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Star Trek: In the Shadows by Travis Anderson

Chapter One

On the planet Aldus, a Class K adaptable world near Terra Nova, one of the Federation's most secure sites was built amongst the pressure domes and tunnels of the installation. Memory Alpha stood as a repository from all of the accumulated knowledge of the Federation's member planets. The planet, fifth from its native star, was cool enough to insure the electronic machines that accessed and surfed the digital memory wouldn't overheat.

The life support requirements on Aldus were actually less arduous than those of a starship. Aldus had an atmosphere, one the terraforming processors were gradually converting into something most humanoids could breathe. But until then, those tending to Memory Alpha had the domes.

Memory Alpha itself was built into a cave network. Surrounding the site were shield generators and defensive phaser banks. The planet's atmosphere, thin as it was, still prohibited the use of surface launched photon torpedoes. Still, this single facility had a defensive posture and emergency energy reserves and rations worthy of a planet such as Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, Andoria, or the numerous populated worlds of the Rigel system. In short, it would take the destruction of all surface life and dwellings to penetrate Memory Alpha's defense grid.

Lt. Commander Mira Romaine sat in her office and took a break from her current project. She'd been at Memory Alpha for three years now and had risen to the Assistant Chief Archivist's position. As such, she was tasked to head up a special delegation of Memory Alpha scholars that were headed into the Romulan Star Empire.

No Federation representatives had ever traveled to Romulus. The United Federation of Planets didn't even have normal diplomatic relations with the Star Empire. Contact between the two governments was reserved for deep space communications and the rare exchanges occurred in the Neutral Zone.

Romaine smirked to herself. At least exchanges took place in the Neutral Zone if one ignored the USS Enterprise's incursion into Romulan space to steal a cloaking device. While that incident was recorded in Memory Alpha, access was highly restricted.

Romaine understood that Admiral James T. Kirk had been temporarily reduced in rank to Acting Captain and was now taking the Enterprise out for a second five year mission. Having briefly been a part of his first five year assignment, Romaine was pleased for Kirk.

She was even happier for Commander Montgomery Scott. The Enterprise's Chief Engineer had refit and redesigned his beloved starship from the keel up. Its performance against V'Ger had been unparalleled in the history of the Federation.

Romaine was especially pleased with the outcome of that incident since the V'Ger crisis that had gripped known space was the provocation that had prompted the Romulans to extend this invitation for her and her specialists to travel inside of the Star Empire. Without V'Ger, this opportunity would never have arisen. And this opportunity would allow Starfleet to get a few concrete answers out of the normally secretive Romulans.

It was known that V'Ger had penetrated Klingon space. A Starfleet listening post had recorded the Klingon Defense Force's futile attack against V'Ger. A few short hours later, the listening post was also converted into a digital footprint and stored within V'Ger's vast archive of the galaxy.

As an archivist, Romaine drooled at the thought of the knowledge V'Ger stored. She thought it a bloody shame that the entity had passed beyond this plane of existence. The sheer loss of scientific knowledge was incalculable. However, the Enterprise crew's own encounter with the existence of the co-called "Mirror Universe" brought hope to Romaine that one day V'Ger would be encountered again if only in a different quantum universe.

Romaine's desk comm chimed. The ID stated that is was Petty Officer 3rd Class Molly Standish. Standish had been Romaine's yeoman since she'd been booted upstairs into the Assistant Chief Archivist's chair. Standish was pleasant enough to work with and she'd already mapped out most of her boss' preferences and quirks.

"Yes, Molly?" Romaine inquired.

"There's a Lt. Commander Mercy Knight to see you," Standish informed her. And then, she almost conspiratorially added, "She's from Starfleet Intelligence."

Romaine grinned at Standish's dramatic presentation. Standish was a romantic at heart. She saw everything in broad strokes with heroic moments to be found at every turn.

"Send her in," Romaine replied.

While Romaine waited for Commander Knight to clear the Standish hurdle, she idly wondered what color of uniform Starfleet Intelligence officers were wearing these days. She hadn't kept abreast of all the departmental color changes when Starfleet adopted new uniforms the year before. While Romaine was more than happy to ditch the mini-dress, she largely regarded her current togs as "pajamas with a purpose".

Romaine wore the powder blue of the Sciences Division. Her old mini-dress had also been blue, so there was little change in the base color. Only the tint had been altered. Operations Division personnel underwent a massive change though. Instead of red tunics or dresses, they now wore a beige colored set of "pajamas". Engineering, Operations, and Security officers all wore the newly assigned color.

Of course, Romaine had met Starfleet Intelligence analysts that retained their blue uniforms while the field agents had worn Security red. She supposed it made sense to wear the red garb since Starfleet Intelligence was nominally a branch of Starfleet Security. But now, those same people would be decked out in boring old beige. It had to be something of a culture shock after wearing bright red day in and day out.

Commander Knight waited a moment after the door "shooshed" open. Romaine was impressed by this act of courtesy. It would make what she was about to say come out a little harder. But only slightly.

Commander Knight wore the expectant beige which marked her as a field agent. She wore a ready smile and her eyes were eager with anticipation. Romaine thought she'd better kill any and all expectations right off the get go.

"Whatever you're here to recruit me and my team for, it isn't happening," Romaine declared forcefully.

"Recruit?" Knight asked mirthfully, "Recruit can be such a naughty word. I prefer to think of it as I'm providing you with an opportunity."

"I already have an opportunity. I'm going to Romulus for an information exchange. I'm not interested in skullduggery," Romaine asserted.

"Mmm," Knight pursed her lips and seriously studied Romaine. Romaine found it a little unnerving until Knight spoke again, "Actually, I think you're dying to undertake a little skullduggery."

"What part of 'no' aren't you understanding?" Romaine retorted.

"That whole galaxy between the 'N' and the 'O'," Knight quipped, "There's a lot of play between them."

It was Romaine's turn to scrutinize Knight. They could have been sisters the physical resemblance was so sharp. Knight's skeletal structure was a little slighter than the average woman her size. Romaine had the same feature. It came from being raised on Mars.

Whether or not Knight was a Martian settler, and the inflection in her voice strongly suggested that she was, she was either incredibly dense or overly confident. Romaine was betting on both being true, "Look Commander, Starfleet has offered me everything but a command of my own to undertake some espionage work while on Romulus. I turned the brass down, why would I listen to a mere Lt. Commander? No offense."

Knight grinned, "None taken. May I have seat at long last or am I going to be standing here the whole time?"

"Grab a chair but don't get comfortable," Romaine shot back.

Knight settled in and her eyes practically glittered with excitement, "I can offer you the one thing everyone else neglected."

"And what is that?" Romaine dryly inquired.

"The truth," Knight said bluntly.

Romaine waited and finally she asked, "Are going to elaborate while we're still in the 23rd century or do I have to guess my way to this supposed truth?"

"I just wanted to see if you were interested enough to ask," Knight shared humorously, "You are, so I will."

"I'm dying from all my laughter," Romaine deadpanned, "Are getting anywhere near a point?"

"Do you have any idea of the true impact of the Romulan Star Empire developing cloaking devices?" Knight wondered.

"Well, the incident on the Neutral Zone where a Romulan Bird of Prey destroyed entire observation posts with their plasma torpedoes and escaped while under cloak kind of gives that away," Romaine said smartly.

"The Bird of Prey, to be blunt, is an outdated platform. Even the Romulans have seen that. They have something called a 'Warbird' in development. But until then they've traded cloaking technology with the Klingons in exchange for D7 cruisers. A lot of D7 cruisers," Knight explained, "They don't have a fleet of them but they have acquired at least two squadrons worth. These squadrons are equipped with the latest cloaking technology. The every technology they rushed into development because of the Enterprise's incursion."

Knight could tell she held Romaine under her spell, "These D7's could proceed under cloak into inhabited Federation star systems. An equal number of Birds of Prey could draw the fire of the planetary defenses and form a picket to harass incoming starships while the D7s mount a full scale invasion or whatever the Romulans version of General Order 24 is."

She paused, "Still with me?"

Romaine was silent as she numbly nodded. Knight resumed her presentation, "That's the scenario we're currently looking at."

"But surely Starfleet has fathomed the technology behind the cloaking device and has a countermeasure in place," Romaine insisted.

"One would hope," Knight replied, "But military secrets are the most fleeting of all. Like I said, Starfleet has the old generation of cloaking device. There's a brand new generation out there and it's far better than the previous model. The basics are probably the same but the application is a brand new science."

"So you want me to steal the plans for the new cloaking device?" Romaine warily asked.

Knight laughed, "Not in the slightest."

Romaine was perplexed, "Then what…?"

"The Romulans only pose a threat if they have the resources to sustain a second war. Remember, last time they fought Earth. The Federation supported Earth with material assistance but the Federation itself was only a few years old. The only Starfleet in existence was Earth's. A united defensive front was still in the talking stages," Knight reminded Romaine, "Rumor had it that the Star Empire has expanded its borders just as the Federation has unified and rallied together for mutual defense. So of course, we have massive, and constantly growing, resources. Do the Romulans have the same?"

"So what, precisely, are you asking of me?" Romaine decided to cut straight to the chase.

"My superiors want a map of the Star Empire. What it's boundaries are and what its internal resource base is comprised of," Knight explained.

"Won't the Klingons assist the Romulans?" Romaine wondered.

Knight snorted derisively, "The Klingons will be more than happy to sit a conflict out and let the Star Empire and the Federation tear out each other's throats. Afterwards, they'll pick both carcasses clean."

"How do I even know you're even authorized to ask me to do this?" Romaine suddenly asked.

Knight wore an approving smile, "You have good instincts. You may be a natural at this work."

"Spare me," it was Romaine's turn to be derisive, "And you still haven't answered my question."

Romaine could tell her standing in Knight's estimation was growing by veritable leaps and bounds, "Search the Bureau of Personnel's database. My sanitized record is on file, as is my posting with Starfleet Intelligence."

"Pardon me," Romaine fired up her comp/comm. She searched several databases and quickly perused the record that she did indeed find on file. Knight had enjoyed some distinction as an analyst before moving to field work. She was fast tracked for promotion so she must have been successful in her new vocation.

Romaine turned back to Knight, "Okay, everything seems to be in order. But you already knew that. Tell me, what was in your official reprimand for the events on Cestus III?"

Knight smirked, "You know I can't discuss that."

"Humor me," Romaine insisted, "What was the reason behind it?

Knight mulled her options and then shrugged, "It was felt in certain circles that I was giving away too much information to the Gorn embassy. Officially, I was there to gather information and not hand any out."

"Did you hand out information?" Romaine sharply inquired.

"Yes," Knight admitted to Romaine's shock. Knight chuckled softly, "It wasn't anything classified or any military operational secrets. I basically explained the Federation's news service feeds and data nets to them. They'd ask questions regarding things they saw or looked up and I'd explain as best as I could into a cultural paradigm they could understand. The biggest hurdle was getting past their genetically based caste system."

"I can imagine," Romaine mused, "The Andorians hold a similar viewpoint revolving around their four sexes."

"Anyway, I acted in the name of goodwill and received a reprimand. The fact that I cultivated two assets in the process is the only thing that saved me from prosecution," Knight grumbled.

"Not to change the subject, which I'm totally going to do, but you honestly think the Romulans are willing to go to war with us?" Romaine asked.

"Not to be overly alarmist but we've compiled compelling evidence that suggests Romulan agents, disguised as Vulcans, are currently in the Federation. So they're scouting us to see what our resource base is and trying to determine our ability to prosecute a protracted war," Knight divulged, "We simply need to do the same. Once both sides realize the futility of a war, maybe we can honestly talk our way to an understanding."

"But you don't think so," Romaine surmised.

Knight appreciatively smiled at her again, "I'm trained not to think so. But there's always hope."

"Agreed," Romaine asserted, "So how long do I have until I need to give you an answer?"

"I have a twenty-four hour window," Knight admitted, "And then I start approaching members of your team."

"You can't do that!" Romaine protested.

"Starfleet Command thinks otherwise," Knight replied, "This is a critical mission. One of you will accept it. Frankly, you stand the best chance of success but I'm more than willing to use a fallback option."

"How do I get in touch with you?" Romaine asked tersely.

Knight pulled a communicator off of her waistband and offered it to Romaine, "This is encrypted so the conversation will be private. It's also keyed to my personal communicator so only I will receive said message. I'm available any time during the next twenty-four hours. But once I resort to my fallback position, you've blown your chance no matter if you have a change of heart later," Knight shared.

Romaine snatched the communicator out of Knight's hand, "I'm duly warned."

Knight offered her a conciliatory smile, "I just don't want there to be any misunderstandings."

"There won't be," Romaine assured her.

Knight rose, "Then I'll show myself out."

Knight paused at the door, "Just to let you know, I really do hope you accept the mission. And this conversation is classified. Just so you don't spread the word about what's happening. If one of your subordinates needs to be informed, I'll do the sharing, not you."

Romaine was flummoxed as Knight exited her office.

Romaine closed down her comp/comm and went to the staff briefing room. It was time to get the daily reports from her team that was going to Romulus. They were compiling all of the data the Federation had on the Voyager probe that became the entity known as V'Ger. Some of that data had been sent from the doomed Epsilon Nine observation platform. The listening post had observed the Klingons engage V'Ger. All too little use.

Her team was comprised of four hand selected archivists. Lt. Savro gel Taurig was the second ranking officer of the mission. He was also a Tellarite. His family owned a shipping firm that made deliveries to the observation posts ringing the Romulan Neutral Zone and the planets within the Zone itself. He'd had direct dealings with Romulan merchants carrying out the same task.

Ensign Maury Pollachek was human. He'd had family directly involved in the Earth-Romulan War. Some of them had died but two had gone missing and were presumed captured, that is, if Romulans took prisoners. Captain Kirk's experience said that they did. Romulans seemed to value military trophies so there was hope Pollachek's relatives had survived and maybe even had descendents he might be able to contact.

Ensign T'Ling was the newest member of the staff and team. T'Ling was considered something of an expert on all things Romulan. She'd personally studied the records of the Sundering, that period in Vulcan history, when dissenters had fled Vulcan rather than accept Surak's new philosophies. Her personal motives for volunteering for the mission were unknown. It might very well be pure academic interest but Romaine had a feeling there was a personal agenda behind T'Ling's cool Vulcan facade.

Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class Molly Standish was going because Romaine was going. Standish was Romaine's assigned yeoman. As such she acted in that capacity for the whole team right now. She'd never complained about the extra workload. In fact she seemed to thrive on it. A fact that Romaine intended to exploit when they returned from Romulus.

The reports were pretty cut and dry. Most of the actual research and records gathering was done. Now they were all assimilating everything they could gather on Romulus and her people. They were even taking crash courses in the Romulan language. Since the Romulan tongue had three distinct dialects, they had split up a dialect a apiece to Romaine, Taurig, and Pollachek. T'Ling insisted on learning all three. And, damnably, she was well ahead of her peers in fluency.

After the meeting concluded, Romaine got T'Ling off to a quiet corner. She wanted to pick the Vulcan's mind since she was the resident expert on Romulans. So she posed a simple question: If the Romulans had sufficient resources, would they attack the Federation?

T'Ling's answer wasn't a cheery one, "Romulans retain the martial drive that governed my world for eons. If they were convinced they had an advantage over the Federation and Starfleet, they would attack without hesitation. They would also attack without warning. The cloaking device is intended as a first strike weapon. It's first documented use was a demonstration whereby the Romulans employed both the cloaking device and the newly developed plasma torpedoes. Their strike was an unqualified success until they were confronted by Captain James T. Kirk in command of the USS Enterprise."

"You don't have to promo James Kirk to me," Romaine reminded her, "I served under the man. All too briefly but he made an impression."

"Yes, of course," T'Ling allowed, "But as to your inquiry, let me clarify one point. The Romulan conception of advantage seems to be one of merely possessing near parity with the military aspects slightly in their favor. Given the slightest odds of a favorable outcome and a Romulan commander will engage. This was well documented in the Earth-Romulan War."

"What do we know of the Star Empire's borders?" Romaine switched the query up.

"Precious little. The bulk of the Star Empire is in the Beta quadrant. Like the Klingons as well, we have not penetrated far enough into the Beta Quadrant to venture a guess as to the extent of these two respective empires," T'Ling calmly proclaimed, "Experience and hard won intelligence has sounded out the widely held belief that the Klingons are hard pressed to acquire raw materials. They are desperately lacking in such strategic minerals as dilithium."

T'Ling paused, as if searching for the appropriate words, "We have no such information or theories regarding the Romulans. The widely held consensus is that if they have the resources to fight effectively, they will do so."

"What we do know with clarity is that the Romulans prize stealth and secrecy," T'Ling declared.

"Then why would they agree to an information exchange?" Romaine had to ask.

"Quite simply to determine the capability of our intelligence gathering capabilities," T'Ling coolly replied, "What do we know about V'Ger? Do we know where it came from? How did we acquire any and all information? How did we stave off its approach on Earth? Do we have a superior weapon they have not learned of yet? It's all wonderfully academic to them. But with real world consequences that could shake the foundations of two quadrants."

"Remind me never to ask you to cheer me up," Romaine quipped.

"Agreed," T'Ling conceded.

"Well, if they were expecting a top secret, magic ray gun they're in for a disappointment," Romaine snorted.

"Quite the opposite. Such news would provide welcome relief," T'Ling responded, "In either case, a known capability is preferable to a surprise."

Romaine headed for the Chief Archivist's office with a dour look on her face. Commander Frederick Garth was a wonderful administrator, having commanded a smaller starbase, but he wasn't a researcher so she was apprehensive regarding the request she was about to make. Would Garth be able to sit in for her while she complied with Starfleet Intelligence's request?

She had no idea of what agreeing to their terms would entail but she imagined she wouldn't like most of it. Part of that disgruntlement came because of the request she was about to make. Garth was a man that believed in quotas. He wanted regular progress on an hourly basis. Which worked fine when shuffling paperwork but research was often time as much art as science. Would he be tolerant enough to let her people work in the way they did best?

Romaine wasn't certain how to gauge Garth's reaction to her informing that Starfleet had asked to go TDY for a time. He seemed rather ironically bemused by it, "Yes Commander, I'm aware of the need for you to abandon your post during our time of need."

"Sir?" Romaine was puzzled by the remark.

"A Lt. Commander Mercy Knight was in my office not ten minutes ago. She handed me orders transferring you to the USS Longbow as a Mission Specialist," Garth informed her with some chagrin, "Helluva time to be abandoning me, Romaine."

Romaine was momentarily speechless. Knight had correctly anticipated her response to Starfleet Intelligence's request. It was obvious Knight had used a cover story to blanket her true assignment. How the hell was she supposed to corroborate a story she knew nothing about?

"I've always wanted to go aboard an Archer-class scout. Did you know they were only commissioned in 2261?" Garth looked eager to discuss this topic. He knew, after all, that Romaine's father was an engineer in the Utopia Planetia Yards while she grew up. She'd also briefly dated Scotty, whose own legend in Starfleet was already firmly established.

"No sir, I didn't," Romaine honestly admitted. What was an Archer-class scout anyway?

"I'd ask to go aboard with you but I think the accommodations will be tight enough already," Garth chuckled.

"Yes sir," Romaine replied blankly. She was in waaay over her head.

"Anyway, I'll let Taurig handle the day to day preparations. T'Ling can second him. Standish will keep an eye over them," Garth said pleasantly as though he'd anticipated her concerns.

"Thank you," Romaine said with heartfelt relief, "All I know for certain is that I'll be back in time to depart with the team."

"You'd best be back, Commander. God knows don't want to take your place. The Romulans would be crying 'foul' for years to come," Garth said jovially.

"I won't let that happen, sir," Romaine promised. And she meant it.

Romaine retreated to her quarters after discussing her impending absence with Standish. She'd been carrying the communicator with her and she finally dared flip it open, "Romaine to Knight."

"Good to hear from you, Commander," Knight pleasantly replied.

"You win. I'm in. But you knew that already," Romaine said gruffly.

"I'm a good judge of character. It's a job essential," Knight retorted, "Now pack the bare essentials. Two changes of undress uniform and the usual complement of underthings and sleeping attire. You have two minutes."

"And then?" Romaine was a little surprised by the abruptness of the request.

"You join me," Knight informed her.

"You're planetside?" Romaine inquired.

"No, you'll join me aboard the Longbow," Knight said as though it were the easiest thing in the world.

Romaine knew differently. Memory Alpha was more heavily shielded than Starfleet Headquarters or the UFP President's offices in the Palais de la Concorde. And that shielding was always active. The only site in the whole complex that could be accessed from orbit by a transporter was the transporter station on the surface, outside of the complex. Visitors were then whisked into the complex's structure by tram.

"But that's..." Romaine began to argue.

"You have a minute thirty remaining, Commander Romaine. I wouldn't waste it," Knight advised.

Romaine did as she asked but didn't see the point. What Knight had suggested was improbable. No sooner had she zipped her issue duffel shut than she felt the familiar tug of a transporter taking effect.

Romaine was still gaping in astonishment when the transporter released her. She found herself in a rather cramped, four pad transporter room that had to be aboard the so-called USS Longbow. Knight was the only person present, having manipulated the transporter's controls herself.

" did you do that?" Romaine stammered in disbelief.

"Well, without a homing beacon it'd still be impossible. But fortunately, you're holding one," Knight grinned.

Romaine blankly looked down to the communicator in her hand. She numbly held it out, "Would you like it back?"

Knight shook her head, "No, I'd prefer you keep it."

Romaine gave her a quizzical look. Knight shrugged, "I'd like to contact you from time to time. This way I can find you and vice versa."

Romaine's look turned to one of suspicion. Knight held up her hands, "I'd just like to chat once in awhile. That's all."

Seeing Romaine subside, Knight turned and waved for the archivist to follow, "Come on. I'll show you to your quarters."

As they passed through the ship, Romaine learned a few things. The crew didn't wear official Starfleet uniform. Or, to be more precise, proper Starfleet uniform of the day. They wore jumpsuits more fitting of the Earth Starfleet era of the 2250's.

She also discovered the ship was exceptionally small. Areas of the hull were too cramped to stand in so they were used as storage. There were also no turbolifts. Each deck was accessed by ladder wells. Fortunately, there were only four decks so it wasn't like you could exhaust yourself endlessly climbing.

And the last surprise was the accommodations. Only the CO and XO of the ship received private quarters. The other twelve members of the crew hot racked in two communal rooms with two bunk beds in each. Mission Specialists had a room reserved for them that was twice as small as the crew's quarters and possessed a single bunk bed. Romaine was sharing this room with Knight.

"Want to flip a coin for the top bunk?" Knight mirthfully inquired.

"Take it. I don't like to be on top," Romaine commented.

"Oh ho! You're a bottom!" Knight teased.

Romaine's cheeks burned slightly at the baldly sexual reference. Knight smirked, "And you're also something of a prude. So be it."

Romaine refrained from retorting. She felt a fluctuation in the gravity field. She knew the ship had left orbit and it's gravity plates were adjusting after shedding the influence, however slight, of the planetary gravity well.

"Where are we headed?" Romaine wondered.

"Izar," Knight revealed, "You're about to spend three weeks at Starfleet Security's Advanced Tactical Training Center."

"Tactical training?" Romaine almost yelped.

Knight swung into action to ease Romaine's fears, "Sections of the center train Starfleet Intelligence field agents. Trust me, we're not sending you out to pick a fight. Your style of espionage will be rather quiet and unobtrusive. But if trouble should happen, it's best to be prepared for it. Don't you think?"

Romaine silently cursed Knight for being so practical, "How long will it take to reach Izar?"

"We'll be there tomorrow," Knight confided, "These scoutships may not look like much but they can reach Warp 8 and sustain it for twelve hours."

Romaine was impressed. The only ships in Starfleet's inventory that could currently boas that were the Constitution- and Miranda-class cruisers. Of course, it seemed the Archer-class scouts would have to be added to that mental inventory.

"Care to do a walkabout?" Knight teased, "The Captain has said its okay as long as we don't interfere in anyone's duties. So we have the run of the ship."

Once again, Romaine was startled, "I thought you'd want to get started on briefing me."

Knight shrugged, "That won't do any good until you're focused. I imagine you're a bundle of curious energy right now so it's best to appease that and then get to work."

Romaine found herself endlessly marveling at how well Knight seemed to read her. It was rather disconcerting. Still, Knight made a good point.

"All right," Romaine conceded at last, "Give me the tour and then I'm all yours."

"You're going to be sorry you said that," Knight predicted.

Deep down, Romaine already knew she was right.


Chapter Two

Romaine and Knight transported down to New Seattle together. Romaine was slightly curious as to why they had beamed into Izar's capitol rather than directly to the Advanced Tactical Training Center. Knight merely assured her everything would become clear.

An air car approached and landed near their location. The driver's gull wing door popped open, "You Knight and Romaine?"

"You already know we are," Knight glibly replied.

The man smiled, "Too true. Hop in the back. It's unlocked."

The two Starfleet officers boarded the car. When the doors were locked, the driver queried traffic control and got permission to enter the traffic grid. The car lifted and climbed into the sky.

They stayed with the local traffic for a time and then the car vectored off and headed off towards a wooded area outside of the city. Of course, Izar was also heavily forested. The primary landmass had a water way similar to the Puget Sound on Earth. Given its resemblance to the Terran analog and the heavy forestation that also surrounded both of the natural features on both Izar and Earth, the capitol was placed along the banks of the Anacortes Sound and named New Seattle.

They approached the rather secluded Advanced Tactical Training Center from the air and Romaine got a good look at portions of it. It reminded her of Quantico in Virginian Earth. The Federation Bureau of Investigation trained there. This was almost a duplicate of that base.

Romaine was surprised when they didn't land, "Where are we going?"

Knight grinned, "There's Advanced Tactical Training and then there's specialized Advanced Tactical Training. You need the latter so we're proceeding to our facilities adjacent to the main center."

"Great," Romaine grumbled.

Romaine learned that her training would be divided into two segments. The first was the physical segment. She would be undergoing endurance training, hand to and combat instruction, and weapons practice. She'd done all of the above at Starfleet Academy but those were years long gone. Where once she'd scored fairly highly at these disciplines, now she was more comfortable behind a desk.

Her days became a grueling ordeal of running and forced marches. Afterwards, with only five minutes of rest, she would begin her hand to hand training. When she finished a three hour stretch at that, she went to the range and practiced marksmanship. Moving targets and live opponents were pitted against her for several hours.

Her nights were subsequently spent in contact with her research team. Garth was delighted that she'd be able to check in for an hour each evening. She didn't say much about her experiences because Knight had warned her that she was under observation every moment of every day. Her transmission would be terminated if she broached the subject of her current activities.

One interesting aspect of her training was that of vehicular operations. This was an area she easily excelled at. Having an engineer as a father, he'd indulged in owning several air cars, racers, and flyers. So Romaine was well versed in how to operate them. What she learned now was how to break into them and steal them. She graduated from that portion of her training when she finally adopted disabling the positioning beacon as a matter of rote.

Romaine wasn't panting as hard in the ring after her morning runs and marches at the end of her two weeks as she had at the beginning. She still only got a five minute break to hydrate before she stepped into the sparring ring. This time she faced Commander Hodges.

Hodges was the most experienced instructor she'd sat under. Hodges was a twenty year veteran of Starfleet's Special Operations Command. She'd learned early on not to make any inquiries into his professional life...or his personal one at that.

Her task was simple. In order to complete her course, she had to land a solid blow on Hodge. That challenge had begun a week ago and so far she's utterly failed at every attempt. She knew today was her last attempt, regardless of Hodge's threats, but she wanted to honestly win her freedom.

Hodge and Romaine circled one another. He threw the first punch, which Romaine blocked as she reset her position and replied with a knee strike aimed at Hodge's groin. He'd taught her early on that there was no distinction between "clean" and "dirty" fighting in the world outside of sports arenas. It was simply life or death.

They exchanged blows and blocks for around two minutes when Romaine shifted to Hodge's left. He threw a backhand that she caught with her left hand. She employed her right into a chop straight into Hodge's nose. He looked stunned.

Romaine released his arm and grinned. Hodge suddenly spun on his heels and drove his right fist into her left eye. Romaine was knocked off of her feet. She quickly gathered herself and came up onto her feet in a ready fighting stance.

"Never drop your guard, Romaine," Hodge's advised, "You should have gone for my throat rather than my nose. A dead enemy can't tag you when you get sloppy. Just for that I'm calling the Infirmary and instructing them to make you wear that bruise for a few days."

"No," Knight suddenly interjected as she approached the ring, "You're not."

"I happen to outrank you so the order stands," Hodge growled.

"And I'm the Mission Commander," Knight firmly replied, "Her fellow officers at Memory Alpha are unaware of her current location or that she's agreed to cooperate with us. Operational security dictates that they stay unaware. A visible black eye will elicit questions we can't afford to waste time on."

Hodge looked like he'd swallowed something sour. He turned to Romaine, "Well? What the hell are you waiting for? Report to the Infirmary and get that eye treated."

Romaine climbed out of the ring and headed out of the facility. Knight called after her, "Mira, I'm dropping by your quarters tonight. I have some equipment to show you."

Romaine turned around and nodded to Knight. She then exited the training center and went seek treatment for her eye. It was really starting to ache now.

Knight joined Romaine as the archivist was sitting down to a meal. She'd been fairly isolated since her arrival. Knight had explained that Romaine wasn't a professional operative and the service didn't want the professional trainees and applicants identifying her as one of them. If they were eventually captured, they could give Romaine up and therefore place her life in peril from enemy operatives.

"Does that really happen?" Romaine had dryly asked.

"The Klingons are surgically altering their agents to look like human beings. Look at Arne Darvin on station K-7 and Anna Sandesjo on Starbase 47. Sandesjo was a trusted Federation diplomatic attaché while really being a Klingon Imperial Intelligence agent born under the name Lurqal," Knight cited the publically revealed cases, "It happens. Trust me, it happens more often than you'd be comfortable with."

"Okay, I'll drop it then," Romaine had assured her.

Knight entered Romaine's dining nook with a Starfleet issued duffel bag. Romaine could tell it was fully laden. Knight grinned.

"Mind if I join you?" she asked.

"Suit yourself," Romaine replied indifferently. The truth was she'd be glad of the company. The room was equipped with its own synthesizer food slot so she really didn't need to exit her room at any time. Romaine had thought about trying to open the door to see if there were guards assigned to keeping her inside. She thought the truth would be more depressing than the suspicion.

Knight sat down and they ate their meals in hospitable, if not overly friendly, silence. Romaine finished first but held off from interrupting Knight's meal. She could've sworn Knight malingered over her last few bites just to torment her.

Knight broke into a fit of laughter when she finished dabbing her mouth with her napkin, "My God! You're a warp core breach in progress right now."

"Not to be rude but why are you here?" Romaine burst out at long last, "You look like you've lugged in enough equipment to build a starship."

Knight grinned, "Not quite but you will be constructing a basic component of one."

"What?" Romaine yelped, "Get my father here instead. He's the engineer in the family."

"You actually have a high mechanical aptitude so don't balk now," Knight said with some amusement.

Knight rose and cleared their plates. Recycling the scraps into the synthesizer's protein sequencer, she replaced the trays and dishes into the cubicle that dispensed them. They'd be sanitized and reused during the next meal.

"You may want to get some caffeine into you," Knight advised, "This is the beginning of a weeklong endurance test. I'm going to show you the technical aspects of tradecraft. We only have this last week to get you prepped and ready so I'm not going to waste a minute of the day."

"Ooo-kay," Romaine said with some apprehension. She dutifully complied with the caffeine order. She opted for breakfast tea despite the late hour. It would dump a heavier dose of caffeine into her than a comparable cup of coffee would.

Knight placed a suitcase style computer console on the table, "Open this and see what's inside."

Romaine complied but all she found was a fairly standard Starfleet issue portable computer, "I give. What's special about it?"

"Look below the ten key pad. There's an indentation in the case. Place your right thumb on it and see what happens," Knight instructed.

Romaine was rather surprised when the touch screen keyboard unlocked and she was able to detach it from the case. Inside was a small crystalline data core. Hardly the size a model of this type usually boasted. It was just enough to grant the computer an air of legitimacy.

There was also a distinct power cell. And there was a Type II phaser. The data core and the power cell were recessed beneath the swept back rear of the phaser. It's grip formed a barrier between the computer parts and both a spare power pack for the phaser and a small cylindrical device that seemed to have a radial dish atop like the old style deflector arrays of the Constitution-, and as she'd recently learned, Archer-class starships.

"You've got to be joking," Romaine almost stammered, "It'll be detected."

Knight pooh-pahhed the idea, "It reads as the computer's power cell. Even Starfleet can't detect it. It's a proven platform that's been used dozens of times. We do know what we're doing after all."

"But I don't," Romaine admitted bleakly.

"That's why I'm here," Knight assured, "Now, why haven't you asked about the case's other stowaway?"

"I assumed it's a transmitter of some sorts. Probably a distress beacon," Romaine ventured.

"Good guess," Knight replied, "Completely wrong but it's a good guess. We're sending you into hostile territory. There won't be a Federation starship inside of Romulan territory. So a beacon would be pretty useless. Unless, of course, you wanted the Romulans to pinpoint your exact location."

"I guess I didn't think it through," Romaine said glumly.

"And that's going to stop. Always remember the primary rule," Knight counseled her.

"The Prime Directive?" Romaine offered.

Knight bopped her upside the head, "No! The primary rule is 'nothing is ever what it appears to be'."

"Okay, I think I can attest to that," Romaine admitted, "So what is this doohickey?"

"A universal lock pick," Knight said affectionately, "No door or ignition will be able to keep you out with this baby."

"That's why I had the vehicular training," Romaine realized.

"If you need to make a fast break for it, commandeer a vehicle and head for these coordinates," Knight handed over a data slate.

"Why?" Romaine asked.

"Because that's where you'll meet your emergency contact and they'll extract you out of the Star Empire," Knight explained.

"Wait a minute!" Romaine protested, "If you have someone on Romulus, why am I doing this?"

"Because our asset doesn't have access to this kind of data. You will have. It's simple math really," Knight divulged.

"I so hate you right now," Romaine grumped.

Knight chuckled, "Wait until the week is out. Then you'll really loathe me."

"I'm not even going to take that bet," Romaine grumbled.

"All right, back to work," Knight dumped a bag of components onto the table, "Next, you're going to learn how to assemble a subspace transceiver using commonly found components."

"Is it too early to start loathing you already?" Romaine wondered.

"Much, much too early," Knight confided.

"Figures," Romaine bleakly remarked.

The week went by in a flurry of moments. Some moments dragged on endlessly and others warped out faster than Romaine could track. Knight had Romaine keeping up and improving her conditioning.

Romaine started the day with breakfast followed by a five kilometer run. She then got some downtime before returning to the sparring ring. Her regular opponent now was a Lt. Arender sha'Drenhilla. The Andorian was from one of the "male" sexes from his planet. Aren, as he was called, was fast and sneaky. He played a lively game with Romaine and they exchanged unchecked blows. Romaine was learning all the names of the base's medical staff.

Target practice rounded the tactical portion of her morning and led to lunch. Between the mid-day meal and dinner, Romaine learned the technical aspects of her task. The data slate she'd been given was equipped with a subspace transceiver and a universal translator. It was with this tool that she would tap into the Romulan data nets.

As the week closed and Romaine and Knight were waiting at the transporter pads, Romaine finally asked the question that had been nagging at her, "Why aren't you going on this mission?"

"You never asked," Knight brightly grinned. Seeing Romaine's dissatisfaction with that answer, Knight staved off any further inquiries; "I'll tell you once we're ensconced in our quarters aboard the Longbow."

"I guess that will have to do," Romaine said with a sense of resignation.

Romaine passed the somewhat familiar faces of the Longbow's crew in the corridors and in the sections that they worked. Only certain rooms had closing doors. Engineering and the transporter room were two areas with no doors and open access. The ladder well leading to the bridge had no obstacles either.

Sickbay and crews' quarters were the only private portions of the ship. Knight made friendly greetings to the crew as she herded Romaine towards their shared room. It was obvious to Romaine that Knight was comfortable with these people. Just out of curiosity, Romaine had looked up the Longbow, her assignment, and her crew during her limited down time.

The crew all had vanilla dossiers like Knight's. They gave a lot of information away but what was more telling was what they didn't say. Another revealing feature was that the bulk of the crew had been with the ship since it was commissioned. Most of the crew had accepted temporary demotions and were acting in the place of their former grade, and sometimes two grades below, their current rank. That kind of loyalty, to ship and crew, was rare.

The Longbow was currently TDY. That was it. No mention of what department, planet, or starbase the ship was temporarily detached to. Just TDY.

So Romaine was eagerly waiting for Knight to begin her explanation. Fortunately, she didn't have to wait long. Otherwise she might very well have burst open as Knight had estimated already.

"I can't go because the Romulans would get suspicious over a last minute change," Knight offered at first.

"But things happen..." Romaine started to argue.

"Not to Romulans," Knight drolly put in, "The Romulans chose you. They chose the entire team. Why do you think T'Ling was suddenly swept into the picture? That wasn't Starfleet's choice."

"But how can they...?" Romaine trailed off as dread clenched her gut.

"The Romulans have been active inside of the Federations borders for close to a hundred and twenty years now," Knight revealed.

"But that proceeds the Earth-Romulan War!" Romaine burst out.

Knight dryly appraised her. Romaine gathered herself together, "It's all right. I'm calm now."

"That's good because you're stuck with going. No one gets out. If they can't go it had better be because of a medical emergency or an act of God they couldn't avoid," Knight summed up the situation, "And no one gets replaced. If you lose a member for any reason, the remaining team members go on without them."

"What if they get what they want out of us and simply arrest us for no reason?" Romaine asked the one question she hadn't dared voice until now.

"Then you pray the Romulans do indeed take prisoners," Knight replied.

Romaine found the advice to be cold comfort.

The trip back to Memory Alpha took just over a day. Knight saw Romaine to the Longbow's transporter room where she once again performed the duties of managing the transport to the surface, "This time you'll be glad to learn we're leaving at the proper site. We aroused enough suspicion with your last disappearance."

"Just how did you explain away my supposedly impossible transport?" Romaine wondered.

Knight smirked, "The transporter logs and the tram schedule dutifully show you used both to reach the surface and beyond."

"Falsifying records is illegal," Romaine said sternly.

Knight shrugged "So's spying. You get used to it."

Romaine was less than happy with that answer and it plainly showed. Knight redirected the conversation, "You're as prepared as anyone can hope to be. I'll be in touch when this is over to retrieve the data you've acquired."

"And if I'm captured or worse?" Romaine had to know.

"You'll get a nice little plaque on the walls of Starfleet Intelligence headquarters on Earth," Knight's answer was less than thrilling and she noted it, "Mira, we're not going to start a war over the fate of one woman. No matter how much we'd feel compelled to."

Romaine suddenly realized that Knight was personally invested in Romaine's fate. It wasn't like Standish and her girlfriend. There was no romance in this. But there was a healthy dose of camaraderie and that feeling Romaine had at the beginning of kinship. Apparently Knight felt it too.

"All right," Romaine accepted her fate, whatever it was going to be, "I'm ready."

Knight smiled encouragingly, "Yes, I think you are."


Chapter Three

The Memory Alpha team met Romaine with excitement. Taurig wanted to know how the food had been. Pollachek inquired as to what Romaine had learned while away. Standish wanted to know if she'd "met any babes". T'Ling, though, T'Ling was surprisingly complacent.

When Romaine had a quiet moment after the staff had briefed her on their progress and their preparations for tomorrow's departure, Romaine questioned T'Ling's apparent lack of interest. T'Ling arched an eyebrow, "Do not mistake my lack of inquires as a lack of interest. You did not seem predisposed to directly answering inquiries so I refrained from asking any."

Romaine was once again impressed with the Vulcan's insight, "Okay, good answer. Just for that I'll answer one question if I can."

"Very well," T'Ling accepted the gesture, "Do you feel adequately prepared for the task ahead?"

Romaine struggled to keep a straight face. What did T'Ling know about her multiple missions? Did she suspect something?

"I feel I'm fully prepared," Romaine managed to answer honestly.

"Let us hope you are," T'Ling replied and excused herself.

"Just who the hell are you?" Romaine wondered aloud.

The next day, the archivist team transported aboard the USS Lexington. The Constitution-class starship hadn't begun the refits that had so drastically altered the Enterprise. All new Constitution-class hulls would be built along the refit lines and the original starships would also be rebuilt to fit the new design.

Captain Dexter O'Reilly was still ecstatic about his ship though. The Captain made it quite clear they would have to drag him out of her in order to begin the rebuilding process. He'd met the Memory Alpha team in the transporter room and helped his yeoman, one Peter Burnett; guide the team to the ship's guest quarters.

Romaine had served aboard a ship of this type so she knew approximately where those quarters would be but every CO designated which of the crew's quarters would be allotted to visitors so there was always the random element of chance that something completely out of the norm had been decided.

O'Reilly explained to the team that they were already en route to the Romulan Neutral Zone. The starship would stay on station at the border for four weeks even though they were only embarking on a two week mission. Starfleet's orders were specific that they were not to cross the Neutral Zone regardless of any provocation.

Romaine felt the weight of Knight's constant warnings bearing down on her. She did her best to ignore it and put on a brave front but inside she was terrified. No one else seemed to notice the stark terror in her eyes. It seemed to be coming off as normal anxiety.

That myth was dispelled when T'Ling visited her assigned guest quarters. The Vulcan had said she wanted to discuss something with Romaine. Romaine was left stunned by the Vulcan's opening statement.

"Commander, the Romulans will detect your terror. You must control yourself or you will jeopardize our position with the Tal Shiar," T'Ling began with.

Romaine ruefully thought that she wondered why she even bothered trying. T'Ling also seemed to sense this as well, "Do not disparage yourself, Commander. You are fraught over dealing with a hostile culture. Such distress is a given. However, the Tal Shiar will prey upon it."

Romaine recalled from T'Ling's briefings that the Tal Shiar were the Romulans' secret police. Sort of Earth's Gestapo, KGB, and foreign intelligence agencies combined. She said it was believed by some circles that the Director of the Tal Shiar wielded as much power with the Praetor as the Proconsul.

"It seems to be natural for everyone but you, Ensign," Romaine remarked ruefully.

"My facade of pure logic is useful in that regard, Commander. My training and discipline enable me to control my emotional expressions but those emotions are still present. Even now they are on the verge of spinning out of my control," T'Ling admitted, "We are all in the unknown now. What happens next may shift the nature of the relations between our nation state and that of the Star Empire."

"That's still a cold comfort, T'Ling," Romaine said dryly.

"It was not my intention to comfort you, Commander," T'Ling expressed, "Only to advise you that the Romulans, and especially the Tal Shiar, will expect nervousness on your part. But only to a certain degree. After that threshold is exceeded, their suspicions will be aroused.

T'Ling left at that point and Romaine was left wondering once again why she had volunteered for her "extracurricular" assignment.

It took a few days to traverse the Alpha Quadrant and arrive at the Romulan Neutral Zone. The Lexington was hailed by Starfleet's Observation Command staff. Starfleet traffic in the region had increased recently. Several starbases were being built near the Zone with their accompanying starships that would be assigned to them. Usually a starbase received one to three starships under its nominal control. This was especially true of these starbases since their assigned ships would be conducting border patrol sweeps.

The Lexington's captain acknowledged the observer's scrutiny. O'Reilly data squirted over the bare essentials of his ship's current assignment. The commodore receiving these orders informed O'Reilly that she was well aware of why he was there. A Romulan flagged D7 was lingering near the Neutral Zone. She'd send a message for them to contact the Lexington and arrange for the personnel transfer.

The Lexington dispatched a shuttle into the Neutral Zone. While the Romulans had agreed not to penetrate the Zone with their starship, and insisted upon the same from Starfleet, they did allow the shuttle to approach within transporter range of the Romulan side of the border.

The Memory Alpha team stood by as the shuttle crew communicated with the Romulan cruiser. It had an ominous ring that the cruiser's Romulan name translated into Dagger Thrust in Federation standard. The Starfleet officers felt the tug of the transporter and it was strangely new and overly familiar at the same time.

The Memory Alpha team materialized to find themselves staring down two armed guards. A rather amused woman was standing next to the transporter tech. Her amusement seemed to grow by the second as the Starfleet personnel tried to ascertain what kind of situation they'd suddenly been thrust into.

"Oh, do behave," the Romulan officer scolded her security personnel.

The guards lowered their weapons but they didn't holster them either. The ranking officer stepped out from behind the transporter control console. Her uniform surprised the Starfleet officers. The ablative armor the security guards wore distracted away from the fact the Romulan military had also altered its uniform code since the Enterprise's fateful encounter with their forces.

Gone were the faux togas and body wraps. This woman wore a simple grey tunic with dark pants. Over the tunic she wore a black jacket that the others lacked. But also she wore a gun belt. A disruptor was holstered halfway between her hip and her knee. Her ease with it seemed to demonstrate her acceptance of its intended purpose.

"I am Commander Alera," she announced in Romulan and the team's universal translators rendered the words in Federation Standard, "I command this vessel. I hold the lives of its crew, and now yours as well, in my hand. Do not give me cause to close my hand."

Romaine thought it best to derail any and all tensions, "I'm Lt. Commander Mira Romaine. I'm here to vouch for the conduct of my fellow officers."

Alera nodded while holding Romaine's eyes in a sharp gaze, "Very well, Commander Romaine. You shall be responsible for them and you shall be responsible to me."

Alera tapped a control on her wristband, "Subcommander Elic, report to the transport chamber."

She turned back to Romaine, "My second will be here in a moment to sort you out. Do as he says as though I am saying it. Understood?"

Romaine tipped her head, "We understand and will comply."

"Good," Alera snorted and exited the room.

Subcommander Elic met the Memory Alpha researchers with open disdain. He led and they followed. Of course, the armed guards trailing them would probably shoot any stragglers. He brought them to a dead end corridor.

"These three rooms are our only guest accommodations," Elic said diffidently, "You will decide how to distribute them amongst yourselves."

"What areas of the ship are we restricted from?" Romaine asked.

Elic laughed harshly, "You are restricted from the entire ship. Guards will monitor this corridor. You have access to one another's rooms. Do no attempt to stray out of these accommodations or you will be dealt with."

Romaine could tell that being dealt with implied a permanent solution, "Very well. How far are we from Romulus?"

"You should have done your homework already, human," Elic spat the last word.

Romaine suddenly recited the actual distance in both kilometers and their Romulan analog. She gave him a wry look, "What I was really wondering is how long it would take us to get there. Starfleet estimate three days there and three days back. Which would leave us four days to transfer the data."

"You are lucky you will even have that," Elic snapped and stormed off.

The team appraised their surroundings. There were three nondescript doors facing them. There were also two guards whose hands couldn't stray away from their disruptors. They were in the mood for some sport and Romaine's team might occupy them for a few seconds.

"Standish, you and T'Ling grab a room. Pollachek and Taurig, you're roommates now," Romaine ordered.

"But he snores," Pollachek accused Taurig.

"Like you don't?" Taurig riposted, "And what makes you think bunking with her will be any better?"

"At least she's more pleasant to wake up to," Pollachek shot back.

"Gentlemen," Romaine impatiently interjected, "Settle this inside of your quarters."

They settled down with some good natured grumbling. The next three days, and it did indeed take three days, were largely spent hopping between rooms. T'Ling's arcane knowledge of all things Romulan came in handy during meals. She was the only one who could read the food dispenser's menu and she also knew what the dishes were.

At the end of their voyage, Alera contacted the Starfleet team and ordered them to prepare for transport. Elic shepherded them back to the transporter. This time he goaded them in an attempt to provoke an incident that would be deemed worthy of their deaths.

Alera stood by, waiting inside of the transport chamber. She waved her hand and the guards prodded Romaine's team onto the pads. It seemed Alera was coming with them.

A rather severely dressed male Romulan awaited them at their destination. Four other Romulans stood by, two male and two female. Romaine idly wondered if this was a response to the composition of her team. The Romulan in the foreground broke into a smug smile.

"It seems you have developed a sense of urgency after all, Commander Alera," he said with hidden meaning.

"I serve the Empire," Alera replied, "The Praetor guides the Senate. The Senate serves the people, and the proconsul and the Tal Shiar serve the Praetor. So when the Tal Shiar beckons I will comply as though ordered to by the Praetor herself."

Alera cocked an eyebrow at the Romulan provocateur, "But you already knew this, Agent Moren. Otherwise you wouldn't have sent me on this fool's errand."

"You military officers are so closed minded and parochial. We stand to gain quite a bit from these Starfleet archivists. Things that could ensure we can defeat a foe that humbled both the Klingon Defense Force and Starfleet," Moren countered.

"Starfleet bested the entity," Alera retorted, "And it never drew near to our territory. So why the alarm?"

"Wouldn't you like to learn how Starfleet defeated it?" Moren asked condescendingly, "Or has that thought never occurred to you?"

"Like they'll tell you!" Alera spat.

Moren chuckled, "Their species are wonderfully naive. They'll tell us anything we want to know in the name of peace and friendship."

"Why are we discussing this in front of them?" Alera's hindbrain suddenly kicked in, "Their bloody universal translators are giving them everything we say."

"Do you think I'm really that great a fool, Alera?" Moren was pained by the thought, "A damping field has shut down their translation devices. They will not reactivate until I allow them to do so."

"Why did you ask for me?" Alera wondered, "Elic could have handled this handover. It's his place, not mine."

"What is your impression of these people?" Moren suddenly asked.

"I would hardly call them 'people'. They are our inferiors, just as the officials dictates have spoken of for a century," Alera proclaimed.

"You of all people should know better than that, Commander," Moren softly chided.

Alera's cheeks burned. Most were too afraid to mention the accursed contamination in her gene pool. Her sister shared her bloodline yet she'd not only come to terms with it, she'd embraced it. Which is why Aelynn was merely a first officer on a misbegotten privateer scout.

"Is this a test of my loyalties?" Alera wanted to know.

Moren sighed, "Hardly. Your faithfulness to the orthodox way is well proven. What I am hoping for is some insights into these creatures based upon inside information you should possess."

"They are weak!" Alera asserted, "They deserve to live out their lives as slaves to a proper house."

Moren sighed, "This is gaining me nothing. Perhaps I should have asked Elic to come down after all."

Alera's eyes narrowed at the slight, "If you and your fellow agents have things in hand, my troops and I will return to our ship. We will be here when you should require our services again."

"I'll keep it in mind," Moren replied half heartedly.

Moren turned to face the Starfleet officers as Alera and her soldiers transported out. He activated the control on his wristband, "I think you should be able to understand me once again."

"Trouble in Paradise?" Romaine quipped.

"Commander Alera feels she has a lot to prove and compensate for. Sometimes her zeal outweighs her practicality," Moren shared.

"And what happens now?" Romaine asked warily.

"You have arrived in the middle of the night here in Ki Baran," Moren revealed, "Now you will be taken to your assigned domicile and await the dawn where you will begin work on our joint project."

"Interesting that you refer to it as a joint project," Romaine commented, "Especially since I've come under the impression that we're simply here to do you a service."

Moren smiled. It was rather like a lazy cat assessing its prey, "Nonsense. We have data you have no other means of acquiring. And you have the same in regards to us. So we have a meeting of the minds and perhaps our cultures reach a state detente if not trust."

"Well said," Romaine said skeptically, "Let's see if it actually happens."

"It will," Moren assured her, "Now if you would all follow me, I have transportation to your barracks arranged."

Romaine signaled the others and they dutifully traipsed after Moran as he ventured outside. The obligatory guards accompanied them. As stated, the skies were dark. But there were lights all around.

The evening air was cool and humid. Although the Romulans derived from Vulcan's deserts they had settled a not-quite-tropical world. Romaine and her team expected high temperatures, uncomfortable for them and quite pleasant for Vulcanoids, and choking humidity.

They traveled by troop carrier to their destination. Romaine was disappointed to discover that they were literally staying in a military barracks. Romulan soldiers surrounded the dormitory.

"Is this really necessary?" Romaine inquired of Moren.

"It is for your own safety, I assure you," Moren replied.

"I bet," Romaine said ruefully.

They were assigned to three rooms once again so the living arrangements remained the same. Romaine was escorted to a small room that was locked. Inside a communications panel awaited her.

Moren had granted her the chance to send a five minute to message to Captain O'Reilly aboard the Lexington. Moren had been quite pleased to boast that the Romulan military knew where the Federation starship was at all times. Romaine could only assume that she was being monitored just as stringently as Starfleet Intelligence had monitored her at the Advanced Tactical Training Center, if not more so.

She had enough time to explain she had no time for pleasantries. She reported that the team had made it safely to Romulus. They were expecting to get five or less hours of sleep and then begin work in the morning. O'Reilly admitted that while he didn't envy them, he and his crew had been under that kind of pressure before. Romaine was surprised as the comm link was broken.

Romaine sighed as she exited the comm station. She wondered what her crime had been. It had all been innocent enough in her estimation.

Romaine was led back to the team's temporary quarters. The entire team was gathered in the common area and they looked quite put out. Romaine inquired as to what had happened.

"They searched us," Taurig grumbled, "Not only did they physically paw at us but they also manhandled our belongings and equipment."

Moren suddenly appeared and beckoned for Romaine to approach. She turned to Taurig, "It seems it's my turn."

"Screw peace," Taurig urged, "It's time to break someone's hand."

Romaine sighed as she approached Moren. She knew his hearing was sensitive enough to overhear it but she didn't care. These people's paranoia was getting on her nerves. Elic's open hostility beat this slippery discrimination any day.

"All right," Romaine said sourly, "I'm ready to be groped."

"I assure you that is not our way," Moren tried to console her, "But even the most modern of scanning technology can be fooled. We can't leave anything to chance."

"I'm certain that Starfleet feels the same way about your operatives within the Federation," Romaine quipped.

"I am certain I have no idea of what you are referring to," Moren said straight faced.

"Good boy. Stick to your official lie," Romaine smarted off.

"I have my Optio standing by to frisk you," Moren informed her, "She is an Immunes recruited from the Imperial military. Her specialty is criminal investigations."

"So we're criminals now?" Romaine sharply inquired.

"You are classified as enemies of the state. So of course you're criminals. But your freedom is being purchased by the data you carry," Moren explained frankly.

"Then why not arrest us and just crack the data rods?" Romaine asked.

"Many of my superiors would have me do just that," Moren admitted, "But the Praetor has instructed the Director to try this approach instead."

"So the Praetor is willing to foster a dialogue between the Star Empire and the Federation?" Romaine guessed.

"The Praetor's predecessor begrudgingly embraced the concept behind the tripartite colony on Nimbus III. Despite continued misgivings, and the apparent failure of the colony's aims, our current Praetor does desire to normalize relations between our two states," Moren explained, "This would include establishing diplomatic relations."

"I'm surprised you'd even consider a diplomatic mission after what happened to your ambassador on Nimbus III," Romaine confessed.

"We will never forget what happened," Moren warned her, "But we can expand our paradigm enough to work around it."

"Thank you for sharing," Romaine said at long last, "I'll pass your message along to my superiors."

"That, above all else, is why you and your officers were brought here," Moren wore a tightly controlled smile, "The entity you call V'Ger is just a timely pretext."

"But you still want our data," Romaine said cannily.

Moren allowed himself a small chuckle, "Of course."

Romaine drew herself up, "Okay. Point me at your second."

"She awaits you in the quarters you claimed for yourself," Moren divulged.

"Well, if I'm going to be molested, I guess it should be in my own room," Romaine said darkly.

Moren decided that maybe human humor was more like the Romulan variety than anyone was willing to admit.


Chapter Four

A few hours after their arrival, the Starfleet team was roused by their Romulan minders. Agent Moren gathered them up and they once again used a military transport to traverse the city of Ki Baran. The enclosed space of the transport's passenger compartment was also completely shrouded so that the Federation specialists couldn't see anything as they passed over it.

The transport settled down and Moren opened the hatch. Romaine led the others out of the transport. She found they had arrived at a pristine looking multistoried glass building surrounded by a glen of trees and grasses.

"This is lovely," Romaine confessed.

Moren beamed with pride, "It is the city's central library. We take great delight in it."

"You don't have all of your literary works and factual treatises on your central commnet?" Romaine wondered.

"No," Moren's visage darkened a bit, "Certain works are widely available but the bulk of our factual documents are housed in repositories such as these. Here one can find the digital copies and the original written tomes that were produced before the digital age swept over us."

"And this way you get to control who accesses the information," Romaine guessed.

"Very astute, Commander," Moren mused, "I suppose the lofty Federation hasn't such controls in place."

Romaine wore a bemused expression, "Actually, our facility houses data and documents that are considered 'too provocative' to be allowed access to unauthorized personnel. Fortunately there aren't many cases like that and authorization is relatively easy to come by."

"A pity," Moren commented, "I had unexpectedly begun to have some respect for your culture. You have just dashed my hopes of reaching an understanding."

Romaine gazed around, "I can't help but notice that troops have surrounded the building."

"That is to insure your safety," Moren fed her that line again.

"Wouldn't it be safer to say you're protecting your people from us?" Romaine gibed him.

"Perhaps," Moren allowed.

Romaine sighed, "Somehow I think today is going to be one exceptionally long day."

"It may indeed," Moren mused philosophically.

She found she hated him for all the same reasons she'd hated Knight.

"What kind of weapon did Kirk use to destroy the entity?" an intelligence analyst shouted.

"None!" Romaine finally raised her voice after he'd posed the same question five times already, "You have the Enterprise's sensor logs and Admiral Kirk's after action report. They say the same thing I'm telling you."

"These are obvious forgeries," the analyst scoffed, "No entity with this much strength would simply...vanish!"

"That's what happened," Romaine grated. She really wished T'Ling could handle this portion of the briefing but the Romulans were great respecters of the chain of command. In fact, Romaine had observed that while the Vulcans employed the use of logic and absolute suppression of emotion to quell their passions, the Romulans used martial discipline to achieve the same effect.

While that made her the mouthpiece for the Federation team in their eyes she was also discovering that they were hard headed sons of bitches. They couldn't grasp even the simplest concept outside their established paradigm. It was infuriating.

"Look!" Romaine tried again, "V'Ger had effectively mapped out our galaxy. Rather than just travel to another, it shifted itself into a parallel reality. Who knows exactly why, but it did. We'll have to ask it when we cross over the dimensional barriers and arrive in another quantum universe."

"A pretty face and a pretty tongue to espouse Federation lies," another "expert" chimed in.

"I appreciate the fact that you find me attractive but can we focus on the material at hand?" Romaine fired off a salvo of her own.

"You claim this entity was composed of technology beyond our reckoning yet you also claim that its centerpiece originated on your backwater home world," yet another voice added to the debate, "How is that so?"

"We don't know," Romaine admitted. Seeing all of the astonished stares directed at her she threw up her hands, "We don't! Earth launched a series of Voyager probes three centuries ago. Somehow, no one knows how, this simplistic probe traversed the cosmos and was found by an alien civilization that modified and highly augmented it and sent back towards Earth. How that was accomplished when it had no thrust is a topic of heated debates like this one."

"It had no thrust?" a fourth, who'd been introduced as an engineer, sought clarification.

"It was on a ballistic course when it left Earth's solar system. It hadn't even migrated out of Sector 001 when its handlers lost track of it," Romaine explained, "Quite simply it was declared 'lost' for all intents and purposes until it showed up back on our doorstep."

There was a lot of muttering and grumbling. Finally the Romulan with the most clout asked yet another question, "What was the purpose of this probe?"

"The same as Starfleet's. To seek out new life," Romaine answered wearily.

"Isn't it true this probe was launched with the sole purpose of gathering intelligence on alien cultures so that Earth could conquer them?" the intelligence analyst barbed.

"Of course! That's it!" Romaine laughed a little hysterically, "That's why we marched all over Romulus and Remus when we had the chance."

There was a general outcry over this that basically amounted to, "You'd never stand a chance". Romaine opted to take this as an encouraging sign. Moren intervened at long last.

"Enough of this prattle. The Commander doesn't know what's beyond her brief. She wasn't there and she certainly isn't an expert in these areas," Moren chastised them all, "Now show them the flight telemetry."

"I object," the intelligence guru declared, "Why equip our enemies with knowledge they could use to construct another of these monsters and send it towards the Star Empire?"

"Do you really believe the Federation has the wherewithal to construct one of these entities?" Moren inquired sharply.

"No, but they might be able to," the analyst asserted.

"Be silent!" Moren commanded, "I don't have time for your prattle. Now show them the data."

"But..." another expert protested.

"Are you questioning my authority in this matter?" Moren asked in a soft, yet distinctly threatening, tone.

Information was released to the archivists' data slates. Chief amongst the items was a parabolic course projection for V'Ger before it entered Klingon territory. It had traversed the territory of the Holy Order of Kinshaya before plunging into Imperial space. Romaine and the others had never heard of the Kinshaya. The fact that the Romulan Star Empire was on good enough terms with them to have this sort of telemetry was telling.

The projection theorized an entrance into the Beta Quadrant from the Delta Quadrant. Just as Starfleet's ventures into the Beta Quadrant were severely limited, their knowledge of the Delta Quadrant was completely lacking.

The obnoxious analyst theorized V'Ger originating from the depths of the Delta Quadrant. What he said was of limited interest. What he didn't say was intriguing. The Romulans had no firsthand knowledge of the Delta Quadrant or its races either.

The Romulans concluded their portion of the briefing and Romaine and the Starfleet officers were herded into an antechamber. Taurig was quick with a comment, "Now they're going to shoot us for sure."

"Not necessarily," Romaine replied, "I think the Romulan Praetor is actually on our side. Or at least enough to keep us alive as a goodwill gesture."

"I don't know," Pollachek griped, "You antagonized the hell out of them."

"Who was the one always advising me to never show a weakness to Romulans?" Romaine pointedly asked.

Pollachek's cheeks colored but he stayed quiet. Standish quietly spoke up, "Whatever happens next, I think our trip here just ended."

"Commander, Agent Moren is fast approaching," T'Ling broke her silence.

Moren entered with a rueful smile, "It seems you shall be returning home earlier than originally anticipated."

"How soon?" Romaine asked.

"Tomorrow morning," Moren informed them, "It would be sooner but Commander Alera has other important business to attend to. Seeing as how she is your official minder between borders, you shall remain overnight."

"This could have gone a lot easier," Romaine commented.

"Nonsense," Moren chuckled, "Now our vaunted 'experts' know you have a spine. A lesson they should already have learned from historical experience."

Moren went on, saying he regretted that the information exchange had to end so abruptly but such were the political winds on his world. Romaine hardly heard him. She'd synched her data slate into the library computers and that link was still active. It had to be.

Because she only had tonight in which to accomplish her mission. She didn't have time to test out the rhythms of the library's nocturnal browsers. She had to commit and launch her own probe this very evening. She'd never get another chance.

Romaine bid everyone an early night after the evening meal. Standish was a bit surprised; especially when she was put in charge of making certain everyone packed and was ready to go in the morning. Taurig gave a non-committal grunt as he and Pollachek, seemingly over their differences, tried to coax Standish and T'Ling into a game of gin rummy.

The first thing Romaine did after securing her door, she'd found the lock pick could lock items as well as the reverse, was change out of her uniform. Black utility pants were worn with a grey tunic. It resembled an Imperial military uniform as it was designed to. She slipped on the black jacket marking her as an officer and also draped a duster-like cloak over it. The cloak had a copious hood in case she needed to disguise her ears and decidedly pink complexion as she moved through the public.

Romaine had already opened up the biometrically sealed computer and retrieved the lock pick. She slipped that into a cylindrical pouch on her belt. Now she retrieved the phaser. The spare power back went into another pouch in the small of her back while the phaser itself glided into a half-holster. It had a rounded receptacle for the emitter while the body was held like the last generation of Type II phasers and merely adhered to the length of her belt.

She slung a messenger bag's strap over her torso. Romaine really wished all of this would prove unnecessary but Knight had stressed to be prepared for the ugly incident before it occurred. So she sat down at her "desk/table" and called her data slate out of "standby" mode. It showed it was still linked into the Romulan library catalog. Romaine allowed herself a slight smile. Now she had to decide what to do.

Her next act could provide an excuse for a war no one wanted. It could also get her and her entire team executed. She suddenly mused that this was helluva burden to throw on top of a glorified librarian.

Still, it was a task custom designed for a librarian/archivist. She wasn't after military secrets after all. Just maps and coordinates. She thought she'd be able to throw trade routes in as well since those would give an indication of the flow of resources. A list of colonies couldn't hurt either, she decided.

Knowing she'd already committed herself, Romaine plunged into the actual work.

The hammering at the door began as Romaine was beginning her withdrawal out of the library network. Despite having a translation matrix, and not tripping over any alarms that she could detect, the system had suddenly locked her out and was trying to trace her signal.

She quickly disabled the transceiver. She removed the actuator so the transceiver couldn't be remotely activated either. This also had the effect of disabling it so her position couldn't be given away even by accident.

Romaine stuffed the data slate into the bag she wore. Pulling her phaser free, she checked its settings. It was currently setting for "minimum disrupt" also known as "stun". She thumbed up the power level and took aim at her computer case. Firing, she slagged the case. Its metals components were melting as the polymers and plastics burned. She took aim directly at the crystal core and fired.

Although nothing was stored on the data core, she had to make it look as though there had been. So while the Tal Shiar's analysts sifted through its stored code, their attention would be diverted from her. Still, she acknowledged, the whole damn planet was going to be dogging her heels. She had to get out and get out now. It was just that the only entrance/exit to the bloody room was currently blocked.

Romaine heard the lock cycle. She thumbed down her phaser's setting through sheer reflex. The door slid open and she fired on the first guard she saw. One fell and another took aim. Still poised in a modified Weaver stance, Romaine shifted her aim to her left and dispatched the second guard into slumber land.

She heard shouts as more guards filed into the barracks. Keeping her own phaser in hand, she approached the fallen guards and retrieved their disruptors. Setting them at the table, she laid her own phaser down where she could easily scoop it up. She thought she had just enough time to accomplish her task.

Exposing the disruptor's power cell, she first pulled the power pack free. Then she crosswired the terminals and flipped the polarity switch. Now the disruptor would build a massive feedback and detonate.

She began work on the second disruptor when she heard footfalls and a muttered curse approaching. She snatched up her phaser and waited. Controlling her breathing like she'd been taught her heart still raced and the blood pounded in her ears. She knew the nausea was from the adrenalin coursing through her veins. Yet that same adrenalin was giving the sharpened senses and reflexes she needed to accomplish her task.

The newest Romulan swung around the corner. Her disruptor lashed out blindly in an arc across the room's confined space. Romaine instinctively dropped to one knee and waited for the Romulan to present her torso. Romaine was rewarded for her patience a few seconds later.

She could hear hushed whispers beyond the doorframe as the guards conferred. Romaine slapped the power cell back into the altered disruptor. She then came to the doorway and tossed the disrupter around the frame. There was a sudden shout and Romulans scattered.

Romaine saw that one of them ran into her room. He gave a startled look around, trying to deduce where she could have gone. His shoulders slumped as he turned around in resignation.

The rigged disruptor detonated and energy washed throughout the open areas of the barracks. Romaine saw the Romulan perk up. She shook her head sadly and shot him.

Romaine modified the other disruptor while confusion reigned. She picked it up and lifted up her own phaser as well. She jacked up the power setting on her phaser to "maximum disrupt" and fired at the rear wall of her quarters. The wall vaporized as its atomic cohesion came undone.

Romaine was free to move now. She spotted a couple of military transports parked alongside the barracks. She slipped the power cell into her other modified disruptor and slid it under a transport. She then ran away.

The explosion that lit up the night sky further plunged the Romulan security forces into disruption. Crowds began littering about outside so her exit was camouflaged. After walking a few blocks, the crowds had thinned. They were mostly headed for the sights and sounds of destruction.

The riot sentries were being deployed to push the populace back. So there was a logjam as the retreating crowds ran headlong into the approaching crowds. Things were getting tense and civil unrest was mere moments away.

Romaine found an air car and unlocked it. She disabled the positioning beacon and then used the lock pick to activate the ignition. She flew off and headed off into the overhead traffic lanes.

She fished the data slate out of her messenger bag and scrolled through its menu options. Finding the one she wanted, she set course for the arranged destination. She had to manually fly the car since the missing positioning beacon cut the autopilot off from the Global Traffic Network.

Romaine soon discovered the Romulans were very aggressive drivers. She'd thought her fellow Martian colonists had an exclusive claim to that honor but these people drove like they were in a professional race. Romaine had raced some as a teenager so she recognized the mentality. It was a cutthroat world and every opportunity for advancement would be seized.

She landed a dozen blocks away from her destination. She walked the rest of the way. Fortunately, her hood and cloak weren't unusual in the Romulan night. Eventually she arrived at a tavern. She thought a public house an odd choice for a rendezvous but she knew Knight knew what she was doing.

She entered without any fuss and she chose a booth in the back of the establishment. She couldn't see the entrance but she could unobtrusively observe anyone that entered the room. Here, hooded features were a rarity. She knew the longer she stayed the more she was in danger of being discovered. And it wasn't like she could fake her ears so they'd know right away.

A Romulan woman wearing an insufferably familiar smirk sauntered Romaine's way. She came to stand at Romaine's table and she placed a hand on the table top, "Do you mind if I have a seat?"

The statement wasn't shocking. The fact that it was spoken in Federation Standard was. Romaine panicked.

The Romulan plopped down without permission, "Have no fears, Commander Romaine. I am your contact."

"Who are you?" Romaine blurted.

The Romulan laughed lightly, "I don't think that's the question you have for me. Think and the proper question will be recalled."

Romaine was embarrassed. She'd forgotten the damn code phrase. Rummaging around in her own mind she finally stammered the expected phrase.

The Romulan dutifully gave her counter sign despite threatening to break out into a fit of hysterical laughter at any second, "Have no worries, Commander. I shall get you out of here. But we must leave now. The subspace bands and public address nets are full of your acts of 'terrorism and sedition'. Already calls for war have arisen."

Romaine blanched and the Romulan gave her a wry grin, "Have no fears. There are always call for war."

She rose, "Follow me."

They exited the tavern and the Romulan tapped a wrist comm, "Aelynn to Darkstar. Two for a site to site transport."

"It's about time, Subcommander," a gruff voice replied, "They're closing down the launch windows."

"Then transport us already so we can be away," Aelynn sighed.


Chapter Five

The transporter chief grunted as Aelynn and Romaine finished materializing, "Commander Talus wants you on the bridge as soon as you can get there."

"Why?" Aelynn wondered.

"He wants you to handle our launch while he placates the officials," the tech explained and then added, "And you'd best watch your tongue, Subcommander. We may be loose knit but we are still Romulans. The command structure will be adhered to. That includes respect."

"Inform the Commander that I'll be up as soon as I stow our passenger," Aelynn assured him.

"Just hurry," the tech advised, "Commander Talus is ready to chew neutronium."

"It'd probably be easier on his digestion than his usual culinary massacres," Aelynn quipped. The tech chortled and Aelynn waved Romaine on to follow her.

Aelynn led her through the ship. Romaine had studied Romulans ship designs. This was reminiscent of a Bird of Prey yet it was distinctly different. Finally she had to ask why that was.

Aelynn grinned, "That's because we're in a Bird of Vengeance-class. Essentially we're a scout. This class of vessel isn't military. Rather we're privateers in the service of the Empire. We engage in exploration, anti-piracy operations, and first contact missions."

"So, you're counting on your semi-legitimate status to get us through security," Romaine guessed.

Aelynn nodded as she came to a halt, "That is right. If you'll step in here, these will be your temporary lodgings."

Romaine looked in. It was a small berth, barely big enough to hold the cot contained within. Aelynn recognized Romaine's look of dismay for what it was.

"This area is shielded. When the hatch closes it is flush with the bulkhead. For all intents and purposes it and its occupant disappear," Aelynn described.

Dawning awareness wakened in Romaine, "You've done this before."

Aelynn's eyes twinkled with mischief, "On occasion."

"But why?" Romaine wondered.

Aelynn suddenly wore a somber mien, "I'll explain all later on but for now I need you in this area and I need to report to the bridge."

"You're locking me in, aren't you?" Romaine realized.

"Only for a short span of time," Aelynn assured her, "You must trust me."

For some strange reason, Romaine did. And it wasn't because Aelynn was her contact. Rather in was in spite of that. Aelynn, and by extension her crewmates, were risking their lives to extract Romaine. The least she could do was cooperate.

Romaine entered the room and sat on the cot, "Do it. Before I change my mind."

"Rest easy. We're very, very good at this," Aelynn promised and then closed the door a locked it.

"Like I have a choice," Romaine grumbled to the encroaching bulkheads.

It took a nearly three hours for Aelynn to release the door. Romaine had nearly gone mad from feeling claustrophobic. She gratefully accepted Aelynn's invitation to the ship's mess.

When they arrived four other crewmen were present. They all openly stared at Romaine out of curiosity. Romaine was a little unnerved.

"Why am I such a focus of attention? Haven't they seen humans before?" Romaine wondered.

"Of course they have. They just never seen one that wasn't a slave," Aelynn informed her.

"Slave?" Romaine latched onto that singular word.

"My people brought quite a number of prisoners back from the war between our peoples. Most were given to the noble houses to serve as slaves. The nobles use a variety of slaves from the subject races as menial laborers," Aelynn explained, "Surely you knew."

"No," Romaine confessed, "Starfleet has often wondered what happened the missing in action but we always assumed they were actually killed in action."

"Not always," Aelynn seemed to be enjoying a private joke, "I am proof enough of that."

"Are you saying...?" Romaine couldn't believe it.

"My paternal grandmother was human. She was a slave that caught the eye of her master. He was impressed enough with her to forsake this House and marry her. That is where I learned to speak your native language. The skill has been passed down through the family," Aelynn revealed.

"Is that why you're helping me?" Romaine asked.

"Partly," Aelynn decided to share, "The primary reason, and the factor motivating my crew, is the Reunification movement."

"The what?" Romaine was baffled.

"What do you know of the Vulcan Reunification movement?" Aelynn inquired.

"I've never even heard of it," Romaine confessed.

"T'Ling never spoke of it?" Aelynn had to ask.

"No," Romaine was now wondering what the hell T'Ling had to do with anything.

Aelynn wore an approving smile, "She's always been a cagey one. That is why she was chosen for the mission."

"What mission?" Romaine demanded to know.

Aelynn looked sad, "I hate to inform you, Commander, but you're mission was a feint."

"Excuse me?" Romaine was incensed.

Aelynn held up her hands, "I had nothing to do with it. Commander Knight selected you out of the very limited choices. You distracted the Tal Shiar and kept their focus on you while T'Ling carried out the true mission. I am sorry to have to inform you of this."

"But you're not sorry I did my part," Romaine scowled.

"Truly, I'm not," Aelynn admitted, "T'Ling is one of our number."

"What number?" Romaine snapped.

"The Reunification movement seeks to reunite the Vulcan and Romulan peoples in a cohesive exchange of cultures such as we had before the Sundering," Aelynn explained.

"You've got to be kidding," Romaine said dismissively.

"Over a hundred years ago, the Star Empire's agents travelled to Vulcan and placed this idea in the minds of the High Command as a manipulative ruse. The movement took a life of its own and now a century later there are adherents moving in secret on both sides of the border," Aelynn shared.

"You're trying to tell me a bunch of idealistic dreamers schemed up this plan?" Romaine countered.

"No, we had assistance from factions within Starfleet," Aelynn explained, "There were some unexpected variables thrown in during your transit here that threatened the mission."

"What kind of 'variables'?" Romaine wearily asked.

"My sister became involved," Aelynn stated.

"Who is your sister?" Romaine had to ask.

"You have had the misfortune of meeting her. She commands the cruiser that brought you to Romulus," Aelynn divulged.

"Commander Alera is your sister?" Romaine was astounded, "You're saying she's part human and she's still such a..."

As Romaine faltered while searching for a word, Aelynn chuckled; "No matter which adjective you apply, they've been used frequently and often for Alera."

"Why is she" Romaine stumbled.

"Full of hate?" Aelynn suggested. Romaine nodded and the Romulan explained, "My sister feels she is contaminated by her human blood. It is a perceived impurity that drives her every ambition. She feels she must constantly prove her orthodoxy and goes to great extremes to demonstrate her loyalty to the Star Empire and to simply being Romulan."

"So let me get this straight, your sister was the great threat that could've been our undoing?" Romaine had t scoff.

"Alera knows of the Reunification movement," Aelynn said, "She suspects everyone of being a traitor or a threat, especially Vulcans."

"Why would a Vulcan pose a concrete threat?" Romaine wondered.

"Vulcans act as philosophical ambassadors when they travel into the Star Empire. Indigenous members of the movement act as spies and agents of influence and change," Aelynn shared, "The Tal Shiar expressly demanded that Alera be your team's minder en route. That bodes ill."

"The Federation's Prime Directive forbids interference in foreign cultures. Starfleet is bound by that law yet you're saying Starfleet Intelligence ran an illegal covert operation?" Romaine inquired.

Aelynn wore a mischievous smile, "Did I say it was Starfleet Intelligence?"

"Yes, you did," Romaine said flatly even as she recalled that Aelynn hadn't specified which branch of Starfleet had concocted this fiasco.

"I must have misspoken," Aelynn retorted.

Romaine was stymied and she knew it.

Two days later Romaine was brought to a small room with a view screen. She was curious as to why. Aelynn gave her a surprising answer.

"We've arrived for our rendezvous with the Longbow," the Romulan XO answered.

"We've reached the Neutral Zone?" Romaine asked hopefully.

"Not quite," Aelynn smirked again. Romaine was beginning to hate that mirthful expression. Aelynn opted not to leave her guest hanging in suspense, "We're still a day away from the Zone. The Longbow crossed the Zone a day ago and should be here waiting for us."

"Waitaminute!" Romaine exclaimed, "The Longbow violated the Neutral Zone?"

"Your own precious Enterprise did so," Aelynn pointed out, "What is another starship after that?"

"If she's here why don't you know it?" Romaine caught up with Aelynn's statements.

"I think you're about to see why," Aelynn offered.

Romaine was half tempted to risk Aelynn's greater strength and attempt to strangle her. Then she noticed the ripple in the viewscreen, "What the...? Something's decloaking!"

"Right on time," Aelynn mused.

Romaine was suddenly concerned that she'd come this far just to be delivered over to the Tal Shiar at long last. Then, as the mystery starship coalesced into view, Romaine realized the viewer displayed an image of an Archer-class scout.

"What the hell?" Romaine blurted, "When did the Longbow get a cloaking device?"

"Shortly after the Starfleet Corps of Engineers finished examining the one stolen by Kirk," Aelynn explained, "We can proceed to the transport chamber now. I think you've seen what you needed to see."

"Why did I need to see this?" Romaine asked.

"Did Commander Knight inform you what the primary rule is?" Aelynn inquired in turn.

"Yes," Romaine answered warily.

"Then you have your answer," Aelynn said sagely.

Romaine decided it wasn't too late to strangle the Subcommander after all.

Romaine appeared in the Longbow's transporter room. Knight cheerfully greeted her. Romaine responded by taking aim at her with her phaser.

The transporter chief reached for the alarm but Knight waved him off, "Why Mira, whatever do you intend to do with that?"

"I'm not sure yet," Romaine admitted, "I just feel more comfortable having this pointed at you."

"And why is that?" Knight was thoroughly amused.

"You set me up," Romaine accused, "I was your dupe. I was the decoy so your real agent could do God knows what."

"True," Knight admitted, "But I didn't enjoy having to do it."

"I don't give a damn whether or not you enjoyed it," Romaine growled, "You still did it."

"Yes, I did. And given the same choice I'd do it again in a hot second," Knight divulged.

"I should just shoot you and take my chances with the crew," Romaine declared.

"Go ahead," Knight suggested.

"Say what?" Romaine was baffled.

"Knowing you would feel this way when we picked you up, do you really think I'd give you a weapon that you could use against me?" Knight inquired.

"You're bluffing," Romaine ventured.

"Let's see if you are and we'll know for sure if I am," Knight urged.

Romaine thought about for half a second and then pulled the trigger. She tried a couple of more times, "Damn."

Knight grinned, "I didn't think you do it for a moment there. I'd say you've come a long way in a short time. Are you certain you wouldn't like a change in careers?"

"Get stuffed," Romaine replied.

Knight shrugged, "You might change your mind someday. I've got time."

"Now what happens?" Romaine wondered.

"Now we go to our guest quarters and I'll answer as many of your questions as I can," Knight shared.

"I guess I'll have to live with that," Romaine sighed.

"Well, you certainly won't get a better offer from anyone else," Knight chuckled.

They were sitting in their room and Romaine finally vented, "What the hell was so important that you had to use me like a pawn?"

"I'm afraid I can't answer that. You're not cleared for it," Knight reluctantly stated, "I can say that what we've gathered could very well insure the lives of trillions."

"So my data is useless?" Romaine asked wearily.

"No, your data is valuable. It's just of a secondary importance because we could have acquired it by other means. Assets like Subcommander Aelynn are valuable and resourceful but they're still Romulan patriots and won't hand over any information that they feel would imperil the Star Empire," Knight divulged.

"Just who the hell are you anyway?" Romaine wanted to know, "Because you sure as hell aren't Starfleet Intelligence."

"What makes you think that?" Knight was curious.

"Call it a hunch," Romaine shot back.

"I feel I owe you a glimmer of the truth so I will admit that there are layers to Starfleet and some layers are hidden from the average person. Let's just say you've had a brush with something far beyond you," Knight revealed.

"But..." Romaine started to say.

Knight held up a hand to ward off the question, "That's all I can say. I'm serious about you joining us though. You wouldn't have to leave Memory Alpha. You'd just be on call to protect the Federation when asked to."

"At what price?" Romaine asked sharply.

"You'd have to broaden your paradigm slightly," Knight shared.

"Is there such a thing as 'going too far' with you people?" Romaine wanted to know.

"Freedom comes at a price," Knight countered, "Most people aren't willing to pay it."

"And what is that price?" Romaine inquired.

"Join us and find out," Knight offered, "Otherwise, get used to not having your questions answered."

Romaine decided it was going to be a long trip back to Memory Alpha.

Knight offered Romaine another chance to join her shadowy organization one last time. Romaine declined once again but Knight wore a knowing smile, "We'll see."

The Longbow departed and carried Knight away with her. Romaine returned to her duties. Someone had warned off her fellow officers from asking Romaine what had happened on Romulus. They were dying to know, she could tell, but they were literally afraid to ask. Romaine knew it was Knight's heavy hand again. Her or her mysterious compatriots.

As Romaine had suspected would happen, T'Ling was immediately transferred out of Memory Alpha. The transfer was so immediate, in fact, she left with the Longbow when she broke orbit. It wasn't a coincidence that T'Ling had packed all of her belongings before departing for Romulus.

Over the next three months three unexpected events occurred. First, Commander Garth retired. He moved back to Earth and became the Chief Librarian for Starfleet Academy.

Second, Romaine was then promoted to Commander ahead of schedule. And thirdly, she was made Chief Archivist of Memory Alpha. Her surprise and delight ebbed when she received a congratulatory note from Knight. She felt the hand of manipulation again but she also shrugged it off. Her new position could serve her newfound interests.

Romaine began to dig deeper into Starfleet's Bureau of Personnel database. Mercy Knight didn't exist. Her file and transcripts had disappeared. But a woman matching her description did, or had, existed.

Lt. Miranda Graves was a dead ringer for Knight. She'd apparently died in a shuttle accident on Izar. She'd been one of the first graduates of the Advanced Tactical Training Center. She had been awarded medals, citations, and letters of merit with no events attached. So Miranda Graves, like Mercy Knight, stank of covert ops.

Romaine realized that shuttle accidents could be arranged. Cloning of enough tissues could provide DNA evidence to substantiate a death. Graves had been far too competent to be caught by a hidden bomb. Basically, Miranda Graves had died so Mercy Knight could be born.

The question was why had Romaine been allowed to discover these facts? She knew it had been a controlled and intentional oversight not to erase Graves' records. Whoever Knight worked for wasn't that sloppy. They were playing a game with Romaine, still inexorably trying to draw her in.

And that begged the question of what kind of organization could convince a loyal and patriotic officer like Graves fake her death and serve them as Knight? Personnel files seemed to be altered at will and fake orders generated at a whim. Who had that kind of access and power?

Also disturbing was the Longbow being equipped with the stolen cloaking device. Starfleet had made it official policy not to pursue cloaking technology. Part of the reason was idealistic. Starfleet operated in the open. They shouldn't have to resort to skullduggery. And of course there was the matter of having to admit where they'd acquired the technology.

It was also a matter of priorities. Cloaking devices were a first strike weapon. Starfleet's primary function was exploration. Defense was a secondary priority. And defense meant what it sounded like. Defense was not offense.

Romaine had decided to unearth the powers that be from the shadows where they lingered. Unsurprisingly, after a few months of probing she got a message from Knight. Knight seemed genuinely pleased to be speaking with Romaine.

"Congratulations Mira, I can tell you you're on the right trail. I fact, you've come closer to the truth than anyone has in decades," Knight bubbled, "I'm authorized to tell you everything if you're ready to listen."

"What's the price?" Romaine warily asked.

"You give up your safe little career and use your talents in defense of the Federation full time," Knight shared, "And I can also tell you this is a onetime offer. Take it or leave it."

Romaine graphically described which orifice Knight could shove her offer into. Knight was a little discouraged, "Don't continue wasting your talents, Mira."

"I'm not," Romaine grated.

"I'm sure you intend to chase us down and bring us into the daylight. I can freely advise you not to bother. It could be dangerous to continue your pursuit," Knight warned.

"Is that a threat?" Romaine sought clarification.

"A possibility," Knight deflected the question, "A very real one."

"I think we're done here," Romaine decided.

"Just think about it, Knight requested before signing off.

Romaine was merely more determined than ever. She vowed to uncover the secrets and hidden agendas or die trying. What she hadn't realized yet was that could become a reality far sooner than she suspected.


Last modified: 29 Dec 2016