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It was the first human ever to come through Junktion’s customs portal, at least so far as Pelax knew. He spotted the frail creature standing several beings deep in the queue, right behind an Ish mother with a brood of a dozen hatchlings playing on top of her carapace. The human reached out to try to pet one, only to get her finger pinched by a suspicious claw.
Pelax suppressed a chuckle. In the five years since their escape from containment, humans had quickly developed a reputation for sticking their digits where they didn’t belong. At least this time, a lesson was dispensed quickly. Being a professional, Pelax sat on his curiosity and dealt with the more mundane citizens quickly and efficiently until the human girl was next in line.
At least he was pretty sure she was a girl. He was hardly an expert. He waved her forward with a flipper. “ID and travel chit, please.”
The girl reached into a cheap cloth pouch slung over her shoulder and produced the required documents. Pelax took them and ran them through the authenticator. Orange meant they were genuine or such high-quality forgeries that she deserved to pass anyway. Then, Pelax looked at the name column.
“Yeah, I know,” the girl said. “It was a data-entry error. They keep saying it’ll get sorted out any day now. My real name is—”
Pelax held up a flipper. “For the duration of your visit to Junktion, your ‘real’ name is Firstname Lastname. It’s fitting, really. After all, you’re the first human I’ve met.” Pelax was not versed in human facial expressions, thus he was unsure if the complete rigidity was a sign of good humor.
“I’m not the first one to say that, am I?”
“Everyone says that. I almost said it before you just so I didn’t have to hear it again.”
“Okay, I get the point.”
Firstname bowed her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your, er, head off. It’s been a long couple of months. That is your head, right?”
Pelax rolled a flipper. “Port of origin?”
“PCB. Sorry, Proxima Centauri B. Earth space.”
“I meant the last Assembly spaceport you departed from.”
“Oh, um … Lacora, maybe? I was there long enough to pee and change transports.” She put her hands on the desk, then pointed with a finger. “What’s that box?”
Pelax glanced over along her line of inquiry. “It’s an authenticator. Please remove your hands and stand behind the yellow line.”
Firstname lifted her hands and stepped back. “Sorry, sorry. Can we move this along? I’m starving.”
Pelax ignored her plea and cross-referenced her travel chit’s internal log against Space Traffic Control’s flight records. Lacora was correct.
“And what is the nature of your visit to Junktion—business or pleasure?”
“I’m a refugee. We can’t afford much pleasure. I heard there’s work to be had on the docks. So I’m going to try to get some.”
“How old are you?” Pelax asked, even though the information was on her ID.
“Seventeen awake plus four frozen.”
Pelax grimaced. “What’s that in Assembly Standard Cycles?”
“Oh, um, I don’t know the conversion, sorry.”
The line behind them grew restless with the delay. Pelax knew he had to get the queue moving again or the rest of his shift would be spent with grumpy clients venting their frustrations and slowing the line further.
“Temporary visa granted for two weeks. That’s seventeen days.” Pelax stamped the approval into her ID and travel chit.
“That’s an odd number. How can it be two of anything?” First asked.
“Oh, you don’t know about Hole Day? Well, that’s something to look forward to. If you’ve found a job by the end of that time, bring proof of employment up to the immigration office and they’ll get you set up with a resident visa. Enjoy your stay at Junktion. Next!”
The human smiled at Pelax and grabbed her documents. It wouldn’t be until he closed his terminal and headed home he’d realize his wallet was missing.
* * *
Firstname left the customs portal behind and let herself get swept into the river of sentients moving through the arteries of the space station known as Junktion. Hyperspace station, actually, or the “upper” half of it was. The facility sat smack at the intersection of several of Assembly space’s busiest trade routes, both in normal space and hyperspace, bottlenecked by a cluster of pulsars and black holes that forced ships to reroute against these threats to navigation.
Junktion was like an iceberg, with half the station floating in normal space, while the other half bobbed through a hyperspace window kept permanently open to allow cargo and passengers traveling through hyper to dock, disembark, and reload, all without their ships ever having to transition between the two universes and put cycles on their hyperspace generators, which made it very valuable to the captains and their transport companies.
It was also truly massive. The ceilings in the main passageways were tall enough to fly through, with several winged species doing exactly that, flitting about their business like man-sized dragonflies. Junktion supplemented its artificial gravity systems with a gentle spin, but from where she walked inside the outermost layers, the curvature was barely perceptible.
From where she stood among the crowd, another thing was becoming inescapably obvious. First really was the first human most of them had ever seen. All around her, curious eyes, set inside skulls or mounted on stalks, turned to steal a glance at her before darting away again like the cantina scene in Star Wars if it had been filmed on Fifth Avenue. Blending in here would be … challenging.
Her stomach had been barren since the travel rations she’d traded for on Lacora ran out a day and a half earlier. First tried to push her way toward the far wall. Eventually, through sheer Brownian motion, she reached it and found a small alcove that would afford her a measure of privacy to take stock of her resources. She had thirty-six PCB dollars, which she might as well use for toilet paper, a few coins of unknown denominations from some backwater world on the fringe of Assembly territory she might be able to use or exchange for local currency, and the standard personal data handheld she’d been given upon achieving refugee status.
First continued to hope no one at the Assembly refugee processing center looked too deeply into her application, lest they ask what “Cleveland Browns” were and why they qualified as a natural disaster.
She had one new item to add to the inventory, however. Turning her back to the crowds, First pulled the slim wallet out of the drop pocket she’d sewn into the lining of her vest, hidden right in one of the seams, just like Helga at juvenile detention had showed her. There wasn’t much in it. A couple of scripts that were probably low-value paper credits, not that she could read them yet, a couple of pictures of what looked like manatee porn, and …
First whistled softly to herself as the overhead lights played off the holographic security access card, worth thousands to an interested buyer. All she had to do was find them.
She left the wallet and pictures on the ground, then tucked the access card into her drop pocket. The script she kept in hand as she reentered the crowd in search of a place to eat. She spent the better part of an hour surveying the promenade and markets, looking for something that her empty, growling stomach might accept as penance after almost two days of neglect.
As it happened, while she may have been the first human physically present on Junktion, human presence had already taken root. Impossibly, inevitably, First found herself staring at a sign known to all humans for going on four hundred years.
“Welcome to McDonald’s,” said a giant brain floating in a jar, with tentacles where a spinal cord should be. “My name is Fenax. May I take your order?”
“Uhhh,” First stammered. She didn’t even know which part of the creature’s … face, she was supposed to address. “Sorry. This is embarrassing, but I can’t read this language yet, and I don’t know how much I have here.” She opened her hand and uncrumpled the local script, then held it up to the disembodied cashier.
The creature inspected the notes however an eyeless floating brain did such things. “You have a dry-cleaning ticket and an expired one-month-free gym membership coupon.”
“Oh. I’m really sorry. I’m just very hungry. I just got off a refugee ship.”
“Do you have any other forms of currency? We accept script from across Assembly space.”
First dug into her purse and pulled out the coins and PCB bills. “All I’ve got is a few loose coins and some bathroom tissue.”
“Those are Cimini dulos. Not enough for anything on our menu, I’m afraid.”
“Right.” First deposited the little plastic chips into the Ronald McDonald House container at the base of the register anyway.
“Wait, is that … human currency?” the floating horror asked.
“What, the bills? They’re Proxima Centauri B dollars.”
The brain shivered in its jar. “Forgive my emotional outburst. I grew excited. I collect strange or rare currencies, you see. It’s a hobby. I’ll give you one hundred standard credits for the bills in your hand.”
“Is that a good exchange rate?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.”
“Will it get me a value meal?”
“With room to spare.”
First slapped the PCB dollars down on the counter. “Deal. I want a Big Mac with fries, a large Coke, and an apple pie.”
“A what pie?”
“Of course not. Forget the pie.”
“Coming right up, sir.”
“What did I miss?”
First sighed. “Nothing. Forget it.”
Three minutes later, First set her tray triumphantly down at a small two-seat table at the edge of the dining area and surveyed her conquest. Her first meal as deep inside alien territory as she, or perhaps any human, had ever come consisted of a Big Mac, what looked and smelled like french fries, and what most definitely tasted like a Coke Classic with whatever extra ingredient McDonald’s had been adding for centuries.
And to top it all off, she had eighty-three standard credits in her bag. Enough for days if she needed to stretch it. Victorious, First lifted the five-layered abomination and opened her mouth wide to accept her bounty.
“Well, now I’ve seen it all,” came a voice like bagpipes being recycled. “A human eating McDonald’s.”
Copyright © 2019 by Patrick S. Tomlinson