The waiter nodded and backed away respectfully. Nordique poured herself the last of the wine they had selected.
“An exceptional vintage, Ar.” Nordique swirled the wine. “Pressed from the first generation of white grapes grown on Venus. Sure you want me to finish it?”
Ardith stared at the ceiling, cheeks perched on her fists.
“I’ve no idea who chose Titian’s Pieta this evening.” Nordique shook her head and pressed a button on her chair’s armrest. The ceiling flickered for a second, then changed to Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles.
Ardith laughed. “I liked it. Gave the room a mysterious feeling.”
Nordique drained her wineglass and set it aside. “Ar, you’re being cryptic.” She blotted her lips with the napkin. “I abhor you when you’re cryptic. Stop keeping me in suspense and tell me about the spa.”
“Please, Nor. Don’t pretend you’re interested.”
“I certainly am,” Nordique insisted. “The most exclusive beauty spa in the galaxy, suspended right along Saturn’s rings. I am ravenously interested.” She glanced at the ceiling and pressed the button on her chair again. A Raphael fresco appeared overhead. “You spent twice as much time there as you said you would, Ar. It must have been exemplary.
“I actually stayed at the spa just as long as I planned. Our shuttle malfunctioned on the way.”
“No.” Nordique leaned across the table.
Ardith shrugged. “Pilot had to guide us away from some kind of solar refraction that played havoc with the navigation system. Lucky we didn’t crash.”
“I should say so. Where did you land?”
“Between where Mars and Jupiter used to orbit. The colony doesn’t have a name.”
Nordique gasped. “A numbered space colony? I won’t hear another word, Ar. You’ll ruin my appetite for the soufflé and it’ll be here any moment.” She gripped her chair so tightly the ceiling blew through a frenzy of Italian Renaissance.
“It will not. You know Chef Ramos takes his sweet time on soufflé.” Ardith grinned. “You’re being stared at, Nor.”
Nordique relaxed and the ceiling settled on a Correggio nude. “Fine. Tell me this horror story.” She sighed. “I did ask, after all.”
“Well, I admit we were positively enraged to learn another shuttle couldn’t be scheduled immediately.”
“Say that there was a decent hotel,” Nordique begged.
“There wasn’t.” Ardith shook her head regretfully.
“Of course. Who would intentionally visit a numbered space colony? You slept in the shuttle bay, then?”
Ardith breathed deep. “Too badly damaged by our landing. We had to lodge with different families living on the colony.”
Nordique’s face was a mask of anguish. She reached over and took Ardith’s hands in hers. “Oh, Ar. What an absolute nightmare.”
“Not at all. The family I stayed with was quite pleasant.”
“Really?” Nordique blinked.
“Considering how much the shuttle company probably paid them, the family treated me like a long-lost relative.” Ardith twined her fingers in Nordique’s. “Their children and I even went out trick-or-treating.”
Nordique pulled away. “Trick-or-treating?”
“Halloween, Nor. Children going from house to house dressed like monsters and princesses and cowboys, asking for goodies.”
“I know what Halloween is,” Nordique snapped. “I’ve read about it, certainly. It’s just hard to imagine you doing such a thing.”
“I had to. The family couldn’t leave me alone, could they? I even dressed up.”
Nordique hesitated. She toyed with the rim of her empty wineglass, staring down at the tiny droplets left in the bottom. “As what?” she finally asked.
“Well, I’d brought my best skirt and heels in case the spa over Saturn had evening activities. I wore those, stacked my hair up as high as I could. The kids loved it. The youngest daughter even wanted to do my makeup.”
Nordique pressed her fingertips to her forehead. “It sounds dreadful.”
“It was not. I very much enjoyed trick-or-treating.” Ardith pulled a serious face. “And I brought back all the candy I received.”
Nordique’s mouth fell open. “Real candy?” Her voice went to a whisper. “Sugar hasn’t been harvested planetside for centuries, not even on Earth. If we can’t get candy, how does a numbered colony get it?”
“The colonies grow sugar and manufacture candy themselves, according to the family. Some sort of program keeping old holidays and traditions alive.”
“Tell me what kind.” Nordique pleaded.
“Jawbreakers. Miniaturized chocolate bars. Even some tiny, cubed caramels.”
At each word from Ardith, Nordique gasped. She finally closed her eyes and moaned dreamily. Her hand brushed the armrest once more, sending the ceiling into another spasm of ancient paintings.
“What does all that candy taste like, Ar?”
“I’ve been wondering myself this whole evening.”
Nordique’s eyes shot open. “You haven’t tried it yet?”
“Of course not.” Ardith wiggled her eyebrows. “I was saving it to share with you.”
Nordique’s arm rose like a rocket and she snapped her fingers. The waiter sprang forward with their check.
“Chef Ramos will be devastated to know we abandoned his soufflé.” Nordique pressed her pinkie against the waiter’s touchpad and it beeped approval.
“Indeed.” Ardith turned to the waiter. “Have Chef Ramos hypership our soufflé to the Ception family, Colony 728-96-42-545. On my tab, not her bill.” The waiter nodded and scampered to the kitchen.
“You never even told me about the beauty spa, Ar.” Nordique took Ardith’s hand as they walked out of the restaurant.
“It was satisfactory, but only just.”
“I suppose the most exclusive spa in the galaxy can’t possibly compare to trick-or-treating.”
“It can’t,” Ardith agreed. “And the Ceptions invited me back next Halloween.”
“They invited you too.”
Samuel Barnhart’s short stories have appeared all over the internet, occasionally in print, and at least once on stage. He lives in South Florida, and was one of those strange individuals who gave away all his hard-earned Halloween candy to his friends.