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The bat'leth sliced through the air, heading straight for Captain Klag's neck.
Without even thinking, Klag turned his left wrist, flipping his own bat'leth upward, cradling the blade's curved handle in the crook of his left arm. The center of the other blade collided with the end of Klag's with a metallic clang that echoed off the walls.
Then Klag brought his own blade down, taking his adversary's bat'leth with it, and slammed his foe's jaw with his right palm heel. Pain glowed in Klag's right hand from the impact of bare hand on bone, but it sent his opponent reeling. His heart pounding faster against his ribs, Klag whipped his bat'leth up and over his head, intending to strike his foe's forehead crest.
The other bat'leth came up, blocking the strike, then pressed forward, sending Klag stumbling back a few steps. In fact, it should have sent him only one step back, but Klag took a few extra to get his bearings. Klag knew his foe well and therefore was acutely aware how difficult victory would be.
The two warriors circled each other, staring face-to-face only a body's length apart. Klag held his bat'leth at an angle, his left hand gripping it tightly at chest level; his right hand, still sore from the blow to his foe's hard jaw, cupping the curved blade around his hip. His opponent swirled his blade around in a crisscross pattern. It was a common maneuver, one ostensibly intended to protect against any frontal attack; in practice Klag always thought it was at best merely a clever distraction, and he never bothered with it.
Again, his foe swung at his left side. Again, Klag blocked the strike with ease, but this time he was unable to entangle the other blade, and his foe tried to swing the downward part up toward Klag's chest. Klag was able to deflect with the upper part. That locked their blades, giving his foe an opportunity to kick up toward Klag's groin.
Klag instinctively blocked the kick with his left hand, which worked as far as it went, but when he tightened his grip on the weapon with his right hand, that hand twinged. Wincing, Klag almost dropped the bat'leth as his fingers loosened of their own accord, but he forced himself to hang on.
That gave his foe an opportunity to try another kick, this to Klag's right side, which Klag was unable to block.
But he didn't need to. Stumbling to the left with the blow from his foe's steel boot, and ignoring the pain that shot through his ribs from the impact, Klag let loose with a short punch to his foe's exposed right side, then swung up with the bat'leth, striking his foe's shoulder.
Klag cursed himself. Klingon armor was strong in general, and on the shoulders it was particularly thick, to protect the neck. He might as well have struck the air for all the good a shoulder strike would do.
A fist came at Klag's face, and he ducked his head so his forehead crest would take the brunt of the blow. Their blades were still entangled, so Klag brought his knee up into his foe's groin. That area was well armored as well, of course, but Klag's main interest was in putting some distance between them, and most warriors would back off instinctively after receiving such a blow, regardless of its actual damage.
Again, the pair faced off. This time, Klag's foe didn't bother with the crisscross motion, simply keeping his bat'leth ready in front of him.
Then he came at Klag from the right, swinging the bat'leth in a very tight arc, leaving him very little time to parry.
In one fluid motion, he swung the bat'leth up to block the strike and bring his foe's bat'leth down.
His foe smiled. "Well done, Captain!"
Klag returned the smile.
Then he punched his foe in the face.
As he fell to the floor, Klag threw his head back and laughed. "Do not assume the battle is over just because the mission is accomplished, Kohn."
Bekk Kohn laughed with his captain. "You are correct, of course, sir."
Kohn's swing to Klag's right had been the moment of truth for the captain. During the Dominion War, Klag lost his right arm at Marcan V while serving as first officer aboard the I.K.S. Pagh, which was destroyed on that planet. The only survivor of the Pagh's crew, Klag slew one Vorta and half a dozen Jem'Hadar literally single-handedly. He was rewarded with a promotion and the captaincy of the I.K.S. Gorkon, one of the Chancellor-class vessels that were the cutting edge of the Klingon Defense Force.
At the advice of his ship's doctor, B'Oraq, Klag had a new right arm grafted on. B'Oraq, who studied to be a physician in the Federation and was on a one-woman crusade to improve the state of Klingon medicine, had wanted him to get a prosthetic, but Klag would not attach a machine to his body and call it his arm. Instead, he instructed her to transplant the limb of his father, M'Raq, who died like an old woman in his bed. Klag hoped to restore his father's honor by wearing his good right arm into battle.
But first he had to be accomplished with it. This had been a great stride in that direction.
More laughter came from the two figures standing against the wall of the workout chamber. Klag turned and saw B'Oraq along with the leader of Kohn's squad, Morr. "Your opinion, Doctor?" Klag asked.
B'Oraq tugged on the auburn braid -- bound at its base with a clasp in the shape of the emblem of her House -- that sat on her right shoulder. "Your reaction time has improved tremendously, Captain, and you've adjusted to the differing lengths of the arms. A few more months and you might approach your old levels of bat'leth fighting."
That was not what Klag wanted to hear. He felt as good as ever and resented the implication that he wasn't as good as he was before Marcan V. But he repressed that reaction quickly. In the months he had commanded this vessel, he had learned the hard way to respect B'Oraq's opinions, mostly by virtue of her never being wrong.
It had been the doctor's suggestion that Klag spar with Kohn rather than Morr. The leader of First Squad, the elite of the Gorkon's massive complement of troops, Morr also served as Klag's bodyguard and was one of the most accomplished bat'leth fighters on the ship. Klag and Morr had also been sparring regularly since B'Oraq performed the graft of M'Raq's arm onto Klag, and B'Oraq was concerned that they were getting too used to each other. Morr concurred, so he assigned Kohn to this duty, with explicit instructions to continue fighting for a significant time before attacking Klag's right to see how he reacted.
Klag was about to tell Morr and Kohn to report back to their duty stations -- Klag himself intended to return to his cabin, so he would not require Morr's services -- when he felt the organs in his body shift upward ever so slightly, and his boots were no longer planted firmly on the deck.
With a snarl, he touched the control on his arm to contact his chief engineer. "Klag to Kurak."
"I know, we've lost gravity. We're working on it. I did warn you this would happen."
"Yes, Commander, you did. What I wish to know now is how soon it will be fixed."
"Two seconds. I suggest you brace yourself."
By the time Kurak finished that sentence, gravity had reasserted itself. Klag bent his knees as he came back to the deck, as did Kohn and Morr. B'Oraq was less agile and fell on her face, barely bracing herself with her hands.
Struggling to her feet, B'Oraq brushed herself off and said, "Well, that was embarrassing."
Klag grinned. "I suggest you report to yourself, Doctor. And Kurak? How much more of this must we endure?"
"I told you before, Captain, the damage to the Gorkon is far too extensive for field repairs to be anything but temporary. Until we arrive at Praxis, these malfunctions will continue."
"Very well, Commander. Out." Klag snarled again. The Gorkon had been at the forefront of a very brief campaign against the Elabrej Hegemony, an upstart power that had attacked one of the Gorkon's brother ships, the I.K.S. Kravokh, with no provocation and taken its captain and surviving crew prisoner and not permitted them to die. The Klingons' retaliation was swift and devastating, and now there was no Elabrej Hegemony but simply a broken world on which the empire might or might not plant its flag.
That decision was for General Goluk to make. He had remained behind to deal with that, while the surviving Chancellor-class vessels were to report back to the homeworld, with the exception of the Kesh, which remained with Goluk at Elabrej.
The Gorkon would have had to have done so in any case, for the ship suffered considerable damage at the Elabrej's hands, necessitating a crash landing on one of their moons. Kurak estimated that it would take at least two weeks in a shipyard for the mighty vessel to be fully repaired, and Kurak was not known for being inaccurate in such judgments.
After dismissing Morr and Kohn, Klag left the workout room, heading to his own cabin. B'Oraq followed, saying, "During your leave, I want you to continue the drills -- with Morr, with Kohn, or with someone. And keep doing the exercises I prescribed."
Klag shot her a look as they walked down the Gorkon's corridors. "I assumed, Doctor, that you would be present for my exercises even during my leave."
Tugging on her braid again, B'Oraq smiled. "I was under the impression that leave meant I was at liberty." The smile dropped. "Besides, I won't have the time. My presence has been requested by the Klingon Physicians Enclave to speak at their conference."
Frowning, Klag said, "I'm unfamiliar with that organization."
"That is not surprising," B'Oraq said with some small degree of bitterness. "Few know of the KPE outside the medical profession, and few in it care enough one way or the other. In fact, this is their first conference, and they're having it -- and inviting me -- only due to pressure from the High Council."
"Then I suppose congratulations are in order," Klag said neutrally.
B'Oraq, typically, saw right through it. "You don't approve."
"A conference sounds very...Vulcan. Sitting around and discussing." Klag's face scrunched up in disgust.
"Perhaps, but it's also the best way for us to learn more. Klingon doctors are not much for sharing, but with luck this conference will start to change that."
They reached Klag's cabin, and the captain fixed his doctor with a dubious expression. "That seems unlikely."
"Of course it's unlikely. The KPE is the most hidebound organization in the empire, and that's against some fairly stiff competition. Still, the longest journey begins with a single step, or so one of my instructors at Starfleet Medical insisted."
"That certainly sounds like a Federation sentiment," Klag said dismissively. Klag liked and respected many citizens of the Federation, in particular Picard and Riker of the Enterprise, with whom he had shared many battles, but in general he found their way of life to be repugnant.
The door to his cabin rumbled open. "I wish you success at your conference, B'Oraq. Where is it taking place?"
"At the Lukara Edifice in Novat."
Klag did not know the place, but he had also never been to the city of Novat. "When do you depart?"
"I'm due to present a monograph two days after we arrive on Qo'noS." She smiled and tugged her braid. "In fact, it's about you. Or, more accurately, your right arm. I'm off to complete the paper now -- assuming Kurak's latest gravity disaster hasn't resulted in more patients. I no longer have a nurse to fob them off on." That last was added bitterly. B'Oraq's nurse, Gaj, had been put to death after she was exposed as being part of a mutiny against Klag.
"I hope you will not need me to provide a demonstration?" Klag asked.
B'Oraq shook her head. "It would probably help them pay attention, but no, that sort of thing isn't done. KlingÂon doctors pride themselves on getting their patients back out into the world as fast as possible. The idea of a patient hanging around to be examined is anathema."
"Even were it not, I would be unavailable. All the Chancellor-class captains have been ordered to report to General Kriz at Command."
Frowning, B'Oraq said, "All of them?"
"Well, except for Captain Kvaad, since the Kesh remained at Elabrej, but otherwise, yes -- it will be to go over the entire Kavrot mission, not simply the war with the Elabrej."
The mention of his estranged younger brother brought Klag up short. "I...I do not know."
"If all the Chancellor-class captains are to be present, it only makes sense that the captain of the K'mpec would attend as well."
"Yes," Klag said quietly. He had been hoping that he would not have to see Dorrek again so soon after Klag discommendated him from their House. "He probably will be. Kriz has never been one to pay attention to family concerns." There would be a notation in Dorrek's file that he had been removed from the House of M'Raq by Klag, so when Kriz made the record of the gathering, he would see it, but that didn't mean he would necessarily pay attention to it.
Klag shook his head. "It matters not. We are both captains in the Defense Force, and we must report to our commander. We will do so." He looked down at B'Oraq. "Qapla', Doctor."
"Captain -- " B'Oraq put out an arm, then cut herself off.
"Yes?" Klag prompted when her pause threatened to go on forever.
"I...I wish to once again express my gratitude. My attempts to improve the state of our medicine -- "
Unable to help himself, Klag smiled. "Your crusade, you mean."
"Call it what you will," B'Oraq said tartly, "I have made great strides over the past few months, and a great deal of it is due to your acceding to the transplant. Having the Hero of Marcan and Elabrej and the Conqueror of the San-Tarah undergo one of my 'barbaric' Federation-inspired procedures has done much to legitimize my work in the eyes of our people."
Klag beamed with pride that "Hero of Elabrej" was now being said of him. Already several songs had been composed about the battle, and Klag was pleased that his role was prominent in all of them. He was also grateful that the songwriters had not minimized Wirrk's contribution. The Kravokh's captain died gloriously, restoring his ship's honor and dealing the decisive blow to the Elabrej, and that deserved to be memorialized.
To B'Oraq, however, he only said, "As I've told you in the past, I have done only what is necessary to make myself a better warrior and a more worthy captain of this vessel."
Smirking, B'Oraq said, "I'll take that as a 'you're welcome.'Â€‰"
Klag sighed. B'Oraq's eight years living in the Federation had poisoned her speech to an appalling degree.
Then B'Oraq leaned forward and kissed Klag hungrily on the mouth, biting down hard on his lip.
At first Klag did not return the gesture, for once, very unsure of himself.
While there were no specific regulations against captains having sexual relations with subordinates -- mostly because the regulations were written before women served on Defense Force vessels and had never been rewritten to accommodate the change, not even during Azetbur's reign -- Klag had always been of the feeling that it was unwise to bed one's officers, as it might give way to making decisions on the wrong basis. A captain needed to think with his head and with his heart, not with his loins. It was for that reason that Klag had limited his sexual encounters to the bekks -- troops he would never directly interact with on duty were the only people he slept with while off it.
But he was unlikely to treat B'Oraq any differently. For one thing, he already considered her indispensible. He was unlikely to change this opinion, regardless of the quality of the sex they were about to have. And B'Oraq was too much the crusader to let anything interfere with her work as a physician.
So Klag grabbed B'Oraq's shoulder-length hair at the back and yanked hard on it, then dragged her into his cabin, the door rumbling shut behind her.
B'Oraq wore a lighter armor that had greater ease of movement, so she was out of her uniform far faster than Klag was able to extricate himself from his. She spent the time it took him to unfasten the parts of his armor biting on the bits of flesh he had exposed, sending quivers of magnificent pain through Klag. At first, she nibbled, then worked her way up to furious bites, practically chewing on his flesh. Once his pants were gone, he grabbed her, digging his finger into her spinal ridge at her hip bone and dragging that finger up to her neck. She shivered at his touch.
Then he threw her onto his bunk, flesh and bone colliding enticingly with metal. Klag had never truly noticed how magnificent B'Oraq was as a woman. In fact, he had never truly thought of her as a woman before -- she was simply the doctor, the one who harassed him about replacing his right arm and the one who later did everything she could to make his new arm function to the best of its ability.
Now, though, she was an attractive woman who was as hungry for him as he was now coming to realize he was for her.
She reached over at the stand next to his bed, grabbing the candleholder that his mother had given him when he got his commission. Rearing back, she threw it at him. He let the wrought iron strike him on his crest, reveling in the pain, snarling with ecstasy as he leapt on top of her. Klag had never been one for poetry, so he decided to forgo that part of the ritual, finding himself far too impatient to bother with such nonsense. It was amazing -- up until the moment she kissed him, he never considered B'Oraq as a potential bedmate, but from the moment she bit his lip, his thoughts were suddenly consumed with her. The meeting with Kriz, the Gorkon's considerable damage, the prospect of seeing his estranged brother -- none of it mattered. All he cared about was his own body intertwined with that of the daughter of Grala.
Klag was honestly not sure how much later it was when he heard Commander Toq's words over the speaker: "Bridge to Klag."
Disentangling himself from B'Oraq -- no easy feat, for they had wound up on the floor under his desk -- Klag clambered to his feet and activated the intercom. "Klag."
The Gorkon first officer said, "Sir, we have entered the home system, on approach to Praxis Station. Leskit estimates our docking time in seventeen minutes."
Checking the timepiece that had been next to the candleholder, Klag saw that he was supposed to have reported to the bridge twenty minutes earlier. Toq, to his credit, had not interrupted his captain until it was absolutely necessary. Klag needed to be on the bridge when the ship arrived at the homeworld, however, and Toq had given him sufficient warning to get dressed and be there.
"I will be on the bridge shortly, Toq. Out."
B'Oraq had also gotten to her feet. "I truly hope that no one needed my services."
"One did," Klag said with a smile.
They both laughed, and B'Oraq walked up to him, tracing a line on the faint scar where M'Raq's arm met with Klag's shoulder. "You know, I could make that scar fainter."
Klag shook his head. They'd had this conversation back when she did the procedure. "I do not ever wish to forget that this is my father's right arm. I did this as much for him -- and for my House -- as I did for myself."
"As you wish." She turned away, searching for her clothes in the mess they'd made on the floor. "I can safely say that this has been good medicine for me. I feel much better about speaking before the KPE." She turned and stared at him ferally. "I have a firsthand notion of how strong your right arm is."
Throwing his head back, Klag laughed heartily.
When he was done, he noticed a concerned look on B'Oraq's face. "Captain," she said hesitantly, "you don't...you don't expect us to take the oath now, do you?"
In all honesty, Klag hadn't given it a thought. Ancient tradition dictated that Klingons who had sexual relations then had to mate. It wasn't observed in the breach very often, in Klag's experience. "No," he said emphatically. "In truth, I have never understood that particular practice."
B'Oraq shrugged into her tunic. "It actually has its roots from Emperor Kligrok's time. He felt that there was too many extramarital affairs among the nobility, and too many younger nobles who spent too much time fornicating and not enough strengthening their Houses. Many Houses were feuding, also, and most of those feuds went back to bad ends to sexual relations between the Houses in question. So Kligrok decreed that all who had sexual relations were automatically mated."
As Klag fastened his armor, he shook his head with mild amusement. He hadn't known any of this, mostly by virtue of not caring all that much. Most of the stories he knew about Emperor Kligrok were about his conquests and his fealty to the teachings of Kahless.
"At first there was great resistance," B'Oraq continued, "but by the time of Emperor Kahrl, the oath had been codified." She finished putting on her armor and then stared at Klag. "In any case, Captain, while there are many ways in which uniting our Houses might be advantageous, I doubt it would be possible."
Although Klag agreed, he found himself slightly resentful of her complete rejection of the notion. "Why?"
She smiled. "My uncle. He is the head of our House, and he hates the Defense Force. He was disgusted when I joined, and approved only because he felt that my reforms had the best chance of succeeding across the empire if I made them to the Defense Force first. The people of the empire often take their cues from the military, after all. But if I brought you home and said we were to be mated, I would be discommendated instantly."
"Yes," Klag said, "but if we mated, you would be of the House of M'Raq, and it would not matter."
"Perhaps, but a feud between our Houses would get in the way of both of us actually accomplishing anything." She rested her hands on his shoulders and stared up at him, giving Klag pause to notice how lovely her eyes were. Then she said, "But I would hope that you would not be averse to this happening again."
"Not in the least," Klag said without hesitation. The problem with taking low-ranking bekks into his bed was that he was never sure if they were genuinely interested in bedding him or simply following orders -- and he'd never get a straight answer on the question from them. With B'Oraq, though, he knew the desire was genuine, and that made it far sweeter.
"Good." She moved to the door. "Now I really do need to finish my speech, and you need to get to the bridge."
"Indeed." Now both dressed, they departed his cabin together.
It was the Gorkon's first trip back to Qo'noS in many months. Klag decided that it was good to be home.
You sit in the captain's chair on the Hegh'ta. The ship is badly damaged, being hemmed in by two vessels loyal to the House of Duras. Several warriors are lying dead at your feet.
"Maintain course!" you cry out. "Status of warp engines!"
From behind you at the operations console, one of your warriors says, "Warp engines at sixty percent."
Then you ask, "Status of shields?"
A console explodes, sparks flying through the bridge. Once there was a warrior stationed there, but she is dead, and so no one else was affected.
Your gunner, who is familiar to you, says, "Aft shields buckling."
Though you order auxiliary power to shields, another shot takes down the aft shields completely.
Showing appalling judgment, the gunner leaves his post and approaches you. "We cannot win," he says, the coward. "We must withdraw!"
"Keep your place," you tell him, your voice a snarl.
He gives you an angry look, but he does so.
"New course," you tell the pilot. "Three-zero-seven mark two-seven-five."
You take the Hegh'ta into the corona of a star. The two enemy vessels follow, as you expect. Then, once you've entered the photosphere, you order the ship into warp, an action that kicks up several solar flares, which incinerate the dishonorable petaQpu' of House Duras.
It is a glorious sight. Duras disgraced your family. While you have no love for Gowron, you remember the words of Kahless: "The enemy of my enemy is my ally." So you fight for Gowron against those who took away your family name, those who dishonored you and kept you from taking your rightful place as -- Rodek, son of Noggra woke up screaming -- not in pain or fear, but in frustration. Again, he'd had a dream that felt as real as any memory, yet he'd dreamed of events that Rodek knew could not possibly have happened to him. He'd not served in the Defense Force until the commencement of the Dominion War in the Year of Kahless 999, yet there he was fighting the forces of Duras during the civil war that raged in 993. It -- like all the other dreams -- made no sense.
He had told no one of the dreams, thinking them to merely be side effects of his injuries. On San-Tarah, he'd nearly had his head blown off and was only still drawing breath thanks to the good graces of Doctor B'Oraq, who healed him. Then at Elabrej, he took a disruptor hit to the face.
Since then, the dreams had not stopped. He had performed his duties as second officer and primary gunner for the Gorkon during the trip back to Qo'noS from Elabrej, but it had been a struggle. Toq and Leskit had both noticed that he seemed odd, but Rodek had brushed them off, assuming they would get better the farther he got from his injuries.
They did not; they grew worse.
Turning to look at the chronometer in his cabin, Rodek saw that it was not long before he had to report for what would be his final bridge shift for some time. As was customary, he would be required to present Toq with the record of battle, which meant he would need to look it over one final time to make sure it was both up to date and accurate. It was all well and good for warriors to exaggerate their feats over bloodwine, but formal records needed to be free of such indulgences.
Clambering off his QongDaq, Rodek stretched, feeling the vertebrae in his back snap. Perhaps he should seek medical attention.
Immediately, he dismissed the notion. It was weakness, and he was a Klingon warrior, not some mewlish human who ran to a physician at the first sign of injury.
He would be home soon. He would see his father, Noggra. And things would improve.
* * *
Wol stared dolefully at the food on her tray.
When she had first reported to the Gorkon, she had heard stories of how much better the ship's replicated food was. The Chancellor-class vessels had food replicators obtained through trade with the Federation in order to maximize space. By requiring less storage space for food, the Gorkon and its brother ships were able to take on more crew. A ship this size in the old days would have been able to carry only a bit more than a thousand instead of the twenty-seven hundred the Gorkon had at capacity. But the presence of the replicators meant a much smaller store of real food and therefore room for more crew.
The ship had a complement of fifteen hundred troops, which were divided into twenty companies, each of which contained fifteen five-soldier squads. Since the beginning of the mission to explore the Kavrot sector, and through the Gorkon's campaigns at San-Tarah and Elabrej, Wol had served as leader of the fifteenth, in charge of one of the squads in First Company under the command of QaS DevwI' Vok.
Wol joined the surviving members of her squad -- the oversized Goran, the white-haired G'joth, and the newest recruit Kagak -- at their usual table, Goran taking up the space of two people with his girth. For them, she assumed it to be their last meal aboard ship for some time.
But Wol had nowhere to go. Now that they were on approach to the homeworld, she had to face that possibility for the first time. It was not a happy one. She would ask Vok if she could remain on ship during the repair cycle, though she doubted that would be possible. Even the most tolerant engineers, she knew, hated having soldiers underfoot when they were fixing things, and Kurak was far from the most tolerant engineer.
As she sat down between G'joth and Goran, Kagak said, "Your hair grows back well, Leader."
Unconsciously, Wol's right hand went to the top of her head, where her dark red tresses were at almost shoulder length. Her head had been shorn when she had been captured and experimented on by the Elabrej. She had escaped and helped Commander Toq take down the Elabrej's government headquarters, thus regaining her honor, but her hair had to regrow on its own.
"Thank you, Bekk," Wol said. "In truth, it grows more slowly than I would prefer." She had cut her hair down almost to the scalp once before, and it had grown back more quickly then. However, she preferred not to think about that part of her life, even though her squad was aware of it.
Nor did she particularly wish to dwell on her imprisonÂment at the hands of the Elabrej, so she changed the subject. "I assume you all have plans for your leave."
G'joth chewed on his racht. "I'm returning home to Krennla. It's been far too long. My sister Lakras has joined an opera company."
Wol turned in surprise at G'joth as she scooped up the meat from her skull stew. "The way you always talk about Lakras, I assumed her to be an infant."
"Merely describing how she acts. And it has been several turns since last I was home. Duty has never permitted it at any time since we were last at war with the Federation."
Kagak's eyes grew wide. "That's a long time to be away from home."
At that, G'joth simply shrugged. "My duties have kept me busy."
"I could never stay away from home for five years." Kagak laughed as he stuffed some bregit lung into his mouth. "My grandmother would have me executed."
"Where are you from, Kagak?" Goran asked.
"Pheben III. One of the loSpev farms."
G'joth sputtered his racht. "You come from farming stock? I'm impressed -- I didn't think you had that much honor in you." Then he laughed heartily.
They all did likewise. Though most farmers were not of noble blood, they nevertheless served a critical function in feeding the empire.
"You must be the shame of the family," Wol said, "joining the Defense Force."
"It would be more accurate to say that I stopped being the shame of the family when I joined. I am far more skilled with a disruptor and a bat'leth than ever I was with a thresher or an animal feeder." Kagak swallowed the rest of his bregit lung and washed it down with some warnog. "What of you, Leader?"
Wol sighed. She had been hoping no one would ask, but she knew that was a forlorn hope. "I have made no plans."
"Neither have I," Goran said. Wol noted that Goran sounded sad.
"Don't you have family, big man?" Kagak asked.
Goran shook his head. "My family died long ago. I have only me now."
"That is not true," Kagak said. "You have the fifteenth. And since I am now part of the fifteenth, that means you also have somewhere to go."
Picking at her skull stew, Wol said, "What do you mean, Kagak?"
"I mean, you both should come with me to Pheben III! Mine is a large family, and Grandmother always makes enough food to feed entire armies -- especially at yobta' yupma'."
Frowning, Wol said, "I'm not familiar with yobta' yupma'."
"It's a holiday celebrated at the harvest, usually involving a very big feast," G'joth said. "My mother was born on a farm, and we still have a feast. In fact, she's already crest-deep in the preparations for it."
Kagak nodded. "It's my favorite time of year, and I haven't been home for it for many turns. Grandmother would gladly welcome two more mouths at the table -- even one as big as yours, Goran."
Goran chuckled, which caused the table to shake. "I do not wish to impose on your family's hospitality."
"Nor I," Wol said. She wasn't even entirely sure she liked Kagak. True, he had warned them of a possible mutiny among his former crewmates on the Kreltek, which had come to pass, and he had fought well on Elabrej, but he had yet to prove his worth as a member of the fifteenth.
"I insist. Grandmother is the finest cook in the empire, and she always wants me to bring people home to visit, especially at yobta' yupma'. She loves showing off the farm for strangers."
Goran stared down at his tray. "I have not had a home-cooked meal in a very long time. And when I did, it wasn't very good. My mother was a terrible chef."
They all chortled at the big man's bluntness. Wol swallowed some of her replicated, bland skull stew and thought that perhaps Goran had a point.
"And you'll love my family. They're the finest people the empire has to offer, you'll see."
That clinched it. The last thing in the galaxy Wol wanted to encounter was a happy family. She'd been part of a happy family, once. The House of Varnak had been a most noble House, one of the finest on Qo'noS, until the House head's impulsive daughter Eral bore a son by a commoner, rather than the man she was to mate with. Eral's son was taken from her, her lover killed, and Eral herself exiled, left a Houseless common woman. Left without alternatives, she changed her name to Wol and joined the Defense Force.
Ironically, she was the only member of House Varnak to survive. Her family supported the usurper Morjod, who attempted to remove Chancellor Martok from power, and when that coup failed, Varnak was dissolved, most of its members put to death.
Wol did not think she could bear being amid Kagak's family.
"I am grateful for the offer, Kagak -- and Goran, you should definitely accept -- but I must decline." Wol added before Kagak could object further, "We will speak no more of it, Bekk!"
Kagak practically shrank into the bench. "Yes, Leader."
"How are we to get there?" Goran asked.
"There's a cargo ship, the Mahochu, that makes regular runs between Pheben and Qo'noS. The cargo master's a friend of the family."
"Where will you fit?" G'joth asked with a chuckle.
"Anywhere we want -- the ship's always empty when it goes to Pheben. It goes to each planet, picks up its goods, and then returns to Qo'noS to pass on the items to their distributors."
Wol swallowed the last of her stew. "That won't get you back to Qo'noS -- and I doubt that the captain will divert the Gorkon to Pheben to pick the pair of you up."
Kagak laughed, spitting out some of his warnog. "I will find a way to return. I always have in the past."
"Enjoy yourself," G'joth said. "I'm sure your feast will be far better than mine." He laughed in Goran's direction. "My mother prepares Klingon food with the same skill as yours did, big man."
Goran frowned. "I thought your mother was a chef."
"She is -- in an Andorian restaurant. For so long has she prepared those blue-skins' food, she's forgotten how to make proper meals." "Then why not come with us?" Kagak asked. Wol found herself both amused and annoyed by his insistence.
"Because there is more to my return to Krennla than my mother's inability to keep from bringing her work home," G'joth said angrily. "I have not seen my family in far too long." The anger dissipated, G'joth's easy smile returning. Wol had not seen that smile as much since G'joth's best friend Davok died at San-Tarah, and she was always grateful for its return. "The same also for Klaad and Krom. We grew up together on the streets of the Kenta District, but I haven't seen them since I enlisted."
Wol shivered involuntarily. She had grown up on the estates of House Varnak, which weren't far from Krennla. At first, she had known of that city only as the thing she looked down on from the aircar in disdain when she came into town with the family -- when she even bothered to give them a thought in the first place -- grateful that she had been born to a noble House and wasn't forced to live in such squalor.
Then, after she was exiled, she was forced to live in that squalor. A woman without a House, she had few options, and the ones that presented themselves in Krennla were repugnant at best. She had joined the Defense Force out of desperation.
And G'joth is nostalgic for this? She shuddered at the very thought. But she did not wish to insult her subordinate, so she said nothing.
To her relief, G'joth himself changed the subject. "Do we have any idea who our fifth will be?" The fifteenth had been one soldier short since Trant's death on Elabrej.
Wol shook her head. "Unlikely. I will ask Vok when next I speak to him, but such decisions are generally made after the repair cycle is through."
"I look forward to it," Kagak said.
"Why?" Goran asked.
Grinning, Kagak said, "Because then I won't be the chu'wI' anymore."
Everyone else at the table laughed at that, including Goran, causing the table to shake again. Wol couldn't bring herself to, though. As Kagak had said, he was the newest member of the squad. Something about him annoyed her, still. Unlike Goran and G'joth, not to mention their dead comrades Krevor and Davok, Kagak wasn't, she felt, entirely part of the fifteenth yet. While she wasn't sure if he was the traitor that both Maris and Trant had proved to be before their unmourned deaths, she was equally unsure if he yet deserved to be a part of their squad.
She certainly had no intention of going to celebrate this ridiculous yobta' yupma' with him.
"Excellent," Toq said to the white-haired image of Captain Quvmoh on the screen before him. "I will see you tomorrow."
"Do not be late, Toq. The Gorlak will leave orbit of Qo'noS at high sun. I will not wait for you."
"I will arrive on time. I thank you, Captain."
"Thank your father," Quvmoh grumbled. "He's the one I owe half a dozen favors to."
Toq grinned. Lorgh was not Toq's biological father, but he had taken Toq in after he was rescued from Carraya, and made Toq part of his House. Most people thought that, when Toq called Lorgh "Father," he meant it literally, and it was too much trouble to explain the truth to people.
Besides, few people knew the real truth -- even Lorgh himself.
Still, having a high-ranking member of Imperial Intelligence for a House head, regardless of whether or not they shared blood, was handy for getting rides. And in this case, it was to visit Lorgh himself. The old man was currently stationed at a base near the Romulan border and couldn't get away, but thanks to the Gorkon's repair cycle, he didn't need to. Toq could come to him.
After switching off the screen, Toq walked away from the communications console, leaving it to Ensign Kline, and moved to the front of the bridge. "Leskit, what is our time of arrival at Praxis?"
Turning from the helm control, the white-haired pilot drawled, "Two minutes. Unless Klarr is on duty, in which case it will be more like seven." Leskit shook his head. "I came up through the ranks with that petaQ. He's half blind, half stupid, and half drunk."
Toq sat in the first officer's seat to the right of the command chair. "How has he retained his position?"
"He hasn't. He used to be a pilot. Now they let him dock ships at Praxis because the real pilots usually do all the work. Still, I expect he will find a way to make my life more difficult." Leskit said that last with an exaggerated sigh.
Toq shook his head and chuckled at the old razorbeast. Then the rear door rumbled aside to reveal Klag.
"Captain!" Toq rose to his feet. "We will dock at Praxis Station shortly."
"Excellent." Klag strode forward, his bodyguard, Morr, taking up his position at the rear of the bridge. As he passed the operations console, which was right behind the captain's chair, Klag said, "Ensign Kallo, open intership."
The young ensign nodded. "Done, sir."
"Attention crew of the I.K.S. Gorkon. We have, at last, come home. Our journey to the Kavrot sector has been a success. We placed the Klingon flag on San-Tarah and we were victorious against the foul Elabrej. We have served the cause of honor, we have served the empire, and we have been victorious. I am proud to call you my crew. Qapla'!"
The entire bridge cried out, "Qapla'!" in response.
Toq turned toward Rodek, standing at the weapons console, and held out his hand. "Lieutenant Rodek, the record of battle."
Rodek reached under the console and removed an ornate padd. He touched a control, then held it out to Toq. "I, Rodek, son of Noggra, gunner for the ship Gorkon, conclude the record of battle for this ship on the twelfth day in the year of Kahless, 1002."
Taking the padd, Toq walked two steps down to where Klag stood. "I present the record of battle, Captain Klag. It is filled with exploits of glory and honor, and you will find it worthy of your leadership."
Klag took the padd and smiled.
A bekk at the back of the bridge cheered. Kline started singing the Warrior's Anthem. Several others shouted "Qapla'!"
Somehow, Leskit made himself heard over the din. "We have docked at Praxis Station, Captain. It seems they had someone sober on duty."
Toq laughed. "Not your friend, then."
"Hardly," Leskit said dryly. Then he looked back at Klag. "We are home, Captain."
"Home," Klag said quietly. "Yes. You have done very well, my warriors. Very well indeed. Now let us leave the ship to Kurak and her minions, so we may once again return to the fields of battle and bring glory to the empire!"
Toq joined in the cheers that provoked.
But his duty was now finished. Once Kurak was done, he would once again speak for this fine crew to the captain. For now, though, he was going to be with the only family he'd known since Carraya.
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