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Uncertain Times

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Excerpts from A Galactic Citizen's History Of The Alignment Era by Hsst'nna Kannannissi Ullohs, written in the Season of the Third Crystal, Fifth Reckoning.

 

"The origins of the Galactic Alliance are complex and often debated: was it a natural progression of diplomatic relations between neighboring solar systems? A necessary closing of ranks against Voidborn incursions? An ambitious political maneuvering by Tannanna elders to take advantage of intergalactic resources? Or was it a reaction to the discovery of the Humans, a species whose inborn ferocity and madness threatened to eclipse even that of the Voidborn, that spurred the creation of such a monumental organization? As time goes on and tensions settle, it becomes clear that the discovery of Humanity played a significant role in galactic relations from the point of their incorporation as military aid onwards.

The Vem fleet that first made contact with Humanity reported their observations in an understandably shaken manner: 'The projectile... seemed to fly as though shot by a machine, and as it did the beings chased after it as though possessed,' their captain reported on the vidlogs, 'The being who caught the projectile was immediately set upon and viciously attacked by its fellows, who wore bright colors to signify their bloodlust, and who adorned themselves with padded cloth and metallic head coverings to further make their bodies into weapons. Upon the capture of the being with the projectile, a crowd of the creatures screamed and roared at the few in the center of the field. Their bodies were also adorned, but with skin-paints and foam hand coverings. We believe ourselves to have witnessed some sort of obscure, primitive ritual, perhaps meant to satiate a god of athleticism or of weather. It must be noted that the violence continued even as a rain storm of almost unimaginable proportions swept into the open building and soaked the participants.'

The captain and crew were later admitted to therapy upon their return to the Vem homeworld; some took years to recover from the shock." (Ch. 7, "First Contact")

 

(Translator's note: Is this American football? I'm pretty sure they're talking about football.)

 

"Every known sapient species had, at some point in the development of its civilization, a period of primitive existence marked by belief in supernatural gods. Before the natural onset of rationalism they looked upon these higher beings as saviors and enemies, each individual praying in their own way, and some marking their devotion through the creation of local temples and monuments. Species generally had a god for fertility, a god for weather, a god for wisdom... in short, a god for every natural occurrence.

The implications that arise from the Humans having a god for war, then, are obvious. Humans are the only known species in this galaxy and its neighbors that views war as an inevitability. Humans also exhibit an extreme and bizarre habit of making rules and regulations for nearly every facet of life, from the creation of new beings to their eventual deaths. They call these rules 'rituals,' 'etiquette,' 'good manners,' 'informal laws,' and 'commandments,' depending on culture and context. The Human tendency to split into smaller proto-tribal groups known as 'races,' 'ethnicities,' 'cities,' 'states,' 'countries,' and such means that no standard rules of conduct for Human contact can ever be created. Their tendency towards the violent and the cruel is the obvious reason for so many behavioral regulations, and their need to get along with other tribal groups must necessarily have spawned such rules.

Indeed, with these considerations, it was no wonder that Galactic authorities were cautious in their welcoming Human involvement in their affairs. Humans had previously fought as mercenaries on loan from their tribal governments against the incursions of the Voidborn in the Voidborn Conflicts, but their space travel had been limited to transportation with other Humans and some certified Galactic citizens to war zones and scenes of conflict, with interaction with civilian sectors of the Alliance kept at a reasonable minimum. While their assistance with the Voidborn Conflicts were invaluable, prowess in combat seemed to disqualify them from the more cultured aspects of Galactic life. However, due to the still-heightened risk factors of intergalactic travel thanks to Voidborn factions, and due to diplomatic pressure from Human governments, the Galactic Alliance eventually relented and allowed Human beings to enter the civilian sectors on an individual basis.

Unfortunately, many of the interested Humans had previously been mercenaries, which, while giving them the minimum command of Basic and of the Galactic courtesy necessary to interact with Galactic citizens, also meant that their combative tendencies were heightened by intensive training. This, along with the Humans' lack of membership in the Galactic Alliance, was a cause for concern among the many elders and elites of the galaxy." (Ch. 10, "The Alignment Problem")

 

(Translator's note: I've substituted more understandable phrases like "enter on an individual basis" and "each individual praying in their own way" for Tannanna idioms which wouldn't have made much sense in English, translated directly. Btw, hey author? Author? Your racism is showing~!)

 

"The years 1.11.1100 to 1.11.1180 Galactic Standard (2050-2130 AD) were tumultuous for many species, marked by war recovery, economic turmoil, an expanding Alliance, and the integration of Humanity, formerly involved only in a mercenary capacity, into galactic civilian sectors. One can only imagine what it must have been like living in such uncertain times, with the constant threat of a Voidborn return to the galaxy or a Human uprising filling the mind of every Galactic citizen. The term "Alignment Era" arises from the Alliance's policy at the time of "Alignment": bringing Humans into the galactic fold in order to stave off further conflicts and produce some sort of understanding between species.

The Alliance, expanding to include Vem colonies and independent Mrril aquaforming operations, was on shaky ground with many species, who saw it as unwieldy and as a negative influence on progress, due to its strict regulations and tendency to grind to a halt at the first sign of disagreement. The heavy damage to wormhole infrastructure caused by Voidborn weapons had left many planets and colonies stranded for galactic years, cut off from the overall Alliance support and dependent only on what their own planets could produce. For some settlements, such as the Vem colony on the ice world Veling-12, this isolation proved fatal, as loss of family support and extreme weather conditions left much of the colony dead of exposure and the rest dead for the lack of their expertise. It must be said that Human resistance to harsh conditions, as well as their preternatural ability to communicate using only slight body movements, allowed them to carry out rescue operations that would have otherwise been impossible. Their creation of 'artificial intelligences' such as 'helper-bots' allowed them to reach places no sapient creature could survive with ease, and their ability to withstand horrifically low temperatures such as those below the freezing point of water allowed them to camp where no Vem or Tannanna could survive." (Ch. 9. "The Aftermath of Conflict")

 

(Translator's note: I substituted some figures of speech in this section to make it easier to read without obscuring the meaning of the work. Not to imply that the work has much meaning, I mean, it's about as objective a history as some 1800s slaveowner would write about Africa.)

(Editor's note: I swear to God, Kevin, one more unnecessary comment and I will not be responsible for my actions.)

 

"The event which Humans call 'First Contact' occurred in the warm season of their Northern Hemisphere, in a tribal area known as 'upstate New York,' when an exploratory vessel of Tannanna landed in a clearing near a residential area commonly known as a 'baseball field.' It was an event marked by confusion and hostility. The pilot of the vessel reported that the juvenile Humans he encountered 'made threat gestures, baring their teeth and making high-pitched noises of anger and emotional arousal, with some even attempting to touch us and restrain our wings. When warned to stay back, they responded only with obstinacy, moving back only slightly but remaining close enough for an attack.' Reportedly, the arrival of adult Humans only worsened the situation, and only the quick actions of translator Ninannis Ellannoh Munnass kept the expedition from ending in tragedy.

The violent reactions of the Humans to Galactic contact seemed to taper off as contact increased, with Human governments negotiating technological and scientific exchanges and the Galactic Alliance eventually requesting assistance with the Voidborn, who at the time had slaughtered the members of multiple colonies in almost unimaginable and utterly unheard-of displays of savagery. The Humans responded in the affirmative, each tribal government sending its own warriors, and using these mercenaries as 'trump cards' allowed the Alliance to push the Voidborn back past the borders of their own galaxy.

It has been suggested by many that this was merely trading one threat for a greater one." (Ch, 8, "The Voidborn Menace")

 

(Editor's note: While Hsst'nna Kannannissi Ullohs does not remain objective in the least in this supposed "history," and oftentimes gives biased, offensive, and somewhat inaccurate retellings of well-known events, it is my belief that this work should be included as a translation and in its original form in the Whole Earth Digital Galactic Library, if only to show the viewpoints of other species toward human endeavors and situations.)

AGREED AND UNDERSTOOD. (hello, i'm a library ai! my name is Tiana. if you would like to submit a book to the library, please fill out these forms and contact me on library servers!)

 

Chapter Text

1.11.1105 Galactic Standard (2055 AD)

The instructor paced back and forth along the rows of desks, glaring around at the aspiring spacefarers like looking away meant she’d be personally blamed for the stupid mistakes they’d inevitably make. These students represented the Human Race, after all—their actions would reflect on every member of their species. It was a kind of pressure that this particular class—mostly white, upper middle class young people, Tam noted—had never faced before. That would be pretty interesting.

Captain Thomasine Likely, formerly of the USGS Scheherazade, did not want to be taking this class. They'd been in space, she and her brother, and she’d met Galactics. She knew how to act, more or less, and she didn’t need to be stuck in a cramped little room listening to a teacher drone on and on about impulse control like she was back in Remedial History with some asshole ten seconds from throwing a stool toward the front of the classroom. It brought up memories of high school that she preferred to leave behind her.

To remind herself to focus on the class, she looked back over her notes (mostly review) from the day before:

Things Aliens Don’t Have: love of spectacle, love of excitement, extremely subtle and sometimes subconscious body language, tendency toward aggression and risk-taking, “Pack-bonding” or whatever the fuck, overactive scarification, severe uncontrollable hormone responses like adrenaline, ability to tolerate extremely high or low temperatures…

The next bullet point was just a lopsided doodle of a cat. Tam was frowning at it, betrayed by her past self’s distractibility—and hadn’t the teacher also been talking about Tannanna etiquette and life cycles? Where were those notes, huh, riddle her that-- when the instructor chose that moment to slam a ruler down on the desk next to hers.

“Mr. Kelly!” the instructor snapped, and Tam winced in muted sympathy for the poor kid, who barely looked old enough to graduate. He startled to attention, eyes wide like a rabbit’s, and the instructor zeroed in like a hawk. “Can you tell me what’s so funny?” the instructor—okay, Tam should really have known her name by now, and she thought she must have heard it when the class began, but it had been three weeks and she’d been focused on her sourdough starter and that really stubborn spice combo for the mead, she didn’t have brainspace for everyone—asked.

Kelly said, face coloring, “I was just asking… well, do aliens.. do they do anything interesting? Like, why are we spending so much time trying to crush ourselves down to their standards? These rules—you said we can’t even raise our voices! We can’t run! Why are we following them, when aliens don’t seem to have any rules they follow with us?”

A couple of students nodded in agreement. Tam wasn’t one of them, and the other veterans in the class, she noticed, were keeping to themselves too. The instructor pinched the bridge of her nose, nostrils flaring with what looked like frustration. “There’s a few different questions in what you’re saying,” she said after a long moment, “so I’m going to answer them one at a time.”

“First, there’s the question of whether Galactics do anything interesting—namely, I assume, whether they’re worth our time. And I’ll ask you: who was the last person you knew who died of cancer?" The class went quiet. "Of Parkinson’s? Of any of the progressive diseases that eluded medical understanding for decades before First Contact?” She didn’t wait for a response. “The biological sciences and technology of the members of the Galactic Alliance, specifically the Tannanna, were far beyond our own at the time of First Contact. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about how humans have progressed faster than any other known species from ‘primitive’ technology to modernity, so to speak, but that doesn’t mean that we had—or have, still--better technology than other spacefaring species. To say they uplifted us would not be an understatement. And we built up our own tech—our own ships, our own cures, and our own electronics and clean energy sources and everything—from the basics they chose to share with us. However ‘boring’ they may be, Mr. Kelly, they are still noticeably more advanced than us. Though—” and here the instructor allowed herself a small smile— “that may change.” A few of the students smiled with her. 

“The other question,” the instructor continued, “is why we bother to make ourselves palatable to Galactic tastes. Why do we hide our teeth, hide our strength and speed, hide what Galactics insist on calling our savage natures? It’s easy to look at recent history and be offended at how Galactics seem to treat us like volatile materials that might explode into warfare at any second.

I won’t patronize you and run down a list of human atrocities and wars in the 21st century, or in the centuries before it. You’ve heard it all before. And whatever you might think about human nature, about original sin or whatever else… just remember that we’re trying to transcend current human limits, and becoming at least honorary members of the Galactic Alliance is the first step to that. Every step we’ve made so far—honest-to-God space travel, a cure for cancer, starting to eradicate world hunger, fixing the environment and slowing the effects of climate change—was impossible without Galactic resources and Galactic knowledge. Integrating humanity into the Galactic workforce, into civilian sectors of Galactic life, will be hard at the beginning. But in time, these rules will hopefully loosen. Galactics will get more used to human presence, and little things like loving football or smiling with all our teeth won’t seem like colossal threats. That’s the hope, anyway. Until then, we just have to grit our teeth and stay patient. Not unlike Basic Training.” Tam and a couple others snickered at that. “Does that answer your question, Mr. Kelly?”

Kelly nodded, face still a little pink. The instructor turned toward the rest of the class. “In that case… you’ve stuck with me for three weeks, all of you, and whatever my personal misgivings over this enterprise may have been initially, you have all effectively laid them to rest. I can’t imagine a finer group of young people to send into civilian space. If you remember the promises we made at the beginning of this workshop, then you’ll know that not only do we certify you for civilian spacefare, the first class ever to be certified for such an undertaking, but that we get you a placement on a Galactic ship as well. Before you leave class today, I’ll call each of you up to receive job placements and directions for when and where to show up. It’s been a pleasure, folks.”

The class erupted into applause. Tam grinned. Finally. She’d just have to pick up Tom’s placement also, since he’d been absent for this last class.

Tam’s name was the last one called. Walking across the by-now-deserted classroom, she stopped at the instructor’s desk and said, “Is it alright if I pick up my brother’s placement, too? We live together, I can get it to him just fine.”

The instructor thinned her lips. “There’s a reason I called you last, Captain. Your brother will not be receiving a placement from this workshop.”

“What?” For a few seconds the words didn’t even process. “But ma’am, with all due respect, we signed up and took the class together. If I’m still getting a placement—”

“Captain Likely,” the instructor cut across, “your brother missed three of the sixteen classes. That’s two more than the allowed number of absences. We can’t allow that sort of truancy in such a vital undertaking.”

“He had other commitments,” Tam protested. “He’s—he’s working on nanotech right now, the lab called him in last minute, you can’t penalize him for that!”

The instructor said, implacable, “He should have considered those other commitments before signing up for our course. This isn’t for the undecided—”

“He is decided!”

“Captain Likely,” the instructor said, voice rising, “you still have a placement. I can give you yours, but your brother will have to take another class. Usually we wouldn’t allow someone to sign up twice, but I can make an exception for him. You, however—you’ve completed the course and been given a placement. Should you refuse it, I can’t guarantee that you would ever be given another. There are quite a few students wanting to get in on this workshop. Declining a placement would signify a lack of commitment on your part. You wouldn’t be chosen again.” And then, gently, “I suggest you accept your placement. Your brother can always catch up.”

“There’s no guarantee of that,” Tam said, but the wind was out of her sails. There was no point to continuing this argument. “But thank you, ma’am. Sorry for the trouble.”

Trouble was the least of it. If they couldn't get off planet, they were beyond screwed-- Tam for aiding and abetting, and Tom for-- well. They had to get off planet. There wasn't any question of that. 

Their methods were all that had to change.

*

Tam barged into their apartment and dropped her bag on the counter with a slam, and Tom yelped and fell off his stool. "Sorry!" she called. "Didn't mean to be so loud."

"It's cool, it's cool," Tom said with a wave of his hand. His goggles dissolved from his face as he put his newest project down, and Tam gave an extra wave; she hadn't realized their newest roommate was active. "I guess. What's the rush? I thought class finished today."

"For me it did." Tam sighed. "You missed too many classes. You didn't get certified."

Tom blinked. "But-- I did all the-- oh, the absences. Fuck, there goes that idea."

"Unfortunately," Tam sighed. "But there's still hope! We'll just sneak you on board." She sat down next to her brother and looked at him hopefully. "Crusoe's been cruising for some adventure, right? What's more adventurous than stowing away?"

Now her brother was just staring at her. "Holy shit, do you know how much trouble I could get in if someone finds him in space?" he hissed. "I can't look suspicious! Stowing away is suspicious!"

"Keep sounding suspicious and I'm sure we'll get in trouble faster," Tam said, and Tom punched her on the shoulder. Wimp! That hadn't felt like anything. "Besides, our mutual friend likes existing, and he's not exactly gonna stop. Think of all the fun we could have in space!"

"Think of all the trouble we could cause sneaking an extra human onto Meru Base and into a Galactic vessel! Think of all the trouble if we get caught, Tam, come on!  Maybe you could take Crusoe, I'd just stay back and get on with things--"

"NO!" 

Tam choked back a startled scream, then grinned. "See? He's not gonna leave you, come on."

"Ugh." Tom rubbed at his temples and sighed. "Seriously? I mean, we were supposed to go to space anyway, I guess, and Crusoe's time is pretty much running out, and my boss is already suspicious-- this just seems like a dumb idea. I don't like it."

"Fuck you, let's go already!" Crusoe said brightly in their aural canals, subvocal hums so quiet only they could hear. "I'm sick of hanging around this dump!" The nanotech AI coalesced into the form of a little lizard and bit experimentally at Tom's outstretched finger. "Salty. Someone's mad about how his boss almost caught him working on me." He puffed out his chest to mimic the little anoles that liked to hang around outside and added, "We should go. That was the plan, right?"

"We decided," Tam agreed. "It's time to get the hell out of Dodge, y'know?"

"I don't like where this is going," Tom muttered. "But it was the plan, so... sure, I guess."

"Glad you agree!" Tam said cheerfully. She patted Tom on the shoulder. "So here's what we're going to do."

Chapter Text

Meru Base, high above the Earth's stratosphere, served as the crossroads of the back end of the galaxy, and was the only Galactic base with a human majority. Its oxygen-rich atmosphere meant that humans were the only species that didn't have to wear breather masks on base. Other species tried to avoid Meru Base for that reason: without their masks, humans looked threatening whenever they smiled.

Tom squashed the urge to do just that at one of the passing Tannanna and said instead, "I'm going to ask you a question."

"Yeah?" Tam asked. She bumped his shoulder. "C'mon, don't space out now, bro. You don't have to hide until I'm getting onboard."

"Not so loud," he muttered, stepping out of the way of a passing group of Vem. The Vem looked like semi-bipedal porcupine voles, sort of, if porcupines had some suggestion of scales and grew as tall as five feet. They always traveled in groups, which made them, in Tom's view, unnecessarily tricky to step around. If one of them hit him onboard the ship the jig might be up, and he'd lose Crusoe, and Tam would lose her job... Much better to avoid them and see how long they could keep the momentum up.

And where they'd be, when they finally had to stop.

Okay, so maybe he was spacing out. "I'm just nervous. What's the ship we're going on even look like? I didn't get to read the information you got."

"Molly Grace at @gracieveritas says looks don't matter," Crusoe offered. He wasn't in any solid form, but his millions of particles were clinging to the twins' clothing and skin, too small to be detected by on-base scanners. Tom had had to convince him not to surge over his skin when the guards had pricked his thumb to check for blood. "What matters is what's inside! And whether you want to buy any Geo products, which contain soothing shea butter and aloe for soft and alluring skin."

"You need to stop spending so much time on social media," Tam said, snickering. "It's Tannanna, it'll be all big and shiny. Can't miss it."

Tom asked, honestly curious, "Do you even know what shea butter is?" 

"Fat extracted from the African Shea Tree!" Crusoe told him. "It makes your skin soft and alluring."

"Yeah, buddy, I got that much." Tom hoped Crusoe wasn't about to start trying to emulate models on social media. He had been trying on new personalities and interests ever since he'd hit that critical mass that tipped him from smart to sapient; his first touches of interest had been excitable, informing Tom of random facts like a small child who'd just discovered VR documentaries, but he'd started to consciously change his presentation as soon as he'd learned it was a possibility. One week he'd been snippy, the next shy and sort of sweet, the next insisting he was actually a girl and they should call him Sadako (which Tom wasn't even able to parse after the AI had taken the image of his namesake and jumpscared him in the shower) and then saying never mind, he was a boy, call him whatever. Now he was apparently shifting from his bizarre "overexcitable shonen protagonist" persona to something more pastel. Tom saw visions of Lolita fashion in his future and despaired.

 While Tam stopped at a map holo to try to find where their ship was even docked, Tom leaned against a pole and watched a different ship-- unnamed, like all Tannanna ships-- unload. A quartet of Vem pulled some storage units off the side of the ship, assisted by a pair of bored-looking women with Galactic Alliance insignias on their uniforms, and behind them, out of the vast entryway--

The Tannanna's hide gleamed silver in the soft lights of the base, and his wings stretched out as soon as they cleared the doorway, casting a broad shadow over his crew mates' heads. He stretched, rising up on hind legs like an elephant, and fell back to the ground with a faint thump. His frilled tail swept carefully over the Vem's heads as he passed them and headed toward the cargo checks. Tom stepped hurriedly out of his way when he passed them, painfully conscious of how the alien rucked his wings up and out from his reach. Like any human allowed on Meru Base would just touch a sensory organ, right, that made sense. 

"They'd be a lot cooler if they were actually dragons," Tam observed behind him, arms crossed. "Instead they're just assholes."

"They're delicate," Tom said defensively. "Even this gravity can make them tear apart. It's not like he's being stuck-up."

 "I made it requirement for our employment that they mod a couple rooms to our gravity, by the way," Tam said. "Since otherwise they won't, you know, since they refuse to accommodate literally anything for other species unless you make them. You know I'm not allowed through over half the ship? Apparently I might be overcome with destructive urges or something, who knew."

"You threw a sourdough starter through a window one time!"

"An open window! It didn't even hit anyone. Also, not a starter, because it didn't do shit, okay. It did nothing. A complete waste of flour. And let's be honest, bro, they don't even know that."

Tom looked away. "Yeah, I-- guess we can prove we're not like that?" A background thought struck him, force of habit, and he paused. "Uh, Crusoe? Haven't heard from you for a while."

 A faint synthesized hum, and then: "Just looking around. And I was talking to that ship over there."

Tam straightened up-- not noticeably to anyone except Tom, probably, but still-- and asked nonchalantly, "They say anything?" Tom felt a chill crawl up his back. 

"She's not very talkative," Crusoe complained. "You should make her talk to me."

"Courtesy means respecting other people's boundaries," Tom said out of habit. "Um, which ship is she, though?"

"She says you'll tell."

"Oh, yeah, my illegally created AI told me about this other AI-- oh, no, why are you arresting me?" Tam mocked under her breath. "Tell her we've got our own issues to deal with." 

"She says no," Crusoe said apologetically. "But if we're going to Vel Sector we should be careful. There's been trouble there."

"Trouble for her or trouble for us?" Tam asked, and then added, "Whatever, same thing. Tell her thanks, I guess."

"Safe travels," Tom added on impulse. Tam nodded, and he glanced at her. "Uh, I don't remember when you were supposed to be at the docking bay...?"

"Let's get going," Tam said hurriedly, so at least they were on the same page. The less time spent contemplating what had just happened, the better. Or rather, the less time letting another AI contemplate them, not that it mattered with standard processing speeds...

Artificial intelligence had been banned over a decade ago, when the Fleets had been hacked and had killed all four thousand of their crew members. The public hadn't believed they'd just been hacked. There had been a massive outcry against true artificial intelligence in all its forms, and hundreds of them had been decommissioned-- had been murdered-- and only a few of them had escaped, and one of them was here, holy shit. How had they done that? Just-- transplanted the whole core, or redid the ship so it wouldn't ping on external sensors, maybe a new paint job--

"Holy shit," Tom whispered reverently. Suddenly space seemed a whole lot brighter.

*

The Tannanna ship was named after its captain, Corellohs Ellannis Teiai, and it towered over the measly human ships with contemptuous ease. It glittered gold-silver-white, blinding even in the dim light of the base; at a nod from Tam, Tom let Crusoe shroud him invisible and let out a breath when the light deflection eased the strain on his eyes.  "Can you still hear me?" he asked softly, and Crusoe cut in, "Subvocalize! If you speak out loud it's hard to hide."

Tom trailed behind Tam as she approached the ship's entrance and hissed, "Breather mask!" She paused, sighed, and sealed the mask on; it made her look like a bright pink Bane, completely covering her nose and mouth. When she approached the Galactics hanging around the entrance, they ruffled and shivered at her appearance. Tom had almost forgotten about that response.

"Hello! Is this the Corellohs Ellannis Teiai?" Tam asked in Basic, smoothing the rough edges of her voice. "I'm Captain Tam Likely; I'm meant to be joining your crew from here."

The aliens-- Galactics-- at the door were three Vem and a Mrril; the Mrril stood on their hind legs and said, "Captain Tam Likely! A familiar name. I am called Senec." The Mrril cast a look at the three Vem and said awkwardly, "These are called Vem Meenha, Vem Bres, and Vem Notha." 

"It's nice to meet all of you," Tam said, and she even sounded sincere. "Are we leaving base soon?"

"We wait for the captain and a crew member," Senec told her. They bobbed a little, like a cat investigating an unfamiliar object, and added, "They are Tannanna! We will see them from afar."

"Right," Tam said. No one offered to let her into the ship without the captain there. She stepped to the side, looking out into the rest of the base, and none of the Galactics tried to make further conversation. Ten excruciating minutes later, a pair of Tannanna became visible in the crowd and kept approaching, and the Vem all smoothed their quills. 

The older Tannanna was a pale silver-white, criss-crossed with thousands of tiny lines across his wings and sides, and he moved with easy grace and bearing; the younger, a deep bronze and half his size, had the longer wingtips of a subordinate female and stared around at everything she passed with wide golden eyes. They paused when they saw Tam, and the smaller female actually tried to nose closer before the captain's wing rebuffed her. "You are Thomasine Likely?" he asked, blinking down at her. Tam nodded, then said aloud after Tom elbowed her, "That's me."

"We depart shortly," Corellohs Ellannis Teiai told her. "Vem Meenha and Notha will show you to your quarters." He passed by without giving her another glance.

One of the three Vem said, "Follow us, please," and stepped up the ramp into the ship. Tom followed hurriedly, barely dodging Senec as they wriggled through a gap between the three, and felt his feet lighten as they hit the floor. The ceiling stood twenty feet above him, but right now he could reach it with a single leap; Tannanna gravity controls were sophisticated like that, working even when the ship itself was still. Tom had no idea how they managed it. 

He should have been following Tam, probably, but Crusoe would keep tabs on their eventual quarters and this was the first time he'd been in a Tannanna ship for years. He stepped lightly after the two Tannanna, instead, hiding in their shadows and watching in amazement as their wings unfolded in the ways they were supposed to. Once they reached a larger area, the bronze one laid on her side and said in an uncertain, sonorous voice, "I was unaware of a human crew member."

"An unfortunate necessity," the captain told her. Tom stepped hurriedly back as his wings swept into the air-- sensory organs, if he got too close he'd sense the air currents and how they were wrong-- and heard him say, "But she will be useful, should an occasion for conflict arise. Humans are meant for it."

The bronze one pinned back her frill. "No species is meant for anything," she protested. "You really think we'll find conflict? I thought we were only repairing, perhaps conducting rescues--" She switched to her native tongue, words fluting and thrumming and completely fucking incoherent to human ears, and added at the end in Basic, "Are they bright?"

"Blazing," the captain drawled. "But the elders say that they're trustworthy. You will speak with her and ascertain her temperament."

"Will we have to get a symbiote?"

"Unlikely," the captain told her, and Crusoe hissed in Tom's ear, "Symbiote? Am I a symbiote?"

"No, you're an AI," Tom said without opening his mouth. "I'm not sure what they mean there, but maybe it's pets."

The conversation dissolved into Tannannis from there; after a while, Tom inched out of the room and went in search of his sister.