The d'enchia Incident *****
"A Note From The Human Translator"Sadly, despite ongoing efforts over a period of years, improvements to the translation software have been stymied by the differences between the Ic'nichi and human languages. A number of Ic'nichi words and phrases remain indecipherable, and have, perforce, been given in phonetic form. As is becoming a tradition, an Addenda with possible meanings has been included in the back of this work. We hope this will prove helpful to the reader, since we are at a loss for any other solution.
"Oy, As The Humans Say"
(Related by Defender I'eiBida)
It was the Staff Herd Guide, which is never good news. What did he want now? I struggled to the surface of my 'to do' basket, and discreetly tipped my computer screen to one side so he couldn't see what I was reading. "Sir?"
"I have a job for you." He handed me a memo form.
"Sir?" As if I didn't have enough to do. "Not earth again?"
He gave me a jaundiced look. "No, thankfully. You're due for a physical." He gestured at the form already forgotten in my hand. "You need to get over to the Institute." He offered a dismissive ear twitch, and stomped off to harass the next staffer in the circle.
Needless to say, that caught me completely off guard. I wasn't due for my annual physical for some time yet, and I was feeling pretty good lately. Tired of course, with the endless work here on the Staff and at the Academy. If there is any Universal truth besides one's Ancestors seeing every foolish thing one does, it's the paper stampede. The ui'DmukNa shoveling never quits, but since we returned from our last misadventure on earth, I was finally getting caught up on my duties. So now they wanted me to have a physical? Why? And why at the Institute, of all places, when the staff physichs at the spaceport clinic could handle such a routine matter? I wasn't sure what to make of it, but it tasted off somehow. Curious, I started reading...
"A psychological exam?"
Now I was completely flummoxed. About the only time they give defenders a psych review is when we're recruits, to weed out the potentially violent ones. I went through that when I first joined the 'Green-And-Tans', and again when I transferred to the 'Grays', but aside from that, such things are unknown—unless they think there's something wrong with you.
I slumped on my belly cushion and stared at nothing, trying to grab tail on this. Why a psyche exam? Was I getting erratic from lack of sleep? Pity the junior Staffer: the hours are long, the work deadly dull, the paper shuffling relentless, and the gratitude nonexistent. I was feeling better, coping with the stress a lot better lately, and the work was flowing faster and smoother than ever. Still, perhaps the load was getting to me and I hadn't noticed? Or was this a third time around because I was now a part of the 'Dark Grays'? Mysterious. I had a sudden premonition nothing good would come of it.
The subdued din of office equipment penetrated my distracted haze, drawing me back to the here-and-now. Our new Admin Circle was a single enormous room, with the Fleet Eldest's grotto in the center and the rest filled with concentric rings of work stations and busy people. We were still moving in here, and the place was already filled to overflowing. Despite the ventilation, the air was slightly stale with the oder of packed bodies and hot electronics, and my daily burden included a more or less permanent headache from the noise. My Worthy had the good sense to spend most of his time at the Academy; having, unlike me, the wit to gallop when our assignments came down. I hated him.
Our desks were backed against the wall near one of the entry ways as far from the hub of power as could be, as befitting very junior elders, with our tiny herd, an unattached Fourth Degree, a worthy candidate, and four clericals in a sub-circle around me. You never get the recognition around here. My Worthy and I were our foremost experts on human military history, methods, and technology, which put us at the center of planning for our new stellar fleet. You'd think we at least deserved a few partitions, but they would impede the flow of paper, and we can't have that, can we? And now they wanted me to take a psych review? Well, it was recognition of a sort, and Ancestors knew I probably needed it. The Institute I was to report to did medical research on conditions in space for the 'Dark Grays', so I'd find out what this was about soon enough. It'd be a welcome break, anyway.
But first there was something I waited for for some time. My successor at the embassy on earth, the precious Third Degree L'datMparn of distasteful memory, was rotated home, and I had accessed his personnel file (which is what I hid from the Herd Guide). There was an old debt to settle, and it looked like someone got there ahead of me.
"...in my considered opinion, Defender L'datMparn performs his duties adequately, and is well suited to be assigned to duties on d'enchia in the future..."
My Ancestors do love me. Here I was debating whether to try twitching his fitness report, but it seemed Arbiter U'tdaPagrn shared my opinion of him, and his tail was a lot longer than mine. I never did like Third Degree L'datMparn, and as sure as the Ancestors are watching, I never trusted him. 'Performs his duties adequately'; I loved it. In the mad stampede for promotion around here, such faint praise was worse than outright condemnation. And that last slap, 'duties on d'enchia', was beautiful for it's subtlety. The only 'duties on d'enchia' for the 'Dark Grays' were on the Staff...or in Supply. And with the smell his activities on earth created around here, his chances of making Staff were nonexistent. The priceless L'datMparn and his attempt to politicize the defenders had hit a brick wall, which made me feel sooooo good.
"Account settled, Pierre," I muttered as I added an 'urgent priority' flag to the file so he would be reassigned directly without getting any rest release time. I owed Agent Roubidoux, the human APA's former embassy liaison, a favor. He wouldn't have to worry about being blackmailed into spying for us any more. Now all I had to do was get past this psych exam.
Getting out of the Circle this early in the morning was like being released from the Uttermost Darkness. Honestly, I was in no galloping hurry as I headed for the trolley station. The day was too nice, and the busy rumble of shuttles taking off from the spaceport was a refreshing reality check. One can only stare at paper for so long before the rest of the Universe starts to feel like a distant dream.
The 'Dark Grays' Circle was built conveniently close to the spaceport by tearing out a group of warehouses, including the one we used when preparing our first expedition to earth. (The Arbiters since moved to a much larger one.) The main runway's flight path passed directly overhead, and a steady stream of shuttles came drifting in as I walked. The place was still under construction, in fact, and the whole area was a building site as support facilities, power substations, an array of communication antennas, and a larger trolley station were being added.
We needed them. The fleet was hustling to repair battle damage from the recent Dreamsingers' War as well as pressing ahead on new construction. The shuttles were on the go day and night, and would be for another year or more. We were also busting tail to absorb all the recent graduates from the tech circles and the Academy, who, like all new tails, had to be spoon fed their duties while they absorbed the difference between text books and real life. A lot of money and material was being poured into space, and where they got the paper, to say nothing of the printing presses to make the forms to account for it all was beyond me.
The day was clear and bracingly cool, which picked me right up and got the old metabolism pumping. Another shuttle passed overhead, climbing toward the scattered clouds with its turbines roaring. I paused to admire it's size and power, and wished I could be on it. That was where the real action was, in orbit with the fleet. Mind you, I wasn't a trained spacer at the time, but surely I wasn't too old to learn. I was daydreaming as it vanished in the distance, remembering all the exotic things and places I'd seen on my few stellar journeys. Yes, those were good times (I couldn't help but gloss over the bad times; reflexive instinct, you know). I was pleased and a bit bemused with how my life had changed since that day nearly four years ago when I reported to the Assignment Circle three days early, and got tossed tail first into an adventure. It felt good to be alive and part of something this important, and even the mountain of paper I knew would be sitting on my desk when I returned didn't faze me.
I reached the station as the next express came rumbling in. I didn't look back as we rolled away.
It was midday when I reached the World Nest. The terminal was packed with travelers off the long distance trains, but I felt so good that I didn't mind the jostling herd. I paused outside when I noticed a l'ni'ddi stand, and debated whether to grab a quick mid-meal. I was hungry, but it was still a bit early, and C'traBenla and I had to stretch our limited resources, so I reluctantly passed. I would get this psyche x'mnnb' cleared up, then swing by our quarters for a quick bite and to see how she was doing.
The Institute was close enough that I decided to jog over there from the train station. I needed the exercise, anyway, and I got more than I anticipated. With the nice early season weather, road maintenance was out in force, so I wound up making a couple of detours. I stretched out to a rapid trot, and then a full gallop, chanting "excuse me", "pardon me", "coming through," to pedestrians I passed. I earned a couple angry squawks as I hurried down the boulevard, but right then I didn't care.
I finally reached the Institute, and after some not very diligent searching found the administration circle. Someone at an information kiosk directed me to a room at the far end of the campus. That figures. So on the trail again, fighting my way through a herd of apprentices who, to a one, lacked the wit to allow someone to pass without delaying and obstructing.
I eventually found the right room...
...with an old antagonist from our last misadventure on earth, T'virDoma, ab Clas'nch, of distasteful memory, squatting at the desk. "Well, there you are at last," she condescended in her best get-under-one's-scales tone.
"I got here as soon as I received the order."
"If you're expecting a medallion, we're fresh out." She shoved a thick handful of forms at me and gestured at a row of seat cushions. "Squat, and fill those out. I'll see if there's still time to save you."
"Do I get a pencil, or should I bite the end off my finger, and fill them out in blood?"
She gave me a chilly look, and tossed a pencil at me. "Here. Perhaps it'll keep you from fainting."
So I squatted, somewhat miffed at her, and tackled yet more paperwork as she went into the next room. I should have realized she was an ominous portent of how this day was going to play out, but right then I was simply annoyed. I needed her back in my life like I needed a lovely bow knot in my tail after putting up with her for a year on earth. Nor was I the only one: she and C'traBenla were bitter enemies, which was why I was glad she wasn't there. There was nothing for it but to bear up, as usual, so I wrote it off and concentrated on those forms, which I soon recognized were the standard psychological profile test I'd taken in the past...
"You aren't done yet?" She'd come back in while I was preoccupied, and was glowering at me with her ears laid back in a fine gesture of contempt.
"I was waiting for you so I could dazzle you with my brilliance," I grumbled.
"Don't hurt yourself." She returned to her desk and glowered at me in silence while I went back to work.
I firmly put her out of mind and went back to the test, determined not to let her high-tailed attitude get under my scales. My resolve didn't help much: these standard psych tests are no joy. The questions prey on the mind, and I soon found myself going back and changing earlier answers. What was worse, it was deadly dull, so I had to constantly fight the temptation to check things off at random. Anyone who is serious about their career in the defenders takes these tests seriously, and this was on orders direct from the top. It was enough to make anyone nervous.
"There," I said when I finished. "Proof I can do simple tasks with minimal supervision."
"Remarkable." She snorted in contempt, and gestured to the inner door. "He's been waiting for you all morning, so you need to gallop so he can get you committed as soon as possible." I offered her the completed forms. "Take those with you. You might as well do something useful."
'May your egg be hard-boiled,' I thought as I headed for the inner sanctum. I was glad to be rid of her, and eager to find out who was in charge of this hro'n'nad stampede so I could...
He turned ponderously and studied me with a cool eye. "That's Learnéd N'detLeda. About time you showed up."
"Oooohh, well excuse me for existing." I should know better by now. "What's this all about?"
"It's about seeing if you're still fit for duty." He took the test forms from me, and gestured at a seat cushion surrounded with ominous-looking medical equipment. "Squat."
I examined the rig with no pleasure, wondering what he was up to. "Honestly, I've been feeling fine lately."
"Hmmm, it looks like we got to you just in time, if in fact we are in time."
And on that optimistic note, he herded me onto the seat cushion, and set to work wiring me up to his contraptions while I sat there and fretted. By the time he finished dotting me with those self-adhesive electrodes, I tentatively decided he was twisting my tail. T'virDoma came in while he was festooning me with lead wires. "Any signs of life?" she asked.
"Not as yet."
She took over the wiring while N'detLeda started fiddling with his machinery. "Ow!" I protested as she snapped the leads onto the sticky pads with careless force. "Easy there!"
"We're depending on you to save us from the humans?"
"All set." N'detLeda fired up his instruments, which produced an ominous chorus of beeping and humming noises. "Now get to work on these forms." He shoved a clipboard with a thick wad of paper at me.
"I'm sure I don't deserve all this attention," I sighed.
"You don't, but we have a job to do."
Mind you, I cope with paperwork all day every day, and you don't know the meaning of bureaucracy until you've struggled with defender paperwork, but this second test he wished off on me charted bold new horizons for meaningless x'mnnb'. Once I got past 'Name', 'Service Number', and 'Home Address' I was lost. And I'm not even sure I got the address right.
The questions were so much meaningless psycho-babble, and I was lost right from the start. For example, 'Describe the color 'red' as seen by human eyes': how am I supposed to describe something we even can't see, since their visible range is different than ours? For that matter, how do you describe any color? Or how about 'Analyze the psychological and physiometric effects of coffee on the human perception of upper range audio stimulation'. After some thought, I wrote "Huh?", and considered it the height of witty repartee. The whole earless thing was like that!
"What is this?" I waved the forms at him impatiently. "This is all hro'n'nad nonsense. Why do I need to bother with this x'mnnb'?"
"That's not just any x'mnnb', it's a specially prepared psychological test to examine specific issues. Fill it out while I monitor your brain activity, and we'll see how thoroughly the rot has set in."
"This is er'trxxda," I grumbled. "But then that's your specialty, isn't it?"
"Curing it, anyway. I'll do my best, but I can't promise you anything."
That exam made everything in the past seem as simple as playing 'grab-my-tail'. If the first page was a nightmare, the further in I went, the worse it got. By time I reached the twelfth page, I was a nervous wreck, and it completely ceased to make any sense whatsoever. That page was one long, rambling sentence of fourteen hundred and eighty-five words (I counted 'em) of absolute gibberish. I tried working through it one word at a time, but couldn't keep track of the logic from one line to the next. I couldn't even figure out what it was about. And all the while he and T'virDoma watched the instruments, and mused over the printouts, and made disparaging little noises. Their instruments must have told them I was about ready to strangle both of them. To add insult to injury, down at the bottom was, "Do you agree with the above? Yes___ No___." I checked "No___" because I simply didn't care by then.
Thirty-five Ancestorless pages of p'quas'tka! I was agitated and wrung out by time I was done. "There." I shoved the completed form at him. "I hope you're satisfied."
"Oh, hardly, but the results ought to be...illuminating." He glanced through it quickly, then handed it to T'virDoma, who threw the entire lot in the trash bin. "Now what you're through the preliminaries, we'll give you the complete extended work-up." He threatened me with more forms.
"How much more of this is there?"
He gave me a superior ear twitch. "You don't need to worry about being bored."
"I'm worried we might run out of paper."
"You can relax. The Ancients dedicated an entire forest to supply the pulp needed." He plopped the next lot of forms down in front of me. "And I even have a brand new pencil for you."
"Thank you, I guess."
"Be careful, it's sharp," T'virDoma snarked.
That pile of ui'DmukNa was even worse! I couldn't figure out what he was testing for, but if it was paranoia he would have been in luck. He kept me going for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, and it left me doubting my own sanity. The worst of it was this was official, coming down from the Chamber itself. Such pronouncements make any defender nervous, and not knowing why made it worse.
And as if all that p'quas'tka testing wasn't enough, he followed up with a complete physical; threw odd, penetrating, often disturbing questions at me; made me take endless sensory tests, word association tests, reflex tests; gave me a full set of head scans; took a blood sample for laboratory analysis; and I finally revolted when he wanted to take a brain tissue sample.
N'detLeda was in his element, more self-righteous and overbearing than ever. Despite my asking repeatedly, he didn't give me a hint of what it was all about. That worried me, and the longer this went on, the more worried I got. And all the while those blessed instruments hummed and clicked and drew squiggly lines across their screens as they watched and offered occasional cryptic noises to each other.
"That will be all for now," he said at last. "And you certainly live down to expectations."
"Happy to oblige," I muttered as I stretched to get the kinks out of my back. "How's the book doing, by the way?"
That got a sullen glare from him. He wrote a huge textbook on human psychology after coming back from earth, and from what I heard, it made him a laughing-stock in the medical profession.
"Better than anything you've written!" she hissed.
"Whatever. I'm finished, and good riddance to you both."
"I hate to burst your happy delusions," N'detLeda said. "But there may be additional sessions after we study these results, so don't make any career plans until further notice."
"Oy," I grumbled, and headed for the door.
I was a bit surprised to find it was dark when I finally got out of there. The campus was largely deserted except for a last few figures headed for the main gate in the distance. Even the evening circles had let out, which didn't amuse me when I realized N'detLeda's tail-chasing ate up the entire day. There was nothing for it, so I headed down the walk with a sigh of frustration.
I could have taken the tram, but it was a pleasant evening with all three moons in view, so I decided to walk. I needed some time to sort out my head, and the exercise would help work off the tension of my little day.
The World Nest is a nonstop place, but the streets I took were mostly empty. The clubs and other late night attractions are over more toward the center of the nest. This area was devoted mostly to the Institute and various government offices, so it was pretty well deserted at this hour. The peace and quiet, and the mild night air helped soothe my jangled nerves, and I was able to indulge in fuming over N'detLeda's high-tailed arrogance. Just how does one define the color 'red', anyway? I could tell that was going to plague me for days to come. To the Uttermost Darkness with the priceless Learnéd N'detLeda and his tests.
At least when we were on earth, we knew what the dangers were; not like here where some un'tdar brain mechanic could worm his way into the darkest corners of your fears. I honestly think I hated N'detLeda more than ever right then, not so much for his ui'DmukNa attitude, but for how he liked to twist peoples' tails. Why they ever certified him as an aberrant psychologist is beyond me.
Dealing with those two was just like our time on earth, which was no joy, I can tell you. Mind you, there are some humans I liked, and was sorry to part company with them, but humans in general can be truly unsettling on good days. There was our run-ins with Inspector Dassault... And the time the Anti-Techs besieged the embassy... Not to mention how the third floor of the embassy collapsed... And the blizzards... And the heat... And their stellar bombs... And the Elvis Worshipers... And the riots—especially the riots... Earth is the Cosmic Tail Knot of the Universe, but life there was never dull. Thinking on it brought back the memories of when I was a simple-minded young 'v'thorble whose great ambition was to someday command my own echelon. Now look at me: high-tailed Staffer shuffling paper all day and trying to avoid the Herd Guide with his endless memos. It was all too easy to get killed on earth, but at least my greatest paperwork headache was filling out the daily report. In a way, I kind of missed it. Maybe I was er'trxxda.
It was nearly midnight by time I got back to our quarters at the Junior Elders circle. By then I was weary, starving, emotionally wrung out, and still worried about all that psych nonsense. The place wasn't much: junior elders don't rate luxury, but dingy and run down as it was, it was good to be home. I was thankful when I trudged up the often-patched walk to our little nest. Right then all I wanted was a hot meal and a quiet evening.
C'traBenla lay on our bed pad wrapped in a loose-fitting lounge robe when I came in. I could tell right off she was listless and down, and I wondered if her Possession Syndrome therapy went badly. I didn't need her pining for the egg we gave to the crèche last year. Come to think of it, it surely hatched by now, which must be what she was fretting over.
"How was your day, love?"
She sat up and looked at me. "Oh, it was about average, I suppose. You're late."
"It's been one of those days."
"You did well today?"
There was definitely something troubling her; I could feel it. "It was busy, but I got a lot done." I decided not to mention my psych exam, since there was no need to worry her further. "What's the matter, love?"
She eyed me uneasily, then got to her feet, came over, and cuddled close to me. "I...well...something came up today."
Like I should be surprised. She had settled down somewhat since we returned from our last misadventure on earth, and she was making good progress with her therapy, but she was still impulsive and hot tempered, and managed to get into some squabble or other fairly regularly. And here I was hoping for some quiet time with her.
"What's the matter, love?" I tried to sound reassuring; she needed it at the moment.
"I'm not in trouble or anything," she said, hastily. "It's nothing like last time."
She must have read my mind. That was a big relief, since we got the charges dropped only a few days back. "You haven't been arguing with the neighbors again, have you, love?"
"Well then, it can't be all that bad, can it?"
"...you'll be mad at me, I know."
"C'tra, it's all right." Not good: but not time to get paranoid, yet. "I understand you're a bit impulsive, and I know you don't mean any harm by it." I took her snout in one hand and caressed her ears with the other. "I won't be mad, I promise. Tell me, what's wrong?"
She hesitated, then, "...I'm...carrying..."
She gave me that look, the one which implied my skull was full of lard. "An egg," she growled. "I'm carrying an egg. I'm pregnant."
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