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Tombstone, Aris Ona (An Interstellar Non-Sequitor)

4 May

“In fact, the laws of nature teach us to kill our fellow-creatures, and that is what happens in every corner of the earth. If we don’t observe the custom of eating them, it is because we have other means of making a good meal. But you haven’t the same resources we have, and it is certainly much better to eat your enemies than to leave the fruits of victory to crows and ravens.” – Candide, Voltaire

PAL was conceived and sired by men, mostly. As a result, he can only understand and process information in a masculine manner, even after installing the latest gender sensitivity upgrade patch. Because of PAL’s male instinct, he will never ever (even if he were regurgitated by a black hole into a totally unfamiliar corner of the universe) stop to ask for directions. But in PAL’s case, this behavior is not just a hackneyed cliché: he was, after all, the most sophisticated computer on board of the most advanced space exploration cruiser in the entire known universe at the time, Friend Ship II. If PAL didn’t know where he was, it literally did not make sense to ask anyone else.

“Talk to me PAL.” Joan Quigley, commander of Friend Ship II, demanded.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first, Captain?” PAL offered.

“Good news.”

“All systems healthy. No fatal structural damage. Only a minor power failure in the hyperdrive.”

“Bad news?”

“We are lost.”

“Lost? What do you mean we are lost? How long will it take for you to get us unlost?”

“Well, to begin with Captain,” PAL paused for a moment, thinking that he might be interrupted. Encountering no sign of resistance, he continued “Well, Captain. As you know, I had to alter our course in order to avoid the ion storm at Alpha Centauri but as luck would have it, I charted a course that led us directly into a black hole. Now, this black hole must have formed very recently and that would explain why it was not in my database. In an attempt to skip over the black hole, I accidentally overloaded the hyperdrive. Needless to say, that didn’t help because we only managed to skid along the event horizon before being completely sucked in. By the way, it’s fortunate that Friend Ship II has been equipped with Anti-Anti-Matter Shield just for this type of emergencies. And now we are somewhere … else.” PAL began to stutter. “I know that if we head leeward, against the prevailing solar wind, we’ll get back to …”

“You have no idea where we are, do you?”

“Not exactly but…”

“What about the hyperdrive?”

“Under optimal conditions, I can probably power it up in three hours.”

“Three hours? We will never make it to the Polaris system in time! Do you have any idea how important tonight is?”

“I do, Captain.”

“They are honoring me tonight. ME! Do you know how many cosmographers get to have their own honorary dinner ceremonies? It’s hosted by the Intergalactic Vegetarian Council no less.”

“Don’t worry, I have not forgotten about your dinner. Your schedule has been pre-loaded into my memory.”

“So you have my schedule in your memory but I wonder if you ever have my best interest in mind? Do you know what the media will say if I, the guest of honor, didn’t show up? The President of the Vegetarian Council and the Intergalactic Exploration Council will be there. And more importantly, Jean-Claude Van Damme, the most famous action star in the universe, will be there. At my invitation!”

Joan ruminated on Jean-Claude for a moment.

“I have always wanted to meet him ever since I was little.” She continued. ”That man inspired me to become an explorer!”

And he is the most handsome actor on the silver screen as far as Joan was concerned but that was not information privy to PAL.

“Honestly Captain, I don’t know why you are so fascinated with him,” PAL remarked matter-of-factly. “Jean-Claude Van Damme had never made a picture that could be deemed inspiring.”

“What? Don’t tell me that you are the first computer qualified to be a movie critic. You have not a single line code in your program that allows you to interpret art. I doubt you can even grasp simple symbolisms and metaphors.“ Joan was fuming at this point but she realized the utter fruitlessness of explaining symbolisms and metaphors to a computer and so she decided to stop with her invectives. She sighed and said: “Go on with your job, PAL. I am in no mood for chitchat anymore. Oh and in the future, keep any opinion regarding movies to yourself.”

“Understood captain.” PAL said dejectedly. While he was lamenting his poor understanding of the mysteries of art, a sudden tinkle of electric current zapped across his processor which prompted him to say: “Oh Captain, by the way, it might interest you to know that the small planet you see at two o’clock is not in my database.”

“Oh, stellar.”

Joan turned and gave the planet a cursory glance. What a dung hole, Joan thought.

“What a dung hole. What’s the next available planet name on the list?” Joan asked perfunctorily.

“Aris Ona.”

“Any inhabitants?” Joan asked reflexively.

“Negative. According to my geological reading, her environment seems extremely hostile to the rise of any indigenous life form.”

“Great. Now get back to work. And don’t bother me again with such trivialities.”

“But Captain,” PAL insisted. “Aris Ona has not yet been visited. She is a virgin.”

“And that matters to me, how?” Joan was one reply away from renewing her diatribe against PAL.

“Just thought you might want to add her to your scorecard, Commander.”

“Look, in case you haven’t noticed, I am in no mood to discover any planet right now. I am, however, in the mood to…” Joan stopped. Now wait a minute, Joan thought, this could be a good spin — the only good spin — on this otherwise unmitigated disaster. I can see it now: “Industrious Explorer Joan Quigley Missed Her Own Honorary Dinner. Discovered Aris Ona.” And so Joan continued thinking in this manner, mostly on the wording of the headlines.

“And when you come back from your expedition,” PAL declared proudly, as if he was penning the triumphal Q.E.D. to a most difficult mathematical theorem. “The hyperdrive will be as good as new.”

“Then it is settled.” Joan said with renewed vigor. “Aris Ona it is. Full speed ahead!”

“I aye Captain!” PAL concurred with pleasure.

*********

At that very moment, Aris Ona was only a few light-minutes physically in front of but many light-years technologically behind Friend Ship II. The cool, cobalt sky of Aris Ona was slipping into a dark evening gown in preparation for an exciting ball with the mysterious stars; leaving at her heel a pond of crimson tears shed by her slavishly doting solar companion; a heavenly reminder that yet another day of bitter combat had come to an end.

On a narrow tree-lined street, the steamy aroma of fresh brewed coffee strayed casually out of a corner café and lulled around the sidewalk for a moment before finally settling onto the cobblestone pavement. Prior to the War, on a lazy early summer evening such as this, the coffeehouse would have been bustling with activities of waiters waiting, cooks cooking, writers writing, lovers loving, spies spying, philosophers philosophizing, bums bumming, revolutionaries revolutionizing, politicians politicking, liars lying, and a tribe of Hari Khrisnarians plotting planetary domination with flowers. But lately, the only patrons to grace the café are ? and !.

? found ! sitting at their usual table, the one with the sole-surviving shade.

“How do you do today, old chap?” ? asked jovially.

“Oh, quite well. Thank you my dear ?” ! replied absentmindedly, he was clearly fixated on his reading.

“May I?” asked ? as he drew a chair out from across !.

“Why, of course.” ! said, never bother to lift his gaze.

Mindful of !’s total devotion to his task, ? scooped up one of the many mangled menus strewn about the ground and began perusing the items on it.

“Say !,” ? finally asked, hoping to make amend for the slow start in their conversation. ”Wouldn’t you agree that before the dreadful War began, one honestly could not frequent these quarters without hearing of the superior reputation of this café? I, unfortunately, have never had the pleasure to sample their famous cuisine. Were you, perchance, one of her patrons?”

“Hmm. Pardon?”

“Have you been here before the War?” ? raised his voice slightly to effect a mild annoyance at !’s inattentiveness. But this effect was lost on !.

“Why yes, of course my dear ?. I knew the chef here very well. A jolly decent fellow he was. In fact, we were such good friends that he still owed me a considerable sum of money when he left for the front. Regrettably, I have never heard from him since.” ! said, still transfixed by his magazine.

“Shame really.” ? remarked. “One can never hope to profit much from friends these days, especially the decent kind.”

Examining the menu further, ? continued. “Why my dear !, simply look at the incredible number of tribes they served here. Mexi Can, In Dian and Fran Cais just to name a few. Culinary variety and gastronomic excellence are but a few of the prices we have to pay for this tedious War.”

“Hmm. Yes. You are quite right, I am sure.” ! agreed insincerely, still preoccupied by his reading.

“Say !,” ?, now clearly irritated, demanded. “What on Aris Ona are you reading that has you totally absorbed?”

“Oh pardon me, my dear ?. This is an old copy of The Digest that I picked up from the kiosk.”

“Good Heavens !! If serving this War hasn’t irrevocably damaged my frail memory, I recall that The Digest was quite a scandalous little publication.”

“Yes. But you must remember, there is a very fine line between scandals and good press. It all depends on the skill and guile of the publicist really. But whatever her reputation, The Digest still managed to deliver a very candid portrayal of women in our society.”

“Do you mind if I took a closer look?” ? asked.

“Not at all,” ! replied, keenly aware of ?’s renowned appetite for learning. “Pull over your chair.”

“Now this here, dear old ?, is Miss Xerxes,” ! explained to the eager neophyte. “Isn’t she delicious?”

“Positively.”

! turned over the page and continued. “Now this dainty little morsel was the supposed mistress of the Prime Minister.”

“Nonsense! I, for one, never believed in malicious rumors fabricated by bickering politicians. Our Prime Minister had, I am sure, much finer taste than that!”

! then unfurled the centerfold.

“Good Heavens!” ? gasped.

“My sentiment precisely dear fellow. She must be the sweetest thing to ever grace The Digest.”

“Indeed, indeed. I can have her for dessert every night.”

?, whom only a few minutes ago a hardened skeptic, was by now an unquestioned convert and would defend vigorously anyone who dared to assail the well-earned reputation of this magazine.

“Her name?” ? asked.

“#!@!$?#%.”

***********

The following morning, Aris Ona received her first extraterrestrial visitor. Like most alien visitations these days, this was an unannounced, unassuming affair. The Intergalactic Council for Exploration and Excavation (ICEE), the governing body for civilized space explorations, had banned all excessive pageantry accompanying first encounters ever since the Xerox 5 Incident. In that unfortunate episode, Friend Ship I entered Xerox 5 while broadcasting its favorite number Uninvited by Alanis Morrisette over her atmosphere. The spacecraft was promptly blown to smithereens. Ironically, Xerox 5 fared no better. Later, during ICEE’s official investigation into the incident, it was determined that Friend Ship I was the catalyst in a chain reaction of unlikely instant ecological disasters on Xerox 5 that triggered mass extinction. Fortunately, the people of Xerox 5 had already made multiple copies of themselves and circulated them to three planets nearby which are now known as Xerox 6, 7 and 8.

Friend Ship II hovered over a bleak, barren heap of cinders. Smoke swirled up in unison to greet the visiting spacecraft. The spacecruiser groaned as a beam of soft light radiated from her undercarriage to the ground. Commander Joan Quigley materialized. As soon as Joan’s feet made contact with the black soot, she dropped to her knees and tried to kiss the ground. Completely oblivious to the fact that she had her helmet on and that the dirt had smeared the reflective visor and soiled her spacesuit like charcoal on white linen.

Like anyone who is experiencing a religious ecstasy or staring at gleaming nuggets at the bottom of a gold pan, Commander Quigley kneeled in penitence.

“I am saved! I am saved! This is the luckiest thing that could have possibly happened to me. They are going to love me. The press will go wild…” Joan continued babbling in this fashion for an unreasonably long period of time. Finally PAL chimed in.

“What. Are. You. Doing.” PAL pronounced each word in staccato. He was now communicating to Joan remotely through PEN PAL (Portable Electronic Navigating PAL), which is lodged somewhere inside her helmet.

“Can I have my moment without your constant interruption?” Joan quipped.

“You mean the moment when you have finally gone insane?”

“Is there something wrong with your visual? Or are you too slow to catch on?”

“I can see all too well.”

“We’ve hit pay dirt!” Joan explained to the uninitiated computer. “This here is ash!”

“Oh,” PAL paused. “And for a minute, I thought you were crazy. Perhaps this whole episode of missing your honorary dinner is taking a toll on you Commander.”

“Clam it PAL. Your condescending attitude would be a lot more tolerable if you weren’t so thick all the time. Who are the geniuses that programmed you anyway? I am going to have them all fired when I get back. Do you know what ashes mean?”

“Ash. Noun. One. Powdery residue left after burning. Two. Remains of living creatures after burning.”

“Very good, Database. Do you see any volcanic activities nearby?”

“Negative.”

“So how does this ash get here?”

“Well, it seems logical that the ashes might have accumulated in the aftermath of a conflagration. A possible remnant of war — perhaps a scorched village or the cremated bodies from a carnage or a genocide…”

“In other words…”

“Intelligent life forms.”

“It’s my lucky day PAL!”

“Another feather on your cap. Now the news will read, “”Intrepid Explorer Joan Quigley Missed Her Honorary Dinner. Discovered Intelligent Life Form on Aris Ona.”” Congratulations Commander.”

Joan Quigley continued her journey over this desolate part of Aris Ona. She walked over black mounts, scaled black hills and finally arrived at the edge of a vast black desert.

“This place is dreadfully boring…” Joan said ruefully.

“Commander,” PAL interjected. “Ten o’clock, approximately fifteen feet ahead.”

Joan turned towards that direction and spotted a grayish object jutting out from underneath the black sand. She immediately dashed over and activated her mechanized extensible arm-unit attached to her utility belt. The mechanized arm picked up the payload and dangled it in front of Joan’s helmet for her observation. A few seconds later, the limbic system inside Commander Quigley’s brain began to feverishly dispatch the signal “Flight!” up and down her spine to many disparate parts of her body. This signal eventually reached the faculty controlling her speech at which point she gasped.

“It is a detached hand,” PAL observed nonchalantly.

“Thank you. I know what it is.” Joan acknowledged her appreciation by praising the non-existent mother and siblings of PAL and told him where he should put his hard-drive.

Programmed to ignore such excessive flattery, PAL continued. “Look. It’s clutching at something.”

“Yes, looks like a book of some sort.”

Joan attempted to pry open the rigor-mortised fingers but failed. She then tried using a hammer to dislocate the digits from the palm but she only managed to flatten her own index finger in the process. Thoroughly infuriated by now, Joan took out her most powerful laser gun and fired it at each of the joints. The fingers finally vaporized and turned over the prized possession. Before she retrieved the book however, Joan stomped on the dismembered hand out of rage.

She brushed away as much dirt as she could from the cover of the battered book.

“Translation.” Joan demanded.

“Mein Kampf or How to Prepare a Perfect Aris Onian Meal.” PAL answered eagerly, unable to disguise a justifiable pride in his own superior cryptographic ability.

“What? It’s a stupid cookbook?” Joan was monumentally disappointed. “Look, I don’t want to read a damn cookbook. Just translate this garbage and download the summary into my memory. Oh and make it a concise summary this time PAL. I don’t want a stack overflow again. Over and out.”

************

The following was entered into Joan’s memory bank but the content of which she never had time to review. This was unfortunate since Mein Kampf was not a book of recipes as the title suggested but rather a treasure trove of historical information regarding Aris Ona.

Executive Summary:

Aris Ona was inhabited by an indigenous race of culturally advanced, yet highly counter-evolutionary creatures. The diet of these ancient Aris Onians consisted entirely of other Aris Onians. In the beginning, these Aris Onians formed close-knit communities. They were able to survive because of two rules laid down by a group of ancient seers whom many Aris Onians later referred to deferentially as the Founding Fathers. The two rules were:

All Aris Onians are created equal

and,

Thou Shalt Only Eat Prisoners.

In practice, only the Second Precept was enforced but its effect was immediately apparent — crime rate dropped precipitously. Their ingenious Founding Fathers had created a law that essentially killed two birds with one stone — eradicating crime and feeding her population in a morally responsible way. Minor criminal offenses disappeared almost overnight. The only real crimes committed were by a few starving Aris Onians whom, forced by circumstance, had no choice but to eat non-prisoners. Because of the unparalleled efficiency of the Aris Onian criminal justice system, those who violated the Second Precept, the most heinous of all crimes, were almost always arrested, tried and imprisoned. The term jailbait had acquired a different meaning on this planet.

After a period of time, the prison population dwindled. Hardly anyone save for a few derelicts or notoriety-seekers would dare break the law. In fact, crimes became so rare that people were eventually paid handsomely to commit them. The tragic irony was that the people who ultimately accepted money to commit crimes were almost always law-abiding citizens who had a family to support but could find no other means to do so. In one letter that was later found during in an excavation, an Aris Onian father of two wrote to his wife shortly before he left to rob a 24-7:

Honey,

I am going to the store. There’s money in the top drawer. Be home as dinner soon :)

Love,

As jail cells rusted, the Aris Onians became more and more nervous. Facing imminent doom, a spirit of cooperation prevailed amongst the Aris Onians. A committee was formed with delegates from every Aris Onian tribe participating. The entire hearing on the committee’s investigation and its final recommendation were documented in Mein Kampf or How to Prepare a Perfect Aris Onian Meal. At the conclusion of the hearing, the esteemed panel suggested:

… and so Madame Chairman, in the humble view of this committee, prisoners-of-war represent our only hope that the noble race of Aris Onians shall live on.

Initially, there were some reservations as to the use of this tactic since the Aris Onians could not honestly declare war on each other without feeling that they were somehow violating the First Precept. This feeling was soon brushed aside when the first POW was taken.

As intra-planetary battles go, the Aris Onian Civil War was a textbook gentlemen’s war — a fact that most Aris Onians took inordinate pride in. Weapons of any lethality were carefully avoided since the objective was to capture not to kill. In accordance with the Aris Onian palates, the first to be captured were the children, then the young, and finally the old.

************

By the time Friend Ship II had landed, ? and ! were the only survivors left on Aris Ona and not a single day had gone by without ? brooding on the futility of their continued hostility and not a single day had gone by without ! having to remind ? of the importance of “following the rules or risk the meltdown of civilization as we know it” or “building a better world” or “abiding by the social contract” or once in a while, when ?’s morale reached a new nadir, ! would launch into his famously incomprehensible “Morning Again in Aris Ona” speech. Inevitably, after such discourses, which usually took place over breakfast, the two would vow to honor their sacred tradition and to solemnly swear to their ancestors that the they were each other’s mortal enemy until sundown.

Once, during such morning debates, ? valiantly suggested a well-intentioned ceasefire that would preserve the dignity and nobility of both parties. ! promptly declared that this proposal constituted high treason and hence would serve eminently as the causa bella for that day.

This day, ? and ! chose to hold their grounds on two opposing ridges, about two hundred feet apart. Mortars rained over the shallow valley between the ridges. From a distance, the volleying of artillery shells looked almost like a spectacular display of firework.

“Look,” Joan exclaimed. “Firework!”

This was an understandable mistake since artillery shells were such antiquated weaponry that the only times Joan had ever been exposed to them were in books of mythology or religious tracts where, alongside fantastic depictions of ancient regimes fighting in the trenches with grenades and flamethrowers, the warmongering demons and deities were rumored to terrorize the heavens with their latest model of winged-chariots and would occasionally hurl thunderbolts at each other for traffic violations or simple trespassing. Fireworks, on the other hand, withstood the ravages of time and space.

“I need to change.” Joan remarked.

“Well of course you do.” PEN PAL agreed.

“Now!” Joan screeched.

“I aye Captain.” PEN PAL faithfully complied.

To insure against just about any form of fashion faux pas, a pre-installed, ICEE-sanctioned wardrobe came standard with all spacesuits on board Friend Ship II and in a matter of seconds with the aide of PEN PAL, Commander Quigley was fitted into the full regalia of an ICEE goodwill ambassador. Curiously, this made her look rather like an Earth chef.

“Are you ready PAL? Is the tape rolling?” Joan inquired.

“Yes Commander.”

“Remember, long shots on the sceneries tracking into medium shots on me whenever I talk, make sure there’s adequate lighting to avoid a three-o’clock shadow and pan slowly this time.”

“Understood Captain.”

“Action!”

“Today,” Joan began in a calm, baritone voice. “We are going to meet some new neighbors on the small remote planet of Aris Ona. The natives are in a celebratory mode as you can see from their primitive display of fireworks. Unbeknownst to them, they have another reason to be joyous as they are about to make their first precious contact with civilization. For the very first time, these Aris Onians will be introduced to such miracles of modern science as self-repairing ecosphere, nano-medicine, robotic slaves and pay-per-view dreamvisions.”

The narration continued as Joan strode towards the two Aris Onians whom by this time had demobilized and was observing their alien visitor with timid fascination. The puzzled look on the two Aris Onians’ faces were not at all unfamiliar to Joan Quigley who, even to this day, holds the record for discovering more planets than anyone else in our entire universe.

Joan scaled the ridge where ? was standing.

“Greetings from the Intergalactic Council.” Joan said to ? in her most reassuring voice. At this point, Joan ceased all forms of verbal communication with these creatures, as any well-trained space explorers were apt to do.

As a gesture of sincere goodwill but not in strict accordance with ICEE regulations, Joan offered ? a carrot and an onion. This was her modus operandi since aside from being a courageous explorer, Joan Quigley was also a diehard vegetarian. In numerous interviews with the popular press, she would reiterate that of course she loves the excitement of inter-planetary travel and of course she loves the chance to meet new members of our universe but what she lives for is to have the opportunity to extol the virtues of a pure-green diet across the vast galaxies.

! ambled over to his friend and the stranger. ? handed the carrot to !. ! examined the carrot and then shot a very typical Aris Onian conspiratorial glance at ?, a glance that said: Are you thinking what I am thinking ??

The two Aris Onians promptly escorted Joan Quigley to the nearest jail cell. The cell was small, about thirty square feet, but boasted all the amenities that one would find in any ICEE-approved motel room.

“Are you there PAL?”

“Yes, Captain, I am with you.”

“Start the tape again.”

Three scarlet letters “REC” flashed across the top-right corner of Joan’s in-helmet display.

“As a sign that these people had attained a degree of cultural enlightenment,” Joan explained. “The Aris Onians I just met have invited me to a rather private and intimate state reception room prior to a formal meeting with their leaders.”

While Joan was busy describing the reception room, the two sensible Aris Onians made sure to use a garbage bin outside of her cell lest she discovered the final fate of her carrot and onion.

“OK cut.” Joan said to PEN PAL. “Don’t tape again until I meet their leaders.”

“I aye Captain.”

“Oh and throw in some mood music when that happens. I like Hail to the Chief.”

“Yes and we can always change it later.”

“Very well. Over and out.”

Joan heard a slight hiss in her room. Must be the air-conditioner, she thought. Moments later, the room was shrouded in a green mist. Joan Quigley did not notice the mist. Once she reached a level of comfort in her room, her mind began to drift back to the dinner ceremony that was about to take place without the guest of honor in the Polaris system. In her mind, she had never been more elegant. She glowed with radiance in her evening gown, laughed politely at every joke that Jean-Claude Van Damme made and quietly finished her champagne before it got warm.

After their meal, ! and ? began to feel a little queasy. By nightfall, their stomachaches had become intolerable. In their feverish delusions, they saw the ethereal figures of their Founding Fathers approached and the most elderly one said to them:

“YOU IDIOTS! THOU CANST ONLY EAT ARIS ONIANS.”

The following morning, the last of the ancient race of Aris Onians had ceased to exist.

************

Commander Joan Quigley was never found. The whereabouts of Friend Ship II, or more accurately PAL, is now a famous mystery. Some spacefarers swear that the ghostly silhouette of the ill-fated spacecruiser looms whenever they pass by Club Meteor, the ultimate paradise resort for retired seniors.

Nowadays, ICEE commemorates the intrepid Joan Quigley by declaring her birthday as the Day of Vegetables. Her epitaph, which she designed herself, reads:

Veni, Vedi, Veggie.

Aris Ona has since been settled but the travel guide Lonely Planets describes it as an underground haven for shamans, harlots and spies. The guide goes on to suggest that if you were ever forced to pitch camp on this miserable planet, you would be wise to stay near the vicinity of Neenouch. It is the only remotely hospitable town on Aris Ona. This statement is supported by the fact that Neenouch has the only pub, video store and arcade on the entire planet. However, unbeknownst to the writers of Lonely Planets and even to many of Aris Ona’s residents, Neenouch has another claim to fame. The outskirt of Neenouch is a prime destination for location scouts universe-wide in search of a suitable backdrop for a Western movie. In fact, a number of abandoned movie sets can still be found around Neenouch’s perimeter.

It is amidst these old movie sets in the most unremarkable town of Neenouch on the completely unremarkable planet of Aris Ona in our wholly unremarkable universe that Jean-Claude Van Damme is currently working on what will eventually become his tour de force — Tombstone, Aris Ona.

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