No. 349.—An Interplanetary Shuttle.
ON SUMMER NIGHTS my friend Ned and I used to spend hours lying out in the grass and gazing up into the impenetrable mysteries of the sky. How often we wondered what other strange creatures might be staring back at us from those illimitable vastnesses! Perhaps, at that very moment, some squat but jolly Jovian was looking into his own night sky, wondering what strange creatures might inhabit the planets closer to the sun. And so we would dream and speculate far into the evening, until at last my mother would come out and warn us to get into the house right away before we were abducted by possums. My mother’s greatest fear was that I should be abducted by possums, ever since she had lost my elder sister that way. It was always my own mother who came out to get us; I cannot recall Ned’s having a mother.
It was on one such evening, not so long ago in cosmological terms, that we first conceived the idea of making the trip ourselves, so that we might see firsthand those strange worlds with which we had filled our imaginations. We especially desired to see Mars, which a diligent perusal of certain pulp novels had convinced us must be host to a wide variety of interesting forms of life, many of them not much different from animals on earth but for such relatively small details as the number of legs or heads.
As was usually the case with us, once the idea had occurred to us we wasted no time in getting to work on it. It was too late in the evening for us to begin the construction of any sort of space capsule, but we had already begun making a sort of inventory of the materials we might need. It was clear to us that all the materials would of necessity be things we could readily find in the vicinity, as we were next to penniless. Ned had his paper route, but his unfortunate sarsaparilla habit swallowed nearly all his earnings; and my mind being of a more philosophical and abstract bent, I had no interest in gainful employment.
Fortunately the Limpets, our neighbors, had a large Dodge van that they were not using, or at least not very much; and, as they kept the keys on a hook by the back door, there would be no difficulty in obtaining them. This would make the main body of our vessel: it had plenty of room to store supplies, and the seats were comfortable enough for a long journey. It would, of course, be necessary to make it airtight, but we saw no difficulty there that could not be overcome with a bit of duct tape. Our air supply could be provided in the form of plastic bags, inflated by an electric fan and tied shut, to be pierced by a pin when we felt the need for more oxygen. Ned mentioned that we should take my little Brownie camera and a few rolls of 127 film, and I readily agreed.
We awoke early the next morning and set to work directly after breakfast. A little astronomical research informed us that Mars was at that moment more than two hundred million miles away, which was a considerable distance in those days. This distance posed us a bit of a challenge, as we had never seen the Limpets’ van do any better than thirty-five miles per hour even on the open highway. Since my mother would never consent to our being out later than suppertime, the speed of our vessel would have to be considerably improved.
In certain speculative journals, Ned had read of a kind of propulsion that worked by “warping” the “fabric” of space, much as bending a two-dimensional sheet of paper in three dimensions can bring the ends into close proximity without changing the two-dimensional distance between them. So much of the theory was obvious from even a cursory glance at Euclid, but the greater difficulty remained: by what means might we accomplish this “warping” in such a way as to send our vehicle hurtling through interplanetary space at a suitably high velocity?
We racked our brains for an answer, and finally realized that we had seen the answer at work on numerous occasions. Heat is the universal warper, so to speak. A little heat would warp thin plastic; a little more heat would warp old sound recordings beyond recognition, and a great deal of heat could warp even iron or steel. We had no doubt that, given a high enough temperature, we should be able to warp space itself, which was but the necessary next step in the series. We therefore gutted the engine compartment of the Dodge and filled it with dry pine logs, pine being a wood that burns intensely with a very high heat.
And so we were off to Mars, or so we thought. As it happened, we had considerably miscalculated the heat created by our engine-compartment fire. The pine burned so hot that space was apparently warped far beyond what we had intended; we shot far past Mars and indeed far beyond the limits of our solar system, arriving at last on an unnamed planet which Ned (by the flip of a coin) had the honor of naming after himself. Here we spent a pleasant afternoon riding on the exceedingly tame eight-legged, two-headed horses with which the planet Ned is singularly blessed. We met many other interesting creatures as well, and Ned (the sly dog) made quite an impression on one of the local princesses. But I shall not tell more, for I should not like to ruin the sport for any boys who might like to undertake their own journey to the planet Ned and see the sights for themselves. On our return, the pictures I took with my Brownie were published in the rotogravure section of our local newspaper, and for a while Ned and I were minor celebrities in our little town. All in all, we considered it a successful expedition, even if we did not reach our intended destination.