The ice ended sharply at the edge of a beautiful stone stairway leading down to the wide metal doors of a stone building set deep into the frozen surface, its rounded roof covered with layers of ice and snow.
At the top of the stairs, they stopped to unlash the ropes around her possessions and, with sometimes two or three to a box, carried the load inside. The steps, narrow with short risers, built for small legs and feet, were awkward for Allyah as she carefully descended and entered through the open doorway after the Mishka.
She found a shallow storage area stacked on either side with Galactic Union labeled supplies, and, ahead of her, a set of doors made of a smooth, dark wood that could never have grown on this planet opened into a huge room with separate living areas, divided by head high partitions covered with rich fabrics. To Allyah's amazement, the room held all the comforts of a modern home. On the right was a kitchen, complete with autochef, recycler, and the latest model of the Universal Garment Creator. To her left was a laboratory, well stocked with electronic equipment, where McKinley must have done the analysis for his reports. Walking down the wide, empty aisle in the center of the room, she found a comfortable lounge area on the right with a deep cushioned sofa, a bar, and an entertainment center; to the left, an office with desk and communicator; a sleeping area in the far left corner; and the walls of a refresher unit in the corner on the right. There were no windows, but each area was lit by ordinary glowtubes suspended on long cables from the high ceiling. Allyah's environmental suit registered a comfortable external temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
She pulled off her headpiece, shaking loose her short, brown curls, and turned toward the Mishka. They all stood near the closed front door by her belongings, their huge, round eyes watching her expectantly. Three of them stepped forward as she came back, and Allyah studied the tiny faces turned up to her. Surrounded by thick white lashes, their eyes were disproportionately large and very blue, above a delicate, almost human nose and pale lips. The hair covering their faces was short, almost like fuzz, gradually lengthening and curling over the tops of round, furry ears perched attentively atop each side of the head.
In a soft, breathy voice, the center female said in perfect Union Standard, "Welcome to this planet," and, placing a small hand on her chest, added, "This Mishka gives greetings."
All of them bobbed down and up at the knees in a surprisingly graceful half squat.
McKinley's notes indicated they were unable to understand most instructions and had difficulty with communicating, but Allyah had no trouble understanding the little Mishka. Recovering from her surprise, she replied, also in Standard, giving the canned greeting of the First Contact Ambassador. She spoke with heartfelt sincerity, realizing this was the first time . . . ever . . . that she had uttered these words on an alien world.
"I bid you greetings, on behalf of the Galactic Union and the Galactic Union Director, Robert Atherton. We thank you for the honor of allowing us to visit your world and to learn about your people and your culture. It is our hope that you will grant us the privilege of introducing you to our people and our way of life, in order that we may move into the future in peace and harmony with one another." She bent her knees in the way she had seen them do.
There was a rustle of movement among them that could have been alarm. Fearing she had misinterpreted the gesture, Allyah spoke quickly, raising her hand beseechingly.
"Please, forgive me if I have given any offense. It is not my intention to offer insult, only to learn from you. Please inform me if I ever do or say anything inappropriate."
The middle Mishka said, "Nothing was done wrong. This," and she repeated the bob, "is a sign of respect from one lower to another higher. The Mishka were not expecting it from this McKinley."
Were they unable to distinguish one human from another? Allyah wondered. Hoping she was interpreting the Mishka's response correctly, Allyah bobbed again.
"I am here to learn from you and I greet you as a student to a teacher." The Mishka visibly relaxed, and she saw a few of them smile. "I am not McKinley," she said, placing a hand on her own chest, "I am Ambassador Allyah Ahern."
The female struggled to understand, "If you are not McKinley, what is your purpose?" She faltered somewhat on the pronouns, her forehead creasing in a very humanlike frown. Confused, Allyah tried to think. The Mishka must believe she and McKinley were the same in some way, not just of the same species, but that they had the same reasons for being on the planet. That was true, up to a point, but somehow she had to show them she was different from him and wanted to be treated as an individual, not just another version of him.
"Ambassador is what I do," she said, carefully. "Allyah is my individual name and Ahern is my family name."
With a worried glance at the male and female on either side of her, who looked decidedly uncomfortable, the female asked, "Then you are Ambassador?"
This time signs of relief were apparent throughout the group. "Good," the female said and, as though finally satisfied about something, motioned to the group of Mishka standing behind her. They immediately parted, walking around Allyah and down the long central aisle to pass through another dark doorway at the end of the room, the last one closing the door gently behind them.
As they filtered past, Allyah was struck by how similar they were to one another and that she could not have told them apart. Only the first female and her two companions remained.
"This Mishka," she said, tiny hand on her chest, "and that Mishka," pointing to the female on her left, "and that Mishka," indicating the male, "will be here to help."
Feeling as though she had missed something very important, Allyah hesitantly smiled at the trio. "Thank you. I will be grateful for any assistance you can give me." She wasn't sure just what form that help would take, but at least it appeared they weren't yet throwing her out.
Glancing at the gear stacked on the floor, the female said, "That McKinley kept items in this room. Is it appropriate for this Ambassador also to keep items here?"
With relief she realized they intended to let her remain for quite a while. "Yes," she said, knowing McKinley would not be coming back. "I think this would be an ideal place for my things."
As Allyah moved to begin unpacking, the female asked in her soft voice, "Please, is this Ambassador male or female?"
Surprised and somewhat annoyed with herself for not clarifying that in the beginning, she also wondered why McKinley hadn't taught them the outward differences in human sexes. What additional information had he neglected to convey? The Mishka, clothed only in the covering of their own thick body hair, obviously shared humanoid genders.
"I am female," she said with a smile, vowing to make this the first of many lessons on humans. The female also smiled, sharing what seemed to be a significant glance with her companions, as though confirming her own deduction.