He sensed her before he saw her.
His cabin was dark as Soval entered, with no immediate sign of a foreign presence but the atmosphere of the room had clearly been disturbed since he departed earlier this morning. A tangible sense of Other filled it, causing instincts long dormant to rouse. He tensed his muscles, controlled his breathing, and tilted his head to one side as he focused on auditory clues as to the identity of the trespasser.
There. Breathing, steady and rhythmic. A subtle shift of cloth. The muted but distinctive beating of a heart. If he had been female, he might have been able to identify the interloper through scent alone, but even without their superior olfactory capabilities, the trespasser's distinctive smell was undeniable.
"Are you lost?" he asked aloud as he reached for the door annunciator and the 'emergency distress' alert next to the transmit button. It was a new installation, one that Lieutenant Commander Reed had insisted on for all comm-panels, and would send a ship-wide alarm to all security and MACO personnel. With one press of this button, heavily armed and overly aggressive humans would converge upon his cabin within seconds.
But his finger would not move.
The temperature in his quarters dropped precipitously – a full two degrees – and Soval grimaced at the sudden sensation of immense pressure closing in upon him, almost as if internal life support had been dramatically altered. Once, shortly after he'd accepted the assignment to Earth as the ambassador, he'd joined a deep-sea diving expedition, both to overcome his secret, illogical fear of open water and to acclimatize himself to the new environment, and the crushing force that now pressed in on all sides reminded him far too much of the more dangerous moments from that experience. Beyond that sensation, he could feel a foreign mind pressing in against his, demanding obedience and short-circuiting his muscle control. The four centimeters between his finger and the distress button seemed an unfathomable gulf.
"You are different," Rajiin murmured as she emerged from the shadows, her eyes glittering. An unseen force compressed tightly around his thoughts like a vice, and Soval drew in a sharp, surprised breath. He had disapproved of Captain Archer's decision to bring the woman aboard, but had been unable to determine the nature of his distrust for her. The story she told was too convenient, too practiced, even if significant parts of it rang true. As neither Lieutenant Commander Reed nor Major Hayes contested the captain's decision, Soval had presumed that the confusion plaguing him over how many of the market vendors reacted to his presence – recognition in some instances, open fear in others – had distracted him from the truth of the matter.
Clearly, his distrust of her had not been misplaced.
"You are not like the others," the woman said as she stepped closer. Soval inhaled slowly. An eternity ago, when he was young and foolish and newly wed to a woman he sincerely cherished, he had studied the forbidden mental techniques of his ancestors, principally because his mate had encouraged it and he'd been more than slightly obsessed with ensuring her contentment, but also because of rampant curiosity. The very idea that he could touch another's mind was fascinating and, in the end, these same practices served him well when he joined the Ministry of Intelligence following the death of his son and the later loss of his wife to the kolinahr. It had been nearly six decades since he had last needed to utilize any of these techniques, but the memory of what to do came easily enough.
"No," he said in response to her earlier statement as he wrapped a shield of pure thought around his mind. Rajiin's influence fell away like ice suddenly melted away in the heat of a star. "I am not."
He pressed the button.
"What did you do?" Rajiin hissed, psychic energy boiling off her and freezing the air. Soval could feel his teeth rattle as the pressure differential increased.
"I summoned security," he replied. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded flat, foreign, and distant, but here, in this place where his will buffered his mind, such matters were not relevant. "They will be here in moments." Fury flashed across her face and, with an inarticulate scream, she attacked.
But not physically.
Blades of mental energy lanced out, piercing Soval's hastily erected psychic barriers and rocking him back on his heels. Rajiin's telepathic storm swelled, crackling with unfocused fury and power. She was, he realized at once, immensely powerful and if he had not been so totally focused on survival, he might have briefly wondered how she had managed to conceal such frightening capability from him while they were planetside, or how he could have failed to have noticed that she clearly must have manipulated Archer and Reed and Hayes to gain access to Enterprise.
But none of these thoughts occurred to him as he parried her mind-thrusts, blocked the psi-lances she sent hurtling at him, or dodged the mental tripwires and webs she spun. It was an unseen war, waged entirely in silence. Exposed surfaces – the desk monitor, the glass sculpture that was all he had left of his artistically minded son, the viewport – dripped with psychic frost as they pitted their respective minds against one another and Soval could feel the temperature continue to plummet as Rajiin drew more deeply of her gift. She held the edge in raw power – he knew that he could not begin to stand against her in a pure strength against strength contest – but Soval's skill was superior. Her every assault he could defend against, whether by turning aside and deflecting or by simply eluding it entirely, and her own mental shields were more than sufficient to protect against his rare counter-attacks. It was, in a word, a stalemate.
And with the hiss of an opening door, a third mind entered the duel.
Rajiin's reaction was instant and lethal. Expertly splitting her concentration, she stabbed a pulse of raw psionic power into the unprotected thoughts of the human male entering. He crumpled immediately, his mind already convulsing with death spasms, but Soval did not spare the male a second glance. Instead, he concentrated on offense, shaping his thoughts into a weapon and lashing out at Rajiin with the focused totality of his telepathic might. Her attention momentarily divided, she was able to blunt only a fraction of his assault and Soval felt a primal flash of victory when she staggered back, blood spurting from her nose. Their eyes locked and the instant he saw fear flicker across her face, Soval did the only thing he could.
He took a step forward.
In a single, fluid move, Rajiin twisted around and sprang toward the open door. With an audible pop, the psionic pressure differential vanished, the abruptness of the change causing Soval to stumble. Too late, he realized that the telepathic duel had relocated him – he vaguely recalled circling the cabin and Rajiin doing the same during that short-lived eternity where the entire galaxy had fallen away – and his back was now to the viewport. Intent on pursuing the woman, he took another step forward, but this time, his muscles quivered and failed, dumping him unceremoniously onto his knees. His vision swam.
"Shit!" The exclamation pulled his attention up from the floor and he blinked away the spots that danced in his vision. One of the female MACOs – Corporal Cole, he thought – was kneeling alongside her fallen comrade, a black expression on her face. With the ease of long practice, she rose and slammed a fist against the annunciator. "Medical emergency in Ambassador Soval's quarters!" she bellowed before taking three long steps forward. "Ambassador?" she began. Soval tried to look up but his vision dimmed abruptly and he felt the sudden urge to vomit.
"Rajiin," he gasped through clenched teeth before closing his eyes once more.
Mercifully, consciousness fled.
The sound of soft but urgent voices roused him from the darkness some time later. His head felt like it was on fire. For a long moment, Soval was confused – his cabin was never this loud and he'd long since reprogrammed the wall alarm to not make such an obnoxious beep when it sounded – but the strong smell of antiseptics and blood finally forced his exhausted mind to the obvious conclusion that he was in Sickbay. Opening his eyes was more difficult than it should have been.
"Ah," Doctor Phlox said with a broad smile as he loomed over him, "I see you are awake." The Denobulan glanced up at the biobed's readings, then looked back down. "And how do you feel?" he asked.
"The pain is manageable," Soval replied tightly, hoping the doctor would not notice the effort it took to speak. Phlox made a curious sound – it was a disbelieving click of his tongue – before pressing something against Soval's neck. A heartbeat later, relief washed away the agony.
"This should help," Phlox said. "I was concerned when you slipped into a light healing trance," he continued, his words causing Soval to frown tightly. "Fortunately," the doctor added with another smile, "I had an effective treatment already on hand and your neurolytic enzymes stabilized rather quickly." Soval inhaled slowly.
"Rajiin?" he asked. The doctor's frown vanished and he glanced to his right. An unmoving but distinctly female body was atop the other biobed, its identity concealed underneath a white medical shroud. At the foot of the bed, Captain Archer was engaged in a soft, angry discussion with Commander Hernandez, Lieutenant Commander Reed and Major Hayes. Curiously, the major's right arm was in a sling.
"She was killed during the boarding action, I'm afraid," Phlox said. Soval blinked – what boarding action? – but pushed the thought aside for the moment.
"There was a MACO," he began and Phlox nodded again, his face drooping with sadness.
"Sergeant Kemper," he said. "I was unable to save him. By the time I reached your cabin, he had suffered a series of cerebral infarctions and I was unable to resuscitate him." His expression tightened. "May I presume that Rajiin was responsible?" he asked.
"Yes," Soval replied.
"She was responsible for a lot of things," Archer interjected as he joined them. "Three people are dead because of her," he said darkly. A fraction of a second later, he pinned Soval with hooded eyes. "She was a telepath," the captain said. It was not a question, but Soval treated it like one nonetheless.
"Yes," he said.
"Interesting that you could go toe to toe with her," Archer murmured. Soval tensed for the inevitable question, but to his surprise, it did not come. "We were boarded by a group of insectoid aliens shortly after you sounded the distress alarm," the captain said. "We're pretty sure she contacted them somehow and they were here for her."
"Have you ascertained their identity?" Soval asked. Archer shook his head.
"Not yet." He exhaled bitterly. "They damaged the port nacelle during their retreat so we couldn't pursue and then used some sort of FTL drive we've never seen before … but we're pretty sure they're Xindi." Soval raised an eyebrow.
"That is … illogical," he said flatly. "The Xindi we encountered previously was not insectoid." For the span of a single second, Soval considered the notion that the two species were, in fact, one, but just as quickly discarded it. At best, they could be linked to the same ecology in fashion, like a sehlat or le-matya to a Vulcan, but two such radically disparate sentient species evolving on the same planet? It defied all science.
"Which makes me wonder," Archer mused aloud, "are the Xindi a race or just some coalition of different species?"
"A question for another time," Phlox said abruptly. "The ambassador needs to rest, Captain," he added in a rush when Archer began to reply. "I will contact you when I release him to quarters, but until then, I must insist that he be given time to recover!"
Later, after the doctor had driven the humans out with threats of intrusive examinations and had disappeared to do whatever it was he did while there were no medical emergencies, Soval found himself unable to concentrate adequately to enter even the early stages of a meditative trance. The pounding in his head was slowly beginning to return, a sure sign that Phlox's analgesic was wearing off, but all he could focus on was the corpse one biobed over. What had been her mission? How had they known to place her at the very market that Enterprise had visited? Were these Xindi that well-connected? What good could a single science vessel do against such a formidable foe? Soval sighed.
They were troubling thoughts.