He had faced multiple live-fire engagements in his younger days, even a few ‘hot drops’. He pulled his friends from the line of fire, made hard decisions…had some friends not come home – both from a rebel’s hand, or from his own orders.
He had moved through the ranks. Led his people through both victory and defeat. Taken the blame and the glory. Through mentorship, trial, luck, error and sheer determination he had become a leader worthy of commanding the lives of 50,000 fellow shipmen, not including the associated marines and ground personnel that were under his leadership.
In all of this, he had projected a stoic, calculating demeanor. In every trial, in every scenario where everything is on fire and the blood is on his hands, he did his damndest to at least seem like he knew what he was doing. The facade he projected – the mask he wore – was as much a part of his rank as the gems clamped onto his hood.
However, today, Admiral Var’Shrak clenched his jaw for the umpteenth time and willed himself not to cry.
“<Caroline.>” He said, as even as possible. “<Please. Just a little, ok?>”
From the pile of upturned and requisitioned perch-padding came a soft whimper. Only by the grace of his anatomy could he see into the utter darkness of the pillow-cave, staring directly into the wet, red eyes of the resident [Human].
She was clutching a blanket tightly to her torso, wringing the fabric in her chapped, red hands.
Admiral Var’Shrak gently nudged the plate of snacks towards the blanket-cave, causing [Caroline] to shrink back slightly.
“<It’s ok, it’s ok – it’s just some tea-cakes. It’s sweet, see?>” He picks up one of the small disks, and making a show of breaking it in half he eats it, slowly. “<See? It’s good!>”
Painfully slow to him, but lightning-fast for the [Human] she flung her hand out and gripped a handful of cookies, pulling them back into the safety of her cave. Var’Shrak lowered himself closer to the ground, doing his best to seem small and unimposing – and to get a slightly better view of the [Human]. She sniffed at the wafer hesitantly, before looking at Var’Shrak and taking a bite.
The click of her teeth on the cookie caused both of them to flinch.
“<I uh… I’m sorry. I-I can get the chefs to make a different batch, one that’s… softer.>” He said, losing heart halfway through his suggestion as [Caroline] worked her mouth slightly, scattering the wafers inside her cave. He was met with a noncommital murmur – at least the crying had well and truly stopped, but whether that was due to [Caroline] realizing that she was truly in no danger or that she had exhausted herself, Var’Shrak couldn’t say. Deliberately slowly he reached for a second tray, placing before the cushion-cave a set of drinks; various teas, water, and [soda]-analogues. Thinking beforehand this time he opened all their pouches, leaning back to give [Caroline] some space.
She reached for one of the flavored teas, seeming to pick one out at random. Slowly she pulled the oversized pouch into her cave, taking a tentative sip from the rim.
Another happy universal constant: At some point in every species’ infancy some genius got the idea to take a bunch of plants, boil them an take a swig. Sometimes it worked and a new beverage was discovered! Sometimes it didn’t work and a new poison was discovered – which could be a success, depending on what you were going for. Regardless, warm tea and comfy blankets seemed to comfort the small [Human], and her soft complaints all but stopped.
They stayed like that for a few minutes; [Caroline] taking a sip of ‘tea’, Var’Shrak watching her with a neutral, if worried expression.
“<[Caroline]?>” Var’Shrak said softly, causing her to jump. “<[Caroline], You’re not in any trouble. I just want to talk with you, ok? Can we talk?>”
[Caroline] gave what his crash-course in [Human] body language told him was a ‘nod’ of affirmation, and Var’Shrak relaxed slightly.
“<Ok. Can you please tell me what a [meme] is?>”
[Caroline] giggled at that – which was good! – and pursed her lips, rolling her shoulders slightly. “[It’s…it’s like a joke. It’s a visual cultural joke, but it can also be musical? I guess?]”
“<Alright. Were your people producing [meme]s before first contact?>”
“[I uh. I mean, yeah. Memes really took off when the internet became ubiquitous, but, hell. There could have been ancient memes lost to time for all we know. We just have a better record of it, because yanno – once it’s on the network it’s out there forever.]”
Admiral Var’Shrak nodded – mimicking the alien gesture of his guest – and rested on his coils. “<Well. The Senate->” Var’Shrak flinched as he saw [Caroline] flinch, and quickly finished his thought, “<-won’t stop [Humans] from making [meme]s, especially if it’s part of your culture from pre-contact. This just seems to be a cultural artifact that our [Anthropologists] didn’t recognize, which means it’s our fault if anything.>”
Admiral Var’Shrak was many things, and smooth was in fact, one of them. He waited a few seconds, and with a sigh (and a deep drought of the cooling tea) [Caroline] took the lure.
“[It’s not… we hid it from you on purpose. It’s not your fault.]”
[Caroline] scrunched her nose and looked incredulously at Var’Shrak – for his part, he just waited, neutral mask forced upon his face.
Var’Shrak repeated the alien ‘nodding’ gesture. “<Really. Again, you and [Humanity] in general are not in any trouble – I just want to learn, is all.>”
[Caroline] looked into her bag of tea and gently set it down between her legs, mumbling something too soft for even Var’Shrak to hear, her voice broken only by a small yawn.
“<Sorry? Could you please repeat that?>”
“[We’re scared.]” She replied, no louder than before – but somehow, the weight of those words were deafening as they slammed against him. Admiral Var’Shrak recoiled slowly in dumb shock; a thousand questions roiled through his mind, each one darker than the last.
“<Has any interstellar faction threatened you, your species or your planet?>”
“[Wh- oh! Oh, no! I uh. We, [Humans], are scared of you. Of all of you. Of the entire Senate.]”
“<Wh->” Var’Shrak cleared his throat, resting his hands in his lap. He took a few moments to gather his thoughts before responding as slowly and purposefully as possible. “<Why are you afraid of us?>”
“[Because – because just look at you all!]” A tiny hand flung out of the safety of the cave in his direction, waving about frantically. “[You’re big and strong and powerful and technologically advanced and weird and just – just, you could annihilate us without even feeling it! Not just in terms of a civilization-wide fight, I mean just… if you, if you got angry at me and… I’m not that quick…]”
Var’Shrak swallowed, hard, as the implications made themselves known. “<I…is every [Human] afraid of us?>”
“[I mean – no, but. Ugh.]” [Caroline] reached forward and aggressively took a drink of her tea, setting it back down infront of her. “[It’s a spectrum. Some think you’re here to enslave us, most of us are positive towards you – curing every disease, providing infinite power, unfucking our planet’s biosphere and giving us a post-scarcity society will win you all the [Brownie] points. A… not insignificant number are even ah, attracted to you. I mean, not you personally – but I’m sure you’re a, uh, good looking [Jornissian] and I’m not saying that a [Human] wouldn’t be intere-]”
[Caroline] stopped her rambling to take a drink as Var’Shrak’s mind shifted an entirely different set of gears, popped the clutch and then stalled out.
“[It’s um. You’ve… always had other species to talk to. I mean, in your cultural memory. We haven’t.]”
“<But shouldn’t that be a cause of joy?>” he ventured, grasping at straws.
“[It is – trust me – it is. But, it’s also, uh. There’s no really easy way to put this – you’re alien.]”
Var’Shrak blinked and clicked his tail against the decking, narrowing his eyes. “<Did… are you saying [Humans] haven’t fully realized we’re not their species?>”
“[Oh, no no. Just…well, ok. Imagine you’re me for a second. You’re used to the sound of feet on the floor, of [Human] mannerisms your entire life, of slang and body language and food and music and sights and smells. Not only that, but also proportions; the doors are just so high, the beds are just so arranged, the eating utensils look like they do, the toilets…]”
“<I think I’m beginning to understand.>”
“[Mmm. Not only are you used to this, but your entire species for it’s entire history is used to things being just so. To be out of that environment, and in one that’s – it’s alien. So sometimes, well. This is why we have to consume Home media – it gives us some normalcy, or so the [psychoanalysts] say.]” [Caroline] sighs, stretching.
“<And memes about us are normal?>”
“[W-well, no. That’s… more for when we’re ah, freaking out about being alone – about being the only [Human], I mean. It kinda…makes you cute to us? They’re not spiteful memes, just playful ones to make you not so, uh. Deadly.]”
“<I see. This would explain the confusion…>”
“[I just-]” [Caroline] yawned, her whole body shuddering. “[I just don’t know how the terminal screwed up… or why that elicited a full, uh. Special Operations team? To break into my room and kidnap me?]” she ended on a question, looking at Var’Shrak curiously.
“<Ah, then it’s my turn to be honest.>” Var’Shrak smiled, stretching up a little straighter. “<Some enterprising young deckhands – a Mr.Ssharnak and a Ms.Ashhs’skk – apparently found a way to install a physical override onto your terminal, probably when you were out.>”
The pillow cave became deathly still.
“<So, they apparently streamed your terminal to their own, and it became a bit of a sensation on the ship. When->”
The pillow cave exploded, circular perch-covers flung to the far ends of the room. Standing before him, bleary-eyed, wet spot on her crotch and arms raised in a triumph of rage, [Caroline] let out a furious roar.
“[THOSE SLITHERY LITTLE FUCKS BROKE INTO MY ROOM?! I’LL KILL THEM!]”
Var’Shrak leaned slightly to the right, avoiding a particularly high-velocity pillow. “<I assure you, [Caroline], both of those deckhands are on disciplinary leave->” ‘but after what they’ve put me through’, thought Var’Shrak, ‘I’ll damn well make sure they’re cleaning comet trails by hand for the rest of their careers.’
“[I’m gonna- I’m gonna. Just. NNNGH. Why am I not angrier?!]” [Caroline] suddenly said as another tremendous yawn wracked her body. “[What was… what was that tea?]”
“<Gres’sken-leaf and petal. It is very safe for [Human] consumption…>” Var’Shrak trailed off as he accessed his internal implant, pulling up information on the plant. “<The tea is very high in iron, potassium, melatonin, keratin->”
“[Mmf. Melatonin? That – that makes us sleep. Sleepy.]” [Caroline] groused, rubbing her face a bit too vigorously.
“<Oh.>” Var’Shrak said softly.
[Caroline] fumed for a second before glaring at Var’Shrak. She pointed at him accusingly with a single, drooping finger. “[I am gonna take a nap and then I am going to be angry at them again, ok?]”
“<Okay.>” Var’Shrak said, desperately trying to hide his smile. “<Would you like me to->”
“[N. Noh. This is a-]” [Caroline] inhaled sharply, but powered through it. “[-an inconvenience to me, so I’m gonna return the favor. Loosen up.]”
“<Excuse me?>” Admiral Var’Shrak said, tilting his head as [Caroline] brazenly stepped forward. Without so much as an explanation, invite, or indication she full-body fell on the [Jornissian], curling up into a ball within his coils.
“[Remind me to be angry when I wake up.]” [Caroline] murmured, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to her.
“<Hah. So whatever happened to being afraid of us?>” Var’Shrak mused. But he did so to himself, as [Caroline]’s only response was soft, shallow breathing.
After only five minutes, Var’Shrak was unable to hide his smile.