Thursday, February 11, 2016

CRUISE SHIP Mystery


Sailing down from Bermuda, the S.O.S. Improbable is typical of a fleet which consists of three ships, and completes a trilogy. Of the three ships afloat — also including the M.S. Incredible and the B.S. Implausible — it is the S.O.S. Improbable which provoked the most speculation, and which boasted the most interesting performers (to say nothing, yet, about its passengers). After all, while sailing into the glorious turquoise Caribbean sea, can you imagine dining on lobster and filet mignon with the likes of Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, Nelson DeMille, and Nora Roberts? Would you be intrigued and enticed even more by learning that your singing waiters may include George Guidall, Martin Jarvis, Ed Herrmann, Tim Curry and Barbara Rosenblat?
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Picture retiring from dinner with an espresso, and wandering into the Audiotorium for the Audie Awards–a vast purple and gold arena with seating for 2,000. And there, imagine being entertained by stand-up routines from Dennis Miller and Jay Leno, followed by premier first readings of unedited new work from Dean Koontz and Stephen King . . . with the lights turned low, of course. After this? Romantic ballroom dancing with the author or narrator of your choice. (I chose the richest woman in England, myself, and we tangoed until almost midnight and sipped so much champagne she mistakenly called me “Harry” at our goodbye kiss.)
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Suffice it to say, the ship itself was well-fitted, luxurious throughout, and that although the registry was unknown, the liquor ran freely, and the midnight buffets feature ice sculptures, caviar, prime rib, and “Death by Chocolate” cake. (After a dramatic reading of Elizabethan poetry by the tipsy duo of Scott Brick and Orson Scott Card, a sword-wielding game of Truth or Dare ensued between narrator Grover Gardner and author Thomas Harris.)
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Yet it was while lazily reclining in my deck chair that the most unusual thing happened. The stranger next to me looked at the iPod in my hand and suddenly said: “We aliens like to listen to audiobooks too.” I looked at him too then . . . and he winked. Twice. On the second wink I spewed Kahula and cream I’d been sipping all over myself. Luckily, Elizabeth Peters and Robin Whitten were sitting out of range beyond him, precluding additional embarrassment, although I did have a good excuse for it. After all, the guy doing the winking had two eyelids, the second resembling an icky green jelly-like membrane. Other than this rather minor oversight he could have passed for any Price Is Right contestant. When I finally regained the ability to talk, I didn’t know what to say. I remember the only other conversation we’d made up to that point concerned the perception of American tourists abroad: the cliche image of balding middle aged men you see everywhere with camcorders around their neck, with their oafish pomposity, and penchant for littering. Mentally tabulating my possible responses to this new and startling revelation, I formulated — in about 3.6 seconds — these alternatives:
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A) I could scream, causing shipwide panic.
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B) I could remain calm and go quietly insane.
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C) I could ask the creature what planet he was from.
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D) I could ask for another Kahlua and cream.
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I chose D.
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“Good choice,” said the alien, when my drink finally arrived.
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“Excuse me?” I said, because at first I thought he’d read my mind, and meant my drink. But then he pointed at the audiobook on the table beside me.
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“Oh,” I said robotically. “Have you heard John Grisham on audio?”
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The alien nodded. “I like The Testament especially, but mainly because of the narrator,” he replied, nonchalantly.
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I believe I blinked. I can’t quite remember at this point.
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“We don’t have many good narrators on my planet, don’t you know,” he added, after a moment.
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“I see,” I said, although I didn’t. And didn’t want to. From there the conversation turned only more bizarre, breaking the oft written rule on board the S.O.S. Improbable, which was DON’T ENGAGE OTHER AUDIE AWARD ATTENDEES IN SERIOUS CONVERSATION. A rule I hadn’t taken seriously, much to my regret.
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As it turned out, he was from the planet Thurbann in the Vega system. He’d landed on Earth in a debris-fueled ramjet which dropped out of warp drive in the vicinity of Neptune, and he claimed to have coasted to Earth and set down in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. Now he was just sightseeing, and picking up audiobooks — which apparently is what Thurbannese crave most.
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When I mentioned that I’d never been to the cruise ship’s turnaround port, he replied: “That’s amazing. I’ve seen everything there is to see on MY home planet.”
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“Really?” I said. “And what’s it like, exactly?”
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“Pretty boring. Most of our perfectly round globe is covered by water eight inches deep. No volcanoes, mountains, canyons, oceans, nothing. We live far underground, where everyone pretty much watches TV. We have few writers, but lots and lots of game shows. I’ve noticed that your planet has lots of game shows too, but Earth has mountains and canyons and oceans, so we often wonder why.”
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“What do they eat on Thurbann?” I asked, intrigued.
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“DID, not DO. No one lives there during half of the solar year, which incidentally is about three hundred of your Earth years. We’re on an elliptical orbit, you understand. In our winter, when temperatures drop about two degrees cooler than summer, we all leave because the oceans freeze. What you would call fish merely hibernate. But the flying turtles take to the air and use the time to reproduce.”
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“Flying turtles?”
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“Topaus. They’re what we hunt and eat. It’s not fair to hunt them when they can’t hide, though. So there’s a ban. Won’t be open season on them, in fact, for another hundred years.”
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“What are they like?” I asked.
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“Like sea turtles in a way, only their flippers are bigger and flatter. Over the ages they’ve adapted, you see, to falling sea levels. History has it the oceans were once deeper. Maybe even as deep as two miles.”
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I gasped for air, and possibly to stay conscious. “What happened to all that water?”
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“Well, one theory has it some tourists from a very dry neighboring star cluster have been visiting Thurbann for ages. They arrive during our winter when we’re gone and take home ‘souvenirs’ as you would say, of water. Or rather ice. Couple thousand years more of this and ours will be a desert planet. Already we got ozone holes all over the place, and global warming.”
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“So the loss of water means . . .”
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“Since we have no temperature variations and therefore no thunderstorms and lightning to produce ozone like you do, less water to us means less of our oxygen producing plankton. And less oxygen, of course, means more holes for radiation. More radiation and it’s the end. Our turtles are doomed. Ergo, we are doomed. That is, unless we can restore the water somehow. You know, find a planet somewhere that has ice caps and a global warming problem, but doesn’t see that their water levels are rising because we’re stealing ice. Hear how it works?”
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“You mean kinda like your coming to Earth for audiobooks?”
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He winked very rapidly two dozen times. “That’s it,” he said. “You got it.”
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“I’ve interviewed many interesting people,” I told him, sincerely, “but never anyone like you.”
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“That can change,” the alien replied, with ominous intent. “By the way, you can call me Zeereeaanean.”
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We shook hands. “Hi Hal,” I said. “I’m Jon. You don’t mind if I take notes, do you?”
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“Not at all. It’s what I’ve been doing.” He shrugged and winked twice again. It made my heart do what might be described as backflips. I scribbled frantically. “Tell me. When do your people return to Thurbann?”
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“Oh, in about a century. Like I said, when it’s open season.”
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I dropped my pencil, inadvertently. “No way.”
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“Yes way. I can’t speak for others, but personally I like to spend at least that long to get the feel of a place. Only another ten or twenty years and I’ll be on my way to what you’d call Epsilon Centuri. Now the narrators there are superb. Bit loud, though.”
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“Tell me about it. Please.”
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Here I was hoping his head wouldn’t part, revealing an icky gelatinous brain with eyes and teeth. Then he reviewed several strange audiobooks for me in a way no human had before, or could. I was particularly fascinated by his description of the 800 decibel narrative style of the triple-throated Zaabiian Wofbat.
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“Do you like science fiction?” I queried. “Asimov, Clarke, Gibson?”
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“We enjoy that a lot,” the alien I called Hal confessed, “except we call it Humor.”
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“What about Robert Jordan, or Terry Brooks?”
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“Or Goodkind? Fantasy is great, especially if you tire of Daze of Our Lies.”
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“You . . . you watch soap operas on Thurbann too?” I asked in disbelief.
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“Unfortunately, yes. The signals from your first season have just reached our planet too, I understand, and I’m afraid we’re in for endless reruns from other planets as well unless I can gather enough audiobooks from around the galaxy in time to stave off ennui.” He snuffed. “Is your next question going to be can I communicate with dolphins?”
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I found myself stuttering for the first time. “You t-t-t-tell me.”
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“Okay, I will. Your next question is . . . just a minute . . . will I have to kill you, now. The answer is no, I don’t think so. We don’t like to kill book lovers. But if you’ll take me to Simon Cowell or Piers Morgan. . . By the way, I can read minds when I really focus sometimes. That’s how I know who I can trust to tell these things — or who will be believed. But I can never read the future. It’s rather hard to read something that isn’t there yet.”
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“I know what you mean,” I replied, balling up my notes, and shaking like a trailer park sign at an approaching tornado.
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By the time we disembarked on the cruise line’s private island, I was drunker than a sports addict at a Tupperware party, and laughing like what Hal called a “skeek-sa.” As luck would have it, we met the next day at the beach, me with “Swimsuit” by James Patterson on audio. But when I saw what Hal had, I was shocked once again. Here he was, wearing Bermuda shorts now, a straw hat, and with one of those plastic, blow-up inner tubes around his waist. At the sight of the Bullwinkle horns, I winced. And winced again when from one hand he strategically dropped a chewing gum wrapper while his other hand gripped a rum punch with one of those tiny umbrellas in it.
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“Hal,” I said, approaching him in dismay. “You . . . you look just like a . . . a tourist!”
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Hal grinned. “But that’s just what I AM,” he said, giving a prophetic laugh. At which point several dozen other passengers looked over at me and winked . . . twice.    –Jonathan Lowe

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