Galactic Spiced Rice. Who the hell came up with that? Austin wiped his unruly brows. Last time he checked the menu he didn’t plaster it with Space Captain’s Vegan Platter, Pluto Steak with Half Moon Sauce, Extra Terrestrial Truffle and that. Galactic. Spiced. Rice.
He adjusted his bow tie and fought the urge to yank it off. Like the rest of his colleagues, he wore a white shirt with a silly black bow tie. After dedicating ten years of his life to Poseidon - the country’s most prestigious heritage-status restaurant - it had become more than his livelihood.
Fragments of his existence lurked in every cracked staircase and refurbished corner of the estate, thanks to his sweat, blood, and tears. Yet his spoiled-brat-boss made him wear a stupid uniform. Austin grimaced.The universe sure had a funny way of throwing Taurean Flooseberries at him.
Officially head-chef, he took care of the kitchen, admin, staffing and problems he didn’t sign up for. He ensured Max behaved, Kim didn’t overreact and Poseidon’s ‘unfinished business’ was seen to. Austin cursed under his breath. Why put up with it? The question resurfaced to the forefront of his mind time and time again. But if he packed up and left, it meant he’d be launching his hard work out of a battlecruiser’s airlock and into oblivion.
“You — with the mohawk!” Austin said as he pointed at Colt, one of the kitchen boys.
The kid held a medium-sized bowl in one arm whilst the other mixed the contents with a spatula. Austin clicked his tongue at the fusion of yellow and orange inside the bowl.
“What’s up, boss?” Colt answered as he tore his gaze away from the yellow-orange mixture. Austin found it difficult to stay focused thanks to his recent style transformation. One mass of long electric blue hair topped his shaved head. Sure, Colt was peculiar looking, but it didn’t matter because his skills were better than the best droid on the market.
“Number one; I ain’t the boss,” Austin said with a bitter note. “Number two; that mush is too runny, mate.” He indicated the ingredients on the side. “You’ve got to add more of that. It’s got to be velvety.”
“No problem boss,” Colt mumbled with a slight nod.
Poseidon’s kitchens were at the far end of the restaurant. Austin’s lips stretched to a grin. The stone walls, rocky steps and carved arches and columns were characteristics of an era long gone.
Austin imagined what it meant to lead a life without neon signs and holos constantly bombarding him with useless information. His chest swelled with pride at the thought of Poseidon and how they were the only ones who served non-replicated food in the entire country.
Spotlights radiated a golden glow too cozy for a commercial kitchen. Air flowed from an open window, and Austin sighed. At least a refreshing breeze seeped in. There was nothing more energizing than natural, non-recycled air. He paused and glanced at the appliances, which for centuries, were awarded ‘relic’ status. But they recently restored the oven and optimized it for commercial use, and it produced better results than any food replicator. And the fridge-freezer? Austin couldn’t imagine what he’d do without appliances designed to preserve raw ingredients for non-replicator recipes.
“Tash!” Austin barked as he strode to the fridge.
“Uh-huh?” Tash said - one of the best in Austin’s team.
He was more strange looking than Colt. Austin wondered how an adolescent with no trace of stubble one day showed up with a full grown mustache the next. Synthetic enhancements. What else could it be? Everyone and their aunt had synthetic enhancements…
“The spices. Are they ready? I need’em,” Austin said, and he poured rice in a pan of boiling water.
Tash brought a small bowl with an assortment of ingredients reduced to fine powder. A robust aroma peppered the workstation. Austin recognized them - they were imported from Mars! No terrestrial seasoning had the strength to sting the insides of his nostrils the way the overpowering scent of Martian spices did.
“What a gent. Get cracking with the vegetables like I showed you,” Austin said. He gave Tash a side glance. “Got that?”
“Uh-huh,” Tash grumbled, and he returned to his work station.
A display of red, orange and yellow contrasted with mellow tones of the countertop, as fresh bell peppers covered it.
They moved around the kitchen, slicing, mixing, and working as one unit until three complete dishes of Galactic Spiced Rice were ready.
A bell chimed as sweet as the peppers would taste. Austin turned to the open compartment connecting the kitchen to the short corridor which led to the grand hall. The bell rang until its soft tings amplified to eardrum-bursting screeches.
“Bloody hell,” Austin muttered under his breath. He slammed his hand against the bell and stopped the sound.
“Guess who’s complaining about the long wait again? Three-eyed Faye,” Max said.
Max, Austin’s closest friend and colleague, was a well-built man and proud of it — why else wear an ill-fitting uniform? The white shirt hugged him so tight his biceps bulged and threatened to tear the seams. From the waist down? No comment.
“Five more minutes, mate!”
Austin returned to the workstation, where the rest of the order lay ready for assembly.
“I get you’re talented but, preparing food the old way is going to kill you. Use a couple of droids. Better yet, let’s get a replicator,” Max said from afar. He leaned against the opening in the wall.
“There’s no way we’re going to serve food from a replicator. That’s not our unique selling point,” Austin replied. He rolled his eyes. “And did I ask for your opinion? Nah.”
“Just saying,” Max mumbled.
Austin grabbed two finished dishes, gesturing at Colt and Tash to do the same with the other three.
“Order for table twenty-two. Off you go, mate.”
Max gripped the meals and balanced them on his forearms and raised a brow.
“By the way, who had the brilliant idea to change the menu?” He asked.
“It’s what I’d like to know,” Austin said.
Since when was changing the menu a joint effort? He clicked his tongue and waited for someone to own up.
“I did. Kind of,” Colt said, raising his hand.
“What do you mean?”
Austin’s brows furrowed as his head jerked towards the kitchen assistant.
“Poseidon is old. The menu needed a modern twist. I used a generator to make changes,” Colt replied. He wiped down the surface of a nearby workstation.
“Wait, what? You used a generator? A machine?”
Austin didn’t need to make a scene. But there were two issues. One; the kid thought he could change the menu without his permission. Two; a generator took away the authentic experience of dining, like in the twentieth century.
“I want to hear this! Don’t continue the conversation without me,” Max said. He sprinted down the corridor, balancing the Galactic Spiced Rices until he disappeared to the grand hall.
Austin’s mouth gaped. Humans had mastered creativity. No simulation could devise something original like a human would. Flabbergasted, he waited for an explanation. He never used software to create for Poseidon and had no intention of starting anytime soon.
“Mate, you couldn’t come up with decent names. You got a machine to do it?” He exhaled hard. “When you said Poseidon is old you hit the nail right on the head!”
“The thing is boss… cutting, mixing, slicing, stirring and stuff. Nobody does it,” Tash piped up. He joined them at the opening in the wall.
“Yeah, he’s right.” Colt nodded. “Nobody’s been doing it for generations.”
Austin shook his head. “Can droids put the same passion in it as humans do?” His arms stretched out. “No. Besides, people come here specifically for non-replicator food. Cooked from scratch. Fresh.”
The bell rang, sending a jolt through Austin’s body. He turned around with such force, he threatened to upset the nearby counter.
“Once is all it takes,” Austin said through gritted teeth.
“What did I miss?” Max asked.He had sprinted down the corridor and thanks to the color risen to his cheeks, it showed.
“Tell’em Max,” Austin remarked. “We bring authenticity. This makes Poseidon different from everywhere else. It’s our unique selling point.”
“It’s time consuming and pointless in this day and age, but you’ve got a point. People come here to experience what fresh food tastes like.” Max agreed from the other side of the opening in the wall.
“Is there a single day this place isn’t full of clients? No. People want an authentic experience,” Austin said. “Besides, look what happened to the geezer at the Observatory.” He crossed his arms. “I knew droids were dangerous.”
“You mean the sentient droid who killed the engineer from Robotica International?” Max’s eyes widened. “I heard. The thought of crossing paths with one of them makes me nervous.”
“See?” Austin turned to the two kitchen assistants. “Sentient droids are dangerous. Imagine coming to work, one of them goes crazy, and next thing you know you end up crunched.”
Colt shook his head, and Austin couldn’t help but notice the blue strands of hair stick out on end.
“Something must have made it glitch,” Colt said as he scrubbed the surface of his workstation. “Droids don’t go crazy without a logical explanation.”
The bell rang again. Austin tilted his head to see who stood behind Max. Eli Milnyc. To everyone, he was the boss. For Austin, he was just Eli. The proprietor was a spoiled teen with gelled back baby blond hair, clothed in a suit tailored to perfection which was adorned with silver thread.
“You,” he croaked. “I want to see you in my office.”
His voice was like the ribit of a frog, and Austin grew accustomed to his distinctive accent after dealing with his hologram for months since the end of the Varnican War. At least his father, the former boss, was kinder to his employees.
“Now? Leave the kitchen mid-service?” Austin asked.
He narrowed his eyes at the crackling edges of Eli’s form. It wasn’t Eli in flesh and bone, of course. It was his hologram. Rarely, the spoiled brat showed up in person. He glared at the teen up and down and couldn’t swallow the fact that after the Varnican War he became the sole heir to the Poseidon estate when the kid didn’t work a day in his life. Austin pursed his lips.
“Yes,” Eli said.
His pudgy hands rested on his waist. An unusual frown colored his juvenile face with a taint of terror. Austin removed his apron at once and hung it on the side. Eli’s hologram crackled further, and he waited until it fully disappeared before letting out a groan and sprinted out of the kitchen.
Eli’s office was tucked away at the top of a long tower with a side turret. Situated away from the kitchens and dining halls. In fact, it was in a separate part of the estate, connected to the main building by a terrace.
As he approached the tower, his paces pounded against the stone pavement as he strode across the terrace. He took a deep breath of frozen air and coughed as he exhaled. Dense clouds dotted the lavender sky and icy wind cut through his skin. The stone building had a nostalgic quality, which filled him with curiosity.
The stone arches holding the terrace reached colossal heights, and upon reaching the other side of the long terrace, he ran up the spiral stairs until he reached Eli’s office. Strange silence surrounded him. As his heart pounded faster and harder, so did his steps against the stone pavement. He knocked on the door. His shoulders reached his neck as he shivered underneath his uniform. He knocked again. There was no answer. No rustling of special documents. No clinking of metal from the other side of the door.
“You asked for me and I’m here, kid. Open up,” Austin said as he knocked again.
He clenched his fist with impatience as his other hand clutched the door handle. “This better not be one of your pranks.”
He slammed the door open, expecting to see Eli leap out of a cupboard to startle him. He half expected to see him in a fit of childish giggles. Instead, a strong wave of silence greeted him. The humming of Eli’s gadgets and monitors on standby became the source of his uneasiness.
“Eli? Are you in here, mate?” Austin said as he stepped into the room.
He circled the desk. Eli’s NoteCatcher lay upon it untouched. Austin’s glance raised to the screens on standby. Someone stacked them in neat rows and columns on shelves, which covered the far wall. Austin slammed the door shut on his way out.
He raced down the cracked stone staircase, across the outdoor terrace, past the wilting synthetic palm trees and through the rear entrance. As soon as he entered the restaurant, a wave of heat knocked him. Somebody must have messed up the central heating. Or another level four safety breach.
He tore off his ridiculous bow tie before he’d drench his clothes with sweat. Despite the scorching heat nobody had done anything about it. Austin couldn’t decide which was worse. He exhaled sharply as he stormed to reception.
“Was I about to send out a search party? Yeah,” Max said.
“He wasn’t there. It’s got to be another one of Eli’s pranks,” Austin said. He rolled up his sleeves and tugged at the collar of his shirt. “What’s going on with the air-con?”
Kim struggled at the control panel. He exhaled hard. Her dark sharp brows were upside down, her cheeks were flushed, and he knew what it meant. Austin heard Max’s footsteps as he followed him to the control panel.
“The hell’s going on, Kim?” Austin demanded.
“Tash said to turn up the heating and then, it wasn’t working and then, Colt troubleshooted the problem and then, the heating started working and then, it got too hot and then—”
“And then what?” Austin asked.
He glared at the control panel’s screen. He hoped with all his existence this wasn’t a job for a maintenance droid. Austin’s finger hit the screen a little too hard as it shook each time he tapped.
“I’m sorry Austin, I can’t get it to lower the temperature,” Kim said.
Her moon-shaped eyes were glossy and definitely filled with tears, waiting to spill. Austin gently shook his head. Not now…
“Don’t worry about it,” Austin said in a soft tone, but a stream of tears cascaded down her face.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at the floor. He stepped away from the control panel. It was a maintenance droid job and there was nothing he could do about it, apart from ventilating the dining rooms with open windows. He shook his head. Eli inherited Poseidon and as a spoiled rich kid, it was no surprise he didn’t have the slightest clue or care about how to run the place. Austin crossed his arms.
“What?” Max said. He wiped his forehead. “Log a job?”
“You can give it a shot,” Austin said.
He scoffed. Poseidon was a heritage site, but a business in the twenty-third century. Last time he logged a job for a maintenance droid they didn’t turn up.
A sudden cry startled him out of his thoughts. Kim’s face creased like a baby throwing a tantrum. She sobbed and as much as he welcomed being the go-to-person, he stood petrified, wondering how on Earth she was accepted by the nation’s most prestigious computer science institution despite working full time at Poseidon.
“It’s m-my f-fault… it’s m-my-fault.”
As Kim cried, Max and Austin exchanged looks. Kim cried. That’s what she did.
Austin cleared his throat and stood in front of her. “It ain’t your fault. Ain’t nobody’s fault. Sometimes stuff like this happens. It’s going to be alright.”
Kim nodded and hastily wiped her tears away and tried to hide, but her eyes never lied. They were glossy, and Austin knew she’d cry again later. But Kim’s nature consisted of hyperbole. She cried.
“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” Max said in a low voice.
“It’s always dramatic with Kim and you know it,” Austin replied.
“What?” Max said.
“I’m used to Eli being gone most of the time, but what he did back there was downright strange,” Austin said pensively. “I mean, he never shows up in person and he programs his holos to send a message, but what was the point of making me go all the way to his stupid tower?”
“You said it yourself. He pranks you all the time just to annoy you,” Max replied.
“Yeah, but this time it’s different. Didn’t you see the expression on his face? It’s like he was scared, or something.” Austin scratched his beard.
“Pale as a ghoul? But you know holograms make you look a little less like yourself,” Max said. “You’ll see him appearing again in a few hours because of boredom. Must be nice having so much money you’re bored…”
“Must be nice not having to work for it either.”
Austin groaned. Sonny, the guy with the tattooed face, power-walked in his direction.
“What?” He asked.
“You gotta see this, Austin. It’s getting out of hand.” Sonny pointed at the kitchens
“Great,” Austin muttered and they followed him. “Oh hell no!” Austin exclaimed as he entered the kitchen. Another wave of heat!
His heart skipped a beat as Tash launched a pan which was headed in his direction. Austin ducked before the pan hit him square in the face. It clashed behind him with the most irritating clack.
Austin’s fingers tingled all of a sudden. He clenched his fists. Max stood like a sculpture with his arms stretched out, but he didn’t move. Colt gripped a wok, and stood still. Tash towered over a workstation as though frozen. Silence surrounded him. Time stopped! Austin’s fingers tingled again.
Then, the pan dropped with an echo. Austin’s jaw dropped. Everything resumed. Tash roared. Colt threw the wok. Max tried to grab Colt by the hair. And the rumble, hissing and clattering of the kitchen continued. He swallowed hard. Sweat trickled faster down his temples. He stared at his palms - what in the world happened?
Tash launched a pan at Colt. The kid ducked. The pan grazed his newly colored mohawk. Austin side-stepped, knocking Max aside. The pan hit the door behind him, where he stood a few moments ago, dropping with an ear-deafening clang.
“Bloody hell,” Austin muttered.
Max stood between them. Tash shifted on his feet and swayed side-to-side to dodge Max. He failed.
“What’s up, boss?” Colt said. He wiped his bottom lip, which dripped with blood thanks to his split lip - courtesy of Tash.
“Somebody care to tell me what the hell’s going on here?” Austin said.
He crossed his arms. Pots and pans cluttered the work stations. Judging from the fluorescent pink liquid on the floor, someone spilled at least a week’s worth of Arcturus Dream Dessert.
“You’re busy doing Eli’s job, someone’s got to lead the kitchens,” Colt said. “And I’m the best person for it.” He wiped his uniform. Half of it was drenched with fluorescent pink liquid. “You know I’m the best person.”
“Yeah, right?” Tash scoffed. He leaned to the side, dodging Max’s arm, which acted as a barrier. “You can’t even plate up a simple Pleiadian Pie. That’s like, basic!”
Austin squeezed his eyes. He didn’t sign up for this. Just when cash flow problems were nearly over, another problem presented itself. He cleared his throat. But with all the work and responsibility he put into Poseidon, they better damn well consider him as the boss.
“Say what?” Colt said. He shuffled closer, but Max didn’t move an inch. “You don’t know the difference between a fridge and a freezer!” His voice went up an octave. “Appliances of the twenty-first century - that’s basic!”
“Oh shut-up!” Tash snapped.
“You shut-up!” Colt snapped back. “You think you can run this kitchen?” He snapped his fingers.
Austin heaved a sigh.
“Pack it in!” His voice boomed over theirs and immediately they hushed. “I got a million problems and this shouldn’t be one of them.” His brows lowered to his eyelids. Tension accumulated in his neck and shoulders. Stiff and immobile. He unclenched his fists. Counted to ten. Barking at them would make things worse and it wouldn’t explain what had happened a few moments ago when everything froze. Everything froze…
“Listen,” he continued. “I’m head chef…with extra duties. Nobody makes no decisions without my go-ahead. And nobody sure as hell ain’t replacing me ‘til I say and I know one of you is ready.” He narrowed his eyes. “Am I clear?”
Colt and Tash nodded in unison and before they could utter another word, he gestured at the mess they made.
“Look around you, mate!” Austin said. He paced back and forth, attempting to release the adrenaline. “You think this represents Poseidon? You think I sacrificed a bloody decade of my life for this?” He gestured at the beeping appliances, spilled dessert and the pots and pans scattered around in a mess. “Nah, mate. And for the record, just because Eli makes an occasional appearance via hologram every once in a while, it doesn’t mean he’s not the boss anymore,” Austin added with a bitter note.
If the universe wasn’t against him, the place would run a little smoother, and he didn’t have to take on more than he could handle. If the universe wasn’t out to get him, maybe he’d be in a better position, and he could make it to the end of the month with more than a loaf of Moonbread.
If the universe stopped throwing Taurean Flooseberries at him, perhaps he’d never have lost his siblings and parents during the Varnican War. He exhaled hard .
“I swear…sometimes it’s like school all over again,” Austin said. “If we don’t pull together and work with each other, we’re never going to make it.”
He stared at his palms again as his heart caught in his throat. Moments ago his hands tingled. Moments ago everything froze. He squeezed his eyes. No. It couldn’t be possible - he did not just stop time. It was impossible…right?
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