Three years have passed since the events depicted in the novel Stone and Anvil, and for the past and present crew members of the U.S.S. Excalibur, life has taken many surprising twists and turns. Captain Elizabeth Shelby has been promoted to admiral and heads Space Station.
Bravo...while her former ship, the U.S.S. Trident, has a new captain. Soleta has left Starfleet to embrace the perils of exploring her Romulan heritage. The powerful Zak Kebron serves as the Excalibur 's counselor and head of security.
And Mackenzie Calhoun? Well, Mackenzie Calhoun's still who he is.
As Si Cwan, prime minister of the New Thallonian Protectorate, prepares to marry off his sister Kalinda in a politically advantageous pairing that will strengthen his newly restored empire, the bride-to-be is abducted just before the wedding in a calamitous event that threatens to destabilize the entire sector—especially since Kalinda's abductor is someone all too familiar.
As the Excalibur, the Trident, and the entire Thallonian fleet attempt to bring order to their sector of space, none could ever suspect that a mysterious alien force may also be playing a part in Kalinda's disappearance—and that the entire galaxy may soon face a long-forgotten enemy.
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Chapter 1: Before...
On the day Soleta was reasonably sure she was going to die, she found herself both surprised and not surprised to see Ambassador Spock standing at the far end of her cell.
Every joint, every muscle, every synapse in her body seemed inflamed with pain, and yet she still managed to sit up. She wanted to stand, to look properly formal as the occasion might call for. Try as she might, however, she was unable to gather the strength to do so. So she settled for sitting on the dank floor and simply staring at the tall, lean Vulcan. He, in turn, stared at her. No words passed between them for a good long time.
It was Soleta who finally broke the silence. "Well?" she inquired. "Aren't you going to say it?"
He cocked an eyebrow as she knew he would. "What am I expected to say?"
"I believe the appropriate phrase would be, 'How the mighty have fallen.'"
He pondered that for a moment, and then informed her, "That would not be logical."
"You were never particularly mighty."
"No," and she slumped her head back against the cell wall. "No, I guess I wasn't."
They remained that way for a time, and then Soleta allowed a small smile.
"Do you find your present situation amusing?" asked Spock.
"Not especially. I'm simply considering the fact that, when we first met, I was in a cell. On Thallon. Do you remember?"
"Of course," Spock said in a tone that indicated it was absurd to think he would forget -- not the incident itself, but anything at all that had ever happened to him in his entire life.
"It is ironic, the way in which life wraps back upon itself," she said. "You and I, trapped in a dungeon on Thallon, prisoners of the royal family. Then we escape, and in later years members of that same royal family wind up on the Federation ship I'm serving on after their family loses power. And now they are no longer a part of my life, nor I of theirs, and I'm back in a dungeon...while from what I hear..."
"They are climbing back into power," said Spock. "Yes. That is true. A new Thallonian regime is apparently on the rise. I estimate that in another two point three years, they will be fully in charge. There will, however, likely be marked differences between the former monarchy and the new paradigm. I believe the most likely structure will consist of a -- "
Although naturally any emotion perceivable on his face was minimal, it was still obvious that he was surprised at the interruption.
Soleta sighed. "I don't really care."
"Ah. Because, as matters stand, you will not be alive to see it."
"That's very much how the day is shaping up, yes." She gazed up at him through unfocused eyes. "You're not going to help me, are you."
"I said you're not going to help me. Not try to find a way to get me out of here."
"I regret that it is beyond my power to do so."
She snorted disdainfully. "I don't believe that for a moment."
"That something is beyond my power?"
"No. That you would regret anything." She leaned her head back, the cold metal of the cell proving oddly comforting against the back of her head. "Not you. You never regret anything. Ever."
"What would draw you to that conclusion?"
"Well," she almost stammered, as if the reply should be obvious, "because everything you do, you do because it's the logical thing to do."
"So?!" Soleta couldn't follow what he was talking about. "So if you always take the logical path, how can you ever have any regrets over it?"
He considered it a moment. "Apparently," he said at last, "you are confusing the logical path with the right path."
"Aren't they the same?"
"No, Soleta. Not at all." Slowly he circled the cell, his hands draped behind his back, his long robes sweeping around his feet. "'Right' and 'wrong' are purely subjective terms, to be left to theologians and lawmakers. There have been any number of occasions in my life -- indeed, I would venture to say, in everyone's lives -- where I have been faced not with a right and wrong path, but instead with a variety of paths that are all undesirable. Where one person or group of persons was made to suffer, for instance, instead of another person or persons. In such instances, I made the logical choices, did what had to be done. Given the exact same circumstances, I would make the exact same choice."
"So where do the regrets come from?"
"The regrets, Soleta," he said wistfully, "come from my inability to conceive of a different path that would solve all problems in such a way that none be made to suffer."
She chuckled low in her throat. "That, Mr. Spock, is illogical."
"That, Soleta," he replied, "is precisely my point."
Before she could say anything else, there was the sound of a heavy-duty security lock being disengaged from the door nearby.
Several Romulans entered, dressed in full armor, as was customary for guards. It seemed ludicrous to Soleta; she was hardly in shape to pose a threat.
"Who were you talking to?" demanded the foremost guard. He was looking around the cell suspiciously.
"No one." She realized, upon opening her mouth, that her voice was far more strained and parched than she would have thought. It sounded totally different than it had when she'd been talking with Spock.
She further realized that she was in far more pain than she'd thought she was. There were marks on her from all manner of physical brutality that she had undergone. Strange. Strange that she hadn't felt that earlier or noticed it. It was as if her mind had bifurcated for some strange reason....
Well, not so strange at that.
"Remarkable, isn't it," she said thickly. Her lips were swollen as well; she hadn't noticed that before either. "What the mind will do to protect itself from dealing with what the body's going through."
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
The guard who'd entered behind the first one was scouring the cell with his scowl. "Who was she talking to?"
"She hasn't answered," said the first. "Who were you talking to?"
"That's a very large weapon," she observed. "Do you use it in order to make up for shortcomings in other areas?"
"I'll use it on you, you murdering half-breed!" His hand hovered near the hilt.
"Now there's a threat."
"It's no threat."
"And yet," Soleta said, "I don't see you doing it."
He started to pull his disruptor, the prospect of which didn't bother Soleta one bit, but then the second guard put a hand on his fellow's arm, preventing the precipitous move. The first guard took his hand away from the weapon, but then abruptly brought his foot up and around. He slammed it into Soleta's face.
She didn't even feel it. The impact was sufficient to knock her backward, but other than that, it didn't register. She was that numb.
Thudding onto the floor, she lay there, her arms out to either side, her legs splayed. Her mouth moved for a moment and then spat out a glob of green blood to the side.
"Who," repeated the guard, "were you talk -- ?"
"Myself," she said.
"You were talking to yourself."
"Do you see anyone else here?" she inquired, sounding remarkably calm considering her clothes were in tatters and her body was covered with bruises and open wounds.
Clearly they did not. They'd already looked several times.
With mutual looks of exasperation, they strode forward and grabbed Soleta each by one arm. There were several other guards in view as well, and they already had their weapons out.
For one joyous moment, Soleta considered the notion of dropping both of the guards with a nerve pinch. As their bodies sagged to the ground, she would use them as shields for the few seconds it would take to yank their weapons out of their holsters and fire upon the other guards. Once she'd taken all of them down, she would use all her Starfleet training and stealth techniques to make her way to an airfield where she would find a vessel of some sort and get the hell off the Romulan homeworld.
"What are you thinking?" demanded one of the guards.
She rolled her head around to fix her gaze upon him. "What an odd question."
"I was thinking," she said, "about a cunning escape plan."
"Oh really. And are you planning to put it into effect?"
They were the last words she was able to get out before her head slumped forward.
Hiren, the Romulan Praetor, had heard much about the female half-breed who had been apprehended, without incident, upon arrival on the homeworld. He had not encountered her himself. An interaction at such an early stage in the interrogation would have been most unseemly. He had people whose job it was to attend to her, and he had every confidence they would do so with their customary efficiency.
So it was with growing surprise that he heard the continued reports, which were telling him far less than he'd been expecting to hear. So much so that he had decided it was time to intervene and see this creature for himself.
He was less than impressed when she was first dragged in. Two of his guards were hauling her forward. The Praetor was seated in his great chair at the far end of the council room. None of his counselors were present at the moment. He had instead opted for a private conference. There was a large circular table with a partition at one end that allowed people to be brought through so they could stand in the middle of the large O shape, and that was what was done with the female. The guards didn't even have to throw her to the floor. They simply stepped in opposite directions and she slumped down without so much as a murmur of protest. They then moved back out of the table ring, leaving her lying on the floor in a heap.
"Stand up," the Praetor said.
At first she didn't appear to hear him. But then, slowly, she arched her back and then braced herself with her hands and feet. Her chin was outthrust, her back now straight. She was wavering slightly, as if having difficulty remaining standing, but she didn't seem inclined to fall. Her eyes were swollen, her nose broken several times. She was clearly not in good shape.
Hiren's gaze shifted from the female to the guards. "I do not recall," he said slowly, "authorizing physical brutality in attempting to pry information from her." When he spoke, it was with a low rumble in his broad chest. He was wearing a helmet, but his hair was gray under it, and his black-and-gray eyebrows were overgrown and thick. There was not much in the way of mercy in his eyes.
"The physical injuries were not as a result of the interrogation, sir," one of the guards said. "Over the past few days, she has been disrespectful in all that she has done and said. She sustained her injuries during our endeavors to teach her proper respect."
"I see." He considered that, then nodded. "All right. Yes, very well. And you," and he shifted his attention back to the female. "Soleta. Is that not the name you bear?"
She looked as if she wanted to speak, but then winced in pain and instead settled for nodding.
"I have heard much about you."
Still no answer. She just stared at him.
"I thought," he said after some thought, "that you would be taller."
"I am," she told him, "when I stand on ceremony."
This drew an angry growl from one of the guards, who started toward her with the clear intention of punishing her for her insolence. The Praetor, however, chuckled, and put a hand out. This stopped the guard in his tracks, and he reluctantly stepped back.
"Was that," Hiren asked more politely than he needed to, "supposed to be a joke?" "That was the plan."
"I can see why my guards beat you."
"And where, as well."
He studied her for a long moment then, trying to take the measure of her. It was difficult for him to decide whether she was remarkably brave, or simply so disconnected from what was happening that she didn't know enough to be frightened. It was always difficult to determine such things when dealing with Vulcans.
"But you're not precisely a Vulcan, are you," he said, completing the train of thought aloud.
She said nothing.
One of the guards growled, "The Praetor asked you a question, female."
"The Praetor asked me a question to which he already knows the answer," Soleta replied. "He doesn't need me to tell him that which he already knows."
"You are correct," said the Praetor, leaning forward with marked curiosity. "You have Romulan blood in you. But your Starfleet did not know it."
"No. They didn't."
"Fools," he said dismissively. "I can smell it upon you. It seeps from every pore. How could they not know?"
She shrugged. "It was not something that revealed itself in routine physicals."
"But they finally found out."
"Because something happened to you that was more traumatic than a routine physical."
"I was very badly wounded," she said. "During a ground battle in the war."
"The war. The war with the Selelvians and Tholians on one side, and your precious Federation on the other."
"I'm sorry if we made a lot of noise and woke you," said Soleta.
Outraged at her tone, one of the guards came up behind her and this time the Praetor made no effort to stop him. He brought a fist around to cuff her in the back of the head.
Soleta whirled, faster than Hiren would have thought possible, and her hand clamped on the front of the guard's face. It stopped him cold, and her fingers squeezed, tighter and tighter. His hands dropped to his sides, his mouth opened in a voiceless scream, and even as the other guards advanced quickly to get to them, Soleta shoved him away. He tumbled backward and hit the floor, staring up blankly at the ceiling.
Without pause, Soleta turned back to face the Praetor, and guards were bringing up their weapons and aiming from every direction. She was the merest pull of a finger away from enough firepower to kill her ten times over.
Hiren was on his feet, and he raised a hand and said, "No one move!" His voice thundered across the room, demanding complete and immediate obedience. He was not disappointed.
Soleta was carved from ice. She literally did not look as if she cared whether she lived or died in the next few moments.
"What did you do to him?" demanded Hiren.
"I used the Vulcan death grip."
"There's no such thing as a Vulcan death grip."
She looked at the Praetor, looked at the guard whose face was a series of green blotches, and then looked back at the Praetor. "There is now," she said calmly.
"The Romulan blood in you no doubt inspired you."
"Praetor!" one of the guards called out. His disruptor was still leveled upon Soleta, as were the weapons of all the other guards. Clearly he was looking for permission to annihilate the upstart half-breed.
"Lower your weapons, Centurion," said the Praetor mildly.
"But Praetor -- !"
Hiren's brow darkened. " 'But' and 'Praetor' are two words joined at the speaker's peril, Centurion."
Slowly the guard lowered his weapon, as did the others. For her part, Soleta didn't react at all. Her death could have been a second away and she wouldn't have acted any differently. The casual viciousness she had displayed boiled in her Romulan blood, but her pure inscrutability certainly came from her Vulcan aspect.
"You were badly wounded." He spoke as if nothing had happened in the intervening moments between when he'd last been speaking to her and now.
"In the ground battle."
"And while they were putting you back together, the detailed tests they performed upon you revealed your Romulan heritage."
"A heritage you inherited through the fact that a Romulan became involved with your Vulcan mother."
"No," and her lips thinned. "When a Romulan named Rajari raped my Vulcan mother."
"You have only your mother's word that she was raped."
" 'Only' and 'your mother's word' are four words joined at the speaker's peril, Praetor."
There were collective, barely stifled gasps from all around, and it seemed for a moment that the guards were once more about to open fire on her. A severe glance from Hiren was enough to keep them in place, albeit barely. "You, female, do not seem to have much regard for what could happen to you, due to that mouth of yours."
"You can only kill me once, Praetor."
"Don't be so certain," he told her. "We're very inventive."
She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment of that possibility, but otherwise was silent.
"So Starfleet confronted you about your background. And you admitted you knew of it and deliberately kept the information from them." When she nodded, he continued, "And their response was...?"
"The office of the Starfleet senior counselor decided I would be reduced in rank and reassigned to a job requiring lower-level security clearance."
"And your response was...?"
"I see." He paused. "Your commanding officer. Did he have an opinion on this?"
"He fought the Starfleet decision. He was prepared to resign over it. He did not do so only out of deference to my wishes."
"So he did nothing."
"No, he did something."
"What did he do?"
"Put the Starfleet senior counselor in the hospital."
The response caught Hiren so off guard that he blurted out a laugh. Soleta, as always, remained impassive. The Praetor calmed himself and noted that the guards kept casting uneasy glances at the corpse of the fallen guard upon the floor. He did nothing about it. It pleased him on some level that they were discomfited.
"Your commanding officer sounds like quite an individual."
"How did you become so badly injured in the firefight?"
"Saving the life of my commanding officer's wife."
"I see. Very well. And you decided, after all that, that the best thing for you was to come here, the home of your mother's rapist."
"Because," she said evenly, "I am someone who needs to feel a part of something. Once, it had been Starfleet. It no longer is. I cannot be part of the Vulcan race, for I am not one of them. So I reasoned that it would be the best course of action to endeavor to try and be part of the Romulan race."
"And you thought we would accept you, just like that."
"I did not know how you would react. I presented myself to your officials."
"You presented yourself," said Hiren, allowing an edge of anger in his voice, "as partly responsible for a bombing that resulted in the deaths of many Romulan nobles."
"That is correct."
"A bombing you claim..." He glanced at the report in front of him. He had been looking at it from time to time surreptitiously, but now he made a great show of consulting it. "...was masterminded by your father, Rajari...even though he was dead at the time."
"I was his cat's-paw, yes. I had no idea of the true nature of the mechanism I was setting into motion until I had already done so."
"Well," said the Praetor levelly, "such gullibility on your part doesn't do much to recommend you, does it."
"And how would you react, I wonder, upon learning that my brother was in that building when it exploded."
"I would extend my condolences."
"Your condolences," Hiren informed her, "will not bring him back."
"No, Praetor. A time machine or magic spell would be the only things that could do that, and I have access to neither. My condolences are all I have to offer."
"You could offer up your life."
Soleta's gaze never flickered from his.
"You could offer up your life," he repeated, "as a sign of penance."
"I cannot do that, Praetor."
"Because you are afraid," he said triumphantly.
"No. Because I am surrounded by armed guards who are ready to annihilate me the moment you give permission. My life, and the disposition thereof, is not in my control, and has not been since the moment I set foot on this planet. I can't offer up something that is not mine to give...although, obviously, it is yours to take."
"So you admit I can take your life."
"If I make any sort of threatening move, Praetor, your people will turn me into a small pile of gelatin. To deny that you can take my life would be insanity."
Slowly he began to walk around the table, his arms folded across his barrel chest. "You knew that you would be given a skeptical reaction, and to exacerbate your situation, you admitted involvement in the bombing. Why in the stars would you do such a thing?"
"Because I lived for years with a secret that I was worried would eventually come out...and it did, to my detriment. If I am to start over again, as I'm seeking to do, I do not wish to repeat the same mistake. I want to live with my conscience clear, not fear what will happen if the truth of a secret suddenly becomes common knowledge. Accept me for my mistakes, or..."
"I have nowhere else to go, Praetor," she said. "If I am rejected here...I may well decide simply to end matters myself, rather than have to cope with the reality of being alone in the galaxy."
"Perhaps. It is, however, how I feel."
"All right," he said after a moment's consideration, "I admit you present certain...possibilities. However, we have grave doubts about your loyalty to the Romulan Empire."
"Grave ones," he said, nodding. "Our interrogators asked you questions about Starfleet. You refused to answer. Questions about assignment of Starfleet forces. Crew complements in both your ships and your deep-space stations. Possible weaknesses in planetary defense grids..."
"I refused to answer those, yes."
"So then we began interrogating you with escalating degrees of severity. And still you refused to cooperate."
"Are you, in fact, a Federation spy?"
"No, I am not."
"If you were," Hiren demanded challengingly, "would you admit to it?"
"Of course not."
"Then why should I believe you?"
"You shouldn't. If you do, you're a fool. You know nothing of me."
"I know this much," said the Praetor. "My very efficient gatherers of information have subjected you to all manner of incentive in order to learn what you know of the Starfleet matters I just asked you about."
"And you told them nothing."
"I know. I was there."
"I don't understand," he said, leaning forward, his hands resting on the edge of the table. "You were forced out of Starfleet. You owe them nothing. It is the height of absurdity to allow yourself to be treated this way in order to protect an organization that tossed you aside."
"They didn't toss me aside," she told him. "I was..."
For the first time she appeared to hesitate. Her attitude of almost infinite self-confidence and glibness failed her for the moment. She looked down, licked her swollen lips, then faced the Praetor's stare once more. "I was not candid with them when I first learned of my...my nature. For every moment that I served with the knowledge locked within me, I was false to them. They deserved better than that, and I was not...strong enough to give it to them. Their actions were entirely appropriate."
"Yet you were not so sanguine about their actions that you opted to stay."
"I had known the freedom of the galaxy on a starship, Praetor. To be bound behind a desk, to never walk the decks of a...to never serve..."
She started to choke. Hiren was certain she was about to burst into sobs. He would not have blamed her. He had seen far stronger individuals become slobbering wrecks after far shorter periods of interrogation than she'd endured. But then she took a deep breath and composed herself once more. "I...couldn't stay," she said simply. "But I can't betray them now."
"If we continue to interrogate you as we have, you will eventually die if you don't cooperate," he told her. "Your mind, your body, will not be able to withstand it. One or the other will give up. If it is your mind, then your body will be a husk, and of no use, so we will destroy it. If it is your body, then obviously the mind is moot. Why subject yourself to that? Tell us what we want to know."
"You dare say 'no' to me?"
"I have no choice in the matter."
"Would that I did," she said with obvious sadness.
"Then I have no choice either."
He pulled a disruptor from his side. It was larger than the weaponry of his guards. His master-at-arms swore that it was capable of putting a hole in a starship while firing from the planet's surface. Hiren had never had the opportunity to test the veracity of this claim, but there was no denying the power the disruptor generated. If he fired it at Soleta, what was left of her would wind up in the next room.
"A harsh solution," she sighed.
"Or merciful, depending upon your point of view."
"Since my point of view is your weapon's muzzle..."
"Yes," agreed the Praetor, "and it will be your last point of view. Tell my people what they wish to know. Tell us everything you can about Starfleet, and I will be merciful."
"I can't do that."
"Then you will die."
"That I can do."
He held the weapon steady, pointed at her face. Any guard who was remotely within range of the blast area backed out of the way.
"Cooperate," he urged her.
"Dammit, female!" he thundered, and the air of affability he'd displayed so well dissolved. "Enough games! Enough banter! You may tell me all you wish that you care not whether you live or die, but know you now that your death is imminent! Imminent and woefully unnecessary! Cooperate with my interrogators and you will be permitted to live. Not only live, but live well." His tone altered slightly to a blend of cajoling and threatening. "You desire to take up residence on this world? That can be arranged. You will live, not like a lord, but well. Quite well. And comfortably. An honored guest, if you wish, for the rest of your long life." Then his voice hardened and there was clearly no bargaining with it. "But this is your only opportunity to take advantage of that offer. It has a life span of exactly twenty seconds. After that, I will save both my interrogators and you much wasted time. Twenty seconds, female. Nineteen...eight -- "
She raised a hand. "You don't need to do that."
A thin smile appeared on his face. "So you submit?"
"No. It's just that I have a fairly accurate time sense, and so know when twenty seconds are up. If you would like, I can simply inform you when the time's elapsed."
He stared at her, incredulous. This slip of a female, unblinking, uncaring, retaining loyalty to an organization that had displayed no loyalty to her. In the face of certain death, her attitude was madness...suicide...
"That's twenty," she said matter-of-factly. Her gaze never wavered. It wasn't as if she were daring him to shoot her. She wasn't that crazy. She had simply made up her mind and was willing to live, or die, with the consequences.
"You're a fool."
"Then I will die as I have lived."
For a long moment, so long that it seemed as if time itself had slowed to a crawl, nothing happened.
And then the Praetor slowly lowered his weapon. If the guards looked surprised, or disgusted, or if they disapproved, they were wise enough not to show it.
"In addition to being a fool, Soleta...you are also very loyal."
"Had you told me all you knew of Starfleet, once you were done, I would have killed you since you would have been of no further use to me."
"I suspected that might be the case," she admitted. "But either way, my suspicions had no bearing on my actions."
"I did not think so. So tell me, Soleta...if I were to find a use for you...would I warrant that same brand of loyalty?"
"No matter how long I were in your employ, I would still never answer the sort of questions you demanded about Starfleet...."
"To hell with Starfleet," he said contemptuously. "Do you seriously believe Starfleet has any true secrets from us? We know what they are up to, they know what we are up to. There's no knowledge that a former Starfleet lieutenant would have possessed that we do not already have. I am asking if the situation were reversed, could you be trusted to sustain the same degree of discretion for any...assignments...that I might dispense to you."
"Even if those assignments ran contrary to Starfleet interests?"
That brought her up short. As unlikely as it seemed, apparently she had not considered that. She gave it some thought. Hiren waited. Finally she said, "My loyalty to Starfleet, Praetor, extends to all that has gone before...but not all that is to come. If I am to be part of something else...then I cannot do it in half-measures. I won't betray my old life...but my new life would start now, if you would have me."
"Is that the Romulan within you talking? Or the Vulcan?"
"The Vulcan, most definitely."
"How do you know?"
"Because," she said, "I do not know the rightness or the wrongness of it...but it is most definitely the logical thing to do."
Copyright © 2004 by Paramount Pictures.