- An Insane Adventure in 4-parts -



(where the boys sneak aboard the capsule)

Monday morning. The children were utterly bored. Playing truant from school had become tedious and meaningless, but it was better than being constantly snapped at and ridiculed by frazzled teachers - like most adults, teachers had completely forgotten what it was like to be a kid. And school was even more boring anyway. It meant long hours confined in dull classrooms. It meant being punished for ludicrously trivial misdemeanours. It meant dodging school rules which were stifling and mostly absurd, as if designed to drive a kid crazy. All this was more than the children could tolerate. If boredom was the fate of life, then one may as well be free at the same time. At least, now they could decide for themselves what to do. They could talk amongst themselves and think freely while playing occasional pranks to amuse themselves. They could roam more or less where they wished - always alert, of course, to avoid places where they might get caught. And best of all, they could smoke.

There were three of them: Dippy, Piffle and Sop. On this particular day they were at a very low ebb. Having spent several days in the more appealing amusement arcades they were entirely depleted of cash. Now they racked their brains for what to do next.

'Why don't we call on Mad Zoot?' said Dippy, 'See if that thing he's supposed to be making is finished.'

'It'll be something stupid,' said Piffle, who considered himself something of an intellectual, 'to keep himself amused - a giant bingo machine probably, or something just as daft. True, he's an interesting guy, but he's totally cracked. He's nuts.'

Now Sop chirped up. 'Wasn't he supposed to be a brilliant scientist until they sacked him for nicking stuff? What's wrong with nicking a few things?'

'And wasn't he once a university bignut?' enquired Dippy.

'Something like that.' said Piffle. 'So what? That doesn't make him a genius, does it?'

'And wasn't it him who invented that fabulous fruit machine,' added Sop, 'the one that killed a kid?'

'So it was rumoured.' said Piffle, 'It was never proved.'

'If he really was brainy,' observed Dippy. 'he wouldn't have got caught nicking.'

'Got away with it, though,' said Sop, 'Like with that kid. According to the papers he wheedled out of it all with brainy talk and made-up alibis.'

Without noticing, their unconscious sauntering was taking them in the direction of Mad Zoot's house. It was on the edge of town and had a massive shed out back, like a hay shed. It was here where he was supposedly carrying out his latest project.

'Remember that first time we went there?' said Dippy, 'He was so weird… He thought we wanted to see what he'd got in that massive shed.'

'Well, we did, didn't we?' said Sop.

'Course,' replied Dippy, 'But how could he have known? And did he get mad: "You'll find out one day, you little buggers." he screeched like a half-throttled cat. And remember his hair, like a worn-out old bog brush?'

The others laughed.

'I bet it's full of junk like most people's sheds,' said Sop, 'except his has a lot more and he's embarrassed for anyone to see it.'

'It's more like a hanger than a shed,' said Piffle. 'And probably full of the stuff he's nicked.'

'Why don't we take a look?' said Sop, 'We're half-way there already.'

The others agreed. So ten minutes later, their legs aching from the long hill, they arrived.

They were greeted at the front by a gaudy new entrance. Big ornate iron gates with twirly bits across the top and matching railings either side. A winding red and yellow check pathway snaked around the side of the house to the shed.

'He's not just nuts.' said Dippy, 'He's absolutely barmy. Only a complete prick would spend good dough on a posh entrance like that and a fancy path that no-one's going to walk on.'

'He'll walk on it, at least,' said Piffle, 'And maybe he's in there now.'

They kept their heads low, and went around the perimeter hedge until they were about level with the shed. Then they pushed through a thin section of hedge and ran across the space between. The shed towered above them now, awesomely, and they could hear a strange throbbing noise within.

'Do you think he's in there?' whispered Sop.

'Of course he's bloody in there.' said Dippy.

'There's definitely something,' said Piffle, 'I can hear it humming.'

They moved slowly round the big shed but there were no holes to look through, not a crack. Even the little door at the back was sealed up all around. Cautiously, they approached the big doors at the front where the elaborate path ended - there was no telling if the doors might slide open at any second and Mad Zoot leap out, his hair flailing, wonderingly clasping his straggled beard and staring at them with his sharp glaring eyes.

After pausing to listen, Piffle pulled at the doors while Dippy and Sop stood aside ready to make a dash. At first the doors wouldn't budge. Then suddenly they slid apart automatically like the doors of a superstore. All three darted back to the corner of the shed. They waited. Nothing. Warily, they returned, and peered in.

'It's bloody dark in there.' said Dippy.

'Shh...' went the others, stepping tentatively over the threshold.

'What can you see?'murmured Dippy, following.

'Fuck all.' whispered Sop. 'It's too dark.' He wiped his glasses with the ball of his hand, then peered again. 'Except there's a patch of light in the middle of the floor.'

'But wow!' gasped Piffle, looking up, his eyes beginning to acclimatise, 'What's that massive thing over our heads and right low over that patch of light?'

The others looked up. 'It looks…' said Sop, gaping, his whisper rising to a muffled shriek, 'like a massive flying saucer!'

As their eyes adjusted, they began to pick out a colossal disc-shaped object held high on three spindly splayed legs, its edges almost touching the sides of the shed. The disc was much thicker in the centre and resembled an upturned fried egg - except it was black. A little flight of steps led up into a hole in the middle underneath, from where poured a yellow glow making the circle of light on the floor.

'Fucking hell!' gasped Dippy, his vision now in full form, 'It IS a flying saucer!'

'Flying, my arse.' chuckled Piffle, 'It's a mock-up. Probably it's like a plush laboratory inside and he goes in there to pretend he's some kind of a spaceman or something. He's nuts I tell you.'

'Why don't we go in?' said Sop, now speaking above a whisper.

The boys' confidence was growing with every pace as they moved towards the steps. Piffle gazed up through the hatch. 'There's nothing much up there.' he said. 'Just a light. Who dares go up then?'

'I will.' said Sop, 'but keep clear in case we have to scarper.'

He climbed the steps, and a moment later he was in and his head appeared at the hole. 'Come on,' he said. 'So far so good.'

Piffle went next and soon all three stood in a confined area measuring about two metres across. At one side was a cylindrical indent with a platform flush with the floor.

'It must be a lift.' said Piffle, 'There's no other place to go. Come on.'

They crushed onto the platform. Sop pressed the 'up' button on a small panel at the back of the recess. Immediately there was a hiss of air and the platform began to ascend.

'This is IT.' said Dippy in a strained whisper, contorting his face. 'If he's in there, then we're caught.'

Before the others had time to answer, the platform had stopped in a huge circular dimly-lit room.

'Bloody hell!'whispered Dippy, his voice muffled and falling dead. The room was without echo, as if soundproofed.

They just gawped. On one side they could see the high back of a chair. In front of the chair stretched a long curved panel smothered in lights and buttons. Two large screens were angled above. After a moment, still taking in the extraordinary scene, they began edging warily from the platform. Suddenly the chair creaked, then swivelled.

They froze.

There he sat, Mad Zoot, staring at them and looking madder than they'd ever seen him, his small piercing eyes angry and vengeful.

'So!' he roared, grinning maliciously, 'Now you know, you persistent little sods. I've been watching you on my monitor since you were in the street.'

Piffle stepped forward. 'It was my idea,' he said. 'And I'm sorry. But wouldn't anyone be curious?'

'You should mind your own damn business. You don't know what you're meddling with here. I can't afford for anyone to know about my project or I'd be stopped. And if I don't go through with it pretty soon I'll end up in the nick. All of which means you can't leave here until I've done what I mean to do.'

'And what's that?' asked Dippy in a deliberately petulant tone.

'Never you mind, you little wanker. But since I now have to keep you here, you'll find out soon enough.'

'Keep us here?' said Sop, appalled, 'But I have to be home for lunch in two hours.'

'You can forget lunch.' snarled Mad Zoot, still grinning horribly, 'Any grub you get will be what I decide to give you, and if you fail to do as I say then there'll be none... because... you see...' And at this point he turned to the panel, his fingers flashed across the buttons and the humming noise became a whirring noise, getting louder and louder until it had increased in pitch to almost a whistle. That was when the floor began to tilt and shudder; just a little at first and then suddenly it moved upward and they felt their weight increase. The whole room wobbled and yawed, and then rushed upwards, throwing them to the floor and rolling them over to the side of the room. Luckily, the floor was covered in a soft rubbery fabric like thick silk, woven in tiny flexible ridges that made it impossible to slip.

It was a big room too, perhaps twenty metres across, and with a recess in the floor all around the edge where three long equidistant couches were fixed. It was in this recess, which was three steps down, that they held themselves as firmly as they could, pushing their feet against the rim while holding their hands tight against the drop of the lower step.

The whistle had now become a roar, which drowned out their screams. And light was pouring in from the three massive widows, one in front of each couch. Looking out, they could see the last fragments of the old shed falling away and then clouds and sunshine - whereas it had been dull and overcast when they had entered the shed. After a few moments the floor levelled and stabilised, and their weight seemed to return to normal. Then silence - apart from the throbbing. They looked over at the chair.

Mad Zoot spun to face them. 'We are now ten thousand feet above the town.' he said, in a loud nonchalant voice. 'So if any of you wish to leave, I'll open the hatch. I might remind you first that this craft has no parachutes.'

'Take us fucking back.' said Dippy, quivering with fear.

'And Now!' added Sop, also looking very distraught.

'You'll go back when I'm good and ready, kid.' snapped Mad Zoot 'So button it.'

'You can't keep us up here for ever.' said Sop.

'No, you can't.' said Piffle. 'It's against the law.'

'Sod the law.' chuckled Mad Zoot. 'I've never let the law dictate to me, and I'm not about to start now. And I can do anything I bloody well like with you lot. So just watch yourselves.' He turned again to the panel, adding, 'However, you'll be glad to learn that I have no intention of keeping you here for ever… five years, perhaps ten … certainly no more than fifteen.'

'Uh?' they cried in unison.




(where they embark on a wild voyage into outer space)

'But don't worry, it'll only seem like a few hours.'

Both gripped and terrified by their predicament and the incredible view, they hardly knew what to make of that.

'Right,' Mad Zoot continued, pointing across the room, 'We're going on a little pleasure trip. If you'll take my advice you'll sit on one of those viewing couches and strap yourselves in, otherwise you might get thrown about rather more than just now.'

They loped unsteadily across to where Mad Zoot had indicated. The couch was amazingly soft and comfortable. They clicked home the safety straps, then stared through the window at distant fields and buildings far below.

'What are you going to do?' asked Dippy, his voice belligerent and angry.

'You'll see.' replied Mad Zoot, chuckling, 'You'll see soon enough.'

The craft began to tip. The children felt that if they hadn't been strapped in they would have toppled against the window. Then the craft lurched violently forward and began to accelerate so they were forced into their seats - a force that became stronger and stronger until they could no longer hold their heads or arms away from the backrest.

mapsThe craft tilted up now and climbed steeply. The roaring of air, deafening at first, soon began to die away and before them what had been blue sky, darkened rapidly almost to black. The acceleration continued. Dippy tried to cry out but his voice would not come, his throat half-crushed by the force so he could hardly breathe. It was the same for the others. The strain was enormous. All of them desperately hoping the acceleration would cease. It was like those leisure-park rides that go on too long and you beg for it to finish. How much longer, they wondered? Now the roaring was almost gone, which was a relief to their ears, at least, but the pressure of acceleration was unrelenting. Now all they could hear was the whirring of what they supposed was the engines. And the sky, although strangely lit, was nevertheless black.

Suddenly, at last, the acceleration relaxed and their arms floated up, their heads slowly moved forward away from the clasp of gravitation. The craft rotated slightly and rested so that the view from their window presented the most spectacular sight they could ever have imagined - far, far more impressive than a mere photograph could ever be.

'We're in Space!' screamed Dippy, aghast, 'Space! There's the Earth!'

'How the hell are we going to get back?' said Piffle.

'And when?' cried Dippy, assuming the "how" would be taken care of.

Sop looked pale. He stared out uncomprehendingly at the magnificent scene beyond the window. The Earth suspended, floating, drifting, like a gigantic beach-ball, the sun in all it's blinding glory partially eclipsed behind - and off to one side at a distance that seemed too large, sat the moon poised like a badly milled clay-marble and showing its lighted face to Earth.

'Well?' called Mad Zoot, who seemed to be bouncing with joy in his chair, 'How do you like that? Damn good, eh?'

'Take us home, you evil old bugger.' said Dippy, belligerently, 'Or I'll report you for abduction.'

'And how do you propose to do that from up here?' Mad Zoot laughed, still bouncing, 'But this is just a taste. You've seen nothing.'

Mad Zoot flamboyantly flicked a switch and a panel beneath the window lit-up. The children looked down at it. On either side of the panel was a large digital clock. Both ticked away the seconds just as would appear on a digital watch. Above the times, the displays showed the month and year. The left clock and the right clock read the same: 10.45.20secs, and above: 14 May 2003.

'So?' said Dippy, peering round again at Mad Zoot.

'So, now we're going on a little voyage.' said Mad Zoot, his features now deadly serious, 'It won't take long - like I said, about five years.'

'What?' shouted Piffle, 'Five YEARS? You've really got to be fucking joking.'

'Me?' cried Mad Zoot, ostentatiously shaking his head, 'Me… Joking?' Dippy made a gesture of screwing his finger against his temple. The others looked grave and nodded. 'Or, if you like.' mused Mad Zoot, 'Maybe about an hour, as I said. At least, that's all it will seem to us.'

'What the fuck are you talking about, you senile old pillock?' snapped Sop, who was still recovering from the enormous acceleration.

'I mean what I say, you brainless little jerk. But this time, now that we're in space, I can operate the gravity compensator. This means we won't feel much movement, though we'll see some rather odd - even beautiful - sights outside.'

'What are you going to do then?' asked Piffle.

'Well, I just thought it would be interesting to take a little trip to Mars. What do you think?'

'Mars?' cried Piffle, 'That's 60 million miles at nearest!'

'An astronomer in our midst, eh?' chirped Mad Zoot, admiringly, 'And you're not far out. It is at this moment in fact - for our purposes and according to my instruments - about 70 million miles. At the speed of light that's about 400 seconds away, or six-and-a-half minutes. There and back will be something around a quarter of an hour. I estimate the whole trip with all the acceleration and deceleration, and not forgetting a few minutes of viewing, should take roughly an hour, as I said.'

'But there's no way you can even approach the speed of light.' said Piffle, who was trying hard to sound as though he knew what he was talking about.

'That's what you think, you little upstart.' sneered Mad Zoot,' Just keep an eye on those clocks, but don't miss the spectacle outside. The clock on the left is now what I'll call old-time. The one on the right shows the actual time as on Earth, in England. W ell, are you ready?'

'Wait.' said Dippy, 'Did you say five years?'

'I did.' replied Mad Zoot, raising his eyebrows questioningly.

'You mean we'll come back in five years. May 14 2008?' said Sop.

'I'll try to make it May 14. But yes, 2008. Everyone will be five years older, but you'll be only an hour older. How about that? Good, eh?'

'No!' cried Dippy, 'That's too weird. You can't do it.'

'Like I said,' rasped Mad Zoot. 'I can do just as I please. You didn't have to come. I didn't invite you. In five years from now any trouble I'm in will have blown over. All trivial matters really, but if I'm not to be found then certain people to whom I owe money will take my house and so on - and welcome they are to it - and then they'll forget about me. They certainly won't bother if I reappear in five years' time.'

'But what about us?' shouted Dippy, 'How are we supposed to handle things if we're five years younger than all our friends, and if our families have given us up for dead?'

'That's your problem, pal. I'm sure you'll manage. Look on the bright side. Make new friends. And remember, you'll live five years further into the future than otherwise. In fact, just to be certain, I think we ought to visit something more beautiful than Mars. Saturn, for instance, which will take ten years - or to us just a few hours. What do you say? Wouldn't you like to see the rings of Saturn close up? Yes. Saturn it is then. Glad you agree.'

saturn'Walt a minute.' cried Piffle. 'We didn't agree to anything.'

'No matter. I'm sure you'll like it. Just sit back and enjoy the excursion.'

And as he said this, the craft flinched and the interior lights dimmed. The moon moved across the window towards them. The Earth began receding, then the moon joined it and they receded together, the sun at first dipping and then rising above the Earth and for a few seconds shining as it does at sunset, though in this instance instead of red it was yellowy white, with a kind of swirling boiling appearance like a soft mobile craze. Then the Earth shrunk suddenly. The moon contracted to a point. And the sun paled to orange, then red before shimmering like a mirage and breaking into small bands and hazy fragments of scarlet, then flecks of deep purple which flickered and then vanished like ripples on a stagnant pond. The craft turned smoothly, a manoeuvre that was discernible only from the gently moving star field now in view.

'What the fuck's happening?' cried Dippy, 'Where's Earth? Take us home you brute.'

Mad Zoot laughed ominously. 'Ten years!' he chuckled, 'Ten years!'

surferFor a while, with the star field barely changing, the craft seemed to drift slowly. The children, quietly thinking, raised their heads now and then whenever something flashed passed - a boulder or micro-comet which was always a huge distance away. Then Sop tried to release his harness, but it wouldn't come free. When the others tried they saw they were locked in.

'Let us out of these straps.' shouted Sop, struggling.

All they could hear, above the humming, was Mad Zoot's menacing sniggers and an occasional tapping of buttons on the control desk.

'The clock!' yelled Dippy, pointing, 'Look at the fucking clock!' The children glared at the right-hand clock. The hours, minutes and seconds were a blur, while the months flashed by one after the other, and the year clicked over twice before Dippy, with an enormous effort of will, somehow managed to slip beneath his harness and was suddenly free.

'I'm out!' he cried, getting up from the floor.

'Get back, you prick!' squealed Mad Zoot, swinging in his chair, 'Get back!'

Dippy darted to another couch. He slid down out of sight between the couch and the window.

'Strap yourself in, you idiot.' shouted Mad Zoot, frantically, 'You'll destabilise the craft. Don't you realise we're moving at almost the speed of light?'

'And how fast is that, brain-head?' sneered Dippy.

'About a hundred-and-eighty-six thousand miles a second.' replied Mad Zoot.'Which means that at this speed we'd travel the distance from the Earth to the moon in less than one-and-a-half seconds.'

Dippy sneaked cautiously back to the first couch and tried to release the others. Their straps were too tight, they were held solid. Then he went over to stand at what he reckoned was a safe distance to the side and behind Mad Zoot who watched his every move with scowling intensity.

'Now listen,' he said, in a curiously friendly tone, 'don't do anything stupid. You'll put all our lives at risk. Just please stay where you are. Or if you have to move then do so slowly and absolutely don't jump about. If you want to get home safely then keep as still as possible.'

'OK.' said Dippy, 'I only wanted to watch what you're doing.'

'Very well.' said Mad Zoot, who then added amiably, 'Come a bit closer if you like. There's our trajectory on the screen here, see?' And he pointed to one of the screens. Dippy edged closer and peered over. But before he could work out the meaning of what he saw, Mad Zoot made a lunge at him.

'Get off you cunt!' cried Dippy, pulling away, 'Get off! Get off!'

Mad Zoot had caught his wrist and now moved out of his seat. He held on tightly while Dippy squirmed on the floor.

'Keep still, you fool.' rasped Mad Zoot, heaving him away from the console, 'And stop bloody wriggling.'

He dragged Dippy across the floor towards one of the couches. 'Let me go, you bastard.' screamed Dippy. 'Let go will you!'

Mad Zoot was no wimp. He was stronger than he looked. In a moment he had Dippy firmly positioned on the couch, in spite of his continual writhing and wriggling. With his free hand, Mad Zoot began pulling the straps out and over Dippy. Then Dippy gave a massive tug on his hand, which took Mad Zoot by surprise and forced him to topple onto the couch. With the straps now clear and Mad Zoot trying to regain his balance, Dippy nimbly slipped them over him and fixed them. At last, Mad Zoot was trapped.

'Got you, you sod. Got you.' muttered Dippy, recovering his breath and looking almost as astonished as Mad Zoot, 'Now you're not so powerful.'

The others cheered while Mad Zoot, looking dumbfounded, stared back at Dippy who grinned broadly. 'You maniacs.' grumbled Mad Zoot, 'Don't you realise our lives are at risk? Only I know how to operate this craft. If you don't set me free we're all doomed.'



(where they realise the huge implications)

'Well then,' began Dippy, making his way to the couch where his friends were still firmly fixed. 'You'll just have to tell me what to do, won't you?'

After several minutes, Dippy had managed to free the others.

'You idiots!' shouted Mad Zoot. 'You'll get us all killed.'

'No we won't.' said Piffle. 'Just tell us what to do.' He turned to the others, 'Who's going to take the controls?'

'Not me.' said Sop, who having wandered over to the console was looking totally flummoxed, 'I wouldn't have a clue, even if he told me.'

'I will.' said Dippy, leaping across and lumping down in the big chair.

'You crazy little pricks!' Mad Zoot cried out suddenly, 'Think of our speed!'

Dippy scanned the panel. Then a moment later he screwed his face up and said, 'On second thoughts...'

'Don't touch a thing.' screamed Mad Zoot, 'You'll kill us all, I know it.'

'I'll take the controls.' said Piffle walking across.

Dippy climbed out of the big chair for him and stood watching. Piffle took his place and cast his eyes across the mass of buttons and lights. The main screen, which was quite wide, showed some of the planets with the sun at one edge. A small red dot was moving between Earth and Saturn, just passing what looked like Jupiter, the largest planet of all.

'It seems we're about level with Jupiter.' he said proudly, as though he'd grasped the meaning and function of everything on the panel - when in fact he knew no more than Dippy or Sop.

'That's about half way.' said Mad Zoot. 'You might see it if you look through this window.' He was sounding very affable again and Dippy wondered what he was scheming, whether he was figuring some way of trapping them or escaping. Why is he fumbling at the side of the couch? thought Dippy as he and Sop went slowly towards him.

Then he forgot about Mad Zoot because through the big window a colossal shimmering violet-coloured disc began to materialise which turned cobalt blue and then green, all the time becoming more solid-looking, the fragments of colour coagulating into a whole. Now it was all there, a huge, red-yellow mass of a planet all stripy and swirling. As it slowly moved across the window, the colours began to fade through a soft deep orange into magenta then red.

'Look.' cried Dippy, a moment later, 'Now it's all beginning to break-up.'

They watched in wonder as the astonishing sight before them began to disintegrate. The great planet was fragmenting, breaking into splinters, which quickly assumed a striking violet colour that glittered for a few seconds and then broke apart as before and melted back into the void.

'Why does it do that?' said Sop, obviously impressed by such an extraordinary spectacle. 'Why was it so mottled and strange?'

'Because we're going so fast, you little thickhead.' replied Mad Zoot, gritting his teeth, 'As we approach it,' he went on, 'the light is crushed up so it appears as a higher frequency, ultraviolet; next it looks more as it really is as we pass alongside, and finally the light is stretched out for us as we zoom away, so then it goes into the infrared and eventually becomes invisible again. Like a siren on a cop car; it starts off high-pitch as it approaches and then goes to low-pitch as it hurtles away. Don't you know anything?'

Without warning, the craft jiggled and then settled. 'What the fuck are you doing?' cried Mad Zoot, leaping up from the couch.

'How did you get free?' shouted Dippy, who then recalled seeing Mad Zoot reach for the side of the couch. Dippy looked down to see a small grey button Mad Zoot must have pressed. It was hardly visible in the dim light. Instantly, Mad Zoot was at the console and Piffle got out of the chair to let him in.

'What did you do, you pillock?' barked Mad Zoot, 'Which control did you touch? Tell me. I have to know. I have to correct it.'

Piffle hesitantly indicated a button with the word "RETURN" printed on it. 'I thought it might turn us around and take us home.' he said

'Ahhhhh.... You idiot! You fucking crazy Idiot!' cried Mad Zoot, his face contorting horribly, 'You know what you've done, don't you… no, of course you don't, how could you? Well, it's too late now, but I'll tell you. Yes. That was the worst button you could have pressed. Now listen. Listen all of you, this is more serious than you can imagine.'

They gathered around the console to hear the worst.

'What's he done?' asked Sop.

'Are we going to die?' inquired Dippy, 'Or what?'

'It can't be that serious,' added Piffle, 'Not just pressing one measly button?'

Mad Zoot sighed. 'You bloody kids… I'd called up a programme for examination. I had no intention of entering it. I knew if I did then it would take us the entire breadth of the Solar System and far beyond. Right out as far as Altair, as a matter of fact. For your information, that's more than 16 light years away. It's visible from England low in the south, just under Sagittarius.'

'Why Altair?' asked Piffle.

Mad Zoot shook his head, 'Why not? But did you ever watch that 1956 sci-fi film 'Forbidden Planet' based on Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'? No, I thought not. Well, they went out to Altair-4, and just for fun I'd calculated the coordinates. Now you've entered them, and I don't know how to cancel the order. The code for overriding a programme entry was one of the things I was sorting out when you bloody lot intruded and forced me to take-off straight away.'

'We didn't force you to do anything.' Shouted Dippy.

'So you wouldn't have gone telling?' said Mad Zoot, raising his eyebrows, 'I'm not that stupid.'

'What if we do go to Altair?' said Sop, 'It can't take much longer at this speed.'

'If it's 16 light years away,' Said Piffle, despondently, 'then it'll take 32 years.'

'That's from Earth's point of view.' replied Mad Zoot, 'At our speed it'll take maybe nine or ten hours.'

'Well then,' said Dippy, 'No problem.'

Mad Zoot looked up at him tiredly, 'Allowing for the fact that we're going a bit slower than light and that it takes a while to speed-up and slow-down, I estimate Earth time will have advanced about fifty years '

'Fifty?' yelled Sop, 'You mean we'll get back fifty years in the future?'

'Roughly that.' sighed Mad Zoot, who seemed already resigned to the fact.

'And there's nothing you can do?' asked Dippy, leaning over to view the screen.

'I'll try.' said Mad Zoot. 'But I think it's a waste of effort. Setting up the computers was the last stage of the project. To be frank, I hadn't quite finished the job. I can't fool around with it now. If I made a mistake then we could be whisked right out of the galaxy; and if we did manage to return in a few weeks it might have gone thousands of years on Earth. We can't risk that. Besides, supplies are minimal. I hadn't expected you little buggers to sneak aboard. For us there's enough oxygen and food for perhaps a fortnight at a push. And what's more, you wouldn't like the kind of stuff I've got to eat; no crisps or burgers, nothing like that. I look after myself. I don't eat crap food like you kids. Before you're forty you'll be having tumours and heart attacks and who-knows-what wrong with you if you don't change your ways... Am I right? Yes, I can see I am. Now leave me alone and I'll see what I can do to reduce our time-shift.'

Mad Zoot began pressing buttons, and the screen flashed lists of numbers amid strange diagrams and pictures one after the other. Soon the children got fed up with watching and went and sat on one the viewing couches looking glum and saying nothing.

The hours passed slowly. Meanwhile, they stared at the flickering right-hand clock whose numbers were changing fast, the year display ticking over every ten minutes or so. Soon they began talking quietly together, musing about what it might be like to return to Earth fifty years in the future. All kinds of fantastic ideas came to them, some alarming, some droll; but all were totally weird.

galaxySuddenly Mad Zoot shouted out, 'Wake up. We're approaching the point where we'll swing around and start going back. That'll begin in...' he peered at the screen, '… about five minutes. Watch the window for a glimpse of Altair.'

'We just want to get home.' Said Dippy, 'Who cares about watching fucking stars and planets?'

'You stupid little prat.' Snapped Mad Zoot, 'Do you want to live in a cocoon all your life? Accept the inevitable and make the most of it. Whatever the situation, if you can't change anything then enjoy what you can.'

When the turn-around came they felt nothing, but they saw the right-hand clock slow down. At the same time a large, yet distant circular patch of flickering violet loomed outside, becoming brighter and bluer. Then suddenly the image shot away to one side, and a yellowy-grey crescent flashed past, followed by another smaller one. Now there was only starfield again.

'That's two planets, at any rate.' Said Mad Zoot. They gazed down in disbelief to see another year ticked past.

'2028!' cried Dippy, 'How can it happen? It's not possible!'

'If only you were right.' groaned Mad Zoot from his chair, still fiddling with the buttons. 'But you're not.' he added, pausing and turning to face them. 'And there's no going back. What's passed is passed. You see, this so-called time travel is only really a change in the rate time passes. When we travel close to the speed of light our rate of time, compared with where we started from, slows down. It's a natural law; a law of physics - see the wall chart for how it works.' he pointed to a chart on a nearby bulkhead. 'And the nearer we get to the speed of light the slower our time goes. So while a few seconds pass here on this craft, weeks, months or even years go past on Earth.'

'A law?' said Sop, 'How come?'

'Read the chart. It's just a fact we have to accept, like the fact that you three little sods are a damn nuisance to me and may have ruined my plans. The thing is that whenever the speed of light is measured it always comes to the same answer, no matter how fast you're going away from or towards the source of light. If I were to go away from the sun, as we did a few hours ago, and I measured the light passing us, you'd think it would read a very low speed because we're going almost as fast. But that wouldn't happen; it would read the same as anywhere else.'

'That doesn't make sense.' Said Sop.

'It will if you listen.' retorted Mad Zoot, 'You see, speed is measured in miles per second, and light goes a million miles in about five seconds - or you could say, one mile in about five-millionths of a second. If I travel beside the light but a bit slower, and while I 'm doing so I measure its speed, you'd think it would be passing at only, say, one mile in five seconds because I'm going almost as fast. But the reality is that my instruments would read one mile in five-millionths of a second. Do you follow?'

'I do.' Said Piffle, who was all ears.

'But why?' said Sop, screwing up his face in concentration.

Dippy just gazed out at the starfield.

'A law of physics, as I said,' continued Mad Zoot, 'But that curious reading means one of two things. It means we're actually going a million times faster than we think, or else our seconds have shrunk to a millionth of what they were on Earth. Both these are true, paradoxically, but since we're more concerned about Earth time we must accept that our seconds have shrunk to a millionth. In other words, what seems to you a second - and what your clock will register as a second - is, on Earth, a million times longer. See?'

'No I don't see.' said Dippy, suddenly perking up, 'You make it too bloody complicated. It just sounds too weird.'

'Sod you then.' said Mad Zoot, shaking his head and turning away.

'I understand it.' Said Piffle.

'You would.' groaned Sop.

'Anyhow,' interrupted Mad Zoot, 'we're on our way home now, so just be thankful for that.'

'Thankful!' cried Sop, 'For kidnapping us and taking us against our will fifty years into the future?'

'You didn't have to come aboard.' barked Mad Zoot, 'And you're still alive and well, aren't you? So what the hell are you moaning about?'

'I'm just saying we're not fucking home yet.' Said Sop. 'That's when we'll be thankful.' The others nodded.

'We'll be home in a few hours.' Said Mad Zoot, 'So just settle back and let me get on with trying to reduce the time-shift.'

With the years flicking by as before, they sat quietly now watching the clocks and sometimes the strange alterations in the starfield. After a while Mad Zoot got up and opened a panel in a bulkhead between two of the windows and took out some food and drinks for them. And there was a little toilet and washroom they could use in another bulkhead.

Several hours passed.

Then a strange shimmer appeared at a great distance off to their left.

'The Window!' shouted Piffle, 'Look… at THAT!'

Just as before, a planet began to materialise, this time a strange gloomy planet. At first, as the fragments came together, the shimmering flecks, as before, were a very deep violet. Then as they moved closer they transformed into a vivid blue which merged through turquoise to green and finally, as the huge planet stopped growing, assumed its natural colours of an orangey-yellow straw colour, and suddenly a vast band or multi-coloured rings faded into view.

ringsIt was an astounding sight. Now taking up the entire window, it was much closer than previous objects. The rings stood out vividly now in a broad angular sweep that spread right across the window and rushed past below them at a phenomenal speed.

'Fu---cking Hell!' gasped Dippy, drawing back, as if the rings were about to burst in on them, 'That's some---thing else!'

'Incredible.' murmured Piffle, under his breath. 'It's truly beautiful... but now it's fading away like everything else, though much quicker.'

'That's because were a lot closer this time.' said Man Zoot, 'Saturn is the only planet, apart from Uranus, that has rings. I slowed us a little and steered closer. It'll be an hour or so before we see anything more. It must be well past your bedtime.'

The left-hand clock read 21.40 + 55secs, and above, as before: 14 May 2003.

'Get stuffed.' groaned Dippy, stretching out on the seat. 'I don't go to bed before 23.00 as a rule.'

Even if it wasn't so late, they were tired now and each took a couch to nap for a while, listening to what they believed were Mad Zoot's final futile attempts to reduce their time-shift.

When they awoke it was to a jolt, followed by a mental jolt when they saw that the right-hand clock read 2052 with the months tumbling much slower. In disbelief, Dippy rubbed his eyes and said, yawning, 'Where the fuck are we?'

'You mean, WHEN?' shouted Sop.

'We're almost home.' replied Mad Zoot. 'Just slowing now. You'll see the sun any minute.'

As he said this a small purple ball took form outside, which grew swiftly. Soon it had become a huge and shimmering orange, moving quickly to a vivid yellow which seemed to swirl and churn, and finally the familiar yellow-white with that curious boiling motion which would have been impossible to see were it not for the special automatic darkening of the windows.

Now Earth swung into view and the scene brightened as the windows adjusted. Then the moon, grey and lifeless, but beautiful for all that. But it was Earth that took their attention, and they sat motionless in awe as it loomed gracefully larger. The huge magnificent orb, blue and fuzzy-edged yet perfectly spherical, formed a striking contrast against the immense void.




( where the adventure concludes unexpectedly)

'Strap yourselves in.' called Mad Zoot, 'We'll soon be home now.'

Still looking through the window they did as he said.

'What I'd like to know,' said Piffle, 'is how does this craft work? And why are you the only person who has one? Surely other people know about it.'

'Possibly they do now... now we're fifty years ahead - though I'd guess even now no-one's discovered what I stumbled on. It was a chance in a billion. I was fooling around with these certain subatomic particles, doing something rather dangerous as a matter of fact. I noticed a slight change in their weight when I applied an electric field in a particular direction. Nothing like that had ever been seen before. When I investigated further, I found I could actually use it to repel gravity. A completely new and unpredicted phenomenon in physics. All I had to do was duplicate the process into little units and install them all around the edge of the craft - once I'd built it, of course. It's really a new science. I call it Gravitronics. It could never have been even suspected with the knowledge we had then, and I don't suppose another Einstein's appeared yet to explain it. At first, I thought I might sell the idea and become a trillionaire. But then I figured the discovery would be taken away from me by the government or someone powerful. I reckoned I might even get kidnapped or murdered. So, in the end, I decided not to tell anyone. It could - and most probably would - have been used for weapons in some hideous way. That's why I had to go forward in time - or just shelve the whole idea, which would have been a waste. With luck, the politicians - if they still exist - will by now be intelligent enough not to have weapons of any sort; though I doubt it. We'll soon see though... Brace yourselves!'

The craft lurched and wobbled as Mad Zoot turned off the gravity compensator that had protected them against the enormous forces of acceleration and deceleration during their voyage. Next there was that great screaming roar they'd heard before, and a violent buffeting as they sliced through the atmosphere. Soon, the craft slowed and steadied. The pressure of gravity - which was not nearly so strong as before, since they were now dropping - gradually became very near normal again.

'There's the USA!' cried Dippy, 'Just like the fucking map, except the east half's in the dark.'

'Los Angeles looks about the same.' mumbled Mad Zoot, having raised himself from the chair to peer over. 'It must be evening there just now'

'Who bets that nothing's changed?' said Sop.

Piffle glared at him. 'You mean it's still really 2003?

'Well,' said Mad Zoot, easing himself back into his seat, 'We won't know for certain till we land, because I'll tell you now that you can never be sure of anything until you actually check it out for yourself. No good scientist or sociologist should believe anything they don't have to, not till they've checked or reasoned it out for themselves. Question everything. That's my motto… But if it IS actually 2053 a lot will have changed: new buildings erected, old buildings gone, new people and the old ones of those gone too. Everything could be entirely different.'

They were low over the ocean now and it seemed were almost skimming the surface. Suddenly they could see land. The coastal town where they had lived was in twilight as it whizzed beneath them. The craft began a rapid deceleration which ended in a wide swerve about ten miles inland. Hovering gently now at about five-hundred feet, over fields and villages, the craft moved back to the town and paused over Mad Zoot's back garden. The computer, under Mad Zoot's instruction, eased the craft down.

'The house is still there.' cried Sop, astonished.

'Fuck me!' shouted Dippy, 'It is too.'

Slowly, the windows darkened and the craft settled on its three legs. Mad Zoot held it a moment to make sure none of the legs would sink and cause the craft to tip sideways. But it had set firmly and the dull whining hum returned to the quiet murmur they remembered when they had first climbed aboard.

'Well,' said Mad Zoot cheerfully, coming across to them as they undid their straps, 'That's it. We're home, and dawn's about to break. Shall we investigate? Who's going to buy a newspaper - if they still exist? Coming anyone?'

'Too bloody right we are.' said Dippy, leaping across to the lift platform and dragging Sop with him. He pressed the 'down' button and the lift descended. Mad Zoot brought it back using a nearby control, and he and Piffle followed.

When they were assembled in the lobby, Mad Zoot opened the hatch, and the steps automatically stretched out like a scissor-clasp from a recess.

'Before you go,' said Mad Zoot, 'Stuff this in your pockets.' He handed them each a small leaflet, adding, 'Information, that's all.'

'Who wants to read a bloody leaflet at a time like this?' Said Dippy, incredulous, shoving his into his pocket. He climbed onto the ladder and went down first. It was all dark except for the circle of light from the hatch as before. Piffle and Sop clambered down after him.

Mad Zoot stuck his head out of the hatch and grinned broadly as they looked back up at him. 'Well, so long lads. That was just a test preview. It's now 23.00. Make sure to go straight home, won't you? And don't forget to tell your friends. Inaugural opening this Saturday, a fiver a go; duration 40 minutes. It's all in the leaflet, and in tomorrow's press too. I'll open the doors in a moment.' Then his head disappeared, leaving only the light from the hatch.

They stared at one another in the pale glow.

'What's going on?' said Piffle, gazing around, 'What was he talking about?'

'Fucked if I know.' replied Dippy, 'But something's bloody weird.'

Their eyes were beginning to adjust.

'We're still in that sodding shed!' cried Sop, shocked 'It didn't get smashed after all. It's all been a massive bloody con.'

As he said this a great arch of multi-coloured light faded up across the front of the shed over the big doors, together with a crescendo of sibilant electronic music that seemed to emanate from all around. The glow swirled in a rotating rainbow pattern. Then words appeared, flowing in a glittering array from the left: 'Bon Voyage' it said, over and over. Then the music stopped and an exuberantly cheerful androgynous computer voice boomed out:

'Thank you, thank you my friends for visiting the most remarkable, most sensational, most advanced, most breath-taking virtual reality experience the world has ever known - the solar system has ever known. We hope you have truly enjoyed your trip and that you were only a tinsy bit scared… Actually, we hope it scared your pants off… But most of all we want you to remember this day for the rest of your life, and trust you will soon return to experience even more extraordinary adventures in time and space - whenever you happen to feel inclined to join us again on THE VOYAGE OF A LIFETIME…'

At this point the big doors opened and a row of little lights illuminated the red and yellow check path. Eerie electronic music played all about as the boys ambled bewilderedly out, along the path and through the now open gates and back into the road…

'What a swizz.' sighed Sop, as they traipsed down the hill towards where they lived. 'And there I was, expecting to be in 50 years' time.'

'I didn't believe it for a minute.' Said Piffle, smugly, 'I knew it was a trick and utterly impossible, but couldn't figure out how he was doing it.'

'Liar!' chortled Dippy, 'Admit it, I bet you were as convinced as we were.'

'Bloody wasn't.' snapped Piffle, 'I know about these things.'

'Anyhow,' began Dippy again, 'I'm sodding glad it was a trick. I didn't want to be stuck in the fucking future like that, if you did.'

'Just think of the fruit machines they'll have then.' said Sop.

'It's more likely,' said Piffle, 'that the bloody politicians will have blown the planet to smithereens, or destroyed the atmosphere, or poisoned or starved everyone to death… except themselves and the elite corporate bastards who own them. I don't read my dad's 'Political Times' for nothing, you know.'

'Nor 'Science Times'.' sneered Dippy, 'If there is such a thing.'

Piffle gave him a black stare, then shook his head, 'I don't want to remain ignorant, if you do.' he said, 'If you were poor, would you rather live in Sweden or Los Angeles? And would you rather live now or 500 years ago when fruit machines hadn't even been thought of?'

'Do you think it'll ever be possible though Piffle, to really leap into the future like that?' asked Sop.

'Maybe,' replied Piffle, 'Assuming we don't get blown to…'

'Oh, shut up,' interjected Dippy, 'And I'm not ignorant. But one minute it's science, then it's politics. Why are you always so interested in boring sensible things? Anyway, how do you know your magazines aren't just propaganda like you accuse everything else of being?'

'What, like how schools get away with operating as totalitarian dictatorships?' replied Piffle, 'That's not propaganda. It's the same the world over, but in countries like ours which pretend to be democratic it's an outright scandal.'

'If talking about it changed anything,' said Dippy, 'I'd be all for it. But it doesn't. And that's because adults are thicker than the thickest kids in the world. Otherwise why do they let all the duff things happen like they do?'

'You're right about that Dippy,' said Piffle, 'Kids know, and they don't get it from school. It's school and the media that tries to stuff them with propaganda and lies so they'll all grow up obedient little slaves for the next fifty years, and not stir up agro for the bignuts who run everything and rip everyone off.'

'Like adults now, I suppose.' mumbled Sop, 'And just think, if we had gone 50 years ahead we'd have met all our compliant old school pals as they retired.'

'After a lifetime of submission to the grind,' said Piffle, 'and no doubt little to show for it.'

'Except by then they'd be too worn out to enjoy themselves.' added Sop.

'Are you two going to shut up?' Shouted Dippy, 'I'm tired. How the fuck you two can go on about all that crap after what we've experienced, I don't know. Thinking about it, I reckon it's been a pretty sensational day. And Mad Zoot is a pretty amazing guy.'

'I agree.' Said Sop, as they approached where they would split three ways to go to their respective homes, 'And I reckon I've learned more today than in a whole year at school.'

'Yeah.' added Piffle, as they separated, 'Right on. Me too. See you lot at the pier around 09.30 tomorrow, OK? And bring some dough.'

They all waved.

That night - and for the next three nights running - they slept extremely soundly, for it is well known that any new experience is a highly effective soporific. And they'd had more new experience that day than most of us get in a decade.




'Narrow Escape' a watercolour by the author 1986 (approx 50cm x 40cm)