When Tommy Burke took me out to Gundark Island to see the alien, I wasn’t really expecting much. Maybe I was just going because I thought it would be cool to take a ride in Tommy’s canoe. Or maybe I was just hoping Tommy might turn out to be a friend. If there really was an alien there, too, then all the better.
After passing a hand-painted sign that said “Please Don’t Feed the Alien,” we came to a clearing in the middle of the island where I saw a lump in the ground. At first it looked like a small boulder, except that it had a grayish-purple tint to it. Upon closer inspection it vaguely appeared to have scales. Tommy walked around the lump and explained in an authoritative, tour-guide voice that the alien was actually like an iceberg, with most of the body underground and only a sensory crown poking above the surface. He said it was in hibernation at the moment, so he wouldn’t let me touch it, for fear of waking it up.
It really just looked like a painted rock. Tommy had charged me a dollar to come take a look, and ultimately I was kind of peeved that the alien was such a disappointment, but mostly peeved at being out a dollar. Tommy went on about the alien being reptilian in nature, and having tentacles that slithered half a mile underground to help regulate its body temperature. I didn’t actually pay much attention to what he was saying at that point because I didn’t really believe him.
But when we left the clearing and I looked back over my shoulder, I thought maybe I saw an eye in the middle of the mass.
And it was looking at me.
• • • •
That was the summer of 1983, and I was nine. My family had just moved to a small town in upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border. (I can’t really give you the exact name of the town, for fear of compromising certain alien endeavors—you’ll see why eventually). But we had a house near Lake Champlain (I’ll give you that much), and there was a private beach at the end of our street, complete with a dock and boat slips. We could go fishing or swimming or sailing anytime we wanted, there were creeks and cliffs and woods to explore. And there was Gundark Island, a small little bit of undeveloped state land about a half mile out from our beach. It was really an all-around great place for a kid to find adventure.
Naturally all those perks didn’t mean much if you didn’t have any friends to share them with. But it turned out that Tommy Burke not only became my first friend in the neighborhood, he also became my best friend. Tommy would always charge new kids a dollar to see the alien the first time, just as an initiation, but after that we were all part of the club. And once I was in, Tommy and I hit it off like long-lost brothers. In fact, over time we formed the core of the neighborhood gang, and while other kids would come and go, we were always the two constants.
There was never any doubt, however, that Tommy was the leader. Tommy had red hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose, and an infectious enthusiasm. He was also a year older than the rest of us, which gave him an instant credibility. And Tommy always knew the alien was real. The way he talked about it, you could tell he wasn’t just dropping a line, he truly believed. What made Tommy so special, though, was that he never talked down to us about that belief, and he never forced it on us.
I also learned quickly that Tommy liked to throw around strange alien words and ideas, and he said once the ability to believe was directly related to a person’s oro’nahtoo. When I asked him about oro’nahtoo, he merely claimed it was an old mystic concept from the Second Aldebaran Empire. (I’m guessing here at the spelling of oro’nahtoo, since he never actually wrote it down). But apparently you had to have oro’nahtoo in order to believe in aliens hibernating underground on remote islands in upstate New York. And Tommy was content to let people find their own oro’nahtoo, at their own pace and in their own way.
I suppose I was young enough then to accept such a bizarre explanation without question. It wasn’t until much later, of course, that I truly understood what he meant.
• • • •
One day, as Tommy and I paddled out to Gundark Island, I asked him what a Gundark was. He stared at me like I had just sprouted a third eye, then he said, “You know, from The Empire Strikes Back? When Luke is recovering in the rebel base on Hoth and Han Solo tells him he looks strong enough to pull the ears off a Gundark?”
I had to explain to him that I had never seen The Empire Strikes Back, at which point his head nearly imploded in disbelief.
Actually, I had only been to a small handful of movies in my life. It’s not that my parents didn’t want me to see movies, they just weren’t all that interested in them, and so never felt the need to take me. They were more into social events—live theater and dances and things like that.
So that summer, when it came out in re-release to the old theater downtown, Tommy grabbed the money he had saved up from showing off the alien on Gundark Island and took me to see Star Wars.
And that’s when everything changed.
• • • •
The next time I ventured out to Gundark Island with Tommy and the rest of the neighborhood gang, we saw right away the alien had grown. It was gigantic—at least ten feet high and twenty feet wide. It was pulsing, with foul, dank breath wheezing out of several mucus-covered air holes. And the eye was there, at the top of the dome, looking in a full circle around the clearing, just scanning and peering. And waiting. For us.
We all hid behind the trees, and Tommy was the first to gulp down his fear. “It’s morphed,” he said. “Hibernation period must be over. This is big trouble.” He pulled something out of his pocket. It was an Imperial blaster—storm trooper issue. He nudged me and said, “You’re the quickest. You’ve gotta get a sample of the mucus, that’s the best way to gauge if its tentacles are still rooted or not. I’ll cover you.”
I felt a sudden burst of courage—like I was Luke Skywalker, ready to take on the Empire himself. When the eye swept around to the other side of the clearing, I dashed up to the sinewy, muscle-lined trunk of the creature, trying to be as quiet as possible. But just as I dared to reach my hand into one of the slimy, rasping air holes, something grabbed my feet and yanked me into the air. Tommy yelled, “Look out, kid!” and I heard a staccato of blaster shots. Other voices shouted in panic. Suddenly there was a swarm of tentacles around me, all of them flailing and snapping, with more erupting out of the earth from the base of the alien.
The tentacle that held my leg swung me upside down in front of the alien’s great slavering mouth, and I figured my time was up. But then another shot from Tommy’s blaster hit the alien square in the eye, and I felt hands grabbing me and pulling me out of the tentacle’s grip. Somehow my friends carried me through the maze of groping limbs out to the edge of the clearing and then on through the forest. Tommy trailed after us in his best Han Solo imitation, firing the blaster at anything that slithered.
When we finally broke through to the shoreline by the canoe, we all collapsed on the rocks, and after catching my breath I said to no one in particular, “I don’t think the tentacles are rooted anymore.”
Then Tommy stumbled in behind us, gasping and panting. His face was full of dirt and sweat, and his shirt was torn. But he just grinned and said, “Holy crap, that was awesome! Let’s do it again tomorrow!”
To which we all agreed with enthusiastic hoots and howls.
• • • •
So we went back the next day, and the day after that, and as often as we could over the summer. Tommy was the one who said the alien reminded him of the Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. That was the giant, tentacled mouth in the deserts of Tatooine that Jabba the Hut tried to throw Han and Luke into. We figured that was a pretty good comparison, so from that point on we always referred to the alien as “the Sarlacc.”
Tommy also said the Sarlacc was an advanced scout for a potential invasion from 61 Cygni. Since its tentacles weren’t rooted in the ground anymore that meant it was getting ready to leave the island—and it was up to us to stop it. The Sarlacc was too big to overcome with brute force, but Tommy figured the alien had a very permeable skin and an extremely high concentration of circulatory water on its underside—hence the need for insulating mucus. He also deduced that—just like a slug—the Sarlacc would be susceptible to extreme dehydration from salt.
So we armed ourselves with buckets of salt and tried to shovel it under the Sarlacc’s trunk, but the alien fought us off every time we approached. In the end, the best we could do was line the edge of the clearing on Gundark Island with the salt so the Sarlacc didn’t escape when the lake froze over. (Somehow my father couldn’t figure out why we kept going through so many bags of salt pellets for the water softener that month—and I didn’t offer any theories).
Eventually school came around again, though, and we couldn’t get out to the island as much. And when winter finally arrived, the best we could do then was sit at home and daydream about what evil the Sarlacc was plotting. Lake Champlain could be dangerous when it froze over, and our parents forbade us from venturing past the beach. So saving the planet would have to wait until spring.
It occurred to me then that I still wasn’t sure what a Gundark really was.
But it didn’t really matter.
I just knew it had to be cool.
• • • •
Whenever Tommy and I got together it was always at my house, or out in the neighborhood, or down by the lake. Tommy said he lived a few miles up the road, in a different housing development, but the odd thing was, we never actually went over to his house. In fact, I never met his parents, not even once. He said his mother worked a night shift at the VA hospital and had to sleep during the day, while his father was a traveling sales rep for a bread distribution company. Tommy’s parents had a rule that he couldn’t have friends over when his dad was out of town.
Of course, as a kid, it never really occurred to me to wonder why Tommy’s dad was always out of town.
That’s just the way it was.
One day after school in late December, however, Tommy came over to my house and showed me a beat-up paperback book. The cover art depicted several giant green men with tusks and four arms and long, deadly swords. That was tantalizing enough, but there was also a brawny man carrying a mostly naked woman down a set of ruined stairs in a ruined city, and that certainly looked interesting.
So on the day in early spring when Tommy and I finally got permission to use the canoe, we cheered and ran like madmen back down to the beach. The Sarlacc was holding Dejah Thoris captive and it was the duty of John Carter and Tars Tarkas to rescue the incomparable Princess of Helium. After battling our way through a patrolling horde of green warriors from Warhoon, we approached the center of the island. We both assumed the Sarlacc now would be twice as big as last year, with three extra mouths and maybe new poisoned darts it could shoot out of the ends of its tentacles.
We were shocked when we entered the clearing, however, and found that the Sarlacc was almost dead. The creature’s central mass lay slumped over on the ground, its tentacles were limp and shriveled, and the central eye stared off blankly into space. Tommy got up the courage to go poke it, but that did nothing. We decided it couldn’t be suffering from last year’s salt, because we had never gotten to its trunk, and the ring around the clearing had long since washed away.
After a while we sat down next to the Sarlacc, broke out the stash of Twinkies we had brought in our backpacks, and pondered this sudden mystery. Tommy surmised it might be a War of the Worlds scenario—the Sarlacc had contracted an Earthly disease, like chicken pox, or herpes, or scurvy, and maybe it had no natural defense against it. But then I noticed the Sarlacc’s great eye was staring straight at me, and I heard a rustle at my feet. I looked down to see one of the tentacles grab a twin pack of Twinkies from the backpack and slowly drag it to the Sarlacc’s limp mouth. The Sarlacc then started munching away noisily.
That’s when Tommy hit upon the answer—the Sarlacc was starving. It hadn’t eaten all winter. So Tommy and I gave it the rest of our Twinkies, and the eye of the Sarlacc seemed almost grateful.
The next day we brought the other neighborhood kids out to the island, and as we all stood in a circle around the Sarlacc we decided that even though it was a bloodthirsty invader bent on enslaving the world, we couldn’t just let it die. Of course, we certainly weren’t going to waste any more Twinkies on it, alien or not, so after much debate, we all pitched in, bought an entire case of whole frozen chickens at the local supermarket, paddled them out to the island and fed them to the alien. The Sarlacc gladly crunched them up, bones and all.
We did this on and off for several weeks while the Sarlacc recovered. (About that time, we also figured it was best to take down the sign that said “Please Don’t Feed the Alien.”) Tommy then deduced that the Sarlacc wasn’t really an advanced scout for an invasion force, it was actually an inter-dimensional guardian planted on Earth to protect mankind from other aliens, at least until mankind developed enough to protect itself.
From that point on, the Sarlacc was our ally, and a member of the group—which came in handy when we had to penetrate and destroy a Cylon basestar, or capture and re-program a T-101 cyborg Terminator unit from the future, or outsmart the superior intellect of Khan Noonien Singh.
Tommy, of course, was always the driving force behind our success and our fun. He was the brains of the outfit, while the Sarlacc was the brawn. With them, it didn’t really matter what the galaxy threw our way, be it a rogue Gorn or a full army of nine-foot Psychlos. We were the rulers of Gundark Island, and it seemed nothing could defeat us.
I like to think we all could have gone on having fun out on that island forever, lost in that great, perpetual summer of our youth. And maybe we would have, if not for the most horrific turn of events that I could possibly imagine at the time.
Tommy Burke moved away.
• • • •
It was less than two weeks from the time Tommy told me the news to the time he left. His dad got a promotion in the distribution company and took a supervisory job at the headquarters downstate in Albany. On his last day, we met down at the beach one more time so he could give me the key to the padlock on the old canoe. He said he had permission from his parents to leave it to me and the rest of the boys. It wasn’t really worth much, and apparently there weren’t any lakes near the neighborhood they were moving to.
Before we parted, Tommy tapped the side of his head near his temple and said, “Oro’nahtoo.” Then he walked away. I’ll always have that mental image of Tommy strolling down the beach, his red hair flashing in the setting sun as he turned and waved at me one last time.
I went out to Gundark Island with the guys after that on a few occasions, but it wasn’t quite the same. I thought maybe I could fill Tommy’s place in the group, but it was a harsh reality that I didn’t have quite the flair and imagination that Tommy did. None of us had it, really. No one complained, but our last trip to the island came well before the lake froze over for winter.
Tommy and I wrote a few letters back and forth over the next few months, but eventually I sent one that got no reply, and that was the last I heard from him.
• • • •
From that point on I usually went out to Gundark Island alone, and mostly to escape the real world. There was no sign of the Sarlacc anymore, only a small, plain boulder in the middle of the clearing where the alien used to be. I would often bring a book to read in the quiet solitude. So it was there that I learned that the First Galactic Empire was still alive, and discovered the identity of the Mule, and the true location of the Second Foundation. I eagerly joined the battle of House Atreides against House Harkonnen, then I did my patriotic duty and signed up with the Mobile Infantry to go fight the Bugs on Klendathu.
In the middle of summer in 1986, I went out to Gundark Island to read a book called Ender’s Game. I sat on a blanket in the clearing, my back to the big rock in the center. At some point I realized that I no longer felt like Luke Skywalker, ready to take on the Empire himself, but more like Ender Wiggin, alone in a world of games with difficult rules and implications beyond my skill to understand.
Then a voice in my head said: Is that a good story?
I jumped to my feet, caught off guard that I was not alone. But I didn’t see anyone nearby.
No, down here.
I looked down and saw that the small boulder had turned purple-ish grey, with subtle stripes on it.
Have you forgotten me already?
It dawned on me then that this must be the Sarlacc. But it was a new and different Sarlacc—smaller and more delicate. Its tentacles were thin and its body was covered in a soft, striped hair, almost like a purple tabby cat.
I asked hesitantly, “How come you never spoke before?”
You weren’t ready then. I think you are now.
The Sarlacc seemed to be speaking directly into my mind, perhaps some form of telepathy. I said out loud: “What are you?”
An alien, of course. From your perspective, at least.
“Well . . . What are you doing here?”
Just doing my job. I’m what you might call a “seeder.”
I sat down on my blanket to face the Sarlacc. “What does that mean? You’re seeding this world?”
I’m incubating a cache of eggs. My species is few in number, and incubation is a long, tedious process. We choose secluded places on secluded planets to maximize reproductive diversity. That way if one nest is compromised, there are still plenty more to carry on.
I piped in, “Sorta like, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’ right?”
The Sarlacc paused for a moment then said, Actually, my eggs are not in a basket. (And if a multi-tentacled alien could look confused, this one sure did).
“Yeah, well . . . never mind.”
Anyway, I’m only here until my shift is up. A replacement is scheduled to take over when I go off duty.
“When is that?”
In about a thousand years. Your Earth years, I mean.
“Huh . . . So does that mean you’re . . . well, like a girl alien? I mean a female?”
Of the five gender variants of my species, I most closely parallel the female of your species, in that I produce physical offspring. For now, at least.
That’s how the conversation went for the first hour, as I tried to understand what exactly I was talking to. It turned out the last humans the Sarlacc had spoken with belonged to a small patrol of British troops from the War of 1812. After that, it had only seen an occasional fisherman or state park ranger for many years. And that was why it decided to break its silence and speak to me.
It’s against regulations to interact with the natives. I receive occasional language updates and periodic protocol briefs from my superiors. But I still get bored. It’s nice to talk for a change.
And so we talked on into the afternoon, mostly about what I knew of local history since the War of 1812—which wasn’t all that much. But eventually the sun started setting and I had to leave.
The Sarlacc said, I still have many questions for you. Please come back soon.
I said that I would.
Because, really, how could I not?
• • • •
Maybe that wasn’t the proper way to handle an encounter with an alien life form. Maybe I should have gone to NASA, or the CIA, or the local zoo—or maybe the New York State Asylum for the Insane, where I could check myself in. But the way the Sarlacc talked to me, I knew it wasn’t a threat, to me or to the world. It wasn’t a xenomorph from LV-426 with acid for blood. It sounded like all it really wanted was a friend to talk to.
Over the next few years, I often visited with the Sarlacc. It always asked me to bring books, and at first I snuck out my parent’s copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica—one volume at a time. Then the Sarlacc asked for my algebra and chemistry textbooks, then Newton’s Principia and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (which brought it a few chuckles). Then it was more current scientific journals and magazines and publishing abstracts. The checkout clerk at the library must have thought I was the smartest kid in upstate New York.
One day as I was leaving Gundark Island the Sarlacc said—Bring that other book with you next time.
“What other book?” I asked.
The one you were reading when I first spoke to you.
“Ender’s Game? Why?”
I want to read it.
And so I brought it. It was always somewhat comical to see the Sarlacc holding a book with its tentacles, flipping pages occasionally, its eye flitting back and forth as it read. The Sarlacc seemed to note my amusement, but when it finished Ender’s Game it said, Huh . . . Kids running an interstellar war. Typical Altairian strategy, I suppose . . .
• • • •
My sophomore year of high school, the Sarlacc showed me how to build a crude power supply out of an array of car batteries and a bank of solar cells that I ordered out of an Edmund Scientific catalog. I hooked them up to a television with rabbit ears in a small shack so the Sarlacc could watch local TV and stay up on current news (although its favorite show was actually Star Trek: The Next Generation). That took most of my paper route money for the year, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t have many close friends in high school, so the Sarlacc filled that role for me. Whenever I finished a science fiction book, I would give it to the Sarlacc, who would also read it. We spent many long afternoons debating the HAL 9000’s level of sentience, or the best dragon-riding strategy for burning thread out of the skies over Pern, or who would win a duel between Roy Batty and R. Daneel Olivaw.
Several years passed like that, each discussion and each day blending right into the next, the way it does for young people who are still more concerned about how much time is behind them rather than how much time is left in front of them. When I wasn’t looking, I somehow graduated from high school, full of enough optimism and devoid of enough experience to think that anything was possible.
• • • •
I decided to attend Syracuse University—away from home, but not too far away. And there, for the first time since Tommy Burke left, I found other people like me. In the beginning, I was a Stranger in a Strange Land—in reverse. I was from Earth, and everyone else was a Martian who could speak this different literary language and grok the true meaning of science fiction. Discussions with these people weren’t like my discussions with the Sarlacc. They introduced me to the classic authors, and the Golden Age. Together we rode the New Wave and shared Dangerous Visions, and somewhere along the line I became Gully Foyle, jaunting from steampunk to cyberpunk to biopunk, from Transrealism to Post-Futurism. We jaunted deeper and deeper until eventually I found myself immersed in a counter-culture of dystopian realities and post-apocalyptic metaphysical revelations.
I tried to visit the Sarlacc when I went home, but I didn’t make it every time. Once I went out to Gundark Island and the Sarlacc mentioned the series finale of Star Trek. I told the Sarlacc I hadn’t seen it. Star Trek just didn’t seem quite as relevant as it had before—it was an old storytelling model. All the new stories I had read weren’t about stiff, traditional heroes, they were about anti-heroes, full of faults and inner demons. Anti-heroes had to be edgy, and they couldn’t be relevant if the majority liked them, they had to be oppressed, and they couldn’t be happy.
The Sarlacc merely said, Really? I didn’t know that.
On another visit I then explained to the Sarlacc that the colored races of Barsoom meant that Burroughs was a bigot at heart. Starship Troopers was an unrealistic utopian construct that Heinlein merely used as a vehicle for his own political views. And Ender Wiggin’s miraculous escape from xenocidal accountability really ranked him up there not just with Hitler, but with Houdini.
The Sarlacc said, I guess it is true, then—you can’t please all the people all the time. Not on this planet, at least.
And for a moment I doubted myself. But the Sarlacc didn’t ask about Star Trek again after that, and I stopped trying to explain things to it. What did it know, anyway, stuck for centuries out on an island in the middle of nowhere?
By the time I graduated from college, I was armed with a Voight-Kampff test for fiction. My mission was to judge what was real and what was artificial, to “retire” replicant ideas that were phony. And, really, why limit the test to fiction? People were walking, talking stories as well. We all had the false faces we showed to other people, and the real faces we hid underneath. What was real and what was fake? With my newly acquired analytical tools, I thought I could tell.
But just like Rick Deckard, I was afraid to try the test on myself.
• • • •
In college I had learned some rudimentary skills in 3D computer animation. So when I graduated, I found a job with a production company that designed visual aids for government grant proposals and research projects. I moved to Philadelphia, where I got married and had a son and got on with my life. I actually went several years without seeing the Sarlacc. But I wasn’t worried too much—it was still on a thousand-year shift and I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.
After taking that job in Philadelphia, though, I was no longer Rick Deckard, armed with the power of the Voight-Kampff test. I was too busy to worry about what was real and what was fake. All I knew was that my mortgage was real enough. And I hardly even read much anymore. The few movies I saw were Disney or cheap Disney knock-offs, and the television shows were Doodlebops and Dora the Explorer. Now I was lost in the Brave New World of dueling Halloween displays and 401k employer contribution percentages, somehow trying to prove I was better than the ninety-five other Bokanovsky brothers down the street.
When I did occasionally visit the Sarlacc in person, I mostly complained about the monotony of my job. I was really nothing more than an automaton, ruled by the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not harm the company’s bottom line, or, through inaction, allow the bottom line to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders of upper management, except where such orders conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must never refuse to work overtime, especially in support of the First and Second Laws.
The Sarlacc was not overly sympathetic. Your pessimism makes my heads hurt. All three of them.
“You have three heads?” I said in amazement. “Where are the other two?”
The Sarlacc ignored the question and cocked its great, single eye at me. When was the last time you watched Star Wars?
I shrugged. I couldn’t really remember. After a long silence the Sarlacc eventually said: You should go home. Kick back and relax. Watch Star Wars.
So I went home—to the deadlines, to the overtime, to the mortgage. But I didn’t watch Star Wars. I just didn’t have time. Besides, I’d seen it before.
• • • •
I did not visit the Sarlacc again for several years. And I probably would have gone many more years without visiting, if not for the terrible news I received on the phone early one morning—that my father had passed away. I returned home to help my mother set all his affairs in order, and take care of the funeral arrangements. It is a terrible irony that those who have to take care of funeral arrangements are those who are in the worst state of mind to do so. But somehow we managed.
Before I left again, I went out to Gundark Island in the little canoe. My father had kept it in the back yard, even though he never used it. But when I pulled up to the shore of the island, I knew something was different. And when I entered the clearing in the middle, there was no alien there with purple fur and tentacles, there wasn’t even a boulder with spotted moss. There was just a scattering of old bones, like a rib cage collapsed in on itself.
I sat there a while, thinking I could hear the echoes of Tommy Burke as he led a Fremen counter-attack against a full Sardaukar battalion, or the cheers of the neighborhood kids as we toppled an Imperial walker on the ice plains of Hoth. Or maybe I could still hear the Sarlacc’s often sarcastic yet always optimistic voice.
I missed them all.
• • • •
As I waited for my flight home out of Burlington, I wandered the airport bookstore. I thought maybe I would buy a book to read to take my mind off the loss of my father. But when did it change that it now cost half a week’s pay just for a paperback? Now it was easier and cheaper to buy books online, though all you got was a file on a computer. You couldn’t hold a file in your hands, or admire its dust jacket, or display it in the collection on your shelf.
In the end, I left the store without buying a book.
On the airplane, I considered watching a movie on my iPhone. But I didn’t do that either. It used to be the only place to see a movie was a theater. And once the movie was gone, the best you could do was imagine it, or dream about it. It would percolate in your mind that way, and eventually grow larger than life. But now you could watch a movie sitting at a bus stop, or sitting on the toilet.
Somehow the “awe” factor was diminished.
• • • •
Several months after my dad passed away, on a Saturday morning, I heard the doorbell ring. I opened the door and no one was there, but a small package sat on the welcome mat. When I opened it up I found an old hardback book entitled, A Princess of Mars. I thumbed through the book and could smell the age rising out of the pages. I checked the copyright—1917. And on the inside cover, written in old, faded ink, was the following message:
I checked outside again but the street was empty, and I didn’t hear a delivery truck at all. It was a mystery—or a very odd joke. But that night, while my wife graded homework papers and my son played Nintendo, I read that story again for the first time since I was a kid. And when I fell asleep later, I dreamed of a grand adventure on a dying world, full of chases across the desolate plains of Thark and battles in the smoking skies over Zodanga.
For a long time after that, I was John Carter, a pulp hero whose deeds were noble, and whose heart was pure—a pulp hero who could escape from any dungeon and conquer an entire world. That’s when I decided to quit my job. It took a long time to convince my wife that I wasn’t crazy, but we put our house up for sale and moved back to upstate New York. I bought a new house in the town where I grew up. It was still the beautiful, gentle haven that I remembered. It was the perfect place to shed the weight of the Big City and get back to basics—and the perfect place to raise my little boy. I started working graphic design projects over the internet from home while my wife found a job teaching first grade.
As soon as I could after settling into our new home, I borrowed the canoe from my mother and set out for Gundark Island. When I got there, though, I saw that nothing had changed. There were only the scattered bones, and the clearing was becoming overgrown. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, or why I felt disappointed. But I didn’t let it bother me. Instead I picked up a piece of bone and stuck it in my pocket. I went home and put my copy of A Princess of Mars on the fireplace mantle, where I could display it as the centerpiece among the rest of my book collection. And I put the fragment of bone in a small decorative box next to it.
Ultimately, it was not my destiny to conquer the world, but maybe I had, in fact, managed to escape my own personal dungeon.
Of course, I wasn’t really John Carter anymore. I was just myself.
But I was okay with that.
• • • •
It took us a while to unpack after the move, and in the process I ran across the old letters that Tommy Burke had written to me all those years ago. Somehow I had stashed them away in a folder and kept them safe. I read through them with a bit of nostalgia and decided to put them in the box on the mantle. But then something odd struck me. I took one of the letters and compared it to the message written on the inside cover of A Princess of Mars.
And the handwriting was the same.
So maybe Tommy Burke was still around after all, and maybe he was pulling strange pranks on me. But why didn’t he stop in and say hello? I could see him writing the message in the book, pretending to be Edgar Rice Burroughs, and initialing it with “E.R.B.” That was really the only explanation for why the writing in the book and the letters matched. Well, the only rational reason, at least.
The whole episode with the book and the letters stuck in my head for a while, and eventually I began to wonder about something else. I took the bone fragment out of the box. I had a sudden ridiculous fear of our border collie chewing on it and burying it in the back yard. My practical mind said it was an ordinary bone, maybe from a deer or elk. Or maybe it was a dinosaur bone, pushed up to the surface after a million years in geologic purgatory.
But then again, maybe it was the Sarlacc.
Eventually it bugged me enough that I called up one of my clients who worked in the genetics lab at Syracuse University. I had done a lot of good 3D modeling recently for their fundraising department. The client said he’d be willing to have someone in the processing lab run a DNA analysis on the fragment when things got slow. So I packed it up gently and shipped it off.
• • • •
One day not long after that, my son pulled A Princess of Mars off the mantle and asked if he could read it. When he finished that, he dove straight in to The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars. And he was hooked. Our border collie’s name was officially changed to Woola, and he was now a Barsoomian calot, with ten legs and razor sharp teeth and a heart of gold.
I realized then that you can’t go back. But you can pass it on.
This was in the middle of winter, and when the spring thaw came and Lake Champlain unfroze, I took my son with me to Gundark Island. Still there was no sign of the Sarlacc, only the old, scattered bones. But while my son was busy tracking a herd of banths along the island’s shoreline, Woola started sniffing around the bones in the clearing. And then he started digging. When I came over to take a look I saw a small, dimpled object poking out of the ground.
It was an egg.
And when I finished digging it out, I found that it was warm.
• • • •
My son and I carefully wrapped the egg in a blanket we had in the canoe, and then we set out for home. We were halfway across the lake when my cell phone rang. It turned out to be my client from the genetics lab. I hadn’t forgotten about the bone fragment, but I had done a good job of pushing it to the very back of my mind.
The client sounded excited: “Hey, I’m sorry, I would’ve asked the lab to run your samples sooner if I had realized what you had. The bone fragment tested out as belonging to Bos Taurus, which is the species designation for cattle. In other words, your animal was probably a run-of-the-mill cow. Beef livestock, I would guess.” The client went on to say that it was actually pretty common for animals to wander across lake ice in the winters, then get stuck there when the ice melted. Most likely this particular bovine got loose from a nearby pasture, blindly found its way out to Gundark Island, and eventually died there.
That wasn’t quite the news I had hoped for. In fact, I couldn’t really think of anything more mundane, though I feigned some superficial interest for my client’s sake.
“But get this,” the client added, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “The lab tech said there was a hair with the bone fragment. A red hair. He wasn’t sure if that was part of the test, so he ran an analysis on that, too, just in case. And here’s the kicker. It’s not an animal hair. But it isn’t a human hair, either.”
The waves on the lake seemed to slow for a moment, and I felt a chill. Then the client added, “Look, my guys say they don’t have a single match across any known species genome in the database, alive or extinct. It’s not even close. There’s all sorts of things wrong with the DNA—radial polymer structures, extra nucleobases, rogue coactivator proteins, it goes on and on. They’ve never seen anything like it at all. But they all want to know—where the hell did it come from? Mars?”
I smiled. Then I nearly laughed out loud.
A red hair—left unnoticed for years in Tommy Burke’s letters, maybe. Or in the book. And packaged up with the bone when I sent it off.
So there really was an alien on Gundark Island in those long lost summers of my youth. But it didn’t have tentacles, or acid saliva, or three heads. It had red hair and an infectious imagination. And it suddenly made sense—I had never met Tommy Burke’s parents, he never went to school, I never even saw his house. Because it was all a charade.
But what exactly was Tommy Burke doing? I somehow suspected that he was a “seeder” just like the Sarlacc—except he was seeding imaginations. And oro’nahtoo. And perhaps, in a way, he was seeding mankind’s future.
I told my client not to worry about the whole thing, that it was probably just a mistake, and I hung up as politely as possible. I wasn’t concerned that the secret would get out. Really, who would believe it? Nothing could really be traced back to Tommy. He was in no danger of being discovered.
As my son and I paddled back to shore, I thought of Tommy dashing across Gundark Island like Han Solo, firing his blaster behind him, that eager smile on his face. There was no way you could fake that smile. He wasn’t just punching his inter-galactic time card so he could pay the mortgage on his space-pad back on Rigel IV. And then there was the matter of the signature in the book. I had a sudden hunch that Tommy Burke had written more of that book than just the small note in the front cover.
So maybe Asimov and Heinlein and Bester were aliens, too. And George Lucas was really from Gleise 423.
And why not? It’s not such a ridiculous idea if you have oro’nahtoo.
Because, for the first time in a long time, I believed.