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Sela’s boot heels clacked on the stone floor, sending echoes along the narrow tunnel through which she walked. Two men from her security detachment followed behind her at a distance, their own footfalls adding to the cacophony in the enclosed space. Set into the walls at long intervals, lighting panels did a barely sufficient job of banishing the darkness that gripped the ancient subterranean passage. The recirculated air caressed the exposed flesh of Sela’s face with an uncomfortable chill, like the threat of an ill wind as the sun sets and the night impends.
The chairwoman of the Tal Shiar led her guards at a brisk clip, striding with determination toward a meeting she had never wished to have, but for which she had still developed contingencies. Her mind brimmed with broad facts and intricate details, with unanswered questions and necessary suppositions. Sela had always understood the possibility that she might have to deliver the report that she carried with her on a data tablet, and so she had planned for it, but she didn’t like it. To her way of thinking, the wordcontingencyequated to failure: one need enact a secondary plan only if a primary plan has not succeeded.
But nowtwoof my stratagems have failed,Sela thought, her jaw tightening. She remained uncertain how far back the latest events had set her. She had already lost so much time thanks to the incompetence of the Breen. Sela had helped the Confederacy purloin Starfleet’s schematics for the quantum slipstream drive, only to see the Federation mount a covert operation and eliminate everything the Breen had subsequently accomplished, including not only a slipstream-equipped prototype vessel, but all copies of the drive plans.
You will have to work harder than all the others,her father had always told her, and he had been right. As a half-breed, born of a human mother, Sela had found it impossible even to trade on her father’s rank and position—General Volskiar had commandedIRW Victoriousthrough many successful campaigns—and so she’d had to work from the periphery. But she internalized her father’s wisdom, and never undervalued the importance of sheer diligence.
Before rising to chair the Tal Shiar, Sela had served as a personal operative to the praetor, and before that, as a proficient officer in the Imperial Fleet. Throughout her career, she advanced as the result of indefatigable effort, and as she did so, she learned the value of careful planning. But she had never anticipated the ascension to the praetorship of somebody like Gell Kamemor—a nonbeliever in Romulan exceptionalism, and an apologist for, and even an appeaser of, the Federation. And Sela never could have foreseen the string of events, improbable in the aggregate, that had allowed it to happen: the assassination of nearly the entire Senate; the descent of Shinzon into madness; the Remans’ successful struggle for independence; the schism of the Empire into factions led by Tal’Aura and Donatra; and the need for the Romulan people to accept nutritional and medical assistance from the Federation. Even after all of that, it had still required the deaths of both Tal’Aura and Donatra; the death of one of their likeliest successors, Senator Xarian Dor; and the deaths of the war hawk Pardek and Tal Shiar Chairman Rehaek—only then had enough opposition fallen to permit the elevation to praetor of a populist like Kamemor.
Sela reached the heavy door standing closed at the end of the tunnel, a bright lighting panel in the ceiling above it reflecting dully off its satin-textured metal surface. She reached up and placed her hand on the security plate beside the door, knowing that she’d already been under surveillance for some time. After the many lethal disruptions of the government in recent times, the Senate had increased security considerably—though not always visibly—in and around the Hall of State.
The scanner emitted a yellow glow as it examined Sela’s hand. On the screen beside it, her image appeared, along with the details of her service record. As always when she saw herself, Sela noted the alienness of her own features: eyebrows that hugged the lines of her eyes, the flatness of her forehead, the shocking yellowish color of her hair. She despised the human elements of her appearance, the details that set her apart from her fellow Romulans. Yet she had chosen never to alter them, never to surgically effect the changes that would allow her looks to fall within the Romulan norm. Instead, she let her differences drive her to overachieve, and she chose to project the impression that her differences made her better, that they singled her out as an exceptional individual among an exceptional people.
The door slid noisily to one side, withdrawing into the wall. Sela turned back to face her guards, who could proceed no farther. She nodded curtly to them, then paced through the door and up a set of worn stone steps.
The Tal Shiar chairwoman strode through the door at the top of the stairway and into a circular courtyard. Night had established itself earlier, and the silver orb of Elvreng had risen high in the sky. The pale light from Romulus’s second moon filtered through the windows in the cupola that topped the courtyard, draining the color and contrast from the scene. Between the doors that ran along the perimeter, white beams of light reached upward, the indirect illumination further brightening the area, but restoring none of its tint or texture.
Sela crossed to the set of tall, wide wooden doors that dominated the courtyard, to where a pair ofuhlans stood watch. In the ashen light, the chairwoman could discern the faces of the two guards no more than she could the elaborate scrollwork in the doors. Still, she knew the names of the two men—Voster and Strak—and could run down both their professional and personal histories. The idea that power relied on knowledge had been a cornerstone principle of the Tal Shiar since its inception.
“Chairwoman Sela to see the praetor,” she said, identifying herself to the guards, although in addition to recognizing her, they also would have been informed in advance of her late visit.
“Praetor Kamemor is expecting you, Chairwoman,” replied Uhlan Voster. He turned and, beside the doors, pulled twice on a braided rope that Sela knew to be gold, but that looked white in the moonglow. Then he leaned into the large doors, which slowly opened inward, and he stepped aside. Sela passed between the two guards, who then followed her inside.
As the doors closed decisively behind her, she peered around the praetorial audience chamber. Gell Kamemor had inarguably altered the character of the place during the six hundred days of her administration. Although pairs of columns rose majestically all around the room, creating niches filled with artwork and reaching up to a magnificent mural on the ceiling, the once-regal setting possessed a commonplace atmosphere. Despite the gleaming black surfaces of the floor and walls, despite the throne that sat on a raised platform at the far end of the room, the large conference table and the chairs arrayed around it commanded the space and marked it as a simple, workaday venue. Stark white lighting buttressed the utilitarian effect.
Such details, Sela knew, had always troubled Tomalak. He did not go so far as to suggest that appearances trumped substance, but he did believe that such things mattered, particularly for somebody in Kamemor’s position. Sela did not concern herself with such minutiae, but she could not argue that the praetor succeeded in delivering a message with the refashioning of her audience chamber.
The chairwoman did not see Gell Kamemor. As Sela moved farther into the room, the praetor emerged from behind the dais, where an entrance led into Kamemor’s private office. Though more than a couple of decades past her first century, the praetor maintained a healthy physique, and her lustrous black hair had not yet begun to gray. She wore traditional robes, of a gray that matched the color of her eyes.
“Chairwoman Sela,” Kamemor said as she crossed in front of the dais. Never once in the many times Sela had met with her in the audience chamber had the praetor sat in her throne. “I trust from your sudden request for a meeting at such a late hour that something of considerable import has brought you here.” She spoke with an ease that suggested word of events in Federation space had yet to reach the Hall of State.
Kamemor stopped near the head of the conference table, and Sela strode over to face her. “I’m afraid that I do, Praetor,” she said. “Our observers have reported a major confrontation within Federation space. I’m sure that you are familiar with the Bajoran star system.”
“Of course,” Kamemor said. “That’s the site of the artificial wormhole that connects to the Gamma Quadrant.” She paused, then, with a tone of concern, asked the logical question: “Has the Dominion sent the Jem’Hadar back into the Alpha Quadrant?”
“No,” Sela said. “I’m afraid that such a situation might be easier for you to deal with.” The chairwoman lifted the data tablet she had brought with her and activated it. She pretended to consult the information on its screen as she said, “At the Alpha Quadrant terminus of the wormhole, two Federation starships, as well as the Starfleet space station positioned there, engaged in battle with three Typhon Pact starships.”
Kamemor’s lips parted, but she did not immediately respond. She reached out a hand to the back of one of the chairs at the conference table, as though to steady herself. “‘Battle’?” she said at last. “Not askirmish? Not a few weapons discharges that might be ascribed to an accident, or to some overzealous tactical officer?”
“No,” Sela said. “The exchange of arms apparently lasted for some time, resulting in the destruction of the space station and all three Typhon Pact vessels.”
The praetor seemed thunderstruck. She stood speechless for a long moment, then pulled out the chair and slipped down onto its seat. When she peered up at Sela, her complexion had taken on a ghostly pallor. “How many dead?” she asked quietly and without inflection.
“We don’t have word on that yet,” Sela said. “But the number probably totaled in the thousands on the three Pact ships, and as many on the station.”
Again, Kamemor said nothing. She peered toward the floor, though Sela doubted that the praetor actually saw anything, since she appeared so deep in thought. Sela waited. Eventually, without looking up, Kamemor said, “You mentioned Typhon Pactstarships.” The deadened quality of her voice had given way to a note of anger. “By which you mean to saymilitaryvessels.”
“Yes,” Sela confirmed. She expected that the praetor’s ire would only increase.
Kamemor raised her head and stared up at the chairwoman. “What were Typhon Pactstarshipsdoing inside Federation space?” she asked. “Other than theEletrixsetting out for its mission with theEnterprise,and the civilian vessels that have been allowed, there’s no reason—nolegitimatereason—for military ships from the Pact to enter Federation territory.”
“We don’t have word on that yet either,” Sela said.
“No, why would you?” Kamemor said, apparently more to herself than to the chairwoman, but Sela took note. “Whose ships were they?”
Sela had known that the praetor would raise the question. Before she answered, the chairwoman pulled a chair out from the table, turned it to face Kamemor, and sat down herself. She glanced again at her data tablet, as though confirming the facts she intended to impart.
“The ships were a Tzenkethi marauder, a Breen warship . . . and a Romulan warbird.”
Kamemor stood up, holding Sela’s gaze as she did so. Then the praetor turned and walked calmly back in the direction from which she’d entered the chamber. For an uncomfortable moment, Sela thought that she intended to leave. Instead, Kamemor stopped along the wall, in a bare alcove between two sets of columns. There, she placed her hand flat on the wall, and a panel slid upward to reveal a communications console. She touched one of several buttons on it, then waited.
Sela stood up, but forced herself to remain calm. She considered it a possibility that Kamemor might call for a security contingent to take the chairwoman into custody, but in such a case, it would serve no point for Sela to run. “Praetor,” she said, “I do have additional information for you.”
“I’m sure you do,” Kamemor said without turning from the communications console, which suddenly blinked to life. Even at a distance, Sela recognized the unruly head of gray hair that belonged to Proconsul Anlikar Ventel.
“Praetor,”he said, his voice still heavy with sleep.“Is everything all right?”
“Anlikar, I want you to reach Admiral Devix at once,” she said, naming the man who commanded the Romulan Imperial Fleet. “He’s in space right now, but I don’t care how far he is from Romulus. I want areal-timeconnection with him before the night is out.”
“What’s happened?”Ventel asked, sounding more alert.
“Reach Devix,” Kamemor said again. “Then get to the Hall of State as soon as you can.” She looked back over her shoulder at Sela, then back to the communications screen. “I think we’ll be convening the cabinet, and then probably the Senate as well.”
“Praetor, what—”Ventel started, but Kamemor cut him off.
“Do what I asked,” she said. “Then get here.”
“Yes, Praetor,”Ventel said.“At once.”
Kamemor reached up and touched a control. The display went blank. Leaving the panel open, she walked back over to face Sela once again. “Do you know what’s going on?” she asked the chairwoman. The flatness of her voice made it difficult for Sela to know whether or not she intended her words as an accusation. Under the semblance of innocence, Sela chose to interpret them as a simple question.
“It’s difficult to know with the paucity of information we have at this point,” she said. “We don’t even know who initiated the fighting.”
“The Typhon Pact did,” Kamemor said without hesitation, her voice rising as her anger returned. “Three unauthorized starships in Federation territory. I don’t care if the Starfleet vessels did fire first; it was the Pact’s fault for being there illegally. If three Federation or Klingon ships arrived at one of our most important ports, what would you do? Invite them to partake of some ale?”
“No, Praetor,” Sela said, acting appropriately chastened. She had never seen the praetor so upset.
“So tell me, what do youthinkis going on?”
“My suspicion,” Sela said, “is that rogue elements within the Typhon Pact are seeking to undermine the recent lessening of tensions between the Pact and the Khitomer Accords.”
“If so, then they have doubtless succeeded in that goal,” Kamemor said, visibly appalled at the idea. “This is not the first time since I’ve been praetor that ‘rogue elements’ have jeopardized interstellar peace,” she continued, making obvious reference to the theft of the quantum slipstream drive schematics from Starfleet’s Utopia Planitia Shipyards—an operation that, unbeknown to the praetor, Sela herself had set in motion. “I understand the distrust and fear of the Federation—and of the Klingons and the Cardassians and all the powers we habitually call our enemies—but what I don’t fully comprehend is the desire to bring them down at the cost of Romulan lives. Let’s say that we could destroy the entirety of the Khitomer Accords. Even in the best possible conditions, even if every single battle turned our way, how much of our own blood would we have to spill to make that happen?”
Sela said nothing. She herself did not understand how Kamemor, so clearly an intelligent woman, could not see the tremendous threat in allowing the Federation and its allies to sustain a first-strike capability, which the slipstream drive provided them. If the Khitomer Accords powers—which included the overly aggressive Klingon Empire, a sworn enemy of Romulus—ever chose to press that advantage, the price paid in Romulan lives would prove horrifying. But Sela said none of that, knowing that any attempt she made even to explore the possible motives of the “rogue elements” would eventually bring her under the praetor’s scrutiny.
“And it’s not even a question of numbers,” Kamemor went on. “Even the loss of a single Romulan life—of any life—that could be prevented by averting war is worth the effort to establish and maintain peace. Which is why I need you to find out who’s coordinating these rogue actions on the Romulan side.”
“Yes, Praetor,” Sela said. “After what just took place, we may already have an idea.”
“The warbird involved in the battle at the wormhole,” Sela said. “It was theEletrix.”
“What?” Kamemor said. She placed her hands on her hips and paced away from the conference table. When she had reached the center of the room, she turned back toward Sela. “What about the joint mission? Did theEletrixdestroy theEnterprise? Were the Breen and Tzenkethi ships in the Gamma Quadrant as well?”
“We don’t have any of those answers at this time,” Sela said. “But the commander of theEletrixis Orventa T’Jul.”
“Should that name mean something to me?” Kamemor asked, walking back over to the table. Fortunately for Sela, the praetor left starship assignments and other such matters to the Imperial Fleet—though, when it suited her purposes, the chairwoman did not.
“Before being promoted to command of theEletrix,she served as second-in-command aboard theDekkona,” she said.
“TheDekkona,” Kamemor repeated. “That was the ship involved in stealing the slipstream drive plans from Starfleet.”
“Yes,” Sela confirmed.
“And so you’re saying we have our traitor.”
“It seems an unlikely coincidence,” Sela observed, knowing well that T’Jul had never been involved in planning either the operation at Utopia Planitia or in the Gamma Quadrant, but had merely been following orders. The assignment ofEletrixto the latter mission, though, and therefore of T’Jul, had been the result of careful planning. The chairwoman had not anticipated failure, and certainly nothing on as grand a scale as had occurred, but she had contrived to sendEletrixon the joint mission withEnterprisefor the specific purpose of having T’Jul available as a scapegoat. That T’Jul had likely died in the battle at the wormhole only amplified her value in that role.
“I want you to investigate T’Jul,” Kamemor said. “Let’s make sure that her presence on the two missions wasn’t the result of chance. And if it’s not, then I want to know who her compatriots are—beyond the Empire, but most especially within it.”
“I’ll start on it at once.”
“Is there anything else I need to know?” Kamemor asked.
“No, Praetor,” Sela said. The operation had failed, but at least the chairwoman would not need to contend with the complications that would have arisen had any of the personnel or vessels involved been captured.
“Keep me informed,” Kamemor said.
Sela nodded her acknowledgment, then stepped back and headed for the doors. One of the guards opened them for her, and she exited into the courtyard. In seconds, she had picked up her security detail and started back through the underground tunnel that had brought her to the praetor’s audience chamber.
By the time she boarded the shuttle that would return her to her office at Tal Shiar headquarters, she’d already decided to move forward with her next attempt to obtain the quantum slipstream drive from the Federation.