DP FICTION #80A: “Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey

Content note (click for details) Content note: coerced surgery, cannibalism

You will just have woken in your bed. Time is short. You are groggy, I’m sure, but it is important you pay attention and do not leave – do not move – until this recording is finished.

Listen: marketing is everything.

Corporations spend trillions to delineate histories that could exist, sculpting nuance and favorable scandals in the service of cultivated intrigue. All press is good press: an ancient koan.

This is why we do what we do in the colony. The mythos of Ranvanni IV, parlaid during prime-time and burbled between mouthfuls of gin, is an essential part of what allows us to command a premium price for our products.

Good marketing saved us all.

After the withdrawal of funding by the Hattani-Weld-Roskin Exploration Company following five successive years of underwhelming mining productivity, the colony had to turn to alternative economic streams to ensure its ongoing viability – in truth, to ensure its survival, so far on the fringes of galactic society. What we lacked in accessible mineral seams, we possessed in a cornucopic ecosystem, rich in life forms unlike anything else the galaxy offers. And after years of subsisting on restricted supplies, we had developed an expert knowledge of how to prepare it.

Less than a decade later, our cuisine is legendary.  Consequently, representatives of Hattani-Weld-Roskin are now negotiating to repurchase ownership of the colony, but it is the leadership’s belief that a better bargaining position can be obtained with further discoveries, and thus we must expand our market capitalisation through all available means.

In that spirit, I detail here the history and specifics of some of our more famous dishes, to be instructive to you.

I have left you a snack on your bedside table. Chew carefully.  Pay attention to the flavor, that mouthfeel.  I taught you to be observant.

 *

Boiled, the tendons of the snow-cow – named for their bovine-like physiognomy, their four stomachs, and the ice that tinsels their horn-buds – develop an enveloping sweetness, meaty, with under-notes of anise. Fried, they secrete neurotoxins. We learned this the hard way in our first year of colonization, when Hjalmar died on livestream. His death took exactly three minutes, forty-two seconds; I counted as I watched, forcing myself to acknowledge my responsibility for the incident. A biohazard crew was required to extract the body. Everything about Hjalmar had been rendered poisonous, unpalatable, even the spit left crusted black on his chin.

After the incident, snow-cows were no longer exsanguinated. Instead, we dumped them wholesale into vats of scalding water. In a quarterly mining report, colony analysts detailed that the change had improved productivity by seven point two percent, a record high. Hattani-Weld-Roskin encouraged further experimentation with local food sources to reduce their long-haul resupply costs.

 *

In accordance with standing colony orders, Edelstein, upon accidentally discovering that a split-open rock contained red meat, scooped these innards out with his fingers (he described the texture as “similar to a warm tar, claggy, but with an added unctuousness reminiscent of the juice of rotted meat”) and sampled the meat raw. He experimented with depositing the meatstones at various points along the shore and in streams and rivers, as it subsists on filtered particles and is thus flavoured by its environment. It remains unclear if the later loss of his hair and nails was a side effect of a primarily-meatstone diet or of the increased solar radiation he was exposed to before appropriate genetic protections were provided to colonists.

The meatstones, one off-world chef later said, are most delicious when cooked into a mousse, folded with double cream and salted egg yolk, a touch of cayenne, some lemon juice. For best effect, serve with ginger-garlic vinaigrette.

Edelstein did not agree. The colony provided no official comment. When dealing with off-worlders, it is critical to remember that the end goal is always profit.

*

Are you still chewing the sample? Good. Don’t swallow yet. It’s important you savour the layers of taste.

 *

Upon contact with temperatures above forty-two degrees Celsius, the flesh of the swallow-tailed glass mantis becomes edible for precisely seventy-two seconds. Texturally, it has been described as creamy, fatty, tallow-like between the teeth. The taste is more complex: powerfully umami in the beginning before it lightens, inexplicably acquiring a delicate, pleasing milkiness.

After seventy-two seconds, however, the experience sours, both literally and metaphorically. The meat emulsifies into charcoal and vinegar, a taste comparable to someone else’s bile. For that reason, cognoscenti will pay millions to lightskip one of our expert chefs from the edge to the core to serve their corporate banquets. It is a novelty, and our first marketing success. We gambled everything to make it known. Such gambles are the only path to success for those not born to it.

The fact that the glass mantis’ cousin – more populous, more beautiful, fronded with magenta instead of dull shades of peach – comes with all of the flavor but none of the drawbacks is never advertised.

Besides, I would keep them all for you.

*

We lost Hawkins, de Ruiz and Patel to fits and convulsions, pink spittle foaming on their lips and drying immediately into grotesque structures like clouds at sunset, before we realised the meat of the Ranvannian lamb was poisonous when cooked in individual cuts, having previously roasted them whole on a spit.

I was sitting in the canteen with them when it happened. I have always made a habit of eating in the canteen with the other colonists, so the colony saw I shared the risks. I had a lamb steak upon my own plate. But for a few seconds, you would have been orphaned then, young as you were. You are better prepared now, I hope.

The stomach of the lamb – lamb, of course, shorthand for this creature that has a woollen appearance, though in truth its exterior is filigree bones growing like spiraled feathers from the endoskeleton – is an excessively alkaline environment. Cooked whole, the stomach bursts inside the lamb and these alkaline juices soak through the carcass, breaking down the poisonous enzymes and giving the meat a sharp bite, like horseradish puree gone to mould.

For the purposes of cooking more efficient portions than an entire lamb at once (an inappropriate serving portion for gatherings of less than twenty), a stomach may be kept in the parlour and the juices poured directly onto the steak from the oesophageal opening. Due to the high alkaline content, the stomach is not at risk of rotting, and it ensures the juices maintain more flavour than if decanted into a glass container.

No one outside of the colony knows this, of course. Publicly, we have maintained that the practice of preparing Ranvannian lambs whole is sacrosanct, a religious imperative. The reason is simple: galactic decree states that all cultural practices must be observed without failure. Because of this, we sell the ruminants by the herd.

*

We do not make salt of our dead. That part is pure gossip.

*

The boandiu is a tree not unlike the terrestrial banyan, named for the sound it makes in the monsoon season. All parts of the plant are edible, including the roots, the nervous system, and the primitive cerebrum embedded in the heartwood. The shoots are a particular delicacy. Roasted with cashew-butter, seasoned with sea salt and black sugar, they can achieve a taste and texture not unlike the finest meringue.

More adventurous diners, however, prefer to consume the brainstem whole, ungarnished save for some balsamic vinegar, a tang of apple honey. The resultant flavor has been compared to crème brûlée, subtly spiced with garam masala and something ethereal. The process inevitably kills the boandiu. Because of this, we possess legislation outlawing the practice. Because of this, our poachers make millions, assisting tourists with their fantasies of devouring a protected species. Practicality supersedes sentiment, my darling. I hope you understand this applies equally this morning, when you have woken up alone. It is not because I do not love you. Never that.

Of course, in order to maintain appearances we occasionally and without warning dispatch patrols to hunt and kill the poaching parties, though never when the richest clients are in attendance.

*

The Raptor Albatross is a large bird-analog with a wingspan exceeding ten metres. It feeds on large sea life, plucking it from beneath the surface with its sixteen serrated claws. The natural concentration of alkaline metals through the marine food chain means the Raptor Albatross is unsuitable for human consumption except at one stage: foetal. The eggs are challenging to retrieve from the eroded cliffspires along the coast, a terrain that precludes the use of hover vehicles and requires colonists to climb by hand, exposed to the threat of the parent raptors and their claws. One day, when I return, I will show you the scars I have earned myself. Procurement is made more difficult by the size of the egg, in the region of 12 to 18 pounds, which also necessitates a long cooking process, slowly brought up to boiling over the course of sixteen hours.

This cooking process must be done from fresh; the egg cannot be frozen, as the piquant flavour and smooth, tender texture of the foetus is only brought out by the slow reaction of its enzymes in the steadily rising heat. Freezing the egg kills the foetus and renders the cooked dish brackish and rubbery. More importantly, it divests the dish of its hormonal cocktail – a dead albatross cannot fear, cannot feel its nerves bake, its blood bubble to steam. As such, the foetal albatross would not taste of its final moments. This is unacceptable.

Of course, such a requirement presents an obvious economic challenge, which you will have already noted: if viable eggs are dispatched to customers, they may choose to incubate the egg and begin a breeding program of their own, undercutting our supply. For this reason we only ever sell the eggs singly, though of course we also keep the black market well stocked for those who wish to purchase a second; it will afford them little success, as it is the parents’ diet of Ranvannian fauna that lends the egg its flavour. Divorced from the alkaline biome of the planet, the cuisine becomes quite pedestrian.

*

Every civilization must have its trademark drink, a beverage representative of its culture, its foibles, its myriad secrets.

Ours is simple: a brandy recalling the flavor of Hungarian pálinka, so saccharine that it must be cut with gulps of red brine. We use real apricots, real pears, mash and meat both, nothing allowed to waste. The taste, while uniformly sweet, can vary depending on the supplier. Some keep it pure. Some add cardamom, pure cocoa, kaffir lime, bold flavors to distract from the way the sugar congeals on your teeth. And some use apomorphines, engineered for tastelessness, to seduce the unwary.

All, however, share a fundamental ingredient: the fermented seminal fluid of the Vacant Shark, matured for 8 months in the harsh sun.

You can see why we are so proud, and why I have never let you drink it. I love you too much for some things to be acceptable.

 *

Did you taste that?

Consider the fat and how it has been flavored by repeated consumption of the boandiu; the crème brûlée texture, its velvetiness. Compare and contrast the taste with the meat itself, succulent umami bomb, underscored with anise and molasses. No livestock in the universe is so tender.

The cuisine of Ranvanni IV derives its unique flavour palette and signature bite from the particular chemistry of the native biome. To a large degree, it is self-perpetuating and connected: the fauna tastes as it does because it eats the other fauna, and if bred off-planet and fed on plain nutrient paste, it loses its unique properties.

There is one species that has, up until this moment, not been sampled and sold. Early specimens had too varied and foreign a diet to titillate the galaxy at large; it is only the second generation of colonists–your generation – that have been raised on a consistent Ranvannian diet, enough to flavour the meat.

And no-one has had a richer, more varied diet than you, my daughter, a fact you must concede. That was a strip from your upper thigh, prepared quickly. Imagine how a better cut might taste: first brined for a day and then roasted with a marinade of brown sugar, cumin, chilli, fermented blue krill.

I have taken your legs before departing on my lightship; you must forgive me for taking yours and not another’s, but successful leadership is built upon shared risks, and I must be willing to sacrifice you for this cause. The proletariat are children, in their way. They subside on the stories we make for them; narrative underpins every aspect of Ranvannian life, in the end. I expect you to inherit the leadership one day, and so this is another gift for you: your own myth; the leader whose very flesh bore the blessing of prosperity.

And oh, daughter of mine, I hope you forgive me for taking both your legs. The rich always want seconds, are inevitably starved for more, more, always more. And we cannot risk this venture failing. We must give them what they want. You understand this. If we can drive a high investment now, the sunk-cost fallacy will ensure our survival even if market economics cannot: we must lure as many bidders as possible to the auction of rights. We will make a success of your sacrifice. You will thank me for it later.

You may not believe there will be a market for human flesh, but if I have learnt anything in two decades of trading food to the rich and indulgent, it is this: there is a customer for every experience.

Besides: what else is power if not an appetite for human flesh?


CASSANDRA KHAW is an award-winning game writer, and currently works as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel The All-Consuming World comes out in 2021.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. This is Cassandra Khaw’s first story in Diabolical Plots, but her story “Hammers On Bone” was reprinted in The Long List Anthology Volume 3 in 2017. This is Matt Dovey’s fourth story in Diabolical Plots: his previous stories were “Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” in 2019, “Consequences of a Statistical Approach Towards a Utilitarian Utopia: a Selection of Possible Outcomes” also in 2019, and “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” in 2021.

DP Fiction #22: “The Schismatic Element Aboard Continental Drift” by Lee Budar-Danoff

“Captain, we have a situation. I’ve been investigating a potential religious sect.”

Captain Madeleine Salim of the generation ship Continental Drift set down her vitamin soup bottle. Instead of spending the start of her shift in contemplation of the new planet below, part of the anti-agoraphobia program mandated by the ship-to-shore landing process, she faced the lieutenant. Ronald Chin resembled the noble eagle from their histories, with short wavy hair, sharp nose and piercing eyes. Salim returned his salute.

“Why wasn’t this brought to my attention immediately?”

Chin stiffened. “I couldn’t report gossip. Rumors of religion crop up during every new generation. In the past, they turned out to be student groups prepping for exams, or thought experiments. I had to rule out those possibilities.” His proper military posture tired Salim, who waved him to a seat.

“The leader of this new sect is Orrin Himmelfarb—”

“The physicist?” Salim knew every adult on the Continental Drift by name and profession. Of the almost three hundred people now living aboard, Orrin was the last she would’ve considered spiritual in nature.

“He preached in private to individuals at first. Now he’s speaking to small groups in public. Tracie Aliyeva assists him.”

Aliyeva, their nanotechnologist, displayed no abnormal tendencies. Salim rubbed her forehead.

“Which religion is he using?”

Chin frowned. “That’s what I can’t explain. He preaches all of them.”

Ridiculous. She recalled the chapters on religions. All of Earth’s history was taught up to the point of the generation ship departures. The population for each ship had been selected based on religion to avoid future clashes and violence. The atheists assigned to the Continental Drift learned about religions as part of their cultural past but didn’t practice any.

Plans were underway for the transfer of supplies from the sister ship. At the end of her shift, their entire population would vote on a new name for their planet. Why, at this critical moment, had Himmelfarb made religion an issue?

“Could the loss of gravity cause mental stress or deviations?” As they’d approached their target star  system, the ships decelerated and their rotation about their pivot point slowed. The centrifugal force that provided artificial gravity wound down. Once the ships de-tethered and settled into orbit, the future colonists had learned to function in low-g. Transition sickness continued to affect everyone. “Are people reacting adversely to the meds?”

Chin said, “No. The mild dose in our food will alleviate the effects of motion sickness–the disequilibrium and vertigo which started when we arrived. There are no biological or pharmacological sources causing people to seek a god.”

Was there a god? Salim never worried about such questions. Their ancestors and founders were Secular Humanists who relied on science, facts, and reasoning instead of myths, faith or superstition to understand questions of humanity and the universe. Now, as they embarked upon the final stage of their journey, a small group might disrupt the harmony designed thousands of years ago.

Chin saluted and left. Streamers from the arrival celebration party floated along her office walls but couldn’t relieve Salim of the weight of responsibility. Determined to learn the truth, Salim left to find Himmelfarb. Down one hall, she encountered Dr. Kendrickson vomiting near one of the viewports where the now motionless stars shone bright. Salim turned the sick dentist from the disturbing panorama, called for a medtech and cleaning crew, and continued on her search.

Cafeteria Three doubled as space for large group activities. Over the centuries, despite projects that maintained the ship’s interior, surfaces and furnishings displayed the ravages of age. Salim found the physicist at the head of a worn plastic table, Aliyeva beside him, drawing nods from the people seated nearby. She frowned. Charisma, a favorable trait among colonists, might be an obstacle to dissuading others from Himmelfarb’s words. After collecting a lunch tray, she headed for the table.

“We need to talk,” she said to Himmelfarb. “Let’s go to my office.”

Himmelfarb asked, “Why not here?”

He wanted everybody to hear. Salim didn’t intend to give him an audience. She leaned down and lowered her voice.

“I’d prefer privacy. I’m sure you’d prefer to come of your own accord.” Salim tilted her head toward the door where Lieutenant Chin stood.

Himmelfarb grabbed his tray and stood. “Always an honor to dine with the Captain,” he said. Tracie Aliyeva rose but Himmelfarb waved her off. “See you later,” he said.

Salim wasted no time once her door was closed and they were seated.

“You’re preaching religion, beyond a course of study you’re not authorized to teach. Why?”

“I’m glad you asked.” He took a bite, and waited until Salim followed suit before explaining. “You have concerns but I promise I’m not creating dissension among the members of our new colony.

“There’s a truth, a secret, passed on since my ancestors first boarded the Continental Drift.” He leaned forward. “My people aren’t atheistic. We believed that faith in any god, not just the god of the Jews or Muslims or any group, would support us through the two millennia our people faced aboard this ship. When someone struggles and can find no solace in a friend, no relief in the words of a psychologist or counselor, we,” he pointed to himself, “offer a solution bigger than the survival of mankind. Faith in something so huge, so unfathomable, yet so caring, is the answer for troubled souls.”

Salim shoved her spoon into the vegetable paste which adhered to her tray. “You’re saying your ancestors boarded the wrong ship?”

Himmelfarb shook his head, lips pressed. “You misunderstand, Captain. My family feared for the people of this ship.”

“They lied on their applications? That’s a serious breach of contract. Our founding documents clearly state that those who joined this ship would never establish a religion.” Severe penalties were outlined for any who broke this rule.

Himmelfarb nodded. “We didn’t set out to establish any particular religion. Only when someone was in need did we offer a solution others here wouldn’t consider. There hasn’t been one incident caused by religion on this ship.”

He was right. No generation passed without spats or serious disagreements, but nothing in the historical logs suggested religion was at the root of a single issue. That didn’t change the facts.

“But now we’ve arrived.” Salim tapped her desk. “In less than a year, we’ll descend to the planet and build our new civilization. The ship-to-shore program is working within expected parameters. Why preach to people who are adjusting? Especially when you know the consequences.”

“Despite the wall engravings, the constant lessons, the structure and multiple redundancies built so we’d remember we’re on a ship, surviving as a race by spreading across the galaxy, some are disturbed and need spiritual guidance. Yes,” Himmelfarb held up a hand, “many will be ready, but not all. They wish to hear me.”

“Practical knowledge and rational thought should provide a sense of safety and comfort,” said Salim. “Our founding documents planned for contingencies including the emotional and psychological needs of individuals regardless of their futures on the ship or a planet. No purpose beyond survival was mentioned or needed. Our humanity depends on our ability to think critically.”

Salim sipped from her soup bottle and grimaced. The soup was cold. “Our community was designed to be bound by common beliefs, without myths. Our ancestors began their journey free of superstitions, and refused to offer false security to their progeny. Logical reasoning should relieve any fears. If your forebears lied to board this ship, and if your words cause dissent, you threaten our entire colony. And I can’t allow it.”

Himmelfarb said, “You’d make us martyrs when we aren’t breaking the letter of the law?” He raised his voice. “I’m a physicist, and I believe science and religion can coexist. My forebears insisted it didn’t matter to which god or religion you subscribed. Each is as valid as the next. Instead, the insight that you’re part of a grand design, that your existence in the vast depths of space and time mattered, was the key to thriving on a generation ship. Especially when your particular generation was not destined to become a colony.”

Martyrs? Himmelfarb threatened their entire future. Salim chose her words carefully. “Then what, exactly, are you preaching?”

“Choice,” said Himmelfarb. “I recommend that each person who comes to me review their religious studies. A particular incarnation of a god or gods will resonate with them. If you open your mind and heart, your personal truth will be revealed. No one can tell you what to believe in. We aren’t talking about science fact. Or even an explanation for the universe. I can’t prove ‘god’ any more than you could disprove ‘god’. For some, finding faith helps them have faith in themselves and in what they’re doing.”

“It sounds like you’re giving up responsibility for yourself. Have faith in some magic power and things will work out.”

Himmelfarb scooped up some food and took his time chewing and swallowing before offering his answer.

“For me, God is not an entity from whom I ask for answers. God helps me comprehend space and everything in it at an emotional level. When I first looked through a viewport, I felt small, insignificant. I sickened at the thought of leaving my only home.” He rubbed his temples. “But I see myself as part of the grander web of life, and my destiny lies below. I got over my transition sickness.”

“You can face the planet now?”

“Oh yes. I look often. Our new home is beautiful.”

Salim stood. “I can’t say I understand why people find comfort in something imaginary. I won’t deny anyone their personal choice. I cannot condone any organized religion, which is contrary to our founding documents.” She touched a button on the desk and Chin opened the door.

Himmelfarb got up but Salim raised her hand. “I want you to discuss your preaching with Dr. Ganz. I’m not convinced you aren’t offering a crutch that will cause weakness in our colonists. I suggest,” and Salim deepened her tone so Himmelfarb would take her words as a command, “that you refrain from preaching until the psychologist convinces me you’re doing no harm. If people insist belief in a god requires them to force others to believe the same way, we are dead before we set foot on that planet. In that case,” she pointed at Himmelfarb’s chest, “I will put you, your family, and any others with these beliefs in isolation, and the current generation will remain on board. A new generation, raised free of your preaching, will become colonists instead. Understand?”

Himmelfarb’s smile vanished. “I understand. But while knowledge of religion and God exists, you will never be able to eliminate a person’s choice to have faith. It’s not rational. It’s instinctual.” He followed Chin out.

Salim finished her medicated food and shoved the lunch tray aside to be recycled. Certain that Himmelfarb would share their conversation with his followers, she considered her options. Through her office viewport their new planet swam in space, a blue-green bauble clothed in swirling white clouds. There was no going back, not to their old world or the imperfect ways of their past. She reviewed the database devoted to Earth history, and stopped at the section on religions. Every aspect of their inherited culture, from art to music to stories was influenced by religion.

It wasn’t within her power to delete the material. File erasure required a unanimous vote. Even if she isolated Himmelfarb and his family, his followers would still have the right to vote. No other captain had ever suggested such a dire action. Once gone, that part of their past, their heritage, would be irretrievable. Was that wrong? Salim sighed. Even if she convinced her generation the material was unnecessary, religious ideas passed down orally might persist. Even if they were eradicated, new ones could arise.

Salim decided. The assembly to name the planet would have one additional agenda item.


© 2016 by Lee Budar-Danoff

 

LeeHeadshotLee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.www.leebudar-danoff.com]

 

 

 


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