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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Nine Dishes on the Cusp of Love

Fran Wilde is an author and technology consultant. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and (upcoming) Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her interview series Cooking the Books--about the intersection between food and fiction--has appeared at Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and on her website, franwilde.wordpress.com. Fran's first novel is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan in 2015. You can find her on Twitter @fran_wilde and Facebook @franwildewrites. "Nine Dishes on the Cusp of Love" is her third appearance at Daily Science Fiction. (The other two are "Everlasting" and "Everyone Loves a Hero.")
Her: passing through to new horizons, slumming my station's crowded bar. Me: just off a line-cook shift, eating my free meal. Her teeth flashed, her eyes gleamed, her dress sparkled. I smelled of fish and spice. "Each desired other," she said later. The bar's glass and mirrors wove a net of her and caught me, young and fresh.
After years in bright layers of space and fame, my simple tastes bit her wants. Wouldn't let go. We downed shots of 100-year Scotch, her tab; split a bottle of lunar ice wine, mine. Then a quiet kiss all tongue and rasp and oh god you dazzling thing. She demanded a private table beyond my pay grade. Got it. Ordered salted olives over garlic-lime station krill. Let me taste her tasting it. Fingers. Lips. Each sampled other. Time narrowed to one now.
I left with her. Took only my knives. Didn't pack a bag, didn't tell my Chef.
On her ship, the famous one from her second broadcast: Discovery's Bite, she taught me to drown sea ketl in liquor and brine. I watched them gasp strange atmosphere. "The longer they take, the more elegant the dish," she instructed, her finger stroking encouragements on my ear. Discomfort turns sour in the mouth. Experience dulls the tongue. She wanted to watch, not eat. The ketl, large grey eyes and fourteen legs astride meaty insides, thrashed and pulsed their fluorescent skins. "Beautiful," she murmured. Because I loved her by then, I saw beauty there.
When her audience tired of seeing me swallow ketl, her ship slowed and hovered near the next station. I scrambled for inspiration.
Zero-G inverted sweetbreads. Legal, barely, but they made a mess. Who would clean up after?
A nigiri bustier, spliced for ambient sound. "Ambitious, but too vegetarian," she said.
The vat-grown organ sampler? "Trying too hard." A living glass of thousand-year ale? "Had that years ago." A sun-broiled sea-calf mignon?
She pursed her lips and patted my hand. "Don't worry, you'll surprise me one day."
She needed a detox. Her skin was crackling. Found a surgical ranch hidden beneath the ice clouds of a nearby moon. Let me watch as she suffered anti-radical treatments, dermal replacement, gastric resurfacing. Let me see her flirt with the surgeons.
The sacrifices she made to shine. My skin ached in sympathy. I gave in. Let them dislocate my jaw, widen my bite. Tried the live calti shooter she'd heard about, to distract her during recovery. I was desperate to dazzle. Thought it a worthwhile risk. Her gaze locked with mine as my dinner fought against my throat. Eighteen legs tried to throttle me from inside. Her eyes grew hungry, then pleased. My heart; I swooned.
We branched out to noble gases. Sucked spider veins steeped in helium and nitrogen. Chased that with flakes of charcoal so our guts wouldn't explode. New tastes kept her young. Me? I was sick for days.
"Get better, love," she said. Then disappeared--
--but left instructions for a new dish. Two parts myth, one part ancient song. With a twist. Said, "Call for me if you succeed."
I killed two hundred blackbirds before I figured the trick to freezing them; learned how to feed them enough phosphorescent regolith to make them glow, not explode.
When I closed the pie and called her, she was busy.
I ate the whole glowing, cheeping thing myself. Worse, she stuck me with the tab.
No dazzle left, I found another station. Brought my knives to the crowded bar's kitchen. "Cooked for a star," I said.
"Hired," said they. "We'll sell what she ate; or say we do."
The customers loved it. Loved me.
She called; was passing through; would I make the pie again?
I set a table of broken glass, served empty pots, a melted pan. Knew she'd punish me. Wanted her to. A little.
When she wasn't around, I got creative. Showed off at the station bar. Might have taught a young transit officer a recipe of my own. Experience over easy, with gin. Fingers prickling the back of a neck; an exchange of each for other.
My punishment arrived on an inbound flight: a cake, three tiers, made of marzipan and microprocessors. "Eat me," it said. Gods help me. My intestines rumbled with her voice for days.
She was back on the gastronomic prowl, I'd heard. Hungry for new. Visited station bars and darker markets in the depths of long-haul ships. I'd transformed again: celebrity chef, broadcasting from the high-altitude orbital out Jupiter way. My teeth gleamed. My knives shone. Her equal. I had my own ship now. Was dazzling. My fans devoured me with their eyes.
When she came within range, I couldn't stop myself. Took a chance. "I will serve you something new," I told her. "Bring friends." I called in all my favors. She and five guests enhanced olfactory glands--chemoreceptors, pheromones--for the occasion. They took delicate bites of the ship scorpion's soft sides as I blew on its eyes to mesmerize it. It was a great success.
I sold the rights for a fortune. She took me back. Long fingers stroked my neck.
The last meal she requested, I would not refuse. She made knives of her teeth and waited, blindfolded, in my ship's galley. Cameras off. Her star had faded, her audience moved on to other lights. She could no longer scrub time from her lips. I dusted the palm of my hand with lost oceans' salt. Mars. Earth. Europa. Extended it to her. "This, for you," I said. Novelty tempted her; sacrifice too. Tongue touched flesh. Teeth. Pressure built to pain. I reached with my other hand, newly modified, to stroke her ear, her neck. My fingertips burrowed, tasted. We locked together in a forbidden bite until her eyes flickered and faded. She murmered goodbye to her audience, and I kissed her to sleep. Each for other, I whispered. Each for each.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

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