Part 1 of this story can be found here.
The spaceship was not what she’d expected. It turned out the resemblance to a terrarium was more true than she’d realised. The large glass ball that made up the cockpit and cabin was also full of plant life. Potted trees stood alongside small shrubs, and mingled in amongst them all were small beds of herbs, flowers, and grasses. A makeshift walkway of cleared floor area led between them all, but even that was narrow. Penelope almost knocked over two trees and stood on some grasses before she was able to sit on one of the dull metal outcrops that worked as seats. She sat down with a wince, the mushroom shape belied the actual hardness of the furniture. Grace sat down on one across from her, and the beige man seated himself near what Penelope considered must be the front of the vessel. It was hard to tell, the whole thing was largely symmetrical, and there seemed to be no controls of any kind.
Grace smiled, looking around at the makeshift glasshouse. ‘I love what you’ve done in here. I have a number of indoor plants at my house too. They really make the room, don’t they?’
The beige man turned his globular head. ‘These are not decorative. They are samples, collected from your world.’
‘Oh, right, of course,’ Grace said, as through this was a perfectly normal statement to have made, as though this was a perfectly normal situation to be in. Her calm acceptance was for some reason infuriating to Penelope. ‘Do you not have trees then where you’re from?’
‘No,’ the beige man said as he turned back to look out of the glass dome. ‘Vegetation is very scarce, and mostly feeds on our own biological matter. Your worlds flora’s ability to synthesise energy from light is truly remarkable.’
‘Isn’t that funny,’ Grace said, looking at Penelope. ‘That’s what Pen’s been studying, isn’t it, Dear?’
‘Yes,’ Penelope said, not interested in telling this alien of her research. In fact she felt she should be the one asking questions here. ‘Tell me, how long have you been on our planet?’
‘I have only been here for the past five months, but other members of my race have been aware of your world since your nineteen eighties. We surveilled this planet for decades, but only started manned missions around three years ago. We have learned a lot in that time.’
‘How to speak our language, for one,’ Penelope said.
‘That is correct. Noise frequencies are mostly used on my planet during communication as a way to emphasise a point. What your species has done with it is exceptional.’
‘How do you communicate otherwise?’
‘Light displays, of course.’ His bulb lit up with ribbons of light. They moved and danced and exploded within the casing. Patterns flowing into other patterns, dripping molten light in a vivid display.
‘What did you just say then?’ Grace asked, awe and delight on her face.
‘That we are ready to leave,’ he intoned. A tendril of light extended from his head to reach down towards the interior of the ship. As it did the vessel began to move forward. The doors of the airplane hanger opened and they passed through them and up into the sky.
Penelope reached out to brace herself but realised she needn’t have bothered. There was little movement from within the ball. She could see the metal exterior moving around the globe, but they stayed perfectly stabilised.
Another tendril left the beige man’s dome and Penelope saw a shimmer of light pass over the ship. It made the fuselage look like light dappled water, wavering in and out of view. ‘Are we invisible now?’ she asked the beige man.
‘Correct,’ he told her.
‘How does that work?’
‘Light refraction,’ was all he said.
‘Hm, you know we have scientists working on the same technology,’ she told him.
‘Yes,’ he said, his bulb lighting up with flares of light accompanied by an odd vibration.
Penelope looked at him, confused for a moment before deciphering the action. ‘Are you laughing at us?’ she asked with her most haughty inflection.
‘Yes. Your race has achieved interesting things, but when it comes to manipulation of light you are like…’ he let the sentence hang for a moment, then asked, ‘what’s something that is less than a baby?’
Penelope decided not to answer the question. Instead she looked out at the land passing below. It rushed by, details only becoming apparent if she really focused on them. She wondered just how fast they were going. Fast enough to get to make her meeting, she thought with a small smile. Why, at this rate, they’d probably beat the plane they were supposed to be on. She’d might even have a bit of extra time up her sleeve, which she could use to go over her presentation one more time.
She couldn’t believe she was so close to giving it. Well, she couldn’t believe a lot about this day, but still, the thought made her tremble. Seven years of research, late nights and early mornings, so much time given to learning, exploring, expanding, and now she was about to stand in front of some of the greatest minds on renewable energy and tell them she’d cracked photosynthesis. Not only that but she had discovered out a cheap, easy, way to store its products, solved the energy crisis. If today went well, if it went the way she hoped, the world would be changed. Energy would turn from a commodity into a simple staple of life, endlessly accessible. No different to air. Which in itself was fantastic, but the further implications were what really excited her. Yes, people would no longer have to pay electricity bills, but with endless amounts of energy, human beings as a whole could achieve so much more. Supercomputers, that until now were limited by the amount of power they required, would no longer have those limitations. So what if some amazing machine needed the energy it usually took to run a country for a day? They could have it, and more. Desalination plants could be set up around the globe, and drinkable water could be delivered to every person on the planet all for the cost of the energy to run it, which would now be nothing. And with unlimited energy common space travel would become not only achievable, but inevitable. So much could be done, the next step of human existence, and it all fell on this presentation going well.
Penelope thought it was good. Mostly. At the very least it wasn’t bad…she hoped. She knew she wasn’t always the best communicator. In fact, she was usually terrible. Grace had told her the presentation was good, she thought, but then she would have to say that wouldn’t she, being her grandmother and all. Still, she had encouraged her through every iteration of the presentation Penelope had practiced on her, had even played out every time like she’d never heard it before. And she had offered some useful edits, mostly on the delivery, and it had helped.
Penelope looked at her grandmother sitting across from her. She had her big Grace smile on as she watched the world go by, and Penelope knew she deserved an apology. Yes, she’d been late, but that was Grace, as was endless support, and Penelope knew she wouldn’t be even a fraction this close to her goal without her.
Penelope rose and wove her way through the plants to sit beside her grandmother. Grace looked at her, her smile as big as ever. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Pen?’ she said.
‘Yes, Grandma, it is.’ Penelope paused, never good at being open. ‘I, um, I just wanted to say sorry.’
‘Did you? Well that’s nice. What are you sorry for, dear?’
Penelope rolled her eyes. Ever since she’d been a child it had been the same. It wasn’t enough to just say sorry, you had to say what you were sorry for. It had infuriated her as a child, and admittedly still did, but she could see the point. Sorry’s were easy, it’s just a word, stating the way you’d hurt someone was different, that ensured you wouldn’t do it again.
‘Sorry for yelling at you,’ Penelope said.
Grace looked into her eyes and gave a soft smile. ‘I don’t even remember it.’
Penelope smiled back and was about to thank her for the offer to put the argument behind them, when she saw the confusion on her grandmothers face. ‘Are you joking?’ She asked instead.
‘About what, dear?’ Grace replied.
Penelope’s stomach sank. Grace looked out the window again and smiled once more. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Pen?’ she asked. Penelope’s stomach sank further.
‘Yes, Grandma, it is,’ she said, her voice hollow.
‘Have you ever seen so many stars?’ Grace asked, but Penelope didn’t hear her, she was too busy tracking back through recent memories, connecting dots to reveal an image she hadn’t seen before. How her grandma couldn’t remember if the presentation was in the morning or the evening, how she’d forgot to set an alarm, how she often “faked” senility. Except, now she saw that there was nothing fake about it.
Her grandmother’s words made it through to her. Stars?
Penelope looked up and rather than seeing land and sky instead saw the vast field of space go whizzing by them. Earth, Brisbane, and any hope of giving her presentation became an ever decreasing dot of blue and green.
‘I won’t ask you again,’ Penelope shrieked. ‘Turn around.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that,’ the beige man replied in his filament voice.
‘You can and you will,’ Penelope said. ‘Or, or…’ A proper threat failed to come to her, and her words trailed off.
‘Or we’ll smash every one of these plants!’ Grace yelled. She immediately followed through on her threat and lifted one of the small shrubs into the air, throwing it against one of the bare patches of ground. The pot shattered, and Grace ground her foot into the roots of the plant for good measure. She then gave Penelope a wink.
Penelope could have cried. Instead she kicked over one of the larger bushes and once more yelled, ‘turn this ship around!’
‘The plants, while regrettable, are not the main reason I was sent to your planet,’ the beige man said. ‘Others have already collected a number of flora samples, and doubtless others will collect more. I can deal with their loss’
‘Then why did you come here?’ Penelope asked.
‘For you. For Miss Penelope Mary Armitage Jones. I was tasked to find you and bring you to our home.’
Penelope half sat, half fell back onto the chair.
It was over. She wasn’t just going to be late, she was going to be absent.
Her stomach curled and she thought she might throw up. Then she looked at Grace and felt a numbness wash over her anxiety, a sense of inevitable helplessness. She would never master time. How could she? It was too big. Too mighty. She might try and parcel it up into bite size portions in order to give her a sense of control over it, drop in some deadlines and events on a calendar and force relevance on them. But time just ticked on endlessly, uncaring to the wants and needs of the people stuck in its flow. Just look at her grandmother, time was already wearing her away.
And that was when Penelope began to cry. Heart weary sobs that constricted her throat and made her feel light headed. She felt her grandmother’s arms around her. Heard the same soft comforting words she heard whenever she’d been upset as a child, which only made her cry more.
When all her tears had ran dry and she’d managed to regain her composure she sat with her grandmother, arms around the older woman. Together they watched space pass them by.
After some time Grace fell asleep. Penelope could hardly blame her. Space might be vast and endless but it was also very empty. Watch it for long enough and it all begins to feel very same-same.
Penelope stood and began to move around the small ship. She studied a number of the plants. They were all fairly common, she saw. All good growers. Weeds as often as not. Then she looked to the beige man. He hadn’t said or done anything since she started crying. Not one word of regret or apology. She approached him and sat looking forward as space and time flew by.
After a moment he spoke.
‘I’m sorry about your grandmother.’
Penelope stared at him in shock. ‘Excuse me?’ she said.
‘Something similar happens to my people over time. The electric signals weaken, causing them to become confused and disorientated.’
Penelope didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
‘Of course, it’s all very treatable.’
She looked at the beige man sternly, not sure she’d heard him right.
‘Did you say treatable?’
‘Yes. It’s just a matter of strengthening the electrical pulses. A small matter for our race, and despite appearances your grey matter is not so different. I strongly expect the same treatment would have similar results on Grace.’
‘You’re saying you’ve solved dementia?’
The beige man looked across at her, and then back out to the front of the ship, before answering with a simple, ‘yes.’
Penelope didn’t know what to say. The implications of that simple statement were huge and amazing. ‘And you could do it for Grace? Once we arrived at your planet?’
‘Thank you,’ she said, her throat swelling with emotion once more. ‘If you can really do that, then I don’t even care that I didn’t make it to my presentation.’ Despite those words, and despite how much she meant them, there was still a part of her that felt a loss at giving up her life’s work. ‘Will we ever be able to return to Earth?’ she asked.
The beige man thought, and then answered. ‘That depends on you,’ he said.
‘What does that mean?’
‘My planet has used up all its resources, depleted all its energy. For my people this means disaster. We will starve and die. I was sent to your planet to find a solution, even though it meant using a large chunk of our final supply. We believe you and your studies are that solution. If you’re able to solve our energy crisis, then we will have enough power to return you and your grandmother to earth.’
Penelope thought on that for a moment, the practical part of her brain pushing down the emotional.
‘Okay, deal. But, you should know my work is currently all theoretical. I believe it can be made practical but I can’t do it on my own.’
‘That is fine. Waiting for us when we land are a collection of the greatest scientific minds on our planet, they are waiting to hear from you.’
‘They want me to do a presentation’
‘Correct,’ the beige man said.
‘Well, can we go any faster then?’ she said, smiling. ‘We don’t want to be late.’
Thanks for reading,