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Marcus Walker's khirach-tel souffle had fallen, and couldn't get up.
But it was trying to.
Writhing, peridot-hued filaments of specially sweetened bariile as active as they were tasty twisted and coiled like a nest of worms on speed as they struggled to re-form the compact yet airy loaf Walker had initially marshaled out of ingredients coughed up by the trio of synchronized synthesizers. Adrift in the center of the spherical preparator, suspended within its energized field and shielded from its harmful effects, he strove to maintain a semblance of recipe. All around him, the aromatic components of the special dessert he had engineered emerged from the synths to steadily merge and meld, freeze or bake. If everything came off as planned, the result ought to be a last course spectacular enough to impress the supervising Sessrimathe program that was serving as his mentor and judge.
Unfortunately, everything was not going as planned.
The radiant shower of rainbow-hued geljees that were supposed to execute an iridescent, chromatic englobement of the souffle were growing impatient. Like bees unable to agree on the location of a hive, they threatened to disperse into individual spheres and shatter themselves against the boundaries of the preparator in a spate of sugary seppuku. Though still coherent, his carefully woven whipped lavender finishing flame, frenetic with edible purple energy, was starting to dance fitfully just beyond his left hand. He could have controlled it better with the cooking wand in his right except that he needed to focus every bit of his attention and newly learned skills on taming the wild souffle itself. As the anchorpiece of the finished dessert, it could not be ignored, lest it descend swiftly into caloric anarchy.
Matters were not made easier by the knowledge that as he fought to control the culinary chaos swirling around him, his every move was being recorded and judged by the Sessrimathe program. If he failed to control the dessert, it would not be a crisis. But he had made so much progress, had come so far in his studies, that finishing the sweet he had designed from scratch had become for him a matter not just of nourishment, but of personal pride.
He had always given his all and had never quit on the football field. He would not quit in the kitchen--even if it was a kitchen the likes of which had never been imagined on Earth. Within it, automatic perceptors might suspend gravity and spot-control temperature, but it still required a sentient supervisor to direct the process. Doing so was a long way from engaging in the mundane machinations of the Chicago Commodities Exchange. But then, he was a long way from Chicago.
Not to mention Earth.
Following his rescue and that of his new friends from their avaricious abductors the Vilenjji, he had found himself untold light-years from home, surrounded and even coddled by the citizens of a highly advanced civilization, exposed to technological wonders any scientist on Earth would have given ten years of life to experience, with ever more promised to come.
No wonder he had speedily grown bored and homesick.
For a while following that rescue, the sophisticated world of their liberators the Sessrimathe had been endlessly fascinating. Months into their new freedom, it merely seemed endless. He came to realize that a good deal of that, and his resultant boredom, was a consequence of his own individual inadequacies. The accuracy of this realization had done nothing to improve his mood.
It seemed as if every one of his companions managed to fare better than the lone human among them. For example, their genial hosts were continually charmed by the contrast between the massive Tuuqalian Braouk's physical power and strength and the delicacy and sensitivity of his poetry and singing. Additionally, the same stentorian recitals of heroic Tuuqalian sagas and rhythmic traditional lamentations that Marc and his friends had begun to find wearisome while they had been imprisoned together aboard the Vilenjji capture vessel proved irresistible to the Sessrimathe. Remarking on this attraction, Sque commented that perhaps their hosts were not so advanced after all.
As for the ever-acerbic K'eremu Sequi'aranaqua'na'senemu, she backed up her interminable boasting with an effortless ability to master an entirely new culture and technology that astonished their hosts. Her companions were less surprised by this achievement. During their time of captivity on board the Vilenjji collecting ship she had demonstrated more than once that her galling claims of intellectual superiority were founded on reality and not empty boasting. There seemed no circumstances, no surroundings, in which she could not, given a modest amount of time in which to make a thorough study of the situation, insinuate herself as if she had been born to them.
As for George, the now casually conversant mutt from the seedy side of the Windy City seemed to have made friends with everyone in their complex. Though the towering, faux-tree living structure was home not only to Sessrimathe but to aliens other than the inhabitants of Seremathenn, it made no difference to George. No matter how outlandish in shape or uncertain of attitude, any independent intelligence was fair game for his probing curiosity. And it was a rare sentient who did not respond favorably to the dog's tail-wagging, soulful-eyed, tongue-lolling queries.
That left Walker, who was neither an intriguingly lumbering aesthete like Braouk, superior adaptive intelligence like Sque, or inherently likeable and manifestly harmless kibbitzer like George. While the four of them argued and debated possible ways and means of attempting to return to their respective homeworlds, what could he possibly do to show them, as well as their polite and courteous hosts the Sessrimathe, that there was something more to him than dead weight?
In Chicago he had been a commodities trader, and a damn good one. Plunged into the superior, sophisticated swirl of a galactic civilization no one had suspected existed, he found to his dismay that here his chosen profession was less than useless. While trade and commerce not only existed but flourished all around him, he did not have a clue how a complete outsider like himself might even begin to participate in its enormously complex and vastly accelerated ebb and flow. Rare was the day when he did not awaken in the quarters that had been assigned to him feeling useless, inadequate, and empty of purpose. If his friends noticed his funk, they were too polite to remark on it. The sensitive Braouk suspected, Marc believed, but the Tuuqalian would never venture to comment on a friend's evident distress without first being approached for consultation.
No, in the absence of readily available help it was up to him to do something about it. Could he do anything else besides engage in the trading of intangible futures? Had his entire existence back home been restricted only to the buying and selling of tanker loads of orange juice and truckloads of coltan? What else could he do? He could play football, and very well. While the games of the Sessrimathe inclined more to the intellectual, in the course of his sojourn on Seremathenn he had observed that other resident and visiting aliens often participated in contests of skill of a physical nature. Not only could he not figure out the objectives of such games, much less the rules, some of the participants were dangerously bigger than he was. While none approached in size and intimidation factor the massive Tuuqalian Braouk, it was clear that if he tried to partake he ran the real risk of permanent injury.
Besides, he wanted to make use of his mind, not brute force, if only to forestall the inevitable comments such participation would have brought forth from the caustic Sque. Her opinion of humankind being already low enough, he saw no need to provide her with additional material for her predictable stream of verbal barbs. Not that she was incapable of inventing plenty by herself.
So--what else could he try? His inadequacy troubled and nagged him for weeks, until it came to him--logically enough--during an evening meal.
George was sharing space with him. The dog was lying on the animate shag rug-thing his own living quarters had manufactured at his request. Outside the single oval window of Walker's room the soaring spires of the artificial tree urb that had become their home glowed slightly in the soft, buttery light of Seremathenn's setting sun.
As always, the small circular aperture in the center of the floor had brought forth food at precisely the time Walker had specified. While he worked his way through the purplish and brown synthesizations, George gnawed enthusiastically on an approximation of a prime rib bone. It was neither prime rib nor bone, but the dog was content with the result. One could always close one's eyes at such times, he had noted on more than one occasion, and imagine being back on Earth.
"George, we're not making much progress at getting home."
Ears cocked toward the human who was his friend, the dog looked up from his hunk of pseudo-steer. His voice and intelligence the work off Vilenjji surgeons who were as adept as they were venal, George was able to make himself perfectly understood.
"How many times do I have to remind you what a great setup we've got here? Didn't I agree to go home, too--if the rest of you could figure out how to do it?" He returned to his bone. "It'll happen, or it won't. If you let it, the worrying will kill you before the chance to try and get home arrives. Of course, that would alleviate your concerns too, wouldn't it?"
"I know it's going to take time, George." As he spoke, Walker picked listlessly at his food. "What I'm getting at is that while all the rest of you--you, Braouk, and Sque--seem to be adapting to these surroundings, I'm still pretty much at loose ends. It's hard to stay positive when you don't have anything rewarding to do."
"Yeah," the dog muttered around mouthfuls. "Having everything done for you, having intelligent machines and helpful hosts respond to your every need, not having to report for work every day: I can see where that would get old real quick."
Used to the dog's occasional sarcasm, Walker did not respond to it. "What I'm saying is that until we can find a way out of here, I need something to do. Something to occupy my time. Something I can, well, be proud of. So I'm going to try and build on a favorite hobby I had back home." He hesitated ever so briefly before concluding, "I'm going to become a cook."
Jaws parted halfway, the dog looked up at him. Black eyes peered out from beneath shaggy brows. "A cook. Now that's a useful ambition, on a world where your room synthesizer burps up a meal whenever you ask for it."
Having anticipated the dog's objection, Walker was ready with a response. Setting the remnants of his own meal aside and leaning forward, he tried to convey some of the enthusiasm he had felt when the idea first came to him.
"I know that, George, but I've been doing some research. Certainly most of the food consumed on Seremathenn and on many other advanced worlds of this sprawling civilization is provided by highly sophisticated nutritional-synthesization equipment. But not, I've learned, all of it. A good deal of what is referred to as natural food is still prepared by hand--or whatever type of manipulative limb happens to be involved."
Despite his initial disparagement, the dog was now interested. "You don't say? I never thought about it." One paw gestured in the direction of the room's provider. "When they have synthesization, why would they bother with a primitive activity like cooking?"
"Because," Walker told him with a touch of triumph, "it's considered a form of art."
"Ah!" George looked momentarily wistful. "That makes sense--though not much. I do remember cooking. The thick smells outside certain restaurants. The delicate bouquet of high-class garbage." He glanced again at his friend. "Wait a minute. What makes you think you can do the local kind of cooking any more than you can deal in trading local commodities? Surely the Sessrimathe version of a working kitchen isn't going to be a sink and a stove surrounded by pots and pans?"
"I've been studying the equipment and the techniques needed to operate the relevant mechanisms." He gestured at the nearest wall. "The room has been helping me. It's all new and complicated, sure. But it's not like repairing a ship's interstellar drive, either."
"'Cooking.'" Forepaws resting on the well-masticated fake bone, George considered briefly, then shrugged. "Go for it, I guess." He returned to his gnawing, a bit more decorously this time. "Just keep one thing in mind." Strong teeth scraped across reconstituted calcium.
"What's that?" Walker pressed him.
"You'd better find somebody else to sample your initial efforts. I'm out."
Even though he'd thought he had some idea of what he was getting into, mastering just the rudiments of Sessrimathe and greater galactic culinary technology, not to mention the essential aesthetic components, had turned out to be far more challenging than Walker had anticipated. There were times, all too many times, when he wanted to quit, to admit defeat and return to a life of depending solely on boring charity. He would not. It was the same determination that had gained him a starting position as outside linebacker on a major university football team, and that had allowed him to keep it through three full seasons. He attacked the multifarious gastronomic trials with the same forcefulness with which he had thrown himself into the path of opposing tailbacks.
The more he learned, the more aware he became of his ignorance. Only one thing besides raw willpower kept him going. He liked to cook. Always had. When potential lady friends wavered in their desire to go out with him, he could inevitably clinch a date by declaring that he would make dinner, from scratch, all by himself. Presented with such an unexpected avowal from a member of the opposite sex, their curiosity was invariably piqued. They inevitably went out with him if only to see how badly he would fail, and were predictably surprised when the meals he prepared turned out to be not only edible, but excellent.
Surprisingly, it was not the often highly sophisticated utensils and instrumentation that gave him the most trouble and engendered the greatest degree of frustration, but the ingredients themselves. Spices that had minds of their own, sometimes literally. Synthesized tastes whose delicate flavors had to be modified directly at the molecular level. Vegetative bases that refused, on principle, to combine as required with his chosen modifiers or extenders.
Adrift in the center of the preparator, he was more captain than chef, issuing orders to utensils and synths alike, demanding to be obeyed. Food was his symphony, a galaxy of ingredients the notes, and the cooking wand his conductor's baton.