Author: Alzo David-West
Charles Hooper had been away for twelve years. No one was precisely sure where he went, though there were indications he had joined the Space Corps as a volunteer for the generational residents and the new settlers on the Martian and the Jupiterian moon colonies.
He had maintained only occasional messaging contact with his family and friends, so when he returned, his presence was really quite unexpected. He was forty years old and somewhat of a stranger. His general sensibility had changed; he was slimmer but still broad-shouldered; and he had taken on a foreign accent, that distinctive mélange of misplaced stresses, pauses, and intonations that characterized the off-world versions of Universal speech.
First, he visited his sister and brother-in-law, then his father and mother, and later a number of his childhood friends. He did not reveal much about what he did while away, except to say he had traveled variously back and forth through the transit ways between Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; had worked different long- and short-term contracts; and had done miscellaneous kinds of public and private services for organizations, institutions, and individuals.
His laconism suggested he either took no interest in his diverse occupations, or he was trying to put some unpleasantness behind and move on. No one knew for sure. He was, however, eager to announce that he had met and fallen in love with someone a year ago when he worked at a forest biome in a Bernal Sphere, an extraordinary person—understanding, intelligent, compatible, and beautiful—despite their different worlds, cultures, and beliefs. She was called Y’jk U’ik.
Hooper described her in quaint, effusive terms as his star-begotten goddess. He added, to everyone’s surprise, that he and she were wedded, and she would be arriving on his world after a five-week preparation period. Although she was approved to relocate, she still required, among a few other things, the necessary inoculations and vaccines to strengthen her immune system against the many strains of bacteria and viruses that would be new and potentially harmful to her outside her home sphere.
When everyone naturally asked to see her picture, they were confounded that Hooper did not keep any virtual image files. But it was not really pressing, they reasoned, to pursue the trivial matter of appearance. All sorts of inter-world consummations with all sorts of specially adapted off-worlders were common now. As long as the nuptial unions between the partners were consensual, their personal happiness was their social and moral right.
After his first week, Hooper spent the next four reestablishing his on-world residence status, attending rapid cognitive updating sessions to catch up with cultural life, doing his mandatory fifteen civic labor hours in any field he had abilities commensurate to, and gathering things for Y’jk U’ik at his publicly subsidized domicile. She had many special needs, especially shade, pure water, and purple vegetables, for she was also UV sensitive and a quite particular vegetarian.
On the day of her scheduled arrival, Hooper received a signal message from the regional spaceport. Because of his wife’s delicate physical condition, she would have to be shuttled in a specially equipped medical vehicle to his home. He waited impatiently. His relations and friends nervously organized a welcome party, anxious about her health.
The vehicle arrived. Hooper opened the front door of his domicile and asked everyone else to wait. He went outside, spoke something foreign and indistinct, and led his partner inside. Standing before the two, Hooper’s sister, brother-in-law, parents, and friends beheld Y’jk U’ik in a sublime rapture of speechlessness. The woman whom he had described as the quintessence was, as far as they could discern, a massive, patchy, upright, shell-less, pink-brown snail. She slithered forward on a mucus secretion, her four antennae and long siphon spread out like tentacles.