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Life Goes On (IC)


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Fulcrum looked up and down old Wilson street. The Freedom League had specifically recommended the area, given its diversity and urban renewal, and Fulcrum jumped at the chance to help out new neighbors. Packed with row houses, the area was known as "Renovation Row" because of how far it had come from the dark days of the 1980's. A lot of love and hard work was needed to really turn the street into a community, but she hoped the Khaladi would decide to give it a try. The trees needed pruning, the lawns watering, the flower beds weeding and the gardens planting. The potential was there. Hopefully the prince would recognize it too.

Speaking of which, the hero-sans-tour-guide offered Physicus the packet of information on the houses, "So Prince Zakitaj, what do you think? With the Freedom League's backing, you should be able to put up everyone on this one block. It's a modest area but filled with really good people." Interestingly, she didn't shorten his name, instead pronouncing it properly and without great difficulty.

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"No need to call me 'Prince', Ms. Teymourian; Zakitaj is fine among friends, especially given your remarkable ability to say it properly. You live in a very beautiful city, and your hospitality... I don't know how to thank you for it. You, in particular, have been more of a help than I could ever have hoped for, let alone expected, even with all that I'd heard about Freedom City."

Zakitaj stood calmly beside Fulcrum on the sidewalk, looking over his surroundings. He was still struck by how wonderfully alive the whole planet felt; the Earthlings were good at leaving green spaces to enjoy even within their cities, it seemed, even if the ones around the houses on Wilson Street were a little less well-kept than others he'd seen on the way. Judging by those other places, however, that was nothing a little careful tending couldn't fix, provided the Khaladi could figure out how they were supposed to tend plants; these life forms were entirely new to them. He extended a hand and accepted the packet of papers with a murmur of thanks, then skimmed the first page. He'd always been better at speaking English than reading it, and he had to mouth the words as he read to properly comprehend them; embarrassed, he raised the packet a little bit to try and shield his moving mouth from Fulcrum's view.

Renovation Row, the packet declared, was the name of this little sub-district. That was fitting, he reflected; his people, in bringing it to the status of a small but flourishing community (he hoped), would be not only renovating it but rebuilding their own culture. Many things would change out of necessity. They were living on Earth now, not Khalados, and they would learn to do as the Earthlings did with time. What mattered was that they could be safe, and as he turned his gaze back to Fulcrum, he was certain that such a goal was within easy reach. To say that he was impressed with the woman superhero was to greatly understate his feelings; her offer to continue helping him even after his mess was cleaned up had touched him, and he'd eagerly agreed. This seemed to be one of her haunts, and he hoped to see more of her. Her strength, both of body and of character, intrigued him.

"It seems superheroes such as yourself need little in the way of help; I've yet to see any of the drawbacks of this place. No people I've noticed have been anything but good, whether the area is modest or wealthy."

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Fulcrum turned back to Physicus and smiled, "Mona is fine then too. I'll admit I practiced pronouncing your name quite a bit so I would get it right." Waving the thanks away, she added, "You're more than welcome. Least I could do."

The giantess took a deep breath, resting hands on hips. The planet certainly had plenty of drawbacks, and she wasn't going to sugar coat them. The same applied to Renovation Row and heroes. "Super heroes tend to have a decentralized support network. Making friends in the hero community is really useful, and I say important, if you want to be successful. Very few of us are true loners," she began lightly, only to shift to a more serious tone, "We're a very...tribal...species I'm afraid. At any given time fighting over something. Freedom City is a great place to live, but we have our fair share of problems. Poverty, violence, drugs, lawlessness and degradation of all stripes."

She looked around at the houses, "Which is a high-minded way of saying with have our problems and bad guys. Take this neighborhood for an example. Twenty years ago this place was among the most dangerous in town. The locals basically turned on each other in a mini civil war over, well, everything, and the gangs and criminals moved in. Today its on the upswing because the good locals fought back and rebuilt the place, but that is still ongoing. It still has more poverty and crime than comparable neighborhoods, but its not as bad as The Fens."

"I'm not going to try and sell you on this specific area, but its a haven for immigrants. Plus it has several local heroes. Jack-of-All-Blades, for example, you're bound to meet sooner or later. Good guy. I'll be around here too." Thinking a moment, she added jokingly, "I usually don't talk so much."

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She practiced saying my name? For some reason, that endeared her to him. More evidence that she genuinely cared, he supposed, though he'd already been convinced of that. It wasn't the least she could do, he knew, but he let the point pass; they both knew the truth on that count, and he didn't want to sound like a corrupted sound file endlessly repeating "no, really, thank you". As her words turned to more serious topics, so too did his thoughts. He looked around him again, trying to imagine what the area would have looked like during the "mini civil war" she described. After a moment, he stopped trying; if this became his home, and he suspected it would, he had no intention of letting it sink to that level ever again.

Mona called her species "tribal", and that brought back interesting memories. Zakitaj's own species had quite literally been tribal, and conflicts had broken out between the tribes from time to time, usually over contested hunting grounds; on a planet with no plants and only a few types of animal life, every hunk of insectoid flesh had been precious since the dawn of his people. Yet her description was different; apparently, even on a world of plenty, Humans found things to fight about. It seemed almost inconceivable that Freedom City hosted all of the things she described, but there had to be a reason that heroes dedicated to justice stayed there; if all the problems were cleaned up, they would move on. No, there must be a side of Freedom that he hadn't seen yet; out of necessity, it was the side of Freedom with which he would most often be dealing.

The thought of forming a network didn't worry him; he knew from experience that most things worked better when you had a team to support you, and if he was going to take on protecting not only his own people but all of those living in the area, he was certainly going to need help. His experiences so far indicated that such help wouldn't be difficult to find; he'd met and interacted with quite a few heroes already, and she'd mentioned another devoted defender of the area he hadn't even encountered yet. He was glad to hear that she, too, would indeed be around. He wondered if she'd witnessed the cleanup effort she described, given how well she seemed to know the area's history; everyone in her profession (now his, too) had a reason for it, though few discussed their reasons.

"That's alright, Mona," he said in response to her joking interjection, "You have a pleasant voice." He meant it, but it felt a bit awkward even though he'd said it smoothly, so he changed the subject. "What are 'The Fens'? It sounds like they're one of the... less savory areas of Freedom City, but why is that? If this area cleaned up quite nicely, why have they stayed unpleasant?" It was quite a barrage of questions, so he concluded with, "sorry; my curiosity gets the better of me at times."

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Mona turned to him, a wry smile creeping up, but he changed the subject before she could say anything. Instead she nodded in understanding and shrugged, looking down the street, "I honestly don't know. The Fens has organized crime problems, but then again so does the West End here. It's poor, but we're not exactly wealthy here either. My best explanation is immigration. Because of the constant influx, fresh blood kept cycling through the neighborhood. Eventually enough time and energy gathered to turn the tides for the better."

Giving him a sidelong glance, she continued, "The Fens is hemorrhaging people and money. Those locals left are either too scared or too poor to do much about the situation. Some try, and a lot of heroes do their best, but without large-scale involvement, nothing has really stuck."

"But we try. That's part of being a hero," accentuated with a big smile.

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Zakitaj nodded; it made sense. He knew from experience that a group of people used to a high standard of living became complacent, prideful, and set in their ways, so it followed that a group of people used to barely scraping by would feel that things would never change and thus cease trying to change them. An area that experienced an influx of new people also experienced an influx of new ideas and enthusiasm for change, hence the difference between the neighborhoods. Briefly he wondered what sort of hero would be willing to devote their life to fighting for what seemed to be an obviously lost cause, but as he remembered the heroes he'd met so far and heard Mona's final words, it dawned on him that these weren't people with "lost cause" in their vocabulary. They did more than just try, it seemed; they devoted all the time and effort they could muster until they succeeded. To be worthy of joining the ranks of Freedom City's heroes, he would have to find within himself the same indomitable spirit.

"You mentioned organized crime as an issue here as well as in the Fens. What form does that take? You patrol around here, I know, so perhaps you could give me some advice on fighting such groups." Zakitaj asked because the Khaladi were unused to such things as gangs and criminal syndicates; on Khalados, penalties for such behavior had been harsh, and the forces of the law had been ruthlessly efficient in weeding out such groups if they captured even a single member. The rate of both street and organized crime was considered low because tribal conflicts weren't considered the problem of peace officers until they endangered civilians. Duels and small-scale skirmishes were quite legal so long as there wasn't any collateral damage, and this exception had allowed for more efficient enforcement of every other sort of justice. It had been Zakitaj's ambition, when he wanted to become a superhero for his homeworld, to enforce intertribal peace. Now, it seemed, he would be facing a different sort of enemy.

Besides, if Mona had any stories to tell, he'd gladly listen. For all the time she'd spent helping him, he still knew very little about her.

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"The various Mafias via for influence, and they're the big, crazy boogie men. Primarily the Italian and Russian mafia vying for control. They run the usual rackets: money laundering, prostitution, drugs, protection schemes, weapon smuggling, etc. In a way having the Italian and Russian cartels fighting each other helps keep a lid on the smaller, more dangerous gangs. As for the street gangs, they're easy knew to spot. " Crossing her arms, she nodded.

"I can't tell you more specifics," she continued, hand raised to the sky, "Really I'm the giant-robot-mutant-monster kind of hero. Not really someone that knows the streets that well, so I focus on incidental issues like muggings and fires. I'll see if I can get a hold of Jack. He'll be able to give you details. My general advice is don't rush into situations you don't understand. A lot of these people have gathered weapons capable of hurting heroes pretty easily. If you do engage them, make sure they don't destroy the evidence and make sure to nab the higher ranked ones. Otherwise you're just wasting your time."

During this time, she slowly strolled along the sidewalk, taking in the view and waving to some of the passers by as if she knew them. Living or growing up here seemed quite likely given her familiarity and comfort with the idea. A few seconds after finishing, she glanced at him and coyly teased, "My voice still sound pleasant?"

Maybe she did have stories to tell after all.

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"Of course," Zakitaj said with a smile in response to her final question. What she'd said told him something interesting: she was effectively the opposite of his predecessor, who had focused exclusively on street crime, though she still had good advice to give that certainly didn't clash with what he'd heard from Physicus. He'd always said that you had to look for the people behind the problem because there were an infinite number of people willing to be part of it, and from the sound of it Mona would agree.

The long description of crimes put him a bit on edge, but he could see how people in the Fens could get involved in such things. When nothing changed for the better and people stopped trying, other people would try to better themselves however they could, and scumbags looking for profit and discounting morals could easily sweep in and use such unfortunates to make money. It was going to be his job to catch those scumbags.

But the fact that Mona operated differently gave him an opportunity: he'd heard all the stories about street crime, but not the ones about robots and giant monsters. He wouldn't have to feign interest if he heard about that sort of thing, though he doubted he would ever be uninterested in anything Mona had to say. It was a win-win situation: learn something new and seize the chance to prolong a conversation with a woman who fascinated him.

"Giant robots and mutant monsters, you say? Sounds like you might have more than a few interesting tales, and I'd love to hear them. But I can hardly leave you standing on a street corner with a dry throat and keep asking questions in good conscience; perhaps you could introduce me to a local eatery? I'll pay if you'll tell me of your adventures. Besides, it would be good to know where food can be found; even aliens need to eat now and again."

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"Is that the Khaladian way of asking for a date?" joked Fulcrum, cocking her head, "On Earth less than a day and you're flirting with the locals." Although she teased, her body language suggested she meant no offense nor had she felt any. If anything, the question was an honest considering the tension.

"Sure. I know the perfect place. Does that suit of yours fly?" At the answer, she stepped up behind him and put her arms around his chest. That grip was vice like, and being all of eight feet tall, her arms completely encircled him. In fact she loosened up a bit so he could breathe. "Hold on!"

With those two words, the pair propelled skyward. The street shrank to tiny lines as they gained altitude. Instead of flying any great distance, she guided them toward the other end of the West End and released into free fall. She wasn't thrill riding it seemed, just taking a short, direct jaunt to the eatery. A touch of the old air brakes and in front of Tia Marta's they set down.

"I can almost guarantee you're going to love this place," added Fulcrum as she lead him to the door. The smell of delicious Spanish and Italian food drifted from the old wooden doors. As unassuming as the wood and brick building looked outside, the inside promised to be very exciting.

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That was a subtle way of asking for a date, Zakitaj was tempted to say, but Mona was clearly just joking again, and there was something charming about her bluntness. "Guilty," he replied with an even smile to her question about his flirting, "but how could I help myself? On Earth less than a day and I've already met someone worth flirting with." He was glad she accepted, in any case, though less glad when forced to admit that his suit merely walked. On the other hand, the mode of transportation she offered was certainly welcome.

As she took hold of him in a wide hug and leaped for the clouds, his arms braced against hers, he reflected that it wasn't exactly what Khaladi ballads told of; then again, the thin, lithe man and the considerably taller, incredibly well-muscled woman bearing him aloft tore up pretty much every gender role stereotype he could think of. And then thoughts vanished as the wind whipped into his hair and he watched, awestruck, as the city he'd been standing in moments before spread out beneath him like a topographic map.

He wasn't afraid, not only because Mona was more likely to snap him like a twig than to drop him nor because he never seemed to feel fear anymore but simply because the entire leap was too incredible to leave room for anything other than wonder in his mind. As they reached the crest and began to plummet again, he felt adrenaline pulse through his veins as his eyes took in the ground rushing up at him. He forced himself to stay loose; he would gain nothing by tensing, as it was merely a psychological response and not a practical one.

The wind became more and more intense until his cheeks pulled back slightly from the force of their rapid descent. And then, all at once, Mona hit the ground and stopped as easily and casually as if she'd taken a jump across a puddle of water half a foot in diameter. He marveled at how powerful her feet and knees had to be if they could withstand such incredible impact without cracking themselves or the pavement.

"I think I now truly understand why people have always dreamed of flight."

Turning his mind back to his immediate surroundings, Zakitaj inhaled the aromas that surrounded the building Mona had taken him to. Everything here was exotic to him, but he couldn't deny that the smell was appealing, and he trusted his guide. "I don't doubt it," he replied to her statement of her near certainty that he would approve of the little business's food.

It had occurred to him some time earlier that he didn't actually have any Earthling money, but he would deal with that in such a way that Mona wouldn't have to know. She'd carried him here in addition to having helped save his people from the Broan, and for the sake of his masculine pride he had to do something for her. Easing the door to the eatery open with one arm, he tucked the other under him to point inside and did a little half bow over it. "After you." Noticing that her great height might cause problems, he quickly added, "be careful with your forehead."

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"Why thank you, sir," replied Fulcrum as she ducked into restaurant. If anything doorways had more to fear from her than her them. After all when bullets bounce off your hide, most frames didn't have the necessary reinforcement to take even a glancing blow. In any event, her crouch only lasted a moment.

The interior of the restaurant was authentically old world, if rather eclectic. Liberal amounts of copper, brick, paintings and darkly stained wood dominated the decor, mixing southern European patterns with American practicality. The place was on the smallish side, but filled efficiently with large tables capable of seating eight or more. Fulcrum pointed instead to a booth by the front window, and tried valiantly to make it there.

A small woman in a long dress and apron, no more than five feet, appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Face lined from sixty plus years of work and laughter, the elder Italian held her arms open expectantly, "Mona! Wonderful to see you again, sweety. How are you? You really need to visit more often!" she rattled in that loving but authoritative tone only a grandmother could master.

"I'm wonderful, Mama Marta," replied Fulcrum, her tone softening, "You look lovely today. Is that a new dress?" Leaning down she gave the her a gentle hug.

"Hah! This old thing?" Mama Marta waved her hand dismissively. The gesture was very similar to the one Fulcrum used just minutes earlier, "Antonio always hated this dress. That's why I wear it!" she replied with a jovial laugh.

She stopped suddenly and looked around Fulcrum. She smiled wide and her eyes sparkled. Just as quickly as she appeared in front of Fulcrum, she stepped up to Zakitaj and looked him over appraisingly. "My, you're quite the looker aren't you? You've brought in a good one, sweety."

Fulcrum rubbed the bridge of her nose and blushed, "Mrs. Beatrice Marta, may I introduce Prince Zakitaj Kelembran. Zakitaj, the indomitable Mama Marta, proprietor of this fine establishment."

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Zakitaj followed Mona into the little restaurant, drinking in the sights of the place alongside the smells. The way the building was furnished was just as foreign to him as... well, as everything else. On Khalados, a lack of building materials as well as careful regulation of space ensured that most buildings were simple grey cubes leading off of subterranean hallways; the only type of decoration most people could afford was wall carvings, and no two buildings were quite the same in that way. Here, though, there was so much color; the place was such a vibrant variety of textures and hues that it took his eyes a moment to adjust. Back home it would have been fit for only the wealthiest, and yet here on Earth it was humble.

Being a good judge of people, Zakitaj took an instant liking to Beatrice Marta, though her bluntness made Mona look like a master of subtlety. He could see that she was content with her life, and had been so for many years; she had no doubt raised children and, when they left the nest, adopted everyone else she could lay hands on, Mona evidently included. He glanced sideways at his guide as Mama Marta complimented his looks, and was amused to watch her blush, though he kept it to himself. He had been complimented on his looks many times, and though he never took it for granted, he wasn't ever surprised or embarrassed, either. Smiling, he extended his hand to the aged but energetic woman.

"A pleasure, Mrs..." he paused, then corrected himself. "Mama Marta." He had a suspicion that, if he'd called her anything else, she'd probably have corrected him. "Your taste in decor is exemplary," he said as he indicated the room, "and Mona assures me that your taste in food is even more impressive. Given what I can smell already, I'm quite inclined to believe her, though I'm eager to try it for myself."

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Mama shook his hand. Her grip was calloused but still strong. Taking him by the arm, she led him over to the booth, "Thank you, Prince Kelembran. My husband Antonio and I opened this restaurant forty years ago this summer." Seating them, she waved over a waiter, "I assure you, sir, we will not be satisfied until you are satisfied."

As the young man took their drink orders, Mama Marta stole glances at two's interactions. She had the eyes of matchmaker in the old world style, and likely judged Zakitaj's character just as he hers. Once the waiter excused himself, she asked, "What brings you to our fair city, Prince Kelembran?"

The waiter returned shortly with their drinks, but also an extra bottle of wine. The fixtures were laid out and menus provided. As the building was eclectic, so was the menu. A wide range of dishes from the southwest Mediterranean graced the list, including many from mainland Spain and Sicily in particular.

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Mama Marta's hospitality continued to impress Zaktiaj, and he became all the more certain that Mona had chosen well. He thanked her for her guarantee of satisfaction, which he was sure she'd have no trouble fulfilling, and took his seat. As the waiter arrived to take drink orders, he hesitated; at home, the only variety in drinks was artificial flavoring and coloring on a base of water, but Physicus had told him that a wide variety of drinks brewed from plants existed on Earth. Still, it was best to play it safe, as Physicus had also mentioned that some such brews influenced the mind and body. He ordered simple water and turned back to the two women accompanying him.

When Mama Marta asked about the reasons for his arrival, his smile faltered for an instant, but he quickly revived it. "Troubles at home compelled a group of my people to leave and seek a more peaceful place in which to live our lives. Our arrival was more difficult than we might have hoped, but fortunately Mona and her allies were able to help us." It was a very brief summary of much gorier, more complicated events, but he had no desire to think on them too hard; it had only been a few hours since he had witnessed the ship carrying all of the survivors of his people sliding backwards toward a splattering death on the surface of Earth, and though it had truly been eight years since his home's destruction, to him it had been only a single day. He was here with Mona to enjoy her company; better to leave unpleasant things as far in the past as possible.

The waiter returned bearing not only water, but an elegant bottle filled with a dark liquid. Zakitaj kept his composure; he would drink one glass in small sips and with food if Mona drank it. It was the only way to be safe; overindulging in a substance he didn't understand wasn't a way to endear anyone on this planet to him. Then the menus arrived, and he pretended to stroke his chin in deep thought while actually hiding his mouth as he slowly pronounced each word. Many of them clearly weren't English, and many of those that were didn't make sense to him. He refused to be intimidated regardless. Turning to Mama Marta, he inquired, "do you have a recommendation for someone who has not yet tasted this kind of food? Sadly, I know very little about the cuisine of this pla... pardon me, of this region."

He wouldn't deny that he was an alien, but if he was going to live on Earth, he needed to stop talking like one.

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Mama Marta nodded her understanding over his hesitation. Obviously he was uncomfortable with the causes of his arrival, and being a polite woman, she wasn't about to press him.

Instead she smiled knowingly and began pointing out items, "I would select one of Italian entrees then. The lasagna, layers of sweet tomato sauce, pasta, vegetables and meat, is magnificent today. For something a bit richer, the damabianka is chicken or veal sauteed in a brandy cream sauce over pasta. Perhaps though you would select the Pasta Sampler. Lasagna, ravioli and manicotti all prepared with a variety of aged cheeses." The more she spoke, the more animated she became. By the time she finished, even Fulcrum was smacking her lips.

Fulcrum ordered an iced tea and didn't even bother with the menu. "I'll have the Viva Italia please," she told the young man. Pointing out the item to Zakitaj, "Mushrooms, sausage and chicken breast over pasta. It's my favorite."

"You always order that one!" teased Mama, turning to alien prince, "Ever since she was a child, she couldn't get enough of that combination. That and the spicy dishes."

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Everything sounded delicious, of course, even though Zakitaj had no idea whatsoever what any of it meant; Mama Marta had such a great amount of energy and enthusiasm when describing the food of her restaurant that it was hard not to become a little excited as well. It seemed wise to choose the sampler, however; the more types of food he tried, the less ignorant he would be at the end of the meal, and that was certainly a good thing. He nodded and widened his eyes as Mona pointed out her favorite dish, his face perfectly genuine; he trusted her to have good taste in food, so it was only half a lie.

"Hm... Difficult, difficult. If you'll allow me to steal just a bit of yours, Mona, I think I'll have the Pasta Sampler. If everything sounds and smells good, it stands to reason that I should try a bit of everything." He turned to Mama Marta, laughter in his eyes. "Now we'll see what she really thinks of me. Will she surrender a bit of her favorite dish?" It was clearly a joke; Zak wasn't deeply concerned with the results, but he might as well play to the "crowd" a little.

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The waiter smiled and departed with their order. Mama Marta laughed again and clapped her hands together, "An excellent choice! I'll leave you two love birds to chat then. Perhaps you can work out an arrangement. A pleasure to meet you, Prince Kelembran." With a curtsy she excused herself, but she could barely contain the excitement in her eyes. She disappeared into lunch crowds, but every once in a while could be spotted watching the two. She was a real host, chatting up guests and regaling them with tales.

Once she was gone, Fulcrum chuckled, "Quite a character isn't she? She is like a second mother to me." Looking around the room, a thought occurred to her.

"What was life like on your world? What was the food like?" The question was deliberately left open-ended.

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"And you, Mama Marta," Zakitaj said as the woman excused herself. "Quite a character indeed." His words were meant kindly.

"Not nearly so interesting as it is here," he replied to her question about his home's cuisine, his eyes fixed on her to prevent them from becoming faraway. "Khalados was a dustball of a world; no plants, and only a few animals. For thousands of years, we ate meat exclusively; there was nothing to flavor or season it, and no alternatives, so we never really saw food as a pleasure until we were able to chemically synthesize artificial flavors."

"Even then, we didn't get far with food science; just keeping us all safe took priority, and we devoted most of our resources to that." And just look how it turned out, he wanted to say, but he swallowed the words; he wasn't here to be bitter, but to enjoy Mona's company. "You would find our food tough, dry, and sour; at least, that's how an Earthling described it to those who didn't know any better."

Physicus had enjoyed Khalados's people, but the food had nearly driven him insane; Zakitaj amusedly remembered some of his more cutting criticisms of the meat that formed the everyday diet of all Khaladi. "We had nutrient pills, too; one little capsule could keep you going for a whole day. The problem was that it tended to overload your digestive system and led to all sorts of liver problems, so we only used them when absolutely necessary. In short, we can't really compare our food to yours; it's much too limited."

He paused, hoping he hadn't bored her, then continued. "As for our way of life... well, I didn't see much of it. I lived easily. But others, they were all like cogs in a machine. We were so far beyond this planet technologically, but we sacrificed freedom for it. We all fit into precise roles and repeated them until someone else took over. It was survival instinct. Life here seems much more pleasant."

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Fulcrum nodded at the appropriate moments, but otherwise listened impassively to Zakitaj's descriptions. Although she hid it well, his world sounded pretty dull and miserable. Coming from a culture steeped in food, art and color only compounded the differences. Still these were important things to know. She felt it gave her perspective on Zakitaj and his people.

"Sounds like life was very difficult on your planet, even in the best of times." she replied contemplatively, "Earth has its difficult environments too. My people originally came from the desert. In fact many of the great civilizations here arose in the deserts. Supposedly I'm descended from a great warrior woman, but I'm a little skeptical of that."

Smiling, she squeezed his shoulder gently, "Hopefully your people can find a way of life that suits them and still lets them keep their culture. Sometimes that can be a tough balance. I know." Looking around the lunch crowds, she added, "Sorry to bring up more memories. I'm just curious about you and your people. I keep forgetting its only between a day for you, not eight years."

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"There's something to be said for adversity, though only so much," Zakitaj replied to her comment about Humans arising in deserts. "My people had a philosopher many years ago who became convinced that, by creating conflict, he would forge great heroes, so he sowed chaos and caused a civil war. He was quite right; heroes rose up from the common folk, but they did so only to defeat him. It just goes to show that such things can't be controlled." To her words of doubt concerning her heritage, he smiled and replied, "I would be deeply surprised if you were the first mighty warrior to emerge in your cla... excuse me, your family."

Mona's touch was a surprise, but certainly not an unpleasant one. Her earlier embrace had been a gesture of utility, a means to an end. This was... well, it was a gesture of kinship. His people didn't exchange physical contact lightly; Khaladi culture was a maze of verbal pleasantries and customs that had to be navigated with great care, lest someone be offended. Of course, Zakitaj had never really been expected to become well-versed in such things on account of his father, who was more concerned with getting into the pants of any woman he came across than talking with her. That was just as well now that he was on Earth; clearly touch was much less taboo here.

She spoke of preserving his culture, and his eyes finally did become distant for a moment. "I don't know what we'll do here. It's probably a light in the lives of the common folk to be in a place with so much opportunity, a much gentler and more open land. And who would want to keep the customs of a homeworld without freedom when the very name of this place is freedom? It's easy for me to say that things should be preserved; time will tell whether they really are." She made her apologies, and he waved them away. "It is better to get used to talking of it; I suspect I will do so a great deal in the coming days."

His eyes refocused, and he smiled at her again, shaking dark thoughts from his mind. "So, tell me of your family. You said that you also know what it's like to find a clash between old ways and new ways. Do you come from a culture distant from this one in some way?"

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Fulcrum didn't know what to make of his surprise at her touch. Considering the differences in culture, she hoped she hadn't offended the man. Still given his pleasant demeanor, the most positive interpretation was taken. She nodded her understanding to his concerns.

"Oh yes, you have no idea," she began, sighing, "My family immigrated to the U.S. around the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. To be concise, Persia or Iran has been a major player in the history of the Middle East, many thousands of miles from here. At one time or another, Persia has been a great center for science, art, war, and culture for millennia. 31 years ago, after over a century of instability and modernization, the autocratic government was overthrown by religious revolutionaries. We were too much like these people to remain there safely."

"My family loves this country, but its still much of a culture shock. Religiously, we were Muslims in a primarily Christian country. Culturally, we were both family and education oriented, which did mesh pretty well. Our values were different but similar enough to help us assimilate. Unfortunately, I embraced a lot of the more liberal and freedom-loving values of this land, and I've had a great deal of conflict with my family because of those differences. Particularly my mother. She is a Western-educated woman, but still conservative by the standards of the U.S."

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Though Zakitaj put more stock in science than faith, which wasn't difficult because he didn't put any stock in faith, he knew very well how destructive religious conflict could be. Among the Khaladi, different clans often worshipped different gods, or sometimes ancestors rather than any gods at all. Despite the setting of an official planetary religion, many clans practiced their own beliefs in secret, and cult warfare was classified as clan warfare and not considered criminal until civilians were endangered.

Several hundred people a year died in such battles, a number which was insignificant compared to the population of nearly a billion but important because it was the second largest after territory conflicts. It was one of the things he'd hoped to put an end to when he became a superhero of Khalados, as he'd dreamed. He wondered what the fate of these cults would be now that there were fewer of his people than the number of religious-related deaths each year; hopefully the Khaladi would move beyond their divisions in the face of annihilation.

Her thoughts about embracing democracy brought him into deep thought as well; it was exactly what he'd said about the fear of losing his culture now that better options were available. He didn't want to see tradition lost, but he didn't want to be bound by it either; Mona's dilemma was easy for him to understand. "I am beginning to learn that the balance of new and old isn't an easy one, and that people will always disagree on it, though I do find it both amusing and amazing that your planet is so much larger than ours that it's possible to have culture shock without finding another world."

The clans were different, of course, but not so different that two Khaladi of different clans wouldn't understand one another's customs. The establishment of a single racial language and planet-wide legal code had begun the slow trend of blending all the clans together, and after thousands of years they had each contributed something to a single new culture that was emerging. In another thousand years, clans might have existed only in historical texts. Yet it seemed that Earth, being much larger, was taking longer to move in that direction if it was moving there at all.

"I imagine they speak a different language in Iran. Was that difficult? There are expressions in Khaladi that I never could quite voice in English, and also the other way around. Vice-versa, I think the term is."

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Mona nodded, "We find it amazing too. You can walk from one part of a city to another and end up with culture shock. Take the United States for example. We are a generally unified culture, yes, but you can break up the nation into at least eight or more distinct regions, each with its own variations in culture and dialect of English."

At his next question, she leaned back in thought. Honestly the two languages were two sides of a different coins to her, but articulating the eases and difficulties took a little memory searching. "No, I can't say I had a great deal of difficulty. I grew up with those two languages primarily, so I was immersed in both my entire life. I won't say learning them was easy, but they came naturally. You're not alone though. Some expressions are difficult to translate or keep the same meaning. Amazing how much culture context matters to a language."

Speaking of Persian, she cleared her throat and spoke. The words were rolling and smooth, flowing into a poetic stream. Something sounded vaguely familiar to Zakitaj, perhaps, but far too removed to be comprehensible.

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Zakitaj nodded. "They say it's easier to learn other languages the younger you are, and the more exposed you are to them, which is especially true when you understand the context behind the expressions. I've certainly been immersed now; hopefully I'll speak more modern, relevant English with time." Then she spoke in another language, one he had never heard before, which could only assume was the language of Iran. He listened closely, seeking patterns among the syllables. All Earthling languages he had encountered so far had some patterns in common, but also tremendous differences. This was no exception.

"It's very beautiful," he said quietly. "With some of the features of other languages I have heard, but strikingly different in inflection. Is it always spoken like this? There's a... softness to it, a flow, like spoken art. The tongue of my people sounds very harsh indeed in comparison."

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Fulcrum nodded, "Thank you. Yes, Persian usually sounds much like this. If anything the I modulate a bit more because of how common extreme inflections are in English. Still it sounds much the same. Believe me, your people's language isn't that harsh. The languages of Earth range from poetic to very guttural. Some tribes in Africa even speak completely with clicking sounds."

The food arrived, and as promised, looked both exotic and also delicious. The steaming plates were absolutely heaped with food. Fulcrum wasn't sure the typical serving Zakitaj would consume, but even by American standards, each entree had enough for three or four people. The aroma? Well, if you liked Italian or American-Italian, then those smells were practically divine. The fresh bread and tomato-based sauces alone looked rich enough to fill the belly. The waiter poured them wine, wished them a good meal and withdrew to other customers.

"You speak excellent English, Zakitaj," said Fulcrum as she spread out her napkin, "It's already modern and if anything, free of fad words and slang. If I may give a bit of unsolicited advice, look into a language repository. I know one called the Lost Languages Library. It's a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving languages threatened with extinction. Considering your people number so few, you'd be a good candidate."

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