© 2000 by Kate Halleron
IT’S A LONG WAY TO ALPHA CENTAURI
As Kate Murphy docked her shuttlecraft with the starship Walesa, she briefly rearranged the skirts of the unfashionable sari-like garment she habitually wore. She worked hard to make her appearance as unimposing as possible; it was bad enough being on honorary everything-she-could-think-of without looking like it. Something told her as she stepped off the shuttle that this was probably the largest reception any passenger of the Walesa had ever received, and she groaned inwardly. There were at leasi twenty crewmembers of various stripes, and species, gather on the tiny dock, but Kate was pleased to note by their startled expressions that she was not quite what they were expecting.
The Captain stepped forward, human, as was most of the crew gathered there, and indeed, as was most of the Fleet. Although the Galactic League had originally been largely run by the Osirins, since the admission of Earth less than a hundred years ago humans had come to fill most of the more hazardous and adventurous niches in the League, leaving the Osirins to concentrate on such things as diplomacy. This woman was considerably older than was usual for starship Captains, and had an air of quiet authority and animal grace that Kate had rarely run across. Kate noted that the Captain’s tall black physique stood in sharp contrast to her own short solid one.
“We are honored to have you aboard, Ambassador,” the Captain greeted her, bowing from the waist in the Osirin manner. The Osirin etiquette still prevailed throughout the League, adapted to other circumstances and anatomies. “I am Captain Alicia Jameson. You have no companions?” she queried; her voice was low and smooth as honey.
Kate returned the bow, then extended her hand for the more familiar handshake. “No, Captain. I find it easier to make new friends if I don’t encumber myself with old ones. One becomes acclimated to new cultures much more rapidly that way.”
“The Ambassador’s unorthodox methods are widely known and respected,” the Osirin who stood to Captain Jameson’s left remarked. He bowed, too, a long low bow, his head touching the floor between his long spade like feet. Such a bow was much easier for the Osirin as his knees bent backward, like a bird’s, and his gaunt frame was more loosely articulated than a human’s. Although standing more than a foot taller than anyone else in the room, he was short for an Osirin. The pronoun “he” was commonly used in Earth Standard - that form of English that had eventually swallowed up and assimilated most other Earth languages, and was in the process of swallowing up many other languages of the League - to refer to Osirins, although Osirins had three sexes, none of which had any correlation on Earth.
Kate turned and bowed to the Osirin. “My first Officer, Lt. Zyxyz,” the Captain introduced him.
“I am deeply honored,” Kate replied in the Osirin mode, thinking the words rather than speaking them. She noted with pleasure the surprise on the First Officer’s face.
“Wonderful, Ambassador,” Zyxyz said, aloud. “I was unaware you spoke Osirin.”
“A little, but I barely receive it, I’m sorry to say. My telecommunicative skills are rather limited.”
“That you have any at all attests to your talents. Few humans can master any of the techniques.”
“Thank you; you honor me,” Kate said, beginning to weary of the formalities, although it never paid to ignore them where Osirins were concerned.
Captain Jameson evidently noted this, for she hurried through the other introductions, and Kate viewed her with mounting respect for her perception. “I have assigned Lt. Yeng to look after your comfort, Ambassador,” she said, indicating a human male whose heavily Asian features mirrored the slight Mongolian cast of Kate’s own. He had stood attentively during the introductions, quietly unimpressed, and Kate immediately found herself liking him.
The Captain continued, “The journey to Tektu will take approximately two weeks. The Walesa is not the fastest ship in the Fleet, but she’s reliable. If there's anything you need, please don’t hesitate to inform us - we desire to make your trip as pleasant for you as possible.”
As though on cue, the crew of the Walesa began to exit quietly, leaving only the Captain and Lt. Yeng. “I’m sure you will, Captain Jameson,” Kate replied, glad to feel she was no longer under inspection by the bulk of the ship's complement. “I’m most eager to reach Tektu. As I’m sure you’re aware, I’ve been called in to arrange a peace settlement between the warring factions, and thousands of people die every day I’m delayed.”
“Yes, Ambassador, I’m aware of that. That is why, although you may not have noticed, we pulled out of Earth orbit as soon as you were on board.”
“No, I didn’t notice, Captain. Thank you. You’re very efficient. And please, call me Kate - I absolutely abhor formality.”
Captain Jameson quirked one eyebrow. “You’ve chosen an odd profession, then,” she observed.
“That’s a long story,” Kate replied, following Captain Jameson and Lt. Yeng through the inner hatch and down a corridor.
“I’d be interested to hear it sometime,” the Captain said. “In the meantime - Kate, if you wish - I would like to introduce you to one more member of the crew who could not meet you at the shuttle dock. I think you’ll find him interesting.”
She ushered Kate and Lt. Yeng through another hatch into a large room that held what looked for all the world like a swimming pool. Kate was amazed that such a small ship would waste so much space, but then a long elegant shape arched out of the pool to dive back into the water with hardly a splash. A dolphin, black with a large white spot over its left eye, raised its head out of the pool and greeted the Captain with a laugh, or so it sounded to Kate.
“Ambassador Katharine Murphy, allow me to introduce Ensign Spot. Actually, his real name is almost unpronounceable, but that is how it translates“
“Oh, wonderful,” Kate breathed, unexpectedly charmed. “I didn’t know we’d been able to employ cetaceans on starships.”
“We’re experimenting,” the Captain said, obviously pleased with Kate’s reaction. “Up until now, the Osirins, being telecommunicative, were the only ones who could talk to them. Although cetaceans have full citizenship in the League, it seemed the two Earth sapients were not of much use to each other. But Lt. Zyxyz and Ensign Dontu have been working with Ensign Spot on a solution.”
A young Ronuen padded hurriedly over to the Captain’s party and bowed. “We’re ready to demonstrate the translator for the Haktu,” he said, his hackles raised in evident excitement.
“Very well, Ensign,” Captain Jameson returned the bow, “you may proceed. Ensign Dontu hurried away, his claws ticking on the tile that edged the saltwater pool. “He very much wants to impress you,” the Captain said to Kate. “‘Haktu’ is one of your titles, isn’t it?”
“An honorary one,” Kate replied. “It means ‘Prince,’ the Ronuen until recently having no female rulers.”
“Which you earned by forging the Ronuen alliance,” Lt. Yeng filled in. Kate was surprised to hear him speak; he had been silent for so long. His voice was deep and rich, like dark chocolate. “Making it possible for the Ensign to join the Fleet and fulfill a lifelong dream. And the Ronuen have no honorary titles.”
They were of a height, and as Kate turned to study him, she found herself looking deep into dark eyes. She could not define what she found there, but she hoped to learn more about this quiet human.
Ensign Spot had in the meantime continued to swim around in the pool, emitting a series of shrill whistles and clicks. A speaker sputter overhead, and Kate heard, “Greetings, Ambassador Katharine Murphy,” mechanical and untinged by emotion or expression, above the clicks and squeals of the dolphin.
“Is it the dolphin?” Kate asked, amazed as Ensign Dontu hurried up once more.
“Yes,” Alicia said, pleased. “I’ll let Ensign Dontu explain, as it’s his project.”
The Ronuen twitched his long tufted ears. “Actually, Haktu, Lt. Zyxyz and I are working jointly. Since cetacean languages are notoriously difficult for land-evolved life forms, we find it necessary to resort to mechanical means, although it’s never been successfully tried before. Since the Osirins can understand both language systems, I approached Lt. Zyxyz about designing a device that could convert Dolphin into Standard, although one loses much of the nuances of language and expression. We’re still working on it. We hope it will one day have far wider application.”
“As a diplomat, I can certainly understand the importance,” Kate agreed, causing the young Ronuen’s ears to twitch even faster, this time with pleasure and pride.
“Not as well as I do,” the voice on the speaker said.
“He can understand me?” Kate asked.
“Of course I can, that’s the idea,” the dolphin replied, leaping and diving again.
“So it is. I’m a little slow today. I beg your pardon.” Kate bowed to Ensign Spot as low as she was able.
“Pardon granted, although I don’t know why you want it.”
Kate laughed. “I see I’ll have to learn an entirely new protocol for dealing with dolphins. I’m looking forward to it; it may be one of the most pleasant tasks I’ve ever undertaken. I do have one question, Ensign. Why on a starship? Wouldn’t this sort of experiment be easier to conduct on Earth?”
“The translator is only part of the experiment, Haktu,” the Ronuen replied. “We also want too see how cooperation between species can aid the Fleet. Ensign Spot has many talents.”
“And duties,” the Captain said. “He’s one of our navigators.”
With this startling piece of information, Alicia led Kate out of Ensign Spot’s quarters back into the corridor.
“If you will excuse me,” the Captain said to Kate, “I will return to my duties. I leave you in the very capable hands of Lt. Yeng.” She bowed deeply, then gracefully turned on one booted toe and strode down the corridor.
Kate followed the lieutenant as he led her to the ship’s sparsely furnished guest quarters. “If there is nothing you need right away, Ambassador, I will go bring your belongings from the shuttle for you.”
“No need, Lieutenant,” she said, indicating the handbag she carried. “I travel light - a change of clothing, a deck of cards.”
“You are a most impressive woman,” he remarked.
“But you’re not impressed. Why?”
The lieutenant shrugged, a motion that expressed both more and less than the ordinary human shrug. “You are human, just like the rest of us.”
Kate smiled. “I believe I like you. By the way, I didn’t catch your first name.”
“Mitchell, but you may call me Mitch if it so pleases you.”
“So formal, for someone who is not impressed with me.”
Mitch shrugged again. “Standard is not my native tongue, so please forgive me if I am unacquainted with the more informal forms you prefer.”
“So you’re not from Earth then? One of the colonies?” Kate asked.
“I was born on the old Earth colony of Tang. I ran away to join the Fleet when I was fifteen.”
“Ran away? From an entire planet? That must have been quite a feat.”
“I stowed away on one of the trader ships that occasionally visited the colony, and by the time I was discovered, it was too late for them to turn back. I worked my passage to Earth, where I studied for entrance to the Fleet Academy.”
“And got in? At fifteen?”
“I would like to say yes, but no, not right away. As a matter of fact, I believe I still hold the record for number of failed entrance exams.”
Kate quirked an eyebrow inquiringly. “May I ask how many?”
“Seventeen?! Well, Mitch, you probably hold the Earth record for stubbornness, too.”
“Perhaps. I knew it was what I wanted,” he said simply.
Kate’s green eyes studied him intently. He returned her gaze, quite unabashedly, studying her, also. “Few humans could say that with such conviction.”
“I have told you of myself. Now I would like you to tell me of yourself,” Mitch said, settling into one of the two chairs the room boasted.
Kate took the other one. “Well,” she began, “I am from Earth. My family’s lived in the same house for over four hundred years. I was visiting home when the call came about the Tektu negotiations. It’s an unusual house; it’s more or less a gigantic treehouse. My many-greats grandfather, Padraig Murphy, built it for his Chinese pride around the turn of the twentieth century.”
Mitch listened as though this were the most interesting thing he had ever heard, but with a cool detachment that puzzled Kate. It was as though he already knew what she was going to say. “Have you heard this story before?”
“No, why do you ask?”
“Because you seem to be anticipating me.”
“Not at all. I find it most engrossing. But I am more interested in why you became a diplomat.”
Kate did not answer for a moment, once more studying the short Asian man who sat across from her. He was about her age, perhaps a little older, as marked by the sprinkling of gray in his otherwise dark hair, and the lines around his eyes that betrayed a sense of humor he had not yet exhibited. She sat back in her chair. “That’s a long story.”
“I am at your disposal,” he replied.
So she told him how, as a student at Cambridge during the Student Riots, she had opened the doors for resolution of the conflict. “So then, the Osirins approached me and offered me entrance to the League Academy of Diplomacy. I couldn’t refuse, even though it was not what I had originally planned.”
“What had you planned?”
“I wanted to teach exobiology; that’s what I was studying at Cambridge. But they offered me the galaxy, and it was too good to pass up. I never made it to the Academy, though.”
“The ship I was on strayed into disputed territory. We were captured by the Xia, so I spent some time as a prisoner of war. It wasn’t so bad - the Xia are quite civilized, despite their reputation.”
“And you negotiated your own release, and that of your fellow passengers.”
“You knew that?” she asked, surprised.
“You are a very popular figure, and most of your life is public knowledge. Many of the crew read up on you when it was known you were to be a passenger.”
“So what’s all this wanting me to tell you about myself?” Kate asked angrily.
“Because the biographies are incomplete,” he said, unperturbed. “They record actions, but not motivations. For instance, why did you not enter the Academy after your release?”
“The Osirins felt that my peculiar talents might be watered down or destroyed by their notoriously intense training,” she replied, mollified, but still puzzled by this enigmatic man. “So all the training they’ve given me is in linguistics, and they’ve otherwise pretty much left me on my own.”
“With great success,” he observed, “but tell me, why is a diplomat of your caliber being sent to resolve a minor border dispute on an undistinguished planet?”
“It’s not minor when lives are being lost.”
“Not human lives,” he said.
“No, not human lives,” Kate responded.
Mitch rose. “I will leave you to rest, if you wish.” Kate felt she had passed some sort of test, and wondered what the question had been. “The ship operates on an Earth normal day, and dinner is in two hours, at 1800. I will return for you then, Ambassador.” He turned to leave.
“Kate,” she corrected.
“As you wish. Kate.” He bowed formally, negating the effect of the use of her first name, and departed. Kate plopped down on the room’s small bed, lost in thought. She found she liked this strange man, but he was a puzzle, one she thought she might enjoy solving.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Kate dined at the Captain’s table that evening. It was a small party, a quiet oasis in the maelstrom of the Officers’ Mess. Everyone who passed the table suddenly lapsed into a deathly silence, as though tiptoeing past a dragon's lair. Kate hated it, but knew the only cure was to be as friendly and open as possible, so she was entertaining the table with tales of her adventures, hoping her companions would see beyond the glitter to the woman beneath.
“You spent some time among the Xia, didn’t you, Kate?” Charles Ryckert asked, the ship’s doctor whom Kate had met earlier in the day, but of whom she had made no particular note. He was a quiet man with a wicked sense of humor who regarded his Captain with an open and unashamed affection that Kate found quite comforting. “Bloodthirsty devils, aren’t they?”
“Begging Dontu’s pardon, but the same was once said about the Ronuen, too.”
“And without you, they would still say it,” Dontu observed. He was becoming more comfortable in Kate’s presence, although he still had a tendency to dither.
“You flatter me,” Kate said. “No, really, there are similarities. The major difference between the two is that the Ronuen are basically self-interested. Once they were convinced an alliance was to their advantage, a treaty became practically unavoidable.”
Mitch regarded her from across the table, wordless and enigmatic, but quite openly studying her. It might have made her flustered, but she was used to being analyzed, and quite openly studied him, too.
“But the negotiations still took several years,” Alicia said, her eyes flicking back and forth between her guest and her crewman.
“Working out the details takes a little longer,” Kate explained. “But the Xia, that’s a different story. They have an extremely intricate code of honor, one difficult for a novice to navigate. That will be a big one, when it comes.” Her eyes were shining with excitement at the thought.
“A prospect you obviously greet with delight,” Zyxyz said. “I take it you desire to negotiate that treaty also.”
“You’d better believe it,” Kate said, and was greeted by warm laughter. Good, she thought. They’re no longer afraid of me.
* * * * * * * * * *
After dinner, the party adjourned to Captain Jameson’s quarters, where Kate continued her efforts at familiarity by teaching them to play cards. “This is highly absorbing,” Zyxyz said enthusiastically, “a perfect combination of chance and skill.”
“That varies, depending on the game,” Kate explained, who was partnered with the First Officer against the Captain and the Doctor in a hotly contested game of spades. Mitch sat to Kate’s left, one arm draped casually over the back of her chair. If he ever does anything casually, she wondered. Dontu floated eagerly around the room. Kate found his youthful enthusiasm amusing, but she did wish that he would settle down and stop shedding.
“I have never before seen such devices,” the Osirin continued.
“I don’t doubt it,” Kate said. “Even on Earth, few people have played cards for a couple of centuries. These belonged to some remote ancestor of mine; I found them in our attic when I was just a girl. They come in handy to break the ice. Every person, no matter the species, enjoys learning new games.” Dr. Ryckert finished dealing the cards. “Redeal,” Kate announced, tossing down her hand.
“You didn’t even look at them,” the Doctor protested.
“Good thing, too,” Kate responded. “I regret to inform you, Captain, that your First Officer cheats at cards. Naughty, naughty Zyxyz.”
“I beg your pardon, Ambassador.” Zyxyz was genuinely embarrassed. “It is late, and I inadvertently let my guard down. Perhaps Lt. Yeng would care to play out the game?”
“Oh no,” Charles Ryckert protested, “not partnered with Kate he doesn’t. I think those two really are telepathic. Let Dontu finish; he’s practically drooling to, anyway.”
Later, after Kate and Dontu had thoroughly thrashed their opponents, the party broke up and Alicia insisted on escorting Kate to her quarters. “You’re dismissed for this evening, Lt. Yeng,” she ordered Mitch.
“Yes, Captain,” he bowed. “Kate, thank you. This evening has been an opportunity for learning.”
“I’m sorry, Mitch,” Kate said. “It wasn’t meant to be.”
The corner of the lieutenant’s mouth quirked, hinting at the humor that Kate suspected lay underneath. “I have learned the secret of your unparalleled success.”
“And what is that?” Kate asked, intrigued.
“You are genuinely interested in every person you meet. I bid you goodnight.” He bowed, and strode down the corridor.
“I presume you wanted to talk to me about something,” Kate said to Alicia.
“In your quarters, please, Kate,” the Captain said. “It’s personal.”
The Captain seated herself, and Kate sat opposite. Alicia placed the tips of her fingers together and regarded them thoughtfully. “I’m afraid I must confess to a possible error in judgment,” she began.
“What do you mean?”
“Mitch. Lt. Yeng. I’m afraid I should not have assigned him to you, even though he volunteered. Maybe because he volunteered.”
“I still don’t understand.”
Alicia blew out her breath. “No, you wouldn’t. Did he tell you anything about himself?”
“A little. About running away to join the Fleet, and about failing so many times.”
“Then you know how persistent he is. There’s always one thing you can count on, and that is that whatever Mitchell Yeng really wants, he will eventually get.”
“What does it have to do with me?” Kate asked.
“Well, as far as I know, there are only two things Mitch really wants. One is to command the Fleet.”
“Ambitious, isn’t he?”
“Not in the usual sense, no. Mitch doesn’t seek anything for glory or power. He wants to command because he’d be good at it, probably the best commander we’ve ever had, and he knows it.”
“What’s the other thing he wants?”
The Captain paused a moment before answering. “You.”
“But he just met me,” Kate blurted, wondering why she was not more surprised.
“In the flesh, yes. But although he’s never spoken of it, he’s pursued any news of you available. I know he’s read all your biographies, and even those field reports of yours that weren’t classified.”
“He has a high boredom threshold, then. I nearly fell asleep writing the things.” Alicia did not laugh at the joke. “Are you telling me this as Captain, or as a woman?”
“Maybe a little of both. I know my crew, Kate, and I know Mitch is not some ensign straight out of the Academy who’s dazzled by celebrity. He’s one of the best officers I’ve ever seen, and not one to lose his head. I think he’s looking for the perfect mate long after most of us have given up looking for perfection.”
“I’m far from perfect.”
“Maybe. The funny thing is, if circumstances were different, I’d probably think Mitch was right. You’d be a good match. But I know he won’t give up the Fleet, and I doubt you’d give up diplomacy. Am I right?”
“About not giving up diplomacy, yes.” She was thoughtful a moment. “You could assign me someone else, or no one at all. I don’t exactly need looking after.”
“I don’t undermine my officers, Kate. As of now, there is no official reason for reassigning him.”
“So what do you want me to do?” Kate asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t mean to tamper with Mitch’s personal life, but I thought I’d tell you in hopes that you’d use the information wisely.”
Kate smiled ironically. “Rather than heartlessly?”
“I know he seems imperturbable, but you could very well hurt him. I don’t think anyone else can, but you could.”
“I’ll make a particular effort to avoid it. I don’t make a habit of breaking hearts.”
“With that, I guess I’ll have to be content.” Alicia took her leave and strode from the room, leaving Kate alone with her heart.
* * * * * * * * * *
Several days later, Kate was sitting by Ensign Spot’s pool, skirts hiked up to her knees and bare feet dangling in the water. She whistled shrilly and clicked her tongue. “How was that?” she asked.
“Intelligible, but your accent is terrible,” Ensign Spot regarded her with one intelligent eye. The spot over it gave him a rakish look, and he mischievously flipped a spout of water in Kate’s direction, drenching her.
“Hey!” she shouted. “No fair! I can’t get you back; you’re already wet.”
“You don’t like getting wet.” The translator made it difficult to tell if this were a question or a statement.
“It’s sort of unpleasantly pleasant, if you know what I mean.”
“Like scraping off barnacles.” The two of them were alone at the pool, Ensign Dontu having shown Kate how to operate the translator and currently fulfilling his communication duties on the Bridge.
“I wouldn’t know,” Kate replied. “I don’t get barnacles.” The hatch chimed, and the dolphin whistled. The hatch slid open, admitting Lt. Yeng.
He strode to Kate’s side and towered over her as he said, “You spend more time here than you do with me.”
“Maybe she finds me more interesting,” Ensign Spot said.
“You keep out of this,” Mitch said rudely. Kate was surprised to find his stolid calmness completely vanished. He was upset, and she felt guilty, because she had been evading him whenever possible for nearly a week, since Alicia’s warning.
“I wasn’t aware you wanted me to spend more time with you, Mitch,” she said, not meeting his eyes.
“There is no need for lies, Kate,” he said severely. “You are not blind.”
Kate did not reply. There did not appear to be anything to say.
“Genuinely interested in everyone, but not particularly interested in anyone?” he charged.
“I’ve found it doesn’t pay for me to get too deeply involved,” she responded, nettled. “I can never stay in one place long enough.”
“Maybe you have spent so much time with aliens, you have forgotten how to be human.”
She glared fiercely into his face then. “Maybe.” She thought about making a dramatic exit at this point, but he beat her to it. The hatch closed behind him, and Kate lay prone, her hot face pressed against the cold tile.
“He wants to mate with you,” Spot observed.
“You both reek of it.”
“There must be something wrong with this translator. Dolphins don’t have a sense of smell.”
Spot raised his head out of the water. “Why do you not mate with him? You would make strong children.”
“It’s not that simple; not for humans. There’s a very strong emotional component to human sexuality. A few hundred years ago, humans tried to break that bond, and we almost destroyed ourselves in the process. Some still attempt it, but neither Mitch nor I are the sort to try it.”
“It’s much simpler our way,” the dolphin observed.
“Probably, but we’re not dolphins.”
The hatch opened again, abruptly. Mitch said, “The Captain desires your presence on the Bridge immediately.”
Kate leapt to her feet, still damp. “Why?” she asked as she hurriedly replaced her shoes.
“I do not know, but we have changed course.”
“What the. . . ?” Kate charged through the hatch and pounded down the corridor to the Bridge, Mitch keeping pace beside her.
Kate burst onto the Bridge. “Alicia, why have we changed course?” she demanded.
Captain Jameson turned to her. “Ambassador, I respectfully request that when you are on my Bridge, you address me as Captain.”
“Very well, Captain. It is, as you say, your Bridge. Now why have we changed course? It is of paramount importance that I reach Tektu without delay.”
“Objection noted, Ambassador. We have picked up a message that is apparently being broadcast from inside League space. It’s in Xian.”
“I see you do realize the importance,” the Captain observed.
“I’m glad I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions,” Kate said. “Is it war, then?”
“Not if I can help it. Ensign, do you have that message translated yet?”
“Translated, yes, Captain,” Dontu replied, “but it must be in some kind of code. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Let’s hear it,” the Captain commanded.
Dontu read back the message as he had translated it. “This is the Warship Ch’al, cruising at infinite improbability.”
To everyone’s amazement, Kate burst out laughing. “I withdraw all objection to the course change, Captain.”
The Captain was awed. “You understood that?”
“Mostly. It seems some of the Xia have a sense of humor after all. More than that I can’t tell you at this moment.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Both. This is a matter of state, Captain. I can only inform you as I deem it necessary. But unless I’m sadly mistaken, war has nothing to do with it.” She could hardly conceal her elation. “How long will we be delayed?”
“That depends on what we find. At least a week.”
“Very well, Captain. I will trust in your judgment, and your ship.” She bounced off the Bridge, her face flushed with excitement.
Mitch followed her, down the stairs and along the corridor. “Kate,” he said, stopping her outside her quarters. “Please forgive me for my outburst earlier. It was unfair to you, but I was agitated. I have never wooed a woman before.”
Kate stared at him. “You’re joking. How old are you? Forty-five?”
“Forty-six.” He shrugged. “I have been waiting for you.”
Kate studied him a moment; he was apparently sincere, and Kate wondered at the amazing accuracy of Alicia’s conclusions. She held open the cabin hatch. “Come in,” she said, “and we’ll talk about it.”
He brushed past her, and with a deep sigh she turned to face him, closing the hatch behind her. “Alicia told me this was how you felt.”
“Is that why you have avoided me?”
She nodded. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“I do not understand. You have hurt me by avoiding me.”
“I’d hurt you a lot worse if I let you believe we had a future together.” She felt as though she were explaining something simple to a child.
He kissed her then, more tenderly than she would have thought him capable, and switching her thoughts of children to an entirely different track altogether. In that moment, she could feel him opening to her and glimpsed all the depths and intricacies of this complicated man. Almost against her will, she entwined her arms around his neck and returned the kiss with a passion she had not known she felt.
“I have loved you such a long time,” he said, his voice as soft and warm as his lips.
“You hardly know me,” she protested, frightened, yet unwilling to leave his embrace.
“That is not true. I have made you the subject of lifelong study, and when you came here, I saw you were everything I knew you would be and more.”
“You can’t know. . . ,” she began.
He placed a quieting finger to her lips. “Look into my eyes and tell me I do not know you.”
She had no choice but to comply, and felt herself falling into those dark depths, farther and faster than she had ever fallen before. She did pull away then. “Mitch. Please. This is pointless. There’s no hope for us.”
“What do you mean?”
Was he so obsessed he could not see it? Or did he see something she could not? “Mitch,” she tried to explain, “I don’t want to leave the Service, especially not now. It’s my life.” She did not know how she could make him understand.
“Of course you are not leaving the Service. That would be absurd.”
She stared at him, completely flummoxed. “So what are you proposing?” she asked finally.
“Marriage, of course.” He seemed so matter-of-fact and once again in complete control that she found him more frightening now than before. He pushed a stray lock of her long dark damp hair away from her face, peering deep into her jade-green eyes. “Would you prefer to continue as you are, rootless and always alone, or would you wish to go about your work always knowing that somewhere in the galaxy there is someone who loves you and earnestly desires your return?” Evidently, he saw doubt in her eyes, for he said, “You do not believe me.”
She pulled away from his hand on her face. “I think you’re obsessed.”
A look of pain crossed his face. “No, never. But I know what I know. I want you for my wife. I have always known you.” He said this with such calm assurance, she began to wonder if he were truly as obsessive as she had thought him, or if, in some crazy way, he were right. He said, “I am sorry; I have waited so long, but I should not expect you to fall into my arms, should I?”
She nodded, then shook her head, confusedly. Mitch laughed, the first time she had heard him laugh, full and deep, as though all the wells of joy sprang from his soul. She thought she had better not tell him how close she was to falling into his arms in truth. “Tell me what you want and it is yours,” he said, “but please, do not cut me off again.”
To that she agreed, and in the days that followed, he wooed her avidly and well.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Four days later, the Walesa approached within hailing distance of the alien ship. It had continued to broadcast its strange message at regular intervals, which nearly drove the Walesa’s communications officers to distraction. “What’s it doing?” Kate asked as she paced the Bridge, her excitement mounting along with the crew’s apprehension.
“Nothing. They’re just sitting there. Waiting for us, I suppose,” the Captain replied. “I don’t like it. Ensign, hail them. Let’s find out what’s going on.”
The unknown ship replied to their hail in heavily accented Standard. “Greetings, Walesa. This is Captain H’la Sharn of the Ch’al, Xian warship. We come on urgent business to the Galactic League.”
“Let me talk to them,” Kate demanded excitedly. Captain Jameson nodded, and Ensign Dontu handed Kate the com. “Do we have visual?” Kate asked.
“Not yet. I’ll see what I can do,” Dontu replied.
Turning on the com, Kate spoke, “Sharn, you old pirate! Are you looking for me?”
The com screen lit up, revealing a Xian, braced on his tripodal legs. “Kate Murphy? Is that really you? I truly must have discovered infinite improbably.”
“Who else was that message for, then?”
“I had hopes, but never thought I’d actually find you this quickly. This is perfect.”
“You know him?” Alicia asked, incredulous.
“I was his prisoner,” Kate replied. To the Xian, “Perfect for what? What’s this all about?”
“I can’t tell you over com. Come to my ship and I’ll explain.”
“I’ll be right there,” Kate said, and the uproar on the Bridge was deafening. “Excuse me a moment, Sharn. I have to attend to something.” She switched off the com. “Captain, is there some protest?”
Alicia turned to Dontu, whose howl had been loudest. “Permission to speak freely, Ensign” she granted.
“Haktu,” he pleaded, “you cannot go there, into enemy hands. The Xia are completely without honor. Do not trust them.”
“I hear you, Ensign,” Kate responded, “but the Xia would say the same about the Ronuen. We cannot let old enmities control us; you should be aware of that.”
“Ambassador,” Zyxyz said, “the Xian is hiding something. I, too, beg you not to trust them.”
“The Xia are always hiding something, Lieutenant. Captain? You have something to add?”
“No, Ambassador. I am responsible for your safe arrival on Tektu. You will not leave this ship before then.”
Kate crossed her arms, then uncrossed them. “May I have a word with you in private, Captain?”
“Certainly, Ambassador. Lt. Zyxyz, you have command. Inform me immediately if the Xia make a move.”
The Captain strode from the Bridge. As Kate followed her, she glanced over to where Mitch stood. He had made no outcry, and showed no concern or alarm. Kate thanked him silently for that.
As Alicia entered her quarters, she turned and regarded Kate coldly. “I may remind you, Kate, that a state of war has existed between the League and the Xian Demesne off and on for more than fifty years. We do not allow our citizens to just casually walk onto a Xian warship, especially one as valuable as you. That message practically had your name on it.”
“I appreciate your concern, Captain,” Kate said, “but contrary to the opinion of most of this ship, I do know what I’m doing.”
“Then would you mind telling me, so I don’t feel like a fool on my own Bridge?”
Kate sat. The Captain remained standing, and paced. “As I told you,” Kate began, “I was Sharn’s prisoner. He commanded the ship that captured us twenty years ago. Even then, there were factions on Xia who desired peace with the League, some even so far as to desire alliance. Sharn was a member of one of those factions.”
“So you think. . . .”
“That Sharn’s presence here means an alliance is now possible. I trust you see the importance.”
Alicia sat, dumbfounded. “All right,” she said, “if that’s so, let him come aboard the Walesa.”
“Can’t be done,” Kate replied. “He’s a soldier, and Xian soldiers do not walk trustingly onto enemy vessels. Even knowing it’s safe, it would cause him to lose honor, and to the Xia, honor is everything.”
“Well, you can’t go there, for the same reason. Surely he understands that.”
“I’m a diplomat,” Kate corrected. “It’s my job to trust and placate enemies. If I don’t go, Sharn will lose honor for embarking on an unsuccessful mission, and the consequences could be dire for him and the League. It could mean war.”
Alicia’s face paled under its darkness. “No,” she said.
“We won’t know unless I go to that ship and find out, will we? And you can’t order me on diplomatic matters, Alicia.”
“Are you pulling rank on me?”
“I will if I have to,” Kate said. “This is too important.”
Alicia stood. “All right. But I’m sending Mitch with you. The two of you have been practically glued together the last few days, anyway, and he’ll see that you stay out of trouble.”
“No,” Kate said, “I’m going alone. If it is a trap, then he’ll be of no use, and there’s no need to endanger him.”
“I thought you said you trusted them.”
“I trust them, but I’m not stupid. I’m quite well aware of the danger. I go alone. If it will make you feel better, I’ll take a com along and you can monitor me.”
“I would have insisted on it,” Alicia said.
The two women strode onto the Bridge. “Ensign,” Captain Jameson said, “inform the Captain of the Ch’al we will be within shuttle distance within an hour, and the Ambassador will be boarding his ship at that time.” The crew, as one man, stifled a protest. The Captain handed Kate a com, which she attached to her waist. “If,” Alicia continued, “he gives his word she will be returned safely. Does that meet with your approval, Ambassador?”
“Very well, Captain. I will go prepare.” Kate turned to leave. “I want all of you to know that I do appreciate your concern,” she said. Mitch followed her off the Bridge.
“Are you going to try to talk me out of it, too?” she asked him.
“You do what you must do,” he replied.
She halted. She slipped an arm around his waist and gave him an appreciative hug. “Thank you,” she said. “You may be the only person alive who understands me.”
“I have told you that,” he said, returning the embrace warmly. “Will you marry me?”
“How many times have you asked me that?” Kate asked, stepping through the hatch to the shuttle dock.
“You’ve been keeping count?” she asked, opening the shuttle’s engine bay.
Kate laughed. “Well, I suppose the seventeenth time, I’ll have to say yes.” She leaned over to inspect the shuttle’s drive system.
“Then, will you marry me?” he asked again, grinning.
“Will you marry me?” The smile broadened.
“That’s sixteen,” Kate said, thinking that Mitch looked positively goofy. Then, “Well?”
“I think I will save the seventeenth proposal for your return.”
“I wish everyone had that much faith in me. I wish I had that much faith in myself.”
He put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her warmly. “This is what you have waited for, have you not?”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Yes. I hope so. This could be my career’s crowning achievement, or my biggest failure. It makes me nervous.”
“You should know that greatness is not achieved if greatness is not attempted. The attempt is worth any failure.”
She grasped his hand. “Thank you.”
Kate’s com crackled. “We are within shuttle distance, Ambassador,” Alicia said. “You may leave when you are ready. And good luck.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Kate said. She climbed into the shuttle’s tiny cockpit. Mitch leaned in through the hatch.
“I, too, wish you luck, and success.”
She kissed him warmly, but quickly, and then closed the hatch and launched her shuttle toward the alien ship.
* * * * * * * * * *
As she opened the hatch, her arms were pinioned firmly and her com was snatched from her waist. Sharn tossed the com casually from hand to hand to hand, and Kate could tell from the squawk that he had silenced it. “Give that back, Sharn,” she said firmly, freeing herself from the two stout crewmen who held her. “I gave my word I would be monitored.”
“And what is your word worth, Kate?” Sharn asked. “Haktu, Ronuen prince. You have changed since I knew you. You were merely a girl then, now you are renowned throughout the galaxy.”
“I’m still who I always was, Sharn. Now give me that com. Is the honor of Xia come to this then? To seek out an old ally, to lie and deceive and betray? My honor is your honor; your honor is mine.” She held out her hand.
Sharn dropped the com into it. “I had to be sure of you, Kate. You are as adept as ever.”
“I’m as honest as ever,” she replied, switching on the com.
She could hear the wail of alarms, then, “Kate, what is happening?” She detected a note of panic in the Captain’s voice.
“I apologize for the breach, Captain,” she said. “We had a slight misunderstanding here. I’m quite all right, I assure you. Captain Sharn and I will need to confer in private, but signal me every fifteen minutes for check in. Murphy out.” She switched off the com, and handed it to Sharn. “My honor is your honor,” she said.
“And my honor is yours,” he replied, all three of his hands clasped in salute.
“Now, just what was it you wanted to see me about?” she asked.
* * * * * * * * * *
The crowd that greeted her on her return was larger than the one that had first received her, but not nearly as subdued. Mitch grasped her waist enthusiastically as she emerged from the shuttle, and opened his mouth to speak. She silenced him with a kiss. “Not yet,” she whispered. “I have business to attend to first.”
Alicia and Charles were grinning like lunatics. “Is it what you thought, Kate?” Alicia asked.
“You gave us all quite a scare there for a while,” Charles said, and he, too, hugged her. “Glad to have you back.”
“I’m glad to be back.” Kate withdrew from his embrace. “Captain, I must confer with you and your First Officer in private. Sorry, Mitch.”
“I quite understand. I will wait.”
“Yes, it is as I thought,” Kate said, closing the hatch to the Captain’s quarters behind her. “Those factions who want an alliance have lately risen in status, and want to use the opportunity to gain more control. A treaty with the League would do it, if handled properly.”
“Handled properly,” Alicia repeated. “Meaning what?”
“The dove faction can gain more honor, and thus status, by allying themselves with someone or something of status.”
“I see,” Alicia said. “So am I to take you to Osiris? Or Xia?”
“Tektu,” Kate said. “I still have a job to do there. Afterward, you are to take a message to Osiris, filling in the details. We will then proceed through proper channels.”
“And the Xian warship? Do I just let them quietly return to Xia?”
“Sharn would gain much honor if you did, but that is a military matter. I can’t order you.”
“Very well, I will trust your judgment.” Alicia smiled. “You pulled it off, Kate. I’m glad I was here to see it.”
“I hope you’ll be glad of something else, too.” Kate opened the hatch. Mitch left his post in the corridor to stand stolidly by Kate’s side. She wrapped an arm around his waist. “I love you, Mitch. Will you marry me?”
“I was supposed to say that,” he said.
She laughed. “You already did. Sixteen times. Now I’m asking.”
“Yes, of course. When?”
Alicia was grinning from ear to ear, and Kate felt the gentle touch of Zyxyz’s mind, sharing joy. She smiled, joyously, foolishly, happily. “We don’t have much time, do we?
“We have not had much time,” Mitch corrected.
“Now,” they both said together.
“Will you marry us, Alicia?” Kate asked.
“I’d be overjoyed,” Alicia responded. “How private a ceremony do you want?”
Kate looked at Mitch, then shrugged in unconscious imitation of him. “There aren’t that many people aboard this ship. Let’s invite everyone who can come.” She laughed. “And let’s have it in Spot’s quarters. He’ll be intrigued.”
And so they did. Captain Jameson released the Xian warship, then gathered all the ship’s complement together, while Walesa sat momentarily dead in space. Charles Ryckert insisted on kissing the bride, but when Zyxyz and Dontu tried this experiment, they met with little success as neither species possessed lips.
Kate moved into Mitch’s tiny quarters, and despite his inexperience, she found him to be an inventive and playful lover. Indeed, he made her laugh so much that her ribs ached. Later, lying at peace in his arms, she asked him, “When? When did you start loving me?”
“When you won your release from the Xia.”
“That was twenty years ago. More,” she said incredulously.
“I told you I had waited a long time. I knew that the woman who could so win over her enemies was the woman I would love. And it has all come to fruition today. Us. The Xia. It has a certain symmetry.”
“What if it hadn’t? What if we’d never met? How long would you have waited?”
“You ask nonsense,” he said. “It happened. You are here. There is no ‘what if?’”
“So you believe in fate?”
“I believe in realities. I knew you would be my wife, just as I knew I would enter the Fleet.”
She snuggled close against him. “What else do you know?”
“I know you will soon leave me. And I know you will return.”
Her heart turned cold. “I may not,” she said. “It’s likely that after Tektu, I’ll go straight to Xia, and the Xia love intrigue as much as they love honor. Assassination is practically a way of life. I probably won’t be back for years, any road.”
He pulled her closer, and stroked her hair. “You will return,” he said. “Then I will take leave and we will have a real honeymoon. I hear that Sirius is very beautiful.”
So they loved, ten days that seemed like a lifetime, and an eye blink. When she left, she left behind an ancient deck of cards, because she had nothing else to give him.