[This is a short story based on a dream I had last night. It is slightly more coherent than the dream in that it does not, for example, involve Japanese game shows or actual Star Trek characters.]
The old woman set a dish down on the table in front of me with a pleasant smile, and took a nearby seat where her own food was waiting. Her dish contained similar foods in slightly smaller portions, and as she fussed with her napkin I surveyed the meal. There were three different servings, clearly different types of food but all having a similar golden-brown color. The largest piece resembled a Russian piroshki, sliced in half, with plump strips of white meat protruding from the center surrounded by what appeared to be a milky cream sauce. Closer to me was a pastry that resembled a croissant, and next to that was a lumpy mound that had the approximate consistency of cheese grits.
The woman eagerly explained what each portion was. I tried my best to pay attention to the synthetic soundwaves pouring through my neuro-linguistic communicator as I fought back the nausea and other symptoms of the physical revulsion I had been experiencing since I realized what the meat would be. Ravek had conveniently neglected to mention that particular detail before abandoning me with this quaint elderly couple and going off on his unspecified errand, leaving me to discover it for myself and come up with a suitable reaction on the spot. My first instinct was that he had done this as some sort of hazing prank, but further reflection convinced me, charitably perhaps, that he had done it as a training exercise. There were, undoubtedly, certain pedagogical values to the experience, though at the moment I was having trouble identifying them.
"May ask a question?" I said timidly when she had finished her run-down of the meal she had prepared.
"Certainly," she said.
I swallowed, trying to formulate the best, that is, least offensive, manner of presenting my question. Technologies that had been developed for identifying harmful substances in foods had largely obviated the need to ask about ingredients when presented with a meal, so the question I was proposing could only be a matter of personal preference, which was impolite.
"Does anything other than the, um..." I indicated the meat pastry, to which she had previously given a name that the communicator couldn't translate. She repeated the name as I indicated it, her alien voice coming through raw and unfiltered, creating sound patterns that I couldn't hope to imitate, and making the overall experience that much more disturbing. "Yes," I said. "Does anything other than... this, contain human meat?"
In the split second before she responded I held my breath, and felt as though my remaining bodily functions were suspended as well. As with any alien world it was impossible to determine what seemingly minor transgression would be considered a grave cultural or, worse, criminal offense, and in that moment I remembered that I hadn't yet figured out what the device next to the door was or whether it had anything to do with food preparation.
Fortunately the woman was not offended. "No," she said simply. She then explained that the other two items, also unnamable by my feeble Terrestrian tongue, contained no meat at all. She then gasped suddenly, instantly reversing the sense of relief that had overtaken me, and said, "Oh dear."
She looked down at my dish, her brow wrinkled with concern, her eyes, a bit closer together than I was used to, wide with anxiety. "Oh dear," she repeated. "Do you not eat humans on your planet?"
I bit my lip, a gesture I would later recall as somewhat ironic given her question. I managed a smirk. "No," I said. "I'm afraid we do not."
"Oh dear," she said again, her face unchanging. "Then what do you do with your dead?"
I took a sip of the distilled water she had given me and cleared my throat. I explained the various burial rituals associated with the peoples of Earth, that the common approach was to embalm corposes, seal them in boxes, and place them in the ground, and that alternate means of respectful disposal were also observed, but that no extant society to my knowledge consumed their dead.
"And what about your criminals?" she asked in the same pleading voice. "Surely..."
I took another sip and explained our elaborate penal system, that the worst criminals were permanently housed in secure facilities and given three meals a day along with basic amenities to keep them healthy until they died by natural causes or were killed by other criminals. Throughout my lecture she maintained the same concerned look, though she was clearly fascinated by my explanation. Afterwards she shook her head and took a small taste of the grit-like substance on her dish.
"That all seems awfully wasteful," she said.
"I suppose it is," I said and tore off a small piece of the meatless pastry. Cultural clashes such as this, encountering an otherwise advanced civilization that found the notion of burying the dead and treating criminals with basic dignity more abhorrent than consuming human flesh, were among the lesser perils of interstellar travel. Or so I hoped.
The pastry was more doughy than the ancient French food it resembled, more salty than sweet, with an odd metallic flavor that was no doubt the result of my Terrestrian tastebuds trying to make sense of an unexpected alien biochemistry. I tried the grits, which surprised me by presenting almost the exact flavor of honeydew melon. Again, they probably only tasted enough like honeydew for my brain to recognize something familiar and amplify the sensation for my own subconscious psychological comfort.
As I swallowed I eyed the meat strips, glistening in their sauce, and wondered what would become of them. I stole a glance at the woman who was eating without reservation, sampling all three items sporadically, and who had manifested no intention of removing the meat from my plate or otherwise relieving me of the duty to eat it. I wondered if vegetarianism on this planet took on an even more political aspect than it did back home, but then recalled that the woman hadn't asked me whether I ate meat, but whether people on my planet did so. From there I wondered whether vegetarianism on this world might be punishable by death.
Desperate to distract myself I offered further unsolicited details about the Terrestrian penal system, which led to a discussion of our legal system in general. The woman listened, more out of politeness than interest, until I go to the part about how the Constitution of my home nation came to be. I explained that at one time there was a great empire on Earth that controlled my homeland, and that my ancestors fought a war against the empire to secure their independence.
"Oh dear," she said again, and I wondered if she had actually been uttering the exact same local colloquialism over and over again or if my communicator was just translating multiple idioms into a single familiar expression of generic concern. "Your people are revolutionaries?"
I grinned, then thought the better of it when I understood the earnestness of her question. "We were," I said. "Many societies on Earth were born of revolution and later became peaceful. Unfortunately our history is littered with those who built power into tyranny, and at various times the people have found it necessary to reclaim power by force." I swallowed some more food and took another sip of water, feeling more at ease now. "We are not a warlike people, but at times we have acknowledged that war is necessary to secure freedom and, ultimately, peace."
The woman shook her head again, finding the whole matter distasteful, and returned silently to her meal. I began to realize that I had no idea what the political history of this planet was (Ravek hadn't told me where we would be going beforehand, and thus I hadn't had the chance to read up on it, nor had he told me I would be sharing a meal with a strange alien), and that perhaps my matter-of-fact discussion of the use of violence within the political system may have been as disturbing to her as her thoughtless gulping of human flesh was to me.
I found myself desperate to clarify that the tendency of all Terrestrian societies, at least in modern history, was toward peace. I considered offering further explanations on this point but thought it best to let the matter drop. After a few moments of painful silence the woman finally offered a smirk and said, "If I may say so, you don't look like you come from a race of warriors."
I returned her smile, though I couldn't fight off the blush as I looked down at my military uniform with its meager assortment of insignias indicating my recent arrival to the Fleet. I definitely filled out the grandiose tunic like the engineer that I was. I used the review of my clothing as an excuse to discreetly run my hand along the pistol strapped to my hip, drawing comfort from its presence and hoping that my basic weapons training would enable me to fend off any attempt to drown me in cream sauce and cover me in pastry dough.
"Well, as I said, ours is a society of peace forged in the crucible of war. Perhaps that's why it took us so long to join the greater galactic community."
"Perhaps," she agreed and took a sip of her own beverage.
She mouthed another large piece of meat and I felt my stomach turn slightly as I swallowed more of the honeydew mush. Not wanting to draw her attention by moving my head, I moved my eyes around to see if I could spot her husband, who had disappeared before the meal was served after having taken me outside to show me the evening sky.
Although I had seen simulations of such sights in officer's training, the genuine experience was, predictably, much more enthralling. The sky had been crystal clear, which I had thought odd for such an urbanized area (the old man had reminded me that modest adjustments in the intensity of urban lights was sufficient to reveal the stars of the night sky). But what was truly remarkable was the fact that numerous points of light -- too many to count, in fact -- resembled stars and yet moved throughout the sky, appearing to combine with and pass through their stationary counterparts. Some moved in triangular formations, some expanded into spherical clusters, and others jumbled together in a seemingly random fashion. Most stunning of all was a sudden burst of lights which appeared to flow in a gushing stream from a single point in the sky.
I understood that these moving lights were simply optical artifacts generated by spacecraft engaged in various maneuvers, generally related to interstellar travel, though it was rare to see so many in one place.
"Your planet must get a lot of visitors," I said to the man. I opted for a mundane comment so as not to betray my wonderment at the spectacle I was witnessing. The old man clearly expected me to behave as a doe-eyed cadet and I fought hard against the tendency to satisfy his expectations.
"Oh yes," he said calmly. "This little world is a veritable crossroads for explorers like yourself. It has something to do with local space curvature and intersecting supergravities. I'm sure it makes more sense to you than it does to me."
I turned my eyes away from the sky to look at him, and saw that he was staring intently at me, no doubt wondering how I would react to his self-deprecating comment. Such comments from strangers, I knew, were always precarious, particularly when one didn't know the local customs. Thinking fast but perhaps not well, I looked back at the sky and said, "I don't think it makes much sense to anyone, to tell you the truth."
I could sense that the man was still staring at me so I looked at him again. His expression hadn't changed. "Come," he said. "We've prepared a meal."
And as the evening's focus turned from the mysteries of space travel to the challenges of interplanetary cuisine I began to wonder if Ravek had in fact abandoned me for good, if we had come here just so he could have me killed by the elderly couple, and if he was just biding his time at a local cantina until the deed was done or, worse, if he had made off with the landing craft and was already on his way back to base. This last thought I managed to banish from my head, knowing that I would have heard the lift-off of the craft if he had already made his escape.
Nonetheless I couldn't avoid wondering how, precisely, the couple might do me in if they decided to do so. The food was not poisoned -- this much was clear from the chem-sensor implanted in my throat, which would have blocked the consumption of any toxic substances. The woman and man appeared old and feeble, but only by my rudimentary Terrestrian standards. For all I knew the woman alone could overpower me before I even had a chance to reach for my weapon. The sad fact was that I had no idea what these two beings were capable of -- apart from eating people.
As I struggled to prevent dread from giving way to panic I suddenly heard a signal from the door, and hoped desperately that it was Ravek returning from his errand. The woman's eyes glazed over as her optic pathways were intercepted by an unseen device that beamed an image of the visitor directly into her brain. She blinked, touched something on her wrist, and the door slid open, with Ravek standing attentively behind it. "May I?" he asked.
The woman smiled and got up, prompting me to do the same. "Of course. Please, come in."
Ravek strode into the room, his large boots clopping ahead of him as his gangly arms swung slightly at his sides. His odd appearance, which I at one time found unsettling, was refreshingly familiar and I almost wanted to embrace him. My face must have betrayed my feelings, because Ravek clapped me on the shoulder and said, "Easy there. I'm not here on a rescue mission. She hasn't been torturing you, has she?" His face turned to the woman with a look of exaggerated concern.
I exhaled. "No, of course not," I said as casually as I could. "We've just been enjoying a pleasant meal." I then caught myself and said. "At least I was enjoying it."
"As was I," she said sweetly. "Your friend was telling me all about his violent past."
I found myself blushing again. "Just a little American history," I said.
"Ah yes," Ravek said. "You Terrestrians and your rebellions. I hope his talk of bloodshed didn't put you off your meal."
"Not at all."
Ravek then looked at me, reached for a spot behind his right ear, and said, "Do you mind?"
"No, of course not," I said and instinctively stepped back.
The woman touched the same spot behind her own ear and the two began talking to each other, each in their respective native tongues as far as I could hear. Ravek's high rasps and the woman's guttural groans were indecipherable to me, though they -- and they alone, for the time being -- were able to understand each other by synching their communicators through a sensor behind the ear. There were those who considered such behavior impolite, which prompted Ravek's perfunctory request for leave, though at the moment I was less concerned with etiquette than with the possibility the two were, at last, plotting my ultimate demise, and that Ravek's reappearance was not the salvation I thought it was. Unfortunately I could do nothing but stand at attention and wait for them to finish.
Eventually the speech patterns, such as they were, combined with certain physical cues indicated that they were wrapping up their discussion, and they released their ears and turned back to me. "I think we're done here," Ravek said.
Without missing a beat I thanked the woman profusely for her generosity, apologized for my lack of appetite, and asked if I could help her clean up. She brushed off my politeness with niceties of her own and began to lightly shoo us toward the door. I asked her to extend my gratitude to her absent husband, and she assured me that she would. I still wondered if the old man would be waiting outside the door to bludgeon me to death while Ravek distracted me.
Fortunately there was no one in sight, and the evening air, with all of its alien smells, felt wonderful as it filled my lungs. The stale, filtered air of the landing craft was even more pleasant. Ravek and I strapped ourselves in and spoke through transmitters in our helmets during the shaky ascent toward our orbiting vessel.
"You thought I had left you there to die, didn't you?" he asked.
"The thought crossed my mind," I admitted.
"That's good," he said. "When faced with a strange situation you should always see to your own survival and perceive everything as a potential threat."
"No problem there."
After a pause, Ravek continued: "You ate quite a bit of that food. I'm impressed."
"It was sitting next to cooked human flesh."
I sighed angrily. He had known.
"Yes, I knew she would try to serve you human meat. And I didn't warn you. Do you know why?"
"You wanted to see how I would react to the situation."
"Yes. And you did quite well. Not great, but good enough for your level."
"She seemed surprised that I wasn't... that I'm not a cannibal."
"Do you think she was?"
I pondered this for a moment. Ravek wouldn't have asked the question if the answer were obvious.
"What did you and the old man talk about?" he asked after I didn't answer in whatever time frame he had secretly prescribed.
"He showed me the night sky from their front yard, all the spacecraft flying around," I said. "We talked about the large number of visitors this planet gets."
"Do you think the woman was surprised at your peculiar eating habits?"
Ravek fell silent again, not giving me the satisfaction of acknowledging the correctness of my answer, after having given me so many hints. I heard him disable his transmitter as we broke through the final layers of atmosphere and approached the orbiting vessel. He would have to manuever the small landing craft into position to get us back onboard, and his action of disabling our communication link told me that the danger of me distracting him outweighed whatever benefit he might have obtained from being able to immediately ask me for help.
Of course, he didn't need my help. He nestled the small ship into the dock with the expertise of all of his years in the Fleet, and once we had locked in the two of us transferred to the larger ship, briefly acclimated to the artificial atmosphere, and began the calculations for the next leg of our voyage. This I did help with, partly because it was long, tedious work that went faster with two people, and partly because I was very good at it.
"What were you doing down there?" I asked casually once we had hit the less intellectually rigorous portion of the project.
"I suppose if I wanted you to know I would have told you," he said.
"I suppose you would have," I replied.
Ravek focused on his terminal for several minutes. It was during these stretches when he often became grim and moody, because he knew that I was better at this sort of thing than he was, his substantial experience in interstellar travel utterly failing to overcome my innate mathematical talents.
"Do you think the old woman's reactions to your stories about Terrestrian wars were genuine?" he asked suddenly.
Again, I gave his question substantial consideration before answering. I took longer than I had for his previous question but, this time, rather than provide additional hints, he remained focused on his calculations and seemed to ignore me.
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "She lightly teased me about being from a 'warrior race.'"
Ravek didn't smile.
"Your planet has a storied history of war and rebellion," he said. "Your ancient cinema glorified it. Your people were obsessed with violence against what they perceived to be oppressive authority. Do you assume that's a common thread throughout the galaxy?"
I leaned away from my terminal and frowned at his question. I tried to recall the cultural training I had received in officer's school and regretted blowing off such courses in favor of science and mathematics.
"Do you think it's more common or less common than economically-driven cannibalism?"
I still didn't have an answer.
"Or does it matter?"
I rubbed my chin and returned to my calculations. "Are you telling me that that planet we were on has never had an armed rebellion?"
"It's never had a successful armed rebellion."
We worked in silence for a few more minutes as I mused over our discussion, and Ravek's apparent attempt to equate righteous revolution with cannibalism. "Are you going to tell me what you were doing down there?" I asked.
"What have we been talking about?" he said.
I looked up at him. I could tell he was getting to the point where his calculations began to tax his patience. "You mean to tell me we just made an interplanetary voyage so I could have a dinner date?"
"If you think that was just a dinner date, you have more to learn than I thought," he grumbled. "The Fleet has a lot planned for you and we need to make sure you have the right instincts. You're going to run into a lot of different creatures out here, and not all of them are going to serve you food and listen to your boring stories about the American Revolution."
Now my patience was thinning. "I'm about finished over here if you want me to take anything over," I said, immediately regretting that I had done so. Ravek glared at me and tapped a few keys on his terminal, filling my own screen with undeciphered codes. He stood up.
"Let me know when you're through," he said. "I'll be in the lounge."
The codes Ravek left were challenging but not exceedingly difficult, and as I trudged through them I began to wonder what our inevitable departure would look like from the ground below.