This is a marvellous short story by one of Pens very talented creative writers, Val Inchley, enjoy.
Brrr – brrr, brrr – brrr
It wasn’t until the noise had shrilled 20 times in his ear and the empty house that he remembered. Tuesday. Ante-natal clinic. Our baby is having his check up. He grinned, pulled the plastic phone card from the slot and shoved it into his wallet. Our baby. That sounded good. As good as the news he had for Jinny, but wouldn’t now be able to pass on till the evening.
Still grinning, Jawan helped himself to a cardboard mug of plastic coffee and returned to his desk. The message was still there on the computer screen, where he’d left it to rush off and tell Jinny. Funny. It had thrown everything else out of his mind. If he’d stopped to think he’d have remembered that Jinny was never in on a Tuesday, even before it became ANC day. It was hard to concentrate. He was meant to be practising manoeuvres on the simulator, but this afternoon he crashed repeatedly. That wasn’t like him and he knew it. He wouldn’t have been picked for this mission if it was. He logged off the simulator programme and opened his email and spent the rest of the afternoon answering those and writing reports. It was something he could manage on autopilot.
At 5 sharp he switched off, picked up his coat and headed for the underground car park. The next thing he consciously remembered was putting his key into the front door lock in Beechwood Drive. That was something else he could do without thinking. It wouldn’t be long now before he was cruising on a very different kind of autopilot in the supra-galactic regions. Again he grinned, and dropping his keys on the hall table, burst into the lounge.
Jinny! Darling! Great news. I’m on the team. I rang you earlier – forgot you’d be out. I can hardly believe it. It was out even before he remembered to ask how the ANC had gone. Jinny overlooked the lapse, rushed to hug him and said, I’m so pleased for your sake. Your son will be so proud of you. For a moment Jawan was stunned. Lost for words. My son … what do you mean? Then the penny dropped and his grin broadened. It’s a boy! But then I always said it was didn’t I?
As she extricated herself from the hug, Jinny asked, But when? You will be back in time for the birth won’t you? A shadow of remorse passed over Jawan’s face. I’m – I’m not sure. If lift-off goes on schedule, I should be back by Christmas. That’s cutting it fine: the due date is 1 January 2060. Sorry love, but what to do? Do you want me to turn down the place, he queried dishonestly. Oh no, don’t even think of it. This is your big chance. I can have lots of babies. And I hope we do too. So saying, he hugged her again. Yes, once I’m back we’ll have lots more babies, except that he knew it was most unlikely. Exposure to galactic radiation, he had been warned, would most probably leave him sterile. Now was not the time to tell Jinny that. At least they would have one child.
3 weeks later…
Bye darling. See you in 6 months. Jinny pulled herself free from the embrace with difficulty and pushed Jawan out of the door, turning her head away so that he would not see the tears that had suddenly welled up in her eyes. Go well. And come back safely – in time. I’m relying on you. In fact I’ll keep my legs firmly crossed until I know you’re safely back on earth! Jawan too didn’t look back for there was something prickling his eyes too. He ran down the path to where his friend Pitor was waiting with the official hovercar to take him to the astroport.
Five hours later Jawan was strapped into his seat ready for take-off. All pre-flight checks had proceeded smoothly. All systems were go, go go. And propped up in front of him was a photo of Jinny and an ultrasound of his son. He smiled. This was the moment he had lived for ever since as a lad of 14 he had set his heart to being an astronaut. There had been long years of academic training and much effort to maintain his physical fitness at a peak. It had all paid off. Now he was the happiest guy in the world, and in just a few minutes, maybe in the whole universe too. He was brought back to reality with those apocalyptic words, ‘We have lift off.’ And he felt it. They were on their way to a world called Naton. Nobody knew anything definite about it, but it was considered extremely likely that there was carbon-based life there. There was certainly water – that had been proved from the many probes and the atmospheric conditions were said to be similar to those on earth. Soon mankind would know if it were not, after all, the only intelligent species in the universe. And Jawan was part of the project. His son would certainly have something to boast about in the years ahead.
One down and two to go, Jawan told himself silently. It was well known that the three most dangerous moments of any space flight were blast off, the inter-galactic jump and the setting down. It felt like a good omen. Nothing at all had gone wrong, even vaguely so – up until now. Out of the corner of his eye he watched his three colleagues take their pills and knew they would be settling down to sleep. It was his ‘watch’ for the next 4 hours. He saw the earth recede and then made all the necessary checks. Everything was working fine. He grinned. This was the life. He set the check alarm for 30 minutes and reclined his seat and opened the first of 10 books he had been allowed to bring along. He savoured each paragraph: after all they had to last him the next 6 months. But he had chosen well and knew it. A comprehensive history of earth. It was sufficiently boring for him not to want to read it all at once and sufficiently interesting to persuade him to keep going. After ploughing through 10 pages of theory on the supposed origin of the universe and of earth in particular, it was time for the next series of tests to be run. Again all was fine and he returned to his reading, and quickly finished the chapter. That was enough for one session and he lapsed into meditative mood as he considered each of the theories in turn. None was new to him: it had been compulsory reading in school, but from his current perspective, it seemed to have gained a new importance. As though it actually mattered. The Big Bang still had a lot going for it, though most serious scientists were questioning some of its presuppositions these days. Random aggregation of sub-atomic particles – that was now thoroughly discredited. Creation by a God – no one had disproved it, but then no one had actually proved it either. It had its merits. It left you feeling as though there was some real purpose behind it all, even if that continually eluded you. Jawan glanced up at the photo in front of him. He knew this was the theory that Jinny favoured. For himself, he was still not sure: it wasn’t very scientific, but what was it that Jinny kept saying – It wasn’t meant to be. That had never made sense to him before but now, looking out across the infinite expanse of space, the idea that someone a lot more intelligent than he was had made it all – and was still in control – seemed both incredible and reassuring. Then it was time for the next check. Again all OK.
And so it continued for the next couple of hours, until he woke his team-mate and was able to get his quota of sleep. The schedule was so arranged that 3 members of the team would have 4 hours shifts and the fourth member a 2 hour one before they were all needed to prepare for the jump. Crisis point number two. It arrived all too soon and suddenly the cockpit was full of noise as the 4 men worked together on the tests and calculations to check their position, communicate with base and set the controls for the jump. It was no longer the dangerous thing it had been at the beginning of the century. Enough was now known about black holes to make the calculations without error. He thought of those poor souls, the pioneers, so many of whom had perished – you couldn’t call it died – in the early jumps. He pushed to the back of his mind the probability that their craft were still out there somewhere, with men who had arrived at a destination they knew nothing about. More likely, he reassured himself, they were vaporised. Reason told him the results were the same anyway and if it happened to him, he would never see Jinny again – or their son – ever. But reason also told him that of the last 50 inter-galactic jumps only one had been fatal and that was due, it was said, to faulty equipment. Everything was functioning fine in this mission.
Then it was time. The computers were checked, re-checked and countdown was reached. The four men strapped themselves into their special jump harnesses and pushed their seats back to the recline position, which was supposed to minimise side effects. It didn’t really matter as there was nothing to see anyway and it would all be over in a matter of seconds – nanoseconds actually. And then it was. There had been no experience of the tunnel, not that there had been time. And they were out into a different galaxy and Naton was just visible on the screen. They settled back into the same regime of watches, this time for nearly 24 hours. Jawan spent a lot of the time writing up a journal – for his son. Once his colleagues were asleep he got out the notebook and jotted down his thoughts just as they came into his head. When the end of his watch came, he quickly hid the journal, for some reason feeling embarrassed about this exercise, but knowing that at least Jinny would understand.
“Two down and one to go.” Jawan woke as Samur shook his shoulder. “Last one eh! Everything gone like clockwork so far.” It was an antiquated expression but it had stuck. Clockwork had never been particularly precise, not once nuclear clocks arrived. He looked through the view-plate and could see Naton getting bigger with every minute. The adrenaline ran high. They were all excited. Like a lot of little kids suddenly asked to do a big job. Better still, like the feeling the first time he went out with Jinny. Awesome. All the checks ran clear. The final details of setdown were programmed and they sat back to observe their arrival on Naton. Were they the first intelligent beings to land there, had others preceded them or had some humanoid race evolved there? So near now to the answers. Final adjustments were made, the ship was barely moving now (in relative terms that is) and they all relaxed. But too soon. Set-down became crash-down.
What seemed like an eternity later, although if the clocks were still to be believed, it was only 3 hours, Jawan returned to consciousness. His three friends were sprawled out, trapped by their harnesses, but only a quick glance was enough to inform him that they were out cold and probably going to stay that way – forever. Suddenly everything was different. If the ship could be lifted off, it was theoretically possible for him to take it back to earth, but this was a very big if. The US of his son had slipped to floor. Symbolic. Finding and replacing it assumed a significance as great as the disaster that had befallen the crew. But long years of training quickly took over and Jawan began the final checks of the systems. Strangely everything seemed to be normal. The only problem he could detect was that contact with earth had been lost. Even this was not totally unexpected. It did happen sometimes after a major jump. But it was disturbing as it meant he had no way of communicating the problem. He was on his own – utterly and completely – unless of course there was someone else out there in control. That theory seemed like the nicest thought he had ever had.
Jawan went through all the procedures, including that of checking on his colleagues. There was very little he could do for them. Airway, breathing, cardiac monitors were all steady, the EEG traces were also OK. Weird. Time only would tell. In the meantime he needed to look after himself – complete the mission – and try at least to get back to Jinny and the baby. The odds were overwhelmingly against him, but he’d overcome so many obstacles to get where he was already, so why should a little thing like this stop him now? He laughed and it was therapeutic, for of course this was by far the biggest hurdle he’d ever faced in his life. Well, so be it. He couldn’t put back the clock. This was the life he had wanted. And he’d always done well on the astro-survival courses.
By the following morning, Jawan had conducted enough basic tests to prove that the atmosphere on Naton was sufficiently similar to earth, that he should have no problem even without a space suit. But knowing that and having the courage to open the hatch without a safety shield of personal oxygen was something else. But this had always been one of the possibilities and he knew the step might need to be taken. It’s much the same as the first time I stood on the high board back home and decided to dive into the pool. I’m still alive. It was only water I hit. It’s all a question of whether I am prepared to trust these tests, but why shouldn’t I? It’s probably safer than getting out of my car back on earth. But then a sudden thought struck him. There may be no traffic or atmospheric pollution like in the cities back home, but what if some weird invisible microbial species got me? I’m going to need to conserve oxygen in case I have trouble on the way back, so what was that ancient Anglo-Saxon saying my grandpa taught me ‘In for a penny in for a pound’. When he had first heard it Jawan was only ten and he had had no idea what pennies or pounds were, but he’d got the meaning alright. He stripped off until he was dressed in shirt and slacks, which seemed the most appropriate gear for the temperature outside. Then, taking one last look at Jinny’s photo, and the US, he had eventually located under the bulkhead, he twirled the lever for the lock and waited for the heavy door to swing open.
He could breathe. Easily. Freely. Pleasantly. There was even a gentle scent on the air like that of spring in the woods. Amazing. So we aren’t the only world where man can live. Then he jumped lightly down from the aluminium ladder and landed in some soft green grass. Better and better. The chances of finding humanoids seemed to rise with every passing second. Gravity too was comparable to earth. No problems there either. Jawan climbed back into the cabin and turned off the internal oxygen supply for his three friends. They’ll not be needing that here, he told himself, and at the same time hoped they would be needing it on the way home. Either way, logic indicated it was better to conserve the resources.
Jawan grabbed his small survival bag, containing a change of clothes, some iron rations, water, notebook and pencil and a few other things, and then again jumped out onto the grass. He very carefully took his bearings and noted them in the book. Then, he set out to walk across the fields. It seemed to be early morning, but soon the sun – correction – a sun – was overhead and he began to sweat. So far he had seen no water, until he very nearly fell into the stream. Common sense told him it was water, but a few simple tests confirmed this and he felt it safe to drink. Good. Thirst-quenching. Refreshing. Clean and clear. He continued his trek across the fields and came to a small wood. It was shady in there and he sat down to rest. That day he walked for several more hours, but saw no signs of hominoid civilisation. He spent the night out in the open but fortunately the weather was mild. The next day he set off early and in the early evening he saw in the distance what looked like a village, surrounded by fields. And there were people working in the fields. They looked just like ordinary people back on earth. Jawan’s confidence grew. One of the hominoids suddenly looked up and saw Jawan. He dropped his spade and began to run across the fields towards him. It’s going to be fine. He looks friendly. The man jumped the stream and reached Jawan. They grinned at each other and the man spoke rapidly what Jawan could only assume was a greeting. Jawan responded, but neither understood each other, and the Natan seemed more puzzled about this than Jawan did. He had anticipated the problem, but of course had no way to prepare for it. It was almost as though the other man had never met a stranger who did not speak his language before. Maybe. Jawan made some simple signs that he hoped showed friendliness and determined to learn this language in record time.
The man took Jawan to his home and introduced him as best as possible to his wife. He also had a small son. The child was still a baby and this brought back poignant memories for Jawan and made him desperately home sick. Would he ever get back to earth and have a little family like this? The strange man’s wife seemed however to understand the tears in Jawan’s eyes as he looked at the little child, and made what he assumed was a sympathetic comment. If only, at that moment, Jawan had understood what she said to him, it would have provided him with the key to the whole planet. In the end, it took him many months to reach that understanding.
After a few days, Jawan tried to explain that he wanted to return to his ship to check on his friends, but the villagers failed to understand and he did not like to just walk out on them. They were otherwise so very hospitable. If his colleagues had recovered consciousness, no doubt they would come looking for him. If not, well, there was nothing he could do about it. He had as yet no idea of the sort and level of medical treatment Natan might have to offer: if he had known, that too might have given him a clue about the type of culture this was.
Jawan fell into a routine of life on the planet and living with Cringor and his family, and he soon got into the way of how they did things. It was little different from earth really. This was a rural family, but after a while they took him into one of their towns and that too was almost as bleak as earth towns. In fact if he had been asked at this point what the differences between the two races were he would have been hard pressed to say. They seemed to be more easy-going and relaxed. There was definitely less struggle for achievement, and yet many of the other tensions were there that were common to him on earth. Jawan felt there was something strange in that but could not put his finger on what it was. That was hardly surprising, but had he been able to it would have clarified most of his questions.
And so life passed. Or appeared to be so doing, as Jawan’s watch seemed to have stopped. That too was weird, as it had been fine immediately after the crash, but now just did not move – well perhaps just a flicker. Eventually he managed to cure himself of the habit of looking at the watch regularly, but when he did glance at it after a couple of weeks, he thought it a little strange that it seemed to have gone backwards by about 15 minutes. But then broken watches sometimes do funny things. A pity as I could have done with a reliable timepiece to help me keep my diary while I’m here. Once again there was nothing he could do about it, and it was only several months later he began to suspect its significance. It wasn’t as if there was a superfluity of clocks on Naton either. It was quite a while before he even saw one at all, and when he did, he determined that he would try to get hold of one as a souvenir to take home. Back on earth Jawan had had a cousin who’d possessed an anticlockwise clock that he had always coveted. No matter how many hints he had dropped, Jinny had never taken them up and bought him one. Maybe she’d tried and never found one. Well, on Naton every clock he saw was like that.
Cringor found Jawan a job in the town and he enjoyed commuting each day, while living in the countryside. Although he had spent most of his adult life in an earth city, he was a country boy at heart and loved the open spaces and woods. The weather on Naton seemed reliably mild and so early morning and evening he was able to sit outside or go for a walk before breakfast. He also put aside each day time to learn the language. With Cringor and Tralon’s assistance and the help of all the neighbourhood children, he made rapid progress, and was soon able to converse fluently about ordinary matters. Abstract concepts however, as might be expected, continued to elude him, but he soon stopped worrying about that. It’ll come eventually, especially if I have to spend the rest of my life here.
One day Cringor’s wife asked Jawan how young he was. It struck him as a strange turn of phrase, but assumed it was just a colloquialism. Some languages have strange ways of expressing things, he remembered. And out of the depths of his memory he dragged up one of those useless bits of information he had acquired as a child. Hindi uses the same word for yesterday and tomorrow. He idly wondered if Natoni did the same, and if he had looked into this linguistic anomaly there and then he might have made his big discovery a lot sooner than he did.
After he had been there about 3-4 months by Jawan’s own reckoning, he was playing with his host’s little boy one day and noticed that he seemed to have lost quite a lot of weight. This worried Jawan – almost as if it were his own son, after all this might well be the nearest he ever got to being a father. He mentioned it to Cringor and Tralon, but they only laughed. Once again Jawan pushed a very significant clue to the back of his mind.
The following week an elderly man appeared in the household and Jawan was introduced to him as Cringor’s father. But when Jawan asked where he had come from, the old man looked so puzzled that Jawan decided not to bother him with questions. I guess my accent is very strange for an old man, reasoned Jawan. But actually it was nothing of the kind. Sangor had understood completely but just thought the question was so stupid he couldn’t believe he had heard correctly, but of course he was far too polite to tell Jawan that.
After a further few weeks Jawan was offered the opportunity to go on tour with some of the men from his office. They would be away for a couple of months, but by now Jawan had given up the hope of ever getting back to earth, let alone in time for his son’s birth, so he went. If this is to be my home until old age, I’d better get to know the folks and fit in, he kept telling himself, not realising how the Natonites would have killed themselves laughing at that idea. He also imagined that a tour of other areas and bigger cities perhaps would give him a better idea of life on the planet and how much they really knew about astro-travel, for the rural community he was living in, seemed relatively undeveloped. So far he had discovered very little, but then reasoned that perhaps it was rather like the situation back on earth not so many years ago – when even in his childhood not many people bothered about astro-travel. Nevertheless a lot of research and interstellar tips were going on. It was a good trip and although he did not come across any astronauts or aerospace institutes, he discovered that they did have planes at least as advanced as earth in the 2020s.
When he got back, he was welcomed like a long lost member of the family, which was helpful as he was again feeling homesick. His son would have been born about now he reckoned. And thinking of that, he suddenly realised that little Sano was no longer around. He tried to ask, but mum just patted her tummy and smiled. At first he did not understand, but then he looked again and suddenly realised that she was pregnant. How stupid of me not to have noticed before, he thought. She must have sent Sano to the in-laws so she could get more rest until the new baby was born. Thereafter he tried to be extra thoughtful, remembering Jinny, but to his amazement this pregnancy never seemed to get any bigger. That was worrying. If it had been Jinny he would have been at the doctor’s immediately, but here he was a guest and so he held his counsel, as he had done with so many other issues.
One day he had come in tired and weary but they had greeted him cheerfully, “You don’t look a day younger,” but again he took it as a weird turn of phrase. It sent him back with renewed enthusiasm to his language study. There was just so much he still did not understand. He had started noting down proverbs and colloquialisms, but still had difficulty in getting folks to explain what they really meant. Another line of thought also occupied his mind for a while, but lack of vocabulary made it impossible to discuss. If the universe was created by some intelligent being, that for want of any other word, I’ll call God, then this God must also have made these people as well as us on earth. No, that’s the wrong way round for the logic, he told himself. The very fact that there is this similar race of people on a similar planet argues strongly for an intelligent creation rather than random chance. It’s straining even my credibility to believe that random mutations and chance have produced two almost identical worlds. This will be a very interesting topic to discuss with Jinny when I get back – if I get back.
It would also have been very revealing to have discussed it with the Natonites, but that opportunity never came. One day the young fellow he had been planning to ask, announced that he would be leaving work the next week to go to school. Everyone seemed happy for him and Jawan tried to join in by asking what post-grad courses he was taking and received a very strange look in return. There was no one else, even Cringor that he felt he could broach the subject with, especially as only a couple of weeks on there seemed to be a reshuffle in the office and some of the senior folks appeared to have been demoted. Jawan was puzzled but again kept quiet.
But finally the day came when all the bits of the puzzle started to fit themselves together. It was the day he had set aside for some extra language study and was deep into lists of colloquialisms, proverbs and suchlike. Seeing them all together rather than encountering them individually in different time contexts was what did it. As he made a list of sayings with the contexts in which he had heard them, gradually the evidence mounted. He began to remember things people had said and done. How young are you? You don’t look a day younger! The embarrassment about explaining where grandpa had come from. The pregnancy that seemed to get smaller rather than larger. The anticlockwise clocks and his own watch that was going backwards. The mysterious disappearance of little Sano. His work-mate who left to ‘go to school’. Jawan was forced to the horrifying conclusion that on Naton life was going backwards. Everyone was getting younger. Now he knew and it explained so much. Suddenly many strange things made a lot more sense. But the really horrifying thing was how life started and what happened at the end, but it wasn’t the sort of thing he was going to ask about. He’d just keep his eyes and ears open from now on.
Then one day Cringor said to him, If you’re going to stop being a father when you get back to earth would you like to see a birth while you’re here? It seemed churlish to refuse such a generous offer though the very thought of it made Jawan’s blood run cold. He tried to make some excuses like wanting it to be a surprise, but Cringor was not easily dissuaded once he had a good idea. Jawan steeled himself. It’ll be just like watching a film running backwards. No big deal. But it was. And it was this experience of watching a baby crawl back into its mother’s womb that finally decided Jawan to leave – before someone had the bright idea of inviting him to witness a backwards funeral. He began to think of a tactful way of taking his leave from a family who had been so welcoming and friendly. There was no easy way, but when he came in from a long refreshing walk in the fields one day and was greeted with You’re already beginning to look younger, Jawan finally decided that he was leaving in the morning come what may.
He had decided just in the nick of time, for that very evening the family invited him to go with them to granny’s funeral the following day. This time he was adamant that he would not go and excused himself along the lines that in his culture only close family went to funerals. He’d rather take the opportunity to explore the surrounding area – for a few days. In the end they agreed and Tralon packed him up enough provisions to last a life time – what a joke (!) and watched him head off into the countryside. Jawan had a pretty good idea of where the ship was, but had no idea whether the Natonites had found it and whether they had in any way sabotaged it. Certainly no one had ever mentioned this to him, which was a good sign. He clung to it for it was all he had to go on.
Once out of sight of the village, Jawan pulled out the sketch map he had made on the way in and followed it very carefully. He knew it would take him a good two day’s walk, but then he had plenty of food, there were rivers if he ran out of water, and the weather was still mild. He’d never heard of or seen any wild animals and so set out unafraid and yet fearful of whether he would succeed. He could be fairly sure he would be able to find the ship, but beyond that he refused to think. If the ship was in the same condition as he had left it, that would be time enough to start to think about whether he could get it to lift off. The one other possible worst case scenario was that his colleagues had recovered and returned to earth without him.
And in exactly two and a half days he made it. It was a lot easier than he had expected – which raised his hopes. How would he find his colleagues after all this time? Humanly speaking they should not still be alive, and if they were they should have explored and found him in the village or else taken off without him. But the ship was still there. Would they be with it or would that give him yet another problem if they had disappeared?
Slowly Jawan climbed the aluminium ladder and looked into the cabin. It was exactly as he had left it. The 3 men were restrained in their seats and looking for all the world – or should it be universe – as though they were having an afternoon snooze. They were not dead. Nor were they dehydrated or malnourished. But after about 9 months this was impossible – unless – and the thought suddenly struck him – time here not only goes backwards, but is somehow faster than earth time.
Jawan set himself to work systematically through all the technical checks prior to lift off. This took the whole of the rest of that day and was still not complete. He called it day – a stupid expression as he was no longer sure what time was at all – and decided to sleep on it. The following morning he completed all the tests. Only one had thrown up problems and after a while he had managed to sort that out. His hopes slowly began to rise, but he kept them in check, for it was too soon to get excited. Gradually Jawan convinced himself that the ship was in full working order, and began to plan his lift off as it would be more complex with only one at the controls. That took the remainder of this day and so he fixed countdown for early the following morning.
When the time came, he was surprised to find how nervous he was, and that he even had second thoughts. He could so easily return and live back his life here on Naton. There would be problems but at this point it had attractions. Deliberately and logically he put these aside, reminding himself very forcibly of the revulsion he had felt towards the backwards time of this planet. He propped up the photo of Jinny and the US of his son, who, he reckoned would be more than 3 months old by the time he got back – if he got back. Jinny’ll never forgive me for missing the birth, but no, on second thoughts, she will, once she sees me safe and sound again after presumably having given up all hope. The countdown began. Slowly all the systems came into play and finally there was just the one button left to press. He closed his eyes, prayed to the intelligent being who had created 2 such similar and yet different worlds and asked for help to get back home, and pressed. The ship moved rapidly upwards, gaining speed every second. Very shortly, he was clear of the atmosphere. Jawan made further computer checks on his course and then settled back for a quick rest. Already the events of the last few months were beginning to seem unreal.
For the next couple of days he paced himself with alert spells at the controls, during which time he checked and rechecked the course and the calculations for the return jump and in between wrote up his diary for his son. The novels lay forgotten. Fact had proved stranger than fiction. There was anyway no time for reading. In between he caught snatches of sleep to ensure that he would be really alert when it came time to re-enter the black hole.
At last the time came for that and setting all the dials, he strapped himself and his 3 still sleeping unconscious colleagues into their extra harnesses, attached their safety oxygen masks and got ready to depress the jump switch. Then he reclined in his own seat and glancing at his watch, pushed the button. The last thing he remembered was the time on his watch. Funny he thought, its just 10 minutes on from the time when I landed and I thought it had stopped. Whether he had got the co-ordinates slightly wrong or what, he was never to know, but immediately he experienced a vicious jolt that threw him backwards into his harness and he lost consciousness.
When he regained consciousness, it must have been about 15 minutes later. He awoke to find one of his 3 colleagues bending over him and saying, “Welcome back to the land of the living.” “What do you mean?” “Well you haven’t seen much of Naton have you. You went out cold as we landed and have been like that for the full 10 days we’ve been working on this ship to repair it. But we’re glad you’re back with us now: don’t know what we’ve have said to the old man if we’d had to take you back in bits or a box.” Jawan grinned weakly. He wasn’t sure whether he was dreaming now or had been previously. “So, what did you discover about Naton while I was on another planet,” he said, trying to make a joke of it? “Zilch. It looked so like earth but the final test came up with one unknown gas in the atmosphere – which we had to assume was dangerous. If we’d gone out, it would have had to have been with full suits and oxygen. But in view of the damage caused by the crash landing, we decided to scrap the exploration and just try to patch things up here. Cut our loses and try to get back to earth. We reckoned we needed to conserve as much oxygen and supplies for getting back to earth – in case there were any delays. We got some samples though. Sorry you missed all the excitement old boy.” Jawan was more confused than ever, but decided not to say anything. Time would tell. And thinking of that, he glanced again at his watch. According to the date it was now 12 days since they had landed, which really unnerved and confused him, and also stopped him asking his friends what the real earth date was. He wasn’t sure whether he was more worried about possibly having missed Jinny’s confinement because he’d been on a strange planet for 9 months, or discovering he had been unconscious for 9 days. He’d find out soon enough. Time would tell – as they say. Now they were though the jump safely, it was only a couple of days to splashdown. Their chances of a safe return were now almost assured – in modern space terms it was almost a certainty.
And in 2 days, 6 hours and 35 minutes exactly they did splash down, precisely where this had been planned. The crew were taken directly to base and kept in quarantine until their medicals. He was allowed to phone Jinny however, and as it was a private call he was able to ask her what the date was. She seemed surprised at the question but answered easily. “So our son hasn’t been born yet then?” “No silly,” she responded. “You were supposed to be away for 6 months and were hoping to be back in time. But you’ve actually been away only about a month. What’s wrong with your memory? Don’t say you’ve left it behind up there.” “No, no, it’s just that my watch stopped and with all the changes of time and the jumps etc I got confused,” he answered hastily. Jinny was just about to ask why he had not asked his colleagues such a simple question, when something stopped her. “Anyway I have to go now. A couple of days of medical tests and then so long as all is fine, I’ll be with you at the weekend. Bye love.” Jinny hung up. Happy but puzzled. He had seemed a bit disoriented. Perhaps that happens to them all when they get back from space, but they’ve not been gone that long. Oh well, no doubt he’ll tell me all about in a few days time.
The medicals went without a hitch, except for one thing. On the final day, the doctor was giving them all their reports. He had run extra tests on Jawan because the others had told of his period of unconsciousness, but could find no lasting effects. “In fact,” he said, “contrary to all the rules, and if I hadn’t had your DoB in front of me, I’d have put you down as a fit 25 year old. Obviously space travel suits you: you seem to have got ten years’ younger. If that’s what it does, I’ll have to sign up myself.” Jawan laughed at the joke because it was expected of him. The doc was over 50 he knew that, and thanked him. Jawan had tossed up whether he would tell the doc about his experiences, but eventually decided not to mention them, after all it was becoming more and more clear that he must have dreamt it all. It was bad enough to have had to admit to the long period of unconsciousness without adding hallucinations as well. And if the doc had even the slightest doubt that Jawan might have been exposed to the atmosphere of Naton, he would be duty bound to stick him in the medical isolation block and run hundreds of tests to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he was not infected with some hostile bugs. Either way, it would take weeks, delay his getting back to Jinny and jeopardise his future space career.
On the fourth day they were all allowed home, after a short press conference – not that there was a lot to report as it was technically an abortive mission. Jawan arrived home tired and still slightly confused. If he’d been crossing the Atlantic 50 years ago, they’d probably have called it jet lag. Jinny let him sleep it off the first night, but then announced that she had arranged a week’s holiday from the school where she was teaching. She suggested a walk in the countryside and Jawan was more than happy to agree.
As they sat by the quiet stream in the wood eating their sandwiches, she blurted out. “Now come on tell it all: there’s some mystery attached to this trip isn’t there.” Jawan knew he could hide nothing from her, and began slowly to tell the story. She tried so hard not to laugh, but failed miserably. By the end he too was laughing though there was still just a bit of him that believed it had been real. “Anyway I’ve got the journal I was writing for our son: you can read that.” There would be a logical explanation and as they chatted it through over the next few days, it would surely emerge. They drove slowly back home. When they got back, he pulled out the journal in its tatty notebook and handed it to her. As he did so, out fell a ball point pen. Jawan’s eyes popped. “That’s the one that Cringor gave me on Naton,” he said. And it certainly was a design and make that Jinny had never seen before.
The next day they took off for a week’s holiday by the sea, and that restored Jawan almost back to his normal self. It was not that he had forgotten, but the experience was beginning to fade a little, and he was getting used to fact that it was an extraordinarily vivid dream. A useful gift: if they threw him out of the space team, he could take up writing SciFi.
Jinny struggled to work out when Jawan had written his journal. There had been no time for more than the last few pages on the return journey. Which meant that it must all have been done on the journey out, and the concussion at touch-down had given him retrograde amnesia. Jawan however was adamant that he had written very little on the way out, but as any writing had been done when his friends were asleep, no one was going to prove or disprove this. She didn’t press the point but kept it turning over in her mind. Jawan was now back at work and when she got in from school early afternoon she set too on the washing from their holiday. Among the clothes she found his slacks that he’d been wearing on arrival home. As a routine she checked the pockets before throwing them in the machine, and pulled out some odd coins and a couple of notes, and dumped them on the kitchen counter. Well space travel has not changed one aspect of his life, she grumbled, he always leaves things in his pockets.
Jawan arrived about 8pm and they ate almost immediately. As he was helping take the dishes out to the dishwasher he caught sight of the money on the top of the counter and asked, “Where did that come from?” “Out of your slacks pocket – how many time have I asked you to check the pockets before you put them in the wash: one of these days you’ll lose something really valuable,” she said crossly. “That is valuable,” he replied in a husky voice. She looked up and saw Jawan was staring at the money like a frightened animal. “You know what that is don’t you?” “No,” she replied, but as soon as the words were out, she realised that she did. “It’s Naton money isn’t it?”
30 years later
“Hi mom, Hi dad! Guess what? I got the job.” Jinny smiled and said, “You sound just like your father did 30 years ago, when he rushed in and told me he’d been accepted for the Naton probe flight. At least this time I know you’ll be safe on earth while you’re making history for us. Congratulations son, I’m so proud of you, and you deserve it. Ever since you were a kid I’ve never known you shirk the homework and assignments. I reckon they couldn’t have chosen a better man for this project.” “That’s what the Prof said, dad,” all false humility forgotten as Jawan Jnr explained. “He said it was mostly because of my PhD thesis on language relationships. Of course we all know that any galactic language may be very different from earth ones, but the chances are if there are humanoid species around, their method of communication will tie in somehow. I shall be associate professor grade and in sole charge of the Naton language project.” “I shall have to dig out my old vocabulary lists and check up on you from time to time.” Jawan said it in jest and they all laughed, though they all also knew that there was an element of seriousness and poignancy hidden here too. Jawan probably would dig out those old notebooks.
They say that the probe will be making its first pass over Naton early next week, and if all goes well, and the ship stays in communication with our centre, I will have tapes to analyse in just a few days now.
After the abortive mission on which Jawan was a member, the space budget had been severely cut. Naton was relegated to the level of possible future exploration and other more lucrative and urgent projects took its place. If Jawan’s team had discovered hominoids this would never have happened of course.
Jawan himself had, after long consideration, opted to leave the astronaut team and seek an earth-based job. He’d been happy, enjoyed his family, the countryside of earth and the job he’d had, although it offered nothing like the adventure of space travel. He was now 65 and compulsorily retired, although strangers always took him for early 50s. And he was certainly fit and well.
The family had never talked about the trip to Naton. Jawan had always had a niggling doubt and that was perhaps the main reason why he’d decided not to go into space again. When Jawan Jnr had been old enough, they had told him the story and let him read the journal, but he had never shown anyone his language notebooks. His youthful response, to suggest that his dad publish it in a SF magazine, had not been well received. Perhaps it was related to references Jawan had made to the linguistic structure of the language or perhaps there was some other reason, but Jawan Jnr had from an early stage shown both interest and talent in languages. He’d mastered about 10 major earth languages as well as Braille and sign, and written his doctorate as a comparison of the philology and etymology of languages, and suggested that this could be a basis for the analysis for any communication medium anywhere in the universe. As he’d said, this was clearly why he’d got the job which everyone hoped would provide an analysis of the language of Naton. Recent missions to other planets had passed by Naton and resurrected the theory of it supporting hominoid life, and backed this up with a recording purporting to be Natoni speech. The space agency had been willing to give it one more try and had recently sent up an unmanned probe. This would circulate and pick up and record any language and Jawan Jnr’s job was then to discover what the people were saying, and then try to talk back to them. Jawan said, “It’s not a difficult language, once you get used to those strange colloquialisms.” Again they all laughed. The possibility that his own son might be the one to prove categorically whether Jawan had dreamt his experience or not was awesome. They dropped the subject.
But the following day Jawan spoke to his son in private. “You know about the language notebooks I made, are you interested in seeing them son,” he asked. Jawan Jnr did not know what to say. He had never seriously believed his father had set foot on Naton and felt embarrassed by this suggestion. Nevertheless from a linguistic point of view he knew he was curious. “Better not now, he muttered: might influence my thinking too much.” Jawan understood and no more was said.
“Can you still remember any Natoni dad?” “Yes,” he said slowly, “I can.” “So you’ll be looking forward to hearing the tapes when they come through,” Jawan Jnr teased. “I’m not sure, son.” “No doubt they will give a snippet on the TV, but would you like me to bring the full tape home for you.” “Maybe.”
The probe was on target and within a week Jawan Jnr. had his first tape and was able to begin work. He played it through and was as convinced as he needed to be that what he was listening to was a real language. He set to work to transcribe the strange sounds into phonetic symbols and hardly noticed the time passing. Hungry and excited, he rushed home, forgetting completely his promise to take a copy for his dad. He arrived just as his parents were sitting down to their meal. He dashed in and turned the news on. “Don’t you want to hear all about it?” he accused. “Not really,” said Jinny and Jawan in unison, and their voices drowned out the tiny recorded scrap of Natoni. He looked across at his father. Even if he had heard it, there was insufficient to recognise anything: even he himself couldn’t have identified it and he had been listening to this stuff all day. Suddenly he remembered the tape he hadn’t brought home. “Sorry dad – I’ll bring it tomorrow.” “OK son,” but there was little enthusiasm in his words, which Jawan Jnr. missed in his own excitement.
The next day he remembered the tapes and Jawan took them with barely a word of thanks. “I’ll listen later” – which meant he wanted to do it in private. Jawan Jnr was happy: he had a date and so was pleased he did not have to re-listen to the tapes with his dad. And when Jawan Jnr had gone out and Jawan gone to his den, Jinny remained sitting in the living room with a good book.
About 10pm Jinny decided it was time to make their evening drinks. She took Jawan’s to him in the den, but when she entered, she was horrified to discover him sitting over the desk with his head in his hands. When he looked up, he was as white as a sheet and she was convinced he’d just had a coronary. “Shall I get a doctor? What’s happened?” “No, nothing, well… it’s just that I can understand those tapes.” Jinny didn’t believe it at first. This was impossible. Like everyone else she had accepted that Jawan had been concussed on the original Naton flight and experienced an exceptionally vivid dream. But now this…. Something had certainly affected him. Did he really understand or was it just another trick of memory? They agreed not to say anything to Jawan Jnr, and predictably when he came in his mind was on other things and he never thought to ask. If he’d remembered, he’d probably have been too embarrassed to ask anyway as it was only to humour his dad he’d brought the tapes home. Never for one moment had he thought he would understand them.
The next day he was struggling with the material on his computer. The analysis was going well but he was beginning to realise that without some actual contact and a few key words understood, he was never going to be able to reply to the message from Naton. Oh yes, he could logically compose a few sentences with their vocabulary and structure: that was fairly easy to achieve, but without any way of discovering the meaning of any of the words, what use was it anyway. Suddenly he thought of his dad and began to wonder if he had understood. Stranger things had happened in the past, when people had understood a language they had never learnt: maybe that was the explanation. It suddenly became very important to discover what his father had thought of the tapes. Probably nothing, he told himself, after all neither mum nor dad even mentioned it last night, but he still dialled the number of his home.
His mother answered and in response to his query simply said that he had better talk to dad. When dad came to the phone, all he said was, “I think we’d better have a chat. I’ll come round to your office.” Jawan Jnr sat back and tried to fathom what the significance of that was. It seemed to indicate his father may have understood something, but of course that was impossible. Or it might just mean that he wanted Jawan to understand that this was a family affair and should not be mentioned to anyone else. Twenty minutes later Jawan walked into the office. He sat down but it was only as he picked up the mug of coffee his son had made, that Jawan Jnr noticed the tremor in his hand and the look of fear on his face. “Dad, what’s the matter?” “I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I understood almost every word on those tapes. Do you realise what this means?” Jawan Jnr could hardly take it in. “Yes, dad, I do. Can we talk?” They talked…. And then Jawan provided his son with a series of key words to help crack the language code, while he himself went home.
Two days later Jawan Jnr had a reasonable translation of the messages on the tapes. With the help from his father, he had made sense of it all, and was even working on a reply. Together they composed a message and then Jawan helped his son to record it with the correct intonation. This was the message that was sent when the probe next circulated Naton, but only Jawan Jnr and his father knew how it had been composed… or so they thought.
The fact that Jawan Jnr had managed to analyse the language of Naton sufficiently to send a reply hit the headlines. The news hounds were soon on his trail. Although Jawan Jnr never mentioned his father and certainly never spoke of his help on this project, somehow the relationship was discovered and the next day they opened the paper to read, ‘Brilliant’ linguist fakes Naton language success with help of visionary astronaut father. They did not need to read the small print to realise what the reporters had made of their information. Father and son were both devastated. Jawan Jnr lost his job and the whole project was dropped. Once again Naton was forgotten. The family moved and rebuilt their lives.
Another 30 Years later.
Jinny had died but Jawan was now 95 although he behaved like a sprightly 85, and Jawan II was just about to retire from his work as author of textbooks of Comparative Linguistics, with many publications to his name. Neither Jawan nor his son ever spoke of this incident again and Jawan Jnr’s wife never knew he was the man on the Naton project that had disgraced his country, and his children were never told of the exploits of dad and granddad, until…
One day Jawan III picked up the phone and calmly announced to his parents that he had been picked for the new space programme. Neither knew he was even thinking of it. When he got home that night, they thought they were ready to cope with this new development. They could not have been more wrong. “D’you know what made me go for it, dad? I was reading the history and there was a guy called Jawan on the first Naton flight so it seemed somehow guidance that I should apply.” His parents were silent and suddenly he looked up and gulped – “that wasn’t granddad was it?” “Yes,” said Jawan II, deciding that evasion was unlikely to help now for the truth was going to come out anyway. A quick look at his wife and son and Jawan II launched into a very abbreviated version of the story. Both listened intently and when he finished Jawan III simply said, “Oh.” “It’s up to you now son. At some point the press will undoubtedly pick up the connection again, but we can live with that. Can you? That’s up to you to decide.” “There’s no decision to make. I’ve been accepted. I am going to go ahead and bring honour to our family name.” “I think you may find it easier to do that if you refrain from mentioning the connection until you get back from Naton,” said his father. “You’re probably right,” grinned Jawan III, “but after that, you wait.”
In due course Jawan III completed his training and informed his parents that the Naton mission was scheduled for the following week. Before he left there was a family gathering. Jawan asked if he wanted to see the language notebooks. “No thanks, granddad – what I discover, I discover, and if it is what you two think it might be, then those books will be extra proof and vindicate the family. Let them stay in the safe deposit box where they have been for the last 60 years.” “Actually Jawan, I have a great fear that you will find nothing,” said granddad. “What do you mean?” “Well the last message your dad and I received was one that was never made public, but the people of Naton were pleading for help because they knew their civilisation was coming to an end.” “Sort of dying out, you mean,” queried, Jawan III. “Well, yes,” said Jawan, “only that’s hardly the appropriate terminology.” They all laughed and it relieved the tension. “If my understanding of their time passage is correct, they could well be an extinct race by now.” “That’ll be a bit of an anticlimax,” exclaimed Jawan III, “but any artefacts that prove they existed will still be valuable I guess.” “And don’t forget to bring back any written materials if you get the chance,” emphasised Jawan II. “OK dad.”
It looked as though the mission was going to be a great success. Progress reports all the way to Naton were favourable. Before they landed, they decided to orbit the planet a few times, take some aerial photos of any civilisation and see if they could pick up any more Natoni conversations. After two circuits, they viewed some very clear remnants of humanoid civilisation and pictures were beamed back to earth. No speech was picked up and no evidence was seen of any current civilisation. Jawan III feared it was going to turn out as his grandfather had predicted, but dare not mention this to his colleagues.
But once the pictures of extinct settlements reached earth, and the names of the 3 astronauts were made public, the press picked up the story and again began their own excavations. All too soon the link between the three Jawans was exposed and unpleasant stories were published. It seemed that whatever facts Jawan III brought home, the press would never let him vindicate his father and grandfather.
The family were kept in touch with progress of the mission by space control and for two weeks every report was good. The ship had landed, the crew had begun to explore the planet. They had found remains of a civilisation which looked as though it had been extinct for at least 200 years. Artefacts were being collected and minute fragments of written materials. From the artefacts discovered, the people must have been humanoid, but no remains could be found. Contrary to expectations, with a civilisation that ceased only 200 years ago, the team found no dead bodies and no graves, which was a source of great wonder to everyone except Jawan and his family. The team were surmised that something must have changed 200 years ago. Most likely this was the clue to the disappearance of life on Naton.
The last message they sent back to earth was that this was probably linked with an unknown gas. All other evidence suggested that previously the atmosphere had been identical to that of earth. After that there was silence. No one ever heard from the team again and an unmanned probe sent the following year, found no traces of them or their ship whatsoever.
The families were left to mourn in the peculiar way that accidents like this inflict on those who remain. For Jawan and his son it was doubly hard as the press were surmising that the third generation of their family must have sabotaged the mission when it seemed to be proving that generations I & II had been fakers. To Jawan II and his father, the dating back 200 years made no difference: in fact it proved their theory of the passage of time on Naton – which had been about 10 times the speed of earth in Jawan’s day and gradually speeded up.
When Jawan was about to celebrate his 100th birthday, he decided he had nothing to lose by asking for one last favour from the space agency. He asked to see the fragments of writing that had been found on Naton. He knew they had been photographed and transmitted back. Just to humour an old man (not that even now he looked his age!) they agreed to give him a printout – partly because they were genuinely sorry he had lost his grandson and had not subscribed to the theory that he had sabotaged the mission.
Jawan took the precious printout home and showed it to his son. “It’s the same script that I remember learning, and there is one sure way to prove this.” “How?” “We’ll compare it with the language notebooks still in the safe deposit box.” “Of course!” The next day the two men travelled back to the town where they used to live and presented themselves at the bank. After all these years, the key was still safe and the records intact. There was proof that no one had opened this box since 2060, some 65 years ago. The manager himself led them down into the vault, sensing that this was something of an auspicious occasion. He opened the box and put in his hand to take out the plastic wrapped package. Here you are gentlemen, just sign here that you have received the contents safely. Jawan took the pen and began to write, but his eyes caught a movement. Jawan Jnr. up-ended the plastic packet and slowly poured out a stream of dust.