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After bowing respectfully before his opponent, Captain Hikaru Sulu straightened, tensing his wiry form as he raised his épée to the ready position. "En garde!" he shouted, then lunged forward, the slender blade flashing before him.
With a grace that belied her considerable size, Lieutenant P'mu'la Hopman deflected Sulu's foil toward the captain's left with a deft parry sixte. Sulu tried to conceal his surprise at how quick the muscular exosociology specialist was on her rather large feet. Though less than twenty years Sulu's junior, Hopman moved like someone far younger. On top of that, she was in her male phase this morning. Sulu had become accustomed to sparring with Hopman when she wore her female form, which was more equivalent to Sulu's own mass.
Recovering quickly, Sulu renewed his attack, stepping forward, then back, then forward again, all the while probing his opponent for weakness or hesitation. He thrust, cobralike. Hopman countered him once again with a quarte parry, melding fluidly into a forward-lunging riposte that Sulu easily sidestepped.
"You're not going easy on me just because I'm the captain, are you, Lieutenant?" Sulu said, wishing he could see his opponent's expression through the white duranium-mesh facemasks.
Hopman drew a languid circle in the air with the tip of her foil. "The captain is being entirely too modest about his skills," she said, the smile behind her mask clearly audible.
Sulu recalled how Hopman -- a variable-gendered Thelusian who still carried the surname of a human ex-spouse -- had recently stared at the platinum belt he kept on the wall of the situation room. The trophy had hung there for so long that Sulu rarely thought about it anymore. It had been years since he'd bragged to anyone about having swept the Inner Planets championship tournament as a Starfleet Academy cadet.
On the other hand, he was far from ashamed of his prowess with the blade. After all, those talents had saved his life years earlier, when he'd been forced into bat'leth combat during Curzon Dax's impulsive hajj into the Klingon Empire. But it's nice not to have the burden of defending a current championship title, Sulu thought. Command of Excelsior was responsibility enough.
"I know that flattery doesn't work on you, sir," Hopman said, now standing motionless except for the slow twirl of her blade tip.
Sulu grinned. "Really?"
"Yes, sir. At least that's how Lieutenant Tuvok tells it."
Sulu's throaty chuckle resonated through the otherwise empty gymnasium. If any member of his senior staff was above the giving or receiving of flattery, it was Lieutenant Tuvok, his Vulcan senior science officer. Five years ago, shortly after coming aboard Excelsior as part of a contingent of junior science specialists, Tuvok had brought a cup of Vulcan tea to the bridge and presented it to Sulu. The subtle blend of flavors had been delightful, and Sulu had wondered for more than a year afterward why Tuvok had never repeated the gesture -- until Janice Rand finally revealed that she had ribbed Tuvok that very day by suggesting that his gift of tea might have been taken as a career-advancement tactic. Sulu, too, had made a similar mock-serious observation in Tuvok's presence even as he'd taken his first sip of the proffered beverage.
Ever since that day, Tuvok never again made another unsolicited gift of any sort to a superior officer, no doubt intent on making it crystal clear that he wished to receive no unearned favors.
"And I wasn't going easy on you, sir," Hopman said earnestly, her wide shoulders slumping. Sulu thought the mannerism might have been unconscious. "I just feel more comfortable when I'm...smaller."
Sulu raised his foil again. "That additional mass you're carrying at the moment gives you a strength advantage, Pam. Why not use it?"
With that, Sulu renewed his assault on Hopman. She parried, prompting Sulu to attempt a counterparry. The bulky lieutenant spun into a counter-disengage before Sulu could find an opening. The deck seemed to shudder slightly beneath Sulu's feet. The effect was nearly imperceptible, but it distracted him momentarily nonetheless. We've changed speed.
Suddenly, Hopman's blade scored a solid touch against Sulu's padded fencing jacket.
Hopman lowered her foil and doffed her facemask, releasing her long, sandy hair. A grin spread across her wide, masculine features. "Now who's holding back?"
Sulu lowered his blade. "You wound me, Lieutenant. Almost literally. Be careful, or you might turn this into an affair of honor."
"Best two out of three?"
Sulu shook his head. There was the little matter of Excelsior's apparent change in velocity -- and the disconcerting fact that no one from the bridge had called him yet with an explanation.
"Another time, Lieutenant," he said as he removed his mask and mopped the sweat from his brow with a long, white sleeve. "Duty calls."
Just as Sulu reached the bulkhead companel, the gymnasium doors immediately beside it whisked open. Sulu turned and saw Commander Pavel Chekov, Excelsior's executive officer, standing in the threshold.
The slight frown that creased Chekov's forehead plainly told Sulu that his old friend hadn't come down for a workout.
"The Tholians have changed the time and place of the meeting," Chekov said.
Sulu handed his foil to Hopman, but kept his eyes fixed on his old friend. "Don't tell me they want to postpone."
"No, sir," Chekov said. "In fact, they've moved the rendezvous up, to tomorrow morning at 0930 hours. They want us to meet them near the 15 Lyncis system."
Ah, Sulu thought. That explained the velocity change that he'd felt thrumming through the deckplates. Despite the good-natured puzzlement of Chief Engineer Azleya, Sulu had never allowed her to refine the inertial dampers to the point where they rendered such adjustments completely unnoticeable. After all, Excelsior was a ship of the line, not a luxury liner.
"I trust Commander Lojur and Lieutenant Docksey already have us under way," Sulu said, though he already knew the answer.
"Aye, sir. We certainly don't want to keep our clock-watching friends waiting." The Tholians were notorious for the meticulous attention they paid to their itineraries. Perhaps especially so when they were altering them.
Sulu nodded. He recalled the position of the 15 Lyncis system from his decades of helm duty. It lay a good ten light-years outside of the vast, meandering volume of space claimed and defended by the extremely xenophobic Tholians.
Starfleet Command's original orders had called for Excelsior to rendezvous with the Jeb'v Tholis -- Tholian Admiral Yilskene's flagship -- late the following week in the Qilydra system, nearly two full parsecs inside what was generally agreed to be Tholian space. Excelsior would have to accelerate to warp nine to make the rescheduled appointment on time.
"Apparently something's persuaded the Tholians that it's no longer a good idea to invite us across their border," Sulu said.
"They haven't canceled the meeting, though," Chekov pointed out. "They've only changed the time and place."
"But why?" Sulu wanted to know.
Chekov shrugged. "We've watched the Tholians for a long time, Hikaru. They're usually as territorial as Klingon targs. It's not surprising that they don't want us coming too close to their homeworld. I don't think the crew will be too disappointed about meeting with them elsewhere. From everything I've read, Tholia and the rest of the N-class planets the Tholian Assembly controls aren't exactly competitors of Wrigley's Pleasure Planet."
Sulu nodded. "When the Tholians asked for a diplomatic meeting inside the boundaries of their own space, it looked like a pretty hopeful sign. Maybe an indication that they were finally beginning to look beyond their ingrained xenophobia."
"Looks like that hope might have been premature," Chekov said. "After all, it's not easy to overcome almost one hundred and fifty years of mutual suspicion."
Sulu grinned. "That's uncharacteristically diplomatic of you, Pavel."
"Don't get me wrong," Chekov said, scowling as though he'd been insulted. "Their waffling as to where and when to meet us doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Something very strange may be going on inside the Tholian power structure. Until we know what it is, I suggest we be very, very careful around them."
Over the years, Chekov had regaled Sulu with countless tales of the many wars and invasions his Russian homeland had endured through the centuries. Sulu knew that suspicion came quite naturally to Chekov. In fact, it was an asset that he frequently relied upon in making critical command decisions.
"I agree," Sulu said. "All we know is that the Tholians appear to have suddenly fallen back into their old habits, but without any more explanation than they offered when they asked to meet with our diplomats in the first place. So the question remains: why?"
"It might not add up to anything sinister," Lieutenant Hopman said, breaking her silence as she leaned her foil alongside Sulu's against the gymnasium wall. "You've already mentioned the renowned Tholian penchant for xenophobia. Perhaps that's all this is."
But Sulu wasn't buying it. "The Tholians are renowned for a lot of things, Lieutenant. Dithering isn't one of them."
"Their society is made up of multiple castes," Hopman said. "Perhaps the castes are in fundamental disagreement about how best to deal with the Federation."
Sulu nodded. "Maybe they aren't all in agreement that they even should deal with the Federation."
"A distinct possibility," said Hopman.
"Well, maybe this will shed some light on the matter," Chekov said, holding up a memory chip, which he then handed to Sulu. "Janice received this just before I left the bridge. It's an encrypted message from Starfleet Command. It's scrambled and marked 'for the captain's eyes only.' "
Sulu contemplated the palm-sized piece of translucent red plastic he held in his hand. This far from a starbase, real-time subspace communication with Starfleet brass simply wasn't practical. So the message's arrival, by itself, was no cause for concern. However, its "eyes-only" classification concerned him. It obviously contained sensitive information, and its appearance on the eve of the first major rapprochement between the Tholian Assembly and the United Federation of Planets had to be significant as well.
"Do you want me to alert the Federation special envoy about the change in schedule?" Chekov said, a faint look of distaste on his face.
Sulu shook his head. "Not yet. Let me see what Starfleet Command has to say first. Then I'll talk to Ambassador Burgess about the change in plans."
Chekov looked relieved not to have to handle the Federation representative himself. For his own part, Sulu did not relish the prospect either. True enough, Aidan Burgess had been more than cooperative in furnishing Lieutenant Hopman and the rest of Excelsior's senior staff with valuable information about the Tholians during the two days since the Enterprise had dropped her off. But the ambassador's frantic preparations for the impending diplomatic meetings had run many of the ship's support personnel ragged.
Sulu had done his best to make certain that most of Deck Eight had been converted for the Tholians' use, including the installation of forcefield-reinforced transparent aluminum walls capable of holding a Tholian-friendly N-class atmosphere at 200°C and twenty-two bars of pressure. Chief Engineer Azleya had overseen the technical details of the hasty environmental modifications with her usual Denobulan good humor.
It had been the quartermaster and his staff who had probably endured the biggest hardships because of Burgess's presence; she had browbeaten them into fashioning a ceremonial gown for her upcoming meeting with Tholian ambassador Kasrene. Not only were Burgess's specifications exacting, but she had also insisted upon using a peculiar metallic fabric for the job. It was evidently something that she had only very recently acquired, at considerable cost, and it appeared to be resistant to any tool short of a mining drill.
But since Starfleet had explicitly ordered him to indulge the ambassador's eccentricities, Sulu was determined to be as obliging as possible in the interests of the mission. Diplomacy, he knew from long experience, was a very mixed bag -- as were diplomats. Maybe Burgess didn't possess quite the same quiet dignity as a Sarek or a Spock. Who did? Sulu knew he could at least be thankful -- so far, at least -- that she wasn't a martinet like Robert Fox, or a loose cannon like Curzon Dax. Things could always be a whole lot worse, he thought.
"I'll assume you're taking a rain check on the rest of our workout, Captain," Hopman said as she retrieved her foil from where she'd left it leaning. Sulu dismissed her, and she raised her blade in a fencer's salute before departing.
Sulu turned to Chekov. "You'd better advise the quartermaster about the schedule change right away. If Ambassador Burgess's tailoring job isn't ready before 0900 tomorrow, I don't want her jumping down my throat about it."
Chekov began moving toward the door, a wry smile on his face. "I'll make sure he either finishes on time, or else perishes in the attempt."
After Chekov exited the gym, Sulu grabbed his épée and made his way toward his quarters. He looked forward to a hot shower, a change of clothes, a steaming cup of Darjeeling -- and discovering the contents of Starfleet Command's mysterious "eyes-only" message.
Sulu stripped down for the sonic shower as the computer terminal in his quarters displayed the Federation emblem. Slowly stretching the muscles in his back, he spoke his security access code to the computer and instructed it to display the newly arrived message.
"Working," the computer said, speaking in a soothing, feminine alto. One of the first things Sulu had done after assuming command of the Excelsior was to get rid of the booming male computer voices that his immediate predecessor, Captain Styles, had favored.
Sulu felt a twinge in his left shoulder as he removed his fencing jacket and tossed it into the clothing 'cycler. Must have pulled something during the workout. Or maybe I'm just beginning to feel my age.
In the mirror, he could see the irregular, vaguely star-shaped traceries of scar tissue that covered his left shoulder like a worn piece of braid. Over the past three decades, several doctors had offered to repair this superficial blemish. Sulu had always politely declined.
He had received those scars on a long-abandoned Kalandan outpost, at the hands of a lethal re-creation of Losira, a beautiful woman who had died some ten millennia earlier. The mere touch of the mournful-eyed siren had already killed one member of an Enterprise landing party, blasting each of his cells from within. In an effort to protect her small domain from a perceived invasion, she also tried to kill Sulu in the same fashion. The scar where her fingers had brushed him was now all that remained not only of Losira, but of her entire civilization.
The thought of removing those jagged white markings struck Sulu as somehow disrespectful.
"Message decrypted, Captain," said the computer, interrupting Sulu's reverie. The scowling visage of Admiral Heihachiro Nogura replaced the U.F.P. seal. Sulu took a seat at the foot of his bed, listening attentively.
"Captain Sulu, you and your crew are about to become involved in a matter of the utmost delicacy. I'm sure it's not news to you that ever since humans first came into contact with them nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, the Tholians have always been xenophobic, territorial, and almost completely uninterested in either trade or cultural exchange with other species. That, of course, makes their recent détente overtures extremely surprising. But that's only part of the story.
"Starfleet Intelligence has recently learned that the Tholians have stepped up their energy-weapons development programs over the past few years. While they have yet to attack any of our outposts along our shared border, Command is concerned about their unexplained defense buildup. It is entirely possible that the Tholians' current peace initiative is really an effort to lull us into letting our guard down as a prelude to an aggressive blitz into Federation territory."
While Sulu found this news disquieting, he was also strangely relieved to hear that his superiors weren't afraid to look askance at the Tholians' olive branch. He and Pavel Chekov had both been on the bridge of the Enterprise when the Tholians had attacked with one of their devious energy webs. Sulu suspected that only a very few other currently active Starfleet officers -- perhaps as few as Chekov, Captain Uhura, and himself -- truly understood just how dangerous the Tholians could be when they felt threatened or cornered.
Nogura continued: "Our choice of Excelsior to ferry Ambassador Burgess and her party to the meeting requested by the Tholians was no coincidence. We expect your previous experience with the Tholians to be invaluable. We are also hoping that your vessel's unique sensor capabilities will help us learn in detail the nature and extent of the new Tholian defense buildup."
Nogura's reasoning made perfect sense to Sulu; he recalled vividly how Excelsior's sensitive instruments had assisted in protecting the first Federation-Klingon peace efforts at Khitomer by helping to detect and destroy the renegade Klingon general Chang's vessel, a prototype bird-of-prey capable of firing its weapons while cloaked.
"You are hereby ordered," the admiral continued, leaning forward as if to emphasize his words, "to use whatever resources are necessary to conduct a discreet investigation, even as the diplomatic meeting proceeds. And I do mean discreet. Ambassador Burgess is not to be made privy to your orders. I cannot emphasize enough how disastrous it could be for the Federation should the Tholians discover your covert surveillance activities. They might well try to use it as a justification for war. For that reason, Starfleet Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions should the Tholians learn what you're up to.
"I'm sorry you have to shoulder this responsibility alone. But you've never given me reason to be anything less than confident that you'll pull off a flawless mission.
"Good luck, Captain," Nogura said just before his image vanished from the screen.
Alone in his silent cabin, Sulu swallowed hard. He was an explorer at heart, and always had been. It had been several years since he'd done any work specifically for the purpose of gathering military intelligence. He hadn't missed the shadowy world of galactic espionage one bit.
Damned if I'm going to face this without some expert help, he thought. After all, he wasn't the only officer aboard whose prior experience with the Tholians -- and with espionage -- might prove beneficial to the mission.
A long, relaxing shower was now out of the question. Rising from the edge of his bed, Sulu crossed to the companel mounted on the wall outside the bathroom.
"Sulu to Commander Chekov."
"Chekov here, Captain." Sulu could hear various bridge instruments beeping and chirping in the background.
The captain was grateful that he could leave the bridge in Chekov's steady hands. And though he deeply regretted having to place his closest friend onto the hot seat with him, he also knew it couldn't be helped.
"Hikaru?" Chekov prompted, concern audible in his voice.
"Pavel, I need to see you in the situation room. I'll be up there in ten minutes."
Copyright © 2003 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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