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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Good Taste

Raised in a tiny Alaskan fishing village, educated at Yale University, Derek Ivan Webster is a writer who appreciates a good contrast. A victim of the freelance lifestyle, Derek relies on his sage wife and their precious/precocious little conspirators to keep him sane. Read more at ivanhope.com/blog.
The connoisseurs milled and mingled from one end of the long, thin room to the other. There were seven different tasting stations set just far enough apart to allow conversation between tables. A nostalgic, almost retrospective feel had been chosen for the night's theme: soft Plutonian cotton covered the walls and examples of the local system's ancient and primitive arts were strategically positioned to take attention from the servers as they poured. Here a rudimentary portrait with smears of actual pigment long dried atop a canvas square; there an open leather binding, its fan of pages each stained with line after line of tiny archaic symbol; even a maze of brass tubing, bent into the most intricate and seemingly unnecessary swirl of what had once been considered a sort of music maker.
The crowd, of course, many of whom found themselves in the backwoods of the Old Earth system for the first time, adored these authentic details. Anything to remind them of their superiority, whether over their past or present peers, was to be considered in the most suitable taste.
Baneford followed his own small clique from one station to the next. At random he'd fallen in with a Hawking Monk and a star broker from somewhere beyond the Pale. They had given their names, at least once before, but Baneford had never had a head for such details. They seemed decent enough. The monk perhaps a little sullen and the broker certainly too interested in the age and history of the regional Sol, but they made for fine, fleeting, and therefore safe company at such an event.
"Ah, a real Chaledean Red," the broker said, letting his nose dip through the opening of the small glass globe he held in one hand, "you can smell the giant's blood in this one. I'd say this batch came from its L phase, at the earliest."
The monk only nodded sagely. He gave the warm glow of his own glass a discerning look before taking a sudden, bird-like sip. His eyes closed, his lips parted and he let out a contented, steaming breath.
Baneford glanced down, reluctantly, at the globe of liquid light he held. There was no avoiding this. He took a dutiful draught, despite having no taste for the stuff. Less wet than slippery, it had the memory of a long dead heat. It took him back to that first moment, as a child, he had run outside without the visor of his helmet pulled down. The whiff of scorched skin thrust into a freeze-unit. It was the taste of dormant pain.
He did his best to hold back the slight grimace the stuff made of his mouth. It would be bad form to insult anyone here, least of all himself, by exposing his limited palate. He was, after all, assumed wealthy enough to have received the invitation. Everyone knew that, given enough money to throw away, any self-respecting humanoid would be glad to sip nectar from the heart of a star.
"So, what do you think?" the broker slurred his query through a smile. He'd been making a steady round of the seven stations and his skin was already full flushed orange from the residual burn of the potent drinks.
"A Chaledean Red. What more can you say?" Baneford returned diplomatically.
The broker slapped him on the back in jovial agreement, but the monk had taken closer notice of him now. He would have to watch himself around the quiet man. Followers of the Hawking way were notoriously dogmatic in their approach to life. They were pleasant enough as long as you agreed with them, but the moment you wandered outside their orthodoxy an enemy was made.
The three men were halfway to the next station when the announcement came. Baneford missed the broadcast. "I always unplug myself from the tele-path whenever I go sun drinking," he'd told the hosts upon his arrival, pleading the staggering headache such a combination would mean for his sensitive nerves. They had shrugged and let him pass; it wasn't unheard of, a purist who didn't like to drink and scrye.
With the servers suddenly working to close up their tables, it didn't take an internal scrye-line to suggest something was afoot. One following another, the guests each turned to face the single, black door at the far end of the room. Soon the main event would commence. The dark room would be opened at last. And its contents? What was kept on the other side of the door made a palate cleanser out of the galaxy's finest sun drip.
A rush of rarified anticipation ran through the crowd. There was little so curious, Baneford thought, as the sight of the galactic elite rubbing their hands together and licking their lips in anticipation. It almost made them seem normal, filled with the same desires and fears as the rest of the masses. Almost.
The ebullient moment passed swiftly, and a low muttering could be heard. Baneford took note of the particular look of disappointment on the broker's face.
"What is it?" Baneford asked carefully. "What's happened?"
"They just announced we'll not be following the traditional order of patronage for the final tasting."
Ah, Baneford nodded, how could these people ever respect a line that didn't allow them to pay their way to the front? His companion's deep-set scowl told him that the star broker must have given a particularly large sum of money to the Institute of Means this year.
Upon receiving the invite Baneford had, of course, made a donation of the stated minimum. There was only one reason for him to attend this event and he had seen no call to strain his endorsers' hard fought finances any more than was necessary.
He felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned around and was only half-surprised to find the monk staring at him.
"No taste for sol blood and he refuses the tele-path." The Monk offered some of his first words of the evening. "Be careful or one might suspect a technophobe."
Baneford flinched at the accusation. It wasn't the first time the word, quite a dangerous one, had been thrown in his direction.
"What did you call me?" he whispered into the monk's forcefully neutral expression. Whatever information the crowd was absorbing over their scrye-line, they took no interest in the quiet confrontation between these two men.
"Your name," the Monk said with the outward calm of a dead planet. His eyes were alive, however, with something akin to a solar flare.
Baneford held onto that stare. It was all he could do. Was this really how it was all going to end? After so much preparation, so much expense. A Hawking Monk was to prove his doom.
"What is your name?" the monk repeated, slowly.
"Baneford Trappelton, the third," he said with every shred of nobility and authority he could manufacture.
The monk smiled thinly. "Well Baneford, it would seem you have been the first invited into the dark room."
The broker's heavy hand slapped his back and jarred him loose of the moment.
"What're you doing just standing there," yelled the broker. "Get to it so the rest of us can have our turn."
The crowd parted, if grudgingly, in front of Baneford as he made his way across the room. Upon his breaking free of the group one of the Hosts stepped out to escort him to the imposing door.
The host, as per custom, was an attractive female. She wore the close fitting red robe and skullcap common to her kind. Baneford didn't think he'd seen her on arriving, but he couldn't be sure. His eye for such details was, after all, notoriously suspect.
"Welcome," she said, before bending forward and whispering, almost conspiratorially, in his ear: "Don't tell anyone, or they'll start ripping out their own psyche piping, but we thought it safest to bring you through first, what with your communication impairment." She gently traced the skin at the top of his spine where his tele-path imprint should have been.
Baneford just nodded and did his best to smile. His pulse was beginning to really race now. Such nerves had been one of the reasons he hadn't been fitted for the signature scrye-line befitting his supposed station. Not even considering the expense, a straight feed between his synoptic mindprint and the Institute's security screener would have disqualified him from the outset. Now, as the blood hammered through his body and his thoughts raced between who he really was and the character he was meant to play tonight, he thanked every angel in the cosmos that his unruly emotions weren't currently being traced across a distant screen.
"Relax," the host winked. "It's not as scary as you might think. We only ask that you follow a few basic precautions upon entry. Simple, really: Do not approach the glass until the door has closed behind you and the lights have been extinguished. Hold out your hand and wait for the glass to come to you. We realize this might be a little uncomfortable for you without the tele-path for guidance. Just remember, whether you can hear us or not, you're in good hands."
She paused to make sure Baneford was taking this all in. He was sure the uncontrollable twitching of his features would give it all away, but whatever small composure his face maintained it was enough to placate her concern.
"Most importantly, take only one small drink from the glass. Swallow it completely before letting the glass go. And lastly, don't try to leave the room until the lights have returned. For your safety, the drink has been rendered photo-dormant. No light means no worries. Rest assured, we utilize more than a dozen of the most sophisticated safety features within our dark room, ensuring that the elixir will remain sleeping throughout its digestion. Simple enough, right?"
One final nod. Then the heavy door's seal released with a hiss. It swung inward on its reinforced hinge and Baneford stepped into the small room.
The space was all clean, sterile metal polished to near luminescence. Baneford glanced about quickly, taking in as many features as he could. The pedestal stood five feet in front of him, at the center of the room. The glass, fluted in the old-world style, was made of the same heavy black substance as the door he'd just stepped through. The whole chamber was likely lined with the stuff, some sort of gravity damper, he assumed.
The mouth of the glass was covered, of course. It would only be exposed, with the precision of mechanical hands, once the room had been returned to the safety of darkness.
Behind him the door finished swinging closed. There was a metallic thud of locks being thrown followed by the hydraulic hiss of impenetrable seals restored.
One, two, three, Baneford counted carefully in his head.
The lights winked off and utter blackness owned the room.
Am I ready for this? he wondered. Once he held out his hand the glass would be brought to him. Then there would be no turning back. The drink. The consequences. The plans that had brought him here extended back more than ten years. So many hopes, so many lives were attached. He had never imagined hesitation could arrive within these final moments of a decade's worth of sacrifice, but there it was.
He forced himself down beneath the legion of concerns he had been sent here to remedy. With a final and carefully controlled certainty Baneford held out his hand.
There came a whirring of motion through darkness. It grew louder as it approached him. The glass was placed, with the expert precision unique to machine-kind, against his open palm. He held the glass with only a slight tremble, raising it upward and toward his open lips.
The dark glass was open, waiting for him to imbibe. Within it lay the teardrop of a black hole. A compressed singularity, capable of producing enough energy to power an entire system through untold star cycles. A drop of liquid that by itself was proof that no humanoid in the galaxy should ever be hungry, should ever want for heat or the necessities of life.
Behind him, on the other side of that heavy door, stood a room full of people hungry to suck down the next oyster on their menu. To such as them the lives of trillions stood pale when compared to partaking in this newest fad.
Sol-Eaters, the hungry masses called them from the bottom of the gutter planets they could not escape: Old Earth, Luna, Mars, the oldest and least cared for habitations in the galaxy. They had so little of what mattered: money, resources, influence, power. But what small bit they had was scrimped and saved. A dollar here, a pound there, sprinkle in a few yen and deutschmarks. Gold and silver, spent metals that the worlds had long ago moved past. All ancient currencies, worthless and beneath the interest of the well off, who dealt exclusively in sol blood and dark matter. "As worthless as a penny," the ancient Earthlings might have said. But when, in ten years time, a trillion, trillion pennies had been accumulated it began to amount to something. Enough to manufacture the identity of Baneford Trappelton III. Enough to ensure an invite to the most elite star tasting event the galaxy had ever known.
Baneford, as he answered to now, his other name mere dust beneath a memory, held the black fire to his lips and took a drink. The man closed his eyes and savored the deep, dark taste of creation. And what lay beyond.
The broker was the first to greet him as he stepped back through the heavy door. The whole room watched this man with envy, a sensation to which many of them were unaccustomed.
"How'd it taste?" the broker pleaded. "I have to know."
The monk watched him through narrowing eyes.
"Come on, tell us," shouted someone else from the audience. "It's the least you can do, being allowed to go first."
The man who answered to the name Baneford looked across the room. He couldn't find her, the host that had escorted him to the door. That was good. She was a small detail, and he usually didn't have a mind for such, but this time was different. She'd been nice to him, and there'd been something in her eyes. As if she knew what was about to happen. He imagined she was already safely away from the Institute, halfway to the Old Earth. He imagined it was her story, to tell to the rest of them, the ones not here to witness it first hand.
"What's in his mouth?" the monk said suddenly, the first true emotion registering on his face: fear.
Baneford's smile widened, his mouth brimming with a gift steeply purchased.
"What the hell?" the star broker asked.
The monk lunged for him, but it was too late.
The spray erupted from between his lips in a black cloud of infinite potential. Here, outside of the gravity dampers, exposed to the light radiation that charged the place with a perfect waking welcome, the single teardrop of black hole was restored to life.
There was no pause for reflection, no moment of triumph or tragedy. One instant black spittle flew from a man's mouth. On the back end of that same instant nothing at all remained. No Institute of Means, no fleet of wealth and opulence. All told, the tear in space-time was a relatively small one. Little more than an undone stitch in the fabric of the galaxy. It was just enough to erase an entire class of humanoids from existence, along with their favorite candy store.
If the host escaped, her story was never told. For weeks, the tele-path blared out its sad story of misfortune and tragic loss; no mention was made of a ghost named Baneford or the desperate interests his action represented.
A few chaotic years did follow, as new players vied for power and old politics refused to loose its grip. It amounted, however, to little lasting change. Certainly star mines were outlawed; sol-eating became a punishable offense. But the masses remained on their aging gutter planets. The nouveau-riche discovered a taste for the next unreachable thing that came along. It was as if nothing had taken place.
Except for that one little pockmark in space: a teardrop of singular violence. It was nothing, in the truest sense. An absence of everything it had once been. The dark glass that had spilled; the man that had made his decision; the society that had driven him to it.
Cordoned off and registered as an official site of avoidance, this non space was sure to outlast the humanoids that chose to ignore its warning. It was a single, open hole, and it was filled with the most basic element of creation and destruction: the taste of dormant pain.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 27th, 2012


Good Taste began life as the hiccup that followed a simple thought. The thought: how will the traditional pattern of social and economic disparity carry over into an age of unfettered interstellar expansion? The hiccup: how long could the overlooked masses simmer, left clinging to the crumbling core of an abandoned early terrestrial history? Inner planets become inner cities; old world becomes third-world. What form would the wake-up call take in order to reach a cultural elite focused on mastering the stars? Thus the fall of the sol-eaters….

- Derek Ivan Webster

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