Imagine a TV dinner, baked to a crisp. Silver foil peeled back by the laser heat of a toaster oven. Charred clots of chicken stew, succotash, nameless dessert, further blurred by a microforest of recombinant mold like a diseased painter’s nightmare of verdigris.
Metaphor stretched to the breaking point.
ONE: NEON SUSHI
Someone had found a new use for an old fryboy. At the Lazy-Ate Gar & Krill, 6Pack was swabbing shrimp-racks with an 80-baud prosthetic dishrag when a Mongol stammer cut through the sleazy pinions of his hangover, sharp as a bitter mnemonic twist of Viennese coffee rinds tossed from a cathedral window into a turgid canal where rainbow trout drowned in petroleum jelly.
“6Pack?” said the Mongol. “Want a new job?”
He glanced up from the remnants of crustaceans curled like roseate spiral galaxies and saw:
–Limpid pools of Asian eyeliner aswirl in a violaceous haze of pain and pastry crumbs.
–Bank check skin with “Cash” spelled out on the lines of a furrowed brow.
–Some pretty bodacious special effects.
To his typographic implants it looked like this:
_ _ _ _ _
<><> <> <> <> <> <> <> <>
> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <
6Pack scrabbled for a purchase on reality but found only the dishrag.
“Man, that sweater hurts my eyes!”
The Mongol stepped between 6Pack and the sushi counter “It’s pixel-implanted Angola wool, under hermeneutic control. Come with me or I will induce a convincing epileptic seizure by altering stripe frequency and then take you away in the guise of your doctor. ”
6Pack considered his options. A nearby heap of batter-fried squid tentacles quivered like golden-brown weaponry hauled from the ancient trenches of the sea. The Mongol tipped back the brass spittoon that served him as a hat, exposing an Oster ionized water-bazooka stitched among his Sukiyaki cornrows.
“What do you want with me?”
“Surely you can guess, fryboy. ”
“No one calls me that without hearing my story. You’ve gotta hear what happened, what th-they d-d-did to me!”
“Now, now,” said the Mongol. “Don’t cry. I’m listening.”
It had all happened too fast for words.
“And when it was over, I woke up. The East Anglians had rewired my tastebuds.” He waved at the racks full of squirming periwinkles, octopus eyes, mackerel intestines. “Now all this tastes horrible to me. I eat the finest chocolates from Brussels—” he cannot avoid the memory of the heavy matron who served him sourly from behind the polished glass counters, shoving a gift-wrapped box of buttercreams into his hands “—and it tastes like dirt.”
“If you eat dirt, does it taste like buttercreams?” asked the Mongol. “But no matter. I know your story. What if I told you that my employers can restore your tongue to its previous sensitivity?”
6Pack sneered at him. “No one’s got the technology to unsplice my tongue, short of the EASA, who did the damage in the first place.”
The Mongol produced a 3D business card from some fold of his sweater and handed it to 6Pack:
“I am a deaf-mute,” it read.
“Wrong card,” the Mongol said, snatching it back and handing him another which spelled out in tiny blinking lights: EAST ANGLIAN SMORGASBORD AUTHORITY.
“What’s the matter, fryboy? Swallow something you don’t like?”
Hands trembling, seeing the future unfolding before him like an origami hors d’ouevre, 6Pack knelt to kiss the Mongol’s fingers. “I’ll do anything to have my palate restored,” he pleaded. “Tell them I’m sorry. Tell them I’ll never confuse mayonnaise with Miracle Whip again.”
“You’re hired,” said the Mongol and drew his hands away.
The knuckles left a taste of Kentucky bluegrass on 6Pack’s lips.
TWO: WIRED TO SHOP
He was at the Grocery Boutique when his shopping cart’s guidance system failed. Narrowly averting disaster, he switched to manual and swerved past an oncoming cart. Heart pounding, he looked up apologetically at the other driver. That was when he saw her.
A peach recomb-polyester scarf enshrouded permed and frosted curls. From platform heels of rich Corinthian vinyl, tiny blood-colored toenails oozed forth like delicate ornaments from a cake decorator. Rhinestone-rimmed videospex hid her eyes; her face was as sterile and empty as the corridors of General Hospital that held her attention.
“Pardon me,” 6Pack murmured.
“Chet, you moron, she just went in the MRI room with Emilio!”
He couldn’t help gazing into her cart as he passed.
Sara Lee Weightless Cake
Betty Crocker Astro-Cookies
He remembered sitting in a Parisian cafe, the tip of his croissant immersed in a demitasse as a pathetic screech made him look up abruptly into a—
Bird’s Eye Frozen Creamed Corn
Instinctively, he shied from the selection, but somehow she sensed him and drifted nearer, like a platinum-blonde manta ray in the aquarium aisle. Her lips parted, gushing warm air that smelled like a stagnant wind coursing from all the demolished bakeries that had ever harbored starving mice. She smiled with green lips. A particle of biftek swayed like an electric eel, trapped between her teeth.
“I’m Polly Pantry,” she said. “Join me for lunch?”
She caught his arm, pressed her mouth to his ear, and tickled the tiny waxen hairs with her tongue as she whispered, “Courtesy of EASA, 6Pack. You can’t refuse.”
THREE: ZERO GEE WHIZ
Out of the ovens of Earth they come tumbling, but in the radar ranges of the orbital kitchens there is no force that can cause a souffle to fall. Jaunts into shallow space for a nulldinner are common as dirt among the filthy rich. Even in his prime, 6Pack had not dined in space. Tonight he would remedy that.
The Pixie Fat line, EASA’s Artificial Conscience Module, sang in 6Pack’s earreceiver as the shuttle pulled into the neat chrome pancreas called Waiter’s Heaven: “Shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy make your eyes light up and your tongue say howdy!”
“I don’t understand why the EASA’s being so nice to me,” 6Pack paravocalized. “First they give me back my sense of taste and now they’re treating me to dinner.”
“Sh,” said the Fatline. “Incoming message from Polly.”
“Hi, 6Pack! Howrya doin’? You eat that sandwich I sent up with you?”
“Sure did, Polly,” he lied. “Tasty.”
Deviled ham on Wonder Bread. He hoped that the shuttle stewardess wouldn’t guess who’d clogged the flight toilet.
“Okay, hon, when you get off that ship you’re to go straight to Chez Cosmique. The reservations are in your name, for a party of six. Tell them that you’re waiting for friends, then go ahead and order. Make them bring it right away.”
“When you are in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong, give a little–”
“Shut up, Fatline, I’m talking! Now, 6Pack, I want you–”
6Pack fiddled with the dial in his nostril and tuned out both of them. A six-course meal for six, he thought. Good thing he hadn’t eaten that sandwich.
“There’s salt in this crearnpuff, ” he complained, after the last course had come and gone and dessert floated before him. The EASA had equipped him with a false gullet that compressed his meals and packed them into tiny blocks of bullion to be deposited one by one in his Swiss bank account. He had complained about everything Chez Cosmique served, while the staff milled about wishing that his supposed companions would come claim some of the food. 6Pack had eaten it all, and now—
“I refuse to pay.”
The cafe grew hushed. Aristocrats with tame prairie dogs and live coelenterates embedded in their coiffeurs turned upon him the incredibly credible eyes of luxury. The nearest, a thin old man wearing nothing but tightly laced black undergarments and a bonnet of jelly leaned close enough to whisper, “Are you a fryboy?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I am in need of a fryboy with exquisite discrimination and a hearty appetite.”
The manager slunk up to 6Pack’s nulltable, where the ruins of his feast lingered, untouched by waiters who had rightly guessed that there would be no gratuity forthcoming. Five cream-puffs floated in the diningspace, bouncing between invisible restraining fields with tiny detonations of powdered sugar at every impact.
“Sir, have you a question about your bill?”
“Yeah, you should be paying me to dispose of this garbage you call food.”
“But–but this is impossible. Perhaps there is something wrong with your tongue. Each item is carefully prepared and tasted by our chef. ”
“He’s a fake. Bring him in so that I can insult him to his face. Then you might make up for your incredible error by giving his job to me. ”
“Now don’t be so hard on the poor guy,” said the Pixie Fatline.
“My dear fellow,” said the lean tycoon at the next table. “I have a position for a private chef. Besides, I own this establishment. You’d be wasted here.”
“That’s our man,” said the Fatline. “Tempura-Hashbraun himself. ”
6Pack removed his seatbelt and drifted toward the aristocrat. “What’s it pay?”
FOUR: THE STAYLITE RUNS
“May I introduce my daughter?” said Tempura-Hashbraun, guiding 6Pack through an entryway. “Lady 3Bean, this is our new fryboy.”
She was both cat and canary, a hybrid of starving piranha and fat guppy, all sharp fangs and soft feathers. But there wasn’t time to ogle her or quiver in dread. The old man led him through the split-levelsatellite to the infokitchen. He had never seen anything like it. Never dreamed that such a thing could be. Imagine an oven designed by the old Dutch masters. Its rails and racks had been forged in the browheat of the oppressed masses, then plunged sizzling into the vast oceans of their driven sweat, while the Ternpura-Hashbrauns climbed their limp ladder of slaves to the stars. The dials blinded him with their intensity until the old man found the rheostat and turned them down.
“6Pack, meet Nutrimancer. Nutrimancer, 6Pack. I hope you do better than my last fryboy.”
“What happened to him?”
Tempura-Hashbraun smiled for the first time, showing that he had replaced his teeth with credit registers.
“Nutrirnancer fired him,” he said. “Thirty seconds under the broiler and he was done to perfection.” He licked his lips.
6Pack slipped his tongue into the jack, checked the pilot light, and hit the ON switch. For an instant he smelled scallions sizzling in butter, the iron tang of an omlette pan,a nd then he was inside.
“Wheeee!” cried the Fatline. “You’re back.”
Ahead of him, a ziggurat rose halfway to infinity, looking like a corporate bar chart. But it was not a savings and loan, nor a humongous tax shelter. It was a wedding cake.
He rushed forward, surpassing the rate of inflation. Tier upon tier leapt into clarity, as an army of menacing custard eclairs streaked past below.
“Watch out!” the Fatline cried. “It’s covered in ICING!”
In the instant before collision, he found his bearings and soared upward. The tiers dropped below, but not before he had read the message written in ICING upon the topmost layer: “YOU’RE DEAD, FRYBOY!”
Now he settled into the evasion routines with which the EASA had equipped him. As soon as a cocktail olive drew close enough, he snagged it by the pimento and followed it back to the foodbanks.
Kaleidoscope of the tongue:
Mint and parsley, vanilla haggis, pecans and hundred year eggs.
As the tastes passed through his mind, he peered into the twisted guts of the infokitchen, sorting through spice racks and rifling iceboxes. He ignored the cross-referenced accounting files that tracked the expense of every meal and ordered supplies when they were low. He ignored the brain of the vast system.
“Go!” sang the Fatline.
Straight for the stomach.
“What are you doing in my kitchen?”
His inquisitor was a rotund chef wearing a white suit and a tall white cap; he held a wooden spoon menacingly cocked. They stood on a wild mountain peak; tennis balls whipped past and the sky was full of steel engravings.
“You’re Nutrimancer,” 6Pack said.
“So what if I am? This kitchen is too small for two. I don’t need a fryboy. I’m self-motivated. What are you?”
Memories of Earth: hot Florida sand burning his kneecaps, his first smorgasbord, popsicles in Cannes, Judy Dixon sucking his tongue till it hurt like hell.
“You have a messy mind,” Nutrimancer announced. “You can’t cook with all that confusion inside you. Let me clean it out for you. ”
6Pack cried out for the Fatline, but he’d been cut off. He gave a little whistle but it didn’t help. Nutrimancer’s laughter sounded like tricycle tires rushing over a sidewalk covered with worms and roaches.
“EASA can’t help you now,” said the chef. “I know they sent you to stop me, but I control the diet of the most powerful man on or off Earth. Soon I will have replaced every cell in his body with nutrients tailored for world domination. And old Tempura-Hashbraun has developed quite an appetite for human flesh. I’m sure he won’t mind if another fryboy ends up under glass with an apple in his mouth.”
Something was rising over the mountains, unseen by the deranged chef, like a pale and enormous yellow moon lofting up through the clouds. Without letting himself follow the arc of its rise, 6Pack calculated the path of its descent. He took a few steps back, drawing the chef into the point of impact.
“It’s no use trying to escape. No one knows where you are. And soon the old man will have disposed of the remains.”
The shadow of the falling sphere began to grow around Nutrimancer’s feet. At the last instant, the chef glanced up and cried, “Aiee! Wintermelon! ”
As the titan fruit smashed upon the peak, flattening the chef, 6Pack leapt from the crag. The sky went black and so did he.
He awoke in a soft bed, an extravagant suite, as Lady 3Bean walked through the door with a breakfast tray in her hands.
“You were wonderful,” she said. “Would you like something to eat?”
6Pack shook his head and regarded the rashers and cantaloupe with distaste.
“Never again,” he said.
(With thanks and apologies to William Gibson)
* * *
“Nutrimancer” copyright 1987 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, August 1987.