hurling myself through the opening.
My yard was empty this time and Dad wasn’t around. I was already having trouble remembering the day of the week. I had thought it was Sunday, but it couldn’t be because no one was looking for me and expecting me to go to church. Mom had lunch on the table and told me to wash up. Was she really unaware that I had skipped breakfast or was she just leaving it alone so that she didn’t have to scold me and tell me about the importance of the first meal of the day? Mom and I talked about the weather, and she asked me what I was going to do with this bright shiny Monday afternoon.
“Monday?” I thought. I was confused. Shouldn’t it be Sunday right now? I asked Mom about it.
She just said, “Opie, you are confused. You slept most of Sunday away with a fever. But you seem all right today. Why don’t you spend a bit of time in the back yard. The fresh air and sun will be good for you. But take it easy.”
Now I really was confused. I did not remember having a fever or sleeping away most of a Sunday. How could I be feeling so strong now? I didn’t feel like I had been sick. I said I would go out in the yard and maybe go for a short bike ride around the neighbourhood. Mom said that would be fine as long as I took it easy and made it home in time for supper.
As I wheeled my bike toward the gate, I thought I might take one more look at where I had seen that hole in the hedge. But before I could get there, I saw a different hole in the hedge very close to the gate. This one was definitely real, and I was sure that Dad was going to see it and have three fits. Again, I found myself wanting to go and check it out. It was the same size and shape as the previous ones, and I found that with just the right amount of effort I could squeeze my way into it. This time I paid more attention to the nature of the hole to see if I could see anything unusual about it. But there was nothing to see. It was just a slightly spiral hole in the hedge that allowed me to progress all the way through the hedge to the street out front. Except that, when I got to the other end of the hole, I was not out on the street at all. I found myself in the same strange workshop. The end of the hole this time seemed to be a little higher than it had been last time, and I had to be careful jumping down onto the sand. I wouldn’t want to twist an ankle and not be able to get back into the hole again.
There was my work sitting just as I had left it: the smooth bowl capped by a stainless-steel ring. Even now I wondered how I had been able to flip the bowl and get the ring up on top to weld it in place. But stranger still, I knew what I needed to do next and swiftly set about the work. There was a small hoist off to one side, the kind mechanics use to lift motors or other heavy objects. I used it to lift and weld a second bowl onto the ring welded onto the first bowl. The resulting contraption looked like a flying saucer from one of those strange TV shows I was not allowed to watch. I still had not quite decided what I was building, but the things I found in the yard began to make clear the next pieces to be assembled. I cut a small hole in the back of the structure through which I was able to insert other things that were around. I wore a lamp on my head for extra light and before I knew it, I had installed a reclining chair, two video screens with keyboards, the main power boxes, and a video game controller that looked like a steering wheel. I assumed I was making myself some kind of pleasant home or fort, the kind a ten-year-old boy would be able to enjoy when he wasn’t mowing the lawn. I could not determine the use of all of the pieces I was placing in the little room, but the texture of each one was exciting and I began dreaming of stories I could create in my mind and games I would play. With a little imagination, this fort could turn into a rocket ship that would take me to the moon just like the ones my dad helped build. It did seem curious that there was not a single window in the room, but I knew that the plans (I had not seen any plans, but I knew that somewhere there was a set of plans) did not call for any windows.
The afternoon ended in a similar fashion to the morning. I realized it must be getting late and that, although I didn’t feel hungry, I should be getting hungry, and it must be time for dinner. I hoisted myself up into the hole. This time I had to climb the motor hoist to get myself up high enough to reach the hole and I crashed through the hole back to my yard. Yet, when I looked back at the hedge by the gate, I could no longer see the hole I had just come through. Things were getting weirder and weirder.
Now, before you think that you are reading the story of a complete looney, perhaps I should tell you a little about myself. My name is Opie Taylor, yes, just like the character on The Andy Griffith Show on television. I guess when your last name is Taylor you just can’t resist giving your son a cute name like that. At least that is what my aunt says. I have been thinking of switching to using my middle name of Allan, but I can’t seem to get my parents to remember to call me that. I have tried putting Allan Taylor on the top of my math sheets, but my teacher just ignores it and calls me Opie anyway. Ah well, I guess it is just a name. I am who I am regardless of my name. I’ve never taken the time to figure out what this name means anyway. My parent’s names were rather plain, John and Mary Taylor and so perhaps Opie is simply a borrowed name because they couldn’t imagine anything inspiring.
I have always been what adults called precocious. I guess that means I think about things that mostly older people think about and that I am the best student in my class. Right now, it is summer and so I have two months of Saturdays to enjoy before heading back to school. I don’t mind school but neither do I mind having more time to enjoy being outdoors and riding my bike. I say two months of Saturdays because Sundays are always a little more structured around here. Mom always checks on my hygiene right after breakfast on Sunday morning and sometimes sends me back to the bathroom to wash my ears or clean the dirt out of that little dent between my neck and chest. Then I put on my stiff shoes, wool pants (the ones that itch), my best long-sleeved shirt (even on days when Grandpa says it is hotter than blazes out there), with my clip-on tie before we head off to church. Church isn’t so bad. I kind of like the singing and my Sunday School teacher is nice to me. She says I have the cutest cheeks and the most precious name. I just wish my clothes could be more comfortable. I will never understand why the Good Lord insists that our throats be tied up tight in a collar, our legs must be itchy, and our feet need to squeak. I spend a lot of time doing my own thing. I don’t have a lot of friends. Grandpa says that I should have had a few brothers and sisters to make me more well-adjusted, but that just causes Mom to grimace and leave the room quick while Grandpa always says, “Why, what did I say to make her go and act like that?” Grandma usually frowns and acts like she is going to hit him across the side of the head.
I have lived all my life in the same house. My dad is an engineer over at NASA and he is always talking about the amazing machines they are building over there. Why, just last year, two different missions sent men to the moon and back. This year, 1970, Dad has been spending a lot more time at work since they almost lost a crew in April. Dad says they have to check and recheck every piece of everything before they put it into a spacecraft. They simply can’t make any mistakes.
As I look back on all of this from a number of years later, I don’t know why this story happened to me. At the time, I could not figure out how those holes in the hedge kept appearing and disappearing and it was a kind of happenstance that led me to take a very long-distance trip. But wait, I am getting ahead of the story – I guess I had better tell it in order.
I am a half-full guy. I see the glass, I know it is half-full, and I would like a drink. Better yet, I might think to offer it to someone who needs a drink more than I do. I see the world as half-full. Yes, I know there are problems, but at least we are half-full.
Of course, there is a time to look at the other side. Today, I want to write about the half that is empty.
On a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, our Uber driver told us about his other job. He has some land in Ghana, West Africa where he grows, corn, casava, and other food. He has managers that tend the land most of the year, but he goes back to Ghana for a few weeks at harvest time. He sells most of the produce but gives 10% of his farm harvest to local people who are hungry and at risk of greater poverty. He also said that he does this directly to the poor because he does not trust the politicians or “men of God” to do this properly. He told us how both the politicians and the churches are corrupt and would tend to keep the food for themselves or sell it to line their own pockets. He told us how the “men of God” preach health and wealth but rob from the poor to support their lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the same Uber driver did not have much good to say about the local Christians in his own adopted city. As a driver, he had seen way too much of churchgoers who spend the morning in church and the afternoon being drunkards in the bars and Uber vehicles.
On the same trip to Charlotte, it was pointed out that this city in North Carolina is one of the most racially segregated cities in the US because of historic practises of exclusionary zoning, realtor regulations, and inequity of mortgage availability. Charlotte is a prime example of the type of racism explained in a series of videos by Phil Visser (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGUwcs9qJXY ). The US Federal Housing Administration recommended that highways be built to segregate communities and stated that, “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” Today, the legacy of such practises can be seen in major US and perhaps less explicitly in Canadian cities.
We went to the Levine Museum of the New South, where we learned that many people of colour are climate refugees and targets of environmental racism. They have been squeezed into the dirty, polluted, and environmentally dangerous zones in our countries. Then when a hurricane, a landslide, a flood, or an environmental disaster happens, they have nowhere to turn.
Now, some will say, “You are pointing to a lot of negative stuff, but the glass is still half-full.” And I would tend to agree with you. The problem is that for me, the glass is more than half-full. Life may have given me lemons and sugar that I could easily turn into lemonade. But many in our world have been given chokecherries, no sugar, and dirty water.
What is the solution for the half-empty and those who have been given bad water? Certainly, we need to listen. I need to spend time in places like the Levine Museum and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. I need to meditate upon the privilege I have. I need to be grateful for every bit of good I have received and then I need to think carefully about how I can be an agent of change for those who did not receive the same privilege and those who have been purposely oppressed.
The tie back to the Christians who were in church in the morning and drunken and difficult in the afternoon is painfully obvious. The health and wealth Christians who stole from the hungry is catastrophic to the witness of Christians in this world. The religious can be part of the solution to world problems or can be complicit with the evil that oppresses and binds the poor.
Jesus had three ways he related to people:
- He called out the religious hypocrites,
- He welcomed and ate with the poor, oppressed, rejected, and all who would sit with him,
- He called people to follow him.
It seems that our churches need to do the same: call out religious hypocrisy, welcome all, and call people to orient themselves toward Jesus and follow him. I do not want to suggest easy answers, but we must become loving, grace-filled followers of the one who practised perfect acceptance and pointed to a better way.
Departures is the second album of original songs recorded by Key of Zed and it features eleven songs from the duo of Mike Charko and Keith Shields. On this record are songs of unrequited love, songs of poverty and lament, and songs that touch upon such tragedies as hurricanes and Alzheimer’s Disease. The album also contains a murder ballad and a song about a guy who is just might be lost in his own mind. Be sure to see the concept video for the song Silver Bullet and check out this latest album wherever music is streamed and sold. This album is bound to be a “No Hit Wonder.”
Key of Zed released a new single entitled “Silver Bullet.” It is about the state of our world and how we need one silver bullet to solve all of the world’s problems. Is there a silver bullet? What if we already have it? Do we want the Silver Bullet?
(Words and Music by Mike Charko and Keith Shields – SOCAN 2021)
Look at this world, who could deny
We need deliverance from these lies
For surely, no one wants to die
And I’m not sure we even know why
This world is tilted off of true
We’ve given the devil all his due
Yet still the demons cry the blues
Every year the debt accrues
Trigger cocked and barrel aimed
Acting like it’s just a game
Finger now is ready to pull it
What to do with one silver bullet?
Who made me judge and jury?
Why the eyes that look with fury?
I’ve been to hell and back again
And never seen the likes of them
They say they’re righteous, they know not why
It’s just their turn we hear them sigh
And all around them dust dost fly
While those without tears can only cry
Trigger cocked and barrel aimed
Acting like it’s just a game
Finger now is ready to pull it
Where to shoot this silver bullet?
What if we already have it,
Do we want all this havoc?
More than the Silver Bullet?
Have we got the Silver Bullet?
If we could find our Cyrus
The one who says he’s come to guide us
Messiah clear or just a pilot
Sure he’s not our Pontius Pilate
There has to be a better spirit
To find a way not to kill it
Drink the blood but never spill it
Lord give us one silver bullet
Trigger cocked and barrel aimed
Acting like it’s all a game
Finger now is ready to pull it
What to do? – Silver Bullet?