A Spectrum ‘Challenge of Five’ Story
By Caroline Smith
Melody Angel pulled off her helmet and ran her fingernails through her short, dark mop of hair. Her scalp always itched like blazes after spending four hours in the cockpit of the supersonic jet. Another round of duty over, and there hadn’t been any Mysteron threats, nothing to kill the monotony of just sitting there, waiting. Of course, one had to be glad of that, only she wasn’t the sort of girl to enjoy sitting around at the best of times. It was especially bad stuck up on the flight-deck, where there was little to do but count clouds, and damn few of them up this high.
She had a raw thirst on her. And it wasn’t any little ol’ thirst either. This one was as deep as the Grand Canyon, and as wide as the Mississippi River. Yes, siree, a craving of this magnitude called for one thing and one thing only.
A great, steaming, hot, Lake Okeechobee sized, mug of coffee.
Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth and her nose pinched as she thought about it. God, the smell was even better than the taste. She loved to be the first to open a fresh packet and stick her nose right in there to get that heady blast right in her nostrils right after the vacuum seal was broken. Oh, she swore she could almost smell the dusty, fragrant aroma of those beans right here and now.
She fidgeted with her helmet as the Amber Room elevator seemed to practically saunter downwards towards the source of her satisfaction. Oh, but those gals on standby had better have a brew going because she couldn’t wait. Lordy, she needed that mug of java right here and now.
She bolted out of the elevator as the glass doors opened, to find Rhapsody and Symphony in the Amber room, playing a game of three-dimensional chess together. The two women looked up as she skipped down the few steps into the lower level of the room.
“Hiya, Mel, good shift?” Symphony asked.
“Boring as watching bluegrass grow,” she answered, unconsciously sniffing the air for that tell-tale scent, her legs automatically propelling her to the source of her morning fix.
But there was something not quite right. She came face to face with the glass pot on the heater unit on the far wall and stared at it for three uncomprehending seconds before she realised it was completely and utterly – empty.
She whirled around to face the other two, who were once again engrossed in their game. “Uh, girls, where’s the coffee?”
“There isn’t any,” Rhapsody said, looking up in what Melody thought looked like a suspiciously sheepish manner.
“Uh - well, why the hell didn’t you make some?” Melody retorted with a snap in her tone. She felt uncharacteristically waspish at this unexpected event.
“We couldn’t. We ran out.”
“So, you couldn’t be bothered to get some delivered from the supplies stores?”
Symphony cut in, saving her colleague from Melody’s tongue lashing, “There isn’t any in the supplies stores either - we checked.”
“This is nuts, I always need a mug of that stuff to defrost my butt after sitting up on that flight deck!”
Rhapsody spread her hands wide. “Evidently there was some sort of computer error on the supply roster, and that little item was missing from the list. We had a freight delivery last night, but there was no coffee on board.”
“Not a bean,” Symphony echoed.
“So what? There’s usually plenty inventory to overlap shore-to-ship deliveries.”
Symphony shook her head. “Not this time. Somehow there was a mismatch between what was actually stocked on the shelves versus what the computer said actually existed on inventory.”
“Argghh… I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” Melody said in a strangled voice. “We have the capability to keep a frigging great airship forty-thousand feet in the atmosphere, and yet we can’t get a simple grocery list right?”
“It’s always the little things…” Rhapsody shook her head.
Melody spun on her heel to leave the Amber Room. “Well, there’s bound to be some in the cafeteria.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Symphony said. “The news went round the decks in minutes, and everyone not on duty hit the stores at once. From what I heard, things down there were worse than the gold-rush.”
“They had to call in Blue and Scarlet to break up one fight,” Rhapsody added.
Melody frowned, hard. This wasn’t funny – not at all.
But she wasn’t the sort of girl to give up easily, especially when she faced not having her morning fix of caffeine. No siree. She practically ran along to the cafeteria, but Symphony had been right. The on-duty chef, Jim McWhirter, waved his hands in apology.
“Sorry, lassie, the automatic dispensers ran out completely just ten minutes ago, and there aren’t any more beans to put in.”
“Don’t you even have any instant?” she wailed.
McWhirter shook his head.
“Oh, great,” Melody replied, with a face as dark as thunder.
“What aboot a nice cup of tea, we’ve got mountains of that. You can have a mug of the bog standard stuff, or how about something more exotic? Darjeeling, that’s the Colonel’s favourite tipple, or we’ve got Assam, Earl Grey, or Rose Puchong…”
Melody wrinkled her nose at the tea-bag he wafted in front of her face. “No thanks. That smells more like something you put in a bath, not a cup.”
McWhirter shrugged. “I’m sorry, then, ye might want to try the one of the off-duty lounges. Those technical boyos, they run on coffee, they probably strafed the supplies stores as soon as the bad news hit the fan.”
Melody attempted to make her facial muscles obey and give the man a smile. It wasn’t his fault the darn coffee wasn’t there.
“Okay, thanks, Jim. I’ll try.”
She knew someone else who ran on coffee, and she was willing to bet that if there was a last bean or fragment of freeze-dried instant on Cloudbase, he would have it.
She speed-walked back along to her intended destination. Some premonition told her that she would have to move fast, any delay might make the difference between staying sane and totally losing it. She reached her goal, and slammed her hand on the wall panel to activate the door. It slid open and she barged into the Officers’ Lounge.
The smell assailed her quivering nostrils almost instantaneously – a wonderful, slightly burnt-toffee aroma. She inhaled deeply, like a smoker taking a long drag on their first cigarette of the day. Columbian brew, if she wasn’t mistaken – her favourite.
“Hey there, Mel, what’s up?” Captain Ochre said breezily, the only occupant in the room. He was in the process of walking to one of the comfortable couches. She gave him an offhand little wave, barely meeting his gaze, her eyes homing – like heat-seeking missiles – onto one of his broad hands, or more importantly, what he held in it. She saw the wisp of steam rising sinuously into the air from that big, white, earthenware mug, and her mouth watered as she inhaled once again, the source of that divine, exotic fragrance.
She saw him raise the cup to his lips, and take a long, full swallow of that wonderful, brown brew.
“You have coffee,” she intoned, and she was barely aware of the lust lacing her voice, as she moved closer towards him.
Ochre must have heard it, and the avaricious tone must have echoed in her eyes, because he started backing away from her, putting his other hand over the rim of the mug, as if to protect it.
“Yep, and it’s mine. It’s the very last cup from the brewer, and I’ve got a heap of reports to sort out, I need this to survive.”
“Oh yeah? And what about me? I’ve spent four hours on the graveyard shift, and all that got me through it was the thought I might down a big cup of java when I got out of that interceptor. How the hell am I supposed to fight a potential Mysteron threat without at least one shot of caffeine in my veins? Come on, Ochre, I’m desperate. I’ve got to have some, I’ve got to have some now, or I’ll die.”
“Hey, kiddo, that’s not my problem.” He was still back-pedalling as Melody stalked him around the spacious room. “Now be a good girl and go away and let me drink this in peace.”
“Oh, I see, that’s the way you want to play it.”
Ochre waved his mug at her, a mischievous grin playing around his lips. “I don’t have time to play; I’ve got work to do.”
Melody was glad he was the only captain in the lounge, that way there were no witnesses in the event she had to do something drastic. Oh, she’d hoped he would be a decent guy, be prepared to give up his last cup of coffee to a gal in distress. She narrowed her eyes, moving in for the kill. Ochre helplessly looked for a way out, but she’d covered his exit to the door. As she manoeuvred him against the row of cupboards against the far wall, she licked her lips in anticipation. And then Ochre did something very stupid.
He took another swig of the coffee – her Mug of Nirvana – a great gulp as if he was trying to down it all at once, denying her basic need.
Enraged, she pounced on him like a wildcat.
“Give me that coffee!” she snarled, her fingers snatching – but they met air as Ochre, as fast as she was, yanked his arm away, putting the mug out of reach, while he batted her clawing hands away with the other. He might have been a good bit taller than her, but Melody was as tough as a terrier. She pummelled at him, interspersing her punches with breathless gasps and shouts of: “I – want – that – coffee…” and all the while, Ochre had to suffer the battering as he tried to keep his precious elixir out of harm’s way.
Melody’s flailing arm finally caught the rim of the mug, and with enough force to cause Ochre to lose his grip on it. In horror they both watched as the mug sailed out of his grasp, the prized liquid splattering everywhere on its journey. It splashed the walls and the floor before the mug finally came to rest on the carpet several feet away from the two officers.
Melody turned back to Ochre, who gave her a full-frontal glare. “Well, that’s just great,” he said sourly.
“It’s your fault!”
“How the hell is it my fault?”
“If you’d been willing to share it with me we both could have had some.”
“Oh, yeah, and I just bet you would have been eager enough to share if you were holding the last cup in the troposphere.”
For a few crazy seconds, Melody didn’t reply. She was standing close enough to Ochre to smell the fragrance on his breath – and it was positively, absolutely heavenly. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Melody found herself prepared to do just about anything…
“Dammit,” she said huskily, “the only thing in this room that has a trace of coffee left in it is you….”
He gaped at her for a confused second, and then Melody pulled his head down and kissed him, very hard, on the mouth. He was so surprised his lips fell open, and Melody’s strong little tongue swirled against his teeth, sliding along his tongue. Like some manic robo-vac she sucked every last vestige of that delicious coffee taste from his mouth.
Ochre was recovering his wits and was sliding his arms around the slender Angel, intent on giving back as good as he was getting when she dragged her mouth away.
They stood staring, nose to nose at one another, for a few breathless seconds.
“Wow,” said Ochre.
“Don’t get any ideas, mister. I need my fix, and you just happened to get in the way.”
The American captain grinned from ear to ear. “If that’s the length you’ll go to get coffee, I’ll order the bursar to miss those beans on every supply run.”
This is the final story in a series of vignettes and short stories based on the Challenge of Five. Naturally, the title speaks for itself as to which sense this one refers to…
I’d like to thank Hazel Köhler for beta-reading, and to Chris Bishop for making me utilise what’s left of my brain to think up this stuff…
Any errors and omissions are entirely my own.