Terry pratchett — nation. part 17: today. author’s note

Today

IN A CORNER OF the office, a seismograph ticked away quietly to itself.

The old man stopped talking to watch a flying boat land on the lagoon. “Ah, that will be young Jason, who’s come to work on the Submillimeter Array.” He sighed. “I’m sure they’re doing wonderful things over there, but between ourselves I’ve never been happy with a telescope you can’t look into. Sorry, where was I?” he said.

The boy and the girl stared at him. “You said the ship sailed away?” said the boy.

“Oh, yes,” said the old man. “That was it. The ship sailed away. It’s what they do.”

“And?” said the boy.

“That was all of it. The ship sailed away.”

“And they didn’t get married or anything?” said the girl, looking truly shocked.

“Oh no,” said the old man. “Well, they didn’t get married. I’m not so sure about ‘anything.’ A kiss or two, maybe?”

“But that’s just no way to end a story,” said the boy. “He went fishing!”

“But it’s the kind of ending you get in real life,” said the old man, “and isn’t the story about being real? Though I’ve always thought he went fishing so that people wouldn’t see him cry. He must have felt very lonely. ‘If you will sacrifice,’ Mau said later, ‘then sacrifice your time on the altar of the common good. Eat the fish, or give it to someone who is hungry.’”

He looked at their downcast expressions, coughed gently, and said, “A ship did come back.”

“And the ghost girl was on it, wasn’t she?” said the girl.

“Oh yes,” said the old man. “About a year later.”

“Ah, I knew it!” said the girl triumphantly.

“And the telescope?” asked the boy.

“Certainly! A sixteen-inch Newtonian telescope was one of the first things they unloaded! That night everyone looked through it!” said the old man. “And there were all the things that had been on the list and six gentlemen from the Royal Society, just as promised.” The old man smiled broadly as he recalled. “Of course, we’ve had quite a few scientists since then. My father told me that Mr. Einstein sat in this very chair and played the violin. An interesting little fact is that my father accompanied him on the drum, and the effect was considered… unusual. I myself was privileged to accompany Sir Patrick Moore and Professor Richard Feynman when they were up here together. Xylophone, bongos, and war drum. Wonderful! Very musical people, scientists. And I was very proud to shake the hand of Professor Carl Sagan when he came here with people from the electric television. Do you remember that the ghost girl thought the glass beads on the ceiling of the cave were a star map, but she couldn’t work it out? The professor showed the world that it did indeed map the stars, but the stars as they were thirty-one thousand years ago, and that was confirmed by something called Fission Track Dating of the glass our little toy stars were made of. We’re learning new things all the time. I can’t recall how many astronauts came here. Interestingly, although several of them went to the moon, none of them met the lady who lives there.”

“Yes, but did the ghost girl ever come back again?” said the girl in a determined voice.

“Not exactly, but her son and granddaughter did,” said the old man.

“Then it’s still sad,” said the girl.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” said the old man. “I understand she married a very nice gentleman from Holland. A prince, I believe. And of course you know she became queen.