Helia "Belladonna" Sarina flies the ship in sparkly pink mode to a perfect landing through the atmosphere. It's an exhilarating experience for her. Despite the hull being streamlined in appearance, it acts like an airframe configuration; Mich tells everyone that there are some virtual control surfaces showing up on his power display.
Zorro Downport is in the southern hemisphere, a little
ways off the equator. It is a large metallic and concrete structure
that sprawls across the surface of the ice.
There is nothing much in the way of news here. This is an independent world and off the main routes. The information that is here, is available in both zhodani and galanglic.
Ed "Shark" Teeth tells everyone that he thinks this starport was built by Zhodani Consulate contractors, not Imperial.
Misha Ravanos studies the starport guide. Movement
is pretty much unrestricted. There is a warning that the atmosphere
is tainted, so a filter mask or respirator is recommended. The air
is cold, too, and there's a warning about that. There is nothing
about what may be under the ice.
There are some places selling high-priced local artifacts; visitors can also take a tour to go out and find some natives -- it too is expensive, and comes with no guarantee that any of the nomads will be found.
The starport is administered under the control of the locals, but with not much direct involvement. Considering the prices charged for native artifacts, they're probably still making money. There are trader notes that some plant materials are exportable as specialty woods; also animal skins, and so on.
Although according to the UWP the tech level is 7, there is no apparent evidence that anything technological is exported, or used in preparing items for export. There is no mention of local industry.
Misha asks Robert if they could find natives themselves. He replies that they do have sensors that pick up intelligent life, although since the range is short, it would take quite some time.
Teri Cralla will be limited in armament; battledress is not permitted and she'll have to leave her favorite weapons behind. Even so she says she'll have no trouble selecting appropriate equipment for her job.
The starport itself is accessible from the berth through an underground tunnel. The tunnel has moving walkways to help passengers travel to the central hubs. Alternatively they can pay for a shuttle service; use of ships' vehicles is strongly discouraged for traffic control purposes, and all shuttle drivers are specially licensed.
Since they're here to go ashore, that's what they
plan to do. Just Sagan, Vonish Kehnaan, and Shark remain on board.
Grand Admiral Baron Bridgehead will be using a personal respirator to cross
to the tunnel entrance; those with zacks breathe through their facemasks.
The rest of the non-zack crew use respirators, following their doctor's
example. Misha wears his customary outfit over his zack, including
of course his sword.
The wind outside is quite strong, with snow blowing across the landing pad. Never theless, everyone is comfortable in winter gear or zacks.
The entrance to the underground passage is a full airlock, and once inside there's a locker for their winter gear and respirators. A lighted tunnel with a moving walkway leads off towards the starport hub.
This walkway leads to an interchange, where a lobby collects walkways from several berths. From there a larger walkway leads to the starport terminal. Everything is clearly labeled, in both galanglic and Zhodani.
It's an easy five minutes to the central starport building. Here it looks like a starport terminal in any other system. There are directories -- they rent a small handheld map/directory for a five credits (or the equivalent in Zhodani). The crew are pleased to find that their commdots have no problem maintaining communication with the Nightshade.
Most of the booths and stores at this end are typical traveller's fare. Assorted fast food, merchant company stands, entertainment stores, several bars.
As they move deeper, it rapidly becomes a less formal mall. Plants create a pleasant environment, breaking up the straight sight lines. Various areas for sitting, fountains, and so on provide ample places to relax and take a break from shopping. The walkways here moving fairly slowly, making sure that people can barely avoid window shopping along the way.
There are lot more people here than they would expect from just local trade. Nothing they've seen or read have given any clue as to why this backwater would be so busy.
The native craft areas, including the native cuisine restaurant where they have reservations, are towards the far side of the starport from the landing fields. The landing fields fan out in about a 120 degree arc, and the other side is where the building looks over the icescape -- that's where all the native-related areas are.
They have no problem getting to their destination.
The restaurant is definitely the most high-class they've seen for a long
time. The Baron is clearly very pleased and comfortable. He's
delighted to see such a good civilized place, and suggests they stay here
for a while.
Their reservation is for a fire pit. Seats are arranged around the central ring-shaped table. Inside the table is a large metal tub, about 3 meters across. At one end of the tub is a large wood fire -- an extraction hood removes fumes and heat for safety, but nevertheless a smell of fragrant woodsmoke pervades the whole establishment. In the tub is a personal chef, standing beside shelves on which there is a large and varied collection of meat.
The procedure is clear from seeing the other diners on the way in. The guests pick out or point out what they want (or take the chef's selection), and it is cooked on the wood fire for them.
When they are all seated, the chef strips down to a loincloth -- Helia notes he has no apparent body hair -- and puts on a pair of what looks like welding gloves of heavy leather. Most of the party select the chef's choice, being confused by the menu -- the meat is described in terms of the local name for the animal, sometimes accompanied by words such as "liver," "brains," or "tentacle."
Helia asks, "Do you have a vegetarian dish?"
"No," says the chef, brightly.
"Something light, not too rich. Oh, and nothing with wings. Thank you."
The chef grabs something... the flesh looks a little like squid, with a heavy black skin on it. He sticks it on a metal skewer and arranges it carefully on the fire so that it holds the meat in exactly the right place to cook. The placing of the meat clearly takes precedence over the comfort of the chef -- it's clear why he has no body hair.
The food is prepared and cooked individually. The utensils consist of a wooden knife, and a two-pronged fork about a half a meter long. The method of eating is to cut off a hunk and stab it with the fork.
The chef, noticing that they're clearly new here, tells them something about the cuisine, which is completely authentically native. He explains where some of the creatures live, and so on. Helia's meat is from a south polar creature, which lives only within about 10 degrees of the south pole; it's quite a challenge to catch, as it hides very well. Its meat is light, with a delicate complex flavor. The texture is rather like a lightly cooked scallop.
The meal consists solely of meat, and there are no sauces or anything like that. The chef explains that the cooking process is critical -- placing the food, moving it from one part to the other. There's an art to placing the food so it absorbs the flavors of the smoke. Helia's, for example, starts out at a cooler part of the fire over a light aromatic wood, so the flavor is infused into the depths of the meat; it's then moved to a hot part, over a light clean wood, to seal the flavor in.
Helia says, "Ah! We have some woods like that at home. I understand. Only at home we usually don't cook much. It's just the way our world is."
The chef replies, "The cuisine here developed over cooking, if for no other reason than it's too cold to eat unless it's eaten immediately, or frozen."
"Not too much grows in this climate."
"Quite a lot does."
"Yes. All these woods, for example."
The rest of the group choose the chef's choice, which is a good selection of meats cooked in various processes. The textures vary greatly. There is some very light stuff similar in texture to Helia's, all the way to something quite dry and chewy like jerky. It's all in the smoke flavors, and whether the juices are drained, or drawn to the outside and caramelized. There's meat with a stringy structure, where the outside of the strings are crunchy and the inside soft and juicy.
Served with the meal are various drinks. Fruit juices, teas, fermented drinks. The wine is brewed from tree sap, and it does have a bit of a resinous taste to it. It complements the food very well.
For Helia, the beverage steward recommends a light tea. She nods, and finds the concoction very pleasant indeed.
The meal itself is a long, relaxed, affair taking about three hours. The first course is produced quickly, while other courses continue until all are full. The chef takes great pride in pacing the cooking time of the food with when they are anticipated to be served. Helia's other courses are also very light, and very good too.
There is recorded music playing in the restaurant. Itsounds like woodwind instruments doing a fine impression of wind, in woods. The chef tells Helia she can buy such recordings next door at the craft shop.
The clientele is mostly upper class, almost exclusively human. There is one table of vargr in the corner, speaking their own language in an enthusiastic barrage of barks and growls; they clearly are enjoying the eating experience thoroughly, and are also obviously consuming the local wine in great quantity. They were here before the Nightshade's crew, and are still going when they leave. The total bill for the crew comes to 1800 Cr; the Baron is so delighted by the experience that he picks up the tab for the whole group.
After the meal, they go to the craft shop.
Helia selects a sampler box of the various styles of native music -- woodwinds,
strings, percussion. She also picks some books on the world, local
history, crafts, and so on, to add to their growing collection of local
Prices are extremely high. On the positive side, it's clear that these are all genuine items.
There are all sorts of crafts. There are cloth items. There are ceremonial weapons, of which the ultimate is a large curved wooden sword, about 3 meters in length. There are carved bones, carved tusks, skins. There is a cloak made out of the entire skin of an animal. There are musical instruments. Almost every culture has some sort of hollow tube with finger holes, and this one is no exception.
Helia is pleased to see that there are children's items, games, toys, candies. All are produced by native inhabitants. The larian tastes a wide variety of the candies, ordering a lot. She also takes some of the native child's clothing, including a warm but cute fur cloak.
Baron Bridgehead is in fine mood, and picks up the
bill for everything the crew selects. He suggests that if they're
going to be here for a day or two, they take up residence in the hotel
attached to the restaurant and craft shop. Helia agrees once she
finds they can have a great big suite with a great big pool.
Misha checks with the people back on the ship -- Shark, Vonish, and Sagan. None of them object. Vonish wants to do his usual shopping, while Sagan wants to look around. Shark would like some brief shore leave, but suggests that while Misha is ashore, he'll stay on the ship -- for the time, anyway. Robert will return to the ship rather than stay at the hotel, at least after tonight.
The Baron, on the other hand, doesn't even want to go back to the ship for luggage. He'll buy whatever he needs. He will also pick up the tab for the suite -- which comes with an included extensive room service menu.
Mich is staying ashore, and so therefore will be Teri.
The suite is arranged around a central imitation hot spring. There is a large central warm pool, with cooler pools and fountains off to the side. Anytime they want service, the servants are available.
Helia settles in rapidly. She orders a bathing suit and some "splashy" drinks.
The accommodations and service are excellent, just as one would expect for 20,000 Cr a night.