About the Author
Jeffrey Lang has authored or coauthored several Star Trek novels and short stories, including Immortal Coil, Section 31: Abyss, The Left Hand of Destiny, “Foundlings” (in the anthology Prophecy and Change), and “Mirror Eyes” (with Heather Jarman, in the anthology Tales of the Dominion War). He lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, with his partner Helen, his son Andrew, an irascible cat named Samuel and a fearful hamster named Scritchy.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Light Fantastic 1
November 2385 (ACE)—The Present
The short-order cook finished wiping down the flat-top cast-iron grill with his kitchen cloth. He bent low to inspect the surface, like a billiard player lining up a shot, checking for dings or other small imperfections in the play surface. Some of the other cooks had the bad habit of smacking the flat-top with the edge of a spatula. He had been trying to dissuade them with both gentle reminders and terse threats, but he worked only the breakfast shift and couldn’t control what happened the rest of the day.
Still, he always liked to make sure the cooktop was clean and lubricated before he headed out the door. The diner owner, a Cardassian expat name Oban, didn’t mind paying him for the extra few minutes on his timecard, especially since the short-order cook was the main reason the business had been turning a profit for the past few weeks.
Before his arrival, the diner’s sole virtue resided in the fact that patrons knew they could sit at the counter and nurse a cup of tepid coffee or raktajino for as long as they liked without being rousted out, mostly because no one else wanted their seat. Now, thanks to the new morning cook, there was a line out the door most days, and the patrons weren’t only locals looking for a quick bite before heading to work. Word had spread through the food-lovers underground: Many of the patrons were tourists, eager to spend credits on eggs and bacon, waffles, and a strange delicacy called “chipped beef on toast.” Diners had started posting reviews on culinary sites, but only for breakfast. Sure, there was some spillover to the other shifts, but all the chatter was about breakfast, breakfast, breakfast and the wonder of this one cook who could crank out delicacies at a clockwork pace. In a world full of replicated fare, simple food made well was a draw, even if the customers had to find their way to a seedy little grease-stained pit in the middle of nowhere.
The short-order cook knew all about the buzz, but he never mentioned it. Oban paid him a decent wage, and the Cardassian was smart enough not to ask too many questions. Their conversations were limited to simple questions like, “You almost done there, Davey?”
The short-order cook didn’t respond. He was too absorbed with the process of re-lubricating the cooking surface.
The short-order cook looked up. Oban was standing in the narrow doorway that led to the prep kitchen and, past that, to Oban’s tiny office.
“Sorry,” the short-order cook said. “Wasn’t listening. You want something?”
“Yeah,” Oban said. “Come on back to the office when you’re done. Got something I need to ask ya.”
The short-order cook sighed. “Sure. Yeah. Be there in a minute.” He finished wiping down his workstation and collected his tools so he could drop them off in the dish room before leaving. Just before he left the kitchen, he pointed at the second grill station, the one where the lunch cook, an Orion native named Settu, was working. “Flip those eggs. They’re about to overcook.”
Settu pouted. “They’re fine. Barely been on the grill for two minutes.”
“Then you’ve got the temp too high. They’re going to go rock solid in 30 seconds.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can smell ’em.”
Settu waved him off. “Go punch out. Your shift is over.”
The short-order cook sighed again and turned to leave. “Fine. Whatever. Kelly isn’t going to like it when you cost her a tip.” Settu had a crush on Kelly.
Behind him, the short-order cook heard the spatula being slipped under the eggs and turned. Then, a moment later, the soft click of the heat controls being adjusted. The short-order cook smiled, but only a little.
* * *
“What can I do for you, boss?” the short-order cook asked, standing in the office door.
“Sit down a minute, Davey.”
“I don’t have time to sit down. I have to get home. I like to see my kid before she heads off to school.”
“I understand,” Oban said, rubbing the stubble on his chin. The Cardassian always looked like he was a day or two away from his last shave. “I remember those days. Being a parent, it can be hard. Especially if you’re doing it all by yourself, am I right?”
“If you say so.”
“So, you’re not doing it all by yourself?”
“I didn’t say that,” the short-order cook said.
“You don’t say much about yourself at all.”
The short-order cook untied his apron and wadded it up into a ball. Outside the door, there was a bin where kitchen staff threw dirty clothes and towels at the end of their shifts. He tossed the apron into the bin. Freed from the restrictions of the apron, his belly dropped down a bit over the top of his belt. “Do you have something you want to ask me?”
“I just wanted to let you know I looked into the whole chicken egg thing for you.”
“I found a place that has live Terran chickens. They sell them for the meat, but the owner says, yeah, they lay eggs, too, and he’s willing to sell them to me if I want. But, he says, most Orion folk have an allergic reaction to chicken eggs.”
“Then we won’t feed ’em to Orions. We’ll tell the waitstaff not to let Orions order them.”
“Why are these chicken eggs such a big deal?”
“Get them for me and I’ll show you. I’ll make you an omelet. These eggs you get—what are they again?”
“The birds are called paradins.”
“Well, whatever. The protein-to-water ratio is all wrong. Chicken eggs are perfect for omelets. We start making omelets and you’ll start getting Terran customers. They’ll go nuts. You can charge whatever you want and they’ll pay it.”
“And how do you know this?”
“I used to work with Terrans. Back in the day.”
“Sure. A restaurant. Nice place, but crazy hours. Couldn’t stand the hours after I became a dad.”
“I can see that,” Oban said. “A father has to be there.”
“So you’ll get the chicken eggs?”
“I’ll get the chicken eggs. And then you can make me an omelet.”
“Good. You won’t regret it. Anything else? I need to get going.”
“Just one more thing,” Oban said. He rubbed the back of his neck with one big, meaty hand. “I wanted to let you know—yesterday, these guys came by looking for you.”
“ ‘These guys’?” the short-order cook asked. “What guys? I don’t know any guys. What did they look like?”
Oban shrugged. “I dunno. Just . . . guys.”
“Big? Small? Orion? Human?”
“Nah, not Orion. Maybe human. Maybe not. You know I have trouble telling them apart. Just . . . guys.”
“Two of them?”
“Don’t think so. Leastways they didn’t show me a badge or anything.”
“Did they say what they wanted?” The short-order cook tried to sound casual, but the hairs were standing up on the back of his neck.
“Not really. Just . . . did you work here? How long? Did I know anything about your life outside work?”
“And you said . . . ?”
Oban threw his hands up, imploring. “Hey, c’mon, Davey. Whataya think I said? Told ’em to get bent. This is Orion. We don’t have to say nuthin’ about nobody if we don’t want to. And you, you know, you’re like . . . well, you ain’t given me any trouble, so I don’t make trouble for you.”
The short-order cook felt the sense of alarm subside. Oban might not be telling the entire truth, but there was little chance that he had told the “guys” anything meaningful for the simple reason that there was so little he could have said. He had been careful, very careful, about not revealing anything important about himself. “Well, okay,” he said. “Thanks, Oban. Appreciate the word. They didn’t leave names or comm info or anything like that?”
“Naw, naw. They just slid out, all casual. Nobody saw where they went.”
“Okay. Maybe it was someone I used to work with. Probably I owe them money.”
“Sure, Davey. I figured it was something like that.”
“Yeah,” the short-order cook said. “No doubt.” He turned to leave, waving back over his shoulder. “Well, let me know if these guys turn up again, okay? See you tomorrow, Oban. Thanks for looking into the eggs for me.”
“No problem, Davey. See you in the morning.”
On his way out of the kitchen, the short-order cook stopped at the time-clock station and waved his employee identification under the scanner so it could log his hours. Then, he walked through the still-crowded dining room, pausing only to wave at a couple of regular patrons and to exchange words with the servers he had become friendly with over the past month. Kelly, the server who Settu was crushing on, gave him a quick smile and a thumbs-up. Like him, she was a Terran, a student on sabbatical from her university. He suspected she was homesick for some interaction with a familiar face shape and skin color, but the short-order cook was already running late. He waved back and said, “Have to run.”
Kelly acknowledged the wave and asked, “See you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Tomorrow. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to make you a treat.”
The short-order cook was lying. He felt bad about it, but he didn’t see how he had much choice. He wouldn’t be returning to Oban’s. Walking out the wide double doors, he stopped briefly to look back at the building façade, as if memorizing it. “Well,” he said aloud, “that was fun.”
Shrugging into his jacket, the short-order cook walked at a brisk pace up the street. The part about wanting to see his daughter was absolutely true, though he wasn’t rushing because she was expected at school. In fact, it was entirely possible that his daughter was just returning home herself. She might have been out all night, which worried the short-order cook a bit, especially now that he knew someone had been looking for him, but she was a smart girl and wouldn’t make any foolish choices.
Mostly, though, he was rushing home to see her because that’s what he did every day. It was their habit, their ritual: They would meet in the morning and sit in their small garden that faced the boulevard and exchange stories about what they had done over the course of the previous day. He would tell her about the conversation with Oban and his decision not to return to the diner. She would mock him and express her belief that he had become paranoid. No one, she would say, cared where he came from or what he did before deciding to try cooking breakfast for a living. “It’s just another one of your little fascinations, Father. And you made that poor man find chicken eggs for you.”
The short-order cook did feel bad about the eggs, but Oban would be able to keep his last paycheck as compensation. And, who knew? Maybe one of the other cooks would try to make an omelet.
Anyone who would have considered watching the short-order cook as he walked down the busy street would have viewed a very peculiar scene; however, all Orions valued their privacy. Indeed, one of the reasons the short-order cook had decided to settle there was the Orion culture’s fanatical desire to maintain control over their personal identities. The planet was one of the few technologically advanced planets in the sector where an individual could be sure he wasn’t being passively observed by a multitude of recording devices, scanners, or sensors at any given moment.
The short-order cook pulled back his shoulders and the slight bulge of his belly slowly disappeared and he became slightly taller. He rubbed his face and the skin around his neck and jowls tightened and grew paler. He ran his hand through his hair and instead of it getting shaggier or more rumpled, it grew straighter and thicker. The small bald spot on the crown of his head filled in. After walking for eight blocks and turning several corners, the short-order cook stopped in front of a small, well-maintained three-story house. The front yard was surrounded by a high wooden fence that was heavily hung with dark ivy and small purple blossoms. Between the slats of the fence, a passerby might be able to make out a small wooden table and three chairs.
If Kelly, the waitress from Oban’s diner, had walked past the short-order cook at that very moment, she might have passed by without a second glance. The short-order cook’s appearance was entirely altered: taller, wider at the shoulder and slimmer at the waist. Another Terran would have considered him moderately attractive, though more striking than handsome in any conventional sense, with a wide brow, deep-set eyes, and a heavy jawline.
An observer—should anyone have the bad manners to stare—would have said the man seemed overly serious, somber even, until he smiled, which he did at just that moment, as if remembering a happy memory. In fact, he was remembering his favorite time of day. He would walk in through the front door of his domicile and announce his presence. His daughter would appear from one of the inner rooms and find him in the hallway. They would embrace and she would begin to talk. Eventually, his daughter’s caretaker would appear and then she would give her account of their day. The three of them would prepare a small meal (though none of them was really hungry) and they would carry it out to the garden (on fair days) or out onto the enclosed porch (on foul ones) and then they would talk and talk and talk.
The thought of this moment, the anticipation, was almost as delicious as the reality. The man who had been the short-order cook smiled and walked up the three concrete steps to his front door. The sensor package recognized his biometric signature and admitted him when he depressed the door latch. He walked into the entrance hall and hung the light jacket on one of the hooks by the door. He noted that neither his daughter’s coat, nor his daughter’s caretaker’s, was hanging on a hook, though this was hardly unusual. As often as not, they left their coats in their bedrooms or draped over the back of the couch in the family room. His daughter was not mindful or tidy the way he was, a trait that often frustrated him, but, if pressed, he would admit also delighted him.
“Lal?” he called, the same as he did every day. “Are you home?” The pitch of his voice had changed, too, since the conversation with Oban. The rough, scratchy edge had disappeared, replaced by a much more refined and measured tone. “Are you in the kitchen?” He stood and waited for the ritual to play out, trying not to fret or worry.
He listened for the click of heels on the parquet hallway floor or the squeak of the kitchen door swinging open, but he heard nothing.
“Lal?” he repeated. “Daughter?” Perhaps she was playing a trick on him. Or was this a new game? Though she was an incredibly self-possessed and articulate individual, his daughter was still very young. But he considered: If this were a game, he would have expected to find some indication of what the rules were.
“Alice?” he called, raising his voice. Could they be out in the garden? No, he would have seen them as he passed. One of them—Lal or Alice—would have greeted him.
He walked through the entry hall into the living room, which was dimly lit, the curtains drawn. This was highly unusual. Lal enjoyed the morning light. Every day, she would pull back the drapes and let the sunlight in. She had, her father thought, a mild dread of darkness, which was not surprising considering the amount of time she had spent in shadow. “This is not right,” he whispered.
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