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Part of USS Redding: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Underspace and Bravo Fleet: Labyrinth

Manifold IX: a Pinch of Earth Spice

Romulan Bird-of-Prey Koruba, Underspace
September 2401
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Iskander al-Kwaritzmi’s personal log, day 29 in the Underspace: if I wasn’t with Dhae I’d have gone completely insane. That’s loneliness for you. Although the books are good. The crystallization is proceeding without parameters, although the xenon leak yesterday almost destroyed everything. I try not to think that if the singularity virtualizator isn’t properly repaired, there is a distinct possibility that we’ll be stuck in the Underspace for a much more considerable amount of time. I try not to think about that. I try not to think about that.

Iskander stopped his narration and looked around. The engineering room was dark and deserted as it always was, the massive singularity casing silent in the middle, everything else pulsing silently in the background. Dhae had gone for a routine check of all the systems of the rear half of the bird-of-prey — what they had taken calling the fastside, or their prison. No one from slowside came back here.

Trying to push aside the ever-present concern regarding the artificial singularity and the looming threat of dying of old age in the Underspace, Iskander and Dhae had tried to construct some sort of normalcy on the fastside of the ship. They ate together and slept together, but had agreed that it was necessary to spend at least six hours apart, lest they bore one another. They went almost daily to the holographic suit — Dhae had decided that his concerns about it not being meant for entertainment were secondary to the necessity of spending the time: they had played all the storylines that had been programmed in the Baghdad holoprogram — to their great delight they had saved Mohammed al-Khwarizmi’s life from a secretive group of mathematical thieves, and completely derailed another story by deciding that the budding love story between a Jewish seamstress and a Zoroastrian fishmongress was what they really want to sink their energy into — and then had visited several Romulan planets. Those holoprograms, coming from the database of the Koruba, had no storylines that weren’t somehow interrogation scenarios or tests of loyalty, so they just visited and chatted.

Iskander stood and went to check on the virtualizor. It was growing as always. It was the seventh time that Iskander had checked in the last hour, but he was nervous.

The door of the engineering room opened with its distinctive shushing noise, and one of the cleaning robots came in, carrying a tray. Iskander knew now that there were three different cleaning robots that were tasked with taking the food: one was a slightly older model, one had a series of dents in its casing, and the third’s lights were a bit out of synch. For this lunch it was Denty.

But, much more important, it was carrying not a deliciously prepared meal from the cook, but a series of ingredients.

“Yes!” triumphed Iskander at the sight. It hadn’t been easy to organize the transport from the Redding, and to do it behind Dhae’s back, so it was a relief to see it delivered.

He took the tray and walked all the way to astrometrics.

When Dhae joined him, a scarce twenty minutes later, the Romulan immediately knew something was afoot. He sniffed, not finding the usual odours, and his gaze went to the suspicious unexpected tray.

“Iskander?” he asked, suspicious. His curly hair was really getting somewhat messy, but Iskander had talked him into not cutting it.

“Dhae?” replied Iskander, innocently.

Dhae still insisted on wearing his uniform; Iskander now almost invariably dressed in civilian. It wasn’t good practice to do engineering in inappropriate clothing, and he had already ruined a couple of tops, but once again he had to take off his mind.

“So the plotting you tried to hide from me was with the cook of all people?”

Of course he had noticed something. But he didn’t stop me. Iskander smiled. “Plotting? Oh — I almost forgot that you hate surprises.”

Dhae smirked. “I do not. I am very neutral on surprises.”

“I organized a surprise for you.”

“I am neutral but willing to be swayed.”

The Romulan approached and looked at all the material, bowls and small bottles and uncommon utensils. “This is all from the Redding” he added.

“I had to use all of my leverage to convince them to do a shuttle run just for this” admitted Iskander. “It’s food from Earth.”

“How does one eat it?”

“We have to prepare it first.”

Dhae looked at Iskander for a moment, with a perfectly neutral expression, then pointed at the food. “Show me!”

When they worked together, they were a good team. This wasn’t an exception: Dhae was very open to be taught. Also, it was a very simple recipe.

“Try a bit of this, Dhae, and tell me if you like it.”

“Yuk. It’s very, very aromatic. I wasn’t expecting that.”

“We can leave it out.”

“I love it. Such a novel experience. How do you call it?”

“Garlic.”

The cloves of garlic were peeled and mushed.

“And what do you call this?” he asked taking the bottle filled of a yellow, viscous fluid.

“Olive oil. It’s the result of pressing a fruit.”

Dhae sniffed. “Aromatic. A carbohydrate solution?”

“Almost entirely fat.”

“Ah. You probably used it to fry.”

“You’d think so, but it’s got a very low flash point.”

“Ah.”

They mixed most of the ingredients and Iskander told Dhae to mush them.

“Like this, Iskander?”

“A good start, but it really has to become silky smooth.”

“What’s silk?”

“A fabric.”

“Does this recipe involve eating clothes?”

“Eh” wondered Iskander. “No. Just, eh, mush it until really smooth.”

“Should it become an emulsion?”

“No. Our goal is a creamy paste.”

In the meantime Iskander cut the carrots. He had specifically requested for them to be of all colours, and to his delight he found not only orange, white, purple and red, but also the much more recent blue Regan variety.

“What about this red powder, Iskander?”

“Red pepper. A noble spice from Earth. It goes on top, not to be stirred in. Just add a bit.”

Within a couple of minutes of good work — thanks to the chickpea had already been de-skinned — the two time-stranded lovers were sitting at their dinner table, a big bowl of handmade food between them.

Dhae scrutinized the result with some suspicion. “How do you call this?”

“Hummus.”

“That’s certainly a decomposing earth substrate. You humans aren’t very good at naming things, are you?”

“Ehm. I hope you like it.”

Dhae, for all of his bravado, turned out to be quite hesitant before the first bite: he loaded the smallest possible amount onto the tip of a yellow carrot, inspected the beige paste with his eyes and then with the nose, and had to take a big breath before putting it in his mouth. His expression changed completely.

“By the Raptor!” he mumbled, and immediately tried to load as much hummus as he could onto his humble bit of carrot.

The Romulan ate a positively unwise amount of hummus in a positively short amount of time, all while mumbling.

“Why does the Federation keep things like this a secret from the rest of the galaxy?” he asked. “We should conquer you just to find out what culinary delights you hold.”

“Dhae, Dhae, by now you should know how happily I share. The question is why, with all of the spying and lurking that you Romulans do, you haven’t yet stolen a cookbook.”

Dhae shook his head, amused at a realization. “We probably have, which means that this has been kept from me by a Romulan!”

Iskander nodded. “There you go, you Romulans and your love for secrecy. I suggest you go to the Tal Shiar’s main building and raid their cooking database.”

For a moment Dhae seemed deadly serious. “Please do not say that even as a joke.”

The mood immediately lightened as Dhae, undignified, cleaned the bowl using his finger. “We have to eat this again.”

“It took ten of our days to have it delivered, you know? And I don’t think I have enough leverage to have a shuttle made into a delivery mule. But, when you get out of the Underspace, you’ll surely be able to get chickpeas imported.”

Dhae’s mood soured again very quickly at those words. “Yes. When we get out of the Underspace.”

“Yes.”

Dhae took on staring at the bowl with an undecipherable expression.

“You can talk to me, Dhae. This secret isn’t going to kill you.”

“You have been learning against — learning about Romulan society. What do you know of how we love?”

Iskander knew quite well. It was a common topic in the books he read, along with obedience to the State. He answered carefully. “You love in depth, and when that love ends, your next love shall be even deeper.”

“My previous lover was amongst the 150 who died.”

That was unexpected. Iskander gulped. “I am really sorry to hear that.”

“We are both survivors of our previous lover, aren’t we.”

“Have you had time to mourn?”

Dhae shrugged. “Romulans do not mourn as humans do. We honour the dead by renewing our passion for love. What I mean is: it is not too early for me to be in a relationship. But it could be too far a relationship if you are onboard the Redding, deep within Federation space. You know… when we get out of the Underspace.”

Iskander sighed deeply. “I know how you feel. We are not different in this.”

They stared into each other eyes, without finding words. Our of the large window, the Underspace seemed to boil and glow in its orange, horrible splendour.

Dhae spoke, finally. His voice was deep and raspier than usual. “What can we do, Iskander?”

“We will honour the dead by surviving this. And, I don’t know how, we find a way to honour what we have found here.”

As they stood, Dhae pulled Iskander close and kissed him. He preferred to kiss him on the neck and not on the mouth, and did so with surprising care. Later, while remembering the moment, Iskander wondered whether that had been the first time that Dhae had initiated the kiss.