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Stories from the Verse
Re Verse All
Chapter 24: Beam 63
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Takano 20
Walking past the Please Wait To Be Seated sign, the white-haired man surveyed the layout of the tables with the eye of a professional who had worked restaurants of many types. The open expanse sported comfortably separated square tables, set forty-five degrees off from the line of the walls so that you had your back to one of the corners of the room no matter where you sat. Aces and eights, he thought, always uncomfortable at a table with his back to either the front or rear entrance. The sides were lined with booths that would comfortably squeeze six, seven if you put a chair at the end. In each corner was a booth with a round table which he thought would probably handle nine, maybe large enough for two chairs in the open space. Booths were much more difficult to escape in an emergency. The sides also had open arches with closed glass doors leading into separate dining areas. He still didn’t like the arrangement of the square tables. It wasn’t Deadwood Gulch, but it wasn’t particularly safe.
On the other hand, he didn’t expect that Dawn would sit or relax her vigilance. He chose a table near the door but slightly off line, and sat on the edge that had him looking toward the front entrance.
As he sat, a menu appeared on the table top. It was touch screen, and it listed all the categories one would expect to find in a diner--breakfast, sandwiches, seafood, poultry, pork and ham, steaks, beef, soups, salads, side dishes, beverages, desserts, and the like. It was quickly evident that when you touched any of these headers, it opened a list of items, sometimes subheadings, so you could move quickly to what you wanted or browse the entire menu section by section, as you preferred.
Glancing up, he realized his companions were still standing, staring at him.
“Please, sit,” he said. “The screen is called a menu, and from it you can choose whatever you want to eat, and someone in the kitchen will make it for you and deliver it to the table. I’m going to have steak, because I figure anytime I can have steak without doing any work, that’s what I want. But don’t let me make up your minds. If you like seafood, now would be a good time to get it, because I never eat fish so I’m not likely to make it and I’m not likely to order it when I’m shopping, so you’re not going to get it at home. But take your time, read through the menu--if you touch something, it shows you more choices.”
Dawn remained standing; Beam knew she would when he picked the table for four. Sophia, seated to his right, appeared to be browsing, figuring out how the touch screen worked; Bob, across from him, had apparently already located brains in the special dishes section. Bron, though, was just staring at him.
“What’s the problem?” Beam asked.
Bron hesitated a moment, but then said plainly without any of the embarrassment that a modern man might show, “I don’t read.”
Beam realized he should have known that. After all, Bron was a peasant blacksmith from a medieval village. Anyone he ever met who could read, other than the local parson, would have considered him inferior and incapable of learning such a skill. Maybe the parson would have thought that, too. But there had to be a solution. He could order for Bron, but there would have been illiterate people, children, mentally handicapped adults, and perhaps others who could see but could not read. He returned to the main menu and scanned the area around the listings until he found it. He touched it to be sure, and it did what he anticipated.
“Bron, to the right edge there are a bunch of pictures. One of them looks like a picture of a picture. If you touch that, it should change your screen to showing pictures of the food instead of names. You can order that way.”
It took the blacksmith a moment, but the sudden startle followed by a smile suggested he found it. He was browsing for more than several minutes. Sometimes he would startle, surprised by something he saw; sometimes he would smile and almost chuckle, as if something in the menu was a joke. Mostly, though, he scowled, sometimes grumbled, apparently dissatisfied with his search. Finally Beam’s impatience waxed to the point that he could not remain silent. However, recognizing that to Bron all of this was new--ordering food from menus, having so wide a selection, using the electronic computer screens--he attempted to rein in his temper.
“Problem?” he asked simply.
Bron shifted in his seat. “I can’t find what I want.”
“What would that be?”
“Well, they seem to have so much, I can’t believe they don’t have something so simple, so it must just be that I haven’t found it yet.”
“Which is?” Beam said, his patience wearing yet thinner.
“They have pies. I saw them, in the desserts.”
“No, not a fruit pie. A good meat pie. Pork pie or something.”
Beam abruptly remembered that this was a typical food in Bron’s world, and indeed that he had seen them before that at a Renaissance Faire.
“Americans,” he began, and paused, realizing the ramifications of what he was saying, “Americans don’t really eat those. We get close with chicken pot pie and shepherd’s pie, but those both have a lot of gravy inside; and pizza places usually offer strombolis and calzones, but they’re a lot more messy than what you’re thinking, usually. About the closest thing to what you want is probably something like a panini or maybe a wrap; they’ll be with the sandwiches, although overall sandwiches are probably what replaced pies. I think the British still do a steak and kidney pie, but I’ve never seen it on a menu in America.”
They don’t have them America. That meant that this strangely alien world was somehow connected to home--some future version of the world from which he came, or perhaps one very like it. The food on the menu was all very like something one would get in an American diner--including the international selections, with tacos and gyros, extensive pasta dishes, beef au jus, all international foods you would find in an American diner. There was no British cuisine--no bangers and mash, no steak and kidney pie, no spotted dick--because those weren’t eaten by Americans. You could get fish and chips, but you had to call it fish fillets and steak fries, and it didn’t come wrapped in newspaper, and somehow he thought it probably wasn’t the same. For one thing, in America it wasn’t served with vinegar.
All of that meant that this was America, or America in the future. Why, though, was it underground? That wasn’t too difficult. How many post-apocalyptic games had he played, movies had he seen, books had he read? Here apparently the apocalypse was anticipated on a huge scale, and someone engineered the creation of underground shelters intended to maintain a large population for years, decades at least, probably generations. He couldn’t guess how large a population it would have supported, but from what he had seen it must have been vast.
So where were they?
It was possible that they never made it, that either the disaster was averted or it hit too fast for anyone to make it to the shelter. That seemed improbable on both sides--some people would have made it, even if most did not, and some, the Nervous Nellies, would have moved to safety well enough in advance of the disaster that they would still be here somewhere. It was possible that having moved here they all died. That seemed unlikely as well. The food was all good, air and water and a good living environment, there was no reason for humans to fail to survive in such a place.
That meant only one possibility. They were here, somewhere.
He enjoyed his steak far less than he had anticipated.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with five other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #359: Characters Engage. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: