Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
It was shortly after their return from the exoplanet of C7x that Mulligan Lang, biological archivist on the exploration ship Pantagruel, began to find his food unsatisfying. That was all, at first. He looked down at the remains of the supper on his tray. A stroganoff, the mushrooms slick and toothsome as little pillows of fat, the sauce creamy, the greens thickly buttered. A good meal. So why did he feel un-sated?
Tired, he thought. Too many tedious tasks, overseeing the plethora of samples from the expedition. They’d come to C7x expecting a lush swampland, based on reports from some years before, but all they’d found was a seething muck, a whole planet covered in a strain of an unknown microorganism. It had been ghastly work, bottling vial after vial, specimen after specimen before the scientists had finally admitted they were baffled and given the go-ahead to move on to somewhere more tolerable.
Lang pushed his half-eaten food aside, left the ebullience of the canteen and went to bed.
But the next morning was the same. His usual breakfast of oatmeal with stewed apple left him cold. He spooned up another mouthful, let the glutinous, lukewarm paste coat his tongue as he tried to pinpoint the problem, without success. Lowering his spoon, he looked around. At other tables, people seemed to be enjoying their choices of fare: grits with syrup, slices of cheese and ham, bowls of rice and steaming miso soup, even, he saw with disgust, slices of cold pizza.
Seizing his tray, he marched back to the dispensing hatch. As he reached it, the implant began to replay his personal mix of breakfast scents: warm oats, toasting bread, the gentle steam of tea spiralling from a pot, a hint of newspaper. He ignored them and banged down the tray.
‘There’s something wrong with this.’
The chef didn’t look up from wiping down the replication station with a sterile cloth.
‘It doesn’t taste the same. I don’t care for it.’
The chef, in their pristine white uniform that had never seen a spot of grease, rolled their eyes and reached for the screen.
‘You want something else?’
‘No. I want to know what’s wrong with this. Has someone changed the recipe?’
The chef glanced at the tray.
Lang’s jaw tightened. The chef knew who he was. He was one of the most senior members of crew. They were just being obtuse. You shouldn’t even be called a chef, Lang thought spitefully. What have you ever cooked? What do you do but shove a bowl or plate under a paste dispenser? The chemical components do all the work, the sensory stimulants, the programmers – not you.
‘Lang,’ he replied stiffly. ‘Mulligan.’
Carelessly, the chef jabbed in the ID and began to spool through Lang’s approved menus. ‘Oatmeal with apple? No changes on any recent patch.’
‘But it’s different, it’s not right.’
For some reason, he felt close to tears. The chef’s brows twitched into an uncertain frown, but still, they shrugged.
‘Maybe your tastes are changing. Happens with age. Taste buds die, you know.’
‘It is not age.’ Anger bubbled in Lang’s chest, hot bile swirling through the oatmeal. ‘It’s the compounds. Or the paste.’
‘You see anyone else complaining?’ The chef waved an impeccably clean hand at the canteen. ‘No? Go talk to the programmers, then.’
They turned away, savouring their victory. Lang abandoned the tray and stalked from the canteen, hungry.
All morning he sat upright at his desk in the bio-archives, supervising the library bots as they went about their work of cataloguing and storing certain specimens, safely disposing of others. Lang’s was an essential role, he the failsafe should the system go down. And if it had never gone down in his ten years at the post, well, that was testament to his worth, rather than the opposite as some seemed to suggest.
By the time tea break rolled around – milk, no sugar, one shortbread – he was ravenous and stuffed the biscuit down with unusual haste. He was thinking of ordering something else through the system, perhaps even a hot, buttered crumpet, when it happened again: his brain told him he was eating a buttery shortbread spiked with sugar, but his whole body knew for a fact that the biscuit simply wasn’t there. He took a gulp of tea; it steamed, scalded its way down his throat, but it was like miming the act of drinking from an empty cup. Unnerved, he left it half-drunk and went to visit the programmers.
They were surprised to see him. They, with their augmentations and access to systems he could not even comprehend, viewed him as a relic. He withstood their disdain, jaw clenched in the flickering lights of their studio. No one crossed the programmers. They were capable of a subtle revenge, and no one wanted their food to taste like earwax or dog food for weeks.
He told them the problem. The nearest programmer, with neat, dark braids, flashed a scanner at him, so fast it hurt his eyes.
‘Programme fine. Chem-comps same.’ She squinted at his data. ‘Your menu’s really dull. You bored?’
He replied in the negative, thanked her tautly and went back to work. When lunch came around he dismissed the rising aroma of leek and potato soup with an impatient wave of his hand. Dull. What did she know? Had she ever eaten a real apple? Had she ever had peel stuck between her teeth, chewed down the core with its fibrous, bitter-almond seeds? Of course she hadn’t. Like most of the other programmers, she had probably grown up on ship like this, with replicated, compound-programmed food. So how could she know? He followed the thought back to its root. All data got abbreviated eventually, whittled to its most effective state, but what if the edges, the idiosyncrasies, were what mattered? Enlivened, he summoned his menu and began to prod and poke at the recipes.
‘I think I have it,’ he declared, stepping up to the programmer’s desk again some hours later. ‘I’d like you to make these alterations to my apple compounds, please.’
She looked sideways at him, her eyes full of lines of code. With one hand, she accessed his proposed changes, and frowned at what she saw.
‘What’s with all the bitterness?’
‘That’s what’s missing. I realised: you can’t have apple without a worm.’
‘You want worms?’
‘No! You see, I thought about it and it’s not the presence of the worm but the possibility of its presence that brings the taste alive. A hint of bitterness, something almost unpleasant. Do you follow?’
She clearly thought he was crazy, but she shrugged and made the changes.
That night, Lang ate breakfast for dinner. And lurking within the sweet apple puree was a trace of something other, acrid and strange: a worm that had hidden too well in the fruit and surrendered itself to pulp, adding its life to the dish.
‘Sustain me with raisins,’ he muttered happily, scraping the tray. ‘Comfort me with apples.’
The next day he began his research. He couldn’t eat stewed apple and oatmeal forever, and the rest of his menu simply no longer served. The ordinarily pleasant dishes were lifeless, lacklustre. It was as if his taste buds had peeked beneath the glittering mask of the chemical compounds and seen the truth: the basic, grey nutrient paste all the food was made from. He trawled for recipes, made many notes and finally, ordered Époisses.
The corresponding scent released by the sensory link nearly knocked him backwards from the serving hatch: unwashed laundry, ripe feet, the ammonial stink of vegetables rotting beneath a summer sky… He worried he’d made a mistake. He’d never liked anything more pungent than mild cheddar, and yet when he scooped up that first mouthful of oozing cheese, when the rich, sweet, caramel-and-sulphur flavour filled his head, he knew he’d chosen well.
He ate with abandon, tearing bread, scraping the cheese free with his teeth, imagining the busy, teeming microbes – the Brevibacterium linens – that had by their lives and deaths transformed mere milk into such a delicacy. He ate it all, even the rind and felt so good afterwards he did something he hadn’t done for a long time, and went to one of the bars. There he sat with a brandy, replete, surrounded by the breath and sweat of other drinkers.
He was improving himself, he thought contentedly, as he sipped. His palate was growing more sophisticated. It really is never too late to learn.
At work, the systems ran smoothly as ever and he found himself spending less time watching the bots, more time making lists of new and exciting foods to try. He no longer worried about sweet or savoury or sour; all that mattered was that the food tasted alive. For lunch one day: blood pudding and sauerkraut. For dinner the next: a luscious khash of boiled sheep’s head, feet and stomach. He knew the other staff glanced sideways at him, perhaps wondering at his sudden deviation from a menu that hadn’t changed for a decade, but he didn’t care.
Every day he visited the programmer with increasingly complex requests: fermented herrings, hákarl, casu marzu cheese teeming with jumping maggots. He knew from the programmer’s strained expression that he was pushing the food reproduction system to the limits and felt proud. He was, for the first time in his life, a gourmet.
But after a week or two, his newfound sensitivity began to bother him. He woke and found that he could taste the air in his cabin; it was like drinking flat, sterile warm water. He took to saving little pieces of his food, carrying them about in his top pocket, hiding them beneath his pillow to give the air some life. Because it wasn’t simply his sense of taste. Every aspect of his olfactory system was heightened. He wasn’t supposed to be able to detect the scent of other people’s food – the aroma choices were tailored to each individual’s nervous system and theirs alone – but nevertheless, he began to smell the different chemical compounds on people’s breath, in their sweat. It was most apparent in the ship’s gym, where people ran and panted and squatted, where bacteria bloomed between their toes and in the creases of their arms and groins like flora in a rainforest climate.
One day, a man stepped onto the treadmill neighbouring his and began to run so hard that he was soon sweating freely, beads of it flicking everywhere. In the past, Lang would have moved away in disgust, but now he found himself transfixed by the odour of that perspiration, until he was almost drunk with it.
Eventually, heaving and panting, the man stepped from the treadmill, leaving behind glistening pools of sweat. Lang stared, overcome by hunger, and before he knew what he was doing he was throwing himself forwards, running his tongue over the machine, lapping at the damp grips, at the pools of perspiration, filling his mouth with salt and bitterness that was so fully, corporeally alive that he groaned for it, saliva flooding his mouth, gastric juices rising like hands that begged for more.
There was a noise, the man returning from the cloakrooms and Lang fled like a guilty thing, his chin wet, his eyes wild.
He slumped in his cabin shaking all over with the sort of nervous terror he hadn’t experienced since he was a teenager.
Was he losing his mind? He pressed fingertips to his damp temples and absent-mindedly licked them clean. What if this newfound appetite was caused not by a growing sophistication, but by some malfunction in him, like a tumour, pressing upon his brain?
And yet, the logical part of him ventured, it made sense. He had been living on synthetic flavours for so many years – now that his taste buds had finally woken up, why, of course they craved something real. And what was sweat but water and salt and minerals, the true building blocks of all food? What could be more natural than wishing to consume those?
Over the next few days, Lang’s tastes became ever more refined. Dishes alone didn’t interest him so much as their compounds: saline, lactic acid, sulphur, terpenoids, cymene. When he asked the programmer to reduce his meals to the chemical components alone, she looked at him so strangely that he decided it was useless to bother. Anyway, he didn’t need her anymore. Since the night in the gym, he had found other places to get his nourishment.
The locker rooms of the gymnasium proved fruitful, as did the laundries. He began to frequent the busiest of the bars on the most crowded evenings, running his hands over the tabletops and empty glasses and licking his palms like a child eating melted chocolate, growing dizzy from the strange, sour, organic fluids that people left behind.
‘I gather myrrh with my spice,’ he whispered to himself as he moved through the shadows, ‘I eat honeycomb with my honey, I drink wine with my milk, eat, oh friends, drink, drink abundantly!’
Soap became revolting to him. Bitter enough to make him recoil. He could taste it on his hands and so he stopped using it, stopped washing altogether so that the precious, flavour-giving bacteria could thrive upon his skin. If I leave them long enough, he reasoned, I’ll never go hungry. I’ll carry around my own seasoning, my own living harvest.
The thickening layer of grime meant that he didn’t notice the changes right away. It was only after licking his finger that he saw something unusual. Beneath the glistening saliva, the skin was reddened, raised in tiny bumps, like a rash. He stroked it gently. Not painful, but sensitive. Intrigued, he stuck his hand beneath the microscopic display they used for samples, and looked closer.
What he saw took his breath away. Magnified, the skin was raw and slick, as if running with its own juices. Each tiny bump was a bud made up of segments like an opened orange, a blossoming flower, covered in tiny, finger-like hairs, all questing, all waiting.
He looked further and found that both his hands were covered with the buds, and his arms, and some of his chest, but most were concentrated at the tips of his fingers. Trembling, Lang poked one with the tip of a metal probe. Sensations flooded through him: the sharp tang of metal, the bitterness of cleaning solution, the faint salt of his own sweat.
He sat back, shaking, rejoicing. He didn’t even need his tongue. He could taste with his whole body. In a daze, he stood from his desk and began to run his hands over anything, everything. But it was all so clean, so dull; he snatched the few pieces of recycled paper from the drawer, scrunched them in his hands and brought them to his mouth, tasting the organic matter deep within the pulp, what had once been bittergreen and quick and living as wormwood but now was softly and sweetly decaying as old almond. Biological matter – that was what he needed. No sterile pastes, no synthetic chemicals far removed from their sources. He needed what was alive.
He tore off his shoes, slicking his palms down the soles, tasting everywhere he’d walked, every speck of living matter that other people trekked about the ship before the cleaning bots were able to scour it away. The shoes were made of cellulose and he stuffed them into his mouth, chewed upon the symphony of bacteria that existed there: the meaty funk of the cured fabric, the onion-and-hay tang of decomposing matter, the fierce sweat from his feet, the perfect seasoning.
Clothes – he dragged them from his body, tore at them with his teeth and his hands, but they were too clean, too stripped of life. He threw them aside, panting, ravenous.
His eyes fell on the cold storage vaults behind the reinforced doors. Aisle after aisle of clean, secure specimen boxes. He rose to his feet, transfixed. Within those chests, treasure: a king’s larder, a salmagundi… Saliva sprang from his palms, pooled between his fingers, filled his mouth. His wet fingertips left smears on the screen as he input the emergency override code. An alarm started to peal, the technicians would be informed, they would come running, but he had time. One of the bots followed as he staggered to the door, trying to clean up his discarded clothes, trying to spray his skin with disinfectant, but he kicked it away before the vile cloud could reach him. With a hiss, the door to the vaults drifted open and he ran inside, snatching up the first specimen box he saw. Even though the cold made his taste buds scream, he tore out the first tube, wrenched off the lid and raised it to his mouth.
Glycerol, that’s what he tasted first, sweet as palm sugar, sweet and clean, and then – within it – the bacteria, still living, still vital, swarming over his tongue, teeming and succulent. He grabbed another vial and emptied it over his hands, the taste buds in his skin singing and pulsing. He laughed.
‘I am come into my garden!’
All was there for him to consume. He bit into sporangia of white-blue mould, soft as the nap of a ripe peach above, oozing with the aged, rich juices of a million hyphae below. He wrenched the lids from wet specimens and drank down the preserving liquids as the finest eaux de vie – waters of life – revelling in the sting of alcohol, in the plump and drunken samples within that burst like tannic cherries between his teeth, popping like pearls of luscious tapioca against the roof of his mouth. He opened case after case; agars thick and rich as marrow, samples that coated his lips like the finest caviars, specimens that dripped onto his skin like milk and honey.
In an ecstasy of taste, Mulligan Lang ate his feast.
‘Afraid he’s in a bad way,’ the ship’s doctor told the captain, as they looked in on Lang through the quarantine window, weak with the fever that raged through him, hands questing endlessly. ‘Too much contamination, you know. His gut’s a swamp.’
‘Poor old fellow. Do what you can to make him comfortable.’ The captain gave Lang a moment more of her time, before clapping her hands. ‘Join me for lunch?’
Though the doctor’s stomach gurgled, they shook their head, burying their hands in their pockets. ‘This whole thing’s put me off my food. Everything tastes like cardboard.’
The captain patted the doctor on the shoulder. ‘I feel the same. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get our appetites back before long.’ ∎
Stark Holborn is the author of Ten Low, the Triggernometry series and the groundbreaking digital serial, Nunslinger. Stark’s fiction has been nominated for the British Fantasy Awards, the BSFA Awards and the New Media Writing Prize. Stark also works as a games writer on TIGA-award winning projects for the BBC, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and is currently a lead writer on the sf detective game, Shadows of Doubt.
Alex Maniezo is a Brazilian illustrator and journalist who lives deep in the woods with cats, dogs, guans, and old people. He started drawing cars on his grandma’s wall and then proceeded to the Quanta Academia de Artes where he learned the ropes of his craft. He is also the author of the book A Estrela Preta e Lugar Nenhum, which doesn’t yet have an English version. He dreams of becoming either a wrestler or Frank Quitely, but so far has done neither.
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