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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 31 PERHAPS THERE WAS NOBODY LISTENING

PERHAPS THERE WAS NOBODY LISTENING

Still strapped securely in my seat I had no great feeling of the weightlessness I had wondered about as we had accelerated - pretty uncomfortably for my part - out of Steefax atmosphere, and ultimately out of its gravity; but it did amuse me to discover that if I held my hand above my head, and just tried to let it drop, it wouldn't.

"Ran away from the Archdraxite, eh?" Commander Darande asked me.

"Yes, sir." That was part of the truth, and it would have to do. I could hardly say that I was also running away from the Queen! "She wanted me to go back to Draxy Palace with her."

"I think you're probably better off with us, old chap," the King said.

"Yes, sire, I think I am."

"It looked like they were trying to kidnap you," Darande said. "Who was that chap to whom you gave the mighty hack?"

"Her Grace's Butler, sir. He wanted to train me up as his successor. He's really very nice, sir."

"Good thing you were running towards me," King Hamlet said. "I don't think you had much idea of direction."

"No, sire. I think I didn't, sire."

When I looked about me I saw none but friendly, welcoming faces. The Commmander introduced me to the people in the cabin, and by intercom to Macroida in her engine room.

His Majesty said, "I think it is probably right that Diken should be coming with us." He gave a brief account of our meeting in the tree, of how it came about, and of my part in the Sun Garden episode. I have to say that when he had finished there was some applause. I was a very happy boy.

Having no tasks to perform, I was able to wallow in splendid sights beyond my powers adequately to describe to you. I saw four Steefax days, and four nights; I saw land and sea, sometimes etched as cleanly as in a school atlas, sometimes obscured by weather; I saw the Moon shining unbelievably brightly, and at our nearest point to it looking impossibly big; I saw the rings of Steefax Major, and the violent whirlings of the storms which for ever wrack its poisonous atmosphere.

****

Having thought that the first space displacement in more than a hundred years would have been considered an event of some magnitude, I found the mood of easy jollity in which captain and crew seemed to be approaching it rather disconcerting.

"One hour before we hop, Commander," said navigator Darek.

"Which leg is recommended?"

"It all depends on whether one is right or left handed, skipper."

"Who says?" the King asked.

"It was a theory we had at college, Your Majesty."

"What should I do?" Tullulah asked. "I'm ambidextrous."

"Then you'd better toss for it," Darek said.

"I haven't brought any money with me."

"What d'you reckon, Diken?" asked Bryn. "Which leg are you going to use?"

My grunt was as noncommittal as my laugh was feeble.

"How about taking Diken to the engine room, Bryn?" The captain's wink was blatantly unconcealed.

"Yes, sir! Coming, Diken?"

I undid my seat belt and started to stand up. Big mistake!

"Careful, lad!" more than one person warned; but it was too late, for I was half way to the ceiling already. Bryn was holding onto the rail which ran at normal head height the length of the cabin, and with his spare hand he grabbed one of my floating ankles and eased me back to the floor. The general laughter was kind. And I had learnt what weightlessness was all about! Holding firmly to the rail with both hands, I followed Bryn out of the cabin.

The engine room was a bit of a disappointment to me, for there was not an engine to be seen, only a fantastic array of dials, flashing lights, buttons, switches - and a big lever painted bright red.

"I think Diken might be interested in your views on the 'hop', chief," said Bryn, whose wink was, if anything, even less subtle than his captain's a few moments earlier!

"Oh, that! Welcome aboard, laddie. I heard all about you over the intercom. Space hopping? Forget it, for I don't quite believe in it myself. Well, I ask you! One moment you're here, and the next you're light years away. It doesn't make much sense, now, does it? Look, all I know is the skipper will say, 'Engage Draxy, now.' Then I'll just tug on this lever here, and we'll be somewhere completely different. I tell you, anyone who will believe that, will believe anything!" It was then that Macroida noticed my discomfort. "There are three of them in the corridor, lad," she said. "Better make sure you read the instructions, first."

You can take my word for it that going to the loo in zero gravity is not easy! Anyway, while I was coping as best as I could I had time to reflect that Macroida probably knew as much about the theory and practice of space displacement as did Drainin and Polikova: however, I was happy to accept the fiction of her skepticism. Perhaps the Ee-arth man who coined the phrase, 'Ignorance is bliss', might have been onto something!

****

The first 'hop', calculated to take us to within half a light year of our destination, turned out to rather less worrying than what preceeded it. We lost contact with Steefax.

Tullulah had been sending reports back to ground control every ninety eight minutes, which was the time taken by Ullyses to complete one orbit. Three times she had called, and three times she had been answered, twice by Drainin, and once by Polikova. At the end of the fourth and intended final orbit there had been no reply.

"Try the Moon, and see if they know anything," the Commander said.

"Aye, sir."

Moonbase responded immediately to Tullulah's question. No, they did not know anything, but they would try to find out. "Could you go round again?" they asked.

"We'd better," Darande said. "Sorry folks, there'll be a bit of a delay."

About an hour and a half later Moonbase reported that they too had been unable to to raise Steefax. "Very odd," the operator said. "It's never happened before - at least not on my shift. They must have a problem."

There was much speculation as to the cause of the breakdown in communications, but no one, as it seemed to me, offered the likeliest explanation of them all.

"Perhaps there was nobody listening."

Neither by word, nor by look, did anyone reproach me; but the agonised silence which descended upon the company taught me that it is not necessarily a good idea to give voice to what everyone else is merely thinking!

****

We had gone round again, and we were nearing the aspect of our orbit from which we could go into space displacemenet.

"Right, people," Darande said, "that's it. Let's go. Stand by, engine room."

"Aye, aye, sir," Macroida acknowledged.

"Mister Darek."

"Aye, sir."

"Plot in a course for sector 135 192."

"Aye. sir." The navigator tapped away at his console. "Course plotted, sir."

"Ready, engine room?"

"Aye, sir."

"Fire all engines."

"Aye, sir."

"This might be a bit uncomfortable, Diken," Brynn said. "Sit well back in your seat."

"Ahead full."

"Aye, sir."

The full powered burn was pretty powerful stuff, and I was grateful for Bryn's advice.

"Engage Draxy - now!"

"Aye, aye, sir!"

There was that sudden and momentary shuddering the length and breadth of the ship which the very first, accidental space hoppers had experienced. In something less than a second our relationshgip to space and time had altered by several light years.

A new sector was plotted in, and we went once more through the routine.

"Mr. Darek, where are we now?"

"At sector 394 503, sir."

"Well done. Well done, everyone."

I looked out. We were orbiting a planet. It wasn't ours. There was differnt geography, though the weather looked much the same. This should have been a thrilling moment. But the shadow of the radio silence, and its possible implications, hung heavily upon us all.