The culmination of a saga twenty-two years in the making…
They call themselves Rihannsu—the Declared. To the Federation, they are the Romulans. By any name they are adversaries as formidable as they are inscrutable. Self-exiled from Vulcan in ages past, they retain an ancient martial philosophy and a code of conduct that has sustained them through centuries of hardship, warfare, and thwarted ambition.
Now their empire is gearing for war once again. Armed with the revolutionary Sunseed technology, which can destabilize entire stars, a Romulan vessel is warping toward the heart of the Federation. Its target: Earth’s sun.
But this offensive comes at a perilous time, as a growing number of Romulan worlds are joining a revolution—one led by the renegade Commander Ael t'Rllaillieu of the warbird Bloodwing, with the aid of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise™ and the Hamalki physicist K’s’t’lk, the Federation’s foremost authority on Sunseed technology. As the threat to Earth looms ever larger, Bloodwing and Enterprise lead an armada toward the Romulan homeworld for a final reckoning that will decide the future of the Rihannsu people.
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When Enterprise and Bloodwing dropped out of warp together in the Artaleirh system, the tension on Enterprise's bridge was considerable. The ship was on red alert for safety's sake, though Jim had told Uhura to kill the siren, which was no longer doing any good as regarding alertness, but only getting on people's nerves. Spock was bent over his scanner, intent, and as the warp drive's hum faded down into silence, Jim said, "Report."
"Long range scan shows no other vessels incoming at this time," Spock said.
McCoy, standing behind the center seat, gave Jim a thoughtful look. " 'What if they gave a war and nobody came?' "
"Fat chance," Jim said. "We're just early. Now we have to see what use we can make of whatever extra time we have."
He looked at the schematic of the system that the front viewscreen was now displaying, courtesy of Spock. Artaleirh was a big star, an F0 "demigiant," with a big solar system: twelve planets, mostly sunbroiled rocks or gas giants of various sizes and types, along with the asteroid belt that was the system's main source of wealth, in the third orbit out from the sun. The planet in the fourth orbit, also called Artaleirh, hung small and bright and faintly green in the distance -- just visible from here, maybe a hundred million miles out, as a small, very bright disc with the same kind of morning-star albedo that Earth showed from about the same distance.
"I'm receiving a hail from Artaleirhin system control," Uhura said. "They know who we are, but all the same they're welcoming us to 'Free Rihannsu' space...."
Uh-oh, Jim thought. The first salute. He remembered how much trouble the poor Dutch governor had gotten into, six centuries or so ago, when first the flag of a country three weeks old had been dipped to his fort in San Juan harbor -- and how dipping his fort's flag back, thus officially recognizing the salute as that of another independent nation, had plunged the Netherlands into a diplomatic broil that led, however eventually, to war. Well, this is the reverse of that situation, Jim thought. But they will know what an answer, or the lack of one, means.
Then again, if we haven't caused a diplomatic incident yet, probably this is the time. This was one of the things the Federation had been waiting for: to give the enemy of an enemy a chance to prove that it was a friend. "Thank them, Commander," Jim said, "and tell them I hope to have time to talk to them more about their new name for themselves and their space later on." Asking questions like, And how are you planning to defend yourselves after this initial engagement is over? For one battle was no war; if the Romulans really wanted to take this system back, they had the resources to do it.
"Bloodwing is hailing us, Captain," Uhura said.
"Put her on."
The screen shimmered into a view of Bloodwing's little bridge. Ael was standing there; behind her, Jim caught a glimpse of something on her command chair that surprised him. He shot a glance at Spock, then said, "The locals seem surprisingly friendly, Commander."
"They have reason to be, Captain. They see you as part of their salvation -- though it comes in an unexpected shape."
"And how do they see you?"
Ael's look was fairly wry. "Oh, some of the epithets being bandied about right now are embarrassing enough. Not to mention premature. For my own part, I refuse to be hailed as 'savior' of anything until it has actually been saved. Especially since I am, at best, a convenient excuse. Meanwhile, we have other business. Maintaining so high a speed on the way here has given us some slight advantage that we must now quickly determine how to use, for those nine Imperial ships are incoming."
This was an update which Jim had very much been wanting. "When?"
"The Artaleirhin local-space command and control center estimates four hours until the cruisers arrive. This is not based on any direct sensing yet; the range is still too great. But messages have been passed on via subspace communications from other star systems friendly to Artaleirh, indicating that the subfleet has passed their way at speed."
"I would have thought those ships would be coming in cloaked," McCoy said.
"Indeed they will be, Doctor, but as you know, there are ways to defeat cloaking protocols," Ael said. "At least enough to read some insufficiently shielded signal through them. Such defeat measures are wasteful of energy and betray one's own position. But when the facility is planet-based, why not? For not even we know how to hide a whole planet -- not yet."
"A cloak's main strategic usefulness is out in open space, Bones," Jim said. "Where your opponent either can't spare the energy to defeat your cloak, if he knows how, or grudges the energy because it's needed more for propulsion or weapons. Ael, we need to confer right away with the Artaleirhin; I need to know more about the strategic possibilities of this system so that we can decide where to make our stand."
"Captain, I will arrange it," Ael said. "I will call you again in twenty minutes." The screen flicked back to the view of the Artaleirhin primary as Enterprise coasted in past it, toward the colony planet.
Jim gazed at the screen. "Spock, I want you to do an in-depth survey of the system. Let's see what our best tactical options are, depending on which way the attacking force comes in. Engineering."
"Scott here. Captain, I hope you're not expectin' us to go anywhere sudden after that run! We've got to swap a new dilithium crystal into the warp engine array; the old one's developed a stress fracture due to all that time at high warp, and it's no longer dependable."
Jim frowned. "How long's that going to take you, Scotty? Looks like there's about to be a battle here in four hours."
Scotty made one of those sucking-in-your-breath sounds that Jim knew all too well meant there was trouble that not even Scotty could finesse his way out of. "It's only an hour or so to do the actual swap, Captain. But then there's the matter of testing and calibrating the new crystal. No two are ever really alike, no matter what the cutters say, and tryin' to use standard calibrations for a new crystal is a sure way to damage other parts of the engine, or even to blow the crystal itself if it's stressed too much before it's run in. Which it would be in battle, no way around it."
"How long is the test cycle going to take you, Scotty?"
"I'd hate to spend less than three hours on it, sir."
"You may have to, if things heat up."
"Then I'd best get started now."
"Scotty, one thing first! Sunseed -- "
"Aye," Scotty said, "we were considering the option of seeding this star if worse came to worst. And it's a good candidate for induction. But Captain, there's a question as well of what other friendly forces will be in the area -- or may turn up suddenly and get blown to bits for their pains because they didn't have the right screen tunings beforehand. And there's the question of the planet's atmosphere: will it be able to stop the worst of what's going to come out of the star if we do seed it? K's't'lk's working on the atmospheric propagation predictions, and on the shield-tuning algorithms; she'll be passing them to Mr. Spock shortly, for dissemination as you see fit. But the tuning algorithms'll need fine-tuning when the process actually starts, and we may be a wee bit busy then." Jim sighed. "We'll have to see how it goes. Do what you can, Scotty."
He turned to Spock, who had come down from his station to stand by the center seat, gazing at the tactical view of the system that he had restored to the viewscreen. Jim glanced at the asteroid belt and said, "Mr. Spock, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Yes, Captain, and without the benefit of extraneous instrumentalities." Jim threw Spock a look at what sounded like a joke, but his first officer didn't glance away from the screen. "In any case, the venue is certainly suited to the classic planetary defense strategies of Orondley and Indawal as developed for Starfleet during the so-called 'early colonization engagements' of the late 2100s, and implemented at the battle of Donatu V, among others. And the Artaleirhin have the advantage in that they have forced the Empire to respond from a considerable distance, so that any move they make, even cloaked, is quickly telegraphed, and any major commitment of forces would leave the Empire stretched thin in other areas."
"So you're saying the situation looks favorable?"
"There are the usual imponderables associated with a large engagement, Captain," Spock said. "Much can go wrong, or right, in a surprisingly short time, and the skill, or lack of it, of the commanders is also an issue. But there are also factors with which I think the Imperium may not have reckoned." He glanced back at the monitor over his science station. "That asteroid belt, even to a cursory scan, betrays multiple energy sources that do not match well with a mining operation, even a large and well-established one; there are too many of those sources, too widely distributed. While the attack seems to have been hastily contrived, I would suspect the defense has been some time in preparation."
"Yes," Jim said. "Well, all right, continue your analysis and see if you can get a sense of exactly what's going on out there in the belt besides what's being openly advertised. Meanwhile, in fifteen minutes, you and I should meet in my quarters for that transmission from Ael." Jim got up, glanced over at Uhura. "All stations to remain at yellow alert, Commander. I don't want to wear anybody down, but the idea that there might be some gate-crashers at this party has been giving me indigestion."
He headed out.
Many light-years away, in the neighborhood of Eisn, a conference was taking place in a small, bare, snoop-proofed room overlooking the Senate dome. Three men stood there -- or rather two of them looked out the window, and behind them, one paced, restless, furious, waiting for the single small telltale light in the wall to turn blue.
Finally it did. "Did it get away safely?" were the first words out of Urellh's mouth.
"As far as we can tell."
"What do you mean 'as far as we can tell'? Who do we have to ask to find out for sure?"
"Urellh," said Armh'n, "our people in the field dare not query the device at the moment. It is still too close to where numerous Federation forces are operating. If they get even a hint of its presence at the moment, they might well be able to hunt it down. Let it proceed quietly for a few days at least, until its signal will be so swamped in larger amounts of code traffic and other routine signaling that no one will notice it. Then we can find out what we need to know. A few more days makes no odds."
"I want to know," the Praetor muttered. But for the moment he seemed to decide to let the subject rest. "What about Artaleirh?"
"The Fleet will be there in a matter of hours," tr'Anierh said.
"They are to chastise the planet immediately, and then turn their attention to finding that woman," Urellh said. "She must be destroyed without delay. Word of what happened to end the negotiations will certainly leak out -- damn those treacherous neirrh who stole Farmer Gurri out of Gorget's very infirmary! But we can at least slow it down."
"Once the Fleet handles Artaleirh -- "
"Assuming they can," Urellh snarled. "The under-commanders are so divided among themselves at the moment, the Fleet Master Admiral tells me, that they can hardly even fly in the same direction. This blasted infection is spreading, and I don't doubt some of it has been spread by you two." He glared at tr'Anierh.
"This seed's of your sowing, Urellh," tr'Anierh said, more mildly than he needed to. "A couple of years ago you were all for 'strengthening personal ties with the Fleet,' as you called it. Of course what you meant was, 'wresting its individual commanders' loyalties to oneself so as to render the Grand Fleet Admirals largely powerless in any crisis.' And as you did so, then so did we all; for what one of the Three does, we all do, in self-defense if not out of policy. Why should it be any news to you now that the commanders are now studying to dance to their masters' harps -- that is to say, ours? And why has this outcome surprised you?"
"If we were unified in our opinions," Urellh said softly, "it would not matter."
Even Armh'n looked amused at that. "We're not one mind in three bodies yet, Urellh. Nor will be, at the rate things are going. Each of us has his own power bloc to manage in the Senate, and each of them is trying to go in its own direction, like wayward hlai before the dinner pail's heard clanking. Soon enough they'll all be lined up at the gate again. But for the time being we must let them think what they're doing is their idea. And we must not lose our nerve. Artaleirh's outcome will settle them down."
"It had better," Urellh said. "How long now?"
"Three hours, give or take a little time."
"We must meet at the Grand Fleet command center in five hours, then. The signal will be delayed coming back, but not too much."
The other two nodded, and Urellh slapped the blue light to kill the antiscan devices. A moment later the door swung open, and the Three came out again.
Their small suites of attendants were waiting for them, all of the Three having come from a morning session of the Senate, one of the last before the sessions could move back to their proper place under the Dome. Urellh rounded immediately on one of his attendants. "You are to get in contact with the heads of the news and broadcast services," he said, "and let them know that their heads, not their reporters', will answer for any escape of the news about the...difficulties...at the talks. Not a breath of it is to come out on ch'Rihan and ch'Havran; they may say that Gorget has come back for instructions, if they like, while the other ships remain engaged elsewhere. Control of the information may be more difficult farther out, but we can still make our presence felt. Tell Intelligence to get out there and offer swords to a few of the most outspoken of the reporters. And help them along a little bit if they don't understand the gesture. That kind of thing is what Intelligence is best at, anyway."
Off Urellh went, growling orders to the four directions and the five winds as he went, while his sweating attendants hurried to keep up with him; and tr'Anierh watched him go. Beside him, Armh'n did not move.
Both their own groups of attendants hung back for the moment. There in the momentary quiet, tr'Anierh said softly to Armh'n, "I am sorry to hear of your loss at the talks."
"That idiot," Armh'n said. "Plainly he got caught in the middle of someone else's game, or in one of his own, as if I thought him capable of playing any game with the slightest degree of subtlety. Well, something may come of this anyway. Once I finish overseeing the interrogation of the pertinent crew on Gorget, we may be able to accuse the Federation of old Uncle Gurri's death, if nothing else."
"We have accused them of a great many other things, but nothing has come of it," tr'Anierh said. "This, I think, will not trouble their sleep."
"Other things soon will," Armh'n said, more softly still. "Especially if they like sleeping with the lights on."
Jim and Spock were down in Jim's quarters when the desk monitor whistled for attention. Jim swung around behind his desk, hit the button. "Kirk here."
Ael's image, from Bloodwing's bridge, appeared. "Captain, I would like to make known to you Courhig tr'Mahan stai-Norrik, who leads the local defense fleet. I believe his title, if the locals were much for titles, would translate as 'commodore,' if by that you mean the most senior-ranked of a nonmilitary captain-group."
The image on the screen divided. Standing on a bridge that was, if anything, even more cramped-looking than Ael's, was a short, round Romulan with close-cropped bristly gray hair, wearing what looked more like a businessman's dark one-piece suit than any kind of uniform. His round face, wrinkled like that of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors, made Jim think of a bulldog -- one that wasn't angry yet, but was looking forward to becoming so. "Captain," he said, "whatever relations between the Federation and the Empire have been until now, please believe me when I say that you are very welcome here."
"Sir, I thank you," Jim said, "but one thing I'd very much like to clear up is exactly where the local government stands on what is about to happen here."
Tr'Mahan smiled slightly. "Captain, both from the Imperial point of view and from that of my cohabitants here, I am the local government. As much of it as the Imperium routinely paid any attention to, at least. 'Planetary governor' would probably be a good rendering. I am native to Artaleirh, involved in politics here for a long while before I was chosen by the Imperium, they thought, as a good candidate to get the taxes in and keep the locals in line. But I do not have that much power anymore -- not after the way we have been treated over the last decade. So I have taken this opportunity to change jobs."
There was a wicked look in his eye, but his expression also looked a little tentative, as if he were wondering how Jim would take this. "The job security," Jim said, "might not be much like that of your earlier position." "True," tr'Mahan said. "But it seems increasingly preferable. We have had many years during which the rulership of the Imperium over our system has become increasingly irksome -- our resources depleted and wasted on military adventurism, our rights curtailed. For perhaps the last decade and a half, as you reckon time, the great families here and other political activists have been investigating other options. Finally, having made ourselves sure of how many other worlds around the Imperium share our way of thinking, we chose this time to move. We informed the Imperium ten days ago that we would no longer deal with them except as an independent entity. The dispatch of a cruiser task force to enforce our 'loyalty' and collect hostages was the result. They have given us no choice: we must fight."
"With what?" Jim said.
"We have five small vessels, which I believe you would rank as 'light cruisers,' " tr'Mahan said. "I speak to you from one of them, Sithesh. These vessels have been...attached? commandeered?...from the first Imperial forces to visit us in an attempt to enforce their demands."
"Not, I would take it, with their cooperation," Spock said.
"Indeed not, sir. We were fortunately able to keep the Grand Fleet from discovering what had happened to the captured ships for some days, but no more -- this being part of the reason those nine much more heavily armed ships are now on their way here."
"I take it you've re-ID'd all the captured vessels by now."
"We have, Captain. We will be passing that data on to your communications officer when I finish here. Now, the light cruisers are by themselves too few to engage the biggest of the incoming ships effectively. However, we also have nearly three hundred smaller vessels, formerly in civilian service, now all fitted with phasers or single-shot photon torpedoes. Singly and scattered, they would not be worth much in a major engagement, but as a whole coordinated microfleet, they will be of value."
"If not deployed too soon," Spock said. "There is great danger if they are brought into play before the most powerful of the Imperial vessels are disabled or destroyed."
"Which brings us to the coronal injection protocol you have been calling Sunseed," tr'Mahan said. "We would ask you not to use this instrumentality unless you absolutely must. Doubtless you would prefer not to anyway. But first of all, we would rather not recklessly endanger the planet -- some of us still desire to live there after all this is over. And secondly, your description makes it sound as if the effect would almost infallibly destroy any ship that hits it with its screens incorrectly tuned, and we do not want to destroy those ships."
Jim nodded, though he had been afraid of this. "You want more prizes."
Tr'Mahan looked slightly bemused. "Your translator may have a fault, for it is using a word indicating what one receives on winning a game." He grinned. "If this is a game, we play for the greatest stakes: our lives and our world's freedom -- or at the very least, the right of its people to seek their freedom elsewhere. But yes, Captain. It is difficult for powerful ships like yours to disable one another without doing massive damage that will take very prolonged repair at a space-dock facility. And destruction is all too likely if someone misses, or misjudges the status of another's screens. Small ships, however, are more nimble than the big ships in a combat like this, far more maneuverable at the lower speeds that intersystem combat mandates."
"As long as you can enforce those low speeds," Jim said.
"That," said tr'Mahan, "is what our asteroid belt is for."
Spock was already nodding, for this was a part of the classic tactics-set he had mentioned to Jim. "It is a useful strategy, Captain, one that has proven its effectiveness elsewhere. The crucial factor, of course, is forcing an opponent to engage you there."
"And once we have forced such an engagement," tr'Mahan said, "we can concentrate our efforts on disabling the attacking vessels. Once taken, they will be valuable additions to our fleet."
"Just how are you planning to make this fight happen where you want it?" Jim said.
"The incoming fleet will almost certainly initially attack the planet," said tr'Mahan, "to try to make the battle happen there instead. But there will be no response to that attack. If they wish to engage us, they will do it where we please."
Jim nodded again, very slowly, thinking that these people must have nerves of steel, or an extremely angry planetary population, to willingly take such a stance. "All right. If you're thinking along these lines, there are doubtless sites in the asteroid belt that the Imperium feels you're more likely to defend even than the planet. That would probably be the best place for us to position ourselves."
"The central dilithium processing facility is as important to them as to us. They will attempt to secure it, or if they cannot do so, to destroy it so that it will be no use to us either."
"Or to the Klingons," Jim said, "should they turn up."
"Yes, Captain. Though there has been no sign of them as yet, we are still alert to that possibility."
"All right." Jim thought for a moment. "If you'll pass the coordinates you suggest via my communications officer, I'll have a look at them and give you my thoughts within a few minutes. Ael?"
"I have seen them, and knowing this system from previous visits, I find the suggestion a good one," Ael said. "I await your opinion."
"Right. Meanwhile -- " He looked hard at tr'Mahan. "In a 'surgical' operation like this, as regards attempting to take the ships of the incoming fleet, first of all, they're likely to try to self-destruct."
"We have protocols by which we hope to keep that from happening," tr'Mahan said.
Do you indeed? Another interesting new development. "But the other matter is potentially more painful. You're likely to lose a significant number of your little ships to both firepower and confusion."
"Our pilots understand that," tr'Mahan said. "They are willing to take the risk, and to pay the price, or they would not all still be out there in the belt, waiting, as they have been for several days. Such long waits out in the dark and the cold give plenty of opportunity for second thoughts, but we have had very few defections."
Jim glanced at Spock, now understanding the source of some of those extra "energy sources" in the asteroid belt that he had mentioned. "But, Commodore -- "
"Please, Captain. Tr'Mahan is good enough; I haven't yet done the service to earn me such a title, and taking names to oneself without justification is only tempting the Elements." The man eased his bulk down into his command chair. "I understand your concerns. Courage and luck are not enough: skill is needed too. I can say only this: before I was a planetary governor, when I was just starting to be a politician, I was also a dilithium miner. I am used to working out in that belt. Some reflexes don't get lost over time, and are quickly recovered in life-or-death situations like this. The rocks are not close together, of course, but working at substantial fractions of lightspeed can make them seem so, and in such circumstances, my pilots and I may show you a thing or three about rock-dodging that you didn't previously know."
"I hope so." Jim let out a breath. "You also have to understand that as far as saving those big ships for you goes, I'll do what I can within reason. But as for myself, if things get too hot for Enterprise, I'll blow up just as many of them as I have to."
"Feel free," said tr'Mahan, and he grinned. "In the aftermath, we will simply tell the Empire that we have all their ships, and are keeping some in reserve. By the time they find out the truth, they will have many other things to worry about. But in any case, if we cannot have those ships, they are better destroyed. They'll not then make trouble for us later, when we move on ch'Rihan."
Jim had to smile slightly himself. He was beginning to like this man.
Ael said, "A number of other systems, Captain, are watching to see what happens here. If we can make a success of this engagement, they will come out into the open and join us."
"We get to be the pebbles that start the landslide," Jim said. "Better than being at the bottom of the slope watching it come down, I guess." He pushed his chair back. "I'm going to go look at your schematics now."
"Your communications officer has them," tr'Mahan said. He paused and added, "My own ops officer tells me that a subspace message just in from the monitoring buoys associated with a nearby system confirms the approach of those nine ships. They are coming in together, from the galactic north-polar direction. For us, that is a dive straight into the system, most likely toward the planet, at an angle nearly perpendicular to our local ecliptic. My ship is presently in orbit around Artaleirh. If you'll follow me out on impulse, I'll show you where we will make our stand."
"We'll be right along. A pleasure to talk to you, tr'Mahan. Let's meet again after this is over."
"Preferably while still breathing," tr'Mahan said, grinning again.
His image flicked away. "Ael," Jim said, "give me a few minutes."
She nodded; the screen went dark. Jim got up and headed for the door, Spock right behind him.
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