In celebration of the release of her debut novel NUCLEATION, Kimberly Unger shares this deleted scene from an early draft of the novel. This was the original scene that introduced Beauchamp. The tale stands on it’s own outside the novel.
Enjoy and when you are done, jump over to GOODREADS to enter to win the novel that is “recommended for fans of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon and Martha Wells’ Murderbot series.” (Booklist)
Like all mid to large-scale operations, catering at Far Reaches was king. Amenities were often a deciding factor when OPs or a NAVs were deciding on which of the dozen or so offworld operations they wanted to hook their star to. The commissary followed the same poured-and-painted-concrete stylings as the rest of the building, with the exception being that negative space, the black-painted walls designed to give your Insight something to read against, was nowhere to be found. Work was actively discouraged in the commissary and one brought in actual physical records at their peril.
The Chef had brought out the waffle iron, which meant the line at that particular warming-table stretched far longer than the one that ended in cold milk and brightly colored cereal.
Not that there’s anything wrong with cereal.Helen found herself sandwiched in between Catherine Beauchamp and Nikko Tsenko. Rumor had it that Tsenko had a waffle iron of his own, hidden away in his apartment. Rumor had it he made waffles for a wide variety of “morning after” guests. No Operators though, otherwise Helen was fairly sure she’d have heard far more intimate details than she needed to know.
“Drowning your sorrows in syrup?” Beauchamp bumped Helen’s shoulder by way of starting the conversation. The rival Operator was a recent transplant from BrightWinds, her contract bought up when Far Reaches acquired their mining rights and assets during the mother of all bankruptcy sales. Less than a fingertip taller than Helen, a trembling pouf of hair dyed in a color that would give James’ pattern-processors fits, and an in-your-face attitude, Beauchamp had worked her way up the ranks with a will.
“It’s the new bourbon, I thought everybody knew.” Tsenko quipped back over his shoulder, saving Helen the trouble. Tsenko and Beauchamp were both on the same rotation, and just as often at each other’s throats over a variety of minor infractions.
“Well, for those of you who’ve never tried real bourbon, I suppose.” Beauchamp’s comment was delivered with another nudge to keep Helen in the conversation. The rival OP wasn’t about to let her out of exchanging insults so easily. She’d been a pain in Helen’s ass since day one, making it abundantly clear she was gunning for Helen’s more senior position on the rotation chart. Helen had managed to stay on first-tier through a combination of experience and the ability to learn a new waldo faster than anyone else, but Beauchamp wasn’t far behind. In order for Beauchamp to move up, someone else had to move down, or out. Helen was acutely aware her seat on first-tier was in jeopardy, but damned if she was going to let Beauchamp rattle her cage when the waffle iron was out. She had bigger things to worry about.
“Chef’s waffles are harder to get. Really, if exclusivity is your thing, you need to set a higher standard.” Helen spun her empty plate in her hands, the overhead LEDs reflecting off the surface. Nonchalance played well. Normally Helen had a more even temper than Beauchamp, had a longer sense of strategy, but today it was only because Doc Hofstaeder’s custom cocktail of emotional stabilizers was keeping her on an even keel.
Whatever helps me keep her off my case. Helen reflected.
“And,” Tsenko added, “You can still fly sober after waffles.”
Helen almost winced. Beauchamp’s one mistake had been showing up for a mission with alcohol still in her system. It had been a couple of months ago, and it was one of the things she needed to work against. Helen didn’t have to see her face to know that Tsenko had toe-d across the line.
“Yeah, but the carbohydrate-coma these waffles bring on will make you sleep through your mission briefings anyway.” Helen interceded, pulling the conversation along, giving Beauchamp the chance to let it slide. She wasn’t in the mood for a fight but she wasn’t going to drop out of line to miss out on the waffles either. The waffle iron came out without warning, once a quarter, max.
Of course she won’t let it go.
“We all have our vices, Tsenko, mine just require fewer trips to the clinic.” Beauchamp returned with an unsubtle stare at Tsenko’s crotch. Aaaaand there’s the other shoe. Helen wondered, if only for a second, whether or not she should just let the two of them duke it out in the waffle-line. Tsenko unexpectedly took the high-road this time.
“Ah, but it’s worth it every time and twice on Sundays.”
“”It’s nice to see you keep things on a schedule at least.” Beauchamp allowed him the out.
Maybe she’s not really in the mood for a fight after all.
“Well, I was until the Line Drive went sideways…” Tsenko turned and focused on Helen.
Ah, I’ve been set-up.
“…now I’m back on missions checking the AI driven massdrives in the shipping lanes.” He finished sourly.
Whereas before, Helen had been in the middle with the two of them fighting across her, now she found herself flanked, with attackers on both sides.
Tsenko and Beauchamp on the same side, that’s new.
“Well, if it’s any consolation,” Beauchamp added, “three of the Senior OPs got slotted into moles for the next shift.”
Ha, there it is. Missions had been backfilled, others delayed, sidelined projects had been put back into play when the slate of OPs prepping for turns on Line Drive had suddenly been dumped back into the pool until the new mission had been outlined. Because they might be recalled for Line Drive at any time, they had all been assigned to “specials”, the kind of tedious, boring missions that you could swap an AI into on the fly if necessary. It was busywork, and every OP resented busywork.
Since getting slotted into the analyst pool, Helen had no actual say in the mission assignments. That’s not going to stop anyone from feeling like you do. She was going to have to start doing damage control if she wanted to keep any friends on the OPs team.
“There are two more openings on the moles,” Helen said mildly, casting an eye at Tsenko. “Keller wants to assign rookies, but you know how tricky those underground digs can be. I’m sure he’d love to see a few more of our better OPs step up.”
Tsenko took the bait, switched sides again, as Helen had anticipated. “You can’t assign me to the moles, I already paid Keller off this month.” He was joking, and Beauchamp’s lips tightened into a thin line. She’d clearly been expecting him to help get a dog-pile going, maybe bring a few more of the line-standers in on it. Beauchamp had misjudged his temperament. Tsenko was competitive, possibly arrogant, but it was the self-centered kind, the kind that thrived on petty conflict simply for the sake of conflict. He’d switch to the losing side in a heartbeat, just to keep the argument going.
“I’ll get you penciled in before the next buyoff, no worries.” Helen returned. “Cat, if you get in early, I can let you pick your shift.” Helen turned back to Beauchamp, but she had already stalked away now that the focus had shifted out of her favor.
Maybe waffles really aren’t her thing.
“I don’t see why she’s so testy, she’s one of the few pilots who didn’t want to be on Line Drive’s rotation.” Tsenko retrieved his waffles from the griddle and wondered off with a shrug and whistle. Helen decided against three waffles, she needed to be sharp for the next few hours and stuffing herself with comfort foods would be the wrong kind of rewarding.
Of course, that means bacon is a must.
Helen tucked the bacon under the short-stack of waffles and grabbed a few napkins to help contain the syrup. She needed to be seen, check in with the rest of the OPs while she had the time. Beauchamp wasn’t wrong about OPs being bitter about the off-plan assignments. The senior OPs would all be upset to varying degrees and, while Helen might not have direct control over who got assigned where any longer, knowing where the turbulent waters were would allow her to stay on top of any problems waiting when she got back into rotation.
She worked her way around the commissary tables, saying hello and checking in. People on the OPSs team tended to seat themselves with more people on the OPSs team, IT techs with IT techs. Conversations started at desks and in-spaces inevitably resurfaced over lunch or dinner, especially for the rookies, who had a harder time maintaining work-life balance. It meant she could get a feel for the team dynamic, even though technically that wasn’t her job at the moment. The commissary was filling up as news about the waffle-iron spread, but Helen finally ended up at a mostly empty table with a plate of waffles that was only barely warm.
Beauchamp slid her plate onto the table and took up the spot across from Helen.
Oh marvelous. Helen quashed the negative thought and gave the other woman a smile before turning her attention back to filling each waffle divot with warm syrup. You could only do half the waffle at a time or it would all get too soggy too fast.
“All snark aside, I think Congratulations are in order.” Beauchamp continued. “You managed to turn a scenario that would have gotten anyone else fired into a promotion.”
“Don’t get too comfortable, it’s a temporary assignment.” Helen returned, keeping her tone even. What had been a tolerable rivalry between Beauchamp and herself when she’d been on top, now had the potential to blossom into something much nastier.
Beauchamp retrieved the syrup from Helen’s side of the table and poured out a puddle onto her plate, careful to keep it from touching the stack of waffles.
“Comfortable? Are you kidding, I plan to enjoy the view from the top for a good long time.” The other OP ripped her top waffle into quarters with her manicured fingers and mashed it into the puddle of syrup.
“Ladies!” Nicholas Bright slid into the seat next to Beauchamp at speed, plate barely touching the tabletop. The stack of waffles threatened to keep going without him, but he tipped the plate up at the last second. Helen gave him a warmer smile than she had Beauchamp and slid the stack of jam-packets across the table in his direction.
“Still the rebel, I see.” Beauchamp turned a withering look on the other OP as he ripped the blueberry jam open with his teeth and squirted it out onto the waffle. A second waffle had already been slathered with an equal amount of peanut butter and the two halves met with a squishy clap as he married them into a sandwich.
Helen continued to cut her waffle into precise squares, eating them as she went before the syrup could make them soggy.
“Hey, man, if Chef only makes these babies once a quarter, I’m not about to waste the opportunity. I’m on a mission to try every single condiment combination.” Bright crammed a larger bite than Helen would have thought possible into his mouth.
“If you break open the mustard packets while I’m still here at the table…” Beauchamp warned.
“Hey, waffles weren’t always a breakfast food, you know.” Bright caught a splat of jelly with his pinky before it managed to hit the table and wiped it on the top of his waffle-wich. “They have a long and venerable history as a base for all kinds of meals.”
“Mustard packets and garlic pickles do not count as a “meal.” Beauchamp said icily.
“Anchovies though.” Helen suggested between bites, determined to keep the conversation steered away from her status as OP excommunicado. She wasn’t about to abandon maple syrup herself, but she was curious to see the look on Bright’s face when he gave it a go.
“Anything pickled might work.” He ruminated and stuffed another improbable bite into his face.
“Enjoy it while you can.” Beauchamp waved another torn quarter in Helen’s direction. “Waffles are for Operators, Chef’s just letting you slide for old time’s sake.”
Untrue, but the thought still stung.
“Oh shit, that means there’s an opening on the Line Drive team?” Lee managed to articulate around a mouth full of peanut-butter.
“There’s four.” Beauchamp said. “But the project is locked down because somebody lost her shit in waldo-space.”
Bitch. Helen didn’t know if Beauchamp knew all the details that had led to Ted’s death, but she was putting her typical “worst possible spin” on Helen’s involvement. And Helen couldn’t defend herself, not with the mission still being investigated. She mentally stomped on her outrage before it could get a running start.
“If anyone freaked out, they’d be on leave pending a psych eval right now.” Helen pointed out instead. Ivester’s insistence that she remain on-team could work to her advantage, giving her a shield against the rumor-mill Beauchamp insisted on feeding. Beauchamp responded with another unpleasant smirk as she gutted her second waffle.
“Leave can look like a lot of different things, Vectorovitch.”
“Leave doesn’t usually involve a pay-bump.” Bright added his two-cents. “Cat, who’s in change of the OP rotation now? Can you put in a good word for me?”
“Keller’s handling the OPs, Helen’s been “bumped up” to mission analysis while her involvement with Ted’s death gets investigated.” Beauchamp sketched the quotes with her fingers. Helen gave the younger pilot as cold a stare as she could muster. Bringing Ted into this was purely dirty pool. Helen didn’t have a glib rebuttal for something quite so base.
“Wow, you really screwed the pooch. Nobody puts an OP on mission design.” Bright said sagely and turned his attention to demolishing the last of the waffle-wich.
“Like I said, I’ll be back as soon as I get re-certified.”
“So don’t get too comfortable in that chair.” Bright ribbed Beauchamp, who took it with ill grace. “Which is a shame because I was really looking forward to seeing if your game is a good as you think it is, Cat.”
Bright’s ambition was legendary. His inability to follow the more demanding checklists was equally legendary, but Mira, his NAV, was a perfect counter to his recklessness.
“Well, I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as they’re ready to shuffle.” Beauchamp grinned and finished the last tattered wedge of waffle. “I’m meeting with Keller to work up the new duty roster in light of Helen here leaving the Line Drive project.”
“That’s funny, Cat, I just talked to Keller. We already set the roster, didn’t you get the memo?” Helen kept up the meticulous quartering of her waffles, waiting for Beauchamp to lose steam.
She didn’t want to let the idea get started that Beauchamp had been swapped in to replace her, but Beauchamp’s comments about freaking out in waldo-space had hit home. The rumor was out there that she’d killed her NAV, she was going to have to work with that.
Beauchamp gave her a nasty glare and abandoned the table, leaving her plate of half-destroyed waffles behind and Helen alone with the idea that something she’d done, or failed to do, had contributed to Ted’s death. There was no way to get around that fact. True or not, if that rumor took root, she was going to have a hell of a time getting back in the coffin again.