An insidious plot for revenge has spanned several years in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, but how did this merciless vendetta get started? Like a double helix curling back on itself, the final answer lies at the very beginning...
A series of terrorist attacks have heightened tensions between two alien races, bringing an entire sector to the brink of interplanetary war. While Picard, captain of the U.S.S. Stargazer, struggles to keep the peace, Lieutenant Commander Jack Crusher must team up with a Vulcan officer named Tuvok to uncover the hidden architect of the attacks, but the outcome of their quest would breed dire consequences for the future.
About the Author
New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Christie Golden has written more than forty novels and several short stories in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Among her many projects are over a dozen Star Trek novels and several original fantasy novels. An avid player of World of Warcraft, she has written two manga short stories and several novels in that world. Golden lives in Tennessee. She welcomes visitors to her website: ChristieGolden.com.
Read an Excerpt
Thul entered the Reggana city tavern by one of its several revolving doors, his Thallonian commoner's clothes and attached hood uncomfortably rough against his skin.
The place was loud with jangling music and crowded with a surprising number of aliens. Squinting to see through the dim lighting and the acch'ta smoke, he took a look around.
At first, he couldn't find the one he was looking for. Then he heard a familiar laugh and traced it to its owner -- a tall, lean Thallonian youth with an antic sparkle in his eyes and a mouth that seemed ready to break into a grin at any moment. He had clearly had too much to drink.
His companion was an Indarrhi of about the same age. Like most every member of his species, the fellow was slender and as dark as carbon, with deepset silver eyes, a fleecy mop of silver-white hair, and three thick fingers on either hand.
The Indarrhi also had rudimentary empathic powers. Or so it was said of them in the empire.
Spotting an unoccupied table, the governor pulled out a chair and sat down. Then he sat back and watched the Thallonian and the Indarrhi.
"Drink?" asked a gruff but feminine voice.
Thul turned and looked up at a triangular face with a single bifocal eye in the middle of its leathery forehead. A Banyanan, he mused. And this one had even fewer manners than most.
He considered the question that had been posed to him. "Thallonian ale," he decided. "Room temperature."
The waitress grunted. "Room temperature." She sneered, as if it were not very likely his request would be met. Then she turned her angular body sideways and made her way back through the crowd.
Halfway to the bar, she passed the young Thallonian. Winking at the Indarrhi, he grabbed the Banyanan around the waist and drew her to him. But the waitress was stronger than she looked. With a push, she freed herself and continued on her way.
It didn't anger the youth in the least. In fact, it might have been a game he had played with the female before. Laughing out loud, he clapped his companion on the back and lifted a mug to his lips.
The contents, a frothy liquid as dark and scarlet as blood, dripped down the youth's chin and spattered the table below. Wiping himself with the back of his hand, he swung his arm around the Indarrhi's shoulders and whispered something into his friend's rounded ear.
Yes, Thul thought disapprovingly. The Thallonian had definitely had too much to drink.
Suddenly, the youth thrust the Indarrhi away and laughed even more loudly. His companion smiled, appearing to enjoy the joke -- but not with the fervor of the Thallonian. The governor frowned.
The youth was a misfit -- an embarrassment to his species. Whoever had raised him had done a stunningly bad job of imparting Thallonian manners to him. Were it not for his ruddy skin and his size, one might have wondered if he was Thallonian at all.
"Thallonian ale," said a by-now familiar voice.
Thul glanced at the serving woman as she put his drink in front of him. Then he reached into his pocket and produced an imperial disc. "This should be enough," he said.
The Banyanan eyed it, then plucked it from the governor's hand. "It should at that," she responded. Then, with her overly generous payment in hand, she disappeared again.
With the waitress gone, Thul returned his attention to the youth. He was just in time to see the fellow thrust his leg out in the path of a green-skinned Orion trader.
The Orion, who had a mug in his hand, never saw the danger. With a curse, he tripped on the Thallonian's foot and went flying. So did his drink -- into the lap of another Thallonian, a brawny specimen with a sear across the bridge of his nose.
Outraged, the victim rose from his seat and seized the Orion's shirtfront in his fists. With a surge of his powerful muscles, he lifted the trader off the floor.
"Orion scum," he spat.
Releasing the trader with one hand, the Thallonian drew it back and struck the Orion in the face. Thul heard a resounding crack as the trader's head snapped back. A moment later, it lolled on the Orion's shoulder, and the Thallonian let him drop to the floor.
When the trader woke, the governor mused, he would have a headache. A rather considerable headache.
"Damn you!" bellowed the youth, leaping to his feet "That was my friend you hit!"
The Thallonian with the scar glanced at him warily. "The fool spilled his drink in my lap!"
"Only because you tripped him with your big, clumsy feet!" the youth roared at him.
It was anything but the truth, Thul noted inwardly. But, of course, the fellow with the scar had no way of knowing that, and neither did anyone else in the establishment.
"Who are you calling clumsy?" the man with the sear snarled.
"You!" the youth snarled back. "Why? What are you going to do about it, you bulging sack of excrement?"
The older man's eyes popped and his hand went to his hip. "Sack of excrement, is it?" With a flash of metal, he slid a blade out of its scabbard. "How would you like me to cut your tongue out and shove it down your scrawny throat?"
The youth grinned as he whipped his own sword free. "I would like to see you try!" he shot back.
Seeing what was about to take place, the other patrons cleared a space for the two antagonists. The Orion, who was allegedly the cause of the youth's indignation, was the only one who remained in the vicinity -- and that was only because he was still unconscious.
The governor sighed. The youth's behavior was worse than embarrassing. It was despicable. He had actually gone out of his way to pick a fight with an innocent man.
Still, Thul didn't do anything to stop the impending combat. He just sat there like everyone else in the tavern, drinking his ale and wondering who the victor would be.
"Serpent!" boomed the Thallonian with the scar.
"Rodent!" came the youth's reply.
Suddenly, they were at each other, their swords clashing in a blurry web of bright metal. The scarred one thrust and the youth parried it. The youth countered and the scarred man knocked his sword away.
Back and forth they went, knocking tables and chairs aside, slashing away at each other with wild abandon. The scarred one was stronger and steadier, but the youth seemed more skilled. In time, the governor mused, skill was likelier to win out.
His theory was borne out a few moments later. The scarred man saw an opening and brought his sword down at his adversary's head, but what seemed to be an opening turned out to be a trap. The youth sidestepped the blow, then swung his blade at his opponent's shoulder.
The metal cut deeply, eliciting a spray of blood and a cry of pain from the scarred one. Then his enemy struck again, battering the sword from the scarred one's nerveless fingers.
The older man stood there, waiting for the deathstroke that did not come. Instead, the youth smiled and knelt beside the Orion, who had been all but forgotten in the melee.
Some of those present might have expected the youth to drag the trader to his feet, since he had claimed the fellow as his friend. But he didn't do that at all. He merely used the Orion's tunic to wipe his blade clean.
Finally, he stood up again and addressed the scarred one. "Next time," he said grimly, "be careful whose wine you catch in your lap." Then he tossed his head back and howled with laughter until the rafters rang with it.
The scarred man, who was clutching his wounded shoulder, just glared at his adversary. He glanced at the sword he had left lying on the floor, no doubt wondering if he might have a chance at revenge if he moved quickly enough. But in the end, he thought better of it and slunk away.
Remarkable, Thul reflected sourly. The youth had made an art form of arrogance and braggadocio.
Downing the remainder of his ale, the governor got to his feet and crossed the room. When he was halfway to the swordsman, the Indarrhi took note of him and said something.
The youth turned to cast a glance at the governor over his shoulder, his eyes intense in the hollows of their sockets. At the same time, his hand wandered to the hilt of his weapon.
Thul stopped in front of him. For a moment, the youth seemed ready to gut the older man where he stood. Then the governor tossed his hood back, revealing his identity.
Slowly, the fire in the swordsman's eyes dimmed. His features softened and his hand left his hilt. "Father," he said, humor and surprise mingled in his voice -- along with something like distrust.
Thul gazed at him. "Strong drink does not agree with you. You have looked better, Mendan."
The youth grunted scornfully and cast a sidelong glance at his companion. "Have I really?"
"And you have exhibited better manners," the governor went on, unperturbed. "Was it really necessary to create a scene? To wound an innocent man? And all to prove your valor for the hundredth time?"
His son sneered at him. "Among Thallonians, is the first virtue not courage? And are you not the one who taught me that, before I was old enough to eat with a fork?"
Thul nodded. "I did," he conceded. "But one truly confident of his courage does not pick fights to demonstrate it. He knows life will give him plenty of opportunities to show how brave he is."
The youth shot a conspiratorial look at his companion, the Indarrhi. "You see how it is, Wyl? The man is a font of wisdom." Then he turned back to the governor. "I will try my best to remember what you've taught me, Father. I have always tried to remember what you taught me...even if I am only your bastard."
Thul shook his head, knowing Mendan had no intention of remembering anything. "You are my son...the son of a high-ranking Thallonian official. It would be a pleasant surprise if you acted accordingly."
Mendan eyed him. "Why have you come slumming, Father? Do you know how far you are from anything resembling the imperial court?"
Thul's hands clenched into fists at the thought of what had happened at court. With an effort, he unclenched them. "I have come," he said, "because I have a mission for you -- one that cries out for a man who can navigate the underside of society."
The youth's eyes opened wide. "So, naturally, you thought of me. Mendan Abbis, the benighted product of a drunken revel twenty-two years ago. And you dare lecture me about making merry!"
"If you perform this mission," the governor continued evenly, "you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams."
That seemed to get his son's attention. "My dreams may be wilder than you think," he said warily.
"I doubt it," Thul said with the utmost confidence.
He leaned closer, grasping the back of his son's chair. "If all goes well, Mendan, you will become the crown prince of a brand-new empire."
The bastard looked at him. "You're joking."
The governor shook his head. "I'm not."
Mendan considered the answer for a moment. Then he said, "Let's talk," and pulled over an empty chair.
"Outside," Thul insisted.
The youth gestured for the Indarrhi to come along. Then he got up and led the way out of the tavern.
The alley outside was cold and wet, but it had the very important virtue of being private. Thul pulled up his hood against the weather and watched wisps of white steam emerge from his son's mouth.
"Well?" Mendan asked, his eyes alive with curiosity. "How do you intend to make me heir to an empire? And why would that pompous windbag Tae Cwan allow such a thing to take place?"
The governor glanced at the Indarrhi. "He can be trusted?"
The boy nodded. "With our lives. Now answer my question."
Thul's jaw clenched at his son's audacity. Clearly, Mendan had a lot to learn. "Why would Tae Cwan tolerate the formation of an empire that would rival his own?" the governor asked. He didn't wait for an answer. "He wouldn't -- if he knew about it."
The bastard's mouth pulled up at the corners. I see."
"I won't lie to you," said the governor. "It won't be easy to keep this from the emperor. And there are a number of other problems as well...which may not loom quite so large if you are successful at your task."
"My...task?" Mendan echoed.
Thul shrugged. "Did you think it would all be placed in your lap?"
His son shook his head. "I suppose not."
The governor imparted the most basic details of his plan. It didn't take him long -- only a few minutes. When he was finished, he eyed Mendan and waited for his reaction.
The bastard seemed hesitant. "Why should I trust you?" he asked his father. "You've never spoken to me this way before, like an equal instead of an inferior."
"An oversight for which I apologize," Thul told him. "Before, I was blinded by ambition. Now, my eyesight is a little sharper -- and I see more clearly who is important to me and who is not."
Mendan's eyes narrowed as he considered the proposition. Finally, he nodded. "All right. What do you want me to do?"
The governor told him.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Stargazer was looking forward to a most rewarding day.
His vessel was about to become the first to conduct an in-depth study of the long-vanished civilization of Zebros IV, in the Archaidae sector. Briefly charted about six years before and ignored ever since, the planet was reported at the time to have little to offer in terms of either strategic importance or natural resources.
The only entry, made by one Captain Philip Terrance, was a brief, almost disparaging comment. "The ruins on this world," it said, "are testament to the fact that this was once a thriving society."
But nothing more...nothing to whet the appetite of the Federation Council. That was why it had waited such a ridiculously long time to authorize a proper exploration of the place.
To each his own, Picard reflected, as he stepped onto his ship's raised transporter pad in his Starfleet-issue envirosuit, his helmet in hand. The few images taken by Terrance's vessel might not have inspired Terrance himself or the council, but they were enough to make the Stargazer captain's heart beat a little faster.
And the fact that the Federation had chosen to ignore Zebros IV for so long? That was quite all right as far as Picard was concerned. He and his crew would have an even better excuse to pick through the ruins at their leisure, as the first sentient beings in a millennium or more to handle long-buried examples of Zebrosian art and architecture.
But then, wasn't time one of the perquisites of lengthy deep-space missions like the Stargazer's? If Picard and his people were really fortunate, they might even discover some bit of information that would cure a disease or enhance a Federation technology.
But even if they didn't, Picard thought, even if all they did was gain an appreciation of Zebrosian culture, that would be all right. He would still be perfectly content with the result.
After all, he had been in love with archaeology for a long time now. Since his days at the Academy, actually. And that love hadn't dimmed in all the years that had gone by since.
Yes, the captain thought, donning his helmet and locking it into place, it would be a rewarding day indeed. And eventually, if Zebros IV was as intriguing as it appeared, it might be a wonderful month. It was difficult not to smile at the prospect, but he managed.
His away team, he noticed, was less circumspect about its enthusiasm than he was. Tall, gangly Lieutenant Cabrini, for example, was grinning almost ear to ear in the transparent dome of his helmet, and dark-skinned Lieutenant M'ketwa was chuckling with pleasure. Ensigns Kirby and Moore looked -- and acted, Picard thought with a bit of a frown -- like Academy cadets on leave as they joined him on the transporter platform.
"I realize today's mission will be of extraordinary interest to all of us," the captain told them, his voice muffled slightly by the confines of his helmet, "but let us conduct ourselves as scientists and not as schoolchildren, shall we?"
They sobered up at once, causing Picard to regret the sharpness of his words. These were some of the brightest and most eager young people Picard had ever had the privilege of working with. Of course they were excited. They relished the opportunity to get at those ruins, just as he did.
After all," he added on impulse, "scientists are not compelled to come in from recess."
His quip was rewarded with a surprised but pleased smile from Ensign Kirby as they dematerialized.
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