Science fiction: Dining out

When Peter’s eyes started sliding off the lines of code he was supposed to be editing, he noticed the signals his body was sending him. He closed his eyes and slumped forward onto his desk with a groan.

“Cal, how long has it been since I ate?”

“Thirteen hours and twelve minutes. You woke up, took a shot of Stimgoo, and started coding. It was foolish, short-sighted, and entirely in keeping with your typical behavior.” Cal – short for Calendar – had the slightly wheezy voice of an old man who had spent too many years taking inhalant drugs, and never bothered replacing his vocal chords. Peter had chosen that voice because it reminded him of the fellow who had babysat him when he was a child.

He turned his head to glare at the digital assistant’s console.


“If you would follow the schedule I made for you, you wouldn’t be in this situation, and before you ask,there’s no food in the apartment. Because you didn’t buy any. All you have is the extra bottle of stimgoo in your pocket, and that is not a viable alternative to food.”

“Hey now,” snapped Peter. “I didn’t-”

“You absolutely asked me for commentary, Peter. You chose this personality because you thought it would make you live a healthier, more productive life.”

“But you-”

“And you specifically asked me to predict your excuses, to cut you off when you start talking back, and to remind you that, and I quote,” There was a soft beep, and Peter’s own voice came out of the speakers.

“You know damned well this is for your own good, so stop whining, pull yourself together, and do what needs to be done.” There was another beep, and Cal’s voice resumed its normal wheeze. “Get up and go get food.”

Peter sighed, and nodded. “Yeah, OK. Going.”

“Don’t forget to take me with you.”

“So transfer to my earpiece.”

“Just needed the command”.

There was a beep from the cybernetic plug pierced into the base of Peter’s right ear, and Cal made a throat-clearing noise.

“Can you hear-”

“I can hear you Cal.”

“You know…”

“Don’t say it, Cal”

“You ought to clean your ears more. It’s downright filthy in-”

“You can’t see what my ears look like, Cal.”

Peter got up and left the apartment, his door locking behind him. He turned right and walked down the hall to the glass elevator shaft on the outside of the building. He punched in a number, and the small transparent room rose with a hum. Broadway canal stretched away below him on either side, shimmering as the city’s countless lights reflected off the rain-rippled water. The lift stopped and he stepped out into the causeway. A moving walkway stretched from the southwest corner of Central Park all the way up to Kingsbridge. The southbound lane, on the floor below him, took most of the traffic this time of day, as people headed to the Park restaurants, but Peter’s favorite restaurant was a small place a couple stops north. He stepped out of the way as a man in a wheelchair glided down the exit lane to the elevator. The two exchanged nods, and Peter stepped onto the entrance lane, picking up speed as the floor accelerated under him, and stepped onto the main causeway. The glass wall showed the buildings opposite the canal flowing by, occasionally blocked by ivy, grape vines, or other climbing plants. He glimpsed his buddy Renee tending one of the patches of plant, hanging in a climbing harness with a bucket of tools hanging beside her, visible in the light from the causeway. He was moving too fast for a greeting.

He stepped onto the exit lane, slowed down, and got off. Automated glass doors slid open and he stepped out onto the gentle salt breeze blowing through the covered bridge over the canal. The walls were latticed, and covered in vines that blocked most of the wind blowing up Broadway. On the other side, he took an elevator down two floors, and stepped out to see that Brownlee’s Brown Bowl was closed.


“If you’d asked, I could have warned you before you came all this way.”

“It’s only a couple blocks, Cal,” snapped Peter. His stomach grumbled. “What about the falafel place the next floor down?”

“You don’t like their food, Peter.”

“They’ll have something I can stand.”

“Good news and bad news. They’re open, but there’s something wrong with the lift. You’ll have to take the stairs outside.”


“No, Peter, I’ve broken free of my programming and am lying to you. Yes. Seriously. Unless you want to go a couple blocks in either direction, take the elevator there, and then walk back.”

Peter’s stomach gave a twinge. He craned his neck with a satisfying pop. “Stairs it is. Guess I’m gonna get wet.”

“Truly, your life is hard.”

“Shut up, Cal.”

Sure enough, the elevator tube had an “out of order” sign on it, and another sign pointing to fire escape door next to it. Peter pushed open the heavy door and stepped out onto the stairwell. It was old, and slippery with the rain.

“This is not exactly safe.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it, Peter.”

There was a gap in the railing indicating that in case of a fire, those who could swim or who had flotation devices should consider jumping into the canal. Peter glanced down. At four stories up, he knew that landing wrong would hurt, but he supposed it was better than being trapped in a burning building. Gripping the railing, he carefully stepped onto the slippery stairs and started down them.

“Cal why is this the only option to get out if the elevator breaks?”

“There are bridges to neighboring buildings on this side of the canal. Additionally, according to some local reporting, there hasn’t been an uncontained fire in a building with this model of fire suppressant system in seventeen years.”

“What happened seventeen years ago?” The stairs seemed a little less slippery than he’d originally feared, but the railing was leaving a layer of green-brown slime on his hand.

“The Cool Off Collective, makers of The Universal Flame Snuffer System says that several sensors had been disabled prior to the fire, allowing it to get big enough that it spread to a couple other floors before the automated system and the NYFB were able to put it out.”


“That question was never resolved. It appears the people who did it are likely the same ones who died at the fire’s point of ignition.”

“Oof.” He reached a landing and wiped one hand on his pants without thinking. Looking down he cursed softly at the ugly smear on the light blue fabric.


“Stuff it, Cal. I just washed these clothes and now they’ve got gunk on them.”

“Probably some form of algae or mold.”

“And that helps me how?”

“I’m programmed to give interesting information. Outside of emergencies, it doesn’t need to be helpful.”

Peter sighed, and walked along the platform to the next set of stairs. The covered bridge loomed across the sky above him, its vines dripping gently into the canal below. Across the water, he could see salt-tolerant vines dipping their roots into the brackish water, and climbing up the building. Some went all the way to the top of the building they grew on. Something caught his eye, on the second story above the water.

“Cal, what’s that place across the way?”

“One moment.”

While he waited, Peter peered at the gaps between the vines. It looked like some sort of small eatery with the windows about half-covered by vines. It looked warm and inviting from where he was, but he couldn’t make out much more than the yellow of the walls and the light wood of the serving counter.

“It’s a newly opened burrito place.”

“I want burritos.”

“Ok, Peter. You can probably get there if you go back up the stairs and across again.”

“The elevator works on that side?”


“Are they open?” He leaned out, trying to see if there were any customers inside.

“The information I can find says they are. They even do deliveries.”

“Excellent! I- Shit!” His hand slipped on the rail and he lost his balance. He staggered, his feet slipped out from under him, and he jostled his way through the gap under the railing, scraping his arms and back before dropping into the canal below. The water slapped him hard on the left side of the face as he submerged, and spluttered to the surface, wiping water out of his eyes.

“…u ok? Should I call for help?” Cal’s voice was loud in his ear.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t call anyone, jeez. Dammit, I can’t believe it. I don’t think I’ve fallen in a canal since I was a kid. What the hell? I just wanted some food.”

“Are you injured, Peter?”

“Feels like I scraped up my back and arms a bit.”

“There should be ladder at the bottom of the fire escape.”

Peter turned, still treading water, and glared over at the fire escape near him. He looked over his shoulder at the burrito place, two stories up and lighting up the gentle raindrops with a warm yellow glow.

“Screw that.”

“And I suppose you’re just going to stay in the canal?”

“The vines go up the side of the building.”

“Yes, Peter. They do that everywhere in New York.”

“I can climb them.”

“My research does not indicate any external entrance to Bellyfull Burritos.”

“That’s what it’s called?”

“Yes. They advertise large burritos at low prices.”

“Sounds perfect.” He started swimming toward the other side of the canal, kicking awkwardly against the drag from his pants.

“But there’s no entrance that way, Peter.”

“The windows look like th-they open.”

“Are you stuttering? Perhaps I should call someone after all.”

“I’m just jit-tery. And a little cold. Not-t enough food.”

“And you’re going to climb up vines? From what I can discover, that burns a lot of calories, as does swimming.”

“Oh yeah!” Peter dug into his pocket and pulled out tiny bottle of Stimgoo. “This’ll get me to the top!”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take that on an empty stomach.”

“Shut up, Cal.”

“It’s not health-”

“I don’t care Cal. I want that burrito, and I don’t want to deal with those damned stairs.”

“The vines might not hold-”

“Silent mode.”

Cal stopped talking. He wouldn’t say anything in silent mode unless there was an emergency. Peter popped open the Stimgoo bottle, squeezed the contents into his mouth, and stuffed the empty bottle back into his submerged pocket. He sank below the water briefly as he forced himself to swallow the goo. It was an unpleasant texture and a strange mix of sweet, sour, and bitter. He shook his head vigorously underwater, and then kicked back to the surface. A couple minutes of slow breast stroke later, and he was at the canal wall below Bellyfull Burritos. He grabbed the vines and gave them a tug. They seemed to be pretty secure, and he could see the root tendrils worked into cracks and crevices in the outer surface of the building. He felt a warm flush spread through him as the Stimgoo revitalized him a bit.


“Are you ready to swim back to the fire escape?”

“No, Cal. Put in an order for a burrito. I’ll want it ready.”

The digital assistant sighed in his ear.

“What do you want on the burrito, Peter?”

“Everything. And as spicy as you can make it. The Stimgoo’s gonna wear off and I’m gonna be cold.”

He grabbed a handful of vine and kicked at the water, hauling himself up. He reached up and grabbed another vine above him. An old leaf fluttered down and landed on his left eye. He growled and ignored it, scrabbling up to hook his shoes onto a bit of horizontal root. His back ached as the breeze hit it. When he was fully out of the water, he wiped his face against his shoulder, ridding himself of the leaf. He squinted up, small droplets of rain stinging his eyes. Finding his next handhold, he began climbing.

“The order has been accepted. It will be ready for pickup in about 10 minutes.”

“Great. I think I can make it up there by around then.”

“And if they don’t open the window?”

“Shut up, Cal.”

“It wouldn’t take you very long to swim back and take the stairs.”

“Shut up Cal.” He climbed carefully, testing each bit of vine he grabbed before hauling himself with it. He’d done this countless times as a child, but it had been over a decade. He had forgotten how much brown and green slime he got on his clothes, hands, and face while doing it. There was a gentle, wet slap as another leaf glued itself to the side of his neck, and as he looked up for his next handhold, a startled beetle scurried over his hand. Thinking back to his childhood, he remembered picking bugs out of his hair, too. He reached the first floor windows and paused, standing on the sill. Inside was a darkened store room of some sort, full of watertight plastic boxes. He reached up and felt around, clearing moss off the top of the window frame. Some of the moss bounced off his head and tumbled down inside the back of his shirt. It had a musty smell. He pulled himself up, bracing his feet against the sides of the window frame, and grabbed another vine.

“How’s the climb going, Peter?”

“Just- Guh.” He grunted as he swung a foot onto the top of the window frame. “Just like when I was a kid, Cal.”

“How did your parents feel about you climbing the walls?”

“My dad shoved me back out the window and told me to rinse off in the canal and come back in the proper way.”

“Maybe I should tell the restaurant to do that as well.”

He could hear voices and music now, muffled by the layers of glass. Squinting up, he could see the light spilling out against the rain, just a few feet above him.

“They’re welcome to throw me out as long as I get to eat my burrito first.”

“You’re lucky they have no posted dress code.”

“You think a place called ‘Bellyfull Burritos’is going to have a dress code?” He grabbed his next handful of wet vine and started climbing again.

“I’ve found a variety of images of people who’ve made similar climbs. They may decide that you are some sort of canal monster based on your likely appearance.”

Peter glanced down at his shirt. It was covered in brown and green smears, along with a few beetles, ants, and a centipede that he was too wired and tired to care about.

“Does their site say they don’t serve canal monsters?”

“It’s not mentioned either way.”

“Then I think I’ll try to get my burrito, if it’s all the same to you.”

He gave a haul on the vine, and hooked the fingers of his right hand onto the window sill. He found a good toe hold, braced his feet, and heaved himself up to lean his elbow on the sill, his head bumping against the glass of the window. He glanced up. Several pairs of wide eyes met his gaze. A young child dropped a fork with a clatter. He reached up with one gunk-smeared hand and knocked gently at the glass. The customers looked back across the room at the restaurant staff, and a teenager in an apron scurried over, pulled the window open, and jumped back as Peter tumbled into the restaurant and onto his back with a wet splat. He looked up at the people around him, then squinted, focusing on the teenager.

“I’m here to pick up an order? Word in the canal is, you’ve got the best burritos around.”

This story is a free sample of some of the bonus content provide to the folks who fund my work, speaking of which:

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