Ooord''Nik was a Tangcalan, upper caste, breeding stock. He had no business messing around with brane manifold moduators and hypervacuum energy injectors! What had been--what was supposed to have been--a quick jaunt to the Rim for a Spawning Day party had turned into a...a fiasco, and when he got back to Core he was going to write a very strongly worded missive to the Cartographers' Guild about...about that.
"That" was a fresh supernova--it could not be more than one of this miserable planet's rotations old--and the neutrino shockwave from its explosion had scrambled half the pathways in his starship's hypernexus, throwing him right out of upspace and...here.
He sighed. It had only been a short time since he'd landed the lifepod here in a large grassland, trying to avoid the little infrared blips which indicated lifeforms. Mostly they were clustered a fair distance from him, three groups, one tall being surrounded by several dozen short ones, but he'd landed uncomfortably close to a medium-sized settlement. The short ones could have been children, he supposed, but he didn't care enough to find out. Learning things about primitive worlds was beneath his breeding.
Ooord''Nik looked up, trying to see one of the ululating nighttime birds that were careening across the sky, but all he heard was their singing--loud and obnoxious, almost sounding like speech except that (as any sensible person knew) there were no clicks and pops in it. No civilized creature talked in pure vowel sounds!
Well--except for the Ngothh. He had to keep them in mind. That was one of the reasons he was here: he'd inadvertently insulted an Ngothh official, and part of his apology was attending the thing's Spawning Day celebration with a gift for the offensive little--
Focus, he told himself, looking at the nearly incomprehensible maze of waveguides. He knew he had to polarize them in a certain order; the pod's manual had told him what it was and he could see it as clearly as he could see the actual machinery in front of him. But the one at the bottom was just barely out of reach, and--
The nose made him bump his head on the hatch, and he turned to see two of the repulsive natives standing there, surrounded by a cluster of children or animals which grunted at each other, and after regarding the natives for a moment he switched on his translator.
"Hello, friend," one of them was saying to him. The words he said sounded like a bunch of meaningless vowel sounds but the translation came through clearly. "Isn't it exciting?"
"Isn't what exciting?" Ooord''Nik said, trying not to sound too impatient.
The creature gestured. "All this! The [untranslatable] are singing! And the star, the star! They're saying that a new king has been born!"
"We're going to see him," his cohort said. "You should come with us!"
"No," Ooord''Nik said. "I need to repair my ship, and then be on my way."
"Are you [untranslatable]?" The first one asked.
"No, he's not," the second one said.
"Baaa," went one of their children.
"No [untranslatable]-man would wear his hair thus," the second one finished, heedless of the interruption.
The translator said, "Untranslatable word identified. Ethnic identification. 'Roman.' No further context."
"He might be a [untranslatable]," the first one said.
"At the city of David? Here, friend; are you a Samaritan?"
To forestall further speculation, Ooord''Nik said testily, "Yes, yes, whatever. Please depart and go visit your king. Give him my good wishes--only, leave me to my work!"
"No! You must come with us," the second one said. "The [untranslatable] say he's to be a king to all men--even Samaritans! Let's go and see him!"
"I'm not a--" Ooord''Nik bit the thought off. Saying that would only complicate matters, leading to an endless series of questions which doubtless would only serve to further infuriate him. The two creatures were pulling at him, urging him away from the pod; finally he touched a control that would seal it against all intrusion and allowed himself to be led towards the settlement.
The two creatures chattered excitedly as they walked. Ooord''Nik rapidly deduced that the beasts which surrounded them were some kind of domesticated animal rather than offspring, which simultaneously made him feel both better and worse about his predicament. Why did they need so many of them?
He was not worried about diseases. These creatures had a strange biochemistry that appeared entirely incompatible with his own, but even if they had been, he was wearing an encounter suit which completely insulated him from the indigenous environment. Judging by the implements he saw them carrying and using, this world had barely mastered the working of iron, and mere iron weapons could not penetrate his encounter suit. But at the same time, he looked different enough from them that if they understood what his form resembled, they might panic, and he did not want to cause any kind of incident on what was clearly an uncharted world.
In his favor, though, it was obvious that these creatures were diurnal in nature, and even with the Anomaly shining bright in the sky--now, somehow, seeming almost right overhead--they didn't seem to see all that well.
They came at last into the settlement. The place was lit with torchieres and lamps that burned some kind of oil. It was not "well lit" by any reasonable standard; but as they passed through gates guarded by natives in brightly polished armor, the amount of light increased somewhat. Ooord''Nik had no trouble seeing--the encounter suit took care of that--but the two natives escorting him now seemed to notice something.
"You're lame," the first one said.
"No, this is how I walk." Ooord''Nik was careful to have only two feet on the ground at any one time, keeping one hidden inside the folds of the encounter suit--the gait from a silly child's game--but he'd long since passed into adulthood and was out of practice.
"This way, this way!" The second one urged them onward. Ooord''Nik was hard-pressed to keep up with them; they naturally went on two legs, but he did not; if he could have used his third--
They came at last to a low building, and after some jostling through a crowd Ooord''Nik found himself standing in a building which was clearly meant for housing domesticated animals, but in which two natives had made a bivouac.
The two natives that had hustled Ooord''Nik here went to their knees, saying something that the translator could not cope with. At last Ooord''Nik was able to crouch and put down his third foot; with some stability he now looked at the object of the natives' attention: a pink, disgusting blob, wrapped in cloth, laying on a bed of animal fodder that itself was in some kind of elevated basket-like container. As he considered the thing, this weird object of reverence, Ooord''Nik realized this must be an immature native.
"How long since the child was born?" He asked, hoping he was using the correct terminology.
The native to the left of the child said something which meant nothing to Ooord''Nik, but his translator helpfully supplied temporal coordinates he understood, and he realized that--by some wild coincidence--this child had been born at the very instant that the shock wave of the Anomaly had knocked him out of upspace.
Then he caught himself. "Child"--in thinking about this recently-hatched podling, he'd unconsciously used the word reserved for children of his own caste! It was unthinkable to use that word for the offspring of any caste other than one's own! It was one of the grossest breaches of etiquette....
But try as he might, Ooord''Nik could not think of this youngling as anything other than "a child".
He tried "kid", "squaw", "issue", "birth product", and several others, each a word from another caste--used by members of anyone other than the caste it was from, the word was vaguely insulting--but none of them fit like "child" did.
And he wasn't even the right SPECIES.
The child's eyes opened then, and after a moment they fixated on Ooord''Nik. He tried to look away, but could not; and after a moment the child smiled at him.
And at that moment, Ooord''Nik understood.
* * *
Standing at the spawning pit of the Ngothh ambassador's hereditary residence, Ooord''Nik wasted no time rejecting the speech he'd rehearsed time and again on his trip...well, prior to its interruption. He abandoned grudging words that had been carefully selected to give absolutely no excuse for offense while carrying a subtly insulting undertone.
"Ambassador, I beg your indulgence," Ooord''Nik said. "Pray forgive my words."
The ambassador blinked each of his twelve eyes in rapid succession; clearly he had not been expecting an honest apology. But Ooord''Nik was not finished.
"We live at a fortunate time," Ooord''Nik went on. "I must tell you of the wonder that I've beheld with my own poor excuse for an optical system, using words which are equally poor. Everything that I am is inadequate to the task of explaining to you what I have witnessed on my way here, and yet I am the messenger who brings you the most important thing you will ever hear.
"I beg your indulgence further because the message is poorly translated, but I captured several recordings of the sounds so that we might someday get a better translation of what was being said, over and over again.
"But in the language we share, ambassador, the message is, 'Peace to all planets, and good will to all species.'"