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From Romulus With Love, Part IV

Posted on Sep 05, 2019 @ 7:22pm by Finn Shackleton
Edited on on Sep 05, 2019 @ 7:23pm

Mission: Section 31




Location: The Astral Express, en route to Earth
Stardate: [2.19]0905.1130
Scene: Bridal Suite, first class (of course)

As the stars streaked by at warp speed, Finn Shackleton extricated himself from Selaka's warm embrace and lay down next to her on the enormous bed. Their latest bout of love-making had been particularly vigorous, and Shackleton was grinning inwardly to himself. Selaka had melted at his touch, and the noises she had made in the heat of her passion had convinced him that yes, once again, he had, once again, more than satisfied another sentient humanoid female.

The Astral Express bridal suite was ferociously expensive, but Section 31 was picking up the bill. After escaping from the Romulan Embassy on Limbo, Shackleton and Selaka had reunited with Demir, the Yridian SFI agent, and booked passage aboard the Astral Express back to Earth. The luxury passenger liner, constructed to look like an old form of land-based travel called a locomotive train, had been travelling back through Federation space these past few days, calling at a variety of planets to pick up, or drop off, a variety of passengers.

Shackleton had to admit that the design of the starship was impressive. From the outside, it looked like a long tritanium snake, with dozens of pods along the superstructure, stacked into decks, each one a private passenger compartment. There was a bridge too, and an engine room, and many of the amenities one expected of luxury interstellar travel, all of which were located at various parts of the snake. The whole thing was connected with a network of intertwining access tunnels and corridors, through which both crew and passengers could move between the various decks and common areas of the ship.

Not that he nor Selaka had seen much of it. They had spent most of the voyage thus far in bed, and Shackleton was enjoying his exploration of Romulan mating habits. Every female of every humanoid species was special in her own sexual way, a separate sweetmeat to be unwrapped and enjoyed at his leisure. It meant that poor Demir had to spend most of each day wandering the ship alone, but so far there was no indication that the Romulans were in pursuit of the trio.

Which, the constant sex notwithstanding, made Shackleton suspicious. The HARP device that he had, with Selaka's assistance, stolen from the Limbo Embassy, lay secure in the suite's safe - a technological prize that the Romulans were probably kicking themselves at losing. The Hyper-Advanced Rebus Protocol device contained the cyphers to thousands of Romulan military communications codes, and Starfleet had long been itching to get their hands on one. It would take time - several weeks at a bare minimum - for new codes to be rolled out to the Imperial Navy, and in the meantime Starfleet would be listening in to and decoding every Romulan Neutral Zone transmission, getting a priceless strategic overview of Romulan military deployments along the border. Selaka had originally contacted Section 31, offering one of the HARPs in return for being rescued from Limbo by Shackleton personally - there was still the suspicion that the whole thing was some kind of Romulan ruse, but the odds of that were fading with every sector that the Astral Express passed through.

Selaka sighed with pleasure, and Shackleton ran his eye over her nude body while he reached for his cigarettes and lit one up. The sheen of sweat that covered her smelled delightful, but he still got a good snootful of Capellan tobacco to drown it out. He put the cigarettes back down on the bedside table and leaned up on one elbow. "We should probably clean up and get dressed."

Selaka's eyes were closed, lost as she was in the afterglow. Of course she was, mused Shackleton. "Selaka."

She opened her beautiful dark eyes. "Why?"

"Because it's almost eighteen-hundred. I arranged to meet Demir on the dining deck."

She reached over and ran a hand along his jaw, down his chest, to his taut abs. "Let us order room service. Let us stay in bed."

Shackleton took her hand off him and smiled disarmingly. "Just do what I say, hmm?"

Her eyes flashed open at that. For a moment they blazed to life, but then, like a storm stilling, they become languid once again. "Yes, Finn."

Shackleton nodded with unsure satisfaction. It was hard to tell Selaka's true mood. She wasn't behaving like a normal Romulan, that was for sure, but it wasn't just that she was lowering herself to mate with a Terran (she was only female, and anyway, Shackleton considered it likely that she just couldn't help herself), it was the whole thing. The notion of a Romulan defecting to the Federation was so outlandish as to be almost impossible to believe. To Shackleton's knowledge, it had only ever happened twice in the three centuries of contact between the two powers. The fact that the HARP came along with it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

There was a knock on the suite door, and Shackleton pulled a bedshirt around himself and made to answer it, watching Selaka's perfect butt disappear into the bathroom. He set the control panel to open the door only twenty per cent, and they hissed apart. Standing out in the corridor was one of the Astral Express' crewmembers, a hot little dark-skinned Risean female that Shackleton had spotted within a hour of boarding the ship back on Limbo. The expression on the Risean's face was not a positive one, however - her brow was furrowed like a ploughed field, and she was wringing her hands.

She caught his eye through the gap in the door, bizarrely not seeming to notice his rugged, muscular body with its perfect lines. "You are the friend of Demir, yes?" she said, worry lacing her every word.

Shackleton frowned. "Yes."

"Please!" she said, turning to point down to the corridor. "There has been a terrible accident! Come quickly!"

Alarms bells went off in Shackleton's head. The Romulans? Could they be aboard and making their move? He nodded. "Wait."

Closing the door, he strode back to the bed, extinguished his cigarette, and wrestled his way into the one-piece matte gray jumpuit that he'd been sporting lately. Not the most flattering of get-ups, but needs must. He turned to the bathroom doorway as Selaka appeared, a quizzical expression on her face and a toothbrush in her mouth, like she was trying to get rid of the taste of something.

"Keep this door locked!" he said, moving back to the door. He keyed it open and stepped out into the corridor, making sure to lock it behind him. The Risean girl watched intently.

"Let's go," he commanded, gesturing for her to lead on.


Scene: Different compartment (standard class), upper deck

The Risean girl led Shackleton up a flight of stairs to an upper deck. They passed a couple of viewing ports where other passengers were watching the starfield warp on by, but in the new corridor, Shackleton immediately saw the sealed-off compartment.

It was guarded by one of the ship's pursers - a big nervous-looking Zaldan who looked like he was perspiring under the pair of pince-nez spectacles that were perched precariously on the edge of his nose. The Zaldan straightened up as Shackleton and the Risean girl approached, nodded, turned to the door and over-rode the access code, motioning Shackleton to enter, but gesturing to the Risean girl to stay outside.

Shackleton entered Demir's cabin with the Zaldan behind him. The Yridian had also been travelling incognito - after many years being the SFI contact on Limbo, he was supposed to be on his way home to enjoy a retirement after their successful mission to retrieve the HARP. Now, Demir looked like he wasn't going anywhere.

The Yridian's body was on the bed. He was lying in his back, eyes closed, arms and legs splayed out in an X. The was the faint smell of burnt meat in the room, an odour that made Shackleton crinkle his nose.

He moved to Demir's body and placed two fingers under the chin, pushing into the clammy, cool throat, seeking the pulse of the Yridian carotid artery. There was nothing.

"Vanna found him earlier when she came to turn down his bed," said the Zaldan. His voice was on edge. "She ran to tell me, and I told you. I must now tell ship's security."

"Give me a moment," said Shackleton, guessing that the Zaldan was talking about the Risean girl outside. "I paid you enough to give me some leeway in a situation just such as this."

The Zaldan fell quiet. He was richer by several strips of gold-pressed latinum, paid to him from the stash in Shackleton's mission briefcase, in return for keeping an extra pair of eyes and ears alert for anything or anyone acting strangely near the Astral Express' bridal suite. Now, he was earning his money.

Shackleton examined Demir's corpse. The Yridian was wearing his tatty brown overalls, and a cup of synthi-caff lay spilled on the floor next to the bed. On Demir's right hand, his index finger was blackened and scorched from the tip to the knuckle. Shackleton lifted the hand, sniffing it - the burned flesh was the cause of the smell in the room.

The Zaldan came forward and indicated a power outlet at the foot of the fall beside the bed. "A malfunction when your friend was activating it, you see? A sad accident. I'm very sorry."

Shackleton looked. The power outlet was inert and dead. The rest of the room had normal power - lights and environment controls were working normally. It seemed the Zaldan was right - it looked like a tragic fault in the power outlet had electrocuted Demir. He got up and turned to face the Zaldan. "This has to be kept quiet until we reach Terra." His mind was working overtime - in the spy game, coincidences like this were unlikely. It seemed like an innocent malfunction, sure, but he couldn't take that chance.

"That will be difficult," sighed the Zaldan. "There will be paperwork to avoid, and I must take Vanna into our confidence so that she does not inform the ship's officers."

Shackleton reached into his right pocket and pulled out another strip of latinum. There was plenty more where that came from, safe behind his briefcase's barely-detectable DNA-recognition plasma security system. "Yes, I'm sure it will be difficult." He threw a nod at Demir's cooling corpse. "But my friend here was a very influential man. He has friends on Terra who will be very appreciative of your discretion."

That did it. The Zaldan bowed at the neck, a new sense of purpose in his bearing. When he spoke, his voice had lost its nervous edge. "Rely on us, sir."

Shackleton took one last look at Demir's dead face, peaceful in its stillness. A shadow settled on his thoughts like a vulture spreading its wings - there would hardly be much time to examine the power outlet, nor could he draw much attention to Demir's cabin by making much use of it. If he assumed that the Yridian had been murdered, then the honeymoon with Selaka was over - there was an assassin aboard the Astral Express, probably Romulan, and probably looking to recover the HARP. It had been foolish of him to spend so much time plowing the Romulan girl, because it had given the assassin ample leeway to murder Demir.

Wait. He caught his breath in fearful surprise.

Shackleton moved to the door of the cabin, a dangerous new theory percolating in his brain. Could the Romulan Tal'Shiar have set this entire situation up? Not just Demir's murder, but the whole thing - the HARP, the Selaka's defection, the murder of one of their own at the Romulan Embassy on Limbo after Selaka arrived there.

He exited into the corridor, where Vanna said something to him, but he ignored her and walked away.

Think about it, Shackleton, you fool. The Romulans approach Selaka, recruit her for a dangerous mission. She is to pretend to want to defect to the Federation, and to request Shackleton to come get her, dangling the HARP as a bait. Except that they have *already* changed all their military communications codes along the Neutral Zone, and the HARP is fucking worthless.

That must have been the flame he had seen earlier in Selaka's eyes. She was playing him. As the idea germinated and sprouted in his mind's eye, he remembered her intimate words to him, saw the erotic things she had done to him in a new light. She had pretended to be all innocent and virginal, but in reality was as cold-hearted as (he was?) a Romulan could be.

Anger burned in his heart. Anger for Demir's stolen retirement and reward, anger at having been played like this by a woman, anger for having wasted his time wooing her. As she stalked down the stairs to the bridal suite deck, he was determined to make her pay for all of it.


Scene: Astral Express Bridal Suite

Shackleton's poisonous anger was still strong even as he keyed the code into the bridal suite's door. In the instant before it opened, he imposed his will upon his face, changing his demeanour from one of bubbling anger to his normal, nonchalant exterior.

Selaka was sitting by the mirrored vanity brushing her black hair; she saw him entering in the reflection. He paused a moment to let the door close behind him, before stepping toward her.

She kept brushing her hair. She had put some clothes on, a purple pants-suit with a white blouse. The jacket lay on the bed. As Shackleton looked at her, he felt his calm resolve start to melt. She was sitting there, letting on that she knew nothing about anything, all innocent, pretending to be so enamoured with him that she could keep him here for hours on end while one of her friends murdered Demir.

As Shackleton stalked across the room to her, she looked at him in the mirror, and stopped brushing her hair. "What is it?"

Shackleton stopped. He was standing behind her now, staring at her in the looking-glass. He reached down and took the hairbrush from her hand, placing it on the vanity. "Demir's dead."

She half-turned to face him, her face a mask of non-comprehension. Her lower jaw hung down. "Dead?"

Shackleton took her wrists, one in each hand. "Mm-hmm." With a sudden yank, he jerked her up to her feet, squeezing her wrists hard. "Now I want the truth!"

Selaka gasped in shock. "Finn, you are hurting me!"

Shackleton shoved her roughly onto the bed. "I'll do worse than that if you don't tell me!" He raised his hand as if to strike her face. "You're doing all this under orders, aren't you?"

She shook her head in confusion. "All this? What are you - "

Shackleton slapped her hard in the face. The crack of his palm on her cheek was like a gunshot. "Tell me!"

Selaka recoiled from the blow, her long dark hair falling over her face. A moment passed, but when Shackleton saw her again, hand moving up to slowly smooth her hair back from her brow, her eyes were as hard as steel and her mouth downturned into a sneer that made his blood run cold. All the virginal beauty went out of her, the veil had been pulled back, the new woman revealed. A welt of green tinged on her cheek, a flower blooming.

Shackleton stepped back as Selaka stood up. He balled his fists, ready to fight. Romulans were as physically powerful as Vulcans, but Selaka was female, and thus a little physically weaker. She was lithe and not strong, but she was likely to be quick. He could expect flurries of punches and kicks, and she would also look to use his heavier weight against him by making him over-extend his own blows. Adrenaline injected into his blood, and his lessons on Romulan anatomy came back to him in a rush. Sensitive hearing meant vulnerability to some sonic frequencies - not relevant in this situation. Larger heart that beat several hundred times a minute, located on lower left side of torso - a heavy kick or punch at correct location could interrupt the heartbeat and fell the Romulan for several seconds, allowing a coup de grace.

She stood up opposite him, but made no move to attack. "If you touch me again, hevam, I will kill you."

"If you don't tell me what I want to know," spat Shackleton, "I'll kill *you*. I'll do it with my bare hands and I'll enjoy every moment of it. I already know one of your Tal'Shiar colleagues is aboard this ship and murdered Demir."

Selaka's eyes narrowed.

"It's the HARP, isn't it?" said Shackleton. "The whole thing was a trap. The device is worthless. This is all a plot, pretending that a Tal'Shiar agent wants to defect to the Federation. And we fell for it because of the HARP. It was the bait."

Selaka looked like she wasn't going to say anything, but then nodded slowly.

"But why me?" said Shackleton. "What was the point of that? You didn't need a Starfleet agent to defect - the Tal'Shiar could easily have arranged something along the Neutral Zone."

Selaka said nothing. Shackleton felt his rage rising as she clammed up, staring at him like he was an insect, the Romulan arrogance and superiority oozing from every pore. But then, like a sudden phaser blast, it hit him.

Romulans didn't defect to the Federation.

The Tal'Shiar could have set something up themselves.

A murder at the Romulan Embassy scant weeks after her arrival.

Memories flashed back at him. Her letter to him weeks ago that had triggered this whole thing, signed "From Romulus With Love", using no known Romulan code. Demir's confusion when he arrived on Limbo, telling Shackleton how the Romulans there were little more than administrators and not involved in any intelligence games. The eavesdropped innocuous conversation when Shackleton and Demir had bugged the Romulan Embassy, like the Romulans knew nothing about the HARP or any Tal'Shiar mission to attract him to Limbo, engrossed as they were attempting to solve the death of their diplomat there.

Romulans didn't defect to the Federation, but they might defect somewhere else.

"My God," breathed Shackleton. "You're not with the Tal'Shiar at all, are you? They haven't set this up, *you* have! This was all you, all of it!"

Selaka produced a small disruptor from the pocket of her pants-suit and levelled at his chest. She drew herself up to her full height, the spider in the petals revealed. "You are not as stupid as you look, Shackleton." She was smiling now, like a wolf. "You are right. It was me."

"You've betrayed the Empire," said Shackleton. "What could convince a Romulan to turn away from D'era, the Way of your people?"

"Perhaps money. Perhaps a higher calling," said Selaka harshly. "When the Tal'Shiar learn that Starfleet Intelligence is in possession of a HARP, one acquired through a clandestine mission on Limbo that murdered one of the staff of the Romulan Embassy, the political outcry will be immense. Heads will roll. There will no peace treaty between the Empire and the Federation. On the contrary, relations will reverse. The negotiations currently taking place on ch'Rihan will end. Militarism will rise within the Empire when news of the HARP becomes public. Instability will be the new normal. Perhaps even our peace-loving Praetor will fall from her pedestal. It will not matter that Finn Shackleton is dead."

Shackleton shook his head slowly. "You're not with the Imperial government. Who are you working for?"

Selaka smirked. "An organisation that spans the quadrant, that is most careful to keep itself concealed, but which will soon emerge from the shadows. We are able to influence everything, including the assigning of passenger cabins in the Astral Express to Yridian Starfleet agents. We are also able to booby trap those cabins before the ship leaves Limbo, in order to create the perfect accident. There is no Tal'Shiar assassin, except the one in your imagination."

Shackleton frowned. Doctor Meyiou had talked about something similar when Shackleton had confronted him on Risa - that lunatic had tried to release raw thaleron into Risa's oceans in order to ruin the local ecosystem and heavily dent the Federation's economy. Now, it appeared that the same mysterious organisation was behind another attempt to destablise the Federation - this time by obliterating any chance of a peace treaty with the Romulans. Who these people were and what they wanted were still unknown - like a spectre, they existed only on the periphery of awareness.

"Two Starfleet Intelligence agents found dead on luxury liner," said Selaka. "It sounds like a good headline, but I am afraid that it will only make column inches next to the collapse of the peace talks."

"What lunatic asylum did they recruit you from?" spat Shackleton.

"This is a Varon-T disruptor," said Selaka, brandishing her small weapon. "It is banned on almost every civilised planet due to its vicious nature. It literally tears the body apart at the molecular level, from the outside out. You are not vapourised, you are disintegrated." She smirked. "My orders are to kill you and deliver the HARP to Starfleet along with a plausible story about my defection. How I do both is my own business. It will be slow and painful."

Shackleton eyed the barrel of the disruptor carefully. There was no reason to disbelieve that it was a Varon-T. "How much are they paying you?"

"What does that matter?"

"We'll double it."

Selaka chuckled. "The first shot will not kill you. Nor the second. Not even the third."

Shackleton licked his lips. He glanced around the room. His eyes alighted on the bedside table. "How about a final cigarette?"

"Not a chance, Shackleton. You are a dead man talking."

"I'll pay for it."

"What with?"

Shackleton indicated his mission briefcase with a nod of his head. The black faux leather attache was lying on a plush ottoman under a viewing port near the bed. "Forty strips of gold-pressed latinum."

Selaka's eyes flickered and narrowed. She shot a glance at the case, then back to Shackleton.

Take it, you bitch, he thought. You want what I've got. Forty strips of latinum was a fortune, and Romulans lacked the moral certitude of their Vulcan cousins. Venality was a part of their psychological make-up just as it was for Humans - a consequence of not practicing the rigid suppression of their intense emotions, like plain, simple greed.

She jerked the disruptor at him. "You show me. Get the case."

Shackleton breathed a sigh of relief. The case held a composite sniper rifle, the money, and the thing he was going for - a monofilament knife. The blade was so sharp that it could cut to the molecular level - just as vicious as a Varon-T disruptor. He was deadly with that knife - if he could just get his hands on it, he would have a fighting chance.

He crossed the floor and picked up the case, putting it down on the bed. It was sealed by two flip-locks, one on each side. You turned them to one side or the other if you wanted to open the case. Shackleton sat down by the case and put his thumbs to the locks -

"Hold it!" snapped Selaka. "Stand over there!"

Shackleton put his hands up and twisted his expression into one of fear. Selaka must have been suspicious that there was some kind of weapon inside the case, a weapon that he was trying to get his hands on, only now she was on to him, and his best chance of getting it was gone. He stood over by the viewing port with his hands up.

Still with the disruptor in her hand and her adamantine-dark eyes fixed squarely on Shackleton, Selaka twisted the locks on the case to open it.

The interior security system, not recognising Shackleton's DNA signature, activated the plasma emitters buried within the locks. In a flash of white heat, both of Selaka's hands and forearms were melted off up to the elbow.

The disruptor clattered to the floor as Selaka stared, open-mouthed, at the cauterised stumps of her arms. The acrid smell of burned meat tickled Shackleton's nose again as her limbs dissipated into the air as atomic ash. It took her a couple more seconds to realise what had happened, and a pitiable animal noise arose from deep within her chest, the beginning of a howl of agony and fear and shock.

Shackleton picked up the disruptor, pointed it at her head, and pulled the trigger. Selaka's scream was cut off as the Varon-T disintegrated her face and throat. The energy field expanded, taking her head and shoulders, travelling down the stumps of her arms, her torso, and down her legs, eating alive everything that was organic. In three seconds flat, the only sign that Selaka had ever existed was a faint smell of ozone and a fine residue of dirty grey powder on the suite floor.

It was over. Selaka was dead, and her plot thwarted. More importantly, the plans of her employers, whoever they were, were also stymied. Shackleton thought quickly - the HARP was the key to all this, so if the Romulans could be notified that one of the devices had been picked up by Section 31 aboard the Astral Express after its theft from the Romulan Embassy on Limbo, then perhaps enough face could be saved. The Romulans would grudgingly acknowledge its loss, move to change their communications codes, and the negotiations could continue.

No mention need be made of Selaka's mysterious organisation and their role in all this - at least, not to the Romulans. Shackleton sighed and sat down on the bed, knowing that a long report to the Director was going to be forthcoming. In the meantime, he would keep bribing the Zaldan purser to keep his secrets on the voyage, and not to ask any questions about the missing girl in the bridal suite. He would reach Earth safely and make contact with Section 31 for debriefing. Some higher authority would figure out where to take things afterward.

He sighed deeply and relaxed. There was nothing for him to do now but go home.


Location: London, England, Earth
Scene: Hyde Park bench
Time Index: one week later

Shackleton sat on a park bench in the heart of London. Selyara, the Director of Section 31, sat down next to him, two random passers-by in the great big world. Several pigeons hopped around their feet, and in the distance came the sounds of people playing on the grass and the amongst the trees.

He barely acknowledged her, and she didn't say anything for a few moments.

The breeze ruffled his hair. Shackleton picked up a stone and flicked it expertly at one of the nearby pigeons. The bird, like many of its kin, was holographic - the stone sailed through its head and landed in the grass. The hologram fizzed for a moment, then made a coo.

"I don't have much time," said Selyara. "I have an appointment in the Mira system that I need to keep. But you should probably stay out of the office for a few days. Georgia is dealing with the fallout from your expense account."

Shackleton didn't say anything. The pain was still a bit too raw, and he couldn't wait to get away from Section 31 for a while. Selaka's final, strangled scream still echoed through his dreams.

The Director rolled her eyes and sighed at him. "Listen, Emerald. You're not the first man to have been played by a woman, and you won't be the last. The important thing is that the HARP is back on the Romulan side of the Neutral Zone and any threat to the peace talks is gone." She brushed her hair away from her face. "You did well."

Shackleton hardly heard her. He had murdered a woman he had taken into his bed, and he felt badly for it. As Selyara sat in silence beside him, he closed his eyes, hardening his heart. No woman would ever get that close to him again.

"You've got some time off," said the Director. "Make use of it. We'll probably have need of you again before long."

Shackleton glanced at her, gave a curt nod, and got to his feet. He didn't know where to go for a moment, then turned west, towards the setting sun.


The Director's voice made him stop. He didn't look back, but inclined his head in her direction. Her voice had a hard edge to it. "Women don't hear heavenly choirs just because you sleep with them. They don't repent and turn to the side of right just because of your rogueish charm. Your ego was not Selaka's problem - her avarice was. The next time you let someone get that close to you, I'll take you out myself."

Shackleton swallowed the warning, and moved away from the park bench, down the path towards Marble Arch. The sun dipped behind a tower block, painted the city orange.

The world continued to turn.


NRPG: This is the fourth and final chapter of Finn Shackleton's adventure on Limbo, with tongue firmly planted in cheek ;)




Jerome McKee
the Soul of Finn Shackleton
Section 31


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