The sun had risen entirely above the horizon when Sam and Quorra stopped for a red light. Ordinarily, at this time of day, with almost no other vehicles on the road, Sam would have blown through the intersection, traffic cameras or lurking cops be damned. Not with a passenger, though, and especially not with this passenger.
Before he could pursue that line of thought further, Sam’s stomach gurgled, the sound audible even over the rumble of the Ducati. Quorra, who had her arms wrapped around his torso, started, and then poked at his abdomen. “What was that?”
“I’m hungry,” Sam answered, realizing that the only sustenance he’d had since plummeting from ENCOM Tower was the beer he’d drunk during Alan’s visit, a few mouthfuls of his father’s dinner (maybe our last meal together, he thought with a pang), and whatever it was that Zuse had served him at the End of Line. He looked over his shoulder at Quorra. “Are you hungry?”
She knit her brows. “Maybe? It feels like a space has opened up between my chest and my pelvis.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” The light changed, so he got them rolling again. As they picked up speed, he shouted, “There’s a twenty-four-hour diner not far from here!”
“A what?” Quorra yelled back.
“A restaurant -- a place that serves food -- that stays open day and night!”
“Maybe we’ll order one of everything and figure out what you like!”
As they sped onward, Sam tried to recall how things had tasted on the Grid, only to end up wondering if things tasted on the Grid. He remembered chewing and swallowing, but no flavors or scents, and only the barest suggestion of texture.
...Where the hell had the roast pig come from?
A few minutes later, they rolled into the gravelled lot surrounding Walt’s, a long, low, rail-car-style diner with blue and pink neon signage and a chromed exterior that had been left largely untouched since the ‘fifties. Sam parked by the short flight of stairs leading to the entrance. Quorra dismounted and walked backwards a few steps, pebbles grating under her boots, her head swiveling as she tried to take in the whole structure. Then she tilted her head back and inhaled deeply.
“This place smells much better than the arcade,” she announced.
Sam, caught off guard and punchy from fatigue, honked with laughter. “Yeah. C’mon, let’s see what’s cookin’.”
He held the door for Quorra, then took her elbow and guided her to a booth. “Hey, Lil!” he called.
“That you, Sam?”
Quorra, who’d been stroking the vinyl seat, looked up as the woman who’d presumably answered Sam’s hail approached.
“Lil, this is my friend Quorra. Quorra, meet Lillian, she runs this place.”
“Hello,” Quorra said.
“Nice to meet you. You folks up early or late?”
“Late,” Sam replied. “Very late.”
“Lucky you, I just started a fresh pot of coffee. You want a menu?”
“Yes to the menu, and to the coffee -- actually, make that one coffee and one tea, please?”
Lil reached behind the counter and produced a menu, which she handed to Quorra. “There you go. I’ll be right back with the other drinks.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
Quorra looked at Sam, eyes wide. “Are we starving to death?”
Sam winced. Fortunately, Lil was already out of earshot. “Figure of speech. Uh, you know what that is?”
“Idiom, metaphor, simile -- oh, that was hyperbole.”
“All right.” She looked down at the bill of fare. “Do you mind if I read this?”
Quorra nodded, unfolded the menu, and began poring over the options. She was running a finger down one yellowed, laminated page when Lil returned and set down water glasses, two steaming mugs, a creamer, and some lemon wedges in a bowl.
“Ready to order?”
“Can I have more time to choose?” Quorra asked.
Sam began sugaring his coffee. “I’m going to have my usual, but I’ll wait for her.”
“Okay, take as much time as you need, hon.”
As Lil headed back to the kitchen, Quorra set aside the menu. Sam caught her eye and picked up his water, so she followed suit.
“I thought we should have a toast to celebrate your first meal, uh, out here.”
“Don’t toasts involve alcohol?”
“Baby steps. Breakfast first, boozing afterward. So ... welcome to my life, good luck, and let’s do the best we can with what we have.”
“Cheers,” Quorra responded, and clinked her glass against his.
She smacked her lips. “It...tastes different than the inside of my mouth, but I can’t explain how. I could feel it going down my throat.”
She set aside the glass and wrapped both hands around her cup of tea.
“Careful, it’s hot,” Sam blurted.
Quorra looked at him, eyebrows raised. “I know, Sam. I can feel it, and see the vapor rising from the surface.”
He ducked his head. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine. I did just ask you if we were dying.” She blew on the liquid, sniffed it, and took a cautious sip. “Oh! This smells nice, but I’m not sure if I like the flavor. Is this...bitter?”
“Let me try?” She handed over the mug. “Yeah. Oh, hey, hang on a second...”
Quorra watched as he began lining up some of the objects on the table.
“Here, let’s establish a baseline. From what I remember, the tongue has receptors for five basic tastes: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and, uh...there’s a Japanese word, I think it’s umami, for savory things. So, we’ve covered bitter. The sugar is sweet. Salt, duh. The lemon is sour, and I guess the cream fits the last one.” He leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. “Then there’s also, like, spicy and minty...”
Quorra nudged the salt shaker. “Your father did the same thing.”
“Tried to teach me about eating. Normally he drank energy like everyone else, but sometimes he would make food. The first time after I joined him, he gave me samples of basic components so I’d know what he meant when he said things like ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’.” She poured some salt into her hand and stirred the grains with one finger. “We were never sure if I was interpreting it the way he intended.”
“Did you like it?”
She smiled. “I did. At first, just because it was a new experience. And he would tell me stories, explain User customs...sometimes he’d make a dish and explain that it was something he liked as a child, or one of your favorites.”
Sam looked up at that, unable to speak past the sudden lump in his throat.
“Cheese and mustard sandwich,” Quorra told him.
Sam chuckled. “Yeah. Haven’t had one of those for years, though.” He nodded at the salt cupped in Quorra’s palm. “So, ready to see how close the old man came?”
“Here goes,” she said, and took a taste.