Emmanuel and the Cannibals

“Emmanuel stared, dumbfounded.  How long had these people been stranded here?”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Shelter of Daylight #4, October 2010

The second ship crash landed too.

Emmanuel knew the Clemency was a junker, and he was well experienced at safely crashing her. Better still, he carried plenty of spare parts, and he knew how to use them. Emmanuel was one of the best crash-pilots and jerry-rigging mechanics this end of the spiral arm. Seriously, you could not do better. Unless you didn’t crash. But, that would involve owning a ship that didn’t constantly blow her fuses, fuse her wiring, and otherwise complain about having to haul her titanium alloy hull through space.

As it was, Emmanuel aimed for a nice, flat, green continent on the day side of the nearest planet. No point taking chances on how long the night would last. (Little did he know it was the same continent the first ship had picked more than a century ago.) The Clemency landed with little added damage to her innards, cargo, or pilot. But, her hull, as always, got rather scraped up. Emmanuel had given up on keeping her shiny a long time ago. These days she was lucky if he repainted her name.

Emmanuel swung himself out of the wreck of his ship. He figured he could fix her in an hour if he hurried. From the way she’d been acting, she’d probably blown a fuse. It was always a blown fuse, which was why Emmanuel picked them up by the mechanic’s dozen (twelve good ones mixed in with two duds), every time he got the chance. Modern ships didn’t have fuses, so not every starship emporium carried them anymore.

Emmanuel whistled as he worked at opening the Clemency’s hull to fill the inhuman silence surrounding him. It was a pretty valley that hosted him, in the full growth of summer. Wind rustled in the green, but that was the only native sound he could hear.

The hull plate covering access to the Clemency’s engine whumped as it hit the ground. Emmanuel slipped the last screw in his pocket. He liked that whumping noise, he realized. So, he followed it up with a racket. Perhaps he clashed his wrench and clattered the sprockets more than need be, but the Clemency was a robust ship. Her innards could take it. Still, he couldn’t keep it up. Once he’d removed all the obstacles and found the core problem, a bunch of fried wires, he settled down to the fine work of splicing in replacements. Not a noisy job.

Silence is spooky, and it became even spookier when Emmanuel heard voices. They were utterly out of place in a valley lacking even the hum of insects. The chatter of birds. The croak of frogs? Emmanuel couldn’t hear a single other living sound, but he heard voices coming from the trees at the edge of the valley. And they spoke Solanese.

“Hi!” he shouted. “My ship crashed! I won’t be long, then I’ll be on my way. I hope I’m not troubling you?”

Emmanuel didn’t know about the first ship. However, he was beginning to suspect. At least, he suspected he wasn’t alone, and he was right. The nature and origin of his fellow inhabitants still eluded him. Although, their chosen language was a strong indication that this young planet was not so innocent and virginal as she seemed to be.

“Hello!?” he called again.

Emmanuel’s growing speculations were confirmed when a thin but healthy-looking, olive skinned man, dressed in scant garments made of woven reeds stepped out from the cover of the nearby trees.

“Will you come to a feast?” the man asked. “Instead of leaving, will you stay for a feast? We haven’t seen…a man from the…is it still the Expansion? It was the Expansion…the Human Expansion in the stories our parents told us. Are you from…there?”

Emmanuel stared, dumbfounded. How long had these people been stranded here? The man’s accent was strange but not strange enough for the strangeness of the situation.

“We are having a huge feast tonight, anyway. Please come?”

“Um…” Emmanuel straightened out his tools: the screw-driver, the wire-stripper, the soldering iron, the spool of wire. All old school. He had time to spare here, didn’t he? The shipment of replacement android arms for the model 20 with the bug in their right elbows wasn’t due until the end the week. “Sure.” he said. “Let me finish up here. I’ve got to put this panel back on…”

The olive-skinned man conferred with his companions, who were still obscured from sight. He told them to go on but stayed behind, himself, to guide Emmanuel to their village.

* * *

The village was in the lee of a broken hillside, a twenty minute walk into the forest. The people, their dress, and their dwellings said “savage,” but their words belied it. They had minimal accents, full vocabularies, and solid grammar. They spoke perfect Solanese.

“How long have you been here?” Emmanuel asked Denwell, the man who’d become his guide.

“On this earth?” Denwell asked. He squinted as if peering into the past: “My grandmother told stories to me when I was young… She remembered a pilgrimage, before the tribes formed, to the ship we first came in. She was very young. I think maybe her grandparents — so my great, great grandparents — may have remembered people who’d actually been on the ship and knew how it worked.”

“What is that…” Emmanuel tried following Denwell’s family tree backward. “Six generations?”

Denwell smiled. “My grandmother used to keep track of the past. She said when the first children were born on our world that their parents, who’d come on the ship, taught them about the broken tools and… consoles, and… computers.”

“They hoped to fix the ship.”

“It was a fruitless hope.”

“I don’t know,” Emmanuel said. “From my experience, any ship can be fixed. You just need the parts and know-how. The question is: which were you missing?”

“Probably both!” a girl added, joining their conversation.

“Well, I’m good with ships, and I keep a bunch of spare parts on the Clemency. Want me to take a look at this crash dummy of yours?”

“Would you teach me?” Denwell asked eagerly.

“It wouldn’t carry us all anymore, and who says anyone wants to leave?” the girl asked.

Denwell shot her a dirty glance.

“It’s not even ours… You’d have to fight the Kambee tribe to get to it.”

“True,” Denwell said, followed by a tight-lipped frown. “That is a problem. Though, the fighting would bear its own rewards…”

Several young men and a matronly woman came to usher their foreign guest and his companions to dinner.

The tables were long, halved logs, flat side up. Emmanuel was seated at the foot of one of them. What looked like three village elders, including the matronly woman, were seated at the other three ends. Denwell sat beside Emmanuel, but the girl who’d joined their conversation disappeared into the long row of villagers with their backs toward him at the other table. Emmanuel tried to catch a glance of her, but his attention was immediately dominated by questions for him at his own table.

Yes, the Human Expansion was still expanding. Yes, we’d discovered alien inhabited planets. No, we hadn’t found any aliens with technology on par with our own. Yes, some of them had turned out to be hostile, but mostly when we tried to bend their cultures to fit our own. Then, there were requests…

Could he bring them art? Fine cloth? More machines? He wondered how they’d pay him, but he didn’t ask. Perhaps their world was mineral rich. Perhaps not. Either way, it would be a humanitarian effort not a profitable one. As he thought about it, Emmanuel couldn’t help but picture the girl at the other table in a silk dress rather than the tribal gear she sported now.

The courses came one after another: a hot broth, sautéed mushrooms, an elegant salad, baked tubers…all vegetables. The silence from before, in the valley, made sudden sense. There were no animals on this world. No insects. No fruiting plants. These people had crash-landed on a planet in a pre-historic stage of development.

Amid beaming smiles and great applause, the main course came. Two platters were carried by six men each. They were held high in triumph, above the bearers heads. Two young hunters rose to bow. For one, it was his first kill. Suddenly, Emmanuel realized he had to look away. Before the platters were lowered, he stumbled away from the tables, past the platter-bearers, and out of the main hall.

Denwell came to him, shortly, and asked, “Are you sick?”

“No,” Emmanuel answered, “but I might be. I couldn’t see… Was it… Were they…” He couldn’t ask the question. He pictured the girl he favored, back at the table. Her black hair hung past her waist; it had probably never been cut. In his mind, her delicate hands raised the food to her lips.

“What kind of animals do you have?” Emmanuel asked. “I smelled meat. What kind of animal was it?”

Distressingly, confusion painted itself across Denwell’s face. “A chicken?” He answered. “A weasel? A rat?”

“What do you mean?”

“Those are all names we call the Toovall tribe. They are animals. Is that what you mean?”

Emmanuel had his answer. In this world, an animal was only a word, an archaic grammatical construction. At the risk of causing great offense, he didn’t return to dinner. He went straight to his ship.

* * *

The shipment of replacement android arms arrived five days early. The proprietor of the mining colony was grateful to have his model 20s working again but not as grateful as the androids themselves. Since Emmanuel was ahead of schedule, he hung around a few days playing cards with the androids, trying to drive his recent sojourn from his mind. However, the androids’ faces never revealed a stitch about their poker hands and none of them wanted a human partner for bridge. So, once he’d lost enough to make him wonder what androids spend their money on, Emmanuel went on his way.

Still, he couldn’t get the girl with the waist-length hair out of his head. In his imagination, she tended a stove, raking the burning embers for a more even heat. It was dark inside the stove, lit only by a dull orange glow. His mind’s eye flinched away, but he knew what cooked in there without looking.

It is easy to accept monstrous acts performed by monstrous beings. But this was like an orange-winged butterfly carnivorously sinking it proboscis into human skin and feasting on blood instead of the honied nectar that is its rightful, innocuous dessert.

Emmanuel was deeply disturbed. Either his attraction to her or her cannibalism must be fixed. He knew he should go through the proper channels and report the young world to the Expansionist Moral Authorities (EMA). He should have reported them before delivering the android arms, but he’d been putting it off. He felt involved. Turning the cannibals over to the EMA would be like taking the Clemency back to the dealership for a tune-up. Not that anyone at the dealership would know how to tune-up a ship as old as the Clemency… That was beside the point: Emmanuel was a fixit man, and he felt called to face the challenge of reforming the cannibals himself.

So, he settled on a plan. His experience keeping the Clemency in working order had taught him to become an expert at acquiring archaic, antiquated items. Just as new starships didn’t need fuses, new space colonies didn’t keep entire herds of meat animals. An organ and flesh cloning plant is simply more efficient. However, Emmanuel followed up a few connections: his fuse guy supplied a classic starship dealership; the classic ships guy supplied a historical reenactment planetary settlement; and, the history buffs kept real herds of bovinids and sheepalos.

Every kid saw vids of bovinids and sheepalos growing up. Emmanuel even had a mini-electric sheepalo that slept on the foot of his bed at night. But, he’d never seen one in person. And, in person, sheepalos are big, and bovinids are smelly. Emmanuel bargained for as many of them as he could safely and humanely carry in the Clemency. (He dreaded the clean-up job after the trip.) He also got thorough instructions on how to take care of them.

Back to the cannibal world!

* * *

Guiding the huffing, snorting, and reeking livestock down the Clemency’s gangplank and onto their new homeworld, Emmanuel felt like Noah with his ark. Once again, the natives came to meet him. Given the stamping hooves and braying bovinid voices (sheepalos are mute), Emmanuel wasn’t surprised. His arrival had to be one of the noisiest rackets the young planet had ever heard.

“I’ve brought you animals!” Emmanuel declared.

People crowded around him in astonishment. Children darted forward, reaching their arms to touch the beasts, only to startle at the stamp of a hoof and run away. Denwell emerged from the crowd and came to stand beside Emmanuel. “I don’t understand,” he said. “These are animals?”

“Yes,” Emmanuel replied. “Before you came here and forgot them, every animal name you know corresponded to a real, live beast. These are bovinids,” he gestured. “And, these,” he gestured again, “are sheepalos.”

“We call each other ‘bovinid’ when we’re stubborn. Or ‘sheepalo’ when dumb.”

“Bovinids are stubborn. And sheepalos are dumb. That’s why you use their names that way.” Emmanuel saw the woman who owned his imagination among the crowd. She reached a hand up to a snuffy bovinid nose. The creature lowed and snorted hot breath into the chill morning air. Her hand settled softly under its chin. Emmanuel looked away, but he knew that new images of her would fill his mind.

“Can you read this?” Emmanuel asked, showing a comppad to Denwell. “Can you work it?”

Denwell took the comppad and scanned the files on it over the screen. It was a simple model, and the files held information on caring for the animals. Denwell looked up and nodded.

“They’ll eat almost anything. That’s what they’re bred for.” Emmanuel didn’t mention that they were also good for milking, shearing, skinning, and, especially, for eating. Denwell could read it all in the files. “I have to go now,” Emmanuel said. “I want to take small herds to the other tribes too. Can you tell me where they are?”

Denwell was reluctant; he felt that Emmanuel and his gifts belonged to his tribe alone. But a visitor so powerful under circumstances so strange cannot be denied, and Denwell gave Emmanuel rough directions to the other tribes.

It was a long day for Emmanuel, tramping through forests and over hillsides, herding his gift beasts from the stars. Still, he made it back to the Clemency by dark, and he fell asleep satisfied in his empty ship. Meanwhile, the primitive peoples of each tribe marveled at their new bounty, and four elders, the eldest of each tribe, huddled in their lonely huts over the comppads Emmanuel had given them.

* * *

The Clemency didn’t make her third landing on the little planet until more than a year later. After “fixing” the haunting images in his mind of the seductive cannibal, Emmanuel found the long-haired beauty to be merely another woman. Entirely forgettable. His great triumph, saving an entire people from their primitive, immoral ways, fell to the wayside as he found himself swept up in the day to day work of cargo-shipping. Still, his philanthropy gave him a sense of patronage, and he made time to return, bearing more gifts.

Emmanuel parked the Clemency in the same valley where he’d first crashed. His entrance was quieter this time, and no one came to meet him. So, he slung a pack of goods on his back and made the trek to the first village alone.

He heard bovinids, and he grinned. He felt like a hero. He walked further, and he saw bulky, furry bodies in a pen. He stopped at the pen, resting his hands on the split wood railing. The beasts looked happy and healthy, a sparkle in the bovinids’ eyes and a sheen on the sheepalos’ pelts.

“You’ve cared for your animals well,” Emmanuel said to the men who were slowly gathering at the other side of the pen, quietly watching him. He noticed they still wore reed-woven clothing instead of leather. Well, they were used to it, and he couldn’t expect all their ways to change overnight. Or even in a year.

“We care for them the best we can,” one of the men said.

“Yes, we are very grateful,” another man added.

A third man entered the pen, which Emmanuel realized wasn’t fully enclosed, and placed his hand affectionately on a bovinid rump. The beast lowed and stomped, shifting its weight between cloven feet. “We love them.”

Emmanuel accompanied the men into the thick of the town, noticing that sheepalos and bovinids moved freely among the huts and log-houses. Well, if they didn’t run away, there was no need to fully pen them. Still, it made Emmanuel wonder what the partial pen was for.

“If we’d known you were coming, we would have prepared a feast!” Denwell came forward and gripped Emmanuel by the arm. The grip collapsed into an embrace. “It is good to see you, friend from the stars.” The men stood back and looked at each other. “Although,” Denwell added with some thought, “you didn’t seem to like our feast so much last time.”

“I think I will like it better now,” Emmanuel said with a grin. “I will stay and wait for you to prepare.”

“Good!” Denwell beamed. “We can show you more about our ways while you wait.”

The town shuffled around him, reorganizing itself to the current plan, and Emmanuel found himself in the hands of his beautiful long-haired girl. She showed him the hut with the women weaving reeds into baskets, bags, blankets, and clothes. Anything reeds could be used for. She took him to the kitchens, where men and women both prepared a variety of plants and tubers for consumption.

He took particular note of a bean-like plant being prepared into a curd. He had wondered how these people got enough protein given their… unusual diet. Clearly, they couldn’t have depended on their old habits to supply enough protein, or they would have killed each other off faster than they could have reproduced. Emmanuel tasted the plant curd. It was rich and thick. It would take protein analysis to be sure, but he strongly suspected it was the answer to this conundrum.

Next Emmanuel was shown their well and, then, the lumberyard where men were splitting logs for firewood, furniture, and building materials. As they walked together, Alifia, for that was the girl’s name, showed shyness in all her ways. She spoke quietly and turned her eyes demurely away when he looked at her. Emmanuel found her, once again, captivating.

They returned to the center of the village and sat beside each other, in front of the longhouse where feasts were held. A baby sheepalo who had been following Alifia like a dog came up and settled at their feet.

“This is Tiny,” Alifia said. “He was the runt of the litter.” She stroked the beast, and Emmanuel put his hand out to stroke it too. It reminded him of his mini-electric sheepalo as a child. It wasn’t much larger. Their hands touched on the creature’s downy back. Alifia smiled and, charmingly, didn’t look away. Emmanuel’s chest swelled with contentment.

Before the moment could be established to mean anything, a scream arose in the air around them. Another shriek, a war cry, followed from deeper in the woods.

“Quick!” a man yelled. “Herd the animals to the pen!”

Men converged on the spot, bearing weapons and herding beasts. The women and children began streaming into the log building behind them.

Emmanuel felt he should help the men, but he had no weapons and wouldn’t know how to use them if he had. So, when Alifia swept Tiny in her arms and grabbed Emmanuel by the hand, he followed her docilely into the crowded building.

The women and children shuffled in the limited space, jostling each other for room, listening to the shouts and cries outside. Emmanuel was terrified, but the women and children weren’t particularly fazed. Nervous more than frightened.

The fight didn’t last long. A harsh rap on the longhouse door was followed by a voice crying, “They’re gone.”

The carnage wasn’t bad — Emmanuel could catch news vids of rail gun “crowd control” on backwater planets any day, and he’d witnessed street fights with laser edged knives personally.

In comparison, stone tipped javelins and poison darts were barely dangerous. He wouldn’t have been scared, Emmanuel told himself, if he hadn’t been surprised. And yet, these Halloween weapons could kill when aimed right, when wielded skillfully. The evidence was before his eyes: one man and one bovinid lay dead on the ground. A wail went up among the people. Women turned their faces away and cried.

Denwell, panting from the fight, stepped forward and said, “We must prepare a proper burial. But, at least,” his lip curled in an expression Emmanuel couldn’t identify, “we know what we’ll eat tonight.” Then he directed two groups to clear the bodies away: one to the cemetery, one to the stoves.

“Wait,” Emmanuel said, confused by the evidence of his eyes. “The wrong groups… The wrong groups are taking them.” But no one listened.

* * *

Much of the village trailed after the men bearing the bovinid. They mourned the beast, reverently laying hands upon its massy side. Two men ran ahead and, with crude shovels, began digging into the ground.

“This is the graveyard…” Emmanuel said, looking around. Stones and flowers marked the burial mounds. He slowly began to understand. “What tribe was that man?” he asked.

“Kambe, scoundrels,” came the bitter answer from a woman beside him.

“He was trying to steal your bovinids.”

“Yes, they’re very good to eat.”

“Then, why are you burying this one?”

“This is Dolah,” the woman said with warmth. “We loved her.”

“But it’s a bovinid.”

“She’s our bovinid.”

“What about your other bovinids?”

“We love them too. You were very good to bring them to us.”

“Don’t you eat them?” Emmanuel asked, finding himself again in the situation where he suspected and dreaded the answer.

“We never eat our own!”

Then how do you know they’re good to eat?

“Toovall. Sometimes Kambe. But, the Toovall don’t guard theirs as well…” The woman grinned, and her eyes glittered.

“Doesn’t matter,” a man broke in. “We’ll take our revenge on the Kambe soon, even if they are better fighters.”

* * *

Of course, if the bovinid was finding eternal peace in sacred burial ground, Emmanuel could guess what was happening to the Kambe man. Eternal unrest in the fires of a cooking stove. And, later, in the burning acid of a village worth of stomachs. Emmanuel disengaged himself from the crowd. He needed a walk. To clear his head.

His plan hadn’t worked. He wasn’t a hero.

Why? These people had never seen animals before Emmanuel brought the bovinids and sheepalos. The only forms of life they knew were human and plant: the former being intelligent, soulful, busy, creative, and myriad in its ways; the latter being still, passive, and simple. This was especially true on a world that was pre-floral. There were towering conifers and brushy ferns, wind blown reeds and carpets of grass. From what Emmanuel had seen, that was about it.

When these tribal people looked into bovinid eyes, what did they see? Human, plant, or something new? Emmanuel expected them to see something new… Because he did. Something in between. But, no, when Alifia looked in Tiny’s eyes, she saw intelligence, activity, and will. She saw a human soul.

Emmanuel put his hand to his head as if to ward off a headache. His walk had brought him back to the Clemency, and he leaned against her, feeling weak.

Would he go back for the feast? Could he attend the feast and abstain from the main course? Or would that be a horrible offense? Even if it weren’t, could he bear it? Being so close to roasted human flesh… His stomach turned. He understood now why EMA had experts for dealing with foreign cultures.

Before Emmanuel made up his mind what to do, Alifia found him. Tiny trotted behind her.

“You’re leaving again,” she said, realizing it before he had himself. There was sadness in her voice. An acknowledgement of the moment that had slipped away from them.

“Tell your people I’m sorry I couldn’t stay,” he said to his beautiful cannibal, barely able to look at her.

“Yes,” Alifia assented grimly, knowing there was something wrong but having no way to know what it was.

Emmanuel knelt down to ruffle the curly fleece on the fledgling sheepalo’s head. Tiny pushed his head against the scritching fingers.

“Unless…” Alifia said the words suddenly: “Unless you’ll take…” She broke off just as suddenly, but Emmanuel could hear the echo of the words she meant to say: take me with you. There had been hope in her voice, but she could see the ‘no’ in his eyes and entire demeanor; she could sense the finality of it. So, instead, she finished with the words, “…take Tiny with you. You should have a companion, and he likes you, I can tell.”

Amused and relived, Emmanuel agreed to that and found little trouble convincing the beast to stay with him as they watched Alifia descend back into the woods. In his mind, he said his final goodbye to her, banishing her from his daydreams forever. She was too much for him.

He toyed with the idea of marching back to the village, standing in a pulpit, and explaining to the cannibals that their ancestors and the people of the Expansion considered cannibalism to be wrong. But he suspected it wouldn’t do any good. Better to let the experts handle it. The EMA could reform them, even if Emmanuel could not.

Emmanuel led his new pet onto his ship and prepared the Clemency for takeoff. Tiny followed him around the ship, and eventually curled up at the base of the pilot’s chair. As Emmanuel pulled his ignition key from his pocket and settled into the pilot’s seat, he resolved to do the right thing and report the cannibals to the EMA as soon as he hit dock at the next space station.

He would be glad to get off this world and back to civilized space. A bovinid steak was sounding pretty good right about now, and he needed to pick up some cereal cookies for Tiny. Breath shook the downy belly of the sleeping beast; Emmanuel could feel the weight and warmth of the tiny body against his booted foot. He looked down at Tiny, and he thought about what he saw.

He tried to see a person in the fuzzy beast, but all he could see was a pet. He wouldn’t even feel guilty eating a sheepalo burger while Tiny was on his ship. Maybe there was something special about a people who treated animals like equals. Emmanuel didn’t know. Yet, as the Clemency zoomed away from the troubling world, Emmanuel decided to put off making his report to the EMA a little longer. In fact, the paperwork was sure to be a burden. Maybe he wouldn’t make the report at all.

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