Crispin’s Bakery, Concourse B, open round the spin like most places on Temasek Station, stood empty here at the pit of Afterwatch. Ella looked up from shelling walnuts as the Corporal entered.
“White tea is hot.” She flicked open the light over the best table. “It’s also chocolate and ganja.”
Surly, heavy-muscled, he did not sit. “I’m here for dream cake.”
Ella made her expression blank. “Cream cakes? We’re out, mas. Cream’s rough to get lately.”
“Don’t treat me like a fool.” He thrust out his jaw. From the slight discoloration of cloth near his rank badge, Ella guessed at his recent demotion. “Sell to me or I find Station Security. They’d like to hear what you sell on their concourse.”
“Mas,” Ella said evenly. She glanced up, noting with no surprise his utter lack of attention, despite the threat. None of them ever looked at her. This one was scowling at the tiles of her counter, painted with fish and fig trees and lilies.
“Give it to me. Now.” He slapped down his link card.
The recipe was never the same twice. Often Ella was not precisely aware of what she mixed into the cakes. Oh, rice flour, certainly. Well-beaten egg. Coconut milk. Honey. Spices—cardamom, or ginger, a ghost of anise, a drift of salt. While the oil heated, she shaped the cake, the dough soft as air in her hands. The oil popped. Placed on the griddle, the pastry puffed, its spicy sweet smell filling her galley. She eased it to its other side. Then it went on the dream plate: boneware fine as shadow, indigo flowers like lace around the edges. A dust of spiced sugar and she brought it out.
“That’s it?” The Corporal’s thick brows bent above his heavy nose.
“Mas.” Ella carried the plate to the best table, and returned to the galley for the tea.
He scowled at the cake. “How do I eat it?”
“As you wish, mas.”
The scowl deepened. They always wanted more—ceremony, drama, fancy words. Ella didn’t know how she did this, if it was magic or what it was; she only knew that this catching of the fabric of reality, this momentary snagging of fluid potentiality into the mix, the sweep of disorder into re-ordering, required no words, no gestures, no sacred dance.
Just the cake itself.
At the table, the Corporal tore a strip from his cake and shoved it in his mouth.
Ella retreated to her walnuts, watching him from under her lashes. He ate and ate, hunched like a mountain, his big head thrust forward. The tea cooled, untouched in its bowl. His big jaws worked.
Then, quite suddenly, he went still. His eyes narrowed.
Ella felt the familiar shiver as the universe reshaped around her: deep within her, the familiar sharp sweet pleasure, laced with the bright razor of guilt. She gripped the bowl of walnuts between her palms.
A deckhand skittered into the shop. “Captain! Captain Lemar!”
The corporal lifted his head vaguely. “Captain . . . ?”
“Sir! Your wife!”
He touched his rank badge, no longer a faded space with a single red bar stitched haphazardly across it, it now glittered, the triple gold and black of Captain. “My . . . ”
“The baby, sir! It’s arriving!”
Captain Lemar stared at the deckhand.
“Your wife requests your presence, sir!”
The Captain shivered, as the universe had shivered, and straightened his back. “Tell her I’m on my way.”
The deckhand shut his mouth, and then said, “Sir!” and dashed off.
The Captain looked at the scraps of cake. “This is a dream.”
“No,” Ella said. “Now this is where you live.”
“It will fade. It isn’t real. It’s . . . only a dream.”
“It was your dream. Now your dream is the world.”
His big fist closed on the table by the dream plate. “My wife . . . Catalia.” He shook his head. “I remember meeting her. It was my brother’s wedding. I remember our first summer. We were always together. I remember the day we—” He shut his teeth, his heavy jaw muscle working. “But I have no wife.”
Ella studied the sullen lines around his mouth, the darkness under his eyes. None of that had changed.
He shivered again. “A child. She’s having . . . we’re having. . . .”
Ella watched him, waiting. But he wasn’t talking to her. And then, getting to his feet, he wandered off along the concourse, slowly, and then with more speed.
After a bit, she got up to clear his table. She stared at the scraps of cake for a moment before she put one in her mouth.
A child. A girl. Catalia smiling as the Captain takes the infant from her.
Another child. The girl, a toddler now, peering dubiously at the baby.
The Captain in a staff meeting, shouting.
An apartment, some unfamiliar station. The children, older, and Catalia waving goodbye. The Captain does not turn to see their farewell.
The Captain, on a new ship, a smaller one. His crew shooting him wary glances.
The Captain, receiving a post “promoting” him to administration.
Catalia, weeping as the Captain shouts at his adolescent daughter.
The Captain, taking a position on a Free Trade merchant ship.
The ship, its engines failing, drifting inexorably into orbital decay around a gas giant raging with lurid green and black storms. The Captain, clutching his handheld, watching a capture of his wife and daughters laughing as they bake rice cakes in their galley.
Ella swallowed, and drew a deep breath. Not as bad as some, she thought, and went to the counter to retrieve the Corporal’s card. She knew from experience that for at least an hour, maybe even two, after the change, it would still be functional. Running it through her handheld, she checked the balance—not much, as usual, though more than it might have been—and then emptied the funds from an erased world into her own account.
The scraps of the cake itself she burned to cinder over a high flame, while her galley filter screamed its alarm at her, shrill as a soul in pain.