Chapter 1
The Board is Set

Eisn's fiery orb hung low on the horizon, casting long shadows over the valley. It was a cool evening for this late in summer, the purple tinged clouds warning of a storm to come. A light wind had sprung up from the north, catching at the boys' long sleeves and serving to remind him again of how impractical they were. He paused in his work of loading the ground car to look up at the rainbow hues of his world's sky.

Would this be the last time he saw a sunset on ch'Rihan? The thought filled him both with despair and fear. He had never wanted to travel off planet, the Universe held no particular fascination for him, and he had absolutely no desire to mix with aliens from other worlds. Everything he wanted was right here. Despondently he returned to his task.

As he worked, he recalled the events that had lead him to this moment. Coming home from his studies that afternoon, he had been thinking about his father, something he did more often these days. The man was almost a stranger to him, his work keeping him off planet for years at a time, and when he did deign to visit, he was cold and distant towards his son. Recently he had been home more often. That, coupled with the boys growing maturity and independence, had caused certain conflicts.

Now aged 17, Ashan was ready to make his own way in the world, and his father's presence at home only made him more determined to leave. He had decided to enter the military. His father would, of course, disapprove of his decision, and to be honest, he really did not want to be a soldier, but the job would take him away from home - and the brooding, uncommunicative man who visited them so little. Ashan had given up trying to gain his approval years ago. All he wanted now was to be free from his disapproving looks. The fact that he would miss his mother terribly was something he would just have to deal with.

By the time he had reached the door to their house, Ashan was angry. He had barely even greeted his mother, when the communication panel lit up with an incoming message. Ashan had glanced at the code and recognised it as his fathers. With an apologetic smile, his mother had taken the call in private as she always did. Ashan had never told her how much that annoyed him. It was like a slap in the face, being excluded from the family like that. When she emerged from the bedchamber a few moments later, her face was pale and haunted. She would not tell him what was wrong - only that they were leaving ch'Rihan - now.

Sighing, he focused on his task again. The last travel bag was proving to be difficult. Already there was barely room in the ground car for the pilot and passenger. He tried the bag several ways before finally thumping it down at his feet.

"I hope that one contained no breakables?"

He spun to face his mother. She was carrying several more bags, which Ashan pointed at and sighing said, "There's no more room mother. Not if you want to take me too?"

She nodded resignedly and turned back to the house still laden. When her husband had contacted her, he had told her to pack only essentials, and her son was definitely an essential. What do I need with clothes anyway? She thought.

Ashan fell into step beside her and gently relieved her of her physical burden. Her mental burden would be hers alone to shoulder, at least for a while longer. She studied him from the corner of her eye as they walked towards the house. He often appeared distracted and annoyed these days so his scowling visage held no surprises for her, but knowing that she was the cause of his latest mood filled her with sorrow. Perhaps it would have been wiser to remain silent, but she could not ignore her child's pain.

"My son, you seem unusually belligerent today." From the corner of her eye she watched as both his finely sculpted eyebrows shot into his hairline. They had reached the house and he was holding open the door for her (if nothing else the boy's manners were impeccable). She sighed as she stepped past him and thought He will not be put off much longer. It would appear that the onus of explanation falls to me yet again.

It came even sooner than she expected. The door slammed shut behind them and he rounded on her angrily. "Mother - where are we going? Why are we leaving like this? When are you going to tell me what's going on?"

She rubbed a delicate finger over her temple and sighed. Already the room was beginning to darken as the Rihannsu sun set. She took his arm and guided him into the family room where she busied herself plumping up cushions on the low couch.

Ashan remained in the centre of the room still laden with heavy bags, and waited for her to speak. He knew she was afraid, although fear was not an emotion he had seen in his mother's eyes very often. Eventually she faced him again and said quietly, "Your father will be here shortly, he will explain everything."

"All things considered, I'd rather hear it from you."

She stiffened at his tone. It was the same old story. The barely concealed animosity Ashan felt for his father crackled between them like electricity. She could not blame her son for feeling the way he did, but nor could she blame her husband.

"Ashan, you don't give him a chance...."

"The man is a stranger to me - I don't see him often enough to give him a chance. "

"His work....!"

"I know, I know his work has kept him away. Mother - I am 17 years old. I have seen my father perhaps 5 times. How can his work be so important to him that he visits his family so rarely? Besides.... even when he is here - I always feel like he's looking down at me. As if I can't do anything right."

She took the bags from his unresisting fingers and dropped them on the floor. Gently she guided him to the sofa and they sat in silence for a moment. Finally she took a deep breath and fixing him with an intent look she said, "Your father is proud of you my son. He has difficulty expressing himself sometimes."

Ashan shot to his feet and began pacing the small room. "Not with you he doesn't. Mother - tell me what's going on - please."

Just then they heard the sound of the front door opening. "He's here. Ashan, I think you had better sit down."

Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise NCC1701-D, sat beneath the warm yellow glow of the standard lamp and closed the photograph album with a thump. He looked around the room in which he sat. If he concentrated hard enough, he could almost hear the sound of Rene's childish laughter coming from the barn. Picard sighed. The horrific events of the last three weeks would give him no peace.

First there was the loss of his brother and nephew in the fire, then his ship had been destroyed and 17 members of his crew had died. The trip back from Veridian III to Earth, and his detailed report to the Admiralty had taken nearly three weeks, in which time the majority of the damage done to the house had been repaired. He had thought that coming here might help put some of his personal ghosts to rest, but the emotional wounds were still too raw.

It had been a mistake to come back here. Then there was the terrible guilt he felt over the death of James Kirk. Somehow, of all the deaths, Kirk's haunted him the most. Perhaps because he had actually witnessed it, or perhaps because it was at his insistence that Kirk had even been there on Veridian III. The responsibility weighed heavily upon him.

Picard got up and roamed the room like a caged tiger. He became aware of the quiet drone of a newscaster's voice coming from the com unit. The awful, echoing silence in the house had caused Picard to turn on the broadcast just to have some reassuring background noise, but now the monotone drone was merely annoying. He reached to switch the unit off but something the newsreader was saying stopped him. Instead, he turned the sound up. The voice was talking in a pleasant, matter of fact voice but Picard felt his blood run cold.

The new Hard line Romulan government is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 30 alleged Federation Spies. Our sources within the Empire have indicated that this new regime intends to eradicate all threats to their continued control. It is believed that the 30 casualties were members of The Romulan Underground Movement, which has, in recent months, been a vocal minority on the subject of Unification. The Vulcan High Council remains unavailable for comment....

Picard clicked off the viewer and sat down heavily on a chair still staring at the now blank screen. Quickly, he tapped in his Starfleet clearance code and began making a series of calls. Eventually he was connected to the office of Admiral Joshua Landsbury. The ruddy faced, elderly man was an old friend from his Academy days and a good source of unofficial information.

"Sorry to disturb you Josh - I hope you're not too busy?"

Landsbury ran a hand through his mop of unruly silver hair and smiled broadly at Picard. "Actually - I don't mind the interruption - I'm trying to write an eulogy for an old Admiral that died a few days ago. Not one of my favourite duties."

"I know what you mean Josh - I wrote my first one for Jack Crusher. It never gets any easier."

"Jesus Jean-Luc - I'm sorry - I didn't think! You must have spent the last three weeks writing letters of condolence."

"No need to apologise Josh, it comes with the job. But as you say - it's not a pleasant duty."

Landsbury smiled sympathetically but Picard did not return his friend's smile. "Josh, I need some information."

The Admiral, suddenly all business, shifted in his seat. "What's up?"

"What information do you have on the last known whereabouts of Ambassador Spock of Vulcan?"

Landsbury was silent for a moment. Folding his arms across his chest, the Admiral leaned forward and fixed his old friend with an intense stare, "Captain, I can't broadcast information like that on an open channel. You know the regulations as well as I do. I simply can't tell you where the Vulcan is headed."

Picard smiled slightly. So far so good but he needed more, "Sorry sir - I read you loud and clear. How's your wife?"

"She's fine. She's visiting relatives right now but I expect her home in about three days if all goes well. Anything else I can do for you Jean-Luc?"

"No sir. Thank you. I'm sorry to have bothered you." Picard terminated the communication and sat back with relief. Anyone who knew Josh Landsbury, also knew the man was a confirmed bachelor. His coded message was quite clear - Spock would be on Vulcan in 3 days, and he was OK. Picard was glad his friend had made it out.

"We're not going to make it," Darneck was frantically tapping commands into the little transport's helm console. The ship lurched violently against the tight course change. The bird of prey swooped down on them from a different angle.

"They're coming around again" The pilot had no time to acknowledge. The dry, computerised voice from the panel in front of him was announcing that the enemy ship had achieved phaser lock. He threw the ship to starboard and overrode safety protocols in order to bring them from sublight to warp speed.

" Are you mad?" cried Darneck, seeing what his friend was trying to do. "You'll tear us to pieces."

Jumping the ship to warp without accelerating through impulse speeds first was an extremely dangerous manoeuvre.

Tarrin pulled his hand free from his friends' vice-like grip. He hit the anti-matter inducer button and held on for grim death as the tiny ship tried to fly itself apart. A second later they were streaming through warp space, leaving their pursuers to fire at empty space. In the passenger compartment behind him, he could hear the sounds of people picking themselves up from the floor. No time to check on them now. He fed a new set of co-ordinates into his console and looked at Darneck from the corner of his eye.

"They're faster than us. It's only a matter of time before they catch up. We'd better do some fancy evasive manoeuvres."

Darneck was sweating profusely. He glanced down at the co-ordinates that had been transferred to his navigation's console. "These co-ordinates will take us.....into Federation space."

Tarrin nodded slowly. "I'm betting they wont follow us once we cross the neutral zone."

"May all your bets pay off" said Darneck in a tight voice.

"Captains Personal Log, Stardate 4420.6. I have just received some verra sad news. Doctor McCoy is dead."

Captain Montgomery Scott paused in the dictation of his log to wipe his hand roughly over his face

"I saw him barely a month ago on Earth, and knew this moment would come soon, and yet I find myself unprepared for it. I suppose I've just been avoiding it these last few weeks."

After leaving Picard's Enterprise in his borrowed Starfleet Shuttle, Scotty had spent 18 months acquainting himself with the 24th century and its miraculous technology. His unique knowledge of 100 years of engineering technology had lead, six months ago, to Starfleet asking him to re-enlist. As many of the newer Federation worlds still used antiquated technology, Scotty was to be an Independent Engineering Consultant, helping to integrate the old with the new.

It was a rewarding and worthwhile job, but to Scotty, the best part about the job was his new ship. As he was required to warp all over the quadrant, Starfleet had given him a Dante-Class Runabout, which he had proudly named the Nova Scotia.

A little under a month ago, whilst attending a briefing session on Earth, Scotty had finally plucked up the courage to visit Leonard McCoy. He had been told how ill the Admiral was, and had thought himself prepared. McCoy was 144. A very old man, and one very tired of living.

" Perhaps I should have taken Picard's advice and left well enough alone. Ach who am I kidding - I could no more hae done that than fitted faulty Antimatter Inducers to ma own engines. But still - it was a shock to see McCoy in that hospital - he was so ....old. I always thought he would be attending my funeral one day. After all I am.....I mean I was 5 years his senior."

Scott stared through the front view port of his tiny shuttle and tried to compose himself. "They tell me the memorial service will be in 4 days. I've contacted Captain Picard and he hopes to be able to attend. It will be nice to see him again - although I could have wished for better circumstances. I am heading back to Earth at warp 2. The Nova is having a few engine problems and I don't want to tax her too much. ETA 2.3 days."

Scott switched off the recorder and listened intently to the faint vibration only discernible to a very good engineer. He patted the console in front of him tenderly "Take it easy Lass, we've got plenty o'time"

"Direct hit, starboard engine. Warp core will go critical in....3 minutes." Darneck, shouted over the ear-piercing red alert siren and the noise of super-compressed gases leaking into space from a hull breach. "Emergency forcefields in place, life support stabilised. Tarrin - we have to jettison the warp nacelle"

Tarrin checked the sensors. They had just crossed the neutral zone but the bird of prey was still closing. If he did as his friend suggested, they would be sitting ducks, and if he didn't......?

Darneck was watching the bird of prey closing in for the kill. Her wing configuration changed subtly as she swooped down like a giant eagle. These ships were very well named.

"We almost did it." Darneck whispered softly as the tinny computer announced, "Warning, enemy vessel has phaser lock"

Tarrin sighed. He had done everything he could. There was no shame in failure when your opponent proved superior. He instructed the computer to release the damaged nacelle and watched as it drifted away. A bolt of blue lightning shot out from the bird of prey, and Darneck squeezed his eyes shut.

But death did not come. The free-floating nacelle was the bird of preys target. The shock wave from the exploding anti-matter threw their tiny vessel violently to starboard. The emergency siren began to wail again as the computer catalogued the fresh damage. So - they intend to kill us by degrees, thought Tarrin. It is their right.

The viewscreen showed the bird of preys' phaser ports glow blue as she powered up for another shot. She was hanging in space a few hundred kilometres ahead of them. Without warning the huge ship vectored off to starboard and sped back towards the neutral zone. Within a few seconds, she had engaged the warp drive and was gone. "What ....?" Tarrin frowned at the viewscreen then gasped as a Federation Starship glided into view. "How in the Praetor's name did we miss that?"

Darneck rubbed the back of his hand over his forehead "I suppose we had other things to think about," he said softly as he opened a hailing frequency. A deep resonant voice issued from the speaker.

"This is Captain Carl Leighton of the Starship Columbia, do you require assistance?"

Tarrin turned to the man who had just appeared beside them from the passenger compartment. He raised an eyebrow. The man reached past him and touched the com panel with long, delicate fingers.

"Captain Leighton, this is Ambassador Spock of Vulcan. We do indeed require assistance".

On board the Columbia, the Captain shot out of his command chair and gasped.




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