The Duke of Wunderbar
by Clarise Samuels
Although the title of duke was rather insignificant in America, where the classless populace hardly understood the intricacies of royal ancestry, Charles maintained the appellation given him as an undercover alien. He knew that his American colleagues at City University in New York snorted at him behind his back, for it was rare, indeed, that a professor of English literature claimed to be a British duke.
Ah, life in the land of democracy and egalitarianism!
Yet the social injustices Charles described in his copious notebooks were enough to make his head spin. Headquarters did not even believe half the things he and other undercover aliens were reporting. Charles painfully recalled the last conversation with his leader, the Emperor of Planet Wunderbar, so named by a previous Emperor who had learned German while getting a degree in Earth Studies.
“What do you mean, they have vagrants sleeping in the gutters? They’re supposed to be the richest country on the planet!” The Emperor was aghast.
“It’s a blind spot,” Charles tried to explain. “They walk by, and they just don’t see it. Most of them have fair to moderate means, and as long as the majority is keeping their heads above water, they shrug off the poverty of the few.”
“They don’t know it is not permitted to shrug off even one desperate person, that if one suffers, they are all suffering?” the Emperor asked with disbelief.
“Absolutely not. They are convinced it is everyone out for themselves. They think they are completely separate from all but immediate family. They haven’t a clue. I know. It’s outrageous,” Charles lamented. “I’ve been grappling with their state of mind since I landed my Deluxe Ferrari Space Mobile on Earth eighteen months ago. I have half a mind to go home.”
“Are they giving you special accommodations because you’re a duke?” the Emperor inquired.
“Heavens, no! They laugh every time I mention it.”
“What? Interplanetary Intelligence told me they are obsessed with royalty,” the Emperor remarked.
“Yes. But only if you’re the Queen of England or her close relative. They also have a special place in their hearts for the royal family of Monaco,” Charles explained.
Charles held the earpiece away from his ear as the Emperor broke out into a string of curses. “The royal family of Monaco!” he fairly screamed. “Tell me you jest! They’re descended from Genoese pirates.”
Charles shrugged. “Well, a famous American actress married into the family in the 1950’s, and New Yorkers have been devoted fans ever since.”
The Emperor sighed. “I see. So, how do you feel about your assignment in general?”
Charles paused momentarily before he answered. “I’m discouraged, but I have not yet given up. I’m writing my book about the history of utopia in literature. I’ve already lined up a publisher, and one of our own is working there.”
“You haven’t finished the book yet?” the Emperor asked pointedly.
“Please, Sire. I spent the first six months learning how to act human. I now enjoy violent films, I eat unhealthy food, and I resent the success of all my colleagues.”
The Emperor signed off in disgust.
Charles remembered that conversation with some consternation. It had been four months since he spoke to the Emperor, and he hesitated to check in again with so little news to report. The planet was in bad shape. It was still in bad shape. It would remain so for some time to come. Charles’s book on utopian societies would help a little. The book was now finished. Charles had finally completed the last chapter on the utopian nature of universal love, tolerance, and compassion for all humankind.
Interplanetary Intelligence was planning a marketing and promotional campaign to make sure the book became a bestseller. A few other aliens like Charles, also from Planet Wunderbar, were well situated in the New York City publishing scene with high-level editorial positions. They were eager to accept the first draft.
It was a chilly, rainy autumn day in Manhattan. Charles donned a raincoat and grabbed an umbrella to go for a walk in Central Park. He needed the fresh air, though it was not nearly as fresh as what he could expect on Planet Wunderbar. With great pleasure he recognized Maggie, a colleague from the English department, walking ahead of him on the path. Charles was secretly in love with her.
“Maggie!” he called out. “Wait up!” He broke into a trot to catch up with her. He greeted her with a smile, which quickly faded when he noticed her eyes were red, for she had been crying. “Maggie! What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she answered curtly. “I’d rather be alone right now.” She tried to walk ahead.
“Maggie, please!” Charles ran after her. “You must tell me what’s wrong.”
She stopped again and looked tense, but then handed him a sheet of paper. “This is what’s wrong. They rejected my book.”
“Who?” Charles wanted to know.
“Look at the masthead. A major university press. They said I treated the topic too superficially and that they are not interested in the influence of minor Italian poets on Chaucer’s early work.” Charles glanced at the letter and winced, for the rejecting editor was a Wunderbarian, whom Charles knew. Wunderbarians hated to be severely critical, arrogant, and dismissive, but when masquerading on Earth, they did it all the time to blend in.
Charles took Maggie to a nearby ice cream parlor and insisted she stop counting calories for one day. “Come on. Let’s split an ice cream brownie sundae with extra fudge sauce. You need cheering up.”
Maggie did start to relax as they both dipped their dessert spoons into the gooey delight. Charles watched her with concern; he did so care for her, not that she had any inkling of it. Romance was a sticky-wicket issue between Wunderbarians and Earthlings. For now, the Emperor was advising against it. Humans were very sensitive and prone to emotional reactions. They were easily hurt. And although mating procedures were similar on both planets, the prospect of a having a child was also extremely problematic.
No one was quite sure how the genetics of it all would work out. Would the child be more Earthling than Wunderbarian, or vice-versa? Which planet would the child live on, and which planet would be responsible for social security and unemployment benefits? The biological, emotional, and legal aspects of such an alliance were too complicated, so for the time being, Charles could only be a good friend to Maggie. She adored him, for he was smart, funny, tall, and good-looking. But for some reason, he never made a pass at her. Maggie thought he was gay. Charles suffered in silence.
At least Maggie was chatting and laughing by the time they finished their ice cream. He walked her home, gave her a big hug, and stood outside until she was safely in her building. She turned around before letting the door close behind her. Charles smiled and waved from the sidewalk, wishing he could kiss her passionately instead of giving her a light kiss on the forehead. He sighed and went home.
There was a message to call the Emperor back. “Checking in,” Charles said tersely.
“How’s the book?” the Emperor immediately asked.
“Finished and sent to Yale University Press. My contacts tell me it’s been well received. They will hold on to it for a while longer before accepting it for publication, so as not to appear too eager.”
“Excellent news. Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Anything else?” Charles queried.
“Yes,” replied the Emperor. “You’re being recalled.”
“What?” Charles yelled into the mouthpiece. “Whatever for?”
“Special mission. Just came up. Someone else will take your place at the university.”
Charles was flabbergasted. “How will you explain my leaving?”
“We’re thinking of staging an accident,” the Emperor informed him.
“What? No, absolutely not. I will not hear of it. It disrupts their reality too much. And it will be too upsetting for Maggie.”
“Do you want to take Maggie home with you?” inquired the Emperor.
“I can’t do that. She has friends and family. I don’t even know if she would be happy on Wunderbar. She’s never even seen the place,” Charles noted anxiously.
“Well, if you have reservations, I understand. Nevertheless, you’re slotted to come back.” The Emperor had nothing more to say.
Charles disconnected and put his head down on his desk. He was just warming up to life on this planet, and he was crazy about Maggie. He tossed and turned all night. By morning, he knew what had to be done.
He called the Emperor. “Problems?” The Emperor did not like frequent calls.
“I’ve made a decision. Code Red.” Charles did not want to beat around the bush.
“Code Red!” Another long string of curses followed. The Emperor knew very well what Code Red meant. Charles was giving up his undercover identity. He would become Charles for real and for the rest of his life. He wasn’t going back. Charles had defected.
“I want to marry Maggie,” Charles stated simply.
“And what about having children?” the Emperor asked bluntly.
“I’ll get a vasectomy, and then we’ll adopt a little girl from China. They’re all doing it. No one will even notice.”
“Are you going to come clean with her about who you are?” the Emperor demanded to know.
“No, not yet. Not for a long time. Perhaps never. As it is, she has trouble believing I’m a duke.” Charles sounded dead serious.
“Are you sure about this? After all, the planet is a festering cauldron of hatred, greed, war, and misery,” the Emperor noted.
“It suits me,” was all Charles could say.
“Once you issue a Code Red, you can never go back,” the Emperor warned him.
“Yes, I know. I only expect the same severance package everyone else gets under the circumstances.”
“Very well, then,” said the Emperor conclusively. “I will take your decision to the Senate, and they will push it through. I accept your Code Red.”
“Thank you, Sire. I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
“Good luck. After this, your hotline to Wunderbar will be closed down. The other undercover Wunderbarians will not acknowledge you, and all your rights and privileges will be revoked,” the Emperor explained sadly.
“I understand the implications of my decision,” Charles responded.
They signed off for the last time. Charles yawned and stretched. Then he went out to a nearby café, read a newspaper, and enjoyed a nice cup of espresso.
He was feeling positively human.
Copyright © 2009 by Clarise Samuels