There he was!
Amanda saw Malcolm walk towards her table, his step light and a smile on his face. And as so often before, she found herself smiling back long before she had formed the thought to do so. She was still awed that such a feeling could exist, that she could be so happy just because he smiled at her. "Hi, Mal."
"Lars wanted to see me. I've just come from his office." He pulled out the chair next to her, and let himself fall in it in a rather dramatic fashion. "Phew! You wouldn't believe those people. They just kept dropping by. Didn't even bother with proper excuses. That's why I was delayed."
"Oh, I didn't even notice," said Amanda cheerfully, hoping this was not going where she suspected.
"Nothing unusual about it, of course. He is a famous man now, Lars is. And everyone wants to be part of it."
"Yes, I met some of our undergraduates the other day. They were talking to a literature major. One of them said, 'You'll have to stop being so overbearing from now on, we've got one as well now'!" She laughed at her own story, feeling proud about how she had managed not to react to Malcolm's implications.
But he would not take the hint. "And to think that you could have done your PhD with Lars... But I suppose we all make stupid mistakes. And you're still very young."
Amanda smiled and pretended to agree with him, not wanting to have any more disagreement with Mal, as she had been given permission to call him. Olsen was one topic they could never agree on. Malcolm Wilson, the now famous professor's assistant and very junior colleague, liked him while Amanda had to be careful in his presence to remain polite. She decided not to let that bother her. Things were finally starting to look good. Her life was getting better.
It was shortly after she had started her third year as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Professor Lars Olsen, a member of the linguistics department in Harvard and her former teacher, was going to receive the Science Prize in Linguistics for his joint work with the famous Vulcan linguist, Skon. The news had spread like wildfire over the university.
The Science Prizes were given to the most distinguished scientists in the Federation. There were other important prizes as well: the Nobel Prize on Earth, the Zee Magnees Prize on Alpha Centauri, the Vulcanian Scientific Legion of Honour. But the recipients of these prizes were limited to the citizens of one planet, whereas the Science Prize could be awarded to any Federation citizen. The Science Festival that included the prize-giving ceremony took place once every five years, on the planetoid Babel, the place where the Federation founding process had begun. It had started as a means to bring the Federation worlds together, but within a few decades it had advanced to the greatest recognition a scientist could receive.
Almost a hundred years after it had been introduced, finally having a laureate among their members gave everyone in the linguistics department a constant topic to talk about. Professor Olsen remained the centre of attention during the two months leading up to the ceremony.
"The reason Lars wanted to talk to me..." Mal waited for her to focus her full attention to him. "He invited me to go with him."
"Wow, that's great." Amanda tried to smile. He kept on observing her with a strange expression, which she found unnerving.
"Yeah? I was thinking...How about you come along?"
"To the festival. I can have someone accompany me."
"Really? You mean it? Oh, Mal. Oh, that will be so marvellous!"
Some people might have found her reaction a little over the top, but 'some people' were not her. Amanda Grayson, child genius, nicknamed the "walking encyclopedia" by her peers, had never managed to fit in before. Having finished university at age 17, people her age found her intimidating and her peers found her immature, at least that was what they said. Amanda had a growing suspicion that they were simply jealous. She was pretty enough to attract almost any young man, but most of those lost interest in her once they got to know her. Her first boyfriend had been a catastrophe. The only positive aspect about the relationship had been that it had been blessedly short lived and had elevated her from child status to young adult. At least, that is how she saw it.
Her social life had taken a turn for the better when she had met Malcolm. He, of course, was not intimidated by her. As the youngest member of staff at the department, he had no reason to. Now, shortly before her twentieth birthday it looked as if she finally had a real boyfriend.
So it happened that it was quite natural for her to be overjoyed when Mal informed her that he wanted to take her with him. She agreed immediately, and went shopping for an appropriate dress the same afternoon.
Almost a week before the festival, she, Mal, the professor and his wife, met at the shuttle station that would first take them to the space station circling Terra, from which their ship departed for Babel. The journey would last several days, arriving exactly on time for the first day of the festival. This was the main event on Babel, and even the ships travelling to the planetoid took it into account. There would be two ships from Terra arriving there at the same time. The ship they were about to board was the slower one, beginning the journey almost two days before the other ship. The travel had been paid by the university, even for Amanda, who was listed as the "companion of Malcolm Wilson". The rest of the expenses were paid by the festival committee.
"I do not see why we have to travel on this old ship," said Grace, Olsen's wife, for the fourth time.
"As you know, my dear, the price for the other ship is almost twice as high. I'm sure the university has more important things to spend their money on than our travel expenses," Olsen replied with a long suffering sigh.
"Nonsense! Tell me, how many people from your precious university are receiving the Science Prize?" she asked, her voice steadily rising.
"Ha! Only three other humans are receiving the prize this year and one of them is not even Terran. She is from the Cochrane Institute on Alpha Centauri. Of course the university is greatly indebted to me." Olsen looked very self-satisfied.
Amanda could not help herself. "You mean you and Mr. Skon. He formulated the original theory, after all."
The professor's face darkened perceptibly. "Yes, yes, of course. His theory was what pointed me in the right direction."
Amanda wanted to say that Olsen's theories were basically a generalization of Skon's work, but noticed Mal's forbidding glare and dropped the subject. Turning her attention to the chronometer, she sighed quietly, hoping that the air would clear once the shuttle arrived.
After an uneventful journey that Amanda had mostly spent gazing out at the stars because Mal had turned out to be space sick, they finally landed on the planetoid. There were special escorts waiting for them, who took them directly to their hotel. Three suites had been assigned to their party: one for the professor and his wife, one for her and Mal and the third supposedly for Skon. They had been informed that the third suite was not yet occupied.
Amanda inspected her rooms. There was a bedroom for two, a large bathroom with both a water and a sonic shower, and a separate sitting area. It all looked very nice. After they had unpacked, they all went to lunch. Babel was not terraformed but there were habitable clusters under artificial biospheres, such as the one where the hotel was located and the festival would be taking place. It was early afternoon, although there was no daylight in the usual sense. The place was illuminated with intricate artificial lighting, making everything appear more festive. Thousands of people were arriving for the Science Festival and the deserted little town was filling up. The restaurant they went to was not the only one in their vicinity, yet it was almost filled with people.
When they came back to their hotel, the receptionist informed them that the missing member of their party had arrived. Olsen turned to them. To her mostly, it seemed. "You all know how to act with Vulcans, of course. They do not like to be touched and have no concept of small talk. I will introduce you all briefly - there will be no handshaking - and after that I suppose he will prefer to mostly keep to himself. And of course he has come alone. Anything else would be 'illogical'." He put the accent on "illogical" and ended with a strange little laugh.
The only one who replied was his wife. "Of course, my dear," she said.
They arrived at their quarters and knocked on Skon's door. The door opened and a handsome, tall Vulcan stepped outside. He seemed relatively young, like a human in early to mid thirties, but with a Vulcan it was difficult to tell. Olsen froze in his tracks. "Where is Mr. Skon?" So much for etiquette, Amanda thought.
The Vulcan raised an eyebrow, otherwise his face remained impassive. "Skon will not be attending the ceremonies. I am here to receive the prize in his name," he said in a calm, even tone.
"You! Who the hell are you?" Olsen almost shouted.
The Vulcan's face seemed to be carved of stone. "My name is Sarek," he said in the same tone as before, turned around and entered his suite, shutting the door behind him.