• Ships Passing in the Night: Romance & Marriage between Lovers from Anti-synchronous Worlds

    by  • October 10, 2016 • Fiction • 1 Comment

    An essay by Specialist Estaugh Johnten, as provided by Mickey Hunt
    Art by Errow Collins


    A frozen image of the park’s playfield looks somewhat like an ordinary playfield on Earth. Families are sitting on blankets with their picnics, a canine is poised in the air as he clamps his teeth on a flying disk, a woman is jogging down the path between a row of shade trees. Children dash though a play castle with its hanging bridges and polymer towers. All this would look ordinary, except the colors in the image are antipodal like in an old-fashion film negative. What might be shadow emanates light, and it all incandesces with a lustrous glow.

    An expectant crowd has gathered at the edge of a field, and upon closer inspection, you’d see that the postures and faces droop with sadness. They’re faces possessing delicate contours no race of Earth ever had.

    Even stranger would be watching the film in forward motion, because everything moves backwards: the people, the leaves on the trees, even the sounds of voices.

    I myself am walking backwards, with my arm around the waist of a wife I’ve never met, and a charming child of mine with her arm wrapped around my neck. My wife is carrying my field notebook. I’m elated, and of course completely bewildered. As we walk in reverse toward the waiting crowd, I nearly stumble, because I can’t see where we’re going.

    Children are playing a game nearby. One girl runs backwards and stoops to leave a small white ball on the ground. As we pass, the ball springs up of its own accord and smacks me in the nose. It hurts …

    Cover for Mad Scientist Journal: Autumn 2016
    For more stories like this before they appear on the site, check out our Patreon!

    Welcome to the planet Lumen.

    The above scenario describes my personal first minutes after I stepped to the ground of a planet circling the first dark star[1] we’ve ever discovered and located within a vast region of dark matter. It’s a planet, indeed a whole region of space, where physics on its most rudimentary level, and, perhaps even time itself, moves opposite to ours.

    Earth Command had engaged me on this exploratory mission for the remote possibility of encountering sentient beings on other worlds. While I have studied astrophysics as a hobby, my true expertise was in anthropology. My job was to catalog and analyze sentient alien cultural practices. Little did anyone guess that I would arrive on this new planet already “knowing” a great deal about life there. It was a knowledge that sprang into existence as events occurred. Of all our team members on the mission, I was the only one who could fully wrap his brain around how things worked. My Earth-based supervisors believe it was my Asperger’s Syndrome that enabled me to adapt to the confusing environment. What had isolated me from other people in normal time allowed me to better fit in on Lumen. Plus, I had already developed attitudes and techniques to help me compensate for my misperceptions.

    ~

    When our research ship Radiant first approached Lumen, we entered a high slow orbit above the nightside. The view from my port window showed the surface to be dark, that is, with no lights to indicate any sort of advanced civilization. I wrote in my field notebook, Another lonely silent sphere, like me. Only when the ship orbited to the dayside of the planet did our scouting telescopes show living beings with a technology similar to 20th century Earth; that is, they had self-propelled transport craft, including flying vessels. As I gazed from the window, a weird cluster of rocks about a kilometer or so from us flew away from the planet. I didn’t learn until later that they were meteors falling toward the planet.

    During Landing Orientation, I arrived late and took the remaining empty seat in the front row. Captain Therreal[2] remarked that it was strange the inhabitants hadn’t responded to our attempts to contact them by radio.

    At that time, Communications Officer Esang interrupted to shrilly announce that Lumen was being bombarded by messages from space, including one from a woman who cried in inverted English, “Please come back, we need you!” This was all a mystery that we resolved only later.

    As we landed the transport shuttle on the surface for the first time ever, Assistant Safety Officer Sanderson was in charge of making one last check to the atmosphere’s compatibility with human physiology. The composition of Lumen’s air was roughly identical to Earth’s, except in the motion of the elements’ atoms. Sanderson reported the air was “okay,” and as we waited for the transport’s integument door to open, she noticed that I was clutching my notebook to my chest.

    “Eager today, Professor?” she asked.

    Suddenly self-aware and chagrined about looking like a schoolgirl, I nonchalantly lowered the notebook to my side. No matter how many times I corrected her, she always called me professor.

    “I’m just messing with you,” she said.

    Oh. I realized then she was only teasing, but her use of “mess” reminded me of an archaic meaning of the term, that of a sailing ship’s dining hall. This seemed like a natural segue, so I asked her if she would join me for dinner sometime.

    She only grimaced and shook her head.

    I suppose the universe wreaked its revenge when the door opened and flooded the compartment with the native air. Sanderson hyperventilated and passed out cold. The door buzzed and slammed shut, and medics evacuated her to a berth in the shuttle where she soon recovered. As it turned out, Sanderson never could process Lumen’s air, and further research showed that approximately 5.5% of the Radiant‘s crew couldn’t. For them, the oxygen was totally inert and unreactive, and they were compelled to wear breathing apparatus and tanks whenever they spent time on the planet, a situation which was a burden. Also, as it turned out, Sanderson grew to respect me, and we became friends. She was a medical doctor, and I invited her to attend the birth of my daughter, a story I will return to later.

    When the landing team shuffled down the ramp, I among them, the scene before us appeared as a blazing impressionistic painting of a New England landscape. Figures approached from the crowd. They appeared blurry until they drew near, and I realized with a shock that they were walking in reverse. A person turned to me, and now I 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, garments, and facial features gave her a beauty I never imagined possible.

    Her baby. She reminded me of photographs of my own mother when she was a child.

    The woman stepped toward me and kissed me 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 me the sweet smelling lei had hung around my neck only seconds before. How was this happening? She spoke to me in a familiar, bizarre, inverted language.

    As other crewmembers were greeted with similar, albeit less intimate farewells from the indigenous people, I felt myself swept up in astonished awareness that we and they existed within the same reality and were passing in converse directions–my future being the young woman’s past, and my past being her future.

    So that’s when I realized the mysterious radio message had been for me, and the immense throng of people at the landing site had gathered to say goodbye.

    My first impulse was to sprint back to the transport and hide in a locker, but for once in my awkward life, when everything was infinitely awkward, I knew what to do. I held my ground and began writing on my 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 leapt from the ground, rolled up her cheeks, and squeezed into her tear ducts.

    I finished writing and held up the notebook so she could read my words, I love you and our baby very, very much. I promise, we will be together again.

    I swapped my notebook for our child who snuggled her face against my chest. And I had no idea how it all would work, but clearly we had already solved certain future problems of cross-cultural interaction–I had a family!

    ~

    Art accompanying "Ships Passing in the Night"

    I finished writing and held up the notebook so she could read my words, I love you and our baby very, very much. I promise, we will be together again.

    Is time real, or was it simply that the physics of Lumen moved backward, even at the quantum level? Is it that subatomic particles like electrons were just spinning in reverse to ours?

    Up until we encountered Lumen, what we found there and in the planet’s spatial neighborhood would have been described as being composed of Diroc’s Antimatter.[3] However, the only antimatter we’ve known before has been in laboratories. We’ve never experienced antienergy before, not what was recognized as such. In artificial, simplistic experiments, whenever matter and antimatter touched each another, they annihilated. But the stable presence within our galaxy of antispace and all it contains, and our safe interaction with Lumen, proves that matter and natural antimatter coexist, which brought up the possibility that our previous theories have been all wrong.

    Dr. Pachero-Nanez, the first scientist to clarify and popularize the idea that time was not real, said it’s only a human construct that measures relative rates of change. Pachero-Nanez helped us understand that Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t as profound as once thought because it only meant that time seems to flow differently because of an observer’s relationship to the light by which we perceive events. Our experience on Lumen proved Pachero-Nanez wrong.[4]

    Why? Because my life with Ahtebazille existed before it had even happened from my perspective, we learned that time itself was a singular entity of its own. Time is real. And yet what happened was completely dependent on our decisions in that moving present that we shared together, a present something like the juncture of two streams when they form a river. The streams merge, mixing and churning, and continue on with both changed.

    Events occurring in that present changed my past and created their own memories. As I already wrote, when Ahtebazille greeted me, she hung a lei around my neck as a parting gift. Until she took that action, it never happened for me, but when it happened, that lei continued to be around my neck in her future and in my past, and that’s why I remembered it.

    My two and a half years on Lumen was full of such experiences, but the confusion and continuous reshaping of my memory was only part of the difficulty.

    ~

    Most people of Lumen were sad when we arrived, and sadness often pervaded my mood as well, because I knew I had such a brief period ahead to be a father and a husband. Our daughter Atte’eerneh was growing younger each day, and in a few months her contraction of size and abilities alarmed and grieved me. I knew what the inevitable would be. It was exactly like having a child with a terminal illness, but there was no treatment, cure, or hope of recovery. Her birth then was like a death, or at least a vanishing. I saw her slip into her mother’s body, and then observed as Ahtebazille’s belly shrank month by month, and I couldn’t forget our daughter as she had been, happy, scampering around our house (backwards of course), playing with dolls and singing nonsense songs. I was so sorrowful in thinking that I couldn’t know her at a period later in her life. Adding to the sorrow, when I arrived on Lumen, Ahtebazille was pregnant with our second child, a boy.

    I had to force myself to not think about this.

    ~

    For an example of a milder difficulty, as it turned out, arriving late to social events was essential on Lumen. In fact, to be early you had to arrive after an occasion was completely over, or you would be too late. By the time of Ahtebazille’s and my wedding I had it figured out. Because, of course, from my point of view, the wedding ceremony began at the end and worked backwards to the beginning. In fact, our last ever “connubial celebration” took place on the night before the wedding.

    Whenever I speak at holo-seminars and conferences, the most frequently asked questions are about sex. Everyone wants to know how to “make a baby” on Lumen. I’ve written about it in impersonal clinical detail in my paper “From Coitus to Foreplay: Sexual Relations Between Intraspecies Partners of Reverse Time Ecosystems,”[5] but it’s enough to say in this present article that the process is far easier than one might imagine. As I have understood from the wide study of cultures, intimate relations between the opposite sexes are fraught with awkwardness, blunders, embarrassment, misunderstandings, and even humor, obstacles often easily overcome in a loving relationship. When the respective time streams of the partners are opposed, those factors are compounded. But as with everything on Lumen, I was always surprised how well it worked out when we just relaxed and let what might happen, happen.

    ~

    The same as with our daughter undeveloping until the point of when her life began at fertilization, so my relationship with my wife Ahtebazille diminished over time. I knew her better, but she knew me less. She seemed to have forgotten my favorite foods. Her cooking deteriorated. After the year and more of enjoying our marriage bed, the strictly enforced chastity was a sore trial for me. Her parents stopped liking me, saying that a close relationship between their daughter and me was impossible. She comprehended what I said less.[6] Beyond when we first met (from her point of view) one evening at a square dance, I was a stranger to her, but I knew her better than ever, the situation being a mirror to when I arrived and first saw her. So, as we knew it would, my wife didn’t know me anymore. Think of it like severe Alzheimer’s, except she was young and healthy in every way, making the “memory loss” all the more painful.

    ~

    Though we had been among the Lumens for a long while, they acted cold, cautious, and afraid, as if we had just arrived. When we actually had arrived, we were clumsy. Now they were, and you had to be on a continuous lookout for unexpected hazards, like being run over while crossing the street.[7] I myself was nearly killed by an ice cream truck roaring around a corner.

    So, there was no longer any joy in staying, and after 30 full months of living on the planet, deeply involved in the affairs of its people, we lifted off for the last time, with me feeling even more alone than I have in my whole life.

    ~

    That was eight months ago, and soon after my arrival on Earth I ran into my old friend Mickey Hunt[8] at my favorite tea cafe. Mickey had been an obscure social reformer back in the 21st century and took up writing faux science fiction and fantasy in his retirement. I say faux, because the science and fantasy were really real. Captain Therreal had run across an actual copy of Mickey’s early novel in a museum and went back to meet him. Therreal ended up inviting him on a time transcendence journey, but now after extensively roaming across Earth’s eras, Mickey planned to return home to his own time. When he heard about my family on Lumen, and my heartbreak over how empty my current life was, he asked me to join him aboard the Chariot for the acceleration to light speed, a voyage that would last a whole year. He said he’d make room for me in his quarters.

    “Really, you’d take me along?” I said. “Only a select few go on these expeditions.”

    “You’ll be my guest,” he said. “Here’s what you do: when we break the light barrier, we leave the material-energy-chronos universe and enter what’s called eternity. You know, ‘God is light.’ It’s like dying, except you’re not dead. It’s being totally awake. In the dream world, your powers of thought and action are limited. Your mind floats along, flitting here and there, and you have negligible control over imaginary actions within the dream. Your body is all but immobile and paralyzed in bed. Consider that the supernatural world is to the natural world what the waking world is to the dream world. In the supernatural, you have incomparably more freedom and control over your mind and body than you do in your ordinary existence. You can go anywhere and anywhen you like.” He paused to let this sink in, and then repeated, “Anywhere and when. It’s the only way to travel anymore. Time and space transcendence.”

    A warm flush suffused my whole being, and the gloomy cloud that enveloped my head vanished entirely. I pulled out my field notebook and began scribbling my packing list.

    Mickey said, “Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking?”

    I told him what, and that’s my plan for the future.

    Calculating my life expectancy, I intend to arrive back on Lumen so that I might possibly live until a few years before I arrived the first time. That will give me another 40-50 years with Ahtebazille and my children.

    “Don’t forget the grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on,” Mickey said. “You may be surprised at the multitude of descendants you have. I was when I peeked ahead, and knowing about them is why I never feel lonesome.”

    My enthusiasm suddenly fell away, and I closed my notebook. “I just thought of it. When I rejoin my wife, for her it will be parting all over again. She’ll be old, maybe even dead.”

    “Can’t be helped,” Mickey said. “You’ve got to go.”

    He’s right. And I will go.

    [1] A dark star is a black hole in particular effects, but much lower in mass.

    [2] This is the same Therreal who commanded the starship UNS Chariot in the first intentional time-transcendence excursions based on the theories of Nobel Prize winning propulsionist, Dr. Pachero-Nanez, who discovered that as a vessel neared the speed of light, its mass decreased, enabling it to break the light barrier and escape the limitations of the material-energy-chronos universe.

    [3] Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, 8 August 1902–20 October 1984.

    [4] Pachero-Nanez was wrong in other things as well, namely his National Socialist politics.

    [5] Originally published in the Journal of Chaotic Terrain, Vol. 3849, Issue 3, Year Indeterminate.

    [6] I had taught her English and I, in turn, had to learn to speak and understand it backwards.

    [7] I never quite learned to safely drive on Lumen.

    [8] Not his real name.


    Estaugh A. Johnten grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and earned a B.A. in Social/Cultural Anthropology at Templetown University. He received a Fulhaus/DAD Fellowship for the Eberhard-Hostleter-Universität in Tübingen, Germany, where he subsequently completed a M.A. His work with the extraordinary voyage of the USS Radiant was funded through a grant from the International Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering. When defending his Ph.D. dissertation at Hahvad University just prior to his departure from regular time, he told the examination committee to “Jump in the lake.”


    Mickey Hunt explores the universe from his base in Asheville, North Carolina. His reports disguised as fiction have appeared in the Literary Hatchet, AntipodeanSF, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, the Dark Mountain anthology, and elsewhere. Readers may learn more at chaoticterrainpress.blogspot.com.


    Errow is a comic artist and illustrator focused on narrative work themed around worlds not quite like our own. She spends her time working with her partner on The Kinsey House webcomic and developing other comic projects when she’s not playing tag with her bear of a cat. More of her work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/portfolio.


    A brief, flash-length version of this story originally appeared in Penumbra, November 2014, with a title of “Not the Wrong Planet.”


    “Ships Passing in the Night: Romance & Marriage between Lovers from Anti-synchronous Worlds” is © 2014 Mickey Hunt
    Art accompanying story is © 2016 Errow Collins

    One Response to Ships Passing in the Night: Romance & Marriage between Lovers from Anti-synchronous Worlds

    1. October 10, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      Notes: The real life story of Estaugh Johnten and Ahtebazille was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s inspiration for a portion of his expansive poem, “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” in particular, the happy love story entitled “Elizabeth,” and this explains the poem’s well known, incongruously melancholy words,

      “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
      Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
      So, on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
      Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

      “Elizabeth” is an approximation of what the name “Ahtebazille” would sound like in a recording played backwards. Longfellow named the romantic interest male of this section of his poem, “John Estaugh.”

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *