Kasidy Yates watched as a seething sea of fire cascaded toward her. Within the roiling flames, she spied sections of hull plating hurtling forward, end over end, the conflagration feasting on the lost atmosphere and fractured fragments of the wounded space station. The blaze grew until it filled the screen on her companel, and then the image changed to a view of the aftermath of the explosion. From above, with the red globe of Mars in the background, Utopia Planitia floated in orbit with a substantial chunk of its main cylinder ripped away. The great dome at that end of the station, dark and seemingly abandoned, barely remained attached to the structure.
Tension gripped Kasidy’s chest, as though a cold hand had reached in and seized her heart. According to the news feed, some sort of industrial accident had befallen Utopia Planitia. Starfleet had yet to offer casualty figures, but she had no doubt that lives—many lives—had been lost.
Kasidy reached up and stabbed at the controls of the companel to deactivate it, then pushed herself away from the wall-mounted device. The wheels of her chair rolled smoothly on the hardwood floor, and she stood up as though propelled from her seat. She stalked across the room that served primarily as a home office, but doubled as a guest room for any visitors who stayed overnight. Framed photographs of family, friends, and special places adorned the walls, and a sofa to her left converted into a comfortable bed.
The heels of Kasidy’s shoes clocked against the floor as she crossed the room and over to the window. Pushing aside the wine-colored drapes, she glanced out the back of the house. She slid open the window, and a warm drift of air greeted her, carrying with it the bittersweet scents of autumn. In the distance, atop the rolling hills of Kendra Province, the skeletal forms of denuded trees marched along a base of yellowing grass, the groundcover partially veiled by the vibrant crimsons, ochers, and golds of fallen leaves. Just three weeks earlier, the sky had grown pale, and a cold snap had attested to the impending arrival of winter. Over the previous few days, though, the cerulean expanse of summer seemed to return, with higher temperatures bringing a temporary reprieve from the snows that would eventually blanket the land.
Kasidy concentrated on the vista before her, attempting to put thoughts of the Utopia Planitia calamity out of her mind. Away to the right, she could just make out a short arc of the Yolja River as it bent southward, to where it twined through valley plains and dense forests until it spilled into the turquoise waters of the Korvale Ocean. To the left of the house stood an outbuilding that Kasidy had built during the past six months, a constructive outlet for her anxious energy. The oversized shed lodged the escape pod that Nog had long ago modified for planet-based emergency use. A good friend, Nog had worried about her when she’d been pregnant and alone back then, and he hadn’t wanted her to have to walk the couple of kilometers into Adarak if the town’s local transporter went off line for maintenance or some other reason. At the time, six years earlier, Ben had yet to return from his mysterious sojourn in the Bajoran wormhole.
Just thinking about him hurt.
Except that it didn’t just hurt. Even more than a year after her husband had gone, thoughts of him dredged up a complex mix of emotions. Kasidy recalled vividly the last time he had been home—and how she had pulled open the front door and told him to leave. In retrospect, that night had not brought an end to their marital troubles, nor had it truly been the beginning of their separation. Emotionally, they had parted ways months prior to that, perhaps even years.
No, not years, Kasidy thought. She had waited for Ben through her pregnancy, choosing to believe the veracity of the vision she’d experienced just after the end of the Dominion War. In it, her husband spoke to her from within the wormhole—what Ben and the Bajoran faithful called the Celestial Temple—and told her that he would someday return to her.
And he had. Just a moment after Kasidy gave birth to Rebecca, Ben walked through a doorway in the Shikina Monastery, as though he’d simply been away on some ordinary excursion. The three of them—mother, daughter, father—went back to the house outside Adarak, to the land that Ben had secured, to the house that he had planned and that Kasidy and Jake had built during his absence.
For years, all had been well. Rebecca grew up healthy and happy, and despite her status among adherents of the Ohalu religious sect as the Avatar—a harbinger of a new age of awareness and understanding for the people of Bajor—the Bajorans for the most part respected the family’s privacy. Kasidy and Ben settled into a relatively quiet life centered around raising their daughter.
Starfleet had wanted Ben back, of course. They offered him an admiralty, which he declined, preferring instead to step away from active duty. Kasidy, too, distanced herself from her vocation; though she continued to remotely oversee the operations of her freighter, Xhosa, she turned over the actual day-to-day running of the ship to her first mate, Wayne Sheppard.
Those days at home in Kendra had brought simple but deeply abiding joys. With Ben’s attentions not continually given over to the responsibilities and vagaries of command, and with Kasidy not away for weeks at a time on cargo runs, she felt closer to her husband than ever. And the emotions engendered in her by their daughter filled her so completely, she could scarcely believe it; Kasidy never before knew anything like the bond she shared with Rebecca.
As though summoned by Kasidy’s thoughts, a high-pitched peal rang out. In the instant before she recognized her daughter’s laughter, her brain processed the sound as a scream. A sensation like an electric charge flowed through Kasidy’s body. Two years prior, such shrieks had haunted her dreams. A religious zealot had kidnapped Rebecca, and in the nights before they safely recovered her, Kasidy’s nightmares frequently woke her with the echoes of Rebecca’s shrill cries for help still seemingly in her ears.
Kasidy watched as her daughter came racing around the corner of the house, dressed in her pink jumper. Her thin little legs carried her confidently past the once-colorful flowerbeds that mother and daughter had planted in the spring. Behind Rebecca followed Jasmine Tey, the young Malaysian woman she and Ben had retained after their daughter’s abduction. While Tey nominally helped around the house a few days a week, her advanced security training provided peace of mind with respect to Rebecca’s safety. Kasidy and Ben—and now just Kasidy—felt sure in their ability to protect their daughter, but when Rebecca went to school, or when they sometimes needed to focus their attentions elsewhere, they brought in Tey. That morning, Kasidy had required a few hours to plan out Xhosa’s manifest and itinerary for the next month, and in the afternoon, she’d wanted to go into Adarak, so Tey had agreed to spend the day there.
Rebecca ran with abandon along the back of the house, her wide smile exposing the gap where she’d recently lost her two upper front teeth. A bit small for her age, she otherwise tested normal for a five-and-a-half-year-old human girl. She favored neither of her parents particularly, her features seeming to blend the best of both of them. Rebecca possessed her father’s rich, dark coloring, but with the smooth texture of Kasidy’s own complexion; she had Ben’s penetrating eyes and self-assured bearing, but Kasidy’s high cheekbones and slender nose; she smiled with her father’s lips, but expressed amusement with her mother’s laugh.
As Rebecca darted past the window, she waved a hand in Kasidy’s direction without looking. “Hi, Mommy,” she yipped, and kept running.
Kasidy had not seen her daughter take notice of her standing at the window. Kasidy dismissed the odd moment, but not quite as easily as once she would have. Such episodes—Rebecca perceiving some detail she had apparently neither seen nor heard, knowing some fact that seemed beyond her knowledge and experience—had occurred from time to time, even all the way back to her infancy. How often in the middle of the night had she stopped crying the moment Kasidy opened her eyes, as though Rebecca somehow sensed that she would soon receive food or a diaper change or whatever would satisfy the need that had caused her tears?
Tey chased along after Rebecca, looking up at the window, also waving and offering a “Hi, Ms. Yates” as she passed. With a slim figure and a personable demeanor, the young woman, just turned thirty, did not appear especially formidable. Her extensive law-enforcement training and experience told a different story, though. Skilled in the implementation of protective techniques, in the use of numerous weapons, and in myriad forms of hand-to-hand combat—including the rigors of Klingon martial arts—Jasmine Tey constituted an impressive one-woman security force. At the time Rebecca had been seized by the Ohalu extremist, Tey had just stepped down after a five-year tour on the detail safeguarding Bajor’s first minister, Asarem Wadeen. At Asarem’s suggestion, Tey had been brought in to assist in safely recovering Rebecca, and she had been instrumental in those efforts.
From the first time Rebecca had met her, she’d loved “Auntie Jasmine.” For her part, Tey seemed to return that affection. On days when she came out to the house, the two spent all their time together, sometimes playing, sometimes reading, sometimes staying outdoors.
As Kasidy looked on, Tey caught up to Rebecca, reached down, and grabbed her around the waist. Rebecca let out a loud burst of laughter, and the two tumbled to the ground together. Kasidy could not help but smile at her daughter’s unbridled delight.
Kasidy turned from the window, intending to return to her work on Xhosa’s upcoming schedule. Instead, she felt the smile melt away from her face as she saw the shattered form of the Utopia Planitia station still on her companel; she had meant to switch off the device, but evidently had only paused the news feed. She quickly paced back across the room and punched with a finger at the proper control. Mercifully, the screen went blank.
You’re being foolish, Kasidy told herself. Under normal circumstances, she simply would have grieved for those who had lost their lives in the accident, but the ache that once more rose within her stemmed from a cause more specific than the accidental deaths of people she didn’t know. All roads lead back to Ben, she thought. Fifteen or so years before, after the destruction by the Borg of U.S.S. Saratoga, the ship on which Ben served as first officer, Starfleet assigned him to Utopia Planitia. He spent nearly three years there before his transfer to the command of Deep Space 9.
Kasidy peered at the empty screen of the companel, but in her mind’s eye, she still saw the battered hulk of the Utopia Planitia station. The fact that Ben had served there more than a decade earlier should not have troubled her. When he left Bajor last year and returned to Starfleet, he took command of U.S.S. Robinson, and the last she knew, the Galaxy-class starship patrolled the Romulan border in the Sierra Sector, far from Mars and Utopia Planitia.
Still, it’s possible he could have been there, she thought. The news feed had not identified the ship that had recorded the explosion on the station and had then been struck by the resultant debris, and so the prospect at least existed that it could have been Robinson. Even as Kasidy set aside the notion, recognizing the irrationality of her fear, she could not as easily set aside the emotion that had taken hold of her.
She reached behind her and pulled the chair back to the companel, where she again sat down. She worked the controls to call up a message she had stored in memory for the past two months, though she had many times considered deleting it. Just as often, she played it back, searching for understanding and acceptance even as the words devastated her anew.
Ben appeared on the screen, a thin cover of black hair atop his head, his face freshly shaven. As many times as she’d viewed his message, Kasidy still couldn’t quite get used to seeing him without his goatee. He’d had the beard the day she’d first met him more than ten years earlier, and he’d continued wearing it at least until the day he’d walked out of the house for the last time.
“Kasidy, it’s Ben,” he said. Kasidy could see a dimly lighted room behind him, presumably his cabin aboard Robinson. Just visible on the left side of the screen, tall ports showed the elongated streaks of starlight that indicated a ship traveling at warp. “I know that in a few weeks it’ll be a year since I left. I know that I’ve hurt you, and I’ve done so in a way that’s probably unforgivable.”
Probably unforgivable, Kasidy thought, echoing the phrase that had provided her a measure of hope over the past two months. Probably unforgivable. If Ben considered forgiveness possible at all, then didn’t that indicate that he aspired to reconciliation? What other need would he have for her absolution?
“No,” Kasidy said aloud, speaking over the recording of Ben as his message continued to play. For several months after her husband had walked out, Kasidy had judged their rift as an argument—clearly a major argument, but one that she believed they would eventually talk through so that they could work out their differences. At no time in those first three months did she think that their marriage had come to an end. Beyond that, for perhaps as long as half a year, even as the depth and severity of their separation became clear, she still expected Ben to one day walk through the front door of their home and take her in his arms.
“And I do love you still, Kasidy,” Ben’s message continued, “and I imagine that I always will. And it’s because I love you, and our beautiful Rebecca, that I had to leave.”
The words sounded suspiciously like an excuse. I love you so I have to leave you. Didn’t irresponsible parents who abandoned their families often make the same claim? You’ll be better off without me. Anger welled within her.
“Kas, I know that you don’t believe in the Bajoran Prophets,” Ben went on, “at least not in the way that I do. But I have conversed with them, I have communed with them, and they have guided me on a journey that allowed me to help, and even save, the people of Bajor. I don’t regret that. I can’t regret that.
“But I do regret how my relationship with the Prophets has impacted us … how it has impacted you and Rebecca. I told you before we got married that the Prophets had let me know that if I spent my life with you, I would know nothing but sorrow. And you said that it sounded like a threat. But it wasn’t.
“It was a gift.”
Before she consciously knew that she meant to do so, Kasidy brought the side of her fist down hard onto a control on the panel. The playback of Ben’s message paused, and Kasidy felt a strong urge to thrust her knuckles into the companel screen. “‘A gift,’” she spat at the image of her husband, as though he could hear her.
Kasidy understood Ben’s justification for categorizing the statement of the wormhole aliens as something positive; she had listened to him numerous times as he explained it in his message. She understood it, not because of his words, but because she had lived it, and not just once. Ben’s decision to leave her and Rebecca a year earlier had not been the first time that he’d done as the wormhole aliens had bade him, to the detriment of their family.
There had been the shock of his disappearance from the surface of Bajor after the end of the war, and then his materializing before her in a vision to announce that he could not go home with her just then, or at any specific time in the future. He vowed to return at some point, but he also reaffirmed his status as the Emissary of the Prophets, and asserted that they still had much for him to do. Kasidy accepted the situation because she had feared him dead, and because she could do little else, but the eight months of her pregnancy that she spent without her husband had been difficult.
There had also been the time that Ben had heeded his own visions from the wormhole aliens and prevented Bajor from joining the Federation. Worse than that, Ben willfully declined medical care when those visions threatened his life. In an obsessive attempt to fully understand the tapestry of the aliens’ plans for the Bajoran people, he plainly demonstrated that he considered the seeking of that knowledge more important than his continued presence in the lives of Kasidy and Jake. Although his death would have left a gaping emotional void for both of them, Ben never relented on his dangerous quest; only when he’d fallen unconscious and Jake intervened had his approaching death been prevented.
Ben had also been willing to risk his son’s own life for what he deemed the greater good. When one of the wormhole aliens forcibly took possession of Kira Nerys’s body, and one of their adversaries invaded Jake’s, the two engaged in a battle that threatened the lives of both combatants, as well as the existence of DS9 itself. Ben had a ready means of averting or ending the conflict, but even as he hoped for a victory that might well mean the death of his son, he allowed it to continue. After Kai Winn took steps to bring the battle to a premature and inconclusive close, likely saving Jake or Nerys or both, Jake forgave his father. Kasidy also found a way to let it go, but it occurred to her at that moment that Ben need never proclaim his position as the Emissary of the Prophets; over the years, his actions left no doubt as to his priorities.
Over time, the presence of the wormhole aliens in Ben’s life did not alone drive his actions; so too did their absence. Eight years earlier, when Jadzia died and the wormhole collapsed, cutting Ben off from the aliens, he took Jake and went back to Earth. He abandoned Deep Space 9, his Starfleet obligations, his friends—and Kasidy. She had been away from the station at the time, making a cargo run aboard Xhosa, and when she returned to DS9, she learned that he had gone. He’d left a brief message for her—Kasidy thought she still probably had it stored on an isolinear optical chip somewhere—apologizing and trying to explain his actions, but also imploring her not to contact him until he came back to the Bajoran system—if he came back to the Bajoran system. That quickly and that impersonally, she discovered that her serious romantic relationship with the man she loved might be at an end, and she could do nothing about it.
“I am a fool,” Kasidy said, as though speaking to the image of her husband. How could she be surprised that he hadn’t come back to their house on Bajor, when clearly he didn’t value his family more than he did “the will of the Prophets”?
“I should’ve been expecting it.”
Kasidy let herself fall against the back of the chair as a heavy sigh escaped her lips. As so often happened, her thoughts and feelings whirled in a dizzying array of confusion. She felt angry with Ben, but also with herself. A sense of deep sadness suffused her, and her mind worked overtime to formulate some means of repairing the damage done to her family.
Looking at the companel screen, at the frozen mask of Ben’s face there, Kasidy also felt something she seemed powerless to keep herself from feeling: love. She had known Ben for more than a decade, had been romantically involved with him for most of that time, and she remembered well all the reasons she had fallen for him. She had never met anybody else with his strength of will, with his sense of right and wrong, with his resolve. He overcame the terrible loss of Jennifer, his first wife, to open up to Kasidy, to laugh with her, to delight her with his cooking, to share a passion for baseball, to entwine their lives in ways that brought both of them profound happiness. They spent a great deal of time together, particularly after his return from the wormhole, and most of it had been wholly joyful.
Most of it, Kasidy thought, but not all of it. Events beyond their marriage had intruded, pulling Ben away from their home and involving him in troubling, sometimes dangerous situations. In hindsight, she could see that, bit by bit, those affairs eroded something inside of him. The residents of the small village of Sidau suffered a brutal massacre. The Ascendants and the insane Iliana Ghemor confronted Deep Space 9 and the people of Bajor. Endalla became the scene of a terrifying threat to local space.
More recently, events had struck closer to home. Their close friends Audj and Calan perished in a fire in their home almost three years earlier. During the Borg invasion, Elias Vaughn suffered a traumatic brain injury, and he remained in a coma. Ben’s father died.
And there had been Rebecca’s kidnapping. Kasidy couldn’t trace all of her marital troubles with Ben to that time, but the threat to their daughter had exacerbated Ben’s growing isolation. That in turn concretized Kasidy’s feeling of disconnection from him. When he went back to Starfleet to aid in the efforts against the Borg—a decision she understood but did not favor—she hoped that they could essentially make a new start when he returned home. Though she feared for his well-being while he was away, it never truly occurred to her that he would never come back to her.
Kasidy sat forward in her chair and reached for the playback control. Ben’s lips began moving again, and he said the words that she had heard so often that she could probably recite them from memory. Still, she found that she needed to hear them again.
“The Prophets do not exist in time the way that we do,” he said. “And neither did I in the time that I spent with them in the Celestial Temple, so I have some firsthand understanding of this. The Prophets live a nonlinear existence, but more than that, they live a continuous existence. It’s how they can generate accurate prophecies, how they can know the future: they live in what we call the future, the past, and in the present. They are aware of every moment in their lives at all times. And they also see potential moments in uncountable possible timelines.”
As they always had, the ideas seemed fantastical to Kasidy. She could not quite conceive of the existence Ben described. At the same time, she did not disbelieve him.
“I don’t think I can explain it any better,” he continued. “But I lived that way, and even though I can’t remember the details of it, of a future that was the same as my present and my past, I do remember how overwhelming it was. And I recall the nature of it … the reality of it.
“My point is that when the Prophets told me that I would know only sorrow if I spent my life with you, they weren’t threatening me. They were telling me what they had already seen … what they were seeing at that instant. They saw me marry you, and they saw my life inundated by sorrow. They also saw an existence where I did not spend my life with you, and where I was not inundated by sorrow.”
For a moment, Kasidy’s vision blurred. Tears formed in her eyes. She knew the words about to come.
“For you, Kasidy, for your love and because I love you, I could suffer many things. But this isn’t about making things better for me; it’s about saving you. And Rebecca. If I stayed with you, I would know nothing but sorrow, and at some point, that sorrow would include something terrible happening to you, and something terrible happening to Rebecca. That would be my greatest sorrow.”
As Ben listed some of those awful things that had happened around them and to them before he’d left, Kasidy’s tears spilled from her eyes and down her cheeks. She didn’t believe in Bajoran prophecy, or in the divinity of the aliens that resided in the wormhole, but despite all that had happened, she believed in her husband. She believed that he still loved her.
“The sorrow was getting closer, and deeper,” he told her. “I couldn’t let something happen to you and Rebecca. It was hard enough when we almost lost her the first time.
“I didn’t tell you all of this before I left because I know that you don’t believe in the Prophets, and I knew you wouldn’t believe in the truth of their prophecy. But that’s what this is: a prophecy. And unless I heed their advice, it will continue to come true.
“I love you, Kasidy. And despite what I’ve put you through, I suspect that you still love me too. I think it’s okay for you to love me, at least in the way that I still love Jennifer. But I was eventually able to let go of Jennifer enough to fall in love with you. I think it’s okay for you to let go of me in that way. When you’re able, I want you to be open to love again.
“I’m sending this message to you because I think it will help you—today, and I hope, tomorrow. I hope you’ll let it help Rebecca too, when she’s ready to know all of this.”
Kasidy’s hand hovered over the playback control, ready to halt the recording. She did not want to hear what would come next, but she also knew that she needed to hear it again. If she wanted to move forward, she would have to hear it all.
“Right before I started recording this message, I transmitted a petition to the courthouse in Adarak to dissolve our marriage. It might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it will be the best thing for you.
“I love you. And I’m sorry.”
On the companel screen, Ben reached forward and touched a control. The message winked off, replaced by the Starfleet emblem. Kasidy’s tears flowed freely, and for a few minutes, she let them. She loved Ben, and she resented him. He genuinely believed the warning—or threat—given him by the wormhole aliens, but had he taken any actions to beat back that warning? Had he entreated the aliens to do something to alter their prediction? Had he done everything he could possibly do to keep his family intact?
Kasidy deactivated the companel. Not for the first time, she pondered the dilemma Ben thought he faced: stay with his wife and daughter, and in so doing, risk their deaths, or leave them. Faced with the same dreadful choices, what would she do?
And what do I do now? she asked herself. After receiving Ben’s message two months earlier, she had checked with the courthouse in Adarak. The administrators there did indeed receive a petition for the dissolution of Kasidy’s marriage to Ben. She had yet to endorse the document.
“Maybe it’s time I signed the petition,” Kasidy said, allowing herself for the first time to consider granting her husband the termination of their marriage that he’d requested. For so long, she had expected Ben to come home to her, and when he hadn’t, she’d then spent countless hours attempting to figure out how she could convince him to return. “But maybe I just finally need to let go.”
Kasidy nodded to herself, tentatively trying on the idea of agreeing to end her marriage. Could she find the strength within herself to accept the loss of her relationship with the love of her life? Whether she could or not, she realized, she found something else: the determination to refuse to accept one of the consequences of Ben’s leaving.
For fourteen months, Kasidy had withheld the truth from their daughter. After having already explained to Rebecca about her father captaining a starship in order to help protect the Federation from the Borg, Kasidy transformed that reality into a convenient explanation for Ben’s subsequent absence. She told Rebecca that Starfleet needed him to continue to command a starship—not entirely a lie—but she also led her daughter to believe that Ben would one day return to them. Kasidy often sat down with Rebecca and watched family holovids, all of which included Ben; Kasidy did not want her daughter to forget her father, or to think that he no longer cared about her.
Kasidy reached forward and reactivated the companel. She would grant Ben the end to their marriage that he had set in motion, but in exchange, he would also have to give something to her—to Rebecca. According to Ben, the wormhole aliens’ prophecy involved his life with Kasidy, but she realized that it said nothing at all about his relationship with their daughter. If Ben wanted to cease being Kasidy’s husband, so be it, but she would not allow him to stop being Rebecca’s father.
Kasidy worked the controls of the companel. She still wished to make certain that Ben had not been present at Utopia Planitia at the time of the accident there, but she also wanted to enlist the assistance of a friend who could get through to Ben, who could remind him of his responsibilities as a parent and urge him to reestablish a relationship with Rebecca. Kasidy thought she knew somebody who could help her on both counts.
The insignia of the Bajoran comnet appeared on the companel display. “Releketh Province, Vanadwan Monastery,” she said. “I’d like to speak with Vedek Kira Nerys.”
Captain Benjamin Sisko looked up from his personal access display device as the door chime fluttered through his quarters. Seated on the sofa beneath the tall ports in the outer bulkhead, he felt the impulse to stay quiet, to keep still and not respond. Though he had yet to change out of his uniform, the evening had grown long, he had dimmed the lighting in his cabin, and his browsing of the padd in his hands had left him feeling isolated. Like a man in an escape pod, the lone survivor of some remote starship catastrophe, he endured, but he remained adrift.
Except that as the captain of U.S.S. Robinson, he could not drift, he could not hide. For the better part of a year, he had tried to do just that, keeping himself aloof from his crew. His reasons had been manifold. Having been forced by circumstances to abandon his wife and young daughter, Sisko felt no desire at all to befriend anybody new—nor even to communicate with anybody outside the ship whom he already counted as a friend. Beyond the bitterness permeating his everyday existence, which made even the most basic personal interaction with others difficult, he also sought to avoid putting anybody else at risk by getting close to them. More than a year on, he finally understood the folly of such thinking, recognizing that the warning the Prophets issued to him spoke only of the dangers of his spending his life with Kasidy, and not with anyone else.
Along with those motivations, Sisko had also recently come to realize that an element of abnegation, perhaps even of self-punishment, played a part in his social detachment. To his surprise, his sessions with Counselor Althouse had yielded positive results, not only for Sisko himself, but for his crew, who served under a commanding officer who over the past couple of months had become, by degrees, more forthcoming and more approachable. With his change in demeanor, the morale aboard ship had improved noticeably.
Which is all Anxo wanted, Sisko thought. The ship’s exec, Anxo Rogeiro, had come aboard Robinson at the same time as Sisko, the two men replacing officers lost during the Borg invasion. Rogeiro seemed to acclimate to the new crew quickly, while Sisko willfully held himself apart from the ship’s complement. After seven or eight months, the first officer confronted his captain, essentially challenging Sisko to tear down the impregnable wall he’d put up between himself and the people who served with him. Eventually, that challenge transformed into a demand that the captain speak with one of the ship’s counselors—a demand that Rogeiro promised to formalize if necessary. Not wanting to have to explain himself to Starfleet Command, Sisko relented.
And Anxo was right to do what he did, Sisko thought. Counselor Althouse had helped—and continued to help—the captain face the actions he’d taken in leaving his wife and child, and to understand how the course he’d chosen related to the reclusiveness he’d developed. Sisko couldn’t do anything about the former without putting at risk the lives of the people he loved most, but he discovered that he could do something about the latter.
The door chime beckoned a second time, and Sisko shook off his reverie. “Come in,” he called across the main room of his quarters. Out in space, beyond the ports, stars appeared to hurtle past as Robinson warped along its patrol route beside the Romulan border.
The doors parted, revealing the man of whom Sisko had just been thinking. Dressed in civilian clothes—beige slacks and a violet, long-sleeved shirt—Commander Rogeiro stepped forward into the captain’s cabin. A bit taller than Sisko, he had a swarthy complexion, with black, wavy hair and dark eyes. At that late hour of the ship’s artificial day, his face showed the heavy shadow of his potential beard.
“Mister Rogeiro,” Sisko said. “You’re up late.” The time had just passed midnight, well into the ship’s gamma shift.
“I’m not the only one,” Rogeiro said, indicating the captain himself. The first officer crossed the room until he stood opposite Sisko over the long, low table in front of the sofa. Behind Rogeiro, the doors slid closed with a whisper. He pointed toward the padd in Sisko’s hands. “Business or pleasure?”
Sisko held up the padd, but kept its display facing away from his exec. “Neither,” he said, and he reached to deactivate the device. On the screen, a photograph of Sisko and his daughter vanished. Although his professional relationship with Rogeiro had improved considerably over the past few months, and even though the two men had begun to develop something of a friendship, they had yet to discuss Sisko’s home life on Bajor, and what he’d left behind—though not for want of trying on Rogeiro’s part. “So what can I do for you, Commander?” Sisko leaned forward and casually set his padd down on the table, wanting to invite no further questions about what he’d been doing.
“I just couldn’t sleep,” Rogeiro said, “so I thought maybe I’d try to tire myself out.” He spoke with a slight accent, a shibboleth that identified him as a native of Portugal.
“What did you have in mind?” Sisko asked, though he suspected he already knew.
“I thought maybe you might like to spar,” Rogeiro said. He hiked a thumb up over his shoulder, apparently motioning in the general direction of the ship’s gymnasium.
Sisko smiled. “Feel like hitting your captain in the face and not standing court-martial?” Over the past month or so, Sisko had taken to accepting Rogeiro’s invitations to join him in the ring for some light boxing. At first, he wondered if his first officer cleverly sought to use the cover of athletics to directly take out his frustrations with Sisko, but a quick review of Rogeiro’s records showed that he’d taken up the sport years earlier, at Starfleet Academy.
“Punching my commanding officer with impunity isn’t the main reason,” Rogeiro said, also smiling. “That’s just a bonus.”
“I bet it is,” Sisko agreed. He leaned back on the sofa. “The problem is, I am tired. I don’t think I’d be able to give you much of a fight.”
“Even better,” Rogeiro said. “If you can’t defend yourself or hit me, then I’ll really get exhausted landing all my punches.”
Sisko let out a short burst of sound: “Hah!” As he’d begun to get to know Rogeiro, he’d come to appreciate his wry sense of humor. “You’re not exactly selling me on your invitation, Commander.”
“Oh, well,” Rogeiro said, shrugging and taking one of the two comfortable chairs in front of the table. “How about some good conversation over a nightcap then?”
“Now that sounds like a much better idea to me,” Sisko said. He rose from the sofa and started across the room toward the replicator. “What can I get for you?”
“Actually, maybe we should go down to the Black.”
Sisko stopped and turned back to face his first officer. The captain wanted to decline, wanted to stay in his quarters rather than accompany Rogeiro down to Tavern on the Black. Situated on Deck 11 in the forward section of Robinson’s saucer, the ship’s lounge served as the primary social venue for the crew. Although less reticent than when he’d first come aboard, Sisko still didn’t feel entirely comfortable among the people with whom he served, particularly in social settings. Still, Rogeiro continued to push him in that direction, as did Counselor Althouse and, often enough, Sisko himself. “All right,” he finally said.
“Fantástico,” said Rogeiro, offering up his satisfaction in what Sisko assumed to be Portuguese. He rose, and the two men headed for the door. “I hear that Lejuris has created another of her amazing concoctions, this one with Siluvian bubble—”
“Bridge to Captain Sisko,” came the voice of Ensign Radickey over the comm system.
Sisko and Rogeiro stopped immediately. Radickey, the captain knew, currently crewed the ship’s primary communications console. “Go ahead, Ensign.”
“Captain, we’ve received a transmission from Starfleet Command,” Radickey said. “It’s designated priority one.”
Rogeiro glanced at Sisko, the amused expression the first officer had worn just seconds earlier replaced by one of concern. “Route it to my quarters, Ensign,” said the captain, already moving toward his desk on the other side of the room. He gestured for Rogeiro to follow.
“Aye, sir,” said Radickey.
“Sisko out.” He sat down at his desk, and saw that the emblem of Starfleet Command had already appeared on the computer interface there. Rogeiro remained standing to one side, peering at the display over the captain’s shoulder. Sisko tapped a control, and the message began to play. Where the logo had been, a familiar face materialized, its narrow shape and sharp features softened somewhat by the blond tresses that framed it. Sisko noticed that since he had last seen the admiral, strands of silver had begun to weave their way through her hair.
“Captain Sisko, this is Admiral Nechayev,” she said. “This morning, a pair of explosions ripped through Utopia Planitia. Casualties are thirty-one dead, nearly a hundred injured.”
Sisko glanced up at his first officer, whose expression hardened at the news. Sisko himself momentarily felt the horrible burden of responsibility, as if his posting to Utopia Planitia a decade and a half ago contributed directly to the disaster. The Prophets’ warning to him and their nonlinear existence—and for a time, his own nonlinear existence—occurred to him, but he shook off his feeling of culpability as illogical.
“Starfleet Command reported the incident to the news services as an industrial accident,” the admiral continued. “It wasn’t.”
Again, a shared look of concern passed between captain and first officer.
“The first explosion was triggered in order to hide the theft of sensitive data from the station’s main computer by an apparent spy, while the second masked his escape,” Nechayev explained. “Sensor scans of the region lead us to believe that a cloaked vessel retrieved the spy and is now trying to flee Federation space.” The admiral paused, as though her words to that point had been only preamble to what would come next. “Captain, the spy stole schematics for the quantum slipstream drive, and we believe he’s making his escape aboard a Romulan vessel. I don’t have to tell you that, since Starfleet’s devastating losses during the Borg invasion, the only thing that’s allowed us to maintain the balance of power with the Typhon Pact has been the slipstream drive. If we lose that tactical advantage, the Federation becomes vulnerable.”
Vulnerable, Sisko thought, not without bitterness. Whatever primitive compulsions he might have had to take up arms had been well sated during his years in Starfleet: the last Tzenkethi War, the Battle of Wolf 359, the Dominion War, the Borg assault. If continually forced to fight, would the day finally come when the Federation would not prevail?
“With Robinson’s position at the Romulan border, your orders are to actively search for the vessel carrying the stolen plans and prevent it from leaving Federation space with those plans,” said Nechayev. “But that ship was able to penetrate our defenses because we believe it’s utilizing a new type of cloak, a phasing cloak. Phase alteration technology not only provides for better concealment, but also allows a ship to pass through normal, unphased matter. This is obviously a recent advancement by the Romulans, and one we need to learn how to detect in real time. I’m including the sensor readings we took at Utopia Planitia; have your engineers begin working on the problem at once.”
Again, Nechayev paused, and Sisko anticipated what her final orders would be. “Captain, you are not authorized to enter the Neutral Zone, which would constitute an act of war and could lead us into a conflict we’re not prepared to fight. But as long as you remain in Federation space, Starfleet Command approves the use of whatever means necessary to stop that Romulan ship.
“I want a status report every three hours,” the admiral concluded. “Good luck, Captain.” The message ended with the reappearance of the Starfleet logo.
“‘Whatever means necessary,’” Rogeiro quoted. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“It isn’t,” Sisko said.
“I thought the new praetor—Kamemor?—didn’t hate the Federation,” Rogeiro said. “I thought she was supposed to be more of a moderate.”
“I don’t know,” Sisko said, thinking of his encounter with Donatra. Fifteen or so months earlier, the self-styled empress had forced a schism in the Romulan Star Empire, taking control of many of the breadbasket worlds and calling it the Imperial Romulan State. Empress Donatra clashed with Praetor Tal’Aura, and when their struggles for supremacy finally ended, both wound up dead, with the Empire reunited under the leadership of doyenne Gell Kamemor. “The notion of a moderate Romulan might be an oxymoron,” Sisko said, “but even if it’s not, there’s always the Typhon Pact to consider.”
“Right,” said Rogeiro. “It’s not as though we don’t have adversaries there.” Along with the Romulans, the year-old alliance included the Breen, the Gorn, the Kinshaya, the Tholians, and the Tzenkethi—most of whom the Federation had come into armed conflict with in the past.
Sisko stood up. “I’m heading up to the bridge to initiate a search grid,” he told his first officer. “Take the admiral’s sensor readings down to engineering. I want Commander Relkdahz to start working immediately on detecting the new cloak.”
Sisko strode to the door of his cabin, Rogeiro falling in beside him. Out in the corridor, they moved off in separate directions. Sisko had only taken a few steps before his first officer called after him. “Captain?” he said, his tone uncertain.
Sisko stopped and turned. Rogeiro moved back over to face him directly. “Sir, we don’t even know that the Romulan vessel is heading back to the Empire. It could be making its way to any of the Typhon Pact states. And even if it is headed for the Empire, how are we supposed to find a lone vessel out here, especially one that’s hiding behind a new type of cloak, one we don’t even know how to detect?”
“I don’t know how we’re supposed to find it, Anxo,” Sisko said, fully aware of the enormously difficult nature of the tasks he and his crew had been handed, “but we’re sure as hell going to try.”
From across the chamber, Praetor Gell Kamemor studied what she could only regard as her throne. Ornately carved from rich, textured wood, its tall back clad in gold filigree, it sat atop a high platform, elevating it above the lustrous black floor. It directly faced a set of massive wooden doors that allowed visitors admission into the audience chamber, ensuring that callers would see it—and presumably its occupant—immediately upon entry. As with the throne, elaborate scrollwork embellished the doors, though they had not been decorated with gold, but rather inlaid with green-traced ruatinite.
Her back to the doors, the leader of the Romulan people drew in a long breath in the comfortably warm room, then exhaled slowly, preparing herself for whatever news would shortly arrive. After the death of Tal’Aura not even a hundred days earlier, the Senate had elevated Kamemor to the praetorship from among their ranks. She accepted the position reluctantly, just as she had when her clan, the Ortikant, appointed her to replace their prior representative in the Senate, Xarian Dor, after he succumbed to a fatal disease. When Tal’Aura later died from that same virulent illness, many drew the obvious conclusion that the two—the younger senator and the older praetor—had been involved in a clandestine relationship. Kamemor remained unconvinced, though the isolated and specific casualties of the lethal disease did give her pause.
Several decades past her centenary, deep into a full life pervaded by service to the Empire—as a university instructor, military liaison, stateswoman, metropolitan administrator, and territorial governor—Kamemor had previously retired to a life that mixed peaceful contemplation and robust activity. When the calls came for her to return to politics, first as a senator and then as praetor, she thought each time to demur. In both cases, under the familial pressures of the Ortikant, and out of her own sense of civic obligation and her strong desire to bring much-needed calm to the Empire, she relented. With her wife and son long since perished, little would have prevented her from once again engaging in the affairs of state, other than her own disinclination to do so.
And this, she thought, still looking at the throne, is what makes me averse to politics. She found it objectionable enough that the collective Romulan psyche included a chauvinism that had too many times made enemies out of other species. For so many Romulan politicians, though, holding governmental office exacerbated their natural patriotic bias into a sense of overblown self-importance. Kamemor understood the argument that the ruling class needed to exalt itself in order to inspire confidence among the masses, and to convince them that the best of their race led them. Too often, though, the self-aggrandizement of administrators and governors, of senators and praetors, resulted in those leaders making choices that indulged their own egos or inflated their personal wealth, rather than promoting the general welfare of the people. How many times had the praetor and the Senate marched Romulan citizens off to a war not absolutely necessary to the continuation of the Empire?
Kamemor pulled her gaze from the throne and peered around the rest of the circular chamber that she had inherited from her predecessor. Its opulence bespoke her lofty station. Braces of royal blue columns circumnavigated the periphery of the space, the alcoves between them set deep into walls of gleaming volcanic stone. Ancient and celebrated works of art dressed the recesses, all of them evoking a nationalistic theme. High above, tying them together, a spectacular mural filled the ceiling. An expertly rendered copy of Dorin Zhagan’s famed Nascence, it depicted a powerful raptor ascending from a dark wood and into the sky, where it soared above a pair of towering peaks. As a woman with a great appreciation for art, Kamemor recognized the skill of the painter, but its theme failed to impress her, instead reminding her once more of the too-common belief of her people in Romulan exceptionalism. As long as she served as praetor, she vowed to battle that low form of communal egomania.
In her own way, Kamemor had sought to diminish the lavishness of the praetorial audience chamber. Though not entirely comfortable removing the artwork long ensconced there, she chose to add her own touches to the decor. Off to one side stood a small, circular table, surrounded by four decidedly plain chairs. Of greater impact to the interior design of the space, a large, conference-style table consumed a significant portion of the room’s open center. As well, Kamemor kept the lighting bright, banishing the impressions of mystery and grandeur brought by shadows and instead contributing an air of workmanlike starkness to the environs.
A midrange chime suddenly resounded through the chamber. Kamemor stepped away from the doors and turned to await the entrance of her visitors. After a moment, the doors swung effortlessly open, and two men stepped into the room, accompanied by a pair of armed sentries, a man and a woman, both uhlans by rank. The two officers scanned the room, then withdrew back to their posts, pulling the doors closed behind them. The men waited for the praetor to speak.
In the short time that Kamemor had held her high office, the work seemed to rejuvenate her sister’s grandson, whom she had appointed proconsul. Though several decades her junior, Anlikar Ventel’s mop of gray hair and his wizened face always made him appear older than she. They shared a vague family resemblance, most noticeably in the gray hue of their eyes. When Kamemor approached him about joining her in the upper stratum of government, he accepted with vigor, noting his excitement about the new praetor’s personal tendency to seek out all opinions when deciding an issue. So far, in a small sample size, Ventel had disagreed with Kamemor on a number of issues, and he’d already succeeded on one occasion in convincing her to adopt his position over her initial stance.
The second man appeared somewhat younger than Ventel, though he cut a similarly tall, lean figure. Unlike Kamemor’s grandnephew, who wore semiformal but understated attire, Tomalak chose to wear a tailored, black-and-gray suit echoic of an Imperial Fleet uniform, undoubtedly intended to underscore his lengthy military record. The former starship commander clearly believed in political opportunism, and it seemed to Kamemor that he sought to impress the relatively new leader of the Tal Shiar, with whom the praetor had called the meeting about to take place.
“Gentlemen,” said Kamemor, “thank you for coming.” Her manners might have appeared deferential to some, perhaps even beneath her station, but she had learned such civility at her father’s knee. It proved a valuable asset during her extensive career in the diplomatic arena, though in truth, she wielded her courtesy less as a tool than simply as a habit of long standing.
Ventel bowed his head in acknowledgment, while Tomalak proffered an unctuous smile. “It is always a privilege to provide counsel,” said the latter.
Kamemor did not hold Tomalak in particularly high regard. Before his selection by Tal’Aura as her proconsul, he spent decades in the Imperial Fleet, his time there marked by steady, if plodding, advancement. While hardly a dullard, he did not impress her with his mental faculties. Still, he had demonstrated his skills in developing and implementing broad strategies for the military, even as he pursued a personal agenda.
When Kamemor had accepted the praetorship, she had met with Tomalak, who immediately and expectedly offered his resignation as proconsul. He spoke of his desire to return to his life in the Imperial Fleet, and Kamemor’s subsequent public statement about his stepping down reflected that. Later, though, she reconsidered. She genuinely believed that in order for her to lead well, she needed to consider a divergence of viewpoints, especially those of people with whom she did not typically concur. She also trusted in the old aphorism: A well-fed serpent at home threatens less than a hungry one in the wild. So, she had reversed course and invited Tomalak to stay on in her cabinet as an advisor, as a second proconsul to serve alongside Ventel.
Kamemor moved to the center of the room and paced the length of the conference table. As Ventel and Tomalak followed, she asked, “Have you learned anything more about the incident?” She stopped at the far end of the table and turned to face them.
“Starfleet is reporting to the news agencies that the explosions at their Utopia Planitia facility occurred as the result of an industrial accident,” Ventel said.
“An industrial accident?” Kamemor repeated. She gestured to the chairs to her left and right, and the two men sat down. The praetor took the seat at the head of the table, placing the throne at her back, and thus out of her line of vision, which pleased her. “Do we believe them?”
“It’s difficult to know what to believe,” Ventel said. “The Federation is offering few details about what took place, beyond citing more than a hundred dead and injured. But Starfleet has little history of accidents like this.”
“Not recently, no,” Kamemor said, thinking of an event that had transpired nearly three-quarters of a century earlier. On that occasion, Starfleet’s flight testing of a new type of starship drive had ended in disaster, with the destruction of the test bed and its entire crew. But that had happened decades ago. She turned her gaze toward Tomalak.
“I’ve reviewed the recent reports of all our vessels along the Federation borders,” he said. “There’s no indication that any neighboring powers, within or without the Typhon Pact, have penetrated into their space.”
“So you believe that it was an accident,” Kamemor said, aware that she sought confirmation of what she hoped to be true.
“I neither believe nor disbelieve,” said Tomalak. “The Federation cannot be trusted, either in their assertion of alleged facts or with respect to their motives for doing so. The wisest course is to proceed as you’ve ordered: find out and verify as much as we can for ourselves.”
“So what precisely do we know with certainty?” Kamemor asked, looking to both of her proconsuls.
“Not much, really,” Ventel said. “We—”
The door chime interrupted the meeting, a few moments earlier than expected. Kamemor rose from her chair, and Ventel and Tomalak followed suit. The doors opened, and Uhlans Preget and T’Lesk escorted in the chairwoman of the Tal Shiar. This time, the two guards remained inside the room when they closed the doors. In light of the political turmoil of the recent past, the Continuing Committee had ordered that only members of the praetor’s cabinet could meet with Kamemor without the presence of at least two armed guards.
The chairwoman strode purposefully into the room. She wore the standard uniform of the Romulan intelligence agency: a light gray, simply patterned top with squared shoulders, with slacks and boots shaded a darker gray. A strap rose from her belt and up her torso, splitting at her chest and angling across her shoulders, the right-hand branch doubled. In one hand, she carried a data tablet. She did not stop at the far end of the table, but continued on toward the praetor and her advisors. Shorter by ten or so centimeters than either Ventel or Tomalak, Sela nevertheless projected an air of confidence and strength.
She’d have to, Kamemor thought. Despite ears that tapered upward to Romulan tips, Sela’s countenance more resembled that of a human. Though she wore her hair in a traditional Romulan style, her blond locks fell well outside the color norm. Her lack of upswept eyebrows and forehead ridges also marked her mixed parentage. And yet she’s succeeded on Romulus, within a deeply insular culture, Kamemor thought. In some ways, Sela’s rise to power reminded her of Shinzon, a full-blooded human who’d managed to enthrall enough followers to stage a bloody overthrow of the Imperial Senate and Praetor Hiren, and then to launch an attack on the Federation. While Sela’s personal record demonstrated her own antipathy for the UFP, though, she had also proven herself loyal to the Romulan government.
“Chairwoman Sela,” Kamemor said as the head of the Tal Shiar stopped beside Ventel. “Thank you for your prompt response to my request for a meeting.”
“Of course, Praetor,” Sela said. “I am always at your disposal.”
“Please,” Kamemor said, indicating the chairs. Once everybody sat, she said, “What can you tell us about the incident in the Federation?”
Sela set her data tablet down on the table, its display blank. “First, that there was an incident,” she said. “We have observers and contacts within the Federation, and we’ve obtained independent corroboration of the two explosions at the Starfleet construction installation.”
“And what of Starfleet’s characterization of the event as an industrial accident?” Kamemor wanted to know.
“The truth of that is less clear,” Sela said.
Kamemor had anticipated that news. “I am troubled by that.”
Ventel tilted his head to one side. “May I ask what in particular troubles you?”
“My primary concern,” Kamemor said, “lies with Starfleet’s quantum slipstream drive.”
“You worry that they are attempting to transform their engine technology into a weapon,” said Tomalak, forming an inference from the praetor’s words, and perhaps divulging his own suspicions.
“No,” Kamemor said. She had dealt with the Federation enough in her life to know that, while they practiced their own insidious brand of political and social imperialism, they did not spark to war without just cause, nor did they seek to disturb the delicate equilibrium that maintained peace among the powers of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. What she suspected, though, would almost certainly meet with resistance among those she’d assembled. She folded her hands together on the table. “I am concerned about the slipstream drive,” she said, “but not about the Federation.”
Tomalak looked confused—almost comically so. He glanced over at Ventel and Sela in turn, then back at the praetor. “I don’t understand.”
“Another power,” Sela said, more statement than question. “You think that some other power may have been trying to steal the slipstream plans.”
“Yes,” Kamemor said, impressed but not surprised by the chairwoman’s easy acumen. “The Federation has been utilizing their advanced drive technology for some time now without employing it to threaten the Empire or the Typhon Pact. We can therefore draw a positive conclusion about their motives.”
“I’m not certain that the Tzenkethi would agree,” Tomalak interjected before the praetor could complete her thought. “I’m not sure that I agree.”
“The Tzenkethi complain about virtually everything the Federation does,” Ventel said. “Believe me, if the autarch thought that Starfleet’s slipstream-equipped vessels endangered his people, he’d be demanding that the rest of the Pact launch a preemptive offensive.”
“Or,” Sela said, deftly returning the conversation to the point Kamemor sought to make, “Autarch Korzenten would attempt to acquire the slipstream drive for the Tzenkethi Coalition.”
“That is one of my concerns,” Kamemor said. “Not necessarily that the Tzenkethi mounted an espionage mission, but that some nation did.”
Ventel nodded. “If one of the powerful independent states, such as the Watraii or the Gottar or the Patriarchy, obtain the slipstream technology, it could destabilize the region.”
“It could,” Tomalak agreed. “And that could cause problems for the Empire. But with the combined resources of the Typhon Pact, isn’t such a threat one that we could effectively contain?”
“What if it’s not one of the independent states,” Kamemor asked, “but one of our own allies? What if it was the Tzenkethi?”
Tomalak’s eyebrows rose in evident surprise. Through a smug smile, he said, “That would be a boon, of course.”
“Would it?” Kamemor said. She pushed back from the table and stood up. “It would prove that one or more of our allies is willing to commit an act of war without even notifying us, let alone seeking our consultation and approval.”
“We could be facing destabilization not only in the region,” Ventel said, “but within our own alliance.”
“Yes,” Kamemor said, “but even that is not what most concerns me.” She turned from the table and paced away. Her gaze passed once more over the throne. She hoped that what she viewed as a symbol of Romulan hubris would not mirror what had actually transpired at Utopia Planitia. Turning back toward the proconsuls and the Tal Shiar chairwoman,