“Welcome to Darox, Captain Forrester.” Prime Minister Gret Larell reached out a hand, which Tom accepted and shook firmly. The warm smile on the slightly older man’s face stood in contrast to the more guarded, tighter smile on the face of his colleague. “May I introduce Penn Renos, Deputy Prime Minister.”
Tom reached out first only for Renos to eye his hand warily before accepting. “A pleasure to meet you both.” Tom smiled as they shook hands. “I believe you already know, Doctor Matthias Bently.”
The Prime Minister’s face had already broken into a wide smile as his focus turned towards Bentley. “Matthais. It’s good to see you again.” Foregoing a handshake, both men embraced each other in a hug. The gesture caused the knot that had already tied itself deep in Tom’s stomach to tighten. He was careful to avoid staring at them.
“Please, have a seat.” The Prime Minister motioned to the three visitors’ chairs as he moved behind his desk, his deputy following along. “Our other guest should be joining us shortly.” Larell took his seat with Renos standing over his shoulder.
There were no prizes for guessing who the ‘other guest’ would be. Oreth’s D-7 had been in orbit when the Challenger arrived. Tom took one of the offered chairs and Bentley sat next to him. “Ah yes. Commander Oreth of the Romulan Star Empire.” Tom noted the smirk that appeared on the Prime Minister’s face and the scowl on his deputy’s.
“You’re very well informed, Captain.” Renos said with a stony expression.
Tom fought to keep his own features neutral. “Starfleet’s been aware of Commander Oreth’s presence in the Gamma Quadrant since he travelled through the wormhole.” He told them.
“The Romulan Star Empire have distanced themselves from Commander Oreth.” Matt added. “They’ve disavowed all knowledge of his actions.”
“See?” An amused voice asked from behind them. “I told you they’d do this.
Both men turned to find Tarnek Oreth standing in the open doorway. Tom watched as Oreth walked around and came to a stop in front of the third visitor chair and turned to face the Starfleet Captain, extending a hand. “Commander Tarnek Oreth, Romulan Star Navy.” He announced with an insincere smile and cold, calculating eyes.
“Captain Thomas Forrester.” Tom stood and shook the Captain’s hand with an insincere smile of his own.
As Tom sat back down, Oreth turned towards the Daroxi leaders and bowed slightly. “Forgive my tardiness.” He said smoothly. “I needed to take a communique from the Praetor.” Tom snorted derisively, earning a sharp look from the Romulan as he took his seat. “I told the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister that you would come up with some lie to undermine me.”
“Well then it seems we’ve been misinformed by your own government.” Tom said, doing his best to sound apologetic. “I have to say that I’m surprised your back with Imperial Command.” He absently brushed at the leg of his pant leg a few times. “When you abandoned your people and absconded with a D-7 battlecrusier a decade ago, it seemed unlikely that you’d end up back where you started.”
Oreth’s tight lipped smile gave nothing away. “It’s true that I became disillusioned with the Empire’s leadership following the supernova that destroyed Romulus.” Sadness crept onto his features. “I believed our leaders had betrayed us. That they had abandoned the poorest and most vulnerable in society, leaving them to die horribly.” Oreth was good. If Tom wasn’t so sure that this was a performance, he almost would have believed him.
“But as the years went by, I came to realise that it wasn’t our leaders that had failed us.” Oreth continued, his features hardened and when he met Tom’s gaze, the captain could see the anger burning within them. The performance was over. “It was yours. Your Federation Council voted to withdraw support from the rescue effort..”
Tom knew this was coming. “The armada we were building was destroyed by a synth attack on our largest shipyard.” He shot back, more for the benefit of the Daroxi in the room. “We didn’t have the resources.”
“You didn’t even try.” Oreth’s reply was accurate. Starfleet could have continued using their other shipyards and still saved a considerable number of Romulans but the Federation Council had made their decision and no amount of protest from line officers was going to make a difference. “You abandoned the Romulan people in their time of greatest need.”
Looking at the floor, unable to meet the gaze of either of the Daroxi leaders, Tom let out a sad sigh. He could feel his cheeks becoming flushed. Even now, fourteen years later, he still felt ashamed. “It wasn’t our finest hour.” He said softly. “There is no excuse for what we did.” Tom looked up, his gaze meeting Larell’s. “The hardest thing to live with is knowing that the people we failed were the poorest in society.”
“Commander Oreth is right.” Tom cast him a sideways glance as he continued, catching sight of a confused look on the Romulan’s face. “His leaders did focus their evacuation efforts on the upper classes, the wealthy and powerful, and that by abandoning our efforts we were letting the most disadvantaged and those races the Romulans subjugated die needlessly.”
Silence fell in the room for a few seconds before the Prime Minister cleared his throat. “Many people would have tried to wriggle free, to excuse their actions. You did not. That says a lot about you.” The way his eyes darted briefly to Oreth suggested he was not entirely convinced by the Commander. “Penn, I believe you wanted to show Commander Oreth around the Parliamentary Chamber?
Renos opened his mouth as if to object but closed it firmly without making a noise. He walked round from behind the Prime Minister’s desk and stood by the door. “If you’ll follow me, Commander.” Oreth bowed his head in Larell’s direction and glared briefly at Tom before following Renos out of the office.
“Penn is a good man.” Larell said with a sigh. “But he’s misguided and has been taken in by Commander Oreth’s words.”
Tom studied the Prime Minister for a moment. According to their records, he was only two years older than he and Matt but his hair was much greyer, there were more lines on his face and the bags under his eyes spoke of a man who slept little. “You haven’t been taken in by Oreth’s words?” Tom asked.
“No,” Larell replied with a shake of his head. “Because they are just that; words.” A warm smile lit up his features. “The Federation has proven itself to us through its actions. When we sent out a call for help in our hour of greatest need, it was the Federation who answered. That may mean nothing to Penn, but to me and many like me, it means everything.”
A knock on the doorframe behind them interrupted. “Excuse me, Prime Minister. The energy minister will be here in a few minutes.”
“Forgive me, Captain Forrester.” Larell looked apologetic. “We’ll have to pick this up another time.” He stood and walked around his desk and walked the two humans to the door.
Tom shook his hand once more. “Of course, Prime Minister. Before I go, I’d like to offer our assistance with anything you might need; engineering, medical, logistical. My ship and crew are at your disposal.”
“I thought you might.” Larell beamed. “My Principal Private Secretary will coordinate with your crew.” He bowed his head. “Good day, Captain.”
Tom and Matt left the Prime Minister’s office and were joined once more by Ensign Hansen, the security officer that Lieutenant zh’Charia had assigned to them. They walked back towards the beam in point, a lobby area at the front of the building. “What’s your feeling after that?” Tom asked.
“It’s pretty clear that Gret would prefer to be a Federation protectorate.” Matt pointed out, though it was hardly a surprise. “Renos is another matter. He seems to be buying everything Oreth is selling. Whether he’ll come round depends on how deep the Commander has his claws. I’ll meet with a few of the legislators who were in the interim government and take their temperature, see which option has the most support right now.”
Despite their personal issues, Matt would prove to be a real asset on this assignment. “Okay, I’ll return to the Challenger and get the ball rolling on our assistance.” He paused. “What do you think about a diplomatic reception?”
“It’s a good idea. I’ll extend an invite for a reception on the Challenger tomorrow evening. That give you enough time?” Matt asked.
Tom nodded in reply, a smirk playing on his lips. “That should give Commander Kailir plenty of time to make preparations.”
“It’s good to be the captain, huh?” Matt asked playfully.
They’d fallen back into their friendly, teasing banter easily. For a moment the tension that had dogged their interactions since leaving Earth was forgotten, but only for a moment. “Ensign Hansen will remain with you while you’re on the surface.”
“What?” Matt scoffed, the playfulness of a moment ago gone. “All of a sudden you care?”
Tom wanted to say yes. He wanted to tell him that he cared a great deal and would worry fot the entire time that Matt was on the surface without him. The words were there, right on the tip of his tongue. His heart sank when he opened his mouth and spoke. “This isn’t the time.” It was becoming a common refrain, one that Tom was getting sick of.
“That’s getting really old.” Matt muttered before walking off with Ensign Hansen in tow.
Watching them go, Tom suppressed the frustration he felt with himself. If he kept pushing his feelings down like that, he thought, it would slowly drive him mad. Raising his right hand, Tom tapped his commbadge. “Forrester to Challenger. One to beam up.”
Within seconds, the familiar pull of the transporter beam took hold as the world around him began to dissolve.