A half-dozen curious faces peered down at the reinforced glass screen, the slight warp of the reflective material twisting their faces slightly out of proportion just like a women’s changing room mirror. Every so often a finger would press gently against the glass, scrolling or selecting one thing or another, and each time the response was almost the same: utter disbelief.
“I honestly wouldn’t believe this if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.” Anne Marie murmured as she stared at the tablet, the web page for some chic bistro near the main Human Settlement in Silver City proudly displaying it’s wares underneath her fingertips. The Bistro, which had an incredibly pretentious name in every language, translated for humans roughly as “The only place in town worth it”. If you felt the name was insufferable, that would be just the tip of the iceberg; everything about the place screamed “trying too hard” mixed with “the poor need not apply”. Rustic furniture, average-joe decor, and an open floor plan would have you believe this place just moved in and was doing their best, but the sad truth is that it cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of GRC to import real Dirt lumber and use it to pave the floors, and to use the remaining scrap wood as “authentic” human bric-a-brac to line the walls. Aliens of all kinds were shown relaxing, laughing, playing and talking in that ‘we look normal but all our brands are luxury’ kind of way, as obviously photoshopped images of humans meandered about – it was as bad as it sounds. Worse, really.
“Five hundred creds a plate?!” Jack said, tilting his head to see if he misread. “They don’t even let you pick what you eat!”
Brian squinted at the tablet, brushing aside Anne Marie’s hand to get a better look. “If they’re saying that’s a ‘standard human glass’ then… those serving sizes are smaller than my fist. How the fuck?!”
“[What is a strawberry?]” Sesame asked, tilting to the side to rest her cheek on Anne Marie’s head as she looked down at the tablet with one eye. “[Is it a flower?]”
“No, no.” Anne Marie said, unable to shake her head. “They cut the fruit like that-”
“[But it’s a berry. It’s in the name.]” Sesame responded, tucking Anne Marie’s head under the larger Jornissian’s jaw. “[You shouldn’t let your food lie to you.]”
Anne Marie reached up to lift Sesame’s head off of her own, wagging her trophy from side to side. “Listen, you may steal my warms but you’re not gonna change that name.”
“[She can do both.]” Doobie said, taking the opportunity to scroll down the list. “[So can this place. It really looks like they’re catering to an established clientele… definitely off-world. Look.]” Doobie muttered, pointing to a Moth-cocoon silk dish. “[You can damn well pick these off of the ground if you go deep enough in the forest, and it’s going for… 300GRC.]”
“Stringy-soup?” Brian laughed, sitting back on his elevated chair. “You’re tellin’ me a cunt can go on a walkabout and come back with an hour’s drinkin’ money?”
“[Seems to be.]” Doobie said, smirking. “[Most really expensive places like this will have multiple versions of the same dish, in order to mimic the taste and texture sensations across mixed-species palettes.]”
Doobie looked up, noticing that the table had gone quiet. “[I uh. My moms work in interstellar shipping…]”
“Liberal Arts Major.” Jack hissed, as he tossed a small fistfull of Hush Puppy fluff at the Dorarizin. Doobie for his part bit the softly-lobbed food out of the air, and swallowed sheepishly.
“[But… ok, so the point I’m trying to make before I was rudely interrupted-]” Doobie said, leveling his gaze at a still-defiant Jack. “[Was that usually places like this want to make sure to serve safe dishes for every species, or communal dishes that all species can tolerate. This place seems to only serve Human food. Yeah, here, they’re ‘proud to list’ one of their vendors as Aleman Farms. Possibly why there’s a premium.]” Doobie continued, furrowing his brow. “[Maybe that’s the point; they’re playing the human-access angle for all it’s worth.]”
“Mmmh. I don’t know if I like those kind of implications.” Anne Marie said, curling around to lay more comfortably on her back in the impromptu chair she made out of Sesame. “I’m not some feral animal that made your day because I happened across your path. I’m not some cat to adopt.”
“[Of course not.]” Sesame replied, looking down at her human friend, resting her arms on the smaller xenos’ warm torso. “[But that would be a lucrative angle for any business, big or small. It’s… curiosity is the hottest pebble on the beach.]”
Tomtom leaned back against the booth backrest, her head tilted in thought as she stared up at her thinking ceiling tile – the one which everyone agreed looked the best for some unspecified reason. “[So, read human cookbooks and make authentic cuisine with real ingredients. Check. Invite and make a safe space for all species to eat and enjoy. Check. Serve quality food. Check.]” Tomtom questioned into the void. “[So why can’t I sell a Corn Orb for 700GRC?]”
There came a call from the back kitchen. “[Because a dish there is an entire day’s wage in this area of the system, sweetie.]” Tictac bellowed, the sound of something frying almost drowning him out. “[There’s also not a high density of Humans out here.]”
“We’ve got the college.” Jack said, spinning the tablet his-ways-up as he assumed direct control. “But even then, a lot of us commute between enclaves.”
“[It’s a local place, sure, but is that bad?]” Tomtom asked, lowering her head to look at Jack. “[We never wanted to be exclusive.]”
“That’s part of the package, though, and you wanted to be a little hole in the wall.” Anne Marie said, pretending to do chest presses with Sesame’s arms.
“Wait.” Brian said, the marketing major (which was secretly the most useless of the degrees at the table and he should be spat upon)’s mind working on overdrive. “Wait. That’s our exclusivity. That’s our niche!”
“[No, we’re not doing anything involving bodily fluids again.]” Tomtom said, immediately staring down the Australian, who cut her off with a wave of his hand.
“Aye, that was only three times, alright?” Brian replied, not skipping a beat. “Listen. The number one thing people are coming here for is us, right? Humans, I mean.”
“[I’ve yet to see the appeal.]” Doobie snarked, resting his chin in his hand. “[But continue.]”
“Right, well, what if we could be the pull? Look, they even had those bad photoshopped people in their restaurant, right?” Brian said, scrambling over the tabletop to grab the tablet from Jack, quickly flicking through a few previous tabs as he spoke, highlighting pictures as he went. “The thing that just clicked for me – the alien actors! They’re reacting to the photoshopped in humans.”
“[Huh.]” Sesame said, squinting slightly. “[That… I didn’t pick up on that.]”
“Right! They’re obviously trying to bring in the big bucks, but there’s not that much around here locally. That got me thinking; if this is a major issue across the board, right?” Brian continued unfazed as his mania came to full force. “And considering we’re standard sight to everyone else on this rock, that means they’re trying to pull in only offworlders or ex-solars.”
“[Hm. Untrained randos and humans don’t really mix well.]” Doobie said, frowning softly. “[That might be why the images are faked, but… why? That seems so odd.]”
“The million dollar question!” Brian said, pointing his finger excitedly at his Dorarizin friend. “I bet they’re billing not just human watching, or human access, but humans as part of the dining experience. But do you really think any company is going to get away with that without being buried in red tape?”
Tomtom flicked her crest once as the thought crossed her mind, and she curled her neck back in a c to yell behind her booth to the kitchen. “[HEY DA!]”
“[I can hear you just fine young lady! You always were my loudest chick.]” Tictac called out, the sound of something being hammered dying down. “[What’s up?]”
“[Would it be easy to hire a human to help us?]” Tomtom innocently called out, and there was a slight beat as the softer rythmic hammering died down, and ultimately stopped. The silence lasted for only a moment before it was broken; it started with a bubbling up, but soon musical and hearty laughter echoed from the kitchen out into the dining area proper, drowning out several other conversations. Tictac’s almost-manic laughter continued, long and drawn out, only fading to silence as he walked into the freezer and shut the door behind him.
“[I guess that’s a no.]” Tomtom said, flipping her neck back into proper place. “[But that means it’s bad.]”
“See, I figure that too, right?” Brian said, as the other humans who are experiencing this dialog parroted “right” right back, even in their minds. “And that must be why these ads are the way they are. What if, in order to keep this diner afloat, we offer illegal access to ourselves? The food can remain shite-”
“[Hey now.]” Tomtom said, tapping a dulled claw against the human’s forehead gently. “[We are quality food at a decent price.]”
“Eeeh.” Brian said. “I’ve just grown used to it – look. We’re so small and out of the way that no one will come by to inspect, I know, I’ve been counting the months!”
“[Oh oww! It’s not that bad.]” Doobie said, coming to his friend’s aid. “[But I get what trail you left. We become a select secret, pay premium for off-world nights, by the time we get got we can claim ignorance or something like that.]”
“Yeah but fluffy-dad will know what’s up immediately.” Anne Marie said, giving up on her bench press and letting the Jornissian’s arms stretch her own off the coils. “I don’t think he will sign off on that.”
“No. But you can.” Jack said, looking slowly at Tomtom. “Aren’t you a part-owner because of that one senior project of yours? Your dad gave you like 5%, right?”
“[I. Hm. Alright, but, ok. If we’re going to do this.]” Tomtom said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “[Then we have to do this right. Let’s meet here tonight, when-]”
“[When what, daughter dearest?]” Tictac said, leaning out the serving window casually with a grin on his features. “[I told you, you’re my loudest chick. What’s the plan here?]”
“Well, this is easy!” Brian said, waving his hands as he kneeled on the table amid the food. “You’re already putting this up for sale, right? So your daughter hires us behind your back, we let that secret leak out, and you can start charging as much as you want!”
Elder Ti’miquek nodded slightly to himself, his crest barely waving above his scaleline. He inhaled deeply, before looking up at the fresh inspection certificate. “[So you really think it’s fake, huh?]”
Brian looked at the elderly Karnakian, and then up at the certificate. “Yeah. Too little variance between forms; if you’re getting this etched, there’s going to be flaws every once in a while.”
Elder Ti’miquek clicked his tongue against his teeth, before suddenly slapping the serving counter. “[Damnit! You’re the first one to get it this decade?!]”
“[Dad.]” Tomtom gasped, mortified at the new revelation. “[How- how could you?! You said-]”
“[My darling sunbeam, when you have three broods of chicks at once, you cut corners where it won’t hurt anyone.]” Ti’miquek said, shaking his head from side to side as he walked out of the kitchen. “[Besides, any real complaints about the food?]”
“Nah, not really.” Brian said, grinning. “Been comin’ here 4 days a week for years. This is my place! S’ a bit shit though.”
“[Most business laws are slaps on the wrist, especially if no real harm has been or can be done. No one’s ever complained about my food, and I’ve been here long enough, that nobody worries.]” Ti’miquek said, stopping in front of the table and looking his daughter straight in the eyes. “[So. You want to save this place so desperately that you’re willing to turn to crime? Even an innocent one?]” Ti’miquek asked, curiosity in his voice. “[Well?]”
The table fell silent, as all eyes turned towards the young Karnakian, the poor girl’s mind having long since puttered to a stop as revelation after revelation washed over her. Tik’akri looked at her father with new eyes, and studied his face for a few moments, a puzzled look splayed about her feathers, before she seemed to come to some sort of decision.
“[Yeah.]” Tik’akri said, slowly. “[I’m… young enough that I could probably get away with something like this. The money would still let me start my own place, so… yeah. That’s a risk I could take.]”
Ti’miquek smiled, wide, both in feather and in fang, as he sat down at the end of the booth, leaning in deeply. “[Oh, my daughter, now you are ready to run a business. But don’t be so clumsy. Now, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right…]”