Sanitation kids were always the most cheerful, JG-2041 thought. Admittedly, they had the worst job on the whole base (except, perhaps, for Kylo Ren’s assistant), so maybe it was the suppressed joy from getting off shift and into the kitchen. There was one of them — one of the FN series? — that seemed to be almost impossible to deflate, even when they hadn’t made their team goal so they were on unflavoured polystarch portions and water.
“Chef?” One of the sanitation kids was at JG-2041’s side, rather than eating with their squad. “Permission to ask a question?”
The small mask looked down at its feet, the child inside still too young to quite grasp that JG-2041 couldn’t see its face. JG-2041 smiled, secure in the knowledge that no-one would ever know.
“One of the troopers in FJ squad said that once we pass through the next four training cycles, we’ll have to take over our own meal preparation.”
“Yes,” said JG-2014. “That is correct.”
The child fidgeted. “If that is correct, is it possible for FN-2187 to learn how to make meal preparation palatable? The FJ squad said it would take several cycles to learn, and FN squad has a recreational period scheduled during the primary meal preparation phase…”
“FN-2187, are you suggesting that you might surrender your recreational period over the next four training cycles so as to learn to cook?”
“I didn’t mean to be—“ The trooper stopped himself. “This cadet enjoys learning new skills.”
JG-2041 patted FN-2187 on the shoulder. “You will report here at the beginning of standard hour six, and stay until standard hour nine.”
FN-2187 practically vibrated with joy. “Yes, Chef. Affirmative. I mean. Thank you.”
There were three standard hours of meals twice a day; the first was all the little ones. The focus was on nutrition for peak efficiency; building good muscle mass, bones and teeth, good brains, all the things that food can do. It was also bland and easy to produce en masse; several hundred small stormtroopers need feeding quickly and efficiently, and that’s something that large puddings, mystery meat stews, reconstituted slush, and polytarch portions can achieve very quickly. It also packed up well into shift-meals, cold and uninviting as they were, which could be eaten quickly in the middle of the daytime shift.
The second standard hour of meals was when any squad member not on active duty could exchange tokens for ready-prepared food. Portions of polystarch, usually; it was no surprise that given the hours of active duty, and the appetites of most of the troopers, that they availed themselves of communal kitchen facilities during the quieter hours. The third standard hour was officers, who did not cook for themselves. JG-2041 took pride in what was served to the officers; it would be pleasing to have a helper for the creation of these meals.
FN-2187 showed up promptly at standard hour six, even though their squad had been given extra rations that evening after a particularly gruelling march across the lava fields to the north, where the engineering teams were constructing The Weapon.
“FJ leader said these greens were good to eat,” said FN-2187, holding out a handful of fireweed leaves. JG-2041 was glad that the mask covered raised eyebrows; the last plot of fireweed had been burned out with the construction of the huge drilling apparatus that would one day turn the icy planet into a starkiller.
“Where did you get those?”
It was amazing how FN-2187 could shrug in what was quite restrictive armour. “I climbed up on a pile of rocks. None of the others was game to do it, but it wasn’t as dangerous as it is in the garbage pit when we go in to unblock the mechanism.” Tiny hands were good for getting wedged pieces of garbage out, true, but sometimes there was one less mouth to feed if something went wrong.
“Good work, FN-2187.”
“Thank you.” FN-2187 was puffed up with pride. “What do we do with them? Should we give them to the others to eat?”
“We’re going to cultivate them,” said JG-2041, because Captain Phasma liked fireweed, and Kylo Ren, fussiest of eaters, did not. “But we’ll add some to the dishes for your squad, and then I’ll show you how to crisp them so that they can be served with even something as awful as proteinloaf and it’ll taste good.”
“But I like proteinloaf,” said FN-2187.
“At ease, cadet,” said JG-2041. “You have much to learn.”
After the fireweed, FN-2187 brought back fern potatoes, amber root, small berries that the computers cleared as edible which tasted a little like fizzing sugar, and from one planetside visit, rancor jerky, which tasted just as disgusting as it sounded.
It was a shame, JG-2041 thought, that one couldn’t request a shift in assignments. FN-2187 would be a worthy successor to the position of chef, given the years needed to train properly and the patience to not try to jam everything into one’s mouth before considering whether it was, in fact, edible. Instead, FN-2187 did as all the younglings did; trained in weapons operation, close combat (armed and unarmed), ranged combat, squad bonding and goals, and completed their shipwide duty.The small kitchen garden of plants growing in old tins of mass-produced food sludge was regularly raided for FN squad, but equally tended by FN-2187. Even once the long training cycles passed and FN squad were to take care of their own food, FN-2187 showed up and learned.
Until one day, they didn’t, and instead of FN-2187, Captain Phasma came to the kitchens at standard hour six. JG-2041 saluted crisply.
“It has come to my attention that FN-2187 has not been undertaking prescribed rest periods,” said the Captain. “I have authorised reconditioning.” She regarded the kitchen garden with what could only be disdain. “This…hobby… will not continue to to be indulged.”
“Understood, Captain,” said JG-2041, an inexplicable pang like the worst heartburn blooming at Phasma’s words.
“See that nothing of the sort happens again.”
And of course, the next time that FN-2187 was in the kitchens, there was no spark of recognition, no springing steps or pride in their stance. They were with others from their squad, standing slightly apart, and JG-2041 wondered how much their superiors had conditioned away, what the child might retain. It seemed to be nothing, and the heartburn pang returned.
But there was work to be done.
(And then, not long after, someone had neatly trimmed down the fireweed where it hung over the edge of the tin, the leaves faintly corroding the metal. And there was a note scribbled on the back of a soup packet.
JG-2041 hid it, and found a spring in their step. And if the next time FN squad were sent out on a reconnaissance mission, there was a handful of sweetblossom left in with the other plants, who was to know but the two of them?)