1. The Robot
The spaceship Gastronomy swims through the universe like a piece of donut in a glass of milk. Once, when she was a fresh ensign straight out of the Interstellar Academy, First Rank Lieutenant Carla Hall was prone to space sickness, that woozy feeling you got in your head when you realized you were on a moving vehicle every day, all day. For the first two months, she could barely stand to look out a window. But it's been ten years of service, and now Carla feels strange when she’s on land, her feet rooted too deep and too wide.
Antonia works the navigation system beside her while the lieutenant known as Formerly Angry Dale handles the piloting. Carla looks down at the communications screen and sees the telltale ping of an incoming signal. She returns it with the Gastronomy’s call sign.
“Is someone trying to contact us?” asks Commander Colicchio from his seat in the centre of the deck. The ship’s A.I, a translucent woman in a bare-backed dress named P.A.D.M.A, floats beside him.
“Delivery from the Escoffier Institute,” Carla says, peering at the message. “Huh. I didn’t know they made deliveries by ship. Normally you have to go to port to pick any of their packages up.” She swivels around and grins at Commander Colicchio. “This the new robot you’ve been talking about?”
“Beta Model 357,” P.A.D.M.A confirms. “The Gastronomy has agreed to monitor the model for a grace period and deliver a full report as to its strengths and inefficiencies.”
“This should be good,” Carla says, remembering the little puppy robot she had as a girl in New Louisiana and how much she had loved him. Her fingers move over the keypad, giving the Escoffier Institute permission to approach and dock.
Beta Model 357, when unloaded, is not a cute snuggly puppy. He is a combat model, human in physique and expression, with tightly controlled movements and eyes that seem to flick over everything, gathering data to better render his surrounding input equations. Carla, gathered on the landing dock with several other members of the crew, notices the rifle patterns hidden in his fingers, the whorls that speak less of time and more of calibrated violence. Yet one of his designers has tried to make him appear harmless by decking him in a pink shirt and tight pants. The effect is disconcerting, Marky Mark meets the Terminator.
“We’ve nicknamed him Angelo,” says Dr. Simmons, the accompanying Escoffier scientist. “Or rather, he nicknamed himself that after the deep ocean expedition incident. It’s a long story. Don’t ask. The important part is, at last test, he performed to 96% capacity. I’m sure he’ll make an excellent addition to your crew.”
“Do we need to give him room and board?” Formerly Angry Dale asks warily. “Because I’m not sharing any of my dinky space.”
“He needs neither food nor sleep for maintenance,” Dr. Simmons replies. “Technically you can just stick him in a closet when you don’t need him. However, we encourage you to find him a room in spite of that, to invite him to meals, to treat Angelo the way you would treat anybody else aboard ship. Model 357 has been designed to assimilate into human society for best results. You’ll see what I mean when you start to work with him.” She pats Angelo on the shoulder, and he fidgets. “I’ll miss you, buddy.”
“I’ll miss you too,” says Angelo, and his voice is startlingly organic, as is the disconsolate set of his shoulders as Dr. Simmons prepares to leave.
“Well,” says Commander Colicchio after he’s silently appraised Angelo for a bit, “how about we assign you a handler? Just until you get used to the Gastronomy.”
“Oh, me!” Carla says, shooting up her hand. “I’ll do it!”
There are few on-duty activities she enjoys more than showing new crew members her home, and most of those other instances involve non-regulation chicken pot pie. That Angelo isn’t human hardly matters after a while, and if his mumbled expressions of surprise and respect as she introduces him to the various amenities aboard are the result of Chinese Room Theory mimicry... well, Carla doesn’t care because he puts in the effort. As Angelo peers curiously around at the quarters and the mess hall, Carla uses the moment to watch him in turn. He really is remarkably lifelike, she thinks, and that’s not so astonishing what with the recent leaps and bounds in technology and the new emotive drive that’s been developed for house bots to give them personality but has been extended to combat bots as well.
Carla asks it point-blank anyway. “Angelo, do you feel?”
“Do I feel?” he echoes, confused. “I am receptive to multiple sensations. The temperature is 22 degrees Celsius, the relative humidity factor is 48%, and there is also a hint of paprika in the air, possibly from the sour cream chicken that the cooks are making for tonight’s dinner.”
“Really? Paprika? Hmm, good call,” Carla says. “But I mean, do you feel emotion? Are you ever happy or sad?”
Angelo peers down at his pink threads. “This shirt makes me happy?” he offers. “You’re making me happy.”
“You charmer, I’m married,” Carla says, and is delighted to see Angelo’s facial circuits flush red.
“I don’t like him,” Formerly Angry Dale says when she has to give up playing tour guide and return to her post on deck. “Did they have to design him to be so handsome?”
“What, are you jealous?” Antonia laughs, ducking the stern expression Commander Coliccho gives them that indicates they should be hard at work rather than gossiping. They would be more worried about his displeasure if they weren’t assured of their grace via P.A.D.M.A, who has a soft spot for them and is willing to distract the good Commander from his crew’s quirks by well-timed status report updates.
“I’m just saying,” Dale says, crossing his arms. “If his only job is to shoot bad guys and punch numbers, what’s the use of cheekbones like that?”
“There there,” says Carla. “You’ll be less annoyed knowing that I left him building a shrine in his room dedicated to all the fleet members he respects the most, and your picture is on that board. You’re from the Asian Federation, he was built in the Asian Federation. He wants to be your best friend.”
“Really?” Dale asks, brightening. “That’s incredibly creepy, so why am I smiling?”
“You’re smiling because Angelo is a sweetheart,” Carla affirms. “By the way, what does crocadile mean? I’ve looked it through all the interstellar alien language lexicons, and I can’t seem to find it.”
2. The Scallop
As the representative specimen of Italian manhood on the Gastronomy, Fabio holds to certain ideals (and Ensign Mike Isabella does not count, as a specimen of Italy or as a specimen of manhood, so Fabio feels perfectly at ease to ignore him). The culture and values of his motherland rest on his well-formed shoulders, particularly as they venture deep into space and Fabio is forced to serve as ambassador to alien civilizations; he never wants to falter, lest any slight on him be taken as a slight on his country by species who might not know otherwise.
Currently, the honour of Italy is being threatened by a scallop.
The Cosmic Scallop, to be precise. It is a piece of indecipherable alien technology that the ship had uncovered on a mission in Quagalla, buried deep in an abandoned mine. Once brought on board, it was Fabio’s job as the crew anthropologist to decipher the precise identity and use of the scallop-shaped artifact. However, even with the aid of Richard and Marcel, the two heads of the engineering department, Fabio was never able to discover any more the Scallop’s secrets than to say that it originated in Ancient Quagalla, and that it was likely very deadly.
It frustrates him, not knowing.
It also frustrates him that Corporal Jamie Laurens could simply lose the Cosmic Scallop. They had given it to her to guard for the sole reason that she was part Quagallan, as evidenced by the genetic makeup of her tiny thumbs. They’d thought her cultural identity made her the best protector of the potentially volatile Scallop, which had contained, when they dug it up, trace amounts of radiation. But apparently they were wrong.
“How can you lose the Scallop?” Fabio exclaims, gesturing wildly with his hands. “It is not a turtle! It is not a tarancheela! It can’t just wander away!”
“You mean tarantula. And I didn’t lose anything,” Jamie shoots back. “It was missing from my gym locker when I went to get it after a workout. Someone must have stolen it.”
“Oh God,” Fabio says, thinking about all the disasters that could happen if the Scallop fell into the wrong hands. One of the possible theories was that it was some type of advanced neuropath bomb. No, no, better not to think about that just yet.
“Richard,” he says, finding his best friend. “Richie. Professor. We are in big trouble.” He grabs Richard’s arm to shake him, and Richard looks up at him, bleary and sleep-deprived. He’s stayed up another night to work on a project. Again. Fabio tries to tell him not to obsess so much over his projects, which don’t carry the weight of life or death, but trying to tell Richard anything is like trying to join the National Cherry Pit Spitting Team with no cherries.
“Is the ship on fire?” Richard asks, burying his face in his arms over his desk. “Is Marcel trying to kill me again?”
“No, it’s worse,” Fabio says. “It’s Jamie.”
Richard’s back stiffens. “Maestro, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that.” Fabio rubs soothing circles over Richard’s muscles before being forced to sadly admit that yes, he did.
“We have to tell the Commander,” Richard says at last.
Fabio shakes his head furiously. “No, trust me, that is bad idea. He will kill us, and then bring us back to life, and kill us again. I am too handsome to die like that. This is how we’re going to take care of this. We’re going to find the Scallop on our own, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Wishbone.” Richard gives him a skeptical look, but Fabio pushes on. “How hard can it be? We’re on a closed ship. It must be somewhere close by.”
They’re interrupted by a very familiar, cheery voice. “Did I hear someone say they’re about to die?” Carla appears around the corner and strolls into Richard’s lab. Angelo dogs her a few steps behind, and Fabio narrows his eyes briefly because at heart he doesn’t quite trust high-functioning A.Is. With P.A.D.M.A, the reason is simple: P.A.D.M.A is a sly menace. Angelo seems less threatening, but then he remembers what Angelo is meant to do, and his walls go back up again.
“Nothing is wrong,” Fabio says.
“We’ve lost the Cosmic Scallop,” Richard says.
“What?” Richard casts harried eyes at him. “Carla’s good people. We can trust her.” He rolls forward in his chair and explains the situation.
“Oh my stars,” Carla says.
Angelo looks up at the ceiling, and then at the walls, and then at the floor. “I have a question,” he says. “This Cosmic Scallop... do you call it that because it resembles a scallop? And by scallop I’m using the definition of sea-dwelling marine bivalve mollusc of the family Pectinidae.”
“You’ve seen it then,” Richard says.
“No,” Fabio realizes, “he took it.”
“It was the most optimal decision!” Angelo states. “When I witnessed Corporal Laurens handle the Cosmic Scallop, my systems alerted me to the proper course of action. Which was to make sure the Scallop was neutralized via immediate exit through airlock. I realize my autonomous decision, without Commander Coliccho’s authority, might be perceived as mutiny, but I am prepared to face the consequences. That Scallop was a danger. None of you realized, and so it fell me to act decisively, which is my function.”
“What sort of danger was it?” Carla says. “And oh, Angelo, sweetheart, you don’t need to sound so defensive. Look, your guns are locking in, that’s not a good sign. We’re not angry. We’re really not. You thought you were helping us.”
“The Scallop was evil,” Angelo says, leaning towards her for reassurance. “Scallops come from the sea. Like a shark.”
“Um,” Richard says.
“Are you sure he doesn’t need reprogramming?” Fabio asks suspiciously.
3. The Quickfires
That there are romances on board the Gastronomy will come as a surprise to no one. Long tours in space, pent up restlessness, and athletic bodies in close confines are a potent mix. Most of the crew have learned to look the other way and pray that they never contract an STD, because then they might have to go to the med bay and face Dr. Tiffani “I’m not your bitch, bitch” Faison.
This particular romance might surprise even Dr. Tiffani, however, who has long decided that she has seen everything she has never wanted to about her crewmates, and then some. It might surprise her for the precise fact that one half of the romance is an A.I and the other half is Antonia Lofaso.
Antonia simply doesn’t do romance. She did, when she was young and reckless and lurking in her earthside high school parking lot smoking cheap cigarettes, but that ended with her getting knocked up and her good-for-nothing boyfriend hitching a ride to Los Angeles and never coming back. Antonia doesn’t regret it at all, but she has Maddy to take care of now, Maddy who is one of the few children on board the Gastronomy, and who eats up her time and attention like nothing else. No one ever told her that child-raising was hard, or at at least Antonia has always thought it’d be something you grew into, an understanding that came with maturity. Yeah right.
Maddy’s thirteen now, and a chemistry prodigy, and incorrigible, and Antonia already pulls long hours as the ship’s main navigator. No way is she going to give up precious Maddy time for some schlup date.
When Antonia is on deck, Maddy is in class, and after class, Maddy goes hanging out with her friends in the engineering ward. Antonia is not overprotective, no matter what Dale T. says. She just worries a lot about what her daughter gets up to when she’s not around, and so she has P.A.D.M.A send her updates every now and then.
“Maddy is currently doing her algebra homework,” P.A.D.M.A informs her on deck.
“...Maddy is currently making herself a snack on the food replicator.”
“....Maddy is currently experiencing her first kiss with Jacob Lloyd.”
“WHAT NO,” Antonia says, but P.A.D.M.A slides her an amused look, no less effective for belonging on the face of a hologram. But Padma, like Angelo, is a product of the Escoffier Institute, one of their earliest successful ship A.I programs, and through adaptive drives and multiple patch updates, there is little about her now that isn’t real.
“She’s at that age. You’re just going to have to suck it up,” P.A.D.M.A says, and Antonia drops her face onto her console and groans.
“Jacob Lloyd. I mean, really?” Antonia says for lack of anything better. Her daughter is growing up; it’s the most frightening thing in all the multiverses.
“I can pull up his school records and evaluations for you,” P.A.D.M.A says conspiratorially, no longer speaking through the main comm but directly into Antonia’s earpiece. “I’m not supposed to, strictly speaking, but what Commander Coliccho won’t know won’t hurt him.”
“You are way too good for me,” Antonia says gratefully, and there’s a moment when P.A.D.M.A seems to freeze, which makes Antonia falter as well, because P.A.D.M.A is so supermodel graceful. It must be a bug. “Are you all right?” she asks, genuinely concerned. Some landbound folk might think it strange to count a hologram as one of your best friends, but some landbound folk have never seen the iced patterns on Plant Y45 or watched the Milky Way fade into a valley of dark stars. Space allows for many liberties.
She thinks about P.A.D.M.A when she returns to her quarters after shift and finds Maddy giddy and anxious, watching TV. Antonia starts making dinner; their routine is that on Mondays and Wednesdays, they eat at home instead of in the mess hall, and no food replicators allowed either. As Antonia cooks, she recalls that uncomfortable, longing expression on P.A.D.M.A’s face, and when she thinks about it too deeply, her own face turns red.
See, this is the thing about P.A.D.M.A: she’s gorgeous, right. And she’s smart, and she has a sly sense of humour, and even though she’s meant to be just an obedient program, a tool on the Commander’s arm, she’s not. She has grouchy days, she has sweet and compassionate days. There’s a quality to her that’s fiercely independent, vicious almost in her desire to be autonomous, and Antonia gets that, she really does. When she thinks about how much P.A.D.M.A has helped her in the past even though she wasn’t supposed to, when she thinks about all the long conversations she’s had with P.A.D.M.A, all the battles they’ve fought together at each other’s back, how much Maddy likes her -- it’s a history as long as P.A.D.M.A's fingernails.
Commander Coliccho’s voice sounds over the intercom, breaking Antonia out of her heated thoughts. “Attention, attention,” he says. “Code 7775. I repeat: code 7775.”
Antonia drops her knife to the cutting board. “Maddy,” she says, very calmly. “Get under the bed and don’t come out until I return.”
Maddy is a child of the fleet. She knows what code 7775 means, especially for the Gastronomy. It means attack from another ship; it means the Quickfires.
Antonia unholsters her weapon and raises her bio-shields as she steps into the hallway. She seals the door behind her shut and locks it so that only her over-ride code will open it. Maddy will be safe, for the most part, and P.A.D.M.A has their quarters monitored on a constant feed; she’ll alert Antonia if anyone tries to break in. Weapons ready and senses alert, Antonia makes her way to the dock where the Commander, P.A.D.M.A, and the main crew are assembled. Carla is bent over the communications console, reading the scans that are coming in, and Dale T. is gritting his teeth as he pilots the ship out of firing range. On the screen Antonia can see a radar pulled up with with ten green dots coming closer and closer.
“Where’s their main ship?” she asks.
“Unconfirmed,” P.A.D.M.A says.
“Where’s Tiffany?” she wants to know.
“Right here, right here!” Tiffany Derry strides onto deck and takes her place behind the firing controls. She is the Gastronomy’s head of ammunition, its quartermaster and their best shot. “What have we got here?” she asks as she examines the radar screen. “Looks like a load of nasty. You want me to shoot ‘em down, commander?”
“As many as you can, captain.”
Tiffany’s shooting is a thing of beauty and wonder imported fresh from Beaumont, Texas. She and Dale T. are a seamless partnership in combat, Dale T. bringing the ship to optimal ranges and Tiffany opening fire on the rapidly advancing Quickfires -- funny when the two of them can barely get along outside of shift. But that’s the nature of the service; you’ve got to put your personal feelings aside, and Antonia does just that when Tiffany says oh shit and Dale T. says something even stronger.
“A Quickfire has boarded the ship,” P.A.D.M.A informs them briskly.
They wait for Commander Coliccho’s orders, and the commander doesn’t take long to give them. “Antonia, take Angelo to the docking bay. I’ll have a team sent to meet you there. Don’t let the Quickfires get any further than the bay, do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir!” Antonia says. Angelo is waiting beyond the deck, and he follows her silently. She’s used to seeing him in various transitioning states of awkwardness, still learning how to be a part of the crew, but right now he is deadly primed and perfectly composed, a blooded saint. This is what he was built for, she thinks. There is no hesitation here, no double-checking against his internal code of proper social behaviour. She lets him open fire when they reach the bay, ducking behind Angelo’s barrage of bullets while she phones the rest of the squad in. “What’s your position?” she demands.
“A6, B3,” Jen Carroll confirms.
“Affirmative,” Antonia says. She takes a breath; lets it out. She thinks of Maddy. “P.A.D.M.A, can you get a clear visual?”
P.A.D.M.A can and she does. The ensuing fight is fierce and dirty, Angelo leading the way for Jen Carroll’s team, and Antonia following them, shooting the Quickfires as they swarm around their docked vessel. A part of the bay is hit with an explosion; there are sparks, and smoke. Somewhere in the shared communications channel she swears she can hear Marcel groan at the amount of repairs he’ll have to do. But Antonia’s concentration is not so easily taken away, and she brings down a large Quickfire with two swift bullets from her gun, nicknamed the Black Hammer. One to the knee and the other to the head.
Then she hears a sound behind her of a Quickfire gun going off, and Antonia whirls around, fever bright--
She is going to die.
She did her best to be careful, to fight cleanly, but these are the risks of military life. She is going to die.
P.A.D.M.A materializes in front of her, and the bullet slides into her virtual shoulder, where it doesn’t come out. Antonia has never understood the technology that has gone into P.A.D.M.A’s system, but she doesn’t need to understand. She only needs to watch as P.A.D.M.A absorbs the bullet, consumes it. P.A.D.M.A burns with fury as she sends the Quickfire flying backwards with a shock wave, flying right into Angelo’s killing hands.
"Pack your knives and go!" P.A.D.M.A shouts. Then she whirls around on her heels. “Antonia! Are you all right?”
“I’m, I’m fine,” Antonia pants. “Why did you come?”
“I was trying to save your life,” P.A.D.M.A says.
“Aren’t you supposed to be with the commander?” Antonia winces as she clutches her bruised ribs. The battle is winding down now. There are only two invading Quickfires left, and Angelo and Jen seem to be ruthlessly taking care of those on the other side of the docking bay. “I’m not complaining that you showed up like Wonder Woman at a lingerie party. I’m just surprised.”
“You shouldn’t be. I would do anything to ensure your continued existence,” P.A.D.M.A says softly, and Antonia thinks oh as P.A.D.M.A reaches out and touches her cheek. It’s a ghostly sensation, a little electric like nerves. It sends Antonia’s pulse careening against her bones. She shudders and P.A.D.M.A’s eyes go soft. “We’ll talk about this later?” she asks.
“Yeah.” Antonia sounds hoarse. “Sure. Is Maddy--”
“She’s fine,” P.A.D.M.A says, and smiles. “She misses you already.”
4. The Foam
“What the fuck is this?” Dr. Tiffani says. “Why have you got transporter foam up your nose? Are you in fucking kindergarten?”
“It’s transporter foam,” Marcel says. “Dude, it’s part of the essential makeup of the entire cosmos. Why wouldn’t it be up my nose?”
“I guess it can’t be up your pasty ass, because then how else would you talk out of it?” Tiffani comments, roughly taking a q-tip and scooping the leftover pieces of foam out of his nostrils.
“What I want to know, doctor, is if there’s going to be any side effects.”
“You’re the engineer who plays with foam. How the hell should I know?” Tiffani says, looking at her goopy q-tip with uncontrolled disgust.
“Besides,” Marcel leers, “you like my ass. At least you did that one night where we--”
Tiffani picks up a scalpel. “I hit my head when we crashed. That’s the only explanation for my complete and utter lapse of good taste.” She turns around so she doesn’t have to actually look at Marcel anymore, which lowers her blood pressure back to normal levels.
“Hey doc, have you seen--” Richard stops in his tracks. “Oh, there you are. You left a mess in the lab, you know.”
“I was in the middle of creating a transporter foam to render all other transporter foams incomplete,” Marcel says loftily. “It was science.”
“It was extremely annoying,” Richard says. “I don’t like mess.”
“Riiiiight, because you’re Mr. Alphabetical Order. You’re Mr. Colour Coordination. You’re Mr.--”
“Can you two go fight somewhere else?” Tiffani interrupts. “Because seriously, I have patients to see to, and the both of you can go measure your dicks on your own time.” She doesn’t actually grab the scuff of their collars and toss them out, but it’s a close thing.
In the hallway outside of the med bay, Marcel says, “I think you’re just jealous because my foam is better than yours.”
“Sure,” Richard says, sticking his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders over so that he resembles a turtle with spiky hair. “Never mind that your foam is full of ingredients that will counteract the Hessdale effect when you input the Lee-Kai molecular reaction.”
“You’re not fucking remembering that the Lee-Kai molecular reaction only makes a difference when you have the--”
Another interruption. Angelo this time, shuffling down the hall. He stops when he sees them and opens his mouth.
“Guys,” he says slowly, “do you like me?”
“What the hell,” Marcel says. “No, I don’t like you. You’re weird and your pants are too tight. Now leave us alone.”
“I like you,” Richard tells him. “What’s up?”
“My grace period is almost over,” Angelo confesses. “If the crew doesn’t like me, I’m going to be sent back. I don’t want to be sent back. I miss Dr. Simmons sometimes, but I can still see her, right, without having to return to Escoffier?”
“Oh my god, you’re such a needy robot,” Marcel says.
“Everyone likes you,” Richard says.
“That’s what I thought, but then the other day I was talking to Dale T., and he said it doesn’t really mean anything when Fabio touches you on the waist, that’s just him being Italian.” Angelo’s face scrunches in confusion. “Is that true?”
“Well,” Richard considers, “maybe a bit.”
Marcel folds his arms over his chest. “Look, bolt-boy, it never means anything with Fabio unless your name begins with R and the first syllables rhymes with bitch, and then he’ll be all over you, slick.”
Richard sighs. “For the last time, Fabio and I are not boyfriends.”
“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
“You’re not stupid, Marcel,” Angelo says earnestly. “Your IQ, according to your file, is exactly average, so you have nothing to feel insecure over.”
Marcel’s face deserves to be painted on a mural and mocked forever. Richard laughs so hard that his lungs ache.
“E.T phone home,” Marcel hisses, “like, right now. You want to fight? You want to step up with me, fist to fist?” There is something a bit off with Marcel that he honestly thinks he can take on an Escoffier combat model and come out the victor, and it’s this very characteristic that makes him so obnoxious, but also somewhat endearing. Richard looks upon him like a particularly suicidal alley cat that needs to be guided out of paper bags, and so he pulls Marcel back from trying to gouge Angelo’s eyes from his synthetic sockets.
“Calm down,” he says. “Come on. Let’s go work on your foam.”
“We’re not going to work on anything,” Marcel complains as Richard drags him back towards engineering. “I’m in charge of my project.”
On their way they pass by a flustered-looking Antonia trying to straighten her shirt into presentable lines, and a smug P.A.D.M.A who smiles sweetly and says, “Gentlemen.”
“Hi,” Richard says. “Excuse us.”
They pass Currently Angry Dale, who’s half naked and saying, “Where the fuck is Angelo? He just put itching powder in my boxers!”
“By the med bay,” Richard says, making a mental note to explain to Angelo that some crew members you simply don’t play friendly pranks on, and Dale T. is one of them, not unless you want him to retaliate and retaliate hard. Everybody still remembers the Surprise It’s Not Really Popcorn Asshole Incident of 86. “Excuse us.”
They pass by Carla reading fashion magazines in the lounge with Tiffany Derry, the both of them giggling, and Carla going, “No, no, that’s what he says but you know there’s man law and then there’s meteoroid law.”
They pass by Commander Coliccho on his way back to his rooms for a much-needed nap, shaking his head as if he’s wondering what in the world is wrong with the people on my ship?
They pass by Spike, off on yet another recon mission, and Jen cleaning her gun, and Stephen pouring wine for Casey and Dale L., who are sharing a cake, and Tre is teaching Jamie how to do the foxtrot instead of sparring, and Mike Isabella is trying to hit on Elia again, and Richard smiles slightly at it all, because home is wherever the metal creaks underneath his footfalls and the air blows a little too hot from the vents at night. This, strange and frustrating and much too cluttered; this is what he knows.
Marcel is quiet by the time they return their lab, but Richard makes a place for him on the overflowing tables. There’s a note on his own desk, and the extreme lack of identifiable spelling and grammar informs him immediately that it’s from Fabio, probably about the dinner they’re going to have tonight, but he can read it later. There’s plenty of time. First, he finds the beaker of half-frothed lavender foam on Marcel’s table and slides it out in front of him. Marcel looks up, and then down, and then quizzical.
“You actually want to help me?” he asks disbelievingly.
“I want to help you,” Richard says. “Show me how it works.”