by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith
Captain Drew boarded the transfer vessel to the Lauk-Parthians' ship with excitement. He had given up hope of humanity ever making contact with a peaceful extra-colonial race in his lifetime - he had certainly never expected to be the guest of honour at a banquet held by such a people. He nervously patted the front pocket of his dress uniform to check his speech tablet was there; he had practised delivering the speech for so long during the previous evening unit that he didn't really need the prompt, but he didn't like to take chances. It was such a momentous event after all - and indeed one that the First Minister of the Colonies herself would be attending instead of him, had she not been 12 parsecs away, orbiting Jupiter on Satellite A.
Contact had been made ten days previously in the vicinity of 55 Cancri, where Drew's ship was assigned to the Hibiscus convoy as its protector craft; the Hypersloop Badger had been escorting the utility ships as they harvested frozen volatiles from the star's asteroid belt. There had been some suspicious activity on the ship's radars; alarms had been triggered in some of the surveillance systems. The entire crew of the Badger had positioned themselves at their stations in readiness - for what, they did not know. Then an amber cloud had materialised about half an astronomical unit away, to the ship's starboard side, and all on the Badger had watched in awe as it had slowly solidified into what they now knew as the Lauk-Parthian ship. Human science had investigated the possibility of such methods of hyperspace travel; it was referred to in academic circles as the GoldDust process, but had as yet not even reached the experimental stages in the Colonies.
Drew had fervently hoped that the Lauk-Parthians were a peaceful people; humanity was still reeling, not only from the loss of life, but also from the disappointment of the one and only other alien encounter. The scale of the joy that had been felt across the colonies - We Are Not Alone! - had only served to intensify the collective despair after the attacks. The colony in the Epsilon Eridani system had never recovered from the onslaught; even twelve years after the enemy had been forced back into their own reaches of the Universe, the real estate market hadn't picked up. The advertising materials that had once enticed with "Columbus Never Discovered A World As New As This!" were now garishly, pleadingly concentrating on the "Rock Bottom Prices!" of habitation units. It was not because people were worried the colony might be attacked again, but because the habitat had now been tarred with the brush of dashed hope.
On this occasion, however, hope was at a high, and with good reason. Delegations had been sent back and forth over the last few days. Languages had been programmed into translators and bio-information had been exchanged - the Badger's resident scientists had been a little disappointed to find that these new life forms were not only carbon based, but also reasonably similar to humans in terms of their nervous, endocrine and digestive systems. Drew himself had been spending this time exchanging respectful, yet amicable, messages with the extra-colonial ship's leader, Ktarshmie. He was struggling to refer to them as Lauk-Parthian - some vestiges of the boy he had once been insisted on whispering delightedly in his head: Aliens!
Captain Drew and his party reached the Lauk-Parthian vessel in good time, and were cordially greeted by Ktarshmie. Both leaders introduced the crew members to each other and a tour of the host ship was conducted. As the guests were ferried about, Ktarshmie filled Drew in on the rituals traditionally performed by Lauk-Parthians at important banquets. These were traditions that, in the modern day and age, were only upheld at events such as a high statesman's appointment, but Ktarshmie felt that the momentousness of the occasion - the first official meeting of two peoples previously kept apart by thousands of light-years - called for a High Feast. Drew listened to his host explain about how each dinner guest would be allocated a young Lauk-Parthian, termed a Parthenium, who would bathe them prior to the banquet, then rub them with oils that had once been considered sacred, and finally dress them in robes fit for the High Feast.
The entire party entered a wide room, which Captain Drew deduced to be the ante-chamber to the hall where the banquet was to be held; he could see one corner of a regally laid table through a crack in the door. Ktarshmie and his crew started forming a line along the width of the hall; the members of the human delegation took their cue from their hosts and joined the line. The door at the opposite end of the hall to the banquet room opened and a procession of Partheniums entered the hall; they were beatifully adorned, lithe of body and of ambiguous gender. Captain Drew was surprised to feel the stirrings of arousal, but at the same time it felt somehow expected. His Parthenium took him by the hand and led him to where he was to be bathed.
"So, Captain - what did you think of this last dish?"
"Delicious. The meat was tender, and while it was delicate it was nonetheless hearty and satisfying. The marinade was perhaps the perfect match for it. In fact, my only criticism - if one can even call it that - is that maybe the meat would have tasted even better had it been marinaded for a while longer; then its flavour could have infused the meat that little bit more".
"Thank you Captain, I shall pass your kind words and suggestion on to the chef".
"Thank you. And now perhaps it is time for us to leave, before our new friends get wind of our treachery".
"Certainly, Captain Ktarshmie. I shall give the order to jump back to Lauk-Parthia immediately".
5 days ago