Jim nodded at me, and gestured to Uhura. “Play it back for Hani,” he instructed. “We’ll view it in my ready room.” I followed him into the room next door, Spock on our heels. Bones, already there, greeted me with an uncharacteristically short nod.
I watched as a striking woman appeared on the screen; her features were humanoid, though with a distinct ridge rising from the center of her crown, parting her brown hair down the middle. Her dark eyes were larger and more pronounced than humans, and artfully enhanced with dramatic make-up. She addressed the Captain of the Enterprise with crisp, though slightly halting, English, disdain in her voice, and it was clear this wasn’t their first conversation.
“Captain Kirk, thank you for supplying the passenger list as we requested. Are we to assume it is accurate?”
“Of course,” was Jim’s reply.
“Then can you explain why the Federation – and you personally – have attempted to represent yourself as the highest ranking person aboard your ship, when your own records show a female passenger who is more than 200 years old, and thus obviously the Elder Female present? Why are you trying to usurp her authority? Did you expect that the Magdena Magna would meet with anyone of lesser rank? And a male, substituting for a female?”
On the recording, Jim barely missed a beat. “My deepest apologies, madam. I assure you, we had no intention of offending you, or the people of Ardros. Our… Elder Female rarely… participates in these matters. She has delegated such responsibilities for… many years.”
The woman looked distinctly dubious. “We are quite aware of the prevalence of males in your Starfleet, Captain. But that an Elder Female would consign such a level of trust to …someone like you… I find highly unlikely. You will please tell your Elder Surat that we require confirmation of her participation before we can proceed. I will await her response.” A pointed stress of the “her”.
The recording ended.
I stood there staring at the now-blank screen. My mouth may have been hanging open. Jim spoke. “First impressions, Hani?”
First impressions? Was he kidding? All that came to mind were questions. I asked them. “Who is this woman? How does she know who I am? And… why are you trying to con her into thinking I’m… someone else?”
Bones lifted a hand in a gesture that seemed to say, “I told you so.” I wondered what that was all about.
Jim’s answer was circuitous. “There’s been no contact with Ardros for 40 years. The Federation is bound and determined to open the door, and we’ve been given the diplomatic mission. Trouble is, the Ardrossians haven’t exactly been rolling out the welcome mat. All we know from this exchange is that they think you’re very old, based on your original birthdate, and they think women, and very old women specifically, are… special. Anything else that strikes you?”
Hmmm. I hesitated, bit off my next thought, which was: geez, this is interplanetary diplomacy and Jim just made stuff up off the top of his head. Then again, we were talking about Jim Kirk.
I asked to see it again, looking and listening more closely.
I told them what struck me. “Matriarchy. Big time. What’s up with the passenger list, though? I think… she looks kind of… shocked, actually. Like maybe they were just making demands to be bitchy, and stumbled onto something – or someone – they didn’t expect?” I paused, looked around at my audience. Was I adding anything of value, or just parroting what they already knew? Jim stood gripping a chair back, Bones slouched defiantly in his chair, Spock sat with tented fingertips, looking Spock-like. I decided to follow my instincts.
“If I had to guess, I get the feeling they’ve been deliberately giving you a hard time, maybe didn’t take you seriously? But then they found out you’ve got this… Elder aboard, or someone they take to be an elder, and it’s like some authority figure’s here after all, when they thought they could get away with bad behavior. I think you’re right, Jim. For what it’s worth, if they have such a distrust of men – for whatever reason – you’re not going to get very far by yourself. But can’t you take some women crew members with you?”
“That’s what I said,” Bones muttered.
“The Ardrossians have dictated the terms,” Jim ignored his friend. “They stated very clearly they would allow the three highest-ranking officers on board to visit. And now, you.”
“Me. Because they think I’m old. Come on, I don’t look that old,” I joked lamely, unable to resist fishing for a compliment.
Spock, for whom gratuitous compliments were illogical, responded. “A case of faulty assumptions. They note your birthdate, and accept the validity of the records. Since their request could not have been anticipated, we would have no reason or opportunity to manipulate such data. And further, they infer both authority and wisdom from age, not an unreasonable inference. We have no way of knowing their own lifespan, but judging from the humanoid appearance of this one representative, I would predict the normal age range might be somewhere between that of humans and Vulcans. In any case, a 200 year old person would certainly indicate some elder status. Thus your relatively young and…attractive appearance would be, we can infer, additionally impressive.”
Son of a gun. He slid the compliment in there after all. I stifled a pleased smile.
I asked the obvious, pressing question: “What’s the story with this place, anyway?”
“We don’t know.” Bones, finally speaking. “We don’t know a damn thing, except they don’t trust men and they’ve latched onto you because they think you’re a 200 year old wise woman.”
Jim cut in. “That’s why we think you can help us, Hani. For whatever reason, they think you’re someone important. They want you to be part of the delegation. I think we should…oblige them. It could give us an edge.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a bad idea, Jim,” Bones snapped.
“I’m aware of your opinion, Doctor.” Jim, equally cold, and with the force of command, shut him down with brusque finality. Jim turned back to me and launched into the Cliff Notes version of what had already gone on, pacing the room, bouncing a fist off chair backs and tabletop as he circled.
A Starfleet supply ship – the Cassandra – had crashed onto the surface of Ardros, a planet long closed to the Federation. Starfleet, which always looked after its own, was demanding an investigation.
The Federation, muddying the waters, pointed out that Ardros had ceased communications 35 years before, after that first contact, and insisted that any contact must be primarily diplomatic.
Through some mysterious back-channel efforts, Ardros had agreed to discuss the possibility of a landing party, but so far it wasn’t going well at all.
They’d already been negotiating with the Ardrossian representative for hours, trying to arrange a meeting with the head of the government, the Magdena Magna. The rep kept coming back with an endless series of seemingly pointless demands. The latest had been to see the list of the ship’s passengers. Jim complied, under heavy pressure from the Federation to make nice.
And the entire effort was apparently complicated by an unusually sparse set of historical records.
“Haven’t you been able to find out anything else, Spock? Anything at all?” Jim asked.
Spock shook his head. “I have sent two separate requests for additional information. Almost all files relating to Ardros, and to that first contact by Starfleet, are sealed. The only records they are giving us access to are so heavily redacted, they’re virtually useless.”
He paused, then recapped what they knew, for my benefit. “Thirty five years ago, the U.S.S. Nimitz encountered engineering problems. The nearest planet was Ardros, which, according to their scans, appeared to have a source of dilithium, which was needed for their repairs.
“Their request to Ardros to send a team to the planet’s surface was granted – reluctantly, it appears. There they found a highly advanced, highly matriarchal society.
“The details are not available, but some sort of incident occurred. Of the three member landing party – the captain, chief engineer, and an ensign, only the ensign managed to return. He reported a deadly and unprovoked attack by the women of the planet, though he managed to bring back just enough dilithium to complete the repairs. Based on the hostile nature of the civilization, the Federation declared Ardros off limits, which may have been a moot point, since Ardros itself completely cut off all interplanetary communications afterward.”
Jim took up the report. “They’ve managed to construct a very effective communications shield since then, that blocks all probes, all scans, and all unsolicited contact. I can only assume there’ve been some under the table feelers the last few years, since they agreed to even talk to us. We’re caught in the middle here, between Starfleet demanding to know what happened to the Cassandra’s crew, and the Federation having some strategic agenda they’re not sharing.”
He turned back to Spock. “Any progress on getting around or penetrating that shield? I don’t like the idea that they control ship to ground communications.”
“I’ve asked Lt. Uhura to run an analysis of communication patterns. She should have something to report by now.” With that, Spock headed for the door to the Bridge. Jim and Bones followed without comment, and with no one instructing me otherwise, I did, too.
Uhura did have information.
“It appears that our transmissions are being bounced from point to point,” she observed as she studied her screen. “But the pathway seems to vary each time. There doesn’t seem to be any use tracking the routing, either; the patterns appear to be completely random.”
Spock bent to look over her shoulder. “Yes. Well done, Lieutenant. I would infer, then, that there is a series of stationary positions, perhaps communications towers, creating a web across the planet. Very curious. In order to have the effect we’re seeing, it would suggest a line-of-sight system of beacon towers creating a low-atmospheric net of omni-directional frequency pulses. That, in turn, would suggest a massive infrastructure investment. Which in turn raises questions about the resources, both labor and mineral, available on Ardros, Captain.”
“The more pressing question, Spock,” Jim said, “Can we penetrate it? Can we communicate with the ship while we’re on the planet’s surface?”
“The randomly-generated frequency paths, changing as they do with every transmission, would be almost impossible to predict,” Spock said thoughtfully. “We could possibly break the code, given enough data, but with the low volume of messages being exchanged, it could take days to isolate the algorithms they’re using.”
“So we’re dead in the water,” Jim scowled.
I was trying to follow this. “So…” I broke off, not knowing how to share the outdated analogy that came to mind. The way I was understanding things, in essence Ardros had designed the ultimate diva system. It never answered the phone when it rang, rarely checked its messages and only returned calls when – or if – it felt like it.
In practical terms, that meant that whoever beamed down to the planet’s surface would have no direct communications with the ship, and thus would be entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.