Peripheral Visions: My Friend Shelvak

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 17 MIN.

Peripheral Visions: They coalesce in the soft blur of darkest shadows and take shape in the corner of your eye. But you won't see them coming... until it's too late.

My Friend Shelvak

I think back on those days... six decades ago... when my friend Darci Shelvak and I would climb the cottonwood trees next to the North Fork of the Powder River and spend hours up in the branches, looking at the clouds, making up stories.

Better said: Shelvak would make up the stories. He would prompt me along and when he had a better idea than what I came up with, he'd interject it. In that way, Shelvak told the tales but I was the one who grew up to be a writer. In my teens and throughout my twenties, thirties, forties, and even now... now in my seventies, regarded as "The Archon of Speculative Fiction"... I swear I hear his voice suggesting the start of a story, then guiding me, step by step, through each twist and wrinkle until the tale is told.

I haven't seen him since we were fourteen, but still I think of him, and those mornings. Winter, summer, it didn't matter; come Saturday and Sunday we'd be at the river. I still say to myself, or to friends, or even to interviewers who wonder where I got my start, I still say the words: "My friend Shelvak..."

***

"Why are we so weird?" Danny asked, clutching the trunk of the tree and surveying the brown water of the river below.

"Why do you think?" Shelvak asked.

"Why do you go by your last name?" Danny said, his attention wandering.

"Why do you think?" Shelvak asked again.

Danny stared at the brown water and then let his eyes wander over the multi-colored rocks scattered around the dry parts of the riverbed. When the Powder River ran high, the town's streets could be submerged – but that only happened very rarely, only once in Danny's life. Thelma, the old woman who lived in a tiny shack at the edge of town, told him that she'd seen the river rise up and soak the streets three times throughout the course of her own long life.

"Those are magical times," Thelma told him, and Danny thrilled, because everyone knew that Thelma was a witch.

But dark magic was coming, she told him. Magic that was not blessed or even truly magic, but a result of science... and ignorance. And she said a lot of other things about stupidity and lies people told to themselves because lies are sometimes nicer to believe in. But, she said, it all came down to the Immutable Law: What you prepared was what you would have in the end.

Immutable Law. She talked about it all the time. Danny had to look it up, but once he learned it, he found examples all over the place. Later in his life, he's use different words, karma being the on he most frequently came to, but "Immutable Law" – that phrase stuck with him in the back of his mind, echoing, beautiful and monolithic...

"But you," Thelma said to him sometimes, looking at him with a new and different light in her eyes, "you might make a difference. I think you are special..."

"Danny?"

Danny shook himself out of his wandering thoughts.

Shelvak was looking at him.

"Why do you think?"

"Why do I think what?"

"Why do you think I go by my last name?"

"Because Darci is a girl's name?"

Shelvak laughed at that. Then he got serious again. "Why do you think we are so weird?"

Danny shrugged with one shoulder, determined to hang on to the tree trunk. He wasn't like Shelvak, who could balance without effort on the branches, sitting for hours and never fearing he might fall. "Because we're friends?" he asked.

"Maybe it's the opposite," Shelvak suggested. "Maybe we're friends because we're both weird."

"Well... maybe we're weird because we got swapped as children. Our people came and put us in the babies' cribs in their place."

"Swapped! By who?"

"My grandma told me about faerie people who swap babies."

"You're grandma's Irish, right?"

"My grandma's half Irish. She heard the stories from her mom."

"And did she say what these faerie folk did with human babies? Took them back to Faerieland? Riased them as their own Whatever for?"

"I dunno," Danny said.

"Well," Shelvak said, "maybe there's another reason why we aren't like everyone else."

Danny thought about it. He remembered last week's episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man" – the one with Bigfoot, who turned out to be a robot built by aliens.

That was a cool idea, Danny thought.

"Maybe we're aliens!" he suggested brightly. "Maybe we'll build a robot Bigfoot."

"Ha!" Shelvak crowed. "But, okay. If we're aliens, then how did we get here?"

"I guess.... We flew a spaceship?"

"I dunno," Shelvak said. "Space is really big. I mean, really big. You know how fast light travels?"

"Sure," Danny said. "One hundred eighty-six thousand two hundred eighty-two miles per second. I mean... that's rounding. But it's close."

"Right," Shelvak said. "And that's why you're weird."

The boys laughed.

"Did you tell me you corrected them at a planetarium? Shelvak asked.

Danny was indignant. "They said that it takes sixteen minutes for light from the Sun to reach the Earth. Well, that's wrong; it takes eight minutes. All you have to do is consider that the average distance between Earth and the Sun is ninety-eight million miles and then figure how long it takes light to reach us when it's traveling at 186,282 miles per second. It's not hard. And those guys are scientists! But when I told the usher lady, she said that the science guys know what they're talking about. And then my aunt got really mad and told me I should respect my elders. But, I mean, how is it respectful to let your elders say things that are totally wrong and it's so easy to explain why!"

Shelvak shrugged. "You really are one of a kind, Danny."

"Yeah? I'm not the one who sounds like he's about twenty-four years old. You sound like my dad."

"Oh yeah?"

"The way you talk? That's why you're weird."

"But you don't mind," Shelvak said.

"No. I like it."

"Okay," Shelvak said. "Anyhow, space it way too big. The closest star is four light years away. That means – "

"That means it takes four years for light from that star to reach Earth," Danny said.

"And most of the stars are farther away than that," Shelvak said.

"I guess," Danny thought about it. Suddenly, he started to understand what Shelvak was saying: It all made perfect sense. "A spaceship would have to be pretty big just to carry enough food and fuel for its passengers. And the farther you have to go, the bigger the ship has to be. And there's... there's supernovas and stuff... space is a lot more dangerous then people think."

"So," Shelvak said. "How would aliens get here?"

"Maybe a... like, a door? Like in the book 'The Forgotten Door?' When the boy falls through a hole in the ground on his home planet and falls out of a cave on Earth. It doesn't take any time at all, and you don't need a space ship, but you cross the whole galaxy."

"That's a good one," Shelvak said. "But it would probably take a lot of energy."

"Maybe a nuclear power plant would generate enough energy."

"Maybe not," Shelvak said.

"How much do you think it would take?" Danny asked.

"You know what E=MC2 means?" Shelvak asked.

Danny considered the question. He had seen the equation before. Everybody had. It was famous. Einstein came up with it. But he had no idea what it meant.

"What if 'E' stands for 'Energy?' " Shelvak suggested.

"Well, then... well then, maybe 'M' stands for 'Mass,' and... and you have to multiply Mass by... by..."

"By 'C,' and 'C' stands for the speed of light," Shelvak said.

"So..." Danny shut his eyes to focus on the thought. It came to him in pieces, but then, suddenly, the pieces fit together. "So... just a little bit of 'E,' energy, is the same as a lot of 'M,' mass. Because the speed of light is such a big number. And if you took one little piece of rock and it weighed, like... how much is an ounce?"

"Ounce?" Shelvak scoffed. "The future is metric, man."

"Okay. We talked about grams and kilos in science class," Danny said. "So if you take one gram of mass, then that's gotta be equal to..." He tried to work it out. "I... I don't know," he admitted, "but a lot."

"Yeah," Shelvak said. "A lot. Like, if you took the whole planet Neptune and turned it into energy. That would be enough to open an Einstein-Rosen bridge."

"A what?"

"A wormhole."

"A what?"

"A... I don't know!" Shelvak said, annoyed. "Tesseract, maybe? Didn't you ever read 'A Swiftly Titling Planet?' "

"Is that where you learned about this stuff?" Danny asked. "I saw the book in the library, but I thought it looked boring."

"Naw, give it a read," Shelvak said.

"Okay. But anyway... a door from one planet to another would take a lot of energy," Danny said. "More than is possible,"

Shelvak pursed his lips. "Well, maybe it's possible, on paper anyway. But it's probably not very practical. Maybe a thousand years from now it will be."

"So, no spaceship. And no door," Danny mused. "So, probably transporter beam, either."

"No what?" asked Shelvak mischievously.

"You know, like 'Star Trek,' When they go beaming."

"Ah, maybe that would work!" Shelvak told him. "Projection of matter. Projection of mind!"

"Astral projection!" laughed Danny.

"What?" Shelvak laughed. " 'Astral?' Where do you even get this stuff?"

"Books!" Danny cried. "I mean, where do you find out anything?"

"Well, fine. If there's no better word, then projection works. And I guess it might be 'astral' if it takes you across the stars."

"But wait," Danny said. "If we were aliens, we'd look like aliens."

"Would we?"

"Sure. We'd have green skin or antennas or something. Why would we look like human beings if we came from another planet? Unless God made everyone the same, but even on Earth people look different. And humans aren't the only people."

Shelvak frowned at him, suddenly intense. "What do you mean?"

"I mean... look at dolphins and whales. They're smart! They're people too. Anyone that thinks and speaks and has feelings is a person."

"Did Thelma tell you that?"

"No. I just know it," Danny said.

"Well, you know what? I think you're right," Shelvak told him. "Good job, Danny. But how do you think we ended up looking like humans?"

"Well, we want to look like humans so we can blend in. And I mean, it worked because not even our parents know," Danny said.

Shelvak smirked. "Or maybe they do."

"Yeah... they like to mess with us, don't they." Danny looked back at the rounded cobbles scattered across the dry area of the riverbed. They were all different colors: Blue, pink, white, gray...

"Maybe the beam changes how we look," he said. "Like the way the river changes rocks. On land, rocks are rough and they can have any shape. But after they're in the river for a while, they all look..." He pointed to the riverbed below. "They all look like that. Round. Smooth."

"Hmm," Shelvak said.

"And if it's a beam... it it's been built to change how you look... then you can make yourself look any way you want," Danny said. "Because... because if matter can be turned into energy, then... then energy can be turned back into matter. I guess that's how beaming works. Or, I mean, that's how projection works."

"Pretty good," Shelvak told him.

"But if you're beaming across space, how do you make sure you hit your target?"

"You better have a really good telescope," Shelvak said. "And really careful calculations."

Danny didn't bother to follow that; his mind was racing along to the next question. "What if another planet gets in the way? Or a meteor? Or even a star?"

"Well, that would be a problem," Shelvak said.

"Is that why your dad isn't here?" Danny asked.

For the first time, Shelvak's smile dropped away. A hurt look came over his face.

"I'm sorry," Danny said. "Everyone says your dad died. But I thought maybe..."

"He didn't die," Shelvak said. "He just got... separated."

"You mean... did he divorce your mom?"

"No."

"My mom says she wants a divorce from my dad. She got separated from him once, and we lived with my s=cousins in Utah for a few months. But then she came back to him. She still says she wants to leave him, but I don't think they will," Danny said.

"Yeah, well... my dad and my mom didn't divorce," Shelvak said. "When my mom and I moved here..."

"When you projected here," Danny said, with a bright grin, trying to resurrect the game. He didn't like seeing Shelvak sad and hurt.

Shelvak smiled. "Right. When we projected here... well, what do you think happened?"

"Your dad got caught on a meteor!"

"A meteor? Maybe not. A 'meteor' is only a meteor when it falls into the atmosphere and burns up, or else crashes to the ground. Maybe..."

"An asteroid!" Danny exclaimed.

"No, but close... what else is there in the solar system? If you're speeding into town on the cosmic highway, what else are you gonna maybe run into?"

Danny shrugged with one shoulder. Then he closed his eyes and focused on the problem.

Meteors. Asteroids. Solar system.

He imagined himself rushing through space, a rainbow of colors all around him, a chorus of grinding, echoing, and singing reverberations echoing back and forth across the vast cosmos. He saw himself hurtling at light-speed, tireless, euphoric, across space, headed toward a tiny, distant star. Headed toward a tiny, distant fleck of a planet. And coming into the fringes of the solar system... dust, ice...

"Comets!" Danny opened his eyes and looked at Shelvak, who was smiling back at him. "Your dad got hung up in a comet!"

"And some day when we figure it out," Shelvak said, his voice serious but his face happy and hopeful, "we're going to retrieve him."

Danny wasn't sure how that would work, but he let it go. A new thought had occurred to him. "But why?" he asked.

"Why would we rescue my dad?"

"No, I mean... why come here? Why not stay home? It's a long way and it's dangerous. So why do it?

Shelvak got a familiar look. Danny knew what was next.

"Okay, I know," he said. "Why do I think? Because... aliens came and took over our planet."

Shelvak laughed. "Okay, that's one idea."

"Or... an asteroid was gonna smash our planet."

"Or?" Shelvak prompted.

"Or... the air heated up. I was reading about it in a magazine. There are all kinds of problems that people have to start thinking about. The population explosion. Pollution. Farmland turning into deserts. Did you know the Sahara is always getting bigger? It's creeping across the whole world! And we're running out of sources."

"Resources," Shelvak corrected.

"Right, like oil and coal. And those things pollute, too. And they make air get hotter. And then everything will die. And that's why we need a nuclear power plant! Except," Danny said, "nuclear power plants make radioactive waste. And then there's also the problem of nuclear war. That would be a lot of radioactivity."

"Do you know what radioactivity is?"

"I'm not sure..." Danny shut his eyes and focused. He had an idea for a diagram: An atom spitting out particles.... Particles that... that... He couldn't hold onto the whole concept, and the image faded. "I don't know," he said. "But it's bad. I read about when dropped atomic bombs on Japan and the people got burned up. But that was just from the explosion, The radioactivity made their hair fall out, and they got poisoned, like when you sit too close to the color TV set."

"Who told you that? Shelvak rolled his eyes.

"My grandma."

"Well, anyhow, none of that is the answer," Shelvak said. "What else can you guess?"

"Well..." Danny focused for a long time. Images came to him. It was like a reading a book while a slide show played. "If aliens had a really advanced technology... and they knew how to generate energy and grow food and build things but not pollute... then they could live on their planet forever,"

"Except?" Shelvak asked.

Eyes still closed, Danny thought it over. Slowly, the answer came to him. "Well... the same way a spaceship has to burn fuel, or a campfire has to burn wood, or anything else that throws off energy needs something to feed it, stars do too. Stars throw off heat and light, which are forms of energy. And the fuel that a star burns is... we talked about this in class... it's one of those gases... hydrogen?"

"That's right," Shelvak said.

"And the waste product of burning hydrogen is helium. So, when the hydrogen is gone, the sun starts burning helium. It's like burning charcoal instead of wood."

"Well, not really, but..." Shelvak said.

"And then... and then something happens. The star swells up or maybe even blows up... I mean, a star is heavy, and its own mass wants to fall in because of gravity, and when that happens, when that happens..." He focused harder than he ever had. "Space turns inside out... and it's black hole."

"Well,,," Shelvak started.

"But most stars don't have that much gravity," Danny continued, "but it's still enough to... to pull down the outer layers of the star when there's not enough energy left inside the star to push the weight up, so the outer layers suddenly fall in and that creates a shockwave that blows up the star. And that's... that's a supernova. I was reading about that in a book. A nova is when a star swells up, and a supernova is when it blows up. And so maybe that's what happened to our star."

"So, there's two possibilities," Shelvak said. "But which one was it, do you think?"

Danny frowned, going back over his thoughts. "If the star swells and then collapses... the nova would burn up the planet before the supernova ever happened."

"So," Shelvak said. "We came here to escape a nova? Is that it?"

"No... I mean..." Danny rolled it all over in his mind again and more details came clear. "No. The star is changing, and it will be a nova. But the changes are already making life impossible on our planet. So, we came here."

"So, we came here," Shelvak said.

"But it was almost too late," Danny said. "Because the interference from the star caused some of the projections to lose cohesion and..."

"Let's focus on something else, Danny," Shelvak said.

"Cohesion... cohesion of energy, of coherent energy..."

"Danny, that's enough."

"Coherent energy that's been filtered like you would put light through a prism, only it's not the spectrum that's shifting it's the... the probability of... of what you're gonna look like, what you're gonna be like, when the coherent energy collapses into material form, and that can only take place when... when the – "

Danny suddenly felt a sharp stinging and heard the sound of a slap. He jolted out of his waking dream, startled. Shelvak had just whacked him across the face with an open hand. Danny almost let go of the tree trunk. Shelvak, anticipating that, reached out and grabbed his shirt.

"What the hell, man?" Danny asked.

"Are you oaky?"

Shelvak didn't look angry. He looked concerned.

"I'm fine, but why did you slap me?"

"You were spinning out," Shelvak said.

"Spinning out? What do you mean?"

"What do you think I mean?" This time the words didn't have the same lilt of playful challenge. Selvak seemed upset.

For an instant, Danny understood what had just happened, and why.

"Oh," he said. "I understand."

***

It didn't surprise me when Shlevak and his family disappeared. He just ... didn't come back to school one day. I remember thinking: They must have gone and got his dad off that comet.

But, of course, that was just a childish daydream.

Still, it was funny how Shelvak's way of making me part of his story telling opened my mind – like opening a spigot to ideas. When I started turning those ideas into stories, and started selling those stories, I realized my destiny would be as a writer. And not just any writer. My mom and my aunts and my cousins were all horrified when I came out of the closet as gay, but they got over it. They were even more horrified, and never did get over it, when I embraced my identity as a science fiction writer.

"Oh, no, you aren't," my sister said, "that's horrible," and my parents and everyone else pretty much said the same thing.

Now days we called it "speculative fiction," and my sister and my nieces and nephews and my husband and our two kids and three grandkids are all fine with it.

And so was I... until last week, when the Shelva revealed their presence here on Earth.

They came, they announced, to escape the destruction of their own planet – not through war or resource depletion, but because not even their technology could halt the slow death of their sun. They had been reluctant to leave, partly out of love of their home – who doesn't understand that? – but also because they had no wish to be invaders or colonizers, or to disrupt any other civilization.

In the end, they had no choice. They waited almost too long before they left: Almost half of their people were lost because their sun was so large and active that it interfered with their means of transportation: A process they call Projection, which is sort of, but not quite, like the transporters on "Star Trek."

The Shelva had prepared us for their announcement. They arrived here ninety years ago, but they kept quiet and did their work, and their work benefitted us, too. They introduced new materials, new manufacturing processes, new medicines. They helped us with our early work in computers and they lent us a little of their knowledge for early satellites and space probes and Moon landings. Eventually, they raised our technical acumen to the point we now enjoy: Free energy, cellular medicine, the ability to repair the decades of pollution and ecological ravishment we inflicted on our own home, the planet Earth.

They did not come as conquerors or as gods. They desire neither our obedience nor our worship. They don't even our admiration. They just want to be accepted as people, like the rest of us, which is what they are – not just because they are physiologically indistinguishable from any human being, but because they think, and create, and speak, and laugh, and feel.

And we understand all that. As a species, humanity is much more advanced than it used to be, in part because of the stories we tell ourselves. And it's all a matter of stories, after all. It's stories that tell us what's right and wrong and were the ethical boundaries lie. Stories tell us about facts and truths... and about deeper truths that extend beyond facts. Stories make us human and allow us to choose to be humane. Stories can make us cruel and vicious – but they can also make us generous and peaceful and kind.

There are still some angry voices, some distrustful voices, but they are few. The bulk of humanity stands in welcome to our brothers... our friends... the Shelva.

And my stories... that ones my friend Darci Shelvak inspired so long ago... helped make that transition possible.

Still, I lie awake at night now, where I never used to before, and I wonder about my calling and my body of work. How much of what I have written is my own? How much did Shelvak put there? Or, another thought: How much did I take from him when he was trying to drip-feed me information through mental telepathy or whatever it was he used to communicate ideas and concepts in ways words could not accomplish?

If we are our stories, who am I? Who did Shelvak's stories make me? Who did I make myself when my hungry, curious mind dove so deeply into his? Did he use me and manipulate me, or did I steal source material from him, forcing his people to give up more than they were ready to?

Commentators say that my stories helped prepare the world for the revelation that the Shelva are among us, and have been here for decades. They call it a coincidence; but I know it's more than that. IF the future holds wonders or terrors thanks to our alien visitors, how much responsibility do I bear?

At least I'm not alone. The newsfeeds are full of the confessions of a one our century's preeminent scientists, Priya Agrawal, who recently wrote a book about being a boy in Chandigahr, India, and meeting a strange and delightful friend, a boy his age named Ravi Shelva, who was somehow different; somehow wiser; somehow full of explanations about the fundamental forces of nature, the structure of matter, the qualities of electromagnetism... In other words, he, too, came under the influence of one of the alien colonists and then grew up to become a technological innovator with 127 patents to his name. Much of the world's technological progress has stemmed, over the decades, from a handful of foundational concepts and processes he gave to the world... or the Shelva gave us, through him.

User or used, I am not unique. Somehow, that creates in me the greatest shame, the greatest resentment, the sharpest hurt. Was my friend Shelvak a friend after all, or simply an accident that happened to befall me?

They are not invaders. I believe that. They are... they are immigrants, bringing their culture and stories to us, enriching our minds and our world and making us more complete.

But are they also imposters?

Am I?

Our world is good and getting better. But at night I stare into the vast cosmos, and the reaches of my own imagination. I find new stories to tell. I also find unsettling thoughts. Is this progress?

It probably is. I need to focus and think and find out. I'm frightened to...

But I will.

Next week we descend through horror and out the other side as a would-be king hoping to rule over a broken America comes face to face with his own most ruthless creation – and realizes that in spite of his delusions, it's not possible to hold onto a "Tiger by the Tail."


by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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