6. Meatless Monday

“Fried skirrets and egg, cabbage and skirrets, and slaughtered cow parts.” Donna rattled off the lunch menu like an old pro. Her fourth day and she had it down.

“Don’t forget the fish,” the bartender yelled from across the room.

“And fish,” she added. “It’s been suffocated to death, then fried.”

The customer pulled his eyes away from the window and cleared his throat. “The cow parts sound good. Which cow parts are those?” But then, instead of waiting for her answer, he glanced down at his feet, bit back a smile, then looked again out the window.

Donna answered anyway. “They’re the parts of a cow who was brutally slaughtered without any concern whatsoever for her sanctity of life.”

The customer looked back at her.

“You’re talking about virtual, simulated cows?”

Donna pursed her lips. “Just because someone lives online doesn’t mean that their life isn’t real.”

“Uh, sure. Right.” He looked up at her. “Cows are real.”

She smiled. She was getting through to him. “Yes! Now you see, don’t you? We all bear responsibility for the suffering of these poor, gentle creatures.”

He nodded. “How about the skirrets and eggs?”

“Unborn chickens…”

“No, no, I meant skirrets and cabbage.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. “You are so thoughtful and caring. The world is a better place with you in it.”

“Well…” he blushed and looked away.

Donna followed his eyes to the street outside. It was a typical Krim day on Leadenhall Street. At the far end of the block, a small angry mob was waving signs outside the post office. There was an angry mob there most days.

“Are you worried about the protest?” she asked. “Do you know what it’s about?”

“I don’t know.” He glanced at her briefly. “They were yelling about meaty murder when I walked past. Maybe they’re for cannibalism?” He squinted at the crowd. One of the larger signs turned briefly in their direction. “Meat is murder?”

Donna sighed. “I should be there with them.” She looked back towards the front desk. Quimby Plummer, the innkeeper, was checking in a new guest. She leaned down and lowered her voice. “They don’t want me leaving when it’s my shift. Can you believe it? I have to wait until my break. The protest might be over by then!”

“Are you sure you want to be working in a restaurant, then?”

“My dream is to open my own shop and sell crystals.” She looked up at the ceiling, clutched her hands to her bosom, and sighed deeply. “With the lack of adequate medical care here on Krim, people really need the healing power of crystals.”

“Do you mean… magic crystals?”

“No, silly.” She batted at him playfully. “I know they don’t have magic on Krim. I’m talking about natural, healing crystals. Like they have in real life.”

“Right, of course,” the customer nodded. “Krim’s physics engine simulates real physics, so of course if crystals had healing power in the physical world, they would have them here as well.”

“Finally, someone understands! I’ve been having such a hard time getting anyone to listen to me.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“All I want to do is help people. I’ll also have astrology charts and magnetic bracelets. Promise you’ll come! I’ll make you some energizing tea.”

He put his hand over his heart. “I promise.” He then wiped both hands on his thighs and looked back outside.

Maybe he didn’t it about coming to her shop. Or maybe…

“Are you waiting for someone?”

“What?” He jerked his head back. “No. It’s nothing.”

He glanced down and Donna saw a long canvas duffle bag sticking out from under the table.

With his foot, he pushed the bag further under the table. Something clanked in it and the customer froze and quickly looked around the restaurant.

“I’m just in a hurry,” he said. “I’ve got a long trip ahead of me.”

“Are you going north to fight in the war?” The man was dressed like he might be, with a heavy wool coat, thick trousers, and well-worn boots. The boots were leather. And the wool came from the exploitation of sheep. But there were so few cruelty-free options available on Krim.

“Sure, sure, I’m going north,” he said. “If anyone comes asking, you can tell them that.”

“Well, I hope your friends catch up with you.”

He winced.

“Maybe some skirrets will cheer you up,” she said. “Hot food always makes me feel better when I’m lonely.”

He slouched back in his chair, hands in pockets, pulling his coat tightly around himself.

Donna turned to go.

“Wait,” he said. He pulled one hand out of his pocket and opened it, showing a clear jewel about the size of a walnut. “Here’s a crystal to get you started.”

She took the crystal and held it up to the window. “Is this clear quartz?”

He pushed her hand down and she put the crystal away into her apron pocket.

“Quartz crystals are master healers,” she said. “They amplify energy and help the immune system. They balance out the whole body. This is such a thoughtful gift.”

She leaned down and kissed him on his cheek.

He reddened and looked down.

“I’ll get you those skirrets then.”

After Donna placed the order with the bartender, Quimby pulled her aside.

“Did you just talk another customer out of ordering the beef stew?”

She looked towards the day’s menu, written in chalk on a board in the entryway. “Oh, we had beef stew?”

“I was wondering why we had so much mutton left over yesterday and why we ran short of cabbage.”

“Maybe people on Krim are more enlightened than you think.”

“Maybe we don’t have a refrigerator and can’t afford to have meat go to waste,” said the innkeeper.

“But…” Donna’s lower lip quivered. “But what about the cows?”

“The cows are not actually alive,” Quimby said. “They were never alive. They haven’t been uploaded. They’re one hundred percent simulated.”

“That’s such a prejudiced thing to say,” Donna said.

Quimby slapped his hand on the desk.

“Cows. Are. Not. Real.”

Donna burst into tears.

“Oh, for…” Quimby reached behind the desk and grabbed a towel. “You don’t have to cry about it.”

“But the cows!”

Donna took the towel, her sobs attracting the attention of the inn’s diners.

Quimby pulled her towards the front door.

“Listen, go home, clean yourself up. And look for a different job.”

She sobbed louder.

“And dinner is on me,” Quimby added. “Anytime you want some cabbage and potatoes — I mean, cabbage and skirrets — it’s on the house.”

He tried patting her on the shoulder, but she leaned forward and grasped him in a hug, instead.

“I’m so sorry,” she whimpered. “I’ve let you down.”

“It’s okay.” He patted her on the back then stepped away and opened the door. “You tried your best.”

“I did, I did, I swear.”

She wiped her face with the towel, handed it back, and stepped outside.

She looked to the left, where the protest was still going on near the post office. Then to the right, where the street went down the block, past Frieda’s Flowers and Tottie’s Threads, all the way down to the street her flat was one.

“Hold on, the apron,” Quimby called out behind her. She turned, but at that moment a man dressed like an assassin pushed past her, followed by a giant woman in heavy armor.

Quimby waved at her and closed the door.

Donna figured that meant that she could keep the apron.

Quimby was so nice. Even though she’d messed up with the meat. And spilled all that ale. And broke the mugs.

At least she didn’t set anything on fire. She lifted her chin. Every day, she was getting better and better.

She walked to the right, then glanced through the inn’s front windows when she heard a common inside. The two newcomers were standing over her customer. The nice one with the crystal.

The mean-looking woman dragged him to his feet and shook him.

The man’s friends had found him after all.

They seemed to be a little rough with him, but well, that’s how soldiers were with each other. Donna waved at them and continued home.

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