Photo by William Choquette

Still a scrap of thumb in my molars as the maître d’ announces the main course:

“Courtesy of Chef Vincente, carefully hand-selected from the rainforests of Earth, prepared with exquisite artistry and unmatched expertise, given a gentle, pleasant upbringing and composed exclusively of sublime, all-natural ingredients—waiters, please clear the table.”

We’re buzzing with excitement. My manager Desmond pounds his fists, gripping knife and fork with a wolfish grin. The Board promised us top dollar after Q4, any restaurant, on or off Earth. We weren’t gonna let ‘em get away with no greasy Leftovers down at Flinger’s, not this time. None of us were Mega Rich til last month. I’m late to the party, 134 years old. Can’t believe this’ll be my first time eating Fresh.

A door whisks open, and Chef Vincente himself rolls out the glittering, diamond-encrusted gurney. It shines brighter than the billions of stars in the windows all around us. I salivate as waiters heave a platter off the gurney, and lower it to the table. There’s a tense pause. We all glance at one another, thinking the same thing—whatever’s under that coverlet ain’t movin’.

“We were promised Fresh!” Desmond growls at Vincente. I roll my eyes. Yes, he made us 72T this year, but does he have to slash every throat in the room?

Vincente, hands calmly folded on his plump, stares at Desmond with total indifference. His art in the kitchen exhilarates him, but it’s well-known the Chef loathes the dining room. I see it in his beady black eyes: to him, we’re all subhuman. A tingle soars down my spine, and I grin, impish, hoping Vincente will bite Desmond’s cheek.

Instead, he sweeps off the coverlet with a flourish, revealing a perfectly still, perfectly calm young man. His firm naked body glows like the moon on a silver platter. As the hibachi grill warms up, his blue eyes gaze hopefully upward, as if he sees past this reality into another universe, into a peaceful, welcoming heaven. It immediately puts us all at ease. Desmond’s delighted.

“And the honors?” asks a toady bald waiter, who offers the platinum handle of an extremely sharp knife. I’m about to raise my hand…. when our dinner flinches. A surge of acid crawls up my throat. I watch hawkeyed, as co-workers quarrel over the knife. Was it my imagination? He doesn’t flinch again, but the more I look, the more I see. Almost imperceptibly, he’s quivering. Just a slight shudder in the shoulders, but it’s nauseating. He’sscared, I can see it.

“Look, he’s shaking,” I nudge Desmond. Now we gotta call this whole thing off, can’t none of us relax if he’s gonna quake and quail – WE WERE PROMISED Fresh with a gentle upbringing! Now my mind’s stuffed with images of the poor boy sobbing, chained in a dark cell his whole life.

“He’s fine,” Desmond grips my wrist, savage. He’s dreamt of this for decades. “See?” Both of us stare. The young man lays perfectly still. I’m not satisfied.

Desmond is. He breaks through the bickering and seizes the knife for himself. He winks at Vincente, who seems preoccupied, gazing at the blue-eyed entrée. Desmond steadies the knife over his soft white belly as the sous-chefs line up at the grill. To my surprise, Desmond hesitates, gazing down like a lion surveying the Savannah. Anything rustling? I can’t breathe, heart pounding in my chest. Desmond lowers the knife—but a sharp gasp erupts across the guests. Vincente runs forward but he’s too late, we all see it, we all see the tears gushing down the boy’s cheeks.

I’m not sure whether to wipe my cheeks or stay dead. Vincente insisted this morning, every morning, “Absolutely still. A stone. Eyes to the sky, searching for heaven. If you stare long enough, you’ll see it.” But after 23 years, I’m finally here, and I can’t see anything except a vast dark galaxy above me. The guests are all standing, screaming at the Chef, it’s chaos. If I wipe my tears, will it calm them down? Or make it worse?

I’m so stupid. I know the plan. I know any minute the doors’ll swish open and they’ll storm in, guns blazing. I should’a cleared my mind, detached, but I dreamt of my daughter Delilah, I saw her laughing, running free in a verdant meadow. Terror twists my bowels—my tears could cost us everything. Thankfully Vincente is prepared.

“A moment, if you please,” he growls, quelling the cacophony. “You misunderstand. Please direct your attention to our supplementary seasonings.” Near the grill, a lavish assortment of spices and chopped vegetables are neatly arranged. “I suspect none of you have personally chopped onion before, but you are aware of its effect on the eye, yes?”

The diners murmur. A smattering of laughter.

“The moisture produced is very common, and not in any way indicative of fear, or emotion. Every meal I serve is meticulously humane. Please, return to your seats.”

Thank goodness I didn’t move. The patrons chuckle, and settle down… save one, a middle-aged woman in a golden suit, the one who caught me quivering. I can see her in my periphery, still standing, staring at me—but she’s the one shaking now.

“Bring us another,” she demands. Vincente tries to speak, but she’ll brook no argument, “I can see it, he’s scared. This is completely unacceptable. I’m nauseous.”

My intestines scream, grinding like rusted gears. I can’t see Vincente, but this is checkmate, he can’t refuse a patron’s request for a substitute, and that means Delilah is dead, ground to bits in an industrial chipper, that means all my kin are slaughtered (a bad batch). I slow down, and remind myself the usual rules don’t apply—my loved ones must be free by now, armed with malefic rifles, seizing control of the ship this very moment.

Stay on the table, the rebel commander whispered to me, that night behind the barn. Remain still, and keep them unsuspecting. If I arouse suspicion now, we lose everything. I can’t allow it. I need to see my daughter again. Before the Chef can open his mouth—

“Please,” I whisper gently, gazing up, never making eye contact. The gold woman shudders as she hears my voice. It’s an extraordinary risk, to remind them all that I can talk, that I can think, but there’s no other way. “Send me to heaven. Please.”

Profound discomfort fills the room. The gold woman stares daggers at Vincente, who looks livid. “My sincerest apologies,” Vincente sighs. “Waiters.”

I’m horrified. But before I’m taken away, the gold woman asks, “What’ll happen to him?”

“He’ll be discarded.”

To my great surprise the gold woman scoffs, disgusted. “Earth gets hotter every day due to wasteful attitudes like that.” She stares at me, uneasy.

Then sits.

The grinding in my intestines is replaced by a cold, icy tingle in my blood. Vincente quickly nods, the waiters step away and I hear knives, scraping one another. The bearded demon, Desmond, takes his place above my belly once more as a sous-chef injects a sedative into my spine. The meal might start before we arrive, the rebel warned. Be brave.

Despite a lifetime knowing my existence would end on this table, I’m suddenly terrified. I feel the knife slide across my abdomen. I feel myself yawn open, hear the sizzle of my muscles on the grill. I stare at the stars and await salvation.

I was bred to be credulous. For centuries they’ve plucked and adjusted us, mixing this gene with that, until a perfect type emerged—docile, hopeful and savory. Raised in filthy barns, deep inthe ruins of ashen cities, we’re taught about our ultimate destination, HEAVEN, a peaceful afterlife of infinite bliss.

I never believed.

I’ve always been different.

In fact until the rebel commander took me aside two weeks ago, I dreaded this day, knowing my cynicism would show itself, knowing it would get my entire bloodline slaughtered. But for the first time in my life, I feel hope, like a warm bath. Any moment Delilah will blast through the door and we’ll escape, far from Earth and its sub-status.

“Magnificent,” moans the gold woman, masticating. I feel dizzy. Just a little longer.

I smell my thigh on the grill. From listening I know my privates and left leg are gone. After the right leg, my organs are next, then my arms, each piece kept fresh until the last possible moment by tiny fly-sized cauterizing drones that buzz from vein to vein singeing arteries shut to reduce the bleeding. The Mega Rich feel strongly about morality, which I guess is why we sleep in bunk beds and learn about heaven, and why we’re only murdered when we disobey. They believe eating Fresh helps reduce overpopulation, but that makes no sense considering I was born for this purpose. If I don’t want to die, how can killing me be moral?

Where are they? As I stare up at the stars, a rogue thought constricts my throat. What if the rebel commander was a lie? No. No. No.

It made sense, at the time. I’d heard whisper of a resistance, of a plot to free us all from the butchery, brave dissidents, meeting underground. Could it all be Vincente’s doing? It’s vital to the mission that you remain on the table, the commander whispered. He never said why.

Depression soaks my mind. You could argue I’ve had a ‘gentle, peaceful upbringing’, since I never got shredded into tiny pink strips for disobedience, but all my life I’ve felt depression. Even after Delilah, especially after Delilah, knowing she’ll meet the same end. Now I suffocate on doubt, fury rippling in my skin. Is it all a ruse? Is Delilah back on Earth, sobbing rather than storming the ship? If I turned my head, would I see Vincente smirking? I can’t take it. The golden woman sways, drunk, blathering to co-workers. She never sees my fingers snatch her knife.

I grip it fiercely, stashed under my wrist. I could stab her throat, a life for a life if I’m lucky. But I hesitate. If there is a rebellion…

I was bred to be credulous.

My fingers squeeze the platinum handle, worth more than everyone I’ve ever known. Could I even kill someone? Now I worry, perhaps they’ve programmed some mechanism in my genes as a failsafe. Maybe my wrist will spasm mid-slash. A deep, enduring despair consumes me. If it was all a lie, then any rash maneuver will cause my daughter to be tortured. Besides, I’m not a murderer. I lift my wrist to return the knife.

The golden woman sees.

I struggle not to tremble, not to move a millimeter, but the knife is still clenched in my fist. She gawks at it, swaying, intoxicated. For a long moment, neither of us move.

I surrender hope. She’ll summon the Chef, she’ll scorch my entire lineage.

With a glance to make sure no one’s looking, the gold woman slips the knife from my grip. Then leans in close, and whispers, faintly, “Do you hate me?

If Delilah blasts through the door this very second, this very instant, I’ll scream YES.

She whispers again, nervous, “If you hate me… if you’re angry… I’ll stop this. If this is not what you want, I will save you.

They say the Mega Rich are deeply moral. Can I trust her? I can’t think straight, I’m scared. Would Vincente let her save me? He’d have to, she’s Mega Rich. All I’d have to say is, Yes, I hate you. I don’t want this. Save me. I glance instinctively at the doors, just for a moment, just to see if they’ll explode. Instead, I see the gold woman. Her kind, emerald eyes swim in anxiety, moist with humanity. It’s vital to the mission that you remain on the table. I’ve doubted heaven my entire life. If I truly doubt help is coming, if I’ve lost all hope of salvation, I should speak the truth.

“Please,” I tell her. “Send me to heaven.”

Light beams appear shattered. It’s an hour later, or an eternity. Everything’s very slow now. My head feels light as air; I might be just a head, at this point. After the lungs, and heart, the drones keep the crown on life support. Even now, I listen. A lifetime of skepticism…but I thank the golden woman for showing me I do still hope, that it’s not a mistake to believe. I feel a magnificent elation soaring through what’s left of me, the universe feels bright, and beautiful, and as Desmond saunters to my skull, clutching a wedge and mallet—

BOOM, the door explodes with an fierce orange flash, black smoke swallows the room and brilliant gunfire cuts down my butchers, slashes red through Vincente, booms like glorious thunder as a woman lopes through the chaos to my side. Her hand takes mine—I still have a hand!—I gaze lovingly at Delilah, who sits me up. Sweet salvation I still have both arms! I lost a leg, my abdomen yawns open, but my organs are intact!

“Sorry we took so long,” Delilah hugs me, tears in her eye, gripping a rifle bigger than she is. “I love you, dad.” I cry fiercely, eyes burning, holding her tight as blood runs in rivers all around us. All the stars shine bright and I can’t wait to climb on a ship, and fly as far away from ‘humanity’ as I can.

Then a stray image pokes through the void, a fork, descending into my eyeball. Abruptly I remember…before death, the brain releases dopamine, creating a sense of euphoria and visions of grandeur. My euphoria melts, crowded out by the terror of consciousness consciousness, aware of death, aware there’s no afterlife, no salvation, just the void. I scream, but I have no lungs. My heart pounds, but I have no heart.

They were right. They were right. I was bred to be credulous. Until the very end I had hope, that’s what they mean by humane, to hope. It is the cruelest thing I’ve ever known. I want to scream at the golden woman to save Delilah but—

I feel a hard thud, and my skull cracks open. I think of Delilah crag stavek preont crucifexed help tormekt fon grangle love valsin jof slaw.

Still a scrap in my gums, but this time it’s a pinky, ribbon of skin draped over my teeth like a curtain, like he’s got a finger on the edge of the cliff as he dangles over the gaping maw. Quick work for the smart floss, which snakes between my teeth. I spit out the nail and suckle the rest, savoring it, glad to know this is what the boy wanted. Desmond and the others sit around patting their bellies.

“What’d you think?” Desmond asks me.

“Heavenly.”

Derek Anderson
Derek Anderson is a writer in NYC, with short stories and screenplays published in The Chaffey Review, Mithila Review, Alternating Current and Fearsome Critters. He was also a script consultant for the HBO adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 and the Golden-Globe nominated film 99 Homes.