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Spaceship Cover I Won a Spaceship

Chapter 1

It was approximately eight thirty in the evening of the twenty-seventh of April when the doorbell rang. I was not expecting anyone so I was slightly cautious when I opened the door.

"Wheet whup whoofle whuffle fizz floofle flupplewhiff. Twheef ploowhup plup plup poot whuzz plooflewhufflup whubblebeeble," said the man on the doorstep.

It wasn't any language I recognised, but the city had seen an influx of people from Eastern Europe so perhaps it was Polish or Serbo-Croat or something. In the orange glow from the streetlights and the dim light from my hall I couldn't make out his features, but he seemed... odd. He was wearing an overcoat and trilby, unusual in itself, but the evening was chilly and perhaps his head was sensitive to the cold. His posture was not aggressive, he didn't seem to be drunk or stoned and his coat was clean and respectable. Still, there seemed to be something not quite right about him, other than the fact he spoke gibberish, that is.

He looked at me with an expectant smile. Clearly my look of suspicious astonishment was not what he expected for his face fell. I was debating whether to close the door and hope he would go away when he thumped the side of his head with the heel of his hand and tried again.

Another string of gibberish emerged. The smile was more quizzical this time. If he was a nutter, at least he seemed harmless. He thumped his head a few more times in a frustrated manner.

"Fucking translator," he muttered. He must have caught my expression at hearing English for he straightened and beamed. "Congratulations, sir or madam. I have the honour to announce that you have won the Grand Prize in the recent draw of the Galactic Lottery - a fully equipped Mark 3 Zofi-Brennan 'Interspacialle'."

His words were so preposterous that it took me a moment to work out that he was actually speaking English.

"I don't do the lottery," I growled.

Not, perhaps, particularly original or witty, but it was all I could think of at the time. My brain seemed to have seized up.

His eyes crossed for a moment. "You are Crawford MacAdam of 42 Chandlers Road, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, Great Britain, Europe, Earth?"

"Edinburgh's not technically in Midlothian. It's a city."

"Oh," he looked crestfallen. "Then perhaps I have been mistaken. There is another Edinburgh in Scotland, Great Britain, Europe, Earth?"

"No." I sighed. "I'm Crawford MacAdam and this is 42 Chandlers Road, etc. as you said."

"But you said that Edinburgh was not in Midlothian. This means that the address is not precisely correct. It is a very valuable prize and I am duty bound to see that it is delivered to the correct being."

I sighed again. Me and my big mouth. I really didn't want to stand on the doorstep on a chilly April evening and argue the niceties of local geography with a nutcase, harmless or otherwise.

"Never mind," I said. "It doesn't matter. Technically, both are correct. Now, if we've quite finished this charade, would you please leave. I'm getting cold."

"Thank you for your patience, sir or madam. I will see that our records are adjusted accordingly. Now..."

As he was showing no signs of leaving, I stepped back into the house and prepared to shut the door.

"But, sir or madam," he wailed. "There is much yet to be done before I can deliver your prize."

"I've already said I don't do the lottery," I said with exaggerated patience. "And if you don't do the lottery, you can't win it."

"Oh," he said brightly. "You don't have to subscribe to the Galactic Lottery, sir or madam. All sentient beings throughout the galaxy are automatically eligible."

I opened and closed my mouth a few times before I could speak. "Look, I'm no astronomer, but even I know that the Sun is in an obscure little system at the end of one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. If there's sentient life out there, we're hardly going to be in the forefront of Galactic Civilisation. Added to that, we can barely stagger as far as the Moon never mind the nearest star. So, pray tell me, how can I have come to the attention of the Galactic Lottery?"

"Forgive me for asking, sir or madam, but are you a typical Earthman?"

"I don't know. I suppose I'm pretty average. Why?"

He sighed. "I have had the honour of presenting the Grand Prize for three centuries. I have had the pleasure of greeting dozens of recipients from Aldebaran to Betelgeuse and never have I been greeted with such mistrust and suspicion. Sir or madam, I think you fail to realise just how small your chances of winning the star prize are. The odds have been calculated at approximately 1 in..." his eyes crossed briefly, "...56,987,992,876,877,870,005,815,715,781,991,446,732,221,910. I say approximately for, of course, the exact number of qualifying sentient beings changes momentarily."

"Whew," I whistled. "That's pretty long odds."

"I'm glad you appreciate it, sir or madam. Consequently, the star prize is commensurately valuable. In your local currency it is worth..." his eyes crossed again, "...$4.5 billion in round figures."

"$4.5 billion?" I gulped. "A single prize?"

"Indeed, sir or madam. Perhaps you now appreciate why recipients are generally, to use one of your expressions, over the moon, to discover they are winners."

"I'm beginning to get the idea," I said dryly.

The suspicion was beginning to dawn on me that this was not some practical joke; that Jeremy Beadle, God rest his soul, would not suddenly appear from round the corner and crow condescendingly at the poor sucker who was dumb enough to fall for his imbecilic practical jokes that always seemed to involve the maximum humiliation for the victim.

"I assume you can prove who you are?"

He clapped his hand to his mouth, his face a picture of consternation. "Forgive me, sir or madam. I can only apologise and blame the vagaries of my translation unit for the oversight."

He fumbled in a pocket and produced a small piece of something that resembled plastic slightly larger and thicker than a credit card. On it was a perfect three-dimensional representation of his face, a very impressive logo and lots of squiggles I assumed were writing. On the back were more squiggles. I held it up to the light. It seemed to shimmer and subtle colours chased around just under the surface like an oil-slick on the surface of water. It was so simple yet so sophisticated that I knew for certain it hadn't been manufactured on this world. The reality of the situation began to sink in and I felt my knees tremble.

"Perhaps you'd better come in," I said, handing the card back. "I think I need to sit down."

"Are you unwell, sir or madam?" he said with concern.

"Just a little faint," I said, holding the door open to let him in. "It's just beginning to dawn on me that you really are an alien and all this is real."

He frowned. "It is true we are strangers. We have never met before."

"I meant an alien in the sense of a being from another planet. We don't get many round here."

I took his coat and hat. Under them he wore a conventional dark suit and open-neck formal shirt. His shoes were formal and highly polished. Somehow, perhaps I was in a state of shock, it didn't matter that his shoulders were impossibly wide, his elbows and knees in the wrong place, his well-oiled hair a very strange shade of brown verging on orange, his ears too large, his jaw too long and his mouth too close to his too-short nose. I gestured at an armchair and sat heavily in mine. He sat, entirely at his ease, with one ankle crossed casually over the other knee. His eyes crossed. "I believe you are right, there has never been a winner of the Lottery from your world before or, indeed, from this arm of the galaxy."

"I meant more that there has never been an authenticated record of any human being ever meeting someone from another planet."

"You surprise me. I know you're a bit out of the way, here, but I would have thought that someone would have at least paid a courtesy call."

"Perhaps. If so, they kept very quiet about it. In fact there are many people who believe that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe."

He made a strangling noise. I realised he was laughing. "Forgive me, sir or madam, but that is a very arrogant assumption."

"In some cases, yes. There are those who believe that man occupies a special place in the universe by virtue of being descended from a divine being. More realistically, scientists argue that we are here because of a fluke. Our planet has a peculiar history and occupies a particular orbit around a particular sun. As the parameters for life are very tight, the chances of exactly these conditions occurring across the galaxy are very small." I grinned. "Almost as small as the chances of winning the Galactic Lottery. Others say that, if there were other civilisations, we'd be able to hear their radio and TV broadcasts, and we can't. Yet others say that, in galactic terms, the life of intelligent beings is very short compared with the life of stars and planets so the chances of two civilisations existing at the same time are very small."

"Hmm. I cannot fault the reasoning. It is a pity it is based on false premises. I can assure you life abounds in the universe, both intelligent and otherwise."

"If it didn't you wouldn't be here. Ipso facto. May I ask you a question?"

"Certainly."

"Why do you keep saying 'sir or madam'?"

He looked startled. "I understood it was the correct honorific in your culture when the respondent was a stranger."

I laughed. "Sorry. It is, but only when you don't know the gender of the respondent. If you knew me as C MacAdam, you wouldn't know whether I was male or female. Once you've established my gender, you use 'sir' or 'madam' on its own accordingly."

"Forgive me if I have offended your mores."

"No offence taken. However, you may call me by my given name if you wish."

"Given name?"

"Crawford. It was the name given to me by my parents. The other bit, MacAdam, is my family name."

"You mean you don't choose your own name?"

"Not usually, no."

"I am signally honoured. In my society, personal names are generally only revealed to close friends."

"We're rather informal, I'm afraid. At least in this part of the world. Customs differ."

"Indeed. How true." He paused. "Since you have honoured me with your given name, I shall reciprocate. You would not be able to pronounce my name in my native tongue. Do your names have meaning?"

"Many of them yes."

"Then do you have a name that means 'a bringer of tidings'?"

"An appropriate name for you. The only one I can think of off-hand is Hermes - the messenger of the Greek gods." I gave a wry smile. "As I recall, his tidings weren't always joyful and there was an element of cunning in his make-up. I suppose a message from the gods is always a two-edged sword and I suspect yours is no different."

He nodded sagely. "Though I hardly come from the gods, I believe your mythology is that gods are powerful beings, though often exhibiting human frailties, who live in the heavens so perhaps there is some poetic justification. Hermes it is, then."

"Before you tell me all about this wonderful win, would you like a drink?"

"Oh, yes, water please."

"Nothing stronger?"

"While my constitution is adaptable, I am not of your world and many of your foodstuffs could be poisonous to me. Water is fairly universal, though, and should be acceptable."

"Bottled water, then. It's supposed to be purer."

"That would be agreeable, thank you."

For the next half hour, while I sipped a very large Scotch and he his water, he described the prize I had won. To my utter astonishment I discovered it was a spaceship. And not just any spaceship. I had won a top-of-the-range, state-of-the-art, last-word-in-luxury spaceship. Terms like 'phaser cannon', 'fully inertialess drive' and 'intelligent bio-computer' floated past my ears like thistledown... and made as much impact. It certainly sounded like an impressive piece of kit and I could see why it was worth the amount it was. I sort of gathered it was the James Bond of spaceships; stuffed with gadgets and gizmos, operated by some sort of artificial intelligence, was armed to the teeth and fitted out with sybaritic luxury. I could live with most of it, but the 'armed to the teeth' bit gave me pause. The presence of lots of big guns suggested that navigating space was not as safe as a trip to the supermarket.

I had fallen into a half-doze until he said, "You'll be presented with the keys, purely symbolic of course, at the ceremony on Geretimal."

I was suddenly wide awake. "Run that past me again."

"It's a big occasion. The star prize is only awarded once every decade. You'll travel to Geretimal in the Capellan system and stay in a luxury hotel, all expenses paid of course. It's a gala occasion and everybody who is anybody will be there; trivee stars, politicians, businessmen, the works. The Chairman of the Lottery will present you with your prize, you'll say a few words, the media will interview you and that's that. You'll be famous - at least for a few days."

"I've got a better idea. You give me the keys now, I shake you by the hand and express my grateful thanks and you take off back to wherever it is you come from."

He looked appalled at the idea. "I can't do that. The ceremony is part of the whole thing. It is one of the conditions of accepting the prize." His face took on a crafty look. "Just think... if you behave well you could put your planet on the map."

"I don't think our governments would be too pleased with a flotilla of thrill-seekers descending from the skies. They're likely to think they're enemies and shoot them down without asking why they're here. I don't think I'd like to be the cause of an inter-galactic diplomatic incident."

"Strictly speaking it would be an inter-system or inter-stellar incident, but I take your point. If your governments react to visitors the same way as you did, it could be unpleasant."

"Yeah. Governments tend to have very big guns."

"Oh, they wouldn't cause any damage, but the visitors are likely to be rich if not important and would not take kindly to being shot at." His eyes crossed again. "I shall have to take advice on that."

"Why do you keep crossing your eyes?"

"Huh?"

"Every so often you stop and your eyes cross. You did it just there."

"Did I? I didn't know that. I was communicating with my ibic."

"Ibic?"

"The computer that operates my ship."

"Oh. Do you have some sort of implant?"

"Yes."

"That explains it then. Would I get one?"

"No. You'd have to pay for it."

"Expensive?"

"Quite."

"That brings me to another question. Okay so I've won this luxury space ship. I assume it isn't cheap to maintain. How do I afford it?"

He shrugged. "That, as they say, is your problem. The Lottery awards you the ship, what you do with it is up to you."

I grinned. "So I could become a space pirate?"

"Space piracy is theoretically not practical although rumours abound."

"What did previous winners do with their ships?"

The crossed eyes again. He really looked very silly. He stayed like that for quite a while. His expression was serious as he uncrossed them. "Of the ten most recent winners, three have disappeared without trace, one crashed into an asteroid while exploring an obscure star system, four were sold within six months and only two are still operating. One is essentially a luxury taxi in the Rigel area, the other has had the luxury fittings stripped out and is being used as a courier ship in another spiral arm."

"So I could sell it as soon as it's mine?"

"Yes, yes." He seemed quite distracted.

"What about a cash alternative?"

"Hmm? What was that?"

"Instead of the ship, how about giving me the equivalent in money."

He shook his head. "Not possible, I'm afraid."

"Has something upset you?"

"No. Yes. You didn't ask about the prize winners. Of the five who no longer have their ships, three committed suicide. With the one who died of natural causes and the one who had an accident and the three that disappeared, it means that eight of the last ten winners are dead."

"Why is that a problem? You said the prize was only awarded every ten years. So in a century eight have died. Hell, in a century I'll be dead, too. If I live half that long, I'll consider myself fortunate."

"You are a particularly short-lived species. But that isn't the point. It's not that they have died, it's the circumstances of their death that bothers me."

"I'm more and more tempted to turn this prize down."

"You mustn't do that. Think of the publicity."

"Who's going to know?"

"Everybody. The identity of the winner is on public record. Until the prize is officially presented, it's embargoed, but after that.... Just think what will happen if the day comes and goes and no prize is given. We'd be ruined."

A nasty thought was buzzing round in my head. "And, no doubt, the galaxy's media would be heading hot-foot for Earth to interview the man who refused the greatest prize in the galaxy."

"That, too. Oh, dear. Your governments. They wouldn't take too kindly to a fleet of newshounds, would they?"

"Hardly."

"Then you've no option. You must accept the prize. We'll try to figure out what to do in the meantime."

"I have an idea. You say this is the best spaceship money can buy?"

He nodded vigorously. "You've no idea. I'd give... well, a lot, to own one."

"Okay. So how about you substitute a slightly less advanced model and make up the balance in expenses?"

"How do you mean?"

"I've no idea what these things cost to run but, let's say, the next model down costs only $4 billion. You use the remaining half a billion to provide a life-time's fuel, servicing, repairs and whatnot. Also you provide, say, a decade of free food, drink and so on. That way the winner doesn't have to try to find the running costs immediately."

"A moment." He went cross-eyed for some time. "You may have hit upon the germ of a workable idea. I've set my ibic working on it. So you'll accept the prize?"

"Do I have any choice?"

"Not really, no."

"Then I accept."

"Excellent."

He leapt to his feet and produced a strange box from his belt which he held up a few inches from my face.

"What are you doing?"

"Verifying you are who you say you are. Please place your finger in this hole."

"Why?"

"I need a DNA sample."

I stuck my finger in the indicated hole. I was expecting a pin-prick or something, but the tip of my finger became warm and that was all. He stuck the box in front of my face again.

"Now, if you will please say, 'I, say your full name, of, say your full address, hereby accept the Galactic Lottery Grand Prize. I swear I will fulfil all the obligations this award entails.'"

"Whoa. What obligations?"

"I've already explained the main ones; the gala dinner and the presentation. That's all there is to it, really."

"That's all? There's nothing more?"

"Well, there are a few trivial items, but nothing of consequence."

"Exactly what are these 'trivial items'?"

"Well, the manufacturers of the ship will want you to appear in some advertising. It's only fair. They've given you a very expensive ship, after all."

"And?"

"And, er, well the President of the Capellan Theocracy, where our headquarters are based, will expect you to spend some time there. You know, be seen out and about enjoying the sights and experiences of his empire."

"And will I?"

"Will you what?"

"Will I enjoy them?"

"You might."

"But I probably won't?"

He looked uncomfortable. "Well Capella is rather unusual. It's a binary system and much brighter than your sun. It throws out a lot of energy. There are lots of planets, some of which support life naturally and some artificially. The Capellan Theocracy also controls about fifty other solar systems."

There was something in his tone that 'a lot of energy' could mean 'a lot of very harmful energy'.

"In other words, I'll be dead within a week from radiation poisoning or something."

"Well..."

"I will, won't I? Good scam, that. Present the winner with his prize then, before he can enjoy it, send him outside to be frazzled to death. You get your valuable prize back and, of course, no blame can be placed on you for the unfortunate and untimely demise of your recent winner."

"I assure you, sir or madam... Crawford, that the thought never occurred." He looked genuinely shocked. "You wouldn't have to go out in the sunlight." He shuddered. "We don't."

"Then how am I to experience the multitude of attractions that Capella obviously offers, not having a hide like a rhinoceros?"

"I admit that could be a slight problem. However, I'm sure we could persuade the President that it would endanger your life."

"You'd better. No sightseeing tours of Capella. What else?"

"Well... er... that is..." he seemed particularly reluctant to spit this one out. "There is the breeding programme."

"Breeding programme?"

"Yes," he shuffled his feet and refused to meet my eye.

"I think you'd better explain," I said in a dangerously quiet voice.

He took a deep breath and looked very unhappy. "I need to explain a bit about the lottery so please bear with me. Several thousand years ago, some scientists were experimenting with the theory that gave us our space drive. I don't understand the theory myself, but it allows us to cross the galaxy in a few years. I assume your civilisation understands about space and time? Well, forget all that. It appears that what we perceive as the real world isn't, at least according to the scientists. The 'real' universe lies underneath the one we perceive, several layers deep." He held up a placating hand. "I know, it sounds incredible. I've lived with the results all my life and I can't understand more than two words. Take it as read, please.

"As I said, these scientists were playing around on the fringes of the theory and their experiments kept being disrupted by what they thought of as 'noise'. They tried to eliminate it, but couldn't and gave up. Quite some time later, some more scientists, looking at something else, rediscovered the same effect. By chance they also stumbled upon the researches of the earlier scientists. One of this new group wondered if the effect wasn't noise at all but something else. It took him a long time to isolate it and even longer to identify it, but what he discovered was startling. It appears that every being that achieves a certain level of sentience makes a... footprint... impression... mark on the universe. I'm afraid I can't explain it any better than that. With the appropriate instruments, individual impressions can be observed though you can imagine that with 57 septillion impressions, isolating individuals is a bit tricky."

He gave a small, deprecating laugh.

"Over the years this phenomenon was studied. It was noticed that most impressions were amorphous; they stayed within the general mass and were barely discernable. However, every so often one would rise up and be more readily visible. This caused great excitement, for the scientists believed these impressions must be those of great leaders or beings who had a major impact on their civilisations. Over many centuries, they studied and analysed these impressions and finally learned to identify them. When the next one arose, they set out eagerly across the galaxy to find the being who was shaking its civilisation's foundations. What they found was not what they expected. The being in question was the equivalent of a shoemaker who lived in a small town in a quiet part of his world's southern continent. He showed no evidence of greatness. Under promises of fame and fortune, he allowed the scientists to study him." He shrugged. "They killed him, of course, in their vain attempts to prove his greatness. The next impression that was identified was that of a clerk in a religious institution and the third of a young animal herder. Not their actual occupations, you realise, but equivalents. They, too, died prematurely."

He paused to sip his water.

"Unfortunately for the scientists, but fortunately for the rest of us, the authorities became aware of what was going on. They were a bit upset that the scientists were, in effect, kidnapping these beings and killing them. Apart from the fact that it was highly illegal, the authorities asked what the scientists hoped to achieve if the subject of their studies was dead. They banned the scientist from further hands-on research. The scientists were, naturally, quite upset. How could they study what made an impression become visible, they argued, if they couldn't study the being in question. The authorities were adamant. No more kidnapping. All research must be done at a distance.

"The authorities, although they were unsympathetic to the scientists' methods, were not unsympathetic to their aims. They, too, wanted to know what strange and wonderful factors caused one individual to rise from the mass of his or her or its peers. They could not, in all conscience, kidnap these beings, but they wanted to identify and study them. How could they get them to step forward voluntarily? And so the Lottery was born. If they were to provide a prize, something that no rational sentient being could refuse, and offer it to the identified being, that being would come forward and the scientists could study it.

"The idea worked. The beings were identified, approached and offered the Grand Prize. Naturally they accepted and came to Capella to receive their prize. Once there, they were studied. Oh, not so intensively as before... the authorities would not tolerate that, but they were studied none the less... and with the same result.

"Now, a curious thing happened. The scientists and authorities noticed that, after the award ceremony, the winner, and so far the winners have all been male, was always surrounded by many beings of the opposite sex... sentient beings, by the way, are generally humanoid to a greater or lesser extent, and bi-sexual. They vary in many details from world to world; a few have six limbs, some have fur or hair or scales; physical features vary considerably but, by and large, they resemble you and me. The beings who clustered round the winner weren't necessarily of the same species, but all seemed to greatly desire to be in the winner's company. Some would go to great lengths and elaborate subterfuges to gain access to the winner. Authorities, being authorities, took some time to pay attention to this. When they did, they discovered that this disparate group of sentient beings had one thing in common... a desire to breed.

I couldn't contain myself any longer. "Breed?"

He nodded. "It mystifies me too I must confess, but it is true nonetheless. They wished, indeed some were desperate, to breed with the Lottery Winner. At first the scientists and authorities were inclined to dismiss this as irrelevant. After all, and I'm sure it's the same in your civilisation, there are those who find fame an aphrodisiac. However, some bright scientist finally suggested that, instead of discouraging the phenomenon, perhaps they should encourage it. Perhaps it was the ability to breed that made the winner rise from the mass in the first place. Moreover, the present direction of study was going precisely nowhere, as it had been for several centuries, so why not try something different?

He stopped as if he had finished. It was certainly a breath-taking vista; people making imprints on the universe; research that took centuries to complete; scientists who kidnapped people. My mind was boggling frantically.

"I'm just a simple being from a backward planet," I said. "I heard what you said, but can't see what it's got to do with me?"

"I thought I explained that. Oh, well, perhaps I didn't. The Lottery organisers incorporated this desire to breed into the conditions. One of the conditions of acceptance is that the winner participates in the breeding programme."

"You mean I'll be expected to have sex... er, breed with lots of women?"

"Well, they won't be human women in all probability, but, yes."

"You mean I'm expected to breed with females with talons or six breasts or scales or who are eight feet tall or who eat their mates after sex or..."

"No, no, no," he interrupted. "The experiment is highly controlled. All the females will be chosen to be compatible with your genotype. There would be little point in a breeding experiment where the participants could not actually breed. The female participants will all be warm-blooded. They may not be precisely mammalian... I believe your world contains a class of marsupials... but they will be compatible. I assure you they are selected very strictly." He gave a wry smile. "In fact there is fierce competition to be selected. We are, as you would put it, spoilt for choice."

"Well..." I said doubtfully. "What does the experiment hope to achieve?"

"The theory... well, the hope is that whatever it is that is that made you a Lottery Winner is genetically transferable. The offspring of your breeding partners will be measured and then the mass of impressions watched to see if these individuals rise to the surface."

"And the results so far?"

"Inconclusive. You will only be the third winner to take part in the experiment. Many species take many years for offspring to achieve the necessary level of sentience so, as yet, there have been too few to measure. Definitive results are not expected for another fifty to a hundred years."

"Whew. I can't get used to this long-term thinking."

"As I said, you are a particularly short-lived species. However, now that you have heard my explanation, will you still accept the prize?"

"At least I now have a better idea of what it's about. The prospect of making love to alien females doesn't really appeal to me but, providing that you guarantee to remove the tour of Capella and that you swear there are no more 'trivial items', then yes."

He smiled. "I swear there are no conditions other than those I have described."

"No 'scientific studies'?"

"Yes, but these are non-intrusive and guaranteed to have no detrimental effect on your health or physical safety."

He held up his box and I took his oath, adding my caveats for good measure.

"I note your suspicious nature has asserted itself again," he said with a rueful smile. "You realise you have just imposed a binding oath upon me? If I fail with the President of the Capellan Theocracy or if I have overlooked anything you can destitute me.

"Good. I'm not vindictive and I'll overlook anything that is genuinely trivial and you genuinely forgot, but at least I've a degree of leverage, now."

"I am uncertain as to whether I am relieved or not. However, we must be going."

"Now?"

"Of course, now."

"Not now. I can't just up and go like that. How long am I likely to be away for?"

"Probably forever, except for visits. You're going to be the owner of the fastest, most luxurious spaceship in the galaxy. Why would you want to return? However, in the unlikely event you did, several months."

"Then I definitely can't leave right away." I began ticking points off on my fingers. "One, I'll have to resign my job and I must give a month's notice. Two, I'll have to sell my house. Three, I'll need to tell everyone, family and friends, that I'm going away. Four, I'll need to find a good home for my cats."

He shook his head in resignation. "You don't understand. We must leave right away. It will take several days to reach our destination and the ceremony is next week."

"I can't leave right away." He was becoming very agitated so I considered. "Let's see. I suppose I could send an e-mail to my boss. He won't be very pleased and it'll cause ructions at work, but I suppose I can always find another job if I come back. I suppose I could phone my parents now and tell them I'm going away. I'll probably have to send a letter or something later. Can I send a letter to here from Capella?"

"It could be arranged."

"Okay. I could e-mail all my friends and Fiona, my sister. I could shut up the house as if I was going on holiday. I wonder if John and Frances would keep an eye on it for me? They probably would. That just leaves the cats. I'm not deserting them."

"What are these 'cats'?"

"My cats. Pets."

"Pets?"

"You don't know what pets are? Domesticated animals."

"I know what a domesticated animal is. All civilisations have them."

I found Ziggy asleep on the bed as usual. He meowed complainingly as I picked him up then started purring.

"This is Ziggy. He's a cat."

"Cats are feline? It does look feline, but hardly fierce."

I laughed. "You wouldn't say that if you were a mouse or small bird."

Ziggy chose that moment to yawn, revealing his needle-sharp teeth.

"I see what you mean. What does it do?"

"Do? Nothing. He's a pet."

"I fail to understand. Most domesticated animals serve a purpose; food, beasts of burden, and so on."

"Ziggy's a pet. A companion."

"One moment." He took on his cross-eyed look. "How remarkable. It appears that some cultures have pets, but only a few. Its fur looks very soft. May I touch it?"

"Of course." I demonstrated how to stroke a cat. Ziggy's eyes took on that sensual, half-closed look and he began to purr loudly.

Hermes stretched out a tentative hand and stroked Ziggy's head. Ziggy half-turned his head, seemed to accept the touch and resumed purring again.

"Be definite, but gentle," I said. "Cats know when you're scared or unsure of them."

"How remarkable. It is a most pleasurable sensation. What is that noise?"

"He's purring. He's enjoying being stroked." I grinned. "I sometimes suspect cats deliberately evolved their soft fur and purring just to persuade humans to look after them."

He looked askance as if to assess whether I was serious.

"Hmm. It is remarkably pleasant just the same."

"That's why I keep them. That and the fact that they're independent."

"How can they be independent? They are dependent on you."

"I know, but it's beneath a cat's dignity to acknowledge it. A cat believes that it's doing you the greatest favour on earth by condescending to live with you." His look said he didn't believe me. "Just wait till you've been around them for a while," I laughed.

"And they serve no useful purpose?"

"Not in that sense. Shopkeepers, sailors, farmers and the like keep cats to control vermin. Cats are natural predators and excellent hunters. Most of us just keep them because we like them."

"How curious. Do humans keep other animals as pets?"

"Dogs are the most popular though people also keep small rodents, fish, birds, even pigs as pets. Look, this is very interesting, but doesn't solve the problem."

He shook his head. "I don't know if it can be resolved."

"But I can't just leave them."

"Why not?"

"Because they'd die if there was nobody to feed them."

"Can't you give them to someone?"

"Like who?"

"I don't know. I've only just arrived. Your neighbours?"

"They have a dog."

"And the problem is?"

"Dogs and cats generally don't get on. Besides people who like dogs often don't like cats."

He sighed in exasperation. "If I were a suspicious being, I'd say you were putting obstacles in the way."

"Well, it's not me who wants to go rushing off to the other side of the galaxy in the middle of the night. Give me a month... even a fortnight and I'll come with you happily, but I'm not abandoning my cats even for a... whatever it is spaceship."

"Mark 3 Zofi-Brennan 'Interspacialle'. I thought you said they were independent creatures."

"They like to pretend they are, but they're not really. Cats can turn feral, but most adult domestic cats have become too used to the good life to fend for themselves."

"Not very useful, then, are they?"

"They're not meant to be. Anyway, would you survive if you were abandoned in the midst of a wilderness?"

"But this isn't..."

"It is to a cat."

"Oh. Well... I see what you mean."

"So now you see why I can't just abandon them."

"No."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Granted."

"I meant I didn't understand you. You said 'no'."

"You asked if I understood why you couldn't leave your animals and I said no, I couldn't."

"But... I just explained it."

"No, you didn't. You explained why the animals wouldn't survive, but not why you cannot leave them."

I looked at him as if he wasn't human. "But..." Then, of course, I realised that he really wasn't human. I sighed. "When people acquire pets, especially cats or dogs, there's a sort of unwritten contract that they will look after them and feed them and care for them. It doesn't always happen, I grant you, but that's the idea. Also, after a while, you form a strong bond with the animals... and they do with you. In fact, there's a statue in the city to a wee dog... but that's irrelevant. The point is the cats are part of my life and I am of theirs. I would no more think of turning them out in the street than I would my own mother."

He sighed crossly. "I know it is undiplomatic of me to say so, but you are the most exasperating being I think I've ever encountered... and I include that innkeeper on Frubital."

"Possibly." My tone was as short as his. "However, it wasn't me who arrived unannounced on my doorstep and demanded that I leave this instant."

He sighed again. "Oh, very well. Bring them with you. I assume they'll travel."

"Bring them with me? On a spaceship?"

"Do they need much room?"

"They'll cope in confined spaces for a while, but they're territorial animals and mine are used to roaming. I was thinking of g-forces."

"You won't experience them. A by-product of the inertialess drive is constant gravity."

"Oh. Will they be able to roam?"

"Not much in the ship. But no matter. We'll find a solution."

"If you're sure."

"I'm not, but you have made it clear you will not abandon them. I confess I do not understand why, but it is clearly important to you. As we must leave as soon as possible, the only solution is that your pets accompany you."

"Good. Ah, that's assuming Stardust is around. Here, hold Ziggy while I check."

I thrust the cat into his startled hands and rushed off. Stardust was, as I'd hoped, in the airing cupboard next to the hot water tank. She protested loudly when I picked her up. Hermes was sitting again when I returned with Ziggy curled up on his knee. There was a slightly bemused expression on his face.

"You've made a friend for life," I said with a smile.

"It's most remarkable. It turned round a few times, dug its talons into my skin then curled up like this."

"I'll tell you why later. This is Stardust. Please keep the door shut so they don't wander off. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"You are going somewhere?"

"I have a phone call to make and e-mails to send. I have to visit my next door neighbours to see if they'll keep an eye on the house and I have to pack."

"Pack?"

"I will need some clothes on this spaceship... unless it's your custom to go around naked."

"Not on my ship, no. You won't require many clothes. These can be acquired later."

"I'll bear that in mind."

The next two hours were a nightmare. The conversation with my parents was probably the worst. In the end I had to promise I would write and explain everything as soon as I could. I decided to call Fiona. She laughed.

"You've never done anything impulsive in your life, Crawford. What's happened?"

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you," I said. "And I can't tell you... not yet anyway. I've been given the opportunity of a lifetime and I'm going to grab it with both hands. I hope to be back in a few months. Then I'll tell you all about it."

"You're not in any sort of trouble, are you?"

"That's exactly what Mum asked. No, I'm in no sort of trouble at all. Quite the reverse. If I can I'll write but, whatever happens, I'll be in touch in three or four months."

"Where are you going that you can't write or e-mail or phone? The Antarctic?"

"Much further than that. Look Fee, I have to go. Try to persuade Mum I'm okay and I know what I'm doing, will you?"

"I'll try, but as I'm not convinced it might be hard. Hey, what are you doing about Ziggy and Stardust?"

"Taking them with me."

"I don't know whether I'm relieved or even more worried. Still, if they're going with you, you can't be in serious trouble. Take care, little brother."

"I will, big sister. I love you."

The e-mail to my boss was horrible. I knew it wasn't right and I felt like a heel as I was writing it. I was letting everyone down, hardly a fair repayment for all the support they'd given me. John and Frances were surprised, to say the least, but promised to keep an eye on the place for me. They, too, enquired about the cats and were even more surprised when I said I was taking them with me. They clearly were concerned but, being good Edinburgh neighbours, didn't like to pry. I promised I'd return and explain all.

Packing didn't turn out to be too difficult; lots of underwear and socks, some casual shirts, a spare pair of jeans, some formal shirts and ties and my best suit and formal shoes, etc for meeting the President. I assumed there'd be washing facilities somewhere down the line.

I went round the house making sure everything was off, including all the pilot lights and timers, then cleaned the cats' litter tray. Fortunately the bag of litter was nearly full. I stuffed it and the tray into a rucksack, put everything in the front hall and went back to the sitting room with the cat basket. Hermes was asleep with Ziggy still on his lap. Stardust was curled up on the other chair.

"Oh, you startled me," he said with a start.

"Sorry. I just need to get these two into the basket then I'm ready."

"Already? That was quick."

I glanced at my watch. "I've been gone over two hours."

He went momentarily cross-eyed. "Good gracious. Where did the time go?"

"Cats are very relaxing until, of course, you want them to do something."

I scooped up Stardust and, before she had properly realised what was happening, had deposited her in the basket. She began to protest. Ziggy opened his eyes. He remained curled up on Hermes lap, but he knew fine well what game was afoot. I picked him up and Hermes let out a yell. Ziggy had dug his claws firmly in to his thigh.

"Sorry," I said. "I should have warned you."

I managed to release the claws whereupon Ziggy made a determined effort to escape. It was my hand that felt the claws this time. He hissed at me, baring his fangs. I ignored him, as usual, and shoved him unceremoniously in beside his sister. They both protested loudly. Hermes was nursing his injured thigh.

"Are they poisonous?" he asked through gritted teeth.

"No, but if you've a puncture I suggest you take some antibiotic or something. You mentioned something about not being completely compatible with human organisms."

"I'd better check."

"Bathroom's upstairs."

He hobbled off. I turned off the fire and lights and took the cats out to the hall, still protesting. I did quick mental check to see if I'd forgotten anything. I had... my wallet, though I doubted I'd need it on Capella. Capella. It was just a name. The idea that it was several thousand light years away was just too alien for my mind to comprehend. I had to take things one small step at a time. If I thought too far ahead, I knew I'd go mad. Hermes returned. He wasn't limping.

"No major damage," he reported.

"Good." I slung my rucksack over my shoulder and picked up the cat basket. "Can you get my case?"

"Are they going to make that noise all the way there?"

"They'll settle down in a bit. It's the damage to their dignity they're protesting about."

"I hope so. They're noisy creatures."

"You should hear two cats when they're mating. You'd be convinced someone was being tortured to death."

"I'll pass, thank you."

I turned out the hall light, pulled the front door shut and locked it firmly. Somehow I knew I'd never live here again.

© Harrison Park