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VegeScan

by Nir Yaniv

Elijah nagged us the whole way.

Throughout the flight from Earth he yammered and chattered and gabbled and nattered about his VegeScan, about how it was an unbelievable bargain at the Duty Free, about how he won’t be fooled again, about how he was now prepared for the whole shebang otherwise known as Life.

“Nu,” Schwartz said to him as the stewardess approached, food-tray in hand, “so where is this VegeScam of yours?”

“VegeScan,” said Elijah. “It’s packed. Wait till we reach Potemkin.”

He nibbled loudly on cardboard crackers, while Schwartz and I defiled what was described in the menu as “fried duck nibbles”. May you never know such troubles.

Shortly thereafter Elijah told us all about the glowing review of the VegeScan he had read in his favorite magazine, ‘Mess Tin’. “We’ll reach Potemkin,” he said, “and you’ll see for yourselves.”

And so we did.

***

As soon as we arrived at the Potemkin space colony, we were stopped by Customs for inspection.

“What is this?” said the official in a heavy Russian accent, pulling out of Elijah’s suitcase a strange rod with odd protrusions.

“VegeScan,” said Elijah. “It’s for me. You see, I’m vegetarian. And the VegeScan distinguishes between meat and non-meat.”

“This meat not meat?” said the official. At second glance, the contraption resembled a showerhead with an exceptionally long handle.

“This is a device which tells me if my food my food is really vegetarian, yes? You understand?”

“This understands?”

“I haven’t seen such a meathead since army boot camp,” Schwartz whispered in my ear. I wondered to which of the two collocutors he was referring.

“My device,” said Elijah, “distinguishes, yes? Distinguishes between meat, yes? Between meat and…”

“Let it go,” said Schwartz, and addressed the official in fluent Russian. He rattled and prattled, and the official’s expression grew more and more baffled.

“What did you say to him?” asked Elijah after we received an honorable discharge from Customs, but not before the official called all his friends over to ogle at the spectacle.

“I told him,” said Schwartz, “that it’s an electrical tool for removing nose hair, and that you are a butcher on a diet.”

***

Elijah initiated his wondrous widget over our first lunch in orbit, in the Waystation Cafeteria. He ordered rice and tofu croquettes, Schwartz ordered a hot dog and fries, and I made do with a hamburger. As soon as the food arrived, Elijah pulled out the magic doodad from his duffelbag with much fanfare, stroked it for a moment, and then, with a confident sweep, brought its wide end close to his plate and pressed the button on the other end.

“Boop boop,” booped the instrument, and a red light went on.

“Uhm, one sec,” said Elijah.

“It’s really duck, your tofu,” I said.

“I think your rice said ‘cuckoo’,” said Schwartz.

“No, no,” said Elijah. “It probably smells your plates. There was a tuning button or something here. Wait a minute, will you?”

We spent a few delightful minutes while he delved into the obscurities of his glorious gizmo. Finally he held it aloft again and, with a victorious look on his face, brought it near his plate once more.

“Beep beep!” said the wand, and a green light went on.

“Eureka, it works!” I said with admiration.

“Give it to me for a second, okay?” said Schwartz. He took the device, turned it at the remains of the hot dog in his plate and pressed the button.

“Beep beep!” repeated the stick, green light and all.

“Is that a vegetarian hot dog?” asked Elijah.

“You wish.”

***

Having finally managed to tune said preventative measure in a way he found satisfactory, Elijah spent the rest of our stay in Potemkin stuffing it into every possible nook and cranny. The toy said “beep beep” to cheeses and vegetables, “boop boop” to anything that had to do with meat, and an angry “EEEEEP!” when I directed it at the bedpost, in the hotel.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“If it doesn’t identify anything,” said Elijah, “it lets you know.”

I wondered aloud how many types of responses one could make it sound off and Schwartz enlisted himself to the cause. It took him about an hour to find the fourth and final sound. He shoved the VegeSham’s spout into the contents of the frying pan I was using.

“Frrrr!” frrrr-ed the device angrily.

“What are you doing, you nut!” screamed Elijah and grabbed the VegeSnap from him. “Do you want to ruin it?”

“Why? What could I have possibly done?” said Schwartz innocently.

“The device,” said Elijah, “is very sensitive to temperature. I hope nothing happened to it!”

He had to re-tune his VegeSpam, and to run all the tests he had run earlier. Afterwards he spent very little time with us, but generously shared all the interesting details he had discovered, to which we tried not to pay any attention at all. We learned, against our will, that Quaker oats sometimes have parasites, that it takes a while to identify sushi, and that gelatin is not a vegetarian food.

“Not vegetarian?” I asked.

“Gelatin is made from ground fish bones,” said Schwartz, spitefully happy. “I’ve known that since army boot camp. Check the candies you’re scarfing down.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Elijah, embarrassed. “I really liked jelly stuff. Damn!”

“It’s not so bad,” Schwartz added. “Tomorrow you’ll discover that the tofu is also a kind of animal, and then we’ll really have a ball.”

“Get off his case,” I said. “We’re going to spend two months in this stupid spaceship together. It was your idea.”

“You decided to get him the complete collection of ‘Mess Tin’.” retorted Schwartz. “What a great idea that was!”

“I,” I said, “was not the person who decided that we, of all the people in the whole wide world, would find extraterrestrial intelligent life, right?”

“You just wait and see,” said Schwartz. “I researched this. It has to be this one. Of all the planets surveyed, Eta Pegasus III…”

“Okay, just shut up already.”

Indeed, the delegation’s spirits were definitely high.

***

“That’s BML/407,” said the launch supervisor. “It has a huge baggage compartment, three living areas, a small lounge and a centrifugalized restroom. And it’s all yours. Where are you off to?”

“Eta Pegasus,” I said. “Research – the usual shtick.”

“God,” said Schwartz. “My wife’s car looks better!”

“It’s been through some hard times,” the supervisor said, “but she’s passed the test and everything’s a-okay, apart from some problem with the loading. You ordered something special, right?”

“Yes,” said Elijah. “A third of the food should be vegetarian.”

“What a piece of junk,” said Schwartz. “It really reminds me of boot camp.”

“That’s it,” the supervisor said. “I remember there was a problem with that, but we fixed it. You have three hundred slices of toast we got special for you, and some crackers and more of the same.”

“And is there anything to eat with that?” I asked.

“Do all your ships look like this? Schwartz inquired.

“Yeah, sure! Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, thousand-island dressing, baked beans, peanut butter, liver-flavored eggplant pâté, you know, it’s what everybody eats.”

Elijah opened his mouth to ask something, but I managed to get a word in first. “What about our food?” I asked.

“No problems there,” said the supervisor. “You’ve got all the kinds of meat there are, pressure-packed, concentrates, sauces, potatoes, everything’s a-okay.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Schwartz. “You call this thing BML/407? This isn’t a B-M-L, it’s a BUMMEL is what it is!”

And thus our new home for the next few months was named. Elijah made some squeaks of protest that a woman’s name wasn’t chosen, but Schwartz diverted his attention by revealing to him the fact that potatoes are actually a dormant life-form. When the rhubarb died down, we brought our baggage into the Bummel and were launched towards the stars.

***

Picture a scientific journey to an unknown planet. You most probably envision brave undaunted researchers, struggling without complaint with the harsh living conditions for an extended period of time; collecting information worth its weight in gold against insurmountable odds; sacrificing; improvising; courageously seeking out exotic new life-forms; usually these delusions will star a muscle-knotted hero and minimally garbed companion – or vice versa. On the other hand, three gluttonous, gawky and grouchy guys would never star in such a tale, for some odd reason. How is it possible that no one has ever thought of relating the exploits of such a trio? Odd.

***

On the first day we had nicely-baked hot dogs, and Elijah had baked beans and toast.

On the second day we had microwaved hamburgers – nothing special, but digestible, and let’s leave it at that – and Elijah had baked beans and toast.

“You don’t want mayonnaise or mustard or anything?” I asked him, and that’s how we discovered that besides his being vegetarian for purely ideological reasons, he also hated mayonnaise, and mustard was considered by him to be the punishment for Original Sin.

On the third day we had cutlets and Elijah ate baked beans and toast.

“Do you mind not eating all the baked beans?” Schwartz asked him, instigating a fight which lasted two-score and seven hours.

On the fourth day I decided to make mashed potatoes, and thus we discovered that our potatoes had decided to develop a culture of their own. The smell was abysmal. We sealed their storage cell and two of us decided on schnitzel instead, while the third was left to consume baked beans and toast.

On the fifth day, right after Elijah finished eating his baked beans and toast, Schwartz came up with a brilliant idea.

“Say,” he remarked, “did you check the toast with your VegeSkunk?”

“VegeScan!” said Elijah, insulted. “No, but that’s an interesting idea. Where did I put it? Oh, here it is!”

“Boop boop!” said the contraption and a red light went on.

“It must need to be reset,” said Elijah.

“You bet,” said Schwartz.

“One hundred percent,” I said.

***

Elijah and Schwartz worked on the VegeScum for a full day, but to no avail. It said “beep beep” to the ketchup, it said “beep beep” to the eggplant pâté, it said “beep beep” to the pickles, it said “beep beep” to the baked beans. It said “boop boop” to the hamburgers, it said “boop boop” to the hot dogs, it said “boop boop” to the mustard – but only because Schwartz had dipped his cutlet in it the day before – and it said, in an impressively decisive manner, “boop boop” to the toast.

Elijah ate nothing but baked beans that day, and on the bridge there was a certain feeling of unpleasant suffocation.

A small glimpse of hope toyed with us when Schwartz offered Elijah to use the processed food, those green glops of unknown origin which are featured on the menu of every vehicle worthy of the name ‘spaceship’. They are suitable for null-gravity nutrition, they are visually abominable, are as tasty as sawdust and it would be a waste of words to describe their stench. In short – classic vegetarian food. Unfortunately, the dastardly doohickey decided to honor them with no more than a derisive “EEEEEP!”

“I always claimed that it isn’t food,” said Schwartz, and Elijah feasted on another spoonful of baked beans.

The next day Schwartz tried, out of desperation, to read the instructions which came with the contraption. The whole day we heard him mumbling about fatty acids and glycerol, about receptors and sugars, about stresses, steroid molecules, the amino acid relations and temperatures. We didn’t understand a word – and in my opinion neither did Schwartz – but the whole issue prevented a fight or two, and amen to that.

It was actually Elijah who discovered the solution to the mystery, somewhere in the depths of his ‘Mess Tin’ collection, of all places. Flour, it turns out, is almost never free of the remnants of insects caught by the harvester, and Elijah’s toast, collected with much fuss and at the last moment, was not of good quality to begin with. With a sigh of relief we agreed to be considerate and let him eat our portions of baked beans. Schwartz and I didn’t care about the quality of the toast, and Elijah, to illustrate his gratitude, tried to put together some refried beans for us.

***

You would not believe what a mess can be generated by one pot of boiling oil in null-grav.

***

On the tenth day the baked beans ran out. This produced a sigh of relief from two thirds of the staff, while the remaining third seemed somewhat disappointed. We suggested that he start eating crackers.

***

For a week the atmosphere was a little tense. We ate separately, because even the smell of meat drove the device insane – Elijah had to air out the bridge before every meal – and to block the croquettes and schnitzels from his view and to block our view of the crackers. The latter’s crumbs got everywhere, especially on everyone’s nerves. It seemed as if Elijah’s mood was gradually deteriorating, until one morning, as we sat down to eat, we found him smiling as widely as humanly possible, holding a small round tin. Preserved corn.

Elijah told us how he had smuggled the tinned corn on board, and then provided us with a short description of his love for corn. Afterwards I also said how much I loved corn, especially of the tinned variety. Elijah countered by explaining that, although he highly appreciated the honest emotions I expressed towards corn, as far as this amazing vegetable was concerned, his love had neither contenders nor limits. In response, I claimed that, with all due respect to my old friend, corn was one of my oldest hobbies, ever since childhood, and that any smidgen of a rumor that would suggest that my love for the Food of the Gods is even remotely comparable to someone else’s appreciation, was mere nonsense and folly. Elijah responded that, despite our prevailing friendship, I lacked even the smallest notions of the love of corn. Finally Schwartz intervened, with typical impatience, and said:

“You’re not allowed to eat corn here anyway.”

Consequently a terrible row broke out. Elijah argued against the discrimination of corn, and Schwartz reasoned that you can’t eat granular food in null-grav conditions. I proposed that due to our sincere love of corn, we would eat it all without leaving any, and Schwartz inquired whether I loved corn so much I would be willing to sleep with it. Elijah proposed opening the tin in the lavatory centrifuge, and Schwartz told him that if he wanted to spend a month and a half in a sealed spaceship with a plumbing problem, may he do so in good health.

“Or maybe you prefer,” he added, “instead of going in the bathroom, to go in the airlock?”

That settled it.

***

A month post-launch, Elijah looked quite Robinson-Crusoeish. He had achieved this feat without ever setting foot on the soil of an alien planet. His hair had grown long, he had stopped shaving and his eyes stared into space while his tongue licked his lips. He had been eating nothing but crackers for a fortnight, after discovering that the liver-flavored eggplant pâté reminded him too much of meat, despite the happy “beep beep” of the VegeStuck.

I put it plainly that the aforementioned consumer good reminded me of a failed high-school biology class experiment, while the smell reminded Schwartz, more than anything else, of boot camp.

Elijah mumbled something about spoiling the environment, but we managed to convince him that space is infinite and that it would probably not take too big a note of an eggplant or two, while for us, confined in a closed area, the issue was more critical. Thus a few pounds of liver-flavored eggplant pâté were thrown into space, where they probably cause hazards on commercial routes to this very day.

***

After that, Elijah spent his time delving into the depths of the datasheets we had received regarding “our planet”. The unmanned probe determined a high Earth-compatibility level – about ninety-five percent. A little more oxygen, a little less nitrogen, bacteria and plants had already been discovered before the hasty survey was completed and the probe was launched to another destination. The galaxy is full of these, of course, and every planet that does not show clearer signs of life is abandoned to its fate until gallant and intrepid researchers such as ourselves show up.

In the week before the landing Elijah knew all the data as well as the content of his toy’s operations manual, word for word. He used the VegeSchnook to ascertain the content of the crackers, the ketchup (completely a meat product by this time – Schwartz’s handiwork), the frozen food and even us. It transpired that the device could recognize a human person, although it does take some time – unless the victim yawns, sneezes or just breathes heavily on it, which causes it to cry out immediately.

“Why are you checking us?” I asked. “We’re alive, I promise. It’s no use eating us.”

“In any case, it’s two against one,” Schwartz added, practical as always. “You don’t stand a chance.”

Elijah fixed him with a frightful stare.

“Okay, enough,” I proclaimed. “It’s only food!”

“Let’s see you after a month of crackers. Then you can talk.”

“Come on,” I said, “it can’t be that bad!”

“You wouldn’t believe,” said Elijah and threw me a dark look, “how bad it could be.”

“You could always take food from us,” said Schwartz, surprisingly generous.

“In comparison to some of those present,” Elijah said, “I have principles. I do not eat life forms.”

“They’re not alive anymore,” said Schwartz, but his words fell on deaf ears.

***

The sun of Eta Pegasi gradually grew as we approached the solar system’s plane. Eta Pegasi I is a piece of rock very close to the sun itself, in an orbit similar to that of Mercury’s’ around Sol, and E.P. II is a bit smaller than Venus and has no atmosphere. E.P.III, on the other hand, looks like a globe from school days with cloud decorations. In other words – exactly the way Earth used to look, once upon a time.

***

The landing day arrived.

From early morning Elijah checked and rechecked his protective suit. The latter’s helmet rested, neglected, in the laundry basket, after the “security vs. comfort” argument was decided by a coin toss. Schwartz suggested that we voted on who descended first, but in a burst of compassion I granted the right of way to Elijah. “Look at him,” I said. “Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”

We landed the Bummel in the center of a green plain, a bit to the north of the equatorial line. To the west, snowy-peaked mountains could be seen, to the south and east spread a threateningly thick jungle. Above us the sky was a beautifully bright blue, and underneath the spaceship there was, it goes without saying, a large black pit. Schwartz mumbled something about possible damage to alien life forms, but I was more interested in those familiar to us, especially the one which was gaily prancing out of the air lock, VegeSpade in hand.

“I don’t like this,” said Schwartz.

“Let him wind down,” I said. “He will be much more amiable later.”

This idea made Schwartz quite happy, and thus, encouraged, we made our way outside.

***

Elijah, it seemed, spent the morning grazing in the pasture, pushing the VegeSplat into every hole.

The grass reminded me of a football field and Schwartz of boot camp. We spent a while pleasantly arguing, until Elijah’s voice on the commlink cut us off.

“Yeeha!” he yelled. “You’ve got to come and see this!”

“What are you yelling about?” I said. “We’re coming, we’re coming.”

“And relax,” said Schwartz.

We sauntered over to the small figure which was Elijah, a few hundred yards to the north.

“What a nudnik,” I said.

“What a nudnik,” I thought faintly.

“Huh?” said Schwartz.

“Huh?” I thought, more assuredly.

Elijah waved his VegeStain excitedly and pointed to a green lump, some form of strange distorted vegetation on the ground beside him.

“Hey!” I said.

“Hey!” I thought, almost aloud.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I thought.

Schwartz looked at me.

“I think so,” I thought, in a slightly different voice.

“See how wonderful it is!” Elijah yelled. “Exactly what I’ve been looking for!” – and my thoughts immediately repeated his words.

“Wait a second,” I said and thought, “something strange is going on.”

The plant seemed, upon closer inspection, like an old tent stricken with Elephant Man’s disease. Bluish crystals glittered on the ground around it.

“This thing reads thoughts and sends them back?” I thought, and understood that the thought came from Schwartz.

“Probably,” I thought. “Hold on a moment. Let’s try something. Hello! Who are you?”

“Hello! Who are you?”

“Just perfect!” said Elijah. “Would you believe this, and right on the first day?”

“I am Schwartz,” I thought strongly, “and who are you?”

“Me…you…” I thought in a foreign voice.

It seemed as if the green blob was shaking one of its tendrils, but I wasn’t absolutely sure. Perhaps the crystals shined a little as well. Who knows.

“Look!” Elijah exulted. He pointed the VegeScatt to the green glob and pressed the button.

“I… not you…” I thought.

“This thing is talking to us!” said Schwartz. “I don’t believe it!”

“Beep beep!” said the VegeSnot, and a green light shone valorously.

“Perfect!” said Elijah, plucked the green plant, stuffed it in his mouth and began to chew.

***

We searched for many weeks following that, but could not find any other vegetation like it. Schwartz and I (Elijah had an upset stomach) mapped out the entire continent. We sent out telepathic messages over land, sea and air – to no avail. It could be that the other plants learned the lesson from the tragic fate of their friend. Who could blame them?

Elijah spent the rest of the time gulping down any plant he could get his hands on. We could not explain to him what he had done.

In the end, we didn’t report it. Try and explain that a vegetarian ate – devoured! – the first intelligent alien life mankind has ever discovered.

***

On the way home, one night, we threw the VegeSchmuck out of the air lock.

 

Translated by Joe D. Brown

Copyright © 2011 by Nir Yaniv


Nir Yaniv is an Israeli author, editor, musician and programmer. His stories have been published in magazines in Israel and abroad. His first story collection was published in 2006. From 2007 he was editor of Dreams in Aspamia, the only professional Israeli sf and fantasy magazine. As musician he created, among others, the first Israeli sf rock album. He lives in Tel Aviv.

 

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