"How did this happen, Will?" While Picard was astounded at the news his friend was conveying, he had to keep in mind that Will was just the messenger.
"Short story? Someone wanted him out," Riker was confused too. It was unusual for the Romulans to acknowledge a spy, let alone advocate for one. Usually, Romulans committed suicide when caught."They made the case that Soji was a spy and Narek was acting in his official capacity as an operative of the Romulan government."
"Which government?" Picard asked sarcastically. Several factions had developed since the supernova. "Soji was collecting information about an imminent threat to her people." Picard knew there was no point in arguing. Narek had already been released. He just needed to process the implications before passing the information along to Soji.
"She was on the Artifact for several years, Jean-Luc," Riker's voice was tired, "It's hard to prove an imminent threat for that long." He agreed with his friend, but the Romulans had played their cards right.
"Coppelius is a Protectorate!"
"The Romulans conceded that," Riker said, "Actually that strengthens their position a bit since she can't claim to be an independent actor if Coppelius is a state."
"Hump," Picard dismissed.
"Oh, it gets better," Ricker shook his head and mustered his most official voice he could, "They contend that since the Artifact was under Romulan control, Soji violated their territorial integrity to obtain sensitive information of significant financial and strategic value to Romulan interests in violation of Romulan Law and The Treaty of Algeron." Picard made a motion as if he were going to speak. Still, Riker raised his hand, " AND since Soji was acting as a representative of the Federation for the Borg Reclamation Project they are accusing the Federation of sponsoring her."
"Did they say anything about the wanton destruction of Utopia Planitia? The tens of thousands of lives lost?"
"They have gone on record stating that the Zhat Vash was a small fringe group of radicals that acted independently of the Romulan government. Furthermore, they agreed to extradite any Zhat Vash involved." That concession had puzzled everyone. Not that anyone believed that an actual Zhat Vash operative was going to be extradited, it was just unbelievable that the Romulan government acknowledged the secret cabal.
"Wasn't Narek, Zhat Vash?"
"They say he was an intelligence agent who was dispatched to the Artifact to investigate data breaches," Riker didn't envy his friend. Telling Soji that Narek was free would be hard. He had hurt the synth badly. Hard too since the Copellious synths never found the body of Narissa on the Artifact, so to Soji, it would seem like no one was being made to pay for what happened to her. Ryker understood her frustration. The synth ban had cost him his son, but he understood that sometimes bad things happen. He could blame the Romulans for the synth ban but Federation politicians that had passed it. They decided so quickly, with hardly any investigation. The Federation did not give the matter due diligence. It was a knee jerk reaction to end an unpopular commitment. Assigning blame would take a lifetime, and he had a wife and daughter to live for.
Narek was ambivalent when he learned that he was going home. It was unheard of for the Romulan government to acknowledge an operative, let alone advocate for one. After some thought, he decided it was good news; he'd rather be executed quickly by his own people than die the death of a thousand yawns among strangers. He had not been mistreated in any way, by Romulan standards, the Federation detention facilities were gracious, and the staff was accommodating. They employed a little psychology but no beatings. Narek hadn't broken, but it was getting close. If he was honest with himself, and Narek valued self candor, he had to admit that the idea of cooperation was creeping into his brain. He began to entertain the idea that maybe he could find a way to continue his mission under the guise of a Romulan defector. The mission had cost him his family, and his freedom was the only thing he had left.
Then he got the news. Either someone wanted something from him, or he was going to be executed. The debriefing would logically have been the time to kill him, but he had survived. It hadn't been pleasant, and the memory of it occasionally haunted his dreams, but now he found himself on a listening station intercepting communications from the Federation and its allies. He had hoped that he'd be assigned to monitor Coppelius, but this was not his to be. Narek bristled at the irony. He had found Seb-Cheneb, and his reward had been exile. He blamed Narissa. Narissa's bungling of the operations on earth had alerted Picard to the existence of the synthetics. He thought too of Soji. Maddox had been smart to model the synth after a painting that Data had done of his daughter. Picard would need to help her out of guilt for the sacrifice that Data had made in saving his life. The ploy was practically Romulan in its delicacy.
Soji was a wicked creation! Maddox had programmed her to be likable to set people at ease, or even get them to cooperate with her as she collected intelligence. During the operation, he had uncovered thousands of data breaches that were attributable to her. From the scope and depth of information she gathered, it was difficult to discern just what her mission parameters had been; she accessed so much about them. Some information she took was strategic, such as the location of the Borg conduits. Some seemed random, as if she were just curious. She was insidious, and Maddox had programmed her to be lovable. Narek knew he would have loved her had she been real. At times when the reality of her existence blurred in his mind, he knew loved her.
He discovered that Narrisa had used a personal transporter to save her hide after losing the fight with the XB. While she kept her head down, he had done all he could to destroy or delay the construction of the beacon until the Romulan fleet arrived. When it finally did, she beamed herself onto one of the warships. Even the best shields had vulnerabilities, and Narrisa had exploited one to save herself. He wondered if she had even thought of him! Narissa had had the nerve to be there to greet him when he arrived at the listening station.
"Elev!" Narissa pressed her body against his in a way that was not lost on Narek. He resisted the urge to reach for her throat and disengaged himself. She sniffed at his reaction, "Brother, you take too much to heart."
He did agree to take a meal with her only to learn of the mission's status but found that there appeared to be no mission. At least if there were, Narissa was not privy to details. Narissa's life hadn't been easy since Coppelius Station. She had been stripped of her rank, assigned to low priority operations, yet had not been ejected from the Zhat Vash, which confounded Narek since he'd been cut loose for less. At least her new rank meant that she did not have unfettered access to his quarters, giving Narek a choice as to whether or not he would interact with her. Right now, he chose not to.
Narek had been conscious of a blonde Southerner studying the exchanges between brother and sister during their meal. He did not have to wonder long about the identity of the man. He approached once Narissa had left.
"Narek," the southerner was soft-spoken and matter-of-fact, "Shaoi ben, I am Ni'ael."
"Shaoi kon," Narek gave the expected reply to a superior. It seemed safe to assume everyone was a superior now. Ni'ael nodded, seemingly pleased with his manners, so Narek asked, "Are you my benefactor?"
"Dhat," No, Niall wasn't responsible for his release, although he did work for the one who was responsible. Ni'ael walked with him to his quarters.
"You like puzzles," it wasn't a question, and Ni'ael did not wait for an answer or acknowledgment. He had been carrying a portfolio under his arm, which he tossed on the desk in the simple quarters. "Have a look." Narek opened the portfolio, revealing a curiously folded paper square about his palm's size and several fingers thick. He picked it up, turned it over. It was a high-quality paper. "When you get it open, let me know. Don't damage the drawing." No other explanation. Ni'ael turned and left.
It had taken longer than Narek would have liked to figure out the intricate folds which he worked on between shifts. Every time he thought he had it, the paper threatened to rip. When he did finally solve the puzzle, he was almost embarrassed. It was so simple. He smoothed the drawing carefully, then stood back to examine the scene. It depicted naked headless humanoid bodies hanging upside down in what looked like a small office. Someone had gutted the bodies leaving the entrails hanging from the open cavity. The use of color and perspective evoked a visceral reaction. Narek managed to suppress the urge to vomit. He poured himself some kali-fal. Then he poured himself another. He splashed water on his face and contacted Ni'ael. He didn't expect an explanation or further information on the drawing and wasn't disappointed. Ni'ael told him that someone would retrieve the picture. When Narek returned from his shift the next evening, the drawing was gone. He honestly was glad to be rid of the ghastly rendering.
A month passed before Ni'ael contacted him again. A federation journalist had petitioned the Romulan government for an interview with Narek. It was a bold request that would have been dismissed out of hand except for who the journalist was. Missy O'Dare was the youngest daughter of Liam and Muriel O'Dare. Liam was the station master at Kiara Colony, and her mother was the leader of a religious sect that was popular in the Kiara colony. The pair had ten children ages 19-35. Their youngest offspring, Missy, was a budding journalist whose breakthrough article accusing Maddox and Starfleet had suppressed how deadly Lore, the first sentient Soong-type android, had been. The goal was to protect Data's career in Starfleet and keep Bruce Maddox's dream of creating more life forms like Data alive.
Officers who had served with Data had written op-ed rebuttals lauding Data's character and unique perception of the universe. Missy countered with a series of articles about the families who had been devastated by Lore's actions. She seemed to have an almost Zhat Vash obsession with discrediting synthetic life. The public reaction to Missy's articles spotlighted that many Federation citizens were not embracing synthetics with the same zeal as before the Mars attack, even in the outer colonies that suffered from chronic labor shortages. In one of her articles, Missy proposed step by step instructions of how Romulan operatives might have reprogramed the Mars synths. She made it seem easy. Narek had studied synthetic life, in theory, most of his adult life. He believed that Missy's recipe for highjacking synthetic programming was plausible.
Ni'ael wanted him to do the interview if only to find out more about the young woman. They had been trying to decrypt her files but had so far been unsuccessful. "She's a smart girl. Too smart " had been Ni'ael's assessment. Narek felt hope that he was somehow back on mission. He would meet Missy at Kiara Colony. Kiara Colony! That was a name out of his past. Narek was nearly marooned there before the supernova.
"You've been to the colony before," Ni'ael's hologram commented as Narek reviewed the mission parameters that had been loaded to a handheld and left on his desk in his quarters. Ni'ael was already on site. Narek would have to get passage on a freighter that made regular runs through Kiara Station. "You've met the stationmaster, I believe?"
"Years ago," Narek replied. The Tal Shiar had kept better records in the chaos of the evacuation than he had imagined. He felt a strange reluctance to discuss the incident. "I wasn't there long," Narek considered his words. How much information did he want to share? He didn't want to talk about the little albino girl, a Vulcan hybrid, although he didn't quite understand why. "Because it is unbelievable?" his mind offered.
"The station master is Missy's father," Ni'ael always spoke in a modulated tone. It was difficult to tell what the man was looking for in the conversation. He had a sinking feeling that if they knew he had been to the colony, they knew about the Vulcan hybrid and the part she had played. The part he'd played.
"I didn't actually speak with him," Narek decided to be vague. The albino was probably dead anyway. Vulcan-Betazoid hybrids rarely thrived. Never thrived, he corrected himself. Somehow the idea that the albino was long dead was both saddening and comforting. "His wife brought us cookies," Narek smiled. Regardless of the source, the cookies had been a welcome change from the low energy replicator rations.
"Why would she do that?"
"I don't know." He wanted to change the subject. While he was grateful to have an ally, he couldn't mention the albino. As if Ni'ael sensed the boundary, he didn't pursue more information. Narek felt that this had been some sort of test, but he wasn't sure if he had passed or not. If he hadn't, he'd find out soon enough, he figured. He allowed himself to feel some hope. He was eager to prove himself to his new superiors.
The colony was busy. From the mission briefing, Narek learned that the Fisher family had brought in the Romulans four years prior because Federation miners (mostly humans and human hybrids) had refused to return to work after a collapse killed two and trapped ten of them underground for three days. The official report blamed the mine's infrastructure but when Narek reviewed the records he found the mine had a history of freak accidents. Instead of negotiating with his neighbors in the settlement, Erick Fisher hired Romulans. This was before the revelation that the Zaht Vash destroyed the shipyards on Mars. It was an unusual arrangement. One that was strangely favorable to the human. Most Romulans would baulk at working for a human yet there were fifty miners and their families on Kiara. The majority of the old miners had moved on, but a handful still picketed the mine daily. The Romulans had to pass them at the beginning of each shift, which had been problematic at first. Now the two sides had settled into a routine of competing trash talk. It seemed that the Federation settlers enjoyed sarcastic wordplay as much as Romulans.
The mine proved to be no safer for the Romulans than it had been for Federation workers. There had been injuries but no casualties. With the lifting of the Synth ban, Fisher hoped to bring in a workforce of synthetics. He reasoned if only a few people in the settlement cared when Romulans got injured, no one would care if a synthetic was destroyed. Fisher hadn't figured on Missy and the organizational abilities of her mother's church. The church took the position that creating life forms for servitude was morally corrupt, going as far as to organize protests and prayer vigils. The O'Dare's were as influential on the colony as the Fishers, although they were more likable.
On the freighter, he found himself ruminating about his experience with the albino. Little B, her brother had called her. It was unusual for Vulcans, even young ones, to use diminutive nicknames or nicknames at all. The stationmaster had called her Enid and claimed that his youngest daughter was obsessed with the little girl. "My Missy has declared herself to be Enid's best friend whether the little girl wants one or not," he joked. Narek's aunt, Ramdha, had claimed that the girl was a Gi'halidrl or at least possessed by one and that Narek, having attracted the attention of a Gi'halidrl, was blessed for life. Narek knew his aunt's mind was bent, but he did keep the token that the girl gave him. He wore it around his neck at times. It wasn't too far into the trip when he learned that Enid was still very much alive and still very much a mystery.
"Can you look at something?" a crewman took the seat opposite Narek in the mess hall. It was presumptuous and would have never happened on a Romulan ship. The man held a deck of pimix cards, "What does this card mean?" The crewman slid the triangle card towards Narek. It depicted a pale but beautiful woman holding a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. On the shield was a Romulan dove.
"It's a Gi'halidrl," he replied, aware that he was immediately on edge. "Why?" he asked. Was it a coincidence that Narek was thinking of the albino just as he was presented with a picture of a Gi'hlidrl?
"Tom is making an offering to the White Witch of Kiara Station," a nearby crewman boomed, slapping Narek on the back and taking a seat next to him. The close quarters and apparent familiarity of the crew were tiresome.
"Shove-off, Alan!" Tom attempted to wave the man away but managed to draw more crew members to their table.
"Who is the White Witch?" Narek asked, dreading the answer. The White Witch was a topic that the crew discussed often.
Tom rolled his eyes, "They are being dramatic. She's just a kid who likes to hang out at the station. She's an albino Vulcan."
"She can hear your soul," someone offered, "If she likes the sound, she'll write you in her notebook," Tom explained that Enid was a composer. Narek remembered Enid's brother had called her a musical prodigy. The stationmaster shared that the girl had been a born telepath, a condition Betazoids considered a developmental disability, so she didn't speak. However, Narek knew she could; it just took tremendous effort.
"So why would you bring her gifts?" he asked Tom directly. Tom told him a story of his encounter with the albino. It had been eight years ago when his first wife was pregnant with his oldest daughter. The pregnancy was riddled with problems and Bruce had been desperate to get home. He was desolate when he learned that they had to wait at Kiara Station because the shipment they were supposed to intercept had been delayed for two days.
"They have a really nice park across from that church of theirs," he said. "I couldn't sleep and went there just to think." The man bit back his emotion, "I sat on a bench and stared at the stars. It was early, still dark, and the little girl just came and sat on the bench. What the hell was she doing out at that time I wondered? She didn't look at me but took my hand." He told Narek about the vision he experienced. She showed him his daughter throughout her life. He saw what a beautiful and strong woman his daughter would become. She showed him his grandchildren. "I was so heartened by the vision that it was several days before I realized that my wife had not been in any of it." Tom wiped away a tear. "Some people think the albino is simple but she knew my wife was going to die. She knew but didn't show me that. She showed me what I needed to see to move on with my life. If she hadn't I'm sure I would have been consumed by grief."
Narek was touched and stunned. Tom continued, "Every so often I like to bring the girl something. She seems to like all things Romulan. Probably on account of the supernova. This caught my eye but I wanted to make sure that it didn't depict a demon or something disturbing, are these Gi'halidrl's good?"
"Yes, Gi'halidrl are generally good," Narek assured him, "At least if they favor you." The man was relieved and placed the cards back into their pouch. "How did the supernova affect her?"
"Telepathically. Rumor is that she got desperately ill," Tom frowned, "Seizures, I think. They say she almost died."
"Why do people think she's simple?" Narek continued to collect information.
"She doesn't talk, read, or write...she's got a right nice voice though, heard her sing in a pub one time. Like an angel."
"So how do you get in touch with her? To give her your gift."
Tom leaned in close, "She doesn't read but she loves to eavesdrop on a good story," he whispered, "By the time I finish the story, I usually know where to put it."
Narek didn't know how to take the news that Enid was alive. He dismissed the idea that she felt the supernova as a coincidence. It was likely that she experienced complications related to her unique physiology. If she had been affected by the supernova, what sort of effect would that have on a young child? And what did Tom mean about listening in on stories? Most of all he was concerned that if the girl were still friends with Missy, she would be involved in his work. He didn't like that. It was never a good thing to be involved in a Tal Shiar investigation even on the periphery.
Lately, Fisher had to concede that Romulans were not the answer to his labor needs. Looking back, he thought the terms of his arrangement with the Romulans had been too favorable. He suspected that his workforce included several Tal Shiar officers and the Romulans had an ulterior motive. Bringing in the synthetics was proving to be more of a problem than he anticipated though. He slogged through the snow, past the protesters to his office. Inside the blonde Romulan sat behind his desk. "Pointy eared son of a bitch!" he thought.
"What can I do for you today, Ni'ael?" Fisher asked, tightly.
"For starters," Ni'ael smiled pleasantly, "you can uphold your commitments."
"Production is down," Fisher countered, "Your workforce is not living up to expectations." Fisher rounded the corner of his desk expecting that Ni'ael would move.
"Synths are not an acceptable answer." Ni'ael did not relinquish his seat. "Your mine is outdated. You can't afford to modernize. Sell. Retire. Our dealings with you have always been favorable."
"This is a Federation colony, Romulans don't dictate to me." It was a brave statement made only possible because of the security guards that stood ready outside his office. Fisher suspected that Ni'ael would take more than a few security guards to subdue so he had begun keeping a complement of at least six with him at all times as well as a phaser on his person.
"I am merely suggesting an amicable way out of this for you, friend," Ni'ael stood, "You are facing protests from your own people and litigation for a breach of contract from your Romulan workers." Ni'ael offered Fisher his seat. "Surely this business is becoming as tiresome as the winter's snow."
"Spring is around the corner," Fisher took his seat, "As always, good talking to you." He was glad that the blonde Romulan left without further comment.