Food For Thought

“We’re missing something important,” Galena said. “Let’s recap.”

Ramesh sighed. “Again?” He looked around their small study‌—‌charts on the walls, computers running data checks and pooling information, the remains of lunch, half-finished coffee mugs. The blinds were drawn, but birdsong crept in, out of place in this stuffy environment. “Okay. From first contact.”

So they talked, everything they already knew. How the Florans had made contact with the new life-form, formed a bond, then brokered a meeting between this new race and Earth. How the Florans initially acted as interpreters, until Human linguists understood the mouth-less Dakkars’ strange movements and could translate them into words.

“They don’t lack mouths, though,” Ramesh reminded her. “Feeding holes, just no vocal cords.”

“Could be important.” Galena shuffled, fingered another sandwich before dropping it on her plate. A fly buzzed close, and she shooed it away.

They discussed the months of meetings. Dakkar culture was ritual-heavy, and even the simplest task became a performance. They were a complex race, patient and intelligent. They understood Human standard within weeks, even if they couldn’t replicate the vocal sounds.

The meetings culminated in a summit, on a craft in neutral space, with about five hundred delegates from each of the two races. Reports were promising, especially when the Dakkars prepared a celebratory meal, a special food that they indicated would seal the bond between two advanced races.

“That’s just one translation, though,” Galena said. “Could mean ‘enlightened’, not ‘advanced’.”

There was still debate over this, but Galena argued for the duality hypothesis, that Dakkars saw every living species as either enlightened‌—‌and therefore worthy of contemplation and discourse with‌—‌or unenlightened. The unenlightened included the vast majority of known species, and their instinct-driven lifestyle put them beneath Dakkar contemplation, generally worthy only of indifference. But when animals encroached on Dakkar territory, and when persuasion didn’t remove them, the newly-discovered race resorted to sudden, effective violence to rid themselves of the nuisance.

“Enlightened,” Ramesh snorted. “Enlightened enough to poison our delegates.”

The meal, consisting of a strange soup-like food many of the delegates found extremely tasty, seemed to go well. But within the hour many delegates complained of stomach aches. Then came sickness and nausea, and by the following morning all five hundred were dead.

The Dakkars jettisoned the bodies into space and returned to their home world, as if nothing had happened.

Of course, Earth couldn’t stand for that kind of treatment. When the Florans declared themselves neutral and refused to act as intermediaries, and when all attempts to converse with the Dakkars fell on deaf ears, those in charge felt there was only one way to right this grievous wrong.

The first strike against the Dakkar home planet was met with brutal resistance, and only a few vessels limped back to Earth. The next strike, with a force ten times the size, destroyed a few strategic sites, but again Dakkar defences wiped out the attackers.

“But they never retaliated,” Galena said. “Beyond defending themselves they’ve acted as if we don’t exist.”

And now, Earth had decided on final assault, using everything they had. Third time lucky, they said. This time, mankind would make the Dakkars pay.

“They’ll annihilate us,” Ramesh said. “They just swat us aside like flies.”

Galena gasped. Ramesh looked up. “What?”

“That’s it! I know what’s happening.”

It took her an hour to make him understand. And when he finally understood, Ramesh didn’t want to believe it was so simple, yet also so hard.

* * *

“Explain,” the Overseer said as Ramesh stood before the man’s imposing desk. Behind him, the blinds were open, and a bird sat on a tree-branch. A fly buzzed lazily in through the window. “Make it simple.”

“Yes, sir.” Ramesh took a breath. “We’ve studied the food they fed the delegates, and we know how an enzyme, close enough to those in our own bodies to bypass any poison detection, acted to break down cell walls in the body. This doesn’t happen with Florens, though, and we suspect the Dakkars are unaffected too.”

“So it was a subtle poison.” Ramesh’s boss drawled. His fingers started tapping a rhythm on the desk.

Ramesh shook his head. “It destroys cells in most living beings. The only creatures native to Earth that seems immune are certain species of cat, and we know that the Dakkars requested five hundred of these creatures. As far as we know, they still have them.”

“I’m aware of this. But what of it?”

“You know the theories on how they see other life-forms, and how they treat unenlightened species. Well…” Ramesh swallowed. This was harder than he’d expected. “They said the meal was a ritual. We thought they meant this in some symbolic way‌—‌but what if it was more of a test?”

Something tickled the back of Ramesh’s ear. He slapped, then brought his hand round and examined it.

“Go on.” The Overseer stared at Ramesh, his fingers still tapping.

“What if, in their eyes, only enlightened species are immune to that enzyme?”

The Overseer’s mouth twitched. His fingers froze.

“We’re not worthy,” Ramesh said, holding out his hand. “We get too close, they swat us away.” He saw the Overseer’s eyes drop to his palm, to the blackened mark, all that remained of the annoying fly. “And if we don’t move fast enough…”

He didn’t need to complete the sentence. The Overseer shut his eyes tight, clenched his jaw. “We can’t win,” he whispered. “We’re doomed.”

Outside, the bird tweeted a melodic trill.

Ramesh smiled. He’d thought the same thing, but Galena had given him a different way of approaching the problem. She’d found the thing they’d been missing. “No, sir. We can still survive. But only if we leave the Dakkars alone.”

Outside, the bird flapped its wings and flew away, not caring about the two men in the office. It soared into the sky in blissful ignorance.

Ramesh watched it fly free.

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  1. Pingback: New short story – ‘Food For Thought’ | T. W. Iain

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