[In our last installment, we heard that Rex Mason was mysteriously missing, and the Diner was due for a makeover...]
It was late morning of what looked to be a fairly pleasant day – not to hot, not too cold, intense blue sky and a very light wind. Sarah and Amanda were discussing the "Worst Romance Novel Ever" as they approached the side service door to the Diner. Amanda was saying: "…and could you imagine if they had put *Fabio* on the cover, considering what's inside?"
Sarah answered: "Like Fabio with Phyllis Diller!" They both shuddered.
Stepping into the diner they were immediately aware of two things. Whatever Laura was cooking for lunch up smelled *good*. And there was a man in spotless overalls, and bright orange hard hat, in the middle of the dining room directing a crew that was setting tables and chairs in place. The man looked up as the ladies entered the diner and asked: "Would one of y'all be Mizz Hoyt?"
"Yes, sir, that would be me." Said Sarah.
"Very good, Ma'am. I'm Mack, with Baen Services. We've just finished your installation. If you would come with me? I'll show you the control panel."
Set near the front of the diner was a panel in the wall with a thumb-turn latch. Releasing the latch and lowering the panel revealed a keyboard and computer display screen. Mack beamed proudly as he announced. "This here's the brains of the EC3000 diner system. From here you can set the electrochromic paint on the walls and control the variable friction coefficient of the floors."
"Did you say 'EE' three-thousand?" asked Sarah nervously?
"No Ma'am, that's 'Ee-cee'. We at Baen Services are well aware of Extracentrifugal Engineering, and even skippy's Experimental Labs. We try to avoid using their products in high traffic areas. On the other hand, they are excellent for our DARPA contracts whenever we need something to go 'Boom!' No, this is a quality Johnson Controls unit made in K'ville, NC. It's easy to program, and extremely reliable."
Mack turned to the console and started to demonstrate the settings. "…and right here you have the color control for the walls and fixtures. Right now we're set to 'Diner Chrome.' But you can pick any color scheme you want."
"But not pink." said Amanda.
"Oh, yes, Ma'am, the EC3000 can do all of that: Pink, Rose, Magenta, Hot Pink, Empire Pink, Sweetheart Pink." Mack said proudly.
Amanda and Sarah both shuddered. Amanda said, "Ah, is there a way to *prevent* certain colors?"
Mack seemed confused. "Well, certainly the EC3000 can be programmed any way you like. I suppose you could put an authorization password on certain settings."
Before Sarah could respond, Amanda said, "Good. Lock out any shade of pink, and secure it with this password." She handed Mack a slip of flash paper with a 256-character password on it. As soon as he finished entering the commands, she took the paper in one hand and clapped her hands together. A flash of light, a puff of smoke and the paper was gone.
"But, but, now you won't be able to unlock it!" Mack sputtered.
"Ah, well, it's probably all for the best," answered Sarah. She looked around the Diner thinking of the wonderful pink parlor she'd had. Things had been so… orderly… that time. She turned her attention back as Mack continued.
"… and the variable friction coefficient floor is our pride and joy. If a customer drops food, money, breaks a glass, just set the coefficient to high and it will stick right where it lands. No bouncing, no rolling. And to clean it, just set the coefficient to zero and everything slides right into that drain over there. I must warn you to please make sure no one is standing on the floor when you use this setting."
Sarah turned to see Laura watching from the kitchen through the window behind the counter. She had an amused look on her face. Mack was saying something about using the floor as a trap, "…and never worry about vermin again, just turn up the friction coefficient and you'll trap them in place."
"Oh, no!" said Amanda.
Mack misunderstood. "Oh, no, Ma'am, you won't have to touch them. Just turn up the friction, stick them suckers in place, then turn down the friction and they'll slide right into the trap beneath the drain. In fact, that option is right in Night Mode program 12, it cycles every half-hour while the Diner is closed. Self-cleaning, self-exterminating, and trouble-free."
"Ah, no." said Sarah. "You've got that wrong. We've got LabRats™ and they're valued Patrons. There are no 'vermin' in the Diner."
<cough> "Ah, well, as you say. The Customer Is Always Right." Mack seemed in a hurry to move on. "So, let me show you the programming…" and he turned back to the control console.
Sarah turned away from the presentation as Laura called from the kitchen: "Sarah?"
"Yes, dear? Anything wrong?"
"Well, the water is running backward. Is it a side effect of the frictionless floor wax?"
"Not that I'm aware of, we haven't turned it on, yet."
Laura was humming to herself in the kitchen. There was a sound of sizzling as she lightly fried the tofu strips. "Hmm. He says to lightly brown one pound, cut into one-half inch wide by one-quarter inch thick strips." Laura had flavored the olive oil with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, chili powder and part of a clove of garlic she had gathered from the garden out back. "Okay, the fried tofu strips are draining. Let's make the salsa. A couple of small tomatoes, chopped. Check. One small onion, chopped. Check. One half of a bell pepper. Wait, what am I going to do with the other half? It's a nice yellow, pepper, too. The heck with it. 'One whole bell pepper, chopped.' Check. One green chile pepper, chopped. Check. Cilantro, cumin, dash of salt. Check. Saute and… wait… damn. Mushrooms, I forgot the mushrooms."
Laura stomps on the floor twice, reaches over and presses an intercom button. "Dom? How are the mushrooms?" She pauses and listens. Like any decent diner intercom, the voice coming from the box was unintelligible to any except those that worked there. Laura answered, "Yes, please, about a cup." Moments later a trapdoor in the floor opens and Dom steps into the kitchen, hands Laura the mushrooms and sniffs.
"Smells good. Wish I could eat it, but you know, no meat."
"Actually," Laura says, as she chops the mushrooms and adds them to the salsa beginning to sizzle in the skillet. "It's meatless. I got it from Speaker, believe it or not. He likes to cook Mexican for potlucks, but he has a number of vegetarians in his lab. He tried the recipe just for grins and the folks liked it better than his chicken enchilada casserole."
"Oh, good. Can I help?"
"Sure, grease that deep casserole dish for me, please, the olive oil's over there. Cut those flour tortillas into triangles and make a double layer on the bottom of the pan." Laura added a cup of vegetable broth to the salsa, then thickened it with a can of cream of celery soup.
As Dom prepared the casserole dish, Laura looked out into the dining room. The maintenance supervisor was showing Sarah a new computer control pad over by the door. She could just hear the man saying: "Please make sure no one is standing on the floor when you use this setting." Ah, must be the self-cleaning setting. She chuckled to herself.
"What's so funny?" Dom asked.
"Oh, just thinking of the Lab Rats™ trying to clean up the Dining Room with the new frictionless floor turned on."
Dom snorted, and went back to layering half of the fried tofu onto the bottom layer of tortillas. "I take it that sauce goes on here? Oh, that smells *really* good. My sinuses are clearing already."
"Sure, take about half, then about a cup of shredded Monterrey Jack cheese. Ah, you can eat cheese? It's two percent."
"A bit. We'll try it, then maybe I can come up with a soy substitute for the next batch."
"Good. Now another layer of tortillas, then the rest of the tofu, sauce, and another cup of shredded MJ."
"And on top?"
"Just tortillas. The recipe says to bake until the tortillas start to brown, then sprinkle a cup of shredded Colby cheese on top and then bake again until the cheese is bubbly." Just then the oven chimed. Three hundred degrees, perfect. If this was a hit at lunch, she'd scale up the recipe for the Cinco de Mayo bash at Baen's Bar. The Diner usually did the catering.
"I *just* figured out the next scene in my novel… Call me when it's ready?"
"Sure, go. Lunch will probably start in an hour."
Laura turned back to the sink to start the cleanup. Strange, the water was running… up?
"Sarah?" Laura raised her voice to be heard out in the dining room.
"Yes, dear?" answered the Proprietress. "Anything wrong?"
"Well, the water is running backward. Is it a side effect of the frictionless floor wax?"
".fo erawa ma I taht toN" derewsna haraS
"What?" asked an obviously rattled Laura. "Oh. Where's Rex?"
[Where's Rex, indeed? Why is Sarah speaking in reverse? Who's going to fit little frictionless skates on the Lab Rats? Tune in next time to find out whether that recipe was for lunch, dinner, or... just what time *is* it, anyway?]