Starfleet shuttle Steadfast
Edge of Benzar System
Section 31 operative Holly Madsen didn’t even try to hide her annoyance. She impatiently ran a hand through her long auburn hair as she watched the space in front of her forward port undulate.
So little had gone right since this mission had begun so why shouldn’t the Romulans be early, she surmised. The air hitched in her throat as the aged D7 Stormbird battle cruiser appeared before her. Its main disruptor port, at the lower half of its circular command pod, reminded her of a gaping mouth. Her eyes traced along the ship’s long, graceful neck to its spread-wing primary hull. Madsen hadn’t seen one of those outside of her high school history holovids. Based off 23rd century Klingon designs, the Stormbird had once been the backbone of both the Romulan and Klingon fleets.
Despite their impressive appearance up close, the Section 31 agent had to wonder how badly the Romulan military had been wrecked by the war if they were pulling D7s out of mothballs. It was something she filed away to report to her superiors later.
She quickly checked the codes the Stormbird sent again to insure they were correct. Satisfied, she hailed the ship. An attractive Romulan appeared on the small viewscreen set atop the main console.
He had glossy black hair, hawkish features and a smoothly sloping brow. After she introduced herself, he replied curtly, “I am Centurion Gakket, master of the Aidoann.”
Madsen chuckled, despite herself. Gakket frowned, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Have I said something to amuse you?”
“Yes,” Holly saw no need to prevaricate. “‘Master of the moon’, eh?” She teased, “Quite a lofty title indeed.” It took Gakket a few seconds to get her meaning and then the man eased considerably.
“You know our tongue?” He asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes,” Madsen nodded, “I am fluent in Rihan, both high and low.”
Gakket nodded respectfully, “I am impressed,” he said. Holly brightened, hoping that her cheeks weren’t warming enough for him to notice. She could tell that praise was rare commodity from someone like the centurion. “A challenge perhaps?” He offered.
“What do you propose?” She asked.
“That we conduct our conversation thenceforth without aid of the universal translator,” he ventured.
“You’re on,” she said. Holly had been bored out of her mind, waiting for the Astral Eddy, so she was up for a little distraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad having someone else to sit out the wait with. Though it would complicate matters just a tad to confiscate the nanomite without being detected, but Holly was confident of her skills.
“We have scanned your vessel,” Gakket said, with no hint of apology, “and we have not detected the three stasis pods we had been informed would be aboard.” The man was quite fluid with his tongue, switching from low to high Rihan and then again. He was trying to trip her up.
“That’s because you got here a little early, plus the Corvallens are running a little late,” Madsen answered.
“Do you have an expected arrival time?” He asked, his face flushing green with annoyance.
Holly gave him her best estimate, based off her last conversation with Ronzek. “You are welcome to wait it out with me,” she offered. “It should not be more than a day.”
Gakket replied with a closed mouth, half-smile. “A pity really,” he said quietly, more to himself than her it seemed.
“What are you talking about?” Madsen asked.
“You are very good with our language,” he said, “I wish that we could chat more.”
“Well we have at least twenty four more hours,” she offered, wondering if this was the way that Romulan males flirted.
“No,” he shook his head, a sad gleam in his eye. “You don’t.” His image disappeared from the screen seconds before her scanners went insane with warnings.
Aidoann powered shields and weapons, the great maw glowing red with a building fire. Madsen tried to hail them, to demand a reason for their treachery, to command, and then beg them to stop. But for Gakket the conversation was over.
And Madsen knew it would soon be over for her as well. Strangely calmed, relieved even that her life of deceit was over, Holly performed her final act. As the disruptor fired dispersed, she released a communications buoy, with her last few missives-including this fateful conversation, to the astral winds of fate.
Hopefully the section would retrieve it and avenge her. Though she went to her death, doubting that very much.
Hall of State
Praetor Hiren settled into his seat, smoothing his purple robes of state as he did so. Despite his long years of public service, in the Imperial Fleet and later the Senate, he had never liked surprises or being roused from slumber.
He smiled with gallows humor at the thought that maybe he should have trod another path to glory.
The leader of the Star Empire watched as the other eight members of the Continuing Committee reached their seats at the crescent shaped table. Despite the hour, each was immaculately dressed and groomed, and all were sharp eyed. He nodded curtly to a few, while gracing others with a closed lipped smile.
Once they had all sat, Hiren cleared his throat, before addressing his aide. “Major,” he said to the dutiful young woman standing at the entrance to the room, among the security detail. Her posture became rigid, her gaze brightened with anticipation. “Please activate the holoprojector.”
Though he could’ve done it himself, easily from the companel at his portion of the table, what was the point of being Praetor if you didn’t have people attend to your every whim?
He was still getting used to the praetorship and the exercising of such immense power, the weight of such terrible responsibility, but Hiren had to admit that the job did have its perks. The lights dimmed as the hologram flickered to life, bathing the conference table in a pale blue tint.
Though he had reviewed the holographic message several times before calling the meeting, Hiren watched it again with rapt attention. A floor-to-ceiling image of Senator Sterqil emanated from emitters.
“And I thought he couldn’t get any bigger,” joked Senator Vagus. The jocularity drew a reproachful glare from Proconsul Retant.
After the portly Senator had recounted his conversation with the Federation High Commissioner, Hiren ordered his assistant to deactivate the projector. The lights brightened slightly, but were still dim enough to fill the room with wells of shadows. Hiren thought the lighting added a solemnity to the very grave matters that the committee had to discuss.
The praetor paused, allowing each of the other councilors to absorb the contents of Sterqil’s message.
Admiral Lendak, head of the Imperial Navy, as was his wont, spoke first. “So it appears that the Federation will use force to keep Benzar within their empire.”
“That is what Senator Sterqil believes,” Senator Vagus said, and as was typical with representative from the Jarathik Segment, the wizened thrai rarely revealed what he believed. It was undoubtedly the secret to his long career.
“Yes, that is what Senator Sterqil said,” General Jelal, commandant of the Romulan Guard, joined the conversation, “But there is no indication that the Federation or Starfleet has engaged in any actions that support that belief.” The ebon, prematurely white haired, woman was new to her post as head of all Romulan military forces. And also similar to Hiren, Jelal had to stave off rivals, chief among them was Lendak.
“General Jelal is correct,” Senator Marzan, representing the Senate’s liberals, chimed in. The committee’s youngest member, Hiren’s desire to have the idealistic public servant on the council had met with some resistance. Despite his predecessor Neral’s many mistakes, Hiren wanted to continue and expand Neral’s attempts to bring diverse views into the halls of government.
Granted some of his openness was crafty politics, a lure designed to draw out traitors, but Neral was a supporter of loyal dissent and Hiren wanted to follow in the man’s footsteps, at least in that regard. “I believe that Senator Sterqil is overreacting to the words of a disgruntled civil servant, a person who had just experienced a setback since the Benzites had rejected her proposal to monitor their plebiscite,” the fair skinned, russet haired man declared. “We can hardly conclude that she speaks for the entire Federation in this instance.”
“But didn’t the entire Federation send her to speak on their behalf to Benzar in the first place?” Senator Gelvana sneered, prompting a grunt of vindication from Lendak. The fine boned, almond-eyed Gelvana was quite the conversation starter in the Senate chamber and among the Ki Baratan social circle. Hiren’s wife always latched onto him at whatever social gathering she knew that Gelvana would also be attending. The woman’s delicate beauty masked a fierce nationalism.
Gelvana was one of the most fervent warhawks in the Senate. “The human was sending us a message. She was threatening us. We must respond to the threat with one of our own.”
“And what do you propose exactly?” Senator Tal’Aura asked, not holding back on the skepticism. “That we order a fleet of ships into the Benzar system?”
The attractive, austere Tal’Aura hid whatever bitterness she felt over losing the praetor post to Hiren. Hiren in turn had made sure to block the woman from becoming his proconsul.
Though he valued diversity of thought, Tal’Aura’s documented support for many of the subject races giving the Empire, and Hiren, so many headaches of late, made her too unstable a variable in his inner circle.
At least Tal’Aura wasn’t as bad as Marzan, who even flirted with the reunification movement started by the Federation veruul Spock, but still her presence, and the constant worries about her loyalty, would have been too destabilizing.
“Don’t you think that could be just the provocation that the Federation wants, to declare the Benzite referendum illegitimate if it the Benzites chose to secede?” Tal’Aura asked.
Gelvana snorted, muttering under her breath. “What was that?” Tal’Aura prompted.
“I think that Senator Tal’Aura is on to something,” Marzan, seemingly oblivious to the daggers being thrown between the two women, stepped into their neutral zone, “Yes if we overreact now, who is to say that the Benzites won’t feel pressured to vote for secession, under the gun?”
“Of course you want the secession to succeed so that you can fob the Remans off on them,” Gelvana retorted. The Romulans had toyed with the idea of removing their forces from Benzar in exchange for the Federation taking their Reman population. It had been an idea to kill two mogai with one stone: ending a costly occupation while also dispensing of a riled populace. The Remans’ advocating for greater rights within the empire had sparked similar fires.
Hiren wished to stop the fires from becoming a conflagration that could consume the empire. However he also wished to keep add Benzar to the empire’s sphere of influence while corralling the dissident factions growing across the empire. He would not be the praetor that showed weakness to his rivals, within or without the empire. So the Reman repatriation idea, floated by Senator Tal’Aura, had been shelved.
“That was my recommendation,” Senator Tal’Aura spoke up, “Not Senator Marzan’s. I would not presume to speak for him.”
“Senator Tal’Aura is correct,” Marzan added. “I wish for greater rights for the Remans here, on Remus, Romulus, and throughout the Empire.”
“If wishes were set’leths, everyone would have one,” cracked Admiral Lendak. “The Remans, like all of the other disruptive subjects, have to be shown a strong hand.”
“Which we are incapable of doing at this moment,” General Jelal soberly replied, “And if you were not so infected with war fever you would see how badly another war, while we are in the midst of recovering from the last one would devastate the empire.”
“We’ve weathered greater storms,” Lendak huffed, puffing out his chest. Hiren was surprised that the haughty man didn’t thud his fist against it, “The Sundering, the war with Earth, the strife with the Klingons, and lastly the Dominion.”
“I didn’t need a laundry list of past campaigns,” Jelal sniffed. “I’m more concerned with the future, and as it stands,” she paused, the next words difficult for her, “We need the Remans to shore up our forces.”
“Impossible,” Gelvana gasped, mortified, “That we would need those…those…nhaidhs!”
“The Remans acquitted themselves with honor during the war with the Dominion,” Jelal said as rejoinder. “They have earned a place among us.”
“And Senator Gelvana well knows that the same blood runs through Reman and Romulan veins,” Marzan said, “It is not a popular view, but it is a scientific fact.”
Though Gelvana and Lendak fumed, Vagus beetled his thick gray eyebrows in concern, and the others had varying degrees of perturbation on their faces, Hiren was amazed that such an assertion had been uttered in the Hall of State, much less in the presence of a Praetor.
For Marzan to do so, and so forthrightly, was a sign of how much Romulus had changed from even a decade ago.
It didn’t matter that the young man was right, that the Remans were unfortunate victims of Remus’s environment, which had mutated its Romulan settlers to nearly an unrecognizable degree, but a system of domination, of slavery, demanded that the Romulan people see the Remans as completely alien.
Because if Romulans recognized the Remans as their brethren, then they would have to accept the idea that fellow Romulans could be enslaved, and this went against their well cultivated sense of superiority and would put to a lie the oft promised manifest destiny that awaited them among the stars.
Hiren shook his head, not ready to contemplate such a horrible day of realization. “We are getting off track,” he admonished the group. “Keep your thoughts on what the Federation might do about the Benzar referendum.”
“It is quite simple,” Lendak declared, “Our sovereignty is being challenged.”
“The last I checked, Benzar is not a part of the Star Empire,” Jelal said, obviously relishing the opportunity to check her rival. “Further, they have not asked for us to send additional ships into their system.”
“As if we need their permission,” Gelvana scoffed.
“Benzar is still a member of the Federation,” Tal’Aura pointed out.
“A mere technicality,” Gelvana shot back.
“But one that is codified by law,” Marzan said. “I don’t see any way that us sending more ships into Benzar could not be seen as an encroachment on Federation sovereignty.”
“And an act of war,” Jelal added.
“I agree,” Proconsul Retant said, after a long pause. Hiren sat back, and took the measure of each member of the committee. Eventually his eyes fell on the sole member who hadn’t said anything.
“Chairman Koval,” Hiren prompted, “Care to grace us with your thoughts?” The tall, dour head of the Tal Shiar leaned forward, one eye drooping noticeably. Though Koval tried to be circumspect, Hiren knew about the man’s struggle with Tuvan Syndrome. It was only a matter of time Hiren surmised before the terminal neurological disease won. And since Hiren didn’t trust nor particularly like Koval, he thought about giving the disease an assist.
“The eyes and ears we have on Benzar and Earth has not informed us that Starfleet is preparing to retain the planet by force,” Koval intoned; his countenance as dry as his voice. “I would remind everyone present that the Federation is in the middle of a close presidential campaign. The beleaguered incumbent President Santiago is constrained from taking any major action on the Benzar question at this time. From what we know of him, he is extremely cautious and would consider a preemptive action, such as the one Admiral Lendak and Senator Gelvana suggest, too risky politically.”
“But what of the High Commissioner’s threat?” Gelvana asked, not wanting to let it go.
Koval slowly nodded his head, as if he was considering her words. Hiren wasn’t sure if he was or if was all an act. So much with the man was orchestrated, but so it was with the praetor and everyone else on the committee. “It was likely the ranting of an angry woman. Our files on Commissioner McCall are replete with similar off-the-cuff statements. However we could make her words prophetic if we send a fleet into the system. It would be the impetus for the Federation President to do likewise.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Admiral Lendak said, with typical overconfidence.
“Even if Santiago is a cautious man, he would have no choice, the Federation populace would demand he take drastic steps, and he would to secure his reelection,” Koval promised, “I don’t think it would be prudent to tip his hand.”
Hiren’s hands formed into a steeple as he mulled over all of the points made during the conversation. The assemblage waited, with varying degrees of patience, yet all remained silent. A course determined, the praetor sat up in his chair. His voice strong, Hiren declared, “We will not send a fleet into the Benzar system, but we will increase our patrols along the border of the Benzar system and along the Neutral Zone. Further, I want our warships presently in the Benzar system to be on the lookout for any Starfleet perfidy.”
“A prudent course,” Proconsul Retant, nodding her head with approval, “Let the Federation make the first move.”
“The fatal move,” Admiral Lendak added. Clearly he wasn’t pleased by Hiren’s answer, but the man was loyal. He was a soldier who knew how to follow orders. Hiren, a veteran himself, wished that everyone held such values.
“Lastly,” he said, the thought occurring to him. “While my counterpart might be skittish to send a large force into the Benzar system, that doesn’t mean he won’t act to subvert the will of its people. Chairman Koval, I want you to increase the scope of the Tal Shiar’s activities within the Benzar system. If Starfleet Intelligence makes a move, I want it countered,” He paused for dramatic effect, his dark eyes brimming with fire, “and stopped, by lethal means if necessary.”
“And if not necessary per se, I’m sure you can find a reason to make it so,” Gelvana’s grin was almost lascivious. For once, no one disagreed. Hiren adjourned the meeting, pleased that the diverse voices had been brought together to support his one course of action.
Being praetor might be much easier than he had suspected, Hiren thought with some relief.