November 16, 2002:
We interrupt Alf's Journal for a Special Feature
A short story by Derek
It was a typically hot Bangkok night and the working girls were out in full force on Patpong Road. A mish-mash of techno and euro-dance was blaring out of the Super Queen, hoping to entice some of the action in off the street for a beer or two. There were no actual street lights, but the neon signs in front of every establishment on the street proclaimed this to be a place that came alive primarily at night. Wires and extension cords criss-crossed overhead, feeding the neon forest and putting the lie to any sense of regulation or control over the power grid in this part of town.
Alf Erickson was wandering alone, oblivious to the noise and the bustle that had become his home. In one hand he held a Yogen Früz cone and was wholly absorbed in consuming it as he returned home to the River Garden after his nightly walk to the shopping mall. The frozen yogurt treat was one of the greatest treasures of this world as far as Alf was concerned. He longed to consume it at the more stately pace of his homeland, but he had appearances to keep up so he licked at alternate sides with (to his way of thinking) unseeming haste while he walked. In his mind he went over the day's events and planned out his next journal entry for the web site.
As he passed an alley between two clubs, he caught the scent of something he hadn't smelled in almost a thousand years: cinnamon. No, not the weak spice produced locally on this planet, but the strong alluring smell of his people. Take the most beautiful specimen of cinnamon tree in Sri Lanka, give it the best growing season seen in a thousand years, have the most skilled worker of the Salagama caste strip the bark from the tree, and process it with exactly the right amount of drying time. Grind up the bark and distill the essence of the cinnamon to its maximum potency - and still it would be a pale shadow of this smell. Christopher Columbus could have run across the Atlantic ocean to America without a boat if he'd gotten a whiff of this. There was no mistaking it for anything else.
The Früz tossed and forgotten, he quickly moved into the alley and began to search for the source before any humans came by. As he neared one of the shadowed doorways, a hand resembling the branch of a tree wrapped in a soft grey leather handbag reached out to grab him by the shirt front and yank him through an open door into the shadows of a room beyond where he was unceremoniously dumped on the floor. The door shutting loudly behind him made him jump, and the smell of cinnamon was now overpowering.
"Xrghblickash taghn jo nighdalesh nesdos fork dangh reckingesh sauce neah dok jo mahak chadish second-helping," said a figure from the darkness.
"Please, use English old boy. Eeeeennnggglliiiiissshhhhh. Understand? If I try to speak the mother tongue again, the effort will displace the imprinted transfer of this world's crude language, if you can call it that," said Alf.
A rustling sound was heard, as if someone looking for something in a fleshy pocket. A minute of silence passed, then: "<tap, tap> Is this thing on? Yes, I suppose it is. Very well, I have come equipped with a translator and will speak the uncouth language of these primitives."
In a voice full of indignation, Alf said: "What in blue-bloody-blazes are you doing here? Your scent will attract the humans, and you're risking my cover by dragging me in here off the street like this, not to mention stretching the shit out of my cardigan. I'd like an explanation please. Right now."
Stepping forward into a spot of light at the center of the room, a dim gray shape boomed with authority and self-righteousness. "The Glorious Dinner started after your departure has been completed and we were sent to check on your progress with this world. We shouldn't have to remind you how important your success here is to the fate of our people." Then, in a quieter, less authoritarian tone, "Say Alfie, have you got anything to eat? I've been waiting here for you to pass by, and I've eaten all of the supplies I brought from the ship ... "
Alf absently fished around inside the pockets of his overcoat and extracted a bag of cuttlefish crackers (Spicy Thai Flavour) from his jacket pocket and handed them to the alien. No, they definitely didn't have to remind him. He hadn't forgotten even though it had been many centuries since he last spoke to another of his kind. To him the time past was merely a long week.
"I thought I recognized your greasy folds Shinwazak. Doesn't the council trust me to do the work they trained me for? Why send me at all if they're going to send an ass-kissing babysitter after me? How the hell did you get sent here instead of one of the others?"
Instead of being insulted, the grey fleshy lump seemed to be chuckling to itself. Folds bounced up and down at the sides of it's face. "I wasn't pleased that the council chose you instead of me Alfie. Clearly I was the better choice for this mission, the most important mission of all time. I had scores higher than anyone else, and I was a model trainee throughout the course, unlike some reprobates I could name."
Alf answered in a voice that clearly indicated he'd heard this all before. "Yes, and it was also clear to the council that you had no ability to think on your feet - witness the fact that you've already consumed your supplies and are famished. They chose me because despite my less than stellar record, I was the only one who was adaptable to any situation, and in the end they recognized that to be the most important thing when dealing with this alien culture. It still doesn't explain why they chose you of all people to check up on me."
"I let them in on a little secret Alfie. Certain ... indiscretions concerning you and the Head Chef's daughter came to light, as well as some of his Assistant Cooks In Training. See, the daughter thought she was the one and only, and when she found out about the Assistant Cooks she went ballistic. She's threatened to have the folds around your orifice glued together permanently (if you ever get them back). The Head Chef is outraged that his daughter has been violated. He threatened to do things to you with sharp cooking implements that should never be used for those purposes. He's put pressure on the Council to declare you an outlaw. When you return you will be confined to a very, very small space and fed absolutely nothing except cold gruel with a sprig of parsley. I wasn't supposed to tell you all of this of course, but I thought it only fair to warn you. In the end, the Head Chef thanked me profusely for bringing this to light, and put in a good word for me with the Council. The Council, now wondering if they should have trusted the fate of our Glorious Repast to a known felon, voted unanimously to send a second candidate to monitor the situation and pull the plug if things went wrong. Being so recently commended by the Head Chef, I was the natural choice for the job ... and here I am."
With a sinking feeling in his chest, Alf pondered the glib words of his former arch-rival. This was a fine kettle of lightly blackened redfish, now wasn't it? Perhaps taking this assignment wasn't such a good idea after all. It left Shinwazak a free hand to work his mischief and no one around to counter him.
A thousand years ago, Alf had arrived on this planet with little more than some basic language training, a sketchy briefing on the local customs, some counterfeited currency and a mission to save his people.
He came from a race of people whose name translates roughly as "The Diners." Inhabitants of the nearest solar system to earth, Alf's race was a very old and highly developed one. They had already progressed through the stages of development humans were currently passing through: barbarism, wars, industrial age, renaissance, and so on. Finally after many eons they developed a culture that they considered the pinnacle of social evolution: total leisure. This was achieved mainly by dint of having subjugated a related but inferior race of the same planet whose name translates roughly as "The Servers." Servers take care of a Diner's worldly needs from the cradle on up. Cooking, cleaning, manufacture of goods, and of course the most holy duty, The Serving of the Meal was all carried out by the race of Servers.
With nothing material to worry about, the Diners were free to exclusively devote their time to their culture. One of the chief ways in which the Diners kept the peace on the home world in the early days had been in keeping the lines of communication open at all times - Diners are terrible gossips. No better way to pacify one's enemy than to invite him to a good Meal! Over the millennia the Meal became the focus of the society, and eventually its sole reason for being. A Meal is a social event that brings together many Diners in common purpose: to consume and enjoy an excellent repast. Dining Etiquette developed over time and progressed to the level of a high art, more convoluted than any social convention conceived by man. Most of the education a young Diner will receive in his lifetime revolves around at what point in a conversation is it proper to reach for liquid refreshment, or how many shakes of seasoning are used on a particular dish, and which appendage to use. Eating a Meal on the Diner home world became like a fine dance, with many different steps and partners throughout the recital.
Since Diners live for many thousands of solar years, a typical Meal on the home world might last many human lifetimes. The Diner that had confronted him spoke of 'The Glorious Dinner,' which was an almost planet-wide gathering that could last anywhere from just under a millennium to almost two on truly special occasions. Alf had seen the preparations being made for that Meal before he left and was sorry he had to miss it. The fact that it lasted over a thousand years spoke very well for the Host, and the Dinner Conversation was probably excellent.
Trouble had befallen paradise however - it was discovered that a rogue gene had somehow entered the Servers' gene pool and was rendering them sterile. Servers have long life spans relative to humans, but nowhere near that of a Diner. New Servers are routinely bred to replace the old ones, but more and more often the breedings began to fail or the spawn were stillborn. The latest projections had it that the race of the Servers would become extinct within Alf's own lifetime. This was disaster for the Diners, because they had long since lost the ability to care for themselves. Without the symbiotic relationship with the Servers, they would quickly starve to death - a fate that is the worst nightmare of any Diner. The word "starve" in the language of the Diners roughly equates to the human concept of "torture," except that it carries with it the added connotation of a just punishment for failure. No Diner has starved in recorded history, but it is widely suspected that starvation was an ancient means of punishment for criminals.
Fortunately not long after the discovery of the genetic problem, signs of life had been detected on a distant planet in the nearest solar system. A probe was sent out to sample the local cuisine, and it returned with many images of a savage and warlike race that called themselves "humans." They were recognized as being very much like the Diners and the Servers at the very beginning of their evolutionary climb out of savagery and into the enlightened world of the Fine Dining.
When the genetic decline of the Servers was recognized, a desperate plan was hatched: these "humans" would be assessed as potential replacements for the Servers. After all, they had already developed a rudimentary language of their own and had shown the beginnings of an appreciation for Cuisine, perhaps they could be nudged along the evolutionary path to something that could be molded into a suitable replacement. This kind of operation required a delicate touch, and most Diners on the planet could not conceive of pushing back their chairs for any kind of interstellar mission. The call had gone out to the Culinary Corps, a group of Diners whose wit was unmatched anywhere on the planet. Dinner Conversation with a member of the CC was a dicey proposition indeed, if one wanted to keep one's self-esteem in tact. They were the terror of tables everywhere. Of these stalwarts, Alf was selected as the most promising candidate for the mission, having only minor qualms about climbing into a specially-fitted cargo ship that would cross the galactic gulf and enter into hostile territory (as long as he could bring a good wine selection, everything from his point of view was fine). After many hours of painful surgeries to alter his appearance and several rounds of gene therapy, Alf finally resembled one of the beings whose society he was to infiltrate and subvert. He was thoroughly disgusted, but it was a small sacrifice to pay for the safety of his people, and the eventual notoriety he would gain with the females of his planet. When he returned, the merest mention of his name would set female folds to quivering. The mission had set off without so much as a breakfast buffet, and here he was on his own. Until now.
"Ayyyyyyyyyecccchhhhhhhhh! What are these damn things! They BURN my orifice! I've never tasted anything that so violently disagreed with my most sensitive palette! Are you trying to cause injury to me Erickson? I'll have you court-martialed and shot!"
Oops. In all the millennia his people had been pursuing the Culinary Delights, there was one taste they had never developed: spicy food. Nothing like the jalapeno peppers of Earth grew on his home planet and as a result his people would likely be very sensitive to some of the cuisine found on Earth. Alf himself had a rude awakening the first time he tried one of the mildly hot Thai dishes. Over the millennium he had been here he'd developed a tolerance for humans' spices, and even came to like some of them. He couldn't do without Adolf's Meat Tenderizer. The crackers he had handed his interrogator were mild in spice factor compared to some of the concoctions found at the street vendor stalls.
"Terribly sorry. That was a human delicacy. Wretched stuff. Only keep it around to keep up appearances you understand. Not suitable for consumption by beings with a real appreciation for the finer things in life. You understand how it is."
Somewhat mollified, Shinwazak finally stopped trying to scrape the last of the regurgitated cracker crumbs out of his folds and got down to business. "Well, what progress have you made with these humans? I did notice on the way down something called 'Wok With Yan' on a local communication channel that looked encouraging ... interesting cooking techniques."
Since landing, Alf had labored diligently to coax the humans away from their warlike tendencies and into ever-greater amounts of leisure time. Shorter working hours in Germany had been an idea he'd innocently posed to the Labor Minister in a Bonn bathroom. Over the years, he'd managed to engineer civic holidays under various flimsy pretexts into most of the calendars of the world. His next big project was the four day compressed work week.
"Sorry Alfie, but you don't seem to be making sufficient progress here. I have been instructed to return you to the home world so they can prepare a replacement."
"But I haven't told you about my latest idea. It's called a web site ... "
Alf quickly went on to explain how the planet's computers were all linked in a giant planet-wide system called "The Internet." Specifically the portion of it that served up documents and ideas was called "The Web." Through this system many individuals could be reached directly, and the concept of travel, leisure and cuisine could be subliminally inserted into the minds of more humans than ever before. By embarking on expeditions to exotic places and documenting the fun he was having, the humans would begin to envy him and eventually emulate him by having grand adventures of their own ... which inevitably included dining out as part of the itinerary. By making the humans believe that leisure was more and more their due, he was artificially moving them along the evolutionary scale towards suitability for the purposes of the Diners.
"... and I'm not sure why, but the humans have this fascination with naked flesh, so I just throw in a picture or two of a naked female (or a male made to look like one, they don't seem to care) into every other log entry and it keeps them glued to their monitors. I don't really question why, it just works. All in the service of our people."
"Hmmmm ... well, perhaps this new tactic has some merit. Thousands per day read this stuff you say? Interesting. I'll grant you an extension until after Lunch then to see how this progresses. I will return in two hundred Earth years and will expect a much better report this time. Before I leave, can you get me a sample of the local cuisine that won't cause me to wretch and gag? Some of the dishes being prepared in that communications broadcast actually looked interesting ... if a bit crude by our standards of course. The ship supplied to me was a bit short on supplies ... "
Alf knew Shinwazak was already trying to figure out how he could take all of the credit for Alf's innovations when he got back to the homeworld. He didn't really care. "Not a problem old boy. I know of a very special dish I can secure for you from a Master Chef not far from here that will be worthy of your discerning palette. I'll be back in a flash."
Alf retraced his steps out of the alley and located a certain street vendor he knew of by reputation only. He returned minutes later with a large covered pot that had a thick layer of brown crust around the rim just under the lid. From it emanated a most delicious smell that was not lost on the visiting alien.
"Mmmmm ... this smells marvelous! You have done well Erickson! I can't wait to get this back to the ship and begin to savor a long Meal on the way home! Remember, I will return after Lunch, not a decade later than that!"
Shinwazak picked up the covered pot and practically ran down the alley and into the darkness. A few moments later the whine of a turbine was heard, and a space craft slowly ascended out from under a trash pile until it hovered about fifty feet above the rooftops. The craft was quite obviously of extra-terrestrial design with a strange green glow crawling across the polished carapace. The afterburner lit and shot a forty-foot long tongue of flame across the night sky, and the ship was gone in a flash.
Alf left the alley and surveyed the faces of the Patpong crowd. As far as the eye could see were working girls and drunken farangs from the far reaches of the earth. The visitors only had eyes for their companions of this night, and the girls barely spared the spaceship a second glance. Very cosmopolitan, Bangkok. One of the girls standing near Alf said in heavily accented English, "Lights, pretty," stubbed out her cigarette and went back inside the nightclub where she presumably worked.
Alf resumed his walk home. Shinwazak had really cooked his glazed goose with lemon sauce this time. He'd better finish this assignment and make a bang-up job of it or he was done for. What had he said to the Head Chef's daughter that gave her the impression he was smitten with her? The compliments on the arrangement of her folds? Praising her wine selection as being highly sophisticated? Damnit, he said that stuff to all the girls. It was part of how he operated. The sheltered little princess must have taken him too seriously and figured he was going to propose to her when he got back ...
As he walked he passed the street vendor from which he had bought the pot of local cuisine for his esteemed colleague. The wizened grandmother was excitedly showing a fist full of money to her relatives, a wad that Alf had hastily thrust at her to convince her to part with her day's stock, pot and all. It was probably ten times what it was worth, but Alf considered it a bargain. He hadn't chosen her randomly - she sold a very special spicy Thai noodle soup out of that pot. Rumor had it that the pot was never allowed to stop boiling, and it had never been cleaned. They simply added more stock when it ran low and kept on cooking. Most likely the pot itself was the secret ingredient that made the soup so infamous, soaked as it was in several decades' worth of the family's secret recipe. Drunken farang sailors with cast iron stomachs had been confined to the head for days after sampling a small bowl of that famous soup on a dare. The problem was that it was like slow-acting napalm ... the spiciness wasn't apparent as long as you kept eating. It was the aftertaste that set the marrow of your bones on fire. By then it was far, far too late ... it only got worse. Plus the more you ate, the greater the effect.
The thought of Shinwazak enjoying an entire steaming pot full of that very special soup put a smile on Alf's face all the way back to the River Garden.