Peter David's unforgettable novels of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the crew of the Starship Excalibur remain one of Star Trek's most popular book series among fans. Now, David continues the thrilling new direction for the New Frontier universe begun in After the Fall with a novel that will shock and delight longtime and brand-new readers of this acclaimed series.
Star Trek New Frontier®
Following the dramatic events of After the Fall, Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the crew of the U.S.S. Excalibur find themselves catapulted headlong into another universe, far from the New Thallonian Protectorate and Sector 221-G...a place where an ancient war rages between two powerful alien races. But Calhoun has no intention of staying here for very long and, adopting the time-honored philosophy of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," takes it upon himself to somehow (and by any means necessary) persuade one side or the other to help him and his crew get back home.
Meanwhile, the shadow of war has fallen over the New Thallonian Protectorate, and an embattled Si Cwan faces growing treachery as he attempts to maintain his tenuous hold on power. With Starfleet and the Federation declaring Sector 221-G temporarily off-limits, Admiral Elizabeth Shelby and Captain Kat Mueller decide to take matters into their own hands, ignoring orders by trying to find some way of getting to the Excalibur, presuming there is any Excalibur to get to. But they never count on the most unexpected of allies -- an old friend whose shifting loyalties are about to be put to the ultimate test even as a growing cataclysm looms....
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Commander Soleta, late of the Federation, dedicated agent in the service of the Romulan Praetor, sat in her quarters aboard her stealth vessel and thoughtfully studied the data chip that she held delicately between her fingers.
"I wonder who died for it?" she said aloud.
She knew that someone had. Xyon, the cheery spacegoing pirate who had obtained it for them, had as much as said he'd had to kill someone to obtain it. She wondered who it might have been. She wasn't concerned about the morality of it. She had been given a specific assignment: to get information on the new weapon the Orions were developing. She, in turn, had made use of Xyon's unique talents, and he had gotten the job done. So here it was in her hand, and Xyon had needed to get it over someone's dead body.
Had it been an innocent? Had it been someone of no real consequence? Was it, perhaps, an Orion spy who had tried to get in Xyon's way? And what of that spy? Knowing Xyon, he had probably left no traces of the body, or bodies, so it would remain a permanent mystery.
Weapons systems. Sometimes she felt as if the universe was a massive chess game being played, where one side would come up with a weapon that another would put into check, and the other side would simply develop a new weapon to overcome the previous one. And so on and so on, greater and greater weapons, more and more impressive means of annihilating races, planets, star systems. She had to wonder if someday, someone would develop a weapon so powerful that there would be no such thing as a "check" for it. Instead it would be check, mate, and game over.
"Who died," she said again, staring at the chip, continuing to turn it over in her hand, "to try and keep this information from us? So that we can use it, build the weaponry ourselves, or figure out how to thwart whatever it is the Orions make . . . until, of course, they overcome us in turn. Perhaps . . ." She set it down carefully upon her desk. "Perhaps we should try and cease the endless cycle for once."
A small model of a Borg cube sat upon her desk, a gift once given her by Elizabeth Shelby something of a Borg expert and her only possession from her previous "life." She picked it up, hefted it. It had satisfactory weight to it. She brought it up and held it over the chip. It would take such little effort to bring it smashing down upon the chip, crunching it into uselessness. Then the nameless Orion, who perished in an attempt to keep a secret, would not have done so in vain.
Her hand did not tremble in the slightest, not betraying in the least the indecision within her. Then, very slowly and carefully, so as not to risk damaging the chip, she lowered the Borg-ship model and placed it gently next to it.
A useless impulse left over from a time when I had a conscience.
There was a buzz at her door. She called out, "Come."
Her tribune the Romulan equivalent of a first officer in Starfleet stood in the doorway. His name was Lucius and for as long as he had served under her, Soleta hadn't the faintest idea where he stood in terms of his loyalty to her. He maintained a resolute poker face in all dealings with her, remaining always stiff and formal. He never appeared to relax or let down his guard with her. Then again, as near as she could determine, he never let down his guard with anyone. It was possible she was overanalyzing, or perhaps even underestimating the wisdom of keeping one's guard up at all times.
Lucius had uncommonly pale skin for a Romulan, which provided a sharp contrast to the darkness of his hair. His face was almost triangular, and his eyebrow was so perfectly arched that Soleta suspected he trimmed it to make it come out that way. His pointed ears were long, tapering, and elegant. He was only a year or two older than Soleta, but he had an almost regal bearing that made him seem even older. As someone who was half Vulcan and half Romulan, Soleta envied him somewhat. After all, Lucius knew exactly what he wanted and who he was, and so set out to get it. Soleta . . . well, there were days when Soleta didn't have the slightest idea what she wanted or who she was.
This was shaping up into one of those days.
"Hail, Tribune," she said evenly.
"Hail, Legate," he replied. He preferred that alternative Romulan term for captain to the "Commander" favored by others of her crew. When she had asked him point-blank why he would use the more archaic term, he had been utterly forthright in replying: "Because you have served in the Romulan military for a fraction of the time that I have. 'Commander,' to my mind, is a title earned through years of service. Not accorded by imperial whim to a latecomer with a history that is . . . dubious. However," and he had squared his shoulders, "if you wish to register a complaint with the Praetor, and he instructs me to address you in that manner, then naturally I will comply. Or you can naturally request another second-in-command, who might prove more . . . flexible."
It was certainly tempting to do so, except that Lucius had a stainless record, was an experienced hand, and also commanded tremendous respect from subordinates. He could be of tremendous use to her, if only he'd cooperate. "And how will the rest of the crew view me, if my second-in-command is not referring to me by the proper title?"
He had pondered that a moment, and then nodded. "I can see how it might possibly sow disrespect among them. Very well. I shall refer to you as 'Commander' in the presence of others, and 'Legate' privately. Would that be acceptable to you?"
She had considered that, and then nodded. "I hope, Tribune, that eventually I will live up to your standards of excellence."
"As do I, Legate," he had replied.
Since then she and Lucius had maintained a calm, cordial relationship. But he still referred to her by the more antiquated rank. It had been annoying at first; however, she had come to be amused by it, even asking him what she would have to do in order to be addressed by him as "Commander."
"Convince me you could kill me," he had replied. "Then you would have my full respect."
"I see," she had deadpanned. "Well . . . I'll keep that in mind."
Having put the Borg cube aside, she sat back in her chair, her fingers intertwined and resting upon her lap. "Do you bring me news, Tribune?" she asked. "I'm growing a bit bored sitting here, waiting for the next instruction from the Praetor."
"As am I, Legate," he said. "Unfortunately, the situation has not improved. I am here to inform you that another communication cycle has passed and we still have not received instructions from either the Praetor or his recognized emissaries as to how we are to deal with the information chip."
She gestured for him to sit in the chair opposite her. Naturally he did not. He did, however, acknowledge her invitation to informality by drifting over toward the chair and resting one hand lightly upon it. "Our orders were most clear," he said. "Once having met up with Xyon and recovering the data chip from him, we were to withdraw from the immediate area and wait for rendezvous information."
"The Praetor does like his secrets," Soleta said regretfully. The individual they were supposed to turn the chip over to was then supposed to proceed with the ship to a hidden scientific research location. Praetor Hiren preferred to keep weapons knowledge secluded from those under him whenever possible, on the assumption that they might use it without authorization against enemies of the Empire or even worse against the Praetor himself. It was certainly a paranoid way to live. Then again, as the old saying went, just because one is paranoid doesn't automatically mean that people aren't plotting against you. She shook her head. "Even so . . . I've grown accustomed to his caution, but this is beginning to exceed reason. I feel as if we're wasting time out here . . . ours and his. What's the point of commanding a stealth vessel if we can't utilize it?"
"There seems to be very little," her tribune agreed. He paused and then said, "Might I suggest an 'activity' to engage us while waiting to hear?"
"Are you suggesting sex, Tribune?"
He looked startled for a moment, but then actually smiled. "I have . . . vague memories of such activities. But merely vague ones."
"I can sympathize." Soleta gestured for him to continue.
"You have a permanent order to keep abreast of the movements of the Excalibur and Captain Calhoun, especially if they come within our sphere of interest."
"Yes," she said cautiously. "Has that occurred?"
"If coming within ten thousand klicks of us constitutes 'within our sphere,' I would have to say yes."
Her eyes widened. As far as distances in space were concerned, ten thousand klicks wasn't much at all. It wasn't enough to provide a threat of collision, but relatively speaking, it was spitting distance. "Why so close?" she asked. "Were they looking for us?"
"I do not believe so," said the Tribune. "They were heading into Thallonian space. Our trajectory projection indicates that if they do not deviate from their present heading they are on a direct course with the planet Priatia."
"Priatia?" Soleta frowned, trying to call to mind what she remembered of the world. During her time on the Excalibur, she had certainly spent enough time in Thallonian space. She had used what little downtime she had in a productive manner, researching every planet that she was able to find out about.
She knew the Priatians. Knew they had their legends and beliefs about a race referred to as "the Wanderers" who supposedly once dominated the Thallonian region. That new and emerging civilizations in Thallonian space including, naturally, the Thallonians had taken over worlds previously inhabited by the ancestors of modern Priatians. In so doing, they had effectively marginalized the Priatians, leaving the descendants of the once planet-spawning race to lick their wounds. The Priatians were left to complain that, eventually, the Wanderers would show up and restore Thallonian space to its proper balance. In some ways, they reminded her a bit of the Redeemers . . . except they weren't especially dangerous. Just . . . eccentric.
Still, if they had done something to attract the Excalibur's attention, then there was every possibility that they were more dangerous than Soleta had previously credited them with being. After all, it had been some time since she'd been assigned to Thallonian space, and it wasn't as if she'd been making huge endeavors to remain up-to-date.
"I wonder if it has anything to do with the war," she said thoughtfully. Although they had been fairly isolated, they'd intercepted random unguarded broadcasts that had enabled her to keep abreast of current conditions. She knew that the new Thallonian Protectorate had fallen into disarray, people choosing up sides in an all-consuming battle between the House of Cwan and the House of Fhermus and their respective allies.
"I suppose it is possible," the tribune said. He regarded her askance. "Do you still blame yourself for it? For the war?"
"I never 'blamed' myself, Tribune," she corrected him. "What I said at one point was that I wondered if I wasn't partly responsible. From what we understand, the entire mess is somehow related to Kalinda, sister of Si Cwan, and her lover, Tiraud, son of Fhermus. And I was the one who informed Xyon, Kalinda's former paramour, that she and Tiraud were to be wed. Xyon acted as if that news meant nothing to him, but now I'm wondering what chain of events he may have triggered."
"From what we're hearing, Legate, Tiraud is dead. Killed on his wedding night by Kalinda herself."
"Yes, I know, but I don't believe that," said Soleta, shaking her head firmly. "It makes no sense at all. What does make sense to me . . ."
"Is that Xyon killed him?"
Now Soleta nodded. "Yes. Exactly. I think Xyon killed him, Kalinda is covering for him, and Xyon's father, Mackenzie Calhoun, is rushing in with the Excalibur to try and salvage the situation."
"But what does any of that have to do with Priatia?"
Soleta opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. She scratched her chin thoughtfully, and then said, "I have absolutely no idea." She paused and then looked puckishly at Lucius. "Perhaps we should try to find out?"
"Are you suggesting, Legate, that we head out after the Excalibur and see precisely what they are up to?"
"I see little point to sitting here and accomplishing nothing. Perhaps the Excalibur is involved in something that could affect Romulan interests."
The tribune did not reply immediately. She waited for him to respond, and when he did not, she prompted him with "Is there something on your mind, Tribune?"
"The Excalibur was your former assignment, before you joined the Romulan Empire," said Lucius. "So it is natural to wonder "
"Whether I'm motivated less by my loyalty to the Romulan Empire, and more by some leftover sense of being beholden to Captain Calhoun?"
"It had crossed my mind," he admitted. "I should point out, Legate, that my personal musings are merely that and no more, and will not impact in the slightest upon my obedience."
"Ah, but will it impact on your ever-valuable opinion of me?"
He shrugged, feigning indifference. Or perhaps it was no feint, and he simply didn't give a damn.
"The ultimate purpose of this vessel, Tribune, is as a spy vessel. It is not a 'sit around and await orders' vessel. So . . . we might as well find something to spy on. And Captain Calhoun is as good a something as any."
"Shall we set course for Priatia, then?"
"I think we shall."
He bowed and saluted. "As you command, Legate, so shall it be done."
She watched as he walked toward the door. "And Tribune . . . you are aware I was just joking about having sex. Right?"
"As with matters of respect, Legate . . . I could never be lovers with someone if I did not think they could kill me."
She stared at him. "You're a very twisted individual, Tribune."
"I simply have my standards, Legate," he replied, and headed off to the bridge to carry out his commanding officer's orders.
("Captain!" Kebron shouted. "Sensor readings indicate massive tachyon surge directly to starboard!"
They had a clear view of something gargantuan swirling in space, like a massive whirlpool of energy. Energy crackled as if the very ether itself had come to life, and then it spit out a huge vessel the likes of which Calhoun had never seen.
"That's it!" Xyon shouted, pointing at the screen. "That's the ship that came after me! The one that took Kalinda!"
"Doesn't look like any mirage to me," said Calhoun. "Red alert! Morgan, shields up! Kebron, full phaser batteries online!"
The new arrival swatted them.
That was what it felt like, at least. Something, some sort of energy barrage, slammed into them just as their shields came up. The shields withstood the impact, preventing the Excalibur from being shredded, but they weren't sufficient to stop the ship from spiraling out of control, as if the far larger vessel had simply reached through space and knocked them aside.
Throughout the ship, crew members were hurled this way and that, slammed into walls, ceilings. No one knew which way was up or down.
The whirlpool of energy coruscated on the screen directly in front of them, and Tania Tobias was shrieking, and Morgan was calling out, "We're out of control!" as if that needed to be said, and Xyon was shouting Kalinda's name, and that was when a tumbling Calhoun struck his head on a railing. The world began to spiral into blackness from the impact, and the last thing he heard before blackness claimed him was the apologetic voice of Keesala saying over the still active com link, "Please understand that we have nothing but the highest regard for you. Unfortunately, it appears you've gotten in the way." And then came another voice, at the last possible moment, also filtered, shouting his name, and it sounded like Soleta of all people, but she was gone, long gone, another failure of which this new incident was only his latest and possibly his last . . .
And then the world went dark and he was gone.
Seconds later, so was the Excalibur . . . )
Soleta was on the bridge of the Spectre when they drew within range of the Excalibur. The starship had fallen into orbit around Priatia. Her gaze riveted to the viewscreen, she felt a curious tugging at her heart that was not remotely in keeping with the sort of attitude she felt she should have toward her former vessel. The bridge of the Spectre was remarkably cramped in comparison with a Federation starship bridge. Instead of the commander's chair being in the center of it, Soleta's chair was on a raised structure in the back, enabling her to look down upon the entire bridge in one sweeping view.
"Keep your distance, Centurion," she told her helmsman, an extremely capable young pilot named Aquila who possessed a brashness Soleta found surprisingly refreshing.
"I hope you're not concerned about detection, Commander," said Praefect Vitus from the tactical station. Gruff and aggressive, he was all for throwing the Spectre into any manner of challenges, confident in the ability of his ship to prevail. "The stealth capability of this ship is second to none in the galaxy."
"That's as may be, Vitus," replied Soleta. "But I can tell you from personal experience that Mackenzie Calhoun has almost a sixth sense for danger that borders on the supernatural. I have absolutely no interest in doing anything that could possibly trigger it." She turned to the com officer. "Maurus . . . are they talking to the planet's surface?"
"Yes, Commander," said Centurion Maurus. "But it's scrambled. It'll take me a few minutes to punch through and tap into the frequency."
"Keep at it," she said. "I want to know what they're saying."
"You used to be the science officer on that vessel, Commander," pointed out Lucius. "Perhaps you have some insight that can expedite the process . . ."
Soleta shook her head. "The frequencies are stacked on a random-oscillation variable," she told him. "Makes it harder to listen in. And since it's random, your guess is, quite frankly, as good as mine. It'll be as much luck as anything else if Maurus is able to listen in."
"I don't need luck, Commander," Maurus said confidently. "My skill will suffice."
"Your confidence is appreciated, Centurion," she replied. "Make certain to "
"Commander!" It was Vitus who had called out to her. He was far too veteran an officer to show fear or even be disconcerted. But the concern in his voice was obvious. "I'm detecting a tachyon spike . . ."
Soleta was immediately out of her seat and at Vitus's side. She had too much of the old science officer instincts in her to just sit about while someone else did the analysis. If it irritated Vitus, he gave no indication. She studied the readings, feeling not for the first time that Starfleet equipment was superior to what the Romulans had to offer. Still, this was sufficient.
"Something's forming out there," she said after a few moments. She looked up at the screen. "Something big. Helm, bring us back another five thousand klicks. Maurus, forget about trying to eavesdrop. Open up a direct channel to the Excalibur."
It was a frozen moment on the bridge as all eyes turned to Soleta. "Commander," said Lucius slowly, "are you suggesting we drop stealth . . . ?"
"I am suggesting nothing, Tribune. I am ordering a direct channel to the Excalibur. Centurion Maurus, why don't I have it yet?"
"Hailing the Excalibur, Commander," Maurus said stiffly.
Soleta turned and was surprised to see that Lucius was standing right there, barely half a foot away from her. In a low tone that suggested burning anger and suspicion, he said, "With all respect, Commander, this is a breach of proto "
She cut him off. "If something happens to the Excalibur, I want to find out who the hell they were talking to. I want to know what's going on, and if that means "
That was when the sounds of chaos came over the com unit. Maurus made no attempt to hide his surprised reaction as a cacophony of barely controlled pandemonium filtered through the Spectre.
She heard a woman screaming, and shouted reports coming from all over the bridge. Voices that she knew, although it was as if she were recognizing them from a lifetime ago. Before she could focus on it, try to discern what everyone was saying, Praefect Vitus was calling out with a measure of alarm that matched what was happening on the Excalibur bridge. "Commander, tachyon readings off the scale! Something's forming in front of us . . . something huge. It's . . . a vessel, Commander!"
"On screen!" called out Soleta, but it was already appearing on the monitor even as she ordered it. Her eyes widened as she said, "It's too big. Reduce image size so I can see it more clearly!"
"That is with image size reduced," Vitus said. At helm, Aquila audibly gulped.
"Back us up another ten thousand klicks, Aquila," Soleta said evenly.
The Spectre promptly moved even farther away from the debacle that was unfolding before it, and Soleta was finally able to get a clearer view of what they were dealing with.
The design was completely asymmetrical, which made it look like no other vessel Soleta had ever seen. It was almost as if the various parts of it had been stuck together haphazardly, a series of tubes affixed to pulsing globes. It resembled the model of a gigantic molecule.
It loomed before the Excalibur, looking ten times as big. Energy was crackling around it, and suddenly something huge, swirling rippled into existence in front of the embattled starship. They were clearly trying to hold their position, but some sort of monstrous forces were exerting themselves upon the ship, dragging it forward despite its best efforts.
"Calhoun!" Soleta shouted, the name bursting from her almost against her volition. The outburst prompted glances from her bridge crew, and she could see the suspicion in Vitus's eyes, but she ignored them.
It was hard for her to discern whether what she was seeing was genuine, or some bizarre trick of light, a distortion unrelated to reality. But it seemed to her that the Excalibur was actually twisting back upon itself, bending around as if it were made from rubber. Unimaginable energies had taken hold of it, swirling around the ship like some sort of cosmic sinkhole. It bore a resemblance to transwarp conduits such as she had seen the Borg use, but it was different, and the energy readings she saw on Vitus's board didn't match up precisely either. This was something different, with molecular-contortion capabilities that were unlike anything she'd seen.
It was no doubt a trick of perspective, but the Excalibur appeared to get smaller, smaller. It seemed to take an excruciatingly long time instead of the seconds it truly required, and then the energy wheel for such did it look like to Soleta spun in and upon itself and vanished. She thought she saw a brief little burst of energy that might have been the Excalibur right before it disappeared, but she couldn't say for sure.
And then it was gone.
"What in the name of the Praetor is that thing?" whispered Aquila.
"I don't know," said Soleta. "But I'd very much appreciate, Vitus, some hard information so we can answer Aquila's very reasonable question."
"It's not there," said Vitus.
"What?" She turned to him, her face a question. "Are you saying it's a mirage?"
"I'm saying that whatever's there, our sensors aren't picking it up," Vitus told her. "All I've got is the residue of the tachyon emissions, but that was likely generated by whatever that rip in space was. I'm telling you, Commander, that thing . . . it's almost as if it's fake. An illusion."
"Care to bet our lives on it?" asked Soleta.
He met her gaze without wavering. "Absolutely."
"All right. Arm weapons. Drop cloak. Prepare to fire."
Lucius approached her and stepped in close. "With all respect, Commander, what's the point of this exercise? We're designed for observation, not for battle . . ."
"If that thing is truly what it appears to be, then it poses a threat to the Romulan Empire...to say nothing of everyone else I can think of," Soleta said. "Determining the nature of potential threats falls well within our purview. Wouldn't you agree, Tribune?"
Lucius nodded. "A valid point, Commander."
"Thank you. Vitus . . . ?"
"We've decloaked and are awaiting your order to fire, Commander. But without sensor lock, I don't have a confirmed target."
"Praefect, it's only slightly smaller than a planet. Do you need me to come over and aim for you?"
"No, Commander," he said stiffly.
"Excellent. Best guess, then. And . . . fire!"
The Spectre's weaponry cut loose, torpedoes lancing through space and hurtling directly at the ship. Soleta watched intently, waiting to see if they would pass through the ship harmlessly, as would be expected if it was truly just a gigantic illusion.
The torpedoes struck hard against the vessel and then dissipated.
"All right. We have a problem," said Soleta.
"Commander," Aquila said, clearly working hard to control the concern in his voice. "I . . . think we've gotten their attention."
"Now we have an even bigger problem."
Aquila was right. The gargantuan vessel had simply been stationary in space, but now it was turning on some vast, unseen axis and was starting slowly but determinedly toward the Spectre.
"Helm, plot us a course toward the Neutral Zone. Go to cloak, Vitus," said Soleta, feeling that that moment wasn't the best time to throw Vitus's misplaced confidence back in his face. "Run us silent."
Vitus nodded, cloaking the ship and engaging the ion glide so that the Spectre like the ghostly images its name suggested would be undetectable by any measure known to modern science.
Seconds later the Spectre angled away, cloaked in invisibility and silence. The vast ship started to dwindle in their sights, and then . . .
"Commander! They've opened fire on us !" Vitus shouted.
He barely had enough time to get the warning out before the ship was struck by twin energy blasts that had ripped out from the underside of the much larger ship. Soleta could not remember a time when she'd been in a ship that had been hit that hard, and that counted attacks from the Borg. The Spectre spun around, completely out of control, tumbling through space. Soleta's feet left the floor as she was sent sailing through the air, crashing hard against her command chair. Those who had been seated managed to remain where they were, but just barely. Something slammed into Soleta, and it took her a moment to realize it was Lucius. He muttered an apology and pulled himself off her.
Alarm klaxons went off all over the ship, and damage reports flooded in from all sections. "Vitus! Shields?" Soleta called.
"Holding, but just barely!"
"Full warp speed !"
"Commander, if we drop ion glide and go to full warp, they'll be able to detect us "
"Use your eyes, Praefect! They found us just fine even with the silent drive! Now do as I say!"
Still cloaked, the Spectre's warp engines came online. Time and space bent around it as the Spectre threw itself into warp in a desperate attempt to put some distance between itself and its menacing attacker.
"Here it comes," Aquila said grimly.
He was right. The ship was moving in pursuit of the Spectre. Not only was it keeping pace with no discernible effort, but it was beginning to close in. "We need more speed," Lucius snapped at Aquila.
"We're already at maximum!"
"Concentrate all remaining deflector power to rear shields," Soleta ordered, "and all remaining available energy, reroute in the engine."
"It won't be enough," Vitus called out. "We could stand and fight . . ."
"And get slaughtered," Soleta said with conviction. "Maintain speed."
For a good long time after that, nothing was said. The bridge crew of the Spectre watched with intense fascination as the larger ship continued to pursue them. It drew closer and closer with a sort of steady implacability.
"I wonder why it hasn't fired at us?" said Lucius.
"I don't know," Soleta said. "But we're not exactly in a position to question our good fortune."
Closer it came, and nearer still, and Soleta fancied she could practically feel them breathing down her neck. She toyed with the idea of trying to open a hailing frequency, to perhaps talk terms of surrender. But she discarded the notion before it even had time to solidify in her thoughts. There would be no discussion of the Spectre being captured. She would be letting down the Praetor, her crew, and herself. Mackenzie Calhoun would never have entertained surrender options, and she would do no less.
The pursuing ship filled the entirety of their screen. Soleta felt as if their whole universe had been reduced to that ship. That there was nothing in all of existence except that vessel and them. "Aquila," she said very softly, as the ship loomed behind them and she braced herself for the inevitable discharge of their weapons. "How far until the Neutral Zone?"
"Three hours, twenty-seven minutes," he replied with a sense of inevitability, knowing as she did that it was hopeless. They would never get within sufficient range of home to expect to encounter other Romulan ships that might be able to aid them. That was probably a good thing. Considering how formidable their pursuer was, the chances were that anyone who did attempt to help them would suffer the same fate.
"Very well. Prepare to jettison my log at the first sign of "
"They're breaking off."
It had been Vitus who had spoken, and he sounded appropriately disbelieving. Soleta couldn't quite accept it either. She approached him, resting her hands on his tactical board. "Are you sure?"
"They're slowing," he said. "That much is definite. And I believe they're beginning to change course."
"Are you detecting any weapons activity?"
They watched in stunned disbelief, afraid to accept their own good fortune. Vitus was right. It was becoming more evident on the screen that the pursuing ship was slowing down and veering off, allowing the Romulan vessel to depart without so much as another shot being fired.
"But . . . I don't understand," said Maurus. "They had us. Why would they not finish us?"
"Isn't it obvious?" declared Vitus, his voice swelling with pride.
"Enlighten us, Vitus," said Soleta.
"Why . . . they're afraid of us, of course," he said. "They do not know for certain our capabilities, and have decided that pursuing us could possibly lead to their destruction."
"An interesting thought," she said, "and I might be inclined to accept it if no other explanation presented itself. Unfortunately, one does."
"And what would that be?"
She watched the screen grimly as the bizarre vessel swerved away from them, executed a large, leisurely U-turn, and headed back the way it came. "They let us go . . . because they're completely unafraid of us. We pose no threat to them whatsoever. That this pursuit was a warning to stay away, and they didn't obliterate us . . . because we simply weren't worth the bother."
There was quiet in the bridge for a long moment as the significance of her words sank in. She knew that Romulans were a proud race. Her crew would probably rather be blown to bits by a superior enemy than face the knowledge that they weren't considered enough of a threat to be dispensed with.
"Commander," said Lucius, "if what you suggest is true . . . then this new race, this ship . . . presents a vast danger to the Romulan Empire, should it eventually decide to spread its interests in our direction."
"I don't disagree, Tribune."
"We have to find a way to fight them."
"Not necessarily," said Soleta. She sat down in her command chair, drumming the armrest with her fingers thoughtfully.
"We cannot shrink away from responsibility for the security of the Empire!"
"I wasn't suggesting we do, Tribune. However, in war it can often be useful to let a cat's-paw do your fighting for you, at least in the beginning. Then you can measure their success against your opponent, charting their successes and failures and learning without having to shed a drop of your own blood."
"You're saying," said Lucius, "that we should arrange for someone else to fight them?"
"I was thinking . . . Starfleet."
"And how would you go about arranging that?" he asked.
"It would not be all that much of a chore," she said. "Maurus . . . I assume you have a recording of the apparent demise of the Excalibur?"
"Of course, Commander."
"Good," she said. "Prepare to attach it to a blind communiqué. If the recipient knows it's from us, that will cause greater distrust in its authenticity. But sent anonymously through subspace channels, it will be judged solely on the information itself. Can you do that for me, Maurus?"
"Of course, Commander. And the recipient would be . . . ?"
"Admiral Elizabeth Paula Shelby," she said. "Commanding officer of Bravo Station . . . and, for all we know, the newly minted widow of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun." Copyright ©2006 by Paramount Pictures
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*I turn around* "Oh, hello" *I turn back to the desert*