The voyage of the Perihelion crashes to an end.
My ship, the Perihelion, is desperately trying to stabilise after she suffered catastrophic damage near the blue hypergiant ‘Saturn Star’ HD 37974 (see last issue). Under regular circumstances I can enter precise exoplanetary coordinates. As it is, the Perihelion’s navigational power has all but vanished. Touching down in a safe spot feels somewhat like landing Huygens using a ZX81. I’m muttering aloud in frustration and fear: “Where on Earth? We just don’t know!”
Giving the destination screen a thump at first only results in a hiss of static, but then a list of generalised astronomical destinations hesitantly pulses into view. Many are obstinately unclear: GFTVAK5726892c, Sombrero Andromeda, 069573909HH24Aa. After another static burst the screen returns to a deathly blankness.
Then, with the shuddering jolt of a stalling Morris Minor, the Perihelion begins a sickening lurch so disorientating it’s impossible to grasp any sense of direction or destination. It feels as if my ship is tumbling through the cosmos like a rounded lump of cheese barrelling down a Gloucestershire hillside.
Mercifully, after four Earth minutes, there’s a slowing and steadying; like a skyscraper elevator calmly arriving at the 124th floor. After my senses adjust to the welcome stillness, I gather sufficient wits to take a cautious look around outside. Whatever world this is, it’s mightily strange, dark and disconcerting.
Across the sky are noxious-looking cumulus cloud formations. They’re bronze and deeply sulphurous with a gentle luminescence. Is this a toxic swathe of an ammonia-like substance worthy of a gas giant?
There are more unnerving signals of life here too. Groupings of amber and white flickering lights, like compressed globular clusters, sit upon the horizon. They don’t appear to be naturally occurring. The surface of the planet in this dim, goldwashed light is evocative of Huygens’ images from Titan. Smooth, rounded rocks are scattered in similar fashion but in far greater numbers. They rest on a soft base of silty material like gritted, soaked clay. A body of liquid, reflecting the sulphur-shaded clouds above, swells over this terrain, but the temperature makes it likely to be water rather than liquid methane. Most curious! Could this be an inhabited, terrestrial Earth-like planet at the far end of a Messier system?
But wait, hang on a minute… this is not just an Earth-like world, this is Earth! The bronze, glowing clouds are Earth’s own, under-lit by street lamps. Those clusters of flickering lights on the horizon don’t emanate from an alien super colony; that’s Portsmouth. This is Selsey beach!
Earlier, as I had been muttering confusedly about final destinations: “We just don’t know…” The trusty Perihelion’s telepathic circuits recognised the saying and linked it to the familiar phrase often used by Sir Patrick Moore. Remarkably for the ship’s addled state, its algorithms must have made the connection and autopiloted me across the lightyears, back to the planet – and indeed to the town – that Patrick called home.
It evokes a feeling of peace and a very broad smile. Local time is 10.24pm; I might make last orders at The Seal! Event Horizon Imperial Stout? Blue Moon? Hmm, I think I’ll have a cup of tea.