Once upon a time in a faraway black hole, Zorf and Miq won a luxury vacation across the Universe at the Eagle Nebula charity raffle, the light-yearly universal fundraiser to save the Pillars of Creation from the implosion that destroyed them six thousand years ago – Zorf and Miq pack their suitcases with thermal spacesuits, sensible webbed-footwear, gadolinium and ytterbium muesli, bottled lava and superfine sulphur flour to knead their own crumpets, in case they don’t find tearooms in the warp-speed space-time continuum. They also stock argon canisters for air freshener, if it gets too stuffy in the cabin of their Meteor Shower Hopper 4000 IGT compact hatchback, and replenish their interstellar medicine cabinet with platinum caplets in case they catch the pulsar flu, liquidised xenon spray against asteroid bites, and band-aids for comet burns.
At around midday UTC (universe time central) they shoot past Andromeda along the spacecraft freeway, and they slow down and signal right to exit at next tourist attraction, the densely urbanised Milky Way. They decide to stop at the Solar System for refuelling.
‘Hey Zorf!’ Miq squeals. ‘Look at that cute blueberry of a planet! Let’s have lunch there!’
Zorf flounders, because hu has heard rumours that down there they have a contagious lethal disease called W.A.R. and hu doesn’t want to catch it on hus first day of vacation.
But Miq insists, claiming that those Blue Planeters, who call themselves Earthlings, as if they were a cultivar of baby ducks, are highly civilised: they are able to knit garments out of plants yarn and sheep peel, and make powdered wheat leaven into cushiony nourishment caplets they call “br-ed”.
Zorf mutters under hus breath ‘So be it, but don’t blame me if you catch a nasty case of W.A.R.! I hear that their ‘Aph-Ga-N’ strain is particularly virulent, even more if mixed with the C-Ree-N, the deadlier one that can be escaped only with mass emigration from contagion areas.’
Hu scales down the gears of their warp-speed engine, and searches for the nearest spaceship service station. Miq points at an imposing and bizarrely beautiful domed marble formation, white and solemn, opposite a circular docking bay with a sky-high parking meter pole in the centre, surrounded by a plantation of slender marble trees, obviously farmed to produce kitchen tops.
Zorf kills the engine and pops the asteroid-proof hatch open with a swish. Miq alights gracefully, wearing hus air-tight helmet and insulating thermo-regulating suit. With just 38 degrees outside, it feels below freezing.
‘Are those zebras?’ Miq quips, pointing at a pack of animals, striped red, yellow and blue, bounding towards them, gloved paws waving in the air, grunting ‘Altolà!’
‘Can’t be. Cosmospaedia claims that zebras went extinct on this planet after a multitude of riddled chickens exploited them to cross the road.’ Zorf explains pedantically. ‘Those must be parrots. According to Dr Geon Geo, one of the most prominent zoologists in the universe and professor of Earthology at Sirius College, parrots wear colourful plumage, have a spurt of red feathers on their heads and can speak several languages.’
‘Altolà. You are trespassing holy territory!’ caws the alpha-male indignantly.
Crafty Miq uses hus cosmo-materialiser to scan a pumpkin seed hologram from the Pocket Guide of the String-Theory Universes’ Traveller, to reproduce it in a handful, and to offer it to the leader as befriending gift. But the leader refuses it with a haughty gesture.
Zorf tunes hus intergalactic translator to the parrot’s caw, just to discover they aren’t parrots, but specimens of those morbidly over-evolved apes who roam the entire planet and do their best to exploit, displace and drive to extinction all the subjects of Queen Flora and Queen Fauna, rulers of the Kingdom of Plants and Animals respectively, vast empires stretching all over the solid platforms called continents and the liquid mass called oceans.
The ape is articulating in a sub-variant of their gibber of the Neo-Latin variety, called Italian, with a hint of Transtevere Roman lilt: ‘This is Saint Peter’s Square! You cannot park here, Sir.’
‘Sir? Madam?’ the Swiss Guard commander blabs tentatively, unable to tell them apart.
‘Earthling squire, be advised that we are all genders in one – and none at once. Right now, Zorf and I are tamales, because we’d fancy Mexican grub.’
As Miq yawns to communicate hunger, showing a double range of serrated teeth in an unwillingly menacing manner, the apes raise their axes, and chase them angrily.
In the ensuing ruckus, Zorf accidentally spills the contents of the ashtray: a bucketful of octahedral allotropes of carbon rains down the dumbfounded guards whose anger, inexplicably to Miq and Zorf, suddenly subsides to give way to a cackling and jubilant tribal dance.
So the space tourists’ compact takes off in hurry, and lands on a bouncy, crumbly, soft golden surface, where the temperature is way more comfortable at 56 degrees.
There, they see another group of over-evolved apes wrapped in indigo-dyed woven treacle. They straddle convex herbivore quadrupeds the same tawny colour of the giant bumpy mattress they’re lurching across, swaying from side to side in a boat-like motion.
The apes are herding a larger group of similar fellows towards a quarry of that crystalline liquid so abundant on the Blue Planet. These apes are darker, more scantily dressed, and wear chunky anklets and bracelets, so black and glossy they must be the latest fashion from some famous wiz-kid precious asphalt jewellery designer collection.
Miq and Zorf approach them, to politely ask for directions to the restroom – they’ve been holding it since the Pleiades’ shopping mall, where the queue was a light-year long because of the annual intergalactic spot-sale that is so cheap it abundantly makes up for stellar space-time-continuum-tearing fuel costs when one fills up the tank at the Neutrino’s station with vegan food court annex – the one that serves crunchy basalt burgers slathered in strontium mayo.
The human traffickers are awed by Zorf and Miq’s height. They yell: ‘Look! So tall! They must be Tutsi! Catch them! The tallest ones sell top dollar on the slave market!’
Zorf needn’t re-tune the universal translator to realise it is high time they fled. And fast!
In the commotion, Miq drops the bag of pumpkin seed and the helmet, drenched with phosphate-rich sweat. By the time they jet off, a large patch of desert is yielding nutritious plump pumpkin, enough to go round for all nomadic tribes.
So the space tourists’ hatchback takes off in a hurry, and lands on a wet, green, spiky surface. According to the Earthling-Epsilon Eridani encyclopaedic dictionary, this place is called “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Park”, and here one can do and say what one pleases. Zorf and Miq pop the hatch with the hope to greet some civilised life form, but nobody is around except a pair of hooting mallards who just flutter away before being asked any questions.
Zorf and Miq find themselves surrounded by strange pole-like creatures with flat rectangular heads featuring miscellaneous hieroglyphics the dictionary immediately scans and translates as “EXIT”.
‘Exit what?’ Miq worries and whines. ‘Earth? I don’t want to leave before lunch!’
‘Exit the European Union!’ Tut-tuts a posh received-pronunciation voice coming out of a stern-looking over-evolved ape standing before them and waving an index finger at them. It looks like a female variety of the species, possibly a mature specimen, although the lacquer on her face makes it difficult to calculate accurately. She is clad in severe fabrics and sports a rigidly sprayed tuft of sun-and-moon-coloured yarn at her top end, that Miq recalls being the favourite headdress of choice for businesswomen and dominatrices alike – known in the trade as Short Bob. Miq extends a tentacle to greet her, but she flinches in disgust, so Miq just bows a couple of hus heads in symmetry.
‘Hey Bob,’ Miq addresses the woman. ‘What’s a “European Union”?’
The woman introduces herself as Theresa-And-Not-At-All-Bob, and explains what European Union means, slowly and easily, as if Miq was a six-year old chrysalis, which is quite annoying, since hu is already 358 and counting, and perfectly capable of forming hus own judgement.
‘And why would anyone want to exit it?’ Zorf concernedly asks, watching a small angry mob gathering around. Hu starts the engine, just in case.
‘You’d better leave right now!’ One mobster booms. ‘We don’t want illegal aliens here!’
‘Our visas are stamped by the über-galactic Tourist Gassociation.’ Zorf claims. ‘Here, I have them in the oven-glove compartment… bear with me a couple of parsecs to fish them out…’
‘Hey! Tentacles where we can see them!’ Theresa-And-Not-At-All-Bob bellows – outrageously loud for such a stiff-upper-lipped creature.
The mobsters start uprooting and flinging lush green divots at Miq scampering for the safety of their spaceship. The mob shouts: ‘Go away! Back where you came from! You, wretched personal-space-invader immigrants!’
Zorf flicks the wrong switch and instead of the headlights to navigate through the fog, the polyglot Earth-to-Earth translator beam is activated. It shines over the City, whose inhabitants and commuters suddenly become fluent in every language and dialect spoken on Earth.
So the space tourists take off hurriedly, heading west and skimming the barren blue liquid plateau the Earthlings call Atlantic Ocean, in search of a refuelling station. Soon, the Meteor Shower Hopper 4000 IGT is tracing a parabola in the sky, northbound to a place marked on the map as Area SI.
‘SI in one of their speaks means yes,’ Zorf notes. ‘It must be that new highway fuel’n’food franchise we’ve heard about on the Solar System news channel.’
They land on cracked salty soil. That’s promising. The temperature is mild and the air dry, so their fluorescent tendrils won’t frizz and tangle like in the rest of unfortunate level of humidity that this planet usually exudes for its creatures to survive.
As they climb out of the compact, more apes burst out of the dirt like moles. They are similar to those encountered earlier, but even larger and wrapped in tight cocoons spun from dry leaves and branches, their extremities clad in those fins with talons called “combat boots”; and they wear half a watermelon rind on their heads, as if it was Comet Halleyween.
They point glossy dark sticks at them and order: ‘Raise your hands!’
‘Which ones? All of them?’ Zorf asks, confused.
At gunpoint, the warrior apes lead Zorf and Miq to their secret den, burrowed in the ground and decorated with random items from a palaeo-techno yard sale: antennae dissectors, cryogenic pods, brain mapping pantographs, willpower scanners and plasma centrifuge monitors.
They are escorted to the gala dining room, where a steel slab is set with exquisite stainless steel crockery and a Bunsen burner in the centre, to keep dishes warm.
Clinical halogens shine from above. ‘How romantic!’ Miq coos all starry-eyed and pouty-lipped. ‘Oh Zorf, what a lovely surprise!’
A waiter in white coat approaches them. Must be the maître, Zorf assumes. In fact, he extracts a huge corkscrew from his pocket, and walks toward them with a lopsided grin all over his sallow face, fiery eyes bulging bright like the twin supernovas of XL666.
As he is about to thrust the corkscrew into Zorf’s visual receptors, Miq grabs hum by the shortest of hus arms and breaks into a frantic jog, growling: ‘This is their dining room alright, but we are dinner!’
They skid towards the steel gate and crash it with their very mass, because gravity is 1,234,567,890 times mightier here than on their planet. They fire the Meteor Shower Hopper 4000 IGT engines and are propelled directly into outer space with the titanic explosion triggered by their oxygen exhaust turbo emissions lapping the Bunsen burner flame.
‘Light-Year-Travel Advisor will get a piece of my mind about this planet!’ Zorf swears punching the dashboard blindly and wildly in utter rage.
‘Calm down, dear. And full steam ahead to Uranus. Surely that planet is more hospitable.’
 Imaginary strain of influenza, treatable with platinum caplets. On Zorf and Miq’s planet, platinum is used in medicine and not in jewellery.
 Neologism for a gender-neutral pronoun hu/hum/hus (hur), abbreviation of human.
 This is how scientists from their planet classify the specific strain of WAR, a disease that riddles planet Earth, locally known as Afghan war. See below C-Ree-N, their spelling for Syrian. At the time of writing this story, Afghanistan and Syria unfortunately were active conflict zones, dangerous for tourists from all planets.
 The climate on Zorf and Miq’s planet is way hotter than on Earth.
 It means ‘stop right there!’ in Italian.
 Akin to Wikipedia, but comprising entries from the entire universe, or Cosmos.
 A type of Mexican food. Here used as a pun on gender definition; they are neither male nor female, but their gender is defined as tamale on their planet.
 Not-so-veiled reference to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who wears her salt’n’pepper hair in a bob.
 A marvellous and imaginary gadget that instantly translates any human language into another.
 Reference to Area 51, a top-secret facility in a top-secret desert location where the USA military or the CIA are said to keep the body of an alien for scientific research, made popular by sci-fi movies.
 Pun on the Halley Comet which regularly transits in our skies, and the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Halloween.