Alien A La Carte

A sneak peak at part of Chapter 1 of Alien A La Carte! Bon-Appetit!

LizaRose Alderson

Chapter 1—In Space No One Can Hear You Burn the Toast

The smell of burnt toast assailed Bae’s senses. He collided awkwardly with the edge of the portal and ricocheted backwards into Theta Station. 

His immediate thought, I’m having a stroke! gave way to Cool it, the suit sensors would have alerted me. His ungainly trajectory floated him farther into the station. Must be what all space stations smell like. Maybe it’s hot cables or pump oil or something. Bae wasn’t an engineer, and wasn’t sure what could make such a smell, but as he got farther in, there was no mistaking it: charred bread. What clinched it was the waft of smoke coming from the hatch at the end of the corridor, further reinforced by the station fire alarms. 

Fire on a space station is no joke. Sprinklers can’t be used to extinguish it; water and electricity don’t mix. Neither can carbon dioxide; there’s limited air supply and scrubbing capacity. Foam is a mess, and so are dry sprinklers. The cold, hard vacuum of space is the preferred extinguisher, but only for fires in small areas; you’re back to that limited air supply issue. So an automated response is no good in a space station, in case someone happens to be in the fire zone at the time. The only thing worse than a fire on a space station is being exposed to a vacuum! 

Two station personnel, firefighters judging by their bright orange jumpsuits, swam arm over arm along the corridor’s emergency ladder, brushing past Bae with enough force that he careened into the wall, earning an annoyed glance from one. 

Showing off my leaden feet again! Bae frowned. He hadn’t been in space for long, and it had been some time since he qualified for zero-g. He flailed around a bit and, managing to grab onto a ladder rung, headed gingerly in the direction the firefighters had gone.

When Bae got to the hatch, he saw them just hanging out there in the middle of the room laughing, so he assumed there was no cause for alarm. Sure enough, floating in front of them was a blackened mess of bread, and a man with smudges of black ash darkening his light brown skin. Bae recognized him as Arjun Chatwal, the very man he had come to see. This didn’t bode well for Bae’s future! 

Still, this was his big chance, so he squared his shoulders, put on a brave face, and thrust out his hand to Arjun. Of course, Bae misjudged the motion, and by moving too quickly was thrust backwards, slightly out of Arjun’s grasp. The firefighters barked out their amusement, causing Bae a moment of embarrassment.

Arjun tried to put him at ease. “Bae! Glad you could make it.”

“Glad to be here,” Bae said, and meant it.

“Gentlemen, this is Bae Sang-moon. He’s come up for an interview.”

The firemen laughed again—they seemed a jolly pair—and the burly one said, “Thank heavens.”

The other man, whose slight frame suggested a career as a jockey rather than a fireman, grinned and said, “Well, good luck! We could do with a new cook around these parts.” He threw one last grin at Arjun before the two of them floated over to the hatch.

Bae wasn’t sure what to make of all this, but Arjun shook it off and drew him toward him slightly. He let go of Bae’s hand and said, “Come this way, to the kitchen, where we’re less likely to be interrupted. I’m glad you arrived when you did. You see, although I own a chain of restaurants, I don’t actually cook. In fact, I’m pretty bad at it… as you can see.” He gestured to the still floating “toast.” “I need a good man to come in as head chef here at Awooga. Well, as only chef, really. It’s a pretty small outfit here, as you can imagine, so I was really pleased to see your resumé there in the batch. Bae Sang-moon: xeno-nutritionist, journeyman chef, zero-g trained. Impressive. Now, how would you like to do a demonstration for me so I can see what a whiz you are in the kitchen? Then we can decide if you’d like the job, and discuss pay and so forth. Sound good?” Arjun took a deep breath and appeared to be about to launch into more long-windedness.

Bae was in over his head. He had expected time to get his bearings, be shown around the kitchen, spend the night getting used to the idea of zero-g again, and then do the show-and-tell portion of the interview, but he was going into the deep end, headfirst.

Once Bae was able to get a word in, he tried to clarify his position. “Well, I was hoping for a tour of the facilities first—kitchen, station dining area, and so forth? Maybe even see what the competition is like?”

“Ha ha haaaa,” Arjun started to laugh.

Puzzled, Bae asked him, “What’s so funny?”

“You really don’t understand, do you? Did you see any other restaurants around here? This is a way station for asteroid miners and resource shuttles to and from the local moon colonies at Saturn and Jupiter. Basic rations are the only competition. This is the first time they’ve ever allowed a private company to come onto the station, but they wanted a bit of home away from home and thought food was the way to go. I had to pull some strings for Awooga to be a going concern, but I knew a few people, and here we are. So the only thing I need to know, really, is can you cook in zero-g? I can certainly show you the kitchen, but honestly, there’s not much else to show you. You’re in the restaurant right now. Of course, if you need a little time to freshen up, I can give you an hour or two. Then we need to get started. I’m seeing three other chefs today, and we open next week so it’s pretty urgent.”

Now Bae was concerned. The restaurant was the only show in town, but it seemed he would have competition for the job, especially if they had zero-g experience. He hadn’t seen anyone on the shuttle coming up, but they could be here already. 

“Okay, give me ten to freshen up.”

Arjun pointed toward a small wash station a few metres past the hatch, and Bae pushed himself off gingerly in the direction of the facilities, such as they were.

Coming out of the restaurant, Bae bumped into one of the firefighters; both were still floating around in the corridor. They looked guiltily at each other. 

The smaller one thrust out a huge hand. “Welcome aboard, name’s Peter.”

“Hi,” Bae said, “but I’m not aboard yet.”

“Don’t you believe it!” said Peter. “Arjun has been trying to get a chef up here for three weeks, and he’s starting to panic. From what I could see, you’re the first who didn’t throw up your first time on the station, so I think you passed. And forget what he said—he’s only blustering. No one else is coming up this week that I know of. I guess you can cook, right?”

Bae nodded, surprised that Peter would open up to a stranger. 

So hopefully, this job is a shoo-in after all! Bae thought, somewhat relieved. Which means there must be something wrong with it. Well, I don’t care. If it’s a bit of a hardship, I can deal. I really want this jobit’s my last chance.

“Thanks, Peter, that takes a load off. But surely these guys knew that space adaptation wears off.”

“Apparently they didn’t want to stick around to find out. Look, we need a cook, anyone who can do better than Arjun. He must be great at hiring to be so successful in the restaurant industry. Heaven knows he’s right when he says he isn’t a cook himself—that’s the third toast fire this week!” Before floating off, Peter turned back. “But I didn’t tell you any of that!”

Bae smiled and nodded. Looks like I could get on here.

After a sponge bath, Bae did feel a bit fresher and quickly tried to come up with meal ideas that might impress Arjun. There was, of course, a soufflé: if done correctly, it would come out as a sphere. But in the end, Bae went for safe and decided steak might be the order of the day, but it would depend on what, if anything, the kitchen had on hand.

Returning to the room in which he had first met Arjun, Bae saw that the man was now “sitting” at one of the tables that lined the walls. A lap belt kept him in a sitting position so he could type on the keyboard in front of him without drifting away.

Arjun looked up. “Ah, Bae, are you ready, then?”

Arjun unclipped the belt and pushed off gracefully, and Bae tried to imitate the same nonchalant kicking motion to follow him. After a slight wobble, he corrected course and headed toward the portal in the centre of what appeared, to his mind at least, to be the floor. Being on Theta Station would take some getting used to. There was little gravity to speak of, and the station rotation was very slight, just enough to keep things at the outer walls if they drifted there, keeping the main tunnel free of debris that could otherwise interfere with the staff constantly drifting up and down. Off the main tunnel were the offices and meeting rooms used for business and trade, and at the far end were the military areas, a no-go for visitors. The restaurant tables sat at right angles to the main tunnel around the wall’s circumference, and a ringwall separated the two areas. A large portal lock hung open at this ring, making the whole thing look as though the door could be closed and the restaurant floated away if needed. Bae asked Arjun about it.

“Yes, you’re right, the restaurant is one entire module. The kitchen is on one end. Come and see—you’re going to love it. And then there’s the seating area. We were lucky we could convince them it was necessary, but humankind runs on a full stomach, you know. We’re going to wow them, you and I.” Arjun’s enthusiasm was as addictive as the tour was disorienting.

Bae’s eyes widened behind Arjun’s back—the man was speaking as though Bae was already employed. Hopeful indeed.

When they got into the kitchen, Bae’s disorientation continued. A wonderful shiny circular kitchen, with not a knife or other tool in sight. Except for the far end, every surface was silver and polished, looking as if it had never been used. The far end was a writhing mass of cables and ventilation ducts, much like the rest of the station. He wondered how the toast had been burned, as there was no sign of a toaster or grill. How is this going to work? he wondered. Bae turned to look at Arjun for a hint. 

Arjun grinned. “You like it?”

“Sure . . . and I’d probably love it if I could work out where everything was!” Bae replied.

“Here, let me show you.” Arjun was glowing with pride over the kitchen module.

Like in the dining area, the cabinets ran all the way around the periphery of the room, with a work area apparently suspended in the middle, looking again, Bae saw that it was extended out on an arm. The cabinets looked as though they had no doors; their shine hid any indications of where they began and ended, so finely fitted were they.

“You pass your hand below the cabinet rim and it opens,” said Arjun. “It’s for hygiene—means you don’t get dirty edges. It’s going to be hard to keep this place hygienic anyway, so anything helps.”

Bae rotated his position, head to toe with Arjun, so he could see below the plenum. There was a row of infrared sensors of the sort seen in public bathrooms. The sort that worked for about six weeks until they got covered in slime and then stopped. But that was in public, and this would be Bae’s kitchen. If I can keep my hands from touching them, they’ll be great for keeping the place clean.

He waved his hand to break the beam, and a door swung open. Bae’s heart leaped into his mouth. A complete set of pressure cookers in different sizes sat inside; these were essential for cooking in space when you can’t guarantee that the food will actually stay in contact with the pan. 

The next cabinet opened to reveal a set of safe slicers, the zero-g cook’s replacement for knives. These things were expensive. Usually, only the military had them. Makes sense—you don’t want sharp knives flying through the air by accident

On to the next one, which contained every cook’s hand gadget Bae could imagine. It was a heavenly kitchen. All the equipment had a wrist tether to keep it within reach, and a magnet to keep it in the cabinet.

But he hadn’t seen any food yet. 

“Where’s the food?”

Arjun gestured, and Bae noticed a remote control in his hand. “We’re standing on it.”

He pressed a button, and the cabinets swung forward and upward, and below them or behind them—it was hard to get your bearings here—was a second set of cabinets. These had the look of standard refrigerators and freezers, but again without handles. Bae waved his hand in a trial attempt to open them and got an approving look from Arjun. 

“You’ve got it already,” he said.

Bae looked and found fresh vegetables and meat. Where did all of this come from? It must have cost a fortune to ship it. Fresh meat didn’t come cheap up here, where everyone normally survived on dried food rations. Bae could see that, if everything else went well, this place could command top dollar whether or not he was a decent zero-g chef. A burnt steak would be better than some of the rations out there. 

Bae grinned at Arjun and he grinned back. They were on the same page.

“How did you do all this?”

“I greased a few palms and promised a few captains a real meal, and they couldn’t say no. Like it?” Before Bae could answer, he continued, “plus, the hydroponics folks did us a few favours. We won’t have a huge throughput, not like a restaurant on Earth, but we’ll earn top dollar if you’re as good as I hope.”

Bae loved it. But there was that nagging doubt again. Can I do this? Can I prove myself and not screw up? Well, this is going to be one hell of a hard test, but yes, I can do this. So, steak, sous vide, with a mushroom sauce might work. The key thing for Bae was always nutrition first, and with real food that wouldn’t be an issue. Typically the dried stuff in rations was only good for so long and irradiation didn’t help, but with fresh food a bit of irradiation helped to keep the bugs down and the food fresh. It was a win-win.

There was only one tiny problem: Bae had never actually cooked in zero-g before. He knew the theory; he just wasn’t sure he could pull it off. But if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get another chance to be space borne. With his blood pressure issue, he had been lucky to even get this far. Bae was out of the colonization program, and the military wouldn’t touch him either; the only way for him was the civilian space program, and there was only one thing Bae was qualified for: space chef!

Arjun turned to leave and said, “Make me a meal I can’t turn down, and we can discuss terms. Three for dinner tonight,” then flipped the control unit over his shoulder toward Bae.

“See you in an hour, then. Get ready for the meal of your life.” Bae spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel and reached to catch the control. It skimmed his fingers and bounced on the workspace in front of him; he swam awkwardly toward it to make a second grab for it.

 Bae guessed this would be a first: the first gourmet meal in space. But he felt like a fraud. He drifted over to the cabinet and tried to rest his head on it. What on earth am I going to do? Bae shook himself; that wasn’t the right attitude to get through this. He thought about his zero-g training; he needed to focus on that more than the cooking right now. The cooking was ingrained, but if Bae floated the meal he would be out, so that was where he needed to concentrate.

What did Arjun mean, three to eat?  

Concentrate. 

Start with the basics. Rule one. Secure, secure, secure. Bae secured the remote control to his clothing using the clip it had on the back. Then he pressed the button that indicated tools, and sure enough, the fridges and freezers disappeared and the tool cabinets were back. 

Bae grabbed a series of slicers, a couple of enclosed bowls, that looked something like a fishbowl, and the sous vide pressure cooker. While looking around he had noticed a secure line around the edge of the workspace with a series of carabiners on it and realized they were for clipping the equipment to prevent it from drifting. Once he had all the tools ready, he pushed the control again to reveal the food storage area. Grabbing what he needed and inserting it into the bowls, Bae started to feel as if he might actually be able to do this.

Sous vide typically took longer than he had, but with the pressure cooker, it would be ready just in time. What do I need next? Water. He had a bottle of water and tried to pour it into the pressure cooker. Without gravity, this proved impossible, so he shook the bottle a few times before thinking to squeeze it. The water blobbed out of the bottle in globules, which he tried to catch and direct into the cooker, but some of them bounced off and careered into the cabinet. So much for keeping those infrared sensors clean!

He found the bags for the sous vide sealer and inserted three steaks. Then carefully now, he placed them into the cooker and closed the lid.

Next, he tried to chop the mushrooms, which darted in one direction as the chopping board slid in the other, obeying only the first law of thermodynamics and not the chef. Before long, Bae was surrounded by a cloud of frantic fungi.

Starting to remember his training, and conscious of his lack of finesse so far, he slowed down a little and turned to the salad. His attempts to prepare that were a little more successful.

As the time for dinner drew near, he started to get nervous again. He had salads prepared in vase-like serving bowls and with minimal mess had managed to whip up a blancmange, a British pudding that, regardless of the ingredients used, was invariably pink. Preparing that had almost been fun, and he could test the quality and taste of the pudding without contaminating the main dish, just by bouncing around and opening his mouth to catch the escaped morsels.

Now was the moment of truth: the steaks were ready. When he carefully opened the pressure cooker, a cloud of steam rushed out, followed by scalding water, which wasn’t under pressure but still moving due to the momentum of the steam. The water formed globes above the cooker and prevented Bae from getting at the steaks. How was he going to catch the water now? He had a sieve at hand and tried to swat at the water, only to find he was instead making many more tiny droplets as the water poured straight through the sieve. This takes some getting used to. Rule two: Just because it looks solid doesn’t mean it is. Eventually, he found another vase-like bowl and captured enough of the errant water to be able to free the steaks.

When Arjun swam in, Bae had three fishbowls ready, secured to the dining area tables along with forks. The steak was already precut; you would never experience the mouth-watering anticipation of slicing into a medium rare in zero-g if you wanted to keep your food on the plate and your fingers on your hands.

Following Arjun was a red-headed woman Bae could have sworn looked familiar…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *