Chapter 17: Something That I Want
She could hardly believe it.
The ship that arced down through the atmosphere was no ordinary aircraft. The bright trail as it burned through the air had been evidence enough that it was an authentic re-entry vehicle, but then it had floated onto the palace's largest helipad while making barely a hum, then touched down with featherlight precision. A door in the side of the shuttlecraft opened and deployed downward, revealing steps on the interior of the door. Two people, a man and a woman, both in different but still recognizably military outfits, emerged and trooped down to the foot, taking up positions at either side of the steps.
"Well, that was certainly impressive!"
She smiled tolerantly at the tall robotic figure that had spoken, then turned her attention back to the shuttlecraft. It was still radiating waves of attention-seeking re-entry heat, but the two soldiers didn't seem to notice it at all.
Then she stepped out. Radiant, tall, her pale skin and blue dress exactly as she had appeared in the holovids from a few weeks ago, holovids already two years out of date, overdressed with a huge, white fluffy stole around her neck that heralded her duties as Queen over an ice world. "Elsa!" She couldn't restrain herself. She ran across the tarmac and ran up to the other woman, hugging her. "Is it really you? Are you really here?" She realized there was something else on Elsa's shoulders, something big, and bulky, and warm.
Elsa stiffened, but then she laughed and pushed back. "Rapunzel! Yes, I am! Oh, it's good to see you, Rapunzel. Goodness, your hair is even longer than the last time you sent me a message!"
The stole moved, and Rapunzel saw that it wasn't a pelt of any kind. "What is that?" she said slowly, pointing to the strange, six-limbed animal on her cousin's shoulders.
Elsa laughed. "Rapunzel, meet Olaf. Olaf, this is my cousin Rapunzel." The beast stood up on Elsa's shoulder. He used one mid-hand to steady himself against her head, and with the left hand made a very elaborate and deliberate bow, complete with a counter-clockwise whirling gesture of his free hand.
"Is he... intelligent? When did you get him?"
Olaf gave her a thumbs up gesture. Rapunzel giggled. "Yes, very. It's also a, a story. A long story. That you need to hear. But not now. You have to meet my other friends, first." She gestured into the ship. Four people descended the stairs. Two men and one woman wore uniforms similar to the man who had taken up a guard position at the end of the stairs; the other woman wore a civilian suit. None of the styles were at all familiar to Rapunzel. One of the military men had another beast like Olaf on his shoulders, but it was a dark brown color with streaks of black going down the length of its back. "May I present Admiral Pyre Becker, Captain Lady Anna DuVar, Commander Kristoff Bjorgmann and Sven of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and Lady Ambassador Dorothy Hellenola of the Foreign Office of The Star Kingdom of Manticore. Ambassador, Admiral, Captain, may I present to you my loud and wonderful cousin, Princess Rapunzel of Corona."
Elsa glanced up as three more figures approached. "What is that?" she said in the same slow cadence with which Rapunzel had addressed Olaf.
Rapunzel grinned, glad she had her own surprise. "Don't you know? Queen Elsa, assembled Manti... uh--"
"'Manticorans'," Elsa provided.
"Manticorans, may I present my parents, King John and Queen Kimberlyn of Corona, and Lady Captain Simone Jessicornelia Gothel."
"Captain Gothel?" Elsa said.
"Yes, yes, of course!" the tall machine said. Rapunzel could understand the surprise. There were robots on Corona and Arendelle alike, but most of them were industrial, agricultural, or used for orbital maintenance. Neither planet routinely deployed humanoid machines. But Gothel was clearly something else: two meters tall, she towered over everyone else on the landing pad. Her body suggested a humanoid, even feminine shape, but its gleaming chrome and pearl white paint job, with exposed industrial joints wrapped in neat spiral-bound cabling along shoulders, elbows, and knees, emphasized its mechanical nature. Even the head, little more than an inverted pyramid of a single, massive glass camera flanked by two smaller lenses above a triangular speaker grille, suggested more a machine than a human being. "I'm not like those fools around Agdar. They should have come with me! Instead, they're fit to play their videogames and pretend that one day they'll all uplift out of their flesh. Such a fantasy! Such a waste." The machine shook its-- her-- head. "I knew that the secret to staying young was to stick around and be with people. To change my mind now and then." She touched her chestplate. "Oh, Elsa, dear, it's so good to see you." Her voice purred. "But really, dear, pay attention to your family."
Elsa wasn't the only one gawking. The newcomers on the landing pad were clearly uncomfortable with Gothel's appearance. Rapunzel was used to it. Mother Gothel had been around forever. "Elsa, come meet my Mom and Dad."
Rapunzel's father laughed as he stepped forward and offered his hand to Elsa. He had a deep, magnificent, familiar laugh. "You are as beautiful as your holovids, dearest niece. I never thought I'd get a chance to meet you in the flesh, not unless I chose to abdicate to my own little one here." He reached out and tousled Rapunzel's hair. She tolerated it with affection. "To see you here is quite amazing. Am I to understand that the Manticorans have faster than light travel?"
"Yes, Uncle," Elsa said. "And they say it is an old technology that doesn't require exotic materials. It was just something humanity hadn't discovered before our ancestors headed out. Arendelle has already started manufacturing the gravitic control systems that allow them to navigate hyperspace."
"Already?" He looked surprised. "How long have you had these Manticorans in your space?"
"Perhaps three months? Much has happened. Uncle, I need to discuss something of grave import. Arendelle's lasers and its space elevator have been destroyed." King John sucked in his breath, his eyes stricken. For a moment it seemed he would turn to make sure his kingdom's own was still there, but it was far over the horizon. "It was not their doing, but they were the catalyst for an attempted coup. There is more. May I speak with you? Alone?"
John thought for a moment. "A coup? Soon. Yes. Yes." He paused to collect himself. "Before we do that, you must greet your aunt first."
Elsa turned to Queen Kimberlyn and bowed. "My Lady."
"Oh, come here," Kimberlyn said, opening her arms. Elsa hesitated, then fell into them, allowing Kimberlyn to envelope her in an embrace Elsa returned with fervor. "I'm so sorry about Anton and Elizabeth," she said.
"Me, too," Elsa said, her voice going low. "Me too." She picked up her head and looked at King John. "Sire, I have a lot to ask of you. And, there are matters I and my allies wish to discuss with you, personally. These things can't be delayed. May we?"
He looked grave. "Of course, Queen Elsa. Let us take to a conference room."
Corona had never had to host a state dinner for one of its important dukes, as it simply didn't have any. The population wasn't big enough for John to have devolved any authority yet, and the kingdom barely counted as a princedom in the way the old manuals calculated such things. Tonight was its first.
Rapunzel stood outside the dining hall, rocking on her heels, frustrated that she had been excluded from the conference while those strangers, from Manticore, whatever that was, had been invited. She had fished her terminal out of her pocket and looked it up, and discovered to her dismay that it was some kind of fantastic creature from the fevered imaginings of Earth's pre-space, even pre-electricity times, a thing with a lion's head, bat's wings, and a scorpion's tail. Meanwhile, she continued to rock, waiting.
"Oh, here you are, Rapunzel, I've been looking all over for you."
"Aunt Gothel," she said, looking up and up at the gleaming metallic cyborg. She was a cyborg, despite not having a square centimeter of exposed flesh. At its core, Gothel's mobile suit was life support for a brilliant brain hidden deep inside its chest. "Isn't it exciting? Strangers! From... from human space. I've talked to a few of Elsa's staff and they say they have trade with Earth!"
"Yes, well, imagine what it must be like, Rapunzel. I'm sure it'll all be very exciting for a while. But, really, you can count me out of the people thrilled to think about it. Earth was a dark and repressive place, Rapunzel. The colony effort meant to get away from Earth. Why would we want to go back?"
"Because... well, it's been a long time. Maybe things are better."
"I very much doubt it."
"Princess, my lady," said a staff member as she walked by. "You are invited to enter."
Rapunzel was not seated as close to her parents as usual. Her mother and father sat at the head and left hand of the table. At the right sat Queen Elsa, and next to Elsa that Manticoran Captain, the pretty one with the auburn hair and honey-dark skin. The Manticoran Admiral sat next to her mother. A very serious-looking woman stood behind Elsa. Rapunzel was further down the line, set next to a handsome man in a well-trimmed scrap of a goatee, wearing a white dinner jacket over a light-blue vest and white shirt. He seemed to be trying very hard not to look at anyone in particular. "Um," she said, "Hello?"
"Hi," he said, his mouth twitching with wry discomfort. "You're the princess."
"That's right, I am," she said, smiling. "I keep forgetting. And who might you be?"
"Flynn," he said. "Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert, at your service. I'm part of the science team." He thought for a moment. "So, what do I call you? Is it 'Your Highness' or 'Your Ladyship' or 'Princess'?"
"'Princess' will do fine," she said. "Unless you want to just go with 'Rapunzel.'" Why had she offered that? She didn't usually give just anyone casual permission to use her name. Still, he was handsome. "So, tell me, Flynn Fitzhubert, ever been to Earth?"
He brightened. She was glad; she'd found a topic he felt comfortable discussing. "A couple of times. I went to school there."
"You did? When? Where?"
"Oh, for my graduate studies. University of Paris."
"Paris?" Rapunzel didn't try to restrain herself. She grabbed his collar. "You've been to Paris? It still exists?"
"It, uh, it did ten years ago, when I was there. I don't see why things might have changed."
"The city of lights? Really?"
"Really. Rapunzel." He looked down at her hands, then over her shoulder. Guards were watching them warily.
She released him. "Sorry. It's just that... oh, I've always wanted to visit Paris. I've always wanted to visit Earth! I've read so much about it, I must have re-read all the books I could find about Earth a million times. I want to visit everywhere on Earth, like Tokyo, and New York, and London, and Beijing, and Ida, but I've always wanted to visit Paris first. Has it changed much?"
"Uh, no. I mean, sure, yes, but there's a Commission to Preserve Historical Landmarks, and Paris is one of those places that, well, it's pretty much all a historical landmark." He looked puzzled for a moment. "Where is Ida?"
"It's an island in Greece, where the Trojan War started. According to mythology."
"Never heard of it," Flynn said.
"Tell me about Paris. Is there an Eiffel Tower?"
"The old one finally rusted away, but they built a new one, and sprayed it with something to keep it from happening again. It's not really that impressive. If you want impressive, the Lourve is impressive. Don't go to Euro Disney, though. Save your money and go to the one in Florida."
"I wish I could go."
"You could. It's only a few weeks from here."
"Really? Your ships are that fast? How long did it take you to get from Arendelle to here?"
"Two days," Flynn said. "I heard the Captain say that they were taking the trip very cautiously and slow, because this area of space is unfamiliar to them. When it gets fully mapped you'll be able to get from here to Arendelle in less than a day. The trip from Arendelle to the wormhole is a few days, then..." He thought for a moment. "Lynx 2 to Lynx 1 is just a traffic stop, Manticore to Medusa, then eight days into Solarian space, and another six from the borderworlds to Earth itself. I guess it would take about three weeks to get to Earth."
"Three weeks!" Rapunzel's eyes went wide with excitement. "That's incredible!"
"Once you've done it a few times, it gets to be a little boring, you know. Unless you book a room in a really fancy spaceliner. Then again, Corona and Arendelle are both new territory. I'm sure you could get tourists coming out this way in no time."
Rapunzel tried to imagine Corona with tourists. That would be truly strange. Tourists. Expats. Emigrants. Words that had been in all her history books, words found in Leto's A Pattern Language of Polities: City-States, Nation-States, and Worlds. Corona got tourists, of course: a few dozen every decade, and fewer still from Corona went to Arendelle, but the idea of whole capital ships full of strangers overwhelmed her. What a great world Corona could become. Its terraforming was nearly perfect.
"What about Manticore?" she asked.
"What about it?"
"What's it like?"
Flynn described his own small town and the big lake nearby in which he'd learn to swim, and fish. He liked to climb trees. He'd gone to a specialized professional high school, then to Valasakis University, then to the French College of Materials Sciences In Paris on Earth for his graduate degree. Rapunzel returned the favor with a description of the Corona Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. "And what do you do for Admiral Becker?" she finally asked him.
"I keep an eye on things."
He shrugged. "A wormhole expedition doesn't really need a materials scientist. Her Majesty's Government is in a bit of... disagreement with the crown over certain financial disarrangements." He took a deep breath. "I'm here to make sure representatives of the government behave themselves."
"Was that a problem?"
"Nope, everything's been above-board. Which is not the same as unexciting! But no, my job so far has been easy." He frowned. He seemed ready to say more, but then stopped. "So, Princess, what are you doing now?"
"Studying. Reading, mostly. Some painting. Getting ready to be Queen and Sovereign, someday. Someday far, far in the future, may it be fate's design. So, Doctor Fitzhubert, any girls at home waiting for you?"
"No, not at the moment."
"No, none of those either. Not my thing. Yours?"
"Men, not boys."
"Excellent nuance, Princess."
She reached out and stroked the back of his hand. "So, if you don't have anyone waiting back home, how long are you here?"
Flynn glanced down at his hand, a little surprised. "Admiral Becker has us scheduled for ten days, then back to Arendelle. Elsa can't really be gone for more than two weeks before things start to get difficult back on Arendelle."
"Is it really that bad?"
"It's... messy. I really shouldn't talk about it. You can discuss it with her."
"I'll do that." She continued to pet the back of his hand. "Do you have any assigned duties on this trip, or are you just... observing?"
He glanced down where she was still tickling the back of her hand with delicate fingertips. "My observing requires I attend a lot of meetings, Princess."
"No time to talk to pretty girls?"
She smiled at the way he swallowed. "I'm sure I could find time. I mean, they can't fill my every night with endless meetings. Can they?"
Rapunzel wrinlked her nose. "They sure can try."
"Where there's a will, Princess, I'm sure there's a way."
A waiter intervened between the two of them. "My lady. Honored sir. Deserts and coffee will be in the reception room," he said as he took their plates.
"Oh, dessert! Let's go." Rapunzel said, nearly leaping out of her chair.
Somehow, she'd gotten separated from Flynn and could no longer find him in a room packed with functionaries, bureaucrats, and high-powered mercantile interests. There were a lot of people here, and to her surprise she found that she didn't know many of them. It felt as if Elsa had brought nearly half her own government with her, but then Elsa's government was several times larger than her father's, and naturally would require more managerial staff.
"Rapunzel?" said the sharp, burring voice of Captain Gothel. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Oh, yes, Captain," she said. "Can you imagine it? Flynn says it would take three weeks to get from here to Earth, and their starships can be as luxurious as our royal yacht."
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel," Gothel said, leaning closer to her. "Why would you want to do that? You have to understand why the colony left Earth in the first place. Earth was a ruin, a wreck, a disaster area. The seas were vast dead zones, the air was thick with hothouse gas. The governments of the world separated people into the productive and the unproductive, and tried to enslave the productive ones so they wouldn't feel guilty letting the unproductive wallow in poverty, starve, or die. It was terrible, Rapunzel, truly terrible. I was there. I saw it all. Go ahead, don't believe me. But I was there."
"But Flynn says..."
"Yes, I'm sure he says lots of pretty things. But he's one of them, Rapunzel, and from the looks of him he's part of the system. But you seem to be sweet on him."
Rapunzel grinned and blushed. "I think he likes me."
"Well, of course he likes you, Rapunzel. Why wouldn't he? Look at you. You're young. Beautiful. Fresh. Unspoiled. Why, you're positively a treat to a manipulative old boar like the good Doctor Flynn Fitzhubert. Come on, now, really, think about what you're getting into. He's twice your age. He comes from a complex and decadent civilization of billions of people. He's had to fight and claw his way into his current position. Competition in those circumstances is fierce, Rapunzel. Captain knows best. Governments like that--" Gothel pointed one triangular steel finger in the general direction of the crowd, although she seemed to be indicating the Manticorans-- "have so many channels and backchannels, cadres and coteries, favors and debts, sometimes paid for with your body. I'm sure the good Doctor Flynn has backers and patrons playing their own game, securing sincures and sans-portfolios."
Gothel shook her mechanical head in a mocking simulation of sad sympathy. "Think of it, Rapunzel. You're the Princess of a tiny colony that, to Doctor Flynn, looks positively grubby! Our main city is barely a medium-sized town to him, Rapunzel. Our farming and mining towns must look like something out of pre-space fantasies. You would be a notch on his belt, Rapunzel, hardly worth remembering in his doting old age."
"But you said you loved Corona!"
"I do, Rapunzel, oh, I do! But I love it because it's almost exactly what I want it to be. It's lovely and special in its own way, far, far from that civilization. Contact with a faster-than-light-capable human sphere will only destroy its beauty, Rapunzel. Like it reduces you. You are beautiful and sensational because you shine all by yourself in a velvet box. But if we're just one 'star-nation' among many, Rapnuzel, well, you'll just be yet another pretty girl in the upper crust of society. One among thousands, dearie." Gothel made a flicking gesture with one hand that would have made more sense if she'd had a head of hair to brush away.
Rapunzel looked back at the crowd. "But, like it or not, Captain, change is coming. You might be right, but think of all the exciting things we'll be able to see and do! We have to learn to live with it."
"We'll see about that, Rapunzel," Gothel said, her voice low. "We'll see."