We’d moved the discussion back into the ready room, where simmering disagreements erupted.
“You mean we’re beaming down into a totally unknown situation – bad enough that this Ardrossian woman won’t give you the time of day because you’re a man – and now we’ve got no way of communicating with the ship unless they let us?” Bones was outraged. “And you’re going to take a civilian, who, for all we know, is the only one they’re going to pay any attention to, dump the whole damned negotiation in her lap? Dammit to hell, Jim, you cannot do this. You can’t put Hani in that situation. There has to be another way!”
“You tell me, Bones,” Jim snapped. “You’ve got all the answers. The Federation’s not breathing down your neck. These people, these women, have given us an opening – I’m taking it. I trust Hani. We can brief her, she doesn’t have to sign any peace treaties or make any promises. I know it’s not ideal, but it’s a couple of hours of… conversation… that’s all. All we need is to get our foot in the door. We can’t move any further on this unless we’re actually on the ground.”
“And if it goes wrong? If something happens down there, and we can’t get back, can’t call for help… what do you propose to do then? It’s all well and good for us, it’s our job, but it’s not hers, dammit, and you have no right to ask.” I’d never seen Bones like this.
“It’s okay, Bones,” I interjected, trying to staunch the flow of high emotions. “I can do this.”
“It’s not about you, Hani, it’s about him, him and his damned need to play fast and loose with other people’s lives.” Bones responded, almost as snappish at me as he was with Jim.
But I got it. It was about me, I thought. Bones was just defending me. He was sincerely worried about my safety.
And at the moment it was really pissing me off.
Honestly, this had all been moving so fast, I was still trying to get a grip on what they were suggesting – and what Bones was so loudly protesting. They wanted me to impersonate, well, myself, only a much older wiser version of myself, I suppose.
Could I pull it off?
I’d faced down state legislators, dealt with hysterical women at the shelter, talked down angry, abusive spouses. I’d managed Washington cocktail parties, for pete’s sake. I’d managed Lester Worsham.
Besides, while Jim and Bones were going at each other, I realized my annoyance wasn’t coming from either Jim’s free-wheeling willingness to insert me into this diplomatic mess, or Bones’ well-intentioned protectiveness that argued against it.
Nope. I sat there with that sudden, total gut-knowing again.
I was doing this. It was yet another one of those impossible but inevitable things that seemed to be happening to me more and more – and especially ever since I got caught up with this bunch.
I was just impatient with their wrangling. Just get on with it, guys.
We’re talking women here. After all, it was my area of expertise.
Not to mention I was one.
Jim glared at Bones. “Dr. McCoy, consider your objections noted. Do you wish to excuse yourself from this mission, since you have so many doubts about my command decisions?”
Bones returned the glare unflinchingly. “Oh, I’m going. Somebody’s got to keep an eye on her,” he muttered.
I couldn’t help it. “I can handle it,” I told him, trying to keep my tight voice under control, his proprietary attitude grating on me. Even though I didn’t doubt his good intentions, at the moment I just I didn’t want him screwing me out of the adventure.
Spock, aloof from all this drama, cut into the icy atmosphere. “If the matter is settled, I suggest we finish briefing Hani so she can talk with the Ardrossian representative. Don’t forget there is still the remote possibility of survivors from the Cassandra. Time is of the essence.”
“Doctor, your presence here isn’t needed any further. I’ll let you know when we’re ready to beam down.” Jim coldly dismissed Bones, who scowled at us all as he stalked out.
Uhura’s borrowed earrings tinkled festively. I stood very straight in the rather resplendent gown she’d helped me replicate on short notice. Surrounded by three officers in their best dress uniforms (two of whom were barely speaking to each other) we four were transported into a lobby or entranceway, from which we were immediately ushered out, me into a rather grand chamber, filled with maybe thirty women, who greeted me enthusiastically.
Jim, Bones, and Spock were, as we’d predicted, quickly escorted in another direction, by a pair of young women who carefully kept their eyes averted.
Given what little I’d been able to draw out from the Ardrossian representative during my brief conversation with her, we assumed that it was an almost completely segregated society, and Jim had decided we had no choice but to agree to those terms. My assignment was to go along with whatever welcome they wanted to give me as some visiting Big Cheese, and they would bide their time, find out whatever they could. As soon as it was politely possible, I would use my hopefully exalted status to insist that we be allowed to complete our mission. The men would move on to investigate the crash site, and I would be returned to the ship. Simple, right?
And yes, I was now an inter-planetary diplomat. Quite a promotion. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt a surge of adrenaline and ego. Finally, a task that offered some challenge, that called for my unique resources.
So I let myself be led into this gaggle of richly-dressed women, all chattering away in some unknown language. The majority of them were older, I estimated maybe sixties on up to ancient. For a society that apparently equated age with rank, that made sense. They all shared a similar, slightly simian, shape of the head, and their hairstyles favored an elegant center-parted upsweep that emphasized that slight ridge that ran up the head from the spine. One of the younger women approached me and introduced herself as Linnlahkeh. She would be the translator.
Seated on a low divan in the middle of the room, I was served food and drink, which I politely, but cautiously, tasted. The rest of the group lounged nearby. There seemed to be no particular agenda to this gathering. It felt purely social, although there was definitely an undercurrent of deference toward me, like they were very excited to have me in their midst, although I still wasn’t sure exactly why.
There was a lot of chatter going on all around me, women talking to each other and obviously to me, as if not really realizing I didn’t understand a word. There’s always something very disorienting in being surrounded by people speaking an unknown tongue.
Linnlahkeh started peppering me with eager questions, all relayed from the others, whom she described as the Magdena Magna’s inner circle. They had never seen an Elder Female of such an age, and yet of such relatively youthful appearance. The Magdena Magna herself had only 86 years, but, of course, her position as leader was matrilineal.
Linnlahkeh began, “They want to know how it is you are so youthful with so many years of life. If you are look so at your age, they are guessing that your lifespan must be almost eight hundred years. Can that be true? That is… surprising, and impressive. We have no person of such wisdom here. Our oldest Elder is Magdi Olla, there, in the red robes. But she has only one hundred and twenty two years.” Hearing her name spoken, a rather sour-looking old crone nodded at me with a puckered smile.
She certainly looked her age. I hoped I wouldn’t look that bad at that age. Or ever. I merely nodded and tried to look inscrutable. I recalled the disdainful aloofness of the Ardrossian representative I’d talked to before, and took that as my model.
Linnlahkeh went on, “We had no idea your Federation included anyone of such high state. We have many question.”
Well, this ought to be interesting, I thought. I couldn’t help wondering what Spock would think of this. Would he see the humor in it, in the crazy places logic could take you when you start from faulty assumptions? I was assumed to be very old, therefore, the youngish appearance must be made to fit the “facts”.
I briefly pondered the thought that the truth would have been much less believable; it was certainly much less logical.
So it surprised me that the questions started out so… ordinary. Did I have many offspring?
No, I answered honestly, none. I was never able to have children.
A collective response, I gathered it was their version of a sympathetic noise.
And a kindly follow-up: At least I had been spared the ugliness.
Yes, I nodded sagely. I know many women who have had difficult and painful deliveries. Was that also true for them?
Odd. Linnlahkeh looked blank, whispered something in confusion to the woman nearest her.
“Women have complain of childbirth in your world?” She asked, as if completely nonplussed.
Huh? What? I got that little internal jolt you get when you realize something’s not connecting.
“Sometimes…” I replied, uncertain where we were going with this, and trying to maintain my false front as a know-it-all. “But then…you…speak of the… ‘ugliness’?”
Linnlahkeh relayed my question back, evoking looks of disgust all around, a number of shudders, then awkward laughter, as one of the Elder ladies apparently cracked a joke.
Linnlahkeh duly translated, as the laughter spread. “Elder Sushsek says, males good for two thing only. It is old, how you say, joke?”
Oh. I laughed along with them, though I decided it was too much trouble to contribute the Earth version of that joke: the things men are good for, like killing spiders, changing tires, lifting heavy objects.
That wasn’t at all what they were laughing about, but it took a while for me to really get their drift.
All the ladies were talking at once now, and Linnlahkeh was clearly stressed, struggling to communicate this flow of words to me. These ladies were eager to give all the credit to the Magdena Magna, their leader, how she had taken away the need for the ugliness entirely, at least for those of the ‘high families’. The Magna was a genius, a social and scientific leader, the greatest of her line. Of course, the lesser women of the society – the ‘uncounted’ – still had to endure the old ways, but they had their rituals and their faith, and those whose families were truly pious knew how to reconstruct their daughters’ virtue.
Okay, I was totally lost here. They were all chatting so intimately, so charmingly, so naturally including me in their circle. They clearly assumed I knew what they were talking about, clearly assumed I was… one of them.
I recognized the pattern. People who’ve never been exposed to other viewpoints always have this tendency to assume everyone sees and understands the world just as they do.
These women were treating me like the wise, all-knowing Elder they assumed I was, while I struggled not to let on my complete puzzlement. And the halting translations weren’t helping. Linnlahkeh was doing her best, but she also apologized to me repeatedly: before recent times, only the Magdena Magna had learned the language of outsiders, the diplomatic language used by the Federation. It was considered another display of the Magdena Magna’s vast intellectual skills.
Linnlahkeh, along with a handful of the Magna’s other close assistants, had only recently been selected to undergo a crash language course. She had been told her services would be needed soon.
Something about that statement struck me as odd. Like the Magna had been preparing for outsiders? But we’d only had hours of notice, and the Cassandra’s crash had been entirely random. Hadn’t it? Or was there something else the Magna was anticipating?
I made a fleeting mental note, but had to train my attention back on Linnlahkeh, who was still talking, frowning in her own efforts to keep up. Clearly she had a gift for language, but with so little experience, she still struggled. I felt sorry for her.
I was caught in the dilemma of needing more information, without letting on that I didn’t already understand. The awkward pace of constant translating was tedious, and the incomprehensible reactions of the other women, communicating some cultural cues that I didn’t understand, were making me very uneasy. It was physically and emotionally exhausting.
Ah, I nodded with fake wisdom, trying to follow the thread of this disjointed conversation. How had their Magdena Magna achieved… this thing…how had she eliminated the ‘ugliness’?
Whatever the hell that was.