Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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by Gerry Sonnenschein

It was too late to turn back. I had already pressed the buzzer to my neighbor's residential unit. The door slid open and I was face-to-face with Misha.

"Come in, Mel," she said, flashing her perfect smile. Misha's red suit showed off her equally perfect figure, making her look younger than her forty years. "Would you like a glass of wine?"

"No, thanks. But a coffee would be nice." Everyone knew Misha served some of the best coffee on the station. A cup of it might make attending her party worthwhile.

Misha bustled off while I made my way into the room, past people sipping wine and chatting. It came as no surprise when they didn't pause to greet me, since I wasn't part of the station's social organization, the GGC. Instead, I amused myself by making a mental catalogue of the guests and found they fell into three groups.

The first and largest group consisted of people who, like Misha, were GGC members. People in the second group, including me, were Misha's neighbors. The third and smallest group was less well-defined, so I tentatively labeled them the unknowns: those who were likely new to our station.

I had hoped to sit on Misha's couch, but a tall, casually dressed woman was stretched out on it, with her head propped up on one end and her feet resting on the other. She appeared totally absorbed by the book she was reading and not inclined to budge.

Between the couch and the area leading to the kitchen, a dozen cushions were arranged on the carpet in a circle. I had a bad feeling that Misha planned to offer them in place of chairs. It seemed like a safe bet that the cushions were fancy acquisitions from Earth.

A couple of the cushions were occupied. Sonya Petrovna, the head of the GGC, was sprawled over one of them, behaving like royalty. Her colorful, loose-fitting garments hid the fact that she had eaten a few too many imported delicacies. Seated on each side of her, fellow GGC members listened raptly while she spoke.

I was surprised to find my new coworker, Dee, perched on a cushion 180 degrees around the circle from Sonya. Alone and pale, she looked like a thin bleached island. Like me, she still was dressed in gray work clothes. I couldn't help but wonder what Dee had in common with the socially conscious Misha. I plopped down awkwardly on the cushion next to her.

"Hi, Dee," I said. "Sorry about my clumsy descent. These feet are such deadweights. Judging from the number of cushions, Misha expects us to sit on them."

Dee nodded. "Yes, that's what she told me. I'm happy to see you, Mel. The invitation said to wear 'everyday' dress, but when I saw the others, I worried that I had misinterpreted the term 'everyday'."

"You look fine. How did you get dragged into this event?"

"Dragged in?" Dee ran her long pale fingers over her ears as though it would help her understand the slang.

"It's an expression. I'm curious why you are here."

"Misha sent me an invitation," she answered, a little too quickly. "It's nice to be here. This is the first party I have gone to since arriving at Tee."

I felt guilty when I heard that. Dee had been at the station for almost a month, collaborating with me on fluid dynamics research. We enjoyed working together, yet I hadn't included her in anything outside of work. Then again, social skills were not my specialty - I found it much easier to be analytical. So instead of expressing regret, I corrected her. "The nickname for the Mir 3 Station is Tree, not Tee. It comes from the Russian word for three," I said matter-of-factly.

"Tree," she repeated. "Thank you for telling me. There's so much to learn, with all the slang, nicknames and abbreviations used on this station. For example, the invitation referred to a CCP. What is a CCP?"

Despite the nagging voice of my conscience, I couldn't resist playing around with those letters. "Add the letter C and it becomes a remnant of the old Soviet Union, the CCCP in the Cyrillic alphabet," I said with an impish smile.

"I don't understand." Dee shook her head, making her wispy white hair fly up. She batted it down with her hands.

"Sorry, that's one of my bad jokes. It's based on ancient history. When you get a chance, look at pictures of the Russian spacecraft from the early days of exploration and you'll see the CCCP label on them. Back then, Russia was the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic. However," I said noticing Dee's baffled look, "this CCP has nothing to do with Russia, beyond the fact that our host, Misha, is of Russian descent. This CCP is a Coddled Cooks Party."

"Oh, I understand," Dee said. Judging from the way her albino eyes blinked rapidly, she didn't understand, but was too polite to say so. Or perhaps the high degree of illumination in the room was irritating her eyes. Our host should have turned down the lights. And she should have provided chairs.

"Here's a better way to describe it: it's a sales party. Misha will want us to buy Coddled Cooks products. That's one reason why I don't like this type of gathering. The last sales party I attended was a BAPP: a Beautiful Artificial Plant Party. I ended up with a plastic monstrosity that I didn't want, need or have space for."

"Then why are you here?" Dee asked.

"Because Misha is my neighbor, and that's what neighbors are expected to do."

"You live on this corridor?"

"Yes, my family has the unit adjacent to this one." I still couldn't imagine how Dee, who was neither a neighbor nor a GGC member, had been invited. "How do you know Misha?"

Dee looked down. "It's a little embarrassing."

"You can tell me. I won't repeat it," I assured her.

"Our daughters are the same age in Earth years and they have become friends at the Education Center. My daughter complained to me that I don't fit in. She said that her friend's mother is popular and that I should try to get to know her. That's when I contacted Misha and she sent the invitation."

My guilt intensified. Misha might not have dimmed the lights or provided chairs for the circle, but she had invited Dee to her party.

At that moment, as if to prove her superior thoughtfulness, Misha came over to us carrying two glasses.

"Here's wine for you, Mel, and water for you, Dee," she said with her practiced smile. "Mel, how do you like my new cushions? Aren't they amazingly comfortable?"

"They're great. You know how much I enjoy getting up from foot-level," I said sarcastically. Before I could add that I had requested coffee, she pointed to her watch and cut me off.

"Glad to hear it, Mel, but I need to get things moving." She cleared her throat and said loudly, "Attention, please. Everyone take a seat on one of these cushions."

Misha watched approvingly while guests filled the remaining places in the circle. A slim woman dressed in blue and gold claimed the seat to my left. I watched with envy as she sat, folding her long legs as gracefully as a dancer. Judging from her height, she must have been a second or third generation resident of a low gravity colony. Yet she moved adeptly in the earthlike gravity of this section, so she must have trained under high-G conditions as well.

The bookworm from the couch took the seat on the other side of the limber woman, grimacing as she sagged down onto the cushion. Recalling my own awkward drop, the bookworm immediately earned my sympathy. I tried to catch her attention, but she ignored me and went back to reading.

The limber one, however, was happy to converse. "Hi," she said. "I'm Etsuko Kentchi. I'm a geologist on leave from Mars Colony."

"Hi," I answered as I sipped my wine. "I'm Mel Vaury and I've been in this rotating collection of scrap metal forever. This is Dee Maxwell next to me, recently arrived from Jovian Station. We're both physicists, working on a fluid dynamics project."

"Jovian Station! That's gamma! I'd love to hear more about that place, Dee," Etsuko said.

"What does gamma mean?" Dee asked.

"Gamma means good, exciting," Etsuko replied. "Martian food, however, is decidedly not gamma. Say, what brings each of you to the CCP?"

"Misha is my neighbor," I said, reciting my mantra.

"I received an invitation," Dee said, reciting hers.

"I need cooking tips," Etsuko said. "Our meals at Mars colony are so boring. I complained about our food to a tech in the analytical wing. She had heard that Misha Leshko was planning a CCP and suggested I contact her." Etsuko glanced around at the circle. "Have you noticed that this group is almost entirely female? Why aren't more men at your station interested in food preparation?"

I tried to think of a clever answer, but couldn't right away. I drank more wine. "Good old Tree is a place of tradition," I began, but was interrupted when Misha raised her voice again.

"Welcome, everyone, to our Coddled Cooks Party." Misha was standing outside the circle at the end farthest from me and closest to Sonya. She pointed at me. "That is Reisa, your Coddled Cooks representative for this evening."

Confident that I hadn't transformed into a Reisa, I twisted around to see a stocky young woman standing behind me. She had positioned a display table by her side, covered with cooking paraphernalia.

All eyes focused on Reisa. She giggled nervously, then began her sales pitch. "Thank you. I've attended many Coddled Cooks parties, and, of course, my kitchen is filled with CC products. However, this is my first time as a representative, so please excuse any mistakes and feel free to bring up anything I leave out. I know that many of you have more experience than me, right Mom?"

Reisa and Sonya exchanged knowing smiles. So that's Sonya's daughter, I realized. Not being a part of Sonya's clique, I hadn't met Reisa before.

"Sorry to interrupt," Misha said, "but I must thank my dear friend Sonya for this opportunity tonight. I attended a Coddled Cooks party last year hosted by Sonya. It was a fabulous experience, and that's when I volunteered to host the next CCP."

"I am confused by these designations, host and representative," Dee whispered to me. "Can't one person do both duties? And why would the person switch from year-to-year?"

"These parties have complex and ancient rituals," I replied softly. "Basically, the host - in this case, Misha - provides the food and the place for the party. The representative - tonight that's Reisa - makes the sales pitch, takes the orders and delivers the product. They both receive credit for sales and they can use that credit for something else they want." I drained the wine from the glass. "As to why the duties change yearly from person-to-person, I don't know. It's probably best not to think about it too much."

While Dee and I were murmuring back and forth, we missed what Misha said about hosting, but we did catch Reisa's next instructions.

"Let's begin by getting to know each other. Tell us your name and a little about yourself as we go around the circle," Reisa said. "We'll start with you, Sir." She pointed to the man with the dark thinning hair, seated next to Sonya.

"Hi, I'm Leo Kretskey. I'm in the GGC with Misha and Sonya and our other friends. I came to buy more Coddled Cooks products. You can never have too many."

While others chimed in, anxious to express agreement, Dee asked me to explain what the GGC was.

"You haven't heard about the GGC yet?” I whispered. “It's the organization that plans social activities on Tree. The GGC's official title is the Greater Good Circle, but I prefer to call them the Gooey Gossip Circle.”

Dee frowned. "Gooey?"

"Another bad joke. Gooey means unpleasantly sticky. Many members of the GGC have family ties to the station's early history and they can be snobbish at times. They also like to gossip."

"On Jovian Station, we have no interest in gossip. A person's family background is also irrelevant. The skills a person possesses to help the group's growth and survival are much more important."

I shrugged. "Well, history and tradition matter here."

The introductions resumed, moving clockwise around the circle. Laressa of the GGC was next. Like the other GGC'ers, she worked hard and spent a lot to maintain an attractive appearance. It was no easy feat, since prolonged life on Tree prematurely aged skin cells and wreaked havoc with hair follicles. It must be nice, I thought, to have enough money to be able to waste it on personal vanities.

Crystal and Juanita, both from the neighbor group, followed. They also coveted that Earthling look, but didn't have the resources to finance it. Instead, they resorted to wigs and plenty of makeup. It clearly wasn't good enough, leaving them envious of Misha and her friends. As they stated their names, they raved about other Coddled Cooks parties they had attended.

"I don't know how I've managed to miss experiencing such joy up until now," I muttered. Etsuko heard me and laughed. A few others glared at us.

The introductions had reached our arc. Dee simply stated her name and occupation. I did the same, and Etsuko gave her name, occupation and the fact that she was from Mars Colony.

After that, it was time for the bookworm to speak. She reluctantly put down her book and scowled. "I'm Kai Ogola," she said. "I've just arrived from Lunar Colony and I'm adapting to the high gravity in these residences. One of my coworkers told me to contact Sonya, Sonya said to see Misha, and Misha told me to come here. Though I have no idea how a CCP can help me."

The GGC'ers exchanged disapproving looks. Reisa, however, smiled cheerfully. "Don't worry, Kai," she said. "Coddled Cooks has something for everyone. We'll find exactly what you need."

Kai momentarily regarded Reisa with disbelief, then picked up her book.

Past Kai, there was an empty seat, followed by two more women from the GGC. Once they had given their names, the introductions had gone full circle, ending with Sonya.

"Thank you. Now the party business can begin," Reisa said. "As you know, it's possible to purchase a wide variety of ready-made meals in Tree's supermarket. For a long time, those were popular. Fortunately, people are rediscovering the thrill of preparing their own meals from basic materials."

"Personally, I think that fixing quick and easy meals is more thrilling," I confided to Dee. She blinked and nodded.

"You will notice a Coddled Cooks catalogue in front of each of you," Reisa said. "Within it, you'll find the items on this display table as well as many other fine CC products. Tonight, Misha has made Russian meatballs using CC cookware. The recipe for the meatballs can be found in the CC Cookbook, available to you tonight only at a bargain price. The settings for this wonderful cookbook can be easily personalized by programming in your location and preferences. The recipes and cooking times are automatically adjusted, making it ideal for travelers."

While Reisa talked, Misha handed each person a small plate with Russian meatballs. "It contains real meat," Misha said proudly.

I could quickly tell the vegetarians from the meat-eaters. The Gooey Gossips and most of my neighbors wolfed down the meatballs, while Etsuko and Kai left their plates untouched. Dee studied the meatball on her fork with uncertainty, licked it and gave up. I tasted one and decided it was no better than the soyballs served in the cafeteria.

"You can also use meat substitute in the recipe," Reisa said, noticing those who weren't eating. She focused her gaze on Dee. "By the way, for those who can consume food only in liquid form, I strongly recommend purchasing the CC Blixer. It can be used to grind or liquefy meals."

Dee slouched down, making herself as small as possible.

I leaned over and whispered into Dee's ear, "Remember: Gooey Gossip Circle. Gooey gooey."

Dee straightened up and brushed away the white strands of hair from her eyes.

Reisa lifted up a poster board with a picture of a black box on it. "This is so impressive, I should have displayed it first," she said, blushing slightly. "First time jitters. Anyhow, this shows our best Coddled Cooks device: the patented Coddled Cooks Oven. It is the one black box you must own. It runs on a long lasting power source and, as a result, doesn't use up excessive amounts of your monthly energy allowance. It cooks everything perfectly with its state-of-the-art program utilizing a carefully balanced spectrum of wavelengths. We also sell cookware especially designed for use in the CC Oven."

"I have one of those CC Ovens," Leo said. "Once you've cooked with it, you'll never go back to the standard Tree ones."

A murmur of excitement ran through the circle as everyone admired the CC Oven. The physicist in me was curious what power source was used in that black box, but my skeptical side knew it wasn't as wonderful as advertised and that I wouldn't get any straightforward answers if I asked about it.

Etsuko had found the listing for the CC Oven in the catalogue. She showed it to Dee and to me. "Look at this price!" Etsuko said. "I could pay a good chef to cook for me for a year for that amount on Mars."

"You're right," I said. "It's outrageous."

"Do other items have more reasonable prices?" Dee asked.

The three of us scrolled through our catalogues while Reisa talked. "In addition to the fine CC utensils used by Misha to fix this delicious food, there's so much more. In some of the colonies, there's a trend to include flavored gases in meals. Coddled Cooks offers a device to measure and add those gases to your recipes, known as the CC Gastoo. Plus, Coddled Cooks is moving into the area of flavor additives. One popular CC additive removes the rusty taste that permeates Martian food. We have other additives that make flavors stronger or blander. These are but a few suggestions. You will find an amazing myriad of choices in your catalogues."

"Excuse me for interrupting again," Misha said. "I want to remind everyone that there is no obligation to buy. However, the more you buy, the more it helps Reisa and me to obtain credits and reach our goals. Personally, I hope to use my new credits in support of the Greater Good Circle."

"Now it's time for a special treat," Reisa said. "Misha has prepared an exquisite dessert using Coddled Cooks products." She glanced at Dee, then at Misha. "Misha, you need to Blixer one dessert portion." Misha nodded and went to the kitchen while Reisa added, "Misha will bring around the dessert while you fill out your orders."

The circle became quiet as people perused their catalogues and ate their desserts. I scanned frantically through the listings, trying to find something to buy. I needed one large cooking spoon, but the Coddled Cooks spoons came in multi-piece sets costing twice as much as similar ones sold in Tree's store.

Once people had made their decisions, they rose from their cushions to walk around and mingle. Equally anxious to move, I lurched up, wobbled and finally regained my balance. Shouldn't drink wine, I reminded myself while I walked carefully over to the display table. I picked up the Gastoo to study it. I had plenty of experience working with gases in my lab, but had never cooked with them and the concept intrigued me.

Crystal came over to the table too. "Oh, I have one of those. You'll adore what that gas gizmo does for food," she gushed.

Crystal's glowing testimony brought me back to my senses. I put the Gastoo down and wandered around. I was curious what others planned to order and tried to listen in surreptitiously while pretending to study my own catalogue. Not everyone was discussing the Coddled Cook products. Several GGC members were busy gossiping.

"Did you notice that Valerie didn't come?" Sonya asked.

"Yes. But I distinctly heard her tell her spouse she would be here," Laressa said.

"I bet she's with Karl," Leo commented.

"That wouldn't surprise me. Say, isn't that Jovian woman freaky?" Laressa asked. "She hardly looks human."

"Yes!" Sonya agreed. "Would you believe, she has a daughter? I heard..." The sound of my catalogue beeping loudly ended that conversation. The gossips turned and looked at me, embarrassed.

"Oops, pushed the wrong button," I remarked as casually as I could. I wanted to throw it at them, but people on Tree didn't do that sort of thing. Not to mention, I might be arrested for assault. Instead, I moved over to where Dee and Etsuko were standing. Dee was sipping her dessert drink through a straw and Etsuko was studying the CC Cookbook.

"I'm getting a Blixer. What are you going to order?" Dee asked.

"I'm going to buy the cookbook and the anti-rust additive. The rest I can find elsewhere for significantly less money," Etsuko said. "What about you, Mel?"

I held the catalogue at arm's length and dropped it. "I'm ready to destroy this thing."

Etsuko raised her eyebrows. "My. What happened? Was it the excessive pressure to buy or did those nasty meatballs get to you?"

"It's those smug, self-absorbed GGC'ers and their gooey gossip. It poisons the atmosphere on this station."

"What did they say?" Dee asked.

"I'm not going to repeat it. That would make me a gossip too. Suffice to say, it was the straw the broke the camel's back."

"The what?" Dee and Etsuko exclaimed in unison.

I sighed in exasperation. "I'm not in the mood to explain a proverb. I'm trying to say that I'm sick of gossip."

"You can't stop gossip," Etsuko commented.

"I know." I bent slowly to retrieve the catalogue. "But I wish I could."

"The GGC controls social activities on Tree - right? If others were to offer alternatives, their influence would be reduced," Etsuko said.

"Who would want to do that?" I asked.

"I might be interested," Etsuko said. "And it sounds like you might be too. That should be enough. I have found on Mars Colony that only a small number of people are needed to initiate big changes."

I observed Reisa coming towards us. She probably wanted to collect the order forms. "I really should leave, before I do something stupid. But I like your idea, Etsuko. Let's talk about it more, maybe next Friday after work. We could meet at my place."

"That would be gamma! We could become the OTC: the Outside the Circle group."

"No more acronyms, please," I begged in mock horror. "I'm sick of those too. Dee, what about you? Would you come? You're an excellent problem solver."

Dee hesitated. "I am supposed to learn how to fit in. However, your concerns about the negative effects of gossip are valid. And I agree that an increased set of choices should produce a better outcome."

"So you'll come?"

"Only if you can justify your straw-camel assertion with some rigorous mathematical equations," Dee said.

"You want me to use math on a proverb?" I asked incredulously. Then I saw that she was actually smiling. "You're kidding, aren't you?"

"It's what you call a bad joke," Dee answered. "I'll come."

I laughed. "That was good! Okay, see you both next Friday."

On the way out, I noticed Kai, the scowling bookworm from Lunar Colony, back on Misha's couch. She was stretched out with her hands covering her eyes.

"Reisa didn't find any miraculous CC product to ease your discomfort, did she?"

"Of course not."

"Have you tried the zero-G lounge in the center of Tree? That might help."

She moved her hands to look at me. "No. I need to adapt and I will. I just wanted to rest for a moment."

"What are you reading?"

"An adventure novel." Kai held it up for me to see.

“Looks good,” I said. “Personally, I like to read history when taking a break from physics journals. It's surprising how little people change over time."

"True. That's why I prefer novels."

I grinned. "I've invited Dee and Etsuko to my place next Friday evening. Would you like to join us? My unit is adjacent to this one."

"For what reason?"

"Ostensibly, to fight gooey gossip. I'm not sure if that will mean planning a social revolution, forming a book club or something else. At least we should have fun, and I guess that's the main idea."

"I didn't pay any attention to names, but weren't you and those other two making snide remarks throughout the presentation?"

"I'm Mel Vaury, and yes, we made a few jokes. I'm surprised you heard us."

"I may not be comfortable with earthlike gravity, but I have excellent hearing, better than most people here. I tried to ignore the chatter, but couldn't."

"Sorry if it disturbed your reading."

"No more than the presentation and it was more entertaining." Kai smirked. "I hope you weren't foolish enough to buy anything."

"Not today."

"Good. I accept your invitation, Mel Vaury. I'll be there on Friday."

With that, I left. As the door to Misha's unit slid closed behind me, I breathed a sigh of relief and hurried the few steps down the corridor to my place.

It was quiet inside. Typical, I thought. Normally after work, I prepared dinner for my family. But with me out and no food on the table, my spouse had chosen the more expensive but easier option and taken the family to dine elsewhere on Tree. Social patterns were truly resistant to change.

I looked down at my feet. They reminded me why I hated to stand out. I eased into our living room chair, slipped off the two prostheses attached below each knee and considered the costs and benefits of blending in. The notion of challenging the GGC's influence was more intimidating now that I was home alone. Then I thought about my new friends and relaxed. Etsuko was right: it would be gamma.


© 2007 Gerry Sonnenschein

Bio: Gerry Sonnenschein is an aspiring science fiction writer. One of Gerry's short stories won AlienSkin Magazine's Science Fiction Good Writing Contest, appearing in the Dec 06/Jan 07 issue. Stories by Gerry also have appeared in AlienSkin's Feb/Mar 07 issue and in the Sep 07 issue of Residential Aliens (online and in print in the Residential Aliens Anthology).

E-mail: Gerry Sonnenschein

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