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2218 (the Year of Kahless 844,
early in the month of Merruthj)
"The Lady Moj'ih grows impatient," Do'Yoj said brusquely. Her boots drumming an impatient rhythm against the stone floor as she walked, she ushered the two physicians down the dim corridor toward the sprawling villa's center, where its largest bedchamber lay.
The master bedchamber had become the sole domain of the Lady Moj'ih ever since her husband Ngoj had fallen in battle against the cursed RomuluSngan at Nequencia nearly four months ago. And since that unhappy time, the ornate room's tapestry-draped walls had come to mark the boundaries of the Lady's existence. Do'Yoj thought it had become a veritable throne room for her reclusive mistress, who was now the de facto head of the House of Ngoj, one of the few ruling matriarchs among the noble classes of Qo'noS.
And now, as the Lady Moj'ih's ever more complicated pregnancy advanced inexorably toward term, the chamber had become a prison in all but name.
"My apologies," said Hurghom, the taller of the two doctors, speaking a bit too obsequiously for Do'Yoj's taste as he came to a stop behind Do'Yoj just outside the heavy wooden bedchamber door. Was he mocking her? Or was he merely trying to adopt the tone most appropriate for a smooth-headed QuchHa' such as himself?
Dr. Nej, whose darker countenance contrasted sharply with Hurghom's owing to its prominent frame of cranial ridges, spoke a good deal more boldly.
"I am sure that the Lady Moj'ih will understand the reason for the delay," Nej said, raising to eye level the small black valise he clutched in his gnarled right hand, as if to emphasize his point. "The procedure we must undertake this day requires the utmost delicacy if we are to avoid bringing harm to the Lady's child."
"We have to be certain that we get this right in every detail," Hurghom said, his disturbingly smooth head bobbing in agreement with his colleague's words. "I'm sure you will agree that much is at stake. And what is at stake is nothing less than a male heir to the House of Ngoj."
A future patriarch of this noble House, Do'Yoj thought with no small amount of resentment. An heir who will doubtless have as much to conceal as his parents did, if he is to maintain this House's power and prestige.
Answering Hurghom with only a tart scowl, Do'Yoj turned and pushed on the door with her shoulder, leaning into its superbly balanced bulk so that it began to move smoothly and silently inward on its well-oiled duranium hinges.
The room beyond the threshold was dark, shrouding its sole occupant in gloom. Do'Yoj entered and stepped to the side, allowing the physicians to waste no further time before converging upon the large bed that was mounted on the raised dais in the center of the room. Do'Yoj wasn't entirely sure that the Lady Moj'ih was actually in the bed until she spoke, her rounded belly moving noticeably beneath the tangle of bedclothes.
"What is the reason for your tardiness?" the Lady said, addressing both physicians in an imperious tone suited to a woman of noble breeding. Do'Yoj thought it was a tone suited to one born to the birthright of the HemQuch, those who, unlike Dr. Hurghom, possessed the cranial ridges that had been the genetic patrimony of every Klingon, from the boldest warrior to the humblest tiller of the soil, since long before the time of the unforgettable Kahless.
Do'Yoj, of course, knew the real truth behind the Lady's brave façade. As the Lady Moj'ih's most trusted personal retainer, there was no way that Do'Yoj could ignore the fact that her haughty, proud-visaged mistress was actually just as smooth-browed -- and thus every bit as disgracefully QuchHa' -- as Dr. Hurghom and his ancestors. Do'Yoj was all too aware that the Lady's striking brow ridges, scarcely visible in the room's dim light, were prosthetic fakes. They were biosynthetic implants -- which required frequent cosmetic maintenance, despite having been surgically attached to her skull -- and had been used covertly by members of the influential House of Ngoj ever since the Great Qu'Vat Plague of 1462, a disaster that lay more than half a century in the past.
Maintaining the noble deception with sufficient care from day to day is becoming too taxing for the Lady in her current condition, Do'Yoj thought, blending invisibly into the blood-hued tapestries as she watched her mistress begin conferring with her physicians, one of whom applied a moist towel to her forehead, which the Lady held in place with her hand, covering up her false brow ridges. If the Lady Moj'ih would not trust even Do'Yoj to see to the upkeep of her prosthetic forehead -- perhaps she was unwilling to appear vulnerable before a social inferior whose own natural cranial appurtenances marked her as one of the Lady's biological betters -- then it was unsurprising that Moj'ih had opted to hide her chronic shame using both a towel and a shroud of darkness.
"We came as quickly as we could, My Lady," Dr. Nej said, matching the Lady Moj'ih's brittle tones with the no-nonsense manner of a senior physician who was used to receiving more deference from his patients -- even the noble ones.
Perhaps, Do'Yoj thought, this is because he, too, knows the truth that the Lady must keep concealed at all costs.
"The procedure we must undertake has not received extensive testing prior to today," said Hurghom, again speaking in that placating manner that Do'Yoj found so very irritating. "We had to be as certain as possible of the outcome before proceeding with the final phase of the child's genetic alterations. Especially in light of...the unfortunate occurrence not so very long ago on Qu'Vat."
"I should think you would be the last one to remind anyone of your failure at Qu'Vat," Moj'ih said, the moist, sharpened points of her bared teeth glinting in the room's scant light.
Though she remained standing in silence at the room's periphery, Do'Yoj was inclined to agree. How many had died on the Qu'Vat colony during Hurghom's most recent attempt to rid the Klingon people of the Earther genetic baggage with which his ancestor Antaak had saddled them during the previous century? The death toll had to be in the tens of thousands, at least. That many QuchHa' had died in the space of a single afternoon, the shame of their Earther-smooth foreheads -- the tragic, so-far-indelible mark with which Antaak had imprinted their forebears decades earlier in the process of saving them from the Levodian plague -- compounded with the shame of being denied entry into Sto-Vo-Kor through a warrior's honorable death in battle.
Do'Yoj reflected that Hurghom's failure could have been far worse. After all, the doctor's ancestor Antaak had inadvertently killed millions during his own attempts to rid the Klingon genome of the Earther taint he had inflicted upon it decades ago.
"Wisdom comes from experience," Dr. Hurghom replied in a meek voice.
"Just as experience may come from foolish errors," Nej added with an audible sneer as he set his black valise upon the foot of Moj'ih's bed and opened it. He withdrew a wicked-looking, almost mek'leth-sized device that Do'Yoj assumed was a hypodermic needle, along with a small handheld scanning device.
"My Lady, can we get some light in here now?" Nej said, displaying his instruments as best he could in the room's inadequate illumination. "Then we can get on with the task ridding the next head of the House of Ngoj of the consequences of Antaak's so-called cure."
Responding to a nod from her mistress, Do'Yoj moved toward the lighting controls in the chamber's southeast corner and brightened the room.
She watched in silence as Nej slowly pulled back the bedclothes, raised the needle, and leaned toward the Lady Moj'ih.
2218 (the Year of Kahless 844,
late in the month of Merruthj)
Another contraction came, this one striking a few heartbeats sooner than the Lady Moj'ih had expected. The pain lanced through her insides like a bat'leth blade still white-hot from the forge. She cried out, her agony giving way to shame at her weakness, as well as to a momentary gratitude to the heedless fates that Ngoj could not be present to witness her disgrace.
She lay back and bit down on her lip until it bled freely. Only a little longer, she told herself yet again, continuing to repeat the phrase endlessly in her mind, like a monk performing meditation mantras in one of Boreth's monasteries.
"Keep pushing, my Lady," said the ever-loyal Do'Yoj, who was standing beside her, clutching her hand. Moj'ih clutched back nearly hard enough to shatter every bone in the handmaiden's stout forearm.
Lady Moj'ih did as her handmaiden bid her. I can accept a smooth-headed child if I must, she thought, acknowledging the peace she'd had to make with the high likelihood that Hurghom and Nej's retrogenetic efforts would prove to be a failure once her infant finally emerged. There was an argument to be made, after all, that the curse of being QuchHa' had toughened her House, forcing its members to cultivate strengths lacked even by many of their HemQuch cousins.
Moj'ih was well aware, after all, that the hereditary handicap that she and Ngoj shared -- a trait that he had never hidden beneath prosthetics, as she had -- had motivated her late husband to achieve the much-sought-after military rank of HoD. It had also pushed him to achieve command of the I.K.S. Ghobchuq and its highly heterogeneous crew -- the cruiser had carried a mixed complement of both QuchHa' and HemQuch -- and to retain that post for more than a decade.
Do'Yoj, by contrast, had remained for years in a servile position within the House of Ngoj, despite being a HemQuch with relatively easier access to the higher social classes than most smooth-headed Klingons enjoyed. Hurghom, likewise, had doubtless had to work extremely hard to stay in the same societal sphere as his colleague Nej.
The flame that burns in every Klingon's heart is all that counts, she reminded herself, swallowing her pain as she gathered her concentration and bore down for yet another hard push. Ngoj was as brave as any ten HemQuch.
"I can see the top of the child's head," Dr. Hurghom said.
Moj'ih drew some solace from that, although her awkward supine posture prevented her from seeing what was right before her physicians' eyes. However this problematic pregnancy turned out, she was certain now that the worst of the waiting was finally over; very soon, she would know whether her child, the only piece of her dead, beloved Ngoj that still endured, bore the proud sagittal crest that was the birthright of the Klingon race.
Or if the infant's painstaking genetic alterations had failed, forcing her to decide whether or not to order her surgeons to attempt to disguise his smooth-headed QuchHa' status.
"Well?" demanded the Lady Moj'ih. Despite the hoarseness engendered by her endless hours of labor, she all but screamed her impatience.
The doctors said nothing for a protracted moment. Moj'ih was about to snarl an imprecation at them when she noticed that Do'Yoj had released her hand, no doubt preparing to catch the child that was still struggling to complete the arduous passage from womb to world. Then another fiery contraction tore through Moj'ih's insides, blinding her with agony and rendering her momentarily speechless.
No smooth-headed QuchHa' child could cause such agony, Moj'ih thought, drawing hope from her pain.
"The child does indeed have a pronounced crest," Moj'ih finally heard Hurghom say at length, though haltingly. Relief stirred within her nonetheless, slaking the fiery pain of the birthing bed, at least a little.
Perhaps those interminable retroviral gene therapy treatments had actually worked!
Moj'ih kept her eyes tightly shut as another contraction came and went. She bore this one better than she had the previous ones, and her spirits lifted further still when she heard the keening wail of the infant she had been carrying for a seeming eternity.
"A boy. I don't like his coloration, though," Moj'ih heard Nej say in his customary blunt fashion. "Perhaps the child is anemic."
Moj'ih opened her eyes and saw Do'Yoj rising from where she had been crouching at the edge of the unyielding birthing bed. She noticed the stricken look on her handmaiden's face before her gaze was drawn irresistibly down to the small, squirming bundle that the young woman carried before her.
A tiny, chalk-white form partially wrapped in a small, coarse birthing blanket.
Never having given birth before, Moj'ih wasn't quite sure what she had expected to feel for the child when she finally laid eyes upon it for the first time. Nevertheless, she had always entertained the vague notion that an emotional bond of some sort would form very quickly, despite the birthing ordeal. But being somewhat unsentimental by nature, she wasn't all that surprised to note that she felt no such bond.
What she hadn't expected was the overwhelming sense of revulsion she was experiencing. It felt almost like hatred at first sight, as though a deep and fundamental instinct at the very core of her being was warning her that something was terribly wrong with this child.
Crest or no, this child is no Klingon.
Do'Yoj bent down and tried to hand Moj'ih the sickly-looking child.
Moj'ih used what remained of her depleted reserves of strength to push her handmaiden away, nearly causing the younger woman to drop the infant onto the flagstone floor. She ignored the horrified looks she saw crease the faces of both Do'Yoj and Hurghom.
Nej merely nodded to her. He, at least, appeared to understand. Whether this child was Moj'ih's only living link to Ngoj or not, she could never allow such an un-Klingon abomination to be a part of her House, much less its only male heir and eventual patriarch. Better he had been born with an Earther's smooth forehead, a QuchHa' as she and Ngoj had always been. Better she had never tried to tamper with whatever random forces governed such things.
She threw back her head, filled her lungs, and issued a cry of grief and fury that she hoped Ngoj's soul would hear in far-off Sto-Vo-Kor.
"I take it the Lady Moj'ih has not changed her mind," Do'Yoj said gravely. She still held the infant, which mewled weakly in her arms.
Hurghom pushed the bedchamber door closed behind him and stepped farther into the hallway, as though concerned that the Lady might overhear him. He nodded to Do'Yoj, his mouth fixed in a grim slash. "She has not."
"Then the task falls to me," the handmaiden said. She adjusted the baby boy's blanket, wrapping him more securely. She adjusted the metal clasp to hold the blanket in place.
She wondered why she was bothering to see to the child's comfort at all. Very soon, the infant would be beyond all such concerns.
"I will do what tradition demands," said the handmaiden, speaking the words that custom and her job required of her. She suppressed a brief surge of contempt for the Lady Moj'ih, who really ought to have disposed of her own genetic refuse, her current depleted condition notwithstanding.
"The Lady instructed me to give you this," Hurghom said as he produced a gleaming, long-bladed d'k tahg from his belt. He presented the blade to her, haft-first.
She took it with one hand, holding the restless baby with the other as she tucked the blade into the sash she wore beneath her cloak. Then she fixed Hurghom with a hard stare.
"Did the Lady specify where the deed is to be done?"
Hurghom shook his head again. "She has decided to leave that to your discretion, so long as you do nothing to compromise her discretion."
Of course, the handmaiden thought. As far as anyone else on Qo'noS knows, this House's genes are among the strongest and purest in the Empire. It wouldn't do to leave behind a dead infant that proves otherwise.
Again, she experienced a flash of hatred for her employer.
"You may take as long as you require to carry out the Lady's wishes," Hurghom said quietly.
Do'Yoj nodded, quietly considering her options for a lengthy moment.
Finally, she arrived at a decision.
"Very well, then."
Holding the infant as though it were a hair-trigger piece of ordnance that might detonate at any moment, Do'Yoj turned away from the physician and strode purposefully toward the villa's front door.
Do'Yoj clutched the crying, squirming infant in her left hand and held the long blade aloft in her right. Laying the blanket open with the d'k tahg's gleaming tip, she placed the edge against the baby boy's throat and opened the weapon's spring-loaded side-blades. The child screamed and instinctively drew back from the cold metal, windmilling its tiny arms as it wailed its terror and discomfort. Several tiny drops of bright blood appeared where the child's throat had been slightly nicked; they had also spattered the blade's keen edges.
This is Klingon blood. Innocent Klingon blood.
Windblown, powdery snow nearly as white as the child's skin crunched under Do'Yoj's targ-skin boots as she drew the blade back, despising herself for what she had agreed to do. Shivering in the cold, she glanced up in time to see the hired flyer that had brought her to this remote mountainside arc overhead on the way to its next destination. It would be back for her within the hour, its pilot having been paid handsomely to reappear when necessary and to ask no questions.
There would be ample time to do what needed to be done. The only question that remained was whether or not she really ought to do the deed.
The Lady Moj'ih should have had the courage to do this herself. I shouldn't have to do the dirty work of a cowardly QuchHa', one who rightfully ought to be beneath my station.
Do'Yoj came to another decision. She allowed the knife to fall from her cold-numbed fingertips and watched it land point-first in the snow that lay piled at her feet. Then she set the wailing child, blanket and all, down in the snow a few paces away.
If a House as unworthy as that of Ngoj can be allowed to wield power over HemQuch, then why shouldn't a weakling child be allowed even the smallest chance to survive and succeed?
Now unencumbered, she reached into her cloak and removed a small audio communications device from her belt. After she withdrew far enough from the child to be certain that her comm's microphone wouldn't pick up his forlorn cries, she entered the Lady Moj'ih's personal comm frequency into its keypad.
"Do'Yoj." The Lady sounded angry, but Do'Yoj had long ago grown used to that.
"Here, my Lady."
"It's been hours."
"I needed to find a sufficiently remote place to...dispose of the remains."
The Lady paused long enough to make Do'Yoj wonder whether her comm signal had been interrupted.
"Then it is done?" the Lady asked finally.
Do'Yoj eyed the bundle that now lay some twenty meters away from her in the snowy wastes. The wind was gathering force, and the child's cries were now all but inaudible. She wondered idly whether the weakling infant would succumb to the cold before becoming a meal for a sabre bear or some other alpine predator.
"I have finished," Do'Yoj lied, though she supposed her prevarication would come true soon enough.
Do'Yoj thought she heard a slight catch in her mistress's breathing, though she supposed it might have simply been her imagination at work; still, she could scarcely imagine being so cowardly and dishonorable as to kill anyone by proxy.
Especially a helpless infant.
"Well done, Do'Yoj," the Lady Moj'ih said at length before signing off, leaving Do'Yoj alone except for the company of the snow, the chill wind, and the weakling baby's distant, fading cries.
The QuchHa' House of Ngoj wields power over HemQuch only because almost no HemQuch know that the Lady Moj'ih is really QuchHa', and has been hiding that fact all her life. In that instant she made yet another decision, one that she had been considering for years.
She entered another frequency into her comm, one that was used by one of the House of Ngoj's most bitter rivals on the High Council.
Within moments, an aide answered. "This is Do'Yoj, personal assistant to the Lady Moj'ih," Do'Yoj said. "Please put me through to Councillor Sturka."
"Sturka is in a Council session presently," the aide said imperiously.
"Summon him," Do'Yoj said, in the same tone that the Lady Moj'ih so often used. She began walking farther away from the infant, which was already dead to her. "I have information about the House of Ngoj that Sturka will be extremely grateful to receive...."
Ganik quickly shook the snow off his boots in the landing craft's airlock, then hastily made his way aft, carrying his almost insubstantial burden toward his employer's small berth. He worked hard to suppress a mischievous grin as he handed the snow-crusted bundle of blankets to D'Jinnea, his employer. Although she nearly dropped the thing in surprise when she saw what it was, the green-skinned Orion free- booter chieftainess regained her composure almost instantly, holding the bundle before her as though she thought it might explode if mishandled.
"Why have you just handed me a dead baby, Ganik?" D'Jinnea said at length.
Ganik's grin broke partially free of its restraints. "Aren't you more interested in where it came from, D'Jinnea?"
"I prefer to solve one mystery at a time," the tall, broad-shouldered woman said. She was clearly nettled, but just as obviously curious as well. "But just taking a wild guess, I'd imagine you found this poor waif buried in the snow somewhere outside the ship."
"Actually, a local trader found it," he said, folding his muscular, deep-green arms across his massive chest. "One of the mountain dwellers who looks too much like an Earther to make a legitimate living down in the First City, or anyplace else for that matter." He didn't need to remind her how valuable such folks were to the Orion Syndicate's itinerant trade, both legal and illicit, throughout Klingon space and beyond. The Orions couldn't care less about brow ridges or their absence; all that mattered was the trade, and the profit that came with it.
D'Jinnea's brow furrowed, a mannerism that Ganik found downright alluring, at least when she didn't have a hand laser within reach. "Don't tell me you paid good money for a dead baby."
Ganik shook his head. "Not for the baby. For what he's carrying. Look at the metal clasp on the child's blanket."
Holding the dead infant with one hand, D'Jinnea used her other hand to rummage carefully through the tangle of blankets that had swaddled it. Her scowl softened when she revealed a palm-sized, irregularly shaped piece of tempered bat'leth metal, which gleamed in the chamber's actinic blue lights as she turned it slowly from side to side.
She cast her gaze again squarely upon Ganik, her deep sea-green eyes widened in pleased surprise. "Do you recognize the pattern etched into this metal?"
Ganik nodded again. "The tuq Degh of a noble Klingon House."
"The family crest of the House of Ngoj," D'Jinnea said.
"One of the more influential Houses. They have a great deal of pull on the High Council. And in determining which forms of commerce are considered legitimate, and which are interdicted."
Ganik could see the flames of avarice becoming stoked behind her eyes. He felt much the same way. There has to be some way to use this discovery to gain leverage over the House of Ngoj, he thought.
Sobriety abruptly returned to her gaze. "The child would have proved more valuable to us if you'd found him before he'd frozen to death."
"I didn't find him," Ganik reminded her. "He was brought to me this way, remember?"
"Regardless. A living heir to the House of Ngoj could have been quite useful."
Ganik chuckled. "I can see it now. We might have adopted him."
"Or at least raised him to adulthood," D'Jinnea said. "Who knows? He might one day have provided me -- provided us -- with the front door key to the House from which he came."
And access to all the wealth and power accorded an heir to the House of Ngoj, thought Ganik.
He moved closer to D'Jinnea so that he could get a better look at the exposed portions of the dead child's face. He could see the infant's chalk-white forehead, which was striated by a series of horizontal lines. But the little creature's cranial texture didn't strike him as particularly Klingon-looking, and neither did its skin coloration.
"We might even have found an appropriately Klingon name for him," Ganik said.
D'Jinnea offered him a somewhat sad smile, apparently willing to permit her lieutenant's bantering tone. "You have a name in mind?"
In fact, a Klingon name had just occurred to him. "How about 'Qagh'? It's from a Klingon word that means 'mistake.' "
"That name would have worked as well as any," she said, growing abruptly serious once more. "But it's a moot point now. He was obviously a sickly weakling, after all. And you know how the Klingons feel about the sick and the weak."
"The House of Ngoj has evidently dumped its genetic trash on our doorstep," said Ganik.
"Please dispose of it properly," she said, handing the bundle back to him.
He nodded, then turned toward the narrow hatchway that led out of D'Jinnea's berth.
The contents of the blanket shifted before he got all the way through the hatchway. Ganik stopped in his tracks, wondering if he or D'Jinnea had somehow undone the clasp that secured the blanket around the small corpse as he gathered up the blanket's edges so as not to spill the tiny albino corpse onto the landing craft's deck.
Now completely concealed by the blanket, the slight weight inside the bundle shifted again.
This time it also made a muffled cry.
He turned back toward D'Jinnea, whose look of intense surprise told him that she, too, had heard the noise.
This unlucky little waif simply won't accept death, Ganik thought. Perhaps he really is a Klingon, in spite of appearances.
Ganik cleared his throat awkwardly, a predator's grin creeping across his emerald features. "D'Jinnea, about that adoption idea..."
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Copyright © 2008 by CBS Studios Inc.