Lieutenant VonSchweetz had put the shuttle down precisely on the landing pad indicated by Arendelle Airspace Control. VonSchweetz seemed to regard any light aircraft as her personal plaything and took great pleasure in the way the Navy supplied her with the ships and fuel necessary to indulge herself, but she was also the most natural pilot Anna had ever known and her landing was as smooth and professional as any Anna could have done herself. "Well done, Lieutenant." She nodded toward VonSchweetz as she exited the spacecraft.
She stepped out onto the cold, sunlit tarmac of Arendelle's capital city airport and inhaled deeply as she helped her treecat, Olaf, onto her shoulder. The facility spread out in a concrete apron in every direction. The roaring engines of modest-sized civilian aircraft indicated both a thriving economy and complete lack of gravitic technology. The deliciously chill air was full of pine and ozone, a heady mixture of mountain air and aviation fuel mixing with the salt tang of a nearby ocean and the metallic dust of civilization. It reminded her so much of the smell of Copperwell she fought off a surge of nostalgia. "Now, this is a planet."
"Huh," Kristoff said. "Noisy, though. What do you think, Sven?"
The lanky, brown-furred treecat wrapped around the back of Kristoff's neck gave a cheerful 'bleek' and nodded in Anna's direction. He approved of her assessment. "He seems to like it here," Kristoff said.
Unlike Sven, Olaf chose to ride Anna's shoulder in the more traditional treecat pose. That gave him the free truehands necessary to gesture as he willed. He gave a simple thumbs-up with his four-fingered truehand. "Oh, good," Anna said, "I think that makes three of us."
"Oh, I like it too," Kristoff said. "It does remind me of home."
"That it does," Anna said, sighing. She and Kristoff exchanged grins. She supposed that she should have been more professional toward her chief executive officer, but he was Kristoff, her best friend from their days together on Saganami Island and the only other cadet who had had a treecat. They were of different ages and classes but being part of the adopted overrode such petty considerations.
They'd been given a large aircraft VTOL pad for landing. Arendelle apparently had few viable surface-to-orbit shuttlecraft and none of them were VTOL. Their main technology for getting things into space was the massive space elevator that rose thousands of kilometers from an anchor on the equator. Nobody in human space used such ancient technology anymore. Even Terra had dismantled theirs a thousand years ago. Approaching Arendelle had felt like entering a fairyland description of a space-capable civilization.
Doctors Flynn Fitzhubert and Donald Pine followed them out the hatch. Flynn was still babbling. "It's incredible," he said, shading his eyes from the sun to have a look around. "I can barely see the space elevator from here. Just imagine it, Captain DuVar. These people don't have gravitics or hyperdrive, but they're still significant steps further along the Kardashev scale than we are!"
"What's the Kardashev scale?" Kristoff said.
Flynn crossed his arms and said, "It's the measure of how much power a civilization uses, Commander. A 'one' uses a whole planet. A 'two' uses a whole star. On that scale, these people are much closer to two than we are."
"Huh," Kristoff said. "Just because of those lasers."
"Those lasers are something, aren't they?" Flynn said. "I wonder what they're for. And the solettas," he said, pointing up at the broad minature suns that hung in the sky. "Those are really cool, let me tell you. That's the smartest thing I've ever seen for warming up regions of a biosphere, just hang a few really big mirrors in space! So much cheaper and safer than trying it with chemistry. This place would be a frozen wasteland without them; with them, summers are warm and crops can grow. It's brilliant! I imagine these people have a lot to teach us."
"I'm sure, Flynn," said Flynn's civilian superior, Doctor Donald Pine. "I'll just be happy when we get home so we can tell Manticore about what we have learned. Eh?" Anna held her face as still as she could.
Pine was technically in charge of all the scientists currently infesting her ship, and she was glad for every one of them. Their quick work in identifying and isolating this end of the wormhole junction meant that their four-month tour could have been over in as few as four hours. Then Flynn had spotted the strange "scintillations" seventy light-years away from the brown dwarf whose gravity well anchored this end of the terminus. They had been so clearly artificial that Anna had felt compelled to investigate. This far from Sol everyone had been sure they were coming on one of the first technological alien races. They had been ever more surprised to learn the world was populated by humans.
Pine had stressed his objections in every possible way to a delay in returning to the host ships back at Lynx. Anna reminded him that Winterkiss had as much responsibility to scout the local area as Harvest Joy had been given. The three-week transit time between the brown dwarf and the system they now knew as Arendelle was much greater than Harvest Joy's experience at Lynx, which was only a half day's travel to the nearest inhabitable world, but that didn't mean Anna could neglect the responsibility.
Pine was still grumbling about it.
At the edge of the landing circle stood four long ground cars, wheeled, all painted dark green. Flags of white with a green stylized logo Anna didn't recognize adorned the hoods of each one, fluttering actively on the windy concrete platform. The men standing at each car wore professional uniforms, some in a dark green, some in a lighter green. Standing closest to the circle were two people, a short, stout man in the light green uniform, and a tall, blonde woman in the dark green. She stood with that still reserve Anna recognized on a professional soldier, one who'd been at her duty a long time. She was standing tall, one hand on her chin, regarding the pinnace carefully, one finger tapping idly. The man spoke first. "Welcome to Arendelle, Captain DuVar. I am Kai, Senior Secretary to the Queen." He eyed the treecats with wary curiosity.
Anna bowed. "Thank you, Kai." She introduced the other five members of her party by name, and mentioned that Lieutenant VonSchweetz and a Marine would be remaining with the shuttlecraft.
"And Olaf and Sven are also members of your crew?" He indicated the two stretches of ten-plus kilos of treecat, each riding their adopted humans' shoulder.
"Yes," Anna said. "Olaf and Sven score quite high on the sentience scale. They're crewmembers with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. Don't underestimate them."
Kai looked at Olaf. Anna couldn't see what Olaf did, only feel him shift against her shoulder, but Kai smiled and said, "Understood, Mr. Olaf. I won't make that mistake again." He bowed a sweeping gesture toward the third car. "Right this way, please."
Flynn had first theorized that Arendelle and its neighbor might be at war with one another. The scintillations had been lasers, each one more massive than the combined weight of the entire Manticore Navy's laser broadside, reaching out from one star to the other. As they'd approached Arendelle, the lasers' origins had resolved into a collection of massive platforms in close orbit around the star, solar collectors that transmuted the sun's energy into coherent beams of light poured toward the neighboring star system.
The neighboring star system was shooting back.
The drive from the airport to the city proper revealed a beautiful countryside so naturally peaceful it seemed impossible that Arendelle was a country at war. They were driven along a gently winding road that wrapped around a ridge of hills and broke open onto a vast bowl of a city that edged right up to the sea. Chantel, Arendelle's capital city, looked northward from the edge of an equatorial continent, and Anna could see to the west a vast port with ships moving in and out. "Hmm," Flynn said. "Mixed-purpose zoning, but with some moderate industrial segregated to the west, but I'm also seeing a very good transit system." He rubbed his goatee thoughtfully. "Mostly low buildings, lovely standards of architecture. Lots of trees, mostly narrow roads, no more than one-fifth intended for lorries. Standard Alexandrian." He looked up. "No aircraft."
"Chantel is a royal residence," Kristoff said. "It's likely they require all aircraft be routed far away."
"There is plenty of shipping with which to sneak in an attack," Pine said.
Kristoff said, "Doctor Pine, ships don't come in at multiples of the speed of sound. It's easy to intercept and scan a ship. An airplane by itself can be a hurtling missile."
"What's to stop them from a fractional-c bombardment from space then?"
Kai stiffened. Anna tightened her mouth. This was not the time or place to be discussing how a military force might attack or occupy Arendelle's royal palace. Flynn said, "That seems unlikely. The economy here is definitely one where access to space is something only governments can provide. So far as we've been able to tell, there's only one government. Aircraft, however, are probably within the reach of civilian actors. I think Arendelle is demonstrating a great deal of prudence in keeping the airspace around Chantel clear. What do you think of prudence, Captain?"
"Oh, prudence is really important, in lots of ways," she said, staring at Pine, her lips thin with tension.
The sea beyond Chantel was even more blue than Anna's beloved Iron Fjord's, blown by the cold, light wind so that it glinted like hammered steel. Aside from container cargo ships, only a few pleasure craft dared the chill wind to play in the bay.
Anna turned to the secretary. "Kai, who are we to see first?"
"I thought we'd made that clear, Captain. Your first audience will be with The Queen."
Anna froze. She'd never met Queen Elizabeth. She'd seen her, once, from far away, on a high dias, at a ceremony honoring her graduation from the Advanced Tactical Course and her advancement to the rank of Senior Commander, the last rank one could hold before Captain. She had come down to visit the government of Arendelle. She didn't have the first notion on how to act in front of a Queen. Especially not a foreign one! "I hope we get along, then," she said, as inept as a freshie. She sank back into her chair.
Kristoff chuckled. "You'll be fine," he said.
"Is the queen a busy woman?" Anna asked. "I wouldn't want to take up too much of her time. I know how hard it is running a starship. I can't imagine what running an entire starsystem must be like." Anna clenched her fists. Her tendency to ramble always broke out when she was stressed. Or happy, but this wasn't one of those occasions.
"Her Majesty has office hours that she keeps with great discipline, and a reliable bureaucracy," Kai said, grinning much like a treecat. Anna could see how he earned his position. Just listening to his voice opened up entire images in her head of people working efficiently at desks, and at the center a woman of calm poise, turning pages, dispatching memos. She wasn't sure what the woman looked like. The only template she had for a queen was Elizabeth Winton.
The convoy turned left around a tight bend and into the city proper. Few buildings were more than two or three stories tall. The facades used glass and hand-painted signs and brick. The sidewalks were decorated in myriad ways: patterns of glass, swirls of copper, and in a few places illuminated strips animated storefronts. The roads were paved with dark green interlocking hexagons, a strange cobblestone that she couldn't feel at all beneath the tires. The people of the city were mostly short, mostly stocky like Kai was stocky, and going about their business as if the frigid temperature was only a minor nuisance. They waved cheerfully at the ground car as it passed and Kai waved back. Anna saw men, women and children in the recognizeable configurations of human beings and felt relief. This wasn't a planet like Sharpton, where having prominent cyborg implants was a badge of honor.
The cars crossed a broad, short bridge to a palace which sat on a pier over the water, separate from the city. It was a broad construction, beautiful and soaring, with a single spire reaching heavenwards topped by the odd, swirling logo. They passed through gates with only the lightest of honor guards and then through a heavy door into a much more heavily defended inner yard. The cars pulled up to a portico.
Kai led the Manticorans into a vast hallway of wood flooring lined with dark-green banners. The architecture was broad and breezy, conveying a sense of light and joy. The materials were first-rate and hand-crafted. Whoever had built this place had loved doing so.
Kai listened to something in an earbug, then nodded. "Follow me, please." He led them deeper into the building, around a corner, and into a smaller reception room. The walls were light wood hung with banners. A tall, narrow window framed one woman standing at the opposite end of the room. "Your Majesty, may I present Captain Anna DuVar and Olaf, and Chief Executive Officer Commandor Kristoff Bjorgman and Sven, Doctor Donald Pine and Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert, of the Royal Manticoran Navy Light Exploratory Cruiser Winterkiss." Anna delighted in how competently he'd said that even without notes.
"Captain, Commander, gentlemen, I present to you Queen Elsa of Arendelle."