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Bite

K.C. Shaw writes fantasy, SF, and YA fiction, and also hosts the nonfiction podcast Strange Animals as Kate Shaw. Her fantasy adventure novel, Skytown, and a related short story collection, Skyway, are both available right now! Find links to both and to her other short fiction at kcshaw.net.
The line was already out the door when Claire's group arrived at Bite. "We should have made reservations," Gary said.
"They don't do reservations," Jeannie said. Jeannie and Dave were Claire's sister and brother-in-law. They'd been offplanet once before but Dave still looked queasy from the bumpy trip to the surface in a crowded tender.
"Should we come back tomorrow?" Gary asked. He hated waiting in line.
"No, this is part of the fun!"
Claire looked around as they waited. Bite was a small restaurant on the edge of a touristy area, with native buildings visible between human ones. They looked a lot like termite mounds etched with angular carvings. Above the roofline, the twilight sky twinkled with strange constellations. The air smelled of cooking and sun-scorched mud, although the ground was actually spongy with moisture.
The line moved fast and it was only half an hour before they were inside the dimly lit restaurant. The square tables were crowded close together and the same angular carvings found on most buildings decorated the walls. It was just foreign enough to be exciting, not so foreign that Claire felt out of place.
Bite only offered one food item, but the server handed them drink menus.
The server was a native: tall and insectile with ten oddly jointed limbs of various lengths. His pebbled skin was ochre yellow and his elongated head had crevices for features. He wore a tag on what Claire assumed was his chest that said "Welcome to BITE! You can call me John."
"Do you need time to decide?" John asked. He spoke in a nasal, high-pitched voice that made him sound like a parrot, but with no discernable accent.
Claire tried not to stare at him. She hadn't expected the natives to look so unsettling up close. After they'd stumbled through drink orders and John left, Gary said quietly, "Monkey brain says nope." They all tittered uneasily.
John brought their drinks. "Your lassit will be out in just a minute." Then he gave a quick whistle that sounded slightly like "lassit."
You had to have names for stuff that everyone could pronounce, Claire reflected, even humans with clumsy mammal mouths. She sipped her margarita.
John returned with a platter, which he set in the middle of the table with what seemed to be his two main arms, while passing napkins around with another pair of arms at the same time. "It is traditional to eat with your hands, but if you prefer utensils I can bring them. The bowls are to wash your fingers."
Claire stared at the watermelon-sized mass on the platter, four small finger bowls around its edges. It looked like frog spawn, including black specks in the center of each gooey egg-like bubble in the mass. But unlike frog spawn, it pulsed rhythmically.
"This is food?" Gary said incredulously. Dave looked away, his face suddenly pale.
"It's supposed to be really good," Jeannie said.
John said, "It is a delicacy, I promise. Perhaps one of you is brave and can show the others?"
Jeannie looked at Claire, who suddenly felt they were kids again--Claire once again having to fix some mess her little sister had made.
"I'll try it," she said.
She reached one hand out but hesitated, unable to make herself touch the stuff. "It's not alive, is it? I mean, I'm not going to hurt something, am I?"
"No, of course not," John said. "It is not a living being." He waved one of his shorter arms as though trying to find the right word. "Like a plant after cutting."
"Weirdest salad ever," Jeannie said shakily.
Gary muttered, "Do you know how much this stuff costs? Even before the conversion rate and taxes, it's more than our monthly grocery budget."
"Fine, fine," Claire snapped. She did not want Gary talking about money. This was a vacation.
She plucked a single round piece from the mass and, before she could hesitate again, popped it in her mouth.
It melted on her tongue like meringue, releasing a flavor both salty and lightly sweet, but somehow also deliciously savory. Even the texture turned pleasant. It melted into what felt like a flake of pie crust.
"Guys, this is amazing!" she said. She scooped a little handful up with her cupped fingers. This time the flavor was stronger, the texture even flakier.
One by one the others tried a piece and shared her enthusiasm. "It's too bad it looks so disgusting," Gary said around a mouthful, "but wow!"
"Worth the wait," Dave said.
"You're not queasy anymore?" Jeannie asked him.
He shook his head. "Nope. I feel fine now."
None of them noticed John return to the kitchen, and they wouldn't have recognized that the angle of his arms signaled his pleasure. It was always fun to watch tourists take their first bite of lassit.
He hadn't tried it, of course. It was a waste product from the creatures bioengineered to build homes, not even useful as fertilizer. Before the humans came, it had been routinely dumped in the river until environmental groups complained.
Back at the table, Claire paused between bites. "You know what my first thought was when I saw this?" she said. "That it was a joke. You know, make the tourist believe they're eating a delicacy when it's just a squid eyeball or something."
The others laughed. Gary said, "I wonder if we could get some to take back with us."
He didn't mention how expensive that would be. Claire smiled.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021
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