Read Star Trek: The Empty Chair Online

Authors: Diane Duane

Tags: #science fiction, #star trek

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BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
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“They have reason to be, Captain. They see you as part of their salvation—though it comes in an unexpected shape.”

“And how do they see
you?”

Ael’s look was fairly wry.
“Oh, some of the epithets being bandied about right now are embarrassing enough. Not to mention premature. For my own part, I refuse to be hailed as ‘savior’ of anything until it has actually been saved. Especially since I am, at best, a convenient excuse. Meanwhile, we have other business. Maintaining so high a speed on the way here has given us some slight advantage that we must now quickly determine how to use, for those nine Imperial ships are incoming.”

This was an update which Jim had very much been wanting. “When?”

“The Artaleirhin local-space command and control center estimates four hours until the cruisers arrive. This is not based on any direct sensing yet; the range is still too great. But messages have been passed on via subspace communications from other star systems friendly to Artaleirh, indicating that the subfleet has passed their way at speed.”

“I would have thought those ships would be coming in cloaked,” McCoy said.

“Indeed they will be, Doctor, but as you know, there are ways to defeat cloaking protocols,”
Ael said.
“At least enough to read some insufficiently shielded signal through them. Such defeat measures are wasteful of energy and betray one’s own position. But when the facility is planet-based, why not? For not even we know how to hide a whole planet—not yet.”

“A cloak’s main strategic usefulness is out in open space, Bones,” Jim said. “Where your opponent either can’t spare the energy to defeat your cloak, if he knows how, or grudges the energy because it’s needed more for propulsion or weapons. Ael, we need to confer right away with the Artaleirhin; I need to know more about the strategic possibilities of this system so that we can decide where to make our stand.”

“Captain, I will arrange it,”
Ael said.
“I will call you again in twenty minutes.”
The screen flicked back to the view of the Artaleirhin primary as
Enterprise
coasted in past it, toward the colony planet.

Jim gazed at the screen. “Spock, I want you to do an in-depth survey of the system. Let’s see what our best tactical options are, depending on which way the attacking force comes in. Engineering.”

“Scott here. Captain, I hope you’re not expectin’ us to go anywhere sudden after that run! We’ve got to swap a new dilithium crystal into the warp engine array; the old one’s developed a stress fracture due to all that time at high warp, and it’s no longer dependable.”

Jim frowned. “How long’s that going to take you, Scotty? Looks like there’s about to be a battle here in four hours.”

Scotty made one of those sucking-in-your-breath sounds that Jim knew all too well meant there was trouble that not even Scotty could finesse his way out of.
“It’s only an hour or so to do the actual swap, Captain. But then there’s the matter of testing and calibrating the new crystal. No two are ever really alike, no matter what the cutters say, and tryin’ to use standard calibrations for a new crystal is a sure way to damage other parts of the engine, or even to blow the crystal itself if it’s stressed too much before it’s run in. Which it would be in battle, no way around it.”

“How long is the test cycle going to take you, Scotty?”

“I’d hate to spend less than three hours on it, sir.”

“You may have to, if things heat up.”

“Then I’d best get started now.”

“Scotty, one thing first! Sunseed—”

“Aye,”
Scotty said,
“we were considering the option of seeding this star if worse came to worst. And it’s a good candidate for induction. But Captain, there’s a question as well of what other friendly forces will be in the area—or may turn up suddenly and get blown to bits for their pains because
they didn’t have the right screen tunings beforehand. And there’s the question of the planet’s atmosphere: will it be able to stop the worst of what’s going to come out of the star if we do seed it? K’s’t’lk’s working on the atmospheric propagation predictions, and on the shield-tuning algorithms; she’ll be passing them to Mr. Spock shortly, for dissemination as you see fit. But the tuning algorithms’ll need fine-tuning when the process actually starts, and we may be a wee bit busy then.”

Jim sighed. “We’ll have to see how it goes. Do what you can, Scotty.”

He turned to Spock, who had come down from his station to stand by the center seat, gazing at the tactical view of the system that he had restored to the viewscreen. Jim glanced at the asteroid belt and said, “Mr. Spock, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yes, Captain, and without the benefit of extraneous instrumentalities.” Jim threw Spock a look at what sounded like a joke, but his first officer didn’t glance away from the screen. “In any case, the venue is certainly suited to the classic planetary defense strategies of Orondley and Indawal as developed for Starfleet during the so-called ‘early colonization engagements’ of the late 2100s, and implemented at the battle of Donatu V, among others. And the Artaleirhin have the advantage in that they have forced the Empire to respond from a considerable distance, so that any move they make, even cloaked, is quickly telegraphed, and any major commitment of forces would leave the Empire stretched thin in other areas.”

“So you’re saying the situation looks favorable?”

“There are the usual imponderables associated with a large engagement, Captain,” Spock said. “Much can go wrong, or right, in a surprisingly short time, and the skill, or lack of it, of the commanders is also an issue. But there are also factors with which I think the Imperium may not have
reckoned.” He glanced back at the monitor over his science station. “That asteroid belt, even to a cursory scan, betrays multiple energy sources that do not match well with a mining operation, even a large and well-established one; there are too many of those sources, too widely distributed. While the attack seems to have been hastily contrived, I would suspect the defense has been some time in preparation.”

“Yes,” Jim said. “Well, all right, continue your analysis and see if you can get a sense of exactly what’s going on out there in the belt besides what’s being openly advertised. Meanwhile, in fifteen minutes, you and I should meet in my quarters for that transmission from Ael.” Jim got up, glanced over at Uhura. “All stations to remain at yellow alert, Commander. I don’t want to wear anybody down, but the idea that there might be some gate-crashers at this party has been giving me indigestion.”

He headed out.

Many light-years away, in the neighborhood of Eisn, a conference was taking place in a small, bare, snoop-proofed room overlooking the Senate dome. Three men stood there—or rather two of them looked out the window, and behind them, one paced, restless, furious, waiting for the single small telltale light in the wall to turn blue.

Finally it did. “Did it get away safely?” were the first words out of Urellh’s mouth.

“As far as we can tell.”

“What do you mean ‘as far as we can tell’? Who do we have to ask to find out for sure?”

“Urellh,” said Armh’n, “our people in the field dare not query the device at the moment. It is still too close to where numerous Federation forces are operating. If they get even a hint of its presence at the moment, they might well be able to hunt it down. Let it proceed quietly for a few days at least, until its signal will be so swamped in larger amounts of code
traffic and other routine signaling that no one will notice it. Then we can find out what we need to know. A few more days makes no odds.”

“I want to know,” the Praetor muttered. But for the moment he seemed to decide to let the subject rest. “What about Artaleirh?”

“The Fleet will be there in a matter of hours,” tr’Anierh said.

“They are to chastise the planet immediately, and then turn their attention to finding that woman,” Urellh said. “She must be destroyed without delay. Word of what happened to end the negotiations will certainly leak out—damn those treacherous
neirrh
who stole Farmer Gurri out of
Gorget’
s very infirmary! But we can at least slow it down.”

“Once the Fleet handles Artaleirh—”

“Assuming they can,” Urellh snarled. “The under-commanders are so divided among themselves at the moment, the Fleet Master Admiral tells me, that they can hardly even fly in the same direction. This blasted infection is spreading, and I don’t doubt some of it has been spread by you two.” He glared at tr’Anierh.

“This seed’s of
your
sowing, Urellh,” tr’Anierh said, more mildly than he needed to. “A couple of years ago you were all for ‘strengthening personal ties with the Fleet,’ as you called it. Of course what you meant was, ‘wresting its individual commanders’ loyalties to oneself so as to render the Grand Fleet Admirals largely powerless in any crisis.’ And as you did so, then so did we all; for what one of the Three does, we all do, in self-defense if not out of policy. Why should it be any news to you now that the commanders are now studying to dance to their masters’ harps—that is to say, ours? And why has this outcome surprised you?”

“If we were unified in our opinions,” Urellh said softly, “it would not matter.”

Even Armh’n looked amused at that. “We’re not one mind
in three bodies yet, Urellh. Nor will be, at the rate things are going. Each of us has his own power bloc to manage in the Senate, and each of them is trying to go in its own direction, like wayward
hlai
before the dinner pail’s heard clanking. Soon enough they’ll all be lined up at the gate again. But for the time being we must let them think what they’re doing is their idea. And we must not lose our nerve. Artaleirh’s outcome will settle them down.”

“It had better,” Urellh said. “How long now?”

“Three hours, give or take a little time.”

“We must meet at the Grand Fleet command center in five hours, then. The signal will be delayed coming back, but not too much.”

The other two nodded, and Urellh slapped the blue light to kill the antiscan devices. A moment later the door swung open, and the Three came out again.

Their small suites of attendants were waiting for them, all of the Three having come from a morning session of the Senate, one of the last before the sessions could move back to their proper place under the Dome. Urellh rounded immediately on one of his attendants. “You are to get in contact with the heads of the news and broadcast services,” he said, “and let them know that
their
heads, not their reporters’, will answer for any escape of the news about the…difficulties…at the talks. Not a breath of it is to come out on ch’Rihan and ch’Havran; they may say that
Gorget
has come back for instructions, if they like, while the other ships remain engaged elsewhere. Control of the information may be more difficult farther out, but we can still make our presence felt. Tell Intelligence to get out there and offer swords to a few of the most outspoken of the reporters. And help them along a little bit if they don’t understand the gesture. That kind of thing is what Intelligence is best at, anyway.”

Off Urellh went, growling orders to the four directions and the five winds as he went, while his sweating attendants
hurried to keep up with him; and tr’Anierh watched him go. Beside him, Armh’n did not move.

Both their own groups of attendants hung back for the moment. There in the momentary quiet, tr’Anierh said softly to Armh’n, “I am sorry to hear of your loss at the talks.”

“That idiot,” Armh’n said. “Plainly he got caught in the middle of someone else’s game, or in one of his own, as if I thought him capable of playing any game with the slightest degree of subtlety. Well, something may come of this anyway. Once I finish overseeing the interrogation of the pertinent crew on
Gorget,
we may be able to accuse the Federation of old Uncle Gurri’s death, if nothing else.”

“We have accused them of a great many other things, but nothing has come of it,” tr’Anierh said. “This, I think, will not trouble their sleep.”

“Other things soon will,” Armh’n said, more softly still. “Especially if they like sleeping with the lights on.”

Jim and Spock were down in Jim’s quarters when the desk monitor whistled for attention. Jim swung around behind his desk, hit the button. “Kirk here.”

Ael’s image, from
Bloodwing’
s bridge, appeared.
“Captain, I would like to make known to you Courhig tr’Mahan stai-Norrik, who leads the local defense fleet. I believe his title, if the locals were much for titles, would translate as ‘commodore,’ if by that you mean the most senior-ranked of a nonmilitary captain-group.”

The image on the screen divided. Standing on a bridge that was, if anything, even more cramped-looking than Ael’s, was a short, round Romulan with close-cropped bristly gray hair, wearing what looked more like a businessman’s dark one-piece suit than any kind of uniform. His round face, wrinkled like that of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors, made Jim think of a bulldog—one that wasn’t angry yet, but was looking forward to becoming so.
“Captain,”
he
said,
“whatever relations between the Federation and the Empire have been until now, please believe me when I say that you are very welcome here.”

“Sir, I thank you,” Jim said, “but one thing I’d very much like to clear up is exactly where the local government stands on what is about to happen here.”

Tr’Mahan smiled slightly.
“Captain, both from the Imperial point of view and from that of my cohabitants here, I am the local government. As much of it as the Imperium routinely paid any attention to, at least. ‘Planetary governor’ would probably be a good rendering. I am native to Artaleirh, involved in politics here for a long while before I was chosen by the Imperium, they thought, as a good candidate to get the taxes in and keep the locals in line. But I do not have that much power anymore—not after the way we have been treated over the last decade. So I have taken this opportunity to change jobs.”

BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
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