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February 12, 2164
Verex III, Orion-Klingon Borderland
“. . . SO WE CAN ALL SEE the benefits to such an alliance,” intoned the burly Orion at the head of the meeting table, his gaze taking in each of his two guests in turn. “Working alone, the Vulcans were powerful enough to drive both of your organizations into retreat. Now they are part of a larger, even stronger Federation whose Starfleet patrols increasingly interfere with your efforts to stay in business. What better revenge,” the green-skinned man went on in a polished baritone, “than to form a partnership of our own to stand against them?”
“The benefits of allying with your . . . employers are self-evident, Harrad-Sar,” replied the Mazarite representative, Eldi Zankor. But then she sneered, the expression subtly stretching the scalloped flaps of skin that extended from her cheekbones to her ears. “But what can Jofirek here provide us? The Vulcans drove his syndicate from Agaron while I was still learning to walk, and he’s been struggling for relevance ever since!” Despite the white hair of her temples and eyebrows, a typical trait of her species, Zankor was in the prime of her life, her ambition and ruthlessness—and the government purge of her predecessors some years before—allowing her to rise to the head of Mazar’s crime syndicate at a precocious age.
The same could not be said for the wizened, silver-maned Agaron who sat across from her, the characteristic vertical ridge that bisected his people’s foreheads almost lost amid a sea of wrinkles. “How dare you!” he wheezed. “My smuggling and narcotics connections span two sectors!”
“Two or three systems in each sector, at best. Why would you even want this fossil in our alliance, Harrad-Sar? He’d just be a drag on us.”
“I’ve had forty years to rebuild my organization! Your group is still trying to pick up the pieces after the purge!”
Harrad-Sar spread his hands. “Please, please, my friends,” he said. “The Federation’s strength comes from its unity—its ability to set aside its members’ differences in pursuit of their mutual interests. Our respective syndicates will be better able to stand against them if we learn from their example. This joint venture can benefit from Jofirek’s experience, the connections and markers he’s accumulated over the decades, as well as from the fervor and resources of the Mazarite cartel.”
Watching through a pane of one-way glass from the next room, Navaar smiled at her slave’s performance. “He’s doing well,” the merchant princess purred, absently twirling a lock of her luxuriant black hair around a slender green finger.
“He always was a quick study,” replied her sister D’Nesh as a muscular male slave—bigger and younger than Harrad-Sar, with fewer and less elaborate metal adornments piercing his bare scalp—brushed her curly hair for her. “I guess you were right not to kill him after all.”
“I knew he had it in him to redeem himself for his failure.” In her private thoughts, Navaar admitted the truth: the failure to capture Jonathan Archer all those years ago, in retaliation for his disruption of the Orion Syndicate’s slave market on this very planet, had rested as much with herself and her sisters as with their chief slave. Not only had Archer’s officers somehow managed to overcome the Three Sisters’ powerful pheromonal control, but Earth and its allies had learned the truth about Orion women: that they, or at least their most pheromonally potent elite lineages, were the actual rulers of Orion civilization rather than the slaves they pretended to be. On top of everything else, the Starfleet crew had crippled the warp drive of Harrad-Sar’s ship and forced him and the Sisters to limp home at sublight; it had been nearly a year before their distress signals had reached another Orion ship, and the Sisters had spent much of that year punishing Harrad-Sar for his failure. D’Nesh had wanted to tear out all his piercings and keep tearing until there was nothing left but a pile of bones and organs. Maras would have been happy to watch and join in; the youngest Sister was a woman of simple pleasures.
But Navaar had recognized the truth: that they had simply been making Harrad-Sar the scapegoat for their own failure, driven by their fear of the consequences when they finally returned in disgrace. She had convinced her siblings that they would need to stick together more closely than ever to survive, to draw on their slaves’ loyalty to the fullest rather than discarding them and trying to start fresh. Harrad-Sar had recognized in turn—with a little persuasion from his owners—that his own best chances of survival had come from helping the Sisters survive, and if anything, it had been the bonds the four had formed during that long trek home that had enabled them to weather their disgrace, emerge stronger, and eventually rise to their current leadership roles in the Syndicate.
“Your arguments are all well and good,” Jofirek was saying to Harrad-Sar, “but I’m too important to deal with middlemen. When do I get to meet your employers?”
Zankor scoffed. “Restrain your lust, old man. Just the sight of them would probably give you a heart attack.”
Navaar smiled, both at the compliment and the irony. While the Sisters’ existence and importance were known to the higher-ups in other syndicates, few knew them on sight. Thus, Zankor and Jofirek were unaware that Maras was in the room with them, posing as one of the junior attendants who played a menial and generally decorative role in the proceedings—while a massive, nearly nude male slave tended to Zankor’s needs. Although Maras’s skills, to put it kindly, were far more in the physical sphere than the mental, she knew enough to avoid getting too close to Zankor, aware that pheromones as potent as the Sisters’ could have an irritant effect on humanoid females. Zankor was confrontational enough without such a hormonal boost. But Maras sat near enough to Jofirek to make him aroused and suggestible, ensuring that he would do whatever Harrad-Sar asked in the Sisters’ name.
Right now, Sar was assuring the old man that he was fully empowered to speak for the Syndicate. But Navaar was distracted by a grunt of displeasure from the being who stood to her left, also watching through the mirror. “Something troubles you, Garos?” she asked.
Dular Garos turned his broad, gray-scaled face to hers. “I share Zankor’s skepticism about Jofirek’s usefulness,” the Malurian intoned in his deep, resonant voice. “In fact, negotiating with either is a waste of time. Both their organizations are in ruins, struggling for relevance. What can they possibly provide you that the Raldul alignment cannot?”
Behind them, D’Nesh laughed. “You’re just jealous.”
“I’m surprised at you, Garos,” Navaar said with a gentler smile. “You understand our long-term objectives as well as anyone. To beat the Federation at their own game, we need to enlarge our alliance, draw on every resource we can. We need to be able to strike at them from all sides.”
“Right,” D’Nesh added. “And it can’t hurt to have a couple of sacrificial beasts to throw their way if we need to.”
Garos threw her a skeptical look. “Just so long as Maluria doesn’t turn out to be the sacrifice.”
“Garos, Garos,” Navaar said, stroking his arm. “Do you really think we would have revealed ourselves to you so openly if we didn’t value you as our closest ally?”
“You only revealed yourselves to me because you know Malurians respond to dominant females.” As always, he was frustratingly unmoved by her instinctive efforts at seduction. Not only did his reptilian origins make him immune to Orion pheromones, but Malurian males were irrevocably bonded to the large, polyandrous females who generally remained on their homeworld, Malur. Garos was an exile from Maluria—the system containing Malur and its three colony planets—and every action he took was driven by the hope of returning home in glory one day.
“But you have seen us do the same with others of sufficient importance. The Basileus from Sauria, for example.”
“Only when he failed to accept me as your representative,” Garos said with irritation, still stung by the humiliation of Maltuvis’s dismissal.
Navaar faced him squarely. “What would reassure you of our commitment to our partnership with Raldul?”
“Perhaps your attention to a matter of higher priority,” he replied.
D’Nesh gave him a cute pout with steel behind it. “Such as?”
“Such as the situation with the Rigelian Trade Commission. The Lorillians and Axanar have been pressuring Rigel to enact more aggressive security and anti-piracy patrols in the Kandari Sector—even to join the Federation so they can have Starfleet protection! The Commission has already invited the Federation in for talks. And if Rigel joins them, then others will be quick to follow.” He gestured at the negotiators on the other side of the mirror. “What good will it do to bring these minor players into our circle if the Federation nearly doubles its own size while our attention is elsewhere?”
“Come, Garos,” Navaar said. “You worry too much about short-term concerns. We’re playing a long game here.”
“You may be. The Syndicate’s territory is large enough that you can easily afford the loss if Rigel cracks down on crime and piracy in Kandari. But my alignment depends far more heavily on those revenues.”
Navaar smiled. “And that is the benefit of our partnership! It lets us direct our attentions toward several goals at once. You are more than welcome to address the Rigel situation yourself if it troubles you so. We trust Raldul to have the skill and resources to carry out such a venture.”
Garos sneered. “While you waste time playing seduction games with relics like these.”
“You know better than that, my friend,” Navaar told him, turning back to watch as both the crime lords finally acceded and affixed their thumbprints to the document of alliance. “This is a small piece in a much larger puzzle. And other, far more important stratagems are already in motion.”
February 25, 2164
Patorco Harbor, Narpra, Sauria (Psi Serpentis IV)
Patorco had made Antonio Ruiz fall in love with darkness.
The harbor city was built into a vast, partly submerged lava tube on the edge of Narpra’s largest island, its homes and businesses carved into the living rock of the walls. Dozens of tiers of dwellings arched over harborside paths worn smooth by eight millennia of webbed footsteps, and over heavy wooden piers that could be pulled up to serve as dikes when Sauria’s frequent, fierce storms flooded the cavern. Far overhead, Ruiz could glimpse the mesh of carefully bred, broad-leafed plants that spanned the gaps in the roof, filtering the sunlight during the day to shield the Saurians’ vast nocturnal eyes while storing its energy in a calorie-rich vegetable oil used as both a fuel and a culinary staple. But at this time of year, Psi Serpentis A was in the sky for only a third of a day at this latitude, and only the faint illumination of its distant red-dwarf companion, about as bright as a crescent moon on Earth, currently showed through the leaves.
Yet the water shimmered, its bioluminescent algae casting a gentle blue glow up from the harbor. Overhead, highly polished sheets of gold, silver, and bronze, plus more modern mirrors, caught and redistributed the light from the harbor, while streetlamps full of bioluminescent insects added a mix of gentle hues to the light. It was dim by human standards; Ruiz and his fellow Federation consultants carried night-vision visors as a matter of course, and he made sure to spend a few hours a day in a bright room and take daily melatonin supplements to stave off darkness-induced depression. But in his months on Sauria, he had learned to make do with the crepuscular lighting the Saurians favored, so that he could see this city’s beauty the way it was meant to be seen. Everything about this place was a triumph of engineering, both mechanical and biological. As an engineer himself, Ruiz had to appreciate that.
Of course, the company was the other main draw. Narprans were an exuberant, friendly people, and they evoked those qualities in others. Ruiz certainly found Narpra more agreeable than M’Tezir, the first Saurian nation where he and his fellow mining engineers had been sent to teach environmentally sound techniques. The geological forces that had created the narrow M’Tezir continent—essentially one vast mountain range thrusting out of the ocean—had also brought the dilithium, duranium, and rare earths in the planet’s mantle closer to the surface there than just about anywhere else on Sauria, making it the main focus of Federation mining efforts. But the new wealth the deal had brought to the formerly impoverished land mass had yet to trickle down to M’Tezir’s commoners, whom Ruiz had found furtive, somber, and wary of outsiders. Their ruler, an old-style warlord called Maltuvis, was making nice with the Federation and the Saurian Global League in order to profit from the trade agreement, but that hadn’t yet extended to improving the way he treated his subjects—people who hoarded what little they had and saw outsiders as potential competitors, a xenophobia that Maltuvis readily encouraged. Ruiz had been much happier upon relocating here to Narpra, a Global League member whose constituent islands arced between M’Tezir’s northern tip and the west coast of the planet’s largest continent. Not only was the cooler climate more comfortable for Ruiz—still tropical by Earth standards but not too different from his native Cuba—but the social climate was far warmer. He and his colleagues had been readily incorporated into their Narpran protégés’ social lives.
Ruiz grinned as Redik’s, the miners’ favorite sauna bar, came into view. The local miners had been bringing the humans here for weeks, and Ruiz had taken to it readily. The Saurians were already famous across the stars for their brandy, whose potent charms Ruiz appreciated, but he’d developed a particular liking for Narpran rum, a dark and flavorful spirit distilled from a seaweed cultivated by local divers. He also had a definite fondness for the hot spring–fueled sauna and steam room facilities in the back, particularly since Laila Alindogan partook of them regularly—and was considerably more comfortable with the local custom of group nudity in saunas than Ruiz was. On more than a few occasions, the two of them had ended up going home together after a few lively hours drinking and sweating with their friends. (Not that Saurians sweated, of course, but they benefited from the heat and humidity in their own way.)
But when the group entered Redik’s this time, they found the mood oddly subdued, the patrons muttering quietly. Some threw furtive glances toward Ruiz, Laila, and the other offworlders as the group came up to the bar. In the darkness, it took a moment for Ruiz to figure out what else was wrong with the scene. “Where’s Karep?” he asked. The lanky, golden-brown Narpran male was a fixture here, a seasoned rumweed diver and mariner with a seemingly endless supply of tales of adventure and debauchery accumulated over a century and a half of life. Ruiz didn’t yet know enough about Saurian history, oceanography, or sexuality to judge how much Karep embellished his accounts; but he often thought that, in a way, he’d be disappointed if they turned out to be true in every detail, for the old salt was an artist with their telling, at least once you got a few liters of rum into him. Saurian biochemistry made them resistant to most toxins, so they could hold their liquor far better than a human, but they still found it relaxing and stimulating—at least when it was suitably strong.
The bartender, a pink-complexioned female named Bavot, lowered her bulging orange eyes and wiped down the bar. “Karep is out tonight.”
“Out?” Ruiz protested. “He’s never out! He practically lives here!”
Another regular, a big, red-hued longshoreman called Naralo, threw the human a surly look. “He’s not here. He’s . . . sick.”
Ruiz was as startled as the rest of his group. In all the months he’d been here, he’d never seen a Saurian come down with so much as the sniffles. No wonder everyone was so quiet.
“Well . . . well, then,” Ruiz said after a moment, “Bavot, a round for everyone, on me. We’ll drink to Karep’s health.”
Naralo blinked in confusion. “You mean . . . drink until he’s healthy again?”
“No, no, it’s a toast. It’s a way of wishing him a speedy recovery.”
The big Saurian tilted his egg-shaped head. “And you humans believe that our having drinks will somehow make him healthier?”
“Well, no, not really. It’s just . . .”
Laila came to his rescue. “It’s just a way of paying tribute. Expressing our shared concern and sympathy.”
“Sounds more like you’re using his misfortune as an excuse to drink,” Naralo grunted. But then Bavot put his own free drink in front of him, and he studied it for a moment. “But I didn’t say it was a bad custom. To Karep’s health, then!”
The mood soon lightened—the group was still subdued, but sociable, and the drink loosened them up. Eventually, as was customary, they headed back for the saunas. But in the changing room, Naralo suddenly staggered, nearly knocking the half-undressed Laila over. Ruiz caught her arm to steady her. “Hey,” he said, chuckling. “I think for once I’m more sober than you, big guy.”
“No, this is. . . . My head hurts. I need . . .” The big Saurian breathed heavily, emitting a wheezing sound.
Laila guided him to a bench, then frowned and felt his forehead. “You’re feeling a bit warm. Do Saurians get fevers?”
“I never . . . have. Just . . . let me rest, I’ll be fine.”
She felt his pulse. “Are you sure? Your hearts are racing.” Ruiz was still just sober enough to resist asking which one was winning.
Another bar patron, a female bearing the distinctive lilac skin tone of the M’Tezir, stared at Naralo. “I’ve seen this before. Karep had the same symptoms. It’s spreading!” She turned an accusing glare on Ruiz. “You! You humans were sitting next to him. And you were in Karep’s sauna the other night!”
“Come on, Rolanis,” Laila said, “there’s no reason—”
But Rolanis was backing away in alarm, retrieving her clothes. “Stay back! It’s you offworlders. Bringing your weakness, your disease! Contaminating us!” She ran out, ignoring the calls from her friends to calm down.
Laila was now helping Naralo get dressed, offering to escort him home. Ruiz looked around at the other Saurians, noting their unease. “Maybe I’d better go, too.”
“No,” one of his miner friends assured him. “It’s just the ravings of a drunk. M’Tezir aren’t used to indulging as much, can’t handle it as well.”
The other Saurian miners chimed in, assuring Ruiz that they didn’t take Rolanis’s accusations seriously and would still gladly share a sauna or a drink with him. After seeing off Laila—who promised to return once she’d gotten Naralo home safely—he acceded to his friends’ invitation.
Still, Ruiz caught some furtive looks from the other patrons in neighboring saunas, and a few chose to give him and the other offworlders a wide berth.
March 16, 2164
Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco
Danica Erickson gazed out the window of the Starfleet commissary and sighed. “Do you ever miss it?”
Jonathan Archer followed her gaze, taking in their elevated view of the San Francisco coastline and Marina Boulevard. “Miss what?”
She turned her strong-featured, dark-complexioned face back to his. “Being able to go for a walk on the Promenade or have lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf without needing a security detail to keep the reporters at bay. Just being Jon and Dani instead of the great admiral and the ‘daughter of the transporter’.”
Archer nursed his iced tea for a moment. “I guess I’m used to it. This is my life now, and I can still make the best of it, even if it’s not the life we had when we were young.”
Her big dark eyes widened in mock outrage. “Hunh! Younger, please!” They shared a chuckle, but her mirth faded swiftly. “At least you have something real to accomplish. Me, I don’t have any answers for them. I’m not the transporter genius my father was. But that never stops them from asking me how long it’ll be before it’s safe to use transporters again. I feel I can’t even go out in public anymore.”
Archer nodded, understanding her refusal to have anything to do with transporter research after all the losses her family had suffered as a result of her late father’s work developing the technology. She’d only stayed with Emory Erickson as long as she had in order to care for him after the transporter accident that had crippled him.
But then Dani caught herself. “Oh, I’m sorry, Jon. I realize my petty problems don’t compare to what transporters did to you . . .”
He gently waved off his childhood friend’s concern. “It’s okay. It’s barely even a problem anymore. Phlox’s latest treatments have pretty much halted the nerve damage and repaired most of it. I’ll never be quite back to top fighting form, but then, I probably wouldn’t be anyway now that I’m not . . . younger . . . anymore,” he finished, echoing her emphasis.
“Well, that’s good to know, at least.” She shook her head. “I’m almost glad Dad passed on before he found out about this. The thought that his invention was hurting people because of something he missed—”
Archer reached out and rested his hand atop hers. “Hey. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The assembly errors are cumulative, gradual. Nobody could’ve known until transporters were in heavy use for years.”
“He still would’ve blamed himself. You know that. You know how obsessive he could be about—” She broke off, remembering how her father’s desperate experiment to retrieve her lost brother from transporter limbo had led to the accidental death of one of Archer’s crew and Erickson’s own incarceration for the final years of his life. Danica herself had not been held accountable for her involvement, partly due to Archer’s advocacy; but it had scuttled her ambitions for joining Starfleet, forcing her to settle for a civilian engineering career.
He squeezed her hand more firmly for a moment. “It’s okay. We caught it in time, you know. Nobody’s died from it. And I’m sure we’ll crack the problem sooner or later. For now, we just have to get places the old-fashioned way—in skimmers and shuttlepods.”
She chuckled. “Just like our primitive forebears.”
“That’s right.” He was glad to see her bright smile again. “Oh, speaking of travel,” Archer went on, hoping to distract her further from her regrets, “I’m going to be heading out on Endeavour next week.”
“Oh! Back in space again, good for you! Where to this time?”
“The Beta Rigel system. Since we helped them with the Vertian crisis last year, the Rigelian Trade Commission has been more receptive to the possibility of joining the Federation, and President Vanderbilt wants me to help convince them.”
“The Trade Commission?” Danica asked. “How is it their decision?”
“They’re the de facto government of the Rigel worlds—at least, the allied ones. The individual planets and colonies have their own local governments, but it’s the Trade Commission that’s managed commerce and communication among the inhabited worlds of the system since it was founded six hundred years ago. So it’s evolved into the administrative body that holds the alliance together.”
“Sort of like the way the British East India Company ran the British Empire’s colonies.”
“Something like that, but more egalitarian and not for profit. Almost like the Federation in some ways, just on a more local scale. That’s part of why the president thinks they’re a good prospect for membership.”
“They’re big, too. Multiple planets and . . . how many species?”
“Three native intelligent species. Let’s see, there are the Jelna from Rigel V; they’re the ones with the gray skin and green and black facial tattoos. There are the Zami from Rigel IV—that planet isn’t part of the trading community, but they have a large expatriate population on Five and on the Rigel II colony.”
“They’re related to Vulcans, right?”
“They’re very similar, though we’re not sure how or if they’re related. They have less pointed ears and generally have lighter hair—many of them could almost pass for human.” He took a sip of his tea. “And then there are the chelonian bipeds from Rigel III—basically big shell-less tortoises. Their name is hard to pronounce, so we call them Chelons.”
“But they all like to be called Rigelians.”
“That’s right—even the colonists from other races like the Xarantines and Coridanites. Don’t get me wrong, they value their cultural plurality, but they take pride in the larger community they’re part of. They usually see themselves as Rigelians first and different species second.” He gave her a wry grin. “Plus it doesn’t hurt to present a united front to the rest of the galaxy—or to play up Rigel’s reputation as an economic powerhouse.”
“Something tells me that reputation is why the president is so keen to have them join.”
“True, it would help boost the Federation’s economic and political standing. And maybe add even more names to our roster—since Vanderbilt hopes that where Rigel leads, its trading partners will soon follow. He’s determined to see the Federation grow and solidify itself before his term ends. Plus, with Vega Colony applying for membership, adding a multispecies community like Rigel at the same time would help ease concerns about humans becoming too dominant in the Federation.”
“Well, the more, the merrier.”
“Anyway, I’ve still got my work cut out for me,” Archer went on. “Joining the Federation would mean adopting certain laws and regulations about interstellar commerce and security. But the Rigelians pride themselves on their so-called ‘tolerant’ trading practices, which means they’ll deal with just about anybody and not be too picky about the legalities. That’s one reason why it would mean so much to get them to join—it would help curb interstellar piracy and groups like the Orion Syndicate. It would—” He noticed that Danica’s eyes were glazing over a bit. “I’m sorry, I’m boring you.”
“It’s not that, exactly,” she said. “I was just thinking . . . all you ever seem to talk about anymore is your work.”
He shrugged. “They do keep me pretty busy around here.”
“I know, but . . . don’t you ever feel there’s something missing? I can’t remember the last time I heard you talk about going on a date or being in love. At least, not since . . .”
She trailed off, but he completed her thought. “Not since Erika.”
“Jon . . .” Now she reached out and took his hand. “I know how much she meant to you, but it’s been seven years. Sometimes I worry about you. I’m afraid you’re going to end up alone.”
“It’s not . . . that I’m not open to the possibility,” he said. “It’s just . . . other things keep getting in the way.”
“You were always busy,” she said. “You’re the most driven man I know. But you didn’t always let that keep you from having a social life.”
“No. But . . . it kept it from getting too deep.” He reflected back on Margaret Mullin, the woman he’d loved in flight school. She’d turned down his marriage proposal on the grounds that he cared more about Starfleet than about her. He’d been devastated at the time, but it hadn’t affected his absolute commitment to Starfleet, and he’d since come to realize that he would never have been able to commit to her as much as she’d deserved. He’d had other flings in subsequent years—Caroline, Rebecca, even Ruby from the 602 Club, though she’d been equally “close” to quite a few other flyboys. The one other woman he’d grown truly attached to was Erika Hernandez, but they’d had to break it off when he’d been promoted above her. Once aboard Enterprise, his only romantic fling of note had been with the intrepid scientist Riann on the Akaali homeworld; after that, the only women he’d been involved with were either illusions created by shapeshifting aliens or spies sent to extract information.
Then Erika had become captain of her own NX-class starship, Columbia, and she and Archer had rekindled their relationship at last. But Columbia had been lost in the first year of the Romulan War. Since then . . . since then there had only been his work.
He shook his head. “I’m not the young hotshot I used to be, Dani. These days . . . after what I had with Erika, what I—when I think about what we could’ve had if she’d lived . . .”
She smiled in sympathy. “I understand, Jon. It’d have to be something deep enough, meaningful enough, to compare to that.”
“And I’m just not sure I have the attention to devote to that now. Not while there’s still so much work to do to get the Federation through its growing pains.”
Her brows rose wistfully. “But is there ever going to be a time when the work ends?”
Archer had no reply. Instead he tried to brush it off with a smile. “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ve still got Porthos.”
It did little to reassure her. She knew as well as he did that Archer’s beloved beagle was getting on in years, and even modern geriatrics could only do so much. Porthos might still have a few good years in him, but nothing lasted forever.
They spent the rest of lunch talking about inconsequential things. When they parted, Danica hugged him longer and tighter than usual. After she’d left, Archer found himself wondering if there’d been a subtext to her talk of romance that he’d overlooked.
Dani? No way. They’d been friends since childhood, more like brother and sister than anything else. Sure, she was smart and beautiful and warm, a good catch for anyone, but there was no way she could think of him in that way.