Alexander sat in the seat next to me, rhythmically tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his knee. He was moaning softly to himself, and appeared oblivious to the events around him. (This was a constant habit of his. Once when I asked him if he was well, he informed me very sarcastically that he was singing to himself.) I have long gotten used to it; but what really amazed me this time was how calmly he was taking the flight to the Moon on the Earth Watch Shuttle.
This was right after we took off. Only moments before he had strapped himself in the seat, donned his earphones, and tuned into his favorite radio station. He looked attentively out the window, and complimented the management on the special effects. I tried to tell him that we really were flying to the Moon, but that got me a piercing “do you think I’m that dumb” glare. He retreated into his earphone world whenever the view got boring.
After a while we could see the curve of the Earth and the edge of the terminator running somewhere down the middle of the North American continent—it was afternoon in California, and evening in Anacostia, DC. It was at about this point that Alexander’s pocket radio gave out. He fiddled with the dial, looking for a stronger station, but he found only quiet static. Shortly after that we became weightless, but Alexander did not notice this until the steward floated down the aisle, using seat backs as hand-holds. With a very startled face, he turned to me and asked, “Are we in space?” I assured him that we were, but that only escalated his fear to mild panic. He asked me if I was a brother from another planet. Yes, I said, and explained once again about the Imperial Duchy of Homeland, the planet Homeland, the star Tau Ceti, and the World Council of Countries and Independent Jurisdictions. I don’t think he absorbed it all, but he did listen very attentively—and this time he believed it. In the course of this conversation, I learned that he had seen an anti-drug movie entitled Brother from Another Planet in which the main character was a black alien. A charming, but somewhat improbable story.
Just as we got fact and fiction disentangled from one another, It was time to land at Earth Watch Base. The gentler grasp of lunar gravity reinstated the comforting concepts of up and down. Most of the passengers were bored and tired commuters; field workers and support crew traveling to the Base for medical attention, paperwork and the comforts of Homeland. Alexander, by contrast, was the picture of excitement! I’ve never heard any one talk so much or so fast—he asked at least a thousand questions a minute, not even waiting for the answers. Yes, that is Earth disappearing over the horizon I said. Yes, that is a crater. No, there’s no green cheese here outside a kitchen. (We shared a laugh on that one!) Yes, everyone here is an alien except you. No, all aliens are not black; in fact, most belong to other races. (That was the only answer that appeared to disappoint him.)
Alexander was given a complete tour of the facilities. A Halakanian astronomer took him under her wings and taught him all about the Moon. He learned that it is not a true Moon at all; that the Earth and Moon actually comprise a sort of double planet. He learned how Earth Watch Base remains hidden since it is built underground, and on the side of the Moon which never sees the Earth. He learned about gravity and weightlessness, and quickly understood what you call Newton’s Laws. Most of all he reveled in the affection, the hugging and the friendliness. I told him that was normal, everyday behavior for all Homelanderoid species with the notable exception of Humans. We explained the purpose of the Base: an interstellar anthropological project to examine and preserve the Human species; to diagnose and possibly cure its cold and ruthless heartlessness.
When the time came to return to Earth, he very urgently wanted to stay. He even tried to force the issue, but he found it very hard to bully people that he genuinely liked. He resigned himself to the return flight, and was withdrawn and thoughtful during the entire trip home. We arrived late at night, shortly after midnight, in a vacant lot near his apartment building.
“Won’t your parents be concerned about your coming home so late?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied. “I don’t got no parents, ’cept my mother, and she don’t care.” He appeared proud, somehow. “I mostly come home way later than this anyhow!” He kicked a rock. “She won’t mind,” he concluded.
Alexander strutted down the street and rehashed the trip with the expansive pride of a neophyte who mistakes himself for an old hand. It really was very touching. He even started to lecture me about space flight! One little jaunt to his own planet’s Moon and you’d think he’d just circumnavigated the galaxy single-handedly! (Incidentally, that is impossible with current technology.)
We paused for a car to go by before crossing the street, when I noticed a glint in his jacket pocket. He was very embarrassed, but eventually handed it over. It was a personal effect belonging to the Halakanian astronomer, and he must have stolen it from her desk. It is of no apparent use or value to Humans. Alexander tried to be cool and unconcerned, but remorse did crash in on him eventually, and the truth came out: he wanted a souvenir. No one would believe that he had gone to the Moon, and in a few weeks he probably wouldn’t even believe it himself. He didn’t think anyone would ever find out, and he meant no harm. He just wanted some proof, for himself alone, that he had actually been to the Moon. (He cried huge tears, and I do believe he was telling me the truth.)
“You will have to apologize to the astronomer,” I said, “and you will have to return the implement.”
“You mean you’re going to take me back to the Moon after I did this?” he asked in bewilderment.
I told him I saw no other way. We discussed it for a while, and finally he realized that his theft did not end our friendship. Clearly, forgiveness was not a common occurrence in Alexander’s life, and he demanded to know why I would remain friends with him under these circumstances.
I told him that I was not in the habit of letting petty thieves run my life and make my decisions, and I was not about to start now. I do not allow anyone to pick my friends for me. So not even he could dictate to me, by his words or his behavior, whether or not I choose to be his friend. I am his friend, because I choose to be; and I will not stop until I choose to stop.
Is Human friendship reduced to the status of a commercial transaction? Is it a contractual barter of goods and services of equal value? Does a Human break off a friendship with a friend for breach of reciprocation? This is a vulgar and unacceptable state of affairs, and a source of much evil in this world! This is the very phenomenon I am sent here to study! Friendship is a gift freely given; if friendship is made contingent upon the friend’s behavior, then it is neither friendship nor a gift, it is a contract. If I expect payment in goods or services in return for my friendship, then I am a mercenary friend; a prostitute of the soul.
“I have my pride,” I told Alexander, “and my pride demands that I remain your friend forever.” And then I added, “I ain’t no chicken!”
He didn’t reply to that. He made some soft moaning sounds, like he does when he sings to himself.
The last time I saw him, Alexander was gloating over a recent victory! His science class had studied astronomy, and he had astonished his friends with his comprehensive knowledge of the Moon. He even caught the teacher in a technical error! His friends have tried to insult him by calling him a bookworm or a Moonman, but this only makes him swell with pride. His grades have improved, and his appetite for learning has become insatiable. Apparently our little evening jaunt to the Moon has a stronger grasp on his soul that any peer pressure his environment can assert, and the shorter trip to return the implement only reinforced it.
If I have created a monster, at least it is a benevolent one!
“Bobo,” he told me with a touch of hurt in his voice, “if you won’t let me go the Moon with you, then I’ll just have to go by myself.” He is strong in his resolve: now he knows that there is a better way, a better place, and better people than what surrounds him now. He wears an orange jacket with MOONMAN embroidered on the back. He is determined to return.
And I believe he will.