This bit is part of a large piece concerning a human captain commanding an alien crew.
|The 30-something woman wore a tanktop and pajama bottoms; her hair was pinned up and she was barefoot. She padded over across the bridge, picking her way through the ladder-like structures that stuck up from the floor across the deck towards one of the few chairs on the ship that was intended for the human anatomy and was just setting down her cup of Earl Gray when a gentle chime sounded in time with a flashing square of amber on a nearby panel. Behind the chair, which was mounted to the top of a pedestal, a tall feathered creature stood surveying the panel without reaction.
"You going to have a look?" she asked. She spoke in the creature's language, full of soft but rather screeching sounds, heavy on sibilants and a sound that can only be described as a cluck.
"Yes." The creature moved around the chair, although Captain Pamela Kirwin had long since stopped thinking of the commander as a bird, or hearing his language as clucks and screeches, on first glance, that's exactly what the creature appeared to be. He--it, actually--extended its wing and, with a projection at the tip which looked something between a finger and a pencil eraser, pushed on the amber square, silencing the chime.
"Thank you," Captain Kirwin said as she climbed up the short pedestal and settled down into the chair.
"It's coolant temperature in the number three engine again," the creature said. "The repair seems to have been ineffective."
Kirwin made the equivalent of uh-huh in the creature's language--it was something between a growl and a short smack of the tongue against the palate. She reached down to take the cup of tea that the creature was lifting up to her, and sat it down into a depression made for that purpose on the arm of the chair. The creature turned away from her, stepped to the panel, and speaking into the top of a thin stalk, started asking engineering about the engine. The exchange took place between the creature--her first officer--and one of the engineers, and although the words came quickly and in the dialect of the Pleeka high people, Kirwin understood it well enough. Her ear was better at the language than her larynx would ever be.
Kirwin's assignment as captain of the vessel and pilot of the expedition had been offered to her by Fleet Director Vladimir Rodenshenko. "You'd be the captain of the Creetak," he had said from the other side of an expansive desk in his office on Mimas Station.
"Captain," she said flatly.
"Yes, that's right."
"Of an alien ship."
"Well, don't do it if you don't want to," Rodenshenko said. "It's entirely up to you, of course." There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence, but Pam didn't get out of the chair. "Look, the ship is one of ours," he said. "The Creetak's is a converted scooper ship, one of the old Reynard-class vessels. They've added a large chamber to the spin ring for flying and a couple of other things, but it's got regular Yancey engines and the life support equipment is fully certified."
"I'm not worried about the life support, Vlad," she said.
"Yeah, I know. The problem you're going to have isn't the ship." He sipped his coffee. "How much do you know about the Pleeka?"
She shrugged. "They're birds with ESP."
"Yeah. Intelligent birds, heavy on culture and light on technology. We're supplying them with the engineering, and they're going to supply us with--" he stopped abruptly. "You'll have to learn their language," he said. "They insist on communicating in their own language."
"How long will that take?" Pam asked.
Rodenshenko pushed a packet of papers out to the end of his desk and rotated them around. "Sixteen weeks, you can do it from St. Louis," he said. "Then you'll have ten days of immersion in the Pleeka colony on the Avairihim, and then we'll put you in supersleep for the transfer to the Creetak."
"Supersleep? Nobody said anything about supersleep."
"Creetak will orbit Pluto until you're ready to go, then we'll sleep you out there on a high-speed torpedo transport," Rodenshenko said. "They're willing to wait for you, if you're willing."
"What's the mission?"
"Can't say," he said. "You've got to accept first."
And again there was a stretch of silence. "So you're telling me I have to agree before I know what the mission is?"
"That's correct." His gaze did not leave hers. "You're the right person for it, Pam. You trust me, don't you?"
She did, as a matter of fact, but she left that unanswered. "How much time do I have?"
Rodenshenko looked at his watch. "Oh, about an hour. Come on, let's go up to the canteen, I'll buy you a coffee."
That had been twenty months ago. She had drank the coffee, accepted the mission, learned the language, torpedoed to Pluto under a ten-month supersleep, and in a Pleeka ceremony that involved, among other things, the ritual shaving of her head, took command of the Creetak.
Her first officer had spent a full fifty-month posting in the Pleeka embassay in Shanghai and spoke English about as well as any of the Pleeka, which is to say not very well at all. The human voice organs accommodated themselves to the Pleeka language better than the Pleeka anatomy entertained the production of the sounds of English, and so while the first officer heard and understood the English language well, he could be understood only with difficulty. In their first meeting, he tried to welcome Kirwin in English.
Raahhh--gallowwkkk, the creature had said as the airlock door opened and Kirwin stood there holding her helmet in her hands. The final consonant cluster devolved into a sort of squawk; it was the best the officer could do with the word hello.
Kirwin immediately stepped into the ship, placed her helmet on the floor in one deft motion, and spread her hands slightly, arching her eyebrows up and opening her eyes as wide as possible as she intoned sounds in the Pleeka language that communicated gratitude and the seeking of permission to come aboard. The first officer and the other four or five Pleeka who stood in the small suitup chamber were impressed with the small human's ability in their language, and the effect was immediate. All the Pleeka present in the room assumed the odd, eyes-wide-open expression of welcome and respect.
"We welcome you to our nest, Captain," the first officer said to her slowly, as his culture required.
"I am welcomed," she responded--it was still ritual, but it was important to participate in ritual before relationship could be established. As she stood in the small chamber, she unzipped her suit and began to wrestle out of it while the Pleeka watched, their eyes still held wide. She stepped out of the hardware and then continued undressing, pulling off the light garments that were worn under the suit. She pinched the back of her bra and shook the straps off her shoulders. She yanked off the various sensor wires that were taped to her skin on the chest between her breasts, on the right shoulder, and the abdomen, and on her left calf. Then she slipped her socks off and stepped away from the pile of clothing on the floor, naked. "I am welcomed," she repeated as she stroked the sides of her head, top to bottom, with her hands.
The first officer and the other Pleeka who were watching her were of course surprised and a bit put off by her lack of feathers, but they had been prepared for this and some other human behaviors well in advance of the captain's arrival. "You understand, now, that this human will be featherless," the briefer said. His eyes on the screen blinked slowly in the Pleeka manner. "The human will expose his skin to you upon arrival, but then will drape himself in a sort of sheet made for this purpose." The crewmembers listening to the presentation laughed lightly at this--it would have been suspected that the instructor was joking with them, if not for the slowly steady blinking of his eyes. "You must not allow yourselves to be offended. This is not prey behavior, and the human is not hiding or stalking."
"Instructor, may I ask a question?" one of them asked.
"If not for stalking, then what is the point of the draping?" All of the other Pleeka looked to the screen to get the answer.
"Some of it has to do with insulation," the instructor said. "Protection against unusual warmth or cold. Some of it has to do with a cultural prohibition against displaying certain parts of their bodies to each other." Again, the Pleeka were incredulous, but the instructor's slow, steady blinking told them that he was truthful.
"What does warmth or coldness have to do with draping?" one of the Pleeka asked.
"Well, the humans maintain a body temperature within a strict limit regardless of the temperature of their surroundings. This takes energy and effort when the environment strays from their temperature set point. The drapings make it easier for them to maintain temperature." It was another of the many biological variations of humans that the Pleeka found so unusual--and so fascinating.