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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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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