Natural and Artificial Flavorings

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)


“ASP system production has already begun, with systems expected to start appearing in ships and planetside before the end of the year. Pricing has not yet been set, but a spokesperson for Demeter Industries stated that thanks to substantial government support for the project, ASP systems should be within the reach of both restaurateurs and home users.”

A new face replaced the footage of factory production on the vid screen, and Jack sucked in a breath. “Traitor,” he muttered.

“I know we’ll have some detractors for sure in our industry,” the man on screen–who the chyron identified as Oliver Moreau, executive chef of Oceanside–said. “And those who think this sort of technology doesn’t belong outside of space, but I really think this is going to be a remarkable advancement for getting better, healthier food to people everywhere.” He grinned that boyish and crooked smile that had made him famous. “And it doesn’t hurt that it tastes great.”

“See how great it tastes when you’re out of a job, Ollie!” Jack was usually above yelling at the television, usually, but there were special occasions, like sporting events and the destruction of everything he’d spent his life working for.

“You know they can’t hear you when you yell, right?” came Aimee’s voice from behind him and a little to the left. He glanced back to see her putting on the pearl earrings he’d given her for their tenth–and final–anniversary.

“It hasn’t been proven,” he said, glaring back at the news, which had switched to the pretty anchorgirl spinning some human interest story. “Technology can apparently do anything these days, after all.” She rested a hand on the back of his head and he sighed. “I swear I’m not crazy. This thing is bad news.”

“You poor baby,” she said, clucking her tongue a little. “Having to deal with change.”

“I love change. I savor change. I take off my clothes and roll around in change.” To prove his point, he switched the channel, narrowing his eyes when his first few flips landed him on Oliver’s cooking program. He kept flipping. “But this shit, this ASP shit, it’s a game-ender. It’s going to hamstring the whole industry, up and down the whole chain.” Aimee was looking down at him now with one eyebrow arched high; she’d gotten things injected in her forehead to get rid of the wrinkles she got from years of making exactly that expression at his bullshit, but they just kept coming back.

“If it does, it won’t be right away. You’re just looking for something to get upset about.” She smirked and scratched her long nails through the short salt-and-pepper of Jack’s hair. “Look on the bright side, you’ll probably be dead before it puts you out of business.”

“The sooner the better, right?”

“I’ll mourn you deeply before I take all of your stuff, I promise.” Jack snorted a little and she blew him a kiss, before turning away, walking from him with little click-click noises of her heels on the floor.

“You’re dressed up,” Jack said, taking in the view of her from behind. “Going out on business?”

“Date, actually,” Aimee said as she poked through her purse, and then gave him that eyebrow again. “Don’t say anything, yes, it’s still possible.”

Jack held up a hand and turned back to the vid screen, hiding any telling expression on his face. “Don’t look at me, my lips are sealed. Have a nice time, don’t stay out too late, don’t go home with him if he’s not a nice boy.”

“If I didn’t go home with not-nice boys, we never would have gotten anywhere.”

“And then I’d finally have the house to myself,” Jack said, keeping the curve of his grin on the side facing away from her. He could practically hear her roll her eyes before she click-clicked back over to kiss him on the cheek.

“Don’t spend too much time yelling at the news. It’ll be okay, I promise.” She put a hand under his chin and made him look up at her. “You’ve still got writing, I suppose.” Jack shot her a look. “And your food is still good. Just because they can make food come out of the air now doesn’t mean people are going to stop wanting Jack Duchesne’s cooking.” She laughed a little. “At least until they start feeding your cookbooks into the ASPs.”

“I never loved you. Get out of this house.” She pinched him on the chin with her fingertips and clicked her heels away and out the front door, leaving Jack alone with just the sound of a travel show about the amazing sights of the Gemini colony. He shut the screen off.

Jack spent the rest of the night alone in relative silence, savoring the opportunity to eat a fucking steak and drink a bottle of wine by himself without Aimee nattering about the state of his arteries. He kept telling her, the wine canceled out the red meat, no problem. He cut off a piece of the meat and held it on his fork, looking at how the rich, juicy red of the center faded out to the dark, browned, crisp edges. They could keep most of their technology; the science he really cared about was the Mailliard reaction.

Artificial Sustenance Production, that was what they called it. Jack thought it was only right that it shortened down to ASP, since it sounded like fucking poison to him. He was already fairly unpopular in some circles for how he’d loudly opposed the movement to switch to cloned meat, and this just seemed like the next awful step from that. At this rate it would only be a few more years until they told him to take his inevitable food pills and like it, and he’d just rather choke to death than keep going down this path. Meals from nothing, artificial and automated, the only human touch the touch of a few buttons. He’d rather fucking choke.

Jack tried to put it out of mind, getting into bed with the last glass out of the bottle and his tablet to read something that wasn’t about modern advances in anything at all, but alerts for his mail kept coming up, people wanting his opinion on ASP, his media contacts asking for an interview, and other tedious bullshit. He paid attention when he got a message from Aimee–her date must’ve not been too successful if she had time and interest to send him anything–that had an interview with the man behind ASP. Jack hovered over deleting it without looking at it before his highly-battered and much-abused tiny sense of self-preservation gave out and he opened up the video.

“Oh, Christ,” he said as the face of the inventor filled his tablet’s screen. He was just a kid, a cute one, too, with a thin, flushed face and a mess of red hair on his head, probably half Jack’s age if he was lucky. Grumbles about kids these days and fucking prodigies clouded his head until Jack started to feel too ancient to breathe. He sucked it up and hit play on the video.

The interview went through some stuff he’d already heard, like the science of how ASP worked, which was still completely Greek to Jack even in its dumbed-down version. The kid–Grant Martin, the screen said his name was–explained it with enthusiasm, rattling off stuff about molecular reconstruction and quantum entanglement, and it at least sounded convincing, for all that he could have been talking about magic and wizards. Jack’s opinion of technology in general was that as long as it worked, he didn’t care, which was why Aimee gave him such a hard time for being such a testosterone-poisoned asshole who still couldn’t actually fix anything around the house.

“From the beginning, the project was designed for space travel and colonization efforts,” Martin said, his eyes focused just off to the left, like things always were in interviews. “I got the inspiration when, well, my older sister’s been on Gemini colony since I was a teenager, and the main thing she’d always tell us when she’d call home was how much the food, to be blunt, sucked.” He smiled then, bouncing just a little in his seat. God, he was young. “Feeding people going off-world has been a problem since the 20th century, and I just wasn’t satisfied with the solutions that had been found. We’ve been too tethered to Earth and her resources, and from what my sister has told me, food production in the colonies can get tenuous at best. The problems seemed obvious, but it took a while to find the answers.”

The interview’s narration started in on how ASP was the culmination of a nine-year project–so Martin was either older than he looked or enough of a prodigy that Jack wanted to puke a little–while it showed footage of Martin in a lab coat, doing inscrutable things in his lab. Jack reached over to finish off the last of his wine, his mouth watering hard as he swallowed and the tannins dried out his tongue. He was a petty, small man, worrying about the future of his restaurant when this kid had system-wide colonization on his mind. Aimee’d probably had this reaction in mind when she sent him the video.

“It’s funny,” Martin continued, “but it took one of my colleagues pointing it out to me for me to realize what sort of potential ASP has here at home. I kind of just had my head in the stars, I guess. But he was right, the possibilities are endless. Restaurants can let their supply line be handled by ASP and cut down on cost and waste, and home chefs… well, they don’t really have to be chefs at all. ASP will roll out with a very large selection of pre-programmed meals that can both be updated by the user and receive regular updates from Demeter and our partners.” He made a little gesture, a wave of the hand to show how easy it was. “Got a cookbook? Feed it to your ASP system and you’ll be done.”

Jack narrowed his eyes and cut the video short, turning off his tablet. “I should sue,” he said to the darkened screen, and shut off the light so he could properly sulk before bed.

Within three months ASP rolled out for off-planet use, pressing out first to feed the furthest colonies and working its way back in. In four months they were ready for restaurants and Jack had to start grilling the staff of anywhere he went to eat before he put a bite into his mouth. By the holidays they were on sale to the average person, at a low enough price to go into almost every home. Jack had the biggest fight with Aimee they’d had since the divorce when she’d brought one home, and he’d responded by prying open the back end of it, taking out some vital bit of machinery, and smashing it on one of the decorative rocks in their back garden. A man had to draw the line somewhere.

Aimee had been kind enough to forgive him by a month later when Jack got the invite to the party for Oliver Moreau getting a fifth series of his show. Jack had spent a while glaring at the invitation in his inbox, wondering when he’d gotten so old that he couldn’t work up the piss to send a ‘fuck you’ reply to all. Ollie’d always been a little insufferable, a side effect of an excess of fame and success striking him at a young age, but lately the sight of his face was enough to send Jack into a dark cloud of muttering to himself. The traitor was the fucking spokesman for ASP, doing commercials and press for the damn thing everywhere, enough to really start to turn Jack’s favor. Oceanside advertised itself proudly as supplying its ingredients with ASP, and advertised even more heavily how this had let them drop their prices enough that a fine dining experience was now in reach of almost anyone. Jack wondered just how exactly he was planning to fill time on the next series of his stupid show, now that it seemed he wanted cooking to consist of pressing buttons and waiting for the machine to go ‘ding’.

But a party was a party, and Jack had to make an appearance at these things to keep people from forgetting his old-fashioned ass entirely. Aimee’d agreed to be his date after the promise that she only had to spend time with him when there was a line at the open bar, and also after she heard the words “open bar”. She even did that thing with her hair that Jack liked, so maybe the night wouldn’t be such a pain in the ass, after all.

Jack mostly had experience with the kind of parties publishing companies threw when they put out one of his books; those could be a pretty good time, but they had nothing on the kind of party being in real showbiz could get you. Ollie’d booked a band that Jack had actually heard of and didn’t think was shit, there were girls wandering around inexplicably wearing costumes made out of what appeared to be a dozen grape leaves each, and there were so many open bars that there was never a line at any of them, which meant Aimee disappeared right away to go flirt with one of Ollie’s professional soccer player friends. She’d always had a thing for hooligans.

A waiter in a tux came up to him while he was formulating a plan of attack for how to get the most alcohol into his body while avoiding talking to anyone he didn’t like, waving a plate of hors d’oeuvres under his nose. They were balls of deliciously fried something or other, with a drop of pale sauce on each one. “Crab cakes with lemon aioli, sir,” the waiter provided, proffering out napkins with another hand. Jack went for one, and then his hand froze before he touched crab.

“Were these made with ASP?” He fixed the waiter with a look right in the eyes, and the guy just smiled.

“Of course, sir.” Of course, of course; one of the things Ollie’d been so happy to tout was how much a boon ASP could be for the catering industry. Jack dropped his hand and resigned himself to a life of never eating pleasant little things on toothpicks ever again.

“No thanks, then,” Jack said and the waiter dipped his head a little and glided off to offer his unnatural treats to the next group of partiers. Jack sought out a path to the nearest open bar.

“Double Jack Daniel’s, on the rocks,” he said, and after the bartender reached for a glass and filled it with ice, Jack held up a hand. “Wait a minute. Let me see the bottle.” The bartender shrugged and plucked it out from the little army of bottles he had at his disposal and held it out for Jack’s approval. The label looked right and the color looked right. Jack had to assume that after over two hundred years of production, the distillery wouldn’t switch over to more modern means without at least sending out a press release. He had to hope. He nodded to the bartender. “Yeah, that’s good, fill her up.” He stepped away from the bar and took a sip. It tasted right, just right, that warm dark flavor spreading over his tongue and up through his head, warming him all the way down to his core. There was no way a machine would ever get that feeling right. Not a fucking way.

Jack had made his way halfway over to where the band was playing so he could hopefully burn his eardrums out a little when he was waylaid by someone yelling out his name. “Jackie!” It was Ollie, looking a little unnatural in his tux and holding a glass of something clear in his hand. Ollie’d always been a vodka drinker. “Here I wasn’t even sure if you’d show up.”

Jack took a sip of his drink to turn on his smile and then rattled the glass with a jitter of his hand. “You know I’m not going to turn down a party, Ollie.”

Ollie pounded him on the shoulder. He was a little flushed already, but Ollie went red after just smelling the head off a glass of beer, so it was no real indication of how into the party he was already. “I saw Aimee already, and she’s looking good, really good. And, hey, you’re not doing so bad yourself, old man. I heard your last book is doing really well.” It was, that was true, because people never got tired of reading books full of swears and stories about people fucking in walk-in refrigerators.

“Hey, I do all right for myself.” He pounded Ollie back on the shoulder, a little harder. “You’re the one with cause to celebrate, right? Tricked people into liking your ugly face onscreen for five whole years, how’d you manage that?”

“Makeup, dental work, and how goddamn sexy I am with a kitchen knife.” Dental work was true; Ollie’d had fucked up teeth before he got famous.

“Are you even going to be using a knife anymore on the show, though?” Jack mimed pressing some buttons. “Ding ding, the ASP has done it all.”

“Oh, Jackie, are you still on about that?” Jack hadn’t exactly been on about it, not in public. The most he’d ever openly said about the thing was one quote a member of the press had managed to get out of him when he was talking about his book: ‘That thing is bullshit. I’m never touching one.’ Hardly a rant. “I tell you, the things are fucking brilliant. No more emptying out your wallet to get some good jamón ibérico. They talked to me when they were setting the things up, and there’s just a fucking setting for that, right out of the factory. No more hunting down obscure ingredients halfway across the world. It’s just there, and it’s good.”

“So, nothing is special anymore. That’s just great.” Ollie rolled his eyes and took a heavy drink of his vodka.

“Oh, fuck being special, Jackie. Food is just food now. Let someone know something good to eat exists and they can have it. What’s not to like about that?”

Jack took a drink himself, letting the whiskey hang on his tongue for a while before swallowing. He had that small, petty feeling again. “You’re all going to get fucking cancer from eating that shit in ten years. Have fun with that.” He lifted up his drink to Ollie. “Cheers.” He knocked back the rest of his drink and headed for the door. This wasn’t his kind of party anymore. He’d text Aimee to tell her he was getting a cab home; she wouldn’t miss him.

He did stop by one of the open bars and steal a bottle of gin before he left, though, just to prove he still had it.

By the end of springtime Jack saw a dip in his restaurant’s revenue; Aimee said there were a lot of factors that could be to blame, like how he hadn’t changed his menu in ages, but Jack could only blame ASP. Of course, according to Aimee he blamed everything on ASP, like rainstorms or unripe bananas. At his age, he figured, he deserved to have a proper scapegoat.

The world continued to rotate and life went on, as much as it could be considered life now that people were eating unholy machine food, and it was time for the Weir Awards, the yearly rigmarole honoring the best chefs and restaurateurs from around the country. Jack was nominated, but Jack was almost always nominated; he was too much of an old dog to actually win anymore. He didn’t need another award, though, not really, but the ceremony always did have a good dinner attached to it, and the after-party always had a fine amount of the other guys in the business getting drunk, shit-shooting, back-stabbing, and all the good stuff associated with culinary professionals.

He’d asked Aimee to come with him, but she’d said she had a date where she actually might get laid at the end of it, so that was the end of that. He didn’t dwell too long on the fact that his list of potential dates for events pretty much ended at his ex-wife; he decided to savor the experience of going stag. He’d find someone to make rude comments to under his breath.

In previous years he’d gotten nominated for best New York chef; someone had finally figured out that he didn’t actually spend as much time in Market’s kitchen anymore, though, so these days they just gave him the honor of being nominated for best restaurateur, which he supposed he vaguely deserved. He wouldn’t win, not with all the more ambitious youngsters running around, opening three restaurants a year, juggling a dozen knives at once. He just stuck to doing one thing, and he did it well.

What was really satisfying, he thought as he got the waiter to fill up his glass of wine again, was that Oliver hadn’t gotten nominated for shit this year. At least the Weir board still had their heads on straight about what it meant to actually be a chef, and TV shows and ASP were not included in that recipe. Also highly satisfying was how the evening’s menu was full of loving specifications of the regions and specific farms that every ingredient had come from. Not a single blemish of the word ASP in sight. Yeah, they still had their heads on straight, even if they kept nominating him.

He didn’t win, of course, and that was fairly nice, because it meant he didn’t have to get up. The award went to that new kid, Peter Win, who swore during his acceptance speech, so Jack had to approve. Just when the crowd was getting antsy and waiting for the Lifetime Achievement award to get tossed out so they could head into the next room to do the significant and brutal damage to open bars that only professional chefs could do, the host cleared his throat to take the stand.

“Before we finish up, there’s one special award we’d like to give out. This is a new one, but we look forward to awarding it in the years to come.” The host shuffled a little, moving the medal he held from one hand to the other; he’d had as much wine as the rest of them had, no doubt. “One of the best things about this industry is that the people in it are always creating, always changing, always inventing new ways for the world to look at and approach food. Every so often someone arrives who makes a dramatic change that we all have to recognize.” He held out the medal, looking off into the crowd. “So, we’d like to award our special Innovation Award to Grant Martin.”

A low murmur went through the crowd before it gave way to applause, and Jack felt suddenly stone sober, like someone had shoved a brick of ice up his ass. There was that skinny kid with the red hair, coming up to the podium to take his Weir medal, shaking hands with the host until the applause started to die down. He adjusted the microphone and coughed a little before he started to speak.

“First off, I have to say thank you,” he began. “This is an incredible honor, and one I never expected. It’s been easy for me to get a little closed off in the scientific community, but the opinions that really matter to me are those of all of you, you who live for food.” He took a breath, like he was nervous. “I know my invention has been met with a mixed response from the culinary community, and I understand the reasoning of those who are opposed to it. But I just want to say, I never, ever would have been able to create ASP without all of the work that you all have done. People like you, who’ve made a world where food is more than just fuel, where it’s one of life’s greater experiences, where it’s something that can connect us all. ASP is about bringing that, that greater experience, to greater heights and further reaches.” He grasped the medal in his hand. “I’m no chef. I’m just a scientist. But this award lets me feel like I’m one of you for just this moment, and that means more than I can say. Thank you.” With one last little bow of his head, he went back to his seat to more vigorous applause. Jack felt that small, petty feeling niggling at the back of his skull again, but he chased it down with wine.

Jack managed to put the betrayal of the Weir Foundation board behind him at the after-party, helped along by a full hand’s worth of fingers of Irish whiskey. He even got into a good session of shit-talking about Ollie with the Win kid and Anthony Berlucci, who, bless their fat, drunken heads, had his back in the ASP debate, the first people he’d talked to in months who were willing to call bullshit on it.

“I smashed the fucking thing on a rock,” he said, and Tony laughed hard enough to make his face go even redder than usual. Before Jack could go into more detail, this time with perhaps a little pantomime, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Excuse me, Mr. Duchesne?” Jack turned around and there was Grant Martin, taller up close and smiling at him with bright eyes and a glass of white wine in his hand. Jack looked back over his shoulder to see Peter and Tony practically evaporating, they were getting away from this situation so fast.

Jack took a drink. “Can I help you?” The kid had probably overheard at least some of their conversation, and fine, good, Jack wasn’t pussy enough not to say to someone’s face what he’d been whispering behind their back. Mostly.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, but when I heard you were here tonight, I just had to meet you.”

Jack blinked in slow motion. “Excuse me?”

The kid laughed, soft and nervous, and held out his hand. “Sorry, I’m being a jerk. I’m Grant.”

Jack took his hand and shook it, squeezing maybe just a little too tightly. “Oh, I know who you are. Grant Martin, the bane of my existence.”

Grant’s eyes went wide and he looked taken aback, and for a few seconds Jack actually felt bad, but only for a few. “Oh, I, uh.” He pulled his hand back and put it around his glass of wine, holding it with both hands like he was proffering some holy chalice of Chardonnay. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m a really huge fan of yours.”

“You’re what?”

“A fan. I just really admire your work.”

“My work?”

Grant really looked young when he smiled, all boyish and sweet. “I’ve read all your books. Multiple times! Reading Into the Fire is what really got me started thinking about food.”

“I thought it was your sister the colonist,” Jack said, and Grant looked startled.

“Oh, you know about…” He laughed a little. “She’s what got me thinking about food in space. You’re what got me thinking about food.” He rubbed the back of his neck a little, and Jack could see where he’d left nervous fingerprints on his wine glass. “You made it all seem so important and exciting.”

This was getting too surreal. “I’m going to get some fresh air.” Grant seemed to play out every emotion on his face like it was written out in hundred-point font, and right then it was displaying KICKED PUPPY, so Jack sighed. “You can come along, if you want to keep telling me how great I apparently am.”

Grant was back to smiling, full wattage. “Oh, oh, yes! I mean, I don’t want to bother, but I don’t know when I’m going to get a chance like this again, and…” Jack cut him off and waved him out towards the door to the balcony.

The air was warm, with spring just starting to edge into summer. Jack went to the ledge to look down out on the city below while he went through his pockets to find a little packet of hand-rolled cigarettes. He heard a little gasp as he took one out and put it to his lips, and he looked up to find Grant staring with those wide eyes.

“You’re smoking?”

Jack laughed a little and lit his cigarette. “Kid, smoking a cigarette is probably the least illegal thing that’s going to happen here tonight.” He took a drag, savoring the burn. “Anyway, you said you read my books. You shouldn’t be so shocked.”

“Well, I heard you’d… settled down a little.” Jack winced.

“A little, but I’m not dead.” He held out the cigarette to Grant. “Have a try. You’re young and it won’t kill you right away.”

Jack smirked as he saw Grant frozen in place, staring at the burning end of the cigarette, clearly teetering on the precipice of what he felt was an important and life-changing decision. Corrupting the youth just never got old. Grant took a steeling breath and reached out to take the cigarette, bringing it to his lips to take a short puff. Jack was genuinely, sincerely, deeply impressed when the kid didn’t cough… at least, for a little while. He choked into his sleeve as he handed the smoke back to Jack. “It’s… an acquired habit, I guess,” he said when he got his voice back.

“Just part of the exciting and important chef’s life.” Jack flicked ash off the end of it, over the balcony. “You’re seriously a fan?”

Grant’s smile came back then, that eager little expression. “Oh, entirely. I’ve been to Market, oh, a dozen times or so.” He laughed a little, dipping his head. “I saw you there once, but you weren’t cooking, you were just having dinner. I decided I probably shouldn’t interrupt you then, so when I knew I had a chance to talk to you tonight…”

“Hey, of course, jump on the chance.” Jack let smoke roll over his tongue. “I’m pretty glad to get a chance to talk to you.”

Like a goddamned puppy, bright-eyed and wagging his tail. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’ve only been cursing your name for the past year.” Kicked again. “You realize that ASP is going to put everyone here out of business eventually, right?”

“No!” Grant blinked at himself, seemingly startled that he’d been so loud. He cleared his throat a little and continued. “No, Mr. Duchesne, I don’t want it to do anything like that. I think that ASP can be used as a tool by chefs like you, like Oliver Moreau has been doing…”

“Oh, don’t even talk to me about Oliver Moreau. That guy’s nothing more than a sell-out. He’s just happy to get his name on something that can be mass-produced.”

Grant ducked his head a little, but didn’t back down. “That may be true, but he’s actually been using the ASP to use ingredients in new ways. It’s let him have access to a supply of previously unobtainable ingredients, so he’s been able to create new dishes. I’ve had them, they’re really amazing.”

Jack took another drag off of his cigarette and decided he was bored with it. It wasn’t making him feel better. He flicked it off over the balcony, his mouth twitching a little as he saw Grant flinch. “Did you ever have anything he cooked before ASP?”

“What? Um… no, I never had the opportunity.” Jack’s twitching mouth turned into an actual smirk.

“Made it to Market a dozen times, but never got to Oceanside?” Grant blushed at that, bright red spreading through his already flushed cheeks, and Jack had to raise an eyebrow at that. This kid probably never wanted for tail with a cute face like that.

“Well, like I said… I’m a fan of yours. Everything of yours. You were an inspiration…”

Jack waved his hand a little. “Right, right, got you into food. The point I’m making is, you say you’ve had Ollie’s food now, but you never had it before. For all you know you’ve cut the soul right out of it. Cut out everything that makes it important and exciting.”

“No, it isn’t like that at all!” He was loud again, getting the attention of another group of people hanging out on the balcony. He took a breath to steady himself and continued in a lower voice, with his eyes focused in on Jack’s. “One of the first ways I tested ASP was to have it work from your cookbooks. The first recipes it made were the ones you serve in your restaurants. And they were good, they tasted… real.”

Jack narrowed his eyes. “If you can do that, why even bother coming to my fucking restaurant?”

“Well, I… I, I just…” Grant couldn’t meet Jack’s eyes then, and Jack snorted and grabbed his wrist.

“You’re coming with me. I’m going to really enjoy proving you wrong.” He started pulling Grant back inside.

“Where are we going?” He staggered a little at first, but kept up.

“To my restaurant. I’m cooking for you, and you’re eating it, and then you can tell me if it’s anything like what your stupid machine can make.”

Grant was silent for a while as they weaved their way back through the party and out of the hotel’s ballroom. “I’d… be honored, Mr. Duchesne.”

“And, Jesus, just call me Jack. I feel old enough around you without this ‘mister’ bullshit. What are you anyway, twenty-three?”

“I’m twenty-nine.”

“Just a kid.” He let go of Grant’s wrist and opened the door of the first cab he found waiting outside the hotel. He gave Grant a little shove between the shoulders to get him to go inside. “You’ve still got a lot to learn.” When he got in the car after him, Grant was just looking at him, wide-eyed and flushed in the cheeks, with some strange giddy little smile on his face.

“I’m happy to, Jack.”

“Jesus,” Jack said, told the cabbie the address for Market, and settled back into the seat in a cloud of discontent he didn’t fully understand.

The restaurant was closed by the time they got there, with the last of the staff finishing up cleanup. He came in through the front of the house and headed back to the kitchen, Grant in tow, where he ran into Raymond, his sous-chef. He looked startled to see him.

“Jack? Is everything okay?” Jack slapped him on the shoulder.

“It’s fine, Ray. Just got something I need to take care of.” He turned the pat on the shoulder into a little shove, getting him out of the kitchen. “Go ahead and go home.” He still looked a little bewildered, but shortly he had his chef’s jacket off and had cleared out, leaving the kitchen to him and Grant, who looked far too excited.

“I’ve always wanted to see the inside of a kitchen like this,” he said, running his fingers along the edge of one of the steel counters. “It’s… bigger than I thought it would be.”

Jack was already plotting out his plan of attack, pulling out pans. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that,” he said, and cast a glance over to see the kid start blushing again. Real cute. Jack headed into the refrigerator to retrieve ingredients, coming out with an apple, a bag of walnuts, some butter, and a certain special something he kept hiding in the back, in a box underneath the lamb.

“What are you going to make?” Grant asked, reaching out to keep the apple from tumbling off the counter when Jack set it down.

“Something your machine wouldn’t have a chance at. Foie gras poëlé aux pommes.” He snatched the apple up and got out a peeler, peeling it quickly in one unbroken spiral. “It’s not on my regular menu. Wouldn’t be in any of the cookbooks.”

Foie gras?” Grant sounded shocked, which gave Jack a little thrill. “Real foie gras? I didn’t think you could even get that anymore. If anyone found out they’d shut you down!”

Jack put the peeled apple on his cutting board and laughed a little. “That’s why it only gets served to special customers who can keep their mouths shut.” He cut the apple in half, quickly coring and slicing it. “And, please, they wouldn’t shut me down. They’d just stick me with a fine. I’d get in worse trouble for my cigarettes.”

Grant looked at him for a while, staring as Jack crushed some walnuts with the flat of his knife, and then he started to smile, something broad and sunny. “You really are kind of amazing, Jack.”

Jack’s knife stilled for a second at that, and then he went back to chopping the nuts. “Thanks.” He cut off a thick slice of the foie gras and set it aside. “Technically you’re pretty amazing, too, I guess, even if you used your powers for evil.” When he switched on the heat under one of his pans, he realized that he was about to cook while wearing a suit. Ah, well, it wasn’t his favorite suit, anyway.

“I didn’t mean to be, um, evil. I just wanted to help people.” Jack melted butter in one of his pans and followed that small, petty feeling in his head to the shelves to grab a bottle of calvados. He spread the butter around and tossed in the apple.

“Yeah, you’re helping people. But you’re hurting people, too.” He didn’t look at the kid, instead focusing on cooking the fruit. “I mean, the more ASP takes off, the more it’s going to affect people down the line. Farmers, manufacturers, shit like that.” He sprinkled the walnuts into the pan and looked over to Grant. He looked startled, like it had never occurred to him before.

“I… didn’t think of that.” He rubbed a hand through his hair, long fingers parting through it. “I swear, I wasn’t thinking at all of how it would affect things here on Earth. I just…” His brow knit and some new fire came into his eyes. “I don’t think it’s going to replace traditional ways. I mean, microwaves have been around forever, and you’re still using fire right now.”

Jack couldn’t help himself and had to punctuate that statement by splashing calvados into the pan, giving it a little shudder until it caught flame. Grant, he was satisfied to see, looked suitably impressed. He’d like to see an ASP do that. “You’re just an optimist, kid. Hell, you’re an idealist. It can’t turn out okay for everyone.” The other pan he had on the flame was searing hot by now, and he dropped the slice of foie gras onto it; he never got tired of the sound of that sizzle.

“Maybe not everyone, you’re right,” Grant admitted, and then was quiet for a while, the only sounds between them the sizzles and bubbles of what Jack was cooking. “But it’s going to turn out okay for you, Jack, I know it.”

Jack started to speak up that it wasn’t just about him, but he shut his mouth again and watched the foie gras sear. It was about him in the end, like it always was. He talked a good game about the chain of supply and all the little people and the public at large missing out on the greater experience of things, but really this was about his fucking ego. If doing something like this suddenly stopped being special, then what did he have to show for his life? He turned the foie gras over, searing the other side, and said nothing for a while as it finished.

“I don’t know,” he said, finally. “Sometimes you can just see your own extinction staring you in the face.” He grabbed a plate and set the cooked foie gras on it, then neatly arranged the softened apples next to it, drizzling the sauce over the whole dish with a spoon. “Here. You eat this and you tell me what the real thing tastes like.” He grabbed a fork and proffered it to Grant.

“I don’t know if I can compare… ASP doesn’t make anything like this.” He took the fork and let it hover uncertainly over the plate.

“That’s exactly the point. Try it and see.” Grant met his eyes for a while, a long look that sparked something in the back of Jack’s brain, and then he went for the plate, taking a neat bite of the apple and foie gras together. Jack held his breath as Grant’s eyes closed and his mouth fell open in a little sigh as he swallowed. That expression hit like a spark in the base of Jack’s spine, a sweet reminder of why he loved doing this, that thrill of making someone feel like that. Maybe it wasn’t entirely about ego.

Grant took another few bites and made a soft sound, that almost sexual moan that the best people liked to make when they ate well. When he opened his eyes they were heavy. “Jack, you’re… completely right. Entirely right.” He brought his fork back to his mouth to get another taste of the thickened calvados and butter. “ASP has nothing on this. It is good, it can be great but… you made this.” He smiled, something warm without that boyish giddiness of before. “You made this for me.”

Jack took the fork from Grant’s hand to take a bite himself, satisfied at the combination of savory richness and tart sweetness. “You’re damn right I did,” he said, and only had enough time to swallow before Grant suddenly was grabbing his tie.

“I’m sorry, I just have to…” Grant mumbled and then he was kissing him, sudden and fierce, holding onto his tie as he sucked on Jack’s lip. Jack had just put his hands instinctively on Grant’s waist when he pulled away, breathing hard and more flushed than ever. “Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

Jack didn’t let go. Hell, he tugged him closer. This was certainly an interesting turn of events. “I’m not… complaining,” he said, and licked his lips, tasting apple. “Are you always this grateful when someone cooks for you?” Grant laughed a little, breathless and sweet.

“Only you.” He lifted a hand to brush his fingers on Jack’s cheek. “I told you, I’m a fan. I have been for a long time.”

“Oh, that kind of fan, why didn’t you just say so.” Jack’s ego was feeling really quite good about now after being told he was right, and what with this added bonus of the attention of someone young and good-looking. That blush of Grant’s would get him laid.

“You wanted to argue, so I didn’t really have the opportunity to bring it up.” He looked down at the half-eaten foie gras. “I’d love to finish what you made for me, but I’d like it even more if you came home with me.”

Jack’s eyebrows went up and he had to laugh. “Damn, kid, you cut right to the chase, don’t you?” He slid his hand around Grant’s back, finding the shallow of his back, so the kid didn’t get discouraged. Oh, Jack had won, he had so won.

“Watching you cook for me was the sexiest thing I’ve ever experienced.” He widened his eyes a little for emphasis. “Ever. So yes, to the chase.”

Jack leaned in to kiss him again, taking that sweet taste out of his mouth a little more. “Got a thing for old men, huh?”

“Definitely,” Grant laughed. “So… yes? Come with me?”

Jack let him go and put a little space between them. He gestured at the plate. “Take one more bite and make that noise again.”

Grant grinned, color high in his cheeks, took up his fork and did as Jack asked, making his moan almost obscene as he swallowed. Yeah, that was the good stuff. It was a shame he was too old to still consider fucking in a walk-in fridge a viable option. Jack grabbed Grant’s wrist again.

“Lead the way.”

The cab ride to Grant’s place was a short one, thankfully; Grant spent half of it quietly vibrating on his half of the seat, and then something in him must have given, because he was over next to Jack, breathing on his neck and licking at his earlobe. Jack had to laugh, because this? This was his kind of luck, this was the cold unfeeling universe paying him a favor.

“And you looked so innocent,” he murmured as Grant caught his earring in his teeth and tugged. Jack literally could not remember the last time anyone had wanted to make out with him in the back of a cab. He’d have to ask Aimee later, when he was doing the inevitable bragging.

Grant let out a puff of air against his ear, a little laugh. “I… don’t usually do this.”

Jack snaked his arm around Grant’s waist, under his jacket, rubbing at the base of his spine. “I’m special, huh?”

“I’ve had a thing for you for a long time, Mr. Duchesne.” Okay, it didn’t make him feel old when he said it like that. “Ever since the first time I saw you on TV. And your books get so sexy…” He trailed off so he could spend the rest of the cab ride sucking on Jack’s neck.

Grant’s place was a little walkup; Jack had figured for something more, since ASP must have made him rich, but maybe the kid just preferred the modest lifestyle. Whatever the reason, Jack got the pleasure of climbing three flights of stairs with an erection, which made him weirdly nostalgic for old hookups he could only half-remember through the all-consuming clouds of age and substance abuse. It put him in a good enough mood to goose Grant as he walked up the stairs in front of him, and the sound he made was very satisfying.

Grant keyed open his door and let Jack into the place; it was small and tidy and Jack didn’t have much time to survey his surroundings before Grant had a handle on his tie again. “Come with me?” he asked, a sweet little smile back on his lips.

“You’ve got me, kid. Take me where you need me.”

Grant closed his eyes and made a little sound, a cousin of the one he’d made while eating. “I really like it when you call me that.”

Jack snorted and put his hands on Grant’s hips as he started to lead him back to what was presumably the bedroom. “Kid? Kiddo? Whippersnapper? You’ve got some weird fetishes.”

Grant laughed as he got him through the doorway and crowded up him against the bedroom wall. “Maybe not the last one.” He got a different hold on Jack’s tie, this time pulling it off as he bent in to kiss him again. It’d been a long time since Jack had had the pleasure of kissing someone taller than him, since he’d enjoyed the feeling of tilting his neck up to get more. Hell, it’d been a long time since he’d had the pleasure of kissing anyone; Aimee’d had a full dance card, but he hadn’t had so much as a shitty dinner date in years. This was a nice change.

Grant had long fingers, and they were quick at getting rid of Jack’s tie, at undoing the buttons on his shirt. He groaned again, that pretty little groan that was even better when Jack could taste it, as he skimmed his hands over Jack’s bared chest. Jack gave him his own taste when Grant’s fingers went south, past his belt to rub his dick through his pants.

“God,” Grant broke out of the kiss to breathe. “Sorry, I have to…” And then he was going down, right onto his knees, and Jack’s hands went into his hair on instinct.

“What are you apologizing for?” Grant looked up at him, lips curved up just a little at the edges, and Jack’s dick twitched hard enough to make him have to catch his breath. He kept that little smirk on his face, so goddamned pleased as he unfastened Jack’s clothes and pulled him out, stroking him a few times with those long fingers. He crushed Grant’s hair in his fingers, bringing him closer. “Jesus, kid…”

Grant closed his eyes and let out a little sigh at that, his mouth falling open to just mouth at the head of Jack’s cock. He took his time just licking, just tasting, tonguing him at the slit hard enough to make Jack shudder. Jack curved his hand around the back of Grant’s head and pulled him closer; the middle of a blowjob was not exactly the time when Jack would suddenly consider starting to get polite.

Grant took the hint and took him in, swallowing his cock in hurried inches. “Fuck,” Jack said in encouragement, and oh did that groan of Grant’s feel good right then. Jack had a not-too-frequently-voiced opinion that men were better at this, that they were always better at this, and Grant was doing nothing to disprove that. His lips were tight and his mouth was wet, wet and hot as he kept taking him in deep with each nod of his head. His tongue slid along the length of Jack’s cock, guiding him right back into his throat, so perfect that Jack had to bite the inside of his lip to just keep from shooting off too fast. Not dignified for a man his age, no matter how long it had been. He got a little more control back and pushed his fingers through Grant’s hair. “Spent a lot of time thinking about this, huh?”

Grant moaned, loud and a little broken, and then pulled off Jack’s dick, and hey, no, that was not the desired result of talking during sex at all, for it to stop. Jack opened his mouth to protest, but then Grant was looking up at him, that pretty flush over his cheeks, his eyes heavy, his mouth red and wet. “Will you fuck me?” he asked, and Jack was suddenly a lot more forgiving. Grant’s mouth curved up at one side. “That’s what I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about.” Jack was very angry at his clothes, at Grant’s clothes, that they were still both wearing so many fucking clothes. He shook out of his jacket and shirt and then it was his turn to go for Grant’s tie.

“Just had to ask, kid,” he said and kissed him, hard and wet as he pulled at his clothing, pulled it off. He could taste himself in Grant’s mouth, bitter and dark, and that was a shot right to the stomach, enough to take higher functions offline and replace them with the powerful need to get inside this fucking kid as soon as possible. He got him half-undressed and pushed him back towards the bed, knocking him back onto it.

Grant was one of those guys who blushed all the way down, red through his chest and even redder at his dick, which stood proud and tall when Jack stripped him out of the rest of his clothes. Jack felt himself grinning as he dealt with his stupid goddamned hindrance-to-fucking pants, enough that his mouth hurt a little by the time he was naked and crawling over Grant’s body, crowding over him. “You’re pretty fucking cute, you know that?” he said against Grant’s throat, and then he was groaning again as Grant’s hand wrapped around his cock, fingers skimming over skin still wet from his mouth.

It was just a brief touch, though, and then Grant was pulling his head up for a kiss. “Stuff’s in the bedside table.”

“Right,” Jack said, regretfully putting a few higher functions back online to get through this part. He hadn’t had sex with a man since before he stopped using drugs, but he still remembered how things were supposed to go. Condom on, dick slicked up, hind brain control restored. He bit at Grant’s collarbone as he rubbed the tip of his dick against Grant’s ass, teasing a little, trying to get him to make noise again. He didn’t disappoint.

“Come on, are you going to make me say please?” Grant squirmed, trying to get on Jack’s dick.

“Yeah, actually, that sounds great.” Grant put his hands at the back of Jack’s neck and drew his head up, meeting his eyes as his legs curled around Jack’s hips.

“Please, Jack,” he said, and yeah, that was definitely enough, that was more than enough. Jack pressed his face into Grant’s neck and growled as he pushed his hips forward, filling him up without waiting, bulling into him until he could hear all the air leave Grant’s lungs.

“You like that?” he said into Grant’s ear before biting at it, and laughed before he added, “Kid?”

Grant’s back arched as he tried to fuck himself down even deeper on Jack’s dick, groaning brokenly before going into a chant of “Please, please please please…”

Jack straightened his back, grabbed Grant around the hips, and gave him what he was asking so nicely for. He fucked Grant hard, hard enough that Grant had to reach a hand above him to keep himself from being driven into the headboard. He wrapped his other hand around his own cock, but Jack growled a little and swatted it away, taking over for him. His dick was long and thin, like the rest of him, and Jack worked it hard, grinning as Grant just got louder and louder. Jack fucked him a few times hard enough to make the headboard thud against the wall. He felt like waking up the neighbors.

Grant didn’t stay still, writhing and fucking back down on Jack with each of his thrusts. Then he went tight, tense through his body, his movement stilling down to just a grind of his hips on Jack’s dick; Jack read the signs and stroked him faster, buried himself deeper. He let go of Grant’s hip and brought his hand up to his mouth, thumbing over his lips and pushing just inside. “C’mon,” he said, and Grant bit down on him once before crying out as he started to come, shooting up across that flushed chest.

“Fuck,” Jack groaned, and his voice broke as Grant’s body went tight, so fucking tight around him. He let go of his dick, got his hands back around his hips and just pounded the kid, pushing his knees up to his chest as he bent over him, breathing him in. He could see him smiling, a blissed-out grin just at the edge of his vision, and then he was over the edge, hips stuttering and then going deep, coming like it was being ripped out of him. “Fuck,” he said again, for emphasis.

His limbs were watery when he finally had his head about him again, working up just enough effort to pull out and find somewhere hopefully appropriate to dispose of the condom. Finished, he fell back mostly on top of Grant, who laughed and curled his arms around him.

“Is this what you had in mind when you talked to me tonight?” he said, mostly into Grant’s neck.

“It was the wild fantasy ending of the conversation, yes.” Grant said, and kissed Jack on top of his head. “Thanks.”

Jack lifted up a hand to give Grant a thumbs up. “Happy to be of service,” he said, and then promptly fell asleep.

The next morning Jack woke up alone in bed, which wasn’t unusual, but the bed smelled like sex, which was. He groaned and stretched and scratched himself and all the other good waking-up routines, and then got up to find his underwear and put it on. He wasn’t doing the morning-after routine in wrinkled suit pants.

He found Grant in the living room, dressed and sitting on his couch with his tablet and a plate of something that had once been food in front of him. He started grinning when he saw Jack, and got up to give him a kiss right away. He tasted like coffee, which was promising.

“Good morning,” he said, scratching the back of Jack’s neck with his fingers. “Well, it’s almost afternoon. You were really out.”

Jack snorted a little and let a hand rest lazily at Grant’s hip. “So I was worn out. Don’t think I’m the one to blame.”

Grant smiled at him warmly as he rubbed him under the chin, scraping his stubble. “I’ll give you a pass. Want some breakfast slash lunch?” he said, and then nodded over to, of course, why would it be anything else, the ASP machine sitting in his otherwise fairly empty kitchen.

Jack squinted at it, then back at Grant. “So, I take it you don’t cook.”

Grant held up his fingers and wiggled them. “I cut my fingers and burn water. ASP has saved me from a life of takeout.” Jack made a face, and Grant sighed. “Come on, it won’t hurt you to try it. I already said you’re right, the real thing is much better.” He gave him a look, wide-eyed and sweet. “Just give it a try.”

Jack had difficulty working up righteous indignation when he’d just woken up. Sometimes a man just had to give in to a pretty face. “Okay, fine. But I’m under no obligation to like it.”

Grant held up his hands and headed to the kitchen. “Of course not, of course not. I’m honored just to have you try it.” He started tapping on the ASP’s interface, bringing up menus. “I’ll even make you something out of one of your own cookbooks. Something nice and simple that it shouldn’t be able to screw up. Mushroom soup?”

Jack made another face. “Oh, I bet it can screw it up. You have to simmer that for an hour to get it right, not just…” He made some vague gesture with his hands to indicate whatever it is the ASP did. Grant just smiled at him.

“No obligation to like it.” He tapped on the screen, hit a big green GO button, and then after a brief whirring sound, reached into the machine to pull out a steaming bowl. It was so disturbing that it made the bowl, too. He retrieved a spoon and handed it over to Jack.

It… smelled right, and that was a little unsettling. The visual product was good, too, a completely accurate copy. Jack took a look at Grant, a look at the bowl, and sighed. The things he did for a pretty face. He skipped the spoon entirely and brought the bowl up to his lips too take a sip.

“Huh,” he said. He took another sip. “Huh.” He looked up at Grant’s expectant face. It wasn’t exact, there was something almost indefinable missing, but it was really almost there, the taste rich and earthy, the texture smooth and warm in his mouth. It just needed a little something, something he felt he could almost fix, but not with just a pinch of salt or a grind of pepper. He wondered, if Grant had the chance to work with a real chef, not some chump like Oliver Moreau, if maybe this thing could do some real work. It could be possible.

“It’s not bad,” he said, and had some more.

Recipe from Natural and Artificial Flavorings

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