Cool air blasts into my helmet as the respirator steps up a notch. The suit's readouts are all in the green - which you would expect, since the crystalline nanofiber EV suit is rated for combat on Nukara Prime, and I'm on what used to be a class M world.
"Down here," the civilian disaster relief worker says over my headset. He's an Andorian, a chan named Koneph Phoral, and I can't shake an odd feeling I've met him before, although I can't think where. Now, bulky and ungainly in his hazard suit, he leads the way down a narrow flight of concrete stairs, into the survival bunker on Bercera IV.
The power is gone. The only light in the narrow stairway comes from our helmet lamps. And, although the readings inside my suit are all green, on the outside, it's a different matter. We are thirty kilometres from the centre of Bercera IV's planetary capital - and that's as close as we can get, even in these EV suits. The tricobalt penetrator warhead actually cracked the crust of the planet at its impact point. A hundred years from now, the crater will be a truly impressive shield volcano; right now, it's a raw wound spewing white-hot magma. Heat, toxic gas, and radioactive fallout all combine to make this place uninhabitable. But people should have been safe, in the survival shelters....
"Here," Phoral says. He uses a hydraulic wheel in the wall to open a heavy blast door. I lean forward, let my lamp shine into the room beyond. Lying on the floor are several short, stubby, humanoid forms. Tellarites, and lying very still.
"Some of them made it to the shelters?"
"Yes." Phoral's face is long and humourous, marked at mouth and eyes by laughter lines, but there is no laughter about him now. "They had about two or three minutes' warning, but for the few who were close enough, and fast enough, they should have been safe. But there was something else in the mix."
I kneel down beside one of the bodies. "What was it? Radiation?"
"The tricobalt is fierce enough, but no. This was something else, something I've never seen before. An isotopic gadolinium clathrate. Looks like it was designed to get through micro-fractures in the concrete walls. And the stuff's -" Phoral swallows. "It's strongly hygroscopic, but in contact with a wet surface, it undergoes a rapid chemical change. The gadolinium precipitates out."
I frown. "Gadolinium... is it rapidly toxic?"
"Not especially, in that form. But the precipitate is crystallized, thousands and thousands of microscopic, needle-sharp crystals. You can imagine what it does to the lining of the lungs." He gestures with one gloved hand. "Well, you don't need to imagine. You can see."
I gaze down at the contorted features of one of the victims, at the bloody foam already dried on the nostrils and mouth. "This stuff - how much of it was there?"
"Several hundred tonnes. We figure it was deployed in containers that followed the warheads down, and were ruptured in the initial blast wave... then, it just fell. Sank through the atmosphere, into the ground... and through the walls."
"You have detailed forensic scans?"
"Oh, yes. All fully documented. I just... I just felt you needed to see."
"Yes," I say, softly. "Yes, I think I understand."
We know something of what has happened, by now. While King Estmere was travelling to the Bercera system, the data was already coming in; communications records from satellite buoys, visuals from the few ships that made it off the planet in time. We have a name, a ship's name, some idea of the perpetrator of this monstrous crime. But to - to understand it - you have to see, for yourself. I reach out with one gloved hand and close the Tellarite's eyes. Then I turn to Phoral. "This was planned," I say. "Premeditated. There's no doubt about that."
"Yes," he says. "That carrier came into orbit already loaded with planet-wrecking weaponry. No question about that. They even anticipated the countermeasures, and took advantage of those. Roughly a third of the tricobalt warheads were intercepted on the way down by Bercera's anti-meteor defences. So, now, there are thick clouds of pulverized tricobalt in the upper atmosphere."
"What can we do about that?"
"Very little, even with the resources of your ship. A wide-area tuned disruption field could disintegrate the tricobalt, it's what we'd often do with a fissile material leak - but there is so much of it, so spread out, and so damn energy-dense, that disintegrating it would release enough energy into the atmosphere to trigger another firestorm. The initial bombardment took the oxygen content down from twenty-one to seventeen per cent." The warheads, though devastating in themselves, couldn't do that much damage to a planetary ecosystem... but they were spaced, carefully positioned, so that the shock waves from the blasts united to generate a firestorm, an eruption of burning air that covered most of a continent before it burned itself out. "If we let the stuff settle, though, it will sink deep, and probably permeate down into the deep oceans... and the pelagic depths are the only place that hasn't yet suffered massive devastation. Either way, we're talking another killer blow to the planetary ecology." His eyes are bleak, and I can see his antennae drooping. "We're doing everything we can... but it's not going to be enough. In a couple of centuries, once the worst of the radioisotopes are gone, this planet should be fit for terraforming back to class M status. But for now...."
The oxygen content has been reduced... and it will not be restored, not with half the planet's vegetation already in ashes, and the rest dying as the sun is cut off by choking clouds of volcanic dust. With the oxygen content gone, animal life will perish, everywhere. Some single-celled anaerobic life might survive, in the ocean depths, or beneath the planetary ice caps. But the restoration of Bercera IV will take generations of work, work that can't even begin until I'm dead and gone.
"How much tricobalt did they use?" I ask.
"Hard to say, exactly. Kilotons. I don't mean in explosive yield, I mean actual mass of material. Thousands of tonnes. How many thousands, we don't know yet."
I shake my head. "It's all of a piece," I say. "A single ship, even a big one like that Kar'fi carrier, couldn't manufacture tricobalt in that sort of - industrial - quantity. You need specialist replicators and transmuters even for small amounts of it. I used to use tricobalt torpedoes, aboard the old Sita. It's frightful stuff."
"Isn't it, though?" Phoral says, dryly. "Let's get back to the shuttle." With so much radioactive dust in the tormented atmosphere, we can't use the transporters safely. I let him lead the way, back up the stairs. I turn the handle of the door, though, to seal the Tellarites into their tomb.
"By the way," I say, as we trudge along the ruined, blackened streets, back to the shuttle, "I keep thinking you look familiar - have we met before?"
"Sort of." He turns and shoots a glance at me, and I can see his expression lighten, briefly, behind his faceplate. "We were both a bit out of it, at the time. You'd just donated a lot of blood, and I was coming out of long-term cryostasis."
I stop dead in my tracks. "You're one of Corodrev's augments?"
"Well," he says, "don't hold it against me. I took the same deal as everyone else - immunity, in return for full details of every operation the damn Nausicaans sent us on - and then I decided to do something constructive with my life. Disaster relief seemed... constructive."
"I see your point. Colonizing Gimel Vessaris didn't appeal, then?"
"It did, to most of us.... Blame Big Daddy Corodrev, though. My genetic augmentation runs to an enhanced immune system - I can take most biological agents, and a lot of chemical toxins, in my stride. But it doesn't quite work properly, and I get some fierce allergies as a result. Some of the organic chemical compounds in Gimel Vessaris vegetation fall into my sensitivity range. I could live there, but I'd never be comfortable."
"I'm sorry," I say.
He shrugs, the gesture almost invisible in the hazard suit. "It's like you said to Oz, the genetic augmentation thing never really pans out properly."
"Oz? Osrin Corodrev?"
"My thaan-partner. He's about somewhere; he decided to work with me."
"Oh," I say. Osrin Corodrev, scion of his xenophobic father's genetic experiments, raised as a living weapon and used over many decades by the Nausicaans... I'd never expected him to form part of a normal Andorian quad-marriage. "Well. Tell him his great-grand-niece sends her regards, then. And your wives?"
"We've not found a shen and a zhen who'll put up with us, yet." He smiles. "We've just got an understanding - that the two of us come as a job lot." Binary-gender species never seem to understand that the two "males" in a quad-marriage are every bit as married to each other as they are to the "females". But, thinking about it... I'm rather happy, all told, that these two damaged people have found some love in their lives.
We reach the shuttle, and begin the laborious process of decontamination; the damn suits have plenty of nooks and crannies to carry toxic dust. By the time we're through, the red disk of the sun is descending, half visible through the clouds, dimmer still than the fires on the horizon where the volcano rages.
Aboard the shuttle, I pop my helmet and stretch out my cramped antennae. I have a brief moment of relaxation, and then the comms console chirps. "Shohl here."
Anthi's face forms on the screen. "Some news from the Federation Council, sir," she says. "They've framed their diplomatic protest... and they've found a pretty big gun to deliver it."
Above me, in orbit, the Garaka is being readied for departure. Meanwhile, I am preparing for my mission. To the unobservant, it would appear that I am sitting in a First City bar, sipping a hot raktajino. The unobservant do not understand how preparations are made.
The Klingon who approaches me is tall and heavily built, wearing a handsome military-style tunic and carrying fine weapons, with no sign of wear. "Lieutenant General Shalo?" he says. "I am Lukar of the House of D'garl."
"Greetings to you."
"I understand that you have the ear of the Chancellor. My House is engaged in the manufacture of various sensor and recording devices, of the highest quality, suitable for use on the field of battle. We lack only the influence required to see our products taken up by the KDF. Honour and glory would accrue to us, were this to happen."
"A word in the Chancellor's ear might sway the balance between us and our unworthy competitors. Whoever spoke that word would gain honour and glory in proportion to ours. More material rewards are nothing, of course, but they would follow, nonetheless."
A time waster. "I regret that you misunderstand," I tell him. "I do not have the Chancellor's ear. He has mine, to hear and obey his commands. I am to carry out an investigation on his orders. If the quality of your House's wares becomes relevant to that investigation... it will be mentioned. But I tell you, in all frankness, I do not see how that could reasonably be arranged."
He turns and departs with a snarl. I think I have just earned the enmity of a House of minor electronics manufacturers. Somehow, I cannot find it in me to quail at the prospect.
"May I join you?" The Lethean in nondescript leathers does not wait for my answer, but seats himself at the table beside me. "Depressing, is it not, how some Klingons scrabble for advantage...."
"I am not downcast," I say. This one seems a more likely prospect. "How may I assist you?"
"Perhaps, by disclosing the secret of your enviable poise and calm. Many officers, charged with a mission of importance at a time of crisis, would be engaged in the most frantic of preparations...."
"My crew is competent. I see no reason to fuss and chivvy them. My ship will break orbit at its appointed time."
"To pursue the renegade Captain Klur," the Lethean says. "And what then?"
"I will carry out the Chancellor's instructions," I say, "which you will not expect me to discuss."
"Of course not. Still, any being of even average curiosity must speculate."
"One may speculate freely, but one may not always speak freely. Especially in matters of military security."
"I would expect nothing else," the Lethean says, "from one of your reputation. Still, one must wonder at the events that have taken place - at whose interests are served, whose adversely affected...."
"Whose interests do you serve?" I ask, directly.
"Lethean interests are most ably advocated by the House of Terrath."
An idiot might take that as an answer. Letheans... they are hard to read; their facial expressions are so limited, because they rely on other methods of non-verbal communication. And, of course, they find us easy to read. I reach out, and knock my still-steaming raktajino into his lap.
He jumps to his feet, hissing and cursing. "My apologies for my clumsiness," I say.
He mutters something under his breath. "I was not reading your mind," he says.
"So I see, now. If you had been, you would have saved yourself a scalding. What did you have to say to me?"
He sits down again, somewhat gingerly. "You are to discover the truth behind Captain Klur's action," he says. "I speculate, here, but we both know that I speak correctly."
"And, yet, philosophers down the ages have pondered the question - what is truth?" He leans a little forward. "We speculate as to what truth you will offer the Chancellor in your report. We do not impugn your honour by suggesting that you will speak less than the truth... but you will speak no more, we know that."
"What more is there to speak?" I ask - disingenuously.
"Whatever truths you speak may bring down great houses, blast lives... or exonerate others. You have a kinswoman aboard the renegade's ship, Lieutenant General; this much is known. Will your truth save her from execution, or damn her to Grethor with Captain Klur?"
"I do not see how that last can now be avoided," I say. "True... I might wish it were otherwise. But my kinswoman has chosen her allegiance, and must now accept the consequences."
"If matters could be arranged otherwise?"
I shake my head. "There is no way."
"A truth might be found that would permit it."
In the end, I conclude, he is just another time waster. "I am a soldier, not a philosopher," I say, and I rise from the table. "Your multiplicity of truths would complicate my mission."
"You might benefit from the study of philosophy."
"No doubt. Well, I close no doors, Lethean. But so far you have brought me only fresh questions, and I am already over-supplied with those. If you come to me again, bring answers, and we might speak." And I turn to go.
I return to the barracks, go to my private quarters, and close the door.
The Garaka departs within the hour. I need that time to think.
I sit cross-legged on the floor and close my eyes. Multiplicity of truths... indeed.
The truth is, Bercera IV has been destroyed. The first of my many questions: who benefits from that?
The loss of one world to the Federation is a blow; it is at least balanced by the swing in public opinion against the Empire. Star systems that would have been our allies might now become our enemies; on the other hand, systems that might have revolted against us may now be cowed into obedience. Too many imponderables to sort through.
But the fundamental outcome is as K'tag suggested. Either the war will intensify, or the backlash will cause it to abate. Who desires which outcome, and how likely is it that they will attain their desires?
Darg spoke for the war hawks: a simple creature, Darg, an armchair patriot who despises enemies he has never seen. There are many of his opinion, who thirst for Federation blood and will happily spill the blood of others to gain their ends. Is this Klur one of that faction?
K'tag's other possibility... that the outrage might end the war... must be considered. Are there pacifists and idealists who would burn a whole world to gain peace? Why, yes; there are idealists who would burn down all creation to gain their ends. An ideal is barely worthy of the name if no one is prepared to kill for it... and pacifism is an ideal.
Who desires an end to the war? Pacifists, idealists... merchants who would prosper through trade with the Federation... militarists who would fight on other fronts... and any mother who has buried her children after a battle. Who desires its prolongation? Other militarists... merchants who grow fat on military contracts... anyone who desires the curbing of Federation influence in the quadrant... and enemies of both empires, who would watch them destroy each other.
Which of these commands the loyalty of Captain Klur? One does not attain command of a starship by being stupid; Klur must have known that his action would have dire consequences. So, he would need either a pressing reason for it, or to be sure he would be shielded from those consequences.
And it would take a great deal of influence to shield him - influence that could only come from a member of the High Council. Someone, I suspect, who was at the meeting - an absence might be seen as suspicious, nor would an absent member be able to guide the discussion away from sensitive topics. It might even have been one of those who spoke there. Darg? His motivations were obvious and unsubtle. K'tag? He presented the alternatives, equivocating nicely between them - his counsel was a hall of mirrors, and who is to say where his real thoughts were concealed? Or one of the others.... The Chancellor himself? But I do not see any way in which J'mpok would gain from this.
How was Klur convinced? Straightforward bribes are possible, but I deem them unlikely. Money is not enough to purchase a Klingon - usually. And yet, a Klingon's honour may be bought very cheaply, if he does not understand that he is selling it....
I open my eyes, and rise to my feet. This speculation is fruitless. Like the Lethean, it brings me no answers, only more questions. I must find this Klur, to discover with what coin he was bought.
My footsteps ring on the solid metal deck of the Garaka, as the time for our departure approaches. My First Officer, K'Gan, turns his hawk-featured face to me as I approach. "All is ready, sir," he says with a salute. K'Gan is truly more of a Klingon even than I.
I take my seat in the command chair. Beneath me, the mighty Kar'fi carrier is coming to life, its Fek'lhri engines already emitting that unsettling vibration, the dull notes as of a monstrous gong that accompany us everywhere we travel. "Confirm our departure vector and stand ready."
"Confirmed." K'Gan frowns. "We have priority clearance - but we must adjust our planned trajectory. There is a class one diplomatic convoy entering Qo'noS space."
"Compensate as required. And put that convoy on the screen."
The main viewscreen shimmers, displaying the ships. The design is instantly recognizable. "So," I say, "the Federation is making its representations at the very highest level. Well, it does not concern us now. Engines ahead full, and set course for Federation space."
Your tapestry is coming together nicely. There are loose threads, but they aren't being dealt with overly quickly. Steven Moffatt of DW once said (I'm quoting him as accurately I can), "Eventually you have to give an answer to a question ... but the answer must be as troubling as the question." The context for this quote was the mystery about River Song's identity and the revealing of it in Series 6, Episode 7, "A Good Man Goes to War".
The Yann-Isleth, the Chancellor's personal guard, gleaming in their parade armour, stood rigid at present arms in two ranks all down the length of the Great Hall. Between them walked a slight figure in brown robes, the sound of his footsteps the loudest noise in the hall, as he approached the steps where the Chancellor stood.
Grim-faced, J'mpok descended the steps to greet his visitor.
"Proconsul D'Tan. Welcome."
The Romulan bowed, gravely. "Thank you, Chancellor. You know why I am here."
J'mpok nodded brusquely. "Say what must be said."
"I have been asked, as the representative of a neutral power, to communicate a protest from the Federation Council regarding the destruction of the planet Bercera IV." D'Tan spoke in quiet, measured tones. "President Okeg wishes to condemn, in the most unequivocal terms, this deployment of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. He expresses his gravest concern regarding this new development in the war, he deplores the wanton devastation of a class M environment, and he warns you that Starfleet will now operate without restrictions to counter this form of warfare.
"President Okeg retains, however, even in the face of this enormity, the hope and desire for peace. To this end, he wishes to arrange a summit conference between the highest ranking representatives of both Federation and Empire, to be held at the earliest convenience for both sides. He suggests the planet Khitomer as an appropriate venue.
"President Okeg wishes, however, to have concrete assurances that the Empire has decisively turned away from this path of reckless destruction. These assurances should take the form of strategic military and economic concessions on the Empire's part." A murmuring began to arise among the Klingon notables inside the great hall, packed in behind the ranks of guards. D'Tan tapped at his wrist communicator. "I am now transmitting the Federation's suggestions for concessions along your secure diplomatic channel. In brief, President Okeg requires the release from Imperial governance of the Thidasian, Yll-Torican and Valtothi species, the withdrawal of the Klingon Defense Force from Sigma Capricornii, Tiafa, Zeta Comae and the Dialosa Corridor, the abandonment of military bases at Tol Mogra, Aznetkur and Dasus Prime -"
The murmuring became a roar of disapproval. J'mpok raised his head and raked the audience with a glare of fury. "We will hear the Proconsul!" he shouted. Silence fell, abruptly.
"And a moratorium on unauthorized privateering actions such as commerce raids in the Pi Canis sectors," D'Tan concluded, unruffled. "That completes the message from President Okeg and the Federation Council. I would, however, like to speak on my own behalf. Chancellor - why have you done this thing?"
"Would you believe that I have not? That this was the rogue atrocity of a lone captain, acting far beyond his authorization?"
"The Federation is unlikely to accept that. And you and I both know, Chancellor, that we bear ultimate responsibility for the acts of our subordinates. Command responsibility - a doctrine also familiar to the Federation."
"I know." J'mpok seemed to shrink inside his robes. "We must accept the responsibility. And we know that there must be a price to pay. The Federation demands much, though."
"You know that I will convey your reply back to the Federation Council. Faithfully, as I have brought their words to you."
"The High Council will meet and formulate a response within the next two days. In the meantime, Proconsul... I would speak with you. Privately."
D'Tan bowed. "I would be honoured, Chancellor."
The door closed on the Chancellor's private office, an austere room buried deep in the bowels of the Great Hall. J'mpok subsided into a chair behind a desk, his shoulders hunched, his face dour. D'Tan took a seat opposite, and for a time neither man spoke.
D'Tan broke the silence. "What happened?" he asked, almost kindly.
J'mpok snarled. "A plot," he spat, "a conspiracy of some kind. I do not yet know the details, but I am certain there is a plot."
D'Tan nodded. "The act did seem... out of character." He sighed. "We have accomplished so much, on Mol'Rihan, with the aid of both your people and the Federation. And the truce has held - for the most part - across Tau Dewa. I had hoped, personally, that the peace might spread."
J'mpok merely grunted.
"My people are under orders to prevent clashes between Starfleet and KDF units," D'Tan added. "We were only just learning to cooperate and trust you... now we must watch you closely again. The Federation is angry, J'mpok. I wonder if even you realize just how angry."
"I have never underestimated the Federation," J'mpok said. "Let me tell you something, D'Tan. I fear the Federation. I fear the way it spreads, it subsumes -"
"Their non-interference directive -"
"Is window dressing! If they do not interfere with cultural development, how is it that every Federation world looks the same? I fear, one day, we will awaken, and find the Federation has swallowed us all. That our biological and technological distinctiveness has been added to their own... and resistance was futile."
"There," said D'Tan softly, "you touch on a real threat. There are powers out there who would consume all our peoples while we squabble...."
"The Borg," said J'mpok, "and the undeclared war with the Iconians and their tools, and our... difficulties... with the Fek'lhri. Oh, I know, I know, there are worse enemies out there than the Federation... looked at objectively." He snorted. "I am an old warrior and a Klingon. Objectivity I leave to the Vulcans."
"You know that I aspire to reunification with the Vulcans," D'Tan said, "to the healing of the Sundering between their people and mine. If that is ever to happen... it will mean changes, on both sides. Vulcans and Romulans will need to become... something new. We cannot fear change. It is bound to come upon us."
J'mpok remained silent for a minute or so. "Turning to practicalities," he said, eventually.
"Aennik Okeg is an honourless serpent, but he is not a fool. He knows he asks more than we will give. The High Council will prepare a counter-offer, along less grandiose lines."
D'Tan smiled. "President Okeg expects as much. Your preliminary thoughts?"
"We know the Federation has been funnelling arms to the Valtothi rebels for months. Little harm in surrendering what they will shortly win in any case. The loss of the Thidasians and Yll-Toricans will hurt... but it is perhaps a price we must pay. Of the systems you mention... the Dialosa Corridor is out of the question, it would strangle our trade with a hundred non-aligned systems. And three major military bases? Why not ask for Ganalda also, or Qo'noS itself? Dasus Prime, possibly - the other two, never."
"And the summit conference?"
"The reptile may have his summit. Not Khitomer, though. The place is a magnet for assassins and fanatics, I swear they must breed in its crevices."
"Yes," said D'Tan quietly, "yes, I remember."
"Would you host it yourself? At New Romulus?"
"Gladly. Though security is still an issue, with the Tal Shiar and the Tholians...."
"I do not fear those. I will meet Okeg at your new capital. Perhaps I will have answers for him by then - I have despatched an agent to seek out this Klur and wring the truth from him."
"I would not be in this Klur's shoes for any inducement," said D'Tan wryly. "Hunted both by Federation and Empire.... Your agent should probably contact the Starfleet officer investigating Bercera IV. Vice Admiral Shohl, I know her slightly from her work on Mol'Rihan." He smiled. "At one point, she gave a positive but ill-considered interview to the press, and became known as the Pirate Queen of the Vastam Peaks." His tone turned serious again. "Speaking of piracy -"
"There can be no moratorium on privateering. Too many of the peripheral Houses depend on it for income, now. To enforce the ban, I would have to commit too much of the KDF to internal police work. And to pronounce the ban and fail to enforce it would be fatal to my authority."
"It is a thorn in all our sides, though. Not just the Federation's.... It stifles legitimate trade."
"It cannot be helped, while we are at war. It is the Klingon way."
"And when the war ends?"
J'mpok shook his head. "I am bound up, in the minds of many, with this war," he said, heavily. "It is widely held that, when it ends, I end. And I tell you, I am not ready to end."
"A way might be found. And should."
"We will explore the ways at the summit conference. The reptile and I."
"As you wish." D'Tan paused for a moment, then said, "You may need to reconsider your position in regard to Aznetkur. The Federation Sixth Fleet is operating in that vicinity, under Admiral Gref. The Tellarites do not shrink from conflict even at the best of times, and this is not the best of times."
"We may lose Aznetkur in any case? I will consider that." J'mpok rose to his feet. "A feast has been arranged in your honour, with a traditional Klingon opera to follow. Can you tolerate it?"
D'Tan smiled. "For the sake of diplomacy, I will endure much."
One tiny typo: it's "dispatched" not "despatched" (and even this one little misspelling can't take away one single bit from your excellent writing). Also, feel free to make your chapters as long as you like. Just keep writing them.