Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out…
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that’s just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can’t ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren’t content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo, on sale 09/07/21.
The entrance buzzer chimed. Someone outside in the public hallway of the spacestation was paging admittance.
Niko Larsen, a.k.a. Captain Nicolette Larsen, formerly one of the finest military geniuses the Holy Hive Mind had ever threatened to absorb, now retired, looked around.
Huh, she thought. What now?
She checked the view screen. A delivery bot stood outside, flanked by a large crate, about two meters long, a half meter wide, and a meter tall. Its metal carapace was brown and yellow, regular station delivery colors. It stood patiently, ignoring the impatient stares of passersby trying to get around the large crate in the five-meter-wide hallway.
She didn’t remember any deliveries due today, but pushed the button nonetheless. With a velvety whoosh, the door slid open.
“You should take that into the kitchen through the back access hall,” she said. “There’s too much furniture in here—don’t bring it in this way.”
Despite her words, the bot was already trundling forward past her and the entrance lectern, trailed by the crate. It said, with a burst of speaker static resembling an officious chirp, “The access hallway leads to the kitchens of the Last Chance Restaurant. This delivery tag specifies Last Chance, and the default is main entrance.”
“Then don’t go with the default, use the back entrance!”
“My delivery has been executed.” The bot detached itself from the crate, leaving it two meters inside the vestibule. “I do not accept outside commissioners. If this service has been of use to you, please consider rewarding my employers with a plus.”
Machines were impervious to Niko’s stare, but she tried one anyway. “This service has not been of use to me,” she said.
“My employers are sorry you feel that way,” the bot said, and exited.
Niko looked the crate over. Made of white-enameled plasmetal, it floated a few inches above the ground. A sturdy handle on each of the narrower ends provided the means with which to move it. The label simply bore Niko’s full name, along with the address of the restaurant. The orange ticket that would have disclosed its point of origin seemed to have been torn away.
Niko scowled at it and left it where it was.
She found her second in command waiting in her office. He silently handed her a sheet of plastic. Looking it over, she raised an eyebrow.
“Eggplant?” she said incredulously. “Where am I going to get eggplant, short of you finding some cut-rate sorcerer? None of the big farm ships grow it, except for the Mannan, and their prices are twice anyone else’s.”
She frowned at Dabry in the office’s dim light. Niko was of indeterminate human mix, with pale brown skin and graying dreadlocks swept back and contained on the back of her head with an ivory beaded net. Muscular shoulders rounded out her white chef’s jacket, its front unpinned and fallen awry, bearing coffee stains along one sleeve.
Although Niko was tall, the being also wearing a chef’s jacket (although significantly less crumpled and stained), hulking across from where she sat at the tiny desk, dwarfed her. He was an Ettilite, an eight-foot-tall humanoid with four arms and skin the color of the eggplant they had been discussing.
Dabry, a.k.a. Sergeant Dabry, also retired from the ranks of the Holy Hive Mind, folded both pairs of arms and stared at her impassively. “The critic,” he rumbled, “is said to have a weakness for old Earth food from its Mediterranean region. I need to analyze the components if I’m going to replicate it.”
“You are all way too concerned about this critic,” Niko said. “Ever since Skidoo found out who booked the reservation, you have been ridiculous! Cleaning—which I do approve of. Redecorating—which I approve of up to a certain budgetary point. But now—rearranging the menu just for them?”
“They have the power to give our restaurant a Nikkelin Orb,” Dabry said with a tone that implied that once a restaurant had achieved such a thing, everyone in it might go ahead and die happily, their life goals achieved. They had been operating the Last Chance for a little over a solar year now, and Dabry tracked its few reviews and mentions with a gleeful zeal.
“This restaurant,” Niko said, not for the first time, “was not my idea.”
“This restaurant,” Dabry said, also not for the first time, “got us all out of the Holy Hive Mind and let us keep what we could of the company together while we try to build our finances.”
Niko sighed and pushed away the piece of plastic. They were in her tiny office, which had once been a walk-in closet and still smelled of artificial cedar and orange from the scent unit near the fan. (She kept saying she meant to disable it because of its rattle.)
While she groused about the unit, though, she didn’t mind it, really. It overrode other smells from the kitchen only a few steps farther down the tin tube of a hallway, and their associated memories. Cinnamon, when Milly was baking, reminded her of Free Trade life and came on a wash of loss and nostalgia. Stale dishwater reminded her of IAPH, wafting on fear and regret.
And vinegar’s tang, once such a clean smell to her, crept under the doorway every so often, and seeping with it came the despair and terror of life in the Holy Hive Mind’s barracks.
The office was still lined on two sides with shelves, now holding a mix of data pads, books, clothes, and miscellaneous ordnance and knives, and a hanging rack half full of white chef’s jackets, the other half full of disused civvies. A folding cot was jammed up against the wall behind her, next to two crates filled with glossy black rocks left over from the redecorating effort. Past menus were stickied to the wall, the plastic slips fluttering whenever the door opened or closed.
She narrowed her eyes at Dabry. “I know,” she said, “and that was not the worst plan you’ve ever come up with, but you’re taking it so seriously. It’s a restaurant. A glorified location for the satisfaction of one of the most basic urges.”
Dabry pointed two lower fingers at her in emphasis. “And you cannot talk like that, or they will know you are not an artist.”
Niko shuddered. When it came to retiring from the Holy Hive Mind, there were few acceptable ways—most of its soldiers stayed in the army until they died, and a few of them long after that. She would have been one of those few, her brain extracted upon death and moved into a Holy Hive container and reanimated to serve as part of its consciousness.
Not a fate she had anticipated with pleasure. When Dabry came to her with a crazy plan to claim that Niko was a thwarted artist—one of the sacred Occupations—and that her medium was cooking, it being her single talent, she’d been willing to play along.
A vast amount of bribery and wheedling had gone into the escape, but in the end she’d been able to use her considerable back wages—combined with those of her crew who wanted to come, and whom she declared part of her immediate family—to buy a small establishment aboard one of the largest space stations around, TwiceFar Station, relic of some long-forgotten race and now home to dozens of alien species.
Niko fixed her former sergeant with the stare that had straightened soldierly spines, cowed bureaucrats, and put the fear of the Holy Hive Mind into her enemies more than once.
Dabry, inoculated by long exposure, gave her a bland look back. “You know it as well as I do, Captain,” he said. “The Holy Hive Mind is still keeping tabs on us. If they suspected that you think of the restaurant as something other than an artistic enterprise, they would haul you back and scoop the brain out of your head.”
“I am an artist,” she said. “Just not in the way that it thinks of artists. Its definition is a cross between an addict and an artist possessed by their muse, unable to help creating. It’s hard to keep convincing it of that. An Orb would cement me as that kind of artist.” She frowned at her second-in-command.
Dabry had turned out to have an unexpected (to Niko, at least) flair for all of this. He was the one who had found the odd little space that they turned into the restaurant, a former bar built by Derloens, who had fled the place when a particular side effect of their inhabitation became too much for them. Derloens leave what some species might call “ghosts,” behind them, and these spirits, while no longer sentient, still inhabited the space in the form of long glowing blue worms swimming through the air, which their maître d’, Lassite, had incorporated into the decor.
Most of the restaurant’s interior was dark blues and blacks, giving it a restrained rather than subdued look. The luminescent, writhing forms, swimming through the air in aimless pursuit of one another, shed their light over it, augmented only by thumb-sized glow candles on each table.
Over the past year, and particularly in recent months, the restaurant had proved surprisingly successful. Something about the shadowy decor hadn’t lured the criminals whom Niko had feared, but diners who sought privacy and exclusivity: lovers, those wishing to become lovers, diplomats, people with other people that they wanted to impress.
“Speaking of which, shouldn’t I be planning this meal?” Niko grumbled.
“You said I could take this one,” Dabry protested. It had pained him to have to step back and let Niko take the wheel the last time they presented to the Holy Hive Mind, a yearly requirement of their situation.
“All right,” Niko said. She waved her hand. “Go forth. And if you truly desire an eggplant to dissect, then who am I to stand in your way? Place an order with the Mannan.”
Niko’s eyes narrowed further. “What?”
“An order from the Mannan,” Dabry said, “would take over a sleep unit to get here. Too late.”
“Then where are you planning on getting it?”
“I have a favor due me,” Dabry said with dignity.
“Do I want to know anything about the nature of the favor or what you intend to do with it?”
“Probably not, other than I will obtain an eggplant with it.”
“Then I’m not sure why you’re even telling me!” Niko threw up her hands in exasperation. Sometimes she thought Dabry enjoyed these encounters; the more expressionless he remained, the more convinced of that she became. She began to add a remark to that effect but a flurry of knocks on the door interrupted her.
Only one of her workers knocked like that. “Come in, Skidoo,” she called.
The entity who entered was unlike either of the beings already in the room. Skidoo was a Tlellan, which humans sometimes called Squids for their resemblance to one of the few Terran creatures left alive. Her ten limbs functioned as either arms or legs to propel her sacklike body along. Atop that squat bundle was a lump that served as head, fixed with three bright blue eyes. Unlike Terran squids, she was colored as brightly as a festival, purples and reds variegating across blue and yellow dots and stripes.
“I am being securing an important reservation!” she announced.
“We’re not taking any more reservations for tonight,” Niko told her. “I said that already. We’ve got this stupid food critic arriving.”
Skidoo wilted slightly. “But this is being a very large party,” she said.
“Even worse,” Dabry said. “How large?”
“Possibly they are being saying as many as twenty.”
“Twenty! We don’t have room for that. We’d have to rearrange one of the back chambers,” Niko protested.
“They are being saying they are knowing you, Captain, so I am being taking the reservation,” Skidoo said.
“Did they give you a name?”
Skidoo drew herself up as much as possible in order to deliver this information in a suitably grand manner: “Admiral Taklibia.”
“Taklibia? Here?” Niko was flabbergasted.
“The one you served under?” Dabry asked.
“I did, but I was only an aide. They wouldn’t remember me.”
“Apparently they do, and enough to seek out your restaurant.”
Niko shook her head. She was about to tell Skidoo to cancel the reservation when the door flew open with a crash. Milly, her new pastry chef, stuck her head in, just the beaked face at the end of a long white-feathered neck, giving the impression of a disembodied head. “The boys are fighting in the storage room again!” she gasped in her high fluting voice, and clacked her beak urgently.
Swearing under her breath, Niko rose. She pointed at Skidoo and Dabry. “Take care of it!” she told Dabry, and went to tame her lions.
Thorn and Talon were indeed at it in the storage room. Worse, both twins had reverted to their were-forms, becoming two enormous male lions, currently writhing on the floor of the storeroom, wrestling furiously in a tangle of golden fur and amber manes and flashing teeth. The smell that Niko had come to associate with shifter magic, sharp citrus and musk heavy to the point of stink, hung in the air.
Niko narrowly avoided their smashing into her, stepping back into the doorway and out of their path. The room was in chaos already, shelves tipped over, containers strewn in heaps, and an overturned vat of pickles adding their briny tang to the air, seeping over to turn a mass of spilled flour into a gluey mess.
“Ah-ten-shun!” she shouted.
As though by magic, the two separated. It was magic that set their forms shrinking and contracting into a humanoid shape again. But it was fear of Niko that made them do it so quickly. Niko wondered if there was any spell powerful enough to remove their ability to shape-shift. A valuable ability in combat, on a space station it had proved considerably more inconvenient. Ever since their mother died, the two had been nearly uncontrollable.
Now both stood naked, staring straight ahead. They appeared perfectly human in this form: tall, well-muscled youths with golden skin, long amber hair, and dark brown eyes, avoiding the captain’s stare.
“What happened now?” she said.
“There’s a bioship in port, and he was rushing to get his work done so he could leave without me and go see it!” Talon said.
“That’s not true! I would have waited! But he takes all the easy jobs!”
“I am the elder, they fall to me.”
“The elder by a mere minute!” Thorn glared at his twin.
Niko’s voice was dangerously low. “No one is going down to goggle at fancy bioships, because tonight is important. So here’s a more important question for you—cleaning up the mess you’ve made in here, is that an easy job or a hard one?”
They looked at the room as though noticing the chaos of their surroundings for the first time. Thorn examined the smear of flour and pickle juice on his foot.
“Easy job, Captain,” Talon said. “We’ll do it together, pick things up. Nothing’s broken.” He glanced around, checking to make sure he wasn’t lying. Aside from a shelf or two, he wasn’t.
“And after that?” Niko said.
“What?” Thorn said uneasily.
“This is the last time,” Niko said. “No more of this, or you’re out.”
“What?!” The word came from both of them simultaneously, their eyes fixed on her in shock.
“I’ve been too easy on you because you were grieving your mother,” Niko said. “If you’ve got the energy to fight, you’ve got the energy to work.” She looked around the small space. “I’m coming back here in a half hour and I want things to look as though this fight never happened. Am I clear?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” they chorused.
They were so young. Barely cubs when they’d been given to her to train. She’d taken those of her troop she could with her rather than leave them to the Holy Hive Mind, but in the process of freeing them all, she sometimes thought she’d saddled herself with ten times the work she would have had if it had been just her and Dabry.
No, she knew she’d saddled herself with ten times the work.
She left the room.
Dabry was in the hallway, and had witnessed the whole encounter. “Sometimes you’re not a very nice person,” he said mildly.
She glared at him. “Think I was too hard?” she said. “I could have been much worse.”
“I know that.”
“We can’t go on like this. If they went at each other in the restaurant, we’d have customers screaming and fleeing.”
“I know that.”
“Not to mention one of these days they’re going to take it too far and hurt each other,” she said.
He grunted sourly.
“This station doesn’t like disturbances. That’s why we ended up here. Nice and peaceful.”
“Nice and peaceful,” Dabry echoed.
“You sound dubious.”
“Life is never all that peaceful with you, sir.”
Skidoo returned to her comms cubicle. Like many of the chambers here, it had once been storage space. The Tlellan preferred her quarters cramped, though; it kept everything within reach.
She’d changed the door, insetting a smaller hatch into the larger one so she could enter without spilling out all the moist, water-saturated air that she preferred, smelling of vanilla and chlorine and much closer to the atmosphere of her native planet than the station’s default setting. Inside, the machinery she used had been inlaid into the walls in a series of buttons and pads. From here she controlled not just the incoming and outgoing communications but also the music and atmosphere within the four dining chambers: two larger and two smaller, each joined by a small air lock that enabled Skidoo to alter conditions in there with ease.
She ran three tentacles over the walls, reading the restaurant’s vital statistics and adjusting them as needed: the kitchen was a degree and a half too hot for maximal comfort, and the air in Niko’s office needed to be lowered in humidity. A smattering of requests for reservations had come in while she was elsewhere. She sorted through the messages.
The captain had said cancel the admiral’s reservation, but it was already taken, and the admiral would be most unhappy, since they had stressed that they wished to speak with Niko. Skidoo was torn; her tentacles flattened themselves against the walls, seeking out every iota of comfort-touch.
It was a big party. And a big party—particularly of drunken military—meant a lot of money. They could be kept in the room farthest away from the critic’s. Surely what Niko had meant was not to take any reservations that were in the room where the critic would be, not to cancel everything altogether. The restaurant needed money, and couldn’t afford to be turning things down.
But disobeying the captain didn’t come easily. Niko wasn’t the sort of person who tolerated someone doing something for the captain’s own good. Skidoo equivocated. She’d do the canceling in just a little while. It could wait, while she did more pressing things, and there was certainly so much to do, in the face of the oncoming critic. Why, Skidoo realized, no one had checked to make sure that the glow lights were all at full charge. Perhaps she’d do that first.
The machines of the kitchen were in full swing, the ancient dishwasher chugging along, the sterilizing station humming to itself. Dabry and Niko passed through the kitchens. Serving food for a variety of species would have created any number of problems had they been trying to do so without the replicators. They would have had to stock dozens of types of food, not to mention questions of cross-contamination.
But the Last Chance followed a standard pattern for restaurants aboard this station. When an unusual patron entered, their species requirements were noted, and the food given them was usually replicated and then tailored to provide the illusion of a home-cooked meal. When necessary, Gio’s expert chemistry stepped in, adapting and tweaking molecules, rendering poisons into benign flavors, allowing beings to ingest anything they desired—within reason.
Situated as it was within ship distance of not one but three of the ancient gates that tied together the Known Universe, TwiceFar was one of the most diverse waypoints possible. This place had become a favorite establishment among humans, but many of the more populous species ate here as well, enough that the storerooms were usually stocked with nonreplicated spices and flavorings for them, which Dabry swore was the real secret to their success. Not a living soul in the universe claimed to prefer replicated food to real, with the sole exception of the Karnaki—and they lied about everything, so they might be lying about that as well.
Gio’s hairy shoulders were visible in a corner, his back turned, shoulders twitching in time with the staccato chop of greenery. Milly was in a corner, sheltered from most of the kitchen’s activity by the rack of shelves in front of her. She was glazing tiny fan-shaped cakes. Blue and silver sugar crystals glinted as she sprinkled them over the still-wet glaze to be caught, tipping each at a precise 45-degree angle to shake off the excess sugar. Niko had hired her less than a month ago, and she was still pleased with the level of artistry the new hire brought to the task.
“Are those for the critic?” Niko said.
“I made enough that they can appear on the menu, but I’m making a special set for her.” Milly pointed at a small plate set to one side on a counter, two particularly beautiful cakes atop it, gleaming in the fluorescent lights. Niko paused to admire them before she stole one of the half-glazed cakes for a nibble.
Milly watched her expectantly.
Niko took another judicious nibble.
Milly shifted from side to side, watching as Niko deliberately licked sugar from her fingers. Finally she could no longer contain herself. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Niko asked.
Milly hissed out exasperation. “How is it?”
Niko grinned. “You know it’s delicious, you just want to hear me say it.”
“It’s delicious.” Niko shoved the rest of the cake in her mouth and added inarticulately, “Absolutely delicious.” She leaned to take another but Dabry removed the tray from her reach.
“Captain,” he said patiently. “Permission to go secure my eggplant?”
She waved him off. “Go, go.” Once he had turned, she grabbed another cake, winked at Milly, and went to check on the front room.
Currently the restaurant was closed, as it was for six hours of every cycle, in order to give the staff time to clean and prep. Aboard the spaceship, there were a multitude of time cycles, and Niko had chosen to forgo tying any of her food to a particular one, even the prevalent human norms, so there was no breakfast, lunch, or dinner, only meals.
She checked the lectern near the entrance to make sure it was free of clutter and that the flower atop it was fresh. They kept a whenlove plant blooming there, considered lucky by a fallen comrade.
So many memories in the restaurant, so many little rituals to mark the fallen. She touched the whorls of a fuzzy leaf and moved on.
No matter what time of day it was, the glowing ghosts wriggled through the space. Niko stood watching their light play over the tables, booths, and floating seats. Lore held that the ghosts were not sentient at all, simply dissolute life force left behind when the beings passed, but Niko always tried to watch for some sign of intelligence, some portent that might show that memory stayed behind. Her maître d’, Lassite, claimed their patterns had meaning, but she’d never been able to parse it.
The slide of light against light was hypnotic. She stood longer than she had meant to, transfixed by the odd hieroglyphics of their trails as they wriggled and swam, doubling back and forth in the air.
She shook her head, clearing away cobwebs. The critic was due in a few hours, and Niko was more worried about their advent than she had let on to anyone, even Dabry.
Despite the fact that the restaurant was popular, they were still bleeding money. Her retirement fund would stretch only so far, and her most recent calculations—despite the multitude of times that she’d checked and rechecked them, over and over again—gave them a little under a hundred sleep units in which to become profitable.
If they didn’t do that, she didn’t know what would happen.
But the critic—one Lolola Montaigne d’Arcy deBurgh—could make them. As a representative of the Culture, an interstellar publication carried on one of the biggest viddie channels, her favorable review—if it went so far as to bestow a Nikkelin Orb on the restaurant—would bring beings from off-station, come specifically to eat at the Last Chance, come to taste Dabry’s cooking and savor Milly’s desserts and experience the atmosphere that they had somehow, magically, created out of condemned hold space due to be jettisoned.
That had still been pricey enough. In space, everything cost, everything came from somewhere, whether it was snagged from passing meteors and comet dust or trapped sunlight or—most expensive of all—brought up from some planet’s gravity well.
Three worms of light collided, recoiled, twined around one another before moving on.
Planets, she thought, were odd things.
She had only been on three in her lifetime, and they had unnerved her. The first, the world Miniver, the birthplace of the Holy Hive Mind’s creators, had been cold and everything was flat and wide and gravity pulled at her all the time, with no escape, ever, and everything had seemed so disgustingly organic all the time, like a ship so dirty that mold was growing on it.
After the tests and training, she’d stayed inside buildings whenever she could, finding comfort in low-ceilinged, windowless rooms, although even there gravity ached at her when she tried to rest or sleep. She hadn’t learned the trick yet of resting limbs so the circulation wasn’t cut off, and kept finding them fallen asleep, strange and tingling and painful, as though they had been more attached to the world than she was. She’d left as soon as she was possibly able.
The second world, Tarraquil, had been more comfortable. Or perhaps it was simply that she had been two decades older by then, and more phlegmatic about everything in general, whether it was new or not. She had been persuaded by a lover—and there, too, might have been one of the reasons she remembered it so much more fondly—a tall, gregarious woman who had been raised on that planet and wanted Niko to meet her family.
The third had been the world where Roark’s Leap was, and she did not think of that planet if she could avoid it.
Tarraquil was all ocean, and the cities either floated on it or perched in silver spiderwebs spun between monstrously large pillars. The sky had been unnerving, but the raft city had a give underfoot that was comforting and somehow reminiscent of being in space. She’d surprised her lover with the ease with which she took to life there, and they’d spent almost a month, eating and fishing and fucking and visiting with parents, cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles, and countless other degrees of relatives.
That lover died the following year in one of the interminable skirmishes that had made up the campaign for the Hive Mind to take Crispine, a tiny moon mainly notable for its rich supplies of deliriterium. Niko still had a holo of her.
The thing that had impressed Niko most about Tarraquil was the birds. They were like ships in the sky. They moved the way ships did—to a point, because wings moving was something most ships did not have. Birds seemed so free they’d made her heart ache watching.
She remembered a sunset on Tarraquil, birds gliding over the water, her lover’s fingers laced through hers, dreaming they’d escape the Holy Hive Mind, go back to the lives both had come from before tariffs and fees imposed by a Holy Hive Mind port had forced them to enlist. She and Dabry had told the crew they pursued discharge in the name of freedom, but it was just another step in her ultimatum plan. How far away was that end now? Closer, but not half close enough.
She’d wanted to name the restaurant Halcyon, after one of those birds, but had given way to the majority.
Now, perhaps, Lolola Montaigne d’Arcy deBurgh would make the restaurant fly, and put Niko a step further along. A profitable restaurant—you could build on that, if you were savvy with business. You might even at some point be able to start investing, maybe in a ship or two. And then maybe you could put together a real plan toward the thing Niko had been working toward for so long.
Her old Free Trader coat was still in a cupboard in her office, which also served her as bedchamber. Niko claimed she’d chosen it for security purposes, leaving the suite adjoining the restaurant to the rest, except for Milly, who roomed elsewhere. But economic pressures were more to blame—if satisfying the need for security also happened to save her on rent, so be it. All her money went toward building this endeavor, this fragile chain of financial resources that would let her achieve a goal over three decades old now.
If everything went right. But in Niko’s experience, that was something rare.
Copyright © Cat Rambo 2021
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