"Gaaah, Jotun! Why do we have to deal with those furry giants?" Nik raged. He was an Alba Norn, dressed in the usual Albian Federation uniform of an Engineer.
"Because they rule the galaxy, Nik," chided Llane, the captain. He was a Malay, but had a slight hint of Hebe in his genes.
"I still don't like it," grumbled Nik, and slumped back in his seat. They were on a Jotun shuttle with the rest of the crew of the 'Intrepid', heading for Port 5, the newly built spaceport.
"Cheer up, Nik. They're still Sheeborne, like us," said Oya, the Chief of Security and a Golden Desert Norn. Llane nodded, but Nik scowled.
"They're big, dumb and smug," he grumbled. "They're strange, too. They don't do things like us."
Llane sighed and laid back in the huge, comfy seat designed for someone twice as big as he was. The Jotun may be strange, he thought, but they were certainly nice to us.
Llane awoke to the sound of the docking clamps. He was barely surprised to find he had fallen asleep in the vast, warm seat, and that many of the other crew were just waking too. Nik, however, was still awake.
"Please stand back while the doors open," rumbled the speakers in a deep bass Jotun accent. The circular door span open, and cool, refreshing air washed over them. In the doorway was a slim shape, with six limbs and a long, lashing tail. Not a Jotun, but one of their robotic allies.
"Ah, the Albian delegation," it said smoothly, with a light, pleasant accent completely unlike a Jotun. "I am Frei. Please follow me."
"Uh, all right then," said Llane, noticing the broad hips and thin waist of the robot. Frei smiled weakly.
"In case you are wondering, I am a female. Any further questions about cybernetic gender can be answered by someone who may find it a less... personal subject."
"Oh, um, thank you," mumbled Llane, and dropped to the floor. The rest of the crew followed and were led along huge winding corridors. The entire station seemed big, even for Jotun standards.
"This station is built large enough to accompany the needs of the largest residents of the Empire," said Frei, noticing their astonished and upward gazes. Nik snorted.
"Yeah, their Empire," he mumbled. Llane shot him a savage glance.
"Not a xenophobic word while were here, Nik! I don't want you to ruin our relations with the strongest race in the galaxy!" Llane hissed. Nik scowled in silence.
"Aha! The Norns are here," boomed the Commander of the station, he massive bulk looming over them even from across his desk. Llane smiled as politely as he could.
"We are very happy to be here, Commander Thjoran," he said, giving a crisp salute. The Commander returned a perfect Jotun salute, thumping his right fist on his chest.
"I can see we will get along just fine," the Jotun mused, ignoring Nik's glare. "After all, we are all Sheeborne here, excepting our metallic friend here."
Frei gave a small bow and opened the door with a wave of one hand.
"This way to your quarters and the mess hall," she said, her tail flicking back and forth.
"Oh, wow!" Oya exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. "This is much better than what we get on ship! Heck, this is better than what I get at home!"
Her quarters were huge, as large as a house. The bed was vast and comfortable, and the kitchen full of the best food. Each surface was clean and polished; each sheet was crisp and pressed.
"Hey," Oya said, looking through the cupboards in the kitchen, "if we each have our own kitchens, how come there's a mess hall?"
"Some like to eat socially, some can't cook," Frei replied, reaching to a high shelf and taking down a couple of mugs with her tail. "Coffee?"
"Yes, please," Oya replied. "But I didn't know robots could drink."
"Oh, we can," said Frei, sitting down at the table. Oya sat down too, and the stool rose up until she was at the right height. "Milk?"
"Yes, thank you. Two sugars."
Frei made the coffee quickly, using all four arms and her tail. Oya watched on, enraptured.
"Why do they build robots with tails?" Oya asked, sipping at her coffee.
"It's a useful thing to have, I suppose. I don't really know, though I can't imagine life without it. The only ones who would know have been dead for thousands of years."
Oya stopped, her coffee halfway to her lips. She blinked slowly.
"The Jotun Empire is that old?"
"Oh, yes," said Frei, surprised. "We were exploring the galaxy many millennia ago. I thought everyone knew that."
"Everyone except me, it seems," Oya smiled. "Thanks for the coffee."
"Oh, no problem," said Frei, and carried the cups to the side. "I'm the only female on the station. It's nice to talk to another girl at times."
"You know, you robots are more alive than I thought. You have faces, you eat and drink, you have genders..." Oya trailed off and blushed.
"I know what you're thinking now," said Frei, and leaned closer across the table, "and the answer is 'yes'. But 'how' is a personal matter."
"Oh... Erm, thank you," Oya stuttered. Frei laughed and walked out of the door, waving.
That night Llane slept better than he had done for years. The alarm woke him, but didn't infuriate him like the one on the 'Intrepid'. Feeling happy and refreshed, he sleepily pulled him uniform on and decided to have his breakfast in the mess hall.
So, it seemed, had everyone else. The entire crew had their own special table, so Llane took a tray, got some toast and coffee and joined them.
"Hello, captain," said Oya, giving a lazy salute. She ate another spoonful of cereal and smiled. Gradually, everyone on the table stopped chewing, staring at some place past Llane's ear.
"What is it?" Llane asked. Slowly, he became aware of a loud hum of activity behind him. He turned, and his toast dropped from his hand.
The Jotun had arrived for breakfast, and their table was piled high with all manner of food. Huge stacks of pancakes as high as a Norn, enormous coffee pots and mugs to match. There was a steady motion of Jotun constantly eating.
"Animals," grunted Nik, and took a savage bite from his toast. Oya glared at him.
"So they need to eat a lot. To keep up their strength, I expect."
"Hey, Lokain! We've run out of bacon!" One of the Jotun called out. Another Jotun got up and grabbed two trays, each heavily laden with bacon. Through the sounds of constant eating, certain voices could be heard.
"Pass the sausages?"
"Where's the Terzt syrup?"
"Has anyone seen the milk?"
"Oh, bugger, there goes the last of the bacon again."
"Only fifteen pancakes left!"
"Who's got the toast?"
"I can't find the sugar!"
"Hey, somebody pass the ketchup?"
"Alright, the bugger who's taken my mead can give it back now."
The doors slid open just in time, as Commander Thjoran swept in, dressed in smart black uniform with two golden bands on the right sleeve.
"Breakfast!" He boomed happily, and informally shoved into the crowd. "Now, somebody pass the bacon!"
"Wulfen's eaten it all, the greedy bugger," cried out one voice. Thjoran thumped the tabled, rattling plates and mugs.
"Odin! More bacon!"
Out of the kitchen area loomed another robot, with four pairs of arms. He saluted with three.
"Aye aye, sir!" He called out in a broad accent, and soon the air filled with the scent and noise of frying bacon. Meanwhile, Thjoran filled a massive mug with a few pints of coffee, liberally adding sugar and milk.
"Not eating much, eh?" Thjoran called out to the Norns. Llane realised he hadn't eaten anything since the Jotun came in.
"Um, we, er..." Llane stammered.
"Good god! You Jotun are like bottomless pits!" An ensign exclaimed. Llane took in a deep breath, dreading what would come next, but Thjoran just laughed loudly.
"HAH! That's a good one! We are, aren't we?" He said, grabbing a pile of pancakes and setting on them. Llane nervously nibbled a bit of toast and sighed.
"As the Commander, or should I say Captain, of your vessel, you must understand the importance of defence," Thjoran said, walking slowly along the corridor so Llane's much smaller steps.
"Indeed," nodded Llane.
"You may know that this sector contains pirates and hostile aliens, such as the Borg Norns."
Llane flinched at the mention of the Borg Norns. He had fought against them a decade ago, and had lost a leg in the vicious final battle that drove them away from Albia.
"Despite numerous tries to eradicate them, they continue to appear mysteriously, especially in this sector."
"This sector?" Llane asked, looking up in surprise. "But we're at the edge of the galaxy. There's nothing but young stars here."
"I know, but that doesn't change anything," Thjoran said, stopping in front of a huge black, circular door. He placed his palm down on a scanner next to it and it glowed briefly and clicked.
"Commander Thjoran. Pass," said the computer. The door slid open soundlessly, and Llane followed the massive Jotun inside.
"Anti-Matter-Missiles, Singularity Torpedoes, Nova Mines and some other stuff. It's been a while since I read the manual," said Thjoran, waving a hand over a vast bank of buttons and controls.
"That's very impressive, compared to our weapons on board the 'Intrepid'."
"Care to upgrade? We could equip you with the latest in stealth, armour and weaponry."
"I'm not sure if the Federation would allow that."
"Nonsense!" Thjoran roared happily, shaking his long mane. "The Albian Federation is part of the Empire."
"Only recently, though. Many think that you're... too overbearing," Llane said, walking out the door.
"Overbearing? What do you mean?" Thjoran asked, following him. The door shut and locked behind him.
"Well, you know, that you're too... er, smug. Arrogant, sort of."
"We have to be smug. We do rule the galaxy. Well, most of it, anyway."
Llane hesitated, unsure about what the massive Jotun had just said. "I'm not sure I understand. You have to be smug?"
"Ah, it's all politics, you see? Every race grows up thinking they're the best, the biggest fish in the small pond, as they say on Midgard. Suddenly they find they're in a much larger pond, and they are far from being the biggest fish," Thjoran said, and chuckled darkly to himself. "They try to regain some of their arrogance, their pride at being the best. Almost every race has it, even if they are unaware of it. But trying to become the best can lead to acts of terrorism and worse."
"I see," nodded Llane, smiling to himself. "But what do you mean by almost every race?"
"Now that," said Thjoran sagely, tapping the side of his nose, "would be telling."
The following day Llane awoke to find half the bridge crew assembled at his door.
"What is it?" Llane mumbled. Oya pointed down the hall.
"The new diplomats are arriving sir, and, er, we think you should see them."
Llane quickly finished his coffee and set off with the others in tow. He had never seen any aliens in his life. The Jotun didn't really count, being Sheeborne, and neither did the Borg Norns, being Nornir in biology.
As he rounded the corner of the huge corridor, he came face to beak with a gigantic bird. It screeched at him, hot breath washing over him.
It turned its head to look at him, and Llane could see that the entire from half of its head was smooth, black beak, curved at the end. On each side of it's head was a large luminous orange eye that almost took up the entire head, with the pupil shrunk down to a mere dot in the centre.
"Jho... dhan tar ahrn?" Llane stuttered in weak Jotun. The alien snorted and straightened up.
"Ah," it said in perfect Jotun, albeit extremely shrilly, "other delegates. You are the Nornir, correct?"
"Yes," Frei said, appearing behind the Norns from the corridor. "Glad to see you, your Necroship. Llane, this is the Necro-Lord Kreeeln"
"Hmmm," said Kreeeln, pruning his feathers. "They appear curious to the eyes. How did they evolve?"
"They are Sheeborne, like the Jotun."
"Oh," replied the Necro-Lord, his voice immediately acid. He stared venomously at Llane, reflecting the Norn's entire face in his vast eye. He let out a piercing shriek and swept off, his wings trailing behind him like a cloak.
"What was that about?" Oya asked one the tall avian had gone. Frei sighed.
"Oh, that's just the Kibbrin way. They are suspicious of genetic research. They approve of robots, oddly."
"Why is that?"
"They evolved from carrion eaters, six-limbed vulture-like creatures. In certain rituals they still eat corpses. Why they would tolerate unliving servants is beyond me. Organics are a mystery," sighed Frei. She looked down at the Norns glaring upwards and gave a little chuckle. "No offence, flop ears."
"I'm sure," said Oya, brushing a lock of hair from here eyes.
"But for aliens, they are very similar to you," said Frei, looking up at the door, which was opening again.
"Similar? Did you see its eye?"
"He, Captain Llane. He was a male of his species... Oh," she replied, staring at the alien diplomats just entering the station.
Llane turned and looked. And nearly screamed out loud.