art by Erin Cardwell
Today could not have been a worse day. Kasi had woken up with one of the worst hangovers of her life, had lost a grum that she should have won, and lost it so badly that she didn’t get paid. Fighting that injustice had made her late to her shift at Orion’s Bistro, so she’d been relegated to serve the worst tables in the restaurant. Not to mention the fact that she was still a little soggy from getting splashed in the grum — which wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d placed even a little higher.
And to top it all off, she had the worst customer occupying the best table in her measly bunch.
He was about thirty, tall, a little overweight, with nervous, shifting eyes. He was decked out in formal attire: white tie, black shirt, and white pants obscured virtually all of his exoskin.
Kasi’s section of the restaurant was meant for the truly ostentatious — set up on a balcony — which is why it had only three small tables. But unless one of the Alphas or Betas came in, it was unlikely that she would make tips enough to justify the inordinate service she was expected to render her customers. Instead, most of the time her customers were pairs of middle-class saps who were coming to a restaurant like this for a special occasion, sitting in the fancy section, and then proceeding to try and spend as little as possible because they couldn’t really afford to come here in the first place. This was the story with one of her tables. Another of her tables was sitting empty at Gabra’s insistence, in case someone truly important strolled in, expecting to be seated at once.
And the third was occupied by the man in the white tie. He hadn’t ordered anything but a glass of water, which he kept picking up and setting down, over and over, and alternately glancing behind him, over the edge of the balcony at the entrance of the restaurant.
Kasi dropped off a check to the other diners — not that they’d requested the check, but they’d certainly been here long enough, especially since they’d turned down multiple offers for more dessert or another round of drinks — and approached the man in the white tie as he picked up his water and set it back down without drinking.
“Can I get you anything?” Kasi asked.
“No, not until my girlfriend gets here,” he replied without looking at her. His eyes darted from the entrance, to his water glass, which he picked up and set down again.
“You could move to the other side of the table, you know.”
“I don’t want it to look like I’m waiting for her.”
Kasi grabbed the lip of the table to keep from slapping him.
He started to babble nervously. “If it looks like I’m waiting for her, then she’ll think that I disapprove of her and she’ll be upset and then I’ll be upset for upsetting her, and then the moment won’t be right and –” Kasi walked away even though he was still talking.
She went past a flight of stairs leading down to the main dining room, and turned a corner, disappearing into her station. It had a checkout stand, stacks of menus, bins of supplies, and a pneumatic dumbwaiter to lift prepared dishes up from the kitchen. Almost immediately Gabra appeared behind her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Gabra asked.
“Ugh!” Kasi let out involuntarily.
“I saw you walk away from that customer while he was talking.” She stepped around the corner to get a view of him. “And now he’s crying!”
“That’s not my fault! He’s all worked up because his girlfriend is running late.”
“And you want his girlfriend to arrive to find him crying? I’m sure that will be really great for both of their appetites.”
Kasi shifted her weight to the side and gave Gabra an exasperated look, who returned to her an insistent stare.
“Fine.” Kasi brushed past her and strode over.
The man in the white tie had buried his face in his hands.
“I’m sure she’s just running late because of the shuttle. I heard the new colonists were arriving around this time today.”
“You think so?” he asked, looking up. His eyes were all puffy and red. He sniffed, sucking wet snot back into his nose.
“I do.” She turned to walk away, then she caught Gabra’s eye. She was hovering near the top of the stairs, watching her. Kasi turned back to the pitiful man. “Blow your nose on the napkin. I’ll get you a new one.”
He took the napkin off his appetizer plate, unfolded it, and emptied his sinuses into it. He held it out to her.
She stared at it for a few seconds, wishing profusely to scoff and stroll away, but she couldn’t. Not with Gabra watching her. She took it, holding it away from her with two fingers.
Gabra remained by the top of the stairs as Kasi brushed by her and went to her station. She dropped the dirty napkin in her bus bin, and then grabbed a replacement.
Gabra nodded her approval and descended the stairs again as Kasi dropped off the napkin to the man in the white tie. He gave her a weak smile, then picked up his water and set it back down. He glanced over his shoulder and his red eyes lit up. Standing, he waved at the entrance of the restaurant.
“Finally,” Kasi muttered, moving over to the now-vacant table where her other customers had left their check and gone. Maybe she could still make enough.
She picked up the check and dropped it into her apron. “Give me some good news, KM.”
“Seven dunnets on a seventy-two dunnet bill. Nine point seven percent.”
“Of course,” she sighed. She grabbed a pair of menus from her station and returned to where the girlfriend was just sitting down. He’d had Kasi wait to bring the menus until she got here.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” the girlfriend said.
Kasi went ahead and placed the menus on the table, since they weren’t paying any attention to her. She was about to walk away when she saw Gabra down on the floor of the dining room glance up at her. These were the premium tables, and she’d be remissed if she walked away when there were no other tables to go serve, no other duties to perform.
“It’s a long story,” she replied, waving a hand. “And I’m hungry.”
Kasi opened her mouth to run through today’s specials, but the man interrupted her.
“I was really worried about you.”
“There was no reason to be.”
“So what happened?”
She sighed. “I was dragged downtown by an overzealous stripe.”
“Well, the streets were super crowded, and I was running late, and I didn’t want to keep you waiting, so I thought I could get here faster if I took the rooftops.”
“You were swifting.”
“I wasn’t doing it dangerously.”
“We talked about this,” he said. “It’s always dangerous. If not for your health, then for your reputation.”
“No one is going to blame me for hurrying to a date with you.”
Kasi interrupted them. “Can I get you started with anything to drink?”
“A Gin Centauri for me,” said the girlfriend.
“And anything for you?”
“But why were you running late in the first place?”
“I just lost track of time.”
“You were gambling, weren’t you?”
“Handicapping,” she corrected. “I haven’t gambled since we talked about how a mom shouldn’t gamble.” She turned to Kasi. “I’m sorry about your luck today, by the way.”
Kasi’s cheeks flushed as she recognized the woman she was waiting on. Dema. She had been an renown punter, and no one knew for certain why she’d quit gambling. There were rumors, of course. That bitter punters who she’d beaten had hired some thugs to teach her a lesson. Kasi and many of the other grummers didn’t take stock in that story: everyone knew Dema had nerves like nanotubes.
Yet here was the answer, and it was far more mundane than any of the rumors.
“A mom shouldn’t be swifting either,” he said quietly.
“You do realize that Dema is one of the best punters there’s ever been. She has a gift, and you’re making her waste it.”
“For the love of the alphas, can you give us some space!” he said, rising from the table.
With pleasure, Kasi thought as she ducked out of the conversation.
As soon as she left the table, KM automatically relayed the drink order to the computer. Within a minute, the pneumatic dumbwaiter rose up and opened, bearing the Gin Centauri. Dema and the man in the white tie were still bickering — rather loudly — but Gabra’s policy was clear: when food or drink arrived on the dumbwaiter, it was to be on the table in thirty seconds, unless it would mean interrupting service to the customer she was with.
As Kasi walked back out to the table, she saw a couple come in. The badge on the woman’s sleeve marked her as a beta. The host gestured toward the balcony. They looked up, saw the fighting couple, and shook their heads. They pointed to a table on the lower floor. Kasi sighed. She set the drink in front of Dema without a word, then stalked back to her station.
When she got back there, out of sight, she slid the glass of her helmet down over her face. “KM, mute outgoing for a minute will you.”
The noise of the restaurant — including that of the worst customers she’d ever had — faded to a low rumble.
“Remember, you’re in an atmospheric building, so –“
“You couldn’t do this somewhere else?” she growled, not to KM. “I mean really, you’re here for a half hour ordering absolutely nothing, just taking up space, and then even when your girlfriend does get here, you don’t even bother to order a drink before you start bickering like you’re already married. And not only that, but you’re driving the other customers away, the only chance I have of making some decent tips. And of course you would. Of course you would. Because the whole burning solar system is conspiring against me today!”
Kasi breathed for a few seconds. Very faintly, she could still hear the voices of her fruitless patrons. She closed her eyes, leaning heavily on the checkout stand, hanging her head.
“Could you send a message to Tix?”
“Go ahead,” KM replied.
“We’re not going to have enough to keep Roddy from throwing us out. Pack up the Gyro-tote with some blankets, and all of the food. Fill up our water bottles and put them in there, too. If there’s any more room, pack up anything you think we can sell. Wait for me in the stairwell. I’ll be home at 1700.”
A lump formed in her throat and she did her best to swallow it back down.
“Is that the end of the message?” KM asked.
“Tell him not to be scared… That’s everything,”
Kasi took a deep breath and turned back toward the dining room.
Gabra was standing right behind her.
She said something, but it was muffled. “Glass up,” she said, motioning.
Kasi hurriedly unlocked the glass and slid it back from her face. “Sorry I –“
“Go.” Gabra gestured back toward the dining room.
Kasi brushed past her.
The bickering couple was gone.
No. They weren’t gone. That was still Dema, but she was smiling now, and holding hands with the man across from her, who had taken off his white tie.
She strolled up to the table. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked hopefully.
“Get us a bottle of bubbly!” he said.
“We’re engaged,” Dema explained. “What will you have to eat, dear?” she asked her new fiancee. “Anything you want; it’s my treat. Let’s dip into the gambling fortunes I’ll make tomorrow,” she said, giving Kasi a wink.
Read the next chapter: Arich