Shepherd Moon, Chapter 14: The Tour
Tasha decided to sleep in another cabin so that Ben could stay with Ren. Talon’s senior crew vied for the privilege of offering their cabins to her. They were about to draw lots but she decided to stay in Ben’s. As Tasha tried to sleep in the unfamiliar cabin, she couldn’t help but be curious about what it is that people did during counseling sessions like Ben was having with Ren - her prurient curiosity was piqued, and she had a hard time sleeping.
In the morning, everything seemed back to normal, but Ren pulled Tasha aside and asked if Ben could stay with him in their conference. She acceded to this, and decided to leave them to it and go to the technology discussion group instead.
Tasha walked into the room used for the Channel “A” discussions and tuned in to the meeting in progress.
Mia noticed her, and made a small bow in her image’s direction. Tasha smiled in a friendly way, nodded acknowledgement, and settled down to listen.
The discussion was presently about how to manage the complicated procedure to merge ship defense fields. Both groups realized that their field technologies were very similar, and were able to discuss the project without much trouble. As in previous discussions, it helped a lot that the Earthers were able to understand and translate. Ren and her other scientists had wondered how it was that the Earthers had become so fluent with Elyran, But far be it for them to question this gift.
As the discussion progressed, the Earthers discovered that the Talon’s drive was not exactly easy to tune while in use. They thought this a defect in their design and were surprised to find out that it was deliberate.
Further discussion revealed that most Federation systems were designed in such a way that, in case of a control systems failure, the ship could “coast” for a while before requiring intervention because their drive parameters were locked and would take time to drift - a concession to their less than reliable computers. This had served the Federation well, but the trade-off was that ship fields and propulsion could not be adjusted easily while in flight. So Reena, their pilot, went over the few field elements that could be manipulated while under power, and pointed them out to the Earthers.
All this new information, plus the readings they had been gathering since the aliens’ arrival gave Marta’s PRC engineers enough clues that they were now confident they could reverse-engineer Talon’s engines if they wanted to. For the moment, however, O’Connell was only concerned about how to accomplish what Mia wanted.
“Are you sure you can keep these stable?” O’Connell said, indicating the figures currently on the screen.
“With ease, Commander. In fact, we can assist by...”
“Oh, no, no, no. Don’t touch them. We can manage. Right, Chief?” She turned to Seeker’s chief engineer.
“Okay, then. The next issue is to connect the ships.”
“That’s too dangerous,” Mia said. “Instead, we can just use a couple of Mud Turtles to transfer over.” She pointed to a section of the Talon at the starboard rear section. “This is your shuttle bay?”
The pilot nodded (a gesture that Elyrans and Earthers shared, apparently).
“How many berths are available?”
“On the main deck, we have none, but we can move around the parked ships on the other decks, move some from the main deck there, and give you room.”
“Ah, all right then.” Mia pressed a button, connecting her to the bridge.
“Commander Kajima,” she said.
“Aye, sir,” Kajima responded.
“I am flashing on your screen the layout of the Talon’s flight deck. We are intending to bring over two Mud Turtles. Talon’s crew can move around their ships and give us room on the main deck, where their main hatch is. How much space would you need on the main deck?” She indicated the picture.
“This is the airlock, sir?”
“Can this spot be cleared?” He pointed to one of the slots near the airlock.
“Excuse me, warrior,” Talon’s deck mistress interrupted. “You will be requiring just one berth?”
“Yes, sir. This particular one.”
“Captain,” the deck mistress turned to Mia. “The ‘Mud Turtle’ spacecraft you are referring to are the same ones that landed on the Detterex ships? The box-like ships that have claws?”
“It seems to me, one berth will not be sufficient for your two ‘Mud Turtles.’“
“Commander Kajima says he just needs one.”
The Elyran shrugged. “ All right - whatever you say. Yes, we can have that ready.”
O’Connell picked up her CC and contacted the bridge. “This is O’Connell. Have two Turtles prepped and ready by thirteen hundred hours, as well as two squads of Marines. I will brief you on the crew makeup later. The Captain will be going over to visit the Elyran flagship.”
“Visit, sir?” the bridge duty officer cut in. “The Elyran...?”
“Yes. In five hours. Just do it.”
The landing party included Mia, of course - something O’Connell and the other command personnel were not happy about. This was against regs. But orders were orders. And because she was going, O’Connell couldn’t go as she would have to take command. Mia would be joined by Seeker’s second engineer, one of the doctors from medical, someone from battle ops familiar with Seeker’s cybernetics and control systems, and their second-best expert on aliens, Nick. The First Ambassador and three other Arachnians also asked to join the tour. And since the ship’s doctor had cleared them, there really was no reason to deny the request.
The balance was made up of members of Seeker’s Second Combined Marine/Infantry Squad - the ship’s toughest ground pounders. But they also made up the majority of Seeker’s honor and color guard. Which was not accidental. And O’Connell, without being asked, knew enough to select as many females from the squad as could be spared.
On a monitor, Ren watched the Earth spaceship approach the Talon. He tried to search out the other ships but they were too far away to be visible other than as moving pinpricks in the sky.
It was a bit unnerving to see another ship this close, and coming even closer. Its movements were so smooth, however. It was like the ship was alive. Instead of blocky, rigid movements like a normal ship would make when maneuvering with thrusters, Seeker turned and maneuvered fluidly, like a shark slowly maneuvering in calm water. It was amazing. Ren heard the comment from Reena that they were probably using computer-controlled flywheels. Large ones. Elyrans also used flywheels on their ships, of course, but not in any scale that would allow their ships such graceful movements. Elyrans mostly used flywheels and gyros just to assist in stabilization and trim - not to actually turn or maneuver a ship.
What Ren took as a wing came near, and a few scant meters from Talon’s hull, a bright, electric-green light, like the glow from an aurora, bathed Talon’s side. Where the wing touched the glow, the glow disappeared. The wing was less than four arm-lengths away from Talon’s hull and it stayed there as if nailed down. The preciseness of the Earthers’ control was amazing.
“Showoffs!” Reena muttered, amazed at the precise, fluid movements of the Seeker.
Ren looked over her shoulder at Reena’s monitor. On it, he saw the outline of Talon’s field. Instead of a perfect oval enclosing the silhouette of the Talon, it was like the ovals of the two ships were attached. Their combined fields now looked like a figure eight. As far as he knew, the geometry of the field was something that Elyran scientists and spacers thought impossible to sustain, but there it was.
“Amazing,” Reena said.
Ren looked back at the other monitor and saw two little round shapes slowly leave the Seeker, move slowly under Seeker’s wing, and on towards Talon. Clearly, their pilots were making sure they remained within the ship’s field.
When the two little ships had gone out of his view, the Seeker rolled, its wing rising and clearing Talon’s field in a moment. A momentary green glow spread around the wing’s leading edge and died after Seeker’s wing cleared the field, and in seconds Seeker had moved away. In a minute, she was just another light in the sky.
One of the communications people went to Ren and bowed.
“My Lord, the Earther shuttles have arrived.” Ren nodded. “I suppose it’s time, then. Send a message to Her Royal Highness that I am on my way, and I shall meet her at the landing deck.”
“There is no need to rush, Your Highness - the deck is still being repressurized. There is still time.”
He and his ceremonial entourage went with him to the science deck to fetch Ben.
“My Lord,” Ben bowed.
“The Earthers are here, Ben. Are you sure you can do this?”
Ben nodded confidently. After their meditation session last night, he was calmer, and felt himself in control.
“I am, Your Highness. I will not embarrass our Family.”
He gave Ben a hug. “Good. Then let us go.”
“Sir, the Elyrans have radioed in that the deck is under pressure again,” the pilot said. “Instruments read a steady fifteen pounds per square inch. Seventy-three percent nitrogen, twenty-five percent oxygen, one percent carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of hydrogen, ozone, methane, helium, neon, krypton, xenon, argon and carbon monoxide. Other gases too low to read out on my equipment. Plus a low level of water vapor. All detectable radiation types within normal ranges, and no red lights on the bio detectors.”
Seeker’s Second Engineer, Engineer Haskell, looked at the pilot in irritation. “What does that mean?” he asked plaintively.
“Ummm, sorry, sir. It means the atmosphere’s breathable and safe. Oh, and gravity is at a steady point-eight G.”
Mia nodded. “Seems about right.” She looked at the monitor tuned to the view outside the shuttle and saw the Elyrans arrayed in orderly rows, the Princess and Prince at their head, surrounded by banners raised by what looked like ceremonial guards. Given all the banners, swords and armor, it looked like a scene from some medieval reenactment.
She was right - they indeed needed some theatrics, and was glad they had planned ahead. Earlier, they'd decided they would exit out the shuttles via the ramps, so Mia had the other Turtle park parallel to theirs so that they could do this while facing where they assumed the Elyran entourage would be coming from.
Mia had asked everyone to wear bulky Class Five battle armor, and if they didn’t put on the helmets and the crinkly reflective anti-laser ponchos, and if the top plates were spray-painted in chrome or something, they would look pretty close to medieval armor. Mia asked for this to be done but the ship’s Second Engineer and the people from Damage Control did her one better - they had done what amounted to powder-coating all the visible top surfaces of the suits with the quick-setting damage control powder sealant they used for the outside hull. It just took five minutes to set, and now their suits had a permanent, uniform, shiny, slightly chromed gunmetal look to them.
One other thing she asked for was for everyone to also wear the dress swords from their Dress Blues clipped to their armor’s belt.
Per the new regs of the new armed forces, all officers were required to wear a ceremonial sword with their formal “Dress Blues” uniforms, but they had been given the option of replacing these with equivalents to reflect their culture or traditions. Because of this, people preferred their own instead of the bad-looking, useless ceremonial swords the quartermaster issued. So dress blues were never issued with swords anymore.
Anyway, all that meant was that everyone had come onboard with their own dress swords or equivalents. Mia had seen a lot of variety with these substitutes over the past months - things like claymores, longswords, broadswords, even flails, katanas, krys, machetes and bolos, for example. She even saw a few axes and a mace once. And all of them a reflection of the traditions of the wearer.
The soldiers from the Second Marine/Infantry Squad didn’t have swords however, since they were all non-coms, but they said that was okay since they preferred their rifles anyway.
As an American transplanted to Neptune, Mia didn’t really have any military traditions about swords, and therefore didn’t think to bring one on the trip. The quartermaster wanted to give her one of those tin dress swords, but she nixed that. So, for today, she asked the Second Engineer to find her something.
Chief Haskell couldn’t find anyone with any sort of a spare sword, so what he ended up giving the Captain was a device he had cobbled together.
Originally, he was thinking of just grinding down a piece of steel into a sword shape, but he had a brainwave.
“What is it?” Mia asked. She looked her new “sword” over.
“It’s a modified portable cutting torch from the Engineering Deck spares,” Chief Haskell said.
These “choppers” (as they were called) were high-powered portable laser utility cutters that could cut through any kind of material - once ubiquitous and indispensable tools onboard ships older than the Seeker, it was used by engineers, artificers and damage control officers onboard the old DSRs.
They were practically obsolete now, and only a few could be found anymore, having been replaced by smaller, less bulky, less powerful but more efficient versions.
A chopper was essentially a twin laser emitter, but it had a limiter that stuck out from the handle and between the emitters like a long, slender Crystalline capital letter “T” but with a really tiny horizontal crosspiece at the tip. Its two laser beams would be emitted from near the handle, on either side of the T’s bar, and would be stopped by the crosspiece. Also, when the lasers hit the crosspiece, a visible light would be emitted, reflecting back along the beams and Crystalline limiter. This gave the effect of making the laser beams and the limiter visible, which aided in keeping the chopper safe for use (people would see the actual operational beams and be able to avoid them), as well as act as a kind of flashlight to aid the person when working in space or in dark places. When activated, it looked like a longsword with a twenty-eight-inch long glowing, ruby-red blade with the glowing laser beam at the edge of the crystalline blade.
Chief Haskell shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry, Skipper - a chopper was the best I could do on short notice. But look: the handle and hand shield look pretty close to a sword grip and cross guard, you have to admit. And one of the artificers welded together a scabbard for it using some of the spare Crystalline plate we have, and I replaced the battery pack as well with a compact unit that fit inside the grip. Neat, huh?” He grinned. “My guys took all of thirty minutes to cobble it together.” He was obviously proud of his people.
Mia grinned as well. “Yes, indeed, Chief. Thank you.” She pulled it from the new scabbard and noted its feather-light weight. The limiter bar for the beam had been extended so that it was now as long as a standard longsword, and a sharp pointed Crystalline piece was welded onto the end to make it look like the point of a real sword. Mia touched the point and noted it had been sharpened and filed to a fine-edged point. She felt the limiter bar, too, and its edges had been filed down to a fine cutting edge as well, and was reinforced a whole hell of a lot. Even without the lasers, she reckoned the chopper’s limiter bar would function adequately as a regular sword-blade.
She knew cutters and nodded in satisfaction as she slid it back into the transparent scabbard, clipping it and her pistol to her belt (when she put it into the scabbard, the laser switched off automatically, otherwise, it would just cut through the scabbard). In university, she did a little bit of fencing, along with the football. And though she had to get used to its heft and balance, she thought she could manage her new sword well enough. She wondered how well she’d do in a real sword fight. Probably very badly, she assumed, since fencing wasn’t really real sword fighting.
“Guess I’m all set, Chief. Signal the people from the other shuttle to start.”
At Mia’s order, they all formed up and waited for their turn. In the meantime, they watched on the monitor as the loading ramp of the other shuttle opened up.
To the Elyrans, what they saw were a handful of large Earther warriors almost as large as Detterex rushing out of the right-side shuttle, smart and dangerous-looking in their metal armor, and taking up posts at either side of the open loading ramp. They definitely weren’t Detterex since they moved so much faster.
Four Arachnians then came out, escorted by eight other Earther warriors in the same kind of armor, and marched in a precise military cadence as they walked the Arachnians to the Prince and Princess. Their loud, precise footfalls echoed like the beat of drums in the vaulted landing deck. Two of the warriors at the lead carried banners - one was the triangular orange, black and white pennant of the Arachnian Republic, and the other was the New United Nations’ white seal on a rectangular field of sky-blue.
Upon reaching the Prince and Princess, the warriors crisply presented arms. The two with the flags did a right slam. Together, they stopped.
The Arachnians raggedly moved out of their places, bowed to the Earther soldiers and moved to the Prince and Princess. Ren exclaimed when he saw the First Ambassador, rushed forward and hugged the insect-like alien.
The glyphs chiseled onto the chitin of the Ambassador’s top left shoulder would have identified him to others, but Ren and Tasha didn’t need them - they’d recognize the little alien anywhere.
The Arachnian didn’t return the gesture, of course, for fear of hurting Ren. Besides, he didn’t really know how - the closest thing to a hug that Arachnians did was the kind they did when in ritual combat, or when having sex. But despite his not returning the gesture, the agitated movement of his antennae showed the emotions he must be feeling.
Skin slid against chitin as Ren hugged his best friend. Ren’s tears flowed freely.
“You know, My Lord, Arachnians are not built to be hugged,” the First Ambassador joked, the voder translator around his neck accurately translating his Arachnian clicks and whistles. It wasn’t really translating. Rather, it was converting the ambassador’s speech to equivalent humanoid sounds. It was actually the ambassador speaking Elyran, or as close as he was physically able to.
He touched an antennae to Ren’s wet cheek. “Don’t cry, my dear friend,” the First Ambassador said. “I am fine.”
“We were all afraid you were dead.”
“Clearly, I am not. And it’s not as if we haven’t been chatting daily via radio.”
Ren giggled. “Oh, shut up.”
“In all our years of knowing each other, I find it surprising that you still believe you can make me shut up.”
Tasha looked on with fondness at the reunion of the two friends.
Ren let go, smiled, and looked fondly down at his friend. He reached out a finger and touched the feathery tip of one antenna - an interspecies gesture of friendship and affection as old as the time when the races of Arachnia Prime and Elyra first discovered each other and became friends.
The Arachnian proffered his antennae to Tasha, and she affectionately did the same.
Ren turned to the Earther warriors and bowed. “My gratitude to you and your people,” he said.
The lead Marine smiled slightly and bowed. The two Marines carrying the flags raised them, and the others went to right shoulder positions. They turned smartly and marched precisely back towards Mia’s shuttle, where they formed lines on either side of the still-closed ramp.
As soon as they were in place, the second shuttle’s ramp slowly lowered. Bright, blue-white light spilled out, and what human music aficionados would know to be the Throne Room Theme from the classic twentieth century movie “Star Wars” started playing from the Mud Turtle’s PA. It was courtesy of Nick’s collection of vintage classic musical pieces. Any humans present might just have laughed at its ridiculousness, but thankfully there were only Elyrans. In fact, the Elyrans were actually entranced by all of this seeming pomp and pageantry.
In time with the music, four of the Marines marched, with the flags of the New U.N., the United Earth Defense Force, the colors of the Seeker, and, per tradition, the home flag of Seeker’s Master - the green, white and blue flag of Neptune was the last to come out.
When the four cleared the ramp, two other Marines marched out, their rifles in right shoulder position. Nick, and then Mia’s cybernetics officer followed, and right behind them were the doctor and Seeker’s Second Engineer. And behind them, Mia. Four Marines then followed, rifles at right-shoulder too.
Together, Mia and her “entourage” walked down the ramp and went to the front of the arrayed royal party.
In precise military movements, Mia’s group arranged themselves in two rows in front of the Prince and Princess, and stopped. The pilot of their shuttle mercifully faded the volume of the music away until it was off.
“Present arms!” the lead Marine exclaimed in English, and the soldiers presented arms and the ones with flags raised them high. Mia and her officers crisply saluted. The synchronized crack of their movements sounded like a single gunshot inside the otherwise-silent deck.
After a few moments, from a barely detectable signal from Mia, the lead Marine then exclaimed, “platoon, at ease!”
Hardly a platoon, Mia thought amusedly, and everyone went to Parade Rest while the colors were dipped forward.
A wild thought sprang inside Mia’s head. She chuckled inside when she decided to surreptitiously turn on her “sword.” She kept the power to absolute minimum, of course, just so she could light it up, and an extremely faint, but noticeable, ruby light started to glow from inside her Crystalline scabbard. The onlooking Elyrans gasped when they saw this. Mia had the sense that it was like humans going “aaahhh” in amazement.
Nick, the First Ambassador’s deputy and the lead Marine had collaborated to concoct this new routine before leaving Seeker, trying to combine Elyran styles of presenting as well as Earther color and honor guard moves, hoping that it would impress the aliens. They ended up with something akin to the normal presentation of colors but modified to suit Elyran sensibilities. With the reaction from the Elyrans, they knew they had succeeded, and eventually, it would become a standard parade routine as recognizable as a pass-and-review.
Mia broke ranks and stepped forward. She bowed deeply in front of the royal couple, straightened out, drew out her glowing, ruby “sword,” touched the bar of the limiter to her forehead (a move she copied from an old movie she saw as a boy) and brought it down to her side.
“Your Highness,” Mia formally said in Elyran, “we request permission to come aboard the royal flagship.”
Tasha was a little bit confused. “Haven’t they come aboard already?” she thought. It must be an Earther ceremonial thing.
“Permission is granted, Lord Captain,” she said in equally formal tones.
Mia touched her “sword” to her forehead again and sheathed it.
Smiling, the Princess reached out a hand in the gesture she observed Earthers do with each other when they meet, and shook Mia’s hand.
And everyone on the deck cheered and applauded.
Scientists, and shaking hands –
Before the tour began, the Earthers, as well as the Elyran receiving party, took time to change out of their armor. Mia remembered wearing dress blues before when she was a young man in the Navy. She remembered hating how uncomfortable it was. This time it was a little better, but not by much. At least the new outfit didn’t come with a hat anymore.
The new navy’s version was made up of a double-breasted navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, gold trim at the edges, a high, Napoleon-style collar trimmed in gold as well as decorated with gold miniatures of the U.N. crest, Napoleonic gold-tasseled epaulettes, gold braid at the cuffs denoting rank, and knee-high black armored boots that look like riding boots over skin-tight white pants that looked like leggings (the men’s were... boldly padded for, well, modesty, and for protection). It was finished off with a sidearm in a holster and, for officers, a dress sword in a scabbard (or its equivalent). A red sash went over the belt and around the waist. Navy regs required that miniatures of any decorations one had received during past service in the new navy as well as in other military forces should be worn on the upper left breast of the jacket (a compromise for the fact that the new navy was an amalgam of various armed forces), and a silver nameplate bearing name and command on the right breast. Mia was embarrassed that she had more miniatures than most.
As she stepped out of the lavatory of the small room they were assigned, Nick caught sight of her and wolf-whistled.
“Lookin’ good, Skipper,” Nick said, and waggled his eyebrows humorously. His chest was bare of any devices or medals except for his commissioned officer’s pin and a miniature of the Seeker.
“Shut up, Lieutenant, or I’ll put you in the brig,” she answered, smiling. “Let’s go.”
The Prince and Princess and their people had also changed out of their armor, and were wearing what to Mia looked like period costumes from 16th or 17th century France, except that the women were wearing what the men were wearing as well, except for the lower necklines and daring décolletage, longer tails, long skirts instead of pants, and high-heeled boots.
The tour began, with Reena, as ship’s mistress, having the privilege of performing the tour. It was as comprehensive as a three-hour tour could be, especially since the Earthers’ questions and the things they wanted to see were very specific. Reena thanked the goddesses for the presence of the Prince and his assistant, as it was they who gave most of the answers the aliens asked for. Never would she question the value of scientists in general, Prince Ren in particular, ever again.
The tour went rapidly from the bridge to the engine room, to the main power plant chamber, the medical center, one of the main living decks and then to the system support chambers that contained Talon’s recycling facilities, atmosphere regeneration plants and computer chambers. The weapons control chamber was off-limits, however. Even so, there was a lot to see. It was a long day.
When they were three-fourths through with the tour, Reena could see that the aliens were showing some signs of fatigue. She was sure she was feeling tired, too, and no doubt the Prince as well, but they were determined to see this through, if just for the sake of her crew: everyone wanted to have a personal look at the new “Warrior Race” and their “queen,” and she didn’t want to disappoint. The Princess had already retired earlier, however.
Reena resented the perks of royalty.
All throughout the royal tour, many of the crew were on hand and eager to assist in showing the Earthers their ship. Along the way, of course, the crew were anxious to tell the Earther captain how grateful they were for their assistance in battle, and wanted an opportunity to “shake hands” with the Earthers. Also, those who dared reached out and touched the scabbard of her glowing sword.
Reena appreciated Captain Steele’s graciousness as she and her officers accepted these accolades, even though it undoubtedly became tiresome after a while.
When the tour group entered the medical deck, the medical staff greeted them and the non-bedridden patients standing and then bowing, in the gesture the humans had come to know as something reserved for royalty. It was a bit different here in that most of the Elyrans on duty, approximately three-fourths, were males.
Everyone who could, stood and bowed, even the patients, including some of those that seemed to be heavily injured.
Mia knew the kinds of injuries anyone who was shipboard could sustain, and she recognized them in the Elyrans here. Many of them sustained injuries such as third- and fourth-degree burns, shattered bones, or large-scale wounds.
Despite that, almost all of them stood to bow, whether with the assistance of crutches or the support of the mostly-male medical staff.
From her strange-yet-familiar eyes, Reena could tell that the Earther captain was touched. She noted moisture leaking from the Captain’s eyes. Though she knew it was a mistake to assume commonalities between species, Reena knew Mia was crying.
“We are honored,” the Captain said hoarsely as she struggled to contain her emotions. “But, please, be at ease. I apologize for disturbing you.”
“It is no trouble at all, My Lady,” the Elyran who seemed to be in charge answered for everyone. “We, and all my charges, are happy to meet you in person.”
“Captain,” Reena said, “I would like to introduce you to our chief medical scientist. Her name is Tarna.”
“Captain,” Tarna bowed. Mia, in turn, reached out and shook her hand in a two-handed handshake.
“I am so honored to meet you, Doctor.”
Tarna had heard of the Earther custom of shaking hands. But she didn’t expect to be doing it. She thought of shaking hands as a little... unhygienic. But, with that little bit of squeamishness aside, she found the gesture a very appropriate and welcome one, especially since it came from the Earther Warrior Queen herself. She also felt herself blushing. The gesture was quite intimate as well, and the tactile feel of the Captain’s hand was quite... pleasant, despite the odd feel of the wider palm and extra finger.
She gasped. No doubt because of the handshake, she caught the fringes of Mia’s aura - it was kind and gentle, but with a strength and sensuality she could feel, though it was kept in check by the Captain’s will. Never did she have such an experience before except for the few times she had occasion to interact with a bridge, and as a regular Elyran, she didn’t have occasion to do that often.
Mia asked after her patients, and she had to shake herself from her thoughts. She was pleased to report that, except for a few, everyone was well on their way to recovery. She whispered that there were a few that didn’t make it, and their bodies were now down in the hold.
Mia nodded. She knew enough about Elyrans that she knew they do not mourn their fellow Elyrans publicly except during the appropriate time, so she knew not to refer to them again. She gravitated towards the bedridden ones in the back that Tarna said were the most hurt, and said hello, leaving the data gathering to Nick and her people.
“My Lady,” one of the pilots that was in bed said as she tried to get up.
Mia gently pushed the pilot back down by the shoulder.
“Please, my dear,” Mia said. “Be still.”
She pulled up a stool and sat beside the injured Elyran, asked her about inconsequential things and tried to get to know her a little. Eventually, Mia asked about her injury. It seemed a piece of metal had cut into her, damaging several organs. Per Tarna, surgery had “repaired” her and she was as good as new, but she needed time to recover from the surgery.
“I am pleased to hear that,” Mia said.
“I appreciate all that the medical people have done,” the warrior said, “but I am chafing to get back on duty.”
“I understand,” Mia nodded, “but we all need time to recover from injuries, if we are to be of service to our people. Don’t you agree?”
“I suppose so, Your Highness,” the injured pilot said reluctantly. Mia didn’t bother to correct her, and tell her she wasn’t royalty. “But...”
Mia laid a finger on the pilot’s lips. “Enough, my dear. Your new duty is to rest and get better. Isn’t that right, Tarna?”
Tarna smiled. “My Lady speaks the truth.”
Mia nodded. “So I am afraid you won’t be piloting ships and harassing the enemy for the moment, and will be harassing the nurses instead.”
Everyone within earshot laughed, and Mia kissed the warrior’s forehead in benediction. “Get well soon, my dear,” she whispered.
Mia went to the next bed, and to the next. There were eight of them in the small area, and Mia took about five minutes to get to know each of the patients. After a while, however, Nick cleared his throat and pointedly gestured at his watch.
Mia sighed and stood. “My friends, duty calls. We must leave now, but it was a pleasure spending time with you. I wish you a speedy recovery.”
She and her group followed Ren and Reena, and made their way out of the medical center. The Earthers shook hands and said goodbye to everyone.
As they stepped out of the center, Tarna pushed her way through the throng towards them.
“My Lady!” she called.
Mia gestured for them to stop.
“Yes, Doctor?” Mia said.
“Your Highness,” she said, “I... there are no words...”
“It was of no consequence...”
“But, Highness, It is. My patients - I... your words... Your words have meant more to them than anything, and will put them at ease until they are ready to return to duty.”
“It really was of no consequence, Doctor...”
“I’m sorry to disagree, Highness, but it is not. To ease a warrior’s mind, to motivate her - that is important.”
“Then I’m pleased we were of service.” Mia bowed to her, and, at a subtle signal from her, Mia’s people also bowed.
Tarna was taken aback, but, unwilling to be on the wrong end of the civilities equation, she got her people to line up and bow as well.
“I like the Earther warrior queen,” she thought.
A formal dinner –
As expected, Mia’s hosts, in an effort to be gracious, offered refreshments after their tour. Mia was conducted to a small but well-appointed lounge.
Her officers, plus a small group of Marines, followed.
Ren had sent word beforehand, saying that it was to be a formal affair, and that they would be recording for purposes of posterity, and for sharing with the rest of the Federation. The Earthers assumed as much and were prepared to act accordingly. Why else would they have worn their dress blues, after all?
Though they were a little smaller than they were used to, Mia and her officers found the furnishings comfortable enough though slightly cramped.
Normally, one would put aside sword and sidearm to be able to sit comfortably, but they were told that, per Elyran custom, one wore them throughout a formal meal. The First Ambassador explained to Mia that in ancient times, warriors were loath to divest themselves of their weapons, otherwise they’d be vulnerable to assassination or attack. So Mia and her people kept their weapons on as they sat.
On a low table that looked like a coffee table except it was as long and wide as a large conference desk, Ren served them deep dishes of what turned out to be some kind of dip with a color and consistency similar to cheese sauce, and bowls filled with round pieces of bread, each about the size of a large potato chip and in a rainbow assortment of colors - pastel yellow, pink, blue, dark green, dark and bright orange, navy blue, purple, brown, red, bright green, and many other colors. He also laid out pre-cut slices of fruit and vegetables of different shapes and sizes, and thin slices of meat artfully arrayed like expensive plates of sushi. There were also miniature bowls of what looked like oatmeal, plus what looked like bowls of clear broth with a pile of cut yellow and red vegetables beside each of them.
After he finished laying them all out, Ren picked, poured and sliced very small pieces of all the food, arranged them on a large plate, and then offered the plate to Mia.
They were briefed that this might happen, and they came prepared. Mia bowed to Ren, and then gestured to a Marine that had been patiently standing beside her.
The Marine, on Mia’s nod, got the plate, took out a small spectroscope analyzer out of a pocket, and ran its beam over the food. The device analyzed the chemical components of the food, as well as X-rayed them for metal and other foreign particles, any moving particles or dangerous organisms, bacteria, fungi or viruses. They would not have agreed to go through this ceremony except that they were provided a medical database as well as food samples by their Arachnian guests, and were fairly confident that any food served would be safe.
Having finished checking the food for poisons or other inimical compounds or any obvious parasites, the Marine gulped, knowing what was next. He took one of the tiny pieces of bread. Ren gestured at the dip and the soldier dipped it into the cheese-like sauce. He popped it into his mouth, grimaced and then chewed. But the texture and taste was actually good, like excellent French bread dipped in really tasty gravy.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “That’s a bit of all right, that!” he said, forgetting to tone down his Irish accent. He noticed everyone was looking at him, smiling. “Ummm...”
He then took bites out of everything on the plate, and then saluted Mia. “Food passes inspection, sir!” he said crisply, but the food in his mouth and the plate in his hand ruined the effect.
Mia nodded, and laughed. “Good work, gunny.”
“Sir!” He saluted again.
Per the custom, it was the visitors’ turn this time to provide drinks, aperitifs, digestifs, sweets (or equivalents) and desserts. The parallels to human western eating preferences were striking. Nick stood and went to a large, wheeled sealed cart that one of the Marines had brought from the shuttle. He rolled it to the side of the table and brought out thermos flasks of tea, coffee and orange juice plus a large coffee service. Nick also brought out several six-packs of beer, aluminum cans of soft drinks including classic Pepsi and Coke (and Pepsi-Coke, of course, invented when the two leading pre-war beverage companies merged), several magnums of the galley’s best wine (it was white wine only since red was always in short supply on the ship), and a few precious bottles of Earth-side champagne.
As a sort of pièce de résistance, Nick, smiling, brought out a cooler with a large tub of Rocky Road ice cream, and several New York-style cheesecakes. On a tray, Nick poured samples of each drink into small shot glasses they had borrowed from the officers’ mess, and small samples of the cake and ice cream onto small saucers.
An Elyran male came forward and did a ritual testing and tasting of the Earther’'s offerings as well, with Nick on hand to assist. The Elyran dipped a little device that looked like a girl’s lipstick tube in all the glasses and into the ice cream and cake, and then he tasted everything. Eventually, he turned and bowed to the Princess.
With an expressed note of appreciation, the Elyrans accepted the Earthers’ offerings, and they started with the meal.
Part of the fun was watching each other tasting the other’s food and watching each other's reaction. With the Elyrans, they all appreciated everything that the Earthers brought, except, perhaps, the beer, and were over the moon with the soda, ice cream and cheesecake. It was the same thing with the Earthers, except for a few of the meat slices - though they didn’t taste too bad, the flavors and textures were a little iffy.
The four Arachnians joined them as well, and the representatives of three interstellar races had a pleasant time just getting to know each other. Though they had spent countless hours in virtual conference, it was another thing altogether to be speaking to each other in person.
One of the bigger things that a face-to-face meeting added to the experience was how each smelled to the other. To the humans and Elyrans, the Arachnians smelled especially nice, like sandalwood with an earthy trace of expensive leather. The Elyrans smelled a little musky to the humans, but not unpleasantly so - like fresh laundry left too long in the sun. As for the “Earthers,” the Elyrans couldn’t tell much: most of the Earthers wore artificial scents - a custom practiced only by high-caste Elyran males nowadays. But the perfumes and colognes they did wear were extremely... sensual. And all of them had the feel of bridges. As for the Arachnians - scents and smells did not mean much, except as olfactory cues to indicate substances inimical or beneficial to Arachnian health. Both races exuded neither.
Nick and Mia freely conversed with the aliens, and the other Earthers almost as freely, too, courtesy of their translators. The Elyrans and Arachnians were thankful for this, but Tasha resolved that they would learn to speak Earther as well as soon as possible. But it really did raise the question - how did the Earthers learn to speak Elyran in the first place? Did their races share a common history? Were they a related species, like the Detterex, or a long-lost Elyran colony?
But Ren was reluctant to ask the questions (though both knew they had to be asked eventually). The Princess decided to leave it to him to find a proper place and time to ask. It was so frustrating. So many questions - the three big questions being the language thing, the communications thing, and their ships... and maybe a fourth - why did they look so much like Elyrans!
Ren decided to bide his time.
“Tell me, Captain,” Ren said, changing his train of thought, “how long have you been in command of Seeker?”
“Not long, Your Highness,” Mia said. “A year ago, I was, in fact, pursuing my vocation as a scientist when the Secretary-General asked me to serve. It was only then that I became Seeker’s captain.”
“You were a scientist?” Reena said incredulously. “Are all Earthers... as multi-disciplined?”
Mia laughed. “Ah, I suppose I am an anomaly. I was in my country’s navy years ago, but I resigned my commission when I had enough of... well, I had enough, and decided to go back to science.”
Reena understood what Mia had implied she had gone through. Many of Reena’s comrades had retired early as well, having seen enough of death and violence. She supposed she would eventually retire as well. But she was lucky to have been made the mistress of the royal flagship - it was rare for them to be in actual combat.
“But I was called to serve again,” Mia continued. “So I returned to military life, and here I am.” She speared a little piece of meat with one of the little skewer-like forks they provided. It had the taste and texture of fresh salmon sushi. Mia ate it with relish. If only they had brought soy sauce and wasabi as well...
The discussion went back and forth and they exchanged little personal vignettes as everyone sipped on the Earther beverages. Just like a cocktail party on Earth, except that everyone was sitting down.
Nick had explained that he was not mated to the Captain, and the Elyrans were surprised to find that not being married was less of an issue on Earth than on Elyra, After coming of age, most Elyrans were bonded to partners in monogamous relationships analogous to Earth marriages, and they were scandalized to find that divorce was possible for Earthers. For Elyrans, pair bonding, or marriage, was a lifetime thing.
As for the Arachnians, though they understood the concepts, they themselves did not practice pair bonding or marriage, since for them sex was strictly a matter of momentary pleasure or for procreation. They did place a lot of importance on friendships, though, and on establishing a dynasty, on ideas of loyalty, and the commitment to oaths and promises. And to having a lot of offspring, and claiming affiliation to a large and powerful clan - these were extremely important to Arachnian society.
They switched to more mundane things, like what each race did for entertainment. Much was made of Earther “TV” and how many of its programs were similar to their Elyran counterparts. As for Arachnians, they preferred news and documentary programs. Mia found that intriguing. Nick thought that boring. They talked of hobbies, music, art and sports, and much was made of the differences of each race’s activities. The Arachnians were disappointed, however, that sexual activities were not discussed. But they were not too surprised. They knew that most beings closely associated sexuality to their sense of self, and inextricably linked it to how they viewed themselves and their relationships with each other, that it was mostly a private thing. It was not a surprise, then, that Elyrans and humans weren’t too open about it.
As for Arachnians, sex was strictly for momentary enjoyment or for procreation. Their drive to procreate was more based on the need to establish dynasties - an intellectual abstraction instead of a visceral biological need or a biologically triggered feeling of attraction. In this way Arachnians (and Erocii, the only other Federation species whose form closely resembled the tiny exoskeletal insectoids found on Earth and other worlds with oxygen-based ecosystems) differed from other species. This had, actually, created consternation and debate amongst most Federation biologists when they were first discovered, as they tried to account for this anomaly and tried to find out how the species was able to maintain its population. In fact, sexuality was more like a spectator sport for Arachnians, with many Arachnian video programs dedicated to them, as well as hundreds of thousands of books and videos on these sexual athletes, and tutorials and how-to books for improving technique, et cetera being the most popular books around. There were even many citizens who achieved fame for being accomplished sexual athletes.
But the First Ambassador and his associates did not make much of this reticence of the Earthers and Elyrans. Arachnians were known for their politeness.
During the meal, Admiral Daxx called. The call was relayed to them, and she inquired on how the tour was going. The Prince answered for the group.
“We have just concluded the tour, actually, Admiral. We are having the ceremonial evening meal at the moment.”
“Oh, I apologize, Highness,” Daxx said. “Did not mean to interrupt.”
Looking at the Admiral’s image, Ren smiled. Though he didn’t know the Admiral personally, he had worked enough times with Dixx that he could recognize the expression. Daxx wanted to be there, too.
“I am sorry you could not join us, Admiral,” Ren replied to the tall alien. “Perhaps when we arrive on Earth, we can sit down together to a meal and finally meet face-to-face.”
“That is quite gracious of you. Thank you.” She apologized again and switched off.
At the conclusion of their formal meal, Ren leaned over to Ben and whispered in his ear. Ben stood and left the room, and came back carrying a large gilt box encrusted with what appeared to be red, green and blue stones. The room grew quiet.
Ben stood beside Mia and bowed. Mia, not being briefed on this, looked at Nick. Nick, also at a loss as to what this was, shrugged. Mia decided to play safe, stood and bowed as well.
Ben proffered the box and Mia accepted.
“My Lady,” Ben said in formal, if nervous-sounding tones, “Tasha Liarran-Kerr and Ren Tevann-Reshanii-Kerr, crown Princess and Prince of the Great Plains of Elyra, would offer you our royal family’s Torch of Freedom. The Torch is an ancient, sacred symbol from thousands upon thousands of generations ago, from the time of the Great Messiah, and has been passed from one Great House to another during times of strife. My Lord and Lady have decreed that the Torch be awarded to you - a symbol of the debt that all Elyra owes you and your people, and a token of fealty that the line of Kerr and Reshanii swear to your species, clan and forbears, that, at your word, all Elyra, no matter what time or distance lie between now and eternity, shall come to your aid, to succor and save, to bring light to darkness, to defend honor and, if need be, to avenge, now and forever.”
With the First Ambassador, as well as his fellow Arachnians, Ben’s words had struck a chord. All Elyrans gave value and importance to friendships and loyalty. His own clan and Ren’s had exchanged similar vows, and he now considered himself part of the Tevann-Reshanii family. By extension, he felt pride and gratitude as well, that his extended family was executing this ceremony.
Mia accepted the box, but didn’t know what to do. There was an awkward pause.
“There is a catch in front of the box, My Lady,” Ben whispered. “Open it, bring the jeweled bar out and hold it over your head.”
Mia felt for the catch, and felt a small hook. She slipped the hook from its catch and opened the box. The top part swung on a hinge. Mia peered inside and saw a solid-gold bar nestled in a bed of some green velvet-like lining. It was covered with glyphs and symbols carved all over its surface, and had a teardrop-shaped multi-faceted ruby the size of a chicken egg mounted on one end, and an opalescent blue marble on the other. It indeed looked like a stylized torch, with the ruby in place of the fire.
Mia picked it out of the box, and, after a pause, proudly lifted it over her head as she would a real torch.
All the Elyrans and the four Arachnians applauded. Mia signed to her people. The humans stood and, as one, bowed. The applause doubled in volume.
After a while, the applause slowly died down and everyone took their seats. Mia remained standing, wracking her brain to come up with an idea.
She reverently returned the small gilt bar inside the box and handed it to a nearby Marine. She then beckoned to Nick. “Get the document case,” she whispered.
Nick, picking up on her idea, went to one of the carts they brought. He reached for the pressurized cargo transport case inside. Cases like this were used to hold industrial liquids, tools and other odds and ends for transport, and were all over all human spacecraft - as ubiquitous as a cardboard box would be planet-side. Nick had the quartermaster scrounge one up from somewhere, but his people were thorough enough to steam clean it and remove all the oil, gunk and grime that these cases usually had. But though clean, it was still beat up and ugly as hell. This particular type of case usually held bottles of lubricating oil or engine coolant, but Nick had repurposed it to hold the printed document that they promised the aliens - the one that documented all the information that they had so far given the aliens via the conferences they’d been conducting, with additional references and supplemental data. (The confidential data was left out, of course.)
The document inside was roughly five kilos - an unbound printed volume with about thirty thousand loose pages of text and diagrams, all in Elyran.
The case served a dual purpose: because the document was vacuum-packed inside the case, it naturally compressed the pages to a pile eight inches high - ten percent of its normal size. If put together in one unpressurized pile, it would make a stack that was about six and a half feet tall.
Nick handed Mia the case, as well as a little metal device that he dug out of his jacket pocket. It looked like a flattened cube roughly the size of Mia’s palm, with a large rectangular hole on one of the narrow sides.
Mia stood in front of the Prince and Princess and bowed, copying Ben’s actions move for move.
Ren and Tasha scrambled to their feet. To say that they were surprised was an understatement. This was unprecedented!
“My Lord and Lady,” Mia bowed again. “We are all humbled by the honor you have bestowed upon us. We will never be able to reciprocate your generosity. But as a token of our gratitude, please accept this humble gift to honor you and your people. It is a gift of knowledge that we wish to share with you, so that we, the children of Earth, can share with the children of Elyra, Arachnia and Dixx our hard-won bounty. It is but a paltry gift, a poor token, but one born of an earnest desire to show our gratitude and friendship.” Mia extended the case.
Tasha took the case and noted its pitted, dented and weathered surface. “Clearly, it’s something of ancient origin,” she thought. Though there were no jewels or other decoration, Tasha thought its spare look lent it an elegance that made it mysteriously beautiful.
She felt around for the lock or the catch and, before Mia could stop her, she discovered the recessed button on the lid and pressed it. Mia tried to hide her chagrin - she wasn’t able to tell them about vacuum-packed documents.
“Oh, well,” Mia thought. “I just hope they aren’t too surprised.”
The popping of the cover broke the vacuum and the case made a hissing sound as air seeped in.
There was a gasp from the onlookers and, when the hissing faded away, Tasha flipped the cover open, She and Ren peered inside and saw the cover page of the document. They read the title, which was in Elyran:
Selected Technical and Historical References
and New United Nations Geo-political Analysis Reports
Submitted to the first expedition of the Galactic Federation to the Sol System,
Prepared by Terran Encounter Task Force 41/18
and the CETI Commission -
The New United Nations and
the United Earth Defense Force
Ren and Tasha looked at each other. They noticed a movement from the box and they looked back down. Incredibly, the pages of the document were coming out of the box. It was the paper expanding, as air got into and between the sheets, as it was designed to do.
When there were about five inches worth of pages sticking out, Ren exclaimed. “By the Goddess. Ben!”
Ben came and got the pages before they had a chance to fall. He brought them out, presumably to give to colleagues waiting outside.
Incredibly, more pages rose from the box, and Ben had to make multiple trips. Eventually, no more pages came out. “Thank the Goddess,” Ben commented in relief, and everyone laughed at that.
Smiling, Mia handed Ben something else - the flattened metal cube Nick gave her.
To the Elyrans, it looked like the jack from a standard Elyran i/o storage pack, but missing the large box-like storage pack that would normally be attached to it. Ben wanted to ask why give a useless device but thought better of it, accepted the device and just bowed. (What they didn’t see, of course, was that a teeny-tiny, throwaway 128GB secure digital memory card replaced the storage.)
He carried the connector and the case that still had the last of the pages of the document inside to the hallway outside.
“Your Highness,” Mia again addressed the Prince and Princess. “Thank you for your gracious accommodation and hospitality, the tour and the excellent meal. I apologize for being a poor guest but we must get back to our ship.”
“Nonsense, My Lady,” Tasha said. “It was our honor.”
Mia and her group did the ceremonial leave-taking, as required by Elyran custom, and then they, and the Arachnians, made their way back to the shuttles for the short ride back to Seeker.
- Washington DC
- Mistress of Confusion
Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.
Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.
Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.