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21

By Sam Seal

(Based on the characters of the series 'Space: Above and Beyond', created by Morgan and Wong.)

Z MINUS 20 HOURS . . .

(In the 58th's Quarters, after Lights Out. )

"Strawberry!"

"What? HIM? "

"How about a Victoria Sponge?"

"BORING!"

"Lemon."

"Yeah?"

"No, Coop - I mean lemon flavour."

"Oh."

"Hmm . . . banana?"

"He likes popcorn."

"Who ever heard of a popcorn flavoured Birthday Cake!"

"I meant - decorated with popcorn, dummy!"

"Yuck!"

"Not the salty kind, you idiot!"

"Oh. Hey! Who you calling an idiot!"

"You."

"Well, that's okay then."

"Why we're discussing this? I mean - we all know what flavour it's going to be."

"We do?"

"Not cheese and pickle again, Paul!"

"No - I mean - "

" CHOCOLATE!!!"

"Cool!"

"In fact - why not . . . "

Z MINUS 12 HOURS . . .

Shane was In Control. Nominally, at any rate. This was because it was her cook-book they were using and she didn't want mucky hands spoiling the pristine white pages or Cooper drooling all over the pictures. One of her sisters had given the book to her for Christmas in a vain attempt to domesticate her.

It was still in its wrapper.

"Okay, Cooper - you first. It says here 'Melt the chocolate (what's left of it - just look at your face! There won't be enough for the icing if your not careful) in a bowl over hot, but not boiling, water. Mix the chocolate chips, flour and baking soda, then break four eggs into the mixture and stir gently (GENTLY I said - now look at that mess. Honestly Coop - and, I might me wrong, but I THINK you were meant to leave the shells out . . ?)

Z MINUS 10 HOURS . . .

"Yes, Paul - there is a recipe for cheese straws, but . . .

Z MINUS 8 HOURS

"Hey - this toffee cake's not bad! It's all gooey! Eurk - it's also in my hair, Nathen!"

Z MINUS 6 HOURS . . .

"One for the mix and one for me. One for Vanessa and one for me. God I love strawberries! One for the mix and . . ."

Z MINUS 4 HOURS . . .

"At last! An empty kitchen. Now then, who's been eating the bananas - COOPER!!!"

Z MINUS 2 HOURS . . .

"Excuse me, Commodore, but when you said coffee, I never imagined . . .

ZERO HOUR . . .

Colonel McQueen was having a wonderful 21st Birthday. No Presents, no Cards, no Best Wishes. No sign of the Chigs, no Word from the Commodore and, best of all, no sign of the Fifty-Eighth. Just a good book, a decent drink and an empty Tun Tavern.

Bliss.

He had always done his damnedest to ensure that no-one know exactly when his Birthday was. So far it had always worked. This was probably why he utterly failed to suspect The Inevitable when all the lights suddenly dimmed and Commodore Ross sauntered in, followed by his entire Squadron brandishing brightly wrapped gifts. They swiftly surrounded him before he could make his escape, and plied him with presents.

Well, this should be interesting, he observed to himself as he selected Gift number 1. Even without a tag it was fairly obvious that it was from Hawkes. As he wrestled his way heroically through all the Scotch tape, phrases like Adult Supervision and blunt-ended scissors drifted through his subconscious.

It was a "Battle of Saratoga" pop-up book with most of the pictures coloured in with crayon - within the lines, too! More or less . . . It was done with love, and he was very touched.

Gift number 2 was from Wang. A truly massive Scientific Calculator for his very own. Any bigger and it would have been a Main Frame. He wasn't quite sure what he was going to do with it (though it might prove good in hand to hand combat) but it would be interesting finding out.

Nathan handed over Gift number 3 - it was another book. A BIG book. The Complete Works of Famous Dead War Poets, the cover read. Things were definitely looking up! All he needed now was some . . .

. . . of Gift number 4 - a chocolate Hammerhead from Damphousse. To a scale of 1:10. That would last a day or two, if he eked it out.

McQueen turned to eye his present from Shane with deep suspicion. Gift number 5 was a very peculiar shape. Upon further investigation he discovered that it actually broke down into a dozen or so smaller components, wrapped very loosely.

"It's a rubber plant," he said thoughtfully. "And it's another rubber plant. Nice. And a couple of . . . parlour palms and a couple of weeping figs. And these three are cheese plants, and the rest are bamboo! Thank-you, Captain - my Quarters will look like they're suffering from Instant Jungle. Very. . . green. " He worried a little about what effect this unfamiliar eco-system was going to have on his books, but still . . .

He stood.

"Thank-you all very much. I am deeply touched." He wasn't one for long Speeches.

At least - not cheerful long speeches.

"And what any Jungle needs is a tiger, Ty," Commodore Ross declared in his firmest tone, very gently setting a small ball of sleepy orange fur onto McQueen's lap - where it promptly moulted all over the Colonels' black flight suit and made a horrible mess.

McQueen was dumb-struck. (This present was even stranger than the riding saddle he'd received from Ross for his 18th, or the photograph of West with his girlfriend given to him - for quite unfathomable reasons - by the 58th Squadron the previous Christmas.)

Still, there it was - a kitten.

He was just getting used to the idea of being the Official Owner of one feline (as much as a cat can be owned) when the Wild Cards finally played their Ace In The Hole.

In Spades.

So blind-sided was he with unexpected advent of the kitten the McQueen had failed to notice the rest of the 58th had crept out of the room - only to return en masse with a stupendous Birthday Cake set atop a large Catering trolley.

It had six tiers.

It was in six flavours.

It was topped off with a live Lobster.

McQueen realised with horror that the unexpected advent of a large, precariously balanced, Lobster could mean only one thing -

"Tell me, Sir," he said to the Commodore as he indicated the top-most option, "Is this level by any chance Coffee flavoured?"

Ross looked proud. "That's right, Colonel - what do you think?"

"Umm . . . You know how much I like coffee cake, Sir, but - "

"That's all right, Ty - I remembered how much you enjoyed Grandma Ross's Home Recipe Gumbo Coffee with extra everything that time you visited, so I thought 'Why the Hell not!' And here it is! Don't you think all the little crawdads around the sides look sweet? Contrast quite well against the mixed vegetable icing, too."

"Don't they just, Sir." He felt weak. "It's all very . . . colourful." Well, at least it was the smallest layer. "But it might be a kindness if we removed the Lobster before lighting the candles?" he added.

"By all means, be my Guest," Ross replied smilily.

McQueen picked up the kitten very gently, said "OW!" in the approved fashion as the little animal viciously scratched his arm, and then returned the kitten to the newly vacated chair (where it curled up into a little ball of malevolence and promptly fell asleep).

It was time to approach The Lobster.

He'd had some experience with Ross's Gumbo Coffee before, of course, and knew pretty much what to expect. Unholstering his side-arm, he braced himself for the onslaught.

It did no good, of course.

LATER . . .

As he stood rinsing the wound beneath the tap in the Tun's kitchen, McQueen idly wondered how many people had ever been savaged by their own Birthday Cake. . .

THE END

Copyright SamSeal

October, 1997