|This is not my place to tell you this. I'll fear that i'll write something that doesn't stay with you, or the words will not come out that way i want it too. You’ve maybe heard it before. From someone in the street, and you were not listening because you have somewhere to be. This story has been told many times over by people better than I.
There’s a story I’d like to offer you, to save you. Its about love and compassion and other worlds. And i think you will like it. But its not finished yet.
Instead, I’ll give you a different story, or what I know of it. It’s got aliens and a loving family, Its got silliness only a kid could dream up. You'll need to forgive me for not telling you the story i want to tell you. But i'll think you might like this one too. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll have to wait until somebody asks me the question they always ask, sooner or later. Then I’ll tell them this story, and laugh, and sign a book or a shirt or something, and they’ll go away and tell their friends what a character I am in real life.
Because that’s the way it works.
~ * ~
Aliens. When someone thinks about Aliens, they think greater intelligence or greater technology than us. Not the story i'm going to tell you today.
Zorg was quick and Zorg was clever and Zorg was brave and sharp as the light from a laser gun. Zorg had won countless battles against the Crocusions. 3 legged aliens that where always at war with Zorg's tribe. Zorg could comprehend more about space than any of his tribe. The one thing he couldn't comprehend was why, on the most important mission of his life, of the whole tribe, that he was paired up with the tribes idiot. Ziek wasn't an idiot, not in the way we think about. Ziek was over-friendly, but clumsy. Ziek wasn't bad, he just liked to ponder around and not do anything.
Zorg and Ziek were part of an race called techno. No-one really knows why they were called that, Maybe because they liked techno music but who knows. These two where sent out to find something their race only knew as the "Happiness Truth". The race of Techno were sick of the wars with the Crocusions and they hoped with this "Happiness Truth" they would end everything.
I wouldn't meet them until they crash landed their ship into our farm.
When they crashed, I saw it happen, i was at home from school. Sick with a cold. It was a loud bang. Dirt and grass went flying. First thing i remember thinking "that spaceship is pretty strong". If you had seen it. There was this flying saucer sticking halfway up from the ground. Dirt was everywhere. Steam coming for the top of the ship. The cows were running around like crazy.
My mother came running out with a shocked look on her face. Looking back on it, we both weren't sure about what to do about this thing in the ground.
As we stood there on the porch of our house the ship opened and both came out Zorg and Ziek. We hadn't meet them yet. All we saw were these green aliens coming out. We heard all the stories. Aliens come and abduct you and take you away. Later we would learn its fake. But that didn't stop my mother panicking.
My mother ran back into the house and grabbed the shotgun. Now I would like to say that both Zorg and Ziek raised their hands and said we come in peace. But my mother is a terrible shot. So the gun goes off, and hits the ground about 20 meters away from both the aliens. Now here I would love to say this is when Zorg and Ziek raised their hands, came inside, had a cup of tea, and told us about the "Happiness Truth" But this isnt that kind of story.
The one thing i failed to mention was that we raise bulls, male cows. So when my mother fired the gun, it spooked one. And well it charged. Headfirst at Zorg,
Zorg got out of the way. Ziek, well didnt, and ended up getting hurt, and on a spare bed for a few days.
My Mother was the first to calm down and, she put down the gun. And made contact with Zorg, who had the bull running to the other end of the field. My mother tried talking first with an "Sorry we didnt mean to" and a "are you ok?". And a "please come inside".
As we helped bring in Ziek, My mother was chatting away. Everything seemed normal. But there Aliens. Normal. But theres Aliens. NORMAL. BUT THERES ALIENS. Aliens in our house.
I just couldn't stop looking at them. Green skin. Big heads. No taller than a 16 year old.
“Wow,” I said, as quietly as I could through my excitement and fear. Theres aliens in OUR house. As we took Ziek to the spare room and placed him down.
"Please come into the kitchen" My mother had asked Zorg. I stood a few meters away. Try not to let this alien know i was there. My mother was always one to make friends quickly, but this quickly and with an alien, something that could snatch you away, were you would get to see your family again. That was what scared me the most.
Are the Men in Black going to come take my mother away. Or close our farm and take us away. My 7 year old mind was racing with thoughts. Can he hear me? I thought as my thoughts got louder and louder by the second. I didnt even hear the conversation that was happening with my mother and this alien.
As i write this in my 20s i think back to my 7 year old mind and wounder where did all that concern go.
Before i knew it Zorg was changing forms into a human. Later i would find out that my mother has asked him if he had the technology to do that, as it might be hard to explain to my older sister, who was at school, and father, who was at town. The human form of Zorg was like a male super model. He didnt look green or alien. He looked like he stepped out of a magazine.
"Are you okay?” It was my mothers voice.
I turned my head, and nodded. Zorg excused himself as went outside to move his ship out of view. As Zorg left my mother told me that she was going to start on dinner. Before she could as me to help her. I fled. To my room. Upstairs where the alien couldn't find me. And i hid. For what felt like hours. Then i fell asleep from my cold and tiredness.
~ * ~
Where do you get all your ideas?
That’s the question they always ask. You were wondering, right?
It’s easy. There’s a place in my head where I can go. A part of me that remembers what it used to be like. Hiding under the covers, breathless with fear of the long-armed thing muttering and grumbling from within the shadow in the bedroom cupboard. Riding upon a wild unicorn beneath a beneath a snapping, soaring banner of brilliant silk while trumpets called for daring and battle and courage. Blazing between the stars on a column of searing atomic fire as the missiles and the death-rays tore the very fabric of space all around.
I remember. That’s where the ideas come from. I close my eyes and I ignore the television and the Internet and the stereo and the calendar and the bills and the letters and the cellphone, and I remember. It’s not the same as when i was a kid, when i lived in bright and glorious worlds, but at least I can remember.
So this is what I do: I gather the brightest jewels of memory, and polish them until they gleam and then I give them to you. But no matter how carefully I choose them, how diligently I polish and shape them, they’re still only broken fragments of fading memories. I’m sorry. I wish I could give you more, but I’m lucky to have anything at all.
~ * ~
After a while, i was awoken my Dad coming up to check on me. The whole afternoon feeling like a crazy dream from my imagination. "Hello, Captain Riker" A nickname from a show my Dad and i would watch. We made a little game of it. My Dad was called Lieutenant Flanagan.
"Captain Riker, Sir. Dinner is ready" My Dad told me. So i got up and opened my curtains, the light flooded the room. My room was filled with the typical 7 year old toys, the nerf guns, the lego, the soft toys, but there was also my telescope out on the joining deck that went around the top floor of our house.
As i looked out at our farm, i saw no sign of the alien ship crash. No mound of dirt, no metal from the ship. Just a empty field, with trees and a few cows.
As i came down i could hear chatter in the dinning room. My big sister, Jane, was home from school. As i came around the corner. My mother's Voice. Then My Dad's. As i came around i saw him. Zorg. In his human model form. Dressed in nice clothes. My sister sitting very close to him. Wait, my sister sitting close to him. As i looked at the table, my sister was busy flirting away with what she thought was a model. I was shocked. Not at my sister flirting with an alien but the dream i had was a real one.
~ * ~
I think it must be the same with everyone who writes these stories. I think we all remember, and we all know what we’ve lost. Why else would you keep seeing the same story again and again; different names, different authors, but the same sad, lonely idea?
It’s that story about growing up and losing the path into the magic kingdom, and maybe catching a glimpse of it again as an adult, way too late to do more than wish and wonder. It comes in many shapes and sizes, but it’s always the same: a metaphorical story about the loss of innocence, the passage into adulthood, and the end of magic.
Or maybe not so metaphorical. How would I know what others remember, after all? They’re beautiful stories, in any case. Kelly Link, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, H G Wells - even J M Barrie and his Peter Pan: the same story in a thousand guises.
They’re great stories. They’re much better than mine. That’s why I’m telling you Janey’s story instead.
~ * ~
Janey was working on a surprise. Spurred by my success with the Mental Telejectors, she was devising a special invention, one that she said would take us farther than we’d ever gone before. She put in a lot of work on it, and dropped so many hints that giving her my bad news was almost impossible to bear.
“I have to go away on a music camp,” I told her one evening, after I found my courage. We were perched in the branches of the big fallen eucalypt. “For a month.”
Janey’s face fell. “A whole month? But you don’t even like music!”
“I do, kind of,” I said. “Not a whole month’s worth, but I do like playing the flute. I don’t want to go, though. It’s my parents.” I was trying not to tell her: my parents said they were worried about me. They felt I was spending too much time playing make-believe games with “that little Clayforth girl”. She was nice, they said - but they said a lot of other things too.
“When do you have to go?” She swung her bare feet back and forth, brushing against the tree while we talked. There was a smooth patch on the trunk, where countless previous conversations had worn the bark clean through.
“Saturday,” I told her. “They’re making me go Saturday.”
“A whole month,” she said again. Then she brightened. “Hey, Steele! I’ve got a better idea. If I work really hard, I can finish the new invention before Saturday. Then we can use it to get away!”
“Get away?” The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Of course Janey and I had talked about running away from home. What kid didn’t? We’d even half-heartedly tried it a couple of times. “How will it help us do that? Won’t we just come back, the way we always do?”
She grinned at me, and shook her shaggy mane of sunstreaked blonde. “Not this time. This is way, way better than the Mental Telejectors, Steele. I wasn’t going to tell you until it was ready, but this counts as an emergency. I’ve been building a space-ship!”
And so, of course, in the failing evening light we had to go down to where the gully opened out and led into the abandoned industrial space on the next block over, and there amidst the old cars and the mysterious, rusting hulks was the Blazer, for so Janey had named it.
“It’s not finished yet,” she warned me, as we clambered over the hull. “It’s not far off, though. It runs on fusion power from the hydrogen in water. It’s got a gravity drive for planet-hopping, and a null-space drive that will let it go hundreds of time faster than light.”
I slid my hand admiringly over the curved metal. “What about defenses?”
“I guessed you’d ask,” she said. “If the Monoclates try anything on the Blazer, they’re going to get a nasty shock. Meson shields!”
The Monoclates were our arch-enemies, fiendish aliens from Algol with an impregnable battle-fortress lodged deep within the forbidding, starless wastes of the Galactic Rift. They opposed everything that we stood for, and tried to destroy us at every turn.
“What about guns?” I had to ask.
“Quark Cannons,” said Janey. “With computer targeting, like in Star Wars.” She touched the Blazer nervously. “So what do you think?”
“Pretty slick,” I said. “The Monoclates won’t know what hit them.”
“So you’ll come with me? You’ll help me finish building the Blazer so we can go?’
I can still see her now if I try: slim and strong, with the last of the sunset shining from her eyes as she looked at me. I knew what she wanted me to say, and part of me wanted nothing more, but there was another part of me that thought of my parents and said: It’s only a month.
I tried to explain it to her. It wasn’t easy, without using words like ‘strange’ and ‘make-believe’, and I floundered when I tried to tell her about my parents’ ideas.
Janey saved me the trouble. She put her hand over my mouth, and shook her head. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “I get it. Your parents are goons, but you’re going off to this camp anyhow because it will make them happy and then they’ll leave us alone. I still think you’re crazy. I still think we should just take the Blazer and go. But I can’t make you do it, and even if I did it wouldn’t work out right. You take that month. I’ll get the Blazer ready. When you get back, we’ll go for a trip you’ll never forget.”
“Solid Steele?” I said.
Janey tapped her temple with one knuckle. “Solid Steele,” she replied.
When I returned, a month later, they told me Janey was three weeks dead.
~ * ~
The story could end there. It doesn’t. There’s more to come, but before that, you have to make up your mind. What kind of a story are you reading? Did all these things really happen, or am I simply revisiting the imaginary realms of childhood? Did Janey’s X-Ray glasses reveal Mr Fleet’s true nature, or did they just allow me to accept the messages from my own subconscious about his behaviour? You have to choose. It’s Janey’s story, but you are reading it, recreating it in your head as you go.
If it was a story I’d made up, then Janey would be dead in the bushfire she started, playing with her ‘spaceship’ built from an abandoned industrial dryer at the bottom of the gully. In a story like that, I would come home after the music camp and discover my world shattered. There would be grief, and implications of guilt, and you would have to decide whether my storytelling was an act of love, reconstructing and honouring the lost, marvelous world of childhood - or an act of atonement, admitting my own part in Janey’s destruction, acknowledging that my breach of our loyalty to one another meant that I wasn’t there at the critical juncture, when I might have saved her life.
I didn’t make the story up. It’s not about those things. What it’s really about is for you to decide. It happened like this ...
~ * ~
I never believed what they told me about the bushfire. Even though the gully was a blackened ruin, and Janey’s house was gone - the old wooden place went up like kindling, so hot that nothing was found of Janey or her grandparents - I never for a moment believed that Janey started the fire.
I couldn’t even believe she was dead. Sometimes I tried to imagine being dead. Being nothing. It didn’t work. I couldn’t even make myself understand the idea of not being. How could Janey not be?
Time passed. The gully turned green again, and the council cleaned up the junk-pile, dragging away all the old machinery. Then they landscaped the whole place, and called it a ‘green space’. Every now and again I used to go down to the creek. I’d walk down to our cave and look around. Sometimes I’d go to the big fallen eucalypt, and check the space under the roots. Just in case.
I never found anything. After a while, I mostly stopped looking. Soccer and music took up a lot of my time. So did riding around on my bicycle with my school friends. I started writing, too.
There was one night though, just before I turned thirteen. It was hot and still. The moon was bright as a skull, and I squirmed, itching, against my sheets. Then there was a tap at my window - just a single, sharp noise, like someone had thrown a gum-nut against the glass. I lay still, listening.
It happened again.
I got out of bed, and opened the window. Outside, someone stood in the shadow of the spreading poinciana. Someone small, and slender, with blonde hair cut ragged at her shoulders.
“Steele!” It was a stage whisper, clear and sharp. “Hey, Steele!”
“Janey?” I said, and rubbed my eyes. The idea that I might be dreaming occurred to me. “Is that you, Janey?”
“Who else? Hey, are you gonna come down?” The figure in the shadows moved. It had arms, and legs. I wasn’t dreaming.
I looked back over my shoulder. The light from the TV showed under my door. My parents were still awake. “I can’t,” I said. “Where have you been? They said ...”
“What would they know?” she answered, and stepped into the moonlight, real and solid and just the same - exactly the same, I swear - as she was when I last saw her, two years before. “It was the Monoclates. They detected my test run of the Blazer’s space drive and launched an attack. I barely had time to get away. I came back for you, Steele. I need your help.”
“My help? What can I do?” Link Steele, reporting for duty. Same as ever.
“They’re too fast for the automatic weapons on the Blazer, Steele. I need someone to operate the Quark Cannons while I fly her through the Rift.” She paused, and shifted her weight. “You could do it. You’re a really good shot.”
“I- “ My voice seized up as I began to take in what was happening. “No,” I said finally. “Once you get through the Rift, you’ll still have to face them hand to hand. You need something smaller than the Quark Cannons. Why don’t you come home for a while? We can work on it together.”
She flashed that quicksilver smile I knew so well. “Hey, Steele, this isn’t home. You know that. Home is out there, flying among the stars. Get out of bed and come with me!”
“I can’t.” The words were out of my mouth before I knew it, and even in the uncertain moonlight, the look on her face - half disappointment, half sadness - cut me to the bone. “You could come back, though,” I said hopefully, desperately. “You could stay, just for a while.”
She turned then, as if to go, but hesitated.
“Tomorrow night, then,” I said. “Just tomorrow night. I promise if you come tomorrow night, I’ll have something better than a Quark Cannon for you.”
Janey tilted her head. The motion was so familiar that it hurt, inside, to watch. “You mean it?”
“Solid Steele,” I said, and touched my knuckle to my temple.
“Okay,” she said over her shoulder as she trotted into the dark. “I’ll come back.”
Why didn’t I go?
I’ve asked myself that question so often it’s become meaningless. Boil it down: I was afraid. After more than two years, I couldn’t find the courage, even with Janey standing there in the moonlight in front of me. I made up a thousand excuses, but the truth is that I was afraid.
Not of Janey. Never of Janey.
I wasn’t even afraid of dying. In the end, I think I was afraid that I just wasn’t big enough inside, where it counted. I might have been solid Steele, but it was Janey who glowed with the inner fires of a star. She belonged out there.
I was afraid to discover that I did not.
She didn’t come back the next night. I guess I never really thought she would.
~ * ~
Here’s another place the story could end. If it finished now, it would be maybe a wistful ghost story, of sorts, about a girl whose death was really a transfiguration, and about my own real and metaphorical fear of dying. I could end the story here and it would most likely be good enough. But I owe it to Janey to tell her story right, so bear with me a little longer.
I never saw Janey again, but a lot of other things happened. I got older. I finished school and went to college. I fell in and out of jobs. Some of my stories started to get published. I got married. We had a son. He went to school.
What you’d call a life.
In a sense, Janey never really left me. Our short time together became the wellspring of my work, the source of all my storytelling. There are many writers better than I, with more art and literary merit. I don’t care. I write what I like. I write what I remember: tales full of adventure and colour and outlandish imaginings. The Blazer became the sentient alien vessel that helps the hero save Earth in Last Chance The Stars. Rogue space-trader Jane Clayforth adventured around the rim of the galaxy in more than a dozen stories.
In this way, I remind myself who I really am - and who I will never be.
My son Damon is eight years old. This afternoon, at half past three, he charged into the house and tossed his schoolbag under a chair. Then he clattered into the kitchen and dragged a bottle of milk out of the fridge.
“You’re a bit late,” I said. “Was the bus slow?”
Damon shook his head, splashing milk. “No,” he said. “It was Janey. The time circuits on her ship haven’t been calibrated lately. I should have been here ten minutes ago.”
You might suppose I thought it an odd, eerie coincidence. But like I said: I remember.
Just to be certain I said: “Did you say Jaidyn?”
He shot me a withering look. “No way. Jaidyn doesn’t know how to fly a spaceship.”
“So,” I said. “Janey, then. Where does she live?”
“I can’t tell you that,” he said, biting his lip. “I promised that I wouldn’t. I can’t tell anybody except someone named -”
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t afraid, I promised myself. Not of Janey. Never of Janey. “Commander Lincoln Steele, at your service,” I said.
Damon looked at me doubtfully. “You’re not him. Janey said he was young, like me. And she said he’d say something special ...”
“Solid Steele,” I whispered, and touched my knuckle to my temple.
His face cleared. “That’s it,” he said. “You’re Link Steele? That’s so cool, Dad. But -” he frowned at me. “Why are you crying?”
“It’s nothing,” I told him, though I didn’t even try to wipe my face. “Something in my eye. And you don’t have to tell me where Janey lives. Out there, flying among the stars - that’s her home, right?”
He nodded, a mixture of amazement and pure relief on his face. “I thought maybe you might not believe me.”
I shook my head. “Never happen, kid. You know me. I can believe anything. Hey, she’s not still having problems with the Monoclates, is she?”
He collapsed back onto a wicker kitchen chair, the picture of exhaustion. “Problems! She’s got me firing the Quark Cannons, but unless I use them on full power the Monoclates are so fast that they can dodge. And we still don’t know how we’ll fight them on the far side of the Rift.”
“Wait here,” I said, and I gave him some chocolate biscuits to go with his milk. Then I went upstairs and washed my face. I noticed my hands were trembling, so I took a few long, deep, shuddering breaths until they steadied - but the trembling inside me wouldn’t stop.
Under my bed was a plastic box that my sister sent to me after Mother died. Inside, underneath a lot of handwritten stories and pebbles and home-made cards and faded photographs, I found the thing I wanted, just the way I remembered. I have no idea how Mother got it, or why she kept it, but I was grateful.
I brought it to my son, in the kitchen. “Here,” I said. “This should help.”
He sat up, and touched the thing I held. “Wicked,” he said. “What is it?”
I hefted it, and sighted down the barrel at the refrigerator. “It’s a Chrono-Kinetic Blaster,” I said. Then I sat down and showed him how it worked: how the digital watch mechanism mediated the chronon stream so that the burst of hyper-velocity Z-particles released by the meson capacitor could actually be guided through time. “It’s set to shoot exactly two seconds into the past,” I told him. “All you have to do is point it where the Monoclates were, and press the trigger button.”
Damon studied it carefully. “You built this, Dad? It looks pretty complicated.”
“I used to be good at this kind of thing,” I said, and put it into his hand. “Here. It’ll work when you need it.”
“Wow,” he said, turning the wooden-handled, plastic-barrelled thing over in his hands. “Thanks a million, Dad. You may just have saved the galaxy!”
I shook my head. “That’s your job, kid,” I said, and gave him a shove towards the door. “Go on. You’ve got a couple hours yet before dinner. Homework can wait tonight.”
Then he was gone, and in a rush of affection, I found that I really wasn’t afraid at all.
That’s the last of the story that I can tell you. There’s more, I’m sure. I’d like to tell it, but I don’t have the right. It was never mine anyway, and my small part in it is over. Now it belongs to my son, blasting away at the evil Monoclates somewhere beyond the Galactic Rift, with Captain Janey at the helm of the Blazer, battling to save the galaxy from destruction.
I hope he’ll tell it to me, one of these days.
* * * *
Dirk Flinthart is currently sitting at a keyboard in a dodgy cybercafé in Borneo, but normally he works from North-East Tasmania. He’s been writing short speculative fiction for something like ten years, and has been a recurring feature of Australian publications including Andromeda Spaceways, the agog! series, Twelfth Planet Press, and others. Last year he was hit on the head with a Ditmar for the story appearing in this book. He’s hoping to make the move to longer fiction any day now.
His most recent book is the novella Angel Rising from Twelfth Planet press, and he recently edited the anthology, Canterbury 2100: Pligrimmages in a New World, for agog! press.