Small Talk


Pat Foley

Chapter 1

Even in the 23rd century, when we had already discovered so many intelligent thriving alien civilizations, for humans to still that believe their own species was the first, the best, the most advanced one in the universe was a popular myth. And its corollary was that the human-centric Federation was the guiding light bringing civilization to the rest of the unwashed savages in the known galaxy.

That this belief was regarded by many non-human species with understandable incredulity, not to say full-out knee slapping hilarity – for those who actually had knees -- didn't deter by one iota the majority of humans who believed it to be the undisputed truth, the word on high, with all the fervency of a novice nun.

When I niggled Sarek about it one day, curious to know his opinion of those lower level diplomatic attaches who still sometimes dealt with Vulcans as if they were not quite …well, human… though honestly the upper level Federation administration did behave better – he tactfully allowed that he found human naiveté and belief in their own inherent self-worth at times charming. That's diplomacy for you. Of course, we hadn't been married long. He was more polite…ummm, less candid… then.

Before I met Sarek, I won my first Zi -- Magni, to those who know little and could care less about these obscure academic awards-- by turning that popular and inaccurate academic theory on its head. Though the popular view is still quite prevalent.

Not that I purported that humans were actually any worse than most other species in our abilities and views. I never claimed that. In fact, finding the commonality among us all was my stock in trade in an atmosphere that up till then had concentrated mostly on the differences between species. I simply pointed out all the ways in which we had a lot more in common than popular – and scientific – opinion erroneously allowed.

I also drew the comparison between the current, mistaken Terran view that humans had a universal lock on certain ethical and sociological precepts with the long ago indisputably held twentieth century belief that humans were the only creatures on Terra to use tools, create language, and think.

That ancient erroneous but dearly cherished precept, which had been so painful and ruined so many reputations when it was proven untrue to the former scientific community three centuries ago, blew up like a neutron bomb …well, ruffled more than a few feathers… when I drew the analogy. And not among the avian species in the Federation, but here among my colleagues at home. In fact, it set off a firestorm of controversy, finger pointing and blame.

But it had to come. While an unpretty conceit in the twentieth century, that attitude was far less estimable in the 23rd, when we had even more evidence that it was untrue. But that it was rapidly crumbling under the light of new discoveries even before I poked fatal holes in it didn't make its downfall any less unpleasant, heretical, or painful to those who still tried so stridently to uphold it.

Heads fell, reputations built on the supremacy of humans were trashed, and my doctoral thesis won me my first Zi. Not to mention the eternal enmity of some of my peers, But that's academia.

I followed up my thesis with a simplified version in a mass market monograph that, because many humans were zoo-curious about aliens in the newly expanding Federation, inexplicably turned into a wildly popular bestseller. And not just among humans. You rarely see a Harvard press book rack up sales on Tellur, Rigel, Andor and even Vulcan, but mine did. You see, up until then, virtually all scientists studying alien civilizations had concentrated on their differences as regard humans. No one had concentrated on defining shared truths, beliefs and characteristics.

I won't say it made everyone in the Federation hold hands – well whatever appendages they possessed -- and join in a chorus of Koom-bah-ya. But it was as if it suddenly reduced the heat in a very intense pressure-cooker.

The Nobel committee, who had a longstanding leaning toward mavericks, and a liberal attitude toward potential peace-keeping factors, liked the book too. That it wasn't a popular view among Terrans in my own field of ethology, or ethosociology, who'd made their reputations purporting largely opposite views, didn't endear me to my own peers. But they weren't on the awards committee. I won the Nobel after I met Sarek, but well before he proposed.

That I started off very young with a Zi and a Nobel made me even less well regarded by colleagues in my field. But my theories were useful in the Federation diplomatic community, who were often struggling to find some common ground with the new aliens in the Federation. It did give everyone a chance to take a break from fighting. Even if they couldn't agree who held title to what section of space, they could agree on some of these precepts. It gave them something to converse companionably about at a diplomatic reception. Then they went into the conference room and started slugging it out again.

Hey, it was only a book, not Surak's Peace Precepts.

The fury over my Nobel nomination was perhaps one of the things that first drew Sarek's notice to a new and otherwise obscure human researcher.

Though I earned my first awards before I met Sarek, it took me much longer to earn the next ones, in spite of the fact that traveling with my husband and going on his various diplomatic junkets gave me more field research than anyone, including I, could want. All of which I shamelessly exploited.

I didn't marry him for the free field experience, as some colleagues cattily supposed. No more than he married me for free analysis, which they also snarkily construed. In fact, his constant diplomatic traveling was a headache to my academic schedule. Teaching by subspace relay only sounds glamorous. It's not as bad as shouting down a well, or conversing with two tin cans and a string several light-years' long. But it leaves a lot to be desired.

But nothing beats living almost full time in a truly alien society to get the real impact of how little the doings of human beings mean to the majority of Federation aliens. That was probably the single greatest benefit I obtained – academically that is -- from my marriage.

Still in spite of all this free academic fodder, getting married, adjusting to marriage to a Vulcan, moving off planet, teaching at the VSA, having a baby, all take their toll on one's career. It took me another seven years – how mythical that number – to earn a second Zi.

That too was partially politically driven – a long treatise comparing the hereditary meritocracies of Helios warrior hives, Tellurian, Andorian and Rigillian political systems, and Federation corporate military-industrial and political nepotism -- with the tendencies driving and restricting aggression in these long standing systems.

Anything that looked like it might prevent a war tended to catch the eye of the Nobel committee, but I this time was only a nominee. A newer and even more radical prospect beat me out for the actual prize, much to Sarek and Spock's suppressed but real indignation. Sarek didn't have the time to develop any real understanding of the respective merits of either one of our papers. He had only an amateur's knowledge of my field to begin with, much as I did with his. But I think he was a bit shocked that a member of his clan might be up for an award and not actually win it. See? I told him it was that Vulcan meritocracy clan mentality kicking in. But I don't think he was appeased by the insight.

Even though in that go-round I was a Nobel 'loser', so to speak, as my mortified son characterized it, (secretly I believe he thought that if I were Vulcan, I would of course have won), the second Zi was prestigious enough that I still got quite a few requests to deliver conference keynotes. One on nearby Rigel, for my own professional society, I was tempted to accept.

With a small child and a widely traveled husband, I found I hungered for the gatherings of my own professional clan – an appetite I suspected would soon be more than satisfied after the first day or two of conference meetings in the ballrooms highlighted by academic back-biting in the corridors. But I still wanted to go. Spock was no preschool baby any more. Sarek would be home to hold the fort -- or Fortress as the case may be – and baby-sit. And I found a starship connection that would have me on Rigel and back in five days. It was too good a deal to miss. And after so many years of married life, I was looking forward to being entirely on my own for a few days, sans family attachments.

Marrying a Vulcan is all very well, at least at times. But after you are married, after you have a child, well, then you have them. At first all that bonding and Vulcan togetherness is novel and quite nice from a human female perspective. At least, he's not the average human male who spends the weekends watching spaceball tournaments and asking you to fetch him a beer, and while you're at it, please stop walking in front of the viewscreen during the big play. And far from leaving you stuck at home with the baby while he goes off to exotic destinations like Babel (yeah, right) a Vulcan husband actually wants you to go with him. Flattering, no? The stuff of romance novels.

You poor child. You're wrong, wrong, wrong.

At first it is flattering. It's only after the first few years that you are seized with an intense desire to hide the diplomatic packets in a flower pot in the garden after the Federation courier leaves. The desire fades, because you know that the Federation Undersecretary knows where you live and he will hunt you down if you try it. And then you'll have to explain to your oh-so-logical husband why his business correspondence is planted out there in the sand with the plomeek.

So you can understand why after a few years of this sort of togetherness, the idea of a few days sans husband and child – even at a snarky academic conference -- can sound more thrilling than any exotic Federation destination. It doesn't matter that you know long before the conference ends, you'll be sick of academic politics and its backbiting knife-wielding and more than willing to go home. Even if it means dealing with Federation politics and their backbiting knife-wielding.

You just want that all important change.

Actually I think I begin to understand why my husband thinks I'm illogical.

Change of scene, anyway.

However limited the change, I was determined to go. That my going alone was untraditional, by Vulcan standards, I was blithely prepared to ignore. I was a woman, a human woman, not a mouse. I was prepared to beard the Vulcan in his den.

Sarek was a bit taken aback when I mentioned – not asked -- that I was going.

He didn't quite lose his countenance. But he sat back from his work to stare at me across his office desk, brows raised. "You mean to travel alone? Quite alone?" He acted as if I was waltzing off to Shangri-La for the next eternity, without Sherpa guides to carry me over those treacherous mountain passes.

"I can board a starship without a Vulcan tour guide, you know," I teased him. "Anyway, why shouldn't I?"

He looked at me as if he was trying very hard to think of a logical reason, and one was stubbornly not appearing.

"Rigel's so close to Vulcan. And for once, there's nothing much going on in the Federation front. I'll be back home before you'll even notice I'm gone."

"I will notice," he said gravely, looking at me as if I had lost my mind, or thought he had, to suggest such a separation. "I will very much notice."

There, you see? Half the women I know would have crumbled at this point. But I was made of sterner stuff. No Minnie Mouse here.

"It will give you and Spock time for a little father/son bonding. Not in the telepathic sense," I amended, when he raised a brow and drew a breath to expostulate. "Just have time to spend together without me."

"Why would we want that?" Sarek asked, his forehead creasing in puzzlement.

By now, the violins should have been in full chorus, accompanied by a snowfall of rose petals, and most human women would be at his feet sobbing out their eternal love. But I had had seven years of this attitude. While familiarity hadn't yet bred contempt, it had bred familiarity. I could easily resist such charming statements, and they didn't deter me one iota from my goals. "Spock would love it. Oh, you know what I mean," I said, when by a raised brow he objected to my phraseology. "Take him on the Forge."

"He's doesn't need me. He's passed his Kahs Wan."

"He may not need you, but he wants you."

The other brow rose at that. "Amanda--"

I wasn't prepared to let him get a word in edgewise, lest he do what he usually does when he gets the upper hand in conversation – which is win any debate. "Oh, take him off and teach him something else, then. Astrophysics. Computers. Whatever. It will be good for both of you. And good for me, to spend some professional time at a conference. It's been a while, you know."

The latter statement made him sit back and reconsider. "I suppose given the circumstances, attending such a conference is a logical action," he said slowly, as if still trying to convince himself not to hate the idea. "With our diplomatic schedule, you have not had much opportunity to do so as of late."

"I'm glad you agree," I said. I knew that he had not actually come around and agreed. The he was still verbally trying out the radical notion of my – even temporarily – leaving him. But I took that half acquiescence and ran with it. "I'll make the reservations."

He looked at me again, for a long moment. I could tell that far from getting used to the idea, he liked it even less on reflection. That some considerable Vulcan discipline was required for him to accommodate it. But then he nodded. Once. A very controlled, very brief and sketchy Vulcan nod that gave me far more insight into his feelings about it than probably all my emotional expressions did in interpreting my behavior for him. But he had agreed, and that was all I needed.

"Sorry for interrupting your work," I said, before he had time to reconsider, or put any conditions on his tentative acquiescence. And in keeping with his reticent mood gave him a very brief and sketchy hug and kiss, by human standards, before walking out his office door.

In general, Sarek is nothing but decided. But contrary to his usual manner, he then proceeded to change his mind three times.

To be continued…