by Mickey Hunt
The Radiant entered a high, slow orbit around Lumen.
Alone in his tiny quarters, Specialist Johnten stared from the port window at the charcoal-black nightside of the planet. No lights broke the gloom below.
Bleak and empty, he wrote in his field notebook. Our initial proximity view of an Earth-similar sphere circling the first dark star ever discovered.
Dark star. A black hole in particular effects, but lower in mass and bound to a region of dark matter. Though Johnten worked hard at astrophysics, his professional expertise was in anthropology, and Earth Command had recruited him for the remote chance the Radiant encountered advanced sentient beings.
Surely no opportunity on Lumen to catalog and interpret alien cultural traits, he wrote. Another lonely, silent world. Like me.
Johnten watched at the window until he nodded off. When he awoke, the dayside of the planet—dawn, he supposed—was flowing under him.
A weird cluster of rocks a kilometer away sped from the planet. He had little time to wonder, because, just then the chief Communication Officer blasted across the ship-wide intercom. “There’s life on Lumen,” Mr. Esang screeched. “We’re seeing cities. Aircraft. Unbelievable!”
Johnten squeezed into the packed auditorium, taking the only remaining front row seat. Toward the end of landing orientation, Captain Therreal remarked, “It’s odd that Lumen’s dominant creatures haven’t communicated.” He glanced down at Johnten. “We shall require your insights after all, Specialist.”
“It’s a dream fulfilled, sir,” he mumbled, hoping he didn’t sound stupid.
Mr. Esang was twitching next to Johnten and waved his hand like a schoolboy. Without waiting for permission, Esang jumped up. “Excuse me, sir, nothing from Lumen, but the planet is bombarded by untranslatable messages. Except there’s one from a female saying in inverted, I mean, reversed English, ‘Please come back. We need you.’”
The Captain’s face knotted in mystified concern, but all he said was, “Thank you, Mr. Esang. Everyone be sure your preclusive inoculations are up-to-date. You’re dismissed.”
The transport shuttle’s descent revealed clouds, then low hills covered in a carpet of deciduous-like flora. The scene from Johnten’s window seat appeared as a film negative with the colors antipodal. What might be shadow emanated light, and it all incandesced with a lustrous glow. The Captain had selected a field outside a northern coastal village for the landing, and as they neared the ground, Johnten observed a massive throng of inhabitants gathered around the proposed site.
“Do they know we’re coming?” he asked himself.
The other dozen or so Radiants discussed the riddle with their companions.
When the transport settled, it took a minute for Assistant Safety Officer Sanderson to confirm the atmosphere’s analysis. “Real good,” she said at last. “Gas proportions nearly identical to Earth’s, as we predicted.”
The landing party members moved to the transport’s integument door, Johnten clutching his field notebook to his chest.
“Eager today, professor?” Sanderson asked him.
He slowly lowered his notebook to his side. “I’ve told you, Miss Sanderson, I’m not a professor.”
“I know, I know. I’m just messing with you.”
“Oh, okay. You’re teasing. Did you know the term ‘mess’ once referred to the dining hall of a sailing ship?” This seemed to create a natural segue, so he said, “Let’s have lunch sometime.”
Sanderson only grimaced and shook her head.
When the integument door opened, flooding the compartment with the planet’s air, everyone stood stock-still and breathed carefully to give one final test to the atmosphere’s compatibility with human physiology. Johnten felt a slight dizziness, but Sanderson hyperventilated and passed out cold; an alarm buzzed, the external door slammed shut, the room flushed with Terran air, and medics evacuated Sanderson to a berth where she soon revived.
After a few additional tests for airborne metaviruses, the door opened again, and the team shuffled down the ramp.
For Johnten it was like a blazing impressionistic painting of a New England landscape. Figures were approaching from the crowd. They appeared blurry until they drew near, and he realized with a shock that they were walking in reverse. A person turned to him and now he saw it was a young woman. She held a baby on her hip, a little girl almost a year old grasping her mother’s blouse. The young mother’s luminescent skin and garments, and facial features possessing delicate contours no race of Earth ever had, gave her beauty he never imagined possible.
Her baby. She reminded him of photographs of his own mother when she was a child. The woman stepped toward Johnten and kissed him lingeringly on the mouth—her lips cool to the touch—and when she stepped back she held a garland of flowers in her free hand. A memory burst into existence, a memory telling him the sweet smelling lei had hung around his neck only seconds before. How was this happening? She spoke to him in a familiar, bizarre, inverted language.
And as other crewmembers were greeted with similar, albeit less intimate farewells from the indigenous people, Johnten felt himself swept up in astonished awareness that time itself, or perhaps even the physical laws of this newly discovered world in this darkish planetary system flowed backwards; yet for the visitors from Earth and their artifacts, time moved as usual.
They existed within the same reality and were passing in converse directions —his future being the young woman’s past, and his past being her future.
So the mysterious radio message had been for him.
Johnten’s first impulse was to sprint back to the transport and hide in a locker, but for once in his awkward life, when everything was infinitely awkward, he knew what to do. He held his ground and began writing on his field notebook. The young woman lifted the garland to her nose and breathed in. She smiled like gentle sunlight, wiped her eyes, sniffed twice, and nodded with comprehension as droplets leaped from the ground, rolled up her cheeks, and squeezed into her tear ducts.
He finished writing and held up the notebook so she could read his words, I love you and our baby very, very much. I promise, we will be together again.
Johnten swapped his notebook for the child who snuggled her face against his chest. Such a brief period ahead to be a father and a husband. And he had no idea how it all would work, but clearly he had already solved certain future problems of cross-cultural interaction—he had a family!
Specialist Johnten slipped his available arm around his wife’s waist, and though he nearly stumbled, they walked backwards toward the crowd.