"This must be your first visit to Ki Baratan," said the woman who stood behind the operative.
So much for hiding in plain sight, the operative thought, quietly abandoning his hope that she would pay him as little heed as had the throngs of civilians and military officers he'd already passed along the city's central eyhon. He turned and regarded her, averting his gaze momentarily from the graceful, blood-green dome of the Romulan Senate building. The ancient structure gleamed behind him in the morning sun, reflecting an aquamarine glint from the placid Apnex Sea that lay just beyond it.
"As a matter of fact, this is my first visit," the operative said. He smiled broadly, confident that the woman wouldn't sense how awkward this particular mannerism felt to him. "Before today, I had seen the greatness of Dartha only in my grandfather's holos."
As she studied him, he noted that she was old and gray. Her clothing was drab and shapeless, her lined countenance stern, evidently forged by upwards of two centuries of hard life circumstances. He watched impassively as she ran her narrowed, suspicious gaze over his somewhat threadbare traveling cassock.
"Dartha?" the woman said, still scrutinizing him. "Nobody has referred to the Empire's capital by that name since Neral came to power."
The operative silently cursed himself even as he concealed his frustration beneath a carefully cultivated mask of impassivity. Though his lapse was an understandable one -- roughly akin, he thought, to confusing Earth's nineteenth-century Constantinople with twentieth-century Istanbul -- he upbraided himself for it nonetheless.
"Forgive me, 'lai," he said, using the traditional rustic form of address intended to show respect to an elder female. "I arrived just today, from Leinarrh. In the Rarathik District."
An indulgent, understanding smile tugged at her lips. "Just what I thought. I took you for a hveinn right away. A farmer who's never left the waith before."
The operative forced his own smile to broaden, reassured that she found his rural Rarathik dialect convincing. He maintained his caution, however; like him, this apparently harmless old woman might not be at all what she appeared to be. "At your service, 'lai. You may call me Rukath."
She nodded significantly yet discreetly toward the dome -- and the disruptor-carrying guards that walked among the green, ruatinite-inlaid minarets that surrounded it. "Then allow me to give you some friendly advice, Rukath of Leinarrh. Continue gawking so about the Hall of State, and I might have to call you 'dead.' Or perhaps worse."
The operative allowed his smile to collapse, which actually came as a relief. He feigned innocent fear, per his extensive intelligence and tactical training. "Do you really think those uhlans over there would actually shoot me? Just for looking?"
"Just pray that the cold fingers of Erebus find you too unimportant to snatch away into the underworld," she said with a pitying shake of the head. "Daold klhu."
Tourists, the operative silently translated the unfamiliar Romulan term as the old woman turned and walked away. "Jolan'tru, 'lai," he said to her retreating back.
He turned back toward the Senate Dome and watched as the guards made their rounds. He counted six at the moment, marching in pairs, their arrogant, disciplined gazes focused straight ahead. The old woman's warning notwithstanding, he might as well have been invisible to them.
But it's best not to become complacent, he thought, checking the chrono built into the disguised subspace pulse transmitter he wore on his wrist. Time was growing short. Since his surreptitious arrival on Romulus the previous day, he had taken in sights very few of his people had ever seen.
He'd just paid what might well turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Romulan capital of Ki Baratan. Now the time had come to venture beneath it.
The operative deliberately set aside unpleasant thoughts of the underworld of ancient Romulan mythology. Those old stories hadn't sufficiently described the noisome smells that were wafting up around him from the figurative -- and literal -- bowels of Ki Baratan. Erebus, indeed.
Guided through the stygian gloom by his wrist light, the operative was relieved to note that the venerable maze of aekhhwi'rhoi -- the stone-lined sewer tunnels that ran below Ki Baratan -- corresponded precisely to the maps the defector M'ret had provided to Starfleet Intelligence. Carefully stepping over and past countless scuttling, multilegged, sewer-dwelling nhaidh, he made his way to the appointed place. Once there, he pulled hard at a rust-covered, meter-wide wheel, laboriously opening up a narrow access hatchway that looked to be older than Surak and T'Karik combined. The corroded steel aperture groaned in protest, moving only fractionally as the muscles in his back strained. After perhaps a minute of hard coaxing, the wheel gave way and the hatch opened with a clang that reverberated loudly throughout the catacombs.
Releasing the wheel, he pulled a small disruptor pistol from beneath his cassock, then squeezed through the narrow opening without making any further pretense of stealth; by now whoever else might be down here, whether friend or foe, was surely aware of his presence.
He passed into the darkened chamber beyond the hatch, where air that reeked of stagnation, moldy old bones, and damp earth assailed his nostrils. Stepping forward, he heard a quiet yet stern male voice.
"Halt! Drop your weapon." Something cool and unyielding pressed forcefully into the small of his back.
The operative released his grip on the weapon, allowing it to clatter to the rough stone floor. A bright light suddenly shone before him, momentarily triggering his nictitating inner eyelids. He caught a glimpse of several humanoid silhouettes standing before him, several meters farther inside the cavern's depths.
"State your name," said the voice behind him. It sounded young, almost adolescent. Or perhaps merely frightened? "And state your business here."
The operative knew that this was the moment of truth, and very possibly the last moment of his life. He faced that prospect with a Vulcan's ingrained equanimity.
"While on Romulus, I am known as Rukath."
"Of Leinarrh, in far-off Rarathik," someone else said, in a stern female voice. "By way of Starfleet Intelligence. Yes, we knew you were coming."
The operative nodded. "Then you already know my business here. I expected no less."
He felt the weapon at his back quiver slightly, and he calculated his odds of disarming the man behind him. They weren't at all good. Nevertheless, the time had come to end the standoff, regardless of the outcome.
"I also bring greetings from Federation starship Alliance. Captain Saavik sends her best regards to the movement. And to the ambassador, of course."
As the operative had hoped, the mention of the ambassador's wife prompted one of the silhouettes before him to detach itself from the others and step forward. The tall, lean form spoke in a graveled yet resonant voice that he recognized instantly, even though more than eight decades had passed since he had last heard it.
"Lower your weapon, D'Tan. Rukath is among friends."
"But how can we be certain this Rukath is a friend? If that's even his name."
The figure stepped forward another several paces, and waved an arm in what was obviously a prearranged signal. In response, the light levels diminished, allowing the operative to see the approaching man's face clearly, as well as the coterie of a half-dozen armed Romulan civilians, an even mix of men and women, who stood vigilantly all around him.
The tall, conspicuously unarmed figure came to a stop only a meter away, his hands folded in front of his simple hooded pilgrim's robe as he studied the operative's face. The operative recalled his only previous meeting with the ambassador, whose saturnine visage was umistakable despite the addition of a great many new lines and wrinkles. He wondered if Spock remembered him as well, after the passage of so many years. Perhaps the minor surgical alterations that had been wrought on his facial structure obscured his identity.
"Your vigilance is an asset to us, D'Tan," Spock said to the young man with the weapon. "But as Surak teaches us, there can be no progress without risk."
That evidently got through to the armed man, who withdrew his weapon and backed away. The operative spared a quick glance over his shoulder, nodding toward Spock's youthful bodyguard in a manner that he hoped would be taken as nonthreatening and reassuring. He noted the other man's response: a hard scowl and a still-unholstered disruptor.
The operative fixed his gaze once again upon Spock, a man who had achieved great notoriety back on Vulcan -- as well as throughout the Federation and beyond -- more than a century earlier. How strange, he thought, that one who never even achieved Kolinahr now represents all of Vulcan here in this forbidding place -- and attempts to bring such radical change to both Vulcan and Romulus. He wondered if Spock would have taken on such a task had he attained the pinnacle of logic that the Kolinahr disciplines represented.
Would I have been so foolish to have followed him here had Kolinahr not eluded me also?
"Walk with me, please, Rukath," Spock said, then abruptly turned to stride more deeply into the rough-hewn cavern that stretched beyond the sewer hatch. The operative immediately fell into step beside the ambassador. He heard the crunch of gravel behind him, as Spock's followers tailed the pair at a respectful distance. If I really were the Tal Shiar or military intelligence infiltrator these people fear that I am, this mission would surely be a suicide run.
"You must forgive D'Tan," Spock said.
"There is nothing to forgive, Mr. Ambassador. His caution is understandable. The Tal Shiar's eyes and ears are everywhere."
"Indeed. And none of us have forgotten Senator Pardek's betrayal."
The operative thought he detected a touch of wistfulness in the ambassador's tone. Though it was a surprising departure from Vulcan stoicism, he could certainly understand it. Though he had studied Captain Jean-Luc Picard's reports about Romulus -- one of which included Spock's own observation that reuniting the long-sundered Vulcan and Romulan peoples might take decades or even centuries to come to fruition -- it was disappointing to think that Spock's efforts had yielded so little after eleven years of hard, often perilous work.
As though he had surmised the dark turn the operative's thoughts had taken, Spock came directly to the point: "Tell me, Rukath: Why have you come to Romulus?"
The operative was not surprised to learn that Starfleet Intelligence might not have briefed Spock thoroughly on his reason for visiting Romulus. Or perhaps Spock was testing him, despite his reassurances to D'Tan.
"I bear an offer from the Federation Council," the operative said.
Though the cavern's illumination remained dim, the operative could see Spock's right eyebrow rise. "And the nature of that offer?"
"The council has decided to give its official endorsement to your agenda of Vulcan-Romulan unification. But both the council and the new president will want you to return to Earth to make a formal report first."
Spock brought their walk to an abrupt halt. His dark eyes flashed with an almost fanatical intensity. The operative wondered what so many years living among Vulcan's hyperemotional cousins had done to the ambassador's emotional disciplines. Had he "gone native"?
"My work is here," Spock said.
The operative raised a hand in a placating gesture. "You would be returned here, Mr. Ambassador, to resume that work as quickly as possible. After you've addressed both the council and the president's office on your progress."
Spock turned his gaze downward and stared into the middle distance, a deliberative expression on his face. "I see," he said after a pause. "To avail myself of an Earth idiom, the council evidently wishes me to 'come in from the cold.'"
Thanks to nearly a century of at least intermittent association with humans, the operative was conversant with the idiom Spock had used. "Yes, Mr. Ambassador. And the council will almost certainly place Federation resources at your disposal, at least covertly."
Spock paused again before responding. "Indeed. That would be a significant change in Federation policy."
"We live in changing times, Mr. Ambassador."
"Unquestionably. President Zife's sudden resignation is but one sign." Spock clasped his hands before him, steepling his index fingers. "I cannot help but wonder whether the council's offer is related to Zife's abrupt departure."
The operative was impressed by Spock's knowledge of the political landscape beyond the Romulan Neutral Zone, though he knew it shouldn't have surprised him; he reminded himself that the ambassador had made more than one brief return to Earth since beginning his work on Romulus.
"I'm afraid all I know about that is what's been on the newsnets," the operative said truthfully.
Spock nodded, his expression grave. The operative had no doubt that the ambassador was well acquainted with those same reports.
Sensing that the ambassador still required some additional persuasion, the operative said, "I will need to rendezvous with my transport this evening. If you will agree to accompany me, we can have you back in Federation space within days."
Something resembling a half-smile crossed Spock's face. "I trust, Rukath, that you aren't prepared to use force to return me to Earth."
The operative gestured toward D'Tan, whom he knew still stood -- disruptor in hand -- only a short distance behind him. "I am obviously in no position to force you to do anything, Mr. Ambassador. I had hoped you would agree to come to Earth voluntarily."
Spock very slowly shook his head. "I am pleased that the council has finally come to understand the necessity of the cause of reunification. But I cannot afford to abandon my work on Romulus, even temporarily. Especially now, while tensions between the Romulan Senate and one of the key Reman military factions continue to escalate."
The operative recalled yesterday's update about this very subject in his daily intelligence briefing. The mysterious Shinzon, the Reman faction's young leader, had led a number of successful military engagements against Dominion forces during the war. His sudden prominence in Romulan politics could cause unpredictable swings in the delicate balance of power within a senate now evenly divided on issues of war and peace.
"You wouldn't be away from Romulus for very long, sir," the operative said quietly.
"The local political landscape is far too volatile for me to leave now. In addition to the unpredictability of the Reman faction, there are rumors of unrest on Kevatras and other Romulan vassal worlds. I dare not leave Romulus now, even for a short time."
The operative decided that the time had come to risk goading the ambassador into cooperating. "Has your unification movement progressed so little over the past decade that you remain completely indispensable to it even now?"
But clearly Spock wasn't taking the bait. Sidestepping the question, he said, "I must also consider two other possibilities. One is that you actually are a Tal Shiar agent. The other is that the Federation Council's agenda is not truly as you have described it."
Despite this disappointing response, the operative still wasn't ready to accept failure. Taking a single step closer to Spock, he said, "Then I offer you access to my mind. I invite you to know what I know."
Spock's right eyebrow climbed skyward yet again. Then, after casting a reproving glance in D'Tan's general direction, the ambassador approached the operative. The operative closed his eyes, felt the steady, relentless pressure of the ambassador's fingers against his temples. Vibrant colors and orderly shapes began placing themselves in elegant arrangements across his mind's eye. It was a tantalizing glimpse into an extraordinarily powerful and well-organized mind.
And then it came: a frisson of recognition. After all these years, he does remember me.
"I believe you," Spock said, a moment after withdrawing his hand and breaking the mind-touch.
The operative's eyes opened, and he blinked away a momentary feeling of disorientation as the ambassador stepped away from him. "Then come with me back to the Federation."
Another shake of Spock's head. "I regret that I cannot."
"But you said you believed me."
"My faith in your sincerity is not the issue."
"Then what is the issue, other than Romulan politics?"
Spock's gaze narrowed as though he were beginning to lose patience with a willfully obtuse child. "Federation politics."
It was the operative's turn to raise an eyebrow in surprise. "I don't understand, Mr. Ambassador."
"The Federation president has just resigned. One of the two contenders to replace him can be charitably described as a political reactionary who wishes to adopt an aggressive posture toward former Dominion War allies. I find it difficult to believe that such a president would support the Unification movement on Romulus."
The operative needed no further explanation: Spock was clearly talking about Special Emissary Arafel Pagro of Ktar. And given candidate Pagro's already well-publicized anti-Klingon predilections, it was a safe assumption that he wouldn't support any peace initiatives on Romulus.
"The results of the special election are not yet completely tabulated," the operative said. "Governor Bacco of Cestus III may yet emerge as the winner."
Spock nodded. "In that event, I will consider returning to Earth for a brief meeting with President Bacco and the council. Provided, of course, that Romulan-Reman affairs permit it."
At a wordless signal from the ambassador, D'Tan and the rest of Spock's retinue surrounded their leader. "Live long and prosper," Spock said, holding his right hand aloft in the traditional split-fingered Vulcan salute.
"Peace and long life," the operative replied, using his left hand to mirror Spock's ritual gesture.
Then the group spirited the ambassador away, vanishing with him around a darkened turning of the rough-hewn cavern walls.
The operative stood alone in the dim, rocky chamber, listening to the distant echoes of dripping water and his own frustrated sigh. Moving silently, he retraced his steps, recovered his disruptor from where D'Tan had forced him to discard it, and began his lonely ascent back to the cobbled streets of the ira'sihaer, Ki Baratan's ancient casbah.
He paused to take an afternoon meal in a shabby-looking inn built of gray-and-ocher bricks that appeared as old as time itself. Although his vegetarian order caused the servers to eye him with some suspicion, he was far too preoccupied with mentally preparing his official Starfleet Intelligence report to care.
Following the meal -- Romulan cooks, the operative noted, did not seem to have the faintest notion of how to prepare vegetables -- he booked himself into a private room on the inn's relatively secluded third floor. Once he'd settled in and run a tricorder scan for surveillance devices, he discreetly recorded his report, then used the transmitter mounted in his wrist chron to send it as an encrypted "burst" transmission that lasted only a minuscule fraction of a second. The chance that even the much-feared Tal Shiar would intercept it, much less decode it, were infinitesimally small.
Minutes later, he heard raised voices outside the window, at street level. For a moment he wondered if the Romulan authorities had indeed intercepted his transmission.
But one look out the concrete window casement told him that the people shouting on the streets weren't Tal Shiar, or even Romulan military personnel. A dozen people, all of them apparently civilians, were running from the direction of the Romulan Hall of State. He could hear little coherency in their cries, other than a few general references to death and murder.
Curious, he left his room and descended to the main lobby, and from there proceeded to the ancient cobbled street. Still more civilians were joining the steadily growing throng, adding to the noise, chaos, and general tumult. An increasing number of uniformed police and helmeted military uhlans began to appear among the frantic crowd as it surged down the street, away from the official state buildings. In the background of the low skyline of Ki Baratan's Government Quarter, the graceful dome of the Hall of State arced skyward, dominating the horizon like the perpetually sun-scorched face of Remus. A trio of fierce-looking mogai wheeled through the thermals high above the dome, making dirgelike shrieks as they circled on nearly motionless wings. The operative briefly wondered whether the carnivorous birds had sniffed out live prey or carrion.
A young woman ran along the sidewalk, nearly knocking him into an elderly man as she passed. Her jade-flushed face was contorted with panic and near hysteria. "They've murdered the Senate!" she cried, repeating the phrase incessantly.
The operative chased her for a few steps, grabbing her by the shoulders and turning her to face him. "Who? Who has murdered the Senate?" As he repeated her words, the notion of the entire Romulan Senate suddenly being struck down simultaneously sounded absurd to him.
The woman's only response was a terrified scream. At the same moment, something struck him from behind, hitting him hard enough to hurl him to the stone sidewalk. The impact drove all the breath from his lungs, and all feeling vanished from his left arm and both of his legs. Nevertheless, he managed to roll onto his back, hoping to face whatever had hit him.
A pair of uhlans in red-crested helmets and full armor raised their stun truncheons. The one closest to the hysterical woman silenced her scream with one savage blow. The other felled the old man whom the operative had nearly toppled by accident scant moments before.
"Leave them alone!" the operative shouted, though he could barely hear himself over the escalating melee. The uhlans moved toward him, their truncheons rising and falling like scythes harvesting ripe stalks of Rarathik-grown kheh. Countless other panicked civilians, ordinary folk who didn't even seem to know which way to run, were either scattered or felled by repeated blows from the weapons of a growing phalanx of police and military uhlans.
He fleetingly recalled what he'd read of the bloody riots that Archpriest N'Gathan's assassination of Shiarkiek, the Empire's aged monarch, had touched off more than five years ago. Something really has happened in the Hall of State, he thought. Something terrible. Everyone here must think the same thing is about to happen to them as well.
And judging from the behavior of the uhlans, they were every bit as panicked as the general populace.
Using his right arm, the operative laboriously pushed himself up into a sitting position, facing away from the two approaching uhlans. Pulling himself forward, he tried to navigate a sea of fleeing legs. Inadvertent blows landed by scores of running feet rained onto his ribs, chest, and belly.
Pulling his wrist chron to his lips, he shouted a prearranged command directly into the voice pickup, hoping that all the ambient noise wouldn't drown it out.
"Aehkhifv!" The Romulan word for "eradication."
He knew he was almost certain to be either captured or killed. If he was fortunate, his voice command had already set the purge program into motion, releasing a minute thermite charge intended to destroy every bit of Federation circuitry hidden within his wrist chrono.
Including the subspace burst transmitter that represented his best chance of getting off of Romulus alive.
Then came a bone-crunching impact against the back of his head. As he sprawled forward, tumbling over the edge of a darkened abyss, his last coherent thoughts were of the Romulan Erebus myths.
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