The human Steve put his hands up to his face and made a sound Xix previously thought humans only made when they were in fear. It was high pitched, something the humans would call keening. Except the human Steve didn’t appear to be fearing for his life. He should have been. They all should have been. They all were.
Except the human Steve.
“What is it?” he asked, sounding the way humans did after they had done several minutes of physical exertion.
“That,” Rnollo said as he barely looked up from his clipboard, “is what we’re here to find out.
“There was once a thriving civilization on this planet,” Bob said, scratching between his fin ridges with a long claw. “It’s entirely possible that is what made it cease.”
The human Steve looked at Bob with a face twisted in many directions. The human Steve was the first human Xix had personally worked with on an expedition before, and there were many things about the species Xix was still learning. Xix’s own people, the Xmoxmies back on planet Exxo, showed emotion through fluctuating shades of color on an otherwise still face. The human Steve’s face changed colors rarely in very specific situations. All other emotions were worn as his face was pulled and twisted in different directions like he was made entirely of pliunt fibers.
It made discussions…difficult.
The expression the human Steve was currently wearing was, if Xix remembered the training correctly, incredulity. As though he couldn’t believe that the new exospecies standing across the clearing was capable of destroying an entire civilization. This did not make sense to Xix. The human Steve had been exploring with the Union for nearly twice as long as Xix had. Surely he knew the sort of dangers that lurked in every well of the universe.
“But it’s so cute,” Steve said, staring at the animal.
On Xix’s other side, Rnollo burbled in exasperation.
“I don’t like having humans on expeditions,” Rnollo had told him some cycles before. It had been the two of them, drinking in Rnollo’s suite during their off-time, and Xix had been sure that if Rnollo had not already consumed four glasses of purple ripple he would not have said such a thing out loud. Nor the things that were to follow.
“It’s the problem with interacting with species from other galaxies, you see? These humans did not evolve in Nlax galaxy and therefore they are too different. Too difficult to understand. Too excitable. Barely more evolved than your average animal. They cannot even regulate their emotions! They are ruled by them. It is obscene.”
Xix hadn’t said anything. He could tell Rnollo didn’t want him to, and anyway he hadn’t met the human Steve by then so he didn’t have anything to add.
Since meeting the human Steve, he had found that Rnollo was not wrong. But he liked the human Steve, at least the way you would like a small child or animal. Something nice, friendly…something you had to protect.
“Human Steve, please do not approach the wild beast,” Xix said, his face turning the color of caring.
Steve made a snort sound that Xix had come to learn was some sort of humor sound. “Wild beast? What are you even talking about?”
The animal on the other side of the clearing was roughly half the height of Steve. It had vicious teeth which it bared toward them, and four giant paws which clearly held retracted claws. It was staring at all of them, a low growl emanating from its throat. Xix had the weapon issued by the Union up and ready. So did Rnollo and Bob as they slowly backed up to the edge of the clearing.
Meanwhile, the human Steve’s weapon was still in its holster. And he was taking steps toward the ferocious, snarling animal.
“Human Steve, please,” Xix said, his face turning the color of fear for another.
The human Steve stopped in his tracks and turned to face the rest of the team. The hairs above his eyes went up in a way that Xix now knew meant surprise.
“What the hell is the matter with you guys?”
“There is a beast ready to attack not thirty lihs away, that is what is wrong,” Rnollo said, his tone unkind.
“Man, can’t you guys tell? It’s not ready to attack. It’s scared. And hungry. And I think hurt.”
The exospecies was, indeed, very thin. Bones were protruding from under its skin and thin fur. And as it paced back and forth on its side of the clearing there was an obvious limp. One of its paws seemed mangled, as though something larger had stepped on it.
“We should put it out of its misery,” Rnollo said as he lifted the weapon.
“What? No! Stop! For fuck’s sake, Rnollo, just give me a second with it, will you? Damn, man.”
Rnollo hesitated. If the human Steve knew how to read Bloonhert faces, he would have known that Rnollo only put the weapon down because he hoped that the exospecies would tear the human Steve apart and relieve him of what Rnollo had privately called babysitting duty.
But of course the human Steve could not read Rnollo the way others from their galaxy could, so the human Steve offered genuine thanks before going back toward the beast.
It was so terrifying Xix could not look away. The human Steve slowly worked his way across the clearing toward the beast. He kept his hands up with palms down, an expression of safety, and made soft noises as he slowly pressed forward.
The beast paced and growled, its eyes occasionally switching from the human Steve to the others. It became more and more agitated the closer the human Steve got, until Xix was sure it would lunge.
The human Steve stopped. With slow motions, never stopping the soft noises, he pulled his pack around to the front and blindly rooted around inside. When he pulled his hand back out, he had one of his human snacks in his hand. Something he referred to as jerky. He broke the packaging and held up a piece. Xix’s face turned the color of anticipation as he waited for the beast to attack the human Steve.
The beast smelled the jerky.
The growling stopped.
The beast’s fangs disappeared, and it’s eyes widened. Xix did not know what this meant, but the human Steve smiled which Xix took as a good sign.
Xix, Rnollo, and Bob all watched in wonder as the beast limped its way toward the human Steve. The human Steve held out the jerky, and the beast shied back, but then lunged forward. Xix nearly screamed, sure it would have the human Steve’s arm in its mouth.
It only took the jerky.
While it was eating, the human Steve reached out and put his hand on the beast head. The beast did not tear his limb off. Instead it allowed the human Steve to gently stroke between its ears.
Bob hummed in relieved confusion.
Rnollo only grunted.
“How did you know it was a friend?” Bob asked.
“It’s face and it’s paws, mostly,” the human Steve said, now on his knees and rubbing the giant beast’s belly. “While it looks similar to the other species we’ve seen on this planet there are some differences in paw shape and even the arch of its back that indicates to me that this animal had been domesticated in the past and changed to fit the prevailing species needs. You know, before their civilization crumbled. While the species has obviously gone feral since, I assumed they still retained their need for companionship and affection.”
Xix’s face changed to the color of being impressed. And embarrassment. Sometimes it was easy to forget that, despite their childlike nature, there was a reason humans were allowed in the Union at all. Their open faces and easy-going nature sometimes hid their intelligence, both intellectual and emotional. Without the human Steve, they would have surely shot the creature now making happy noises at Steve’s feet. Humans truly were worthy of admission to the Union.
The academic tone in Steve’s voice changed to something almost sing-songy and childlike as he leaned all his weight on the beast and ran his hands over its fur.
“Also, just look at this guy. Look at him! Look at him, he’s so cute. He’s so cute he’d never hurt anyone. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that right Captain Rex? That’s right, I’m going to call you Captain Rex, because you’re the king. You’re the king, that’s right. Who’s a good king? Who’s a good king?”
Xix’s face once again turned to the color of embarrassment, this time for another person.