Of Time Dilation and the Border Ballad

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Hyperspace.

Outside - if there were an outside, when all there was, was space folding and unfolding, doing vaguely indecent things to itself - was a dazzling light display which would have hurt the eyes of an observer (if an observer were possible, which of course it wasn't, there being nothing 'out' there but space folding and unfolding, nothing moving, so to speak).

At the apex of a cone of this unspeakably dazzling light, the observer (who of course wasn't there, scroll up) would have seen a small, silver, six-ribbed spearhead - Bright Arrow, well-named, ploughing its way through space-time in a pattern of its own making.

Inside - and of course there was an inside, because how could a human being live in that outside? - was a remarkably ordinary scene, apart from the vidscreen where the impossible lightshow blazed, UV-filtered and polarised. In front of the vidscreen was a console, on a desk, of course, with a chair behind it, ergonomically correct for a man of about six feet. Beside the keyboard on the desk was the holographic representation of a beautiful young woman petting a border terrier.

The rest of the ship, rather familiar: a living area, a space with gym equipment, a kitchenette and bath. The only unusual object there was just now opening - a tilted dayglo-green sarcophagus - to reveal a handsome, sandy-haired man whose eyes, just now fluttering, turned out to be green (though not as green as the rising lid).

The man stretched, yawned a bit for effect, and stepped out of the cryopod, naked, muscular, a David out of time. As he headed for the shower, a bell sounded, followed by a blast of music: 'Scotland the Brave', played on a slightly wheezing piobreach. The man winced as he stepped into the shower.

'Blast Martin Connor, ' he thought, before a pleasant female voice announced, 'Good morning, Captain Gordon, we hope you slept well.' Gordon didn't bother answering, as he knew the voice belonged to his AI computer, showered for the sake of feeling the wetness on his skin (he couldn't really be dirty, even after seven years in cryonic suspension, but he felt dusty), and, towelling off, donned a blue jumpsuit with the Eurospace Corps logo on it before heading to the kitchenette to make breakfast. At least the wee piper had shut up, which was a mercy. He located a brand-new copper kettle, and set it on for tea, stuck some bread from the box in the toaster, and rummaged for a saucepan, thinking that - the wormhole jump being safely over (waking up was a pleasant surprise, he'd half-expected to die during that first-ever experiment), such ordinary activities as making breakfast had their charms, after all.

He made it safely through the preparations, and sat down to eat, before the next surprise came.

'Captain Gordon, you have not spoken to me for half an hour, ' the AI female said with a maddeningly calm and (he thought) smug air. 'If you do not reply within ten seconds, it will be assumed you are in difficulty, and Emergency Measures will be taken.' A series of bells started counting off the seconds

The porridge caught in his throat. He managed to get the spoonful down, wash it clear with tea, and choke out, with one second to spare, 'What the blazes? Can't you tell I'm breathing, you silly machine? Do you want me to talk to myself all the way home?' His outburst was rewarded by a laugh - a deep, rich guffaw, about an octave lower than the previous voice, in a tone redolent of the Bahamas, on impossibly faraway Earth.

'Heh, heh, got you, Anarchy, ' said the voice of Martin Connor, 'Thought you'd appreciate a bit of stirring up, when you'd been asleep so long. I've programmed the AI to sound like me, ha-ha, and I have given it the most precious gift of all...' a mock-sinister stage whisper, 'my sense of humour.'

Auchanachie Gordon groaned aloud, but was secretly pleased. He wasn't yet sure how long this part of his trip - the return through hyperspace from the one-way wormhole - was going to take. A friendly voice, and a friendly attitude on the part of his AI partner, would go a long way toward making the months (years?) pass more pleasantly. Gordon was a practical man, but not an unsociable one. He grinned.

'You program yourself to play chess?' The AI/Martin chuckled. 'Yes, sirree, I did that. I can subject you to humiliating defeat from one end of space-time to the other, buddy boy.'

Gordon replied drily, 'We'll see about that. If you didn't cheat and use SuperBlue to program with, I'll give you a run for your money.'

Martin laughed back. 'No cheating. Just my usual wizardry. Speaking of which...when you've finished your disgusting breakfast, step on over to the console and we'll find out the damage. This isn't a pleasure cruise, Captain Gordon, much as you're enjoying yourself....'

As Gordon washed up the few dishes (why not make use of the warp-matrix technology, they'd thought, plenty of air and water, plenty of everything, the interface that made hyperspace travel possible also regenerated the fabric of the ship itself, pity it didn't work when you weren't travelling faster than light, they'd end want forever), Martin kept up his jovial bantering.

'You know why they picked a Scotsman for this, don't you?' Gordon grinned, knowing how badly Martin had wanted to be here - and now he was, in a way. The AI continued remorselessly, 'You're cheap to feed. This tub is stocked with oatmeal, freeze-dried salmon, haggis, of all things. You are a nutritionist's nightmare, Anarchy Gordon.' Gordon chuckled as hung up the dish towel - Martin's needling was welcome, he was getting used to the place that would be his home for...how long?

Time to find out.

Crossing to the console, Gordon flipped a switch, and the view on the screen shifted from lights to numbers. With practised ease - he knew every system by heart, he'd helped build it - he keyboarded his way to the program he needed, the one with the answer he both hoped and dreaded to find. As he waited for the calculations to come up, his eye fell on the holograph, and he realised with a start that he'd been awake for nearly an hour (he glanced up at the chronometer) without thinking of Jeannie...

Jeannie would be waking up now, too, he thought, as he fondled the pedestal above which she bent, her rich brown hair half-obscuring her delicate features, stroking the head of the badly misnamed Lassie (male, and a terrier). Jeannie had put herself into suspension at the same time as her intended, had promised to wait, even if it took the threatened seven years for him to return, even if took longer...Oh, dear heart, his mind whispered, Let it not be that long, let the mathematicians be wrong...A whoop from Martin interrupted his reverie.

'Anarchy, look, look, you daft git, look at the screen! We've done it - you and I were right!' Gordon looked - and almost jumped out of his seat, so glad he was.

'Three and a half years, ' he said, wonderingly. Then he shouted, 'THREE AND A HALF YEARS! That's no time at all!' And then, to himself, in amazement and gratitude to whatever forces where holding him in his tenuous relation to reality, 'I can be home in three and a half years.'

Martin laughed his full-throated laugh. 'We were right, boyo. You were right. In forty-two months, Bright Arrow will materialise - not fall from the sky, not drop into the ocean, no, indeed - will materialise in its signature spot.' The AI laughed again. 'Right in your sweetheart's back garden.' Gordon laughed along with Martin.

'"Back garden" is hardly the right expression, ' he chided jocularly. 'That's the formal garden of a proper estate, you know.'

Martin chuckled. 'I know. And a fine place it will be for the monument. Didn't you say they moved the statue of Robert the Bruce, just to give us a safe place to park this thing?' Gordon started to protest - it was William Wallace - but gave in. 'Okay, laugh, but at least there won't be any danger of somebody happening to be standing on the spot when Bright Arrow appears. I'd hate to show up and kill an innocent bystander.'

Martin's voice assumed lecture mode. 'In order to prevent this, we have determined the exact spot where materialisation will take place.' Another evil chuckled. 'The most you could do would be to knock off a stray squirrel.'

Gordon laughed - and then stopped, suddenly struck by a suspicion. 'Three and a half years - for me. But what about...?"

Martin answered, 'For your lady love? The same, my boy, the same - our algorithm was right, it's one-to-one.' Gordon let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding, in relief.

Then Martin's voice took on a new tone, and Gordon could have sworn the AI program was rubbing its hands in glee. 'I, er, have a surprise for you, my boy, ' he said slyly. 'One you are really going to like. I, er, snuck a piece of hardware aboard that you didn't know about. Hit that blue button on your keyboard, the one that says, Panic, and I'll tell you a-a-a-ll about it.' Gordon did so, and as the program went through its diagnostic, heard the most amazing news of an amazing day.

Martin explained, 'What you are about to see is my own special contribution to the science of tomorrow, boyo - a state-of-the-stateless-art, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the future. You see, the technology that runs this bucket, taking it through the warp space-time of its own making, will be able to detect the event energy surrounding its materialisation...and translate it into visual imagery.'

He continued ironically, 'If you'll put the colander on your head, that is - for the interface.' Startled, Gordon found the offensive object - more headset than colander - and put it on his head, then settled back to watch. Martin cautioned, 'You can only see about five minutes on either side, but that should be enough to test the program. When Bright Arrow materialises, the alarm will go off, right? And Jeannie promised she'd look out her window, right? So you should be able to see her...the lights should be bright enough, even though it will be evening, early summer.' Gordon was all eyes, and no more ears for Martin, for the next five minutes, as the program unfolded the images...

And gasped. Instead of the quiet garden he was expecting, he saw a gala affair, people dressed to the nines, filing in, taking seats. Were they expecting his return? No, Earth didn't have the ETA, there was no possible communication between now and then, besides, they were facing away from the platform in the centre of the garden, so why...? Then he saw it, the rose arbour, the orchestra, the aisle set off with glowing luminaria for the evening ceremony, the cheerful clergyman, and waiting at the altar...

Robert Saltoun? Why was that whey-faced nerd dressed up like that? No matter that he owned half the shire, with his computer company and his North Sea oil revenues, what was he doing getting married in Jeannie's garden? The orchestra struck up the music, the bride was coming.

And then he saw her - his beloved, dressed in white, coming down the aisle between the guests on her father's arm. Gordon groaned. She went to sleep for me, for seven years. She couldn't wait? Maybe she thought, maybe they told her, maybe, maybe -

But then it happened: the lights flashed, the alarm sounded to herald the Arrow's approach - and disaster struck.

The guests all jumped up, looking around wildly, some seeing the lights over the landing platform and understanding, others guessing God-knew-what...

And Jeannie, Jeannie in her long, white wedding dress, turning, confusion in her face, turning, right into the luminaria, so that the candles caught the fine stuff of her gown, caught, flaring, Jeannie going up like a torch, screaming, Robert Saltoun, the fool, fussing, losing precious seconds, not knowing what to do, not reacting, while Gordon's Jeannie, screaming, caught between one set of events and another, went to her death in flame. Gordon screamed where he sat, almost tearing the headset off, trying to will Saltoun to do the right thing, roll her, quickly, on the grass, the dew-wet grass...the grass wet as his face, with the tears streaming down...

Afterwards, Gordon sat for long minutes, his head between his knees, shaking. Martin (wisely, for an AI) was silent until Gordon lifted his head and spoke.

'Five minutes. That's all we need. Five minutes, one way or the other.'

Martin's voice was gentle but firm. 'No way, brother. It can't be done.'

'How do you know? None of this has been done before. Not ever. Five minutes, that's all I need. And five minutes I will find.'

Martin sighed. 'You're the boss.'

Long into the 'day' they worked, and long into the 'night', as the ship Bright Arrow plunged on its self-made path toward the dimensional layer that was Earth, worked as long as Auchanachie Gordon could stand or sit, until Martin, concerned for his health, told him tomorrow was another day, and turned off the console, dimming the lights and telling him to rest, exhaustion would not help him.

Or Jeannie.

Reluctantly, Gordon agreed. 'We'll find the answer. We have time...three years, five months, 29 days...'

Before retiring for the night, Gordon got out his bagpipes - he'd insisted on them, to the real Martin's great glee, as a way of passing what was presumed to be long leisure hours aboard ship - and played one song.

The sad lament had been in his family for quite a while. Martin sang along, and there was no one there to wonder how an AI program could have such perfect pitch...

And the unseen, non-existent observer might have heard, had the walls of Bright Arrow been thin enough - but they were thick enough, and there was no outside, anyway - the words of the song:

'The day that Jeannie married was the day that Jeannie died, and the day that young Annachie came home on the tide...'

A spectrum against a black background.

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Infinite Improbability Drive

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