The Great Food Chain of Being

Stansfield Miller sat in his office wishing heíd never been born, wishing his twin brother was sitting at his desk, wishing Stuart wasnít light-years away. That was the problem. When he wasn't wishing, Stan had been hating himself.

The office door opened to reveal Stan's Chief Technical Officer, Derek MacKenzie, a forlorn look on his face told him everything.

Stan asked the obvious knowing the answer already. "Has it been confirmed?"

"The follow-up report came in just now. The last maintenance robot is wedged."

Stan stared at his desk.

"Stan!" Derek shouted angrily.

He looked up, startled.

"You need to talk to someone, you're going nuts. Get up and get out." Derek glared at his boss and friend. He couldnít fix the Mayflower two light-years away, but he could do something about someone right in front of him. He grabbed Stanís coat hanging from a hook on the back of the office door and tossed it at him.

Reflexes got the better of Stan. He caught the coat breaking the spell. He stood and left saying nothing as he walked past Derek and out of the building. He drove aimlessly until he came to the center of town.

The Cathedralís spires reminded him of the ships heíd spent his life designing. The Mayflower, his most glorious design forced itself to the front of his mind. Something snapped within Stan. He got out of his car and walked into the Cathedral. A man in clerical robes was fussing about, doing something Stan didn't understand near the altar. The Priest looked up at the sound of the door.

"May I help you?" he asked.

"I guess. I have to get something off my chest. Do you take confessions here?"

The Priest nodded and motioned toward the confessional. Stan had never been to church except for weddings and funerals. He awkwardly entered the booth.

Stan didnít know what so say, so he tried to improvise from what he'd seen on TV. "Uh, Father forgive me for I have sinned. Itís been, uh, like never, since my last--I mean--Iíve never been here before."

"What sin do you have to confess?"

"Pride, hubris, I donít know. That may not be a sin to you, but that's what I feel."

"Can you explain?"

"I design space ships. Iím the best. Thatís not the pride that Iím confessing, that's cold hard fact. What I did wrong began when I believed I could design a perfect machine, a spaceship that could operate for years automatically. If you see the news tomorrow, theyíll be talking about how the Mayflower has been lost.

"It's a complicated machine--bits of it break. I thought I could build autonomous maintenance robots. I thought I could diagnose problems and fix them over the radio. Even when the radio signal takes years to go back and forth.

"The Mayflower will take 25 years to get to Alpha Centauri. It canít carry enough air and supplies for the crew and colonists to remain awake. Nobody would want to spend decades alone with nothing to do but routine maintenance on the starship years-old replies to messages from Earth. My starship had to be completely automated.

"I thought it was safe. I was sure it was safe. I deceived my brother, his wife and 250 other people into thinking it was safe. Now they are two light-years away in a broken starship and thereís no way for me to fix it."

The Priest didnít say anything for a minute but seemed to be thinking. Finally he spoke. " I donít think you really understand how all this works. Your confession isnít exactly a standard one. So, Iíll give you a not exactly standard penance. I want you to tell your story to a friend of mine."

The Priest began a more standard ritual that Stan didnít understand, but he politely listened and wondered about who that friend could be.

***

Brother Jerome Dominguez enjoyed his job as the Abbot of a little Benedictine monastery in west Texas. There was only one little flaw in his ordered life: Brother Joe Bob. Jerome wasnít the only person who had a problem with him.

Joe Bob Margham was the younger brother of the Bobbie Joe Margham 5th and a scandal to his family. Bobbie Joe Margham 5th was best known because the media called him whenever they wanted some Fundamentalist to comment on sex. Mrs. Margham was never asked if her husband was particularly well qualified to comment, nor was he ever asked about his doctoral studies in ancient Semitic archaeology. Sound bites from television evangelists about ancient Semitic archaeology didn't draw ratings.

Joe Bob, the younger brother was pretty much his opposite. Where Bobbie Joe was gregarious and outgoing, Joe Bob was quiet and introspective. Where Bobbie Joe had fallen away from the faith and later repented gloriously, Joe Bob was voted class goodie-two-shoes by the students of Margham University.

The scandal that rocked Margham University, Bobbie Joe and half the Baptists in Texas was Joe Bob's conversion to Roman Catholicism. Bobbie Joes 1st through 3rd redoubled their spinning in their graves as Bobbie Joe 4th was rushed to Margham University Hospital with chest pains.

Now Brother Joe Bob was Jerome's problem and he expressed his complaint, "It is not that I donít like the monastery. I like the Rule; I like the Order. This is a wonderful life here. You are the best Abbot I could hope for. All the Brothers are godly men. ButÖ"

Jerome had heard the next part many times before.

"But I want to be alone. I want to spend time in introspection, perfecting my devotion. There is so much I just donít have sorted out. Thereís so much I need to think through. The monastery is great, but it distracts."

The Abbot sincerely wanted to honor his monk's request. But there were problems--logistical problems. In the 10th or 11th century, one could find a nice quiet place in the wilderness. In the 23rd century, there was no wilderness. Even Antarctica was overpopulated.

Joe Bob finished, "I feel I need to be a hermit." He looked plaintively at Brother Jerome.

"You know that even if I could endorse your desire to become a Holy Hermit, I donít know how you could find a place thatís isolated." Jerome felt compassion for Joe Bob and he sincerely wanted to oblige him. "We should pray that God will provide your solution."

***

Stan Miller didnít understand why he went along with the penance thing. He didnít really believe that heíd done anything more than sought some kind of psychological solace. As far as he was concerned, God was nothing more than a useful metaphor. In his unbelief, Stan performed his penance, retelling his story to Brother Jerome.

The Abbot was quiet for a moment after Stan finished. Then he summoned Brother Joe Bob. As they waited, the Abbot explained how well suited a monk was to decades of isolation.

After introducing Brother Joe Bob, Stan repeated his story and added a question. "Would you be willing to spend 25 years in complete isolation while performing some occasional maintenance on a starship?" Joe Bobís eyes grew wet with tears of thankfulness. Stan continued, "Conditions would be fairly Spartan. There would not be much food or much variation in the diet. It would be the bare minimum to sustain you without suffering malnutrition."

Joe Bob wiped is eyes and spoke. "That wouldnít be a problem. Iíve been fasting since I last asked Brother Jerome if I could become a Holy Hermit. But I'm no engineer. Would I be able to perform the technical aspect of the duties you have in mind?"

Stan shook his head. "Most of the problems weíve had were things that went a little wrong and took a year or two to become critical. With the ship light-years away we canít make trivial adjustments from the ground. The maintenance robots do the work, but they canít be directly controlled from the ground. We really need human judgement overseeing the work."

"I want the job," Joe Bob exclaimed. He looked at the Abbot. Only he could release him in good conscience to this new vocation.

"I want you to take some psychological tests first. If you pass, you can go."

***

Stan threw himself into building the Penance and outfitting another expedition to Alpha Centauri. Derek MacKenzie volunteered to serve as captain of the starship. Brother Joe Bob gladly learned everything he could about how things might break and what he had to do to fix them. He familiarized himself with the technical reference materials stored in the shipís computers. The Penance carried an extensive library since it was intended to be the basis of the future colonyís culture. Hopefully, he would have time to research the answer to any problems that might crop up..

The monk's psychological profile was as stable as anyone could hope. The colonists weren't religious, but they were superstitious, regarding Brother Joe Bob's religion as a good luck charm. He was quietly friendly to each despite his desire to become a hermit. Preparations for launch went quickly and each colonist made a point to talk briefly with the monk before they entered the suspended animation freezers. On launch day, Bobbie Joe 5th showed up with a gift.

"This has been in the family since our great-great granddad rode the sawdust trail. I want you to have it." Bobbie Joe 5th handed Joe Bob an ancient revolver.

"I remember this gun. He caught two crooks stealing the offering after a big tent revival meeting."

"Yup, now tell me what he did with it."

"He got the drop on them, dug out the second cash box and forced them at gunpoint to take that, too." Joe Bob grinned at the memory. "He got it all back three Sundays later when those sinners repented and came forward in a revival meeting. But Bobbie Joe, I donít think Iíll be needing a gun in interstellar space."

"Maybe youíll have a chance to go hunting when you get to Alpha Centauri. Mostly, I want you to remember to see the opportunity in what looks like a bad situation."

They said their good byes, hugged and Joe Bob entered the Penance as Bobbie Joe 5th entered a crowd of reporters who asked him about sex.

***

The next five years passed quietly. Things drifted out of alignment, or adjustment, or tune and Joe Bob watched the maintenance robots align, adjust and tune. About three years into the flight, he had to stop a maintenance robot from doing something stupid. It saved the ship. The Holy Hermit was more pleased with what was going on inside himself. He enjoyed the opportunity to devote his life to devotion.

A red light flashed on the control panel, but Joe Bob didn't notice. Then a small beeping sound came from next to the red light. He opened his eyes and ended his prayer. Rising from his knees, he studied the instrument panel.

A radar proximity detector said something was out there in the starship's path. It wasnít an asteroid. It was more like something approaching the starship from the side. Joe Bob watched the object maneuver. Asteroids donít maneuver, do they? he thought. It approached the starship and matched its velocity. No, asteroids donít match velocities. That's certain. And they donít shoot grappling cables at starships either.

Grappling hooks attached themselves to the hull of the Penance and Joe Bob watched figures climb along the cables to the starship. He crossed himself and quickly prayed that he'd do the right thing. He felt a tightness in his throat. Going to his broom closet sized cabin, he retrieved his great-great granddadís pistol and strapped it to his hip. His hands trembled as he fumbled with the holster's buckle.

The air lock cycled and a figure emerged as Joe Bob peeked around a corner of the corridor. Two more figures emerged as the first removed its helmet. They didnít seem to be carrying. Joe Bob stepped into the open and raised his gun.

"You boys are trespassing."

The figures werenít boys. They werenít girls either. Joe Bob later learned they were Lasanians. The two figures in the rear turned their heads to look at Joe Bob and then at their leader who raised his hands over his head. The two figures did the same.

This is looking good, Joe Bob thought to himself.

Then the lights went out.

***

Joe Bob was never a drinking man. So, he never really knew what a hangover felt like. He assumed that the miserable combination of headache and nausea he felt must approximate a hangover. His head pounded worse when he tried to sit up. It looked like he was on board the alien ship. He was pretty sure they were aliens. The guy heíd held his gun on hadnít looked human. The face was more that of a lion than of a man, but Lions had tails and these guys didnít. And they stood on two legs, not four.

"Good morning, Mr. Margham," a deep voice sounded in his ears.

Joe Bob rubbed his head, hoping it would help. It didnít. "Good morning. Who are you?" He slowly sat up on the edge of the cot. Looking around, he saw the alien was sitting in a chair on the opposite end of the room, a plain table between them and a door on the left wall. Around his neck there hung a necklace of teeth.

"I am Huntmaster Xelif. I just wanted to clear up a few things first." The alien's attitude was warm and cordial.

"First? Before what?"

The alien chuckled. "Before I eat you, of course."

"What? Why would you want to do that?"

"Because I can. Itís not that I need the meat or hold anything against you. Itís the principle of the thing. Surely you must understand. We found it in your shipís computers."

"What?"

"The Food Chain."

The door opened and another alien whispered something in his ear. They left Joe Bob alone. He waited for a few minutes that seemed like days. Finally Xelif returned and apologized for the interruption.

Joe Bob graciously accepted the apology and then said, "I'm confused by what you said. Iíve heard of the food chain, but how does that apply here?"

"Hmmm. It seems obvious enough. You probably donít understand the philosophical principle that we call the Great Food Chain of Being. Beings that are higher on the food chain, eat those who are lower on the food chain." Joe Bob realized that despite the mane, the alien shared many of the mannerisms of his old philosophy professor. In particular, he seemed more interested in discussing this Great Food Chain of Being than in running his starship.

"Why do you think Iím lower on the food chain?"

"Look at your ship. It's nice in a primitive way, but reallyÖ Itís hardly capable of light speed, much less folding space or establishing a hyperspatial singularityÖ All the stuff that species higher on the food chain use."

"That doesnít follow. Technical capabilities arenít essential to a being. A less perfect being might steal technological gadgets from a more perfect being."

"But if the being is more perfect, then he would not permit the theft."

Joe Bob had always enjoyed arguing with his philosophy professor and he was distracted from his throbbing head and threat of imminent death. "Oh, but what if the more perfect being intentionally allowed the theft. Perhaps one would do so as a disguised gift to protect the ego of the lesser being."

"I see your point. OK, Iíll grant that it does not necessarily follow that technological superiority makes a being more perfect." The Lasanian seemed to enjoy the debate.

"I have another reason why you donít want to eat me."

"What is that?"

"Iím tough and skinny. I wouldnít really taste that good."

"Well, we could fatten you up. In the mean time, I note that your starship is filled with frozen treats that look like they would taste much better."

As Joe Bob remembered that more than his own life was at stake, he grew serious. "Could you give me time to pray before you eat me or the colonists?"

"Pray, what's that?"

"I will make requests of the Most Perfect Being."

"You actually address requests to the Most Perfect Being? You are most strange. Usually, Less Perfect beings try not to draw the attention of More Perfect beings. They might be hungry." Xelif left the room to give Joe Bob privacy.

He prayed for many things, most prominent of which was that heíd say the right thing to Xelif. After an hour, the Lasanian returned. He was carried a large butcher knife. It seemed redundant, since the fangs and claws of the alien seemed more than sharp enough to butcher Joe Bob.

"What is hunger?" Joe Bob asked.

"It is a lack of food."

"And if a being hungers, doesnít that lack indicate a lesser degree of perfection?"

"I suppose, where are you going?"

"If the Most Perfect Being were to be hungry, he would be less perfect than a stone that does not hunger. Isnít that right?"

"Oh my," Xelif exclaimed. Joe Bob saw a subtle change in the expression on the alien's face. "I never thought of that. There would be no reason not to pray to a Most Perfect Being. This is a stunning thought." The Lasanian looked down, his eyes darted back and forth between two imaginary points on the floor in front of him.

Joe Bob pressed his advantage. "If one being realized something so important about the Most Perfect Being, and another being did not, wouldnít the first being be more perfect than the second being?"

Xelif put the butcher knife on the table before him and put his head between his paws. The paws played with the mane tangling it. Joe Bob realized for the first time how well combed the Lasanian's hair had been. Absently, the alien spoke, "This is remarkable. I shall think on your words," and abruptly he left the room.

Joe Bob didnít know exactly where he stood with the alien. But at least Xelif was thinking about something besides recipes. Joe Bob decided that now was a good time to start a fast. He didnít want to be looking tasty as Xelif decided his fate.

***

Days went by and Joe Bob answered various questions that Xelif brought to him. The Lasanian was going through the Penance's computers, downloading all manner of difficult texts. The alien needed help understanding Descartes.

One day Xelif came to Joe Bob. He'd gotten to know the alien's mannerisms well enough to recognize he was upset.

"What is this thing you call transubstantiation?"

"Itís a doctrine of my Church. Basically, the Most Perfect Being offers his flesh and blood to be eaten. Other traditions argue about the sense, symbolic or otherwise, this takes place."

"That completely turns the concept of the Great Food Chain of Being upside down."

"Well, we are talking about the Most Perfect Being. In my philosophy the Most Perfect Being can be eaten without being consumed."

Xelif held his head between his paws again. He started pulling hairs out of his mane. The rest of the conversation turned around religious matters. Ultimately Xelif converted to more or less the same religion as the crooks who tried to lift Bobbie Joe 1stís tithes and offerings.

Huntmaster Xelif was a deeply admired leader and he in turn convinced a majority of his crew that the Great Food Chain of Being was indeed upside down or something. Soon Joe Bob had a whole shipload of alien repentant sinners to deal with. Bobbie Joe 5th was the one trained to handle large numbers of converts, not Joe Bob. He did the best he could.

The Lasanians were quite grateful and asked the monk what gift he might find most valuable. They eagerly complied, returned him to the Penance, did him one more favor, and left for parts unknown.

***

The remaining years of the Penance's voyage passed without major problem or further visitation. Brother Joe Bob made the most of the Lasanian's gift. He wrote a philosophical treatise that integrated Lasanian philosophy and human philosophy into a coherent whole. He was quite proud of his accomplishment as he transmitted it directly to the Vatican.

The Penance arrived at Alpha Centauri and entered orbit around a pleasant looking planet. Joe Bob activated the cryogenic systems that reawakened the crew. The first to awaken was Captain Derek MacKenzie.

"A lot happened while you were asleep."

"What?"

"Remember the Mayflower? Itís been salvaged. When youíre ready, youíll be able to thaw them out. Iím told everyoneís safe. The Lasanians left it there as a favor for me."

"Lasanians? What?"

"They're aliens."

"Youíre kidding me. Aliens? What did they want?"

"They wanted to do lunch. But I talked them out of it."

"How is that?" Derek was confused.

"Well, itís all in my report. Basically, they wanted to eat us, but that was before they converted to Christianity. That was what ultimately convinced them that we weren't on the menu. They were grateful and gave me this?"

"What is it?"

"A book, the Lasanian philosophy and world view."

"Whatís the title?"

"To Serve Man, I helped them rewrite it. It was a cookbook."