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Waterloo

Broken Blinds and Chimney Pots

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?They want you back,? Ambassador Jean-Luc Picard said. ?They don?t want to argue.?

?I wish I could accommodate them,? she said.

?It?s not a question of what you want,? Picard said. ?I think there was a doctor once who said it best: ?They?re drafting you,? as I generously paraphrase. You?re not allowed to turn them down. You?re seen as too valuable an asset.?

?Funny, that?s the not the impression my previous tenure told me,? she said. ?It?s easy when you get all the easy assignments, when your disasters are so high-profile they can?t help but love you. I?m not going to lie to you. I feel burned, and I was never given a bandage, not even by your doctor friend.?

?They?re not what you think,? Picard said. ?They?re not the enemy.?

?Are we talking about the Romulans, or the fleet??

?Robin, I cannot begin to express the regret I feel at the treatment you have previously experienced,? Picard said. ?As you are aware, even as the captain of the flagship, I had my share of grievances as well. I recognize and appreciate that you were never in so privileged a circumstance, but I assure you that I have never done less than given my full support to you and the former members of your crew, some of whom continue to be assets to the fleet, whether it is noticed or not. Your previous assistance on Romulus has unfortunately become more valuable than ever. As the Federation?s representative to Vulcan, I cannot do this myself. But as a personal favor, I would like you to do it for me, if for no other reason.?

Staring into the viewscreen on her desk, Robin Matheson allowed herself a small smile, for the ambassador?s benefit, a reassurance she refused to utter aloud. She would get the band back together, for the first time in six years. ?But on one condition,? she said. ?We bring the Copernicus back out of mothballs.?

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Three years after the Dominion revolution, the Cardassian known as Pentek was in a far different place in his life. The peace he had been attempting to make in his tortured mind, the reconciliation with the sins of his past and the potential of the future, they had brought him to Romulus, where he met with a Reman named Neerok, who had once been praetor of the Star Empire. Then disaster struck, a world was lost, and everything he thought he?d known was thrown out of the book. He learned how Ambassador Spock?s disappearance, the last hope for unification of the Vulcan races, had shattered the last hopes of the surviving Romulans, and saw an opportunity. He would have his redemption after all, but at the cost of some potentially fatal maneuvering. He would have to meet with an old friend, but this was a friend in the Cardassian sense, a matter of opportunity and interpretation. He would have to meet with Douglas Velar.

***

The Klingon warrior known as Guerin was unknowingly following a parallel course to Pentek?s activities. Since the loss of his son and the necessity to murder Gird himself to preserve his honor, Guerin had been pursuing much the same life he had previously been so disappointed to see his son attempt. He had sought out Worf, son of Mogh, if not out of respect than to demonstrate to Starfleet that he acknowledged past efforts for a Klingon to assimilate into their organization. He did not like the idea of attending the Academy at a relatively advanced age, since it was common only for youths to apply themselves on those grounds, but found an instructor there, Laurie Nicholson, who would pledge herself as his advisor. He was three years into his studies when he was approached by Nicholson?s friend, Ethan Chenoweth, who said he had looked over Guerin?s files and noticed his experience as a field medic, that it could be applied to his credits. If he agreed to serve with Chenoweth, he was offered early graduation. Guerin didn?t hesitate. All he asked was Chenoweth?s current assignment, which he soon learned was ongoing relief efforts in Romulan space. For a moment, he second-guessed himself, but decided his new life meant he should put aside old prejudices. He had never considered that redemption was even necessary, but the more he considered where his life had taken him in recent years, the more he couldn?t help reflecting that it was something he actively sought.

***

Having finished the Salient assignment, Lewis Rivera contemplated retiring from Starfleet, no longer feeling compelled to serve, no longer interested in participating in the rash of conflicts that seemed to swarm around that life. He just wanted some peace. He was aware of recent events that had rocked the Federation of its neighbors, and that his old commanding officer, Robin Matheson, had been asked to come out of her own retirement to help deal with them, but he was done worrying about her. It wasn?t that he resented how his association with her had dulled his career, since by most accounts he had still enjoyed a successful one. He never stopped supporting her, either; if anything, he was disappointed that she never put up more of a fight for her own reputation. If he could be persuaded to care at all, he wanted a better reason, if not to care exactly, than why he should get involved personally. He saw all the efforts going on and appreciated them, especially that Starfleet recognized that Matheson could be an asset again. If anything, he was proud. Perhaps his career had in time come to be seen as a testament to her worth. Maybe that was all he needed to do, what he had already done. He had a new assignment on his desk at the moment. It was his to either choose to accept, or to finalize the retirement.

He never expected a visit from Harmon Franzoni.

***

For some reason, the regular cycle of Hollan?Das? return was interrupted. It was more of an awareness at this point than something she could do anything about. As part of her people?s form of existence, she was at the moment disembodied thought. She couldn?t communicate with the outside world anymore than it could with her. She could have no idea why it was happening, only that it was. She would learn more soon enough.

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He liked to think of himself as the unredeemed captive, trapped between worlds he never quite fit into. His name was Joel Nelson, and that was pretty much all he was certain about. He?d failed miserably as a Maquis, and had remained thoroughly unspectacular as a member of Starfleet, cursed, or so he believed, by a strange of bad choices and circumstances that never ended up favoring him. It was all his father?s fault.

Nelson?s father had been an admiral of the fleet by fifty, and served in that capacity for twenty years. Nelson had been born to this honorable officer two years after, a miracle even in that age, when the exception of the hundred-year-old commander could still raise the eyebrow. He was told stories of the Enterprise first officer who barely held that post a year before he was being pestered for his own command, which he refused for almost as long as Nelson?s father sat around making those kinds of decisions. Nelson would come home and see the dinner table filled with data pads commemorating the accomplishments and futures of everyone Nelson was told he should emulate. Even in retirement, Nelson?s father was busier than he could ever dream of becoming. It wasn?t that it was a lot to live up to, Nelson just plain wasn?t interested.

He was never bad as that Tom Paris, whom all his friends told him he was like. He met Paris once or twice, even during the brief period where they were both Maquis. No, Nelson was no Tom Paris. He wasn?t even a Nick Locarno. He never caused the death of anyone. He was probably worse. Through no discernable character flaws, just an utter lack of luck, he amounted very quickly to nothing, a disappointment he was content to be, losing every friend, regretting their absence, never understanding why they didn?t stick around, and generally still pretty happy with himself. If anyone bothered to think about him at all, they still probably wouldn?t have summed Joel Nelson up with the one word that mattered: pathetic. He wasn?t worth anyone?s time.

That?s how he saw it, anyway, in his weakest moments. Someone else?s interpretation of his father would probably have been vastly different. They would have seen an old man who?d coasted through his career, a lack of ambition leading to a go-nowhere position with no real authority, something that kept him happy, and his son liked enough but never offered anything better. What were the chances he was much better? They knew he was, but they also knew Nelson didn?t, not in any meaningful way. There were conversations for years that a reunion with Paris might be a good idea. There were whispers that of all Matheson?s sorry crew, if Nelson had been there at Haley Minor, he might have been able to salvage everything. He had the instinct. He just never had the opportunity. Sometimes, bad things happen to give good things the chance they need to develop.

So instead of redeeming himself in some spectacular fashion, Nelson left Starfleet after a string of bad missions with the Copernicus and tried to settle into meaningless mediocrity. He left all of them behind, even old friends like Wynton Keynes. He didn?t want reminders. He stopped talking with his father, with other former Maquis. He stopped following the developments of the Gnomon intifada. Now and then, he heard things, and he chose to ignore them. He planted himself firmly on the ground, Tyco City under the dome, and spent his days reading books. He?d had his fill of holographic fantasies and computer screens. All the thoughts of his imagination these days centered on idle thoughts of what his counterpart in some alternate reality might be doing. It wasn?t about daydreaming, but rather participating in one of the few expanding fields of current study that still interested him. He?d long been told of one such reality, where humanity had once ruled an empire, lost it, and slowly fought for its freedoms again. He wondered if his alternate might even now be struggling to create that empire again. He?d once met a man named Adam Ghoeller who claimed to know that he was a Klingon there.

This theoretical ?mirror Nelson? was a man of some importance, who commanded respect, who was even captain of his own ship, which he would have had well before humanity had won its freedom back, like that reality?s Benjamin Sisko. Nelson had heard his reality?s Sisko had disappeared some twenty years back, but his son had been keeping his flame alive, in a series of books, the very ones he read now. He had an itch to do some writing himself now, if only he knew anyone in the publishing industry. He didn?t like the idea of going unread. Too much redundancy.

Jake Sisko had begun writing Ferengi tales, which baffled much of his readership, but didn?t bother Nelson at all. He liked reading about different cultures, and the younger Sisko wrote with such passion and conviction, and such a deep knowledge, Nelson had half a mind to believe much of it was true, despite how unlikely it was for the former Grand Nagus Zek to have had a secret offspring who?d been involved in so much of the Dominion War without anyone knowing about it. He thought to write Nagus Rom about it, or perhaps Jake?s old friend, Captain Nog. Nelson thought about the Crown Nagus Lem so much that he became convinced that the Ferengi lived next door, that if he looked around corners a split second sooner he might catch him.

***

As it was, Lem actually existed, and did in fact live next door to Nelson, though he was as completely unaware of the Sisko tales as he was that someone who savored them so much was just around every corner. No, Lem was far more concerned with the news he?d heard, that the Great Material Continuum was finally working in his favor. He was about to acquire the most legendary of galactic weapons, the so-called Romulan Borg prototype. He didn?t know what he was going to do with the drone once it actually showed up, but for once, he could stop thinking about that moon his father had never managed to get him?

***

Matheson sat in the runabout, accompanied by her trusted Vulcan physician Sokor and new first officer Eno Rimel, the first Nyberrite to serve in Starfleet. They were headed to Epsilon Station 12, the first time Matheson had been to one of them since serving at ES1 with her late mentor, Gerald Logan. She hadn?t had a chance to meet Eno before this trip, but she was reluctant to start a line of dialogue now. Awaiting them at ES12 wasn?t just the Copernicus but Admiral Strynn, an Andorian who had also once been her XO. It was an uncomfortable time all around for Matheson to dwell on the subject, since she?d just heard that Harmon Franzoni had been found dead, and Lewis Rivera was missing. Eno was more likely to ask if the position was cursed than engage in small talk. As it was, she was already keeping her distance, having introduced herself as the cousin of Genfirins Nem, the freighter captain who had once flown with Wynton Keynes, who was to be their new navigator, over Matheson?s own objections. It wasn?t a grudge against a man who stirred too many bad memories, but rather the hope that the captain might still have convinced Joel Nelson to return. There were precious few allies awaiting her on this mission, beyond the doctor, John Zimmer, and Louis Hounsou, the latter two already awaiting the party aboard ship.

It smelled like nothing but trouble, and she couldn?t shake the feeling that it had been a mistake to agree to the mission, regardless of the goodwill it engendered the Federation during a time it could really use a little of that with the Star Empire. Among the few survivors to escape the destruction of Romulus was the Reman she had once helped become praetor, Neerok, but even he was, to say the least, reluctant to hear what his tenuous allies might have to say in the rebuilding process. Matheson had been there to help him during another time of upheaval in the political scene, but this was worse. The Romulans had refused assistance even from the Klingons, who in their eyes weren?t even partially culpable in the disaster. It wasn?t about his own position this time, or even the Remans, but about Neerok?s ability to ensure a future for his people. Why should be trust Matheson again?

***

Ethan Chenoweth and Guerin also awaited the captain?s arrival at ES12, but at the moment they were not scheduled to be a part of the Copernicus crew. Rather, they were there to monitor the appearance of Hollan?Das, something even Matheson wasn?t aware of, though for years she had unofficially served as the unusual Starfleet officer?s guardian. As the only representative of her people in the fleet, Hollan?Das had been a constant learning experience from the start, but she had been a fairly predictable one up until her failure to appear three years earlier. At first, it had been assumed that it was because her tether, the Copernicus, had been decommissioned and there was no formal arrangement in place that had chosen a new spot for her to make her appearance, but when no trace could be found of her anywhere, not even at the default Academy grounds (where her friend Laurie Nicholson might have expected her), Starfleet set up its own network to investigate. Nicholson and Chenoweth were asked onboard to be consultants, but it was Guerin who made the breakthrough, tracing back her original appearance to Romulan space, where a Bolian ship had first encountered her, before Matheson had had a chance to make her acquaintance.

If everything went according to plan this time, Hollan?Das, Chenoweth, and Guerin might join the Copernicus crew after all, assuming there were no further complications Hollan?Das might bring to light, and Matheson agreed to this potential complication to an already uneasy situation. Though they had been called to Romulan space for other reasons, it hadn?t been long before they realized they had a new purpose. Guerin was already taking the telltale neutrino readings that hailed her return, as ES12 received word of the runabout carrying the captain making an imminent arrival. He was secretly pleased that he might be able to greet her with some happy news, having discovered a newfound appreciation of pleasure for its own sake, rather than the more familiar rush he might have welcomed from the battlefield. He called for Chenoweth so that they could both witness the event, and within minutes of the doctor?s arrival, Hollan?Das had shimmered back into this plain of existence.

She seemed more troubled than Chenoweth could remember from his prior experiences of these events. She didn?t want to talk, but rather retreat back into seclusion, to whatever quarters she?d been assigned. Guerin was the one to insist on more, not because he was feeling a swell of pride that he wanted acknowledged, but out of some sense of paternal concern, which he was unwilling to admit to himself. Gently, he pressed the issue.

Finally, she relented. ?There?s trouble,? she said. ?I think I know now why I?ve been drawn to your reality all these years. It was something that occurred to me while I was in my dormant state, like a suggestion someone had whispered into my ear. I think it?s what disrupted my cycle. It was a reluctance on my part to accept it, and I apologize for that. Robin Matheson has an enemy, and she needs to be warned.?

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Let?s not be confused on this point: Zimmer and Hounsou converged on the project quite separately. They never had an intention to collaborate, their obsessions being too singular and too personal for it to have ever been more likely than mere coincidence. After the original decommissioning ceremony, John Zimmer left the service for a time, saying he had some things to catch up with, which really meant that he was finally going to seriously pursue Anna Soong, with whom he?d once collaborated in a vain attempt to complete her father?s work. They shared an obsession, too, attempting to dissuade certain engineers from making Data the dominant personality in the recently recovered final Soong android, B-4. The moment John had heard of its discovery, he stopped caring about his career anyway, as if his life was suddenly back on track again, or at least on track for the first time. It had all seemed to make so much sense, as if it was his destiny. But the moment Anna told him the roadblocks that had already been put in place, he realized everything was still the same, at least, the things that were still out of his control. For once, he grew to accept that some things were.

Louis Hounsou, meanwhile, relished a chance to serve as an instructor, for a time, at the Academy, as part of the program now more extensive than ever covering the Borg Collective. Where Annika Hansen remained aloof and disinterested in participating directly, Hounsou found it easy to use her logs and the reports of the Voyager?s activities in the Delta Quadrant to share his existing knowledge in a more useful way than had been possible in the past. Just as he was beginning to feel a sense of purpose, he was told that there were certain elements who didn?t agree with his approach, more specifically on the matters he insisted on breaching that couldn?t be corroborated, his experiences with KT Morley and what was called his ?wild suppositions therein,? which soon enough brought an abrupt end to this period of his life. He was asked to leave, more than gently suggested to take the next deep space assignment, so he could both indulge his own interests and get out of the hair of real facts.

The so-called Romulan Borg Prototype was discovered, ironically, not long after the mission they had shared aboard the Copernicus, when Captain Matheson had secured the political future of Praetor Neerok. In an effort to demonstrate the nature of his regime, the Reman had begun declassifying older programs the Star Empire had carried on clandestinely for the past two hundreds years, some of which Starfleet Intelligence was aware of, others it was horrified to learn had been going on for so long without even a hint or rumor. As in the case of the late Shinzon, there had been numerous infiltration plots over the years, stretching back to the NX program at the very birth of the fleet, some of which had been more successful than others, some mere observation, others more insidious, though none of those had ever gotten very far. There had been concerns at almost every venture, but too few too late in the case of the one that eventually alarmed them so greatly they broke a silence of nearly a hundred years in an attempt to clear themselves of any perceived blame.

The Hansens hadn?t been the only independent researchers studying early Borg contact with the Alpha Quadrant. Since it was Romulan outposts which had become the first targets, it was, naturally, Romulans who had learned the most about the Collective, so much so that they were the first to adapt its technology for their own uses. In this way, they attempted to create their own drone, and in this way, they feared that they were the ones who led the Borg still deeper into the quadrant. They used captured humans as bait.

The identity of the subject who would become their prototype was never learned, but it quickly fell out of their hands, and it was Hounsou who rediscovered it, after he had been cast back into deep space, using the very algorithms Zimmer had created to locate the final Soong android. How that was possible became quickly apparent when the two finally started consulting each other. It seemed the Romulans had benefited just as much as the Klingons from their brief alliance, not that they made it quite as apparent, borrowing certain research results from a failed program to adapt genetic engineering techniques learned from humans, which linked the prototype to the work of the Soong family. Unaware, as everyone else was, of the Collective?s origins, they had attempted to use Soong technology in the creation of their drone, feeling it was the most reliable to be found. (Zimmer later learned of the Romulan efforts that had mirrored his own, how they?d been continually frustrated that Lore remained out of their grasp. They had been quite angry that Shinzon didn?t value B-4 quite as they?d liked.)

Neither knew what to expect with the prototype now. It might have, for all they knew, been rigged as some sort of booby-trap, an elaborate revenge plot for Starfleet?s failure to rescue Romulus from certain doom, or perhaps it might be a chance at redemption, on any number of levels. No notable Romulan scientist survived the catastrophe, so the drone had been remitted to the Federation, Neerok?s final gift, his last will and testament, before he?d seemingly relented to the demands of his brethren to take a more pragmatic approach to continued relations. Trust was something that would have to be earned back, so it was odd that a pair like Zimmer and Hounsou would end up in the person to win it. Secretly, they relished it.

But even with their combined knowledge, they had no idea where to start. It was a riddle wrapped in a conundrum, and it wasn?t hard to appreciate that it wasn?t so much a sign of faith on Starfleet?s part that had brought them to this assignment as a cynical gesture that might as well have been a curse. ?Let?s see what you can do with it.? Hardly comforting. If they were able to figure it out, at best they could earn the grudging respect of their peers, at worst incense the Romulans further by suggesting their own work was that easily comprehended after all. The cloak was still something Starfleet couldn?t figure out. This was something bigger. It was the future, something blind chance had robbed the Star Empire of, leaving its remaining citizens already embittered. Zimmer couldn?t help but wonder what other secrets might be hidden within this project. Hounsou secretly wanted it to end in failure. He really had had enough of all this.

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Douglas Velar was never all that important to anyone. His family hadn?t much supported his ambitions to join Starfleet. Although his brothers had both served brief tenures in the fleet, neither had made a career of it, setting an example Douglas couldn?t follow with much enthusiasm. Although he represented the first generation of his family to do so, by the time it was his turn, it wasn?t regarded as anything special, just a matter of course, something to be done and gotten over with, like earning the pilot?s license so you could make the routine flight to Pluto and play the links. He opted to enlist rather than attend the Academy. He was never as good in school as his brothers, which might have contributed to his muted expectations, both as others perceived them and as he viewed them himself. He had ambitions. That wasn?t the problem. But he didn?t know how he was going to achieve them. He couldn?t find a lot of support. By the time it was Doug Velar?s turn, nobody really cared. His oldest brother had parlayed his Starfleet experience into service with the Human Defense Corps, his other one a posh position at the Procopides Institute. Douglas was a creative spirit in the age of the holodeck, which more or less made it possible for anyone to create their own fantasies. On the rare occasion a writer was allowed to write an original program for mass consumption, the results were Dixon Hill, Captain Proton, Flotter. There just wasn?t room for a lot of innovation.

The more he reflected on his own time with Starfleet, the more he couldn?t help but shudder a little. Of all the assignments, he?d gotten the Copernicus, which by the time he got it had already developed the reputation of being the problem child of the fleet, its captain frequently troubled by controversy, which was quite an accomplishment during the Dominion War, a time where things should have been pretty straightforward. Instead, he?d found himself in one disaster after another, both in his official role and in his personal life. Friends betrayed him, were lost in freak accidents, and that was after the business of the war, and after all the drama of the Maquis was supposed to be over, but he and that damned ship couldn?t seem to escape any of the fallout. He tried to find some peace among the Bajorans, but quickly determined how contradictory that really was. He tried to escape, but only seemed to dig himself further into the expanding quagmire of his own life.

He began concentrating on efforts to turn it all around. He began taking the most obtuse assignments he could find, the ones that any other crewman in Starfleet would have considered worse than wartime tactical initiatives, maintenance jobs on the other side of the wormhole, joint operations with the reconstituted Dominion. He even volunteered the first time someone suggested it was possible to make the trip back to the Delta Quadrant. But none of it worked out. Eventually, he worked it out that he was constantly sabotaging himself, running away rather than making anything better. He made a bold decision to become, of all things, a holodeck technician.

In that capacity, he figured, he might daydream all he wanted about the possibilities that seemed forever trapped inside his own head. He thought he might develop some connections that might allow him to bring some of those ideas into reality, or perhaps just the free time to work some of them out strictly on his own. One day, he was approached by a Rigelian requesting some modifications to a holonovel he insisted was malfunctioning regardless of how many times Douglas diagnosed no problems whatsoever, until he finally confessed the truth: he wasn?t a Rigelian after all, but Cardassian, and his name was Pentek. Growing more alarmed the more connections he made, Douglas found himself filled with a fury he couldn?t contain, but Pentek did his best to disarm him, saying he had a proposition that might atone for the mistakes he?d made, to Douglas personally, in the Occupation generally, and everything in between. He said he had access to secret files Starfleet would be interested in, especially now, and that together, they could prevent a greater disaster than even the recent destruction of Romulus. All Douglas had to do was trust him.

Naturally, Douglas wanted to do anything but. Pentek had personally betrayed him by conjuring an illusion of his late best friend, whom the Cardassian himself had presumably murdered, during the worst mission the Copernicus had ever gone on. Something like that couldn?t easily be forgotten, much less forgiven. But Pentek insisted if only Douglas gave him a chance, he could explain himself. He was not the monster he appeared to be.

And although he couldn?t explain it then, Douglas felt compelled to give the Cardassian the benefit of the doubt. If he was somehow right, he might be able to redeem them both.

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Even after all the revolutionary reforms undertaken by Nagus Rom, Ferenginar was not all that different from how it had always been. It was still beneficial to walk around with a generous amount of gold slips of Latinum, to offer the proper brides. The Rules of Acquisition were still in effect, much as they?d always guided this world, its citizens so busy across every known and accessible quadrant but really only concerned with home. Lem still had a copy of the revised book his father had once undertaken at the influence of the wormhole aliens the Bajorans called Prophets. Every now and then he would take it out, in case he needed a good laugh. It was funny that his father had set in motion everything Rom had built his position on, and none of it had resulted from this aberrant occasion Lem had barely been old enough to profit off of, at least until he wrote his first accounts and sold them for a hefty signing bonus with the publisher, for whom he would supply a steady stream of books, none of them all that insightful so much full of enticing gossip. His father may have fallen, but that only made his life that much easier to earn some quick Latinum off of. He had tanks full of the stuff before he was twenty. He couldn?t help but wonder if he?d applied himself more, he could have had all that before he was ten. His mother always told him he was a late bloomer.

At some point, he realized that even if he could milk this source of income indefinitely, he wanted more, like any good Ferengi. The trouble was, he didn?t know what he wanted, so he began spending much of his time trying to find out what might satisfy him. Already quite the honest fellow, as far as his people were concerned, set for life and ready to bribe the same position thereafter, Lem began to consider that he might pursue some other, less traditional goals as well. He knew the son of the Nagus was serving in Starfleet, and that was to that point as radical a departure as anyone could have thought of, but that wasn?t anywhere near what he thought might interest him. He started to do some studying, to see what other possibilities might present themselves, what?hobbies he might acquire. Most Ferengi were so busy making profit that they rarely found the time to really enjoy it, to sit back and indulge in what other cultures thought of as recreation. If there was a secret to the Ferengi mind, it was that nothing really pleased them more than to serve as the source of pleasure for others. It wasn?t so much that they?d eventually lost sight of this goal, but that they?d grown stagnant. Art was such a standard thing for them that it could hardly be called art at all.

So what Lem decided was that he would begin looking at art again, try to find some fresh perspective, something so radical that not only a Ferengi would never have thought of it, but no one else, either. That?s how he ended up setting his sights on the Romulan Borg Prototype. From the moment he?d heard of it, all he could think of was what he could do with it. Of course, nothing as crass as actually using it as his own personal drone, or even the basis of an entire line, a new collective, but perhaps as a performer. So many people had adopted the holodeck over the years as their preferred mode of entertainment, it had become virtually unheard-of to see something live. Some Federation colonies and starships still hosted recitals with physical instruments and people to play them, but there had been so little innovation in the last few hundred years, there weren?t any real composers left, not in developed societies. Everything was an iteration and relic of the past.

Lem had quickly determined that he had no real talents of his own, and was generous enough with himself to accept this fact, but he realized that some new life-form, unrestricted by the example of some home culture, would probably be capable of imagining bold new ideas that would push the boundaries of experience in a way that couldn?t possibly be ignored. It would make him legendary, a constant source of profit for generations of Ferengi to come. He could turn everything around, far better than his father or his handpicked successor ever could have dreamed.

He spent months bartering for more information, anything that might indicate what had become of this unusual artifact of an age he would help bring to an end. When at last he had secured the destination of this treasure hunt, he was pleased to find out he alone understood the potential, and therefore was motivated enough to brave the treacherous space that had once been home to the planet Romulus. He flew there himself, in a shuttle he?d saved especially for the occasion, outfitted with the best shielding and weaponry Latinum could buy. And he was right there the very instant Starfleet showed up and claimed it right within inches of his grasp.

How could he have known that it was the fictional writing of Jake Sisko that had led to increased scrutiny of his real character and activities?

***

Of all the bits of information Starfleet had learned about Romulan state activity over the last two hundred years, all the secrets programs and plots, there was one that had slipped their grasp. Harmon Franzoni had learned of it almost by accident, during the years he spent brooding over the mistakes and failures of a life he had every intention of ending himself, to end his misery. By complete coincidence, the love of his life, whom he was constantly denied a regular life with, would help within only a matter of weeks, uncover the same sleeper mission he had stumbled across, which had given him his wish in the way he had least suspected.

Something about Lewis Rivera had never quite added up. When Franzoni was made Matheson?s first officer, he discovered that he couldn?t avoid tales of the first man to hold that position. Rivera was a verifiable saint, all things considered, not a spot in his record, unblemished even by what would become known as the Curse of Matheson, the one officer of the fleet guaranteed to ruin every career it came across, even muddying the esteem of her own mentor, Gerald Logan, to the point where he was denied even the possibility of running for Federation president, a role rarely occupied by humans, just because of his friendship with this troubled individual. But not Rivera. Rivera served with distinction for years, commanding his own starship, the Salient, for nearly a decade, never getting any particularly difficult assignments, even during the Dominion War. He remained loyal to Matheson to a fault. Somehow he survived the attack by the Romulan Tavol and his allies that destroyed his ship, which seemed to mark the end of his career in the fleet. Yet Lewis Rivera lingered, like a specter. It wasn?t just jealousy. It wasn?t that Franzoni?s life had so perilously unraveled, that he became involved in increasingly dangerous and pivotal turning points for the Federation, such as the next evolution of the Dominion, which like Kathryn Janeway?s encounters with Species 8472 had been defused before real disaster could develop. It was that Rivera never seemed quite real, as if he truly were a specter.

Which of course got Franzoni thinking. Supposing Rivera weren?t real. If it seemed like he was more fabrication than functioning, more myth than man, perhaps it was because the pieces of his life didn?t add up after all. He began reviewing Rivera?s career files, the ones Starfleet possessed, the ones that seemed to be official and definitive. Then he began digging deeper, reviewing less traditional reports, profiles made up on dozens of alien worlds, governments both within and totally foreign to the Federation, all the reflections, suspicions, and allegations ever made against Rivera. Sure enough, the cracks began to show.

While it couldn?t be said that Rivera had ever deviated from standard Starfleet operating procedure, he had often obtained results in his missions that couldn?t be entirely traced back to those methods, as if he was constantly benefiting from some unknown sources. The more Franzoni attempted to learn what those sources might be, the more frustrated became. There was nothing. Nothing until the destruction of Romulus, and the first rounds of declassified documents started to appear. He began to see too many parallels between Romulan activity and the career of Lewis Rivera to consider he might be mistaken in a dawning impression of a connection.

At first, he considered that Rivera might in fact be Romulan, but the background checks, genealogy charts, and DNA scans had been too consistent to have been forged by even the best agents. He was definitely human. Perhaps he had been brainwashed at some impressionable point, which might turn up in some increased scrutiny of his record. But rather and take the time to dig deeper, Franzoni, as always, took the more direct approach, and decided to confront Rivera in person. After all, would he really risk exposure at this point to handle Franzoni in any rough sense? What possible benefit?

Ah, but of course, Harmon Franzoni was wrong for the last time in his life.

***

If life can in some respects be called a reaction by the universe to produce observers, it might not be a stretch to begin speculating what forms of existence might be out there that are unexplainable to the casual individual. Nonlinear entities like Bajor?s Prophets, after all, were already well-documented, if not properly understood. So it was with the unknown people whom Hollan?Das represented, whom some within Starfleet had begun to suspect originated quite literally from the stars. It was the neutrinos that had been the most direct evidence for this speculation. Hollan?Das herself rarely acknowledged any efforts to explain her existence, but it didn?t stop her from exploiting her unique qualities, when it occurred to her that they might prove useful. So it was that she eventually determined that she had been drawn to Robin Matheson all these years for a specific purpose, which was only now becoming relevant. She was meant to prevent her captain?s murder.

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Matheson never quite left Starfleet behind. The answer as to why wasn?t all that complicated. It was something in her blood, something she had felt committed to long before she could have reached that kind of decision for herself. It wasn?t pressure from her parents so much as the little things she had come across on her own. When she was five, the first thing she could remember reading was the personal memoir of Rachel Matheson, an ancestor of hers from the early days of the fleet, who had made the difficult decision, like her father, to forsake the family business of freighter shuttles to enter the demanding and exotic life of the program that promised to broaden her horizons. Like Rachel, young Robin had anticipated every manner of adventures, what she considered a vast and expanding playground. Her cousin Wynton was the only one she could share this with, but she rarely saw him, and found the necessity of private dreams grow into a personal obsession, one she wouldn?t deny herself, no matter the cost. She dedicated herself to her studies, to the point where she isolated herself. When she wasn?t knee-deep in academia, she continued to research her family history. Hers was always a lonely existence, except she never felt that way. Her companion was the past, and the future.

She found a ready mentor in Gerald Logan, a seasoned officer who encouraged her along the command track, which she would never have dared on her own. She had always imagined something in the sciences, where she could pretend some vast knowledge by memorization, which was all that it would have taken. Instead, she took away missions to study leadership, both in practice and in action, when the pressure was all there was. She learned that decisions were something that she would have to master, if not herself than the confidence to embody it for others. She learned to trust in the council of her peers, but not to depend on it. Her ideas would have to be her own, and she would learn how to formulate them. In that sense, her earliest motivations helped to inform her, once she understood them, how they had led her along the way.

When she made her first major fumble, she was a lieutenant forced to cover bridge operations during a Klingon attack. She ordered evasive action when she should have retreated, the very position her captain had favored, as everyone on that ship had known. No lives were lost, thankfully, but they were forced back into spacedock and cost Starfleet valuable forces at a critical time. When given command for the first time, her ship was this time lost in a skirmish with the Cardassians. She wasn?t blamed, but in her heart, she knew it was her fault. She wasn?t good under pressure. For four years, she commanded the Copernicus without incident, until the Dominion War, and Haley Minor. She could no longer deny it, or hide it. Why was she given the ship back? She kept coming back to that question, in her mind. Her career would have been so different, if it hadn?t been for the Romulans, if it hadn?t been for her relationship with Neerok, the Reman she had met during the war, rescued, rehabilitated. Instantly, there had been a connection. She could never explain that, either.

Now, all these years later, she was back in command of the Copernicus, and she was on another urgent mission. She hoped, she prayed?Could she trust herself this time?

***

Guerin hadn?t wanted to admit it, but he had met Matheson before. Perhaps all this really had been leading up to atonement. He now believed that he was the one who had set all this in motion, on the day he had attacked that Starfleet ship. For what? For honor? For glory? Not for the Empire. Not even for himself. It had been on the day his son was born. But even for him, Guerin had proven miscalculated, for an entire lifetime. One that had proven all too short.

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The reason no one had known about Lewis Rivera was because he hadn?t been a Romulan plot, but a Reman, and the plot of one particular Reman. His name was Neerok.

Many years ago, long before the Romulans had come into existence, before Vulcans had the teachings of Surak to guide them on the path to logic, there existed, naturally, the planets Romulus and Remus. It was on Remus where life sprang forth in this system, and for many years, was content to stay. Remans had no ambitions to expand, had no reason to consider that life might exist elsewhere in the galaxy. The day the Vulcans first came, before the Romulan exiles ever dreamed of invading, Remans were exposed to the idea of war. Until that day, they had been content in their lives to carry on the rituals of existence as they knew them, a honed instinct for exploration, but only on that one challenging planet. For you see, when presented with challenge enough, ambition is a relative term. Remus was blessed, as its people had once believed, to possess a uniquely bipolar nature, one half light, one half dark. While life had always gravitated toward the dark, the habitable, the light was a constant source of curiosity. Had they been allowed to develop naturally, the Remans would have become lord and master of their entire planet, and so become quite special indeed. But they were instead exposed to the idea of war, and they became paranoid.

By the time the Vulcans came back, in the form of the Romulan exiles, who took over the neighboring planet that had meant so little to the Remans, who never considered that the existence of this planet was such a defining aspect of their lives, because they thought around it, they were eager for the challenge, but unprepared for the form in which it took. They weren?t ready for the exploitative Romulans, had never considered that they had set themselves up so perfectly for conquest, to have their identities submerged. The Romulans bred with the Remans, altering their own appearances, and in turn, told the Remans that their former lives were over, and in that way, began a journey that would alter the Remans, too. They had once been beautiful. But a hard life would twist them grotesquely. They were given a new, hard life, and resentment was soon etched across their faces. They became in their secret lives sentinels for the day they could take it all back.

They lost all sense of identity. The man who would become known as Neerok took it as an ironic turn on a Romulan name he?d once heard, of a Romulan who had once been a general but who became a miner, as if the Reman identity was some intrinsic part of this story he had rediscovered. For so long repressed, it was all emerging again. One day a human clone, a Romulan plot, was cast in with the wretched fate of the Remans, and was taken in as one of them. Neerok stood in the shadows as his brothers took this child in, watched it develop, a secret Reman plot, an opportunity. It gave him an idea.

During the Dominion War, there existed a period where old rules gave way to new ones. The Romulans used their Reman slaves in the war, giving them their first taste of freedom in centuries. During the years leading up to it, fear of Founders infiltrating the highest offices occupied Star Empire minds as much as it did the Federation, and the resulting confusion allowed Neerok to access certain files of the Tal Shiar, and in that way he learned of a program that had once monitored the Starfleet Academy Class of 2362, among whom was Lewis Rivera, who had been deemed a susceptible individual, should anyone ever be interested. Thinking quickly, Neerok devised a plan wherein he?d capture Rivera and begin a conditioning process. It was also during this period that he first met Robin Matheson, which was no accident. He had discovered that she might prove useful in his plans, an obscure Starfleet captain who might be persuaded to take an active interest in Romulan affairs. Everyone was looking for a legacy. He could use Rivera to undermine Matheson as he liked, turning her own officers against her at crucial moments, questioning her decisions, her integrity. He knew she had an unswerving belief in herself, but he also knew how important it was for her to maintain a sense of family with her crew. Rivera, long after he was gone, could affect all that. Reman individualism as the ultimate weapon.

When Shinzon led the Reman revolt that preceded the destruction of Romulus by a matter of years, it was an unexpected if welcome development that furthered his cause immeasurably. The fact that Remus survived the Hobus event was a bonus, no longer integral to Neerok?s success. Now in a position to dictate policy for his people, whom he no longer distinguished between Romulan and Reman, he could eradicate the shame and reputation, and prey upon the guilt that suddenly existed in abundance. When Nero briefly resurfaced as an angry avenger, he had paused for a moment, wondering how it would affect his plans, but the Romulan was gone as instantly as he?d appeared. Neerok was free to finally trigger Rivera in the final act of his plan, the assassination of Matheson, an act that would solidify his place in the new order, the man capable of taking hold of the future, doing what no Romulan, nor Reman, had truly been able to accomplish before, humbling the mighty Federation, exerting strength in the face of weakness, declaring that the Empire did not exist on any one planet, but in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

***

Zimmer and Hounsou determined that the prototype was flawed, that the reason the program had never expanded past its initial stage was for much the same reason that Noonien Soong had only ever made a handful of his androids, why the Klingons couldn?t duplicate the Augment design, why the Borg had always had to physically assimilate new drones: this was not a design capable of mass assembly. It required a dedicated individual who could master the plans, not merely duplicate them. They suspected that the Romulan who had conceived this program must have died sometime after completing the prototype. In time, they discovered the subprogram that once triggered, would have sent the prototype on a particular mission, and in that way learned on their own of the Reman plot. They warned Matheson immediately.

***

Hollan?Das, who often dwelt on the idea of destiny, had already informed Matheson. Guerin, who had known more of these plans than he?d let on, confessed his knowledge at the same time, revealing that the Klingon Empire had long been at the very least suspicious of Rivera. He also told her that his son had once been intended for a similar role, but his resistance to the idea had caused the rift that persisted until his death on Mund, a planet of unexpected transformation.

***

Pentek and Velar visited with Star Empire officials not long after Matheson and the crew of the Copernicus exposed Neerok and Rivera, offering to serve as consultants. They proposed an independent council that would provide an alternative perspective on interspecies affairs that might avert future disasters, with full access to all programs and complete transparence. It was a radical change for Pentek, and it was only under the diplomatic immunity he secured that he was able to avoid any lingering ramifications from his past life, but for the first time in his life, he felt content. There would be no more hiding, no more lies, no more misunderstandings. The presence of Velar was like an affirmation. Together, they would explore the idea of redemption.

***

Lem returned to Ferenginar and begged Nagus Rom to consider membership in the Federation. It was only so that he could reacquire the Romulan Borg prototype. His efforts were in vain. But some months later, he received it in the mail, with a note signed ?J. Nelson.?

***

Ethan Chenoweth returned to San Francisco shortly, and told Laurie Nicholson that he wanted to marry her, something about fate that he could no longer postpone. They performed the ceremony in Suliban. Hollan?Das was present. Not long after, the three of them were never seen again, with speculation rampant that they had traveled someplace to the far future.

***

John Zimmer began work on his own android, something he?d been putting off for far too long. He decided to start with his own design.

***

Louis Hounsou settled in as an instructor at Starfleet Academy, but this time as an expert in xenobiology. He intended to identify every species the Borg had ever assimilated, and his students would work alongside him.

***

Joel Nelson visited with Matheson soon after her private shuttle was spotted for the first time, wanting to know why, after all this time, she finally decided to embrace the family tradition he?d gotten to know from Wynton Keynes, many years ago. She told him she couldn?t answer that; maybe it had something to do with her Vulcan friend Sokor, who had reported to her that his first visit home in several decades had revealed many of his cherished furnishings to have been ravaged by the intervening years, that she was tired of anchoring herself, tired of being afraid of the past, of the present, of the future. She just wanted to give living a chance. Nelson said he understood, certainly, but begged off soon enough, leaving his former captain alone with her thoughts, whatever they might truly be.

***

At the ceremony that officially decommissioned the Copernicus, the old crew was reunited one last time, but it was brief and mostly, everyone just sat around eating cake. There wasn?t much to say. The old girl had been a relic even when Matheson had first taken command, and should have been out of service well before the Dominion War had ever begun, but circumstances just kept putting her back into space, time and time again. The old crew didn?t have much to say about it, and they didn?t have much to say to each other. They had always been lost in their own little worlds, and what they had in common, was too painful to dredge up again. Those who were no longer with them, Keb, Gird, Harmon Franzoni, were too dear and too treasured to be mentioned casually. Strynn was present, but the Andorian was silent for entirely different reasons. He felt guilty, ashamed that he might have relieved some of this misery, if only he hadn?t given up so easily. But maybe that was some of the Shran in him, some of the old wound.

A young officer, Alastair Weber, watched the proceedings with an air of whimsy. He?d read about the ship and its adventures, and never got around to respecting them. But somehow in that moment he could sense something substantial being lost to the fleet, a part of history being completed, a chapter being closed. He considered approaching one of them, discreetly, and offering his sentiments, but he didn?t know what to say, which was odd, because he was rarely at a loss for words. But there was a sense that everything that could be said about these people had been said already, that anything he might come up with would sound foolish, unnecessary at best. He was the only one who left early.

***

Jake Sisko often came to these events, not out of any official capacity, when he still provided the occasional piece for the news service, or a lingering sense that this might be the day his father showed up again, a ghost visiting a burial ground, but because he was looking for his old friend, Dorian Collins, who had once served aboard this ship. She hadn?t turned up. He began to write something about it after all, late in the evening, when he was settling in and looking for a way to pass the time. A story had occurred to him, and he wanted to get some of it down while it was still fresh in his mind. This was the kind of day that reminded him of the life he had once been a part of, and in that sense, it was out of loyalty to his father that he had attended. Tomorrow would bring something new.

The End

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