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“Helm, take us in closer: one-six-three by two-ten,” N’Vel said easily from her place at the rear of the small bridge. The officer at the triangular control console answered her crisply, with all intimidation that comes with having an Admiral on the bridge.

“Yes, Admiral. Coming to basic station-keeping.”

On the small viewscreen, the massive spiderweb of the deep-space weapons laboratory crawled into view.

“Magnify,” N’Vel ordered and one of the conn personnel blew up the image enough that the long, cylindrical project with the metal scaffolding was easily visible. N’Vel marveled again at the sensor package on this ship--it might be under-powered and under-gunned, but by the gods it could see. From here and on the undersized viewscreen, N’Vel could even see the external conduits and wiring.

Of course the Tal Shiar had no objection to sensor technology. It was simply offensive and defensive and power plant technology that they did their level best to control.

The Starglider was N’Vel’s great accomplishment”and her great failure. Intended to be the first in a noble line of warships that would lead the charge and press the boundaries of the Romulan Star Empire deep into neighboring space, she was instead an orphan. Her sister ships lay half-built in forgotten shipyards scattered throughout the Empire, alongside the rest of N’Vel’s imagined fleet, the engineers and material needed to complete diverted to “other projects.”

Projects managed by the Tal Shiar. Of course, these projects were nebulous and never seemed to come to fruition, but then, that wasn’t their purpose. They were intended to starve the beast that was the Romulan military, because ProConsul K’prek would allow no one closer to the Praetor’s ear than he.

“How long before trials can commence?”

Commander S’Tonn answered her this time, turning from the control console and giving a stiff salute. Clearly he was concerned about the slipping standards of protocol from his crew.

“Admiral, Laboratory Seven reports trails on schedule for one solar week from now.”

“Thank you, Commander. I should speak with you alone now.”

“Clear the bridge,” S’Tonn ordered sharply, and the other three centurions filed out of the command center. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence on this or any other Romulan vessel: only the bridge and engineering were secure enough to make it impossible for the Tal Shiar to plant listening devices.

When they were gone, N’Vel relaxed her posture, as did S’Tonn. He was shorter than she--most men were--but solidly built. He was getting old quickly, she noticed. In the days when he was her Commander and she a driven, but inexperienced sub-centurian he seemed large enough to wrestle the very galaxy to submission. Now, all she saw was a tired, middle-aged man.

For that, too, she blamed the Tal Shiar.

“They came for me last night, S’Tonn,” she said. Her mentor squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head.

“I feared they would. It was only a matter of time before the Admiralty turned on you.”

“The Admiralty needs me,” N’Vel countered. “They need me to say the things they will not.”

The old officers who comprised the senior management of military had all been cowed into submission by K’prek’s machinations--a few targeted kidnappings, assassinations, and orchestrated embarrassing incidents had seen to that--and early on in her new rank, N’Vel had realized that they had made her their proxy, the fighter they could never be.

“K’prek would not have ordered the assassination unless they approved it.”

N’Vel felt a cold wind sweep through her. She recalled the afternoon’s Strategic Command meeting, and her latest rant against K’prek:

“The Klingon Empire has unified in their war against the Federation! The houses work as one! Already they have landed troops and begun mining operations on three worlds in the Neutral Zone to feed their war machine! If we do not act, they will be at our borders within the year!”

 “You argue from a false presumption,” K’prek had said in his silky, politicians voice. “As you say, the Klingons are at war. Their forces engaged. This is the time when we should fear them the least. Let the Federation bleed them. And while they do, the Empire will grow stronger.”

  “How can it grow stronger when our fleet is a decade old? Most ships more than that. Our technological advances have stagnated. Who knows what advances the Klingons or the Federation have developed, while our own war machine rots. War is the greatest driver of innovations. Our enemies will emerge from it with a technological advantage we might never be able to make up.”

 At this K’prek, turned to face the High Synod seated in their raised thrones at the end of the room. And between them, the Praetor, old and confused, seemingly drowning in his ornate robes. “How can we even consider making war against our enemies while our own people plot and plan against you, Your Highness? Why just yesterday, Tal Shiar agents smashed a dissident cell operating in the Ketel Province. We believe they intended to attack the power facilities there and cause a massive blackout.”

  “Kessel?” The old Praetor’s eyes widened. “No…no…they mustn’t…my people need power. Lights. Heat…”

 K’Prek pressed his point. “They would use the blackout to sow discord. Claim that the Great Praetor could not provide for his people.”

 "But that’s not true!” The Praetor had whined.

 “Fear not, my Lord. These traitors were caught and dealt with.” Of course they’d been dealt with, N’Vel knew. Dealt with so thorough there’d never been any record of their existence.

 “This is how an Empire grow strong: from within. By solidifying the will of its people behind its powerful leader. I think perhaps, young Admiral N’Vel fails to see this. I think perhaps her vantage from within her fancy warship obscures her sight.”

 It was clear, the Synod would not be diverting any personnel or materials to the long-abandoned Raptor Fleet project. Not while K’prek had the Praetor terrified of imaginary dissidents and revolutionaries.

 And all the while the Admiralty had sat in stony silence.

 “This weapon,” N’Vel said to S'Tonn. “It’s all we have left.”

 S’Tonn nodded and regarded the view on the screen. “We hid it well.” He turned to her. “But I fear it is not enough. Even if the trials are a success, the old Praetor will not be won over by it. He is too ruled by the fear K’prek has put in him. Like all old rulers, he fears losing his power to someone within his own kingdom far more than he does invasion.”

 “Then I will have to change his thinking,” N’Vel said.



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