Stella Lam unpacked and checked her comm. Dr. Lam, once you are situated, let’s head over to the Deltoid compound, said the message from Councilman Warren.
At twenty-five past midnight, local time, she suited up, grabbed the aquatic attachments, and beamed the recipe and container selection to the Nutrigen. By the time she walked into the common room, the paste waited for her, sealed in a newly-minted titanium flask.
Warren sat alone at the table, chewing thunderously on something pink and brittle. An old-school, Earth-bred bureaucrat with graying facial hair.
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Lam.” He waved, then pointed at the flask in her hand. “What’s that?”
He had an infuriatingly charming patrician accent.
“Protein paste, jointly designed as edible for both Deltoids and humans.” She clipped the flask to her aquatic attachments backpack. “What do you have?”
“This, here? A fruit wafer, or so the Nutrigen calls it. Tastes like plastic; everything out of that awful machine does. But haven’t you got your gadgets mixed up? Deltoids aren’t aquatic.”
Clearly, he’d never seen them eat.
“What’s your agenda for this meeting?” she asked, ignoring his gaffe.
“Befriending them, I suppose. We’re quite stuck at the Council without the Deltoid support. You’re the exospecies expert. Do your thing, make them like you.”
“From my experience in the Joint Fleet, liking someone is as alien a concept to a Deltoid as eating and shitting concurrently through one’s skin is to a human.”
If her language rattled him, he didn’t show it.
“About that, Dr. Lam… I understand that the Joint Fleet tends to recruit from the outposts, whereas the Deltoids on the Council all come from their native world. Might there be…” His dainty fingers combed the air for words. “…Cultural distinctions, perhaps, as between Earth-born and space-born humans?”
Arrogant Earthie sonofabitch.
“Let’s not overblow culture, ours or theirs. Fundamentally, it’s all biology.”
She walked out. Warren didn’t follow until he finished his wafer.
As expected, the airlock warmed the ambience to a crispy 390 Kelvin, quadrupled the pressure and cycled the preferred Deltoid mix of 18% oxygen, 25% hydrosulfide. What Lam hadn’t expected was the gravity ratcheting up to their homeworld’s brutal 2.2g. Her suit adjusted, but not enough to fully tune out the sensation of a gorilla straddling her back.
“Too old for this,” Warren muttered on the suit-to-suit channel.
A single Deltoid waited beyond the bulkhead, blending into its dank, grey surroundings in the brownish light. It stood on three of its limbs. The green, deltoid-shaped appendage at the end of the raised, fourth limb was half-open, smelling in the direction of the human visitors — an acknowledgment of presence, neither hostile, nor enthusiastic.
“Greetings, friend. Thank you for your invitation,” said Dr. Lam.
“Your kind’s initiative — we note — to arrange this meeting,” came through the translator channel.
“We offer you food inside this container.” She held out the flask. “To unseal it, press at the end nearest you.”
The host accepted the flask into its deltoid, spread out like a human’s open palm. It lifted its body into a bipedal stance (its uterine sack, dubbed the “skull” by laymen, now towered over three meters from the floor) and touch-smelled the flask with both free limbs.
Dr. Lam missed when it pinched the flask open. One moment the container was intact; the next, the Deltoid was squeezing the contents out of a crack in the middle of the crumpled titanium tube.
“I don’t think it followed your opening instructions,” said Warren.
It touch-smelled the paste with the deltoid of its free limb, then smothered a dollop over the bark-like skin of the limb holding the bottle.
“Substance I sample — while unsatisfying — does nourish.”
“I designed it while working together with your kind in the Joint Fleet. It meets both our species’ nutrition needs. Collaborating on the Council can lead us to other achievements.”
“Good, good,” cheered Warren.
The Deltoid settled down onto all four limbs.
“To take nourishment — as I proceed — you may follow.”
Without backing or turning, the host reoriented its four-way symmetric body and headed away, leaving the crumpled flask on the floor. Humans followed it to a better-lit, vast, open space, dominated by an oval pool filled with maroon brine. Dr. Lam counted seven foodbathing Deltoids, their skulls bobbing above the surface at the far end.
The host entered the pool one limb at a time, sinking with stately deliberation, until only the skull remained on the surface.
“You may enter — as my kind eat — if able.”
Dr. Lam attached the arm fins and fastened the flippers onto her boots.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” Warren sounded tense.
“You bet. Next time, bring your gear. The best schmoozing happens at foodbath. That’s what you wanted, right?”
She sat down on the edge and dropped her feet in. Or rather, on top. The brine felt unusually dense, and she turned her flippers edgewise to get them submerged. Now the gravity was pulling her in.
She tried to kick.
“What the… How do they swim in this…” she muttered, putting all her force into a kick, but her legs seemed cemented in place, and sinking.
She pushed with her fins against the surface, checked the readouts on the servomotors — nothing wrong with the suit or attachments.
“Anything wrong, Dr. Lam?”
“Yes.” She had never felt so humiliated. “This one’s too dense to swim in. Pull me out… please.”
Now her right arm was stuck, too.
He knelt at the edge, grabbed her left wrist and pulled. Nothing changed.
“Friends, my equipment isn’t working. Please help me exit the foodbath.” Blackness covered the visor. She felt Warren lose hold of her wrist. “Warren, get me the fuck out of here!”
“Stay calm, Dr. Lam. You’ve got oxygen… Friends, could you pull her out please?”
“Those on uncouth periphery worlds — unlike us — may dredge their meager foodbaths.”
“That which fully submerged — undisturbed — shall be let become food.”
Sarah Sotan writes in Vermont, USA.