III

"But Freddie," Doctor Wentworth protested. "Whether you are a physical wreck or a world class athlete, it would make no difference. The fact of the matter is that we simply do not know for certain how space travel effects the human body. There is a theory, for example, that without the influence of gravity to hold them in place, the major organs of the body would begin to rove about of their own accord. Imagine that Freddie: your heart where your kidneys should be, and your liver hanging down around your knees!"

I began to feel rather queasy at this point, unable to prevent myself from imagining how my own insides might feel in this state. Uncle Frederick, however, took it very much in his stride.

"A minor discomfort, Doctor Wentworth. That’s all."

"No, my dear fellow - that is not all," the doctor responded. "It is now more or less a proven fact that travelling at speeds in excess of forty miles an hour for any length of time can destroy the nervous system and cause the larynx to turn itself inside out. You could end up talking backwards. Think about it carefully Freddie. You're taking a tremendous personal risk if you proceed with this venture."

My uncle shrugged. "I accept that there are certain risks, doctor," he said. "There always are when great projects are afoot. But risks are there to be taken, Doctor Wentworth, else mankind would have made no progress at all. Whatever happened to that great spirit of discovery that stood our ancestors so proud?" Uncle Frederick leaned across to me. "Do you hear this, young Vincent?" he asked me. "What think you of my guests, so utterly devoid of any sense of adventure?"

I squinted up at him, and I must admit that my mind was elsewhere. I had rather over indulged on the jam roly-poly, and the doctor’s talk of jumbled organs had only added to my feelings of nausea. "I feel sick," I mumbled by way of a reply.

"Indeed," my uncle agreed. "Such a lack of enterprise sickens me also."

"No, I really do feel sick," I said, keen to clarify my position in advance of any ensuing embarrassment. "I shouldn't have had that second helping of pudding. It hit the first lot halfway down, and now it's coming back."

Reverend Black sighed and sat back in his seat. "Well, I’m sorry Mr Maitland, but I'm just not having any of this," he asserted.

"Very wise," I intoned knowingly. "Just stick to the cheese and biscuits, that's my advice."

The vicar, however, cared little for my advice. "I have sat here patiently whilst you have talked of Pixies and wandering organs and all manner of half-baked poppycock," he said irritably. "I am afraid that I can tolerate no more! Am I the only one present who is still sane?

Uncle Frederick looked around the room, and then spoke in a hushed voice. "Well, I've noticed that one of the serving girls isn't twitching as much as the rest of us," he said.

"This whole charade is beyond reason!" insisted the vicar.

"But don't you see that we're standing on the threshold of a new dawn of discovery?"

Reverend Black would not be swayed. "You are standing on the threshold of sheer lunacy," he opined. "Damn it sir, but you've gone too far this time."

Uncle Frederick slowly shook his head. "You know, I am most disappointed in you, Reverend Black," he said slowly. "But there is an easy way to settle this matter. I have arranged a test flight tomorrow, to see how well my survival capsule performs. Why don't you drop by see for yourself? You too Doctor."

"Delighted to, old chap," replied the doctor enthusiastically.

Reverend Black sneered. "Survival capsule?" he scoffed. "My word, you really do believe in all this nonsense, don't you?"

The servants began to move amongst us as they cleared away the dinner things. Uncle Frederick pushed back his chair. "I certainly do, reverend," he replied as he got to his feet. "And I promise that tomorrow morning, you too will believe that it's possible to catapult a man to Venus."

I could hardly sleep that night, overcome with excitement for the following day. Was it really possible for man to travel to other worlds? I rose early, enjoyed a light breakfast, then joined my uncle in the meadow behind the house. Preparations for the test flight were already well under way. There were about a dozen men, all hurrying backwards and forwards as they carried out their own allotted tasks. It was an impressive operation, but most impressive of all was the catapult itself.

"Well Vincent," said Uncle Frederick as I approached. "What do you think of it."

I nodded appreciatively, and for the first time I really did believe that my uncle might reach Venus. "It’s extraordinary," I said. "And so simple, it’s beautiful."

There were two wooden posts driven deep into the ground, about ten feet apart. Stretched between them was a thick band of rubber, which had been drawn back around a trigger mechanism and could be released by the pull of a ripcord. The capsule itself - a large iron shell, about eight feet long and shaped like a giant bullet - was resting on a wooden runway, poised for take off.

Uncle Frederick introduced me to Wardle, his chief engineer. Wardle grasped my hand in his greasy paw and pumped it energetically. "Pleased to make you acquaintance, Mr Vincent sir," he said. He gestured proudly to the catapult. "Well, what do you think of her?"

"Very impressive," I answered in all honesty.

"Aye, she’s that right enough," Wardle said with a grin. "Now don’t you go worrying about your uncle. We’ll get him to Venus in one piece."

"I’m sure you will, Mr Wardle," I said, heartened by his confidence. "Is this the first time that the catapult has been tested."

"The first time?" said Wardle. "Oh no. We’ve already had half a dozen test flights, only we’ve had to limit it these last few weeks, because of complaints."

"Complaints?"

"Nothing serious," Wardle said quickly. "It’s just that , apparently, one or two of the locals have been quite offended by the sight of your uncle tearing down the high street, screaming blue murder before skidding to a halt outside the post office."

"Yes," I sympathised. "I can see how that might be a source of some concern."

"Well, I think we’ve ironed out most of the major problems now, haven’t we Wardle," Uncle Frederick butted in.

"Aye."

"We’re just concerned with fine tuning," said my uncle.

Uncle Frederick was about to explain further, but we were suddenly hailed by Doctor Wentworth. We looked up to see the doctor and Reverend Black approaching across the meadow.

"Morning Freddie," the doctor called. "All set for lift off?"

"Of course, of course!" Uncle Frederick responded. "You’re just in time. I'm so glad that you both decided to attend my little demonstration."

"I've no objection to watching you make an idiot of yourself," the reverend replied scornfully.

Uncle Frederick tut-tutted. "Still so sceptical?" he enquired. "Well, we will soon change your mind about that. You are witnessing the beginning of a whole new era in transport. One day travelling between the planets will be as commonplace as going into town to pick up your groceries. Vast launching stations will be built, stretching across whole counties, capable of hurling hundreds of paying passengers out into space. We are all hurtling towards our future on a non-stop catapult to the stars."

"I'm hurtling nowhere," said the vicar, screwing up his face and folding his arms tightly across his chest. "You wouldn't get me onto one of those contraptions. Tell me, how do you propose to breathe in this capsule of yours, whilst you are winging your way through the cosmos?"

"Simple," my uncle said with a smile. "I shall take a regular dose of oxygen pills. Two tablets, twice a day before meals."

"Oxygen pills?" Doctor Wentworth said, looking slightly perplexed. "I wasn't aware that such things existed."

Uncle Frederick looked apologetic. "They don't yet," he admitted. "I'm hoping that someone is on the verge of discovering them. Otherwise I'll just have to hold my breath."

"I see," said Reverend Black, with a touch of sarcasm. "And have you considered how you are going to return home once you've reached Venus?"

"I can see that you have taken time to think the whole idea through, Reverend Black," Uncle Frederick said shrewdly. "But once again the solution is simple. I shall prevail upon the Pixie People to build me a similar catapult, pointing Earthward."

"Of course," the vicar said. "How silly of me not to realise."

"Not your fault vicar," said my uncle, clapping him heartily on the back. "It takes a certain kind of analytical mind to figure these things out. Right, I think we’re ready for the off."

Uncle Frederick donned his crash helmet and we helped him into the capsule. "Will you do me the honour of pulling the ripcord, Vincent?" he asked.

I nodded eagerly. "The honour is all mine, uncle."

"Wish me luck then, everybody!" Uncle Frederick said. He waved at his little audience and then pulled the iron door closed with a solid clang. The others stood well back, and I took up my position by the ripcord. From inside the capsule I heard my uncle’s muffled voice counting down.

"Five, four ..."

I must admit, I was very nervous.

"...three, two..."

I wiped my perspiring palms and took a firm grip of the rope.

"...one - Fire!"

I tugged on the ripcord. For one brief moment, nothing seemed to happen. It was as though time itself had paused to savour this momentous instant. Then everything seemed to happen at once. There was a calamitous ‘twang’, the catapult fired and the capsule launched into the air.

"Good gracious!" exclaimed the doctor. "Look at it go."

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