Central Train Station: First City, Qo'nos
Alex stumbled along the empty platform with a travel mug of coffee in her hand. She zipped up the front of her fleece jacket against the bite of the morning chill. The sky was still pitch black outside, but the bright fluorescent lights in the glass ceiling overhead caused her to wince with discomfort. She didn't understand how anyone could be awake at this hour, but Tigranian seemed more alive than she had seen him in months.
She had settled for a pair of jeans and hiking boots to satisfy Torlek's enigmatic dress code, but Tigranian wore a strange outfit consisting of a black silkcoat with a series of golden buttons down the front, black silk trousers, and a fur vest. She wondered how he wasn't freezing. Torlek was already waiting for them on the platform. He was dressed identically to her captain.
"What? I don't get to wear the Torlek family uniform for this little outing?" she said taking another sip of coffee.
"I'm afraid they don't make a female version of this particular outfit," Tigranian replied.
"How enigmatically sexist, Dan," she said rolling her eyes.
"Be nice," he said as they approached Torlek. "The fact that you're going on this trip at all is pretty astounding."
"So where are we going?" she said rubbing her eyes.
"All in good time, Alexandra," Torlek said before embracing his brother. A few other Klingons began filtering out of the station and onto the platform. Alex even noticed a pair of Bolians dressed in hiking gear also getting ready to board the train when it arrived. Federation tourists were becoming quite common on Qo'nos since the end of the war. Alex remembered reading an article about this planet was "safe for UFP citizens, but still wild enough to be exciting." She wondered how wild she and her companions were about to get.
About five meters away, a holographic cartoon squid appeared in an advertising kiosk, raised its red tentacles like it was flexing a set of arm muscles, and smiled broadly from an anthropomorphized mouth. It shouted something in tlhIngan Hol while golden letters that Alex couldn't read appeared beneath it hovering in midair.
"What the hell is that?" Alex said rubbing her tired temples against the auditory onslaught.
"It's Happy Squid!" Tigranian said grinning. "He's the mascot for the Happy Squid Seafood Jerky Company. It's the protein powered snack that helps you fight back!" the captain said feigning a few punches into the air.
Alex stared back at him with blank disdain.
"It's…their jingle. It's pretty catchy in Klingon," Tigranian meekly replied.
"I gathered that," Alex said, "but why does that squid have to be so damn happy at four o'clock in the morning?"
"Because," Torek said turning to the doctor, "he's about to be carved up into food to make warriors strong. In this nation, all beings look forward to an honorable death in service of the Empire."
"Wow…" Alex said taking another sip of her mug. "I don't think I have enough coffee for this."
"I'll get you something on the train," Torlek said chuckling.
Chimes echoed across the platform. A booming voice announced something in tlhIngan Hol before switching to Federation Standard:
"The 0415 Kra'ta Express is now arriving on Platform 22. Stand clear of the tracks or risk terrible death."
A brightly polished silver MAG-LEV train silently hovered passed them with a rush of cold air. Alex could the read the words, "KLING RAIL" written in both tlhIngan Hol and Federation letters across the end of every car. It slowed to a stop and then opened its doors with a loud hiss.
"This is our train," Tigranian said gesturing for Alex to climb aboard. The three of them stepped into a clean, but Spartan rail car. A female conductor in a well pressed uniform placed her hand over her heart and silently bowed to every customer as they bordered. The seats had no cushions, but at least they were real chairs. Alex climbed into one next to the window while Torlek and Tigranian filled out the rest of the row.
After a few minutes, the doors closed and they departed. Soon the bright lights of the First City were behind them and the darkened Qo'nos countryside was zooming by at 600 kilometers per hour. Torlek and Tigranian carried on a conversation in tlhIngan Hol as the conductor inspected and stamped their tickets. The ride was incredibly smooth and quiet. Despite the discomfort of her seat, Alex was soon lulled back to sleep.
"Hey," Tigranian said gently nudging Alex. "We're almost there." He handed her a paper cup with a plastic lid. "Torlek's a man of his word."
Alex snapped awake and clandestinely rubbed a small stream of drool from the corner of her mouth. She took the cup and tasted a sip of its contents. It was raktajino…very strong raktajino. The Klingon coffee was sweet, smooth, and a jolt to her nervous system like hooking her skull to set of jumper cables.
"Oh God, that is good," Alex said savoring the welcome wake up.
"We used to conquer the galaxy with disruptors, now we do it with dark roast," Torlek said with a laugh.
"How long have we been traveling?" Alex said looking out at the pre-dawn countryside. She couldn't tell much, but she could definitely tell they were now in the middle of nowhere.
"A little over an hour," Tigranian said.
"Where are we?" Alex said very confused.
"A very special place…" Torlek answered.
"You know, this coy, mysterious banter is getting old," Alex replied. "If your plan is to hack me to pieces and dump me in the Klingon countryside, it won't work."
"Alexandra," Torlek said with a broad grin. "We are Klingons. If we wanted to end you, you'd already be dead."
Alex's eyes grew wide.
"Relax, Alex," Tigranian said. "Just trust us. Where we're going is for life, not death."
Despite her annoyance, Alex decided she would have to be satisfied with that answer for now. She took another sip of raktajino.
A few minutes later, the train came to a halt in a sleepy railway station out in the countryside. The doors opened, and the few passengers made their way out into the darkness. Torlek led Tigranian and Alex off the single story concrete platform, past the station's tiny ticket window, and down a flight of steps to the road out front.
The massive Klingon flagged down a taxi driver who hurriedly jumped out and opened the rear doors for them to board. Tigranian climbed in first, followed by Alex, and then Torlek pushed his way inside the cramped, old-fashioned wheeled vehicle. He gave quick, brusque instructions to the driver and soon they were off even deeper in the empty countryside. Alex peered out the windows, but all she could see were trees, rocks, and the occasional farmer's field.
The taxi slowly began ascending a winding hill and finally came to a step. Torlek payed the driver with a few bronzed coins and soon the three of them were standing alone outside a tall wooden gate mounted in the side of a white stucco wall that extended a hundred meters in both directions. A wooden arch above the gate held a black lacquered sign covered in gilded Klingon letters.
"Ok, this has stopped being fun and started being creepy," Alex said. "We're in the middle of nowhere in front of a place that looks like its home to a cult."
"What is a cult?" Torlek asked confused as he pulled a piece of rope hanging down next to gate. Tigranian answered him in tlhIngan Hol.
"Ah," Torlek said shrugging his shoulders. "Technically, she's not wrong…"
"What!?" Alex said in shock as the gates parted. A Klingon male dressed in white stared back at them. Torlek bowed and said something. The man bowed back and gestured for Torlek and Tigranian to enter. However, when Alex began walking forward, he held up his hand and shouted:
Alex paused, but Torlek growled to express his disdain for the man in white's outburst. The Klingon suddenly looked extremely regretful and bowed deeply.
"Come along, Alexandra," Torlek asked kindly. She stepped inside to join them and the trio began walking along a dark wooded path lit by red paper lanterns. The man in white firmly shut the gate behind them.
"What was that about?" Alex asked Tigranian.
"Women aren't normally allowed in here," he responded. "The men who call this place home feel the need to work without any kind of worldly distraction. They don't allow booze or modern entertainment either."
"And what exactly are they working on?" Alex said very frustrated.
"Patience usually isn't a Klingon virtue," he replied with a smile, "but here, it is."
"Dammit…" she muttered.
After a few more silent minutes of walking, they rounded a corner and were confronted with a tremendous wooden archway three stories tall. It was covered with black banners lined in blood red silk. Klingon letters bearing various inscriptions fluttered in the early morning's chilling breeze. Torlek, Tigranian, and the man in white all stopped and looked up to the archway. They stood rigidly straight, held their hands in front of them, clapped twice, and bowed deeply at the waist.
"This gate marks the limit of the physical world, Alexandra," Torlek explained still holding his hands in front of him. When you pass through it, you will be entering a higher plane of existence: a sacred place where all is dedicated to Kahless and his legacy. Please, show your respect to the Unforgettable's spirit."
"How do I do that?" she asked nervously.
"Stand straight, clap twice, and then bow." She walked beside them and repeated their movements.
"Very good," Torlek said. Even the man in white seemed to look at her approvingly.
They continued walking. Around the next bend, Alex gasped. The trees parted to reveal a massive wooden pagoda containing a bronze bell the size of a hovercar. Four Klingon Tri-Foils etched into its surface faced in each of the cardinal directions. Klingon script circled around the instrument's bottom edges. An entire tree-trunk hung suspended from ropes perpendicular to the bell, presumably as a way to ring it.
A series of ten, one-story wood and white stucco buildings filled the courtyard. Alex could see the glow of large fires already burning through their doors and windows. Directly to their front, fifty men, all dressed in white tunics and trousers, kneeled in front an outdoor shrine covered by a wooden awning and lit by dozens of candles. A life-sized gilded statue of Kahless holding a bat'leth stared back at them from behind an altar draped in more blood red fabric. An older man who appeared to be the group's leader prayed loudly from the steps in front of the altar.
The man in white joined in his comrades kneeling in the back row. Torlek and Tigranian stayed back, held their hands in front of them, and began praying under their breath.
"Dan," Alex whispered as quietly as she could. "What am I supposed to do? I don't know the words."
"You don't need to know the words, Alex. Just reflect on what you're seeing, what you're hearing, and what you're about to experience."
She stood respectfully next to her traveling companions and watched the men in white praying in rhythmic unison. She felt this had to be some kind of monastery. It was the only explanation for the seclusion and spiritual discipline exhibited by everyone present.
The first red rays of dawn began to appear in the Eastern sky. It was only then that Alex realized this place was perched on the edge of a sheer cliff, overlooking a huge grassy plain below them. About ten miles away, still shrouded in morning fog, was the largest mountain Alex had ever seen. It's rocky crags absolutely took her breath away. The peak was so tall that it's summit was still hidden in the low morning mist.
"My God…" Alex muttered out loud before she could stop herself. Tigranian allowed himself a slight smirk as he continued to pray. The rays of dawn grew brighter at an alarming rate. The valley was almost completely visible.
"pIyajchu'," the leader shouted from the altar.
"pIyajchu',"the others replied in unison.
Eight men silently rose from the ranks and walked over to the bell. They gripped the ropes hanging from the tree trunk and began to slowly swing it back and forth. Finally, in a well-rehearsed movement, they slammed it into the side of the bell.
The tremendous "GONG" was so loud it nearly knocked Alex off her feet. The bell's deep bass echoed across the entire valley.
As if on cue, the sun crested behind the giant mountain. The red orb rose directly behind the crag like an angel's halo. The morning rays burned away the mist and lit the four-thousand meter tall peak like it was plated with gold. The sight was so beautiful, it nearly brought Alex to tears. A strange haze appeared at the summit. Alex blinked as she realized it was black smoke.
"Qo'nos awakens from her slumber…" Torlek said not taking his eyes off the peak. "She is our mother, we are her children."
"Warriors die," Tigranian added, "only Qo'noS endures."
"What is this place?" Alex asked almost overwhelmed by the ethereal experience. It was finally time to give an answer.
"That is the holy volcano, Kri'stak," Torlek said still not dropping his hands from in front of him. "It is where Mother Qo'nos sheds her fiery blood to nourish the Klingon people. A thousand years ago, Kahless the Unforgettable climbed its summit, dipped a lock of his hair into her fire, and forged the first sword of honor…the first bat'leth." He paused and turned to face the doctor. "This is K'vel'kar, Alexandra," he said barely above a whisper. "It is where the finest swordsmiths in the galaxy forge the most perfect weapons ever to be wielded by mortals."
"What were they doing?" she asked pointing to the rows of men in white now getting ready for their daily work.
"Evil sword makers forge evil weapons," Tigranian answered. "Every morning, the smiths gather together to greet the mother who gifts them the metal for their swords. They pray to Kahless as one:
"Lord, remove the stains of sin and dishonor from our hearts. Make our souls worthy to carry on the legacy you have bequeathed us. Grant us the stillness of mind and spirit to make instruments of justice and not tyranny, of peace and not chaos, of love and not hate. Unforgettable, guide the blades from our hands and into the hands of those who fight in your name. May they be undefeated if they are worthy."
Alex searched for words that could answer that kind of poetry. However, her mind could only find one.
"Wow…" she whispered.