"Goddess," Polly said as she read the ship's internal news report. "You're going to meet the Pendorians?"
Rhiane nodded, not sure if there were any words to express how she felt. She could feel her terror in every movement she made. Even a simple gesture, such as reaching for her shoes, seemed to be held back by something in the deep fibers of her being. Her ability to speak Quen had apparently made the captain choose her for liason. She looked at her uniform in the mirror, looking for the merest wrinkle, the slightest crease. Her hair, worn short, was neat and perfect before she pulled the dark blue cap over it. "How do I look?"
"Every bit the first year Naval officer."
"I hope so," Rhiane admitted.
Rhiane's job was simple: make the Pendorians feel welcome. She had sought out the orderly, Ilonca, and asked her if there was any way to do that and the orderly had kindly given her as many pointers as she could swallow in the hour she had had to spare. Rhiane had enjoyed that hour: Ilonca was about as friendly and sociable as human beings came and she seemed honestly happy to coach Rhiane on etiquette. Rhiane needed the coaching.
The bulbous little shuttlecraft was like nothing she had ever seen before. It was brilliant blue-white like almost any ship that wasn't intentionally hiding from the eyes of others but it was curved all over as if several eggs of different sizes had intersected at their centers of gravity. It fit comfortably in the shuttlebay of the frigate. The ship glided in, the pilot supremely confident of her talents. She put it down without so much as a second bounce. When it touched, it stayed.
The door closed behind it. "Gravity in bay two. Atmosphere in ninety seconds," a voice said.
She watched as the people on board the little shuttlecraft stepped out and looked around the bay. There were two humanoids, one distinctly masculine and human. The other was equally feminine and clearly feline in orgin, but of a species not in the Free Worlds' databases. The third to step out was a green-furred quadruped, a centauroid configuration. Her upper torso suggested feminine characteristics as well. She walked with surprising grace for her inelegant, bulky appearance. About her head floated a pair of tendrils that descended from the back of her neck. Rhiane did not recognize that species either.
The fourth creature to leave the starship was the most startling of all. The head, a large reptilian thing in black, poked out of the shuttle door, followed by a quadrupedal body that must have weighed as much as all of its companions combined. It was slinky, suggestive of a great feline predator, but scaled in black with yellow stripes, like a wasp. Its claws were massive. It stretched itself up and climbed atop the shuttle, its head scanning back and forth. Two great ridges of scale ran from just behind its eyes all the way down to its heavy tail.
Trembling, Rhiane stepped into the bay. She marched to the three who were assembled by their shuttle, deftly placed one foot behind the other, bowed deeply, balance maintained with the tip of the lifted shoe, arms wide. In Quen she said, "On behalf of the Free Worlds, welcome aboard Bones, Captain Elaine Kaburi, commanding. I am Ensign Rho, your Liaison."
The feline female one said, "On behalf of the llerkin-Terran-Pendorian Commonwealth and Associated Worlds, I and my associates request permission to come aboard your vessel."
"I have been authorized to grand you that permission."
The feline stared at Rhiane. "You speak Quen very well." Rhiane blushed again. "Thank you. On behalf of the Corridor, I and my crew wish to enter into negotiations with your government in the hopes of establishing friendly relationships with long-lost siblings."
Rhiane felt a warm glow of pride at the compliment. "If you would follow me?"
The dragon-thing wasn't nearly the monster of her first impression. It was quite large but could fit in most of the hallways on the Bones. Rhiane said, "What are your names?"
"My name is Hrlee," said the female cat-thing. "Our human here is Pete."
Pete raised a hand. "Hi." He seemed ordinary enough.
"The green one back there is Haylee. And the dragon is AI Hagan."
"You're an AI?" Rhiane said.
"That does seem to be implied in my name." His smile somehow reassured her.
"Which one of you is the leader?"
The dragon said, "If you're at all familiar with the Pendorian system of doing things, then you know that that depends entirely upon the situation." Rhiane stared at him. "If there's a fight... well, there won't be a fight. That's why I'm here."
Rhiane led them up to the conference room, where she was told to become a fly upon the wall. To her pleasure, the Pendorians did speak Francaise, and her skills with Quen were only called on sporadically when a point of translation seemed lost on both sides.
Rhiane watched the exchange, not entirely sure how she felt. It was the first major encounter her people had ever had with another intelligent culture-- one they had known was out there, but one also they believed was too far away to reach before The Dark overwhelmed them. She wondered if there had been a secret project to send a probe to the Pendorians.
She heard the Pendorians say they were a privately financed exploratory vessel, one of the largest of its kind and with a large civilian population of explorers and support personnel on board. They referred to themselves not as Pendorians but as "Corridians," members of the Commonwealth and Alliance of Pendor, Terra, and a planet called llerkin. The ship was flagged from Pendor. In return, Captain Kaburi explained their current military status.
The Captain said, "Ensign Rho?"
Rhiane snapped to attention. "Yes, Ma'am?"
"Please escort our guests back to their shuttlecraft. We have much to discuss, as do they."
"Right away, Ma'am."
At dinner Rhiane found herself the uncomfortable center of attention. She was surrounded by five women, as many as her table could hold comfortably. Others sat nearby. Polly's and her lover, Khrystyne, were there. She didn't know the others by name.
"What are they like?" Polly said.
"I don't know. Different," Rhiane.
"Different how? What about the man?"
"The masc? Pete? You know, I've always thought that if I met my first masculine man, I should feel something. I didn't. He was just like another woman. That was how I felt. The dragon is scary. He's so quiet. You barely know he's there, he hardly seems to breathe. But he's so big. You just look at him and you know--" She paused.
"If he wanted to, from where he was, he could gut this ship like a fish and there isn't a single thing we could do to stop him."
Khrystyne stared at her. "Really?"
"It's just this impression that I get."
"What was that green one?"
"She's called a Ritan, and her name is Haylee. Those things on her head are sensors-- electrochemical, I think-- that can feel heat and motion so she has a good idea of what's happening behind her. She didn't say a whole lot during the meeting. She's their culture expert, and once discussion of the war started up there wasn't much for her to say."
Khrystyne was staring at her. It made her uncomfortable. "What would you have said to her?"
"I don't know. I just asked her her name." Rhiane glanced at Polly, who was looking back and forth between her and Khrystyne.
"What about the other one?"
"The cat person with the big ears? Her name is Hrlee. She's from a reservation, like ours."
"Not like ours!" Polly insisted.
"You know what I mean. Apparently her Founders made her colony ship launch late in the diaspora. Their goal was to get 'feline humanoids right,' according to the records. They felt that neither the Pendorian nor the Terran versions were 'right'."
"What's different about her?"
Rhiane shrugged. "I don't know."
"I'd like to find out," someone said. "Aren't Pendorians supposed to be horny all the time?"
"You think too much with your 'nads," another woman said.
"Is that supposed to be an insult?"
"Not in your case." A few grins rolled about the table. Rhiane thought they must have been Minervans. Spartans would never have spoken like that. Athenians, maybe. Or maybe they were just all trying hard to live up to the rough-and-tumble of soldiers. "So," said the last speaker. "Are they gonna help us?"
"They said they would," Rhiane said softly. "I hope they will." She looked across the table and saw Khrystyne's fingers touching the back of Polly's hand, and she looked away again.
Space, she reflected, was lonely even when friends showed up.
Over the next five weeks more ships joined them on the outer edge of the Spartan solar system. The Pendorians made light of the quarantine even as they appeared more and more often onboard the Bones. Instead of being allowed near Sparta, a hastily-assigned ambassador was coming out to meet them.
The only crisis occurred the day after the Pendorians had arrived. A shuttlecraft from their ship had departed and headed for the edge of the solar system at a high rate of acceleration, then returned many hours later. When asked about it, the Pendorians had explained that there were no suitable gas giants within Great Nova Gap 21, the 600-light-year space between between the Free Worlds and the nearest Pendorian outpost so the FTL communications that they used were not suitable. A courier torpedo had been sent. It was capable of velocities much greater than a manned ship and would arrive at a communications center in ten weeks. They apologized for not clearing the launch with the Spartans and made assurances they would notify Captain Kaburi in the future.
Rhiane stood in her best uniform in the Captain's quarters. Kaburi was looking at her with tired eyes. "This has not been the best of times, Ensign."
"Up too many hours, doing too many meetings. I'm sorry, I'm rambling. What I called you to say was that the delay here has led to your passing your one-year anniversary since leaving the Academy and, while you have never quite gotten to your job and neither have we, you have done the jobs we have given you extremely well."
Rhiane didn't know if she was to say anything, so she said nothing. Kaburi approached Rhiane with a small box in hand. "Seeing as it is your one-year anniversary as an ensign and that you have done so well on your first assignment command has seen fit to give you these." She opened the box. Inside were the small red dots of lieutenant's pips. She stared at the box until she could finally accept it in her hands.
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"Oh, don't thank me, Lieutenant. Your life is about to become a lot harder. Apparently, your talent for mathematics is superseded by your talent for language. You're the only person in the whole of the Sparta system who knows how to ask for the bathroom in Quen. The Ambassador seems to think that's a useful talent, and she has asked that you be detached from Naval service and handed over to her staff for the duration."
"But-- but my assignment-- Ariadne station--"
"A sensor technician isn't needed for any of those until we start to the designs the Pendorians have given us into actual constructions and that won't be for a year or two from now. The Navy has no intention of idling you for all that time. You can be useful to us by staying the course on your current assignment-- Pendorian liaison.
"I know you don't want it," Kaburi said as she took the box from Rhiane's hands and attached the pips to her collar. Rhiane felt uncomfortable with the touch of the older woman's hands against her neck as she fumbled with the clasps. "But that's what happens in the service. You are an officer and if you wish to succeed as an officer you must learn to schmooze. You seem to schmooze well with the Pendorians. Now you must learn to do it with your own people."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"You're welcome, Lieutenant. Now, off with you."
Rhiane shuffled down the command office hallway unable to think. She thought that she should be happy with her routine promotion, her important assignment. It wasn't what she wanted. She didn't want to have to deal with people. She wanted to be a sensor technician and a mathematician. All of her life's studies had been reduced to a few complex equations by the arrival of the Pendorians. She couldn't hate them-- it wasn't even this set of Pendorians that had come up with the equations.
She just wished that she'd found them herself. Or at least helped. Even in the military, even if you lived, your future could be taken away.
She considered asking for a transfer but the same answer came to her that had come to her a month ago. If she declined she'd never be asked to do anything hard, or noteworthy, or career-worthy, again. It would follow her. Never volunteer, never decline. The unwritten rules of the Navy. Harsh, fair, functional.
She wished she were a Y so she could swear 'Fuck the Navy' and mean it. Instead she swore gently that she would get on with her life and live up to expectations. She wondered if she should send her mothers a letter.
She was still mulling over the unfairness of it all when she bumped into someone heading the other way. "Oops."
"Hey, Rhiane!" Rhiane looked up to see Ilonca looking at her. "Nice to see you again. How are you doing? You got lieutenants pips! Wonderful!"
Rhiane nodded, blushing. The other girl, so much prettier than she, so much more bubbly, was probably the perfect subject to be given the heretofore unheard-of role as "intergovernmental liaison." Did planetary governments have "liaisons" with one another? Probably. But being an intergovernmental liaison usually didn't involve interacting with civet-eared, six-breasted, deadly serious catwomen.
"Well, it's my turn to see the Captain. I'll see you around, okay?"
Rhiane nodded again. "Bye," she said softly as Ilonca walked down the hall.
She retreated to the ship's lounge. She sat alone at one of the tables and stared out the window at the stars, wishing someone would explain to her what the rest of her life was supposed to be like.
She was still sitting here when she heard Khrystyne Chi's voice say, "Hey, Ilonca, what are you doing here?"
She looked up to see Ilonca standing at the door. The bubbles were gone, and in their place she saw confusion, worry. Ilonca crossed the room, her eyes softening as she approached. Rhiane spotted a new pair of lieutenant's pips on Ilonca's vest. "Congratulations," she said.
"What are you doing here, orderly?" Khrystyne, who was already a lieutenant, stood over the two of them.
"Talking to someone," Ilonca said.
"Come down to visit the low folk?"
"What does that mean?" Rhiane said. She usually liked Khrystyne and was surprised by the nasty weight of sarcasm in her voice.
"Don't you know? Orderly Thavas here," she indicated Ilonca, "is being prepped to be a captain's steward. All the best food, all the good wine, and all of the executive's secrets."
"Not anymore," Ilonca said.
"What?" Rhiane asked.
"Not anymore. Not going to be a Captain's Steward anymore." She glared at Rhiane. "I'm going to be yours."
"Liason to the Ambassador to Pendorians. And I'm going to be the Steward to the Ambassador. That means I have to take orders from you until the Ambassador arrives since you're going to need me to guide you through the social difficulties." She shrugged. "I suppose it's an honor, but..."
Rhiane nodded. "I'm sorry."
"I am too. Liked you before this."
Rhiane started, the last sentence feeling like a cold spear through her chest. "I... Excuse me." She walked away to her own room, taking each step deliberately. When the door closed behind her she saw that she was alone. She cried.
The Ambassador arrived several days later. Rhiane avoided saying any more to Ilonca than was necessary, working to not antagonize the taller woman any further. Because they were the same rank Rhiane couldn't order Ilonca but they both had orders from higher up to work together and make the Pendorians comfortable, and it was clear that Ilonca was to follow Rhiane's lead. Rhiane's working knowledge of spoken Pendorian grew incredibly in that time well assisted by her talent for the written. Several Pendorians had already mastered her language with a talent that made her envious.
The crew of the Pendorian ship was a strange mix-- every imaginable shape and size of personhood, and some Rhiane would never have wanted to imagine. She watched them come and go, although right now she counted none of them among her friends. Two hundred people aboard her own ship, three thousand among the Pendorians (depending, the Pendorians emphasized, on how you counted "individuals"; they sometimes said that upwards of ten thousand people lived on it). Goddess only knew how many others in the Guard ships patrolling nearby, the Government vessel parked upside... and she still felt lonely.
She was listening to Ilonca and another Pendorian, this time a standard Felinzi with an accent that even Rhiane knew wasn't native to Pendor, arguing over the layout of the dishes. Ilonca wore a translator bug in her ear. They were far enough away that Rhiane only caught every third word and was sure that she heard the Pendorian mention 'fish eggs' although she couldn't imagine what that could mean. Did Pendorians really eat fish eggs?
She glanced up to see the green-furred quadruped-- the Ritan, Haylee, Rhiane recalled-- looking over her.
"You seem to be so sad some days. Is there something wrong?"
Rhiane shrugged. "I'm just doing my job."
"But you're not happy doing it."
"It's my duty. I go where the Navy sends me."
"That does not answer my question."
"I'm a sensor technician and a talented amateur when it comes to mathematics. Your arrival has taken away both of my jobs. They don't need me for the theoretical sensor work being developed for the Order Two hyperdrive since you've brought us Order Four." She shrugged. "I'm out of the job I was trained for."
"I'm sorry." She looked up. "Your friend Ilonca seems happy enough. Are you and she partners?"
"Professionally, yes. I... I don't have anyone socially."
"Is that because of your Navy's policy restricting fraternization, or the taboo about sex revelation?"
"I don't know what Ilonca is, and I don't really care. I think she's an X-- the probabilities are good-- but I could be wrong. She's nice and all, but we didn't get off to a good start. And right now I doubt the Navy's going to care what I do in my off hours."
"I believe that Ilonca cares a great deal."
"Your arrival took her away from the job she wanted, too. I think she blames me," Rhiane said.
"I rather doubt that."
"You didn't hear what she said to me." Rhiane looked over at Ilonca. The tall girl with the round face and hair a pale yellow that looked elegantly faded rather than merely blond was still discussing seating arrangements with the fuzzily-accented Pendorian. Her uniform was perfect and her tiny silver earrings suited her. "Do you think she's interested in me?"
"When times change, people often say what they later learn they do not mean. I think Ilonca is interested in you, yes."
Rhiane pointed at Haylee's guss. "Those don't give you telepathy, do they?"
"No. We have a few telepaths on board. You've met one. Cay?" Rhiane nodded. "And no, nobody I know has read you mind or Ilonca's. We consider that rude. I'm merely trying to be concerned. One person to another. You understand?"
"I'm trying to."
She followed Ilonca back to the SDisk and to their ship. "I still don't trust these things," Ilonca said as they stepped onto it. "The Pendorians say that they just transpose two segments of time/space, but how do we know that what comes out at the other end is us, and not some intercepted copy of us, or something?" They appeared back on the Bones.
"That's like asking how we know that the universe isn't ten seconds old and all our memories of the Pendorians over there were inserted by something..." Rhiane fumbled.
"Yeah, I know. Besides, I haven't noticed any changes in the past two weeks. Have you?"
Rhiane shook her head. "I haven't looked very closely, though."
Ilonca didn't rise to the unintentional bait. She sighed and said, "Now I have this big list. They actually eat caviar. Can you believe it? I thought that was dead."
"Fish eggs," Ilonca said. "It's called roe before it's prepared for eating. They catch the female fish and cut it open, storing the roe in a pail and processing the rest of the fish for other things."
"Yech. I thought I heard the Pendorian steward say that but I couldn't be sure and I didn't want to believe it. I think I tuned out after that. What's it taste like?"
"It's salty and fishy. What more do you want to know? Although T'rrfft claims that the good varieties taste like... well..."
"Like a girl's, well, like an X's...
Rhiane blushed and looked away. "I wouldn't know."
"Is... I mean... You don't... ?"
Rhiane didn't say anything. She just kept walking. "Hey! Rhiane! I'm sorry."
It was too much for Rhiane. She had wanted to say something to Ilonca, something that would tell Ilonca her interest, and instead she felt incapable again, ashamed again of being incapable, and lost, and lonely. She was grateful when she got back to her cabin to discover nobody there. Especially not Polly.
Rhiane's life became exceptionally busy. She spent most of her time shuttling documents back and forth between the Pendorians, who seemed amused but competent with all of the formalism, and Ambassador Tempany, a short heavyset woman with cropped blond hair and a determined grin on her lined face. Ilonca became Tempany's steward for the duration of her assignment as ambassador to the Pendorians, so Rhiane saw a lot of Ilonca over the next week. Rhiane did not mention the conversation they had had in the corridor and Ilonca never brought it up.
They had chosen to have the first large conference on board the Canvas. Rhiane spent the entire day with Tempany and an Uncia mel named S'vas, who was apparently the Pendorian's military expert. She listened to every proposal, helped correct nuances of translation that Tempany might have missed, and passed along a host of notes to Ilonca that might help with the seating arrangements that evening. Ilonca, in turn, spent most of her day with a Han named Yesyka, the Canvas's appointed military steward. The Canvas seemed to be organized more like a small civilian town with an experienced militia than a starship with a professional military. Haylee had joked that the navy guys were probably all glad to come out of cold storage and have something to do.
Later, Rhiane stood at one edge of the conference hall, watching Tempany for any sign that she needed assistance and listened in her earbug for communications that she might need to convey in the meantime. The hall was huge-- it was larger than many ship's bays and the Pendorians claimed it was usually "unused space." They had churned out incredible volumes of food.
By the time the conference wound down the end result had been achieved: the Pendorians would help provided they were allowed to negotiate with The Dark and there would be no attempts at retaliation against The Dark if this all proved to be "a misunderstanding." The Pendorians allowed that such misunderstandings had happened in the past and they were disinclined to wreak havoc on innocents. In return the entire weight of the Pendorian Third Dispatch Fleet would be turned over to the Free Worlds when it arrived.
"Lieutenant Rho, Lieutenant Thavas, report to Ambassador Tempany's quarters immediately." Rhiane touched the communications badge on her arm to acknowledge the command.
Ilonca was already there. As was Yesyka. Rhiane had only met the Han once and had been intimidated by the fem's enormous height. The fact that the Han were both male and female at the same time also created a sense of anxiety that she didn't feel around fully masculinized males. "Yes, Ma'am?"
"Good, you're both here. Lieutenant Yesyka has asked me to convey to you her ship's gratitude at the skill with which you two have managed to keep this rather awkward and difficult meeting of cultures from steering out of control."
"But I didn't do anything, Ma'am," Rhiane sputtered.
"Isn't that a bit out of line, Lieutenant?" Tempany's smiled softened the reprimand. "You may feel like you have done nothing, Rhiane, but you have been doing nothing full-bore for seven weeks without a decent sleep period or a break. You've gone from your chosen profession to one nobody was trained for and you've done it well. Ilonca here has confirmed that the seating arrangements were mostly your idea taken from notes you took during my conferences yesterday with S'vas and others."
Lieutenant Yesyka nodded. "Our original arrangement was more sedate than the one you put together. Your arrangement put individuals into contact who could help forge significant bonds of trust between our peoples. It was fortuitous that you put Haylee and Pete at the media table, for example. I would have put them back with the academics, myself. And Thavas, despite her protests that she likewise did nothing special, put together a menu that was mixed Pendorian and native fare without so much as a misstep. We are delighted with her skill."
"You both seem to have an innate feel for how these sorts of arrangements should be made," Tempany said. "For that reason, I'm putting in written commendations for both of you. And you are on leave for forty-eight hours starting right now. After which you are to write up a detailed report on what you did and how you came to the conclusions you did, so that others may follow your leads. Go on. Get out of here."
Rhiane stood there, her brain unwilling to deliver instructions to her body, her body unwilling to take them. Finally, she managed to turn on her heel and walk to the door. Eventually, she found her way to the Bones and her quarters.
There she found three emails. The first was from the Captain informing all hands that the Bones was about to be detached from the conglomeration of ships and sent on its way to Sparta. The second was to her, personally, telling her that she was being reassigned to the starship Victoria, the Ambassador's ship, and she was to collect her things and be out of her bunk in 72 hours. The third was a personal note from Kaburi, thanking her for her service on the Bones and included a personal commendation.
While she was packing Polly returned. "They transferred you?" she said. "Damn."
"It's not like I belong on a medical vessel. You were getting ready to be rid of me ten weeks ago."
"I know, but..." Her eyes were honestly saddened. "I'm going to miss you."
"Really?" Rhiane said.
Polly stepped up to face her. Rhiane was not a tall girl, and it startled her to realize that Polly was even shorter. "Close your eyes." Rhiane did. A second later, she felt something warm on her lips. She started for a second, recognizing what she felt: a closed-mouth kiss. It lasted just long enough to convey Polly's words once more, "I'll miss you."
Polly shrugged. "Just because. You know I'm a Y anyway. We're supposed to be like that."
"'None of that!'" Rhiane laughed. "I wish..."
"I was busy with Khrystyne. Still am. I shouldn't even be giving you hints like that. Anyway, I did want you to know that-- you know-- if we're ever in the same service again, and we're both... I'd like to take you out. You're too cute to be single." She took a deep breath. "Well. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let me help you move, Lieutenant."