Deep in the longest night, in a ship passing through the empty space thirteen light-years from 33 Trianguli, a Rihannsu woman sat in a hard-cushioned chair behind a desk and looked out through a small viewport at the stars, waiting.
Her surroundings were blessedly familiar; her own small cabin, in her own ship. It was everything outside, now, which was strange to her -- the spaces in which she was a barely tolerated guest, the stars that filled them, either unheeding of her presence or subtly inimical to it...
She raised her eyebrows briefly at her own fancy. I grow whimsical, she thought, and her gaze slid sideways from the surface of her tidy desk to the chair which now sat by itself against the far wall. But perhaps, having you around, there is reason.
In the present dim nighttime lighting of the cabin, what lay across the arms of the chair seemed barely more than a sliver of shadow; pure unrevealing darkness, absorbing whatever light fell upon it. Not quite straight, but very faintly curved, the sheath and the hilt seeming to fade seamlessly into one another by the skill of the ancient swordsmith, the Sword occupied another empty chair much different from its former one, and the thoughts of the woman whose cabin it now shared.
Occupation...She smiled faintly. It was as good a word as any for the hold which this object had had over her since she put her hand out in the Senate chamber, two months and a lifetime ago, to take it. In her people's traditions there had always been tales of creatures or objects which expressed the Elements unusually perfectly. These tended to bend the Universe out of shape around them, as intense gravity fields bend light, and equally they bent awry the intentions of those mortals who had close dealings with them.
She had little thought to find herself, ever, so used. It had simply come to her, in that moment's impulse in the Senate chambers, that she would willingly take possible disaster on herself in order to save the most sacred part of her people's heritage from further dishonor. Now she wondered, sometimes, exactly whose impulse that had been; exactly who was the Sword, and whose were the hand and will wielding it.
In the days following that day, when she and her crew had returned to these spaces where the Federation had allowed them to take refuge, she had spent a number of hours in what was little better than shock -- amazement at her own temerity, worry over what would follow it, fear for her crew. Then pragmatism set in, as always, which was as well; for within only a few days more, the messages began to arrive. Her act had swiftly begun to bear fruit in the form of consequences, and the fruit was ripening fast, faster than even she could have imagined.
And soon, now, if she was any judge of events, the first fruit would fall --
The comm signal sounded, and the suddenness of it made her start. She had to laugh at herself, then, though there was no one here to hear except that dark and silent listener lying across the arms of the chair, it wearing its eternal slight uncommunicative smile.
She reached out and touched the control on her desk. "Ie?"
"T'Hrienteh says a message has arrived for you in the last comm packet, llhei..."
Aidoann's voice had a slight tinge of eagerness to it, and Ael knew whence that eagerness came. All her crew had been infected by it since she came back to Bloodwing carrying what now lay on the chair across from her.
"Send it along to my computer," Ael said. "I will read it here. And Aidoann, for the Elements' sake there is little point in you 'madam'ing me. The crew will think we have fallen out."
A pause, then a chuckle. "Very well, ll -- Ael."
"Not in private, anyway," Ael said, hearing her antecenturion's old slight discomfort with amusement, and wondering idly how many years yet it would take her to lose it. "We can afford a little ease among ourselves these days, as long as our performance in action is not impaired. Which I think unlikely to happen. In any case, it is not as if some superior officer is going to come along and reprimand us for a breakdown in discipline."
That image made Aidoann laugh outright. "So," Ael said. "What has tr'Keirianh had to say about the engine tests this morning?"
"He said little, madam, but smiled a great deal."
Ael's mouth quirked up a little at that. Her chief engineer might be sparse of speech, but he had no skill at concealing his feelings. "Dangerous to make assumptions," she said, "but that would seem to bode well. Ta'khoi..."
As she cut the voice connection, her terminal showed her the herald for an incoming message, encrypted. "Decrypt," she said, and sat back, watching the terminal go black, then fill with amber characters that shimmered into meaning from meaninglessness.
About half the screenful was comm routing information, interesting only insofar as one chose to be endlessly fascinated by the means her correspondents found to evade the ever-increasing interest of the security services on ch'Rihan and ch'Havran. Some of the messages were relayed numerous times among the subject worlds of the Empire and right out to the fringes of Rihannsu-dominated space before making their way out into the spaces beyond. This one, she saw, had gone clear out into the Klingon communications networks -- which in itself was amusing, considering what one of these messages might eventually mean to the Klingon Empire if things went the way she thought they might -- and from there had passed to one of the commercial subspace relay networks in the "nonaligned" worlds buffering between the Klingons and the Federation, before making its way to her ship. The long way around...she thought, and touched the screen, stroking the routing information away and bringing up the message.
Under the origin and destination fields, both forged, the message itself was brief. The body of it said only:
THE PART YOU HAVE REQUESTED (NTCS 55726935-7745-9267-93677) IS PRESENTLY UNAVAILABLE. NEAREST ESTIMATE OF AVAILABILITY IS BETWEEN THREE TO FIVE MONTHS. IT IS SUGGESTED YOU SUBSTITUTE PART NTCS 55726935-7456-8344-86009 AS AN INTERIM SOLUTION. CONTACT US AGAIN IN THREE STANDARD MONTHS REGARDING ORIGINAL PART.
There was, of course, no signature. She sat back and looked thoughtfully at the two long "parts numbers," carefully rearranging their digits in her mind according to the usual method...then held very still for a few moments, digesting what those two sets of numbers together meant. So quickly...
She folded her hands again, leaned her chin on them once more, calculating. They are furious, indeed, for their innate inertia to be so quickly overcome. Yet I cannot believe their consensus is genuine. I have merely given them cause for a show of unity. Beneath that, no question but that their divisions remain.
Yet will those still run deep enough to serve my turn?
She shifted her eyes back toward the dark, slight curve of the Sword, and felt it looking at her. Impossible, of course...But the feeling persisted, and others had reported it as well. How something so inanimate could yet seem to have awareness of its surroundings, and an intent that looked out at the world through that awareness, Ael could not tell. Yet for many long years this potent artifact had lain in that chair in the Senate, untouched, unmolested by even the most violent and powerful of the personalities who passed through -- and that fact argued some indwelling power of the Sword's more dangerous, in its way, than Ael much liked to think of.
She got up, then; came around her desk, and stood before that chair, looking down at the slice of darkness that lay there defeating the dim light of her cabin. "Well," she said softly. "Now is the time, if ever. Shall we serve each other's turn? I am willing..."
She reached out slowly, hesitant; her fingers dropped to the hilt, brushed it...Nothing happened; no jolt of power, no arcane or silent voice shouting agreement down her bones. She expected none, well knowing the difference between a symbol and the powers it stood for. Nonetheless, the answer to her question was plain.
She turned away and waved the cabin lights up, then went back to the desk, reached down for the comm control again. "Bridge."
It was young antecenturion Khiy's voice. "Yes, khre'Riov -- ?"
She had to smile that so many of her people still called her that, though none of them belonged to the Service any longer, and the Service indeed would be the instrument of all their deaths were they ever caught. "The message which has just come in tells me what I thought it would," she said. "They are finally coming for us..." She could not hold back a somewhat feral smile. "We have much to do to prepare."
"Khre'Riov -- " Khiy's voice held a most unaccustomed nervousness. "Are we going back with them?"
Ael laughed softly. "Did you truly think it?" she said. "Aye, going back...but never in the way they think, or the company. Is Aidoann still there?"
"Shortly I will have some more messages to send, and we must take care with the routing of some of them, lest they come too soon where they are wanted. T'Hrienteh and I will confer about this at length. But first you should call the crew together. There are things to be discussed in detail before we go forward."
"Yes, khre'Riov!" Aidoann said, and the comm went dead.
Ael t'Rllaillieu gave the Sword in the Empty Chair one last glance, and smiled briefly; then waved her cabin door open, and went out to battle.
There would be those who said she had started this war. Ael was not so sure about that. But beyond doubt, she thought, I shall be the one to finish it...
In the heart of Paris, just off to one side of the Palais de Chaillot, between the great reflecting pool and the Avenue Albert de Mun, stands the tall and handsome spire of the "troisième Empire" edifice built late in the twenty-second century to house the offices on Earth of the president of the United Federation of Planets. It was November now, though, and half the spire was hidden in the chilly fog which had come down on the city the night before and shrouded all its lights. The mist had risen a hundred feet or so, but no more. Now the view from the terrace outside the room where the president was meeting privately with the chief of staff of Starfleet Command was mostly indistinct, with only a glimpse or two of distant buildings showing here and there as flitters and little ion-driven shuttles passed, and the mist swirled with their passing.
The room was very still even though the door to the terrace was open, the mist muting the sounds of the city outside; and the thin pale light fell cheerlessly on the dark-paneled walls and the Shaashin, Kandinsky, and T'Kelan oils hanging there. In the middle of the room hovered a large oval sapphire-glass desk on paired pressors, and behind it next to a matching cobalt-blue chair the president stood, his tall dark bearlike bulk slightly stooped as he looked down at the desk, reading from the display embedded in it. He had been up all night, and looked it.
"When did you receive the message, sir?" Fleet Admiral Mehkan said. He was a smaller man, considerably slenderer than the president, and very fair, as a lot of people from Centaurus are.
"It must have been about midnight," said the president, touching the display to bring the report up again. "The Strat-Tac people," he said, "are very thorough in their briefings. I'd thought this would have arrived a little sooner -- but apparently her enemies back home have been making sure they have everything they need in place before they move."
"And now," said the chief of staff, "we have to start working out what to do..."
"Sit down, Dai, please," the president said. Mehkan sat down on a chair like the president's on the other side of the desk.
The president lowered himself into his own chair, leaning on the desk while he finished rereading the report. "She'll have received the same message, I assume," he said.
"At about the same time, yes, sir. Her sources supply us as well, rather more directly."
"And you're sure that the source of the information is completely reliable."
"It's not just a source, Mr. President. It's our source."
The president nodded slowly. "I had wondered...Well, the interesting part of all this," he said, "is going to be anticipating what she does."
"She has to have known they would come right after her," said the chief of staff.
The president nodded. "Unquestionably. If I understand the relative importance of the artifact she took with her, to produce the same result on Earth she would have had to have stolen the Articles of Federation, or the old Constitution, or the Magna Carta..."
"Combined with the Crown Jewels, the Black Stone, and the Holy Grail," said Mehkan. "The Romulan government will do anything they have to, to get that thing back...or to make sure it doesn't fall into unfriendly hands."
"Such as ours," said the president.
"But it's still just an excuse," the president said. "They've been waiting for a chance like this for a long time. There are elements in the Senate which have been looking for a cause célèbre, something to push their relationship with the Federation out of the rut it's been stuck in for all these years. The Neutral Zone chafes them, limits their trading opportunities, annoys their expansionist and nationalist lobbies..."
"An excuse for them to push outward," said Fleet Admiral Mehkan, "would certainly be welcomed."
"Well, it's not as if there aren't also elements in Fleet which would welcome the resolution of a persistent tactical problem on one of our borders," the president said. "Massive resources are spent policing and patrolling the Neutral Zone every year. Everyone would find it an improvement if suddenly that necessity went away...wouldn't they?"
The Fleet Admiral twitched a little. The president noticed, and said nothing. "Yet at the same time," the president said, "no one has wanted the situation to resolve itself in an uncontrolled manner. Sometimes, unfortunately, you just don't have a choice. We've known for a while that there would be a war involving the Romulan Empire within the next five to ten years. Political tensions, economic pressures, even personal issues at high levels in the Empire have been bringing it closer and closer. Now here it comes: a little sooner than expected, maybe. But hardly unexpected."
He got up and came out from behind the desk, pausing in front of his terrace door and gazing out for a moment. Across the Seine, the lower half of the Eiffel Tower was now visible: the rest was lost in fog, producing an effect suggesting that someone had come along and sliced its top off with a knife. "That being the case...what matters is to protect our own people, naturally; but also to try to steer events so that they do the most people the most good over time, both on their side of the Neutral Zone and on ours."
"The altruistic approach..." said Fleet Admiral Mehkan.
"I know that tone of voice, Dai," said the president, beginning to pace slowly in front of that window. "I did Strat-Tac only a year after you did at the Academy, and I remember old Dickinson's lectures as well as you do. My job simply requires that I approach the problem from a slightly different angle. A wider one, maybe. War..." The president paused. "Any war is undesirable, Dai. A war that benefits one of your opponents at the expense of the other, and weakens both...that's also undesirable, but less so. However, a war that leaves you with, instead of two opponents who keep each other busy, only one opponent, now much stronger due to the defeat of the other...that is very undesirable indeed."
Mehkan said, "And things have been trending that way for some time, Mr. President."
"Yes. Well, events seem to be giving the forces in the Romulan Empire a different focus to 'crystallize out' around. We have two main concerns. Tactics, and readiness." He looked up at the chief of staff of Starfleet. "And two questions. If we go to war with the Romulan Empire: can we defeat them?"
Fleet Admiral Mehkan was very slow to answer. "Strat-Tac says yes," he said. "But it would be a long, bloody exercise. There would be hundreds of millions of casualties, maybe billions, on both sides. And it would take both sides decades, if not a century or more, to completely recover."
"And if the Klingons come in on their side at the beginning?"
This time there was no pause in Mehkan's answer. He shook his head immediately. "A shorter exercise. A much higher death toll. The modern version of what they once called 'mutual assured destruction'...the possible loss of starflight capability to all three cultures, if things went on long enough."
"An unacceptable outcome, obviously. But I suspect Strat-Tac thinks the Klingons would wait to see how things went...then come in and attack the weaker of the two combatant parties at an opportune moment."
Mehkan nodded. "Their own Empire is slightly overstretched at the moment in terms of supply lines," he said, "and I think they're sensitive to the possibility that the Romulans, once hostilities were well enough under way, might attack the further-flung Klingon worlds with an eye to cutting off the trade routes to the inner planets."
The president leaned against the terrace door, gazing out. "Well," he said, "it's going to start. So our job is to keep this war from killing any more of us, and any more of them, than is absolutely necessary; and to manage it in such a way that the powers left standing at the end of it are unlikely to go to war again for a long time."
"And if we can't?"
"We have to," said the president. "By whatever means. And one fairly straightforward means to the end is lying ready to our hand...if we use it intelligently."
Fleet Admiral Mehkan looked profoundly unhappy. "I wish we knew for sure that we could trust her," he said.
"We can trust her to be Romulan," said the president.
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"And we don't so much have to trust her," said the president, "as to anticipate her. In that regard...we have at least one resource who does that fairly well."
"I was afraid you were going to say that," said Mehkan. He got up and went to stand by the terrace door as well. "Mr. President...there are people high in Command who are going to resist this suggestion strenuously."
"You among them," said the president.
"Kirk is increasingly difficult to predict as time goes by. If he -- "
"If we selected starship captains just for predictability," said the president, "most of them would be dead within the first year of their first five-year mission. Lateral thinking, creativity, the ability to outflank the dangers that face them...that, I would think, is the set of characteristics Fleet sorts for. Or have the criteria changed since we last did a review?"
"No, but -- "
"You know what the problem is as well as I do," the president said. "It is not a question of predictability, in the case of the captain of the Enterprise; it is a question of loyalty...in this particular case."
"Only," said the chief of staff, "a question of where that loyalty lies."
"I have no doubts, in this case," said the president. "By the time things come to a head, neither will you. In the meantime, Enterprise herself has significant symbolic value to all sides involved in the argument which is about to break out...and that value would be much lessened with a change in her command."
He took one last look out the window, then turned back toward the desk. "So take care of it," said the president. "Get Enterprise out there. Cut Kirk orders that will protect Fleet if...action has to be taken." His face set grim. "But leave him the latitude he needs to get the job done. Our job, meantime, is to put together the assets she will need after the trouble starts. I want a meeting with the Chiefs of Services tomorrow at the latest. It'll take at least a few days, possibly as long as a week, for the Romulan force to materialize where we have to take official notice of them. We need to start putting our assets in place immediately, before it can possibly be seen as a reaction to what's about to start happening. And then..."
"Then we wait," said the chief of staff of Starfleet.
"The worst part," said the president, "as always. Get caught up on your sleep this week. I sure will, because once things start happening, we're both likely to lose plenty."
Fleet Admiral Mehkan nodded and headed toward the office door. Halfway through it, he paused and looked over his shoulder.
"There really is no way to avert this, is there," he said, very softly indeed.
The president shook his head. "This time, unfortunately," he said, "we're right. We're just going to have to pray we're not as right as we're afraid we are."
Mehkan went out. The president of the Federation let out a long breath and looked out the window again at the mist lying over the city, softening and obscuring everything in a veil of increasingly radiant obscurities as the sun now tried to come out above it all. The soft view would not last long. Soon enough would come the awful clarity of phaser fire in the darkness, ships bursting in vacuum, the screams of the committed and the innocent together. At times like this, he hated his job more than anything.
Nevertheless, he turned back to his desk and set about doing it.
On ch'Rihan, in the planetary capital city Ra'tleihfi, stands an old edifice built with the elegant classical proportions of the "Ehsadai" period -- that time when the Rihannsu were new to their planets from the depths of space, and just beginning the business of taming the Two Worlds to their will. The building itself was much newer than the Ehsadai era, having actually been built after the fall of that terrible woman Vriha t'Rehu, the so-called Ruling Queen. The Rihannsu who built it were, like many of their people, looking back with both relief and longing to a time when the arts of peace and war in the Two Worlds had seemed to be at their height. By building again in that style, and incorporating what remained of the older structure on the same site, the architects hoped to remind Rihannsu everywhere of what they had so nearly lost to the tyrant -- freedom, honor, the rule of ch'Rihan and ch'Havran by the millions descended from those who had crossed space to live there, as opposed to rule by the whim of any one Rihanha, however well-intentioned.
But memory is such a fleeting thing. Soon enough, within ten years, twenty, fifty, the tyrant's awful depredations were happily enough forgotten by people busy rebuilding their lives and countries after the wars that Vriha t'Rehu's ambition triggered. Soon enough, as the Senate and Praetorate resumed their ancient powers, the old jockeying for power began, as the few fought for influence among the many; and the people scattered across the worlds accepted this, once again, as part of the normal conduct of life...some few senators or praetors overawing their many co-gubernals by virtue of family connections or wealth rather than drawing them into agreement by common sense. The Rihannsu forgot, and the Senate and Praetorate were content not to remind them, that the Two Worlds are rarely in such danger as when only a few hold rule; and they forgot what the building meant, except that it was old and beautiful.
Now, on this morning of the thirty-fifth of Awhn, that building was still old; but its beauty was marred. There was a great crack running right across the massive low dome which was the central chamber's ceiling, roof, and another straight across and through the mighty slab of marble which had floored the great chamber under the dome, big enough to hold the whole Tricameron in session at once. Now formal sessions of both Senate and Praetorate were being held elsewhere while workmen labored among the ugly pillars and struts of emergency scaffolding inside the building; and outside, tractor beams and pressors were supplementing the normal stresses which had formerly held the dome unsupported over the chamber. The architects had planned superbly, but they had not anticipated that the Chamber would ever have a starship sitting on its roof.
The three men who stood there now, under the scaffolding, looked across the blaster-scarred and acid-stained marble of the Chamber and said nothing. The workmen, for the time being masters of this domain, paid no attention to them. The three men in their somber dark uniforms of state, sashed in black, not gold, were themselves paying little attention to the workmen. The gazes of all three were directed toward the far side of the room, where there sat an old, old chair. One of the workmen had thrown a couple ells' length of protective sheeting over it, but this did not disguise the fact that the chair was empty.
"Come on," said one of the men, the tallest of them, a big, fair, broad-shouldered man with a long, somber face. The three turned away and walked toward the entrance, which once had been perhaps the noblest part of the building, with its great bronze doors all cast and carved with episodes from the Empire's history. But the doors had sprung out of their sills when the ship came down, and were now off being repaired, leaving nothing but protective sheeting hanging down and crackling noisily in the hot fierce wind that ran down the streets of Ra'tleihfi in this season.
They stepped out into the day, a fair green day under that windy sky, and stood a little to one side at the top of the great flight of steps leading down into the city's central plaza, all surrounded and walled about with the close-packed spires and towers of the capital. A constant stream of workmen came and went past them, and also many city people, coming up the steps as far as they were allowed to see the damage done, and going away again, muttering. Tr'Anierh, the tallest of the three, looked at these casual observers coming and going, and said under his breath, "Perhaps we should seal this off."
"Why?" said the second man, the one in the middle; a short roundish man with a broad, cheerful face, bushy eyebrows, and hair beginning, perhaps prematurely, to be streaked with gray. "It's good for them to see what the damned traitress did. And what their taxes are going to have to pay to repair. Anything that brings that home to them is worthwhile."
Tr'Anierh looked over at the third of them -- a Rihanha of medium height, medium build, medium skin tone, dark hair, a man almost resolutely ordinary-looking even to his customary bland expression -- and wondered, as always, what he was thinking. "Well, Urellh?" he said. "Does Ahrm'n have the right of it here?"
Urellh tr'Maehhlie let out a breath as if he grudged it. "It doesn't matter," he said. "It's not the people whose opinion will matter when we bring her back. It's the Senate, and the Praetorate. They're the ones who have to be reminded how she slighted them, denigrated their power, took the oldest symbol of it into her own thieving hands and ran off with it. When we go fetch her back, we must make sure that no distractions from outside keep them from killing her at last. More, though: we must make sure that they do not mistake her capture, and the Sword's return, as all that's necessary to bring this episode to an end."
"There's more to revenge, then," said Ahrm'n tr'Kiell, "than just her..."
Tr'Anierh looked back at where the doors should have been, glanced over toward the side-flight of steps leading out and down to the plaza, and moved slowly that way. The other two came with him.
"It's time we faced the realities," tr'Anierh said. "Things have been the same now for too long. We sit trapped here between two powerful enemies...one which has been kept from acting against us only by weakness caused by its empire being too far-flung for its forces to hold securely; the other by weakness at its root, a chronic unwillingness to fight unless forced to it by circumstances. And the first, as we now see, is shaking off its inactivity. The other is all too likely to do the same. Time we stopped acting the hlai trapped between two hnoiyikar, afraid to move one way or another lest one of the predators turn and bite its head off." And ideally, tr'Anierh thought, time we found a way to get them to turn their attention to each other and leave us alone.
"You sound," said tr'Kiell, "like the Senate yesterday."
"And the day before," said Urellh, "and the day before that, and for many days before. Endless cries of 'Revenge!' and 'Blood or honor' -- but no one willing to lead the first ship out, against either side, for fear of being blamed for the bloodshed to follow." His voice had acquired an edge of disgust.
"And would you, then, Urellh?" said tr'Anierh, trying to seem casual. But he turned away a little, not anxious to see Urellh see him holding his breath, or seeming in any way overinterested in the answer. He has become entirely too sensitive to opposition, for whatever reason. If anything should make him realize how I detest his politics, everything I've been planning could be imperiled...
There was a long pause. "Aye, indeed I would," said Urellh. "The blow to our reputations, even eventually to our sovereignty, is a massive one. The insult grows harder to bear by the day. And others are watching. Not the Federation." His smile grew suddenly bitter here. "We see now what the Klingons think of a neighboring Empire which cannot stop one ship from coming in through our system defenses and taking the most sacred possession of our people."
"But that was treason. The defenses were taken down from the inside -- "
"And what does that matter? The Klingons will say to themselves, 'Where once treachery's rank weed sprang up, it can be sown again.' No matter that it was chopped down once; they will see the ground as being favorable. They have always been willing to use such means if tactics required. And if treason does not work, they will use main force with joy. Any system which can be compromised by so few people, so quickly, has revealed a fatal flaw...and has revealed itself as easily broken by any who apply enough brute force to it."
"That flaw has been mended," said tr'Anierh. "Those people are dead now, or fled."
"Happy the dead," Urellh growled, "for they're beyond what will happen to those who fled, once we catch them." He looked over at Ahrm'n tr'Kiell.
Tr'Kiell shrugged. "If you expect news of new arrests, I have none. The Two Worlds are not a small place, and there are endless boltholes and empty places on both worlds where criminals and traitors can go to ground...especially on ch'Havran, which has never been as unified in its loyalties as it should have been. And then there are the client worlds..." He sighed. "Our intelligence services are doing what they can to find them, day by day...But it's a live traitor's nature to come out and take up his treason again when he thinks it will be safe. And those who helped the cursed t'Rllaillieu take the Sword will find that it will never be safe for them, no matter how long they wait."
"In any case," tr'Anierh said, "the matter is now, as you say, beyond choice. The Klingons have spotted what looks like a weakness at the very heart of our empire. They are already moving to exploit it. And it's when an enemy is moving that he is at his most vulnerable."
"We hardly have the forces to strike at them directly," said tr'Kiell, "with any hope of success."
"Not if we are the only combatant," said Urellh.
The others looked at him. "Communications are always subject to misunderstanding," Urellh said, "and misdirection. Even in peacetime: most certainly in wartime. And in the time just before a war, communications are more easily lost, misread or misconstrued than at any other time whatever. The Klingons are moving? The sooner, the better: for their movement will give the Federation pause. If word came to the Federation that the Klingons had struck -- say, one of their outpost worlds -- that news would serve to turn their attention away from us. With the result that we are left free to act -- "
"They would not be so foolish as to become involved in a two-front war," tr'Kiell said. "It would be suicidal, even for them."
"They will become involved in whatever we present them with," said Urellh, "as always. They are not a proactive people, the Federation. Indeed, they are not a people at all, but a confused mass of hundreds of bizarre species with hundreds of agendas, all conflicting; they cannot act boldly or straightforwardly, by virtue of their very structure. It is a fact we have been slow to exploit. But now we will make up for some lost time, Elements willing; we will show them what a united people can do...and what real boldness looks like. Information, meanwhile, can be twisted into many strange and unusual shapes in transit between worlds. We will see what can be done in this regard in the very near future."
He fell silent, gazing out into the morning as some workmen moving slabs of white marble on hovercarries went by. Tr'Anierh was glad of the few moments' respite, for this unusually communicative mood of Urellh's had begun to cause him concern. What trap does he set for us here? tr'Anierh wondered. After a few moments, though, he put the thought away. The three of them, by virtue of long careful manipulation of the economic, dynastic, and political assets which chance and ancient House affiliations had cast in front of them, had over the past several years risen to the position of aierh te'nuhwir, "first among equals" in the Praetorate. Each of them, by virtue of sheer personal power, now swung behind him a considerable bloc of the votes in both Senate and Praetorate. Each of them knew too many of the others' secrets to be afraid of what the others might do. Tr'Anierh knew his fear, therefore, to be foolish: yet he knew the others had it too...and it kept them cautious.
"As for the Klingons," Urellh said after the workmen had passed, "they may come to see that the Federation is not invulnerable, either. There are members of their own legislature who would not be averse to sending their fleets in that direction, as much for the sake of changes in their own status quo as for revenge, battle, or booty."
"An interesting concept," said tr'Anierh. "But the main problem remains. The woman, and her cursed renegade confederates aboard our stolen cruiser Bloodwing...and the Sword."
He looked closely at tr'Kiell. "The Senate is ready to act," tr'Keill said. "If you think I have been acting to delay the matter, you think wrongly."
"But you have a personal connection," said Urellh, "and who could doubt that you would have mixed feelings about the situation?"
"I think the source of my mixed feelings is better dead," tr'Kiell said, "and enough said about that. With luck, the Elements being with us, it will soon be so." He fell silent for a moment, and then added, "And our other assets on Bloodwing, it would seem, are still in place; that confirmation was long in coming, and there was some uncertainty, but it came at last. So now we can give our increasingly noisy Senate something to do before it so completely loses its patience or its wits that it starts attempting to press the thorny chaplet of blame onto one of our heads." His smile was wintry. "They may safely be turned loose to enact the legislation which we will propose them tomorrow."
"Who did the wording?" Urellh said.
"I did," said tr'Anierh. "It needed some delicacy of shading. But the meaning will be clear enough even for the Senate, and our fellow Praetors will of course ratify it without discussion. The task force to be sent out on this foray will number six ships: more than enough both to handle the business of entering Federation space on a diplomatic mission, and to be able to pursue our own interests even if they attempt to block us. Most particular attention has been paid to the newer aspects of the ships' weaponry." He smiled slightly. This was his own area of expertise. "We will go to them, seemingly with our hands open, and demand the return of a war criminal for trial on her homeworld. If they turn her and the Sword over to us, that will be well. If they merely allow us to pursue her, that also will be well. She cannot long elude pursuit, and we will track her down and bring her and the Sword home -- or just the Sword. And if they do not assist us by allowing pursuit, or turning her over to us -- "
"Then war," tr'Kiell said.
"They will have forced us to it," said Urellh, in a tone meant to simulate regret. "We will have no choice but to do what is necessary to recover our property...and our honor. A evil chance, but some good will yet come of it. At best we will push them some ways back from the spaces they occupy on the other side of the Neutral Zone; there are some choice planets there. At worst we will do the Federation great and memorable damage along the border -- destroying as many of the monitoring stations along the Zone as we can, and forcing them to spend vast sums restoring and restaffing them and installing new infrastructure."
"Hurting not only them," said tr'Kiell, "but various others who will realize that they have misperceived our weakness."
"Oh yes," said Urellh. "And meanwhile, in the first hours or days of that war, the first-in task force will locate the woman, whether she shelters behind the Federation's kilts or not, and destroy her and the Sword both, if need be. They shall not have her, or it; and she shall not live to keep it in our despite. Better it should be destroyed than fall into alien hands...if indeed she is not more than half alien herself already, in heart. Likely enough, bearing in mind who bore her company at Levaeri V."
"And while we resolve the issue that started the war," said tr'Anierh, "the war itself will yield its own rewards..."
"Perhaps more than anyone expects," Urellh said. "Ahrm'n, have you ever had an infestation of ehlfa?"
Tr'Kiell blinked. "I have little leisure to notice such things. If ehlfa should become a problem around my property, I would have the hru'hfe of my house call the exterminator."
"Ah, but if you watched the exterminator, you would see something worth your while. He puts down bait and tempts the creatures to leave their nest. Out they march in their little columns. They find the prize. They tell each other the news with their body chemistry. Wholesale they race to the bait, falling upon it, busying themselves with worrying it into little pieces to take to their home. And while they do so, the exterminator comes to their home, all empty but for the king-ehlfa and his courtiers, and burns it. With their home destroyed, their king murdered, nowhere to go, the ehlfa are left distraught and witless; they wander away in every direction, and are eaten by predators, and the infestation is shortly merely a memory..."
Urellh smiled. It was not a smile that tr'Anierh would have liked to have turned on him. "You are very bold," he said softly, "to speak of this under the open sky."
"In this company the news is safe," Urellh said. "But no other. After the way Sunseed was betrayed, and the DNA acquisition project with it, some harsh lessons about the need to know have been learned. Not least by me." He got a grim look.
"Can you actually be telling us," said tr'Kiell, "that the 'package' is ready?"
"Nearly," said Urellh.
It was this news that tr'Anierh had hoped against hope to hear...even though it also frightened him. "So you are now suggesting," tr'Kiell said, "that we could seriously contemplate its delivery to one of the possible 'recipients'..."
"Or the other," Urellh said. "It is a matter of seeing which homeworld would be the most likely to endure such a 'delivery' with most of its assets intact. If the answer is similar in both cases...well, let both systems receive such a gift...But for now there is only one 'package.' The single prototype has not been tested: but testing it would reveal its provenance, and alert our enemies to a need to protect against it. So its first test must be its first use."
Tr'Anierh actually shivered, hoping that neither of the others saw. "So many billions of lives..." he said. "Even against them...even if it is only used against the Federation, Urellh, there will be questions among our own people. What do we say to them, afterward, when they come to us and ask us about the billions?..."
Urellh gave him a bland look. "A thousand dead," he said, "are a tragedy -- a thousand million, merely a statistic. -- And anyway...they are only aliens. What about our people, and their welfare? Think of how it could be for the Two Worlds and the client planets, to live in a universe where there was no Federation...no Klingon Empire...not anymore. No more striving to keep every ell of space or every Elements-forsaken dustbowl of a planet on which some few pitiful scraps of food can be grown. Freedom to be what we are, no longer fenced in, hemmed in, oppressed. Freedom to grow, to extend our boundaries and our culture right through the galaxy, taking what is ours to take..."
"Freedom," tr'Kiell said softly. "It is a noble dream."
"Freedom," said tr'Anierh, and for the moment said nothing else.
"What time does the Senate meet tomorrow?" said tr'Kiell.
"Eighth hour," said Urellh. "I will stand and propose the diplomatic mission at the ninth hour. All the important personnel are selected; all that remains is to have the Senate come to believe it has selected them, and then approve the assignment of ships in the usual way. They can be on their way by the threeday's end."
"Until tomorrow morning, then," said tr'Kiell, and saluted them both, and went on his way down the steps.
They watched him go, making his way down across the plaza and into the street leading to emn'Thaiven, the wide pale-paved Avenue of Processions. "There," said Urellh, "we shall lead the traitress to her death in chains, in not too long a time. And afterward we shall set about putting things right; mending the world, the Worlds, to be as they should have been long ago."
Tr'Anierh nodded, still saying nothing for the moment. The thought was in his mind: What in the names of Fire and Air has come to this man, that he speaks so openly? As if he had nothing whatever to fear from anyone?...
He glanced over to find Urellh looking at him: a casual look on the surface, but there was no missing the assessment in it. "I must go," Urellh said then. "Honor to the Empire, confederate."
"Honor," said tr'Anierh to Urellh's back, as he swung away and went down the steps in tr'Kiell's wake. Discreetly, from off to one side, Urellh's personal secretary came down along the steps to meet his master and began to speak to him, head down, as they went.
Eveh tr'Anierh watched them out of sight. He was filled with fear, but he dared not show it. We are all riding the daishelt together now, he thought. No choice but to hang on tight to the horns, lest we slip back to where the claws can rend us...
He turned at last and went back up into the shattered building, to meet his own secretary and arrange matters surrounding the speech in the Senate tomorrow. There were some other messages to be sent now, as well. Eveh started composing the first one as he passed through the clear sheets that hung where the bronze doors should have; and in that hot wind that ran down the streets between the tall graceful buildings of the Presidium, the sheets whispered together, saying aish, again and again, aish: the word for war...
James T. Kirk finished rereading the report which had been appended to his most recent orders on the viewer in his quarters, and let out a long breath. For the better part of a month and a half now, he had been wondering, as he occasionally had before: Where is Bloodwing?...Now he thought he understood why she had made herself more than usually scarce. But that's about to change.
"It's happening," Jim said, "at last."
He looked up from the viewer in his quarters at McCoy and Spock. Spock was wearing that look of complete calm that only a Vulcan could assume; but Jim knew what was underneath it...or at least he had strong suspicions. McCoy was frowning, but then he had been frowning a lot since he came home from his last leave, a "vacation trip" which had wound up taking him a good deal further away from home than many people would have initially expected.
"The orders," Spock said, "are, on the surface, routine."
"As if any orders containing the words 'Romulan Neutral Zone' are routine," McCoy said. "Now or ever, but especially now."
"But the orders contain no such phrasing, Doctor," Spock said. "They refer only to the space around 15 Trianguli..."
"You know as well as I do, Mr. Spock, that any space in the direction of Triangulum and further away from Earth than about fifteen hundred light-years is hotter than the insides of a warp containment vessel," McCoy said, "and about as safe, at the moment. 15 Tri is plenty close enough to the Zone to provoke interest in some quarters."
"Those 'quarters' being the Senate and the Praetorate," Jim said, leaning back in his chair. "Who it seems, after the events of the last month and a half, are ready to start some serious shin-kicking."
He looked over at Spock with some concern. "The moment we start moving at all directly toward that space," he said, "word will get to the Romulans, either via moles in Starfleet or other intelligence sources here and there. And our movement will be taken as an excuse to start things rolling."
"Your analysis is likely to be correct, Captain," said Spock. "But the orders seem clear."
"Everything about them is clear except the time frame," Jim said. "They haven't come right out and told me 'Head in that direction but take your time about it,' but that's what the instruction factors down to. So I'll take the time." He thought for a moment. "Scotty has been complaining about some adjustments he wants to make to the warp engines' matter-antimatter annihilation ratios: I intend to proceed at a leisurely enough pace to let him do that. At the same time, I know why they're sending us to the neighborhood of 15 Tri. We are intended to meet a ship, quietly, out in the system's fringes, to discuss a few things with its commander."
"And while we're doing that," McCoy said, "I have this feeling a few other ships may drop by to chat about this and that. All very informally, of course."
"Of course," Jim said. "But the Triangulum area being as lively as you say, Bones, I think we may dodge over in the direction of alpha Arietis first...bearing in mind that we also still have a technological problem that we haven't yet figured out what to do with."
"Sunseed," Spock said, somber.
"The trouble with technology," McCoy muttered, "is that you can't stick it back in the damn bottle once it gets out."
"Any technology that allows a ship on the fly to create ion storms on demand," Jim said, "is too damn nasty to let out into the world. But here we are, stuck sitting on the thing. The Romulans would have used it as a weapon -- did use it -- which was bad enough. We took it from them lock, stock, and barrel, which was something of an accomplishment...but since we're certainly not going to use it, we need to find a way to make it unusable before it leaks out somehow...which it is eventually bound to, no matter how closely Fleet tries to guard it." He folded his arms. "Scotty has a few ideas on the subject, but he says he could use some assistance at the theoretical end. So we'll go get him some." Jim looked at Spock. "Estimate of total time?"
"Four days and fourteen hours to alpha Arietis at warp six," Spock said, "from our present position. Then five days, twenty hours at the same speed to the neighborhood of 15 Trianguli."
Jim nodded. "See to it, Mr. Spock."
"Captain," Spock said, and went out. The door shut behind him.
McCoy paused. "There was," McCoy said, "something else."
Jim put his eyebrows up, trying to look surprised. "There was?"
"Jim," McCoy said, "this is no time to start trying to play the wide-eyed innocent with me. You should have started years ago, or not bothered at all. Now, I'm not going to ask for details about the sealed portion of these orders..."
Jim's mouth quirked into half a smile.
"But I wouldn't mind knowing," McCoy said, "whether I should start actively preparing myself to meet my Maker. Again."
"I'd have thought that after your little holiday on ch'Rihan," Jim said, "you'd be all caught up in that regard."
McCoy gave him a dry look. "And whether our own side is as likely to wind up shooting at us as the other one. Or other ones."
There it was: the same concern that had been riding Jim for the past few hours, while he digested the content of the orders he'd received -- both the parts that he could disclose to his crew, and the parts that he could not -- and started to game out the way he thought things might go in the next month or so. "Bones," he said, "believe me, I'm going to be doing my best to keep matters straightforward. One side shooting at us at once is more than enough for me. But things can change fast sometimes...so you'd better fasten down anything that's loose in sickbay. And keep a chair ready for me when I need to come to talk."
"I'll take care of it," McCoy said, and went out.
The door hissed shut behind him. Jim sat down behind his desk again and leaned back in the chair once more. He held that position for a good while, his eyes resting on nothing in particular. Then he reached out to the computer console on his desk. "Computer."
"Record a message and seal under my voiceprint."
"Latest communication received here confirms our last joint discussion on strategy. Meet us as previously arranged." He thought of signing it "Jim," but encryption was such a fragile and ephemeral art these days; the security of the message could not be absolutely guaranteed, and there was too much to lose should it be broken. Besides, he could just hear the laughter at the other end when the receiving party heard the signature.
"Code and send," Jim said.
He hit the comm button again. "Bridge. Lieutenant Uhura."
"Uhura here, Captain."
"I just routed a message to your system. What's the subspace transit time?"
There was a moment's silence. "Judging from the relay address in that message's 'capsule,' I'd say fifteen hours."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Mr. Sulu?"
"Lay in a course to alpha Arietis, warp five, and execute immediately."
"And Mr. Sulu -- do you have a 'tank' session scheduled in Recreation this evening?"
Sulu chuckled, very low. "Yes, Captain. We're finishing up a round of tournament play."
"Maybe I'll stop by," Jim said. "Kirk out."
He switched his viewer to show the bridge screen's view as Enterprise made her change of course, a big wide swing to the galactic "southward," and added a warp factor or two, the blue-shifted stars pouring past her like so many burning arrows in the night.
I'd hoped I was wrong when I saw this coming, he thought. But I was right.
I just hope the trend holds. Otherwise...
He killed the external image and went back to studying his orders...looking for the loophole that would let them all survive.
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