Content Warning: High-impact head pats, cuddling, and hand-holding.
The Imperial Navel Gazer was an old ship, creaky, grumpy, and dirty in the Freemens' Flotilla. The shitty diner Ishmael found herself working at was made for a crew of three, but tonight she was operating the kitchen by herself. The heat from vats of oil soaking in the air and making her gleam with sweat from the under-maintained air conditioning that never quite got rid of all the grease in the air. She had been here for five hours, cooking for a bunch of ruffians, rakes, and roustabouts that populated this particular part of the fleet.
It was only now that the regular crowd was thinning, and the usual orders of minimum priced grub and slop had stopped. Meat-paste schnitzel and desiccated flounder, packed frozen so cold her fingers stung, either from temperature or chemical burns, she wasn’t sure.
There was a certain mentality she had been taught to keep while cooking, and it was to always keep in mind that what she was handling was food, meant for enjoyment and consumption. Constant work with it could make it feel like an object, something you tossed and turned about, slowly losing its intrinsic care you would give it otherwise. She had kept true to that lesson all through her life, until, of course, she arrived here. She didn’t think she could stomach the idea of actually eating any of this food, though she would lie through her teeth about her favorites to the half-distracted patrons that came and went, eating the slop as if it were of actual quality.
This wasn’t food, and she found herself treating it as such. Her fingers, calloused from burns and chemical irritants, felt numb to the cold and hot, soggy and hard things she handled day to day. Regardless, she worked, she made food, and she served it with that fake closed-lip smile that she was expected. Ishmael worked, but mentality, in the pit of her stomach, she knew that she did not cook. Looking over the final meals of the day, she turned her attention to the restaurant, briefly eyeing the customers as she ran her hands through the barely-too-hot water.
As she turned her head Ishmael's eyes caught something impossibly bright walking into the emptying restaurant. Something that didn’t belong here, in this place. Her skin was alabaster white, and her red eyes surveyed the restaurant curiously, revealing her forehead markings as her head turned. She wore a deep red dress, ankle length that squeezed around her torso, a wide sash decorated her stomach while her back and neck were chastely covered by an impossibly snug fabric, an emblem hanging from a choker around her neck. As her head turned she caught Ishmaels eyes and smiled brightly, as if to an old friend. A heart-warming gesture in a place like this.
Ishmael tried not to think too often of her appearance, but in comparison she felt like she should be judged for her stained, white chef jacket, her less-than-cared-for ashen hair, and just the overall slovenly state of the entire diner. She was considered one of the better cooks here, but that didn't feel like much of a compliment given what she was cooking. She realized she was more or less staring at the woman in a very blunt manner. Pulling her gaze away, trying to clear her mind back to what she was doing. The heat of the recycled water returning some semblance of feeling back to her hands, and she gathered a small handful to wash the sweat and grime away from her face, hyper aware of how messy she must look at the moment. Wiping her hands and face off at a moderately used washcloth hanging on a rack, she quickly stepped out of the kitchen towards the front counter where the few remaining people lingered, talking among themselves and smartly keeping their eyes to themselves.
Grabbing a quick notepad as if to anticipate an order, tired gray-blue eyes that looked out from a pale face, trying to hide a rising feeling that this was some important businesswoman who was meant to speak to the boss. "Good evening ma'am." There were no stars that mattered here, but time of day still applied to some. "Is there something I can help you with?" She phrased cautiously, terrified to accidently peak some wrong set of word.
“Oh, yes, you may.” She replied in a smooth voice that flowed like warm honey through Ishmaels ears.
The pale but strong fingers brought up a small vacuum-sealed packet up to the dim, under-powered lighting of the restaurant. It was the size of a solid palm and must have taken up most of the space inside the small bag. Meaning the woman probably came to her specifically about this, it also meant that she was probably unarmed. At least, with a gun.
“I’d like you to cook this for me.” The honey voice continued, trickling out from between painted lips as the woman spoke.
Firmly but gently she placed the packet down on the counter between them, before her hand went back to her waist. As Ishmael looked down on it she realized it was a piece of sealed meat, but not just any meat. The lines of fat gleamed through dark red muscle, marbling covering every centimeter of the piece in front of her, glistening through its transparent vacuum seal with the promise of juices and fats.
“Use whatever spices you prefer, cook however you wish. You will be paid. Do not disappoint me.” She ordered easily, taking a seat at the counter.
The woman tipped her head, curiously watching what Ismael would do next, red eyes peering down her. This close Ishmael realized she was taller than a lot of men, hopefully most of that was heels.
Despite her want to do whatever she was told to keep from upsetting this powerful patron, she had to take a moment of silence as she contemplated just what in the stars was happening. "Oh, I..." She glanced at the woman, cautiously grabbing it. Officially there was no process for this. People didn't just walk into the diner with their own meat and say 'cook this!' Even the strange aliens who couldn't eat the same meals as humans just chose other diners more befitting of their diets, rather than risk contamination or poison from some xenophobic line chef.
"Of course ma'am." She spoke quickly, her body quicking back into action as she took the packet, and carried it into the kitchen, blue-gray eyes suddenly bright with a harsh criticism of the state of what surrounded her. This was her kitchen? She had to cook this meat here? For the love of the art, it was a disgrace to the meat! She had tried to keep it clean and orderly before, when she had just arrived, but a single person didn't have the time or the authority to fix all of this. She took a deep breath, resolving herself act precisely how she was told.
Cook however you wish.
Do not disappoint me.
That meant she could delay the actual cooking by a few minutes, right? ...Right?
The grill was disgusting, no doubt being cleaned by bored, lazy hands since the day this establishment had opened, there was no hope for it. Not even turning the heat to maximum would help scrub away the disgusting grime that would then transfer over to the meat. Seasoned pans and grills were one thing, but that? It was unacceptable. As she fretted on how to approach it, already cleaning the best knives and spatula's that the kitchen had in as hot water as her hands could handle, one of her prior blunders came back not to haunt her, but to aid her. When she had first been hired, she had wanted to turn this place around, a distant dream now, but one that had inspired her like in all those stories she had read. Part of that had been new utensils and pans, and she already was cleaning the utensils for it.
Placing them aside on a fresh cutting board that she had just cleaned, the pan came next. It wasn't perfect, mistreated by the others, but still cleaner than anything else the kitchen had to offer. She tried to ignore the fact that with the design of the kitchen and the window that aimed towards the Diner, the woman could easily see everything that she did. It never bothered her before, but those red eyes and velvet voice were different than the hundreds of grimy gang members and lowly laborers she typically saw. She wasn't familiar with what that kind of sash meant, but she could only imagine that it meant something bad if she had the misfortune of crossing the strange woman.
With the pan clean, and everything aside from spices and whatever else she would add ready, she quickly turned one of the counter burners to high, leaving the pan to heat as she quickly searched the kitchen for what she needed. Was it always this unorganized? She cursed silently, trying to suppress actually letting any become audible as she grabbed the freshest oil, as well as the salt and pepper. She stared at the three ingredients with trepidation, loathing their poor quality. Many people saw salt and pepper as this basic thing that could be cheaped out on. Ishmael disagreed, but she wasn't the one buying the supplies. Sincerely missing her hefty spice supply of home, stars away, she quickly went to make due of what she had.
The meat was perfect, even Alliance tech couldn't reproduce meat that perfect. It was grown, raised and butchered in the old styles of the old ways. The forgotten artisan crafts of raising and butchering meat, and now she was staring at one of the pinnacle towers of its labor. She added the oil, letting it simmer and roll against the heated pan as she went about salting and peppering the meat evenly. She made sure to evenly rub it into the meat on all sides and corners, into every existing nook and cranny, every crack and crevice, trying her best to not rip the meat further in the process. Doing so only increased her appreciation for it, and the speed at which it would cook became apparent as she eyed the divine meat.
Fat that high burnt fast, and it transferred heat with extraordinary efficiency. People with leaner appetites avoided it, but none could ignore the ecstatic flavor that such a fat content made. She had more spices, had so much she could try, but she didn't feel confident in the quality of what she had to work with, so she kept with the basics, kept it simple. There was some kind of drink you'd order if a bartender had a certain license, it was supposed to be the first drink they learned to make. Depending on how well they made it would tell you how well they could mix drinks. She guessed this was something similar, as she lifted the meat carefully, and gingerly placed it into the pan, hearing it fill the air with a hot sizzle, followed immediately by the most heavenly scent she had experienced since she left home.
She counted with taps on the counter, fifteen seconds and the prongs and spatula quickly and carefully flipped the meat, the quick browning immediately apparent as having spread through the meat. Fifteen more taps, and it was done, the meat transferred to the cleanest plate she could find, still hot from the washing machine. Placing a fork and knife on the plate, she quickly shifted it out to the waiting woman who's name she didn't even know, feeling crushed under those devilish red eyes, placing a glass of water next to it. "There you go ma'am, I apologize for the wait." She spoke, stepping back, hands fumbling over themselves as she was suddenly very aware that she didn't know how to stand while feeling like she was being inspected.
She tucked the purse into the front of her sash as Ismael approached, meal on plate. She smiled brightly, eyes flashing as the heavenly scent of the cooking drifted up from the steaming plate to her nose. She carefully took up the knife and fork holding each with a finger down their length and cut into the butter soft fibres of meat, splitting it with hardly a push. The sliver of meat upon fork rose to the woman's eye level and turned in the light for inspection.
With deliberate slowness she brought it to her brightly painted lips, closing around the bit of meat, pulling the fork clear as she held it on her tongue. Within seconds she made a soft moan in her throat as her eyes closed, she chewed slowly, letting it dwell on her tongue as long as she could, sighing as finally she swallowed. A long appreciative noise in her throat signalling her approval.
“Cooked to perfection, with skill and conviction. Not overcooked from fear, nor undercooked from carelessness. Not sullied with complicated spices, but not ignored.” She rated, taking up her knife again for another piece.
Those red eyes flicked up to Ishmael brightly. The glint of mischief within them.
“Take a piece for yourself, if you like.” She offered, cutting a fresh portion and entwining it on the fork, holding it up for Ishmael to sample.
What kind of sick power play was this?
The truth was though, that she hadn't considered trying the meat herself before then. A part of her fully expected the woman to eat the meal, pay, and leave as if nothing was particularly odd about the situation. "Oh, um, thank you, ma'am." She spoke, feeling like her every motion was being judged as she cautious stepped forward, bending over and quickly taking the meat from the fork with her teeth, hands poised beneath it to keep it from falling to either the table or the floor. Such cautiousness was quickly melted by the flavor, as she bit once into it, tasting the best thing she had eaten in months, if not longer. Even the best of the artificial foods here came nowhere close to this, still hot from the fat, seasoned and well-bred meat that outdid any class of standard food. A carnivore's wet dream, and the dream of any chef to handle.
She chewed it slowly and silently, though the immediate positive reaction was apparent on her face, before she ultimately swallowed it, cautious turqoise eyes going back to the strange woman. "I haven't seen meat that perfect in... A very long time, ma'am." She spoke, her voice one that was naturally timid, sprinkling polite necessities wherever they felt appropriate. Feeling like the issue couldn't be ignored any longer, she slowly phrased out the question she'd been wondering since the woman had arrived. "If you don't mind my asking, what brings you here? This isn't a very... Typical request to receive."
With the gentle tinkle of cutlery and a smile she slipped her purse back out of her sash and opened once more, ready for an all new surprise to spring out of it. A black void, empty of any further meat packets that Ishmael could see.
Lily’s pale fingers disappeared into the black purse for a second, she delicately pinched a slip of cardboard out of a side pocket with her knuckle and sliding it on the table to Ishmael. The purse was carefully slipped back into her sash before she took up her knife and fork again. She took another slice of the delicacy off the same fork she had shared with Ishmael as her red eyes watched the other woman with much interest.
It was a very special kind of power play.
The card was eggshell white, raised black letters writ in small, precise font. The subtle thickness was perfect, it even had a watermark. The subtle imprint of a coat of arms, a dog holding a sword spitting flames lurked on the surface. Hidden in direct light.
Interviews in Deck 5 Hangar 1
Bring all work gear and tools you wish to take with you.
Bar service for all successful applicants.
Lily sighed as the warmth of the food flushed through her body once again, her eyes fluttering a little as she composed herself with a gentle smile.
“May I ask your name, since we might be working together in the future?” Lily asked, holding out her alabaster hand.
Maybe she could even afford a better apartment. That would be a large step forward! Maybe she could even extend her shower times before it cut her off, though she figured that might be jumping the shark on that line of thought.
Though that little frame of excitement was visible for a second or two, and betrayed the joy at the thought of a better job. She looked up to Lily, before nodding politely, regaining her composure. "Ishmael, ma'am." She responded, giving a firm-ish handshake. "It's... Just Ishmael." Already thoughts of what to dress in to look the part were swirling through her head, though she realized that her excitement was probably playing directly into her hands. Maybe that would benefit them both. "So this interview is tonight, ma'am?" She asked, watching as what seemed to be the last of the normal patrons slowly finding their ways to the exit.
What was becoming apparent was that even with that brief lapse of control, Ishmael held a fairly reserved line of action, her words still holding polite phrasings and dignified titles. "I apologize if I seem too eager, I just typically don't receive such... Opportunities!"
“It can be, if you come with me right after we finish this.” Lily replied smoothly, not skipping a beat. “Pleased to meet you, Ishmael.”
Lily had thought the business card would be a nice touch after she had watched some movies from the Alliance about it, she still wasn’t sure about the dress, it felt a bit… Well, she was glad she had gotten it tailored. She carefully took another slice and put a hand on her cheek as the white flesh flushed slightly, enjoying the heavenly taste as it seemed to melt in her mouth. A long sigh escaping her lips as her eyes fluttered before looking at Ismael again, Sheffeldan food was not known for its taste and even basic spices could leave her in a lot of trouble, but the delicate flavors were sublime and filled her with warmth.
She carefully cut another slice of meat, there was not too much left now, and held the fork out for Ishmael to take from.
“Tell me, Ishmael, do you have any dependents or significant others you would like to be taken care off with you?” She asked, “Arrangements can be made, of course.”
That would be a terrifying realization, even if she saw it coming.
"Significant others? No..." She responded, pausing for a moment. "I'm rather alone, for the moment, on both accounts. I seem to be going through a minimalist phase, though it isn't entirely voluntary." She admitted, suddenly moving to pick up the last of the dishes of those leaving, handing them over to the washing machines. The machines never seemed to work perfectly, but if all went well, then it was quite possible she wouldn't have to deal with them again. "I'd just have to close everything up, then I'd be fully available to accompany you, ma'am."
With a single motion her purse was back in her hand, and out of it came a sleek black credstick and an elegant pen. She spent a few minutes tapping the pen against the corner of her mouth before she nodded and with a careful hand she wrote a brief note upon the back of the card, before placing it and the credstick down on the counter together. For the manager to find whenever they came by to ask why the store was closed.
Hopefully you’ll be less hard-boiled and become sunny side up when you crack this open, as I have poached your best chef.
As Ishmael closed shop Lily stood, her dress swaying around her ankles as she took her footing again, and Ishmael was reminded just how tall she was, the heels did not help. Settling her waist sash and tucked her purse back into the folds before smiling and walking over to the exit as Ishmael shut down the restaurant.
“One of the things I like about this place is there’s always a shop open. Walk with me?” She asked, offering an arm for the other woman to take.
Normally, coming off of work she would feel tired. A level of exhaustion that constant grueling work always brought about, compounded with interaction with less than pleasant people that kept her in a form of lull for most of the night. She was surprised to find that, in the wake of the sudden excitement that came along with the opportunity, she felt much more lively than she typically did. Stepping out of the kitchen, flicking off the last of the lights and flinging the kitchen half of the structure into darkness, reminding the two of them that no natural lights existed here, and no windows peered out onto some terrestrial place with a day cycle.
Stepping up to Lily, she suddenly paused as Lily rose to her full height. Ishmael had never considered herself short, if anything she was a bit taller than many of the people she knew growing up. However, Lily, wherever she was from, was clearly a different breed in that regard. It was possible that wherever she was from had sent one of their more physically intimidating members, but given the dress she found it hard to believe. That brief hesitation was then hit with another brick in the gut by that offering of an arm. The psychological blow was obvious, a brief gape of the mouth paired with a half-spoken syllable, and a brief flush of red in her face that further explained the twitch-stop of her body.
Deliberately pushing past that embarrassed hesitation, she slowly took the arm of the larger woman. She had seen such formal actions before, but they had always seemed so... Distant, like something you saw in movies or the rich nobles of distant cultures. She made a point to glance in the other direction as they walked, clearly hiding the persistent redness of her face.
“Now, we’ll need to you some proper tools, outfits, and any other materials you’ll need, and of course, a celebration.” She said, the clicks of her heels marking their passage through the ship.
The taller woman in the fine dress almost pulling along Ishmael who seemed determined to be looking anywhere else. Lily hadn’t been onboard long, but others of her kind had passed through here and told her about one particular place that was always open no matter the hour. She turned to Ishmael and smiled down at her understandingly as she guided the woman along, thinking perhaps Ishmael was just quiet because she had only just come off work, of course she needed a good meal to regain her energy.
“Ah, but first, you must be tired. Let’s eat something substantial and discuss business.” She said as they walked.
Lily’s head turned this way and that as she tried to find her bearings, before slowly she found the way she was looking for with persistent gently pull, herded Ishmael with her throughout the ship. The slow click of heels, one pace for almost two of Ishmaels as they went.
It took about ten minutes before Lily brought them both to the front of a small sliding door, a dull warm orange glow emanated from within. Strangely, the sliding door was made of wood, but not fancy wood, old, well worn wood that almost looked like repurposed floorboards. A small sign written in Kantongo, the language of Tai Pan, it was a single sign, long and gracefully hand painted on a paper lampshade that made do for a sign. Looking up one could see the small balcony above the shop for the live-in apartment facing out into the hall.
Lily looked down at Ishmael, squeezing her arm reassuringly with a bicep before opening the sliding door. Warm colours spilled out of a room made of rich earthy colours. It appeared to be a small U-shaped counter with two levels. Nine stools sat arrayed around the counter, each with a small pot filled with utensils and paper towelettes at its place. In the middle clearly where the server stood, the hint of densely packed shelves flowed into a cramped, but well-kept kitchen filled with a variety of cooking devices of all kinds. Knick-knacks and old, well used items dotted the spaces in the corners of the room, each with a story and history of its own, while on the wall hunt a piece of paper, crudely taped that read:
At the sound of them entering a tall, well built figure wearing a black apron and a gaudy, brightly patterned orange and yellow smoking jacket peered out from the kitchen. Sharp animal ears and black ringed eyes peering at them sharply.
“Welcome.” He said crisply, nodding to the two women.
"Depending on what the kitchen primarily serves determines a lot of the supplies needed. For a more... Broad kitchen, that may be something worth several trips, as for uniforms, well, I suppose that's up to the dress code?" Kitchen staff usually wore more lax attire compared to those more in public eye, given that kitchen's tended to get stuffy and uncomfortable. However, it was still important that they look good.It was part of the culture, after all.
She blinked as they entered the Taianese establishment. Normally she wouldn't consider going into such a place. The lower class places were typically so strange that she never considered them viable options for food, and the higher class establishments that borrrowed from the more dignified ranks were far too expensive for her blood. As she entered, she had the realization that she wasn't entirely certain which class this place fell under. She wasn't particularly well versed in those bizarre, isolationist transhumanists anyway.
"Good evening." She greated, feeling a bit out of place still wearing her kitchen atttire, minus the coat. Her eyes lingered on those ears, trying to quickly determine if they were real, or if they were some fashion accessory. She had heard that in Tai Pan, there wasn't particularly a difference. "Table for two?" She asked with a friendly smile, hoping to alleviate the embarassed feeling of walking into the restaurant arm-in-arm with a woman who could likely bench press Ishmael.
“Sit.” His voice was deep, not quite gravelly, but throaty.
Two women, one reminds me a certain kind of foreigner. They come through rarely, but always seem to leave an impression. They all seem to know each other.
“Good evening.” Lily replied easily, letting go of Ishmael to close the sliding door behind them before slipping around to take a seat on the side of the restaurant, with a view of the exit. Crossing one leg over the other once more and patting the stool next to her.
The owner came out of the kitchen and stood before them, crossing his arms patiently. Black ringed eyes staring at them with gentle mute interest from his tall muscular frame. Waiting for their order silently. Even a basic look around made it clear the man had far more ingredients to far more than just pork soup, even if it was a Taianese favourite.
Pork soup was a favorite, but she knew enough of the common street foods to take a guess at what else would be available. She did have to admit that she was suddenly hungry, and an order she had gotten too many times from cheap street venders came to mind.
"Pork curry rice, please. Spice B dash three-sixty, please." She ordered politely. "Or, some spice similar to it, if that's not available." She was a small woman, so it might come as a surprise to the waiter that she had ordered a spice that could make eyes water by just standing next to. Some restaurants that had spice challenges even employed the same brand of spices, though B-360 would still be considered mild compared to it.
"And tea to drink, pleace." She offered a small, polite smile, almost eager to see what kind of meal her companion would order.