romulus_ascendant.gif (3002 bytes)

David Landon

inspired by
Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October

2281

Historical Note: The events in this story take place two years before Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

Prologue

Romulan.

Even before the old commander-legate learned that the Federation’s name for his people was drawn from a character in Earth mythology who was weaned by a pack of beasts, the word sounded clumsy and distasteful to his ears. The peoples’ name for themselves, unpronounceable by Humans though it was, had a lyrical quality to it. Its meaning, unfortunately, had been lost in the Senate-mandated wave of revisionist history that discarded the Passage from Vulcan in favor of the lie that his people were separate and unrelated to any other race in the galaxy. It was this governmental arrogance that had taken Dhivael from him, and with her had died his last embers of loyalty to the Praetorial system.

Now he was determined to take something from them, something they treasured and lusted after. Spending the rest of his life surrounded by people who called him "Romulan" was a price he was willing to pay.

-One-

Warbird Romulus Ascendant
Docked in Shipyard AK-4
Deridex Star System • Romulan Star Empire

Even cradled by the drydock’s metal womb, the new battlecruiser had a haughtiness about him. A slight shudder went through Commander D’Taj enRaelh as he thought about what that ship represented. When he was a young sub-centurion, the power to rain down destruction on the home planets of the Empire’s enemies would have filled him with excitement, but now...

"Commander."

The deep voice of his superior interrupted his thoughts. He turned from the viewport that looked out on the ship and turned to face the commander-legate. Tacitus az’Har Daktalirraan was a tall, bear-like man with iron-gray hair, a closely cropped beard, and a perpetually stern expression. He had held his rank—the highest possible for a ship’s commander: just above Commander but below Legate—since before D’Taj entered the service.

"My lord," D’Taj replied, bowing his head respectfully.

"It is time," Tacitus said.

D’Taj left the viewport and followed the commander-legate down the docking tunnel that led to the ship, on the way to either the most courageous or most cowardly act of his life.

San Francisco, Earth

Sunlight streamed through the large window overlooking the bay. The view was Admiral Josť Mendez’s favorite thing about the office he inherited from Admiral Morrow when the top brass had moved into the newly-constructed Pike Wing last month.

"Good stuff, isn’t it?" Mendez said to his guest as they sipped their Saurian brandy.

James Kirk smiled. "I can always count on you to have a bottle of ‘55 stashed somewhere. But," he set his glass down on the table, "you didn’t call me over here just to drink your brandy and look out your window."

"No, I’ve got something I want you to take a look at." Mendez handed Kirk a computer clipboard.

"Where did this come from?" Kirk asked as he studied the picture on the board’s display screen.

"An intelligence briefing this morning. Our people got it from a source in a Romulan shipyard."

"I didn’t know we had anybody in the Romulan shipyards," Kirk said.

"Until this morning, neither did I," Mendez admitted. "Whoever it is, he’s one of the best intelligence sources we have in Romulan space. I hear he’s known only by a codename that changes at random no less than once a week, and only Morrow and Gervais know the codename."

"You mean Cartwright doesn’t know?"

Mendez grinned. "He’s not supposed to. Whether or not he actually does..."

Kirk understood. Admiral Cartwright always seemed to possess more knowledge of classified matters than even his position in the general staff should afford. "So, why show this to me?"

"Because the Enterprise under your command had more encounters with the Romulans than anyone else we have."

Kirk frowned at the image. "Looks like an engineering control panel. I recognize the schematic on the right—this is their new flagship, isn’t it?"

Mendez nodded. "The Romulus Ascendant. Commander-Legate Tacitus az’Har Daktalirraan commanding. Ever heard of him?"

"I’m familiar with the bio Starfleet Intelligence has on him," Kirk said. "Senior commander, decorated war hero, better-than-average political connections. He’s taken out the lead ship of every new class for the last fourteen years, and he trained most of their warbird commanders, including Commander Di’on."

Mendez grinned. "I see you still keep up on your reading. About the image, though...no one knows what that panel is supposed to control."

"All we have is a picture?" Kirk asked. "No sensor data?"

"Just a holo pic," Mendez said. "Obviously, this panel must be important, or our source wouldn’t have risked his neck to get this to us."

"Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think," Kirk speculated. "If this source is a Romulan, maybe he’s really working for them, and this is all a misdirection."

"I thought of that," Mendez admitted. "But Morrow wouldn’t hear it. All he’d say was that Federation Intelligence considers the source ‘unimpeachable’."

"Mmm." Kirk leaned back in his chair. "I’d like to show this to Spock."

"I was hoping you would," Mendez said. "You know, I haven’t seen him since the board of inquiry about the Serenidad tragedy. How’s life as an Academy Instructor treating him?"

Kirk laughed. "Josť, you should see him. He’s the perfect training-ship captain. Works those cadets’ rear ends off; I’m glad I’m not one of them."

"You’re not envious of him?"

"Why, because he’s got the Enterprise and I’ve got a desk and a job at the Academy?" Kirk asked. "No." He sipped his drink. "A few years ago, I would’ve been, but I’m happy where I am. Sure, it can be a little dry sometimes, after all those years on the Enterprise, but I’ve gotten used to it. Besides, I get sent out every once in a while by the brass."

Mendez smiled. "I know you do. And there are always inspections. And if you really get itchy, you can always tag along with Spock on one of his training cruises."

"I try not to; McCoy says it scares the cadets. But I did last year, and rather enjoyed it. Not like old times, though." He stood up. "Thanks for the drink. I’ll show this—" He waved the computer clipboard. "—to Spock. We’ll figure it out."

"I know you will. See you later, Jim."

Warbird Romulus Ascendant
Docked in Shipyard AK-4
Deridex Star System • Romulan Star Empire

Tacitus handed a data chip to the centurion at the communications station. "Send this at once."

The centurion inserted the chip into the corresponding slot on his control board. "Destination, sir?"

"Already encoded. Just send the message."

D’Taj made eye contact with Tacitus for the briefest moment. Tacitus saw the question in his friend’s eyes and nodded once in response.

The centurion at the communications station looked up. "Message sent, my lord."

"Very good, Centurion." Tacitus sat down at the command pedestal. "Commander D’Taj, are we ready for departure?"

"We are, my lord."

Just then, the entry hatch hissed open and a wiry, smug-looking man wearing the grey sash of a praetorial advisor stepped through. D’Taj announced him. "Advisor st’Khevrak, my lord."

Tacitus swiveled around to face him, but did not stand. "Ah, our political officer. What an honor to have you aboard."

st’Khevrak completely missed the irony in Tacitus’ voice. "Thank you, Commander-Legate. I’m looking forward to reporting even the smallest details of our glorious campaign to the Praetor’s office."

Tacitus smiled. "Of course you are." D’Taj had seen that smile before. It made him feel slightly sorry for st’Khevrak.

Tacitus swiveled back around to face front. "Commander D’Taj, take us out."

U.S.S. Reliant
on patrol along the Romulan Neutral Zone

"Sir, I’m getting something from the Number Five drone," Lieutenant Commander Beach reported from the sciences station. The Reliant was monitoring the telemetry from the new automated intelligence drones that dotted the Federation side of the Neutral Zone. "Looks like an unusually large battlecruiser leaving the spacedocks in the Deridex system."

Captain Clark Terrell turned toward him. "Is it the bird we’ve been watching for?"

Beach squinted at his displays. "It’s impossible for the drone to get exact readings at such an extreme range, but judging by the mass analysis, it does appear to be a Garuda-class warbird."

"What’s its course?" Terrell asked.

"It’s heading out of the Deridex system on impulse power. Course is roughly parallel to the Neutral Zone."

"Sounds fairly non-threatening," First Officer Pavel Chekov opined.

Terrell suppressed a smile. He was still learning to decipher his first officer’s version of the English language. "For now, maybe," he said. "You can’t be too careful with the Romulans."

Beach squinted at his displays. "That’s odd."

"What?" Terrell queried.

"Their power utilization is much less than you’d expect from a ship of that size."

Chekov leaned over Beach’s shoulder. "He’s running on impulse power only. By the look of these numbers, there’s no warp power generation going on at all."

"We know it’s a new ship," Lieutenant Commander Kyle offered from the communications station. "Maybe they’re on a shakedown cruise, and they won’t start the matter-antimatter reactor until they’re out of their solar system."

"But no matter-antimatter intermix at all?" Terrell shook his head. "It doesn’t sound right. Even if they’re waiting until they’re out of the star’s gravity well to finish tuning the warp units, that’s no reason to leave spacedock with a cold reactor. That’s asking for trouble."

"So, what are we going to do?" Chekov asked.

"Well, we’ll include this latest batch of readings with our next hourly dispatch to Starfleet," Terrell decided, "and keep an eye on that bird. On impulse power, she’ll stay in our drone’s range for quite a while."

"Unless she cloaks," Chekov pointed out. "The only way we know how to detect cloaked Romulans is by the energy bleed from their main reactor. If it’s not operational, we can’t track them."

"True, but there’s no reason for them to cloak this far inside their own territory. We’ll keep our eyes open." Terrell rose from his chair and headed for the turbolift. "I’ll be in my quarters. Let me know if anything changes."

U.S.S. Enterprise
SpaceDock
Sol Star System • United Federation of Planets

When Jim Kirk showed Spock the picture Jose Mendez had shown him, he could tell that Spock had an idea about what it was. Spock admitted as much, but said that he wanted to compare his supposition to a more expert analysis. So he and Kirk headed down to Engineering to find Mister Scott, the expert in all things mechanical.

They found Commander Montgomery Scott halfway inside a Jefferies tube in the engine room, muttering to himself.

Kirk laughed. "Something wrong, Scotty?"

Scott slid out of the tube and got to his feet. His white radsuit was scuffed and smudged with black stem-bolt sealant. "Admiral! It’s good to see you, sir." His eyes darted from Kirk to Spock and back. "This isn’t a surprise inspection, is it?"

"No, just a social call." Kirk assured him.

"Is there a problem, Mister Scott?" Spock inquired.

"It’s these cadets," Scott grumbled. "They’re good lads, and most of them will make good engineers, but they don’t know how to treat a lady."

"Mister Scott continually complains that the engineering trainees treat the Enterprise like a piece of machinery," Spock explained.

"Well, Scotty, it’s a good thing you’re here to set them straight. But before you go rewrite the engineering school curriculum, have a look at this," Kirk handed Scott the compuclipboard Jose Mendez had given him.

The engineer’s eyebrows went up when he saw the image on the display screen. "Well, I’ll be. This must’ve come from a Romulan engine room. New ship, too, by the looks of it."

"That’s right, but Starfleet Intelligence is having some trouble figuring out just what this panel is for," Kirk said.

Scott cocked his head to one side and squinted harder at the image on the compuclipboard. Finally, he declared, "It’s an auxiliary monitor for a singularity generator."

"Of course," Spock said. "I should have realized. This could present a problem."

"Why?" Kirk wondered.

"Because if this ship uses a forced quantum singularity instead of a matter-antimatter reaction to generate power, then we’ll never be able to detect her once she’s cloaked," Scott explained.

"Ever since the sensor refinements made possible by the new M-8 computers, we have been able to detect the residual energy trace from their matter-antimatter intermix; the cloaking device cannot completely mask it," Spock elucidated. "It was believed this advantage would last some time; it is impossible for the Romulans to compensate for the problem without a radical leap forward in cloaking technology."

"So, instead of making changes to the cloaking device, they found another power source for their warp drive," Kirk concluded. "Clever. I’d appreciate it if you’d write up a report on your findings for Vice Admiral Mendez."

"Aye, sir." Scott nodded. "You’ll have your report by 0800 tomorrow."

"Thank you, Scotty," Kirk said. "Good night."

*

"You look lost in thought." Kirk observed as he and Spock walked the corridors of the Enterprise on the way back to Spacedock. "This business with the Romulans has you worried?"

"I have met him."

"Commander-Legate Tacitus, you mean?" Kirk asked.

"Yes," Spock said. "There was a diplomatic reception on Aldebaran Three, when the old Romulan ambassador retired, and Ambassador Nanclus took his place. Tacitus was there."

Kirk knew Spock too well. "Sounds like he made an impression."

Spock inclined his head in acknowledgment. "We had a most interesting conversation about the writings of Surak. The commander was quite well versed."

Kirk was surprised. "A Romulan commander who reads Surak? That’s a dangerous hobby."

"Tacitus did not appear concerned for his safety," Spock remembered.

They reached the docking tunnel that led back to Spacedock. "Thanks for the help, old friend. I’ll see you later. I’ve got a day full of Kobayashi Maru simulations tomorrow, including one for your group, I believe."

"They will not disappoint," Spock assured him.

"I’m sure they won’t." Kirk turned to leave. "Still, you might want to give their barracks a surprise inspection. Commander Hadley tells me he caught Cadet Ericcson trying to program the food synthesizers on the rec deck to put alcohol in all the drinks."

Spock didn’t quite smile. "I shall give it first priority."

-Two-
Warbird Romulus Ascendant

Romulan commanders did not have the autonomy that their Starfleet counterparts enjoyed. Every command decision was subject to review by the political officer. Tacitus could understand the logic of the system. A starship was a fearsome weapon indeed; without a political officer, a commander could claim to be acting on secret orders from the Commanding Tribunal even while he used the power at his command to undermine the Empire’s interests. For this reason, the mission orders were always reviewed by the commander and the political officer simultaneously.

Tacitus waited by the locked compartment in the wardroom, where the chip containing their mission orders had been beamed before the ship left port. He poured himself a glass of ale. The bottle was from the case of Kram Drenal he’d brought on board; the finest vintage in his collection. There were many things about the Homeworlds he would have to learn to live without, but good ale was not something he was prepared to leave behind.

The door slid aside, and Advisor st’Khevrak stepped in. "Commander-Legate. Celebrating the beginning of a glorious mission, I trust?"

"Of course," Tacitus replied. "Won’t you have some ale?"

"Only if it’s Kram Drenal."

"What else would it be?" Tacitus laughed as he poured the political officer some ale.

st’Khevrak produced a small leather-bound volume. "Commander-Legate, before we go any further I must ask you to explain this."

A flash of anger lit Tacitus’ eyes as he recognized the book st’Khevrak held in his hand. "Where did you get that?"

"Your quarters, of course," st’Khevrak said with false geniality, as though the commander’s quarters were a public area of the ship that anyone could wander into at will. "It’s a dangerous thing, politically speaking, for such a highly decorated commander-legate in the Imperial War Fleet to have the collected writings of Surak of Vulcan among his belongings. A true loyalist might wonder, upon finding such an item, if its possessor shared the same loyalty to the Praetor."

Tacitus stood, reached across the table, and snatched the book away. "It belonged," he said icily, "to my wife. Today is the first anniversary of her very premature death, not that I would expect you to remember that. The book has sentimental value; that is all." st’Khevrak’s intrusion had made what Tacitus was about to do quite a bit easier on his conscience.

Tacitus sat down again. st’Khevrak did a very good job of feigning embarrassment. "Of course, Commander-Legate, my apologies. Seeing to the loyalty of the men—especially the ship’s commander—is my job, though. To have such a thing lying about, you can see how one might jump to conclusions." He changed the subject. "I must admit to being just a bit curious about our mission," st’Khevrak confided as he took a sip of the clear blue ale. "This ship is destined for great things. It’ll be exciting to see what it’s capable of."

Tacitus calculated that there was perhaps a minute left. He leaned over to the sealed compartment and tapped in his access code. "Advisor?"

st’Khevrak tapped in his code as well, and the door to the compartment unlocked and slid aside.

The datachip inside bore the official seal of the Romulan Star Navy’s Commanding Tribunal. Tacitus took it out and inserted it into the computer terminal in the center of the table where he and st’Khevrak sat.

"We are to proceed to the Rorindrat system, far beyond the range of the Federation sensor stations along the Neutral Zone, and engage Fleet Commander Giellun’s attack wing in a search-and-destroy simulation, during which we will attempt to evade detection for twelve days," st’Khevrak read the orders from the screen with a smile. "Giellun’s one of your old students, isn’t he? I hear he has a special place in his heart for you."

"There’s no place in Giellun’s heart for anyone but Giellun," Tacitus said sourly.

"Still, this should be an interesting—" st’Khevrak suddenly pitched forward, and his head hit the table with a loud crack before he slid out of his chair and onto the deck.

"Advisor?" Tacitus had to be careful to feign surprise in case st’Khevrak hadn’t completely lost consciousness. "st’Khevrak!" A quick glance confirmed that the political officer wasn’t breathing.

Tacitus slammed his fist down on the comm panel. "Doctor Plarek to the wardroom immediately! Emergency!"

He reached into the hidden pocket on his tunic, behind his scarlet and black commander’s sash, and withdrew a datachip inscribed with the official seal of the Commanding Tribunal. He took the chip containing the mission orders out of the computer and took a moment to compare the two. The chip he’d been carrying with him was a perfect forgery. He put his chip into the computer’s reader slot and dropped the genuine one in the recycler.

The wardroom door opened, and Doctor Plarek rushed in. "What happened?" the doctor demanded as he knelt down by the prone form of st’Khevrak and began to run his medical scanner over him.

"I...I don’t know," Tacitus said. He sounded genuinely shaken. "We had a glass of ale, then we were going over the mission orders when he suddenly collapsed. I don’t understand it."

"He’s dead," Plarek announced.

"No!" Tacitus gasped.

Plarek stood. "There must have been something in the ale."

"If that’s true, then I should be lying there with him. We drank from the same bottle."

Plarek scanned the bottle of ale, and his frown deepened. He knelt down and scanned st’Khevrak’s body again. "It was an allergic reaction."

Tacitus blinked. "I’ve never heard of an allergy to ale."

"It’s this particular type of ale," Plarek explained. "Kram Drenal is aged in barrels made from treiirh wood."

"Of course," Tacitus said. "That’s part of what gives it its flavor."

"A flavor that comes from the chemicals the treiirh wood releases. Those chemicals are known to cause a severe allergic reaction, sometimes resulting in death. It’s very rare, less than one percent of the population is susceptible. I doubt he even knew he had it."

"He didn’t," Tacitus sounded mournful. "He specifically asked for the Drenal." He shook his head, distraught. "What a waste. He was a good man."

"I assume we’ll return to port, then?" Plarek inquired.

"Unfortunately, our orders do not give us that luxury," Tacitus said. "We are to maintain strict communication silence until our mission is complete." He plucked the chip with the mission orders from the computer and left the wardroom. D’Taj and a small contingent of guards were waiting outside.

Tacitus motioned to two of the guards. "Assist Doctor Plarek." He walked down the corridor, heading for the lift. D’Taj followed.

"The advisor is dead, then?" D’Taj said. It was not a question.

Tacitus didn’t answer. Instead, he stopped next to a commpanel and activated it. "All crew, this is Commander-Legate Tacitus az’Har Daktalirraan. It is my sad duty to report the accidental death of Praetorial Advisor st’Khevrak. Ordinarily, we would return to port to allow the Tribunal to send his replacement. This mission, however, is Red Priority. By order of the Praetor himself, nothing must interfere with its completion.

"As many of you know, our vessel contains a new drive system, which works with our cloaking device to make us totally undetectable, even to the sensor nets that the Federation has deployed along its borders. Our mission is to discover the limits of our new vessel’s capabilities. Our fleet will hunt us, but we will evade them. We will pass through the Federation Neutral Zone, past the sensor nets and Starfleet patrols. We will fly along the length of the Federation side of the Zone, gathering valuable intelligence on their defenses.

"When we complete our route and return to Romulan territory undetected, the Praetor will authorize the construction of a fleet of ships like ours to strike at the Federation and end their imperialist aggression once and for all, and everyone here will be hailed as heroes when we return to the Homeworlds." He inserted his chip containing the forged mission orders into the reader slot on the commpanel. "I am uploading our orders into General Access so all may read them, and know our mission. Long live the Empire." He deactivated the commpanel and retrieved his datachip.

He walked the rest of the way to the lift, and he and D’Taj got on.

"How long have you known about st’Khevrak’s allergy?" D’Taj asked as he pressed the key to take them to the bridge.

"Since he was the political officer on my second mission to the Klingon border," Tacitus replied. "Doctor Khoal discovered it; I doubt even the Tal’Shiar know."

"The Tal’Shiar are supposed know everything about everyone," D’Taj commented wryly.

"If that were true, neither of us would be here, would we?" Tacitus pointed out.

The lift stopped, and the doors opened onto the bridge.

"Activate the cloaking device," Tacitus ordered as he sat down at the command pedestal. He reached over and thumbed the commpanel. "Engine room."

"Engine room, Gharen reporting," came the voice of the head engineer.

"Engage the singularity drive."

"Yes, my lord. We’re beginning the startup cycle now. Hyperdrive will be available in five minutes."

"Excellent," Tacitus stood. "Pilot, set course for Federation space. Implement as soon as hyperdrive is available."

Warbird bridges lacked the large forward viewing screen found on their Federation counterparts. The design philosophy flowed from what Romulan society had become in the last two centuries; a place where the flow of information was strictly controlled, and even the smallest pieces of data were only revealed to those who needed to know. Tacitus switched on the small viewer built into the command panel in front of him, and thought of Dhivael. Soon, he thought, imagining that he was talking to her. Very soon.

U.S.S. Reliant

Captain Terrell was awakened by his first officer’s voice coming over the intercom. He rolled over and hit the comlink button next to his bed. "Terrell here."

"Sorry to wake you sir, but the Romulan battlecruiser we were tracking has cloaked." Chekov reported.

"Are you sure?"

"They suddenly disappeared from scans, and they were still well within our drone’s sensor range."

"Can’t you track them by their engine emissions?"

"No, sir. When we lost sensor contact, they still had not activated their main reactor. They were still holding to their original course, however. Paralleling the Neutral Zone."

Terrell sighed. "It doesn’t make sense that they’d cloak this far inside their own territory unless they were up to something." He rolled into a sitting position. "This development can’t wait until our next dispatch; have Mister Kyle put me through to Starfleet Command."

***** 

Admiral Mendez looked up from the computer clipboard Kirk had given him. "So, it’s a singularity generator. My complements to Mister Scott for figuring it out, but this is not what we wanted to hear."

"If it’s any consolation, Scotty wasn’t thrilled about it either," Kirk said.

"Well, the news only gets worse. According to some information we got from our new sensor drones along the Neutral Zone, this ship was launched yesterday."

"So soon?" Kirk was surprised.

"Oh, there’s nothing to worry about for the moment. They’ll send it on a shakedown cruise, probably some wargame exercises to see how its systems hold up under battle conditions." Mendez took a sip of his coffee. "But you’ve seen the reports on the political situation inside the Romulan Empire; their expansionist and nationalist lobbies are starting to make some serious noise again."

Kirk nodded. "And now they’ve got a first-strike weapon."

"For the moment, yes. It worries me too, Jim," Mendez admitted, "but the only way the Romulans would ever start a war with us was if they could count on the Klingons to come in on their side. Given their current relationship, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon." He drained the last of his coffee and put down the empty cup. "Thanks for your help; I’ll keep you in the loop on this."

Romulan Imperial Fleet Headquarters
Gal’Thong City, Romulus

It was on cold, bitter days like this when Admiral Ndaen Khaiell Hweirsul missed being on the weatherless deck of a warbird. The walk from the flitter pad to the building that housed his office had been a rain-soaked one, and he was grateful to be inside the warm, comfortably appointed office that was his reward for his years of loyal fleet service. The fact that he had no duties of consequence ate at him occasionally, but not too much. Connections couldn’t get you everything, and given the choice, Ndaen would rather have his plush non-job than more consequential work with less comfort.

"Good morning, Admiral," his assistant, Sub-Centurion Lai, greeted him as he poured him his customary cup of tea. "Harsh weather this morning."

Ndaen ignored the small talk. "What is this message on my computer, the one from the Deridex shipyards?"

"I do not know, Admiral," Lai said. "It was marked Personal. A friend, perhaps?"

"That’s right," Ndaen remembered with a smile. "My nephew-by-marriage Tacitus is stationed there." He pulled up the full text of the message on his screen and began to read. A minute later he knocked over his tea, his hand violently shaking as he stabbed the intercom control on his desk. "Lai, put me through to the Directorate!"

"Is something wrong, Admiral?" Lai’s voice came through the intercom.

"Never mind that, just get me the Directorate!" Ndaen shouted. "Now!"

United Federation of Planets
Presidential Complex
Paris, Earth

The summons from Josť Mendez came at 0400. Thirty minutes later, Kirk stepped off a transporter pad in Paris, on one of the Presidential Complex’s subterranean levels. The place was bustling; it was, after all, early afternoon in this part of the world. Mendez was waiting for him, along with Spock.

"Sorry to wake you, Jim, but something big’s going on." Josť looked bleary-eyed. He’d obviously been awakened himself.

"How big?" Kirk asked as they walked down the busy, low-ceilinged hallway that was lined with portraits of previous Federation presidents.

Mendez handed him a computer clipboard. "Read."

"My god!" Kirk exclaimed. "Spock, have you seen this?"

Unlike the two admirals, Spock looked perfectly rested. "I have. It is most alarming."

"The bulk of the Romulan fleet headed for the Neutral Zone," Kirk shook his head in disbelief. "Why?"

"Hopefully, we’ll come out of this briefing with some answers," Mendez said as they came to a conference room near the end of the hall.

"Why are Spock and I here?" Kirk asked. "Was that your doing?"

"No," Mendez said as they stopped outside the conference room door while the retina scanner verified their identities. "It was Doctor Cronin’s."

"Doctor Lee Cronin?" Kirk said. "The president’s security advisor?"

"That’s him," Mendez answered as they found seats at the conference table. "It’s your fault, really. If you and the Enterprise had managed to avoid tangling with the Romulans as much as you did, he’d have let you stay home in bed."

The table was filled with an assortment of Starfleet and civilian intelligence people. The door slid aside one final time, and the president’s security advisor walked in, together with Admiral Moses Cartwright and the head of the Federation Security Agency, an Andorian named Seled Ortra’n. Cronin sat down at the head of the table, with Cartwright to his right, while Ortra’n went to stand by the viewing screen at the opposite side of the room.

Cronin spoke. He was a fair-skinned, dark-haired man of medium build who wore a deep-set frown. "Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of this briefing is to inform you all of the Romulan situation that has developed over the past forty-eight hours, and to then allow you to give me the feedback I need to present a strategy for handling it to the president. Mister Ortra’n, you may begin."

"Thank you, sir. The last forty-eight hours have seen an unprecedented amount of Romulan naval activity," Ortra’n began. He tapped a control on the remote device he was holding, and a schematic of the Romulus Ascendant appeared on the large screen behind him. The design was reminiscent of that first Romulan Bird-of-Prey that the Enterprise fought in the Neutral Zone almost fifteen years before, only much larger. The engine pylons swept forward to give the appearance of greater speed, and a stylized bird’s head jutted out from the curved bow of the ship.

"It began with this vessel, the Romulus Ascendant, newest in the Garuda-class and commanded by Commander-Legate Tacitus az’Har Daktalirraan. It utilizes a singularity generator instead of a matter-antimatter reactor as its main power source, effectively making it invisible to our sensors when cloaked. Forty-eight point nine hours ago, the U.S.S. Reliant monitored its launch from a shipyard in the Deridex system. Six hours later, they lost all sensor contact. Six hours after that, there was a sudden mobilization of Romulan forces in the area. Four Winged Defender-, six Stormhawk-, and twelve Whitewind-class vessels were pulled from their established patrol routes along the Romulan-Klingon border and proceeded at high warp speed toward the Neutral Zone. It is believed these vessels comprise the majority, if not indeed the entirety, of the Romulans’ Klingon Border Fleet."

The schematic of the Romulus Ascendant disappeared from the screen and was replaced by a starmap of the Romulan-Federation Neutral Zone sectors. It clearly showed the Romulan ships converging on the Neutral Zone. "If the Romulan vessels we are currently tracking remain on course, they will begin to enter the Neutral Zone in thirty-two hours."

"Do we have enough ships in that area to repulse a Romulan attack?" one of the civilian intelligence analysts asked.

"Unquestionably," Admiral Cartwright replied. "We’ve been preparing for something like this for a long time."

"Most of the Romulans’ energy these days is going into their border skirmishes with the Klingons," one of the Starfleet Intelligence officers, a hawkish, moustachioed lieutenant named West interjected. "Maybe this whole thing is just a wargames exercise; just your normal Romulan saber rattling."

"Ordinarily, that would be a valid theory," Ortra’n said. " "But the FSA has learned that, before leaving port, Commander Tacitus transmitted a personal message to Admiral Ndaen Khaiell t’Hweirsul on Romulus. Its contents are unknown, but less than five minutes after reading it Ndaen urgently requested a meeting with the director of the Fleet’s Commanding Tribunal. Twenty minutes later, the Tribunal issued orders to their Federation Border Fleet to hunt down and destroy Romulus Ascendant."

Spock raised an eyebrow. "Fascinating," he murmured.

"Spock, what is it?" Kirk whispered. Spock didn’t answer.

"The conclusion is obvious." Otra’n continued. "The Romulan leadership is convinced that Commander-Legate Tacitus is dangerous, and they’re trying to stop him. The fact that they’re heading for Federation space must mean that they are convinced that he, too, is headed in that direction."

"You believe that Tacitus is going to try to wage some kind of one-man war on us?" Cronin asked.

"That’s the most likely conclusion," Ortra’n answered, "based on the available data."

"Mister Ortra’n," Spock began, "are you familiar with the dossier Vulcan Intelligence has on Commander-Legate Tacitus?"

Otra’n looked uncertain. "The FSA’s database contains information from the intelligence services of many Federation member worlds, Captain."

"Yes, I am familiar with the FSA file on Tacitus," Spock said. "However, the Vulcan Intelligence file contains more information. Specifically: Admiral Ndaen is the uncle of Tacitus’ late wife. She died suddenly last year of Sorkath’s Disease, an ailment that affects only Vulcanoids. The cure was discovered ten years ago by the Vulcan Science Institute. We offered to show the Romulans how to synthesize it, but since they officially do not acknowledge the shared heritage of Romulus and Vulcan, they declined. I believe Tacitus plans to defect."

"Defect?" Otra’n tried but failed to hide his incredulity. "Excuse me, Captain Spock, but that’s unprecedented. Tacitus is a highly decorated officer. No one rises that high in the Romulan fleet without having a near-fanatical loyalty to the State."

"Ordinarily, that would be true," Spock said. "However, Tacitus is regarded by many in the Romulan leadership as a maverick. He comes from a working-class family on Remus instead of the nobler houses on Romulus, which is unusual for such a high-ranking officer. His honors were earned mostly in combat against the Klingons, and have very little to do with either political and familial connections. It is not difficult to see how he could become disillusioned with a government that arbitrarily restricts his family to society’s lower castes and allows the easily-preventable death of his wife."

"That’s an interesting theory, Captain, but the facts still don’t support—"

"I met the commander-legate once," Spock interrupted Ortra’n. "He is a great admirer of the philosophies of Surak; we conversed at length. Have you ever met Commander Tacitus, Mister Ortra’n?"

"Even if Tacitus does want to defect," Mendez spoke up, "we can’t ignore the fact that there are over a hundred million Federation citizens living in that region of space, and our first duty is to protect them."

Cartwright nodded. "I have to agree. Obviously, we all hope that we’re dealing with a defector and not a homicidal madman, but you can’t afford to take chances with Romulans."

"Thank you, gentlemen," Cronin said. "I think I have enough information to advise the president, but we’ll stay in touch. You may consider everything you’ve heard here classified. Thank you all for your time; you’re dismissed."

Everyone stood and began to file from the room.

"Admiral Kirk, Captain Spock, will you remain a moment?" Cronin said.

Kirk and Spock hung back. When the room was empty except for the three of them, Cronin came and sat at their end of the table. "Quite a scolding you gave Mister Ortra’n there, Captain."

"Vulcans do not scold, Doctor." Spock corrected him. "I was merely introducing a different perspective on the issue."

Cronin smiled. "Whatever you say. Let’s assume for a minute that Tacitus really is defecting. What do you think we should do about it?"

"Help him to do so," Spock said.

"And try to get a hold of that ship," Kirk said.

"Now hold on, Admiral, this isn’t a one-man scout ship we’re talking about here," Cronin said. "It’s billions of credits in Romulan state property. We can give Tacitus asylum, but the ship and anyone who doesn’t want to defect with him have to go back to the Romulans. Interstellar law, you know."

"Fine," Kirk shrugged. "We’ll just let a team of our engineers run her over with a fine-toothed comb first."

Cronin grinned. "I like the way you think. Of course, all of this is speculation unless we can discover Tacitus’ true intentions."

"If only we could communicate with him somehow..." Kirk mused.

"I’m willing to bet, Captain Spock, that the starship science officer in you has been trying to figure out how to detect this new Romulan bird ever since you first heard of her," Cronin guessed.

"I do have some thoughts on the problem," Spock admitted.

"Just what I wanted to hear," Cronin said. "Tell you what: you two are the closest thing we have to experts in dealing with the Romulans. In my opinion, we can’t afford not to have you on the front lines for this. I’m going to go in and advise the president. If he takes my advice, and he usually does, you’ll be getting orders to take the Enterprise out to lead the task force Starfleet’s putting together. Hopefully, you can find Tacitus before the Romulans do. And don’t give me that look, Kirk. We both know that what happened at Serenidad wasn’t your fault. Morrow may not like sending you out on the Enterprise, but he won’t refuse an order from the president. Thank you for your time, gentlemen. Now go home and start packing."

-Three-
Warbird Romulus Ascendant

Tacitus locked the wardroom door, then sat down at the head of the table. His co-defectors were all here: craggy old Sub-Commander Gharen, the ship’s head engineer; Sub-Commander Druhel, the weapons specialist; Senior Centurion Revlaek, the navigator; and of course Commander D’Taj, the executive officer who had been slated to become the commander of the Romulus Ascendant once its original mission had been completed. They were Tacitus’ favorites of all the men he’d trained. Dhivael and he never had any children of their own, but except for Gharen, who was old enough to have fathered Tacitus, these men were like their own sons. Now that she was gone, they were also the closest thing to family Tacitus had left.

"We’ll reach the Federation Neutral Zone within hours," Revlaek said, "I didn’t think it would be this easy."

"It will soon become more difficult," Tacitus warned.

Revlaek was the youngest, least experienced man in the room, so he missed the ominous tone in his commander’s voice. "You needn’t worry about the ion storms in the sector, my lord. I’ve already plotted a course that—"

"That’s not what I mean," Tacitus interrupted. "Before we left port I sent a message to Admiral Ndaen Khaiell Hweirsul announcing our intentions."

Everyone except D’Taj reacted with shock. D’Taj, of course, had known about the message as soon as Tacitus had sent it.

"You’ve killed us," Revlaek blurted out. "They’ll send the entire fleet after us! We can’t outrun Winged Defenders and Whitewinds! Why did you do it, my lord?"

"Enough!" D’Taj snapped. "Mind your place, Centurion."

Tacitus remained deathly calm. "It’s all right, Commander. When we dock at a Federation starbase and disembark for the last time, our various ranks will not come with us."

"He does have a point, my lord," Gharen spoke up. "As you know, the singularity drive does not provide quite the same amount of power as a conventional matter-antimatter reactor. We can manage warp nine at the most; the other ships in the Border Fleet can all go warp ten or better. They’ll overtake us eventually."

"But how will they find us?" Druhel argued. "As long as we remain cloaked, we’re invisible to everyone, even our own fleet."

"Not totally invisible," Gharen countered. "There is a way—"

"Yes, but we’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to let anyone get that close." Druhel declared. "There is nothing to worry about. If we remain on course, we’ll reach the Federation starbase without incident."

Gharen seemed comforted by that. Revlaek, Tacitus could see, was still unsettled.

"I understand your apprehension," Tacitus said. "But Druhel is right; we are invisible. And all of you had a hand in designing these systems, surely you realize how difficult this ship will be to detect. We will not be found unless we wish to be found. Our main duty, for the present, is to make the crew believe that this is all some sort of exercise, and that shouldn’t be too difficult." He stood. "And now we had best return to our posts, before Doctor Plarek finds out about this meeting of the senior officers and wonders why he was not invited."

The men stood and filed out of the room. D’Taj stayed behind.

"You have something to say, old friend?" Tacitus said.

"You know I would never question you in front of the men," D’Taj said hestiantly, "but why did you send the message to Ndaen? Was it not enough just to slip away quietly?"

"My reasons are my own," Tacitus said. "But you have been at my side long enough to know what they are."

"It is not enough simply to deprive the Praetor and the Senate of this ship, then." D’Taj postulated. "You must make them chase you, make them hunt you futilely so they can taste the full measure of their failure."

"It is time they tasted something other than arrogance," Tacitus agreed.

"I agree, of course, but if they catch us—"

"They cannot," Tacitus interrupted. "We are totally invisible, and don’t forget who trained the commanders of those ships they’re sending after us. I know them all, better than they know themselves. We will reach Federation space, my friend."

D’Taj smiled. "I know we will. But I worry about you. Dhivael would not have wanted you to keep serving the government that allowed her to die so needlessly, true. But neither would she want you to become consumed by bitterness."

"It is not bitterness, just a determination to see us safely to Federation space." Tacitus’ features softened, though he didn’t quite smile. "But I thank you for your concern. I believe Dhivael rests easier with the knowledge that you are looking after me."

Imperial Warbird Pierceblood
Rorindrat Sector, Romulan Space

Fleet Commander Giellun was in a foul mood. The Romulus Ascendant was long overdue; the search-and-destroy exercise should have started a full day ago, and there was nothing Giellun hated more than the inaction of waiting. Of course, it was always possible that Tacitus and that "undetectable" ship of his were lurking right off his bow, laughing at him while the ships in his attack wing went round and round in their useless patrol patterns. The thought infuriated Giellun.

"Tactical Officer, report!" he barked.

"We are continuing to scan the surrounding space, my lord," the nervous sub-centurion reported. "But there continues to be nothing out of the ordinary: background radiation is normal, no space displacement readings, and no engine exhaust we can’t account for."

"The accuracy of an instrument depends on its operator," Giellun said testily, "if you cannot—"

"Commander!" the centurion at the communications board interrupted. "Message from the Homeworlds, Red Priority!"

"Transfer it to my screen," Giellun ordered.

The screen built into the left arm of the command chair lit up with green-on-black text. Giellun read, and what he read made his head swim with anger. Tacitus and his ship... defecting...heading for Federation space by way of the Neutral Zone. He’d been played for a fool, sitting here like an idiot while Tacitus went off in the opposite direction. "Centurion, forward this message to the other commanders in our attack wing!"

"At once, my lord."

"Pilot, engage cloak," Giellun commanded. "Set course for the Federation Neutral Zone, maximum warp! Execute immediately!"

"What is it, Commander," his first officer whispered. "Why do we go to the Neutral Zone?"

"It’s Tacitus," Giellun said grimly. "We’re going to kill Tacitus."

Presidential Complex
Federation Security Advisor’s Office
Paris, Earth

Romulan Ambassador Nanclus was a thin, balding man with an unnaturally calm manner and a serene, smug smile that unsettled most people. Doctor Cronin, however, was not easily unsettled. He leaned back in his chair and smiled.

"Mister Ambassador, has your government told you if they’re planning some kind of military buildup along the Neutral Zone?"

"A military buildup? No, I don’t think so." Nanclus sounded unconcerned as he sipped his tea. "Why would we do such a thing? Our Neutral Zone with you has been quite peaceful. As you know, we’re having far more difficulties with the Klingons—"

Cronin’s pleasant, friendly facade dropped away suddenly. "Mister Ambassador, let’s get to the point: the bulk of the ships in your imperial fleet have broken off their normal patrol routes and are heading straight for the Neutral Zone. Now, Starfleet Command is going to want to park an equal number of ships on our side of the Neutral Zone to keep an eye on things, and to be honest a lot of our higher-ranking admirals have never forgiven your government for that war it started with us a hundred years ago, to say nothing of the little skirmishes we’ve had since then. If you don’t explain what going on here, Mister Ambassador, I’m not going to be able to stop those admirals from jumping to conclusions, and things could get very dangerous. So why not just dispense will all the cloak-and-dagger nonsense and tell me what you know?"

Nanclus’ face was creased with the closest thing to nervousness Cronin had ever seen. "Your directness, Doctor Cronin, is one of the things I’ve always respected about you," he put down his cup. "This is very embarrassing to my government, but one of our patrol ships seems to have gone missing somewhere along the Neutral Zone."

Cronin raised an eyebrow. "Forgive me, Mister Nanclus, but how is that possible? The sectors surrounding the Neutral Zone are just littered with sensor buoys and monitoring stations; there’s so many that they’re almost a hazard to navigation. How could anybody lose track of a ship in such a well-monitored area?"

"There is higher-than-usual ion storm activity in several of the sectors comprising the Neutral Zone," Nanclus said. "I’m told that our missing warbird was field-testing a new cloaking device when we lost contact, so it’s been difficult to pinpoint its last known position. Our High Command fears that a slight design irregularity may have caused the ship to lose all power. To make matters worse, several of the ship’s officers are the sons of high-ranking members of the Senate. One is even the son of a proconsul—I cannot say whom, of course."

"How tragic," Cronin said. "What can the Federation do to help?"

"My government did not mention any need for assistance, but I will certainly pass your offer along to them" Nanclus assured him. "However, for the moment I’m sure that our Imperial Starfleet is already doing everything that can be done."

"Thank you for your candor, Mister Ambassador. I’m glad I can advise the president that the activity on your side of the Neutral Zone is no threat to Federation security." Cronin’s smile returned.

"As am I, Doctor Cronin." Nanclus stood. "Good day, sir."

After Nanclus was gone, Cronin turned to his aide, who had been sitting in a corner of the office taking notes on a board.

"Well, Elias, what do you think?"

The young man—a junior analyst on loan from Starfleet Intelligence—looked up. "Obviously, he doesn’t know that we know about the Romulus Ascendant. But do the Romulans really think we’d believe that they’d pull most of their ships off their border with the Klingons for a rescue mission?"

"Probably not. They just expect the ‘rescue mission’ story to hold us until they can think of a better one." Cronin settled back in his chair. "One thing’s for sure: Kirk’s going to have his hands full out there."

U.S.S. Enterprise
in Earth orbit

When the turbolift doors opened onto the bridge, Kirk’s first impression was that it was strange to see the stations manned by officers instead of cadets. The newly-minted Commander Andrew Stiles, who had been head navigator during that first encounter with the Romulans over a decade ago, was at the helm. Lieutenant Commander Liz Palmer, on loan from Starfleet Headquarters, was at Communications, and Lieutenant DiFalco sat at Navigation.

Spock rose from the center seat when he saw Kirk and McCoy step onto the bridge. "Admiral, we have been cleared to depart," he reported.

"There’s no need for me to take command of the ship," Kirk had said to Spock as they’d left the Presidential Complex in Paris after their briefing with Doctor Cronin. "I’ll be busy coordinating the actions of the fleet. Since you’ll be overseeing the operation of the Enterprise anyway, you might as well keep the center seat."

"If you choose to leave me in operational command of the Enterprise, that is of course your prerogative," Spock had replied. "But it is traditional in these instances for the admiral in command of a task force to also command the flagship. Since, as you point out, I will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Enterprise in any event, it would be more logical for me to perform my duties from the sciences station where I could also work on a way to locate the Romulus Ascendant."

Kirk had yielded to his friend’s logic and now, as he settled into the command chair, he was glad he had.

"Good to see you back where you belong, Jim," McCoy remarked.

"It’s only temporary, Bones," Kirk said. "Don’t you have things to do in Sickbay?"

"Not now." McCoy leaned against the railing behind the command chair. "Nobody’s sick."

"I’ll see what I can arrange," Kirk said. "Mister Stiles, one-quarter impulse power. Take us out."

Romulus Ascendant

It was halfway through the ship’s night when the alarms went off. Tacitus was out of his bunk in an instant. "Engineer, report!" he barked into the intercom.

"One of the engine stabilizers failed," Gharen said. "We have to divert all power to the remaining three immediately, or the singularity will implode!"

"That means decloaking," Tacitus said.

"Yes, Commander-Legate. Either we decloak or we die."

"Divert the power," Tacitus decided. "I’ll be there momentarily."

By the time he got to the engineering deck, the alert lights had stopped flashing. D’Taj and Gharen were there to meet him.

"We were able to get the singularity stabilized just in time," Gharen reported grimly. His radsuit was streaked with some kind of black sooty substance, and even a little scorched in places. "But we were literally seconds away from implosion."

"I took the liberty of moving us into a pocket of ion disturbance," D’Taj said. "Our shields will protect us, and we should be safe from detection for now."

"How long will it take to repair the problem?" Tacitus inquired as he watched Doctor Plarek move around the room, checking everyone for signs of radiation poisoning.

"I won’t know that until I find out how the stabilizer failed in the first place," Gharen said.

D’Taj spoke quietly enough that only Tacitus and Gharen could hear him. "Perhaps we should investigate the possibility that this was not an accidental malfunction."

Tacitus looked at Gharen. "I trust you know what to look for."

"I do," Gharen affirmed. "I’ll contact you as soon as I have more information."

"What if Gharen is not able to repair the stabilizer?" D’Taj asked Tacitus on the way back up to the bridge.

"Gharen designed the singularity drive," Tacitus reminded him. "If anyone can repair it..."

"But what if it was sabotage?" D’Taj persisted.

"Then we hope that Gharen is a better engineer than the saboteur thinks he is," Tacitus said.

They reached the bridge, and the doors opened to admit them.

"Commander-Legate, the pocket of ion disturbance we’ve hidden ourselves in is dissipating," Revlaek reported. "In another hour, we’ll be visible to the monitoring stations along the Neutral Zone."

"The nearest solar system is Vaebn, correct?" Tacitus said.

Revlaek consulted his insturments. "Yes, my lord."

"The fifth planet in that system is a gas giant," Tacitus remembered. "If we position the ship above its north magnetic pole and shut down all nonessential systems, the planet’s magnetic field should conceal us long enough for Gharen to complete his repairs."

"What if we are detected before we make it to Vaebn?" Revlaek wondered.

"We won’t be in any real danger," D’Taj assured him. "At warp speed, we can be there in a few minutes. With all the ion storms in this sector, any sensor contact with us would be fleeting. Besides, the Vaebn system is in the Neutral Zone. Our fleet wouldn’t dare follow us."

"Centurion, set your course for Vaebn Five," Tacitus ordered. "Maximum warp."

U.S.S. Reliant

"Captain, something just entered the Neutral Zone!" Beach said from the Sciences station.

"Entered it from where?" Terrell queried.

"From the Romulan side, sir. The number eight drone picked it up." Beach squinted at his displays. "Lost it."

"Why, did it cloak?" Chekov asked.

"I can’t tell," Beach said "All the ion storm activity in that sector is making a mess of sensor readings. But there was definitely something there, moving at warp speed. It entered the Neutral Zone, and then the drone lost contact."

The communications board beeped. "Message from the Potemkin, Captain. They got the same reading we did."

Terrell peered over Beach’s shoulder as he replayed the odd reading. "At least we know we’re not hallucinating." He turned to Kyle. "Signal the Enterprise and tell them what we saw."

"Aye, sir." Kyle nodded. He swivelled back to his controls and went about sending the message.

-Four-
Presidential Complex
Federation Security Advisor’s Office
Paris, Earth

Ambassador Nanclus was as agitated as he had ever allowed himself to appear in front of a Human.

"Mister Ambassador, you look as if you’ve got bad news," Doctor Cronin said pleasantly. "How can I help?"

"Doctor Cronin, this is deeply embarrassing," Nanclus began. "Please understand that, in my position, I am frequently compromised by the fact that the Praetorate does not always see fit to tell me everything."

Cronin nodded but didn’t reply.

"You remember the ship we lost near the Neutral Zone, I’m sure," Nanclus said.

"The one that your government sent most of your star fleet to rescue, yes," Cronin recalled.

"It seems my government was not entirely truthful with me," Nanclus admitted. "The vessel in question is named Romulus Ascendant. It is equipped with our latest advance in cloaking technology that makes in undetectable, even to us. It appears that its commander, a man named Tacitus, has experienced some kind of mental breakdown. After Romulus Ascendant left port three days ago, one of our admirals received a personal message from Tacitus expressing his intention to cross the Federation Neutral Zone and lay waste to as many Federation worlds as he could before your Starfleet could destroy him."

Cronin’s even expression gave way to shock. "Mister Ambassador, this is serious indeed."

"Before, when you and I believed that we were just dealing with a disabled ship, you offered Federation assistance," Nanclus said. "If the offer still stands, then we accept it. I have been instructed to ask your president for the Federation’s help to hunt down the Romulus Ascendant and destroy it before its madman of a commander starts a war between our two peoples."

"Of course," Cronin said. "I’ll arrange a meeting immediately."

U.S.S. Enterprise
near the Romulan Neutral Zone

"We have secured from warp speed, Admiral," Stiles’ voice filtered through the intercom in Kirk’s quarters.

"Thank you, Mister Stiles." Kirk said. "Have there been any other incursions into the Neutral Zone since the one the Reliant reported two hours ago?"

"None that we know of, sir," Stiles reported. "Of course, with all those ion storms on the Romulan side of the Zone, one of their warbirds could get halfway across before we’d know it was there."

"Continue to monitor the telemetry from our sensor drones, just in case. Kirk out."

"Well, gentlemen," Kirk turned to Spock and Scott. "Do we have a way to detect the Romulus Ascendant yet?"

"Unfortunately, the computer simulations we’ve been running have not provided a solution," Spock answered. "There are simply too many variables and far too little hard data available."

"The only way to figure out how to detect that new Romulan beastie," Scott declared, "is to get our hands on it."

Kirk nodded "We’re working on it, Scotty. The only question is—"

"Bridge to Admiral Kirk," Palmer’s voice interrupted.

"Kirk here."

"Sir, there’s a Priority One message for you from Starfleet Command. It’s a data-only transmission."

"Pipe it down here, Commander."

"Aye, sir."

Kirk sat down at the communications screen at the forward end of his quarters, and a moment later the message appeared there.

"I’ve got it, Palmer. Thank you. Kirk out." He scanned the message, then turned back around to face his officers. "We have a new problem. Spock, remember the message that Commander Tacitus sent to the Admiral on Romulus before he left port? Well, the Romulan ambassador told the president that in it, Tacitus announced his intention to attack the Federation."

"Interesting." Spock said. "The Romulan fleet has obviously been unable to locate Tacitus, so they want to ensure that, should he surface in Federation territory, we will destroy him before he has a chance to defect."

"Most likely," Kirk said. "But the president has decided that we can’t afford to take the risk. We’re to cooperate with the Romulans in any way the treaty allows to track down the Romulus Ascendant. If it appears in Federation space, we’re ordered to attack it on sight."

"Makes sense," McCoy said from the corner where he’d been sitting up to now. "If a ship like that got past our Neutral Zone defenses, it’d be a straight shot to Qualor, Kaleb, even Arcturus. If you’re wrong, Spock, and Tacitus really does want to use our planets for target practice, he could kill more people in one day than died in the whole Romulan War."

Kirk rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was tired. It was his first time back in the center seat in almost two years, and here he was commanding a largely unfamiliar crew on a critical mission, and managing an entire task force besides. So many unknown quantities. In some ways, it was like the V’Ger incident times ten. "I think it’s time to bring the rest of the senior staff into our confidence," he decided. He tapped the comm panel. "Kirk to bridge."

"Bridge, Palmer here."

"Palmer, would you and Mister Stiles report to my quarters, please? Leave Lieutenant DiFalco the conn."

"Aye, sir. We’re on our way."

Romulus Ascendant

Tacitus and D’Taj were studying a thee-dimensional map of the Neutral Zone when Master Engineer Gharen came into the wardroom and locked the door behind him. "I wasted nearly four hours looking for a problem with the engine stabilizer, when all along the problem was with this." He produced a tri-linear circuit board. "It’s the control matrix. See how the circuit paths were fused here and here?"

Tacitus was no engineer, but he understood the implication immediately. "Sabotage."

Gharen nodded. "Unquestionably."

"Can it be repaired?"

"I’ve fabricated a new matrix already," Gharen said. "The stabilization system is functioning optimally, and we have full power on all systems."

"Good work, Gharen." Tacitus turned to D’Taj. "Increase security in the engineering section." To Gharen, he said, "Return to the engine room and resume your duties, but be watchful; this time we were fortunate. If the saboteur strikes again, it will be more than just an inconvenience."

"Yes, my lord." Gharen saluted and backed out of the room.

After he was gone, Tacitus turned to D’Taj. "So, it seems your instincts were correct. We do have a saboteur on board."

"I hope it’s a Federation spy," D’Taj said, even though he knew that was just wishful thinking. "If it’s a Tal’Shiar agent..." He didn’t finish his thought. It would not be surprising to learn that the Tal’Shiar had placed an operative among the crew; indeed, it would be more surprising if they had not done so. But for the operative to sabotage the ship, and in such a way calculated to make them drop the cloak, could only mean that he knew what Tacitus’ true orders had been, and that he was not following them.

"I wonder," D’Taj said after the silence had grown uncomfortable, "how much he knows."

Tacitus looked at the empty chair where st’Khevrak had come to his end. "I would imagine he knows that we were ordered to participate in battle simulations in the Rorindrat system. Therefore, he’s probably deduced that I falsified our orders."

"Do you think he knows about st’Khevrak?"

"I’m certain he suspects that st’Khevrak’s death was not an accident," Tacitus said. "He’d hardly be a Tal’Shiar agent if he didn’t."

D’Taj frowned at the holographic map that hovered over the table. "Perhaps," he suggested hesitantly, "we should accelerate our plans. If the saboteur, whoever he is, strikes again he could cripple us before we reach the Federation."

"With all the ion storms in this sector, the fleet may not pick up the distress signals from the lifepods," Tacitus reminded him. "Our men would run out of air before they were rescued; I won’t have that."

"Commander-Legate, respectfully I ask you to—"

"To what?" Tacitus interrupted. "Break my oath? My government may no longer be worthy of the oath I swore to it, but the same cannot be said of my crew. We will continue on as planned."

"Of course, my lord." D’Taj bowed his head. "Forgive me."

Tacitus resumed studying the map. "The difficult part will be after we reach Federation space. If we get someone reasonable—a Vulcan, perhaps—then this will work. But if we get some kind of glory-seeker, a—what is the Human term? ‘Cowboy’? Then all this could be for nothing."

"It occurs to me," D’Taj realized, "that our fleet’s efforts to hunt us down will look, from the Federation perspective, like a military buildup along the Neutral Zone, possibly even a prelude to invasion."

"Naturally," Tacitus said.

"And our government would be forced to provide some kind of explanation," D’Taj continued. "And rather than construct an elaborate lie, they’ll tell the most convenient parts of the truth—"

"That they’re hunting for their newest warship whose commander has gone rogue," Tacitus stated matter-of-factly. "Only instead of admitting that they’re trying to stop us before we defect, they’ll say that I’ve gone insane in my old age, and they’re trying to stop me from launching an attack on the Federation."

"And the Federation will believe them," D’Taj declared.

"You can’t seriously believe that," Tacitus argued. "As soon as Ambassador Nanclus tells that story to the Federation president, all his advisors will be reminding him how untrustworthy we ‘Romulans’ are. They’re intelligent; they’ll understand that our government is trying to manipulate them."

"And if the Federation does not believe that we are coming to attack them, what will they believe instead?" D’Taj countered. "As you said, they don’t trust us. Imagine yourself as the Federation president; you know that an undetectable Romulan warship is headed for your territory. Your Starfleet advisors remind you of the horrible weapons such a warship carries, and the grievous harm it could do to the dozens of Federation worlds in these sectors. Even if you suspect that Ambassador Nanclus was not completely truthful with you, would you be willing to wager the lives of the billions of your citizens who might be killed if you’re wrong? After all, when has a ‘Romulan’ ever come across the Neutral Zone in peace?"

"So you believe Starfleet will attack us the moment we appear on their side of the Zone," Tacitus said.

"From their perspective, they’ll have no choice," D’Taj answered.

"Starfleet commanders are trained to think of violence as a last resort, not a first response," Tacitus replied.

"All ship commanders, Starfleet or not, learn to trust their instincts," D’Taj argued. "And their instincts will tell them not to trust a Romulan."

"And that is why we must hope that the Starfleet commander we meet is the right type of person," Tacitus insisted. "This will work, my friend." He tapped the intercom panel. "Bridge."

"Revlaek here, my lord."

"Sub-commander Gharen has informed me that full power has been restored. Activate the cloaking device and resume course. Commander D’Taj and I will be there momentarily."

"At once, my lord."

U.S.S. Enterprise

"So, you don’t believe the official Romulan story, either," Stiles said when Kirk and Spock told him their theory about Commander-Legate Tacitus’ true intentions.

"Does anyone?" Palmer asked. "It’s painfully obvious that they’re up to something."

"Still," Stiles shook his head, "I have a hard time believing this guy actually wants to defect. It just seems so...improbable."

"Improbable that a Romulan might want to escape from despotism?" McCoy challenged.

"That’s not what I mean!" Stiles insisted. "Tacitus is the Romulan version of Robert April—he’s the most decorated commander they have. The idea of him defecting is like Admiral Kirk hopping a ship to Qo’noS and throwing in with the Klingons."

"Do you have an alternate theory, Mister Stiles?" Spock inquired.

"No, sir, I really don’t," Stiles admitted. "The only other explanation would be that the Romulan government is telling the truth, and I don’t believe that for a minute."

"There’s just one thing," Palmer spoke up. "A Garuda-class battlecruiser has a crew of three or four hundred. Even if Commander Tacitus wants to defect—which I’m none too certain about, by the way—we can’t assume his crew does. If he just decloaked in the middle of our fleet, dropped his shields and asked for asylum he’d never make it off his ship alive."

"His position in the Romulan fleet has doubtless given him the ability to choose his senior officers," Spock said. "Likely, they intend to defect along with him. As is true in Romulan society, the flow of information on a warbird is tightly controlled. It is not unusual for the crew to remain uninformed about the nature of the mission they are on and even the region of space they are in."

"We could move the crew to different ships in the fleet while an engineering team ‘inspects’ the Romulus Ascendant, then put them back on their ship and escort it to the Neutral Zone," Kirk suggested.

"I hate to bring this up, but no inspection is going to tell us everything we need to know about that new engine design of theirs," Scott said. "We’d have to tow it to a starbase and take it apart. It’s the only way."

"I mentioned that possibility to the Federation security advisior," Kirk agreed. "And he ruled it out. Interstellar Law just doesn’t allow us to hold onto billions of credits worth of Romulan State property. The Federation is the main proponent of interstellar law in the first place—"

"You mean the only proponent," McCoy interjected.

"—we can’t be seen violating it whenever its convenient," Kirk finished.

"What if," Scott wondered, "the Romulans didn’t know we had the ship?"

"How could we keep them from finding out?" McCoy asked incredulously. "We’re going to have to send three-hundred-odd Romulan crewmen back home, and the first thing they’ll do is tell their bosses that we’ve got it."

"Unless they think we don’t," Scott countered.

Kirk leaned forward in his chair. "You’ve got an idea."

"Well, before we left port I outfitted a shuttlecraft warp sled with a singularity generator. Mister Spock and I have been using it to try to simulate how the Romulus Ascendant might look on sensors," the chief engineer explained. "We could fit it with a remote piloting unit, then send it out into space and blow it up with our phasers. Anyone who scans the area will see all the signs of an artificial singularity implosion. If we’re far enough away, the sensor nets on both sides of the Neutral Zone will detect the singularity implosion and not much else."

"We’d have to be pretty far inside our space for that to work," Stiles observed, obviously skeptical.

Spock raised an eyebrow. "It is an interesting idea. However, in order to carry out such a plan we would need to communicate with Tacitus, and circumstances are unlikely to afford us—"

He was interrupted by the intercom. "Bridge to Admiral Kirk."

"Kirk here."

"Sir, the Hood is reporting that they’ve detected a Romulan warship in the Neutral Zone!"

*

The turbolift doors opened onto the bridge.

"Lieutenant DiFalco, report," Kirk requested as he stepped down to the center seat.

"The Hood detected an anomalous warp signature in the Neutral Zone, Sector Five at exactly 1300 hours 12 minutes," DiFalco reported as she vacated the command chair and sat down at Navigation. "The reading was confirmed by Outpost Twelve and the number fourteen drone."

"Downloading the drone’s sensor log now, Admiral," Spock said as he settled in at the sciences station. "And it verifies the Hood’s report. The warp signature is identified as that of a Romulan Winged Defender."

"Then it can’t be Romulus Ascendant," Kirk concluded.

"From these readings, it appears that it dropped out of warp near Beta Corvi."

"That’s much too close to our side of the Zone," Stiles remarked.

"Sir, the Hood is continuing to warn the Romulan ship off," Palmer reported, "but there’s no response."

"...you are in violation of treaty." The voice of the Hood’s communications officer filtered through Palmer’s panel. "Romulan vessel, please acknowledge. Repeat, you are in violation—"

"Palmer, I want to talk to the commander of the Romulan fleet," Kirk said. "Inform him that we’ve detected their warship in the Beta Corvi system, and tell them that if it doesn’t decloak and return to Romulan space in five minutes, we’ll take appropriate action."

"Aye, sir." Palmer turned to her panel and began to tap out the message.

Kirk looked at the tactical display on the main viewer. The Neutral Zone cut a swath through the rightmost third of the screen, and the Federation side was dotted with monitoring stations, sensor drones, and the ships in the Starfleet task force. Close to the Federation side, near Beta Corvi, a blinking green icon marked the position of the Romulan Winged Defender.

"Message sent, Admiral."

"Thank you," Kirk said. "Now order the Hood and the Ramius to move to the edge of the Neutral Zone, and instruct them to enter the Zone and intercept the vessel in the Beta Corvi system in five minutes if it doesn’t decloak and move off. Send the message uncoded; I want that Romulan ship out there to overhear it."

A minute went by.

"No response from the Romulans," Palmer said.

Another minute.

"The Hood and the Ramius have gone to battlestations," Palmer reported. "Still nothing from the Romulans."

Spock watched his readouts. "The Romulan Winged Defender is holding position."

Three minutes.

"Continuing to hail the Romulans," Palmer said. "They’re not responding."

"Maybe they’re not receiving us," McCoy hoped.

"No," Kirk shook his head, "they can hear us just fine." He looked around the bridge. Besides his senior officers, everyone else was a stranger. He wondered how this hastily-assembled crew would react to a crisis situation.

"Palmer, sound Red Alert," Kirk said. "Advise the rest of the fleet to do the same."

"Forty-five seconds, Admiral," Stiles announced.

"Sir, the Romulan Winged Defender has decloaked," Spock reported, "and it’s heading back to Romulan space at high warp speed."

Kirk exhaled. "Stand down from Red Alert. Signal all ships to resume their normal patrol patterns."

"What the devil’s wrong with these people?" McCoy fumed. "I thought we were supposed to be cooperating to prevent the death of millions, not playing chicken across the Neutral Zone!"

"That the Romulans would choose to take advantage of this incident to test our resolve is hardly surprising, Doctor," Spock reminded him.

"Maybe so, Mister Spock," McCoy replied, "But the next time they try and ‘test our resolve,’ they might not be the first ones to blink. What then?"

Kirk looked out at the stars. "We hope that they don’t want a war any more than we do."

-Five-
Romulus Ascendant

It was late in the ship’s night. D’Taj was sitting in a chair across from the bunk where Tacitus lay.

"Do you believe what our intelligence reports say about Earth?" D’Taj asked. "That it’s overpopulated, decaying, and that every square inch of ground is paved over?"

Tacitus snorted. "Propaganda. Earth isn’t perfect, I’m sure. It may have nothing like the Firefalls of Gal Gath’thong or Rateg’s Crystal Peak, but I hardly think it’s the festering hellhole the government would have us believe."

"But will we really find out the truth behind those things about which the government has always lied?" D’Taj wondered. "Or will we merely be exchanging Praetorian propaganda for Federation propaganda?"

"It’s hard to be sure," Tacitus said. "We know the Federation has hundreds of member worlds, each with its own set of cultures and unique points of view. There would be much more freedom of information in an environment like that, I think."

"Freedom of information?" The concept sounded alien to D’Taj’s ears. "That will take some getting used to."

"It will." Tacitus was hopeful. "But I look forward to it."

"Don’t you think we should be on the bridge?" D’Taj asked. "After all, we are less than an hour away from the Federation side of the Neutral Zone."

"No, it’s best that we adhere to the duty schedule," Tacitus maintained. "As far as the crew knows, you and I are confident in the knowledge that our ship is totally invisible. To be on the bridge now would make it appear as though we were expecting something to happen."

Every alert klaxon on the ship went off.

Tacitus smiled. "It’s time." He rolled out of his bunk and activated the companel. "Bridge, report! What in Elements’ name is going on?"

"We’re not entirely sure, my lord!" Druhel’s voice sounded appropriately flustered. "We’ve dropped out of warp. Our instruments are showing a containment alert, but we’ve yet to receive confirmation from—"

"Engine Room, cutting in." Gharen’s voice interrupted, right on cue. "The engine stabilizers are minutes away from total failure, my lord!"

"All of them?" Tacitus did his best to sound incredulous for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. "That’s impossible!"

"It must be the saboteur!" Gharen declared. "Commander-Legate, to have any hope of stabilizing the containment unit, I must have all available power. I need your permission to deactivate the cloak."

"Granted," Tacitus said. "Do everything you can. I’ll be on the bridge."

U.S.S. Enterprise

Spock peered into his scanner. "Drones five and six are reading a Romulan Garuda-class vessel decloaking in the Neutral Zone, Sector Twelve."

"Confirmed, sir," Palmer said. "Reliant and Potemkin have it on their scanners as well."

"Spock, is it Romulus Ascendant?" Kirk asked.

"It is not broadcasting an identification code," Spock reported. "However, the drone’s sensors are detecting a small contained spatial distortion in its engineering section. Readings are consistent with some kind of microsingularity."

Kirk swivelled toward Palmer. "Get me the commander of the Romulan fleet."

Romulus Ascendant

When Tacitus and D’Taj got to the bridge, Doctor Plarek was waiting for them. "My lord, the engineering decks are flooded with radiation. We must evacuate the crew from those sections immediately."

"Very well," Tacitus acquiesced. "Commander D’Taj, order the evacuation of all nonessential crew from the engineering levels."

A new alarm went off.

"Bridge! Engine stabilizers have completely failed!" Gharen called over the intercom. "We are losing the singularity containment field!"

Tacitus activated the intercom. "How long do we have, Sub-Commander?"

"No more than fifteen minutes, Commander-Legate. Probably less."

"Can it be repaired?"

"No, my lord. Only delayed."

"We must abandon ship," Plarek stated.

"Commander-Legate, I remind you that we’re minutes away from the Federation side of the Neutral Zone," D’Taj warned. "There could be a Starfleet vessel on the way at this moment; if our men are captured—"

"They’ll be able to tell their interrogators nothing of importance," Tacitus interrupted. "The only ones here with any real understanding of the singularity drive are you, me, Gharen, Druhel, and Revlaek. We’ll all be staying behind, of course, to get the ship out of the area after the lifepods are away."

"My lord, surely you needn’t sacrifice yourselves," Plarek appealed. "Can’t you simply program the computer to fly the ship far enough away that our lifepods won’t be drawn into the vortex when the singularity collapses?"

"I remind you, Doctor, that the singularity drive was very likely sabotaged." Tacitus pointed out. "The computer may have been compromised as well. I’m sounding the order to abandon ship; you will go with the crew and see to their safety as best you can." He turned to the communications station. "Sub-Centurion, engage the distress beacon, then get yourself to a lifepod."

"Commander-Legate, it has been an honor," Plarek saluted solemnly.

"Thank you, Doctor. Now go; there’s not much time."

Plarek bowed stiffly, then he was gone.

Pierceblood

"Estimate reaching Neutral Zone boundary in twelve minutes at present speed," the pilot announced.

"My lord, I’m getting telemetry from the fleet," the centurion at the communications station announced. "Romulus Ascendant has appeared inside the Neutral Zone, near the Federation side, and it’s broadcasting a distress call."

"It’s a trick," Fleet Commander Giellun decided. He motioned to his first officer. "Home in on their distress beacon, then call down to Engineering and tell Hvaid to give me warp twelve."

"My lord," Subcommander s’Tokkr said quietly so no one else would overhear. "If we penetrate the Neutral Zone without authorization from Command—"

"When we kill Tacitus before he can give Romulus Ascendant to the Earthers, Command will be too grateful to do anything but bemedal and promote us," Giellun retorted through clenched teeth.

"Of course, Commander," s’Tokkr relented. "But the Federation monitoring stations will surely detect us."

"Hvaid knows what to do," Giellun maintained.

"My lord, Hvaid’s little trick may have worked when we crossed the Klingon border, but how do we know it will work this time?"

"We don’t," Giellun said. "But if I learned one thing from my old teacher before he turned traitor, it was to recognize when to take risks. Carry out your orders, Sub-commander."

"Yes, Commander. At once."

U.S.S. Reliant

Kyle looked up from his displays. "Message from the Enterprise, Captain. The Romulans have agreed that one ship will be sent from each side of the Zone to intercept the Romulus Ascendant."

"And since we’re the closest ship on the Federation side, we’re ordered to go?" Captain Terrell guessed.

"Yes, sir," Kyle replied. "We’re to get underway immediately; the Enterprise will take up our position here."

"All right, then." Terrell sat down in the center seat. "Helm, plot a course. Raise shields and ready phasers and photon torpedoes. Mister Kyle, sound Red Alert."

Romulus Ascendant

"All the lifepods are away, Commander-Legate," D’Taj reported.

"Scan the ship," Tacitus ordered. "Make sure that we’re the only ones on board."

"Internal sensors detect only the five of us," Druhel reported.

"There are ways to hide from sensors," Revlaek said warily. "The saboteur could still be here."

"Maybe," Tacitus allowed, "but there’s little he can do to stop us now."

An alarm went off on Druhel’s panel. "My lord, a Federation starship has just dropped out of warp in our sector!"

U.S.S. Reliant

"...repeat, hold your present position," Kyle said into the comm pickup on his panel. "If you attempt to move, you will be fired upon." He looked up from his board. "They’re not responding, Captain."

"I don’t like it," Terrell said. "Mister Beach, what about those escape pods? Are they manned?"

"Yes sir," Beach said. "I read three hundred fifteen Romulan lifesigns aboard those pods."

"That could be their entire crew," Chekov realized. "What are they up to?"

"Sir, I’m getting a message from the Romulus Ascendant." Kyle reported. "They say the singularity that powers their engines is minutes away from implosion, and that they must move to a safe distance to keep their lifepods—and our ship—from being destroyed when the singularity implodes."

"Mister Beach, any evidence that they’re having engine trouble over there?" Terrell asked.

"I’m not sure, sir." Beach answered. "We don’t know enough about that singularity drive of theirs to tell."

"Does the singularity look like it’s destabilizing?"

"There’s no way to know," Beach said, frustrated. "When an artificial singularity implodes, it happens in less than a second. There’s no warning. One thing’s for sure: if their singularity does implode, it’ll take everything in the area with it, including the Reliant."

"So if they’re telling the truth and we don’t let them go, we’ll all be killed," Chekov summed it up. "But if they’re lying and we let them go, then a lot more people could die."

Terrell made a decision. "Mister Kyle, signal the Romulus Ascendant. Tell them—"

"Captain, they’re moving!" Beach called out.

Terrell looked up at the mainviewer just in time to see the Romulus Ascendant gracefully come about and disappear in a flash of light.

U.S.S. Enterprise

"Admiral, the Romulus Ascendant has gone to warp, headed in this direction," Spock announced. "It’s at Warp Eight and accelerating, and should pass within one thousand kilometers of us in two minutes."

"DiFalco, lay in a pursuit course," Kirk ordered. He hit his armrest’s comm patch. "Scotty, I’m going to need all the power you can give me."

"I thought you’d never ask, Admiral," Scott replied.

"Palmer, order Reliant to move out of the Neutral Zone and take up our position here; we’ll let the Romulans pick up those escape pods," Kirk said. "And advise the fleet to hold their positions and watch for any more Romulan incursions."

"Romulus Ascendant will pass us in one minute, forty-five seconds." Spock said.

Kirk clutched his armrests. "Mister Stiles, get ready to jump to warp speed on my command. Palmer, sound Red Alert. All hands to battlestations."

Romulus Ascendant

"Entering Federation space," Revlaek announced.

"Commander-Legate, a Constitution-class battlecruiser is pursuing us," Druhel said from his station. "We will be within their torpedo range in less than a minute unless we increase speed."

"Maintain current speed," Tacitus said evenly, "and disarm all weapons."

"What of the shields, Commander-Legate?" Druhel asked, afraid to hear the answer.

"Do not raise them unless I give the command," Tacitus ordered in a tone that left no room for discussion. "We cannot allow our actions to be misinterpreted."

Druhel clearly wasn’t happy, but he nodded. "Yes, my lord."

U.S.S. Enterprise

"The Romulus Ascendant is within torpedo range, sir," Stiles announced.

"Spock, any change in their status?" Kirk inquired.

"Negative, Admiral," Spock replied. "They are still running with shields down, and their weapons systems are not armed."

"Torpedoes are loaded and ready, sir," Stiles reported.

"Palmer, hail them," Kirk ordered.

"Admiral," Stiles started to remind him, "our orders—"

"I’m aware of our orders, Commander," Kirk said evenly.

"No response to our hails, sir," Palmer reported.

"They do know that we’re within firing range, don’t they?" McCoy asked.

"Undoubtedly, Doctor," Spock said.

"Well, if they were really planning on starting a war, wouldn’t they have put their shields up by now?"

"You’d think so, Bones," Kirk said. "But we can’t afford to take any chances. Stiles, lock torpedoes on the Romulus Ascendant. If they don’t come to a stop after we pass beyond the sensor range of the monitoring stations, open fire."

Romulus Ascendant

"They’ve locked weapons onto us, my lord," Druhel said.

"They’re testing us," Tacitus declared. "Do not raise the shields. Revlaek, how long?"

"Forty-five seconds, Commander-Legate."

U.S.S. Reliant

"Captain!" Mister Beach called from the sciences station. "Sensor drones just detected..." He blinked at his displays. "It’s gone!"

"What was it?" Terrell asked.

"For an instant, it looked like a ship entering the Neutral Zone from the Romulan side at high warp speed. There’s a lot of ion storm activity in those sectors; it could have been a false alarm."

"It could also be a Romulan ship," Chekov pointed out.

"But at high warp, they’d be pretty easy for the new drones to detect, even under cloak," Kyle argued.

"You’d think so," Terrell said, "but alert the rest of the fleet just in case."

U.S.S. Enterprise

"Passing beyond sensor range of the Neutral Zone monitoring stations, Admiral," Stiles announced. His finger hovered over the photon controls, waiting for the order to fire.

"Romulus Ascendant is slowing down," Spock reported. "They are dropping out of warp."

"Stiles, drop out of warp and bring us alongside," Kirk ordered. "Palmer, call Mister Scott to the bridge."

For the first time, they were able to get a good look at their quarry. It reminded Kirk of the first Romulan Bird-of-Prey they’d run into over a decade ago, but it was much larger, longer, and sleeker. A projection that looked vaguely like a bird’s head jutted out from the prow of the vessel, giving it a proud, almost regal appearance.

"My God, Jim, that’s a scary-looking ship," McCoy remarked.

Kirk didn’t take his eyes off the viewscreen. "Palmer, have they hailed us?"

"No, sir."

"Spock, what’s their status?"

"As before, Admiral," Spock said. "Their shields are down and their weapons systems are not active."

"How many people aboard?"

Spock consulted his displays. "I read four lifesigns on the bridge. The spatial distortion from the singularity is interfering with readings from the engineering section, but there appears to be at least one person there."

"Five people," Kirk concluded. "That sounds like the right number of senior officers for a ship that size." He stood up. "We need to go aboard. Palmer, have Security send two guards to the transporter room." The portside turbolift hissed open, and Commander Scott emerged. "Mister Scott; Spock, McCoy and I are going aboard the Romulus Ascendant. I’m leaving you in command. If we’re wrong about Commander Tacitus’ intentions, if this turns out to be some kind of a trap, you’re to forget about getting us back. Your first duty is to protect the Federation worlds in this sector."

Scott nodded. "Understood, Admiral."

Kirk joined Spock and McCoy in the turbolift.

"Good luck, sir," Scott offered.

"To us all, Mister Scott," Kirk replied as the doors closed.

Romulus Ascendant

Tacitus sat at the command pedestal, calmly looking at the graceful pearlescent shape of the Federation starship on his viewer. Romulan shipwrights had learned long ago how to balance form and function, and as a result their vessels were as much works of art as they were products of engineering. It looked like Federation shipwrights were finally learning to balance form and function as well; the Constitution’s lines weren’t as sweeping and organic as a Winged Defender or a Whitewind, but it had a grand beauty all its own.

Revlaek fidgeted at his station. "Why are they just sitting out there?"

"Relax, Centurion," D’Taj said. "If they were going to fire on us, they would have already done so."

"Then why haven’t they at least hailed us?"

"Because they’ve probably realized that it’s better for this whole affair to remain a secret," Druhel surmised. "A communications record would only have to be erased later."

"We can wait," Tacitus said. "Sooner or later—" He was interrupted by the musical whine of a transporter beam. Five blue-white columns of light appeared between the pilot’s station and the forward bulkhead, then coalesced into maroon and black-clad Starfleet officers.

As the transporter effect faded, Kirk saw the two youngest-looking Romulans jump to their feet. The bearded, bear-like man at what looked like the commander’s station held up a hand and barked something in Romulan, and they relaxed.

The two groups, Starfleet and Romulan, looked at each other warily across the bridge. Tacitus seemed to be scrutinizing each member of the landing party, and Kirk realized that he must be trying to determine which of them was in charge, since their rank insignia wasn’t prominently displayed on their field jackets.

Kirk stepped forward. "I’m Admiral James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise," he looked at the bearded man. "Commander-Legate Tacitus?"

The man rose from his chair. The Romulans Kirk had seen tended to be slightly built; Tacitus was a tall, powerful-looking man. "I am Tacitus, yes," he said in slightly-accented English. "Admiral, I present to you the Grand Fleet Vessel Romulus Ascendant, and formally request asylum for myself and my officers."

"Granted, of course," Kirk said. "Commander-Legate, allow me to introduce my officers: Captain Spock, Doctor McCoy, and Security Officers Lawson and Fisher."

"Captain Spock," Tacitus nodded. "We’ve met before. The reception on Aldebaran Three."

"I am honored that you remember," Spock told him. "Obviously your engine problems were a ruse."

"Naturally," Tacitus said. "But I should warn you—"

An alarm went off. The wolfish-looking blue-sashed officer on the starboard side of the bridge looked up from his instruments. "Commander! Whitewind-class battlecruiser decloaking portside-aft! It’s the Pierceblood!"

Tacitus whirled around to face him. "Giellun? Here?"

"He’s locking weapons onto us!"

"Raise shields!" Tacitus snapped. "Revlaek, evasive action!"

U.S.S. Enterprise

"Mister Scott, they’re firing on the Romulus Ascendant!" Stiles shouted. On the viewer, green disruptor fire erupted from the long, swept-back wings of the Whitewind cruiser as it swooped down on the Romulus Ascendant.

"Romulus Ascendant has been hit on the portside-aft quarter," DiFalco reported from the sciences station.

"The unidentified Romulan is refusing to respond to our hails," Palmer said.

"Stiles, maneuver us between the Romulus Ascendant and that other ship," Scott ordered.

"What?" Stiles said in disbelief. "Mister Scott, this whole thing is obviously some kind of a trick! If we protect the Romulus Ascendant we could be playing right into the Romulans’ hands!"

"Maybe it is a trick, lad, maybe it is," Scott conceded. "But we’ve got people over there. Carry out your orders." He tapped the intercom control. "Bridge to Hangar Bay."

"Hangar Bay, Carlisle here."

"Open the doors and launch that warp sled."

"Aye, sir."

"Stiles, drop aft shields and keep our stern pointed away from the Romulan. I’ve got an idea."

Pierceblood

"Commander, the Federation ship is moving in," the tactical officer reported. "They’re positioning themselves between us and Romulus Ascendant."

"Attack them!" Giellun commanded.

"My lord, Engineer Hvaid is complaining that our trip through the Neutral Zone caused Nullifier Cores One and Two to burn out," Sub-Commander s’Tokkr said. "The damage to the power grid is substantial; the main reactor will only run at seventy percent efficiency."

Giellun scowled. "Tell him that I won’t execute him if he gets it up to eighty-five."

"The Federation ship has launched something from its shuttlebay," the tactical officer announced. "It’s an unmanned warp-drive unit."

"Some kind of torpedo?" s’Tokkr speculated.

"Never mind what it is, fire on the Federation ship before they can get a lock on us!" Giellun ordered. "Pilot, begin your attack run!"

U.S.S. Enterprise

"Keep firing!" Scott instructed Stiles. "I want their attention focused on us. DiFalco, move that warp sled into position! Make sure you’ve got a clear shot, lass, we’re only going to get one chance at this!"

Romulus Ascendant

"Kirk, what is that?" Tacitus demanded, pointing to a blip on his tactical display. "It was launched from your ship."

Spock deciphered the display’s blocky Romulan script first. "It’s the warp sled, Admiral."

Kirk squinted at the screen. "What’s Scotty doing?"

U.S.S. Enterprise

The bridge shuddered from Romulan disruptor fire.

"Warp sled is pointed directly at the Romulan!" DiFalco announced.

"Cut in the warp drive now!" Scott ordered.

Even the most powerful shields are no protection from a warp-speed impact. The sled’s warp engines engaged, and a millisecond later it punched through the Pierceblood’s shields like they weren’t even there. As the sled crashed into the bare hull, two photon torpedoes from the Enterprise shot through the hole in the shields created by the sled’s impact. There was a brilliantly intense flash of light, and when it faded nothing was left of the Romulan ship, but an expanding cloud of plasma.

Romulus Ascendant

"Brilliant!" Tacitus exclaimed as he looked up from his tactical display. "An excellent strategy, Kirk."

Kirk smiled. "Thank you, but I can’t take the credit. I’ll be sure to pass the compliment along to my chief engineer, though."

"Admiral, may I point out that, thanks to Mister Scott’s actions, any sensor scan of this area would now detect evidence of a recently collapsed singularity, as well as trace amounts of debris that analysis would identify as Romulan," Spock said.

"Thank you, Mister Spock." Kirk flipped open his communicator. "Kirk to Enterprise."

"Enterprise, Palmer here."

"Commander, inform the fleet that we have destroyed the Romulus Ascendant. Send the same message to Starfleet Command."

"Aye, sir."

"We’ll probably be cloaking shortly for obvious reasons, but I’ll stay in touch. Pass my commendations along to Mister Scott."

"Yes, sir. Is there anything else?"

"Not at the moment. Kirk out." He closed his communicator and turned to Tacitus.

"I suppose we should cloak," Tacitus said. "Druhel?"

Druhel worked his console. "Cloaking device engaged, Commander-Legate."

The portside entry hatch hissed open.

Tacitus turned towards the hatch. "Gharen, what is the status of—" And then he realized that it wasn’t Gharen, but a helmeted sub-centurion with a disruptor pistol. As the sub-centurion brought his weapon up and fired, Tacitus dived down behind the pilot’s console. The disruptor bolt missed him and hit Ensign Lawson squarely in the chestplate, throwing him back against the forward bulkhead.

As McCoy ran to help Lawson, Kirk, Spock, and Druhel went for their weapons, but the sub-centurion turned and darted from the bridge before they could get a clear shot at him.

"D’Taj, track him!" Tacitus ordered as he grabbed hold of the pilot’s console and pulled himself up off the deck. "And Druhel, seal off all critical areas of the ship!"

"What’s going on, Commander?" Kirk snapped. "One of your men have a change of heart?"

"It wasn’t one of us," Tacitus hurriedly explained. "There was a saboteur aboard; I thought we rid ourselves of him when we evacuated the crew, but obviously I was wrong."

"That was Ed’riar," Revlaek interjected. "He’s one of the medical technicians."

"Obviously, he’s more than that," Tacitus said.

"My lord, Engineering and Life Support areas are sealed off," Druhel reported. "I’m unable to restrict the hangar bay, weapons control, or the auxiliary bridge; the saboteur appears to have put some lockouts into the system."

Kirk made his way over to where McCoy was working on the fallen Ensign Lawson. A blackened hole the size of a dinner plate had been blasted into his chest armor. "How is he, Bones?"

"He’s alive, Jim, but I need to get him back to Sickbay."

Kirk nodded. "Go ahead."

"I’ll keep you posted, Jim." McCoy reached for his communicator to call for a beam-out.

"D’Taj, report!" Tacitus requested. "Where is he?"

The executive officer worked feverishly at his console. "I can’t track him, Commander-Legate! He must be wearing a sensor mask of some kind; it would explain why we weren’t able to detect him before."

"Logically, he’s heading to one of the areas you were unable to seal off," Spock said.

"But where?" Revlaek wondered.

"Not the hangar bay," Druhel postulated. "Stealing a shuttle would do him no good."

"The auxiliary bridge, then," D’Taj declared.

Tacitus stepped up to the command pedestal and laid his palm on the computer access patch. Switching from English to Romulan, he said "Computer, confirm identity."

"Recognize Tacitus az’Har Daktalirran, Commander-Legate," the flat, male voice of the computer replied.

"Restrict command functions to this location only," Tacitus ordered.

"Entered. Input authorization code."

Tacitus tapped in his security ID.

"Code confirmed. Command functions now restricted to main bridge."

"That should make the auxiliary bridge useless to him," Tacitus said. "Now all we have to do—"

Something beeped on the internal security console. "My lord, there’s an energy buildup in the main plasma coil, and the firing system is locked!" D’Taj announced.

"He’s in Weapons Control!" Revlaek said.

"Druhel, activate Intruder Control systems in that section!" Tacitus ordered.

Druhel tapped some commands into his console, then pounded his fist on the board in frustration. "Intruder Control circuits are jammed! He must have anticipated!"

"What’s happening?" Kirk demanded.

"The plasma coil generates the energy for our torpedoes," Tacitus explained. "If the energy buildup continues, the coil will overload and destroy the ship."

"Commander-Legate, I’ve managed to seal all the exits from Weapons Control," Druhel reported. "And now someone is trying to override. We’ve got him."

"Coil will overload in six minutes, my lord," D’Taj said.

"None of you can be spared here," Tacitus declared as he headed for the exit hatch. "Remain at your stations. I’ll handle this myself."

Kirk followed him. "We’re coming with you."

Tacitus hesitated, then relented. "Very well. Follow me."

Kirk gestured to Spock and Fisher, and the three of them followed Tacitus off the bridge.

"How long have you known about the saboteur?" Spock asked Tacitus as they hurried down a cramped corridor lined with pulsing yellow lights.

"Just before we entered the Neutral Zone, there was a serious malfunction. I suspected something then, but I wasn’t sure until my engineer found proof of it."

They came to a turbolift and rode it down a few levels, then jogged down a few more corridors until they stopped at a locked door. Tacitus pulled a small disruptor from behind his officers’ sash, and the Starfleet men drew their phasers.

Tacitus tapped the commpanel on the wall. "Bridge, we’ve reached Weapons Control. We’re outside Hatch Three."

"Unsealing now," D’Taj said.

They held their weapons at the ready as the door unlatched and slid open. The room beyond was dark, lit only intermittently by the flashing of the alert lights. Tacitus stepped inside and noticed the control panel near the exit had been blasted. "He’s destroyed the lighting control. One of you should wait at the exit, in case he tries to escape."

Kirk gestured to the security officer. "Mister Fisher, you stay here."

Fisher remained behind as Kirk and Spock followed Tacitus deeper into the weapons control room. It was filled with tall banks of computers and other machinery. Finally, the big Romulan stopped at a control panel. "Here it is," he said. After he tapped a few commands into the console, he explained, "I should be able to override the lockouts and stop the overload if you two gentlemen will watch for the sub-centurion."

"Of course," Kirk agreed.

Spock was making adjustments to his tricorder.

"Spock, what are you doing?"

"Attempting to locate the saboteur," the Vulcan explained. "A sensor mask small enough to be carried on his person would not be able to completely disguise his body heat." He worked for a few more seconds, then shook his head. "Unfortunately, the ambient heat in this room is too high."

Just then, there was a loud crash, and the alternating sounds of phaser and disruptor fire. Then someone cried out.

"Fisher!" Kirk called. "Fisher, are you all right?"

There was no answer.

"Spock, stay here."

Spock stopped him. "Admiral, are you sure it’s wise?"

"No," Kirk said. "But I’m going anyway. Stay here and cover Commander Tacitus."

He hurried back to the door where they first came in and found Ensign Fisher slumped against it, conscious but in obvious pain. There were disruptor burns on his chestplate and right leg.

"Sir!" Fisher said weakly. "He surprised me, but I kept him from leaving. He’s still in here."

Kirk crouched down beside him. "Did you hit him?"

"Not sure," Fisher gasped. "Didn’t really get a good look at him, and—"

"Don’t move." A cold, Romulan-accented voice interrupted. Kirk felt the warm metal tip of a disruptor muzzle on the back of his neck. "Both of you drop your weapons. You," he jabbed his pistol into Kirk’s neck, "stand up slowly."

"You’re still outnumbered." Kirk said as he slowly got to his feet. "And while you’re dealing with us, Commander Tacitus is undoing your sabotage. If you surrender now, he may let you live."

"Turn around."

"You shouldn’t stand there," Kirk remarked as he turned to face Ed’riar, trying to keep himself between Ensign Fisher and the Romulan. "It’s far too easy for someone to sneak up behind you."

"You don’t scare me, Earther," Ed’riar sneered. "I know the only other one here is your Vulcan friend, and he’s far too logically-minded to leave Tacitus vulnerable just to save you."

Just then, a hand reached out of the shadows and grasped Ed’riar’s shoulder in a Vulcan nerve pinch, and he crumpled to the floor.

"Spock!" Kirk broke into a smile.

Tacitus joined them. "The overload has been stopped."

"Ensign Fisher’s been wounded," Kirk said to Spock. "Call the ship and have him beamed back."

Tacitus stood over the unconscious Ed’riar. "Will he be killed?"

"Of course not," Kirk said. "When we get back into port, he’ll be turned over to Starfleet Security."

"Will he ever be released?"

"It’s hard to say," Kirk said. "He knows too much about what happened here, true, but it’s against Federation law to hold anyone indefinitely without charges."

"Are you saying that your Federation law protects even enemy spies?" Tacitus said.

"My people learned a long time ago that individual rights under the law are meaningless unless they’re applied to everyone equally," Kirk explained. "Once you justify taking the rights of one group of people away, it’s far too easy to justify taking them away from more and more groups of people. Soon, no one has any rights at all."

Tacitus frowned. "My former government says that kind of talk is just Federation propaganda. Even though my officers and I gave up everything to come here, you’ll find us to be skeptical, at least initially."

"I understand. But I look forward to seeing you discover how much of that so-called propaganda is really the truth."

Starfleet Supply Depot
Beta Canaris System

Tacitus and D’Taj looked up through the aft viewports in the Enterprise’s officer’s lounge, watching as an automated tug towed the powered-down Romulus Ascendant into one of the many drydocks carved into the asteroid that served as the central hub of the facility. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy sat on the large aft-facing couch behind them.

Except for the four men, the lounge was empty. There was only a skeleton crew aboard; after Kirk made his report to Starfleet Command they’d ordered him to offload most of the crew to the Hood to maintain the secrecy of the next phase of the mission.

"It’s sad, in a way," Tacitus said wistfully. "He was a good ship. True, he didn’t deserve to be used as a first-strike weapon in a pointless war, but to be stripped and gutted after only one mission..."

"You’re too hard on yourself, my lord," D’Taj said gently. "A ship is built to serve his crew, not vice versa."

"Still, I oversaw his construction," Tacitus said, "And he safely brought us across the Neutral Zone despite all efforts to stop us. We had a bond."

"What are you and your officers going to do now?" McCoy asked.

"I’m not sure," Tacitus replied. "It’s a new experience to have so many options."

"No doubt there are many Federation agencies, universities, and groups in the private sector that would welcome men of your talents." Spock offered.

Tacitus turned back to the viewports and looked out at the stars. "My wife and I used to live in a seaside cottage on Remus. It would be nice to have something like that again."

"Earth’s got some of the most beautiful coastline in the Federation," McCoy said. "We’d love to show you around."

"Would your government really permit an enemy alien to take up residence on Earth itself?" D’Taj inquired.

"There are no ‘enemy aliens’," Spock assured him. "Only unfriendly governments. You can be assured that the people of Earth understand the difference."

"We would attract too much attention on Earth, I fear," Tacitus said. "No, we’ve already decided on the best course of action: to undergo surgical alteration to remove our overtly Romulan features and settle on Federation worlds away from the centers of power, using the new identities your Intelligence Bureau is devising for us."

"It’s a real shame," McCoy complained. "Having to give up your names and your identities like that."

"Do not be distressed, Doctor." D’Taj smiled. "If we’d continued to serve the Praetor, we would have had to give up our souls."

"Well, we’ll be returning to Earth in the short term," Kirk said. "The Federation Intelligence Bureau will have a team waiting there to help you make the transition to life in our society. And Spock and I will be available as well, if you need us." He reached over and tapped the comlink built into the couch armrest. "Bridge?"

"Bridge, Stiles here."

"It’s time to go home, Mister Stiles. Set a course for Earth, Warp Factor Four."

"Aye, sir."

"It puzzles me, Kirk, that despite your obvious gift for starship command your superiors insist on keeping you behind a desk," Tacitus said.

"The bureaucratic mentality," McCoy remarked. "The embodiment of ‘power without constructive purpose’, to borrow a phrase from Mister Spock."

Spock didn’t quite roll his eyes. "I was not referring to the admiralty when I said that, Doctor."

"Your repeated escapes from various types of captivity are well known in Romulan Fleet circles, Admiral," Tacitus said. "I trust you’ll find a way to escape your current prison, as well. I only hope you see the need to try."

Outside the viewports, the supply yard receded, then dissolved into a rainbow-hued ribbon of light as the Enterprise went to warp speed.

Epilogue
Presidential Complex
Paris, Earth

"The president has asked me to convey his deepest condolences for the loss of your five officers," Doctor Cronin said to Ambassador Nanclus.

"They were traitors, Doctor Cronin. Their families may mourn, but I doubt the Praetorate will mourn with them." Nanclus put down his teacup. "My government wishes to send a ship to the site of the Romulus Ascendant’s destruction to take sensor readings. We do not doubt your account of events, of course, but the Senate insists on getting independent verification."

"I don’t think Starfleet would mind escorting an unarmed science vessel to the appropriate coordinates," Cronin allowed. "I’ll contact Starfleet Command and make the necessary arrangements."

"I’ll relay your gracious offer to my government." Nanclus stood to leave.

"One more thing, Ambassador." Cronin stopped him. "This whole sad affair could very likely have been prevented if your government had just been honest with us from the beginning. Please be sure to relay that to them as well."

Gath’thong City
Romulus

Admiral Ndaen Hweirsul sat in his study after lastmeal, scrolling through the messages on his computer. After two months, the Tal’Shiar had finally lost interest in him. There had been those in the shadowy agency that refused to believe that Tacitus az’Har Daktalirraan was dead. They monitored all messages sent to Ndaen’s office and home computers, they questioned him incessantly, they even had an agent posing as one of his house servants for a few weeks.

Finally, the Praetorate decided to allow the Federation to escort a science vessel to the site of Romulus Ascendant’s destruction. The evidence was convincing; the Commanding Tribunal had reviewed it and declared that Romulus Ascendant had indeed been destroyed. The only piece of unfinished business was the disappearance of the Pierceblood. Rumors were that the traitor Tacitus had something to do with that as well, but as far as Ndaen knew no evidence of that had been found. The Pierceblood had simply disappeared. An investigation was ongoing, but Ndaen wanted no part of it. He was content to put the whole incident behind him.

One of the messages on the screen caught his eye. It was addressed to him, but the "Sender" field was blank. Intrigued, Ndaen opened it.

It said: "I am alive."


Afterword from the Author

It all started a little over a year ago, when it struck me that if one were to change Jack Ryan to Kirk and Spock and the Russians to Romulans, The Hunt for Red October would make an excellent Star Trek story. I read the book, of course, but the movie was really my main source of inspiration, and the performances of Sean Connery and Sam Neill were major influences in my depiction of Tacitus and d’Taj.

I would also like to acknowledge the following sources from which I derived inspiration: Interplay’s Starfleet Academy PC game, whose Garuda-class Romulan heavy cruiser is the ship I imagine the Romulus Ascendant to be. And FASA, for their Romulan Winged Defender- and Whitewind-class designs that, for me, define what movie-era Romulan vessels should look like.

David Landon


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