Kenna, an aspirational teen guru, wanders destitute across the stars as he tries to achieve his parents’ ambition to advise the celestial elite.
Everything changes when Kenna wins a free dinner at The Sol Majestic, the galaxy’s most renowned restaurant, giving him access to the cosmos’s one-percent. His dream is jeopardized, however, when he learns his highly-publicized “free meal” risks putting The Sol Majestic into financial ruin. Kenna and a motley gang of newfound friends—including a teleporting celebrity chef, a trust-fund adrenaline junkie, an inept apprentice, and a brilliant mistress of disguise—must concoct an extravagant scheme to save everything they cherish. In doing so, Kenna may sacrifice his ideals—or learn even greater lessons about wisdom, friendship, and love.
Please enjoy the second chapter of Ferrett Steinmetz’s out of this world science fiction adventure The Sol Majestic, out on June 11th from Tor Books. Chapter One can be found on the Tor/Forge website.
After Sixty Minutes on Savor Station
Kenna sucks on a plastic bead as he follows the eight-year-old girl around Savor Station, trying to work up the nerve to mug her.
She’s pudgy, dressed in a little blue uniform, a kid wandering through the crowded hallways like she’s in no danger at all. The tracker tag on her wrist makes Kenna think maybe she isn’t. She cruises to a stop to watch some cartoon advertisement on the overhead monitors, reaches into an oil-stained bag of meat jerky to chew on it absently. Kenna hates her for the way she can eat without paying attention; put jerky in his mouth, and it would fill his whole world.
He sucks harder on the bead. More saliva. Fools the stomach into thinking something’s on the way, which of course it isn’t unless he mugs this little girl.
He pushes past tourists consulting overhead maps, edging close enough to grab the bag. He should. He has to.
Kenna hesitates again.
The girl moves on, wandering into the glassine cubicles of merchants’ stalls, darting between shoppers’ legs. She passes a shop heaped with tubs of fresh fish, flopping as they’re released from expensive time-stasis cubes; the salt-ocean smell makes Kenna wipe drool from dry lips even though he’s straying dangerously close to the tawdry commerce areas. He steps toward the fish, like a man in a dream—and as he stumbles forward, the security cameras whirr to focus on him. The merchant senses Kenna’s stray-cat approach, quietly shifts his body to deny him access.
Could he beg the merchant for scraps? Kenna takes another dazed step forward, reaching out plaintively. The merchant’s lips tense as he readies well-worn excuses: if I give scraps to one boy then I will be swarmed by beggars, a purveyor of quality goods cannot be seen surrounded by hobos, I’m sure you understand.
Kenna turns away, knowing exactly what the merchant will say before he utters a word. He’s dodged many embarrassments by intuiting potent visions extracted from body language, and Kenna has paid dearly the few times he’s ignored his instincts.
Yet he’s glad the stalls don’t have jobs posted. He’d sell his labor for a fish. Mother and Father would never talk to him again, of course—you don’t learn a trade, your Philosophy is your trade. They have left Kenna behind in the common areas while they negotiate meetings with Savor Station’s visiting politicians, hunting for an opportunity to lend their wisdom to powerful legislators. But though Kenna tries to remember his parents’ lectures on providing insights so profound that leaders will pay to hear them, his growling belly drowns out their voices.
They’ve been Inevitable for so long they’ve forgotten how to fear death. They hesitate whenever they lecture him, squinting with the effort of attempting to translate their enlightened experience into Kenna’s debased state; the only time he’s seen them falter is when they try to explain how they unlocked their Inevitable Philosophy. You find strength in the suffering of others, Mother intones, or Father tells him, Once you realize what’s truly at stake, you come to realize how little you matter.
But Kenna’s felt his heart stuttering from malnutrition, and once again his nascent Philosophies fall away when survival calls.
The girl ambles on, waving cheerful hellos as she strolls between the stalls; Kenna scans the market for better targets. The other shoppers, maybe? No. They’re big. Healthy. His hands shiver from malnutrition. They’d yell for security right away, he’d get jailed, shaming Mother and Father.
He imagines justifying this crime to them. They had food already; I didn’t. She didn’t need that food; I do. Yet he’s already heard them whispering consultations with each other, fretting how all the Princes of old had their Wisdom Ceremony before they were fifteen. Kenna’s sixteenth birthday was a month ago, and now Mother and Father’s muttered discussions have taken on the panicked hiss of monarchs debating whether Kenna can continue to be the Inevitable Prince if he does not shape his Inevitable Philosophy.
Being arrested might be his final fall from grace.
Kenna should hate them. Instead, he envies their Inevitability. Mother and Father’s bottomless compassion gets them up in the morning; their love keeps them moving when Kenna wants to curl up and die. They’re waiting in some old politician’s lobby, chasing flickering embers of power. Once Father’s Inevitable Philosophy convinces the right potentates, he’ll lead his people out of darkness.
When Father chants I will lead my people out of darkness!, Kenna can feel the limitless strength bound in those words—yet though Kenna spends hours meditating upon the revolutionary changes that should be made for the benefit of all, the best philosophies Kenna can muster are pleasant platitudes that crumple into guilt whenever Kenna’s stomach growls.
Kenna has no people. He has no compassion. He has no Philosophy. All he has is a girl with a bag of meat jerky—a girl skipping into Savor Station’s main arteries.
Kenna follows her, chest hitching with self-loathing.
It’s more crowded here, his every footstep blocked by bag-toting porters and gawking tourists and miniature forklifts ferrying crates. Though this curved ring is wide enough to hold hundreds of passengers, the space is all elbows and bulkheads, which makes sense; each square inch cost thousands of dinari to build, a sliver of safety constructed in pure vacuum by brute labor.
Kenna creeps closer. The girl babbles at a porter, discussing some show; he sidles up, sliding his fingertips across the bag’s tantalizing oiliness.
All he has to do is clench his fingers, and yank, and run.
He imagines the girl’s shocked face as he tugs the jerky from her hands, that little-girl shock of discovering that anyone can take anything from you if they’re big enough, and he realizes this is what it would take to survive:
He would have to become a bully.
Kenna howls. Startled, the girl drops her jerky, but Kenna does not notice; he’s pushing people aside, fleeing. He cannot stop crying, but he can move so fast that no one has time to notice his tears. He wants so badly to throw all this honor aside to stuff his mouth with meat and be happy and shivering…
… but he is not a thief.
Oh, how he envies thieves.
Do you have to be so dramatic, Kenna? he can hear Mother chiding him. But she’s carved away everything that doesn’t advance her Philosophies—she’s whittled herself down to perfect postures, to primly smoothed robes, to unceasingly polite rules of etiquette.
If he had an Inevitable Philosophy, he would never lose control. But he does not, so he runs.
His legs spasm. Kenna collapses by a long line of people—Savor Station is criss-crossed with lines, lines of people getting passports, lines to get on ships, lines to fill out job applications, lines to—
DO YOU LOVE FOOD? a sign flashes.
The sign itself is written in a flowing, sugary goodness, a message in frosting. It writhes like a dancer pulling veils across herself, highlighting a carved wood booth crammed into a corner.
Wood, Kenna thinks. What madman hauls wood across solar systems to put it in a lobby? He knows vandals; on the transit-ship, this would have been carved to pieces.
Yet even in the elbow-to-ass room of Savor Station, people make space for this little alcove, as if the dark wood booth is an ambassador from some great kingdom. It has a confessional’s solemn pall—but the people lined up before it have the expectant looks of lottery contestants, chatting eagerly about their chances and wringing their hands as they fantasize about winning. A stiff pressed linen curtain gives privacy as each new person steps into the booth, muttering well-practiced speeches. The line’s end is nowhere in sight.
The sign contorts, bowing, then unfolds into a new set of letters: THE SOL MAJESTIC.
Kenna has no idea what that means, but he longs to be a part of it already.
The sign is whisked away as though by a breeze; smaller words float across the empty space like lotus blossoms drifting across a lake. THE MOST EXCLUSIVE RESTAURANT IN ALL THE GALAXY. ONLY EIGHTEEN TABLES. RESERVATIONS MUST BE MADE TWO YEARS IN ADVANCE.
BUT ONE TABLE IS RESERVED EACH NIGHT, FREE OF CHARGE, FOR THOSE WITH THE LOVE TO SEE IT.
Kenna clambers to his feet.
TELL US WHY YOU LOVE FOOD.
This is insane, this is stupid, this is foolhardy. He should comb the marketplaces again, see if anyone has dropped food on the floor. But Mother and Father will not return from their political sojourn for hours, and this…
Kenna staggers down the line. His legs ache before he reaches its end. He settles behind a rumpled family of middle-aged tourists, who welcome him with a bright-eyed wave and a “Why not?” gleam in their eyes. A group of fashionable Gineer hipsters, their smooth skin taut from gene-treatments, fusses about the delay as they settle behind him.
He settles into his own silence, lets others do the talking. They speak breathlessly about cuisine.
It takes a while before Kenna realizes cuisine means food.
They speak of tenacious ice-eating mosses, planted on asteroids, sent on trips around the sun, retrieved to harvest the bounty for a once-in-a-lifetime salad. They speak of deep-sea creatures evolved at the bottoms of vinegar oceans, so delicate they have to be kept in pressurized containers, released via special mechanisms to explode in your mouth. They speak of artificial meat-fibers spun across rotating tines in cotton-candy strands, a protein that melts on your tongue to saturate your whole mouth with thick umami.
What is umami?
He’s never eaten well, but he thought he at least understood the language of food. Mother spoke of noodle soups and roasted ducklings. These meals sound like exhibits.
They discuss meat. Kenna relaxes; he understands meat, even though all he’s ever eaten has been vending machine jerky. But these people discuss blubber, siopao, Silulian black-udder, p’tcha, vacuum flanks, sashimi. They trade the names like chips on bingo cards, brightening when it turns out two people have consumed the same oddity, exchanging indecipherable dialogues on bizarre concepts like flavor profiles and top notes.
Kenna should not be here. But leaving would mark him as a fraud. He has had enough humiliation for the day.
There’s enough humiliation for everyone, he’s glad to see. As they draw closer to the confessional, people are rejected with an astounding rapidity. You are asked, Kenna is told, to discuss why you love food, though most don’t make it past their first sentence. A beautiful actress stumbles out, hands on her broad hips in irritation, to inform the crowd she’d had auditions that lasted longer.
The nice family people standing before him—so educated, so smart—explain that some days, Paulius does not find anyone at all to let into his restaurant. Paulius has exacting tastes. It is said on days like that, Paulius sinks into a deep depression, though Paulius is more known for his fits of rage.
And the nice family goes in, one at a time.
And the nice family is ejected from the booth, one at a time.
The Gineer hipsters flutter their hands at Kenna, as if loath to touch his ragged clothing. “Get in,” they hiss. “Get it over with.”
Kenna slumps in. White linen curtains close behind him.
Before him is an elegant table, draped in a white tablecloth, standing before a blank white screen. A wooden chair, curved like a cello, rests on the floor, inviting Kenna to take a seat. Kenna sits down, crossing his hands to prevent himself from fidgeting. He half expects a buzzer to go off before he speaks.
Instead, he stares down at the tablecloth. It has indents where would-be vandals have left outlines of dicks, but the tablecloth is made of some special ink-resistant fabric.
The screen pulses gently, a reminder.
Kenna clears his throat.
“I… I don’t think I love food.”
Nothing happens. Is there some secret signal that nobody’s told him about? Has he failed already, and is too much of a yokel to know?
“I can’t be certain. Mother and Father—they had grand meals. They warm their hands by those memories, savoring banquets they had with Grandfather, reliving those courses one by one…
“I don’t have those recollections. I’ve had canned meat, dried noodles, pickled eggs. If I… if we… ever came back into favor, would I… appreciate anything else? I can’t tell. All this surviving is killing me.
“Mother and Father, they’re—they dream decades in the future. I can barely imagine tomorrow. And I think if I got one meal, one good meal, to show me what life I could dream about, then maybe I could…”
He drifts off, uncertain what he could do. His life is defined by absences. He can’t envision what he could do, because he doesn’t love food, he doesn’t love people, he doesn’t love anything, and how can you become something when all you’ve known is nothing?
“Maybe I could have a Philosophy,” he whispers.
A soft whirr. Kenna jerks his head up at the noise; he’s still in the confessional. He’d started talking and had forgotten about The Sol Majestic, forgotten about Paulius, he’d poured his heart onto the table and why is that screen rising into the ceiling?
The door concealed on the confessional’s far side swings open, revealing a sunlit orchard.
There are no orchards in space, Kenna thinks. He freezes, so he does not hurt himself in his madness.
But through the door are blue skies, knotted tangles of grass, twisted boughs of trees heavy with fruit. Rows of trees, retreating far into the distance. A zephyr of sun-warmed chlorophyll ripples his hair.
The trees’ branches are wrapped around stainless steel water pipes that snake across the landscape. A geodesic dome’s triangular struts slash across the sky. Surely, he would not have imagined that.
He creeps his way toward the exit, expecting some security guard to block the entrance. But no; he steps over the threshold, and his battered shoes sink into soft loam. His fingers close over a tree branch’s knurled hardness, and the sensation of something growing beneath his fingers is like touching miracles. Kenna inhales, and it’s not the stale scent of recycled body odor and plastic offgassing; it’s the clean smell of rain and leaves.
He plucks a hard oval of purplish-green off a branch: a grape? He rolls the fruit’s waxy surface between his fingertips, puzzled at its hard flesh. Weren’t grapes supposed to be squishy, like the jam in the vending machine sandwiches? This smells like the light crude oil coating your skin after you bunk in a cargo ship’s engine room. Is it safe to eat?
He’s never eaten anything that hasn’t come wrapped in plastic.
Kenna drops the fruit and stumbles forward, seeking something simpler. He pushes his way into a curved valley with long rows of curlicued vines lashed to wooden poles.
A tall, potbellied man strides across the vineyard toward Kenna, jabbing a silver cane into the soft soil for balance.
Kenna’s breath catches in his throat. The man is coming for him. The man who owns the vineyard.
The man—Paulius?—ducks under the vines without lifting his blue-eyed gaze away from Kenna, as though he has memorized every limb in his garden. The man’s own limbs are slender—long graceful arms, a dancer’s legs, all connected to one bowling-ball belly. Whenever he ducks, his long, white ponytail swings madly, knotted in silver cords. He steps over the hillocks quickly, as if an emergency calls for his attention but he refuses to give up the dignity of walking.
The man is dressed in thigh-high black boots and a white ruffled vest, but somehow the rain-slickened vines leave no marks upon him. He is wrinkled and tan—not the fake orange tan of tanning booths, but the light leathery patina one acquires from hard work in fine sunlight.
He holds a brass bowl in his free hand, thrusting it forward. Steam wafts upward.
He deposits the bowl into Kenna’s hands gravely. Kenna looks down; the bowl thrums warm against his palms, rimmed with circuitry, the soup cradled within perfectly still. The bowl has its own artificial gravity generator at the bottom, pulling the soup down so it can never spill.
Kenna trembles. This bowl is worth more than everything his family owns, and yet Paulius—for it is Paulius—has handed it to him as though it were nothing at all.
“The first rule of appreciation,” Paulius says, his voice mellifluous, “is that it is impossible to savor a thing you have been starved of. This applies to food, lovers, and company. So I must feed you before I can teach you. Drink deep.”
Except Kenna can savor it. Though his stomach punches the inside of his ribs, desperate for nutrients, Kenna peers into the coppery broth before him. Little globules of fat wobble upon its surface, glimmering like holograms. Glistening dark meat chunks bob at the bottom. He inhales, and the rich chicken scent fills his nostrils, fills his brain, fills his world.
Then he thumbs the gravity release button and sips it. Or tries to. His hands betray him, pouring it into his mouth. Kenna fights his body to sip genteelly instead of gulping. He’s sobbing and coughing, making dumb animal noises in front of Paulius…
Paulius grabs his shoulder, his fingers so strong they root Kenna to the earth. “Your breath stinks of ketone. I know how long a man can starve, and you are at your limits. Please. Eat.”
Freed from restraint, Kenna dumps it down his throat. His belly heats up, radiating warmth like a tiny sun. His muscles twitch as his blood feasts on the broth, ferries it out to his limbs, suffusing him with a rapture greater than any orgasm.
His ass hits the ground. He sprawls in the soft earth, feeling his emaciated body rebuilding itself, feeling the sunlight’s warmth on his brown skin.
Paulius kneels down beside him, nodding as Kenna’s chest hitches. This isn’t just the broth; it’s life, it’s a connection to this land Paulius has created, and—
He loves food.
He loves something.
As Kenna realizes how close he was to dying, dying in all the ways that really counted, he curls up and cries.
Excerpted from The Sol Majestic, copyright © 2019 by Ferrett Steinmetz.