by T. J. Berg
When Margret stepped out of the Intrans, she almost couldn’t breathe. She was on another planet. It was so hard to believe. She carefully hefted her two bags, not wanting to break the eggs she’d brought. After customs and security screening, she stepped out and looked for a placard with her name. There. A stooped Rfgdt stood with a screen mounted to its head clamp. Margret Cho, it read in red letters. She waved, and the Rfgdt’s twelve limbs and numerous auxiliaries fluttered back at her.
She greeted the Rfgdt in her best Rffy, struggling with its lack of vowel sounds. But she felt it only polite to try. He stood a little too close and had a spicy scent, a little like nutmeg.
“Well met Margret Cho. You may call me Ben. I will be your university liaison for the duration of your visit.” His English was stilted but flawless. It was difficult to understand how they made such diversity of sounds by whipping their limbs and auxiliaries around, but that was exactly why she was here. “Are these your only bags?”
“Oh, no, a shipping company is sending through my equipment. I think the university is arranging delivery?” She switched back to English, knowing he’d probably understand her better.
“Then let us go.” He reached for a bag.
“Oh! I can get it,” she said. “There’s some fragile . . .” She trailed off at his sudden stillness. She had read this was a sign of deep upset in the Rfgdt.
“Eggs?” Ben asked, moving as little as possible to say it.
“Come along then.”
Aside from obvious signs, she knew she could not read a Rfgdt, but she got a distinct sense of cooling down from Ben as he led her to the Spine. He loaded her into a seat and harness across from him, then they shot into the tubes with the other segments.
She plastered her face to the window, watching the bizarre cityscape go by. The giant, hive-like buildings with their branching extensions curling out and up. The sky, not quite the same blue as home. “I can’t believe I’m on an alien world,” she said.
Ben seemed friendly again when he settled her into her quarters. It had been stocked with both human and compatible Rfgdt food and furnishings. She noticed as she set her bags in the doorway that at least four of Ben’s eyes were fixed on them. She wondered if she was reading his interest correctly. She was here to generate a computer model of their body language and communication, or at least a better one than the government issued, so she figured she’d better start asking questions now.
“Am I reading your interest in my luggage correctly, Ben?” she asked.
Three anterior limbs curled in along his back. “Yes. My apologies.”
“Don’t apologize. I think, also, that you seemed . . . upset earlier? Can I ask why?”
The three limbs unfurled, and the rest separated along a distinct line. “I was surprised you brought eggs.”
“Was I wrong not to offer some to you immediately?”
A wave passed over all his limbs. “No,” he said. “I do not eat eggs.”
“But was my advisor wrong in telling me that they are a treasured delicacy here? I was told they would make both welcome gifts and a valuable trade for some local currency.”
Ben gestured with his limbs toward a comfortable chair, then said, “I have a sample of our local coffee-like drink. Just a moment.”
The Rfgdt did not discuss important matters without refreshments, so she waited while Ben prepared a tray of food and drink, introducing her to each item with what seemed like pride. When she was settled and sipping the drink, which tasted something like coffee heavily laced with vanilla, Ben said, “Are the Earth Humans so unaware of the dangers of eggs?”
Margret couldn’t help a laugh. “The dangers? Don’t tell me that the whole exploding aliens things is . . .” She trailed off as his limbs stilled.
“How can humans be so ill-informed? Yes, a small subset of our population can explode violently and kill many of those around us after consuming eggs.”
“That can’t be.”
“Well, it is. I find it very hard to believe that so many humans travel here bringing eggs, all claiming ignorance.”
Margret swallowed and tried to think of how to explain. “There is . . . too much information, I guess you could say. It is not always easy to figure out what information is true, and what isn’t. So we have to decide what seems real.”
“It is real. My niece was killed at school when a teacher exploded after eating egg. Not one neural limb was left. Seventeen children were killed by that teacher.”
Margret set down her cup, throat suddenly tight, trying to comprehend it.
“But, but that’s insane. It’s just an egg.”
“We do not know why some people explode. It is a mystery, it is rare. But it happens and it is very tragic.”
“So why don’t they make it illegal to eat eggs then? I mean, it’s just a luxury food.”
Ben’s many limbs fluttered up into the air with tiny trembles. He mimicked a human sighing sound a moment later, loudly and a bit dramatically. “I know it is hard for humans to understand just how important our freedom to eat whatever foods we like is. But you can think of it like your bees. Our development is directly and strongly guided by our food. For much of our history, large parts of our population were kept in a substandard intellectual state in service of a powerful elite by restricting our access to the foods that put us in a dominant intellectual development path. Imagine bee drones, but feed some larvae on a special diet, and you get a queen. We had a revolution a long time ago that freed us from such tyranny. It is written into our most sacred and ancient governing documents that food choices will not be restricted.”
“But surely they didn’t anticipate this!” Margret said. “That’s insane. If they had thought there was a food that could make you explode and kill so many people . . .”
The flutter again, the loud sigh. “Do you think you are proposing arguments many of us have not thought of? But they say why should the enjoyment of eggs be restricted because some small number of people explode. They say it is their fundamental right to enjoy eggs. Our foods greatly influence our emotions, and consuming eggs gives many people a feeling of power and mastery. They do not want to give it up. And of course, it profits so many. Eggs fetch a high price and travelers like you almost always bring them.”
Margret tried not to let her eyes drift to her bags. “I’m . . . I’m sorry. I suspect that there is purposeful misinformation spread about eggs back home.”
“Yes, I suppose that there must be.”
Margret could not tell if that was sarcasm.
“But, aren’t people scared to eat eggs then? If people die from it?”
“People are very good at justifying what they do. I believe this is true of both our species. I believe what people say most often is that those that explode have some weakness, but that they do not, or the exploders do not prepare the egg correctly, while they do, or even that it is something else entirely that makes them explode. Do not blame the egg.” The words, neatly articulated, came out strangely flat. “Besides, often times the one that explodes even survives. The outward blast annihilates much that surrounds them, but frequently leaves enough of their own neural limbs intact for resurrection.”
“I see,” Margret said. She thought of the expensive egg cases she purchased to preserve the eggs through Intrans. Well worth the investment. Three dozen eggs and you’ll have a nice supplement to the university income. You can really get out and see the planet on three dozen eggs. That’s what the dealer told her.
A flurry of movement drew Margret’s attention. Ben stood up. “Excuse my poor manners. Intrans is tiring. I will be back this evening to continue your orientation. There will be a small dinner for you so you can meet your team.”
His many appendages all drew together in front of him in an elaborate knot, the various colors sliding into an alignment that, when finished, showed a pattern of a blue lightning bolt slashed across a red field. This was something like a bow, something like a good bye, and a revealing of Ben’s Rfgdt sigil to grant her respect.
“Thank you,” Margret said. “Uh, and thank you for, letting me know about the egg problem. I am very sorry, about your niece.”
“Good day, Margret Cho,” was all Ben said. Then he left her alone. She mulled over what an amazing project it was going to be, building a program that could fully understand and replicate the complicated sounds, colors, and body language of the Rfgdt. Another wave of excitement overwhelmed her. Then it soured when she looked at her suitcases. What was she going to do with three dozen eggs now? Eat them for breakfast? She had really been looking forward to the extra bit of income. She had planned to use the money to take one of the undersea tours. Would her three dozen eggs really make a difference in the global egg trade? It wasn’t as if she would force anyone to eat them. What they ate was their choice.
Margret unloaded her eggs into the refrigeration unit. Either way, it would be a waste to throw them out. What was the harm in hanging onto them? It didn’t mean she was going to sell them. She could just tuck them away for a while. In the meantime, Ben was right. She could use a nap.
T. J. Berg is a molecular and cellular biologist working and writing in Sweden. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in many places, including Talebones (for which it received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror), Daily Science Fiction, Caledonia Dreamin’, Sensorama, Thirty Years of Rain, Tales to Terrify, and Diabolical Plots. When not writing or doing science, she can be found travelling the world, cooking, or hiking. To find more fiction or odd musings, check out www.infinity-press.com and, very occasionally, Twitter @TJBergWrites.
At the intersection of a deep and long cultural history colliding with modern technologies, how do you make decisions about what sacred, traditional freedoms trump societal safety? This story uses the meeting of two alien civilizations to highlight this dilemma.