In a dystopian universe, if you were hungry and bored enough, maybe you would consider snacking on the pickled toes of your best friends.
It wasn’t cannibalism, not technically. I feel like I should say that up front.
I can’t remember who first germinated the idea. Either Sick Bob or Strong Bob. It was Girl Bob who got the stuff, but it wasn’t her idea. Girl Bob was Roberta Beaumont Pfizer IV and her family had been making all kinds of serums and pills for decades. She wasn’t as big a foodie as the rest of us. Most days she just sucked on WholeMeal Nubs or used a home IV kit. She had the family hook-up though.
Sick Bob, Strong Bob, Girl Bob, and I lived on the same floor of two-hundred floor skystabber. We were on the 89th floor, just about half way up.
We were best friends. We did everything together, went everywhere together, and ate everything together.
“Rob,” Strong Bob said to me. “Do you think you taste like chicken or beef?”
“That’s not the kind of thing I think about,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Sick Bob said between coughs. “Everyone thinks about it.”
“Chicken!” Girl Bob said, pulling off her VR goggles. “Mark me down as chicken.”
“What if chicken tastes differently to me than it does to you?” I said.
“Rob’s a fucking philosopher now,” Sick Bob said. Then he hacked up a bit of phlegm and blood on the balcony floor.
“I’m beef. I know that for a motherfucking fact,” Strong Bob said, punching himself in the chest.
It was Strong Bob who got us hooked on different meats. He had a dealer who’d drone over any exotic meat you wanted. Kangaroo, vampire bat, platypus, panda, komodo dragon, even the eagle-frog hybrid that the government had created for the president’s reelection campaign. “The freagle,” the administration was calling it. It cost a fortune, so we all had to split one deep-fried leg.
Girl Bob and I liked meat, and so did Sick Bob, when he was strong enough to chew at least. But Strong Bob was obsessed with it. He spent all day either eating burgers or lifting weights.
Strong Bob had everything: pressure cooker, crockpot, laser oven, hydrator, autogrinder, smoke box. He could make meat into any shape you wanted, cook it in a dozen different ways. He even saved up for a year to buy an exo-chef that got strapped to his back and guided his movements. With that thing on, he could debone without any wasted flesh and dice into the mathematically perfect cubes.
“Try this,” Strong Bob would say, handing you a slice of beef so thin you could look through it and see his giant grin.
I do know we started with toes. Just the pinkies, pickled and pitted, a clove of garlic replacing the bone.
It wasn’t that we were fucked in the head. We weren’t sociopaths. We’d never kill anyone. We were just really bored.
We weren’t rich enough to live in the Cloud Condos above and we weren’t poor enough to slog through the half-drowned streets of the city. One thing we could do though was eat. We could have any food in the world delivered to our balcony in thirty minutes. Stews and roasts, casseroles and stir fries. We could have spices from India, sauces from Autonomous France, and new strains of herbs grown in undersea test labs in the Atlantic. We never even had to leave the apartment. We could eat our way around the entire world without even setting foot on the ground.
Which was good, because much of the ground was underwater by that point.
“You guys, you guys,” Sick Bob. “Get in here now!”
We dropped our various gadgets and ran into his room. We were afraid Sick Bob was dying. The doctors were pumping him full of the latest drugs—which was sending his family into crippling medical loan debt, like 90% of the country—but none of the medicines were working. Sick Bob was skinny and pale, yet somehow bloated at the same time, like a waterlogged corpse. I had a hard time looking at him when we were in the same room.
When we rushed into the room, he was pointing at the holofeed from his levitating cot. “Check this out!”
It was a news segment on a new drug called Regenerol. “They strained it out of lizard DNA,” Sick Bob said.
“All you need is the proper nutrient input,” the scientist on the feed said, “and you’ll have you missing arm or ear back. You’ll be whole again. Not just whole, but better than ever, because the new limb will be grown from your source code. It won’t have had years of use, injury, and decay.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” the news anchor asked.
The scientist laughed. “Not if you follow the treatment properly.” She pointed at her left eye. It had a bright green iris and no trace of red in the white. “Look at this? Last month it was cybernetic. I lost the original eye when I was five years old. Now it has regrown. A real human eyeball all the way through.”
The studio audience gasped.
Really, it started out as a joke.
“You can finally figure out if you taste like chicken or beef,” Sick Bob told Strong Bob, laughing.
“I bet I taste good as shit.”
“This shit lets you grow an arm back if you get in an accident,” I said. “It doesn’t let you grow food.”
“Think outside the box, Rob,” Strong Bob said, “it wouldn’t have to be cut off in an accident.”
“This stuff probably costs a trillion dollars,” Girl Bob said, slurping her nutrient slurry.
“Not when you have the family discount,” Sick Bob said. He pointed at the screen again as the Pfizer logo flashed.
I really was weirded out by the idea. Seriously. But I guess I was always struggling to fit in. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters growing up. My mother was so afraid of the smog and the lab-bred diseases that she never let me go outside. Before meeting the Bobs, I didn’t really have any friends. Maybe I never really learned to stand up for myself. I dunno.
It took Girl Bob a while to get the stuff. Her family was from one of the distant Pfizer branches that only got money so the extended family could keep up appearances. It was bad for business to have anyone with a Pfizer name on a public debt registry. Girl Bob had to beg a cousin for a shipment. But it came. A box of silver pills and a big tub of protein sauce.
Maybe another way to think about it is that ours was an age of hunger. My generation wanted to gobble up everything that existed. Rising sea levels had drowned cities and increased radiation put entire countries in quarantine. Cities were choked with smog or overrun with insects carrying ancient diseases that had been released from the melting ice.
Sure, you could buy a surrogate drone to fly around the world while you watched through goggles, but the feed always stuttered and it just wasn’t the same.
Food was real. Food was actual bits of the world you could smell, see, and taste.
“There’s only one rule,” Sick Bob said, before we’d even taken the first Regenerol injection. “We’re not fucking cannibals. We don’t taste each other.”
“What’s the difference? We’re eating human meat,” I said.
“Cannibalism is the eating of the meat of other people, Rob,” Girl Bob said. She showed us the dictionary definition on her screen. “There’s nothing wrong with eating your own body. It’s yours after all. It’s just like biting your fingernails or something.”
“Exactly. We’re not sickos. We’re gourmands.”
It became a kind of competition. A friendly rivalry, I guess you could say.
Strong Bob made a burger out of his left foot. We watched his own juices dribble down his face as he chomped.
Sick Bob broiled his bicep after a forty-eight hour vinegar marinade, served it on a bed a wild rice. He declared himself “a goddamn delicacy.”
Despite the anesthetics, I was a wuss. I stuck to parts I couldn’t really see: calf muscles and internal organs. I ground myself up, spiced my meat, and made a five-alarm chili. Just spicy enough I couldn’t taste what was what.
Girl Bob got the best of all of us though. She said we were all philistines with our sauces and condiments. “I’m going to actually taste myself.” The next time we saw her, Girl Bob’s face was bandaged up and she was holding a tray with slices of her cheek on vinegared rice. She could only chew with her right side, but smiled as she ate the rarest sashimi in the world.
The Regenerol worked, but it was also weird. You’d be walking around with a tiny nub of a hand or a dime-sized ear where a full grown one had been. It looked like someone glued doll parts on your body.
We’d stay inside on our couches watching the holofeed, a tube of protein sauce stabbed near the severing point. Our consumed parts would grow back over the course of a few days, like slowly inflating balloons.
It was funny too, and we mocked each other. “Tiny hands,” “no nose,” “ribless,” “cat got your tongue or was it the sauce pan?”
We laughed a lot, before it all went bad.
There was a humanitarian reason too. I’d like to put that down for the record. I don’t want you to think it was just about eating.
I’m talking about Sick Bob. Sick Bob was sick. He was dying. We thought maybe he could regenerate himself piece by piece, regrow uninfected flesh until he was a brand new person. Regenerol could save his life.
It didn’t work, but it was worth a shot.
“I needed the hope,” he’d say, later. “It was the only thing keeping me going.”
It wasn’t that we tasted like chicken or beef or even pork. It was that we tasted like everything and more. The tender, almost tuna-like cheeks. The fatty ribs. The gamey biceps. The dense, almost metallic, taste of blood sausage. The crispy cracklings. The thick syrup of human marrow. There are so many flavors hiding inside one’s body. You just wouldn’t even believe.
I remember when things went bad. I was chewing on eye toast, my viscous fluid buttered across the slightly burnt bread, when I noticed something with my remaining eye. Something right in the middle of Girl Bob’s forehead.
I ran to the bathroom, hand over my mouth.
We would have stopped. I really think we would have. After we’d tried ourselves in a dozen ways, our curiosity was satisfied. I mean, Strong Bob had already gotten onto a new kick: extinct animals. New advanced food printers could predict, with a good degree of accuracy, what an extinct animal would have tasted like. How the muscles would have been structured, the right percent of marbling. He was cooking us mastodon ribs, saber-toothed cat samosas.
“I want to eat my way through the fossil record,” he said. “I want to gobble the first fucker that crawled out of the sea.”
But when we were having our final meal on the self-menu, I looked at Girl Bob and saw an extra eye growing in her forehead.
“Hey, don’t blame me! I didn’t invent it!” Girl Bob said. Her fingers were covering her forehead.
“Your family did!” Strong Bob said, scratching at an extra set of fingers on his thigh.
“It was my idea guys,” Sick Bob said, weakly. He was barely more than a skeleton. Only good for a few cups of broth. “I’ll take the blame.”
“I have to go to the hospital,” Girl Bob said, “take me to the goddamn hospital.” Her extra eye blinked furiously behind her fingers.
“You can’t afford hospital bills. We spent all our money on the Regenerol!”
“Calm down,” I said, “let’s all just think this thing through.”
It wasn’t long before it was all over the news. Pfizer was recalling all the Regenerol. Apparently it worked too well. It regrew your limbs, but it didn’t know when to stop. The drug just wanted to keep producing new flesh, new body parts, and if there were none missing then it got mixed up and started growing extras.
Of course we stopped taking it. But it was gen medicine, it dug its way into your DNA.
The effects do die down, though, after a while. Slow down at least.
We invested in new clothing. Baggy jackets, large sunglasses, floppy hats. Anything that lessened the chance of a stranger noticing a toe growing out of the back of a neck or a new finger in the center of the palm.
This was all a while ago.
I don’t really see the Bobs much anymore. Not since Sick Bob died. It wasn’t the Regenerol, it was just his time.
We stood around the casket dressed in black, tears in our visible eyes.
“He was so damn young,” Girl Bob said.
“I’d like to punch death in the face,” Strong Bob said.
I just nodded and watched his body get put into the incinerator, all his parts, both old and new, cooking into ashes.
I do think about the old days though. When Sick Bob could still sit up in his gurney and Girl Bob would pour us each another drink. I’d be mashing up guacamole or setting up the tray of hard cheeses and Strong Bob would be on the porch flipping steaks on the grill. Just the four of us together, talking, laughing, and filling our bellies with good food and wine.
I know it wasn’t a normal thing to do. The Regenerol. I know it. I do.
But was it really worse that what people do to other people? You turn on the news and all you see is war, murder, and famine. Politicians voting to keep medical care so expensive that most people can’t even afford to break a bone. Countries denying aid to starving neighbors. Corporations synthesizing new addictive products until their customers waste away. Each year the military creates some new way to turn human flesh into porridge, riddle it with shrapnel, or burn it up. To them, the human body is just something to destroy. Just some hunk of flesh to poison and murder and exploit.
To the Bobs and me, it was something more. At least for a little while, the human body was something sacred. Something to respect, to love, and to savor.
This story appears as part of the Fall 2017 Fiction Issue