Hey, good to see ya, how ya doin'? Take a seat anyplace you like - we got window seats, we got booths, we got stools over here at the counter. I'd keep shy of the table just at the back there - it's reserved, on a strictly unofficial basis, and the guy who plants hisself there most days ain't exactly particular about whose keister he puts his boot into, if you catch my drift.
Now, what'll it be?
The In-Game Cafe is a dingy little place on the corner of Silicon Boulevard and Vinecraft. People often remark that "it's seen better days" but they don't know that for sure - nobody knows how good the days have been or how good the next days are going to be. The In-Game is looking worn and tired, that's what those people mean, and they presume it wasn't always this way.
You take a seat as far from any of the other patrons as possible. The place is quiet so that's not too difficult. There's a man wearing overalls sitting at the counter, shovelling greasy scraps of mushroom omelette into his mouth. Every time he swallows, the counter creaks. Beneath his clothes, his body is changing, muscles rippling and straining against the fabric. He was already north of six feet tall when you entered; he'll be pushing eight by the time you leave. Occasionally, there's a pop louder than the sizzling of patties on the grill as one of his bones slides into a new configuration.
Attempting to ignore the snuffling, sneaker-squeaking of the gangly-limbed werehog at the chilli dog trough, you pick up a menu. On cue, the proprietor appears.
"We've got a couple of specials on the board over there but we're fresh outta every kind of potion. People ask for 'em but I don't like to keep 'em in stock, y'know? This is a diner, not a frickin' pharmacy."
Five dishes catch your eye.
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"Yeah, I guess you can have the Potato Mine salad. I guess if it's there on the menu, I can't rightly deny you a Potato Mine salad." He looks over his shoulder, one way and then the other, and then leans in close. "You, er, you got some kind of a death wish, pal? Or are you one of these punk kids who likes to go around letting on to all their friends that they sucked on a Potato Mine and lived to tell the tale? I got news for you, buddy - ain't nobody ever sucked on a potato mine and lived. Those things will blow your head clean off."
"Hoo boy. OK. I guess. Really shouldn't have put those things on the menu, heh." He wipes a dishcloth across his brow, smearing week-old gravy into the already mucky creases. "Here's the deal. I've got four sacks of these Potato Mines out back and the wife wants rid of them in the worst way. She told me to dump 'em into the harbour but I'm worried they'll take out somebody's brand new yacht, or punch a hole in one of those fancy dan cruise ships. So I says to her, "They're food. We can cook 'em. I can whip up a real good potato salad. Fresh, y'know?" First one I tried to boil blew up in the pan. Went through five or six before I realised, you've got to eat 'em raw. Keep 'em wrapped tight in cloth, in a cool, dry place, and they won't go BANG unless you jostle 'em about too much.
"So I can serve one up, with creamy dill dressing, my own special five-herb and caper mix on the side, and smoked paprika to taste. The Potato Mine will be raw but I hear they're delicious, if you can manage to wolf one down before it goes off. The eyes are as sweet as sugar and the skin ain't what you'd expect. Sort of salty, but good salty, y'know? Course, even if you manage to swallow the thing it's probably going to blow a hole in your gut so it better taste good, huh?
"Oh, and I'm going to have to ask you to dine (you can't say dine without die, HA) in the basement. I've hung some old bedsheets on the wall so I won't have to get a mop up there when the show's over."
Nobody spares you a second glance as you're lead toward the basement. They're all too intent on their own peculiar meals.
The proprietor leads you to a small table in the centre of the dimly lit room. As promised, there are yellowed sheets hanging from the walls and somebody has stretched a tarpaulin across the ceiling.
“I'm going to close the door when I leave. The food will arrive through that hatch,” he points. “You've got about thirty seconds to eat the Potato Mine, I guess. Good luck. I mean, GOOD EATIN'.”
He runs out of the room, slamming the door beind him. You hear a bolt sliding into place.
A few minutes later, the hatch opens and you retrieve your meal. It looks delicious – the thick, creamy sauce forms a dill-peppered moat around the central feature, the Potato Mine itself. Wrapped in cloth, like a compressed cranium, it seems to be snoring.
Hesitantly, you take the tray and place it on the table, careful not to disturb the slumbering potato. And then you strike, pushing the covering aside with a sweep of the knife, and then slicing off a mouthful of sweet potato flesh. It's in your mouth within seconds and, sweet mercy, it's the most beautiful thing you've ever tasted. Swallowing, you scoop up another slice, trailing it through the dressing and ignoring the way the remainder fidgets and fusses on the plate.
“I have never known joy until this moment,” you mutter spraying fragments of spud that have become white hot morsels even as you chew them. “Potato, be mine.”
And then your head explodes, like in Scanners.
“Take your attitude someplace else, wiseguy. We serve 1ups here, not one-upmanship.” Taking you by the elbow, the proprietor of the In-Game Cafe leads you to the door and turfs you out onto the street.
Removing your shades, you reveal a black eye and run your fingers along the scar tissue around your nose.
“Been in the wars, huh? A street fight? I wouldn't like to see how the other guy looks after the beating you laid down on him, brother. Ha ha ha. Nothing like a whole roast chicken to put you back on your feet. Come on. I'll show you where we keep 'em.”
He leads you through the kitchen, where several of the ingredients are muttering or squirming. A door leads to a back alley, where bags of refuse are stacked high. At the far end of the alley, there are three dented trashcans, their lids lopsided.
“You get one shot, champ. Take your pick.”
So this is how it goes.
The trashcan collapses. There's a stack of dollar bills inside.
“Tough luck, bruiser. No roast chicken for you today.”
You wonder if you can simply buy some roast chicken with the money but the proprietor has already gone back inside and locked the door, leaving you to contemplate your fate in the alley.
The can crumples. As you might expect, there's a whole roast chicken inside. You swallow it and feel your broken bones fusing together. Old scars heal and you feel as good as new.
Back to the streets. The Diesel Dudes can't save the mayor on their own.
The can bounces off the wall and hits you in the face. To add injury to insult, when it breaks open on the floor you see that there's a bundle of dynamite inside. Somehow, the fuse is lit and has almost burned down. You're done for. This is how 45% of street brawlers meet their end.
“Smart choice. Nothin' quite like whale on rye to kickstart your day. Millard Filmore used to swear by it.”
He wrings his hands and leans close, whispers in your ear. His breath is hot and smells like the breeze drifting in from the sea following an oilspill – you can make out sixteen separate species of dead fish.
“You seem like a man of means. Reckon you're used to eating in those fancy places, with cutlery and tablecloths and whatnot? Kind of place where you get to pick your own lobster out of the tank? Right you are, sir. Follow me.”
He opens a trapdoor right there in the floor of the cafe and shines a torch down into the depths. There is a ladder, hard steel affixed to the wall of the circular portal that heads straight down into the darkness.
“Go on down. You can pick your own whale, just like in those fancy lobster places you enjoy so much.”
Rather than explaining how much you dislike those fancy lobster places, you decide to see this thing through to the blubbery end and hop onto the ladder. You've only taken a couple of steps down when the trapdoor closes, plunging you into darkness. Nowhere to go but down.
You've been descending for what feels like hours when you first notice the salt encrusted onto the rungs of the ladder. There's a source of light somewhere below.
A few minutes later, you emerge in a huge cavern. The sound of whalesong echoes around the walls and you can see the creatures below, drifting in a saltwater lagoon just deep enough to keep them alive. When you reach the bottom of the ladder, you find two slices of rye bread, a machete and an enormous meatfork.
The eye of the closest whale is a mysterious pool, almost large enough to drown in. It seems to gaze into your soul as you tighten your grip on the machete and fork, and prepare to feast.
“Yolkfolk Surprise it is.”
He flashes you a loathsome grin and heads back to the kitchen.
The omelette that he serves moments later tastes like a butcher's buffet. The bloodspots are as large as a fist.
“You know that the Bowl of Dogfood is a bowl of dogfood, yeah? It's not some artisan hipster chic version of dogfood. I'm not going to come back here with a bowl of pulled pork and gravy on a bed of kale crisps and rhubarb jelly. It's dogfood, straight out of the tin. Good for what ails you, maybe, but let's be clear about what it is – it's dogfood. The stuff you feed to dogs. Not for human consumption.
That's what you want?”
“Right you are, squire.”
What is wrong with you?