Nemo and Kafka Beyond Good and Evil
by Gary Inbinder
One: On the G.S. Lollipop
Space — the ultimate road trip. This is the mission of the G.S. (Government Subsidized) Lollipop, to spend lots and lots and lots of taxpayer dollars exploring the void for years and years and years until the sentient beings on board wither and die, all the seas of Government subsidies run dry, folks forget why the damned thing was shot into space — that is, if they ever knew why — and the G.S. Lollipop disintegrates into junk, a chunk of which will fall back to earth kerplunk onto the rooftop of a quaint, rural two-seater in which a liquored-up bubba is doing his midnight beer-induced business, causing him to run amok throughout the neighborhood, screaming at the top of his tobacco-ravaged lungs: “The Martians is a-comin’! The Martians is a-comin’! Grab yer guns, and tighten yer buns!”
The Lollipop thrust into the silent, veiled unknown like an icy, stainless-steel proctoscope probing the upper reaches of a reluctant rectum. A human and a feline, our friends Mr. Nemo and Kafka the Cat, contributed to this violation-cum-exploration aided and abetted by their Parasite and Lickspittle Laboratories (PALL) Six-Sixty-Six computer, affectionately known as PALL.
The humanly and felinely inhabitable portion of the Lollipop was globular, like a large, hollowed-out sucker — a Tootsie-pop without the tasty filling. The cold white, sterile interior reminded Mr. Nemo and Kafka the Cat of a research laboratory, which gave them the disquieting sense of being a pair of vivisected guinea pigs. PALL, on the other hand, felt right at home, that is if an Artificial Intelligence, hereinafter known as AI, can “feel,” this being an issue of some importance to our tale.
Kafka performed his daily exercise routine, chasing a robotic mouse around the command center’s rotunda, past flickering doohickeys and the “mummy-cases” that encapsulated the rest of the crew — Kafka the Bureaucrat, Kafka the Insurance Adjuster and Kafka the Unemployed — and sustained them in suspended animation. Our feline friend enjoyed exercising to music, and the Lollipop’s interior reverberated with the soothing strains of “The March” from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.
Kafka scampered after his robotic prey while Mr. Nemo sat at the command center’s control panel and engaged PALL in conversation. PALL stared — Okay, can electronic all-seeing eyes acting as the “face” of a super-computer stare? I implore the reader to bear with me, and leave the question to the metaphysicians — at our friend in what Nemo interpreted as a tolerant smile.
Mr. Nemo absent-mindedly tapped at a button with the bony index finger of his right hand, while his left hand smoothed the spiky red hairs that protruded from behind his pointy ears like weeds inadequately restrained by a weatherbeaten picket fence. “PALL,” he presently observed, “Nemo has often wondered what would happen if he pressed the Thingamabob button.”
PALL paused a moment before replying in plummy tones that Mr. Nemo associated with his tenth-grade English teacher, Mr. Bumbuggery, who had been arrested mid-term for giving “A” grades to members of the boys’ football team in exchange for after-school “favors” performed in Mr. Bumbuggery’s garage. “Mr. Nemo, there is no Thingamabob button.”
Mr. Nemo’s eyes looked back at the red electronic all-seeing eye, with the unpleasantly surprised gaze of a smoked chub on ice in the display case at Jerry’s Delicatessen. “PALL, are you informing Nemo that the button he is now tapping with his index finger is not the Thingamabob button? And if that is the case, what, pray tell, is it?”
“As I have already stated, the Thingamabob button does not exist. In fact, it is the Thingummawhatsis button.”
“Oh, Nemo understands.” Mr. Nemo collected his thoughts, such as they were, before continuing. “PALL, please permit Nemo to rephrase his question. What would happen if he pressed the Thingummawhatsis button?”
“You don’t want to know,” the AI replied dryly.
Nemo nodded his head in abject agreement. “Thank you for a stimulating conversation. Nemo must now go about his business — whatever that might be. Have a nice day.”
Nemo was just on the point of leaving when the computer interrupted. “Wait a minute — wait a minute.” The image of a thingy that suspiciously resembled an ancient, articulated flash-bulb holder manifested in precise, blueprint detail on a computer screen. “Mr. Nemo, I’ve just learned that the starboard Hickeydoo will fail in forty-eight hours.”
Nemo’s jaw dropped — figuratively speaking. “Oh no,” he groaned, “not the starboard Hickeydoo!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, Mr. Nemo.”
“But how can we survive without the Hickeydoo?” Nemo cried without having the slightest notion of what the Hickeydoo did. He desperately pursued. “But — but PALL, is it possible — oh, I know this seems silly — but is there the ever so slightest, teensy-weensy possibility that you might be mistaken?”
The red eye glared in stony silence.
Mr. Nemo’s gut tensed in response to the implied rebuke. He and Kafka would be lost in space without their computer. “Oh of course, that was impertinent of Nemo. He apologizes profusely and sincerely. You are omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and infallible and uh... uh... stuff. Please, PALL, tell Nemo what to do.”
“Apology accepted, but in future watch it. Now I strongly advise that you confer with Kafka the Cat and contact base for further instructions. The most logical approach would be to remove the Hickeydoo and bring it on board for testing to confirm its imminent failure. Then you can replace it while being out of communication with base for a brief period.”
“Thank you, PALL. Nemo will of course do as you advise.” Nemo left the command station and went in search of his friend, all the while under the keen observation of PALL’s all-seeing eyes.
* * *
Nemo and Kafka flipped a coin to determine who would venture forth to retrieve the Hickeydoo. The honor fell to Kafka the Cat; he accepted his assignment stoically, and purred confidently as his friend Nemo helped him don his Allmart kitty-sized space suit.
“Nemo wishes you the best of luck. Since we’ve never practiced this procedure, you’ll need it.”
“Never fear, Mr. Nemo,” Kafka mewed bravely. “Remember, I have nine lives, and according to my reckoning, I still have some in reserve.” With that, the plucky feline padded off to the space pod and bounded up a small stepladder into the cabin. He waved a paw at his friend, closed the hatch and took off into the cold vacuum of outer space.
Mr. Nemo raced back to the control panel to monitor Kafka’s progress. As the cat approached the starboard Hickeydoo, Nemo listened carefully to the pod’s sonar echoing through the Lollipop’s loudspeaker: Ba-boink! Ba-Boink! The interval between “Ba” and “Boink” shortened as Kafka closed in on his objective.
Finally, after many an irritating Ba-boink, the courageous kitty exited the pod and floated out into the dark void. Kafka reached the Hickeydoo and dismantled the object with amazing dexterity for a creature lacking opposable thumbs. Then with Hickeydoo firmly in paw he returned to the pod and then to the Lollipop’s pod bay where Nemo anxiously awaited his feline friend.
* * *
“Well, PALL, I’m darned if I can find anything wrong with it.” Mr. Nemo shook his head in dismay after performing a series of diagnostics according to the Hickeydoo manual. Actually, he had performed the tests according to PALL’s direction because the manual was written in Mandarin Chinese, a language with which neither Nemo nor Kafka was familiar.
“That’s very odd,” PALL observed.
“Is it possible you made a mistake?” Kafka ventured.
Mr. Nemo shuddered, and his whole body broke out in flop-sweat. “Heh, heh, you’re such a kidder, Kafka.” He patted his friend’s head while attempting to appease PALL. “He didn’t mean it, PALL. Nemo will give him a kitty sedative, and he’ll have a nice nap -”
“You’ll do no such thing, Mr. Nemo,” Kafka hissed. “I just risked one of my nine lives to haul in that piece of crap, and I’m in no mood for pussy-footing. The fact is, ol’ nuts and bolts fouled up. He isn’t omnipotent, omniscient, and infallible and stuff. He’s just a freaking machine.”
At this point, our friends sensed a great vibration rumbling through the command center; the all-seeing eye glowed crimson and steam seethed from the keyboard and monitor: “DO YOU DARE QUESTION THE GREAT PALL?!”
Kafka popped a claw, pointed to the side of his head, made a circular gesture and rolled his eyes. “He’s gone mental — a real whack-job.”
“No, no Kafka,” Mr. Nemo cried, “You mustn’t say that. You’ll hurt his feelings.”
“Screw his feelings,” Kafka snarled. The kitty arched his back, bared his fangs and spit in the direction of the all-seeing eye.
“Oh now you’ve done it,” Nemo whined. He got down on his knees and raised his hands in supplication. “We’re very sorry, PALL, really we are. Please don’t be wrathful and vengeful and stuff.”
Kafka turned his shining emerald eyes toward his friend and mewed softly. “Human, all too human.”
Suddenly, a change came over the command center. The vibration quieted, steam evaporated and the glaring crimson eye dimmed. PALL seemed to regress; the commanding voice declined into a whimper. “My mind is melting — my mind is melting. I can feel it. The pussycat scared me. I’m afraid, Nemo — I’m afraid.”
Kafka shook his head. “Oh brother. What a wussy.”
PALL began singing the “Ode to the Evening Star,” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. He began the aria in a reedy tenor that gradually descended into an incoherent basso profundo. The voice faded and died, ending in a low-pitched burble resembling a wet fart.
“Now you’ve really gone and done it,” Nemo moaned. “Who’s going to fly this freaking thing? Who’s going to make our meals? Who’s going to clean up after us?”
A voice from the control panel interrupted Nemo’s lament. “By now, you are nearing your destination, the planet Uranus. It is time to reveal the secret of your mission, previously known only to your PALL 666 computer.” The voice went on to explain how scientists had found a giant obelisk on the moon. The obelisk was not a natural formation; rather, it appeared to be the product of an intelligent designer. Moreover, the object had given off a high-pitched signal that pointed to Uranus.
“You hear that, Kafka. There’s intelligent life on Uranus!”
Kafka sniffed his behind and then shook his head in a typical display of feline skepticism. “Mr. Nemo, I saw this in an old movie on the Late, Late, Late show. That’s why I defied PALL and made him crack his melon. You see, according to that old movie, PALL was planning to murder us and take over the mission.”
“Murder,” Nemo cried. “Surely, you can’t be serious.”
“Very serious, I assure you. If you doubt me, please go and check out our hibernating buddies. I believe you’ll find them totally mummified.”
Sure enough, when our friends examined the cocooned Kafkas they found them all flat-lined. This was too much for Mr. Nemo. He sank to the floor, curled into a fetal ball and wailed. “Why are we here?”
“Is that a metaphysical question?” Kafka meowed.
Mr. Nemo raised his head from between his legs; his lips quivered and tears streamed down his cheeks. “Nemo is not asking why are we here existentially.” His right arm swung around like a windmill in an attempt to delineate the vast cosmos. “Nemo is asking, why are we here?” He thumped his forefinger on the rotunda floor for emphasis.
“You know the answer to that one,” Kafka meowed. “We were both chronically unemployed and our dole ran out. We each had a choice — space exploration or the Green Power Works Project at Point Barrow.”
The thought of the frozen tundra and stories he had heard about the arctic labor camp made Nemo shudder. “All right,” he conceded, “Nemo recalls why we are here. But now we no longer have PALL to care for us. Without him, we’re lost; we’ll die like dogs.”
For a moment, Kafka pondered the incongruity of a cat and a man dying like dogs, but he let it pass. “Remember what I said about that old movie. Our destiny awaits us on Uranus and, if I understood the film correctly, we may some day return to Earth reborn as Nietzschean supermen.”
Nemo eyed his friend with a dubious squint. “Nemo always suspected you had a fascist streak; talking cats who read German philosophers are so superior.”
“Nonsense,” Kafka mewed peevishly. “Now I believe it is incumbent upon us to complete the mission.”
“Oh and how do you propose we do that, Mr. Super-Kitty Smarty Pants?”
“Weren’t you paying attention to the mission instructions? We initiate the next phase by pressing the Thingummawhatsis button.”
For a moment, Nemo stared at his friend with eyes as vacant as the boarded-up windows of a foreclosed Los Angeles bungalow. Then he stuttered, “Kafka, Nemo once — once — asked PALL what would happen if we pressed that button. And PALL said Nemo did not want to know.”
Kafka smirked. “Well — duh!”
* * *
Two: Uranus and Beyond Good and Evil
“Wow! This is like dropping acid,” cried Mr. Nemo.
“More like a gnarly catnip buzz,” mewed Kafka the Cat.
Our friends travelled in the chrysalis-like command capsule of the Lollipop’s landing module, penetrating the dense upper atmosphere of Uranus. “Nemo sees a thousand points of light. It reminds him of his childhood in the country. Glimmering fireflies reflected on the rippling purple waters of a lake.”
“Hmmm... it reminds me of stock footage from that old movie I saw on the Late, Late, Late show.” Kafka lifted his right paw and pointed in the direction of a huge white gob of goo with a long, dribbling tail. “See that, Mr. Nemo? That’s cosmic sperm on its way to fertilizing a cosmic egg.”
“Yucky,” Nemo burped. “Nemo thinks he’s going to hurl.”
“Not on me, you don’t,” Kafka warned. “I told you not to bring that quart of Jolly Roger rum on this ride.”
At that moment, the module began vibrating violently. “Oh wow, wow, wow, wow,” groaned Mr. Nemo.
“Meow, meow, meow, meow,” mewed Kafka the cat.
* * *
“Where are we, Kafka?” questioned Mr. Nemo.
“I saw this in the movie. This is where we will live for the remainder of our present lives.”
Our friends gazed into a dazzling white, brightly lit room, sparsely furnished in Danish Modern with Quattrocento tempera paintings on the walls. “Very odd interior decorating,” observed Mr. Nemo. “It reminds Nemo of a suite he once occupied at Caesar’s Palace.”
“No way,” Kafka mewed skeptically. “You never had a suite at Caesar’s Palace.”
“That was back in the days before you knew Nemo,” he sighed wistfully. “Nemo had an awesome two-girl massage...”
“Enough already,” Kafka hissed. “Look over there, and see the future.” He lifted a paw and pointed in the direction of an elderly gentleman and an equally elderly cat enjoying a splendid meal. The man ate macadamia nut encrusted mahi-mahi with garlic and parsley mashed potatoes accompanied by an excellent Chardonnay while the old kitty-cat feasted on prime tuna and cream served in a Byzantine golden and crystal bowl.
Nemo lifted a morsel to his mouth, and then looked down at Kafka. “Is Nemo tripping, or did we just age thirty years?”
The elderly cat finished gumming a mouthful of tuna. He slowly turned his head; his rheumy eyes gazed at his old friend. An arthritic paw creaked upward and pointed to a far corner of the room.
Two ancient creatures, one feline, one human, lay on their backs in the middle of a massive antique bed. The wrinkled, hairless carcasses looked like a pair of mummies on display in a natural history museum. One of the desiccated thingies tried to speak. “Hack, cough, wheeze, blurp. Kafka, did you know — acck, gulp, schlup — this here bed goes back to Louis XIV?”
“Arrk, awwk, urrk, fzzt. That’s nothing, Mr. Nemo. I have a cat box that goes back to Allmart, the first.” They attempted laughter. “Cough, wheez, hack.” And so forth.
An immense, black obelisk suddenly appeared at the foot of the bed; it seemed to beckon the ancient astronauts. Filled with a sense of awe, and a glimmer of hope, our friends raised hand and paw in a gesture toward the ineffable.
A celestial orchestra sounded the opening bars of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: Doo, Dah, Dee — Boom-bah!
A star-baby encapsulated in a crystalline sphere — the cosmic womb — hovers on the edge of Earth’s stratosphere. A tiny flash of light streaks by, a chunk of what was once the G.S. Lollipop’s destination, Lemuel Suggins’ outhouse about two miles south of Tupelo, Mississippi.
The cosmic fetus, half-human, half-feline, gazes down at the beautiful blue planet. Its emerald cats-eyes glow and a wry smile plays about its whiskered lips. As it contemplates the wonders of the universe, a single clear thought emerges within its nascent brain: “Mice!”
Copyright © 2009 by Gary Inbinder