They are the self-appointed protectors of the Federation. Amoral, shrouded in secrecy, answerable to no one, Section 31 is the mysterious covert operations division of Starfleet, a rogue shadow group committed to safeguarding the Federation at any cost.
Six months before their ultimate battle against the Borg for the fate of Earth, Captain Jean-Luc Piccard and the crew of the USS Enterprise™ face a very different kind of crisis. A world in turmoil becomes the focal point of conspiracies and betrayal as an unexpected reunion brings with it startling revelations. Old friends become bitter enemies and one young officer reaches a crossroad when he's forced to choose between the greater good of the Federation and the ideals for which it stands.
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About the Author
Andy Mangels is the USA TODAY bestselling author and coauthor of over a dozen novels—including Star Trek and Roswell books—all cowritten with Michael A. Martin. Flying solo, he is the bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Characters and Animation on DVD: The Ultimate Guide, as well as a significant number of entries for The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes as well as for its companion volume, The Supervillain Book. Andy is a national award-winning activist in the Gay community, and has raised thousands of dollars for charities over the years. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his long-term partner, Don Hood, their dog, Bela, and their chosen son, Paul Smalley. Visit his website at AndyMangels.com.
Read an Excerpt
The coffee cup suffused Captain Karen Blaylock's hands with a cheery warmth as she strode purposefully onto the bridge of her ship, the Excelsior-class starship Slayton. Though the alpha watch wasn't due to begin for another ten minutes, she wasn't at all surprised to see several key bridge officers already hard at work at their consoles, which hummed and beeped agreeably.
Commander Ernst Roget, her executive officer, turned toward her in the command chair and favored her with a reserved smile. "Captain on the bridge," he said, vacating the seat for her.
Heads turned toward Blaylock, distracted momentarily from their vigilance. These were good officers, science and engineering specialists all, and she hated allowing command protocol to interfere with their work, even momentarily. She often envied them their single-minded dedication to discovery. How ironic, she thought, to have allowed her command responsibilities to come between her and the very thing that had brought her out to the galactic hinterlands in the first place: the pursuit of pure knowledge.
Blaylock nodded a silent as you were, and each crewmember quickly returned to the work at hand. She took her seat and sipped her coffee.
Commander Cortin Zweller approached Blaylock from the science station on the bridge's starboard side. His thick shock of white hair was belied by the boyish twinkle in his eye. During the nearly four months he had served as chief science officer, he had proven to be a valuable member of the Slayton team. Though by no means a brilliant researcher, Zweller was well-liked by the other science specialists, an administrator apparently gifted with the good sense not to step on the toes of his better-trained subordinates -- unless absolutely necessary.
"The anomaly still seems to be hiding from us," Zweller said. "So far, at least."
Blaylock sighed, disappointed. The Slayton had last made long-range sensor contact with the subspace anomaly eight days previously, but had turned up nothing since. Several weeks before that, the Federation's Argus Array subspace observatory had detected intermittent but extremely powerful waves of subspace distortion that seemed to be coming from the region of space for which the Slayton was now headed. Unfortunately, the phenomenon had neither lasted long enough -- nor repeated itself regularly enough -- to reveal much else.
How wonderful it would have been, Blaylock reflected, to have discovered an entirely new physical phenomenon while en route to a dreary diplomatic appointment on gods-forsaken Chiaros IV. But Blaylock knew it would be just her luck for the anomaly to return briefly -- and then vanish forever -- while she and her crew were preoccupied with the tedium of galactic politics.
The captain turned toward Lieutenant Glebuk, the Antedean helmsman. In the year since Glebuk had come aboard, Blaylock had assiduously avoided asking the galley replicators to create sushi, one of her favorite foods. Glebuk, who was essentially a two-meter-tall humanoid fish, was notably edgy about such things.
Like most of her kind, Glebuk would have found the rigors of interstellar travel intolerable but for the effects of the cortical stimulator she wore on her neck. Its constant output of vertigo-nullifying neural impulses kept her from lapsing into a self-protective catatonic state during long space voyages. Despite this handicap -- or perhaps because of it -- Glebuk was one of the best helm officers Blaylock had ever worked with.
"What's our present ETA at the Chiaros system?" Blaylock asked Glebuk.
The helmsman fixed an unblinking, monocular gaze on the captain and whispered into the tiny universal translator mounted in the collar of her hydration suit. "The Slayton will reach the precise center of the Gulf in approximately fifty-three minutes. We will arrive at the fringes of the Chiaros system some six minutes later."
Blaylock nodded. Almost the precise center of the Geminus Gulf, she thought with a tinge of awe. Three wide, nearly empty sectors. Sixty light-years across, all together. Nearly two weeks travel time at maximum warp. Even after a decade of starship command, she found it hard to wrap her mind around such enormous distances.
During the long voyage into the Gulf, Blaylock had had plenty of time to familiarize herself with the region. More than enough time, actually, since so little was actually known about it, other than its size, location, and strategic significance -- or rather its lack thereof. It was well-known, however, that most of its sparse stellar population were not of the spectral types associated with habitable worlds. In the Geminus Gulf, young supergiant "O" type stars predominated -- the sort of suns whose huge mass blows them apart only a few hundred million years into their lifespans -- rather than the cooler, more stable variety, such as the "G" type star that sired Earth and its immediate planetary neighbors.
But the Geminus Gulf was important in at least one respect; it lay just outside the boundaries of both the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire, and it had yet to come formally into the sphere of influence of either power. Nearly smack in the center of the Gulf's unexplored vastness lay one inhabited world, the fourth planet of the politically nonaligned Chiaros system. Under recently negotiated agreements, neither the Federation nor the Romulans could establish a permanent presence in the Gulf until invited to do so by a spacefaring civilization native to the Gulf. Blaylock was only too aware that her job was to do everything the Prime Directive would allow to obtain that invitation from the Chiarosans, who comprised the only warp-capable culture yet known in the Gulf, and thus were the key to the entire region, and to whatever awaited discovery within its confines.
Never mind that there isn't any there there, Blaylock thought, absurdly reminded of the 20th-century human writer Gertrude Stein's often-mischaracterized description of an empty region on Earth.
Settling back into her chair, Blaylock smiled to herself. She had already reviewed the Chiarosan government's preliminary application for Federation membership. Less than two weeks from now, the planet's general population would formally vote on whether to invite in the Romulans or the Federation. Fortunately, since the pro-Federation position was being staunchly backed by the planet's extremely popular ruling regime, it seemed to Blaylock that her mission was already all but accomplished.
Blaylock therefore felt amply justified in allowing her thoughts to return to the matter of the mysterious subspace distortions -- and their possible causes. Now that they had piqued her curiosity, she couldn't bear the thought of leaving the bridge for a diplomatic conference whose results were already foreordained.
"Just how important is the captain's presence at this conference?" Blaylock said, turning toward Roget.
Seated in the chair beside Blaylock's, Roget leaned forward, his mahogany-colored brow wrinkled in evident confusion. "It's crucial, Captain. The natives of Chiaros IV are a warrior people. If you're not there, they're likely to take offense."
Her exec's discomfiture brought a small smile to her lips. "Don't panic, Ernie. I'm not planning on going AWOL. What I mean is, how important is it that the captain be present with the first away team?"
Roget appeared to relax at that. Stroking his jaw, he said, "It's not critical, I suppose. You have to remember, though, that the Chiarosans are very hierarchical and protocol-conscious."
"So I noticed," Blaylock said. "They've planned just about every minute of our itinerary while we're on their planet. And we won't even meet First Protector Ruardh until our third day on the planet. It's all just lower-level functionaries until then."
"'When in Rome,' Captain," Roget said.
"I agree. Therefore I've decided I'm staying aboard the Slayton until you finish up the preliminary business with the first away team. That'll give me at least another full day here on the bridge before I have to join you down on the planet."
Roget smiled knowingly. "You want to keep looking for those subspace distortions yourself."
Blaylock didn't smile back. Roget needed to know that she was deadly serious. "There's more at stake here than my scientific curiosity. We already know that the Romulans will have a delegation on Chiaros."
"That's unavoidable, unfortunately, under the treaties." Roget, too, was no longer smiling.
"Wherever you find Romulan diplomats, you'll probably also find a cloaked Romulan ship nearby -- certainly up to no good."
Roget regarded her with a silent scowl. He was giving her the look again. She knew that he had to be thinking, a cloaked Romulan ship that causes intermittent subspace distortions that can be picked up five sectors away? Fortunately, Roget was not one to question her orders in front of the crew.
Until I find out the answer, she told herself, I'll be damned if I'm off this ship one second longer than I absolutely have to be.
At that moment, Zweller rose from his station and faced Blaylock, an eager expression on his face. Though he was in his sixties, his unbridled enthusiasm made him appear much younger.
"Yes, Mr. Zweller?"
"If it's all right with you and Commander Roget, I'd like to be part of the first away team. From what I've read about Chiaros IV, the place could keep a dozen science officers busy for years."
Blaylock looked toward her exec, who nodded his approval. She turned the matter over in her mind for a moment, then rose from her chair and regarded Zweller approvingly. She liked officers who weren't afraid to show a little initiative.
"All right, Mr. Zweller. Assemble a few of the department heads in the shuttlebay at 0800 tomorrow. You and Commander Roget will oversee the opening diplomatic ceremonies."
Zweller thanked Blaylock, then returned to his station to contact his key subordinates. She had no doubt that Chiaros IV would more than justify his scientific curiosity. For a moment, she regretted her decision not to lead the first away team.
But she had a mystery to solve, and a ship to worry about. Needs must, Blaylock thought, when the devil drives.
Or the Romulans.
Sitting beside Roget in the cockpit of the shuttlecraft Archimedes, Zweller finished his portion of the preflight systems checks in less than five minutes. The eight-
person craft was ready for takeoff even as the heads of the biomedical science, planetary studies, xenoanthropology, and engineering departments took their seats.
At Roget's command, the triple-layered duranium hangar doors opened, accentuating the faint blue glow of the shuttlebay's atmospheric forcefield. The shuttle rose on its antigravs, moved gently forward, and accelerated into the frigid vastness of space.
The perpetually sunward side of Chiaros IV suddenly loomed above the Archimedes, presenting a dazzling vista of ochers and browns. Gray, vaguely menacing clouds surged over the equatorial mountain ranges. High above the terminator separating eternal night from unending day, Zweller could see the glint of sunlight on metal -- Chiaros IV's off-planet communications relay, tethered to the planet's narrow habitable zone by a network of impossibly slender-looking cables. Zweller noticed that the portion of the tether that plunged into the roiling atmosphere was surrounded by transitory flashes of light.
Lightning? he wondered, then looked more closely. No, it's thruster fire. If the Chiarosans didn't compensate somehow for the motions of their turbulent atmo-
sphere, that orbital tether wouldn't last ten minutes.
Zweller took in this vista -- the untamable planet as well as the tenacious efforts of the Chiarosans to subdue it -- with unfeigned delight.
"Hail the Chiarosans, Mr. Zweller," Roget said, interrupting his reverie. Zweller complied, immediately all business once again. His hail was answered by a voice as deep as a canyon, which cleared the shuttlecraft to begin its descent into the churning atmosphere. The computer received the landing coordinates and projected a neat, elliptical course onto the central navigational display.
"A pity we can't just beam straight down to the capital," Roget said as the Slayton receded into the distance.
Andreas Hearn, the Slayton's chief engineer, spoke up from directly behind Zweller. "Between the radiation output of the Chiarosan sun, the planet's intense magnetosphere, and the clash of hot and cold air masses down there, we can't even get a subspace signal down to the surface -- at least not without the orbital tether relay. I wouldn't recommend trying to transport anyone directly through all that atmospheric hash."
"Oh, enough technical talk," said Gomp, the Tellarite chief medical officer, who was seated in the cabin's aftmost section. "I want to know what these people are really like. The only things I've seen so far are their official reports to the Federation. Medically speaking, all I can really say about them is that they're supposed to be triple-jointed and faster than Regulan eel-birds."
"Then I wouldn't recommend challenging them on the hoverball court," Hearn said with a chuckle.
The Archimedes entered the upper atmosphere. On the cockpit viewer, Zweller watched as an aurora reached across the planet's south pole with multicolored, phosphorescent fingers. Lightning split the clouds in the higher latitudes. Atmospheric friction increased, and an ionized plasma envelope began forming around the shuttle's hull.
"Gomp makes a good point," said xenoanthropologist Liz Kurlan, as though this didn't happen very often. "All we know about these people so far is what they want us to know."
"So we'll start filling in those gaps in our knowledge today," Roget said with a good-natured shrug. "That's why we're all here, isn't it?"
Sitting in silence, he moved his fingers with deliberate precision over the controls. Then the shuttle hastened its descent toward the rapidly approaching terminator, the demarcation line between the planet's endless frigid night and its ever-agitated, superheated sunward side.
On the Slayton's bridge, Blaylock heard an uncharacteristic urgency enter Glebuk's voice. "Captain! The anomaly has reappeared!"
The bridge crew suddenly began moving in double-time. Blaylock was on her feet in an instant. "Location!"
"Scanning," Glebuk said.
Ensign Burdick, the young man at the forward science station, beat the Antedean to the answer. "A massive subspace distortion wave-front has appeared...four-point-eight astronomical units south of the planet's orbital plane."
"One-tenth light-speed in all directions. Speed is constant."
"Transfer the coordinates to the helm," Blaylock said.
"Coordinates received," acknowledged Glebuk.
"That's our heading, helmsman. Engage at warp factor two. Take us half an AU from the wave-front, then full stop. Close, but not too close. On my mark, get the hell away at maximum warp."
"Aye," Glebuk said, altering the ship's speed and direction. Blaylock could feel the slight telltale vibration in the deckplates.
"Ensign Burdick, record everything you can about those subspace distortions," Blaylock barked, then whirled toward the tall, dark-tressed woman who was working the aft communications station. "Lieutenant Harding, try to raise the Archimedes."
Precisely sixteen seconds later, the Slayton had come to a full stop at a safe distance from the slowly-expanding subspace effect. On the forward viewer, the starfield rippled slightly, as though attached to a curtain being blown by a strong wind.
"No contact with the Archimedes, Captain," Harding said. "They must have already entered Chiaros IV's atmosphere."
"Captain!" Burdick suddenly cried out from the science station, getting Blaylock's full attention. "The wave-front's speed has just increased almost a hundredfold!"
How can that be? Blaylock thought in the space of a heartbeat. Unless the phenomenon has begun dropping in and out of normal space, gaining velocity from subspace...
She wasted no time. "Raise shields!" she shouted. "Glebuk, get us out of -- "
The wave-front struck at that moment, instantly overwhelming the Slayton's inertial dampers. The bridge went dark and the deck lurched sideways, throwing Blaylock from her feet. Her body slammed hard into a railing, which she grabbed with both arms. She felt at least one of her ribs give way under the impact. A portside panel exploded in a bright shower of sparks, leaving tracers of light behind her eyelids. She heard a sharp scream cut through the alarm klaxons, then cease.
The emergency lighting kicked in, casting an eerie, blood-colored pall across the bridge. The deck leveled itself. Smoke billowed from a burning panel. Bodies lay sprawled everywhere, some moving, some not. The bridge viewer was dead. Blaylock noticed that Glebuk had been hurled forward over the helm console and onto the deck. The Antedean lay still, water seeping from a tear in her hydration suit, her neck bent into an impossible question-mark shape. Fighting down a surge of horror, Blaylock sat behind the helm console.
The controls resolutely refused to respond. What the hell was she dealing with here?
Blaylock spun her chair toward Burdick, whom Harding was helping back into his seat. Blood surged into the ensign's eyes from a gash on his forehead.
"Status report!" Blaylock snapped.
Harding, the more experienced officer, began consulting a nearby undamaged instrument panel. "The shields are down. We've got hull breaches all over the place and we're down to battery power."
"I need to see what's out there. Can you get that screen working, Lieutenant?"
"I'm on it." Harding tapped a console at a furious pace.
The bridge lights dimmed. "Try not to lose the mood lighting, Zaena," Blaylock said. Harding smiled weakly in response.
The viewer came to life in a brief burst of static. Stars shone whitely, no longer distorted by the subspace phenomenon. And something else was there as well. A shape...
"Can you increase the magnification?" Blaylock said.
Harding nodded. The lights dimmed further and the half-seen shape resolved itself into lines of hard metal. It was a large, toroid-shaped ship -- or perhaps it was a space station -- circled by dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of much smaller objects. Buoys? Service modules of some sort?
"Why didn't we notice all of this when we entered the system?" Blaylock said, turning toward Burdick and Harding.
Blaylock saw that Burdick's eyes were glued to the screen. Pointing a shaking finger, he said, "Maybe because theydidn't want us to?"
Blaylock was unsurprised to see the ominous, double-bladed shape of a Romulan warbird rippling into existence on the viewer. I hate being right all the time, she thought mirthlessly.
The Slayton had to be well within the range of the decloaking warship's weapons. The Romulan vessel was more than twice the Slayton's size, and her disruptor ports glowed with menace. And the Slayton was dead in space.
But Blaylock told herself that the warbird's captain wouldn't harbor any hostile intent. With so little really known about the Geminus Gulf, why would the Romulans want to risk starting a war over it?
Then the warbird fired.
The Slayton lurched again, and the lights failed once more. Blaylock wondered how long it would take for the warp core to lose antimatter containment. And just what it was the Romulans knew about this place that she didn't.
The bridge flared into cerulean brilliance a moment later, followed immediately by more blackness. This time, the dark was absolute and eternal.
The Archimedes continued its descent through Chiaros IV's storm-tossed Dayside atmosphere. Zweller ignored the low conversational murmurs passing between the department heads and concentrated on his piloting chores. Though the inertial dampers succeeded in canceling out most of the turbulence, Zweller could still feel the deck shimmying slightly beneath his boots. And the structural integrity field was being taxed far more than usual.
Adjusting the viewer to compensate for the ball of white-hot plasma that now completely surrounded the shuttle's hull, Zweller quietly admired the savage beauty of the landscape quickly scrolling by below. It was a place of immiscible contrasts, irresistible forces in perpetual stalemate. It was a place he could understand.
As the Archimedes entered the nightward terminator, Zweller reduced the craft's velocity, lowering the hull temperature and making the plasma fires gutter out. He brought the shuttle down toward a range of cheerless brown mountains and arced into a northeasterly heading. In seconds, the craft cleared the peaks, and the relentlessly baked Dayside gave way to a fog-shrouded valley. Auroral flashes arced repeatedly across the sky, leaping the planet's everlasting twilight belt, momentarily linking day with night. The vapor dispersed as the ground grew nearer and unveiled a quiltwork of hardscrabble farmland and narrow roads. Small settlements and isolated dwellings hove into view and just as quickly passed away. A great cityscape glittered in the haze, barely perceptible on the northern horizon. It appeared to fade toward a tumble of dry hills and barren escarpments that extended into the planet's dark side as far as Zweller could see. Lights twinkled across the city's remote nightward periphery.
"Looks like we've found the planet's single worthwhile piece of real estate," Gomp said with a porcine chortle.
Finishing a long countdown in his head, Zweller thought: It's time.
An alarm light suddenly flashed on Zweller's console, and a klaxon brayed a warning. The tactical display at Zweller's left side came to life.
"What is it?" Roget said, sounding cautious, though not particularly alarmed.
"I think we're about to have some company," said Zweller.
"A Chiarosan honor guard?" Hearn ventured.
Zweller felt his jaw clenching involuntarily. "I...I don't think so."
"Shields up!" Roget shouted. "Red alert!"
Something struck the shuttle at that moment, making the hull reverberate like an enormous bell. The engineer and the doctor fell into a heap atop Liz Kurlan. Tim Tuohy, the head of planetary studies, helped Gomp get his hooves beneath him. Everyone scrambled back into their seats and activated the crash harnesses.
The shuttle rocked again, more violently than before, as though punched by a giant. His harness kept Zweller from being spilled from his seat. Though partly obscured by static, the tactical display showed a fast-approaching trio of small, aggressively contoured vessels. They appeared to be fighter craft of an unusual configuration. Zweller recognized them as Chiarosan.
"Status!" Roget shouted, trying to compete with the rumbling of the hull.
"Shields and weapons are off-line," Zweller said. "I can't keep anything working with all this atmospheric ionization."
A static-swept male voice, deep and harsh, emanated from the comm system. "Federation shuttle: You will follow our lead vessel's navigation beam into Nightside. Consider yourselves our prisoners."
Roget spat a nearly inaudible curse before replying. "We are here on a diplomatic mission at the invitation of First Protector Ruardh, the head of this world's duly elected government. On whose authority have you attacked us?"
"Had we attacked you, you would be dead," came the reply. "You are in the custody of the Army of Light. If you attempt to resist or flee, we will not hesitate to destroy your vessel."
Roget made a slashing gesture, and Zweller responded by temporarily interrupting the audio.
"Make best speed for the capital, Mr. Zweller," Roget said. "There are bound to be official patrols there who can drive these characters off."
Zweller shook his head emphatically. "They're right on top of us, sir. We'll never make it."
The shuttle lurched again and the hull braces groaned. Zweller watched the structural integrity telltale dip into the red. A near-miss, Zweller thought; a direct hit probably would have breached the hull and blown everyone out of the shuttle. The lights flickered as the battery-powered backup life-support system kicked in.
Roget's frown could have curdled milk. "You don't seem to be trying very goddamned hard, mister."
Raising an eyebrow, Zweller ignored the comment. "I don't think our welcoming committee enjoys being kept waiting, sir."
After pausing to glare at Zweller, Roget tapped a command into the console, relinquishing control of the shuttle's navigational computer to their captors. He turned toward the somber group in the seats behind him.
"Looks like we're taking an unscheduled detour, folks."
"Never a cop around when you need one," Gomp muttered. Nobody laughed.
The Archimedes abruptly banked and descended even farther. The shuttle barely cleared the hills beyond the sprawling city's nightward side as she continued into utter blackness, flanked by her "escorts."
Chiaros IV had no natural satellites and possessed a thick cloud canopy, conditions that made Nightside quite dark, except when the clouds were riven by lightning and auroral fireworks. The Archimedes' trajectory, however, stayed mostly within the swirls of the clouds blown in from Dayside, cover that made the auroras -- and therefore the ground -- difficult to see from the shuttle's windows. The few flashes of light that did enter the cabin merely served to prevent the crew's eyes from adjusting to the darkness. To the hapless occupants of the Archimedes, Nightside appeared more tenebrous than the inside of any tomb.
After crossing the terminator into night, the Archimedes flew for more than an hour, changing directions sharply several times, banking and spiraling. Whether because of atmospheric effects or damage sustained in the attack, the onboard instruments couldn't determine the shuttle's location or even its altitude. Sitting behind his useless control panel, Zweller realized that he might as well have been blindfolded.
Roget and the department heads somberly discussed their options, including whether or not they ought to open the weapons locker and put up some real resistance after landing. Though Gomp was the loudest proponent of the "stand-and-fight" notion, Zweller suspected that it was all rhetoric; he'd never met a Tellarite who didn't prefer a loud, abusive argument to actual combat. After everyone had spoken his piece, Roget announced that they were to forget about fighting their way out of this situation; after all, they had come to conduct diplomacy, not warfare.
They received a hail, and the crew cabin fell silent. "Prepare to land," said the harsh voice of their captor over the background of static.
A pattern of lights appeared on the ground, perhaps a quarter of a kilometer below the shuttle. Roget tried to turn the landing over to the computer, but it again failed to respond. Zweller tripped the manual override and began bringing the craft down, aiming for the center of the landing pattern.
A moment after the shuttle came to rest, the ground itself began to sink. Enormous mechanisms groaned as the surface beneath the shuttle lowered into a dimly illuminated subterranean chamber. Zweller watched on the viewer as a metal roof quickly rolled into place about eight meters overhead, shutting out what could be seen of the obsidian sky.
"I'll bet this place is completely invisible from the air," Gomp said, sounding impressed. "Very neat."
A bank of bright lights flared to life along the chamber's ceiling, revealing its enormous size. Several small fighter craft of the same type as their attackers were parked nearby. Perhaps twenty large, armed humanoids were taking up positions surrounding the Archimedes.
Kurlan and Tuohy both gazed significantly at the weapons locker, and then back at Roget, as if to say, This is our last chance.
"No phasers," Roget reiterated, and the rest of the human officers nodded their assent. Gomp spat a monosyllabic Tellarite curse.
Roget fixed a steely gaze on Zweller, but Zweller met it unblinkingly. "Commander Zweller and I will go out first," Roget said. "Unarmed."
Hearn opened the shuttle's hatch manually, then stepped aside. Roget walked through it to meet their captors. Zweller followed, the planet's slightly higher-than-Earth-normal gravity making his feet feel leaden.
From what Zweller knew of Chiarosans, the soldiers of the Army of Light were fairly typical representatives of the species. A robust people, none of them were shorter than two meters. Zweller was immediately struck by the strangeness of their eyes, which were the color of iridescent cobalt, and had an almost crystalline appearance. Though broad in the shoulders, the Chiarosans were whipcord lean, their bare arms striated with muscles like steel cables, and half-covered with a fine, brown fur. The hairless portions of their skins resembled burnished copper, and shined almost as brightly as the long, curved blades that hung from the sashes of their gray uniforms. Their obvious strength was complemented by a fluid grace of motion, as though their musculoskeletal systems were capable of an impossibly wide range of motion.
If one of these guys had helped us against those Nausicaans back in '27, old Johnny Picard never would have needed that artificial heart.
The troops wasted no time escorting everyone off of the shuttle. After taking the Starfleet officers' combadges and searching them for weapons -- as well as confiscating the phasers they had left aboard the Archimedes -- the Chiarosans manacled the wrists of each of their six captives. The soldiers then frog-marched them out of the hangar complex, down a lengthy, narrow corridor, and then into a second large chamber. Several slim ceiling-mounted illumination panels bathed the room in a dull white light. Zweller's gaze took in the room's bare stone walls and floor, which were adorned with edged weapons, as well as paintings and sculptures depicting what must have been important battles and revered war heroes from the annals of Chiarosan history.
A pair of bare-chested Chiarosan males faced one another in the center of the room, neither of them acknowledging the presence of the Starfleet prisoners. The larger and more striking of the pair was yellow-haired; the smaller, darker Chiarosan appeared no less formidable, however. Both of them held long, curved blades in each of their hands, and were in the midst of sparring, their graceful, triple-jointed movements reminding Zweller of Japanese kata. Their limbs moved with unbelievable control and precision, almost faster than the eye could follow. Though their weapons clanged together forcefully, often striking sparks, both men obviously were exerting tremendous discipline over both blade and sinew. It occurred to Zweller that the trio of guards standing behind them were largely superfluous, present only to provide additional intimidation.
Stepping inside the guard of the darker, smaller swordsman, the yellow-haired fighter suddenly trapped his opponent's thick neck between his blades. Though both men abruptly froze in place, Zweller half-expected the victor to snip the other man's head off, like a gardener trimming a shrub. Instead, the winner sheathed his blades after a moment, and the other man followed suit. The fighters bowed to one another.
Shaking perspiration from his abundant hair, the winner of the contest turned toward the Starfleet contingent. The Chiarosan's head made the motion first, turning almost 180 degrees before the rest of his body followed. He greeted his "guests" with a smile made eerie by his preternaturally wide mouth and his razor-sharp, silver-hued teeth.
"Clear water and rich soil to you, my guests," he said in heavily accented but intelligible Federation Standard. "Please allow me to thank you for coming among us."
"You didn't give us a great deal of choice in the matter," Roget said, his face an impassive mask.
The blond Chiarosan chuckled. His sparring partner merely stared belligerently at the captured officers.
"My name is Falhain, and I command the Army of Light," the yellow-haired Chiarosan said. "Allow me to introduce Grelun, my Good Right Hand."
Zweller heard Gomp muttering behind him. "And here I am without my dress uniform."
"Shut the hell up, Gomp," Tuohy hissed. Sullenly, Gomp complied.
Fortunately, Falhain appeared to be ignoring everyone except for Zweller and Roget, perhaps sensing from their body language that they were the senior officers present. Or maybe, Zweller thought, the Chiarosan rebels are familiar with Starfleet rank insignia.
"As you may have gathered," Falhain said, "my people are having...difficulty accepting our government's plan to enter the Federation."
Zweller opened his mouth to reply, but Roget beat him to it. "Sir, abducting Federation citizens is hardly a constructive way to air your grievances."
"Desperate times prescribe desperate tactics," Grelun said, his eyes narrowing to slits.
Falhain nodded toward his lieutenant, then locked a humorless gaze upon Roget. "I will cut straight to the heart of our 'grievances,' as you so trivially characterize them: Ruardh, our world's 'duly elected leader,' leads a government of murderers."
Zweller tensed. His superiors had not included that information in his mission briefing.
"What are you talking about?" he said.
"I'm talking about unanimity, my honored guests," Falhain said. "The kind of unanimity that earns a planet Federation membership. My people are paying the price for that unanimity. With their lives."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," Roget said, shaking his head.
"I speak for many of the outlying tribes and clans -- a tiny minority of this planet's population, to be sure -- but a people who prize their tradition of independence. That independence is unpopular in the capital, where we are seen as little better than vermin who compete with the cities for water and arable land, which our world gives to no one in abundance."
"The Federation can help you resolve those problems, if you let us," Roget said. "Besides, your alternative is far worse. The Romulan Empire isn't likely to respect your people's independence."
Falhain laughed mirthlessly. "The Romulans have never frightened us. Nor have they ever tried to conquer us."
"We have nothing that they want," Grelun said.
"Maybe Ruardh and her ministers don't believe that," Zweller said. After all, the Romulans always want something.
"Perhaps," Falhain said. "But none of that matters. What does matter is that the Federation has allied itself with an ender-of-bloodlines."
His eyes as cold as a Nightside storm, Grelun addressed Zweller. "For the past six years, Ruardh's people have been trying to extinguish the clans, to increase the cities' share of our scarce subsistence resources. At last count, this has cost my people over 600,000 lives. Only a small fraction of that number survive, to fight on and avenge the murdered."
"What is your word for it, human?" Falhain said to Roget, who was blanching visibly. " 'Genocide?' "
Zweller swallowed hard, taking in the enormity of Falhain's charges. If they were true, then how much worse could Romulan rule actually be for these people?
"So now you're abducting noncombatants?" Roget said.
Falhain bared his teeth, making Zweller think of a cornered animal. "Unlike Ruardh, we have at least confined our targets to those wearing uniforms. And as long as the Army of Light answers to me, we will continue to strike only at the guilty."
"We are even prepared to listen to Ruardh's honeyed words of peace," Grelun said with a sneer, his anthracite-hard gaze engaging Falhain's. "Even though doing so may well be an exercise in futility."
Moving too quickly to see, Falhain's hands flew to the hafts of his blades, making plain his intended response to any further challenge to his authority. Grelun remained as still as a statue for several protracted heartbeats, then backed slowly away. But Zweller could see that fire still burned in the dark-haired warrior's eyes.
Falhain won't be able to keep that Good Right Hand of his tied behind his back forever.
The rebel chieftain relaxed his posture and turned his cold gaze once again upon Roget and Zweller. "My people are not bandits, humans. But we are determined. We will achieve peace, either at the talking table...or with the sword."
Then Falhain brought his impossibly limber elbows quickly together, a motion that produced an alarmingly loud noise which was half whistle and half sandpaper rasp. Responding immediately, the guards hustled the sextet of Starfleet officers out of the room.
Zweller was the first to be separated from the others. Almost an hour after the meeting with Falhain had concluded, one of the guards escorted Zweller from a rock-walled holding cell and ushered him into a small, darkened office. A pneumatic door hissed shut behind him. Zweller was now unguarded, though still manacled. He approached the door through which he had entered. It remained solidly closed. Zweller guessed that the guard had locked it from the outside.
He heard a footfall behind him, and turned quickly toward the noise. "Lights," said an aristocratic male voice, and the chamber's illumination immediately rose to a faint twilight level.
A tall, ramrod-straight figure stepped into view from the shadows of an alcove. He had straight raven-black hair, combed forward, and the tips of his ears came to graceful points. His upswept eyebrows lent an air of expectation to his expression, as though he were a man accustomed to receiving satisfactory answers to his every question. He wore a gray-and-black Romulan military uniform, which was unadorned except for the emblem on his collar. The stylized sigil conjured for Zweller a mental image of a voracious, predatory bird.
Commander Cortin Zweller stood facing Koval, the chairman of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan Star Empire's much-feared intelligence bureau -- an agency which even members of the Romulan Senate crossed only at their peril.
Zweller held his shackled hands up. Koval spoke a terse command to the computer on his desk. The manacles dropped to the floor and Zweller gently rubbed his wrists to restore their circulation.
"Mnek'nra brhon, Orrha," Zweller said, a phrase that meant "Good morning, Mr. Chairman," in the other man's language. Sometimes it was a good idea to remind an adversary that his secrets might not be as safe as he thinks -- especially an adversary with whom one expects to do business.
Koval raised an eyebrow slightly, then replied in perfect Federation Standard. "Morning? An odd choice of words, Commander Zweller, considering where we are. But I must compliment you. Your accent is virtually undetectable. Section 31 trains its operatives well indeed." He bowed his head almost imperceptibly.
Zweller failed to suppress a wry smile. Conversational Romulan 101, he thought. Aloud, he offered, "All part of the service. And likewise, I'm sure."
"Then let us avoid any further irrelevancies and proceed directly to the business at hand."
"A moment, please," Zweller said, carefully holding the Romulan's gaze. "About my colleagues -- "
Koval looked impatient for a fleeting moment. "Falhain is having each of them interrogated. They are being held separately. And as far as any of them know, you are receiving precisely the same treatment."
Zweller was relieved to learn that his cover wasn't blown, though he knew he would still have to mend his fences with Commander Roget. But even though Zweller appreciated Koval's professional courtesy, he knew it was never wise to mince words with a Romulan. Especially this Romulan.
"Thank you," Zweller said. "May I also presume I have your guarantee that they won't be injured or harmed in any way?"
Koval paused for a moment before responding. "You have my word. None of the officers we captured will suffer any injury while they are here." Though his eyes were dilithium-hard, the Romulan spymaster's expression was otherwise unreadable.
Then Koval moved on to other matters. "Now let us discuss our transaction. I am prepared to keep my part of that bargain. Are you?"
The list, Zweller thought. Who knew how many lives Section 31 would save by acquiring a list of Tal Shiar agents operating covertly not only within Starfleet, but also in civilian institutions across the Federation?
Zweller nodded. "Of course. With my help, Falhain and his troops will nudge the coming planetary vote on Federation membership to the side of the minority pro-Romulan factions. Then the Chiaros system will become a Romulan protectorate."
Koval nodded impassively. "I'm certain that my...indigenous clients will be delighted to accept your assistance."
Zweller kept thinking about the spy list. It would constitute a substantial countermeasure against Romulan espionage, even though the list would almost certainly be incomplete. Koval was no fool, after all. Still, the only cost to Section 31 would be the Geminus Gulf -- a few worthless, backwater sectors of trackless interstellar desert. Zweller agreed with Section 31's higher echelons that they had struck a good bargain.
"I have to ask you, Mr. Chairman...Why do you really want this system?"
Koval seemed more annoyed by the question than surprised. Zweller doubted whether much of anything surprised him. "Simple survival, Commander. When a state's boundaries remain static, it will eventually die. Is that not reason enough?"
"If I may say so, the Geminus Gulf hardly seems worth the effort."
"I could reverse the question, Commander. After all, under our agreements, either we expand into the Gulf -- or you do. Why should your benevolent Federation begrudge our expansion into an admittedly resource-poor region? A region which you yourself have called worthless?"
Koval's eyes flashed with a preacher's fervor as he continued. "Allow me to speak plainly, Commander. Whether you accept it or not, your Federation is as bent on conquest and assimilation as the Borg collective. Oh, you are quiet about it. You shroud your acquisitiveness behind lofty-sounding ideals: the vaunted civil rights of your citizens; your renowned respect and tolerance of other cultures; your so-called 'Prime Directive.'
"But your Federation has expanded greatly in every direction over the past century. One hundred and fifty worlds. Eight thousand light-years from border to border. And still you want more. What you cannot conquer with starships you take by subversion. You subtly change the cultures you encounter to suit yourselves. Your alliance with the Klingon Empire is a shining example, Commander. You've remade them in your own image." Koval allowed himself a brief smile. "Why, thanks to the Federation, the Klingons are practically housebroken."
Zweller chuckled, shaking his head. "I had no idea you were such a political hard-liner, Mr. Chairman. I had hoped that you'd agreed to cooperate with us because you wished the Federation well."
Koval's only response was the small, fleeting smile that played at the corners of his mouth. Then he touched the emblem on his collar, activating a tiny communications unit. "Please inform Falhain that his presence is requested for a high-level briefing to be conducted with one of our...guests." A deep voice tersely acknowledged Koval's transmission.
Then, folding his hands behind his back, Koval spoke again to Zweller. "A wise man knows when it is best to allow his adversaries to speculate about his motivations."
And so does a good spy, Zweller thought.
As a single guard entered the room, no doubt to conduct him to the briefing, Zweller knew with certainty that he had just made a deal with the devil. He only hoped that, unlike Faust, he'd still have his soul after the bargain was complete.
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures