There was a certain amount of excitement on the bridge, barely restrained under the usual veneer of ordered efficiency. The occasion might be considered a historical one as wellfor the first time since early bold spacefarers had discovered it, the Hegemony of Beta Reticuli was opening its territorial space to an "alien" starship, and, perhaps, they even would allow some of its crew to beam down to their planet.
Kirk stared in fascination at the image slowly growing on the main screen. It was almost unbelievable that such a planetthe only inhabitable one in its star systemhad managed to reach such a high level of development, while maintaining such a high level of isolation. All the space around heractually most of the solar systemwas engulfed by a highly charged energy barrier, absolutely unbreakable, controlled and maintained by several starbases. No other known world would be able to afford such a defensive apparatus. Even if it had the technology, it wouldnt have enough economical resources to make such a "fence" feasible.
Uhura interrupted his thoughts: "Captain, Im receiving a message from Beta Reticuli. They are going to convey the coordinates of the passageway..."
"Very well, Lieutenant. Do we have visual contact?"
"Not yet, sir. The energy shield interference is too strong."
Kirk couldnt help but feel disappointed, a feeling surely shared by all the personnel on the bridge. Even if it was now just a matter of minutes, the curiosity was great. No one outside of Beta Reticuli had ever seen a Beta Reticulan. Until then, communications had been only through sub-space radio, and most of the "talks" were done by computers. Negotiations had gone on for years, without any chance to know what the interlocutors looked like. Such a mystery had encouraged the wildest guesses, which had kept conversations alive in rec rooms all along the trip. Commander Scott led a large faction claiming the Reticulans were multi-headed giantsthe number of the heads increasing with the amount of scotch consumed; Doctor McCoy was inclined to believe they were spherical beings, moving around bouncing or rolling. Kirk preferred to think of them as evanescent, ghost-like creatures. Obviously, Commander Spock had always refused to join in such illogical speculations, and whenever he happened to listen to them, his eyebrows broke all records for rising.
It was actually the first officers voice that brought Captain Kirk out of his reverie. "Coordinates are in our computer data banks, sir. Sensors are surveying the passageway...data corroborates..."
"Thats quite reassuring, Mister Spock," Kirk said with a wry smile. He always tried not to think too much about the risks in any mission. Once inside that narrow corridor through the large force field, the Enterprise and her crew would be completely at the mercy of the unknown Beta Reticulans. If the passageway closed too soon, the most powerful starship in Starfleet would be crushed like a crumbled cookie. Besides there was no way to be sure that, once they were inside, their hosts would allow them out. They could just hope that those who had arranged the mission knew what they were doing.
"Mister Chekov," he ordered, careful not to betray his worries, "transfer navigation control to Mister Spocks station."
"Navigation control transferred, sir." Anxiety clearly affected the young officers voice. "I have visual contact, Captain."
According to his natural good timing, McCoy entered the bridge at that very moment. "Did I miss anything good?"
"Not at all, Bones. The shows just beginning now."
All eyes were on the screen, where some blurred, trembling images were about to take shape. Just for a moment, Kirk thought he might have won the bet, but as soon as the imagine steadied, it became clear that Beta Reticulans were nothing but quite common humanoids. The only alien trait was their eyebrows, more slanted than any Vulcans, from the ends of which long, thin, shiny, antennae-like stalks grew. Disappointment, at least for the captain, was eased by the fact that the one in the center appeared to be a very beautiful woman. Surely, no ghost would be that fascinating! A barely audible whistle told Kirk that McCoy had also given up to his ball-shaped people, without regret.
The woman spoke first. "I am Ambassador Urgav. I welcome you on behalf of Beta Reticulan people." Her English was good enough, with a weird metallic accent (after all, she had learned it by a computer). The ambassador went on, pointing at the person on her side: "She is Doctor Vrodel, head of the Alien Cultures Search Department..."
Kirk suppressed a smile. Madam Ambassadors English wasnt that perfect, actually, since "she" wore beard and moustache! He would have really liked to discuss gender differences with that attractive alien woman, but now wasnt the right occasion. Thus, he exhibited his best formal tone as he made introductions in turn and offered formal greetings on behalf of the United Federation of Planets.
Urgav stared at somewhere before herself, for a short while, then spoke again: "Our base technicians inform me that you will have completed traversing our force field in nine minutes. As soon as you establish orbit, we will be glad to meet you on our planet, Captain. Unluckily, for this first meeting, we cant allow anybody else, but we are quite sure that, as soon as we can get better acquainted with each other, there will be no longer need of such restrictions..."
"I look forward to meeting you then. Kirk out."
"I dont like it, Jim!" McCoy said, as soon as the transmission ended. "These people are making up all the rules. How can we be assured that they arent going to arrange a dinner with you as the main dish?"
"Id say thats quite a twisted way to do the shopping!" said Kirk, laughing, although he didnt feel as confident as he tried to appear. "What about you, Mister Spock? Are you also thinking they are willing to eat me?"
"Of course not, Captain," the Vulcan answered casting a sideward glance at McCoy, who scowled back. "Nevertheless, I find the Ambassadors statement quite illogical. How can they get better acquainted with an alien civilization by contact with a sole individual? Unfortunately, we have no choice; our orders are adamant."
"Yeah, we have to be friendly and consenting. The Federation is very keen on the success of this mission. Beta Reticuli is a wealthy and highly advanced planet; it might become a very interesting trading partner and a worthy ally. Imagine if we could equip every Federation planet with an energy barrier. We just have to overcome their distrust."
"Under the circumstances, Captain, I feel it is my duty to advise you to strictly follow Order 328, Section A Paragraph 17..."
"A starship captain will use most caution while establishing contact with alien civilization representatives, whose biological, cultural and ethical peculiarities are not wholly known," Kirk recited. "Ill keep it in mind, Mister Spock. Thank you."
"Amen!" McCoy gloomily commented.
Coordinates given to transport brought Kirk right into the Ambassadors office. The room was furnished in a sober style, and it appeared unexpectedly comfortable for a place that didnt ever admit a foreign visitor. In person, Urgav appeared even more beautiful. Jim Kirk had to force himself to avert his eyes from her body sinuosities, wrapped in a softly draped gown, which hid its contents while maliciously allowing him to fancy them. Slightly embarrassed, he realized that the Urgavs gaze was resting on him with the same obvious interest...
What if indigenous welcoming customs included...? he wondered, tempted. No, Jim Tomcat Kirk, think about Paragraph 17! The voice of his conscience admonished. Strange enough, the voice in his mind sounded with Spocks deep tones. Anyway, he managed to recover his self-control by concentrating on the difficulties of the mission at hand. He was charged with heavy responsibilities. Beta Reticulans were distrustful and far less friendly than they pretended to be. The Enterprise was orbiting the planet escorted by two indigenous, heavily armed, starships; and behind every door of that quiet office, there must have been armed guards, ready to intervene at the first sign of trouble. He couldnt allow himself the slightest error.
"Im pleased to see that Doctor Vrodel was right..." Urgav said with a broad smile.
"In stating that similar environments would favor the development of similar morphological characteristics. This will help us to overcome the resistance of the most conservative elements of our society. Of course," Urgav went on in an apologetic tone, "you, people of the Federation are accustomed to meeting people from many different worlds. No doubt you will think all this as silly prejudices, but I cant deny that we were worried. Popular fantasy depicted you in the most frightening shapes. Some of our more critical dissidents have taken to feeding peoples innate fears, in order to support those opposed to our governments decision to make contact..."
"I cant see any reason to be so afraid," Kirk pointed out. "The United Federation of Planets is a peaceful alliance of independent worlds. Besides, if your offensive capabilities are proportional to your defensive onesand I refer to the energy barrier, of coursethen you have very little to fear from anybody..."
"I know, Captain, but its a long tale, and I think you need to know it, before you meet the other Council members. Thats why I wished our first meeting to be in private. Luckily," the ambassador added with a wry smile, "even though Im just an ambassador without embassy, I have the whole confidence of my government, and I also have influence enough to be allowed to handle this part of the negotiation my way."
"I guess not all Beta Reticulans are eager to make contact with other cultures."
"You dont have to worry about that, captain. The present government of Beta Reticuli is supported by a large popular consent, and it will be able to maintain its commitments, but a democratic society cant disregard the minoritys opinions. Our democracy is a young one.
"Until little more than fifty years ago, Beta Reticuli was ruled by the Favrils, a religious sect, who had political control. One of their basic beliefs was that we were the only sentient species in the universe, put here by the Creator to worship and glorify it, with the King-Priests leading. An easily tenable statement, until science couldnt ignore evidence of that other worlds and sentient beings outside ourselves existed. It was then that the Favrils, fearing they might lose their power, ordered the energy barrier, which still protects and confines us, built. They spent all our resources on it, imposing heavy sacrifices on the people, who already were suffering with a lot of anachronistic restraints and impositions. Popular discontent favored the growth of ideals of freedom and democracy. Slowly, many believers began to claim for the right to choose their leaders freely and to demand that priests would take care of spiritual affairs only.
"I dont think I need to tell you how difficult is to build a free state after centuries of tyranny. Favrils still have many followers, mostly among those who lost their privileges because of the fall of the old regime. The philosophical and ethical principles of their doctrine are the roots of our culture and the refusal to accept other civilizations existence still survives in the depth of many consciences. Our task is to prove that the so-much feared aliens are, in fact, people like us, sharing our very same ideals. We did a lot of work on that, during the last years; now, we are counting on your cooperation to complete it."
"Im ready to cooperate completely," Kirk said passionately. He had listened to the long explanation with high interest and growing admiration. "I think that our Federation, where many different species live peacefully together and work side by side, in absolute respect of various cultural identities, might provide the best example from which start..."
"I wholly agree with you. Theres nothing left, but to arrange a common strategy of intervention," Urgav reached for a computer console and turned it on. "Ive prepared for you a short psychological profile of each counselor..."
That night, Captain Kirks morale was sky-high. The mission on Beta Reticuli had been a great success. Thank to the information provided by Urgav and his own abilities as an orator, the old bigots of Beta Reticuli had been properly silenced and a first draft of a treaty had been laid down. A sumptuous party at the government palace had celebrated the event. Almost the entire crew was invited and welcomed with all honors.
In a short while, a Beta Reticulan delegation would come on board the Enterprise to enjoy a ship tour. Obviously, Ambassador Urgav would be in the party.
Kirk checked his reflection in the mirror and was pleased by it. The dress uniform fitted perfectly. Maybe the tunic was a bit too tight on his abdomen. Better contract my muscles a little more...here, yeah, thats much better! It wasnt very comfortable, but it was worth the trouble.
He still had Urgavs image before his eyes. The way he had seen the ambassador at the partybeaming and more beautiful than ever. Urgav had to be really happy after finally earning the embassy. Kirk was pleased to have contributed to that achievement. She really deserves it, he thought. During the party, he had had very little occasion to get near Urgav and, even then, they hadnt ever been alone, but when the ambassador had accepted his invitation to the Enterprise, it was with a look full of promises. By now, there no longer was any reason to be cautious. He just had to find a way to leave his other guests in the care of his officers. One wasnt a starship captain for nothing, after all...
Lights were very dim in captains quarters. Judging by the ease Urgav had faced his advanceseven anticipating them, sometimesit was quite clear that the Beta Reticulan was experienced. That had warned Kirk to follow his own very personal version of Paragraph 17: when you dont know the territory, put a great deal of emphasis on foreplay... Not that he was the kind of man to doubt about his abilities, but...one never knows. Sometimes incompatible physiologies ruined what would otherwise have been a great evening.
The night was going well. Urgav collaborated with passion and skills. It would be a memorable experience! Kirk indulged a little more in caressing the soft, smooth skin, following the bodys curving contours, while the ambassadors hands were fussing with his belt buckle. Kirk went on with his caress, reaching for a well known target and...didnt find it. What he found made him jump back.
"Lights!" he barked, while Urgav was withdrawing with as much revulsion as his. The computer, dutifully, complied. Before Kirks astonished eyes a wondrous half naked body showed itself. It was decidedly femininebut for a solitary, essential, item.
The Enterprise had just re-crossed the energetic barrier and aimed for open space. On the main screen, the planet Beta Reticuli, the surface lighted by her sun, offered a sight of rare beauty. Captain Kirk sat in the center seat, deep in gloomy thoughts, seemingly unaware of the lively conversation going on around him.
"...so this Mavrn was a doctor," McCoy was saying, "and was very interested in Human anatomy and physiology. Doctor Mavrn was also willing to provide information about Beta Reticulans. Just fancy whether I would miss such an occasion. I brought Mavrn to Sickbay and ran a full physical on the doctor, and...I made an unbelievable discovery!"
The doctor paused for effect, then, when he was sure he had everybodys full attention, announced solemnly: "Beta Reticulan physiology is very similar to the Human one, but their secondary sexual characteristics are completely reversed!"
"Interesting," Spock commented.
"Interesting? Id rather say embarrassing!" the doctor countered. "Try to think about how one might feel, after spending a couple of hours talking to somebody he thought was a man, when he discovers it was instead a lady!"
Spock raised a quizzical eyebrow, making quite clear he didnt think that word choice and conversation subjects might be affected by the interlocutors sex in the least.
McCoy turned to the captain looking for more sympathy. "What do you think, Jim? This guy Id been telling dirty jokes to all evening turned out to be quite a gal!"
"Report to Sickbay, please, Doctor McCoy. Back to your station, Mister Spock. Mister Sulu, set course for Starbase Three, Warp Factor Two."
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