Aphelion Issue 255, Volume 24
October 2020
 
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Fries With That?

by D. Conteur



"Ya know," George said, putting his hand up in front of his mouth to contain a burp, "Doesn't matter how many times we come here, I never get tired of the food."

Ethel, his grey-haired wife of close to forty years, gave him a curt smile, and handed him a small package of antacid. "Well, enjoy this meal while you can. After today, you won't be eating any more greasy food."

"Damn doctor," he said, shifting in the padded booth and rubbing the few strands of grey hair on his head. "Who's he to say I can't eat what I want to anymore? I've lived sixty years eating this stuff and --"

"And-" Ethel cut in. "-- if you want to live another sixty years, you'll follow the doctor's orders."

The diner was quiet tonight. Last Chance Lucky Cafe and Fuel Pit was a small place, situated in the heart of a close-knit community on one of the larger asteroids that separated the inner and outer planets. Usually a busy spot, tonight the restaurant under the protective dome was practically empty. Ever since the war with the Gleeb inched closer to home, very few people ventured out to eat. Not that anyone would be in danger, most of the battles took place outside the solar system, but war is war, and no one likes it close to their backyard.

Marge, the head waitress, shuffled over to them, a big grin on her face to match her big hairdo. She'd been here almost as long as the diner, and served George and Ethel every time.

"Didn't think I'd be seeing you two in here again." She snapped her gum as she took out a pad and pen from her pink uniform pocket. "Thought the doc said diner food was a no-no?"

"He did," Ethel had a smug grin on her face. "But I thought I would treat him to one more meal here before I put him on his new diet." She looked up at Marge. "A sort of farewell meal."

"That's mighty nice of ya, hun. Probably more than I'd do for my husband." Marge looked up from the pad and frowned. "If I had one." Then a bright smile lit up her face. "So, what'll it be?"

"Just the usual for me," Ethel said.

"Not for me," George said, with obvious excitement. "I'll have a number three, with all the fixin's. Might as well make my last good meal a memorable one."

Marge scribbled on her pad. "One bacon cheeseburg deluxe with gravy and cheese on the fries." She stopped writing and tapped the top of her pad. "Do ya mind old fries, hun, or do you want to wait for fresh ones?"

George's face scrunched up. "Fresh ones. Why?"

"Well, it's just that ain't got our weekly delivery yet. Bob's a little late on account of the army checkpoints."

"What does that have to do with my fries?"

"We don't have enough frying oil to cook up fresh ones," she said, bluntly. "He's due anytime now, if ya want to wait." Marge leaned closer to the table. "Word is, the Military thinks the enemy might have broken through, and they're stoppin' any ship en route to the inner worlds."

George shifted in his seat and pouted. "Yeah, sure, whatever."

"How's about I get you both some coffee while ya wait?"

Ethel smiled. "That would be fine."

"That better be fresh," George whined. "or we ain't comin' back."

Marge gave them both a wink as she finished writing down their order then walked away.

"Miss," a young man at the next table held up his right arm. To his left sat a pretty blonde. They snuggled to each other like lovebirds in a cage. "Could we get a couple of those coffees as well?"

"I'll tell Sharon to grab you a couple," Marge said, giving them a quick wink as she passed by.

Sharon was a few years younger than Marge, with her dark hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. She grabbed two mugs from under the counter, filled them with coffee and brought them over to the table.

"Menus?" she asked, placing the mugs down, spilling some of the hot liquid over the rim.

"No," The young man smiled at the woman next to him. "We know what we want."

Sharon dug into her uniform pocket and brought out an identical pad and pen to Marge's. "Fire away."

"Go ahead, Lisa," He scrunched up his nose at the attractive blond.

Lisa took both his hands in hers. "That's all right, Paul, you go first."

"No Sugar-plum, I want you to go first."

"But Snookums, I wanted you to go first."

"No, you go first."

"No, you."

"No, you."

"Oh for Pity's sake," George grumbled from across the room. "One of you go first before you yank my blood sugar level high enough to put me in a coma."

Ethel's eyes went wide. "George! Don't be rude."

Sharon tried to hide her smile behind her billbook as Marge walked back to the elderly couple with coffee. "Don't mind ol' George, here," Sharon said. "He's just ornery because his doctor said he couldn't eat any of his favourite foods anymore."

"So Marge," George began as he poured sugar into his coffee. "What's this about the Army thinking the Gleeb are heading our way?"

An uncomfortable silence settled over the room as all eyes fell on the old waitress.

Marge shrugged. "Just a rumour I heard the other day, when that convoy went through here on the way to the front." She turned and walked to the front counter. "I heard the soldiers whispering to each other. Said the Gleeb had some kind of mind-control weapon that was turnin' our guys against their fellow soldiers. Said that's how they broke through the defence perimeter on Pluto where the 3rd Mobile Infantry are stationed."

"Bah," George scoffed, stirring his coffee. "I don't believe it. There's no such thing as a mind-control weapon. If there was, this war would've been over a long time ago."

"Well maybe they don't have a mind-control weapon," Paul spoke up. "But I heard those aliens are doing something weird."

George turned around in his seat. "That's ridiculous."

The young man shrugged. "I don't know. I heard they're sneaking past our defences and attacking from secured locations."

"I heard the Gleeb are shape-shifters," Lisa said, matter-of-fact. "That they're killing our guys then taking their place."

George faced his wife. "That's even stupider than the mind-control."

"I don't know, George," Marge said, coming out from behind the counter and sitting on one of the stools. "Something strange is going on. We've been seeing a lot of traffic on this route lately. Something must got the higher-ups worried."

The door to the diner opened and several soldiers in battle fatigues entered, followed by a young man in dress uniform. All were either unaware of the other customers or didn't care. Either way they became the main focus.

Marge stood as they marched up to her. "What can I get you good folks today?" she asked, putting on her most charming smile.

The young man stepped forward. "I am Lieutenant Grimes with Tactical Command," he said, removing his hat and placing it under his arm. "I need to speak to the owner of the property regarding the abandoned re-fuelling dock and hangar connected to this facility."

"That old thing," Marge said with a puzzled smile, "No one's used that thing since ol' George here had hair."

Sharon skulked up behind Marge. "Does the military want to store some old transport ships or something?"

The officer ignored her; keeping his attention on Marge. "Ma'am, please."

"Oh, all right." Marge turned around to the half counter embedded in the back wall. "Juan, there's some army folks here, and they're interested in those tanks out back."

The swinging doors flew open and a middle-aged Mediterranean man walked through. His white shirt was filthy, with more grease stains than actual material. He wiped his hands on the smock tied around his waist, giving the soldiers a cautious once-over. "What'cha want?"

The officer held out a sheet of paper. "I have been authorized by Tactical Command to take control of this property."

Juan snapped the paper out of the officer's hand. "What the hell do you mean, 'take control'?"

"This property once belonged to the military, and in this time of war, we need it again."

Sharon glanced over Marge's shoulder. "You can't do that," she said. "The government can't just come in and take what they want."

"The War Amendment Charter of 2469 ensures that any building or property de-commissioned by the military will be re-commissioned during a time of war." The Lieutenant faced her. "We are aware of the fuel tanks and docking ports on the property, and as this site is on a direct route from Earth to the outer worlds, it makes it part of a crucial supply line."

Sharon opened her mouth to respond, but Juan held up his hand. "It's all right, Sharon. Anything I can do to help our brave soldiers win this war."

The officer turned to the soldiers behind him. "Recon the holding tanks and report back to me."

Immediately the two men turned on their heels and left.

Juan held out his one arm toward the counter. "Please, sir, sit and let me make you something to eat."

The officer smiled. "Well, I might have a little something," he said, taking a quick glance around the room. "If it's fast. It shouldn't take long for my men to check the conditions of the property."

As the soldiers left the diner, a new person appeared.

"Bob!" Marge's face lit up. "'Bout time you got here. We were starting to worry."

Bob looked a little forlorn as he walked toward the counter. His blue uniform was covered in wrinkles with sweat stains around his collar and arm pits. "Army has everything messed up," he mumbled, looking around the diner. "Seems you guys are taking a beating too."

"Yeah, well," Marge smiled. "Things'll pick up once this damn war is over."

"What can I get you?" Juan asked Lieutenant Grimes.

The officer raised his eyebrows. "Perhaps something small. Say, an order of fries?" Then glanced down at his watch. "And could you make it to go?"

Juan smiled. "Not a problem. Bob here is our delivery guy, and I'm pretty sure he brought me some fresh oil. I can have them done up in a jiffy."

"Better than that," Bob said, as he headed toward the back kitchen. "I have a brand new cooking oil I want you to try. Supposed to make food taste ten times better."

Juan followed behind him. "Really?"

"Yup."

Juan lead Bob toward a pair of swinging door. "So, what else do you have for me today? Any freebies?"

"Not this time," Bob said, wiping his brow. "Only suppose to carry the orders. Nothing else."

Juan waved Bob into the kitchen, but Marge stopped him halfway. "You feeling okay?" she asked, moving her head to get a better look at him. "You look a little pale and sweaty."

"Naw, I'm fine. It's the heat conductor in my ship. The controls are busted or something. It's like an oven in there."

"Well, if you want, use the sink and get yourself cleaned up before ya go."

Bob nodded and followed Juan.

"Excuse me, Officer," Paul called across the diner. "But where are you stationed?"

All eyes fell on the Lieutenant, who squirmed under the scrutiny. "I'm not an active soldier, sir. I work in the recruiting centre on Mars."

"But you could tell us what's really going on with the war."

The officer frowned. "Sir?"

"Come on," Paul pressed. "You know what's really happening out there. We hear all these stories but the news links never give you enough information."

"I can assure you, the news broadcasts are accurately informing the public in regard to the war effort."

"What about what happened to the 3rd Mobile Infantry?" George asked. "News said they took heavy losses, but didn't say how many."

The officer faced the counter and picked up his mug before looking back at George. "The 3rd took heavy casualties during a skirmish on one of the moons of Uranus," he said, in between sips. "Three quarters of the unit is listed as Killed In Action." He put the cup back down among a wave of gasps.

"How could that be?" Paul asked. "The news links made it sound like we were winning."

"The enemy seemed to come out from nowhere," Grimes continued. "I've seen reports that one minute the area was secure, the next, the soldiers were in a heavy firefight."

"That's just horrible!" Sharon said, as she walked around the corner. "How many of our brave men -- WHOA!" She grabbed hold of the counter to keep herself from falling.

The Lieutenant jumped to his feet. "Are you all right, Ma'am?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." She straightened out her uniform, looking down at the floor. "Looks like someone spilt something on the floor here."

"Probably coffee," Marge said, walking past her into the kitchen. "You've been a little shaky today."

Sharon brought out a napkin from her pocket and took a few swipes at the floor, then sniffed the napkin. "Smells like cooking oil." she mumbled.

"Anyway," Paul said, slightly annoyed. "You were saying?"

Distracted, the officer took another sip and returned to his seat before continuing. "As I said, the 3rd Mobile Infantry took heavy casualties, but the latest report out of the area stated they may have driven the enemy off the planet."

Eager cheers filled the diner.

"So we've got'em on the run!" Paul yelled.

Lieutenant Grimes smiled timidly "Well, it looks that way."

Paul's enthusiasm died off. "Looks that way?"

"You don't sound convinced." George said.

Lieutenant Grimes flashed George an apprehensive look. "I shouldn't be saying this, but..." He looked down at the floor before meeting their curious stares. "I've overheard some strange reports coming out of the war zone. These Gleeb, they're like nothing we've ever encountered before. They sneak under our radar and attack us with our own weapons. We liberated one of their strongholds a while back, and all we found were spent weapons and our military fatigues."

"Do you know what do they look like?" Lisa asked.

Grimes sighed. "No, and our best scientists haven't been able to accurately identify any alien remains. Even when we do trace test for biological residue, they come up empty."

Marge kicked open the swinging doors, breaking the uncomfortable silence that permeated the room. She held two plates in her hands, one with a salad, the other, George's cheeseburger.

"Here ya go, hun," she said, placing the food down in front of them. "And that's a low-calorie, make-it-yourself dressing on that salad, Ethel. I ordered it special for you months ago, and mixed it with some of that new oil. I tried some before I put it on your salad. It's really good!"

A few moments later, Sharon walked out with two plates of fries, and put them down in front of the young couple. Lisa smiled as she poured ketchup all over Paul's food.

"So, basically, what you're saying is the Gleeb are ghosts," Paul continued, picking up one of his fries.

"I wouldn't say that," Grimes said. "They're real enough, but the fact we haven't engaged them in some time could mean they've stopped their advance."

"Or they're tricking us," Paul scoffed.

"He could be right," George said, picking up his burger. "They could be lying low, waiting to catch us off guard, then attack."

"My superiors don't think so," Grimes nodded. "Command believes that if we've got them on the run, we need to keep the heat up, and a steady deployment of weapons and troops to the war zone will do just that, which is why this supply route has been reactivated. This depot is one of, many on a direct route from Earth."

Marge came out with several bags in her hands. "Here ya go, hun," she said and handed them to the Lieutenant. "Juan put some extra fries in there, for the other soldiers. Didn't want them to feel left out."

The officer smiled and took the bags from her. "Thank you, Ma'am." With that, he got up, placed some coins down on the counter, nodded to the customers, and left.

Bob came out from the back kitchen. "Well, everything's all unloaded," He wiped his brow again with his sleeve. "You all have a nice night."

"I thought I told you to clean up before you left?" Marge said.

"Thanks, but there's no point in doing that. I'll only get messed up again in the heat."

Bob nodded to everyone as he headed out the door.

"So, you really think the enemy is hiding?" Paul asked.

"Could be," George said. "but who knows?"

"They wouldn't dare attack us on our home turf," Sharon said, picking up the Lieutenants coins and mug. "I've seen some of what the Military is hauling to the front. They wouldn't stand a chance."

"Oh enough talk about the war," Marge said, pouring George more coffee. "Last thing we need to be talking about is blowing things up while people are eating."

The dinner hour came and went, along with various topics of conversation. Marge and Sharon finished serving their customers, and as the evening drew to a close, the conversations played themselves out.

"Well," Paul said, pushing dirty dishes away from him. "I think it's time for us to hit the road, so to speak. We still have a long way to travel and with the military convoys and checkpoints, it could take a while before we make it to Io."

Lisa frowned and rubbed her chest. "Do you mind driving, Paul. I don't feel very well."

Paul frowned. "You're not space-sick, are you?"

Sharon placed a bill on their table. "Maybe you shouldn't travel. She looks really pale."

"Yeah," Marge said. "Riding all those hours in a cramped ship after she's...well...you know, doesn't sound like a fun trip."

"No, I'm not space sick, just feel a little...off."

Paul nudged her plate. There was still a good portion of food left. "Well something's wrong. You didn't finish your fries."

Lisa looked over at Paul, concerned. "Yeah, they tasted funny."

"Well if you are up to it," George said, rubbing his left arm. "We own a small motel just a few buildings down. It's not booked up....we, uh, have several rooms still open...."

Ethel reached her hand across the table. "George, are you all right?"

He kept rubbing his arm. "No, my arm feels kinda numb."

"Call the emergency number," Ethel said, and moved to his side. "I think he's having a stroke!"

Sharon ran to the double doors behind the counter as George slid his legs out from under the table, still rubbing his arm, clenching and unclenching his fist.

"Are ya sure, hun," Marge said, examining him closer. "If he was, he wouldn't be able to speak, would he?"

George was now gasping for air, his eyes wide with fear. Ethel and Marge went to his side as he fell to his knees next to the table, clutching his throat. Suddenly Lisa began panting and rubbed her chest. Her eyes bulged as she reached for Paul.

"Lisa?" Paul said, as Lisa scrambled to get out of the booth.

"Sharon," Marge called out. "tell them we're going to need more than one --"

There was a scream from the back kitchen as Sharon came rushing back into the dining room. "Juan is dead!" she cried, running up to Marge. "He's lying on the floor and he's not breathing!"

Marge stood up and grabbed Sharon by the arms. "Calm down! You stay here with George and I'll call the paramedics."

Suddenly Ethel began gasping for air and she reached out to the waitresses.

Marge went to her side and knelt down. "Relax," she said. "Everything's going to be fine."

"Can't....breath...right," Ethel gasped, as she laid down on the floor. "Feel....like...I'm....drowning."

"Lisa!" Paul's frightened voice pierced the air as he caught the young woman before she hit the ground. Slowly, he laid her on the floor next to Ethel. Their faces pallid and lifeless.

Sharon's hands flew to her head and she grabbed handfuls of her hair. "What's happening!" she yelled, tears streaming down her face.

"Sharon, I said calm down." Marge grabbed her by the shoulders. "As long as we stay calm --" Marge's eyes went wide as she gasped for air. She tightened her grip on Sharon as she sank to the floor.

Hysterical, Sharon backed up from her co-worker as Paul, now panting, fell to the floor next to Lisa. Sharon covered her ears with her hands, backing away from the bodies on the floor. One by one, gasps for air slowly dwindled, until all was quiet. Sharon's demeanor calmed as oily residue dripped from the mouths and noses of those on the floor, pooling around the bodies. The minutes ticked by until the swinging doors flew open and Juan walked out from the kitchen. His eyes were glazed over and held a tint of yellow in his pallid color. He shuffled out into the dining room, scanning over the bodies that lay on the floor. George's body began to twitch and his eyes snapped open. Juan walked over and pulled him to his feet. Slowly, one after another, the other bodies convulsed and returned to life.

Within moment everyone was off the floor. They shared the same vacant stare as beads of yellowy substance dripped down their exposed flesh. Marge was the last to get up, and walked over to her co-worker. Sharon leaned her head to one side as Juan came up behind Marge.

"We must continue as though nothing has happened," Sharon said. The flat tone of her voice enhanced the bitterness in her words. "Once this facility is secure we can proceed to the inner worlds."

"These bodies are strong," Paul said, flexing a muscle. "We can enhance the tissue to create a stronger appearance."

"These bodies are not," George said, as he and Ethel stepped forward. "There is much sickness within these humans."

Sharon faced them, expressionless. "If the vessel is unsatisfactory then it will be broken down into organic materials and distributed to our other outposts. They should supply enough nutrients to allow us to procreate and continue our attack on the Humans." She looked back at Juan. "We need a secluded place to allow for the decomposition."

"Out back. In the dumpster," Juan said. Half of his face began to droop, and he raised a hand and rubbed the sagging part in an upward motion, smoothing out his facial feature. "Humans put their waste there. It smells. No one will go near."

"The temperature is too warm here," Lisa said, looking down at her hands. "It will be hard to keep these vessels appearing normal."

Sharon turned to her. "We can alter the temperatures once the area is secure."

George and Ethel walked past the counter and into the back kitchen, followed by Juan.

"We will take the old couple's place at the hotel," Paul said, as he and Lisa shuffled toward the exit. "Any humans staying at the hotel, will be directed here."

Marge headed toward the back kitchen, then stopped. "We do not have protection. What will happen if the Humans discover us before the conversion is complete?"

Sharon picked up a cloth and ran it over the counter. "The remaining 3rd Infantry will arrive shortly. We will be safe."

Near the end of the asteroid field, a transport ship pulled away from a computerized check point. Bob, sitting in the driver's seat, focused on the grid map of space on the dashboard. He touched a few locations as his face began to sag. His clothing were almost completely stained with oil.

"How much longer to the next stop?" came a voice from the passenger seat. Bob turned to the soldier next to him. His uniform was torn and stained. The insignia on his uniform depicted the 3rd Mobile Infantry.

"About another hour," Bob said, and turned to look at the map grid.

The soldier slid back a small door on the wall behind him and peered inside. "Will this be our last shipment? We do not have enough material to convert the entire population."

Bob faced the soldier as one side of his face drooped. "Not a problem," he said, as he rubbed his cheek upward. "We will."

THE END


© 2011 D. Conteur

Bio: D. (for Darke) Conteur, a.k.a. Jannette Johnson, has had stories published in Brave Blue Mice, Bewildering Stories, and Absent Willow Review. When not busy writing, she looks after one husband, one son, two cats, and one ghost dog. (If you have a cat that stares at nothing for long periods, you too may have a ghost dog in the house...)

E-mail: D. Conteur

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