Her job had suddenly become a complete, dawn-to-dawn nightmare.
It had not begun like that, nor had it been like that for nearly five years. In fact, she had been enormously envied for getting the post.
Somewhat dissatisfied, certainly overqualified and without time to do her own research and publishing in her previous job as head librarian at a large university, she had been contacted, out of the blue, by an executive search service. She was offered what she thought was the ultimate job—at triple her present salary. Did she mind relocating to a different system? No. The headhunter seemed unsurprised, as if he knew everything about her. The position was as a private librarian. The woman demurred—she had no intention of burying herself in some recluse's dusty archives and letting the world pass.
Nothing like that at all, the man explained. He suggested she visit the planet of Yongjukl and investigate her new job. She would have a round-trip ticket. He offered to accompany her. She declined. The librarian was quite attractive—and the headhunter seemed disappointed.
The library was nearly mansion-size and was but one building on sprawling grounds. The main house dwarfed the library. It was secluded, with more than a thousand square kilometers of guarded, secure grounds. Her own quarters were lavish. There was a full staff: cooks, cleaners, gardeners.
Not that the librarian was imprisoned. She had her own gravcar, and a large, sophisticated city was no more than an hour or two away. She was allowed to keep her own hours—as long as the system remained current. If she ever needed help, she could hire as many day-workers as necessary.
Computers? Scanners? Filing robots? State of the art—and new models provided regularly.
She asked if she had permission to pursue her own studies and research. Certainly. Could she have visitors? If she chose. However, if she left the grounds, she was required to carry a remote. She must consider herself on call dawn-to-dawn. An unlikely possibility.
It seemed too good to be true. She felt like a character in one of the goth-livies she had supposedly given up when she was twelve but still "lived," somewhat guiltily, in her occasional bubblebaths.
Especially since there was no one in the mansion. No one except the staff. And none of them had ever met the mansion's owner.
When she returned to her own world, her first question to the headhunter was: Who would I be working for?
The man explained. The mansion—and its grounds—were part of a family estate. Which one? I cannot tell you that. But the mansion must remain with the family, and be maintained. If not—it is a matter of a rather elaborate and eccentric trust, my dear—an entire commercial empire would be disassembled.
At the head of the family is the young heir, the man continued. You may never meet him. He is extremely busy and prefers living closer to the Empire's center. But he is an unusual man. He might well show up one day.
Alone or with an entourage—in which case he will require absolute privacy. The man shrugged. It must be nice to be so wealthy that you can order your life that precisely.
If I take this position, the woman asked—which you can accept on a weekly, monthly, or yearly contract, the headhunter interrupted—I must keep that a secret? No, not necessarily, the man said. It seems to be a favorite topic about once a year by the planet's newsvids. Say what you wish—it is not as if there's anything to hide.
Thinking dark thoughts of windswept castles and disguised, royal lovers, she accepted the position.
For eleven years, it was paradise. Staggering amounts of material churned in daily. It seemed the unknown heir subscribed to every scientific, military, or political journal in the Empire. The material was scanned, summarized, and mostly discarded by a computer/scanner that seemed to have completely elitist tastes. It was, the woman once thought, a machine that seemed programmed to provide an instant update for someone newly risen from the grave. The computer had two sysop stations. One was in a sealed room, the other belonged to the librarian. The sealed unit seemed to contain, she learned when she snooped in boredom, some files that were inaccessible to the rest of the system.
Annually the entire files for that year were deleted. Then the machine began all over, collecting, summarizing, and storing.
Until a little more than six years before.
At that time, the computer had switched modes and begun storing everything. The librarian did not notice until year's end. She panicked—just slightly. Had she done something wrong? She did not want to lose her position. Not only was she perfectly happy on this world, having met and loved a wonderful succession of mates, but she was publishing important analyses in a steady stream, the envy of her far-lesser-paid and, to their minds, overworked colleagues in the field. The man at the other end of the emergency contact number soothed her. Not to worry, he said. Just continue. So continue she did.
Now she was going quite insane. Because, to everyone's astonishment, the heir—a man she thought most likely a legal myth by now—arrived. A small ship set down on the small landing pad. One man got out, and the ship instantly lifted away.
Guards met him. "Sir, this is a private—"
The man said words—words everyone had been told would be uttered if their boss ever showed up.
No one knew what to do and cowered for their jobs.
The man asked to be taken to his room. He showered, changed, and asked for a simple meal. Then he buzzed and asked to be shown to the library.
In the huge hall he politely told the librarian that he would appreciate it if she remained on standby. He unlocked the door to the second sysop station, and the madness started.
He seemed to scan everything—and want more. She had to hire assistants. He appeared insatiably curious. Again, the librarian thought of someone raised from the dead. No, she corrected herself. Someone who had been in longsleep, like the starships in ancient times before AM2 drive.
It went on, the man ate sparingly, slept little, but soaked up information like a sponge. Once, when the door opened for a moment, she saw that he had five screens scrolling simultaneously and a synth-voice giving a sixth stream of data.
The librarian prayed for sleep.
Then it stopped. The man walked out of the room, leaving the door open.
He said he was sleepy.
The librarian agreed blearily.
He told her he would shut down the system.
Yes. The woman and her equally zombied assistants stumbled for their quarters. The librarian noticed—but it did not register until days later—as she passed the room where the second sysop station was, that the computer seemed to be punching up files and then deleting them en masse.
It did not matter.
All that mattered was sleep.
The man slipped out an ignored side gate to the mansion onto the road. He walked down the road, briskly. He wore nondescript clothes—just another of that world's blue-collar workers.
He stopped once. The walls of the mansion's grounds stretched solidly down the road.
He felt slight regret.
The computer had told him that when he left the staff would be paid off with handsome bonuses and encouraged with larger bonuses to relocate offworld. The mansion, the library, and the outbuildings would be razed within two weeks. Then the bare grounds would be donated to the planetary government for whatever purposes it saw fit.
A pity. It was beautiful.
The computer told him there were ten others like it scattered around the Empire.
He now knew six years of history. His plans—no. Not yet. But he had been given another destination.
Lights blazed behind him. A creaking gravsled lofted toward him, laden with farm produce for the early markets. The man extended his hand.
The gravsled hissed to a halt. The driver leaned across and opened the door.
The man climbed inside, and the gravsled lifted.
"Dam' early to be hitchin'," the driver offered.
The man smiled, but did not answer.
"You work for th' rich creech owns that palace?"
The man laughed. "No. Me an' the rich don't speak the same tongue. Just passin' through. Got stranded. Dam' glad for the lift."
"Where you headed?"
"You're light on luggage. For a travelin' man."
"I'm seekin' a job."
Snorted laughter came from the driver. "Golden luck to you, friend. But there's dam' little traffic comin' in or out. Times ain't good for spacecrew."
"I'll find something."
"Dam' confident, ain't you? Like a fellow who thinks like that. Name's Weenchlors." The driver stuck out a paw. The man touched thumbs with him. "You?"
"I use the name Raschid," the man said.
He leaned back against the raggedy plas seats and stared ahead toward the lightening sky—toward the spaceport.
Above the ramshackle building a sign blinked in several colors, all of which hurt the eye: last blast tearoom and diner. Below that: prop.: dingiswayo PATTIPONG.
A knot of three very primed sailors lurched out of the barroom next door and down the cracked plas sidewalk. Raschid smiled politely and stepped out of their way. One of the sailors looked regretful but passed on.
Again, Raschid smiled, his smile broadening as he heard the Yukawa-whine of a ship lifting off from the field just beyond a blastfence. The produce-sled driver had been correct—the spaceport was full of ships that had not lifted for some time and would likely never lift again. But there was traffic.
Raschid entered the diner.
The man who greeted him was very small and very dark. There were about ten tables and a counter in the diner. The small man was the only other person inside.
"No. I want a job."
"No. Not cook. Maybe cook where people not use knife if order wrong. Too pretty be cook down here."
Raschid did not answer.
"Where you cook last?"
Raschid muttered something inaudible.
Pattipong nodded once. "Maybe you cook. Cook never say where last. Too many wives... alks... children... police. Come. We see."
Pattipong led Raschid through the door into the kitchen, watching his expression closely. Pattipong nodded when that gawp of surprise came.
"Yes. Not good. I build station for gooood cook. Cnidarians. Stay two, almost three years. Then... go. Leave me with bathtub for cook station."
The cnidarians were intelligent aquatic corallike polyps that grew together as they matured... into mutual hatred. They... it must have been very, very good. Because Pattipong had specially built the kitchen. It was a now-drained tub, with all the necessary appliances and counters built circularly around it.
"Not good. Take gooood cook know how to use."
Raschid climbed into the pool.
"Couple eyes. Over easy," Pattipong ordered.
Raschid turned the heat on and put a pan on the fire. He brushed clarified butter from a nearby bowl on it, picked up—one-handed—two eggs from another bowl, and in a single motion cracked them both into the pan and disposed of the shells. Pattipong nodded involuntarily. Raschid chopped the heat down and waited as the eggs sizzled in the pan. Pattipong was watching his wrist closely. At just the right moment, Raschid flipped the eggs. They slid smoothly onto their blind sides.
Pattipong smiled. "You cook. No one else do that right."
"You want anything with your eggs?"
"No. Not want eggs. Hate eggs. Eggs make me..." Pattipong waved his hand across his buttocks. "Bad wind… Every-body else like eggs. I serve eggs. You have job. You cook now."
Raschid looked around the rather filthy kitchen. "Cook later. Lunch is an hour away. Clean now." Pattipong's speech patterns seemed habit-forming.
Pattipong considered, then bobbed his head. "Clean now. Cook later. I help." And so began the Legend of the Eggs of Pattipong.
Pattipong described them on the menu as Imperial Eggs Benedict. For some reason, the name bothered Raschid. He argued—mildly. Pattipong told him to get back to the kitchen. "Imperial good name. Thailand... best elephants Royal Elephants. Or so I hear."
It started from boredom. The lunch crowd had been nearly nonexistent, and it was hours until dinner. Raschid wasn't sleepy enough to walk back to the tiny room he rented for a nap, didn't feel like drinking, and had no desire for a walk. It started with baking. Raschid felt about baking, mostly at least, the same way Pattipong did about eggs. It was too damned unpredictable, and he never understood exactly what ingredients should be changed to match the temperature, the humidity, the barometer, or whatever made his loaves look suddenly unleavened. But there were exceptions and this was one of them.
He had made sourdough starter a week or so before-warm water, equal amount of flour, a bit of sugar, and yeast. Cover in a nonmetallic dish and leave until it stinks.
He used that as a base for what were still called English muffins. They were equally easy to make. For about eight muffins, he brought a cup of milk to a boil, then took it off the stove and dumped in a little salt, a teaspoon of sugar, and two cupfuls of premixed biscuit flour. After he beat it all up, he let it rise until double size; then he beat in another cup of flour and let the dough rise once more.
The open-ended cylinders were half filled with the dough. Raschid did not mention that the short cylinders had been pet food containers with both ends cut off. Even in this district, somebody might get squeamish.
He brushed butter on his medium-hot grill and put the cylinders down. Once the open end had browned for a few seconds, he flipped the cylinder, browned the other side, and lifted the cylinder away, burning fingers in the process.
He added more butter and let the muffins get nearly black before putting them on a rack to cool. For use—within no more than four hours—he would split them with a fork and toast them.
He next found the best smoked ham he—or rather Pattipong—could afford. It was thin-sliced and browned in a wine-butter-cumin mixture.
"Best, it should be Earth ham. From Virginia. Or Kerry."
Pattipong goggled. "I didn't know you had ever been to Earth!" Raschid looked perplexed. "I—haven't. I think."
Then it was Raschid's turn to goggle. "Dingiswayo—the way you just talked."
"Normally, you mean? I slipped. Normal too much trouble. Talk too much trouble. Like eggs. Just hot air. Besides... talk short, people think you not understand. They more careful in asking what they want. Not careful in saying what they think you not understand.
"And around here," Pattipong said, lapsing into a full speech pattern, "you need all the edge you can get."
That was true. The spaceport's traffic may have been light, but there were still stevedores, sailors, whores, and everyday villains looking for amusement—which was often defined as laying odds on how long it would take someone to bleed to death in a gutter. Pattipong kept a long, unsheathed knife hidden under the pay counter.
Raschid went back to his recipe. The browned ham was put in a warming oven. He had lemon juice, red pepper, a touch of salt, and three egg yolks waiting in a blender. He melted butter in a small pan. Then his mental timer went on. Muffins toasted... eggs went into boiling water to poach... the muffins were ready... ham went on top of the muffins... two and a half minutes exactly, and the eggs were plopped on top of the ham.
He flipped the blender on and poured molten butter into the mixture. After the count of twenty, he turned the blender off and poured the hollandaise sauce over the eggs.
"Voila, Sr. Pattipong."
Pattipong gingerly sampled.
"Not bad," he said grudgingly. "But eggs."
Raschid tried them on a customer, a sailor drunk enough to be experimental. The man sampled, looked surprised, and inhaled the plate, then ordered a second plate. He swore it sobered him up—now he was ready to start all over again.
"Like sobriety pill? Maybe great invention. Cure diseases. Sell through mail."
"Clot off," Raschid snorted.
The sailor came back the next day—with six friends.
The port police started dropping by around lunchtime. For some reason, Raschid felt uncomfortable—with no idea why. They ate, of course, on the cuff. Lunch was no longer slow.
Raschid came up with other dishes: something he called chili, and something he called "nuked hen." He convinced Pattipong that the customers wanted something more than the bland, airport/diner standard dishes Pattipong had previously featured on the menu.
"You talk. I listen. I do. Make curry. Curry like mother made. Customers try—I laugh. Get revenge for all yata-yata-yata talk all time."'
Pattipong's curry may not have been quite that lethal—but it was nominated. "Know why I listen to you?" Pattipong asked.
He waved an arm out of the serving window. Raschid looked out at the dining area. It was packed. Pattipong had even put tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. Raschid knew that they had been getting busier, but he really hadn't realized just how much. The crowd was different. There were still the bruisers and brawlers, but Raschid saw suits and some uniformed port authorities, as well. There were even two orange-robed members of the Cult of the Eternal Emperor. For some reason, they made him just as uncomfortable as the policemen did—also for equally unknown reasons.
"Last Blast now hot place to go. Walk wild side... eat good. It last for while. Then they find new place. Happen before. Happen again. Hard thing to remember. Not expand. Not drive old customers away.
"These people like... like insect that buzz... buzz... flower to flower. Then vanish."
"Butter not fly, Raschid. Work. No more jokes."
Raschid went back to his stove. Another damned order for Imperial Damned Eggs. He was starting to share Pattipong's hatred for eggs.
Raschid was glad Pattipong was making money. But it meant nothing to him. He felt... as if he were waiting. For someone? For something? He did not know.
Others noticed prosperity, as well.
It was very late. The Last Blast opened early and closed late—but this was getting absurd. Around midnight they had a gaggle of guests, all caped in formal wear. The “thea-tah” crowd, don’t you know.
Raschid was exhausted. As soon as he finished stoning and oiling the grill he was for his room, the fresher, one drink, and unconsciousness. They had a new hire—a baker, one of Pattipong's innumerable relatives—coming in. Raschid was supposed to train him—a clear case of a double amputee teaching ballet.
He heard the scuffle and argument from the front. Another damned robbery. Pattipong had a dump near the pay counter—almost all money went into a sealed,
time-locked safe. Since they would lose only a few dollars in a heist, it was easier just to give the robbers the till than fight back. Safer, as well. The next morning Pattipong would tip the port police, who would find the thief and either have him make restitution or, if he had spent the money, just break his thumbs for an hour or so.
This sounded different.
Raschid picked up a heavy cleaver and went to the kitchen doorway. Then he set the cleaver down on a shelf and looked out.
He instantly knew—but did not know how he knew—what was going on. Four heavy sets. Flash expense. False smiles and real menace. He walked over to Pattipong.
"G'wan back, cookie. This don't pertain," one of the thugs said.
"Protection?" Raschid asked, ignoring the man.
Pattipong nodded. "We pay. No stinks. Furniture not busted. Customers protected."
"Are they connected?"
"Hey. We told you get out of it."
"I not see before. New. Not connected. No connections now. Old boss go hoosegow. Baby new bosses still fighting."
"Knock off the drakh. We made our offer. Polite folk respond."
Pattipong looked at Raschid. "You think we pay?"
Raschid shook his head slowly—and spun the heavy glass match bowl on the counter into one man's face.
Pattipong snapkicked the second—a man nearly two meters tall—under the chin. The man stumbled back and went flat.
A third man grabbed a chair. The chair came up... Raschid went under it, head-butting. The man dropped the chair and sagged. Raschid double-fisted him on the back of the neck, and the man was out.
Pattipong had his long knife about halfway out, and the rules changed. The last man's hand slid toward his belt. A gun.
Raschid, having all the time in the world, spun right... two steps back toward the kitchen, hand reaching inside. Whirl... the gun was coming up. Finger touching the trigger stud. Raschid overhanded the cleaver. It smacked into the tough's skull with a dull sound not unlike an ax striking rotten wood.
Pattipong hurried to the door. "No cops."
He came back inside and shook his head at the carnage and the scatter. "This not good."
"Sorry. But he was—"
"You misunderstand. Not bad he dead. Bad he dead not neat. Messy. Take two, maybe three hours to clean up. Long day. I was sleepy."
He unclipped the com at his belt. "I call cousin. He pick up bodies. Leave maybe in front of police station. Let three explain one, when they wake."
He whispered into the com, summoning his cousin.
"You not bad fighter. For cook."
Raschid was looking at the moaning or unconscious human and formerly human debris. Feeling... feeling as if there were a curious observer behind him. He felt... he felt... push it away... nothing in particular. A necessary act.
He went to work helping Pattipong.
Two men sat at Pattipong's counter. Both wore what might appear to be—after suitable degreasing, cleaning, pressing, and sewing—uniforms.
Beside one man was a captain's cover, with formerly gold braid on its bill. Raschid had seen braid go green, even black, with age, but this was the first he had ever seen what looked as if it were infested with barnacles. The cap may have suggested the man's position—little else did. It was not merely the grime: he was a tiny little rabbity person, with the twitching mannerisms of that creature, as well.
The other man, a hulk, had the peeling braid of a ship's officer on his sleeve and on his breast a command-qualified ribbon. On the man's shoulder, Raschid could make out a round patch: PEASE SHIPPING.
Both men were drinking caff and arguing. The "captain"—if that was what he was—looked fondly at the lined bottles of alk behind the counter. The other man-mate?—shook his head. The rabbit sighed and whined on. Raschid could make out bits of what he was saying.
"Undercrewed... clottin' agent... converter leakin'... bonded freight... sealed destination... client I never heard of neither. Not good, Mister Mate. Not good at all."
Raschid, pretending to wipe the counter, came closer.
"The contract good?" the mate asked.
"Cashed it this morning," the rabbit said grudgingly.
"Then what'a you care? Damn few cargoes come wi' a fuel guarantee, Captain. What's to worry what we're carry in'?"
"I'd hate like hell to finish my career gettin' taken off as a smuggler."
The mate looked the little man up and down. "Career? Pattipong, more caff."
Pattipong, unsmiling, refilled the mugs.
"Where's the best place to sign on some casuals?" the mate asked.
"For you? For Pease Lines? Maybe try port jail."
"Thanks, Patty. I love you, too."
Raschid spoke. "What slots you got open?"
The mate evaluated Raschid carefully. "Greaser. Cook/com. Second engineer. If you got papers."
"What's your com rig?"
"World's oldest VX-314. Your grampa could'a known it. We call it Stutterin' Susie."
"What's the pay?"
"Standard. Three hundred a month. Found. Got a sealed destination. You can pay off there, or stay on when we pick up a cargo and transship to a new port."
"Three hundred's cherry-boy pay."
"That's the offer."
Pattipong was signaling from the kitchen.
"Sorry," Raschid said. For some reason he thought he was supposed to say yes.
The captain was about to bleat something. The mate stopped him.
"How good a cook are you?"
"What about the com?"
"Bet the check whoever your last idiot was didn't triple-ground the box," Raschid said. "That'll give a Vexie hiccups all the time." He went back into the kitchen.
"You drunk? Drugs? What wrong with job?" Pattipong asked him. "Nothing, Dingiswayo. It's just... time to go."
"Look. I give you better pay. Give you... quarter business. No, eighth. You stay." The two merchant officers were arguing inaudibly.
"Those two... Jarvis, Moran. Bad. He weak. Drinker. Moran... busted down from skipper. Killed men. Ship... Santana. Boneyard. Recycled. All Pease ships same. Junk. Certificates forged. Out of date. Line pick cargo where can. Not care where go. Not care kill crew, lose ship. Insurance always paid prompt."
"Sounds like an adventure."
"You full hop. Adventure someone else, in livie. You watch—adventure. You do—deep, deep drakh."
"You. Cook," Moran growled. "We'll go 450."
"And slops?" Raschid pressed. "M'gear got left aboard m'last."
"Happens when you jump ship. But yeah. We'll go it."
The wait was over.
Sten debuta # 1 en español! Narrada en cuatro partes, Episode Dos ahora aparece en la revista Diaspar, la mejor revista de SF & F en América del Sur!
Y es gratis! Aquí está el enlace.
EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?