Around half of my science fiction comedy of bad manners, SIDESHOW IN THE CENTER RING, takes place on the planet Marner, where the natives remind humans of bipedal cats. Captain Margeant is a bit character in the book, but an important source of information.
by Marian Allen
Captain Margeant literally had been born aboard a boat on the Muimmea River, the largest and longest on planet Marner. His parents lived on a narrowboat docked between his father’s parents and his mother’s parents, with most of his parents’ and his siblings either docked within cruising distance or not far inland.
He had sold himself under contract to an established captain, who had treated him as abysmally as the Empress’ law would allow, but the seven years of hard servitude had taught him all he needed to know about boating, about the Muimmea, and about slavery.
As soon as his contract was up, he registered as freehold and took any job on any ship running. When his mother’s widowed father shed his mortal body, leaving Margeant his narrowboat, Margeant spent his savings to have it refreshed and refitted and went into the tour and transport business for himself, ferrying holiday makers from Marner and the distant planet Earth upcountry and back. He bought a red hat that he thought looked very dashing in contrast to his gleaming black fur.
In a way, he liked the aliens better. They were weird but, once you got used to their almost total baldness, not much trouble. They tended to keep themselves to themselves, clustering around their translators and tour guides like kits around sweetsellers. The only Marneri most of them knew were, “How much?”, “Where toilet?”, and “I take picture you?”, and the only Marneri most of them understood were, “This much,” “There,” and “Yes.”
So, when the three Earth people came aboard, chattering to one another in fluent Marneri, Captain Margeant made a point of greeting them with more than his usual clearly enunciated “Welcome.”
Judging by what the captain had picked up about the aliens’ gender differences, he knew the one with black fur on its chin as well as on its head was male, and the one with red fur only on its head and bulges on its chest was female. The one with ash-colored hair only on his head and under its nose also had slight bulges on its chest, so he wasn’t sure about that one until the others referred to it as “he.” The captain couldn’t wrap his tongue around their Earth names, but simply called them Coal, Fire, and Ash. They accepted this, and the female made a note of it in a little book she carried.
He made a gesture of respect to the female, and was surprised to see they picked up on it. The males both made the appropriate gestures acknowledging his respect. That took him aback, since only a female’s chosen one has that right, but the men were too busy glaring at each other to notice his discomfort. The female looked as uneasy he he felt, but said and did nothing to clear up the confusion.
This was a two-day trip, so the captain had plenty of time to observe the trio. He would have preferred to avoid them, after that odd exchange, but they sought him out.
“We’re xenoanthropologists,” Coal explained, waiting to see that he didn’t understand the term before he defined it. “We study the cultures of people not of Earth. We’ve been in Muimmea for ten years, but the field there is getting crowded, so the three of us decided to move inland. We were told there’s a tribe that’s already had some contact with outsiders upriver. The Omata?”
The Omata were called cave-dwellers, although they actually lived in homes carved out of the mountains, some crude and some elaborate. They also practiced ritual cannibalism whenever anyone felt moved to self-sacrifice for the feast. The captain doubted anyone had told the aliens this, since it happened too rarely to be general knowledge.
So he explained that, not far from Tammi Resort, the terminus of this trip, there was an Omata village the cave-dwellers had established to sell things to the tourists. The actual village was up in the mountains beyond. Tours also went up there, but interaction between villagers and tourists was minimal and filtered through the certified tour guides.
“So,” Flame said, “they’ve seen Earth people and know we’re people and not animals or something, but they’re relatively uncontaminated with outside culture.”
Ash said, thrusting his upper body forward as if claiming the conversation, “That sounds like a good place to start. As soon as we disembark, we’ll hire a guide and go. Once up there, we’ll have the guide negotiate with the head of the village about our staying.”
Flame said, “We should take it easy. Maybe spend a couple of days at the resort, getting the lay of the land, seeing what the locals more familiar with Earth people think is important for us to know.”
Coal nodded. “Makes sense. Rushing from the city into a totally unfamiliar culture is inviting mistakes.”
Ash snorted. “You two are typical of the kind of xenoarchs the university is turning out these days. Hang back, take notes, play it safe. In my day, we threw ourselves into alien cultures! Total, sudden immersion! Learn it from the inside out! That’s the way it’s done.”
If Ash had been a Marneri, the captain would have said his attitude was preening: showing off his style and beauty for the female’s admiration. The captain couldn’t see that Ash had any style or beauty, but he realized he had no way of judging such things from an Earth person’s viewpoint.
Flame and Coal seemed to agree with the captain, though, as they shook their heads and talked about caution, not contaminating the contact, respect for the subjects, and so on. Ash crossed his arms under his chest bulges, sat back, and looked away from them as if he had stopped listening.
Not long before their estimated time of arrival, when they were still cruising and the captain’s personal attention wasn’t needed on the bridge, Ash found him in his office. He came alone, and closed the door firmly before sitting, uninvited, in a visitor’s chair.
“Can you give me clear directions to the Omata village? The real one, I mean, not the tourist village on the plain.”
The male might as well have asked for an introduction to the Empress. Why did aliens seem to think all Marneri were intimately acquainted with every person and locale on the planet? Were they intimately acquainted with every place and person on Earth? That seemed doubtful, yet the aliens, like kits, seemed to have only a tentative grasp of reality outside their own little lives.
“I’ve never been there,” Captain Margeant explained as gently as he would to a kit. “They can take your group there from the resort.”
With a frown and a gesture of impatience, Ash said, “I don’t want them to take the group there from the resort. I want to go alone, without the group. By the time the other two get there, I want to be established in the village, with the other two having to ask for my okay to join my work. I want to show her who the real anthropologist is, that I’m the one she needs to please if she wants to advance in the field.”
Captain Margeant suddenly wondered if Ash had plunged into the language the way he wanted to plunge into another culture; he wondered if Ash fully understood what he was saying.
So he asked, “Are you saying that you want to make the female choose you over Coal?”
Ash grinned and nodded. “Exactly.”
“You want to make the female choose you?”
“You want to give her no choice?”
There could be no doubt. He meant what it sounded like he meant. He intended to behave in a way that even other aliens knew was disrespectful and potentially dangerous for himself and his fellow scientists, and he wanted to impose his will on a female. True, she was an alien, and possibly not due the deference to be shown a Marneri female, who generated and nurtured the future of the race, but still….
“When you get to the resort,” the captain said, “you can ask the way to the Omata tourist village. From there, you can hire a guide to the real village.”
“Yes! Thank you!”
As Ash turned the door handle to leave, the captain made his choice.
“And remember,” he said, “the villagers up there love a feast. If you give them one, they’ll be sure to take you in.”
“It’ll buy me a place with them?”
“They’ll take you in that same day,” Captain Margeant said. “You’ll become part of them. Be sure you offer them a feast. And be sure you stress that you do it voluntarily.”
“I will.” Ash chuckled. “My colleagues won’t know what happened!”
But, the captain reflected, with very little guilt, they would give themselves time to find out.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: frontier, Ash Wednesday, travel directions