It wasn’t the waiting. Kellin Rayco expected to wait.
When he pressed the chime to the Romulan Free State’s primary laboratory, he waited exactly as long as he expected to wait for any response. Kellin had no expectations that Flavia would make a fuss over him.
What surprised him was that even the double doors into the lab showed him disrespect. Those interlocking doors heaved open as slowly as the doors to an overused holodeck at the end of a five-year mission. Idly, Kellin had to wonder if Flavia had programmed them to behave in that manner.
By the time the doors had parted, Flavia was stood waiting for Kellin at the threshold. Although she was over a foot shorter than him, her presence filled the doorway. Flavia’s body language spoke plainly that Kellin wasn’t welcome inside. The illumination inside the lab was particularly dim. The brightest source of light was the acid-green computer interface in a Romulan script he couldn’t translate; it appeared far more analog than the predictive swirls and pop-ups of Starfleet’s LCARS.
Recalling the research Yuulik had provided him days ago, Kellin offered Flavia a traditional Romulan greeting by saying: “I see nothing.”
“Nothing to see,” Flavia replied by rote.
In his formal timbre, Kellin said, “As acting captain of the Federation Starship Sarek, I formally petition the Romulan Free State for the release of the Kadi remains that were taken from the surface of Burleigh Minor. Starfleet wishes to return the Kadi to their home colony and take accountability for their removal. We request no claim on the Hirogen artifacts you recovered.”
Flavia squinted at Kellin. It was overly dramatic. She held that pose for a remarkably long time.
“I would rather kill you than tell you my real name,” Flavia remarked incredulously, “and you plan to admit your mistakes to the Kadi?”
Kellin shrugged at her naked cynicism. When he replied, he unwittingly slipped back into his natural intonation and he emphasized his points with hand gestures.
“Trust is what forms the foundation of any bountiful relationship,” Kellin said aspirationally. “How can Starfleet maintain a meaningful dialogue with the Kadi if we’re standing on buried secrets? We already told them what we found on Burleigh Minor; we can tell them what I did and find a way forward from there. I hope to explore the Delta Quadrant one day. I may need the Kadi as an ally.”
Kellin sighed. “I don’t think you’re confused by Starfleet’s intentions. You’re better than this.”
“Am I?” Flavia asked in an enigma-forward tone.
Kellin earnestly said, “Your science ministry asked to work with Starfleet. You couldn’t have joined forces with a Starfleet crew expecting to pillage the universe. How can you think it’s okay to take those Kadi remains when you, yourself, went to the Federation News Network to decry Taes studying ancient Romulan art that you believed rightly belonged to your government?”
Flavia’s murderous smile flattened. “There is no word for hypocrisy in Romulan. You can’t prove anything to me with a metaphorical speech. The Romulan Free State only tolerates subservience from its people. Looking for your concept of consistency is a fool’s errand. Violent dominance cares little what new philosophy it wears as a cloak each cycle.”
Huffing out a breath, Kellin’s Starfleet bearing began to slip further. Flavia’s posturing about posturing sounded just like everything he had read in Starfleet’s cultural research about the Free State. Trying to think about what Taes would say caused Kellin’s shoulders to round and he took half a step back diffidently. Instead, he said what he would say.
He said, “You joined this crew to explore if Starfleet and the Free State can learn to work together. Is this how it’s going to be? Are we going to operate as two separate units, working at cross-purposes?”
“That’s a good question,” Flavia said. She pursed her lips and she squinted at Kellin as if those words had tasted bitter as they crossed her tongue. Most days, Flavia had a biting retort to anything he said, but her appearance suggested she was putting consideration into this question.
“I will say…” Flavia offered. She trailed off when she appeared to have a second thought and then she continued with, “This is how it’s going to be in the Delta Quadrant. My science ministry has little access to the Gradin Belt. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave the diplomacy to the diplomats out here. I can’t ignore a single opportunity.”
Kellin shook his head and he softly replied, “Doesn’t that make you tired? Is that really why you embarked on this great experiment with us?”
Affecting Kellin’s Trill accent in a mocking fashion, Flavia said, “I will open myself to consider other means of collaboration when we’re operating in the alpha and beta quadrants.” –The menacing smile returned as she fell back into her common intonation– “I’ll release the bones to your custody if I can watch you degrade yourself the Kadi. Demonstrate for me the performance of Federation humility; make it the performance of a lifetime!”
Tightly, Kellin remarked, “It will be Commander Elbon. Not me.”
“Then I’ll watch you watching him.”
“Don’t ask me any questions you don’t want to hear the answer to,” was the cryptic preamble offered by Lieutenant Jurij.
Kellin had been tingling with a sense of disorientation since diverting to the tactical laboratory. When Assistant Chief Security Officer Jurij had asked to meet him in the lab, Kellin could infer this wasn’t about the regular course of duty. The tactical lab itself was largely powered down; it looked more like the Romulan lab in this state. Illumination was at 75% and the LCARS panels were in standby mode. When the stardrive section had taken the Sarek‘s probe and torpedo launcher with it, Jurij had redistributed the tactical officers to other duty stations. Kellin supposed that meant either Jurij had constructed a torpedo launcher for their saucer section or it meant Jurij didn’t want an audience. The preamble was starting to make Kellin think it was the latter.
Jurij presented a PADD-like device to Kellin using his centre arm. As Kellin grasped it, he could feel that it was dented and a little dirty. Scrolling across the display screen was green Romulan text, much like Kellin had seen in the Romulan lab.
“I’m a collector. Dominion War mostly. Romulan supernova scattered more across all markets,” Jurij said. Kellin couldn’t be sure if the terse explanation was simply Jurij’s brusque manner or if he was being intentionally oblique in his explanations. Jurij pointed at the handheld computing device with his right arm.
“Including Romulan cryptanalysis devices,” Jurij said. “I fed it the transmission Flavia sent from Burleigh Minor on Romulan subspace frequencies. It took a couple days, but the little slug unpicked the progressive encryption lock. You can watch it, but it’s a load of Romulan doublespeak.”
Jurij tapped a command contact on the device and a video of Flavia appeared on the screen. The image was slightly distorted, but Kellin could recognise Flavia was recording in the caverns beneath the surface of Burleigh Minor.
The recording of Flavia said, “To all Romulan vessels within the range of my voice, I order you to converge upon the encoded coordinates for star system DQ-358. This is Science Minister Flavia ir-Llantrisant and I’ve led an archaeological team of five to their ruination. We have been marooned here by the USS Sarek!”
After Kellin watched the entire recording, Jurij confirmed, “This was transmitted hours before Flavia sent her distress call to the Sarek. We were in orbit the entire time.”
Kellin handed the device back to Jurij, as he said, “She probably hoped a Romulan warbird would scoop up the Hirogen ship or all the blood dilithium while we were vulnerable without the stardrive section.”
Kellin bobbed his head from side to side as another thought came to him. Debating with himself, he added, “Or she was struck by a pang of the blood dilithiums. Romulans aren’t too biologically different from Vulcans. That genetic ancestry of touch telepathy could have made her susceptible to the cries of the Brenari.”
Jurij plainly waited for a third theory from Kellin. When Kellin said nothing more, he nodded at his assistant chief for whatever theory Jurij had been eagerly waiting to tell Kellin.
“Or,” Jurij said, “Even the decrypted message is still coded. She’s telling her people something she desperately doesn’t want us to hear.”
Kellin had been struck by the odd specificity of Flavia telling her purported rescuers that she had discovered a source of water precisely four kilometres away from the dig site.
He thought aloud, “What was four kilometres away from the dig site?”