Eye of the Beholder

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt


Science Fiction

“Phillip, stop fidgeting with that dusty old thing,” Darlene scolded as I looked through the viewfinder of my vintage 35mm camera. “I can’t even see the rest of the group, we’re so far behind!”

I was too busy lining up the shot to answer her right away. This place was so stunning it begged to be photographed.

I’d tried many times to explain to my wife the mechanics of 20th-century photography and its superiority over what passes for photography in our day. How the point-and-click of a retinal implant produces images that are clear, accurate—and soulless. How photography had once been an art.

“To take a retinal image, all you have to do is blink; the implanted technology does the rest,” I began, peering through the viewfinder to capture the planet’s two moons as the sun touched the western horizon. “See, with this antique device, I can control the aperture, shutter speed, focus, and more. The 1985 Maxxum 7000 is my paintbrush and canvas.”

By the time I pressed the shutter release and lowered the camera, Darlene was nowhere to be seen. My only audience was a lizard-like creature perched on a nearby bush, its one eye fixed on me, apparently mesmerized by my lecture on ancient technology.

Impressed with its brilliant orange and blue scales, I snapped a quick picture before the creature scurried off. And I admit that I stopped for a couple more photos before finally catching up with Darlene and the rest of the group. I hoped she wouldn’t stay angry for too long.

I’d really wanted this trip to be perfect. We hadn’t travelled much since our honeymoon decades before. Space travel had never appealed to us; we were more cottage-by-the-lake folks. In fact, Darlene jokes that the stork that was supposed to deliver me in the 20th century got caught in a wormhole to the future. We laugh, but I wonder whether I might have been meant for a different time.

And then a manned ship made it out to the Freeway. Imagine, all those years, not knowing that just beyond the rim of our tiny solar system lay a bustling transportation corridor linking the star systems of our vast galaxy. And just like that, galactic travel—previously possible only in sci-fi novels—became reality. No one seems to know how the Freeway got there or even how it actually works. The alien peoples our Earth delegations have since encountered speculate that some advanced, ancient race put it there. Whatever the case, it allows our ships to travel to neighbouring star systems in weeks rather than years. Last year, the Earth Council opened the Freeway to civilian travel, and now galactic tourism is all the rage. Funny thing is, it takes longer to get from Earth to the edge of our solar system than it does to travel to distant stars on the Freeway.

Of course, it isn’t cheap to book an interstellar vacation. But our 50th anniversary was coming up, and we figured it was now or never. Darlene and I were both tired of Florida. And there still aren’t many people who can say they celebrated their anniversary in the Alpha Centauri system! Even though it’s the closest system to our own, it’s four light years away. Yet it took just a week to get there on the Freeway!

A few months ago, we started hearing about this beautiful planet, Zhul, described as a virtual paradise. An advertising campaign, complete with jaw-dropping footage of the planet’s surface, began to attract visitors from Earth. The images were so spectacular we figured they’d been enhanced—until friends of ours came back from Zhul and showed us their own pictures. We booked our trip the next day.

Seeing Zhul was mind blowing, as our hippie ancestors would have put it. Despite Darlene’s complains about my camera, I had a blast with it and couldn’t wait to develop my film. While I’m a hopeless anachronism, Darlene’s got both feet firmly planted in the 23rd century. She snapped close to a thousand retinal images during our stay on Zhul. I got maybe a hundred photos with the Minolta, but of course for me, it’s about art, not quantity.

The day we got home, I had a heart attack. I joked later to my concerned family that it was the shock of travelling more than a hundred kilometres from our home.

“I hope this isn’t going to take too long,” I muttered after the medic bots had stabilized my heart and loaded me into the ambu-shuttle. “I want to get those pictures developed."

“Get your heart fixed first, you crazy old man,” whispered a tearful Darlene as the bots closed the shuttle doors.

I was sorry to lose the heart that had carried me through life for seven-plus decades, but the surgeon assured me that the mechanical replacement is much more reliable.

“When you do die, it won’t be from heart disease,” she said.

Darlene was waiting in the recovery room when I was brought back from surgery. “Looks like you’ll be able to develop those pictures soon. They said you can probably come home in the morning,” she smiled.

Being married for 50 years means you’re practically telepathic. I sensed something was bothering her.

“What is it, Honey?”

She hesitated, not wanting to burden me just after the surgery. “Well, I'm sure it's just a coincidence, or the effects of space travel, but one of the nurses was saying that they've treated several people who recently returned from Zhul. They came in with various ailments—everything from rashes to heart attacks.”

I mulled over her words till I finally dropped off to sleep.

The next day, I was discharged. Darlene rolled her eyes as I headed for my darkroom the minute we got home, excited to develop the film. She'd given up trying to convince me to take it easy.

One drawback to pre-digital photography, especially in these days when it's such a rarity, is that film is very expensive. Pre-digital photography is a niche industry, so everything costs a lot: chemicals, photo paper, equipment. And of course, you don’t know till they’re developed whether your pictures are any good. I took a deep breath. This was going to take awhile.

The first roll of film turned out much as I had expected. I got some shots of Jupiter and Saturn that I’m especially pleased with. But the subsequent rolls used to photograph Zhul? First I thought the film was defective. Then I blamed my developing skills. Until I took a closer look.

The images on the negatives did not match the images I had actually seen and photographed. The landscape in the negatives was brown and parched—a rocky desert. I made a few prints from some of the more memorable shots and compared them with similar shots Darlene had taken. Hers looked familiar: a spectacular waterfall, lush greenery, fields of strange, beautiful flowers. My corresponding prints revealed brown water trickling from a pile of rocks, desert scrub, and dusty expanses. How was this possible? Even our accommodation differed between her shots and mine: comfortable, state-of-the-art rooms and gourmet meals, versus an ageing facility with shabby furniture and a buffet of dark goop.

At first Darlene insisted there must be something wrong with my pictures. “I know what I saw,” she said. “You had the same experience I did. That all of us did!”

But at my prompting, she examined my prints and negatives more carefully. “The film doesn’t seem to be damaged,” she noted. “These pictures are perfectly good; they’re just not what we both saw!” She frowned.

“Phil, we need to show these to Sandy,” she said.

That’s our son, Alexander. He’s pretty high up in law enforcement.

“Got that right,” I answered.

Turns out that the elusive aliens of Zhul had a nice little scam going. Apparently they have the ability to plant suggestions in the mind that affect all the senses. They made sure that we would see the beautiful surroundings they’d “suggested” in their advertising. In reality, the part of the planet we visited was completely barren, destroyed by toxic waste. Which, I'm guessing, is why people were getting sick. The Zhulians must've figured it would be easy to exploit the backward new kids on the block. Our retinal image technology simply played into the scam by saving the suggested, enhanced images that the picture-taker had seen.

But my trusty Nikon wasn’t hooked up to my retina. It wasn’t susceptible to alien trickery, so it provided accurate images. In fact, thanks to my “dusty old camera”, the whole operation got shut down by the Galactic Police, and the citizens of Zhul have been ordered to fully reimburse all alien visitors. Apparently, this isn’t the first time they’ve pulled this stunt, and now the authorities have them under close observation.

It’s a huge media story. Now poor Darlene has to listen to me crow about pre-digital technology, though I know all the attention will soon die down. Eventually, I’ll sink back into obscurity and be known once again as the eccentric old guy with the weird hobby.

May 07, 2022 03:51

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Martha Sanipe
02:27 May 14, 2022

Thanks for your comments, Craig!


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Craig Westmore
19:56 May 13, 2022

Martha, you've captured nicely the time-old conflict of couples who have different ideas about taking pictures on vacation and put a funny twist on it with the alien scam! My favorite line is, "My only audience was a lizard-like creature perched on a nearby bush, its one eye fixed on me, apparently mesmerized by my lecture on ancient technology." Fun story!


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