“The Empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” – Luo Guanzhong
The krala beetles whined. The sun rolled round. Its rays filtered through the mangrove leaves and baked the swamp earth into cracked clay. Skipping fish flopped in the salted mud, water evaporating around them.
Therran sat, leaning back in her rattan chair. Sweat beaded on her forehead, running down into her eyes. She wiped it away with a cloth, checked the chronometer, then took a long, slow drag from her vaporiser. Smoke trickled from her nostrils as she returned to looking out over the swampy creek.
The priggen herb focused her vision, the ambient noise of her surroundings fell away. From the platform in front of the rickety wooden cabin, Therran scanned the brush that extended as far as her eyes could see. A rustle from the far side of the brackish, stagnant pool drew her focus. An erboar stumbled into view, its snout snuffling the ground for worms and morsels that wriggled in the silt. Its tiny ears pricked up, darting back behind its head. Sensing danger, it leapt back into the bush, three white stripes on brown fur streaking through the air as it ran.
Therran smiled. The thicket shook and, not far from where the erboar had stood, a familiar Romulan came into view. Tall and stern faced, the khaki vest she wore clung to her narrow frame in the humid air. Her shoulder length hair was tied back out of her eyes, and it flew from side to side as she checked the path ahead. Six irregularly spaced steppingstones spanned the patch of water in front of her, and she took a run up before making the crossing. Her canteen and scanning device jangled from her belt in time with each leap. Over the stream, her feet planted themselves in the mud. She looked up.
“Given today’s importance, I would have expected you to have made better time,” Therran admonished, looking down from her vantage point on the wooden deck. The crow’s feet around her eyes deepened as she squinted into the sun.
“Took me a while to get out of the settlement unnoticed,” the young woman replied, “I was definitely being watched.”
“Their suspicion grows by the day,” Therran mused, “come, have some tea.”
The newcomer stepped up to the platform. Therran could see specks of puddle splashed dirt across the dark combat trousers that climbed the steps. The gloves that gripped the railings were torn and the face of their wearer was scratched red from grasping thorns that exacted the jungle path’s toll.
“Wait,” Therran’s command stopped the younger Romulan in her tracks, “something’s on your shoulder.”
“No. Stay there,” Therran ducked inside the shack, bringing back a length of kindling wood from the stove. A flame burned at one end, and she held it out to the weary traveler as she approached, “hold still.” Therran gripped her arm, and there was a hiss. Burning embers made contact with pale skin. A grunt of pain was followed by a small thunk as a squirming, twisting worm dropped to the deck. It fell between a gap in the wooden boards, “J’Iral, you have to be more careful. Once these things get on you, they’ll attract more.”
“Ugh. I cannot abide this world.”
“What news of the settlement?” Therran returned to the stove where a tin kettle had come to the boil. Its whistling diminished as she poured it over the strainer.
J’Iral had followed her inside, “The administration knows something’s wrong,” she unclipped her belt, slinging it over the back of a chair along with the disruptor pistol, scanner and empty canteen. She accepted the tea gladly from J’Iral, “they’ve got their informants working overtime. The whole town’s suddenly minding their own business. I don’t think we’re under any direct suspicion. There was definitely someone, though… I don’t know.”
“You won’t until it’s too late,” Therran’s tone was not reassuring, “just stay focused on the mission.”
J’Iral slowly paced back out to the deck. She gave the door a light push with her shoulder, both hands steadying the cup and saucer as she walked. She sat down in the rattan chair and took a sip. The steaming, lightly spiced aromatic herbs did nothing to abate the muggy heat of the day.
Therran followed her out, dragging another chair. She eased her aching bones into it, pulling again on the vaporiser. Reaching into a pouch, she produced a small device that fit easily within the palm of her hand. It had no obvious features other than a speaker grille at one end, a line of vertically printed Romulan script, and two luminous input controls. She placed it on the railing in front of them, and they sat together in silence. Only the chirping of finches and dull hissing of the leaves broke the stillness of the air. Occasionally, a bullfrog’s warbling rose from the murky water they looked out upon, growing more frequent as the sun lowered in the sky.
The device lit up, springing into life with a sound like whooshing air.
“Here we go,” Therran leaned forward, “got the cypher?”
“Right here,” J’Iral fished her own device from a hidden pocked in the seam of her trouser leg, “still phase-shift key six?”
“Yes,” Therran confirmed, just as the monophonic melody of a Romulan nursery rhyme began to sound from the device.
J’Iral smiled, recognising the tune as Five Thrai Walk By. Memories of a happy childhood on the grass plains of Ralatak faded quickly as a female robotic voice took over from the tune. She began to punch a string of numbers into the cypher’s keypad as quickly as they were announced.
“Lli. Fve. The. Kre,” a pause, “Sei. Hwi. Mne. Fve,” Therran inhaled from the vapouriser again, “Kre. The. Hwi-” garbled subspace static cut through the message. J’Iral strained to hear the numbers.
“Try another frequency,” she said, apprehension creeping into her tone.
More static whooshes and pops came from the device as Therran worked the controls, “No good. They’re all jammed.”
“Imperial Veruul,” J’Iral hissed.
“Ten repeats,” Therran reminded her, “if we can’t piece it together before then, we go with the original date.”
The USS Ahwahnee floated as still as it could relative to the ever-present gravitational pull of the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. Approximately one light year ahead lay the Federation’s coreward border with the Romulan Free State. Since leaving Deep Space 17, an uneasy calm had befallen the crew as they learned of the chaos engulfing the Velorum Sector. Their orders placed them far from the fray, and for that some were thankful. Others felt pangs of guilt for not being present as their Fourth Fleet comrades raced to the aid of their emergent new allies. A small cohort were disappointed, wishing to be front and centre of any effort to free a people from the yoke of imperialist oppression. No matter their thoughts or leanings, all now stood ready. They listened. Despite being days travel at high warp from Velorum, it was impossible to judge how far the effects of an event like the Rator coup would reach. Like the Romulan sun of three years prior, this political supernova would send shockwaves throughout the quadrant. Now, the Ahwahnee looked on as those shockwaves approached. Stationary in an endless cosmic sea, the sands of history shifted around them.
“Captain, Listening Post Echo IV-Alpha just picked up an encrypted subspace transmission from the Taman system,” Delfino quickly digested the salient details of the comm. Panel readout, “its being directed spinward, sir. Towards the Star Empire border.”
“Taman…” Felrak turned to Tursk.
“Free State system, not far from here,” the Tellarite had already accessed the intelligence archives from his armrest, “likely to be a Tal Shiar installation.”
“Any chance of decrypting?” Felrak dutifully asked with barely a glimmer of hope.
“Not fast,” Delfino quickly extinguished that glimmer, “IV-Alpha are relaying the signal on to Starbase 718. They’re the only ones with enough computing power to crack it.”
Felrak shifted in his seat, “Alright. Steldon, take a look at the transmission waveform. Even if we can’t get the content, there might be something in the metadata.”
“Aye sir, accessing now,” the blonde-haired science officer brought up the undulating graphic on one of the rear terminals.
“Makes you wonder why we’re here at all,” Tursk leaned over to Felrak. His voice was hushed, “some of those planets at Velorum are reconstructing their entire ecologies. Food production, political structures, economies… And we’re a mobile relay station.”
“I suspect,” Felrak turned to face his First Officer, “command has decided we’ve seen enough action for a while.”
“It’s been six months since-”
“No, Tursk. We’ve seen enough action for a while.”
Tursk rolled his eyes. Felrak couldn’t help but grin and shrug his shoulders, “Book yourself some holodeck time if you must.”
Steldon interrupted, “Looks like the transmission data is coming through in quick bursts. It’s matching a phase shift key signature used by the Tal Shiar. Even if 718 decrypts the content, it’s likely to be quantum ciphered.”
“Troop movement orders,” Tursk surmised, “or field agents.”
“Yes,” Felrak rapped a scaly hand on the armrest, “and you’re feeling bored, Commander?”
The Tellarite made a low growl, “We’re still in the dark.”
It was Delfino’s turn to interrupt, “Captain, Echo IV-Alpha is now reading massive subspace interference across the transmission channel. Looks like a jamming signal.”
“Yeah, it’s just noise now. I can’t make anything out,” Steldon announced, frustrated.
“Huh. Star Navy’s not happy about this one,” Tursk pulled at his beard, “Steldon is there any way to narrow down the intended transmission target?”
“Not with much accuracy, sir. But maybe… Judging by the EM wavelength and hyperchannel strength, and if we cross-reference with habitable star systems in the sector…” there was a pause as Steldon made the inputs, “My best guess would have to be somewhere in the Foshir system.”
“What do we know about Foshir?” Felrak jumped in.
Delfino reeled off the library entry, “Mining colony. Population: 8 million Romulan, 24 million Reman, 63 million indigenous Foshirrans. Imminent ecological collapse from intense strip mining. One of the Star Empire’s main sources of arathamite ore. Fun place.”
Tursk ignored the wisecrack, “That’ll be it. Arathamite’s rare. Free State’s making a move on that ore.”
Felrak contemplated his own move, “Well, if we’re stuck here, might as well cause some trouble from out of harm’s way. Could make things a little more interesting for you, Mr. Tursk?”
Tursk growled again. He liked what he was hearing, “We could give the Free State a signal boost. Help them punch through that interference.”
“I could coordinate with the listening post, have the signal route through the Ahwahnee’s comms array. There’s no way they could jam a transmission from three locations,” Steldon added.
“Get it done,” Felrak said, “the more Star Navy resources tied up outside Velorum, the better.”
Tursk grumbled, aprrovingly, “I’ll put that holodeck time on hold.”
Therran tapped the vaporiser against the side of the chair. A crashing waterfall of static still poured from the subspace receiver.
“We must be on the 8th repeat by now,” J’Iral’s frustration grew with each passing second.
Therran was silent. Both pairs of eyes were fixed on the device in front of them. The whooshing intensified into a high-pitched whistle, then dropped low. A loud “BZZT” then shot out of the unit, just as the white noise began to fade away. As if rising from underwater, the familiar monotone voice phased back in, “Hwi. Lliu. Fve. Hwi…”
J’Iral snatched up the cypher, her hand almost trembling as she stabbed at the numbers.
Not even Therran’s decades of Tal Shiar service could contain her curiosity as the voice finally ceased, “Well?”
J’Iral held up the cypher. The thin display at the top of the device lit up green as the text scrolled across:
Neutralise administration command structure. 72 hours. Landing zones 18.32’38”, 17.04’52” – 68.11’47”, 17.28’13” – 56.05’15”, 89.34’53”. The Free State will triumph.