The man in Facilities had a list of equipment for him to approve.
A kitchen squishy. "Umm, am I the chef?" Ebsa ran an eye down the list.
The facilities man shrugged.
"Right . . . I think I need a bit more supervision, here." He hauled out his comm and tapped the contact number on his orders. Introduced himself.
"Ah, the cook, good. Maybe everyone will stop grumbling, finally."
"Umm, yes sir. May I know roughly how many people I'll be cooking for, what is already on site and what budget I have for more equipment and consumables? Or, excuse me, perhaps I should talk to the current chef?"
"There isn't one. There's a couple of vendomats, a fab, and an autovat."
Ebsa blinked. "Tables and chairs? A building?"
"Right, a roof, concrete floor. The weather's nice. What more do you need?"
"Buffet tables, one hot, one cold. How many people?"
"Oh, call it a hundred, hundred and fifty, I can't be more exact on an open line."
"Dishwasher. Plates and utensils. Actual food to cook." Ebsa looked at the list the Facilities man was making as Ebsa spoke. Ebsa reached and typed in 200 for the plates and utensils. The screen flipped to comestibles, and he started highlighting the basics. All frozen.
"Chest freezer." He added, and winced a bit at the total. "About four thousand reals. Does that include delivery and set up?"
A sigh from the other end. "If it'll shut them up . . . relay the list . . . "
Ebsa synced with the Facilities guy, and the approval number flashed. "When will it be ready to be picked up, and will it all fit on a single flat?"
"Two hours. One flat. Loading bay seventeen."
Ebsa thanked both Facilities and whoever the hell it was on the comm. Clicked off.
"I guess I'd better get packed." And load up on spices.
The driver of the flat looked him over and shrugged. "Can't be worse than the vendomat."
Ebsa grinned. "I hope to do much better than that. Err, Ebsa Clostuone."
"Avro Neartuone. I looked you up. Nothing about cooking. We figured you were just a warm body with a high enough security rating."
"My mother's a professional chef. I grew up cooking, and I've done quite a bit when I was across on explorer teams."
"All one of them? For what, three weeks?"
"Two. I did, oh, a total of eight weeks of an internship across."
"Huh." Skeptical grunt.
Ebsa shut up and watched as they headed way out across the Permanent Gate Area. To pretty much the last gate. The other side looked like a graveled road across a flat plain of sparse vegetation. Avro drove straight through. The flat bounced and shimmied. Make that, potholed gravel road.
One large building, white metal roof, open on three sides. Looks like a horse show arena. Across the road from it, a long row of crawlers, out in front of construction. On the far side of the arena, err, pavilion, large tents in army green.
"I've got the boys taking down the last four panels of the wall—there's nothing on the other side, so we figured the kitchen squishy would be go there. Tomorrow, hopefully, our camp hygiene facilities will be ready for pick up. We'll put them to the side."
"Err, far enough away to avoid odor problems in the mess hall?"
Avro shot a grin his way. "You know, that's probably a good idea."
Ebsa stayed out of the way while they unloaded and expanded his kitchen, hooked up the water and drains, added his dishwasher, refrigerator and chest freezer to the system. It left him a good work space and a strong desire for a sturdy work table. The two buffet tables, when he found the time to unpack and assembled them, could sit just over the edge of the concrete pad of the pavilion. Good enough. He checked all the equipment, ran a short cycle on the dishwasher, heated the oven to see if is smelled of plastics or anything else . . . "
"So where do you want all the frozen food? They like the freezer containers back."
Ebsa gulped. Maybe I ought not have ordered so much . . . "Let's see how much will go in the chest freezer. I need to start defrosting . . . what time is it here?"
"Ten hundred hours. Going to be ready for lunch?"
"I'll give it a try. Umm, what about the stuff in the other box? And what do I do with all the packing material?"
"Eh, those boxes are practically disposable. I'll stick it around the back and you can throw all the trash in there as you use the food, for now."
"Excellent." Ebsa intercepted the boxes of meat patties and the chicken quarters. Lunch and dinner. And the bags and bags of frozen cut potatoes. Have to use them all today! Most of the rest fit into the freezer, the remainder into the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Ebsa sighed with relief. First near disaster averted. He fetched the box of wheat buns from the ordinary shipping box. And tackled the fabricator and the vendomats for a few common items. The auto vat was not operating. Ebsa cringed and opened it up. Clean and cold. At least they'd had sense enough to plug it in. The yeast cultures all showed green lights. He double checked the instructions and got it started.
He looked at the two crated buffet tables. Not enough time to get them working, but the boxes were a good height for serving. "Just this once," he muttered.
He walked back to the old machines. They were, with great reluctance, producing mustard and ketchup. Good.
Back to the storage box. The dishes were, of course, on the bottom. He stuffed the dishwasher and hit the quick cycle. Checked the time. Turned on the fryer, poured in the oil. Heated the whole grill and started throwing meat patties on it. At least the potatoes came already cut. Into the fryer with the first batch . . .
"One! It smells like food in here!" A man in uniform, a colonel by the insignia.
The man with him sniffed appreciatively. He was in directorate field khakis, grey haired with a commanding body language. "I think it is food. I heard a rumor we were finally getting a cook, but I hadn't realized it had happened."
Ebsa nodded politely their direction, but turned away to flip burgers, then the fryer dinged and . . .
By the time he turned back he had an audience. Drooling. He threw in more fries, dodged down to the fab to collect the condiments and spread them out on the nearest table.
"First batch of burgers coming up, gentlemen!"
He started loading plates, and . . . ran his butt off for three hours before everyone finally went away.
"Holy One, when was the last time anyone fed these people!"
Laugher from the side. "Never!" in a chorus of voices.
He leaned out. A batch of the younger set was clustered around the vendomat.
"Do you do deserts?" A familiar face, a dark haired beauty. "Hi Ebsa. Thank you for rescuing us. Poor Ajha's run off his feet and hasn't managed a single bonfire yet."
"Fean, long time and all that. I didn't even notice you come through the line. I knew Ajha was here."
"Yep. You were too busy at the time for me to interrupt. You need a helper."
"Yeah, well . . . I got the impression that the home office just sent me here to shut up the whiners. How the One Hell did this many people survive on two vendos and a fab?"
"The Army's got four vendos, the Earthers have one—and they all ate here today."
"Yeah, I spotted all the uniforms." Ebsa looked around. The "new" was definitely off the kitchen. "I used all but three plates. I'll have to try to get more." He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. And in between dishwasher loads, unpacked the two buffet tables and set them up.
Just in time to start dinner.
And clean up again.
He looked around the dark quiet pavilion. The crawlers, with their lights going off, one by one. "So . . . where the heck am I supposed to sleep? I don't even know who my boss is."
Not even crickets to answer him. He found a latrine by smell, and surveyed the crawlers. No sign of which one was the boss's. He rearranged everything in "his" box, and sacked out on packing material.
Breakfast . . . He got up early, set the big bin under the fab spout and set it for dough number five. Twenty kilos. Then brown sugar and cinnamon, fruit filling, throw it into the oven . . . start over . . .
The fresh hot pastries brought in a crowd.
Avro laughed. "And here I thought you'd be a nuisance. Damn, these are good."
"By tomorrow I should be fully geared up. And by the way do you know who I ought to be reporting to and where to find him?"
He laughed even harder. "Ho, a self starter, are you?" He pointed at the grey haired man from yesterday. "Camp Administrator Wxxo Withione. If he escapes, the crawler directly across." He pointed again.
"Ah. Excellent." Especially since the man was eating with Ajha.
Ebsa refilled the platters under the warming lights and walked over to their table
Ajha looked up and grinned. "Ebsa. Fean told me yesterday you were here, as she handed me a plate of real food. How'd you get stuck cooking?"
"Beats me. Good thing I know how." Ebsa eyed the other man. "Err, you're Camp Manager Wxxo? Sorry, I ought to have checked in with you yesterday but I was trying to get the kitchen working by lunch time . . . and I wound up really busy until it was too late to go door-to-door looking for my new boss."
Wxxo grinned. "Feeding me was an excellent way to get off on the right foot with this boss."
Ebsa cleared his throat. "So . . . who do I see about finding a place to bunk?"
"Bunk. Oh, now that's a bit of a problem . . . where did you sleep last night?"
"In a storage box."
Wxxo pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm down to a single open bed—in the Ladies Room. I've a few more empty tonight, but that whole batch on home leave will be back tomorrow. And I've been informed that I'm getting a renegade Action Teamer, One only knows why. Or where I can put him."
Ebsa grinned. "Wqlw Withione Makkah, by any chance?"
Ajha laughed. "Oh, they wised up to what you two are capable of, together?"
Ebsa squirmed. "I suspect they think they're putting all their bad eggs in one basket."
Wxxo looked from Ebsa to Ajha. "This bad egg doesn't seem to be a problem. Is the other one just as bad?"
"Yep. I hope he's assigned to me. I suspect he'll be perfect for sneaky stuff. And Ebsa, if your box doesn't work, you can try the seats in my crawler. Ra'd as well."
Wxxo blinked at Ajha in surprise. "You must like them. You don't hardly let me set foot in your sacred demesnes."
"You've seen those dinosaur vids from two years ago? Ebsa here is the lad who stuck his arm in the T-Rex's mouth."
"And Wqlw, better known as Ra'd, did the field aid you saw then, which was one of the least impressive things he did the whole trip. Once they check his range numbers, I'll be fighting the Army to keep him."
"Really. Utterly uncanny shot. He's a bit touchy, pride-and honor-wise. Just be square with him, and he'll do fine."
Ebsa nodded. "He has issues with Action Teamers . . . he considers rape a serious crime and critical moral failure. And . . . fails to see the humor in jokes about it." Ebsa shrugged. "I don't either, but then I've never even been considered for Action Teams."
Wxxo winced. "So hot bunking in the Team Crawler isn't going to work. Maybe I'll have someone scrounge up another storage box."
"Yes, sir." Ebsa hesitated. "Showers . . . "
Ajha nodded. "Use mine. I'm in the end crawler, closest to the Bad Guys. Hob's on home leave at the moment, so I'm the only one you'll disturb. And Ra'd's welcome as well, of course."
Ebsa tapped out a message for Ra'd. Bunk space here limited. Think about bringing a tent. He cleaned the kitchen, programmed the fab for soup base, and the vendos for ersatz salami. Then he headed down the road to take Ajha up on his offer of a shower. Beyond the end of the row of crawlers, there were five rock arches, a hundred meters apart, with odd lumpy, melted looking ruins visible through them. On their side two army tanks stood with their main guns aimed at gate two and four.
Ebsa eyed the ruins. Is the melty look from the merging? It's . . . creepy.
The fifth gate, to the far right, was different. Tall thick green grass, rolling hills with plains and winding river in the distance.
"That's the world they're apparently going to merge with. Damn shame, all the plants and animals. And even Q and Xen will have missed some of the natives."
Ebsa looked over his shoulder at Ajha. "Then why do they want to merge?"
"As far as we can tell, they think their world has slowed to the point that they cannot avoid merging. This time they have no choice, and this will be the last merge."
"Umm . . . are you . . . exploring?"
"Heh. No, I'm the local spy master. I've got bugs all over, over there. Laser relays through the gate here, a batch of translators both here and back home. Hob's running the electronics for me. You left the meeting yesterday before I could talk to you. I gather you were part of the group that freed the students and captured those Helaos officers. Tell me about it."
"Ra'd and I were across on a dinosaur world—guess which one—with a science team. We, umm, well, with the help of Nighthawk—a Disco rep there to open a gate—well, we captured them."
"I briefly joined the interrogators. They were pretty beat up." Ajha headed for the end crawler.
"Survivors of a Triceratops stampede. Mostly."
"Ah." A little smile tugged at the side of the older man's mouth. "And the gate beacon?"
"Nighthawk has some dimensional skills and can utilize bubbles. She scooped the whole thing up, and we did likewise with the prisoners."
"Surely not just you three?" Ajha snickered at his nod. "The subdirector wouldn't tell us how they'd been captured. We'd all been speculating about whether it was the Army or the Directorate that had the small army across. Oh my. Just you three young punks."
"Umm, yeah. The exploration team was a thrown together group of desk jockeys who'd never been across, two delivery drivers, that icky clostuone, and the guy in jail for assaulting his own team members. Needless to say, they didn't expect us to encounter Helaos. I don't . . . Ajha? Why did they have those students there?"
"It was the second most likely world that Helios might merge with. Q said they were probably keeping the students to use in the early stages of the merge, a shadow zone, if they can get their magnetics stations working. Toss them in to merge with other Helaos, so they have some soldiers who can come and go without instantly merging with whatever is on the other world." Ajha hunched his shoulders. "The One World was the third most likely target. Yeah, that got our attention. Now that that has been ruled out, the stress levels have plummeted."
"I'll bet . . . umm . . . do they also have Oners captive on the other world?" Ebsa nodded at the fifth gate.
"Not that we know of. Fean and I have checked, and Xen and Q have checked as well. They're building facilities over there. Very finicky about the placement. We think they're replicating the infrastructure that they want to survive the merge. But . . . most of the population is emigrating to an empty world. Pity they didn't do that a hundred years ago."
"Ah, but what's killing three worlds full of strangers, when it can rejuvenate you?" Ebsa shook his head. "Glad we grabbed those kids. Once the Dino World was eliminated, they may have decided to cut their losses. Or moved them to the next target. Good thing we happened by."
Ajha laughed. "And then they rewarded you by making you the sole cook for too many people. I swear there must be a requirement to have a lobotomy once you hit a certain grade level."
"Meh. This actually puts me in about the right place to be useful, if there's a problem, another problem, with the Helaos."
"And where Paer is posted." Ajha's forehead wrinkled suddenly.
"That too. And yes, I've met that batch of analyst friends of hers. Had the pleasure of beating up Offe in the dojo, all friendly-like, with a judge and all."
"They're your staff, aren't they?"
"Yep. Well . . . hopefully they'll get over it."
Ebsa shrugged. "No doubt they'll be rude about the cook. Don't worry, I'll feed them anyway. Obvious rudeness has a tendency to backfire."
Ajha sighed. "Yeah. If any of them get too bad, I'll have a reason to send some of them home. They're all reasonably good data handlers, but hardly anything special—other than in their own minds."
"We're in the field. Hopefully they'll all realize that messing up out here has repercussions." Ebsa followed Ajha into the crawler, and looked around at all the screens and computers. "Damn. Hob must be in techie heaven."
When he emerged from the shower, all the analysts were grouped around the recorders.
Off straightened. Stiff backed and appalled. "You? You can't be an analyst!"
Ebsa nodded. "Nice to see all of you again. No, I'm usually X Team, but right now I'm the camp cook, here to rescue you from the vendos. See you at lunch." He nodded politely and stepped down out of the crawler. Looking up the road past all the crawlers to the gate home, he spotted another crawler headed toward them. Battered and dented . . . flakes of darkish paint, or maybe those were singed leaves. Surely not. It backed into the space at the northern end of the row, and settled in. Ebsa strode down to it. Yep, the old reliable Junkyard.
Ra'd grinned as he opened the hatch. "Couldn't find a tent. Once Acty and the Dinologists were allowed back to Fort Dinosaur, he took two barracks squishies and two armored ATVs, since they didn't need the sleeping space anymore, sent the old Junkyard back to the spare parts yard. Maintenance took one horrified look and said it was barely fit for spare parts. So when I got this assignment and your message, I asked our new supervisor and he authorized me to take it. Cheapest sleeping accommodations available, he said."
"Excellent." Ebsa stepped in and thunked his armful of clothes into the washer. Eyed the gun safe. "I don't suppose . . . "
"Oh, well, I unloaded the safe before it was turned back in. Acty kept what he needed. And then I totally forgot to take the rest back to the armory. And I didn't want to leave them in an empty warehouse." Razor sharp smile.
Ebsa laughed with him. "We're an order of magnitude more dangerous now. So . . . I'm the camp cook, what are you?"
"Intel Agent. At first it didn't say, then 'the camp manager' sent that I was to report to Intel. Do you know who's the head of Intel here? They don't give names out, back home. 'Opsec' they say . . . Why the grin?"
"Ajha. Opposite end of the camp. Brace yourself, though. He's afflicted with five baby analysts, and they're just ever so important."
"Ugg." Ra'd looked him up and down. "You're walking around unarmed again, aren't you?"
"I'm the cook, not a guard." Ebsa looked at Ra'd's stubborn body language, sighed and turned to the safe. "I could stick that short 10mm under the buffet table." And of course Ra'd managed to keep his 60mm.
"And a pistol."
Ra'd sighed. Loudly.
"Oh kay. To copy your archaic term, which probably actually means something obscene." Ebsa picked up a 9mm, belt and holster. "Most heavily armed chef on the world."
Ra'd snorted. And handed him extra magazines for both. "I'll go check in with Ajha." His gaze lingered on the weapons, but he only took a pistol. And three full magazines.
Ebsa got busy adding good stuff to the soup base, slicing the hard rolls and stuffing them with three different combinations of ersatz meat and cheese . . . taped the long gun underneath the cold buffet table.
Technically, there's no reason the Helaos couldn't pop through the gates and attack us. Just because they can't detect them magnetically, and we've got illusions over the far side, so they can't see them doesn't mean they couldn't discover them. But somehow I think it would be the soldiers defending us, not the cook.
And the cook needs to attend to business.
He got out his comp and pulled up a requisition form. I'll need regular deliveries of various types of bread. Fab bread just won't do. At. All. Both fresh and frozen vegetables and fruit. . . I wonder if I can get away with real steaks? Only one way to find out.