Under the Skin
Disclaimer: Star Trek: Enterprise is the property of Paramount.
'Pink-skins' he had always called them, although even among Archer's crew that was stretching the definition of pink.
Here on the wide main street of San Francisco, the variety of colours was staggering, compared with the uniformity of Andorian skin tones. He knew that he was staring, but given the looks he himself was attracting from passers-by, it was clearly culturally acceptable to gawp open-mouthed at complete strangers here on Earth.
Strange people, he thought, with an inward chuckle at his own hypocrisy. Oh spirits, what am I doing here?
Not that Shran believed in the spirits, of course, but he had picked up the turn of phrase from his grandmother. And frankly he'd take the help of mythical beings right now. This job had hardly been his lifelong ambition, but his leaders had wanted someone with the appropriate experience and he was the only one, so regardless of his wishes, he was here. Anyway, he seemed to have been doomed, fated, to live among these people from the first moment he met them.
Not that he believed in fate either.
The crowds milling along the street appeared youthful and exuberant, their clothing -- to his uniform-accustomed eyes -- carelessly loose and scruffy or shockingly scant, revealing yet more of that unhealthy-looking flesh. Still, either style of outfit would probably be far more comfortable in the bright sunshine than his long formal coat.
An adolescent human male strolled by wearing a deep red garment bearing the word 'Redskins' in the lettering he had been painstakingly learning over the past several weeks in preparation for his new assignment. Shran didn't think he had seen anyone yet whose skin was literally red – certainly not the yellow-haired boy whose loose top proclaimed some kind of allegiance to these 'Redskins'. Perhaps they were rare, unusual, special.
"Ambassador! Ambassador Shran!" It was Archer's pale-skinned communications officer calling out his new title as she half-ran towards him – dodging her way through the other pedestrians. The young woman was wearing a smarter, more fitted version of the Starfleet uniform than usual, which showed off her trim body. Shran had a fleeting image of the translator dressed in Andorian silks – the Weavers Guild were already excited at the challenge of exporting to such a multi-hued people.
"Good afternoon, Ensign," said the new Andorian ambassador to Earth, dismissing the strange thought of his new companion wrapped in bright diaphanous fabric.
"I hope your embassy is comfortable," said Ensign Sato, her Andorian not merely perfect, but warm and sincere, unlike the civil niceties of the many, many dignitaries he had met the previous day.
"It will be, once we have unpacked," he answered in tentative English, thinking of the assistants and secretaries he had left indoors, arguing over office layout. "Please, Ensign, it would be helpful to me if we were to speak your language, for practice."
Ensign Sato gave a sincere nod and replied with a string of words, or rather sounds, which he did not recognize at all.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Shran, knitting his brow in confusion.
The young woman laughed, and Shran assumed the nonsense words must be some kind of joke. "I'm sorry," she chuckled, speaking English now. "You said my language. I'm afraid I grew up trilingual, so English is only one of my languages. There are dozens of languages spoken in this city alone."
"I see," he said, feeling even more out of his depth.
"Don't worry ambassador," said Ensign Sato giving him a little pat on the arm – a strangely intimate, yet comforting gesture. "Most people around here can speak English and the UT devices cope with almost everything else."
"That is good to know," he said. His coat was too hot. Stifling. "Shall we go?"
Although it was within the same city, the garden party was a world away from the banquet he had attended the previous evening.
Of course, for all his well-disguised nerves, the diplomatic greeting event had gone perfectly smoothly. Shran knew he had done an excellent job, said all the right things into the right ears, flirted and fawned just the right amount. He had even had a spectacularly polite conversation with Ambassador Soval.
The food had been a pleasant surprise, the wine a little bland compared with Andorian drinks and the musical entertainment, inoffensive.
But there had not been Lieutenant Reed 'dying' in simulated agony on the floor as two infants pointed their fingers at him and made what Shran presumed were supposed to be phase pistol sound effects.
There had not been grey-haired Mrs Archer, who had blue-painted eye-lids and who kept refilling his plate and quizzing him about Andoria and his own family, eliciting a promise that he would visit her for tea, even after her son had returned to his ship.
There had not been the two young Ensigns and a group of teenagers, young siblings of some of the crew, throwing a flat disk to each other in a game with few rules or aims. Now and then the disk would skim through a flower bed, destroying blooms as it went. Mrs Archer just laughed.
There had not been a Vulcan who giggled when a certain engineer sneaked up behind her with mischievous tickling fingers (even if she immediately looked guilty before trying to restore her deadpan expression). Soval would not giggle, suspected Shran, no matter how much he was tickled.
He had not been able to slip off his unsuitable coat, letting it fall over the back of a wooden chair while he sat in his shirt sleeves, leaning his elbows on the long table.
Archer had been at the dinner, actually, stiff and formal and tired-looking, which wasn't surprising really, given the events leading up to this home shore leave for the Enterprise crew. But it was only here in his mother's expansive back garden, as shadows lengthened and afternoon turned into evening, that he sat down next to Shran and placed a decanter of golden-brown liquid on the table. "Try this," he said.
"What is it?" asked Shran, lifting out the glass stopper and catching the strong, complex aroma.
"Scotch whisky. Single Malt. Islay. I think you'll like it."
Shran poured a couple of centimeters of the liquid into the two short cut-glass tumblers Archer had provided. They clinked glasses in that peculiar human fashion he had learned and sipped at the whisky. The taste was unexpected, sharper than the smell had been, with flavours he couldn't even begin to name. Its warmth seemed to get under his skin, heating his cheeks, so that he wondered whether they glowed somehow, just as Archer's face had turned a deeper shade of pink under the influence of sunshine and alcohol.
He wasn't entirely certain that he liked it. But he thought it might grow on him.