Eyes barely slit open, Sela was enjoying her morning khavas, along with the view in her guest quarters aboard the IRI Anu'Senel. She braced her hip against the tiny counter that served as a food preparation area. She watched Grenelk scramble to dress in time for his shift which started in less than ten minutes. He'd never make it and part of her was disappointed to know that.
She chalked it up to narcissism. Grenelk was all lean muscle, tousled hair and earnest sincerity. He had a way of looking at her with piercing intensity that sometimes made her forget it was a practiced skill. But it was all a lie, a carefully orchestrated act, though one pleasant to follow. Still, the ship had reached Federation Starbase 84 and that meant his time was up.
He disappeared for a moment around the separating wall, then reappeared wearing his outer tunic. When he looked up from fussing with his comm badge, fastened at the neck, she pointed helpfully at the dining table.
He smiled, seeing a bowl of porridge and glass of cejtc juice. "Thanks. You going to eat?"
"I already did while you were comatose." She pretended not to see him surreptitiously test his food for toxins with a quick swipe of a small tricorder.
He drank half the glass of cejtc without stopping, then answered, "You must have drugged me to sleep."
"No, but funny you should mention drugging."
He kept staring at her, his face locked in an automatic, friendly smile. A flash of distress crossed his face, then he feigned indifference as if she'd told a joke. "Well, I know there is nothing in my food."
"That would be a bit obvious, don't you think?" Setting down her empty cup, Sela crossed her arms loosely on the counter. "I used a reactive dermal agent, though I admit the sex was fun, too."
He was no longer smiling. His expression went blank and he retrieved his tricorder, pointing it at himself. Turning it to read the results, he sat deathly still, inhaling after a pause. He stood and went to his personal effects, searching through a small satchel. He found a small, concealed pocket but not what should have been in it. He cursed.
"I removed your emergency hypospray."
He didn't say anything, but a muscle in his jaw flexed as he ground his teeth.
"Oh," she murmured gently, "you thought I would be that simple and crass? Because I am so young and naive?"
"The cejtc?" he asked in a clipped tone.
"The reactive agent, yes. It has been accumulating in your soft tissues." She waved a hand flippantly. "I am sure you know how it works, don't you, Agent Grenelk, if that is even your name. Don't worry, you don't need to tell me."
He reached inside his tunic but she was prepared.
"Uh uh," she warned, pointing her disruptor at him. When he narrowed his eyes and continued to move, she added, "It is not on maximum. I will merely cripple you."
"To watch me die in agony? You are sick."
"I am sick? You were the one sent to seduce me, to distract me while you sabotaged this ship. You were willing to kill everyone on board, loyal subjects of the Empire, to eliminate me. And then what? Flee onto the station before the ship blew? Perhaps meet someone? And how did you plan on returning to base? Did you consider they would not let you to return?" She curled her lip. "A pathetic plan. Messy, incompetent and most of all, conceited."
"Oh?" Having regained some bravado, he challenged, "For someone who claims to be so savvy, you were all too eager for attention."
"My practical side. I will grant your superiors chose well."
It wasn't a lie. Handsome might have caught her eye, an attentive manner triggering a damned pang of hope, skilled and patient in bed. It was an excellent combination. He must have been an excellent espionage agent. But none of those would have mattered if she'd ever seen that tell-tale flash of disdain in his eyes. There were times when she felt as if she might as well have been born Havrannsu. He never looked at her that way, but almost without artifice as if her race didn't matter. That too was probably a matter of skill, but it had been nice to play along and enjoy the proverbial ride.
"If that was a compliment, I hope you choke on it." His unruffled facade crumbled into hate. "When they picked me, I had doubts. I thought they were being prejudiced, playing politics but they had it right. You are imbalanced and I only regret I didn't act in a more timely fashion."
His face was flushing green, sweat beading on his forehead. When he finished snarling at her, his breath came in gasps. He kept trying to swallow and she knew his throat was swelling shut.
"Then I will take your dallying as a compliment," she dismissed, thinking that there was a difference between angry and mad. She wasn't imbalanced, a common insult referring to her hybrid genetic heritage. She was tired of hearing it.
He bared his teeth, gritting out, "The blood breeds true."
She fingered the trigger on her disruptor, reflexively swallowing down that feeling, that sense of barely suppressed bile that she wasn't sure had a name. She'd learned at an early age to suppress violent outbursts triggered by any mention of her race because it only resulted in further taunts. "It is more effective if you mean it."
It was the only part of this exchange she regretted because she didn't think he was a racist. That was among his redeeming qualities. She watched with detachment as Grenelk gradually dropped to one knee, then two, fighting to breathe. She considered shooting him, ending it quickly, but however tolerant he might have been of race, he had intended to kill her. That wasn't a forgivable offense.
Grenelk worked up enough air to mutter, "Traitor."
"Me?" Keeping on guard, because it was during these last struggles a victim might lash back in desperation, she said conversationally, "I think the Human idiom goes: A tit for a tat. Or did you think comparing me to my mother would ruffle my feathers?"
He lurched to one side, reaching for his weapon but she merely shot his hand. He fell to his right, clutching at the irrelevant wound, his attention solely on himself now.
"I hate men who don't listen."
More accurately, she hated idiots. She hated bigots and she was surrounded by them. She'd lived with them, worked with them and listened to their disparaging remarks with professional indifference for too long. They weren't going to change and she couldn't change to suit them. Her father was right about that, for all his cowardly, meek obedience and maybe he'd been right about her mother, as much as Grenelk was wrong.
There were several puzzles surrounding her mother's arrival on ch'Rihan, and several more regarding her death. Sela had already determined that there must have been at least two arrangements between her mother and father: One as a public facade, and a second in private. Most wealthy or notorious families on the homeworld behaved in a similar fashion, a fact exploited by her department on many occasions. It was so easy to threaten people with the truth. Regardless, her father couldn't afford to appear soft or overly sentimental in public beyond how much was unavoidable. Most damningly, he continued to rear his half alien child as his heir rather than rid himself of it, like one of those half Havrannsu that occasionally occurred.
She'd been to ch'Havran and seen its dilithium mines. Her commanding officer had taken new recruits there as part of a training drill because the entire planet reeked of treachery and insubordination. As he'd walked them through the dimly lit tunnels, etched thousands of years earlier, she had seen not only Havrannsu, but numerous aliens, including Humans. They were unaffiliated pirates or unlucky border runners, those who the vaunted Federation would not protect. She remembered the quick, speculative glances thrown by her colleagues, and the more pointed one from her commander.
The truth was, everyone knew why her father hadn't married a proper Rihannsu woman and had normal children to carry on the House after his Human died. It was the same reason he hadn't sent his mongrel daughter to the mines.
No, the puzzle that fascinated her from an early age was something that appeared inconsequential to others. On the morning of her mother's execution, Captain Lethren, the presiding Tal Shiar officer, assisted by Sub-Lieutenant Saket, had brought a standard issue cryo-pod. Such devices were used to transport the critically wounded, ill or valuable dead. He wouldn't have brought it if he hadn't intended to use it, but he hadn't used it.
Still-classified records showed that after conferring with Saket, Lethren had given the order to vaporize Tasha Yar's remains rather than waste government resources on 'a worthless alien corpse'. If it had been some convoluted underground plot cooked up by political agitators or Federation sympathizers, Lethren should have disappeared, escaped off-world rather than remaining in service.
She also doubted he'd been given the authority to make such an executive decision over such a highly visible prisoner in the heart of Ki Baratan. No, if he brought a cryo-pod, then he'd been under orders to return with the body to confirm its identity and ensure the woman hadn't been replaced by some clone, duplicate or other imposter. Which meant he'd lost the body and that put suspicion on Saket.
Yet, while Lethren's career stalled and his assignments became increasingly dismal and distasteful, Saket rocketed forward, achieving steady advancement. That paradox suggested to Sela that Saket had the protection of a powerful benefactor, a sympathizer with enough rank and authority to ensure suspicion and blame stayed at Lethren's feet.
Unless she was wrong and Lethren had simply been stupid and recklessly ordered the destruction of her mother's remains out of pure spite. He had, after all, repeatedly failed to acquire reliable testimony or information from her over the course of four years. It must have been frustrating to be so limited by the political constraints of operating within the public sphere of a ranking general. The senate feared the imperial forces as much as the latter's officers feared the praetorate. Usually, that mutual fear kept rival forces in check.
So, as she sat at her obviously used desk and considered where to assign Lethren, she'd been sympathetic. She'd thought he had paid long enough for whatever failure in his past -- his record was otherwise exemplary -- and that he deserved a fresh start.
Toying with the openings available to an officer of his rank, she had glanced up and greeted him with a brusque, "Enarrain."
He stared at her coldly, his jaw clenched, the veins at his temples pulsing in suppressed fury. He hesitated a moment too long before acknowledging her superior rank, "Riov."
Mentally, she narrowed the options swiftly, automatically. She knew that look, that disgusted contempt bordering on revulsion. She had grown up as its target, from soldiers at the compound, teachers at the war college, colleagues in the Tal Shiar. She would have understood dismay or disappointment from him.
She would have forgiven the lapse in composure, too aware that being assigned to her unit was hardly considered an honor. But upon finally being granted her rank, deliberately delayed for two years through bureaucratic tampering, she had promised herself to never tolerate that attitude from a subordinate. She had scrabbled and fought for advancements that would have been granted with pride to a full-blooded Rihannsu. She was more than qualified to hold her post.
So she assigned the captain, without promotion, to the most undesirable task available, in what was the already undesirable division of Non-Hostile Powers. Experiencing more satisfaction and pleasure than she'd expected -- hardly inexperienced with petty revenge -- she sent him to rain-drenched Ferenginar.
She remembered telling her father, compelled to visit his house, to watch his face and see what clues it offered. Enough acidic remarks, quickly cut short, made her believe he hated Lethren with a deeply rooted rancor. It wasn't hate because a lower ranked officer had usurped his authority, resentment over lost face, even though his prestige had suffered greatly when everyone learned that the Human he'd so trusted had attempted to flee him. The reason was hidden on short segments of security footage, here and there, over the course of five years.
There were moments when either or both her parents forgot, or ignored, that they were being filmed in certain regions of the First Infantry Division training compound. Times when one or the other would offer a comforting touch, one told a joke causing the other to laugh, the way her father would seethe in silence when he came back from an assignment to discover her injured, courtesy of Lethren. Then there were the moments when her father was absent and everyone from the lowliest private to Riov Dekesh, the chief administrative commander, obeyed her mother. Within the limitations of her legal status, anyway. There was other footage involving Sela, but she avoided watching it.
When Sela told her father what she had done to Lethren, Volskiar turned away quickly, but not before she caught the glimpse of a smug smile that bordered on cruel. He must have known Sela hadn't done it to honor her mother, but she doubted he'd cared. At the time, she hadn't understood how he could hold an enemy agent in higher esteem than his own colleagues.
She realized Grenelk had stopped wheezing.
Sela looked down at him where he lay in an ungainly heap, his face twisted in a grimace as he'd struggled over his last breath. He wasn't so handsome in death, but no one ever was. He was also in the way, forcing her to step over him.
She summoned Anuit.
The young man, a freshly winged sub-lieutenant, soon answered her door. He had probably been waiting, just out of sight and was still new enough to be ingratiating in his desire to please. When she jerked her chin at his pause in the doorway, he entered her quarters, coming to a sudden stop when he saw the body.
He raised his eyebrows, blinking surprise several times, then cleared his throat. To his credit, he didn't feign cynicism with some sarcastic comment about how he'd heard she was impatient with men, nor immediately eye her suspiciously. Instead, he met her gaze without recrimination and asked, "Do you wish me to remove the body?"
"It is in my way." She replaced her disruptor in its holster. "And they stink after awhile."
"Should I be discreet?"
"No need. Take it down to the medical cryo-unit. I want to confirm his identity before apportioning guilt."
"Yes, sir. Should I be on watch for an accomplice?"
"I believe he was acting alone, but if you do happen to notice any crew member trying to make a quick escape, detain them and alert me."
She leaned back against the wall in a deceptively relaxed way, folded arms concealing her hand loosely curled around the butt of her disruptor. The young man had been assigned to serve as her aide-de-camp shortly before she was sent on this mission to root out a suspected traitor to the Empire. While the newest praetor, Neral, seemed to hold no grudge against her family, there were always a number of sudden replacements in all departments of the state when the regime shifted. Some resigned, some were reassigned and others conveniently disappeared or died.
Anuit struggled with the weight of the larger man, first pulling him free from the chair, then dragging the body around the table.
"Tell me, Erein, what did you do?"
He paused, dropping Grenelk's arms, catching his breath. "You mean to draw this assignment, if we assume it is an undesirable one?"
"And I am assuming you already know the facts but, I loved the wrong person."
She shrugged flippantly. "I believe the official stance is that it was not a person and therefore sodomy. I am surprised you were not mustered out."
His sigh was almost beleaguered as he fought for composure. After one last deep breath, he said, "In all honesty, I believe you know as well as I that Havrannsu are as much people as we are. I am equally certain you know my father is a member of the consulate and bribed the tribunal."
He straightened, turning to face her fully, his eyes dull with acceptance. "Respectfully, sir, if you are going to shoot me with that, please use the maximum setting. It is both painless and leaves no body to remove."
"Hm," she answered noncommittally, swinging her disruptor forward. "You are right."
Anuit jerked at the flash of light, closing his eyes. After a moment, he opened them, nervously licking his lips and swallowing. He looked down at his feet and the absence of weight on his boots. He mumbled something.
"What was that?"
He looked at her again, but now with a mixture of fear, confusion and doubt. "I called you a sadistic nei'rrh."
She let out a single, sharp laugh, pushing off the wall. "That is okay. It might be apt in this case."
With an expression that was increasingly bewildered, he raised a pained eyebrow.
"I poisoned him," she explained bluntly. "That poor, unfortunate man. It turned out he was allergic to me."
"I gathered from the evidence of anaphylactic shock, but what does 'okay' mean?"
She did her best to conceal the spark of irritation over the slip before answering, "It is an ambiguous Human term. My father grew fond of it."
In her peripheral vision, she caught him watching her thoughtfully before he turned away, wiping his palms on his trousers. She typically encountered one of three reactions in her colleagues: Disgusted contempt, disgusted curiosity and disgusted indifference. They usually made a sincere effort to conceal the disgust but it had a way of creeping out if she pushed, as she had with Grenelk.
Anuit glanced at her, opening his mouth, then shut it firmly, backing away to a polite, formal distance. "Will there be anything else, sir?"
"Yes. What was it you were about to ask me?"
He closed his eyes again and she guessed he was praying. "I was not going to ask you anything. I almost forgot my place and made a personal comment of no concern."
"Ah, but now you must tell me." She smiled pleasantly in a manner she had learned others found deeply unpleasant.
He was young and inexperienced but obviously knew better than to ask if that was an order. "I was considering certain similarities in our upbringing because, um," he swallowed, exhaling, "they killed him. They killed him because he was not Rihannsu. Then they laughed at me for caring."
She felt the involuntary sneer that Anuit saw. "And you think that puts us on equal footing?"
"No sir, I do not. That is why I was not going to say anything. When I was assigned to your command, I familiarized myself with your record. Our circumstances are quite different."
She restrained the urge to reach back for her disruptor, because he was right. She wouldn't punish him for being honest as commanded.
When she remained silent, he continued, "I am honored to serve you, if you do not kill me first."
"Flattery will not save you."
"It was not flattery; I still think you are a sadistic nei'rrh, but your record is a history of impossible and impractical assignments, many of which had a high probability of death. Not only have you survived, but avoided lasting penalty. I may be young, but that suggests to me superb tactics. Unless you mean to tell me that you just 'got lucky' an extraordinary number of times, to borrow another Human idiom."
"Tell me, Anuit, do you always become suicidally confrontational when terrified?"
"It is a bad habit of mine."
She took a deep breath and rolled her head, cracking the joints in her neck which had tensed in growing temper. "Curb it before it gets you executed. I am going into the station. Ensure no one follows me."
He sagged in place. "Yes, sir."
She wished she could have had a few more minutes to herself to shake off the tangle of conflicting emotions triggered by the morning's events. Regardless, the information she had indicated the Federation contact would arrive and depart within a narrow window and the deadline was approaching. Anuit dodged her as she headed for the exit and hallway without further warning.
His response was mirrored by various crewmen she passed on the way to the bridge, a quick stop to speak with the ship's commander. To be fair, most of them weren't responding to her as an individual, but her uniform and position. The Tal Shiar policed internally as much as they did externally, much to the grievance of the Security Department tasked with the former. She paused at the threshold of the bridge, giving the command crew a moment to notice her.
The commander stood from his chair, gesturing quickly to his first office to remain seated in the traditional seat beside him. He eyed her warily from beneath gray brows, the lines on his face creasing with tension. No one ever enjoyed having a Tal Shiar officer assigned to his or her ship. "Riov?"
She nodded once, then crossed the bridge. "I thought you would like to know that Uhlan Grenelk is dead."
"Ah. I see. We had detected weapons fire in your quarters," Riov Pelek said, a bit hesitantly, the curiosity in his voice obvious.
"You do not," she answered dryly, catching his insinuation. She removed a small but powerful explosive device from a belt pouch. "He planted this near the singularity drive, close to where he had claimed to discover sabotage by Uhlan Nenyek. Grenelk was a member of an insurgent cell we have been tracking."
The first part was true, the second, a lie. Her commanders would doubtlessly laugh at her stupidity, but it was better for them to believe her imperceptive than manipulative. A few might suspect she had reversed their maneuver, outwardly playing the fool as her father had most of his career, but they would be out-voted.
Pelek picked up the bomb gingerly, a frown creasing his brow and mouth. "He would have destroyed us all? If I may ask, why?"
"To stop me from catching him." She smirked. "He thought he could cloud my judgment and keep me occupied enough to miss this. I played him his own hand."
The commander cleared his throat and handed the device back to her. "Then we owe you our lives and our gratitude, Commander."
She thought he was mouthing empty praise to stoke her ego while privately cursing that her presence on his ship had put the crew in danger, when he chose to meet her gaze. He had been sincere, which meant he considered himself as viable a target as her. She wondered what he had done to earn High Command's wrath because his record was unremarkable. Pelek had no concept that he had been as much a target as her, but then, he didn't know who had sent Grenelk.
"It is my job," she answered curtly. Preparing to depart, she added, "Keep everyone aboard the ship until I return. I have another matter to attend. Oh, and release Nenyek and reinstate his rank. He is no danger to your ship."
Knowing full well when the ship would arrive at Starbase 84, Tasha was bringing her class to a finish. The Tayar had a small crew, so there were five students, but she wasn't complaining. Vulcans were very attentive and studious, even if they always wanted to reduce every technique to an exact formula. Since that was impossible with aikido, a martial art that focused on adapting to both an attack and the physical structure of the opponent, her students sometimes found it frustrating. The senior students realized it was a system rather than a set of strict techniques, the newest ones, not so much.
It was funny. She hadn't envisioned herself as a sensei one day, but perhaps it provided her with a certain continuity. One day she was a soldier in a war, another day a prisoner on an alien planet, then a Starfleet spy playing by the Department of Temporal Investigation's rules. She could always do aikido, but it did require at least one partner, preferably more, hence the accidental dojo. It was also a great way to work off nerves before a mission.
She checked the time, watching her students leave. Just enough time for a quick shower. Good.
Her comm badge chirped.
"Sir, we have arrived at the station. The interceptor, Anu'Senel, is already docked."
"Be there in fifteen."
Her hair was still wet when she reached the bridge but so long as it didn't drip, no one would care. Since they had already gone through docking procedures, the atmosphere was calm with most of the shift's bridge crew merely waiting at their stations. Unlike Humans, they didn't fidget or gossip to fill the time, which could get eerie when it went on for too long.
She leaned on the upper rail separating security and operations from the command center below. Captain Nuhirek craned around in his seat to look at her and she nodded in greeting.
"We have been given authorization to disembark but Sanek is gathering all available data on the Anu'Senel."
She made a noncommittal noise. "Guess they didn't run into bad weather like we did."
To her left, she saw Lieutenant Sanek give a pained expression before smoothing away all evidence of her puzzlement. She grinned. At least Nuhirek could keep up with the idioms.
She'd met Nuhirek a couple of years ago, while awaiting new orders on a dilapidated starbase. She'd offered to assist on the Cardassian front but Command had put her on standby. It probably had to do with her comment that she would be more than happy to watch the Cardassians and Klingons slaughter each other, even if there was evidence that the sudden war between them had been manipulated by the Dominion and that probably wasn't good for anyone who wasn't them. Tasha didn't need to see her personnel profile to know it probably contained the phrase, "dangerously biased against Klingons", but she wasn't about to apologize for it. Where she came from, they'd been monsters.
That left her sitting in an open cafeteria that adjoined some docking bays on the station, waiting for her new assignment to arrive. Starfleet Intelligence had sent her a briefing, but a series of intermittent ion storms in the area had garbled the transmission. They had tried again, with similar result, but it wasn't a big deal. It was her job to put together missing pieces and it added some fun to an otherwise routine month. Vacation was nice, but it left her too much time to brood.
She knew she was looking for a Captain Nuhirek, a Vulcan, who would arrive on the Defiant class vessel, the USS Tayar. She'd researched the ship and discovered it was crewed heavily by Vulcans. Ten to one that meant she was being sent out to monitor the Romulans, which made sense if the Dominion was sowing discord in preparation for an invasion.
The Romulan Star Empire maintained a loose neutrality that was made possible by their open border along unclaimed space. Any need to expand or practice warfare was met by those largely defenseless planets. They liked to spice things up by harassing the Klingons or Cardassians, both neighbors and longtime enemies. But, if a superpower arrived and blocked access to that unclaimed space, the Romulans would be forced into a more aggressive stance. They might maintain neutrality, but only if their aging praetor, Narviat, remained in power.
The latest intel Tasha had suggested his increasingly radical social policies were meeting stiff resistance and widespread dissatisfaction. If he didn't keep his head, a literal issue in the Empire, there would be regime change. If the Empire took a more conservative stance, they might ally with a former enemy in self-defense. They might even ally with the Dominion through a non-aggression pact. It was unlikely they would turn in a further liberal direction and ally with the Federation. Most likely, Intelligence wanted to keep closer tabs on when the Star Empire would enter a possible conflict, and on whose side.
All that meant to her was that she was looking for a Vulcan captain and would be stuck on a ship full of them, a ship that didn't possess a holodeck. She hoped it wouldn't be a lengthy assignment. Not that Vulcans didn't make the best Romulan agents, but living with them was another matter. There was the constant meditation, the confusing level of restraint as they communicated with gestures so subtle they were easy to misinterpret, and then there was their overwhelming curiosity. They would want to know every last detail about her, all while pretending they weren't trying to learn it. Vulcans were maddening.
She slouched back in her chair, watching a group of them exit the bay. She spotted several red shoulders, but none with enough pips. Then again, he might not be in command division, not all captains were and Vulcans heavily favored the science and medical divisions. The group began to split up, some walking intently to accomplish a task, others wandering around the area indecisively. Their captain must have told them to take shore leave over their perfectly logical protests.
Three of them came toward the cafeteria, apparently choosing to eat. No doubt that was a logical thing to do while contemplating recreational options. Two were in science, one in operations, all ensigns. Tasha gave a mental shrug. If all else failed, she could board the ship and find the captain. In the meantime, there was no harm in observing the crew. She'd be working with them, after all.
While the two science officers split up, making different dining choices, the operations officer hung back, unsure. Tasha rested her jaw on a fist, enjoying the view. If she hadn't made a rule for herself to avoid sleeping with Vulcans as a coping mechanism, not that most were open to the idea of casual sex, he'd be tempting. Quickly, to avoid staring in a way that would draw his attention, she took in broad shoulders, a confident stance and light eyes. She grinned, chiding herself. He was probably too young for her and had a fiancée waiting for him back on Vulcan or on another ship.
The ensign pivoted abruptly, looking right at her, and raised a challenging eyebrow.
She bit her lip, trying not to smile, despite a brief wash of guilty embarrassment. No holodeck might be a real problem. When he didn't look away, she shrugged at him, letting him know he could make whatever he wished out of the unwanted attention.
The ensign chose to approach her table. "May I sit with you?"
She pressed her lips together, nonplussed. Vulcans were so damn direct. "I'm waiting for someone."
He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Am I intruding?"
"Not really, but sorry for staring. Didn't mean to be rude." Up close, his eyes were pale brown. She suppressed the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to leave and settled for avoiding direct eye contact. She cursed mentally.
"Rude?" he asked quizzically. "I was under the impression you found me attractive."
She opened her mouth to deny it, then exhaled at the futility of that, scratching at the top of her scalp with one finger to buy some time.
"I do not find your interest offensive," he said, as if attempting to reassure her.
"That's good," she answered, "but look, kid, I'm not trying to pick anyone up. Sorry if I gave the wrong impression."
"Ah," he leaned back in realization. "I am seventy-two and if you did not intend to be inviting, then why did you allow me to sit with you?"
She reminded herself that the best way to dissuade a Vulcan was to be honest. He'd know if she started dissembling and curiosity would drive him to continue heckling her. Maybe. He was pretty forward for a Vulcan. She forced herself to meet his eyes, despite their unnerving familiarity. His facial structure was quite different from Volskiar's, tending toward aquiline planes. He even had a faint forehead ridge, as a small percentage of Vulcans did. Unlike the general, this Vulcan could pass for one of those House nobles.
Because she was looking at him directly now, the pip on his collar reminded her he was an ensign, a seventy-two year old ensign. Well, Vulcans did often have multiple careers, owing to their extended life cycles, but still... "You remind me of someone I know, that's all."
His gaze was openly contemplative for a moment, and then his entire manner changed. "Yes, Command was concerned about that possibility but felt I was best suited for your assignment."
She stared at him blankly in dawning realization. "Well, fuck," she said.
One corner of his mouth curled upward into a faint smile. "Natasha Reeves?"
"Sir," she answered, attempting to rise but he hooked a foot around the leg of her chair, tipping her back in the seat.
"It is my understanding that you will, at times, be my commanding officer. Under the circumstances, I see no need for excessive formality."
She reasserted her composure, tacking her phaser back to her side from where she'd begun to raise it. "Did you just smile?"
"I could not pass for a Romulan if I could not smile, Commander."
She snorted. "You passed for an ensign until you admitted your age."
"I am relieved you noticed."
"Worried I wouldn't?"
"I do not worry but Command gave me little notice that they intended to assign you to my crew and assign me to escort you. I wished to examine the skill of the Human who would be placing their lives in danger. I would apologize for the deception, but you are in special operations. I expect a minimum level of ability."
"Sir, there's no need for apology. I almost shot you."
The captain of the USS Tayar canted his head, flicking an eyebrow in approval. "Then, if you are packed, we depart in three hours."
While the next time she'd seen Nuhirek he'd been wearing his proper uniform, he had never stopped flirting with her. Fortunately, he had a disconcerting tendency to flirt with any number of women, so she didn't take it personally. He claimed it was to keep in practice. He'd begun his career in Security until, one day, Starfleet Intelligence asked if he would impersonate a Romulan in order to obtain crucial information. From that point onward, his career changed paths. By his logic, she was the ideal foil, barring an actual Romulan, to test his alternate persona.
By her logic, he'd gone native and wouldn't admit it.
What he hadn't continued doing was addressing her as 'Commander Reeves'. She had never told him that wasn't her actual surname or explained its origin, but the third time it failed to gain her attention, he switched to her given name. As Vulcans typically used one name, it seemed no great leap for him to treat her likewise. He eventually deduced her real name, after discovering her connection to General Volskiar, but had never used it. That would have been unprofessional.
Sanek, the comm officer on duty, interrupted her recollections. "Commander, I've been monitoring the Anu'Senel's background transmissions."
Sanek looked almost reluctant, despite keeping a bland, even tone. "I believe one of their crew has recently died."
"An execution, sir."
Tasha grabbed the nearest console, taking the place of the crewman who quickly stepped aside. Entering her security clearance, she commandeered the station records and pulled up the Anu'Senel's crew roster and mirrored it with the one from her mission briefing. She found one replacement in their engineering department and two last minute additions. Fixating one one name, she read, then re-read it, to be certain, leaning heavily on the console.
"Tasha?" Nuhirek's voice was cautious as he stood. When she didn't offer any information, he came over to her console.
She stepped back, gesturing toward it, already occupied with choosing the best contingency plan.
He scanned through the lists, spotting the same names she had, one in particular. Fingers light on the touchpad, he cleared and deleted the data. "Orders?" he asked, waiting patiently.
If the dead crewman had been her contact, and he probably had, there was little point in completing the mission. On the other hand, if they left immediately, it might alert the Anu'Senel that they were fleeing the scene.
"Hurry up and wait," she said, to him, then shifted her attention to Sanek. "Commander Sela is aboard that ship. Tell me if she disembarks, specifically, if she heads toward the lower level cargo bays."
Sanek nodded once in acknowledgement, and Tasha left the bridge, heading back to her quarters.
Federation Starbase 84
Upon the conclusion of the Dominion War, the Romulan Star Empire and United Federation of Planets had fallen into a hazy truce. Though they had been allies during the war, without a uniting conflict, their respective nations fell back into what was technically a non-aggression pact. Even the alliance itself had been shaky at best, intel suggesting certain underhanded maneuvers had been at play, perhaps even blatant manipulation on the part of the Federation. Fortunately for them, Neral had come into power as a direct result and it was in his best interest to keep the truth from prying eyes.
Regardless, Sela couldn't predict if she'd be welcomed into the station. There was no point in attempting to conceal her identity. Upon docking at Starbase 84, the Anu'Senel would have released a crew roster to the station master. Just as she suspected, there was a small welcome committee of Starfleet security officers waiting for her as she exited the bay.
The lieutenant in command, a young Human male, stood dead center, appearing both curious and wary. "Commander Sela?"
"Yes, and you are?"
"Lieutenant Jarowski. Is there any way in which we might assist you?"
She considered. Though the young man was probably a few years her junior, she felt twice his age. He was probably scared and acting on orders to keep her under observation in case she attempted an act of espionage. The poor thing.
She craned her head down one hall, then the other. "Where is the best place to eat?"
"Um," said Jarowski.
"You can try the Bolian Bistro. I hear they have great chili," one of the security crewmen suggested.
"Malkiv!" rebuked Jarowski.
Sela sighed pointedly. "Lieutenant, I know you are going to have a hard time believing this, but I have been assigned to babysit that crew," she pointed back toward the bay, "and I have been eating replicated rations for the past two weeks. I intend to eat some real food while they are docked for repairs. So, which way is the bistro?"
Malkiv surreptitiously pointed down a hall and Jarowski turned too late to glower at him.
"Thank you," she said cheerfully, and brushed past the lieutenant. "If you would like to discuss table etiquette, feel free to follow."
Since she hadn't eaten anything that morning, too tense to stomach food, she was fully prepared to eat. In fact, it was a damn good idea. She was sick of rations, so looping through the concession area, she found the Bolian Bistro and ordered the recommended chili. After coughing a few times at the surprising intensity of the dish, she decided she liked it, all while keeping an eye on her indiscreet security escort. It was Malkiv, of course. He'd probably been told that if he was so fascinated by her, he could stay and observe the suspected enemy until he went blind with boredom.
Finishing the meal, she headed for the nearest 'fresher, secure in the knowledge that Malkiv would have the good grace not to follow her inside. To her right, down the hall, she spotted an engineer pushing a utility cart and began timing him. She went in the 'fresher, still counting, then promptly exited and fell in step with the engineer as if in casual coincidence. She went through several junctions, heading for the lower cargo bays. Checking behind, Malkiv was nowhere in sight. Eventually, he would realize his mistake, but even if they searched for her, Romulan life-signs were indistinguishable from the numerous Vulcans in evidence.
Part of Tasha hoped the mission would end here, despite the loss of a reliable contact with the Romulan underground movement, the Unificationists. The Star Empire had possessed disaffected patriots for generations, but it wasn't until Spock went to investigate rumors of their existence, bringing with him Vulcan philosophies in person, that scattered individuals and tiny groups coalesced into an organization. Every decade, their numbers grew and maybe someday, their voices would be heard, preaching an end to war and alliance with ancient foes.
Ultimately, losing one messenger was a minor setback for such a vast organization because there were always more individuals speaking out against the government; asking why people disappeared for daring the most minor acts of dissent; asking why warfare was necessary for prosperity of their most peaceful neighbor was also the wealthiest. Spock pleaded that the Federation was foolhardy to ignore the opportunity presented by their plight. Publicly, the Federation maintained its non-interference policy, but in secrecy, closely monitored the movement, just in case.
She paused at her door, thinking that she ought to feel at least a twinge of grief for the agent's death, wondering when she'd become inured to it. Probably during the war only she remembered. Maybe later, during espionage missions that resulted in lost personnel. Some had been friends. It was difficult to remain connected to anyone, always on the move, keeping busy to avoid thinking about when she could stop. She gave up pinpointing the exact event and opened the door.
A happy chirp from ten o'clock high warned her before a gray and black furball of affection vaulted down from a cabinet and landed gracelessly on her shoulder. She caught her newest acquisition before he scratched her through her uniform or catapulted to the floor. Soon, he'd be too large to pull that stunt. She greeted him and he purred, jamming his head under her chin.
She'd found him in a similar manner, not having planned to own a pet, even though it seemed like she might be with the Tayar for a while. She'd been minding her own business, taking a walk through an old regula type station and passing through the central corridor when she heard a commotion several floors above. The crowds shuffling around the upper promenades slowed as an animal started snarling and baying. Behind it ran three Klingons, arguing with each other. One raised a phaser, causing the crowd to split and scatter, but he shot at the floor, not them.
"Shoot it! Shoot it!"
"What is it?"
"How should I know? One of those Human animals. A rat, bat, dog or - There is goes!"
All she could see from below was a vague, gray blur hurling itself away from the chasing targ. It was probably a rat. Despite Starfleet's best management efforts, both pests and pets routinely escaped from trading vessels onto stations, where they bred. Trapped between the remaining spectators, phaser fire pinning it against the worn safety railings, an alien creature descending fangs bared, the smaller animal turned and hissed furiously, spitting and growling in miniature ferocity. Then, with nowhere else to go, the kitten leapt off the promenade.
Tasha had moved reflexively, keeping her eyes pinned on the kitten while calculating its likely landing. She had the distinct memory of splayed limbs and paws and astonished yellow-green eyes as the kitten began to pedal the wind in panic before she caught it. Two minutes and numerous scratches later, she was holding a panting, exhausted long-haired tabby.
She knew, pragmatically, that she ought to turn it in to station security where personnel tasked with animal control would either find it a home or euthanize it as one more pest. But once the kitten calmed down, he tried to burrow into her arms, purring in desperation. She named him Geronimo while watching Security haul off the unauthorized shooter, as he pleaded his case, claiming he was just trying to stop his targ from running off.
Making her way to an armchair, she sat down and waited while the kitten took advantage of the situation and sprawled out on her stomach. She tapped him gently on the nose when he started chewing on her fingers and he responded to the reprimand by licking her knuckles. It was almost enough to make her forget she was waiting for a call from Sanek.
The less sensible part of her hoped Sela would head for the intended meeting site. Granted, it would be to set a trap for whomever had planned to meet the contact she'd executed, but it might be a chance to see her daughter in person. Volskiar had given her holos, but it wasn't the same. She couldn't talk to a recording and receive an answer. Then again, she didn't need to worry about a holo cursing her very existence and damning her to every version of hell.
Her comm badge chirped and she dismissed the fantasy, scooping Geronimo off her lap. "Go ahead."
"Commander Sela has escaped a nominal security escort and is making her way toward the lower levels."
"Is station security following her, yet?"
"No, but the crewman charged with monitoring her has already contacted his superiors."
"All right. Guess I don't have much time. Tasha out."
She made for her equipment locker, debating how to arm herself. It would be idiotic not to carry a weapon, but she wasn't sure she wanted to use it, or if she would. There was no official protocol for encounters with enemy agents who happened to be family members but there were countless historical examples. Her career demanded emotional detachment, but family the opposite. It was why few who entered Starfleet Intelligence chose to remain in the branch.
Her hand hovered over the plasma rifle, then dropped to a standard issue phaser. There was no protocol because detachment destroyed families.
Geronimo suddenly darted away from where he'd been batting around a piece of wire to hide in her bedroom.
She heard the door to her quarters open, which meant someone had overridden the lock. Since only two people had the authority, and she was one of them, that left Nuhirek.
"Are you here to start a power struggle? Because I'm doing my job."
"Your job requires you to take at least two crewmen or officers in the event there is a confrontation. I suspect you will attempt this encounter on your own."
"I can't trust anyone else not to shoot in self-defense, or worse, trying to protect me." Tasha gave her field equipment a final once over. First there was the life-sign dampener which disguised her presence from generalized sensor sweeps by mimicking background static. Then there was the individual cloak, completely illegal within the Federation but too widely used by enemies not to be standard issue for covert operations. "I know you mean well, but if the choice comes down between me or her, it's not gonna be her."
Nuhirek raised an eyebrow. "I believe you are confusing Vulcans with Romulans. Are you claiming that you are not experiencing a conflict of interest?"
"You mean because my position obligates me to neutralize enemy agents whenever possible?"
He folded his arms behind his back, physically blocking the exit from her quarters in silent response.
"I established my priorities a long time ago, sir. When I was thirty-four, I died so she could live. It seems to me that killing her now, even inadvertently, would be illogical. So, no, there's no conflict of interest. I'll spring her trap and either she'll kill me on sight, or she has something to say."
"It is unlikely she knows you are the contact. Considering the death of your contact, it would be more logical to withdraw from the situation entirely. Once she realizes that the Federation contact will not arrive, she will depart as well. There is no need to risk a violent confrontation."
She gave him a lop-sided smile. "Which is why I'm going to hide until I'm sure she's looking for me. Relax, I know what I'm doing."
"Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe you are not emotionally compromised to some degree." Without giving her a chance to argue, he swung his arms around, letting her see the palm sized phaser he'd been holding, and tucked it into a discreet pocket. "I will go with you."
"You really would've stunned me?"
"Because I palmed mine, too."
Except for the flicker of amusement in his eyes, Nuhirek remained composed as he stepped back into the hallway, allowing her to exit. "Her presence is likely a coincidence."
"The coincidence doesn't make you curious?"
"That she is your daughter? You are both involved in espionage along the Romulan front."
"Call me a superstitious Human, but I don't think it is. If someone suspects I'm involved, then they're sending a message by sending her and I'll never know why if I don't take the chance now. You can't predict what'll happen tomorrow."
At least two Tal Shiar officers had suspected her escape that cold night and both would have told someone they trusted, even if that information never made it into a formal report. Then there were her allies who'd assisted her, though she doubted any of them would ever admit to abetting an enemy agent. No trail ever went truly cold and if Sela was under suspicion because of her, she needed to know.
Nuhirek glanced at her, his lips parting as if to say something further.
"This debate is over," she said, brusquely. "Grab your cloak and dampener."
"I already have them."
"If you were any more manipulative, I'd mistake you for a Romulan. Must be why I keep assuming you're all bloodthirsty killers. "
"Considering the speaker, I will take that as a compliment."
She snorted, amused despite her tension. "Keep trying, Captain Obvious. Just keep on trying."
Federation Starbase 84
There, that one. Sela overrode the security lock, entered the bay and moved immediately behind a stack of containers. She reminded herself that this mission was no different from any other. Removing a specialized scanner from her tunic, she checked not for life-signs, but for an area of increased information static. She found it, across the bay, near a utility ladder leading to a catwalk. Then she found a second one, up on the catwalk. Well, it was to be expected, but she couldn't know for certain which was her contact and which was a protective sniper.
"Mother," she called out, "I know you are here. Is your friend going to shoot me? Because I don't feel like being shot. It hurts and ruins my uniforms." She waited for a response, but there was nothing but silence. "You must know by now that I am alone. This is not a trap, if that is what you are worried about."
Still nothing. She sighed. Putting away the scanner, she removed a data chip from the same pocket. She held it aloft. "I think I have something you want." When there was still no response, she added, "We don't have much time before security tracks us down."
An area of the far wall near the ladder flickered and like a chameleon, a middle-aged woman appeared. Her hair was pale with age, her face almost expressionless and she wore the current gray-shouldered Starfleet uniform with a golden turtleneck. Rather than holding a phaser, she wore it latched to her hip as if she had no intention of using it. She raised a hand to her side, palm out, bidding her sniper to hold fire as she walked forward, closing the distance between her and Sela.
"Well, I take you killed my contact, so why are you here?" Tasha flicked her eyes toward the data chip Sela held loosely in her hand, at her side. "Just to throw around childish taunts before you turn that in?"
She had imagined her mother expressing a variety of emotions, but not this. Sela had rehearsed her response upon meeting her face to face, but every last word died in her throat. She'd expected a sense of unwelcome familiarity but the truth manifested as uncanny strangeness. The face resembled her childhood memories, but it was someone else. She didn't know the woman she saw and hadn't planned for such cold bitterness. Close up, she could see how her mother's face had hardened into planes with age, the tight network of lines at he corner of her eyes and the rigid set of her jaw. There was still no outward emotion except for her eyes themselves which struck her as tired, disappointed and guarded.
Sela raised her chin, then held out the data chip. The other hand was clenched in a fist and concealed behind her holster. She concentrated on channeling anything she felt into flexing and relaxing those muscles. "I spoke with father and met with Charvanek."
Her mother blinked and something eased in her expression. She took the data chip quickly, perhaps fearing that Sela would snatch it back.
Charvanek t'Rllaillieu was the former praetor's widow and held some power despite her husband's inglorious demise. It was her husband who had commanded Tasha's fate, though Sela had known little of it until recently. Her commanding officer had promised an improvement in her assignments, implying a promotion, if Sela condemned her father by leading him into admitting to treason. All she had to do was acquire a statement or admission that he had aided and abetted the enemy in her escape. All she had to do was send him to the executioner and believe what was promised. Her father told her she was an idiot, thought not in so many words. Then he had baldly told her more than she'd anticipated.
The galling truth was that her father was right. Her father, so meekly obedient that his peers mocked him behind his back, had warned her with penetrating insight that she was little more than a toy to her commanders. The Tal Shiar did little by accident; even actions unrelated to espionage were schemes, preferably the sort that accomplished multiple aims with a single maneuver. In executing her mother, they cowed her father into stilted political subservience. As for herself, she had willingly, as a naive child, assumed the yoke of blind patriotism lest she too be judged an alien. It was Rihannsu or die. With every move to win approval, chiefly through promotion, she'd validated the Tal Shiar's methods. They had neutralized a budding threat while providing a source of amusement for themselves.
Then, most of the old guard were decimated in the Battle of the Omarion Nebula, a consequence of their misguided alliance with the Cardassian's Obsidian Order coupled with a Dominion machination. It wasn't a battle so much as a butcher's corral. The inevitable change in regime in the Tal Shiar created a brief opening for Sela, perhaps one she would not have seen without prodding from her father and the overt threat to him presented by her commanders. The only unpredictable step she could take, the one thing the Tal Shiar wouldn't expect from a woman they believed gutted as a child, was to accept the truth. Otherwise, the Tal Shiar would use her humanity against her until the day she died.
She had, after some deliberation, failed in that assignment and met instead with her father's long-standing antagonist, Charvanek.
It had been the praetor's own wife who had aided and abetted the enemy then, and now she did the same for the Havrannsu and Unificationist underground. It would only be a matter of time before Neral lost his patience with her political agitation, but Sela doubted it would stop the venerable fleet commander from fighting that battle to the end. So she expected more of a reaction from her mother than a faint nod as she secreted away the data chip.
"That is it? You accuse me of murder and name-calling and leave? You have nothing to say to me?"
Having turned to leave, her mother looked over her shoulder said with a trace of resignation. "Sure. I love you and wish life didn't keep kicking you in the teeth but I doubt you want to hear it. I know what you think of me."
"No, you don't. Not even father knows." When her mother stopped in place, listening, Sela licked suddenly dry lips and cleared her throat. "I am not some irrational child. I...." She tried again but was forced to clamp her jaw shut, unable to admit she knew the state had been the betrayer. It was impossible for a prisoner to betray a captor as betrayal implied allegiance, the anathema of imprisonment. It had taken her father five years to accept that truth. Trying a third time, she managed, "Father once accused you of betraying him, but he plays the belligerent imbecile skillfully."
Tasha was looking at her astutely and her expression eased from neutrality to sympathy. "Yeah, he does. I wish I could've been there for you but," she exhaled as if in exhaustion, "if you're here talking to me now, then you must realize why I had to go."
"They will not permit me to view all the classified files, but yes, I know." Involuntarily, her mind drifted back to memories clouded by a child's perspective. "I wish I had not cried out. I did not understand the choice I was making."
An odd expression settled on her mother's face as she canted her head, some mixture of confusion and suspicion, before it transitioned into shock. "Oh, hell. He didn't tell you? You said you talked with him."
The wariness creeping at the back of her consciousness flared into alarm as Sela answered, "I was under orders. It was not an open discussion. Tell me what?"
Tasha closed her eyes, bowing her head before looking up to meet her gaze steadily. "I don't care if you're Human or Romulan, a four year old kid doesn't make metaphysical choices about political affiliation. You didn't know how; you were just scared."
"I should not have been-"
"And I knew you would be."
"That does not change-"
"Sela," her mother interrupted in frustration. "I could've taped your mouth shut, but it would've ruined the plan."
Sela fell silent, calming herself into numbness, and listened. "What do you mean?"
"There was no way in hell I was going to get past border patrol, the Tal Shiar, ground control, the planetary defenses and whatever else was waiting for me, on my own. If I ran, I was dead. If I ran with you straight into the waiting Tal Shiar, we were both dead. I could've taken you and made the rendezvous point with the Starfleet extraction team Charvanek had arranged, but then Volskiar would've been tasked with hunting us down or dying, whichever came first. So I went with the contingency plan. I got caught by people I could trust."
"I was bait."
Her mother nodded. "Your father sent Echael on ahead and it wasn't a sure bet, but I figured Lethren would send Saket rather than do the legwork himself. I knew if you saw either of them, or anyone else you recognized, you'd probably try and get their attention and no one on her team was going to risk shooting you."
Something lodged in her throat, so Sela held up a hand to prevent any further explanation. She swallowed with difficulty. As a child, Saket had been like an uncle. She'd been unable to recognize that he was one of the very men responsible for her mother's suffering. The very concept had been impossible. He, in turn, treated Sela as the child he would never have and, later, a protogée. Logically, he must have been the one to shoot her mother. For a blinding second, all she could see was that flash of green and her mother dropping like a stone, clutching her side. Saket had probably told Lethren he'd aimed for the heart, forgetting at the last moment to adjust his aim to her chest. A plausible lie.
"You used me as both lure and shield," she spat out.
"In case we made the rendezvous point, I wanted you -"
"Be silent!" Sela turned away, almost stumbling, stabbing her fingers through her hair to grip her scalp. She inhaled, held her breath, exhaled and held it again, repeating the exercise until her side stopped aching. She reminded herself that there was more at stake here than her personal feelings. Charvanek had warned her who the contact was and Sela had accepted, understanding the risk of conflict. But this woman was definitely not the person she remembered, nor the one often described by those who remembered her from Ki Baratan.
When she turned back, she had to wonder how her mother could be so composed. She appeared unruffled by the confession, completely at ease with whatever response Sela might have, as if she didn't even care. Either that, or she had long ago accepted that there would be no reconciliation. Her mother had made a brutal choice, an unsympathetic one for most people, but the other choice would have left Volskiar to the thrai, devoured in pieces by his rivals.
It was that realization that generated a flicker of doubt. Sela hadn't always seen eye to eye with her father, but now her mother looked straight through her and Sela saw something she recognized in herself. Something she had always taken pride in possessing and always told herself that it came from her father because he was a general. No one rose high in the ranks of the Imperial forces without deceit. Strategy was everything.
She told herself she could be equally professional. "I understand. If you stayed, you died. If we both escaped, he died. Your choice allowed all three of us to live." She felt a muscle at the corner of her eye twitch. Life was paramount in the Federation, but in the Empire, it meant living with dishonor. "I no longer wish to discuss this. The past is irrelevant."
"Okay." Tasha raised a hand hesitantly, as if to put it on Sela's shoulder, then dropped it hastily. She bit her lip. "Wish we had more time, sunshine."
Sela nodded, swallowing back on something that threatened to choke her. Before she could formulate a reply, the cargo bays slid open. Simultaneously, both her and Tasha drew their weapons and her mother's hidden companion shimmered into sight holding a plasma rifle.
Anuit slid to a halt, raising his arms up and out, hands empty. "I am unarmed!" he said in a panicked rush.
Sela pinched the bridge of her nose, tucking her arm to point her disruptor at the ceiling. She was vaguely aware that her mother was cursing and her companion was locking the cargo bay doors.
"We must leave," said the unidentified Vulcan wearing a Starfleet uniform. He slung the rifle against his back and as he turned Sela caught sight of four rank pips. Noticing her perusal, he raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged. "Thanks for not shooting me."
"Your mother would have butchered me on the spot."
Raising her own eyebrow at the concept of a Vulcan using flagrant idioms, she began to ask Tasha who he was, but her mother was pinning Anuit with a deadly look.
She pointed at him in silent threat.
He raised his chin, almost stubbornly.
Her mother shrugged, with a nonchalant expression.
Sela looked between the two, realizing they knew each other. "Anuit?" she asked in a low tone.
He gulped. "I will explain later, Riov. Security is coming and you deactivated your communication badge so I-"
"Yes," she snarled, cutting him off but glad for the distraction. "I gathered. We must leave."
She faced her mother, backing up to follow Anuit. In the process, she caught the Vulcan captain staring in frank assessment. She scowled at him but he canted his head slightly and titled an eyebrow in a silent dare.
Tasha tracked her gaze, her eyes widened in outrage and she stomped on the Vulcan's instep.
He hissed in surprise, jumping backward to escape his tormenter.
Now ignoring him, Tasha smiled tightly. "Go on. I'll take care of security."
Sela tried again to say what she felt, but all she managed was an embarrassing stutter. She sighed in frustration, then whirled on heel reactivating her communication badge. When she opened her eyes, she was standing beside Anuit on the transportation pad of the Anu'Senel.
Tasha thought she might have chewed the inside of her cheek bloody, judging by the coppery taste in her mouth. There were a thousand things she wanted to say and no time to say them. In the end, there was no adequate apology for being absent, one way, if not another. Either way, she had a job to do. Standing with feet shoulder length apart, hands clasped behind her back, she faced the door and waited.
Within a couple of minutes, the doors slid open and she was looking at three armed security officers, all pointing plasma rifles into the cargo bay.
"Lieutenant-Commander Natasha Reeves, Starfleet Intelligence, Special Operations."
The point man lowered his weapon, yanked out a PADD from his tunic and skimmed through the station manifest. He narrowed his eyes, looking at her, then back at the PADD. Meanwhile, the other two officers each kept a rifle trained on her and Nuhirek, respectively.
"Stand down," he ordered. Glancing between them, he focused on the captain. "And you're Captain Nuhirek, I take it?"
"And you are?" Tasha asked, mostly out of curiosity. Memorizing the station officers hadn't been a high priority since it didn't pertain to the mission.
"Lieutenant Jarowski, sir. I apologize for any disruption we caused. We hadn't been informed you would active on the station."
"No need for that, Lieutenant. We took action before your commander had the opportunity to brief you. If everything's clear here, we need to return to our ship."
"Yes, sir. Of course," Jarowski said, stepping aside and gesturing for his men to do the same.
Tasha took off just short of a jog, hearing Nuhirek following on her heels and asking through his comm link for a status report.
Sanek answered, "The station has fired across the Anu'Senel's bow."
Tasha cut in. "Get our ship between theirs and the phaser banks. Get right on top of them if you need to."
Thankfully, Sanek didn't argue, relaying the order to the officer on watch. Tasha resisted the urge to break into a run, because what good would it do? It wouldn't prevent the station from disabling the Romulan interceptor if they could before Jarowski managed to relay information to all involved parties. She forced herself to slow down and, soon enough, they were both standing at the docking bay doors waiting for the Tayar to return.
She and Nuhirek stood side by side for a couple of minutes in mutual silence before she eyed him narrowly. "What the hell were you doing back there?"
He didn't pretend to misunderstand. "I found her intriguing."
"Intriguing? You realize I know what that means coming from a Vulcan, right?"
"I would assume so."
"Stay away from her."
He raised both eyebrows, drawing his head back incredulously. "You are being irrational."
"Human mothers can get like that."
"Nonetheless, it is unlikely I will encounter her again." He sniffed pointedly. "Besides, she is an adult."
"Meaning?" she asked with as much perfectly useless menace as she could muster.
"You would have no say in the matter."
She winced because his jibe was more accurate than he realized. He was right. She hadn't any real choice twenty-six years ago but there was no changing the past. She'd forfeited the right to influence Sela's life. Damnit. She hadn't meant to think about her yet, not until she was back in the safety of her quarters. She blinked several times, clearing her mind.
When she failed to offer repartee, Nuhirek looked in askance, but she waved a hand at him in weak dismissal of their discussion. She heard the docking clamps engage out on the dock, then the seal hiss open around the bay doors. She stepped through ahead of him and headed for the bridge. The mission wasn't complete yet, not as far as she was concerned.
They found Nuhirek's first officer, Lenson, explaining to station security that he had been under the mistaken impression that they needed to move the Tayar to another dock. He offered a sincere sounding apology for hampering the station's attempt to apprehend a suspicious vessel. The chief started shouting, blustering really, but was abruptly cut off by a transmission directly from the station commander who smoothly apologized for the breakdown in communications. Lenson graciously reassured her that all was well and sent a tacit glance in their direction.
"Good job," Tasha said, praying to hold out just a little bit longer.
He bowed his head and returned to his science station.
Unable to stay focused any longer, she worked on keeping her breath unconstrained and took the most direct path to her quarters. She didn't notice until almost at her door that Nuhirek was quietly following. She ignored him and tried to unlock her door but her hand was shaking.
He reached around her shoulder and keyed in the correct sequence.
She pivoted and entered her quarters backward to prevent him from following her inside. She put up a hand and he walked into her palm.
"You should see the chief medical officer."
"You are not."
"Not now," she said, more firmly. "Get out before you have to deal with an emotional display."
"Get out before you wind up dealing with more than you bargained for." She held her breath.
His head jerked back slightly and though no particular expression crossed his face, she knew he understood her warning because he stepped back and allowed the door to shut.
She released an explosive breath, choking on another and sank to the floor with her back to the wall. The sound she made caused Geronimo to answer back plaintively and trot over to her. He pawed at her leg but she wasn't capable of reassuring him. All she could do was remember letting go.
Anuit followed Sela into her quarters, following like a whipped set'leth. As soon as the door closed, she asked, "How long have you been a member of the Underground?"
He took a quick moment, reluctant to admit culpability, knowing it was futile to deny the truth. "Three years. I became involved through Yertik."
Leaning on the dining table, she tapped a finger slowly on its prefabricated surface. Yertik had been Anuit's Havrannsu lover, which meant he had also been a member of the Underground. It seemed the more the Empire did to quash its existence, the greater its membership. "Quite the coincidence that you know my mother."
"There are more and more of us disaffected by the current regime every day, sir. Charvanek's vision is growing and she is closely allied with those in the Federation willing to offer aid. It is not so much of a coincidence."
She wanted to snap that she wasn't a child and didn't need that sort of belated protection from a mother who'd been absent when she had needed it. She didn't need it from Charvanek, either, that meddling old woman. She came to a mental halt. Refusing help had led her to where she'd been two years ago, relegated to a rotting outpost, following Lethren in his tracks. She had chosen her father's side which meant she had chosen his allies. She met Anuit's eyes trying to obliterate the memory of ruthless blue.
Anuit looked down at the ash on the floor, Grenelk's remains. "When I discovered your assignment, I thought that would be me."
She crouched down, picking up the tiny single-shot disruptor Grenelk had intended to use on her. The scheme had been, from what she could deduce, to use Grenelk to assassinate her while she hunted down Anuit. Without the sub-lieutenant's diligent assistance, she might never have found the bomb in time. She wondered if Captain Pelek guessed by now that he had been an intended tertiary target and determine what he had done to deserve such a fate. Perhaps he hadn't done anything except be too conservative to choose a political side rendering him a wildcard.
"They sent him to kill me, you know."
His eyes narrowed in thought as several possibilities flitted across his face. "Who?"
"The Tal Shiar. I guess they finally noticed that waiting for me to blunder to my death was taking too long." She tried to unclench the fist she'd formed around the pocket disruptor, but it began to shake. "They have been trying to kill me since I was four years old."
"And you chose to wear that uniform?" he asked hesitantly.
"What should I do instead? Plot to overthrow the government? It would be ketrakath, noble and nothing more. Narviat is dead and nothing has changed!" She tried to forget what her mother had said and what it meant. "This uniform is the safest place for me to be."
"If I may be so bold, Commander, you could have allies if you change where you are looking."
"Do you think I have not-" She felt her face twist into rage and saw Anuit step back, his eyes dropping to the disruptor she continued to hold. She took a deep breath. Exhaling, she counted mentally, compartmentalizing her emotions followed by the morning's events.
Calm again, she said, "And nothing will change. We will play a slightly different game using the same rules." Rules that dictated she would never be Rihannsu enough, despite declaring her allegiance at a young age. That rejection always struck her as ironic considering the meaning of the name. "I have chosen the direction I wish to travel, Erein."
Anuit started to argue, then stopped, cocking his head. She knew when he caught the double entendre because he smiled faintly. While the Rihannsu were 'the Declared', the Havrannsu were 'the Travelers'.
He saluted briskly and exited her quarters.
She allowed the pocket disruptor to drop to the table, sighing as it landed with a soft plink. She went to the rumpled bed and sat on the end, hands wrapped around the back of her head. When she grew bored of studying her boots, she looked out the window. The view of stars streaking by against a nebula field was no more comforting and she couldn't suppress a wistful desire for a massage. Briefly, she imagined someone else in her quarters, simple company but soon banished the fantasy. She stood and began straightening the bed and removing any other sign she found of Grenelk.
Standing back to check her handiwork, she sighed in aggravation. The ash on the floor would be there until the cleaning 'bot emerged, which it wouldn't do for several hours yet. She considered finding a broom but leaving was the more pragmatic option. So she did and discovered Anuit standing outside her door, as if guarding it.
"What are you doing here?"
Feigning surprise, he said, "You said leave, not where or how far."
"You are overstepping your bounds," she answered, her tone clipped.
"Yes. She warned me not to do that. Would you like to take a walk through the corridors?" When she continued to stare at him in hostility, he added, "We could practice terrorizing the crew."
She felt the corner of her lips twitch. "That sounds like a splendid idea."
"Then let us walk together."