Breakfast on the Road

Breakfast on the Road

By Mark Lively

There are those people who say that no matter you go people are the same. Yeah, they have tentacles, breathe noxious gases,(everyone thinks what they breathe is normal and toxic to them is bizarre), are made of stone or have 7 eyes and 3 nostrils but only 2 toes. They claim that deep down everyone is the same. They all love, they all hate they all put there pants on one leg at a time, at least those with legs and the ones who wear pants, but if they did wear pants and did have legs they would put them one leg at a time. Try explaining that to an ameboid some time.

Those people are just plain wrong. They cry loud and long about how many worlds they've been to. About swimming in seas of various chemicals. Running across barren plains and fighting through jungles of flora of every shape and color and of course communing with the giant forest creature of Sirius 9. It's hooey. They only talk to the ones who are like them. The ones with similar thoughts. They don't bother getting to know the vast majority who are different. They write them off as dull and uninteresting. Say they are just like you and me with an unusual set of fetishes and hang-ups. The feeling of universal sameness is close to the most universal concept there is. Things are very different between worlds and planets. What is the same on the other hand...

One thing you will find on nearly every civilized world and many of the uncivilized ones for that matter is a diner. Roughly a third of them don't have one on the planet proper. They never completely grasped the concept of semi quick food. You find carry out places where the food is and ready or cold and ready. You can find more elaborate eateries where you sit down and they make an elaborate setup of getting a little chow into an empty belly. There is almost always a diner someplace though. Generally hiding up in high orbit someplace. Maybe a LaGrange station. Even if the locals don't have one and eat there, there is one for the freighter pilots. If they want cool stuff, or cheap stuff or pretty stuff they need freighters and freighters need freighter pilots.

I guess it is something in the wanderlust trait that lurks in most of the freighter pilots. A need for the almost home but not quite. The sameness of a a watering hole. A small pond with a few trees. At least one and never more than a small grove. A patch of dirt and a sea of grass. Something that is static and familiar even if in many ways its totally alien. A well worn seat, a smell of well cooked food of some sort floating out. Tables chair and floor in something bright and low maintenance and the half ready look of a place that never closes.

My people understand that. We cross the stars in great convoys, buying everything that's not nailed done and selling everything of ours that is. When we took to the stars its wasn't half-hearted. No, thousands, millions of us. Most of us are in the great convoys. I am one of those poor souls who are smart, not smart enough to run the show or put on my own. I fall in the middle too smart to stay to stupid to succeed entirely on my own. I try and fail and hope to some day start my own convoy or settle down some place planetside. It won't happen. I hear the call of the stars but I am banned from the convoys. I am in self imposed exile, trapped between hells. All the more reason to find a diner. At least I am not an outcast among outcasts. I have met people who were.

This particular diner was in the high-g section of a rather large and busy spaceport. It was in a somewhat trendy Soho type section. Every generation or so someone comes up with the idea of making cheap real-estate chic. It doesn't fail. Even if the species isn't prone to a greedy nature or class status or has the creativity necessary to come up with such an idea there is usually someone outside who does, buys up all the cheap land, throws up some minor renovations and triples the price along with a sales pitch that would make you buy your own car. A few people have lost their shirts doing this but not many.

I hate high-g. I am a spacer. I go between the stars. I am a bit sloppy with the gravity controls. Yeah, I get a bit out of shape and there is some slight deterioration but I don't need to be strong or fast and I take the boosters so I usually don't feel it. When I hit high-g though... If you have never been in high-g, its like being drunk. You move as though you are stuck in the deepest thickest mud you can think of. Your hands move so slowly they seem to swim in front of you. Everything else moves along at high speed. The locals are rushing by and talking faster. They know it and are used to it. Every joint in your body aches with unusual non-specific pain. Why any sane being would live here I have no idea.

This diner was like most of the others. There was a faint stench of ammonia from the methane breathers a couple decks over. It was done in green and black. Not sure how that translates in the local palette. It is generally something dark and something light with one of the two being colored. The problem is that the center of your range of vision is not the center of mine. The lights here seem normal so I would say that it is supposed to be green and black. There was a lot of bare brightly polished metal. Stainless steal, maybe titanium in there. Some cheap and durable. Never fails. Probably a lot of titanium. Its what I just loaded up on so they do have a lot of it on this planet. I should probably get a good encyclopedia, have a guess of what I am going to be picking up before I get to a place. Probably a good way to make money. Bring special shipping equipment into areas that export material that requires it. Something to remember.

The chef was fat. The chefs are always fat. Never trust a skinny cook. If they are skinny it means they don't eat their own food. If they don't eat their own food, why should you? I guess he could be from a more rotund species. In which case he could be skinny. So volume isn't always a good guess. I once met a race that was inflatable. They lived in a thick atmosphere and had a high body temperature. Inflate partially and wait for it to heat up to body temperature and "I'm just a little little black rain cloud" The chef was greenish brown, four arms equally spaced around the torso. 3 eyes, two facing front and what appeared to be a vestigial third in the back. A thin chlorine tube ran up into a corner of his mouth. He sucked on it occasionally. Probably not necessary but useful.

I took a seat at the counter. The counter is the best place to sit you see the people coming in and going out. You catch the people on the run and you make contacts. Find out where the pirates are hiding and raiding. Pick up cargo from pilots down on their luck. It may seem a bit cannibalistic and brutal to make money off of someone else's misfortune. You do help them out though and there is generally someone willing to ease them out of their misery with out overly gouging so people who do gouge don't get to gouge much and gossips keeps them from gouging for long.

It seemed to be quiet. A couple of people were sitting in the back in a sealed off room of methane. There was an airlock in between with a flame symbol. The airlock works on a two cycle process. The first pump in helium, neon, argon etc. to displace the old atmosphere then pump in the new to replace the inert gas.

A waitress came over, an 8 limbed insect thingie. She had the most amazing bright blue green shell, almost iridescent. It shimmered as she walked. Her mouth was a pair of vertically opposed mandibles. The head was small, I guess the brain hid in the torso or something. She looked like some type of post modern piece of art, sharp angular and almost mechanical but still effortlessly fluid. Absolutely beautiful. Sometimes nature gets it right. "What have you will?" She, I guess it's a she, clicked out.

"Tea, class 1 stimulant." I responded. Class 1 stimulants generally act as stimulants for most oxygen breathers and are generally nontoxic. Usually served steeped in water which once again is usually safe, give or take dissolved minerals and microbes. Station water is distilled which clears up most of the problems. There are some species that can't take strait water and have to dissolve salt of some type in it. They dissolve. Saw it happen once, slightly entertaining but extremely disgusting. She put down a cup of murky yellow liquid. Tea is also fairly universal once you get it down to the basic idea of plant matter steeped in liquid. That includes nitroglycerine mixtures which watching people drink again falls into the category of entertaining but messy. In this case the mixture was sour with a slight salt tinge. Not bad I thought. I've had worse. I've made worse.

I glanced over the menu. It was broken up into 3 color coded sections. One for Oxies, one for Methies and one for Sillies. Strangely enough most Sillies, silicon based organisms, have a good sense of humor about the name. Strikes them as funny. Yeah I know. Every species is different. The Glothdarks of Gamma Cignus 4 would kill me in several excruciating ways for it. They are there and I am here so they are silly.

I looked over the menu. There was stuff labeled with different warnings. Things set aside as having unusually toxic chemicals. Anything that had a Ph off of neutral by 2 in either direction. Anything with hydroflouric was labeled with reflective stars. Anything with high enzymic concentrations were labeled as well. Very much buyer beware but they did have slushes with amino acids and a variety of sugars, served a la carte. I am not one to be boring and my species has a reasonable digestive system so I took a look at the actual food.

"Sausage and eggs." Yeah, I know I am theoretically a herbivore but animal matter tends to have fewer weird chemicals in it, besides I kinda like the taste. Mom would have a fit. I should never have the green grass of home she would say. I should never have left the star herds she would say. I put the menu back. I stared across the room at a cheap print hanging on the wall. There were two slug like things sitting at a counter with square hot cups of something in front of them being served by a reddish slug thing. Kinda homey if you are a slug thing. Very typical in a diner.

A few D'ra!Shee walked in. Short, oxy bipeds. I think they descended from arboreal scavengers. They look like it at least. Lots of small pointy teeth, repulsive smell. Long thin gangly limbs. A bit like humans, more fur and smaller and not as stout. They have a fairly consistent coloration. Each is a solid color ranging from greenish brown to brownish green. Something that nature got wrong.

They have a strong and occasionally unwieldy code of honor. A few centuries back it called for them to invade my specieal home world. Huge fleets of starships leveled the orbital defenses. Massive armies invaded. The fighting was city to city and house to house for a while but we fought them back and off. Five years for the planet to stop burning. Fifty to rebuild. There are still monuments to the fallen that are visited daily by grieving widows. Not many widows still left but a few. And one of the things that we never forget is the smell of burning.

"Out of my way, oathbreaker." Said the leader. Greenish brown,smelly and naked except for a bandoleer and a red headband. Oathbreakers was their term of endearment for us. A leader had broken a treaty and the dishonor fell on all of us. We hate them, and the feeling was more than mutual. There has often been talk of repaying the favor.

I looked at the thing and pushed it with a finger. Old habits die hard. Hating the goblins is one of the oldest. "Honorless lie-speaker." I told him, a mild exaggeration but with enough truth to be justified. A human friend once told me to know your enemy. Know what pisses them off. Know how to get them riled up make them make a mistake then crush them. Scary scary group those humans. Keep your cool and relax, an intelligent opponent bent on fighting will do the same thing. Things will be at an impasse until the numbers resolve. If he looses concentration and you know it, you've got him.

"What!!!" The little guy was obviously indignant. "If I weren't on a bloodquest I would tear you limb from limb and use your skull as a stewpot"

"And if you had any honor you would demean a bloodquest by hiding behind it." It's their flaw. Honor is their end all and be all. To make light of their honor is the most dire of insults. Some species are that way about offspring, my species cannot abide destruction of land, their bugbear is honor. They feel they are nothing without their honor. It marks their position in society. Ritual suicide is a major cause of death. Entire lines have been known to kill themselves over a point of honor. So a little rage is easy.

"Oathbreaker, liespeaker, child of a dead line, we should have destroyed every last one of you. Stupid bovines incapable of even grasping the slightest point of honor." Keep your calm, think of the plains, smell the fresh earth and the warm wind. Taste the sweet sweet grain of home. Breathe deep feel the warm double suns.

"You cannot stop your dishonor. Everything that comes out of your mouth is false, your father should have killed your mother on the day you were born and your mother should have castrated your father. Truly an ill wind blew on that day." Bring in the family. Honor in a species is generally tied to a strong sense of family. Its the debt to something larger than yourself, which means family.

A shrill scream came out of his mouth. Ugh, the the pitches that come out of small vocal chords. Squeaking wheels, unlubricated bearings. Its painful. He must have reached 4 or 5 octaves higher than I can hear. It was painful. "You vile filthy cow! Food animal! Lie speaking oath breaking cud chewer! You say everything twice and every time different! I should skin you and use your mangy pelt for a dishrag or give it to my hunting beasts as a chew toy! I should spread your intestines across the ground. I should dip your head in silver and mount it on a plaque with a sign over it describing to the minutest details of your vile crimes!" His torrent of threats and insults went on and on. I forgot how blustery they were. When language became widespread their population halved. They have a tendency to overpopulate and grate on each other's nerves and keep the population in check. Messy but it works. As he continued on, pausing occasionally to take a breath, I noticed the case had switched. It was no longer would and should, it was becoming will. He was absolutely apoplectic. That did it. It was time. I was going to do the one thing to put him into a blind spitting rage assuming he didn't have a stroke first.

I chortled.

He charged pulling a knife. I wish I could describe a glorious fight scene, him charging me just barely blocking the knife attack and a drawn out battle with him eventually being thrown through a window with his body impaled on the shards of its shattered remains. A long drawn out fight ending in the classic terrain induced fatality. Neither opponent powerful enough to beat the other fairly so the only resolution is one falls off a cliff is thrown into a wall of spikes or gets impaled on a shattered window. Not this time though.

I just thumped him on the head with a hoof. A quick blow with a lot of force and mass delivered by a nice hard surface. He didn't know what hit him. Rushing in he didn't realize he was vulnerable from a high blow. Short species don't realize they are short. Hell, even tall ones don't think that they are tall. Its the sense of universal sameness biting them in the ass. They expect everyone to think like they think. They expect to be attacked the way they attack. At worst he expected me to leap down on him putting me in strike or parry range as I could hit him.

His compatriots bristled and began to draw weapons. I'm not sure what they were thinking; I'm not sure if they were thinking. A bit of shock and fear I imagine. Rage almost definitely. If one of them gets mad they all get mad. Some type of pheremone perhaps. Maybe that is why they smell. They weren't drawing knifes though. They decided on guns, small hand pistols. I once made a bundle on them; bought them for 25 credits a piece and sold them for 125 credits. Strange the things you think of when people threaten you.

Lesson two, keep calm; let them worry. We stared at each other for a bit. They looked at each other. They threw a couple words back and forth in their language. They bowed and left. I have no idea of what they were thinking. Their honor must have been smirched by their leaders death. How they reconciled it all, I don't know. I don't want to know.

The waitress returned promptly with my food. She took away the body and cleaned up without saying anything. The eggs were good, I sprinkled a bit of the acid on them and added a pinch of the salt Potassium Chloride actually. The sausage was good but a bit sweet. I got the bill a few minutes later. It was a credit instead of a debit. Sometimes is best not to know what's in sausage.

Copyright 1997 by Mark Lively

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