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Brinkmanship:

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ISBN 13:
9781451687842
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Brionne (v5. 0)

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1968
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Brink of War

Year:
2011
Language:
german
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Contents

Historian’s Note

Week 1: Expositions

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Week 2: Confrontations

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Week 3: Resolutions

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Week 3: Blink

Acknowledgments

About the Author





To the students of my Writing Short Fiction classes, for their listening skills, wow words, and connectors.





Historian’s Note

The events in this story take place in November of 2383 (ACE).

After Andor’s shocking secession from the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek: Typhon Pact—Paths of Disharmony), the Federation president succeeded in persuading the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance to become signatories to the Khitomer Accords (Star Trek: Typhon Pact—Plagues of Night, Star Trek: Typhon Pact—Raise the Dawn). The tensions between Federation and the Typhon Pact—Romulan Star Empire, Tholian Assembly, Gorn Hegemony, Tzenkethi Coalition, Breen Confederacy, and Holy Order of the Kinshaya—are mounting. One small spark could set off an interstellar war.





For somehow this is tyranny’s disease, to trust no friends.

—Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound





Week 1



Expositions





1

FROM:

Civilian Freighter Inzitran, flagship, Merchant Fleet 9

TO:

Ementar Vik Tov-A, senior designated speaker, Active Affairs, Department of the Outside

STATUS:

Estimated time to border: 40 skyturns

Estimated time to destination: 45 skyturns

In the name of our most beloved and exalted Autarch Korzenten Rej Tov-AA, and in defense of the perfection of his borders, we serve and salute you!

The complex chatter of the administrators above, the silent at; tentiveness of her workmates around her—Neta Efheny spent her days with her head down, her mind empty, and her recording devices primed, and she did not speak or look around. Until today. Today, Neta Efheny was going to make a mistake that would change three lives forever and put whole civilizations at risk.

A few skyturns from now, as her mission to Ab-Tzenketh came to its violent and wholly unexpected conclusion, Efheny would have just enough time to reflect again upon the error she was about to make, the uncharacteristic lapse of attention that would cost at least one life. Sitting on a remote hillside, with a terrified workmate and a hostile and desperate ally, Efheny would think about the steps she had taken that had brought her to this pass. She would watch the twin moons silvering the dark expanse of the lagoon, and she would realize that something in her had changed that could not be changed back. She would suddenly understand the extent to which she had acclimated. She would understand that she had gone native. Step by incremental step, move by minute move, Neta Efheny had settled into her place in Tzenkethi society.

That was why she had missed the obvious, which, in retrospect, had been staring her in the face for the best part of four months. Initially, she had been dazzled by Ab-Tzenketh. She had learned to keep her head down, and had kept it lowered for so long that she was barely able to lift it again—it is difficult to see what is staring you in the face if you are looking at the ground.

There were good reasons why this had happened, reasons Efheny would understand very well. Tzenkethi society maintained strict boundaries between its echelons. The bioengineering programs instituted decades ago by the ruling cohorts were attempting to embed these distinctions down at a genetic level. As the programs bore fruit, generation after generation, it was a rare Tzenkethi service grade who found herself lifted by her test scores to a higher function.

These days, most Tzenkethi felt uneasy about too much proximity to those outside their echelon, an unease that surely went well beyond cultural taboo. One’s pulse quickened and one’s luminosity lessened at the sight of a steely skinned enforcer, not simply because one knew what an enforcer was empowered to do but also because one’s body communicated it, physically.

Each year, the Tzenkethi leaders believed that they were coming closer to eradicating the effects of nurture upon their population, and that soon nature would control everything. So they would have been horrified to discover Neta Efheny, and for more reasons than the obvious. That she was a Cardassian spy who, for the last two years, had been successfully placed in one of the most sensitive government departments on the Tzenkethi homeworld would have been alarming. But to find something at the heart of their society that transgressed the natural order of things? That would be revolting.

Efheny had always been fascinated by the Tzenkethi and their rigid social system. Cardassian to the core (whatever her current physical appearance and bioreadings might suggest), she thoroughly approved of the stability achieved by such carefully designed and maintained hierarchies. The chaos of her own world’s recent history made her crave that stability more than she perhaps understood. And she’d found, over the months embedded on Ab-Tzenketh, that what appeared from the outside to be a monolithic caste system in fact allowed for great variation: differences not just in dialects, for example, but also in tone of voice, or pronunciations of words, or the degree of light emitted from one’s luciferous skin that conveyed deep subtleties. Not even the work that Efheny had done for the thesis that had won her this posting (“Toward a Typology of Social Stratification Among the Tzenkethi”) had prepared her for the rich intricacy of everyday life here. This civilization, Efheny often reflected as she performed her mundane tasks, was like a great symphony in which even the lowliest server contributed to the great harmonic whole.

These were the kinds of thoughts that filled Efheny’s head when she was not listening for instructions from her superiors or concentrating on her work. This was probably why she had almost forgotten herself, and was certainly why she had almost missed the obvious. She was too busy keeping her head down and too busy being dazzled. Because sometimes—just sometimes—Efheny forgot. Forgot that her cover identity designated her Ata, bred to carry out the maintenance work necessary to keep any empire going. Sometimes, when she was busy with her tasks, a Fel problem solver or Kre administrator would come down from his or her station on the superior deck, and Efheny would not be able to resist lifting her head just a little to catch a glimpse of these magnificent beings, with their phosphorescent skin and long, strong bodies. Sometimes, when her work was done for the day and she was traveling home to her billet, she would marvel at this glorious world—sun kissed, shining, and blessed with so much water that a Cardassian could not help but stare, however furtively. Stable, controlled, beautiful—no wonder the Tzenkethi systems were policed so jealously by their inhabitants. No wonder they would have been horrified to discover Neta Efheny in their midst, no matter how much she had come to love them.

That morning—the morning of her terrible, fatal mistake—Efheny inched slowly back and forth on her knees along the inferior deck of a conference room, rubbing nutrient gel into its intricate coral floor. This had been her function since arriving on Ab-Tzenketh. As Mayazan Ret Ata-E (Ret to designate her as one who received her orders directly from any Ter leader; E to indicate the quality of her genetic stock), Efheny was part of a work unit assigned to maintain a series of chambers that made up a division of the Department of the Outside. In these chambers, Fel problem solvers and Kre administrators of the governing echelon met and formulated briefing documents on Tzenkethi policy toward foreign powers to be passed farther up to the court, where they might even reach the ear of the Autarch himself. As an undercover operative for the Cardassian Intelligence Bureau, Neta Efheny’s task was to keep as close to these discussions as possible, log everything on the numerous audiovisual recording devices implanted in her person, and transmit these files back to the analysts at the embassy. Neither task made much in the way of intellectual demands, although the maintenance work required physical activity, however repetitive. But as both Efheny and Mayazan, she was a function more than a person.

Pausing for a moment to examine her cloth, which seemed to be running low on the embedded chemical cleansing agents, Efheny saw, from the corner of her eye, the familiar figure of the leader of her work unit, Hertome Ter Ata-C. Hertome’s genetic profile gave him a slight edge over lower-grade Atas when it came to height, and his Ter designation allowed him to emit a coppery hue to distinguish him from the duller browns of his Ata inferiors. He was also allowed to stand without formal permission when higher functions were nearby.

Today, he was waiting near the point where the gravitational field of the anterior deck met that of the superior deck. He had paused in his task of prepping the surfaces of the anterior deck for cleaning and was listening hard to all that was being said by the higher grades above.

Efheny gaped. What was he doing? Such an error might easily lead him to be censured. But Efheny’s dismay ran deeper than that. Hertome’s brazenness seemed almost inconceivable. No true C grade would imagine doing such a thing. Whatever those above were discussing was their concern, not his, and best left to their superior capabilities. Efheny, shocked out of maintaining her normal deferential stance, stopped what she was doing and stared at him.

It was an error that might well have proved fatal for both of them. Fortunately for Efheny, the four other members of the unit were busy with their tasks and did not notice what occurred next between their two workmates. As if suddenly aware that he was being watched, Hertome Ter Ata-C turned his head and stared directly down at Efheny, kneeling on the inferior deck and staring up at him. He had green eyes, ovoid, and flecked with gold, ordinary enough for a Tzenkethi—but somehow, unmistakably, not . . .

Efheny clenched her jaw. Seeing the movement, Hertome blinked—once, twice—and then, from the narrowing of his eyelids, Efheny knew that he’d guessed that she too was not all that she seemed. She cursed under her breath. She had stared up at him for too long, far longer than any true Tzenkethi server of her grade would at a superior.

In a few short seconds, she had given herself away.

But then, so had he . . .

How had she not seen this? Hertome had been her superior for eight twin-months. How had she not known? He was human!

“Mayazan,” said Hertome in a soft, firm voice pitched to convey his authority over her but not to interfere with the important business of their superiors working above, “am I to expect a request of you?”

The use of her name, the personal pronouns, and the formality of his sentence structure reminded Efheny of the parts they were meant to be playing. In fact, it was a most appropriate communication between them, mindful of the differences in their respective grades but granting her the opportunity to speak. Efheny made a gesture of respectful supplication, dimmed further what glow was emitting from her skin, and held up her cloth.

“Ap-Rej,” she said, “this one must request a replacement in order to continue to perform her function satisfactorily.”

For a moment, Hertome did not move, then he nodded toward their supplies. “An acceptable request,” he said. “Take a new cloth, and be quick about it, Mayazan. Lazy hands serve no purpose.”

“And this one’s purpose is to serve.” Efheny stood up and hurried across to their supplies. Within moments she was back on her knees, head down, furiously rubbing the nutrient gel into the coral of the inferior deck. Beside her, one of her workmates, Corazame Ret Ata-E, began to sing, softly, a tune that had been very popular among the Ata a twin-month ago. Soon the other two deck workers were singing along with her, and Efheny joined in too:

Like the moons that hand by hand traverse the sky,

Like the waves that ebb and flow upon the shore,

These ones know,

These ones know,

There is an order and a purpose for all things.

Eventually Hertome and the other wall worker provided harmonies. By all outward appearances, they were a happy and productive unit, and no doubt the Fel and Kre work groups sitting above were comforted to hear the simple chant being murmured below them. Usually Efheny was soothed by participating in these songs, but today her stomach turned queasily, and her hands shook as she cleaned. Because she knew that her immediate superior in Maintenance Unit 17 at the Department of the Outside was not Hertome Ter Ata-C but a Federation agent, name unknown. The question now was: Which of them would be first to act on this new information? Which was going to blink first?

• • •

It’s the little things that kill, thought Beverly Crusher, pushing her mug farther across the table, out of reach of René’s questing, vulnerable hands. The things you don’t notice until they’re hurtling toward you. The tiny things you forget about until all of a sudden they’re critical.

René, thwarted in his mission to take possession of her mug, began to frown. Expertly, Crusher picked up his small cup and put it down in front of him.

“Juice, sweetheart!” she said. Eagerly, the little boy took the cup. He drank thirstily and gave a wide smile that made his mother’s spirits soar.

Across the table of the quarters that they shared on the Enterprise, a padd in one hand and his meal forgotten in front of him, her husband sighed deeply.

“Problem?” Crusher said.

“You could say that.”

“What kind?”

“Cardassians,” Jean-Luc Picard said brusquely. He put down the padd, stood up, and crossed the room to use the companel on the desk.

“Ah.” Crusher followed him across the room. “Yes. I can see how that might be a problem.”

The screen on the companel shimmered, and then Admiral Akaar appeared, stern and unyielding. Unconsciously, Crusher reached up to straighten her uniform, before remembering she was off-duty, in her quarters, and dressed for dinner with a two-year-old.

“Captain,” Akaar said. “There’s been a little change of plan. Cardassians,” he added, steely eyed and wry faced.

Crusher heard her husband sigh, just a little. A complication of Cardassians . . . Yes, that would be the collective noun. Picard opened his palm to invite the admiral to elucidate. “Please, go on.”

“They want their people to come along on the mission. When you get to Starbase 66 to pick up the Ferengi and Federation representatives, there’ll be a Cardassian diplomat and her team to pick up too. Negotiator Detrek. If it’s any consolation, she’s very experienced. A democrat too. First appointed during the Rejal administration, and then a favorite of Alon Ghemor. In other words, our kind of Cardassian.”

To Crusher’s eyes, her husband did not look particularly appeased by Detrek’s impeccable credentials as a democrat. “Our preliminary exchanges with the Venetan government have been marked by a distinct frost, sir,” he said. “It might not be wise to add more people at such a late stage. It could be construed as undue pressure.”

“Or construed as a signal of how seriously not just two but three other powers on their borders are taking their current dalliance with the Tzenkethi.” Akaar sighed. “I know this will be a tough sell, Jean-Luc, but I have our relations with the Cardassians to think of. As their ambassador is constantly reminding us, they are our allies these days. And when he’s not banging that drum, he’s indicated in innumerable ways—stopping short of saying it outright, of course—that his government will take the worst kind of message away from any refusal to allow their people to join in this mission to Venette. Since we’re counting allies pretty much on the fingers of one hand right now, the president has agreed to their request.” He frowned. “She said she would throw in a brass band if they asked. So I’m afraid Cardassians are going to be there at the negotiating table, and you and the rest of the team will have to look as if that was the plan all along.” Akaar’s eyes flicked sideways slightly. “Is Doctor Crusher there? I’d like to speak to her.”

Picard, quirking up his eyebrows, gestured to Crusher. Quickly, she concealed a sticky bright blue plastic spoon in her pocket, and came into view.

“How can I help, Admiral?”

“Doctor, I’d like you to take Lieutenant Chen’s place on this mission.”

“Excuse me?”

“I know Chen would do a good job, but I want you there. You’ve been to Venette already, am I correct?”

“Well, yes, but a long time ago. I was a cadet—” Crusher glanced at Picard, who shrugged his own confusion at the admiral’s request. “Chen’s the first contact specialist, Admiral. She’s been preparing for this mission for several weeks—”

“No,” said Akaar firmly. “I want the perspective of someone who has been there before.”

“Of course, Admiral—although my perspective was pretty limited. I was fetching and carrying for senior officers most of the time.”

“I’m sure things will start to come back to you when you’re there, Doctor. Besides, there’s another reason I want you there.” He leaned toward the screen conspiratorially. Surely this is a secure channel, Crusher thought, even as she and Picard mirrored the admiral’s move.

“Another reason?” she said.

“Or, to be more precise, I want a doctor there. This friendship between the Venetans and the Tzenkethi took us completely by surprise, Doctor. And our intelligence networks on Ab-Tzenketh are excellent. So how did we miss this?”

“I don’t see how a doctor can answer that question,” Crusher said. “You’d be better sending Choudhury—or, better still, send a specialist along, someone from Tzenkethi Affairs—”

“My specialist is on his way already. No, I have a particular purpose in mind for you, Doctor. I want to know whether the Tzenkethi are influencing the Venetans biochemically in some way.”

“A biochemical influence?” Crusher was baffled. “Aggression enhancers? Hallucinogens? Is that the kind of thing you mean?”

“I’ll leave the technicalities to you, Doctor.”

“Is that possible, Beverly?” Picard asked.

“Anything’s possible, Jean-Luc. We know very little about Tzenkethi physiology, and even less about their medical science—”

“And, with your prior experience of the Venetans, you’re the person best placed to judge any differences in their behavior, Doctor. Look around. Compare and contrast with your previous visit. Take tricorder readings—samples if you have to. But find out whether there’s a biomedical reason for the Venetans’ sudden shift toward the Tzenkethi and this new hostility toward us.”

Crusher nodded slowly. She remembered the Venetans as welcoming. Perhaps this idea wasn’t so farfetched. “Very well, Admiral. I’ll do my best.”

“Good. What else? Oh, yes, you’ve still got that Cardassian glinn from the officers’ exchange program, haven’t you, Jean-Luc?”

“Glinn Dygan, yes—”

“Might be time for his moment in the sun. See what help he can be with the Cardassian contingent. All right, that’s it. Keep the reports coming in, Jean-Luc. I’ll be waiting to hear them. Beverly, enjoy revisiting Venette.”

The channel cut off. Crusher exhaled. Beside her, Picard tapped the table with his fingertips—once, twice—and abruptly stopped. He gave no other sign that he was perturbed at having his plans thrown into disarray so late in the day. Crusher wasn’t fooled.

“Well,” he said at length, and calmly, “it seems that our mission to the Venette Convention is now rather more complicated than it was.”

“Complicated by Cardassians, no less.” Crusher perched on the side of the desk. “Do you really think the Venetans will be angered by their involvement?”

Picard leaned back in his chair and rested his hand upon hers. “I think there’s a strong possibility. They’re not well-disposed toward the Federation anyway. To bring the advertised diplomatic teams from the Federation and Ferenginar is one thing. To add representatives from another major power . . . As I said to the admiral—”

“The Venetans could see it as a last-minute attempt to put pressure on them.”

“And without many reasons to take us at our word when we assure them that it’s not.”

Crusher nodded. The Federation had an unfortunate history with the three systems that comprised the Venette Convention. When she had visited the convention, as Beverly Howard, all those years ago, the Venetans had been in the early stages of establishing links with the Federation. All had progressed smoothly. Ten years ago, they had been on the verge of applying for Federation membership. Then the Dominion War had intervened, followed by the horror of the Borg Invasion, and the political destiny of these three small systems had quite simply been forgotten. Until they’d announced their new trading agreement with the Tzenkethi Coalition, that is. Now the Federation diplomatic service was scrambling to make up the ground lost in a decade. The Venette Convention bordered upon some interesting (not to mention sensitive) spots.

“Chen’s going to be disappointed,” Crusher said.

“I’d better inform her of the change of plans—” Picard started suddenly, and Crusher turned to look behind her.

At the table, René had lost interest in his own drink and had got hold of his mother’s mug. His hands were too small to manage the weight, and the mug was now balancing precariously on the edge of the table. One small push and . . .

. . . Down will go baby, cradle and all.

Crusher crossed the room in a split second, catching the mug midway between table and floor.

“Nice save,” Picard said appreciatively.

“An eye for critical situations,” Crusher said, “and the reflexes to deal with them. Two more reasons why I should come along on this mission.”

• • •

“So . . . this friend of yours,” said Bowers.

“Not really a friend,” said Dax. “More a friend of a friend.”

“All right, this passing acquaintance of yours—”

“I wouldn’t even call him a friend of a friend. I mean, Netara dated him . . . twice, maybe? Three times at the very most.”

“All right, so you had a friend at the academy called Netara, and she dated this guy Alden three times . . .”

“Could have been four.”

“Three or maybe four times . . .”

“But over several months,” Dax said. “He was around a fair bit. I don’t want you to think he was a complete stranger or anything . . .”

Bowers lifted his hand to stop the flow of information. “I get the idea. And what I’m getting at is this: why exactly are you pulling all the stops out for this guy, Ezri?”

Dax, who had been smoothing down her uniform and looking around the Aventine’s state-of-the-art transporter room to make sure everything was spotless (it was), stopped and thought, Good question.

“Given that by this point in your life he’s surely no more than a minor footnote . . .”

“I guess . . .” Dax paused to think. “I guess, because he was around during an important bit. You know, right near the start, when you’re not shy or nervous anymore, but the end isn’t anywhere near in sight, and so you’re just enjoying the freedom and the comparative lack of responsibility.”

“I think I just about remember that,” Bowers said wistfully. “Despite the rusting memory and the dimming haze of time.”

“And Peter Alden, he was a year or two older than the rest of us. The crowd I went around with. It made a difference. We all wanted his approval, anyway, and then, to top it all, he was brilliant, Sam. A standout student. Obviously destined for great and important things.”

“‘Most Likely to Be Admiral Before the Rest of Us,’ huh?” Bowers frowned. “I knew a few like that.”

“No, not that type at all! Not pushy or self-important—the very opposite. Cooler, quieter. Modest, almost. But confident in himself. Like he had his eye on what was really important. Whenever one of us said anything—and you know ‘youngsters,’ too much to say most of the time—we always had half an eye on Peter Alden. What did he think of it? Did he approve? Was he disappointed? Everyone raised their game when Peter Alden was around.”

Dax paused. What about shy, gawky, hapless Ezri Tigan, who had found Peter Alden yet another entirely daunting experience that the academy was throwing at her? Had she raised her game? Had she ever raised her game, before Dax?

“Even Ezri Tigan?” Bowers said gently.

Dax laughed. “Yes, I think that once or twice even she managed to shine for Peter Alden.”

Bowers smiled. Dax twitched her uniform again. Trust Sam to know what was really going on in her head, to guess what it meant for her to be meeting someone who had known her before Dax.

It seemed a long time since Ensign Ezri Tigan, half qualified as a counselor and with slightly less than half a clue, had unexpectedly become the host of the venerable Trill symbiont, Dax. She’d been twenty years old. Time passed, and these days the people who had known her as Ezri Tigan seemed fewer and farther between. So when the Aventine had been assigned to collect Peter Alden, an intelligence expert on Tzenkethi affairs, and take him to rendezvous with a diplomatic mission en route to the Venette Convention, Ezri had been struck by the name. The thought of glimpsing that girl again—through someone else’s eyes, and someone whom that girl had admired—was tantalizing.

And to be able to show off the Aventine was the icing on the cake. “Most Likely to Be Admiral Before the Rest of Us”? Dax was still a player in that game.

Beside her, Bowers smiled. “I see,” he said. “‘Ezri Dax—My Success Story.’ ”

“Something like that.”

“Then I’m honored to find myself part of the parade.” Bowers cast an appraising eye around the transporter room. “So . . . does he have it?”

“Have what?”

“The glittering career that everyone predicted.”

“I lost track. You know how it is. But I imagine Starfleet Intelligence hasn’t been wasting his talents.”

“I imagine not. Your uniform’s perfectly straight, by the way,” Bowers said. “Oh, and you’re captain of one of Starfleet’s most advanced vessels.”

They exchanged grins. Dax patted Bowers on the arm. “Where would I be without you, Sam?”

“Here, probably. Hush. Your guest is about to arrive.”

The Aventine’s transporter chief, Spon, operated the controls, and Commander Peter Alden of Starfleet Intelligence materialized before them.

He was a taut man in his midthirties, all lines and angles, with dark hair graying at the temples and a slight frown etched upon his face. When he saw Dax, a smile softened the tension at his mouth and eyes.

“Ezri,” he said, offering her his hand. “Good to see you. It’s been . . . what, ten years? Twelve?”

“Must be,” Dax said, smiling back. She’d forgotten how good-looking Peter Alden was, and he had one of those faces that become more interesting with age and experience.

Alden glanced around the transporter room. “Your ship . . .” He laughed. “Well, it’s amazing!”

“I know,” Dax replied, beginning to laugh herself. Their hands were still clasped together. Gently, Dax detached herself from him. “Want to take a look around?”

Alden tucked both hands behind his back. “I’d like nothing better.”

They smiled at each other. At Dax’s side, Bowers cleared his throat. “Oh!” said Dax. “Yes! Allow me to introduce my first officer, Commander Samaritan Bowers.”

“Sam will do,” said Bowers, offering his hand. The two men exchanged pleasantries and handshakes.

Bowers turned to Dax. “Shall I accompany you on the tour of the ship, Captain? I know you were just saying that you didn’t know where you’d be without me—”

“D’you know, Sam, I think I’ll just about cope by myself.”

Dax gestured to Alden to go ahead through the door, and she followed him out. “May I be the first,” Bowers breathed into her ear as she went past, “to remark that your ex-roommate’s ex-boyfriend is a fox.”

“Shut up,” ordered Dax.





2

FROM:

Civilian Freighter Inzitran, flagship, Merchant Fleet 9

TO:

Ementar Vik Tov-A, senior designated speaker, Active Affairs, Department of the Outside

STATUS:

Estimated time to border: 37 skyturns

Estimated time to destination: 42 skyturns

Merchant vessel 3, hold temperature low but stable. Monitoring.

Over the years, the Enterprise had hosted countless diplomatic receptions, and Doctor Crusher and Captain Picard had evolved a system for working the room. Starting at opposite ends, they would move around the space in a figure eight, meeting briefly at the center to trade information, before moving on to the side of the room that the other had recently navigated.

“Make sure you speak to the Ferengi diplomat,” Picard murmured, as they passed each other. “Madame Ilka. I think you’ll find her very interesting.”

Madame, Crusher thought. Now that’s something I’ve not seen before. She glanced across the room to where a petite Ferengi female stood, twisting her fingers around the stem of her empty glass, observing the chattering guests with an air of distant amusement. Crusher extricated herself from her conversation with a junior member of the Cardassian team and began to move toward that end of the room. Picard, meanwhile, headed off in the direction of the lead Federation negotiator, Jeyn. Veterans of many similar missions together, they greeted each other with hail-fellow-well-met joviality.

Halfway toward Ilka, Crusher realized that the Ferengi woman had spotted her and had turned her gentle amusement to Beverly’s nonchalant approach.

At last, Ilka took pity and beckoned to her. “Doctor Crusher,” she called, “why don’t you join me in my corner?”

Relieved to be able to abandon her futile attempt to sidle up discreetly on the other woman, Crusher grabbed two flutes of champagne and headed straight for her. Ilka took the proffered glass and sipped the liquid. She was middle-aged by Ferengi standards, with a higher than usual brow and perhaps slightly small earlobes. She wore a plain gray and silver dress, very elegant and conservative, that almost acted as camouflage against the ship’s bulkhead. It was an interesting fashion statement. Most of the Ferengi women one saw in public tended to opt for bright, almost garish, colors, with plenty of decoration, as if celebrating their new freedom to dress as they pleased. Ilka’s one concession to prevailing taste was a pair of long earrings. Crusher noted, however, that they did not join together at the bottom in the usual style. She liked this innovation. The old style had always faintly reminded her of chains.

Ilka stared at her with huge, bright, intelligent eyes. “Have you met our new Cardassian colleague yet, Doctor?”

“Detrek?” Crusher shook her head. “No, not yet. I believe she’s not yet come aboard.”

“She is something of a mystery,” Ilka murmured.

“I gather it was a last-minute decision to send her along. She may well still simply be receiving her brief.”

“Perhaps.” Ilka took a sip of her drink. “Are you optimistic about the prospects of our mission, Doctor?”

“Beverly, please.”

“Beverly.”

“Am I confident about our mission?” Crusher pondered the question. “I have to say that I have mixed feelings. The news that the Venette Convention was seeking closer ties with the Tzenkethi came completely out of the blue.”

“For us, too,” Ilka said softly.

“We had such close links with them in the past. We had hoped to be welcoming them into the Federation—”

“But things change, and can change very quickly.”

“They can indeed, Madame Ilka, but not always for the worst.”

Ilka’s smile broadened. She had long white teeth, meticulously sharpened. “I would call that typical Federation optimism!”

“And I would suggest that Ferenginar proves my point.”

Ilka threw back her head and laughed, a frank, unforced laugh that warmed Crusher to the heart. She liked this small, clever Ferengi woman.

“Go ahead!” Ilka said. “Ask me whatever you like!”

“I wouldn’t dream of doing that,” Crusher said swiftly. “You must get tired of being treated as a specimen.”

Ilka briefly closed her eyes, her gaiety changing in an instant into something closer to fatigue. She leaned toward Crusher and lowered her voice in confidence.

“You know our history,” Ilka said. “As a girl I barely set foot outside my father’s house. At the age of consent I was traded by him in marriage for a controlling interest in a shipping company. By good fortune, the man to whom I had been sold happens wholeheartedly to support the advancement of females. More than that, he was willing to put latinum behind that cause. By that happy set of circumstances, I am now the first Ferengi female to be appointed head of a diplomatic mission. I have come this far by keeping my ears open, my mouth shut, and my wit sharper than that of everyone around me. There are many on my homeworld eager to see me fail in this task.” She considered this statement and glanced around the room to where several of her juniors were in conversation with members of the Federation diplomatic mission. “There are many on my team eager to see me fail in this task.”

“You can trust me, Madame Ilka,” Crusher said sincerely.

Ilka studied her with her bright, wary eyes. “I’d like to think I can. But I’ll hold some of my latinum in reserve a little longer, I think.”

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” Crusher replied.

Smiling, Ilka polished off the last of her champagne. She twisted the stem of the glass between her fingers. “An interesting beverage,” she said. “A kind of wine, is it not? Champagne, if I remember correctly?”

“That’s right. Ruinart, to be exact,” Crusher said. “You’re very well-informed.”

“I take an interest in the world around me,” Ilka said. “The bubbles make it rather noisy, of course, but I rather like the idea of a drink that is as fun to listen to as it is to taste. One of my sons has an import company that deals in superior quality alien goods—there’s a thriving market for them on Ferenginar these days. Our Bajoran first lady has set quite a fashion. I believe my son might be interested.” Her eyes sparkled at Crusher like the bubbles in the drink she was holding. Demurely, she said, “You sound like you know what you’re talking about. Do you happen to know anyone in the wine trade?”

Only my sister-in-law, Crusher thought. What a remarkable coincidence! Ilka certainly did take an interest in the world around her. She’d also done her research quite thoroughly.

Crusher lifted her glass and gave a traditional Ferengi response to such a question. “I may well have some information that could bring you profit.”

Ilka smiled broadly. And Crusher, looking around a room where the representatives of three powers were mixing freely and good-humoredly, was suddenly cheered—that in a climate of such mistrust, and amid such fear, there were great powers lining up against them, a friendship such as this could still be made.

• • •

When her shift ended, Neta Efheny did not linger, as she sometimes did, to chat with Corazame and the other deck workers. Instead she hurried down to the water shuttle that ran across the lagoon around which this city was built.

Efheny sat in the back, the part of the craft designated for Atas. The shuttle set off at a gentle pace, creeping along the shore and stopping regularly to drop off passengers. Efheny watched them as they scuttled down the narrow coral lanes that ran through most Tzenkethi cities. They were heading for their homes, tucked behind the blank walls of tenements turned inward around central courts. Even relatively superior echelons such as the ones Efheny was watching preferred to crowd together. Open spaces, being alone—these things caused Tzenkethi considerable discomfort.

The evening sky was purple, and a gentle breeze ruffled the water. The shuttle, after its last stop on this side of the lagoon, accelerated out into open water, heading toward the distant district where Atas such as Efheny had their billets. The canopies began to rise automatically, shielding the passengers from the great outdoors. Before the sky was completely hidden, Efheny caught a glimpse of the Royal Moon, a pale pink pearl above. All the passengers, Efheny included, raised their hands to touch their chests and then signal up to the moon, acknowledging the blessing of their Autarch, looking down from his palace upon his loyal servants. The canopy reached its full height, and the moon could no longer be seen, although its presence remained.

Efheny leaned back tiredly on the low bench and subvocalized instructions to begin transmitting the day’s data to her superiors at the embassy. Once the task was under way, she pondered her current predicament.

Much as she would have preferred to ignore what had happened, Efheny knew she had to speak to Hertome. She was terribly afraid that someone else had noticed their exchange, the sudden slip of their masks. Perhaps Hertome, with the advantage of his higher designation, would be able to alleviate her fears. But she would have to be careful. Hertome might be the representative of an ally, but Efheny was wary of humans. They were unpredictable. Take the meeting this evening. To arrange it, Hertome had simply walked past her and told her when and where to come as casually as if he had been instructing her on her next task. She’d had to hurry to switch on the audio-disruption devices that were part of her bioengineering, and even then she wasn’t sure that Karenzen Ter Ata-D, Hertome’s assistant, hadn’t noticed their unusual exchange.

Efheny disembarked two stops before her usual place, at a busy interchange that served as a covered market. Here Gar traders of the lower sort plied their wares to those Ata with a little more standing and a little more credit to their names. Slipping between stalls bearing ilva fish and pana stones and the sweet-smelling dyes with which many of the Ata grades liked to pattern their skins below their work wear, Efheny came at last to a tiny eatery. She came here once every other skyturn chiefly because the food was bland enough for her tastes, being largely free of the saltiness that all Tzenkethi, regardless of grade, seemed to believe was a necessary flavor to any meal.

Hertome (or whatever his name was in Standard) was already there, head down, reading the evening bulletin tickertaping across the tabletop. Efheny clicked her tongue. This was a risky meeting, out in public, but perhaps, given his slightly higher grading, it was less noteworthy than if he had come to her billet, or she had gone to his. Quietly, unobtrusively, she went to the table behind his, arranging herself on the low seat so that they had their backs to each other. The retinal scanner on the table, identifying her grade and function, changed the tickertape over to the E-bulletin. Efheny switched on her audio-disruption devices and waited.

After a moment, Hertome leaned back. “Not quite what you seem, are you, Mayazan?”

A frank opening move, too frank for her taste. These humans, thought Efheny (conveniently forgetting her own people’s recent history)—their proclivity for gambling would surely plunge the whole quadrant into chaos one of these days. Doggedly, she continued playing her part.

“This one can only offer her services to you, Ap-Rej.”

“All right, stay in role if you want to.”

Hertome twisted his neck slightly, so that from the corner of her eye Efheny could see the side of his face. The bioengineering was flawless. There was no sign now in his eyes of that unnerving alien humanness that had been so visible before. Now there was just an expression of patient, limpid sedateness that all the Ata seemed to bear.

Before Hertome could say anything else, a server approached their tables. His dull flesh and arm markings designated him EE. This made speech between them inappropriate, so Hertome signaled his order and Efheny did the same when he came to her.

When the server had left, Hertome spoke again. “I acknowledge your willingness to serve,” he said, “and commend you on your readiness. But what I really want to know is if you’re going to blow my damn cover.”

“This one acknowledges with gratitude your commendation,” Efheny said quickly. “She assures you of her dutifulness.” He could take that, she thought, whichever damn way he wanted.

Their cups of steaming leti arrived together, with two savory biscuits for Hertome and one for her. Hertome drank the shot of leti in one go but left the biscuits. He tapped his fingers against the cup, then stood up abruptly, knocking the biscuits to the ground as he did so. Efheny, as her status required, bent to pick them up for him—and, shockingly, he did the same. Their heads almost touched below the level of the tabletops. Efheny almost shuddered to think of the number of taboos that were being violated.

“It’s not so bad, you know.” His eyes were alien—human—once again. “We’re in this together. Perhaps we should think about working as a team.”

He stood up, keyed his credit code into the table, and left. Perhaps we should, Efheny thought. But we still have to be careful. She didn’t watch him leave and sat holding her mug in both hands, keeping her lowered eyes on a Ter Ata-B workman sitting at a far table. Had he been watching them throughout their meeting? Or was she simply being paranoid?

• • •

Glinn Ravel Dygan spruced up his uniform and headed toward the transporter room to meet the Cardassian delegation to the Venette Convention. This was a significant day for Dygan, who was looking forward to welcoming his compatriots on board. He felt welcome on the Enterprise, but nothing compared with having your own people around you, sharing jokes about the same childhood holovids, complaining about the same politicians, understanding the Cardassian way. Moreover, Dygan was quietly proud of the work that he had done on the officer exchange program to build bridges between Cardassia and the Federation. He wanted to introduce more of his people to this remarkable ship and its exceptional crew. Like many before him, Dygan was honored to be serving on the Enterprise. Unfortunately for the young glinn, his day was about to take a turn for the worse.

When Dygan reached the transporter room, Commander Worf was already there. He acknowledged Dygan’s arrival with a curt nod and his customary frown. “The cruiser Ghemor docked at Starbase 66 half an hour ago,” Worf said. “Your people are on their way.”

A quick communication between the transporter chief and his counterpart on the starbase established that the Cardassian contingent was ready to come aboard. The transporter chief operated the controls and the Cardassians materialized.

Four Cardassians. One too few. Worf’s frown shifted down a level from “situation normal” to “potential problem.” Dygan’s day began to go off the rails.

One of the insufficiency of Cardassians stepped forward and offered his palm in greeting to Worf. “I am Sub-Negotiator Gerety of Cardassian External Affairs,” he said. “On behalf of my government, I would like to thank you for accommodating us on this mission.”

“You are one fewer than we were expecting,” Worf said brusquely, pressing his palm against Gerety’s as quickly as he could. Dygan squirmed, guessing the commander’s thoughts. Cardassians. Always a complication.

Gerety gestured apologetically. “Our head of mission, Negotiator Detrek, has been called to take an urgent message.” Gerety jerked his thumb upward. “From the powers above.”

Worf glanced up at the overhead.

“I think he means the castellan,” Dygan murmured.

A low growl, barely audible except to the trained ear, escaped Worf’s throat. His frown-level plunged to “irritated.” Dygan quickly said, “I imagine Negotiator Detrek will inform us as soon as she’s ready to come aboard?”

“Naturally,” Gerety replied.

“Then, Commander, perhaps we should simply proceed as planned and escort our guests to the reception?” Dygan said. “I’ll be happy to return here as soon as Negotiator Detrek arrives.”

“That, ah, may be a while,” said Gerety.

“I’ll be available,” Dygan said, avoiding Worf’s eyes, and starting to shepherd his four compatriots toward the corridor. In the turbolift, Worf loomed over them all like clouds over the Andak Mountains, but the new arrivals were impervious to his disapproval and made cheerful small talk. Reaching the reception, Dygan let them loose among their Ferengi counterparts and glanced worriedly around the room.

Captain Picard, seeing him, beckoned to Dygan to join him.

“I don’t see your head of mission, Dygan. Has Negotiator Detrek lost her way?”

“I’m afraid she’s not yet come on board, sir. I understand she’s taking a message from the castellan.”

Picard’s lips pursed. Dygan frowned. The captain liked things to be orderly. Dygan shared this attitude, as he’d found over the months that he shared many of the captain’s ideas. Dygan’s respect for Picard bordered on the devotional. He most certainly did not like to contribute even in a small way to making Picard’s life more disorganized.

“Well,” Picard said, with a slight sigh, “I’m sure she—or perhaps your castellan—has a very good reason for the delay.”

“I’m sure that must be the case, sir.”

Picard looked around the room and gave a brisk nod at what he saw. “The rest of the delegation seems very much at ease,” he said, watching two junior negotiators in lively conversation with their Ferengi opposites and some distance away from Commander Worf. “Good work, Dygan.”

With that praise ringing in his ears, Dygan was at last prepared to relax. The reception passed smoothly. Dygan had an entertaining conversation with a junior Ferengi negotiator called Rekkt, who pressed him unsuccessfully for information about the Federation team and tried to sell him a tasting holiday at a kanar distillery. He introduced some of his colleagues from the Enterprise to the members of the Cardassian team, and a more informal gathering in The Riding Club was arranged for later. This gathering, when it occurred, transformed rapidly into a good-naturedly competitive and synthol-fueled six-handed kotra tournament that Sub-Negotiator Entrek lost only narrowly to the Enterprise’s senior counselor, Doctor Hegol. (Hegol, a Bajoran, even managed not to make the Cardassians feel as if they’d lost the Dominion War all over again.) All in all, Dygan thought, as he rolled into his quarters some hours later than usual, it had been a good start to the mission, fully in the spirit of interspecies friendship and cooperation. He could sleep happy.

But even the just, dedicated, and hardworking are not always rewarded with their beauty sleep. Dygan’s day was not over yet. Thirty-six minutes after his head touched his pillow, he was pulling his uniform straight and sprinting down the corridor toward the turbolift. Negotiator Detrek was finally putting in an appearance.

Dygan sped into the transporter room and came to a halt at Captain Picard’s left shoulder. Picard glanced at him, up and down (Dygan now looked immaculate), and grunted approval.

“Perfect timing,” Picard murmured—presciently, since Detrek immediately materialized.

She was a tall, stern woman—iron haired and flint eyed—exactly the kind of strong-minded individual that had come to populate the upper ranks of the Cardassian civil service since the end of the Dominion War. Cardassia was currently in the hands of resolute and principled public servants who fully understood the nature of the calamity that had befallen their beloved home and were determined never to let it happen again. Dygan wholeheartedly approved of her and her kind. This was why he had applied for the officer exchange program. Cardassians had to be serious about their desire for change, serious about their desire to participate in the affairs of the quadrant as reliable allies. It was the responsibility of all Cardassian citizens to show that they could be trusted.

Picard stepped forward and raised his palm in a formal but friendly greeting.

“Negotiator Detrek. I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Welcome aboard the Enterprise. May I introduce Glinn Ravel Dygan, who has been serving with us recently? He is a credit to your military, and I’m delighted to be able to attach him to you for the duration of our mission as an aide-de-camp.”

Detrek gave Dygan a brisk brief nod. She shifted the pile of padds that she was carrying to her left arm and pressed her free palm quickly against Picard’s.

“Captain Picard, I owe you a double apology,” she said. “First, I hope you will forgive my last-minute inclusion in this mission. I must surely have thrown your preparations into disarray—”

“Not at all, Negotiator,” Picard said smoothly, although everyone on the Enterprise guessed how frustrated the captain had been by this sudden change to their well-made plans.

Detrek smiled. “That is very kind of you. But I must apologize for my subsequent delay in coming aboard. All will become clear very soon.” She looked around. Her voice went low. “Where can we speak? Privately, of course.”

Picard showed no outward sign of being disconcerted by the speed at which Detrek was moving and gestured toward the door. “The observation lounge is of course at your disposal,” he said.

“Thank you.” Detrek began to move in the direction Picard had indicated. “May I impose upon you with one further request?”

“By all means,” said Picard. Dygan, attuned to him by now, caught the merest hint of dryness in the captain’s tone.

“I must speak to the other chief negotiators.”

“We have a briefing session scheduled for the morning—”

“Immediately, Captain. Please.”

Picard turned to Dygan. “Perhaps,” he said softly, “you could convey my apologies to Madame Ilka and Ambassador Jeyn for waking them, and ask them to join me in the observation lounge as soon as they are able.”

“Of course, Captain. Right away.”

Picard, pausing in his pursuit of Detrek, added, “I’d like you at this meeting too, Dygan.” His eyes flicked sideways imperceptibly, toward the newly arrived negotiator. “I’d like your perspective on what’s happening.”

Dygan nodded his understanding. He contacted both Ilka and Jeyn, and then hurried to join the captain and Detrek.

Detrek seemed to have made herself at home in double-quick time. Her padds and data rods were spread out across the table, and she was standing, hands clasped before her, studying a large holodisplay of the border between Cardassian space and the Venette Convention that was projected on the nearest bulkhead. When the other two negotiators arrived—Jeyn in slight disarray, Ilka meticulous—Detrek turned to speak to them.

“Forgive me for waking you,” she said to her colleagues. “Forgive me also for moving past the formalities of introduction. We have all familiarized ourselves with each other’s names, careers, histories, strengths, and weaknesses. We all know our business here. But we have very little time and we must move forward quickly.”

Through the displayed star chart, Dygan and Picard shared a surprised look. Cardassians loved protocol: it was a game, a delight, the warp and weft of their social interactions. To forgo protocol completely implied that something was badly wrong.

“Our mission to the Venette Convention has become more critical than any of us were prepared for,” Detrek went on. “This is no longer a matter of making overtures to the Venetans and offering them an alternative to friendship with the Tzenkethi. Events have overtaken us, and we find ourselves already long past that point.” She sighed. “The castellan regrets to inform you that today our intelligence sources within the Venette Convention learned that the convention has agreed to lease three of its starbases to the Tzenkethi Coalition. When I show you the location of these bases, you will understand our concerns—and the urgent need to wake you.”

Detrek moved her hand across the display. As she did so, the border between Cardassian and Venetan space lit up, a thin golden sheet between the two domains. Jabbing at a point close to the frontier, Detrek made one red light come up.

“The Venetan trading station Outpost V-15,” she said, “forty hours from Cardassian space. Here”—she moved her hand again and another glowing surface appeared, cutting through the void—“the border between Ferengi and Venetan space. Look.” She tapped a fingertip to make a second red light appear. “This is the second of the bases to be leased to the Tzenkethi. And here”—a third red spot appeared—“the third base. Captain Picard, I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you its proximity to—”

“—to Starbase 261,” Picard said, moving around the display to join her. Dygan drew in a quiet breath.

“Quite, Captain.” Shifting her hand again, Detrek made the three red dots connect. To Dygan’s eye, they looked uncomfortably like a net.

“Three bases,” said Detrek, “at the disposal of the Tzenkethi Coalition, each one of them”—she drew her finger around the red lines—“on the border of a Khitomer power.” She looked around at the assembled team. “I can see that you understand the importance of this. If the Venetans lease these bases to the Tzenkethi Coalition, then a Typhon Pact power will have established a significant presence on the borders of each one of the governments represented here today.”

“Not only that, surely,” said Picard. “They will have also established a direct supply line between those borders and their military bases.”

Ilka’s hand went up to cover her mouth. Jeyn drew in a sharp breath.

“That, to my mind, and to the mind of my castellan,” said Detrek, “is enough to constitute a significant military threat.” She gave a slight smile. “I hope now that you understand my presence here. The Venetans are no longer simply offering friendship to the Tzenkethi—”

“No,” said Picard, coming to stand beside her, gravely studying the golden net. “They are handing them the means—the infrastructure—to militarize the whole Venetan border against us.”

And even a Cardassian, Dygan thought, would forgo the pleasures of protocol when delivering news like that.





3

FROM:

Civilian Freighter Inzitran, flagship, Merchant Fleet 9

TO:

Ementar Vik Tov-A, senior designated speaker, Active Affairs, Department of the Outside

STATUS:

Estimated time to border: 34 skyturns

Estimated time to destination: 39 skyturns

Fleet course correction calculated to compensate for ion winds. Executing at next waypoint.

Over dinner in her quarters, Dax pressed Alden for details of his career. He proved slippery as gagh.

“So,” she said, as they picked over the remains of dessert and sipped their raktajinos, “Tell me more about what’s brought you here, Peter.”

He gave her a crooked smile. “Orders have brought me here. What else?”

She frowned at him through the steam of her coffee. “You don’t get off that lightly. A specialist in Tzenkethi affairs? Some pretty interesting material must cross your desk.”

“Just the usual paperwork. But what about you, Ezri?” He gestured around her quarters. “This ship—I wonder where it’s taken you.”

Dodged again, Dax thought. The lid was screwed on tightly. The habit of years, she guessed—although she had been hoping that their long friendship and the privacy of her quarters might have made him open up. “You know how it is, Peter. Excitement. Adventure. Really wild things.”

“Not what you signed up for when you entered the Academy.”

“No—but then neither was Dax.”

“No,” he said. “Life throws up some strange twists.” He swirled his coffee around in his cup.

“What are the Tzenkethi like, Peter?”

He started at her question; no, he jumped. “What on earth makes you ask me that?”

“Mission specialist? Come on, we all know what that means. How long were you there?”

He smiled. “What makes you think I was there?”

She tilted her head. Come on. Give a little.

He put down his cup and propped his head on his hand. He looked very tired and Dax suddenly regretted pressing him so hard.

“They’re beautiful, Ezri. Impenetrable. Terrifying.” He rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Do you mind if we don’t talk about this tonight? Let’s talk about something else. Do you ever hear from Netara?”

She let him take her back again to reminiscence, although quietly a part of her wondered whether his weariness was genuine, or a feint to stop discussion. But by the time Bowers, coming off-shift, joined them, they were relaxed, well back into the past, and they entertained him with stories that were old to them but made fresh again by telling him. As they talked and laughed (and drank), Dax easily remembered why Peter Alden had been so admired as a young man. His wit was sharp, his intelligence undoubted, but he never turned these talents on anyone, not in a way that would do harm. And then there was his self-containment, his slight reserve, which only added to the appeal.

“It’s good to see you, Peter,” Dax said, at the door to her quarters, when at last he went off to bed. They hugged, for a moment or two longer than one might usually hold on, as if to make up for lost years.

“Good to see you too, Ezri. Good to see you soaring.”

The door closed after him. Dax remained standing there, tapping her fingers against the bulkhead.

“Now there’s a man with secrets,” Bowers said. “What do you think? Is he hiding anything?”

“Oh, I should think so.”

“Anything we should be worried about, Ezri?”

Dax looked around at the ruins of dinner, spread across the table. “I don’t know yet, Sam. Sure, he was closed, but that’s what spies are like.”

“Even the foxes?”

Dax smiled and opened the door again. Dismissed, Commander. As Bowers passed her on his way out, she said, “Especially the foxes.”

She didn’t waste more time that night worrying, but went straight to bed—only to be woken three hours later by the persistent chime of the shipboard computer.

“Message from Commander Alden,” the sleek voice told her.

She rolled onto her back. “What’s up, Peter? You can’t be in need of another nightcap.”

The beat before Alden replied put her immediately on alert. She levered herself up onto her elbow. “Computer, lights. What is it, Commander?”

“Change of plan, Captain. We should meet in your ready room. Now, please, Ezri.”

Eight minutes later—washed, uniformed, and partially caffeinated—Dax strode into her ready room, Bowers as ever at her back. Alden was already there, studying a holoprojection of a star chart that displayed a sizable portion of the border between the Venette Convention and the Federation. Starbase 261 gleamed in one corner of the display. Alden’s shirtsleeves were rolled up and there was a mug of cooling coffee by his right hand, forgotten and forlorn. Padds were scattered across the table. Alden looked sober and unrested, and had evidently not yet been to bed. Dax sympathized.

At the sound of the door easing shut, Alden’s head snapped up. His eyes narrowed at the sight of Bowers.

“What are you doing here?” Alden said sharply.

For a moment, Dax wasn’t sure how to reply. “Peter,” she said, baffled, “Bowers is my XO . . .”

Alden gave a quick shake of the head, as if to bring himself into focus. “Of course. Yes. Well, I’m sure you have clearance, or we can get you clearance.”

Dax and Bowers exchanged puzzled looks. “I certainly hope so,” Bowers said, taking his usual seat. Dax went to her chair, forcing Alden to move around the desk and take the remaining seat next to Bowers. She relaxed deliberately back in her chair and folded her hands in front of her. The dim lighting was giving the small room an unusually stifling atmosphere.

“When shall we three meet again . . . ,” she murmured, then, crisply and louder, “Computer, lights!”

The room brightened. Alden rubbed his eyes against the sudden glare.

“That’s better,” Dax said firmly. “Go ahead, Peter. What’s happening?”

Alden gestured toward the display. “Things have moved on. The Venetan government is about to announce that it intends to lease three of its starbases to the Tzenkethi for . . .” He gave a sharp, bitter laugh that surprised Dax in the level of its cynicism. “Well, they say that they’ll be used for refitting and refueling purposes only, but let me show you their location and perhaps you’ll see why our government—and not only ours—is unconvinced by this claim.”

Across the star chart, three bright red points lit up.

“This one on the left is Outpost V-27,” Alden said. “You’ll note its proximity to the border with the Ferengi Alliance, as you’ll note the proximity of this base to the border with Cardassian space. And this one . . .” He gestured toward Starbase 261.

“Certainly doesn’t look good,” said Dax. “But is there any evidence that the Tzenkethi intend to use these bases other than, well, ‘as advertised’?”

Alden gave a thin smile. “Why these bases, Ezri? Why not, for example, these?” The first three red lights disappeared and another three lit up. “Three more Venetan bases. Each as conveniently close to regular Tzenkethi trade routes but not a single one near the border with any power within the Khitomer Accords.”

“It’s circumstantial,” Bowers said, perhaps still piqued at Alden’s earlier dismissal. “And it strikes me that accusing the Tzenkethi of planning to militarize these bases when there might not be sufficient reason could start that militarization.”

“That could even be the intent,” Dax said. “Get us to fling around an accusation or two, take umbrage, and there’s your excuse to weaponize.” She shook her head. “Listen to me! If we start on that line of thinking, we’ll keep going back and forth until everyone is blaming everyone else for the slightest move.”

“Yes, indeed,” Alden said seriously, “these are complicated times. There’s not much in the way of trust going around.” He picked up his cup of coffee, studied it closely, and put it down again. “Which is why my mission has changed, and I’ve been ordered to find out exactly what is going on at Outpost V-4.” He raised his hand to his face and rubbed at his eyes once again. “Tired, tired, tired . . . ,” he muttered. He shook his head and seemed once again to try to pull himself back into focus. “It’s been pretty busy since you went off to bed.”

So why the hell didn’t you wake me? Dax thought. A glance at Bowers, eyebrows raised, confirmed that he was wondering the same thing.

“Communications have been flying around between my superiors and the Venetans,” Alden went on. “They say they’ve nothing to hide, and they’ve agreed to allow Federation observers to visit Outpost V-4.” He gestured at the scattered padds. “I’ve been trying to get up to speed with Venetan politics and culture . . .”

“But the immediate upshot of this is?” Dax cut in. “For the Aventine, I mean. That being my primary responsibility.”

“My instructions are now not to join the Enterprise on its diplomatic mission to the convention but to go to Outpost V-4, meet the Venetan representatives, and learn as much as possible about the Tzenkethi presence there. You’re to take me to Outpost V-4 and give me whatever assistance is needed.”

There was a brief pause while Dax drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Yet I haven’t received any direct instructions from Starfleet—”

As if on cue, the comm by her seat chimed. “Priority message from Admiral Akaar. Security code alpha-2.”

“I guess,” said Bowers, “this will be our summons.”

It was. A brief conversation with Akaar confirmed everything that Alden had said and directed the Aventine away from the Venetan homeworld and instead toward Outpost V-4. Still, Dax thought, as she relayed instructions for the new course to the bridge and made her way down, there were ways of doing things—and receiving her orders from a junior officer (no matter that they’d known each other as students) wasn’t one of them. Sitting in her chair on the bridge, she watched Alden from the corner of her eye: the hard-achieved focus, the barely hidden fatigue. I’ve certainly changed, she thought. Why wouldn’t he?

• • •

Crusher refreshed her memory of her brief, long-ago visit to the Venette Convention from Chen’s briefing documents and her own logs, virtually dusty and half-forgotten. As she read, she was struck by how unlikely the three systems that comprised the convention were as candidates for finding themselves at the center of a diplomatic storm. Tucked away in a quiet part of the quadrant (but adjacent to several powers), and peaceable (but not particularly isolationist), they were home to several long-lived humanoid species that shared a distinctive ancient and venerable culture that valued moderation and tolerance and placed great emphasis on cooperation and mutual respect. But, as she’d said to Ilka, things changed.

In retrospect, Crusher thought, the clues to their current frostiness toward the Federation and their allies had been there. The Venetans—cautious and deeply proud of their enduring and successful way of life—clearly believed they had been snubbed by the Federation when their application to become a member state had been sidelined as a result of the traumas of the previous ten years. The longevity of the various Venetan species only complicated the matter. The discussion on Venette over closer ties with the Federation had lasted the best part of two centuries, and many of those who had promoted those links were still very much alive and active. No wonder they felt snubbed! But rather than turning inward, the Venetans were turning toward the Tzenkethi Coalition and, therefore, toward the Typhon Pact. And that surely merited this intervention, no matter how embarrassing it was for the Federation’s diplomatic corps. Perhaps Akaar was right and there was some deeper, more injurious Tzenkethi project under way. Crusher recalled hospitable and no-nonsense people. Not hostile and suspicious. Why had the Venetans been drawn to the Tzenkethi?

“In many ways,” Ilka said, as if guessing the direction of Crusher’s thoughts, “Venetan culture is a better fit with the Tzenkethi than with the Federation. Both civilizations are very stable and achieve that stability through a certain degree of conformism on the part of their members rather than through encouraging individualism.” Her clever eyes gleamed. “You Federation explorers and we Ferengi entrepreneurs are perhaps somewhat baffling to the Venetans. An enduring civilization of long-lived people, content with the habitable worlds of their systems—no wonder our outward-focused cultures seem at odds with their values. I’m surprised they ever wanted to join the Federation at all.” Her eyes crinkled with a smile. “Perhaps they thought they could teach you something, Beverly?”

Crusher laughed. “I’ve no doubt that they could. That they still can.”

“But breaking your promise to bring them into the Federation. Tsch!” Ilka made an odd clicking noise with her tongue that Crusher took to be a sign of disapproval, but the Ferengi woman’s eyes were still full of humor. “Most unwise! Your government has stored up a great deal of trouble for us.”

“So it seems,” Crusher replied. “But I’m not so sure the Venetans place as high a premium on conformity as you suggest. Certainly that’s true of the Tzenkethi—or what we know of them—but the Venetans? Cooperation is their key word, not compliance. Sure, they might try to channel individuality toward a greater good and away from excessive competition, but I don’t think they want to eradicate competitive urges entirely. It’s simply that they’ve found it less useful in maintaining a society with the kinds of values they most admire. Whereas the Tzenkethi—as far as I can tell—want to remove self-interest from the gene pool altogether. But if it came down to coercing someone into living her life against her own interests simply for some greater good . . .” Crusher shook her head. “My instinct is that the Venetans would find that unacceptable.”

And that, perhaps, might be the key to finding common ground again with the Venetans, Crusher thought. That must have been why the Federation had seemed an attractive option in the first place: a diverse community of many cultures, living (mostly) successfully together, much like the Venetans’ own arrangement. Perhaps the very liveliness of the Federation’s diversity had seemed attractive too: the fractious debates and heated quarrels that sometimes characterized the council. Perhaps it had reminded these ancient people of their own childhood.

We’ve been beaten back and battered for so long now, Crusher thought. War after war, the Andorian secession . . . We should try to remember what’s good about us, about our way of life, even when we’re at low ebb. Because if we don’t care any longer, why should anyone else?

Beside her, Ilka gave a little tilt of the head that set her long earrings jangling. “We’ll see,” she said. “I’ll have a better idea once I’ve heard Rusht speak.” She clicked her tongue again. “Tsch! I wish they would use titles as well as names! It feels so wrong simply calling her ‘Rusht.’ So ill-mannered! Titles make everything so much clearer.”

Crusher and Ilka were waiting with the rest of the diplomatic teams for the Venetan negotiators. Arriving by transporter in Guwine, the Venetan capital, the members of the mission found themselves in the atrium of a sunlit honey-stone building that their guide called the Hall of Assembly. Taken quickly via curving corridors to what Crusher guessed was the center of the building, they were brought up one level to a pleasant chamber that was clearly a meeting room of some kind, although the organization of the space had been causing some confusion to the members of the various delegations. Two large tables, each shaped like a huge letter C, were hooked around each other, and while there were many chairs in the room, none of them had been arranged at the tables, and no places had been designated for the diplomats and their aides.

Their guide seemed baffled when Detrek asked where they should sit.

“Sit wherever you like,” she replied, which caused a great confusion of activity among the junior aides of the three parties, as they tried to organize places for their superiors and themselves. The situation was not helped by the fact that Venetans were constantly coming into the room in twos and threes, picking up chairs as they entered and putting them down again wherever it suited them.

“Are you not concerned with the seating arrangements, Ilka?” Crusher asked her colleague. She and Ilka, on walking into the room and observing the chaos, had immediately gone over to a large bay window where refreshments were laid out, helping themselves to drinks and watching rather than participating in the mêlée. They’d sort themselves out in the end, Crusher thought (although poor Jean-Luc, trying to impose some calm and order on the proceedings, was clearly hating every second of this undignified scrum).

“I’m sure my colleagues will determine an arrangement that suits them best,” Ilka said cheerfully. “I shall be happy to oblige them.”

Crusher nodded toward a junior Ferengi diplomat, who was engaged in a very lively dispute with one of the Cardassians over ownership of a chair. “Your associate doesn’t seem to share your indifference.”

“Sub-Dealer Prott,” Ilka said sharply, “needs to understand who exactly is in charge of this mission and to take direction accordingly. Nevertheless”—she demurely sipped her drink—“if he wants to wear himself out before discussions have even started, he is quite welcome to do so. And I am content to observe, thereby learning more about the dispositions of my allies and the Venetans than Prott will learn in a lifetime. Ah!” She smiled. “I believe the matter of the chair will shortly be resolved.”

Crusher laughed. Glinn Dygan—tall, solid, broad, and exactly not the kind of person one argued with—was, on Picard’s instruction, moving ominously toward Prott and the Cardassian. Soon the chair was placed behind Detrek, with the Cardassian junior sitting firmly upon it and Prott sent in search of another.

Crusher turned to look out the window. Although they were only one floor up, this building seemed to be the tallest in the capital and consequently gave her a good view out across Guwine. Long avenues curved around the city, with short spirals of smaller roads branching out. Low buildings and little gardens were gathered haphazardly around these roads such that it was difficult to see where the greenery ended and the buildings started, as if nature and culture were indistinguishable. It gave the whole settlement a serene, pastoral quality. Crusher saw children playing in a large green space across the nearest avenue, and wondered whether “park” was the right word, implying as it did some sort of barrier between it and the rest of the city. She wondered what life must be like for Venetan children, surrounded by so many wise and ancient elders. She smiled. Perhaps not too different from René, growing up on the Enterprise.

“It’s a beautiful place,” Ilka said.

“Reminds me of Paris,” Crusher said absently, refilling her glass with a pale yellow sparkling liquid that tasted pleasantly like elderflower. Ilka, accepting a refill, sipped and wrinkled her nose.

“Not a patch on your champagne, Doctor,” she said with a dismissive sniff.

The chatter in the room from all the Venetans now present was very noisy. They made an interesting sight. Four of their species were easily distinguishable either by their heights (varying from petite to imposing) or by the soft fur upon the bodies of two of them. Everything else was simply a matter of counting fingers. They mixed together freely and, having taken their seats, seemed amused if rather perplexed by what their visitors were doing. Crusher, wondering who they all were, realized that they must simply be ordinary people interested in seeing firsthand the visitors from other worlds.

Looking around the room, something on the far wall caught her eye. She tapped Ilka on the arm and pointed. “Recording devices,” she said. “These aren’t closed proceedings, are they?”

“The Venetans have a completely open society,” Ilka said. “Closed proceedings would make no sense to them. First to the room gets a seat; everyone else can watch live.” Ilka nodded across the room to where Picard, his frown deepening with each moment, was in whispered conversation with a very unhappy-looking Detrek. “Shall you inform Captain Picard, or shall I?”

“I’ll pick my moment, thanks.”

“Then in the meantime,” Ilka said very softly, “may I ask whether your government has yet taken advantage of the offer from the Venetans to inspect Outpost V-4?”

Crusher, circling the remains of her drink around the base of her glass, considered the question and the potential reasons for asking. Remember that she’s an ally—but she’s not Federation. You don’t have to tell her everything.

“I understand that the offer is being seriously considered.” Crusher smiled at her new friend over the rim of her glass. “I’m just the doctor, Ilka. They don’t tell me half of what’s going on.”

“Beverly, I don’t believe that for one moment!”

Their amiable fencing halted when a set of large double doors at the far end of the chamber swung open. Even the Venetans went quiet as Rusht swept into the room.

Rusht was on the very imposing end of the Venetan height spectrum, nearly two meters tall. Crusher checked immediately for high heels but couldn’t see below the hem of Rusht’s long pale-green gown. Nor was her hair adding any extra height: it was pulled back sharply from her brow to give the effect of a dark peaked cap. In fact, Rusht’s whole style was unornamented to the point of severe, as if dressing up was something that took attention away from more serious business, something that children might do. Ilka murmured under her breath and reached up to touch one of her earrings in an almost nervous gesture. Not for the first time in her career, Crusher was grateful for the low-pressure anonymity of a uniform.

Another Venetan, smaller and covered with beautiful gold fur with darker stripes along her arms and temples, followed Rusht into the room. Rusht’s aide, perhaps? Did the Venetans have aides? How was this going to work? But Crusher’s attempts to guess how this already bewildering meeting would play out stopped when the third figure entered the room and her startling beauty nearly took Crusher’s breath away. This tall, glowing woman, fluid in movement and yet clearly very strong, was surely a Tzenkethi.

Crusher exhaled slowly. She had never seen one in person before. The aesthetic effect was remarkable, and the inclusion of a Tzenkethi in the Venetan diplomatic team sent about as strong a signal as possible about the strengthening ties between their world and the bigger, more powerful empire at their border. The Venetans really were angry.

What’s behind that? Crusher wondered. Why such depth of feeling? We were careless, perhaps, but we were also preoccupied. We were at war, for heaven’s sake! Surely our lack of attention was understandable. So why was the snub felt so deeply?

“Well, Beverly,” murmured Ilka, “I believe we are outclassed—visually, at least.”

Rusht and her companion spoke quietly to the Tzenkethi for a few moments. The Tzenkethi moved to one end of the table and, with infinite grace, rearranged her body so that she was comfortably seated on the floor. Her face was a mask, unreadable. Rusht took a seat near her at the end of the same curved table. Her colleague sat beside her.

“I am Rusht,” she said simply. Her voice was low, but it carried. She gestured to her companion. “This is Vitig. We’ve decided that we’ll be the ones to speak to you.” She looked around the room at the confusion of delegates, sighed, and said, “Sit wherever you like. We should begin.”

The chaos among the delegates, which had subsided when Rusht entered the room, did not pick up again. The members of the three delegations, much subdued, quickly organized themselves around three points across the two tables, with Jeyn and Picard diagonally opposite Rusht and Vitig, and Detrek and the Cardassians along the curve to their right. Dygan, sitting behind Detrek, was making an effort not to look anxious and instead ready and eager to respond to any request his government’s representative made of him. The Ferengi took their place to the left of the Federation representatives, around from the Venetans on their table. Ilka put down her glass and went to join her delegation. As she moved away, she murmured to Crusher, “First point to Rusht.”

But Crusher wasn’t too sure. Yes, on the surface it seemed that with one well-judged entrance and a few well-judged words, Rusht had managed to take control of the proceedings, but something about her demeanor suggested that she found the behavior of her guests rather wearying. She seemed . . . tired by their antics. Much like Jean-Luc, in fact, Crusher reflected. Still, it was true that whatever Rusht’s intention, the delegates from the Khitomer Accords were now on the defensive.

Crusher picked up a chair and put it down behind Jeyn and Picard, and found herself beside a cheerful Venetan who offered her his bag of sweets. At his insistence she took a couple, putting one in her pocket for later. Rolling the other slowly around her mouth (it had an almost peppery flavor—surprising, but not unpleasant), she leaned back so that she had a good view of the opposing parties—or, rather, a good view of the Tzenkethi behind Rusht.

In fact, everyone who wasn’t a Venetan was goggling at the Tzenkethi, or pretending not to. Rusht said, “I should introduce a good friend of the convention, Alizome Vik Tov-A.”

An approving murmur rose up from around the room as the Venetans welcomed their guest. Crusher flipped mentally back through the briefing documents she had read en route and tried to decipher the mysterious code of the Tzenkethi naming system.

Alizome Vik Tov-A . . . Alizome was a personal name. Tov was a status marker, indicating her importance as part of the governing echelon, the ruling class. Vik, as Crusher understood it, was a functional designation, indicating her specific purpose within that echelon. It meant Alizome was a speaker, permitted to conduct negotiations on behalf of her Autarch and speak in his voice. Was she sanctioned to do that today, Crusher wondered, or was she here simply to observe and then report back to her masters? As for A, well, the genetic grading spoke for itself. Altogether, if intelligence on Tzenkethi naming conventions was accurate, Alizome Vik Tov-A was a very prestigious member of Tzenkethi society. This person might even have the ear of the elusive and mysterious Autarch himself.

Ambassador Jeyn, taking the lead for the allies in their negotiations, got the nod from Ilka and Detrek. Jeyn stood up and smiled across the table at Rusht. The Venetans, politely, went (mostly) quiet. Crusher relaxed. Jeyn was as much a veteran of this kind of occasion as Jean-Luc.

“On behalf of my own government,” Jeyn said, “and on behalf of my two colleagues, I’d like to thank you formally for your welcome today, Rusht—”

A raised palm from Rusht stopped Jeyn in mid-flow. “You are mistaken,” Rusht said.

Jeyn, who had simply been warming up, blinked at her in surprise. “I’m sorry?”

“You are mistaken. I have offered no welcome. It would be better for all of us if you were not inaccurate. This has caused difficulties between our governments in the past and brought us to the unfortunate situation in which we find ourselves now.”

There was a short, charged, and extremely embarrassed silence. Then the Venetans began to murmur to each other. There was no glee or schadenfreude in them, but Crusher rapidly got the impression that they agreed with what Rusht had said. Again, it was not that a point had been scored but that something necessary and accurate had been said. Across the room, Alizome glowed gently and turned an impassive golden eye upon Ambassador Jeyn.

Jeyn was completely at a loss as to what to say in response to such blunt hostility. Not so Detrek, however, who, eyes flashing, leaned forward and said, “This is outrageous! You invite us to your world simply to insult us—?”

Dygan, seated behind her, flinched. Crusher saw him throw an anxious look across the table at Picard.

Who swiftly intervened. “You are correct, Rusht,” he said, “that you have made no formal welcome. Yet in the hospitality that has been shown since our arrival—the rooms, the refreshments—and in your simple willingness to meet us after the disappointments of the past, I fear we must be forgiven if we misconstrued these signs as a welcome. Our gratitude for this my colleague has, I think, accurately conveyed on behalf of all of us.”

That voice, Crusher thought fondly. Who could possibly be immune to its charm? I know I’m not.

And Rusht, if not charmed, seemed at least prepared to be persuaded by the sentiment expressed.

“Skillful words,” she said with a slight smile. “We knew that already about the Federation, of course. Words came easily, although action did not. But I’m ready, for the moment, to hear more.” She glanced briefly across at Detrek (was that contempt in her eyes?) and then looked back at Picard. “From you, Picard, at least.”

Crusher breathed out slightly and relaxed. She saw Dygan do the same. Nice save, Jean-Luc. That’s why they send you on these missions.





4

FROM:

Civilian Freighter Inzitran, flagship, Merchant Fleet 9

TO:

Ementar Vik Tov-A, senior designated speaker, Active Affairs, Department of the Outside

STATUS:

Estimated time to border: 32 skyturns

Estimated time to destination: 47 skyturns

Waypoint 42. Fleet course adjustment executed successfully.

The next time Efheny went to the eatery at the covered market, there was no sign of Hertome. She was able to enjoy her leti and biscuit in peace. She watched the bustle of the crowd and observed the servers, moving silently between tables, signaling orders back to the kitchen with a kind of finger poetry that made her xenoanthropologist’s heart sing. She needed this moment of solitude. She was still uncertain what to do about Hertome.

She had thought of killing him, of course, but murder was unusual on Ab-Tzenketh, and the enforcers investigated any instances fiercely and effectively. Far too risky for an undercover spy. She had debated working with him, as he’d suggested, but she could not bring herself to trust a human, even one as highly trained as Hertome must be. She’d already seen him slip too easily out of his role. She couldn’t request a transfer from her work unit. The whole point of her presence on Ab-Tzenketh was to be in the rooms used by the civil servants in the Department of the Outside. They could keep up the pretense indefinitely, but Hertome was a problem that wasn’t going away. So what should she do? She went into work the next day still undecided, keeping her head down and rushing to obey Hertome’s every order.

That evening she went back to the eatery. To her dismay, Hertome was there. Worse, the only available space was at the same table. With a sigh, Efheny began the complex series of supplications that would allow someone of her grade to request permission to sit opposite someone of his comparatively elevated status.

“We can speak freely, you know,” he said rather impatiently, when at last she lowered herself down to the ground. “My bioengineering enables audio disruption, as I’m sure yours does too. I activated it when you sat down. Anyone listening will hear us exchanging prerecorded pleasantries. But keep your eyes down, Mayazan. You still have to look the part.”

She did keep her eyes down and she did not reply, simply signaled her request to the server. Hertome’s fingers, darkly stained with the cleaning agents that they both used, fiddled with his cup as she ordered.

“I saw on the C-bulletin the other day,” he said chattily, as if they were old friends soaking up the heat in some city stone room, “that the Ret Ata-EE genome is under revision. Some of the Yai scientists have suggested that the next generation of servers should be bred not to speak. They’re arguing that such a feature is redundant in them because they can perform all of their functions perfectly adequately without. They don’t need to speak to serve. What do you think of that, Mayazan? Or whatever your name is?”

“This one would not question the decisions of superiors. Whatever is decided will be best for her.”

Hertome sighed deeply. From beneath her eyelids, Efheny could see him watching her.

“Cardassian,” he said at last. “You have to be. You didn’t even blink. Genetically manipulating an entire class so that they no longer have speech? If you were Federation, if you were Ferengi, certainly if you were Klingon, there’d have been a muscle twitch at the very least. Revulsion is almost impossible to suppress.” He leaned back in again, close, and spoke very quietly. “But Cardassians? You’re made of colder stuff, aren’t you? Bet you’d have done it yourselves if you were able, at several points in your history.”

Stung, Efheny looked up—yes, looked directly at him. “This one suggests,” she said softly back, “that her training might simply be better than yours.”

“I thought about that,” he admitted cheerfully. “Thought about whether you were Federation and nobody had bothered to brief me. Even wondered whether you were from another Typhon Pact power—no reason why you wouldn’t all be spying on each other, after all—but when I woke up the morning after our little tête-à-tête here and I wasn’t dead, I figured you were probably an ally. So the question then was, what kind? Ferengi? Klingon?” He shook his head. “The thing is, I’ve worked alongside you for months. You like it here, don’t you, Mayazan? You like how calm it is, how ordered. I’ve seen you staring out across the lagoon as if it was a glimpse of paradise. You’re Cardassian, or my name’s not . . .” He smiled crookedly. “Well, my name’s not Hertome Ter Ata-C.”

Her leti arrived. She sipped it.

“How did you know I wasn’t Tzenkethi?” Hertome said conversationally.

Efheny thought, How do you think? Because humans are a menace and we are trained to watch out for them in case their impulsiveness gets us killed. She said, “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we need to be careful. I wouldn’t be surprised if this meeting hadn’t already attracted attention. It’s not illegal for an Ata-C of breeding age to associate outside of work with an Ata-E of a similar age, but it’s not usual, and a biomedical check is considered appropriate first—”

“So take my hand.”

Startled, she looked up at him over the rim of her cup. “What did you say?”

“Take my hand. If we’re already marked, we might as well give them a reason to mark us. But it’s surely better if it’s nowhere near the truth.”

She considered his words, weighed them, moved the kotra pieces of their game around in her mind. Then she came to her decision about what to do. Keep him close. That’s all you have to do for now. She put down her cup and reached across the table to clasp his hand.

“If it becomes necessary,” she said, looking deep into his alien eyes, “this one will kill you.”

He smiled. “Mayazan,” he said, “I think that might be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”

• • •

With the Aventine under way to Outpost V-4, Ezri Dax called her senior staff together to brief them on the new mission. Peter Alden sat at the opposite end of the table. No, not sat. Slumped. He looked exhausted.

“Seeing as you’re all bright and able graduates of Starfleet Academy,” Dax said, “I imagine you’ve already gathered that we’re no longer delivering Commander Alden to the Enterprise. Our mission instead is to take him to the Venetan Outpost V-4, where the Tzenkethi are currently making free with the outpost’s facilities.”

“And all within spitting distance of Starbase 261,” Security Chief Kedair noted, as Alden brought up the relevant star charts. “What exactly do you mean by ‘making free,’ Captain?”

“That, as they say, is the question,” Dax replied. “The purpose of our journey is to observe what’s going on. The story the Venetans are putting out is that it’s a trading agreement, plain and simple. Goods coming in, goods going out. Everyone happy. However, Commander Alden and his colleagues”—she nodded down the table and he nodded back—“fear darker purposes behind this arrangement.” She stared again at the star chart. “It is damned convenient that these bases all lie on the border . . .” She shook herself. Remember, Ezri, we know nothing yet, nothing substantial. “But we need proof of any plan to militarize these bases. The Venetans insist they have nothing to hide, but it’s a delicate situation, and we can’t simply blunder in waving our phasers around and kicking over consoles to search for long-range weapons.”

“Our visit will be highly stage-managed,” Alden said. “The only consoles that we’ll get anywhere near, whether we’re kicking them over or not, are likely to have been tidied up for the occasion.”

“That’s a possibility,” Dax agreed ruefully. “So I need strategies for investigating whether Tzenkethi weaponry is already on the station, or whether it’s anywhere near the station.” She glanced at Leishman and Helkara, her engineering and science officers, who both nodded back. Leishman even began thumbing away at a padd.

“Unobtrusive strategies, I assume?” asked Helkara.

“You bet,” said Dax. “The Venetans have long since decided we are belligerent. I don’t want them discovering that we’re running all kinds of scans and so giving them even more reasons to distrust us. Sure, they’ll suspect that we’re doing it, but I don’t want them to have proof.”

Around the table, her senior staff began to murmur to each other. Dax threw up her hands. “I know, I know, it’s crazy! But it seems everyone’s out to take offense these days. So we’ve got to make damned sure that we don’t give them any opportunity to do so.”

They got down into the minutiae of the mission: their time of arrival at Outpost V-4, who exactly would be in the away team sent over to the base. Alden briefed them on how best to deal with the Venetans (frankly) and Tzenkethi (cautiously). When Leishman threw in a few preliminary suggestions as to how the weapons scans might work based on what she knew of Venetan technology, and Helkara started to shoot her ideas down, it was clear they were moving from general business to specific tasks, so Dax halted the discussion and dismissed them. They all got up to leave, Leishman and Helkara still deep in conversation. Bowers hung back just in case but, at a nod from Dax, left with the rest. Only Alden remained.

Dax came around the table and sat in the chair next to him.

“You’re convinced, aren’t you, that we’re going to find something there?” she said. “Some proof that the Tzenkethi intend to use this base to threaten our borders?”

“Yes, I’m convinced.”

“But why would they do that? It would be absolute madness! In this climate, how much more provocative could you get? The Tzenkethi must know that none of the members of the Khitomer Accords could possibly allow them to put weapons so close to our borders. So why the hell would they even try?”

“Why?” Alden looked bewildered that she would even ask. “Why do you think? Because they don’t trust us. And because our bad luck has brought them together with the Venetans, who have their own reasons not to trust us either.” He gave her a tired, rather hollow look. “I’m telling you, Ezri, there’ll be weapons on that base, or there’ll be weapons on the way to that base. Not just this one. All three of them. We’ll hear the same from the Cardassian and Ferengi observers at the other outposts.”

“Okay, I’m going to stick my neck out and say I think you’re wrong. I’ve read up on the Venetans. It doesn’t sit right with my sense of what they’re like. I think the Tzenkethi have pursued this friendship simply because it embarrasses us. They’re there to rub our noses in what we lost. That’s enough for them. I don’t think we’ll find anything.”

“Ah,” he said, lifting a finger and smiling, “I covered myself on that already. If there aren’t weapons there now, there will be soon, I said.”

“But again I come back to the fact this is madly, insanely provocative. Why do that? Why?”

Alden eased back in his chair. “You ever met a Tzenkethi?”

“You know I haven’t. Have you?”

“You know I have. I was there once.” He looked past her, down the table, at nothing. “On Ab-Tzenketh.” He shrugged. “You know how it is . . .”

“Actually, Peter, no, I don’t.”

“I’ll tell you about it one day.”

“I hope you will.”

“But my point is, I got a fairly good sense of what the Tzenkethi don’t like about us. Because make no mistake about it, they despise us.” His face clouded and his eyes went distant. “Physically, the Tzenkethi appear humanoid, but their outside shape masks a fundamental fluidity of form. You’re the counselor, work it out.”

“Former counselor.”

“You know enough. What do you think the effects might be of that?”

Dax shook her head. “I don’t know . . . Anxiety about dissolution? Fear of collapse? I’m guessing here. You can’t extrapolate directly from biological form to psychological state. Nurture counts at least as much as nature.”

“Well, I would say that you’re bang on the mark. Tzenkethi social systems are designed to stave off exactly such collapses. You’ve read about them, Ezri. You know the rigid nature of their social stratification, for example, and their convoluted codes for interacting with each other.”

Dax nodded. She’d read about the strict naming conventions and the complex linguistic codes that communicated and reinforced function and status.

“But you said ‘despise,’ Peter. That’s a strong word. Lots of worlds within the Federation have formal structures and ritualized interactions. Starfleet has formal structures and ritualized interactions. Why would that make them despise us?”

“Because to the Tzenkethi, the Federation is chaos personified—their worst nightmare, their greatest fear. What are we, after all? An unruly mishmash of people, all shouting out noisily in our own voices, all bringing our own particular culture to the mix. For the Tzenkethi, it’s the monster under the bed. And, even worse, that chaos is right next to them and has a fleet of warships at its disposal. They must live in terror of what such unstable people as we are might do with all that firepower. The Venetans were a propaganda gift to them. A civilization that looked at Federation membership and then turned away . . .”

“Now hold on,” said Dax. “The Venetans didn’t turn away. The whole process got delayed by . . . oh, minor issues like Borg invasions and a war or two. But they were going to join the Federation.”

“But they didn’t.”

“Not because we turned them down, or they turned us down—”

“That doesn’t matter. They didn’t join, and that’s all that counts.” His eyes shadowed. “I have to wonder how long the Tzenkethi have been working within the Venette Convention. Working on the Venetans. Reminding them why they shouldn’t trust us, whispering about how dangerous we are, seeding doubt upon doubt . . .” He gave a slight laugh. “That’s what I would have done in their place. That’s what I know they’ve been doing. I know what they’re like.”

Dax realized she had been listening as if mesmerized. He was so persuasive, always had been. “Peter, you can’t talk this way. You can’t think this way! So much suspicion. We’ve got to . . .” She opened her palms. “We’ve got to keep on hoping that we can build trust. Otherwise . . . well, I don’t want to think where it might take us. But we’ve got to go to Outpost V-4 with an open mind. No, I know what you’re going to say,” she said when he frowned. “I’m not saying that we blind ourselves to the possibility that something might be happening there, something that we don’t want. I’m not so naïve! But even while we’re watching our backs, we’ve got to hope that we’ll be surprised—and in the best way possible. We’ve got to hope, Peter.”

He smiled at her. There was only the faintest sign of the confident young man that he had been. This was someone weary of the world, someone crushed by the weight of experience, whose early bloom had been crowded out by weeds. The thought of that—the sight of that—saddened her.

“Hope, Ezri?” he said. “You’ll have to take care of that, I think. All I can do is keep watch.”

They smiled at each other. “In fact, mister,” she said, “there’s one other thing you can do.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Go to sleep. We’ve got hours yet.”

“Sleep.” He stretched in his chair and stood up. “Yes, I think I remember that . . .”

“Then reacquaint yourself with it. That’s an order. Good night, Peter,” she said as he headed for the door. “Sleep well. Don’t dream of Tzenkethi under the bed.”

He laughed and left.

Dax sat for a while staring at the star chart that was still displayed. Counselor. She hadn’t thought of herself that way in a long time. Ezri Tigan had barely started on that role when Dax had come into her life, turned her upside down, and left her standing on her head. Now she was Ezri Dax, and Ezri Dax was a captain: a captain who had been a counselor who had eight lifetimes of experience to draw on. She was surely qualified to know when she should be worried about someone under her command.

Quickly, Dax stood up. She went back to the head of the table and put through a private communication to the ship’s senior counselor. “Susan, meet me in my ready room. I want to talk to you about a friend.”

• • •

If Dygan had been troubled by Detrek’s flash of temper at the start of negotiations, it was nothing compared to his mounting alarm as the morning progressed. Negotiator Detrek seemed not to be in the mood for negotiation. Every word spoken by Rusht earned a sneer from Detrek; every suggestion by Rusht that the Venetans had the right to lease their bases to whomever they chose brought from Detrek blunt warnings that such choices came with consequences. The other members of the negotiating teams were too well trained to show their anxiety, but Dygan could see it: in the nervous twitch of Jeyn’s left hand, in Ilka’s twisting of the long chain of one earring, in Captain Picard’s increasing reliance upon formality and politeness.

And then there was the evident displeasure of all the other Venetans in the room. They’d taken a dislike to Negotiator Detrek, no doubt about it, and they weren’t afraid to make their opinion known. In the main they let Rusht do their speaking for them, as she’d been tasked to do, but there were many whispered conversations among them and sore looks directed at Detrek, not to mention the occasional catcall when she spoke.

The only person in the room who seemed unaffected by what was happening was the Tzenkethi observer, curled at the far end of the table, within her bright impenetrable glow, silently watching everything that was happening. And what was happening was that Negotiator Detrek was throwing the whole mission from the Khitomer Accords into disarray, leaving her allies badly flustered and the Venetans infuriated.

“However often I repeat myself,” said Rusht, late in that long morning, “you seem unable to understand that these bases will be used for supply and refitting purposes only. We have invited you to send observers, who are already en route. The Starship Aventine, carrying Commander Peter Alden from Starfleet Intelligence, is now merely eight hours from Outpost V-4. Ferengi observers will be docking at Outpost V-27 within the hour. And your own ship, Detrek, the Legate Damar, with people from your own intelligence bureau, is only two hours from Outpost V-15. If we had something to hide, do you really think that we would invite you to come and see what operations are being established by the Tzenkethi on our bases?”

There was a ripple of approval from around the room.

“Why,” Rusht concluded, “would we engage in such a pointless charade?”

“Because you’ll have had plenty of time to clean up before any of our observers arrive,” Detrek shot back. The disapproval from all a