Andrea took a sip of coffee, then hiked up her skirt as much as modesty allowed to let some sun on her pale legs. She'd faded during winter, her olive skin now looked ivory in contrast to her raven black hair. But the sun could restore a warm tone to soften her high cheekbones and give proportion to her wide-set brown eyes. She looked over the rim of her white porcelain cup to see her husband shepherd their young daughter, who toddled aimlessly among the crush of people milling about the waterfront.
Saturday morning on a vital spring day at Baltimore Harbor -- Andrea had taken this tonic each of the twenty-two years of her life: as an infant buckled into a stroller, as a child dangling her feet from the pier, as a tomboy eyeing the cadets from the nearby Space Academy. As a young single woman she toured the old relics from the Federalist Era: monuments, ancient military forts; and their hardware. Her favorite was a black sailing ship as old as the harbor itself: The Constitution,
a ship famous for her thick oaken hide and for fighting unfairly. She had too many guns according to her adversaries, most of whom she sank.
In recent years the harbor provided a new fascination for Andrea -- different species. Baltimore had in the past twenty years grown in importance as an intergalactic port of call for the Alliance. Earth had recently become a hot property because the Alliance discovered a second space-faring human civilization living in the Chelle's quadrant of the galaxy. This new collection of humans was known only as the Cor Ordinate, and they fostered a reputation as independent, distrustful, and possibly aggressive. Although Andrea did not appreciate political nuances, she knew that Earth, heretofore the poor relation in the Alliance, suddenly had clout, as the other members presumed that the Cor Ordinate and Terrans would stick together, upsetting the balance within the Alliance comprised of the Jod, the Chelle, and the Artrix.
She saw a trio of Chelle -- on Earth the Chelle never traveled alone. She watched with amusement as they clustered about the ornate espresso machine that ground black beans, then hissed and spit steam in a great show of force to produce tiny cups of beverage. The diminutive Chelle were pale gray, with delicate gangly limbs on squat torsos. They wore uniforms without insignia that looked more like lab coats: loose beige knee-length smocks with long sleeves. Skinny gray legs protruded down to narrow shoes with no buckles, ties, or straps. The Chelle stood on tiptoes to look over the brass rail that kept them from touching the espresso machine. They stared with wide dewy eyes, pointing and criticizing the bad design of the machine -- as always hypercritical and suspicious. Terrans simply accepted as fact that the Chelle disliked all things that smacked of Earth.
Andrea noticed a lone Artrix sitting on the concrete steps, a mature male judging by the size and color of his fur. The Artrix had a dense short coat of fur, ranging in color from a creamy yellow to a burnt orange, some mottled, some snow-white with age. Females tended to have lighter fur, plus they typically wore gaudy earrings and flashier pantaloons. He studied a slender stalk of chickweed that managed a toehold in a crack in the cement. Just a bunch of hairy farmers,
Andrea thought. The Artrix boasted the best agri-science in the galaxy.
His face was beautiful: deep-set eyes over a short snout, not at all like a dog or cat, but round and soft with a herbivore's flat teeth. Around his eyes, the facial hair turned pale, almost the reverse of a raccoon's mask. His body was well proportioned by human standards: a muscular creature used to physical labor.
Andrea surveyed the crowd looking for the formidable Jod with their military bearing, thick bodies, and hairless scalps, but she saw none.
Settling back in her chair, she watched the morning sunshine reflect off the tall buildings of steel and glass that ringed the old harbor, casting dappled light. Even the water seemed active today. An old screw-propeller tug pushed a heavy liquid-hydrogen barge. Bass horns bellowed a warning to clear the deep channel. The cluster of acrylic sails scattered. Hover-taxis veered behind to cross the wake of the precocious tug and her bulbous cargo.
Beyond this nautical free-for-all, stood a grassy hill terraced by ancient earthen works, once populated by cannon, now dotted with gray and white grave markers. Among them rose an obsidian mausoleum, a gigantic black gem. Two years ago, she interred her father's ashes there. She obeyed her father's will and put his ashes with her mother's; it seemed artificial at the time -- a great deal of ceremony, flags, rifle reports, drums, bugles, crisp military orders. Two hours of dramatic flair for a simple transaction: she recovered her mother's urn, added the contents from a silver box engraved with her father's name, then returned the urn into a locked drawer -- much like an old-fashioned bank vault. Andrea was eight months pregnant with Glendon at the time. Her husband Steve stood silently at her side. Hordes of sympathetic people pressed their hands onto hers and looked into her eyes, yet all she remembered was how lonely the day was.
Andrea forced her gaze off Federal Hill and the shiny black mausoleum, efficiently dispatching that unhappy day to the past. She looked farther into the harbor to a cluster of bristling, glistening spires. There stood the Space Academy, a ghost town on Saturdays, all the cadets gone except for the few miscreants in blue spacesuits pounding the quad, marching off demerits. The academy stood at the mouth of the harbor flaunting her beauty, an architectural composite of tradition and technology -- seemingly layered. Thick granite walls speckled with moss marked the periphery and bound the institution in a traditional fortress. A few quaint halls and monuments of weathered stone and tarnished brass clung to the past. Then soaring above tradition stood five towers of clear graphite, each crystal edifice catching and refracting light, ever changing, one moment an orange flash of fire, the next the blue reflection of ice.
Her father, Commodore Flores, had so often pointed to those spires with pride: Someday you'll be a cadet. Someday, you'll command a starcruiser.
The stars. Andrea found herself gazing at the academy's launchpad. She studied the shuttlecraft that sat there -- a squat cone, not an Earth design. She squinted to make out the hull markings, a set of concentric rings in random colors and widths: Jod markings. She smiled with self-satisfaction. She would have graduated from the academy this year if...if she'd followed her first set of dreams.
But her dreams got sidetracked as she fell in love with Steve Dewinter, a mechanical engineer and weekend sailor. She married young to the bitter disappointment of her father. His terse rebuke still rang in her ears. You are throwing your life away! Wasting yourself!
She remembered the sudden regret that swept his face, but she also remembered his stunning lack of retraction. She chose Steve, and the easy affection she shared with her father withered in mutual disappointment. Steve's foster parents also objected to the match, or more candidly, to Andrea's family connection to the military. Steve shrugged off the Dewinters' nervous pacifism as an annoying, if not culpable, bit of ignorance about the nature of the universe. They reluctantly attended the wedding but excused themselves from the reception at the Officers' Club. Steve still tried to patch the strained relationship. Today was a case in point. He'd wanted to take Glennie to see the reclusive grandparents. She adamantly refused, taunting Steve: If they want to see their granddaughter -- which they don't -- they can just crawl out of their Nabbs Creek bungalow and meet us at the harbor for brunch.
Andrea knew her word was final. Steve cajoled but never contradicted Andrea on matters involving their daughter. The Dewinters could wait.
Her father, on the other hand, would have melted at the prospect of a grandchild. This speculation pinched her natural smile into stoic resignation. Throwing my life away? Had you lived to hold your granddaughter in your lap, your hyperbolic wrath might have changed to joy. Dad, you were as rash and passionate as you were disciplined and forgiving, and almost randomly so...
"Andi." The sound jerked her back from her daydream. Her husband Steve patiently led their daughter Glendon up the terra-cotta steps, one step at a time, to the cafe, both faces wreathed in smiles. Steve continued speaking, assuming he had Andrea's complete attention, "Did you see that street vendor pestering us? Gee, they're getting pushy."
"No." She took her eyeshades off. "Where?"
Steve pointed in the general direction. "The purple hair."
Andrea looked through the collection of street performers. An Artrix juggler levitated four silver orbs. A pale Lavorian woman danced with iridescent hoops around her body before a wall of enthusiastic merchant marines. She sang on the pentatonic scale as her hoops obeyed her exotic movements, each hoop emitting a tone that bent and stretched with her.
"Mommy..." Glendon vied for attention, as if the two adults were merely momentarily distracted from her presence. Andrea reached down -- almost a reflex -- and hoisted the pleading child into her lap. The little girl buried her face into her mother's chest, her head nuzzled beneath Andrea's chin, playing a little game of mock shyness.
"Mommy. Fee' d' bir's." Glendon's request fell on deaf ears. Purple hair?
Finally Andrea spotted a clown, a bit stocky, even grotesque in costume -- a thick shank of dirty purple hair, white face paint, and a red ear-to-ear grin painted on. The clown disappeared behind a cafe, leaving the crowd.
Andrea snapped, "Was he human? These Alliance imports ought to be quarantined."
The clown's a woman, I think. She slapped this stupid tattoo on my wrist, then tries to hust...