Psi Phi's Star Trek Books Database
#2: The Red King
Written by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin
"All right. So poker's not your game," Riker said, pushing his deck of cards and two piles of chips to the left side of the table.
He watched as the young Neyel eyed the gaming accouterments with undisguised suspicion. "We are a conservative people. Games of chance have never held much appeal for us. Chess, however, was one of the games that our ancestors deemed worthy of preserving."
"I suppose survival is as much a game of skill as it is a game of chance."
Frane nodded. "Exactly."
When Frane had asked to be taken aboard Titan, Riker had exulted, as though the Neyel had just formally applied for repatriation to mainline humanity. But now he was beginning to wonder whether Frane's request had been motivated more by a desire to get away from his Romulan hosts' "hospitality" than a need to rejoin his terrestrial cousins.
"Let's try chess, then," Riker said, rising. He crossed the mess hall, stepping past the Blue Table, where Cadet Torvig sat in quiet conversation with Lieutenant Pazlar and Cadet Dakal. The one-meter-tall Torvig's multijointed bionic arms were swiftly arranging piles of colorful foodstuffs into something that resembled a sandwich; this skillful multitasking apparently distracted none of the ostrich-like engineering trainee's attention from whatever doubtless highly technical topic was presently being mooted about the table.
From the corner table just beyond, Riker retrieved a two-dee chess set. Moments later he had set it on the table between himself and Frane, opened it, and layed the pieces out randomly next to the board.
Riker smiled, he hoped ingratiatingly, toward his prospective opponent. "Choose a color, Mr. Frane."
Frane eyed him speculatively for a long moment. "Red," he said finally, then quickly settled into a task with which he was obviously familiar. He sat silently as his large but surprisingly dexterous hands moved rapidly, arranging the red pieces on his side of the board into two neat ranks. He began with the king and queen, then moved outward toward the board's edges with his bishops, knights, and rooks, all of which soon stood behind a protective stockade of pawns. All the while, Riker studied the intricate braid of colored beads, shells, and fine chains he noticed adorning the Neyel's right wrist.
Riker took his time setting up his white pieces, allowing his languid movements to stretch out the silence that ruled the table. "You and your friends have been aboard Titan for almost a whole day. I'm surprised you're still being so quiet."
Frane shrugged, staring at the red pieces before him over steepled gray fingers. "What is there to say?"
Riker returned the shrug. "I suppose I just expected you to be more talkative than the other Neyel we rescued.
"They all no doubt believe they are your prisoners."
"I've asked Commander Troi to assure them otherwise."
"She has. Repeatedly. And I don't doubt that she, at least, sincerely means us all well."
Riker eyed the board, its sixty-four spaces pregnant with unrealized possibilities. True, chess had never seized his imagination in quite the way poker had, but the ancient game nevertheless satisfied a need for tactical one-upmanship in ways that made even fast-paced strategema tournaments pale in comparison.
Deciding that caution wasn't likely to increase his opponent's garrulousness, Riker decided it was best to get his "light brigade" of bishops, knights, and rooks ready for a skirmish as quickly as possible. He picked up the knight on his left and set it down again at c3.
"She told me she's shown you our comparative genetic profiles, too."
"Yesterday," Frane said evenly. "You, your first officer, your head nurse, her son, some of your bridge crew--even Commander Troi herself--all possess genes that originated on Old Earth, just as we Neyel do."
Riker took this as an encouraging sign. Still, the Neyel seemed to have all his shields up, and at maximum intensity. "So what's the problem? Why do I still get the feeling that you don't trust us much more than you do the Romulans?"
Frane mirrored Riker's move, then turned his head, apparently to look at the variegated group of perhaps a dozen or so Titan crew members that was present. To his right, Riker glimpsed Lieutenant Kekil, the large, pale green Chelon biologist, chatting with the golden brown-scaled, quadrupedal exobiology trainee Orilly Malar. Dr. Onnta, the gold-skinned Balosneean physician, crossed the room toward one of the replicators.
"Imprisoned by the Romulans, imprisoned by you. What's the difference?"
Riker leaned forward and got his other knight into play, setting it down on f3. "You're not saying you want to go back aboard the Valdore, are you?"
Once again, Frane mirrored Riker's move. "No," he said, a vague smile playing against his hard, gray lips. The thin--and, according to Dr. Ree, very recent--scar that ran along his shorn temple flushed a dark, angry red. Human blood, and human emotion.
"Frane, if you and your friends really were prisoners here--"
"I would not describe all of them as my 'friends,' Captain Riker. Other than Nozomi, all the other Neyel you recovered are soldiers who once answered to my late father. I believe I recognized Subaltern Harn among them."
This piqued Riker's interest; in a few seconds, he'd just learned more about Titan's other Neyel guests than he had since they first came aboard.
"This Harn is in charge now?" Riker asked.
"He's probably the ranking officer, now that my father has gone to his reward."
Riker nodded, understanding at once that he'd struck a filial nerve. It was a sensitivity that he could easily relate to. "Friends or not, if the lot of you really were our prisoners, then don't you think we'd have made a serious effort to . . . break you before now?"
Frane and Riker exchanged their next several moves in silence, each player getting his pawns into motion just enough to enable the bishops to join the fray with the knights.
"Aren't your counselors really nothing more than alternative, more-devious-than-usual interrogators, Captain?"
"Our counselors are an important means of maintaining the emotional health of Starfleet crews on long voyages. They've been indispensable aboard our vessels for nearly half a century now."
"So says Commander Troi. Maybe she's even right about that. But. . ."
"But?" Riker captured one of Frane's pawns, and the Neyel responded in kind during his turn.
"But your head counselor belongs to a telepathic species."
Frane's misgivings didn't surprise Riker in the least. "You really have been studying up on us, haven't you?" he asked, impressed by the younger man's initiative.
"You did give us unlimited access to your Federation historical records, Captain. Did I misunderstand something?"
"Only partly. It's true, Betazoids are telepathic. But Commander Troi is only half-Betazoid. Her telepathy isn't as well-developed as it is in other members of her kind. She's primarily an empath."
"Meaning she reads emotions rather than thoughts?"
"Somehow I find that even more disquieting."
"If you'd be more comfortable dealing with one of Titan's other counselors, there's Huilan--"
Frane shook his head. "Bizarre creature. I can remember playing with something that resembled him when I was small."
"All right. Maybe you should schedule a session with Counselor Haaj. He's a Tellarite, and one thing nobody's ever accused him of being is overly cuddly."
In the turns that followed, Riker lost a bishop and another pawn, then took down one of Frane's knights. Frane castled, moving his king toward the right-hand side of his board.
All the while, the young Neyel kept glancing uneasily over his shoulder toward the various crewmembers who were using other areas of the room, eating, conversing, or strolling to or from either the food service areas or wall-mounted replicator units.
"Something's still bothering you," Riker said, pausing in mid-move. "And I don't think it has anything to do with our counseling staff."
Frane turned back to face Riker. "No. It had more to do with the many. . . nonhumans I see aboard this ship."
Riker's eyebrows rose, then he reminded himself that the Neyel that Excelsior's reports described had been nothing if not xenophobic and paranoid. Discovering that Frane perhaps shared those characteristics should have come as no surprise. Still, the thought came as something of a disappointment, considering the close relationship between humans and Neyel.
"Are you referring to anyone in particular?" Riker asked, taking one of Frane's rooks.
Frane appeared to realize all at once that it was once again his turn to move. His knight took the bishop with which Riker had captured the red rook. Finally he said, "It's. . . your entire crew."
That blunt declaration brought Riker up short. "I'm quite proud of this crew, Mr. Frane. It's probably the most diverse group of sentients currently serving in the entire fleet."
"I don't doubt that for instant. But. . ."
Riker sighed, his impatience getting the better of him. "But?"
Frane cleared his throat and started over. "You keep assuring me that your intentions are benign. Yet you've acquired slaves from just about every world across your galaxy."
Riker was glad he wasn't drinking anything at the moment; he almost certainly would have sprayed a generous amount across the chessboard and into Frane's lap. "Slaves?"
"You run this ship and command her crew, don't you?"
"Titan is under my command, yes."
"And you're a human. Commander Vale, your first officer, is also a human. Commander Troi, your diplomatic officer--whom I'm given to understand is also your wife--is half-human, and certainly looks human enough to pass for one, as does that tall admiral--"
"What are you saying?"
"Only that this 'diverse' crew of which you are so proud answers to a small group of powerful humans--or else to beings who so resemble humans that no one can tell the difference. Just as most of the elder species of M'jallanish space answer to a relative handful of their Neyel overlords."
Riker watched in stunned silence as a cold-eyed Frane moved the red queen, placing Riker's white king in check. The Neyel began absently playing with the bracelet on his wrist as he continued looking down at the board.
"You obviously missed a lot of the nuances of our historical database," the captain said at length. "Our Federation is based on mutual cooperation. Not conquest."
Frane looked up at him. "Then why do humans seem to be at the top of all of its most significant hierarchies?"
Riker castled, buying himself a move or two. "The Federation Council has always had equal representation, Frane. And a good number of nonhuman presidents. Bolians, Grazerites, Andorians, Efrosians--"
"But a human sits in that office presently, correct? And humans have held it more than any other species."
Riker found that he was back in check yet again. "Humans are big constituency in the Federation, Neyel racial guilt notwithstanding. So, yes, garden-variety humans are bound to get into the Palais de la Concorde from time to time. But that doesn't make us conquerors. I admit that humans have assumed a large role in running the Federation. It's a heavy burden of responsibility, but it's one we share freely with many other species. Humans also assume our fair share of the risks involved in maintaining and defending the Federation. But the Federation is a big place, and we don't see ourselves as having--or deserving--a dominant position in it."
Frane looked impressed, if not altogether convinced. "What about that large, white-skinned fellow I saw when I visited your doctor in sickbay?"
"You mean Mekrikuk. He's a Reman--they're recent wartime allies from outside the Federatio--and he came aboard temporarily just before the . . . accident that brought us here."
"Ah. I noticed that he seems to be confined to your infirmary, even though very little appears to be wrong with him. Is his enslavement justified by his being from 'outside the Federation'?"
Riker sighed, unused to such cynicism, particularly from someone of Frane's tender years. "Mekrikuk is no slave. At least, not since we freed him from those who had enslaved him and his people. At the moment, Dr. Ree is still keeping him under observation. But I won't lie to you--Mekrikuk also presents us with certain . . . security concerns."
Riker felt uncomfortable being reminded that he wasn't going to be able to keep Mekrikuk detained this way forever. Once he was well enough that Ree felt he could discharge him, Mekrikuk have to be declared either friend or foe, bound for either guest quarters or a security cell. And Mekrikuk himself had complicated matters greatly by having made a formal request for political asylum.
Riker was also beginning to feel discomfiture about something else: the notion that some of the prejudices Frane was projecting onto him might, even in some small way, be real. He considered the initial revulsion he'd felt when Deanna had introduced him to Dr. Ree. And Frane's trenchant observation that despite Titan's highly variegated crew, humans dominated the ship's command hierarchy. Am I really as tolerant of nonhuman sentients as I've always given myself credit for being? When I chose Chris to be my exec, was it really because I thought she was the best candidate? Or because I thought I might relate better to a human first officer?
It suddenly became very important to Riker to end this particular debate. "Let me ask you something, Frane: Should I assume the aliens we found with you in your escape pod are your slaves, just because of your people's history as slavers?"
"But they were slaves of my people, in reality if not in legal fact. At least, that's very much how seemed before we came together in common brotherhood as the Seekers After Penance."
"Ah. Your pilgrimage to wake up the Sleeper. And to punish the Neyel for being slavers, as well as everyone else around here for having allowed the Neyel to enslave them."
Frane gave a rueful nod, his eyes haunted. He looked as though he was ready to bolt. Riker decided that now might be a good time to change the subject.
"That's an interesting bracelet," he said, looking down at Frane's gray wrist. The Neyel's tail suddenly rose behind him, going rigid as his other hand pulled the sleeve of his robe down to cover up the bracelet. Obviously, it meant a great deal to him.
Riker tried to make his tone of voice as soothing as possible. "Relax, Mr. Frane. Remember, you're among friends."
Frane reached forward and moved one of his rooks. "Checkmate. Thank you for the game." And with that, he rose and headed for the exit. Riker continued sitting, and stared dolefully at the board and its scattered game pieces.
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