“Family Law” #3

Chapter 3

            Derfhome didn’t look that much different from orbit than Earth. Different shapes to the land, a little bit less water, but blue and green and brown with white swirls much the same. Lee was old enough now to appreciate the complexities of approaching a civilized world. She’s been eight when they had been to Grandhome as their last planet fall. She’d sat at a dead console then reading a book quite bored with the adults droning on about stuff on the com.

This time she sat at a live board side by side with Gordon and listened to all the traffic control commands and clearances he had to deal with. He muted his mic frequently and explained as much as he could as if she might have to do it herself some day. Traffic control was still in English just like Earth, and had been going clear back to pre-space aircraft, but Lee could tell not all the Derf were as fluent or unaccented as Gordon.

Their ship, High Hopes, had a four seat command deck and was technically a ten person ship, ten humans that is. Gordon used a lot more life support, equal to about three humans, and one of the reasons they bought a Falcon IV was it was designed after the discovery of Derfhome and had Derf capable corridors and hatches. In seventy years Derf not only crewed, but now there were Derf who owned ships. When Derf had first gone on human ships they were often stuck in a hold with access to most of the ship impossible.

A Derf cabin was made in a Falcon by the expedient of removing a partition between two human cabins. Since they had room to spare Gordon had taken the volume of three human cabins and the Andersons had made theirs a double. Exploration ships never had enough room for supplies or specimens and materials coming back so the other rooms weren’t wasted. One was an armory, and one an autosurgery. Both made double so Gordon could use them too. Only Lee had a single, and her mom had been worried that was too small now.

Rather than take their own shuttle down to Derfhome it was much cheaper to dock at an orbital and take a commercial shuttle down. That avoided all kinds of complications and delay decontaminating their shuttle because it had been in a new biosphere. Sealing it off made it much simpler and infinitely cheaper. Fuel, water, and other consumables could be supplied without breaching quarantine. Only they had to be decontaminated.

They left all their personal items on board, except what was on their back and Gordon’s carry case with ID and his bank cards.

The first thing they had to do coming from a new live world was submit to a medical evaluation and a very thorough clean up which included special showers and hard vacuum cleaning of what they carried before they were free to enter public spaces.

The Anderson’s remains would be taken from their hold where Gordon had laid them by the lock, easy to remove, and handled like biohazard for autopsy and cremation. Gordon didn’t intend to talk to Lee about that unless she asked. No point at all in stirring up every horrible memory when she was doing so well.

Any well populated world had such procedures, but exploration ships often had to stop at the first port they could make. A newer colony world would probably just service their ship and turn them away if they couldn’t evaluate them, maybe even put medical staff aboard if needed and send them along.

Their log was examined for any fevers or medical problems, and they had swabs and blood samples drawn. If they hadn’t been in flight for near a month they’d have been required to sit out a ten day incubation period before entering the habitat, much less the world below. They exited their ship directly into a medical suite.

The doctor who entered stood back and asked in English if Lee was comfortable being examined by her, or if she wanted to wait until her parent was done with his examination and could be present? The doctor was a female Derf with lighter fur, noticeably smaller than Gordon.

“I’m sure if you have been assigned this task you are wholly qualified and I would never be so rude as to question your ability when I have no medical training.” The fact that she said it in perfect Derf, and made the gesture of respect crossing her true (and only) hands palm in seemed to surprise the nice lady.

“Well, I see it’ll be easy enough talking with you. Some human children are scared of Derf if they haven’t been around them. We are after all big and look a lot different. How do you come to speak Derf so well?”

“From my uncle Gordon who’s going to be my step dad now,” Lee said in English. She didn’t know how you could say that in Derf.

“I don’t understand that phrase,” the doc admitted.

“Is he in another room close?”

The lady looked at the computer she carried and touched a couple places.

“Yes, he’s two doors down the hall.”

“Why don’t you go peek in at him and everything will be clear.”

When she came back she was chuckling with a grin like a Great White and wasn’t worried Lee would take it wrong. Neither did she hang back to avoid scaring her.

“Whatever ‘step’ means that Derf is one fine looking hunk in case you didn’t know it. You put in a good word for doctor Shaborbroh if you get a chance.”

“He’s rich too,” Lee told her, and got another genuine laugh. She wandered if the doctor was what Derf considered good looking too? She’d have to ask Gordon how to tell. Maybe have him point out examples. She’d been away from people so long growing up she wasn’t sure she even knew what was good looking or ugly for her own species. Sometimes the examples they put forth in movies and vid didn’t make sense to her. Everything she’d read made it clear it was  important to a lot of people. All of a sudden she realized she didn’t know if she was pretty or plain. Unc’ was right. This dealing with groups was going to be complicated.

When she was done Lee was probably cleaner than she’d ever been before, still slightly damp and terribly hungry because her entire digestive tract had been flushed out and examined. She smelled of antiseptic and even her ears had been swabbed for cultures and peered in and carefully cleaned. They’d decided she could keep her hair. She could have put up with losing it, but she wondered how Uncle Gordon would like being shaved?

The doctor returned and gave her two packets, one to be added to her next meal and the other a tube of gel to be rubbed all over her skin.

“You can start on the gel now if you want. You’ve had the bacteria stripped from you so thoroughly you need to restore the beneficial varieties and these are cultures of them.”

Her clothing was not processed yet so she was waiting for them, sitting on the Derf idea of a blanket, on a Derf examination table about the size of a billiard table. The top was almost to her arm pit level off the floor and she’d had to jump and throw a leg over the edge to make it up there when she first came in. She started at her toes and rubbed little dabs of the gel all over. It seemed to be oil based instead of water so it wasn’t cold.

It helped that Derf kept the temperature at a very comfortable level for a human in skin instead of freezing their patients in paper gowns like human doctors. It was quite different than the dimly remembered one time in her life she’d seen a human doctor. That had been when she was six years old and she’d had a physical and inoculations the first time they returned to civilization after her birth.

* * *

            Humans were common enough on the orbital station that there were plenty of restaurants with human scale chairs and silverware. The guide book said the port below was the same too. Out in the countryside though humans had best have their own silverware and pillows, clothing and medicines, or do without. It suggested a folding step stool was a handy thing too.

When released they went straight to a restaurant. It was between usual meal times so it wasn’t crowded. Lee ordered like she’d never eat again. Most of the Derf items on the menu were things she’d tried because Gordon had them along on the ship. She was offered a human menu and ordered off it and off the Derf menu too. A double cheeseburger with sweet onion relish didn’t surprise the waiter, but a bowl of devil horn soup from the Derf sheet did. It was mixing bowl size and full of an egg drop broth with little black peppers that rivaled habañeros for heat.

There were tables with Derf and tables with Humans. There were even a few tables with a mix. But there were no other children of either species in the restaurant and everybody was trying hard not to stare at the pair of them. They might as well have gone ahead and satisfied their curiosity for all the success they were having.

While they waited they plotted. “While we’re here you should see a few of the sights. You never really know when you’ll get back. It’s been fifteen years for me, and that wasn’t something I planned.”

“Does your family know we’re coming?”

“I dropped them mail, said we’d be around. Things don’t change very quickly in a Derf holding. I expect things will look much the same as when I left. We’ll spend a week at least. Anything less would suggest we didn’t really want to be there. Derf do things slower than humans. Some of that is probably because we live longer. You knew that didn’t you?”

“Yes I know that Derf live over two hundred T-years. But I have no idea how old you are, Unc’.”

“I’m coming up on seventy, sneaking up on middle age for a Derf. Not old enough they will try to get me to settle down back at home, but old enough to get a little respect from the youngsters that remember me from my last visit. There are some other places we should see while we’re here. We should see the Richards’ monument and graveyard.”

“Who’s he and when did he die?”

“Oh, nobody knows what happened to Richards. It’s his monument, but the graveyard part is for some of his crewmates who died here. That’s who is in the cemetery. He jumped out of Fargone twenty years or so ago on an explorer like us, and the ship was never seen again. He was the commander on the ship that discovered Derf, discovered for humans that is, since we’ve been here all along of course. You haven’t read the story?”

“No, I know it was about seventy years ago. I haven’t read much modern history. Dad has been having me study lots of old stuff, pre-space stuff.” Lee got her soup then so Gordon told her the story while she ate.

“Our first contact we had with outsiders – humans – was with a big company ship. They located a group of Derf out on a hunt. It was as if an alien race surveyed a modern Earth and decided to contact a family of Mongol herders instead of setting down in Moscow. It might have seemed safer to them but it was a slow way to initiate contact.”

“The group was seasonal hunters and trappers, and they appeared to have a pretty low level of tech to the humans because they used mostly bronze for their axes and arrow points. They were clansmen sent to hunt in the fall and then returned to their keep to winter over. Not what humans think of as true nomads.”

“There were no radio emissions so they assumed Derf had no electronics. Truth was even then most clan seats were connected by shielded telephone lines, but radio was slow to be adapted because our star interferes with it so much. Derf made good steel too, but it was expensive and limited in use to such things as better knives and surgical instruments. In fairness some of it was the fact we have some really exceptional bronze alloys that substitute well for steel. We even had firearms, although they were very expensive and rare.”

“Derf can pull a stiff bow and we’re the biggest thing in the woods so we don’t need guns for protection. We killed off the few predators who could challenge us in our prehistory. And it’s been about twelve hundred years since we had a clan war, so there isn’t any big market for military weapons.”

“The humans sent a shuttle down, spread blankets and put out some trade goods near the clansmen. The Derf came in cautiously. That was just smart if you consider they had never seen anything before that was clearly a flying artifact. We have no history of UFO sightings in popular culture like you people. After three days of feeling each other out most of both sides felt safe to visit.

They traded a few words and were starting to trade a few trinkets. They were getting a feel for relative value. Some things there was no interest and they would be withdrawn by the side that offered them. The Humans ran a camera on the shuttle recording it all and the Derf sent a junior member of their party as a runner to inform their clan.

“On the third day one of the shuttle crew made a mistake. One felt intimidated and took a step back and put her hand on her gun. They might have been country folk, but the Derf weren’t stupid. They knew what weapons were just by how they were carried, and they knew what firearms were even if they didn’t have such a luxury.

The Derf was a female like the crew-person and pointed at the hand on pistol and used one of the few words they knew. She said quite clearly on the video – ‘No.’ Second mistake the Earthies made was another of the crew misreading the confrontation between the crew woman and Derf grabbed his weapon too. But he made the fatal error of trying to draw it. Derf custom is crystal clear; if you draw a weapon it’s assumed you intend to use it.”

“The poor fellow had a bronze ax in his breast bone before he even fully cleared leather. Once it goes bad like that with everybody drawing weapons there’s no recovering and it was over in three seconds. Final score was Derf: 7, Humans: 0, bronze against modern weapons.”


“Indeed. Here my people are, with a bunch of dead aliens on their hands, and they didn’t know what to do with them. I mean they were obviously people, so they couldn’t just let them lay exposed, but they didn’t know if they buried their dead or cremated them or what. They didn’t know if any more they met would be hostile or not, and didn’t want to further antagonize them.

“So the Derf did what they’d do for their own. They cut wood and built great stacked funeral pyres and laid the bodies on top in as good an order as they could. All this was in front of the camera on the shuttle although they didn’t know that it was watching them. But they didn’t light the pyres; they left one male to guard them against scavengers and withdrew.”

“Now because the humans had a big ship they had a second shuttle. They could have been stupid and wiped the Derf party out from the air. Or they could have tried a new contact somewhere else thinking word would not get out since they didn’t know we had phones.”

“Fortunately for everybody the commander Richards had a brain just like our male who made the funeral pyres, and he watched the video off the grounded shuttle several times. The Derf treated his dead with respect, and stole nothing of the trade goods laid out. He related later that made him decide to land a crew to recover the first shuttle and he went down too.”

“He did something that was quite brave. He tossed his gun belt in the airlock and walked down to meet the Derf unarmed. The male there reciprocated by lodging his ax in a tree before walking up to Richards. Not that he needed it given his mass and claws, but it was a nice gesture. Once they were talking again the Derf called in his eldest female of the hunters to be principal voice. They made especially sure the humans understood Derf custom about drawing a weapon.”

“The basic agreement they held out for was that Derf be treated exactly equal to Humans. Now remember, this is a work party they contacted at random. Not some clan elders who are used to negotiating with their peers. And hunters, not some city folk or traders who are used to negotiating business deals. So they did a hell of a job of representing for our whole race with the first aliens we’d ever seen.”

“Commander Richards agreed to equality eventually, although it took some days. I’m sure, now that I know humans well, that he knew it would not go over well at home. Final version was – Humans would follow Derf law on Derfhome, and Derf would follow Human law on Earth. They also established right there at the start that Humans and Derf could buy and sell land as individuals, but there would be no extraterritoriality. Derf would not be forced onto reservations or concede tracts of land to Humans.”

“When word got back to Earth a lot of people were unhappy with Commander Richards. But it was within his authority to negotiate and it was affirmed by a Congress who accepted his word that his people were in error, and worried about creating enemies. It’s certainly better than the treaties anyone else has gotten from Man. As far as we’re concerned he was a great statesman. It wasn’t Humans that put up a monument to him, it was we Derf.”

“I’d like to see that,” Lee agreed. “Did they honor your people on the monument too?”

“That’s not our way of doing things. It would be an embarrassment to anyone still alive. That was only seventy years ago. Maybe later after they have died we might add them. This was so soon after I was born I was too young to remember it, but they still count me in the generation born before contact. And you know, I bet maybe one in ten thousand humans have ever actually seen a Derf still. There’s just too damn many of you.”

“But almost everybody has seen pictures,” Lee pointed out. “Not that they do you justice.” She decided to share what the doctor told her about his being a ‘hunk’. Just then his food came and no matter how she prodded him he wouldn’t discuss it. Pretending to have his mouth full and ignoring that topic. She gave up and worked on an apple-caramel confection with vanilla ice cream, until one more bite and she’d need to be carried away.

“Oh my, that’s so much better than ration packs,” Lee told him.

“Your days of eating ration packs are over,” Gordon said laughing. “Just don’t expect everything to be this fancy in the back country when you meet my family. This is a five star restaurant. Just having a live waiter tells you it’s Ritzy. There might be half a dozen places in the system that can cook like this, and three of them are probably on station. My family cooks simple, peasant style, humans would say. But it’s fresh and in season even if it isn’t all fancy sauces and garnishes.”

“Can we afford this?” Lee asked, really looking around for the first time.

“We have enough cash to live very well for some months, and once we reveal some of our claim we’ll have a letter of credit before we go to Earth that will let you buy  this place on a whim.

“It must be very hard not to get fat when you’re rich. I ate so much if there’s a low G hotel on this hab I’d take that over full gravity.”

“I already got us rooms at the Lunar Suites. It’s about seventy percent G, but the restaurant is about ten percent over because that’s Derf standard. In a half hour you’ll be complaining you’re hungry anyway.”

It was a nasty lie. It took over an hour.

* * *

            Lee woke up in the dark and strained to see something. There was a pale blue glow of a night light shining out of the bathroom door. A couple sparks of color glowed here and there where LEDs marked the location of electronics in the dark. The hotel smelled different than their ship, and despite sound deadening faint strange noises and thumps bothered her sleep.

Gordon was curled up backed into the corner of the room and she was in his arms where she’d been sleeping every night for the last month. She felt safe there, and neither of them could see any reason she should be all alone in a cold bed. In fact they had taken a Derf room that didn’t have a human bed, just a padded sleeping mat.

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