Jack-o loved using his imagination, when he read, so many times he felt like he’d already lived the stories. As if, instead of reading about these events in other people’s lives, they were a recording of his own journals. He’d always liked to pretend he knew the characters personally.
“How are all of the troops today?” his mother would ask lovingly. Some days the boy would stop and relay everything going on inside of his creative little mind while others, he’d be busy on a mission and unable to do anything but wave.
This day was not unlike any other at first. Jack-o had enjoyed a tiresome romp through the woods with a few of the knights from the roundtable in an attempt to vanquish the evil pond queen. Of course, her army stood no chance against the wholesome might of the boy and his companions. As dusk approached and order was restored to the forest pond, the young hero found himself ravenous.
Jack-o could smell salty meat and sweet pies wafting through the air, grabbing him by the nostrils and pulling him toward the quaint farm house. Stepping zombie-like up the porch stairs, letting his hunger take control of his body, he set down his makeshift sword and shield and walked into the house.
His mother turned the corner from the kitchen and met him at the door.
“Not yet hon, there’s a bit longer before dinner’ll be done,” her voice was soft and angelic. Jack-o barely had a moment to be disappointed before a warm biscuit appeared from behind her back.
“Your father’ll be down in a second then we’re going to take a walk around the farm while the pies finish up. You can snack on this for now.”
“Thanks, mom,” Jack-o said already stuffing the warm, buttery biscuit into his mouth as his father descended the stairs.
“Ready gang?” he asked cheerily, smacking his wife’s lips lovingly with his own.
“Ready,” they both said in unison and walked back out the front door. Orangey-reds painted the darkening blue sky above as they walked through the yard. Jack-o enjoyed the evenings when he and his family would walk around their farm simply to enjoy the land. Sometimes his parents would tell him stories of their childhood, other times they would tell him fantastical stories about knights and giants, wizards, kings, ancient worlds and distant times. His father was a magnificent storyteller, his mother always said that’s where Jack-o’s big imagination came from. And other nights, they would let the Earth tell the story for itself.
Another swallow of the warm biscuit and it was gone. The sun dipped quickly this time of year, but if one caught it on its way down they may think they were in their own magical book or elegant painting. This night was one of the ones where the Earth told the family its own story. Through the sounds of the rustling leaves, steadily increasing chirps of the crickets, croaks from the frogs; all around them the story was unfolding and Jack-o reached up, grabbing his parent’s hands on either side. They gave him a loving squeeze and he remembered looking up at them in that instant and thinking how perfect their little life was. Then the world shook. First one large quake.
“Honey?” his mother asked looking at her husband.
“Let’s get back to the house, I’m sure it’s—” another large rumble from the Earth sent his father falling to the ground before he could get the last words out.
“Dad!” called Jack-o as his hand pulled free. Thunder crashed loudly in the sky and the red in the clouds deepened to an unnatural hue. The sun seemed to be gone yet the sky got redder and redder until Jack-o thought blood may start raining down onto the farm. Lightning lit up the sky fiercely and struck the family’s barn setting it on fire. Another large rumble shook the ground and now the whole family was fighting to get back on their feet and regain balance. Everything was happening so fast, then, the world went silent. Jack-o saw a tree fall but heard nothing, saw his mother’s lips moving but couldn’t make out the words.
That’s when he appeared.
The boy couldn’t tell you when or where he came from. One minute he wasn’t there, the next he was. Standing behind his mother in a cloak the same blood red as the sky, he wrapped one arm around her and she was gone. Jack-o felt heavy, like the air around him was an ultra-thick goo that would only let him move in millimeters a minute. He managed to get his head turned in time to see his father with a red arm wrapped around his neck before he too was gone.
There one second, gone the next.
Finally, it was his turn. Jack-o could feel the man in the red cloak behind him, it was the way he imagined it felt to be in the presence of a ghost, but worse. People would say they felt cold, got the chills, maybe goosebumps; this was like all of those things combined with a heavy sense of despair and nothingness. And before the boy could turn to face his adversary, he lost consciousness.
Jack-o finished relaying the story still holding his scornful gaze on Rona, hoping the Captain could feel his anger at being forced to relive that day. The silence of the small cockpit was so loud it seemed to echo off the walls. Staring hard into the young boy’s eyes, with a deep breath, Rona leaned forward and held out the locker key.
“I am very sorry for your loss,” his face softened and slightly eased the boy’s anger. “Go ahead and grab your stuff. I have to get ready to take us in for landing.” Jack-o grabbed the key and the Captain turned back to the ship’s controls.
Slowly the boy got out of his chair and began walking toward the back of the ship.
“Just keep going straight, locker number one on your left,” said Rona without turning. The ship was much longer than it seemed from sitting in the cockpit and Jack-o found himself wondering what it looked like from the outside. There were only three lockers making it easy to find the one he was looking for. The air felt thinner toward the back of the ship, as if due to lack of use it had become stale.
The key slid easily into the locker and it swung open with a small grinding, sqqquuueeeaaakkk. On the grey metal floor of the locker sat his backpack, his hands shook as he reached out to grab the purple bag. Before he’d even pulled the yellow zipper back an inch the green light was beating its way out, glowing hypnotically and Jack-o could feel his lungs using more of the stale oxygen and had to remind himself to stay calm and breathe slowly. Once the bag was fully unzipped he grabbed the rock and held it up in front of his face.
It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. The light seemed to come from every crack and crevice on the smoothly jagged rock. Like a piece of glass cliff broke off into the sea, keeping its shape but having the sharp edges softened by the sands. His face got closer and closer and inside he felt like he could see the suns of a thousand worlds. There were animals and other creatures that he’d never been given words for dancing, laughing, fighting, living. Around him the metal box that was hurdling through space had disappeared, his body was warm and the rock was now touching his forehead. Something inside of him was changing, he thought of his parents and remembered the final squeeze of his hand before the man in the red cloak appeared.
The man in the red cloak.
Jack-o pulled the rock away from his face as the glow faded, he stared at it and knew where his life was to lead him next. Moving his hand to place the rock back into the bookbag, he stopped and decided to keep it in his pocket. Something about the eerie mineral made Jack-o feel like he should never part with it again. It was all he had left of his old home, his old world, it was as much a part of him now as the fingers wrapped around it.
Checking through the rest of the bag he found everything in place. The couple sets of clothes, his family’s picture which he’d made sure to keep face down for the time being—the boy wasn’t sure how much more emotion he could handle at the moment—and Farore the brave bear who managed to make it into space. Jack-o smiled as he held his stuffed friend in both hands, re-living the memory of finding him at the flea market with his mother. Giving it a good squeeze before putting it in the bag, he got to the two books he’d brought with him.
“You’re gonna wanna hold onto something kid!” the Captain’s voice echoed metallically down the hallway. Jack-o barely had time to brace himself on a wobbly pipe sticking out of the wall before the ship jolted harshly. His bag slid across the room and after another few rapid jolts from the ship it came to a screeching halt.
As stability returned to the vessel Jack-o ran to his bag, quickly zipping it tightly and throwing it over his shoulder.
“Whew!” he heard Rona say as he ran to the front of the ship. “She doesn’t touch down as lightly as she used to.” Jack-o looked out the front window and saw the words IntraUniversal Collective, written above a large white building. His eyes widened.
“Wait Rona no!” he said frantically. During all the time he’d been telling the Captain about his own recent tragedy and being angry, the boy hadn’t been paying attention to the course they were currently on. He’d read a great many endings to the great Captain Ron Ehti’s life, none of them were good from this point on.
“No what?” the man asked as he unbuckled his belt and stood up with a stretch. “We’re only gonna be here for a few minutes,” he said looking out at the empty hangar. “Hm, strange there’s nobody here to greet us though.” Jack-o grabbed his arm as the man started walking toward the back of the ship.
“Rona you don’t understand, none of this ends well. There’s nothing you can do. Please, let’s turn around and head to Earth, there may still be time,” there was panic in the young man’s voice that couldn’t be ignored. Rona stopped.
“You know this?” he asked without looking back at Jack-o.
“I do,” said the boy softly, letting go of the man’s arm.
“How is it you know?” Jack-o felt confused, he’d already explained about reading all of this in his books.
“I, read it,” he said slowly.
“In the story, when you read it, was there a little boy with the ability to tell the future, who magically appeared on the spacecraft?” Captain Rona looked back over his shoulder slyly smirking at the boy before he continued walking.
“No!” yelled Jack-o reaching for the man’s arm again with both hands. “That’s not what I meant when I said it. This time, I do know what happens to you, you die! In every scenario, you die!” Inside, his stomach filled with the angry moths of anxiety. Not only was this one of the boy’s favorite heroes, Rona was the only person Jack-o had in his life right now. What would he do without him in this strange place with a rickety ship that he didn’t know how to fly?
The Captain stopped once more, this time turning and kneeling to meet Jack-o’s eyes on his own level.
“Listen, kid,” he said comfortingly, “I know you’ve been through a lot. And I believe that you’ve read some versions of my life in a book, in some other reality, in some other time. But I also believe that I control my own destiny. By you being here I know now to be suspicious of everything and everyone I come across while I’m on this planet. That alone may have just saved my life, or lives if you rather. So don’t worry,” he said with a smile, “today is not Captain Rona’s Ehti’s day to die. And if it is, he’ll die with a smile.”
Jack-o listened to the Captain and wanted to believe his words, but he knew what was on the other side of that hangar. Even in the ending where Rona defeats everyone, he still doesn’t make it himself, or at least that’s what one can assume.
“Use the full armor, and go in through the front. Don’t wait until two,” Jack-o said before giving the hero he’d fought alongside in his imagination so many times a tight hug around the neck.
“You got it kid,” said Rona as he let go of the boy and stood back up. Jack-o watched him walk to the end of the ship and a hatch reluctantly let go falling to the ground with a mild slam. The Captain walked down the metal stairs and stopped at the bottom turning back to Jack-o.
“See you in a few,” he said with a wave. The boy waved back as the hatch raised itself squeakily and Captain Rona Ehti vanished from sight.
“No, you won’t,” said Jack-o. Turning away from the hatch he looked around the ship. “What now?” he asked himself quietly. In the back of his mind, he was still hoping this was some terribly vivid dream that he would wake up from at any moment. Breathing in the stale air deeply he hopped into the captain’s seat, it was still warm from Rona’s body. An alien mix of knobs and levers stared back at him from under the front window. There was no point in waiting for Rona. Beyond the hangar, the IUC board members had been slaughtered by Renpart, the captain’s ex-partner, and he was waiting with an army intent on only one thing. Killing Rona. The only ending where he may not have died he’s in full body armor and walks into the room with guns blazing as the door closes, leaving the reader to decide his fate for themselves.
Jack-o’s hand was warm, he looked down and noticed he’d been holding the outside of his pocket where the green rock was glowing for, who knows how long. He didn’t remember putting it there. Fighting the urge to take the gem from his pocket and get lost in its eerie inner world again, he tried to figure out how to get away from what could erupt into a war zone at any moment.
Grabbing his bag off the floor he unzipped it, pulled out Farore, and set the bear in his lap. Just before he was about to get to work on the ships controls, he stopped and reached back into the bag. He grabbed one of the books he’d brought with him, Into Gold, was the title. It was about a man named Temron who had to try and find another place for humans to go before the sun cooked what was left of the Earth. His mother had never been a fan of the short novel, it was meant for children two or three years older than Jack-o was. But his father had read it to him, deeming it okay for the boy to have, and it quickly became one of his favorite books.
Staring at the worn off-white cover, he wasn’t really sure why he’d pulled it from the bag. The sounds of gunshots sang out across the air and Jack-o knew time was running out, yet he couldn’t pull his eyes away from the book. His heart began to beat heavily and he could feel the rock getting warmer in his pocket. Turning the book over and focusing on the blurb, his father’s voice narrated the words in his head. The metal walls of the ship seemed to fade into a dull gray blur on the outskirts of his vision and Jack-o’s head began to feel light. He took a deep breath and the air no longer seemed stale. He continued reading the blurb to himself and his body felt like it was filling with helium with every word. The sound of bullets bouncing off the ship’s exterior was nothing more than the pitter-patter of rain drops in the boy’s ears.
The sound of his father’s voice vanished as he finished the last word on the back cover. Letting the book fall open he thumbed to the first page. His mind felt disconnected from the world around him, he wasn’t sure but he thought he could hear voices outside the hatch.
“Desert was spreading across the Earth like a contagious rash,” read Jack-o aloud just under his breath. The rock in his pocket exploded with green light and the boy felt like he would be blinded. His head felt so light he thought it may lift off his shoulders and the inside of his body felt like it was being forced outward. The sensation wasn’t painful, nor did it feel good. It was overwhelming and the boy felt his mind getting darker as his consciousness was giving up. Just before his eyes closed he heard the rusty squeal of the back hatch followed by a slam and someone boarding. Jack-o didn’t get a chance to see who’d entered the ship, but he liked to think it was Rona returning from another successful mission.