I had to admit that Brinkman's soirée, as he called it, was actually a lot of fun. Much to my surprise his circle of friends wasn't confined to his fellow scientists (a species that can verge on the irremediably tedious at times), but also included, in addition to our little dinner circle, a number of professional musicians living in Deshti. I discovered that it was customary at these get-togethers for several of these musicians to put on an impromptu performance. This particular evening we were treated to an hour of traditional folk music, performed by a small ensemble of instruments that I didn't recognize at all, and which I assumed were Deshtiran in origin.
To my considerable embarrassment Brinkman did make my birthday the theme of the evening, announcing it early on. My mother and I found ourselves to be celebrities of sorts, being the first Earth immigrants in several years; in fact, Brinkman had been the last one before us. My head was soon swimming with faces and names, and though I did my best to be sociable it's admittedly not one of my better-developed skills.
I soon saw that I wasn't the only one ill-at-ease. Off in a corner was a tall, rather gaunt man, in appearance perhaps a few years younger than Brinkman but presumably much older, standing aloof and carefully nursing his drink. He had an unusually interesting face, I thought. His features were deeply lined but his hair was still a solid black, of medium length and parted on one side, with an errant clump perpetually slipping down his forehead into his eyes, and which he absently brushed back every few minutes. I was on the verge of introducing myself when the musicians began tuning up and Rann tugged at me to sit down.
The musicians were very good, as was the music. It was unlike anything I'd heard before, but wasn't unpleasant at all to my off-world ears. That shouldn't have surprised me, I suppose, since the fundamentals of harmony originated from mathematics in the first place, and mathematics still works the same way here as on Earth.
I noticed one of the musicians, a very attractive young woman, who seemed to be on especially friendly terms with Brinkman. I was more interested in the instrument she'd been playing, though, which was a fascinating blend of ancient and high-tech, consisting of strings which were drummed on with small mallets. Below these was a complex web of other strings, which apparently resonated on their own with the ones struck by the performer, and which over time would build up a kind of halo of sound that filled the room.
"Is there an amplifier inside this?" I asked after the performance, once I'd verified that she also spoke English.
"An amplifier?" she repeated, obviously puzzled by the word.
"A device to electronically make the sounds louder," I explained.
"Oh, no," she said with a smile. "It's all done naturally."
"Naturally? How?" I still vividly remembered the impressive volume of sound produced. She explained that the intricate network of strings and reflectors under the fingerboard had been developed over many centuries, originally using hand-calculations and later computers. Any sounds produced by the performer wound up being passed from one string to another, the resonances reinforcing each other all the while, until the resulting sounds were powerful enough to escape from the web and emerge with remarkable strength.
"Sort of like a laser, but using sound," I suggested.
"Very much so," she agreed. I then set about pestering the other musicians about the operation of their instruments, all of which proved to be equally ingenious devices.
Throughout all this I noticed that the same lone individual I'd seen earlier was still lurking in his corner. As far as I could tell he hadn't spoken to anyone the entire evening, though he did nod at Brinkman once when the physicist greeted him in passing.
I don't know why, but it annoyed me somehow. Who did this guy think he was, anyway? So I walked right up to him and said, "Excuse me." He started visibly and turned to me with an almost frightened expression as I put on my sweetest smile.
"I'm Haley," I announced. "Do you speak English? What's your name?" For a moment he just stared at me, utterly at a loss for words.
"Rokun," he finally choked out.
It was my turn to be baffled. "Rokun," I repeated helplessly. "Is that your name?" To my relief he nodded.
"How do you do," he added. He said it stiffly, sounding as unused to actually speaking English as I was of Deshtiran, which I didn't really feel like attempting this soon with a total stranger. (He also had a very strong accent, which I won't attempt to replicate here.)
"You've been in this corner all evening," I accused him. "Don't you ever talk to anyone?"
He colored slightly. "Well, parties, lots of people, it isn't my easiest place..." He trailed off.
"Well, will you talk to me for a bit?" I said, feeling a little less aggressive now. I realized that he wasn't aloof, just shy--almost pathologically shy, as I was eventually to learn. "I don't know many people here either," I added.
"You are from Earth, is that right?" he said awkwardly. "And your mother is here, too? I hear about you from the other staff. You are very--er--brave, to do something like that."
And so it went for a good ten minutes, me wringing conversation from him whether he liked it or not, before Rann showed up and towed me off to meet one of his instructors. "I'll see you later," I promised, although I can't say he looked all that happy at the prospect.
The next day Brinkman asked me if I'd be interested in a job.
"A job?" I replied, surprised. "As in, making money?" It hadn't occurred to me that people here had to make money.
"Something like that," he said dryly. "You perform services for someone, and they pay you. Here it goes into your computer record, rather than a bank account, but it pretty much works the same way."
"Well, sure," I said. It suddenly occurred to me that Rann must have been paying any bills I'd been incurring, whatever those might be. "But what can I do that a Deshtiran can't do better?"
"Now Haley," he said patiently, "we may be from Earth but we're not totally useless, you know. For one thing, you speak excellent English."
"Well, of course I do," I said. "I've spoken it all my life. But I don't speak any Deshtiran yet, or only enough to ask where the toilet is, so what good does that do?"
"Actually, quite a lot," he explained. "Many people here also speak English, but that doesn't mean they know the nuances the way you do from a lifetime of use. For example, there's a certain researcher here who studies a lot of Earth's scientific literature, but gets stuck quite often. In fact," he added with a slight note of annoyance in his voice, "this person frequently comes to me to get passages interpreted. Now if you'd be interested in working as a translator, I'm sure you could derive some income that way."
"And just who is this person?" I asked cautiously. I had a nightmare vision of myself as Tosekor Wisela's assistant, tied up in leather straps and--well, never mind.
"His name is Mohantor Rokun," Brinkman began. "He's a researcher in--"
"Oh, him," I broke in, relieved. "I met him last night. At your soirée," I added, drawing out the word in what I thought was an oh-so-sophisticated manner, then reddening when it came out more like a Texas drawl. Brinkman stared at me incredulously.
"You met him? You mean he spoke to you?"
"Well, not very willingly," I admitted. Then a thought struck me. "Just when did he ask you about this?" I demanded suspiciously.
"It's been a few weeks," he said, looking embarrassed himself. "I kept forgetting to follow up on it."
"Oh, okay," I said, mollified. "Sure. It sounds interesting," and so after my lesson Brinkman took me over to the other wing of the research institute to meet my employer-to-be. Poor Rokun practically jumped backwards over his desk when he saw who it was accompanying Brinkman. The look on his face was truly priceless when Brinkman introduced me as his new assistant; I think he'd considered himself lucky to have escaped me when he did the night before and now I'd have the opportunity to torment him regularly on a paid basis.
Before I could actually begin work I had to submit an application, which was done online and was of course all in Deshtiran. With Rann's help I filled in the necessary fields and sent it off to wherever it went, and after that it was a matter of waiting for the necessary approvals.
The following morning I accessed my Deshtiran computer account and found my returned job application form waiting for me. Naturally I had no idea what it said, though two fields near the bottom which had been blank before now contained Deshtiran characters; in addition, each field also contained an odd background pattern which resembled nothing quite so much as a fractal computer graphic.
I finally managed to locate Rann, and had him translate for me. He explained that the background patterns in each field were digital signatures, which are unique to each individual. The first field, he said, was signed Tosekor Wisela. I felt my heart sink. "This character," he said, pointing to the last one in the field, "means 'disapproved.' Too bad," he added flippantly.
"And the other one?" I asked, bitterly disappointed, and admittedly hurt as well at his apparent indifference.
He pointed to the final character of the last field. "This one means 'overruled.' Signed Alan Brinkman," he added with a big grin.
"Yessss!" I exclaimed, giving him an enthusiastic hug. That afternoon I showed up at Rokun's office and started in at my very first extraterrestrial job.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|