Act 1: Hope
Scene 2: Quetzal
Princess Isabelle Dorian paced fretfully back and forth on the quarterdeck of the Intrepid, a first class Imperial Diplomatic Cruiser. The sterile interior of plastic walls and white lights felt so foreign to her and did nothing to ease her mood. Normally in such a temper she would have retreated to a secluded grove on her home moon of Dome IV and let the sound of trickling water and wind in the evergreens soothe her spirit. Here, there was nowhere to turn, no area of seclusion or respite from the harsh glow. She took solace in the colorful depths of space that at once soothed and fascinated her. Its incomprehensible vastness challenged the imagination, and made her other problems seem petty, much like the ancient trees on Dome IV. Deeper in space, the glow of the stars was dimmer and the inscrutable blackness shrouded everything, but presently the Intrepid was entering the Quetzal system and the light of Quetzal's quiet sun managed to fend off the dark. She stared at a spot where she fancied Dome might be in the sky, trying to ignore the onerous responsibility of the task at hand. She was lost in thought when she was interrupted by her personal body guard.
"M'lady," said a deep voice from behind her.
"Daren," Isabelle said softly.
"M'lady, it is almost time to land. We must proceed."
Isabelle turned to face him. Daren Scotch was a beast of a man, but that wasn't unusual for military types since the Ascension War. It was said that with that desperate war for survival, man had earned his place among the stars and the respect of four very powerful stellar civilizations. It had also produced some of the ethically questionable practices that made men like Daren stand unusually tall and capable of lifting several times their own body weight. The science was called eugenics, and it had been performed on military personnel during the war to create super-soldiers capable of holding their own in the cut-throat galactic gladiator arena. In order to become a galactic civilization, man had to appeal to his basest animal instincts and forget all that made him civil. Afterwards, however, eugenics had created a permanent caste system based on genetic differences between the rich and poor. Terra's unsustainable democracy had collapsed and had been replaced by a capable monarchy that had ultimately proven to be the most effective and efficient way to rule distant star systems.
What was unusual about Daren wasn't his size, but his surprising gentleness and gravity of demeanor. The man was self confident enough to treat even the lowliest of proletariats with the utmost respect. The reverence he showed for the Princess was nothing short of worship. Isabelle had no doubt that he would gladly take a bullet for her in a crisis. In turn, she trusted him fully. Bowing her head, she followed him to the bridge.
The bridge of the Intrepid was a marvel of Terran engineering. In the very center was a large circular dais that could project incredibly large and detailed holograms into the area directly above it. At the moment, the entire bridge was lit by the colors of the projector's translucent representation of the planet they were approaching. While the blue planet seemed almost solemn encased in its atmosphere of misty white clouds, the rest of the bridge was a bustle of activity. At least a dozen operators in white jumpsuits manned control stations arranged along the base of the display dias, and several more were occupied at stations that followed the contours of the walls. Isabelle found the bridge somewhat disquieting, with its overwhelming light show of information playing across countless monitors. Overlooking this marvelous display was the Captain's chair, currently occupied by a dark haired man wearing a navy blue captain's uniform.
"This is Captain Aiden Vance of the TIS Intrepid, requesting permission to dock," he said.
A series of static clicks and hisses came back through the intercom, which the ships onboard computer quickly translated and announced in a soothing female voice. "Permission granted, Intrepid. We have been expecting you."
The Captain was slighter than the other military personnel on the bridge, yet his icy blue eyes belied the fierce intelligence and indomitable will that had gotten him so far. Isabelle had heard some uncouth rumors about Captain Vance. It was common knowledge that he was not of legacy blood, which put him in one of the lower orders of humanity, most likely a prole or burg. To Isabelle, it was clear that he possessed some of the coarser mannerisms of his order and lacked the sophistication and culture required of an international diplomat such as herself. Whereas most proles and burgs were almost apologetic for their societal position in the presence of anyone of legacy blood, Captain Vance asked no forgiveness. As a ship captain, however, he managed to operate just fine, which pleased Isabelle well enough.
"Set her down, Lavik," Aiden instructed the pilot.
"Yes, sir," Lavik replied. "Attitude set to entry angle, powering down thrusters."
Quetzal was the capitol of the Couatlan Empire and the prized gem of its vast collection of worlds. It currently loomed large in the viewing window, illuminated on one side by the sun and on the other more faintly by a small ivory-white moon. Quetzal was an island world; its brilliant blue oceans were speckled with tiny green islands, which were more visible on the night side because they shone as tiny pinpricks of light. Its largest land mass had once been a dense jungle, which had been turned into a garden city centuries ago by an expanding Couatlan empire. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Quetzal was its atmosphere, which humans could breath without respirators or masks of any kind.
Lavik capably navigated the sleek ship to land on the pad for formal delegations at the Couatlan palace. Locally, it was the late afternoon, and the sun glinted off the many spires and arcades of the Couatlan palace. Awaiting them was a reception party of dignified Couatlans.
It is a curious habit of humans to find the familiar in the alien, and yet Isabelle could not help herself. She scolded herself for the seemingly racist thought, but Couatlans resembled unusually large and brightly colored feathered serpents. They had beady black eyes and tapered snouts with wide jaws, yet lacked a voice box. Their language was telepathic by necessity, but they still had ears and could instantly comprehend any spoken language. Few humans showed any aptitude for telepathy, though, so every delegation carried a telesensetive robot that roughly resembled a floating baseball that transmitted real-time translations to earpieces that every delegate carried. Couatlan architecture reflected their racial adaptations; ceilings were generally lower and hallways narrower, and there were fewer right angles. Still, some of the same basic themes that pervaded Terran architecture existed, such as doors, rooms, and windows. In the Couatlan palace, however, all the ceilings were high and the hallways wide. It was an impressive sight, made from yellow stone and covered in a strange but beautiful alien ivy.
The colorful Couatlan delegation stood to attention as the hatch opened and the Terrans stepped into the warm afternoon air of Quetzal. A light wind ruffled their feathers and tugged at the hem of Isabelle's dress. A Couatlan security robot subtly scanned them before they were approached by a security guard. The blue-green Couatlan introduced himself with a bow.
'Good afternoon, Princess Dorian. I am Thoque, a member of the Prime Minister's personal guard. I trust your journey was a pleasant one?'
"Very," the Princess replied graciously.
'Please, M'lady, follow me, and we will lead you to the Throne Room.'
"Certainly," Isabelle replied.
Daren followed at a respectful distance, and the tiny translation droid hovered by Isabelle's shoulder. The four security guards glided alongside the Terran delegation and led them across the winding terraces of the Couatlan executive palace before bringing them to the Throne Room.
Although Quetzal was a democracy, the Couatlan palace was fit for a King. Kiriko, who was the current Couatlan Prime Minister, lay coiled in the throne, which resembled more of a nest than a chair. The ceiling of the throne room was almost unreasonably high, meant to impress the visitor with the power and vastness of the Couatlan empire. Even the large throne felt isolated in the center of the huge chamber. Around it there was the furniture that had been arranged to accommodate the Terran delegation. To Kiriko, human chairs seemed very uncomfortable, so he had thoughtfully brought some recliners into the throne room to receive the Terran delegation. To add to the comfort and luxury, some tantalizing fruit had been set on a table nearby. The palace grounds were in the full bloom of summer, which only added the grandeur of the setting. Kiriko's attention was currently focused on the comparatively small door that opened to the veranda, through which the Terran delegation would soon be arriving. While he was waiting, Kiriko absentmindedly munched on a Czuthal fruit, savoring its perfect ripeness.
The delegation arrived through the veranda doors as Kiriko had expected and filed in towards the reception area. If the Princess was impressed by the size of the room, she didn't show it. Kiriko took a moment to size up the young woman. He had been told that she was considered exceptionally beautiful by Terran standards. To him, she just seemed tiny. She stood less than two meters high, and looked as if any moderate breeze would sweep her away, especially given the wispy dress she was wearing. Kiriko rose to his full height of three meters in order show both his respect and his authority. The Princess bowed in return. Kiriko motioned for them to take a seat with his tail. The Princess acquiesced, looking a little surprised as the recliner morphed to accommodate her contours. She had to admit, it was very comfortable.
'Welcome to Quetzal, Princess,' Kiriko said. 'I trust you enjoyed your journey?'
"It was quite good, thank you. I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me."
'My pleasure. It is always good to meet a Terran delegation. Especially one as dignified as yours.'
"The pleasure is all mine," Isabelle replied.
'Is this your first time on Quetzal?' Kiriko implored.
"Yes, it is. I'm finding it quite beautiful. You have lovely gardens here."
'You chose the right season to visit us, for all the flowers are in full bloom. I am glad that the relations between our governments are finally improving, for if the negotiations go well then perhaps you will be seeing a lot more of them.'
"I would certainly like that. It's a pity that relations never improved sooner. You must forgive us, Prime Minister, but the Terran people are notorious for holding grudges. The Couatlan involvement in the Ascension War, while minor, has certainly been an obstacle to relations."
'An obstacle, Princess, that I am looking forward to overcoming. Terra has done nothing if not gain the respect of the Couatlan government. Terra has proved itself a worthy adversary, and hopefully it will soon prove itself a worthy friend. Seroth and Quetzal would both benefit from a strong relationship, both economically and politically.'
"As I am sure the people of Terra are well aware, and the Legacy of Seroth even more so," the Princess said, smiling. "We realize that the isolationism of the previous regime was not productive, and the new monarchy is eager to pursue a more active role in international affairs. However, we act slowly and tentatively so as to avoid the mistakes of our forefathers. Another war would be disastrous, and while Terra is now better equipped to handle such a mishap, we do not look forward to the setback. We feel that a proper alliance with Quetzal would both forestall any such unfortunate possibility and also give Terra some legitimacy and weight when it comes to negotiating with other nations. We are grateful that Quetzal has been the first to extend the hand of friendship, especially given the possible political consequences."
Kiriko took a moment to measure his response. 'Terra has certainly proven itself on the field of battle. The arena of politics is a separate matter, but Terra has again demonstrated that it has been underestimated. We Couatlans would like to think of our friendship as an investment. We believe that we are the first to see the true potential of the Terran Empire and the possible benefits of a strong relationship.'
The Princess laughed. "And hopefully not the last."
Kiriko puffed his feathers and rocked back and forth in acknowledgement of the humor. 'I have taken a personal look at the provisions of the declaration of alliance and the various associated agreements. There are some minor details that I would like to settle tomorrow, when we have more time for formal negotiations. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoy your stay. My personal assistant, Gwendyl, will take you to your lodgings for tonight. Finally, I'd like to leave you with a parting gift.'
He rose, as did the Princess. In accordance with tradition, Kiriko plucked one of his own feathers and presented it to the Princess, holding it lightly with the muscular flesh at the end of his tail. The Princess accepted the bright red token with awe.
"My goodness… it's beautiful. Thank you so much!"
Then, unexpectedly, she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Kiriko's midriff in a very Terran embrace. Not quite sure what to do, Kiriko wrapped his tail around her, returning the embrace until the Princess broke it. There was an odd twinkle in her eye. They bowed to each other, and Kiriko puzzled over the incident as Gwendyl led away the Terran delegation.
From the corner, Thoque, had memorized every word. The Myrmidons would be eager to hear about this exchange. News of the awkward embrace might even induce them to give him an extra reward. He could barely hold still in anticipation. However, he had not caught the most important part of the exchange, which even Kiriko did not discover until he had retired for the night, when the small slip of paper that the Princess had planted with the odd embrace fell out of his feathers. In an ungainly Terran rendition of Couatlan script and grammar, it read: Reunion, 2600hrs garden. High Secret. The intention was clear; the Princess meant to discuss some aspect of the agreement that should not be put in writing. Kiriko swallowed the paper, destroying the evidence. His clock read 2536; he had half an hour.