“Are you hungry? Bori, bring the food. We have meat, for you hungry omnivores.”
Their Head of Science, Marcila Martin, had a lot to say about evolution. Particularly the point at which, in her words, “it got interesting”. And this, according to Marcila, was the point at which members of any given species started saying “I like your clothes” to each other.
It wasn’t that Martin was a fashion-obsessed airhead. She was just more cultural anthropologist than biologist. She also played a mean game of exchange tag for a human who had blown a hundred and forty-seven candles off her last birthday cake.
Anyway, her point about evolution was that it was rare for herbivorous species to make it out of the arms race of prehistory and drag their nasty baggage into the bold new dawn of sentience. Drago didn’t really follow all the ins and outs of it, because Marcila could really wax lyrical when she’d had an extra stim pellet in her zolo, but it all boiled down to hunting. Well, Drago understood that much. Humans, and the Molranoid races, had been through their hunting-and-gathering phases. The Fergunak – as pure carnivores and aquatic, Marcila said, they were even rarer than herbivorous sentients because the sea was basically nightmare soup on any planet in the galaxy, no matter what liquid the sea happened to be made of – the Fergunak had been dragged into the higher intelligence registers by the Damorakind, and as for the aki’Drednanth, well. Nobody really knew about them. They’d reached enlightenment millions of years ago and were now just perfectly content to reincarnate themselves, in the womb, as giant shaggy ice monsters.
It took all sorts, really.
But it was clear enough, even to Drago Barducci, that if you were a herbivore you would basically start on the road to civilisation with just and-gathering to your name, and that meant you missed out on not only a whole heap of delicious protein and stuff, but also on a lot of teamwork and communication and abstract thinking, not to mention fifty thousand years or so of getting to have sex because you killed something really angry and dangerous. Which, okay, it hadn’t turned the human race into the nicest species in the galaxy, but they were still here, weren’t they?
Then again, according to Marcila, sentient herbivores were worse. Because the early stages of evolution were all about kill or be killed, and usually eat or be eaten. And herbivores didn’t kill for food. On most planets, with the exception of scary outliers like Gethsemane, plants didn’t do a lot of fighting back. So aside from the obvious challenge of dispatching carnivores who didn’t want to let you eat your salad in peace, there was no corresponding vegetarian option to the development offered by hunting.
What this meant was that most herbivore species who made it to self-awareness, tool-building, and eventually to whatever the vegan equivalent of the top of the food chain was, were ones who had developed the urge to kill for pleasure. And this tended to make them sub-optimal candidates for interplanetary relations, even when the other candidates included murderous cybernetic sharks, yetis that could kill you by thinking nasty thoughts, and a species of mostly-hairless ape that had had more genocidal wars among its own kind than every other known sentient species in the galaxy had had with other species. Combined.
The Noro Metak, although they were big and aggressive and more than sufficiently predatory, had not – as far as researchers were aware – taken the killing-for-sport path to civilisation. They had simply been fortunate enough to evolve on a planet where there were no seriously threatening carnivores, omnivores or scavengers. Nothing capable of taking on the big bovinids, anyway. Any animal that might have had a shot at apex predator had been head-butted and stamped on until it changed its mind millions of years ago.
The Noro Metak homeworld, as a result, was an interesting place for biologists. And their culture a topic about which Marcila Martin could rhapsodise for hours.
Many scientists, Martin included, theorised that the Noros had achieved sentience and higher intelligence simply as a survival mechanism. With no natural predators worth talking about, their population had gone through explosive growth and then famine cycles, their planet’s landmasses cycling through mirroring phases of abundance and dustbowl drought, for hundreds of millennia until the Noros learned how to regulate their environment and manage their population. But they were herbivorous through and through, biology and society developing hand in hand. They didn’t even have a conceptual framework for eating flesh, although there were a few species on their homeworld that did it. These were called chashish – little things, pointy teeth – and were largely considered to be a distasteful but necessary part of the biosphere. Like things that enjoyed the company of faeces.
Oh, speaking of faeces…
Sitting down to a first meal with the Noro Metak, back when AstroCorps had made official first contact, had been a delicate business. Since then, as Skell had previously mentioned, the Noro buccaneers had overcompensated with considerable enthusiasm. They usually took great delight in seeking out the tastiest and most exotic food and drink, so they could enjoy watching the weird aliens eat it.
Drago, however, still remembered the taste of bollg, almost-digested plant material dredged all the way up from a stomach so far down the line it might as well have been a colon. The Noro Metak considered it a great act of friendship to share such individually imbued produce. Or so the translators and diplomats and researchers had insisted, although Drago distinctly recalled most of their servings being decidedly small. Honestly, it would have been much less effort to excrete it from the other end. And probably wouldn’t have had that much impact on the flavour and consistency.
The best thing about that night had been sitting opposite Skell, and getting to watch his face as the Noro ambassador personally served up seconds.
All of this flashed through Drago’s mind when Captain Dool offered them food, and all of it contributed to Drago’s feeling of relief when Captain Dool told them there was meat.
This relief lasted right up until the moment they were all in the Nope, Leftovers’s dome section, all seated around the slightly-too-big-for-ordinary-sized-humans Molranoid-standard boardroom table, and Bori – a grinning Bonshoon who was rotund even for a Bonshoon – set the platter of meat in the centre of the table using all four of his massive arms. It was a great steaming, sizzling slab of pale flesh, seasoned with ‘ponic herbs and still frying lightly in its own fat, and it smelled quite delicious.
It was also quite clearly Fergunakil meat.
Drago looked across the table at Skell, who was smiling pleasantly and exclaiming over how mouth-watering the food smelled and how their hosts really hadn’t needed to go to so much trouble. Their gazes met for a moment, and Barducci felt an unaccustomed chill at the blank death in Çrom Skelliglyph’s eyes.
Captain Nak Dool knows who we are, Skell might as well have been transmitting on an aki’Drednanth brainwave. Get ready.