The Stranger came to town, his eyes by turns mocking and aglow. Long-legged and longer-armed, he gangled along Main Street, wonderful and frightening, his feet kicking up dust, his garish bow tie flapping half-undone at his throat, the drama and energy of a whole circus parade squeezed almost to bursting in just one man.
"Got fire," he said. "Got fire right here!"
"Don't want fire," Mr. Donaldson told him, looking deliberately at the sidewalk and pushing his broom, making that act an eloquent editorial.
The Stranger laughed, and kept on down the street. He greeted the Widow Collins, the pet shop lady. He hailed Frau Wein, who'd come to town to get away from something that had happened in Germany that she never spoke about.
"Got fire!" he told each one. "Fire!"
Frau Wein turned her back, stepped sharply into her shop, and dropped the blinds. Mrs. Collins hissed something polite, but firm.
"Right down from Heaven this very morning, and may I point out what a fine morning it is?" the Stranger observed reasonably. "Gift of the Gods, good woman."
"Not the gift of any God worth worshipping," Widow Collins snapped, and her eyes snapped too, and her knuckles rapped on the iron railing. "Now be off."
He made a great, sweeping obeisance, the Stranger, then skipped off down the street. He ambled up Adams for a couple of blocks, then worked his way along Oak, calling out to milkmen, paperboys, and householders putting out the garbage. "Got fire!" he called. "Pure fire! Clean, warm, sparkling, regenerating, energizing, ever-oxidizing Fire!"
No one wanted fire on Oak, or on Monroe or Elm or back down on Railroad. They laughed him off Fillmore, they were rude on Monkey-Puzzle. On Harrison they called the police, who suggested filing a complaint if the Stranger did anything actually hostile.
Chortling with good feeling or its cousin, jaunty of step, almost dancing, the Stranger had circled back and nearly returned to the end of town when he came upon a young lad of whom nothing important had been asked that day, a lad footloose and at loose ends, loose of limb and loose of his parents for the morning, midway between some vague point of origin and an equally questionable goal.
"Got fire!" the Stranger shouted, as though for the first time that day.
"Yeah?" the lad replied, intrigued but cautious.
"Fire with your name on it, if you're half the boy I think." The Stranger stopped then, as though brought short by a scruple. "You're not asthmatic, are you? Consumptive?"
"Not prone to chondritic syphilis, or thrombosis of the pituitary process?"
"Never had a touch of the galloping carborundum, or the Type E Dushanbe peripatetic palsy?"
The boy shook his head.
"Well, that's all right, then," smiled the Stranger. "Let's go!"
And follow him the thoughtless boy did, as well I know, for that young lad was myself.
The Stranger rattled on about Aldebaran and Khartoum, fearsome races with fantastic names, and untold glories awaiting "the right kind of adventurer." I knew I would be that right kind of adventurer, even though I couldn't follow a tenth of what he said. Details just didn't seem to matter in the world the Stranger represented. Fine print, I sensed, was for fools and church ladies. The stuck-up brown-nosers in school, the geeks and the nerds, they would have balked. They would have missed their chance to master fire.
We went along a quarter of a mile to Conyer's Meadow, where the Stranger had landed. His ship was BIG. Great flaring tail fins held it up, and the ruby-colored nose seemed about to poke the clouds, it soared so high. A red carpet lay spilled across the clover, ending at our feet. At the far end of the carpet a staircase with gold railings and polished electrum steps swept up to the open portal. Ivory statues of mythical beasts with emerald eyes lined the way.
My heart pounded and my imagination reeled. This was what life should be like! This beat doing homework and feeding the cat. This topped sneaking a chaw of tobacco behind a school friend's garage, or hanging out with the glue-heads. Spaceships on the meadow were what the universe should be about.
"Right this way, young sir. Right this way." He waved a walking stick that seemed to have come from nowhere, and suddenly the stairs moved, became an escalator, and just as suddenly I knew that this was fitting, that an adventurer like myself shouldn't have to climb stairs under his own power. Not without a beautiful woman collapsed in his arms, anyway.
The Stranger had fire, all right. Cases of it, walls hung with it, probably crates of it stacked in the hold. The forms of fire lay all about, glorious and tempting. Ceremonial laser maces, chased with platinum and encrusted with jewels. Enameled thunderbolts that could bring down a castle with a single wish, and could level a city in an afternoon. Two display cases were filled with every kind of tornado-caster ever made in our end of the galaxy, and I knew what they were and how they could be employed without reading the little gold-lettered labels they each had. I knew, because I must be meant to know.
"That's right, lad, these are the tools you must have to protect your people from the dreadful dangers that await them outside this petty solar system. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice system, a sweet system. Worth the trouble of defending. But it's a limited field of action. Quite limiting, in certain ways."
I couldn't have agreed more. I'd felt the limitations all my life, the pointlessness of it, the stupidity. Life, especially my life, should be filled with power, glory, honor and its just rewards; but everybody in my town thought in terms of chores and rules and detention sessions. And, worse, the same old boring chores and rules and detention sessions day after day after day.
"Contemplate the subtle charm of this personal moon-crusher." The Stranger held up a device that reminded me of an ancient dirk, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Somehow I knew that whole kingdoms had been ransomed to own this weapon. Twice. "And let us not overlook the real treasures of this collection: the Star Strummers."
He led the way into a second room, deeper inside the rocket, and gestured to the far bulkhead, hung with great staffs carved from the teeth of creatures who could swallow small steamboats and wrestle battleships into submission. One end of each bulged with a ruby the size of my head, the other with a beryl even larger. "With these you can tune a star to any resonance you desire, and play it like a pipe organ," the Stranger beamed. "The destructive potential is unimaginable."
"Chalmer!" a voice called from the first room. My mother's voice. "Chalmer Andrew Ginesson! I know you're in here!"
"Delightful!" said the Stranger. "A family moment."
He turned to the door just as my mother came in, with my two sisters in tow. "So nice you could join us, madam. And are these lovely things your daughters, or your sisters? But I should introduce myself. I'm--"
"I'm sure you are," my mother said, but her eyes swept past him and fastened on me. "Did you ask permission to come out here, young man?"
My Aunt Garnet came through the door at that minute, followed by Mrs. Fripperson, the town librarian. Their walk radiated determination. Aunt Garnet's face was pinched with disapproval. Mrs. Fripperson's brimmed with righteous self-congratulation, making it clear who had followed me to the rocket, who had telephoned my mother with the news.
"Forgive me, madam," the Stranger was saying, "but I instigated--"
"I'm sure you did," my mother snapped. "My son is capable of thinking for himself, thank you very much, and responsible for his own actions. Aren't you, Chalmer?"
But I wasn't paying enough attention to her to answer right then, because of something in my younger sister's eyes. Jillian was staring at the case full of sea scorchers and shoulder-mounted Planet-Buster-grade quake cannon. There was a smirk I didn't like on her face -- but then, I'd never liked her smirks very much. But Jillian had always been my nice sister, and that look in her eyes wasn't nice. It wasn't nice at all.
"Chalmer." My mother's voice rang with menace, with the threat of punishments more stern than the Spanish Inquisition, applied with a will more adamant than Stalin's and a technical facility that would be the envy of our finest engineers. That tone, if it could be packaged, would make any totalitarian regime invincible. That tone, I now know, has often saved the world.
"Right, Mom," I said. "Time to be going."
I thanked my host, grabbed Jillian's arm quite firmly, and whisked her out the door. True, the escalatoring stairs kept trying to pull us back up to the ship, but we managed to get away.
At home my mother discovered a hundred pressing chores, all urgent, all my responsibility. I did each one in turn, only insisting that my sisters be kept just as busy. In a spare moment I took care to glue Jillian's bedroom window shut on the outside, and all that night I sat by my half-open door to keep an eye on the hall. Daydreams of heroic deeds on distant battlefields threatened to lull me into sleep, but I fought them off with spoonfuls of coffee crystals that burned my mouth, with pinches that left my arms mottled with small bruises, and with a score of other strategies.
By morning the Stranger had gone in search of greener planets, leaving the meadow a smoking, blasted ruin.
Copyright © 2002 Timons Esaias
Tim's stories have appeared in nine languages and twelve countries. He was a finalist for the 1999 British Science Fiction Award. His SF poetry has been translated into Chinese and Spanish, and he's had over fifty sales to such markets as Asimov's, Terra Incognita, and Strange Horizons. For more about him, see his Web site.