Friday, September 25, 2015

The Chain of Command

The Chain of Command

The human interstellar exploration vessel “Serendipity” had been in orbit around the planet of a newly-discovered advanced civilization for 23 shipdays. The initial excitement had finally died down. They had not been peremptorily shot out of the sky. 

The LIPs (Local Indigenous Population) had been genuinely cordial. Scientists, linguists and technicians had made rapid progress in exchanging data. The crew had been startled that the aliens wore no clothing at all except for a bag, suspended from their hump, where they tucked all manner of things. And so, they began to call the planet-side beings “Tuckers,” and the appellation stuck like over-done spaghetti to a wall.

The crew passed around the rumor that an initial formal diplomatic visit was being planned. Preparations put the crew back into extended duties; tensions were boiling over; something was definitely cooking. And, so it was. An officer had been selected to go down to the Tuckers’ planet.

For most of those on-board, this alien contact was the culmination of otherwise-unfruitful careers. Interstellar duty tended to the uneventful. Normally, the crew had little to do except master their duties, chew the fat with friends, and plug into the media center – vegetating for hours at a time. Naturally, the crew was drooling over the prestigious work ahead; they were already savoring the sweet taste of success and promotions to gravy posts back on Earth.

Robert C. “Bobby” Saunders was a full Bird Colonel. [For those who may not know, a “Bird Colonel” is a common, but not formal, term that refers to the silver emblem of an eagle with its wings spread (also sometimes called “chicken wings”) that is worn by full Colonels.] As you have probably noticed, Colonel Saunders’ name is an unfortunate distraction, especially as it was well-known that he hailed from Kentucky, one of the sixty-three Federated States. However, this bears no immediate relevance in this story, so we shall simply call him “Bobby.”

Bobby had always exceeded expectations in the performance of his duties. His career was on the rise and he was nearly ready for another promotion. And, he had been chosen to make first formal (although preliminary) contact with the diplomatic wing of the military governing body of the world below. It was a singular honor. Besides his other qualifications, Bobby spoke fluent Esperanto, which, being better-structured than Ship-Pidgin or the scrambled hash of PolyEnglish, had been selected by the linguists as an exchange language with the Tuckers. Everything was almost set to start.

When he was first selected for this duty, Bobby had been warned that the Tuckers observed strict protocols, often based on the tattoos that designated their permanent social ranks. Bobby had already learned that, besides occasional sashes, they wore no other clothing except for a humpsack, an over-the-hump bag, for personal items such as marking instruments, recording devices and drool cloths. Having nowhere else to put stuff, it was common for them to tuck things into or fetch things out of their humpsack.

Some might also wear utility belts to carry tools or other items needed for the performance of their responsibilities. Bobby decided, with a smirk, that Tuckers with a utility belt for extra stuff should have been called “Stuffers.” This would have to be a private joke. If he were caught, like a boy with his hand in the cookie jar, making fun of humankind's potential new allies, his goose was cooked.

Bobby diligently memorized the tattoos that designated permanent social rank, the sash colors that indicated administrative functions, and the arrangement of ornamental piercings that showed clan associations. He could even recognize the inks that reflected a probationary less-than-sterling disciplinary status. It was a lot to remember but, having been in the military for his entire career, Bobby quickly grasped the concept of bureaucratic rank and status. Every organization had its pecking order. It was a piece of cake.

The social ranks were commonly called “classes” but functioned very much like Hindu castes. The Tucker’s word for their class system translated literally as something like “eaters,” which made sense when you learned the class names. It was odd, but Bobby reminded himself that this was not just a foreign culture; it was an entire alien society. You had to understand that they had some differences. You had to brace yourself to tolerate some real diversity. Bobby prided himself on not being xenophobic.

Bobby thought to ask if it would be appropriate for him to carry some kind of over-the-shoulder bag or purse instead of using pockets for his personal stuff. A hastily-organized committee chewed on the proposal and agreed that this was, not just food for thought but, a brilliant idea. They brought in a designer/tailor team to concoct something both functional and dignified. His commanding officer complimented himself for selecting Bobby for this duty. Bobby was obviously a rising star.

It turned out that the Tuckers’ top class was called Omnivore. Bobby was not expected to interact with any Omnivores; that would be for later delegations. In fact, he was told to not even expect to see one. Bobby was a little put off. This didn’t smell right. He was all set for promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. Still, he was proud to receive the honor, reflexive salutes, and respect that accrued to his existing rank. And, it didn’t embarrass him to receive that additional privilege that came with being free, white, and twenty-one in an otherwise dog-eat-dog world. He decided that, if this came out right, he would finally be sitting at the table with the big dogs.

Next down the list of Tucker classes, you had your Carnivores, Piscivores, Insectivores, Herbivores, Granivores, Frugivores and Folivores. There also seemed to be some underclasses including Eggsuckers, Milkdrinkers, Slimeslurpers, Bootlickers and Blarghkissers. It wasn’t entirely clear whether or not any of this last group were actual formal designations of class status or just the standard fare of military hazing. There were so many details to assimilate. Besides, Bobby’s briefers assured him that none of that mattered; he would be meeting with higher-ranking Carnivores. Bobby decided that, with so much on his plate, he wouldn’t pursue the issue.

And so, the appointed time for Bobby’s meeting with the Tucker Carnivores arrived. Bobby was tucked (pun intended) into the “Manĝi,” a small military shuttle-craft provided by the Tuckers and transported to the surface.

At the transportation port, Bobby was met by his escort, an Herbivore, who bowed briefly and gave an obviously-memorized speech in barely-recognizable Esperanto. The Herbivore read from an electronic tablet that he had retrieved from his humpsack. The speech dwelt on personal honor and duty, with a brief soliloquy on Bobby’s lineal heritage that included some biographical material that even he had forgotten about. Bobby was tired from the trip and had drifted-off mentally when the Herbivore, having completed some comments about food, suddenly finished and just stood there. He was obviously waiting for some kind of a response. Bobby responded that he had just eaten, thank you. That seemed to settle the matter.

A Bootlicker, who had been waiting to the side, approached and bowed respectfully. Bobby extended his arm to shake his hand whereupon the Bootlicker moved swiftly to avoid his touch and glared back at Bobby. Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder what’s eating him?” The Bootlicker loaded bags onto a trolley and followed at a respectful distance as the small delegation perambulated (for lack of a more collectively-generalized term) toward a door. A Folivore drove Bobby and his escort to the assigned meeting place. They made their way, on foot and plob (respectively), to a tastefully-appointed antechamber on the second-from-the-top story of their primary diplomatic affairs building.

The assembled Tucker delegation was waiting for him there, seated around a massive donut-shaped table. He could see that a lift in the middle gave easy and direct access to those who would serve them. It was explained that this gathering was a singular honor given in regard for his status. They would dine before making speeches.

As they prepared to eat, beverage orders were taken. A Slimeslurper approached Bobby in an obviously-obsequious posture. The Slimeslurper bowed deeply, and asked him what he would have to start. Bobby said that he would just have some water, please. The Slimeslurper shuddered like a bowl of gelatin, but left to fulfill the request of their honored guest. The Tuckers that were seated around the table with him, took on a curiously-stiff posture as they glanced at each other; a few gargled in quiet conversation with their neighbors.

Bobby’s water was placed in front of him and he took a sip. There was a rumble of amazement. Actually, it sounded more like a herd of elephants all trying to suppress sneezes at the same time.

It occurred to Bobby, as they lunged to make an appetizer of his brain, that he really should have done a bit more research and that Waterdrinker might actually be the lowest rung on their food-chain-of-command.

David Satterlee