“I still don't get why we have to have these extra lessons if there are perfectly good translators to help us get by,” complained P'Jor.
Q'Vel rolled her eyes at that. “Because, you silly, I'd like to see what you would do if they suddenly broke. Either we learn to do without, or we're in big trouble.”
“You're right, I guess. But I feel stupid when I turn it off. That's still allowed, isn't it? I mean, even Q'Mar is doing better than me, and she's practically a baby.”
“Less talking, more walking,” said P'Lok, urging them forward. “We still have to go get her, and figure out where the lesson is today.” He seemed impatient. “I heard the new teacher is the second officer. We just can't afford to be late.”
Despite himself, P'Jor looked impressed. “How did he even find the time for us?”
“We're lucky that he did. It's an opportunity, and I'm going to take it, no questions asked.”
“I hate to burst your bubble, but even if you act like the perfect student today, I really doubt it's going to make you look good with the Captain. He'll have more important things to tell him than what we did, especially since we're just going to make fools of ourselves.”
“Must you always be so negative?” Even if the boys were friends, Q'Vel sometimes felt that keeping the peace between them was a full-time job.
“I'm not being negative, I'm telling it like it is.”
“For one thing, you wouldn't make a fool of yourself if you actually practiced, and secondly, I think we're expected to make mistakes. We're learning, that's normal, and if this important person we're supposed to meet doesn't understand that, well, some teacher he is.”
“You're right, Mom, as always.” It didn't take him long to realize he had put his foot in his mouth (again): the memories were still fresh for all of them.
An awkward silence descended, and it was up to Q'Vel to break it. “They seem to be getting used to having us around, at least,” she said, looking around at the busy crewmen who passed them by. For all the times their teachers had repeated that the Federation welcomed everyone, they'd gotten their fair share of stares at first. That, they supposed, was inevitable.
“I should hope so,” said P'Lok. “I'm getting the hang of that handshake thing and everything, I wouldn't be too happy to know my efforts are one-sided.”
To be fair, his assessment was a bit of an exaggeration: when meeting somebody new, the force of habit would sometimes take over and make him offer the traditional Lorquian greeting, but he was getting quicker to switch to a human handshake when he realized his mistake. Pity. It was so simple to him that it always boggled his mind to see the perplexed faces everyone made when he tried to walk them through it. Human hands were built perfectly for it: having five fingers each, like his own, it was surprisingly easy to match his fingertips to theirs. The real problem came when it was time to decide how long to keep contact before parting: back home, that said a lot about the relationship between two people. Strangers only touched each other for a fleeting moment, friends lingered a bit longer, and if you were more than friends... well, let's just say he still had to explain to that girl exactly why he had blushed violently and withdrawn his hand as if burnt when she messed up spectacularly and actually touched his palm. He knew she didn't mean anything by it, but still, that would have been a pretty bold declaration to make in public on his planet. He'd only ever seen married couples do that in front of everyone.
“They're not, believe me. Humans are nice once you get to know them, and I suppose the same goes for the others too, but there aren't many in my class, so I wouldn't know.” Leave it to her to have an easy time making friends in any situation. P'Lok hadn't had his udan th'asulas yet, so he wasn't supposed to be thinking about girls that way (oh, how he'd envied the neighbours' son when he'd come back from his ceremony looking all smug, like he'd been let in on some big secret! He even seemed to stand a little taller, as if he hoped that officially becoming an adult could actually make him shoot up overnight), but he was certainly allowed to notice that there was something about her that you couldn't help but trust. They hadn't known each other well before embarking on the Uquarr, but living in close quarters had made them practically inseparable before he even realized.
Whatever answer he had in mind was momentarily forgotten as they stopped by their fourth member's door.
“Here we are,” he said, pressing the button that would make their presence known.
They'd been a little confused at the sight of the Enterprise's panels at first. It wouldn't have been too difficult to learn the mostly unlabeled buttons' functions by size, position and colour, if it weren't for the fact that the last of those distinctions was next to useless to them. However, ringing at somebody's door was easy enough, and so it was that, moments later, a positively bouncing Q'Mar joined them on their way to Lt. Cmdr. Data's quarters.
“Hi!” They were used to seeing her grin whenever they went somewhere new, but this time, she was smiling so widely it was a wonder her cheeks didn't hurt.
“Well, well, well, someone's happy,” said Q'Vel. “Did you eat a whole jar of icoberry jam all by yourself?”
The little girl shook her head. “No, I'm just glad we're going to see Mr. Data.”
“Exactly how well do you know him?” If someone had told P'Lok he would be envious of her someday, he wouldn't have believed them, but life was full of surprises.
“We're not best friends or anything, he just comes get me from school sometimes. He's really nice.” Being the youngest, she was the one whose movements were most closely supervised, so, as the others realized, it made sense for her to have had the chance to meet more officers than any of them, Mr. Data included.
“So he won't laugh at us if we really mess up, will he?” asked P'Jor. Out of all possible reactions, she had the one he expected the least: she stared as if he'd just said something extremely stupid, which was a particularly unpleasant kind of stare, coming from such a small child.
“He can't do that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mr. Data never laughs. He tried once, but it sounded just plain weird, like he didn't know how. That's because he's an android. He used a lot of big words I didn't understand to explain that to me, but what I know is that he doesn't really get it when something's funny, even if he's practically as smart as the ship's computer.”
There was silence again as they took in her explanation, then P'Jor blurted out: “If he's like a walking computer, why doesn't he learn our language and use it to teach us? That way, the lessons would be easy, for once.”
“Maybe he doesn't have time,” said P'Lok. “We don't know how long it would take him, and with that much brainpower, it would be a huge waste not to keep him busy.”
“And besides, who would teach him? You? There was no chance to get anything from the Uquarr, let alone our old schoolbooks. I'd be glad to let him borrow mine, if it made things any easier, but who knows where they are now.”
“All right, I get it, I'll just grit my teeth and do it.”
“It's not fun for any of us, you know,” said Q'Mar. “I'm happy to see Mr. Data again, but if I think about it, I'm a little scared too. I don't want him to think I'm stupid.”
“He won't.” One of Q'Vel's membranes wrapped reassuringly around her shoulders. There were many things to be said about Lorquians, but not that they weren't good at hugging. “He knows we're just beginning. Besides, you finally get to see where he lives. Isn't that exciting?”
And with that, her face-splitting smile accompanied them the rest of the way, so bright it would have put the nearest star to shame.
Q'Mar knew they wouldn't have to wait long: when they rang, Mr. Data showed up at the door in no time flat, calm and collected as ever.
What she had not expected was the thing at his feet.
The creature stared back.
What followed was a sound that the halls of the legendary starship Enterprise wouldn't be too quick to forget.
Q'Mar, who had been about to bound into the room before everyone else and get the lesson started (maybe it was just because of Mr. Data, but she actually wanted to, for once), leapt back with a little scream, barely resisting the temptation to grab the nearest membrane, in this case P'Lok's, and hide behind it as if it were a curtain. Miss Kyle was always talking about all sorts of interesting animals from other planets, but it had slipped her mind to mention that.
It had four paws and a tail, that much she could see, but there wasn't time for anything else. It ran off somewhere into the depths of the room with a high-pitched sound of its own, a strange, loud hiss she would never have expected to come out of its mouth, suddenly looking bigger than it had first seemed... or maybe it was just its fur standing on end.
“What was that?” she asked in a small voice, completely forgetting that she was at least supposed to say hello first.
“That,” he said by way of a greeting, “was Spot. She is an Earth animal called a cat. By your reaction, I assume this is the first time you have seen one.” He paused. “I had not considered this. If I had, I would not have neglected to mention her presence.”
She nodded. “She's not dangerous, is she?” She knew Mr. Data wouldn't keep dangerous animals in his quarters unless he really had to. He was smarter than that. But maybe that was part of his job too; all she knew about it was that it must be very, very difficult, if it needed a brain like his.
“No, Spot is fairly harmless, and I do not believe we shall see her again for the duration of our lesson. She is wary of strangers, and very likely to remain hidden as long as you are here. Please, come in.”
As they filed into the room, Q'Mar couldn't resist saying: “You mean Spot was scared of us?”
“Essentially, yes. She had never seen a member of your species either.”
“What's she doing here?” Better ask all the questions while she could: it would be much harder to do the same on her own, without the translator.
“She is my pet. Are Lorquians not in the habit of keeping them?” That certainly explained a lot. Q'Mar would have loved a pet, probably a krilit. Her parents kept saying they'd get her one later, but that ‘later’ hadn't turned into ‘now’, and it never would.
“Well, yes, but our pets sure don't look like that.”
“I would be interested in knowing what they do look like,” he said, “but for now, you are going to have to tell me without the aid of the universal translator.”
Mr. Data took off his combadge and extended a hand in a silent request for theirs.
“Well, that's going to take a while,” grumbled P'Jor, forgetting for a moment that his words probably sounded like a string of nonsense to him.
He was right, but that didn't matter to Q'Mar. For the first time, she promised to herself that she'd be a good girl and do lots and lots of practice. After all, if it meant that she would finally know enough of that pesky Federation Standard to tell Mr. Data about krilit, with their big ears and their fluffy tails and those cute little pouches mothers used to carry their babies, it wasn't so boring anymore.