◊ ◊ ◊
Queen Marapura’s phone buzzed several times before it pulled her from sleep. She woke with a start, immediately checking the clock on her nightstand—a fraction past four in the morning. Dread squeezed her as she snatched up the phone.
“Majesty,” Jasper Singh’s voice cracked. “A man…called to ask…in orbit now…”
“Easy, Jasper,” Marapura tried to keep the rising panic out of her voice. Her First of Communications never lost his composure. “Take a breath, then start again.”
“A signal came in on a channel we never use. A man identified himself as the captain of a Starship.”
“Starship? As in the stars in the sky?”
“Yes, Highness. He said his ship orbits Callinda now.”
“Orbits?” She could not stop repeating him. “Like our satellites?” She shivered. “Do you think this is a hoax, Jasper?”
“No, Majesty. There are no satellites where this signal is coming from.”
“Is this captain waiting for a reply?”
“I’ll be right down.”
The Palace Communications room became stuffy very quickly. Staff, aides and advisors stood near the control panel. More bunched up outside the door and trailed down the hallway. Commander of the Home Guard, General Horatio Jones, and Prime Minister Collier Cabot stood close to the Queen. For such a huge crowd, it made not a peep. Everyone wanted to hear.
Marapura sat at the communications board next to Jasper. “Captain,” she said lightly, “how do we know you’re not really a mischief-maker, come here to start trouble?”
A chuckle came from the speaker. “I don’t blame your security people for being concerned.”
The Queen swallowed a smile as the General shuffled behind her.
The captain continued, “If we wanted to cause mischief, Your Majesty, you would have known by now.”
He presented a frightening scenario in a sincere and direct manner. Marapura already liked this Jonathan Archer. She wondered if he had arms and legs, if he had a face, if skin or scales or something else covered him. And if Captain Archer’s appearance turned out to be revolting to her, Marapura would remember this conversation and her first impression of him. She would make friends with the person, not the appearance.
She realized a moment too many had passed without her reply. “We would be honored to receive you and your party, Captain Archer. Can you tell me who is coming with you?”
“My chief engineer, my armory officer and my communications officer.”
“Are they…” she hesitated a moment. “…male? Female? Something…else?”
Now Archer hesitated. “Two men, one woman. Is this an issue, Your Majesty?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” she replied lightly. “It’s just good to know these little details.”
She glanced at her First Aide standing behind the Prime Minister, who scribbled on a note pad. The Queen smiled. Good girl.
“Shall we say a little later this morning, then?”
“I apologize for contacting you so early,” Archer said. “We’ve set a clock to keep track of Callinda’s time—twenty seven hours in a day, correct?”
“How about 09:00 for a meeting time?”
Marapura glanced at the wall clock. “Oh-nine-hundred is a fine time, Captain. Can you find the Palace air pad?”
“Yes, we can.”
“Then, I look forward to our meeting.”
“As do I. Archer out.”
The signal cut out. Jasper shut down the power. The room erupted.
Surrounded by babble and chaos, Marapura stood slowly, flexing some of the tension out of her body.
“Majesty,” General Jones began, leaning close. He was a bulldog of a man, midnight black with pug features. “Are you sure this is wise?”
The Queen laid a quieting hand on his arm. “I know you’re worried, Horatio. I take it as a good sign that Captain Archer asked to be received.”
General Jones scowled. “No doubt he could land and study us covertly, if he liked. Perhaps, he already has.”
“Of course, you’ll stand with me and the Prime Minister when we receive them—get a closer look.”
Jones stepped back and bowed. “Yes, my Queen.”
She leaned over her chair to Collier Cabot. “Well?”
The Prime Minister shrugged, his thick salt and pepper hair awry, his complexion sallow in the harsh light. “We’re in unknown territory. Think of it—we’ve just talked to someone not of our world who is now coming for tea. Fantastic. We must be careful,” he nodded to the General. “But, I look forward to meeting this captain.”
The Queen nodded, then turned to a balding man standing quietly nearby. “We have guests coming and only four hours to prepare. Can you work your magic, Robby?”
Robinson Dinh, Staff Father to the Queen, adjusted his glasses, then stuck two fingers in his mouth and let fly a piercing whistle. The commotion died down.
“Everyone.” His quiet voice carried through the crowd. “State Reception Protocol. Elspeth?”
Raising her hand, the First Cook stood inside the door, pale and disheveled. Dinh smiled at her.
“Let’s keep meals simple until we know what our guests can digest.”
Elspeth curtsied and elbowed her way out of the room.
“The rest of you,” Dinh continued, “report to your Firsts. Off you go, now.”
As he herded the crowd out the door, a tall, broad man made his way to the Queen. Chocolate-skinned and light as a dancer on his feet, the First of Palace Security parted the crowd like water. His black eyes flicked to the General.
“Majesty,” his bass voice rumbled.
“I know what you’re thinking, Ra,” she said, pulling him and the General toward her. “Protect me. Protect our citizens, but also respect our guests. No weapons on the honor guard, Ra.”
“Pardon, Ma’am, but…”
“No,” she said gently, but with no margin. “Work together on any other concerns, but this is my command.”
“Yes, Majesty,” both men replied, then, left the emptying room together.
Marapura watched the rest of the staff leave, and then let out a deep breath. While the Prime Minister conferred with Jasper, she turned to her First Aide.
“We may or may not need Guides today, Adrianna,” she said. “Be prepared either way.”
The young woman nodded, her golden hair uncharacteristically bound in a hurried ponytail. Several of the Queen’s other aides waited for her as she curtsied and hurried out the door.
Finally, Marapura turned to the Prime Minister. He stood with his arms crossed over his suit coat, hands tucked under armpits. His familiar brown eyes snapped. His bushy eyebrows arched high.
“Breakfast, Colli?” she asked.
“Coffee,” he answered, following her out. “Lots of coffee.”
The early spring sun warmed Queen Marapura’s upturned face. It soaked through the intricate brocade of her gown until her shoulder flushed under the weight of her braid. The thick silence of her honor guard to the right contrasted with the crowd’s growing susurrus behind the security gates on the left. So much to take in on this lovely, first day of Quatora—a day to be featured in Callinda’s history books.
“Majesty,” Adrianna whispered urgently, “we’re not ready!”
Marapura found her First Aide’s hand. “Be at ease,” she said softly. “All will unfold as intended.”
The Queen knew frantic preparations were still going on in the Palace behind her, but she felt completely at peace. She stood in the brilliant sunlight of the tiled Avenue and offered up gratitude for her staff. Most of them had served her father and stayed on when he died. At sixteen, Marapura’s sorrow over losing him, the only parent she had ever known, left her floundering under the sovereign’s mantle. The staff gently tailored the mantle and nurtured the girl. Twenty-four years later, the Queen wore her sovereignty like a second skin. She was grateful for that, as well.
Adrianna’s grip tightened on the Queen’s hand, and the Prime Minister said, “They’re here.”
Marapura opened her eyes, blinded at first by the daylight, and then saw a bright spark move across the southern sky. Approaching quickly, the stub-nosed craft looked more like a large family vehicle than a mysterious spaceship. She stepped quickly down the Avenue to the landing ship, Adrianna, the General, the Prime Minister and Ra at her side. Before they could reach the craft, its wide side door swung up, and a man in a dark blue jumpsuit eased out.
A man. Marapura’s step stuttered. Two arms, two legs, one head. His skin looked like hers down to the color, his hair a shade darker than her own. As she slowed her approach, another man jumped out of the door, and then another. Lastly, an elegant woman lined up next to the men.
Marapura’s heart pounded. Of all the possibilities, she never thought the visitors might resemble Callindans. But, she knew the Captain at once; first out of the craft, taller, broader, strong features, kind eyes. They were her father’s eyes.
“Captain Archer,” the Queen smiled, “Callinda opens her heart and her arms. Be welcome.” She placed her hands over her heart and bowed in the traditional Callindan greeting.
Archer smiled broadly. “Your Majesty.” He matched her bow. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
She gestured to the men behind her. “This is Home Guard Commander, General Horatio Jones.”
Jones stepped forward, a striking figure in his tailored, black uniform. Alert and wary, he bobbed his head slightly. “Be welcome, Captain.”
A faint smile rolled across Archer’s face, then disappeared. “On our world, we greet each other like this.” He extended his hand.
Jones glanced at Archer, then at his hand.
“In ancient times,” the Captain continued, “it was considered a test of strength.”
“Ah.” Jones lifted his chin, his eyes twinkling.
He slid his hand into Archer’s. From appearances, the two men simply stood with hands clasped. But the Queen knew her General. She hoped for a minimum of broken bones.
They released each other, then grinned as they flexed their misused hands.
Men, Marapura mused. Are they the same on every planet?
However, Archer’s subtle challenge discharged some of the General’s defensiveness. This captain reads people well, she thought.
“And this is our Prime Minister, Collier Cabot,” she said.
“You honor us with your visit,” Cabot said, extending his hand.
Archer hesitated only a moment. “The honor is mine, Prime Minister.”
The Queen also knew her Prime Minister. She wondered if Captain Archer could sense Colli’s quiet strength and great heart. At the very least, he must feel a difference between the two hands. She watched a knowing register on Archer’s face, and the same expression come over the Prime Minister’s. They seemed to understand each other.
Archer took in Ra and Adrianna, but he turned his attention back to the Queen. His eyes crinkled in a smile. Like Father’s, she thought, and couldn’t help but smile back.
“Let me introduce my senior officers.” He nodded at the well-built, blond man next to him. “My Chief Engineer, Commander Charles Tucker.”
Marapura gazed into the man’s sincere face, and stretched out her hand. Tucker took it gently.
“Most people just call me Trip, Ma’am.”
She placed her other hand over theirs. This custom could be wonderfully intimate.
“Blue eyes are very rare here, Trip. I think, because my eyes are blue, the general perception is that they’re a sign of royalty. I fear the women of Mandalay will chase after you mercilessly.”
Trip remained sober. “That won’t be a problem, Ma’am.”
The Queen smiled. “So I see.”
Archer moved with her to the next man. “My Armory Officer, Lieutenant Malcolm Reed.”
Reed was shorter, more compact, than Tucker, but powerful through the chest and shoulders—dark hair, and, again, blazing blue eyes.
“Your Majesty.” Reed came to attention and bowed.
“Lieutenant Reed, you honor me.” Again, the Queen extended her hand. “Unfortunately, you’ll have the same bother as Trip.”
The Lieutenant’s grip was firm and warm. A crooked smile answered her. “No bother, Mum.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Marapura took his hand in both of hers. He possessed incredible strength, but it seemed mostly under the surface. “Being the Armory Officer, you must know all kinds of ways to defend yourself.”
“Yes, Mum,” he smirked, “if the need should arise.”
“And this,” Archer continued, “is my Communications Officer, Ensign Hoshi Sato.”
The young woman was even more beautiful up close; ivory skin, a heart-shaped face framed by black hair, and almond eyes that defied definition. The shape was similar to the Chan, Yee and Dinh Lines, yet different. She seemed of average height, where the Chan Line was tall, and the Yee and Dinh Lines petite.
Intrigued, Marapura reached out with both hands. Sato’s eyes flicked to the Captain, then to the Queen. Slowly, she accepted the hands offered her. “Your Majesty,” she said, dipping in a quick curtsy.
“Forgive me for staring, but you’re so lovely, Ensign.”
She lowered her eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“I hope you have time to talk with our First of Communication. Jasper is beside himself about your visit.”
Sato smiled carefully. “I’ll make sure to see him.”
Marapura squeezed the young Ensign’s hands before letting them go. She turned toward the Captain and gestured at the Palace. As she turned, the audience behind the security fences cheered. Camera strobes flashed.
“Your public, Captain.”
She smiled as Archer and the rest of his people, tentatively raised their hands at the crowd.
In the palace Press Room, Marapura sat with the Enterprise officers out of decorum, not out of any delusion of being interviewed. The reporters asked about the crew’s home planet (Earth), their species (Human with one Denobulan and one Vulcan), Earth’s history of star flight, what kinds of species the crew had encountered. Captain Archer answered each question thoughtfully or turned it over to one of his officers who fielded the questions with grace and humor. Photographers’ strobes flashed continuously.
Then, the questions turned more personal. Reporters asked about the crew’s families and how individuals coped with stress. Marapura noticed how the officers fidgeted with discomfort over these questions. And, when a note of irritation crept into the Captain’s voice, she smoothly concluded the session.
“Thank you,” Archer whispered, leading his people into the hallway.
“You’re more private than we are.” She studied his profile. “You must let me know which topics make you uncomfortable. Or…would that make you uncomfortable?”
Archer grinned, but said nothing.
“I noticed, too, that you stepped around specific questions about technology.”
“There are just some questions I can’t answer.”
“I understand,” Marapura told him. “You’re an advanced race. Sharing such information with us might be harmful.”
Archer watched her carefully. “Yes.”
“Long ago, our scientists discovered Callindan metals too weak for space exploration. We can put communication satellites into orbit, but anything more seems beyond us. Still we love the stars.” She turned to smile at the crew behind her. “We’ve always wondered if Someone Else lived out there.”
“If you can’t go to them, Ma’am,” Trip said, “they’ll just have to come to you.”
“Bittersweet,” she replied, turning back to Archer. She studied him, contemplating. His smile turned quizzical at her scrutiny.
“I’m wondering,” she began. “The rigors of your life in space sound overwhelming. Would you and your people care to rest here awhile?”
“That’s…” Archer glanced around at his team. “…very kind, Your Majesty. What exactly are you offering?”
She shrugged. ”Rest. Relaxation. Whatever you like. I believe you said there are 84 in your crew?”
The Captain stopped. “Shore leave. For the whole ship?”
She saw Adrianna waiting for them outside the Dining Hall doors and nodded to her. The young woman smiled, obviously pleased.
“This is my First Aide, Adrianna Reneau,” the Queen told Archer. “She will take charge of your people and their guides.”
“Guides?” Archer asked.
“To make sure your people find what they need,” the aide replied, then snapped her mouth closed and looked to the Queen.
“It’s all right, dear,” Marapura assured her. “Please continue.”
“Think of us as your hosts, sir.” Red blotches crept up Adrianna’s neck, but she met the Captain’s eyes. “They will experience all the city of Mandalay has to offer. And if your people wish to travel outside the city or explore on their own, we’ll see to the arrangements.”
Archer looked at the girl with a puzzled smile, then the Queen. “You’re too generous, Majesty.”
“It’s our way,” she said simply. “We’d never leave guests alone in the city—that would be a horrible lapse of hospitality.”
“I’ve asked your personal guides to join us for lunch,” Adrianna said, “so you can get acquainted.”
She pushed open the huge doors. A long, formal table dominated a room dressed in rose and brown. Tall, arched windows lined the south wall, opening on a view of the shrubs and flowers of the Avenue with the transport vehicle in the distance. General Jones and Prime Minister Cabot joined them as they entered.
“I’ve informed the staff to reroute your calls to my office until further notice,” Cabot told her.
“Thank you, Prime Minister,” she said, then noticed Archer’s puzzled expression.
“I don’t want to interfere with your duties, Your Highness,” he said.
“Right now, you’re my only duty, Captain. If you’ll allow me, I’ll be your guide while you’re here.”
“I can’t let you…”
Marapura placed a light hand on his arm. “I’m the Queen,” she said conspiratorially. “I can let me.”
“Thank you,” he said with a little bow.
Grinning, Adrianna said, “Let me introduce the other guides.”
Marapura nodded her approval at Adrianna’s choices. Briank Juarez made an excellent match for Ensign Sato with his interests in language, politics and literature. She wondered if the Ensign would attend Briank’s State soccer match later in the week.
No one else on the staff knew as much about the criminal mind as Marissa Singh. For such a reserved, petite woman, she enjoyed shocking the Queen with bloody stories of madness and crime. Marapura saw that Lieutenant Reed was already under her spell.
Adrianna turned to Trip. “And I’ll be assisting you, Commander.”
Trip blinked. “I’m all yours, Miss Adrianna.”
Archer chewed and swallowed. “You mean your entire population is descended from fifteen couples?”
“The Fifteen Lines, yes, Sir,” Briank set down his fork, his handsome, caramel features animated. “There are many myths about them—in one the Fifteen emerged from the Void as mature adults.”
“Another is that the Fifteen crawled from the sea and evolved over time,” Marissa added.
The Prime Minister said, “My favorite is that The All cast them out of paradise for disobedience, exiling them to Callinda for penance. Gives us a roguish past.”
Archer chewed thoughtfully. “The total population of your planet, North and South, is eighteen million.”
“Give or take,” General Jones said.
“In my experience,” the Captain continued carefully, “a population this small could never support the level of technology you’ve achieved.”
“Interesting,” Adrianna pursed her mouth. “What does it mean?”
Archer shook his head.
Marapura leaned toward the Captain. “Our species are very similar, aren’t they?”
“I’ve never been to a planet so much like Earth,” he replied. “I’ve not seen much of your country yet, but…” He tapped the china dinner plate. “… even your food is familiar. The vegetables in the salad—we call them cucumbers and tomatoes.”
“So do we,” the Queen said, a tightness suddenly in her throat.
Archer frowned. “If we could look at your records…” He looked down at his plate, then at his officers. “I’m sorry, Majesty,” he said. “Your history is none of our business. I’m being nosy.”
“No, no! This is a great mystery. The fact that I understand what ‘nosy’ means is the tiniest part of it.”
Emotions warred within the Queen. While she liked Captain Archer and believed in his benevolence, she dreaded what his people might find in the archives. How can we be so alike? Who are these people? She met his eyes and held them, looking for the answer, seeing only her questions mirrored back to her.
“I’ll tell our Archivist,” she said. “He’ll help any way he can.”
Archer nodded once. “Maybe he could meet with my science officer tomorrow.”
Marapura nodded. “It looks like everyone is done with their meal,” she forced her voice to be lighter. “May we send your officers off to enjoy the day, Captain?”
Archer smiled. “Sure.”
The Queen signaled Adrianna, who signaled the other guides. Briank helped Hoshi out of her chair while Marissa beckoned Malcolm to follow her. Trip sidled up beside Adrianna as the group left, the process of becoming comfortable together already in motion.
“Before you and Captain Archer begin,” the Prime Minister said, reaching in his pocket. He presented her with an electronic device that fit in her palm.
“Ra and I gave these to the other guides,” he said. “If you need… assistance… while away from the Palace, push the button. General Jones will be monitoring.”
“But, Ra will be with us.” She looked from the General to the Prime Minister. “Why would I need this?”
“For insurance,” Archer answered, eyeing Cabot. The Prime Minister met his gaze with a smile.
“I take it Ra is the big guy by the door,” Archer said, nodding in that direction.
“He’s my First of Security.”
Ra folded his arms across his chest and leveled a stoney glare at Archer.
Posturing, Mara thought in dismay.
She stood, more to dissipate the awkwardness than to leave the room, but she was the only uncomfortable one. The men seemed to be enjoying themselves as they stood as one.
“General, Prime Minister.” Archer shook both their hands. “An honor.”
The General nodded curtly and left, but Cabot continued to smile and gripped Archer’s hand a moment longer. His eyes snapped with mirth. Then, he sketched a bow and left.
“He’s very thorough, your Prime Minister.”
“We went to school together,” she said, spinning the signal device on the tablecloth. “He still thinks he has to look out for me.”
She spun the little machine again. A long pause followed. Finally, the Queen raised her eyes to the Captain’s placid, waiting face.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I hesitate to ask. So many members of Congress are here…Would you be willing… and I understand completely if you’re not…Could you address them?”
“Congress.” Archer’s back straightened.
“Well, and the Radiant Court judges…and the governors who managed to get here this morning.”
The Queen grimaced. “Now, actually.”
The Captain took a breath. “I’m not much of a speaker.”
“I’m sorry. I offered you our hospitality, and all you’ve gotten is one tedious meeting after another.”
“And a fine meal.” He drained his coffee.
Marapura smiled. “I’ll tell Cook.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Click here to read Chapter 2.