Jean Luc Picard entered Admiral Holman's office and came to attention before the desk.
"Ah, Captain, come in. Take a seat." Holman gestured him toward the chair. "Earl Grey, isn't it?"
"Thank you, yes." Picard sat and waited while the Admiral arranged a drink for them both.
"How are your crew?" Holman asked finally as he settled down.
"We lost six people," Picard said heavily. He had spent the morning composing messages to their families. "Sixty more injured, five seriously."
"Damn shame," Holman said sympathetically. "I spent the morning going over your logs. It could have been a whole lot worse."
Picard said nothing to that. He knew the Admiral was right, but that hadn't been much help when he was groping for a way to explain to Lieutenant Simpson's husband that his wife would never be coming home.
"The inquiry board..." he began finally.
"Will not be necessary." Holman cut him off.
"But..." Picard groped for something to say. Had he been damned already, in his absence?
"Captain, these are bad times for all of us. I know it's standard procedure to hold an inquiry when a vessel or major section is lost but, with the way the Dominion war is going, if we stuck to that we wouldn't have time for the real work. And in all honesty, I know damn well that you're one of the best captains we've got and I'm not about to have you spend a month pushing Padds around when we have better things to do."
"I see," Picard said. He still hadn't quite come to terms with the way that the Dominion war had sliced through the Starfleet bureaucracy.
"Your report indicated that the anomaly opens every sixty three hours," Holman said. "That gives us about another fifteen hours until the next opening. The question is, does this 'Empire' know this and if so, what do they plan to do about it. You have an opinion?"
"Admiral, we had only a brief encounter with these people. We were there for less than three days, and everybody we met was a member of the military. I couldn't begin to judge their intentions or capabilities from that."
"Good answer." Holman nodded. "Now, tell me what you think they will do."
"Assemble the biggest force they can muster and send it through as soon as they're ready," Picard replied without thinking.
"So that's what we prepare for," Holman sighed. "This thing is the Bajoran wormhole all over again. The very last thing we needed is another front opening on Earth's own doorstep. We're damn lucky that the Empire's technology is so poor, otherwise..." he left the thought unfinished.
"We may not be able to hold them anyway," Picard cautioned. "They pulled five hundred warships together in less than three days. Who knows what forces they can gather in the next month, the next year?"
"True enough." Holman nodded in agreement. "So, we need to do two things. The first priority is to blockade that anomaly with the biggest force we can spare. We're lucky that it's so close to Earth - the Third fleet is spread pretty thin covering the core systems. I'd normally never have got permission to borrow ships with the Dominion pushing us back like this, but units around the anomaly will still be within five or six hours of Earth, which lets them cover both areas. I've got a hundred and fifty ships on the way there now. Given their performance against you, we should be able to handle anything up to two or three thousand Imperial ships."
"They may well come with more than that many, Admiral," Picard said with a frown.
"I know it, and I tried for more but we're stretched on all fronts right now. One hundred and fifty ships is practically Earth's entire defence force - I only just got those assigned, Starfleet Command just won't pull ships from Barnards' Star and Alpha Centauri as well without an actual attack. They'll just have to do.
"Since you're the only officer I have with combat experience against Imperial forces, I've decided to assign you to command the blockade fleet."
"I'm to receive command of a new ship?" Picard asked cautiously. Holman shook his head.
"Not exactly. I've decided that the best thing to do is to replace the engineering hull of the Enterprise-E. The USS Swiftsure is in Mars orbit now, ready for her final shakedown cruise. I've ordered Captain Anderson to surrender command of his engineering hull to you, effective immediately."
"I see," Picard said heavily.
"I know it won't win you any popularity contests captain, but I want the Enterprise out there. Captain Anderson will just have to put up with it."
"You said there were two things we had to do?"
"We need a threat assessment on this Empire, as fast as we can get it."
"That means sending a ship through the anomaly to do reconnaissance." Picard said. "The Empire is probably blockading their end as well, at least until they decide to come through."
"Naturally." Holman sat back and smiled.
He's already got this thought through, Picard thought. We need to get a ship through there. Something strong enough to blast through an enemy fleet? No, not on a recon mission. Speed, then? An Intrepid class, or maybe that new Prometheus?
"Worked it out yet?" Holman asked gently. Picard was about to speak when the realisation hit him. Not speed! Stealth...
"Of course," he murmured. "There is only one choice..."
"Oh?" Holman grinned. "And that would be..."
Dax watched with relief as the last of the Jem'Hadar fighters disintegrated under the Defiant's phaser cannon.
"That's the last of them," Lieutenant Anthony reported from the science station. "Sensors reveal no further Dominion ships within sensor range, and we'll be within range of the Starbase defence platforms in another twenty minutes."
Dax nodded and thumbed the intercom to shipwide. "Stand down from battle stations," She ordered. "Engineering crews continue to work on the battle damage. Well done everybody, we just cost the Dominion another six ships and this convoy is going to get through intact."
"The other ships are reporting in." Nog said from the communications console. "The Orion and the Star Runner have hull breeches, but they both say they have them contained. The Longbow has heavy damage to her port nacelle."
"Does she need a tow?" Dax asked.
"Captain Mekarra says she can make it to the Starbase under her own power."
"Sounds like Mekarra all right," O'Brien put in with a laugh.
Dax grinned. "She's a proud one. I think she'd rather get out and push than have her ship towed home."
"Sir?" Nog spoke up. "We're getting a message from Starfleet. It's coded Captain's eyes only."
Dax crossed to the communications console. "I'll take it here," She said. "Go get me a raktajino, Ensign." She waited until the young Ferengi was out of eyesight. "Computer, decode incoming message, authorisation Dax alpha seven six nine four." She read through the short message in growing disbelief. "Helm, set a course for Earth. Warp seven." She returned to the centre chair and collected a steaming cup from Nog. "Ensign, inform the convoy that we've received new orders and are breaking formation. People, you're not going to believe this..."
Picard's shuttle cruised in toward the Utopia Planitia orbital shipyard facility. He had been there dozens of times over his career, of course; just about every officer in Starfleet passed through at some point. But in all that time he had never seen the place so busy.
The last few years had seen a lot of changes to Utopia Planitia. In addition to the main orbital construction facility more than twenty free-floating dockyards were now scattered liberally around the area. Every one of them was occupied, and most had at least one or two ships floating alongside.
"Quite a sight, isn't it sir?" the shuttle pilot said with a grin. He was obviously used to seeing visitors react to the view. "Even eighteen months ago you wouldn't have seen half of this. Starfleet is really pulling out all the stops."
"Yes," Picard said softly. He had gone over the figures with Admiral Holman before departing, trying to scrape up extra ships for the blockade fleet; the next month or so would see the last of the mothball fleet reactivated - ships held in storage for decades against a time such as this. Excelsiors, Constellations, Mirandas, even some of the old Constitutions had been pushed into service. Most of them would head straight for the front lines in the war against the Dominion. I hope it will be enough, he thought.
"The Celestus Yard," The pilot said, pointing. "There's the Enterprise saucer section now, and the Swiftsure."
The shuttle arced in toward one of the dockyards. Wrapped within the lattice of girders was the USS Swiftsure. As when he had first seen the Enterprise-E, Picard felt a thrill of anticipation at the sight of the Starship. The blended hull form was almost impossibly sleek, as if she was somehow doing warp speed while just sitting there.
"I bet Captain Anderson isn't exactly the happiest guy around right now," The pilot grinned conspiratorially. "He was taking her out on her last shakedown cruise tomorrow. Then the Enterprise comes along needing a new engineering hull and-"
"That's enough," Picard said sharply.
"Yes sir. Sorry sir." The pilot fell silent and concentrated on piloting his way through the clouds of shuttlecraft ferrying between the docks.
Can't really say I blame him, Picard thought. Captain Anderson waited a long time for this command and then I come along and he's pushed out, just like that.
The shuttle slid past the huge gleaming bulk of the Swiftsure, coming around to head for a landing in the aft shuttle bay.
Once there Picard found some familiar faces waiting for him. The entire shuttlebay was filled with crew from the Enterprise. As he disembarked a young ensign piped him aboard.
"Welcome to the Swiftsure, sir." Riker stepped up with a huge grin.
"Thank you commander." Picard nodded toward the rest of his officers. "Doctor, Counsellor, Data, LaForge." He hesitated. "Captain Anderson?"
"Not here sir," Riker said quietly. "To be honest, I don't think he's in a very welcoming mood."
"I can't say I blame him." Picard nodded.
"The Captain has already evacuated his crew from the engineering hull. They'll be separating the saucer section in the next few minutes. We've been invited to the battle bridge to supervise our end of the proceedings."
"How did things go with Starfleet?" Crusher asked.
"Surprisingly well," Picard replied as he headed for the exit flanked by her and Riker. "Starfleet Command is going to send a ship through to investigate the Empire's intent and capabilities. Meanwhile they're going to blockade the anomaly." Picard entered a turbolift. "Battle bridge."
"I meant," she said in exasperation, "how did things go for you?"
"Oh. Admiral Holman has approved our actions. He judged that the loss of the engineering section was unavoidable, given the tactical situation. I'm to remain in command of the Enterprise-E, which as you know is going to... appropriate the Swiftsure's engineering hull so we can get back in service as quickly as possible."
"Are they sending us through?" Geordi asked. Picard shook his head.
"No. I've been assigned to command the blockade fleet. They're sending the Defiant."
"Makes sense," Riker said with a nod. "Pretty much what they did with the Dominion."
"And look how that turned out," Geordi added. The turbolift arrived and the group took their positions on the battle bridge. Picard headed for his ready room.
"Commander Riker, supervise the separation. Counsellor, I need to talk to you."
"What can I do for you sir?" she asked when the doors hissed closed behind her.
"Please be seated." Picard settled behind the desk, frowning at the empty shelves and tabletops around the room. The lack of personal effects was a reminder of the recent departure of the last occupant. "Counsellor, Admiral Holman was especially interested in your impressions of the Empire and its personnel," He said.
"Thank you sir." Troi glanced upwards as a distant clanging noise reverberated through the room. The featureless grey hull plate which filled the ready room's single small window while the two sections were docked began to move slowly upwards. The deck trembled slightly as the bulk of the saucer section glided free of the rest of the ship.
"The Defiant doesn't have a counsellor or a telepath on board and the Admiral feels that your abilities and expertise will be needed for this mission. He's assigned you to the mission into the Empire. It's just a temporary transfer," he assured Troi as she started to speak.
"I've heard a lot about Captain Sisko, it'll be interesting to serve under him," She replied finally. The gridwork of the Spacedock appeared in the window as the saucer section moved out of sight.
"As it happens, Captain Sisko has been transferred to Starbase 375," Picard said. "He isn't in command of the Defiant. In any case, I don't think you quite understand. When I say you are assigned to the mission, I mean you have been assigned to command it."
"I see," Troi said heavily. Picard needed no empathic sense to see her mixed feelings. "And... this means I'm to command the Defiant?"
"No. You will be in overall control of the mission but Defiants' current captain will be in command of the ship herself."
"And that would be..."
"That particular duty has fallen to Lieutenant Commander Dax."
"Dax?" Troi stiffened slightly. "Jadzia Dax?"
"Indeed." Picard said guardedly. He made it a point not to pry into the private lives of his officers, but some things were harder to overlook than others.
"I see." Troi said neutrally. "Well... then I look forward to... such an important mission."
"The Defiant is due in ten days. Until then you'll remain on the Enterprise with the blockade fleet. The Empire is going to get four chances to come through the portal in that time. We have a lot of work to do."
"Captains Log, Stardate 51136.9. The Defiant has arrived in the vicinity of the Sol system in time for the fourth opening of the 'portal' since we returned from the other side. I have been invited on board the Enterprise to be briefed by the commander of the blockade fleet, Captain Picard."
Dax finished the log entry and looked around the bridge. "Lieutenant Robertson, Doctor Bashir, with me."
"Uh, sir..." O'Brien began.
Dax grinned. "Sure you can come, chief. I know you have a lot of friends over there. Lieutenant Anthony, you have the con until we return." She headed for the transporter room.
"Captain Dax," Picard said warmly, shaking her hand as she stepped off the transporter pad. "Welcome aboard."
"Nice to be here Captain Picard." Dax smiled as she looked around the spacious transporter room. "This is my CMO, Doctor Bashir and my Tactical and Helm officer Lieutenant Sean Robertson."
"Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi."
"And of course you know the Chief."
"Good to see you sir." O'Briens face was all smiles as everybody exchanged handshakes.
"Nice ship you have here," Dax said, looking around the spacious transporter room. "Lots of elbow room."
"Thank you. Shall we go?" Picard led the group into the corridor and into a turbolift. "I gather the Defiant is quite an impressive ship herself. I only wish we had the time for a visit before your departure, but Admiral Holman wants the Counsellor to begin her mission as soon as possible. You should just be able to catch the next opening in an hour." The lift deposited the group on the bridge and Picard led them into the conference room where the other Enterprise officers were waiting.
"So," Dax said as they sat, "just what is it we're supposed to be doing here."
"I assume you have reviewed the Enterprise's records of our trip through the portal?" Picard asked.
She nodded. "Yes. This 'Empire' sounds like an unfriendly bunch."
"That was our impression." Picard replied dryly. "But we had very little contact with them." He hesitated fractionally. "Starfleet has decided to assign our ships counsellor, Commander Troi, as commander of the reconnaissance mission. Your job is to provide whatever support and assistance the Counsellor requires."
"I see." Dax nodded at Troi. "Counsellor."
"Lieutenant Commander," Troi replied, stressing the rank difference just a little.
"Specifically," Picard said, "get her through the portal on the next opening, using your cloak to get past any forces the Empire might have waiting. Investigate the area around the portal - find a major space station or inhabited world if you can. The priority is to get a handle on the size and capabilities of the Imperial fleet and if possible to assess their intentions toward us now that they know we are here."
"And if they turn out to be a threat?" she asked.
"Report it back to Starfleet. The Federation is not at war with the Empire and frankly, we can't afford to be. We have our hands full with the Dominion right now."
"I'm aware of that sir." She said, a little stiffly. I haven't been cruising around Sol for the last few months, she added mentally.
Picard nodded apologetically. "Of course, captain. You have been in the thick of things these last few months. In any case, Starfleet was quite emphatic on this point; the Prime Directive is in full force for this mission and you are to avoid hostilities if at all possible. Your mission is simply to observe and report."
"Understood." Dax grinned. "I think my phaser crews could do with the rest."
"No doubt. I'm sorry we can't give you more detailed orders captain, but we know almost nothing of what you might come across."
"I see." Dax turned her smile to Troi. "Welcome to the sharp end, counsellor."
Troi bristled slightly. "At least it will make a change from the Borg," She replied.
At the other end of the table, Riker grinned slightly. Game, set and match, he thought to himself.
"We're ten kilometres from the centre of the anomaly," Lieutenant Anthony reported. "Should easily be close enough."
"Thrusters at station keeping," Dax ordered. "Chief, how long?"
"Less than a minute."
"Raise the cloak," She said. "Shields and weapons to cold status, cut main power. But be ready to get us back on-line fast if we need it."
The bridge lights on the Defiant dimmed and the ever-present background hum of the power systems faded to almost nothing. Dax waited nervously in the command seat. It's a good gamble, she thought. The Empire's power and weapon technology is much more primitive than ours, it's not likely that their sensor systems are any more advanced. And even if they do spot us, the ablative armour should hold out against low power plasma weapons for more than long enough to get the weapons up and running.
"Ten seconds." Anthony reported. "Reading an energy build-up from the portal. It's starting to open."
"Ten seconds," Data said. "Five, four, three, two, one."
The anomaly suddenly flared up, filling the screen in an instant. It hung in space for a long moment, then was gone. The Defiant had vanished with it.
In its place was a monstrosity. Huge, armoured, a vessel very obviously dedicated to one purpose; the dealing out of death.
"Expand image," Picard ordered. The ship seemed to shrink suddenly as Data reduced the magnification factor. Another ship appeared, and another. Within seconds Picard could see dozens, then hundreds.
"Registering ships at the site of the Portal." Data said. His voice held that certain quality which told Picard that the android had deactivated his emotion chip. "Profile and energy signature matches Imperial Star Destroyers in most cases."
"How many ships?"
"Fifteen thousand nine hundred and fifty six," Data replied.
Picard thumbed his intercom to a general hail channel. "Imperial fleet, this is Captain Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise, in command of the fleet deployed around you. Please state your intentions."
A long pause, then a familiar 'face' appeared on the viewscreen.
"This is Lord Vader," the tombstone-voice intoned over hissing breath. "In the name of the Empire, I claim this area of space and pronounce that all within it are now subjects of the Emperor. You and your ships will stand down and surrender."
"That is your final word?" Picard asked simply.
Picard closed the channel and switched to a fleet-wide secure frequency. "Picard to fleet. Battle plan seven, option delta. Frigate and destroyer groups form the perimeter. Light and medium cruisers on roving support. Ambassador, Nebula and Galaxy wings, engage the enemy closely."
Dax wasn't sure what she was expecting the trip through the portal to be like, but in the event she had felt nothing at all. One moment the Defiant had been floating free in the centre of a Federation fleet, then the view-screen flashed brightly and suddenly there were an awful lot more stars out there.
"What the-" Anthony was suddenly yelling. "Get us out of here! Full thrusters, right now! MOVE!"
"Do it," Dax snapped instantly. Lieutenant Robertson tapped some controls and the Defiant glided forwards sedately on her thrusters.
"Make your course zero four six mark three eight!" Anthony snapped. He was glued to one of his displays, his fingers flying furiously across the console. Dax watched and waited in silence. "Okay," he said after a few seconds. "Now come to three three five mark three four six and drop to half thrusters."
Dax started to say something just as the ships proximity alarms went off. She closed her mouth abruptly as the view-screen automatically tracked in to display the object responsible. The image was a huge fleet of missiles, apparently heading straight for them.
"We're okay now," Anthony said, sitting back and breathing a sigh of relief. "They're not tracking in on us and the first batch passed closer than these will, so their warheads can't spot us."
"Nice work." Dax smiled at the Lieutenant. "Mind telling me what's going on?"
"Looks like the Empire was expecting us," he replied. "Or at least, was prepared for us. They had almost five thousand missiles inbound, timed to arrive just a few seconds after the portal cycled. We're lucky they were so slow, it gave us just enough time to get out of the way."
"Quite a welcome. Scan the area please," she ordered. "Passive only, maintain low-energy regime."
"I'm reading a fleet out there," he said, turning to look at his console briefly. "They match the profile and energy signature of Imperial ships."
"Five hundred and sixty. They're in a defensive perimeter formation, centred on the anomaly."
"Any sign that they've detected us?"
"They're just sitting there, not reacting at all."
"They're unconcerned," Troi said from her chair at the back of the bridge.
"Very well. Bring impulse power back on line. Set a heading to take us through the perimeter. Keep us as far away from the bad guys as you can. Lieutenant Anthony, keep a constant sensor sweep going. Counsellor, you keep your ears open too."
"I don't use my ears, captain," Troi said frostily. "My empathic sense-"
"It's a figure of speech, counsellor. If one of those captains out there so much as twitches, I want to know about it. Understood?"
The Imperial Star Destroyer swung about, every weapon blazing as it lumbered in towards its target. The Miranda class USS Memphis dodged to one side and down, slipping under most of the barrage as her own phasers returned the fire, slicing through the armour of her attacker.
On the bridge of the Federation ship the Executive officer checked his console for the tenth time in as many minutes, still hardly able to believe what he was seeing. The deck was shuddering occasionally as a turbolaser bolt slammed home on the shields. "These guys can't shoot to save their lives," he said wonderingly. "Haven't they heard of computer targeting?"
"Aft torpedoes fire," Captain Pellman said. "Full phasers too." She watched the viewscreen tactical display as the two glowing flecks of light closed on the Star Destroyer, slamming into an already damaged section. "Apparently not," she said in response as the colossus began to spin out of control, still spraying turbolaser fire in their general direction. "Helm, evasive pattern alpha five three. Tactical, another full load on the same area."
The Memphis dodged and weaved as it arced around and raced inward again. Phasers and photon torpedoes leapt out and ploughed into the gaping hole in the Star Destroyer's port side; the whole forward section began to shear away from the rest of the ship. Both sections continued to fire.
"They do build them tough, though." She pointed at the big dome on the ventral surface. "Tactical, full phaser strike there please." Phaser beams sliced into the dome, cutting it open. A colossal explosion blew the entire aft section of the ship into fragments. Their ship shuddered as it flew through the heart of the explosion, hull sections smashing into their shields. "Tactical view on screen."
She studied the crowded display; so far the Empire had made no serious attempt to breech the perimeter, concentrating almost all of their forces at the core. That suited her just fine.
"Of course, Mister Lomax," she said as she watched their own cruisers weaving their way through a sea of enemy targets, "hundred to one odds do tend to make up for a lot."
"Re-start the warp core." Dax ordered. She had waited until they were more than twenty million kilometres from the nearest Imperial ship, almost out of range of their own passive sensors. There was no quantifiable change in the ship when the warp core came back on line, but Dax had always felt that the Defiant was somehow more vibrant - more alive - than before, like a predator that had been asleep and was now poised to strike.
"System on-line," O'Brien said. "Engine room reports full power at your discretion."
"Now we see," Dax murmured, watching the Star Destroyer hanging on the screen. "Counsellor?"
"There's no specific increase in tensions on that ship," Troi said, staring at the screen. "Just the usual background. Usual for them, at least."
"Good. Helm, present heading, warp one. Engage."
Now the predator could stretch its legs a little. The Defiant's warp coils twisted space just so, and the ship hurled itself clear of the Imperial fleet.
"The fleet is clear of our sensor range, Captain," Anthony reported a few minutes later. "I don't know about their sensors, but they haven't impressed me so far. There are no other ships in range."
Our first gamble, Dax thought. But it is a good one. "Decloak and bring the primary sensor array on line. Scan the surrounding systems for signs of habitation."
The bridge lights came back up to normal. Dax glanced around with the beginnings of a smile; Sisko had insisted on having the lights dim whenever the ship was cloaked, he said it would give the bridge a quieter, more focused atmosphere - keep the crew more concentrated. Dax had laughed at the time, but of course he had been right.
Anthony whistled. "This Empire of theirs sure is crowded," he said.
"What have you found?"
"The trouble isn't finding an inhabited system, the trouble is finding one that isn't," he replied. "There are over twenty stars within a three light year radius, and sixteen, maybe eighteen of them are inhabited."
"Not good," Dax observed. She called up the sensor information on the main view-screen. "This one here's closest, just under a light year - thirteen hours or so at warp seven."
"Judging by the neutrino emissions there are a couple of million fusion reactors there, which makes it the most heavily developed as well," Anthony added. "And I'm picking up all sorts of radio noise."
"Yeah, old-style light speed radio transmissions. Entertainment broadcasts mostly, but there's a lot of encrypted stuff that's probably military."
Dax turned to Troi. "Counsellor?"
"Seems like the sensible choice," Troi said. "Head for that system. Then we need a conference to discuss our strategy."
"Very well. Helm, set a course for this system and go to warp seven. Lieutenant Anthony, you have the con. Keep the main sensor array on-line, constant three sixty by three sixty scan for enemy ships. Inform me at once of any contacts. Have doctor Bashir meet us in the mess hall at once. Chief, Lieutenant Robertson with me. Counsellor?"
Bashir was waiting for them when they arrived at the mess hall. Troi waved everybody to a table and they all settled down.
"My mission is to evaluate the military capabilities and intentions of the Empire towards the Federation," Troi began. "My intentions are to cloak prior to entering this system we're heading for and enter orbit around the most heavily inhabited planet. The Defiant will stay in orbit and conduct sensor sweeps of the planet and surrounding area while I lead a team to the planet's surface to do some reconnaissance."
"What kind of information are we going to be looking for?" Dax asked.
"You'll be staying on board the Defiant, Captain." Troi said casually. "You will be conducting close-up sensor scans of any ships that you come across. At first I intend to check on public sources to get an idea of the type of culture we're dealing with - their form of government, level of technology, size of their fleet-"
"You expect to find that sort of information just lying around?" Dax asked, surprised. "If this Empire is as bad as your reports indicated-"
"Relax, captain." Troi said, clearly annoyed at the interruption. "Even the most repressive society must have some kind of organised public-access information system. Repressive societies tend to emphasise their accomplishments more than most. Propaganda films boasting about the wisdom of their leaders, the sophistication and power of their military and the number of wars they have won. The information will doubtless be exaggerated, but it will give us an idea of what we're up against. Once we are armed with that we can go for military and government centres to get an idea of what the truth behind the propaganda is."
"Who do you intend to take with you?" Dax asked.
"I intend to keep the landing parties as small as possible. Just myself and the Chief here, until we can get an idea of what security we will be up against. How long until we reach the target planet?"
"Why O'Brien?" Dax asked bluntly, ignoring her question. "Surely a tactical or security officer-"
"Chief O'Brien has plenty of tactical experience," Troi interrupted. "He and I know each other well enough to pass as a couple if we need to. Now how long?"
"About twelve and a half hours now."
"Until we get there I want you to monitor those transmissions we picked up. I know they'll be a year or so out of date, but get an idea of the clothing and customs of that planet - the things we'll need to pass for locals."
Picard studied the tactical display in frustration. His crews and ships were better than the Empire's, far and away better. The Starships had sliced through the Imperial fleet time and again, soaring past the lumbering behemoths like a hawk past an ostrich. Their weapons were cutting the enemy ships open with ease, inflicting horrendous casualties on the Imperials.
And still there were just too many of them. Even the almost ineffective plasma-laser weapons the Empire used scored a handful of hits on each pass; now and again a missile of some sort hit home. The firepower of one of these Star Destroyers barely matched that of a Runabout, but a fleet of Runabouts would be quite a force to be reckoned with if there were fifteen thousand of them·
Every hit on a Starship drained a fraction of a percent from its shields, stressed a power relay slightly, knocked a scanner out of alignment. The Empire may suffer from poor marksmanship, he reflected, but they go a good long way toward making up for it with sheer enthusiasm.
Already he had lost nine ships and had to pull another seven out of the battle because of damage. Those sixteen had cost the Empire two hundred and twenty five warships destroyed and another hundred and fifty damaged - and at that rate he couldn't possibly win.
"Sir." Picard turned to where Data was standing at the tactical station where he had been filling in since Worf had returned to his posting on the Rotarran. "I am reading a large group of enemy vessels breaking away from the battle area, some twelve hundred in all. They are on a heading of one one five mark zero two one. I believe they are trying to breach the perimeter."
"Have Destroyer wings three, five, six and eight and Frigate wings one, three and eight converge on the lead elements and hit them as hard as they can. Nebula wings one and three are to hit their flanks, with Ambassador wing five and Excelsior wings two and seven in support."
Picard watched the Imperial fleet dispersing, worried. It was possible that they were finally about to do something intelligent...
"Another subfleet is breaking off," Data announced. "Eleven hundred ships on a heading of two nine five mark three three nine."
A reciprocal heading, Picard thought. Naturally. "Have Frigate wings two, five and seven perform a straight intercept. The remaining three Nebula wings are to attack from behind. Order all ships to switch to targeting engines only, disable as many as possible."
"More subfleets." Data said calmly. "Another twelve hundred ships on a heading of two zero five mark zero two one. A thousand heading at one one one five mark two nine one."
"Split the remaining perimeter groups evenly between the two mister Data." Picard ordered. "Order all cruiser groups to attack the nearest subfleet." That order committed his entire force to the battle, while the enemy still had over ten thousand ships in reserve at the core of the formation. Maybe if we attack the breakouts while leaving the ships at the core alone they'll fall back, head for relative safety. Picard rather doubted it, though. This had to be a planned move.
"The main fleet is changing course," Data said. "I believe it is a breakout attempt. Ten thousand ships on a heading -"
"I can see it mister Data," Picard cut him off. A virtual sea of red dots were heading out towards the now undefended perimeter at their top speed. He simply didn't have sufficient numbers to stop them all at once.
"Signal Starfleet," He told Data. "Transmit our tactical situation and inform them that a large force of Imperial Star Destroyers is about to break through our lines. Request all possible reinforcements."
Defiant slid into orbit on thrusters only, hidden behind her cloak with main power shut down. On the bridge Dax began to relax for the first time in hours; she still had no real feel for how good Imperial sensor systems might be, but whatever they may have lacked in quality the Imperials certainly made up for in quantity. She had never seen a system so heavily packed with scanners - every planet, every moon, practically every asteroid in the system had at least ten or twenty sensors in orbit, sometimes a lot more. Defiant had logged over ten thousand separate emitters before Dax had stopped bothering to ask.
Either this Empire was horribly paranoid, or they were under a level of threat that required this sort of intensive surveillance. Dax honestly didn't know which option she preferred.
"Well Counsellor, here we are," she said. Troi and O'Brien were both dressed in outfits that Lieutenant Anthony thought would let them pass for locals. The three of them had spent the last few hours pouring over the local news and entertainment channels to try and find a suitable place to beam down. One of their first surprises had been the discovery that this planet - called Coruscant - was none other than the capital of this Empire. That had prompted Dax to call for a change of destination to somewhere likely to be less well protected, a call that Troi had overruled instantly.
"So I see." Troi nodded. "Have the beam down co-ordinates transferred to the transporter room. Keep a constant lock on our position - if anything looks threatening, stand by to beam us up as soon as we can get out of sight. And keep a full tactical team ready-"
"I understood your orders the first time we went through it, counsellor." Dax said. "And the second, for that matter."
Troi started to speak, hesitated, then nodded. "Very well. We'll call every hour, on the hour. Stand by for further orders."
Troi and O'Brien materialised in a deserted alleyway in what appeared to be Coruscants main centre of government. Although, Troi thought as she looked around, alleyway is hardly the word. Canyon, perhaps. The buildings towered straight up on each side, sheer vertical cliffs that cut off all but a small gleam of sky high above. It made her feel small, closed in. Trapped.
She rubbed her neck to activate the sub-dermal communicator. "Troi to Defiant," she murmured. "Down safe, all's well. Out."
"What now?" O'Brien asked.
"Now we go for a walk," she replied, heading out of the alleyway. "Let's see if we can find a public databank or library of some kind." She linked her arm in his and smiled broadly. "And don't forget, we're a couple."
"Well, at least Keiko isn't going to walk in on us," O'Brien said as they strolled off.
Leia exited the shuttlebus, hiding her nerves behind the expression of bland apathy everybody in any major city seemed to wear most of the time. She hadn't been on Coruscant in quite a while - never as a wanted fugitive on the run from the Empire. She hadn't wanted to come, it was just too much of a risk for her liking - but the Rebels had lost three out of only nine cells in its spy network here in the last six months. Those remaining were getting highly jittery and making noises about pulling out. Officially she was there to take a look at their set-up and correct any weaknesses. In reality she was here as much to calm their remaining agents down and boost their morale as anything else.
She headed out of the terminal and drifted around some shop windows for half an hour while the four members of her team arrived. At the designated time she headed into one of the great monolithic buildings, making her way to the bar they had chosen for its combination of low lighting and high noise level. She grabbed a booth and waited while the others drifted in and sat down.
"Problems?" she asked guardedly. Loud or not, you never knew who might be listening.
"They stopped me at the port customs," Balgren replied. "Routine questions, nothing to worry about."
"Nothing else? Good, then we carry on as intended. Our friend is meeting us outside in a speeder in thirty minutes. Finish your drinks in twenty and we'll head out together."
Troi and O'Brien finally found something that looked vaguely like a databank, but when they got to the front of the rather long queue and tried to access it, the screen demanded that they furnish their citizen cards. O'Brien made a show of looking for one in his pockets before cursing and walking away in feigned frustration.
"So much for that," He muttered once they were clear of the people behind. "We'll have to hope Defiant can break their computer network from orbit."
"I suppose we could steal a card from somebody," Troi said doubtfully.
"We don't know what kind of security systems they employ. Access code, iris or retina scan, thumbprint, DNA scan - it could be none, any or all. God knows what would happen if you try to access a machine with a stolen card."
"I suppose. But there must be some way of getting at information around here - I don't care how repressive they are, they can't control everything!"
"Well they seem to be doing a good job of trying," O'Brien said gloomily. "Let's just keep walking for a bit. Maybe we can find a museum or something."
Leias' team exited the bar more or less together and headed out of the bars main entrance. She glanced over her shoulder as she emerged into daylight, to make sure nobody was following - and walked straight into someone. Both of them went sprawling onto the floor.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" a woman's voice said. "Are you hurt?"
Leia rolled over and started to push herself up. Pain lanced through her left wrist and she yelped and fell back on top of whoever was under her.
"You are hurt, here - let me help." The woman pulled her up, being careful of her wrist, then turned to help the man. Leia scanned the crowd quickly and found no trace of her team. Good she thought, turning back to the two.
"Who are you?" She blurted the question before she could even think about it.
"My name is Deanna. This is my friend, Miles," The dark-haired woman said. Leia stared at her, confused. Outwardly there was nothing at all unusual, but there was something... every instinct she had was yelling that there was something wrong about these two, almost something... missing.
"Well, Miles, I'm sorry for walking into you." Leia struggled to get herself under control, but she was almost shivering despite the warmth of the day. "Where are you from?" The question was almost involuntary - she felt an almost desperate need to find out who these people were, what was wrong with them. Stop it! She tried to tell herself. Just
apologise and get the hell away from here before you draw attention from a Stormtrooper!
"Ingala district," The one called Troi said. "Do you need some kind of medical treatment for your wrist?"
Quite abruptly the crowd began to melt away; Leia was aware of people glancing behind her, then walking casually away - not running, not even hurrying; it was as if everybody there had just remembered something they had to do. That could only mean one thing.
"No, I'll be okay," Leia said. She forced herself not to turn. "Anyway, I'm late for an appointment so I must go." She saw Troi's eyes go over her shoulder and widen slightly.
"You three," a new voice called out. "Stay where you are. Identity check."
Leia turned to find herself confronted by four Imperial Stormtroopers. Her eyes flicked around the street; at least another three visible, keeping their distance but also keeping their weapons pointed in her direction.
The leader pulled a computer terminal from his pocket. "Citizen card," he demanded. Leia handed her card over, trying to keep a neutral look on her face - a task somehow made doubly difficult because of the two strangers behind her.
The Stormtrooper turned to the pair, and Leia stepped to one side while trying to hide both her unease and her relief.
"Citizen cards," he repeated.
Both of them made a convincing show of looking through their pockets.
"Oh hell," Miles said. "I think I've left my billfold at home with both our cards in it. I'm sorry officer, perhaps we can-"
"Names and home addresses."
"Deanna Troi and Miles O'Brien. We both live at unit nine sixteen, building one one six eight of the Ingala district," Troi said. She could feel the mans distrust growing by the second.
"I don't have any record of that," He announced after a few seconds studying the screen.
"We just moved in together yesterday," Miles said, taking Deanna's hand and grinning. "We're out shopping for furniture for the new rooms."
The Stormtrooper put his hand on his sidearm. "Really?" he said with obvious enjoyment. "And tell me why it is that you where able to move in to your new rooms before having your citizen's cards updated, when the law says you have to wait until afterwards?"
"Well, you know how it is." O'Brien laughed. "Bloody bureaucrats probably lost our files somewhere along the way. Put the civil service under the military, that's what I say."
"Yes, I'm sure it's probably something like that." Even through the speaker grille in his helmet the man's words practically dripped mockery. "Tell you what, why don't we all head on down to the Security Office and we can sort it all out now." He tapped a control on the side of his helmet. "Get the speeder over here, we have three to bring in."
"Three?" Leia protested. "But sir, I'm nothing to do with these people. My identity checks out fine, I don't see why-"
"One more word from you and you'll find yourself convicted of impeding an Imperial officer in pursuit of his duty."
A large speeder drew up next to the group and the Stormtroopers began to shepherd the three into it. O'Brien looked to Troi questioningly. She shook her head slightly; there was no way they were going to get away, not with four around them and more covering from a distance. Wait for a better chance, she thought to herself.
The speeder door slammed shut and locked behind them.
"What the hell are you people up to?" Leia demanded, as much for the microphone that was certain to be near as for any answer she might get. "I was just minding my own business, now I'm heading to a security office because you're some sort of criminals." Or Imperial agents, she added silently. A set-up to try and make me talk.
She couldn't make herself believe it. There was something about them, something wrong, but it wasn't that. She could feel it somehow. Girl, you're starting to sound like Luke now.
The ride to the security office took less than ten minutes at the rather sedate pace of the speeder, a fact which made Troi wonder just how common these places where - Earth averaged somewhat less than one police station per continent these days. They where taken inside and scanned with a handheld unit. Troi tensed when the woman ran the scanner over the sub-dermal implant; sure enough, the machine let out a loud bleeping noise.
"Problem?" The Stormtrooper who had brought them in came over, removing his helmet.
"See for yourself." The woman showed him the scanner. "Some kind of implant. It's very small, but there's a power source in there."
"Try him." He gestured towards O'Brien. The woman quickly located his implant.
"So, just a couple of innocents out shopping?" the Stormtrooper said with a nasty smile. "I don't suppose you want to tell me what those things are?"
"It's a medical device," Troi said. "We both suffer from Potricks disease - it's a condition that affects the blood. The implants monitor our haemoglobin levels and sound an alert if they fall too low."
"Both of you?" he said sceptically.
"I caught it off Deanna," Miles said.
"What do you think?" He asked the technician. She frowned.
"I doubt it," she replied. "I've heard of devices like that, but never a civilian one this small. It takes military-grade tech to make something like this. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a short range tracer - military intelligence might make something like that."
"Okay, first thing is we get a full scanner team up here and give these three a proper going over," he said. "Then we cut those things out, along with anything else we find, and make some calls to see if we can find out who you three really are. And then," he continued with a big smile at Troi, "we're all going to sit down and have a little talk."
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