The Super Star Destroyer broke in two, continuing to fire even as explosions consumed it. The Enterprise soared away, weapons blazing as she ploughed through the Imperial fleet.
Leia froze the footage and turned to O'Brien. "Okay," she said finally, "I'm convinced. You are from another galaxy." She looked again at the image on the screen. An entire Imperial fleet, obliterated by one ship. I never would have believed it. "So now what?"
"Now you tell us everything we need to know about the Empire." Troi said.
"To open the way to invaders out to conquer our galaxy?"
"We're not invaders." Dax said sharply. "You saw the logs the Enterprise made, you know what happened. They ended up here by accident and where attacked for no reason."
"Reconnaissance. Come on Princess, we discovered a large and hostile power right on our own doorstep. We need to know what kind of a threat the Empire represents to us."
"In our position, what would you have done?" Troi asked.
"The same." Leia admitted. "You're right to fear the Empire - they'll conquer you if they can."
"What we need to know is, how big is the Imperial fleet, how is it armed, and what capacity does the Empire have to deploy it beyond their own borders for extended periods. What we don't care about is what kind of fixed defences your own worlds have. An invader would need that information, but it's not relevant to us." Dax put in.
Leia considered. "I don't know much about exact deployments," she said finally. "You'd want General Ackbar for that. I'm more a political animal at the moment."
"Do you know where we could find classified information on Coruscant?"
"Not positively. The only place I'd bet on having that kind of thing is the Emperors palace. He has a computer system there that's supposed to have all the information there is, on just about everything."
"Can we break into it from the outside?" Dax asked.
"No." Leia said it instantly. "The Rebellion has been trying for years, but the system has no connections to the outside world - none whatever. They update it by physically taking the information in - literally by hand. You'd have to get an actual agent into the palace to even begin work on it. We lost three of our best computer technicians trying before we gave up."
"Do you have any idea of the layout, what kind of security they have around the palace?"
"I don't know many specific details, but I have some idea."
"Good." Troi said. "Captain, start scanning the palace and surrounding area. Work with the Princess to fill in whatever details she can provide. Specifically, locate the computer system and find us a place we can work on accessing it with the least chance of getting caught. Work fast - I want results within the hour. The next opening of the portal is in less than twenty four hours and I want to catch it if we can." Troi started to head out.
"One moment." Leia said.
The counsellor stopped and turned. "Yes?"
"We haven't discussed my price yet."
"You haven't got much of a chance of getting into the palace and getting what you want without my help. In return for that help I want the full schematics and technical readouts of - what did you call it· your 'warp core'?. Plus details of how you manufacture and handle antimatter safely in large quantities."
"I'm sorry, I can't do that." Troi said.
"Starfleet has a rule - we call it the Prime Directive and it's our highest guiding principle. It forbids us from interfering in the normal development of another culture."
"Troi· Deanna. You know firsthand what the Empire is like. Trust me, what you got was only a taste of what they are capable of. The Rebellion is dedicated to stopping that kind of cruelty, forever, but we're on the defensive right now, being pushed back and back all the time. If we can start putting antimatter power systems into Rebel ships we'll have the Empire on its knees inside a year! That puts an end to an entire galaxy of suffering, as well as guaranteeing the safety of your Federation. With that much at stake - I won't help you unless you meet that price. I'm sorry, but I won't."
"That's final?" Troi asked slowly.
"Then it's agreed. You have my word I'll allow you access to the information you want before we leave, providing you help us now."
Dax stiffened. "Councillor-"
Troi cut her off. "Later. Right now, you have work to do. Get to it."
"Dismissed. Doctor Bashir, please stay."
The Defiant's command staff met an hour later, once again in the mess hall. "We're ready." Dax said. "Or at least, as ready as we're going to get." She indicated the diagram on the large wallscreen. "This is the palace complex. The whole thing covers several dozen square kilometres. It's covered with a shield-" she touched a control and a transparent covering appeared over the complex. Several large holes where patterned around the apex, and a number of smaller ones at ground level. "But during normal operation there are several gaps at the top of the field to allow air to circulate freely. These seal up during any kind of alert, but as things stand we can beam through them easily enough."
"The computer systems?" Troi asked.
"There are two computer cores, located here and here. They can be accessed either via their own control rooms or the Emperors private terminal. Our details of the security are a few years old so we can't count on them totally, but so far as Princess Leia remembers the control rooms are guarded by at least twenty or thirty soldiers each, with a hundred or more ready to respond to an emergency within a minute or two if required. A further ten to fifteen thousand troops are distributed throughout the complex and could be at the control rooms within ten minutes or so if called on. Entry to the control room is via a combination of an ID card, palm print and retina scan - access is controlled by the central computers themselves, so you can't put yourself on the list to get in unless you're already in."
"Sounds difficult." Troi mused.
"It's impossible." Dax shook her head. "There's no way to get into the control rooms that I can see."
"So we give up?"
"So we go for the weak point, which is the Emperors quarters." Dax said. "The security around them is even tighter - the same kind of access systems surrounded by several layers of troops and robotic sentries, that kind of thing. However, there are no soldiers within the Emperors quarters themselves - he likes his privacy. There are no electronic systems of any kind within the quarters themselves. Apparently the Emperor is a little paranoid about traitors eavesdropping on him or monitoring his movements. With all the security around his quarters, I guess he feels safe enough."
"So we just beam directly into his quarters. Sounds good." Troi said.
"One slight problem." Dax said. "We've scanned the area, and the Emperor is currently in his quarters. That leaves us with a choice of waiting for however long it takes for him to leave, or·"
"Or beaming in anyway and incapacitating him." Troi finished. "The idea of this is to get the information without anybody knowing about it."
"There are things we can do." Bashir said. "We could beam sedative directly into the Emperors body. The only problem with that is the dosage - we can't scan his metabolism nearly well enough to judge a dosage. I can scan Princess Leia to get a good idea of what's needed, but I'd have to err on the side of caution; too much will kill him, which we can't risk. Too little and he'll wake up while we're still there."
"How frequently does he leave his personal rooms?" Troi asked Leia. The Princess shrugged.
"I have no idea." She said. "But the Emperor makes relatively few personal appearances. The rumours are that it's not unknown for him to remain out of sight for days at a time, even within the palace itself. We could be in for a long haul."
"We have no choice then. Doctor, conduct an examination of the Princess and prepare the sedative. How long do you need?"
"It's a simple procedure. Twenty minutes at most."
"Then we go in thirty."
"I'd recommend a minimal complement." Dax cautioned.
"Myself, you and chief O'Brien to deal with the computer, Princess Leia. I'd like to take you Doctor, but the transporter can only handle four at a time and I want to be able to get us all out in a hurry if we need to. Besides, you need to stay and work on that other matter we discussed."
"Yes sir." He nodded.
"Phasers for all personnel, including the Princess." Troi said. "If you report to security they'll give you a crash course in using our weapons. Let's get to work."
Troi, Leia, Dax and O'Brien shimmered into existence in the centre of the Emperors private apartment, phasers drawn and ready. It was a precaution that wasn't necessary.
The cloaked and hooded figure lay prone on the floor not ten feet away. Dax went to his side and ran a medical tricorder over him. "Blood pressure and heartbeat are a little on the high side." She said. "At least compared to Leia. Brain activity is low; he's out, at least for the moment." She switched the device over to the standard scan functions and began sweeping the room. "no sign of any alarm systems."
"Look at the size of this place!" O'Brien said. The room they where in was huge, easily bigger than a full sized tennis court. A single colossal window dominated one wall, offering a breathtaking view across the solid sea of buildings that was Coruscant. "Nice view." He commented.
"He does like his comforts, doesn't he?" Leia said, looking around. The décor of this room would have given most museums a bad case of envy. The furniture was very obviously antique, the walls covered in works of art she - a Princess of what had been one of the Empires wealthiest worlds - had only heard of in stories. She glanced down at the prone figure and fingered her phaser absently.
"I'll go check out the other rooms." O'Brien said. "Make sure we're really alone."
"Fine." Troi replied. "Don't take too long."
"There's the terminal." Dax said, putting the tricorder away as she pointed. "It's configured for palm print security access and a code word lock. Let's get him over there."
Troi helped her move the unconscious figure, surprised at how light and frail he felt. They pressed his palm to the console in the corner and it lit up obligingly.
"It's a pretty simple system." Dax said as she scanned the unit with her tricorder. "Nothing dates as fast as computer technology, I suppose. Just a second· there. It's unlocked."
"Good. Find those files while I get his nibs out of the way." Troi ordered.
"Computer?" Dax said warily as Troi dragged the Emperor to a couch. Leia looked at her, surprised.
"Why are you talking to an inanimate object?" She asked curiously.
"No voice interface?" Dax said gloomily.
"Voice interface?" Leia said, aghast. "Those went out of style decades ago. Vocal commands aren't precise enough for more than casual use, surely?"
"Maybe it depends on how good your software is." Dax said pointedly. "Okay, let's do this the good old fashioned way." She sat at the controls and began typing. "Okay· let's see what we can find·" she muttered to herself.
Leia left the console and began wandering idly around the huge room. "I always wondered what kind of a life he lived." She mused. "I suppose most people imagine him living in splendour, but I always imagined him to be a more· simple man. I suppose I imagined him sitting in some bare room, thinking up new ways to hurt people or something."
"Tyrants are often a lot more complicated than people imagine." Troi said carelessly. "Part of the way they get power is by being mysterious, charismatic."
"I guess so. I think I'll go find Miles while you finish up here."
"Here we go." Dax said as she headed for the door. "Now· first thing we want to do is make a database of all Imperial Navy ship types and their general specifications - power output, weaponry, engine performance, that kind of thing. That's going to take a few minutes." Her fingers flew over the keyboard. "Second thing is, how many of each type and where are they deployed·"
Leia wandered out of the room, finding herself in another that was nearly twice the size. This one was a library, every wall crammed with books - real, actual paper books - from the luxuriously carpeted floor to the ceiling nearly ten metres above. She wandered along the shelves, counting dozens of first editions dating back for hundreds, even thousands of years.
She found O'Brien in the next room, standing at a console in the middle of the huge space. Apart from the console it was completely empty. "Hi." He said with a grin. "Wait till you see this!"
He flicked a switch and the room blinked out of view around them, replaced by a glittering starscape. She could see nothing of the room, only herself and O'Brien and the console.
"It's a bit like the Stellar Cartography lab back on the Enterprise." O'Brien said. "More elaborate, though." He set the stars revolving about them and Leia grabbed onto the console, momentarily dizzied by the apparent motion.
"I've seen things like this before." She said when she got her balance back. "Not usually this good a quality image, though."
"I'd love to get into the projector." Miles said, He cleared the image and returned the controls to the exact settings he had found them on. "It's awful bulky compared to ours."
"Maybe next time we drop in for a visit." Leia said. They went into the next room - a huge dining room complete with a thirty metre table. Leia shook her head. "What kind of a man has a room like this in a place only he ever goes into?" She said incredulously.
Miles shrugged. "Search me."
"Come on," she said. "Let's keep looking."
"What the·" Dax stared at the screen, horrified. "Oh no·"
"What is it?" Troi asked.
"He's sent a fleet though the Portal. The same time we came through - fifteen thousand Star Destroyers. That means that they've been there for over forty hours now! The blockade fleet can't possibly hold that kind of a force in check."
"Get every detail you can." Troi said. "Exact composition of the fleet, detailed technical readouts of the ships - anything that might help Starfleet fight them.
"I'm on it." Dax said. "What the hell is this·"
"They're sending reinforcements through. A space station of some kind, a battle platform. 'Death Star' class. It's· big. No, it's huge. Look at this."
Troi saw an image of a small moon with one prominent crater. She waited for the station to orbit into view - it was several seconds before she realised that the moon was the station.
"According to this, the station is a hundred and thirty kilometres across. It's on its way to the Portal, right now; it's going through with the next opening."
"We have to get there and stop it." Troi said.
"Stop it? Have you seen this thing? Sure, maybe it's a century or three behind us in technology, but if it's built like a Star Destroyer it'll carry millions of turbolaser cannons. The thing must outgun the Defiant thousands to one!"
"Is there anything on the construction blueprints?"
Dax ran a search routine. "No. Just the orders to go through and support the Imperial fleet."
"Well there's nothing much we can do about it right now. Let's just finish getting what we came for and get back to the ship."
"Right. I'm nearly done·" Dax said. "There. That's it." She patted her tricorder. "I've transferred it all into the tricorders memory. I'm wiping the logs for the last few minutes· done." She shut the computer down and stepped away. The cityscape outside caught her eye and she stepped to the window. "What kind of people are these?" She asked in frustration. "To let themselves be ruled by the kind of mind that would think up things like that station, send it against an innocent population that never did him any harm?"
"I wish I knew." Troi said. "Come on, let's get out of here before he wakes up."
"Oh, I'm afraid it's already too late for that." The Emperor said as he sat up. "Too late by far."
They wandered through room after room, all huge in scale and littered with treasures plundered from a thousand worlds. After they had passed through twenty or more of the huge spaces it began to wear on Leia. She had grown up in luxury compared to most, but her fathers palace had been nothing compared to this - and the Emperors personal apartments made up less than one percent of the complex. She found herself thinking of the Tatooine and the life Luke had described to her.
Over half the population of the Empire lives in poverty, she thought. How many millions, billions could you feed and clothe with what's in this one building?
"I'm going back." She announced suddenly. "This is getting a little· wearing."
"I'll come with you." Miles said. They headed back to the room they had beamed into.
"Councillor Troi, I believe." The Emperor wheezed as he stood up and raised a small, sleek-looking weapon. "Greetings to you. I must confess, I had begun to believe we would never meet."
Troi held herself perfectly still. The mans' mind was incredibly focused and controlled - she could sense little beyond an almost perfect determination to dominate and overcome.
"Drop your weapons." He snarled suddenly. Troi carefully removed her phaser and dropped it to the ground. Dax followed suit. The Emperor smiled, an expression that contained absolutely no humour. "Good· now I think we will call your good friend Corbus. He is most anxious to meet you again."
"Why are you doing this?" Troi said suddenly. Careful! She cautioned herself. If he spoke as soon as he came around, he doesn't know we've been into his computer. "You attacked us the moment you met us, without any kind of provocation! We're no threat to you."
"Oh, but you are." The Emperor said. "You very existence is a threat, one that I mean to end for good. As we speak the first wave of my fleet is establishing a foothold in your Federation. A hundred thousand ships are gathering to exploit that breakthrough."
Troi put on her very best look of shock. "We are not a threat!" She said. Where are Leia and O'Brien! "We mean you no harm - the Federation co-Exists with hundreds of different species, we solve our problems by negotiation in good faith. We-"
"You are an abomination!" He yelled. "A blight that I intend to excise, once and for all!"
"What do you mean?"
"The Force is with everybody, everything. With some it is strong, with some weak. Some feel the calling of the good side; they are foolish and must pay the price for their mistake, but still they are part of the force. But you· the force is not with you, not with any of you. You are apart from it, separate - all of you. This cannot be allowed!"
"What is this 'Force'?" Deanna asked. "A PSI ability of some kind, but it's something different isn't it?"
"The force is an energy field." The Emperor replied. "It is created by all life. It encompasses everything in the galaxy - every person, insect, rock, every atom of dust. To those who can fully master it's dark side, anything is possible. See the past, see the future, control whole worlds. You are an unstable element; you bring chaos and disorder, disrupt the force. For that, you will die. All of you."
"You mean, the whole Federation?" Troi asked uncertainly.
"I mean all. The Federation, your allies, enemies. Your galaxy will be purged of all life."
"You might find that more difficult than you imagine." Dax said softly. "Some of the people in our galaxy can get a little· intolerant with strangers."
"It is of no consequence." The Emperor said casually. "The cost does not matter to me - I will not permit such as you to continue to live."
"There's one slight problem with that plan." Troi said.
"Oh?" He said sarcastically. "And what might that be?"
"The man with the phaser standing behind you."
He spun around in surprise. The instant the weapon drifted away from her midsection Troi kicked out with all her might, connecting solidly with his hand. The gun flew across the room, lost in a corner. Troi dived in at him, ramming a fist with all her might as he started to turn. She caught him under the ribcage and he collapsed to the floor with a cry.
Dax scooped up her phaser and held it on him. "Not bad." She said, half-smiling.
Troi winced as she rubbed her aching knuckles. "All the old ones are new here." She said "But it's been a long time since unarmed combat at the academy."
The Emperor sat up and raised his hand. A stream of intense blue lightning flashed out at Dax, hitting her squarely in the mid-section. It passed directly through her and hit the window, scoring a deep burn across the surface. Dax looked down at her untouched stomach in surprise. A long moment passed.
"I take it that was a demonstration of the Force?" She said finally to the Emperor. "If that's what it means to be an abomination, I'll take it." She shifted her aim and adjusted the phaser. A brief burst blew a gaping hole through the far wall; she reset it to stun and aimed it straight at his face. "This, on the other hand, is good old fashioned technology. It tends to be a bit more reliable - as you will discover if you so much as twitch before we leave."
Leia and O'Brien charged in, phasers drawn, and skidded to a stop. "Oh." O'Brien said, shamefaced. "I heard firing, thought you might be in trouble."
"Not really. Councillor, are we all finished here?"
"All finished." Troi said. "One thing before we go. Emperor, this galaxy of yours seems to be a pretty settled place."
"Galactic civilisation has lasted for tens of thousands of years"
"Yes, I'm sure. Well our galaxy isn't like that. There are a lot of people who seem to like being at everybody's throats. You've seen how one Starfleet ship fared against your fleet - there are beings in our galaxy who are countless thousands of times more powerful than the Federation. Species who's avowed aim is to assimi- to destroy every culture they come across, no matter what the cost. You might be able to conquer the Federation, but in the long run you may well find you've bitten off more than you can chew. Just something to think about." She tapped her combadge. "Troi to Defiant; four to beam up."
"Stand by thrusters." Dax said as the four strolled onto the bridge. "We're breaking orbit and heading home." She nodded towards Leia as she took her chair. "With a little detour to drop you off, of course."
"There's a ship that can take me. You know how to read our transponder codes?"
"No problem." Lieutenant Anthony said from the science station. "Civilian transponders aren't coded or hidden in any way, we've been using them to monitor traffic for the last day or so."
"Good. You're looking for a Correllian transport travelling under the name of Stellar Tortoise" She grinned at that; Han had complained for two solid days at her choice of cover name for his ship. "She'll be around the mid system region somewhere. Her real name is the Millennium Falcon. She can pick me up."
"What about the rest of your people?"
"They'll most likely follow their planned exit routes. They all know how to handle themselves in situations like this, they'll be fine."
"Found it." Anthony reported. "Stellar Tortoise, course three five five mark four seven, distance eight astronomical units."
"That's a hell of a haul on thrusters." O'Brien complained.
"We'll stay on thrusters until we're clear of the planet, then go to Impulse for the rest of the trip. I don't want to tangle with an Imperial fleet now, we've bent the rules enough on this trip." Dax replied, shooting a glare at Troi.
As everybody settled down in the conference room Picard brought up a holographic tactical display.
"I've been reviewing the actions taken by the Imperial fleet since they arrived." Picard said. "I want to play through it now." He brought up the programme he had pre-programmed. "Opinions?" He asked when it finished, turning to Riker first.
"They're not making much sense." Riker replied, frowning at the display. "When they came out of the Portal they played it dumb - just sitting there letting us pick them off. Splitting up like that to get past us was the first bit of decent tactics I've seen from this fleet. Then they head straight for Sol - right for the Federations jugular, as it where. Another good move on their part. Then they sit there for another couple of hours before going for the Spacedock. And now they just mill around out here again for hours while we pick them off."
"The tactics are poor." The android agreed, also studying the display. "At least, they are poor by our standards. It may be that Imperial personnel lack training in such matters."
"I find that hard to believe." Geordi put in. "True we don't know much about this Empire, but I think we can all agree that they're hostile and aggressive. Given that they should have some skill at the practice of war, if not the technological side."
"Okay, I grant you that we're not dealing with a band of incompetents here." Riker said. "Their ships are tough and well designed, within their obvious technological limitations. And they fight them well - they'd be difficult opponents if they technology and numbers where both even. But they seem to take an eternity to co-ordinate their forces!"
"I have a thought about that." Picard gestured towards the fleet. "I wonder if we're not seeing a combination of cultural and technological factors here."
"In what way sir?" Data asked.
"I've been thinking about what 'Lord' Vader said to us. He told us that he was a representative of their Emperor, Palpatine. This Emperor wanted us taken to a place called Coruscant to deal. It wasn't absolutely clear, but I think Coruscant might be their capital - it seemed as though the Emperor was commanding a personal meeting."
"That was a trap. An obvious one at that." Geordi scoffed.
"Of course," Picard said mildly. "But a strangely baited trap, if the bait was fictional. Orders to go to the Imperial capital, from the Emperor himself. I would have thought that an offer of help, a chance to profit from the experience in some way. After all, you attract a fly with sugar, not vinegar."
"True." The engineer looked thoughtful. "You think that Vader was telling the truth?"
"Oh, he never intended to let us go. But the rest... yes I do."
"Fine." Riker said, impatient and trying to hide it. "What does that get us?"
"Data, how long did it take the fleet to get from the Portal to its present position via their FTL drive? And what does that translate to in warp speed?"
"Five hours forty one minutes." Data reported instantly. "Equivalent to Warp nine point two."
"And it was about forty six hours from the time of our first encounter with the Imperial ship to the arrival of their fleet. He could have covered a round trip of about nine light years in that time."
"I'll be damned." Riker said. "We where that close to their capital!"
"Probably much closer." Picard said. "Sending a fleet of three hundred and fifty ships from port into battle is no small matter."
"Okay..." Riker muttered, his mind racing now. "What does that tell us. They keep a pretty big fleet at their capital."
"So do we, these days." Picard said. "We have reason to, of course."
"You think the Empire is at war?"
"Oh, perhaps. But consider the second fleet. They had about ten days to gather that force together and get it to the Portal. And I'd wager that they have another fleet blockading their own side, too. That's a lot of ships to have sitting around the heart of your Empire, don't you think?"
"Historically most nations keep the bulk of our forces where they expect the fighting to be." Riker said. His eyes where practically lit up. "They expect trouble, in the centre of their own territory. That's it, isn't it?"
"Civil disturbances." Picard replied with a nod. "That's what these ships where designed for - to keep the Empires own civilian population in check."
"Big and scary-looking, lots of firepower and no finesse." Riker said with a nod. "Of course."
"And when your mission is to intimidate civilians, coupled with policing actions, blockade or bombardment of rebel populations..."
"...you don't have a whole lot of time for big fleet actions." Riker finished. "We're dealing with the coast guard!"
"Which is why they're having trouble with co-ordinating their formations." Picard finished. "But that's not their only difficulty." He zoomed the tactical display out until the entire solar system was barely a dot tinged red. Another red dot appeared on the edge of the display. "This is where they emerged from the Portal. They set a few thousand ships to hold us off while the bulk of their fleet sorted their formation out. Then they set this course." A red line appeared hanging in the air, apparently lancing directly at Sol. Picard zoomed the display back in to where it had been before. The red line neatly cut through the centre of the long line of Imperial fleets. "If we reverse the display..." the red dots representing the Imperial ships froze, then began to glide backwards - in every single case heading towards the course line. As they hit the line they began to vanish, first singly then in groups. Within a few seconds they where all gone. Picard let the projection run forward again. "The conclusion is fairly obvious." He finished.
"Well, it is once somebody baby-talks you through it." Riker said with a shake of his head. "How on Earth did you manage to think of this? While you where juggling everything else as well?"
"A captain has to keep on his toes around here, number one. The competition is very tough."
"So, what exactly does this mean to us?" Geordi asked. "I see it, but how does it help us?"
"The Imperial ships didn't change course on their way here." Riker said it before Picard could. "While they where using their FTL drive, they all travelled in a straight line directly here. All fifteen odd thousand of them."
Geordi started to speak, then paused. "That's odd." He said finally. "I mean, you'd think at least one would-"
"It's more than strange, it's virtually impossible. Fifteen thousand ships, all travelling a perfectly straight course by coincidence? No way."
"So you're saying that they can't change course. They can't turn in FTL?"
"Indeed." Picard said.
"We can take advantage of this." Riker said excitedly. "I'm sure we can." Of course, he thought, Picard has apparently had time to think all this through. "How do we - of course! We can ambush them!" Riker grinned widely. "Warp nine point two - they'd push their engines when they where heading out of a fleet battle like that. The Excelsior's' and Mirandas' won't match that, but pretty much everybody else can - at least for a while. So anytime an Imperial fleet goes into FTL, we just parallel the course it was on at warp nine point two, and we're there waiting when they drop out!"
"We could press the advantage by attacking as soon as their ships emerge from FTL drive." Data said. "They will be at their most uncoordinated at that moment. However, in order to make such an ambush we will need to know the precise location at which the fleet will emerge."
"So the question is, where are they going next?" Picard asked.
"They're heading into the inner system." Riker said thoughtfully. "Jupiter is an obvious target - or they might bypass that altogether and go for either Mars or Earth itself. Mars is a little closer, but Earth is a bigger target."
"Ordinarily I'd agree, number one. But the Empire likely don't know that Earth is the Federation capital yet. And although Earth has the bulk of the systems overall industrial capacity, Mars has most of the shipbuilding facilities."
"Do they know that?" Riker asked.
"I doubt their sensors are any better than the rest of their technology. Mars is also where the main inner system defence perimeter is controlled from. If we can get them to head for there instead of Earth, we'll be able to get all our ships and most of the perimeter forces together in a co-ordinated strike. We have to force the choice on them. The question is, how?"
"They don't know we have transporter systems yet, do they?" Riker asked.
"Not that we know of." Picard replied. "What do you have in mind?"
"A old story I read once in the history books. It came from Earth's twentieth century, it was called 'The man who never was'·"
"They're sending a Death Star?" Leia said, incredulous. "But they don't have any other Death Stars!"
"Apparently they do. You know of these stations?" Troi asked.
"Oh, you could say that." Leia said. Her voice was level, but the bitterness behind it was an almost physical weight on the councillor. "I was held captive on one for a while. They gave me the privilege of watching it destroy my home planet."
Troi winced. "They have that kind of firepower?"
"Oh, yes." Leia nodded and gestured towards the image on the screen. "That big indentation there has a complex of huge laser weapons behind it. It can turn a planet into an asteroid belt in moments."
"What happened to the first one?"
"You say they don't have any other stations like this·"
"We thought there was only one." Leia said, staring into space. "After it destroyed Alderran - my home - it headed for a Rebel base on a moon orbiting a planet called Yavin. A force of Rebel fighters destroyed it before it could attack the base."
"Fighters?" Dax looked at the picture of the station. "Fighters destroyed that?"
"We stole the technical readouts of the station. There's a weakness in the design - a way to hit the main reactor. It makes them vulnerable, if you can get close enough in to hit a target that small."
Dax and Troi looked at each other.
"Tell me more." The both said together.
"You want what!" Crusher said, appalled. "Jean Luc, that's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard. You can't possibly mean it!"
"Beverly, you know what's at stake here. We're trying to set the Imperial fleet up for an ambush. To do that most effectively we need the Mars perimeter defences, but we can't count on them heading for Mars. We need to push them in that direction."
"It's still a disgusting thing to do." She insisted.
"Granted. But there are thirty billion people on Earth and I cannot guarantee their safety with a fleet battle going on in orbit. We must do this. Do you have suitable candidates?"
"Oh yes," she said bitterly. "Plenty of them, in fact. No problems there at all".
"Then pick four out and make the necessary preparations. Geordi and Data are working on the shuttlecraft now - they should be ready within the hour. Can you make that deadline?"
"Can you do it?" He insisted.
"Yes." She said sullenly.
"Then make it so."
"There she is." Anthony said. "Just entering visual range."
"On screen." Dax said. A near-circular spacecraft appeared on the main viewscreen. "How long to intercept?"
"Just under· ten minutes."
"Well Leia," Troi said quietly. "Time to say our goodbyes." She held up a Padd. "This contains all the information you will need to produce antimatter and build reactors to use it."
Leia took the device with an almost reverential awe. "I can't thank you enough," she said wonderingly. "This means freedom for trillions of people."
"I know." Troi said. She nodded to Bashir. He stepped up behind Leia and put a hypospray to her neck; the Princess crumpled, bashir catching her as she fell.
"What the-" Dax began.
"I said I'd give her access to the information, and I did." Troi said sadly. "I never said I'd let her keep it." She turned to Bashir. "Doctor?"
"I'll take her down to sickbay." He said. "Judging from the exam I did on her, these people seem to be especially susceptible to memory blanking. I don't think there will be any problems. He left the bridge, carrying the prone body with him.
"You lied." Dax said wonderingly.
"Not technically." Troi returned. "I violated the spirit of our deal, perhaps. But the future of the Federation is at stake here, and we needed her help." She slumped into a chair and turned to look at the ship on the viewscreen. "She was right about one thing - what I did here today won't harm her, at least not directly. But how many are going to live in suffering for years, decades even, because of me?"
"You did what you had to." Dax said gently.
"Yes I did." Troi replied. "As if that makes any difference at all." She stood and headed off the bridge. "As soon as Bashir is finished, decloak and transfer her to that ship - don't use transporters, send a shuttle over. Tell the crew over there that we're a special secret unit of the Rebellion or something - I don't care if he believes it or not, it'll just be a mystery without a solution. As soon as the shuttle returns lay in a course to take us to the Portal in time for the next opening. Let me know when we get there; I'll be in my quarters."
Vader watched impassively as another of his ships exploded. The Federation forces had whittled his fleet down from over fifteen thousand ships to just under thirteen thousand in a less than a day, for the loss of only fifty of their own ships. Their methods of fighting where frustrating - the Enterprise had been disadvantaged by having to remain in the vicinity of the Portal. With no such restrictions against them now, the Federation ships made slashing attacks at speeds so great that his gunners could barely land a shot on target, vanishing into the darkness leaving a trail of devastation behind them. It was an ignoble method of warfare, he thought to himself. He felt a certain grudging admiration of them for it, despite their abhorrent nature.
That thought caused a deep uneasiness within him. He had been in this galaxy for less than two days now and still it was a place of dread for him. He was used to feeling the force flowing through him, sustaining his body and mind alike, warning him of threats both imminent and distant and guiding his mind and hand against them. But here· he could feel a trickle of the power from his own crew and ships, but if he turned his mind beyond them· nothing. No trace of the force anywhere. To call it disturbing was a colossal understatement; to one such as he it was nothing less than agonising.
His first reaction had been an excellent one; these people where an abomination, to be destroyed as quickly as possible. The cost was irrelevant.
Captain Melkar spoke, interrupting his reverie. Vader turned to the man, almost pathetically glad to be able to concentrate on something that actually felt like it was there.
"My Lord, the Bloodstar reports that they have captured an enemy vessel."
"Captured?" Vader asked in surprise.
"Yes my Lord. It's a small shuttlecraft, a diplomatic courier of some kind. The Bloodstar reports that it was carrying a pilot, and what appears to be an officer of some considerable rank - high enough to rate two soldiers as a personal bodyguard. Furthermore, the officer was carrying a considerable store of information - update reports from the enemy fleet for the past several days, orders to be carried back to the rest of the system."
"Where was the shuttle headed?"
"Towards the forth planet in the system, my Lord."
"Interesting·" Vader wondered if it could be a trap; it sounded far too good to be true. He gathered what he could of the force, focused it toward the Bloodstar, reaching for the minds of her crew, for the shape of the events unfolding there, trying to focus on the shape those events would take in the future.
Nothing. There was too little of his abilities left, far too many gaping holes filled by those he could not sense at all.
What to do· "Have the Bloodstar transfer the shuttle and bodies and all information to this ship. I will review it myself." He ordered.
"At once, my Lord!"
Admiral Sandell paced the command centre of the Death Star Avenger, staring out of the viewscreen at the ghostly white haze that hung outside the station.
Hard to believe that that thing is really going to send us· well, wherever the devil it leads to.
He glanced across the rows of status boards that showed the condition of the stations main systems; all green. That was only to be expected, of course; that fool Tarkin may have been careless enough to let the Rebels destroy his station, but Sandell had no intention of failing his mission for the lack of a few elementary precautions.
He glanced at the chronometer on the wall; seven minutes remaining.
"Red alert, councillor Troi to the bridge." Dax said. The klaxon sounded instantly; Troi arrived within less than a minute.
"What is it?"
"We've found the Death Star." Dax said. The battle station filled the screen, huge and menacing. "It's sitting right on top of the Portal."
"Can we make a run on the exhaust port?"
"If we decloak, yes." Dax switched the screen to a tactical view. "But we have five hundred Imperial ships out there. We have to get pretty close to target something that small in this kind of environment. Making a successful attack against these kind of odds is going to be chancy at best."
"We could stay cloaked and go through the portal." Robertson suggested. "Warn Starfleet about this thing and set up a co-ordinated attack?"
"They've had fifteen thousand ships on our side for over sixty hours now." O'Brien said. "I wouldn't count too much on finding any Starfleet ships in the vicinity of the Portal."
"We can't possibly know what the situation is on our side." Dax agreed. "For all we know there might be another thousand ships waiting to greet this thing and throw a defensive cordon around it - they know they can be vulnerable, after all."
"So it's a slim chance for sure now, against maybe a good chance or maybe none at all later." Troi said. "This falls outside my mission brief, captain. As commander of the ship it's your decision. But make it a fast one - we have less than five minutes until the Portal opens."
Dax looked at the huge object floating in space before them. Her mouth was dry; she hadn't felt like this since she's watched the Odyssey explode before her, leaving three runabouts to face a pair of Jem'Hadar attack craft. The Jem'Hadar had let them live that time, intending them to carry their spy back to Federation space. The Imperials would have no such restraints.
"Then we fight." She said. "Battle stations. Power up the phasers and load torpedo bays. Tactical, target the exhaust port and any weapon emplacements around it. Chief - if you can reinforce the shields at all·"
"I'll get you some power from somewhere sir." O'Brien said.
"Take us in, full impulse."
"Sensor contact - vessel at angle three six mark ten, close range. Unknown configuration."
"What!" Sandell practically roared. Rebels, he thought instantly. Come to stop us from going through the portal - no doubt hoping for an alliance with this new enemy. "Target the vessel with every available weapon and open fire!"
Defiant surged forward towards the Death Star. The huge station grew in the screen, apparently without end.
"Within torpedo range." Robertson reported.
"Decloak and raise the shields. Take out as many weapon emplacements as you can."
The lighting on the bridge came up for the first time in days. Within seconds the ship began to rock, slightly at first and then more and more.
"We're taking fire." Robertson reported. "From the fleet and the station. Fighters are closing on our flanks - registering multiple missile launches. Fire intensity is increasing."
On the screen the Death Star seemed to disappear behind a near-solid wall of turbolaser fire. The bolts poured up, dwarfing the input from the dozens of Star Destroyers within range.
"Shields are down to sixty percent!" Roberston said, strain evident in his voice. "I'm trying to dodge, but there's just too much fire - we're being hit by at least a hundred thousand weapon emplacements."
"Continue on in." Dax said. She clung to her seat as the rocking became more serious. "We have to last long enough to hit that torpedo port!"
"Shields at thirty percent! Twenty five!" Robertson looked at the screen as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "The volume of fire is increasing substantially. Sir, we can't make it through."
"Keep her together!" Dax snapped. "We have to make it!" The ship lurched suddenly and there was a distant explosion. "Report!"
"A secondary plasma conduit has breached." O'Brien said. "Primary system is still on line."
"We've got nearly half a million emplacements firing on us now." Robertson jinked the ship from side to side, trying to find the lowest concentration of fire. "Shields at ten percent and falling. Sir, we can't last long enough against this kind of fire to get our shot off! We have to pull back."
Dax hesitated for a moment, and felt the ship shudder again. One of the science station consoles blew out, showering sparks over Anthony. "Alright, hard about. Get us out of here."
"Shields at five percent!" Robertson reported as the ship twisted around and tore away from the station.
"Drop shields and cloak." Dax ordered. They aren't going to last more than another few seconds anyway.
"Multiple missiles inbound, impact imminent! Shields down." Instantly the ship began to shudder as the turbolaser storm found her ablative armour. "Engaging the cloak."
"Rapid evasive!" Dax snapped. "Pattern Omega; keep changing our course, mess up their firing solution!"
Defiant rang to a massive explosion, hurling everybody out of their chairs. The gravity dropped to nearly zero, then gradually began to build again.
"What was that?" Dax asked as she climbed back into her seat. The shuddering began to drop off, then stopped altogether.
"The enemy vessel has vanished from our sensors!"
"Impossible." Sandell stated it as a fact. "No ship that small can carry a cloaking device."
"Admiral, it has vanished." The technicial insisted.
"Concentrate all firepower on the region around the last recorded position." We just may get a lucky shot.
"We're clear of the Death Star." Robertson said. "They've lost us for the moment, but they're spraying the entire area with fire - I've never seen anything like it! They'll hit us sooner or later."
"The Portal cycles in less than a minute." Anthony pointed out.
"We took a major hit to the port nacelle." O'Brien said. "At least twenty or thirty missiles hit us on that side. The nacelle is off line and we've got heavy systems damage to the rest of the ship."
"Is the cloak compromised?"
"Doesn't look like." O'Brien said.
"Good. Once we're through we can get clear of the station."
"Here we go·" Anthony said. "Five seconds, four, three, two, one."
The Portal opened.
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