It seemed to Vila that a change of scenery was in order.
True, at the moment he was surrounded on all sides by a magnificent mountain range. Gleaming white peaks atop treacherous inclines towered high on all sides for as far as the eye could see.
But the fact that these slopes were composed of dirty crockery really did diminish their majesty somewhat. The Himalayas might be only marginally taller, but Vila thought they probably didn't smell even half so foul.
Something had gone horrendously wrong in the galley of the Liberator.
"I can't find a single clean fork," Tarrant had said, this morning at breakfast time.
"Really," Dayna had answered, in a pleasant tone of voice that made Vila feel uneasy. "I wonder why."
"The dishwashing system must be malfunctioning," Tarrant had said. "I'll ask Avon to have a look."
"Dishwashing system?" Dayna had asked.
That was when Vila had begun edging slowly in the direction of the exit.
"Dishwashing system," Tarrant had repeated. "The means by which our dirty dishes are made clean again."
"Tarrant," Dayna had said. Sweetly. Vila had started to retreat more quickly. "The only dishwashing system on board the Liberator is us."
Tarrant had looked utterly nonplussed.
Dayna had furrowed her brow. "Well, I know I've been doing the dishes twice a week since I came on board, and I had assumed that everyone else was doing the same. But I've been rather busy lately, so I figured the rest of you could pick up the slack for a while, and I'd make it up later." At that moment a cup had come loose and clattered down onto the deck, causing Vila to twitch violently. "But apparently everyone else has been equally busy," Dayna had said.
Then Tarrant had smiled that winning smile of his. "Could you just make time to wash me up a plate and a single set of cutlery, please, Dayna? It won't take a minute, and seriously--I'm starving."
That was when Vila had dropped all pretense of subtlety, and dived for cover behind the stacks of crockery.
That had been nine hours ago, and there'd been no sound in the galley for ages now. Vila wondered if it was safe to come out. He tugged a nearby plate free from its place in the heap, with the intent of pitching it up high into the air and seeing whether or not it was shot down like skeet. Unfortunately this interference disrupted the delicate balance, and an avalanche ensued.
"I would ask you not to disturb me any further," said a voice, as Vila stood up slowly, shaking shards from all the creases of his clothes.
"Orac?" Vila looked around, and eventually spotted the computer still half-entombed in the dirty dishes. "How long have you been here?"
"Not long enough," Orac replied.
"So," Vila said. "What's new?"
A change of scenery was definitely in order, and it seemed to Vila that this was as good a time as any.
It had been at least a month since they'd left the Teal-Vandor combat zone, so stress levels ought to have lessened a bit. Aside from the dish issue, of course. And everyone was gathered all together for a change. Avon and Cally were on their bellies playing Space-Scrabble under the table. Tarrant was somewhat preoccupied at the moment by the fact that Dayna was attempting to castrate him from the other side of the flight deck.
Vila strode into the room boldly, albeit he was deliberately shielding his crotch with Orac. "Well, I have to admit, that last vacation wasn't quite as relaxing for us as I'd hoped it would be," he said, to whomever might be listening, and stood his ground as an arrow grazed his ear. "So come on, gang, what do you say we try again?"
"Get down, you fool," Avon hissed.
"Oh, I'd like to, I would, I'd like to get down tonight. That's why I'm risking life and limb--and more important bits--just to bring you all this joyous news."
"What joyous news?" Dayna asked, expertly loading another arrow into her crossbow.
Vila smiled and sweated. "The joyous news that this week's episode of 'Herculanium Chef' is about to start, and we just happen to be right in the neighbourhood!" He looked down at Orac and spoke to it softly. "I don't think I dare set you down just yet. Show them the viscast first, there's a good paperweight."
Orac sighed so deeply one could almost see its plexiglass sides heave, but aside from that it complied without complaint.
The viscast began with a quotation, printed simple white on a black background.
"Tell me what you eat, or it'll be the
slave-pits of Ursa Prime for you!"
"How very peculiar," Cally said.
Now the visplay showed Servalan decked out in more than even her usual overblown finery, standing on a balcony and gazing pensively out over a vast deserted gleaming kitchen which stretched out as far as the eye could see (or at least it appeared to, but perhaps it was just done with mirrors). "Five space-years ago," the voice-over said, "a woman's fantasy became reality in a form never seen before: Kitchen Planet, an entire planet given over entirely to the culinary arts "
"I can't imagine any fantasy of Servalan's would not include at least one head on a pike," said Dayna dubiously.
Tarrant smiled. "Artistic license. Setting the mood, you know. But let's watch and find out, you never know, there just might be heads on pikes yet."
"She secretly began selecting the top chefs of various planets' cuisine," the announcer continued, dramatically, while dramatic music swelled, "and she named these indestructible culinary entities the Herculanium Chefs! Herculanium Chef Terran is Taka Prozaka; Herculanium Chef Gothic is Charl Tara Takanumba; Herculanium Chef Auronar is, unfortunately, dead...and Herculanium Chef Vandorian is Vinni Notaroboto. Here on Kitchen Planet they await the challenges of master chefs from across the universe. Both the Herculanium Chef and the challenger have one hour to tackle the theme ingredient, and use it prepare artistic dishes never imagined heretofore!"
Dayna raised her eyebrows. "A little elaborate for a cooking show, don't you think?" she asked. Vila shrugged and tried to flip a peanut up into his mouth, but it missed, and instead dropped straight down Dayna's cleavage. A scuffle ensued.
"Oh, but this is not just any cooking show," Tarrant responded, when the ruckus had died down.
"Oh no," Avon seconded knowingly.
"And if ever a challenger wins over the Herculanium Chef," the announcer concluded breathlessly, "he, she, or it will gain the people's ovation...and ten million credits in small unmarked bills!"
"Ah," Cally said.
"Mm-hmm," Vila concurred happily.
"Of course you do realize that none of us can cook to save our lives," she said.
"I do indeed, but dear Cally, a wise man once told me, 'give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. But teach a man to mug fishermen on their way home from the river--"
"Yes, I think I see where this is headed," Cally sighed, as the viscast cut to commercial.
Avon steepled his fingertips and addressed Tarrant. "So the plan is, we watch the viscast--"
"And play the drinking game," Vila said. "I've printed out a copy of the rules for each of you." He pulled five thick binders out from underneath a console and started to pass them around.
"--and play the drinking game, those of us who feel like--"
"Oh no, it's not optional," Vila stressed. "They have security out in force patrolling this sector after the show, and trust me, the penalty's harsh if they catch you trying to drive home sober."
"So," Avon said, glaring at Vila and holding his binder aloft in a threatening manner. "The. Plan. Is. We watch the viscast. We enjoy ourselves in whatever way we see fit, which will for some of us entail inebriation. Then, immediately after the outcome is announced, if the challenger won, we teleport down, take his money and run. If, on the other hand, the Herculanium Chef won, we take Servalan's money and run."
"Couldn't we do that right now?" Cally asked.
"Of course," Vila said, "But I really want to watch the show first. Watch, smell, taste, ah, ten million credits can wait. Fortunately 'Herculanium Chef' uses the same forehead disk frequency the Teal deal did, so we can reuse these." He picked up the box of blue and green disks.
"Have they been washed?" Dayna asked.
"Oh, don't be so picky," Vila said. "It's only going on your forehead."
"Is that a no?"
"Yes. Ssh, commercial's over." They all turned to watch the visplay screen.
Music accompanied a confusing montage of images. "If memory serves me correctly," Servalan murmured in voiceover, "Lady Luck has not smiled much upon the Tarrant family in recent times. The youngest of their clan, a wartime deserter, was court-marshalled and executed in absentia some time ago--" Here the viscast cut briefly to shot of a dressmaker's dummy with a sign reading "Del Tarrant" hung round its neck being shot by a Federation firing squad. "--while the eldest met an equally ignominious end more recently, when he suffered fatal injuries while attempting to trim his nostril-hairs with a turbo-powered laser-probe in preparation for a forthcoming televised appearance as First Champion of Teal."
"That's a damn lie and she knows it!" Tarrant cried.
"But a third Tarrant brother still survives and thrives, his reputation growing rapidly in culinary circles. Deeta Tarrant of the Teal Faction, are you prepared to do battle for the little remaining honour of your family?"
"Deeta!" Tarrant gasped. "That's my brother!"
Avon eyed him sidewise. "Not to be tactless, but didn't your brother Deeta die tragically scarcely a month ago?"
"That was my other brother Deeta," Tarrant said. "This Deeta eschewed violence in favour of making the world a better place through haute cuisine. I haven't seen him since he stormed out of our family living quarters after seeing Deeta and I stab each other with pickle-forks in a bloody fight over the last package of freeze-dried lasagna." He smiled, his eyes growing filmy with pleasant memories of mayhem. "Gosh, Deeta and I will have a lot to catch up on."
"Let's hope he doesn't win, then, or you won't want him catching up with you," Avon said. Immediately Tarrant's eyes unfilmed. "Not that we'd steal money from your last remaining brother, of course," Avon said. "Not as long as you're armed. So, let's hope even more that Deeta doesn't win."
"But he has to win!" Tarrant exclaimed. "You heard Servalan, it's the Tarrant family's last chance to regain its honour! If Deeta loses, I'll be obliged to commit sekka...pekka...I'll be obliged to plunge this ship straight into the heart of the nearest sun."
"No, you see use of the ice-cream maker only rates a sip," Vila told Cally. "If they throw any sort of meat into it, though, well then it's bottoms up." Cally nodded.
"Oh look, they're entering the kitchen!" Dayna said.
Deeta Tarrant looked remarkably like the other two Tarrant brothers, except that his hair was done up in a spectacularly gargantuan afro. Simultaneously Herculanium Chef Vandorian Vinni Notaroboto stepped forth, all dressed in silver like a great sleek baked potato, looking supremely cool and confident.
"Looks like it's time to take sides," Vila said.
"Since apparently I now don't stand to profit either way, I think I'll put my money on Notaroboto," Avon said, and stuck a blue disk to his forehead.
"I don't know--there's something fishy about that fellow," Tarrant said.
Avon smiled sharkishly. "Maybe so. But my mother always told me, 'never trust a skinny cook.'"
Tarrant furrowed his brow. "Is that why you always claim 'this is the day my people fast' whenever it's my turn in the kitchen? I always did wonder who exactly your 'people' were..."
"The smart ones," Avon said.
"Ssh!" hissed Dayna. "The Chairperson is about to unveil the theme ingredient."
"Today's ingredient is--" Servalan waved her jewel-encrusted arm extravagantly, and a great cauldron full of glowing green amoeboid monstrosities, writhing and hissing, rose up out of a mighty pit full of roiling fog. "--Andromedan!" Deeta and Vinni both looked horrified. The words "Andromedan Battle" appeared in one corner of the viewers' peripheral vision.
Servalan grinned evilly. "Allez cuisine!" she cried, and the two chefs rushed toward the cauldron and began grabbing fistfuls of slippery screaming Andromedan and piling them high in bus pans.
"All right," the announcer said. "Joining me in the booth today are 'actress' Zeeona Kamanawanalaya, and inexplicably meteoric pop phenomenon Trooper Par. How do you feel about today's battle so far, Zeeona?"
Zeeona giggled something extremely forgettable in response. Meanwhile, down on the kitchen floor, Herculanium Chef Vinni was moving with inhuman swiftness and precision, slitting open the bellies of the frantically wriggling Andromedans with the razor-tipped fingers of one hand and scooping out their pulsating green organs with the slotted spoon on the other. Vila shuddered. "I haven't seen that many attachments on an appendage since that time Travis was torturing us by acting out his favourite scenes from 'Inspector Gadget'," he said.
"The Herculanium Chef certainly isn't wasting any time," the announcer said.
"Darvid-san!" another voice cut in.
"Yes, Ato?" the first announcer said.
"The Herculanium Chef has told me that frying the organs while they're still twitching is the only way to suppress the amoeboid smell. When I asked the Challenger about this, he said 'hah! So's the Herculanium Chef's mother!' and continued beating his Andromedan to death with a rolling pin."
"My mother has a rolling pin," Zeeona giggled.
"Fifteen minutes have elapsed," a sultry female voice intoned.
"That didn't seem like fifteen minutes," Dayna said.
"I think they edit it, you know, to make time for the tasting and judging at the end," Vila answered.
Cally looked at him. "But you told us this was a live broadcast."
"Of course it is. Oh look, Vinni's deep-frying fish-heads." Vila peered down at his binder. "That means everybody has to take a drink."
"Now the Herculanium Chef is taking the Andromedan organs out of the frying pan," the announcer said, "and mashing them together with--what is that, buttermilk?"
"Let me just expand upon what the Herculanium Chef has in his pot here--besides the Andromedan organs he has added sun salt, oil of moon disc, heavy pepper, and the 'soft roe' of a Tarsian Warg Strangler."
"Oh, I love soft roe!" Zeeona squealed. "I could eat it all day!"
Meanwhile the camera cut to Deeta, who was still valiantly struggling with his Andromedan, which seemed as hale and hardy as ever and was in fact now plastered firmly around his head and upper body. "It looks like the Challenger may be having a little bit of trouble with this dish," the announcer said, as Deeta collapsed out of sight behind the counter.
"Now the Herculanium Chef is piping the mixture of Andromedan organs and Tarsian Warg Strangler soft roe into the lightly-poached intestines of the very Tarsian Warg this Tarsian Warg Strangler was strangling when it itself was strangled. "
"Ooh!" Zeeona gasped approvingly.
"Thirty minutes have elapsed," the sultry female voice intoned again.
"Now the Herculanium Chef appears to be putting the fried skin of the Andromedan into the ice-cream maker--" Vila elbowed Cally, who reluctantly chugged her entire glassful. "--and, oh! It looks like the Challenger is still twitching, so he may yet have a shot at survival, if not culinary victory."
"The Herculanium Chef's sausages smell delicious!" Zeeona exclaimed.
Presently one of Deeta's hands reappeared above the counter-edge and scrabbled desperately until it found the handle of some sharp exotic kitchen utensil. "Die!" he screamed.
Tarrant took a drink, although this was one of the very few times when the rules didn't say that he had to.
"Fifteen minutes to go," the sultry female voice purred.
Deeta was sweating so profusely now that his hair had all wilted and was beginning to obscure his vision, but at long last he had successfully vanquished the Andromedan, and was now gutting it with a certain degree of sadistic delight.
"Darvid-san, now the Herculanium Chef appears to be browning the creme d'Andromedan by shooting red-hot lasers out of his eyes."
"That's an original technique," the first announcer said.
"And now the Herculanium Chef is cleaning the kitchen up after himself--an act unprecedented in the annals of chefdom!"
Vinni's speed and skill in dishwashing were as astounding as his cooking talent had been. Dayna made a sound as she watched him wash up that Vila had never hitherto thought to associate with kitchens. Really ought to start helping out in that department, he thought idly, and then something happened which required him to take another drink.
"And with thirty seconds remaining it certainly doesn't look good for the Challenger--but no, he's opening the oven, he's pulling the Andromedan concoction out and dividing it up onto plates, in the nick of time--and the battle is OVAH!"
After another lengthy commercial break, the viscast showed loving closeups of the competitors' completed offering. "The Herculanium Chef presents five original dishes," the announcer said. "First, Andromedan Antipasto, followed by Succulent Haunch of Andromedan Poached in Hummingbird Blood, Hearty Homestyle Andromedan Stew with Andromedan Dumplings, Andromedan Sausages served on a Bed of Truffles and Caviar, and finally, Creme d'Andromedan With Strawberry-Andromedan Ice-Cream Topped With Gold Dust and Cocaine. The Challenger, meanwhile, counters with, ah, one dish--Braised Bruised Andromedan With Onion And Lots of Salt."
Tarrant moaned. "Zen, set course for--"
"Oh come on, cheer up," said Vila, "he's still got a chance. At least let's see what the judges think. Tastes differ, you know..."
"On our panel today," the announcer announced, "decorated war veteran and best-selling recording artist Trooper Par, 'actress' Zeeona Kamanawanalaya, legitimate entrepreneur Krantor Yakuzamana, and Clonemaster Fenn Fennsdottir," the announcer said, as the waiters rather guiltily deposited Deeta's only completed dish in front of the judges, and slunk away.
Trooper Par dug in, and bravely took a large mouthful. As he chewed it, with great effort, his face underwent remarkable variations in colour, from brilliant red through a delicate purple to chalky white and back again, eventually settling on a pale opalescent green. "That's good stuff that is," he gasped.
"I'm afraid I find the odour to be a bit, ah..." Krantor held a lace handkerchief up to his nose and murmured something indecipherable.
"Perhaps my palate is insufficiently mature to be able to appreciate this dish," Zeeona murmured, gagging delicately into her napkin.
"No no, my dear," Fenn reassured her. "You're quite right to think this is crap. The Andromedan's belly was clearly slit incorrectly. The Challenger obviously has no appreciation of the Rule of Knife Usage. Not to mention the fact that this muck is stone cold."
"Oh no! In all the excitement he must have forgotten to turn the oven on." Tears streamed down Tarrant's face as the smell-centre of his brain was overstimulated by the aroma of raw onions. "Deeta never was a very practical cook," he sighed.
"This is terrible!" Dayna cried. "We have to do something!"
"Way ahead of you," Avon said through the intercom. "All right, Cally, put me down."
"That jacket is hideous," they heard Cally murmur, and then the familiar sound of the teleport. Vila and Dayna and Tarrant all gasped as they watched Avon materialize in front of Servalan just as the Herculanium Chef's dishes were about to be presented.
"Avon!" The Chairperson beamed, and rose up from her chair. "What an unexpected--"
"All right, enough hors d'oeuvres, Madam President," Avon exclaimed, theatrically sweeping bowls and cutlery aside as he shoved Servalan backwards onto the table in front of the horrified judges. "I've got your entree right here, you saucy tart!"
"Oh Avon, season my aged bonito broth with your fresh daikon," said Servalan, grabbing his shoulderpads and pulling him down.
Vila choked on his mouthful of clam-dip and tried frantically to pry the disk from his forehead with greasy trembling hands. Succeeding after several endless agonizing seconds, he blinked until the flight deck swam back into focus. On either side of him Tarrant and Dayna were grinding their teeth and clenching their fists so hard he was sure there'd be blood to mop up afterwards.
"Well I imagine this graphic interlude could take a while," Vila sighed. "After all the buildup in sexual tension between those two over the last twelve weeks or so. Say, Orac, fancy a game of--"
Suddenly Tarrant exhaled sharply. "And I thought Andromedan sausages were the most disgusting thing I'd ever be forced to watch someone make," he said.
"And where on earth did Servalan pull that cigarette case from?" Dayna asked, impressed despite herself.
Vila sighed, feeling left out, and reapplied his disk just in time to see the judges gazing bewildered at the ruins of their meal.
"I can't eat this, it's full of sequins now," Zeeona said, almost in tears.
"In any case, I've completely lost my appetite," Fenn muttered, and shoved herself away from the table.
"Oh dear, how unfortunate," Avon said with a smile. "That means the Herculanium Chef forfeits the game. Isn't that right, Chairperson Servalan? Please keep in mind, when answering, that we are still on the air." He raised his bracelet to his mouth. "Cally, teleport."
"Damn you, Avon!" Servalan shrieked, and hurled the flaccid remains of a squashed Andromedan sausage at his head; but by the time it reached him, he was gone.