“Madam,” the steward said as they came out of the space vortex and the protective shields opened up over the windows in the Presidential Interstellar Cruiser. “You might want to look out to your left. It is quite an impressive sight.”

Marion looked. If a Gallifreyan thought something was impressive it almost certainly was. Rodan, who had been happily reading on her hand held tablet looked, too. She nodded. It was impressive, though since it didn’t involve horses her impressiveness came with reservations.

“It’s an artificial planet,” Marion said. “An artificial globe with artificial rings around it. It looks like Saturn with armour plating.”

“There IS a real planet underneath the steel,” Kristoph told her. “But that dull red star in the distance is all that is left of their sun. The Aabessians built the protective shell around their world in preparation for the death of their solar system. They are a tenacious race. Thirty thousand years after they should have been obliterated they are still here.”

“Is it dark inside?” Rodan asked.

“Not at all. They have two artificial fission suns and four moons within the shell making a day and night cycle that is as natural as possible beneath a sky of gunmetal grey. They have fields and lakes, trees, everything you would call natural. They even have horses, Rodan. There will certainly be an opportunity for you to enjoy your favourite pastime.”

That satisfied their fosterling. Marion watched as the artificial world of Aabess IV came closer. She could see that the steel carapace around the planet wasn’t a solid thing, but had been constructed of huge geometric shapes that fitted together into the whole. Each of those sections must have been a hundred miles wide. She tried to imagine the effort it took to construct it, but her mind couldn’t encompass it.

“They used huge robotic constructor ships in fixed orbit,” Kristoph explained. “The Aabessian technology was what drew our people to them. They gained dominion status in return for sharing their knowledge with us. We have not really done much with the knowledge yet, though. There were plans for a High Court in space for trying especially dangerous traitors. The idea has been kicking around since before I became President. I shelved it for the time being. I don’t think we have ENOUGH traitors to make it worth the expense. But if we ever do, we have the aid of the Aabessian Construction Corporation and their robots. They built all of that in a month. A mere space station would be a few days effort.”

A month! Marion was even more impressed. Kristoph did point out that an Aabessian month was twice as long as either an Earth or Gallifreyan one, but even that qualifier didn’t lessen the achievement.

“What’s that smaller body in orbit around the planet?” Marion asked, pointing to something that looked, at this distance, like a small, portable radiator, though it was probably a mile wide in reality.

“That ISN’T an Aabessian design,” Kristoph answered. “You probably guessed from its less elegant design. That is the Intergalactic Bar and Grill.”

“The… what!” Marion giggled at such a prosaic name for something in deep space.

“The Intergalactic Bar and Grill… a restaurant in short. The proprietors set up here about a thousand years ago. It has become quite popular with visitors to the sector.”

“Are we going there?” Marion asked.

“No,” Kristoph answered. “It is… not on our schedule.”

Marion thought there was something in the pause when Kristoph spoke that bore a question.

“Is there something wrong with the place?” she asked.

“Not as such. It’s… a little bit….”

He paused for a little longer.

“Common,” he finally said. “That is the only word I would use for it. It’s a place where ordinary people eat. Ordinary Aabessians go there for the rib-eye steaks and trimmings.”


“And the Aabessian government don’t want us eating there because it would be crowded with noisy, ordinary Aabessian people enjoying the food and the view from the exo-glass windows and the government want us to see the Museum of Living History and the Art Gallery.”

“Museums and art galleries are all very nice,” Marion said. “But what you’re saying is that the Intergalactic Bar and Grill is the space equivalent of a Motorway service station and they want to keep us away from places like that.”

“In short, yes,” Kristoph admitted.

“Then, I think we really ought to visit the Intergalactic Bar and Grill,” Marion concluded.

“So do I,” Kristoph agreed. “I LIKE rib eye steaks.”

“Can I come?” Rodan asked.

“Yes,” Kristoph told her. “But you can’t possibly eat one of their steaks. You can have one of their excellent beef burgers.”

He pressed a buzzer and summoned the steward, who passed a message to the pilot. In a very short time a personal shuttle was made available. It had no markings that identified it as anything to do with the official visit of the Lord High President of Gallifrey and his First Lady. Kristoph drove the shuttle himself. Marion and Rodan sat beside him and watched him manoeuvre the vehicle into a parking space inside the short stay hangar.

“That was rather refreshing,” Kristoph said. “I haven’t driven a shuttle for myself since before my inauguration.”

But that was the last reference to his presidency that he made. He paid for the parking space with his universal credit card in the automatic machine, but after that he went to a dispenser and obtained cash. He wanted to be an ordinary citizen for a while.

Marion understood that feeling well enough. That was why she took so many shopping trips to Liverpool. It felt good to queue to be served now and again.

They had to wait to be seated here at the Intergalactic Bar and Grill. It was a busy place. When they were allocated a table it was not one with a view out of the exo-glass windows. Those were already fully taken up by customers.

They WERE close to the children’s play zone. Rodan put on an expression of disdainfulness for the boisterous ball pool and the slides. She was an eight year old Gallifreyan, due, soon, to face the Untempered Schism and receive the enlightenment of her race.

But she WAS, still, an eight year old child. The disdainful expression was increasingly forced.

“Go on,” Kristoph said to her. “The steaks are cooked to order. There is time for you to play before we eat.”

Rodan smiled brightly and ran to test the largest of the slides. Marion watched her land on the safety mat and hurry to climb back to the top again.

“Isn’t it strange to think that this restaurant is orbiting a steel planet beside a dying dwarf star, but it amuses the children with something so simple as a ball pool and a bunch of slides.”

“Indeed,” Kristoph observed. “I never had the pleasure as a boy. I wonder if I would have been a different man if I had once dived into three feet of multi-coloured plastic balls.”

Marion laughed.

“Your parents should have brought you here as a boy.”

“Alas, I was much older when I first visited this quadrant. Though much younger than I am now.”

Marion understood right away that he meant he was on a mission for the Celestial Intervention Agency. She didn’t ask what happened, but he smiled softly and whispered to her.

“I used a slow poison in his drink. One that would not start to manifest itself until after he was back aboard his ship. I didn’t want anyone to be put off their steaks.”

Marion smiled at his dark joke. The ‘he’ referred to must have been a person deserving of such a fate, of course. Kristoph had not been a murderer, but a dispenser of justice.

“In those days I could not imagine coming here as a family man, with a wife and child. I think I shall enjoy my meal far more this time.”

The food was brought to the table and Marion called Rodan from the play zone. She came flushed and excited and with her hair coming undone from the ribbons. Marion tidied her before she began to eat her burger and chips.

The steaks were excellent. The Intergalactic Bar and Grill deserved its reputation for such food. Kristoph ate his slowly, savouring every bite. Marion liked the steak, but she was more fulsome in her praise of the mushrooms stuffed with cheese and herbs that accompanied them. She enjoyed the taste thoroughly.

“Aabessian cheese is very good stuff, Kristoph agreed. “You know they have over a thousand varieties, from a soft cream cheese to a strong blue-veined one that grows a rind so hard it has to be cracked with a hammer.”

“Well, if the government wish to give us any gifts to take home, a hamper of their cheeses would be appreciated,” Marion conceded. “They obviously make full use of their cattle – meat and dairy.”

“Dairy, yes,” Kristoph told her. “But these steaks are not from any animal.”

“They’re not?” Marion was surprised. “But they’re real meat, not synthesised like we have on Gallifrey.”

“That’s one of the reasons that this establishment is in orbit around the planet,” Kristoph explained. “The Aabessians don’t kill animals for meat. The Aabessian herds were genetically modified generations ago so that they only give birth to milk yielding females. All their meat is produced in a laboratory.”

Marion took two more bites of her steak before questioning how that was possible.

“Cells taken painlessly from a cow are grown in such a way that they become everything we think of as meat – flesh, sinew, bone, everything that makes a flavoursome steak. It is cruelty free, and much cheaper to produce abundant food than the ordinary way of rearing cattle for slaughter.”

Marion looked at her food for a moment, and thought about it. Then she decided that the fact that her steak was made in a laboratory was actually better than knowing it had once been a living animal. She took another bite and further decided that knowing how it was produced took nothing away from the way it tasted or her appetite for it.

“Why don’t we do this on Gallifrey, then?” she asked.

“Because we banned cloning processes of all kinds many generations ago,” Kristoph answered her. “Besides, we have plenty of cúl nut orchards and thousands of acres of grain fields on the central plain. Nobody goes hungry.”

“Was my burger made in a laboratory, too?” Rodan asked.

“Yes, it was,” Kristoph answered her. “But not that shape, of course. They don’t have a machine that stamps out round burgers on an assembly line. A chef still has to make your burger to his special recipe. Do you like it?”

“Yes,” Rodan assured him. She was eating slowly, chewing her food, as she had been taught, but she was impatient, too. She wanted to go back to the play zone.

“Don’t you want ice cream, first?” Marion asked her when she put down her knife and fork on the empty plate and asked if she could play again.

“Can I have ice cream afterwards?” she requested.

“Yes, you can,” Kristoph assured her. “Off you go.”

Rodan jumped down from her seat and ran to play again with the group of lively, noisy Aabessian children. Her foster parents ordered coffees and watched that ordinary, simple activity.

“Maybe I should buy her a ball pool,” Kristoph said after a while.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” Marion answered. “A ball pool is no use on your own. It needs a whole crowd of kids to make it fun.”

“Perhaps we need a few more children, then?” Kristoph suggested. “We have enough rooms. We could have a whole lot of foster sons and daughters.”

Marion wondered if he was serious or not. The subject of children wasn’t one they had discussed for quite a long time. They both adored Rodan and enjoyed making sure she had every opportunity to experience new things, to learn and to grow, that they could offer to her.

But was Kristoph starting to regret that she wasn’t their own child? Was that the reason behind his comment.

“No,” he said very softly, even before she had framed the question in her mind. “No, my dear. It was a careless thing to say. We ARE happy with our little fosterling. And she is happy with us. Let’s not give ourselves any reasons for regret.”

“Yes,” Marion agreed, watching Rodan play. “Yes, we are happy. Absolutely.”

“Good. Let’s have another cup of coffee and let her enjoy her fun for a little longer. Then we’ll ALL have ice cream cones to eat as we walk on the viewing deck before heading back to the shuttle. My Presidential Guards will be FAR happier when I am back under their protection and the First Minister of Aabessian will certainly be glad to know we are on our way and his official reception can go ahead.”

“Make it double cones, then,” Marion answered. “We’ll make this dose of ordinary life last as long as possible before we have to be VIPs again.”