In Which a Meal is had

Cat got out of the transport shuttle on a third-floor landing pad, Cutter’s pink undulating mass sitting on her shoulder, some of it oozing down her arm and back to keep hold as she walked. She made sure his slime wasn’t messing with her mane, but otherwise, it felt remarkably comfortable. The view, however, was not. “Why is this building so weirdly unsettling?”

“Not sure,” Cutter extended his eye above her head to look around. “It’s the Americana Mall, built with designs from all the latest Earth broadcasts.”

Cat blinked and looked around, starting to recognize some parts here and there from movies and books. “Why though?”

“America is the main group of humanity we have info on, and everyone knew the Earth gate would be opening soon. So this mall was built to cater to the expected flood of human customers. Probably best if you don’t mention where you are from, or that the humans aren’t coming.”

She looked across the odd architectural hodgepodge, various styles jutting out of the whole at strange angles. “OK. I don’t think humans would have liked… this.”

“Oh, before we go in,” Cat paused to listen to what he had to say, “I should explain the money. Network Credits. Any time you pass through a gate they log your identity, destination, origin, and what you are bringing. The Administrators reward you for passing through the gate, and then it resets exactly one cycle later, rewarding you on the next passage. This gives a bit of credits that everyone recognizes on some level and encourages travel and spending. World leaders get more and the reset time is slightly less than a full cycle. Check your tablet to see your balance sheet along with the cycle clock and your reset timer. There is a word for this system, but we haven’t figured out an English translation yet.”

Cat looked at her tablet and smiled. She’d read about these sorts of systems being used in video games. “It’s a Daily Login Reward, just the Login is done by passing through a gate rather than opening a program. I think they were made by the South Korean gaming industry. Not sure, I probably read about that a few decades ago. It wasn’t one of the magazines I went back to. Speaking of which, if you guys are up to the late 1990s, then that means your receivers are about 115 lightyears away from Sol. It’s currently 2113, I think the ‘end of the world’ was around 2030. And while I’m on the subject, I’m declaring a new calendar for Sol. I’ll work out the details later, but I’m in charge now, and I’m not going to keep using the human calendar. I think I’m 91, I’ll do something with that.”

Walking up to the door, the sensor opened it for them. Inside, the eclectic architecture was even more pronounced, with a vast array of empty booths, stalls, and small shop areas mixed with portions of roller coaster rides and eating plazas. Looking around, she felt slightly dizzy and realized this must be what it felt like to be in hundreds of mall commercials at the same time.

Cutter directed her to one of the occupied shops where a raptor-like person in thick leather overalls stood behind a register with a pink blob on their shoulder. The blob gestured in greeting. “Hello Cutter.” It then said something else which Cat knew as being a greeting to herself, even though she didn’t know the words directly.

Cutter replied, “Hello Dodger. I’m off the clock, but she has learned English. It’s part of why I directed her to the Americana.”

Dodger perked up and the raptor bowed slightly. “Nice to meet another Humanophile. Stale-Wind-Through-Crispy-Leaves is excited you have come to his booth of Human Foods. He can understand English, Spanish, French, German, and Russian, but I translate his intent to most people.”

Cat placed a hand to her sternum and slightly lowered her head in the smallest of bows. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Dodger, and you, Stale-Wind-Through…was it Spicy Leaves, sorry, Crispy-Leaves. I am the Cat Queen.”

“Haha, yeah, I guess your species does look a bit like Earth cats. Stale-Wind has always liked that his species looks like human depictions of dinosaurs and dragons.”

She looked over the menu of the Human Foods Cafe, comparing the prices to her Login Reward and the shuttle fee. “These are pretty expensive.”

“Yes, these are luxury food items. It’s taken years of study for Stale-Wind’s family to figure out the chemical composition and preparation of these dishes. He is fairly certain they are close approximations of genuine human recipes. If you are anything like the Felines of Earth, then you may prefer the ‘Hot Dog’; it comes in a Grashtadata Root. Until he can secure trade with Earth, that is the closest he can reliably get to a White Bread-based bun.”

Cat nodded along, thinking of the grain silos she’d seen in books. She couldn’t remember if farms further up the river had any, but if they did they would probably still hold some decent grain, or at least seeds to restart production once she had farmers. If not, there was the fabled Svalbard Seed Vault, if she could figure out where on Earth that was, it was now her property.

Her property? She knew the concept, but this was the first time she’d encountered ‘others’ from which to distinguish ownership. Sometimes she thought of the animals owning things, like their kills, or the portions of ‘her’ food they managed to sneak off with, but with people it felt different.

“Um, this is my first time using Network Credits. I’ve earned some from the Daily Login Reward, but…”

“Ohh, that’s a good name for it, yeah. We’ve been debating it for years. So, yeah, your DLR gave you some today. Sorry for the interruption.”

“Right. Uh, how does the Administrator Network make a profit if they give out money?”

“Well, the DLR is enough for most species to live comfortably, but hub worlds are not zoned for housing, so you can’t stay here, and most worlds require some form of payment to use their gates, often based on their world’s currency and trade rates. If they don’t, it’s probably to encourage tourism in an expensive city on the other side of the gate, or they just aren’t very developed. Oh, and the Administration levies a small tax on anything you leave a hub world with that you didn’t enter with. That’s normally insignificant but avoids worlds bypassing the normal trade transit taxes. Ultimately, they don’t care about making a profit off individuals, but individuals encourage interstellar trade. So whatcha eatin’?”

Cat nodded in understanding. “I think I’ll take the Salisbury Steak. I’ve read that’s supposed to be quite good, and it sounds like it would fit my diet.”

She touched her tablet where indicated and confirmed the purchase. As the saurian chef got to work she asked Dodger if there were any magic shops. Apparently, Humanities interest in, but lack of actual magic in media had caused the mall’s magic quarter to be one of the most active areas, with over a third of the spaces already occupied.

Since most worlds went with tech for the reputation of reliability, magic worlds were keen for any opportunity to expand into new world markets using flashy displays of power, trying to prove that they could do anything tech could, and cheaper.

After finishing the most delectable meal she’d ever had (Salisbury steak with polinka fries and a fizzy soda she couldn’t pronounce), she thanked the chef and went to the magic quarter.

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