I am waiting for the Quordleflesh to cook, and you know how long that takes. A minimum of five hours braising time in the plasma oven, followed by a gentle marination in the distilled liquid we brought back from the Sol system – what is it called now? My eyes glance upwards to the ranks of bottles overhead. They contain powerful spices, exotic seeds and a variety of sauces, marinades and preserves from Andromeda to Tau Ceti. I scan along the shelves until I locate the elusive bottle of brown liquid that I am after.
After staring at the strange writing for a minute or so, I give up the struggle to make head or tail of it, and resort to my auto-translator. It informs me that the label reads “Sarson’s Malt Vinegar”. On its home planet, it is a popular accompaniment to the tubers that are stowed in storage bay 567F, and is produced by the fermentation of . . . Hastily, I turn the machine off before it starts discussing the stuff’s chemical structure and medicinal properties. I open the vial gingerly, not knowing what to expect. However, the stuff smells quite pleasant and I splash a generous dollop into the steaming, purple mixture.
The oven’s timer alerts me to the job in hand. With an effort, I carefully ease the giant pot onto the hob, and the oven turns itself down to a modest 450K. A handy skewer allows me to prod into the heart of a large tentacle that is poking out from the surface, and I breathe in the rich, heady aroma of its juices. Sometimes I feel that I could float, suspended in mid-air on the vapours from all the dishes simmering away in this kitchen. However, the skewer comes out of the meat a distinctly light blue colour. Another twenty minutes, I think to myself. A pang of worry crosses my mind. Chef is not going to be pleased if the crew are left waiting.
[Editor’s note: beings living in the Sol system may want to try cooking this recipe for themselves. We have helpfully converted the measurements into the nearest metric equivalents, and reduced the quantities for domestic use. Whilst Quordleflesh is rather a delicacy, Cow can be used as a substitute. Aldebaran Sproutfish and Difluvian Watermelons can be obtained from most good ethnic supermarkets.
Quordleflesh Stew (serves 4)
1kg of Quordleflesh (dice the body roughly, leave the tentacles intact)
1 large Difluvian Watermelon (diced, de-seeded)
1 medium Snofflefruit (optional)
2 Aldebaran Sproutfish (filleted)
20ml Feffelseed Oil
50ml malt vinegar
Lightly fry the watermelon in the feffelseed oil until it turns green. Remove from the heat, and transfer the liquid to a pan containing the quordleflesh. Set the oven to 200°C, and braise in a casserole dish. You need to allow one hour per 500g of quordleflesh. Remove from the oven and add the sproutfish, snofflefruit and malt vinegar. Simmer gently for 20 minutes and serve with a leafy salad.]
There seems little more that I can usefully do in the meantime, so I begin to sweep the floor. As I am brushing, I become aware of an increased tension in the air. Our normal, rather lackadaisical pace suddenly gathers a frantic urgency. Everyone is doing their utmost to look busy and purposeful. This can only mean one thing. Chef has entered the room.
A voice like a foghorn blares out through the kitchen. Even the dust motes in the air scatter in its path. “Who was responsible for the Filet au Blubberfrog last night?” I look up from my sweeping and glance around the kitchen. All of us, from the most lowly kitchen porter to the chef de partie, become instantly engrossed in our work After the rash of acute food poisoning we left behind on Sirius V, we are only too aware of the damage an undercooked Blubberfrog can do to a delicate digestive system. Not one of us has the courage to meet the angry glare coming from the kitchen door.
“Whoever it was had better own up, sharpish.” Silence. I concentrate on scrubbing a particularly stubborn stain in the far corner of the kitchen, in the desperate hope he doesn’t pick on me. “The entire bridge has come down with food poisoning. If no-one is going to admit to making the meal last night, the cost of replacement crew members will be docked from all your wages. What’s more, we’re going to need some stand-ins. Anyone here know how to fly this heap of junk?”
I am helpless to prevent a mad thought from leaping into my brain. “It was me, Chef.”
The expression on Chef’s face changes from purple-cheeked, corpulent fury to goggle-eyed surprise. A semblance of a grin spreads slowly across his face. Coming from a member of his staff, such honesty must be a startlingly novel experience. “You, Charlotte?”
Uneasily at first, I scrabble desperately for an explanation. “Well, you see . . . I prepared the Blubberfrog, but I will make it up to you by helping out on the bridge. I used to be a trainee in the Fleet.” Once begun, the bluff comes easily. “I never actually qualified. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for my final training, but I could fly this old crate, no problem.” The atmosphere in the kitchen becomes almost pleasant again as the rest of the staff breathe a collective sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that there is at least one shmuck who is sufficiently stupid to take the can for this one.
The plan, according to the ship’s on-board computer, is to use the gravity of Kappa Ceti as a slingshot, propelling us into hyperspace and across the gaping void between star systems. My fingers are tingling with excitement as they caress the chrome controls of the dashboard, and ease the leatherette joystick to the left, in a motion that would send the ship diving in a perfect arc toward the main-sector star that we are currently orbiting. Well, it would do if any of the actual controls were functional. Fortunately, the beautifully engineered dials and advanced navigational aids are all for show; the autopilot will take care of everything. It always does.
I smile smugly to myself as I observe the stars outside. A whole week’s pay has been docked from my wages, but it is all worth it now. Eventually, of course, the crew’s immune systems will conquer whatever pathogen we unwittingly unleashed in the kitchen, and they will finally be able to prise themselves from the sick bay toilets. Until then, I am in control. A blissful rest from the stresses of the kitchen, and a chance to pretend to be a pilot. Of course, my knowledge extends about as far as making model ships when I was a child, but somehow they bought my story. At last, I am able to fulfil my immature fantasies. Most of all, I wanted to escape the orders of that domineering idiot of a head chef.
I don’t even have to do very much, just let the ship do the hard work: displaying the calculations for slingshot and preparing to boost the engines. Estimated time to the hyperspace vortex is a mere eight hours. Happily, I punch the button, which is helpfully labelled “Yes”, to confirm the automated procedure.
I while away the time until the routine hyperspace hop to Barnards Star by browsing through the ship’s security camera system. In the kitchen, the pace has slowed somewhat. Only a few light meals of rather watery-looking soup, since . . . flick . . . the entire crew are still lying, green-faced in the sick bay. They look in no fit state to be eating anything much. I switch view again and survey the vast panoply of the cosmos. The usual scattered pin-pricks of light are set against inky blackness, but looking at the forward view, I am dazzled by the blazing yellow disc of Kappa Ceti.
Sitting back in the luxuriously upholstered flight deck, I ask the computer to order me a bite to eat. With remarkable punctuality, a bowl of the same quordleflesh stew is served up to me. I choose the biggest tentacle and take an exploratory nibble. The juicy, tender meat is offset by the tangy sweetness of the sauce. Not bad, even if I say so myself. As I am heartily tucking in, I notice a small, red light ticking on and off in the corner of the display. I wonder whether to dash for the sick bay, admit my ignorance and get a real pilot to sort the problem out, but I am too much of a coward to put myself through such a humiliating admission of failure. In any case, apart from the little flashing light saying “Depleted Photon Drive”, everything appears to be going smoothly. I decide that, if the photon drive wants to be depleted, that is fine by me.
Eventually, a series of numbers begins counting down on my monitor. “All crew prepare for acceleration to hyperspace,” intones a prerecorded voice overhead. I am not sure exactly what to do at this point. I am still munching on the tender chunks of qourdleflesh in their delicious jus of Difluvian Watermelon and working out where all the buckles on the ornate safety harness are supposed to be attached, as the digital readout reaches zero. Almost instantaneously, G-forces pin me back to my seat with a massive jolt, almost spilling the remains of my dinner in the process.
It is probably far too late to do anything about the malfunction anyway, I tell myself. I find that it takes a massive effort to move my limbs much at all. All I can do is wait for the jaw-clenching ride to be over. The stars wheel in the sky. The monitor before me is bathed in a strange red glow as the heat shields are activated. The great, yellow orb of the star slowly engulfs the screen in front of me. Even a complete novice like myself knows enough about spaceflight to be sure that this shouldn’t be happening. However, trapped against my chair by the inexorable thrust of the ship, I am powerless to do anything about it. A hopeless feeling of impotent guilt rushes over me.
Sweat pours down my brow. Alarms begin to shriek. A countless myriad of red lights are flashing at me from the dashboard. The monitor in front of me displays the corona of light around the ship. It turns orange, then yellow and finally white hot as the heat shields fail in their unequal task. I see jets of flame bellying out from the surface of the star. Soon my entire field of view is lit up by the deadly furnace. The screen abruptly blanks out as its vital circuits fail. Not long after, the whole ship is plunged into darkness. I cry out in agony as the temperature becomes unbearable . . .
Extract from a report by the Tau Ceti Institute of Space Travel (Incident X7695)
Judging from the radio signals beamed from the trader Genuflex on the day before impact, we can assume that a leak or asteroidal impact had knocked out most of the ship’s propulsive capacity. As the slingshot was attempted, only a fraction of the required antimatter remained in the fuel bay. As a result, the ship lost power and was sent spinning on a fatal collision course with the corona of Kappa Ceti. We can only speculate why a trained officer did not pick up the malfunction, or why the run was not aborted and the ship returned immediately to dock for repairs.
Minutes before all contact with the ship was lost, a final message was received. We have not been able to make much sense of this garbled cry: “Tell Chef I didn’t cook the Blubberfrog.”