by Kevin Ikenberry
Enandi sponsored me into the workshops of the Elai. Once they determined our human trades had an equivalent in their society, the Elai immediately engaged in efforts to communicate with us and learn from us. They learned our languages fast. When every male, female, and child could speak Mandarin fluently a day or two later, we should have known the situation was different. No one could have known how different it was.
Arrival at Elai-Four, a habitable planet in the constellation Virgo, took about four years less than we expected. We entered the system on the fringe of their star’s habitable zone about thirty-five million miles from the planet and studied it for six months before moving closer. After two years, we positioned ourselves in orbit for continued observation. Immediately we saw the fingerprints of an advanced civilization. Unintelligible signals bombarded our hull and what appeared to be artificial lights flickered in settlements across the globe. After six weeks, cabin fever won out over prudence and we made first contact. We landed to open arms and immediately set about teaching these primitive aliens.
The inhabitants were bipedal, muscular, and stocky. Pale skin and wide dark eyes, the male and females of the species looked remarkably similar and equally unattractive. We studied them through every means available to determine their capabilities. They were simple, solidly built aliens. Rising at dawn, they farmed in much higher gravity than Earth and built their nascent industries. There was no play, no dance, no music, just a rigid work ethic that kept them busy and at peace. We’d observed them for almost three years without any obvious signs of internal conflict.
Enandi touched the shoulder of my sweat-stained tunic with the heavy pressure of what the Elai took for a flirt. “You are sweaty, Stewart,” there was a touch of drawl in her voice that made me think of Madeline from hydroponics.
“Thank you, Enandi. Warm today.” I grunted on the crude metal bearing she’d built into what we’d call a windmill.
“Is my work acceptable?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Things just break some times. That’s what engineers do. Build and fix, build and fix.”
“Such an important task.”
“There’s always something to work on. It’s how humanity went from building windmills to traveling the stars.”
Enandi leaned close. “And you will share how with me?”
“It’s our mission, Enandi. We will help you.” I grunted a little more on the bearing and tried not to laugh at her tuneless whistling. She went from The Who, to Miles Davis, to Lady Gaga, effortlessly. The Elai were such fast learners. At this rate, I’d teach them everything I knew in a week or less.
“Stewart,” Enandi said as the red-yellow sun set. “Tonight, you will become one with us. It is a singular honor. Your place in our culture will be much different from the others.”
Her rapt look of pleasure made me smile. “I’m honored, Enandi. I will need to report to my superiors.”
“It has been cleared, Stewart. A special night comes for you.”
Special it was. The Grand Hall held two hundred Elai, their elders sitting on a semi-circular dais. The heavenly smells of Elai cooking filled the room. A cheer erupted as I entered. Short pudgy fingers groped my tunic as I walked into the room. I saw no other humans, but it didn’t frighten me. I’d worked alone with the Elai for weeks. I took my place at the dais and nodded solemnly to the elders.
“Stewart,” Ba’hom nodded to me. The most regal of the Elai and supreme ruler, his face was the contorted grin of excitement. “You, alone among your peers, have been chosen for an honor that words cannot express. Do you accept this offer?”
I shrugged. “Noble Ba’hom I do not understand such honor. Why am I alone amongst my peers?”
“You are by-far the most knowledgeable. You work on windmills like you work on nuclear reactors. Enandi says you can build anything, and you have earned a trust with her that no other Elai has found with your peers. For that, we ask you to join us. Help us reach for the stars.”
“I certainly will do that, Ba’hom.” I nodded solemnly and a cheer rose from the room.
Ba’hom stood. “Then Stewart, you shall gain the gifts we share.”
A large goblet came to me, and I drank it in three quick swallows. Another cheer went up and I felt like every synapse in my brain quivered to life. My eyes watered as Ba’hom brought a ceremonial dish and laid it in front of me.
“Stewart, feast with me. Share our gift.” He uncovered the dish with a flourish that distracted my eyes. When I looked down again, my stomach quivered. Commander Quincy’s severed head rested amongst freshly grilled Elai legumes. Two decidedly female forearms framed the dish and I realized that plucked eyeballs and testicles were garnishes. Quincy’s skull rested completely open and the gray matter of his brain glistened in the light. “Learn with me Commander Quincy’s unique talents, Stewart. Then take us into the stars.”
There was time for an argument in my soul. No wonder the Elai learned our languages and manners so quickly. How many others had they feasted upon? I knew the answer as my knees began to quake.
“Am..am I the only one left?”
Ba’hom nodded, his mouth curled in the Elai bright smile. “You alone were chosen, Stewart.”
If I refused, I would suffer the same fate. I could bargain a little, maybe buy some time, but most likely I would be the next meal. The collective breath of the crowd pressed against the back of my neck. My knees quaked and failed. I sat heavily in the chair and looked up at Ba’hom. The room crashed in upon me as the Elai began a toneless ceremonial chant. Shuddering and asking for forgiveness, from whom I did not know, I leaned forward and feasted.
It wasn’t as bad as I expected, though. We taste a lot like chicken.
©2016 Kevin Ikenberry — Published electronically at DigitalFictionPub.com: February 15, 2016. You may link to or share this post with full and proper attribution; however, the author retains the complete and unrestricted copyright to this work. Commercial use or distribution of any kind is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.