The nurse spread her lips at me, baring her teeth. My understanding was that such an expression was related to humor or friendship, but her voice sounded tired when she said, “I’m sure you believe that, Mr. Jones.”
My name wasn’t Jones, but it was no matter that she had it wrong. She couldn’t have known my true name, nor would she have been able to pronounce it if she did. Human vocal cords were incapable of producing sounds of the correct pitch.
“I realize my story sounds unlikely,” I told her with care, enunciating each word as my instructor had taught me. “But I am telling you the truth. If you would help me, my employer would be most grateful and would surely be willing to compensate you for your time and energies.”
“The doctor will be in soon,” she said, ignoring my plea. “She’ll be able to give you something for the nausea.”
I wasn’t nauseous. I was vitamin-deficient. True, the deficiency translated into a very messy process involving the regurgitation of the contents of my stomach at unpredictable intervals, but nausea implied that I felt unwell and I felt fine.
But she didn’t wait for me to try explaining again, just whisked out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her. I sighed and leaned back against the cushions propping me up, regarding my perambulating appendages with gloom. My vitamin deficiency was also impairing my ability to coordinate the motion of the various elements of the container in which I found myself. I could manage two or three appendages properly but juggling all of them at once was just too difficult. As a result, I’d fallen several times, damaging the container.
My employer was going to be highly dissatisfied with my lack of success. She’d installed me in this container in order to negotiate a trade agreement with a member, or better yet, several members, of the dominant species on this small, wayward planet.
Technically, the planet was forbidden to all members of the galactic federation. Its inhabitants had yet to achieve unification among their own species and as long as they were busy killing one another, we were expected to keep our distance. Not that people didn’t visit, of course. We did, simply without making our presence known to the inhabitants.
And my employer had been watching the planet carefully. Until recently, she’d had high hopes that they might soon achieve peace: their various arbitrary geographic affiliations had been beginning to work together. Recently, however, they’d taken huge steps backwards. My employer knew this meant it was unlikely that they’d ever be able to participate in the larger universe. However, she was still very fond of a certain biological that she’d found during a previous visit. Thus, my presence.
“Knock, knock.” The words were delivered in a cheerful voice, as the door opened and a face peered around its edge.
I frowned. Should not a knock be delivered upon a door? Was it not the sound that the manipulating appendage made upon the surface of the barrier? My employer had provided me with translation software that she swore was entirely up-to-date, but it seemed to me to be highly flawed.
“Come in?” I offered tentatively. My program assured me that my response was potentially correct, but I had my doubts.
The face spread its lips and emerged from behind the door, pulling a wheeled cart after her. “How are you doing today, dearie?”
Might she be helpful in my quest? I tried to find a definition of her role in my database of functions. The nurse had been easy to guess: she’d worn the appropriate attire, matching the image of scrubs in my files, and had performed tasks involving recording my container’s statistics that fit within the parameters of the definition. But this cart-puller was more questionable. Her attire was colorful and appeared, to my limited understanding, non-uniform, consisting of a very fluffy top in a color verging on the upper end of the visible spectrum and a bottom that clung to her body so tightly that bulges were apparent. However, I found a cart in my database as part of the toolset of a work function. The cart didn’t match precisely, but it was the only cart I could find.
“Are you a janitor?” I asked uncertainly.
“A janitor!” The eyes suddenly looked larger and the dark black lashes around them batted wildly for a second or two. “Do I look like a janitor?”
Distress signal, clearly.
I hurriedly scanned my database for more info. Ah, I appeared to have violated a gender-based norm. My own species did not have genders, so my experience navigating their mysteries was limited.
“I apologize,” I said hurriedly. “I meant no offense.”
“Well, good,” she said, continuing her movement toward the side of my bed.
“Housekeeper, of course,” I added with satisfaction. I gave her a bright, relieved spread of my lips, showing my teeth. “Females are housekeepers. Males are janitors.”
Her eyes did their getting big thing again and her lips pursed, a motion not at all like the teeth-baring expression she’d been wearing before.
“Or maid, perhaps? Maid?” I scrambled to find more data that would explain her reaction.
She snorted. “I’m a volunteer,” she said with a snap, patting the hair on the side of her head. It did not respond like the hair on my container would have, but instead bounced slightly, as if it were stiff. “Here to see if you want something to read. Or a jigsaw puzzle, maybe?” She indicated the cart.
It did indeed hold books and boxes rather than mops and dust cloths and spray bottles of unknown chemicals. I should have realized that the function of cleaning could not be done with paperbacks.
“Unfortunately,” I said, “Those would not alleviate my distress. I am suffering from a vitamin deficiency and am in need of a certain substance in order to maintain my presence here and fulfill my employer’s directives.”
“Oh, yeah?” She raised an eyebrow, considering me, and then shook her head. “Druggie, huh?”
I considered the implications of her words. She seemed to be making an incorrect assumption. Although perhaps not entirely incorrect. Stiffly, I said, “If coffee can be considered such.”