“Relax. It’s only human.”
Rachael smiles as she skewers a piece of pink flesh, and flips it onto the lava stone. It sizzles, spits, and your mouth waters against your will. She notices you notice it, takes an already cooked piece from the glowing stone, blows the steam away, and pops it into her mouth. You find the whole manoeuvre nauseatingly erotic.
“It’s still meat.”
You poke at your grilled aubergine, sitting limp and shrivelled on your stone. Longpigs is technically a vegan restaurant. Canvas photoprints depict absurdly plump legumes. Hanging plants compete with Edison bulbs for ceiling space. A ceramic tile sign behind the bar enthuses that Lab Meat is Love Meat, with a neon heart in place of the “O” in Love.
“Meat without any ethical hangovers.” Rachael washes it down with a fishbowl sized glass of Pinot noir. The perfect complement, the waitress had advised. You are both well into the third bottle.
“Nothing died in the process, sure. But someone had to donate their stem cells.”
“It’s not like they’re giving up a kidney.”
“And the energy required to culture the stuff?”
Rachael gestures at the menu. “A lot less than then it takes to feed free-range homo sapiens, I imagine.”
An image pops into your head of a barn full of happy fat men eating from a dirty trough. You guffaw at the idea, and inhale some wine. Rachael laughs too, which sets you off even more, and suddenly you’re both sixteen again, with her daring you to join in her little adventures: sticking straws up your noses in biology class (“I am the walrus!”), spraying twat on her (ex?) boyfriend’s car at 2am, throwing fake blood over the barricade at fox hunters, and never quite admitting to yourself that you (and it was just you) were falling desperately, irretrievably in love. So in love that it was you who took the school detention, the beating, and the jailtime.
Twenty years and an out-of-the-blue Facebook message later, Rachael puts another sinewy slice of in vitro human onto the lava stone. “Try some.”
You wipe snotty wine from your nose and look at her. She’s still gorgeous, all freckled shoulders and rosy cheeks. She has dyed her hair vantablack – an on-trend colour so dark it swallows light. An event horizon in a cocktail dress. The rest of the restaurant fades to a blur. “It’s not just the ethics of the thing. I haven’t eaten meat in nearly two decades…”
“Oh, neither have I!”
“I refer the jury to Exhibit A, Your Honour..” You pick up one of her skewers and twiddle it about, which gets another giggle. The aubergine sits abandoned; her laughter is all the nourishment you need. “It’s more…could I eat meat after all this time? Could my body handle it?”
“Hasn’t done me any harm.”
“You always could get away with anything.” You hope this comes out more flirtatious than bitter.
Rachael picks up another skewer and playfully fences the one you are holding. “Come on. We’ll do it together. It’s just another dare.”
You watch the sizzling meat, the glowing core of the lava stone. Watch the way Rachael bits her lower lip in anticipation. The shamanic murmur of the other diners, the brutal scrape of cutlery. The buzz of the wine in your blood.
You bring the skewer to your lips. It smells ripe and porcine. The top of the meat is slightly charred, but the middle is juicy and tender. Rachael leans forward, and places her hand on your knee under the table. “Go on, I dare you…”
You pop the morsal into your mouth. Chew. Let the salty, metallic tang of it sit, let the consistency go from tender to rubber. Swallow. Rachael whoops with girlish delight, squeezes your knee once then claps her hands. “Bravo, bravo!”
You rush to the bathroom and vomit. A strange euphoria washes over you, a sense of release. Back at the table, Racheal asks if you are ok.
“Better than ever.”
“That was great, I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks.” You wash away the acid taste of regurgitated homo sapiens with the remaining Pinot noir. The perfect complement.
She leans forward conspiratorially. “I’ll let you in on a secret. My father has built a meat lab onto the old family home. Kind of a retirement project. We’re trying to grow bespoke human meat, get a good blend of stem cells. You should come and see it sometime.”
You barely hear the words meat lab or stem cells. Rachael has just invited you to her family home. After all these years!
“If you want to, of course…” she says, suddenly faux-shy.
You are opening your mouth to say yes yes yes when there is a crash from the front of the restaurant. Screams. Two people in green balaclavas have burst in, knocking over the maître d stand. They are yelling “NO MORE NEUROSTIM! NO MORE NEUROSTIM!” As frightened diners scramble out of the way, they unveil a black banner. It reads “Cannibalism is Torture!”.
You find that you and Rachael have stood up and backed away. You are holding hands. You are holding Rachael’s hand!
A bull-sized security guard arrives and drags the protesters outside. The diners settle, the waitress rushes around serving apologies and digestifs. The sound of meat sizzling on stone resumes. You watch as a single bead of pink sweat runs down Rachael’s throat.
Back at your apartment, you lie on top of the duvet. Rachael is curled under your arm, still in her cocktail dress, her vantablack hair creating a deeper void in the already dark bedroom.
“What did those protesters mean by “NEUROSTIM?” you ask.
She rustles, turns into you. “Neuronal stimulation. It’s a flavouring technique. Biochemical garnish.”
“For in vitro meat.”
Rachael traces her fingers up your spine. “You grow some human nerve cells, a nervous system, alongside the meat vat. You stimulate them, and it causes hormonal changes in the flesh that lead to a better flavour. Some think this is unethical, that the nerve cells could be…conscious in some way.”
“What sort of stimulation?”
“Euphoria. Fear. Lust.”
“Does your father’s lab…”
Her lips meet yours, cutting off your next question.
Later, you dream. You are at Rachael’s family home, lying supine on the dining table. There is a lava stone where your heart should be, glowing hot. Rachael approaches, armed with a meat skewer.
“Relax.” she says. “It’s only human.”
BIO: Jack Seymour is a speculative fiction writer based in Oxfordshire, UK. He writes dark, near-future science-fiction and medical horror stories. His short fiction is due to be published in anthologies by Thuggish Itch and Red Cape Publishing in 2022. He also (perhaps worryingly) works as a research nurse, and enjoys reading and live music. He can be found at @JackSeymour7