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Two Days Later

Gorvallon Gap: Cardassian Republic Frontier

The Vor'cha class attack cruiser IKS nentay exited Republic space at the head of a fleet of five Klingon vessels. Dyoldas had ordered his own ships to spread apart and travel separately to avoid arousing any suspicion from Cardassian State forces. At the appointed hour, five Galor cruisers would converge on Leminora and punch of a hole in the defensive perimeter large enough for the Klingons to reach the planet. The Klingon soldiers would then land at the transit camp, dispatch the Cardassian State guards, and secure the civilians until they were evacuated by the Republic forces. However, worrying about that was for tomorrow. Tonight, was for warriors to feast.

In the nentay's cavernous troop mess, a party raged that seemed to the three Federation officers in attendance like a combination of Oktoberfest, Halloween, and an outlaw hovercycle rally. The entire crew sat at long metal tables downing tankard after tankard of warnog and bloodwine. Pheben and Mempan stewards carrying huge trays of gagh, krada legs, blood pie, and other Klingon delicacies ensured that no one went hungry.

At the head table, Tigranian smiled as he looked out on his soldiers' bacchanalia. Laria, in her captain's armor, sat at his right side and enjoyed a tankard of warnog. To the general's left sat an officer from a species that no Federation officer had ever seen before.

He was a huge humanoid, but completely covered in white and grey fur. Ritual tattoos were etched in intricate patterns all over the man's furry body that matched symbols on bronzed armor plates hanging down from the giant's shoulders and haunches. His face came down into a pointed snout and three golden rings were punched through one of his pointed ears. Mukwotho, Quan, and Richey also noticed that a Klingon tri-foil had been welded onto the man's shoulder armor. They also noticed this man wasn't alone. In fact, about fifty of his countrymen were interspersed among the Klingon soldiers throughout the hall. Mukwotho took notice of his canine-like table manners as the creature lapped up piece of rokeg blood pie with his long tongue. The admiral whispered something to Quan and they both chuckled. Despite the cacophony around them, the fur-covered man noticed and one of his pointed ears turned towards the humans. Tigranian sensed the miff on behalf of his quiet companion.

"Something bothering you, Admiral?" Tigranian said before taking a sip of bloodwine.

"No," Mukwotho said shaking her head. "Just saying that it was a little loud in here with five hundred of your closest friends shouting at the top of their lungs."

"Do Klingon ships not have officer's messes?" Quan said with a level of condescension that caused Laria to roll her eyes as she shoveled a finger-full of gagh into her mouth.

"What's the matter, Quan?" Laria asked. "Is the company of Klingons a bit too much for you?" She grinned so that the Nelson's captain could see the specks of writhing worm trying to fight their way back through her Bajoran teeth.

Quan put a hand over her mouth to prevent from vomiting.

"We do," Tigranian answered Quan curtly. "But tonight, all onboard dine together as one family. We're celebrating."

"What are you celebrating, General?" Richey asked with curiosity. "The operation hasn't started yet."

"Tomorrow, we go into battle," Tigranian said. "Many warriors you see tonight may be dead by this time tomorrow. This is their chance to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for perhaps the last time before they cross the River of Blood."

"That's fascinating," Richey said. "If not a little morbid…"

"Klingons don't view impending death with the same apprehension most humans tend to," he replied before cracking open a krada leg and sucking out the meat inside.

"Wait a second," Mukwotho said furrowing her brow. "What do you mean 'we' go into battle, General?"

Tigranian looked at her surprised.

"You don't think I would send my soldiers down to the planet without being with them, do you? A Klingon leader's sword must always be in front of all others. That is our way."

The three Federation officers nervously glanced at each other. Tigranian answered the question they were too nervous to ask.

"Admiral Murphy made it very clear you would not be involved in the fighting," Tigranian continued. "You will watch from the nentay's bridge. Laria HoD will command the fleet's operations from orbit."

"It'll be the fun," Laria said raising her eyebrows as she bit off a chunk of stewed bakrat liver. Quan gagged again.

"Captain Laria," Mukwotho said. "I request that we maintain an open comm line with Starfleet on Cardassia Prime during the operation. That way, Commander Richey can keep feeding Admiral Murphy battle updates in real time during the action."

"Of course, Ma'am," Laria smirked with a grandiose and very sarcastic bow from her seat. "On the nentay, we aim to please where Starfleet is concerned."

"I'm not sure I like your tone, Captain," Mukwotho said looking over to Tigranian. "You are speaking to an Admiral."

Lord Daniel banged his hand on the metal table causing several plates to jump into the air.

"This is a Klingon vessel and you are speaking to a Klingon captain…Admiral," he answered. "If you don't like Laria HoD's tone…" he suddenly pulled his d'k tahg from its sheath and offered it Mukwotho. "Challenge her. If you don't want to fight, I suggest you learn to deal with it. By the way…" Tigranian said indicating the Order of the Bat'leth badge on his wife's chest. "She got that for cutting the head off a Romulan."

Mukwotho cleared her throat and declined the dagger.

"That won't be necessary," she said looking over at a very confident Laria taking another sip of warnog.

Suddenly, a commotion broke out in front. A female Klingon warrior grabbed a male off his chair and threw him down to the deck. She roared and then bit a hole in his cheek before rearing back and spitting his blood towards his companions. They beat their hands on the table in approval. The male jumped up slammed his fist into her jaw. The blow was so hard she fell backward onto another table.

"Oh Dear Lord!" Quan said jumping to her feet. "Call security!"

"Relax, Shu Yin," Tigranian said. "Trust me, they'll be just fine."

The female leapt back up and the pair wrapped their arms around each other. By the time they exited towards the crew berths, they were already pulling pieces of armor off each other.

"What was that?" Quan asked quite disturbed. "Are they about to?"

"Sex doesn't look the same on every world," Laria said shrugging her shoulders. Richey decided to try to smooth things over by abruptly changing the subject.

"Excuse me?" she said leaning over towards the fur-covered stranger sitting on the other side of Tigranian. "We're from the United Federation of Planets. What world are you from?" she said. The hairy man seemed to ignore her as he licked another metal bowl of gagh clean. "Um, is my universal translator not set for his language?" she asked nervously.

"He can understand you just fine," Tigranian chuckled. "It's alright. You will not offend me if you speak to them, Colonel Te-Raw."

"As you wish, General," Te-Raw said with a deep, growling bass.

"I am Colonel Te-Raw of the 4th veS'ay', San-Tarahan Janissary Corps."

"Klingon Janissaries?" Mukwotho said surprised.

"Yes," Te-Raw replied curtly. "We now serve the empire where it commands."

"The planet San-Tarah was incorporated into the empire two years ago," Tigranian explained. "Part of the treaty of union and friendship was that Te-Raw's people would provide an expeditionary corps of warriors to serve the interests of the empire across the stars. The children of San-Tarah were some of the fiercest warriors we ever encountered. They honored us with their submission."

"Before the Klingons arrived," Te-Raw added, "we had no idea that a world existed in the sky except the realm of the divine el-mar, our gods. The Klingons offered us new power and opportunities. It was you, that honored us," he said bowing his head low. Tigranian saluted back respectfully.

"Wait?" Quan said shocked. "You didn't know you could travel to the sky? You mean you didn't even have powered flight before the Klingons arrived?" she said turning to Tigranian.

"The Klingons came from the stars and challenged us to combat," Te-Raw growled. "They proved they were the stronger pack and became our Alphas. It is the way of things."

"The San-Tarahans have a warrior culture that goes back thousands of years," Tigranian said. "It is as deep and as rich as ours."

"We are anxious to test our skills against other sky people with the weapons the Klingons have provided us. My battle pack is quite excited," Te-Raw said with the closest thing to a smile his snout could muster." The Federation officers were mortified that such a flagrant corruption of pre-warp culture was playing out as part of this mission.

"Colonel," Laria said leaning over. "I have read that the Children of San-Tarah have a very intimidating way of preparing for battle. Is that true?"

"Yes," Te-Raw said. "The pack assembles and asks as one for the ancestors that now run with the dead to give us power and strength."

"I cannot wait to see it," Laria replied.

Te-Raw yipped in a way that resembled a laugh.

"As you wish, My Lady," he replied. "After all, we are celebrating the coming fight."

Without warning, Te-Raw leapt over the table and sent plates and bowls full of food flying. He landed on all fours before rearing his head back and howling so loud it silenced the entire hall. Other howls replied to their leader's cry from all over the room as the San-Tarahans began pushing back from the tables. Grunts, yips, and barking began echoing off the walls as the wolf-like warriors began pacing up and down the aisles on their paws. The Klingons were mesmerized as they found themselves surrounded. By twos, and then by fours, the San-Tarahans came together and began stalking down the aisles to form a massive, fifty wolf pack. Te-Raw howled again as his janissaries assembled in tight rows to his front.

Whipping himself into a frenzy, the colonel began pacing back. He barked and howled as he thrust his tongue in and out of his snout. Te-Raw growled at the pack:

"Yehoooowaaaaaaahhh! Chassarawoooo Nehayyawahhh!" before howling again. He leapt onto his back paws and slapped the armor plates on his haunches. A female San-Tarahan in the pack stood up onto her paws and answered:

"Keeehhhaagreee! Kamassss Kammasss Meoarrrraawwww!" She then howled towards the sky and beat her armor as well. The other San-Tarahans seemed to be growing wilder and wilder as theu growled, grunted, and reared their fangs at the lead table.

"Keeemmaahhhhh Grakkkaaaaa Ooommeeahhh Ooommmeeahhh!" Te-Raw said flexing his muscular arms and then drawing his paws across his chest in slashing motions. Instantly, the entire pack rose stood and began pounding their legs into a steady, slow rhythm. They alternated between beating on their haunches and their broad chests. Then, they all began chanting in unison. Tigranian adjusted his translator so he could understand their deafening prayers:

"Is it not the truth? Is it not the truth?

Is it not the truth that all of life is a battle?

Below our fur beat hearts only for war!

We look up to those who ran before us! We look up to those who ran before us!

We are not afraid! We are not afraid!

We are now running as one!

Give us the strength to win or die!"

Then, the pack dropped back down onto their paws and gave one final, fearsome howl together.

As the echoes faded away, the Klingons all looked on silently for a brief moment. Then the entire room exploded with excited roars and cheering. Many beat their tankards and plates against the metal tables answering the San-Tarahan battle ritual with a symphony of aggressive approval. Tigranian and Laria rose to their feet and placed their firsts over their hearts in a salute. Te-Raw turned around to look at them from the head of his pack.

"You honor us," Tigranian replied. "Qapla', Colonel Te-Raw and your mighty pack."

Te-Raw placed his paw on his chest.

"Our pack and the Klingon pack run together forever!" the San-Tarahan shouted. "Qapla'!" His warriors barked and howled their ascent as well. Tigranian then sat back down and picked up his bloodwine.

"This is our Empire," he said fighting back his emotions, "Proud and Strong."

"With all due respect, General," Quan replied. "All I saw was a race of indigenous people plucked from their homes and forced to perform for a conquering race with more powerful weapons. They are centuries away from being ready to join the galactic community. However, you didn't give them the choice."

"You think the Federation doesn't conquer people?" Tigranian asked.

"Of course not!" Mukwotho replied with surprise, "We never force planets to join."

"And when they do join us," Quan added," they are our equals, not our janissaries."

"For two hundred years, the Federation spread through the stars," Tigranian said glaring into his drink. "It swallowed whole systems that had no choice but to enter the union or become completely isolated. To gain UFP membership requires decades of planetary restructuring, altering ancient legal codes, secularizing all religions, wiping out all but the most cursory traces of a species' individuality.

To enter the Klingon family, one does not have to give up who they are. All we ask in exchange is courage and loyalty. The ancient ritual that Te-Raw just performed was to prepare one's spirit for death in battle: to ask for strength to crush one's enemies. Under the Federation, it would simply become a cultural oddity performed for tourists, devoid of all real meaning. Do you think those cheers from their Klingon brothers and sisters were fake? No, every warrior in this room has nothing but the deepest respect for the San-Tarahans, not because of what we will make them, but because of what they already are.

The Klingon Empire may seize physical worlds, but the Federation's methods are far more sinister: it conquer souls. Starfleet, the Diplomatic Corps, even Federation civilians spit nothing but arrogance and condescension to the point where once proud peoples give up their very identities to beg acceptance. Whenever someone disagrees, the Federation doesn't even give them the courtesy of an honorable death. It merely shouts and screams to shame them into obedience. It's disgusting."

"What happened to you, Daniel?" Quan asked appalled. "You once swore an oath to this uniform."

"I did," he said taking another drink of bloodwine, "but I chose to remain unconquered."

Quan and Mukwotho simply shook their heads while Richey looked away. Laria rose to her feet and banged her tankard on the table. The room slowly turned to look at her.

"As captain of the Imperial Klingon Ship nentay, I raise a toast to our general, Lord Daniel, Son of Tigranian: the unconquered. tlhIngan maH taHjaj!"

"To the unconquered! tlhIngan maH taHjaj!" the room cheered as one. The San-Tarahans howled again.

****

The hour grew late and most returned to their berths to either sleep off their drinks or spend a few more hours in the carnal company of a companion before the fleet arrived at Leminora. Laria had returned to their quarters, but Tigranian found himself wandering the corridors lost in thought. As he approached the far end of the officer berths, he rounded a corner to find Commander Richey furiously trying to access a computer terminal in the hallway.

Tigranian stopped and reared his shoulders back.

"May I help you, Commander?" he asked unsure of why a Starfleet officer would be trying to so hard to access the systems of a Klingon ship by herself.

"General!" she said surprised. "I had no idea anyone would still be awake."

"Neither did I…" he said furrowing his brow. Richey realized the implication of his subtle accusation.

"Oh, no, no," she said holding up her hands. "I was just trying to access a subspace line. You see, it's my daughter's birthday tomorrow. She's with my husband back on Mars, and I wanted to talk with her before things got too busy. I'm sorry, Sir. I shouldn't have touched your systems without permission," she said regretfully before turning to head back to the guest quarters.

Tigranian immediately dropped his shoulders. He felt truly ashamed that his first thought went straight to espionage.

"Wait, please," he called after her. She turned back around. "How old is your daughter?"

"She'll be turning six," Richey said. "I always told her that I would get to spend more time with her after the war, but here I am on the other side of the galaxy," she said with deep regret.

"We can't have a little girl lose faith in her mother on our account," he said abruptly. He pressed a button on a nearby bulkhead. The sound of a door opening echoed across the metal walls. A few moments later, a three-eyed Pheban steward slithered towards him.

"HiJa', joHwI'?" the steward asked in the typical lisp of his species. Tigranian said a few words to him in tlhIngan Hol. The Pheban bowed respectfully and slithered towards Commander Richey.

"Please follow Tulolas, here," Tigranian said gesturing towards the steward. "He'll take you to a private room and set up a direct subspace link to Mars. Feel free to use it for as long as you'd like," the general added with a smile.

"Thank you, Sir," Richey said smiling right back. However, before she left, she suddenly looked at Tigranian nervously. "May I ask you a question about dinner tonight, Sir?"

"Of course," he replied.

"Did you really mean all those things you said about the Federation? Being in Starfleet is hard enough, but I can't believe you really feel that way and managed to stay in for so long."

He closed his eyes and looked down silently It was the only answer she needed.

"Please don't tell Admiral Mukwotho I told you this," Richey continued, "but when you were in command of the Pershing, every Starfleet officer in that headquarters on Cardassia understood how much you cared about your job and deeply respected you for it. I just thought you should know."

She turned away again.

"Commander," Tigranian called out. "What is your name?" She looked back at him confused. "I mean your real name: the one that people call you when you're not in a staff meeting."

She nodded with understanding.

"Stephanie, Sir."

"Well, Stephanie," he replied. "I appreciate that. Please wish your daughter a happy birthday for me."

"Good night, Sir. I'll see you in the morning," she said back before disappearing down the corridor with Tulolas.

Tigranian walked over to the bulkhead and leaned against it. He briefly buried his head in his hands before reaching down to a leather pouch on his belt. He pulled out a Starfleet comm badge and rolled it over several times in his hand.

"Even when you no longer believe in yourself, continue to go boldly, Daniel," he whispered. After a few more moments of silent contemplation, he slipped the comm badge back into its pouch and headed back towards his quarters.


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