Thousand Words for August 2, 2017

[Written on the plane to Vegas.]

The controller, a Shatien of the Indigo caste, passed his hands over the oddly shaped panel as he prepared the ship for the short flight to the planet’s moon, called ‘Fang’ by the humans because of the distinctive, and purely accidental, pattern of dark and light that were seen on its surface.

The controller’s hands weren’t hands. From an evolutionary point of view, they were hairs, equipped with an elaborate muscle structure at the base and stiff enough to be functional at the ends. 

Over the millions of years since the branch that produced the controller split first from humans and then from primates, the structures that were arms and hands in the controller’s far-distant human ancestors had shrunken, turned inward, and developed into a mechanism tuned to detect modulation in the x-rays that streamed from the neutron star that the Shatien system orbited, nearly a full light year away. 

Two days of the orientation for humans working with Shatien had been spent on a study of the controller’s anatomy; as Brion watched the controller do his work, he remembered the briefing in which the evolution of the Shatien arm had been discussed. “There is precedent for the kind of metamorphosis we see in what were the arms,” the instructor had said in a flat British accent. “The development of the inner ear in mammals, repurposing three molars to form the hammer, anvil, and stirrup bones, matches the repurposing of the humerous, here,” he tapped the end of his pointer and the slide, “and the wrist bones here,” he tapped again. “The hoop is formed from the ulna, and the radiation-detecting cells that line its interior are a parallel to the rods in the human retina.” 

The instructor went on to explain how, with the right perspective, the Shatien’s body structure could be understood in human terms.

Brion remembered an impossibly young-looking brigand raising her hand to ask about the Shatien’s tail. “I don’t understand that structure,” she said, “and I notice that not all of them have it.” The brigand referred to a sort of third leg that was shorter and thicker than the other two Shatien legs. It lacked the double knee and unlike the legs, it pointed rearward–the Shatien used it as a kangaroo uses its tail: for balance when running at speed. When not running, the Shatien were won’t to use it as sort of a stool, allowing the body to lean backward until the end of the tail rested on the ground, taking some of the weight off the legs.

Some of the more senior personnel in the briefing room snickered at the brigand’s question–the instructor met it head-on with his answer: “Only the males have that. It’s his penis.” The instructor frowned and waited for the wave of snickering to pass. “Shatien no longer use that structure, or the analogue in females, for reproduction.” The next slide appeared on the screen. “Now here, we see….” 

That was where Brion’s memory faded. The controller had turned to him and Brion was suddenly conscious that the controller had said something to him. “What’s that?” Brion said in the controller’s language.

“I said if you would get dressed now we’re just about ready to begin.”

“Oh yes. Of course.” Brion was dressed, as a matter of fact. The Shatien was referring to the piece of bright orange cloth that he was retrieving from his bag. Brion unfolded the cloth, positioning it so that when he thrust his head into it, the flaps that were intended to wrap up and over his ears would be in the right place. The natives called it a semmi, part of the special religious clothing that controllers, off-world guests, and aliens were required to wear during flights. 

The religion of the Shatien had also been extensively studied in orientation; Brion’s understanding of it did not rise to the level of his understanding of Shatien anatomy, but he knew it well enough to don his semmi without help.

He tied the ends of the flaps, taking care that the knot was at the crown of his head and that the ends past the knot lay down smoothly and turned to face the controller. It was forbidden for Brion to ask the controller if his semmi was on straight or if the flap ends were positioned correctly–more than forbidden. It was taboo. But there was a way for him to confirm that the semmi was right. “Controller, I pause now for the reward,” he said.

This bit of ritual provided a permitted opportunity for the controller to advise him on the state of his semmi. He wouldn’t do it directly, of course. Instead, he would respond in a sort of polite code. If his semmi was correctly positioned and tied, the controller would either say nothing at all or he would say ‘Your reward will be great’–or words to that effect. If something were wrong, the controller might adjust his own semmi silently, or he might let his hair-hands drop and point to the floor.

“Your reward will be great,” the controller said automatically after a cursory glance. He flicked a control and the ship lifted off the ground noiselessly and hovered, rotating slowly. Brion saw that the controller was turning the ship to point straight down a narrow lane, only slightly larger than the width of the ship, with lines of flags on thin poles on either side. The left side appeared to be solid blue flags spaced at regular intervals; on the right, red, green, yellow, and gray squares of plastic material fluttered on poles spaced at irregular intervals. “It’s Ravis?” Brion muttered. “Already?”

The controller scraped the ridges of his palate with his hard-surfaced first tongue. There was a vestigal second tongue below that, little more than a wart, but it wasn’t used much in the production of sound. The sound that the controller did make was his way of telling Brion that Ravis, a festival day, came late this year. “It won’t be Ravis until next nighttime,” the controller finished.

“Oh,” Brion replied as he settled into his launch couch. The surface of the ooze that formed the interior of the couch squeezed arond Brion’s body and then, and then stiffened as it responded to Brion’s body temperature. In a few moments, it was a solid and firm impression of the posture he had assumed when Brion say down in it. “Okay, I’m set,” he said. 

The controller made no response other to move a control, and Brion felt the ship rise, accelerating noiselessly, climbing altitude, forcing him against the newly formed surface of the chair.


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