Aphelion Issue 235, Volume 22
December 2018
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A Fluke So Rare

by John DeLaughter

With an obscene gesture, the Russian Attaché for Cultural Affairs raised his glass to the television screen and called out “Poshyel k chyertu!”

“And good riddance!” agreed the senior American Attaché.

The two men had been sitting in By Other Means since noon, engaged in a private drinking game and filling the time as they waited for the end of the most disastrous success of their careers. Nestled in a nondescript building next to the Katharine Hepburn Garden, By Other Means looked like a typical New York City brownstone from the outside; only those with the appropriate accreditation (and the need-to-know as judged by the various diplomatic staffs) ever discovered that it actually housed the most exclusive watering hole in the city. The name was an in-joke, but the diplomats were deadly serious about the bar and its traditions. By Other Means was a place where the diplomats could let their hair down, metaphorically speaking, and be themselves instead of representing their country. The bar had been the site of three weddings, two divorces, and several pregnancies; it was also where nearly every diplomat in New York City had spent their scarce off hours in the three months since the aliens had first parked themselves in orbit around the Moon.

Looking around, the American commented “The UN must be empty.”

From their corner, the two could see groups of diplomats and career bureaucrats watching the unfolding scene on the TV, anticipating the moment when the aliens would leave. Mercifully, the sound was off and all that could be seen was a spaceship floating near the Moon. Every detail was visible, crystal clear and razor sharp, thanks to the cloud of camera-toting satellites hovering just outside of the anti-meteorite defenses of the alien ship. Many of the satellites bore the logo of various news organizations; some of them even belonged to the organizations whose logo they bore.

“Balvan dura!” said the American after another drink. Pausing in thought, he asked his companion, “Should that be ‘durak’, Nikolai?”

“Does it matter, James?” the Russian replied. “Unless you plan on marrying one of them, the question is, as you say, purely hypothetical. In any case, I think it was we who were the balvan duraki.”

"How so?"

“We expected diplomats or, at worst, military,” Nikolai explained. “Instead, we got merchants.”

“What else would you expect?” James replied, holding up the vodka bottle and giving it a waggle. At Nikolai’s nod, he poured another round. “They don’t need to fight us for room or resources because there are plenty of both in space. What they need is new markets and new products. We gave them both.”

The aliens (no one wanted to call them “Cameleopardians” and their name was unspeakable by humans so they just became “the aliens”) had made it clear before they landed that they had no interest in Earth or humans. They were here for business. The aliens wanted to see if there was anything on Earth that was worth hauling back to their planet to sell. So, much to the fury of the Secretary General, the first meeting of mankind and aliens was a rummage sale. Every nation sat at a table filled with their best and most impressive goods, hoping to entice the aliens into a trade. But what could Earth offer that the aliens couldn’t already make?

“I blame the Australians,” Nikolai said.

“You can’t blame them,” James replied. “They didn’t invent the aliens, they just saw them first. It isn’t their fault that the aliens came from Cameleopardis Gamma.”

“I do not blame them for that,” came the slightly bleary rejoinder. “I blame them for the Vegemite.”

The first meeting with the aliens had been an unmitigated disaster. Every offering, from Germany’s anachronistic cuckoo clocks to Japan’s ultra-sleek, newer than tomorrow semi-sentient computer had been rejected out of hand.

At the second meeting, the Australians had put a jar of Vegemite on their table. It was either a stroke of genius (if you believed the press) or a faux pas of brobdignagian proportions (if you believed the other diplomats), but it broke the logjam. The aliens tested the Vegemite and started to chitter at each other. They smelled the Vegemite and the chittering rose to near-deafening levels. They tasted it and immediately sold Australia a device that ran on solar power and converted sea water to fresh at the rate of 50,000 gallons per minute; as a bonus, it sorted the resulting salts by elemental composition, providing iodine, barium, halite, magnesium, and gold as secondary products. All they asked in return was half of the Vegemite made for the next ten years. The Australians fell over themselves agreeing.

James sipped at his vodka and looked at the spaceship on the TV again before replying. “At least Vegemite was something that the aliens wanted. Think about what a fiasco it would have been if we hadn’t had anything.”

“Something, yes. But maybe nothing would have been better,” Nikolai said, regretfully. “Instead every country sold its food for their magic beads.”

“Some magic beads,” said James, unhappily. “Italy got a completely frictionless coating that allows them to double the speed of their aircraft in return for Parma ham. Brazil gave them açaí and they gave Brazil a satellite powerful enough to deliver internet to the entire world.”

“Yet neither your country nor mine were to their taste,” added Nikolai meditatively.

The Australian success set the table, figuratively and literally, for the next meeting. The nations turned to organic products, ranging from Russian vodka to French wine to American cheese. Based on the response to Vegemite, most nations included at least one unusual dish in their offerings. Norway tried hakarl. Sardinia brought casu marzu (rejected without a second glance by the aliens; there were some things that even they wouldn’t eat). Japan brought oniku.

The Russian poured another round and glared at the TV screen before returning to their conversation. “Why don’t the aliens just synthesize what they want?”

“They can’t,” James said as he shook his head. “One of our boffins explained it to me like this: The human body is worth $12. The human body is also worth $12,000,000.”

“Nyet. It is one or the other.”

“No, it really is both. The raw materials in our bodies, the oxygen, carbon, and such, are only worth about $12. Raw materials are cheap. But the human body uses those raw ingredients to make complex things like insulin and endocrine and testosterone. Those things are hard to synthesize; the cheapest way of getting them is extracting them from a human.”

“But we make some of that now,” Nikolai insisted.

“Yes, but we do it by slipping part of us into bacteria. Those bugs have part of our genetic code, the RNA or DNA or whatever it is that tells our bodies how to make the stuff we want but that only works for small stuff. We still can’t make convincing meat without using a real animal.”

The pair looked up as a cheer broke out. The spaceship was dwindling rapidly, headed for home with a load of cargo and a promise to return in two years with more and larger ships to reap the harvest that mankind was only too willing to provide.

“So they decided that the best product Earth could supply was meat. Not our art, not our music, just meat. Kozyoli.” Nikolai paused in thought. “I don’t know if I should be insulted or relieved.”

“At least they only wanted one species,” said James. “In return, they gave us an engine that can take us to the stars. Still, I will miss the blue whales.”


© 2017 John DeLaughter

Bio: John DeLaughter is a planetologist who is living on a sailboat with Nimrod the cat.

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