Cathedral of the Hhrk G'Na,
Planetary District of Hawtch-Hawtch,
Erric looked at himself in the mirror. For the twelfth time that afternoon, he adjusted the several kilos of orange and gold silk that was euphemistically referred to as a "sash" so that he didn't feel like there was a monkey-sloth hanging off his left shoulder; and for the twelfth time that afternoon, his senior aide adjusted it back again. Erric sighed. He'd been sighing a lot this last month, mostly because he'd had a lot on his mind - not including, of course, the simply enormous aluminum foil helmet he was attempting to wear this afternoon. Suddenly finding yourself the ruler of a major galactic Empire tended to do that to a person.
Stick them with a lot on their mind, that is, not swath their heads in aluminum foil. Although it does happen. "I'm very uncomfortable," he said, turning from the mirror. And then, turning back to the mirror again, he added, "and I look ridiculous."
"Yes, Your Magnificence," said his senior aide, "It stirs the sap."
"That was a complaint."
"Ah. I apologise, Your Magnificence."
Zilm, the Archbishop of Targa, stood nearby. He looked and sounded very anxious - Erric wondered if he was going to leave finger-marks on his mitre. New Grand Poobahs were hard on him, apparently - possibly because Erric was the first in eighty years, and the Archbishop wasn't used to this either.
"Now, Your Magnificence," he said, "please remember to observe all of the necessary rituals. Only the Grand Poobah may enter the presence of the Hhrk G'Na, so there will be no clergy to guide you. It is vitally -- "
"Yes, Zilm," said the Grand Poobah, "we've been over this elevens of times before. In every act, word, and gesture, I will follow the ritual Poobahs have been following since H'mooble. The Frog knows we've been over it enough times..."
"Simply because this is the most important spiritual duty of your office, Your Magnificence, and I wish you would not make light of it so. It is a vital part of the life of our people -- "
"Yes, I know, Zilm." Erric sighed again. "It's just -- I'm a plumber, Zilm. From Frondula, where the Communing and Pronouncement every Jelvan full moon means not much more than a long weekend. Talking to the Hhrk G'Na isn't something I ever anticipated being involved with."
"Nervous, Your Magnificence?" asked his senior aide.
"A little," Erric confessed.
"I believe a bit of cheese would be allowed, to calm your nerves...?"
The senior aide glanced at the Archbishop, who signalled his permission. One of the several lesser aides who were cluttering up the room produced an impressively large platter laden with cheeses of every conceivable colour and shape.
"Well...," Erric eyed a very sharp-looking wedge of green cheddar. But he tore his gaze away from it, since he knew it could likely knock him off his feet. "Maybe just a bit of the Brie..." The lesser aide offered it on a napkin.
When Grand Poobah D'daggen had passed away less than a month ago, Erric had been selected as the new head of state of the Imperial Jelvan Star Empire in the usual way - his name had been drawn at random from those of every mature, mentally competent Jelvan citizen by the computers in the Department of Population Statistics. It was, the Jelvans argued, the most democratic possible way to select a leader, since literally anyone had a chance. Even the plumber from Pklora Plains City.
And then came the full moon. On such day every month, the Grand Poobah undertook the ritual of Communing alone with the Hhrk G'Na, a perfectly preserved two-thousand-year-old cabbage that was the official head (pardon the pun) of the Targan Orthodox Church. Orthodox Vbijielists believed that God (who in most Jelvan religions is depicted as a giant frog, for reasons no-one else is entirely clear on) had given the cabbage to his Prophet Vbijiel as payment for a set of multi-sided dice; and somehow, this made the cabbage a conduit for the voice of the Prophet.
After spending time in meditation with the Hhrk G'Na, breathing deeply of the various herbal incenses officially said to be for spiritual purification, the Grand Poobah would emerge with a message for his people from the Hhrk G'Na - usually short, pithy koans or instructions, like "Eat beans tonight", or "When does the deer deodorise?". He would announce the Hhrk G'Na's wisdom from the Cathedral's balcony to the waiting throngs, who would take it to heart and reflect deeply upon it to unlock its spiritual significance. And there was a long weekend and people watched a lot of football, too.
Thus Zilm did not exaggerate when he stressed the importance of the ceremony. Erric was secretly worried that the Hhrk G'Na wouldn't find him worthy to speak to. And D'daggen was a hard act to follow. He always came back with such perfectly ripe stuff - the one about the deer was his. What would it do to his temporal authority, Erric wondered, if the people felt the Hhrk G'Na was feeding him substandard material? And what, he suddenly panicked, was he even doing thinking phrases like "temporal authority" in the first place?
He was just about to change his mind and go for the cheddar when one of Zilm's Cardinals stuck his heads in.
"You're on," he intoned in an aristocratic South Targan accent. Erric nodded solemnly, and with an encouraging glance from his aide led the procession out of the dressing room and into the Chapel's outermost chambers.
Two hours later, the Archbishop and the Cardinal helped Grand Poobah Erric stagger out onto the Cathedral's balcony. The crowd of the faithful in the square below, tens of thousands strong, fell rapturously silent. The moment they had waited for had arrived.
Erric made a concerted effort to come down from his state of intense spiritual bliss and return to the physical world. He had a message, a very important message... he just had to make his mouth form the words... He stared at the blurry crowd below, smiling benevolently. He gripped the balcony with all three hands, took a deep breath, and shouted his message to the myriad micro-audio pickups installed around him.
"THAT'S... THE 'BANANA'!"
The crowd remained silent for several beats. Then, tens of thousands devout Jelvan Vbijielists roared their approval.
Blessed Fazoom Monastery,
A group of monks sat around their projection TV, feeling that perhaps you just had to be there.
"'Ba-na-na?'" said Brother Virlen after several seconds significant silence, "What in the stars is a 'ba-na-na'?"
"That's the ba-na-na," said Father Tvirdiel.
"Bah nah nah," said the monk sitting next to Virlen.
"Bah nah nah. Banna na. B'na na. Bah nah nah."
They each tried it out several times, rolling the string of nonsense syllables around in their mouths.
That night at dinner, Virlen was still baffled.
"It's babble," he said to Brother Pirbl while digging into his roast squash, "Nonsense. We've checked every dictionary for every language on the planet. Grimble searched the archaeological archives, and I personally searched the linguistic databases of every known language in the Empire, plus the Cantovarian, Thyrix, Slax, and Quirinian Empires and their associated spheres of influence. There's nothing that could conceivably be pronounced 'banana' unless you'd had your tongue caught up in a grain thresher."
"What about the Qsirmu?" asked Pirbl.
"Sounds like something they might say."
"Yes, but it isn't. Even so, why would the Hhrk G'Na speak in their barbaric ape tongue?"
"Well, why not?" said Pirbl, "Some of them Game pretty well."
"I suppose... I get your meaning, though, we'll have to think outside the containment field on this one."
Pirbl picked up the darbuk bladder and squeezed more of its contents into Virlen's cup. "For what it's worth," he said, "I think Father Abbot's right on the gobliaks with this one. 'Ba-na-na' is nonsense, sapling talk. The Hhrk G'Na's saying that if you're really interested in getting to Enlightenment, the Last Square, you have to go back to the infantile state of No Mind."
Virlen's eyebrows switched places. "That's Tvirdiel's answer to everything," he said, rather irritably. "It's too Nymonéan for my tastes. It wouldn't hurt Tvirdiel to be a bit more Orthodox, now and then."
"Makes sense, though. The new Grand Poobah's from Frondula, which is the Nymonéan sector. It's not surprising that when the Hhrk G'Na speaks through him, he sounds like a Nymonéan Lestar. Bet he'll be gurgling next."
Virlen wasn't listening. He was staring thoughtfully into space, idly squashing his squash with his fork.
"Pirbl," he said finally, "are those two traders still in the monastery?"
"The Krangers? They left this morning."
"No, the two who came after them. The Partuuni and the Zarpazi. The ones who tried to sell us that taj-like goop."
"Oh. I think so, now that you mention it. The Zarpazi chap wanted to try and bargain for those Game boards the winter novices made, but Tvirdiel made them wait until after the moon-weekend. Why?"
"I think we should talk to them."
Father Abbot Tvirdiel looked sternly at the two monks sitting before him. Some half an hour after lights out, Brothers Virlen and Pirbl burst into his office babbling about fruit and spaceships, with the Zarpazi and Partuuni traders in tow. Tvirdiel had made them sit in silence, reflecting on the 751st Platitude, for about ten minutes.
"Now," he said, "What is all of this about?"
"It's a fruit!" said Pirbl, all his excitement rushing back at once.
"What is a fruit?"
"Banana," said Virlen, "It's the name of a fruit in several languages on the inhabited planet in the Sol system."
"If we leave immediately --" started Pirbl. Tvirdiel held up an appendage to silence him. He looked at Virlen.
"How did you discover this?" he asked.
"H'yhy Hyh-hy and Kagan downloaded the planetary internets of several undeveloped worlds in that sector, --" Virlen started.
"Pirated them, you mean," said Tvirdiel. "That's illegal."
H'yhy Hyh-hy, the Zarpazi, cleared his throat respectfully. "Well, it's true the practice is somewhat discouraged by Galactic Customs, but an important part of evaluating yet-to-emerge markets -- "
"Sometimes you can get some good software," interrupted Kagan, his short Partuuni partner, "and the porn is Dragon- damned hilarious."
"Anyway," Virlen hurriedly resumed before the Abbot started to argue, "Hy was kind enough to let me do a general search on several of the disks. I thought that by only doing linguistic searches in civilised space we could be missing something important."
"So you found something on the this planet's internet."
"Yes, Father. I have to stress, this is the only positive match we've found after searching almost three quarters of the Galaxy's dictionaries and internets! If 'banana' means anything, this has to be it!"
"If this is true," said Tvirdiel, "then this could be quite an important discovery. But Brother Virlen, and Brother Pirbl, why would the Hhrk G'Na draw this fruit to our attention?"
"That's why, Father, with your blessing, we'd like to make a pilgrimage to this planet and bring back some of these bananas. When we have the fruit, the answer may present itself."
"It will be difficult finding transport to a world so far from the Empire. And a prohibited world, at that."
Pirbl spoke up. "Hy and Kagan have already offered to take us there."
The Abbot looked at the traders again. He disliked them - he considered they were little better than smugglers. Hy tried to project an aura of pious respectability. He surreptitiously kicked Kagan in the ankle in an effort to keep him from picking his nose.
"How much will this cost?" asked the Jelvan Abbot.
"Practically nothing," Hy said reassuringly, "We'll take on most of the cost ourselves. For the, ah, betterment of our souls through charity. However, if you saw fit to part with that collection of Game boards we discussed earlier, it might go some small way towards defraying our costs..."
He trailed off as the Abbot continued to stare at him. Finally Tvirdiel uttered a short, dry grunt, and said, "Very well. Virlen and Pirbl, take Brother Ruuttfut with you. Hopefully he will be a moderating influence. And you two gentlemen may prepare for your departure."
All four thanked him warmly as they made their way out. When they were gone, Tvirdiel sat and reflected a short space, then fired up his terminal and started composing a letter to the bishop.
International Space Station,
Lt. Tom Kensington looked at the board and assessed his options. He considered his strategy. He saw the weak spots in his enemy's defences, and calculated how he could exploit them so as to break down the opposition and leave himself a clear path towards his objective.
His hand hovered over his knight, and he made his decision. He moved, landing precisely on the one square he knew his opponent did not want him to be. The game, thought Kensington smugly, was his.
"You are forgetting to roll dice again."
"Oh," said Kensington, "sorry about that." Sheepishly he moved the little knight on horseback back to Boardwalk, punched the specially-built zero gravity dice-roller, and rolled a six. "Nuts," said Kensington.
"That will be $200, please, Comrade," said his opponent, Lt. Sergei Borodin.
"I keep forgetting I'm not playing chess," Kensington grumbled as he forked over, "I'm terrible at this game."
"Feh. Chess is dull game. Monopoly game of free market economy, much better."
"I thought you Russians were all crazy about chess."
"And I was thinking all Americans love Britney Spears. But is not true, da, Comrade?"
"And will you please stop talking like that? It's very annoying."
"Sorry. I do that when I play this game with my wife, she thinks it's hilarious."
"I'm not your wife."
"You got that right, pal. Here, pass me the dice gizmo..."
Kensington shoved the device in Borodin's direction, and the other caught it easily. Kensington happened to glance out the space stations window, and froze.
"Sergei, we're not scheduled to meet with the Discovery for another week and a half, right?"
"Da.. I mean, right."
"And your people aren't sending a capsule or anything our way either?"
"Because there's something that looks like a refrigerator with pipes sticking out of it trying to dock with us!"
Borodin leapt for the radio and frantically started trying to reach the unknown craft. Kensington leapt for the fire extinguisher - he had no idea why, it was his first impulse, and he didn't know what else to do.
The station shuddered.
"Finally! By the Dark, I thought you'd never figure it out!"
Hy glared at his partner. "It's an antique docking port, I had to devise how to hook up to it without ramming into the thing and shaking it to pieces. Any luck with the ship-to-ship hyperwave?"
"No. They're either ignoring us or -- "
"They don't have hyperwave, like I told you. Try the EM transmitter."
Kagan squinted at his board, then found and started fiddling with a set of little-used controls. "Never thought we'd have to use this damned thing... aw, yeah, they're transmitting like crazy on RF, all right. Heh, they don't sound too happy."
"Well, answer them, for Tuul's sake."
Virlen, Pirbl, and their Brother Ruuttfut looked on anxiously from the aft of the cabin.
"Should we be chanting?" asked Ruuttfut.
"Why? Nothing's gone wrong yet," replied Virlen.
Hy overheard them and swivelled around in his chair.
"You three start chanting and I'm putting you in the hold. I mean it."
When Kagan asked, in eccentrically accented Chinese, that the International Space Station hand over a bunch of bananas and three cases of something called "Kar-fi", Lts. Sergei Borodin and Tom Kensington decided that things had gotten out of hand, and called NASA's mission control. NASA, establishing contact with the alien trader, eventually realised what was going on, and called in the two Air Force gentlemen whose ranks nobody knew and whose office nobody visited. After a brief, quiet discussion and even quieter call to Washington D.C., these two subsequently contacted Area 51. And, finding that their usual field agent was visiting Galactic Custom's Betelgeuse office, Area 51 called their unusual field agents in Bellinger, Ontario.
Two hours after Kensington and Borodin had their board game rudely interrupted, Carla Scot and Sgt. Ulysses "Rhino" Cannon were on a shuttle bound for the International Space Station.
Carla was feeling more than a bit nervous, for several reasons. It was her first time on a real assignment without the full team - part of her training, said Jack. It was her first time going into space - intentionally, anyway, not including being kidnapped by the Slax. And the pilot of the shuttle was a six-and-a-half foot alien wasp monster named Flarm. Rhino sat in the co-pilot's chair next to it, or him, or whatever; Carla sat in a chair directly behind Rhino, as far from Flarm as she could without being rude. She'd gotten used to the other aliens, Phil and Roger - I mean, she thought to herself, they looked like real people, even if Phil looked purple in some light, and Roger's human form wasn't natural. But Flarm was just weird.
"Don't worry, they're a bunch of monks and a couple salesmen. There won't be any trouble."
She started at Rhino's voice. "Ah... sorry?"
Rhino half-turned in his seat. "I just said, these aliens should be pretty harmless. The passengers are monks and the two traders, well, I met them before. Kagan's got a mouth on'im, but he's pretty decent for all that. And Hy'll be more worried about losing his permit for this sector to let things get out of hand."
"That's good to hear."
"You look a little nervous."
"I am," she confessed.
"That's good," said Rhino, "being nervous when things get strange tends to keep people alive, I've noticed. As long as they keep their heads."
"I like mine where it is."
"It works best there," buzzed Flarm. "Anywhere else, you'd probably tip over."
"Make it tough for her to buy clothes that fit, too."
"Don't worry," said Flarm without turning around, "I won't cut you open and lay eggs in your chest cavity. We only do that to males."
Carla stared at him. A couple seconds went by, and then she burst out laughing. Rhino winked at her.
"Don't worry about Flarm," he said, "He's cool."
"Twenty eight degrees centigrade," said Flarm, "if you're wondering why the thermostat's that low."
"All right, all right," Carla grinned, "I get the point. Nothing to worry about."
She looked up at the ship's windshield - or rather, "holocanopy" as they called it. She could see one of the brighter stars ahead had grown into a white shape that she could make out as the Space Station.
"So what are these monks doing here? Why are they looking for bananas and Carffee?" she asked.
"The Carffee we figure is something Hy and Kagan are after," Rhino replied. "You know how other species dig on caffeine. The bananas, I don't know. Maybe they're low on potassium or something. We'll have to ask them."
He gazed out the holocanopy. "Jelvans are always hard to figure out, especially when it comes to religion. Chances are these guys are Vbijielists, that's the dominant religion among their people."
"Vbijielists. Followers of Vbijiel, a Jelvan prophet who was a contemporary of Christ. He's credited with inventing the game of Tyghel Vbijiel Na, which is the centre of their faith."
"They worship a game?"
"Kind of. They believe that the process of playing the game, and meditating on the results, brings them closer to God."
"What kind of game is this?"
"Imagine a combination of 3-D 'Snakes and Ladders' and 'Dungeons and Dragons', and you'd be pretty close."
Carla tried imagining the role-playing geeks she went to high-school with in monks robes. Actually, it wasn't hard, but it was vaguely unsettling.
"You ever played it?"
"A couple times."
"Did you win?"
Rhino smiled. "It's not the kind of game you win. People've been known to play the same game their entire lives without finishing it, and Jelvan life-spans are a couple hundred years... But it was an experience, I'll say that."
"Getting a transmission from the trader," said Flarm.
"Put it on speaker with translation," said Rhino.
Flarm played with the controls, and in a few moment's Kagan's voice came over the speaker.
"I hope you at least brought the fruit and Kar-fi."
Rhino couldn't help but grin. "Sorry, Kagan. I gotta nice list of codes from old T-655 to quote you, though."
"Dragon's Dung. That War?"
"Nope. Deputy Rhino Cannon."
"Oh, Kanin. Look, about that fifty kanp I owe you --"
"Next time. Kagan, is Hy there?"
"Uh... he's in the back. We've got a problem."
"Mechanical?" Rhino's face grew serious. The last thing they wanted was for the ship's patched-together engine to blow out and take the Station with it.
"No, ah... Ecumenical, I guess."
"The three woody monks have locked themselves in the equipment locker."
Rhino turned to look at Carla. "Maybe this won't be as easy as I thought." He raised his voice again so that Kagan could hear. "Okay, here's what you're gonna do. Disengage from the station --"
"Don't think we can. Their Dragon-damned medieval docking port's jammed our docking mechanism. That's why Hy's ready to space the monks, because the equipment to cut us free's in the Dragon-damned locker."
"You got explosive bolts on your docking port?"
"You want your space station to make a premature re-entry?"
"Naw, just making sure you knew enough not to try it."
"Look, you backwoods little monkey -- "
"Settle down, Kagan, just because your species has been in space two million years doesn't mean you've stamped out stupidity. Cool it for a few beats, I'm putting you on hold."
Flarm pressed the 'flash' button on the comm panel. "Hoo boy," he buzzed.
"Yeah. You can say that again. See, Carla, I told you Jelvans are hard to figure out."
"Is Kagan a Jelvan?"
"No, he's a Partuuni. They're like short fat New Yorkers with horns. 'kay, Flarm, can you go EV and cut the ship loose?"
"I could blow'em apart with the kazer."
"Naw, we like the Station. Just make sure you do more damage with the torch to the ship than's covered by Hy's deductible."
"No sweat. What are you going to do about the monks? If I've got the cutter, you'll have to find some other way to get'em out."
"Don't worry about it. I'll explain it to Kagan. Carla, you might wanna cover your ears if you don't wanna learn the fine art of Partuuni cussing."
As Rhino spoke soothing words to Kagan and the Space Station personnel in turn, Flarm docked the GC shuttle with the trader's secondary loading dock. Rhino and Carla left him to prepare to go outside and crossed over to the trader.
They were met by a short, rotund creature with wrinkly pink skin and a pair of fleshy horns wrapped around his head. He looked at Carla suspiciously.
"How you doin', Kagan?" said Rhino. Kagan glared at him.
"You know Dragon-damned well how I'm doing, Kanin. Who's the female?"
"This is Deputy Carla Scot."
Carla put on a friendly smile and extended her hand. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Kagan." The Partuuni recoiled from her outstretched hand.
"When we get back, Carla, I'll explain what you just offered to do for Mr. Kagan," said Rhino. She pulled her hand back so fast it hurt her elbow.
They followed Kagan down a corridor to the centre of the ship. A tall blue alien, with horns that extended straight down his back to just below shoulder-level, was standing next to a reinforced door.
"Hy," said Kagan. He pointed to Rhino and then Carla. "Kanin and Skut, GC."
Hy threw up his hands in an extremely human-like gesture of frustration. If he had hair, Carla was sure it would be sticking out in every direction. "Great. My cycle's complete. Kagan, I'm going back to bed, call me when the frellin' ship blows up..."
"Hy, why are the monks locked in your equip locker?" asked Rhino.
"It's Kagan's fault," said Hy.
"You say that one more time, Zarpazi, and I'll cut out your tongues!"
"Whoa, whoa, settle down. Hyh-hy, just tell me what happened."
He took a deep breath. "We picked these three up on Jelva. They're looking for these fruits of yours, 'bananas' or what have you."
"So we swung a deal to transport them here --"
"Twenty-three unique hand-crafted Tyghel boards," interjected Kagan, "Two hundred kanp's each, easy, on the open market."
"So you were gonna pay me that fifty after all, right?"
"Forget it. Go on, Hy."
"Fine. So we show up here, and I mistakenly think that this piece of crap currently hanging off my ship like a polyp is your planet's first trading post. But when we call them, all we get is some hysterical monkey chatter."
"'Yes we have no bananas', something like that?"
"I suppose. Okay, fine, so we decide to do it the hard way --"
"Sneak down to the planet and get the bananas -- "
"Shut up, Kagan."
"-- in violation of all kinds of trade regs."
"Well, I'm just doing what the customer paid me for, right? Prosecute them, I'm just a courier."
"Hy, the monks?"
"Right. Anyway, in the meantime, the holy wooden brothers have gotten a bit antsy, and decided to start chanting, as Jelvan priests will. Only I'd previously implied that such behaviour was unwelcome on the bridge, so they decided to go do it somewhere else."
"I don't know, maybe they liked the acoustics. So while I'm up here trying to disengage from those tin cans out there, I sent Kagan back here to check the rating on our explosive bolts --"
" -- and this idiot LOCKS THE FRELLING DOOR! We've never had the goddamn key!"
"I DIDN'T LOCK IT, I JUST CLOSED IT! The noise was bugging me!"
"So who locked it, then?!"
"Okay, okay!" Rhino stepped between the two partners. "Settle down. Are they all right?"
"Yeah," said Hy, sounding vaguely disappointed, "I think they're still chanting, even."
"And all your cutting equipment's in there?"
"He's Zarpazi, he's a neat freak."
"Okay..." Rhino regarded the door thoughtfully. Didn't look blast-proof, though it could probably withstand a sudden decompression...
"Rhino," said Carla, "I can walk through the door." The two aliens looked at her in surprise. Rhino shook his head.
"Naw. Once you're in, how are you gonna get them out? If these two can't open it on this side, the brothers probably can't open it from their side. Nope... gotta do this the hard way."
"What hard way?" the other asked simultaneously.
"Stand back," said Rhino. He walked to the other side of the room from the door, turned, and then crouched down as if preparing to tackle someone. He sprang forward, bent over, and ran head first into the door.
Carla's scream and the cracking and buckling of the door's metal came simultaneously. Rhino fell back onto his seat with a grunt. He shook his head vigorously and rubbed his neck.
"Damn. Gonna need one of Phil's massage mallets when we get back..."
The onlookers looked in shock from Rhino to the locker door. The door had buckled inward dramatically, partially splitting open near the point of impact. It looked like a shell had hit it. Three brown-and-green faces were peering around the edge of the door.
"Rhino!" said Carla at last, "What the HELL?!"
Rhino grinned. "Now you know why they call me that."
The GC shuttle and the Partuuni trader drifted, joined at the proverbial hit, alone in orbit around the Earth. Flarm had cut the trader loose and fixed the damage to the International Space Station, then flown the connected ships safely out of sight. Lts. Borodin and Kensington were currently enjoying a thorough debriefing by the two gentlemen from NASA that nobody ever talked to.
The three Jelvans and their couriers had been brought over to the GC shuttle as Rhino made dark comments about confiscating the ship and its contents. Carla enjoyed that part, actually, particularly when she was able to make Hy flinch by mentioning how nice his cabin would look once she redecorated.
The Jelvans, however, she found distinctly unnerving. They looked like large wooden gargoyles - one of them had three arms, another a threatening set of spikes down his back, and they all had strange patterns of horns and ridges on their heads that made them look demonic. Their facial expressions, however, reminded Carla more of a class of kindergarten children on a field trip.
The three now sat huddled together on a bench in the shuttle's rear cabin. Carla felt sorry for them. Flarm had said the horns and spikes and extra arms were things they just adopted for fashion - Jelvans had a sort of limited 'morphing' ability, apparently.
Hy and Kagan were sitting at opposite ends of the cabin glaring at each other, and, intermittently, at the monks. Carla felt no great sympathy for them, particularly after what Flarm said Kagan's mispronunciation of her name meant in High Partuuni.
Rhino was on the radio discussing their situation with Jack back on Earth.
"So did you find out what they wanted with the bananas?" Jack asked.
"Yeah," said Rhino, "apparently their Grand Poobah said the word in a religious ceremony."
"Not one of the pronouncements of the Haruk G'na?"
"Hhrk. Right, that's it."
"Damn. Those are broadcast all over the IJSE. If they go back to Jelva with the bananas, Earth could end up becoming the fashionable new pilgrimage."
"You remember what happened on Fingorn III when that Jelvan caught a fish that looked like Wgang the Holy?"
"Yeah. The place was flooded by Jelvan fisherman and the yumiku stocks were wiped out. The whole fishery crashed. Still, it was good for tourism."
"We don't want tourism, Rhino."
"I know. Only problem is, if we send them back without the bananas, the same thing could happen. Getting bananas could become like some kind of Holy Grail quest."
"We have to find a way to nip this in the bud."
Rhino nodded. "Okay... I think I know how to do it. You wanna press any charges?"
"Against the monks, or Abbot and Costello?"
"Charging the monks could be a headache. As for Hy and Kagan... I think giving them a scare would be far more productive. It'll keep them away from our soft drinks for a while."
"Already done. Hy thinks Carla's confiscating his ship."
"Glad to hear it. Okay, Rhino, I'll leave it in your hands. See you soon."
They signed off. Rhino looked around the front cabin thoughtfully. He'd brought a small bunch of bananas along just in case, but what could he use for the rest of it?
"Hey, Flarm. You still playing Magic: The Gathering?"
"Sure. You want a game?"
"You have your cards with you?"
"A few choice decks. I built this pretty nasty blue and green deck -- "
"Great. Get them out and join me in the aft."
He reached into the storage bin and pulled out the bananas. He found Carla watching him.
"You play?" he asked.
"Ah... no," she said. "But I'm curious what you're up to."
"Come watch while I teach the Jelvans to play. I'll explain later."
"You keep saying that."
H'yhy Hyh-hy still wore a sour expression as they cleared the system's gravity well and got ready to warp out.
"Whoo," breathed Kagan, "Close one, eh?"
"Expensive one, you mean." H'yhy Hyh-hy punched. "We've got a jammed main docking port, about six hundred Gobliaks worth of additional damage that idiot Flarm did cutting us loose - and don't try telling me that wasn't deliberate; a busted equip locker, and to top it all off, we had to give that GC deputy one of the Game boards in exchange for letting us go. We didn't even get any Kar-fi. We'll be lucky to break even on this frelling trip..."
"Hey," said Kagan, "It's not all bad. At least we got the ship back. And Kanin told me to forget about the fifty kanp I owed him."
His partner snorted.
"And," continued Kagan, "the customers got their fruit and a new toy to play with."
He glanced back into the lounge area. Virlen, Pirbl and Ruuttfut were absorbed in Magic: The Gathering, a large box of cards next to them.
"Your go, Pirbl."
"Okay. Here come the Scathe Zombies, Ruuttfut."
"I'll block them with my Scryb Sprites."
"That's good little cannon fodder..."
"Should we recite a Platitude or something?"
"No Platitudes in this game, Virlen."
"What kind of a game doesn't have any Platitudes?"
"It must be Episcopalian... you done, Pirbl?"
"Yup, go ahead."
"Okay, it's mana time..."
Hy shook his head. "Jelvans. That's it, no more monks onboard."
"Hey, " said Kagan thoughtfully, "you think these humans would license us to deal the thing to the Cantovarians?"
Hy looked at Kagan in surprise. "Say... that's not a bad idea. I bet we could swing a deal with the casino on Magar Mosta. Good thinking, Kagan."
"I'm a born businessman. Here, you handle things up here, I'm gonna see if they'll teach me to play..."
Roger, Rhino and Carla sat in the break room. A bag of pretzels lay open in the centre of the table. Carla was sipping a Dr. Pepper, while Rhino toyed with an empty water bottle. Roger had something green in his coffee cup that neither of the others wanted to get to close to.
"Let me get this straight," said Roger. "You gave the Jelvans a bunch of bananas - in violation of codes ST 783 sections 14 through 21 regarding export of fruits and vegetables - plus a box of illegally fabricated copyrighted materials, then let them go after knocking up their ship and asking for and receiving a bribe."
Rhino nodded. "Sound like the list."
"Very nicely done, Rhino."
"Thanks, Roger. You up for a game of Tyghel Na later?"
"No, really, I'd planned to spend the evening cataloguing my collection of exotic cooking oils. Anything Jelvan's a little weird for me, frankly."
"I'm in," said Carla.
"Great." Rhino grinned. "I'll ask Phil if she wants to play, too."
"Are you sure you want to expose Carla to playing board games with Phil?" said Roger. "She hasn't been cleared for combat duty yet."
"If she gets rough, I'll just get Rhino to head-butt her," said Carla. Rhino chuckled. "Why didn't you tell me you had an ultra-hard skull?"
"Aw, it's a bit embarrassing," said Rhino, "When I was in the Marines I got mixed up with a radiation leak... Lucky for me my body didn't realise that it was suppose to get cancer, not superpowers."
"Wow," said Carla, "Were you on some kind of top-secret mission?"
"Naw, that's the embarrassing part," said Rhino, "I just got really drunk with some buddies off duty at a nuke plant, and , well, they double-dog dared me..."
Carla laughed. "That's the first time I've heard of someone becoming a superhero because he got drunk."
"So, Rhino," said Roger, "when do you expect your little plan to discourage further Jelvan visitors will kick in?"
"Well, it's about a week from here to Jelva... after that I don't expect it to take that long."
"Are you sure it'll work?"
"Oh yeah. It'll work."
St. Wgang's Holy Cathedral, Basilica and Tournament Hall, Targa City, Targa, Jelva
Archbishop Zilm looked gravely at the Abbot Tvirdiel of Tigngdor. "You did very well to bring this to my attention at once, Brother Abbot. If this was to get out of hand, the consequences could be dire."
The Cardinal Vbiji-toor, seated next to Tvirdiel at the table, nodded his agreement - or rather, the Jelvan equivalent, which is to rotate your nose rapidly.
"His Holiness does not exaggerate. Troubled though our times may be, this has the potential to be the most serious heresy in several centuries." Cardinal Vbiji-toor headed the Sacred Congregation for the Regular and Tournament Doctrines of the Faith, the body charged with keeping the "Orthodox" in the Targan Orthodox Church.
Tvirdiel gestured at the several boxes of Magic cards spread out over the table. "I made certain that all the material was confiscated. The brothers involved have been set to a rigorous program of penitence, meditation and campaigning. There were a great many, I'm afraid."
"Do you not think it wise to expel them from the Order, your Holiness?" the Cardinal asked Zilm. Zilm shook his head - or rather, waggled his ears and fingers.
"I cannot blame them, Cardinal. I will consult His Magnificence, of course, but I believe he will agree drastic action will cause more harm than good..."
He regarded the barbaric cards. "No, I feel the best course for us to take is to destroy these cards, and the banana fruit, and issue an edict banning the Faithful from the heathen Sol system."
"That is very wise, Your Holiness," said Tvirdiel. Vbiji-toor looked less pleased - he had rather been hoping for an Inquisition, or a Crusade, or something similarly juicy.
"It is prudent," said the Archbishop. "That this demonic 'Magic' game should enthral half the monastery in less than two days is alarming. I shudder to think what this 'Nethack' the human spoke of would do if allowed here..."
Zilm smiled at the Abbot. "Do not blame yourself, Tvirdiel - I dare say I would have approved the Banana Quest myself under similar circumstances. In fact, I would say it has given us yet another insight into the Hhrk G'Na's words. The banana is a symbol of the heresy lying in wait for the unwary, and when the Cabbage spoke through the Grand Poobah, it was delivering a much-needed warning to those of us who guard the faith."
He absently shuffled the cards laid in front of him. "Of course, the existence of the banana fruit must be denied, and the official interpretation outside these walls must be as discussed prior to the Quest."
"It is an object lesson in the subtlety of the Hhrk G'Na," said Vbiji-toor, "While it seems to echo the teachings of the Nymonéanists, it warns us of the danger of heresy."
"Yes, one may approach it in such a way," said Zilm. "Now, brothers, let us put this unpleasant business aside for the moment... Brother Tvirdiel?"
"Thank you, Your Holiness..."
He twiddled a card on the table in front of him, and produced another from the array in his hands.
"I will, ah, cast Lightning Bolt on your Wall of Wood, Cardinal."