Marilynn Byerly

 

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The Once and Future Queen

 

by

 

Marilynn Byerly

 

Valerian Grant, master of the Appomattox, sprawled in his bunk and dreamed he was a pirate captain, his spacecraft a four-masted schooner prowling the warm waters off the Bahamas.

 

The deck rolled beneath his feet as he peered through his spyglass at a French merchant ship afloat in the azure water off his starboard bow. He turned to his First Mate. "Rich plunder ahead, Smith. Hoist the Jolly Roger."

 

Resplendent in white silk shirt, red bandanna headpiece, and black pants, Smith flashed a chimp smile, showing her canines, and opened her mouth to speak--

 

Dr. Adam Dane's baritone rumbled through Grant's dream, "Intergalactic bogeymen, phooey!"

 

Jerking awake, Val jumped to his feet like the soldier he was, his right hand seeking his sword at his left side.

 

Adam and Smith gaped at him from his open cabin door. He stared back at the tall, blond human and the tiny Pandori female who now wore a regulation Confederation uniform.

 

Gazing at the hand, which still searched for the nonexistent sword, Adam drawled, "Gas, Val?"

 

Feeling like an idiot, Val dropped his hand and straightened his disheveled blue uniform.

 

"Our apologies, Colonel, for disturbing you," Smith offered politely. "We buzzed before opening the door."

 

"I was asleep, and you walked into a rather vivid dream." Yawning, Val waved them into his cabin.

 

Adam ducked his head as he went under the door portal then stretched to his full six foot seven. His height, blond handsomeness, broad shoulders, and muscular build made him a perfect replica of his Viking ancestors, but his sleepy gray eyes and insipid, good-natured expression made him appear harmless and stupid. He was neither. His bulk and his expression hid one of the finest, most creative minds in the Confederation Fleet.

 

Two feet shorter than Adam, Smith appeared as harmless and stupid to most humans because of the half-chimpanzee, half-human appearance of the Pandori, but she was even more dangerous and intelligent than Adam.

 

With a frown, Adam studied Val critically.

 

Before Adam could bring up his drinking, Val hastened to his own defense. "I fell asleep watching a movie. You'll love this one, Adam. It's called The Adventures of Robin Hood with that Errol Flynn."

 

Adam glanced at the computer screen adjusted for bed viewing at the foot of Val's rumpled bunk, then as if accepting Val's explanation, he grinned boyishly, sauntered over, and plopped down on the bed. "Flynn! He played the doctor who was sold into slavery and became a pirate who loved his former pretty owner. The movie was Captain ... Captain ...?"

 

Smith wriggled her brown muzzle in confusion. "I don't understand what you're talking about."

 

Val motioned toward the pile of card tapes littering the inset beside his bunk. "An old girlfriend -- Dr. Anne Hathcote, sent me duplicates of some twentieth century movies that have recently been discovered. Adam and I have been sampling them for the past few weeks." He shrugged apologetically at the Pandori. "I didn't think you'd be interested in 'inferior' cultural relics of mere humans."

 

Her soft laugh the only attribute a human male could recognize as feminine, Smith tittered. "I enjoy the cultural zoo on occasion. Why else would I have chosen to live and work with humans?"

 

"You do love us, you Pandori temptress!" Adam swooned against the bunk in feigned romantic ecstasy.

 

"We Pandori have a fondness for our... pets."

 

"I assume you woke me for a specific purpose. I am still off duty." Val motioned Smith to the chair near the bed, and suddenly all business, she perched on it. He sat down on the bed beside Adam.

 

His First Officer began, "We have received orders to proceed to Xenda at all prudent speed."

 

Val fingered his moustache. "I know the world. Astrid and I almost spent our honeymoon there. It's human perfect and still pastoral. A human colony settled there almost 150 years ago and decided to have a special type of culture based on gallantry, elegance, and limited technology."

 

Adam's voice thickened into South Carolina honey, "A living fairy tale, their brochures call it, complete with royalty and the proper way of doing things. A place where a Southern gentleman would feel right at home."

 

Smith chittered annoyance. "Southern Norway doesn't have such an accent or any such gentlemen, Human."

 

"South Carolina is my spiritual home, you furry Yankee."

 

Showing a bit more canine than usual, Smith smiled. "Xenda's principal income is tourism. The absurd need for the archaic is a strong emotion found in most humans."

 

The mental mush of inactivity must be affecting the Pandori as well as the human members of his crew, Val decided. He'd never known her to wander off the subject before. "Xenda?"

 

"By special request of John Stewart, Prime Minister and Regent of Xenda, to the Confederation, we are ordered to attend the Queen's Coronation. The Appomattox will be there in eight days in time for the week of festivities and ceremonies that lead up to young Queen Fira's coronation."

 

Chewing his mustache, Val digested that news. What were the bureaucrats at Headquarters up to? He and his small ship's crew of thirty-two were galactic troubleshooters, not regular Fleet who normally attended such functions. They didn't have a prepossessing battleship or glamour-boy officers aboard. His people were mostly scientists, physicians, and historians with only a handful of soldiers, and he wasn't one of those aristocratic career officers who thrived on diplomatic parties. He still had too much dirt under his nails from growing up on a farm.

 

The gods of space knew he'd proved his ineptitude at such diplomatic functions on Triton Five three months before. Perhaps Adam and Smith could figure this out. "We're just one of many ships to grace Her Majesty's crowning and many boring ceremonies?"

 

"The only ship," Smith answered. "Officially, we represent the Confederation. Unofficially...."

 

"Out with it," Adam insisted. "Tell him we're after intergalactic bogeymen."

 

Irritation flashed in the Pandori's black eyes. "The Appomattox is to seek out the presence and protect Xenda against the Immortals."

 

Leaning back on his bunk, Val hooted with laughter until tears flowed. Finally, he sobered from lack of air, brushed his tears away, and straightened. He fought an eruption of snickers. "No fairies, goblins, or ghosts, just Immortals?"

 

"Yes, sir." Smith assured him. "The Prime Minister insisted on us."

 

"Why?"

 

Knowing he didn't mean "why us?" since they were the very best in the business at uncovering mysteries, Smith replied, "The Prime Minister can't substantiate any legitimate sources, but rumors of the Immortals run through his people. He is a competent, intelligent, unimaginative administrator, and he is concerned. When the rumor is of invasion to a Confederation planet, the military must share that concern."

 

Val ransacked his memory for tales he'd heard of the Immortals. "Invasion? That's a bit out of their line. I thought they were Robin Hoods saving defenseless planets against aggressors and righting wrongs."

 

"That's the most prevalent story, but darker tales do exist of their using their 'magical' powers to destroy and conquer."

 

"Any theories?"

 

"None. Some stories say the Immortals are energy creatures, others give them humanoid appearance. The stories have circulated and have been almost universal among space races, my own included, since before you humans left Earth. Most of the legends from the planets believed to be visited by the Immortals are comparable. A troubled planet is visited by a stranger or strangers, and a problem is somehow solved or the invaders are repelled through the unseen influence of these strangers who leave as mysteriously as they have come."

 

"They're a fairy godmother of space," Adam retorted cynically. "People need to believe someone powerful is watching over them and protecting them so they invent the Immortals."

 

"Perhaps," Smith agreed. "If they do exist, they are a powerful race. If half their attributes are true, they are scale ten psychics and have a superior technology beyond our imagining."

 

"Scale ten," Val exclaimed. "That's beyond belief. The Vren are fours, and they're the most powerful in the Confederation."

 

"If they do exist, we're rabbits before an insatiable wolf."

 

"The big, bad wolf," Adam insisted. "They're a fairy tale."

 

As the true meaning of this mission hit him, Val leaned forward and covered his eyes. He'd made a fool of himself in that debacle on Triton Five, and apparently he hadn't been forgiven after all. Headquarters was sending him on a fool's errand to tell him exactly what kind of joke he was now. His career was ruined.

 

~*~

 

Flanked by his First Officer and Chief Medical Officer, Colonel Grant strode down the main thoroughfare toward the Palace on Xenda to pay his official respects to the young queen and have a private word or two with Prime Minister Stewart.

 

Behind the stern officer's demeanor he always wore with his dress uniform, Val studied the capital city. All the buildings lining the street were large medieval stone creations or ornate wooden Tudor structures. A few later periods of human architecture were evident, but no style was older than the nineteenth century. After the mechanical, utilitarian sameness of most human worlds, the variety of sizes, shapes, and decorations was marvelous. Xenda had character.

 

Some of the hawkers of handmade merchandise, fruits, and delicacies in the booths along the bricked boulevard held out wares to get their attention, but others, noticing their businesslike pace, just gawked.

 

In the Confederation dress whites of the full major, Smith was a remarkable sight. Few humans ever saw one of Smith's people who stayed on their planet uninterested in lesser races. From a distance, except for her upright carriage, she appeared an Earth chimpanzee with her prominent simian ridge; closer, the almost human qualities of her bare face with its less prominent muzzle and small ears tucked in her brown fluff of hair proved her Dori origins.

 

Smith had been doing her own staring, not at the human bystanders but at the buildings. "A unique aesthetic experience."

 

Adam gasped. "The Pandori thinks something human is pretty!"

 

"Behave," Val urged through his bland smile. "It is pretty. Xenda has the appeal of history without the smell."

 

"The Xendans have achieved a remarkable synthesis of historic aesthetic and modern sanitation," Smith agreed.

 

As they passed a cul-de-sac lined with cobblestones, Val heard a woman's scream. He jerked to a halt. Another shriek of hysteria emerged from the alley.

 

With his shoulders brushing the walls, he ran into the gap between the two stone buildings. Memories of other female screams echoed in his mind. Every time, they'd led him into bad, bad trouble. He'd never learned his lesson, he decided, and kept running.

 

His two officers must have had similar reminiscences of his past because they now pounded behind him.

 

The narrow passage turned sharply to the right and opened into a cramped cobblestone square surrounded by the backs of huge, expensive Tudor houses. Before him, a dark-haired and pretty servant girl was encircled by three drunken revelers who shoved her from man to man. Laughing, they yelled ribald remarks as she shrieked her terror.

 

With a brief regret for the stun gun he wasn't wearing and for his immaculate white dress uniform, Val streaked through the men and snatched the girl's waist as he passed. Before the drunks realized what was happening, he propelled her away and halted about six feet from them.

 

He sat the girl on her feet, stepping between her and her tormentors, and he stared at the men with his most withering authoritative glare. He'd made battle-hardened lieutenants weak-kneed with that look.

 

These men were obviously not lieutenants because they came at him.

 

The cavalry arrived from two directions as he crouched in a self-defense posture. Like a panther after prey, Smith streaked from the alley and crashed into the biggest of the three. A stranger erupted into the square from one of the expensive houses, tripped over a metal bucket on the ground then clumsily righted himself and threw himself at the second man.

 

Trusting his allies to fight their own battles, Val concentrated on his opponent who was over eighty pounds heavier and almost half a foot taller. The drunk snarled with pleasure as he recognized his own superior size and rushed at Val to pin and pulverize him.

 

Spinning away as his opponent reached him, Val kicked him below the knee. The man fell then staggered up with a curse.

 

Wary, Val watched him, and when the man charged, he sidestepped and smashed the other leg, then elbowed him hard on the shoulder as he went down. Val retreated.

 

All the frustrations of the past months surged seeking release in violent action, but Val fought his desire to grapple and bash this persecutor of a young girl. The Queen's audience and his dress uniform firmly in mind, he played matador to his drunken bull.

 

After several more attempts to squash or catch him, the reveler picked himself up once more and stared stupidly at him.

 

"Give up?"

 

Roaring, the man exploded toward him, but just as he reached Val, he slumped into a large, unconscious heap.

 

Val poked the unmoving drunk's ribs with his toe and decided alcohol and injuries had caught up with his opponent. Remembering Smith, his mysterious ally, and Adam's nonappearance, he studied the battlefield.

 

Smith's huge drunk reached down to throttle her, but she grabbed an arm, ducked, and threw him over her shoulder headfirst against the stone wall near the alley. He smashed into it with a nasty thud, and lay stunned.

 

For a moment Val almost pitied the fool. The bully thought he had an easy victim in the Pandori who was a third his size, but Smith had about two times his strength and could take considerably more abuse than he could. She was also trained in self-defense.

 

The man struggled to his knees, but she kicked him across the face with her booted foot. He sprawled backwards, unconscious.

 

Wincing, Val wondered at Smith's uncharacteristic violence then recalled her daughter had died at the same age as the teenage servant girl.

 

Adam limped from the alley to the blubbering girl, pulled her into his gentle embrace, and whispered comfort.

 

His friends safe, Val turned toward the stranger who still fought his own battle. Some would consider it an insult if he stepped in to help so, undecided, he watched the other man.

 

Tall, slender, and muscular, his ally fought with his fists like a boxer. He dodged the other man's larger reach and deflected each roundhouse blow. Although he faced his larger opponent with courage and a knowledge of fisticuffs, he was remarkably awkward, his actions ill-timed and accidental in their success. If his rival hadn't been drunk, he'd have stood no chance at all.

 

Decided, Val strode over to the drunk and tapped him on his shoulder. When the man spun around, Grant backhanded him with a karate blow to the throat, and as the man went to his knees, he gave a second blow to the man's neck. The man collapsed into a limp heap.

 

Val stepped away from his victim and nodded politely to the stranger. "My apologies for interfering. You'd have handled him, but I have an audience with the Queen, and I don't wish to be late."

 

The other man beamed with roguish charm.

 

Equally curious, Val gazed back. With black wavy hair, perfect features, flashing white teeth, and navy blue eyes, the stranger was as handsome as a vid-story actor, and he was very well-built with broad shoulders, muscular chest, small hips, and long legs. He wore only thin pajama bottoms, now filthy and almost ripped off. Although not much younger than Val's forty-two, the stranger made him feel ancient in comparison to such physical perfection.

 

The man advanced toward him with his hand outstretched, but stepped on a cobblestone wet from that bucket, slipped, and landed on his rear end. He swore mildly and motioned Grant away.

 

When he finally stood in front of Val, he grinned rakishly, placed his hands on Val's ears, and kissed each of his cheeks with a flourish. His Irish brogue was rich and deep. "You're a grand fighter. A grand fighter. It's pleased I am to know ye."

 

Struggling with his impulse to swipe at his damp cheeks, Val backed a few steps. "Colonel Valerian Grant of the Appomattox." He indicated his two friends. "My First Officer Smith, and Ship's Doctor Adam Dane."

 

"Pleased I am, gentlemen." The stranger waved grandly at himself. "Patrick Blood, loyal Xendan and adventurer."

 

"Blood, that's it," Adam exclaimed. "Captain Blood, that's the name of the movie." He glanced up and down the gawky adventurer as if making the same unequal comparison between Errol Flynn and this charming buffoon Val had.

 

Grant and Blood walked to the servant girl who still sniffed against Adam's paternal shoulder.

Blood asked, "Pretty Jenny, did the fiends harm ye?"

 

"No, sir." Jenny smiled up fondly at him from Adam's chest. "Thank you, sir."

 

Resting his hand against her cheek, Blood brushed at a stray tear with his thumb. "You go home now. If your people give ye any trouble, you just tell them to talk to Patrick. I'll speak to the constables about these ruffians, too. Me sarvant called them."

 

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Jenny pulled away from Adam and curtsied to each officer. "Thank you, sirs. Thank you."

 

She gazed down at Blood's exposed body and teased in a mock Irish accent, "It's a fine figure of a man you are, Patrick Blood."

 

Blood chuckled. "Off with ye, girl."

 

With a final smile at them all and a saucy toss of her long, dark hair, Jenny left them and hurried out of the square.

 

The Xendan muttered, "A bonny lass. A bonny young lass."

 

Val blinked at the man's switch from an Irish to a Scottish accent.

 

"T'is been an honor to fight with ye, gentlemen. A true honor." The Irish brogue was back. "I'll be letting ye go then. I dinna want bonny Queen Fira to be kept waiting for the likes of these hooligans."

 

Val winced at the change from Irish to Scottish dialect in mid-sentence and sometimes mid-word. He'd never heard anyone do that before. Smith who was a linguist and a lover of pure language looked as stunned as the reveler she'd flattened.

 

"It has been a unique experience. We may be reached on the Appomattox if the police wish to question us."

 

Blood nodded.

 

A grandfatherly servant with a huge cloak on his arm trotted into the square and over to the Xendan. He clucked like an upset mother hen and wrapped the cloak over Blood's bare shoulders. "You'll catch your death of cold, Master Patrick."

 

"Don't fuss." Blood dutifully pulled the cape around him. "I'll be a'changing while the constables pick up the garbage." He smiled at Val, Smith, and Adam, then followed by his protective servant, he turned, tripped over one of the drunks, then walked into the house he'd come from.

 

After the man disappeared from sight, Grant shook his head with disbelief. "Xenda's people have as unusual a personality as the city." He straightened his white uniform, still mercifully intact. His officers were as lucky, he decided inspecting the others' dress uniforms. "How's the ankle, Adam?"

 

"It was numb at first, but it's only a light sprain. Cobblestone is treacherous." He grinned. "It was worth it for that pretty little damsel-in-distress and Error Flynn."

 

"Well, let's dinna keep the bonny queen waiting."

 

~*~

 

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