Meat and Fish
by Yadira Álvarez Betancourt
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Other TTTV stories by Yadira Álvarez Betancourt
Lieutenant Josh Beck motioned to his men. It took the soldiers a few minutes to bring out the prisoner, the “target” for which a whole commando unit was sent into the jungles of Tegha.
The historian, archaeologist, and xenolinguist Antonia Xoana Reigosa looked about forty years old. She was attractive in her own quaint, somewhat old-fashioned way—short and muscular, as if carved from stone, snow-white skin, jet-black hair and eyes, a big sharp nose, and thick lips.
She would have been very pretty in a vintage postcard, but she would be out of place in a modern city. In the age of physical remodeling where the ideal woman was tall, listless, tanned or very dark, with pale eyes and hair of impossible colors such as blue, pink, or white, in a century when all women who could afford it exchanged, like changing dresses, one ordinary physique for another from science fiction, Dr. Antonia was an exotic creature.
Lieutenant Beck liked her. Perhaps that was why he had been assigned the mission to capture her and take her out of Tegha as quietly as possible.
“Don’t be sentimental,” he mumbled to himself. “You’re not here because you love the damn woman. You’re the best in field operations.”
But no doubt his appointment as commander of the commando unit had something to do with the fact that he specialized in Teghanese politics and xenolinguistics owed much to the work of the prestigious doctor. Somehow it was concluded that a faithful follower of Reigosa’s career might have a better chance of tracking her down on Tegha.
Beck investigated what Reigosa was up to before she disappeared into the jungles of the planet, resurfacing years later as the leader of the “Teghanese Liberation Front.”
The archaeologist was conducting comparative studies of the four oldest Teghanese dialects, seeking proof that they were the origins of the modern Teghanese language. Many obstinate xenolinguists insisted that ancient Teghanese had evolved from a later dialect, which was spoken in almost the entire main continent during the Great Separation.
Reigosa was investigating dialects still spoken in three regions of Tegha. One region consisted of the islands and areas of the Morava basin, another, the eastern mountains of the smaller of the two Teghanese continents, Rabke, and the third, the jungle strip of the largest continent, Diborga.
The Rabke Mountains were controlled by the Allied Earth Force. No matter how arrogant or crazy Reigosa might be, she wasn’t going to fall into a trap just to rub it in the faces of the specialists at the Galactic Language Institute who had written treaties based on a false assumption.
That left only the Morava basin and the Diborga jungle. Taking into account that both regions were on the same continent, and the AEF hardly had any real strength there, it was plausible that the scientist had set up the center of her investigation somewhere in Diborga.
It took Beck a whole Teghanese year to locate Reigosa, then months to catch her without attracting too much attention. And she fell into his hands only because the movement relied on the apparent insecurity of the AEF. Amid the confusion generated by constant ambushes, citizen protests, infiltrations of earthling collaborators, and terrorist attacks, no one supposed that a specially trained commando unit would swiftly sneak into the territory in search of the cause of all these disturbances.
The objective was to capture her alive and take her back to Earth, where the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs would persuade her to hand over all the details about the operation of the PTL and thus wipe out the Teghanese resistance once and for all.
It sickened Beck to even think about how the department would manage to get the information out of her, but his work didn’t include that problem, fortunately, only capturing her, keeping her under arrest, taking her back to Earth, and delivering her as a package tied up with a ribbon into the hands of his superiors.
However, before placing her in cryogenic suspension and loading her into a shuttle, he wanted to talk to her a little bit. He didn’t want to miss the chance to talk to the xenolinguistic researcher he admired.
“Take a seat, Dr. Reigosa,” he told her when he saw her in front of him.
Her pale face twitched, but her eyes sparkled, and her mouth formed a wary smile, the famous smile that appeared in her contact holos.
“Did you delve into lost languages just to talk to me, or are you a descendant?”
Lieutenant Beck’s maternal grandmother descended from the very few families on the Veracruz coast who survived the flood of 2121, but this grandmother had never taught him a single word of her ancestors’ language. He learned it on his own, as well as New Zealander, Gaelic, and ancient Latin. His mother had been shocked when she saw that Josh spent part of his money on learning modules for languages that could be considered dead.
Now Beck told himself it was money well spent if it allowed him to gain the trust of Antonia Xoana Reigosa.
“I’ve been a conscientious student,” Beck muttered in a noncommittal way. “Sit down, doctor. It would be a pleasure if you agreed to eat with me and talk a little.”
“Very odd considering that you killed all my companions and that you intend to take me to a place where I won’t come out alive.”
She took a seat in front of him anyway and extended her hand. She withdrew it when the protective field sputtered a warning by singeing her fingers lightly.
“Very odd, indeed. You’re afraid I’ll touch you.”
“I admire you a lot, Dr. Reigosa. I’ve followed your career over the years with keen interest. But our records show that you are a dangerous person, and every precaution should be taken. It’s nothing personal. Don’t be offended. Take it as a matter of . . . tact.”
Reigosa smirked and settled into her chair.
“Then let’s drop the formality. Call me Tonica, if you like, I have gotten used to it. The ancient languages lost to Earth are easy for the Teghanese, among them Spanish, and they even have a name very similar to mine: Antuna.”
Beck hesitated, then nodded.
“Tonica it is, then. Call me Lieutenant Beck.”
Reigosa laughed. Her laughter highlighted the severity of her features and brought color to her cheeks.
“So tell me, Lieutenant Beck. What could you possibly want to talk to me about? Let me make it clear that the details of my ‘work’ for the last two years on Tegha are classified. I’m only authorized to discuss them under direct brain scanning by the department’s AI, if the witch can properly tune into my synaptic frequencies and get something moderately useful out of my head before frying it.”
Reigosa’s tension seemed to somehow transmit through the charged air, reflected on Beck’s face.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d give me some of that information, but it’s not my goal to make you do so. I’ll leave that up to the specialists who will use the means they choose. I just want to have a civilized conversation about your research. You have left me intrigued for three years with the interruption of your work on the dialects.”
“Well.” Reigosa offered her hand to Beck, forgetting about the protective field.
Beck smiled and shrugged.
“Excuse me, I forgot. I wanted to shake your hand. Young men of your age nowadays are not very interested in xenolinguistics. It’s a field we leave to old scholars.”
“. . . and soldiers, yes.”
“And I’m not as young as I look.”
Reigosa observed Lieutenant Beck’s youthful face, realizing that she was facing a genetically and surgically enhanced human.
“Well, yes, I understand,” she mumbled. “And what makes you think I will share the results of my research with you?”
“Doctor, we’re just talking.”
“Then let’s start with less formal matters. Don’t you think?”
Beck sighed. His specialty was not interrogation, and forcing her to talk was not what he intended. But he had a lot of time before a secret vehicle arrived. He had three Teghanese days, that is, ninety-three Earth hours. Maybe he could get something interesting out of Reigosa by simply speaking and listening.
“Less formal subjects, Tonica. Fine by me.”
Two soldiers served them, carefully sliding Reigosa’s plates so that the field sensor would analyze the contents.
“So you like Teghanese food,” Reigosa approved. “Isn’t it good?”
“It’s all right,” Beck conceded. “Recipes similar to ours. Condiments and foodstuffs are almost similar in taste, smell, and nutrients . . . I would say it’s really good.”
Reigosa bit into a piece of meat and chewed it, self-absorbed.
“What does your cook know about Teghanese cooking?”
“Only the basics, I’m afraid. He’s not a cook in the strict sense of the word. But to make a good meal, I suppose a good sense of taste and smell, as well as basic knowledge about how to season and cook, is enough to cook something worth eating.”
The archaeologist turned down the sauce Beck offered her and focused on her meat.
“As you said, the recipes and foodstuffs are very similar to ours.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes.
Beck savored the sauce one of his men had made.
They could have eaten something not so local, synthesized in one of the establishments in the area. Or they could have settled for regular food delivered for the commando unit. But Teghanese food was exquisite, and eating army rations for two years was too much.
The commando unit didn’t maintain contact with the bases on Tegha, and their connection with Earth was exclusively through Beck’s implants. The commandos acted independently of the AEF and, with the utmost discretion, decapitated the liberation movement by removing Reigosa. All in silence, camouflaging themselves as peaceful earthlings who worked and wasted their time on the agitated Tegha. Eating food like everyone else’s was part of the farce.
“Very similar to us, the Teghanese,” Reigosa said. Beck, realizing that the archaeologist was just rambling aloud, didn’t answer. “A very good planet to live on. A similar climate, almost identical customs . . . even legends and similar superstitions.”
“Oh, yes,” the Reigosa snorted. “Some are almost identical. What surprises I have had during these years.”
Beck, wisely, kept his opinions to himself, repeating a word from time to time to encourage Reigosa to say whatever she wanted. He didn’t really feel like talking either. He started to feel discomfort and heaviness in his stomach and head.
“Amazing, Lieutenant. Can you imagine that this planet has its version of the story of an axe stuck in the ceiling?”
Beck shook his head, trying to clear it. He was served some cold mineral water, which was marketed on the planet under a very short promotional phrase: “Liquid Life.”
“Excuse me, Tonica. I don’t know the story.”
She laughed. Beck found her healthy and somewhat sarcastic laugh disturbing.
“It’s a fable. It’s about an idiot bride who was whining at the cellar door in her house because she saw an axe stuck in the ceiling and thought when she had a son and he went down to look for wine, the axe would fall on the boy’s head and kill him.”
“And all the people who went down to see why she was late ended up doing the same thing, crying about what could happen. Here on Tegha, even the bridegroom cries. In the end, a family friend comes and removes the ankus—the axe on Earth—from the ceiling, and that’s how everything ends . . . By the way, Lieutenant, how long have you and your men been eating the meat with this sauce?”
Beck noticed the abrupt change of subject, but he didn’t find it more disturbing than his physical condition that worsened at times.
“One day, not too long ago, we discovered the recipe. The idea that a group of soldiers could get away from practicality and ‘discover’ a new flavor was interesting. Once you began to eat, you couldn’t stop until your plate was empty, even if you didn’t feel very well. The combination is pleasant, cheap and easy to prepare.” Reigosa glanced at him without giving up her provocative smirk, pushing her plate aside.
“Imagine that on Tegha, there are places where you still start a fire in the traditional way. Although the house has a modern kitchen, the fire is never allowed to go out. They wouldn’t dream of spilling a condiment called kuz, very similar to a kind of spicy salt. It’s bad luck to throw it away. And pregnant women are not allowed to cut with physis daggers, either.” Reigosa leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms over her head. The protective field flickered where her fingers brushed. Beck felt a twinge in his eyes at the sight of the spark.
“But I made the mistake of dismissing these ideas as superstitions without figuring out the meanings behind them,” she said. “I thought they were born of the same earthling motivations: irrational fears, magical thinking . . . Sometimes it’s like that. Other times not so much.”
She leaned toward the table and lowered her face. The lieutenant ran his hands over his face, suddenly wet and hot.
“They don’t spill kuz because it’s very expensive and difficult to manufacture,” she continued. “If they see you throw it away, they will think you’re stupid, wasteful, in short—unreliable.”
Beck felt short of breath. Damn weather, damn planet. When at last he could leave Tegha behind, he would surely stop feeling the unbearable heaviness that sometimes drowned him, and the irritation . . .
“And the thing about pregnant women,” she said. “It’s got nothing to do with that naive idea that the woman is cutting her baby’s cord inside her womb by cutting something with a sharp instrument, as some cultures on Earth believed. Physis daggers are used only to cut tsibina, an herb that is highly toxic, teratogenic, like so many things on this planet,” she continued. “Pregnant women should not touch the herb . . . They shouldn’t even smell the knife.”
She looked up. Beck suddenly felt an almost uncontrollable rage when he saw her dark, defiant look.
“That popular wisdom is so similar to our superstitions, but we can’t understand it because we see it through the earthling prism.”
The lieutenant began to find it difficult to suppress his desire to slap the archaeologist.
“Your men love meat with fish sauce.” Reigosa approached the limit of the protective field, her eyes large and bright behind the invisible buzzer. “Do you know that on Earth, the ancient Eskimos refused to put meat and fish on the same plate for almost religious reasons?”
Her smile tempted him to throw a punch at her face. Beck’s teeth rattled. He heard a growing commotion from the adjacent room. His men were arguing.
“Meat and fish, Lieutenant. On Tegha,”—her feminine smile widened, and two mischievous dimples appeared on her pale cheeks—”it means problems, oh dear, especially if you eat the combination for days on end. Have you ever wondered why the natives avoid consuming large quantities of the two things together?”
Beck rose from his chair, his face twisted in a grimace and a tic throbbing under his right eye.
“It’s cumulative, did you know?” she said. “No, you’ve got no idea . . . Well, yes, and it acts on the brain. I would say you are all about to . . .”
Lieutenant Beck was no longer listening to her. His trembling hand reached toward his gun that never went very far. He shot only once at Reigosa’s mocking face, but the protective field rejected the bullet. Then a shot from one of his men’s gun knocked him down on the table. He died instantly.
In the exchange of shots that followed, the remaining soldiers liquidated themselves merrily while their attacks failed to touch Dr. Reigosa.
A while later, a group of Teghanese burst into the building, attracted by the uproar, deactivated the protective field, and rescued their heroine, leaving the mess to be cleaned by others.
Before leaving, the archaeologist turned to the room full of corpses.
“Earth and Tegha, meat and fish, unbelievable! We have a whole galaxy standing between one and the other,” she sighed. “You had a lethal taste, Beck. You and your people. The worst possible combination. Only an Earthling comes up with something like this—meat and fish on the same plate.”