‘Your hair needs cutting. Surprised they didn’t tell you that,’ the man said, once the two of them were inside his car and Straker was rubbing the water from his face. His contact had said very little, just a quick handshake and a curt greeting before leading the way to the shelter of the car.
Straker pulled the thick plait over his shoulder and looked at it. ‘Cutting? Is this unsuitable?’ he frowned, digging in the recesses of his mind for facts about hair. ‘Ah. Yes. I understand. Military short hair. I had not appreciated the term. I will see to it.’ He had fallen into formal speech, he realised with a start; it was something that he would need to control in future.
The man shrugged. ‘No problem. I know a barber. He’ll do a good job. Tomorrow.’ He started the engine and drove off, the pouring rain making visibility difficult. ‘You Straker? That’s what she told me. Your Captain. T’Lia.’ He glanced sideways at his passenger. ‘Should introduce myself. Name’s Thornton. I work for the US Government. Special Operations, that sort of thing.’ He concentrated on driving for a moment and then gestured at the passenger footwell. ‘Briefcase down there has your details. Passport, birth certificate, driving licence and so on. You should get familiar with them.’
Straker leafed through the papers. ‘Lieutenant Colonel? Air Force?’
‘Yep. Henderson’s been on the lookout for an aide for a while now. No one’s taken his fancy. Has to be someone with experience. He won’t even look at anyone below that. Birth certificate puts you at 27, early for that rank, but that’s to attract the General.’ There was a pause as he changed gear and the car accelerated. ‘I’ve arranged for you to stay in a hotel for the first few weeks. Out of the way. Just until you’ve settled. Now. Cover story. Best we could come up with at short notice was a repatriated ex-POW. Explains your unfamiliarity with current systems. Won’t give any details though; let everyone assume you were working covert ops. That way no one’s gonna ask awkward questions. If all goes well I’ll arrange a bump promotion to full bird by presidential order later.’ He took his eyes of the road, glanced over at Straker and grinned. ‘Can’t have Henderson’s aide a mere short bird can we? Besides it’ll give you more clout.’
Clout. Straker accessed his memories again. Not a blow with the hand, but power and influence, especially political power. An interesting word. He read the other documents. Nothing unexpected or likely to cause difficulties. The Master’s degree in astrophysics was far below his own level, and he should have no problems fitting into the USAF Military Intelligence group, just until Henderson noticed him and if all went according to plan, recruited him.
By the time they reached the hotel Thornton had chosen, it was getting late. The hotel was geared to business men, the rooms bland and modern, the staff efficient and uninterested in the guests and no one commented on his hair or unusual clothing. Just another traveller. His room was on the first floor and Thornton accompanied him, carrying one of the bags like a porter. ‘Best if you stay in here. Get whatever you want on room service and I’ll be round in the morning first thing with a barber. We’ll get that hair cut and then breakfast at work. There’re clothes inside that should fit.’ And then he was walking down the corridor and into the lift without looking back, a short figure, incongruous in casual clothes, the only sign of any link to the military his steel grey, short-cropped hair. Straker wondered if his own would be that short tomorrow.
He put his bags down and closed the door. Another room. Another order to stay hidden. He wondered if he would ever be free. But at least this room was spacious and had a window. He opened the blinds and looked out. Stars in the sky, and a sliver of moon. Such an insignificant moon, and so colourless, so dull in some respects. Would he ever get to see it close up?
The wardrobe held an assortment of clothes including military suits, and he opened his bags, hanging his tunics alongside the unfamiliar and somewhat fussy clothes, jackets with medals and insignia, uniform trousers and some decidedly non-military garments. He examined a pair of trousers, the material stiff and blue, the seams oversewn. Denim. That was what the material was called; these must be jeans then. They looked decidedly uncomfortable. Thornton had provided shirts and ties, shoes, socks, even some items of underwear, although in a style very different to his usual garment.
There was a box inside one of his holdalls, not one he had seen before, wrapped in hand-crafted sandstone-red tissue, the folds of the paper precise and beautiful, exquisite calligraphy on the tiny card written in ancient Vulcan. He translated it. Straehk. May you live long and prosper. There was no clue as to his benefactor. It was almost a shame to unwrap the parcel, and he folded the tissue with care, smoothing out creases before opening the lid of the box and lifting out a glass ball, cradling it in long fingers, aware of a sensation of heat on stone. A memory globe. He had heard of them but never thought to see one, let alone hold such a rare and precious object. He loosened his fingers and the sensation changed, cool breezes over the desert at night, the shirring of sand in the wind, and the scuffles of lizards scurrying for cover before the temperature dropped. He held the globe for a long time, just remembering, before putting it back in its box and returning to his tasks.
The bathroom was larger than his cabin on the ship, and he explored the facilities, eventually undressing to step under the warm water that fell like rain. Afterwards, a long time afterwards, he dabbed himself dry with one of the thick towels and sat on the bed combing his hair and plaiting it, fingers twisting the thick, damp strands into place as he had done every night for as long as he could remember.
One single plait. The mark of his tribe. It was foolish to be sentimental about something as unimportant as this, and yet the thought of some stranger cutting it from him in the morning was wrong. It was family who cut hair, who severed the five-stranded plait of a single male on the occasion of his marriage. There would be no betrothed waiting for him tomorrow, no family gathered, sharpened blade ready, giggling children watching from the corners, unmarried nieces blushing as he was given advice by T’Shaan’s sisters and his hair was cut with slow sweeps of the blade by the married menfolk. There were no women here to trim the rest of his hair into a neat shape and ready him for the ceremony. He would have gifted the plait to his wife. A pledge of his commitment to her and their life together, presenting it across open palms for her acceptance. T’Shaan had talked about what she would do with his gift: weave it into a tapestry, or sew the seams of a first-born’s naming robe, or simply hang in a thick swathe beside their bed. But he had never given it to her. And never would.
He put the thought away and undid his workday plait, combing the blonde fall of damp hair until it was sleek and ready. Standing there, alone in the room, he plaited it again. Five strands now. He took his time, twisting thick ropes of hair into place, fingers supple and practiced, though he had never done this to his own hair before. The only time. It had to be right, and he murmured the traditional words spoken at this event, ending with the final blessing just as his fingers completed the last twist. The single ribbon of her cloth to hold the strands together and it was done.
He found his knife.
It was sharp and made short work of the task, and afterwards, when it was over, he held the promise to T’Shaan in his hands and said the time-honoured words of giving, unable to prevent tears falling. He wrapped it with care in the tissue paper from the globe before tucking it at the bottom of one holdall, safe and out of the way. He would burn it later. The traditional end, the right and proper thing to do.
Room service brought a simple meal later, the only foods he could recognise on the intricate and confusing menu: vegetable soup, fresh bread and butter, fruit juice and a sweet pastry filled with baked apple. Unusual flavours, yet satisfying enough. He put the tray outside, closing the door and then opening the window a few inches to let warm air into the room. One hand rubbed the back of his neck as if testing the thick and uneven wedge of rawcut hair. It felt draughty and weightless. Tomorrow the barber would trim it into a style appropriate for his future life. He would get used to it. Eventually.
The night passed without incident although the noises outside his room perturbed him at times. Cars in the distance, the doppelganger of a siren rising and falling, shouts and laughter. The bed was larger and softer than he was used to, the room over-warm after the cool of his cabin on the ship. And he rose with the sun, well before anyone else in the building, dressing in his own clothes for a final time before going into the grounds of the hotel to walk, alone as always.
Thornton was waiting in his room when he returned, another man with him, slender and small, thin faced. ‘Beginning to wonder where you’d got to. In future, don’t go anywhere without letting us know.’ It was a curt reminder of Straker’s position here and he bowed his head in contrition. Thornton gestured at the other man. ‘This is Jackson. Among his many hidden talents is the ability to cut hair. I’ll leave you in his tender care and see you both later at the office. You know what you’re doing Jackson?’ There was a note of amusement in Thornton’s voice and Jackson tilted his head and gave a quirky smile.
‘Of course, General.’
Straker watched Thornton leave, then turned. ‘A General? Thornton?’ It seemed ludicrous that a man of such informality and brevity of words, as well as so casual in manners and dress, could have such status.
Jackson frowned. ‘But of course. Lieutenant General Thornton. A high ranking officer. It requires a man of influence to get you into a position to help Earth and he works in covert operations for much of the time. General Thornton is one of the few men on Earth who know of the existence of Vulcan. That is your world? Am I right? You are the first Vulcan, in fact the first alien I have encountered.’
‘Then. Welcome to Earth, Colonel Straker. I am Dr. Jackson, one of General Thornton’s assistants, but today I am merely your barber. Now, if you would sit down I can….’ He frowned as Straker turned. ‘Thornton said you had ..?’ His accent was difficult to understand at first, but Straker knew what the small man was asking.
‘I cut it last night. Easier for you I hope?’ The single chair was waiting in the middle of the room, one of the bath towels spread out underneath and he sat down, self-consciously running his fingers up the thick swathe of rough cut hair tousled by the breeze. Jackson stepped forward and began work, lifting jaw-length strands hair and ruthlessly cutting away the choppy remnants as Straker closed his eyes against the never-before sensation of severed hair falling onto his face and neck, tickling his skin and lips.
Jackson’s fingers ruffled through thick wedges of blonde hair, scissors snipping with what appeared to be almost casual haste, yet there was a sense of skill in his movements, as if this was something he did often. No one spoke as blonde strands shimmered like rain onto the towel. A last flourish of scissors, then fingers ran up his neck and scalp as Jackson’s hands made sure that the final result was suitable.
‘Done. Go and shower. You wear the uniform for work, blue shirt, tie, jacket and trousers to match. You’ll be fitted for a flight suit and other items once we get to the base. Do you need any help?’ There was an droll tone to the question.
‘Suit. Tie. That sort of thing. Your people don’t wear those, I believe, judging from your own clothes.’
‘Should I require help, I will inform you.’ Straker felt a tinge of dislike for the man. No adult Vulcan required help dressing, and to offer assistance, unasked, was tantamount to an insult. But, he reasoned, he was the outsider and perhaps this was Jackson’s attempt to be friendly. He undid his outer jacket, slipping it off his shoulders and laid it on the bed, aware of the other man’s eyes watching every move, then he waited, arms folded, until Jackson nodded and left him in peace.
It was a relief to close the door and strip off the now itchy garments, shaking them free of shorn hair, folding them and then cleansing his body under water again. An unheard-of luxury, such abundant warm water, pouring down over him with no thought of restrictions. One quick remembrance of standing in the darkness as cold water fell over him. he put the thought aside and washed his hair, smoothing the strands back from his face. It felt… neat. And light after so many years of the weighty plait.
The natural fabric of underclothes and socks was close to the texture of his own clothes and pleasing to the touch as he dressed, fastening buttons of the shirt with care and frowning at the unusual metal fastener of the trousers. Shoes next. They fitted as well as new shoes can ever fit, the leather stiff but well-polished. He lifted the tie from its hanger and closed his eyes to bring the instructions to mind. Fingers moved, the thin material twisting and looping as he pulled it around his neck. A strange sensation, but he tugged it into position and reached for the jacket, pausing to slide one finger over the rows of ribbons and wondering what each signified. Honour in battle no doubt, though the thought was somehow repelling. But a necessary evil, this pretence of being a heroic war-monger, a fighter. And yet, was that not what he was doing here, on this planet? Helping to wage war?
He shook his head at his own foolishness and went to meet Jackson.