Star Trek #96: Rihannsu #4: Honor Blade [NOOK Book]

Overview


At last, the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire have agreed to meet on neutral ground to attempt to resolve the tangle of intrigue and conspiracy that began with the hijacking of the U.S.S. Intrepid many years ago -- but the meeting may be as dangerous as the war they hope to avoid.

As a show of good faith, the crew of the legendary Starship Enterprise™ has been ordered to attend the talks. In their informal charge is Romulan renegade Ael, the wanted ...

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Star Trek #96: Rihannsu #4: Honor Blade

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Overview


At last, the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire have agreed to meet on neutral ground to attempt to resolve the tangle of intrigue and conspiracy that began with the hijacking of the U.S.S. Intrepid many years ago -- but the meeting may be as dangerous as the war they hope to avoid.

As a show of good faith, the crew of the legendary Starship Enterprise™ has been ordered to attend the talks. In their informal charge is Romulan renegade Ael, the wanted fugitive who, with Kirk, served as a catalyst of the current troubles. Kirk must represent the interests of the Federation first and foremost, but the best approach to an agreement remains muddled in the ever-shifting Romulan order.

And the visiting Romulan party is as fractious and divided as their troubled world. Among the Romulan nobles in attendance are the hero and popular Senator Arrhae, who secretly helped rescue Dr. Leonard McCoy from a Romulan execution, and the very men and women who put McCoy on trial for treason -- and tried to carry out the sentence.

As Kirk and crew attempt to renegotiate a delicate peace, and Romulans attempt to restore their tarnished honor, it becomes increasingly apparent that their only course of action is to prepare for war!

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743422338
  • Publisher: Pocket Books/Star Trek
  • Publication date: 1/9/2002
  • Series: Star Trek: The Original Series , #96
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 339,315
  • File size: 2 MB

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Chapter Six

Sempach was one of a newer, experimental class of cruisers, the Constellation class, named in memory of Matt Decker's old ship that had been lost against the planet killer in the L-374 system not so very long ago. The class-name ship and Sempach had been the first out of the shipyards, with Speedwell close behind, and all of them were already busy performing their basic function -- trying out a new four-nacelle design that was supposed to provide starships with a more streamlined and reliable warp field, capable of higher speeds. The technology, referred to as "pre-transwarp" in some of the literature Jim had seen, was extremely interesting but technically somewhat difficult to understand, and Scotty had passed it on to his captain with a single comment: "Rubbish." Nonetheless, the technology seemed so far to be working all right, and the design crews had plainly been busy elsewhere too: the ship was very handsome from the outside, with a lean and rakish look to her. As the transporter effect wore off, Jim looked around Sempach's transporter room, surprised at its size and its somewhat nonutilitarian look; there was even a small lounge area off to one side, with comfortable seating. Kind of overdone, Jim thought as he greeted the transporter technician at the console and then raised an eyebrow at himself. She's affecting me. Still, it'd be nice not having to stand around waiting for visiting dignitaries to arrive.

The transporter room doors opened, and Commodore Danilov came in, looking much as he had when Jim had last seen him in San Francisco: a brawny man of medium height, dark with a combination of Polynesian and eastern European blood, the dark hair going silver-shot now above a broad, round face, surprisingly unlined for someone of his age.

"Sir," Jim said, "you hardly had to come down here to meet me..."

The commodore gave him a wry look out of his sharp dark eyes as they shook hands. "Captain," Danilov said, "I'm still learning to find my way around this ship. I know I could have sent a lieutenant for you, but they get lost too. Come on."

They went off down the corridors together, the commodore making his way quickly enough despite his disclaimer. Jim's feelings about his superior officers ranged from the respectful to the occasionally scandalous, but here was one man in whose case he came down hard on the respectful side: twenty-five years in Starfleet, the kind of officer who flew a ship or a desk with equal skill -- though he fought them more often than he simply flew them. Danilov's experience and effectiveness in battle had become legendary; in particular, he had probably scored more points during the last big war with the Klingons than any other commander except Captain Suvuk of Intrepid, until the Organians blew the whistle and stopped play. Jono Danilov had that invaluable commodity for a commander, a reputation for luck: he always seemed to come out only slightly scorched from any trouble he got into, no matter how the trouble seemed to seek him out -- and it did.

"She's a fine ship," he said to Jim as they turned a corner, "a little fidgety at first, but she's settled in nicely now. Fleet's pleased: they're already flying the keels for the two new ones -- Stargazer and Hathaway."

Jim nodded. "She's a real lady, Commodore. And she still has that new-ship smell."

"I want to keep it that way for a while," Danilov said, shooting Jim a look, "and avoid getting things all scorched and smoky. The question is, will I be able to."

He came to a door without a label and waved it open. Danilov's quarters were considerably bigger than Jim's on Enterprise, and the office was also a lot more spacious. "Palatial," Jim said. "Rank hath its privileges."

"Hardly. This is the standard captain's cabin for this model. Sit down, Jim, please. Can I offer you a brandy?"

"Thank you, Dan, yes."

He went over to a glass-doored cupboard and got it, and Jim sat looking around him for the moment at the furnishings, as spare as most field personnel's, but still individual: on the desk, a sleek, round old Inuit soapstone sculpture of a bear; a good amateur watercolor of the Ten-Thousand-Step Stair in misty weather, hanging on the wall behind the desk along with a brace of latoun-inlaid "snapdragon" flintlocks from Altair VI; a shaggy blue tree-pelt from Castaneda draped over the back and seat of the high-backed chair behind the desk.

Danilov handed Jim the drink in a heavy-bottomed crystal glass and seated himself. "Viva," he said, lifting his glass.

"Cheers," Jim said, and sipped.

They sat appreciating the drinks for a few seconds, but no more. "So," Danilov said, "tell me about this little engagement you had here."

"Little!" Jim gave him a look. "Seven ships against two, sir; not my kind of odds. And circumstances were less than ideal."

"It would have been seven against one," Danilov said, "had things gone strictly by the book."

"They didn't," Jim said, "because I used some latitude in construing the orders that Fleet had specifically given me."

"Might I inquire about the reasons, Jim?" Danilov asked. "Or was it just on general principle?"

"I had a hunch."

Danilov let out a long breath. "No arguing with those," he said after a moment. "They've saved both our lives often enough before now."

"And it turns out to have been a good thing, in retrospect. It proves I was correct to be concerned about leaks of information from -- " Even now Jim could hardly bring himself to say "Starfleet." "From Earth."

Dan sat back and looked at him. "No one but Fleet should have known where Bloodwing was going to be, or when," Jim said, "and regardless, there were seven Romulan vessels waiting for us there, cloaked. If Ael had been on site when originally scheduled, she would be dead now."

"Not a captive?"

"I doubt it. No one offered us the opportunity to surrender her. They just attacked."

"Your presence there might have affected their plans."

"That's occurred to me. But it doesn't matter, Dan. Bloodwing's commander wouldn't have allowed herself to be taken alive. She would have fought until her ship was destroyed to prevent the Sword, or herself, falling into their hands."

"You're sure of that?"

"Yes."

"You're sure," Danilov said, looking steadily at Jim, "that your thinking on this particular subject is clear?"

"Dan," Jim said, nettled, "'this particular subject' is a non-subject. My 'thinking' as regards Commander t'Rllaillieu is clear enough for my first officer, who is something of an expert on the clarity of thought, and my CMO, who is something of an expert on humans in general, and me in particular." Danilov's gaze dropped. "The commander is a courageous and sometimes brilliant officer who, at the cost of her own career, sought us out and gave us valuable information which kept the balance of power from being irreparably destroyed. If the effectiveness of that intervention has been rendered short-lived by subsequent events, well, such things happen. If one of us had done the things she's done, he or she would have been loaded down with enough decorations to make the wearer fall face forward on trying to stand. But because she's from an unfriendly power, no one seems willing to take what she's done at face value."

There was a short silence. "The point is," Danilov said, "she's a Romulan. And Romulans plot."

Jim got up and started to pace. "Dan, with all due respect, you know as well as I do why you were so glad to get away from that desk in San Francisco. Politics! Romulans have politics just as we do, though possibly in a more complex mode. But this time, politics is failing, as it sometimes does, to keep this culture's internal conflicts from erupting into a war that affects others outside it. Including us. And we still have a problem at our end, because somehow very detailed information about our reactions to this situation is leaking out of Starfleet and getting to the Romulans -- going straight to where it can do the most harm." Jim paused and gripped the back of his chair, leaning on it. "Something has to be done, and fast. Otherwise, when hostilities do break out, we're going to be in serious trouble."

Danilov sat back. "Your concern," he said, "is noted and logged."

"Which reassures me. But what's being done about it?"

Danilov just looked at him for a moment. "Jim, I can't discuss it."

Which meant he either knew something was being done, or knew that nothing was. "It's going to impair our conduct of this operation," Jim said, "if our personnel can't be sure that details of where they'll be aren't being piped straight through to the people who're going to be shooting at them."

"You leave the conduct of the operation with me," Danilov said, "since that's where Starfleet has placed it." The look he gave Jim implied that even enduring comradeship would not be allowed to interfere with some things.

Jim let the pause stretch out. "Yes, sir."

Danilov let out a long breath and reached out to pick up the smooth gray soapstone bear, turning it over in his hands. "Aside from that for the moment, Jim, message traffic has become an issue. It's way, way up on the Romulan side. We don't even need to be able to read those messages to know that a massive mobilization is under way, and to understand perfectly well where it's pointing."

"Lieutenant Uhura tells me that Starfleet message traffic has also been reaching unusual levels," Jim said, sitting down again.

Danilov nodded. "Yes. With that in mind, we're carrying some material for you that Starfleet didn't want to send out through the ether. Strategy briefings, general intelligence from inside the Imperium...other information."

"They are afraid that some of our codes have been broken."

Danilov put the bear back down on his desk. "Yes. Some have been allowed to go 'stale' on purpose, for use when we want traffic to be intercepted. We've hand carried in two new encryption systems for you; all the rest of the ships in the task force have them already. You're to have your science officer install them immediately. One of them is for use now, the other is to be held."

"For when war breaks out..." Jim said.

Danilov looked at Jim with great unease. "No one in Fleet is saying that word out loud," he said. "But you don't have to be a telepath to hear people thinking it."

"And another thing about message traffic," Jim said. "Are you sure the monitoring stations are functioning properly? Those Romulan ships shouldn't have been able to cross the Zone, cloaked or not, without being detected by the monitoring web. Are some of those satellites malfunctioning? Have they been sabotaged? Or have the Romulans come up with a cloaking device that not even the monitoring stations' hardware can detect?"

Danilov frowned, shook his head. "It's being looked into, Jim. We're carrying a specialist communications team that will be performing advanced remote sensing and diagnostic routines to see what the story is when we get close enough to the Zone. For the moment, we're treating the information as reliable once it's been corroborated by other intelligence sources."

Jim nodded. He took out the data solid he had brought with him and passed it across the desk to the commodore, who put it on the reading pad. A little holographic text window leaped into being, scrolling down some of the contents with a soft chirring sound.

"While we're on the subject of things better not pumped into the ether at the moment," Jim said, "on this solid is our most recent work on the Sunseed project, including a way to tune starships' shields in order to screen out the worst of the artificial ion storm effect. I think this should be passed immediately to every other Starfleet vessel within range...and the preferred method of passing it should be by hand carry rather than broadcast."

Danilov looked at the text a moment longer, then nodded and touched the reading plate. The "window" disappeared with a chirp. "We'll pass it to them tomorrow," he said, turning the solid over in his hands.

"More material should be forthcoming shortly," Jim said. "But this kept our rear ends out of the sling at 15 Tri. Please make sure everyone takes it seriously."

"All right." Danilov looked up again. "There's no doubt that your forethought pulled this one out of the fire, Jim. It was a nasty situation, elegantly handled. But I should warn you, there'll still be some at Fleet who construe this kind of order juggling as an indication of someone trying to see how much he can get away with..."

"You're saying," Jim said, "that they're looking for proof of loyalty via blind obedience. Not the best place to look for it, Dan. But even if they are presently wasting their time worrying about minor issues like that, I don't think they'll have leisure for it much longer."

"No," Danilov said, "not once things get started tomorrow morning." He brought his standard desk viewer around toward him and glanced at it. "The first nonofficial meeting happens tomorrow morning. Lake Champlain and Hemalat have gone ahead to meet the Romulans and bring them in to RV Tri; we expect to hear that they've made contact in a few hours. Tomorrow afternoon, our ships' time, we'll be arriving at the rendezvous point. That evening, we have a social event to allow for some early assessments and to let both sides synchronize the meeting schedule -- no one wants to be up in the middle of their own night while the other side is fresh. And then the main session gets under way, and we find out how much trouble we're really in."

"While behind us, on both sides, the eagles gather..." Jim frowned. "A lot of chances for things to go wrong, Dan. Somebody on one side or the other jumps the gun, and the shooting starts..."

"If any of my commanders do any such thing," Danilov said, "I will have their hides for hangings."

"A pity you can't enforce something similar on the Romulans," Jim said.

"We will play by the rules," Danilov said. "What the Romulans will do, the event will show."

Jim's smile was both grim and amused. "That's almost exactly what Ael said...You should come over and meet her this evening."

"I will," said Danilov, "once we're under way. I wouldn't mind getting out of this general area, just in case anyone else turns up."

"That's another concern, Dan. On that solid I gave you there's a 3-D analysis I did earlier. Later on you should take a look at it -- "

"Why not now?" Danilov said. He put the solid down on the reader plate again and touched another control. Jim's hologram of the area where Empire, Imperium, and Federation all met now sprang into life in the air.

Jim's smile was annoyed. "Dan, it's just not fair that you have all these slick new gadgets when I -- "

"Now, now," Danilov said, "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ship."

"Yes, well. But my neighbor's weaponry," Jim said, "is another matter."

Danilov smiled at that as he rotated the hologram. "Yes, Sempach is loaded for bear, isn't she? I've been wishing for a chance to use what she's got. Now I wish I didn't have to...and I'm becoming increasingly sure I will."

He paused, looking at the hologram. "You think there might be a multiple-location breakout."

"It's occurred to me."

"Fleet's been thinking that way too." Danilov looked at the hologram, sighed, and reached sideways to pick up his bear again, turning it over and over in his hands. "And there sit the Klingons. Or rather, they haven't been sitting; they've been running amok in the Romulan fringe systems -- smash-and-grab stuff, asset-stripping the furthest planets."

"Suggesting they know the Romulans are going to make a big move now and won't bother defending targets that distance makes difficult to support."

"It does suggest that, doesn't it," Danilov said. "Hints and suggestions...I'd give a lot for some recent hard data from a source I trust."

"You may get some of that shortly."

"I desperately hope so." He turned away from the hologram and put the bear aside. "Well, is there anything else?"

Jim and the commodore looked at each other somewhat somberly as Jim stood up. "As regards Starfleet's concerns about me," Jim said, "you don't believe them, Dan, do you? You know me better than that."

Danilov didn't say anything for a long moment. "Look, Jim," he said finally, "people change. We're scattered all over the galaxy, all of us, for prolonged periods of time, in strange and sometimes disturbing circumstances. Starship captains are selected for stability, we both know that. But there's a galaxy full of unknowns out there, not to mention the ones at the bottom of the human mind...and things that can't always be predicted do happen. In a ship of this class, it's hard to avoid thinking frequently of Matt Decker."

"Matt was a one-off."

"Garth of Izar."

"That wasn't his fault. The alien treatment that saved his life -- "

"Ron Tracey."

Jim grimaced.

"Jim," Danilov said, "we may or may not be a breed apart, but when starship commanders go off the rails, we do it spectacularly. Now, don't mistake me. I know perfectly well you're not likely to do anything like what Matt did. But every heart has its weaknesses, and conflicting loyalties can crucify a man faster than anything else."

"You can tell the fleet admiral," Jim said, standing very straight, "that my loyalties to the Federation and to Starfleet are quite clear, in accordance with my oaths to both those organizations. Starfleet Command should relieve me immediately if they think otherwise. But I will fight such a course of action, for they have no evidence whatsoever to back up any such suspicions. And I will win that fight."

Danilov looked at him steadily. "They sent you ahead to warn me, didn't they?" Jim said.

"I volunteered to make this side trip when I saw which way the wind was blowing back on Earth," Danilov said after a moment. "We've known each other a good while, Jim. You were the most ornery ensign a first-time lieutenant ever had to keep in order. But you wouldn't lie to a shipmate then, and I don't believe you'd lie to a fellow officer now. Indeed, you weren't all that good at lying when you had to."

"Possibly the root of this whole problem," Jim said softly, remembering how he had flinched, long ago, at reading the sealed orders from Starfleet that finally sent Enterprise into the Neutral Zone under the command of a captain who had to seem to be losing his marbles. And as for this time...

"Yes. You know the truth, and I'm sure you're telling it to me. But, Jim, you understand...they have to be sure."

"I understand," Jim said. "But it doesn't make me any happier about it, at a time like this, to find them so damned uncertain."

"No one promised us these jobs were necessarily going to make us happy all the time," Commodore Danilov said. "And our superiors are as mortal as we are, and as fallible."

"They are?" Jim said. "There go all my illusions."

Danilov chuckled. "Jim, our three ships will leave immediately for the task force rendezvous point at RV Tri. Nimrod will join us in a couple of hours, and Ortisei shortly thereafter. We should find Hemalat and Lake Champlain waiting for us with the Romulans: Speedwell has another errand and may arrive a little late. A little before we arrive at RV Tri, Ortisei will escort Bloodwing out of the area. Together they'll stay some light-years out of detection range until and unless they're called in."

"I'll pass that on to Commander t'Rllaillieu," Jim said.

"Will she cooperate?" Danilov said, looking closely at him again.

"She will," Jim said. "But I must tell you that she's already made it plain she has no intention of freely giving herself up to the Romulans if they ask for her."

"That could be a problem."

"It has to be one that Starfleet's anticipated. And it's a problem only if they decide they want to hand her over to the Romulans. Which, taking that into account" -- he nodded at the hologram hanging in the air, burning in red, blue, and green -- "isn't going to keep them from going to war now. Not after what they did at 15 Tri."

Danilov looked at the hologram. "I wish I could be sure," he said. "The Federation isn't. Part of our job here is to find out whether this war really has to happen."

"You may find out the answer," Jim said, "by being in the first battle, Dan."

"We're prepared for that," Danilov said. "But just as prepared to walk away, if there's any way to have peace break out instead."

"Amen," Jim said, reaching down to the desk and lifting his glass.

They knocked their glasses together and tossed off the remainder of the brandy. Jim put his glass down as Danilov did. "Jim," Danilov said. "I know what shape of orders they cut you. Please...be careful...because you're being closely watched."

By you, old friend, Jim thought. "Thanks for the warning," he said as Danilov stood. "No, it's all right, Dan. I can find my way out."

Danilov sat down again, throwing him an amused look. "Later, Jim."

He left Danilov there looking at the holographic representation of the Triangulum spaces, and only got lost once on his way back to the transporter room.

Rihannsu song spoke wistfully enough of the ancient morning and evening stars, the old ships, long fallen from orbit. Nowadays, though, Teleb tr'Sathe thought, we have only the one...but it's better by far. Often enough, when on leave on ch'Rihan, he had looked up from some balmy beach or forest path and tracked it across the night sky. Right now he could not see it, but that was only natural: he was in it. But not for long!

Teleb turned from the wide plasteel port looking down on ch'Rihan and gazed back across the loading bay. It was a space half a stai wide, one of twenty docking and loading facilities arranged around a vast spherical central core that was big enough to take even the largest of Grand Fleet's starships. Ur-Metheisn was probably one of the biggest orbital ship-servicing facilities anywhere in known space; even the Klingons and the Federation had nothing to match it. They preferred smaller facilities, more spread out among their colonies. The Rihannsu school of thought preferred larger central facilities, "hubs," and this was the first and greatest of them: Sunside Station, the undisputed ruler of the skies over ch'Rihan. From it all the defense satellites were controlled and coordinated; from it the Fleet's ships were dispatched all over the Empire, executing the decisions made by the great-and-good down in the Dome. This was the beating heart of the Grand Fleet, and the kindly Elements had seen fit to drop Teleb right into the middle of it, his captain-apprenticeship successfully passed and himself newly promoted, the pins now bright on his collar, with his own cruiser Calaf poised graceful and nearly ready to go outside the docking and loading tube, and the prospect of battle in the offing. Life could not have looked brighter to him if Teleb had stared straight at the sun.

For the moment, he was doing what his mentor-captain had advised him -- standing by and letting his crew get on with their jobs -- though he would have much preferred to be right in the middle of them, hustling the loading crew, watching every detail. The excitement was definitely getting the better of him now. Artaleirh! When Teleb had seen the orders, he had nearly begun to sing with the sheer excitement of it all. Artaleirh was a vital system, and the news of the rebellion there had shocked and horrified him. But there would not be a rebellion for much longer. The sight of six cruisers in their skies would shortly remind those people of their proper loyalties. But if it doesn't -- Teleb frowned. He didn't much care for the idea of having to make war on other Rihannsu. Weren't there Klingons and Feds enough to destroy? But there was no place for rebellion if the Empire was to remain strong in the face of her enemies elsewhere in the galaxy. I am the servant of the Senate and the Praetorate, he thought. I am the strong arm of the Empire. I am a captain in Grand Fleet, and I will carry out my orders and win victory over the Empire's enemies, within it or without it, at whatever cost!

Then Teleb grinned. "Adolescent effusions." That was what his mentor-captain Mirrstul had called such statements, though she had been kindly enough about it. Well, she had a right to her opinions: she was a doughty warrior and a brilliant tactician. But he could not imagine her ever having been young. As for himself, while he had his youth, he was not going to waste it on too much somberness.

Teleb leaned against the bulkhead with his arms folded, watching one of the specialist loading crews bringing in the last batch of photon torpedoes, trundling them quickly down the huge loading tube into Calaf's lower weapons bay. He glanced at the chrono woven into his uniform sleeve. Almost ready, he thought. Teleb wanted very much to be the first to have the honor of reporting his ship ready to take off on this mission. A few breaths more, then I will take my bridge and be the first to make the announcement --

Then he caught sight of a tall dark shape walking quickly across the floor of the vast bay toward him, and he smiled slightly. Full dress uniform, glittering in black-gold and black; on departure day, you would never see Jisit in anything else. She was trying hard to look sober and serious, as befitted one setting out on an important mission, but such a demeanor always sat oddly on her as far as Teleb was concerned. His memory always overlaid them with the image of Jisit as she had been on that outrageous party night after her return from her first campaign, completely sozzled on ale, wearing a strange pointed hat with a tassel and singing "The High Queen's Bastard Daughter" to her crew and his in a key yet to be discovered by any other sentient being.

"Well, Captain tr'Sathe," she said, coming up to him and giving him two breaths' worth of bow.

"Well, Captain t'Nennien," he said, and gave it right back to her, to the very fraction of a second.

Then they both burst out laughing and collapsed into one another's arms. "Are you excited?" she hissed into his ear. "I can't bear it. I think I'll scream."

"Don't. They'll think you're singing again."

She laughed even harder and held him away. "Beast!"

"Guilty," Teleb said. "Is Teverresh ready?"

"Two loads to go yet, and my master engineer is complaining about retuning the warp drive before we leave. You'll beat me again, you fiddly little neirrh."

He grinned. "I must keep you in your place somehow."

"Oh, and what would that be?"

"Behind me."

"Behind your back, you mean." The grin went a little more sober. "But that way, with me and Teverresh there, maybe no one will stab you in it. It's not a safe place we're going, Teleb. Artaleirh has gone quiet."

"Oh?"

She shook her head. "The time limit on the ultimatum expired two hours ago. They made no answer to the Senate's last warning. We will have to implement our orders to the full."

Teleb sighed. "Are they all gone mad? With the Klingons running about savaging everything they can, this is no time to renounce the Empire's protection."

"Mad or not, we will call them back to their proper loyalty," Jisit said, "...or relieve them of it and take it on ourselves."

"And win glory..."

"I don't know about the glory," Jisit said, "but we'll carry out our orders, make our frontiers safe, and uphold the rule of law. That's good enough for me. Maybe pick up a few points toward my next promotion." She poked him none too gently in the shoulder. "And as for you, you stay out of trouble when we get there. It would be embarrassing for me to have to save you again, now that they've finally trusted you with Calaf without old Mirrstul looking over your shoulder."

"What do you mean, save me again?" But Teleb's chrono chirped softly. "That's it," he said, glancing over at the loading tubes. The Sunside-based loading crews were leaving, pushing the last of the floater pallets in front of them. "I should go."

"Go on," Jisit said, "and I'll resume reminding you of the Elements' own truth, which you are pleased to refuse to see, after this operation's over. Mind your crew now, Captain!"

"You mind yours, Captain," he said. She turned, but he caught her by the hand and she paused. He bowed over that hand, low enough to breathe softly on the back of it.

She smiled, gripped the hand as he straightened. "Message me tonight, after we make warp."

"I will."

She turned and headed away across the loading bay, and Teleb hurried across to Calaf's loading tube to make one final check on the condition of the weapons hold before going up to his bridge. He was humming the first line of "The High Queen's Bastard Daughter" as he went up the tube ramp into Calaf's belly, and away to his first real war.

Jim was still thinking about Sempach's weapons when he got back. The thought led to the idea that he'd like to look over her warp engines at some point, and that thought reminded him of something else. He paused in the corridor and hit a comm button. "Bridge."

"Bridge. Chekov here."

"Mr. Chekov, is Mr. Spock on the bridge?"

"He is on a scheduled break, Captain. I believe he has gone down to the main mess."

"Very well," Jim said. "Coordinate with the helm officer on Sempach; then notify Bloodwing we're setting course for RV Trianguli and implementing immediately."

"Aye, aye, sir," Chekov's voice came back.

"Kirk out."

Jim headed off down the corridor, caught a turbolift, and made his way down to the mess. There he found not only Spock but also McCoy, both finishing their lunches at one of the tables nearest the wall, both reading from electronic clipboard-padds as they did. Spock glanced up. "Captain -- " he said.

"Finish your lunch, Mr. Spock, there's no rush about anything." Jim went over to the hatch and got himself a chicken sandwich and a cup of coffee, then sat down with them.

"How was your meeting with the commodore?" McCoy said, pushing his clipboard away.

Jim made a rather wry face. "Affable enough. But Fleet is antsy, as I expected, about our association with Bloodwing...even though they suggested we renew it. Suspicions rear their ugly heads." He sighed, shook his head, and bit into his sandwich.

McCoy snorted. "Invisible cat syndrome."

It took a moment of dealing with the sandwich before Jim could respond. "What?"

"As regards the commander, anyway."

Spock glanced over at McCoy. "If I remember correctly, the paradigm was first used by a religious apologist on Earth in the early twentieth century."

"That's right. Say somebody comes along," McCoy said, "and points at a chair and says to you, 'There's an invisible cat in that chair.' Now, you know the person's nuts. You say to them, 'But there's nothing there. The chair's empty.' Their response is, 'And isn't that exactly how it would look if there were an invisible cat in the chair? See, you've proved my point.'"

"Argumentum ex fallacio," Spock said.

"In your case, Jim -- " McCoy had the grace to look just slightly abashed. "Well, come on. The source of all this trouble is that your opposite number's female. Bearing in mind some of your past behavior -- not that I'm casting any aspersions, mind you -- what are they supposed to think?"

Jim made a wry face. "This is just another way of saying it's all my own fault, isn't it?"

Spock addressed himself with renewed interest to his salad. "Jim," McCoy said, "they'll think what they think. You're not going to be able to change it, so you may as well just get on with what you were going to do anyway. How was the rest of your meeting?"

"Troubling," Jim said. He paused as a group of six or seven crewmen came into the mess and took a table, then headed for the food dispensers. "I think they're expecting the balloon to go up with a bang sometime after the talks with the Romulans, but no one seems to be clear about just when, or what will trigger it."

"I bet half of them are just hoping it doesn't happen, somehow," Bones said. "That the Romulans will just back down."

That thought had occurred to Jim, and it was making him nervous. He drank some coffee. "This time, I think that would be a serious miscalculation," he said. "Spock, I know perfectly well we run frequent readiness checks on all the weapons systems and the engines, but I want Scotty to use this next day or so to go over absolutely everything defense-oriented with a fine-tooth comb. Tell him to co-opt as much assistance from less busy departments aboard ship as he feels he needs to make sure that everything -- everything -- is in working order."

"Yes, Captain."

Jim finished his coffee and put the cup aside. "We also have some new cryptographic equipment or routines, or both, to be installed in the comm system and the main computer; they'll be coming over from Sempach. Which reminds me. Those automations Ael wanted you to have a look at? You never did report on those."

"It was not a very pressing matter, Captain. I wrote you a report, which you may not yet have seen."

Jim did his best to look unconcerned, but he knew he had been letting his paperwork slip a little lately. "Um. Well, what's the verdict?"

Spock put aside his empty bowl of salad and steepled his fingers. "I was able to assist them in several areas where newer programming and hardware needed to be restructured to interleave correctly with other, older control programs and routines," Spock said. "Bloodwing's personnel have been most ingenious, and I should also say innovative, in compensating for their present lack of manpower. But here and there conflicts had occurred, since some of the newer programming was done by crewmen with less expertise than might have been desired, and the automation reprogramming had extended to almost every system aboard the ship."

"Almost?"

"There was one notable exception," Spock said. "The ship's engines did not appear on the list of augmented systems which I was asked to examine."

Jim thought about that for a moment. "Well, they didn't lose too many people from their engineering department during the trouble, as I remember. And tr'Keirianh is a fairly hands-on sort, from what I can make of him. Maybe he's uneasy about allowing such a crucial system to be automated."

"It could be, Captain," Spock said. "It could also be that there was something involving Bloodwing's engine systems that the commander or the master engineer did not care to have me see."

Jim took another swig of coffee, considering that briefly. "Any evidence to support such a conjecture?"

"Little, and that circumstantial," Spock said. "Should another opportunity arise to investigate this, however, I confess I might attempt to do so."

"Curiosity, Mr. Spock?" Jim said.

Spock raised an eyebrow.

"Well, never mind it for now," Jim said. "Though if the opportunity arises this evening to do a little discreet inquiry, feel free." He sighed. "I won't be down in rec for long: I've got to start getting caught up on my paperwork. Meanwhile, when Ael and her people come by this evening to meet the commodore, see to it that each of them has an escort permanently within eyeshot. Security is going to become more of an issue now."

"I will see to it, Captain," Spock said. "Have you any preferences as to who should be assigned to the commander?"

Jim considered for a moment. "Now that you mention it..."

The darkness of the caverns, when the lights were turned down to their lowest, often seemed to amplify every sound, every breath. So it seemed very loud to Mheven when her mother spoke up suddenly out of what ought to have been her sleep.

"I hear," said Rrolsh. "I'm going out."

Mheven was at first not sure she hadn't been dreaming the words, for she had been thinking them, on and off, for nearly the past twenty days, since she came back from a mission. Is it really that long, she thought, that we have been down in this darkness? It seems like a thousand years. The sun -- she dreamed about that too, golden in an emerald sky, but she knew she was not going to see it anytime soon. Up there, in the light and the air, more light than just the sun's was raining down on the fertile land. The sky was still filled with ships raining down fire. The crops were all surely burned now, the forest blanketing these hills all charred, if what had happened to the city had been any indication.

"Mother," Mheven said to the unseen presence across the room, "you're half asleep. You know they've been scanning the surface constantly. Anyone who goes out will be caught and interrogated, and they'll discover where we are. Then all this will be for nothing."

A faint sound of bedding being discarded drifted across the darkness of the cavern. Mheven sighed and fumbled for the little battery lamp.

At her touch it glowed up to its preset level -- low; no one down here wasted power. Since the destruction of the concealed solar arrays in the last spate of bombing, there had been none to spare. Mheven looked across the low-ceilinged little rest-cave and saw what she expected: the water trickling down its dank walls, the supplies of food and water and materiel stacked up in their crates at the back of the cave, and the beautiful, drawn, tired, aging face of her mother popping suddenly out of the cold-tunic she was hurriedly pulling over her head. That grim face looked at her; those eyes, fierce and eager, looked into hers.

"You can't hear it?" she asked.

"Hear what?"

"I'm going out!"

Her mother scrambled up out of the bedroll and headed for the sleeping cave's entrance, which had someone's blanket hung up over it as a screen against the lights always burning on the other side. Mheven sighed and pulled on her own tunic. Kicking her bedroll aside, she went after her mother.

The main cavern, even with the tiny lights that were all the group now allowed itself, was still spectacularly beautiful. There had been a time when people had come from all over this part of the Empire to see these caverns, a natural wonder as astonishing in their way as the firefalls at Gal Gath'thonng on ch'Rihan; possibly the biggest natural caverns in all the Empire's worlds, but no one knew for sure, because no one had ever completely explored them in all the time the planet Ysail had been colonized, a matter of several hundred years. The caverns stretched beneath the smaller of the planet's two continents, Saijja, from the cliffs of Eilmajen in the east nearly to Veweil in the west, and they were so deep and complex that they had never even been completely mapped. Scanners could not reach so deep, not even the powerful ones used from space.

The refugees had picked this spot for their labors because it was one of the deepest caverns and because it was unknown to outsiders. Though in more peaceful times tourists had constantly been passing through one part or another of the Saijja Caverns, there had always been parts of the cavern complex that no tourist had ever been shown: the spelunkers' secrets, the private delights of those inhabitants of the planet who made it their business to come here every chance they got in leisure time, exploring a frontier that was not infinite but that would certainly take thousands of years to discover fully.

This one, the greatest cavern to be found for several hundred miles in any direction, was called Bheirsenn: "bright in the night," in the local dialect. When the lights were on, it was bright indeed -- a vast bubble of air trapped in the depths of the planet, roughly a mile and a half in diameter, ceilinged in terrifyingly huge and glittering stalactite chandeliers of limestone, calcite, and quartz crystal. That impossibly distant ceiling shone bright as a hazy sky when the great high-intensity lights were on. They were not on much lately, what with the power crisis, but even with the lights dimmed, the distant pendant crystalline stalactites glittered faintly like faraway galaxies, like the points of stars. It was a space difficult for even the most ground-shy Rihannsu to feel claustrophobic in, one of awe-inspiring beauty.

And it was also a perfect place for making weapons of all kinds, especially bombs. From the great main cavern, hundreds of smaller caves budded off in clusters and chains, a labyrinth that only those who lived there could ever master. Working separately, the technicians and the people whom they had trained occupied small, dense-walled stone rooms in which they could work with deadly explosives and other dangerous technologies without being concerned about triggering a cataclysm. The whole group, totaling about five hundred people, had been down here for almost a year now. They had slipped away with their families and even their pets when the government had declared Ysail to be a "primary resource world." Others, at a distance, might have been fooled about what this meant, but the Ysailsu knew all too well. The Empire had seized all the industry on their planet. Then, when there was bitter protest at this, they had sent ships from Grand Fleet, carrying troops from the Army and Intelligence, to round up the population of a couple of cities and send them off to work camps, expecting the rest to settle down and do as they were told.

It had not worked out that way, for over the centuries the Ysailsu had developed what the Empire considered an irrational attitude: they thought they owned their world. The small population of the planet rose in nearly simultaneous rebellion. Immediately after that, the Empire began bombing it -- very selective bombing, of course, concentrating on the cities and taking care to do no harm to industrial resources. The Ysailsu, though, partaking in full of the legendary stubbornness of their parent species, had decided that if they could not profit from the industries they had spent hundreds of years building, then neither would the Empire. Led by a group of thoughtful and angry guerrillas, the Ysailsu took all the food, water, spare parts, power sources, and supplies of every kind that they could find, and went to ground in the caves en masse. They scattered themselves across the underside of their smaller continent, made themselves at home, and began blowing up their factories themselves.

All this, as well as the smoking cities and the ground shuddering with explosions, now seemed as distant to Mheven as a dream. The workers and fighters down here did not hear or feel the explosions. The caves were far too deep. There was no way the Empire could find them, and even if it did, no way it could reach them without dropping atomics on them, and since the Empire theoretically wanted to use the planet for something else later, even they would not have been that crazy.

Crazy...thought Mheven, concerned, watching her mother make her way into the dim light of the main cavern, heading for the little makeshift workspace where Ddoya had his "office." Ddoya tr'Shelhnae was as much of a leader as their group had: the one to whom everyone brought their problems, the one to whom the once-a-tenday gathering turned for suggestions and direction. He had been a doctor once, and he was one of the original group of guerrillas who had convinced the population to use the strength that the Element Earth had given them as they descended into it and sheltered in it. Earth -- the quietest Element and maybe the most taken for granted, but possibly the most powerful. He had more than a little of that Element in his own makeup, Mheven thought. He was a quiet man, slow, thoughtful -- but eloquent: as with the ground when it quaked, when Ddoya spoke, you paid attention.

Her mother headed across that big space toward him, where a little light shone in his workspace. Elements only knew when the man slept; Mheven sometimes suspected him of having a clone or two stashed in one of the caves. Now she could just make him out, small, burly, and dark, sitting in his workspace, bent over something, as she hurried along in her mother's wake. Various other people were up and around, heading here and there in the cave, about their business. They watched Mheven heading after Rrolsh, and even in the dimness she caught some smiles from them. Living here was like living in the bosom of a large and unavoidable family, or a small town. Everybody knew everything about everybody soon enough, and everybody knew that Rrolsh had something rare: the visionary gift, which sometimes made her a little strange.

Mheven blushed but kept on going after her mother and finally caught up with her at the "door" of the workspace, which was just another blanket, one of four thrown over a cubical pipe-metal framework. It was fastened up at the moment, and Ddoya looked up at the two of them from the round, silvery thing he was holding in his hand.

"This isn't your shift, as a rule," he said. "Is there some problem?"

Mheven blushed again.

"Ddoya," Rrolsh said, "I heard something. Something's going to happen."

"What?"

Rrolsh looked frustrated. "I don't know for certain," she said. "But it's imminent."

He raised his eyebrows. "I could wish," Ddoya said, "that our distant ancestors had left us some instructions about what to do with such talents as yours when they crop up, for I'm sure I don't know what questions to ask you to help you be more definite. Nonetheless, we'll go on alert, if you feel the need, Rrolsh. I haven't forgotten that last incident with the government courier."

Rrolsh sighed and shook her head, looking suddenly weary. "It's not that close," she said. "Or...it's not that serious. I can't tell which. I only caught a feeling, a word..."

"Well, let it rest for the moment," he said. He looked past her at Mheven. "Meanwhile," he said to her, "we have another attack group going out in a few days. We should send some of these with them for testing. But I'd like you and your people to double-check these first."

Mheven was one of the group's engineers. Once her forte had been medical machinery, which was how Ddoya had recruited her. Now she had acquired a rather more destructive specialty, and what he held intrigued her. She held out her hand, and Ddoya passed the object to her. It was a flattened ovoid of silvery metal, about the thickness of her hand.

"Implosion charge?" Mheven said, turning it over.

"Combined implosion-disruption," said Ddoya. "Remember the old 'dissolution' fields that the warships used to use?"

"The ones that would unravel a metal's crystalline structure."

"That's right. An overlooked technology, but surprisingly suitable to being packed down small, these days, with the new solid-phase circuitry. This one goes off in two stages. The dissolution field propagates first, and then the imploder collapses the deranged matter. One of these" -- he took it back from her carefully -- "will scoop out a spherical section from a building, or a bridge, or a ship, something like twenty testai in diameter." He smiled grimly.

"How many do we have?"

"Five so far."

"I want to go along," Mheven said.

"Check with Ussi," Ddoya said. "She's coordinating. Was there anything else?"

Mheven shook her head.

"No," her mother said. "Ddoya...thanks."

"Don't thank me. I know it's difficult for you, and you bear this burden, and work as hard as any of us, as well."

A few others, faces Mheven recognized but was too tired to greet, were drifting over. Mheven sketched a wave at them, linked her arm through her mother's, and started back toward their rest-cave.

"I embarrass you," said her mother.

"Not seriously."

"I wonder what it was like, in the old days," Rrolsh said, sounding wistful. "When there were Talents in the ships, and telepaths, people for whom seeing more than one world, hearing more than spoken voices, was normal."

"Maybe someday we'll find out again," Mheven said. Hope was good: any distraction, sometimes, was good for turning one's mind from the idea that one might be living in a cave making bombs only until something went wrong, everything was found out, and they were all hunted down and killed. "Maybe someday the Empire will just give up and -- "

Her mother stopped and stood still. Mheven turned to her, and in the dimness she could just see her lips move. Then Rrolsh let go of her and turned back the way they had come. She went straight back to Ddoya, who, with the two people to whom he was talking, looked up at her, surprised.

"I heard it clearly this time," her mother said. "I heard it! Just a whisper in the darkness. It said lleiset."

The others looked at each other, not knowing what to say.

Freedom...

Ddoya turned the new charge over and over in his hands, then looked up at her.

A soft queep from a small console on the floor beside his chair brought all their heads around. Eyes widened. Ddoya, in particular, looked at the thing as if he expected the little square console to stand up and bite him in the leg.

"Ddoya," said one of the fighters standing nearby, a man named Terph, "they can't be here yet. It's too soon."

"It could be a trick," said Lais, the other.

Silence, and then another queep.

The five of them looked at one another. No more sound was forthcoming, for the sound was the one realtime noise made by the narrow-bandwidth subspace transmitter-receiver until it was instructed to play. The receiver did not produce output in realtime: it took a coded digital squawk no longer than a millisecond, decompressed it, decoded it, and played it on command, recording and sending outgoing messages the same way. It was how their group kept in touch with the hundreds of others scattered through the caves, and they did not overuse it for fear of detection.

Ddoya got off his chair, knelt down beside the transmitter-receiver. He touched its controls in a coded sequence, and the transmitter's decode lights went on.

"The ships are coming," whispered the voice from the narrow-bandwidth subspace transmitter. "Repeat, the ships are coming. This is a multiple sighting, multiple confirmed. Relief will be with you within ten standard days. Events to follow will most likely cause the Fleet to withdraw. Prepare to emerge in force. More details are packed with this squirt. Unpacking now."

Ddoya looked up at them his stolid face suddenly alight with excitement. For a few moments he was as speechless as the rest of them. "Well," he said finally. "We'd better get everyone together to discuss this in the morning. Meanwhile, let's get back to planning the next raid."

They smiled at one another, a little more fiercely than usual. Mheven looked over at her mother and smiled. "So you were right," she said. "We are going out. All of us. But meantime, let's get caught up on our sleep."

They walked off together. But this time, as they went, Mheven's heart was pounding. Enough of her people had died waiting for this day when it would start, when they would not be fighting alone. Enough of them had died trying to bring it about. She herself might yet die in these next few days. But all the same, she smiled. And as she and her mother slipped back into the darkness of their sleeping place, Mheven wasn't entirely sure she didn't hear the same whisper.

Freedom...

In the rec room that evening, Ael looked up out of the great windows at the stars pouring past and let out a small sad breath. The time when she might freely enjoy this spectacular view was swiftly coming to an end. Soon enough, she thought, I will be staring into a tactical display again, concentrating on objects moving in space much more slowly, relatively speaking, than the stars. I should enjoy this while I can...as far as possible.

She glanced around. All about her, various crewmen sat and chatted, or gamed, as usual. Off in a small conversation pit nearby, Scotty and tr'Keirianh and K's't'lk were conversing with energy, occasionally waving hands or jointed glittering limbs in gestures strangely reminiscent of those which young Khiy and Mr. Sulu had been using the other day. Lieutenant Uhura was leaning over the back of one of the settles that formed the back of the pit, asking K's't'lk something. The answer came back in a bright spill of music, but oddly, with no words that Ael could hear. Curious, Ael started strolling their way, and a discreet rumbling accompanied her, like a boulder trying to roll along without making too much of a racket.

Ael had to smile, though the smile was doubtless somewhat edged with irony for a perceptive viewer. "Mr. Naraht," Ael said, "this duty must be a trial for you. Doubtless there are many more interesting things for you to be doing."

"Not at all, Commander," the Horta said, shuffling his fringes about a little as he came up alongside her. "Everything here is interesting."

"Surely you are putting a brave face on it," Ael said.

"Madam," Naraht said, "if you've ever lived in the crust of a planet with nothing to do but eat rock, and nothing to do after that but listen to your ten thousand siblings eat rock, and then listen to them talking about having eaten rock -- after a while, anything else is interesting." His translator module emitted that rough, gravelly sound that seemed to be laughter, and his fringe tendrils shivered. "And when you notice that weird creatures who don't eat rock, or even talk about it much, are wandering around the place, they and their affairs are likely to become, by comparison, very interesting indeed."

Ael raised her eyebrows at that. Amid some human and Rihannsu laughter, she saw Uhura straighten up and head off purposefully, as if in search of something. "Might you not be overstating the case, Lieutenant? Most of us think our ordinary home life is boring. And your people, Mr. Spock tells me, are a most intelligent and complex species -- "

"Far be it from me to argue with Mr. Spock," Naraht said. "My mother would come down on me like a ton of ore if she found out. But, Commander, intelligence doesn't necessarily imply culture."

Ael chuckled. As they came up to the conversation pit, Ael leaned against the back of one of the higher-backed semicircular settles on one side, glancing down with slight affection at tr'Keirianh. He was oblivious, concentrating on something Scotty was saying to K's't'lk. "...downright heretical, lass," Scotty said, "in the merely physical sense rather than the physics one."

K's't'lk sighed a long, jangling sigh, like a set of wind chimes out of sorts. "The distinction is strictly artificial," she said. "Or rather, it's a perception problem. The law of general relationships says -- " She started singing again, a very bright precise sequence of notes. When she finished, after about ten seconds, tr'Keirianh, sitting with his head tilted slightly to one side, said, "I believe I nearly heard it that time. Perhaps the difficulty is with the way our people handle tonalities. But I am no musician. I never had any interest in music when I was younger, and nowadays I have little time, though I admit the inclination is forming -- "

"For what, Giellun?" Ael said.

Her master engineer looked up at her with some amusement. "The commander is teaching us the basic elements of Hamalki physics notation, khre'Riov," he said. "Or trying to."

"'Tis an exchange program, Commander," Scotty said. "She'll teach us this, and we'll teach her poker."

"And Khiy and Aidoann and I will teach her aithat," tr'Keirianh said.

Ael shook her head. "Elements send we all have time for all this," she said, "but, Mr. Scott, of your courtesy, what in the worlds is 'poker'? The translator suggests an iron stick. But I think I have found one of its blind spots; I don't think you speak of such."

A slow grin began to spread over Mr. Scott's face. "Poker is a game," he said.

Giellun's expression became somewhat more wicked. "If I understand Mr. Scott's description correctly," he said, "it is, like aithat, a way of equalizing the distribution of the crew's pay throughout the ship."

"Ah, me," Ael said. "Given our current circumstances, perhaps this would be useful." Though she wondered, for aithat, a gambling game based on the careful calculation of odds and the distribution of counters and tiles of fixed value among the players, already served that purpose. "But it is not a strategy game then, like your schhess."

"Not in the same way -- "

"Oh, I'm sorry, Commander, am I interrupting something?" Uhura said from behind Ael.

Ael turned. "Not at all, Lieutenant," she said, and then blinked in surprise, for Uhura was carrying a ryill, a particularly handsome one, maybe a century or so old, to judge by the patina on the inlaid wood, and well-cared for. "Air's name, where did you come by such a fine instrument?"

"The lute is Mr. Spock's," Uhura said. "He lends it to me occasionally. I was hurting my throat trying to match some of these higher notes K's't'lk's been producing, and if I want to learn how to at least communicate date and time coordinates in Hamalki, I need to be able to produce the sounds some other way, for practice purposes anyway." She sat down in the pit next to K's't'lk and began tuning the ryill for the octave she wanted. "The physics I'm in no hurry about, but the syntax and structure of the language shouldn't be too far beyond me. K's't'lk, would you give me one more example of the one you did just before I left?"

K's't'lk emitted one short burst of sound, a chord, followed by a short phrase that seemed to be in a major key, about five seconds long. Uhura finished adjusting the ryill's drone control and then mimicked the phrase. The tone of the ryill was excellent. Ael suspected that her estimate of its age was correct, for it was using the relatively old form of solid-state audio inlays, which gave a warmer, more intimate sound to the bass "stringing."

"Very close," K's't'lk said. "Einstein might not understand it, but I do. Add a note a fourth above the high note in the drone."

Uhura played the sequence again. "There you are," K's't'lk said.

Scotty was shaking his head. "Lass, if they'd put E=mc2 to me that way when I was young," he said, "no telling where I'd be now."

"In a first chair at the Mars Philharmonic, possibly," K's't'lk said, and laughed. "Not that we couldn't still have used you in that capacity on Hamal. Sometimes I think Bach was one of us who took a very wrong turn and got born on Earth by accident..."

"Did I miss the folk singing?" said a voice from behind Ael. She smiled and turned to see the captain there.

"We are folk," tr'Keirianh said, "but the Commander here has been doing most of the singing."

K's't'lk chortled again and then launched into a long syncopated phrase full of sudden leaps up and down a very oddly assembled chromatic scale. Ael glanced at tr'Keirianh, curious to see if he made anything of it; to her it sounded like someone dropping a box of broken glass. Uhura frowned and started repeating the phrase, more hesitantly than the last time. The captain raised his eyebrows. "Marsalis?"

"Hawking," K's't'lk said. "The equation for working out the rate of evaporation of black holes."

"I should know better than to ask," the captain said. "Commander, might I borrow you for a moment?"

She inclined her head to him, then raised a hand to tr'Keirianh and the others and stepped away. Behind her, K's't'lk was saying, "All right. Here's an easy one -- "

"What was that?"

"The formula for Planck time."

"Can I have that again? I missed it..."

Ael walked back in the direction of the great windows with the captain. Mr. Naraht remained behind for the moment. Very quietly, the captain said, "I just wanted to let you know that I've had one more word with the commodore. Unfortunately, he's not willing to be swayed on this. Starfleet is very insistent that you be taken out of the area while negotiations are ongoing."

"Well, I suppose I can understand that," Ael said. "But of course it will not be Enterprise that accompanies us."

"No," Jim said, "of course not. Ortisei will go with you."

"Well," said Ael, "once again I show myself a prophetess, though in these circumstances it takes little accomplishment to manage it." She glanced up at the great windows again. "But I appreciate your effort on our behalf. We will, at least, be able to keep in touch in the usual fashion."

"I'm going to have to be careful about that," the captain said. "Communications to and from all our ships are likely to be carefully watched, I think, and clandestine messaging could be misunderstood."

Ael nodded.

"Either way, we'll see to it that very frequent reports of the meetings, and anything else germane, reach you every day. And one other thing. The Romulan group has now been met by the first two escort ships. We'll all be at the rendezvous point within five hours."

Ael nodded again. "I will remain here just a little while longer," she said, "and then head back to Bloodwing. There is still a great deal to make ready."

He nodded too, looking tired -- more tired than she could remember seeing him since the two of them had been surrounded by the blood and phaser fire of Levaeri V. He feels the weight of what is about to happen, she thought, and the fear, even as I do. I wish I could give him some assurance of how things will go, but that is not in my power. Any more than it is in his gift to give such assurances to me.

"I have a ton of paperwork to deal with," the captain said, "and I've been getting behind. Bearing in mind what we're going to be going into, I'd better get it sorted out before things heat up." He looked up again, met her eyes. "Commander, should I not see you again before things start..."

She bowed to him, three breaths' worth, then straightened. "No long farewells as yet, Jim," she said, then had to smile. She had never quite got used to calling him that with a straight face.

The captain grinned at her, understanding. Then he departed, lifting a hand in casual salute to the commodore across the room. That man's eyes went from the captain to Ael, rested on her a moment, then turned away again to the windows and the view of the ships pacing Enterprise through the night. Ael looked at the commodore for a few seconds longer. He was a likable man, Ddan'ilof, but cautious, reserved, like one new to high command and still slightly nervous of its weight and pressures; also a man who, it was plain, did not trust her. Ael had caught one or two glimpses of him looking at her and the captain while they had been speaking, once or twice, earlier this evening -- not being obvious about it, but watching them all the same, with a quiet, assessing look.

Her own crew had thrown her a few looks like that over the past couple of months. They hadn't voiced any suspicions, naturally, but the looks had been there. Even after everything Bloodwing had been through under her command, it still came hard for Rihannsu to trust aliens, and the closer they became, in some cases, the harder her crew seemed to find it to trust them. There was irony in it, for Bloodwing had suffered more from the treachery of other Rihannsu than from any alien. Command back on the Homeworlds, and various members of her own crew, had been blades enough in Ael's side, and in the sides of those aboard Bloodwing who had honored their oaths, held their mnhei'sahe, and served her until Levaeri V and past it, out into the darkness of uncertainty and homelessness. Now they were the crew of a ship without a fleet, and a commander without rank. And yet they serve me, she thought, while wondering if they may still be further betrayed by their own.

While I wonder if I may be so betrayed as well...

The heavy rumbling sound came up slowly behind her as Ael looked up at those big windows. The stars poured by, and far nearer than they, two of the three other starships presently accompanying Enterprise rode off her starboard, sleek and silent and dangerous-looking in the shifting starlight shimmering on their hulls. It was not as if Enterprise did not have the same general look, but to Ael, at least, she no longer seemed dangerous.

And that perception, she thought, may eventually prove fallacious. Beware...

The rumbling died back to a faint shuffle. From across the room there was another bright spill of notes, scaling quickly upward into a kind of melodious crash, followed by Uhura's and tr'Keirianh's and Mr. Scott's laughter. Time to go, Ael thought, while I am still in good cheer. She glanced down. "Mr. Naraht," she said, "perhaps you would be good enough to accompany me down to the transporter room."

"My pleasure, madam."

She had to chuckle, for he actually said llhei, bypassing the translator installed in his voder pack. "Very strange it is," she said as they left together and headed for the cargo lifts at the end of the corridor, "to find the seeming essence of Earth so mutable. Do you study languages, then, as well as sciences?"

"It's all part of biomaths, Commander," the lieutenant said. "Life needs language to understand itself, and the more language, the better. The translator is a tool, but sometimes it's more fun to get straight down into the matrix of thought and wallow -- even if it does taste strange at first." There was a pause. "As for stone being so immutable, what about magma, then?" No question: the voice was smiling. "That's one of the few things I miss. It's been an age since I had a swim."

Ael stared at him as they went. "In lava?"

"We had a swimming hole," Naraht said. "When we were big enough, our mother took us. Oh, that first dive into the fire..." As they paused outside the lift, Naraht shivered all over, and Ael realized with astonishment that the gesture was one of sheer delight. "How scared we all were. And how silly we were to be scared. It stung a little, but it was worth it."

She got into the turbolift, and Mr. Naraht, with some difficulty, shuffled in behind her. The doors shut. "Deck nine," she said, and off it went, obedient. "Lieutenant," Ael said, "I ask you to forgive me if I transgress. But your people are a wonder to me -- as if you were an aspect of my own folk's way of looking at the universe, of one of the Elements, indeed, suddenly come real. And it makes me wonder: how do your people see that universe? Not the physical parts of it, I mean. What lies beneath?"

He shuffled around a little, turning, almost as if to look at her. "It's odd you should phrase it that way," Naraht said. "'Beneath.' We know well enough what's at the heart of our planet -- of most planets. The pressure, the heat and density. But what if that were an idiom for something else? A heat that scorches but doesn't burn -- the pressure so great it becomes total, the whole weight of being pressing down, with yourself at the center of it, accepting it, thereby defining it, creating it, eternal. The inexpressible richness, the transcendent temperature, down there in the deepest places beneath and within, the depth that never ends, increasing, crushing us into reality -- " He paused, as if to recover himself. The diffidence Ael was used to hearing in his voice had been missing. "I'm still learning the language for this," Naraht said then. "I may be learning it for hundreds of years, while I talk to other people, learning what they think...so I can better find out what I think. It's frightening, a little, like that first jump into the lava. Afterwards you wonder why you waited so long, but it's still hard to go where your fears take you. Or where they would, if you let them." He paused. "Sometimes I think that's why I came here," Naraht said, more quietly. "I was afraid of the emptiness -- first the air, and then the dark above it: the places where almost nothing was solid. But I said to myself, 'I'll jump anyway...'"

Ael nodded. "I see," she said. And after a moment she said, "I was half afraid to come here once, too. But I had no choice."

"Only half?" Naraht said.

Ael chuckled at that. "Earth you are indeed," she said, "and as such you see through stone readily enough with time. This noble ship -- how I regretted, once, walking its corridors while being unable to bring it home to the Imperium in triumph as a prize of war."

"But that changed," Naraht said.

"It did," Ael said. Not even to him, personified Element or not, would she say just how. But what she now valued most about the Enterprise -- most paradoxically, with an eye to the ship's many past encounters with Bloodwing -- was its sense of being a sort of haven of peace. Though of course there were parts of it she still found most uncomfortable to be in: sickbay, particularly, and --

Ael swallowed. "Stop," she said. The lift paused. "Destination?" it said.

"Madam?" Naraht said. "Is there a problem?"

Ael stood there, turning the idea over in her head for a moment. To her horror, she could find no good reason to reject it. "Mr. Naraht," she said, "perhaps we might make one stop before we leave."

"Certainly, Commander."

"Deck five," Ael said.

Off the lift went again, and presently its doors opened. Having had the idea, now Ael stood there frozen for several seconds. Embarrassment, though, finally moved her. She got out, Naraht rumbling along behind her, and stood in the corridor for a moment to get her bearings; it had been a different lift she had used the last time. Then she walked down the corridor, her heart pounding, to the door she remembered all too well.

Naraht did not comment, simply shuffled himself up against the wall to wait. Ael touched the signal beside the door.

"Come," said the voice from inside.

She went inside; the door closed behind her.

Spock looked at her in considerable surprise and got up from the seat behind his desk, where he had been sitting with fingers steepled, gazing at something on the desk viewer that Ael could not see. "Commander," he said.

"Mr. Spock," Ael said, "I have interrupted you at meditation, I see. Please forgive me." She turned to go.

"There is no need," Spock said. "The meditation was not formal. How may I assist you?"

Ael opened her mouth, but could find nothing to say.

If this astonished her, she could only wonder what Spock must think of it. He showed no sign of surprise, though, and merely pulled out a chair from the other side of the desk. "Please, Commander," he said, "sit down."

Ael sat in that chair, though it cost her some effort. She had sat in it once before, and the memory was still not scarred over sufficiently to touch without discomfort.

Her eyes slid up to the S'harien hanging on the wall, a curve of darkness all too like the one across the chair in her cabin, which she could feel looking at her, these days, more than ever. There is your excuse, her mind whispered to her. Your last chance --

"I have a problem, Mr. Spock," Ael said. "I have put off dealing with it for some time. It occurs to me that the most likely solution is unique, and that you possess it."

"A description of the problem would assist me," Spock said.

Ael swallowed again. "Starships," she said, "are not the only hardware my people have purchased from the Klingons of late."

"It would be only logical to assume as much," Spock said.

"Indeed. After Sunseed and the DNA acquisition project were stolen, there appeared a sudden enthusiasm for that piece of equipment known as the mind-sifter. It apparently has become very popular among the intelligence forces of the Two Worlds, for Rihannsu have no defense against it. And even though our own Fleet sees to it that those of us who command are given buried mental protections similar to your own command conditioning, even those would not suffice to protect us against the Klingon tool."

Spock nodded. "I believe your assessment is correct."

"One must plan for all eventualities," Ael said. "Worse may yet come to worst. Logic suggests that circumstance or accident might yet cause me to fall into their hands."

"I cannot deny that, Commander."

"Spock," Ael said, "I will be open with you. The stakes in this game have greatly increased since I first began to play. Where only my own life was involved, and those of Bloodwing who have sworn themselves to me with full knowledge of the continuing risk, I have been willing to depend on my own resources. But now many more people, well-intentioned but perhaps ill-informed of the dangers of aligning themselves with me, are becoming involved, and I must hold them in mind as well. I have no desire to betray those on the Hearthworlds and among the colonies whom I know are engaged in the struggle about to begin. Yet I may not be able to avoid doing so, if my enemies succeed in preventing me from ending my life before they do their will with me. Should this happen, those who would continue the fight after my death would have no chance to do so. My destruction would mean theirs as well, and that of their families and very likely even their acquaintances. Therefore..."

Spock waited.

"I would ask," Ael said, "whether there is among the mind disciplines one you might be able to teach me quickly, one that would allow me to make that end if other, more straightforward means are denied me. Or one that simply would make information I hold forever inaccessible to those who would use it against the ones who would continue the fight. I understand that this might be impossible..."

"Speed and the disciplines are usually incompatible, Commander," Spock said. "However..."

Now it was her turn to wait. She was afraid, but she would not allow fear to dictate her actions. Her need, or rather the need of those who looked to her to be protected from the Empire, was too great.

Spock was very still. At last he turned back to her. "Commander," he said, "it is possible that you might be taught. There is one condition in which speed does not obtain as an issue."

Ael swallowed. "Mind-meld," she said.

A silence fell again.

"I remember," Ael said, "the technique that you mentioned Captain Suvuk of Intrepid had used after being captured by the personnel at Levaeri V, to prevent my people extracting his command codes from him. Kan-sorn."

"It could be taught," Spock said. "But there are other disciplines that might benefit you more, most specifically against interrogation. I have had some personal experience in this regard."

And then he was silent again.

"But there is a problem," said Ael.

"There are certain...ethical constraints," Spock said. "There are constraints against teaching the disciplines, any of them, to those who have not committed themselves to -- "

"Surak's strictures for peace," Ael finished for him, softly, and smiled a rather ironic smile. "Always Surak comes between our peoples, at the end." She stood up, glancing once again at the S'harien that hung on the wall, and turned away. "Mr. Spock, I am sorry to have interrupted you to no purpose. Please excuse me."

She was moving toward the door when he put out a hand and touched her arm. The sudden unexpectedness of it shocked Ael to the core. She stood as still as if she had been struck so.

The hand that Spock had raised now fell. "It has occurred to me," Spock said, very low, "more than once, of late, that there may be more than one road to peace."

Ael looked up into that still, unrevealing face and thought she saw more revealed there than Spock intended. "If I err in my judgment," Spock said, "the price will be mine to pay, for a lifetime. Yet you too have paid a high price for your actions of late, yet have not regretted them."

"Imprecision, Mr. Spock," Ael said softly. "Bitterly indeed I have regretted my actions -- some of them. Yet given the chance to repeat those actions, I would not do otherwise. Could not. Mnhei'sahe is its own reward -- though sometimes that reward cuts deep. But what use is a sword that will not cut?"

It was Spock's turn now to glance up at the S'harien, then back at her. "I do not think I err," Spock said. "Commander, if you consent to this -- "

She sat down again, trying to find calm. Spock slowly clasped his hands and stood still for a moment, the expression starting to go inturned; but his eyes were dark with concern, with final warning. "I must apologize to you in advance for any discomfort I cause you and for any lack of clarity in the transmission," he said. "I am not trained in the teaching of these techniques, though others have trained me in them. It is possible I will blunder."

"I have no concern in that regard," Ael said. Nonetheless, she was holding herself very still, determined not to tremble.

It is absurd. We have done this before. There was no harm done.

And I trust him.

He circled around behind the chair where she sat. This was the worst part, and Ael fought for calm. Very precisely his fingers positioned themselves over her nerve junctions, then touched her face. Ael took one long, shuddering breath and closed her eyes as, very slowly, another view of the world began overlaying itself on her own.

My mind to your mind. My thoughts...to your thoughts.

It had seemed impossible before, terrible, like insanity encroaching -- another's voice in her own mind, another presence that spoke with her own voice, somehow thinking thoughts that were not hers. But they were slowly becoming hers. Slowly the sense of difference between herself and the other was dwindling. The back of her mind shrieked in protest at the loss of difference, but Ael was in no mood for it, and the terror receded.

...easier this time...

Yes, the answer came. Our minds are drawing together. She could feel the congruencies establishing themselves, similarities interlocking, differences respected and incorporated into the nearly established wholeness. Closer still -- the whole compacting, slipping into phase --

Our minds are one. As if she needed telling now, with the flare of union, the astonished fire of synapses momentarily blinding her, a storm of thought and memory, the two streams of thought rushing together like two rivers in spate, eddies whirling and pouring into one another, a great rush of starfire and darkness, knowledge and uncertainty --

She saw now why her people had lost this art so long ago. Had the people of the Crossing, so enamored of pride, individuality, difference, their own chosen insularity from the rest of the species they left behind, come to reject this forced sharing-of-being as too high a price? Too undermining to the cherished sense of lonely individuality? For here, despite the vast gulf that separated her life from this other one, her upbringing and tendencies and her whole cast of mind, what was plain here was how alike, how very alike she and this other were, a great wash of similarities and resonances had risen to drown the differences. And the question arose before her: Why in the Elements' names did we give this up? Why did we walk away?

First see where you are. What must be done will become plain.

She stood in a darkness that shivered around its edges with red fire, and occupying the heart of the darkness was her other self's mind as it might appear in its solitary state, a cool but frighteningly complex weave of intellection, logic, and peace all interleaved with and woven into an equally complex, barbed, interconnected tangle of emotion, passion, and old buried violence. The logic was not an overlay, but a network, a matrix in which the older, dangerous substrates were embedded, held and managed, broken up and made relatively safe -- though preserved for when they might be needed. This dangerous landscape leveled itself out before her as she gazed, while the force that held it all inside, the mind and will that bound it all up, watched to see what she would do.

She stepped out into it, over it, knowing that in so doing she would lay herself progressively more bare. The raging heat and aridity at the heart of that other worldview smote her with every step, tyrannous, partly a longing recollection of Vulcan's terrible heat, partly a paradigm for revelation, disclosure, layers of meaning burning and peeling away, revealing what lay beneath --

She gasped, but nonetheless moved forward over that dark and savage landscape, gazing down into its fires, and not so much seeing what lay within, but being seen by the source of the fires looking up and out at her. It perceived the image of Rihannsu space wrapped around her like a cloak, a great sweep of thousands of cubic light-years held all in mind despite its size, for after many years' service she knew it intimately. All that immense darkness was strung through with the implication of forces moving, men and minds and ships, though the knowledge was fragmentary, and all that space seemed to burn now with the sense of frustration at what was missing, what needed yet to be known. More was coming -- when would it come? -- it was not enough --

The anger will keep you from seeing clearly what must be done. You must let it go --

She pushed herself through the stifling heat and the darkness, feeling the layers of her own anger and terror burning away. It came hard, but for her people, for her own people on Bloodwing and for the innocents on ch'Rihan and ch'Havran and the colony worlds, she must have this, would have this, no matter how she suffered --

As if from out of the fires beneath her the glimpse erupted into her consciousness: the furious faces, shouting into hers, and at the edges of her mind, something tearing, pressing in, ripping at her as if with hooks --

She staggered on, unable to believe the intensity of the pain. It came and went in great bouts and waves, every one leaving the mind tenderer than the one before, and with an awful feeling of being raped, intruded into, that most intimate and secret place torn at and gored: ultimate violation --

Do not allow the circumstances to distract you. The mind-sifter is simply a mechanism that performs mind-meld without permission. It can be defeated in two ways. The first: by disengaging the pain, by denying it permission. The second requires a higher level of accomplishment. The first is accomplished by completely mastering the emotion: distaste, anger, but mostly fear --

She shuddered all over. There. You see how the fear of what the pain will do is as bad as the pain itself, if allowed to persist. But both can be mastered --

-- there again, the leering faces, roaring with amusement, the questions, like hot iron, like cruelly spiked and unbearably heavy weights, pressing in intolerably from every side. She cried out in anguish. It seemed worse to feel it through him, with the experience reflecting back and forth inside their joined mind, doubled, quadrupled, than it would have felt had it simply been happening to her. She fought back against what was happening, tried to hold the pain at a distance --

You are reacting incorrectly. His instructor, or him? There was no telling: that meld was this meld...This is not about resistance. The pain is part of what is really happening. To deny the truth is illogical. To accept it is the beginning of mastery. The pain must be accepted, and mastered, second by second, each second anew.

She struggled along through the ever-increasing burning, and suffered with him as he tried to achieve mastery in this most terrible situation, tried, failed. But tried again. And failed again, and tried again. And this time achieved it, finding his composure and adapting the techniques his instructor had shown him so long ago, not trying to stop the pain but accepting it wholly, including it, letting it pass through him, like a phaserblast through air; it vanishes, and the air closes around its path and is the air again, unbroken, untroubled. A flood of near disbelief, following the first second that the technique worked. But it had worked, though the next second the pain reasserted itself in all its fury. Again the air opens, includes it, lets it go by; and there is no pain. Again the pain; the air lets it pass; there is no pain...

There is no pain.

She fastened on that phrase, hope flaring in her, for now she felt his experience as he did, knew for sure that he had done it, had survived, and with his mind and his secrets intact. But there is more to it than that, the other self said. The words do not describe what you are making happen, but what has already happened. Resistance is not how the pain is overcome. Resistance implies that there exists something else which must second by second be resisted. This phenomenology will defeat you, leaving you at the mercy of the pain. But to master the pain, it must be included, accepted. Then it vanishes, then there truly is no pain --

Understood.

Is it indeed? Let us see.

Sickbay --

Her mind went up in a flare of anguish and fear. She would not look at that. I have paid that price. I pay it again every day. I will not pay in that coinage now!

Then prevent this.

The terrible pain came and tore at her part of the joined mind, efficiently, fiercely -- though not mercilessly. It was not a machine, though it was acting like one, for her sake. And she knew, too, as she strove to deal with the pain, that whatever she might say, he was paying in such a coinage. To some extent, every mind-meld recalled every other. She heard echoes: if only I could forget...to the death, or life for both of us!...cry for the children, weep for the murdered ones!...and many another. And they were all cries of pain. Ah, it is ill named mind-meld, Ael thought in anguish. Heart-meld would be closer --

The children. That echo, wordless, seemed somehow more immediate than the others. There had been some resonance between the mother Horta and her children, even while they were still in the egg, that her other self had sensed without clearly understanding. Were Hortas at all telepathic? Possibly no more so than humans or Rihannsu, but suddenly Ael perceived the lake of lava burning against the darkness of the Horta homeworld's great depths, and saw the skin of cooling stone across the top of it hardening, going cold and dark, and then breaking and shattering with the flow of the lava beneath it, cracks widening, the liquid fire oozing up, cooling and darkening again. That was the path she had to traverse, the paradigm through which she had to move. The lava was the pain, which always would break through. But the pain itself could be subverted again and again, the energy diverted from it, so that it would go cold; and over that surface one could safely walk --

She swallowed, feeling the rising tide of agony. Or instead, one might accept it wholly, she thought. How often have I pushed it aside, for the sake of duty...or fear?

No more.

She walked out to where the lava crust broke, and the terrible scorching heat of it blasted up at her from the molten stone, blazing, so that her skin went tight with it and her eyes stung, watering terribly.

No more...

And she leaped.

Sickbay.

The rage, the pain, the agony, more intense than she had ever felt before, than she had ever allowed herself to feel before, now swallowed her whole in a blaze of white-hot fire that molded itself to her like a terrible new flesh, devouring the flesh beneath it. My son...

Not my son! He could not have betrayed --

-- weep for the children! --

The lava finished burning her flesh away, charred her bones, eating inward...

What did I do wrong? How has he done this to them, to me?!

-- cry for the murdered ones! --

Dead at my hand. Not his own. Mine. I am responsible.

-- eyes burning, skull alight, the brain flashing into final fire --

Oh my Element, would that I had died instead of him!

There was nothing left of her. It was over.

Sorrow...for the end of things.

Finished...

...when she noticed that the pain was gone, and she was swimming in blazing light that blinded her, but hurt her not at all.

And then she was alone.

She blinked. Behind her, she heard someone move -- felt him move, without having to look. It was Spock, coming around to face her, leaning against the desk.

"It is done," he said. He straightened, trying to look casual about it, but she knew perfectly well what effort the last few minutes had cost him. They had felt like years.

For her own part Ael wiped her face and sat still for several moments, trying to find her composure again. "You are a harsh teacher, Mr. Spock," Ael said.

He shook his head. "On the contrary, Commander. I merely showed you the path. You walked it...and further than the need of the moment required."

"I would not be sure of that," Ael said.

"I would."

She could find no answer. "The paradigm you chose was an unusual one," Spock said, "but since it was of your choosing, I believe it will serve you well. Recall it to yourself daily, by way of reinforcing it. Meanwhile, if circumstances allow, a second session within several days might be wise, in order to check that the routine has been correctly installed and implemented."

She was half tempted to laugh, hearing him speak as dryly of her mind as of a computer into which he had been loading new software. But the metaphor was probably apt. "As you say, that will be as circumstances permit. But for the moment..."

Ael got up slowly, a little stiff from sitting a long time tensed in that chair. She cast around in her mind to see how things felt. Her sense of herself was normal again, save for that thin persistent thread of connectedness between them, carrying at the moment no overheard content, no remotely sensed imagery -- just the knowledge that it was there. Last time it had faded quickly; this time she was not quite sure how long it might remain.

Words to describe any of the many things she presently felt eluded her utterly. All Ael could do was bow to him and hold the bow -- as she had for Jim, but for different reasons -- three full breaths' worth. She might have held it longer, but she felt his fingers brush her arm, and she straightened.

He had neither moved nor reached out to her. As Ael looked up at him again, she caught an echo, so indistinct she thought she had not been meant to hear it, and very distant: touching...never touched..."Use it well, Commander," Spock said. "Or rather: so live and prosper that you need never use it at all."

Ael went out and found Mr. Naraht waiting for her. She smiled at him with more than the usual affection, though she did not tell him why. When the Enterprise's transporter room glowed out of existence to be replaced by Bloodwing's, suddenly the weariness hit her full force, and she stumbled down off the pads like one caught between dream and waking. The doors opened, and Aidoann was there. She opened her mouth to say something, but she checked herself and came forward hurriedly to take Ael by the arms and steady her. "Khre'Riov," Aidoann said, and then more softly, "Ael, in Fire's name, what's come to you? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Ael shook her head and tried to laugh, but a weak, shaky laugh it was that came out. "So I have," she said. "I may yet see many more such, but they and I will hereafter learn to be more at peace with one another, perhaps." She straightened up, and this time her voice found something of the accustomed steadiness again. "However that may be, the living will be enough trouble for us in the next while, cousin -- so let's go finish setting our ship in order. In just a few hours, the enemy will be at the gate..."

Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures

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First Chapter

Chapter Six

Sempach was one of a newer, experimental class of cruisers, the Constellation class, named in memory of Matt Decker's old ship that had been lost against the planet killer in the L-374 system not so very long ago. The class-name ship and Sempach had been the first out of the shipyards, with Speedwell close behind, and all of them were already busy performing their basic function — trying out a new four-nacelle design that was supposed to provide starships with a more streamlined and reliable warp field, capable of higher speeds. The technology, referred to as "pre-transwarp" in some of the literature Jim had seen, was extremely interesting but technically somewhat difficult to understand, and Scotty had passed it on to his captain with a single comment: "Rubbish." Nonetheless, the technology seemed so far to be working all right, and the design crews had plainly been busy elsewhere too: the ship was very handsome from the outside, with a lean and rakish look to her. As the transporter effect wore off, Jim looked around Sempach's transporter room, surprised at its size and its somewhat nonutilitarian look; there was even a small lounge area off to one side, with comfortable seating. Kind of overdone, Jim thought as he greeted the transporter technician at the console and then raised an eyebrow at himself. She's affecting me. Still, it'd be nice not having to stand around waiting for visiting dignitaries to arrive.

The transporter room doors opened, and Commodore Danilov came in, looking much as he had when Jim had last seen him in San Francisco: a brawny man of medium height, dark with a combination of Polynesian and eastern European blood, the dark hair going silver-shot now above a broad, round face, surprisingly unlined for someone of his age.

"Sir," Jim said, "you hardly had to come down here to meet me..."

The commodore gave him a wry look out of his sharp dark eyes as they shook hands. "Captain," Danilov said, "I'm still learning to find my way around this ship. I know I could have sent a lieutenant for you, but they get lost too. Come on."

They went off down the corridors together, the commodore making his way quickly enough despite his disclaimer. Jim's feelings about his superior officers ranged from the respectful to the occasionally scandalous, but here was one man in whose case he came down hard on the respectful side: twenty-five years in Starfleet, the kind of officer who flew a ship or a desk with equal skill — though he fought them more often than he simply flew them. Danilov's experience and effectiveness in battle had become legendary; in particular, he had probably scored more points during the last big war with the Klingons than any other commander except Captain Suvuk of Intrepid, until the Organians blew the whistle and stopped play. Jono Danilov had that invaluable commodity for a commander, a reputation for luck: he always seemed to come out only slightly scorched from any trouble he got into, no matter how the trouble seemed to seek him out — and it did.

"She's a fine ship," he said to Jim as they turned a corner, "a little fidgety at first, but she's settled in nicely now. Fleet's pleased: they're already flying the keels for the two new ones — Stargazer and Hathaway."

Jim nodded. "She's a real lady, Commodore. And she still has that new-ship smell."

"I want to keep it that way for a while," Danilov said, shooting Jim a look, "and avoid getting things all scorched and smoky. The question is, will I be able to."

He came to a door without a label and waved it open. Danilov's quarters were considerably bigger than Jim's on Enterprise, and the office was also a lot more spacious. "Palatial," Jim said. "Rank hath its privileges."

"Hardly. This is the standard captain's cabin for this model. Sit down, Jim, please. Can I offer you a brandy?"

"Thank you, Dan, yes."

He went over to a glass-doored cupboard and got it, and Jim sat looking around him for the moment at the furnishings, as spare as most field personnel's, but still individual: on the desk, a sleek, round old Inuit soapstone sculpture of a bear; a good amateur watercolor of the Ten-Thousand-Step Stair in misty weather, hanging on the wall behind the desk along with a brace of latoun-inlaid "snapdragon" flintlocks from Altair VI; a shaggy blue tree-pelt from Castaneda draped over the back and seat of the high-backed chair behind the desk.

Danilov handed Jim the drink in a heavy-bottomed crystal glass and seated himself. "Viva," he said, lifting his glass.

"Cheers," Jim said, and sipped.

They sat appreciating the drinks for a few seconds, but no more. "So," Danilov said, "tell me about this little engagement you had here."

"Little!" Jim gave him a look. "Seven ships against two, sir; not my kind of odds. And circumstances were less than ideal."

"It would have been seven against one," Danilov said, "had things gone strictly by the book."

"They didn't," Jim said, "because I used some latitude in construing the orders that Fleet had specifically given me."

"Might I inquire about the reasons, Jim?" Danilov asked. "Or was it just on general principle?"

"I had a hunch."

Danilov let out a long breath. "No arguing with those," he said after a moment. "They've saved both our lives often enough before now."

"And it turns out to have been a good thing, in retrospect. It proves I was correct to be concerned about leaks of information from — " Even now Jim could hardly bring himself to say "Starfleet." "From Earth."

Dan sat back and looked at him. "No one but Fleet should have known where Bloodwing was going to be, or when," Jim said, "and regardless, there were seven Romulan vessels waiting for us there, cloaked. If Ael had been on site when originally scheduled, she would be dead now."

"Not a captive?"

"I doubt it. No one offered us the opportunity to surrender her. They just attacked."

"Your presence there might have affected their plans."

"That's occurred to me. But it doesn't matter, Dan. Bloodwing's commander wouldn't have allowed herself to be taken alive. She would have fought until her ship was destroyed to prevent the Sword, or herself, falling into their hands."

"You're sure of that?"

"Yes."

"You're sure," Danilov said, looking steadily at Jim, "that your thinking on this particular subject is clear?"

"Dan," Jim said, nettled, "'this particular subject' is a non-subject. My 'thinking' as regards Commander t'Rllaillieu is clear enough for my first officer, who is something of an expert on the clarity of thought, and my CMO, who is something of an expert on humans in general, and me in particular." Danilov's gaze dropped. "The commander is a courageous and sometimes brilliant officer who, at the cost of her own career, sought us out and gave us valuable information which kept the balance of power from being irreparably destroyed. If the effectiveness of that intervention has been rendered short-lived by subsequent events, well, such things happen. If one of us had done the things she's done, he or she would have been loaded down with enough decorations to make the wearer fall face forward on trying to stand. But because she's from an unfriendly power, no one seems willing to take what she's done at face value."

There was a short silence. "The point is," Danilov said, "she's a Romulan. And Romulans plot."

Jim got up and started to pace. "Dan, with all due respect, you know as well as I do why you were so glad to get away from that desk in San Francisco. Politics! Romulans have politics just as we do, though possibly in a more complex mode. But this time, politics is failing, as it sometimes does, to keep this culture's internal conflicts from erupting into a war that affects others outside it. Including us. And we still have a problem at our end, because somehow very detailed information about our reactions to this situation is leaking out of Starfleet and getting to the Romulans — going straight to where it can do the most harm." Jim paused and gripped the back of his chair, leaning on it. "Something has to be done, and fast. Otherwise, when hostilities do break out, we're going to be in serious trouble."

Danilov sat back. "Your concern," he said, "is noted and logged."

"Which reassures me. But what's being done about it?"

Danilov just looked at him for a moment. "Jim, I can't discuss it."

Which meant he either knew something was being done, or knew that nothing was. "It's going to impair our conduct of this operation," Jim said, "if our personnel can't be sure that details of where they'll be aren't being piped straight through to the people who're going to be shooting at them."

"You leave the conduct of the operation with me," Danilov said, "since that's where Starfleet has placed it." The look he gave Jim implied that even enduring comradeship would not be allowed to interfere with some things.

Jim let the pause stretch out. "Yes, sir."

Danilov let out a long breath and reached out to pick up the smooth gray soapstone bear, turning it over in his hands. "Aside from that for the moment, Jim, message traffic has become an issue. It's way, way up on the Romulan side. We don't even need to be able to read those messages to know that a massive mobilization is under way, and to understand perfectly well where it's pointing."

"Lieutenant Uhura tells me that Starfleet message traffic has also been reaching unusual levels," Jim said, sitting down again.

Danilov nodded. "Yes. With that in mind, we're carrying some material for you that Starfleet didn't want to send out through the ether. Strategy briefings, general intelligence from inside the Imperium...other information."

"They are afraid that some of our codes have been broken."

Danilov put the bear back down on his desk. "Yes. Some have been allowed to go 'stale' on purpose, for use when we want traffic to be intercepted. We've hand carried in two new encryption systems for you; all the rest of the ships in the task force have them already. You're to have your science officer install them immediately. One of them is for use now, the other is to be held."

"For when war breaks out..." Jim said.

Danilov looked at Jim with great unease. "No one in Fleet is saying that word out loud," he said. "But you don't have to be a telepath to hear people thinking it."

"And another thing about message traffic," Jim said. "Are you sure the monitoring stations are functioning properly? Those Romulan ships shouldn't have been able to cross the Zone, cloaked or not, without being detected by the monitoring web. Are some of those satellites malfunctioning? Have they been sabotaged? Or have the Romulans come up with a cloaking device that not even the monitoring stations' hardware can detect?"

Danilov frowned, shook his head. "It's being looked into, Jim. We're carrying a specialist communications team that will be performing advanced remote sensing and diagnostic routines to see what the story is when we get close enough to the Zone. For the moment, we're treating the information as reliable once it's been corroborated by other intelligence sources."

Jim nodded. He took out the data solid he had brought with him and passed it across the desk to the commodore, who put it on the reading pad. A little holographic text window leaped into being, scrolling down some of the contents with a soft chirring sound.

"While we're on the subject of things better not pumped into the ether at the moment," Jim said, "on this solid is our most recent work on the Sunseed project, including a way to tune starships' shields in order to screen out the worst of the artificial ion storm effect. I think this should be passed immediately to every other Starfleet vessel within range...and the preferred method of passing it should be by hand carry rather than broadcast."

Danilov looked at the text a moment longer, then nodded and touched the reading plate. The "window" disappeared with a chirp. "We'll pass it to them tomorrow," he said, turning the solid over in his hands.

"More material should be forthcoming shortly," Jim said. "But this kept our rear ends out of the sling at 15 Tri. Please make sure everyone takes it seriously."

"All right." Danilov looked up again. "There's no doubt that your forethought pulled this one out of the fire, Jim. It was a nasty situation, elegantly handled. But I should warn you, there'll still be some at Fleet who construe this kind of order juggling as an indication of someone trying to see how much he can get away with..."

"You're saying," Jim said, "that they're looking for proof of loyalty via blind obedience. Not the best place to look for it, Dan. But even if they are presently wasting their time worrying about minor issues like that, I don't think they'll have leisure for it much longer."

"No," Danilov said, "not once things get started tomorrow morning." He brought his standard desk viewer around toward him and glanced at it. "The first nonofficial meeting happens tomorrow morning. Lake Champlain and Hemalat have gone ahead to meet the Romulans and bring them in to RV Tri; we expect to hear that they've made contact in a few hours. Tomorrow afternoon, our ships' time, we'll be arriving at the rendezvous point. That evening, we have a social event to allow for some early assessments and to let both sides synchronize the meeting schedule — no one wants to be up in the middle of their own night while the other side is fresh. And then the main session gets under way, and we find out how much trouble we're really in."

"While behind us, on both sides, the eagles gather..." Jim frowned. "A lot of chances for things to go wrong, Dan. Somebody on one side or the other jumps the gun, and the shooting starts..."

"If any of my commanders do any such thing," Danilov said, "I will have their hides for hangings."

"A pity you can't enforce something similar on the Romulans," Jim said.

"We will play by the rules," Danilov said. "What the Romulans will do, the event will show."

Jim's smile was both grim and amused. "That's almost exactly what Ael said...You should come over and meet her this evening."

"I will," said Danilov, "once we're under way. I wouldn't mind getting out of this general area, just in case anyone else turns up."

"That's another concern, Dan. On that solid I gave you there's a 3-D analysis I did earlier. Later on you should take a look at it — "

"Why not now?" Danilov said. He put the solid down on the reader plate again and touched another control. Jim's hologram of the area where Empire, Imperium, and Federation all met now sprang into life in the air.

Jim's smile was annoyed. "Dan, it's just not fair that you have all these slick new gadgets when I — "

"Now, now," Danilov said, "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ship."

"Yes, well. But my neighbor's weaponry," Jim said, "is another matter."

Danilov smiled at that as he rotated the hologram. "Yes, Sempach is loaded for bear, isn't she? I've been wishing for a chance to use what she's got. Now I wish I didn't have to...and I'm becoming increasingly sure I will."

He paused, looking at the hologram. "You think there might be a multiple-location breakout."

"It's occurred to me."

"Fleet's been thinking that way too." Danilov looked at the hologram, sighed, and reached sideways to pick up his bear again, turning it over and over in his hands. "And there sit the Klingons. Or rather, they haven't been sitting; they've been running amok in the Romulan fringe systems — smash-and-grab stuff, asset-stripping the furthest planets."

"Suggesting they know the Romulans are going to make a big move now and won't bother defending targets that distance makes difficult to support."

"It does suggest that, doesn't it," Danilov said. "Hints and suggestions...I'd give a lot for some recent hard data from a source I trust."

"You may get some of that shortly."

"I desperately hope so." He turned away from the hologram and put the bear aside. "Well, is there anything else?"

Jim and the commodore looked at each other somewhat somberly as Jim stood up. "As regards Starfleet's concerns about me," Jim said, "you don't believe them, Dan, do you? You know me better than that."

Danilov didn't say anything for a long moment. "Look, Jim," he said finally, "people change. We're scattered all over the galaxy, all of us, for prolonged periods of time, in strange and sometimes disturbing circumstances. Starship captains are selected for stability, we both know that. But there's a galaxy full of unknowns out there, not to mention the ones at the bottom of the human mind...and things that can't always be predicted do happen. In a ship of this class, it's hard to avoid thinking frequently of Matt Decker."

"Matt was a one-off."

"Garth of Izar."

"That wasn't his fault. The alien treatment that saved his life — "

"Ron Tracey."

Jim grimaced.

"Jim," Danilov said, "we may or may not be a breed apart, but when starship commanders go off the rails, we do it spectacularly. Now, don't mistake me. I know perfectly well you're not likely to do anything like what Matt did. But every heart has its weaknesses, and conflicting loyalties can crucify a man faster than anything else."

"You can tell the fleet admiral," Jim said, standing very straight, "that my loyalties to the Federation and to Starfleet are quite clear, in accordance with my oaths to both those organizations. Starfleet Command should relieve me immediately if they think otherwise. But I will fight such a course of action, for they have no evidence whatsoever to back up any such suspicions. And I will win that fight."

Danilov looked at him steadily. "They sent you ahead to warn me, didn't they?" Jim said.

"I volunteered to make this side trip when I saw which way the wind was blowing back on Earth," Danilov said after a moment. "We've known each other a good while, Jim. You were the most ornery ensign a first-time lieutenant ever had to keep in order. But you wouldn't lie to a shipmate then, and I don't believe you'd lie to a fellow officer now. Indeed, you weren't all that good at lying when you had to."

"Possibly the root of this whole problem," Jim said softly, remembering how he had flinched, long ago, at reading the sealed orders from Starfleet that finally sent Enterprise into the Neutral Zone under the command of a captain who had to seem to be losing his marbles. And as for this time...

"Yes. You know the truth, and I'm sure you're telling it to me. But, Jim, you understand...they have to be sure."

"I understand," Jim said. "But it doesn't make me any happier about it, at a time like this, to find them so damned uncertain."

"No one promised us these jobs were necessarily going to make us happy all the time," Commodore Danilov said. "And our superiors are as mortal as we are, and as fallible."

"They are?" Jim said. "There go all my illusions."

Danilov chuckled. "Jim, our three ships will leave immediately for the task force rendezvous point at RV Tri. Nimrod will join us in a couple of hours, and Ortisei shortly thereafter. We should find Hemalat and Lake Champlain waiting for us with the Romulans: Speedwell has another errand and may arrive a little late. A little before we arrive at RV Tri, Ortisei will escort Bloodwing out of the area. Together they'll stay some light-years out of detection range until and unless they're called in."

"I'll pass that on to Commander t'Rllaillieu," Jim said.

"Will she cooperate?" Danilov said, looking closely at him again.

"She will," Jim said. "But I must tell you that she's already made it plain she has no intention of freely giving herself up to the Romulans if they ask for her."

"That could be a problem."

"It has to be one that Starfleet's anticipated. And it's a problem only if they decide they want to hand her over to the Romulans. Which, taking that into account" — he nodded at the hologram hanging in the air, burning in red, blue, and green — "isn't going to keep them from going to war now. Not after what they did at 15 Tri."

Danilov looked at the hologram. "I wish I could be sure," he said. "The Federation isn't. Part of our job here is to find out whether this war really has to happen."

"You may find out the answer," Jim said, "by being in the first battle, Dan."

"We're prepared for that," Danilov said. "But just as prepared to walk away, if there's any way to have peace break out instead."

"Amen," Jim said, reaching down to the desk and lifting his glass.

They knocked their glasses together and tossed off the remainder of the brandy. Jim put his glass down as Danilov did. "Jim," Danilov said. "I know what shape of orders they cut you. Please...be careful...because you're being closely watched."

By you, old friend, Jim thought. "Thanks for the warning," he said as Danilov stood. "No, it's all right, Dan. I can find my way out."

Danilov sat down again, throwing him an amused look. "Later, Jim."

He left Danilov there looking at the holographic representation of the Triangulum spaces, and only got lost once on his way back to the transporter room.


Rihannsu song spoke wistfully enough of the ancient morning and evening stars, the old ships, long fallen from orbit. Nowadays, though, Teleb tr'Sathe thought, we have only the one...but it's better by far. Often enough, when on leave on ch'Rihan, he had looked up from some balmy beach or forest path and tracked it across the night sky. Right now he could not see it, but that was only natural: he was in it. But not for long!

Teleb turned from the wide plasteel port looking down on ch'Rihan and gazed back across the loading bay. It was a space half a stai wide, one of twenty docking and loading facilities arranged around a vast spherical central core that was big enough to take even the largest of Grand Fleet's starships. Ur-Metheisn was probably one of the biggest orbital ship-servicing facilities anywhere in known space; even the Klingons and the Federation had nothing to match it. They preferred smaller facilities, more spread out among their colonies. The Rihannsu school of thought preferred larger central facilities, "hubs," and this was the first and greatest of them: Sunside Station, the undisputed ruler of the skies over ch'Rihan. From it all the defense satellites were controlled and coordinated; from it the Fleet's ships were dispatched all over the Empire, executing the decisions made by the great-and-good down in the Dome. This was the beating heart of the Grand Fleet, and the kindly Elements had seen fit to drop Teleb right into the middle of it, his captain-apprenticeship successfully passed and himself newly promoted, the pins now bright on his collar, with his own cruiser Calaf poised graceful and nearly ready to go outside the docking and loading tube, and the prospect of battle in the offing. Life could not have looked brighter to him if Teleb had stared straight at the sun.

For the moment, he was doing what his mentor-captain had advised him — standing by and letting his crew get on with their jobs — though he would have much preferred to be right in the middle of them, hustling the loading crew, watching every detail. The excitement was definitely getting the better of him now. Artaleirh! When Teleb had seen the orders, he had nearly begun to sing with the sheer excitement of it all. Artaleirh was a vital system, and the news of the rebellion there had shocked and horrified him. But there would not be a rebellion for much longer. The sight of six cruisers in their skies would shortly remind those people of their proper loyalties. But if it doesn't — Teleb frowned. He didn't much care for the idea of having to make war on other Rihannsu. Weren't there Klingons and Feds enough to destroy? But there was no place for rebellion if the Empire was to remain strong in the face of her enemies elsewhere in the galaxy. I am the servant of the Senate and the Praetorate, he thought. I am the strong arm of the Empire. I am a captain in Grand Fleet, and I will carry out my orders and win victory over the Empire's enemies, within it or without it, at whatever cost!

Then Teleb grinned. "Adolescent effusions." That was what his mentor-captain Mirrstul had called such statements, though she had been kindly enough about it. Well, she had a right to her opinions: she was a doughty warrior and a brilliant tactician. But he could not imagine her ever having been young. As for himself, while he had his youth, he was not going to waste it on too much somberness.

Teleb leaned against the bulkhead with his arms folded, watching one of the specialist loading crews bringing in the last batch of photon torpedoes, trundling them quickly down the huge loading tube into Calaf's lower weapons bay. He glanced at the chrono woven into his uniform sleeve. Almost ready, he thought. Teleb wanted very much to be the first to have the honor of reporting his ship ready to take off on this mission. A few breaths more, then I will take my bridge and be the first to make the announcement —

Then he caught sight of a tall dark shape walking quickly across the floor of the vast bay toward him, and he smiled slightly. Full dress uniform, glittering in black-gold and black; on departure day, you would never see Jisit in anything else. She was trying hard to look sober and serious, as befitted one setting out on an important mission, but such a demeanor always sat oddly on her as far as Teleb was concerned. His memory always overlaid them with the image of Jisit as she had been on that outrageous party night after her return from her first campaign, completely sozzled on ale, wearing a strange pointed hat with a tassel and singing "The High Queen's Bastard Daughter" to her crew and his in a key yet to be discovered by any other sentient being.

"Well, Captain tr'Sathe," she said, coming up to him and giving him two breaths' worth of bow.

"Well, Captain t'Nennien," he said, and gave it right back to her, to the very fraction of a second.

Then they both burst out laughing and collapsed into one another's arms. "Are you excited?" she hissed into his ear. "I can't bear it. I think I'll scream."

"Don't. They'll think you're singing again."

She laughed even harder and held him away. "Beast!"

"Guilty," Teleb said. "Is Teverresh ready?"

"Two loads to go yet, and my master engineer is complaining about retuning the warp drive before we leave. You'll beat me again, you fiddly little neirrh."

He grinned. "I must keep you in your place somehow."

"Oh, and what would that be?"

"Behind me."

"Behind your back, you mean." The grin went a little more sober. "But that way, with me and Teverresh there, maybe no one will stab you in it. It's not a safe place we're going, Teleb. Artaleirh has gone quiet."

"Oh?"

She shook her head. "The time limit on the ultimatum expired two hours ago. They made no answer to the Senate's last warning. We will have to implement our orders to the full."

Teleb sighed. "Are they all gone mad? With the Klingons running about savaging everything they can, this is no time to renounce the Empire's protection."

"Mad or not, we will call them back to their proper loyalty," Jisit said, "...or relieve them of it and take it on ourselves."

"And win glory..."

"I don't know about the glory," Jisit said, "but we'll carry out our orders, make our frontiers safe, and uphold the rule of law. That's good enough for me. Maybe pick up a few points toward my next promotion." She poked him none too gently in the shoulder. "And as for you, you stay out of trouble when we get there. It would be embarrassing for me to have to save you again, now that they've finally trusted you with Calaf without old Mirrstul looking over your shoulder."

"What do you mean, save me again?" But Teleb's chrono chirped softly. "That's it," he said, glancing over at the loading tubes. The Sunside-based loading crews were leaving, pushing the last of the floater pallets in front of them. "I should go."

"Go on," Jisit said, "and I'll resume reminding you of the Elements' own truth, which you are pleased to refuse to see, after this operation's over. Mind your crew now, Captain!"

"You mind yours, Captain," he said. She turned, but he caught her by the hand and she paused. He bowed over that hand, low enough to breathe softly on the back of it.

She smiled, gripped the hand as he straightened. "Message me tonight, after we make warp."

"I will."

She turned and headed away across the loading bay, and Teleb hurried across to Calaf's loading tube to make one final check on the condition of the weapons hold before going up to his bridge. He was humming the first line of "The High Queen's Bastard Daughter" as he went up the tube ramp into Calaf's belly, and away to his first real war.


Jim was still thinking about Sempach's weapons when he got back. The thought led to the idea that he'd like to look over her warp engines at some point, and that thought reminded him of something else. He paused in the corridor and hit a comm button. "Bridge."

"Bridge. Chekov here."

"Mr. Chekov, is Mr. Spock on the bridge?"

"He is on a scheduled break, Captain. I believe he has gone down to the main mess."

"Very well," Jim said. "Coordinate with the helm officer on Sempach; then notify Bloodwing we're setting course for RV Trianguli and implementing immediately."

"Aye, aye, sir," Chekov's voice came back.

"Kirk out."

Jim headed off down the corridor, caught a turbolift, and made his way down to the mess. There he found not only Spock but also McCoy, both finishing their lunches at one of the tables nearest the wall, both reading from electronic clipboard-padds as they did. Spock glanced up. "Captain — " he said.

"Finish your lunch, Mr. Spock, there's no rush about anything." Jim went over to the hatch and got himself a chicken sandwich and a cup of coffee, then sat down with them.

"How was your meeting with the commodore?" McCoy said, pushing his clipboard away.

Jim made a rather wry face. "Affable enough. But Fleet is antsy, as I expected, about our association with Bloodwing...even though they suggested we renew it. Suspicions rear their ugly heads." He sighed, shook his head, and bit into his sandwich.

McCoy snorted. "Invisible cat syndrome."

It took a moment of dealing with the sandwich before Jim could respond. "What?"

"As regards the commander, anyway."

Spock glanced over at McCoy. "If I remember correctly, the paradigm was first used by a religious apologist on Earth in the early twentieth century."

"That's right. Say somebody comes along," McCoy said, "and points at a chair and says to you, 'There's an invisible cat in that chair.' Now, you know the person's nuts. You say to them, 'But there's nothing there. The chair's empty.' Their response is, 'And isn't that exactly how it would look if there were an invisible cat in the chair? See, you've proved my point.'"

"Argumentum ex fallacio," Spock said.

"In your case, Jim — " McCoy had the grace to look just slightly abashed. "Well, come on. The source of all this trouble is that your opposite number's female. Bearing in mind some of your past behavior — not that I'm casting any aspersions, mind you — what are they supposed to think?"

Jim made a wry face. "This is just another way of saying it's all my own fault, isn't it?"

Spock addressed himself with renewed interest to his salad. "Jim," McCoy said, "they'll think what they think. You're not going to be able to change it, so you may as well just get on with what you were going to do anyway. How was the rest of your meeting?"

"Troubling," Jim said. He paused as a group of six or seven crewmen came into the mess and took a table, then headed for the food dispensers. "I think they're expecting the balloon to go up with a bang sometime after the talks with the Romulans, but no one seems to be clear about just when, or what will trigger it."

"I bet half of them are just hoping it doesn't happen, somehow," Bones said. "That the Romulans will just back down."

That thought had occurred to Jim, and it was making him nervous. He drank some coffee. "This time, I think that would be a serious miscalculation," he said. "Spock, I know perfectly well we run frequent readiness checks on all the weapons systems and the engines, but I want Scotty to use this next day or so to go over absolutely everything defense-oriented with a fine-tooth comb. Tell him to co-opt as much assistance from less busy departments aboard ship as he feels he needs to make sure that everything — everything — is in working order."

"Yes, Captain."

Jim finished his coffee and put the cup aside. "We also have some new cryptographic equipment or routines, or both, to be installed in the comm system and the main computer; they'll be coming over from Sempach. Which reminds me. Those automations Ael wanted you to have a look at? You never did report on those."

"It was not a very pressing matter, Captain. I wrote you a report, which you may not yet have seen."

Jim did his best to look unconcerned, but he knew he had been letting his paperwork slip a little lately. "Um. Well, what's the verdict?"

Spock put aside his empty bowl of salad and steepled his fingers. "I was able to assist them in several areas where newer programming and hardware needed to be restructured to interleave correctly with other, older control programs and routines," Spock said. "Bloodwing's personnel have been most ingenious, and I should also say innovative, in compensating for their present lack of manpower. But here and there conflicts had occurred, since some of the newer programming was done by crewmen with less expertise than might have been desired, and the automation reprogramming had extended to almost every system aboard the ship."

"Almost?"

"There was one notable exception," Spock said. "The ship's engines did not appear on the list of augmented systems which I was asked to examine."

Jim thought about that for a moment. "Well, they didn't lose too many people from their engineering department during the trouble, as I remember. And tr'Keirianh is a fairly hands-on sort, from what I can make of him. Maybe he's uneasy about allowing such a crucial system to be automated."

"It could be, Captain," Spock said. "It could also be that there was something involving Bloodwing's engine systems that the commander or the master engineer did not care to have me see."

Jim took another swig of coffee, considering that briefly. "Any evidence to support such a conjecture?"

"Little, and that circumstantial," Spock said. "Should another opportunity arise to investigate this, however, I confess I might attempt to do so."

"Curiosity, Mr. Spock?" Jim said.

Spock raised an eyebrow.

"Well, never mind it for now," Jim said. "Though if the opportunity arises this evening to do a little discreet inquiry, feel free." He sighed. "I won't be down in rec for long: I've got to start getting caught up on my paperwork. Meanwhile, when Ael and her people come by this evening to meet the commodore, see to it that each of them has an escort permanently within eyeshot. Security is going to become more of an issue now."

"I will see to it, Captain," Spock said. "Have you any preferences as to who should be assigned to the commander?"

Jim considered for a moment. "Now that you mention it..."


The darkness of the caverns, when the lights were turned down to their lowest, often seemed to amplify every sound, every breath. So it seemed very loud to Mheven when her mother spoke up suddenly out of what ought to have been her sleep.

"I hear," said Rrolsh. "I'm going out."

Mheven was at first not sure she hadn't been dreaming the words, for she had been thinking them, on and off, for nearly the past twenty days, since she came back from a mission. Is it really that long, she thought, that we have been down in this darkness? It seems like a thousand years. The sun — she dreamed about that too, golden in an emerald sky, but she knew she was not going to see it anytime soon. Up there, in the light and the air, more light than just the sun's was raining down on the fertile land. The sky was still filled with ships raining down fire. The crops were all surely burned now, the forest blanketing these hills all charred, if what had happened to the city had been any indication.

"Mother," Mheven said to the unseen presence across the room, "you're half asleep. You know they've been scanning the surface constantly. Anyone who goes out will be caught and interrogated, and they'll discover where we are. Then all this will be for nothing."

A faint sound of bedding being discarded drifted across the darkness of the cavern. Mheven sighed and fumbled for the little battery lamp.

At her touch it glowed up to its preset level — low; no one down here wasted power. Since the destruction of the concealed solar arrays in the last spate of bombing, there had been none to spare. Mheven looked across the low-ceilinged little rest-cave and saw what she expected: the water trickling down its dank walls, the supplies of food and water and materiel stacked up in their crates at the back of the cave, and the beautiful, drawn, tired, aging face of her mother popping suddenly out of the cold-tunic she was hurriedly pulling over her head. That grim face looked at her; those eyes, fierce and eager, looked into hers.

"You can't hear it?" she asked.

"Hear what?"

"I'm going out!"

Her mother scrambled up out of the bedroll and headed for the sleeping cave's entrance, which had someone's blanket hung up over it as a screen against the lights always burning on the other side. Mheven sighed and pulled on her own tunic. Kicking her bedroll aside, she went after her mother.

The main cavern, even with the tiny lights that were all the group now allowed itself, was still spectacularly beautiful. There had been a time when people had come from all over this part of the Empire to see these caverns, a natural wonder as astonishing in their way as the firefalls at Gal Gath'thonng on ch'Rihan; possibly the biggest natural caverns in all the Empire's worlds, but no one knew for sure, because no one had ever completely explored them in all the time the planet Ysail had been colonized, a matter of several hundred years. The caverns stretched beneath the smaller of the planet's two continents, Saijja, from the cliffs of Eilmajen in the east nearly to Veweil in the west, and they were so deep and complex that they had never even been completely mapped. Scanners could not reach so deep, not even the powerful ones used from space.

The refugees had picked this spot for their labors because it was one of the deepest caverns and because it was unknown to outsiders. Though in more peaceful times tourists had constantly been passing through one part or another of the Saijja Caverns, there had always been parts of the cavern complex that no tourist had ever been shown: the spelunkers' secrets, the private delights of those inhabitants of the planet who made it their business to come here every chance they got in leisure time, exploring a frontier that was not infinite but that would certainly take thousands of years to discover fully.

This one, the greatest cavern to be found for several hundred miles in any direction, was called Bheirsenn: "bright in the night," in the local dialect. When the lights were on, it was bright indeed — a vast bubble of air trapped in the depths of the planet, roughly a mile and a half in diameter, ceilinged in terrifyingly huge and glittering stalactite chandeliers of limestone, calcite, and quartz crystal. That impossibly distant ceiling shone bright as a hazy sky when the great high-intensity lights were on. They were not on much lately, what with the power crisis, but even with the lights dimmed, the distant pendant crystalline stalactites glittered faintly like faraway galaxies, like the points of stars. It was a space difficult for even the most ground-shy Rihannsu to feel claustrophobic in, one of awe-inspiring beauty.

And it was also a perfect place for making weapons of all kinds, especially bombs. From the great main cavern, hundreds of smaller caves budded off in clusters and chains, a labyrinth that only those who lived there could ever master. Working separately, the technicians and the people whom they had trained occupied small, dense-walled stone rooms in which they could work with deadly explosives and other dangerous technologies without being concerned about triggering a cataclysm. The whole group, totaling about five hundred people, had been down here for almost a year now. They had slipped away with their families and even their pets when the government had declared Ysail to be a "primary resource world." Others, at a distance, might have been fooled about what this meant, but the Ysailsu knew all too well. The Empire had seized all the industry on their planet. Then, when there was bitter protest at this, they had sent ships from Grand Fleet, carrying troops from the Army and Intelligence, to round up the population of a couple of cities and send them off to work camps, expecting the rest to settle down and do as they were told.

It had not worked out that way, for over the centuries the Ysailsu had developed what the Empire considered an irrational attitude: they thought they owned their world. The small population of the planet rose in nearly simultaneous rebellion. Immediately after that, the Empire began bombing it — very selective bombing, of course, concentrating on the cities and taking care to do no harm to industrial resources. The Ysailsu, though, partaking in full of the legendary stubbornness of their parent species, had decided that if they could not profit from the industries they had spent hundreds of years building, then neither would the Empire. Led by a group of thoughtful and angry guerrillas, the Ysailsu took all the food, water, spare parts, power sources, and supplies of every kind that they could find, and went to ground in the caves en masse. They scattered themselves across the underside of their smaller continent, made themselves at home, and began blowing up their factories themselves.

All this, as well as the smoking cities and the ground shuddering with explosions, now seemed as distant to Mheven as a dream. The workers and fighters down here did not hear or feel the explosions. The caves were far too deep. There was no way the Empire could find them, and even if it did, no way it could reach them without dropping atomics on them, and since the Empire theoretically wanted to use the planet for something else later, even they would not have been that crazy.

Crazy...thought Mheven, concerned, watching her mother make her way into the dim light of the main cavern, heading for the little makeshift workspace where Ddoya had his "office." Ddoya tr'Shelhnae was as much of a leader as their group had: the one to whom everyone brought their problems, the one to whom the once-a-tenday gathering turned for suggestions and direction. He had been a doctor once, and he was one of the original group of guerrillas who had convinced the population to use the strength that the Element Earth had given them as they descended into it and sheltered in it. Earth — the quietest Element and maybe the most taken for granted, but possibly the most powerful. He had more than a little of that Element in his own makeup, Mheven thought. He was a quiet man, slow, thoughtful — but eloquent: as with the ground when it quaked, when Ddoya spoke, you paid attention.

Her mother headed across that big space toward him, where a little light shone in his workspace. Elements only knew when the man slept; Mheven sometimes suspected him of having a clone or two stashed in one of the caves. Now she could just make him out, small, burly, and dark, sitting in his workspace, bent over something, as she hurried along in her mother's wake. Various other people were up and around, heading here and there in the cave, about their business. They watched Mheven heading after Rrolsh, and even in the dimness she caught some smiles from them. Living here was like living in the bosom of a large and unavoidable family, or a small town. Everybody knew everything about everybody soon enough, and everybody knew that Rrolsh had something rare: the visionary gift, which sometimes made her a little strange.

Mheven blushed but kept on going after her mother and finally caught up with her at the "door" of the workspace, which was just another blanket, one of four thrown over a cubical pipe-metal framework. It was fastened up at the moment, and Ddoya looked up at the two of them from the round, silvery thing he was holding in his hand.

"This isn't your shift, as a rule," he said. "Is there some problem?"

Mheven blushed again.

"Ddoya," Rrolsh said, "I heard something. Something's going to happen."

"What?"

Rrolsh looked frustrated. "I don't know for certain," she said. "But it's imminent."

He raised his eyebrows. "I could wish," Ddoya said, "that our distant ancestors had left us some instructions about what to do with such talents as yours when they crop up, for I'm sure I don't know what questions to ask you to help you be more definite. Nonetheless, we'll go on alert, if you feel the need, Rrolsh. I haven't forgotten that last incident with the government courier."

Rrolsh sighed and shook her head, looking suddenly weary. "It's not that close," she said. "Or...it's not that serious. I can't tell which. I only caught a feeling, a word..."

"Well, let it rest for the moment," he said. He looked past her at Mheven. "Meanwhile," he said to her, "we have another attack group going out in a few days. We should send some of these with them for testing. But I'd like you and your people to double-check these first."

Mheven was one of the group's engineers. Once her forte had been medical machinery, which was how Ddoya had recruited her. Now she had acquired a rather more destructive specialty, and what he held intrigued her. She held out her hand, and Ddoya passed the object to her. It was a flattened ovoid of silvery metal, about the thickness of her hand.

"Implosion charge?" Mheven said, turning it over.

"Combined implosion-disruption," said Ddoya. "Remember the old 'dissolution' fields that the warships used to use?"

"The ones that would unravel a metal's crystalline structure."

"That's right. An overlooked technology, but surprisingly suitable to being packed down small, these days, with the new solid-phase circuitry. This one goes off in two stages. The dissolution field propagates first, and then the imploder collapses the deranged matter. One of these" — he took it back from her carefully — "will scoop out a spherical section from a building, or a bridge, or a ship, something like twenty testai in diameter." He smiled grimly.

"How many do we have?"

"Five so far."

"I want to go along," Mheven said.

"Check with Ussi," Ddoya said. "She's coordinating. Was there anything else?"

Mheven shook her head.

"No," her mother said. "Ddoya...thanks."

"Don't thank me. I know it's difficult for you, and you bear this burden, and work as hard as any of us, as well."

A few others, faces Mheven recognized but was too tired to greet, were drifting over. Mheven sketched a wave at them, linked her arm through her mother's, and started back toward their rest-cave.

"I embarrass you," said her mother.

"Not seriously."

"I wonder what it was like, in the old days," Rrolsh said, sounding wistful. "When there were Talents in the ships, and telepaths, people for whom seeing more than one world, hearing more than spoken voices, was normal."

"Maybe someday we'll find out again," Mheven said. Hope was good: any distraction, sometimes, was good for turning one's mind from the idea that one might be living in a cave making bombs only until something went wrong, everything was found out, and they were all hunted down and killed. "Maybe someday the Empire will just give up and — "

Her mother stopped and stood still. Mheven turned to her, and in the dimness she could just see her lips move. Then Rrolsh let go of her and turned back the way they had come. She went straight back to Ddoya, who, with the two people to whom he was talking, looked up at her, surprised.

"I heard it clearly this time," her mother said. "I heard it! Just a whisper in the darkness. It said lleiset."

The others looked at each other, not knowing what to say.

Freedom...

Ddoya turned the new charge over and over in his hands, then looked up at her.

A soft queep from a small console on the floor beside his chair brought all their heads around. Eyes widened. Ddoya, in particular, looked at the thing as if he expected the little square console to stand up and bite him in the leg.

"Ddoya," said one of the fighters standing nearby, a man named Terph, "they can't be here yet. It's too soon."

"It could be a trick," said Lais, the other.

Silence, and then another queep.

The five of them looked at one another. No more sound was forthcoming, for the sound was the one realtime noise made by the narrow-bandwidth subspace transmitter-receiver until it was instructed to play. The receiver did not produce output in realtime: it took a coded digital squawk no longer than a millisecond, decompressed it, decoded it, and played it on command, recording and sending outgoing messages the same way. It was how their group kept in touch with the hundreds of others scattered through the caves, and they did not overuse it for fear of detection.

Ddoya got off his chair, knelt down beside the transmitter-receiver. He touched its controls in a coded sequence, and the transmitter's decode lights went on.

"The ships are coming," whispered the voice from the narrow-bandwidth subspace transmitter. "Repeat, the ships are coming. This is a multiple sighting, multiple confirmed. Relief will be with you within ten standard days. Events to follow will most likely cause the Fleet to withdraw. Prepare to emerge in force. More details are packed with this squirt. Unpacking now."

Ddoya looked up at them his stolid face suddenly alight with excitement. For a few moments he was as speechless as the rest of them. "Well," he said finally. "We'd better get everyone together to discuss this in the morning. Meanwhile, let's get back to planning the next raid."

They smiled at one another, a little more fiercely than usual. Mheven looked over at her mother and smiled. "So you were right," she said. "We are going out. All of us. But meantime, let's get caught up on our sleep."

They walked off together. But this time, as they went, Mheven's heart was pounding. Enough of her people had died waiting for this day when it would start, when they would not be fighting alone. Enough of them had died trying to bring it about. She herself might yet die in these next few days. But all the same, she smiled. And as she and her mother slipped back into the darkness of their sleeping place, Mheven wasn't entirely sure she didn't hear the same whisper.

Freedom...


In the rec room that evening, Ael looked up out of the great windows at the stars pouring past and let out a small sad breath. The time when she might freely enjoy this spectacular view was swiftly coming to an end. Soon enough, she thought, I will be staring into a tactical display again, concentrating on objects moving in space much more slowly, relatively speaking, than the stars. I should enjoy this while I can...as far as possible.

She glanced around. All about her, various crewmen sat and chatted, or gamed, as usual. Off in a small conversation pit nearby, Scotty and tr'Keirianh and K's't'lk were conversing with energy, occasionally waving hands or jointed glittering limbs in gestures strangely reminiscent of those which young Khiy and Mr. Sulu had been using the other day. Lieutenant Uhura was leaning over the back of one of the settles that formed the back of the pit, asking K's't'lk something. The answer came back in a bright spill of music, but oddly, with no words that Ael could hear. Curious, Ael started strolling their way, and a discreet rumbling accompanied her, like a boulder trying to roll along without making too much of a racket.

Ael had to smile, though the smile was doubtless somewhat edged with irony for a perceptive viewer. "Mr. Naraht," Ael said, "this duty must be a trial for you. Doubtless there are many more interesting things for you to be doing."

"Not at all, Commander," the Horta said, shuffling his fringes about a little as he came up alongside her. "Everything here is interesting."

"Surely you are putting a brave face on it," Ael said.

"Madam," Naraht said, "if you've ever lived in the crust of a planet with nothing to do but eat rock, and nothing to do after that but listen to your ten thousand siblings eat rock, and then listen to them talking about having eaten rock — after a while, anything else is interesting." His translator module emitted that rough, gravelly sound that seemed to be laughter, and his fringe tendrils shivered. "And when you notice that weird creatures who don't eat rock, or even talk about it much, are wandering around the place, they and their affairs are likely to become, by comparison, very interesting indeed."

Ael raised her eyebrows at that. Amid some human and Rihannsu laughter, she saw Uhura straighten up and head off purposefully, as if in search of something. "Might you not be overstating the case, Lieutenant? Most of us think our ordinary home life is boring. And your people, Mr. Spock tells me, are a most intelligent and complex species — "

"Far be it from me to argue with Mr. Spock," Naraht said. "My mother would come down on me like a ton of ore if she found out. But, Commander, intelligence doesn't necessarily imply culture."

Ael chuckled. As they came up to the conversation pit, Ael leaned against the back of one of the higher-backed semicircular settles on one side, glancing down with slight affection at tr'Keirianh. He was oblivious, concentrating on something Scotty was saying to K's't'lk. "...downright heretical, lass," Scotty said, "in the merely physical sense rather than the physics one."

K's't'lk sighed a long, jangling sigh, like a set of wind chimes out of sorts. "The distinction is strictly artificial," she said. "Or rather, it's a perception problem. The law of general relationships says — " She started singing again, a very bright precise sequence of notes. When she finished, after about ten seconds, tr'Keirianh, sitting with his head tilted slightly to one side, said, "I believe I nearly heard it that time. Perhaps the difficulty is with the way our people handle tonalities. But I am no musician. I never had any interest in music when I was younger, and nowadays I have little time, though I admit the inclination is forming — "

"For what, Giellun?" Ael said.

Her master engineer looked up at her with some amusement. "The commander is teaching us the basic elements of Hamalki physics notation, khre'Riov," he said. "Or trying to."

"'Tis an exchange program, Commander," Scotty said. "She'll teach us this, and we'll teach her poker."

"And Khiy and Aidoann and I will teach her aithat," tr'Keirianh said.

Ael shook her head. "Elements send we all have time for all this," she said, "but, Mr. Scott, of your courtesy, what in the worlds is 'poker'? The translator suggests an iron stick. But I think I have found one of its blind spots; I don't think you speak of such."

A slow grin began to spread over Mr. Scott's face. "Poker is a game," he said.

Giellun's expression became somewhat more wicked. "If I understand Mr. Scott's description correctly," he said, "it is, like aithat, a way of equalizing the distribution of the crew's pay throughout the ship."

"Ah, me," Ael said. "Given our current circumstances, perhaps this would be useful." Though she wondered, for aithat, a gambling game based on the careful calculation of odds and the distribution of counters and tiles of fixed value among the players, already served that purpose. "But it is not a strategy game then, like your schhess."

"Not in the same way — "

"Oh, I'm sorry, Commander, am I interrupting something?" Uhura said from behind Ael.

Ael turned. "Not at all, Lieutenant," she said, and then blinked in surprise, for Uhura was carrying a ryill, a particularly handsome one, maybe a century or so old, to judge by the patina on the inlaid wood, and well-cared for. "Air's name, where did you come by such a fine instrument?"

"The lute is Mr. Spock's," Uhura said. "He lends it to me occasionally. I was hurting my throat trying to match some of these higher notes K's't'lk's been producing, and if I want to learn how to at least communicate date and time coordinates in Hamalki, I need to be able to produce the sounds some other way, for practice purposes anyway." She sat down in the pit next to K's't'lk and began tuning the ryill for the octave she wanted. "The physics I'm in no hurry about, but the syntax and structure of the language shouldn't be too far beyond me. K's't'lk, would you give me one more example of the one you did just before I left?"

K's't'lk emitted one short burst of sound, a chord, followed by a short phrase that seemed to be in a major key, about five seconds long. Uhura finished adjusting the ryill's drone control and then mimicked the phrase. The tone of the ryill was excellent. Ael suspected that her estimate of its age was correct, for it was using the relatively old form of solid-state audio inlays, which gave a warmer, more intimate sound to the bass "stringing."

"Very close," K's't'lk said. "Einstein might not understand it, but I do. Add a note a fourth above the high note in the drone."

Uhura played the sequence again. "There you are," K's't'lk said.

Scotty was shaking his head. "Lass, if they'd put E=mc2 to me that way when I was young," he said, "no telling where I'd be now."

"In a first chair at the Mars Philharmonic, possibly," K's't'lk said, and laughed. "Not that we couldn't still have used you in that capacity on Hamal. Sometimes I think Bach was one of us who took a very wrong turn and got born on Earth by accident..."

"Did I miss the folk singing?" said a voice from behind Ael. She smiled and turned to see the captain there.

"We are folk," tr'Keirianh said, "but the Commander here has been doing most of the singing."

K's't'lk chortled again and then launched into a long syncopated phrase full of sudden leaps up and down a very oddly assembled chromatic scale. Ael glanced at tr'Keirianh, curious to see if he made anything of it; to her it sounded like someone dropping a box of broken glass. Uhura frowned and started repeating the phrase, more hesitantly than the last time. The captain raised his eyebrows. "Marsalis?"

"Hawking," K's't'lk said. "The equation for working out the rate of evaporation of black holes."

"I should know better than to ask," the captain said. "Commander, might I borrow you for a moment?"

She inclined her head to him, then raised a hand to tr'Keirianh and the others and stepped away. Behind her, K's't'lk was saying, "All right. Here's an easy one — "

"What was that?"

"The formula for Planck time."

"Can I have that again? I missed it..."

Ael walked back in the direction of the great windows with the captain. Mr. Naraht remained behind for the moment. Very quietly, the captain said, "I just wanted to let you know that I've had one more word with the commodore. Unfortunately, he's not willing to be swayed on this. Starfleet is very insistent that you be taken out of the area while negotiations are ongoing."

"Well, I suppose I can understand that," Ael said. "But of course it will not be Enterprise that accompanies us."

"No," Jim said, "of course not. Ortisei will go with you."

"Well," said Ael, "once again I show myself a prophetess, though in these circumstances it takes little accomplishment to manage it." She glanced up at the great windows again. "But I appreciate your effort on our behalf. We will, at least, be able to keep in touch in the usual fashion."

"I'm going to have to be careful about that," the captain said. "Communications to and from all our ships are likely to be carefully watched, I think, and clandestine messaging could be misunderstood."

Ael nodded.

"Either way, we'll see to it that very frequent reports of the meetings, and anything else germane, reach you every day. And one other thing. The Romulan group has now been met by the first two escort ships. We'll all be at the rendezvous point within five hours."

Ael nodded again. "I will remain here just a little while longer," she said, "and then head back to Bloodwing. There is still a great deal to make ready."

He nodded too, looking tired — more tired than she could remember seeing him since the two of them had been surrounded by the blood and phaser fire of Levaeri V. He feels the weight of what is about to happen, she thought, and the fear, even as I do. I wish I could give him some assurance of how things will go, but that is not in my power. Any more than it is in his gift to give such assurances to me.

"I have a ton of paperwork to deal with, " the captain said, "and I've been getting behind. Bearing in mind what we're going to be going into, I'd better get it sorted out before things heat up." He looked up again, met her eyes. "Commander, should I not see you again before things start..."

She bowed to him, three breaths' worth, then straightened. "No long farewells as yet, Jim," she said, then had to smile. She had never quite got used to calling him that with a straight face.

The captain grinned at her, understanding. Then he departed, lifting a hand in casual salute to the commodore across the room. That man's eyes went from the captain to Ael, rested on her a moment, then turned away again to the windows and the view of the ships pacing Enterprise through the night. Ael looked at the commodore for a few seconds longer. He was a likable man, Ddan'ilof, but cautious, reserved, like one new to high command and still slightly nervous of its weight and pressures; also a man who, it was plain, did not trust her. Ael had caught one or two glimpses of him looking at her and the captain while they had been speaking, once or twice, earlier this evening — not being obvious about it, but watching them all the same, with a quiet, assessing look.

Her own crew had thrown her a few looks like that over the past couple of months. They hadn't voiced any suspicions, naturally, but the looks had been there. Even after everything Bloodwing had been through under her command, it still came hard for Rihannsu to trust aliens, and the closer they became, in some cases, the harder her crew seemed to find it to trust them. There was irony in it, for Bloodwing had suffered more from the treachery of other Rihannsu than from any alien. Command back on the Homeworlds, and various members of her own crew, had been blades enough in Ael's side, and in the sides of those aboard Bloodwing who had honored their oaths, held their mnhei'sahe, and served her until Levaeri V and past it, out into the darkness of uncertainty and homelessness. Now they were the crew of a ship without a fleet, and a commander without rank. And yet they serve me, she thought, while wondering if they may still be further betrayed by their own.

While I wonder if I may be so betrayed as well...

The heavy rumbling sound came up slowly behind her as Ael looked up at those big windows. The stars poured by, and far nearer than they, two of the three other starships presently accompanying Enterprise rode off her starboard, sleek and silent and dangerous-looking in the shifting starlight shimmering on their hulls. It was not as if Enterprise did not have the same general look, but to Ael, at least, she no longer seemed dangerous.

And that perception, she thought, may eventually prove fallacious. Beware...

The rumbling died back to a faint shuffle. From across the room there was another bright spill of notes, scaling quickly upward into a kind of melodious crash, followed by Uhura's and tr'Keirianh's and Mr. Scott's laughter. Time to go, Ael thought, while I am still in good cheer. She glanced down. "Mr. Naraht," she said, "perhaps you would be good enough to accompany me down to the transporter room."

"My pleasure, madam."

She had to chuckle, for he actually said llhei, bypassing the translator installed in his voder pack. "Very strange it is," she said as they left together and headed for the cargo lifts at the end of the corridor, "to find the seeming essence of Earth so mutable. Do you study languages, then, as well as sciences?"

"It's all part of biomaths, Commander," the lieutenant said. "Life needs language to understand itself, and the more language, the better. The translator is a tool, but sometimes it's more fun to get straight down into the matrix of thought and wallow — even if it does taste strange at first." There was a pause. "As for stone being so immutable, what about magma, then?" No question: the voice was smiling. "That's one of the few things I miss. It's been an age since I had a swim."

Ael stared at him as they went. "In lava?"

"We had a swimming hole," Naraht said. "When we were big enough, our mother took us. Oh, that first dive into the fire..." As they paused outside the lift, Naraht shivered all over, and Ael realized with astonishment that the gesture was one of sheer delight. "How scared we all were. And how silly we were to be scared. It stung a little, but it was worth it."

She got into the turbolift, and Mr. Naraht, with some difficulty, shuffled in behind her. The doors shut. "Deck nine," she said, and off it went, obedient. "Lieutenant," Ael said, "I ask you to forgive me if I transgress. But your people are a wonder to me — as if you were an aspect of my own folk's way of looking at the universe, of one of the Elements, indeed, suddenly come real. And it makes me wonder: how do your people see that universe? Not the physical parts of it, I mean. What lies beneath?"

He shuffled around a little, turning, almost as if to look at her. "It's odd you should phrase it that way," Naraht said. "'Beneath.' We know well enough what's at the heart of our planet — of most planets. The pressure, the heat and density. But what if that were an idiom for something else? A heat that scorches but doesn't burn — the pressure so great it becomes total, the whole weight of being pressing down, with yourself at the center of it, accepting it, thereby defining it, creating it, eternal. The inexpressible richness, the transcendent temperature, down there in the deepest places beneath and within, the depth that never ends, increasing, crushing us into reality — " He paused, as if to recover himself. The diffidence Ael was used to hearing in his voice had been missing. "I'm still learning the language for this," Naraht said then. "I may be learning it for hundreds of years, while I talk to other people, learning what they think...so I can better find out what I think. It's frightening, a little, like that first jump into the lava. Afterwards you wonder why you waited so long, but it's still hard to go where your fears take you. Or where they would, if you let them." He paused. "Sometimes I think that's why I came here," Naraht said, more quietly. "I was afraid of the emptiness — first the air, and then the dark above it: the places where almost nothing was solid. But I said to myself, 'I'll jump anyway...'"

Ael nodded. "I see," she said. And after a moment she said, "I was half afraid to come here once, too. But I had no choice."

"Only half?" Naraht said.

Ael chuckled at that. "Earth you are indeed," she said, "and as such you see through stone readily enough with time. This noble ship — how I regretted, once, walking its corridors while being unable to bring it home to the Imperium in triumph as a prize of war."

"But that changed," Naraht said.

"It did," Ael said. Not even to him, personified Element or not, would she say just how. But what she now valued most about the Enterprise — most paradoxically, with an eye to the ship's many past encounters with Bloodwing — was its sense of being a sort of haven of peace. Though of course there were parts of it she still found most uncomfortable to be in: sickbay, particularly, and —

Ael swallowed. "Stop," she said. The lift paused. "Destination?" it said.

"Madam?" Naraht said. "Is there a problem?"

Ael stood there, turning the idea over in her head for a moment. To her horror, she could find no good reason to reject it. "Mr. Naraht," she said, "perhaps we might make one stop before we leave."

"Certainly, Commander."

"Deck five," Ael said.

Off the lift went again, and presently its doors opened. Having had the idea, now Ael stood there frozen for several seconds. Embarrassment, though, finally moved her. She got out, Naraht rumbling along behind her, and stood in the corridor for a moment to get her bearings; it had been a different lift she had used the last time. Then she walked down the corridor, her heart pounding, to the door she remembered all too well.

Naraht did not comment, simply shuffled himself up against the wall to wait. Ael touched the signal beside the door.

"Come," said the voice from inside.

She went inside; the door closed behind her.

Spock looked at her in considerable surprise and got up from the seat behind his desk, where he had been sitting with fingers steepled, gazing at something on the desk viewer that Ael could not see. "Commander," he said.

"Mr. Spock," Ael said, "I have interrupted you at meditation, I see. Please forgive me." She turned to go.

"There is no need," Spock said. "The meditation was not formal. How may I assist you?"

Ael opened her mouth, but could find nothing to say.

If this astonished her, she could only wonder what Spock must think of it. He showed no sign of surprise, though, and merely pulled out a chair from the other side of the desk. "Please, Commander," he said, "sit down."

Ael sat in that chair, though it cost her some effort. She had sat in it once before, and the memory was still not scarred over sufficiently to touch without discomfort.

Her eyes slid up to the S'harien hanging on the wall, a curve of darkness all too like the one across the chair in her cabin, which she could feel looking at her, these days, more than ever. There is your excuse, her mind whispered to her. Your last chance —

"I have a problem, Mr. Spock," Ael said. "I have put off dealing with it for some time. It occurs to me that the most likely solution is unique, and that you possess it."

"A description of the problem would assist me," Spock said.

Ael swallowed again. "Starships," she said, "are not the only hardware my people have purchased from the Klingons of late."

"It would be only logical to assume as much," Spock said.

"Indeed. After Sunseed and the DNA acquisition project were stolen, there appeared a sudden enthusiasm for that piece of equipment known as the mind-sifter. It apparently has become very popular among the intelligence forces of the Two Worlds, for Rihannsu have no defense against it. And even though our own Fleet sees to it that those of us who command are given buried mental protections similar to your own command conditioning, even those would not suffice to protect us against the Klingon tool."

Spock nodded. "I believe your assessment is correct."

"One must plan for all eventualities," Ael said. "Worse may yet come to worst. Logic suggests that circumstance or accident might yet cause me to fall into their hands."

"I cannot deny that, Commander."

"Spock," Ael said, "I will be open with you. The stakes in this game have greatly increased since I first began to play. Where only my own life was involved, and those of Bloodwing who have sworn themselves to me with full knowledge of the continuing risk, I have been willing to depend on my own resources. But now many more people, well-intentioned but perhaps ill-informed of the dangers of aligning themselves with me, are becoming involved, and I must hold them in mind as well. I have no desire to betray those on the Hearthworlds and among the colonies whom I know are engaged in the struggle about to begin. Yet I may not be able to avoid doing so, if my enemies succeed in preventing me from ending my life before they do their will with me. Should this happen, those who would continue the fight after my death would have no chance to do so. My destruction would mean theirs as well, and that of their families and very likely even their acquaintances. Therefore..."

Spock waited.

"I would ask," Ael said, "whether there is among the mind disciplines one you might be able to teach me quickly, one that would allow me to make that end if other, more straightforward means are denied me. Or one that simply would make information I hold forever inaccessible to those who would use it against the ones who would continue the fight. I understand that this might be impossible..."

"Speed and the disciplines are usually incompatible, Commander," Spock said. "However..."

Now it was her turn to wait. She was afraid, but she would not allow fear to dictate her actions. Her need, or rather the need of those who looked to her to be protected from the Empire, was too great.

Spock was very still. At last he turned back to her. "Commander," he said, "it is possible that you might be taught. There is one condition in which speed does not obtain as an issue."

Ael swallowed. "Mind-meld," she said.

A silence fell again.

"I remember," Ael said, "the technique that you mentioned Captain Suvuk of Intrepid had used after being captured by the personnel at Levaeri V, to prevent my people extracting his command codes from him. Kan-sorn."

"It could be taught," Spock said. "But there are other disciplines that might benefit you more, most specifically against interrogation. I have had some personal experience in this regard."

And then he was silent again.

"But there is a problem," said Ael.

"There are certain...ethical constraints," Spock said. "There are constraints against teaching the disciplines, any of them, to those who have not committed themselves to — "

"Surak's strictures for peace," Ael finished for him, softly, and smiled a rather ironic smile. "Always Surak comes between our peoples, at the end." She stood up, glancing once again at the S'harien that hung on the wall, and turned away. "Mr. Spock, I am sorry to have interrupted you to no purpose. Please excuse me."

She was moving toward the door when he put out a hand and touched her arm. The sudden unexpectedness of it shocked Ael to the core. She stood as still as if she had been struck so.

The hand that Spock had raised now fell. "It has occurred to me," Spock said, very low, "more than once, of late, that there may be more than one road to peace."

Ael looked up into that still, unrevealing face and thought she saw more revealed there than Spock intended. "If I err in my judgment," Spock said, "the price will be mine to pay, for a lifetime. Yet you too have paid a high price for your actions of late, yet have not regretted them."

"Imprecision, Mr. Spock," Ael said softly. "Bitterly indeed I have regretted my actions — some of them. Yet given the chance to repeat those actions, I would not do otherwise. Could not. Mnhei'sahe is its own reward — though sometimes that reward cuts deep. But what use is a sword that will not cut?"

It was Spock's turn now to glance up at the S'harien, then back at her. "I do not think I err," Spock said. "Commander, if you consent to this — "

She sat down again, trying to find calm. Spock slowly clasped his hands and stood still for a moment, the expression starting to go inturned; but his eyes were dark with concern, with final warning. "I must apologize to you in advance for any discomfort I cause you and for any lack of clarity in the transmission," he said. "I am not trained in the teaching of these techniques, though others have trained me in them. It is possible I will blunder."

"I have no concern in that regard," Ael said. Nonetheless, she was holding herself very still, determined not to tremble.

It is absurd. We have done this before. There was no harm done.

And I trust him.

He circled around behind the chair where she sat. This was the worst part, and Ael fought for calm. Very precisely his fingers positioned themselves over her nerve junctions, then touched her face. Ael took one long, shuddering breath and closed her eyes as, very slowly, another view of the world began overlaying itself on her own.

My mind to your mind. My thoughts...to your thoughts.

It had seemed impossible before, terrible, like insanity encroaching — another's voice in her own mind, another presence that spoke with her own voice, somehow thinking thoughts that were not hers. But they were slowly becoming hers. Slowly the sense of difference between herself and the other was dwindling. The back of her mind shrieked in protest at the loss of difference, but Ael was in no mood for it, and the terror receded.

...easier this time...

Yes, the answer came. Our minds are drawing together. She could feel the congruencies establishing themselves, similarities interlocking, differences respected and incorporated into the nearly established wholeness. Closer still — the whole compacting, slipping into phase —

Our minds are one. As if she needed telling now, with the flare of union, the astonished fire of synapses momentarily blinding her, a storm of thought and memory, the two streams of thought rushing together like two rivers in spate, eddies whirling and pouring into one another, a great rush of starfire and darkness, knowledge and uncertainty —

She saw now why her people had lost this art so long ago. Had the people of the Crossing, so enamored of pride, individuality, difference, their own chosen insularity from the rest of the species they left behind, come to reject this forced sharing-of-being as too high a price? Too undermining to the cherished sense of lonely individuality? For here, despite the vast gulf that separated her life from this other one, her upbringing and tendencies and her whole cast of mind, what was plain here was how alike, how very alike she and this other were, a great wash of similarities and resonances had risen to drown the differences. And the question arose before her: Why in the Elements' names did we give this up? Why did we walk away?

First see where you are. What must be done will become plain.

She stood in a darkness that shivered around its edges with red fire, and occupying the heart of the darkness was her other self's mind as it might appear in its solitary state, a cool but frighteningly complex weave of intellection, logic, and peace all interleaved with and woven into an equally complex, barbed, interconnected tangle of emotion, passion, and old buried violence. The logic was not an overlay, but a network, a matrix in which the older, dangerous substrates were embedded, held and managed, broken up and made relatively safe — though preserved for when they might be needed. This dangerous landscape leveled itself out before her as she gazed, while the force that held it all inside, the mind and will that bound it all up, watched to see what she would do.

She stepped out into it, over it, knowing that in so doing she would lay herself progressively more bare. The raging heat and aridity at the heart of that other worldview smote her with every step, tyrannous, partly a longing recollection of Vulcan's terrible heat, partly a paradigm for revelation, disclosure, layers of meaning burning and peeling away, revealing what lay beneath —

She gasped, but nonetheless moved forward over that dark and savage landscape, gazing down into its fires, and not so much seeing what lay within, but being seen by the source of the fires looking up and out at her. It perceived the image of Rihannsu space wrapped around her like a cloak, a great sweep of thousands of cubic light-years held all in mind despite its size, for after many years' service she knew it intimately. All that immense darkness was strung through with the implication of forces moving, men and minds and ships, though the knowledge was fragmentary, and all that space seemed to burn now with the sense of frustration at what was missing, what needed yet to be known. More was coming — when would it come? — it was not enough —

The anger will keep you from seeing clearly what must be done. You must let it go —

She pushed herself through the stifling heat and the darkness, feeling the layers of her own anger and terror burning away. It came hard, but for her people, for her own people on Bloodwing and for the innocents on ch'Rihan and ch'Havran and the colony worlds, she must have this, would have this, no matter how she suffered —

As if from out of the fires beneath her the glimpse erupted into her consciousness: the furious faces, shouting into hers, and at the edges of her mind, something tearing, pressing in, ripping at her as if with hooks —

She staggered on, unable to believe the intensity of the pain. It came and went in great bouts and waves, every one leaving the mind tenderer than the one before, and with an awful feeling of being raped, intruded into, that most intimate and secret place torn at and gored: ultimate violation —

Do not allow the circumstances to distract you. The mind-sifter is simply a mechanism that performs mind-meld without permission. It can be defeated in two ways. The first: by disengaging the pain, by denying it permission. The second requires a higher level of accomplishment. The first is accomplished by completely mastering the emotion: distaste, anger, but mostly fear —

She shuddered all over. There. You see how the fear of what the pain will do is as bad as the pain itself, if allowed to persist. But both can be mastered —

— there again, the leering faces, roaring with amusement, the questions, like hot iron, like cruelly spiked and unbearably heavy weights, pressing in intolerably from every side. She cried out in anguish. It seemed worse to feel it through him, with the experience reflecting back and forth inside their joined mind, doubled, quadrupled, than it would have felt had it simply been happening to her. She fought back against what was happening, tried to hold the pain at a distance —

You are reacting incorrectly. His instructor, or him? There was no telling: that meld was this meld...This is not about resistance. The pain is part of what is really happening. To deny the truth is illogical. To accept it is the beginning of mastery. The pain must be accepted, and mastered, second by second, each second anew.

She struggled along through the ever-increasing burning, and suffered with him as he tried to achieve mastery in this most terrible situation, tried, failed. But tried again. And failed again, and tried again. And this time achieved it, finding his composure and adapting the techniques his instructor had shown him so long ago, not trying to stop the pain but accepting it wholly, including it, letting it pass through him, like a phaserblast through air; it vanishes, and the air closes around its path and is the air again, unbroken, untroubled. A flood of near disbelief, following the first second that the technique worked. But it had worked, though the next second the pain reasserted itself in all its fury. Again the air opens, includes it, lets it go by; and there is no pain. Again the pain; the air lets it pass; there is no pain...

There is no pain.

She fastened on that phrase, hope flaring in her, for now she felt his experience as he did, knew for sure that he had done it, had survived, and with his mind and his secrets intact. But there is more to it than that, the other self said. The words do not describe what you are making happen, but what has already happened. Resistance is not how the pain is overcome. Resistance implies that there exists something else which must second by second be resisted. This phenomenology will defeat you, leaving you at the mercy of the pain. But to master the pain, it must be included, accepted. Then it vanishes, then there truly is no pain —

Understood.

Is it indeed? Let us see.

Sickbay —

Her mind went up in a flare of anguish and fear. She would not look at that. I have paid that price. I pay it again every day. I will not pay in that coinage now!

Then prevent this.

The terrible pain came and tore at her part of the joined mind, efficiently, fiercely — though not mercilessly. It was not a machine, though it was acting like one, for her sake. And she knew, too, as she strove to deal with the pain, that whatever she might say, he was paying in such a coinage. To some extent, every mind-meld recalled every other. She heard echoes: if only I could forget...to the death, or life for both of us!...cry for the children, weep for the murdered ones!...and many another. And they were all cries of pain. Ah, it is ill named mind-meld, Ael thought in anguish. Heart-meld would be closer —

The children. That echo, wordless, seemed somehow more immediate than the others. There had been some resonance between the mother Horta and her children, even while they were still in the egg, that her other self had sensed without clearly understanding. Were Hortas at all telepathic? Possibly no more so than humans or Rihannsu, but suddenly Ael perceived the lake of lava burning against the darkness of the Horta homeworld's great depths, and saw the skin of cooling stone across the top of it hardening, going cold and dark, and then breaking and shattering with the flow of the lava beneath it, cracks widening, the liquid fire oozing up, cooling and darkening again. That was the path she had to traverse, the paradigm through which she had to move. The lava was the pain, which always would break through. But the pain itself could be subverted again and again, the energy diverted from it, so that it would go cold; and over that surface one could safely walk —

She swallowed, feeling the rising tide of agony. Or instead, one might accept it wholly, she thought. How often have I pushed it aside, for the sake of duty...or fear?

No more.

She walked out to where the lava crust broke, and the terrible scorching heat of it blasted up at her from the molten stone, blazing, so that her skin went tight with it and her eyes stung, watering terribly.

No more...

And she leaped.

Sickbay.

The rage, the pain, the agony, more intense than she had ever felt before, than she had ever allowed herself to feel before, now swallowed her whole in a blaze of white-hot fire that molded itself to her like a terrible new flesh, devouring the flesh beneath it. My son...

Not my son! He could not have betrayed —

— weep for the children! —

The lava finished burning her flesh away, charred her bones, eating inward...

What did I do wrong? How has he done this to them, to me?!

— cry for the murdered ones! —

Dead at my hand. Not his own. Mine. I am responsible.

— eyes burning, skull alight, the brain flashing into final fire —

Oh my Element, would that I had died instead of him!

There was nothing left of her. It was over.

Sorrow...for the end of things.

Finished...

...when she noticed that the pain was gone, and she was swimming in blazing light that blinded her, but hurt her not at all.

And then she was alone.


She blinked. Behind her, she heard someone move — felt him move, without having to look. It was Spock, coming around to face her, leaning against the desk.

"It is done," he said. He straightened, trying to look casual about it, but she knew perfectly well what effort the last few minutes had cost him. They had felt like years.

For her own part Ael wiped her face and sat still for several moments, trying to find her composure again. "You are a harsh teacher, Mr. Spock," Ael said.

He shook his head. "On the contrary, Commander. I merely showed you the path. You walked it...and further than the need of the moment required."

"I would not be sure of that," Ael said.

"I would."

She could find no answer. "The paradigm you chose was an unusual one," Spock said, "but since it was of your choosing, I believe it will serve you well. Recall it to yourself daily, by way of reinforcing it. Meanwhile, if circumstances allow, a second session within several days might be wise, in order to check that the routine has been correctly installed and implemented."

She was half tempted to laugh, hearing him speak as dryly of her mind as of a computer into which he had been loading new software. But the metaphor was probably apt. "As you say, that will be as circumstances permit. But for the moment..."

Ael got up slowly, a little stiff from sitting a long time tensed in that chair. She cast around in her mind to see how things felt. Her sense of herself was normal again, save for that thin persistent thread of connectedness between them, carrying at the moment no overheard content, no remotely sensed imagery — just the knowledge that it was there. Last time it had faded quickly; this time she was not quite sure how long it might remain.

Words to describe any of the many things she presently felt eluded her utterly. All Ael could do was bow to him and hold the bow — as she had for Jim, but for different reasons — three full breaths' worth. She might have held it longer, but she felt his fingers brush her arm, and she straightened.

He had neither moved nor reached out to her. As Ael looked up at him again, she caught an echo, so indistinct she thought she had not been meant to hear it, and very distant: touching...never touched..."Use it well, Commander," Spock said. "Or rather: so live and prosper that you need never use it at all."


Ael went out and found Mr. Naraht waiting for her. She smiled at him with more than the usual affection, though she did not tell him why. When the Enterprise's transporter room glowed out of existence to be replaced by Bloodwing's, suddenly the weariness hit her full force, and she stumbled down off the pads like one caught between dream and waking. The doors opened, and Aidoann was there. She opened her mouth to say something, but she checked herself and came forward hurriedly to take Ael by the arms and steady her. "Khre'Riov," Aidoann said, and then more softly, "Ael, in Fire's name, what's come to you? You look like you've seen a ghost."

Ael shook her head and tried to laugh, but a weak, shaky laugh it was that came out. "So I have," she said. "I may yet see many more such, but they and I will hereafter learn to be more at peace with one another, perhaps." She straightened up, and this time her voice found something of the accustomed steadiness again. "However that may be, the living will be enough trouble for us in the next while, cousin — so let's go finish setting our ship in order. In just a few hours, the enemy will be at the gate..."

Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2013

    This book ends a third of the way through the story and is poorl

    This book ends a third of the way through the story and is poorly written. You will have to purchase books Rihannsu 3-5 to read the whole story and it isn't worth it. By poorly written, I mean that the author jumps from one set of characters in one location having a conversation to another set in another location having another conversation with no lead in or demarcation. The author is capable of better and pure greed is just sad.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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