George and the Ship of Time
The spaceship landed on its backside with a huge crunch. It wobbled precariously for several minutes but managed not to topple over. Instead, it was wedged into the rocky ground at an angle like a spacey version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Clouds of dust billowed around it. It would
have been quite a sight—if someone had been there to see it. Around the ship, for miles and miles, stretched bleached, sandy ground, as empty as a lunar desert under a blistering milky sky.
Inside the ship, the two astronauts stayed strapped in their seats as the rocking motion shuddered to a halt.
“I feel a bit sick,” bleated Boltzmann, who hadn’t yet opened his eyes.
“Don’t be silly,” said George. “You’re a robot, you don’t know how to feel sick.”
“Yes I do,” protested Boltzmann. During his time in space with George, he had started to believe that he was not just an intelligent robot but a sentient one too. “I have feelings!”
George, who preferred facts to feelings anyway, didn’t want to discuss Boltzmann’s feelings at that moment. “Is landing complete?”
“Yes, thank you, Boltzmann!” replied his robot huffily.
“Thank you, Boltzmann,” murmured George. “Interesting landing technique.”
“We are on the surface of a celestial body. I call that landing.”
“Not being funny,” said George, “but this is Earth, isn’t it?”
“I think so,” said the robot, looking around.
“But it’s hard to be entirely sure.”
“What if it isn’t?” asked George. “What if you’ve landed us on the wrong planet?” As soon as he said it, he realized his mistake. On their long journey, Boltzmann had become more and more human in his reactions. Any hint of criticism made him very tetchy.
“Look, I’ve done my best!” cried the robot. “After all, it’s because of you that we went into space in the first place.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” sighed George. “And thank you for coming on the journey with me. I couldn’t have flown this spacecraft by myself.”
“Oh shucks!” said Boltzmann, more happily. “I’ve never been allowed to spend so much time with a human before. It’s been most educational. As a robot, I never dreamed . . .” He paused. “Robots don’t dream,” he corrected himself. “I never thought that I would get the chance to have a human friend. And there is no other human I would have chosen. You are the best of your species, astronaut George.”
Unexpectedly George felt a lump in his throat. “Aw, Boltz!” he said. “You’ve been the best of robots. No, actually”—he cleared his throat—
“the best of friends, robot or human.”
Boltzmann smiled, then reached over with his metal pincer hands and undid George’s straps.
“Are we getting out?”
“Yes!” said the robot. “I don’t know about you but I’m ready to stretch my legs!”
“How are we going to do that?” asked George. “Aren’t we a bit high up off the ground? Will my bones break if I jump out?”
“Fortunately,” said Boltzmann, peering out of the window, “by landing the ship upright—a clever maneuver, even if I say so myself—I seem to have crushed the bottom half and we’re much lower down than we should be. So your bones should be able to withstand the descent.”
On the day of the launch, they had boarded the huge spacecraft through an umbilical tower, which had raised them up to the entry point. As George peered out of the window, he could see that Boltzmann was correct. It was still quite a way down to the surface of this planet—Earth?—but it was jumpable, just about, although the windows must have gotten really dirty during landing as he couldn’t see much of a view—only a sort of flat whiteness.
“Where have we landed?” George checked the
control panel of the spaceship to try to gain some clues as to where they were.
But the spaceship had come home to die. Once an adventurer that had charged beyond the edges of the solar system itself, now the Artemis was no more than scrap metal, blank screens, and pointless switches.
“None of my devices are connecting either,” said Boltzmann. “I don’t understand why. I hope this is Earth. I don’t feel emotionally prepared to greet a new planet right now.”
“Well!” said George. “There’s a more practical problem. If this isn’t Earth, I might not be able to breathe the atmosphere . . .”
“I’ll go first,” said Boltzmann in a noble voice, “and test the conditions. I may be gone some time . . .”
“Thanks,” muttered George, who wasn’t in the slightest bit worried about Boltzmann stepping out of the ship. Testing the conditions was in no way as dangerous for a robot as it was for a human being. He peered out of the window again. Where on Earth—literally—were they?
“Are you excited?” asked Boltzmann as he busied himself around the exit hatch.
“Yes!” said George. “I want to see my mom and dad. And Annie!
And find out what’s been going on. What was that weird message she sent us? I hope they’ve managed to fix everything by now . . . and I’m hungry! I’d like some real food . . .”
“Personally,” said the robot, “or robotically, I can’t wait to catch up with my robot brethren on Earth and share my insights into the human condition. I think they will be fascinated to hear—”
“Yup!” said George, cutting off Boltzmann’s musings, which he had heard quite a few times on the space journey. “Well, come on, then. Let’s get out of this spaceship before it switches itself off and we’re stuck in here forever.”
“Ta-dah!” said the robot as the hatch swung open, giving them a panoramic view of the world beyond—except the visibility was so bad they couldn’t really see anything at all. Air blew in, carrying sticky sand and sooty particles that stuck to them.
“Bleugh!” said Boltzmann, trying to brush the tiny flakes off his metal carapace. “I don’t remember Earth being this dirty. But good news! You can breathe the air—I’ve run a test and its composition is just about safe for you.”
“What do you mean just about safe?” said George, coughing as he took off his helmet. The
air tasted nasty and had a gritty feel to it.
“The carbon-dioxide content seems very high,” said the robot dubiously. “Higher than I remember. Way less oxygen and far more greenhouse gases. But I think you’ll survive for at least a few minutes.”
George spluttered a few times as he stuck his head out of the hatch and looked around. He realized that the windows of the spaceship hadn’t been dirty—there was simply nothing to see except a blank, featureless desert stretching for miles in all directions, broken only by knobbly, stunted trees. Flinging one leg out of the side of the spacecraft, he prepared to throw himself down onto the surface.
For as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of the moment he climbed out of a spaceship and took a step on a new planet. This felt like his dream had turned into a nightmare—a near crash-landing somewhere on Earth. At least, he hoped it was Earth. But it was a remote and bleak spot and there was no one to greet them, nor any signs of home.
George shinned down to the ground, his spacesuit easily gripping the outside of the spacecraft, which was gluey from the thick air in this strange
location where they had landed. Boltzmann followed, plonking his huge metallic feet down on the sandy earth, which was strewn with small rocks. George swayed as he tried to steady himself, the impact of gravity weighing very heavily on him.
“Look!” said Boltzmann, pointing at his feet. “We’re standing in a riverbed!”
“We are?” said George, examining the cracked surface for clues. “But where’s the water?”
“Dried up,” said Boltzmann. “But it was once here.”
“What a sad place,” said George, puffing out his cheeks. “Why did the Artemis come here? What made it choose this spot?”
“It definitely wanted to land here,” said the robot. “It chose the journey and the destination—we’ve just been passengers all along. My master must have programmed it this way.”
“Why would he do that?” said George. “Why would he program the Artemis to fly through space only to return to this dump? There’s nothing here!”
They stood together and surveyed the scene, the boy in his spacesuit and the huge, blackened robot gazing out across the empty land.
“Do you see anything?” George murmured, peering into the distance.
“Nope,” said Boltzmann. “Just emptiness.”
The space rations had just lasted until they landed. Now, as the sun beat down on this dry desert, George realized he needed to find water soon.
But, as they were both staring at the heat haze in the distance, they failed to notice something approaching from behind. Before they knew it, a group of tiny robots making faint clicking noises streamed right past them, tearing toward their
spaceship. As soon as the mini bots reached the ship, they started to dismantle it, pulling it to pieces with remarkable efficiency and speed.
“Hey!” shouted George. “That’s my ship!” But the tiny bots paid no attention. They couldn’t have been less interested. Entirely focused on destroying the spacecraft, the bots removed the ship’s Artemis nameplate and broke it up into pieces.
“Let me try,” said Boltzmann confidently. “They’ll want to talk to me.” He strode over to the tiny robots and started addressing them. They gathered around, answering back—and it seemed as though they were laughing at him! Soon the little bots turned back to the ship, cutting it into segments and carrying each piece away like a column of ants. Boltzmann walked heavily back to George, who was now feeling a horrible combination of travel sickness, gravity sickness, Earth sickness, home sickness, and air sickness.
“Well?” croaked George. “What did they say?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the robot. “At first, I didn’t understand anything they said—but they thought I was hilarious! I worked out that
they were calling me ‘V minus one point zero.’?”
“V minus one point zero?” repeated George hazily. “You were the most advanced robot on Earth when we took off.” He felt very uneasy and a bit nauseous. “Did they tell you where we are?”
“Sort of,” said Boltzmann carefully.
“What do you mean?” asked George, who was now leaning on Boltzmann as he was finding it hard to stand. He felt so heavy after all his time floating about in space. It wasn’t a good feeling—if he could have gone straight back to space at that moment, he would have.
“They called it by a funny name,” said Boltzmann slowly.
“Funny ha-ha?” said George.
“Not so much,” said Boltzmann. “They called it Eden.”
“Eden?” said George. “Where even is that? Did they say?”
“Here’s the very not ha-ha bit,” said Boltz-mann. “The coordinates for this place tally with our point of departure—we are close to the launchpad from which we blasted off.”
“What?” said George. His head was spinning. “I’m standing in a dried-up riverbed in the
middle of a desert and you’re telling me that it has the coordinates for Kosmodrome 2? But that was in the middle of the countryside, not that far from Foxbridge itself!”
At that moment, a particularly vicious gust of wind sent a flurry of soot into their faces.
“The bots must have gotten it wrong,” said George, spitting out some of the larger fragments that had blown into his mouth. “This can’t be my home.”
“I am afraid it is,” said Boltzmann. “I think the Artemis has brought us home. Over there”—he pointed at the bald desert—“is where Foxbridge should be.”
At that, George collapsed.