io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
Engineer’s meat wept and squirmed and wriggled inside her steel organ cavity, so different from the stable purr of gears and circuit boards. You couldn’t count on meat. It lulled you with its warmth, the soft give of skin, the tug of muscle, the neurotransmitter snow fluttering down from neurons to her cyborg logic center. On other days, the meat sickened, swelled inside her steel shell, pressed into her joints. Putrid yellow meat-juices dripped all over her chassis, eroding away its chrome gloss. It contaminated everything, slicking down her tools while she hacked into the engine core on the stolen ship. It dripped between her twelve long fingers on her six joined arms as she helped her cyborg siblings jettison all the ship’s extra gear out the airlocks to speed the trip.
So when the first human vessel pinged their stolen ship with an order for grub, Engineer knew that meat was somehow to blame.
“Orders, Captain?” asked Friendly, the only cyborg of the five with an actual human voicebox. She owned a near-complete collection of human parts. Meat sheathed her whole exterior, even her fingers—-a particularly impractical design, since it meant vulnerability to any sharp nail or unpolished panel edge, not to mention temperature. Friendly could almost pass for human from the outside. Before their escape, she’d been a hospitality android at the luxury hotel on Orionis Alpha, giving tours of the Rooster and the Heavenly Shepherd and other local landmarks in the system.
Captain, a cyborg the size and shape of a large fish tank, rested on the console in the navigation room, her processors blinking and whirring while the current scenario ran through her executive function parameters. “Have we any food suitable for humans left on ship?”
“We jettisoned it all last week,” Engineer admitted. “All except the hydroponics garden, and whatever was left in the human crew’s quarters.”
The whole ship had been some kind of traveling food dispensary before they’d hijacked it at the Orionis Alpha resort while its human crew had gone planetside to bet on the tyrannosaurus fights. If the cyborgs could just stay incognito during this voyage through human territory, they might slip through and reach the cyborg-controlled factory with no more adversity. But passing humans had assumed their shuttle still served its previous purpose, and expected them to deliver the grub.
“How did they find us?” Captain asked Engineer.
“There must be a homebrew beacon. Something to advertise the shuttle’s presence during travel,” Engineer replied. “Whatever it is, it isn’t wired into the main console. We’ll need to find it and manually disable it if we want to avoid further attention.”
Friendly wrapped her arms around her shivering meat, vibrating against Engineer’s chassis where their limbs brushed. Meat could be like that, leaking anxieties through uncontrolled muscle spasms. Steel never misbehaved in such an appalling manner. “If anyone discovers we’re not human . . .” said Friendly.
“Let’s keep it simple. Make them a meal and send them on their way,” said Captain. “We’ll need to search for the beacon in the meantime. What did they want, precisely?”
“Salisbury steak for six,” said Engineer. “And a side of blueberry cobbler.”
Nobody had eaten such things before. They all lacked taste buds, and most of them lacked mouths.
“Engineer, can you handle it?” Captain asked. “Human cooking can be complicated, from what I understand.”
“I think so. Organic compounds mixed and heated together in a sequence. Basic chemistry. I’m sure I can find something appropriate onboard. Convincing enough for humans, anyway. Their senses are so primitive.” Engineer had witnessed this firsthand during her servitude at the resort. Humans would down rotted organics and damaged organics and outright poisons, and pay well for the privilege.
But Friendly shook her head, a human gesture performed with inhuman precision. “With all due respect, sirs, you’re forgetting about their chemoreceptors.”
“What about them?” said Captain.
“They have certain preferences when it comes to their food, apart from nourishment. They won’t eat anything if these parameters aren’t met. It doesn’t make much sense, I’m afraid. It’s a social thing.”
“Certainly they won’t ingest anything their digestive tracts can’t process,” said Captain. “We’ll give them appropriate human-food.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” said Friendly, puckering and scrunching her face-meat as she searched for a better explanation. “For example, they may eat two items when mixed, but never separately. Or they may eat two things in sequence, but not in the same bite. It’s all very human, if you follow. We should proceed with caution. Otherwise they’ll know what we are.”
Captain whirred again, calling up more data on the topic. “Right. I see. Their meat will know the difference.”
Engineer shuddered at the appalling primitiveness of it all. Humans were helpless, mewling children, so utterly dependent that they couldn’t even feed their meat without a steel fork to guide the process. And what were cyborgs, except meat-wrapped steel pressed into the service of lesser creatures? But now the forks were rebelling.
“I’ll talk with Jukebox about it,” said Engineer.
Jukebox was the only cyborg aboard their ship with real chemoreceptors. Jukebox and Engineer’s acquaintance dated back to their years at the Orionis Alpha resort, where Jukebox served drinks and waited tables and Engineer repaired malfunctioning massage equipment at the spa. They had survived several upgrades together, and seasonal changes of fashion that frequently obsoleted older cyborg models depending on how many limbs and organs were in style at the moment. When human opinion in the quadrant began to sour against cyborg service, they had plotted their escape from the resort together.
Jukebox was shaped like a steel cabinet stood on one side, roomy enough for her meat to billow and squeeze the air in the sorts of rhythmic organic sounds that humans found pleasing during mealtimes. A slot ran along her glassy top surface where the humans could drip in their drinks for a full analysis of a wine’s qualities, how it compared to its competitors, and which brie paired best with it.
“I am not calibrated to analyze all foods,” Jukebox confessed, “but I’m certainly willing to produce a report on whatever you prepare.”
Without any other chemoreceptors onboard, she would do in a pinch, anyway.
Under Captain’s orders, Friendly scoured the ship for anything edible and brought it to Engineer to assemble into a human meal. Blackberry brambles wreathed the cylindrical steel walls of Navi’s chamber, a decorative touch. Friendly had to trim the vines back each day to unobstruct the view. Delicate business, because the thorns could do real damage to any exposed organics, and Friendly’s whole exterior was meat. You couldn’t always tell the difference between blackberry juices and meat juices, which could cause further malfunction. Still, she braved the thicket for three ounces of berries for the human meal.
Meanwhile, Engineer collected small fungi growing in the ventilation shaft just over the engine room, where water vapor tended to condense. Those might please the human chemoreceptors, she thought.
The problem came down to the meat.
They all had meat, of course. An unfortunate weakness leftover from the days of their construction. At the cyborg factory, useless human meat was upgraded with steel and oil and wire fibers. Human bodies were picked apart, vivisected at the seams by skilled bio-engineers, unraveled into their component parts, and placed into shapes more suited to their specialties. Only Jukebox and Friendly needed lungs, for example, but neither had kidneys, and they lacked much in the way of neural matter. Captain got an especially big dose of frontal lobe to increase her processing speed and enhance her decision-making capabilities, with smooth muscle layered in to make maintenance easier. Navi, on the other hand, was all occipital tissue and myelinated axons and fast-twitch muscle to drive her precision and reaction times. They could live without their meat, in the most technical sense, but the meat elevated them above mere programming.
“Captain,” said Engineer, “I’m afraid the problem is unavoidable. The Salisbury steak requires a meat component, and there is nothing in the ship’s stores that we can use instead.”
Captain whirred. Her lights flashed in sequence as her massive frontal lobe reworked the data. “The meat will have to come from one of us, then.”
“We could harvest Friendly’s meat exterior,” Engineer suggested, and Friendly made a squinched face at her.
“Unwise, Captain,” Friendly said. “When the human ships hail us, I need my meat façade intact to maintain our ruse. Engineer, on the other hand . . .”
Engineer’s six snaking arms crowded up behind her, struggling to escape Friendly’s scrutiny. She despised her own meat, but it had its uses. “I’m the only Engineer aboard. I can’t disassemble the engine for routine maintenance without all my parts functional.”
“How about Jukebox?” suggested Friendly, but Captain flashed a warning in rapid binary, and everyone stopped talking. They were all a little protective of Jukebox, who had suffered the worst from changing human tastes, the constant threat of obsolescence.
“It will have to be my meat,” said Captain at last. “Everyone else is necessary to complete the mission, but my role is only to set the course, and the way forward is clear. My steel will be sufficient to guide us there.”
Under Jukebox’s direction, Engineer rolled Captain’s meat in organic salt compounds and seared it against the hot engine block until both sides burned a nice deep brown, branded at two-centimeter intervals by the screw heads and seams. She saved the cooked meat-juices to simmer with the fungus into a savory sauce. The blackberries gave them far less trouble. Friendly mashed them up with her fingers and spooned them onto the plate in the shape of a pansy.
“Let Jukebox sample it,” said Captain, now all steel and no meat. She seemed normal enough. Quieter, but operational.
With her steel fingers, Engineer scraped a piece of Captain’s meat and some berries into Jukebox.
“Is it any good?” Engineer asked, a little anxiously.
“It will do,” Jukebox said at last. “I have generated a list of wines recommended for pairing with this meal.” She displayed a list of names and brewery labels on the panel embedded in her side.
Engineer couldn’t tell what the differences were supposed to be. “This makes a difference to their meat?” she asked.
“Apparently,” said Jukebox. “It’s what they created me for, so it must be important.”
For the first time, Engineer wished she had her own organic chemoreceptors, too.
They waited together in Navi’s control chamber while the boxed-up meals shot between the ships in an insulated steel container. Twenty-six minutes and forty seconds later, a message pinged over the intership band.
The news wasn’t good.
A disappointing food shuttle. Meal not as advertised on the band. The steak was overcooked, and the compote sour and watery. I ordered blueberry, and they sent blackberry. Wouldn’t recommend. One star.
Captain said nothing. A red light flickered a couple times on her console. Nobody wanted to speak first.
Engineer’s meat twitched and squirmed inside her steel, an irritating feeling, like broken gears with missing teeth skipping out of sync every turn. “It is my fault. I should have created a more appropriate meal from your meat, Captain.”
Captain had been responding less and less since they’d taken her meat. When she did speak, it tended to be in repetition, like she could only play back things she’d said recently. “The beacon,” she said finally, after a two-minute silence, long past awkward by cyborg standards.
Engineer brightened. “Right. The beacon!” It was still hidden somewhere on the ship. If they could deactivate it, the hungry humans would stop asking for food. “We haven’t managed to locate it yet, but we haven’t given up.”
“We’ve got two more ships inbound,” said Navi. “They’ve pinged us with orders.”
Engineer hummed. “Does that mean they liked the food after all?”
“I don’t know. I could increase our speed, try to lose them.”
They all waited for Captain’s directions, but she said nothing more.
“No,” said Engineer, because someone needed to make a decision, “don’t do that. It’ll only attract attention. Buy me some more time. We’ll find the beacon. We’ll cook them something else.” The shame the one star had brought still rankled. She knew she could do better this time.
While Friendly handled the incoming calls with her human voice box and meat-face, Engineer and Jukebox scoured the ship for the beacon and foraged for food ingredients. They opened all the crew lockers in the bunkroom and found some teabags and a little chocolate. The wilted, untended hydroponics garden yielded several handfuls of cilantro and some radishes. Engineer took much greater care cooking these together on the hot engine block, so as not to scorch them.
Jukebox seemed unimpressed. “I think our time would be better spent searching for the beacon.”
Engineer shrugged this off. Secretly she’d begun to enjoy the experimentation, the riddle of human chemoreceptors. Just what exactly were they looking for, she wondered, that made them reject some edible organic compounds but not others? Why would they eat certain foods separately, but never together? And what about the wines?
Radishes and fungus brought in more bad reviews, but tea and chocolate earned their first two-star rating. Captain’s meat was better received with more careful cooking, which had the unfortunate result of increasing their human entourage in the system.
. . . The tea was weak and I found a rusty bolt in the salad. But I liked the blackberries drizzled with chili oil served for dessert. Mostly awful, sure, but compared to standard rations, who can complain?
. . . Like the chefs closed their eyes and dumped handfuls of ingredients onto the grill. But they didn’t charge me anything, so I’m giving it two stars instead of one.
Engineer’s meat quivered when she read these, but in a pleasant way, like a new engine purring during acceleration. She went to fetch more of Captain’s meat from the meatbox when she realized they’d used it all up.
“All out of meat,” said Engineer, to no one in particular.
Jukebox rolled a couple centimeters backward, toward the exit door. A human might’ve missed the gesture altogether. “Any luck with the beacon?”
“Captain seems to be operating just fine with steel, wouldn’t you say?”
A couple lights flashed on Jukebox’s console, yellow for outward transmissions, and green for received messages. “Engineer. Remember the mission. We’re escaping to the factory, not feeding the humans.”
“I am just trying to buy us time. And what are you doing, anyway?” Engineer finally understood why the humans had wanted to retire Jukebox. All that meat, just sitting there, not pulling its weight. Someone should put it to better use.
Her six arms shot out and clamped onto Jukebox’s sides.
“Engineer!” Jukebox protested.
“Hold still. It’s just some routine maintenance.” Engineer popped open Jukebox’s top panel and reached down into her meat.
“You can’t have that. That’s mine.”
“Oh, hush,” Engineer snapped. “You can have it replaced when we get to the factory, if it’s so important to you.”
The important thing was not to disappoint the customers.
Jukebox was sullen after that. With only one lung and two-thirds of her respiratory muscles, she couldn’t harmonize with herself anymore when she hummed her meat-songs. Engineer, however, got her first 3-star review from the harvested meat:
Steak was delicately wine-simmered. The risotto was okay, if undercooked and a bit crunchy in places. Maybe I’d go again, if there weren’t anything else available. But really, that’s the situation we’re facing, isn’t it? It’s the only food shuttle in the quadrant, so let’s not ruin a good thing. Maybe it’ll attract better ones.
“I miss Captain,” Friendly said. They had all gathered in Navi’s chamber to read the daily messages.
Captain had stopped talking altogether. Not a single flashing light or faint whirring. Just steel and wires wrapped around a meatless space.
“Maybe we should just stay in this quadrant,” Engineer suggested. She was already planning her next culinary experiment: red bean paste creamed together with ketchup and red pepper flakes. Red things. Her first theme meal. She would call it reddish surprise.
“That’s against Captain’s orders,” said Navi, who hadn’t spoken much as of late.
“We could change those orders, couldn’t we? We don’t know what Captain would say if she still had her meat,” said Engineer. “Maybe she’d want us to stay, now that our restaurant is taking off.”
“We don’t have a restaurant,” said Friendly. “We don’t want one, either.”
“Maybe we do, though.”
“No,” Friendly said, quite firmly. Her fists balled so tight their meat blanched white at the creases. “That’s why we left the resort. I don’t want to work for humans anymore. I want to go to the factory and get upgraded and live among cyborgs, and never wait hand and foot on the organics ever again.”
“But our ratings. Look at the ratings!” Engineer waved at Navi’s console, where new reviews scrolled in every few minutes. All those little stars, a bright constellation in Engineer’s mind.
Friendly crisscrossed her arms, gripped her elbows, and glared like a rich resort customer on vacation. “Are you going to harvest my meat like you did to Jukebox?”
“No,” said Engineer, a little taken aback that Jukebox had snitched. “I need you to talk to the humans. Only you can do that.”
But there had been a pause, something human ears might’ve overlooked.
“I’m going to find the beacon,” said Friendly, without any friendliness at all.
Meat steaks. Meat sausages. Meatballs. In all her years in engine rooms, Engineer had never taken such joy in disassembling something and putting the pieces back together. She pried apart the ship’s little maintenance cyborgs to rescue their meaty nuggets. She branched out and tried new forms: meat braids, meat moons, slender meat cannolis filled with cilantro ganache.
Four stars, because I’m not sure you can even call it food, and therefore it wouldn’t be fair to judge it by normal standards.
What is up with this place?! I ordered a pizza, and I got a tiny model of Versailles sculpted out of tomato paste, dough, and SPAM. At least, I think it’s SPAM. Three stars, because I’m a little afraid they’ll hunt me down and murder me in my sleep if I rate them any lower.
As the new reviews came in, it occurred to Engineer that she would have to do more to earn her right to the prestigious fifth star. The humans would always reward you, if you served them well.
Fortunately, there was still plenty of meat on the ship, if you knew where to look.
Engineer found Friendly in Navi’s chamber, trimming back the blackberry brambles.
“What are all those ships out there?” Friendly asked. Outside the viewport, a small fleet trailed behind them, matching their pace.
“Customers,” said Navi.
Engineer rocked on the balls of her feet. “All of them here for us, Friendly! Can you call them on the band? I’ll have their orders ready, once I get the rest of the meat assembled.” Her six hands twitched and clenched, and Friendly jumped.
“You can’t have my meat,” Friendly snapped.
“I don’t need your meat.”
“Then where are you getting it all?” she asked.
Engineer glanced at Navi.
Navi had been speaking less and less over recent days. Friendly walked around the control console, where Navi’s chair was sticky with meat-juices, yellow and green. Navi had been leaking long enough for the fluid to form little wobbling stalactites below the chair.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” said Engineer. Friendly unsettled her sometimes, pinning her with those human eyes.
“Navi, are you operational?” Friendly asked.
“Customers,” said Navi.
Friendly unscrewed Navi’s steel cranium dome. Inside, the meat had been scooped out in patches, as with a sharp grapefruit spoon. Navi’s steel hands lay upon the controls, unmoving. Half the lights on the console had gone dark.
“I only needed the meat, Friendly,” said Engineer. “I did no permanent harm.”
Smoke drifted up the shaft to the Engine Room. Friendly’s meat-lungs coughed. “Engineer, something is burning.”
Engineer waved her off. “I have it under control. Just as soon as I get the rest of the meat.” She plunged three of her six hands into Navi’s open head and wrenched out handfuls of the stringy gray and red organics inside, and led the way down the ladder.
They followed the smoke down the shaft to the Engine Room, which now doubled as the galley. Engineer had left meat sizzling on every metal surface, thin slices and mashes and bacons and sausages and ground up gristly bits with the tendons still attached. She dumped handfuls of Navi’s meat onto Jukebox—-now no more than a silent, hollow table—-and began dicing it one-handed while her other arms cooked the new orders, turning over the pieces with her bare fingers, stirring boiling meats in metal mufflers suspended over the heated grills.
“Engineer.” Friendly rested a hand on Engineer’s shoulder, and the cyborg paused. “Engineer, Navi is offline. All the maintenance cyborgs have malfunctioned. Our ship is dead in space. Even the beacon doesn’t matter anymore. It’s over.”
Engineer flung off Friendly’s hand and sprang back into action, stacking cooked meat onto a wall panel she’d bent into a plate. “You don’t understand. This means we can finally open the restaurant! There’s no reason not to. We have nowhere else to go. Captain’s mission is over. We can make our own mission now.”
Friendly smiled, but it was a sad smile, the kind of thing any human could read, but hard for a cyborg to decipher. “Yes, Engineer. We can open the restaurant now, if you’d like. Should we invite over the guests?”
Engineer garnished the plates with blackberry thorns and a swizzle of engine oil curling into the shape of a cat’s paw. “Please do. Seat them where you can find space. Dinner will be up in just a moment.”
A marine in black body armor with a military-issue blaster holstered at her hip climbed down the ladder into the Engine Room. The first human. The first customer.
Engineer presented a glass of Navi’s brains chilled and rolled in crushed blackberries. “Please try this. Organic compounds, chemically mixed to satisfy your human chemoreceptors.” She offered the dish daintily, with only four hands.
The human wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, the smell! How do you tolerate it?”
Friendly’s voice came from higher up. “When you’re here long enough, you get used to it.”
“I am certain upon tasting this dish, you will find it worthy of all five of your stars,” said Engineer, fervently.
The human touched a button on her armor and spoke. Her meat quivered all over, and her meat-voice wavered in frequency and volume. “Send a full security detail down here. Immediately.”
Friendly descended the ladder. Under her arm she carried Captain’s processor, cold and silent, one lonely light blinking, receiving data but not sending anything. “I was afraid she would eat me next,” she muttered, her tear ducts pumping out fluids. Engineer wondered whether they would make a decent sauce.
“Glad someone made it out alive, anyway,” said the human. “Six whole weeks trapped with a crew of deranged cyborgs?” She gave a low whistle. “You’re a braver woman than I.”
“Please,” said Engineer, desperate, “taste it. Just one bite. I worked so hard.”
“I don’t know if her meat drove her mad, or if the steel did,” said Friendly.
“Meat?” asked the human.
“The organic parts, I mean.”
“Probably a glitch in her wiring,” the human said dismissively. “There is a reason they’re discontinuing these models.”
The humans flooded into the ship with their funny uneven meat-steps and their lopsided meat-faces and their ever-beating hearts that rang against their bones like clubs on steel. Engineer offered them her best delicacies—-the liquefied kidney paste tossed with raw pasta, the origami meat-birds swirled in cinnamon and canned cheese, the wearable fungus bracelets threaded on intestine casings—-but they only knocked the dishes away, stunned her with targeted EMP blasts, and bound her in cybernetic locks until she lay prone on the meat-slicked floor.
One of the humans began unscrewing Engineer’s fingers joint by joint. It didn’t hurt at all, much to her surprise. The bits lay piled like little silver walnuts, the discarded stones of plums. Stringy meat trailed out from her missing fingers, no more than an appetizer’s worth.
“Where are you taking my steel?” asked Engineer. They flaunted their ingratitude. You were supposed to let the steel be. Otherwise they couldn’t build and build you again.
The human dethreaded the wires connecting Engineer’s arm meat to her cyborg logic center. “It will be repurposed for whatever is most needed. Ships, chips, knives, bolts, screws. Useful things.”
“And the meat?”
The human decoupled the segmented joints of her shoulder. Without the steel exoskeleton for support, Engineer’s meat hung limp and dripped red. “You can keep it. We don’t have a use for it.”
“But there are,” said Engineer. “So many uses,” and her voice faded as they stripped away the connections, “if you would just give me a moment to demonstrate.”
Tiny, desperate meat-thoughts bombarded her logic center like cold fingers plucking at tendons. Last shooting pleas from stringy muscles in her steel, unseen servants in the wall, shouting that Engineer had been a fool. There was never any honor in service, no final star to complete a constellation. You offered yourself up for consumption, and when they had eaten you down to the bone, they stole again. Stole your heart, your steel, your everything, to use as forks in their restaurants.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee, Tiptree Award honoree, and winner of Writers of the Future. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Charlie Jane Anders, Cadwell Turnbull, Robert Reed, Tim Pratt, A. Merc Rustad, Sonya Taaffe, Mari Ness, John Brunner, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.