“You don’t look like pilots,” Alan declared, “so I’m going to guess that you aren’t here to bring my relief?” He voice rose hopefully at the end. “If you’re only dropping off Jeffrey and popped in to use the facilities I’m afraid we’re an older station and can’t accommodate your…uh, physiologies.”
At this the Haeltid rumbled for a few more seconds. The shorter one on the right looked thoughtfully at Alan. “Not…pilot. Yours…not.” The others turned swiftly at them and their gravelly speech rose and quickened, all three fighting to speak over the others. They turned back to face Alan.
“Well then,” he looked around. He didn’t know what was going on but he was still going to do the job he was placed on this station to do. “You must be visitors.” He brightened and his arms reached out to display the space around them.
“Welcome to Star Train. I’m Interpretive Sol Historical Park Ranger Alan Bryce. During your visit, I’ll be guiding you through this rich and significant step in our, er, humanity’s early steps toward the stars. Now if anyone has a question, feel free to stop me and I’ll be happy to answer you as best as I can. If there is anything I can’t help you with, our own Star Train Empathic Learning Apparatus,” he stopped, and winced.
“Do you have a question,” came a small voice from behind Alan. He’d forgotten the part in the tour where he shouldn’t mention Stela by name. She always seized upon it.
The Haeltid guests looked alarmed. The one in front said something quickly and another walked to where Stela waited. He bumped Alan roughly as he strode by. Alan noted the stiffness of his clothing. And, hesitantly, noticed how solid a figure the alien presented. The investigating Haeltid called something back to the others and then made his way to the entryway again. They seemed relaxed.
Alan decided to press forward. “No, Stela, we don’t have any questions,” he called politely.
“If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them,” she said soothingly.
“As I was saying,” he continued, “if there is anything I can’t help you with, Stela is our own hol-“
“Do you have a question,” Stela repeated at her mention.
“Our own holographic information center. As you can see, she’s very happy to-“
“If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them,” Stela said again.
“Yes,” Alan said crossly, “that.” This could be going better, he thought. At least with schoolchildren, this ineptitude might prove amusing. The Haeltid just stared.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you through the early life of this humble little station that has had such a huge impact on the destiny of our, uh, my species. And yours, I suppose, given all the ties our people have.” He was regaining his composure. He knew how to do this. Alan motioned for them to follow as he made his way down the single narrow room.
He motioned to his left. “Here you’ll see an old photograph and newspaper article christening the Silver Stag. The Silver Stag was the pet project of Earth billionaire Curtis Mayhew. His entire life the man had a fascination with trains and the bygone era they represented.” He turned to face his audience.
He found them exactly where they had been.
Nervously, he waved them forward again, and continued louder, “so when he made his fabulous wealth, Mr. Mayhew decided to build the most luxurious train the rails had ever seen. It boasted two levels, high class dining cars, gaming cars, and even a dancing car. Yes, the Silver Stag was so beautifully engineered she was steady and smooth enough to dance on.”
With some relief he noted that they strolled toward him. They stopped two feet away and peered with curiosity at the photograph, muttering.
“It would appear, however, that the world did not share Mr. Mayhew’s fascination. While not as successful as he imagined, the train did attract a small, interested segment of vacationers for a number of years. For two decades it carried families and couples across the countryside.
“And this is where the real story began. In all that time, Irena Fastille had been working. She and her team were pouring constant hours into a revolutionary new process. It was when they saw an article,” Alan pointed to the adjoining photograph, “marking the retirement of the Silver Stag that they began to dream.”
He led the strange team further along the thinning carpets. He had to admit it was the strangest presentation he’d done, but they were a fantastic audience. They were quiet, attentive, maybe a bit confused, but at least they seemed to understand him.
They stopped on the other side of the hologram pedestal. “Right on this side of Stela you’ll see-“
“Do you have a question,” the little blue woman asked as she appeared on the pedestal.
Alan groaned. He waited a few seconds expectantly. In the silence the three Haeltid began to move about. One went to inspect Stela and the others stood quietly before the old newspaper articles.
“You’ll see Ms. Fastille’s team worki-“
“If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them,” came the voice again.
“Ms. Fastille’s team working their design on one of the cars of the Silver Stag.”
“Oh, you have a question about Irena Fastille? What would you like to know about her,” Stela asked.
“Stela, off!” Alan barked, finally. She wouldn’t shut down unless he flipped the switch behind her again. So long as he didn’t keep saying her name she should stop interrupting, though. The Haeltid looked, if anything, amused at the exchange. Maybe they weren’t as different as he’d thought.
“Ms. Fastille quietly purchased the entire Silver Stag train. In a massive move, each car was brought individually by barge to her team’s laboratory in New Mexico, United States. There they began the project that would change us all.
“It was the three cabin cars that they focused on. Each was given a different fitting, a different experimental rigging. They were built to withstand a launch and subsequent orbit into space.” Alan’s voice fell on the last word, hushed to near a whisper. Whatever the visitors felt at this part, he was always in awe.
“The first of the three never made it through the atmosphere. The failure was so huge that they doubted either of the others would make it either. It seemed that the massive project was doomed to fail.
“Nearly a year passed before the second car was launched. It fared significantly better than its predecessor. In a sight many of them had secretly thought they wouldn’t see, it surged through the atmosphere and ultimately hung in the great black peace of space.