Author Topic: Lightspeed

« on: April 01, 2023 »
This tale of boy meets aliens originally appeared 20 years ago in a magazine which wouldn't be caught dead printing something like this today.

Salisbury Plain was looking particularly lovely the night the aliens abducted me and I subsequently saved the earth from annihilation.

Cruising along the A344 under a sky dancing with stars I suddenly found myself spinning quite madly, like Lance on amphetamines (perish the thought). None of my gears were working. Then my front light cut out. I glided to a stop along the shoulder.

It was quite late and I had the road to myself, just me and the moons - one at my back, the other directly over the ancient monument in the near distance. I was thinking that it was handy that there were two moons out this evening, what with my headlight on the blink, when a chill crept slowly down my spine, spun a spiderweb in my vertebra and nestled there, radiating cold fear. Something clearly wasn't right. I examined the chain, hoping that the almost primal alarm I felt was somehow bike-related, when the moon over Stonehenge abruptly divided. That just seemed silly. There aren't three of them. Come to think of it...

I studied the bright orb over my shoulder, comforting and familiar in all its pockmarked glory, and fancied I could even make out the sea of tranquillity. It was something to focus on while the sensible part of my brain tumbled the various possibilities, from weather balloons to top secret military aircraft flying in perfect formation to the obvious, that this was just a dream, when the two fake moons got a hundred times brighter and closer, flinging my giant shadow across the now eerily well-lit landscape. I nervously scratched my ear and frightened some sheep half a mile away.

Two gigantic spinning wheels were descending from on high, each with a thousand spokes glinting a thousand different colours which from a distance had fused into a brilliant bright white. They were connected by a frame a fashionable shade of black hole with horsehead nebula decals. The celestial bicycle landed and settled itself against one of the megalithic sandstone trilithons.

A door in the saddle opened and an alien hopped nimbly out onto a well-developed pair of purple legs. From the waist up he was a textbook example of function over form - there were interesting protuberances everywhere, and I stopped counting after five mouths. There was also an umbrella on his head, or else he was happy to see me. He swiftly bounded over on those incredibly muscled legs before I even had time to catch a fright.

Naturally, I was speechless. What do you say to a close encounter of the first kind? "Shall I take you to my leader?" "How did you find us - was it the reruns?" I didn't want to cause a diplomatic incident. The alien just stood silently contemplating me and my bike. A few of his eyes bored through my skull while the majority of them seemed riveted by my bike, but the remainder glanced impatiently at what appeared to be a watch on what appeared to be a wrist and that seemed to motivate him.

Dispensing with pleasantries grand or trifling, he simply said "Follow me." I understood instantly not because he had taught himself how to speak perfect English on the long trip over from Alpha Centauri, or given me a babelfish à la the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but thanks to subtitles, discreetly projected just below one of the mouths on his chest. As I'd always used these when watching foreign films or Fred Dibnah, they didn't bother me.

When an extraterrestrial says "Follow me" your options are limited, so I pushed my bike over to Stonehenge. He gallantly helped me lift it over the fence and I accepted a boost up into the saddle, which utilized advanced technology capable of folding dimensions to make a small room appear deceptively spacious, in estate agent parlance.

He wasn't alone. He introduced me to his "peleton" (at least that was the translation), each of whom sported an exquisitely unpronounceable name followed by an easily digestible nickname, like "Fred", and "Barry". My increasing sangfroid at this incredible situation was probably a result of extensive conditioning: thousands of hours of sci-fi in books, movies and TV had finally come in handy for something other than pub quiz night. Also, if ET rode on two wheels he couldn't be all bad, could he?

"You haven't taken very good care of our bike rack," said Fred in a subtitle that practically leapt off his chest and slapped me in the face.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," I answered even as it dawned on me. Surely they were joking.

"We only just put it up, and now look at it," said Bobyxxl8uyzrrrzyl, or Bob, the alien who had brought me to the celestial bike.

"But Stonehenge is 5,000 years old!" I yelped, thrown for a loop.

"5,000 years for you, last Tuesday for us," said Bob, shaking his heads sadly.

There wasn't much I could say to that, so I kept my trap shut. "How can it breathe?" muttered Fred to himself.

Evidently not one for gruesome small talk, Bob got to the point of their visit.

"So. Are you fond of Earth, then?"

I didn't like the sound of this.

"The Lonely Planets Guide says it's lovely in the spring," chirped Barry. Bob shot him a look. "I was only trying to cheer him up," said Barry, his gills fluttering defensively.

Why would I need cheering up? "Have you got something you want to tell me, Bobyxxl8uyzrrrzyl?" I asked, unconsciously adopting the galaxy-wide convention of using his full name to show displeasure. Bob shuffled from foot to foot to foot and his two heads conferred privately. Barry whistled nervously, which sent a passing flock of birds plummeting. Fred glared at me, though he was only using three eyes so he couldn't have been that mad.

Bob's tete-a-tete concluded, his heads nodding in agreement with each other. "Every epoch the advanced civilizations have an intergalactic bike race," he finally said after clearing a spare throat. "The winners are showered with every luxury and live like kings. The losers are utterly annihilated, their atoms scattered to the four solar winds and the entire history of their civilization expunged from all databases."

"Yes, we've eased up a bit on the losers," said Fred. "These days we don't destroy their actual planet if it looks like it would make a good council tip. And another bike rack never hurt anybody." He gestured at the world heritage site.

"As you can imagine," continued Bob, "this narrows the field somewhat over time. We're always looking for new blood."

"So we seed the galaxy," interjected Barry, anxious not to be exiled from the conversation. "Then we come back to reap the rewards of healthy competition. Your Darwin put it best: survival of the fittest. He was a shiny penny, that one."

I was feeling dizzy. "What seeds?"

"Didn't you get the wheel we dropped off?" said Bob.

"Do you mean to tell me mankind didn't invent the wheel? Our most basic invention was alien technology?" I sputtered, mortified.

"Oh, you would've got around to it sooner or later," soothed Barry.

"Probably later," said Fred.

"Yes, well the point is you finally managed to invent the bicycle," said Bob. "Which shows that humans aren't all bad. It's unfortunate you haven't really grabbed the ball and run with it, but a bike's a bike. One wheel good, two wheels better. The basic skill set is there. You're in."

I was taken aback but not completely surprised. To be honest I was almost expecting it; the broad plot if not these particular details. "Let me get this straight. Earthlings are to compete in this 'Tour de universe' and if we come in last you"ll blow up things like they did in Independence Day? And all the people too?" I didn't have an active social calendar, but I was fond of people on principle.

"That's it in a kfdikut77shell," said Bob. "We saw that videotape too. Highly amusing."

"You're an advanced civilization and you still watch videotapes?" I asked, perhaps tangentially to the thrust of our conversation but stalling for time to think of a way to get my planet out of this jam.

"You have DVD? We don't have DVD." Bob's mood darkened. "Anyway, it's settled. Good luck."

Obviously no diplomat, I lacked the necessary talent as a cycling saviour as well. "Surely you"ll want our finest athlete. I'll give you directions."

Bob had already walked away. Fred looked at me, pity in his vermilion eyes. "You'll do."

Everyone put their helmets on and we lifted off from the dark Salisbury Plain. I hoped that wasn't the last I'd see of Earth. At first I was left to my own devices as we made our way to the first stage, but the ever compassionate Barry dropped in unannounced for a pep talk.

"Race starts tomorrow. You'll be fine. I've watched that Tour de France thingie."

"You've got the wrong guy!" I almost wailed. "I've never even done the London to Brighton. it's not fair to put all this on my head."

Barry fidgeted miserably. "Bob was adamant. He said "What does it matter? They all look the same to me anyway." I'm really sorry." He patted me on the shoulder, coating it with an unpleasant wet slime which burned off a patch of my cycling jersey. Despite this it was impossible not to like him.

"We're not so different," he said. "We've even had similar problems with our own Tour. The drugs scandals just won't go away. Last time the methane-breathing entities of Yenrod 6 were caught sniffing nitrogen, and the Belgians had alligators in their bloodstream despite the *severe* warning we gave them."

Evidently I'd read his subtitles wrong, but I was too forlorn to care.

"It's a great course," Barry continued. "We ride the superstring from Betelgeuse to Oxymoron. Then we circle the Greater Megellanic Cloud at the red shift limit, loop Orion's Belt, and finish at a random event horizon in the Alpha Quadrant. it's terrific fun. The public is enthusiastic, though most only get radiotelescope reports and the reception is dreadful. We always get a real warm welcome at the Seven Sisters."

There wasn't much I could say to that. I looked out at the cold vacuum of space and shivered. Thought about the race to come. And shivered some more.

I have butterflies in my stomach.

Real ones.
That's all cook was able to catch before liftoff from Wiltshire. Fred8urkle99x7lp2 took delight in pulling their wings from their bodies and giving me significant looks. Although I'd brought my bike along - a Super Galaxy whose longest previous journey has been to Hull - it isn't going to be much use in the hostile environment of space. Fred chucked it out the airlock just before we left the solar system, and it's now orbiting Pluto. Barry kindly loaned me a Celestial Bicycle. "I hope it suits," he said before scuttling away under the stern eyes of captain Bob and the rest of the peloton. Oddly enough it utilizes the same Reynolds 531 tubing as my Dawes. Steel is apparently real, even in Alpha Centauri. But there the similarity ends.

The gearing is literally out of this world: with a suitable cadence you can cruise along just below lightspeed. Then there's the composite helium wheelset, alloy forks mined from Halley's Comet, and Chris King Headset ("He's one of us, you know" Barry informed me on the trip out). it's a dream machine and it's practically weightless, relatively speaking.

The Tour isn't the grueling weeks-long event that it is back home. it's a one solar day special, pedal-till-you-drop affair. Bicycles are much more popular in the universe than is commonly supposed by gravity-bound transportation experts; almost all intelligent extraterrestrials are besotted by them and ride often for pleasure. Even the Martians - oh yes, they exist - are velo addicts, commuting across the busy asteroid belt even while bitching about the traffic. The purpose of the race is to channel the aggression of the more competitive species, as well as cull the slowpokes.

Stardate: Monday. Though how anybody can tell is beyond me. I awake early, full of dread and yet strangely unhopeful. I've spent the night praying; not that I'm religious, but you never know who's out there, as I've learned of late. Barry the friendly alien popped in early this morning to wish me luck and drop off my modified hydration/respiration pack. "I hope we got the mixture right," he said. "Fred kept venting oxygen and winking at me dreadfully, but I kept my eyes on the dials. I've got my xytrpls crossed for you." He even gave me a hug, which was not at all pleasant on a variety of levels but which touched me nonetheless.

Bob grudgingly ferries me out to Betelgeuse, the start point. Competitors are ranged across the visible spectrum and a few infrared ones: Freeloaders from the Oort Cloud; Prophylaxians from Syphilis 9: Balloonians from Janullrich; and many others, including of course my abductors. Barry waves, but he's so far away I won't see it for another 57 years if I stick around here. There's a general fluttering of tentacles and other flexible grasping stalks when the reigning champ - the lanky Luxan from Texarod - takes his position, shaking off his handlers but still shadowed by deep space pilot fish instructed to devour him should he slacken his pace. Now it begins. Given the stakes, everybody has blood in their eye except for the Octagonal Triumvirate, who prefer White Lightning. I keep my head down and breath deeply to steady my nerves.

There's a big Bang! as a minor star cluster (last year's losers, it says in the program notes) suddenly goes supernova, and we're off. It immediately becomes apparent that my loaner is a dud: No matter how fast I spin I'm left sucking the vapor trails, or whatever, of the Slugabugs from planet Muccus - themselves far from the bookie's favourites. Then I look down and notice that someone has attached a heavy metal meteorite to my bottom bracket. Fred, no doubt. I kick it off and immediately pick up speed. Fired by righteous adrenaline not to mention raw fear, I inch my way forward through the group, now all massed together more to keep tabs on another than for any conceivable slipstreaming effect. We race at breakneck speed across the vastness of empty space, which sadly for the contingent from SUV9 (9 is a popular number with ETs) isn't empty enough as they slam into a previously uncharted and rather downmarket moon. That's one way to disqualify yourself, I think grimly, as we swing around the gas giant Oxymoron and speed towards the Greater Megellanic Cloud.

One would think the Oort Freeloaders would have the advantage here. One would be wrong. They accidently slip into a wormhole and are deposited 50,000 years into the future inside somebody's blender, making a fine daiquiri. The rest of us slog through the cloud, uphill all the way, sweating, swearing, occasionally collapsing with radiation poisoning. Thanks to a freak ion storm the Luxan evaporates from reigning champ to acid rain, taking the fish with him before they could even get a nibble. A very long time later the survivors - that includes me, miraculously - emerge, sights set on Orion's Belt, the penultimate stage.

I really had no idea this was going to be such a brutal course. By my reckoning half the competitors have fallen by the wayside, and the rest are looking decidedly bedraggled. Maybe humankind is tougher than we think. I flare with pride, and move into position just behind the leaders: Bob, Fred, and Barry. Well, well, well.

They're a tight-knit squad, despite Barry's liberal tenancies. They're going to be hard to beat. Even harder since I know that Fred is a cheat and will take any unfair advantage. I'm half-expecting a pump in the spokes; hopefully he hasn't seen Breaking Away. We're down to the final 9 million kilometres. We've left Orion and everyone else behind. I've always been a little unclear of the rules: I'm in second place, so will Earth really become a dumping ground for alien rubbish if I don't break the tape at the finish line? The only way to be sure is to be first. I owe humankind no less. I owe Hull no less.

Alpha Quadrant, home stretch, is passing in a blur. I'm giving it every atom of my being, but it's no use. Fred & co. are pulling ahead beyond all hope. Suddenly it's over: they've won. White noise fills my head. I stifle a sob. .000785 seconds later the gruppo accidently converges with a random singularity and I'm winner by elimination. It's a hollow victory as I watch Barry's image stretch across the event horizon of the black hole. He takes a very long time waving goodbye.