Veronica: I started thinking about when and where Thanksgiving might be celebrated in the far future of my interstellar civilization, the Sectors, and this little story came to mind. I hope you’ll enjoy!
Chef Stephanie leaned back in her desk chair on board the Nebula Zephyr and stretched. Finally a quiet afternoon, now that the last gourmet tour group had departed the ship. Of course there were still thousands of passengers who needed to be fed, but her next group of foodies wouldn’t arrive for a week. Plenty of time to test a few new recipes and plan intricate tasting menus. Today maybe she could finally spare a second to get to the bottom of the inventory mystery – why were they carrying pounds of flour and sugar beyond what was required?
And who had ordered solidified vegetable shortening of all things? “Who cooks with that antiquated substance?” She looked at the records on her AI but the name of the requisitioner was missing. She raised her eyebrows at the cost of the small quantity of the rare ingredient.
“I have a healthy budget but not generous to this extent,” she said, doing a doubletake.
The com pinged. “Yes?”
The caller was Owen Embersson, the ship’s cargo master and from the look of his stern face in the vid, he was pretty upset about something.
“You and I need to talk,” he said, his voice deep and raspy. “Now.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come to Cargo Deck A. Better bring someone to help you.”
“With what? What is that noise in the background?” She wondered if it was static on the com link, an oddly garbled noise like the call of an animal. “Is it your cat? Is she ok?”
“Moby’s fine. Your cargo may not be if you don’t get here in the next few minutes.” He signed off as the sound grew louder.
I didn’t order any special cargo. Annoyed but intrigued, she went in search of Richard, her Sous Chef de Cuisine. He denied all knowledge of any special deliveries but readily accompanied her through the ship to the cargo bay on deck seven.
As she stepped from the gravlift, her ears were assaulted by the loud animal noise, coming from multiple throats. There were feathers on the deck and a strange smell. Richard yanked her backward by the elbow as a large avian creature with a truly astounding fantail of brown and gray feathers ran by, squawking loudly, chased by both Moby and Midorri, the ship’s pets. Two of Owen’s crew were apparently trying to herd the creature into an empty crate, while the rest of the day shift stood by and laughed.
“Took you long enough,” Owen said. Fists on his hips, jaw clenched, he stared at the chaos on his deck caused by the still-fleeing bird. “You know you’re not allowed to bring livestock on board this ship without advance warning and proper documentation. What the seven hells were you thinking? My guys opened the crate and these things burst out. We’ve managed to chase down three of them but this last one is wily.”
Stephanie stifled a laugh, positive that showing her amusement at the unfolding situation would send the cargo master into a tirade. “I sympathize but I certainly didn’t order them.”
“You certainly did.” He handed her an AI, with the bill of lading displayed. Her name was in the authorizing party and the deliver to boxes.
Tilting the AI to show her sous chef, who raised his eyebrows, she shook her head. “Something is very wrong here.”
Owen moved faster than she’d ever seen him do before and grabbed the huge bird as it circled around the deck again. Caging the creature in his arms, he strode toward the livestock crate while his crew applauded. “Tell me about it,” he said over his shoulder.
There was a ping in her ear and Stephanie heard Maeve, the ship’s AI, using the channel only for senior officers.
“I can explain the situation to you and the Cargo Master,” she said in her usual cool tones.
Stephanie glanced at Owen, who’d handed his captive off to two crew members, and saw he was obviously receiving the same message.
“Not here,” Maeve went on. “In the kitchen. You’re needed there.”
“I have too much to do to take time off for a tour of the moon damned kitchen.” Owen’s voice was a roar as he brushed feathers from his uniform. “Do I look like a health inspector to you? Did someone assign me extra duties and forget to tell me?”
“This is essential or I wouldn’t make the request,” Maeve said, unfazed.
Stephanie held her breath, afraid to utter a sound.
Owen tilted his head and shut his eyes for a moment. “Essential.”
“Yes, Cargo Master.”
He called to his second in command. “You’re in charge. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Stephanie and Richard made their way to the kitchen, with the brooding bulk of the unhappy cargo master right behind. There was a small cluster of crew members waiting at the entrance to the food preparation area. They turned as Stephanie approached and she saw most were carrying odd parcels or items.
Owen sped up and cut around her, stepping to the side of his mate, Tyrelle, the ship’s special hydroponics officer. She was juggling several orange vegetables that looked large enough to be sentient. “What are you doing here?” he asked, taking the two most unwieldy items from her and bending to kiss her cheek.
“I brought the chef her pumpkins,” Tyrelle said. “I’ve been nurturing them especially, so they’d be ripe on this date.”
Has everyone on this ship gone mad today? Stephanie put a hand to her head. “I don’t even know what those are, much less did I request you to grow them.”
Tyrelle frowned. “But yes, you did. You put through a special written order and the packet of seeds – such odd flat seeds – were delivered to me a month ago. It required much energy from me and special nutrients to bring the vines and the flowers and then the pumpkins themselves to maturity so rapidly. I believe they must normally use a hundred or more of your standard days to become ready for consumption.”
“Either I’m losing my mind or someone is playing a practical joke,” Stephanie said, running her fingers through her hair and then rubbing her left temple, where a headache was growing. “Do the rest of you have odd food for me as well?”
There was a chorus of agreement. Meg Thomsill raised her voice. “Actually I have the rare spices you requested. My father had to jump through some serious hoops to get the one called cinnamon. He’ll be billing the ship for the effort and cost, no way around it.”
“No more hoops than I had to go through to persuade the elders on my planet to part with three pints of cranberries. Those are sacred on our world,” said Quint, the shuttle pilot. “They came with the First Ship settlers, when the colony was founded centuries ago. They don’t grow much of anywhere else. It’s a good thing I like you so much, chef. But I’ll be calling in a large favor for this.”
“If you would all please move into the small conference room,” Maeve said, projecting her voice through the AI ganglions located in every corner of the cruise ship. “I can explain.”
“What in the seven hells is going on here?” Chief security officer Jake Dilon arrived on the scene, Dr. Emily Shane right behind him.
“Don’t tell me – you brought me some delicacy too.” Stephanie sighed.
He raised the package clutched in his left hand. “Dried Azrigone venison strips, the finest quality the Varone family supplies, usually to generational billionaires, not cruise ship galleys. Mike Varone and I go way back, were in hell week during Special Forces advanced training together so I was able to sweet talk him into sending me some for quarter price, plus shipping. Even with the discount, the credits mounted up.”
“Conference room!” Maeve’s voice was sharp.
Stephanie took her place at the head of the table since the meeting was occurring in her domain. Richard took the seat to her right and the other crew members settled themselves, setting their bottles, packages and boxes on the highly polished Zulairian mahogany table.
Stephanie knocked on the wood. “Can we have quiet, please? First of all, I did not order any of these rare and expensive foodstuffs.” She raised her hand for silence as there was immediate protest.
The AI ganglion emitted a sharp whistle. “Chef Stephanie is right. I used her name to request everything you’ve brought.”
There was a moment of silence. “Why would you do that?” Stephanie asked.
“I wish to recreate the holiday of Thanksgiving as a surprise for Captain Fleming.”
A little ripple of shrugs and puzzled looks around the table.
“I think I’ve heard of it,” Meg said. “In the ancient history books. Some kind of celebration on old Terra?”
“Why would the captain care about that?” asked Owen.
“Captain Fleming is from an Original Colony,” the AI said. “The colonists brought many traditions and celebrations with them from the terrestrial home world, which are still celebrated even now, millennia later. I have prepared the menu and supplied recipes for the required dishes. They’ve been downloaded to your AI, Chef.”
She pulled out her personal AI and her sous chef peered over her shoulder as she read. “Turkey, stuffing, rolls, corn, pemmican, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. The list goes on.” Her voice trailed off and she flicked to the recipes. “How old were the documents you scanned? These instructions and ingredients are obscure, to say the least.”
Richard pointed. “Look, you need shortening for the pie crust. I guess now we know why we have a brick of it in stores.”
“Are those things in my cargo hold turkeys?” Owen asked, brow furrowed.
“Live turkeys?” Meg choked back a laugh. “Those’ll be hard to cook.”
“They are the closest living relatives to the terrestrial turkey, yes. I was unclear on the instructions for cooking but the record I chose began with instructions for handling the live turkeys of a certain size.” Maeve sounded stubborn.
“What’s pemmican?” asked someone.
Jake pushed his sealed packet to the center of the table. “It’s a form of venison.”
“I went to the oldest original source recipes I could find, in order to ensure the thoroughness and rigor of my research was complete,” Maeve said.
“It would be an exciting culinary challenge,” Stephanie said to Richard. “Recreating an ancient meal.”
“I can bless these turkeys for you and give them an honorable and painless death,” Tyrelle offered.
Jake raised a hand and the conversation stopped. “Captain Fleming is one of the most private men I ever met and the least likely to appreciate a surprise of any kind, let alone one relating to his home planet and costing the Nebula Zephyr thousands of credits. Why are we doing this, Maeve?”
Before the AI could answer, Stephanie spoke up. “We could make a trideo of the preparation process, put together a documentary special, if I could have some help from the social media staff person. Depending on whether we had leftovers, we could offer it as a special, one time only event on the next leg of the cruise. We are renowned for our cuisine.” Thanks to my efforts. “Recoup at least some of the costs, charge it to the business. The Purser would approve.”
“I could help with the trideo arrangements,” Meg said.
“I maintain my own account as a registered sentient,” Maeve reminded them. “I intend to pay my fair share.”
Jake was undeterred in his quest to get to the bottom of the situation. “But again, and with all due respect, why are we doing this in the first place?”
“Captain Fleming is a human being.”
“Well, yes that’s a given.” Jake sounded impatient. “And?”
“This crew is his family, in a sense, and the holiday is about family, as I understand the history.” Maeve fell silent. “I will explain further to Jake and Tyrelle alone.”
“All right.” Jake rose, taking charge. “The rest of you are dismissed. Please take your contributions to the kitchen stores, wherever Chef Stephanie wants them. The Purser will be in touch regarding reimbursement where necessary.”
“They’ll be invited to the dinner with the Captain,” Maeve said.
“Only if it isn’t going to be a career limiting event.” Jake’s voice was flat. “I’m not convinced yet.”
Stephanie stayed put. “I think since my name was used under false pretenses, I’m entitled to hear the explanation. And if I’m to cook a special meal for the captain, I need to know why. Cooking isn’t just a ‘follow the numbers, throw the ingredients in a pot’ process. Food is emotion, comes from the heart, at least when I’m preparing a special meal.”
“Stay then. I’m convinced.” Jake sat down and toyed with the personal AI, studying the recipes. The portal slid shut behind all the departing crew members and Tyrelle moved to sit next to Stephanie and him. “We’re waiting.”
“I will not breach the captain’s confidence nor tell his business,” Maeve said. “I am concerned about him, however. He recently received the news that his only remaining family member, a younger half-brother, was killed on active duty in Sector 112. The body was not recovered. There was no memorial service other than the ceremonial reading of the name at Special Forces Command. This has hit Captain Fleming very hard. You are aware, I believe, Tyrelle?”
Stephanie glanced at the officer, her curiosity aroused.
Tyrelle exchanged glances with Jake. “Based on the – based on certain indicators, yes, I have been aware. I believe the captain is stronger than you estimate, Maeve, but I’m supportive of this dinner idea. We can remind him he is cared for and in a family of sorts. The Zephyr has certainly become that for me as well, so I understand.”
Stephanie knew there were secrets about the Zephyr, things she wasn’t privy to. Truth be told, she really didn’t want to be. The kitchen was her empire and she was happy there. Obviously Jake and Tyrelle shared some of the darker knowledge.
“All right, then we’ll do it.” Jake flashed her a smile. “Assuming you’re willing to try cooking in accordance with those ancient recipes Maeve unearthed?”
“Yes, of course. Are we inviting anyone else to the dinner? How many am I cooking for?”
“I’ll give you a list,” Maeve said. “After Jake approves the names.”
He looked relieved at the AI’s compromise. “And we’ll tell no one else about the captain’s brother, not even the other dinner guests, nor will we indicate we know, right?”
“I keep no secrets from Owen,” Tyrelle said. “But he will keep this one to the death. He and I owe the captain everything.”
“And I’m guessing Emily already knows, as ship’s doctor, but of course she couldn’t tell me. I won’t need to discuss it with her. No problem.” Jake waved a hand. “Are we done here?”
“When does the dinner need to be held?” Stephanie asked.
“Why am I not surprised? At least we’re in between gourmet groups so I have my special kitchen crew available for the task.”
“The captain is on his way,” Maeve said. “I told him there’s a tense situation in this room.”
Stephanie nodded in the direction of the AI ganglion and surveyed the table with a critical eye. She thought her staff had outdone themselves, figuring out how to make the ancient recipes work with modern techniques and substituting current ingredients where there was no availability of what the formula called for. The platters and bowls of food all smelled mouthwatering, and the pies waiting on the side table were beautifully formed, the crusts just browned to the perfect point.
The portal slid open to allow the captain to step inside and Stephanie led the small crowd in a cheer of “Surprise!”
Fleming paused in midstep, frowning, his gaze going immediately to Jake and Owen as the senior officers present. Stephanie and Tyrelle walked forward to intercept him.
“We’ve taken the liberty of preparing what we believe to be a fairly good reproduction of the ancient Thanksgiving feast served on your home planet. At least according to Maeve,” Stephanie said. “As we understand it, this day is for gathering with friends and family and remembering the things we’re thankful for. We wanted to honor you.” When preparing her little speech, she’s decided the less said the better. Keep it simple.
She thought for a moment Fleming might retreat, his normal deep reserve threatened by this open display of caring from people on the crew who’d known him the longest, like Chief Takkei and Jake, and others who were newer to his command, like Tyrelle and herself.
Tyrelle extended one graceful hand. “Come, won’t you take your place at the head of the table, sir?”
He gave her a half bow and tucked her hand into his bent elbow. “I would be honored. Please, sit down everyone.”
Eyeing the dishes as he walked with Tyrelle, he said, “Is that turkey? And cranberry sauce?”
“A version of it, sir,” Stephanie answered. “Quint did his best to get real cranberries for us and Maeve found genetic descendants of Terran turkeys. Everyone pitched in on obtaining the necessary ingredients.”
He helped Tyrelle into her seat next to Owen and waited for Stephanie to sit on the other side before he took his own place. All eyes turned to him as he cleared his throat for a moment. No one had ever seen him at a loss for words. “I haven’t seen a meal like this since I was a boy. I don’t think anyone has. My family had a ritual, we’d go around the table and share what we were thankful for. I’ll start – I’m very grateful for this good ship and for the crew – and Maeve – who fly her with me. A man couldn’t ask for better comrades.” He nodded at Stephanie and she voiced her thanks for her staff.
So it went around the table and when Tyrelle had spoken her piece, thanking the crew of the Zephyr for saving her life and giving her a home, and it was Fleming’s turn again, he picked up the carving fork and knife and said, “Thank you to everyone who had a hand in putting this special meal together for us to share this evening. Now, the question is – white meat or dark?”
Copyright 2016 by Veronica Scott