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Bologna and Vanilla

Lesley L. Smith has an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction, and her short fiction has been published in various venues. She's an active member of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. You can find her on the web at lesleylsmith.com.

"Your cold shouldn't preclude you going down to the planet, Liam," the Doc said.
Peppermint candy, chocolate milk. I was used to tasting words, or more specifically, meanings.
"The captain's nervous, " he continued. "She's afraid something will mess up first contact." We were orbiting Gliese 581-g and our ship's probe had detected signs of civilization. We were the only humans in the area, so we were tasked with meeting the neighbors.
Major Munch cereal, and scrambled eggs. I didn't react other than a sniffle. The Doc knew I had a cold, but didn't know I also had lexical-gustatory synesthesia. It was weird to experience tastes through my synesthesia when I couldn't taste them the regular way because of my cold.
The captain'd put me on the maybe list, which was crazy since I was the communications/linguistics expert on board. I needed to be on this mission. I'd been waiting my whole life for a chance like this. "What does she think I'm gonna do? Cough on someone? Anything you can do to put in a good word I'd appreciate. Anything."
I liked the flavor of anything. It tasted like banana. It had been a long time since any of us had eaten a real banana. I hadn't disclosed my synthesia when I joined the crew. After being teased about it mercilessly as a kid, I rarely mentioned it.
Getting a recommendation from the Doc was my last chance to get on the mission. I'd tried everything else.
"Okay," he said.
The captain insisted on flying the shuttle down to the surface. "Strap in for final approach."
I tasted corn as I tightened my seat belt. Not bad. Synesthetic associations were constrained by childhood food experiences, which were generally bland or sweet. I'd studied synesthesia back on Earth when I first deduced not everyone experienced communication the way I did.
As we approached the planet, the craft shuddered in the nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere. You couldn't have a civilization without an atmosphere. An atmosphere was necessary for sound waves--not to mention breathing.
The captain landed the shuttle with a soft bump.
"Landing complete." She turned around and flashed us all a big smile. "We're about to make history--the first humans to make contact with an alien race. Everyone check your recorders." She patted the instruments on her belt as she stood.
Peanut butter. "We're ready for anything, ma'am," I said.
She nodded. "Opening external door."
Dry bread. I heard a whoosh as the door opened and the air pressure equalized.
I stood but felt dizzy as the air from another world hit me. I smelled the sharp tang of ozone and sat down. We were going to communicate with extraterrestrials for the first time. It'd be the pinnacle of my career, of my life. As the last of the other crewmembers stepped out, I took a deep breath, stood, and walked to the door.
Outside the bright sun made me squint and produced a sort of halo effect in my peripheral vision. The ozone smell was stronger out here. We stood on the tarmac of some kind of airport. Spaceport? A few square blocky buildings stood in the distance. I surreptitiously wiped my runny nose.
Gradually, my eyes adjusted so I could see actual, real-life aliens in a semi-circle around the crew. They were bipedal, but with two sets of laterally symmetric arms. At first glance they appeared gray but I soon realized they wore drab gray clothing. I quickly approached the front of our group. After some brief remarks by the captain, I was supposed to do a mathematical presentation to establish a common frame of reference.
The captain opened her mouth and I saw an aqua burst of light like a firework appear in the air in front of her, grow and gradually collapse.
She faintly said, "Greetings, friends." The words were difficult to hear. Why?
As she spoke we were treated to another light show: aqua light burst, purple sprinkles.
I got a quick taste of some kind of meat.
The captain said, "We are happy to meet you. We hope our races can work together."
Blue stars, violet fireworks. It was pretty but distracting. Whoever was producing the lights wasn't paying attention to what she was saying.
In the meantime I'd tasted bologna and vanilla--not as bad together as you might think.
The aliens didn't speak in return. The lead creature's mouth moved, but I didn't hear anything.
I did see a red firework, followed by pink firework, an orange firework, and a yellow burst of light. And I tasted bologna and vanilla again.
The captain repeated her spiel.
Aqua light burst, purple sprinkles, blue stars, violet fireworks. Bologna, vanilla.
All the colors and flavors were making me a bit nauseous. I clamped my jaw and tried to understand what was happening.
And then, again I saw red firework, pink firework, orange firework, yellow light burst. Bologna. Vanilla. Weird.
Both sequences had been repeated exactly the same. That was probably significant.
The bright halo in my peripheral vision pulsed. Why would it do that?
I realized there were truck-like vehicles moving to our right. As smoke erupted from one I caught sight of another halo pulse.
Could sounds and colors be connected here?
I stomped down onto the pavement and gold stars erupted.
It was color synesthesia! Somehow the aliens made us experience sounds as colors.
Once we were safely ensconced back inside the shuttle with our own air, the captain said, "That was a disaster. Why didn't they talk?"
I said, "They're communicating via colors!"
"How do you know?" she asked.
"I have lexical-gustatory synesthesia. I taste meanings. I tasted the ideas 'We're happy to meet you,' and 'We hope our races can work together.' several times from both you and the alien."
The captain stared at me. "I'll be damned. It's good you're here."
Finally, my synthesia was good for something.
I sneezed.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 29th, 2014

Author Comments

This story was inspired by Alfred Bester's 1956 novel The Stars My Destination, specifically its synesthesia. My recent writing seems to be strongly influenced by what has gone before, following literary tradition. Bester himself was said to be inspired by William Blake's poem "The Tyger" and Alexandre Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo. For this piece I also tried to come up with a curiosity-inducing title by combining two disparate tastes.

- Lesley L. Smith
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