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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 13: Face-to-Face

 

Going To Bed –

It was a long day for Mia. After more than two days of discussions, everyone decided to adjourn, and continue later. Mia mused that the ability to cram and pull all-nighters was the specialty of the young, and she ruefully admitted to herself that she might have lost the talent.

Earlier on, Mia gave instructions to O’Connell to change around the duty shifts on the bridge, and was not surprised that O’Connell had taken care of it already. With that settled, for a change, Mia planned to stay in her cabin tonight and to catch up on some sleep. She had been going for more than two days straight now, having to manage all three teleconferences with just short naps and breaks from time to time. It had taken its toll on her. And it would be more of the same tomorrow.

She closed her cabin door and breathed a sigh of relief. Alone, finally. At least for a little while. She sat on her bunk and pulled off her boots. Her boots didn’t feel too different from her old ones, although they had higher heels – maybe a couple of inches higher, but she was used to them by now. They were also a lot narrower than her old boots, but they suited her remodeled feet well.

She took out the hairpins that kept her hair up and out of the way, and the blonde locks cascaded down her back. She scratched her head vigorously and felt relief as she allowed her scalp to breathe. She took off the rest of her uniform as well, making sure to take out all the pins and other devices before dumping it in the laundry chute. It left her clad in underwear and thigh-high stockings, and she felt relief in finally getting out of her uniform.

She didn’t used to feel that way - she used to feel comfortable enough to be in the same clothes for days on end. She wondered if this was a female thing.

Well, whatever. But it sure felt good to be rid of the sweaty clothes. She also decided to take off her bra, which felt warm, sweaty and a little itchy, and used a little terrycloth towel to wipe the underside of her breasts, which felt the most sweaty and itchy. She supposed that it was because she was still new to female clothing. She dropped her bra and the little towel in the chute as well. Sitting by her desk, she picked up her comm-computer, programmed her on-line auto-assistant to wake her up six hours later, and dropped the little device on the cluttered desk.

As she stood to go to her clothes cabinet, she caught her reflection in the floor-length mirror tacked to the back of her cabin door. She was used to how she looked now, but noted again the major differences. She kept her long, strawberry-blonde locks (she still remembered when it used to be brown) well below her shoulders now, and it was now brighter, thicker and shinier than ever before. Her general lines were also longer and leaner now, more along the lines of someone like her friend, Jennifer Priestly, except, of course, Mia was so much taller than Jenn. Part of her “remodeling” was the reduction of muscle mass and the remodeling of many of her bones. She was now closer to the modern idea of female physical perfection than any woman she knew.

She leaned closer to the mirror and examined her face more closely. Her new face reflected the changes that were recommended by BuMed that she had okayed - a feminine heart-shaped face, a higher hairline than before, finer eyebrows, larger-looking eyes, smaller and narrower nose, more prominent cheekbones, smaller mouth and a less prominent chin.

The doctors were somehow able to keep close to her old look as well, so she was more-or-less still Bill, though a pretty, female version. At the very least, she looked like a close relative - a very good-looking close relative.

How everyone thought of themselves was usually connected to how they looked, even in this new, more liberal and emancipated age. But as she told her best friend Walter Thorpe thousands and thousands of times, looks shouldn’t count - it was who he was inside: his heart and mind are what make up the true person.

But looking at her new physical self now, Mia was starting to doubt her words. Because she felt lost. In her short life, she had always comported herself as the best man she could be, perhaps mostly to please her parents, and she had reaped recognition and rewards for it, and made friends and developed relationships as a man. The way she related to people then, and how they related to her - it was as a man. But having lived as a woman these last few weeks, to her dismay, she had found that there still were roles that society still has pigeonholed as male roles, and others as female.

She had generally believed, like most humans of “post-apocalypse” Earth, that gender didn’t count anymore. And for the most part, it didn’t - opportunities and possibilities abounded in the twenty-fourth century and gender was largely not a factor - only skill, knowledge, ability, drive, and heart. Likewise with opportunities to advance professionally. And it was this belief, and the belief that there wouldn’t be any major changes in her life, that made it easy for her to decide to transition to being female. But she did not expect the relationships, the personal connections that she’d made in her life as a man to change. Oh, she was realist enough to know that a few adjustments had to be made. But it turned out that she had underestimated things.

Her relationship with her friends from CETI, for example - Jerry, Phil and the others: there were changes, some subtle, some major, and some both. Sure they relied on her advice on professional matters as always, but she wasn’t a buddy and close confidante anymore. The two would never again include her in late night barhopping. Never again would Jerry talk to her about his relationship with Anushka, his wife. Never again would Phil ask for dating advice. Never again would Marc wax lyrical about the inscrutable female mind as he weathered another bout of arguments with his wife. Never again would Jennifer make a pass at her.

How could things remain the same with her looking the way she did now? Among all her friends, only her relationship with Sahsha and Allie had not changed, or at least not a lot.

And she’d lost Miriam...

Never again would women find it chivalrous for her to help them with doors. Never again would she ever feel comfortable swearing, or maybe she just needed a new vocabulary for that, she laughed. Never again would Admiral Silverman confide in her about his hopes and aspirations for the military, or for her; never again would he invite her over to Sunday dinner with his wife and daughter. Or maybe he still would. Time would tell.

And her new relationships... She had always prized having good relationships with her staff, and had always found it easy to do that. But with her new crew, even though she did her best, especially with O’Connell, it was like she was getting the cues wrong. She suspected that she was still behaving like a man with them when they were all expecting something else. She should try behaving like a girl, but she didn’t know how.

Her mother and father were geniuses that valued being able to get along with people as important as intelligence or skill, because they believed that it was the only way for society to progress. So she grew up to be the Bill Steele that everyone knew - intelligent, capable, reliable and affable - she tried be the best man she could be. That, and because she had a seemingly innate need to try to do the right thing. But now...

Now she was a woman. How did she do that now? What did she know about being a woman? Oh, how she would dearly have loved to get her parents’ advice right about now...

Most men would never have considered becoming female, especially if the only reason to do so was because of an abstraction - an intellectualization. But she was William Steele, someone whose life was built on intellectualizations, and trying to do the right thing. Of course she’d change genders.

It seemed to be the correct decision at the time, but now that she had, and that she had lived as a woman for a while - she felt... lost. For the first time in her life.

The rules she had always followed as a man, all that she had done, from the time of her birth, all gone. Miriam Bidwell, too - gone. Everything.

She tried to change her train of thought, and thought of what had gone on today, of everything that had happened. She also thought of all the people that had died, and she felt shame because she realized that she was grateful almost all the deaths were those of aliens and not humans. She felt guilty that she felt that way. Was it a kind of bigotry to feel that way?

Years ago, during the Asteroid Wars, she, or rather he, had struggled with similar thoughts when he fought for the side of the Allies, that he did not feel as bad if it was the enemy who died. But he was able to sublimate any guilt he felt with the belief that what he was doing was a necessary thing, that it was his role to fulfill. He had contented himself with a resolution not to kill except as a last resort, and, by and large, when he needed to, he was able to rationalize his actions this way - he rationalized that he was a patriot and not a murderer.

After the wars, though, he had tried to atone, and as a result, in recent years, he had become one of the leading advocates for peace.

So, no, she reasoned - much of her current... malaise couldn’t be coming from this. But where? Eventually, she realized that it was coming from worry about the future. Not just hers or her family’s or her friends’, but everyone’s. And what if what she was doing was wrong? What would that mean for them?

She had to laugh - she sounded so egotistical - that she thought everything was all on her shoulders. Her parents would not approve, she chuckled in a sad kind of way, but she knew it was mostly true. No one else could do what she needed to do. But could she even do it? She didn’t even really know who she was anymore.

She again looked at herself in the mirror. She was beautiful. Almost perfect, although just a touch too tall for her taste. The doctors were geniuses. She brought her hand up and touched her left breast, and then the other. They felt natural, like she had been born with them. They even felt good. But she wasn’t a girl. In her innermost core, she was William Steele, not Amelia. Or was she?

She touched her long hair. It felt softer. She moved the thick mass so that the ends of it lay on her upper chest. She had always liked how Miriam looked when she had her hair in this position, though Miriam had significantly longer hair. Maybe she could grow her hair as long as Miriam’s.

“Mia is pretty,” she thought. She didn’t know that she was thinking of “Mia” as if she were a different person.

She traced her new, incredibly feminine curves. Her skin was so smooth, sensitive and soft. It didn’t used to be.

She looked down. “Navy-issue underwear,” she thought, and laughed a little. She placed her palm on the front and between her legs, and was amazed, as always, that it was flat, except for a small mound with a cleft. She quickly stooped, pulled down the white panties and threw them into the laundry chute. Nothing wrong with her aim.

She looked at the entire her - nude save for her stockings, and incredibly beautiful. “The doctors did good work,” she thought again.

She reached up to wipe the wetness from her face. As she did, she looked up. “Why is this beautiful girl in the mirror crying,” she thought. “Can I help her?”

She reached out to the mirror with her other hand. “Don’t cry, pretty girl,” she thought. “Don’t cry.” But all she could touch was the mirror.

After a while, she turned away. She went to the head and grabbed some toilet paper, wiped her face and blew her nose. She went to bed, curled up into a ball on her side, and continued to cry silently. Eventually, she fell asleep.

-----

The soft but insistent chimes of her comm-computer (most called them “CC’s” nowadays) woke her up. She didn’t feel all that rested, but at least she didn’t feel as tired as she did yesterday. And it was 6AM already, her CC declared.

With a sigh, she sat up. She shook the cobwebs left over from last night’s panic attack and squared her shoulders - her sense of duty again overriding any personal concerns. She was starting to get worried, though - this was the eighth “panic attack” this month. “Maybe I’ll give Dr. Puerrot a call when I’m Earthside next and have the time,” she told herself sarcastically, since it was unlikely she ever would anytime soon.

She looked down and noticed that she had fallen asleep above the sheets last night. And naked. First time she'd done that. Things were getting worse... She thought of that visit to Puerrot more seriously, and got up.

She stretched, switched off her CC’s alarm, took off the stockings and went to the little shower-bathroom alcove for her morning routine. After a while, she stepped out, finished drying her hair with a blow dryer, and then hung up her towel to dry. She went to her cabinet and picked out a fresh service uniform. As she started getting ready, she switched her intercom to survey mode and watched some live video of the main sections and departments of the ship - something she did regularly to check how the ship was doing.

As she was getting ready to fix her hair into the updo she usually wore, she noticed the styles that the female crew used for their hair, and it gave her the idea to change hers, and maybe break herself out of her current funk.

She especially liked the hairstyle that the pretty medical officer currently on duty in sickbay was wearing: the girl basically kept her blonde hair loose with just a couple of barrettes at her temples, and it swung saucily as she went about her routine. Though it was well within regulations, she still managed to look very pretty, in a clean-cut kind of way. Mia thought it looked somewhat like the style that the Elyran Princess wore.

Mia decided to experiment a bit and copy her style. She combed her hair straight down, fluffed it up with her fingers and then parted it on the side. She then took out a couple of red barrettes that were in her suitcase - something left over from the hair and makeup kit the nurses had given her while she was in Bethesda.

She tucked the hair behind her ears and then clipped the barrettes by her temples. She looked at her reflection and decided that it was cute. She shook her head a little bit; the barrettes didn’t come undone, and they kept the hair from her face as intended. She smiled and decided to wear her hair that way for the rest of the day.

She finished getting dressed and decided, at the last moment, to swap the pants for the uniform skirt instead. She also decided to wear the higher-heeled boots. Sahsha would have said it was a “dressier” outfit than her usual ensemble, but regulations allowed this, especially since there were dignitaries on board, and they'd been secured from General Quarters for a while now.

As a finishing touch, she spritzed herself lightly with some perfume, also a leftover from her time in Bethesda, picked up her CC and left her cabin.

The crew saluted her as she made her way forward, and she acknowledged them with crisp but friendly nods.

As she stepped onto the bridge, one of the on-duty officers exclaimed, “Captain on the bridge!”

“As you were,” she said automatically. “Everything all right, Commander?” she said to Kajima as he came over to report.

Kajima nodded. “Aye, sir. Nothing to report. All’s well.”

“Very good, Commander. Thank you for taking my duty on the bridge these past few days. I had to run the... meetings with the aliens...”

“Aye, sir, but no need to explain.”

“All right then,” she smiled. “I’ll be going down to the mess for some breakfast in case you need me.”

“Aye, sir.”

After she had left the bridge, one of the officers in battle ops said quietly, “Did the Captain change her hairstyle?”

Another quietly replied. “She’s very pretty this morning. Especially with the skirt and the high-heeled boots.”

Kajima growled. “I suggest that we keep our discussions to a minimum, people, and pay attention to our work. That’s our captain you’re talking about. Show some respect!”

“Aye, sir. Sorry...” the one who spoke first apologized. The other one nodded a little sheepishly.

After a few moments of nervous silence, Kajima regretted his words. It was only natural for the crew to comment on their CO’s looks, and they were respectful enough. So he relented.

“I especially like the barrettes,” he said. And after a beat, everyone laughed lightly, and broke the gathering tension.

At the moment, their subject of discussion was making her way to the officers’ mess, but she detoured first to the enlisted personnel’s mess. It was a routine of hers that most had come to know. Like Kajima, she took the crew’s well-being seriously, and she believed being visible to the crew would foster esprit de corps better than any order she could give.

Mia always marveled at how many of the crew ate breakfast so early in the morning. Shift change was at 0900, and it was only 0700. Still, the mess hall was full. Knowing that officers were normally not admitted in, she politely asked permission from the duty crewman by the door. By custom, he pressed a buzzer and waited for a moment. An answering buzzer sounded and he saluted and passed his captain through. Mia smiled her thanks as she walked in.

Mia gave a nod to the petty officers sitting by a table near the coffee urns.

“Coffee, Captain?” one of the petty officers asked, and stood to pour her a cup even before she could respond.

“Thank you, Petty Officer,” Mia said, and accepted the proffered cup. She got several sugars and dropped them into the cup, as well as pouring in a generous amount of cream. It was her way of managing the strong and heavy brew that seemed to be the trademark of the Seeker.

She took her time with the coffee and asked after the crew - at least those she could talk with. Many asked about the aliens, and she told them all she could, which was not a lot since most of the discussions were confidential.

She worked her way from the front of the mess hall to the back, saying a friendly hello to those who greeted her, and left her by-then empty cup with one of the ratings.

She then proceeded to the engine section and visited with the Chief Engineer. She was pleased to find that all the modifications had been holding up well, and that Seeker was just ticking over as she nursemaided the alien ships through Earth territory. She then went to life systems, sickbay, and then to hangar deck, checking over everything. Most everyone knew this morning routine of hers well, and everyone tried to act busy and to keep everything shipshape when she would make her “informal” visits. O’Connell was known to do the same thing from time to time, but Mia did it almost regularly before she would take the con in the morning (she hadn't been able to do this for the past few days, however).

After her last “visit” of the morning, she made her way to the officer’s mess and sat down at her customary place. The stewards were all set, and served her breakfast as soon as she settled in. As usual, the chief cook anticipated her order. She nodded hello to the officers who were there just finishing their own breakfast.

As they were all leaving, O’Connell came over.

“May I join you, sir?” she asked.

“Of course, Beth,” Mia said pleasantly, and gestured at the seat to her right. She tried to make it a point to call her immediate staff by name when not on duty. A steward came, laid out a place for her and took her order.

“Thank you, sir.” O’Connell said. “I hope you had a good rest... Commander Stevens was worried,” she said, referring to the short discussion she had with the ship’s doctor. “He knew that you hadn’t had any sleep for about three days now.”

“Yes, he called me last night. Now, how do you suppose the good doctor found out about my lack of sleep?”

“I told him.” O’Connell said, deadpan.

After a bit, both of them chuckled. They became quiet as the mess boy brought O’Connell her food.

“Thank you for the concern, Beth,” Mia said as soon as they were left alone, “but I am fine. But you should take care of yourself, too - I know you haven’t been getting enough sleep as well.”

“Yes, the doctor called me about it last night, too. He said you told him.”

Mia laughed at that. “Well, the ship can’t afford you being tired and performing below par.”

“Touché,” O’Connell smiled.

After a few bites, O’Connell cleared her throat. “Ummm, Captain - the Arachnians have a request.”

“Yes?”

“They’re saying they want to have access to... ‘Earther visual entertainment’...”

“Huh?”

“They want to watch TV...”

“‘TV,’ huh?” Mia smiled at O’Connell’s dated choice of words. How... fancy of her. “How’d they find out about TV?”

O’Connell shrugged. “Maybe from one of the crew? There were several ratings in their quarters yesterday, installing additional video screens for the conferences. Maybe one of them?”

Mia sighed. “Can’t be helped, I guess. They’re bound to find out about us eventually. Okay, run it by the CETI people, and ask them which channels are all right to feed into their quarters.”

O’Connell nodded. “Aye, sir.”

“I’m terribly sorry about sticking you and Kajima with the con for the past couple of days,” Mia said. “The conferences...”

“No need to explain, sir. Seems to me, there’s been lots of progress made.”

Mia gestured at the stewards, and they left Mia and O’Connell alone. Sometimes officers wanted to discuss confidential matters, so they were used to it.

“I think so, too,” Mia responded to O’Connell, continuing their conversation. “But there are lots of things remaining to be done. What I’m really worried about, though, are the Empire ships. What’s the latest from Solar Tracking?”

“They are still en route to Earth. Tracking says they are approximately nineteen days behind us and from a landing on Earth, although no one is really keeping that close a track of them, so that might not be true anymore - that figure could move up or down. Their flight path is pretty obvious, though, so no one’s done any kind of constant tracking, but Phase-Wave can pick them out whenever we want.”

“And what about us?”

“We’re still a ways off, but we’ll reach Earth at least ten days ahead of the enemy. By the way, Hermes arrived in Earth orbit a while ago.”

“We’re cutting it close...”

“Well, if we didn’t need to escort the alien ships, we could be back home in less than a day, or we could actually intercept the Empire ships long before they reach Earth. I wanted to ask about that, actually, Captain. Anyway, I wouldn’t say that’s cutting it close...”

“You’re right, Beth - although we’re not really needed to prepare for the arrival of the Empire aliens on Earth - the Admiral has that in hand, I’m sure. And he knows we have to capture them, not eliminate them. Still...”

Mia buttered a slice of toast and O’Connell cut some ham and chewed on it with some eggs. And as they continued their leisurely breakfast, they continued to discuss business.

“I don’t understand what they’re trying to do,” O’Connell said. “They know we can see them. Even without Phase-Wave.”

“A suicide mission, perhaps. They need to wipe out the Elyrans before they can send word back to the Federation. This could be the prelude to war, and if they can prevent word from the Elyrans getting back home, it could buy them maybe six to ten years.”

“I know their ships are slower, Captain, but ten years? It can’t take that long to get to Colossus.”

“Getting there is one thing. Getting word back to their home planets is another. And getting their military organized is yet another thing altogether. Think about the time of ocean-going sailing vessels before radio, before steam power, and how they sent messages to each other. That’s what we’re looking at.”

“But they know we know. And after the transmission from last year, they know we can send word back to Federation HQ.”

“They knew that before coming here. I can only suppose that, knowing that the Federation had sent envoys, sending their own ships was the only thing left to them, and besides, we aren’t part of the Federation.” She gestured with her fork and changed the topic.

“Brief me on what Admiral Silverman is doing to prepare,” Mia said.

“Well, Captain,” O’Connell said, and sipped some coffee. “The Admiral has cut down the shakedown times and accelerated the commissioning of the new ships. The latest PRC bulletin says that there will be five Type-Ones and twelve Type-Twos that will be ready almost by the time we’re home. HQ has also dispatched about fourteen of the Legacy Ships -”

“Legacy Ships?”

“That’s what everyone is calling the existing fleet... the pre-PRC ships. Like Seeker.”

“Beth, Seeker’s so much more than a... ‘Legacy’ ship. She’s a Type-One now - the most advanced Type-One at the moment. And her crew is skilled, disciplined - I for one think we’re the best in the fleet. When all of this is over, Beth, better try and keep her.”

“As if that’s even possible...”

Mia paused at that. “Do you think I want to keep her? Beth, you’re her real captain. I’m just borrowing her temporarily. I’m going to leave eventually.”

Mia leaned over and gave O’Connell a friendly peck on the cheek. “Seeker is your command.”

O’Connell looked at her. She was a bit shocked, but she tried not to show it. She couldn’t stop from blushing, though. She was glad they were alone and no one saw the Captain do that.

“You were saying about the Legacy ships?” Mia continued on, smiling a bit but unconcerned.

“Ummm... yes, sir... As I was saying... The, ummm, Admiral has gotten all available lunar, Earth and near-Earth Legacy ships - fourteen in all - en route to lunar orbit, with instructions to rendezvous with us, and to provide escort. The newer ships will remain on standby as they become available, in reserve in case we need them. Together, the Legacy and FTL ships will set up a blockade to deal with the Empire cruisers beyond lunar orbit.”

“All right. In the meantime, as we make our slow way back home, we accomplish what we can.”

“Which is?”

“Treaties, negotiations, information exchange - everything we would do if the aliens were dirt-side.”

“Surely we can do more? I realize that those are all important things, but can’t we do more? Why can’t we intercept the Empire aliens now?”

“Well, there has been no formal declaration of hostilities between our peoples. We wouldn’t want to be the proximate cause of a war. And we need to capture them alive.”

O’Connell grumbled. “Politics...”

“Yes, Commander - politics. But necessary politics. Tell me, Beth, were you there during the Asteroid Wars?”

“I didn’t have a chance, sir. I was still doing my last year in New Annapolis when the rebellion was finally put down.”

“I was there, Beth. And I’ve seen enough to know what can happen. And it was because of politics that it was ended, and the rest of the system remained untouched by that... madness.

“Politics, Beth, can be a good thing, if done right by the right people, for the right reasons. And we are here to make sure that happens.”

Mia swallowed a last bite, drained her coffee cup and daintily wiped her mouth.

“Well, I’m stuffed,” Mia said, and stood up. She waved O’Connell to remain seated. “Back to the grindstone. You know where I’ll be, Commander. Let me know if you need me.”

“Aye, sir...”

Mia nodded at the few others who just came in the mess, and made her way out. O’Connell watched her leave, remembering the friendly kiss. “The Captain really does have her own way about her,” she thought.

 

Short-Circuited Treaty –

Mia resumed the talks again, and proceeded with new topics of discussion. She told everyone that Secretary-General Romarkin was available again, and she insisted on taking over the discussions on Channel “C,” this time “accompanied” by Sahsha Delyer and Doctor Bidwell from Neptune.

On channel “C,” the Secretary-General came on, proffering a copy of the proposed Elyran treaty, with modifications made by the humans.

“Let me start off by saying that your proposal was quite logical and acceptable to my colleagues,” she said, “except for some provisos which we had discussed a little bit before.”

“Please enlighten us, Excellency,” Admiral Daxx said.

In the screens of the Federation envoys, they saw Romarkin gesture at someone off-camera and in a second their individual printers started clacking away. Romarkin had apparently transmitted copies of the modified treaty to them, in Elyran.

“Let us start easy, then,” Romarkin said while everyone got organized. “If you were to go to the fourteenth provision, excuse me, I mean the, ummm, the sixteenth provision.” Romarkin did the little exercise to convert the number to Elyran with a small calculator. It was unnecessary, of course, since the translator would translate the numbers as appropriately, but it was sort of automatic, and she did the computation involuntarily, without really thinking about it. Most of the Earthers did it, actually, out of a worry that they would be misunderstood.

The delegates turned to the appropriate page.

“You are referring to the section on commerce and trade between Federation and Earther... I mean ‘Terran’ planets...”

“‘Earther’ is fine. But, yes. On the main points, my people agree. However, we disagree about accepting each other’s currency, and establishing a currency exchange rate.”

The aliens looked at each other.

“Explain, please.”

“My economists believe that it is premature to initiate commerce agreements and permanent trade laws, and that any transaction between us should be limited to barter-and-trade for now. For products, resources and services - no currency transactions. Still, aside from a list of proscribed items, bartering for, or with any goods or products should be allowed if the transacting parties should want to.”

“But as relations normalize,” Daxx responded, “barter-and-trade will become cumbersome. Eventually, traders and businesspeople will find it unwieldy to do trading and bartering. It will slow down transactions unreasonably, not to mention the need to transport products unnecessarily, and those doing business will eventually want to transact using currency, and everything that implies.”

“I understand that, Admiral. But my people are of the opinion that we should deal with those problems when they become apparent.”

Daxx was not too convinced, but her attention was caught by Romarkin’s next comment.

“To be very frank, Admiral, we are worried about the possibilities of counterfeit currency and other... related concerns.”

Daxx tried not to react to that, but, at the moment, many Federation markets were suffused with counterfeit currency, not to mention being rife with unfair trading practices and virtual monopolies. Daxx’s people, the Dixx, were one of the hardest hit by illegal trade, restrictive regulations, counterfeit money and monopolies, since many of their colonies were not as self sufficient as others. Daxx was actually a little glad that the Earthers were thinking this way. But she had to wonder how they knew...

It would have surprised the alien to know that Romarkin was actually fully aware of the Federation’s problems in this area. She was actually given regular briefings on Federation economy. Romarkin and her people were convinced to slow down the commerce aspect of any sort of alliance.

“We will study your recommendations,” Daxx said, “and make recommendations of our own if we believe any are needed.”

Romarkin nodded, relieved that any questions about how they got their information was put aside for the moment. “All right. Thank you, Admiral. Well, let us move on?”

There were other issues relating to commerce and trade that were discussed, such as the establishment of trading routes, access to local markets and other similar things, but these were easily managed as both sides had experience in negotiating on these matters.

As the talk progressed, more important aspects of the treaty were eventually discussed, such as security and defense.

As Romarkin said in previous discussions, the humans were only prepared to agree to help protect Federation citizens and interests within human-controlled territories, and would gladly do so, with the expectation that the Federation government would do the same for the humans.

Daxx readily committed the Federation to these provisions - the Federation would have protected anyone in any case. But Daxx tried to “improve” this by again proposing an actual alliance. Romarkin countered that Earth could not commit to that at the moment, saying that her government could only discuss this possibility if the rest of the Federation planets were directly represented in the negotiations. Such a stance could have been interpreted as a sort of rejection or even as an insult. It was a testament to Romarkin’s negotiating skills that none of the Federation people present took it negatively.

Daxx lamented the impossibility of communicating this to Colossus right away, but Romarkin said that Earth was prepared to send a ship to escort Daxx and her expedition back, with people prepared to present the proposal directly to all of the Federation.

Romarkin also said they might be able to send word to Colossus and the majority of the Federation home planets before then, similar to the way that they sent their first message.

All conversations stopped at that moment, and everyone looked at Romarkin.

“We did not think of that,” Daxx said. “Come to think of it, why is it that you did not communicate with us that way again after the first time?”

Romarkin, Mia and everyone in the planning team thought that this would come up, so they was prepared with a pre-agreed response. Romarkin took a deep breath.

“Admiral,” she said, “Earther and Elyran long distance communications technologies are not compatible. Two-way communication is not possible.”

“Then how was your first message transmitted, then?”

“The first message was accomplished by using an experimental system that could only transmit once. Further, that transmitter was destroyed after the transmission. And I am sure most of your radio network was affected as well. Our scientists have concluded that will happen every time. That approach is not a viable one, and was abandoned.”

“That is an understatement. More than half of the Federation’s planetary systems were shut down for a time.”

“But the same was true for the Tirosians!” one of the other Dixx blurted out. Daxx glared at her and made a peremptory gesture. The Dixx assistant looked down sheepishly.

Romarkin filed that little piece of information away.

“In any case,” Romarkin continued, “through further experimentation, we have determined that, using that technology, if the transmission is on a specific radio frequency, focused at a specific target in space, and it does not exceed...” she typed something in her CC, “two Elyran minutes, the receiving end will be all right.”

“What of your transmitter?”

“There’s no stopping it - it’ll go kerflooey, as usual.”

“I’m sorry? ‘Kerflooey?’”

The Earthers laughed.

Romarkin snickered and continued. “I suppose that word hasn’t been included in the translation databases yet. I meant that our transmitter will be destroyed just like the first one, regardless.”

“Then how...”

“Then we just have to have enough transmitters on hand, that’s all. And that we keep any transmission under two minutes.”

The aliens took a moment to digest that.

“Our plan,” Romarkin continued, “is to transmit our intention to Colossus and the main Federation worlds and then escort your fleet back to Colossus, where we hope to request an audience with the Federation Assembly, to sue for membership.”

After a short silence, the Federation representatives broke into applause.

 

Star Station –

As discussions continued, Daxx wasn’t able to concentrate. She was still thinking of what the Earth leader said, but she decided to control any outward expression - a difficult proposition for a Dixx - and to hide her excitement. The goal of the expedition was to establish an alliance, but since this was not possible given Earth’s stance, what they got was the next best thing. After the last eight Earth hours, Daxx now considered the expedition a success. And, as an Earther might say, everything else that they accomplished from this point forward would be “gravy.”

As for the other meetings, the other Federation representatives would also be making similar progress during the course of the day.

-----

Tasha had insisted on taking over discussions on the cultural exchange in Channel “B” from Ren. Ren was taken aback by Tasha’s firm, almost belligerent insistence on this, saying that his scientific acumen was needed more in the channel “A” discussions. He had some misgivings, but over the years he had learned not to contradict Tasha when she was in this kind of a mood, so he left one of his assistants with Tasha, and left the room to transfer over to Channel “A.” Besides, he thought, he’d get to spend more time with the fascinating and astonishingly attractive Earther captain that was responsible for saving their expedition and their lives.

Ren moved to the conference room where the discussion on technology exchange was happening, and sat quietly to get caught up. He was delighted that Captain Steele interrupted her talk to greet him by name. He grinned like a little boy, but belatedly realized that the Talon crew could also see him, so he settled down as the alien captain continued her discussion on Earth’s fleet, and the status of human industry and technology.

Captain Steele prefaced her discussion with the statement that they wouldn’t disclose everything, and everyone nodded at that. State secrets and all that. Still, in her three-hour talk, the aliens thought they learned a lot.

For example, Elyran scientists had assumed that the Earther population was in the area of forty-five billion in Elyran Base-8, or 4,966,055,936, when in fact the population was a little less than to two billion (or 16,715,312,000 in Base-8), and more than eighty percent was on the mother planet. Subsequently, the aliens learned that the Earthers only colonized their system’s inner planets and the moons of their three gas-giant planets and not the gas-giant planets themselves. Of course! Ren felt like hitting his head against the wall - stupidly, he had relied on projections made by a computer program, which assumed population numbers based on planet surface area, and which did not account for the fact that, as in most planetary systems, the outermost planets would be gas giants - virtually uncolonizable. He resolved to have words with whoever wrote that program, and was chagrined to realize that it was he who wrote it.

He also concluded that, using his best estimates, in the area of food production, the land the Earthers used was less than one eighth the equivalent area of what typical Elyran farms would need to produce food of the same type and amount. They were also amazed to hear that all of the off-Earth colonies grew, raised, manufactured or synthesized their food, air and water on their own, and, if need be, could be virtually self-sustaining even without help from the mother world.

Ren wondered at that. He could only conclude that their kinds of livestock and produce were very different from what he'd known, or Earther physiology was radically different from what he was expecting, or Earth-type environments were radically different from what he had known, or their food production and synthesis technology was extremely efficient by unheard-of levels, even if he included aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaculture and mariculture techniques. Ren asked, and the Captain promised to tour them through some of their planet-side food production facilities at the earliest possible convenience.

He also learned that the entire Earth system was fully networked for communication, using their almost-magical instantaneous communication technology. In fact, almost everyone carried either what they called a cellphone or a CC, powered by the same technology. To say all the Earthers were hooked up to their network was the literal truth. He burned to know how their technology worked, but he bided his time. If the Earthers wouldn't tell them, he’d somehow find another way. To have such technology would change their lives.

He listened with quiet amusement when the First Ambassador of the Arachnians spoke of Earther “television” programs, and how entertaining they were. Even in that, their technology enabled them. Ren thought of this “TV” for a bit. He told himself that he must ask later if this could also be extended to the Talon.

-----

The Captain explained that the current network was based on fairly new technology. Previous to that, they used a system based on the transmission of electromagnetic radiation, of wavelengths below visible light, which they called radio waves. Ren checked the details, and he noted that this was what Empire and Federation communications were currently based on.

But, considering interstellar distances, radio communication was not up to it. Federation citizens were painfully aware of this since they had to use couriers or automated ships to get messages across the void. Even if just across interplanetary distances, the several hours time lag was inconvenient, to say the least. The Federation and the Empire had to make do since there were no other options.

Humans also had to make do in this same way as well, until the creation of their Seren stations.

“Seren” was the Irish word for “star,” and it was the name its inventor, the noted physicist Doctor Ava McCarthy, gave the new system.

There used to be five Seren stations in the Solar System - one in orbit around Venus, another on Phobos near Mars, and three others in orbit around Neptune, Jupiter and Earth.

A Seren station was a kind of wormhole generator that allowed electromagnetic waves to go through before the wormhole closed. Though the wormhole remained open mere nanoseconds, the collapse was predictable, without any unusual effects when it does, and it could be re-opened at will.

Seren transmitters worked in pairs - one on each end of the wormhole tunnel. Since the tunnel remained open in infinitesimally short segments of time, the transmitters had to be synchronized very precisely, especially the wormhole collapse, so the transmission and reception of light pulses or electromagnetic waves could be coordinated properly and then reassembled correctly at the other end.

The transmitters were able to provide near-instantaneous communication between six of the seven major planetary settlements: Earth, the moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Neptune, with Saturn the only other major one remaining unconnected.

The stations required a lot of power to operate. Fully half of the entire system’s aggregate power output was used to run them. But even so, the humans thought the cost well worth it: It was a major boon to solidifying the major human settlements into a system-wide community.

But with Steele’s discovery of Phase-Wave, the Seren stations were retired, freeing up trillions of joules of energy that could then be used for other things. Captain Steele, however, didn’t talk about Phase-Wave even though Ren and his associates pressed her on it.

Captain Steele distracted them from asking about it further by saying she had gotten permission to offer Seren technology to the Federation. She told them that Earth scientists were in the middle of translating the material to Elyran, using equivalent Elyran scientific and technical terms and concepts. She said the material should be ready in a week or so. In his mind, Ren thought getting this technology might actually make this a profitable expedition.

After a short break to allow the aliens to talk this through and to allow their excitement to die down, discussions resumed and they segued into matters of defense.

The Federation envoys were flabbergasted to learn that the humans had more than one hundred thirty capital ships (more than 200 in Elyran Base-8). The exact number was carefully hidden, of course. But that was almost twice the size of the entire fleet of Elyran starships, which happened to be the largest fleet in the Federation. But Ren took comfort in the fact that the combined ships of the Federation outnumbered the Earth ships by a factor of sixteen-to-one. Still - one hundred-thirty... (Mia neglected to tell them, of course, that nearly two-thirds of these ships were not yet ready and were, in fact, still undergoing construction or shakedown, and the ones now available were outdated thirty to fifty-year-old non-FTL ships.)

All throughout Mia’s talk, the aliens interrupted often, but Mia was patient, and answered all that she could except those touching on their ships’ motive power, speed, armament, complement of on-board ships or range. That truncated the discussion and the Captain decided to break early for lunch.

When they reconvened, It was the aliens’ turn. Ren offered to be the one to brief the Earthers about the Federation. Like Mia, he began his talk by saying he would also not disclose everything because of security reasons. Everyone nodded at that, and settled down.

Like Mia, for those pieces of information that he couldn’t disclose, he tried to be vague or non-specific, or to actually say that he couldn’t tell. Ren covered most of the same areas that Mia had discussed and tried to be as thorough as possible (or as un-thorough as the case may be), but his talk was longer than Mia’s as he covered some material concerning the other member races of the Federation. Occasionally, the Earthers would jot down something he said, but they were curiously quiet the rest of the time. He had the impression that the Earthers knew already, even during those times when he broke down in a bit of frustration and disclosed something he wasn’t supposed to.

In fact, one of the Earthers even corrected him when he mentioned an erroneous number for the standard range of Detterex Defiant-class cruisers. There were also several telltale questions, such as when someone asked how the two thousand-plus Federation ships were deployed throughout Federation territory when the number of ships was supposed to be confidential. He was greatly surprised by this, and the implication was that Earthers knew more than they were saying. He hid his suspicions, however, and continued on.

Because there were minimal interruptions, Ren finished more quickly than he expected. At the end of his talk, and before adjourning for the day, Captain Steele transmitted to them several reference documents that had more specific information about the things that they talked about, without the confidential items, of course.

He looked to the back of the room he was in. One of his assistants looked up from a terminal and a printer spitting out sheets and sheets of paper, nodded and made a gesture like a stack of books a meter high. Ren smiled and turned back to the screen. He made a decision.

“The Federation thanks you, Captain Steele,” Ren said. “We were unprepared and cannot reciprocate. Our team will try and get together our own documentation, and have it ready in, at most, a few days. We would also like to invite you to a more through tour of our ship as soon as feasible.”

“Thank you, Highness,” the Captain said. “How about tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? For the books?”

“Ummm, no. I was referring to the tour.”

“But...”

“We can perform the same maneuver that Hermes did, but we will need some information about your ship’s defense field generator. Afterwards, we can tour your ship.”

Ren looked at the Captain’s image on his screen. After a moment, he made a decision. He nodded and snapped a finger at one of his assistants and whispered in his ear. The assistant scurried away.

“Please have your engineer call our pilot at her earliest convenience,” Ren said. “Our pilot will give her whatever information is needed.”

The Captain nodded her thanks and subsequently ended the meeting for the day.

 

Being Catty –

On Channel “B,” Princess Tasha and Jennifer Priestly were wrapping up as well. It was obvious that the discussion didn’t go as well as it could have, as the Princess was less than cordial. Still, a lot was accomplished since everyone tried to be cooperative despite Tasha’s mood.

From the information gleaned by Jennifer’s team in this one session, a lot of CETI’s then-open questions about Elyran society were answered. They were starting to feel confident that they now had a good handle on what Elyrans were all about until Jennifer made her unintentional gaffe.

Jennifer gave a lot of credit for the day’s progress to the Elyran sociologist that accompanied the Princess. Ben seemed to know his stuff and was eager to expand his knowledge of the Earthers. He tried to smooth over the Princess’s catty behavior to keep the discussion from stalling out, for which everyone was grateful.

Making conversation after the meeting, Jennifer learned that this young sociologist named Ben was actually Prince Ren’s contemporary in the Elyran Institute of Science. He specialized in languages, and had met the Prince when he was retained by the Royal Family to help translate documents their spies brought back from the other side. From then on, he was part of the family’s staff.

Ben commented that some of the Earthers he met had names that curiously sounded familiar. Jenn said she felt the same thing about Elyran names. She told them that “Ben” was actually a very common name on Earth, and the little Elyran male seemed oddly proud of that.

“Ben is actually a nickname. It’s short for ‘Benjamin,’“ Jenn explained, “which meant ‘the favorite son’ in the olden days.”

Jenn was surprised when the Elyrans suddenly became quiet and the young scientist blushed, ducked his head and look shyly away.

Jenn’s eyebrows rose. Something was wrong. “Umm, I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”

No one answered.

“If I did, I apologize. My grasp of Elyran is clearly not perfect.”

“You didn’t say anything objectionable, Doctor,” Tasha said. “Not exactly. What you said was actually a kindness... of a sort.”

“What do you mean, Your Highness?”

“The name you mentioned? To us, it sounded like you said, ‘Ben, zhem ‘ain.’ It sounded like you said, ‘Ben, my love is yours forever.’“

Ben excused himself and left the room.

This was one of the few times Jenn was caught without anything to say - she was definitely caught off-guard. She looked at her team and they, after looking through the language databases in their CC’s, were shaking their heads.

“Your Highness, I’m...”

“Do not fret, Doctor. It is not surprising that you did not know. It is in the formal ancient tongue, not in common use anymore. In formal Elyran, the phrase translates to ‘Jem eem zheh t’aime,’ which is very different from what you said. The ancient form, however, is an expression of love reserved for one’s bonded mate, from one’s bridge. No one else may presume to say it.”

Jenn gulped. “Your Highness, I did not know. Please believe that I intended no insult. Please tell Ben...”

Tasha raised her hand. “Do not worry, Doctor. Ben knows, and does not blame you. But he is unmated. Please give him some time. He needs to compose himself. So let us continue tomorrow?”

“Of course, Your Highness.” The screen blacked out when the Princess abruptly switched off from their side.

She turned to her team. “What the hell happened!” she cried.

“I don’t know, Doctor,” one of the CETI scientists replied.

“What does any of this mean? Any ideas?”

He shrugged. “And what’s the implication of being unmated...”

“Stop it,” someone else said. “It’s useless to speculate.”

“This is bad,” Jenn said. “Better tell Mia.”

“Tell her what?”

“Well, everything!”

-----

Tasha went out into the passageway outside the little conference room they were using, and found Ben. She saw him huddling in a corner, crying. The people in the passageway were looking at him sympathetically, but didn’t know how to help.

Tasha grabbed a passing steward. “Find the Prince,” she said quietly. “Bring him here quickly. He is needed.”

Tasha approached the stricken little scientist. “Dear Ben,” she said, putting a gentle arm around his shoulder. She knew it was safe since she was already mated. “The alien scientist didn’t mean it. She didn’t know what she was saying or doing. She didn’t know...”

“I know that, Your Highness.” he said. “Normally, I wouldn’t have been...”

“Of course...”

“But she is a bridge, It is hard not to...”

She gave him a sisterly hug. “I understand. Everyone understands.”

“It’s like all the Earthers are bridges!” He started crying. “I want my mother.”

“I’m sorry, she isn’t here, dearest.”

“I know,” he sniffed. “But I really wish she was. I’d be happy to even just talk to her. The Earthers are so lucky, they can talk to anyone they like anytime they want.”

“Maybe they’ll teach us how to do that soon.”

Tasha felt a touch on her shoulder. Looking up, it was Ren.

“It’s my turn to help, my love,” Ren said. “Thank you for being here for Ben.”

Tasha stood and gave her husband a kiss, relinquishing her place. Ren kneeled and gave Ben a hug. He pulled the crying man up.

“Come on, dear,” he said. “Let’s go to my quarters. I’m sure we can both use a cup of krahnng.”

She looked in fondness at her husband as he helped his friend to their cabin. If anyone could understand what Ben was going through, it was Tasha’s mate.

As royalty, it was important, politically, for men like Ren to remain unattached for the longest time possible, so as to give royal families the hope of possibly allying with theirs. This was explained to Ren when he entered puberty, so Ren understood the reasons why. But it became more difficult when they discovered he was a bridge. Bridges were the most attractive individuals among Elyrans, not just from a purely physical point of view, but also in most other aspects where sexual attractiveness was a factor. And as the more passive of the genders, male bridges still unmated after puberty were especially at risk from more powerful, inconsiderate female bridges.

Ren was taught how to cope and resist other bridges. So despite being so in demand, his training gave him the ability to remain unmated for as long as possible, and to select his own partner instead of others forcing themselves on him. In the end, it allowed him to discover true bonding with his eventual mate. For which Tasha was grateful.

Ben’s life was a bit similar - he was a scientist and had taken a vow of celibacy as part of his matriculation. Because of this, he only discovered he was a bridge relatively late in life when, in the course of his work, he had to associate more and more with the opposite sex, and, as a result, he never learned to manage his urges nor manage the advances women made on him.

Ren knew what the brilliant young man was going through and felt for him. He made him part of his royal staff, and during their off days he tried to help him by teaching him the concentration and focus techniques he learned, normally only taught to royalty. And with it, Ben had been able to cope most of the time. But as he got older, Ben found these techniques less and less effective. He knew that he would need to choose a mate soon. Sooner more than later.

But his control was still good enough that he felt he didn’t need to worry about it for a while. The thing was, it didn’t occur to him that the Earthers would turn out to be a race of bridges (he knew that was impossible, but that was how it felt like). Ren could imagine what Ben was going through, and the kind of self-control he needed in order to cope. He must be going mad with frustration, Ren thought.

As Ren walked his friend to their quarters, he thought of his beloved. He knew his love for Tasha was true - the visceral biological urges were undeniable. He and Tasha would have succumbed as well to the attraction the Earthers couldn’t help but exude, but they were mated: the Earthers’ effect on them was as negligible as the effect other bridges would have to any mated pair. He thanked the gods for that, and that Tasha had allowed him to come with her on the expedition.

He shrugged that all aside as he helped his best friend to their quarters. It would be a long night of counseling, meditation, and providing a shoulder to cry on.

-----

After a panicked call from Jenn’s assistant, Mia punched up Jenn’s personal number on her CC.

“Jennifer!” Mia exclaimed. “What’s the matter?”

A frantic Jennifer told her all the details. Mia was puzzled. “I don’t get it,” she said.

“I know. We’re missing something, Mia, and I don’t know what it is.”

“All we can do is to apologize again, and hope that they accept it.”

“I guess...”

“Try and leave it alone for now.”

“Okay... Mia? Can you pass your chair to your assistant tomorrow, and join me on Channel ‘B?’“

“That may not be possible but I’ll try. In the meantime, Jenn, get Jerry’s and Phil’s people together, and see if you can figure this out. And keep it confidential.”

“Right away.” And Jenn unceremoniously hung up.

Mia thoughtfully walked to the bridge, wondering what it was all about.

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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