O’durn’s lengthy fingers triggered control after control as the small craft plummeted towards the earth. He was using all four of his arms to keep up with the calculations to maintain the ship’s integrity. With the destruction and loss of communication from his home planet, most of the ship’s functions had to be performed manually.
As the spacecraft came within a few kilometers of earth, O’durn’s breathing suit ran close to empty. The ship was an open cockpit design with no pressurized breathing apparatus. If only he had time to refill from the reserve tank. The suit blinked red lights on the wrist, warning that it was going to render O’durn unconscious to preserve as much air as possible. With his final moment of consciousness O’durn flicked on the stealth toggle, making it impossible for anybody on earth to detect his decent.
Hudson had been waiting for this trip for the whole year, and hell, he deserved it. He had made a promise to himself that once he hit twenty-five million dollars in profit he would take a break and return to his grandfather’s cabin for a month. Now here he was, casting his fishing line off of the side of the black dinghy in the middle of the lake.
There was nobody around for miles, only trees and brush made up the outskirts of the empty lake, with the exception of the hunter’s cabin nestled in between two very tall cedars. Hudson had not had this kind of peace and solitude for years, always the man to be working into the late hours of the night. After his wife was murdered in a house robbery, it was all he could do to escape the feelings. He told himself that his wife was somewhere, maybe in the ether, smiling at him for still living his life with intention, and he believed it.
He pulled a picture out of his breast pocket of Hannah and caressed the corners as tears flowed over his cheeks.
“I’m still here, babe,” he said to the ether.
Just as the words left his lips a bright flash of light filled the sky. Something came hurtling down into the middle of the lake, smashing through the surface and causing waves to lap in the water. After a few seconds, it bobbed back up to the top.
Hudson looked on in awe, but his instinct to help kicked in fast. He started the motor and made his way to the strange craft floating in the water. The thing looked almost like a motorcycle, only the front was a long pyramid shape with the tip facing forwards. A single figure rested on the seat, not moving. Always being more curious than cautious, Hudson pulled right up beside the ship.
After killing the motor Hudson reached over and poked the strange 6 limbed creature, but it did not stir. A red light flashed on a cylindrical tank on the back of the thing’s suit. Hudson noticed there was another tank that looked the same attached to the back of the spacecraft. It reminded him of scuba gear.
The idea suddenly clicked in Hudson’s head that the creature was out of oxygen, or whatever it is that it breathes and that the extra tank on the back was a spare. Pushing through the fear in his gut, Hudson pulled the tank off the back of the ship. There was only a single button beside the creatures personal tank, Hudson assumed it was the release. Proving himself right, he ejected the old tank on the spacesuit and replaced it with the tank from the ship.
Lights blinked green on the new tank, and on the wrist of the creatures suit. Then the thing was moving, the head lifting up and looking around. It looked straight at Hudson, and Hudson looked back.
“What are you?” Hudson said quietly.
The thing cocked its head.
“Look, I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me. How does that sound?”
The creature pressed a button on its wrist. A natural human voice, one that sounded intelligent and soft, projected from its chest.
“You, speak English..?”
“Continue speech. Translating.”
“Uh, okay then. My name is Hudson. I have a cabin on the shore of the lake. If you like I can show it to you.”
“Translation complete. Hello, I am O’durn.”
“Hello O’durn. Are you hurt?”
“I am not injured. You say you are peaceful, human?”
Hudson nodded his head.
“Yeah, like I said if you don’t hurt me I won’t hurt you.”
“I do not know war. My people do not fight.”
“Where are your people?”
“Destroyed.” O’durn lowered his head at this last remark.
“Is there anyone else still alive?”
“I am the last. I escaped my planet, Hubris, on this skimmer just as the Yak-Guran invaded us. I was searching for a habitable planet when the last communication finally fell from Hubris. My ship had to be controlled manually at that point, and I was not fast enough to guide myself safely. I came too close to Earth to escape gravity again, not without calculations being done from Hubris, and so here I am.”
O’durn looked again at Hudson.
“You replaced my oxygen tank. Why?”
Hudson thought about it for a minute before he answered. O’durn did not seem to mind the moment of silence. Finally, Hudson said, “I guess the excitement of danger got to me. Ever since Hannah died…” He trailed off and looked into the distance with a thousand yard stare. “I don’t know why I did it. Usually, I can deal with the pain, I don’t put myself at risk anymore like I did in the first months after she died. I know that she would want better for me. I was thinking of her when you crashed into the lake, and I think for just a moment I forgot about being strong. I didn’t fear death.”
“I think that I know what you are talking about.” O’durn said quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“My family is gone. The place that I called home is now a thick layer of glass. My ship is no longer usable, and there is nobody left of my kind. Yes, I know what you mean because I wish you had not replaced my oxygen tank. This one that you put on will last about a month of your earth time, though I wish that agony could have been avoided.”
“I understand that feeling well, but there is just one thing. We breathe oxygen on earth, you don’t need the oxygen tank.”
“It is not actually oxygen that I breathe, this is just the closest word in your language to what I breathe. The actual element does not exist in this solar system.”
“So you have a month to live.” Hudson scratched his chin.
“I think that I will pull the tank from my suit. I do not desire to live any longer.”
Hudson nodded again. “I see. Well before you do that, could I show you my cabin? I have a book collection that I love to show off.”
“What are books? I have no word to translate that into my language.”
Hudson smiled now.
“You’re in for a treat then. Come on, jump aboard.”
O’durn unclipped himself from the saddle-like seat and climbed onto the dinghy. Hudson started up the motor again and they made their way to the shore by the cabin.
Hudson showed O’durn to a chair before putting a kettle on the gas stove. He made his way over to a large bookshelf that took up the whole back wall of the cabin.
“These are my books. I have read almost all of them.” Hudson said, waving an arm at the massive bookshelf.
“Ah, manuals. These are for the construction and repair of equipment?”
Hudson laughed. “No, not manuals. These are fiction, stories that are made up.”
“Fiction.” O’durn repeated. “What is a story?”
“You really have no concept of a story? A fantasy, something that does not exist in this reality?”
“No, I do not understand these words.”
Hudson raised an eyebrow.
“Here, I think the best way for you to understand is to just read one of these.” Hudson picked a softcover copy of ‘The old man and the sea’ from the shelf and handed it to O’durn.
“Please, I appreciate you teaching me about your culture, but I am in agony. I wish no longer to live. Let me relieve myself from these feelings.”
A solemn look of understanding went across Hudson’s face.
“I understand. I’ve been there myself. And I won’t stop you. But before you do that, would you just talk with me for a little bit? If you still feel that way by the end of the night then you may do what you need to. Just give me one day to talk to you.”
“If it really is that important to you, I suppose I can take one more day of this.”
Hudson smiled. He made his way over to the now boiling kettle and poured himself some tea before settling down in the chair across from O’durn.
“A story is something that we humans created a very long time ago. Sometimes we read for entertainment, sometimes to escape reality, and sometimes to learn more about ourselves. And not all of our stories in books. Most are in our heads, the things we tell ourselves about our lives. I would like to know your story, O’durn. May I ask you how you feel about the destruction of your planet?”
“We are a peaceful people. We have advanced technology but we have never used it for war. We were known across our galaxy to be empathetic. Now I feel that all we have done is wasted. That perhaps we should have been more prepared for a battle. I feel my wife, my children, died for no reason. Too soon, they had much time ahead until the Yak-Guran took it from them. I do not wish to live as my life is now pointless.”
“Thank you for sharing, now why don’t you try reading some of this book while I think about what you have just told me?”
Hudson sat quietly sipping his tea as O’durn flipped through pages. It seemed he could read almost five times faster than a human being. When he finished he looked up to Hudson who seemed lost in thought staring out the window.
“The man in this book has much resolve. Do you know him?”
Hudson laughed. “No, and I never will. Because he is made up. The things in that book never really happened. Somebody wrote that story simply by thinking.”
“It is a lie then?”
“No, not a lie, not exactly. A story. A creation of a reality that does not exist. This is something all humans do, whether they write books or not. And by the likes of what you told me, it sounds like your people have stories as well. You have just never recognized them as such.”
“What do you mean? How do I create stories?”
“The story of how the destruction of your planet is meaningless. Of how you should have been prepared for war.”
“These things are the truth, they are not stories.”
“No, they are simply what fits into your own interpretation of what happened. They are how you see things. Let me tell you, there are other narratives that would make just as much sense, if not more. When Hannah died, I thought that it was pointless. That I would never be whole again. That’s the story I told myself. It took a lot of self-reflection to realize that I could think whatever I wanted about what happened.”
“What story do you tell yourself now?”
“That her death has meaning. That it shows the capacity of a human being to have love for another. After she died I drowned myself in work, and I became very successful because of it. Now I feel that she is still out there somewhere, watching me as I live my life. She is proud of me and she wants me to be happy. And finally, she wants me to use her death for good, to empower others to see life through new perspectives. Perhaps in the form of an alien who crash landed and only has a month to live.”
“I think I am starting to understand. How do you decide what is real though? Surely something is objective?”
“Surely something is. But we may never know it. Our minds only know stories, they do not know the truth. And so why not create stories that make us better, whole again? Why not fill the dark holes in our spirit with uplifting narratives? I’m not saying the hurt will ever go away, just that there are different ways to respond to that hurt. I think that you need a better story for yourself O’durn. So that you may live the small amount of time you have left in peace.”
“I do not know what other stories to tell myself. I could never create something as beautiful as the story of the old man and the sea.”
“I think you just need a little practice, and I can help you along the way. Would you let me do that?”
“If you truly feel it would help this bitterness I feel, this terrible pit in my stomach, then yes, Hudson, I will accept your offer.”
“Thank you. I’ve already been thinking about some perspectives to offer you. For instance, the ruination of your world does not have to make you bitter that you were not prepared. You may still hold pride in your empathy and lack of violence. Their deaths do not take any of the significance of peace away. Though your people are gone, they do not have to be forgotten. You yourself are the last one left to tell your story of your planet. There is a great honor in that. And do you think your family would want you to live your life still with purpose? Something tells me they would.”
“These are wonderful notions, and I can even feel relief in what you are saying. Still, I do not know what to do with myself.”
“Why don’t you start by reading some of my books. I think you will enjoy them greatly.”
O’durn read all of Hudson’s collection in two weeks. He found much solace in engulfing himself in books. When the books ran out he found himself drifting back into negative thoughts. He went to Hudson for guidance.
“I have read all of your stories and I found a lot of tranquility in doing so. But now that they are finished I do not know what to do.”
“Now I think it is time for you to write.”
“And what would I write?”
“The story of your people, of peace and of love. I have a lot of money to publish your stories, and I’ll do just that. Many people on earth would find your story to be an epic. You could bring happiness to those who choose to read your work.”
So O’durn wrote. He spent hours at a time writing at the little oak desk in the cabin. Again he found himself so lost in the activity that he was no longer considering his loss.
Then came the last day of O’durn’s oxygen supply. He lay on the couch contemplating the previous month. He had written many volumes on the old typewriter, and when the ink ran out he had used a pencil and paper. The more he wrote the more he understood the wisdom in Hudson’s words. He had just one last question.
“Hudson, how will the people of earth know that these are not just fiction? That these things really happened?”
Hudson smiled. “It doesn’t matter O’durn. They’re just stories.”