Alright, bit of a miracle that I managed to get this written despite Mother's Day and the release of Tears of the Kingdom tanking my weekend, but I said I'd be posting Tuesdays, and I'm sticking to my guns.
The conversation's growing a little more heated today, and I took a swing at explaining a bit more about how Sifal's head works.
There was also a recurring request in the Discord for a crocodile to appear, so I worked that into the narrative as best as I could. [First]
---------------------- Memory Transcription Subject: Ensign Sifal, Arxur Dominion Fleet Date [standardized human time]: October 18, 2136
After David’s little outburst, I had a few new things on my mind, but a question was a question. What had been my favorite dish so far? Well, first, in the name of completion, I popped one of the smoked sardines into my mouth. It was another strong-tasting oily fish like the salmon, but this one had been cooked through. It was soft and flaky, with a savoriness tempered by sweet smoke. “Did you smoke this over wood from fruit trees?” I asked, curious.
David blinked. “Yes, actually. Good catch. Cherrywood is the main one, but I used a few others like hickory to round out the flavor profile. Common wisdom says those are a little too intense for smoking fish, but I felt the sardines had a strong enough flavor on their own to stand up to the smoke. Still, it took some practice to get the wood chip blend right.”
I nodded. “It’s pretty good. I think my favorites from this course were the raw options, though, especially the fish,” I said, pointing at the adjacent trio of Lox, Jamon Iberico, and Prosciutto. “We don’t really cook our food much.” I also gestured to the blood sausage he’d brought out. “The pinuneg was interesting, too. It tasted like some kind of fortified health remedy. Oh, and the foie gras from the first course was life-changing. I’m never unhappy to see liver and eggs.”
David looked deep in concentration. “Alright, so to sum up: raw foods, stronger flavors, more varied cuts?” I nodded. “I think I can work with that,” said David. “It’s a pity that I don’t have the supplies for sashimi, but let me see what I can put together.” He shook his head angrily as he trotted off towards the fridge. “World just had
to end on a fuckin’ Wednesday, didn’t it?” he grumbled. “Now my Thursday seafood delivery’s fucked, and I’m stuck here shucking last week’s oysters.”
As David rummaged through his fridge looking for food fresh enough to meet his professional standards, I kept nibbling on the charcuterie still in front of me. The mustard sauce was intensely sour and biting, but a little bit countered the fatty excesses of the soppressata nicely. The chimichurri sauce added a lovely bit of zesty herbal notes to the otherwise bland mortadella. Both sauces overpowered the raw morsels, though, so I kept those dry.
“Do I want to know why you recognize the smell of burning fruit trees?” William asked me, his lip curled in distaste.
“They weren’t my trees,” I said simply. I wasn’t going to lie to him, but I also didn’t want his hand drifting to his sidearm again.
“Did you fight on the Cradle?”
I tilted my head. “I’m a ship’s engineer. Today’s the first time I’ve been deployed planetside in years.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“You should say what you mean, then,” I offered cheerfully.
William grumbled something about crocodiles under his breath. I kept hearing that word, but the translator wasn’t giving me enough context. It was some kind of non-sapient, reptilian, aquatic predator native to Earth, but that didn’t tell me what they had in common with the Arxur.
“Hey, David,” I started. He looked up from his work, which appeared to involve glaring at his food prep station while making wet “schlup” noises using a tiny flat shiv on something that smelled like the sea. “What’s a crocodile? I’ve been getting called that all morning.”
David blinked, then ditched his rubber gloves again before fiddling with his holopad. “Apex predator, common in the wetlands far to the south of here where it’s warmer. They kinda look like you guys to our eyes.” He gestured out a ways in front of his face. “It’s the maw, mostly.” He flipped the holopad around to show me a picture.
I recoiled in horror at the hideous creature. “Augh! Why is it quadrupedal? Why are its eyes wrong!? Why is it green
David turned the holopad back around, and flicked his eyes back and forth between the thankfully now-hidden image and me. “...did I just Uncanny Valley you?” I settled myself back into my chair, and gestured for David to explain. “It’s a psychological phenomenon where things that look almost
like a person, but somehow wrong,
are viscerally repulsive?”
“Sure,” I said, my heart rate still elevated, “that’s about right.” It was a little surprising that the humans had evidently made enough of a study of psychology to have words for such a highly specific phenomenon. The two U.N. scouts with me looked amused at my discomfort. “Oh fuck off. How would you like it if some weird-faced human with sickly green skin was scrabbling around on all fours?”
“I think I’ve seen that creepypasta,” said David. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at me, considering. “Wait, did you just use an analogy to visualize another person as equivalent to yourself?”
What the fuck kind of question was that? Where was he going with--oh no.
“I thought that required mirror neurons,” David said. “You’re demonstrating cognitive empathy.”
It took active effort to keep my hands relaxed enough to not dig my claws into the table. “I just have a heightened knack for cunning and strategy,” I lied. “That doesn’t mean I care
about other people.” I was specifically instructed not
to care, so I didn’t. I didn’t!
David eyed me quizzically. “You’re lecturing a pack predator on the strategic advantages of empathy? ‘If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles’. That’s from a two and a half thousand
year old treatise on warfare.” David turned back to his holopad. “I can forward you a digital copy if you like. The actual warfare parts are a bit outdated, naturally, but you might enjoy the ‘play the player, not the game’ parts.”
He fussed with his holopad for a bit, looking frustrated. “Say, you said you were an engineer, how do I--” He looked up at me and stopped short. I genuinely was
carving grooves into the table at this point, clutching the edge in a death grip. “Sifal, empathy is a virtue among humans. It’s fine. Different planet, different social mores.”
I didn’t quite relax just yet--they knew too much!--but I was able to let go of the table, at least. I hated not knowing social mores. HATED it! I spent most of my youth being punished for not just being born magically
able to pick up on social cues. “Sifal, you have to look at people when they’re talking to you. Sifal, you can’t look at people that much
when they’re talking to you, staredowns are dominance challenges. Sifal, stop fucking caring
about other people and just look out for yourself!” Fuck! I was older now! I thought I’d figured out all the rules by now! I wasn’t supposed to be clueless
anymore, I got to enjoy being called professional
But no. New planet, new people, new rules. “Judging by the reactions of the people I was actively rescuing,
” I said aloud, rubbing my temples, “I feel like I’ve somehow broken every Terran social rule since I’ve gotten here. Everyone’s mad at me, and I don’t understand why.”
The scouts both perked up, affronted, and started shouting. “Bullshit! What do you mean you don’t understand?!”
David swiped a hand through the air, cutting them off. He stared at me, considering. “Okay, is that a genuine, good-faith question?” I nodded slowly. “Alright, fine. The root problem is actually pretty simple: we don’t acknowledge the predator-prey dichotomy that you guys and the Federation seem to share. Like… of all the stupid fucking reasons we’ve invented over the ages to rationalize discrimination, I don’t think we’ve ever developed a social framework for discrimination specifically based on nutritional requirements
, and we certainly haven’t developed one in the past three months
since we’ve discovered we aren’t alone in the universe. Take that divide away, though, and what does that leave you? We’re mad at the Arxur because the way you’ve been treating the Venlil offends us the same as if you’d been doing that to a group of humans. Hell, most of us are surprised and confused that you aren’t
treating humans that way.”
My mind reeled. THAT was what they were upset about? “But… but you’re people!” I said, floundering, as I repeated what I’d been taught. “The prey aren’t people!”
“That is our favorite
lie we tell ourselves,” said David, his mouth twisting in chagrin. “Those other guys over there, they don’t really
count as people, not like you and I do, so we can do whatever we want to them.” He shook his head and gestured northwest, back towards the city center. “The word Manhattan is from the Lenape language, but the Lenape people don’t really live there anymore. Can you guess what we did to them?”
Whatever they wanted, I supposed. Still, that was just a territorial dispute between two groups of true hunters, right? Not like our
war for survival. “That’s completely different!”
“Oh neat, ‘it’s different when we do it’! That’s our second-favorite lie we tell ourselves!” David said, suddenly grinning. What part of this was so damn amusing to him? “You’re on a roll, buddy! Wanna go three for three?”
I snarled in frustration despite myself. This was ridiculous. “Look, we were starving. We had no other choice!”
“And there ya go!” said David, laughing with his dark sense of humor. “That’s three out of three! ‘We had no other options’!” David’s grin faded. “And you’re correct. Had. Past tense. Because, as of yesterday, you now have options.” David gestured back at his freezer full of meat. “You know I normally sell
this, right? Might be a rocky road before an alliance is on the table, but most of us humans would happily cut a trade deal with the actual literal devil. And after yesterday’s performance by the Federation, I think we’re probably in the market for guns and ships, if you’re looking to barter for beef.”
I slumped in my chair and gave all this new information a little time to grow. David went back to making his weird seafood noises. Were humans all this oddly self-reflective about their own thoughts and motivations? I decided to give self-reflection a shot myself, and immediately noticed that I was extrapolating wildly from a single data point. David
was prone to self-reflection; William and Charmaine were frankly standoffish assholes. At least I had a better picture of why they were mad now. The two soldiers didn’t seem to have my knack for compartmentalizing emotions on command. But David did, though? I squinted at him as he worked. I didn’t know any chefs aside from him. Did chefs typically reference millennia-old military treatises and advanced psychological concepts in casual conversation? What else did he know off the top of his head?
“David, what’s your favorite work of art?” I asked.
The scouts looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and even David did a double-take. It still took him less time to answer than it took him to register the question in the first place. “Medea, by William Wetmore Story,” he answered. “It’s a marble statue of a vengeful sorceress from Greek mythology. It’s such a beautifully understated statue, given the subject matter. She’s just standing there, holding a knife, contemplating, like she’s deciding on who deserves to be stabbed next.” He was twirling his knife idly as he spoke; he abruptly stopped as he caught himself doing it. “They kept it in a sunlit indoor sculpture garden in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I used to go there on rainy days and just sit on a bench nearby and read.” David took a shaky breath. “She’s slag now.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, and I think I was starting to mean it.
David shook his head. “I think that’s what bothers me the most about the bombings, honestly. Obviously, there’s the human cost. Obviously,
there’s all the lives lost. But those stones were there before us, and they should have been there after us.” He slammed the knife down, briefly overcome by emotion. He rested his forehead awkwardly on his wrist, too disciplined even now to let his gloves touch his face. “You know, The Starry Night was in fucking midtown, right? Most beautiful picture of the night sky we’ve ever painted, and then we traveled
to that sky and made new friends, and not a single alien ever got to see it before they burned it.”
William looked at him quizzically. “There were other copies of The Starry Night, though, right?”
David’s eyes went wide with a level of sheer hate I had seen on humans all morning, but which I’d yet to see on him. “That was Van Gogh’s self-portraits, you uncultured peasant fuck!” he shouted. “The only painting even close was his Starry Night Over the Rhône, and that was at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris! Again, how’s France doing?!”
William slunk back into his seat, and I jumped in to redirect. “Are chefs typically this well-read?”
David sighed. “Not… really? It’s not like it’s a job requirement. I just enjoy learning different things. Keeps me sharp and adaptable.” He shrugged, and doffed his gloves once again. “Sapients shouldn’t overspecialize. The world could turn itself upside-down again tomorrow, and nobody wants to end up as the best accountant in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.”
He brought out another platter, just a big sharing one this time--was he starting to trust me more?--laden with three wildly different types of raw seafood. “That’s everything that’s still good enough to serve,” he said. “Oysters on the half-shell, shrimp cocktail, and tuna tartare. This’ll be the last chilled course for a bit, now that the hot food’s nearly done cooking.” He paused for a moment, considering. “You suppose it’s safe to go fishing, or is everything irradiated now?”
I chuckled. “I wouldn’t chance it, but not because of the radiation. Gamma rays are non-ionizing. They don’t really contaminate things. I’d be more worried about the powdered buildings and heavy metals getting into the water.” The humans kept surprising me with their advancements, but at least our engineers and physicists still had an edge. There’d be room enough for both of us in the galaxy, I hoped. Maybe room for more, even, if the funny little omnivores managed to smash the divide between predator and prey.