A Cooks’ Tale
J. Alan Veerkamp © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Is it true there aren’t any heteros on board your ship?” Erron Murfin leaned forward in the darkened diner.
The ruggedly handsome man sitting across from Erron was softly lit by the amber glow emanating from the table’s frosted acrylic surface. Dark stubble lined Erron’s dining partner’s jaw in perfect rhythm with the subtle, yet masculine facial lines that hinted at a man not afraid of an honest day’s work. A touch of predator in the other man’s blue eyes, the last bit of food passed his lips. The meal had been simple but well crafted. Erron couldn’t recognize any synthesized food.
Being outside the main dinner hours, the diner was sparse with patrons. The walls were painted in dusky colors with a soft metallic luster. Soft murmurs of conversation were audible if one bothered to listen, but Erron tuned it out, focusing on the dirty-blond alpha male across from him. The examination from across the table was intense, but he wasn’t unnerved by the attention. It only served to amplify his curiosity.
Captain Danverse swallowed and answered. “No hetero, no female. That’s the rule.”
Erron cocked his head. “No female, either? Aren’t you afraid of being labeled a misogynist or tagged as a discriminatory employer?”
“I’ve been called that before.” Danverse didn’t seem the slightest bit ashamed of the fact. “When I set up my crew, I made the ship open to everyone at first, but we had problems. A female passenger walked in on a group of my boys fooling around in the shower. They said they didn’t approach her and I believe them, but she felt threatened enough as the only woman on board to lodge a formal complaint that almost cost me my ship. A lot of my crew have nowhere else to go and we all nearly lost our homes. I had to make a hard choice and keep things simple. No gender issues. No orientation conflicts. I wanted to populate my ship with men who worked hard and enjoyed each other’s company when the voyages were long. Same rules apply to the occasional passenger. It wasn’t the most progressive decision I’ve ever made, or popular, but I believed it necessary at the time.”
“Almost ten years later, I have my boy at my side, I have a life I love, and I work with my best friend and adopted family. I always believed that you don’t fuck with it if it isn’t broken. But I may be willing to rethink it down the line.”
Danverse lifted his glass and took a solid sip of the dark whiskey. “But I’m not here to be interviewed for a job. You are.” A soft, growling laugh rolled off the captain.
Erron worked to keep his smirk from flaring into a full grin. “You’re right. Ask away. What would you like to know?”
“First off”—glass still in hand, Danverse pointed at Erron—“why is the no-hetero rule so important to you?”
The smirk flattened as memories raced to the surface. Erron ran a hand through his shock of jade-green hair and settled back into his chair. Studying the captain, he decided how forthcoming he was going to be. The pain was still there, fresh and raw, but there was little to be done about it.
“I could use a break from the majority these days.” If he thought Danverse was paying close attention before, it now appeared his interest had quadrupled. The captain’s scrutiny was palpable.
“Boyfriend dumped you?” Danverse seemed to notice the sudden flush in Erron’s cheeks. Without responding, Erron knew he’d revealed the truth. “You didn’t know he was bi?”
Erron glanced away into a dark corner. “Not until he announced his engagement to her.”
Erron shrugged in a feeble attempt to shed the past. There was still the sharp pinch of loss in his chest whenever he relived what happened. If he wanted this job, he knew he wouldn’t be able to brush this off. However, facing Danverse while he told his tale wasn’t an option. If there was pity in the captain’s eyes, he didn’t have to witness it.
“I worked with him at the restaurant his father owned. We kept things quiet. We didn’t want the rest of the staff thinking I was getting preferential treatment. I thought everything was great until the announcement. When she found out about me, she insisted I be let go. Little overprivileged bitch.”
“She must have been quite a prize.”
Erron snorted. “Trophy is the word that comes to mind. Too pretty, too whiny, and seemed like the type who’d been told since she was a little girl how much better she was than everyone else. Toby’s father arranged their meeting, and her family was obscenely wealthy. It was all a business deal for him. He sacked me in a heartbeat and didn’t even flinch.
“To top things off, when she found out he owned the building I lived in, she had me evicted. I’ve been living off my savings since.” Erron drew a long, slow inhale. It wasn’t just being thrown away that pained him so badly. The whole experience had made him more bitter and worthless than he’d been in his entire life. Not having the slightest clue of what was happening behind his back left him feeling profoundly stupid. It was the sort of thing that happened to a wide-eyed teenager, not a man in his early thirties.
“When did this happen?”
He rolled his eyes upward as he counted backward on his mental calendar. “About three months ago.”
“Where have you been living?” A scowl was forming on Danverse’s face, and Erron shrank in his seat.
“In some of the shittiest inns the spaceport has to offer.”
“No friends to stay with?”
Erron shook his head. “Apparently, they took Toby’s side after the breakup. It must be much nicer to rub elbows with a wealthy socialite than an unemployed, homeless cook.”
“What about family?”
“It was just me and my mom, but she didn’t survive the Centauri Civil War.” Erron shrugged. “That seems like a long time ago.”
Unconsciously, Erron crossed his arms over his chest, but not for warmth. Danverse’s visible displeasure increased as he heard more about Erron’s state of affairs. The more he said, the worse the expression became, and Erron was convinced the job opportunity was fading faster and faster.
“So what made you apply for our cook’s position?”
“Needed a job and came across the Subspace Link ad. I did a little research on the Santa Claus. It looked like a good fit for me, and when I found out Gamin was part of the crew, I had to take a shot.”
Danverse’s brow perked. “You know our head chef?”
“Yeah. He was my mom’s best friend when I was a kid. I never knew my dad, and he was the next thing to a father back then. They had some major falling out back when I was nineteen, and he stopped coming around. Mom never said what. Then the civil war broke out, and in all the craziness, we lost touch. I didn’t even know he was alive until I found your advert. I figured I needed a fresh start, and touching base with him was something I should have done ages ago.”
Danverse’s stare intensified as the pause extended into a long, uncomfortable moment. Erron fidgeted in his seat as he envisioned his employment hunt begin again.
“Assuming I take you on, the job is every day, three meals a day. You’ll have downtime, but not days off, except when we’re in port. Gamin would be your direct superior, but there is still a chain of command. Living on board isn’t a pleasure cruise, but it’s not a bad life. The crew is like a small town. We’re in each other’s business, and we always look out for each other. I don’t have a tolerance for people who can’t play well with others.”
Erron’s eyes widened. Why was he telling him this? Surely, the captain wasn’t saying yes?
“It sounds perfect. I’m not afraid of hard work, and Gamin’s the reason I became a cook in the first place. Cooking makes me happy. I’m still waiting for you to tell me the downside.”
Danverse’s frown shifted into a sly grin. “Right now, I don’t think I’m seeing one.”
“Are you saying I can have the job?” Erron’s voice peaked as he fought to control the excitement rising in his chest. There was no doubt he wanted the job, but he didn’t want it to be so horrifically obvious.
“Can you be at Landing Bay Gamma Seven One tomorrow by 09:00 hours? We’ll be in port for about a week, but I can have my security chief get you settled in before we ship out.”
The smile on Erron’s face made his cheeks ache. He was so elated. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to be on the verge of tears. “You’re Goddamn right I can be there.”
Danverse lifted his glass in salute. “Well then, Mr. Murfin. Welcome to the crew.”
Erron looked down at the synthesized protein masquerading as eggs on his plate. How this diner justified serving this travesty was beyond him. Even the smell was wrong. It was nothing like the meal he had eaten during his interview yesterday. He picked at the unyielding rubber surface with his utensil and promptly set it down on the table. There was no way he was eating this. The triangle of toast was passable. At least they had real bread. It wasn’t helping to settle his stomach, though, because his nerves were so on edge.
This diner in the spaceport was close to the Santa Claus’s landing bay. It was really the only reason he had chosen it. It certainly wasn’t for the four-star cuisine. At least from his seat, the anti-grav pallet was visible, holding the crates with all his worldly possessions. Erron had packed as soon as he’d returned to his room the day before. When he’d realized he couldn’t sleep worth a damn, he had given up trying. Now he had time to burn before his appointment. He wasn’t sure if showing up too early was good or not. He didn’t want to seem too eager.
Captain Danverse had told him he’d meet with his security chief for his indoctrination. There was a ship tour, procedures to go over, and a work contract to sign. Two years off planet wasn’t really so long. From what he’d researched, most crew members extended their contracts multiple times, so the Santa Claus couldn’t be that bad. On the plus side, he’d be allowed to cook for others again. That might make up for most shortcomings. Erron was fairly confident he was doing the right thing. Fairly.
It wasn’t as if he had much choice. He needed the job. When the server brought the bill for his breakfast—rather than call it a travesty—he cringed when he pressed his finger to the DNA ID scanner. If there hadn’t been enough credits in his account, he would have been in trouble.
He didn’t know why he continued to sip at the bitter, burned coffee. It certainly wasn’t doing his stomach any favors. The diner was stocked with a fair number of customers. Apparently, being cheap overrode the food quality in this establishment. Erron mentally kicked himself. Being a food snob was one thing, but being an elitist ass was something else. These people probably hadn’t spent three months living in shitty hotels.
The patrons seemed mostly working class, enjoying their breakfasts. No doubt some were station regulars, who chatted with the servers and cook with a family-like familiarity. A warm camaraderie filled the place and that made Erron smaller somehow. What he wouldn’t give to belong somewhere. He’d lost that when Toby hadn’t even fought for him as he was fired and evicted.
It wasn’t fair. Erron thought he’d had everything: a loving partner, a job he excelled at, and a promising future. All of it scrubbed away without so much as an acknowledgement of regret on Toby’s part. A young man and woman walked into the diner and sat at the counter, holding hands the entire time. The ache in his chest twisted deeper. Fucking heteros.
The coffee had long since gone cold, but somehow it tasted better that way, so he waved off the server when she tried to refill the mug. Erron looked at the time glowing in amber numbers on the wall. An hour more, then he’d start his new life.
The door hissed open as an older woman in filthy, tattered clothes shuffled into the diner. The staff ignored her from the moment she stepped across the threshold. Perhaps they knew better than to engage her. Erron was about to follow their example when her gray stare suddenly bore down on him.
With a stern purpose, she strode over to his table. Erron startled when she clamped her dirty hand on his wrist. He pulled back slightly, but her grip was firmer than he expected.
“You’ve lost someone very close to you.” Her voice was raspy, and Erron couldn’t help but look into her glassy eyes.
“That’s a little vague.”
“You’re about to travel a great distance.” She continued to speak as if she was barely aware of his response.
Erron’s brow furrowed. “I am in a spaceport.”
“Someone will be on board that you thought you’d lost long ago.”
Surprise froze Erron in his seat. Gamin was on board. It had been years since they’d laid eyes on one another. Part of the gnawing at his gut was whether Gamin would be happy to see him or not. Erron had given up a long time ago asking his mother about what happened between them. She took the story to her grave. He loved his mother and missed her, but he’d never completely forgiven her for it either.
“You think you’ve lost the ability to love another, but you’ll find it on board once again.”
Words refused to form when Erron opened his mouth. A psi on this side of the galaxy? He’d never met one before. Para-humans were few and far between. What were the chances she was telling him his future? She stood silent as he pondered. It wasn’t so much that he believed her. Deep down, he just really wanted to.
“Do you see anything else?” Erron’s response was timid and quiet.
Her rough voice managed to coo. “Of course, child. It’ll cost you ten credits.”
Erron’s trance was broken by the sound of snickering in the diner. A chubby, greasy man in a gray coverall and cap sat at the counter looking back at him with the broadest grin.
“Myrna’s caught another one.”
The regulars burst into laughter. Even the old woman still attached to his wrist was beginning to smile. Heat simmered in his face and along the edges of his ears as the others reveled at their inside joke at his expense. He jerked out of Myrna’s hold as she cackled. Erron felt so stupid. Of course, she wasn’t psychic. She was a practical joker or con artist. It was one of the oldest carnival tricks in history and these people were in on it.
“Sons of bitches can all bugger off.”
Snatching his cap off the table, Erron stalked out of the diner, acutely aware of the mocking laughs and stares directed his way. He slammed his hat on his head, crushing his emerald hair as he approached his pallet. Fuming, he checked the straps holding his crates in place with a few rough tugs. Once he was convinced they were secure, he powered up the device. The metal skid hummed to life, floating a half meter from the floor. He grabbed the handle and pulled his pack toward the dock.
If Erron had had any doubts before, they were gone now. He couldn’t wait to get off this fucking planet.
Another hour passed before anyone arrived at Landing Bay Gamma Seven One to allow Erron access to the dock. He’d been early and wondered how long he’d have to wait. The scene in the diner had ramped up his impatience to an unexpected level. With one hand still towing the skid containing his belongings, Erron straightened his navy-blue cap by the weathered brim. He squared his shoulders as he took a deep breath, waiting for the heavy blast door to ratchet itself open and give him his first look at his future home.
The Santa Claus was enormous. The metal hull was dirty and worn but looked powerfully built. It dwarfed the endless landing bay, and Erron was surprised a vessel of this size still landed on-planet instead of shuttling down from orbit. From his research and the captain’s conversation, Erron knew the decommissioned ship had once housed over a hundred soldiers while transporting supplies and vehicles. For the thirty or so current members of the crew, it must be fairly spacious. After the civil war, the Santa Claus had been purchased by Captain Danverse and populated primarily with a host of men whose military contracts had been bought out after being marked redundant. Since then, they’d traveled the planetary cluster surrounding Alpha Centauri’s binary star.
At the far end of the craft, a small group of spaceport workers appeared to be unloading from one of the cargo bays at the ship’s rear. Erron didn’t see anyone else to ask where he was supposed to go next, so these guys were as good an option as any. As he pulled the anti-grav pallet in the direction of the workers, Erron jumped and skidded himself to a halt as a hatch sprang open near the base of the Santa Claus. A set of stairs telescoped to the floor.
A large man chuckled at the top of the steps. “Anxious to get on board?” His head was shaved to the point of stubble, matching the growth framing his jaw. Dark eyes and a wide smile made Erron look twice. Strong and confident as he descended the steps, the man wore a snug T-shirt and breeches lined with pockets down the side. He was thick and muscular with a bit of padding around the waist. Obviously, the man knew his way around the gym but enjoyed his food as well.
“Just a little.” Erron laughed. “You must be Sergeant Jacks.”
His heavy boots touched down as he took Erron’s smaller hand in his own. “Sorry. I’m Corporal Barrus Ryner. Second in command with regards to security. Sergeant Jacks and his partner had an urgent doctor’s appointment. It was kind of sudden. You must be the new cook.”
“Erron Murfin. Nice to meet you, Corporal Ryner. I hope nothing’s wrong with Sergeant Jacks or his partner.”
“Call me Barrus. I’m sure he’ll be fine. You’ll meet Hadrian soon enough and see for yourself. As one of the cooks, you get to meet every one of our little family up close and personal.”
Barrus reached into one of the large pockets on his thigh and pulled out a small handheld scanner. He held it up to Erron.
“Sorry. Need a DNA ID before we get any further. Liam will have my hide if I don’t follow procedure.”
Erron nodded and passed his hand over the device. The panel turned green, and his personal information scrolled over the screen. Barrus scanned the text, no doubt confirming his employment.
“So, Erron. You’re single?”
Erron pulled the rim of his cap lower as he tried to hide the heat creeping into his face. There had been a little too much of that lately. “All that info and that’s the part that caught your eye?”
The deep bass of Barrus’s laugh only made it worse.
“On a ship full of non-heteros, it’s always good to know.” Barrus stepped over to the skid trailing behind Erron. “This is your stuff? It doesn’t seem like very much.”
Erron couldn’t disguise the wince. The few crates on the pallet were a sad testament to his story. When he had been evicted, he’d barely been given the time to gather what effects he had managed to collect before his ID access had been revoked. Once you added in the items reminding Erron of Toby—that strangely found their way into the incinerator—there wasn’t much left of his former life.
“I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
Erron looked up to find a confused security officer in front of him. Barrus cupped Erron’s shoulder with a warm hand as his brow twisted in a sad reflection of Erron’s memories. It was the first real sympathy he’d received since his dismissal and eviction.
“No. It’s just a touchy subject.”
“Bad breakup, huh?”
Erron’s closed his eyes in embarrassment. “Is that written on my forehead? Captain Danverse said the same thing.”
“You’re not the first disenfranchised crew member we’ve ever brought on.” Barrus smiled warmly, patting Erron’s back. He scratched at his coarse chin as he regarded the skid. “Any idea if this thing can ride up a stairwell? Otherwise, we’ll have to go in through the cargo hold, and it’s a little crowded with the offloading right now.”
“It’s held up this long somehow. Let’s give it a shot.”
With a little work, the pair managed the skid up the stairs and worked their way to the lift leading to Beta deck and Erron’s quarters.
“This is you. Room 235. Your DNA ID is already uploaded so just touch the panel to open the door.”
Chewing his lower lip, Erron tried to contain his excitement as he laid a finger on the black access panel next to his door. The door slid open with a heavy hiss, and he took a slow step across the threshold. With the exception of a double-sized bed in one corner and a built-in desk along the outer wall, the room was bare. The metal walls were dull and unadorned but obviously clean. It was a simple, uncluttered blank canvas. Perfect.
“There’s plenty of storage in the wall panels and you have refrigerated storage for drinks and snacks. You have complete Subspace Link access, and a connection to an extended library of books and vids is part of the entertainment system. Your security clearance will be limited at this point, and we need to get your voiceprint on file for Mrs. Claus. She’s the ship’s AI. Once we get you set up, there will be a number of things we have to do to get you indoctrinated. We don’t ship out for another five days, but I figured you’d want to unpack first before we get into of that.”
“What? We don’t start with the ritual spankings?”
Barrus laughed out loud. “You’re gonna get along fine here.”
“Actually, I was wondering if I could see the kitchen. I can unpack any time, and let’s be honest”—Erron looked back at the pallet hovering in the hallway—“it’s not going to take that long.”
Barrus shrugged. “All right. I suppose I’d better get you acquainted with how to get to work. Meals are serious business around here.”
“I can tell. You’re a big boy. It looks like you can put away quite a bit in one sitting.”
“I believe in enjoying everything that’s set in front of me.” For a moment, Barrus’s smile was almost…hungry? For green-haired men? “Come on. I’ll take you on the tour.”
Erron took a proper moment to assess the security officer. He was a little rough around the edges but charming. Erron was fairly sure Barrus was flirting, but his experience with Toby had left him doubting his instincts. It would be nice to get some honest attention for a change.
“It’s good to get you in here now so you won’t get mobbed by the crew. They do love the new boys.”
Erron laughed out loud. “I bet.”
“I can’t wait to introduce you to James. I think you two will hit it off well.”
“My husband. The ship’s supply officer. You’ll work with him a lot to maintain food inventories and budgets.”
Barrus’s husband. Of course. The chatting was completely harmless. It was probably for the best anyways. The last thing Erron needed was a romance before he’d even gotten off planet. Eyes up and off his ass, Erron. He called himself ridiculous as they exited the lift and headed for the mess hall.
“The kitchen’s this way.”
Erron followed his escort through the rows of simple dining tables and around the empty food-service counter. With the crew on leave, no meal prep was required and there wasn’t any real expectation of running into anyone else. It gave him a chance to absorb his new surroundings. Erron wished a private inspection of the facility were possible but thought it too soon to expect Barrus to let him run around unsupervised. He could save that for another time.
When they rounded the open doorway into the galley, Erron stopped. Standing in front of an open cupboard, there he was.
“Gamin.” Erron’s word held no volume, cut silent by a loss of breath to power it.
He was bigger than Erron remembered and a little rounder. It suited him. His big, beefy frame matched the tight close crop of his hair and beard peppered with gray. Erron’s mouth dried as his nerves sizzled. Engrossed in what looked like an inventory list on his com, he had yet to notice the pair’s entrance.
Barrus broke the quiet. “Gamin, I have someone here for you to meet.”
Gamin looked up from his work and his face shifted in confusion. Anxious heat rose in Erron’s chest as the chef stood up tall and his expression flattened. It was impossible to read what he was thinking. How long had it been? Was taking this position a giant mistake? Gamin’s focus was fixed on Erron. He didn’t know what to make of it.
“Erron?” Gamin’s voice had the same warm rumble he remembered, bringing back a host of memories, good and bad. All of them made him feel like a little kid again.
Barrus looked between the two. “You two know each other?”
“It’s been a few years.” The tremor in his Erron’s voice came out on its own as Gamin walked toward him.
“More than a few.”
Erron wanted to wither as Gamin approached. The man was large enough the last time he saw him, and years later, he still dwarfed him.
Gamin blinked over and over, struggling to say something. “How’s your mom, Erron?”
“She died in a raid during the war.”
Gamin frowned. “Shit. I’m really sorry to hear it. What are you doing here?”
Barrus pointed a thumb at Erron. “Erron’s your new cook, Gamin.”
Gamin looked vaguely dumbstruck. “You’re going to be living on board?”
Erron nodded, feeling the deep crease between his eyes. Perhaps this wasn’t the most brilliant plan. Gamin looked almost menacing as he towered over him. He felt lost again, like when Toby had turned on him, and this time there was no other option. He had nowhere else to go. Erron wanted to find a hole and cry himself into it.
Without warning, Gamin snatched Erron into a crushing hug that pushed his hat to the floor.
“I missed you so much, boy.” Speaking into Erron’s temple, Gamin’s voice was coarse and his arms shook. “I thought I’d never lay eyes on you again.”
Caught by surprise, it took Erron a few moments to register what was really happening. When he did, he buried himself in the powerful embrace and returned it in kind. Surrounded by warmth and Gamin’s comforting arms, Erron tried not to burst into tears. His long-lost father figure had welcomed him home.
Gamin pulled back and kissed Erron squarely on the forehead. “I can’t believe you’re here.” He squeezed Erron tighter as his words were sauced with a belly of laughter. His smile was so radiant, he looked ready to explode.
“For the foreseeable future.” Erron was so relieved.
“We just got him on board. Do you want to finish his tour, Gamin? We came straight here from his quarters.” Barrus’s comment startled Erron. So engrossed in the reunion, he’d half forgotten about his escort. Turning to answer Barrus, Erron found him misty-eyed, grinning as he watched the two.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
Barrus shook his head. “You two look like you have some catching up to do. Gamin can com me when you’re finished so we can take care of the bureaucratic stuff.”
Gamin beamed. “Thank you, Barrus. I’ll make sure there’s something special for you on the next meal service. Something sweet.”
“See? Everybody wins.” Barrus waved as he strode out of the mess hall. “Go ahead, boys. I’ll see you later.”
Gamin shifted until he stood at Erron’s side, an arm around his shoulder, as they watched Barrus exit. He kept pressing into him and Erron’s fears washed away in such a rush it left him wheezing.
“Are you all right?” Gamin palmed the side of Erron’s face. “What’s the matter?”
Erron flushed at the paternal attention. “I was afraid you didn’t want to see me.”
“Never.” Gamin pulled him back into the hug. “You just startled me. I couldn’t believe it was you. The green hair threw me a little, but I like it. It matches your eyes.”
With a roaring laugh bordering on giddy, Gamin embraced Erron, lifting him off his feet, then set him back down. Erron never remembered being this happy before. Not even with Toby. This was a good thing. Once again alongside Erron, Gamin ushered him around the kitchen.
“Okay, boy. Let’s show you around. There’s a lot to see in your new home. Welcome to the Santa Claus.”