Michael Chabon
4 min readMay 5, 2021



Born into the upper-caste, politically prominent qNaqoan kinship unit in 2364 (Earth reckoning), in the Romulan capital, Ki Baratan.

Parents, uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins — up to 270 can live in the most prosperous (or the most impoverished) kinship compounds — all had careers in Romulan government, diplomacy, and halls of power.

It’s not easy to shine in a family like that. It was even harder for Narek (his “open name”, the average Romulan having nine names, each with its own social or religious function), because he grew up in the shadow of his (one year) older sister, NARISSA. Brilliant, athletic, a champion Zhamaq player, versed in classical Romulan drama and poetry that is much prized as a social accomplishment in Romulan high society, Narissa set a very high bar.

She shined: on the outside (where else does shine really matter?), anyway. Only her brother knows how dark her inner darkness really is.

In their early years Narek tried to compete with his beloved/resented sister, and even though he excelled, too, somehow the shine was never as bright. In his teen years, he finally gave up: not on trying to excel, but on trying to excel in the same fields and pursuits: the approved pursuits, the proper ones. He became a rebel, something deeply frowned on in traditional Romulan culture. He took up violent sports like Romulan boxing and knife-archery, joined a traveling theater company that performed “low tragedy” (revenge plays, mostly, set among the lower-caste and people of the streets), and spent time bumming around at the fringes of the Romulan Empire, which is where he was when the evacuation faltered, and the Romulan home sun went nova.

Trapped the fringes of Romulan space by the collapse of the Empire and its resulting chaos, suddenly full of patriotic fervor and burning with the desire to do something, he finally made his way to Vvalti, the planet chosen as capital of the Romulan Free State, the most powerful and best organized of the political entities that emerged in the wake of the collapse.

Though they did suffer painful losses, the qNaqoan kinship had survived the transition into the new Free State era with its power, prestige and wealth relatively intact. It was no problem to find a position for Narek; strings could be pulled. But what position? What did he want to do? Fight. But he knew that he could never fit into the rigid, brutal discipline of the Romulan military machine. Diplomacy — war conducted by other means — was too slow and required too much patience. He was beginning to despair when the RFS successor to the Tal Shiar (secret police/espionage/black ops) sent in a recruiter: his sister, Narissa.

Narek, it turned out, was wanted for very special duty. For nearly two decades the Romulans had been conducting a secret war, all across the Beta and Alpha Quadrants, against the development and deployment of synthetic, sentient life. Beyond being assured that the proliferation of synthetics was directly related to the destruction of the Romulan homeworld, he was not read into the secret. That was all right with him; in a culture as rife with secrets as the Romulan, you are always going to be left out of most of them.

He was trained to identify synthetics and signs of synthetic research, to pursue, and to eliminate them. His native intelligence finally found its outlet as, along the way to becoming the foremost Romulan anti-synth agent, he became of necessity an expert in synthetic theory and technology. Also, he turned out to be an excellent spy, equal or perhaps even, in his relentlessly calm approach, superior to his sister, director of the anti-synth unit.

Even Narissa has to acknowledge that.


As with tarot cards on Earth, the pikhmit “fortune telling” cards originated as part of a game, called Zhamaq.

Zhamaq can best be understood as combination of chess and bid whist, played with both a deck of cards, the pikhmit, on which the gods, heroes and demons of the Romulan (ancient Vulcan?) pantheon are depicted, and with tokens representing stylized military figures (munifex, conicen, immunes, centurion, praetor, quaestor, and emperor) on a soft fabric game mat. A Zhamaq mat is inscribed with stylized “landmarks”: mountain ranges, rivers, and forts, overlaid with a triangular grid. Traditional mats are often quite beautiful.

Zhamaq is a game of alliances and counter-alliances, treaties and betrayals, played by three players. The tokens come in three colors (red, white and black). The game play is generally understood to be modeled on the dual nature of warfare: the interaction of the tactical (play on the mat) with the psychological (play with the cards, which involves bluffing and trick taking). Some see a metaphor for destiny, human life, in that card play (the gods) controls and determines the possibilities of mat play. The Romulans view Zhamaq, rightly, as the game of games, the one that most perfectly balances skill and luck.