Learning the Ropes

by Dan Devine

These aliens made no sense.

A SpaceDef officer on routine patrol found them last week, drifting through our sector with fuel tanks on empty, and carted them here to Station Theta so they could become our problem. The aliens' technology seemed pretty advanced, and to be honest, we weren't quite sure how it worked. There was no record of their species on file and as the resident linguist it was my job to figure out who they were and what they wanted.

It wasn't their language that was causing the hold up. Not that it was an especially easy one, but our Farquads Translations Tactics software was doing as well with it as any other we'd encountered. The blue-skinned buggers were even humanoid, which helped a bit in reading their body language.

No, the real obstacle was much simpler to diagnose. The whole lot of them were complete morons. At least, all of the officers were. I'd spoken to all of them multiple times and either they were really good at playing dumb or they just weren't playing. I was beginning to think that someone on their homeworld had shipped them out here to get rid of them.

With a sigh, I brushed a stray strand of hair from my face, trapped it behind an ear, and opened the door to the interview room. The moment that Captain Hahsh saw me, he began squealing in agitation. There were half a dozen armored guards in the room, so I felt less than threatened.

“I order that we be let fly,” suggested my computerized earpiece assistant as a possible translation of his shouting.

I sat down opposite him and opened my laptop on the room's plain metal table.

“As I've explained,” I began, keeping my voice calm for the sake of diplomacy, “you are not prisoners. We are only holding you in this quarantine area until we can determine how to refuel your vehicle. You will then be free to return home, or if you prefer, you could pay the fee for a temporary work or trade visa and enter into United Worlds Space.”

I waited a moment for my computer's speakers to repeat my words back to him in a no doubt garbled form of his own language. Hahsh's powder blue face was wedge-shaped like a dog's, with two beady black eyes, but it was covered in something akin to the scales of a fish instead of fur. He squinted back at me in a way that I was beginning to interpret as a frown and shrieked a response.

“We have no worth for you to steal!”

“That's fine,” I replied. “Once we know how to safely fuel your vehicle, we will provide whatever is needed free of charge as a sign of goodwill between our peoples.”

Hahsh blinked rapidly, his equivalent of a nod.

“So what can be used to power your ship?” I persisted.

He listened to the computer speak the question and stared at me blankly, a look that needed no translation. I resisted the urge to pound a fist on the table. The software must not be wording the question properly. Otherwise he was being intentionally obtuse. The captain had to have some idea what his ship was running on, didn't he?

“Who would know best the way in which your ship's engines operate?” I asked, as I had during every earlier conversation. The Farquads software monitored every discussion between the aliens here in quarantine and updated its translations appropriately as new information became available. There was always hope that its rephrasing of a question would suddenly cause it to make sense.

“Ilpa ship fix.”

A surge of excitement rushed through me. Progress at last!

“Did you just say that Ilpa is the one who fixes your ship?”

Hahsh listened closely, then blinked several times in agreement. I thanked him and dismissed him, sending a security office to locate the alien known as Ilpa and bring him to me. I checked my notes. I'd spoken with Ilpa before but had not learned much from him. Perhaps the software's improved translations would make a difference this time around.

I still had difficulty telling the aliens apart, but Ilpa was smaller in stature than Hahsh and the shade of his skin tended towards more of a bluish-green.

“Officer Ilpa,” I greeted him. “The captain tells me that you are in charge of fixing his ship.”

“Yes,” he answered quickly, straightening in his chair as if proud of his position.

“So, you would be the one in charge of keeping the engines operating?” I continued hopefully.

The speakers shrieked in the alien language and there was a long pause as he pondered the meaning of my question.

“Yes,” he said finally.

“Wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Can you tell me what your ship uses as a fuel source?”

He squinted at me silently for a moment and made a noise like a muffled sneeze. My earpiece translated this as, “I don't know.”

I bit my lip in frustration and struggled to maintain my composure.

“So what you are saying is that you are in charge of refueling the ship,” I recounted slowly, “but you do not know what the ship uses as fuel.”

That would certainly explain why they had been found adrift and out of gas.

Ilpa inhaled sharply, causing his head to expand in size and his scales to bristle. A clear sign of annoyance or insult.

“I am in charge of fixing! I not fill fuel. Below Ilpa!” he growled.

“Ah,” I said after taking a moment to digest this. “And who below you would handle that?”

“Pavilpahtik,” he answered without hesitation, sounding disgusted.

I dismissed him and sent for his underling, one of the few aliens with whom I had not already spoken. My notes indicated that I had not been able to ascertain Pavilpahtik's position, but it seemed to be a minor one.

“Hello, Pavilpahtik,” I said when he arrived.

“Hello,” he repeated back, ignoring the translation into his shrill tongue. He grew thoughtful for a moment, perhaps considered how I had struggled over his name, then spoke in his own language. “You may call me Pavil.”

“Thank you, Pavil.” I said, with real gratitude.

“You're welcome,” he replied immediately, in English.

I stared at him intently, his solid black eyes seemed brighter and more alert than those of his superiors.

“You speak some English,” I said, deciding to state the obvious.

“I have a one word or two,” he said in his own language.


He squinted slightly, then answered. “The watching men.”

Just from listening to security. Perhaps his betters were too proud to learn a foreign language, or maybe it was part of their ignorant act, but Pavil apparently wasn't buying in. That was a good sign.

“Pavil, are you in charge of fueling the ship?”

He blinked his assent.

“What kind of fuel does the ship use?”

He answered without hesitation, but the program did not understand his answer. He opened his eyes wider and snatched a paper and pen off the table with his three-fingered hands. A few seconds later he handed me a page full of drawings, diagrams of chemical structures.


“Pavil,” I asked. “How could you know this information when Ilpa or the captain do not?”

The question seemed to confuse him.

“They above me, they not know things.”

I unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh.

“I guess management's the same everywhere,” I muttered under my breath.

“What?” he asked in English.

“Are you saying those above you know less about flying the ship than you do?”

He blinked vigorously. He leaned forward. Something had just occurred to him. He began speaking quickly, the hard drive on my translator hummed as it strained to keep up.

“Long ago we had great science, great army. Invented ships we use now and killed many from other worlds. Made them servants... Later realized this was no good, would not do again, would have no more great leaders.

“Now if you are good at job, stay on bottom. If stupid leader gives bad order, smart workers ignore it and he usually not realize it anyways. Function good most of the time, but I make mistake and listen to captain too much. Get lost.”

This ridiculous claim stunned me into silence for a moment. I'd have thought it was some strange alien sense of humor at work if I had not been living it for the past week.

“Pavilpahtik is too smart to be promoted,” he said, hanging his head sadly.

I handed the chemical diagrams to a security guard and told him to take it down to someone in the lab.

“And bring me some work visa forms while you're at it,” I added.

As the computer repeated my message, Pavil's eyes widened with excitement.

© 2008 by Dan Devine
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.

Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night, though he'll write anything that pops into his head. For a short time he served as editor of Fools Motley Internet Magazine, but he recently decided to shut it down and focus on improving his own writing. He has since had stories published in Space Westerns, Dark Fire, Afterburn SF, and Flash Tales Magazines. For more of Dan's stories, visit here.

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