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
“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 the 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 human ear was better at the
language than her human larynx was, or ever would 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, 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
“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 to decide?”
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
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 much 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 quite 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 had 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 slow 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 spiritual
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
“Well, the humans maintain a high 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.