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On Feathers

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Aboard the Wayfarer, the lights were dimming down to mark the evening. Rosemary was sitting in the Fishbowl after the day’s work. She was relaxing on a comfortable pile of pillows with Sissix sprawled out beside her, her head in Rosemary’s lap. Rosemary had abandoned her reading to focus on stroking the feathers atop Sissix’s head.

She slid her fingers along each deep green feather in turn, revelling in their sleek softness, the gentle strength of each stem. She already knew the effect that the right kind of touch there could have on Sissix in bed, but she was learning how to caress the feathers in a more soothing manner.

Sissix stretched out her strong limbs, making a happy sound. It seemed that Rosemary was getting the hang of this, and this made her smile.

In another chair, Ashby was sleeping, his scrib in his lap. Kizzy was nested in big chair shaped like a hollow sphere with a large hole on one side. She was watching the stars, occasionally drawing diagrams on her scrib. It seemed more like doodling than work; Kizzy simply wasn’t able to stay quite still.

”Sissix?” Rosemary asked. Sissix opened her eyes and made a sound urging her to continue. ”Why do Aandrisks have feathers? I mean, what purpose have they served in your evolution?”

”Depends which phase of evolution you’re talking about,” Sissix replied, turning her head slightly so that Rosemary could stroke a different part of her feather crest. ”Some of our non-sapient evolutionary cousins have more and bigger feathers, also on their arms and tail. They use them for gliding in the air. Might be we evolved from that, lost some feathers on the way.”

Kizzy had perked up. ”Oh, so you’d be able to fly if you had more feathers?”

”They don’t fly, they glide,” Sissix said. ”But it serves them well enough. For us Aandrisks, the feathers are principally decoration and camouflage. A healthy, pretty set of feathers helps you attract mates.”

Rosemary smiled and slid her hands slowly through Sissix’s feathers. ”Bet you attract lots, then.”

Sissix chuckled. ”I do like my feathers.” As Rosemary ran her fingers on the very bottommost feathers, she smiled and closed her eyes. ”Mmm, that’s good.”

”Does this also have an evolutionary purpose?” Rosemary asked, smiling, repeating the caress.

”It’s probably just a side effect. But a nice one.” Sissix let out another pleased sigh. ”And all the Aandrisk social bonding rituals are a part of why we’ve become such a strong species. I guess it’s a part of that.”

”Like all your other culture involving feathers?”

”Mmm.” Sissix moved her head against Rosemary’s hand. ”Oh yes, right there.”

Kizzy was still observing them, her face lit with intense curiosity. Rosemary felt self-conscious, even a little embarrassed — she was still accustomed to human levels of public displays of affection. Although she was trying to learn. She looked down and focused on Sissix’s feathers as though she was at an interspecies biology exam.

”They look a lot like the feathers our birds have,” she said, ”but not quite. I suppose the evolutionary process was different.” Sissix made a noncommittal sound in reply. Rosemary continued: ”How do they function as camouflage?”

”We evolved in places that the humans would call jungles,” Sissix said. ”Being green was useful. So was having small green parts that move. Helped you blend into the surroundings. And in a pinch, we could try to raise them and look bigger.”

Rosemary giggled. ”I’ve seen you puff your feathers when you’re upset with Corbin. Makes you look so scary.”

Kizzy giggled, too. ”I don’t think it has much of an effect on Corbin.”

”I suspect our foes in the jungle were more stupid,” Sissix said ruefully.

”Well, we humans don’t even have enough hair to do that,” Rosemary said. ”We lost most of it at some point, too.”

Kizzy sniggered in her chair. ”You’re the only couple I know who flirt by talking about evolution and species camouflage tactics.”

Sissix flared her nostrils and lifted her chin; the Aandrisk equivalent of raising eyebrows, as they had no eyebrows. ”It’s an interesting topic. I don’t see why I wouldn’t talk about it with Rosemary.”

”Well, we haven’t heard Ashby and Pei alone together,” Kizzy said. ”They probably talk, I don’t know, politics of interstellar trade routes.”

Rosemary continued to stroke Sissix’s feathers as she replied serenely: ”That can be really interesting, too.” She peered at Ashby. ”Is he really asleep?”

”Out like a light,” Kizzy said. ”Poor fellow, he’s had a busy time of it.” Even after things had settled down after Hedra Ka, Ashby had had a lot on his plate, from new equipment to crew welfare. Which at the moment included taking some AI responsibilities from Jenks until the tech was more accustomed to working with Tycho and wouldn’t miss Lovey all the time.

”He just can’t help trying to do everything, can he?” Rosemary said, looking at their captain with sympathy. She ought to learn more about AIs, so she could help out as well.

”Not since I know him,” Sissix said. ”They do make them very conscientious in the Fleet.”

”Yeah,” Kizzy agreed. ”And I bet he misses Pei dreadfully.”

”But things are starting to work out here,” Rosemary said and smiled. ”He’ll be able rest more soon.”

”Yes,” Sissix said. ”They’re working out.” She adjusted her position, turning her head so that her other cheek rested on Rosemary’s knee. ”You wouldn’t mind doing the other side, too, would you?”

”Oh, I didn’t realize I was performing a feather caring service,” Rosemary said, but happily set to work.

”Well, you’re very good at it,” Sissix said, and closed her eyes. Kizzy chuckled. She watched them a moment longer, then returned her attention to her scrib. Rosemary smiled. She continued to let her fingers glide slowly on those beloved feathers, and watched the stars outside the window of her home.