The Praetor was at the podium now, beginning his speech. Antonius was asking the Senate to authorize an assault operation along the Federation border by the end of the year, to test the defenses, technology, and psychological resolve of the Earthmen and their allies. If the Federation were truly as weak and vulnerable as intelligence indicated, an actual invasion would follow early in the spring.
House Antreidies wanted to postpone this war until tactical warp drive was perfected. Research into such engines had been ongoing for decades with little progress, hampered by Great House infighting and static scientific thinking. However, breakthroughs had been made recently and the engineers believed that tactical warp drive would be deployable within 10 years. Waiting to launch a war until the fleet was updated seemed the wisest course to the Antreidies leadership.
        Despite the undoubted power of the Empire's plasma torpedoes, and the newly upgraded cloaking device, decades of fighting the Gorns showed the weaknesses of a fleet that could not maneuver in combat at warp speeds. Even the hawkish factions admitted that another war with the Gorns was pointless right now, so the Praetor turned attention to the Federation, who knew little or nothing about current Romulan capabilities. Despite this advantage, Brellus felt that attacking the Federation was even more reckless than attacking the Gorns again. Until the fleet was brought up to modern standards, a new war against such an economic powerhouse was an outrageous suggestion, even if it could succeed in the early stages. Sadly, his words of caution were ignored in the Halls of Council.
  Most Romulan analysts felt that the Federation was weak, her border areas ripe for the picking. Apparently the Federation had most of its fleet deployed against enemies on the other side of its territory, but the brutal fighting of the first Federation War over a century ago suggested, to Brellus anyway, that the humans and their allies would fight valiantly if attacked.
   On the other hand, if the Earthmen were genuinely unprepared for war, a quick victory and seizure of the border areas might accomplish what Antonius hoped. Brellus was not certain that the pro-war faction was wrong. The Gorns were used to fighting plasma weapons and the cloak, but the Earthmen had not been exposed to these weapons and could be taken by surprise. Still, Brellus worried that the pro-war factions were drastically underestimating the challenges ahead, and that hopes for a quick victory followed by Federation acquiescence to loss of territory were misplaced.
        There was a personal consideration for Brellus as well: his wife's brother was a highly respected starship commander and would lead part of the attack force. Brellus hadn't spoken with his brother-in-law about the war yet, but he knew that the military had mixed feelings about the coming conflict. The younger leadership cadres (the Praetor's constituency) were chomping at the bit, but the older and more cautious leaders, tempered by negative experiences with the Gorns, were less sanguine.
   Antonius's speech was mostly boilerplate and Brellus paid only cursory attention, lost in his own mental calculations. A formal vote would be taken shortly and Brellus suspected the outcome. Weeks of negotiations behind the scenes made the vote count certain: at least eight of the 20 houses would vote in favor of the attack; at least two would oppose it. Fully half of the houses, including those with the most involvement in the military, had refused to give away their positions in advance, but it was unlikely that all would oppose the Praetor.
        The situation was more complex than that. The Praetor wanted an unlimited authorization, the power to not just make a probing attack, but to take the empire to war no matter what information was or was not gained.
   This made Brellus' position difficult: he would vote his conscience, but without a clear idea how it would impact the final outcome. If the final vote were close, the Praetor and the pro-war houses would be outraged, and there would be political consequences, but too many targets for them to matter. That said, Brellus was certain that at least six military-based houses would vote as a block, and they would decide this, not his vote.
    The Praetor finished his rhetorical preliminaries and Brellus turned his inner attention back to the podium.
    "Therefore, we conclude that for the safety and security of the Empire, the menace of the Earthmen and their Federation lackeys must be eliminated once and for all! In accordance with the Imperial Way, and with the full support of Our Most Glorious Emperor, I place before the Senate a formal proposal to authorize offensive operations against the Federation!"
        The senators and the small gallery of observers (all with high security clearances) broke out in thunderous applause. Brellus applauded, if with a bit less enthusiasm than most.
       "We shall now vote on the authorization." Such votes were taken orally, with the houses voting in the order they had been admitted to the Senate. Antreidies was the third house in terms of seniority.
"House Aurellius, your position?"
       The senator for Aurellius rose. He was a muscular man with graying hair; Brellus knew him well and despised him; he was a well-known philanderer and abusive towards his wife and children, but used his senatorial influence to remain above the law. "We vote in favor of the authorization!" More applause filled the chamber and the senator sat.
   "House Pentalion?"
      The senator from Pentalion rose. She was thin, well-dressed and elegant, with the air of an intellectual. Brellus had known her for years and considered her a friend, although they often disagreed on policy. He had tried hard to convince her of the Praetor's folly, but had failed. "We vote in favor of the authorization!"  More applause.
      "House Antreidies?"
     Brellus rose, with as much dignity as he could muster. "We oppose the authorization ... at this time," he said solemnly. A cold silence filled the chamber. He found himself sweating as Antonius stared at him, daggers for eyes. Brellus sat.
"House Selnirak?"
       The senator from Selnirak was an older man wearing the uniform of a pente-admiral, covered with military decorations, some of them from actual combat. "Fellow senators," he began, "while House Selnirak supports this operation, we do so with the caveat that this is a limited operation for specific objectives. This plan, which I helped to write, is a means to test Federation defenses, tactics, and technology. We have not fought them in many years, and they may not react in the way our agents predict. House Selnirak votes in favor of the limited authorization, with the caveat that any further operations will be subject to a second vote after the information gained is fully understood."
     The chamber broke out in a mania of voices. Some supported the old admiral, others shouted for an unlimited authorization. The Praetor spoke quickly. "The authorization before us is unlimited, but the Emperor will no doubt, sadly recognize the fears of those who must limit their positions." This was not the standard Romulan formula, which mentioned "concerns" rather than "fears." Antonius was clearly pushing for an unlimited authorization, and wanted no more houses to follow the old admiral's path. The vote went on. Only one other house supported Antreidies' position against the war. Nine houses voted for the authorization with the caveat of a second vote after the resulting information was studied.
    At the end of the process, the Praetor spoke. "The final vote is 17 houses in favor of the initial operation, two houses opposed, one house abstaining. The motion is passed, and I shall transmit to the Emperor the decision of the Senate! We shall deal to our enemies a just measure of fear!"
        The Federation has much to fear, thought Brellus, but if we are wise, so do we.
Antonius was inwardly furious. A second vote! he snarled under his breath. Well, that is no matter. The first attack will show that the Federation is weak and that our new weapons are more than adequate. Antonius needed only three votes to change for him to win the second ballot.

Federation Colony Delta Hydra V, 15 December, Y154

Captain's log, USS Alfred the Great, Stardate 1709.2. We are making our scheduled supply drop and routine check at the Delta Hydra V colony. After completing this task, we will resume our patrol station along the Romulan Neutral Zone outpost line.
Closing his communicator, Captain David Winter stood on a hill overlooking the colony below. The sky was blue; grayish clouds whisked by. The air was a bit chilly; it was autumn in the southern hemisphere of this planet. The trees of this world were turning color, from their natural bluish tinge to light beige. The colonists had planted a few Terran oaks and maples on a nearby hill, but they had died the previous spring, unable to adapt to the natural soil.
   Delta Hydra V was a Class-L planet, with rich deposits of several valuable ores. Although the atmosphere was suitable for humanoids, soil qualities were only mediocre and agricultural potential was marginal due to limited rainfall. It was nothing at all like Winter's home planet, the beautiful oceanic paradise of Pacifica.  The colonists here, a pioneer group of miners, geology experts, and their families, required food imports to sustain themselves. The planet was close to the Romulan Neutral Zone, but it had been over 100 years since the Romulan War and the areas considered safe for colonization had gradually pushed closer to the border. The colony was sponsored by the Federation central government rather than a private corporation, which meant that Star Fleet was responsible for resupply and protection duties. Alfred the Great was here on a routine medical check and cargo drop, part of their patrol duties in this sector.
       A cold gust of wind tussled his reddish hair, but the captain enjoyed the briskness, a nice change from the daily grind of a starship bridge. Winter normally let his subordinate officers manage a routine colony check, but today he wanted to get off the ship for a bit. As much as he loved the Alfred, it was important for his mental and physical health to get some fresh air occasionally. So said the ship's surgeon, anyhow.
        Examining the colony from the hill, he could see four of his own crew milling about, talking with the colonists. Another member of the crew, a midshipman from Star Fleet Academy on his senior year familiarization tour, was helping two colonists unload a pallet of medical supplies.
       Winter saw the seven-foot Rigellian frame of Dr. Catek emerge from one of the larger colonial buildings. Catek looked around, spied Winter on top of the hill, and grimly waved. Winter gave a slight wave back to the surgeon, then walked down the hill towards the colony. There was an old stereotype that captains and starship chief surgeons made the best of friends (since the chief surgeon was the only one the captain could supposedly confide in), but in Winter's experience it wasn't true. He didn't like Catek, nor did the doctor like him. The relationship was strictly professional.
      The colony was laid out on a grid in a small valley. In addition to the individual housing units, there were several larger community buildings, including a mess hall, storm shelter, and medical dispensary. Catek was conducting his examinations in the latter building, in cooperation with the colony's doctor.
   The colony was small and it took Winter less than five minutes to reach Catek's position. The doctor was conferring with his medical colleague and the colony's governor.
       "Well, Doctor, is everyone healthy?"
    "Yes, Captain, for the most part. Mostly the normal minor health problems, but we have several dozen cases of bronchitis caused by a local bacterium. None of the standard antibiotics work, but Dr. Ramberg and I are working on some ideas. We'd like to beam up and use the ship's medical laboratory to conduct a genetic study of the bug and find a vulnerability."
        Winter frowned. "Any risk of contamination?" he asked warily. A shipboard contagion was a deep fear of every starship captain. Precautions against such disasters were extensive, of course. The transporter biofilter was very efficient, and all Star Fleet personnel were given powerful immune-system-boosting inoculations before being certified for space duty. Colonists were given the same treatments, but such safety measures were not completely foolproof and disease outbreaks aboard ship, while rare, were not unheard of.
     "None. It is a simple bacterium. The transporter biofilter will definitely block it."
   "How serious is this disease?"
  "Not serious, at this point," said the colony's Dr. Ramberg, a diminutive, mousy man with a bad haircut, "but we don't know if it could develop from bronchitis into something more dangerous. It might progress like Terran tuberculosis or Centaurian Sea Cough if we don't find a countermeasure."
   Winter sighed. "Understood, doctors. How much time will you need? We do have a patrol schedule to meet."
        Catek shrugged. "I'm not sure. With the special equipment I have on the ship, doing a genetic sequence won't take long at all, but it may take some time to synthesize a countermeasure. Could be a day, could be a week."
      "I need a firm timetable, Doctor," Winter said impatiently. "We're due to rendezvous with the Potemkin and Hermes on stardate. . ."  His communicator beeped.
   "Alfred to Captain Winter, come in." It was the voice of the ship's XO, Commander Jiang. Normally a calm personality, he sounded unusually tense.
       "Winter here. Go ahead Jiang."
  "Sir, Listening Outpost Eight reports they are under attack by an unidentified spacecraft!"
     Winter was stunned. "What?!? Is that confirmed?"
        "The message was fragmentary, Sir, but genuine."
        "Go to yellow alert immediately, and get the ship ready to leave orbit. Signal the other members of the landing party. We will leave in five minutes. Everyone had better be aboard when we warp out. Have the navigator plot a direct course to Outpost Eight. Order engineering to prepare for maximum warp. "
        "Aye, aye, sir."
        Winter shut the communicator. "Doctors, I'm afraid your medical studies will have to wait."
     "I already have the samples I need to run those tests," said Catek.
     "Tests?" Winter never understood Catek's priorities. "Doctor, I need you concentrating on. . ."
"It won't interfere with my duties, Captain, I promise. The tests won't take long and don't require. . ."
       "Do whatever you need to do," Winter interrupted gruffly, "as long as you are ready for combat casualties by the time we reach the outpost." Winter turned to face the colonial governor, who had been silent thus far during his conversation with the physicians. He was about to speak, but the governor got the first word in.
      "Captain, we are not prepared to resist a Romulan invasion! Can you spare some of your Marines to defend the colony?" The governor's voice was tinged with panic.
       "Governor, we don't know if there is a Romulan invasion or not. This could be a false alarm or an Orion attack or something else entirely. I'm sorry, but I can't spare any Marines right now, not heading into possible combat."
       "It is Star Fleet's job to protect us!"
"And we will, Governor, we will, but we have to find out what's going on first, and it is better to stop them at the border than wait until they get here." Winter looked at the distressed governor  again. "If the Romulans invade, all of my Marines won't be of any  help. They'll bring more troops than I have, or they won't come at all. You know that."
        Winter flipped his communicator back open. "Winter to Alfred. Stand by to beam me aboard."