It was a very long flight, so the conversation in the cabin died down after a few hours. Even though it’s broad daylight outside my window, it is already evening back in Thorgelfayne’s time zone, so most of the other passengers nodded off. I thought the novelty of an airplane trip on an alien planet would keep me awake with my eyes glued to the window, but from this far up there isn’t much to see, and what I can see looks exactly like Earth. So as I awakened, I realized that the gentle whooshing sound of the ventilation system and the general quiet finally lulled me to sleep too. My mouth is pasty and my face feels greasy. A glance at my watch shows that I’ve been sleeping for over an hour.
While I slept I dreamt a very strange dream: I was back in Thorgelfayne, in Melissa and Harshan’s living room. The evening news came on as usual, except that in my dream it was in English. Over the newscaster’s shoulder, in a small inset, there was a picture of the planet Earth. The newscaster announced in a somber accident that the U.S. and Russian defense systems had been set off by a computer error, and that all life on Earth had been obliterated in the explosion! Melissa was hysterical with grief, because her mother and her friend Joanne would have perished, but Harshan had an ‘I told you so’ attitude about it. Darryl didn’t seem to care. I was horrified—not at the explosion, but at my own joy—because it meant I couldn’t return to Earth.
The last vestiges of the dream faded away from my mind as I shook the sleep out of my head. What a crazy dream!
It appears from the way the cabin is tilted that we will be landing before very long. I stretched the aches out of my arms and legs and looked around to see where the flight attendants are. Yes, they are gathering meal trays and other things from the passengers; definite clues that we are preparing for landing, so if I want to see the inside of the lavatory before then, I’d better go now. I unbuckled my seat belt and stood to get my jacket out of the overhead compartment. It took me a few tries to remember how the latch worked, but eventually I got it open.
My jacket is missing! I rummaged around in the compartment, but my frantic efforts were in vain. I panicked for a moment: How could I find my way from the airport to the spaceport without it? We’ll be landing in Fomin pretty soon, the capital city of Harshan’s native land of Halakan, and I don’t speak a word of Halakanian! In fact, I don’t speak a word of any Homelander language, except an inadequate smattering of Thorgelfaynese.
I lowered myself somberly back into my seat. Where could it be? It was more than a jacket; it was the equivalent of an “unaccompanied child” sign. Harshan explained it to me back at the Hapdorn airport as he helped me put it on: on the back it says “Please Help Me” in three languages, and in smaller print it informs the public that I am an alien who doesn’t speak any Homelander language. In the left pocket are some flashcards in Fjarnian that explain who I am and where I want to go, and in the right pocket is my pathfinder. Without that jacket, I’m lost.
Before long the airplane began to tilt forwards, and some announcements came over the loudspeaker. Naturally, I didn’t understand a word of it, but there was a flurry of activity as the sleepy passengers prepared for landing. I made a dash for the restroom.
When I returned to my seat, a glance out the window showed that we had broken through the cloud cover, so for the first time in several hours I could see the ground. At first there wasn’t much to see, except for the Halaka river delta and the sea; the land here is quite flat. I was so preoccupied about my jacket that I could barely enjoy the spectacular sunset as the plane wheeled around in a graceful curve. For a moment, the sun shone directly in the window and I had to look away. After the airplane completed its turn, I could see the spidery web of highways over the flat coastal terrain below; at the center of the web, near the river, must lie the city of Fomin. I searched for something that might stand out as the International Preserve, where the headquarters of the Word Council of Countries and Independent Jurisdictions is located, but without any luck. (Of course, I had no idea what I was looking for!) There were a few more announcements, which I took for routine instructions to the passengers and crew, or maybe the captain was pointing out landmarks; I will never know. A flight attendant rushed down the aisle for one last-minute check, but I couldn’t get her attention. Oh well, I thought fatalistically, without my flashcards it wouldn’t have done me much good anyway. How could I possibly tell her about my missing jacket?
I tried to suppress my growing panic. Without my jacket, I would be lost in the crowd, indistinguishable from all the Homelanders, but completely incapable of speaking any Homelander language and without the benefit of the sign on my back announcing my unique status as a visiting alien. Once I get to the spaceship, assuming that I can find it, there won’t be any problem, because the spaceline has experts to deal with extra-Homelander passengers. But without my pathfinder, I won’t be able to find my way from the airport to the spaceport, and the lost flash cards were my only hope of communicating efficiently. Now I will have to rely on elaborate and inefficient hand gestures. What if I can’t find help and make myself understood in time to make my connection to Earth? I realized now what my dream meant. I really wanted to stay in Thorgelfayne forever without ever returning to Earth. It’s easy to understand why I felt that way; I’ve never been anywhere in my life where I felt more at ease or more at home. I’ve experienced more kindness and friendship in the two weeks I’ve spent on this planet than in the whole lifetime I spent on my native planet Earth. I rummaged around in my pockets for a handkerchief even as I realized that it could only wipe the tears from my cheeks but not the lump from my throat. Perhaps my subconscious mind rebelled at the prospect of returning to Earth and deliberately misplaced my jacket where I can never find it again! If that’s the case, I have a really stupid subconscious, because this is definitely not the best way to start a new life on a strange planet.
I originally thought that this trip would be exhilarating fun, but now I understand why Bobo discouraged me from it and why it took so long for me to convince the Homelanders to let me come. Not only is it painful to leave this place, it’s also very cruel. In a matter of hours—assuming I find the jacket—I will be on First Moon, boarding the spaceliner that will take me on the first leg of my trip back to Earth. I won’t be able to enjoy the flight; or at least, if I do enjoy the flight, I will never know about it. Because of my particular personal reaction to the Maneuvers, they have to sedate me for the trip and when I arrive at home the residual effect will give me amnesia about the whole trip. Sure, I’ll have this travel diary, which I have kept for that very reason, but it will be like reading science fiction. It won’t bring my memories back.
Our final approach. We glided in without a hitch, except that my head felt compressed until my ears popped several times. I tried to force myself to look forward at the seatback in front of me, ignoring the panorama unfolding outside the window, except that now and then I did steal a few glances. Looking out airplane windows during landing has always given me a crick in the neck and made me dizzy.
Before long nothing was visible except for a few airport buildings and the runway itself.
A slight bump announced that we had reestablished contact with Homeland’s surface.
Pretty soon the airplane came to a stop, and the passengers stood to deplane. At least I still had my carry-on luggage! There were a few final cheery announcements (probably something on the order of “Welcome to the United Republic of Halakan, please adjust your watches, the local weather is…” and such), then the flight attendants smiled and bowed as the passengers applauded. Finally, we began to file out of the plane.
I began to hyperventilate as my struggle to contain my panic began to fail. Now I am royally lost several thousand miles from the nearest human being in a strange city in a foreign country on an alien planet where there are only a dozen or so anthropologists who can speak a language I know. My heart raced and I broke out in a cold sweat.
We inched our way to the front of the plane. I don’t know why I am leaving the plane; I’m just as lost here as there and twice as obvious. Maybe I should stay. Finally I reached the door where the flight crew stood smiling, hugging the departing passengers as if they were departing friends. A very attractive woman hugged me, but I didn’t succeed very well in hugging her back. My body was wooden and unresponsive because I was apprehensive and uncertain what to do. The next crewmember was a tall blond man. He winked at me knowingly and pressed something into my hand. It was my jacket! How he came to have it, I’ll never know. I just looked at it in disbelief, then I rushed to put it on. After several more hugs, which I now returned enthusiastically, I left the plane.
Walking through the airport was easier than I thought. Occasionally, someone would walk up to me, hug me, chatter at me pleasantly, and lead me by the arm. One very nice man even insisted through pantomime that I accompany him to a snack bar, where he bought me a small meal over my protests. It was very awkward, but despite the meal on the airplane I was famished for some reason and I wolfed it down.
As it turns out, I hardly needed the pathfinder. It’s a small electronic device that guides you through the airport by interacting with the large floor plans of the airport that you see everywhere. You just walk up to the map, press a button, and arrows light up on the map to show you where you are and where you should go next. I only used it once to demonstrate to a nice Thorgelfaynese family where I needed to go. They walked with me most of the way, and their young son even carried my carry-on luggage. When they hugged me good-bye, I felt the same way I did with each of the kind strangers: intense gratitude for their kindness, regret for my inability to talk to them, and a deep sadness, almost despair, that I had to leave such a nice place and never come back.
I made it to the shuttle in plenty of time. Now I just have a short hop to First Moon, after which I’ll board the spaceliner for Earth.
Gee, I can hardly wait to go.