The other two sat by the open log fire, smoking cigars and talking earnestly to each other: Arthur Dodson, the ancient and venerable professor of Theology, and Otto Ziegler, a German professor who was visiting Cambridge for a couple of semesters during a sabbatical from his own university. I had never quite made out what Ziegler’s specialism was—some kind of abstract mathematics or higher physics. He was small and round, with a bald head and goatee beard—pretty much what you imagine when you hear the term ‘mad scientist’.
“Oh do hurry up, Justin!” Don Hunter ran a hand through his long, prematurely grey hair. “If you don’t make a move soon we shall be here all night.” He looked impatiently at his watch—the third or fourth time he had done so that evening. He said a few other things, muttering under his breath, that I didn’t catch. I got the general impression he wanted to get away and do something he considered Very Important.
It was true that I was having difficulty concentrating on the game. Part of the reason was the sheer effort (not made any easier by the imbibing of several festive brandies) of focusing my mind on a board with 1600 squares and hundreds of pieces. By this stage, if I remember correctly, I was down to less than 200 men while Don still had most of his original 360.
I shrugged and moved a piece at random. Don grunted in disgust and proceeded to take another fifty or so of my men.
There was another reason for my lack of interest in the game. I was listening with more than half my mind to the animated conversation over by the fireplace. They were talking, of all the hackneyed subjects, about the Star of Bethlehem.
“It’s all nonsense, of course,” old Dodson was saying. “The Star in the East is purely symbolic. A theological necessity, to demonstrate fulfilment of God’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers. To a good Christian, that is all that is needed. But materialists like yourself—and countless others going back to Johannes Kepler in the sixteenth century—refuse to be satisfied with the beauty of religious symbolism. You insist on looking for comets and supernovas and planetary conjunctions. But these theories are all discredited—totally discredited.”
“Nein—nicht so.” Ziegler puffed excitedly on his cigar. “Not my comet—nobody discredits him.”
Dodson looked amused. “And what’s so special about YOUR comet, Herr Professor?”
“Ah, my comet—he travels backwards in time. Backwards! It is sehr unheimlich—it is very strange—but it is what the equations tell me. And equations, they never lie.”
“A comet travelling backwards in time? Where from? And why?” Dodson seemed mildly intrigued in spite of himself.
“These things the equations tell me. My comet, he is one of a pair—a time-symmetric pair created by a Fanthorpe singularity in the year 988 AD. One comet travels backwards in time, the other forwards. The two orbits are like mirror images, with aphelion in the Kuiper Belt and perihelion here, on Earth. For the backward travelling comet, perihelion was 4 BC...”
“4 BC?” Dodson looked up. “The year that Herod the Great died—generally accepted as the year of the Nativity. Well, that fits your theory, I suppose. What about the forward-travelling comet?”
“From 4 BC to 988 AD it is 992 years,” Ziegler said slowly. It was clear that he was building to something in the nature of a climax. “And from 988 AD another 992 years is... 1980! Christmas Day, 1980! Today!” He beamed triumphantly.
Whatever response Dodson was about to make was cut off by a cry from Don Hunter. I had made another disastrous move and he had promptly taken all my remaining pieces.
“Finished at last!” Don looked at his watch and jumped to his feet. “Sorry, gents—I’ve got to go now. Must keep my appointment with that new star in the East, you know.”
We all gaped at him.
“New star in the East?” Dodson and Ziegler spoke almost simultaneously.
“Yes—I’ll have to leave young Justin here to tell you about it. I’ve been chattering away to him all evening. First saw it through the telescope a couple of days ago—much brighter yesterday—should be visible to the naked eye by now. Rises just before midnight. I’ll have to rush off to the Observatory if I’m going to catch it.”
I have to admit this was news to me as much as to the others. Now I came to think of it, Don had been mumbling about something or other, but I hadn’t been paying much attention.
“We know all about your new star,” Dodson said. “Or rather, the Herr Professor here knows all about it. It’s a backwards travelling comet, previously known as the star of Bethlehem. If you can believe a word he says, that is.”
“Nein, nein—this is the forward-travelling one,” Ziegler said. “But the rest—ja, it is essentially correct.” He turned to address the astronomer. “You have a physics background—you know the theoretical possibility of a Fanthorpe singularity. I say it is more than a theory—it is a reality that occurred in 988 AD. Your so-called new star is nothing but the inevitable mathematical consequence of this.”
Don shook his head uncertainly. “A Fanthorpe singularity? But that’s impossible—such a thing could only be produced artificially, using an immensely powerful nuclear reactor. It’s not possible today, and it certainly wasn’t possible in 988 AD.”
A sudden thought flashed into my head. “Maybe it was,” I said.
Now it was my turn to be gaped at.
“988 AD,” I stated flatly, “was the year that Zhang Tsu disappeared.”
There was a long pause in which they continued to gape at me.
“Let me explain,” I went on. “Zhang Tsu was the original rocket scientist. The Chinese had just invented what they called ‘fire arrows’—simple rockets they used in warfare. But Zhang Tsu tried a series of experiments in which he replaced the black powder in the rocket with red mercury. Many scholars believe this resulted in a primitive form of nuclear propulsion. The first few experiments seem to have been successful, but then there was a huge explosion and Zhang Tsu was never seen again.”
This time the pause was so short as to be imperceptible.
“For what do we wait?” Ziegler demanded. “To the observatory, schnell!”
Don Hunter needed no further encouragement—he had been itching to leave for several minutes. And I was all for it—it sounded like a great adventure. Only Dodson seemed reluctant to forego his place by the fire, but I managed to persuade him by pandering to his ego: “After all, we’re just an astronomer, a mathematician and a historian. We have our limitations. There are some situations that only a theologian can rise to.”
So the four of us were in it together. We rushed downstairs and piled into Don’s battered old Austin Mini. We decided he should drive because... I was about to say “because he was the least drunk”, but what I mean, of course, is “because he was completely sober”. He’d barely had a drop of liquor all evening. Which was a good thing, because if none of us had been fit to drive we would have missed the adventure of a lifetime.
* * * *
“It’s altered significantly in the last twenty-four hours,” Don said, frowning as he adjusted the giant reflecting telescope. “There’s been a significant course change—there’s no doubt now that it’s headed for Earth. Let’s see if George can compute an impact point for us.”
‘George’ turned out to be the observatory’s state-of-the-art VAX-11/780 mainframe. It chugged and clicked as Don fed it the data.
“Impact point, eh?” Arthur Dodson chuckled to himself. “My money’s on Bethlehem, if history is anything to go by.” It was clear that he thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.
“Bethlehem? Nein—I think not.” Otto Ziegler, in contrast to Dodson, was taking the matter very seriously indeed. He bent over a globe and studied it carefully. “Theory predicts impact point is one hundred-eighty degrees from starting point. Starting point was somewhere in China, I believe?” He looked at me expectantly.
“Um, yes—I see what you mean,” I said. “Let’s see—Zhang Tzu’s experiments took place near the town of Huangshi in Hubei province, I believe.”
“You show me.” Ziegler indicated the globe.
With a bit of difficulty I located the place and pointed it out to the earnest-looking mathematician.
“Ach, ja—approximately thirty degrees North, hundred-fifteen degrees East. So we subtract hundred-eighty degrees to get...” He rotated the globe carefully. “Thirty degrees North, five-and-sixty degrees West. Jawohl! Right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. It surprises me not at all.”
“Bermuda Triangle, my foot!” Dodson scoffed. “You mark my words—this comet is heading for Bethlehem.”
A heated argument ensued, and might have gone on all night if it hadn’t been interrupted after a few minutes by a cough from Don Hunter.
“Sorry to disappoint you fellows, but George disagrees with you.” Don was standing at the computer, a slip of paper in his hand. “The impact point isn’t Bethlehem and it isn’t the Bermuda Triangle. It’s much closer. Just on the coast about sixty miles east of here. A place called Rendlesham.”
“And the time of impact?” Ziegler looked anxiously at his watch.
Don glanced at the paper. “0140 hours—just over an hour from now.”
“Can we make it in time?”
“We can if we’re lucky. Let’s go!”
Cramming ourselves back into Don’s little car, we tore off eastwards along the A14. All the time the yellow star grew brighter and brighter ahead of us.
“Follow that star!” I shouted.
The new star in the East!” Dodson added, chuckling.
“We’re just like the three wise men following the star,” Don observed.
Ziegler, the great mathematician, grunted. “Except that there are four of us,” he pointed out.
“Ah, but only three of us are wise men,” Don said. “Justin doesn’t count—he’s only 28. You can’t be a wise man at 28. It would be a contradiction in terms.”
I ignored the insult. “Maybe we’ll witness the Second Coming,” I speculated.
“Poppycock,” Dodson snorted. “The Second Coming is a purely symbolic concept, just like the Star of Bethlehem. Theology is about the world of the Spirit, not the world of superstitious nonsense.”
We drove at hair-raising speeds past Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and the sprawling lights of Ipswich. Just as we were passing through the village of Woodbridge we saw a huge, silent burst of brilliant yellow light ahead of us.
“The star’s gone!”
“It came down in the woods over there!”
We drove a bit further and came to a gate into the woods. A sign informed us that the place was called Rendlesham Forest, that it was the property of Her Majesty’s Forestry Commission, and that we were welcome to enter so long as we didn’t light any fires.
We left the car by the gate and went into the woods.
“I should have brought a flashlight,” Don muttered. “So much for foresight.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “There’s a light over there in the forest. Let’s head towards it.”
The light turned out to be an eerie yellow glow with no obvious source. We crept towards it and came to an unnatural looking clearing.
“I think this is where it came down.” Dodson was looking upwards, and our eyes followed his. There was an gap in the canopy of trees that was open to the sky. The ground beneath was littered with freshly broken pine branches.
“Some of the wood looks scorched,” I observed.
“You’re right,” Don agreed. “There must have been intense heat here.”
Ziegler was standing at the edge of the clearing, looking thoughtful. “Intense heat, ja—or intense radiation.”
Our thoughts were interrupted by the clamour of voices approaching. With a start we realized we were not the only ones in the woods that night.
“What the blazes?” Dodson looked around. “They sound like Americans. A large number of them! What are they doing here?”
Don snapped his fingers. “Americans—of course! We’re right next to a US Air Force Base. Woodbridge, I think it’s called. Top Secret atomic stuff—we don’t want to be caught snooping around here!”
The voices were getting closer.
“There’s someone out there, Sir!” one of the voices shouted. “What should I do? Finding that thing out here has made me mighty nervous.”
“Take no risks, man!” another voice barked. “Shoot the commie rascals!”
Actually the word he used may not have been ‘rascals’, but we weren’t paying much attention by that point. We were running as fast as we could back to the car.
* * * *
Well, that’s more or less the end of the story as far as my involvement is concerned. The ‘Rendlesham Forest Incident’, as it’s now known, has become quite notorious among conspiracy theorists. Many people are convinced that a UFO crash-landed in the East of England that Christmas Day more than thirty years ago—despite consistent denials by the UK and US governments. Another theory is that it was a Soviet nuclear powered satellite that came down. But an artificial comet created by a tenth century Chinese rocket scientist... a time-travelling twin of the Star of Bethlehem? Who knows? I may be the only one left who’s in possession of the full facts. Old Dodson died years ago, and Don Hunter is in a retirement home. I’ve no idea what happened to Otto Ziegler—he must be either dead or a very old man by now.
There is one curious postscript to the story. It appears that the remains of the reactor core—or whatever it was the US airmen recovered—was transported back to the States on board an aircraft carrier. It was then ferried by helicopter, slung underneath a giant Chinook, to NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas. And late at night, a few miles outside Houston on the 29th of December 1980, this strange phenomenon was witnessed by two local women returning from an evening out. The women—Vicky and Betty—were both devout Christians, and when confronted with this huge glowing apparition in the sky they could only draw one conclusion. To them, it was the Second Coming... and maybe, in a sense, they were right.