Craig met the Malacandran delegation just inside the airlock of Landing Bay Two. Procedure dictated that Oda oversee the actual landing procedures and greet their guests as they disembarked from the landing craft, so Craig was forced to cool his heels on the other side of the pressure hull to ensure nothing catastrophic happened to the ship’s command structure. On the balance of things, he found it annoying. Oh, it made sense of course. But there were times he wished he could have just stuck his nose into every interesting thing on the ship, like Kirk had been able to.
Of course, Kirk had plot armor and a team of writers who didn’t have to work hours and hours of meetings, paperwork and constant smoothing of ruffled feathers into their scripts.
But even if he couldn’t go on away missions there was a lot of fun to be had in the captain’s chair. He’d been looking forward to meeting the leaders of Bottletown for the last two days. It was nice to have regular, communicative people to deal with instead of the passive-aggressive silence of Earth. Absently Craig ran his hands over the front of his uniform for the dozenth time and scrubbed a hand over his nonexistent hair, then glanced at his assembled officers. After a little debated he’d settled on Rand, who’d insisted on a small security presence for the meeting, and Dhawan. Tactical and medical seemed like the right mix to strike. He’d have brought Jimenez as well, but someone had to stand watch on the bridge.
And, of course, there was Harriet Thacker. Craig wasn’t sure how she’d gotten back upwell from planetside but there she was, her newly bobbed brown hair looking glossy and professional, a recording unit in hand and some kind of heavy duty AI that he hadn’t seen before strapped to her waist. “Any thoughts you’d like to share based on your first meeting with the Malacandrans, Miss Thacker?”
Harriet stopped flipping through whatever she had on her AI readout and gave him an arch look. “A trip to Mars was all it took for you to finally pay attention to me?”
“I could think of a few other ways you could grab my attention. Flag my AI. Show up at unexpected places on the ship.” He gave her simple but stylish blouse and pants a quick once over. “Change what you wear.”
She feigned shock. “Whatever could you mean, Captain?”
“An evac suit, of course.”
That chilled the air a bit. Craig realized it had come out a bit harsher than he’d intended but, before he could correct the statement the airlock clunked and then cranked open. While Craig was hardly a short man he’d gotten used to cranking his head back a step or two to see Commander Fyodorovich’s face. He wasn’t expecting to have to lean back even further to make eye contact with the serious faced five year old boy Fyodorovich was carrying on his shoulders. The big man practically had to fold in half to step up over the lip of the hatch while also ducking to get through without hitting his passenger’s head on the top. There was a weird, hypnotic awkwardness to the maneuver.
Matched by a weird, choking laugh from Harriet, who was trying her best to treat this with the seriousness it deserved.
Fyodorovich straightened up, walked over to his commanding officer as if arriving with a child in tow was a daily occurrence, and halted at a modified parade rest with his hands resting on the child’s feet to keep him in place. Craig rapidly considered and discarded a number of responses. Finally he ignored his officer and looked up at the boy, offered him a crisp nod and said, “Welcome aboard the Stewart, Eldest.”
The child said, “I’m not the Eldest. My mom is.” He turned to point and Fyodorovich mimicked the action with eerie accuracy, almost as if he and he boy had fused nervous systems at some point. Behind them a tall, slim women with dark hair was just clearing the hatch. Clearly this must be Naomi Bertolini.
She had that vaguely exotic look to her that most people from another planet had, the clear result of dozens of genetic idiosyncrasies settling into a limited gene pool and creating the phenomenon known as ethnicity. With just mother and child to go by so far Earth’s Martian descendants seemed to be marked by very round faces, pronounced ears and above average height, an impression that was driven home when a man who was well over two meters tall followed the Eldest through the door. He was holding the hand of a three or four year old girl. The boy added, “That’s my dad and sister.”
The youngest Bertolini was stuck staring at the edge of the hatchway, clearly unsure how she was supposed to get over it. Craig froze for a moment, getting young children over the lip of an airlock wasn’t something covered in the Diplomatic Procedures he’d reviewed, but before he could say anything her father just smiled and said, “Hup!” And lifted her into the air by her arm then swung her over the threshold. To Craig’s ever increasing surprise the giggling girl swung forward on both arms, her other hand held by his executive officer. The girl didn’t let go of Oda’s hand once she was over the lip of the hatch or even when he stepped through behind her. At first Craig thought he might get to see Oda put out by someone else for once. But from the satisfied way Oda watched the girl swing along between them Craig was doomed for disappointment. He made a mental note to check with Fyodorovich and see who’s idea it was to give the guest’s kids piggyback rides.
A second family of four followed behind Oda. Like the first wave, the adults were tall. The wavy brown hair and thoughtful blue eyes suggested that the man who came first was Naomi Bertolini’s younger brother. He was flanked by a woman that was almost two meters herself, although still more than a head shorter than her companion, with deep red hair. They had two boys sandwiched between them and all three were looking around at the ship with a faint sense of awe.
Craig also got his first impression of their culture. All eight of the Malacandran Martians had long hair, waist length in the case of the adults and at least shoulder length on all of the children. The kids were all wearing fairly amorphous coveralls but the adults were clothed according to gender, with the men in belted tunics and pants while the women wore blouses with loose, flowing sleeves tucked into high waisted bottoms. Naomi wore a skirt, the other woman pants. Reports had mentioned that the Eldest wore utilitarian clothes while planetside, at a guess this was more formal attire.
Satisfied that he couldn’t learn any more by looking over the group Craig focused his attention on Naomi. “Welcome aboard the Rodenberry Stellar Navy’s Stewart, Eldest. I’m Captain Craig Gyle.” He gestured to his officers. “These are Commanders Barton Rand and Varu Dhawan, in charge of our tactical and medical departments. And, of course, you’ve already met Miss Thacker.”
Naomi held out her hand for a handshake, which Craig accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Captain.” The rank sounded a little uncertain, as if the word wasn’t something she was used to saying. “I’m Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest in Bottletown. But you probably knew that.”
“Commander Fyodorovich speaks highly of you.” It wasn’t a very meaningful compliment but it seemed to please her none the less.
“Volk is a wonderful guest. Let me introduce my family.”
And they were all family. Her husband was a doctor named Greg, the other two adults her brother Victor Pracht and sister-in-law Alyssa. The Bertolini children were Greg Jr. and Tancia, the Pracht boys were Harold and Brent. Craig filed all this under things he would have to look up in his AI later. It did raise the interesting question of why she’d chosen to bring family on this visit, rather than other senior leaders of the colony, but that was something he filed under things to ask if he wanted to end diplomatic relations. Nepotism was a universal constant in human affairs. But it wasn’t something he was interested in seeing on his ship, which meant he’d be keeping a sharp eye on Fyodorovich for the next few hours. Four children under ten gave Craig a great chance to see if the rookie department head’s legendary cool under pressure extended to these kind of formal situations.
Geraldine Jimenez rarely got to stand watch on the bridge. By her estimate there were at least twelve officers on the ship with more seniority and command experience between her and the Stewart‘s big chair. Pretty much the only time it happened was when all those other officers had some kind of important function that would keep them in their own departments while the Captain and XO were off the bridge. So naturally she was officer on duty during the Martian’s visit to the ship.
Bridge time was vital to forwarding your career so really there was nothing to complain about. But Jimenez preferred being involved in things rather than being sidelined and being stuck on the bridge felt a lot like sidelining at the moment. She tried to console herself by remembering that ship tours were boring and based on reports from SFC Long the Bottletown colony didn’t seem to have any significant fighting capability so they weren’t really expected to cause trouble.
So she dug deeper into her current project and compared historical maps against modern scans and tried to work out what the insides of the colony looked like. The bridge was quiet and it helped to pass the time. She had just started evaluating where she might ask Shen to set up sensor relays when she got a ping from Hoyle directing her to a recent transmission packet from the grav relay that kept them in touch with the Spiner and the rest of the fleet. It wasn’t time for one of their regular check-ins so this was definitely something to take note of.
Concerned, Jimenez opened it to see if it merited passing on to the Captain immediately, or if some comm spacer had just gotten an itchy finger while manning the relay. The first few lines were pretty much what she expected, and included instructions that they were to finish with the day’s diplomatic functions. That alone was enough to suggest she could leave the message for the Captain to get to on his next duty shift. But she kept reading, just to be sure.
Which is why she decided she would have to interrupt the tour for at least a few minutes after all.
Two hours into proceedings Craig decided that perhaps Fyodorovich had a good sense for how to handle his diplomatic duties after all. Alyssa and Naomi had been fascinated by their trip to the ship’s power plant and Greg Bertolini had many questions for Dhawan as they passed through Sickbay. Victor said little and kept an eye on the four children, with help from Fyodorovich.
The big man had a way with kids that Craig also wouldn’t have given him credit for.
The lunch break in the officer’s mess served as the first real chance for them to decompress since their arrival. Seating had been left to the Head Steward and Craig found himself at a table with the Eldest, her husband and Oda. They had barely started on the soup when Naomi’s questions started, but they weren’t the questions Craig had been expecting.
“Where are your families, Captain?” She was genuinely perplexed. “Your whole crew is of marriageable age but I haven’t seen a single child here.”
“We rarely take our families into space.” Craig hadn’t been expecting the question but it was something that was routinely debated among the kinds of people who formulated the Rudeness Pact so he had an answer on hand.. “It seems Malacandrans value the community and strength close family brings, and I truly respect that. But few spacers would think of bringing family aboard a vessel like ours if for no other reason than how dangerous it is.”
That alarmed her. “You ship is dangerous?”
“Not always,” Craig hastened to assure her. “In orbit, like we are now, this ship is just as safe as your colony. But travel between stars has many dangers. Engines can fail and strand us months or even years away from help. There are many stellar phenomena that we haven’t mapped which we will happen across unexpectedly and can damage the ship. And there’s the ever present danger of space pirates.”
“But wouldn’t your family be a bulwark against such dangers?”
Craig smiled faintly. “I’d rather think of myself as that bulwark for my family. Besides, starships have little room for people who aren’t a part of the ship’s functioning. Everyone has to pull their weight. What if a spacer married a terraformer? That’s a skillset that’s vital to our home planet but has no useful application in space.”
“But surely,” Greg objected, “you have to need so many more sets of skills on a ship in space than in a colony.”
Craig hesitated, trying to find a way to phrase things that didn’t come off as offensive. “Let me turn that around on you. Do you have people who dedicate their whole lives to music? To telling stories? To the design of buildings?”
“No.” Greg looked perplexed at the question. “We could never afford to spare the people. Bottletown’s population is far too low.”
“In that respect,” Craig replied, “you are far more like a starship than like a city on Rodenberry. There are many people who are full time musicians, writers, artists and architects there but there’s no need for, nor place for, people who spend all their time on those endeavors on the Stewart. But in New San Francisco there is not only a place for them, there’s a need for them.”
Craig intended to continue on that line of thought but he was interrupted by the sound of Jimenez clearing her throat at his shoulder. He glanced back to find his security chief standing with her arms folded, AI cradled in one hand. A classic pose for someone with a message for their superior. He looked back to the table. “I’m sorry, it seems something has come up. Would you excuse me for just a minute?”