Sela’s boot heels clacked on the stone floor, sending echoes along the narrow tunnel through which she walked. Two men from her security detachment followed behind her at a distance, their own footfalls adding to the cacophony in the enclosed space. Set into the walls at long intervals, lighting panels did a barely sufficient job of banishing the darkness that gripped the ancient subterranean passage. The recirculated air caressed the exposed flesh of Sela’s face with an uncomfortable chill, like the threat of an ill wind as the sun sets and the night impends.
The chairwoman of the Tal Shiar led her guards at a brisk clip, striding with determination toward a meeting she had never wished to have, but for which she had still developed contingencies. Her mind brimmed with broad facts and intricate details, with unanswered questions and necessary suppositions. Sela had always understood the possibility that she might have to deliver the report that she carried with her on a data tablet, and so she had planned for it, but she didn’t like it. To her way of thinking, the word contingency equated to failure: one need enact a secondary plan only if a primary plan has not succeeded.
But now two of my stratagems have failed, Sela thought, her jaw tightening. She remained uncertain how far back the latest events had set her. She had already lost so much time thanks to the incompetence of the Breen. Sela had helped the Confederacy purloin Starfleet’s schematics for the quantum slipstream drive, only to see the Federation mount a covert operation and eliminate everything the Breen had subsequently accomplished, including not only a slipstream-equipped prototype vessel, but all copies of the drive plans.
You will have to work harder than all the others, her father had always told her, and he had been right. As a half-breed, born of a human mother, Sela had found it impossible even to trade on her father’s rank and position—General Volskiar had commanded IRW Victorious through many successful campaigns—and so she’d had to work from the periphery. But she internalized her father’s wisdom, and never undervalued the importance of sheer diligence.
Before rising to chair the Tal Shiar, Sela had served as a personal operative to the praetor, and before that, as a proficient officer in the Imperial Fleet. Throughout her career, she advanced as the result of indefatigable effort, and as she did so, she learned the value of careful planning. But she had never anticipated the ascension to the praetorship of somebody like Gell Kamemor—a nonbeliever in Romulan exceptionalism, and an apologist for, and even an appeaser of, the Federation. And Sela never could have foreseen the string of events, improbable in the aggregate, that had allowed it to happen: the assassination of nearly the entire Senate; the descent of Shinzon into madness; the Remans’ successful struggle for independence; the schism of the Empire into factions led by Tal’Aura and Donatra; and the need for the Romulan people to accept nutritional and medical assistance from the Federation. Even after all of that, it had still required the deaths of both Tal’Aura and Donatra; the death of one of their likeliest successors, Senator Xarian Dor; and the deaths of the war hawk Pardek and Tal Shiar Chairman Rehaek—only then had enough opposition fallen to permit the elevation to praetor of a populist like Kamemor.
Sela reached the heavy door standing closed at the end of the tunnel, a bright lighting panel in the ceiling above it reflecting dully off its satin-textured metal surface. She reached up and placed her hand on the security plate beside the door, knowing that she’d already been under surveillance for some time. After the many lethal disruptions of the government in recent times, the Senate had increased security considerably—though not always visibly—in and around the Hall of State.
The scanner emitted a yellow glow as it examined Sela’s hand. On the screen beside it, her image appeared, along with the details of her service record. As always when she saw herself, Sela noted the alienness of her own features: eyebrows that hugged the lines of her eyes, the flatness of her forehead, the shocking yellowish color of her hair. She despised the human elements of her appearance, the details that set her apart from her fellow Romulans. Yet she had chosen never to alter them, never to surgically effect the changes that would allow her looks to fall within the Romulan norm. Instead, she let her differences drive her to overachieve, and she chose to project the impression that her differences made her better, that they singled her out as an exceptional individual among an exceptional people.
The door slid noisily to one side, withdrawing into the wall. Sela turned back to face her guards, who could proceed no farther. She nodded curtly to them, then paced through the door and up a set of worn stone steps.
The Tal Shiar chairwoman strode through the door at the top of the stairway and into a circular courtyard. Night had established itself earlier, and the silver orb of Elvreng had risen high in the sky. The pale light from Romulus’s second moon filtered through the windows in the cupola that topped the courtyard, draining the color and contrast from the scene. Between the doors that ran along the perimeter, white beams of light reached upward, the indirect illumination further brightening the area, but restoring none of its tint or texture.
Sela crossed to the set of tall, wide wooden doors that dominated the courtyard, to where a pair of uhlans stood watch. In the ashen light, the chairwoman could discern the faces of the two guards no more than she could the elaborate scrollwork in the doors. Still, she knew the names of the two men—Voster and Strak—and could run down both their professional and personal histories. The idea that power relied on knowledge had been a cornerstone principle of the Tal Shiar since its inception.
“Chairwoman Sela to see the praetor,” she said, identifying herself to the guards, although in addition to recognizing her, they also would have been informed in advance of her late visit.
“Praetor Kamemor is expecting you, Chairwoman,” replied Uhlan Voster. He turned and, beside the doors, pulled twice on a braided rope that Sela knew to be gold, but that looked white in the moonglow. Then he leaned into the large doors, which slowly opened inward, and he stepped aside. Sela passed between the two guards, who then followed her inside.
As the doors closed decisively behind her, she peered around the praetorial audience chamber. Gell Kamemor had inarguably altered the character of the place during the six hundred days of her administration. Although pairs of columns rose majestically all around the room, creating niches filled with artwork and reaching up to a magnificent mural on the ceiling, the once-regal setting possessed a commonplace atmosphere. Despite the gleaming black surfaces of the floor and walls, despite the throne that sat on a raised platform at the far end of the room, the large conference table and the chairs arrayed around it commanded the space and marked it as a simple, workaday venue. Stark white lighting buttressed the utilitarian effect.
Such details, Sela knew, had always troubled Tomalak. He did not go so far as to suggest that appearances trumped substance, but he did believe that such things mattered, particularly for somebody in Kamemor’s position. Sela did not concern herself with such minutiae, but she could not argue that the praetor succeeded in delivering a message with the refashioning of her audience chamber.
The chairwoman did not see Gell Kamemor. As Sela moved farther into the room, the praetor emerged from behind the dais, where an entrance led into Kamemor’s private office. Though more than a couple of decades past her first century, the praetor maintained a healthy physique, and her lustrous black hair had not yet begun to gray. She wore traditional robes, of a gray that matched the color of her eyes.
“Chairwoman Sela,” Kamemor said as she crossed in front of the dais. Never once in the many times Sela had met with her in the audience chamber had the praetor sat in her throne. “I trust from your sudden request for a meeting at such a late hour that something of considerable import has brought you here.” She spoke with an ease that suggested word of events in Federation space had yet to reach the Hall of State.
Kamemor stopped near the head of the conference table, and Sela strode over to face her. “I’m afraid that I do, Praetor,” she said. “Our observers have reported a major confrontation within Federation space. I’m sure that you are familiar with the Bajoran star system.”
“Of course,” Kamemor said. “That’s the site of the artificial wormhole that connects to the Gamma Quadrant.” She paused, then, with a tone of concern, asked the logical question: “Has the Dominion sent the Jem’Hadar back into the Alpha Quadrant?”
“No,” Sela said. “I’m afraid that such a situation might be easier for you to deal with.” The chairwoman lifted the data tablet she had brought with her and activated it. She pretended to consult the information on its screen as she said, “At the Alpha Quadrant terminus of the wormhole, two Federation starships, as well as the Starfleet space station positioned there, engaged in battle with three Typhon Pact starships.”
Kamemor’s lips parted, but she did not immediately respond. She reached out a hand to the back of one of the chairs at the conference table, as though to steady herself. “&lsq...