A "progressive dinner" is an old American custom in which a group of people have different courses of a meal at different homes. In this story, the venue of the meal doesn't change - but there's a progressive aspect to the dining experience. ;)
Cicero's isn't there any more - at least, I couldn't find it on google. Google street view will allow one to take a virtual tour of Forbes Ave, however.
Put your antennae down.
In which our heroes are brave, as usual
The corridor of the battleprobe – typical Serenellian design, old, bulky, exuding a general air of malicious militarism – echoed with the sound of plasma bullets, while the accompanying flashes of tracer turned the ugly gunmetal walls an uglier puke green in spurts. Arpad glanced around as he fired, and spotted Arvid doing his patented one-and-a-half millisecond reload. He shouted – the only way to make himself heard above the din.
"To the airlock! Fifteen seconds to detonation!" Arvid's helmet bobbed in acknowledgement, and they ran.
They made it, just in time. The Galactic Police cruiser was jumping into warp when the rogue probe's career of marauding, murder, and general mayhem ended with a hideous bang – a visual one, at least, on the vidscreen, though space doesn't run to talkies. General A'no"iANS gave the two troopers a thumbs-up.
"Good work, you two. As always. There's a reception laid on in the Deck 3 mess. See you there." He winked. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were a couple of citations for you in this day's work."
They changed out of combat gear and into standard uniform. Striding down the corridor, Arpad whispered to Arvid, "Are you looking forward to this dinner?"
Arvid grimaced. "Reconstituted freeze-dried tahacoes and a canned speech about truth, justice, and the Galactic Way? What do you think?"
Arpad grinned. "Then come with me. I know a great little eatery you haven't been to yet."
Arvid flashed his buddy a grateful look. "Swell idea. If I never eat another candied-chili-filled tahaco, it will be too soon."
He would have said more – about the last six months' assignment, about the Serenellians' irritating habit of trying to claim star systems that did not belong to them, about the lousy cuisine in this sector – but Arpad had grabbed his (Arvid's) arm, twisted a dial on his (Arpad's) wrist, and the entire scene had shimmered out of existence...
...to be replaced by something completely different.
In which our heroes drink something interesting
The ground was solid, the street was full of traffic, and the hour was blue. Arvid gazed around in appreciation.
"Where are we?"
Arpad checked his wrist device. "Earth, North America, a city called Pittsburgh. 1970 is their year, never mind ours. You'll like it, promise."
Arvid turned around and looked – up. Way up. "That's not your 'little eatery', is it?"
Arpad followed his gaze. "No, silly, that's the university building. 42 storeys. All they have is a hamburg joint in the subbasement. Come with me – wait!" He hissed. "Drop the antennae! Nobody wears them here. It's a hair-only zone. Lots of hair, though." Arvid dutifully lowered his cerebral appendages, and Arpad steered them both down the street, labelled at its corners "Forbes Ave", while Arvid admired the interesting beings. One of them tried to sell him something called The Fair Witness – a sort of blog made from paper – while another made what seemed to pass for music on a stringed box.
Ignoring the strains of one, two, three, what are we fighting for?, Arvid asked anxiously, "Are we dressed okay? They seem to wear a lot of tribal beads."
Arpad shrugged. "We're okay. The beads are optional. This is one corner of the universe where jeans and t-shirts that say 'Galactic Police Force' are not going to raise eyebrows." They meandered through the evening student crowd, past quaint, small shops peddling books, antique (well, maybe not) sound-producing equipment, and ceramic "gifts" intended, no doubt, as insulting messages to one's bitterest enemies. Arvid gawked. In one window, a man was tossing dough into the air under a sign that boasted, 'Flying pizza. You order 'em, we fly 'em.' He pointed to a set of yellow arches over one building. "Did you want to eat there? It says something about hamburgs."
Arpad waved this away. "No. Definitely not. The man who invented that poison should have been spaced. Here we are, the ne plus ultra of fine dining, my friend." He beamed as he pointed to the sign above the entrance: CICERO'S.
Before they could go in, Arvid had another question. "What about this?" He pointed to the small, discreet-er sign beside the door:
- No shirt
- No shoes
- No service
Arpad explained. "To eat here, it is necessary to cover both the upper body and the feet. It is a law."
Arvid scratched his head, causing his antennae to appear briefly. "But what if..."
After three thousand years, Arpad knew what was coming. "If you only wear a shirt and shoes, you get arrested. This is a prudish planet. Come on, I'm starving." And he opened the door.
The interior was underlit, comfortable, with leather seats in the booths. Arvid could not resist touching the fuzzy red-and-gold wallpaper, so he didn't. Arpad muttered something about "Early Cathouse", and then a gum-chewing waitress in a pale green uniform turned up, pulling a pencil from behind her ear. (Arpad knew what Arvid was thinking, and gave him a dirty look before he asked about antennae.)
"What'll y'uns have to drink?"
Arpad looked around, and thought fast. "Er, two Censored Marys1, please." The waitress looked blank.
"Sorry. We don't got none of them fancy drinks in here. I can get you whiskey sours, though."
"Irish, Scotch, or bourbon?"
"Irish, please. Rocks." While the waitress was off getting the drinks, they studied the menu. Arvid wanted to know how the currency converted – and then wanted to know why these people were giving food away. Arpad explained about the current lack of inflation, then what inflation was, and had just about got to the Orionian Platinum Panic of '03 when the whiskey sours arrived, cold, tart, and inviting. They accepted the invitation, ordered Number Three on the menu – salad, steak, well-done (no starship trooper ever eats rare meat, he's seen too much), baked potato (after explanation of tubers to Arvid), green beans, and ice cream for dessert. The waitress went off to process this. Arvid sipped his iced drink, surprised at the flavours. Arpad was about to tell a Pittsburgh joke – he'd just remembered one – when a persistent beeping began in Arvid's left rear pocket. "Oh, fnark."
Arpad reached across and grabbed Arvid by the arm before he could complete the fatal move of bringing out his mobile. "Not here," he hissed. "The only person on this planet who has one of those right now is the star of a cheap scifi vid. In there." He jerked his head in the direction of a door marked "Men".
Arvid looked at it curiously. "What do they do in there?"
"You don't want to know. Just go in there and answer it." Arvid obeyed, scooting into the room with his pocket still beeping softly. Within thirty seconds, a middle-aged man with a shirt that said "Len" emerged and made his way, somewhat unsteadily, to the bar.
"You wouldn't believe what that guy's doin' in there. He's talkin' on a little-bitty phone." The bartender rolled his eyes and set another beer in front of him. Arvid slid back into the booth.
"Bad news, I'm afraid. They need us in Sector 9. And before you ask, no, they need us now. Something about a mad professor, and temporospatial simultaneity."
Arpad sighed, they took last sips of drinks, clasped arms, and vanished.
In which our heroes return for salad
The incident in the Farradisic Asteroid Belt, involving (as it did) a galaxy-renowned scientist gone off the deep end, a time-scoop device in urgent need of repair, and the possible end of civilisation as everybody knew it, took longer than Arvid and Arpad liked. So it was a few months later when they rematerialised in the booth at Cicero's.
Nobody noticed this except Len, who was amazingly perceptive for someone with his bibulous habits. The bartender waved away his protests, and wiped up spilled Iron City2.
Since no time had passed, their drinks were still cold, and since Arvid and Arpad were bored with manganochutney and fermented pulpa, they went down a treat. More were ordered, and the salad course arrived.
Arvid looked at it dubiously. "Er, Arpad, I don't like to complain, but we've just travelled quite a lot of light-years for what appears to be a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with some sort of thick, pink sauce with tiny bits in."
"Arvid, my lad, this is true. Those bits are the reason it is called Thousand Island Dressing – or, at least, I think so. This is a simple Terran dish. But when you consider that this iceberg lettuce is the best iceberg lettuce in the known universe..."
Arvid nodded. Arvid tasted. Arvid's eyes lit up. "You're right! This is amazing iceberg lettuce." They enjoyed this treat in silence, and anticipated steaks...
Unfortunately, at this point, the mobile (silenced by a wary Arvid) began vibrating violently, and the troopers had to link arms before the next round of drinks arrived.
In which it is shown that one man's meat is another's invitation to join a support group
The Horsehead Nebula Uprising is, of course, infamous, and since the details are in all the standard interactive history courses, we will omit them here. Suffice it to say that Arvid and Arpad were heartily tired of alkali deserts, multi-dimensional warfare, and the acrid taste of dried megamarsupial. They slipped into their seats at Cicero's, salivating at the idea of charred bovine.
"Hey!" yelled Len. "They did it again. Those two blonds back there. They shimmered."
"Oh, yeah? Shimmered?" groused the bartender. "You are flagged, buddy. Don't be so nebby. Leave those guys alone." And Len's Iron City tab was closed for the evening.
The steaks were everything the two travellers had hoped for – succulent, well-marbled, robust. The baked potato, complete with sour cream, butter, and chives, startled Arvid with the subtlety of its flavour. The green beans were, well, tasty. They chewed in silence, enjoying the ambience and the novelty of good dining.
The mobile had the good sense not to go off until they'd eaten the last bite. Otherwise, they might have damaged government property.
In which it is shown that some things are worth waiting for
Long and arduous was the trek of the Galluminids. Many, many years of police escort were required until this spacefaring race – its migration of paramount importance to stellar peace – had at last reached its new haven in Geminid City. The Galluminids are a hospitable species. They gladly share their daily ration of halli halli rice, sometimes enlivened with a dollop of seya sauce. The sacrifices of the Galactic Police were appreciated. They gave them medals and a parade.
Thus it was that Arpad and Arvid arrived again at Cicero's, weary, weary of the galaxy and all its problems, to enjoy their (just) desserts.
Len stared at them, opened his mouth, closed it again, and headed in a zig-zag for the door.
The waitress appeared. "Y'uns decide what ice cream you wanted?"
Arpad looked at her hopefully. "Butter pecan?" She nodded and left.
They sipped the last of their drinks in peace (because, contrary to orders, they had turned the mobile off). The ice cream arrived – two small, shallow bowls, each containing a single round scoop of frozen deliciousness with real pecans in. They picked up spoons, tasted.
"This is fantastic," said Arvid. "It's just...just...fantastic." Arpad nodded.
"Like I said, the food on Earth is the best in all the 7,000 worlds." Arvid agreed.
The bill came to a modest $8.80. Arpad left a good tip.
And slowly, oh so slowly, savouring the moment, the two troopers walked out into the deepening city night.
"Arvid? Have you ever seen a celluloid movie? I think there's one playing down the street..."