The city lights flared up around us as we passed through the boundary into the outskirts of the buildings. The colors swirled in the air and along the grey ground. Noises of programs talking, shouting, and laughing reached my ears through the thrum of light cycle engines. Deciding we were far enough in, I derezzed the light cycle back into the baton, slowing to a walk while tucking the cycle away under my cloak. My eyes searched the crowd from under my deep hood that I had donned earlier, looking for a good place to settle for some food and a pleasant conversation. I found none. Only suspicious looks from the programs that took notice of my arrival. Deciding that there was nothing interesting here, I slapped my hip, calling Trez over to follow me, and started to walk into the streets of the outskirts.
We walked for some minutes before finding an empty looking courtyard with shops and cafés lining the circular rim.
"This looks like a good spot to stop for some food." I spoke, getting a small grunt in reply.
"Which place should we eat at?"
Trez sniffed the ground, then the air, and came to a decision. He barked shortly and started to trot towards a newer café straight ahead of us.
"Cycle's Café" I read as we approached the door. "Sounds like a nice place. Let's go."
Without hesitation, I pushed the door open and walked in, greeted by a small ding-a-ling of a bell that announced my arrival.
"Well, hello!" a cheery, booming voice practically shouted from behind the long counter in front of me. A rather round program with short, greying hair, and blue eyes stood up to greet his new customer. Wearing a large, loose shirt, and a full-body apron, he stood out to me as the chef while I walked towards the counter. Normally, I like to know the color of programs' circuit colors, being that it shows their rank in society, but the clothes that he wore covered his entire regular Grid suit. "What could I interest you with stranger?"
"What do you suggest?" I asked inquiringly.
"Ah! Well, the Grid Fries and Burger are spectacular, but my personal favorite has to be my Cycle Soup. Grand stuff it is! Full of vegetables and different pixel meats."
"Sound's good. How 'bout two bowls?"
"Two bowls! For one person?" the chef exclaimed surprised.
"There's one other hungry program with me." feeling relaxed around the friendly chef, I removed my hood to expose my face, and sat down on one of the stools that were set by the counter.
The chef smiled a huge smile as he recognized my youthful years. "Have a friend coming my dear?" The stress on the word friend was all too evident, and I couldn't help but laugh at the question.
"Oh, no! Nothing like that, not yet at least. I'm not quite ready for a boyfriend." I paused, then continued as the chef made a quizzical look towards me to explain who my companion was. "It's hard to explain… Just don't freak out." Before the chef could do anything else, I turned my head towards the floor where Trez lay and demanded, "Trez, up."
Trez complied, standing up so his head rested on the counter.
The chef didn't move. At first, I was worried that he would fall towards the stories of Outland Mokks and start to panic. But, when his face softened and a smile lit his face again, I let a sigh of relief escape my lips.
"I suppose that would be the reason you have no suitors. You just scare 'em all off with that Mokk of yours." He joked good-humoredly. "Now how 'bout I get you your soups?" with no other words spoken, the chef shambled off into the kitchen. Not two minutes passed before he had the two bowls of soup laid out on the counter, one of which was a slightly larger bowl with a deeper belly and wider rim. Knowing the intent of the odd bowl, I picked it up and placed it on the floor next to Trez who barked happily and started to lap up the broth.
My own bowl was close to my lips when the chef's head came down a mere inches from my own.
"Quite a lovely beast you have there." He started, glancing towards Trez, "I won't ask how you managed to tame 'im, but I must warn you that others will. How long have you been in the outskirts so far? Judging from your clothes, I'm guessin' you came from the closest edge of the city."
"I've been here the most of ten minutes I would think…" I guessed. "Why?"
"This part 'o the city isn't the best. I'm warnin' you now to not stay in one area too long. The programs are a shady bunch 'round here. It's a good bet that your Mokk will gather some questions if too many of them take notice." He paused, letting his words sink in before continuing,"And a good bet would say some 'o them would stop at nothing to get such a good marketing target as your Mokk. Such things are worth a pretty penny nowadays."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"You're young, and a stranger to these parts. Some programs here are brutal beasts. I just want to make sure you'll have a safe journey through here. I've taken a likin' to ya' and would hate to see your trip spoiled by a bunch of thugs."
My cheeks flushed a little. I've never heard someone other than Atran say they cared for my safety.
"Th-thank you for the advice." I managed a little flustered.
The chef grinned, "It's not a problem. Anything for a happy customer… Now!" His tone changed from the whisper he had just used, to the loud, jolly bellow that he often used. "How 'bout you go ahead and drink that soup of yours? I'm excited to see if it's to your liking."
With no further urging, I brought the bowl back to my mouth and took a long, deep gulp. The warm broth slipped down my throat easily and filled me with a pleasant warmth when it hit my stomach. The spices and other ingredients spilled over my tongue once more when I took another swig, relishing the different tastes that teased my taste buds.
"So?" the chef asked expectantly, "How is it?"
"It's marvelous!" I declared between gulps, "I haven't tasted anything better in my whole life!"
A moment passed silently, besides the slurping of Trez and I as we finished our bowls of soup. Just as I placed my empty bowl down on the counter, the chef spoke again.
"My name's Cycle by the way."
"Oh. Well, my name's… uh…" I stumbled on my words. I wanted to tell him my name, but 'Sarah' was a very uncommon name on the grid. If Cycle was to call me by something, I would have to make it up. At first nothing came to mind, then one idea struck my thoughts and came out on my tongue. "Edex. My name's Edex."
"Edex? Hm… I swear I've heard that name before…"
"May be because I just told it to you." I joked, earning a rumbling laugh from Cycle.
"Ah, it's not important. Nice to meet you, Edex. I hope we meet again soon." He then declared, grabbing my hand in a crushing handshake. "Come by anytime you want. Just don't take too long getting here when you do return. Remember what I said about the programs here."
"Thanks, Cycle. I'll remember, and I'll make sure to visit every so often." I smiled while removing my hand from the chef's massive hand, stood, and turned to go. "C'mon, Trez. Time to go, Atran won't stay asleep for much longer." Trez promptly stood and sauntered to my side and the two of us started on our way out of the café. Halfway through the door, Cycle's voice rang up questioningly:
"I just remembered that 'Edex' was the name of a user some years back. Did you know 'im by chance? "
I paused, not bothering to look behind me as memories of old flooded my brain and a dark weight made my heart and shoulders droop. "No. I've never known a… user." With that I exited the café, leaving a slightly troubled Cycle behind me. A cold nose tapped my hand when I unknowingly stopped walking; waking me from the memories I had fallen into.
"Huh? Oh, sorry Trez. I dazed off there for a minute."
A deep rumble vibrated from Trez's chest and he forced his head under my hand in an attempt to comfort me.
"I'll be fine. How 'bout we get going. I'm interested to see what Atran has to say about my new name." With that, I took out my baton, re-covered my head with the hood of my cloak, and rezzed up the light cycle. Only a minute later, Trez and I were out of the city and heading out towards the old path up the cliff.