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"Return to Greatness" by Ken McConnell
"Could you please bring me that statue there on the book shelf, my dear?" The nurse looked to where the old man was pointing and saw the silver rocket sitting on a wooden base. She reached up for it and took it in her hands. It was heavier than it looked, with a real oak base. There was an inscription on it that read, "Alvin Henderson Winner, Annual Science Fiction Achievement Award". She could not read the date as it was obscured by rust spots. She handed it to the white haired man sitting in the easy chair. He took it in his arms as if it were a baby. "Nice statue Alvin, what did you win it for?" "Huh? Say again dear?" She repeated herself a little louder but she suspected the man's hearing was just fine. "My dear woman, I was one of the founding writers of speculative fiction. This is my Hugo award."
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 2 She eyed him suspiciously. Having no idea what a Hugo award was she quickly suspected he was pulling her leg. Her suspicions were not without merit, Alvin was well known to all the caregivers on this floor for being quite the story teller. You had to be careful not to indulge him or you would get trapped listening to a lengthy story. All the nurses considered him a flirt and they eventually learned how to skirt around him when they needed to get their rounds done. "Okay Alvin, whatever you say. I have to go finish my rounds honey, I'll be back to check on you in a little while." Alvin smiled at her with his toothless grin and refocused his attention on the old trophy. He didn't care that she did not recognize him. Nobody really cared about him anymore. He had been retired from writing for going on twenty years now. He stopped in order to take care of his beloved wife who had developed Alzheimer's late in her life. His own health had been quite good for many years, but after Doris passed, he seemed to have little interest in helping himself with any of life's basic needs. When his family moved him into the nursing home so that he could be cared for properly, he didn't resist much. It was better than living alone. Alvin always made friends easily and he quickly adjusted to life in the nursing home. As long as he could trick someone into listening to his old stories about rocket ships and robots, he was quite content to rehash his entire career to any willing victim. Sometimes, when there was no body around to talk to, he would sit in his easy chair and remember the good old days. When his career first started taking off like one of those finned rocket ships he always wrote about. He was working as a copy editor for
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 3 a weekly newspaper in his home town, but he spent most of his free time reading the pulp rags and pecking away at his old Smith Corona portable typewriter. He had started writing stories while he was still in school. He was fascinated with technology and what the future held. He read Popular Science every month and each issue set his imagination afire with ideas for stories. He dutifully sent out each new story he wrote to the major science fiction magazines and then sat back and collected his rejections slips as if they were baseball playing cards. His parents thought he was a little crazy and they encouraged him to stop wasting his time. But he didn't listen. He holed himself up in the attic with his typewriter and wrote into the wee hours of the night about daring space men and bug eyed monsters. Finally, just as he was ready to head off to college, he sold his first short story. He was positively beside himself with excitement and his efforts to write were doubled in the coming months. He never did go to Iowa State that fall. He took a job at the town paper and dedicated himself to writing. Eventually he sold another story, this time to Astounding magazine. Before long, he was a regular in the pulp's pages and gaining quite the audience of like minded nerds. He got a 4H deferment from the Army and spent most of the Second World War writing victory stories for the paper about the local boys fighting in Europe and the Pacific theaters. All the while he was still placing his space stories and getting quite the reputation as a decent writer of space opera. He even developed a pen pal relationship with EE "Doc" Smith and Robert Heinlein. Not too shabby for the kid from an Iowa farm. Alvin ran his knobby fingers over the cold metal statue and recalled when he first
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 4 got the idea for his epic space opera - Jack Comet and the Space Lanes. He had developed the character in a short story about a man trapped in the rings of Saturn. The editors at Astounding loved the story and asked him if he had other ideas for the strapping young spacer named Jack Comet. Alvin had more ideas than he could ever hope to write down. He set about to write a serial piece that eventually became "Comet chasers from Neptune". The magazine ran the stories and they eventually earned him the Hugo he held in his hand. His writing career seemed to take off after that and in the early fifties CBS ran a short lived TV series about Jack Comet, riding the popularity of the Space Age. But the real life exploits of NASA astronauts eventually eclipsed the fantasies of the science fiction authors and before long, Alvin's fiction went out of style and he never fully regained the national attention he had in the early nineteen fifties. Other authors in the genre branched out and wrote different types of speculative fiction but some how the modern stuff just never appealed to Alvin. He wrote a few novels in the sixties but they were not very good sellers and by the mid seventies, he was considered one of the pioneers but not pertinent to the field any more. Alvin adjusted the statue in his lap, peering over the tip of the rocket behind his black framed glasses. Those were the days, he thought. When men were men and aliens could always be defeated with superior intellect and a good ray gun at your side. His room was quiet save for the hum of the heater next to his window. He glanced outside at the frozen corn fields that surrounded the old folks home. Despite his vivid imagination, Alvin never made it out of Iowa in all of his ninety two years of living.
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 5 His hearing was not as bad as he let on sometimes and he heard the tingling, snapping electric sound before the room was lit up with a rainbow of colors. Alvin moved the Hugo statue to the side and squinted at the source of bright light growing in the center of his small room. It was mesmerizing and somehow very familiar to him. He wondered if someone were standing outside shinning a search light into his window. Those thoughts were dashed by the glowing materialization of a human figure. The brilliant light subsided and Jack Comet stood before Alvin's arm chair flashing a bright white smile and wearing his Space Patrol silver jacket with his trusty ray gun hanging from his hip like a Western gunslinger. "Alvin, I've come for you. The evil Lord Voltron is attacking and we need your help!" Alvin blinked. He must be hallucinating. He looked down on the book stand to his left and saw his medicine. He forgot to swallow them. The red and white pills were still laying there where the nurse had left them for him. He scooped up the pills and tossed back his head to chase them down with the warm glass of water. When he finished swallowing them he looked again, and there stood his protagonist, blond wavy hair, broad shoulders and a glint in his blue eyes. It was not a dream and he was definitely not suffering from not taking his meds. Jack Comet was standing before him as real as anything else in the room. "Jack, Jack Comet?" Alvin asked, as if he needed to know for sure it was not some actor playing a prank on him. "Yes, it's me, Defender of the Space Lanes."
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 6 "I must be dreaming," Alvin said. "No, you're not dreaming Alvin. I need you to come with us to the SS Adventure in orbit. The Voltics are invading and our defenses are down. We need your help to save the solar system!" Alvin stared at the perfect image of his heroic protagonist. He was not at all like that talentless actor who portrayed him in the TV show, he was just as Alvin had imagined him when he was writing those stories in his youth. "Come here son, let me touch you with my own hands." Jack Comet stepped forward and knelt on one knee before Alvin's chair. He extended a hand and clasped it firmly around Alvin's frail fingers. Alvin smiled as he squeezed ever so gently. He was real. Incredible. "Do you believe me now Alvin?" "Yes, I believe that you are real. But I don't understand how it's possible." "No time to explain it, we need your help now. Are you with us?" Alvin looked around at the lonely confines of his room. The institutional bed and plain, cream colored walls. The smell of geriatric residents mixed with bleach cleaners. There was little reason to stay at the home. "Yes, by Jove, I'll come with you lad. But where did you say we were going?" Jack's face lit with a big smile, "We're transporting up to orbit, just put this badge on so we track you." He placed a small round silver device on Alvin's green polyester shirt and then touched it quickly to activate it. Jack stood up and spoke into the transmitter attached to
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 7 his right forearm. "Two for transport, Doctor Drekler." A tinny voice of an older gentleman replied from the speaker. "Good job Jack, I'm engaging the beam now, standby." Alvin watched this with a twinkle in his eyes. It was all just as he had imagined it. If this was indeed a dream, it was the best dream he had ever had. Jack took the Hugo award and set it on the table. Then he gently pulled Alvin's frail body from his chair to stand beside him. When the brilliant light of the transporter subsided they were standing on the metal deck of the SS Adventure. Alvin looked around with eyes as wide as planets. He was actually on the bridge of his most famous rocket ship. He felt the throbbing of the nuclear engines under his feet and he marveled at the details in the exposed metal frames and wiring that he always imagined were just like being in a submarine. Jack Comet helped him off the raised dais to the metal deck. A middle aged man with gray hair and a beard stepped forward to greet them. It was Edward "Doc" Drekler, brilliant scientist and developer of the atomic drive that powered the mighty rocket ship. "Alvin, so glad you could join us. It's quite a pleasure meeting you sir." Alvin shook hands with the character that he had named in honor of his friend and fellow writer, EE "Doc" Smith. "The pleasure is all mine, I assure you." Jack guided Alvin past Dr. Drekler to a round room that looked like a decompression chamber.
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 8 "Doc has invented this amazing machine that will make you young again. I don't have any idea how it works, but it does." Alvin saw that there was a place to sit inside and a round window so that the operator could presumably watch the subject inside. "I call it the Rejuvenator Nine Thousand. It took me a while to perfect it, but she works like a charm now. We'd be honored if you would step inside and let us wheel back the clock to make you young again," Drekler said. Alvin hesitated for a moment as he recalled dreaming up this very same invention years ago for the Jack Comet series. "As I recall, you were never able to get this thing working correctly and eventually gave up on it." Drekler smiled in his almost condescending manner that all brilliant scientists seemed to have. "I've had lots of time to work on it these past few years. In fact, we've all used the machine. Go on, give it a try." Alvin shuffled inside the small room and sat down. They closed a metal hatch and waved to him through the portal. There was a moment where it appeared that nothing was happening and then there was a low, humming sound followed by a jarring that seemed to shake the whole ship. White smoke poured out of some pipes at his feet. The hatch opened again and Alvin stepped out, feeling and looking not a day older than thirty. It was amazing. He flexed his arm and felt his face. Gone were his
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 9 stiff arthritic limbs, replaced by strong, limber ones. Gone were his wrinkles and age spots, replaced by taut and tanned skin. Doctor Drekler held up a mirror and he gazed at himself as a young man for the first time in over fifty years. "I don't believe it, I feel like a new man." "You look like a new man too, if I don't say so myself." The voice was female and sounded smart and self assured. He turned around and laid eyes on a knock out of a woman with jet black hair and a tight, silver uniform that accentuated her hourglass figure. It was Dale Drekler, the daughter of the good doctor and the love interest for Jack Comet. She was beautiful and young and every bit the woman that he had imagined her to be. "It's about time we had a real man around here, someone who can take charge and get us out of this jam." Alvin could not stop staring at her. He had forgotten just how vivid his youthful imagination had been. "Well Alvin, what are you going to do to get us out of this one?" She pointed to the main viewer screen where several sleek metal ships were converging on them. They were the familiar triangular shaped ships of the Voltric Empire. There were more ships that he could readily count and they were coming forward steadily like some kind of early video game. "Emperor Volton is invading the solar system. He has dissolved the Inter-league Peace Treaty and dispatched his entire fleet. The Space Lanes are in jeopardy of being dissolved," Jack Comet said.
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 10 Alvin could feel the tension around him; everyone was clearly at a loss for what to do. He still had no real idea what the heck was happening to him, but if this was a lucid dream, he could surely change it at will. "Well kid, how are you going to write us out of this one?" Doctor Drekler asked. Ideas were flowing again in Alvin's creative mind. He stepped forward and then turned to his beloved characters. "Jack, steer us to the rings of Saturn. We have a top secret base on the moon of Titan that we can use to mount a counter strike." Jack Comet smiled ruefully as he started flipping levers and adjusting knobs on the navigation controls. "Doctor, I happen to know about a deadly new weapon being developed at this base, but I'll need your help in making it work." "I'm right with you sir." Dale Drekler leaded her slender form against Alvin and purred, "Anything I can do champ?" "Yes, we're going to need Andy. Can you get him up here so we can tell him my plan?" She pouted her red lips, "What do we need that old robot for?" "Andy is a vital part of this crew and I want him around when I tell everyone what I have in mind." She left his side and headed to a lift that lowered her to the decks below. "What's this secret weapon you mentioned Alvin?" Jack asked.
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 11 Alvin had to think about it. He was making this stuff up as he went along and he didn't have the time or luxury of a rewrite. On the other hand, it was so vivid and so exciting that he didn't want it to end. This was the most fun he had had in years. "I'll let you know when she gets back with the robot. In the mean time, how fast can this baby go now?" Doctor Drekler piped up, "I've made some improvements to the fusion drive, we should be able to make Saturn in a few days." "But the Votrics will be here before then, what do we do in the mean time?" Jack asked. "We'll just have to blast as many as we can from here to Saturn." Alvin said. Jack Comet smiled, he loved getting into fights. "It's good to have you back Alvin." Alvin sighed, "It's good to be back Jack. I've really missed you guys."
# The nurse returned to Alvin's room and found him slouched in his chair with the Hugo statue still in his arms. She shook her head and started to take it from him. Then she realized that he was not breathing. The distant smile on his face was serene and calm. He looked happy and it made the fact that he was no longer alive a little bit easier for her to take. She was going to miss the old story teller and his crazy tales. She gently took the award away from him and set it on the mantle where it was stored. Then she left the room to make the proper arrangements. Alvin Henderson was
Return to Greatness / Ken McConnell 12 gone from this world but in his imagination, he was alive and well.
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