What it Said on the Box
Peter Ford is one of the most generous and talented men I've met in a long time. I met him when I joined a writing group in my town, and he has always been so supportive, of not only me but other members of the same group. This is one of his pieces, he is working on a series of autobiographical works from his past, and there is often a lot of humour in his writing.
‘We’ve gone for a ‘go to’ telescope!’ announced Norman.
‘Sounds impressive,’ I replied, suitably awed.
‘Well,’ he said. ’I’ve used University telescopes for years for the serious stuff, and I thought I’d invest in a really top of the range one of my own.’
‘Good for you. But you said “we”’.
‘Ah yes – Marion likes the old stargazing as well, and Bill said “You go for it, Dad. You deserve it.” So we did.’
‘What’ll it do that your others won’t?’
Norman had a variety of telescopes, large and small. The six-inch reflector and three-inch refractor he used for his own observations, but he had a few small table scopes for bringing the Universe to children in local schools and his wife’s Brownie pack. The deep space reflector at the newly refurbished Greg Observatory on the hill above Lancaster had helped him achieve his dream of a PHD in Cosmology. He ran courses for adults, too, over the winter months, based in the ‘star shed’ in his back garden, shaded by hedges from the glow of street lamps and with a sliding roof panel.
‘What about a telescope that brews up for you as well?’ I’d asked, as we wrapped our hands round hot mugs of tea in Norman’s kitchen after an outside session.
‘Well, it would be an idea, but they’d have to think of a way of stopping the steam misting the reflector,’ he mused, putting his mock-serious ‘professor’ expression. ‘But you never know what’s going to come up next; things are moving so fast.’
And sure enough, rumours began to surface about the ‘goto’, a telescope that could think for itself –or so it seemed - with its built-in Artificial Intelligence. All the advanced mathematics and computer programming had been done.
I remember when a telescope was just that – something for looking into the distance. From the Greek for ‘far’ and ‘look’ if you want to be intellectual about it. But now they come with all sorts of bells and whistles. You used to be the cat’s whiskers if you had a camera attachment, or a motor drive to keep a star or planet in the field of vision, but now these features are standard on all but the basic models. The latest ‘goto’s, though, are in a different league altogether.
‘Big money?’ I asked.
‘Not as much as you’d think.’ Norman was warming to his subject. ‘Seems the CIA funded a University feasibility study, ostensibly to produce a market leading telescope with using the latest technology. They gave the Information Studies lot the basic data and let them take it from there.’
‘Sounds great. But why the CIA?’
‘Well, it seems they’re keen on being seen to have nothing to hide, with all the conspiracy theories about cover-ups and so on, and this is – ahem - one of the bounties of the new openness.’
‘Well, lick up the honey and ask no questions, eh?’
‘Yes and why not? There was this offer. A thousand users worldwide for a programme of observations combining satellite and star co-ordinates, so I snapped it up.’
‘No. Pay only the equivalent of a basic reflector from Argos, lifetime guarantee, helpline, everything. Free shipping to your door, even.’
‘When’s it coming?’
‘Got it last week. Funny thing, though. Big black car with three men in suits. Asked me to sign, and then took a retinal scan off me.’
‘Retinal scan? That’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?’
‘Well, I suppose so, but it was one of the conditions. Small enough thing, really. They’ll be doing it for everything soon.’
And off he went, pleased as a cat on a day trip to the Felix factory. I thought nothing more of it until today’s ‘Lancaster Guardian’ plopped onto the mat
THEFT OF STATE OF THE ART U.S. TELESCSCOPE ran the headline. Reading on, I found that Norman’s new acquisition had disappeared from his star shed while he was actually in the house preparing for an evening of observations. No-one had seen anything and the whole affair was a mystery. I rang him out of concern and asked if there was anything I could do.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Come round here. As soon as you like.’ He sounded tense.
It was about ten when I got to Norman’s house in its quiet tree lined cul-de-sac. He opened the door and beckoned me in with what looked to be a furtive glance back up the street. Marion smiled briefly from the kitchen and put the kettle on.
‘Biscuit?’ asked Marion. ’No pink ones left, I’m afraid.’
‘Never mind. They always go first, don’t they? Haha.’
‘Yes. Must get some more. Haha.’
Then a silence, which Norman broke a minute later.
‘You’ve read the paper, then.’ A statement, not a question.
‘Yes. Someone’s half-inched your telescope.’
‘More than that. It’s half-inched itself. It disappeared.’
‘Yes. I wasn’t in the house. I had to tell them that or they’d have carted me off. I was in the shed right next to it, and it just went.’
‘I shouldn’t be telling you this. Those three fellas came again and said they’d prefer it if I kept it all under my hat. Told me there were some flaws in the model and I’d get a similar spec. one under warranty. Thanked me for participating in a vital Government project and off they went. Told me it’s happened with some of the others too.’
‘I’m surprised they told you that much.’
‘They might as well be open. They told me a few other things as well.’
‘But did you see what happened?’
Norman was silent for several seconds and then said, ’Not really. I keep going over it but there was nothing to see. I positioned the scope in the shed, opened the roof, powered it up and keyed in Capella as an orientation point.’
I knew Capella was a bright star in the northern winter skies, but that was about it.
‘What’s so special about Capella?’ I asked.
‘Oh, Capella’s just an easy star to find near the area of sky they told me to look at,’ said Norman. ‘It’s Epsilon Aurigae they wanted. That’s a star just to the south-west, but it’s not that bright. There’s a black hole near there that eclipses it regularly over a long cycle, and it seems they want data about that. Told us we should all synchronise our observations across the UK. Anyway, I set it all up to centre on Capella and it whirred and turned this way and that until a green LRD showed ‘ready’. Then I waited.’
He paused. ‘Let’s take our teas outside and I’ll show you where it was.’
We took our drinks out to Norman’s stargazing shed. The roof panel was open but the two modest telescopes were still under their dust sheets away from the aperture, through which we could see brilliant Capella high in the south eastern sky, up from and to the right of Orion. Norman pointed to an area of fainter stars a little nearer the horizon.
‘There you are. Epsilon Aurigae; about 2000 light years from here in the constellation of Auriga. It’s just coming to the end of its eclipse cycle so it’ll be brighter than it’s been for 27 years. We’ll be able to see the star itself better once the black hole’s out of the way for a while.’
‘Wow – that should be great.’
‘Don’t be facetious. It was about this time of night. I keyed in Epsilon, the telescope whirred and turned towards Auriga. The seconds ticked up and then in a flash it was gone. Up there through the roof I could see what looked like a meteor, but going upwards. Then several other trails came up from all around and they shot off together – towards Auriga.’
‘What were they?’
‘Other telescopes from around northern Europe, I’d say. Those Americans said the scopes were just aligning devices for something else. They’ve developed hyperjump engines that can accelerate a plane faster than the human eye can follow, so it was probably something like that.’
‘No idea, and I’m not asking. Weird looking telescope, though. Probably alien, back-engineered from Roswell or something. I hope the new one’s more the kind of thing I’m used to. It did what it said on the box, though.’
‘Well, it said it would go to any star or planet you keyed in, and it went.’
Copyright Peter Ford