1. Anything but McMeaty’s

Mitchell got to McMeaty’s the normal way. He walked out of his real house, through his very real gate in his real white picket fence and turned right. Then he walked down Maple Street, a very real street with real maple trees, to the town center.

Hatset’s business district was small, with just a few buildings surrounding the town green. There was the small office building that housed the real estate agency where Mitchell worked, then the bank, then a florist, then a small grocery store, all in traditional New England Federal style with white wood paneling and black trim.

Then there was the McMeaty’s. Michell avoided looking at it when he walked past. He had voted several times to change the town’s zoning ordinance to prohibit chain restaurants, but he’d been in the minority, and it still rankled. The town residents did agree to keep vehicles out of the town center. Anyone driving or flying in had to approach the buildings from the back, where they were not completely out of sight but at least not as intrusive.

Then there was a body spa, another sign of the times. These days, hardly anyone seemed to be happy with the bodies they were born with. Mitchell himself hadn’t changed since college and he was proud of that.

His destination, O’Blallagan’s, was at the far end of the town green, next to the fire station with its fleet of fire suppression and medical response drones. The fire station was housed in another Federal-style building, this one in brick, and fit in well with the rest of town’s New England architecture. The drones were all on the roof, where you couldn’t see them.

If he ignored the other pedestrians, which he usually did, he could have been back in the 1900s, instead of in 2120.

Mitchell’s favorite table was second to the left as he walked in, next to the jukebox, and looked back out over the town green. It was too early for dinner, so the table was available.

Hampton Lloyd and Charles Polk, his best friends since freshman year of college nearly fifty years ago, teleported in a few minutes later and started complaining as soon as they saw him.

“This place doesn’t have an online menu,” said Hampton, who was getting married in a month. Hampton tried to pull out a chair so he could sit down, but, of course, since he wasn’t actually there, he couldn’t get a grip on it. Mitchell had to stand up and pull out chairs so Hamp and Charlie could sit down.

The minute he did, Charlie was waving his hands in the air, looking something up online.

“What kind of one-horse town did you move to?” he asked. “There’s nothing here.” He swiped up with his finger in the empty air. “Oh, you’ve got a McMeaty’s.”

Hamps glanced out the window and pointed. “There it is. Let’s go there.”

“It’s a chain.” Mitchell leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I’ve never gone in.”

“Do you seriously want to hold a bachelor’s party here?” Charlie waved around at the restaurant.

“Why not? They’ve got a bar.” Michell pointed it out. “Saturday nights, there’s live music. It’s perfect. And they serve real meat burgers, from local farmers.”

“Nobody will be able to eat them,” Charlie said. “Nobody. Will. Be. Able. To. Eat. Them. What’s wrong with you?”

“And they have local microbrews on tap,” said Mitchell. “You can’t find them anywhere else.”

“I said, what’s wrong with you?” said Charlie. “Almost everyone will be porting in.”

“Only a couple of guys are still in the area and in driving distance,” added Hamps.

“You’re the worst best man ever,” said Charlie. “How in the world are you going to have a bachelor’s party in a place where none of the guests can eat or drink?”

“What, so you think McMeaty’s is better?”

“No, of course not.” Charlie sighed. “You’re just being stubborn. Get your rig out and meet us in-world, like I suggested. There’s a nice O’Brien’s on Facepage not far from my place. Remember?”

“Right, we went there after your funeral,” said Hamps. “That’s been like, what, five years? How’s online life treating you?”

“It’s not that bad, but…”

“I’m boycotting Facepage,” Mitchell interrupted. “And O’Brien’s is just another chain. If I’m going to go drinking, I want to stay drunk and get a hangover. I want a real experience.”

The waitress brought three leather-bound menus over and was about to put them down on the table when she noticed that Mitchell’s guests weren’t quite all there.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “But we don’t have an online menu.”

“We noticed.” Charlie glared at Mitchell then looked back at her. “It’s okay. We’re only going to be here a little while.”

“I’ll have my usual,” said Mitchell.

“One Ellis Shipyard Ale and an Austin Brothers burger coming right up,” she said and left, still holding the menus.

“If you’re going to have a bachelor’s party in meatspace, you should at least have it where the groom can attend in person,” said Charlie. Of course, Charlie would say that. He would take any opportunity to undermine Mitchell. It was like that in college, too, at least until they all chose their majors and Charlie started spending most of his time with his new engineering friends.

Charlie had probably been hanging out with Hamps all day today. That explained why they arrived together.

Mitchell slumped down and stared at his hands. “I’d have to go the O’Neill Hab.” He looked up at Hampton. “It would take me a month to get there.”

“If you book your ticket now, you could get there in time for the wedding,” said Charlie. “And the ship would have great rigs, so you could still attend the bachelor’s party. They’d probably have all the latest features, the fullest immersion and bio support, not like whatever old junk you’ve got at home.”

Mitchell looked away. He’d never been to space.

“They need me at work,” he finally said. “I couldn’t take off that much time on short notice.”

“I’m sorry, dude,” said Hampton. “You’ve been my best friend for decades, but I’ve barely seen you this past year and when I do, I’m the one going online and porting over. You haven’t met me on the Hab even once. You have to compromise sometimes.” He took a deep breath. “Charlie, can you do the party?”

“Sure. I’m friends with one of O’Brien’s managers. They can set up a private shard just for us.” Charlie looked at Mitchell. “I’ll ask them to stock your Shipyard ale and Austin burgers. And I’ll stop by and take a look at your rig. I can probably upgrade it for you.”

“Ellis Shipyard Ale isn’t available online,” said Mitchell. “Neither is Austin Brothers. They’re not sellouts. And my rig is just fine.”

In fact, he bought his current one just five years ago. Sure, it wasn’t the top of the line model, but one a couple of generations back that was about to be discontinued so he got it cheap. But all he needed it for was to attend Charlie’s funeral and then the housewarming on Facepage. Then there was the occasional work meeting since then.

Hampton tapped the table and looked out the window, then back at Michell.

“I’m sorry, dude,” he finally said and turned to Charlie. “You’re taking over the party. You can have it anywhere you want.”

“Am I still the best man?” Mitchell asked.

“I guess so. I’ll have to think about it.”

Hampton tried to stand up, but the table was in the way and he couldn’t physically move the chair. He flicked his fingers in the air.

Michell expected him to change his projection settings so that he could walk through the furniture. Which would have been rude. Instead, his best friend flickered out without saying goodbye.

“That was rude,” said Mitchell.

“You didn’t give him a choice,” said Charlie. “You don’t go off-planet. You don’t go online. You live in this fake tourist trap. You haven’t changed your face or your hair or your clothes in fifty years. Dude, there’s something wrong with you.”

He waved his hand and disappeared.

The waitress returned with Mitchell’s beer.

“Will you friends be back?” she asked. “I talked to the owner and we’ve got appetizers with virtual versions that I can bring out for them. And sodas.”

“No, that’s okay,” he said. “We were done.”

“Well, it was nice meeting your friends,” she said. “When they come back, I’ll be ready, so you won’t have to eat alone.”

“I don’t mind eating alone,” said Mitchell.

But he did mind. He minded very much.

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