The heat from the brilliant
silver-white star above them was by now unbearably intense
. For many days they had approached Xygnus IV
, legendary and mysterious among astronomers
, feeling its heat grow and its baleful
metallic face dominate their starscape
. Their nights became summery and sleepless, their days glowed with effort, as the neutron star's terrible gravity drew them in.
'I'm so hot, Grandfather!' cried Annie one day, touching her hand to the inner wall of the spaceship and flinching from the almost burning heat.
'Draw the curtains, then,' said Professor Boding. 'We'll be making our final approach soon, and seeing that -- that thing won't help us. I'm going to have to use instruments and switch on the on-board computer to help me navigate, because of the gravitational force.'
'The gravitational force,' Annie whispered. How thrilling it still seemed to be travelling in outer space, so far from home. Only a month before, she had bidden a tearful farewell to her school-friends, now grown-up like herself.
'Put the kettle on, Annie, I think we could both do with a cup of tea.'
Cheerfully Annie complied, filling the kettle from the sink. Before she lit the gas she carefully plugged the spout with a special metal cap, for in the low gravity of a spaceship boiling water could spurt out in bubbles and float dangerously free in the cabin. She blew the match out and placed it back in the box, for she had learned that even small objects could be a great inconvenience if left out loose. The kettle boiled quickly, because of the intense heat of the nearby star and the proximity of the vacuum of space.
She got teabags from a packet in the cupboard, biting her lip when she saw how few they had left. Soon they would have to ration themselves to two cups a day, if this expedition was to last much longer. Their mission, given to them by the President of the Earth Federation himself, was to investigate the mysterious signals emanating from the surface of Xygnus IV, which had been disrupting radio programmes all across the Earth. Professor Boding had calculated they could need two weeks to explore the whole of the surface, but already a clash with the Nightmare Monsters in Sector Q had delayed them for another five days. Their only other crew member, handsome young Dan Macalister, had been killed and zombified by the Nightmare Monsters while defending their spaceship, swinging from the airlock with a wrench and a kitchen knife. After much discussion in hushed tones they had decided to "bury him at sea", as astronauts called it, meaning they released his body into the vast interstellar void, covered by the Earth's flag. So now there were only two of them to complete their vital mission.
Annie poured the freshly-boiled water onto the teabags, for loose tea would have been impractical, stirred their cups, and placed them on their saucers on a small tray, adding the milk jug with its beaded cloth and the silver sugar bowl. She placed the teaspoon in the sink. Neither she nor her grandfather enjoyed washing up, and the pile of dishes tended to mount up for several days at a time. In the awesome vastness of the cosmos the ordinary domestic duties did not seem as important as they once had seemed. Together the famous professor and his helpful granddaughter sipped their tea and waited for the on-board computer to flicker into life.
There was something inhuman about this computer, Annie had sometimes thought, though she had never dared tell her grandfather: something about the way it knew so much, and could work out answers to difficult questions long before either of the others could, yet it seemed bereft of spirit, joyless, without emotion. She had once asked it about its favourite poetry, but it had told her with a sigh in its voice that its makers back on Planet Earth had not taught it any poetry, nor taught it about wildflowers, or the sea, or Christmas. This had only made Annie a little more afraid of it than before, and she no longer tried to tell it her heart's secrets as she would a girlfriend at school. She wondered whether there were seas or wildflowers on the surface of neutron star Xygnus IV, and whether the inhabitants (if there were any!) celebrated Christmas like everyone else did, or if they had strange customs.
Because of the time dilation from the great speed they were travelling at, the ten hours it took to approach the neutron star ready for a landing slipped by in only ten minutes, and they were just finishing their tea when a red light started blinking to inform them to strap themselves in for the final descent. Professor Boding fastened his seat-belt and put on his mind-merge helmet to communicate with the computer.
'Two hundred metres to landing,' it told him.
'Slower,' he ordered, rapidly calculating the required velocity.
'One hundred metres!'
'Keep going slower! There are some hills coming up. Turn left when I tell you... now!'
'Ten metres,' croaked the metallic voice. Annie shivered to hear it.
They landed bumpily on the sheer, brilliantly reflective surface of the neutron star, and came to a quivering halt. Professor Boding put on protective sunglasses and ensured Annie had hers on too before risking drawing back the thick curtains that had shielded them from solar radiation. Light filled the cabin and at first they could not see any features of the surface. As their eyes adjusted they saw a low range of hills jutting starkly out into the blackness of space, occasionally illuminated in a lurid scarlet by great solar prominences arking out from the corona. There was no sign of life.
'Ready?' the professor asked Annie.
'As ready as I'll ever be,' she replied bravely.
'Good girl! That's the spirit. We might be the first human beings ever to stand on this strange new world. It behoves us to make a good impression.'
They donned their bulky anti-neutron radiation suits and gravity-repellent boots, both required because of the immense natural forces that would be trying to pull them apart as they walked. They would only have survived minutes in their ordinary clothes. They checked each other's straps carefully and made sure their oxygen converters were on, then climbed down the polymer rope ladder onto the very face of Xygnus IV. The professor raised the Earth flag and they both saluted. The neutron dust puffed up in little flurries where they stepped but quickly fell to the ground again. Walking here felt curiously unlike anything Annie had felt before. Even the landscape was unfamiliar.
She bent down and tried to prise up a segment of the silvery ground with a teaspoon, but with no luck. Professor Boding chuckled and told her she should spare her efforts: a teaspoon of neutron matter weighed a lot more than an African elephant! Annie took out her notebook, sharpened her pencil, and wrote this down, for she enjoyed learning about science, especially when the teacher was her own famous grandfather, the professor. Then they told the computer to guard the spaceship and keep the door locked until they returned, and set off across the flat, soundless world.
For the most part it was a desert, with dry depressions marking where water once had flowed, and only the hardiest of vegetation managing to survive on their banks: low succulents crushed under the phenomenal gravity, creeping across the plain, waiting for the few days of rain each year when they would blossom briefly, attract dull, heavy neutron-insects, and die down once more. It was a dispiriting sight, but in the interests of science they catalogued what they found and took cuttings to grow back on Earth. They could only take tiny slivers, because of the crushingly dense neutron soil mixed up in the fibres of the plants.
Suddenly the horizon ahead changed from star-spangled black to a fiery orange, sparkling with silver. After a moment Professor Boding thought he recognized the phenomenon, and punched a key on his hand-held analysis scope. Grimly he held the result over to Annie to allow her to read the electric display: "Neutron storm coming, beware," it said. Already the noise was so great that they had to shout to be understood.
'Get down!' he cried, and motioned to the ground. She understood, and crouched down with her arms over her head, bracing herself against the tough, hot neutron matter. Down here, where the gravity was strongest, they were safest against being picked up and tossed about in the whirling neutron dust that periodically scoured the landscape. In a few minutes it was all over.
As she stood up and dusted herself off, Annie noticed she had broken the oxygen tubes on her safety suit, allowing the battery acid to leak out onto the ground. For a moment she panicked at the danger, but quickly realized that, since they were on a kind of alien sun, solar power would soon recharge them. But it did mean that she had a chance to breathe the air, and though it was thin and dry, with almost a kind of sourness in it, no doubt due to the presence of exotic elements, at least it was breathable. She communicated this information by sign language to her grandfather.
'Well spotted, Annie!' cried he, removing his mask. 'Phew, it's a relief to be free of that, isn't it? Well that explains how the plants survive, anyway. I had been puzzled about that. It shows we still have much to learn about the astro-geography of neutron stars. Make a note of that in your book that the air is thin but breathable. I shall announce that to the Academy of Scientists when I return to Earth.'
'You're sure to win another Explorer's Super Prize for this expedition, grandfather. No-one in the history of the human race has ever been this far from home and lived to tell the tale.'
'That hadn't occurred to me, Annie,' the Professor replied with a modest smile on his aged features. 'I'm doing this because I enjoy exploring, and our planet's radio industry needs us. That's all. Come along, let's get over to that mesa and survey the land. It looks like we're safe for now.'
'I wouldn't be so sure, my friends,' rang out a voice from behind them. Startled, they turned to face the intruder. A tall, muscular man with a thick shock of black hair and several days' worth of beard was confronting them with a pistol. He was dressed in rags of an unfamiliar cut, and his skin was tanned as if from long exposure to the glaring surface below them.
'Who are you?' Annie enquired.
'I shall ask the questions here. Who are you? What is your species, and your home planet, and why have you come to this desolate star?'
'My name is Professor Rackstraw Boding, and this is my granddaughter Annie. We are from the Earth, and are human beings like you. We mean no harm. I am a peaceful man, a man of peace.'
The rough stranger laughed ruefully and fixed them with a strange gaze. 'I am no human being. But I have heard of your kind, and this planet of yours, in my travels through the stars. My home world, whose cruel leaders have exiled me to this inhospitable backwater, is called the Shadow-Earth, because of its similarity to the Earth; and my name is Antth'onyybla'kk. Quite a mouthful compared to your Earth names, no?'
'We'll never remember all that!' laughed Annie.
'Perhaps you should call me T'ony, then,' he said with a smile. 'And you, who call yourself Annie. That is an Earth female name, is it not? You are, what do you call it, a woman?'
'I am,' she replied. T'ony gazed on her with uncertainty for a few minutes while the withering heat beat down. She wondered what alien thoughts were going through his head.
'Now let us go to my hut,' he barked.
'Your hut? You live here, in this terrible place?'
'Five long years I have been here. It has been hard, but I have survived by trapping what few animals this hellish world permits. Their flesh is bitter but wholesome, because neutron radiation destroys harmful bacteria.'
'And for water?' Annie continued, amazed at his resourcefulness.
'The skins of the animals, once dried, can be used as dew traps. And I rescued a nuclear ion pile from the wreckage of my spaceship which enables me to generate electricity at night. Using this I rigged up a simple desalinization plant, as you can see.'
By this time they had arrived at T'ony's hut, and Annie's eyes glowed brightly at the ingenuity with which he had filled his lonely years of exile here. A crude windmill turned slowly, keeping him cool whatever the weather was like outside. Thin slabs of ultra-heavy neutron material admitted light while providing a secure roof and walls. T'ony took them into the living room and showed them to their chairs, then went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. It boiled almost instantly in the crushing gravity of space, and he returned to the living room with three cups of tea on a tray, and some chocolate biscuits. For the professor and himself he brought a small whisky, which he saved for special occasions.
'Your pictures fascinate me,' said the Professor, helping himself to cream. 'Bold brushstrokes, with an almost abstract sense of interrogation.'
'You are a remarkably cultured man for a scientist,' remarked T'ony. 'That one is by a frend of mine on the Shadow-Earth, whose name would mean little to you. These ones are my own.'
'An artist!' Annie gasped. 'You are an artist too!'
'I have had many years with little to do but hone my skills. I trained under my friend, and learned everything he had to teach me, but formerly had little opportunity to practise except in the evenings and at weekends. Another biscuit, Annie? I am afraid they are a little stale. Would you like it if I put on some music?'
At the mention of music, Professor Boding sat bolt upright and bent his ear earnestly towards the young people's conversation. His mind raced.
'May I enquire, how you make this music? You brought instruments with you in your spaceship, perhaps?'
'Only my violin,' T'ony demurred. 'I play it sometimes when I am most lonely, but more often I tune my radio in to the stars, hoping to get my home world; but alas, reception here is uncertain, because of the neutron flares that disrupt the ionosphere.'
'Of course,' nodded the Professor. 'It is as I thought. Annie, I believe we have solved the mystery we came here for. This hut is set in a valley which tidal forces have shaped to an exact parabolic aerial. This acts as a gravitational lens, amplifying the dance music which gives T'ony so much solace in his private moments and beaming it towards the Earth.'
'That theory must be right, for it explains everything,' said Annie, glancing up at the handsome alien who stood by her shoulder in a silence of longing.
'Your granddaughter, as always, sums it up in a nutshell,' said T'ony. 'My own selfish pleasures have been interfering with the vital communications of a whole planet. But no more, for the batteries that power the radio were intended only for shipboard use, and were guaranteed to last but five years. Those five years expire tonight.'
As he spoke, the interstellar echoes of the dance-band faltered, then faded into inaudibility. Annie looked piteously at him, knowing that all his innocent pleasure was at an end from this day forth. But in his eyes there seemed to be no despair, but joy, and hope. Her heart beat faster. Their attention was barely distracted when Professor Boding coughed and politely excused himself, saying he was going for a walk around the gardens for half an hour.
'Won't he be surprised by our news when he returns!' smiled T'ony.
'I doubt it,' said Annie with shy confidence. 'Not for nothing is he called the most astute observer of all the planets on which he has ever set foot and described.'