Beng Chawdry scratched at the flesh of his neck around his new respiratory implants, which still itched slightly a few days after their installation. While looking around at the functional opulence of his new ambassadorial suite, he tried to focus his space-sick mind on the monotone droning of the Manager.
“We – that being the Human Interface Management Panel – were most confused to find that we had upset your predecessor to the point whereupon Ms Spenk felt unable to continue working with us on the political interface between our species.” The Manager’s long arms hung at its side, its eel-like fingers twitching slightly as it spoke in Standard English with a perfection that was more alien than any speech impediment could have been.
Beng coughed slightly against the residual rawness in his throat. “Well, ah, no harm done. The Psychology Directorate think she may have had a hitherto undetected propensity for paranoia, so you’re not entirely to blame. Although I’d suggest that, as you come into contact with more of us, you may wish to remember to refrain from reminding humans that they have a similar biological make-up to the dietary staples of your own species.”
“This has been mentioned previously,” intoned the Manager, sounding slightly mournful. “It was never our intention to consume your predecessor. We had observed a propensity among your species for exchanging facts and opinions during communal food consumption rituals. We – that being the Human Interface Management Panel – had meant to put Ms Spenk at ease. Ms Spenk never informed us that we were causing distress. This mis-parsing of protocol will not be repeated.”
Yeah, right, I’ll bet, thought Beng. He looked up at the lanky creature; the huge dark eyes made it look harmless, almost comically maudlin, and Beng couldn’t help himself from picturing the Manager transplanted into Munch’s “The Scream” by a painter of indifferent talent.
“Well, as I say, no harm done,” he said, fighting to keep the smile from his face. “It takes a conscious effort for us humans to remember that your species, while very fluent in Standard, have a very, ah, literal approach to communication. That’s why I got given this as my first ambassadorial post, you see – I was an engineer. I’m used to thinking literally.”
“We – that being the Human Interface Management Panel – are aware of these communication difficulties. Remedies have yet to be discovered. It appears to be a deep function of our – that being the species of Threski – psychological structure, and hence resistant to simple modifications.”
“Quite, quite,” said Beng, crossing the room to put down his baggage tote. As he unpacked a few rudimentary essentials, the Manager made another attempt at idle chit-chat.
“I – that being representative Six of the Human Interface Management Panel – have observed you – that being Ambassador Chawdry – to be equipped with a similar respiratory device to your predecessor. Observations of Sol-3 surface indicate such devices are not customary with the human species as a whole.”
“No, we only need them here because we can’t breathe the alkaloids in your atmosphere unaided,” Beng replied, rummaging through his bag.
“I am unable to understand why it is we – that being the Human Interface Management Panel – were not informed of this shortcoming.”
“Well, we humans don’t like to complain,” lied Beng.
“Arrangements could have been made for negative partial pressures of alkaloids and other chemicals in the atmosphere of the Human Interface Management Station.”
Beng tried not to think back to the discomfort of the last few days as the implants had integrated themselves into his body chemistry. “You, ah, you could have just recreated Earth atmosphere here?”
“Correct. It seems inconsistent with logic that it was never requested of us. Such modifications to your physiology must be significantly uncomfortable.”
Beng sat down slowly on the bed. The coming twelve months were going to be harder work than he had initially expected.
[Bah. I thought I knew where I was going with this, but it seems I completely failed to get there. Perhaps with more time I would have done, but that’s a poor excuse compared to the truth – namely, that I’m still very much at the foot of the learning curve with this fiction thing. So go and read Sean C. Green and Gareth L. Powell, because they both know what they’re doing.]