I look with dismay at the long list of recipes for “gluten-free birthday cake” listed in the database from Earth’s world wide web. When the cruise director asked me to make one, I assumed “gluten-free” was a flavor and that I’d be able to find a recipe easily. I am a renowned Nebula Chef, after all, and I’ve earned stars in eight other culinary styles. But apparently when it comes to human cakes, there are additional options like chocolate, white, lemon, vegan… the list goes on and on. Even the article titled “Best” has over twenty variations.
“This would be so much easier if I could talk to the client in person,” I grumble to myself. The Romantasy’s crew members are only permitted to interact with cruise ship guests on an as-needed basis; I guess baking a special-order item isn’t considered “needed.”
I tap my fingers against the island countertop in time to the lyrics playing on my Integrated Communication Chip. I have the kitchen to myself, and only half the lights are on. The racks above the island counter in the center are empty, however, and maintenance tools cover one burnished metal countertop. This area is officially closed for renovations, but other than a hazard warning posted next to the garbage evacuation button, the appliances are fully functional. I brought my own utensils, and I’ll have to clean up after myself, but the privacy is worth it.
Regardless of how unimportant the cruise director believes this special order to be, I’m going to give it my all. Not only does the client want to showcase this cake on a cooking show, I’ve learned that a judge for the Nebula Chef awards is on board, and I want to earn the first ever Nebula Star for Earth cuisine. Though I’ve never met someone from Earth, my matrix is currently in human form. I always assume the form of the species I’m cooking for; it helps me better understand their palate and culinary methods.
A recipe for something called a “Classic Bundt” pops up. Its shape reminds me of a Hypawan cuttlefish. I pause, considering. Should I go with classic or unique? If I choose something simple, I have to get the flavor and texture absolutely perfect. But the judge is likely to grant more leeway on something challenging. Pursing my lips, I continue scrolling.
I’ve spent the past few days cranking out mass orders for over four hundred passengers, and though I enjoy making people happy through food, I’m weary of making the same thing over and over. This cake will not only let me showcase my skills, it will bring joy to someone on a special day.
A recipe for cake doughnuts scrolls past, then something called a funnel cake. Both use a technique called “deep frying,” which is basically boiling in oil. According to the servers I’ve spoken with, such items seem popular with the humans on the cruise, and the funnel cake looks like it will stack nicely between layers of frosting.
I shrug. Why not? If the results aren’t satisfactory, I have time to start again.
Turning up my music, I start assembling the ingredients.
* * *
I grip the stem of a glass holding what passes for alien champagne in one hand while I pace near the service elevator on the Romantasy’s observation deck. The strange spicy scents coming from the nearby hors d’oeuvres tables would usually intrigue me, but tonight I need to stay focused. My entire career could hinge on this slightly underhanded scheme, but it’s not like I have a lot of options.
Overhead, the domed ceiling reveals a glowing yellow planet surrounded by multi-colored rings, while an alien orchestra plays a lively tune from a circular stage in the middle of the room. Nearby on the dance floor, I catch the familiar laugh of my oldest sister, Suzanne, as she waltzes by in the arms of a blue-skinned alien. At least she’s having fun. I’ve lost track of my other two sisters, but I’m sure they’re here too, as we’re required to attend these nightly meat-markets as part of our free cruise package.
A winged alien with gray skin and horns sprouting from his forehead catches my eye and angles toward me, but I cross the edges of my pashmina over my chest and level my best resting bitch face in his direction until he changes course. I probably should’ve opted for something less sexy than my elegant black evening dress and stilettos, but there’s a chance I’ll need to shoot some selfies this evening, and I want to look my best.
I’m not on this cruise to have fun. My primary focus is the food—more specifically, the chefs. It’s been two weeks since my producer threatened to cancel my baking show if I don’t come up with a plan to improve ratings, and I was at a loss about what to do until my sister won tickets to this luxury space cruise. Aliens are all the rage since the galactic prince married a human last year, and hosting a real-life alien chef on my show could send ratings sky-high. My producer sure was salivating at the idea.
Yet here I am, three days in, and I have yet to even meet a chef in person. Apparently, the Intergalactic Dating Agency has a policy against staff mingling with guests, and no matter how much I protest, plead, or pout, the cruise director keeps denying my request. Everyone acts like I intend to jump the chef’s bones on sight or something. The best I could do was commission one chef to bake my birthday cake as a demo.
I’ve bribed a steward to smuggle me into the kitchen so I can capture footage of the chef at work. I think the chef’s Nebula Chef credentials will impress my producer, but the show is about more than just the food—the guests need camera appeal, and the only way to prove that is to capture footage of the chef in action. Once I have that, I can focus the rest of the demo on the show-stopping presentation and taste test. I can’t afford to let this plan go sideways or I’ll lose my show for sure. And I don’t lose.
As I’m searching for my guide but trying not to be obvious about it, I notice a young woman with gorgeous black skin searching the buffet. Her eyes are red and glistening with tears, and her arms are crossed tightly over the front of her bronze cocktail dress.
“Are you all right?” I ask, checking behind her in case some creeper is trying to follow her.
Her breath hitches. “Do you know if there’s any club soda around here?” She uncrosses her arms to reveal an ugly magenta stain on the neckline of her dress. “I need to get this out before it sets.”
“No, I’m sorry.” I grimace. “But club soda doesn’t really work for stains, anyway.”
She bites her lip, chin wobbling as if she’s about to cry. “This is my only cocktail dress...”
I move closer to get a better look at the smudge. I can’t tell what it is. “They probably have some sort of alien technology on board that can remove that for you by morning.”
“Maybe. But I was hoping to clean up now.” She smiles weakly. “It’s not easy to flirt when you look like a slob.”
Although I’m not here to meet alien men, most of the women on board are, and I feel bad for her. I remove my black silk pashmina and hold it out. “Here. See if this will cover it up.”
She shakes her head. “I can’t take your shawl!”
“It’s fine, really. You need it more than I do.” I drape it across her chest and let the long ends hang down her back like a dupatta. “See? Now nobody can see the stain.”
She smiles with relief. “Thank you so much. How do I get it back to you?”
“I’m having a birthday party tomorrow in the restaurant on the lower deck.” I’ve used a sizable portion of the show’s marketing budget to book one of the ship’s small restaurants for my birthday so I can showcase the alien chef’s cake, and even invited the galactic crown prince, Arazhi, and his new human bride. Go big or go home, right? “Come to the party and you can return the shawl.”
“Oh, wow! Happy birthday!” She hugs me. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you again.” She heads back to the dance floor with a bright smile.
I watch her disappear into the crowd before once more searching the vast, crowded room. Where is my contact? I’ve been standing here since the party began. It’s impossible for him to miss me.
Chewing my lip, I check the time on my phone for the tenth time in as many minutes. I paid in advance, so that little alien better not stand me up. Though if he does, I’m not certain I can tell one short gray alien from another enough to ream him out…
The elevator cycles open for what feels like the hundredth time tonight, and my pulse quickens. A thin gray alien wearing a white crew uniform steps into view. He looks like something straight out of the Roswell books, with an oversized head and huge dark eyes, and he hurries straight toward me. Finally.
“Are you ready, miss?” The alien glances nervously from side to side. “The corridor will be vacant for a brief span of time while the servers ready the next courses. We must be quick.”
“Not a problem,” I say and follow him to the circle on the floor. The lift descends with dizzying speed, making my already nervous stomach lurch. Maybe I should’ve avoided that drink. I’m still reeling as we come to a stop in the middle of a corridor intersection.
“This way.” My escort hurries me down the passage. Unlike the ornately decorated guest areas of the ship, the walls and ceiling of this wide corridor are a featureless gray, though the deck is painted with symbols I can’t decipher. If I didn’t have the alien leading me, I’d be utterly lost down here. I pause to snap a photo of the symbol on the floor so I can get back on my own if I need to.
When I look up again, the alien is already several yards away. I run to catch up, my stilettos clicking against the hard deck. Ahead, the familiar bustle and clank of working kitchen staff echoes from an open hatch on the left. We slow as we approach, and my guide says, “We need to pass by here quickly.” He peers around the corner, then beckons to me and whispers, “They’re not looking. Hurry.”
I tap the record button on my camera and aim it inside as I scurry past, barely daring to breathe. Three or four alien cooks move around stainless steel counters, too focused on their work to notice us. I’ll take a better look at what I filmed them doing when this is all over. Maybe I can work some of it into the demo film.
We turn down another hall, moving past hovering carts of neatly folded linen before coming to a stop at a closed hatch. The small alien gestures toward it. “Chef Izhima is in here.”
I hand him several of the credit chips we use onboard as tips, thinking it might be good to reinforce the bribe. “Thank you.”
The alien grins, small mouth displaying what looks like glistening gray gums instead of teeth, and presses the door control. “Enjoy yourselves.”
He scurries away as the door shushes quietly open. Music emerges from inside, a soprano voice singing in a language I can’t understand.
Taking a steadying breath, I slip into a half-lit kitchen.