On July the 19th, 1985, planet Earth was officially labelled ‘Overpopulated’ by the United Nations.
If readers do not recall reading about this
momentous occasion in the newspapers or the history books, do not despair.
The reason for this omission is due to it occurring in an alternative dimension, utterly divorced from the one within which you are reading these words. In fact, if you take a moment, you will probably find that you are able to stretch your arms and legs as far as they can go without touching anyone at all (unless you are taller than most, in which case my sincere apologies to the poor unfortunate soul sitting adjacent to you).
In this substitute dimension, the elderly and
unemployed were dispatched in miniature Rocket Assisted Terrestrial-spheres, or
RATs, to orbit the Earth, with 4 weeks worth of Earthly visitation rights which
they could spend whenever and however they saw fit.
The RATs were extremely efficient machines, running on both solar and kinetic energy, provided by the treadmills installed in each individual model.
Supplies and fuel could be obtained from one of 132 docking stations that were also orbiting around the Earth, and these visits were often a good way to communicate directly with the other Outerclasses.
Most people took advantage of these opportunities and it wasn’t long before they replaced the blue skies of memory with a sky of grated steel.
“Bad news, worse news,
I don’t wanna know! Hi-Hi-Ho, Potato-to!
Good news, better news, I doubt I’ll ever know! Hi-Hi-Ho, Potato-to!
Some news, any news, that’s all I wanna know! Hi-Hi-ho-oh--ACHOO!!”
I had spent the previous 12 hours in nothing but my underwear, aware that in this tiny orbiting shuttle, there was no one to see me and very little reason to get dressed or even to get out of bed.
It was one of the few comforts the isolation of outer space provided, being able to scratch your saggy bits as you please without the fear of a domesticated housewife pointing and screaming at your genitalia.
Unfortunately, this casual attitude had resulted in a sly but brutal virus. I couldn’t stop sneezing and my throat felt as though it had been flayed with a leather belt.
I was currently hunched over on a stainless steel chair, wrapped in a duvet with oriental lotus flowers printed on it, and sticking a serrated bread knife into the heart of a potato.
I had been singing to try and rid my throat of its tenderness, but the gentle caress of song was doing nothing for my condition. I continued to work in silence, dragging the knife around the circumference of the potato and repeating the process, in order to deepen the gash.
It had been 2 whole
years since I’d last lived on Earth. I’d stayed in a cramped apartment with 4
other students, all of us having acquired Training Visas to study on the
surface for three years. Every single windowsill in that apartment had a cactus
on it when I had arrived, and I never knew why. There was also a greenish-brown
mould on my bedroom wall that I sometimes bemusedly imagined coming alive and
eating me in my sleep.
I had studied architecture in the city of Vienna. Cooking became a passion of mine while I was there, and I’d nearly failed my second year exams due to the frat-boy lifestyle. But I scraped away with a degree, and it was only 2 days after shaking hands with the college Dean that I found myself packed up and sent back to the launch pad in Budapest.
“We’ll contact you when we’re in need of your services,” trilled a plump lady behind the college reception desk, as I climbed aboard a shuttle bus headed towards the launch pad. I stabbed the potato extra hard as I remembered her nonchalance.
When I arrived back on
the RAT, I’d been unsure what to do with myself. Most of my fellow students,
finding themselves in similar situations, began visiting the docking stations
with increasing regularity, spending their ration coupons irresponsibly and erratically.
Barry LeMaas took up guitar. He quoted The Ordinary Boys as his primary inspiration and only left the docking stations when he was completely broke.
Linda Kinsella found out she was pregnant when she reboarded her RAT. She and a slimy, lanky fellow appealed for a RAT family unit and she soon lost all interest in pursuing a life on the surface.
I didn’t want to follow either of these paths, especially the one that involved pregnancy, so I began drawing up experimental blueprints for more practical building designs on the surface of Earth. I won’t bore you all with the complexity and ingenuity of these designs, but I was very proud of the way the revolving doors doubled as jet turbines in emergency situations.
I saved my ration
coupons, resisting the lure of the docking stations and hoping that one day I
could cash them all in for an apartment, when my services were needed on Earth.
One with a cactus on the windowsill.
A month went by. Two months. Six. A year…
It was just this morning, on the two year anniversary of my departure that I encountered what I thought was an Alien. A particularly violent sneeze had caused me to bang my wrist on the ships CPU, accidentally switching off the gravity maintenance. For some strange reason, I found myself thinking of Jesus Christ on the cross as I floated haphazardly across the room, thinking what an easy time he would have had of it if there had been no gravity in Jerusalem. I found my thoughts straying towards religion more and more lately, but I was never sure why. No one in my family had ever been particularly religious.
Suddenly, a small
creature, similar to a hedgehog in both shape and size, floated past my vision.
It had large, blunt yellow spines and no other discernible features to speak
of. It was spinning slowly and patiently in my direction, in no hurry
whatsoever to inject its lethal venom into my veins. I panicked as it got
closer and debated whether or not to just throw the switch for the airlock and
take my chances in deep space.
Realizing how irrational this was, I instead plucked a nearby bottle of cooking oil out of the air and smashed it over the Alien’s spiny body.
It was only a quarter second before impact that I realized the Alien was in fact a very old potato.
I had now finished carving a deep equator around the body of the potato, leaving a cylindrical core at the centre. I had used the knife to chop off the overgrown roots. The potato must have been gathering dust in the corner of the ship for months. I felt I could relate to it and, not for the first time, I wondered if I’d gone completely mad.
I picked up a thin
piece of cord, which I had reserved on a side table. For the past seven months,
I had whiled away some nights by practicing tying different types of knots.
Timber Hitch, Sheep Shank, even a Cat’s Paw, you name it.
I had never been good at tying knots before and I figured I might as well learn, now that time was on my side.
I wrapped the thin
cord around the potato’s centre and expertly secured it with a Lark’s Head
Then, with delicate care, I began to fashion a Hangman’s Noose with the other end of the rope, suddenly incredibly sensitive to the rope’s rough texture.
At that moment there was a loud bang and the entire Space Capsule shuddered violently, as though it had just been hit with cannonball fire.
I was thrown to the floor, my duvet with the oriental flowers sprawling over my head.
My breadknife skittered off the table and landed prongs first onto my buttocks. There wasn’t enough force to pierce the skin and, if I hadn’t been so thoroughly distracted, I would have been incredibly grateful for that fact.
I ran to the Observation Window to see what had hit the RATs’ hull. Comet clusters were rare here, so odds were, and yes, it did indeed appear to be another ship.
It was another RAT and, incredibly, I caught a quick glimpse through their Observation Window and into the Observation Deck. I could see…streamers. Party hats. Was that a keg?
“HEY, YOU STUPID DRUNK BASTARDS! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!! STOP HAVING SO MUCH FUN, YOU STUPID, DRUNK BASTARDS!!”
My voice echoed in the ships hull. As the other RAT drifted slowly into space, I realized they probably couldn’t even see me, let alone hear my muted screams. I continued to watch for some time, until they became nothing more than a dying yellow light.
With a sigh, I turned around and searched for my potato. It was on the floor beside the ventilation shaft, the cord trailing behind it.
I picked it up and tied a quick and professional Hangman’s Noose tightly around my finger. Once I’d done this, I wrapped the other end of cord tightly around the potato’s circumference several times.
The echo of my screams had all but vanished.
I let the potato go, allowing it to spin wildly. As it reached the bottom of its descent, I gave the string a slight tug, which caused the potato to flick straight back up into my open grasp.