If I was expecting some unspecified disaster, I was surprised to find my comrades standing more or less at ease, empty glasses in hand, just having finished a toast with the Magdena Magna herself. An elegant woman, with the same simian shape to the head, and dark eyes that did indeed radiate intelligence. And damned formidable, too. I thought instantly. Not a woman you’d want to cross.
I noted the fact that she was standing alone with three men, apparently unafraid. If she felt revulsion, she didn’t show it. My own escorts declined to enter the room, and even the servant girls cowered just outside the doorway, refusing to come closer.
Maybe she was rational after all, I thought. Maybe all those old crones were just blowing smoke. Please, let that be it.
The Magdena Magna rose and greeted me like I was Elvis or something. “Elder Surat! You are very welcome here! I had planned to join the gathering soon, after I attended to my business here, but it is just as well that you have joined us. Your… Captain… has just been attempting to enlighten me about your Federation.”
“Yes, I was just telling the Magna…” Jim spoke up but the Magna held up an imperious hand and ignored him, continuing to talk, as Jim pointedly closed his mouth and gripped his glass with a barely concealed look of irritation. Apparently the old Kirk charm wasn’t working here.
“In deference to you, Elder, I have personally …considered… these males. Please understand my planning had not anticipated your honored presence. Therefore I apologize if these manlings have served particularly useful functions for you. I truly did look for reasons to spare them. But it was my judgment that my original preparations should go forward. I’m sure you will understand.”
Spare them? I was about to lose my pseudo-diplomatic cool. I exchanged looks with each of my buddies. Clearly some shit was hitting the fan, buried under all this strange veiled language. I felt like I was swimming through molasses.
This time, it was I who held up a hand to warn Jim. He didn’t know what I knew, or suspected.
“Magna, please tell me what is happening. What original preparations?” I grasped for some way to break through the fog. I wasn’t sure why, but the next question shoved itself out. “Tell me, Magna… what happened all those years ago? What happened when the last starship came here?”
If I was worried about offending her with this confrontation, it didn’t seem that I had. She paused, maybe translating the question in her head, and then smiled, a closed and guarded smile.
Yep, there was a lot going on behind those deep eyes.
“Ah,” she said, “You truly are wise, Elder, to penetrate to the heart of the matter. Yes, you have perceived correctly. It has taken me these thirty-five years to successfully create and perfect the precise and perfect response to that incident. Surely you must understand how the shame and grief of that time have been the tandem burdens I have carried on behalf of my people, all my life. From the time I was a young woman, I was given this sacred charge from my own mother, from our elders. I was taught from early age that my responsibility, as Magna, was to address this wrong, the dishonor brought on by this Starfleet. That one day, I must find a way to restore our honor and avenge my people. And now I have.”
She had all our attention now.
“Please,” I demanded, “what, exactly was the original offense? What happened during that visit?”
Her face darkened. “So. How interesting that your leaders have chosen not to tell you the truth. Then you truly do not know what that young man did?”
“We understand there was an incident, Magna,” Jim spoke up. “It was reported that two Starfleet officers were attacked and killed – by your people.”
I swear, the look she sent him made Jim physically draw back. I’ve never seen such venom, though she kept that simian smile going, which somehow made it worse.
“Either your man lies, or your Starfleet lies,” the Magna addressed her reply to me, not deigning to answer Jim directly. ‘The violence was not ours. It was the young man’s. It was he who forced himself on our young woman.”
“But,” Jim again, still determined to assert his authority, “then what about the other two? Are you denying you retaliated by killing them?”
Again, she replied in my direction. I could feel how her hatred for the men in her presence was set aside when she talked to me. There seemed to be some instinctive adjustment, like she could never lump another woman in with what she felt for any man.
“This is what you have been told? This is what your people think of us?” She broke off and spat, a shocking gesture from such an elegant woman.
Now she turned back to Jim, with the full force of her power. “We did not lift a hand in violence. There was no need. Those two died at the hand of the younger one, no doubt to cover his own despicable actions. He returned to his ship before we could deal with him, but the captain was not quite dead yet. In his cries of agony, he admitted to us what had been done. No, it is that young man who bears the blame for all three deaths.”
Somehow my overloaded brain picked up on the math.
“Three deaths? But who was the third?” I asked.
“The young woman, of course. There was dishonor. She had to be sacrificed.”
They killed the victim?
I took a deep breath and tried to muck my way through this, shooting Jim a cautionary look. He frowned, but kept quiet.
“You say he forced himself on a young woman. This is difficult to imagine. Even young Starfleet officers are well-trained. Could it possibly have been a simple flirtation that got out of hand?”
The Magna stared at me. “Flirtation?” she said flatly. “I do not know this concept.”
I realized I could be going down a dead end, but I had nowhere else to go. “You know, a mutual attraction, mutual desire, between two young people?”
The Magna stepped closer to me, as if studying my face. I could feel her breath on my skin.
I could feel her doubt.
“How can an Elder of your years speak such nonsense?” She stared into my eyes, as if looking for some giveaway that I was not who she had thought I was. It took everything I had to stare back with matching force and confidence.
I glanced at Jim. His imperceptible nod egged me on. I drew myself up a little taller, Uhura’s earrings swinging musically, and gutted it out. “Unlike you, Magna, I have traveled widely. I have seen many things. I view from a vast perspective. It is no doubt a… revulsive concept, but one must be thorough in one’s analysis, isn’t that right?” I managed to breathe again, and went on. “These… manlings come from elsewhere. I am simply asking if there could have been a…misunderstanding of intentions?”
“Intentions do not interest me,” she said, coldly, but backing off a step or two. “The young woman was violated, assaulted so badly she barely lived long enough to allow the necessary rituals.”
The force of the Magna’s voice fell; she turned away from me for a second, then I saw her shoulders straighten as she turned back.
“You must understand, Elder. These wounds go very deep. The young woman was shamed. She had to be put to death if our family was to regain our honor.”
“Your family…” I almost breathed the words.
“It was my own daughter, Elder. Your Starfleet robbed me of my only child.”
Oh, dear god. It wasn’t just cultural, it was personal. I had a sinking feeling we really were up shit creek.
I foundered frantically for something useful to say, but I couldn’t think of a single thing that wasn’t trite or hollow or inflammatory. So I just stood there, waiting for her to go on. And she did.
“It was the arrogance of one of your uncontrolled males, that Starfleet manling, that violated a member of the highest family of Ardros, a beautiful young woman who would someday have become Magna. It is a grievous loss. We allowed outsiders in, we were willing to trust, even though it was a masculine visitation, and thus against all our beliefs. And then we were betrayed. It has been my prime task to position my people so that we would never be vulnerable again, and I have achieved that. If I have deprived you of resources, Elder, I apologize. I have done what I had to do.”
“What have you done?” The question broke through from Bones, who, like the others, had been listening in silent confusion and growing suspicion.
The Magna responded to his question without looking in his direction. “I think you will admire our achievements, Elder. My scientists, through my guidance, have at last perfected a very effective… how would you say?… biological weapon, quite elegantly designed to target the very essence of the arrogant male.”
“And you’re threatening to use this…weapon? On us?” Jim’s voice was sharp.
“I make no threats, Captain,” the Magna smiled, again that smile of smooth and very, very canny, delight. “It is already done.”