"Hello Uncle Xuxtex," said Joey dutifully, sitting at the table and reaching for the box of Wheaties.
"Xylel, how you have grown!" exclaimed his uncle.
"Xylel is your birth name," said his father. "When we came to Earth, we decided that our family name wouldn’t arouse too much suspicion but that we needed more familiar sounding ones for our personal names. We called you Joseph, a venerable Terran name."
"Oh," said Joey pouring some milk over his cereal. "I’m sure glad you did. I’d hate to have to go to school with a name like Xylel; the other kids would really give me a rough time!"
He said nothing, but Xuxtex looked at his brother-in-law and frowned.
"Uncle Xuxtex hasn’t seen you since before we left Xorbid, Joey," said his father clearing his throat.
"I’m sorry Uncle Xuxtex, that I don’t remember you…"
"No problem Xy…I mean Joey," replied Xuxtex. "That was a long time ago. But tell me, do you enjoy life here on Earth? I mean, do you miss the homeworld at all?"
"I suppose it’s not a fair comparison," said Joey thoughtfully. "After all, I don’t remember much from homeworld; just a few things. But I really enjoy living here on Earth. It feels safe and comfortable."
Xuxtex leaned back in his chair and his eyes met those of Mr. Ixbee. Joey’s father was smiling, obviously satisfied with his son’s answer.
Picking up baby Cynthia, Mrs. Ixbee suggested that since it was such a nice morning, the men should take their coffee and go for a stroll in the yard. Agreeing, Mr. Ixbee and Xuxtex rose and left the house.
Outside, the early morning sun shone down from a cloudless sky suggesting another warm summer day. Morning doves called from somewhere in the tangle of trees at the far end of the back yard and butterflies fluttered about piles of old lumber. A heat bug chirred in the brush.
"You had no trouble with entry last night?" asked Mr. Ixbee presently.
"Nothing," replied Xuxtex. "It was clear over half the northern hemisphere with hardly any atmospherics. I left the ship in stealth mode at the spot I used the last time. It’s still safe, isn’t it?"
"Yes although there has been talk of some development in that area."
"Where, by the way, do you keep your own rocket?"
"In the garage," replied Mr. Ixbee nonchalantly.
"The garage!" cried Xuxtex, spinning to look back the old structure with the peeling paint.
"We keep it under a tarp."
"That’s all?"
"We tell people it’s an antique car."
Xuxtex shook his head.
"It’s quite safe there. There are a few pieces of large wood working equipment in there as well and one more covered bulk attracts no attention. I check the instruments now and then to make sure it’s still in operating condition."
They said nothing more for a few minutes contenting themselves with their coffee and wading through the tall, uncut grass that covered the yard, chasing grasshoppers from their hiding places. Soon, they had circled behind the garage out of sight of the house.
"I’d forgotten how good this tasted," said Xuxtex presently, sipping at his coffee mug. "Guess it’s been too long since I saw you last, when you brought some of this beverage back home with you."
"Thirteen years ago Terran time," said Mr. Ixbee. "When Xaxlee and I returned from our first tour of Earth. You should have come visit us before this, Xuxtex. And the rest of the family too."
"You know why we haven’t."
"Yes. But I fail to understand why none of them have become accustomed to the idea yet."
"It’s too radical a move, Uxxo," said Xuxtex, using Mr. Ixbee’s real name. "People back home just don’t understand how you and Xaxlee could just leave your home with all its comforts…its normalcy…to live on this primitive world and among such uncouth natives."
"We’ve explained that to you all a number of times, Xuxtex," said Mr. Ixbee. "When Xaxlee and I were members of a survey crew assigned to Earth for research purposes, we were impressed not only by the natives’ industry and inventiveness, but their sense of optimism and hope. They looked to the future with anticipation and worked hard to make sure that it would be better than what had come before. For that reason, they lavished personal attention on their children and managed to transfer their dreams to following generations.
"At the time, Xaxlee and I weren’t the only members of the crew who were impressed with the natives’ attitude," Mr. Ixbee said. "Maybe it was because Xaxlee was a sociologist, but she was more sensitive to what made the Terrans a unique and admirable people. Through the long days aboard ship on the way back home she and I talked about her findings and conclusions so that by the time we reached homeworld, not only had we fallen love, but shared an admiration for Terran ways.
"When we finally returned to Xorbid, life there only accentuated the superiority of Terran ways and that’s when Xaxlee and I really became cognizant of the important differences between the Earthers and our own people," continued Mr. Ixbee. "Where the Terrans were optimistic and industrious, our people were cynical and luxurious; where the Terrans nurtured their young within the family unit, we handed our children over to the state in order to continue our lives of dissipation without interruption. Simply put, our civilization had run its course. The current generations were simply coasting on the great achievements of the past. And as if to ensure that the creativity of our ancestors could never be recaptured, our people refused to share their lives with offspring having fewer births with every cycle.
"If such trends continue," concluded Mr. Ixbee, "Xaxlee predicts that our race will be extinct in one hundred and thirty-two cycles."
"So?" said Xuxtex, unconcerned. "Where does it say that a race must perpetuate itself? The current generation owes nothing to those that came before it and generations to come can only be better off with fewer people with which to share the resources of homeworld. In time, Xorbid might even return to its nascent condition, clean of the unnatural uses to which our people have put it."
"How wrong you are, Xuxtex," replied Mr. Ixbee. "Children are the glory of the previous generations. Properly nurtured, they can carry on the spirit of exploration and inventiveness bequeathed to them by their forbears while providing a continuum of values that give life meaning and providing it with the momentum needed by succeeding generations. Such is what our own civilization has lost, Xuxtex. The continuum between ourselves and our forebears has been shattered and we have been left like orphans to find our own way in an environment littered with sensual distractions."
"That all sounds good in theory, Uxxo," said Xuxtex gesturing at their surroundings. "But this is the here and now. This is reality. Xaxlee is in that primitive abode right this minute tending to a child herself. Cooking and washing by hand instead of living in a fully automated dwelling…"
"Well, we do have some automation…"
"You know what I mean! It’s all such a crude lifestyle leaving little time for personal…"
"On the contrary," said Mr. Ixbee as they came within sight of the house again and Mrs. Ixbee sitting at a picnic table with baby Cynthia in her lap. "We find life here exhilarating and uplifting. And besides, we haven’t given up all our ways…what little automation there is still allows Xaxlee plenty of time to continue her research of Terran society."
"But how can she?" Xuxtex wanted to know. "With three children, two more than most women on the homeworld bother with, she must have little time for anything else. What is the role of the state in such circumstances?"
"There is none," said Mrs. Ixbee. "Interference by the state in family life is frowned upon by most Terrans."
"But then how do you explain the need for sending the children to a state institution for their education?"
"There are some things that are more efficiently done as a group than within the family unit," replied Xaxlee. "And even so, parents have a strong voice in how schools are conducted."
Xuxtex shuddered. "And how do you cope with random weather patterns? This planet doesn’t employ even minimal weather control. You can never be sure when might be a good day to launch a rocket; how annoying! And then there’s the transportation situation: ground vehicles using internal combustion engines! Aren’t you afraid the things might blow themselves up at any moment?"
"Oh, they’re hardly as dangerous as that," soothed Xaxlee. "Why, Uxxo has driven to the observatory every day and has never had any trouble."
"Far more danger is posed by other drivers than the vehicle itself," said Mr. Ixbee. "I’ll admit this world is backward in many ways but those ways are all technological. In every other way, I think Terran culture is superior to our own."
"And you agree with that assertion?" Xuxtex asked, turning to his sister.
"I’ve been trained as a sociologist and have made Terran society my life’s work and all my research has convinced me that it is so," said Xaxlee gravely. "For instance, recently in its history, Xorbid found itself threatened by malcontents and when the state asked the young men to step forward and help in the world’s defense, not a one did. Too timid to compel the men to do their duty, the state instead submitted to the demands of the malcontents and as soon as the threat was over, all the young men reappeared to resume their lives of indolence and ease. They preferred sacrificing a little bit of their freedoms to defending their heritage. That was many decades ago; since then, the same malcontents have returned a number of times and each time homeworld has given in. Addicted to their lives of ease and plenty, each generation of our people becomes more myopic, refusing to see how much their lives and freedoms have been circumscribed by their own inaction. By contrast, when this nation among others was threatened by powerful outside forces, the state was overwhelmed by the number of young men willing to forego their own pursuits in defense of their way of life."
"So it was you’re being impressed by that barbaric display of arms that convinced you to forsake your world and your family to come here and live under these primitive conditions?"
Mrs. Ixbee shook her head. "Don’t you understand, Xuxtex? These people still retain the values that give worth to everything they do. They could achieve nothing and still be a great people. Our world mastered nature and even conquered the stars but what did it get us? We are a small minded, self-centered people who are rapidly frittering away what’s left of our civilization. Some day soon, we’ll lose it all but I’m confident that when the time comes that the people of Earth must face the same challenge, it will be the malcontents who’ll submit. I want that for my children. I want them to share in the values that will not only give their own lives meaning, but meaning to the entire race of Terrans."
"I understand more and more family units from homeworld are doing as we did; moving themselves to Earth and living anonymously among the Terrans," said Mr. Ixbee, placing a supporting hand on his wife’s shoulder. "Already, Xaxlee and I are working to create a support network to help newcomers adjust to life here. Some day our children may decide to return to the homeworld and they’ll tell about what they’ve learned on Earth. If we’re lucky, our people will listen and hopefully, heed what they have to say before it’s too late."
"You…have given me much to think about," said a chastened Xuxtex. "If you’ll excuse me?"
Leaving the couple at the picnic table, Xuxtex wandered from the yard and onto Maple Road where the morning was slowly warming and from somewhere out of sight, the gay voices of children could be heard.
Frustrated and a little angry at his sister and her husband’s intransigent attitudes, Xuxtex walked through the neighborhood without paying too much attention to where he was going. It was the raucous warning sound from one of the Terran’s smelly internal combustion ground cars that finally roused him from his thoughts and looking up, he saw that he had arrived in the town’s commercial district. All about him, Terrans moved briskly to and fro intent on business or pleasure. Females hurried with arms laden with packages and males in formal attire looked to be on serious business. Food markets bustled and proprietors let down awnings to protect their wares from the sun. Coming upon a small park in the center of the town, Xuxtex availed himself of a bench and sat at his ease. Observing the busy Terrans, he found the energy they displayed infectious and yearned to take part in the grand object of all their efforts. But what object was it?
Xuxtex, surprised at his feelings, determined to study the Terrans more closely. He saw how children attached themselves to their parents, how they were allowed to run free to explore their world, to make their own mistakes (one youngster fell and apparently hurt his knee; others traveled in groups independent of adults visiting commercial establishments or eating sweets at their leisure). He observed more than once, the courteous behavior of males toward females, the tipping of hats, or opening of doorways. He saw the orderly manner in which ground cars moved in the streets, expressive of large scale community cooperation and broadly accepted rules of behavior. As he watched, Xuxtex soon discovered that the disdain in which he had always held races other than his own, was beginning to ease in regard to the Terrans. He was beginning to enjoy his little sociological excursion and as he watched, he noticed a group of youngsters that included Xylel among them as they approached a sidewalk vendor.
"Hello…Joey," called Xuxtex, catching himself at the last moment and using his nephew’s Terran name.
The youth turned suddenly at the sound of his name and smiled broadly when he saw Xuxtex.
"Uncle Xuxtex," he said. "What are you doing downtown?"
Xuxtex shrugged. "Just needed to do some thinking so I decided to take a walk. What’s that you’re eating?"
"Ice cream," said Joey. "Want some?"
"Which item do you recommend?" asked Xuxtex reaching into the pocket of his Terran attire for some legal tender.
"I like the chocolate eclairs," suggested Joey who was nearly half finished with his own.
"I’ll have a chocolate eclair," Xuxtex told the white coated vendor and extended some paper currency.
"Whoa there! Too much!" The vendor took only what he needed and returned Xuxtex change. "Have a good day, sir."
After fumbling with the unfamiliar food wrapper, Xuxtex discovered that the frozen treat clung to a wooden stick and after carefully tasting it, found that he enjoyed it.
"This is quite good!" he exclaimed.
"Of course it is," said Joey. "Hey, I’ll see you later okay? My friends are waiting for me."
"No problem," replied Xuxtex, relishing his frozen dessert. "Run along and I’ll catch up with you back home."
Alone again, Xuxtex moved slowly along the sidewalk. Growing in confidence, he even greeted the occasional female that he passed in the manner he’d seen Terran males do. At last, it seemed that he had wandered away from the commercial district and as the landscape once again became dominated by green lawns and shady trees, a large building attracted his attention and by the cruciform symbol that topped its tall steeple, he recognized it as one of the many places of worship Terrans frequented.
It was one of a number of primitive affectations that Terrans retained that he had never understood and one that he had been disturbed to learn that Xaxlee and her family had taken to on his first visit to Earth many years before. At the time, they told him it had been merely to fit in with their Terran neighbors but in subsequent dispatches, Xaxlee explained that she and Uxxo began to see merit in a certain belief system. As they considered the matter, the notion of an endless, purposeless universe became oddly unsatisfying to them, while Earth religion, which gave order to the universe and hope to the individual, gave them comfort. Xuxtex drew his gaze down from that cruciform symbol and recalled the abandon with which the people of his own world lived their lives, careless of others save how their fate would affect their own. When all responsibility had been given over to robots and automatons, what was there left to inspire a sense of belonging or of serving a higher purpose?
His earlier mood of euphoria gone, Xuxtex continued on until he had gone full circle and came upon his sister’s home again. It was just coming on to the noon hour when he pushed the screen door open and stepped onto the porch. Somewhere inside the house, his infant niece was fussing and he could hear Xaxlee making cooing sounds to calm her down.
Idly, Xuxtex looked around and spied a scattering of colorful magazines on a table and taking one up at random, thumbed through it. Composed of groups of sequential drawings, it was obviously some reading material belonging to Joey. His attention was arrested by different passages that became increasingly impressive. One of the fictional characters was trapped somehow and yet knowing that death was imminent, his only regret was that he would not be able to continue working to improve the lives of his fellow men.
Noble sentiments! Xuxtex thought as he replaced the magazine on the table. The words seemed to summarize what Xaxlee and Uxxo had been trying to tell him about the Terrans. Had it taken a child’s publication to make him finally understand? In a few simple words, the writer of that magazine had encapsulated what it was about the Terrans that so impressed Xaxlee and Uxxo and what it was that their own people so completely lacked or had lost over the years. The Terrans were a young people who still looked to the future with boundless optimism. They had not yet grown so cynical or self-absorbed as the people back on the homeworld. Suddenly, it occurred to Xuxtex that the feeling he had enjoyed while observing the Terrans earlier that morning must have been akin to the sense of optimism they all shared and that gave meaning to all that they did.
Eager to confirm his newfound understanding of Terrans and the possibility that he too could share in their beliefs, Xuxtex extended his visit to Earth and in the process reacquainted himself with his sister and her husband. Days were spent reading over Xaxlee’s notes regarding her ongoing study of Terran ways and learning about "baseball" from Joey and "hide and seek" from Sally. Evenings were spent lingering over coffee and in long discussions about Terran ways and history. He even took to bouncing baby Cynthia on his knee and surprised himself when he began to wonder if Xaxlee and Uxxo planned to have another child. After all, children here had a future to live for; they would build upon what their forbears had begun and not simply live off its crumbling remains.
Thus it was that Xuxtex had given serious consideration about remaining permanently on Earth but in the end, he felt it was necessary to return home if only to convince himself that his admiration for the Terrans was not unfounded.
It was on the final day of his visit that Xuxtex sat in the living room with the rest of the family when programming on the television set was suddenly interrupted for a news update on the nation’s space program. As he watched two cumbersome vehicles draw closer and closer together some 185 miles above the Earth’s Pacific Ocean, it occurred to Xuxtex that although the technology was crude, it represented Terrans’ first, halting steps beyond the confines of their planet. The significance of these slow motion images assumed new meaning to him and he saw them at last for what they could mean to his own world. Would his people learn to admire the Terrans as he had, or was it already too late for Xorbid? Xuxtex hoped not.
"Is that what your rocket looks like, Uncle Xuxtex?" asked Joey, interrupting his uncle’s thoughts.
"Pretty much," replied Xuxtex.
"But I’ve seen our rocket in the garage and it doesn’t have boosters or even retros…"
"Those things don’t really matter, Joey," said Xuxtex, whose mind was not on the immediate conversation. "It’s all the same thing."
But Xuxtex had nothing more to add.
Later that night, after Sally and the baby had been put to bed, Xuxtex stood outside with Uxxo and Xaxlee and Joey. The four offworlders were looking up at the night sky. Overhead, an untold number of stars glittered coldly in the atmosphere and among them there was movement.
"It’s too slow to be a meteor," observed Joey.
"It’s one of the Gemini spacecraft," said his father watching the gleaming object make its way slowly above the horizon. "At this rate, it won’t be long before the Terrans are moving about space as easily as our own people do."
"Let’s hope that they don’t repeat our mistakes," said Xaxlee holding her husband’s hand. "That they keep their sense of wonder, their yearning to explore and to make things better for their children."
"There’s hope for any race who can dream of the stars," said Xuxtex. "Our own race has become jaded and self-centered; so fearful of offending others or violating some social protocol that they have evolved themselves out of dreaming. The future no longer holds any fascination for them, nor does the unknown. They no longer dream of the future and when they bother to think at all, it is to dwell on the past. So long as Terrans maintain their capacity to dream, they’ll be all right."
Somewhere, a night bird’s cry echoed hollowly through the neighborhood and dimly, there was the sound of a baby crying. A lone light came on in a home down the street.
Tomorrow was another day, the first of many stretching into a future that, for some, no longer held promise and for others, if they were not careful, could still be squandered. But right then, it was 1965, and in the United States of America the future that used to be still shone as brightly as ever…
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