“The Quizzlians! Now there’s a race that can eat!” As the doors of the pneumo-tube opened I could hear the tempestuous bluster of Joe’s voice booming from the chrome and glass facade of the Diner. The sound made me smile. “If I give a Quizzlian a platter of my renowned dumplings,” the angry voice continued, “it will devour them with a profound enthusiasm, as befits such a culinary delight.” I slipped the satchel off my shoulder as I floated through the entrance, and let the just-shy-of-Earth gravity field pull me down. The Diner was crowded as usual. Metallic servitors shuttled trays to booths occupied by all manner of creatures. Conversations in many languages thrummed and vibrated in the air. A rapid succession of aromas hit me, and the ones I recognized made my mouth water. At the center of it all the substantial form of Josefi Bellemadre stood akimbo behind the counter, glaring at three mottled crustacean customers seated (if that’s the right word) on the red stools before him. “But you beasts pick at your plates for,” he glanced at the neon-rimmed clock, “TWO hours as if looking for lost treasure. If you insist on frequenting my establishment only to rake and sculpt and prod my magnificent creations with your utensils, I shall make it my mission to inflict great suffering upon you. I have consigned lesser races to extinction for such an affront!” He raised and shook his meaty fist. The spokesman for the crustaceans tried to inform Joe that, as delicious as the meal was, nature had cursed them with small mouth-parts as they had evolved from krill-eaters.
I could sense a string of cruel invectives bubbling up in Joe’s throat.
“Never try to reason with a hash-slinger,” I shouted, “the last customer who did ended up in the stew pot!” When Joe saw me his mustached face lit up, and his raised hand slapped down on his bald palate. “Martin!” he boomed, maneuvering his great frame from behind the counter. Halfway across the floor to me he stopped and turned to the patrons of the diner, “You vermin should rise when a sentient being enters the room!” A variety of eyes looked at him, then returned to their meals. He threw his arms up, then wrapped them around me and lifted me off the floor. Josefi is a large man. This is in no small part due to the extensive suite of auxiliary stomachs and digestive enhancements he’s had installed over the years. There is little the man cannot or will not eat. So it was unsurprising when he held me at arm’s length and said, “Look at you, man. Skin and bones! You got here in the nick of time, I might still be able to save you!” “I submit myself to your capable ministrations.” “Ah, I see all that time in space has not stripped you of your discriminating taste.” With his arm around my shoulders he led me to a stool at the counter and said “Sit down, I’ll be right back.” He turned to one of the servitors, “bring him a coffee, the real stuff,” then vanished into the kitchen.
I laid my satchel on the counter, and looked around the old place.
Aside from being the main harbor for trade ships in this sector, the Vega-Ulysses Station has become quite an interplanetary cultural center. Shops and entertainment centers line its many central tiers. There are also over three hundred eateries. There is only one that I ever visit. Joe’s Diner. Not only does it capture the wonderful kitsch of those antique roadside joints of Earth, but Joe also makes the best burgers, and I am wise enough not to ask what they are made of. As with all good diners the portions are large, and lunch specials are often accompanied with a side order of Joe’s wisdom (and sometimes his abuse). Most restaurants on the station cater to one or two species. Three at the most. Not Joe’s. In addition to his modified digestive system, he also has a number of cerebral implants that re-tune his neurons to replicate the taste-sense of many races. In short, not only can he eat Ocimian Huwacq stew, but also taste it the way the reptilian Ocimi do. With this ability, Joe has mastered the cuisines of untold worlds. He is so familiar with the flavors of the galaxy that, where a lesser eatery would require a bank of food synthesis tanks and molecular replication apparatus, he can usually duplicate alien delicacies with whatever ingredients he has on hand. I was savoring the coffee when Joe slid a platter holding a still-steaming cheeseburger in front of me and asked “So what brings you out here, Marty?” “Necessity,” I said, “My very sanity required I visit you.” “Let me see,” he said, leaning close as if to examine the details of my face, “in my expert opinion I’d say you’ve recently hauled cargo to a number of worlds, habitats and other ports-of-call, where you tragically partook of a great many disagreeable meals in eateries devoid of character, served by staff with little dignity and less manners, and then waited the better part of an epoch for the check.” I nodded in agreement while taking a far-too-large bite of the burger. “Ah,” he continued, “no doubt in most cases these encounters were followed up with protracted monologues of disturbing bodily noises, until finally you could take no more! So great was the need for a decent meal that I’d gamble you passed up several highly profitable cargo runs and waited for one coming here.” “Your prognosis is correct— ” “Of course it is!” “— but incomplete. I also had to bring you this.” I pulled the wrapped and ribboned box out of my satchel and placed it on the counter. “What is this?” he said, with a hint of genuine surprise. “A present,” I said. “Back on Earth it’s late December. I figured it’s been a while since you had a taste of the holidays.” He bellowed out a laugh. “Let me tell you about holidays. At any given time this station is populated by representatives from over three hundred republics, empires, confederations, unions, alliances, realms, oligarchies, technocracies, commonwealths, and collectives. These contain many worlds, some up to a thousand. Each world orbits its parent star at a different rate, so their years vary in length.” “I know my celestial mechanics. I am a space pilot.” “Don’t talk with your mouth full. Every one of these planets has at least one predominant race, and each race has a number of cultures. In most cases those cultures have their own calendar and, in turn, their own slate of holidays and observances. If you do the math, you’ll see it’s a rare day that’s not a holiday around here.” “I never thought of that,” I said, swallowing another bite. “That’s because you’re not exposed to it. You’re out there experiencing planets and cultures one at a time. But they all come to my place.” He spread his arms wide. “Somebody here is always celebrating, exchanging gifts, carousing, atoning, singing, or just plain eating. Just yesterday was the Keltarian Day of Remembrance. And given the size of their heads it’s safe to say that they remember a lot. There were nine of them in here. Fortunately I can make a spectacular Keltarian Guul Pie out of cabbage, spoiled oats, bleach, and clam juice. One of the them said it tasted just like the ones his mother made.” “I’m trying to eat, here.” “You see her?” Joe pointed down the counter to an eight-foot-tall scaly thing with big pincers. “She’s a Clabbian. Pregnant from the looks of it. Every seven months they observe the ‘Anniversary of the Silver Tide’ or something like that. They come in here by the dozens and order the traditional meal, which I can approximate with sour cream, camphor wax, and aluminum shavings. Served warm.” He pointed to a booth, “The little gecko guys with the prehensile dreadlocks, they’re Nirzarians. They love my licorice with hot sauce. Three times a year they celebrate the memory of their dead ancestors by having what amounts to a sacred dance-a-thon. It takes me a full day to get the footprints off the walls. “Ah,” he said, indicating another booth. In it sat a trio of what appeared to be giant robed meerkats with oversized tusks. “Now those are Vop-Vops. The robes identify them as members of The Siblinghood of Vigilance, a very enigmatic bunch. Today is special for them. All over the galaxy their kind await the coming of the One True Evil, which can only show itself during a change of season on their homeworld. Every four months they come in here, order a couple appetizer platters, and wait for evil to appear so they can destroy it. Those weapons hanging from their belts? Vibro-daggers. They can carve a target down to its component molecules.” “And what, exactly, is this evil?” “They have no idea. They say they’ll know it when they see it.” “That seems like a rather dull holiday.” “You’re thinking like a human, Marty,” he said, topping off my coffee, “They live a cloistered existence, so this qualifies as revelry for them. We come from a place where history is important. We cleave to our ancient traditions and laud ourselves for preserving them, when in fact most of our big holidays are just variations of much older ones. That doesn’t make them any less important to the people celebrating them, but another species might not see it that way. I’ll tell you something else, we consider ourselves to be the epitome of jollification and merriment, but by some standards we are downright dowdy.” “Oh?” I said, sitting up straight, “and who’s merrier than us?” “There’s one race that comes through here a lot, tiny guys, I forget their name. They have eighty-seven Feast Days, one for each of their emotions. Then there’s the Elukiphans, those floating silicon cubes with the tendrils. They eat lightwaves, and dedicate a month to every color in the visible spectrum. You know the Algobans? They commemorate their old mythology. There are nine hundred and forty-one spirits in their Pantheon, but only two hundred and four days in their year. That’s four-point-six holidays per day.” “That’s got to be tiring.” “Fortunately they don’t need sleep,” said Joe as he took my empty plate away and tossed it in the recycler. “My point is that you can’t always judge a culture by its celebrations. What seems sane and reasonable for one may appear senseless and incoherent to another. I’m certain there are species that look at humanity and wonder how a race that ritualizes cutting down trees and hanging oversized socks by the fire ever made it into space in the first place.” “Well, when you put it that way…” “Take the Viliaq,” he said, pointing to pair of furry bipeds who were intertwining their wavy blue antlers while sharing a bowl of pale gray sludge at a nearby booth. “Lovely people. Sweet, trilling voices. Vicious sense of humor, usually directed at their own politicians and clergy.”
“Obviously an enlightened race.
“Precisely. From a planet with a tight orbit around a dwarf star. Their sidereal year is just under seventy Earth days, and they have over two dozen annual holidays. They’re in here every three days celebrating some festival or jubilee. Sure, it’s all nonsense to me, but I consider them one of the greatest examples of sapient life in the galaxy, in part because of their boundless capacity for happiness, but mostly because they tip very well.
“On the other hand you’ve got the Uardans, those six-legged cacti-things over there. Most of the time they are as polite and unassuming as can be, until the semi-annual Sooliwampo.” “Sooliwampo?” “Roughly translated it means ‘The Week of Exponential Pleasures.’” “Sounds decadent.” “Oh yeah, real fun. On the first day they have one meal. On the second, they have two.” “Four on the third.” “Exactly.” “And how long is this ‘week’ of theirs?” “Fourteen days. I break out the buffet on day six just to keep up with them. By day ten they are gorged to four times their usual size. On top of that, their digestive system doesn’t take too well to artificial gravity. I have an acid-proof trough I wheel out for those times.” My full stomach growled at the thought of that much food. Joe heard it, and looked smug and satisfied. “So, yes,” he said, “I see my share of holidays here.” “Well then I guess you don’t want this,” I said, reaching for the package. “NOT SO FAST,” Joe bellowed, snatching the box off from the counter. He looked up at the rest of the diner and shouted “You see? This one brings me presents. You ungrateful bunch could learn a lesson from him!” He unwrapped the box, opened the lid, and peeled back the layer of wax paper inside. A stern scowl crossed his face, followed by a wry smile. “I haven’t seen one of these in years,” he said as he reached into the box and pulled out his gift. It was a fruitcake. As he held it up there was a terrible sound, like howler monkeys with kazoos stuck in their throats. I winced at the harshness of it. I looked around to find the source, and saw that the three members of the Siblinghood of Vigilance were now standing, eyes wide. A moment later they leapt across the Diner, vibro-daggers drawn. One landed on the counter right in front of me, sending the empty box sliding away. He kicked the fruitcake out of Joe’s hand and sliced it in half in mid-air. The other two stabbed at each half with uncanny accuracy. There was an electric hiss as the blades flashed through the air above me too fast to be seen. The fabric of their robes snapped the air as they moved. In the commotion I lost my balance and fell off my stool. By the time I got back up there was nothing of the fruitcake left but fog and fragments of cherry The three Vop-Vops were standing around me, calm as could be. “What is your name?” the tallest one asked in a deep voice that slurred on its tusks. “Martin.” “Henceforth,” he said loudly, “let this day be known as The Feast of Martin, to honor the man who delivered the One True Evil to face its judgment.” With a hint of ceremony, one Vop-Vop handed Joe a fistful of coins and bowed in gratitude, then the three of them turned and went out into the zero-grav of the station. I looked at Joe, who was, for the first time that I’ve ever observed, dumbstruck. “Well,” I said, “that certainly sounds like a tradition worth preserving.” Joe cocked an eyebrow, then said “I guess this calls for a slice of my legendary apple pie!” I agreed. So if you’re ever passing by Vega-Ulysses near the end of the Earth year, make sure to stop in at Joe’s Diner and order the Feast of Martin Lunch Special. It’s a cheeseburger and a cup of real coffee. Don’t ask what the cheeseburger is made from. And leave a good tip.