It’s at that exact moment that my Commconn buzzes. There’s a message on it from Monk. “dude where r u? were down in the casino and we dont see u”
Damn. I’m out of time. I’m going to have to tell the guys to come here and hope that there’s something they’ll all eat. If the children’s menu was any indication, the Commisariat is most famous for its nuclear weapons and its rats, and I don’t think nuclear weapons are edible. Also, I’m not in the mood for rat.
I catch Anya’s attention with a wave of my hand. A look of irritation breaks the veneer of professionalism on her face, but trooper that she is, she reapplies her fake smile and comes back over with only a moment’s hesitation. “Da, comrade?”
“Can I get the menu again? I’ve got some friends meeting me and I want to see if there’s anything here they’ll like.”
Her smile disappears completely. She actually frowns, her blue eyes suddenly cold as ice. For a moment, I actually find myself intimidated. But only for a moment. “I wasn’t kidding,” she says, her accent gone. “I’ll find Boris, I’ll bring him over here, and he’ll kick your ass.”
I raise my arms in mock surrender, turn my face into a caricature of innocence and helplessness. Remember, kids. When dealing with a petty tyrant, be so inconsequential you slip beneath their notice. “Hey, come on. I’m not trying to cause any trouble. I just want to see a menu. Come on, don’t you want more of my money?”
Of course she does. It’s the Meadows, after all. With a contemptuousness snort, she sets the menu down in front of me and I begin flipping through it, examining it in closer detail than I’d bothered with before. My Conncomm buzzes once, twice, again and again, and I slap the thing into silence.
Suddenly it jumps out at me, a treat to satisfy even the most fickle and-or discerning palettes amongst us. I check the price, shake my head in disbelief, read it again. Finally, I turn to Anya and point at the menu like a child. “Is that for real?”
She leans forward, glances at it, smiles and nods. “Da!”
“But, it’s real?”
“At that price?”
“Sure is, comrade!”
I arch a single eyebrow at her. Her face is inscrutable, but I know that there are limitless depths behind the still waters of the surface. “You get what I’m asking, right? At that price, you’re not serving us something fake or lab grown?”
She winks, ever the actress. She’s either reveling in messing with me or else the brainwashing every business in this godforsaken place has undoubtedly given their employees is strong. “We like to think of it as Soviet science and ingenuity meeting the American appetite for consumption!”
My mouth twists up in doubt and hesitation. “Can you tell me exactly where it comes from?”
She does. After some serious consideration, introspection, soul-searching, I finally say to myself “Fuck it” and message my friends to come and join me. “Got us a table at the Commissariat. Hotel Foxple. Dinner’s a surprise, but you’ll like it.”
* * *
By the time my friends walk in the door, I’ve been relocated to the American side of the restaurant. Part of the atmosphere, Anya explains to me. Soviet cuisine on the Warsaw Pact side, American cuisine on NATO’s. I’m nursing my third vodka-stim, my body a little jittery from the stim, my head a little fuzzy from the vodka, and the growing certainty that I should order a water or a juice or something non-alcoholic to balance it all out gnawing at the back of my brain. After all, I haven’t eaten since we left Earth.
I wave my boys over, and the join me at our circular table. “Where are the menus?” Erb asks, and I shake my head as I sip my drink.
“I already ordered for us. Don’t worry about it. Dinner’s on me.”
“Well, shit, man,” Monk says with a smile. “That’s downright decent of you.”
I smile and shrug exaggeratedly, the alcohol turning me into marionette and puppet master at the same time. “Don’t mention it. You can spring for my next meal or drink or whatever. I figure our finances will be one big incestuous mess by the time we’re done anyway, so there’s no sense in getting too uptight about things.”
Monk nods in agreement. “I’ll drink to that!” he says, waving over our waitress to place a drink order. Papa Chub arches an eyebrow in skepticism. Googe and Erb look at each other nervously.
On the NATO side of the restaurant, we’re tended to by Betsy, a brunette about five and a half feet tall with green eyes and cowboy boots and cutoff jean shorts and a flannel shirt tied into a knot under her breasts. “Howdy, pardners!” she calls out in a needlessly loud voice as she gets to our table. “What can I get you boys?”
“Round of beers?” Monk asks, and everyone murmurs their consent.
“Your buddy’s drinking that Commie drain cleaner! He want a beer, too?”
“Sure, he does! Stop drinking that Commie drain cleaner, man!”
I glance around the table, at Betsy, everyone eying me expectantly. I look down at my half-finished vodka-stim. “No.” A sip. “But bring me a beer anyway.”
“Five adjuncts coming right up!”
We watch Betsy leave (or more accurately, we watch her shorts as she leaves,) and the chatter begins immediately. “So why’d you leave? Why weren’t you at the casino? Why this place? How many drinks have you already had? Did you see that Cat Berry’s in town?”
“Boys, boys! Enough with the third degree, yeah? I got bored, I wandered down to the floor, I got hungry, I heard this place was decent, and now here we are.”
“And how many drinks have you had?”
“Don’t even worry about it.”
“Okay. What’d you order for dinner?” Erb asks. His caterpillars have knit themselves into skepticism and suspicion, as they so often do.
A small little smile comes to my face. I swirl the vodka-stim and chuckle softly. “It’s a surprise. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Just as the alcohol made it easier for a smile to come to my face, so too has it made it easier for that smile to slip away. I frown in irritation. This must be how Anya feels all the time, I decide. “No, man. Come on. This is a Cold War-themed restaurant. You really think they serve sushi here?”
Googe looks around uncertainly. “They might.”
“But Japan was part of NATO.”
“Dude, NATO stood for ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization.’ How could Japan, in the Pacific Ocean, have possibly been part of NATO?”
“Japan was allies with the United States, though.”
I shake my head. “I didn’t order sushi, man. They don’t even serve Japanese food here.”
He glances around the restaurant again, folds his arms across his chest, pouts with an audible grunt of “Humph!”
We prattle on about nothing for a bit: plans for the evening, clubs we should go to, possibly rotating the sleeping arrangements so that the same poor sap doesn’t have to spend the whole trip on the floor or else snuggled up against someone else in bed. We finish our drinks, order a second round, and finally the food comes. Betsy’s got a big grin on her face, same perfectly straight and white teeth as Anya, three plates carefully arranged on an arm held out straight and the fourth in her other hand. “Four bacon cheeseburger with fries! Dig in, boys!”
She sets a plate down in front of each us, and I sit with my elbows on the tabletop, my hands folded together neatly, my chin resting atop them, studying my friends’ reactions. Everyone looks at least slightly disappointed, which I figured they would be. Of course, they don’t know the surprise yet.
“TIP?” Monk says with a hint of sorrow in his voice. “I thought we were trying to avoid that.”
I shake my head, a small smile creeping across my face. “It’s not TIP.”
Erb lifts the top of the sesame seed bun and squints at the patty. “Some kind of vegetable-based meat substitute.”
I shake my head, make a noise that I would like to call a chuckle but can probably only be honestly described as a giggle.
Papa Chub shrugs. “So it’s lab meat.”
I grin. “It’s beef.”
My grin softens into a regular everyday smile. I sip my beer, the vodka-stim having been finished by the time my boys ordered a second round. “Nope. No bullshit. It’s beef and cheddar cheese and smoked and cured pork belly, all on a wheat bun. Real lettuce and tomatoes and onion, not veggie paste. Potatoes grown in soil and run through a press that cuts them into pleasing wedges, then fried in peanut oil. A pauper’s feast.” I wince as soon as that expression slips past my lips. A pauper’s feast? What the hell does that mean? Damn alcohol messing with my brain. When we finish dinner and get back to the hotel room, I should double-check my bags and see if I have any more nootropics, pop a few to balance out the effects of the booze. Or maybe another vodka-stim. Or maybe just the stim.
I shake the thought from my head. Might as well finish my impromptu speech rather than fixate on the silly things coming out of my mouth. I raise my beer in mock toast and grin. “As they say in the America that once was, ‘Dig in, boys.’”
Erb and Papa Chub both look surprised. Googe and Monk, meanwhile, are poking at the patty, raising the plate to their faces and inhaling deeply in wide-eyed wonder. “Holy crap, man,” Googe whispers.
We eat in silence for a few minutes, everyone too fixated on the flavors and textures they’re cramming into their mouths, the sensations of all. To think, there was a time when people all around the world would eat food like this all the time and not bat an eye at what a small wonder it was. Or what a massive drain on the world producing it could be. The land given over to raising livestock, the waste generated by bovines and suids, the ecological unsustainability of it all. Is unsustainability a word? It seems like it should be, but then, that probably means it’s not. Oh, who cares. Dinner’s too delicious to fixate on such things.
Papa Chub sets down his half-eaten burger and sighs contentedly. “Damn, man. Nicely done. I’m pretty sure this whole thing is so rich it’s going to wreak havoc on my digestive system, but I don’t give a damn. Nicely fucking done.”
I lower my head, wave my arms in an exaggerated flourish, give a mock bow.
“Yeah,” Erb says. “You really didn’t have to spring for beef all by yourself. Especially on our first night in town.”
I turn my head and wave my hand, a feudal lord dismissing his vassal. “Nonsense. You’re my boys. I do right by my boys. And besides, it’s not like I ordered steak or something that requires a whole cut of the animal, you know? A burger’s basically made the same way as textured insect or vegetable protein. Take the less desirable bits, grind it all up, form it into something pleasing, and serve.”
“Still,” Erb says around a mouthful of burger. “It couldn’t have been cheap.”
I shrug. “Cheaper than you think.”
“How much?” Monk asks.
“Don’t worry about it, man.”
“Well, you’ve got to tell us sooner or later,” Googe says. He pops a fry into his mouth and then another and another, barely pausing to chew them, like they most have in the olden days. “How are we going to know how to split the check otherwise?”
I blink in surprise. That’s an excellent point. Shit, why didn’t I consider that? Goddamn alcohol. Goddamn not having any nootropics.
My pause goes on too long. The happy contented chewing gives way to a silence that’s deafening.
“Dude,” Erb says. “How much did all this cost?”
My alcohol-soaked brain scrambles to come up with a suitable answer, but there isn’t one. Or if there is, it eludes me. Maintaining my silence isn’t an option, so instead it’s the truth that slips through my lips. “Like, a hundred creds for everybody. 125, maybe. I forget.”
More silence. It lingers for an eternity. Everyone is frozen, their minds struggling to process the impossible information I’ve just given them. “You can’t get beef at that price,” Papa Chub finally says. It’s true, of course. It’s what everyone is thinking, even if they haven’t articulated yet, even if they’re afraid to say it less they give voice to some hideous unspoken fear.
I shrug. “They must get it in bulk,” I say knowing full well that that can’t possibly be true.
“That can’t possibly be true,” Erb says. “You can’t produce beef in bulk anymore. It’s illegal as shit.”
“On Earth,” I say, my voice taking on the tone of a teacher lecturing a remedial class.
“Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t exactly see verdant pastures as our shuttle started orbiting the meadows.”
“People on Earth used to grow cattle in feedlots,” I say, regretting the words the instant they slip past my mouth. I can’t think of anything more repugnant than a feedlot off the top of my head. I’m sure that I could if I were given a minute to consider things, and I have been drinking, but even still. It’s an ugly thought.
“They grow this in feedlots?” Monk asks. There’s a note of concern in his voice, ever the empath.
“No!” I protest. Which is true. Anya hadn’t mentioned anything about feedlots.
“Then, how do they sell beef this cheap?” Googe asks.
“I don’t know I say.”
“No way do you not know,” Papa Chub says. There’s a steady calm to his voice. Of anyone present, he might know me best of all, and he knows there’s no way I wouldn’t have the same questions they do about the origin of the food I’m consuming. “I bet it was the first thing you asked our waitress as soon as you saw the price.”
“It was the second,” I mutter. I’m trying to stare down the neck of my beer bottle, disappear down it. It’s not working very well.
“So where’s it come from?”
I look up, my gaze drifting between my friends’ eyes. There’s genuine curiosity in Googe and Monk’s, a sort of preemptive condemnation in Erb’s, a smug satisfaction in Papa Chub’s. I sigh. I take a deep breath, another sip of my drink.
“Okay. So. You guys know the Pocket Cow?”
The response is immediate, instantaneous. Googe spits the tiny bit of food in his mouth across the table. Monk drops his burger onto the plate like it’s a hissing, spitting venomous insect. All the color drains from Papa Chub’s face. Erb looks like he wants to kill me.
“Jesus Christ, man!” Erb says. His outrage is only growing with each passing minute.
“We’ve been eating Pocket Cow?” Googe asks. He sounds like he’s on the verge of tears.
“Oh, God,” Monk says with a groan. “I’d rather get the TIP!”
“It’s not Pocket Cow!” I say louder than I intend to. The heads of the other diners in our area snap towards the sound of my voice, as do the heads of the various waiters and waitresses making the rounds. I shrink in my seat. Accusing a restaurant of serving Pocket Cow is a crime on the same level as shouting “Fire!” in a crowded, enclosed public spot. From the corner of my eye I can see Anya glaring at me from the Warsaw Pact side of the restaurant. Her fair skin is flushing red with anger and I have the growing feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m about to meet Boris, whoever or whatever the Hell that’s supposed to be.
“It’s not Pocket Cow,” I repeat, my voice much lower, a hiss, a whisper. “Calm down, goddamnit. You guys are going to get us kicked out of here.”
“Then what the fuck is it?” Papa Chub hisses back in reply.
“It’s made from cattle genetically engineered to require very little space and attention, extremely resistant to disease, and extremely tasty.”
“That sounds a Hell of a lot like Pocket Cow.”
“It’s not fucking Pocket Cow!”
“How do you know?”
“It’s the size of real cattle, for starters.”
“So it’s Pocket Cow XL.”
“It has functional respiratory and nervous systems.”
“It has an actual brain.”
“It’s not fucking Pocket Cow!”
“It’s got a brain that regulates all its higher processes?” Erb asks. “It feels pain and love and a desire to breed and all of that?”
I pause. “It’s got a functional brain stem.”
“So it’s not a real cow.”
“It is according to their lawyers,” I say with a shrug.
“Jesus Christ, man. You’re sick,” Papa Chub says with the finality of a judgment being handed down.
“You know what? It tastes good, it doesn’t die if left unattended for longer than an hour, and it doesn’t ruin the goddamn environment. I, for one, am not going to look a gift cow in the whatever it takes in nutrients from. Now all of you need to calm the fuck down before they kick us out of here.”
Word Count: (•_•) ( •_•)>⌐■-■ (⌐■_■)