Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.
There was a shadowy nook just beyond the end of the bar, created by a group of large green plants half-encircling a mahogany pedestal. The plants were over eight feet tall, with fronds three to four feet long than hung down and swayed gently in the light breeze from the air recycling units in the ceiling. Relatives of the Earth plant Schefflera; the indoor trees had been genetically engineered to bioluminesence a subtle blue along the edges of the scalloped leaves. The trees had woody trunks, but there was still a bluish cast to the grey striated columns standing tall and upright in large plasticrete pots. It was a convenient spot for the wait staff to congregate, while they did the unseen part of their job. The cool lights that shone on the deep green and glowing blue-edged leaves barely penetrated the canopy, giving some privacy underneath to those that watched and waited.
The pedestal had an inlaid comscreen that communicated to the kitchen and the bar. Triggered by biometric scan as each waitperson pressed their thumb against the side of the pedestal, the screen lit up the tables they had been assigned that evening and indicated the status of the customer; waiting to order, waiting for drinks, waiting for their meal, waiting for the check. There the table staff could relay orders quietly and discreetly via the screen, and receive special instructions or changes, from the com, or forwarded directly to link-buds worn inside the ear canal.
"Hey, I've got Captain Sheridan's table tonight," remarked Kim to the empty air around her. All she got was a nod from the bartender, who was busy finishing up the drink order she had just placed with him. "Last minute too. Guess there's always room for the station commander." She laid the drinks out on the tray, carefully arranging them so she could unload them in the most efficient manner. "Table's for two, I wonder who he's wining and dining?"
"Probably station business," remarked Henry, replacing the bottles and checking the garnishes to see if any needed replenishing. "It doesn't have to be a liason." He smiled at Kim, and enjoyed watching the blush spread over her cheeks. He'd finally gotten up the nerve to ask her out a few weeks ago, and they were both still a little stunned at how well they'd gotten on. Seeing each other every night at work hadn't dimmed the attraction either.
"I'll lay odds it's a woman," broke in Jack, who was going past with loads of used cutlery and china, heading for the kitchen. The self-propelled electric cart slid along in front of him quietly, needing only minimal guidance.
"You would say so!" laughed Kim. "You bet Alison the last time that it was a date!"
Jack made a face. "How was I to know that beautiful blonde was his sister? And I still say Alison cheated...she probably knew that ahead of time, and bet me anyway."
"I cheated on what?" The cool smooth tones of the restaurant manager slid over their conversation. Kim hurriedly picked up her tray and headed out onto the floor.
Henry leaned over the bar and said to Jack in sympathy, "Well, I agreed with you, Jack. It had all the appearances of an intimate acquaintance. There was no reason to assume they were family."
Alison looked at Jack pointedly and said, "Those should already be loaded in the washer, shouldn't they? Or were you thinking they would wash themselves?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Jack muttered. Then at Alison's raised eyebrow, he added hurriedly, "It's just that this place has all the latest hi-tech bells and whistles. So," he said casually as he adjusted some items teetering on the cart, "Alison. You wanna bet again? Double or nothing? On Captain Sheridan's dinner date being someone special?" He watched her face carefully, trying to see if he could read whether she knew anything. Not that he minded an excuse to look at her; privately, he thought she was beautiful. Her creamy skin was the color of cafe-au-lait, and her hair framed it like a helmet, every strand in its place. It still managed to look appealingly soft. He appreciated the fact that she treated him as an equal, or at least an equal with the waitstaff. Henry was in a special category; but that was true for everyone. They all liked and trusted Henry. He never took sides, and always gave credit where it was due.
Alison said slowly, "All right, I'll bite." She looked at Jack, the kind of look that made the collar of his uniform suddenly tight. "I say it's business. The man hasn't been here long enough to meet anyone special. And if I'm right, and frankly, even if I'm not, I'd like everyone to lay off the speculation. We do have jobs to do here." At this she pointedly looked from Jack to Henry and back.
Jack put his hands back on the cart, and said, "It's a bet then. I'd better get these into the kitchen. I don't want to miss the fireworks."
"There won't be any fireworks!" Alison called after him. She started to chuckle, and Henry gave her an appraising look.
"You know something, don't you?" He said. "That's really not fair, Alison." He couldn't help the grin that broke over his face.
Alison smiled back, a mysterious knowing smile. "I know who's dining with the Captain, that's all. And it's not someone I expect he'd ever be interested in romantically."
"Give," said Henry. "I'm not involved in your wager. I want to know." He ran a cloth over the real wood bar, an actual import from Earth. It had cost a fortune to ship out to the station, over and above the cost of the genetically engineered teakwood.
Leaning over the bar, Alison whispered, mirth bubbling in her voice, "It's the Minbari ambassador. Not likely to be a personal meeting, is it?
Henry said nothing for a moment; he was looking over Alison's shoulder towards the door of the Fresh Aire. "Hmm," he said. "Can I still get a piece of that bet?"
Alison's head jerked around, and her eyes widened. "Oh my," she said. "That's quite...unexpected."
When Kim got back from the far edge of the room, the area that overlooked the citrus orchards below, she found Alison and Henry staring out at the floor of the restaurant. Alison's lips were tightly closed, but Henry's white teeth gleamed in a broad smile. She followed their gaze and saw a stunning woman in a form-fitting black dress that left little to the imagination, being seated by an attentive Captain Sheridan. Glancing around the restaurant, she noticed that the normal background chatter had faded, and that several customers were indulging in wide-eyed appraisal of the situation. Not all of the looks were friendly. The Captain spoke to one of them, and like magic, all eyes snapped away from their table.
She went to the station and keyed in the orders she'd just taken. Checking over the status of her tables, she saw that no-one had signaled her by link desiring service, and the kitchen and bar indicated that none of her orders were yet ready to take out on the floor. Realizing she had a few minutes free, she took the opportunity to observe the Captain's date more closely. She'd be going over there in a moment to greet them. Shocked, she noted in amazement the tell-tale bone crest of a Minbari, albeit one buried in waves of chestnut hair. "Is that...?" her voice petered out as she struggled to remember name and titles amid her surprise.
"It sure is," said a baritone voice filled with deep satisfaction from behind her. Jack had wandered back into the dining area, and was standing at the edge of the bar observing the scene. Mentally, he gave himself a high five. He was going to win this bet, or he'd eat his...well, his cart. He watched the Captain open a menu and edge his chair closer to his date's so they could read it together. Oh yeah, he was so going to win this one!
Kim came to herself, and checking the order she'd just entered from one of her assigned tables, she hissed at Henry. "You going to fill that, or do I have to do it myself?"
Henry pulled his attention back with a jerk, and stared for a moment at the comscreen over his head. "Yes. Yes, of course!" He busied himself opening wine bottles and setting out glasses for cocktails.
Kim frowned, a line or worry appearing between her eyes. She came over to the bar, and said, "You okay?"
"Just a little surprised is all. I hadn't seen the Ambassador since her...emergence." Henry looked abashed. "I didn't mean to stare, but she's..."
"Gorgeous," interrupted Jack. "It's quite a change. I mean, she was attractive before, in an exotic way, but now..." His voice petered out as he encountered a cold stare from Alison. Spluttering a bit, he went on defensively, "She's something, there's no denying it. And I'm pretty sure the Captain thinks so too."
Alison turned her back to him, and remarked to Kim, "It's the dress that amazes me. How much do you think that set her back?"
Kim said dreamily, "I've seen that very design at Armand's, on the upscale end of the Zocalo. It was priced at oh, about three months of my salary. Tips included," she added.
Henry said gallantly, "It would look even better on you." He was rewarded with a bright smile and flushed cheeks from Kim, who lowered her head to cover her reaction. Her long black hair slipped over her face, and Henry restrained himself from leaning over and tucking it behind her ears so he could enjoy her reaction to his compliment.
Kim reached up and put one hand to her link, listened intently, then said, "Duty calls. Don't say anything until I get back! I don't want to miss any of this." To Henry, she called back, "I'll get those drinks in a minute!"
Jack laughed delightedly as Kim hurried over to the Captain's table. Kim was always willing to play along with his speculations, in her gentle insightful way. Captain Sheridan asked her some questions, then ordered for himself and his companion. Kim exchanged a few remarks with Ambassador Delenn, and then Sheridan. She was smiling as she headed back over to log their requests. Jack noticed the two diners returned immediately to their conversation, becoming engrossed in it, and in each other. No way they were discussing treaties or any sort of station business.
Henry shook his head at the drinks orders Kim had logged into the system; water and orange juice weren't going to be too challenging to fill. "Jack," he said in a mock stern voice, "Don't you have something else to do? I saw that look Captain Sheridan gave the people at other tables. You think he won't have a problem with the staff staring at her?"
Jack shrugged his shoulders, and leaned back against the bar, his lanky form relaxed and his attitude casual. This was just a job to him, and not much of one. He liked the company better than the work, but then, he hadn't enjoyed his work for a couple of years now. Shifting uneasily, he realized his thoughts had strayed to the past, a place he didn't like to go. At least it wasn't the future, which was a place he wasn't yet ready to go.
Kim finished entering the food orders into the comstation, and returned to the bar to pick up the drinks ordered earlier. She confided to Jack. "The Ambassador is charming. I've never talked to a Minbari before. The ones on station seem to keep themselves to themselves, but she was very nice. I must have looked tired, she asked if I was, and when I told her that I had been up late logging hours on the station's magnospectrometer taking observations of Epsilon Eridani's magnetic field, she asked some pretty intelligent questions about it. Captain Sheridan just listened at first, but then asked about my access to station equipment. I told him that I was working with Dr. Sussman to complete my field observations for my thesis. And paying my way by working for Marton Corp, like I had back on Earth."
"Obviously she's made quite an impression," said Alison, who was coming back in from the kitchen area. "May I suggest we leave them in peace to enjoy their meal?" Kim picked up the tray and hurried off . Alison approached Henry, asking quietly, "Can you keep an eye on things for me? I have to place a call." At Henry's nod, she quickly headed behind the bar, towards the front of the restaurant, where she maintained a small office area.
Jack looked worried. "What's going on?" he asked. "Not her normal time to call home."
"I don't know," replied Henry, trying to keep the concern out of his voice. "None of our business, Jack. Tables 7 and 13 both need cleared. Get a move on, we've got reservations coming up. I can only delay them at the bar for so long."
Jack returned quickly from collecting the used dishes and deposited them in the kitchen, and after taking a few minutes to exchange quips with the chef Vincent, he wandered back out to the bar area. He checked the com and there was a welcome reprieve in his chores, so he went back to watching the couple that would determine the outcome of his bet with Alison. Their eyes were laughing even when they were not. He felt a pang, remembering what it had been like at the beginning, with Abby, before it all went wrong. Nice to see that the magic still happened for some people.
Henry had been talking with some Earthers, business types who had settled down at the bar, and after refilling their drinks, he came over to where Jack was standing. "Alison's okay. It was some issue with the school, nothing important." He watched the relief flood Jack's face. "You know, if you like her that much, you should tell her." He leaned forward, elbows resting on the bar. "She doesn't bite."
Jack forced a smile at that, and said, "She's a bit out of my league right now. Maybe once I get my head straightened out, figure out what I'm going to do, where I'm headed." He looked away from Henry, towards the front office, "I'll tell her...in a while."
Henry shook his head. "Maybe. But waiting a while can easily turn into waiting forever."
"That's the truth." Jack hesitated, then said, "I've been thinking about re-enlisting. I left EarthForce with an honorable discharge, and with my security training...well, I might be able to stay here, make a career out of it."
"Alison won't be here forever. Once her two-year contract's up, she'll be heading back to Earth, back to her son. She's only here because the bump in pay for an off-world post will give her enough to keep Kevin in that school until he graduates. He's doing well there, but she wants to be with him. Naturally enough." Henry's dark face was somber. Alison confided in him sometimes; she told him about her deep concern over her son, and what her absence might be doing to him.
"I know that," Jack said forcibly. "But I have to do something. Be something. And this place gets under your skin. I've met a few of the Security guys, back when I was working the casino. They're all right." He abruptly changed the subject, "How's the book coming?"
Henry looked out over the crowd. "There's enough material here to keep a sociologist busy for years, if not decades. My original idea of observing an isolated, fairly self-sufficient society here on the station was a good one, but the interactions between humans and aliens, and the various aliens with each other...that's fascinating. Volumes could be written, not just about this place," He gestured around him at the restaurant's patrons, mostly human, but with some aliens scattered throughout. "but the Zocalo, Downbelow, the casinos. My sabbatical's almost over, and I have some decisions to make, just like you." He stared at the Captain's table, at Ambassador Delenn in particular. "I could write a book just on the Minbari ambassador. What possessed her to do it, do you suppose?"
Jack shook his head. "I have no idea. I heard somewhere she thought it would bring us together, humans and Minbari I mean. Strange idea, but that's aliens for you. They're, you know, alien." He jumped as his ear link buzzed loudly. "Guess I'd better get back to work."
The evening wore on, as they always did, with diners coming and going, bar patrons staying a bit longer, but eventually moving on to other pursuits or back to their quarters. The staff moved quietly and efficiently among the tables, with the bartender, kitchen and managerial staff backing them up in their duties. The Captain and the Ambassador continued focusing their full attention on each other throughout the meal, with quiet talk and intense discussion punctuated by frequent laughter. The other tables emptied and filled again, but no one paid much attention to the two of them after a quick initial glance.
Kim was off early that night, and was heading to the Astrophysics Section after stopping off at the quarters she shared with one of the other waitresses. Barely hiding her weariness, she issued an invitation to Henry to stop by the lab later when he got off duty. Henry agreed, but said he would only stay a few minutes so as not to interrupt her work. He was closing again tonight, and was pretty tired himself. He found himself watching the chronometer on the comscreen behind the bar, ticking down the minutes to the end of his day.
Jack was circulating around the mostly empty tables, filling his cart with missed cutlery and forgotten glasses. He was waiting for the Captain and Ambassador Delenn to finish up and leave so he could start stripping the tables. Alison was in her office, checking the data from the bills against the computer log of payments for the evening. Henry laced his fingers together and stretched his arms out in front of him, cracking his knuckles. He had a lot of typing to do tonight, after he'd seen Kim. Where that relationship was going he didn't know. He couldn't fault Jack for wanting to move on with his life. Everyone here was looking for a way forward, or for a way back.
Catching motion out of the corner of his eye, he saw Captain Sheridan push back his chair, and offer his arm to the Ambassador to escort her out of the restaurant. Jack was yawning visibly, but dutifully started the last phase of the evening, gathering up the linens for the laundry, putting the candles and napkin holders, unused chopsticks and the decorative leaves aside for set-up later the next day. Henry checked that all the tables were empty, and he keyed the control that would dim the outside lights, darken the glass so no one could see in, and light the discreet sign that indicated they were closed. He opened the stopcock to empty the sinks behind the bar. The grey water gurgled through the pipes as it collected in the reservoir below the restaurant, to be joined by the main dishwasher and kitchen sinks' effluent. It would be tapped by the hydroponics team to water the orchards and fields below them.
He waited till Alison came by on her way out, stopping to thank him for a job well done, and wishing him a good evening. Jack had ditched the linens in the laundry chute, and hurried out after her. He could hear their soft laughter, and wondered how Alison would pay off the bet. Jack probably had some ideas in mind, he thought to himself with a smile. Behind him he could hear clinking and clattering from the kitchen, but he knew he could trust the staff to finish up, and leave by the back exit, locking the door behind them. They'd package up the leftover food that didn't get recycled. What they didn't take back to their quarters would be left at a Mission in Downbelow that collected and redistributed the restaurant's leavings to the lurkers who lacked the credits to feed themselves.
Shrugging off his white bartender's jacket, he looked it over, then folded it carefully and left it on a low shelf behind the bar. It had been a long day, and he was glad it had finally come to an to end. As he walked towards the front door, he glanced back at the empty tables. He wondered if they would see the Captain and the Minbari ambassador here again. Touching the switch that would leave the interior lights at the overnight dim setting, he thought they would have to wait and see. He closed the door, set the keypad to locked and alarmed, and thought that wouldn't be hard. Waiting, after all, was in the job description.