Van Aaron Hughes
Stepping into the cold room, the first thing you notice is the hook.
The chrome-plated steel, so much brighter than the chain it hangs from, appears suspended in mid-air. Its elegant silver curve tapers to a glinting point, aligned to face the door, anxious to snare new flesh.
The frost of Anton's breath reached the hook first. Then Anton heaved the umami hindquarter off the cart, turned his shoulders and half-lifted, half-flung the massive haunch of meat onto the hook.
He peered around the umami to be sure it was secure on the hook, then patted the meat with affection. This hindquarter would be the cold room's most important resident for the next Cironian short month - Anton's father, stuck on Earth customs even after forty years on Rayliss, would have said eight days. It would take that long for the tissues to break down, rendering the meat more tender and savory. He checked the thermostat, holding steady at 274K. Any colder and the meat would blacken; any warmer, it spoiled.
No harm could come to this piece of meat, shipped from a remote area of the Southern Continent and worth more than three Lanasian long months of Anton's salary. The shop carried a full line of meat, but owed nearly all its profits to umami sales and catering.
Anton returned to his chopping block, poking at the small remaining section of the previous umami hindquarter. Gemina's high-pitched voice called from up front, "Enough umami left for the next short month?"
"It'll be tight," Anton answered, leaning through the hutch into the shop front. "Most of these leftovers are only fit for the fat man to use for soap."
Gemina grinned at him. She was the only person who ever smiled at him since his father died, but then, she smiled at everyone. "Guess I'll push the beef."
"Good thing the boss is on vacation," said Anton. The "boss" should have been Anton's partner, if his father hadn't sold out his share of the business and squandered Anton's inheritance.
"Hardly," Gemina responded. "He blinks to the sales reports by lens-net every day when he's gone, and he expects the numbers to hold, no matter we're short-handed. Too bad he's-"
She stopped and turned abruptly, no doubt alerted by lens to a customer.
Anton cut the meat on his block into steaks and roasts with a steady hand. He squinted to activate the magnifying function of his lenses to make a precise cut, but could have managed as easily blindfolded. He had been doing this most of his life. At 26 standard years, Anton would still be a student on Earth, but on a frontier world like Rayliss, you work as soon as you're ready. His father had decided Anton was ready at twelve.
He carried a tray filled with most of the meat back to the cold room, enjoying the umami's distinctive rich aroma, then scrubbed the blood from his hands. The last few pieces were for the display case up front, but they should rest an hour first.
He heard raised voices and peered into the shop front. A customer was shouting, leaning over the counter. Anton registered her tattered clothes and smudged face, her long blonde hair falling from an unkempt braid. But all he really saw were her eyes.
She was not looking at him, probably didn't even notice him, yet the intensity of her gaze jolted him. The purity of her light blue eyes called to mind the ocean of Ciron, which he had seen as a boy, when his parents still lived and his family could afford a lunar vacation. From the eyes' stretched shape, like sideways teardrops, he would have guessed gen-mods, but she didn't dress like a rich girl.
The young woman turned curtly, her braid whipping the air, and stormed from the shop.
"What was that about?" Anton asked.
"Silly bitch," Gemina said. "Thought I'd close down the shop just because she says it's bad to eat meat."
"Gods, one of them?" Anton chuckled. The lens-net had been active with vegetarian nuts lately, but luckily with no impact on business.
Without reaching any conscious decision, he unlaced his apron and headed for the door. "Think I'll take my lunch break."
"Blink me if you're going to be back late," Gemina called after him.
Anton was a large man and the woman nearly as tall, so he could spot her over most of the market district's jostling crowd, picking her way through the line of idling hovercraft unwary enough to turn onto Center Street at mid-day. The pink horizon framed her profile, the crescent of faraway Lanas easily visible over her shoulder even in the bright daylight. As he crossed the street a block behind her, Anton watched her duck into an alley just past a reddish santon tree.
A line of green-cloaked Earth-trad acolytes, chanting and shuffling close to the ground as if mired in old Earth's high gravity, slowed his progress. By the time he reached the cinnamon-scented santon tree, she had vanished.
Anton observed an unusual amount of foot traffic through the alleyway, ending in a black doorway. He followed the flow into a crowded tavern, one he had never noticed. He wondered how he could have worked a block away for six years without ever knowing this place existed. But it was not visible from the street, and who would ever have pointed it out to him?
The blonde woman was nowhere in view. Even squinting to a lens-scan, Anton could find no trace of her. The tavern was upscale for Anton, and he considered slipping out. But he spotted a shabby-looking fellow alone at the bar - a short month's growth on his chin, dark armpit stains on his soiled shirt - and took the seat next to him. The menu was mostly vegetarian, but they also served real umami burgers. Anton was glad for the smell, which would mask the butcher shop odor clinging to him, even if it made him salivate. He worked with umami every day, yet could not afford to eat it often.
The greasy man at the bar ignored two attempts at conversation, then hopped up and left. Anton knew he shouldn't feel surprise. The man might have looked out of place, but in truth it was Anton who didn't belong, here or anywhere. Working long days since he turned twelve, sometimes with no days off for Lanasian months at a time, he had never grown close to anyone but his father, and he had hated his father. There was no place he could feel at home, except maybe the butcher shop.
And I came in here hoping to pick up a gorgeous vegetarian? he thought. What a fool.
Anton studied the placemat before him, decorated with two long curves. A stylized image of a bun, he supposed, but to him they looked more like a giant lipstick mark.
Encouraged by the smell, Anton decided to splurge and ordered an umami burger with cactus cream soda and fries.
"The tots are better."
Anton turned and found himself falling into those blue eyes, even more powerful up close. "Tots?"
She had cleaned her face and unbraided her hair. The golden waves perfectly complemented her long nose and statuesque figure. Some nicer clothes and she could easily wear a fashion model's medallion.
"They're not on the menu, but if you ask they'll make 'em for you." She raised her voice, "Right, Hugo?"
"Only for you, Princess," the bartender shouted back from the far end of the bar, fingering his mug medallion.
"And my friends," she insisted, and turned to Anton. "Are you my friend?"
"Don't know any princesses."
She grinned broadly. "He doesn't know any princesses," she shouted at the barman. She turned back to Anton. "That's why you're my friend."
"OK," Anton said, "then you're my only friend."
She laughed, and Anton dearly wished he had been joking.
She introduced herself as Carolyn, and he was pleased he remembered his own name. Anton usually felt awkward in conversations, but the time passed easily as they ate. She had a mushroom burger, but said nothing at first about Anton's carnivorous choice. He was suddenly glad to live on a frontier world. In more civilized places her lenses would already have identified him as a butcher.
The umami tasted even better than it smelled, and the tots were surprisingly good, a light crust around gold potato blended with cream and sharp cheese. Carolyn showed obvious delight when Anton admitted he liked them, and somehow that segued into a debate on the merits of oolong tea.
A half-hour into the conversation, she circled back to the topic of meat. "Doesn't it bother you to eat that stuff?"
"Human beings are omnivorous," he shrugged. "Meat is a natural part of our diet."
"Animal meat," she answered. "Are the umami animals?"
"They never told anyone differently."
"But they're aliens-"
"Actually, we're the aliens."
"Right!" She nodded vigorously. "So if they don't speak to us, does that mean they don't think, or just that we don't know what they think?" She stared at him, unblinking, and he wished he could lose himself in those eyes. He would leave the butcher shop, never cater another meal, never eat meat again, just blanket himself forever in ocean blue.
But the notion was ridiculous. Without the butcher shop, he was nothing. After a long pause he finally answered, "Umami are as intelligent as your cat."
"Would you eat a cat?"
I'd butcher one if there were a market for it, he thought, but didn't dare say it out loud.
"People see what they expect to see," she continued. "Do you know what 'umami' means?"
Did she think him an idiot? Like a child reciting a school lesson he answered, "A big furry beast, native to the Southern Continent's remote tundra." And, he didn't add, his primary source of income.
"No," she said. "It's one of the basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami."
"Yes," she said, leaning in closer like she was sharing a secret. "It's a meaty, brothy flavor, and the native creatures are rich in it." She leaned back. "From the glutamates."
"What are you, a scientist?"
"Everyone needs to know this. It's important. We named the Rayliss natives after a flavor. We labeled them as food from day one, so that's what we see."
"You don't give people enough credit," he answered. "Maybe they just see things as they are."
She shook her head. "Well, we shouldn't."
He narrowed his eyes in confusion.
"We shouldn't see things as they are," she said. "We should see them as they could be."
Somehow he didn't think they were discussing meat any longer. "Who could you be, Carolyn?"
She fixed her extraordinary gaze on him. "Thank you for asking, Anton. Everyone else only cares who I am."
Whoever she was, Anton knew he wanted to see Carolyn again. He found himself desperately wishing she were not so beautiful, so she might believe the truth, that he wanted to see her again just because he liked talking to her. He wished she were not so beautiful so he could imagine having a chance with her.
Carolyn tried to evade questions about her background, but finally admitted she sometimes dressed a bit better and produced the camera medallion of an actress. She told him of the work, and her intensity struck him, her passion for the idea of creating a new reality in a lens drama.
He dreaded showing her his own medallion, but when she asked, he produced the tiny butcher's hook on the chain under his shirt.
Her eyes went cold, and she flicked the last bite of Anton's meal from his plate. "You don't deserve those tots," she said and stormed away. It was absurd - Hugo the barman laughed like hell - but Anton could only feel shame.
For the next Cironian month, Anton tried to push Carolyn's image from his mind, but he could think of little else.
Nothing helped until the shop got a last-minute call to replace the meat caterer for a fancy party at the Flagler Estate. It was a huge opportunity. The Flaglers were the wealthiest family in the city and all the runners-up would attend the affair. The furious preparations almost managed to occupy Anton's thoughts.
The hindquarter came off the cold room's main hook, and for two days Anton readied his best dish: butterfly-cut umami loin roast rubbed with spices, stuffed with homemade umami sausage, herbs (not too much), and cheeses (not too sharp). He broiled it over a blend of coal, wood, and umami dung in the shop oven. No matter how fancy, the Flagler kitchen would not have the broiling power or air circulation to properly sear the roast. Anton would slice and brown the meat on site. Serve with vegetables cooked in the drippings and homemade cactus pad salsa. He knew the recipe was fine, and no one could complain about the meat. It came from the Flaglers' own distributorship.
The float to the estate with Gemina took twice as long as it should have, the road meandering through countless acres of grape vines. On the flat inland terrain, Anton could only attribute the winding road to a desire to impress visitors with the vastness of the Flaglers' wineries. They might have been in Bordeaux or Napa on Earth, instead of a dusty frontier world, but for a playful pair of green-scaled howlers flying/running with fifty-meter strides alongside the hover van.
With no boss to irritate, it was a pleasant float. Anton did not speak much, but Gemina didn't seem to mind. She drove the first half of the trip, then rested her head on his shoulder during the second leg, while he tried to figure if that meant something. He doubted it. Gemina had worked in the shop nearly as long as Anton and had always been like a sister, the closest he had to family since his father's death.
They passed a huge cast-stone balustrade on the back terrace and found their way to the rear entrance as instructed. Tapestries of deep reds and vivid yellows draped the mansion's hallways. Anton and Gemina crossed through a rear lounge arranged with leather chairs, islands in an immense hardwood sea, facing an elaborately carved fireplace much too far away to warm anyone.
As they set up in the kitchen, the lady of the estate came to meet them. She showed them the "refectory," the vast main dining area surrounded in silk flags and gilt iron grille, the monstrous table lined with heavy oak armchairs, which Anton could not imagine eating in without banging his elbows.
Returning to the kitchen they passed the library, a huge chamber with five-meter shelves and ladders on every wall, around a central reading area with space enough to turn cartwheels.
There Mrs. Flagler introduced them to her husband, who stood by one of the far windows (tinted to protect the antique books) with two tall women flanking him in elaborate evening gowns. Surely in his seventies, he remained handsome and athletic. He introduced Anton and Gemina to his daughters.
One of them was the face Anton had dreamed about for the past short month, her hair in elegantly plaited tresses cascading over bare shoulders. Anton realized her eyes were the least of her genetic modifications. He thought before he didn't have a chance with her. Now he marveled he was even permitted to gaze upon her.
"I, uh, Carolyn and I have met before," Anton stammered.
Carolyn's parents frowned. "Indeed?" said Mr. Flagler. "Carolyn, could this have anything to do with your insistence that we try a new meat caterer?"
"Dad," she answered, in a squeaky voice he hadn't heard in their last conversation. She said nothing more before her mother hurried Anton and Gemina back to the kitchen.
The party was a success. The general caterers, with their fancy hors d'oeuvres and elaborate chocolate fountain, looked down their noses at Anton and Gemina, but that didn't bother Anton. Those caterers created imagery; he was cooking a meal. Gemina did most of the serving, so Anton caught few glimpses of Carolyn, and when he did she would not meet his eyes.
After the meal, Gemina insisted on starting the cleanup while Anton looked around. No doubt Gemina knew he would be looking for Carolyn, but he had no clue how to find her in the vast estate. His lens tracers proved useless in the estate's security net.
But Carolyn managed to find him. Without a word she took his hand and led him up the spiral stairs inside one of the two great towers at the center of the mansion. From there, Anton could see the entire estate, all the immense gardens and secondary buildings, the giant Roman pool crossed by an arched bridge, tennis and julon courts, and a strange section that looked like an outdoor ice rink strewn with rubble, even though it was far too warm an evening for anything to freeze.
"I was wrong to treat you the way I did," said Carolyn. She turned from the view and finally looked straight at him. "At the bar, I saw you as you are, when I should have seen what you could be."
"What could I be?" he asked, but not as a challenge. He really wanted to know.
"You could be a good person. You could care about someone who's different from you."
"You're different from me," he said.
She shook her head. "I mean really different." She pointed at the ice rink. He squinted, and his lenses magnified the view until he spotted two umami on the ice, their sleek white fur colored with a few thin tan stripes. They resembled Earth polar bears in shape, but with flatter, more feline faces.
"Are those alive?"
She nodded. "The estate's greatest luxury, the umami grotto."
"I didn't think there were any in the North, even at the Bainbury Zoo."
"These are the only two, and not many people get to see them," she said.
Photos and artwork Anton had seen always showed umami close to the ground, grazing yellow flatgrass. But these stood motionless on hind legs, snouts three meters in the air, lips pulled back to reveal sharp, yet somehow unthreatening canines.
"Look at how they stare into each other's faces," Carolyn said.
Anton nodded, holding the zoom on his lenses.
"I know they're intelligent," she continued. "We don't understand how they communicate. Smells, maybe? They say some hunters in the South have quit after seeing and smelling strange things on the ice. The umami definitely don't behave like animals. In the Southern Continent, they never even fight when we hunt them, even though they're so big and strong."
"That's intelligent?" he asked.
"I think they don't have emotions like ours. They're pure rationality, or maybe pure empathy. They let us kill them rather than hurting us."
The notion bothered Anton, but he couldn't say why. "How do you know that?"
"How do you know I'm wrong?"
"I don't know," he snapped. "Neither of us knows what the hell we're talking about."
As he spoke, one of the umami slowly turned its head and looked at Anton. It was half a kilometer away, couldn't possibly see him, yet its eyes met his, and they locked together. Just like when Anton first looked into Carolyn's eyes. There was no attraction this time, but the same sense of connection.
As he stared, Anton's vision clouded. Then it cleared, but he wasn't looking at the umami any longer, or the estate.
...a vast underground chamber, swarming with umami, their fur pelts sliding past one another, as they rush to business beyond anton's comprehension
three umami clustered about a slab of ice - no, crystal - with an intricate pattern of soft blue and red blinking lights
a single umami standing on an icy boulder, peering into the night sky, as both moons and then worlds, stars, clusters, galaxies flash past its vision
the underground chamber, the ice ceiling collapsed, countless umami crushed underneath
the umami grotto on the flagler estate, but twisted somehow to appear hostile and forbidding, generating an overwhelming sensation of pressure, of confinement...
Anton was lying on the ground as Carolyn's eyes spun into view, superimposed over the images he had received, still swimming through his mind.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Its name is Jaka," Anton whispered. "I saw its thoughts. They can't stand it here. We have to get them out." Then he pulled Carolyn to him and kissed her. To his pleasant surprise, she kissed him back. "And then I have to find a new job."
She laughed and answered without hesitation, as if he had just asked for an umbrella. "We can get them out of the grotto, but they'd never pass through the estate's perimeter."
Anton's heart raced, from the aftereffects of his connection with Jaka and his kiss with Carolyn, and from the stupidity of what he suddenly planned to do. "I think they'll fit in the hovervan, but we can't involve Gemina. We have to get the van away without her noticing."
"The fuck you will," came Gemina's voice from the stairwell. "We cater a job together, we steal whatever we steal together. Beats hell out of watching you make out with a princess."
"I'm not a princess," Carolyn said. "Just rich."
The Flaglers' staff zoologist only worked daytime, and Carolyn knew how to deactivate the screens around the umami grotto without redlighting central security. The tricky part was getting the umami to leave once she cut the grotto's power. Carolyn boldly walked up to them and tried to shove them off their ice boulders, with as much effect as a howler trying to flip over a hovercar.
But when Anton nervously approached, Jaka looked at him - no images this time, but still a feeling of connection - and then the two umami followed them to the back of the mansion, where Gemina waited at the van's rear door. It was tight, but they managed to squeeze in. Gemina powered up the van.
As Carolyn started for the passenger side, her father's voice cut the night, "Stop!"
He marched up and took Carolyn by the upper arm. But Anton noticed he didn't seem to be trying to hurt her, as his own father would have done. "I see you've been slumming again. Running off now with your new Romeo? Very charming, but most impractical."
"This isn't about that, Father," said Carolyn. "It's about hurting and killing intelligent beings."
"The umami again?" he said. "They're goddamn meat animals, nothing more."
"But they communicate. They sent Anton visions."
"That's just sensory images. Proves nothing."
"But they . . ." she trailed off, and her jaw slowly opened. "You knew," she whispered.
Her father's face tightened. "Look around you. How do you think I built all this? From wine? No one pays real money for Rayliss wine - it's all piss."
"Money, Dad? You slaughter sentient beings for cash?"
As they glared at each other, Anton looked away, studied one of the small marble statues lining the path to the mansion.
"For you, Princess," said her father. He took her hand. "For your mother and your sister. You deserve everything I can give you and more."
Carolyn pulled her hand away. Her words faint but clear, she said, "I don't want it. I won't come back here, ever again."
He stepped closer to her. "Now, listen here-"
Anton brought the statue down on his head. Carolyn gasped. Anton quickly checked that her father's pulse was strong and he wasn't bleeding badly. "Did you think he would let us walk out of here with the umami? We have to move him and go."
As he drove past the estate's security perimeter, Anton glanced at Carolyn and Gemina. Carolyn squeezed his hand. Only once before had Anton's feelings ever been so jumbled. He had somehow gained acceptance from this stunning woman. Even more, he believed he was doing something meaningful, something that might atone for his father. But at the same time, he felt selfish for endangering Gemina, the closest person he had now to family.
Gemina caught him looking at her and shot him her familiar grin. He smiled back, but then felt in his mind a painful sensation of confinement, of being locked in a tiny coffin. The umami would not make it far in the back of the van. He would need to hide them in the shop while he rented a larger truck.
The trick would be getting the umami into the shop without being spotted. Gemina went first to open the back door while the craft idled as close to the doorway as possible. When she signaled, Anton cut the engine and quickly ushered in Carolyn and the two umami.
Gemina hurried up front, trailed by the second umami. Anton realized he didn't know its name.
"Now what?" Carolyn asked.
Anton paced the length of his butcher block. "Now we gather some provisions, and I get a bigger truck to get these things out of the city."
Carolyn shook her head, ticking his mistakes on her hand. "The umami are not things. If you rent a truck under your name, or mine or hers, they'll find us within a couple hours. And it's too warm on this continent for the umami to survive anyway."
"Well, shit, what do you suggest?"
"Publicity," Carolyn said. "We can't keep them safe by hiding. We keep them safe by letting everyone know they're here. And by getting people to understand the umami are intelligent."
"How do we do that? I just saw some pictures; I don't know what they're thinking."
"Talk to them more," she said, "and you'll start to understand each other."
"You think? Maybe we can't understand each other."
"Or maybe from that one connection they already understand us better than ever."
Anton looked at Jaka, contemplating another attempt at communicating, but the umami was looking the other way, studying the shop. Suddenly Anton realized just where they had brought the umami. The creature stared at Anton's block, its gaze lingering on the long row of blades: meat saw, skinning knife, boning knife, carving knife, paring knife, cleaver, pounder, larding needle.
Jaka turned and again looked deep into Anton's eyes, but this time Anton wasn't receiving images. He saw his own memories flash past:
...a hundred umami forequarters and hindquarters dangling in turn in the cold room
anton's father standing over him, belt in hand
anton furiously/nonchalantly chopping umami flanks, blood spattering his block and his arms
anton's father gasping in a puddle of morning light on the floor, holding his chest, lenses useless in the bathroom, as anton watched but did nothing to help
anton arranging umami steaks in the display case...
A loud thump from up front broke the connection. Carolyn raced forward, Anton behind her. When they reached the shopfront, the second umami seized Carolyn by the arms. But Carolyn didn't struggle, just stared at the floor.
Gemina's body lay crumpled behind the counter, blood pooling around her. Before Anton could react, Jaka lifted him from behind, turning him in its arms like a rag doll.
"What are you...?" Anton blinked an emergency message, but before he could transmit, Jaka poked a flexible claw at his right eye and withdrew his lens. The other umami did the same to Carolyn. This cut off access to the lens-net, but with strangely delicate gestures.
Bunching its paw into a hairy fist, Jaka tore away Anton's shirt, exposing the hook medallion dangling over his chest. The creature closed its paw over it, and the muscles of its arm rippled. It pulled its fist away, revealing an unrecognizable pewter lump.
Jaka's paw moved to Anton's chin and pushed his head against the wall. It kept pushing, snapping Anton's jaws together from the outside, trapping the edge of Anton's tongue between his teeth. Blood filled his mouth.
Carolyn stared in silence, her lips in a frozen "O." Anton hoped the umami would not harm her, but even if they didn't he doubted she would ever recover from the shock of what was happening.
She had seen the umami as they could be, not as they are.
Jaka released Anton's jaw, lifted him like a groom carrying a bride across a threshold. Anton struggled to no effect, a child in the great creature's arms.
Anton looked again into its steel blue eyes, trying to project an image, to make it understand that he hadn't known, to communicate his regret:
...anton tearing off his butcher's apron, throwing it in the trash, leaving the shop for the last time
anton shrinking as he walked, his face twisting into a grotesque sneer...
The second image came from Jaka. Anton thought he understood. Anton was not what the umami had believed.
He turned away as Jaka slowly carried him around to the back. Anton thought it was taking him to the butcher block and the rack of knives, but it passed those and proceeded to the cold room. Anton's breath caught as he looked inside.
The first thing you notice is the hook.