In memory of Leonard Nimoy.
– to my son –
Lights went off. The entire household quieted down in a matter of minutes. Stanley made sure everyone had been sound asleep before he snuck out onto the porch. From there, in the dark, he made his way right into the tree house on a huge birch tree that had been growing on the farm since forever and where he had been keeping a secret stash of stuff he never shared with anyone. He climbed the tree.
That was a beautiful night. Starry luminous sky, soothing clicks of cicadas, the full moon – Stanley knew he was going to miss everything once the summer was over and school began. In his seventh year, he was a quiet dreamer, a boy who never got in anyone’s way. Until that one day when things changed. But not before a once-in-a-lifetime event happened that triggered everything.
As of now, Stanley was in his tree house watching the sky through his telescope, a present from his grandfather, when an enormous fireball scratched the horizon behind the endless corn field and fell down to Earth in the silence of the night. Stanley jumped in his seat from the sudden scare but his natural curiosity quickly took over.
After a brief moment of disbelief he settled himself comfortably at the eye of his telescope, and started thinking. There could be a billion explanations to what he had just seen, and Stanley wondered whether anyone else watched the fireball fall. But the night was still dark and lights in the house were still off, and even the dog slept on without as much as the slightest movement. Stanley was alone.
A seven year old boy doesn’t necessarily think about the abundant dangers in the world around him. Moreover, a seven year old boy doesn’t necessarily think of himself in connection to his family and people who may worry about his wellbeing. More often than not, a seven year old boy thinks about the world as this large playground, a place to explore. And that’s why more often than not, a seven year old boy sets up on a journey to the end of the Earth to chase the fireball that he saw fall from the sky, and he doesn’t tell anyone.
Stanley was quite a resourceful boy for someone his age and kept a backpack with supplies in his tree house at all times. On that starry summer night, he pulled the backpack out, threw it to the ground, climbed down, picked the backpack up and swiftly reached the farm’s gate. He didn’t want to disturb anyone, but the sleepy dog had awoken at hearing the boy approach, and he patted the silly animal before walking out and closing the gate behind him.
“We’re losing altitude! Can you do something?” The pilot’s frantic voice screaming at the starship’s computer to correct for the navigational error was not exactly encouraging. Computer was an artificial intelligence, the mechanical being inside the starship, but had superior sensors that allowed it to read emotions of its helmsman. And with the helmsman being a very young person, emotions were running sky high. Literally.
“You shouldn’t have taken your father’s vehicle.” Computer reprimanded the pilot while analyzing sensor input.
“This piece of junk? He won’t be missing it, it’s been sitting in our backyard for ages.”
“Be it as it may, young man, but you could at least have told them where you were going…”
“By ‘them’ you mean my family? I don’t think so. By the way, who programmed your language settings? You talk like a grumpy old man from the Middle Ages.”
Computer had a long arm attached to its peripheral alignment which was hanging over the pilot’s seat and thought it was the right moment to access the arm’s mobility application.
“I could spank you, you know.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” the pilot retaliated. “I am the pilot here. You work for me.”
“May I remind you, young man, that your father installed pedagogical subroutines on all family vehicles. A wise decision, I must admit. And now, it’s part of my infrastructure, and it will be used at will if should be. You ought to liste…”
“Whatever, dude. Now, how do we get out of here? And where are we anyways?”
The pilot was, in fact, a child, a rebellious boy who had just started school, and who was now running away from home, because even in the farthest corners of the Universe all boys run away at least once.
“Young man, I am afraid our only option is to land on this planet beneath us. The starship’s engine is malfunctioning. Could it be because someone missed the refill at the gas station before hurriedly jumping into this star system? And now the engine ran out of… juice… and damaged its core. Juice? Did you play with my language settings??”
“Now you noticed.” The pilot had a mischievous look on his face. He indeed tweaked something in the computer and was now accessing its star charts. “Can you tell me where we are?”
“Here,” computer lit up a star at the outer leg of the Milky Way, “This third planet. Quite a looker, don’t you think. There’s something else you should know about it.”
Pilot glanced at the interface with impatience while the ship’s computer continued.
“The planet is inhabited.”
When Stanley closed the gate behind him and boldly walked into the night, little did he know that the family’s sleepy dog, now wide awake and agitated, followed him outside through a secret hole in the fence that only the dog knew existed. The dog – let’s call her Leia – was a three year old mastiff, smart and strong but somewhat too carefree for a dog of such an intimidating breed. Perhaps that was the result of the family’s lack of seriousness when it came to training the dog, or maybe there was something in the wind that had been dashing through golden corn fields every now and then. Whatever it was, Leia appreciated the taste of freedom and no amount of schooling could have taken that away from her. As a result, the dog grew up to be a loyal companion – with a mind of her own. And on that starry night that had just begun turning into the morning, Leia’s sense of duty to her family prevailed.
“What are you doing here, silly? How did you get out?” Stanley was surprised to find Leia tagging along just a few feet away from the farm. Leia, as frisky as she was, couldn’t have possibly answered his question. Instead she continued tagging along and Stanley only shrugged. He figured, in the final analysis, he could use some company after all and was glad it happened to be this particular dog.
“Some two miles from here is a barn, we’ll drop by to get my bike. You don’t mind walking two miles, do you?” Stanley talked to Leia as if she could understand what he was saying. “I should be using a bike for this, see, it’s too long to walk on foot, we’ll never make it. Well, maybe you would, but not me, I am too small yet.”
Two miles later there it was, the old barn where Stanley used to spend time with his grandfather during the busy harvesting season. Now the barn was empty, with some harks and shovels laying here and there, and some hay, and Stanley had no trouble finding his rusty bike which he mounted right away.
“Come on, Leia, let’s go, it’ll be light soon.”
Leia listened carefully to the night around them and followed the command at once. And there they were, two figures in the dark, with cicadas still clicking and the stars still twinkling, and the seven year old boy Stanley was no longer alone.
“If we land now, can we then take off later?” Pilot, who, by the way, had a name and the name sounded nothing like what people on Earth used to call their children, was having second thoughts about his flight from home. Not that he hated the adventure, nothing like that. In fact, the crash only enhanced the flavor he was going to remember for a very long time from now. But he started thinking that maybe he’ll never get home again. What was the point of an adventure if you couldn’t share the story with others back home? So the pilot was now feeling rather sad, and his predicament started to look more and more like a humongous judgment error.
“I will make necessary repairs over time, not yet clear how long it’ll take but I am confident we can make an escape if the engines are back online. Just need to find the source of, what is it that you call it… juice?”
“Since we’re on an organic planet, this shouldn’t be a problem. You know this bioship derives energy from just about anything.” Pilot was downloading sensor readings.
“Provided we find large quantities of this anything. Biomatter, I presume?” Computer was not programmed with more optimism than was absolutely necessary.
“Maybe we’re in luck,” the young person who for the purpose of this story requested to be called Ari pointed at the readings that he had just downloaded.
“Fancy you could run this ship,” computer almost sounded jealous.
“I can’t – not yet that is – and you know it. Now help me pin-point where these readings come from on the surface. There’s an indication of a large quantity of organic compounds we need to synthesize the reaction.”
“Ah, using smart words I see. There, ten miles from our projected crash site. They call is ‘corn’.” Computer complied but not before accessing its sarcasm subroutine.
“Can’t we crash nearer?” Ari assumed it was only logical to try and manually navigate the ship closer to the edge of the corn field they had spotted on entry.
“It will only be a few minutes now, I am not sure I can switch controls to manual in the given time frame.”
“So we walk then, is that it? We walk?” Ari already imagined them scouting the location while trying not to engage the locals. He might have been seven years old, but his brain was that of a brilliant future scientist and explorer, although his heart – still that of a child.
“Young man, walking the necessary distance to find fuel should be the least of your worries. How about thinking and doing something about our velocity so we don’t burn up in the atmosphere…”
“Atmosphere? Do we know the composition?”
“Breathable air. We can get out once we are down.”
“Wouldn’t matter to you, would it? Your portable unit is a robot, needs no air.”
“You are correct indeed. Now I shall attempt to crash us into something soft. How’s that spot over there, would that do?”
“Is that a corn field? Just do it. Another few seconds and we’re toast.”
That is what went down while Stanley had been in his tree house looking into the eye of his telescope. An alien boy named Ari, about the same age as Stanley, took his father’s bioship without permission after failing the entrance exam which was to define his specialization at school on a far away planet in a far away star system. Ari wanted to fly spaceships. That was all he ever wanted to do. But failing an exam meant he got to study something else and would not be considered for piloting lessons until next year. But he knew every bioship in every class and category, even intergalactic ones! Ari thought the test was unfair and in an outburst of anger and frustration ran away from home. And now he didn’t quite know what to do.
Stanley’s mother woke up in the middle of the night not feeling quite right. She sensed something odd was about to happen – or already has. She sat up in bed listening to the night and not hearing anything. That part about not hearing anything was exactly why she thought something was up and so she rushed to the window, opened it wide and stared into the darkness. Nothing. That much of nothing was the scariest thing she’d ever experienced. She ran out of her room and into Stanley’s. His bed was untouched. His things were all there though. A nagging sick feeling crawled up into her stomach, blood rushed to her face, her legs gave up under the weight of her body and she slid alongside the door onto the floor. That’s what panic must have felt like, she thought. See, mothers always know. It’s simply a matter of common sense. Mothers always know.
Her husband, Stanley’s stepfather, was at a town’s fair many miles away, but Grandpa, her father, stayed overnight and she all but flew upstairs to wake him up.
Grandpa opened his bedroom’s door to her frantic pitch about something having happened to Stanley. Without hesitation, he grabbed his rifle and ran outside with Stanley’s mother following in his footsteps with a pocket lamp in her hand showing the way. They shouted Stanley’s name but got no response. At some point, Grandpa looked inside the dog’s cabin. It was empty.
“Leia’s gone too. It’s safe to assume she followed Stanley to wherever he went,” Grandpa concluded.
“Or was taken to!” Stanley’s mother was dialing up sheriff’s department. She needed to tell the sheriff that her son was not much of a talker, would never speak to strangers and would easily get lost in the woods because of his poor orientation skills, not to mention autistic or not he was just too young to be out there all by himself. Just too young.
It was only a few minutes later that the sheriff drove over with a brigade of volunteers and together they fine-combed the territory up until the old barn where they spotted tracks of a child’s bicycle going south-west and a set of dog’s footprints, not always clear, but nevertheless this was a solid clue and they now knew where to look further.
It could’ve been a meteorite, a huge one that would leave a gigantic crater, or it could’ve been a UFO with an alien inside. What if it really was a UFO? Maybe even from Mars? That would be awesome. Stanley thought this through and promised himself that if the fireball would turn out to be a meteorite with a crater he’d name it after Mom. Mom was the best. Now that he thought of it, he remembered not telling anyone where he’d gone. What if they discovered he was gone and got mad at him? Or worse – what if Mom got all worried and was crying? That didn’t sound too good. The thought of possibly getting punished for running away crossed Stanley’s mind. He entertained various scenarios for a few brief moments and then jumped onto the topic at hand. What if the fireball was indeed a UFO – and an alien person was inside? Was he friendly or was he starting the invasion of Earth right here in this corn field just outside of Houston?
Stanley couldn’t think anymore. He was cycling as fast as he could, determined to get to the site while it was still dark and no one had seen what he had seen and no one could claim his discovery. Getting there first seemed like an important thing to do. Stanley had never been first at anything, and now he felt he was given a chance to prove his worth, to prove that he was normal. It didn’t matter to the seven year old boy who hadn’t seen much of life yet that true personal worth was not measured by being first at things and that normalcy was a very vague concept. He didn’t know that when he’d grow up he’d learn the truth about personal worth and all, and his childhood beliefs would vanish like dew in the sunlight. On that starry night as he cycled towards the unknown, Stanley just wanted to be a normal kid and wanted to get somewhere first. At least once in his seven years of life. Because, that’s what all seven year old boys would do.
Leia was running next to Stanley but as they marked yet another mile Stanley noticed how Leia would stop for a moment, her tongue sticking out, her chest going up and down as she struggled with the heat. Water! Leia needed water. Somewhere around here was a tiny little river that he knew of but couldn’t see right away in the dark. That river was not on his direct path to his destination, but he could take a detour. He’d do anything for Leia. Now it seemed Leia was giving up on moving all together.
“Sit here, Leia, I’ll be right back. Watch the bike! I’ll be back in a minute.” Stanley left his backpack hanging on the bike and walked away. He was gone for a few minutes. That tiny river he remembered from previous visits to this neck of the woods happened to be nearby – frogs gave it away. Once there, Stanley realized he had nothing on him to carry the water in. Nothing but for his sneakers. So he took one off, a resourceful young man as he was, filled it with water and walked back as quickly as he could wearing just one shoe and trying not to spill a single drop.
After Leia had satisfied her thirst, the boy and the dog resumed their journey. The boy kept thinking about a possible alien on the spaceship that possibly had landed in the corn field and which he, the boy, would have possibly discovered first out of all the people on the planet.
“I drove back as soon as I heard. Why didn’t you call me right away? Why did I have to hear about this from your father?” Stanley’s stepfather didn’t bother shutting the door of his dusty pickup truck when he drove to the farm some half hour before dawn and found his wife on the porch, wearing a coat over her pajamas, with her hair all messy and her hands shaking. He obviously hurried as hell and paid little attention to the road, which is why his pickup truck was covered in dirt and the man himself looked like he just got through the wringer. “He’s my son too.” The man looked into the woman’s eyes. “Don’t you doubt that even for a moment. Maybe I haven’t been much of a father lately, with the farm business and the stress, but he’s mine just like he’s yours and don’t you dare shut me out now. Especially now.”
Stanley’s mother just sobbed in response. She was exhausted. Her father and a group of volunteers led by the sheriff and his men were searching for leads out there in the fields, in the dark, brushing through that darn corn. She was instructed to stay on the premises in case the boy returned on his own, and just sat there, helpless and whispering a prayer after prayer.
“You know how he gets when it’s a full moon,” the woman uttered, wiping away tears and smudging dirt on her face, “They think he’s with Leia.”
“Leia is a good dog. Don’t you worry,” the man from the dusty pickup truck hugged her and together they remained sitting on the porch, in the silver light of the full moon that graced the Earth that night.
That’s when they heard gunshots. They couldn’t tell from how far away the gunshots came and their faces grew deeply worried. The man stood up and ran towards his pickup truck where he had been keeping a rifle just in case. With the weapon in his hand, he quickly gave the woman a kiss on the cheek and ran off into the dark, leaving her on the porch, alone again, with a walkie-talkie and a cell phone, messy hair and smudges on her wet face.
Not much time had passed but for Stanley’s mother ten minutes seemed like ten years. When the sheriff alerted her over the phone of a deputy coming over to pick her up and drive to the site, she kept herself together. It was only when she had been brought to the spaceship’s crash site that she burst into tears, uncontrollably, at seeing her son and an unfamiliar entity both standing next to each other talking in front of an open and lit up entrance into the strange apparatus. “He speaks!” was all she could say before her legs turned soft and she collapsed onto the ground among people and corn, and an alien spaceship, in awe of what she was seeing, because never in her wildest dreams did she think her autistic son would speak. But she had hoped, God knows she had, and it took an alien encounter to trigger his speech.
Leia the dog, however, didn’t mind the situation and ran up first to the boy and the small figure next to him, and then to Stanley’s mother, father and grandfather.
“Don’t shoot!” Stanley shouted out on top of his lungs. “This is Ari. He is my friend. Please, everyone… don’t shoot.”
Sheriff and his men kept the alien and the spaceship in sight but lowered their guns, albeit hesitantly. Now someone needed to tell them what the protocol for this would be.
Ari was visibly frightened. His robot-computer didn’t anticipate this situation, but Ari figured things could have been much worse. These people must be the inhabitants of this planet, something computer warned him about before. Of course there were other life forms, he could see that, but humans appeared to be the ones in charge. When the young person had first approached him, before the others arrived, Ari was cautious. Stanley, that was the young person’s name which Ari learned later, responded with a weird outcry which meant nothing to Ari. “Wow,” was all the human boy said and just kept staring at Ari until his robot-computer broke the ice with some stupid joke about bad space weather that stranded them here. Computer’s involvement didn’t exactly clear things up, as Stanley only kept wowing and that creature whom he called Leia kept sniffing everything around her and even peed on Ari’s spaceship. It was a bioship in fact, and it could have smelled funny to the dog which explained her behavior. Despite being designed solely for home travel, the bioship could go through a vortex like taking a walk in the park, and that’s exactly what Ari did with it – took it through the vortex, a wormhole that connected his galaxy with Stanley’s. The rest was history.
“Who are you?” Stanley went first.
“I just got here. You can call me Ari.”
“So you’ve got a name, that’s cool. Did you come in that?” Stanley pointed in the direction of Ari’s spaceship.
“In fact I did. Don’t you have them here too?”
“Nope. Not that I know of.”
“We use them to travel across space. They are pretty handy.”
“So they are like cars to you?”
“Vehicles. For people to drive from place to place.”
“Something like that.”
“Do you go to school?”
“Just started. Not that it’s been much fun that is.”
“Me too! What’s your school like? Mine is boring. But we are having a summer break now.”
“I have never been on a summer break. What do you do?”
“In summer it gets warmer around here, and all this stuff grows here,” Stanley meant corn. “So we get to spend time without any classes or anything like that, just doing things for fun, and I get to help with the corn too.”
“We call it biomatter. In fact, I need this to fuel my… vehicle.”
“So that means… you won’t be staying?” Stanley suddenly realized that the boy he had just met must have had parents of his own, a home of his own, a place where he’d be missed if he didn’t come back. It meant only one thing – Ari couldn’t stay and be Stanley’s friend this summer like Stanley would have wanted very much. And that’s why Stanley felt sad in that particular moment.
“I really must return.” Ari thought real hard about his situation and understood how unfair he had been to his parents, and that flying alone to an unfamiliar planet was also quite foolish and irresponsible of him. “But I could hang out for a while till my computer’s done with repairs. If that’s all right with you?”
Of course it was all right. Stanley would give anything in the world to have a friend from another planet, even for an hour.
Now that the boys have talked a bit, it was time to explore the surroundings and Stanley offered to be Ari’s guide. The robot-computer tagged along to see if the corn was a suitable match for the ship’s engines. Leia came along too. The gang walked a bit in the dark; they almost got lost in the corn field but Leia found the way back to Ari’s ship just fine. There was plenty of corn to power up the engines which computer promised to fix in the meantime and while that was underway, Stanley and Ari got to chat a bit more. Stanley had some items in his backpack that Ari found peculiar. There was a story attached to every item, be it a harmonica or an energy bar, and Stanley was glad to tell them all. And then there was a bike, and the dog, and the lights coming from the ship. Ari never ever rode a bike before and found it quite an experience. In return he offered Stanley a tour of the ship explaining where everything was and what it all was for, because, as you and I both know, Ari was a young expert on spaceships of all classes and categories, and could tell with his eyes closed where all controls were because becoming a space pilot was Ari’s dream. The one that would come true one day, only Ari didn’t know that yet – and neither did he need to.
Never in his wildest dreams did Stanley think of being on a real starship with a real alien. The funniest thing about it all though was not that the wildest dream came true just like that, but that he didn’t think of Ari as an alien. In fact, even the starship didn’t feel like something out of this world to Stanley. The two boys hung out for a while chatting about things that all boys usually chat about regardless of what planet they are born on. Boys will always be boys, and will always get into trouble, and will always seek adventures that’d take them beyond the known horizons. And that’s what happened to Ari and Stanley.
And then someone fired two gunshots into the air.
Stanley, being used to farm life as he was, was also used to hearing gunshots and thought those were hunters trying to get a duck or a deer. But Ari never heard a gunshot fired from a rifle by a human on Earth before, and didn’t know whether he should have been afraid or not, so just to be on the safe side he chose to be afraid and stood there, scared and hoping for it all to go away before something bad happened.
Then two more gunshots were fired and Stanley heard voices shouting his name. In a few more seconds, the sheriff and his men turned up and started pointing their rifles at Ari who did nothing but stand there in front of his bioship. His robot-computer was still inside working on repairs, and it was up to Stanley to make sure his new friend didn’t get hurt because in his heart of hearts Stanley knew the sheriff didn’t come all this way here to chat. And so Stanley stepped forward, making just one small step, showing to the sheriff and his men that he was unharmed and there was no funny business going on, nothing for the grownups to get all worked up about.
“Don’t shoot!” Stanley shouted out on top of his lungs. “This is Ari. He is my friend from space. Please… don’t shoot.”
The spaceship took off right when Earth’s sun began to so beautifully paint the morning sky over the corn fields just outside Houston, and a group of grown up men and women stood there quite speechless, and a sad but happy little boy was waving goodbye to a new friend he had just made who was now going back to his home planet, and a frisky dog named Leia was running around with her tail up and cheering everyone.
Once the spaceship was gone, people on the surface turned to each other and smiled, all of them knowing deep down that not a single soul in the entire world would have believed their story of what had just happened to them on a starry summer night that year.
And none of them could have possibly known that Stanley and Ari were to meet again in the future. Much, much further into the future.
Camilla Stein ©2015. All rights reserved.