by Melissa Franklin
I don’t know why, but I had the impression that I would be touring Thorgelfayne in some sort of a tour bus; but as it turns out, I was the only one from my planet who was granted a trip to Homeland this year. So for this part of my trip, it was just me and John Anderson, my official host, tooling around Hapdorn Province in his ‘98 Snitt.
(It is, by the way, a very sporty black and gray car. If my youngest brother saw it, he would just die!)
John and I went on a pleasant drive through the snowy and mountainous landscape to visit the Duke of Thorgelfayne. This was very exciting, because I’d never met a head of state before.
Let me tell you something about John. He’s about as tall as Bobo, but there the resemblance ends. He is from the Pittsburgh area, as you know from the Bobo stories; but to be more exact, he was born in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, in 1951. That makes him a little older than me. His grandparents were German, and you can see it in his facial features.
John apparently doesn’t have any good memories of Earth. He refused to speak English with me at all! Of course, that may be because he has to do it on the job, and this was supposed to be a pleasure trip.
I was so excited and nervous that I talked John’s ears off. I prattled on about the trip from Earth (including the complications at the big tree in Lakeforest), the conversation with the Zerpicker on the spaceliner, and the letters I’ve written to you, Ken.
“Why are you writing to Ken about such trivial things as salad dressing and vacuum cleaners?” he asked, “I’m sure you can find more exciting topics.”
“First of all,” I replied, “Ken specifically requested domestic details, because that’s what people back home are interested in. My letters are being disseminated all over Earth, and we have an audience to think of! I wrote a lovely little capsule grammar of the Thorgelfaynese language and it put three continents to sleep. On the other hand, my adventure with the red peas was a big hit.”
“You may have a point,” John chuckled, as he steered us around a curve. “Magnificent view, isn’t it? This valley produces most of Thorgelfayne’s groceries,” he remarked, interrupting himself. “People want to know about politics, technology, spaceflight; I don’t think they care about vacuum cleaners and salads!”
“Ken said that neither you nor Bobo provide this sort of information. In fact, he even asked what sort of food the aliens eat.”
“Excuse me, Melissa,” John interrupted, “Youare the alien around here.”
I keep forgetting. One doesn’t normally think of oneself as an alien life form from outer space, but that’s precisely what I am!
We were driving along the six-lane interprovincial highway (the one where John’s car had broken down), and the sweeping vistas of mountains and valleys were quite breath-taking. After a couple of hours, the mountains became hills and the roadway had fewer curves. We were traveling Lake-ward, which meant that the weather improved each step of the way. When I noticed that there was no longer any snow cover, I realized that I had never asked how long the trip was. John surprised me by saying that we would be on the road a total of nine hours, including rest stops. I just assumed that the Duke would live near the capital city of Hapdorn. I was wrong.
We passed a sign marking a provincial border.
“Where does the Duke of Thorgelfayne live? I mean where is his residence?”
“Her residence,” John corrected, “This year’s Duke is a housewife in Lakeshore City. We have to cross half our beloved Duchy to get there. That’s why I asked you to pack for an overnight stay.”
John explained that most Thorgelfaynese have at least one doctorate degree, and that the current Duke is an archaeologist. Since the main function of the Duke is to mediate among the various governing bodies of Thorgelfayne, the job requires exceptional intelligence and talent, but not much time. It is a part-time job. Add that to the fact that the Duke is chosen annually through a battery of aptitude tests, and you realize that the usual term of office is much too short to make an official Ducal Residence practical.
Manni Thologar was chosen Duke because, at the moment, she is the most qualified person in Thorgelfayne to hold the job.
John went on to explain about Thorgelfaynese government and politics, but I am ashamed to say I fell asleep again! I haven’t yet gotten used to such long days (thirty-two Homelander hours, or 27 hours on a human clock). The day is longer because Homeland’s three little moons have a slightly greater braking effect on Homeland than Earth’s one big Moon has on Earth.
As I was nodding off, I relived a conversation with John in a sort of half-dream. John said that the length of the day is a constant problem for him, and that it takes him all weekend to get his sleeping and waking cycle lined up for the next work week. His physician told him that although it will get easier with time, he should not expect to ever become fully acclimated to Homeland’s day. Then I had a brief dream that I was on Chern. All I know about Chern is that it has no moons and the day is shorter than Earth’s, so I dreamed about falling asleep and waking up at all the wrong times.
When I woke up for real it was late afternoon, and John was parking the car at the curb in front of a modest house. It must have been about 25 degrees Halakanian, quite a bit warmer than Hapdorn, but still chilly. Two small children were playing on the sidewalk.
I struggled to sit up straight, smoothed my clothes and checked my hair. Obviously, we were lost, and John was asking directions from the children, I thought. John asked them if they lived in that house. They said they did.
“Is your mother home?” he asked the elder child. There was a shy affirmative nod. “Would you please tell her that John and Melissa are here?”
What!? This is the Duke of Thorgelfayne’s residence? The child dashed into the house. We got out of the car and plodded up the walkway. A very pleasant middle-aged black woman greeted us at the door like we were close friends who had just returned from a long trip. There were (of course) lots of hugs, and lots of friendly banter as we took off our coats.
“Well,” I said nervously, “I am very glad to meet You, Your Majesty!” I made a little curtsey, just in case.
“How sweet of you!” she laughed, “This isn’t Earth, you know. I would be honored if you’d just call me Manni! In Thorgelfayne we are all friends, and there are no pretensions among friends.”
I really like this woman! Then, not really knowing what to say, I blurted out, “Imagine this: you now have the entire white population of the Duchy under your roof!” I have always liked trivia.
“You certainly are nervous,” she sympathized. “You’ve forgotten about Hank, and all the foreign and alien students at the universities. The entire white population of Thorgelfayne wouldn’t fit under my roof, I’m afraid!”
I should know when to shut up!
“I hope you are not offended,” the Duke said as she finished hanging up our coats, “but you are not my only guests this afternoon.” The entry hall was a bit narrow, so I fell behind John as we made our way towards the living room. He looked back at me with a puzzled glance. “John,” she said as she waved him into the room ahead of her, “I would like you to meet my visitor from the United Republic of Halakan.” Someone stood up from a chair, and the two men embraced soulfully. Since the Duke was standing in front of me, I couldn’t see who it was.
“Melissa,” she said proudly, “I believe you know this gentleman.”
It was Harshan! The Halakanian purser from the Sol-Alpha Centauri shuttle run!
A combination of fear, dread, and excitement mugged me from behind! Since they outnumbered me three to one, I had no hope of prevailing in the ensuing struggle. I was happier to see him that even I dreamed, but terrified that I might mess up my second chance as well. My heart pounded so hard I thought everyone could hear it!
I tried very hard not to let my hands shake.
“Hello, Harshan,” I sputtered, trying to calm my voice, “How—er—I mean, whatever, er...” My command of the Thorgelfaynese language abandoned me without notice! Like an old car, I just sputtered to an embarrassing stop.
Harshan’s head was bowed quite contritely towards the floor. “The Sol-Alpha Centauri Shuttle Run has given me compensatory leave from my duties to come speak with you.” he announced somberly. “They knew your ultimate destination was Thorgelfayne, and so they traced your itinerary. When I found out you were to visit the Duke today, I contacted her and explained my situation. She was kind enough to invite me.”
“Compensatory leave?” I asked, having located my tongue.
“Yes. I have offended a passenger, so now I must take leave to compensate her,” he explained in his monotone Halakanian accent, never taking his eyes from the floor, “Can you possibly accept my most humble and abject apology?”
“Apology?” I asked, somewhat mystified!
“I should not have taken such, er, liberties with you. It upset you greatly and impaired your enjoyment of the trip. In my own defense, I could only say that as a Homelander I was ignorant of human ways; but that is a flimsy excuse for a purser on an interstellar shuttle. What can I do to compensate you?”
In an attempt at humor, I told Harshan that I considered myself to be better looking than the carpeting, and asked him to look up. He was too serious to catch my feeble joke, but he did look up at me. He was even more wonderful than I remembered. Suddenly, the universe shrank to an insignificant dot, and only this conversation had any importance at all.
“You just caught me by surprise,” I explained, “I am not used to such handsome men falling in love with me.” Harshan’s eyes grew in astonishment and optimism.
“I think I did,” he said in a small voice. My mind raced!
“Then I am the one who must apologize,” I said, gathering my wits. “Your actions were proper and beyond reproach. I do not even understand why they sent you here, because I explained that to another crew member at the time.”
“They understood that as a courtesy on your part.”
I paused for a while, and then I added in a very small voice, “because I fell in love with you, too.” Once again the tears. A friend of mine once told me it was lucky I wasn’t going to Holland. They’d refuse me a visa for fear I’d flood the country!
“You are confusing me,” he said, puzzled. “What should I do?”
Suddenly I noticed that the Duke, John, and the children were all discretely absent from the room.
“I’m the one who needs a second chance,” I said rashly, “Do it again!”
He kissed me. Only this time I helped!
Whatever it was we did today at the Duke’s house after that, we had a lot of fun. The day just whizzed right by! Tomorrow morning, Harshan and I are going to tour Lakeshore City on our own.
PS: Don’t worry, I’ll keep my bargain. I’ll write as often as I have time.