Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"The Commander's Courage" Excerpt: Mystery Meat(less)


Once we actually entered the canteen, I had to gasp.
"This actually looks more like a food court than a cafeteria!"

Marx blinked, dropping his surly mood for the moment. "Your planet has courts for food?" He shook his head, no doubt imagining a sport court full of edibles. He gestured to a bank of chutes and dispensers where dozens of other beings lined up, receiving multicolored packets of something—well, food-like, obviously. We fell in line behind a huge bear-like biped who filled it's tray with several packets, procured by hitting buttons printed with some kind of text that I—oddly enough—could not read.
I followed the bear's example, checking carefully over the pictures on the packet label and hoping I would actually get what I was expecting: something like meatloaf, some kind of French fry thing (only they probably didn't call them French fries anymore) and what I hoped was fruit.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I glanced back to find Marx staring at me.
"What?" I asked, grabbing a small vial of some kind of juice.
He blinked and absorbed himself in picking up packets for his own meal.
"Nothing," he muttered.

I followed Bear-thing over to a metal chute and watched it put the packets in one end and pick them up on the other, all puffed out like microwave popcorn, and big enough to hold whatever the packet advertised. I stuck my meatloaf and fries in there, and waited at the other end.

My packets came out, but they weren't warm and heavy like I thought they would be. I opened the package and dropped the meatloaf into a bowl—
Where it immediately dispersed into a dry pile of bran-like cereal.
"What?" I gasped, going for the fries.
They looked golden brown and toasty, but they tasted more like doughnuts. The "fruit" I had grabbed was a dense, chalky candy. I felt my stomach turn at the sight of this meal so seriously lacking in nutrition.
I turned back to Marx. "How could this happen?" I wailed.

He smirked, but his eyes still held sympathy. "You were expecting something besides toasted farran," he pointed to the packaging, "and frycake straws?"
The tips of my ears burned all the way to my cheeks. "I was expecting meatloaf and potatoes," I admitted.
Marx nodded. "Well, that explains it; I have never seen meatloaf, but I know that potatoes don't look like that."
I rolled my eyes and prepared to at least take a swig of my juice. Before it touched my mouth, Marx slipped his hands over mine and pulled it away. "No, you don't want to drink that!" He warned.
I all but glared at him. "Let me guess," I said, "it's not fruit juice?"
He shook his head. "No, it's spice syrup. Very painful in large amounts."

My eyes wandered all the way back to the wall of packets on the other side of the room. The line was already longer than it had been when we walked in.
"What am I gonna do now?" I grumbled.

Marx held up his tray, piled with food I didn't recognize, but I didn't doubt they would be much more palatable than what I chose. "Here, I can share mine with you." An oddly-pleased expression hovered around his mouth.

We made our way to an empty table and sat down. I watched him fidget like a man with a secret.
"You planned on sharing this whole time," I guessed. "You knew I couldn't actually read those packets."
He grinned. "It was a hunch, but I guess I was right, and no harm done, true?"
I had to agree. The food tasted savory, even though it didn't look like much: white sticks that tasted like carrots, cottage-cheese curds that tasted like potatoes, and a bowl of smooth white cubes that tasted like chicken.
Marx glanced up as we ate. "Better than meatloaf?"
I crunched a "carrot" stick and answered, "Better than farran."
He chuckled. "What is meatloaf anyway? I mean, the meat part I understand, but what is a loaf?"
I shrugged. "That just means it's shaped like a loaf of bread."
"Of what?"
"You know," I gestured with my hands. "Bread; like, farran is a grain, right?"
Marx raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Yes..." He answered slowly.
"Well, has anybody ever dried it, ground it into flour, mixed it with sugar and water and stuff to make, like..." I wondered what word he would know, "cakes out of it?"
"Is that what they do with farran on your world?" Marx shook his head. "And all this time, people could only think of one use for it; amazing!" He took a bite of something purplish and grinned at me. "Tell me; what else does your planet have?"

We chatted for a good long while; I told him about hamburgers, Chinese take-out, and jelly beans. In return, he told me more about his background and how he ended up on the big space cruiser.

"I guess you could say fixing things is in my blood," he began.
I chuckled. "Let me guess, your dad was a mechanic?"

He shook his head. "No, dad was a doctor, a surgeon, actually; mom liked to tinker with things. She even ran a mechanic's garage out of our basement."

I smiled; a girl mechanic and a surgeon... This story was sounding familiar, I just couldn't think of it in the moment.

"Mom always let me tinker around down there while she worked. I had my dad's smarts and steady hands, coupled with my mom's natural understanding of the way things work, and enough sense to put it right again." Marx finished eating and set the bowl aside. "So anyway, one day I am in the shop alone, and this guy comes in looking to repair a calibrated reticulator from a Dragon-class CLX—of course, I can repair those things blindfolded. They’re my favorite pieces because all that needs to happen is one little thing wrong, and the whole thing crashes—but you fix that one little thing and she works beautifully.”

I nodded, the extensive terminology sailing right over my head. “Of course,” I echoed numbly.

Marx was just getting warmed up. “I recalibrated the wing joint and found a disconnected coolant hose, coupled with some general wear and tear that had fouled a few connections around the motor—the thing purred like a dimwatt in no time.”

I have to admit, I found his new vocabulary almost as astonishing as he found the ordinary things of my world. “So then what happened?” I prompted as he stopped to take a swig of his mystery beverage.

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