Sitting to the boy’s left was Captain Rona Ehti, and Jack-o was certain beyond any doubt this was the same man he’d gone on imaginary space adventures with. Though, the ship wasn’t at all the way he’d imagined it, in his head it had been a glorious, high-tech craft with all the latest in military and top-secret weaponry. Instead, what Jack-o was greeted by looked like it may have been scrapped together by a partially blind mechanic.
“What’s happening to me?” he asked so quietly had their surroundings been anything but metal, the words would’ve sunk into the walls. There was no telling how long it had been since he’d found the strength to open his eyes and peel himself off the macabre looking gurney. Neither was there any way to tell how long he’d been asleep, or if his time was even something that could be counted.
“How’s the tea?” Rona asked lightly. Jack-o looked over at the captain and nodded. “Good,” said the man before turning his attention back out into the vast expanse of stars. The boy followed suit and took another sip of the dark, rich tea.
“I’ve seen a great many things that would terrify most men into their beds, with their heads tucked safely under the covers for the rest of their lives. Worlds destroyed in front of my eyes for no other reason than greed, power, hate; usually a combination of the three. Alien races throughout the galaxy, enslaving other alien races throughout the galaxy,” Rona paused looking for the right words to console the boy. “The universe is a crazy, terrible, and beautiful place. Even after all I’ve seen I don’t know what, or why anything is happening to anyone, and I certainly am no closer to figuring out the meaning of it all. That being said, I do know a few things about a few things. So, if you want to start from the beginning, I’d be happy to help you get back to where you’re supposed to be.”
Jack-o smiled and let out a little giggle. It was unreal. Literally. He had to be dreaming. There was no way in his real life he was sitting in a junkyard spacecraft with one of his childhood storybook heroes. Another giggle surprised him and a little tea fell over the edge of the cup.
“Care to share, I’ve always been one for a good joke,” said Rona with a sideways glance.
“No I’m sorry,” said Jack-o giggling again between words. “It’s ju-just that, you’re not even real,” this time the giggle turned into a full blown nervous laugh. Rona turned from the view of the stars outside the craft and looked at Jack-o.
“Kid, I don’t know where you come from, or what happened to get you here but I promise you this,” he paused, “whether I’m real or not, right here right now, I am just a real as you are.” Jack-o stopped laughing and met Rona’s eyes. “Now, like I said, if you want to start from the beginning I’d be happy to help you in any way I can. But if all you want to do is sit next to me, laugh like a maniac, and debate what is and what is not real, then the next stop is yours.” His words weren’t delivered with cruelty, on the contrary, in his voice, there was a genuine concern that even a little boy could understand. It was the tone of a protector, the same one his own father used when he needed to be sure Jack-o heard his words.
Jack-o turned and stared back out into space.
“It was the man in the red cloak,” he said as his eyes began to heat up. “At least, I think he’s a man, I never saw his face. But he had a man’s voice.” Chills ran down his spine when he remembered the way it felt when the man had spoken to him. Like the voice was coming out of his ears instead of going into them. Rona was trained in reading the emotional state of countless beings in many different galaxies, but anybody with a brain could see the fear in the little boy when he spoke about the man in the red cloak.
“We don’t have to talk anymore now if you don’t want to…” Rona had just realized he didn’t even know the kids name. “What do I call you anyway?”
“Jack Peter Rae,” his mother’s voice called his name in his mind the way it had so many times in his life. She loved everything about her boy and said his full name regularly when she spoke to him.
“Jack-o,” he said to Rona without taking his eyes off the stars.
“Jack-o huh?” asked the Captain, pausing and hoping for further explanation.
“Yup,” said the boy disinterested.
“Well okay then Jack-o, go on and tell me what happened whenever you’re ready. There’s no rush, I was planning on experimenting with my new hyperdrive but haven’t tested it yet and couldn’t risk getting lost. So we’ve got some time to kill.” Rona’s voice became very official when he started talking about the ship. Jack-o snorted absentmindedly,
“Good choice. You miscalculated the amount of gravity necessary to maneuver between black holes and ended up floating through nothingness for all eternity.” The boy tried to catch his words but it was too late, the instinct to correct such a rookie mistake was stronger and faster than his own reaction time. Rona stared at the boy next to him without speaking, processing what he’d just heard.
“What do you know about installing and initiating a hyperdrive accelerator?” Jack-o hadn’t meant to tell the Captain that he read about his whole life in a storybook. Upon awakening, he decided that it may be the worst possible idea.
“Uhh… well umm… I actually was the son of a nuclear engineer who was in charge of hyperdrive accelerators, so I just picked up a thing or two,” the smoothness with which the lie crossed Jack-o’s lips was surprising, he’d never been a liar. In fact, the one he’d just told wasn’t even original, it was just a slightly modified background story from a character in another of his books.
“That so?” asked Rona with raised eyebrows. “You just happened to know without even seeing my calculations that they were off, and I would be lost in a black hole? I wasn’t aware nuclear engineers were also psychics.” Jack-o kept his gaze focused hard out the window and into space, sipping his tea hoping the Captain would get bored and just have to accept his answer.
“Kid, I hate to break it to you, but you lie about as well as a frogperson flies.” Caught off guard by the words he turned and looked at Rona, obviously confused. “Frogpeople don’t fly, not even a little,” the man sighed.
“Frogpeople?” They were never mentioned in the book and Jack-o was trying to put them together in his mind. Was the top half a man and the bottom a frog, or vice-versa? Or were they humanoid creatures with froggish features like slimy green skin, or the ability to jump unusually high?
“Yea kid, there’s a race out there in the universe of humanoid creatures with frog-like attributes. Nice people, really, but the smell on that planet it absolutely unbearable. Anyway,” he said waving the conversation away with his hands, “you don’t need to be worrying about frogpeople right now. How do you know I miscalculated the gravity in my formula?” Eyes back out the window.
“Hm, alright then,” said Rona also turning to look back out the cock-pit of the ship. “Well, I guess if you’re not going to explain yourself then I have no reason to believe you. Computer!” He called to the cabin air.
“Yes, Captain,” came a female’s voice from a ratty speaker on the ceiling behind their heads.
“Change of plan,” Jack-o listened to the man next to him, eyes widening with every new word that came out of his mouth. “Initiate the experimental hyperdrive accelerator,” Rona buckled his seat belts and looked at the terrified boy. “You’re gonna wanna buckle up.”
“You can’t do this! We’ll die!” To’ve made it through everything he had so far—whatever everything was—only to be doomed by a stubborn space pilot overwhelmed him.
“As far as I can tell kid I’ve taken every precaution, and I like a good risk now and again so we’ll jump straight to human testing.” Jack-o could see the small glimmer in his eye that every hero had. That blind courage needed to run into a burning building or dodge bullets to save a life other than your own.
“Countdown to hyperdrive. Five,” as the ships speed started to increase Jack-o knew he didn’t have a choice. The stars whizzed by faster and faster and the Captain’s smile widened in the flashing light.
“Four,” came the ladies voice from the scratchy speaker. For some reason, Jack-o couldn’t take his eyes off of Rona. He must suspect they were facing certain death, yet he was enjoying every minute of the ride and going fearlessly into the place beyond the night. Inside, the boy felt something grow in his chest, it was what he’d felt when his mother told him to get up while he was in the hole outside his barn. Perhaps it was what people felt when they were facing certain doom. The life slowing moment where a man—or boy—decides whether there is anything left for him in the world to try for. And he remembered the green rock, could see it in every flashing star that flew by.
“Three,” the voice was barely audible, and Jack-o saw exactly what Rona had meant when he said the universe was a crazy, terrible, and beautiful place. He felt it, and he knew if this was possible, so was anything.
“Because I read about it. I read about all of this in one of my books!” the boy screamed at the top of his lungs. His young voice was barely audible over the rattling speed of the ship, but Rona had heard. The Captain’s belt flew off and he dove forward fighting momentum with all his might, his finger landing on a red button and suddenly they were decelerating.
“Hyperdrive acceleration canceled.” The ship slowed quickly, and as Jack-o’s head spun he felt his stomach trying to push the little bit of tea that it held back up through his mouth.
“Whew,” exhaled Rona, “You had me going there for a minute Jack-o. Never thought you were lying about my miscalculation, like I said, you lie as well as a frogperson flies,” he paused to catch his breath. “I just wanted to know how you knew.” The man took another few deep breaths while Jack-o tried to focus on one thing and avoid vomiting in the small ship. “Never thought you’d let us get all the way to two,” he said shaking his head as he sat back down in his chair.
“But,” Jack-o paused, his cheeks expanded but he kept his mouth closed until the nausea subsided. “You were smiling,” his words were fast and forced, opening his mouth as little as possible. Rona chuckled.
“When you’ve looked into the face of death as many times as I have kid, there’s nothing else to do but smile.” They were both quiet for the next few minutes as they waited for stability to return to both of their bodies. It was the Captain who finally broke the silence.
“Lots of people have read about me. But none of them could’ve told me about my accelerator,” he said as he leaned forward and began configuring alien looking switches and toggles. Jack-o knew there was no way around explaining, it was simply going to be hard to explain something he himself didn’t understand at all.
“I read about you in a different kind of book. One that, until right now, I thought was made up.” The boy paused to read the reaction of Rona, waiting to see how this new information would sit with the man.
“Go on,” he said without turning from the ships controls.
“It’s a book about a legendary space captain named Rona Ehti, who is tasked with traveling to the center of the universe to save the last galaxy.” Jack-o spit it out as quickly as he could. Rona stopped playing with the knobs and just stared at the controls. “Which,” the boy said cautiously after a moment, “is exactly the quest you’re on right now isn’t it?” He wasn’t sure why he asked the question, of course, it was.
“Well, this certainly is a new one,” said Rona finally, leaning back into the chair.
“Your book was the one I was holding when the man in the red cloak reached for me,” said Jack-o dropping his gaze to his hands.
“So do you know what happens to me?” asked the Captain looking into the stars. Jack-o thought about the question, remembering the many alternate endings to the book, and came to a realization.
“No more than I know what happens to me,” and that was the truest thing he could’ve said. In the book, there was no option for, small future-telling boy appears on your ship.
“Yet you’ve read this book enough times to remember my hyperdrive miscalculation,” Rona’s voice didn’t carry and accusatory tone. It was more like a child who has just come to a major realization but is still trying to focus on the last piece of the big picture. Mystified.
“I’ve read a lot of different endings to your story,” said Jack-o carefully, hoping not to have to go into more detail about the various win and lose scenarios of the Captain’s life. “But, there was never a part in the book with a little boy appearing on your ship.” Jack-o stared hard at Rona, wondering what was going on in the man’s head, and hoping his words were comforting him in some way.
Suddenly it’s as if the conversation had never started.
“Well,” he popped up and started fidgeting with the ship’s controls again. “Storybook character isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever been told I was so I guess we better hit the road. But listen up kid,” he stopped his hands and looked at Jack-o, “while we’re out here if you have any other life-saving tidbits, you let me know immediately. No more waiting until we get all the way to two.” Rona smiled, “Now like I said earlier, we got a long way to go so why don’t you make yourself a little more tea, get comfy, and tell me your story since you already seem to know mine.”
“I don’t need any more tea. Thank you though,” he said. Still staring at Rona’s face he remembered the stars zipping brightly past and he thought of the green rock. “When you found me on your ship, did I have anything else with me?”
“As a matter-of-fact, you might’ve had a bag of some sort,” the Captain rubbed his chin sarcastically. Jack-o almost jumped out of his seat.
“Where is it!” the boy hadn’t meant to sound so demanding but the excitement overwhelmed him.
“Easy kid, I’ve got it in a locker at the back of the ship.” Rona reached into his pocket and when his hand returned there was a dull copper key in it. “This is the key,” he said holding it out in front of Jack-o. Instinctually the boy reached for it and the man’s hand quickly pulled away.
“Hey!” cried Jack-o grabbing the armrests for balance.
“I can’t give you this key until you tell me who you are, where you came from, and how exactly you got onto my ship. You seem like a good kid, but you have to understand you just told me you read about me in a book. I’m inclined to believe you cause it’s not the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me but, first you’re gonna have to give me a little more information.”
“That’s not fair, it’s my stuff,” said the boy steamily. Rona chuckled.
“You say you’ve read about my life, then you know I have plenty of enemies. None of whom I would say are above sending a child to kill me. And though the stuff in your bag looks pretty run-of-the-mill to me, a guy can never be too careful.” The smugness in the man’s voice made Jack-o’s face even hotter. It was the same arrogance every grown-up had when they knew a kid had no chance of getting his way, simply because they were bigger and older.
“Fine,” he said easing himself off the edge of the chair and back into his seat.
“Great!” said the Captain with a smile, “I’ll just keep this in my pocket until I’m sure you can be trusted and then we can move on.” Jack-o watched the key disappear into the man’s breast pocket and he made sure to meet Rona’s eyes with the sharpest, meanest glare he knew how. In his mind, the green light pulsated with his heart, the way it had in that mangled version of his home. It called to him and though he didn’t know why, he knew the strange rock was important to everything.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Rona said. Tears threatened his eyes at the thought of the words, mother and father. But he wouldn’t cry. Not in front of this man, not in front of anyone, ever again. Jack-o gulped swallowing the sadness.
“It was just a normal day…”