Tras had once feared manhood and the responsibilities it brought. His uncle, the tribe's patriarch, would often speak of the graveness of his position. On his wisdom and knowledge rested the tribe's fate: it was by his direction and sensing of the changing seasons that told them when to begin the migration to the lands where the sun lived. His uncle had to mediate disputes that arose, and negotiate with other tribes for anything from hunting rights to marriage contracts. When food was lean, his uncle's command to ration was the only that would be obeyed. And Tras saw how much it troubled him, these demands of manhood, and Tras feared the time when he too would bear that responsibility.
It was so much easier to be a youth! Your parents fed you, and they protected you from the dogs. If you were sick, they foraged into the wilderness for special plants and roots that made you feel better again. They taught you how to hunt, how to track prey and avoid the dogs. They taught you how to weave grass mats and baskets, how to make throwing sticks and spears. They taught you about the past, how the world came to be, how to worship the gods, and how to please them.
But they couldn't teach you everything. There were things that you had to learn on your own, and this was doubly true for Tras. When he took his uncle's name at the cusp of manhood, it meant that his uncle felt that he was strong enough and smart enough to become the Patriarch one day. Moreover, it meant that the other adults agreed with this, thus Tras was married to Cho, whom they thought was the best woman of Tras' age that the tribe had to offer.
But still, with these endorsements, Tras felt great trepidation at the prospect of becoming a man. Taking his new bride to the marriage pools, over two days' walk from the tribe's summer home, carrying no food, and armed only with his trusty spear, was terrifying even to think about. But if his uncle could conquer his fear, then Tras too would endure, even if his fear was always with him.
Now, though, Tras' fear at becoming a man was gone! He had protected his wife during their journey to the marriage pools. And there they had mated, cementing their marriage and hopefully starting their family. But then...
The magic man from the Hot Lands! He was too amazed to be frightened! But then again, perhaps that was the magic man's doing, for he could not accomplish his task of Tras tried to stick him with his spear. How foolish he had been at first, to think the magic man as a god! And how patient was he in his explanation!
And to think he feared manhood! Only as a man could he have this encounter! If he were still a child, he would be lucky to have caught a glimpse of this magic man, and he certainly wouldn't have been able to speak with him. It would be like those times when they had encountered other tribes. Tras' uncle would meet the other Patriarch away from the both groups, while the rest looked on in wonder. And now, he and his wife would bring this magic man to their tribe, and forever would their tale be told. It made Tras swell with pride.
The magic man, Asin, led them through the grass, away from the marriage pools. He was strangely large, and hairless! Instead of having hair, he wore some sort of wrapping, like the hides Tras and his tribe wore during the short days, just before their migration towards where the sun lived. It was no wonder he wore it now, even though it was the middle of the summer season. The magic men from which he came must be very odd, indeed. Even their speech had to be strange, as their lips did not match the words they spoke.
Tras wondered what magic Asin would show them. Perhaps he could make fire appear from nothing, or make things float like a blade of grass did on water. Tras shook his head; he shouldn't even attempt to think of such things. For a man to travel all the way to from the Hot Lands, he must have greater magic than Tras could even imagine.
Cho walked alongside him. He had known her for as long as he could remember, for all children in the tribe knew and played with one another. She was somewhat older than he, and she was both clever and healthy, both strong-willed and prudent--all making her an ideal wife. Though Tras could tell that the encounter with the magic man had disturbed her, he could also see that she trusted him to protect her. He caught her eyes, and she smiled at him. He offered his hand to her, and she took it, squeezing tightly.
Despite its trappings, Tras decided that it was indeed good to be a man.
* * *
Jovas had to scramble to secure the site around the ship. He'd listened Asin's interaction with the two native Earthers with utter fascination--Asin's handling of it was superb. He was so entranced that it took him a few seconds to register that the three of them were returning to the landing site, so again, he found himself madly dashing around the underbelly of the ship, sealing up exposed hull plates, closing containers and, most importantly, raising the gangway. It was, essentially, impossible for the two Earthers to do any damage if they got into the airlock, but the protocols concering situations such as this were etched into Jovas' brain the clearest and most urgent of terms, so it was assured that he would adhere to them.
Leaning against one of the equipment crates underneath the Long Sight, he folded his arms and waited. He could spot Asin now, still a hundred or so meters distant, cresting the small hill to the west. It took him just over a minute to stride into the patch of cleared grass which sat underneath the ship, the two tiny, hairy people in tow. Jovas did not move, not wanting to startle either of them. He found his heart pounding almost absurdly. Why was he nervous?
They didn't notice him, anyway, for they were completely transfixed by the ship. Necks craned upward, they gaped and pointed. "Look at the rock!" the man said. Jovas had to remind himself of his name, in a detached sort of manner. Tras went on. "It shines, like the water does when the sun strikes it! Do you see?" He was speaking to the woman, his wife Cho, who nodded slowly.
Asin caught Jovas' eye. With a flick of his head, he beckoned the latter over. Jovas stood and uncrossed his arms. He was suddenly aware of the blaster which was harnessed to his back. Why am I so nervous? he thought. There is nothing wrong here.
Then, he understood: his combat DATs were asserting themselves. He was operating a peak alertness, and he was thus anxious about just about everything. Amazing that he'd never experienced this before...though, perhaps, that was for the best. He wasn't sure that he liked feeling as though the world was going to explode around him at any moment.
Jovas stopped two meters in front of the pair. Asin stood to his right, facing perpendicular to Jovas. Tras was carrying a stone spear and alternating between regarding him warily and glancing at Asin questioningly. Cho held on to her husband's arm, eyes affixed only on Jovas.
"Tras, Cho," Asin began, "I introduce to you another magic man. He is called Jovas, and he is my friend."
Jovas bowed slightly. "Tras, after his uncle. Cho, wife of Tras."
Tras hesitated for a moment, then nodded crisply. Cho followed suit a moment later.
"As I said," Asin went on, "This is my home." He gestured upward at the Long Sight.
"You live under this strange rock?" Tras questioned.
"Not quite," Asin replied. "I live inside of it."
Tras dropped his spear and clapped his hands together excitedly. "Magic!" he breathed.
"So it is," Asin said. "Watch, and you will see our magic." He looked to Jovas expectantly.
Jovas found himself actually feeling more relaxed, now that Tras had dropped his spear. He consulted his wrist display and opened the hatch to the gangway. As it was on the far side of the ship, they all moved around to the view the descending ramp.
Wide-eyed, Tras led Cho by the hand, hooting inarticulately and attempting to see everything all at once from all possible angles. Having suitably distracted them for a moment, Jovas took a moment to confer with Asin.
"How does this change our timetable?" Jovas asked.
"It accelerates it by a few days," Asin said. He didn't look at Jovas, instead choosing to observe the two Earthers. "I'll spend most of the day with them here, and tomorrow I'll let them go on their way. We'll let them return to their tribe and spread word of our impending arrival. Things will be a great deal easier that way."
Jovas nodded, watching Asin watch the pair. "What is your initial assessment?"
"Beyond anything I could imagine. I'll need to take some time with my notes and compose a more cogent report, but this is easily the most remarkable and noteworthy event in the Re-Discovery. What we have here is a world apart from all others, a great mystery that will probably take years to unravel." He was still watching Tras and Cho, as they peered curiously up the gangway and into the ship.
Jovas smiled. "Should we feed them?"
Asin finally looked at Jovas. "I hadn't thought of that. They're probably quite hungry."
Jovas turned to one of the nearby crates. "Well, I suppose should find out now if our rations are palatable to them, or if I'll have to go out and shoot an animal for them to eat." He punched in an access code and and the lid opened with a small hiss.
Tras was immediately at Jovas' side. "What is in this rock?" he asked.
Jovas looked down at the man standing next to him. Jovas was an even 200 centimeters tall, and Tras was barely 140. Jovas guessed that living on the edge of starvation kept these people small, but maybe there was a more complex reason for it that Asin would be able to discern.
"Well, Tras," Jovas began, "we store food in this, so that no one will take it. It is the same with all other...rocks you see. We keep things in them so that they are not taken."
Tras nodded slowly, wearing a thoughtful expression. Jovas added: "I was getting some food for myself and Asin. I would think you and Cho would like some food, as well." He glanced at Asin.
"Errr...yes!" Asin started. "But we must first make sure that you can eat our food, for it comes from the Hot Lands, and..."
Tras interrupted: "You must make sure that it is not poison?"
"Yes," Jovas said. Tras clapped jubilantly.
"So is it when trade food with the other tribes," Tras went on to explain. Cho came up alongside him, adding, "Sometimes the meat we get is from a strange animal, and it is tainted with poison, or spoiled. It makes whoever eats it very sick."
"And I don't want to make you sick!" Asin said. "So we must use our magic to make sure." Tras grinned, and Cho even offered a smile at the prospect of seeing more magic.
Jovas was already at another crate. Asin's quick thinking was commendable--in truth, since the food was completely sealed, there was no possibility of a bacterial infection making either of them ill. The only question would be a matter of taste, and he doubted that, given their apparent diet, they would much care about how the food tasted. The possibility of food, however, would be an excellent way to attain their cooperation in collecting samples from them.
Jovas removed a sampling kit for gathering and analyzing DNA. He opened the case, and the case's computer booted immediately and uplinked with the ship's computer. Checking his wrist display, he saw that the ship had already tested the various apparatus of the kit and determined that it was operating within acceptable parameters.
Removing one of the sampling swabs, Jovas turned to Tras. "Please open your mouth." Tras complied eagerly, and Jovas swabbed the inside of his cheek briefly, looking back at the kit. It confirmed that the swab had a valid sample with a pleasant chirp, and Jovas removed it and stowed it. "This magic rock will now tell us if you can eat our food," Jovas said, gesturing to the DNA sampling kit. The computer built in to the swab had already transmitted the reading of its contents to the kit, which was now harnessing the full power of the ship's computer to run its analysis program. Jovas made sure all sounds and lights were enabled on the kit, as Tras marveled at it. Even Cho's caution was overcome by her curiousity, and they both stared at the flashing, swirling lights on the kit's display, totally mesmerized.
Within fifteen seconds, the analysis was complete. The computer alerted him on his wrist display that it had taken longer than normal. Frowning momentarily, he made a note to run some optimization programs later in the day; it was possible that some errant program was consuming a larger-than-normal amount of resources. With such fantastically complex computers as that of the Long Sight, it was difficult to pinpoint exact difficulties.
Jovas handed a second swab to Tras. "Hold it like this," he instructed, forming Tras' fingers around the device. His hands were strangely smooth. Perhaps the hair covering it protected the skin from harm.
When he had it properly positioned, Jovas stepped back. "Now, do as I did to your wife, and you will do magic as I did."
It was fair to say that Tras' eyes boggled. He gulped hugely, looking from the swab, to Jovas, to Asin, then to Cho, before repeating the whole sequence. He finally rested his gaze on Cho, who stepped forward silently, opening her mouth. Casting one final look at Jovas, who nodded briefly, Tras swabbed the inside of his wife's cheek with a surprisingly deft, gentle touch.
While this took place, Jovas happened to look at Asin. He had covered his mouth with one hand, and he looked like was holding his breath. He held his imager in the other, and he'd no doubt been recording the entire interaction.
When the kit chirped, Tras immediately pulled the swab from Cho's mouth. He handed it back to Jovas, who stowed it. The kit analyzed the new sample, and Jovas said, "Our magic tells us that our food will be fine for you. Let us all eat together!"
Moving to another crate, Jovas parceled out four ration bags, each the dull color of unpolished aluminum. Asin, having taken a few moments to mount the imager on a telescoping pole, came over and took three. "I should explain that the food is inside these," he intoned, passing two to Tras, who, after taking a moment to marvel at their smooth surface texture, handed one off to Cho. Asin continued, holding up the bag for them. "First, you must touch this part of the bag," he instructed, pressing a finger against the red oval near one of the bag's seams. "Then, simply set it upon the ground, like this," Asin placed his back on the ground, seam facing up. It peeled back after a few seconds, revealing the familar concentrated brick of food.
"It looks like westa!" Tras exclaimed with a laugh. Cho grinned, trying not to laugh, herself. Jovas and Asin exchanged glances; the translator had failed, for some reason.
"What is westa?" Jovas asked.
This made Tras laugh even harder. Cho explained mirthfully, "Westa is....it is what food becomes." To drive the point home, she spun around and gave her naked, hairy rear-end a hearty slap.
Asin's skin blushed as much as it could. Jovas snickered, despite himself. The translator program, though heavily modernized in light of its role in the Re-Discovery, could still trace its roots back to the Zealots. Their strange religion despised profanity and vulgarity of any sort, and as such, the translator program now was not especially well-equipped to handle such words when they were encountered. Subsequent versions, designed with less of a moral agenda in mind, would most likely have been able to translate the word 'westa,' but not this one.
After a few moments, Asin said, "Appearances are deceiving. You thought me a god a short while ago, but I am just a man. So is this just food." He bent down and picked up the brick with his bare hand. He took a bite. "You will not be harmed."
Tras, still grinning from his previous observation, pressed against the red oval on his ration bag, then set it on the ground. Cho did the same, and they both took a step back as the bags peeled apart. Tras came forward, crouching low to the ground. He leaned down and sniffed the food. After taking a moment to ponder, he looked back at his wife and nodded assent. She approached her ration brick and crouched low. Both of them scooped up their respective foods and tasted it gingerly with the tips of their tongues. Then, cautiously, Tras took a small bite.
Again, Jovas marveled at how expressive Tras was. His eyes lit up with the purest of joys, and he eagerly began gobbling the ration brick. Cho's actions and expressions mirrored her husband's. Jovas noted only then that he had selected the 2,000 kilocalorie ration (there were also 1,000 kcal bags aboard, and a normal ration was to have one of each variety per Galactic Standard day). Judging by their ravenous behavior, neither Tras nor Cho had probably eaten 2,000 kilocalories in a single sitting in a very long time, if ever.
Jovas activated his own bag, choosing to simply hold it in his hand while it peeled apart. Taking a bite, he further wondered about the normal diet of the two strange humans, crouched in front of him. How did they acquire the vast variety of necessary chemicals to maintain good health? Perhaps they didn't, and that was why they were so short. There were so many questions to ask; they'd never be able to do it all with their limited time and resources. The inevitable return expedition, which would probably occur in a year's time and would probably be headed by Asin himself, would carry hundreds of capable professionals, and they would be able to quickly discern such specifics. Jovas, though by no means a sociologist of any leaning, looked forward to reading the articles Asin and his contemporaries would publish about this amazing planet named Earth.
When they had finished, Tras belched contentedly. The rations were designed to induce a feeling of fullness that would persist for about twelve hours, depending upon and individual's metabolism, of course. Tras and Cho lounged on the grass, now shaded by the hull of the Long Sight. The sun was now well above the horizon and in the eastern quarter of the sky, so for most the local wildlife, the day had begun.
Asin was the first to speak. "Now that we have eaten, I think we should begin learning about your tribe." He sauntered over to the pair and sat upon the grass, a transcription pad in hand. "Tras, you are named after your uncle," he began. "Tell me about him."