The Dinner Guest
by D. J. Burnham
part 1 of 2
Raznah stood back and admired the travelling kitchen installation. It was his heart and soul, the centre of his life, and the single constant in the adventure on which he’d embarked some twenty years previously. Enormous flight cases had been stacked together, fronts flipped off, revealing thousands of drawers and compartments. These contained the majority of his cherished ingredients.
There were herbs and spices collected from his travels, some impervious to the attentions of any combination of atmospheric gases, air pressure, temperature, humidity or ambient light. Others — delicate beyond belief — were freeze dried, vacuum packed, buried in salt, or floated in oil/alcohol/volatile preservatives (known only to their planet of origin) and a few were held in advanced stasis fields, less they decomposed into a useless slime.
A third of the cases were rigged with computer-controlled micro-environments, supporting and growing a wide range of fresh planet material. Ranges, burners, grills, ovens and vats of super-heated oil, gleamed in readiness. Racks of extraordinary knives and utensils cried out to him, to be wielded once again.
Specially commissioned pots and pans were already being brought up to working temperature, taking hours to reach the point at which the alloys in their thick bases would be hot enough to take maximum advantage of the molecular kinetic energy inherent in the thermodynamics of the alien materials.
He’d spent a month in transit from the previous planet and had used every waking moment to research the recipes and ingredients which Earth had to offer. Anticipation built as the ship neared orbit, excitedly preparing to cook and sample everything available; as well as planning his appearance on a series of shows in which he would demonstrate his skills and knowledge of alien foods; to be translated and sold for distribution throughout Earth’s media network.
The first of hundreds of daily deliveries began to arrive, and his team ferried them into the carefully designed, warehouse-sized pantry. Adjacent to the kitchen, it was packed with cold storage areas, racks, growlights, everything and anything to tease the best from Earth’s fabulous produce.
Raznah swung into action immediately, at first trying out faithful reproductions of recipes committed to memory, and then adding twists and ingredients of his own. All the time he was learning how to handle the meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, pulses and oils, as well as assessing the respective boiling points, blanching/searing/baking characteristics of this procession of wonders.
Each delivery came from carefully selected leaders in their field, bearing premium produce in perfect condition. This was the part he loved the most, like learning every inch of a new lover’s body, the ultimate foodie’s high, as he worked in a state verging on tranced euphoria.
Raznah Gastron’s species, the Palochlids, had gone through a period of 5,000 years during which they’d suffered a combination of post-war starvation and biospheric devastation. This was one of the inevitable consequences of the preceding 400-year conflict, with a drastic reduction in the range of available foodstuffs and terrible damage to their planet’s environment. This was compounded by diverted trade routes, as well as a lack of resources to exchange. This created a situation in which the Palochlids rapidly evolved astoundingly sensitive olfactory and gustatory organs, in order to compensate for the blandness of their depleted victuals.
As their planet gradually recovered, interplanetary craft started using it for crew break stopovers and the ever resourceful Palochlids quickly learnt how to service their ships, establishing a reputation as reliable engineers; building on their successes. With the steady upturn in their financial fortunes, and the growing number of visiting spacecraft, so came a huge variety of new foods and spices. These led to a revolution in the Palochlids’ eating habits and provided a seed source for their blooming agricultural endeavours.
The Gastron family spearheaded the culinary revival with highly skilled cuisine, attracting even more visitors and further aiding the economy and well-being of their citizens. By the time that the honour of head chef of the family Gastron (the surname being the closest approximation of an English translation) fell to Raznah, they were renound throughout their own galaxy, and several adjacent. Such was Raznah’s passion, that he was invited to travel outside the Palochlid galaxy to demonstrate his skills. It was a fantastic opportunity.
He’d visited almost a hundred worlds in the following twenty years, and had found himself on route to Earth. It was similar to a place he’d visited five years previously, in that, although markedly different in its climate, vegetation, livestock and dominant species, it had a plethora of diseases which could prove lethal to him.
As a supplement to their own immune systems, Raznah and his assistants had a small ball of specifically bioengineered tissue implanted into a major vessel, such that stem-cell equivalents could be converted into lymphocytes; which would act against hostile Earth antigens. Palochlids had haemocyanin in their blood stream, which was less efficient at oxygen binding, but four auxiliary hearts boosted the output of the central organ, while the thickened lining of the blood vessels compensated for the increased pressure (both from the force of the combined pumps and the higher blood cell density of the blue-green contents). This made the construction of the converter-tissue implant even more difficult, as it would have to withstand high intravascular pressures.
The Thallian detective rubbed the back of his violet neck after another long day in front of the datagels. A solid track record had led to him being chosen to investigate one of the most bizarre cases in the history of Thallia. Every few years there’d be a murder or a suicide, occasionally an accident would attract accusations of foul play, but generally it was the usual round of petty squabbles over ancestral property boundaries, Stoona bars operating without a license, the odd spot of theft, and rarely, an act of infidelity. Never in living memory had a Thallian vanished without trace.
Oh sure, once in a while an elderly citizen would peg out, and it could be several days before the body was discovered. Drownings had occurred, but the body was always recovered (due to the buoyancy effects on the corpse of the cessation of intergastric gaseous exchange) and the genetically hydrophobic Thallians generally avoided open water anyway, other than registered fishermen and transport outfits.
A handful of reports, archived in the datagels, described attempts to bury a deceased family member in an unauthorised area, or without proper death registration, Adventurous youths had been known to wander off into densely planted woodland, only to get appallingly lost and have their remains stumbled across by State-registered foresters. These were uncommon occurrences and the body was always recovered, even if it meant months of searching, dredging and questioning. To the Thallians, it was a matter of principle.
Nothing in the young Thallian male’s records suggested that he was unbalanced, unhappy, in conflict with another, or prone to wandering off on his own. His disappearance was a total mystery. One day he’d been at work, and the next he didn’t show up. A year had gone by and Tik had pursued every line of enquiry open to him. Still nothing. He’d turned his attentions to a neighbouring planet and was currently drawing on their experiences, with the assistance of some most obliging law officers.
One day he came across a case similar to the one which he was investigating. Although they had a considerably higher crime rate on their planet, there was something about the report that rang a bell with Tik. It was as if the missing person had simply fallen off the edge of the world. Not a trace, a clue, nor a shred of evidence of any sort, could be found on the planet of Parniqket.
The very next day Tik was on board a transport flight, hunkered down between vats of saf seed oil and sacks of raz grain, trying to prevent the dorsal extension of his exoskeleton from chafing on the bulkhead. He was on his way to Parniqket. An appointment with their head of police awaited him, as well as unlimited access to their resources and experience, plus an interview with immediate family members of the missing individual.
It was two weeks since Raznah’s arrival on Earth, and the time had come to tear himself away from the kitchen for a few hours. Hiding his second pair of arms inside the bespoke jacket — designed to help him to blend in and preserve a degree of anonymity — he was currently taking a stroll through the nearby park, at sunset. He pretty much had the place to himself, a few humans walking their dogs, a couple on a romantic walk, and the steady footfalls of the joggers.
He came to a quiet spot and sat on the handy wooden bench to soak up the experience, inhaling the scent of the shrubs and flowers, listening to the rustle of a light breeze through the trees, colours magically intensified in the twilight. A distant sound alerted him to the approach of another jogger, an athletic-looking young male. Raznah pulled back the hood of his dark brown jacket revealing his face, and waved at the approaching man. The surprise on his face amused Raznah, as the jogger came to a halt by the bench, barely out of breath.
‘Hey, aren’t you Mr Gastron, the chef?’ he enquired, excitedly.
‘Indeed I am,’ he replied, the in-flight somnambulant language course paying off.
‘What are you doing here, sitting alone in the park?’
‘I came to watch the sunset, to enjoy your air and early evening scents. Do you exercise here every day?’
‘Nah, I’m just passing through, repping for a restaurant kitchen equipment company, funnily enough.’
‘Really? I wonder, do you get to sample food in your line of business?’
‘Depends. I try to call when the chef’s on downtime, but I get lucky now and again. Wow! I can’t believe it. Here I am chatting with the great Raznah Gastron.’
Raznah accomplished a fair approximation of a human chuckle and asked, ‘What is your name?’
‘I am pleased to meet you, Tim Pool.’ Raznah offered his hand in Earth custom. Tim hesitated for a moment at the sight of the proffered blue-green, seven-fingered hand, but took it. Raznah noticed the strong, firm handshake. ‘Listen Tim. What are you doing this evening? Have you any appointments or engagements?’
‘No, I’m off to Manchester tomorrow. I was gonna knock back a few beers and hit the sack, don’t really know anyone here.’
Raznah smiled broadly, both outwardly at the human, and to himself. ‘How are you at keeping secrets, Tim?’
‘Can you promise me that you won’t tell a soul about our meeting for just a few days? After that you can tell anyone you like. You’ll also get a mention on my show, that might give you some extra kudos with your business associates?’
‘You bet it would! Yeah, you can rely on me, mate. What did you have in mind?’
‘I have spent the past two weeks working on new recipes, using Earth ingredients and some from my own personal collection. I would really appreciate some feedback and to see how my ideas work for the human palate. Would you like to come for a tasting?’
‘Oh yeah! I’ll be the first human to try your food?’
‘You will indeed, and I’ll credit you with that on my show, but the recipes must remain a secret until the show is broadcast.’
‘I’m there. Name the time and the place.’
Following further reassurance from the young man, that he promised not to talk to anyone about their meeting or planned tasting, Raznah gave him instructions on how to find his way and suggested that they meet in one hour’s time. That would give Tim just enough time to get back to his hotel, shower, change and get over to the chef’s place.
Raznah dismissed his assistants, giving them the night off to relax, and swiftly assembled a range of dishes for his guest to try out. Tim Pool entered the apartment, next to the huge warehouse, using the security swipe card which Raznah had given him earlier, and made his way towards the sounds of cooking emanating from the kitchen area.
‘Some set up, Mr Gastron,’ he said, appreciatively, as he walked in and looked around in amazement.
‘Ah, hello, Tim. Call me Raznah, please. I thought that my collection of equipment might interest you.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ he agreed, picking up one of the strangest knives he’d ever seen.
‘Oh, take care my friend. That one is highly dangerous. You have an expression... er... to cut the air with a knife, yes?’
‘Yes,’ he said, gingerly placing the blade back in its rack.
‘The term could have been coined for that knife. Come and have a seat.’
He gestured towards a marble-topped table, on which two places had been set. It was at that moment that Tim realised that the alien chef was stirring a pan with one hand, grilling slices of oiled aubergine with another, chopping shallots with a third, and had just indicated the chair with a fourth. It took him aback for a moment, but not wishing to cause offence he sat down, composing himself as he assessed his host.
Raznah Gastron was about seven feet tall and had four arms. His face had blue-green skin (like that of his hands), his eyes were the like wet granite, the size of tennis balls. His huge, ape-like nostrils, flared as he sniffed the contents of a pan, thick white lips parting to reveal an absence of teeth, but a ribbed, cartilaginous lining to his mouth as he spoke. He wore a black sarong and a smart red tunic, clipped tightly about the neck, with a black and white, lattice-patterned bandanna wrapped about his head.
‘So,’ Tim said, hesitantly, ‘what delights have you prepared for us?’
‘A complete sample range of the dishes which I am hoping to present in two days’ time. I would value your complete honesty on everything that you eat this evening. You must tell me if anything is not to your taste.’
‘I’m no expert,’ he replied, worriedly fidgeting with his collar.
‘That is not an issue, my friend. My goal is to create food of universal appeal. I am not playing to a narrow market, my aim is to please as many humans as possible. I am not expecting an analysis of each meal, far from it. I would like to gauge your immediate reaction and perhaps to finish the evening by simply compiling a list of your favourites.’
Copyright © 2006 by D. J. Burnham