Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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The Rooserfish Pie of Ovas-9

by Arto Koistinen




The landing was as turbulent and rough as the planet itself. It was years — if not decades ― since I had afforded a decent flight and none would have flown to Ovas-9 in any case. The place was a right backwater. It was also the only planet in the galaxy where you could still find true roosterfish.

It was all for the kid, of course. The little bastard had loved Ovasian roosterfish pie since he was no more than a bundle. It felt like Ovasian cuisine was everywhere, not long ago. The long war on the planet had sent refugees all over the galaxy, and they'd brought their food with them. But then the war ended, and the Ovasians returned. They were a peculiar bunch, not ones to socialise with the other species and as soon as the situation on their home planet cooled down, off they went. The few roosterfish farms that were left had languished and died.

But I digress ― the kid. He loved that pie, and since his mom had left, he'd been feeling bluer than ever. So, as a dependable single dad, I decided to make a detour returning from my latest assignment. It would only delay my arrival for a few days, and the kid probably wouldn't even notice, he was studying for the entrance exams to the Academy. He would notice the roosterfish pie, though. It wouldn't bring his mom back, no, but even a small delight would be a significant victory for our relationship.

A creature with a long snout almost dropped their bag on me. What were they? A Hameln maybe? I didn't travel as much as I used to, but still enough to feel a slight pang at my ignorance. Whatever they were, they were new. I smiled politely, and the assumed-Hameln wiggled their whiskers, a gesture I took as an equivalent to an apologetic smile.

It was bleak and grey outside. It wasn't exactly raining, but you could feel the moist prickling of the icy water on your skin as you walked. After the sterile air of the spaceship, the atmosphere of the planet assaulted me with a variety of smells. Each planet had their own distinct odour, and in this case it was a permeating sour aroma.

I pulled my jacket tighter and entered the terminal. The cold metal beams and the over-cheery music welcomed me to a place that was not really meant to be welcoming. The Ovasians weren't a sociable species towards outsiders. They understood the importance of trade and the vital role being a part of the Union played in their continued peace, but what they did not want was to encourage visitors.

The officer stared at me from behind the glass. "Business?" read the translator.

"I'm just here to pick up some roosterfish and I’ll be back on my way as soon as possible."

The clerk frowned. "The roosterfish trade has been banned for three Dictums now."

I grimaced. Why didn't anyone tell me that? I read the official newsfeed almost dutifully and had seen no mention of such a ban.

"There's still roosterfish on the planet?"

"Yes."

"Fine, I have a hotel reserved anyway, so I'll just grab a pie in a nearby restaurant. Any recommendations?"

"Please consult the Tourism Office in the next building."

"Well, I just might."

"Please bear in mind that the next building is only open on Firstdays from two-tick to six-tick."
Of course it was. Probably the minimum courtesy dictated by the Union. I grabbed my ID from the counter and smiled politely.

"Have a nice time on Ovas-9!" the translator read. An automated response as the officer's face bore no resemblance of such a sunny message.

There was a vacuum tube from the landing pad to the city centrum – if the city was a correct term. The Ovasians weren't big on urbanisation, but they were a numerous species on a rather small rock, so the planet was covered by a steady sheet of habitation with little variance in density. The areas with the most foreign population were the only peaks one could see a resemblance of an urban landscape. Of course, tourists like me were not even allowed outside such areas.

Obviously, I had no intention of leaving without my kid's precious roosterfish. I was a construction inspector with a squeaky clean record as far as it came to any kind of larceny or other illegal action, but I'd be damned if there weren't a concentration of smugglers on any a population centre, no matter how hostile and regulated it was.

The landscape that welcomed me after I rose out of the tube station was joyless at best. The grey concrete was the material of choice on Ovas-9 and save a few signs, paint and colour were effectively unknown. The blocky buildings had spatterings of small windows but nothing else to break the sombre monotony of their surfaces.

The air was getting colder. I had read that it was winter season here but had no real understanding of what that meant on a planet I had never visited. Fortunately, I had dressed warm, and the thorny rain didn't bother me that much.

The hotel was one of the grey blocks with little more than an undecorated sign to mark it as such. It was fully automated, of course, as customer service towards foreign species seemed to be something of an anathema to the insular Ovasians. The ID reader was as per Union regulations and it accepted my card without a hitch. Soon, I found myself in my room, a plain but surprisingly comfortable quarters with some actual colour in the form of a wallpaper (greenish with what I assumed was some kind of a local pattern), a carpet and uncharacteristically bright yellow bed sheets. Ovasians were prepared to put some effort into hospitality, but only as far as nobody could tell from the outside.

I fell flat on my bed and groaned. How was I supposed to find some delinquents on an unfamiliar planet I knew next to nothing of? My aggrieved determination was slowly wearing off, and hesitation was starting to set in. I had no idea where to even begin, much less how to pull off a heist like that. I wasn't exactly brave, and the thought of getting caught of smuggling sent chills down my spine.

After a short respite, I rose up and walked to the info screen. If anything, I had earned myself a roosterfish pie at this point. The staff at the restaurants must have at least some information on what the deal was with the export ban.

The picture of the hotel on the screen at least tried to show it in a positive light, as impossible as that was. A short string of characters I didn't recognise and assumed was the local alphabet was located on the bottom. With a few tries, I manage to find the right button to switch the terminal to a familiar language and typed "roosterfish" into the search bar.

I blinked as the results came. There were exactly zero. The local delicacy seemed to have all but disappeared from the face of the planet. Suspecting a bug in the search algorithm, I turned to the directory and started browsing. Gladly, it was well-organised ― a quality often associated with the Ovasians ― and finding a list of the restaurants in the tourist-approved area was not exactly hard. But the unfortunate truth was that the search algorithm was probably fine. There wasn't a roosterfish eatery in sight. I scratched my head and sat back on the bed.

It was becoming clear that this was about something more than just an export ban. Roosterfish was supposed to be one of the most abundant sea animals on the planet, and now it was ― what? Nonexistent? Protected? I sighed and picked up the nearest place that looked somewhat local and left to grab a bite nevertheless.

The restaurant was located in another bleak and grey concrete cube, but was surprisingly warm and welcoming within. The scents of the kitchen overtook my senses the instant I entered. Gone was the sour atmosphere of the planet, replaced by a variety of different aromas ranging from overwhelmingly sweet to stingingly bitter. The clientele seemed mostly local with a few Rowers and the probably-a-Hameln thrown in. Small world, huh? As my mission was to gather information on the roosterfish situation, I sat at the bar. I didn't ― and physically couldn't ― speak any Ovasian, but hoped that the staff had had to figure out a way to communicate with expats and tourists in this area.

I ordered a skewer of meat from an animal I had never even heard of and a pastry of mixed vegetables and grain, a rare mix of local and foreign ingredients, but a sweet familiar comfort. "So no roosterfish?" I asked while waiting for the food. The waiter eyed me suspiciously and shook their head. It seemed there was no further explanation forthcoming.

"Do you know of a place where I could get some? Raw is fine, I can cook it myself," I dared.

Another head-shake. This was going nowhere. "Shame, my kid loves that stuff." I reckoned the truth would not do any harm at this point. "His mom left a year ago,'' I said. The expression on the waiter's face told me that they at least understood my language and the obscure foreign measure of time I used. There was no reason to stop now. Staring at the plastic glass of water, I continued. "He's a bright kid. Got that from her, actually. But she ― I don't blame her, really. She didn't have it easy with work and our family, and I was away so much. I don't think the kid was that much of a trouble, he certainly hasn't been for me, but sometimes it isn’t much you need to push you over the edge."

I glanced at the waiter again. They were listening intently. "I don't exactly know what happened to her. Either her friends and family don't know either, or they're not telling. Did I do something wrong? Probably. It's not that I claim to be the perfect husband, but all things considered, I don't think I did bad. I wasn't home enough to screw up that royally.

"She's all right, I know that much. I found a note a month after she left and I have no reason to believe she was coerced into writing it. The kid took it really badly. He blames himself, obviously. I think they always do that, the kids. No amount of reasoning is going to convince them otherwise. I'm not saying a roosterfish pie will magically fix everything, but it is a slice of nostalgia. We used to eat that a lot, you see, when he was younger. His absolute favourite, couldn't get enough of that bloody pie."

I sighed and shook my head. "Well, it seems the kid's going to be disappointed again. Mom left, and dad can't keep a promise." The last part was a lie. I had not promised the kid anything about a pie, but it did feel like a fitting end to the story, rife with emotional impact.

The waiter served me the food I had ordered and turned to write something down. They handed me a note written in shaky but legible characters I could recognise. It was an address. "Thanks, you're a lifesaver. I really mean it," I said. Was that a smile? You never knew with these Ovasians.

The food was delicious. It was beyond question that the roosterfish was not the only Ovasian treat, but the whole cuisine was exquisite. The meat in the skewer smelled vaguely of cooked root vegetables I often had at home, but had a decidedly spicy aftertaste. The texture of the meat was smooth and it slid down my throat effortlessly. The pastry had a more familiar taste, but mixed with the slightly iron flavour from the local plants. It complemented the meat with an uncanny precision.

It was somewhat of a weird coincidence that all the species seemed to have more or less similar tastes and digestive systems. It was not unusual to hear food to be described as the great unifier: the one thing all of the dozens of species could agree on.

I thanked the waiter for the food and tipped them generously. I honestly had no idea if tipping was a thing in Ovasian culture or even frowned upon, but it felt right at that moment. I had my first clue, and my spirits had been sincerely lifted. The dire situation now felt more like an adventure, hopping from clue to clue until the mystery was finally solved, even if I still had no idea how to smuggle the fish off the planet if I ever found one.

I walked to a nearby info terminal and typed in the address. It was on the edges of the foreigner district, barely inside it, but still easily accessible to me. I had no idea what to expect at the location, but the fact that I did not need to smuggle myself out of the area was relieving. I printed out the travel instructions, a quaint relic of the distant past since my devices were utterly incompatible with the Ovasian systems ― a fact the Ovasians were in no hurry to change even if a rudimentary implementation of the generic interface was required from all Union members.

I jumped to the native equivalent of a subway and headed to my destination. Navigating the public transport was not easy, but fortunately, the instructions in the printed slip were written with foreigners in mind. When I finally ascended to the surface, I found myself in an area not that different from the one I started in. The grey boxes were a little smaller and little more apart, but more or less the same. There was some foliage on the side of the road, purple plants that somewhat resembled hay and treelike structures with a darker hue.

The instructions led me to a small grey box with what looked like fishing equipment stacked against its wall. There was no open water to be seen. If the Ovasians wanted to keep the fish out of the hands of the tourists, it made sense that the area had no bodies of water. On the brownish metal door was a carving in the local language. Since there was no visible buzzer, I knocked on it and hoped for the best. There was no reaction.

The prickly drizzle slowly turned into proper rain, weather I had not prepared for leaving the hotel. The building offered no shelter, so I decided to huddle under a plank-like tool that was leaning against the wall near the door. As I sat there, I contemplated my misery. I had come this far, so there was no giving up. I had no idea if anyone was even at home. The plank did not provide much cover, and I was already getting wet and cold from the rain. Probably not freezing enough to get hypothermia, but uncomfortable enough to want to die.

As I laid there shivering, I thought of my kid and that if I died there he would be all alone. His father would have left him the same as his mother had . No pie was worth that. I stood up and was about to leave when the door finally opened. A distinctly Ovasian shape emerged into the gloom and gestured me to enter. I hesitated, but decided that warming up inside was probably the best choice at this point.

The inside of the house was littered with tools and smelled of fresh fish. It was apparent that the Ovasian was a fisher. I sat down in front of a small heater unit and was served a hot liquid. It tasted bitter and strong, but warmed me inside.

The fisher had a small box strapped around the area I assumed their vocal cords were. I had seen similar devices used by the refugees on other planets. It was technically possible for the Ovasian to speak Union Lingo without external assistance, but it was hard and relatively rare. The box made their speech cold and electronic, but understandable.

"I heard, or at least it was implied that I could purchase some roosterfish from here,'' I said.

The fisher looked at me quizzically.

"It doesn't seem to be available anywhere. "

"It is not available in the tourist area, nor very often anywhere else."

"Why not? I thought it was the bread and butter of Ovasian cuisine."

"Indeed, it was, but it is not anymore. Now the fish is rare and precious and not served to outsiders such as yourself."

"What happened?"

"There was small segregation of what you would probably call terrorists who did not want the war to stop. Some say there were arms dealers or at the very least funded by such. The group never got caught, but they disappeared entirely after the war had properly ended.

"Their last attack was not on people, but on the roosterfish, a dish that was enjoyed at the Treaty Meal and quickly became a symbol of peace. They released a virus that all but decimated the whole population. We managed to save a small portion and have used that to recover the species, but it's time-consuming as the roosterfish are not exactly breeding like Khufvalhufvals. The new government raised the fish to a special status and restricted its use heavily. The roosterfish pie became a sacred symbol of peace."

I pondered his words, but could not figure out why foreigners were not allowed to have this clearly significant food. To me, it seemed like sharing it would only make its position stronger. I said as much.

"When the refugees returned, they didn't come alone. They returned with cultural baggage. No matter how insular we are, we're not immune to outside influence. The food they came back with had changed. Maybe only in small ways, but those tiny details were glaring differences for the rest of us.

"The roosterfish pie had now become a cultural centrepiece, enjoyed and cherished by both sides of the conflict. It is what makes us Ovasians. People are afraid it would make it less of an Ovasian dish if we were to share it with the rest of the galaxy, and would just become part of the pan-ethnic cuisine enjoyed by the whole Union."

I nodded. I understood what they meant. But I couldn't help thinking of my kid, how he just loved the sweet and sour taste of the fish without no knowledge whatsoever of the culture and the conflict behind it.

"I know things here are precarious at best,'' I said. "But one boy enjoying a part of your cultural history, is it so bad? It's not like he wants to steal it from you or anything. Nobody would ever know."

"Many fear that if we give away what is ours, it returns changed. Soon, there will not only be the pie, there will be pies, virtually the same, but with differences. Many will still choose the original, but some might prefer an altered version. And then, the one thing uniting our people will not be anymore.

"You're afraid you'll go into another war over a pie?"

The fisher smiled darkly.

"No, not necessarily. But if we open the door even slightly, it will soon be ajar."

I sighed. "So you won't sell me the fish? Even if you're smuggling them to the foreigner area in any case?"

"Knowing that you would try to smuggle it out of the planet? No."

I threw up my hands in exasperation. "What is a father to do?!"

"Sounds to me like you need a new tradition. The roosterfish pie is only going to remind your son of his childhood and his childhood of his mother. I fear that the pie may indeed have an adverse effect on the boy."

I paused. The fisher was not wrong. I had been clinging to the happy memories so strongly that I had never considered that. "Some other food, you mean?"

The fisher made a motion I assumed to be equivalent of nodding. "For example. While the roosterfish is out of the question, there are still plenty of other Ovasian foods we do allow to export."

My mind harkened back to that restaurant. "Can I get a roosterfish if I promise not to take it off the planet?"

The fisher evaluated me for a moment and then turned to the back. Only moments later they returned with a fish wrapped in what passes as paper on Ovasia. I thanked the fisher once more and headed out with my treasured fish. I had not lied to the Ovasian, I had no intention of leaving with it ― I now had another, and hopefully better, plan.


*****



I was lucky to find the restaurant still open even after managing to miss a transfer on the way and almost getting lost in the station. The constant grey concrete did not make navigation easy.

"You're one of the returned refugees, aren't you?" I asked the waiter. They looked surprised for a moment and then made the gesture I had already pinned down as nodding. "And you have to live here in the foreigner district so you wouldn't taint others with some outside influence?"

Another affirmation. "Look, you did your best to help me, but I can't take this fish off the planet. It just wouldn't be right. I understand now what its significance is, but what I don't agree with is excluding ex-refugees like you. You should have the right to eat it like any an Ovasian. So, here you go. I have only one request: you must have learned to make Ovasian food out of ingredients readily available in the Union even during the war when no exports from this planet were made. I need to start a new tradition with the kid, and he absolutely adores your cuisine, so is there any chance you could give me a recipe or two? Food that tastes similar to your famous pie, but doesn't risk a new war to make?"

The waiter looked at me and, possibly, smiled. Moments later they were scribbling furiously on a sheet of paper and soon I had a set of five pages written in a haphazard but completely legible set of characters detailing various local dishes and even small bits about their cultural significance. At this point, I wished I had had the decency to learn their expression of gratitude but had to make do with mine. The refugee understood.


*****



At the launching pad, I saw the Hameln again, arguing with an officer through the translator. I understood neither of the languages, so the matter of the argument was lost to me. There were other tourists next to me whose species I knew to speak Union common, so I turned to them and wondered aloud what the situation was.

"Trying to smuggle some food", one said in a rather unimpressed voice. "Probably roosterfish, it's the most common thing people try to smuggle nowadays. It never works though, the Ovasians are very adamant about certain security procedures and the smell of the fist is nigh impossible to hide."

I nodded, knowing very well the situation. "Do you come here often?" I asked, quite out of the blue. I had now learned there was a depth to Ovasia I had only gotten a small taste of and wondered if others, especially people who had been here more often, felt the same.

"We come here once or twice per the planet's rotation", the tourist said. "This must be, what, the fifteenth trip?"

I was genuinely astonished by this reply. "Why? It seems the foreigner area is pretty small and monotonously grey. There can't be that much to see."

"You should come here during their summer, it's quite a different place then. There's the Day of the Treaty celebration and they tend to paint everything very colourfully then, as in other celebrations. The greyness, you see, is not about lack of colour, it's about the possibility of colour. To the Ovasians, every building and surface is a potential canvas and they don't want to capture them into a single permanent colour."

Suddenly I found myself wanting to return to this bleak and grey world that apparently wasn't. I could take the kid with me.

"So you come here just for the festivals?"

"No, no. It's much more than that. We come here for our friends."

Again, I found myself dumbstruck. I barely found a single Ovasian who was able and willing to converse with me and they had friends?

"Yes, there's a certain exterior to the Ovasians at first", the tourist explained. "But if you catch them at the right time, you learn that they are actually quite sociable people. They love to laugh and dance just like you and me and many can even speak common – without those weird voice boxes some have. We don't see them that often, though they do visit us too, but they have become very dear friends."

Should I come back and greet the fisher? I wondered. The fisher had been friendly and I did feel a certain connection there. That conversation and the experiences I had on the planet had profoundly shifted my perspective. The once isolated society was indeed opening up – if at a very slow and steady crawl. I was now sure that someday, me and the kid could enjoy a nice roosterfish pie again, free of both cultural and emotional baggage.



THE END


2020 Arto Koistinen

Bio: Arto is a Finnish game designer who has been drifting towards writing without really dipping in for more than a decade. He reads mostly fantasy but somehow always ends up writing science fiction.

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