This is a short story. I read it in a Science Fiction magazine after 2010. It might have been Analog. I think the cover was green.

Humans have been living on a space station orbiting a planet for many generations; it has less than one gravity. There is a spherical swimming pool in the centre of it. There is an alien of a species they hardly interact with who has been staying there a few years.

The space station is visited by an extremely high status young alien, of the same species. He is so high status he would never stoop so low as to trade or negotiate that is for underlings. He uses the other of his species who has been living there as a translator.

The humans do their best to roll out the red carpet for the VIP visitor. They do not realise the aliens have a strong taboo against public eating and are shocked by all the restaurants they see.

There is an assassination attempt. A human tries to shoot the VIP. The other alien throws himself in the way and dies. The VIP is unconscious and wounded.

He is taken to a hospital where he is fed while unconscious. The humans do not know that to the aliens this is the worse humiliation possible. It is how they humiliate captured enemies, keeping them alive and force-feeding them.

The humans find alien medicines in the unlocked spaceship but have no idea what to give their patient.

They bring in a human smuggler who speaks the alien language and tries to explain about the taboo.

The injured VIP alien regains consciousness. They ask him, through the translator, which medicine they should give him and he requests a certain tablet.

It is deadly, he commits suicide.

Later the human smuggler blackmails the aliens permitted to speak with him, by threatening to reveal that they sank so low as to hire a lowly human as an assassin. A great insult to the one they tried to kill.

  • Not the answer and not posting it as such, but 'eating food in public is taboo' is a concept that comes up during a problematic first contact during an episode of ST:Enterprise
    – bertieb
    Commented Apr 9 at 11:23
  • Also a reversed version of the trope where humans visit the aliens, "F***" Commented Apr 9 at 13:54
  • 1
    Eating in public is also taboo for the Venus natives. Space Cadet Heinlein 1948. Commented Apr 9 at 14:12
  • It seems like this is a somewhat common trope - the same applies to the alien species in Project Hail Mary. Commented Apr 12 at 7:35

1 Answer 1


This is "Malnutrition" by J. T. Sharrah which appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January-February 2015.

Here is a brief synopsis from SF Story Directory:

Malnutrition takes place aboard a space station during a visit from an alien dignitary. Following an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the dignitary is put on life support and fed through a tube. The mayor of the space station conducts a fruitless investigation and eventually enlists the aid of a local rogue. The alien wakes and, because eating in public is a taboo in his culture, commits suicide rather than deal with the humiliation. It is revealed that the assassination was arranged by the dignitary's father, and the information is given to the rogue to blackmail the father with.

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