I was shown in to a small office, where a tall balding black man immediately began to smother me in a strong embrace. “Welcome to Thorgelfayne, Ken!” he said, but his greeting was muffled by his embrace.
“It’s very nice of you to take the time to meet with me, Dr. Fargnon,” I replied as I politely disentangled myself. I was especially pleased to meet him because he is head of the interspecies exchange program that sponsored Melissa’s original trip to Homeland, and on top of that, he’s ultimately Bobo’s boss.
“You must disabuse yourself of this human habit of addressing people with titles and honorifics,” he smiled, “I know you intend to honor me, but in our culture it has the connotation of forcing social distance when it’s done conversationally. Just call me Eljikorn.”
“I’ll do my very best,” I promised. I looked around the office at the file cabinet, the harng dispenser, the drapes on the window, even the overstuffed chair looked just as it would back on Earth! “I hope I’m not interfering with your schedule.”
“Oh no, not at all,” he said, as he walked around his desk and sat down, “in fact, your request spared me the effort of inviting you! Please have a seat!” He indicated the chair with a wave of his hand, so I seated myself. “I must confess that we justified the expense of bringing you here as an experiment in human psychology,” he disclosed, though it didn’t surprise me at all. “You’ve had a lot of contact with Homelanders over the last five years or so, but only vicariously. The more you insisted on coming, even at the risk of your health, the more interesting the trip became to us.” He folded his hands in his lap and leaned back. “That reminds me, have you fully recovered from your amnesia?”
“Oh, yes; I’m quite confident that I have, everything seems to be back in working order.” I tapped my forehead for emphasis. “Does everyone experience amnesia as a consequence of spaceflight?”
“Only a very few people do,” he said, “and I’m sure you will be interested to know that strictly speaking, spaceflight isn’t to blame. It’s the Maneuver that does it.”
“I see,” I said, placing my feet on the nearby hassock, “If I remember correctly, the Maneuver is the technique that’s used to travel faster than the speed of light, isn’t it?”
“Technically, that’s incorrect,” Eljikorn explained. “Actually, it is quite impossible to travel the speed of light. The Maneuver is a navigational technique that makes it unnecessary to travel faster than light.”
“I should have guessed that from the term,” I confessed, “But why did it cause me to get amnesia?”
“It’s a type of physiological disorientation,” Eljikorn said, rising from his chair to walk to the harng dispenser. “Some people get dizzy from riding in an automobile, we call that ‘carsickness’; some people get an upset stomach from flying in an airplane, we call that ‘airsickness’; and still others develop amnesia from Maneuvers, which unlike carsickness or airsickness is potentially very serious. Fortunately, a medical examination can accurately predict a propensity to this problem.” He poured some of the harng into a mug, then he looked up at me and asked, “Would you like some harng?”
“Thanks, I would,” I said. I kept on talking while he filled the second mug. “I had first-hand experience with that medical test when the Homelander physician came to my house back when Bobo broke his leg. I don’t see why it’s considered so serious. I admit, it is disconcerting to wake up not knowing who you are, but it only took a day to get my memory back.”
“In most cases, you are right; memory returns very quickly.” He walked over to my chair and handed me one of the mugs. “However, we generally don’t let star-bound people take interstellar trips, because they necessarily involve Maneuvers, and that means there is a slight chance that the amnesia could be permanent. We only let you come because we had strong indications that it wouldn’t be very serious in your case.” Eljikorn sat back down and took a sip of harng. I did likewise. “Well, enough serious talk. How are you enjoying your visit?”
“Just as much as I thought I would!” I said, holding my mug in my right hand. The harng tasted very good, but it sure is no substitute for coffee. “Somehow I imagined that things would be more exotic than they are,” I continued. “Oh, sure, I expected culture shock. After all, this is the first time I’ve visited a country whose language I couldn’t at least read. It is very difficult for me to get used to the idea that I am functionally deaf, mute, and illiterate. Even so, people are so kind and helpful that it hasn’t been much of a problem.” I told him about the day I went walking in the park and got lost, which he thought was very amusing. He remarked about how easy it is to be so completely lost without really going a great distance. “In fact,” I said, “most of the things I thought would be different are the same and the things I thought would be the same are different!”
“Oh? Can you give a few examples?” Eljikorn looked if he were taking copious mental notes.
“Oh, yes. For one thing, everything looks the same as on Earth.” The setting sun sent beams of light through the dust in the air and illuminated patches of the carpet, which sent me into a momentary reverie as I recalled watching sunbeams like that as a child. “What I mean is that Sol has a slight yellow tinge and Tau Ceti has a slight orange tinge, so I thought that everything would have an orange tinge, but it doesn’t.”
“You should have been able to figure that out in advance,” Eljikorn nodded. “You have two types of artificial lighting on Earth, fluorescent and incandescent, am I not right?” I nodded affirmatively, as I decided not to mention halogen lights. “Most fluorescent lighting is green, and incandescent is yellower than Sol, yet you don’t perceive any color differences, do you?”
“No,” I conceded, “except that, on Earth, the difference between sunlight and artificial light can show up if you take a photograph without a filter.”
“That’s what I mean,” Eljikorn took another sip of his harng and set his mug down on the desk. “Sol and Tau Ceti are close enough in color that you can’t see the difference except in photographs, and even then it’s quite subtle.”
“That certainly does explain it,” I agreed. “The biggest problem I’ve had so far is with the plumbing.” The memory of my first shower in Melissa and Harshan’s apartment was still fresh in my mind; I nearly scalded myself!
“How so?” Eljikorn leaned back in his chair.
“It’s backwards compared to home. I mean the hot and cold water faucets are on the opposite sides. But the most disconcerting part of this trip is the fact that so many things look familiar!” I complained, “You’d think that two planets separated by light-years of interstellar space would be completely different; yet the people look the same… even the furniture styles are similar! Take this office, for example. There isn’t anything here I couldn’t reasonably expect to find in a Scandinavian furniture store.”
“There is a good reason for that,” he chuckled. “Basically, we all live in the same universe. What’s a good design one place is a good design everywhere.” He slapped his desk with his right palm. “A desk has to have a surface perpendicular to the force of gravity in order to hold things off the floor. It must have a side where a person can sit, and for most circumstances that dictates a rectangular desk. There are a limited number of practical designs for supporting the top and providing storage. So I’m not sure what you would expect.”
“What about the people?” I asked. Even though I already knew the answer from Bobo, I wanted to hear some corroboration from another expert. “They all look like humans to me. In human science fiction, alien species have a wide variety of appearances.”
“Yes, I know,” Eljikorn conceded. “As a part of my cultural research I’ve had to sit through many human science fiction movies, some of which were dreadful. Now if you want a difference, there you have it: human science fiction generally tends to the fantastic or the improbable; probably because of your cultural isolation. But there are some very good theoretical reasons why all Homelanderoid species must look alike.” He opened a desk drawer, rummaged around in it for a moment and pulled out a photograph, which he then showed to me. “That is a still picture from a human movie about non-terrestrial Homelanderoids,” he explained. “Do you see that unfortunate fellow on the left? I mean the one with the blue skin.”
“Yes,” I said, locating the creature to which he referred.
“How do you suppose he can eat with that tiny mouth?” Eljikorn asked rhetorically. “No species that is limited by its biology to a highly restrictive diet can reach sentience,” he maintained, “They have to spend too much time just gathering the right type of food! Most of the creatures envisioned in human science fiction are simply too specialized to exist.”
“So why do all Homelanderoid species look alike?” I asked.
“There are a number of theories about that. Let’s begin with the more incredible ones,” he paused to clear his throat. “First, there was the Mother Race Theory that was current among scientists of centuries past and still has some currency in certain tabloid newspapers in less developed areas. This theory posits a Homelanderoid race that colonized the spiral arm in a grand civilization that later collapsed, leaving behind settlements on Homeland, Zerpick, Chern, Horstmingle, and Earth, whose populations later developed into different species of similar appearance.”
“That sounds like a very compelling theory,” I said, sipping the last of my harng. I had no place to put the empty mug, so I held it in my lap.
“It is,” Eljikorn admitted, “except for one tiny little detail: there is a total lack of evidence to support it. In fact, what we know from archaeology shows that these races did not originate in a pattern that suggests a systematic pattern of colonization. In addition, the evidence also suggests that our ancestors were less similar to each other than we are today. So the Mother Race Theory has generally been relegated to the realm of fantasy and fiction. It does make for some interesting stories, many of which I have enjoyed, but it cannot possibly be true,” he avowed. “One variation of this theory supposes that one of the presently known Homelanderoid races was in fact the Mother Race, but archaeologists have disproved this quite handily. Each of the known races were in existence and flourishing long before any of the others possessed spaceflight.”
“Well, it was an appealing theory,” I said with a touch of regret at its passing.
“Unfortunately, romantic notions and science don’t often go hand-in-hand.” Eljikorn glanced at the wall clock, and so I did also. Fortunately, Darryl had taught me to tell time, so I could see that was already close to twenty-four o’clock in the evening. “A number of religious thought systems on each planet explain the similarities to a common creator,” Eljikorn continued, “which is incidentally my own conviction. However, even though this theory explains all the facts, it can’t be verified one way or the other by scientific research.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“As soon as you interview a deity, your status changes from scientist to prophet,” Eljikorn sighed. “If you wish to stay within the bounds of science, you have to stick to empirical evidence. If the universe is likened to a detective story, a scientist pursues the question of how the deed was carried out. A theologian pursues the question of who did it.”
“So what is the current scientific thought on this subject?” I asked, “I mean about the similarity of higher life forms?”
“It goes back to what I said about my desk,” Eljikorn patted the desk top with both hands. “A good design on one world is a good design practically everywhere. Intelligent, technological species tend to be land creatures. Manipulative limbs don’t develop underwater because they tend to impede swimming. Land animals tend to have four limbs, because symmetry and redundancy have survival value, and four limbs strike a good balance between enough limbs to be redundant and few enough to keep the animal structurally simple. All higher creatures possess heads in which they carry their main sensory organs and their brain. The sensory organs need to be as close to the brain as possible to speed up the flow of information. Having a head with sensory organs has a high survival value everywhere: the creature can turn its head to scout out danger without having to move its entire body. Imagine you had your eyes on your chest.” He smiled, “What if you heard a sudden noise and wanted to look? The delay that would be caused by turning your entire body could cost you your life, plus you might have to drop whatever you’re doing to turn around.”
“Since you put it that way, I see your point,” I conceded. “Perhaps it isn’t so mysterious after all that Homelanders look like humans.”
Eljikorn’s face looked like he was getting up the courage to ask a question that I might not regard as entirely tactful. “There is one thing I am really interested in finding out from you,” he ventured softly.
“What is that?” I couldn’t imagine what he had on his mind.
“As you know, we have asked you to disseminate information from Dr. Bobo Lornifar and others to humans on your planet’s electronic network. I’d like to know whether or not you think that it is effective.”
“Oh, yes it is! In fact, I have proof here!” I pulled out a yellow greeting card and unfolded it on his desk. “I brought it with me with express purpose of showing it to you, and I nearly forgot about it.” He leaned over and peered at it closely. “This is a greeting card that was sent to me. It’s signed by some of the people who subscribe to Bobo’s reports on our network.”
“That’s an impressive statement about you personally, but that’s not what I meant,” he said, leaning back into his chair. “Do you really think that our reports are having an effect on the way people behave?”
“Oh, I think so,” I said, pointing to a specific spot on the card as I handed it to him. He peered at it studiously.
“Hm. This is interesting,” he said, “I can read most of the handwriting, and it appears that you are right.” He stopped at a page and frowned. “I can’t read this one at all.”
“That’s because it is in German,” I said. “English is my native tongue, but German is my favorite language.” I translated it for him. He muttered an unnecessary apology for not knowing one of the major cultural languages on my planet.
“This greeting is definitely not in English,” he said, pointing with his finger at a paragraph in the middle of the card, “but it looks familiar somehow.”
I peered over his shoulder. “That’s Thorgelfaynese written in Roman letters,” I explained.
“Oh yes! I see what you mean! Why, this is grammatically perfect! You don’t suppose that this is one of our operatives?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “all I know is that he’s an avid reader. Can’t you check your files?”
“That I can.” He summoned his secretary into the office and gave him the card. “Could you please check out this sentence and the signature under it? Believe it or not, it’s in perfect Thorgelfaynese, written in a human script!” The secretary looked at him with puzzlement, so Eljikorn repeated his instructions in Thorgelfaynese, then the secretary left the room. “I forgot to change languages,” he explained with a sheepish grin, “May I return the card tomorrow? If we can verify that this person really is a human, I think we can call our little project a success!” He stood to give me a congratulatory hug.
So you can see that today has been another pleasant day in Thorgelfayne, which seems to be the only kind they have. In case you are wondering, I’m writing this at the kitchen table while Melissa, Harshan, and Darryl are watching a situation comedy on television. It must be uproarously funny, judging from all the belly laughs, but without a translation I’m just lost; and they can’t catch their breath long enough to translate it for me.
It’s getting close to twenty-eight o’clock! Time to think about bed!