Real Food - Real Coffee - Real Staff - only at Better Times!
The skyscrapers in South 8 district are all metal and glass, clean blocks of colour or crystal stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions, angular sides and sharp edges delineating the borders of one and another. Everything is bright and new, and everything feels like the future. Adverts play on the sides of everything, projected holograms or simple screens, the colours popping out, arresting gazes on every surface.
Amongst all of this, nestled in the space between two buildings, a single brick building survives. The fascia is stained with age, the details blurred by corrosion and rain, all the surfaces untouched by the synthetic cleaners. A woman leans out the window and wipes down the glass with a rag instead, doing the job of an automaton.
The Better Times cafe attracts a mixed customer base. There are those who are old, and clinging on the past; there are those who fetishise its contents, who ache for a time they were never alive to see; and there are those who have simply tired of the modern world, everything digital and synthetic, and wish for something against the grain. Better Times welcomes all inside its doors.
As a customer enters, the waitress at the counter looks up and smiles. She skips over to the customer, a dark-haired woman dressed in a grey suit. They look totally out of place here, far smarter than the usual clientele. This doesn’t faze the waitress at all, and she picks up a menu from the shelf before greeting them.
“Hi! Welcome to Better Times. My name’s Izzy. What are you here for today?”
“A drink, please,” the woman replies. They hesitate before adding, “and maybe food, too.”
“Okay! Are you eating on your own?”
The woman nods solemnly. Izzy escorts her over to the bar, where a row of stools face the kitchen and cafe. A pair of students are sat at the end, discussing old literature that sits between them, and the woman is shocked to see real paper lying in the open.
“Would you like to sit here? Or would you prefer a quieter spot?”
“No, this is fine. Thank you,” she says, and hangs her bag carefully under the counter before sitting on the stool. The wood and leather are comfortable, surprisingly so, and she takes a long breath. Izzy leans over the counter and proffers a drinks menu.
“What would you like to drink? We have a range of hot and cold drinks, as well as alcoholic -- real, not synthetic -- and other herbal recipes.”
“Oh, I’ll have a small glass of wine. White, please.”
“Okay! One small glass of white. I’ll leave you with a food menu whilst you wait.”
Izzy scurries off to get the drink whilst the woman looks at the menu. All the food looks incredible -- fresh vegetables, rich sauces, and -- surely not -- real meat. Only a small selection of the latter, but amazing to see anything not grown a lab in a cafe this far in to the city.
Izzy returns with a small glass of wine, and carefully places it in front of the woman. She leans back and beams, wielding a notepad and pencil.
“Do you know what you’d like to eat?”
“I’m not sure. The meat... is it real?”
Izzy beams and nods vigourously. “It’s real. We import it in from a farm outside the city. We haven’t got much though, I’m afraid -- the chicken is sold out for this week, and we might be out of the lamb too.”
“Oh, okay. I only wanted to go for the chicken. So maybe...”
She scans the menu whilst Izzy waits patiently. At not point does she feel hurried, or awkward -- the waitress just stands and smiles. After a few moments the woman speaks up again.
“I think I’ll have the vegetarian sushi, then.”
“Okay! Great choice. I’ll go tell the cook.”
She winks back at the woman, who blushes in response as Izzy leaves. She thinks about the girls at work for a moment; cold and smart, behind a desk or next to the replicator; as flat as the automatons who work in half the positions. The one girl she’s had her eye on, on the reception desk, has never smiled at her like that, let alone winked. The woman feels strange as she sips her wine, and starts to look around the room as she waits.
The students at the end of the bar point excitedly at the pages in front of them, and lean over it together, their shoulders touching, one of them brushing hair out of their eyes. They don’t notice the woman staring at them at all. She looks around more, and looks at an elderly lady sat near the back, quietly eating a pasta dish on her own. One table over, a man and woman share pieces of cake with each other, two mugs of coffee between them as they feed each other forkfuls of sweet food.
Izzy returns and breaks the woman’s observation.
“I’m sorry, the cook has told me there’ll be a tiny delay -- are you okay hanging on for a while?”
“Yes, that’s okay,” she replies. “I can take a longer lunch.”
Izzy breaths out and her shoulders drop in relief. “That’s great. I was worried. Have you come from work?”
The woman leans forward slightly, talking to her across the bar. “I have. I work in the Syndia offices.”
“Oh, wow,” Izzy says. “There’s really big, aren’t they?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“What do you do? If you don’t mind me asking.”
The woman shakes her head and smiles. “I don’t mind. I’m a division manager.”
“Cool! I bet you even have your own office.”
She hesitates. “I do. It’s just a small one, though.”
Izzy grins at her, a wisp of hair falling in front of her eyes. She brushes it back and spins to head back to the kitchen, her ponytail bouncing as she walks away. The woman watches her go and sips her wine carefully. She doesn’t think about the girls at the office anymore. She waits instead, swirling the rest of the wine around her glass, gently tilting it back and forth. After a while Izzy returns carrying a piece of slate, the sushi arranged neatly in a row.
“Here you are! One vegetable sushi.”
She places it down in front of the woman with a little flourish, and beams at her, small hands clasped in front of her apron.
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
The woman hesitates. She asks her a question and tries not to think about how it went last time, with the girl from HR with blue hair that matched her pretty eyes. Izzy doesn’t react for a second before blushing fiercely.
“Oh, um, okay! I didn’t expect that. Um...one moment please.”
She scurries off to the kitchen, out of sight. The woman feels her heart sink and looks down with a sigh, picking up the chopsticks and fiddling with them, trying to hold them properly. She eats quietly, spacing each piece with pickled ginger, attempting and regretting the grey-green wasabi paste with one bite. The air in the cafe is the same, and no windows have opened, but it feels colder and stuffier without a friendly presence in front of her. She eats in silence, listening to the gentle music piped through the speakers as if it is a friend in conversation. As she comes to the end of her plate, she glances up to see Izzy return to the counter. Izzy hesitates and pushes a strand of hair back behind her ear.
“Um, I need to take my lunch break,” she says. “Would you mind if I sat here?”
“No, of course not,” the woman says, quite far from minding at all. She tries not to stare too obviously as Izzy walks around the counter with a tupperware of food, and perches on the stool next to her. She gives a little wave to the students at the end of the bar, who nod and wave back. As she sits next to the woman, she pauses for a moment.
“Did I ask your name already?”
“No. My name’s Corinne.”
Izzy smiles at her. “Nice to meet you, Corinne.”
She opens the lid of her tupperware and reveals a simple meal of fried potatoes and some kind of greens. Corinne glances at her own plate guiltily, but Izzy makes no comment about the difference in dishes. She takes a first mouthful of food and swallows it before talking.
“So what brings you here? You’re not the, um, normal type of customer we get.”
“What do you mean?”
Izzy panics and says quickly, “Oh, I didn’t mean --“
Corinne waves down her apology without a word, and Izzy clears her throat before continuing.
“Um, I mean, we don’t often see people from places likeSyndia.”
“You don’t often see businesswomen?”
Izzy shakes her head. “Not really.”
Corinne finishes her wine and answers. “I don’t know what brought me here. I see it on the way to work most days. It’s always looked so out of place.”
Izzy laughs and Corinne smiles along with her.
“That’s not a bad thing, of course. It’s lovely in here.”
“Thank you! I’m glad you think so.”
“And the staff are lovely, too.”
Izzy blushes and looks down at her food. Corinne feels nervous but on a roll, emboldened by the wine and Izzy’s presence.
“I mean it. You’ve made the whole trip worth it on your own.”
“Oh, stop it,” she replies, and tries to eat her food. She takes a bite and glances at Corinne, resting her chin on her hands and gazing at her. She chokes and coughs, and Corinne’s expression turns aghast.
“Oh -- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean--“
This time Izzy holds a hand up to stop her, and carefully swallows her food instead. Corinne looks repentant and looks down at the remains of her lunch.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so pushy.”
“Um... maybe not, no.”
She resumes eating and the air turns thick with silence. After a second Corinne takes a breath and goes to speak, but Izzy beats her to it.
“It’s not... unpleasant, though.”
They make eye contact, and Izzy breaks it to look down at her food. Corinne leans on her hand again and watches her eat. The conversation dissipates and they just sit together for a while, the music playing gently in the background, new customers entering and leaving as Izzy finishes her lunch. Soon Corinne knows she has to check the time, has to get up and return to work. She sighs and gently steps off the stool.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay all day,” she says, and brushes down her skirt. Izzy hesitates before placing her fork down.
“Well, um, thanks for coming! It’d be great to see you again.”
“Are you saying that as the cafe, or as you?”
Izzy blushes and looks away. Corinne chuckles and goes to leave, taking a few steps before Izzy touches her arm as she passes.
“I meant that as me. You asked earlier, and, uh,...”
Izzy passes her a slip of paper with her address written on it. Corinne looks at it for a moment before gently taking it from her, their fingertips brushing as she does so.
She leaves the cafe with a wave to her colleagues, switching over the staff from day to night shift. Out the door she goes, and with a last breath of the warm, aromatic air, Izzy steps in to the rest of the world.
This level of the street is busy with commuters, making their way back and forth some way above the real ground below. The buildings on either side stretch tall and clean, the sharp surfaces free of all distractions from the adverts splayed across them. She looks at a few with awe, more impressed by the visuals than the contents they sell. The people on the street seem to either ignore or not notice entirely everything around them, focused on their destinations, on their inner selves or the people they talk to via headset. Izzy takes her route East via the main street, then ducks in to a stairwell down to the level below. She never takes the lift; being locked in a box with strangers whilst plummeting through the air is not her idea of a good time. She takes the steps two at a time instead, turning a right angle every dozen as the staircase takes a long spiral down. People pass her going up and down, lugging huge bags or small ones, or pulling children by the hand as they chatter and shout.
The next level opens out around her as she steps on to the street, functionally the same street, the same styes of buildings and locations. She looks under where the Good Times Cafestands, the foundations above a roof of the community centre below, great anchors of steel and artificial stone forming a ground layer for the unusual bricks of the cafe. She passes by the community centre and glances in at those attending meetings or clubs; sometimes this can be her too, but not today.
Further down the street, in one apartment just like another, she lives alone. The door to the tower opens and she lets herself in on the 12th level, to take the stairs down to the 8th. She has visited the ground floor a few times, taken a submarine to view the original foundations of the city she calls home. She has visited the 2nd floor of her tower, where Mrs Ghani can lean out of her window and fish for debris and recycling. She has not visited the 41st level, owned by the manager of an automaton sub-contractor, who also owns the 40th level underneath. Those heights are too high for her anyway.
She exits the stairs and skips down the hallway to her door; her fingerprints open the lock and she enters, the door closing automatically behind her. Inside, her living space is contradictory: the spartan layout of most the new builds, antiseptic and easy to clean, with digital screens on most surfaces; but filled with assortments and objects from history, relics and things that are real, tangible and messy, difficult to tidy around. The air in her living space is stale. She doesn’t mind.
She places her bag on the sofa and takes her hair down, teasing it out of its stiff shape with her fingers after so many hours of wearing it in a bun. She walks across the room as she does so, whistling a tune, pausing to ask the radio to turn on. It switches to her favourite channel automatically, and gently jazz starts to play, of the sort popular in the sort of bars she likes. She opens the fridge, and it tells her in melodic sampled voices that the milk will only be good for another day, and she takes a bottle from the back. She opens it with the magnetic port on the door, the synthetic alcohol inside fizzing slightly, the carefully designed aroma of real beer! floating up to her. She takes a sip and walks around the apartment humming to herself.
She should eat, she should make food or order food, but she hasn’t got that on her mind. She should clean, or tidy up a little at least, or at least charge up the hoover automaton, but she isn’t thinking about that. For the fourth time since lunchtime she pulls up the phone hud and checks for any messages. For the fourth time since lunchtime, she has no messages from Corinne.
She tries not to be weird about it. It’s not the first time someone has asked for her contact details and then taken ages to actually contact her, and Corinne is a very busy woman. She’s a busy and important enough woman, in fact, that Izzy could search her details on the net and find a biography, several corporate articles, and at-work contact details for her. She’s busy and important enough that Izzy knows she must have a lot of other people in her life.
Izzy does not have a lot of people in her life. She knows her colleagues at work, but they don’t really hang out outside of work; she knows her friends from university, but they moved to other districts, and the train to visit costs more than a day’s wages; she knows her neighbours, but does not wish to know them very much more. She knows her family, so far away outside the city, in one of the farmsteads out west; and she talks to them, at least. Her brother calls at least once a week to catch up. Tonight is not that night, so the only message she expects is from Corinne, whether it will come or not.
She wonders what time she will get home. She wonders what Corinne’s home is like; whether it’s neater than hers, stylish, maybe higher up in the towers where you get realsunlight. She is struck by jealousy as she thinks of what it must cost, and what it must be like, and for a moment Izzy wants to wake up in the morning and drink coffee and watch the sun rise through glass, not telescreen, Corinne present or not.
She sits on the sofa and sighs, seeing the red sky through the screen on the south wall, and switches it off. The wall goes misty and the light from outside shine through instead, blurred colours from multi-storey adverts for essential purchases. Izzy recognises the advert by the colour scheme; she knows it’s for the new cleaning automaton by Syndia. She wonders if Corinne designed the advert, approved it, even just looked at it once.
As she stares and thinks, her mind buzzes, and words overlay themselves on the top right of her vision, from an unfamiliar username. Her heart jumps and she reads the message, and at once she knows it’s from Corinne.
Corinne: Hi. I’d really like to see you again.
Izzy thinks that’s pretty direct and straight to the point. She replies without thinking.
Izzy: I would too.
She doesn’t know what she’s just written. It’s unlike her. She would normally play it out, feel the mood of the conversation, try and insinuate without expressly saying she would like to spend time with someone or to Know them in some other sense.
Corinne: Well. That was straight to the point.
Izzy: I’m not usually!
Corinne: You’re not? I guess I only know you at work. You’re to the point when you work.
Izzy: Well yeah. Who’s cagey at work?
Corinne: Where I work? A lot of people.
Izzy leans back in the sofa and takes another swig of her bottle, watching the messages come in to her vision. She can imagine Corinne’s voice saying them in her ear, and she feels weird for doing that with each one. She wonders what it would be like for her to speak in to her hear, and how close she could stand it.
Izzy: I can see one of your adverts out of my window.
Corinne: Really? Which advert?
Izzy: The red-and-blue one for the Rommver 3b.
There’s a pause as Corinne takes longer to reply. Izzy finishes her drink as she waits.
Corinne: Does that mean you live on the 8th floor of Hillier Tower?
Izzy looks behind her to check there’s no one spying on her.
Izzy: That’s really creepy.
Corinne: Sorry. It’s easy to look up where our adverts are.
Izzy: It’s cool. You totally have to tell me where you live now though. Only fair.
Corinne: That’s fair. My address is Suite A, Floor 39, Oxford Tower.
Of course she lives there. Not only does she live above the sunlight line, but in a nicer building than hers too, for god knows how much rent a month. Izzy closes her eyes and tries to imagine what it looks like. She imagines looking out over the streets far below, far to the sides, the traffic of vehicles through the sky and tiny, ant-like pedestrians below. She wants to see it in person. She’s never been that far up a tower in her life.
Izzy: Wow. I’ve never been that high up.
Corinne: Well. Do you want to?
She climbs the stairs to the 39th floor.
Corinne doesn’t know what is happening. The last time she invited a girl to her apartment, the girl refused, and now won’t speak to her past mandatory pleasantries at work. The time before, the girl came to the apartment, only to drink and gush about her boyfriend. Corinne had totally misread the signsthere. But now someone was coming here and maybe, this time, it would work.
Not being from the same company was a plus. If it did go south -- and Corinne had already prepared for this -- then they wouldn’t have to dance around each other awkwardly. Corinne wouldn’t be able to return to the Good Times Cafe again, and that would be a shame, but not difficult. She would just eat the replicated food from the cafeteria as she did every other day.
Corinne prepares her apartment for a visitor. She tries out different designs on the walls, settling on a maroon design with bold stripes, accented with a light grey filling out the palette. The apartment updates itself and colours everything appropriately; the doors and windows turn a gentle grey, the walls add in the maroon stripes in increasing shades from ground to ceiling. Her sofa morphs in to a curvier shape, and when Corinne doesn’t like the maroon colour it changes to the grey tone instead. She glances in to the kitchen, where the appliances have updated themselves accordingly. Sometimes the kettle forgets to change to match the colourscheme, but the new update seems to have fixed that glitch.
Corinne thinks for a minute about the decor, and tries to select a scent that she thinks will work. She doesn’t want to be too pushy, to have it smell obviously seductive and lecherous, but right now it smells clean and impersonal, the air maybe tinged with vanillin and little else. She wonders about cinnamon, but the esters make some people’s nose itch; she tries out a few, waiting a few minutes for them to diffuse, before settling on an Apple Pie blend by one of Syndia’s Home & Furnishing branches.
Her hud alerts her to a visitor; Corinne frowns when she sees them in the stairwell rather than the lift. The visitor pauses at the top of the flight, having reached the 39th floor after what must be some time. Corinne adjusts the neckline of her shirt, pats her hair to make sure the bun is still in place, quickly turns a wall reflective to check her teeth. Through the wall she sees a person-shaped blur walk towards her, and she turns the augmented-world overlay off to greet her in person instead. She stands behind the door and suddenly feels a flutter in her chest. She wants to open the door and burst out straight away, but waits until she hears the doorbell -- though soon as it sounds, she jumps forward and opens the door to Izzy.
“Hello!” she says, excited.
“Hello,” she says, exhausted.
Corinne doesn’t know whether to step forward for a handshake, an embrace, a kiss on the cheek, so does none of these. She steps back and beckons Izzy in with a hand swept low. Izzy steps over the boundary. The door closes behind her and she stares around at the room.
“Wow,” she says. Corinne doesn’t know what specifically she thinks is wow.
“What do you think?”
“I... can I sit down? I’m sorry, my legs really hurt.”
Corinne hesitates before gesturing to the sofa. “Of course. Did you... did you take the stairs?”
“Yeah,” Izzy says, and walks over to the sofa before collapsing down.
“Why?” asks Corinne. Izzy turns to stare at her and looks blank for a minute, before leaning her head back and closing her eyes.
“I don’t like the lifts. They make me feel uncomfortable.”
“I see,” says Corinne, not really seeing. She watches Izzy breathe tiredly, her shoulders raising and falling, her neck exposed where she leans her head back. “Would you like a drink?”
“I’d love one,” she says. “Whatever you’re having.”
Izzy waits for Corinne to leave the room before sitting back up. Her head feels light and she’s only just stopped seeing stars in her vision. Thirty-one flights of stairs have absolutely worn her out, and she tries to resist the urge to lie down entirely. She leans on her hand and stares at the window instead. At least, she thinks it’s the window -- it has a frame, but displays an image of a harbour from a much lower vantage point than it should, geographically speaking. Izzy wonders how to turn it clear instead of imaged, but this isn’t her apartment, she’s not connected to anything. She can’t control what it shows any more than she could unlock the door on her own.
Corinne returns with two glasses and a bottle. Izzy has no idea what sort of stuff she drinks, what sort of drinks she can afford to stock her apartment with; she asked for the same drink as her out of panicked bravado. As Corinne approaches she hopes their taste in drinks isn’t, like, really weird.
Corinne places the glasses and bottle down on the coffee table, and hesitates for a minute before sitting down next to Izzy. Their legs don’t quite touch, and there’s a vaguely chaste distance between them both on the sofa. Izzy wonders whether she is the type to pounce on people unexpectedly; whether she will pin Izzy to the sofa and do things to her. It’s exciting, and scary, both feelings merging together in one tornado inside her, twisting her stomach up with nervousness.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked,” says Corinne, “So I just opened a bottle of zinfandel.”
She gestures to rosé on the table and Izzy tries not to goggle.
“Um,” she says. “Is that real?”
“Yes,” says Corinne, and leans forward to pour some. “You do drink, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, I drink, but --“ Izzy swallows and talks a little quieter. “That’s usually way out of my budget.”
“I thought you sell it at the cafe?”
“I can’t buy it.”
Corinne hesitates before passing the glass over to her. Izzy takes it and stares at it still, trying not to think about how much it costs. Corinne takes her own and leans back, taking a little sip.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “My treat.”
“Well, um, thanks,” says Izzy, and takes a sip of her own. It makes the synthetic alternative she drinks taste like paint thinner. Corinne watches her carefully.
“So,” she says. “What do you think? You said you’ve never been this high up.”
Izzy glances over at the window. “It doesn’t feel super high.”
Corinne follows her gaze and puts her hand to her mouth. “Oh, I totally forgot! If you’ve never been up here before you’d want to see.”
She stands and walks over to the window, and Izzy puts her glass down to follow her straight away, walking a step behind. As they reach the window the view shifts and wobbles, the picture disintegrating before reforming another world far, far higher up. Izzy almost loses her balance as she watches the view change, and leans on the glass for stability. All around her the towers end, and the sky stretches out above and around, a horizon too far to even see, the ground below -- the highest level of ground -- misty from the height.
“Woah,” she says, and puts her face almost to the glass. Corinne giggles as she watches, holding one hand up to her mouth whilst the other nurses the glass. Izzy drags her eyes away from the outdoors to look back at Corinne for acknowledgement, for them to agree just how incredible the view is.
“It’s okay up here,” she says. “I get dizzy sometimes and change it.”
“If I lived up here, I’d never change it,” Izzy says. “I’d want to stare out every day.”
Corinne can’t help but laugh at her. The sight is nothing special, she thinks, but Izzy is so taken by it. She finds it adorable. She turns and walks over to the sofa so that Izzy doesn’t see her blush. Corinne is struck by two urges; to play the worldly, experienced, professional senpai; but also to take her by the hand and rub her hair and tell her she’s cute. Corinne could eat her up.
She places her glass down on the table and sits back down. Izzy follows her after a moment, but sits perched on the edge, torn between the view and the... well, Corinne wonders what she’s here for. She can’t help but second-guess; she wants Izzy to be here for everything Corinne wants, but doesn’t want to push, doesn’t want to scare her away.
“You’re not just here for the view, are you?”
Izzy turns to look at Corinne, her face hard to read. Her eyes go wide for a moment, before she dims them and looks away to the side. She starts to fiddle with her hands nervously.
“Um... I don’t know what I’m here for.”
“What do you mean?” asks Corinne, very much wanting to know, but not wanting to know.
“I mean...” she takes a deep breath. It takes her a moment to speak again, and Corinne senses her struggling to speak. Finally, she continues.
“When you invited me here it was the first time anyone had for a long time.”
Corinne looks at Izzy and suddenly sees a girl who might be very lonely, a girl she’d never suspected of seeing before.
“Why? You’re friendly and pretty. I thought the boys and girls would be all over you.”
“Oh, you’re um,” Izzy says, blushing and looking down at her glass in her hand. She sways it from side to side.
“I mean it. Are you saying no-one asks you out?”
“...When you say it like that, it sounds pathetic.”
Corinne feels bad suddenly, a welt forming in her heart. She shuffles over and touches Izzy on the arm.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just surprised.”
She waits for a moment as Izzy glances at her hand, and up at her face.
“I’m sorry. Are you sure you want...?” Corinne trails off to try and insinuate something without having to say it. She starts to feel awkward now; she wonders if what she’s doing is right. Corinne tries to convince herself it wouldn’t be taking advantage of her to carry on.
“I... you can. If you want.”
Corinne looks up at her and Izzy meets her eye. She tries to hold her gaze, biting her lip, but glances away when Corinne’s eyes become too much. She takes a breath as Corinne lets her hand run down Izzy’s arm to her hand, resting on her thigh.
She takes her hand and holds it in her own, intertwining fingers with hers, feeling the warmth of her skin and her small fingers. She looks up to see her reaction, and Izzy leans forward and kisses her.
What the hell am I doing
Corinne’s lips are on hers, her lips are on Corinne’s. She feels her hand caught and held, illicitly so, and it’s the most exciting hand she’s held. Izzy isn’t dumb and knows exactly what Corinne invited her here for, and the whole trip here -- all those stairs -- she tried to psych herself up for it. The reality was that Corinne didn’t grab her immediately and pin her down, and Izzy could feel the moment slipping away. She was scared that it would go and she would leave, and that would be that, and she would go home again forever. She felt embarrassed that as Corinne’s other hand found its way to her waist she had the thought, unbidden, what am I going to tell my brother when he calls. She felt ridiculous and tried to get rid of the thought the only way she could think to, and put her hands around Corinne’s neck to pull her down on to her.
“Um,” she said, but trailed off. She couldn’t think of anything to say.