There I was, twelve light-years from Earth, being wheeled down a hospital corridor in a wheelchair. Aside from some minor differences in decor and in the design of the wheelchair, the place was indistinguishable from any nice hospital back in Pennsylvania. In fact there was a part of me that irritatingly insisted that I had never left Earth; that this whole Homeland business was a figment of my imagination. My sense of reality latched onto whatever it could to regain its bearings: aside from some of the patients, all of whom were all aliens like me, everyone was black.
An orderly was pushing me briskly down the corridor, and as we turned a corner, I blurted out, “Why is it that all Thorgelfaynese are black?”
“What?” he chuckled in amused astonishment. “Are you going to ask me why the sky is blue? Some things just are the way they are!”
“No, I’m serious,” I insisted. “I know why the sky is blue; it’s because of the refraction of light in water molecules. All Homelanderoid planets have water in great abundance, therefore everyone has a blue sky.”
“Very good!” the orderly congratulated me. We pulled over to the side of the corridor so he could check with a computer terminal at a nurses’ station. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I did hear some intermittent tapping on a keyboard.
“Why do you use a keyboard?” I wondered aloud, “Why not voice entry? Is it because of ambient noise?”
“We are full of questions this morning, aren’t we?” he remarked with a musical laugh. He unlocked the brakes and we started out again down another corridor towards the elevator bank. “Any good voice entry system can lock on to one voice and ignore noise,” he explained, “but it isn’t very private. You wouldn’t want to have me announce your intimate medical information to anyone who happened to be standing around, now would you?”
“No, I guess not,” I admitted sheepishly, “But I am still curious why all Thorgelfaynese are black.” I twisted my head to look up at him. He seemed to be very tall and muscular from my position. “It just seems odd to me. Homeland lacks the warfare, strife, and prejudice that Earth has; why wouldn’t that cause people to travel more freely, settle wherever they like and intermarry? In fact, I am surprised that there are even different races on Homeland!”
As soon as I said it, I was embarrassed, but the orderly didn’t seem to mind. He smiled, and his eyes laughed. “I think I understand what you mean. I hold a doctorate in anthropology, so I have some idea of conditions on Earth.”
“Why are you a veterinary orderly if you have a doctor’s degree in that?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Because it is required of all veterinarians,” he replied flatly. Then he addressed my question, “We’ve had a lot of peace and tranquility in our history. It has been quite some time since anyone has captured a civilian population and put them into refugee camps, or displaced them as refugees into neighboring lands. For centuries, Homelanders have only left home voluntarily or as victims of natural disasters. The result is that racial differences are quite stable here.”
A dingdong sound announced the elevator’s arrival. The grey doors slid open, and several people came out: a veterinarian, two people in street clothes (apparently visitors), and another orderly pushing a sad little girl in a wheelchair. The two orderlies smiled and nodded at each other. We entered the elevator, and a perky young woman in a green dress dashed in just before the doors closed.
“The way I figure it,” the orderly continued, “Homelanders will continue to be black, yellow, and white indefinitely; whereas I suppose the people on your planet will eventually all merge into a nice shade of beige!”
“What on Homeland are you talking about?” the woman exclaimed.
“Oh, my human patient here developed an anthropological itch,” the orderly explained, “and I was proceeding to scratch it.”
“You’re a human?” the woman looked at me with big eyes. “What a coincidence! I did my undergraduate field study on your planet! It is a pleasure to meet you! Where on Earth are you from?”
“Pennsylvania,” I said in what I hoped would be a cryptic reply. “Legally, however, I am as much a Homelander as you are. I’m a naturalized Thorgelfaynese!”
“That’s nice,” she mumbled. Her lips kept repeating the word ‘Pennsylvania’ as if she were trying to access some sort of mental database. Finally, she gave up. “I’m sorry but I don’t recognize that name,” she confessed, “I was assigned to Gabon, is it anywhere near that?”
“No,” I smiled, “It’s on another continent altogether!”
Just then the elevator stopped, and the woman dashed out.
“Don’t get too comfortable in that chair, now,” the orderly said as he saw me lean back and relax, “This is our destination, too!”
We proceeded a short distance down another busy hallway, made a few turns and ended up in what looked like an examining room. A man in a white coat was seated at a desk poring over a large red book.
“Come in,” he said looking up briefly. He turned a page. “You must be Friend Anderson, my fifteen o’clock appointment.” He closed the book with a sigh as if its mysteries had eluded him, then he stood up and walked over to us.
The orderly locked the brakes on the wheelchair and remained standing behind me. The veterinarian peered closely at my lip, making all sorts of doctorly noises.
“Well!” he said, straightening himself up to a full standing position, “You did have a full breakfast, didn’t you?” I nodded yes. “Good. Because I’m afraid your lip will be too sore for lunch, and your tooth won’t quite be set until mid-afternoon; maybe around twenty o’clock or so. Human teeth take a while to mend. Could you lie down on this table please?” The veterinarian patted his hand on the padded examining table. I got out of the chair and lay down on the table. It was an awkward maneuver, since that dull pain in my right leg hadn’t gone away yet.
The veterinarian looked over at the orderly, “I probably won’t be needing you, but stick around, just in case.” Then, he turned his attention back to me. “Your records say that you’re from a place called ‘Pennsylvania’ on your home planet.” I made an affirmative noise. “It must be a very obscure place,” he remarked, “I couldn’t find it in the atlas to save my life.”
“This book on your desk?” the orderly inquired, walking over to the desk. He picked up the book to examine it. Maybe he wanted to look at the atlas to pass the time while he waited.
I wanted to say something, but my mouth was full of medical instruments.
“I didn’t have time to use the index, though,” the veterinarian added as he worked, “It was just idle curiosity, and you arrived so promptly, I didn’t have time to look very thoroughly.”
The orderly burst out in laughter, “You’ll never find Pennsylvania in this atlas!” he proclaimed, holding the book up so we could see the cover. Both the veterinarian and I craned our necks to see. “This is an atlas of Zerpick, not Earth!”
“Well, I suppose that explains my difficulty,” the veterinarian admitted with a shrug. “But don’t you worry!” he reassured me, “I’m not going to do any geography in your mouth!” The veterinarian busied himself with my cut lip and chipped tooth, making all sorts of faces. Then he paused for a moment. “Are you comfortable?” he asked, his face riddled with professional compassion.
“Yes, I am,” I said, relieved to have all that equipment out of my way so I could talk. “Now that the examination is over, when do we begin?”
“Begin?” the veterinarian laughed. “What a lovely compliment, I thank you!”
The orderly wheeled the chair over to the table. “The procedure is over,” he informed me, “it’s time to go back to your room.”
I was a little surprised, but not much. Homelander medical procedures are quicker and more efficient than human ones, and Thorgelfaynese doctors and veterinarians are more thoroughly trained. I sat on the edge of the table for a moment, rubbing my right thigh.
“Is that leg still hurting you?” the veterinarian asked.
“Just a little bit,” I said, “It’s really only a dull ache.”
The veterinarian reassured me that the bone was completely healed and that the pain actually came from sore muscles. While he was explaining this, the orderly helped me down from the table, and I limped back into the wheel chair.
The veterinarian walked over to a sink and washed his hands as the orderly unlocked the wheelchair brakes. “Now remember,” he called over his shoulder, “Nothing but liquids until twenty o’clock, no meals until dinner time, and don’t bite into anything crunchy until tomorrow.
I promised to remember, and we left the room. The trip back to my room was largely in silence; I suppose the orderly felt my mouth would be more comfortable if I didn’t use it.
As we approached my room, I did ask him if he could help me.
“Help you do what?” he asked.
“I’m here because of an automobile accident, in which I was the driver,” I confessed. “My passenger was a Homelander, a friend of mine. Can you help me find out how he is?”
“Sure can,” he said, as we arrived at my room. “In fact, I understand that was your first concern when you woke up.” He locked the wheelchair brakes.
“Yes, it was,” I admitted, standing up from the chair, “I was very startled when I tried to talk and couldn’t!”
“That’s because they put a plastic retainer in your mouth to prevent you from biting your lip in your sleep,” he explained, as he helped me back into the bed. “Your friend would be in the main hospital if he’s hurt. I’ll come back this afternoon and talk to you about it!”
“Thanks,” I said.
The orderly unlocked the wheelchair brakes and twirled the chair around to leave the room. As he did that, he turned to reassure me once again. Someone was trying to enter the room at the point, and they nearly knocked each other down!
“My abject apology,” the orderly told the man, “I assure you that health and not harm is my profession! Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m perfectly fine,” the man said. “I think I passed your reflex test; though I don’t think you’re supposed to work with Homelanders!”
It was Panu! The orderly smiled and left.
“Panu, you look great!” I exclaimed, relieved that he was well.
“I wasn’t injured in the accident, since I was laying on the back seat,” he explained, as he pulled up a chair. “How are you feeling, John?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I replied. “They’re going to let me out of here tomorrow. It’s amazing how fast all this goes!”
“Yes, I’m sure it must be to you.” Panu paused, then added quietly, “I need to bring you up to date on the accident.”
“I’m going to have to face up to it eventually,” I sighed, “so it might as well be now. Let me have it.”
“The car had no mechanical failure, which means that the accident will most likely be judged your fault in traffic court,” Panu said. “The collision avoidance system is being replaced, a few other things need to be repaired; it should be ready tomorrow.”
“Is it going to be expensive?” I asked cautiously.
“Yes, but the insurance pays for it,” Panu said. “The insurance company does want to talk to you in the next week or so.
“When is the court date?” I asked somberly.
“It doesn’t matter,” Panu said, “We’ll drop by whenever it is convenient after you get out of the hospital. You will probably be assessed for damages to the tree, but I understand it wasn’t serious. Apparently you sustained more damage than anything else.”
“It isn’t the most ideal of situations,” I conceded, “but it is turning out a lot better than I thought it would. One thing I would like to know: if the car has a collision avoidance system, why did we hit the tree, and why was I hurt so bad?”
“Well, I don’t think that two days in a hospital is all that bad,” Panu observed, “but as for hitting the tree, what do you want? If the collision avoidance system hadn’t overridden itself, we would have plunged down that mountainside!
I shuddered as I thought of that spectacular Herlupian scenery!