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Chapter 1: Tezwa
Dusk settled upon the city of Alkam-Zar. Rays of deep-crimson sunlight flared through the seam of the horizon, casting a fiery glow across the sullen, steel gray clouds. Wind like a mournful cry twisted between the towering husks of buildings both ancient and modern all sinking now into decay and history.
Starfleet Ensign Fiona McEwan stood on the edge of a rubble-strewn plaza near the center of the battered metropolis. Alkam-Zar, like many other Tezwan cities, was still smoldering more than two weeks after it had been racked by a shock wave from a Klingon torpedo, which had destroyed a military starport several dozen kilometers away from the urban center.
These people probably thought the base's presence made them safer, McEwan mused. It just made them a target.
Behind the petite, red-haired young officer, a Federation relief team coordinated the distribution of food, clean water, and medicine to local Tezwans, who had lost most of their basic utilities because of the Klingon barrage. The relief group was composed of civilian workers and physicians. McEwan was one of six Starfleet security personnel assigned to protect them. Some relief groups, working in similarly war-torn urban areas around the planet, had been nearly overwhelmed by Tezwan refugees whose suffering and desperation had led to food riots; other groups had been ambushed by Tezwan military insurgents still loyal to the deposed prime minister, Kinchawn.
Today things had been quiet in Alkam-Zar. Most of its people were still in shock. Tezwan adults and children wandered the streets like gangly, looming phantoms. Their feather-manes were pale with dust and matted with neglect, their arm feathers tattered and scorched and stained with blood. Shuffling footsteps crunched across boulevards dusted with shattered glass and pulverized rock. Broken beams of metal crusted with ancient stone had impaled the ground and dotted the thoroughfares and side streets like monuments to a quiet despair.
So far, the Federation's efforts had focused on providing these people with the essentials of survival food, water, shelter, and basic medical treatment. Just two days ago the Starfleet Corps of Engineers had arrived, to direct the monumental task of rebuilding this world's ravaged cities.
For her part, McEwan was in no hurry to see the streets swept bare. If a Loyalist ambush were aimed at her squad, she would be grateful for all the cover she could get.
Thirteen more days, she reminded herself. Then I rotate back shipside. She had just begun her two-week deployment to the planet's surface and was already looking forward to her return to the Enterprise. Because she had risked her life during the commando mission that neutralized Tezwa's ground-based antiship artillery, she had been lucky enough to miss the first, grueling two-week rotation. Danilov had told her the reeking, insect-infested carnage in the major cities had left him with nightmares. Seo had described in a haunted monotone that made his nauseatingly vivid details all the more unsettling a guerrilla ambush in Anara-Zel that killed four security officers from the Republic. Danilov and Seo were frontline veterans of the Dominion War, so McEwan took their warnings seriously.
A keening cry, anguished and beautiful, cut through the heavy hush. Turning toward its source, McEwan looked up, toward the top of a twenty-story building rendered by war into a gutted frame. Standing like an emperor atop the structure was a lone Tezwan singer, his arms flung wide as if to embrace the sky. Nasal and piercing, his voice reverberated off smashed, hollow edifices painted with the dying light of day. McEwan's heart stirred with his projected grief, ached as it grasped the terrible emptiness of his operatic wails.
Without taking her eyes from the singer, she grabbed the sleeve of a young Tezwan boy who was walking past her. Holding him with one hand, she pointed with the other at the singer. "What's he singing?"
Following her gesture with stunned, distant eyes, the boy seemed utterly unmoved by the singer as he answered. "It's a sorrow-song. We sing for the dead."
McEwan stood, transfixed by the singer. His voice was like a majestic wolf cry, despondent beneath a shadowy dome of gray, casting on her an enthralling spell of mourning. The boy pulled away from her, and she let go of him. "Who's he singing for?"
The boy glanced up at the singer. As he turned away, he answered with an ominous emotional flatness, "The world."
She glanced at the boy, who plodded off, his daily ration of Federation emergency nutrition packs tucked under one arm. Then the singer's tune crested, pulling McEwan's eyes back to the top of the tower. For a fleeting moment the singer's voice filled every corner of Alkam-Zar. Then his music dropped away like a dying breath. A faint and tragic note rose and vanished into the heavens, like his soul taking flight. He leaned forward and pitched headfirst off of the building.
McEwan's cry of alarm stuck in her throat as she watched the singer plummet. He neither flailed nor cried out, but fell as if it was his destiny to do so. Empathetic dread swelled inside her as the singer's body accelerated.
He hit the ground with a dull, thick, wet crunch.
McEwan's horrified gasp was tangled up in her choking sobs. Burning tears ran from her eyes.
Fighting to compose herself, she turned slowly back toward the plaza. Behind her, the other Starfleet personnel watched in shock. A civilian woman with the relief team covered her mouth and began to weep. Many other relief workers turned away. A young doctor sprinted across the plaza with a surgical kit in his hand, apparently undeterred by the futility of his impending efforts. A Federation News Service reporter ran after him.
But all McEwan could see were the Tezwans, who continued to wait for their food packets and water rations, oblivious of or indifferent to the singer's gruesome end. Even more than his suicide, their numb disregard of it frightened her deeply.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she counted the days until she could leave this world and never see it again.
Geordi La Forge cinched his parka hood tighter around his face. He hunched his shoulders against the chilly acid rain, which misted, gray and cold, into a blackened and almost perfectly round crater. The circular depression had, until recently, housed one of Tezwa's formidable artillery pieces. A pool of ruddy mud at the pit's bottom grew deeper by the minute.
All around him, once-verdant hills were ragged with skeletonized trees and withering ground foliage. Wafting odors of decaying vegetation tainted the cold, ozone-scented morning air. The catastrophic environmental damage hadn't been caused by the implosion of the nadion-pulse cannon. It was the result of massive quantities of ash, dust, and other toxins hurled into the atmosphere by the retaliatory Klingon bombardment, which had all but annihilated the rank and file of the Tezwan military and obliterated its principal surface installations.
A Starfleet forensic engineering team slogged around the eroding sides of the crater. They scanned the area with tricorders and a variety of specialized devices. Ensign Emily Spitale and Lieutenant Mitchell Obrecht were members of La Forge's staff aboard the Enterprise. The other nine engineers were from the starships Republic, Amargosa, and Musashi. Judging from their long faces and exasperated sighs, La Forge concluded that this search was proving as fruitless as the twenty-nine others they had already conducted during the past week.
He shared their frustration. Mounds of preliminary evidence had suggested that the Tezwans' brutal weapons might have been based on Starfleet technology. Unfortunately, almost nothing had survived the hastily executed Starfleet commando strike. The six firebases and their antimatter reactors, as well as all thirty-six guns, had imploded. The vaporized facilities had left behind little more than their glowing-hot craters, which had taken nearly a week to cool to a temperature safe enough for on-site inspections.
Along with the physical remains of the artillery system itself, other evidence that had been encountered during the strike missions was now lost or out of reach.
Security Chief Christine Vale had reported discovering, as part of the underwater firebase in the Nokalana Sea, a camouflaged iris composed of chimerium a rare and restricted material to which only the Federation was known to have access. But when the undersea firebase imploded and sank into the planet's crust, it took the chimerium iris with it, beyond the reach of further analysis.
Assistant Chief Engineer Taurik had shown tremendous foresight in pirating large numbers of encrypted Tezwan military data files from a firebase computer in the Linoka Forest. Immediately after Captain Picard reported the seizure of the evidence, Starfleet Intelligence had exerted its authority and confiscated all copies of the files for its own secret investigation. Two weeks later there still was no word from SI regarding its findings or lack thereof.
The best evidence that the artillery system had originated in the Federation had come from acting First Officer Data's positronic memory, which had interfaced directly with the Solasook Firebase computer system. After his allegedly "unstable" performance during the Rashanar incident, however, Starfleet Command had expressed grave reluctance to accept the android's perceptions as incontrovertible evidence.
All of which left La Forge kneeling in the mud, a tricorder in one hand and not a shred of proof in the other.
Spitale deactivated her tricorder and turned toward La Forge. Her shoulders were slumped, her expression blank. "There's nothing here, sir," said the athletic young blonde.
"Maybe not on the surface," La Forge said, studying the scene with his cybernetic eyes. "Run a deep-level "
" icospectrogram and a dekyon resonance pattern," she said, repeating the instruction he'd issued by rote all week long. "Aye, sir." Reactivating her tricorder, she pivoted away from him and faced down toward the mud pool.
Chasing down one dead end after another aggravated La Forge as much as it did the rest of the team. We all have our duties, he reminded himself. His was to search for evidence that would explain how the Tezwans created their armaments. Data's was to serve as the first officer of the Enterprise during Will Riker's absence. Vale's was to find Riker and bring him home in one piece.
La Forge couldn't imagine what Riker must be going through or perhaps he simply didn't want to. The first officer had been missing for seventeen days so far; if Kinchawn and his allies were holding him, they had yet to demand a ransom or even acknowledge that they were holding him. Worse than any fear of what might happen to Riker was the simple fact of not knowing.
By nature and training, La Forge lived for hard facts, for answers to riddles, for certainties. Now he had none. With the Enterprise repaired and once again fully operational, he had volunteered to lead the forensic engineering team on Tezwa in order to keep his mind occupied and his fears at bay.
Cycling through another series of tricorder scans, he repeated his silent, reassuring mantra: Vale will find him. He's gonna be all right. She's gonna find him and bring him home.
He wasn't sure he believed that. But he was certain that he couldn't stand not to. Slip-stepping across the interior of the slick crater, he held his tricorder at arm's length and continued running scans. "Just keep looking, folks," he said. "Just keep looking and don't give up."
"Relief Group Four-Sixteen Bravo to any Starfleet vessel! Mayday, we need emergency evac!"
The woman's voice squawked from the cockpit speaker. It sounded distant and flat in the rear compartment of the cramped but still antiseptic-smelling runabout. Tenila huddled with four other recently recruited Tezwan peace-officers-in-training and a quartet of Starfleet security personnel. She clutched her phaser rifle and tensed as the team leader, who sat up front next to the pilot, answered the distress call.
"RG Four-Sixteen Bravo, this is Runabout Cumberland," replied the confident-sounding young officer, a human named Peart. "We're en route, ETA forty-five seconds. Hang on."
The long, blocky craft banked to starboard and accelerated. Peart rose from his seat and strode into the aft compartment. "Check your weapons," he said. "Make sure they're on light stun. As soon as we're on the ground, wait for my order before you do anything." Tenila nodded along with the other Tezwans, then checked her weapon. The four Starfleet personnel seemed totally confident that their weapons were set properly, because they didn't bother to check their settings.
Suddenly anxious at the prospect of leaving the protection of the runabout, Tenila was grimly amused by how much her feelings about the vessels had changed recently. The first time she'd ever seen a Starfleet runabout was only two weeks ago; she had journeyed home to Savola-Cov, one of the great trinae cities, to bury her husband, Sangano, and to place her young son, Neeraj, in her parents' custody for a while. Kneeling in the ashes that surrounded the broken memory-stone of her family's ancestral tava, she had been carving Sangano's name into the rock with a plasma cutter when she'd heard a faint screech tearing across the darkened sky. Looking up from her sacred task with tear-drenched eyes, she'd decided the Starfleet vessel resembled a sinister bird surveying its new domain.
In the days since then, however, she'd learned of the fanaticism of the former Tezwan government and how close it had brought her world to suffering wholesale extermination by the Klingon Empire. Realizing the Federation had intervened to save her people, she signed up last week to begin her training as an officer of the law and a defender of the people.
Now she wondered if they might need someone to stay behind and defend the ship. Peart dispelled that fledgling notion with one snapped order: "Everybody transport positions."
The away team, as Tenila had been trained to call it, moved to the aft of the runabout. They grouped together beneath its recently installed ten-person transporter device. Despite having already survived the "beaming" process a handful of times as part of her training, she was still not comfortable being atomically disassembled, transmitted as energy, and reassembled. Taking a deep breath, she resolved to not dwell on it.
Glancing out the starboard aft window, she saw the smoking ruins of Kuruk-Tau rising from the river plains like a blackened smile of broken teeth. Architecture from twelve distinct eras of Tezwan history all lay in ruins, epic-scale memorials for one of her world's greatest cities. Once a center of commerce and the arts, it vomited black smoke like a volcano, blotting out the daylight. Its millennia of history had been turned into a fine, carbonized dust that lingered like a shadow over the land.
Piercing a dark wall of ashy smoke, the Cumberland banked again into a swift dive toward a cluster of Tezwan refugees. Several twisting, irregular columns of people had intersected at a point not too far outside the city, to form a group at least a hundred thousand strong. From this altitude the swarming masses resembled an army of insects converging around a tiny morsel. I'm not ready for this, Tenila confessed to herself.
"Look at this," a bald and blue-skinned Starfleet man said to his dark-haired, pointed-eared compatriot. Jabbing a thumb at the view outside the aft window he added, "The Klingons really outdid themselves."
"The damage is extensive," said the pointed-eared one, who Tenila remembered was called a Vulcan. "The city will likely not be salvageable."
Tenila was unsure which she found more infuriating the blue one's flippant sarcasm or the Vulcan's dispassionate evaluation of a tragedy unlike anything she had ever witnessed before.
Raising his voice to be heard over the suddenly deafening roar of the Cumberland's engines, the copilot hollered back to the away team, "We've got a lock!"
Peart flashed the man a thumbs-up and said, "Energize!"
Paralysis was the sensation Tenila most strongly associated with molecular transport. Some kind of beam held subjects immobile at the beginning and ending of the cycle. It felt to her like being trapped in an invisible, smothering embrace. Next she became aware of a sudden minuscule gap in her consciousness, which the Starfleet people told her was purely psychosomatic "a physical impossibility," one of them had assured her but she still felt it all the same, like a miniblackout. Finally, she returned to herself in a tingle of adrenaline, the world reassembling around her, revealing itself in a wash of light and a soft, high-frequency musical drone.
Settling her feet on the dusty ground, she felt relieved to be back on her homeworld. After two weeks living and training aboard the Federation vessel Enterprise, she had almost become accustomed to its higher standard gravity.
Her feeling of relief vanished as she saw the six wounded Federation relief workers sprinting awkwardly away from a massive wall of starving, filthy Tezwan refugees.
Peart's voice cut through the angry clamor of the crowd. "Away team! Firing line!" The away team moved forward and formed a half-circle perimeter around the injured relief workers. Peart lifted his rifle, braced it against his shoulder, and stepped toward the rapidly closing multitude. Hesitantly, Tenila pressed the butt of her own rifle against her left shoulder, then held her ground with the rest of the away team. She thought Peart seemed irrationally bold, given the circumstances. Aiming his weapon's muzzle above the crowd, he fired a warning shot that slowed the stampede. More warning shots issued from the other Starfleet soldiers' rifles.
The blue Starfleet man grabbed one of the relief workers, a young human woman. Her forehead and face were streaked with blood. He spoke sharply to her. "Are you all here?"
"Yes," the woman said, terrified and hyperalert.
The away team's defensive perimeter around the relief workers shrank as the refugees pressed in. Their advance was slower than before and more cautious, but no less relentless.
Rounding up the six relief workers into a tight knot, the blue man motioned four of the Tezwan away-team members to join them. The Cumberland roared overhead, stopped cleanly, and pivoted to face the oncoming crowd, which recoiled.
Tapping his combadge, the blue man yelled over the engine noise, "Leet to Cumberland! Lock on to Khota's signal ten to beam up." Stepping away, he lifted his rifle and rejoined the firing line as Tenila's fellow Tezwans beamed up with the rescued relief workers.
Which left Tenila and the five Starfleet security personnel surrounded by a massive throng of hunger-crazed elininae, who were quickly gathering handfuls of large stones.
Glaring ferociously at the wall of raging faces, Peart warned them in a tense voice, "Halt, or we will open fire."
The Tezwan refugees crept forward, a slow wave of menace. Choruses of angry shouts overlapped one another, in several major Tezwan languages. Gradually falling back, the away team stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight half-circle, weapons held at shoulder height. Billows of hot yellow dust drifted languidly through the horde, propelled by an ominous, low-howling summer wind.
A transport cycle is five seconds, Tenila reminded herself. Sixty seconds to reset the system. She had no idea how many seconds had passed since the relief workers had been beamed up, but apparently she wasn't the only one growing anxious. Beside her, the blue man muttered to himself, "What's taking so long?"
From somewhere in the midst of the glowering mob, a single stone catapulted forward and ricocheted off Peart's left shoulder. Like a breaking dam, the sky suddenly filled with airborne rocks. Tenila was certain she'd frozen with fear until her vision flared white on the other side of a gap in time. She sagged to one knee in the runabout's higher artificial gravity. Already the small vessel was accelerating away.
Peart clapped Tenila's shoulder. "Nice work, but I don't think you're ready to be knighted just yet."
Sometimes he made no sense. "I don't understand," she said.
"Sorry, it's a cultural thing. Knighting...kneeling." He looked frustrated. "Never mind." He turned toward the relief workers. The woman with the bloody forehead was being patched up by Khota. The young Tezwan had proved to be a quick study in the Starfleet first-aid course. Peart said, "Are your people okay?"
"I guess," the woman said. "We tried to keep things organized, but then a group of them demanded our portable replicator. I told them we..." She trailed off and shook her head. "There was no reasoning with them."
"I just don't get it," said another relief worker, a young man whose face was purpled with fat bruises. A clump of his light-colored hair had been torn out, and his nose was broken. "We're trying to help these people. What's wrong with them? Are they crazy or something?"
"Maybe they are," Tenila said angrily, her nape feathers rising. "They just lost their homes, their families have been killed, and they're starving to death. Wouldn't you be crazy?" She was surprised to hear herself defending the actions of the elininae. She knew that Tezwan ethnic differences would likely seem petty to outsiders, but to her, as a trinae, speaking out for her tribe's most bitter rivals felt downright surreal.
The battered young man hung his head sheepishly. No one said anything. She thought maybe she had been too harsh after all, he had just suffered a violent attack and only narrowly escaped being killed. The Federation people she had met really did mean well they believed in their mission, in laws, and in justice, and in helping people for no other reason than because it was right. That's why she took a chance and believed in them.
But her own world's imploded government had taught her that the individuals of a society and the power they served were not the same thing. No matter how hard she tried to believe that Starfleet's presence on Tezwa was lawful, peaceful, and benign, there was a part of her that could never forget that the Federation and its awesome technology had come to her world as conquerors.
Copyright © 2004 by Paramount Pictures