writer

Fish Story, Part 1

Posted on Apr 12, 2010

This story was written in the early 1990s, and was intended to appear in a zine I was to publish called ‘A Single Soul,’ which would collect all of my Ayren stories. It was never published, and this story appears for public consumption here for the first time.

  

“The last time I fished this particular stretch, I landed four magnificent gumblejack in less than 10 minutes… The finest fish in this galaxy, probably the universe. Cleaned, skinned, quickly pan fried in their own juices till they’re golden brown… ambrosia steeped in nectar. The flavour is unforgettable” –the sixth Doctor in “The Two Doctors”

“What’s the matter, Doctor?”

“I’m hungry.” I was whining, and Ayren was getting irritated with me. I was standing at the refrigerator door in the TARDIS galley, bent at the waist, staring in at the overladen glass shelves. Zaurakian treefruits, cheeses from Habar and Mira, leftover Algenib mountain-steer steaks, sliced boarham from Bellatrix, the fresh grainbread we’d picked up the day before on Cebalrai… None of it called to me. I closed the door and stretched, sighing.

“You’ve been like this for days,” Ayren said. I thought the bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia she was eating whispered my name… but no. “Snap out of it. Have a sandwich or something.”

I slumped down at the table next to her and propped my chin in my hands. “No, no, no. That’s not what I want. I want… Oh, I don’t know,” I groaned. My head lolled down to my folded arms on the table. What was this inconsolable longing? Was my body crying out for some vital nutrient I wasn’t getting? Were my taste buds bored? Was there something absolutely exquisite I hadn’t eaten in decades?

Gumblejack.

“Gumblejack,” salivating at the mere thought. “By Rassilon, that’s it.”

“What’s gumblejack?” Ayren asked.

I lashed out and grabbed her wrist so tightly she jumped. “Sweet, it is the most incredible thing that will ever pass your lips.” Oh, how to describe it? “Remember Deneb? Remember how awful the food there was, how dull and bland and tasteless it was? How wonderful it was to get back here and have real food?”

She nodded. “I remember Deneb.”

“That’s how everything, everything” — I squeezed her wrist — “will taste after you’ve eaten gumblejack.”

She cast a doubting look at her ice-cream bowl — she’d scraped it clean.

I lifted her wrist and kissed her pulse, gazing into her eyes. “Gumblejack is better than sex,” I promised with a grin.

With a laugh she said, “Well then, you’d better not have any without me,” and glanced sidelong at the refrigerator. “I don’t think any gumblejack will have materialised there. You’ll have to use the replicator.”

She knew I disliked the replicator and the metallic tang of everything it dispensed. But it wouldn’t give me gumblejack anyway. “That won’t work, I’m afraid. There’s only one place in the galaxy you can get gumblejack…”

***

Muon Von Muon squeezed his considerable bulk into the privacy booth and the door irised shut, ripping his whites in the process. Damn! He knew he should have changed before beaming up. Now someone was sure to ask what he’d been up to, and he couldn’t afford a warp up now that the moment was so close.

He had to shift around some to get at the call card in his back pocket. Grunting, he pulled it free and slid it into the phone, and a moment later the screen blinked on. A high-backed chair swung around, its occupant deep in shadow, to face Muon.

“You’re late,” the figure gurgled. (Its voice was electronically garbled, just like the terrorists and whistleblowers and priests they sometimes interviewed on GNN. Muon quivered in delighted at the thought that GNN would probably want to interview him soon.)

“We had a tour group from Aldebaran show up twenty minutes before the end of lunch service. I couldn’t get away. Slaving over a hot stove, don’t you know?” Muon giggled nervously and mopped his sweaty brow.

“You’re not calling from the restaurant, are you?”

“No, I’m in a privacy booth in the orbital. It’s totally secure.” Muon hoped that was true.

“Good. Is everything prepared?”

“Well, that pilot you recommended seems okay. But there’s a problem with the transport site.”

How do you tell when a disguised voice is annoyed? “Oh?” the shadow said.

Muon wiped his brow again and glanced up and down the slope of the corridor outside — no one around. “I was hoping to beam out of a quiet corner in the kitchen, but it turns out the kitchen is the most heavily shielded. The only place an unauthorised beam might get through is the Main Dining Room. They have to keep the shielding minimal there or it interferes with the auroras the tourists love so much.”

“Oh, dear. That will be rather… spectacular, won’t it?”

“But if it doesn’t work,” Muon blubbered, “they’ll–”

“It’ll work.” The shadow steepled its fingers, the gemstone of a ring twinkling bloodred in a patch of light. “Trust me. My source is very highly placed. But we must be exactly synchronised. The authorised transporter frequency is generated randomly at random intervals. Give me a precise time, and my source will transmit the frequency at that moment to your ship.”

“Let’s say 1830:00.”

“Fine.” The figure paused. “This is worth a great deal to me, Von Muon. You will be handsomely rewarded.”

Muon giggled again. He’d given up trying to guess who his new employer was, but he hadn’t stopped thinking how nice it must be to be so powerful that you had to disguise yourself, and so rich that you could handsomely reward people for doing your dirty work. Some day, Muon vowed, he’d be the one in the shadows.

But right now, only one thing was certain. One way or another, at 1830 tomorrow, he was resigning his position as assistant chef at Gumblejack’s.

***

“…the galaxy’s only maximum-security restaurant.”

We were looking out the wide, round window of Gumblejack’s orbiting foyer, the horizon of the blue-green planet below smudged through the FINEST FISH IN THE GALAXY etched along the rim of the glass in four languages. Our recessed seat in the curving sill was one of hundreds along the outer walls of the old-fashioned, wheel-shaped station, but it was secluded enough to feel cosy. Ayren was leaning back against me in the leather upholstery, and I was so comfortable I could have drifted off to sleep — if not for the anticipation. Gumblejack! My stomach rumbled a little.

“And this is the gumblejack’s native world?” Ayren asked, the cool brilliance of reflected sunlight washing over her face as the planet spun slowly around in the window.

“Yes,” I said. “Rialtha is a privately owned planet. The restaurant is the only space on it open to the public, and you can see how tightly even that limited access is regulated.”

She smiled at me. “Is it all necessary, though? Or does it really just serve to heighten demand?”

I finished the last sips of my drink and slid the glass back into the minireplicator on the wall. “Would you like another drink, sir?” it asked in a blandly polite tone.

“No, thank you,” I told it, then looked at Ayren. “Replicators produce food based on biomolecular blueprints. All anyone would need to programme a replicator for gumblejack would be a snippet of DNA from the smallest particle of flesh.”

“And has anyone ever tried to sneak some gumblejack out?”

“Have they?” I laughed. “Gumblejack DNA is the holy grail of the culinary world. Everybody’s tried! It would be worth a fantastic amount — billions, at least — to replicator corporations, cloners, aquafarmers… everybody. And its potential worth only grows over time.”

“So then why keep it locked away?” Ayren asked. “As exclusive as this restaurant may be, surely it can’t bring in billions.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” craning my head to look out into deeper orbit, where hundreds upon hundreds of ships were parked, their occupants waiting for entrance to the station and then to Gumblejack’s below. “The restaurant’s seating capacity is in the thousands, and one needs to reserve three years in advance. This is the place for parties, corporate functions, awards ceremonies, weddings– Hello,” I said to the face that popped into our alcove.

The small humanoid man returned my greeting with a pinched smile. “Pardon me. Smith, party of two? Follow me, please.”

As we climbed down from our windowsill, I whispered to Ayren, “When we leave, remind me to pop back and make that reservation.”

“Isn’t there something in all your Time Lord regulations about things like that?” she asked with a smile.

“Probably.” I grinned. “I think I cut class that day.”

The maitre d’ led us down the perpetual downhill of the wheel, past shadowy figures in other dimly lit windowsill alcoves, to the teleport platform. A sign next to the platform read:

WELCOME GNN!
Gumblejack’s proudly joins
Galactic News Network
in saluting the winners of this year’s
Turner Awards for Outstanding Achievements in Journalism

RECEPTION IN THE DUNLEAVEY DINING ROOM


“See what I mean?” I said as we stepped up onto the platform. the technician played with his control panel for a moment, then nodded to the maitre d’.

I whispered to Ayren, “And what about aesthet–” The teleport beam washed over us in a tingly wave, and the restaurant materialized before us. “–ics? Replicating gumblejack would be like manufacturing paint-by-number Mona Lisas!”

Ayren just took my arm and patted my hand as another maitre d’ waved us down from the teleport platform without looking up from his electronic clipboard.

“Smith, party of two? You’re in the Eden Dining Roo–” His eyes glazed over in horror as, shifting upward, they fell on my trainers… then Ayren’s jeans… then my admittedly threadbare jumper. “–ahem, the Main Dining Room. This way.” His wiggling fingers said, Follow me.

There were a lot of people very dressed up in the cavernous dining room, but none of them took any notice of us — they were all too busy with their gumblejack. And then I walked into a wall of that heady aroma, indescribably delicious. I was in heaven already.

“It does smell good,” Ayren conceded as I held out her chair — the maitre d’ had abandoned us as soon as was politely possible. “Place is a bit gaudy, though, isn’t it?”

“This is the tourists’ dining room, I think.” Someone a few tables away snapped a holograph of the iceberg-size chandelier hanging above us; a group at another table oohed loudly at the rare daylight aurora over the mountains beyond the glass walls; a kid at another table actually asked for a hamburger. “Reminds me of Tavern on the Green in New York.”

Ayren picked up her menu, but I snatched it away from her before she could open it. “We’ll both have pan-fried gumblejack steaks,” I said to the purple-jacketed waiter who appeared before us, “and a bottle of your best Corellian wine.” The waiter nodded and scurried away. “Trust me on this, Ayren. Your mouth will love you forever.”

She laughed. “I’ve never seen you so passionate about anything.”

I gazed longingly after a hovertray laden with gumblejack as it floated to a nearby table. “Just wait.”

“What’s going on over there?” Ayren asked. She pointed across the room to a table surrounded by waiters in purple, each eyeing a diner downing a frosty glass of turquoise liquid.

“Ah. That’s one of the security measures. After we’ve finished eating, we’ll have to drink an enzyme cocktail. We were scanned for our precise genetic makeup when we beamed in. The restaurant’s computer will use that information to mix up just the right combination of enzymes that will completely digest the gumblejack we eat.”

“I get it,” she said with a grin. “Otherwise there’d be people purging themselves for the highest bidder once they left–” Her smile fell away and her gaze drifted past me.

I shifted in my chair, surveying the crowded tables behind me. “What’s wrong?”

“That man–” She inclined her head ever so slightly. “–is scared to death.”

Following her gaze, I saw now who she meant — and I didn’t need Ayren’s empathy to agree with her. He was standing in the kitchen doorway, an immense man wearing chef’s whites. The armpits of his tunic — its buttons straining against his vast belly — were dark with perspiration, and he pressed a handkerchief to his forehead in short, rapid pats. A nervous glance at his wristwatch, then he walked stiffly out among the diners, trying to look casual and not succeeding. No one gave him much notice — at least, no one sitting in front of a plate of gumblejack.

I turned back around to face Ayren again. “I hope he didn’t sweat over our fish.” The thought soured my appetite.

Ayren’s gaze locked onto mine. “He’s heading straight for us,” she whispered.

A mountain of whiteness loomed over us. “Enjoying your meal, folks?” His eyes were searching the room, and didn’t even glance down at us.

“Well,” I said, “we haven’t been served yet, actually.”

“Oh, excellent,” he said distractedly, clapping me on the shoulder in what I assumed was meant to be a friendly fashion. Two other events coincided with his meaty slap: his wristwatch beeped, and I felt a shock like a jolt of static electricity. Some subconcious depth of my mind knew exactly what was happening and reacted in the available millisecond: without any consultation whatsoever with my brain, my hand shot out and seized Ayren’s upper arm.

Blackness.

The stale tang of recirculated air, with undertones of old tobacco smoke and engine oil, roused me. My fingers were still clenched around Ayren’s arm.

“Oh!” she protested.

I let go. “Sorry.” I pulled myself into a sitting postion on the cold floor of the narrow corridor, then helped Ayren up. “But I didn’t want you to get left behind.”

Rubbing her forearm, she glanced around at dark metal panels and the low ceiling, and she gave a little claustrophobic shudder. “What happened?”

“We got caught in a very powerful teleport beam. Our host here” — I jabbed a thumb at the big chef, still out cold and slumped against the wall next to me — “was touching me when I felt the beam hit. I knew I was going along with him. I didn’t even think — I just grabbed you.”

Cocking her head to listen, she placed her palms flat against the alloy plates of the floor. “Do you feel that? We’re on a ship.”

“Hmm. A small one. And moving pretty fast, from the vibration.”

“Call me naive,” she said, rising to her feet with a little wobble — that strong a teleport beam could take hours to recover from, “but I don’t think it should be that easy to get away from a maximum-security restaurant.”

“No, it shouldn’t.” I slid my hand into the big patch pocket on the chef’s tunic — he whimpered and stirred finally — and touched something cold and plastic. “Ah.” I withdrew a small round petri dish and held it up to the sickly green light emanating from the ceiling — inside were two yellowish white cubes the size of dice. “But how much would you like to bet that this is gumblejack?”

Ayren grinned. “No bet there–”

Running bootheels crashed toward us, approaching from around a sharp curve in the corridor. I stood and dropped the petri dish into my coat pocket, pulling Ayren protectively close. The boots, occupied by a small, wiry woman in a green jumpsuit, careened to a halt when we came into view.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded.

“Ah!” yelled the chef, startled back into consciousness. “AH!” when he saw Ayren and me.

“What the hell is this, Von Muon?” the woman bit out. “Our deal was one passenger: you.” She reached into a bulging hip pocket — I pulled Ayren behind me, my eyes darting around for an escape — and she drew out a slim white box. Shaking her head, she pulled a cigarette from the box with her lips. “This is all I need,” the cigarette dancing as she spoke.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “We got swept up in your teleport beam.”

The jumpsuited woman inhaled deeply on her cigarette, and its end flared to life, lighting itself. She blew smoke out of a corner of her mouth. “Well, we ain’t stoppin’ to drop you off — we got a squadron of Gumblejack Security cruisers on our tail.”

“Ooh,” the chef — Von Muon — groaned, lurching to his feet and following the woman as she retreated around the corner.

Ayren and I were left alone in the narrow, dark corridor. “What now?” she asked.

“I don’t think those cruisers will hesitate to destroy this little ship in order to get rid of this.” I tossed the petri dish to Ayren, and she turned it over and over, examining the innocuous cubes of fish.

“Perhaps we should find a replicator and make sure this is actually gumblejack,” she said with an ironic grin. “No sense dying for nothing.”

***

“…an absolutely spectacular sight this afternoon in the Main Dining Room at Gumblejack’s on the planet Rialtha!” GNN’s dining critic has to shout at his hovercam to be heard above the pandemonium. Behind him, diners wail and wander dazedly among uprooted tables and chairs as Gumblejack Security officers squawk incoherently into bullhorns and try to herd the diners out from under the swaying chandelier. “Even in my teleport flak jacket, I can still feel the aftereffects of the massive teleport beam that zeroed in on this very spot not ten minutes ago, carrying away a Gumblejack assistant chef — believed to be in possession of a sample of the famous fish — and his two hostages to a ship waiting in orbit! Let’s go now to my colleague on the GS cruiser leading the chase!”

Cut to: GNN’s famous war correspondent, hunching into her hovercam and pressing her earbot with one finger. “That’s right, Bob,” she whispers, “I’m here on the bridge of the GSC Julia Child, hot in pursuit of the rogue chef.” Behind her, myriad computer monitors cast the only light, an effervescent blue glow, on the officers hurrying back and forth around a lone shadow of a figure in the centre of the dark and sombre bridge. “Captain Frakes has made clear his intention that the hostages come through their ordeal unharmed. Brute force will be his last resort. If I turn this way a bit, you should be able to see on the monitor directly behind me the ship we are pursuing. There… That is, I believe, an SOL 3000 light freighter. It should be no match for this fleet of heavy cruisers…” The war correspondent presses her earbot again. “Yes… yes… I’m told by our newsdesk on Turner’s World that they have an expert on the SOL 3000 in the studio now.”

Cut to: GNN’s glamorous young anchor, studio lights glaring off her glossy lipstick, nodding to someone off camera, then turning to address the viewers. “That’s right, Christiane. We have here in our New Atlanta studios GNN terrorism consultant, retired Earth Army General Powell.” She smiles dazzlingly as she turns partway toward the distinguished, silver-haired man on her left, keeping a three-quarter profile to the camera. “Good to see you again, General. We haven’t seen you since the crisis on Gilligan IV. Welcome back.”

“Thank you, Diane.”

“What can you tell us about the SOL 3000, General?”

“Well, Diane, the SOL 3000 was originally designed and built by Spaceways of Luna as a light cargo freighter for the Martian Colonial Armed Forces during the Solar War. Earth forces captured about two hundred of these ships during the war and took possession of another fifty after the colonials surrendered. But they didn’t meet our rigourous standards and were sold off as surplus.”

“Haven’t many of them fallen into the hands of terrorists?”

“That is true, unfortunately. The 3000 is small and relatively fast, which makes it ideal for the kind of hit-and-run mission groups such as the Martian Republican Army and the Vatican are notorious for.”

“How does the 3000 compare to Gumblejack’s heavy cruisers?”

The general harumphs a laugh. “Diane, the 3000 is a bug next to those cruisers. The 3000 is fine for the run-of-the-mill terrorist who’s just going up against local planetary governments. But Gumblejack’s fleet is second only to the Federation’s. Diane, if I was to specifically pick a ship that would have virtually no chance of escape from Gumblejack’s, the 3000 would be it.”

***

[Part 2]