From the air, the planet looked like one continuous hilly park punctuated irregularly by immense tower complexes that reached into low orbit. The surface was almost entirely covered in a continuous manicured lawn that stretched between the deep artificial canyons from which innumerable offices and dwellings hung. Absolutely none of it belonged to the Local Economic Supercluster. They merely rented space on Proebdus, along with half a million other treaty organizations, trade associations, nongovernmental agencies, intergovernmental agencies, think tanks, research institutes, and companies of all kinds, both public and private. It was a bureaucratic haven. There was a small population of natives, but they were not indigenous. There was no indigenous life, apparently, which was why the planet had been lightly terraformed at some point in its past and why nothing grazed on the endless miles of rolling green carpet.
Still, the natives had been so long ago settled that no one remembered where they came from. Genetic analysis suggested they were descended from a now-extinct race of cephalopods that had originated halfway across the galaxy, but if so, no one had any idea how they could’ve arrived on Proebdus so long before discovery of the Strand, nor why their technology was limited to what on Earth would be called early-20th century. It was a mystery, and one Sawyer would’ve liked to investigate—or at least to see—but the delegation’s schedule was set and it seemed the closest she would get was the detour they were taking to an open-air market in the old sector, some 800 kilometers to the northwest, where Allafphallaggia had arranged a photo opportunity to highlight the plight of the human race. It was his hope that a snippet of footage would run on the news ahead of any reports on their testimony from later that day.
The shuttle landed near one of the space towers. Looking up from the landing bay, Sawyer could almost see the docking ring, a massive hemispherical disc resting near-weightless at the top of the enormous column, but the violet Proebdan sky was too hazy to reveal much detail. She did, however, catch a glimpse of the dark, angular Sanhaalen gunship that had apparently been escorting them from high above.
Allafphallaggia led the delegation like a tour guide. They stretched in a chain behind him as they walked along a narrow canal and into the old market. Sawyer had been told to stay behind the generals, but since no one had specified how far, she let herself drift toward the back. Gravity on Proebdus was weaker than on Earth, and she felt certain she could leap over the canal without much effort. But then what? If Allafphallaggia was to be believed, every one of them was a potential target. He had definitely prepared for the worst. The security was unbelievable. It seemed as if every one of the Sanhaalen androids she had seen on the Seabeam had been cloned a dozen or more times, and they formed a biomechanical barrier around the rectangular market, which they were told had been thoroughly scanned for weapons.
Unlike the narrow artificial canyons that meandered across most of the planet’s surface, the squat natural canyon that held the old town was shallow and nearly a mile wide. The structures of the nearby town were visible from the market only as dark shapes poking over the spikes of the “trees,” which had been imported along with every other living thing. The market sat in a depression in the land and was dim. Its dark-metal stalls looked more like something out of colonial Spain than the lost culture of an alien planet. But then, Sawyer supposed, there were only so many ways to economically cast metal into a shelter.
The film crew was already waiting to record the tour, and as the delegation walked down the ramp, floating cameras moved over them, recording their reactions. There was much to take in. The diverse nature of the planet’s business meant that the market sold an unusual variety of foods from around the galaxy. Allafphallaggia stood back and let the delegation be filmed as they wandered in small groups. Samples of fruits and vegetables and things that were not fruits or vegetables were offered at many of the stalls, and some of the delegation were braver than others. Sawyer’s favorite were the betel nuts, which looked somewhat like walnut-sized coconuts but were much easier to peel. Under layers of fibrous husk was a hollow nut encasing a squirming grub. A lobster-sized species of soft-shelled crustacean used a stinger to implant their fertilized eggs inside the green buds of the betel plant, which it also defended. As the nuts ripened, the husks hardened, and the eggs hatched. The grubs ate the nutmeat from the inside, protected by the hard shell, until they were large enough to emerge and fly away. Betel nuts were an Ixct delicacy and popular holiday gift, and they were often boxed like chocolates. If chewed quickly, Sawyer discovered, the unpleasant sensation of a live grub in the mouth could be avoided, and it seemed more like the nuts contained a cream filling vaguely reminiscent of peanut butter. The nutmeat itself was fairly bland but contained a small amount of psychoactive stimulant, as did the leaves of the plant from which it grew, which had been chewed as an analgesic in the time before advanced medicine.
It was surprising, the ambassador explained to Sawyer, how similar clusters of molecules tended to have psychoactive effects on completely diverse species.
She was a prim, smartly dressed, uptight Indian woman, and Sawyer was surprised to note a slight flushing at her temples.
These effects were not identical, the ambassador was quick to note. Gnictarians, for example, had an extreme reaction to betel nuts, whereas she’d read that a few other species had no reaction at all. But for the most part, if a compound was psychoactive on one planet, it was highly likely to be elsewhere as well, which suggested that consciousness, despite its various manifestations across the universe, relied on some base physical characteristics.
“Don’t you think?” she asked Sawyer before peeling and chewing another nut.
The pair of them had had too many, Sawyer decided. The ambassador was getting gabby, and Sawyer was fighting the urge to giggle at the woman, who was getting high on an alien planet only hours before they were scheduled to testify in a last-ditch effort to save the species.
That urge to laugh faded quickly as Allafphallaggia revealed his big surprise. He pulled a tarp from a refrigerated box that displayed one half of a woman’s torso, single breast and all, along with several select cuts from her loins. A hush took the delegation as Sawyer’s Wealing Suit visually translated the sign over the box, which described the contents as “Fatty Human” and “98% Organic.” The sign also promised that any quantity of the meat could be ground for a small surcharge. Suddenly, she wanted to toss the bag of betel nuts she’d bought. She began to feel sick.
“The horror!” Allafphallaggia said. “We see it now as clear as starlight!”
He was laying it on a bit thick, she thought, especially since it was highly likely that to him the butchered corpse looked no different than the cormark meat did to her. (Cormark, she had learned four stalls back, was a kind of multi-armed flying grazer that tasted remarkably like chicken.)
All of the cameras were now focused on Allafphallaggia.
“Here goes any one of us,” he said gravely, pointing to the quartered corpse, “but for our lack of deliciousness.”
“KEELTHI FREEDOM NOW!” an alien shouted before exploding over the market.
Everyone ducked, but it was too late. All those nearby, including Sawyer and the ambassador, were splattered with red-violet Keelthi plasm, which stained both clothes and skin. Fearing an additional threat, a complement of Sanhaalen androids teleported into a circle around the delegation, rifles ready, as most of the market flickered and disappeared. Only the delegation, the androids, a handful of aliens, and a smattering of their wares remained. Everything else had been a hologram, including the human corpse and the three rows of stalls at the back, which apparently did not exist and had been added for effect—to make the market seem bigger and more bustling than it was. In truth, it was a damp, decrepit place and nothing like the vibrant photo opportunity Allafphallaggia and the delegation needed to make an impression on the cosmos.
A small crowd from the old town had gathered at the barrier, and jeers started immediately. A line of aliens of seemingly every possible color and shape pushed against the android wall, which didn’t budge. But they weren’t protesting. They were laughing. As the delegation was hurried back to the waiting shuttle, the angular gunship appeared overhead, as if anticipating trouble. The crowd quieted to a whisper as its shadow fell over them. From the look on her face, Sawyer guessed the ambassador had been in on the ruse. She seemed more disappointed than angry. She was also stumbling slightly, and Sawyer held her arm, which she quickly removed. The betel nuts were wearing off. Dizziness was a common side effect.
Sawyer wiped slime from her face and arms and was thankful her Wealing Suit had prevented her skin from permanently turning an awful shade of red. Responding to a verbal query, her suit explained in words and pictures that the Keelthi were a mostly harmless species of sentient kelp who evolved under conditions of extreme seasonal variability and who underwent an uncontrollable urge to self-immolate whenever their numbers reached a certain size, the same way lemmings will sometimes throw themselves over a cliff or cells in the body will undergo apoptosis for the good of the whole. In a modern context, the urge was maladaptive, and most Keelthi fought it. But just as some humans succumbed to the compunction to over-eat or engaged in risky behavior for sex, immolation was both part of the Keelthi genome and part of their culture. They didn’t even need explosives. They simply inflated an internal elastic sac by gulping air until it finally ruptured with heat and force. According to whatever public database the suit had accessed, the Keelthi were not oppressed, but it was true they did not have a representative government, for every such institution had failed at one time or another in a bout of imitative immolation, and so a council of stable alien races was appointed to oversee Keelthi affairs. Of course, that didn’t stop a handful of zealots from believing in conspiracy and detonating themselves in public places across the galaxy.
“It was the cameras,” Allafphallaggia explained from the front. He had extended his appendages so that he was standing tall over everyone. “I must apologize. We should’ve known better. Publicity acts as a kind of trigger. We’re never the same when we’re watched!”
As she passed near the android barrier, Sawyer caught enough of an echo that her translator module could render some of the alien whispers.
“Humans?” one of them asked. “They eat humans, don’t they?”
Excerpt from my sci-fi short, They Eat Humans, Don’t They?