More free fiction, scifi this time. And since I skipped last month, I’ll post the sequel to this story next week.
by Maureen L. Mills
Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I was stuck on the only one without a Kentaurus Fried Chicken franchise. Or any fried chicken joint. Or any fried chicken at all.
I rolled over in bed, careful not to disturb my Young Husband, Allo, snoring beside me, and laid a hand on my slightly rounded belly. “Go to sleep, little guy,” I whispered to the flutter I imagined I felt under my fingers. “You can’t have fried chicken, and that’s the end of it.”
Since the Great Burger Wars of 3308 and the resulting decimation of the teen populations on planets where the inter-franchise fighting had been the worst, most fast food establishments across the galaxy had been outlawed. Several planets still refused to allow their children to be taught how to draw the arched form of lower case m’s in reaction to the terrible crimes committed in the name of defending market share. Clowns, jagged arrows, and red pigtails are universally abhorred. I hadn’t seen or tasted a burger since I was ten.
Kentaurus Fried Chicken had stepped into the hamburger vacuum after the war and spread everywhere.
Except here, Fomalhaut Prime. The “Prime” was a misnomer, as this was the fourth planet in the star system, but the local religion was kind of nuts about firsts, so they changed the name.
Also, they worshipped chickens. Live ones, not the tasty fried kind.
My mouth watered as I imagined crunching into golden brown breading; the salty, savory taste of the eleven secret herbs and spices; the tender, white meat rolling over my tongue; the succulent juices running down my throat and dripping off my chin…
No, I wouldn’t die if I didn’t get any. But would life be worth living?
I rolled out of bed and padded to the tiny living room in the extended-stay suite I’d rented while Rus, my Wise Husband, underwent treatment in Our Lady of the Millet Planetary Hospital a few miles away. My home planet of New Devon is the go-to place if you need to develop a new space weevil-resistant strain of quinoa, but lacked advanced medical facilities for such unusual ailments as my husband’s Niven’s Syndrome.
The flight from New Devon to Gallus City had been long, with very little formal entertainment. Rus had been in cryo-sleep to arrest the progress of his disease, so Allo and I had nothing to do but treat the journey as an extended honeymoon. How was I to know zero-g and Alturian schnapps would affect my birth control implant like that?
Hence the bulge in my midsection, and the inescapable, driving need for fried chicken.
The stupid rooster outside the window crowed in confusion as I flipped the light on, and I ground my teeth. Stupid not-fried bird.
I wanted–I needed–the delicate taste of tender, white breast meat, infused with a hint of sage, a wisp of thyme. Or a more flavorful and juicy thigh piece, with its higher ratio of crackly skin and breading to meat…
I wiped the drool from my chin and plopped down on the sofa, snagged my e-slate and found a directory of all food purveyors on Fomalhout Prime. Someone on this stupid planet must be a dissenter from the stupid Church of the Prime Creation and its stupid sacred chickens.
It’s not like there was any shortage of the fowls. Feral chickens flocked in the streets. A cacophony of crowing woke me at daybreak every morning, negating any chance of sleeping in no matter how late I’d gone to bed the night before. Dead chickens rotted beside every road, flattened by passing steam sledges. No one dared move them until the state-run street cleaners swept up the carcasses along with the other trash once or twice a month.
And yes, the stench was unbelievable, especially to a pregnant woman.
But surely someone in this city was poor enough, hungry enough, to catch a few sacred chickens and eat them. No one would notice if a bird or twelve went missing. Maybe someone was desperate enough to sell me a luscious bucket o’ golden goodness or two. I only had to find the right shady connections.
I browsed to Gallus City tourist information, looking specifically for areas the literature said to avoid. One street was infamous as a red light district, which, although officially frowned upon, had quite a few pictures prominently included in the guide, beside detailed directions of how to get there, and to the clinics that existed to help clear up any unfortunate after-effects from your visit.
The next place was only mentioned as a side note at the bottom of the page. The Vitellus neighborhood is rustic and picturesque; however, it’s best to leave the area before nightfall.
Just the kind of place I needed. “Rustic and picturesque” translates to “poor and old.” A good place to find clandestine fried chicken products.
I went back to bed with a smug grin on my face, satisfying my stomach with the promise of chicken tomorrow.
Late the next day, after an unsuccessful attempt to allay my chicken craving with ham and cheese on rye, I left Allo with Rus at the hospital. I figured the husbands could look after each other for an hour or two.
Not that they needed much looking after, but with Rus confined to bed until his ears and backside healed, and Allo still young even though he was a legal adult in every galactic culture but one, I was reluctant to leave either on his own. (Allo was still a child according to the Undarans of Cephus Three, who aren’t considered adults until they have killed and eaten one of the extremely rare and even more extremely dangerous Fourhorned Sharktooth Squills, native to the swamps and jungles near the equator. Thus, not only was their star system under embargo by the Extraterrestrial Species Protection Agency, but their economy was collapsing from the lack of new housing starts, since most of the population lived in their parent’s basements playing video games and eating pizza, which is widely acknowledged as more tasty than Squill.)
As I left the hospital, I tripped over the raised edge of the oval embedded in the floor beneath nearly every door I’d come across on the planet, drawing the attention of several natives in the traditional bright shoes and hats. They looked me over and scowled.
I ducked into a passing hovercab to escape. For some reason, the Fomalhautians seemed to hate visitors to their planet. Or maybe it was just me.
The driver shot me a worried glance when I told him my destination, but I gave him a confident smile and he shrugged and pulled out.
The slanting rays of the setting sun gilded the old stucco buildings of the Vitellus market square. Hovercabs departed with the last straggling tourists, and the native merchants began hauling baskets of exotic goods into their stores from the streetside displays. Piles of lavender fruits that smelled of citrus and bacon, bushels of red grain outside a bakery with pink bread in the window, feather-patterned head scarves designed to match yellow leather slippers, and chickens everywhere. Wooden chickens, painted and left natural. Tiny, clear glass chickens. Across the square, orange gems cut into stylized chicken pendants sparkled in the setting sun.
And, of course, the live chickens. I had to shoo a speckled black hen out of the way before I could step out of the hovercab. Contented clucking and outraged squawks drowned out the merchants singing the last sale prices of the night just as the smell of chicken crap overwhelmed the aroma of the sausages grilling on the cart beside me.
I skirted a family of Rotanev Planet Reds who scratched for crumbs in front of the cart and approached the slight man unloading the last sausages from the grill into a basket with a tight cover to defeat the omnipresent poultry.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to smile ingratiatingly. “Would you know where I could buy some…exotic cuisine?”
The man didn’t look up. “Beg pardon, ma’am. I don’t know what you mean.”
My stomach rumbled, adding its own two universal’s worth. “You know. Exotic meats? With herbs and spices? Eleven herbs and spices? I have money.” I flashed my wad of Fomalhautian clucks before stowing it safely back in my pickpocket-proof traveler’s bag.
The man’s dark eyes narrowed, and he studied me from the top of my green, DNA-modified hair to the tips of my soy-leather sandals, and apparently concluded I was a clueless tourist.
“Ma’am, perhaps you aren’t aware that, umm, ‘exotic meats’ of that sort are illegal on this planet.” He touched the brim of his crested red hat and turned back to his grill.
I snatched at his sleeve. “Sir! You don’t understand. I need some ‘exotic meat.’ I’m pregnant, you see, and I’m not from this planet, so it’s not illegal for me to eat chi…I mean, ‘exotic meat.’ You must know someone who can help me.” The words spilled out in a desperate attempt to plead my case before the man could take his basket and retreat into the storefront beyond.
He gave me a sympathetic look, which told me he’d known some pregnant women in his time, but he didn’t stop packing his sausages. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”
“Why not?” I asked, my voice tight with desperation. I saw my chance of steaming hot, crispy fried chicken sliding from my grasp. “There are so many of them just running around everywhere! I’d do anything for just a taste…”
“Hush!” The man dropped his basket, scattering the chickens settling for the night under his cart, and slapped his hand over my mouth. “Do you want to get us both arrested for blasphemy?” He scanned the darkened street in both directions, then leaned in and spoke in a low voice. “Some in this market are spies.”
I pulled his hand off my mouth and whispered back. “Spies? Why would there be spies here?”
He slammed his hand back over my mouth. “Eggers live here,” he breathed into my ear.
I swatted his hand away. “Eggers? What, like bootleg egg sellers?”
“Sshh! Followers of the Ovate Way.”
Lights swung around the corner, piercing the darkness of the suddenly deserted street.
“It’s a patrol!” The man grabbed my arm and yanked me into his store, locked and bolted the door, and snapped down the window shades.
We stood motionless and silent as the black patrol hover glided slowly past and disappeared down the street.
“Why are we hiding?” I whispered.
“Eggers aren’t allowed out at night.”
I frowned. “I’m not an Egger. Whatever that is.”
The man took off his crested hat and chucked it into a corner. “But I am.” He tipped his head toward me, and I saw a large oval tattooed on his balding skull. No, not an oval. An egg shape.
“But why am I hiding?”
The Egger sighed. “Because you are from New Devon, right? Green hair, funny accent?”
My accent wasn’t funny! But I nodded anyway.
“The Fowlers are not fond of your type, and if you are seen in the company of an Egger, after curfew, no less, it will not go well for you. They’ll arrest you if they can.”
The Egger cut me off. “I’ll answer your questions at the meeting place.” He bent down behind the long counter at the back of the room and disappeared.
Meeting place? Eggers? Hiding from patrols? Had I fallen in with some sort of resistance movement?
I leaned over the counter. A trapdoor gaped in the middle of the floor, leading into a pit lit by flickering torchlight.
Whatever the chances of finding a chicken dinner down there, they had to be better than zero, which was what I was facing up here.
My stomach rumbled.
I descended the ladder
The man was waiting at the bottom. “This way,” he said, closing the trapdoor. He led me through a maze of damp ferroconcrete tunnels. They smelled of mold and faintly of sewage, but at least there were no chicken droppings down here.
At last we came to a cavernous domed room, filled with hundreds of natives holding torches.
“George!” an elderly woman cried, hurrying over to us. “Why did you bring an outsider here?”
So my guide’s name was George. Man, how alien could you get?
“She’s New Devonian, Elda. They hate her, too. She wants to fight against the oppression of the Fowlers.” George stepped forward and he and Elda clasped forearms. They each wore wide bands on their forearms, with an egg pattern looping around it. When their hands clasped, the eggs on their wrists joined to form a sideways figure eight. An infinity symbol.
Hold on. What had George said about fighting oppression? “Hey, I don’t want to get into any trouble…”
Elda ignored me and turned to the assembled group. “See! Word of our plight has travelled across the galaxy, and help has come from a distant star system!”
A roar of approval rose.
“No, wait, I just want to buy some chicken!” No one heard me over the cheers.
George stepped onto a low platform and waved his hands for silence. “Friends! Followers of the Ovate Way! We have waited long for this day!”
I tried to edge away while everyone’s attention was focused on George, but Elda slung her arm around my shoulders and squeezed in an excess of good will, beaming at George’s speech.
“Why do the, umm, Fowlers–” which must be a slang name for the followers of the Church of the Primal Creation, the dominant religion of Fomalhaut Prime, “–hate New Devonians?” I whispered.
Elda’s eyebrows rose. “Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? You have your lovely chain marriages, with no absolute beginnings or endings, and that sort of thing is anathema to your average Fowler.”
“What, that we have lovely marriages?”
“No, dearie. The endless chain part.” She leaned closer so she wouldn’t interrupt George’s speech. “The Fowlers are fond of hard and fast beginnings and firsts. It comes from their belief that the Great Being made chickens as Its very first creation, while we Followers of the Ovate Way believe that It made the egg first, as a symbol of continuity and cyclic renewal.”
I blinked. “So, your religion split over the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
But I’d lost her attention to George’s theatrics. “We will arise and throw off the chains the deluded Fowlers have put upon us, blocking our access to education, medical care and regional craft fairs by placing our sacred symbols where they are desecrated by the passage of unhallowed feet!” George was on a roll, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
I remembered the raised ovals under every public doorway I’d encountered since arriving. You couldn’t avoid stepping on them. What a rotten thing to do to someone’s religious symbols.
“Let’s hear from our compatriot in this struggle for freedom!” George turned, and all eyes swung toward me.
I forced a weak smile and lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave. “Uh, hi. How’s it going?”
George waved me over to stand next to him. “You must have some ideas of what we can do to start this revolution. What would be best accepted by the galactic media?” he asked.
I was an exobiologist from idyllic, peaceful New Devon, not a revolutionary! What did I know about revolts?
Then my stomach growled, and the image of a steaming platter of golden brown fried chicken flashed across my brain. My knees went weak, and I had to wipe my mouth to keep from drooling down my front.
Maybe there was a way to turn this situation to my advantage.
I took a deep breath and projected my voice to the far corners of the chamber. “Have you ever considered a peaceful protest? Like, say, a public chicken fry?”
Three days later, I sat at the aft porthole of the last refugee ship off Fomalhaut Prime, idly tracking the progress of the fires that burned throughout the capitol. I’d settled my husbands in our cabin, and was, for the moment, alone.
Except for a large bucket filled to the brim with hot, crispy, subtly spiced chicken.
I hugged it to my breast, reveling in the aroma. I wanted to roll in it, like a dog who’d found a particularly wonderful stink in the grass.
Slowly, savoring the feel of the crispy skin under my fingers, I lifted a drumstick to my lips. My teeth sank into the tender flesh, and I groaned in pleasure as the taste exploded on my tongue.
I enjoyed my hard-won booty for ten minutes and two pieces of chicken.
My stomach twisted. I pushed the chicken away.
Man, I could sure go for a burger…