Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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Blue Plate Special

by Kate Thornton

When I landed on Bishop 13, one of the manmade moons of Mars and therefore Corporation property and under strict Corp laws, I was prepared for all the usual bribes and red tape that means. I had the bribe credits ready, all my paperwork up to date and in order, and my ship in pretty good condition, which is to say, meeting all the absolute minimum requirements to dock on the tiny satellite.

It wasn't one of my usual runs. I was pretty much avoiding anything further than our own natural satellite, what with the price of fuel, Corporation regulations, and the condition of the Linda Rae. Still, I had made a couple of Martian runs in the past, and since the cargo for which I had a juicy contract was on Bishop 13, well, there I was.

It should have been a simple pick up, but nothing is ever simple. It doesn't matter how well I prepare, there is always the unexpected pinhole in my air tube. This time at least it wasn't my co-pilot, N'Doro. I didn't really need a co-pilot, I mean who does? Ships practically fly themselves, even old rust buckets like mine. But it's Corp rules, and the penalty for flying solo is pretty stiff, suspension of license and that sort of thing. Besides, N'Doro was six-feet-something of solid ebony gorgeous, so at least he was decorative, if a bit slow on the uptake.

It was my habit to grant him shore leave anytime we stopped for more than a few hours and let him prowl the bars and brothels. I always found him before takeoff, either passed out at a local watering hole or passed out at a local jail. A credit or two was enough to get some brawny sort to haul him aboard and I usually had him strapped in before the dock inspectors poked around with their hands out.

I didn't anticipate too much difficulty. There's only one Corp bar on Bishop 13, the Mitre. It's a dirty, raucous, smelly joint with watered drinks and semi-functional companion droids. The human company was likewise semi-functional, but space jockeys aren't that picky after a few shots--or even before. Only I wasn't in the mood - I had been to the Mitre once before and just remembering it was enough to give me a sinus headache and quash any cravings for company.

It was supposed to be a "demon run" from Toshiba Station to Bishop 13, a 666, six hours out, six hours docked, six hours back, but that was for fancy cruisers. It took me twice that to get there and back in the Linda Rae, but six hours was my limit for sticking around, so N'Doro had four hours max to get liquored up or whatever, giving me a little breathing room before takeoff. I met the customer on the dock, signed off on the paperwork, then watched the mechbots load the cargo. It was completely legit, for a change - just minerals from the surface, but in a quantity too small for the usual transports. The customer paid a nice surcharge, and even though it wasn't a dangerous run, it would still turn a tidy little profit.

I didn't have any real plans beyond getting something to eat, so this should have been one of my unremarkable stops.

Looking back, I realize that two things are usually the precursors to my more unusual experiences. One is not having a firm schedule and plans. Aimless poking around just seems to get me into trouble. The other is going off in search of food. I have found myself in more weird restaurants, doing the damnedest things, just out of a desire to not chow down on any of the prefab cardboard entrees readily available aboard my own ship via my elderly replicator. This trip was no exception.

I waved bye-bye to N'Doro and puttered around the ship for a few minutes, then trotted from the docking station to what passed for a shopping district, a Corp mall with concessions from, well, everywhere. I was looking for a nice dinner, but I knew I was in the wrong place for that, so I was willing to settle for an adequate meal. As long as it was something I could recognize, that would be adequate.

"Hey, Lady, you want real feely?" "Hey, Lady, how about frin juice, genuine article?" "Hey, Lady, time for bath? Real water, big tub! Smell like rose!"

I kept on walking. I wasn't in the mood for any of those things, and I knew none of them were as attractive as the scaly hawkers touting them claimed. I gave the scaly hawkers wide berth as the stink on places like Bishop 13 where water is at a premium is something you either get used to or block out. I had half a tube of mentholatum up my nose and it still wasn't enough.

After a long walk through the mall, I stopped in front of a small doorway with a little sign in several languages I couldn't understand. In Corpspeak, I thought the sign read "Good Eats, Baby." I knew it wasn't true--it couldn't be--but if I could just find "Okay Eats, Honey" or maybe even "Safe Eats, Darling" it would be all right. I went in. I know I should pay more attention to translations in places like Bishop 13, but hey, everyone speaks Corp, right?

It was a small room with several tables and comfortable-looking chairs. The lighting was efficient but not too glaring and there was a pleasant sound in the background, almost like soft music or the sighs of filtered air currents through reedy pipes.

The place looked clean enough. Nothing crawling on the floors except a robotic floor polisher and an antique mechanical servo-droid. The droid motioned me to a table and brought me a menu disc. I popped the disc into the droid's disc bump and it began to recite the offerings.

"Whoa," I said. "Just tell me the drinks first."

It began alphabetically. When it reached "Tea, synthetic, Earl Grey" I stopped it. "I'll have that, with lemon flavoring," I said. Tea, even the fake kind, was a treat. I could get a real drink anywhere, well in any noisy bar, but tea in a pleasant little place where I was the only customer was a charming fantasy.

The droid brought me a teapot of steaming liquid and a place setting. The teapot, cup and saucer felt like real china, but that was unlikely. Likewise the flatware looked like real metal, too. Impossible in a place where everything is synthed out of plastics. The aroma of bergamot filled my nostrils, overriding the aromas of mentholatum and space-stink. It was lovely.

"How about some pastries?" I asked the droid. Hey, it couldn't hurt to ask. The place evidently had a first class replicator, so I might as well take advantage.

The droid returned with a three-tiered platter heaped with assorted cakes and iced buns, the kind of thing I had read about in books, but had never actually seen. Okay, I don't think I had even read about such a thing, but it looked like it came right out of Sherlock Holmes or one of those other ancient Earth guides to gentility.

I tasted first the tea - it was so good I nearly wept--and then the cakes. They were likewise superb. I could have made them my dinner, but even though I was consuming dessert first, I was in the mood for something savory. I guess I should have just stood up, paid the bill and walked out. What did I know?

"What's for dinner?" I asked. Whatever it was, it was bound to be tasty.

"Chef's Choice. Fresh today."

"Uh, okay," I said. "Yeah, that's it--bring me the Chef's Choice." Normally I know better than to ask for something that ambiguous in place like Bishop 19. It could be anything from floor sweepings and dead rodents to floor sweepings and live rodents, but the tea and cakes were so good. And I didn't have to actually eat anything I ordered, I just had to pay for it.

While the droid wheeled back to the kitchen, I looked around. The walls were standard seamless plastic, slightly rounded. A few pictures were taped up, mostly advertisements for food from all over the system. A hand-lettered sign informed me that the place reserved the right to refuse service and that failure to pay was a crime punishable by Corp law. I marveled that the place was empty.

With food like what I had just sampled it should have been crowded. The smelly Mitre should have been empty and this place should have been full up.

Usually when I am surprised by something, my mind goes into overdrive and I wonder what the heck is wrong with this picture. This reaction has saved my life a few times. I can only think that in this instance, I was too hungry--or maybe too stupid--to stop and do more than just wonder about it.

Yeah. Chef's Choice.

The droid set my little table with a tablecloth and place setting. It filled a stemmed glass with iced Earl Grey and what looked like a slice of fresh lemon, then disappeared back to the kitchen. A few minutes later it wheeled out with a covered dish. It placed the dish in front of me and removed the cover with as much flourish as an old vacuum cleaner could muster.

I gasped.

The plate was steaming, the odors of seasoned young vegetables and lamb wafting toward me. Lamb stew. I had tasted it once, on a rogue trip to Earth, where the lamb had been more like working sheep that had died of old age. It had been good, very good, but this was exquisite. The lamb was young, sweet, and delicate. The peas were fresh, steamed, and tender The mint jelly on the side was light, refreshing, and delicious. A basket of fresh bread and a pot of soft butter completed the meal. The droid wheeled away.

I ate like there was no tomorrow, savoring every delicious morsel.

When I was done, I just sat there for a while. I knew it would be a long time before I ever had anything that good again.

I was a little nervous about the bill, but I had a good contract and a nice handful of credits in my pocket. I wasn't too worried about the bill when I walked in, but that meal was one for the record books, and I started to hope I could pay.

The droid returned. "I don't think anything can ever top that meal," I said to it. "Better bring me the check."

The droid returned with a contract on an epad several pages long and full of legalese.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Your bill, Madam," it cranked out in that rusty metal voice. It waited, gears turning and other low mechanical noises emanating from its midsection.

"Uh, okay. How much in credits?" I didn't want to read for a half hour. Besides, I had to think about getting back. It was almost time to pick up N'Doro and get back to the ship.

"No credits accepted for Chef's Special. Please sign the waiver."

"No credits? What, it's free? Or am I signing away my firstborn and two years of my life?" I started to squint more carefully at the contract. Party of the first part, party of the second part, who knows what the damned thing said. I sighed. "Okay, pal. Just give it to me straight. What do I owe you for the lamb?"

The thing told me and I sat there, stunned into silence.

"You're kidding, " I finally managed to hiss. "Is this even legal?"

"All legal, Madam. Please sign the waiver and accompany me to the surgery."

"Uh, let me speak to the manager," I said, hoping there was a live person--or something--I could talk to.

It trundled away and returned with a small humanoid person. "I am manager," he said. "Also surgeon," he added with a slight bow. "Thank you for partaking of our Chef's Choice. We hope it meet your expectations. Now it time for you to pay for delicious meal. We only serve finest ingredients, I sure you understand."

I was beginning to understand, but if he wanted what I thought he wanted, I was revolted. Scared, too, but mostly revolted. "I, uh, I can bring you almost anything--I have a ship, I can get you lots of rare and wonderful foods."

He smiled, a tiny, wrinkly smile with little yellow teeth. "Not necessary, Madam. Of course, we most anxious to serve rarest of delicacy. It our great fortune you come here."

"I'll bet it's rare," I said. "It's crazy, too. I'm not doing it!"

But I know Corp law. And I should have read the sign a bit better. And it was the most perfect meal ever. I knew I had to pay up.

"Uh, will it hurt?" I asked.

"No pain. No feel at all. Just sign waiver and we get started. Only take little time. And only take little product, leave you plenty."

I signed the epad.

He was right. I didn't feel anything. One moment I had the pen in my hand and my signature flowed onto the screen and the next I was waking up, slightly groggy, in an immaculate operating room. A small glass vial held my payment for the meal.

I sat up. The chef or surgeon or whatever the hell he was lowered his facemask and grinned that mouthful of tiny, yellow teeth. "Madam, you wonderful! Many will delight in the delicious repasts you provide. As bonus, you may dine here one more time at no expense to your generous self." He bowed to me.

I stood up, expecting to feel sore or uncomfortable or something, but I felt just fine. The memory of my meal was still fresh in my mind and I thought, what the heck, whatever, it was worth it. I guess that's the basic principle of commerce in the universe. Fair trade.

I headed back to the dock in a good mood, hauling N'Doro out of the Mitre on the way. I tried to forget the last part of that experience while focusing on the meal I'd had. It would be a long time before I ate anything that good again.

Once we were strapped in and on our way, we both had almost six hours to reflect on our visit to Bishop 13. N'Doro wasn't actually reflecting; he was sleeping it off.

But I savored that lamb stew, those beautiful cakes and the synthetic but still very soothing Earl Grey tea. It was nice of the old guy to offer me a free meal there, too, but I knew I would never, ever go back.

I love fresh delicacies as well as the next humanoid, but I would never take the chance that my "payment" or one like it would be the special that day.

My baby sheep stew had been lovely, but if I had been just a bit more conversant with that Corpspeak signage before I moseyed in there, I would have realized that the place specialized in the preparation of very young delicacies. I think I might have kept going, because I was really looking for something clean, safe and familiar, and most of what they served would not be as familiar as that beautiful stew. I guess I got lucky that day, but I would never chance it again. I had read the sign as "Good Eats, Baby" but that wasn't really what it said. It said "Fine Baby Cuisine," a completely different thing.

There are folks in this universe who eat almost anything. I guess I'm one of them, in my rather limited way. I like the crunchy exoskeletons of soft shell crab almost as much as chocolates, but there are whole races who would find both those items disgusting. Every culture has their comfort food and their taboos. And for all the jokes we make about eating our own young, well, none of the sentient species do that. Okay, the D'rrish eat their mates on occasion, but that's not really the same thing.

However, I'm not taking any chances. Even if I ever do end up on Bishop 13 again, I'll skip the free meal. I don't care how elegantly it might be prepared, or how much of a no-class bumpkin this makes me sound, I'll stick to the cardboard rubbish that comes out of my old replicator. I might be provincial, but to me, just the idea of human caviar is revolting.


2013 Kate Thornton

Bio: Kate has been a favorite friend of Aphelion going all the way back to her first appearance in issue 12 of our magazine, and we've been glad to know a writer of her caliber ever since. Check out links to many of her Aphelion appearances in our ever-growing new Author Index. Kate mostly writes mystery and science fiction. Her latest book, SPACED OUT: Interplanetary Voyages of the Linda Rae, features more stories about Cookie Sullivan, space junk pilot.

E-mail: Kate Thornton

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