Today is my very last day in Thorgelfayne.
It’s just past dawn, yet I’ve already spent a lot of time in the lounge chair on the balcony, surveying the scenery from Melissa and Harshan’s apartment. From Darryl’s bedroom window I could see the Harji valley and all the way to the city of Barlamon on the other side; from the balcony I get a good view of the street and the mountains. It’s going to be a beautiful, sunny day; the air is crisp and fresh just as you would expect from this mountainous region.
In a few short hours I will be aboard the noon flight to Halakan on Kharg-and-Beyond airlines. Melissa says that the flight will be very enjoyable, especially now that there is direct service between Hapdorn, the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne, and Fomin, the capital of the United Republic of Halakan. Before they began direct service to Fomin, it used to be that the flights all left at ungodly morning hours and the trip took all day because of the stop-over in some large Fjarnian city whose name I’ve forgotten. Drat. I know so little about this wonderful planet, and I’m already forgetting things!
Well, let’s see what I can remember. Right now, as I squint up into the morning sky, I am basking under the warm light of the rising sun, which back on Earth we call Tau Ceti. It’s supposed to be a slightly different color than Sol, but I can’t tell the difference. Melissa claims that she can, but frankly I don’t believe her. My lounge chair is firmly planted on a concrete balcony just one story up from the surface of Tau Ceti’s fifth planet, which the local people call Homeland, and which is statistically very similar to Earth. The proportion of land to ocean is much the same, the axial tilt is only three degrees less, and every organism native to Earth would find an agreeable climate somewhere on this world.
It’s not until you pull down a world atlas from the shelf that the differences become apparent: most of Homeland’s landmass is concentrated in a single continent centered on the south pole; there are only two small continents and a few large islands in the northern hemisphere. The south polar ice cap melts into a huge freshwater lake the size of Earth’s Arctic Ocean and spills through a network of rivers and channels to the ocean. As you peruse the atlas, you will see a group of small countries clustered on the western side of the Lake. Thorgelfayne is one of the larger ones, and from what I have seen, a very beautiful country. It has forbiddingly cold and rugged mountains in the south, fertile farmland across its middle, and a long subtropical coast along the Lake. It is smaller than the average European country, but it only has a population of about twenty million. Actually, that’s quite larger than it sounds, because centuries of birth control and population planning have brought about a significantly lower planetary population than Earth.
This area of Homeland was politically unstable in ancient times, falling under the administration of different countries almost on alternate days of the week until events in neighboring empires left the area unmolested and ungoverned for nearly a century. During those two hundred and fifty-six years, chaos reigned as the various tribes in the region quarreled with each other. Finally, after a tragic incident during what was later to be known as the War of the Fayne, the tribes all met at the Six Villages (in Thorgelfaynese, “hep dern” ) and swore an eternal bond of friendship and mutual support. That was in the Homelander year of 3843; it is presently 17829, and the “hep dern” have become the modern metropolis of Hapdorn.
The year numbers are very high here. The present year is 17829 and Thorgelfayne was founded about 3,000 years ago in the year 1603! You see, Tau Ceti is an older star than Sol, Homeland is an older planet than Earth, and Homelander civilization is so much older than ours that it needs such large numbers for the date.
Now you may think that Thorgelfayne must be a relatively insignificant country because of its small size, but that’s where you would be wrong! The founders of Thorgelfayne invented a new form of government in which decisions were made not by powerful rulers or even by majority vote, but by experts in relevant fields. This created a culture in which education and expertise were prized over all other virtues, and it made Thorgelfayne a respected world leader in nearly every field. So tiny Thorgelfayne dominates the world with its intellectual leadership.
It’s hours before breakfast, but my stomach is already beginning its campaign for food. Everyone else in the household is asleep. In fact, the street below me is nearly empty except for an occasional car or truck. I can’t sleep the whole night through for the simple reason that the night is too long. Since Homeland is older than Earth, it accordingly rotates on its axis much more slowly, which makes the day twenty-seven hours long by my wrist watch, but thirty-two hours long by Homelander reckoning. Homeland is supposed to have three moons, and I’ve seen all three, but only two at once. It really isn’t as exciting as it sounds: they are quite small. First Moon is the only one that can be seen in the daytime sky, and Third Moon is too small to show phases except through binoculars or through a telescope.
A faint breeze billows the curtains through the sliding glass door and onto the balcony. I can hear a faint buzzing sound emanating from the apartment; it must be Harshan’s alarm clock. That means that it won’t be long till breakfast! My stomach reminds me painfully of its presence.
Just a few more hours and I will be on the plane to Fomin, which is the capital of the United Republic of Halakan, modern descendant of the most ancient nation on Homeland; the nation whose scientists invented the numbering system, the thermometer, and the Homelander international system of measurement. They based everything on sixteen so that water freezes at zero and boils at two hundred fifty-six degrees Halakanian. Darryl had no problem switching between number systems, but Melissa told me once that she occasionally has to work out simple arithmetic on paper if fractions are involved.
I should be excited about the trip, but I’m not. Fomin is a very important city: it is the site of the International Preserve, where the headquarters of World Council of Countries and Independent Jurisdictions is located. Not only is the nerve center of world politics, it is also Homeland’s gateway to alien civilizations. I won’t get to see all that; I have to transfer to the spaceport for my return trip to Earth. That means a short hop to First Moon, a full-fledged spaceliner to the Alpha Centauri Transfer Point, a smaller ship to Homeland’s outpost on Earth’s Moon, and then a brief hop down to Earth. This would ordinarily be an exciting trip, but I won’t get to see much of anything, since I will be traveling under sedation, and I won’t remember anything that I do see, because of my own personal reaction to the Maneuvers that the spaceliner has to make to avoid Einsteinian effects. Of all the medical problems to choose from, why did I have to have this one? I’ve had a fabulous trip, but I won’t be able to remember a bit of it! I’m writing everything down as it happens. If I can’t remember this trip, at least I’ll be able to read about it once I’m home.
Most of my sadness in leaving stems from the fact that this is simply the nicest place I’ve ever visited in my life! People are universally nice, everything is orderly and clean, there don’t seem to be any major social problems, and everything works. I was surprised to find out that Melissa’s kitchen wall clock was passed down by previous tenants for over two hundred and fifty years, and that the apartment door has never had nor needed a lock! I was right long ago to suppose that any race of creatures that had the technological wherewithal to visit Earth would have to be as ethically advanced as they were technologically advanced. My brief visit to Thorgelfayne certainly proves that. Glad as I am to find my own theories vindicated in fact, I was completely unprepared for the effects of actually visiting a superior society: the dread of returning home. Life on Earth never seemed as primitive as it does from this balcony overlooking this Hapdorn street; the prospect of returning to it lurks in the back of my mind like a growing headache, gathering strength to pounce on me.
Breakfast was tasty as usual. Darryl packed his books into his backpack while chirping happily away in Thorgelfaynese. He was excited about a field trip to the Ducal Residence, Harshan explained, it was built in the year 14607 and was the original seat of the national government, but now it is maintained as a museum. I remembered the Ducal Residence, since John Anderson tape recorded a tour of it and sent me the transcript. After a hug and a kiss from both of his adopted parents, Darryl rocketed out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Both Melissa and Harshan took the day off from work so that they could spend my last day in Thorgelfayne with me. Did I want to go anywhere special, they asked. No, I answered. Let’s just sit and chat, I said. It’s bad enough that I have to leave this wonderful place without rubbing my face in all the things I’ll leave behind.
So we chatted the morning away. Before long, it was fourteen o’clock and time to leave for the airport. Harshan carried my luggage out from Darryl’s room. I tried to suppress a giggle, but I couldn’t.
“What’s so funny?” Melissa asked. Harshan looked mystified as he set my luggage down by the door.
“My luggage,” I explained. “I’m traveling about twenty-five light-years round trip, and I’ve got less luggage than the last time I crossed the Atlantic!” Melissa chuckled, then explained to Harshan that the Atlantic is an ocean back on Earth.
Before long we were on the city bus on our way to the municipal airport. We chatted quietly as we drove along. The scenery passed by: the city is impeccably clean, as always; we passed by numerous parks; traffic was moderately heavy, yet polite; here and there I caught a glimpse of a mountain vista. We stopped at traffic lights and waited for armies of pedestrians to cross. We stopped at bus stops where people got on and off the bus; for them it was an ordinary workday. They unfolded newspapers and studied the curvy writing, which after two weeks of intense study I could barely read. It was hard for me to believe that all these people were aliens of the type that are accused of flitting around in flying saucers, and that I was on an alien planet in outer space; everything seemed so normal. I suppose it is more accurate to say that I am the alien from outer space here, yet they take no notice.
“What’s in the headlines today?” I whispered to Melissa.
“Oh, let me see,” she said, and began to peer at the newspapers all around. “The dictator of Ustrank was overthrown yesterday, a new one took office last night. It had something to do with the tourist industry and a few failed shoe factories,” she informed me. “Oh, some astronomer claims to have detected a new civilization, but the evidence is disputed.”
“Nothing about the government council?” I asked. “Didn’t you say that the Duke had called a council of all the guilds last night?”
“Yes, but that’s local news,” she said. “Anyway, it is fairly routine.”
Eventually we arrived at the airport, but for me it was all too soon. Since I don’t remember anything about my arrival in Thorgelfayne, it was if I were seeing the airport for the very first time. I was surprised at its small size, but Harshan reminded me that Thorgelfayne is a small country. To get to the airport from the bus stop, we had to take a walkway through a small garden. Halfway through, just as we were passing a little park bench, I stopped dead in my tracks.
“How much time do we have?” I asked abruptly. I really didn’t want to board the plane; the closer I got to it the more I knew I wanted to stay in Thorgelfayne, even if it was impossible.
Harshan glanced at his watch. “About thirty-two minutes before you need to check in,” he replied. “Your flight leaves at sixteen o’clock, right at noon.”
“Can we stop here for a while?” I asked, pointing at the bench. They hesitated for a moment, but after Harshan confirmed that we had a little time, we sat down.
“Are you okay, Ken?” Melissa asked.
“No, I’m not,” I confessed. Deep longings awoke within me and reached up to ravage my composure. “I don’t really want to return to Earth.” To my shame, I began to sob.
“I completely understand,” Melissa said soothingly. She opened up her purse and took out a small hanky. Harshan murmured a few clumsy words to comfort me as Melissa put her left arm around me and began to wipe the tears from my cheeks. “Believe me, I understand. If I ever had to leave this place and go back to Earth forever; why, I don’t believe I could take it as well as you are even now.”
I cried like a five-year-old in a dentist’s waiting room, and they struggled to calm me down.
That’s when it happened! Suddenly a strong hairy arm came from behind and grabbed me around the neck. I found my face pressed against a brown furry chest, it was as if I had been embraced by a freshly bathed collie. Out of instinct I fought the beast that attacked me, but it was much stronger than I was. I relaxed as I saw through the fur that neither Harshan nor Melissa seemed particularly alarmed. Behind them, I caught a glimpse of a passerby who glanced at me with interest, but kept on walking to the terminal.
“Laskedo trak!” pronounced a soothing childlike voice within the furry chest. It embraced me firmly but tenderly, constantly repeating the phase, “Laskedo trak.”
“What’s going on?” I gasped.
“Oh, how charming!” Melissa hopped up and down and clapped her hands in glee! “Ken’s been mugged!”
“What!?” I demanded, but a mouthful of fur kept me from a more articulate question.
It turned out thatI had been mugged by a hugmup, who had empathetically sensed my distress and sought to comfort me. It took Harshan and Melissa a good sixteen minutes to disentangle me from the hugmup’s consoling clutches; emotional need or no, I had to be on the plane to Fomin, or I’d miss my connection to Earth! Nevertheless, the experience left me in an expansive mood! I had heard quite a lot about hugmup and I had fervently desired to see one; now I got to experience one first-hand!
We had a very tearful good-bye at the gate, and for some reason I no longer felt inhibited even in this public place. Somehow, the hugmup had given sentimentality a certain dignity. I thanked them over and over again for every kindness that I could remember, told them at least three times to apologize to Darryl for hijacking his bedroom for the duration of my visit, and bemoaned my inability to repay their hospitality. After several hugs and many tears, I finally had to board the plane.