44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Solstice Dominance — Southern Solstice, South Gate District
Solstice had become home for a variety of cooperative restaurants over the years. Foreign visitors, when more plentiful, often wondered about the system. After all, in a nation that guaranteed all of its people free meals, what was the point of a restaurant where one paid from one’s wages to eat a meal? Daksha Kansal had rehearsed an answer for such a question.
In a Civil Canteen there was not as much room for a creative, relaxing or entertaining dining experience — Canteens by design served food that was widely available, nutritious and easy to prepare in large batches with specific portions such that everyone received their fair share across the days and weeks. As a community enterprise they were also meant employ any available non-specialized labor, regardless of cooking ability, so the food had to be simple. Many of them also economized on space and did not provide service for meals.
Cooperatives accommodated creative laborers with a passion for food who did not simply want to work in farming or processing or simple canteen work. Some were small restaurants noted for their serving of local specialties or tastes not catered to by canteens, often either grown themselves or procured under special agreements; others offered a special sit-down eating experience that a Civil Canteen simply couldn’t, mixing art and atmosphere with good food. Under the (imperfect) system of socialism that still dealt in wages, it was necessary to place a few regulations on such activities, in order to insure an equitable environment.
That was the essence of the Cooperative; most people were content with this explanation.
Perhaps satisfied; perhaps rendered uncomfortable by Daksha’s impassioned tone of voice.
On the morning of the 44th, Daksha left the Solstice city center and traveled a few kilometers down to the South Gate district. Arriving before noon via commuter trolley, she walked a few streets down from the trolley stop and chose a little cooperative cafe as her landing spot. She settled on a bench table outside, under an awning with the Hydra sewn yellow over red.
Half a kilometer away she saw the massive, 50 meter tall walls separating all of Solstice from the red desert. They dominated the background; the town itself was humble when compared to them. Streets were wide and dusty with desert sand, alleys wider still. Small and sturdy buildings, each well apart from the next, populated the area. Their walls were formed of smooth layers of brick, with tiled roofs and long awnings of wool dyed with organic patterns.
Whenever the gate opened, strong dusty winds blew in caravans of pilgrims, socialist and spiritual, from across the nation; independent camel-borne merchants from the ancient sand tribes, headed for the Msanii to conduct their traditional barter as though there were no socialism in Ayvarta; and some modern supply vehicles carrying Solstice’s share of the nation’s bounty, for its own lands consisted mostly of the vast, ruddy-brown sand of the Red Desert.
Daksha sat in her bench, and she pulled on a cord. A bell rang inside. Minutes later a small boy with frizzy hair walked outside in an apron, wearing a bandana around his forehead, and carrying a little notepad. He smiled at her, and waited expectantly beside her table.
“Are you taking my order?” Daksha asked gently. She smiled a little at the boy.
“Oh, yes ma’am. I’m sorry. My sister’s ill; she’s normally the one takin’ orders for ma’.”
“Oh dear, how troubling. Does she have a referral?” Daksha asked.
The boy nodded his head. “I think so. She is in the queue I think, ma’am. Doctor’s been awful busy lately. Been getting people coming from the south, I think, ’cause of the bad things.”
Daksha’s expression grew suddenly severe, but she tried to still her flashing mind.
“What is her name? I might be able to help. I work for the government.”
“Oh you do? Her name is Yanna Gueye. Thank you for your concern ma’am.”
Daksha kept it in mind. She didn’t know why it felt so necessary to her; certainly if somebody in worse condition was ahead of her then there was nothing that could be done. Ayvarta was still in the process of building up its medical corps for its universal healthcare. Good doctors took years to train and so far only a few good universities were in operation for it. So there were queues, there was nothing that could be done about it. She felt helpless in the face of it.
There was suffering in front of her. It was low-key, perhaps, but it was. It was suffering that she knew all too well. And the source of that suffering was easy to identify. It frustrated her.
“What’s your name ma’am? Gotta have it for the stati- statististics?” The boy said.
She smiled again at the boy. “Put it down as Shacha.”
“Our special for lunch is Shashlyk and potatoes in spicy coconut–”
“Ah, no, sorry dear, thank you. I do not eat meat.” Daksha said.
“Oh! Um, we have a menu for animists, if you worship spirits–”
“I’d like a look at it, if it’s not too much trouble. Thank you.”
Her little server looked at her quizzically for her interruptions, but he smiled and turned around and quickly picked up the special menu from a table just inside the restaurant proper. He returned and jovially handed it to her. Prominent on the vegetarian lunch menu was a savory red sauce couscous with seitan and a salad of chards. Daksha ordered.
“Thanks! Spirits be with you ma’am. My mother reveres the Akhu.”
He meant that his family worshiped the ancestors. These were both common religions and mostly ethnically split. Certainly the boy looked like an ancestor worshiper, in a way.
“Do not worry; I understand no disrespect was meant. You’ve done a good job.”
“Lots of folk here don’t eat meat either, so we do our best with Arjun food! You’ll see.”
“I’m sure you do everything you can for your mother and her co-op staff. It’s good that you help her. I think it can only make the food taste better when family helps make it.”
Elated, the boy ran back into the restaurant with her order. Daksha watched him go.
Religion was not quite the reason for her vegetarianism; she had no religion. Rather, eating meat simply triggered some painful experiences. But that was not something anyone had to know. That bloody history that had become embedded in her heart was best kept to herself.
Daksha sighed, and produced her own pen and pad from within her jacket. She started to write. After this latest legislative failure she had decided to make a public appearance.
Ink dripped gently from the tip of her pen as she started to scrawl.
Hers was not beautiful handwriting; it was rough, jagged, difficult to read.
Her life had been swords and guns and pens in unequal measure; she slashed her letters like knives across bloody flesh, she jabbed her dots and punctuation like bullet holes.
Pens and swords; but all she saw was murder and murder in her mind.