It had been easy to get the relevant information out of the station personnel, by just appearing threatening enough. He wouldn't be able to go back there for a while, but that was irrelevant now. He'd been following the Federation ship's direction at maximum velocity for hours, while broadcasting a message asking them for help.
Waiting had never come easy to him. In the situation he found himself in at the moment it was almost unbearable. The mix of hope, anxiety and nervousness hadn't allowed him one second of rest.
He stared at the chronometer on the dashboard, watched the seconds melting away. Time was running out.
The ship's comm device beeped and made his heart skip a beat. With a trembling hand, he hit the receive switch.
“Ki'Balan, this is the Ti'Laren, we're representing the United Federation of Planets. Please respond.”
“Oh, thank the gods. My name is Vrelek Debure and I need your help.” Begging wasn't the Romulan way, but he really didn't have a choice.
The cold, emotionless voice on the other side of the line was replaced by that of a man, sounding strangely familiar.
“What kind of help do you need?”
“I heard about how you helped the people of Rebiko. I was sent to stock up our food reserves, I'm running out of time and I was unable to find a trading partner for the dilithium I have. We have relentless enemies who threaten us, it's urgent.”
He wasn't sure whether mentioning the war threat was a good idea in terms of the Empire's security but he thought it would make them more inclined to help.
“Mr. Debure, are you Romulan?”
He didn't like the sound of that. As a rule, his people tried to stay as anonymous as possible, to avoid detection by the humans. And the voice..., the way the man had said the word Romulan, Debure was sure he had heard it before. Only now it occurred to him to call up 'additional information' on the screen that displayed the translation.
That man spoke in the language of Earth.
The terrible truth dawned on him. He had begged the enemy for help! Fooled by a simple name change! They had probably annexed several planets in the meantime, whose peoples were inferior to the Romulan race and therefore didn't put up as much resistance.
Angry with himself and the universe, he decided to make the best of his situation, put a data stick into the slot on the dashboard and pressed the 'record' button. Maybe he could at least gather some information.
“Are you still there?”
Now it made sense. Of course, he had heard the voice before, hundreds of times. All Romulans had. Normally filled with arrogance, it was the voice of the man that had dictated the terms of the humiliating peace treaty after Cheron. But it couldn't be...
“Yes and yes. And who are you?” Debure answered in a demanding voice. It was a stupid question, but he had to know.
“My name's Jonathan Archer. Please don't cut the channel, Vrelek – can I call you Vrelek? - it's important that...”
“No , you can't!” Debure yelled into the comm. “Don't you dare! You murdered my father.”
Several seconds passed in silence.
He slammed his fist on the dashboard.
“Don't play innocent. You know exactly what I'm talking about. My father was the Commander of the Audure
He was surprised by the gentleness of the voice and taken back by the simple apology.
“I wish there had been another way, but there was a war on. I lost many of my friends, too.”
Debure felt a certain satisfaction as he heard the last sentence.
“It really is you, then. But how is that possible? We were told you died of gangrene.”
He heard a slight chuckle over the comm.
“Seems like no one told me. I don't know about the state of medicine in the Empire, but here, nobody dies of gangrene these days.”
“So you're telling me my government has been lying to me?”
“Well, I'm here, talking to you.”
“What did you really do to the people of Rebiko?”
“We supplied them with food, blankets and emergency shelters. You can check for yourself.”
“Why? Did they agree to fight for you?”
“No. They asked for help, so we did what we could. That's what the Federation is all about. To make this part of the universe a better place.”
“Like you tried to force us to become a better place? By fighting progress, enlightenment and science?”
“That's not what happened. We were only defending ourselves. We're not a threat to you and we never were. I know you'll find it hard to believe but I used to be an explorer, not a soldier. I never thought I'd have to fight a war.”
It almost sounded convincing. How was that possible? This man didn't sound at all like the monster he had always imagined him to be.
“This may sound silly, but what do you look like?”
“You know, I could ask you the same question. What races close to Earth do you know? It's simpler if I just describe the differences.”
“Vulcans.” It was a risk revealing that he knew how they looked, but he was sure that Archer wasn't sophisticated enough to pick up on it.
“We look almost like them. Our ears aren't pointy, but round. We have more variations in hair and eye colour and our eyebrows are round, too.”
Debure was stunned to find his suspicion that humans might look like Romulans turn out to be close to the truth. No monsters, then.
“If you're as peaceful as you claim to be, why are you moving against us?”
“We aren't. We're happy to stay on our side of the Neutral Zone so long as you stay on yours.”
“That's a lie!”
“Look, all those things you told me about what we're supposedly like, they don't really add up. If we're so backwards, how were we able to defeat you?”
“By sheer ruthlessness and barbarism.”
He heard Archer sigh. “And how did we get out here in the first place? How did we manage to build ships?”
“I don't know.” he said weakly.
“You said you heard about the Federation. Do you think the stories you heard are lies?”
It was highly unlikely Krk'khana had lied to him. And theoretically, he could check up on Rebiko to verify the story, if he had more time.
“You don't have to go back, you know.”
“Oh yes, I do. I made a promise.”
The least he could do was to face the consequences of not keeping it.
“I see. We might be able to help you with your problem.”
Debure couldn't believe the audacity. Did Archer think he was stupid? What better way to harm them than with poisoned food?
“I know you don't trust us but we don't have to stay enemies. Vulcans and Andorians used to be. And so did Tellarites and Andorians. Now they're all part of the Federation. All it takes is someone to make the first step and some courage. No tricks, you have my word. And you can always scan it if you don't believe me.”
For what seemed like a long time, he just stared straight ahead, paralyzed. Should he accept the offer? The prospect of being able to fulfill his promise to the Governor was tempting. But it was unthinkable to accept anything by them. He thought about Archer's words. Some courage. Easy for him to say.
It would be the greatest risk he had ever taken. But then again, what did he have to lose?
“Ok.” he replied, simply.
On the way back to the Empire's border he had been as restless as on his chase after the Federation ship. He didn't know what to think, what to believe anymore.
So far, all of the Federation promises were holding up. They had beamed the food into his cargo hold – emergency ration bars with their labels meticulously peeled off. This could be explained away easily enough with the shadiness of the trading post and the low quality of the dilithium he had dumped along the way. Extensive scans hadn't revealed anything out of the ordinary about the bars.
All this should have filled him with joy or contentment at least. Only it didn't. Because it heavily suggested Archer had been truthful to him. While his own government hadn't. He might have been able to file Archer's alleged death away under bad intel – such things did happen – but now a lot of what he'd been told about the war didn't make sense anymore. He realised that he really didn't know anything about the war, not for sure, anyway.
If his government had been less than truthful about the Earthers and the war, what else wasn't true? Was everything he ever believed in a lie?
“Ki'Balan, this is border checkpoint 15. Proceed to inspection on pad 4.”
The commanding voice took him out of his thoughts. Not again. The last inspection had taken hours, and after all he'd been through on this trip, he didn't have the nerve for it. All he wanted was to deliver his cargo to Shelbeth and take a long time off afterwards.
After landing smoothly on the pad, he stepped from his ship, his papers ready, and found himself facing a squad of soldiers pointing their disruptors at him.
A woman dressed in the darker uniform of the Tal 'Shiar stepped forward.
“Vrelek Debure, you are under arrest for conspiracy and treason.”
“What?” he stuttered. “I assure you I can explain everything.”
“I highly doubt that.” the woman replied coldly as he was led away by the soldiers.
By the time he was brought to his last abode in this life, tired, bruised, his clothes crumpled, he had figured it all out. They didn't even know about his conversation with Archer and they didn't care where he'd gotten the ration bars.
The guards pushed him into a grey, dirty cell, where Shelbeth was already waiting for him, standing up and looking sheepishly at him, as much as that was possible with a face as swollen and bruised as his. The Tal'Shiar hadn't been kind to him. Debure noticed the bloodied bandages around the former Governor's right hand. Apparently, they had cut off a few of his fingers. No wonder he'd been so talkative.
After all that had happened to him, Debure had landed here only because of the forged permits Shelbeth had given him. It would have been funny if it didn't mean his death.
“I'm sorry.” Shelbeth said sadly.
“Don't. I don't want to hear it.” he retorted angrily. What good was any apology to him, now?
“But... I only did it because...”
“Oh, spare me the explanations! It doesn't make any damned difference!”
Shelbeth sat down, resigned. For a while they sat in silence.
“It almost worked, too.” Shelbeth said softly.
Ereleth supposed there were better jobs out there, more prestigious ones certainly. But he was happy with what he did. Repairing space ships was his boyhood's dream come true. The only thing he despised about it was the paperwork that sometimes came with the job. At the moment, he was working his way through all the forms needing to be filled out before the confiscated cargo ship they were supposed to overhaul could be returned instead of working on the ship itself, like Rakitha.
Speak of the devil.
“What is it?”
“Look what I've found in that confiscated ship!” she said excitedly and held up a data stick.
Ereleth looked around carefully, but they were alone.
“Uh, Rakitha, this could be evidence.”
“I know. How exciting. Right?”
He couldn't help but smile warmly at her.
“Don't you want to know what's on it, Eri?”
He sighed. Whenever she used his nick name, he found himself unable to refuse her anything.
“Ok, put it in.”
She did and pressed 'play' in a dramatic fashion. The old speakers on Ereleth's desk came to life.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes and yes. And who are you?”
“My name's Jonathan Archer...”