Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Nor can they hear a slurp, which is a melodramatic way of saying Shunsuke's ramen shop floating in the stars hadn’t had a customer for three weeks.
And so he lay half-asleep among old bits of spring onion on the tiled floor of the kitchen, staring a thousand yards into nowhere through heavy eyelids. Various appliances took turns buzzing and droning, including the light above, which flickered every now and again. Some pipes shifted and groaned in the silence of space. Shunsuke yawned, then forced himself up, his joints crackling like bubble wrap. He was 55, or thereabouts, and his hair was white. He shuffled his thin frame over to the radar to see if any ships were nearby. It was blank and silent with a thin layer of dust on top. He sighed, then shuffled over to the fridge for a bottle of beer. It was past its best-before date, but he thought it tasted just as good.
His last customer had been a big, gruff woman hauling industrial supplies to a mining outpost. She ate in silence and didn’t leave a tip. Since then - nothing. A few days ago a cargo ship had appeared on the radar, and Shunsuke scrambled to the radio to make contact and play the shop’s advertising jingle. At the end of the song the ship had politely informed him there were no humans on board, and that it was operated by an artificial intelligence.
‘Thank you for the pleasant song, Ramen Vendor. I’m sure your soup is delicious, but I have no need for food,’ responded a robotic voice through static. Shunsuke hadn’t bothered replying to the friendly, hulking ship, drifting past like a silent whale.
He sipped his beer and looked at a frame on the wall. Inside, his grandfather stood grinning, wearing a hardhat, standing next to a crane ripping the very ramen shop he sat in, once a local icon, from its Tokyo side-street. It certainly wasn’t the first restaurant in space, but it might have been the loneliest. Most were bunched together in larger complexes, or located inside human settlements. Shunsuke’s grandfather had gambled on this highway being a grower.
‘We’ll be the only restaurant in lightyears! We’ll be rich!’ His old eyes had twinkled.
The gamble had never paid off. But, for all the anxiety and uncertainty, the restaurant had managed to keep chugging along, always somehow earning just enough to keep the generator running and supplies paid for. But 'rich' had never come.
White curtains hung between the kitchen and the service area, and more hung between the service area and the 'outside'. He pushed past both and stood on what was once the front step. He reached out and touched the thick glass that now encased the entire facade of the old building. Once, it would have looked onto an old street glowing with lanterns and lights, brimming with people - now it looked out into infinite nothing, and clouds of speckled stars. The glass was cold. Shunsuke sat down and sipped his beer, watching the universe. This was his life; meandering around a restaurant, watching space, reading books, and waiting. A red, electronic lantern next to him flickered and went out. He smacked it with his palm and it reluctantly flickered back to life, just like it always did.
Shunsuke lived in an eternal night. He checked his watch and saw, within his own arbitrary 24-hour time system, it was 9PM. Soon he’d switch off all the lights and go to sleep, and only the neon sign that said 'RAMEN', perched on top of the shop, would stay on and keep watch. Right as he finished his beer, the radar blared. For a second he didn't believe it. Someone was coming.
He wooshed back through both sets of curtains, his house shoes sliding on the tiles. He lurched over the radar and saw that, indeed, a ship was on its way. He scrambled to find the radio, to play his siren song, but noticed something. The ship was already headed straight towards him. He found the radio and spoke.
‘This is the Galactic Route LB12 Ramen Shop, please confirm if you’ll be dining with us this evening? Over.’
He heard only static. He repeated the message, again to no response. 'Do you copy?'
‘Beep, beep, beep,’ stressed the radar. The ship still didn't slow.
‘For delicious ramen, please slow down. Or, divert your course back onto the highway. Over.'
The ship was getting closer, and still it seemingly refused to acknowledge him. It came closer still. Shunsuke scrambled this way and that in a panic.
'Please slow down! Over!'
A collision would mean something in between the end of his livelihood and the end of his life. He rushed in the other direction from the glass barrier, sliding and squeezing through the cramped twists and turns at the back of the restaurant, left, then right, then left, soon coming to where the docking chute protruded, and he looked out of a small port window where he saw a dishevelled personal transport ship hurtling in his direction. He squinted through his glasses, trying to see clearly. It was dented and torn and seemed to be missing one of its engines. It looked like it had just passed through a meteor field, or a war. Just as Shunsuke made for his spacesuit in preparation for a collision, he saw the incoming ship's brakes erupt to life, hissing and blasting its jets in the direction of the restaurants, pushing against its own force, slowing itself. Another jet lit up and began to angle the ship, lining its docking bay up with the restaurant’s chute. There was one final series of blasts as the ship tried to right itself, then came the crash.
The force thrust Shunsuke into the wall and he smacked onto the floor with a thud as he heard the kitchen erupt in crashes and clangs. Then he heard, and felt, the long-dormant stabilisation jets of the shop kick into life, pushing back against the momentum of the ship that had just docked. There were a few hisses and jolts, and then everything was still and silent - ship and restaurant now connected and balanced, joined together in the great nothing of space.
Shunsuke lay on the floor breathing heavily, listening again to silence. He wondered for a moment if it had even happened, or if it was a dream conjured in his eternal boredom. Then, muffled voices. He heard the first airlock whoosh open, and the voices became a little clearer. Laboured footsteps clunked and dragged towards the restaurant in a limping, scattered rhythm. Shunsuke pushed himself off the ground and straightened his apron as he heard the door buzz. A grainy screen showed a man and a woman, and even through the fuzzy picture he saw the bruises and bulges on their faces. Two broken moons in the night. The woman smiled. She was missing a tooth.
With one hand Shunsuke clutched the handle of his steel chef’s knife, crafted back on earth a long, long time ago, and now hanging in a holster from his cloth belt. Just in case. With his other hand he pressed a button that opened the door, and in melted the two tired travellers. They made themselves comfortable on the floor as if they'd been to the restaurant a hundred times. They hadn't. Shunsuke guessed they’d been itinerant for so long that the whole of space felt like home.
The woman lay on her front, her head draped under a mop of curly brown hair, a groan bubbling from within, and the man slumped against the wall, breathing heavily.
'Uuuurrrrggghhhhh', she said. 'Mmrrghump,' the man replied.
He was a turnip of a man, lumpy and unappealing. At the top of his blue space-suit made of a heavy material was a broad face with furtive eyes underneath a buzzcut and a bulbous, brooding brow that looked like it might pull his head to the floor if his neck lost focus. At the bottom of the jumpsuit was a pair of boxing shoes. The woman too wore a spacesuit, although her's was white. Both of them were covered in various stains that might have been oil, or blood. They were battered, bruised, and it looked like they hadn't slept in a month.
‘Irasshaimase,’ Shunsuke welcomed them, a little stunned. ‘Can I show you to the counter?’
A languid minute dragged itself to completion before either even twitched. Shunsuke wondered if they'd died. That was until the man stood, picked up the woman, draped her over his shoulder, and disappeared around the corner. She just groaned out a ‘thanks’. Both had left their helmets on the floor. Shunsuke hesitated for a moment, then picked them up and followed the pair into his own restaurant. They weaved through the halls in a single-file line.
When they reached the kitchen, she told the man stop. From her position dangling over his back she reached out, opened the fridge, and took two bottles of beer. ‘Carry on.’ The man kept walking through the kitchen and out of it, before flipping her onto her feet. In perfect unison they both slumped onto stools at the counter and opened their beers, which bubbled over a little from their tumultuous, upside-down journey from the fridge. They both took a long, long drink.
‘Ooooooooh, yeah. That’s the stuff,’ she said. ‘Chef! Two large, large bowls of ramen please. Or even perhaps some kind of trough. We're starved. What's your name?’
'Shunsuke,' he said as he went back into the kitchen and began preparing two regular bowls of ramen. From behind the curtains came: 'Yours? And what brings you to these parts?'
'I'm Carrie. He's Almaty. We're just a couple of humble space travellers.'
Their answer left a lot unanswered.
'I'm a lounge singer, he's a boxer. We float around scrapping together what we can.'
'What happened to your ship?'
In suspicious unison they both said 'meteor field.' Then they glared at each other, and both sipped their beers.
'So, how'd you end up running a ramen shop out in the middle of space?'
'Well.' Shunsuke paused and thought back. 'It was my grandfather's idea. Earth was overpopulated and over-polluted, and, most of all, property taxes had just gone up again. And, well, he had a meltdown, uprooted the family ramen shop, gave it some space-faring upgrades, and had it shipped here. When he died, my father was meant to take over, but he and my mother disappeared, so at the age of 18, I shipped out here to the GVT2 Sector and took it over. And I've been here ever since.'
'Wow, that's... depressing. Have you ever left?'
'No. Actually, last decade I took a trip to Yamanashi Station. It's the closest place I could afford.'
'You mean the galaxy's number one cesspit of gambling and prostitution? Nice.'
Almaty's brow was furrowed as he looked down at the counter. He looked up at Shunsuke and spoke to him for the first time.
'Have you ever been in love?'
Shunsuke dropped a pink spiral in one soup, and then the next. Plop. Plop. He examined the two bowls sitting side by side, steaming like hot springs full of bathing noodles.
'You can avoid answering the question, but you can't avoid the question itself,' he added.
Shunsuke smiled politely. 'No. No I haven't.'
Almaty reached out and thumped his big hand on Shunsuke's shoulder, and looked him dead in the eyes.
'Do not fret. Love is but a slither of the human condition.'
'Okay...' Shunsuke replied.
'Carrie and I have passionate, exhausting bouts of sexual intercourse most nights, and yet it has brought me no closer to understanding my own purpose. Only a breathless charge into the depths of space on a never-ending journey has ever suggested a hint of an answer - although even then, epiphanies are few and far between. To waste your life in a restaurant is a tragedy that I will weep over. I will mourn your lost youth with salty tears, tears lost in broth.' He stared into his soup, yet to eat.
'Okay...' Shunsuke replied.
'Almaty! Let the man live. And stop telling people about our sex life,' Carrie spoke through a mouthful of sopping noodles. Shunsuke clasped his hands together.
'I'm going to go and clean the kitchen now. Let me know if you need anything.' In the kitchen he opened a beer. 'Lost youth'. The words repeated like the beeps of a radar in his head. But Almaty wasn't finished. His brow was still furrowed, and another thought burst from him, almost involuntarily.
'Shunsuke! Join us on our travels, brother! You have time left to live!' He slammed the counter with his fist, and the small ceramic bowls and bottles of soy sauce lining the counter all awoke and shuddered with clinks.
Through the cracks in the kitchen curtains, Shunsuke saw Carrie smack Almaty's arm with the back of her hand, and heard her whisper through another mouthful of noodles. 'Stop asking every Tom, Dick and Shunsuke we meet to join us.' Her voice quietened even more. 'We don't know this guy... Just, eat your damn soup.'
Shunsuke smiled to himself. He was touched, though a little embarrassed, that the man had become so invested in his life satisfaction. 'Thank you, Almaty, that's very kind. But I should stay here and run the family business. And... I don't mean any disrespect but... is your ship spaceworthy? It looks like it's on its last legs.'
'I admit, we'll need to do some repairs. Which reminds me - do you have a soldering iron?'
Later that night, Carrie and Almaty had returned to their ship to begin repairs. They wouldn't be long, they said, and would be gone by the morning. Shunsuke had cleared their bowls and the platoon of empty bottles they'd lined up, and the restaurant was silent again. The silence sounded louder than ever. He sat with a beer examining the black canvas of space lurching at the front window. 'Lost youth,' Almaty had said. 'Lost youth.'
Some time between late, late night, and early, early morning, he was lifted from a twisted, troubled sleep by the sound of buzzing at the docking chute. He rolled out quickly and the springs of his old sunken bunk cried out as he shuffled off to the back of the restaurant. Waiting there was Carrie and Almaty, looking disheartened through the screen, with large bags under their eyes.
Sitting back at the counter with cups of green tea, they told Shunsuke the news.
'The ship's dead,' she said. 'And buried,' He added.
Shunsuke frowned with sympathy. 'I'm sorry. I can call you a taxi, or get a mechanic out here-'
'Don't call anyone!' Carrie interrupted, and there was a long silence. 'I just mean, don't worry yourself. It's our problem to solve.'
But they sat in silence for a long time, without any solutions unveiling themselves. Shunsuke yawned and sipped his tea. Carrie broke the silence, speaking as if her old thought had never ended.
'We're just trying to keep a low profile, so we'd prefer to avoid other people.'
'I'm a person.'
Almaty spoke. 'A place like this you can blow through like a breeze, quickly forgotten.'
'I remember all my customers.'
'But would you share those memories with people who came with questions and notepads?'
Shunsuke just smiled, and said nothing. Almaty seemed to be struck suddenly by a thought he couldn't swat away.
'Listen, I have an idea. Our ship is beyond repair, yes. But, I think, there are plenty of individual parts that still work. The major issue is that the hull has been pierced - a lot. We could try and plug the holes but even then if we travel at any speed worth travelling, the thing will tear apart. And if we couldn't plug the holes, we'd need to wear our spacesuits, and we don't have the oxygen for the length of trip we're taking. One of the engines is dead, but the other is okay. Here's my idea. We take the engine, and we attach it to this ramen shop. The ramen shop becomes our ship.'
'Surely not...' said Carrie.
'No, really. It will take some time but, engine on the back, steering jets on the sides, I think it could work.'
Carrie thought for a few moments. Then her eyes lit up and she looked at Shunsuke. She'd been in the depths of grief just a second ago, and now her face glistened.
'I know this is a lot to ask but, we'll pay you.' She started patting at her pockets. 'We've got money... well, we will get some money. Come on, it'll be fun! Almaty may seem unusual but he's smart, if he says it'll work, it'll work. And hey, you can still make ramen! In fact, you'll probably get more customers. No offence.'
This got his attention. For a moment he wondered why his grandfather hadn't made the shop a ship in the first place. For all his forward-thinking and bravery, even in the infinite widths of space he couldn't look beyond one, fixed place. In a way, that choice had cursed the family, and ended the bloodline.
Then Almaty stood and put both hands on Shunsuke's shoulders, and looked him dead in the eyes. His face was mismatched and warped by years of boxing, probably only sometimes with gloves.
'My friend, this is your chance to live a life you thought was lost.'
Shunsuke looked at him, then felt uncomfortable and looked away. He locked eyes with his own reflection in the glass, dotted with stars, and stained with an old, unaccomplished face. 'Okay,' he said. Carrie and Almaty cried out in celebration, then Carrie walked around into the kitchen and grabbed three beers. Shunsuke wasn't sure if it was the right decision, but he'd made it. He laughed shyly with the others.
For the next week Carrie and Almaty floated around the ship, welding and soldering various bits of hardware and machinery to the outside of the restaurant. From inside he'd see them drift past, waving. Shunsuke offered to help, but they wouldn't let him, insisting he'd already helped enough. He really began to question his decision when Almaty co-opted half of the kitchen for various navigational screens, and Carrie installed a makeshift cockpit and various other screens and pieces of equipment on the old front step facing the window. It was an eyesore, but, he figured, a necessary one.
After a week of upgrades, Shunsuke's old ramen shop was officially a spacecraft. From the outside it made for an unusual sight, a glowing hearth of old-world comfort draped in sci-fi odds and ends. Old pipes and cords that once connected the shop to Tokyo infrastructure now dangled near high-grade space technology.
There was great anticipation as Carrie kicked the engine into the life for the first time. Palpable nerves sat heavy in the air. The engine sputtered for a moment, then erupted, and the ship lurched forward, knocking things off shelves like the day the strange couple had first arrived. The photo of his grandfather fell from the wall and the glass cracked. If it was a sign of disappointment from beyond the grave, it was far too on the nose.
Carrie quickly brought the speed down to a relaxed glide, and with great focus, she guided the shop in a wide circle, tilting the controls deftly. Shunsuke felt Almaty's hand on his shoulder, and felt his smile on his face. Carrie brought the ship to a halt again, and rubbed some sweat from her brow.
'Well, we did it. We turned a restaurant into a spaceship. And the spaceship works.'
'Now what?' Shunsuke asked.
The couple looked at each other.
'Shunsuke, how'd you like to go on an adventure?'
And so they'd sat him down and explained, after all this time, where they were going. They were chasing a rumour which whispered that at the edge of the galaxy was a black-hole unlike other black-holes. A man at a bar in Gertrude Commercial Station had heard it from his friend, who heard it from his wife, who heard it from the man she was having an affair with, who'd overheard a passenger on a prison ship talk about how his sister was an archeologist who'd found identical markings left by several different alien species who'd disappeared - and those markings pointed to this black hole. The hypothesis was these species, all from utterly different times, and completely different ends of space, had all up and travelled to the black hole, and then disappeared entirely. The hypothesis was the black hole was a portal to, well, a place worth abandoning everything for. An ascension to a higher plane of existence, and Carrie and Almaty explained that they were sick and tired of their current plane of existence.
'Shunsuke, we won't lie to you. It will be a long trip. It might even be a dangerous trip. You don't have to come with us through the portal, but would you join us for the journey there? You can sell ramen all along the way and put together a pretty penny - maybe even find a better spot to set up shop. And then at the black hole's edge, you can make your choice. We can all say goodbye, and me and Almaty can jump in our spacesuits and disappear, or we can all hold hands and drive this old shop into the infinite, together.'
Shunsuke didn't believe the rumour about the black hole, but something inside him had awakened. It was a hunger that even the most umami-laden ramen couldn't satiate. He was hungry to live, to see things, to do things, to risk things. And like she'd said, this was a business opportunity too, and he wanted to make the shop famous again. He wanted to make his shop famous.
'I'll come with you. Maybe not to the very end, but I'll try and help you get there. The customer is always right, right?'
'Then it's settled. First thing's first, we need fuel. You up for another trip to Yamanashi station, old boy?' She winked at Shunsuke. 'And Almaty, reckon you've got a fight in you? We could use some cash.'
Almaty's face went dark, and he looked at his hands, knobbly and cut.
'Why was I gifted with hands so adept at violence, and yet a brain so tortured by the guilt? The cruelty of my own brutal blows is only dwarfed by the ironies of our very existence.'
'Alright great, that's a yes! And I'll sing to the lonely old bastards at the bar for a few nights. And Shunsuke, I hope you still remember how to cook for more than three people?'
He smiled. 'I'll sharpen my knife.'
* * *
The air traffic control office at Yamanashi Station was quiet. Only three controllers were working, which on a night like this meant poker, and gambled wages. Mining ships, casino transport ships, and smugglers - that was really all the kinds of traffic the station ever saw, so when a ping showed up on the radar, that's what they were expecting. But instead, they saw a ramen restaurant with a jet attached to it, gliding gracefully towards the station. They rushed to the large window and stood speechless, their cards abandoned.
'This is the S.S. Ramen, requesting to dock at Yamanashi Station,' came an old man's voice from the radio.
The three air traffic controllers stood stunned, watching the floating restaurant come to a stop near the docking gates, glowing orange in the darkness of space. They could see inside the ship. They could see actual soup.
'Hello?' said the voice again.
One of the controllers picked up the radio.
'Ah... yes. Um... roger that, S.S. Ramen, was it? Please carry on.' He opened the docking bay doors.
'Thanks. And while I have you...'
They heard music crackle through the speakers.
'Ramen, ramen, tasty and hot! The more you eat, the more you want! Slurp it down, and drink some beer! Ramen, ramen, give us a cheer.'
Then they heard another voice through the radio, a woman's voice.
'Shun, what the hell was that?'
Then the radio cut out, and they watched the restaurant move into the docking bay. The three air traffic controllers looked at each other, and looked at the clock. Their shift was almost over, and they were feeling hungry. They shrugged.
'Ramen?' They all nodded, and grabbed their bags.