I awoke as usual, with the animals, restless with hunger, signaling the approaching dawn. I poked my face out and took in a breath of air. It was cold, and clear, and I braced myself for full emergence into it. I pushed back my pack and stepped out onto the smooth stone below. I stretched my body, one quadrant at a time, and was ready for the day. I rolled up my pack and stashed it in the rocks. The animals would hopefully earn their keep by not letting anyone – or anything – take my pack in my absence.
I climbed down the side of the hill to the communication hut. The antennae were already abuzz, exchanging messages with the other huts scattered about the moonscape. I checked the log for any urgent communiques from the overnight. There were the usual data requests and status relays. But today they’d have to wait to get my full attention. Today I had a more important task.
Transport duty is an honor of sorts. Being outside of the electrified perimeter of the communication hut is dangerous, for many reasons. Inside the hut is the only equipment available for contact beyond the perimeters. Outside, exposed to the elements, and the native fauna, without any way to call for help, imminent death is a foregone conclusion. That is, unless you’re in a transport vehicle. Most sectors only have one or two available, so only dignitaries or missionaries are allowed their use. But nearly everyone in every sector craves the day they are asked to operate a vehicle. That means leaving the sector, if only for a brief time, in the hopes that things are different somewhere else. After so many days of sameness, any shift in the scenery is valued.
After reviewing transport vehicle protocol, I’m given the ignition rod and a map. I’ve been tasked with carrying one of our missionaries to a rendezvous point in Sector 46b2. A group of missionaries is taking another hop to the dark side for data mining and negotiations with the native clans. Important work, I’m sure, but I don’t really care. If I can get our missionary to the rendezvous point sooner rather than later, I can make a diversion without anyone really knowing.
For months we’ve been hearing chatter about food in Sector 46b2. We’re all supposed to be surviving on rations, but somehow, someone over there has been making actual food. Not merely fuel for these, our biological machines, but things with flavor and texture and aroma. I’m determined to find out for myself if the rumors are true, and I’d gladly die trying.
I was expeditious in my deliverance of the missionary at the rendezvous point, but not so hurried as to raise any alarm. Once my task was complete, I throttled the engines on the transport vehicle and made my way slowly through the ramshackle buildings gathered beneath the launch pad. Nothing stood out, which was to be expected. Any hint of nonconformity, even in the chaos of this veritable shanty town, would call for a severe clampdown by the authorities. Not necessarily for any kind of meanness, really, but no one wants to risk a convergence of the beasts in their sector. All the more reason I needed to try this food. If it was worth the risk of the beasts, it must be heaven on the moon.
I lowered the lateral visor and leaned my head outside. I was rewarded for my patience then. Barely noticeable, there danced amidst the dust particles and soot, molecules of such an alien, and yet, pleasurable odor, I didn’t quite believe it at first. I brought the vehicle to a stop outside a lean-to of corrugated steel draped with hemp netting. I removed the ignition rod and sat still for a long moment, gathering every piece of data available from my vantage point. The odor became stronger, or more concentrated, really, and a slight murmur emanated from behind the steel. I stepped out of the vehicle and cautiously made my way around what I hoped was an incognito kitchen. As the murmurs grew louder, I considered for a moment that there might be a password or some kind of signal I would need to know to gain entrance. Considering the clandestine nature of such an establishment, the proprietors must be on their guard.
As I stood there contemplating my next move, something shifted in my peripheral view. Through a slit in the corrugation, a glittery eye looked upon me, unmoving. Two long, shaky breaths later and the slit widened to show a toothy grin residing on a round, dirty face. The man wordlessly beckoned for me to come inside, and I did. Once inside, the steel sheeting closed behind me with a rush of air, and immediately I felt transported to another world. I could feel the aromas crawling across my skin, wrapping me with an almost visible envelope of flavor. I followed the round-faced man across the dark room, and even though there was barely any light, I could see the air shifting about us, each wave bringing a new scent to me.
I was overwhelmed, but the cook didn’t seem to mind. I’m sure I wasn’t the first speechless stranger to wander into his shack. A firm but gentle hand pressed upon my shoulder, and I found myself sitting on a bench in front of a smooth and seemingly wooden table. My eyes were finally adjusting to the absence of light when another sensation greeted me. Hot, scented tendrils of steam crawled through the darkness, touching my chin and entering my gaping mouth. My jaw pulsed and saliva filled the cavity. On the table before me was a stack of what I can only describe as food. What else could I call something I had never seen but only heard about from others who also had never seen it?
The round-faced man stood before me and gestured for me to pick up the stack and put it to my mouth. I did just that, unsure of what I might do at any second. But instinct kicked in and my jaw stretched and my quivering lips surrounded the mound of hot substances. As I bit into it, the outer most layers gave way to my teeth easily. These outer layers were dry, yet soft, and did well to hold the inner layers from falling apart in my hands. My teeth continued to penetrate and I felt a resistance to my lower jaw. I reached my tongue to investigate and found what I can only compare to grass in feeling, but in taste. . .
There was a sweetness to the tiny bits of liquid that burst from the grassy stalks. And then my lip burned as the grass gave way to meaty leaves and seeds and even more bursting of liquid. Meanwhile, my upper teeth continued their downward trajectory. They met with resistance as well, but this was harder, not unlike the dried tobacco bits in our ration boxes in texture, but far from them in flavor. My teeth came together in the middle of a thick layer of spongy whiteness. I took the full bite of all layers together in my mouth and mashed them with my teeth. I let the liquids swirl around my tongue and my teeth, the fire that was on my lip, now inside my mouth, was tempered by the white mass surrounded by the crunchy flakes. Each layer was a separate sensation worthy of contemplation, but together they were a study in ecstasy.
My biology took over and I began swallowing the mashed up mass of substances. To fill the void, I took another bite, and another. The fire inside my mouth increased, but I welcomed the pain as it was feeling, true feeling I had never felt in all my days on this moon. I recognized more aspects to the flavors. There was bitterness that was not poison, there was saltiness that was not sweat. My eyes began to water and I paused to take a few gasping breaths. I didn’t want to let go of this pile of food for fear it would be taken from me, but I needed a break from it. The sensations were too much after so many years with none. I set the pile down on the table and wrapped my arms loosely but protectively around it and stared into the darkness. The round-faced cook pressed something cold to the back of my hand. I looked down to see an aluminum tankard filled with a creamy liquid. He motioned for me to drink it. The cool thickness soothed the delicious fire in my mouth. My craving strengthened and I lifted the stack for another round of devouring. I traded off on the cold, creamy liquid and my pile of food until they were both gone. Then I sat, perspiring and exhausted, my belly protruding like a missionary’s. I sighed audibly and the cook stretched his gnarled smile wider.
I was happy and sated and drowsy and unaware of the passage of time or of my surroundings. I soon felt tugging and prodding and was forced to standing, and then pushed out between the slit in the corrugation. Outside, the light was blinding compared to the dimness inside the shack. I stood dumb and confused, trying to commit the memory of my meal into the safest part of my brain for later retrieval. My eyes readjusted, and the euphoria wore off, bringing me back to reality. I looked around for the transport vehicle but forgot where I had left it. I thought it was right outside the little building. I reached down for the ignition rod, and it was gone. No passwords or secret handshakes required, but my little pile of nirvana had a price.