Geneva, Switzerland

Earth Alliance

The sun shone through the vast dome covering the part of Geneva that served EarthDome, the supporting struts and beams casting shadows upon the buildings, gardens, people and walkways contained within. Water splashed and played in the fountains on top of the four pillars in front of the PsiCorps headquarters building. The headquarters itself was a small collection of buildings connected to each other and arranged in a semicircle behind the pillars and the lone pylon-like building. On top of that building was a golden eagle with wings upswept behind it and claws grasping a large shield bearing the PsiCorps insignia. Similar smaller eagles sat perched on stone globes along the edges of the buildings behind the pylon. Officially, these represented PsiCorps' presence on the 24 worlds in the Earth Alliance's 14 star systems.

Alfred Bester, looking up, thought that if PsiCorps had to adhere to reality, it would have to remove several of the globes to show the loss and destruction of colonies. He looked behind himself to look at the people walking all over the square in front of the headquarters. Immediately in front of the headquarters on the steps leading to it was an abstract statue showing the shadows of two adults holding the hands of a child while reaching for the sky or, more accurately, toward the eagle and PsiCorps shield on top of PsiCorps Central. The message was clear to all who understood:

The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father.

Another statue, this one of a man, rose on a pedestal in the center of the square itself. The man was in the middle of a sideways run, arms outstretched and an expression of noble determination on his face. William Karges the Grabber.

Bester smirked. William Karges' story was that he hid his identity as a telepath until he saved President Marion Robinson from an assassin's bullet. In gratitude, she created PsiCorps to protect Human telepaths.

Of course, that was a lie. No one knew this except the higher-ups and the more perceptive members of PsiCorps.

It was one of the many examples of the telepaths' superiority over the mundanes. One of Bester's favorite lessons, one given by his mentor, Dr. Sandoval Bey, was the classic 20th century Japanese film Rashomon. The film depicts the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her samurai husband through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the rapist and, through a medium, the dead man. The stories are mutually contradictory, leaving the viewer to determine which, if any, is the truth. Bester got the lesson that everyone is selfish and everyone looks out for themselves. He also learned that telepathy would immediately cut to the truth itself and that demonstrated telepaths' superiority over mundanes.

Bester smirked at the memory and went into the PsiCorps Center. Walking through the glass doors, he spotted Phyllis Kelsey in her all-black skirted uniform, gloves, turtleneck and knee-length polished black heeled boots, and the ever-present silver-bronze PsiCorps badge on her lapel below her left collarbone. With shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes and startlingly red bee-stung lips, Kelsey could, and was, called beautiful, but that didn't matter to Bester. All that mattered was inside. She was an ice queen. But she was still his partner whenever he worked in Level-12 Investigations, and he appreciated her.

"Ah, Ms. Kelsey."

She arched an eyebrow in greeting. "Bester. Still alive, I see."

The PsiCop rolled his eyes. "If the mundanes had their ways, I would be crying, 'For the love of God, Montresor!'"

Ms. Kelsey gave a thin smile. Still the ice queen. Bester approved. "They still call us 'PsiCop'."

She nodded once, the slight downturn in the corners of her red lips showing her disapproval. The polite term for such people as her and Bester was Metasensory Police or MetaPol for short. If one wanted to be technical about what PsiCorps called them, it was actually internally called Level-12 Investigations. People wouldn't say 'cop' to a policeman's face. That only showed the mundanes' dislike of telepaths and their envy of their superiority.

He looked around at the lobby built of colored marble. It was mostly empty as usual. Few people except those of PsiCorps ever came in, which was just as well. "Things never change."

"The Boss wants to see you."

"Which one?" teased Bester as they walked deeper into the PsiCorps Center. "We have several bosses in varying degrees of importance. All this hierarchical organization is…" He smirked. "…so mundane."

Ms. Kelsey rolled her eyes. "The Director."

"Ah." Sometimes teasing an ice queen wasn't much fun, but if he managed to make Ms. Kelsey smile, he knew that he'd make any average person laugh out loud. So it was all worth it.

As they walked through all-white corridors, they passed large PsiCorps propaganda posters hung on the walls: "TRUST THE CORPS", "OBEY", "PROTECT THE FAMILY", "WE KNOW WHAT YOU'RE THINKING." Bester ignored them all. He didn't need any convincing or reminding.

Finally, they reached a door. Standing by the door was an EarthForce-uniformed guard. Bester slightly twisted his lips in contempt. Lincoln Powell, the director of PsiCorps liked to test a telepath's ability by posting an obstinate mundane guard at the door to his office. The theory was that if a telepath could get past him, then he or she was worthy of seeing Director Powell. A telepath was a telepath if he or she could get past him.

But it would be too easy for a man of Bester's prowess. Before the guard could speak to stop the two PsiCops, Bester fugued him.

The test easily done, Bester opened the door and went through. The guard remained standing as if he was seeing nothing.

Fuguing was a PsiCorps practice of freezing a person by causing him or her to repeat his last thought over and over for a while. Technically, doing this without a warrant or official sanction was illegal. However, as Ms. Kelsey was fond of saying, there are rules and there are rules.

The office that Bester and Kelsey entered was small and spartan, understating the power of the PsiCorps director. There was only a desk, a plush high-backed chair, a small Japanese koi swimming in a large fish bowl on a pedestal and a computer screen set in the wall above the fishbowl. Bester cautiously mentally reached out toward Lincoln Powell's mind to figure out his mood. The director was known for lying to anybody for his own amusement while claiming it was to constantly test the telepaths' ability to find the truth. He once said that this test was also designed to show that the mundane way of communication was unreliable and that only the mind is truly dependable. Of course, behind Mr. Powell's back, people called him Dishonest Abe. Surely, he knew this and could see this in others' minds. So far, he had taken no action about that or just simply didn't care. Bester had heard that he believed himself to be the telepathic version of his ancestor named Colin, who lived at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries.

As far as Bester could tell, Mr. Powell was not in the mood to "test" the two metasensory police officers now standing before his desk. He was proven right in the next moment.

"You're back from New London, Bester," said Powell without preamble.

"Terrina," corrected Bester with wry disapproval at that colony's secession. "I have found some things that are..." He smirked. "...most enlightening. A telepathic race has been living right under our nose for a very long time, Mr. Powell."

The director arched an eyebrow. "The Terrians."

"Yes. But their telepathy works differently. It's instinctive and they communicate through..." A twist of the lips showed Bester's low opinion. "...dreams."

"Dreams?" Kelsey scoffed. "Not very useful."

"This may be how the Terrians subverted the New Londoners into turning against Earth," Bester pointed out. "And there is one more thing. The Vulcans. They're telepathic, all of them."

Now both Kelsey and Powell raised their eyebrows in surprise. "All of them?"

"All of them."

"An entire species of telepaths," breathed Powell. "And they can mind-cast with non-Vulcans?"

Bester understood why the director asked the question. There was one other alien species that was entirely telepathic, but they could mind-cast, telepathically communicate, only with each other: the Vree. He nodded.

"How can you be sure?"

In answer, Bester opened his memories of his encounters with Vulcans, especially of the one named Kov. Soon, both the director and the female psicop knew that all Vulcans were indeed telepaths, though touch-telepaths, and that they suppressed their emotions out of necessity. They felt the assault of roiling and primal emotions upon Bester's mind. It was not the same; it was only a shadow of the real encounter but they understood.

Powell sat back in his plush high-backed chair. "Well. That tracks with a report that EarthForce received from one of its pilots at the Vulcan homeworld. A...Jeffrey Sinclair. We must get a sample of intact Vulcan DNA."

Kelsey dipped her head in agreement while Bester grasped his permanently clenched and lame left hand. He knew that Powell would refer the sample to Department Sigma, a secret and often independent department within PsiCorps whose mission was to increase telepathic abilities. In the face of this war with the Minbari, and now the Romulans, Sigma was working with EarthForce New Technologies and the EarthForce Bio-Genetic Warfare Division, also known as the Bio-Weapons Division.

Kelsey wondered aloud, "Does Vulcan telepathy work through mitochondrial descent?"

Bester understood the reason behind her question. The marker for the telepath gene was encoded within a telepath's mitochondrial DNA which could only be traced through women, at least among Humans. Mitochondrial descent was the basis behind PsiCorps' custom of passing family names along the female line rather than male. Thus Phyllis Kelsey got her surname from her mother rather than her father, contrary to the custom among most mundanes. He shrugged. "All the Vulcans we've met so far are touch-telepaths. Who can say?"

Director Powell nodded and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk, and steepled his fingers. "I'm sure you know of the story of the meeting between PsiCorps' first director, Kevin Vacit, and the first Centauri ambassador to Earth, Andilo Vitari."

Indeed they did. Kevin Vacit had come to Ambassador Vitari to learn about the history of telepaths among the Centauri. The ambassador had told him that the Centauri did not always have telepaths and that they were not a product of evolution but an indicator of it because all the advanced races had them. Famously, the Narns did not have any telepaths for some reason, and the Centauri these days liked to say that this showed how primitive the Narns were and should be. The Centauri, as the Earthers shortly had, discovered a genetic marker in the DNA of the telepaths of all the races in range of their ships—the same marker, in fact, no matter how different the races were. Ambassador Vitari had no explanation for this nor was he interested in finding one.

Seeing that the two PsiCops understood what he meant, Powell said, "I want to know if this marker exists in the other universe. I've received reports of telepathy among an Andorian subspecies called the Aenar. Telepathy is apparently not universal over there like it is here, but our agents have heard rumors of a few other races that have telepaths, like...the Deltans, the Betazoids, the Kzinti, the Oran'taku. The Terran Starfleet has not explored very far so there may be many other races with telepaths."

Bester mentally yawned. Finding out about alien telepathy wasn't his job. He was a PsiCop and he dealt with alien telepaths only if they crossed his path, like those Vulcans at Terrina. But since the director was telling him and his partner about those alien races, it looked as if it'd be part of his job soon. If that was so, then so be it. He wouldn't be looking forward to the task because, as all Earth telepaths knew, looking into alien minds was not a pleasant experience. But if he could do deathbed scans, a very dangerous practice that most who had done it did only once, then he could scan aliens.

Kelsey was thinking along similar lines. "Director, if you want us to go through the Quantum Rift and get DNA samples for you, we will."

The director showed nothing of his thoughts on his face or in his mind. "That's not necessary quite yet. We need to do this quietly. As you know, the Terrans don't have telepaths or at least have not verified telepathy among themselves yet."

The fact that the Terrans didn't have verifiable telepaths while the Earthers had them was a mystery. PsiCorps intended to find out the reason behind such a major difference between the two Earths. If there were telepaths hiding among the Terrans, PsiCorps would find them and provide protection.

"So," continued the director, "go to Terra and its colonies. Find out if there's any telepaths among the Terrans. If they exist, the Terrans need to know. We will either help them set up their own PsiCorps or take them into our family. Of course, if any of them is one of our blips, take them in."

"Yes, Director," intoned both PsiCops.


An atmospheric shuttle cruised through space. It was painted almost entirely black with a white Omega sign on top of it, behind the pilot's cockpit. Phyllis Kelsey gazed out one of the several passenger windows. Her hair tightly held in a bun, she floated in the zero-gravity environment and gently held onto a wall-mounted handhold beside the window to prevent the shuttle's momentum from pushing her to the back.

At the moment, the shuttle was making its way past the red planet Mars toward the Asteroid Belt. The usual civilian ship traffic was in orbit around Mars, watched over by several EarthForce warships. The only alien vessel in this area of space was a Vulcan ship, recognizable by its blood-russet color and its needle-shaped main hull spearing through the characteristic warp-ring. The Vulcan ship hung in its sedate orbit around Mars, almost blending in with the color of the red planet.

Behind her, the door slid open. Ah, Ms. Kelsey… came the familiar 'path-sending to her. "There you are."

She turned an arched eyebrow at the arrival. "I thought you were sleeping, Mr. Bester."

The other telepath pulled himself through the doorway and sailed over to beside Kelsey until an outreached hand on the wall halted his progress through the air. Bester was looking upbeat, but she knew that was a façade. "As long as we're not in Teeptown or in one of our motherships, I must remain vigilant. It would have been ideal if we used the Isis, surround ourselves with brother and sister telepaths, and threatened by no one."

Kelsey nodded in agreement as she returned to looking out the window. From what he could sense of her mind, Bester knew that she was looking at the Vulcan ship. He mused aloud, "Ah, the Vulcans. They and their Terran allies, humanity's last, best hope for victory…." The older officer's tone changed from companionable to steely and his gaze hardened. "While that may be so, we must be on our guard among them."

The female telepath gave no apparent indication whether she agreed or disagreed but her mind emanated complete harmony with Bester's opinion. After a moment, Kelsey wondered aloud, "Do the other races like the Vulcans have an organization like our PsiCorps and the Centauri Telepath Guild?" She sent a glyph into Bester's mind, allowing him to see a male Vulcan dressed in the standard black PsiCorps uniform, complete with gloves and Psi badge. The overall appearance seemed a little sinister, thanks to the Vulcan's physical appearance.

Bester shrugged. "Alien telepathic organizations do not matter to us, Ms. Kelsey. Human telepaths matter. Wherever they are, they are family. If we find any among the Terrans, we must protect them. The fact that we have not heard about them or heard from them shows that they are in hiding." His brow creased in a frown at the universal mundane fear of telepaths. "Naturally."

"Naturally," agreed Kelsey.

The shuttle had left Mars far behind and was now entering the Asteroid Belt. Hanging among the rocks was what connected the two universes and permitted travel between them.

"Looks like a lightning storm in space," commented Kelsey.

Bester watched impassively as their shuttle moved in closer to the Quantum Rift. Newly installed on the rocks surrounding the phenomenon were weapons installations and defense satellites also moved between the asteroids. As the shuttle poked into the Rift, everything dimmed. Bester blinked. It wasn't his eyes or the light. It was not the dimming of a sudden storm rushing in, but objects and the environment surrounding the telepaths were now peculiarly dim and the effect steadily worsened. It was as if Bester was closing his eyes to sneeze. No, it was as if everything around him were closing its eyes to sneeze. The universe was going dark and strange rather than his perception.

Through his telepathic senses, Kelsey felt as if she was attenuating, her mind growing dim. She was also squinting at everything around herself, sensing the same thing as he was. If hyperspace enhanced telepathic abilities, this phenomenon muffled them almost as if it was a natural sleeper drug.

Suddenly, everything cleared. All appeared normal again.

Bester and Kelsey blinked for a moment. He grimaced at the sensation, disliking it very much.

The PsiCorps shuttle continued its course, leaving the Quantum Rift far behind.

Vulcan Research Ship Seleya

In orbit around EA Mars

Natasha Alexander watched the main view-screen, which was showing a visual interpretation of the Vulcan ship's scans of Mars. At this moment, it was showing the Nodus Gordii Mountains. The P-5 female telepath knew that the name was Latin for the Gordian Knot.

Mars was a Gordian knot for those who wished to know its secrets.

Especially when she headed Department Sigma and no one outside it knew about it. She turned to the male Vulcan working at a console that controlled the scans. Jewel-like buttons glowed under his fingers. He was partnered with another Human woman, Dr. Mary Kirkish, who worked for Interplanetary Expeditions. If Natasha didn't know better, she would have thought that Sovak was suffering from a severe case of hepatitis due to his skin coloring. However, that was the result of the Vulcan green blood.

"Sovak, do you have children?"

Sovak looked up briefly before returning to his task. "No. I had a son who died in a skirmish with the Andorians."

That caused Mary to look at the Vulcan with sympathy in her blue eyes for a moment.

Natasha silently cursed herself. To a Human, her question might have been a faux pas, but Sovak was not Human and Vulcans did constantly claim to suppress all emotions. Natasha had been trying to get a sense of the Vulcan emotional state without intruding his mind. Not an easy task for a P-5, but possible. Mundanes often let their thoughts spill out of their mind, and certain phrases and questions would cause them to inadvertently advertise their memories or answers in response.

As far as she could tell, Vulcans were very well disciplined.

The view-screen now showed Olympus Mons. A volcano as large as North American state of Missouri, its summit fifteen miles high and it pierced atmospheric blanket of Mars. Even though it was a very familiar sight, the Solar System's highest mountain was breathtaking. Natasha briefly thought of her granddaughter, Lyta Alexander, who was working as a commercial telepath for XenoCorp at Beta Colony.

Mary Kirkish stole a glance at the old woman in Psi Corps black. Natasha was there only because the scans that the archaeologist requested from the Vulcans would pass through certain areas of Mars affiliated with PsiCorps. Otherwise, this mission wouldn't have been approved by EarthGov.

"Mr. Sovak," the blonde woman said, "what is the Terran Mars like?"

The Vulcan continued to work the console as he replied, "Terran Mars has been terraformed sufficiently to the point where Humans could breathe air unassisted in the lowlands. However, temperatures are still cold enough to require thermal wear."

"We still need breathers," Mary sighed. "The cities are still domed, though?"

"For the most part," Sovak confirmed.

Mary was impressed. The first colonists went to her Mars in 2155, though the first true permanent colony was founded by John Carter in 2169, seventy-eight years ago. Even with Centauri technology, the Earth Alliance still had a long way to go in the terraforming of Mars. As far as she knew, the first Terran colonists on Mars arrived in 2103, fifty-four years previously in the Terran point of view. The faster terraforming of Terran Mars had to be due to Vulcan technology, which was clearly more advanced than that of the Centauri.

"Terran Mars is independent, isn't it?"

Sovak took a moment before he could answer. He knew that this particular issue was sensitive in the Earth Alliance. "It is. The Confederated Martian Colonies, with its capital in Ares City, gained independence after a rebellion against an Earth corporation, the Consortium, within a decade after colonization. Among Terrans, the Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies is recognized as a significant document regarding individual rights."

Natasha scoffed softly under her breath. Already, alien influences were corrupting her world, even if they came from another Human race. The main view-screen now showed the fog-filled Valles Marineris. The clouds raced along the length of the canyon that stretched more than three thousand miles so that one end knew day while the other endured night. The temperature differences caused shrieking winds that herded fog along a four miles deep canyon. The terraforming of Mars had made the winds scream much harder these days.

The PsiCorps woman looked over her shoulder at Mary and Sovak, a tendril of hair escaping her silver hair knotted in a bun. Her narrowed eyes caught Mary's look. The Human archaeologist got the hint to drop this line of questioning. Even though in her mostly fruitless field work across the face of Mars she had encountered PsiCorps personnel numerous times, the telepaths still made her nervous.

"Sovak, you're an archaeologist. What's your specialty?" asked Mary.

"Vulcans live for a long time so we have opportunities to specialize in several fields." The Vulcan man's fingers danced on the console's colored jewels. "For example, I was part of the science team that discovered and studied a group of ruined warships from the Promellian-Menthar War. I led several expeditions to the ancient ruins of Tagus III. Since then, I have specialized in the Iconian civilization."

Mary Kirkish waved a hand at the view of Mars in the view-screen. "And Mars?"

"There is a theory called the Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planet Development. The Human bio-sociologist Dr. Attanasio Evan Hodgkin proposed that when planets are similar enough, they will develop in similar and parallel lines, even down to evolution and socio-cultural development." Sovak nodded at the view-screen. "This is an opportunity for me to see that theory in action."

"Are there artifacts on Terran Mars?"

That question came from Natasha Alexander instead of Mary. Sovak slightly arched an eyebrow. "There are reports of Martian artifacts, mostly ancient sculptures buried in caves and inscriptions laid down deep for preservation in the sandstone strata. However, considering the age and fragility of Mars' ancient ecosphere, we tend to support the theory that the civilization was not native to the planet. Nothing more. It will be most intriguing to find similar artifacts on this version of Mars." Sovak turned his eyes to Mary. "Dr. Kirkish, have your excavations and searches on your Mars yielded results?"

Mary had to think about that. The word from On High, meaning from the head office of IPX, made her sign non-disclosure agreements. But she had to say something to keep the Vulcans on her side. "We…have found remnants of an alien presence on Mars, fragments really. They were in a dozen places on the planet from the South Pole to Olympus Mons. They're not much more than shards and dust, but I…well, IPX, really, we're hoping to find something much more tangible."

Natasha said nothing nor did she make any indication of her opinion of Mary's answer.

"IPX," said Sovak. "Interplanetary Expeditions, is it not, Dr. Kirkish? It is…an interesting, though troubling, organization if what we have been informed about it is any indication."

"Exploring the past to create a better future," quoted Mary. "The ancient technologies we find are good for all us. For example, the interceptor grid that EarthForce is using and sharing with Starfleet came from a technology we found on an abandoned alien ship at the gas giant Orion 5. Those stories?" She laughed dismissively, tossing her blonde hair. "Most of the time, it's because of odd characters. Oh, the stories they tell in the IPX backrooms about the early days, Sovak. Especially about the early CEOs. The founder of IPX, Jasper Hartung, was a lunatic obsessed with Martian independence and scattered weapons dumps all over the planet in preparation for a revolution that never came. Yuri Fahrner was a bastard who'd sell his own mother's corpse to a pak'ma'ra. Henry Hartung had all sorts of daddy issues, and Claudia Hartung, well…" Mary chuckled. "…she got very friendly with several Centauri diplomats before she disappeared along with 307 archaeologists at a dig on Jericho II. They can do surprising things with those tentacles."

Natasha rolled her eyes while Sovak arched a slanting eyebrow.

The console chirped for attention. Sovak turned to study the sensor reading scrolling down a screen in another computer console. "It would appear that we have discovered something." He tapped at the jeweled buttons and the main view-screen shifted to a bird's eye view of a chain of three large dead volcanos. It magnified to focus on a relatively small volcano east of the northernmost volcano and a cross-hair blinked over the western face.

"Tharsis Tholus," recognized Dr. Kirkish.

Tharsis Tholus was one of many small volcanos in the Tharsis region surrounding the famous straight chain of three volcanos to the south-east of Olympus Mons. Often, those who did not know better called it Tharsis Mons.

The door to the control center slid open. A Vulcan woman walked briskly in, followed by a young Human man. The Human, on loan from EarthForce New Technologies, was quite handsome, but it was the pale beauty of the tall Vulcan woman that attracted attention. She was rather thin like a fashion super-model, causing her purple-red lips to appear puckered. Her large eyes were a startling and brilliant green, and the severity of her beauty was emphasized by her typically short Vulcan haircut.

"T'Uerell," said Sovak by way of greeting.

The female Vulcan scientist, also the Seleya's commander, was almost instantly at his side, taking in the sensor readings. "There is a structure deep underground."

The Humans came for a closer look at the readings while keeping their respectful distance from the two Vulcans. The man commented, "That's deeper than most of our scanners could reach."

T'Uerell dipped her head in acceptance of that fact. "Indeed, Mr. Morden. The volcanic rock over the structure is of the same density as the surrounding area. Logic dictates that it was deliberately buried and hidden."

Natasha leaned forward, tense. "Do we know what it is?"

"The computer is working on creating a schematic image of the structure for us."

Morden's face shone with an excited smile. "Finally! After all these years of scrabbling in the sand, Mars is giving up some of its secrets! We've struck gold!"

Mary Kirkish chuckled softly. "That will give you something to brag about to your girlfriend."

The handsome man laughed.

Natasha Alexander surreptitiously gazed at both Morden and T'Uerell. Morden's mind seemed like any other regular mundane minds that Natasha had come across in her life in PsiCorps. T'Uerell, on the other hand, had a much more rigid and disciplined mind than Sovak, if that was possible. More than that, she could not tell.

Another chirp indicated the computer's readiness. T'Uerell tapped a command and everyone turned to look at the main view-screen. The image moved an imaginary camera to below the rocky and fractured base of Tharsis Tholus, making Mars appear completely empty beneath the surface. At some distance below the surface, there was the structure itself. It appeared to be a large base, each level smaller than the one above so that the base took the outline of an inverted cone. Slanting shafts connected the levels.

"It's a base," observed Natasha.

"Indeed, Ms. Alexander," confirmed T'Uerell. "There are indications of technology within the structure. Though it is completely powered down, there is a geothermal tap leading down deep beneath Tharsis Tholus. Considering the youth of the volcano and its potential for future activity, the tap could still be used."

Sovak brought up records on another console. "I am comparing the detected technology with the records provided by the Earth Alliance government and military." After a moment, he announced, "It is Vree."

The Humans were surprised. They had known that the Vree made visits to Earth in the 20th century. Oh, several Vree artifacts had been found elsewhere on Mars but they claimed that these came from the times they landed ships for maintenance, but there was absolutely no inkling of a Vree base.

Morden frowned at the image of the underground base. "That's a very large base for the Vree to have on Mars. It's almost big enough to be a colony."

T'Uerell said, "Judging by the Vree physiology, it is large enough to contain up to 1,000 Vree."

A new chirp rang. This time, it sounded different.

"The sensors are detecting another structure," announced Sovak.

Mary's eyebrows climbed very high on her forehead. Another base?

The main view-screen immediately shifted to a bird's eye view of Tharsis Tholus and travelled south-west over Noctis Labyrinthus, the mazelike western end of Valles Marineris. The cross-hairs blinked once more in the very center of Syria Planum. Mary and Morden nervously glanced at Natasha. They knew that there was a PsiCorps colony and base in the region.

"Curious," commented Sovak. "This particular structure is buried 300 feet below the surface. There appear to be little attempt at hiding it unlike the base at Tharsis Tholus. And the sensors are having difficulties in discerning the shape of the structure."

T'Uerell returned to her console and added her efforts to those of Sovak. After a while, she said, "It is indeed most curious. Something is blocking most of our sensor scans."

Mary and Morden exchanged a speculative look. The implication was that this something was advanced enough to block even the advanced Vulcan scans. That implication wasn't lost on Natasha, either, as the old female telepath stepped close to T'Uerell to try and figure out what she was seeing in the Vulcan computer.

"Most fascinating," commented T'Uerell as her fingers danced over the blinking and glowing colored jewels on the black console. "From what the sensors could identify, the structure appears to be made of a type of organic technology. The Vulcan Science Directorate has theories about that particular field of science but has dismissed it as beyond our capability to achieve."

Unnoticed by all, a gleam came into Natasha Alexander's eyes as she couldn't resist smiling.

They've struck gold!

High above Mars, the Suurok-class Vulcan research ship Seleya continued in its orbit around the red planet. At this moment, it was directly above Galle Crater.

Also known as the "Happy Face Crater," it smiled at all those who looked at it.


Romulan homeworld

Flashes of light announced the arrival of three ships out of warp. The warbird and its escort of two T'Liss-class birds-of-prey quickly moved past the orbit of ch'Havran, also known as Remus. The birds-of-prey, of the same type as those sold to the Orion Syndicate as interceptors, swerved away from the warbird. They would continue their patrol around the Romulan System.

The warbird docked with the main battlestation in orbit around Romulus, called Kaur'el Tennahrex or the High Fortress in the Terran language of commerce. Also called Sunside Station, it was a massive space station that ruled the skies of Romulus, served as the planet's final line of orbital defense, controlled and coordinated the arrays of defense satellites scattered around the planet and throughout the system. It also served as the beating heart of the Romulan Imperial Fleet and orders were dispatched from the High Fortress.

Soon, the warbird separated from one of the station's docking ports and moved on away to Ur-Metheisn, a series of shipyards above Remus, serving a role similar to Earth's Utopia Planitia Fleet-Yards and Vulcan's T'Khut Shipyards. Meanwhile, a shuttle was launched from the High Fortress.

The shuttle rushed through the clouds of Romulus, quickly shedding the heat glow of its atmospheric reentry.

Inside, Admiral Valdore watched the rolling landscape of Romulus out one of the shuttle's windows. The Apnex Sea glittered with sunlight. A glance across the aisle from his seat confirmed that Admiral Lasus still sat, focusing on his own thoughts. Valdore watched as the capital city of Dartha passed beneath the shuttle. His lips twitched in a wry half-smile as he thought of those who still called the city by its old name, Ra'tleihfi, given by the Ruling Queen T'Rehu in ancient days. The Government Quarter, containing the Hall of State where the Senate met, sat between the mouth of the Tor'ren River and the ancient harbor shaped to echo the river flowing between the Senate platform and the old concentric city wall.

The capital city did not extend across the river at the shoreline. Instead, it was a national park with a few monuments and obelisks scattered throughout the land, with walkways for people to enjoy the parkland. The reason that this land was not settled was that if a heavy structure is built, it would then eventually sink into the marshy soil during the rainy seasons. Creeks, brooks and rivulets flowed through the land from the Tor'ren River, which made some people consider the land to be part of a river delta. The few tiny rocky outcroppings served as foundations for the monuments and obelisks in the park. In the middle of this parkland was the only solid ground and the Imperial Palace covered this ground. A sprawling complex of buildings, pavilions and spires, the Imperial Palace was at least four hundred years old at this time since it was first erected by Emperor Valkis.

Normally, a return to Romulus inspired Valdore but there was ash in his mouth. They were coming here to make an apology to the Empress for the defeat at Andoria. Normally, defeats wouldn't require an apology to the Empress but the Star Empire had great plans for Andoria. Even if the Romulans couldn't successfully invade and occupy Andoria, or at least treat it as an unoccupied penal colony, that planet would be so devastated that the Andorian Empire would be knocked out of the war, thus freeing up Imperial military assets to pursue the war against Earth and Tellar. In the event of a successful occupation, a Prince of the Blood would be appointed governor or viceroy of Andoria.

As it is, both Valdore and Lasus had to go and apologize for the losses suffered at Andoria.

The shuttle landed on the square in front of the Imperial Palace, settling with a soft thump. This shook Lasus out of his thoughts. He grimaced as he murmured, "Time to face the Llei'hmne."

Valdore understood his colleague's distaste. Time to face the Empress, indeed. Even a noble considered having to apologize to the Empress an ultimate humiliation, the more so if one is denied death afterwards and had to continue to live with the public embarrassment.

If that was the fate Valdore and Lasus would suffer, then so be it. Mnhei'sahe.

"Daise'Khre'Enriov, are you certain that we should not put any stock to those stories about the Llei'hmne having a god for a consort?"

Valdore grunted in exasperation as he stood up from his seat and pulled down the front of his checkered Imperial Fleet uniform to make himself more presentable. "It is insanity to repeat such things here, Lasus. The closest to divinity that she has been to is her lineage from the Ruling Queen."

Lasus tried not to smile. "That is also not to be repeated, Daise'Khre'Enriov," he chided. "Everyone knows that T'Rehu didn't have any children. Except for a bastard daughter and most of us knows her from the song, 'The High Queen's Bastard Daughter' which is hardly to be sung anywhere in the Imperial Palace."

The grand admiral half-smiled to show his appreciation of Lasus' attempt at humor, but he didn't feel any mirth. Too many people have repeated the rumor of the Empress having a divine consort. That made him uneasy. Deities did not exist except in stories and mythologies, and if they actually did, most Romulans knew that they never answer prayers. Only the Elements that made up the universe deserved reverence.

As they stepped out of the shuttle, Valdore could see the palace's architecture up close. It was built in the Ehsadai style, a classical and elegant construction dating from the time when early Romulans were still taming the Two Worlds. A person from Earth may recognize a similarity to a mix of Art Deco and Doric order.

Right in front of the two men, a monumental stone arch acted as the gateway into the Imperial Palace behind its high walls. A statue of an oversized le-matya supported each end of the arch. Four guards flanked the gateway, two on each side. Two of the guards were members of the Praetorian Guard, recognizable by their crested helmets and black anodized battle armor, though these held halberds at rest. The Praetorians answered to the Praetor but orders could be countermanded by ranking members of the Imperial Household. The other two guards came from the Hearth Guard, wearing heavy gold-plated and amber jewel-encrusted armor and gold helmets, like ancient Vulcan ceremonial guards. In areas unprotected by the armor and amber unfaceted jewels, dark green and black cloth was visible. For weapons, each held a lirpa modified to have a larger sideway half-moon blade. The Hearth Guard answered to the Archpriest of the Imperial Cult.

The guards, alternating between the Praetorians and Hearth, were completely expressionless as Valdore and Lasus stepped into the arched gateway. They saw that the le-matyas, a large predatory feline animal native to Vulcan, had the wings of the Romulan neiirh which hid its poisonous spurs within its brilliant plumage. The wings, carved into the inner walls of the archway above the le-matyas' bodies, guided Valdore and Lasus into the palace complex.

A small square stretched between the gate and the portico of the palace itself. The portico had eight tall fluted columns whose bases were curling leaves and capitals were the Romulan birds of prey symbolic of the Star Empire, stretching their wings to support the roof and clutching the columns with their claws. The whole façade had the feel of a great temple, which was perhaps the intended purpose on a world whose people tended not to build temples, venerating the Elements that made up the universe as they did. Sure, Romulans built shrines but rarely, if ever, a temple due to the fact that they believed that the deities, if any existed, would not answer prayers.

More Praetorian and Hearth guards stood vigilant between the columns. On the steps leading up to the portico, a completely bald and pudgy man in flowing robes bowed with his hands hidden in his voluminous sleeves. "Aefvadh! I am the Royal Civil Attaché."

Valdore noted that the bow was not low, indicating a veiled slight to his station as the Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and that the man, who had to be one of the palace Sentinels, the personal protectors and assistants of the Imperial Sovereign, extended a formal welcome instead of the more informal jolan'tru. Likely, it was another indication of his fall from the favor of the Imperial Court and the Senate. But then again, he had heard that the Imperial Court tended to be much more formal than the Senate. For now, he had to endure this royal civil attaché, who served as a liaison to the Imperial Court.

The bald Sentinel bowed once more as the two soldiers climbed the first step. "Please, follow me."

Lasus frowned slightly and threw a questioning look at Valdore. The bigger admiral grimaced. Both had noticed that the robed courtier spoke with a child's voice. He took a closer look at what he had already pegged as a simpering sycophant. He had no Adam's apple and no sign that he could shave his face.

"You're not a man," Valdore accused as they climbed the steps into the portico. In front of them, tall double doors the size of which could admit a giant, slowly swung open. Each black silver door panel had the stylized bird-of-prey of the Star Empire highlighted in gold, clutching the circles representing the Two Worlds.

The courtier chuckled gently. He paused as he looked over his shoulder and chided, "Except for a very important attribute, I am a man. I have royal blood. Without the attribute that I lack, I could serve the Empress without being a threat." The robed Sentinel, hands still folded inside the hanging sleeves, glided into the hall beyond the doors.

The feeling of entering a great temple increased as Valdore and Lasus entered the palace's hypostyle hall. Huge columns of polished red marble stood beneath a ceiling about fifty paces above Valdore's head. The columns were simpler than the portico's columns, but no less grand for that. He and another man as big could not have encircled one of those columns with their arms. The floor seemed to be one slab of black polished stone with streaks of gold shot through it. The forest of columns held up a ceiling inlaid with various types of wood in geometric patterns in the Ehsadai style, sometimes with thin borders of silver and gold interwoven in the design. On the floor and the walls, slabs of marble were carefully cut so that veins flowed uninterrupted into each other. Where the crown molding of the ceiling and the capitals of the columns would be, there were sliced slabs of alabaster allowing artificial light to shine through. The color palette of wood tones and the shades of red, combined with the winged le-matyas at the gate, gave the atmosphere of Vulcan, which may be the intent—to remind Romulans of their ancestral ties to Vulcan and their destiny to reunite the sundered peoples.

The admiral heard Lasus take a soft gasp at the sight.

The courtier and the two admirals marched down the wide walkway cutting through the forest of columns, barely noticing the alternating Praetorian and Hearth guards along the way. At the end of the short hypostyle hall, thirteen steps led down to the lower level of the Great Hall which contained the Imperial Court itself beneath a dome supported by taller versions of the hypostyle hall's columns arranged in a square around the Great Hall, leaving a gap for a huge rose window at the back.

That window dominated the overall view. Stained glass arranged in geometric patterns yet suggesting a sunburst permitted sunlight into the Great Hall. In the center of that circular window's sunburst, a stylized firebird called the Alth'indor in Romulan mythology, seemed to take flight. The Alth'indor was said to die in fire and be reborn from its ashes in a cycle of glory and rebirth.

Courtiers gathered in the lower level of the Great Hall. Valdore could see that most, if not all, were popinjays. They were dressed in every type of costume imaginable in every color and style available in the Star Empire, though most tended to be variations of the formal robe. To the admiral, they looked as ridiculous as a disorganized garden of flowers. They even wore creative hats as if to differentiate themselves from the senators who were also gathered around the stepped dais containing the throne beneath the massive rose window. The senators were of course dressed in their dark blue robes with patterns of tiny white squares that were supposed to represent the stars and constellations that were every Romulan's destiny. Tight silk purple peeked out of the senators' robes and sleeves. Valdore and Lasus could see the Praetor himself in the gaggle of senators, holding the trident-like staff of the Debrune teral'n.

The admiral privately fumed and showed none of it on his face. Apologizing to the Empress was an ultimate humiliation and the Senate was here to witness it. Why? Valdore gave himself a mental sigh. Mnhei'sahe.

The fan-backed throne itself, set on a dais of seven steps, was carved from a single block of blue-green quartz shot through with yellow fire. The flat fan back-rest was a large circle carved to look like a sunburst and this part of the throne was dominated by the streaks of yellow fire. The solid circle in the center of the backrest created the effect of a halo around the head of whoever sat in the throne. Backlit by the round window, the effect was stunning.

But even all that paled beside the woman who sat in the throne. Just before Valdore had to avert his gaze from her face, as demanded by tradition, he could see that the Empress was a beautiful and voluptuous woman. Her voluminous gown was gold Tholian silk with actual gold dust scattered upon it, as if the Empress was clothed with the sun. Tholian silk, Valdore knew, was extremely rare and exceedingly expensive. The Empress' gown was enough to buy a small moon, and as rumors told, she had wardrobes full of Tholian silk clothes.

The Empress wore a crown of Rigelian fire diamonds arranged to appear as if stars shone in her hair. Her feet, hidden under the gown, rested on a crescent moon of creamy-white mother-of-pearl. Polished jewels in the ancient Vulcan style were set in a broad gold collar. A ruby the size and shape of the Romulan heart sat in the Empress' lap. Supposedly, it was a replica of the lost Bloodstone, known to the Vulcans as the Ko N'ya or the Devil's Heart. In her right hand, she held a beautifully wrought and gleaming sword.

As Valdore solemnly walked down the steps to the lower level, his eyes widened in shock but he quickly covered it up. He recognized the sword that the Empress was holding. It was the Sword of S'task, last of the five legendary blades made by the famous sword-smith S'Harien on Vulcan 5,000 years ago. It was one of the three given by Surak to S'Task, leader of the Exile, to save them from destruction, and until now, it was kept lain in the Empty Chair in the Senate chamber, a seat kept empty in memory of S'task.

It was scandalous for the Empress to hold that sword here. Not even the Ruling Queen T'Rehu dared to take it from the Empty Chair! As scholars told it, she did almost sweep it from the Empty Chair, though.

Clearly, much had changed while Valdore was away from home.

Still, there was no woman like the Empress since T'Rehu. She was one of those people with that inexplicable quality, an abnormal charisma that Romulans referred to as nuhirrien—literally "to look toward." People tended to listen to her and gladly gave her items that they could hardly spare and even forgave her for terrible deeds. Indeed, T'Lel was the first monarch to truly rule the Star Empire since the overthrow of Emperor Valkis by Praetor Pontilus.

As the two admirals reached the last step, a woman dressed in the dark green robes, a cream-colored over-tunic and a coronet containing two upright crystals—a green one for Romulus, a blue one for Remus—stepped forward beside the throne on a lower step. She was the Archpriest of the Imperial Cult.

She raised a staff with a crystalline trident top and banged it on the polished stone floor once. She announced in a voice that carried throughout the Great Hall: "Mistress of the Elements, the Empire Made Flesh, Empress of the Declared People, Vriha T'Lel i-Charvon t'Thea, First of That Name!"

Except for the guards, everyone in the Great Hall, including Valdore and Lasus, went to their knees and bowed, touching forehead to the floor. This action forced some courtiers to take off their ridiculous hats. Only the senators and those with royal blood merely bowed from their waist. As soon as the Archpriest stood up straight from her bow and stepped back, the people stood from their positions of adulation.

The bald courtier that escorted the two admirals into the palace hastened to stand on one of the throne dais' steps beside and below the Empress, bowed to her once more and stood ready, watching her. Another man, wearing the badge of Imperial Legate, stepped forward from the crowd of courtiers to take his place on the other side of the throne from the attaché. As the Empress' chief aide, he was second in rank between her and the Praetor, though he had no real power except as a secretary. Indeed, he had a computer tablet ready in his hand.

The Empress made signals with her fingers and hands. The bald courtier, who was apparently the Voice of the Throne in addition to his duties as the Royal Civil Attaché, carefully watched the Imperial signs. When speaking to those far beneath herself, T'Lel would first pass the words to the attaché, who would then give voice to them. He said, "The conquered colony that the Andorsu called Pvarto is now properly named Threllvia IV. Let it be published among the people."

The statement was expected. The Imperial Legate recorded it in his tablet.

T'Lel's fingers gestured and the attaché Voiced, "Daise'Khre'Enriov Valdore and Khre'riov Lasus are required to come forward."

It was time. Both named admirals stepped forward until they reached the supplication space before the throne, marked by a red circle inlaid into the polished patterned stone floor. They went down to their knees, then bowed low, foreheads touching the floor. They were the perfect image of loyal subjects.

T'Lel gestured to the bald attaché.

"You are bidden to rise," he said.

The men rose, though they kept their eyes lowered.

The bald court eunuch watched T'Lel's fingers and said, "The Llei'hmne wishes to know the reason for the Imperial Fleet's failure at the Andorsu homeworld. She finds it distressing that the Star Empire is not able to remove the Andorsu from the path to Vulcan."

Lasus glanced to Valdore, wordlessly ceding the floor to his superior.

"Vriha, we did not have sufficient intelligence on a Hevam faction calling itself the Earth Alliance. They employed a manner of interstellar travel unknown to our science. Furthermore, they employed warships that are heavily armored and sported heavy cannons of great caliber against our fleets." In his mind, Valdore could clearly see those brick-shaped vessels delivering those terrible broadsides of laser and plasma fire, ripping into his warbirds."

The attaché Voiced, "Yet, that was not the first time the Imperial Fleet encountered raalar vessels of that type, was it not?"

Raalar. So the Empress had adopted the Imperial Court's derogatory name for the Humans. It was a name given to a loud ape that dwelled in the swamps of Romulus. Another derogatory name that Valdore had heard, this time given to the Klingons, was wuspsak—worm-eaters. Valdore would not dignify such derogatory names, even though Her Highest used them.

"No, it was not, Vriha. We encountered lesser variants at the Hevamsu colony of Qualor." Valdore added, "The Imperial Fleet is formulating strategies and tactics to counter the Hevam faction."

Imperial fingers flew and the attaché said, "The Llei'hmne is aware that those you call a faction is actually not a faction, but a whole nation of raalar. What do you say to that?"

Valdore hesitated. He had not received confirmed intelligence that this 'Earth Alliance' was another interstellar Human empire. If intelligence had reached the Imperial Court before he could get it from the Tal Shiar or from his own agents, he'd need to re-examine his grasp of espionage. He'd need to make his apologies now and thus lose honor before the powers of the Star Empire.

"The failure to learn of that fact is mine, Vriha. I have sent someone to find out the truth behind these new Hevamsu and I have only recently returned from battle—"

"You need not deliver excuses nor apologize, Daise'Khre'Enriov," T'Lel said directly to the admiral, causing gasps of surprise from the assembled courtiers and senators. By speaking directly to Valdore, she was granting great honor. Her voice was soft yet it carried throughout the Great Hall. Either she was a very well trained orator or the Great Hall was designed to be acoustically excellent. Her beautiful face remained serene and expressionless. Very much like a Vulcan, Valdore thought. She added, "I know of things pertinent to the war that you have not learned yet. I am not content to stare at the stars while my empire fights to build the Road to the Stars and pave the path to reunification with our sundered cousins, the Thaessu."

Valdore bowed. "I…am thankful, Vriha."

The Empress spoke more loudly, intending for everyone to hear her more clearly. "Let us realize the dream that L'Deus wrote in the D'Vatta, the Great Paper, which united the old city-states into the Rihan Confederation before we became the Star Empire. 'We must join together or fail. We cannot reach our home, our destiny, by fighting among ourselves. We are one. We must be one. Let us act as one. To act any other way is to deny our children their right to the stars that are theirs.'"

Speaking directly to Valdore, she said, "You sent Arrain Telvor to investigate the reports of this new raalar nation. He has returned to us. He has since been rewarded with a promotion to the rank of erei'riov."

Valdore was relieved. So the mission was a success and Telvor was now a sub-commander instead of centurion.

"Both he and you, Daise'Khre'Enriov Valdore, will be awarded the D'takaram."

A murmur rose in the Great Hall as the courtiers and senators reacted to this announcement. Valdore was similarly surprised. The Great Comet was a military award given to those who have secured new resources for the Star Empire.

"While investigating that other raalar nation, Erei'riov Telvor captured an advanced alien vessel and brought it to ch'Havran for study. Even now, Technologist Nijil is harvesting the technologies available in that ship, including but not least an artificial quantum singularity."

The Empress smiled as yet another murmur rose in the Court. Romulan ships used fusion reactors to power their warp drives. Since everything else in the ships also depended on these reactors, there was little extra power left over. That was why the larger warbirds could not use their main plasma cannon, capable of spearing enemy vessels handily, except as a last resort.

Her fingers gestured and the bald courtier Voiced to a Sentinel, "You are required to bring her in."

The Sentinel bowed and left, disappearing into the crowd of courtiers which parted before him and closed behind him.

In the ensuing silence, Lasus stepped forward. "If it pleases the Vriha Llei'hmne, I—"

Imperial fingers moved and the attaché interrupted the admiral. "I would hold my tongue if I were you. You stand on sand as it is."

Lasus hesitated. Valdore could see the question in his eyes. Wasn't he going to apologize to the Empress? Did she intend to have him executed? Lasus kept silent. A wise choice.

Startled gasps rose from among the nobles. The crowd gave way hurriedly, more than eagerly, those in front ruthlessly forcing those behind farther back, opening a wide passage to the space before the throne dais. The Sentinel had returned with a Praetorian guardsman escorting a prisoner in a grey gown. The Praetorian clutched a stolen Vulcan universal translator in his free hand.

The prisoner was an alien that none in the Great Hall had ever seen before. Valdore could see that the alien was female. She was humanoid except for the pale skin, the smaller ears set low on the head and the sides and back of her head was covered by what seemed to be a bone crest arranged in an intricate design. She did not appear harmed but she looked exhausted, swaying on her feet slightly. The vacant look in her eyes and the slack way she had of holding her face told Valdore that she had been thoroughly interrogated, likely even put through a mind-sifter.

He shivered slightly. He didn't like the idea of mind-sifters but he had to admit that it was much more productive than any enhanced interrogation method available. It was a delicate technology, though. If one was not careful, the mind-sifter could rip a mind apart or take so many memories that the subject is left effectively lobotomized or even a mental vegetable.

He hoped that this alien wasn't put through the wringer that far.

Upon reaching the supplication space, the guards, holding the alien's arms, forced her to her knees. Her head hung.

The Empress' fingers gestured as she waved a hand toward the prisoner. The attaché Voiced, "Alien, identify yourself."

There was silence. The Empress frowned, causing the Sentinel guard to shake the alien's arm.

The alien raised her head, eyes completely exhausted and empty. She spoke and the universal translator brought by the Praetorian came to life: "I am Lenell of the Third Fane of Chudomo. I was born in the F'tach Islands on Minbar. I am a Ranger. I commanded the Ranger ship, Liandra. The Rangers are a military group dedicated to preserving the future and all life, to watching the frontiers for the return of the Great Enemy." Lenell took a trembling breath and continued, "We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One."

Her eyes drooped as she dropped her head.

There was the faintest hint of a smile on the Empress' face. She waved a hand at the guards who immediately took the prisoner away. She signed: "This alien's people, the Minbari, are the enemy of the other raalar nation. They are destroying the defenses and colonies of that nation. They are an advanced race and the ship that Erei'riov Telvor captured will provide us with much of their technology." T'Lel then spoke directly to Valdore. "You will be briefed on that, Daise'Khre'Enriov Valdore."

Valdore bowed his head in acceptance. Then he said, "If it pleases the Vriha Llei'hmne…."

"You are allowed to speak."

"If these…Minbari are fighting the other Hevam nation and the Hevamsu are having difficulties in repelling them, could not the Star Empire make common cause with them?"

There was the slightest upraising of the Empress' slanted eyebrows. Valdore was being bold to make suggestions, though indirect, to the Empress.

"I have conferred with Daise'Fvillha Lai on this matter. Upon learning of the origins of these Minbari, he and the Deihuit agree that attempting to ally ourselves with them is not necessary."

Valdore glanced at Praetor Lai and the Senate standing attentively. He was once one of the senators until he challenged the Imperial policy of unlimited expansion, so he understood the power plays that existed among the senators as well as the short-sightedness of such politicians. It was often said that the Praetor was third in rank but first in power. However, in light of T'Lel's power, that statement may no longer hold true. The Empress was still speaking.

"You will understand the reason behind our decision when we reveal that the Minbari and the other raalar nation exist in a parallel universe."

A murmur sharply rose as the nobles began to argue about the implausibility of it. The senators remained silent as they exchanged meaningful glances. Valdore and Lasus were as surprised as the nobles but remained silent. Only the guards sprinkled around the room remained absolutely still.

The bald attaché Voiced, "You will silence yourselves."

The Great Hall fell still, though the courtiers still looked disturbed.

T'Lel said, "The items of technology harvested from the captured Minbari ship are in the process of being reverse-engineered. The Imperial Fleet shall rotate ships between the front and the yards at ch'Havran for upgrading with some of the harvested technology. Plans for the warships currently under construction and for future warships have been accordingly updated. The Imperial Fleet shall be on the defensive while this is being implemented. The Military Tribunes are in accordance with this. Let this be published among the people."

Valdore and Lasus bowed their heads, accepting the Empress' will. Normally, she would not make military decisions, leaving such things to the Senate and the Romulan Guard, of which the Imperial Fleet was a branch. However, she had the right to make such commands and it was clear that the Senate supported her. As the Empress said, the Military Tribunes, the Romulan version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed with the command as well. Valdore remembered one of Amarcan's axioms: 'He who rules the military rules the Empire.'

"Let it also be published that raids against the enemy shall continue to keep them from going on the offensive against us." T'Lel stopped speaking and her fingers flew, causing the attaché to Voice, "Khre'riov Lasus, step forward."

Lasus obeyed but remained in the marked supplication space.

The attaché Voiced, "In order to keep the enemy alliance off guard, you will be tasked to lead an armada to strike at the heart of the enemy alliance. Your flagship, Rea's Helm, has already been taken to ch'Havran for repairs and upgrading of technology. It is given priority for your task. As soon as this is complete, you will depart with the armada. Rea's Helm will be the only warbird so upgraded in that fleet."

Lasus bowed his thanks from the waist. But there was more to come.

"Deihu Mezen, come forward."

Lasus was surprised at that. The named senator strode over to the supplication space. He was an Imperial Hero from the campaigns against Reman rebels, against the colonies that refused to accept imperialization in 2144 and the campaign of conquest against the Reticulans in 2146. He was also a hero of the Battle of Romii, a white dwarf star system that distantly orbited the Romulan System, and was the key figure in making Romii a major base of the Star Empire.

Mezen was also Lasus' father.

The attaché Voiced, "Deihu Mezen, you will accompany Khre'riov Lasus in another upgraded warbird. The priority of this strike against the enemy alliance shall be the raalar and the honor lost at the Andorsu homeworld will be redeemed. Child of Mezen, you will remember the proverb: 'A coward's mother does not weep.' Let this be published among the people."

Lasus realized that his father would monitor his actions in this strike into Human territory as well as see how the upgraded warbirds would fare against the enemy, and that the Empress was giving him a chance to redeem himself without having to apologize for the defeat at Andoria. He also realized that if he failed in this particular task, he would not return to Romulus alive. He swallowed as he and Senator Mezen bowed. Mnhei'sahe.

T'Lel lazily raised her left hand and let it slowly drop to the arm of her throne. The female Archpriest immediately stepped forward and tapped her staff on the floor loudly once. She announced, "It is the published will of the throne that the Llei'hmne shall be the first Rihanha to set foot on Vulcan once it has been reunited with our people. This is part of the Road to the Stars and it is in the Way of D'Era."

At this signal, everyone went to their knees and touched forehead to the floor while the senators and those with royal blood bowed from their waist. Several Praetorian and Hearth guards quietly surrounded the throne as the Empress stood up from the fan back throne, gripping the Sword of S'task in her right hand and holding the ruby replica of the Bloodstone in her left hand.

T'Lel stepped down from the crescent-moon footrest and gingerly went down the seven steps of the throne dais. Accompanied by the guards, the bald attaché, the Imperial Legate and the Archpriest, the Empress turned to the right and marched with her head held high, the fire diamonds in her crown glittering brilliantly and the light playing on the gold dust and fabric of the Tholian silk gown. As soon as she disappeared into a side doorway hidden by one of the massive polished red marble columns, the court congregation rose from their positions of adulation.

Almost immediately, the courtiers and senators mingled to discuss this latest audience. Valdore kept himself aloof from the Imperial Court's popinjays as he observed. He wondered who started the rumors about the Empress thinking that she's the consort of a god. She did not seem insane at all at Court.


In one of the towers of the Imperial Palace, Empress T'Lel, First of That Name, had changed into a simple cream white silk gown. As she stood beside the emperor-sized canopied bed, she looked around at the sumptuously appointed bedchamber. Polished stone pillars with sunken alabaster-covered lights had capitals of blocks of increasing sizes that held up the ceiling. Filmy white curtains suffused the sunlight streaming through the windows. Similar curtains were tied back to the pillars of the bed's canopy. The fluffy blanket on the bed sported T'Liss, the mythical name for the ra'tar predator bird that was the symbol of the Star Empire, clutching green Romulus and blue Remus in its claws. The stone and wood-inlaid walls were dressed with two sets colorful tapestries that were gifts. One set was collectively called 'The Lady and the Unicorn' and the other set was 'The Hunt of the Unicorn.' In one corner of the bedchamber, there was a piano taken from a Human colony and gifted to her by the Romulan Guard. A traditional lyre stood in its stand on top of the piano.

T'Lel moved to sit on the bench before the piano's ivory keys. Tenderly, she pressed one of the keys, causing a note to sound. A light flashed behind her. She turned around to find that she wasn't alone in the bedchamber anymore. A man with dark curly hair was standing behind her, wearing the uniform of an Imperial Grand Admiral.

He had a mischievous half-grin on his face.

T'Lel stood up from the bench, an expression of delight on her face. "Kiu!"

"Wasn't the lyre T'Rehu's favorite?" he idly asked.

T'Lel rolled her eyes. "I am my own person, Kiu." She cocked her head. "Your name…it's based on one of our words, isn't it?"

She was referring to the word qiuu, which was Rihan for 'everything' or 'all.' The man laughed as he understood what she meant. "You did call me a god, didn't you?"

The Romulan Empress fell laughing into his arms and kissed her god passionately.