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Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 1,661
Copyright 2013, by Philip Clayberg


The Tal Shiar are not my friends. Know this about me first.

When your mother and father are cut down in cold blood right in front of you by so-called ?freedom fighters? who served the causes of Empress Sela, it is difficult to forget. Do not ask me to forgive them, because I will not. Not now. Not ever.

Orphaned and poor, I grew to adulthood on Virinat, a world colonized by the Romulans who survived the Hobus supernova and its destruction of our race's home-world: Romulus. The government's orphanage could help those like myself only so much. I cured my ignorance by learning all I could from the limited educational resources (Always preferring machines instead of people. At least a machine could only do what it was programmed to do. It couldn't betray me. It couldn't tear my heart out, and either stomp on it or vaporize it with a phaser). And what the orphanage was able to feed our stomachs with was often little better than starvation.

I found myself spending more and more time on the colony's streets, trying to avoid the gazes of my fellow Romulans. Being taller than almost all of them, it was difficult not to stand out. Ducking my head and shoulders only helped a little.

Sometimes, overwhelmed by hunger and desperation, I would snatch food from carts, stuffing it inside my jacket, and run. It was rare that I was pursued, even rarer that I was caught. Once I'd found a hiding place, I'd taken the food out and eaten it, trying not to stuff myself to the point of choking.

After each such meal, back on the street, loneliness would re-emerge, a silent shadow from the exterior walls of the shops and buildings around me. I could never escape it, and sometimes I didn't want to. But other times, I longed for the sight and sound of another Romulan. Someone who wouldn't make more demands of me than I was willing give. But how to express this, when my willingness to speak out loud was almost nonexistent.

Eventually, however, I knew I had to find work to do. Work that had a purpose. Not mindless servitude. Occupational openings were listed on terminals scattered about the colony. Most were well beyond my abilities. All that was left for me to do was farm-work.

No sense complaining. I walked across the colony until I reached the irrigated fields. A supervisor was checking the screen of her tablet with the names of those who had volunteered to help out. I joined the line, and when it was my turn, she looked up at me, then at her tablet, and frowned. Her eyebrows were narrower and less slanted than mine were. Otherwise, we looked vaguely similar.

"I am Supervisor S'hon," she said, checking her tablet. "You don't seem to be on here. Name?"

"T'kav," I said.

She added it to her list. "Surname?"

I didn't know that, so I shrugged. "T'kav."

S'hon sighed, but made a note of it. "Age?"

"Twenty," I lied. I didn't know my real age either.

"You don't look that old," she said, recording it. "Parents?"

"Dead," I replied.

"Does the orphanage know you're here?" S'hon asked.

I said nothing.

She looked carefully at me. "I could get in trouble, you know, T'kav. If I put you to work and they find out, I could lose my job."

"Then don't tell them," I suggested.

"You think you're worth that kind of risk?" S'hon asked.

"I need a job," I said.

"You also need to bathe," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Clean clothes. Food. A place to stay." She glanced at me jacket and pants. I thought she was going to frisk me, but she didn't. "Are you armed?"

I shook my head. "Orphans aren't usually assigned weapons."

"Would that have prevented you from stealing one?" S'hon asked.

"Please," I said, hating to beg. Romulans don't beg. Not if they can help it. "Let me work for my room and board. You won't regret it."

She sighed again. "I'd better not." And turned to look across the nearest field. Fountains of water sprayed upwards from irrigation pipes, partly hiding a worker from view. A male, or so it seemed to me. She tapped something on her tablet. The male looked up, glanced at her, nodded, and stood.

He walked over to us. Taller than her, but not quite as tall as I was. Dressed in comfortable, if worn, work-clothes and boots. "Problem, supervisor?" Then he saw me. We were almost the same height. A relief for me. "Another new one? Only twelve today?"

S'hon nodded. "Hopefully tomorrow more will turn up."

"We need all the help we can get," he said.

"I know," she said. "We're falling so far behind."

"Those quotas are pointless," he said. "How could any Romulan ever hope to achieve them?"

S'hon didn't argue. "For the time being, this one needs to clean up, newer clothes, food. Then bring her back here. You'll need to do extra work to make up for the lost time."

"Understood," he said. No complaint. Just acceptance.

She introduced us. "T'kav, this is Hu'ajat. He works under me as overseer of these fields. You'll work under him, along with the other fourteen."

"I hope you don't plan on trying to escape," he told me.

I shook my head.

"Good," Hu'ajat said. "Only three stayed out of yesterday's batch of new ones. Six were killed by khellid drones. The rest fled."

"Is there a hive somewhere nearby?" I asked.

He nodded, interest in his expression. As if he hadn't expected that sort of question. How mindless and ignorant did he expect farm volunteers to be? If so, he was in for a surprise with me. Which he already seemed to sense.

"Anything else, supervisor?" Hu'ajat asked S'hon.

She shook her head. "Dismissed."

We left the field, heading back towards the center of the colony.

The main square had a large, wide, roofed stage on one side, with tables between it and the vendor stalls that filled most of each edge of the square, lights on wires that were strung from the roof of the stage to each building. We stopped to take a look around. Hu'ajat suggested it. We watched as colonists were headed this way and that, sometimes stopping to talk, but usually focused on their tasks. It all seemed so completely normal.

And then I remembered: Of course. The celebration tonight. The first anniversary of the colonization of Virinat. It hadn't seemed terribly important to me. I had planned to stay away from it, if possible.

"Don't worry," Hu'ajat said. "You won't be required to attend. Unless you want to."

"No thanks," I said. "Not the type."

"I didn't think so," he said. "A female like you probably would rather spend time in libraries."

I glanced at him. "How did you know?"

"Not hard to guess," Hu'ajat said. "I had a sister like you. She loved the ancient books. The scanners didn't interest her. She preferred to hold what she read."

"Had a sister?" I prompted.

"She's dead," he said softly.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know. I didn't mean to intrude."

"Don't apologize," Hu'ajat said. "She lived her life the way she wished to."

"Raiders," I said.

He nodded. "Tal Shiar. She wasn't the only one who died that day. Hundreds were killed."

"When was that?" I asked.

Hu'ajat told me. I knew the date all too well.

"My parents were killed that day too," I said. "I saw it. I was forced to. By the Tal Shiar. They wanted me to know what would happen to anyone that opposed them and Empress Sela. I could tell that they included me. When my parents died, the Tal Shiar just walked away. As if that was all that was needed to keep me silent and apathetic."

"Didn't work, though, did it?" he asked.

I shook my head. "I have no intention of avenging killing with more killing. But I won't forget what happened to my parents. Ever."

"Same with my sister," Hu'ajat said. "Supervisor said that you needed somewhere to bathe, change into better clothes, eat something. I have a small room a few streets away. You could borrow what used to be my sister's clothes. You're about the same size, if a bit taller."

"If that wouldn't bother you?" I said.

He shook his head. "I have all the mementos of her that I want."

"Thank you," I said. As I spoke, I saw several male heads turn towards us. I hadn't spoken that loudly, but they must've had sharp hearing. "Those aren't colonists."

Hu'ajat glanced in the same direction, then looked away, nodded. He almost whispered. "Tal Shiar."

I tried not to stare at him, tried to act nonchalant. "How can you be so sure?"

"Would you forget what one of them looks like?" he replied.

"No," I said. "I just didn't expect them to be so open."

"They aren't that open," Hu'ajat said. "Plastic surgery. Subtle genetic manipulation. Enough to resemble one of us."

"Except that we recognized them," I said.

"We have reason to," he said. "There were only two surviving relatives of that massacre. Us." He laughed as if I'd told a good joke. "Come on. The sooner we get to my room, the better. I don't want to get arrested by them again."

"Again?" I asked, as we walked across the square, careful to keep as far from the Tal Shiar as possible, without being overly obvious about it.

Hu'ajat nodded. "The one who arrested me looked right at us. We know who they are, and they know who I am."

"Do they know who I am?" I asked.

"Let's hope not," he replied as we ducked down a side street, out of sight of the Tal Shiar and everyone else in the square.

No alarm sounded. No shouts of pursuit. No phasers fired in our direction.

Either they knew where we were going, or we weren't that important. At least, not just then. Maybe they'd already forgotten who I was, since I'd tried to keep a low profile. Maybe they just didn't care.

Another few hundred feet and we entered the building that Hu'ajat lived in. It looked just like the others on the street. A mixture of traditional Romulan architecture and more-bland-and-purposeful-than-attractive. His room was up on the fourth floor, facing an alley.

"Not much, but at least it was available," Hu'ajat said, letting me enter ahead of him.

I wasn't used to such courtesy.

Romulans tend to treat one another equally, whether one is male or female, whether they like you or not. Like the bullies at the orphanage. Who, when I looked back with hindsight, I think were reacting to the conditions there. Their victims weren't chosen out of any desire to be vicious. They wanted to feel, even if only in their imaginations, that they had some sort of control over their environment. I preferred to react to life in the orphanage in a more positive way, without condoning the bullies' behavior the least little bit.

The room was larger than I expected, without any wall decorations of any kind, and several light-tubes overhead. At least five meters by ten meters, not counting the cooking and washing areas.

One corner was dominated by a small bed. At its foot was a small shelf with a dozen or two books on it. They looked old enough to be in the colony's library. Hu'ajat switched on the light-tube over the bed. He pulled a wide, flat, open box out from under it. The box that was filled with clothes. Not a male's. A female's.

His sister's, I realized at once.

Hu'ajat sorted through them, glancing at me from time to time. He laid out a few shirts, two pairs of long pants, some underclothes. They were a bit wrinkled, but far better than anything I had worn in a very long time. I felt overwhelmed by his kindness, whether it was impelled by his supervisor's order or not.

"I'll program a small meal for us," he said, heading for the cooking area. Nothing more than just a portable stove, some pots, pans, plates, cups, and utensils. They looked like they'd seen better days a long time ago. "Can you wash in about a minute or two?"

I nodded.

"Good," Hu'ajat said. "There isn't much water supply here. And it'll be cold. Sorry. Hot water is a luxury I haven't had since before the massacre."

I honestly didn't know what to say. How to express my appreciation. ?Thank you? seemed hopelessly inadequate. I just nodded, went over to the washing area, undressed and cleaned myself. The dryer wasn't powerful, but it dried me quickly enough. My shoulder-length hair was as uncooperative as usual. I ignored, also as usual. By the time I was dressed in my ?new? clothes, he announced that our meal was ready.

Sitting down across from him, I still felt as if I should say something, anything, but didn't know what. So I kept quiet as we ate.

Hu'ajat seemed to recognize what was going on inside me. "It's been a long time since I've been able to be nice to someone, without feeling that I was going to be immediately taken advantage of in return. Thank you for the chance. And thank you for reacting differently."

I nodded.

"I never knew what it was like inside the colony's orphanage," he went on. "My sister used to work there. Some days she'd come home trying not to cry. What she saw and heard there just broke her heart. But whenever she tried to complain, they would threaten to dismiss her and make sure she couldn't work anywhere else. Like you, she had to keep quiet. Even when she didn't want to be quiet."

"Have you ever been inside it?" I asked.

Hu'ajat shook his head. "I thought about it before the massacre. But not since then." He gave me an angry look, and I wondered for a moment what I'd done wrong or failed to do. Then realized it wasn't me he was angry at. "I'd shut it down, though, if I could. Maybe a miracle will happen one day, and the Tal Shiar will destroy it." Then the anger went away, and he laughed a bit. "But knowing them, they wouldn't attack it."

"And you'd want to get all the children out of it first, anyway," I added.

"True," he said. "Even if some of them aren't as nice as you are."

I almost said that I wasn't as nice as he apparently thought I was (I knew I wasn't the worst of the bunch, but I certainly wasn't the best either). I didn't. The illusion perpetuated itself. Maybe it was better that way. I'm still not sure.

We finished eating and he put everything in the cleaning oven. It turned on automatically as soon as he shut its door.

"Better get back to the fields," Hu'ajat said. "You don't have to work as late as I do, if you don't want to."

"I'm not sure how long I'm supposed to work," I said. "It's my first day, after all."

"Stay as long as I do," he said. "Then come back here with me."

Startled, I backed up a bit, onto my haunches.

"Nothing permanent, nothing intimate," Hu'ajat went on. "I'll put up a curtain to separate your sleeping area from mine. To give you the kind of privacy you probably never had at the orphanage."

"Why?" I asked, a bit sharper than I'd meant to. "Because I remind you of your sister?"

He looked at me. "Maybe. Or maybe call it regret for all that you've suffered."

"You've suffered too," I said. "My parents died in the massacre, so did yours and your sister."

Hu'ajat shook his head. "We never knew our parents."

"Adopted?" I asked.

"Cloned," he replied. "But that's strictly between you and me. No one else knows that except us. Got me?"

I nodded, getting to my feet. "And my staying here?"

"You don't have to," Hu'ajat said. "I just thought you deserved something better than homeless on the streets." He saw the look of surprise on my face, nodded. "I've seen you. Not today, but other days. Like a tree trying to pretend it's a little bush. And about as unsuccessfully. When a vendor would complain about your food-thefts, I suggested that they allow them. You were too hungry, too thin, to starve even more than you already were."

"And they agreed?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied. "Enough talk. I don't want to get off work after midnight again. It's more dangerous then."

"Again?" I said. "This has happened before?"

Hu'ajat nodded, a finger to his lips. He dropped his voice, and I wondered if his apartment was under surveillance. Suddenly, I didn't envy him his four walls, floor, and roof. "We'll miss some of the celebration tonight. Can't avoid that. But the fireworks don't go off until midnight. I'd like to see them."

"So would I," I said.

"And I'll tell you why it's dangerous here late at night," he said.

"Promise?" I said.

"Promise," Hu'ajat said. "But for now, we work."

I nodded. "Understood."

Returning to the fields, we took a longer way. He didn't want to risk getting seen by the Tal Shiar again. S'hon wasn't pleased by our tardiness, but she seemed glad we'd come back. I suppose she thought we'd become two more jumpers, unwilling to do the hard work. She obviously didn't know me very well, or Hu'ajat for that matter.

It wasn't hard, learning what he taught me to do in the fields. At first, he gave me a phaser to kill the khellid drones with. I found that I was good at that. Quite good, actually. They mostly left us alone after that. But he said not to trust it. They'd return. Usually in greater numbers and more aggressive.

The hive, Hu'ajat explained, was just outside the colony. In a deep, large cavern. That our fellow Romulans mostly avoided, even when they were armed. But someone, someday, had to go in there, and keep the khellid drones and their queen from growing until they swarmed over not just our colony, but all of Virinat.

An hour before our shift was up, I made a suggestion. You should've seen Hu'ajat's eyes grow wide.

"You're crazy, T'kav," he said. "Everyone who's gone in there has never come back. Either the drones kill them or their queen does."

"Unless there's a different way," I said.

"There's no other entrance," Hu'ajat said.

"I didn't mean that," I said, remembering what I'd learned about the khellid drones. That they weren't invulnerable. They had their weaknesses. Or at least one weakness. But no one had learned what it was. "A different way of approaching their hive."

"And you've thought of one?" he asked.

"Maybe," I replied.

A weakness implied that the frontal attack might fail, but a peripheral attack might work. The cave had one entrance. Did the hive have only one access point as well? Hu'ajat was certain of it, but I wasn't. The khellid drones might come and go through the front way, but if they were smart enough, they'd make a back way. That they could retreat through if an attacker or attackers proved too powerful.

Obsolete programming sometimes included what used to be called "back doors". These weren't there for the sake of the user. They were there for the sake of the programmer. Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not.

Hives were like the computer system that the colony's terminals were all connected to. Only natural, rather than artificially constructed out of silicon or gallium arsenide. Distract the front, and perhaps the back would be unprotected. But no way to test it without doing the real thing.

"After work, then," Hu'ajat finally said, since I wasn't willing to elaborate aloud. "Together. Armed with phasers. Might not be enough, but it's all we've got. They won't allow us access to anything more powerful. They trust us almost as little as the --" He paused, aware of what he'd almost said.

I put a finger to my lips, nodded. "Don't. Say it. Aloud."

In the darkness, we both saw the pale light-beams, possibly coming from the flashlights of other workers. Or guards. Or someone else. And just as hard to tell from here what they were doing. Somehow I didn't think it was S'hon. Maybe it was her superiors? Maybe I was just overreacting?

If only.

Two pale eyes, larger than a Romulan's, looked right at us. I recognized them now. They belonged to a khellid drone. A bigger one than usual. Almost the size of their queen. Strange.

Even stranger, what was it doing out of its hive? Why hadn't it just sent one of the scores of smaller drones? And why was it interested in us?

The eyes suddenly jumped upwards and towards us. Not enough to reach us in one go, but close enough. Only about a fifty feet separated us from it. It seemed ready to jump again, if it could only be sure of where it would land. Its night-vision might probably wasn't much better than ours.

Which was when I realized it wasn't a large drone. It couldn't be. Drones never grew that big.

It was the khellid queen herself.

"I think our shift just ended," I whispered.

Hu'ajat nodded. "How fast can you run, T'kav?"

"Pretty fast," I whispered, hoping that that was true.

"When I say 'run', then, you run that fast," he whispered. "Okay? Don't wait for me. Run."

I nodded.

At the same moment, the queen jumped at us.

"Run!" Hu'ajat yelled.

(written 6-4-2013)

Last edited by philipclayberg; 06-04-2013 at 08:40 PM.