"Palais control," said the pilot, a genial young Benzite woman named Mardral, "this is shuttle nine on approach."
"Shuttle nine, this is Palais control, you are clear to land on the roof. Welcome back. I'll let Zachary know his package is here."
"I'm a 'package,' huh?" Sonek said with a grin.
"Something like that, sir, yes."
"You don't have to call me 'sir,' Mardral, I'm just a college professor on a field trip." He stared at the Benzite woman, who had a breathing unit attached to her chest. "'Shuttle nine'? Is that really the best that you could come up with to name this thing?"
"We leave the fancy names to Starfleet, Professor."
"Fair enough." He stared out the shuttle's portal at the beautiful combination of old and new buildings. There was the Bâtiment Vingt-Troisième Siècle, constructed at the turn of the century eighty-one years ago, the Tour Eiffel, constructed five hundred years earlier, Notre Dame Cathedral, which dated back twelve centuries, and the Palais de la Concorde, which wasn't as old as the Tour Eiffel or Notre Dame, but not as new as the BVTS. Straddling the Champs Elysées, the cylindrical fifteen-story building was the heart of the Federation government.
Sonek had been born in space. His father, Kojo Pran, and maternal grandparents were all part of a travelling troupe of musicians called the A.C. Walden Medicine Show, and his mother, T'Nallis, was the show's sound engineer. They were on a transport taking them to a gig on Betazed—the homeworld of one of those grandparents—but it had suffered some kind of engine problem, and it was stuck at warp one. That meant a four-day trip took a month, and instead of giving birth in a nice hospital in Medara on Betazed, T'Nallis gave birth to Sonek in interstellar space.
That set the tone for the rest of his life. Growing up in a family of musicians, travel was a constant. Once Sonek was old enough to study at a university, he did so, getting his undergraduate degree at YloTrap on Betazed, his Master's at Fordham University on Earth, and his doctorate at the V'Shull Institute on Vulcan.
There were times when he missed being with the Medicine Show. Sonek was a decent banjo player, and also could play the harmonica, the zorvat, and the ka'athyra. But he didn't have the same passion for the music that his father and grandparents had—and that his daughter Sara had apparently inherited from them—so he followed his grandfather into academia, even as Sara joined the Medicine Show when she was old enough.
The political element came about somewhat by accident.
Mardral smoothly landed the prosaically named shuttle nine onto the circular roof of the Palais. As the door levered open, several people who were obviously crew of some kind went to take care of the shuttle.
Turning to the pilot, Sonek said, "Now look, Mardral, I know you don't know me, but I really think you'd be better off if you just gave her an answer."
The Benzite stared at him. "How did you know?"
He pointed at her rebreather. "You've got yourself half a pledge stone there, and it's the half that says you've been approached. The half that says you've said yes is empty, and you've been fingering it and looking at it this whole trip."
"I just don't know if I'm ready."
Sonek shrugged. "You put the stone on in the first place. Seems to me you think it's worth a shot. Besides, it's not like you're pledged for life."
"True." She smiled. "Thanks, Professor."
"No problem," he said with a smile. Benzite biology was complicated, and had nothing to do with personal relationships and family. The people you reproduced with weren't the same as the people you spent your life with. Sonek had always found it a somewhat liberating system—particularly given his current lack of relationship with his son.
Putting those unpleasant thoughts aside, he exited the shuttle onto the roof. He was wearing a purple shirt and leather vest, and as he stepped out into the cool spring air, he wished he'd worn something warmer.
The same face Sonek had seen on his desk screen yesterday was attached to the person standing near the roof entrance. Sonek sauntered over toward him, the wind catching his long white hair and blowing it into his face. Brushing it away from his eyes with one hand, he held out the other. "Mr. Manzanillo, it's truly a pleasure to be back in this building."
"How long has it been?" Zachary asked, returning the handshake.
"It's been around about eight years now. A couple days after the Dominion took Deep Space 9 was when President Zife decided that my counsel wasn't worth me hanging around for, seeing as how he wasn't actually listening to any of it."
The pair of them walked to the entrance, which slid aside at their approach to reveal a turbolift. Sonek knew from his many visits here in the past that, as the turbolift took them down into the building, he and Zachary were both being thoroughly scanned.
After only going down two floors, the lift stopped and opened to the usual chaos of the Palais. No, actually, this is more chaos than usual. Sonek had last been here during the ramp-up to the Dominion War, and the ambient noise was about half what it was now. People from dozens of different species were dashing through the halls, walking in and out of offices, reading over padds while walking, shouting at each other, shouting into comm screens, and so on.
Sonek had expected hustle and bustle, but this was the Palais in full crisis mode, and it hit him like a slap to the face. He had to remind himself how easy he'd had it the last couple of months, teaching at a university on a planet that wasn't actually hit by the Borg. Mars and Earth had come close—in fact, Sonek, along with Tolik and dozens of other faculty and students from McKay University, had joined the thousands at the candlelight vigil at the Settlers Monument in Cydonia when the Borg were on approach, before they surprisingly turned around and headed back to the Azure Nebula.
But life on Mars got fairly normal after that. It was easy, from the hallowed halls of academe, to forget how much carnage there had been—and how much work fixing it would be.
It was, however, impossible to do so while standing on the fourteenth floor of the Palais.
"So Ms. Piñiero's down here on fourteen, huh?"
"Uh, yes," Zachary said. "That's the traditional spot for the COS."
"Yeah, well, Mr. Azernal kept his office up on fifteen alongside the president."
"'Traditional' isn't the first word that comes to mind when describing Mr. Azernal," Zachary said with a small smile.
"That's for damn sure."
They arrived at a desk cluttered with padds and a computer station, which was blinking. Touching a control, Zachary said, "Esperanza, he's here."
"Give me a minute, Zachary." The chief of staff sounded haggard.
Indicating the guest chair adjacent to his desk, Zachary said, "Have a seat."
Sonek sat while Zachary started scrolling through messages on his terminal. Then he snarled and set up a comm line. A Bolian face appeared on the screen. "Jai, what the hell?"
"What the hell, what?"
"I told you that Esperanza can't see your boss until tomorrow. You may find this hard to believe, but upgrading the transporter network on Bolarus isn't her highest priority right now."
"And there's no reason why it should be, but it should be at some level of priority. Right now our skies are being choked with shuttle traffic. We're doing our part, unlike some planets I could name."
"They're talking about Zalda downstairs right now."
"Fine, but if we had the transporter upgrades we were supposed to have six months ago, we'd be able to handle the refugees much more easily."
"I know, I know, but we've had bigger problems. Look, if you want to talk to Ashanté Phiri or Myk Bunkrep—"
"The councillor doesn't appreciate being fobbed off on flunkies."
"They're not 'flunkies,' Jai, they're deputy chiefs of staff, and odds are good Esperanza would kick it over to them, anyhow."
"I'll ask the councillor when the session's over."
"And no more threats to pull out of the Federation, please?"
"No promises." With that, the screen went blank.
"You should've called his bluff," Sonek said.
Zachary started, as if forgetting that Sonek was there. "What?"
"It's not like the Bolians are actually going to pull out of the Federation. For starters, Councillor Nea doesn't really have that kind of authority, and I'm thinking that the Quorum of Bole isn't entirely with her on that, especially if we're just talking about fixing transporters."
"What are you saying?"
"If she's gonna claim to set phasers on kill, make her pull the trigger, is all I'm saying. Then when she does admit that the thing was on stun all along, she won't be able to make that threat so easily in the future."
The door slid open to reveal the round visage of Esperanza Piñiero. The last time Sonek had seen the woman's face was a few months ago, when she appeared on Illuminating the City of Light, a Federation News Service discussion program. In that time, the number of lines on her face and gray hairs had increased. Her brown eyes were bloodshot, and Sonek was half expecting her to collapse in front of him.
Rising to his feet, Sonek said, "Yes, ma'am."
Holding out her hand, Esperanza said, "It's an honor to meet you, Professor. Your reputation precedes you."
"I doubt that," Sonek said, returning the handshake, "or you'd know that meeting me isn't all that much of an honor at all, Ms. Piñiero."
"Don't sell yourself short, Professor. And it's Esperanza, please."
Breaking off the handshake—Sonek noted that her grip was firm despite her obvious fatigue—she stepped back from the doorway. "Come in, please."
Zachary said, "Thanks for the advice, Professor."
With a nod, Sonek said, "You're welcome," and entered Esperanza's office.
Sonek gazed around the room. Most of one wall was taken up with a picture window that provided a smaller version of the view from the president's office—which was right above this one. Another wall had a couch with a chair perpendicular to it, and a table between them, and a painting of the skyline of Johnson City on Cestus III at sunset over the couch.
The third wall had the door and a closet and a replicator. Esperanza's desk chair was against the fourth wall, giving her a look at both the painting over the couch in front of her and the view of Paris to the right. Two wooden guest chairs sat on the other side of the big metal desk.
Esperanza walked to the replicator first. "Something to drink?"
"Allira punch would be wonderful, if you don't mind."
"Not at all." She put her hand on the control. "One allira punch, and one Jack Daniel's, neat."
Sonek frowned. "I thought Palais replicators couldn't give out alcohol during business hours."
The two drinks materialized with a soft hum. Esperanza grabbed them both. "We disabled that feature when the Borg destroyed Deneva. We never got around to restoring it."
"Can't imagine why," Sonek said dryly as he took the tall frosted glass from the chief of staff.
Taking her square, thick-bottomed glass with its amber liquid to the chair perpendicular to the couch, Esperanza said, "Have a seat, Sonek. What was Zachary thanking you for?"
Sonek sat down in the couch, which was incredibly comfortable. This, he felt, bode well for the meeting. If she wanted him to be comfortable, then it was going to be a pleasant conversation. He knew that the chief of staff had plenty of unpleasant conversations in this room, and he suspected that those took place across the desk.
In answer to her query, Sonek said, "I gave him a little bit of advice on dealing with the councillor from Bolarus."
Esperanza winced. "The transporter thing?"
She started to say something, then waved it off. "I can't think about that right now."
"I gotta tell you, Esperanza, I was real glad to hear from you guys. President Zife and me, well—we didn't exactly see eye to eye, which is why I've been on Mars all this time, but—"
"Your name did actually come up a few times, Sonek, but we weren't sure you'd say yes, given the way things ended with President Zife."
"Esperanza, some thirty-odd years ago or so, President T'Pragh read a monograph that I wrote about the Cardassians and then she called me into this building to talk to me about it. She asked me to serve then, and I've never once said no when I've been asked since."
Esperanza smiled, and Sonek had the feeling that it was her first smile of the day. "I'm very glad to hear that, Sonek, because that's exactly what President Bacco is asking you to do now."
Sonek let out a long breath, and his shoulders felt as if two-ton weights had suddenly been removed from them. He actually sunk further into the couch, which he wouldn't have believed possible.
Until this moment, he hadn't truly believed that he was going to be asked.
"What can I do for the Federation, Esperanza?"
Setting down her drink on the table, she asked, "How much do you know about the current state of the Romulans?"
"About a year and a half ago—right around when President Bacco took office—Praetor Hiren and a good chunk of the Senate were killed and a Reman named Shinzon took over. He got himself killed while trying to invade the Federation. One of the surviving senators, Tal'Aura, took over as Praetor, but she was the one who left the thalaron device in the Senate on Shinzon's behalf, so she wasn't exactly overwhelmed with support. Late last year, a military commander named Donatra set herself up as empress of the Imperial Romulan State, with about half the military and all of the Romulan bread basket in her pocket. The Federation and the Klingons both recognized Donatra's government, and her ships were a big help against the Borg. In fact, one of her ships sacrificed itself to save Ardana. Right now, half the population on Ardana's wearing Romulan military haircuts."
Esperanza's eyes went wide. "Seriously?"
Sonek nodded while sipping his punch. After swallowing, he said, "My wife's the transporter chief on the Sugihara, and they're in charge of Ardana's reconstruction efforts."
"Ah." She leaned back in her chair. "Here's the thing: While we do recognize Donatra's government, we're also still providing aid to Romulus, just like we have since Shinzon's coup. Now, though—"
"Now we're stretched kind of thin."
"Yes, and there's a rather obvious trading partner right next door."
"Donatra won't trade with the empire?"
Esperanza shook her head. "Our ambassadors have asked her, Starfleet's asked her, but she's standing firm. And we're the ones who owe her a favor after Ardana, which makes it hard to ask for another one with any authority. That's where you come in. I told you your reputation preceded you, and while it may have been your monograph that got you into President T'Pragh's office, it was your ability to convince her that you were right about the Cardassians that kept you there, and kept her and three other presidents having you around, at least for a while. You talked the Brikar into reopening their orbit, you talked the Caitians into staying in the Federation when they were set to leave—again—and you talked the Sulamid energy minister into complying with the Edosian Accords."
"And yet, I can't convince my students to take on sensible essay topics," Sonek said with a smile.
"There's a Starfleet ship, the Aventine, that's taking relief supplies to Artaleirh, which is one of Tal'Aura's. After that, they'll take you to Achernar Prime, where you can work your magic on Donatra."
"Now, Esperanza," Sonek started, suddenly nervous, "I can't do magic. I'm no telepath, and I'm no diplomat. I'm just a person who likes to talk to people."
"You're more than that, Sonek, and you know it. And don't worry, we know there's a good chance that you'll fail. Donatra's been pretty ruthless in catering to her own self-interest. Keeping Tal'Aura down is a big part of that, and it's going to be hard to convince her otherwise. The finest minds in the Diplomatic Corps and in Starfleet have already tried. But we've got nothing to lose by trying again with you."
Sonek finished off his punch. The fact was, he was looking forward to the opportunity, but he also didn't want anyone to have unrealistic expectations. From the sounds of it, nobody did, so he was probably safe.
"The Aventine's one of the new Vestas, right? Has the slipstream drive?"
Esperanza's mouth hung open for a second. "Uhm—yes. How'd you know that?"
He smiled. "I've still got a level-twenty clearance, Esperanza, Don't use it much, but it does help me to keep up with things."
"How did you wind up with that high a clearance?" Esperanza asked incredulously.
Sonek shrugged. "I needed it for what President T'Pragh had me do during the Cardassian War, and nobody ever rescinded it, so I still got it."
"Hm." Esperanza grabbed her drink and finished it off. "Well, keep that to yourself. That's the kind of thing that'll probably annoy the other people on the Aventine. Anyhow, yes, it does have slipstream, and even without that, it's one of our fastest ships, which is why they're doing relief work right now. You should report to Captain Dax first thing in the morning. You have somewhere to stay tonight?"
"Yeah, I still got a standing reservation at the Lutetia. Haven't needed it for eight years, but I got it."
"Good." Esperanza rose, and Sonek did likewise. "The Aventine's due in late tonight, then they'll be loading up the supplies, then heading out at 0600."
Sonek winced. "Now, just for the record? Starfleet's notions of 'first thing in the morning' are entirely different from my notions of 'first thing in the morning.' I'd better head on over to the hotel and start catching up on my sleep right now." He held out his hand. "It's an honor to be serving again, Esperanza. Thank you."
"The honor's ours, Sonek, and thank you. If you have anything to report or any questions, don't hesitate to contact Zachary. He'll find me. Use code nine eight seven alpha blue six, and you'll be put through straight to him."
Sonek exited the office, with Esperanza right behind him. Zachary said, "I've got Secretary Offenhouse. He says he has bad news about the Iotians."
"Of course he has bad news." Esperanza rolled her eyes. "Does anybody have any other kind?"
"Now, I'll be doing my best to give you good news, Esperanza."
She smiled again. "Appreciate it, Sonek, truly." To Zachary: "Put Offenhouse through and then escort Professor Pran to the transporter. He's headed to the Lutetia."
Sonek was still smiling, though. He hadn't realized how happy this would make him. Of course, you should have—you had the stupid conversation with Gramps fifteen times for a reason, after all. In fact, the voice in his head sounded a lot like Tolik.
Well, you're doing it. You're back in the Palais and you're on your way to Achernar Prime to talk to an empress. This is more like it.
President Nanietta Bacco pinched the bridge of her nose as she entered the Federation Council Chambers from her private entrance behind the podium, staving off the current headache. The door slid aside at the approach of two members of her security detail, Agents Wexler and Kistler, and she followed them into the large room on the first floor of the Palais.
Since taking office, Nan Bacco had started to categorize her headaches. Headaches three, six, and seven all were Borg related, and she'd had at least one of them at any given time more or less nonstop since last June. She had been stuck on Paris One, the presidential interstellar transport, which had been hit by an unexpected level-ten ion storm en route from Kazar to Earth. Communications, navigation, and warp drive were all down for the count, and Nan was completely out of touch and unable to move for three days while they waited out the storm. During that time, a massive Borg cube invaded the solar system, eliminated Pluto, and almost destroyed Earth, until Captain Picard and the Enterprise pulled the latest in a series of rabbits out of their hat to save them all. By the time they cleared the storm and learned what had happened, it was all over. Nan had been less than thrilled with how the Council had handled things in her absence, having apparently sent a diplomatic team to try to negotiate with the Borg, which was about as effective as it would have been had Nan sent such a team to talk to the ion storm.
Today, though, was headache two, which she only got when something happened on Cestus III, and she found herself longing to be governor of the planet again, so she could just deal with it herself, instead of having to listen to her former lieutenant governor talk about it.
The latest harangue from Governor Gari was the cause of this emergency council session. As she entered, she scanned the galleries on either side of the speaker's floor at the chamber's center, and only about two dozen of the councillors were present. However, the only two who absolutely needed to be here were right in their respective seats: Councillor Molmaan of Zalda and Councillor Djinian of Cestus III. All things being equal, Nan would have raised the issue herself, but it was more appropriate coming from Djinian.
Everyone stood up at Nan's entrance, including the councillors, and several reporters in the gallery. In fact, the number of reporters outnumbered the number of councillors, but the majority of the Council members needed to be on or near their homeworlds right now.
With a twinge in her chest, her eyes fell on the seat that belonged to Nerramibus of Alonis. He had been on his way home, with seven members of his staff as well as a pilot and copilot for his personal transport, and ran into a Borg cube. Alonis had yet to name his successor, nor would they until the mourning period ended.
"Take your seats," Nan said as she stood at the podium. "Council is now in session." The computer then took roll call for the record.
Once that was done, Djinian activated the light in front of her seat, as planned.
"The podium recognizes the councillor from Cestus III."
Djinian was dressed only in a drab gray jumpsuit that looked awful against her dark skin. Usually, she had dressed up for council sessions, but such things had been much more lax of late.
During full sessions of the Federation Council, the only people who could speak for the record were the person at the podium and anyone on the speaker's floor, who had to be recognized by the podium. There was no limit on the number of people who could be on the floor, though it rarely went above three.
"With the podium's permission," Djinian said, "I would like to play the recording submitted. It's an exchange between Zaldan Orbital Command and the Andorian vessel Kovlessa three weeks ago."
"Podium grants permission," Nan said.
Djinian nodded to the clerk, who activated a control. Sound came over the speakers, filling the room.
"Zaldan Orbital Control, this is the Kovlessa. We have refugees from Alrond, requesting permission to enter orbit and begin transporting."
"Permission denied, Kovlessa."
"Zalda, your world is the designated planet for refugees in this sector."
"Permission denied. Go elsewhere. Zaldan Orbital Control out."
"Computer," Djinian said to the chamber's interface, "please examine the transponder signals in the just-played communication. What do they correspond to?"
While the computer answered, Molmaan's light predictably went on. "To the civilian transport vessel Kovlessa and to the Orbital Control satellite of planet Zalda."
"The podium recognizes the councillor from Zalda," Nan said, thinking, This oughtta be good.
Molmaan practically stomped down to the floor. Nan imagined smoke coming out of his ears, and his eyes were smoldering. The second his foot touched the floor, he bellowed, "Zalda will not allow such lies to be told! I am outraged that such falsehoods are being broadcast in open council! Such an insult cannot be tolerated!"
Throwing up his webbed hands, he then left the floor—and the chamber.
Nan wasn't expecting that. "Councillor! Please come back so we can—"
"Zalda will not be part of a Federation of liars!" Molmaan cried over his shoulder, and departed.
Nan stared after the door for several seconds. Kistler walked up to her and whispered, "Should someone go after him, Madam President?"
Staring at her bodyguard, Nan deactivated her podium pickup so she'd be off the record and whispered back, "And do what? He's a Federation councillor, not a fugitive. He's welcome to come and go as he pleases, and I'm not about to start holding councillors prisoner in here. Hell, most of the time, I'm happy to be rid of them."
Reactivating the pickup, Nan said, "The councillor from Zalda has yielded the floor, and has presented no explanation."
Djinian said, "In light of this, Madam President, I would like to move that Zalda be stricken from the refugee list until such a time as the reasons for refusing the Kovlessa can be determined."
Nan asked for a seconding of the motion, which was provided by Councillor Nea of Bolarus. All the remaining councillors present then agreed to the motion, a gesture of unanimity that either bespoke the gravity of the situation or the fact that there was such a small number of councillors present.
Either way, Nan thought, this doesn't exactly make anybody's life easier. The one thing she had been hoping for was that the council would remain united in this time of crisis. Up until now, they had.
The part Nan was least looking forward to was the conversation with Governor Gari. Headache two is in for the long haul.
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