A short story from a few years back…
Francis ‘Ford Solo’ Baloulian looked about the cockpit of the cramped interstellar craft. This far off the regular commercial space lanes, he knew that any other craft that he might encounter would almost definitely be a hostile one. However, he was ready for any eventuality.As he had told Scruffy, his co-pilot numerous times, a twin barreled meson-cannon in the hand was worth two million credits in the bank and, once this mission, was over, he would also be buying the cloaking device and the tractor beams too, whatever the cost.
His upturned plant pot chair felt uncomfortable this far into deep space. He reached forward and flicked the paintbrush lever that would activate the turbo thrusters. Nothing happened!
He turned to his co-pilot. Scruffy sat in the frayed garden chair that was his acceleration couch and ignored the life threatening problems that Francis, International Hero of the Universe and Conqueror of the Cosmos, faced. His head lay lazily on his front paws and his tongue hung limply out the side of his greying muzzle. He panted gently. A combination of the late summer sun, old age and utter devotion to the boy by his side kept him in the small Louisiana shed that served as Francis’ spacecraft, wild west saloon, illegal casino or whatever game the boy chose to play on any particular day.
The eleven year old looked out of the grimy, cobweb filled window and across the neatly manicured lawn but saw only the cold, depths of interstellar space, infinite void. Instead of his father’s sports convertible he saw an imperial cruiser, firing it’s side thrusters as it docked with the whitewashed colonial house in which he had been born. The twisted lime tree at the bottom of the garden, complete with the disused swing, was an abandoned space wreck from a battle that had most probably occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
He didn’t usually play space games. Walking around in slow motion, trying to recreate worlds with a lighter gravity was a bit too childish for him, but this was a special mission. Something that no cowboys, pirates or secret agents could ever solve. This was a mission to save a life! The life of the most important being in Francis’ short life.
After returning from the veterinary surgery earlier that morning, he knew that Scruffy was dying. Nobody had said as much to him, of course. He was just an eleven year old and, apparently, didn’t have to be told about such things. That is why he had been told to wait outside in the reception area while the pretty lady vet had examined the dog. Through the tightly closed wooden door he had heard the forced whispers of his father.
‘So, what’s the verdict?’ he had asked in an unusually rough and emotional voice.
‘He’s lived to a good age Mr Baloulian,’ the young woman had told his parents. ‘There’s really nothing we can do. The injection I gave him will help. He’ll be better off at home surrounded by familiar things and people…’
A few seconds later the door opened and his parents emerged nodding their heads in some sort of tacit understanding. The vet, Francis was never told her name, followed them through the doorway, the small grey mongrel cradled gently in her arms. She leant down and passed him carefully over to the boy.
‘There you go,’ she smiled. ‘Now you keep him safe and warm.’
Francis took a deep breath, preying that he would not start crying in front of this stranger. ‘Will… will he be OK?’ he had asked falteringly.
The vet had looked up at his parents and, at the edge of his vision, Francis just caught the slight shake of his father’s head.
‘I’m sure he’ll be fine. Just… just keep him warm, as I mentioned.’
He turned quickly away and, with his parents leading the way, they returned silently to the car. Up ahead his parents mumbled quietly between themselves. Francis, some paces back, bent his head and whispered urgently into the sleepy dog’s ear. ‘Don’t worry Scruffy, I have a plan.’
He shook his head and concentrated on the flight through this part of unexplored space. He had to get to the Gamma Quadrant. There, on the planet of… he paused, unable to think of a suitable name. He glanced around the shed… the planet of Mop-N-Bucket, the benign race of beings known only as the… the… He looked about again and spotted, lying in the far corner of the ram-shackled shed, the name for these majestic, benevolent beings. The Paynt-Potts would use their fabled magical powers to heal Scruffy from the terrible wounds inflicted on him by the evil…the evil…the Broom-a-zoids, he thought desperately.
Stories of the Paynt-Potts legendary healing powers were whispered around the space-bars of a thousand worlds. It seemed that, although they were technologically superior to all the other races in the Galaxy, they shunned all worlds, choosing to continue their hermit-like existence.
It had cost him thousands of credits to find out where these reclusive beings lived. An old Space Marine that he had met on Omicron XII, had, for a price, told the boy where the Paynt-Potts could be located. The Marine, who had fought in one of the many battle against the Broom-a-zoids had been ambushed by a fleet of Broom-a-zoid Marauders. Wounded, and with his craft in danger of exploding, he had crashed landed on a strange, unexplored world. The Paynt-Potts found him and took him back to one of their healing temples. They had saved the Space Marines life. Now it was Francis’ turn to seek out these creatures and find out if their powers were as real as the old soldier had said, or just a costly myth.
He prodded a black oily rag with the pointed end of a broken screwdriver, thereby fixing the lateral thruster problem that had been occurring intermittently since that near collision with an uncharted asteroid, waved the piece of coiled flex that, in times of emergency served as the backup navigation controls and slipped the craft into hyperspace. The journey would take around three Earth weeks, but the boy was impatient so he quickly invented two Hibernation Beds that would keep both himself and the dog in suspended animation until the journey was over. In this way, it was less than ten seconds later when the navi-comp light started indicating it’s imminent emergence from hyperspace.
The young boy glanced down at his companion. ‘Nearly there Scruffy,’ he muttered, wiping his nose on his sleeve. The dog glanced up at the mention of his name and wearily waved his tail in acknowledgement. He blinked his rheumy eyes and rested his head back on his paws, exhausted by even that small amount of activity.
Francis glanced out the window at the Imperial Cruiser convertible parked on the gravel drive opposite and reflected on how quiet and uncommunicative his parents had been during the journey home from the vets surgery in town.
That was the problem with grown ups he thought, his parents especially. Grown ups didn’t understand just how much Scruffy meant to him. They didn’t realize the importance of things. That his first memory was of seeing Scruffy lying in front of the fire one winter when he had come inside from helping his mother build a snowman in the garden. Francis remembered how the dog had lifted his head and seemed to smile at him. The same, loving smile that, nine years later, the dog saved just for him. His parents didn’t know about the times he’d had bad dreams and snuck down into the kitchen and slept for a while with Scruffy in the dog’s basket. They had no idea of the games they had played together in the kennel at the back of the yard that his father had built years ago but the dog had never slept in. They didn’t know that he shared all his secrets, all his problems with the animal, his only true friend. They simply didn’t know just how much he loved him.
The shed had now completed it’s journey through hyperspace in record time. Francis was glad he had added those jump-pods a few months back. The navi-comp slowed down their approach and placed them in a secure orbit around the planet. He glanced out the window at the green/blue sphere below him. Swathed in clouds, the planet’s surface seemed as mysterious as the alien race that was supposed to inhabit the surface.
Francis picked up an empty tobacco tin, shook out a few flakes of rust and had soon established communications with the unknown creatures below, their alien chatter instantly translated by the ‘Instant Translator’. Time was now of the utmost importance and Francis had no time to think up fancy names for the equipment he had to invent in order to complete his mission. Finally they lowered their defensive shields and agreed to see the patient. Francis had known that their healing instincts would outweigh their natural timidity and reclusiveness. Now he would find out the truth behind the tales. The reality behind the legends. Were the Paynt-Potts real or were they a myth?
It was over an hour later when the young boy stepped into the large kitchen. His mother was standing at the centre worktop, knife in hand, preparing a selection of vegetables for the evening meal. She looked up as he walked slowly across the mustard coloured floor-tiles and leaned heavily against the counter next to her.
‘Hiya darling,’ his mother gave him a tired smile, ‘How are you feeling now?’
Francis heaved himself up onto the work surface and looked into his mother’s eyes. He saw something there that he had never seen before. Something, he realized that he had never looked for before in a grown up. Behind the façade of responsibility and general ‘parentness’, he saw concern, sympathy and, as he looked deeper, sadness too. It hadn’t crossed his mind that Scruffy’s ill health would be upsetting for them as well. Maybe he was wrong about them. Maybe parents understood things too!
‘You’ve been outside for quite a while,’ His mother spoke gently. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘I’ve been to been to the planet of the Paynt-Potts,’ he replied. ‘I’ve been to Mop-N-Bucket.’ he said.
Confused, the woman put down the kitchen knife and walked over to the child. ‘And what was there, my little man? What was there?’
‘Nothing,’ Francis replied, the tears now streaming down his face.
He held out his arms to his mother. His hands, dirty from pulling up the loose soil that lay at the back of the garden shed, opened and closed, imploring the woman to give him the comfort he desperately needed from her.
Mrs Baloulian reached out and grasped the child to her, holding him as tightly as she could and smoothing his mousy hair.
‘I thought I could save him,’ he sobbed. ‘But they don’t exist. The Paynt-Potts couldn’t heal Scruffy. It was just a myth’
Francis held his mother as tightly as he could but, for the first time in his life, could find no solace in her arms. His tear-ridden face glanced out the kitchen window at the dark silhouette of the shed, just visible from this part of the house.Silently, privately, he said goodbye to Scruffy, his friend and companion, whose warmth may have been slowly dissipating into the rich earth behind the shed, but would always remain in the boy’s head and heart.
He knew that he had lost more than the dog that evening and, reluctantly, he let that go too, knowing as he did, that his perspective on life would be changed, forever.
As the late evening sun began its slow decent behind the distant hills, Francis wiped away the tears that still flowed, unbidden from his eyes, said one final goodbye to his dog and, in the same breath, bade farewell to innocence.