It was Avian Night at the All Alien Cafe. The avian population of Crossroads Station wasn’t large, but they were vocal and social. The double-winged Eechies and the puff-feathered Rennten could always be counted on to attend, since they’d evolved as colony dwellers. However, occasionally, even a traditionally solitary, long-legged Ululu would show up and regale the crowd with stories of how his people had built high-pressure nests inside all the gas giants in a thirty-light-year radius of Crossroads Station before humans even noticed them.
Avian Night always had a good turnout.
Prilla was a puffy, auburn feathered Rennten. She always came for the drink specials, but she stayed for the commiserating chatter. Humans and the other mammalian races simply didn’t understand what it was like to be a hatched race. They didn’t understand the pressures of incubating external ovatum nor the intense ambivalence of being a flighted species living on a space station. To fly higher than the stars! Yet to be trapped, always, inside an enclosed building…Mind-boggling.
That evening, however, the conversation drifted toward homeworld recipes. As Prilla listened to the others chatter, her nostrils were flooded with the remembered smell of her own favorite fledgling food: her hatch-mother’s grassberry crepelettes.
The very next day, Prilla decided that she would get some grassberry seeds and grow her own grassberry plant in the arboretum on Crossroads Station. When the grassberries ripened, she’d be able to cook grassberry crepelettes of her own!
The first step was to catch a flight to her homeworld, several systems over, and find some grassberry seeds. Prilla went to her friend, Yss the reptilian Srellick, who ran a cargo route between Crossroads Station and the asteroid belt. She owned her own ship.
Yss was lounging in front of the airlock berth to her cargo ship. She’d set up a pair of folding chairs, a parasol, and a sunlamp. The green scales on her tail glittered in the flood of light and the parasol shaded the rest of her body. She wore techno-glasses that were likely streaming data in front of her eyes on their tiny, shaded screens.
“Yss,” Prilla said, “I have decided to fly to my homeworld and get the seeds for a grassberry plant, so I can grow it in the arboretum here. When the grassberries ripen, I can harvest them and make my own grassberry crepelettes for everyone to try and share!”
Yss’s long tongue flickered out of her mouth. “Grassberry crepelettes?” she hissed. “Yes, that sounds nice. Do sit down, and we can eat them together.”
“No, no,” Prilla said. “You don’t understand. I need to fly to my homeworld first to get the seeds. Will you take me? On your ship?”
Yss’s tongue flicked again. Prilla could see its forked tip. Yss continued to stare in her direction, her eyes still hidden by the techno-glasses. Finally, she said, “No, I’m too busy.”
Prilla began to ask, “What are you busy with? A cargo run to the asteroids?” But there was no need. It was readily apparent that Yss was between cargo runs. She simply didn’t want to help. Prilla’s feathers ruffled in irritation, but when she opened her beak, she said, “Fine. I’ll book a commercial flight and travel to my homeworld to get the grassberry seeds myself.”
The lenses of Yss’s techno-glasses stared blankly at Prilla as the little Rennten shuffled away.
Commercial spaceliner tickets were expensive, and the two-day flight to her homeworld was long and tedious without a friend to share it. When she arrived, however, Prilla was delighted to be back at her childhood home. She stretched her wings and flew as she had not done in years. She visited her old hatch-den, ran into several Renntenn she’d known as a fledgling, and stocked up on many familiar supplies from her childhood. Including the small yet precious bag of grassberry seeds.
By the time Prilla finished the return flight to Crossroads Station, she was itching to begin growing the grassberry seeds.
She sought out her friend Lintar in the arboretum. Lintar was a fishlike alien, light enough to float in the Crossroads Station atmosphere but who needed to wear a breathing helmet to survive. He was in charge of the largest communal arboretum on Crossroads Station. Prilla found him drifting, eight feet above the ground, among several flowering trees in the Ancient Earth section. His delicate blue fins draped gracefully as he examined the health of the plants under his stewardship.
“Lintar!” Prilla clacked from her beak. “I have grassberry seeds here from my homeworld! I want to plant a patch of them, and when the grassberries ripen I can make grassberry crepelettes for us all to share!”
Lintar floated down, closer to Prilla’s eye-level. He held out his fins, and Prilla offered him the bag of seeds. He examined the seeds closely and asked Prilla many questions about the plant ecology of her homeworld. After an exhaustive discussion of bio-dynamics and all the cleverly different ways that life had evolved chlorophyll on different planets, Prilla found herself growing quite frustrated.
“Lintar,” she said, “I’m happy to discuss this with you at a later time, but, for now, I want to get these seeds planted. Will you help me?”
Lintar bobbled up and down in the air, filling and emptying his swim-bladder much as if he were breathing heavily. “Well,” he said, in a voice made deep and resonant by the amplifiers in his breathing helmet, “The truth is that this arboretum is very carefully balanced. We can’t just plant one grassberry bush. Now, if you can get me an entire array of seeds from your homeworld, a complete cross-section of a self-sustaining ecosystem, if you will…”
Lintar never got to finish. Prilla clacked her beak in irritation, and said, “Never mind. I’ll get a pot and plant the seeds in my own quarters.”
“Yes,” Lintar intoned. “That would probably be best.”
Prilla clutched the precious bag close and left the arboretum for the merchant quarter. She found a shop that carried lovely ceramic pots and mineral-rich potting soil. She planted the seeds herself and placed the terracotta pot proudly by the inside wall, just next to her quarters’ front door.
After her vacation to her homeworld, Prilla found herself behind at work, in the Robotic Sentience Offices, and the requests from robots to be evaluated for sentience had stacked up while she was gone.
“Oh dear,” Prilla said, as she scanned through all the messages on her computer screen. “I’ll have to schedule so many sentience tests this week that I won’t be able to make it back to my quarters at lunch to water my grassberry bush each day.”
Aniel turned her metallic head and made a sympathetic sound. She was one of the robots who had passed the sentience tests and, with her newfound freedom, had chosen to work in the Robotic Sentience Offices, helping to liberate other enslaved robots.
“Would you mind going to my quarters and watering my grassberry bush for me during lunches this week?” Prilla asked her robotic coworker hopefully.
The irises in Aniel’s mechanical eyes narrowed.
“I know you don’t eat,” Prilla said. “So, it will be less of an inconvenience for you. Though, oh dear…I suppose that means you won’t want to share the grassberry crepelettes with me when they’re done…”
Aniel had been listening to Prilla chatter on about the virtues of grassberry crepelettes all morning. This was the first that Prilla had remembered that her coworker couldn’t eat them.
“I am perfectly capable of enjoying a social get-together where my biological companions share food,” Aniel said in a measured tone.
Prilla clapped her feathered hands happily. “Oh, good!” she said.
Heedless, Aniel continued on: “However, I have already devoted my lunch hours this week to another cause.”
The feathers on Prilla’s neck ruffled, and she had to take her hands and smooth them. “Is that so?” she clucked, skeptically.
Aniel insisted that it was. Though, no matter how much Prilla tried to tease the exact nature of this other cause out of her, Aniel remained evasive.
Prilla skipped her lunches that week, hurrying back to her quarters during the brief break she had between scheduled sentience tests to water her grassberry bush. It was a hungry week, but it only served to whet her appetite for grassberry crepelettes.
As the weeks turned into months, the grassberry bush grew strong and leafy. Prilla found it to be a valued reminder of home, now that she resided in a gleaming, metal space station filled with strange aliens who didn’t seem to value her friendship as much as she thought they had. Or the prospect of grassberry crepelettes.
When the time came to harvest the grassberries, Prilla made one last attempt to interest one of her closest friends in taking part in her journey of reminiscence. She invited Ryeh, a canine alien with thick, flowing black fur to meet her at the All Alien Cafe. The two of them enjoyed meeting for drinks together and watching the humans in the cafe give them odd looks. There was something about a pair of aliens who looked like a big black wolf and a little red hen, drinking together, that always gave those funny smooth-skinned primates a moment of pause.
“Ryeh,” Prilla explained after their second round of marzicran sherries, “I’m going to harvest my grassberries tomorrow and make crepelettes! There are enough berries to cook up a feast, and I’d like you to come help me cook it and eat it.”
Ryeh was a quiet sort, so it didn’t worry Prilla when it took her a minute to answer. Her answer, however, was less than satisfactory.
“I don’t cook,” Ryeh said.
Prilla was flabbergasted. Having her final friend turn her down almost pushed her into an early molting. She spent the rest of the evening arguing with Ryeh, but apparently her canine friend had suffered some horrible cooking disaster in her formative years. She would not budge.
“Fine,” Prilla said. “I’ll cook the crepelettes myself.” And, she thought, I’ll eat them myself too.
The next day was a holiday, and Prilla didn’t have to go to work. She had the whole day to herself to pluck the grassberries from the bush, which had grown all the way to the ceiling of her small quarters; blanch the berries in boiling water and peel away their waxy skin; cook them in a savory sauce; and, finally bake them into the flaky, crusty crepelettes.
She set the table beautifully, even taking time to put a bouquet of grassberry leaves in the center. However, when she sat down to her giant feast, she found that her resolve failed her. She couldn’t eat a feast like this, meant to be shared, all alone. She began to wonder if she really belonged on a space station like Crossroads, or, perhaps, whether she should move back to her homeworld.
Then Prilla heard the chime of the front door. When she answered it, she found Ryeh, Lintar, Yss, and even Aniel standing there.
Prilla’s feathers puffed out, turning her into a fluffy, angry, little ball of red feathers. She looked up at her so-called friends, ready to give them a thorough hen-pecking, a real piece of her mind, for expecting to share in the bounty of her grassberry crepelettes after each and every one of them had refused to help her with them.
Before she could speak, however, Yss held out a bottle of Almachian wine in her green scaly hands. “I traded for this with an Almach wine baron on my latest asteroid run,” she hissed. “I thought it would go well with your grassberry crepelettes.”
Prilla blinked. She wanted to be mad, but she knew how rare Almachian wine was. She’d always wanted to try some, but, without the necessary network of contacts, it was nearly impossible to come by. She held out her feathered hands and took the bottle from Yss’s scaly ones. Yss stepped past her through the door and seated herself at the feast-laden table.
Prilla stayed standing squarely in the way of the others, though, meaning to give each of them a tongue-lashing, even if Yss had bought her way out of it.
Lintar, however, held forward a bowl filled with brightly colored, gem-like globes of fruit. “I made this salad with fruits from the arboretum,” he said. “No two of them come from the same world. If you’d like, I can tell you the history of each one.”
Prilla wasn’t so sure about listening to a lecture on the xeno-biology of fruit, but the salad looked extremely tasty. She stepped aside, long enough for Lintar to float his way in.
Next, Aniel explained that while she had no interest in trying the crepelettes, as her mechanical body would be unable to process them, she had heard so much about them, she had prepared a poem in their honor. She hoped to join the festivities and recite her poem for them. Prilla didn’t know what to think of that. It made her feel all fluttery under her feathers. So, she waved Aniel on in.
Finally, Ryeh stepped forward and gave her ruffle-feathered friend a hug. “I could tell you were feeling lonely last night,” Ryeh said. “So, I thought you’d like it if I brought some of your friends over to share your crepelette feast with you. I hope you don’t mind.”
Prilla was still confused about her feelings, but she was glad that she wouldn’t have to eat her feast alone. “No,” Prilla said, “I don’t mind.”
The friends sat down to a feast of grassberry crepelettes, foreign fruits, and Almachian wine. It was a blissful combination of the familiar, the novel, and the extravagant for Prilla.
As the others ate, Aniel recited her poem and then expounded on poetic theory — a subject she had been studying in an advanced class she took during her lunches. After the meal, Lintar dropped heavily onto his chair, his swimbladder barely able to counteract the weight of all the good food. He proceeded to tell the history and ecology of each of the fruits they’d eaten, just as he’d promised. The evening ended with Yss recounting the clever haggling she’d done to acquire the Almachian wine. By the end of her story — which involved a fixed poker game, a race around the nearest ringed planet, and more flirting than one would expect from a cold-blooded alien — the rest of them were looking ready to depart.
Prilla enjoyed the windows into her friends’ lives that their conversations provided, but she realized that she would no more want to help Yss haggle with an Almach wine baron, practice xeno-ecology with Lintar, or study poetic theory with Aniel than they had wanted to help her grow grassberries. The many components of the evening’s feast had been acquired separately, but they were enjoyed together. And that was what mattered.