Same slop, different day.
Artem ran his sonic cleanser along the bar top and suppressed a sigh. Granted, the Orbital Tavern wasn’t the best bar on Vitt Station, but if they kept serving these freeze-dried dishes, they’d soon be counted among the worst. Even at the edge of the universe, people appreciated good food. Artem did the best he could to spice them up with seasoning and crunchy little extras, but no matter his efforts, these were not the meals he longed to prepare. Working all the way at the far end of civilized space tended to diminish one’s career opportunities.
“Ho, where’s your lawman friend?” Telde, the amphibian bar-back, had scuttled up to Artem’s elbow. He squinted at the dim interior of the bar, noting tables that they’d already cleared and cleaned in preparation for closing. The tavern’s industrial grade servbot, which used to take care of such tasks, had died in a flurry of jerking movements and high-pitched whistles and there were no funds to pay for a replacement, or even repair the original. So he and Telde were on the spot with those duties, as well as their usual tasks. Stars, he was tired of this place and tired of his place in it.
“I serve up much more of this kak
…” Artem reached into the hydrator and pulled out a forgotten serving of glazed protein loaf and set it on a waiting tray. “No one
will want to talk to me.”
The place was blessedly empty of patrons he’d have to outlast, though he was expecting one more. The one he’d been waiting for all day. Driver always came near closing, likely because the Orbital was at the end of his patrol route.
“Aw, it’s not that bad.” Telde, notoriously free of any culinary discernment, shrugged and stacked up the plates from their last customers, a group of muttering Aldorians who’d refused to make eye contact with anyone. It was part of their religion or something, Artem wasn’t sure. However, he was sure the aroma rising from the now-congealed food nearly matched the scent that wafted down the corridors of the station after a big freighter offloaded rancid hyper-cycled waste.
The bar-back stood up and leaned to the side, something in his soft vertebrae popping wetly with the stretch. “So, you think he’s given up on us?”
“Who? The Constable?” Artem smiled like it didn’t matter, but his stomach sank at the possibility the other man would be a no-show. The Domidian came every third day, when the place was cleared out, ate his meal quietly, settled his bill, and was on his way, as regulated as the shipping schedule at the space port. “Was there a robbery or a hull breach I didn’t hear about?”
Telde shrugged and dropped dirty glasses into the washer drawer, his spatulate fingers sticking to the curved surfaces. “No. I just heard they’re getting in some new officers and thought maybe he’d be transferred. He’s been here a few months now, long enough to get a promotion or to pay the price for whatever mistake he made to be sent here for punishment. The Domids are in a flurry, getting ready for war.”
“He wouldn’t have made a mistake.” Artem’s defense was automatic, though he had no real reason to place so much faith in Driver’s abilities. The thought of war, and Driver perhaps being called up to participate, did give him pause. Entertaining warm and sexy fantasies about another man who had barely said more than two words to him meant nothing when it came to knowing someone else’s character. Artem had made that misjudgment a few times before with men he’d bedded but for some reason was willing to give Driver all sorts of credit he hadn’t earned. But what if Telde was on to something, and Driver had already shipped away from the station and Artem had never gathered his courage and made the effort to get to know him? Disappointed hopes sapped his energy, and he leaned on the bar, ready to berate himself as a coward for the remainder of the evening’s cleaning duties. Was it any wonder he was alone?
“Here he comes.”
At those simple words, his mood rocketed from despair to joy. Artem forced himself not to turn or check the time even as his heart raced. Constable Driver was always punctual. He was also always polite, tidied up his table, and was eternally, heart-achingly handsome. After a few seconds of pretending to do something with garnish picks, he glanced over as casually as possible and nodded to Driver as he sat down in his usual spot at the end of the bar, ready to eat whatever was put in front of him. Telde announced his work was done and he’d be on his way. Artem waved goodbye and locked the door behind his lurching friend so no additional customers could sneak in. Telling his stomach to stop fluttering, he walked over, ostensibly to take the order, though the interaction was the same every time.
Driver glanced up from his perusal of the menu in the embedded bar display, his mocha eyes alert. His full lips curved into a slight smile and he brushed his big hand down his tunic front to straighten it. “Hello, Artem. How are you today?”
Artem wanted to tell the truth, but he was here to sell drinks and food, not beg for a kiss from the man he couldn’t stop having inappropriate thoughts about. “Good enough, Constable. How were things in Katar Lac?”
Driver shrugged, just like he did every time he came in for supper. “No riots, so I can’t complain.”
He either used that riot line or made a comment about it being a quiet shift. Driver came across as so capable, he probably wouldn’t consider anything less disastrous than an alien attack as reason to change his routine.
The other man frowned at the menu. “What’s good today?”
. Artem always thought it, never said it. For some reason, his usual response stuck in his throat and he didn’t recommend the day’s special like he was supposed to. The shorta
casserole wasn’t special, hadn’t been fresh for at least three years, so why did he burden this man he liked with something like it every time? His hesitation took too long, for Driver cleared his throat, perhaps to signal that Artem had missed his line. Well, he didn’t want to say it. Why did they follow the same routine, and stay in their safe little roles? The whole galaxy could collapse into a black hole tomorrow and they’d never have said anything worthwhile to each other. Today needed to be different.