He was born the year the world ended, the youngest of nine children, on a little farm outside a little village in a place that ceased to exist soon thereafter. By the time he was four, his father and his two oldest brothers were dead, the farm lost, and his mother had taken the rest of them to the city, to Amsterdam, to live with Aunt Annika.
By the time he was five, only he and Aunt Annika were left. Everything the War hadn’t taken, the influenza epidemic did. Nicholas Ballard spent his entire life knowing that family, that place, are things the world takes from you. It was something he never accepted, just as he never accepted the logic of war, the credibility of violence.
His father had been a farmer. His aunt was a shopkeeper. Nicholas wanted more for himself: he worked and studied and saved, and in 1932 he entered the Universiteit van Amsterdam. There, he studied archaeology. There, he met Kaatje.
Kaatje Grieta van Coevorden was bright and merry and fearless. Her friends said she could do far better than a loutish shopkeeper. His friends said he could never get such a girl to look at him twice. Everyone said students should think of their studies instead of romance.
But he laughed at her jokes and she laughed at his theories. All around them, Europe grew darker: he wonders now if they didn’t care, or if they just didn’t notice. They married in 1939, in June. In September, Europe was at war, but Nicholas knew he and Kaatje were safe. The Netherlands had declared neutrality.
Their daughter, Claire, was born the following year, the month – May – the Nazis invaded their homeland.
Everything changed then.
He’d never taken any interest in anything outside his studies. Studying the past taught him the futility of war. Violence (he told Kaatje) never changed anything. (She had laughed bitterly, and pointed to the headlines in the morning paper.) But this was violence on a scale that dwarfed the maddest dreams of a Caesar or a Genghis. Violence coupled not to a mere lust for power, but to the propagation of an intolerable ideology.
And the Germans gave him no choice. There was no longer any neutral ground. One embraced the new world order they had brought with them in their conquest … or defied it.
The price Nicholas paid for that defiance was higher than he could accept. Kaatje’s life. It did not matter that she gave it up willingly, if not gladly. He had already lost so much. Only Claire was left.
But his Raad van Verzet work gained him one thing. When the Allies won their victory, Nicholas Ballard and his young daughter were easily able to emigrate to America. There, in a country untouched by war, he hoped to finally find peace. A family.
The next years were good ones, as Claire grew to womanhood, as beautiful and brilliant as her mother. Then disaster struck once more.
She fell in love.
Dr. Melburne Jackson was one of her teachers at Harvard. He was rich, well-connected, and academically-conservative. The first time Nicholas met him, they argued. Not over politics. Over something far more volatile.
Jackson’s field was Egypt, where he built carefully and meticulously on the work of those who had gone before him. Nicholas Ballard had long since learned to distrust authority, even academic authority: he had become an explorer, an adventurer, a student of the bizarre and the inexplicable. Jackson called Nick a crackpot. Nick called him a Fascist. Nick ordered Claire to have nothing more to do with Melburne Jackson outside the classroom.
When she married Dr. Jackson, it broke Nick’s heart. He buried himself in his work, his researches, supporting himself, as he always had, by lectures and by selling a few of his finds. The letters he exchanged with his daughter were curt and infrequent, full of bitterness and anger on both sides. Even the news of a child did not repair the rift between them.
The years had tricked him into believing Life had no more to take from him; new land, new hope, an end to his losses. But Claire’s death was Kaatje’s all over again, this time a product of carelessness instead of hatred.
It was still theft. The cause didn’t make things better.
The only thing remaining to him was the one thing that had never failed him, never left him, never been taken away: discovery.
In 1971 he had gone to Belize, and there he found an ancient temple. A crystal skull. Proof of all his theories – civilization on Earth was far older than anyone suspected, and the culture-bringers, the fire-givers, the founders of civilization itself were not human myth-figures … but men from other worlds.
He’d been certain he could convince Claire and Melburne to come and investigate. Claire’s refusal had been tactful, but he could read her husband’s mocking laughter between the lines. By the time he’d mastered his fury to make a second attempt to woo them…it was too late.
Looking down at Claire’s son, Kaatje’s grandson, he knew he couldn’t face another love, another loss. He made his voice harsh as he told Daniel there was no place in his life for him. That someone – someone else -- would care for him. About him.
And he left.
The crystal skull had taken him across the stars. But it was as if all his luck, all his hope, all his life had been bound up in Claire’s life and destroyed by her death. He could not make the skull work again, or find the temple once more. He tried to get funding, support, recognition for his find.
And in 1980 he gave up. He was hearing voices by then. Claire. Kaatje.
The first time Daniel came to visit him was the following year. The “rest home” he had chosen for his retreat was a safe haven filled with kind-hearted young men and women. Dr. Roberts spoke with him often, assuring him that the voices weren’t real. That they would vanish when the part of his mind that was sick no longer felt a need for them.
Nick knew that time would never come. He knew what the voices were. They were his conscience. His might-have-beens. If he had saved Kaatje, reconciled with Claire…
…taken Daniel in when the child, his grandson, so desperately needed home and family.
To see Daniel, alive, grown to young manhood was a shock. The first six times Daniel came, Nicholas refused to see him. At first he didn’t believe Daniel was real. Dr. Roberts told him that Daniel was entirely real. The boy was just sixteen, and had started college in California.
Neither of them knew how Daniel had tracked him down, and Nick didn’t care. Daniel (so he discovered), was as stubborn as his mother and grandmother had been: after a few months Nick gave up avoiding his visits. (He still talked to his own Daniel, though, the one who stayed with him in the dark nights, the one to whom he’d told all his most shameful secrets.)
Daniel wanted to call him “Grandfather”. Nick would not permit it. What kind of a grandfather had he been to this child, this blood of his blood? Daniel shared Claire’s love of archaeology and Nick’s love of exploration. He was studying to be an archaeologist like his parents had been; he’d tracked Nick down by following the references to the Crystal Skull of Belize, but if Nick thought he’d found a soulmate, he was rudely disappointed.
The aliens, his grandson said, had not appeared in the New World at all, and certainly hadn’t used mystical teleportation devices. The aliens had used starships, and when they’d come, they’d come to Egypt.
It was wild justice of the cruelest sort to hear the abandoned arguments he’d once made to Melburne flung at him by Melburne’s son, and Nick refused to stand for it. He shouted Daniel down. Ordered him out.
Daniel came back.
And he kept coming back, month after month, year after year, for ten years.
Then he stopped.
All Nick had left was his dream Daniel. He’d gone away for a while, when the living one began to visit so regularly. But now he – insubstantial, pallid, echolalic -- was the only one who remained. Nick tried to take comfort in his presence, even though he knew (really) it was just another of the lies he told himself. And as the years passed, even that cold comfort faded away, and all there was were the voices that whispered at the edges of audibility.
And then, one day, Daniel came back.
He was dressed in a soldier’s uniform – so Nick knew instantly this wasn’t real. Daniel would never join the military, even the American military. He would never become an instrument of oppression and death. That much Nick was sure of.
Hi Nick, long time no see.
Dr. Roberts had come to tell him that Daniel’s friends were here. Nick could not imagine why they would come to see him. It had been a long time since even Daniel had visited. There had been no letters, no messages. Not even a postcard. It made no sense that Daniel would tell his friends about him.
It was another dream. He’d taken pity on his own loneliness and conjured his grandson up again. And because his mind, like that of all men, was a house divided, he’d dressed that paraclete of solace as a soldier.
Nick, I need your help. Friends of mine want to ask you about the skull you found in Belize. Tell them everything, just trust them.
Not Daniel. Not real.
Daniel was never coming back.
There was nothing left.