“No, thank you.”
At this, Professor Donovan Lovok arched a brow. He had never known his colleague, the esteemed Dr. Ike Grant, to turn down a Bavarian tart. The good doctor had always been a bit of a glutton for the flaky pastry. He often blamed it for his ever-expanding waistline and growing waddle, usually while putting another one in his mouth. In fact, Donovan had gone out of his way to procure a box of the stuff on the way to work, knowing Ike was to stop by today.
Of course, now that he had a closer look, his friend was quite a bit thinner. His dress shirt, usually with buttons ready to pop at a moment’s notice, was hanging off of his shoulders. His face was narrower and he was down at least two chins. Donovan slid into his seat behind his desk across from Ike. Along with his weight loss, the doctor had gained a sallow look to his face, his usual jolly demeanor replaced by a blank, despondent look.
“Everything alright, Ike?” Donovan asked carefully. “How’ve you been?”
Ike let out a deep sigh. “Interesting,” was all he said after a long moment.
“I thought you popped by for a social call to tell me about your research trip to South America.”
“I’m starting to think there’s something else, too.”
Ike wrung his hands and looked out Donovan’s office window. The decorative cherries on campus were laden with fruit this time of year, but Donovan had a feeling Ike wasn’t admiring their beauty. Something was weighing heavy on the doctor’s mind. After a silent moment, Ike reached into his breast pocket and produced a small metal vial, which he set on the desk.
Ike ran a hand through his thinning hair—thinner than the last time they met, now that Donovan took a better look. “Do you remember what my team was working on before we went on this trip, Donovan?”
Donovan chuckled. “Yes. I remember your theories. For the record, I still don’t believe it.”
“Humor me for a moment. Tell me what you remember.”
Though tempted to brush off the absurdity, something about Ike’s mannerism told Donovan this was not a time for jokes. He looked at the vial uneasily, then turned his mind back to his last conversation with Ike—roughly sixty days and thirty pounds ago. “If I recall correctly, you were conducting research on the evolution of the behavior of eating, including both biological and social factors. Specifically, the theory of ‘flavor,’ and how we as a race came to be what is known as ‘texture eaters.’ Am I correct so far?”
“It’s common knowledge,” Donovan continued, “at least to anyone who’s had rudimentary education in evolutionary biology, that the human tongue could once distinguish differences in food that we dubbed ‘flavors,’ that solicited responses from the brain. Labels were given these responses, such as salty, bitter, sour, etc.”
“Until the Great Cre Pandemic.”
“Yes, the Cre Pandemic, an event that nearly became catastrophic for the human race, but was thankfully remedied when it was discovered that a genetic mutation that had become dominant in the human race was causing severe allergic reactions to the substance cre, which occurred naturally and was also used liberally in most processed foods. Once this was fixed, the pandemic quickly ended.” Donovan paused. “This is ancient history, Ike, schoolbook stuff. Why are we going over this?”
Ike motioned tiredly for him to go on. He kept fiddling with the vial, Donovan noticed, as if unable to stop himself from touching it.
“After the pandemic, the food industry went through a major overhaul that spanned several decades but ultimately resulted in what we know today as the Textured Food Market. The production of modern food places emphasis on the appreciation of texture and mouthfeel. Meanwhile the study of the gene that resulted in the cre toxication showed that it continued to mutate through generations, eventually leading to the human tongue in its present form.”
“I know all this.” Donovan shook his head. “And you know I do. I still don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“Do you remember my theory? The reason I went to South America?”
“I already said I do.”
“I found it.”
Donovan straightened in his chair. “You found what exactly?” he asked cautiously.
“The way to restore them.”
“That can’t be possible. Even you admitted it was just a theory, a conjecture.”
Ike bent forward. “Take a look,” he said. He leaned forward across the desk, opened his mouth wide, and stuck out his tongue. Though still very much doubtful, Donovan leaned in.
“My god,” he gasped. “What are those?”
Ike pulled his tongue back and sat back heavily in his chair. “Taste buds, Donovan. They’re taste buds.”
“That can’t be right!” Donovan exclaimed. “Taste buds are a thing of evolutionary past! The human tongue is not genetically programmed to produce them anymore! This can’t be right. You should see a doctor.”
“I am a doctor.” Ike picked up the vial and held it out to Donovan, who took it reluctantly.
“What happened in South America?”
Ike rubbed his face with both hands, as if having trouble believing what he was about to say himself. “I had this theory, as you know,” he said slowly, finding words as he went. “That the taste buds in the human are dormant rather than gone. I believed that the concept of flavor could be revived with adequate triggers to the human body, if the proper chemical response could be found. Then I heard things—rumors really—about the Papua, and Mashco-Piro nomads. People rumored to have experienced the lost sensation of ‘flavor.’ I went there on a hunch. Thought it might make for a nice experience for the grad students if nothing else.”
“They were wonderful people, the Piro tribes. They welcomed us, showed us a great time. No one could tell me much about ‘flavor’ initially, until I got to speak with an elder, something of a witch doctor. And he gave me”—he pointed to the vial—“that.”
“This.” Donovan turned the over in his hand. Something was inside. Something liquid. He looked his friend over, at his weary expression, his shrinking frame, and pale complexion. “Are you telling me, Ike, that you felt it?”
“I tasted it, Donovan,” Ike said, biting every word. “My god, I tasted it. I tasted so much. I’ve never felt anything like it. The sensation…” He stopped himself with great effort. “I could go on and on, but I won’t. It’s too hard.”
“Going back.” He gestured at the plate of miniature tarts on the table. “I can’t eat anymore. Once you’ve experienced ‘flavor,’ you simply can’t return. I am forcing food down my throat to survive, but nothing pleases me anymore. The food we have now … I just can’t make you understand. I can’t.”
Donovan studied the vial in his hand. Though he couldn’t bring himself to believe what he was hearing, Ike’s earnestness was undeniable. “So,” he said hesitantly, “how does it …”
“One drop on the tongue. Works for about six hours. I last dosed this morning. The bumps will disappear in another hour or two. But I haven’t eaten.” Ike shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. Much too dangerous.”
Convincing Ike to part with his treasure took some work, but Donovan managed to kindly strong-arm his friend into it. After explaining the contents of the vial, Ike had more or less deteriorated into a semi-incoherent ramble about his fever dream-like experience in South America, most of which Donovan frankly wasn’t sure he believed. He suspected that Ike had picked up some kind of parasite or infection on his trip and was in need of some serious medical treatment. Still, curiosity won over, and after repeatedly agreeing that he would be “safe,” whatever that meant, he finally convinced Ike to leave the vial with him for a few days so he could conduct a few tests of his own.
Now, sitting in his office nursing a glass of brandy, he turned the vial over in his hand. It was a tiny, opaque thing, holding no more than a few grams of whatever it was inside—sap, if what Ike said was to be believed, from a plant local to the Piro tribe he stayed with. Donovan unscrewed the lid carefully and peered inside it. The liquid inside was thick and golden in color. There was truly nothing magical or mystical about it by looks. He tilted the vial and watched it move.
One drop on the tongue, Ike had said.
He hesitated. Ike’s hollow gaze and thinning frame flashed through his mind.
And yet, he couldn’t stop thinking about those bumps on Ike’s tongue. He had only seen such images in history texts. Taste buds, much like the prehensile tail, ought to have been a thing of evolutions past, but there it was, plain as day. And he had to admit part of him believed Ike’s stories of his experiences—“close to god” was how he put it as he ranted. The tribesmen had apparently taught him that term, describing the effects of the sap as a sacred and holy experience.
The tribesmen, after all, had been using it for generations through the centuries with no apparent ill side effects. Donovan mulled this over. According to Ike, it was reserved for special occasions and worships due to its scarcity. This meant in small and occasional qualities it should be safe to take. And if not—well, he had poison control on the speed dial.
With his tongue stuck out as far as he could manage, Donovan tilted the vial as slowly as he could manage. A thick golden droplet formed on its edge and slowly dripped down. He felt it land and pulled his tongue back. It was sticky and cold. He rubbed it around his mouth, feeling its gooey texture before swallowing.
He shook his head and let out a laugh, slightly disappointed in himself at having bought into Ike’s crazed tale, and made a mental note of tests he could run on it tomorrow. He reached for his brandy and downed the last sip before preparing to head home.
He paused. His body gave a small shiver, as if waking up after a long slumber. He glanced at his glass, then grabbed the flask and poured himself another drink. This one he let slide into his mouth slowly.
Flowers. Oak. Warmth and tingle.
He stood in place, glass in hand, dumbfounded. He’d had a glass of brandy nearly every evening before leaving his office, but never had he experienced it like this. It was as if he could taste the liquid in new dimensions, back in time in the cask where it was aged, the plants that went into its making. He swallowed slowly and felt it roll across his tongue, in a wave of pleasure he couldn’t have imagined in his dreams.
He picked up one of the tarts left from the day and bit into it. It was flaky and pleasant, but also more. He could taste the flour, the rich butter, the subtle nuttiness of the walnuts mixed in, the soft, creamy cheese … It all swirled around in his mouth, in his mind, a beautiful chaos.
Donovan had no words. He had no way to describe these sensations that he had never felt before. All he knew was that he didn’t want them to stop. Soon he was digging around his office, looking for anything to put into his mouth. An old bag of crackers, a stale piece of gum, leftovers in the office fridge … each one brought with it new feelings. His body shook with excitement as he discovered, again and again, the magic of “flavor” and the pleasures it brought.
His search brought him through the quiet office building. He dug through his secretary’s drawers and found the biscuits she kept in her drawers, and the last slice of pizza the grad students left behind. Each one possessed a whole new experience. He couldn’t stop. He had to taste it all. He began to lick his fingers, plates, even pencils and the surface of his desk. He felt like a deaf person suddenly gifted with hearing and realizing everything had a sound.
Everything had flavor.
He eventually found his way outside. The wildflowers by the sidewalk tasted of earth and rain. The bark of the cherry tree made him cringe in a most delightful way. Just as he was about to step away in search of new flavors, something fell onto his shoulder. He looked down to see the fresh red cherries that lay by his foot. Decorative cherries were common in this part of the world, and it had never occurred to him to taste its fruit—fruit, being, after all, decorative themselves. But now, looking at the beautiful ripe cherry, he couldn’t help but be curious. Carefully, he put it in his mouth and took the tiniest bite.
Pleasure swelled from his tongue through his entire body. He took a bigger bite, then another. When it was gone he licked the juices from its fingers. The flavor of the cherry was like no other. The feelings it invoked were downright joy and euphoria. He plucked another from a low-hanging branch and greedily devoured it, followed by another.
He had to call Ike. He had to tell Ike he wasn’t crazy.
He had so much to do, so much research, so many tests.
This was groundbreaking. Revolutionary.
And another …
Dr. Ike Grant sighed heavily when his name was called.
He dragged himself to the backroom of the morgue, dreading but unsurprised at what he was about to see. The coroner stepped aside from the body of one Professor Donovan Lovok. Ike leaned over his friend’s face, bloated and purple, and gently closed his eyes. Then, he reached into Donovan’s shift pocket and retrieved the tiny metal vial.
“Oh, Donovan,” he murmured sadly. “I told you to be careful.”
“I was told you would be able to provide a cause of death, doctor,” said the coroner.
Ike sighed sadly. “Yes, I can. My friend here has unfortunately passed from cre ingestion. Isn’t it funny, that after not having tasted it for so many generations, so many of us had forgotten that it was toxic?”
“From the old French word sucre, in layman’s terms, sugar.”