Earlier today I was accompanying Midas Yarrow, carrying out routine maintenance to various communications points around the ship, and the last point of call was the big meeting room next to the Captain's Ready Room. We were just finishing off when the Captain arrived with the Second Officer and a number of other senior staff members. They were going to have a meeting about the Dirrians so we apologised for delaying them and finished off as quickly as we could. Midas disappeared with his tools and I was on my hands and knees picking up the last of the rubbish when I heard Cdr Shaney (Second Officer) say, "Once the initial formalities of welcome have been completed, I thought a small tour of the ship would be good before bringing them here to begin negotiations. Do we know how many to expect?"
"No," replied the Captain. "Which is why I want to make sure we have a table big enough for everybody to sit round."
Cdr Jarrod told me after the event that I was like a little meerkat. Suddenly, from nowhere, my head popped up over the edge of the desk, my eyes nearly popping out of my head. Everybody noticed me and immediately saw my alarm.
"Is there a problem with that?" asked Cdr Shaney, irritation edging his voice.
"Uhm... well... yes... seeing as you ask," I said, still on my knees.
The senior officers shuffled about a bit.
"And what would that be?" enquired Cdr Jarrod.
"Well, it's just not suitable, and bearing in mind how funny the Dirrians can be with alien species, I would have thought you'd want to enamour them, not... offend them."
Looks were cast in all directions and then Cdr Shaney stepped forward.
"Crewman, we have reviewed all the databases regarding the Dirrians. I think we can handle this," and he threw me a steely glare. I wanted the ground to open and swallow me whole.
"No, no, hang on a minute Commander," piped up Cdr Jarrod. "Terran here may be a little free with her opinions but she's not usually one to put her foot in her mouth without good cause. What's wrong with the room, Crewman?"
I picked myself up off my knees and approached, rubbing my sweaty palms nervously on the legs of my uniform.
"You can't negotiate with a Dirrian around a table. The table is not just a physical barrier between you, it's a symbol of distrust. They'll find it very... hostile."
The Captain frowned.
"And how do you know this?" he enquired curiously.
"My friend, Traeth, told me."
"Traeth? Who's Traeth?"
"He was a lad I met in foster care. He was Dirrian."
The Captain's eyebrows bobbed in surprise and then he claimed his seat at the table and sat down. His officers followed suit.
"Sit down, Crewman," he ordered, so I sat.
"Dirrian, you say. I'm not aware that any Dirrian has ever travelled off-world."
"Traeth's parents were astrophysicists and they were unique in leaving Dirria for their work. It was one of the reasons why, after their deaths, it was so hard to find Traeth's relatives so that he could return home."
"And you spent time with him?"
"Lots. We were best friends."
"Do you still speak to him?"
"No. He told me that once he returned home it would be impossible to communicate. The authorities would never allow it. I never heard from him again."
The atmosphere had changed. We had all come to realise that I had valuable information to offer. Inside, I felt decidedly happy that I could be of use but terrified at the same time.
"You do realise, Crewman, that if what you say is true, then you are probably the only person outside of Dirria who has any idea as to their customs."
I bit my lip nervously.
"So what would you suggest?" he asked.
I stared at him like a dumb idiot.
"Crewman," said Jarrod softly. "I think we'd like to hear what you have to say."
I swallowed hard to recompose myself and looked down at my hands folded in my lap. I was thinking that if I wasn't looking at all those officers looking at me, I might be able to say something intelligible. I drew a deep breath.
"You should entertain the delegation in an open room with a leisurely setting. A low coffee table would be acceptable with a selection of non-alcoholic beverages and some nibbles—fruit and vegetable only and nothing cooked. You must sit in the chair beside the delegation leader, not opposite him and..." how could I say the next bit without being offensive?
"And what?" asked the Captain.
"You should select your greeting party from the smaller members of your crew."
The Captain frowned.
"Smaller... crew members?" He sounded dubious.
"Yes," I shuffled nervously. "You see, the Dirrians are a very petite race, none of them are over a meter and a half tall and they are very slight in their build, almost like stick insects. It's one of the things they have against other races. They find us... large... clumsy... overbearing and intimidating. We offend them greatly, and you..."
Everybody knew where I was heading with this and all eyes moved to the Captain—our two-meter tall captain built like a bull. His eyes narrowed at me.
"Are you suggesting I'm too..."
"Big, yes, I'm afraid so. Is there someone else who can negotiate with them?"
"They asked for me personally."
"Oh," I said in a very deep, disappointed voice.
"What does 'oh' mean?"
I pulled a face.
"It means they have no intention of letting you have the carva seed."
He looked startled. I needed to explain further.
"They are asking for you because they know they will find you offensive. They can be suitably insulted by your mere presence and thus have justifiable reason for denying you the carva seed—in their eyes at least."
Disappointment and frustration resonated around the room. Even the Captain buried his face in his hands and threw himself despondently into the back of his chair. He stared at me blankly for a moment and then leaned forward again.
"What do you suggest, Crewman?" he asked.
I sat and thought for a moment. I looked around the room and at the great hulk of a man before me.
"We need another room, somewhere where, after you've walked into it, there are a couple of steps down."
"The theatre lounge," suggested one of the officers.
"Perfect!" I exclaimed and placed my fingers on my lips as I thought. "How are the delegates arriving? By transporter or shuttle?"
"Okay, so we need the shortest qualified crew member we can find on the transporters and then two females to greet the delegation with drinks. Having welcomed the delegation, they can then escort them to the theatre lounge."
"Why women?" asked the Captain.
"Women are usually more petite, that's all. The theatre lounge must be cleared of everything. Then we'll need a suitable number of couches and coffee tables as I mentioned before. When the delegation enter the room, they must find you seated, but as soon as the door opens you must stand up and approach but do not climb the steps! When you first speak to the delegation, they should stand above you."
The Captain stood up and paced the room as he thought. He stopped and turned, placing his hands on his hips and opened his mouth to speak—
"—And don't stand like that for goodness sake!" I snapped.
Like a schoolboy, he pulled his hands from his hips, dropped them abruptly to his side, and then he glared at me.
"Sorry," I whispered, "but the stance not only makes you look bigger and more aggressive, it is an insult in Dirrian terms—rather like a two-fingered salute."
He frowned at me and shook his head.
"This isn't going to be easy, is it?"
I had to agree. "They do seem to be setting you up for a fall but the very fact that they have agreed to meet means that all is not lost."
"You think we can win them over?"
"We can try our damnedest."
"What else do I need to do?"
"You need to speak more softly."
"Softly?" he enquired in his usual deep, booming voice.
"Yes sir. Softly."
He rolled his eyes.
"Of course, if you're wrong about any of this, I'll have you scrubbing plasma conduits for the rest of the trip."
"Can I recommend you begin interviewing for the position immediately then, sir?"
His eyes narrowed again.
"Hmm. That sure of yourself, aye? Okay. Well, seeing as you're the only one that seems to know how to handle these people, I am appointing you as our Provisional Cultural Relations Officer."
"Pardon!" I blurted.
"You heard me, Crewman. I need you to handle this thing for me and to do that you'll need a rank to get things done so Provisional serves the purpose. Cdr Jarrod, is that okay with you?"
"No problem at all, Captain."
"Right then. Let's give Crewman Terran time to start her preparations and we'll meet up again tomorrow."
The meeting was adjourned and we disbanded. Outside, Midas was waiting for me.
"Well?" he asked.
"Let's just say, I'm going to be a bit busy for the next few days."