From a distance it looked like a tiny bicycle wheel. Its true size did not become apparent until you drew nigh, only then did you appreciate the engineering skill which had been employed in its construction.
Tiros Eddy thought at first that it was a traditional space station, it was when his shuttle craft came under the effects of its gravity that he realised it was something totally different. He knew full well that space stations did not have gravitational fields of their own, nor were they this large. He had seen stations anything up to a kilometre in diameter, but if his on-board computer was correct, this feat of engineering was slightly in excess of thirty kilometres.
Tiros ignored his computer readouts for a while as his little shuttle drew closer. He had set the controls on auto, to slow his craft on its approach run, while he sat before the forward viewing port - enamoured by the view. The wheel now appeared to be immersed in a bluish white haze. He thought it strange that he had not noticed it before. He guessed that the effect was caused by some sort of flimsy gaseous presence, which would become translucent again when his distance decreased. There was no way he could confirm his thoughts, his little space ship did not carry the equipment to make a full analysis from here.
An alarm sounded. Tiros wrenched his eyes from the viewing port and turned to the control console. A small brilliant amber light blinked on and off insistently, warning him of an auto pilot failure. Tiros, was puzzled. A failure with this type of equipment was virtually unknown, unless of course it was not a failure at all, perhaps the auto-control simply could not cope with the prevailing conditions. This thought sent a shiver down his spine. If the automatics could not cope with the situation, he might have great difficulty in controlling the ship himself.
The floor shuddered. The thrust modules were straining. Tiros flipped to override, his eyes scanning the instrument panel. What he saw did not please him at all; the shuttle speed had increased by twenty percent. At this rate of acceleration, he would impact with the spherical wheel hub at a catastrophic speed - if he ever reached the hub at all; the thought had crossed his mind that the 'flimsy gas', which engulfed the entire structure, could possibly be too dense for his fragile craft to enter at high speed. How he longed for his star cruiser.
Tiros handled the shuttles controls with skill, turning its thrusts to the correct angle to provide him with an adequate orbit around the wheel. The idea of going into orbit around an oversized space station made his flesh crawl. How can you orbit a space station, he asked himself?
The sun glistened through the starboard viewer, its harmful rays blocked by filters, which had automatically swung into place at the onset of the photon storm. The port viewer showed thousands of stars - glimmering gems in the darkness. In the forward viewer the wheel grew ever larger; its light reflecting spokes betraying its slow and serene turning motion. It seemed that it would take half an earthly day to complete its cycle, which to Tiros made no sense at all. The speed was inconsistent with that which was necessary to produce an artificial gravity on the rim; but then again he had already entered a powerful gravitational field, which seemed to be emanating mysteriously from the wheel.
Tiros again sat before the forward viewer, his ship back on automatic. "What in the universe could it be?" he mumbled. He recalled that once, many years ago, his race had been visited by a ruthless alien intelligence. Maybe this was one of their creations. Would these particular aliens remember the race they once tried to overcome, all those years ago. He was loath to pick up his phonic mike to try and forge a communications link, but he knew if there were any aliens upon the structure, they would make their presence known. He presumed that they were aware of his approach, and if by some slight chance they were not it would be better to investigate before revealing his position. It was very possible that the 'wheel builders' were hostile, whoever they were.
The structure loomed large. Its shape now seemed oval as the tiny shuttle reared towards its rim. According to the on-board computer the effect was not totally due to the shuttles course. The structure was actually tumbling through space, rim over rim, far slower than its normal wheel rotation.
Tiros Eddy's eyes goggled at the blue haze which now seemed to fill the entire viewer. Below the craft, towards the wheel hub, the colouring was more intense, becoming lighter near the rim then darkening to black above him at the very edge of his vision.
His ship quivered; he realised he must have entered the outer layer of the gaseous zone. This did not perturb him unduly, he reckoned the gas was not dense enough at his present distance to cause problems - besides he was about to flip over the rim edge, his curiosity would not allow him to leave the viewer.
Tiros waited in anticipation for the final seconds to creep by, when his questions would be answered. He saw the glittering rim change to green as his ship sailed topside of the structure. There were large areas of watery blue amidst the green, and most astounding of all were the patterns - patterns, which looked undoubtedly, like small towns, like the towns looked back home from the air. Could he dare to believe he was observing a fully self-sufficient world, with its own atmosphere and even its own gravity?
Tiros had a whirling head when the viewer finally turned black and the stars again sparkled ahead. He returned to the console to check his readouts, and what he saw seemed to confirm his thoughts. They told him the gravity to which he was subject, was just over a half 'G'. The gas concentration on the outer side of the rim was dense enough to support life, if, of course it was the correct mixture of life giving oxygen and nitrogen, without any of the nasties. A man - or more accurately an alien made world, he thought; thirty kilometres in diameter and six kilometres across the rim, turning slowly edge-wise to the sun.
What the hell holds it together was the question in his mind. The only thing Tiros could imagine at this point in time was a massive 'accelerator'. Long ago, when the many aspects of the 'Theory of Infinities' were first debated, the accepted laws, which governed the universe, were again to a large degree turned on their head. The answer to life the universe and everything had changed from '42' to 'infinity-1', an answer from which you can deduct the question. In fact the universe itself had become the multiverse with the discovery of object U2, the birth of a massive, thirty billion year old universe, with implications such as why our particular universe expands and how it cycles without collapsing. However it was the realisation of the dual direction of reality which led to the development of the 'Bin Karmoon accelerator', so named because of the relationship between acceleration and gravity. The anti-gravity decelerator in theory permitted inertialess drives; no gravity, no mass. In the early days of testing, many test pilots had become two dimensional, at one with their seats. Massive accelerations had to be balanced and if you got it wrong? Eventually the incidents ceased and a new star-drive was born. Applying reverse technology to an artificial world was something different again. He was unsure.
His autopilot had set him on an elliptical orbit, adjusting the crafts speed to suit. It would not be long before he was heading back toward the opposing rim.
Tiros mused for a short while. He had to do something. He was in a strange stellar system, in a craft that was not capable of taking him anywhere. How he longed for the luxury of his cruiser. He had no idea what had happened to it, all he could remember was doing his safety schedules - well, actually he was reading an ancient novel named 'Axe: A Tale of Carthelion'. He had read a couple of hundred intriguing pages and was just reaching the finale. He was lost in a world of his own, until his shuttles warning lights began to flash. His last memory was of somersaulting down the craft as it automatically ejected, but that was all. The rest was a blank until he awoke with his throbbing head and aching limbs.
Tiros fidgeted with the phonic mike. Should he try to make contact with the wheel? It occurred to him that whoever lived below could have been responsible for his present predicament. Something must have gone tragically wrong with his star cruiser for the shuttle to eject. The cruisers computers only took such action if destruction was imminent, when it did not really matter if there was anyone on board the shuttles or not. It was a last death-defying act by the 'comps', to save all who could be saved, and it seemed they had saved few - perhaps only one, Tiros himself. It was unlikely that anyone would have had time to board the emergency craft, which meant the entire crew of the starship had perished seconds after his shuttles ungamely exit. Tiros reflected sadly as the ghosts of his friends materialised before his inner eye. He hoped only that his cruisers 'comps', had put out a distress signal, but even if they had, it would be weeks before help could arrive and that left him with the age-old question, "What do I do now?"
The orbit of the shuttle altered steplessly, until it circled, following the rim around, from daylight to shadow and back to daylight. The crafts speed steadily lessened and its hull vibrated as its height decreased. Tiros watched the landscape change from cultivated areas to wooded land, from woods to lake. The distant town patterns had now changed to towering buildings of unknown design. There was no longer doubt in his mind to whether the race that built this world still lived here, the signs were too obvious. There was, however, still much doubt, as to the way the 'tumblewheel' provided its own gravity, or why it had a tumbling motion at all. He would have loved to see a speeded up movie of the wheel spinning and toppling through space around its life giving sun. Many ideas on its source of gravity now entered his head, some were weird and some wonderful, but none seemed feasible. He even considered an artificially made 'black hole' contained in the wheel hub, straining to pull in the unyielding metal which surrounded it, though a super dense neutron lattice seemed more plausible. He was mystified - yet the 'tumblewheel' was an undeniable fact of life. He settled for his original idea of an `accelerator`.
Tiros sat at the controls, the idea of using the phonic mike discarded. He would land and play by ear. He wished he knew the constitution of the atmosphere. It had to be similar to the air back home for the vegetation to thrive, though much of the foliage he didn't recognise. From his present altitude of a thousand metres there were many marked differences in the plant life, to what he had known before. He could make out woods of metallic green, with a smattering of scarlet; fields that had appeared totally green, now contained swirls of yellow and crimson in definite patterns; he had never seen anything like it on his own world. He crossed his fingers. "I hope I can breathe down there," he uttered, again wishing the shuttle had been fitted with analysis equipment. Such equipment, he knew, was normally excess baggage; the shuttle was no more than an escape capsule. It did not really have the capability to land on a full sized planet, nor could it sustain life for long periods. It is just as well, thought Tiros, the makers did not even bother to fit a 'loo', of any description - mores the discomfort.
"Let's hit the ground," said Tiros to his uncomprehending computer. The shuttle rolled around the rim, daylight turned to twilight, then quickly to near darkness. The craft crashed down heavily but safely. The computer was given its final program for what had to be done, and the small circular hatch hissed open. Tiros sealed his lungs as he gazed outside into the stillness, before finally drawing a hesitant breath. He put his mini torch and SD cancel device in his pockets before wriggling out.
Standing beside the shuttle, he drew in air uneasily. It was moist and filled with many strange scents. He heard the scuttle of tiny feet and saw a flash of luminous red eyes. His heart jumped, then settled down again. Only one of the locals, he thought. He glanced sunward; the last glimmer of light was vanishing beyond the horizon, no more than a stones throw away. The light seemed far brighter towards the rim edges. His view of the circular horizon didn't seem particularly unusual; it looked very much like the brow of a hill - a hill whose brow you could never reach. He wondered if he happened to stray edgeward towards the rim, if there was anything to prevent him falling off the world. Now that would be a sight for sore eyes, he thought - no, not falling, but looking over the edge of the world. He smiled nervously as he imagined the scenario.
Tiros turned his eyes starward. There was little he could see of his surroundings; even the crackly stalks on which he stood were poorly lit in the deep twilight. It unnerved him a little that he may not be able to see any predator - man or beast, which may approach. He consoled himself by the fact that the darkening sky hid his own craft. He appreciated that even in daylight; the world's curvature would restrict his sight severely. All in all he felt about as secure as a turkey in its run – two weeks before Christmas.
Without more to do, and there was little that he could do, Tiros began to make his way starward, leaning backwards to level the illusionary hill. He managed one step only before he gently 'crashed' to the ground. He grunted his discomfort and rubbed the back of his head. On regaining his feet he made a second attempt, leaning forwards, which perhaps made more sense. This landed him on his face. By now he was feeling rather dizzy and silly. The dizziness worried him; there seemed more to it than exertion or the fact that gravity was making his feet relatively heavy and his head light.
His third attempt was more successful, he tottered forward like a tightrope walker, only he was walking sidewards, but even then he only managed a short distance before his head began to swim. "Damn", he cursed. "I am not going to get anywhere like this." He began to breathe deeply. The more he inhaled the better he seemed to feel. Could he make it back to the shuttle; the thought was pointless; the crafts oxygen supply was almost exhausted when he landed, it would only mean a short extension to his life if he did make it ........ Unless he could contact the local inhabitants with his ships communication equipment. He was still very dubious about that course of action, but it now seemed his only alternative to perishing where he stood.
Brilliant lights burned before him. Something was approaching. Tiros watched intently trying to hang on to his senses. The lights halted - there were three of them, like vehicle headlights. The sound of crackling stalks broke the silence of the night. Two silhouettes appeared in the light beams. They were tall and spindly, and they were walking towards him with a menacing elegance, an elegance Tiros had read about in his history books. It was a deadly elegance.
The figures stopped before Tiros, who was now crouched down, in a bid to remain conscious.
"Bim Blobble obble floberdob," said the first of the aliens.
"Its the bloody flowerpot men", mumbled Tiros. "I must be hallucinating."
"My friend said that a human in the hand is worth two in the bush."
"Yes," said the first, now speaking in English, "The Eagle has landed but who is in it?"
"None other than Dan Dare." said the other. The being laughed hideously.
"The cat has nine lives," said the first.
"We have taken the bull by the horns," said the other.
Tiros now understood their words perfectly; he was obviously meant to; he was the target of their scorn. They thought of him as he would think of an ape, only they added malice.
"Do you think it can say anymore?" said the first.
"I doubt it," said the other. "It is dying, it does not appreciate our atmosphere." They both laughed.
"It did do well to get out of its primitive space ship though. I thought we would have destroyed all the vermin, perhaps it is a super hero, like Flash Gordon," said the first.
"Like Samantha Carter," said the other.
"Like Superman," said the first.
"Like Samantha Carter," said the other.
"Like Luke Babywalker or James T," said the first, raising a wrinkly, inquisitive eyelid to the other.
"Buffy……….Yes, indeed it did do well to escape. I bet it did not realise that we were watching its escape. I bet it thought it had landed here undetected, its race is conceited like that."
Transmissions must really travel slowly, thought Tiros. He grappled with his mini-torch; he would get a look at the beings who were scorning and laughing at him, if it was the last thing he did. With much fumbling he freed the torch from his hip pocket, and switched on, pointing it at his oppressor's faces, revealing bulging eyes and wiry grins.
The beings became startled. "It knows tricks," said the first, moving to the opposite side of Tiros.
"It will not know them much longer," rasped the other. "Look at us," continued the being, "look upon our faces, Earth man. It will be the last sight you ever see. Your life is ended." The being spat the final words.
"Trapped like a rat," said the first.
"He has dug his own grave," said the other.
Tiros with his sight now blurred and his body propped from the ground by one elbow only, forced his lips to move. "Do not gloat over-much, alien. You were fortunate my hand holds only a torch." Tiros felt his hand being crushed by some invisible force. He grimaced, but was too far-gone to feel the full intensity of the pain. "Beware for your own lives, of which your audacity may yet cheat you," he continued in a weak yet defiant voice. His last words he could only mumble. "Beware of little weed." Tiros slumped to the ground and remained unmoving. The strange thing was that he had a smile on his face.
The beings looked at Tiros, then they looked at one another. Simultaneously they turned their frightened eyes to the shuttle. Their intuition told them there was something not quite right, something which could be very dangerous. Sadly they knew nothing of the Star-flyers Code, nor for that matter, page one hundred and six, paragraph two of the 'Star-flyers Manual', which states clearly: -
NO EQUIPMENT OF STAR COMMAND SHALL FALL INTO ALIEN HANDS.
ALL EQUIPMENT MUST BE DESTROYED - NOT ABANDONED.
The other looked at his companion. "Any more earthly sayings or does our enemy have the last word."
"Just a question," said the first.
"What is that?"
"Which super heroes are the flowerpot men?"
The aliens were only stood six paces from the shuttle when its computer carried out its final command and self-destructed. After all, the self-destruct cancel device was still in Tiros' pocket and he was in no fit state to cancel the order. Neothon devised explosives made a very big bang.