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The sound of the transporter beam sent N’Vel’s hand instinctively to the holster at her hip, only to find it empty. She pushed aside the reflex and straightened up.

The human, when he materialized, was not what she expected. From the Tal Shiar intelligence reports she’d read, she knew that they were humanoid, and not dissimilar from Romulans, so she hadn’t been expecting something with three arms and three legs or the like. Still, there was the line in the most authoritative report on humans that had always stayed with her: “Many humans--and this seems especially true of their starship captains--project a sense of childlike naivete toward the world. They walk through life making no secret of their innate awe toward seemingly everything they encounter. In this, they resemble nothing so much as the Denorian Rockhopper bird, which is too stupid to understand the notion of ‘threat’ and thus are the favored prey of nearly every predator on the Denorian atoll.”

The man that stood before her did not fit that description. She could see nothing guileless or unguarded, and his eyes, in the moment before he squinted and held up a protective hand, flashed like a blade partially unsheathed. N’Vel felt a sudden, inexplicable sense of gratitude that it was this man who’d bested her in battle.

“Can you lower the lights,” he said in a way that didn’t make it sound like a vulnerability at all.

“Lights at seventy percent,” N’Vel ordered and the lights in the non-descript conference room lowered to a comfortable warm dim. “Are all humans sensitive to light?”

“It’s my burden,” the human answered, dropping the hand that had been shielding his eyes. “Captain Gabriel Lorca. And you must be N’Vel.”

“Indeed. You don’t seem surprised by my appearance, Captain. I was rather hoping for a bit more of a reaction from the only man to have laid eyes on a Romulan.”

“You’re not exactly floored to see me either.”

N’Vel shrugged. “We’ve infiltrated the Federation in the past. Our resemblance to Vulcans is useful in that regard.”

“Right. So what makes you think we haven’t done the same to the Romulan Star Empire?”

N’Vel laughed. “Modify a human to look Romulan? Don’t be silly, Captain.”

“So,” he said holding up his hands, “what do we do now? Arm-wrestle? Threaten each other face-to-face? Kiss?”

N’Vel’s lips curled into a wry smile in spite of herself. “Are you hoping for the latter, Captain?”

The human shrugged. “You’re one of the more attractive adversaries I’ve ever encountered, so I certainly wouldn’t take it off the table.”

“Is this the human method of negotiation: Open with flattery and flirtation?”

“I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to be doing here, so I figured I’d give it a try.”

N’Vel pulled out a chair near her and gestured to one near the human. “Let’s get comfortable, shall we?” The human grudgingly pulled out a chair and sat down. N’Vel did the same, her nose twitching at the dusty scent that the chair’s padding exhaled when it accepted her weight. The noticed the human had a similar expression.

“You folks kill all the servants or something?”

“This facility isn’t used very much,” N’Vel explained. “Which is why we were so easily able to send out a signal making it seem like a shipyard.”

“Ah.”

“Which brings me to the question, Captain. What are you doing here?”

“We got lost, like I said,” the human replied with badly-feigned innocence (though, in truth, N’Vel didn’t know how such a man could ever seem innocent--he didn’t look like he’d ever been innocent in his life.

“You should drop the lie, Captain, you’re just embarrassing yourself. You attacked our listening posts at Passis Three, Lheaton Seven, and engaged our drones at Cocolough Fifteen.” She hoped the human didn’t ask for proof, as she had none, and the lack of it would simply send them into a spiral of recriminations and denials and make this whole process worthless.

“We’re at war,” the human shrugged.

“But not with us.”

“We got confused. One enemy ship looks like another.”

N’Vel leaved forward and placed her elbows on the table. “It was a false-flag operation, wasn’t it? You struck targets along the Klingon border. You hoped we retaliate against them and inadvertently assist you in your war effort.”

“Well, wouldn’t you?”

To her surprise, N’Vel found herself laughing aloud”how long had been since she’d done that? When she recovered she asked, “Is the war going that badly for the Federation that you have to resort to such tactics?”

“My actions aren’t sanctioned by my superiors,” The human explained.

“So, this is all your idea? How diplomatically convenient.”

“It’s true. Starfleet thinks the war is going just fine, simply because we haven’t had a major rout.”

“And what do you believe?”

The human’s eyes flashed, the blade fully drawn now. “It’s not what I believe. It’s what I know.”

“And that is?”

He smiled coldly. “The Klingons will never surrender or sue for peace or stop fighting in any capacity until they’ve been utterly decimated. Or until they do the same to us. The brilliant tacticians and ambassadors who lead us either don't want to understand this, or their oh-so-evolved sense of morality precludes any possibility of them understanding this.”

N’Vel nodded, mulling this over. “So, it would seem peace has made the Federation soft.”

“But not your empire,” the human said. “You know the truth about the Klingons. And the truth about true power.”

“Indeed,” N’Vel said. “Your plan was a good one--worthy of a Romulan, Captain Lorca--too bad we weren’t as gullible as you had hoped.”

“It’s not over yet,” Captain Lorca said tightly. “The wreckage of your starship would achieve the same objective.”

“No more idle threats, Captain,” N’Vel waved airily. The conversation was headed for a cliff and she was trying to push back against that. “Unlike yours, my ship is capable of dealing a deathblow. Even at the expense of our own lives.”

The human smiled tauntingly. “See, I wonder about that. Not the killing yourselves part--I have no doubt you’d do something stupid and wasteful as that--but that you have the capability to do it. Two nuclear warheads don’t exactly amount to a doomsday weapon.”

N’Vel fought the rising tide of anger within her. The human captain was once again needling her weakness and the weakness of her empire. “Do not test me, Captain.”

“No? What if you blow yourselves up and it doesn’t make a difference? Either it doesn’t destroy our ship or it does and your fleet never notices because they don't get out to this neighborhood very much. Which begs the question: why does a vaunted Romulan Fleet Admiral only brought one ship to engage an unknown threat.”

N’Vel said nothing, her mind scrambling for a plausible lie. She couldn’t come up with anything the human would believe.

“Because if you had reinforcements they’d be here by now and you wouldn’t be threatening us with self-destruction. So, what’s really going on here, Admiral? Where are your ships? Are you a rogue? A mutineer? Or is the Romulan fleet less fearsome than we’ve been led to believe?”

N’Vel pursed her lips, sensing the conversation crumbling, but spying a glimmer in the distance--a slim chance to salvage the situation.

“I suppose I could lie and tell you that the Romulan fleet is still a thing to be feared, and the that thunder of our ships’ engines causes whole populations to fall to the knees keening in terror, but I suspect that you would ask the logical questions, captain.”

“Where are they?” Captain Lorca nodded.

“Indeed. As it happens, they are rotting in repair yards throughout the Empire awaiting upgrades, replacement parts, crew…” she sighed disdainfully. Some of it was performance, but only some of it. “Our once-great fleet is now but a paper-togrrteh.” It occurred to her too late that the human probably didn’t know what she was referring to, but to her surprise, the human seemed to understand.

“That would explain why the stiffest resistance we got was from some centuries-old drones.”

“Ugh. Don’t speak of them. Our exalted intelligence agency, the Tal Shiar, touts their existence as the reason we can afford to divert resources from the navy. Meanwhile they build more surveillance stations and sub-warp ships to project their power within our borders.”

Captain Lorca looked at her quizzically. “So this is all you could muster to engage a starship that’s invading your space? That sounds like suicide.”

N’Vel shook her head. “My government doesn’t know of this operation. If it did, the Tal Shiar would have seized control of it and claimed the glory for themselves--provided they didn’t make a hash of things first. No, I needed to bring you back as a prize to show our feeble Praetor that his navy is still the best defense he has against his various terrors--both real and imagined.”

“Too bad we had to go and mess up your plan,” Captain Lorca said with a rakish smile. N’Vel returned it with a sly one of her own.

“We shall see, Captain. The day is young.” Abruptly, she snapped her fingers and stood up. “Speaking of…” She walked over to the supply cabinet set into the far corner of the room. “No outpost would possibly be without…aha!” Victoriously, she held up a dusty bottle.

“What’s that?” Captain Lorca asked.

Gromluk. An intoxicant, however the effects can be overcome with a bit of concentration and willpower.” She rummaged around in the cabinet for glasses and was rewarded with two clear polymer tumblers.

“Almost takes the fun out of it,” Captain Lorca observed.

“It does, but when every hail or communication ping could well be the secret police, it’s helpful to be able to sober up at will and have your wits about you.” She returned to the table and poured a few fingers of the amber liquid into the glasses, then slid one to Captain Lorca.

“Do you have a drinking tradition, Captain?”

The human captain raised his glass in a kind of salute. “We do that.”

“Simple enough.”

“We don’t like to delay the drinking,” Captain Lorca said and took a sip. He swallowed without incident and looked appreciatively at the glass. “Say, that’s not bad.”

“We take our drink seriously, Captain,” N’Vel said, taking a mouthful of her own. The Gromluck was an inferior brew--off-brand and cheap--but it would do.

“I can’t imagine why we ever went to war with you folks.”

N’Vel smiled and was surprised to find it genuine. Her kind was growing warm with the drink. “So, however should we resolve this, Captain? Do we want to kill each other today in a desperate attempt to impress our governments, or is there, perhaps, some alternative we haven’t considered?”

“I’m open to ideas,” the human held her gaze and took a long sip.



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