Garn the Magnificent stepped out of the interplanetary portal from Dagon IV and made his way over to the gray-suited attendant manning his section of the arrival hall. He could never understand why Earthlings dressed so plainly – there wasn’t even a single stitch of embroidery or a brightly colored sash to liven up the drab ensemble.
“Hello, my good man,” he boomed, slapping him companionably on the back. “I have a reservation for a connecting portal to Torchan III – leaving in ten of your minutes.”
The young man stumbled slightly and coughed – Earth dwellers were really quite delicate – and looked nervously down at his small handheld computer. “Er, I thought we’d managed to contact everyone about the change – “
“Well, I’ve been visiting the monks on Galdon-9 for the last three cycles,” Garn broke in, straightening his bright purple jacket that he’d paired that morning with a fine lime-green waistcoat he’d picked up cheap on his last trip to Par-san I. “Their ale is excellent, but they have a strict no communication policy,” he explained, holding up his video-link. “I’m afraid I turned blasted the thing off – and then forgot to turn it back on.” Garn said with a wink. He wasn’t all that eager to be back into contact anyway, since his neighbor back home had been after him to trim his front lawn for the last three months. Garn hated manual labor almost as much as he loved a good meal.
“Umm… sure,” the young man stuttered. “Well, travel to Torchan is delayed right now – on account of their quarantine procedures. They’re only letting in three people from the Washington DC transfer station per day.” He tapped and swiped at his screen few more times. “You’re in luck. We’ve had a cancellation and I could get you out on next Wednesday’s portal trip. That’s only five days from now.”
“That long!” Garn gasped. “But I’m expected by the Gaming Minister on Vegan-III day after tomorrow!” When the young man just shook his head, Garn sighed. “Oh, I suppose I can reschedule. Be a good chap and book me in at the Willard, will you?
The attendant blanched. “I’m afraid it’s closed, sir.”
“What?” Garn exclaimed. “What sort of madness is this?” He sighed again. “I suppose the Four Seasons will do. Their chef makes a decent steak.”
The young man shifted uncomfortably. “Um… all hotels and restaurants are closed, sir – because of the pandemic and everything.”
“Pandemic?” Garn gaped at the attendant. “Whatever are you talking about? Has this world gone mad?”
“Well, yeah, duh,” the young man muttered, before straightening to his full height. “It’s been on all of the interplanetary news links,” he began, then faltered when Garn just tapped his defunct ‘link. “It’s the coronavirus,” he finished weakly. “Very contagious. It’s shut down everything but essential businesses.”
“Well, my business is essential,” Garn blustered. As much as he normally enjoyed Earth, five days without a decent meal was unthinkable.
However, Garn was a particularly crafty Cambian, and he rapidly changed tactics. “I’m sure you’ve been working terribly hard with this, er, terrible contagion delaying travel so,” he said, casually taking his credit chip out of his pocket. “I suppose I couldn’t convince you to help out a fellow?”
“I’m a Government employee,” the young man exclaimed, outraged. “My integrity is unimpeachable. I can’t be bribed!” When Garn just stared steadily at him, he lowered his voice. “Where did you get that jacket?”
A few minutes later, minus one of his favorite jackets, Garn stepped out into the main waiting area with a new set of transfer tokens. Luckily, the health ministers on U-Chan II thought this whole coronavirus thing was a hoax dreamed up by the Earth government to drive up prices for Earth goods and was allowing unrestricted travel. He’d have to make a couple more stops than he’d planned for originally, but with a little luck he’d make his meeting with time to spare. After all – he had very important business to attend to. He’d promised his city’s mayor that he’d bring a real Vegan-style Tor-dice tournament to Cambia and he hadn’t visited his favorite tavern there in far too long.
The portal to U-Chan wasn’t quite in alignment with Earth, so Garn found himself with a few hours to fill – and a mightily growling stomach. With everyone assuring him that every restaurant and tavern in town was closed, there really was only one thing he could do. He powered on his link, ignoring the dozen messages from his neighbor, and began paging through his contact list.
“Hmmm…Can’t cook, boring conversation, off-world, vegetarian.” He thumbed through another half-dozen contacts, before finally hitting pay-dirt. He connected with an Earth cellular network and dialed his good friend Carol.
It took several rings, but she finally answered. “Carol, my favorite human,” he boomed. “It’s Garn!”
“You know, Garn! We met last year at that potluck thrown by Sandy.” He’d particularly enjoyed her contribution to the communal meal – some sort of fruit pastry.
“Oh – right – you were wearing that great fringed jacket with ostrich feathers.”
“They were Dobran screech-owl feathers, actually,” Garn began, but his growling stomach reminded him of the very urgent matter at hand. “Anyway, I find myself here for a short layover and wondered if you’d like to join me for a meal at this lovely little restaurant I know of in your area.”
“Well – you know everything’s closed now,” she began doubtfully. “You know – because of the coronavirus and everything.”
“Oh -right,” Garn said. “What a shame. I haven’t eaten since this morning and I was so hoping to catch up with my dear friend Carol,” he said as innocently as possible, since it was incredibly bad form to just invite oneself to dinner.
“Well,” She began doubtfully. “I’d hate you to go hungry. Have you had any fever, cough or flu-like symptoms in the last couple of days? Have you traveled oversees in the last 14 days?”
“Oh ho!” He chortled. “I’m fit as one of your fiddles, my dear! And I’ve just arrived on Earth today!”
“Oh. Well, I suppose you could come to dinner here,” she offered tentatively. “Though I’m afraid that I don’t have much in the fridge since I haven’t been out of the house for the last three weeks.”
Garn’s hopes for a good meal sank – but he was not easily deterred. “I could go to one of your food markets for you– they are surely not closed, are they? Perhaps I could even purchase some of those lovely round red fruits that make such a delightful pie?” He added slyly.
“You mean cherries?” she asked after a long pause. “Sure, but you might have to buy canned or frozen.”
“I’m sure I can find something suitable,” he said heartily. “Is there anything else I could purchase for you?”
“Um…” Carol’s voice was tentative, but also oddly hopeful. “I guess whatever you’d like to drink, and maybe some bread and toilet paper?”
She had a few other equally odd requests, but undeterred, Garn stepped out onto what was normally very busy street and found it… empty – with hardly a ground-car or other conveyance in sight. After walking for two blocks, a yellow car for hire stopped, but sped away as quickly as it had arrived.
“Most curious,” Garn murmured to himself, looking down at his yellow-striped trousers. “Surely, I’m dressed appropriately for this planet.”
But then he caught sight of himself in the reflection of an empty shop window and smacked himself on his forehead. He was quite a handsome specimen of his kind – with smooth green skin and pale green hair – but Earthlings weren’t used to extra-terrestrials, he remembered.
Luckily, as a Cambian, he had a particularly useful skill for undercover missions such as this. With a little concentration, he managed to transform himself into a fairly ordinary human male – with sandy-blond hair and unremarkable pinkish-beige skin. He found another car for hire and continued his mission.
He’d been to several food markets the last time he’d spent time on Earth and had always found them to be busy establishments with a dizzying array of wares and goods. Earthlings were quite provincial due to their official insistence that extra-terrestrials did not exist, but they did know how to eat.
Imagine his shock when he arrived at the market nearest Carol’s home to find…. not much. The parking lot was almost empty, giving it a forlorn, abandoned look.
The inside was even more worrying – with empty shelf after empty shelf. The produce section had nary a cherry in site, but he did find a few lonely, withered apple-fruits that had been pushed to the back of the bin. Dazed, he wandered through sparsely provisioned aisles until an employee stopped him.
“May I help you?” the woman asked – though with the bulky cloth covering her lower face, it sounded more like ‘Mmm I helfooo?’
“I hope so,” Garn said as he showed her the list he’d hurriedly jotted down back at the transfer station. “My friend asked me to pick up these items.”
“How nice of you!” she exclaimed. “They’re not sick, are they?” She asked suspiciously.
“Oh no,” he assured her, searching his memory for the correct term. “She is just practicing communal estrangement. Er, social distancing,” he corrected at her confused look.
“Sure,” the woman said distractedly as she peered at his list. “Oh dear, some of these things will be very difficult to find. I don’t think we’ve had any paper products in over two weeks!”
Garn felt his last hopes for a good meal slip away. Earth really had declined in the months since his last visit.
“Oh – don’t worry, dear,” the market employee said soothingly. We’ll just have to get creative.”
And that’s how Garn showed up at Carol’s doorstep with carob chips, kale, sardines, and American cheese slices. Dinner was a little strange, but they had a good laugh.