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"Science Fiction" means—to us—everything found in the science fiction section of a bookstore, or at a science fiction convention, or amongst the winners of the Hugo awards given by the World Science Fiction Society. This includes the genres of science fiction (or sci-fi), fantasy, slipstream, alternative history, and even stories with lighter speculative elements. We hope you enjoy the broad range that SF has to offer.

We Want to See You on a Plate

Andrew Kozma's fiction has been published in Escape Pod, Reckoning, Flash Fiction Online, and Analog. His first book of poems, City of Regret (Zone 3 Press, 2007), won the Zone 3 First Book Award, and his second book, Orphanotrophia, will soon be published by Cobalt Press. Since 2002 he's been based in Houston, Texas, endeavoring to use his adopted home in his stories more and more. He works as an editor for Reckoning, teaches at the University of Houston, and works the front desk at the Menil Museum. If you want to support him outside of reading his work in magazines, you can find him on Patreon.

The sun is barely risen, light beginning to soak through a layer of clouds the color of raw onion, and none of us have shadows weighing us down. We stand in front of our mystery box with our utensils in our hands: a hatchet and a long knife. It's a narrow, three-story mystery box, the windows layered over with plywood and the interior smoked with whatever's rising from the chimney.
I sniff the air and smell pine. Adds a delicious tang. Every tree around the mystery box has been cut down as far as the eye can see, even the stumps torn from the ground. This pine must be from a government grove. Reason enough for us to be here.
We're instructed to use local ingredients. Fresh ingredients. To make use of what's around us in the dish, since what grows together, goes together. But when a gift of non-local pine smoke is offered up, you don't toss it aside like a cigarette butt.
There are only eight of us left. You'd think with so few, I'd remember their names better than those of all forty chefs the competition began with, and who have since been sent back home under the earth. But after all I've seen, all we've done, and all we've cooked, I prefer the anonymity. The names of the dead are seared into my brain. Those of the living are like the untested components of a dish I've never made. Besides, with enough scars and skin grafts you're basically a different person.
And if you score the flesh too deeply, the protein will overcook.
Our sixty minutes starts with a gunshot.
I hang back as the others sprint the distance from the mobile kitchen, across the open ground, to the worn and splintery walls of the mystery box. After winning the last mystery box I have nothing to prove, and opening the box is always the most dangerous part.
My competitors lever plywood from a window, the creak of the wood and the whine of the nails being pulled from their homes contrasting with our silence. We are focused. We are serious. We've made it this far. Maybe just barely, and maybe just on luck, I think, as the home chef from Florida steps aside to avoid a knife slicing out from the gap he'd made. His mistake is stepping immediately back into the gap, thinking armored gloves will protect him as he pries the plywood further from its mooring, leaving himself open to a point-blank, double-barrel shotgun blast that nearly tears him in two.
"What a waste!" the craggy-faced judge exclaims.
"Five-second rule!" the steel-eyed judge offers.
But after five seconds, the home chef is still down, and though one or two of my fellow contestants eye what is now a viable protein, it's obvious the meat is ruined. Fear can sour the taste, and the protein is still moaning. The running crew club the protein into silence, gag it, then drag it back to the mobile kitchen where the grinders are already revving up.
I run to the mystery box now that the box has been opened, curving around to the opposite side of the house. The initial opening of the box spooks the ingredients, disrupting all their plans for survival. There's less danger now, though the danger is more unpredictable. No food wants to be eaten.
Treat your ingredients with respect and it'll show in the dish.
The other home chefs are dismantling the defenses on the other side of the house. When the judges were first teaching us how to cook, they compared the process to handling a king crab or a Maine lobster where if you don't watch yourself, you'll get claw ripping into your skin. Respect the ingredients. That's what Florida forgot.
The noise from the front hides my own efforts to open up the back of the mystery box, carefully slipping the nails from the plywood covering a bathroom window, just large enough for me to slip through. I respect the protein to fight for its life. I respect the protein to embody its fear. I respect the protein to act like a cat backed into a corner, claws out, mouth open, ready to dig its way through me if it comes to that.
It won't come to that. I'm a home chef from Louisiana. No food sees me coming unless I want it to, which I do sometimes because that taste of fear can be the perfect seasoning in the right recipe. I'm not cruel. It's all done for a purpose.
The mystery box is a maze of screams and cries by the time I slip through the bathroom window, my sides scraped raw from a broken frame, the edge badly ground smooth. Through cracks in the door, I see somebody pushed down and someone else jumping on top of them, arms pumping up and down the way one tenderizes tough meat.
When cooking, there's no time for hesitation. A meal can be destroyed by a second too long in the oven, too much mixing, a bad cut, too little or too much seasoning.
I fling the door open, slamming it into both bodies. Young protein is flung against the wall. The home chef on the floor has bled out, is becoming meat. I grab the protein's wrists and pull them up so their feet barely touch the ground. They look about ten. Bones still hidden with a thin layer of fat. No obvious sores, bruises, or growths. Skin white as unrendered fat.
This protein is a chef's dream.
I look into the protein's eyes. So dark they are almost black. Like pepper. Like bark on BBQ.
The home chef on the floor was stabbed expertly. Clean butchery, face still gloried in surprise. An instinctive talent.
I push the young boy into the bathroom, throw his knife after him.
"Run," I hiss. "You'll be a great chef one day."
I kneel and begin preparing my meal.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 28th, 2021

Author Comments

.Over the past year and a half, I binged a lot of reality TV cooking competition shows, including all of the available seasons of MasterChef and MasterChef Junior. "We Want to See You on a Plate" is the result of that overdose, an attempt to take that formulaic model and place it in a new setting where the narrative isn't, and can't be, simply who makes the best dish.

- Andrew Kozma
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