Vader looked at the four bodies uneasily. To be this close to anything from this galaxy was uncomfortable; even the dead gave no comfort.
"The information." He said. Melkar handed him the handscreen.
"Our technicians have checked it thoroughly my Lord." He said, clearly nervous. Vader wondered idly if there was some hidden streak of force perception within him; anybody who was endowed with it would feel the effects of this place, these people. "They claim it is authentic, so far as they can determine. Certainly the records match the actions of the enemy fleet thus far."
"What killed these people?"
"Three died of burns, one of decompression my lord."
Vader stared at the corpses as if he could intimidate them into talking. Finally he shook his head; this was pointless, he was learning nothing.
"What is their next planned move?"
"Their fleet is short of fuel and has nearly exhausted its weapons - their ships are fast and powerful, but have little endurance compared to ours. They are going to avoid contact and deploy their fleet to defend the forth planet. It is their capital world, but has little in the way of fixed defences. They will attempt to hold off any assault until their reinforcements from nearby systems can arrive - that is scheduled to be in another ten hours." Melkar shook his head. "We cannot possibly reach ccthe planet before then, my lord. By the time we arrive there will be substantial reinforcements in place. Over a thousand enemy vessels are on their way, enough to be a serious impediment to our fleet."
"We can use a hyperspace jump." Vader said slowly.
"Well yes my lord, a jump would cover that distance in seconds - but it will take hours just to assemble the fleet into formation and we will be badly disorganised when we emerge. It will put us at a severe disadvantage."
"The fleet can be ready within two hours." Vader said. Melkar paled, but it was obvious that the subject was not open to debate. "Inform the captains that we jump then. We have them on the point of defeat; disorganised or not, we have the numbers to overwhelm them. Their reinforcements will arrive to find their capital a smoking ruin and a similar fate awaiting them."
"Yes my lord."
"There are indications that the Imperial fleet is re-deploying its formation." Data said. "They appear to be preparing to make a new move."
"So this is it; the next couple of hours will tell us if they've swallowed the bait." Riker added.
"What's the status on our reinforcements?" Picard asked.
Riker consulted a panel. "Circling to come in with the sun between them and the Imperials, as you ordered." He said. "They'll be in place in the blind spot above the pole in seventy five minutes."
"That's cutting it closer than I'd like, number one."
"I know sir, but if the Empire spots one single ship coming in it will make them doubt the information we've planted on them. We can't afford to let that happen."
"Agreed. What's the status of our own forces?"
"We have seventy six ships reporting full combat readiness; another twelve are damaged but reporting that they are capable of serving on the line. A further ten are crippled - they're offloading photon torpedoes, spares and crew to other ships. The Theseus and the Ramilies have both suffered propulsion failures and are heading out of the battle zone on thrusters only. They'll all be well away from the combat area before the firing starts."
"Good. Now we wait."
Dax watched helplessly as the Death Star cruised away. The station suddenly spurted forward - an instant later it was gone.
"They've entered FTL." O'Brien reported.
"How long until we can follow?"
"I don't know. We have damage to at least one warp coil. Replacing it is a dry-dock job; I can patch the conduits up and reconfigure the warpfield to run without a coil on one side, but that's going to take at least half an hour or more."
"What about communications?"
"The short range systems are fine, but we won't have subspace communications anytime soon sir - there's nothing left of it to repair, we need a completely new unit."
"So we can't warn Starfleet that that thing is on its way."
"Well that's just great. It'll make a nice surprise for them, I'm sure." She said bitterly. You should have waited, idiot! "Do what you can. I want us underway as soon as possible."
"The fleet is ready to go to light speed my lord." Melkar announced. "We are conducting sensor scans of the target area - we have a fix on the Federation fleet, but at this range we can see little else."
"Are they attempting to jam our scans?"
"No my lord."
"We have them." Vader gloated. "Order the fleet to proceed, captain."
"Here we go." Riker announced. "Jupiter Outpost ninety two reports the Imperial fleet appears to be preparing to jump to FTL drive."
"Signal all ships." Picard said. "Battle stations, prepare to fire massed torpedo volleys. Data, calculate the likely emergence point."
"Aye sir." A roughly cylindrical patch of the tactical display turned grey. Picard viewed it critically.
"You can't narrow it down more than this?"
"We will not have absolutely precise course information on the Imperial fleet until they jump to FTL. At that point we will have only a few seconds to react."
"Send this information to the fleet. Have every ship continually update its firing solution - I want everybody ready to fire the instant the Imperials come back into normal space."
"That's it!" Riker said. "The fleet has jumped to FTL! We have seconds to go." On the screen the grey area representing the probable target zone collapsed to a tenth its previous size.
"Commit all defence drones." Picard ordered. "Have them proceed to those co-ordinates. Have planetary defences stand by to fire."
"Neutrino surge." Riker said. "Here they come."
On the screen Imperial ships began to appear by the thousand. It was an awesome sight, and for just a moment Picard was stunned into silence. Here we go.
"Defence drones to active status." He ordered. Explosions began to ripple through the Imperial formations as the automated craft found their targets. Each carried a warhead equal to ten photon torpedoes, more than enough to obliterate a Star Destroyer.
"Planetary defences, fire." Picard ordered. Dozens of phaser beams began to pour up from the surface of Mars, and from the stations and satellites orbiting the planet. Strings of photon torpedoes followed.
"Fleet units, fire." More phasers and photons joined the storm of destruction. Many of the Imperial ships where blasted apart within moments of leaving hyperspace, never even realising they where under attack. Others panicked and initiated evasive actions - a move that was normally not allowed in close fleet formations. The results where inevitable; ships began to collide with one another, spinning out of control and spreading further chaos. As more emerged from hyperspace they found wreckage directly in their path, slamming into it at near light speed.
Picard watched with something approaching pity. The first few waves of ships have no chance, no chance at all, he thought to himself. Star Destroyers where exploding by the hundreds, even thousands.
And still it went on. Every ship destroyed created megatons of wreckage for others to plough into. The bridge crew watched in silence, motionless except for Data's hands on the tactical console, as the Imperial fleet fell into total disarray. The ballet of death went on for minute after minute without pause or respite of any kind.
Vader watched his fleet being cut apart with a rage so intense it was beyond anything he had ever felt before. His own ship, along with its escort and a reserve force, had emerged well clear of the main body. He had an excellent view of the battleground.
"The Federation ships?" He asked.
"We are reading nearly a hundred of them in orbit of the planet my lord." Melkar said, his eyes locked on the scene being played out before them.
"We are out of range, my lord."
"Close on them and attack at once." Vader ordered.
"We will need time, my lord, to re-establish our formation-"
Vader spun around, his hand flashing out to strike the Imperial captain in the face; Melkar thudded into the deck, stunned. "At once!" Vader hissed. Commit all ships, everything we have left. I want that fleet destroyed utterly, now."
"We're reading some ships emerging significantly behind the main fleet." Data reported. "A force of some three thousand. They are far enough clear of the fleet to avoid collisions and are out of our weapon range."
"What are they doing?" Picard asked.
"They are somewhat disorganised, but they appear to be circling around the main fleet and heading this way." Data said.
"Let them get close enough to get a few shots off, then pull back to just outside their weapons range." Picard ordered. "Head for the fall-back position. All ships to continue firing as they go."
Vader watched with rage as the Starships turned and began to fall back. "They shall not escape me," he grated. "They shall not. Full pursuit!"
"They're following us sir." Riker said.
"Just as they should." Picard agreed.
The Enterprise led its fleet of nearly a hundred Starships past Mars's magnetic pole and continued on, the Imperials in pursuit.
Picard thumbed a communications channel open. "Picard to Sovereign."
"Captain Sarkan here, captain Picard."
"We're relaying your target co-ordinates now. Engage the enemy at will."
"Very well. Sarkan out."
The blind spot that occurs above the magnetic pole of almost any planet was a long-known factor in warfare within the Federation; Riker had once used the effect while serving on the Starship Potemkin to hide from an opponent. By modern standards it was a somewhat outdated manoeuvre, a well known tactic that rarely caught anybody by surprise any more.
Of course, the Empire was new to it.
From within the blind spot Picards reinforcements emerged - over three hundred Starships, most of the Federations Core Defence Fleet. At the head of the formation the Sovereign class USS Alaska, Tirpitz and Kirov accompanied the Sovereign herself, flanked by six Galaxy class and nearly two dozen Nebula class vessels. All of them opened fire on the Imperial fleet from point blank range.
"Order the fleet to come hard about." Picard ordered. "Engage the enemy at will."
The remaining Imperial forces seemed to stagger under the impact of hundreds of torpedoes and phaser arrays. Badly co-ordinated and caught totally by surprise, the Imperial fleet fell apart within minutes. The captains turned their ships around and attempted to flee, only to recreate in miniature the confusion that still gripped the main fleet.
"My lord," Melkarr turned to Vader, terror gripping his heart. "We... we need to retreat."
The Dark Lord turned to the trembling captain and regarded him for a long moment. "Order all ships to withdraw." He said finally. "We will go back to the portal and make a stand there."
"They're retreating." Riker said in satisfaction.
"Nearly a thousand are pulling off. Close to twice that are damaged and adrift, the rest..."
"Forget them, we can finish them later. Order all ships to pursue the main fleet but do not fire unless fired upon. Let's give them the chance to end this. Transmit a continuous hail to lord Vader offering him a surrender."
Riker tapped the order into his console. "Fleet's responding in the affirmative." He said a moment later. "We are in pursuit."
The remaining Imperial ships powered out of Mars orbit, the Federation fleet pacing them easily as they dodged through the cloud of wreckage now spreading around Mars. Now and then an Imperial ship would attempt to put up some kind of offence, only to be torn apart by photon torpedoes.
"We're picking up a new sensor reading." Riker said. "A neutrino surge again - much bigger than before."
"Reinforcements?" Picard said, anxiously.
"I don't know. It's a single signal - one ship rather than a fleet. I think..." Riker trailed off. On the screen, something the size of a small moon dropped out of FTL drive directly ahead of them.
Admiral Sandell paced the Death Stars huge command centre, deep in thought. He had expected to arrive to find a victorious Imperial fleet; he had told his turbolaser crews to stand down and give the stations main weapon a clear shot at whatever inhabited planets they found. Instead...
He looked out again at the graveyard ahead of the station. In over thirty years as a Naval officer he had never heard of losses on this scale. Fifteen thousand ships - gone, and to a force a fraction of that size. He had heard about the technological sophistication of this new enemy, but he could scarcely have believed that such a humiliation was possible.
Angrily, he snapped himself out of the reverie. He could feel the depressed mood on the command deck - Imperial crews where unused to defeat, his most especially. So these...these outsiders think they have us beat? Well, think again.
"That planet." He snapped, pointing at the red-green ball hanging beyond the graveyard. "Target the superlaser on it and fire when ready."
"It's... over a hundred kilometres across." Riker said, glancing at the sensor readouts.
"I am reading several million weapon emplacements on the surface." Data reported. "Also, what looks like a set of very large laser cannon of unknown type. Those weapons are powering up."
"Keep the fleet out of turbolaser range of that thing." Picard said instantly. "They can engage at will, but until we know more I don't want anybody near it."
"The vessel is firing." Data said.
From the huge indentation on the sphere, a set of green beams suddenly sprung. They came together at a single point and seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then a single bright beam sprung from that point.
It hit Mars square on.
Sandell watched with satisfaction as the planet bulged, then split, then exploded into a trillion fragments in the space of an instant.
"Prepare to launch all fighters and our entire destroyer force." He said in satisfaction. "Take us in towards the enemy fleet and have all weapons fire the instant they have a target."
Picard watched, open-mouthed as a solid wall of debris spewed into space. "Oh my God."
For perhaps ten seconds, there was total silence on the bridge of the Enterprise.
"Order the fleet to fall back." Picard said finally. "We'll re-group at Earth and make our stand there."
"The remaining Imperial ships are heading for that thing." Riker said.
"Let them go." Picard glanced again at the field of rubble that had been a planet only seconds ago. "Just... let them go."
"Another ship is approaching." Data reported. "Standard warp drive. It is the Defiant... They are hailing us."
"On screen." The Defiants bridge appeared. Dax and Troi stood together in front of the captains chair.
"Captain..." Dax said. "I just wish we could have got here a little sooner but our warp drive is damaged and our long range communications are out. We... we have a way to destroy that thing. We're transmitting the detailed information to you now. There's an exhaust port for the main reactor on the surface - put a torpedo down there and you'll trigger an explosion that will destroy the whole thing."
"We have the information." Data said.
"Can you locate the port?" Picard asked.
"Not from here sir. We must close to close range in order to target something so small."
"That's not going to be easy." Riker cautioned.
"No, I'm sure it won't." Picard said. "Have all the Sovereign, Galaxy and Nebula class ships rendezvous at this location immediately. Captain, if you wish to pull back-"
"No sir." Dax said stiffly. "If I'd acted differently this wouldn't have happened. I believe I owe those bastards a little retribution."
"As you wish. Stand by to follow us in. Picard out."
"The requested ships are standing by sir." Data reported.
"Then I see no need to keep them waiting. Arrow formation, we'll take the lead. Take us straight in at full impulse, stand by on all torpedo tubes. Engage."
Thirty five Starships turned and dived at the station simultaneously. An incredible barrage of turbolaser fire rained up at them from both the station and the Star Destroyers clustered around it.
"Admiral, a group of enemy ships is heading for us." The sensor technician looked up, a nervous look on his face. "They appear to be heading directly for the reactor exhaust ports."
Sandell paled slightly. How could they know to do that? Of course, the Rebels - that scum would sell their treason on at any opportunity.
After the loss of the original production Death Star, Sandell had ordered some modifications to the area around the exhaust ports. An extra two hundred turbolaser batteries had been installed in that area, two thirds of them lightweight models intended to intercept snub fighters. Little use against these ships, of course.
"Concentrate every battery we have on those ships." He snapped. "Ignore everything else - we have to stop them getting through!"
"We're taking a lot of fire. Our shields are at fifty percent." Riker cautioned.
"Continue on course." Picard said.
Phasers and torpedoes lanced out, scoring the surface of the Death Star deeply. Weapon emplacements where obliterated by the hundred as the phasers swept across the surface, but it barely touched the colossal firepower pouring up from the surface.
"Shields at twenty percent." Riker said. "Fifteen. Shields on the Kirov have failed, she's taking heavy damage."
"Have her fall back." Picard ordered.
"Our shields are at ten percent. We can't take this much longer sir."
"We will continue on course." Picard spoke with a voice that could have driven nails through Duranium.
"Shields have failed." The ship began to rock heavily as turbolaser bolts hit home. "Registering multiple hits on forward sectors. The ablative armour is holding, but it won't for long!"
The Enterprise shook once, her structure screaming at the stresses imposed on it, then heeled over to port.
"Port impulse engine is down to half power." Riker reported. "We're loosing speed and manoeuvrability." The ship shook again, throwing several people out of their chairs. "Hit on the main torpedo turret. It's inoperable. The other ships are reporting damage as well."
"Who's closest to us?" Picard asked.
"Get us between her and the surface. We'll shield her so she can make the torpedo attack."
The Enterprise heeled over and positioned itself directly ahead of the smaller warship. The two continued down toward the Death Star's surface.
"In range in five seconds." Riker said. "We can't take a whole lot more of this sir."
"We won't have to." Picard said calmly. "Starboard ten degrees; let's give Defiant her shot."
"We're clear to fire." Robertson said. "Target acquired and locked. Torpedo set to low speed, maximum manoeuvrability mode."
"Fire." Dax ordered. A quantum torpedo leapt away from the ship and tracked unerringly down to the surface. It entered the exhaust port and vanished from sight.
"Hard about." She said. "Get us the hell out of here."
"The Enterprise is taking heavy damage." Anthony reported.
"They shielded us, let's return the favour. Put us between them and the station."
"They're a lot bigger than us." O'Brien pointed out as the ship heeled over.
"Think big thoughts." Dax replied.
"They fired a single torpedo at the Death Star and retreated." Melkar said. Vader turned to his helmsman.
"Is the course to the Portal set?"
"Implement it at once."
His fleet turned, accelerated - and vanished.
The Admiral watched the Federation ships falling back, and for a moment he felt a glimmer of hope. The feeling was stillborne when he picked a single contact out of the crowded battle readouts. Something very small and almost impossibly fast, arcing down towards his station.
Sandell flinched away from the tactical display, horrified. Was this how Tarkin felt, before the end? Or did he even realise that the end was coming?
"Our sensors show a torpedo hitting the surface, but we register no detonation." A technician announced triumphantly. He turned, his face gleeful, hoping to curry some favour with the Admiral. "Probably the weapon was a dud. The enemy ships are damaged and retreating! Victory is ours, Admiral!"
"Idiot!" Sandell spun on the man, his face a mask of rage. "It did not hit the surface, it passed through it!" he watched the incomprehension on the mans face. "They have killed us all, don't you understand? They have killed us all!"
The Death Star's surface cracked in a million places at once - each crack a chasm hundreds of metres across. Plasma spewed out of the fissures. A moment later, the entire hundred and thirty kilometre sphere exploded. Countless trillions of fragments exploded outwards, propelled by a flare of energy that briefly rivalled the distant sun. The awesome beacon held for a long moment... dimmed... and began to die down to a dull red heat. The remnants of the station would continue to consume themselves for days to come, a silent tribute to the both the power and folly of the Imperial builders.
They gathered in the observation lounge of the Enterprise - Picard and his officers, Dax, and her senior crew, and O'Brien. Despite the victory and the return of their counsellor and an old friend, the greetings where a muted affair - the big windows gave everybody an excellent view of the cloud of debris that would eventually become the Sol systems second asteroid belt. Dotted among the debris where occasional flares of light as the fleet finished off the remaining Imperial stragglers who refused to surrender, exacting what little vengance they could.
It was Dax who broke the silence. "Do we have any word on the orbital settlements yet?" She asked finally.
"Most of them where evacuated before the battle." Picard replied without looking up. "Just in case. The high orbit stations like Utopia Planitia survived. Most of the low ones..." his voice trailed off.
"Even when you look out there, it's hard to believe it." Riker said softly. "We'd done it, we'd beaten them, then - a billion people, gone. Just like that. The Borg invasions, the Cardassian wars, the Klingons, the Dominion - all of it put together doesn't come close to this."
"What about Vader?" Troi asked.
"Escaped." Picard said simply.
"He'll be back." She shuddered slightly without noticing, and when she continued there was anger in her voice. "It's so stupid! He hates us, hates us for what we are - for what he thinks we lack. This 'force' or theirs. And for that, him and his Emperor are willing to slaughter billions, turn an entire galaxy to destroying us."
"And they have the numbers to do it." Dax said. "So what happens next?" She shook her head. "Is this the calm before the real storm arrives? Will it be Earth next time?"
"No." Picard looked up for the first time, his voice solid again. "Not Earth, not any Federation world. We won't loose another ship to those people if I have anything to do with it."
"So how do we do that?" Crusher asked. "Is there any way to close the Portal for good?"
"Theoretical studies indicate that there is no known method of closing down this phenomena." Data said. He alone appeared unaffected by the disaster; Dax had heard that he could turn his emotions on and off at will. "Doubtless Starfleet will continue to research the possibilities."
"The Emperor said he was totally committed to destroying us; he claimed a hundred thousand ships where on the way - we could be facing them the next time the portal opens." She said.
"Not so." Picard replied. "Data?"
"I have examined our records of the Portal." Data said. "The phenomena has a definite range over which it operates - approximately one hundred and fifty kilometres. I estimate no more than twenty thousand Imperial vessels could safely be placed within that volume to pass through in any one opening."
"And they'd be packed in like sardines, easy targets to a waiting fleet." Picard said. "Eight or nine hundred Starships can handle that kind of threat."
"We can't spare that many from the Dominion war." Dax complained.
"We have to."
"Sir," O'Brien spoke up. "When we closed access to the wormhole at Deep Space Nine we used cloaked self-replicating mines."
"The Portal itself cannot be mined." Data said. "The mines would simply be transferred to the Imperial side with each opening."
"But the area around the portal could be." Picard said. He began to really think for the first time in hours. "If we put a shell of a few million mines around the area, then place defence platforms outside that - equip them with navigational deflectors to defend them against plasma lasers. You have the specifications of these devices?"
"All in Defiants' computer." The chief confirmed.
"I'll pass them on to Starfleet. The automated drones worked better than I thought they would. We could deploy a few thousand of those within a few days if we raid the stockpiles in nearby systems."
"With that level of forces in place only twenty or thirty Starships would be needed to provide a flexible backup and co-ordinate the defences." Data said. "Starfleet can easily keep such a force to hand with minimal impact on the current level of operations."
"I still don't like it." Dax said. "You don't win a war by having a great defence."
"No." Picard said. "My report to Starfleet is going to recommend action against the Empire."
"Surely we can't hope to mount an invasion?" Troi asked.
"Not as such. But this Rebellion of theirs is suffering badly at the moment, yes?"
"So Leia said." Troi nodded.
"It would need to be covert." Picard mused. "Nothing encourages a population to close ranks, even with an oppressive government, quite like bringing in an outside threat. But we can put surveillance drones in place, gather signal and electronic intelligence and see that it gets to the right hands. Most especially we'll have to ensure that they find out about the location and status of any more Death Stars before they're finished - just one of those could end their chances once and for all. I wouldn't be surprised if the Rebellion undergoes something of a transformation over the next few years."
"That violates the Prime Directive." Crusher said thoughtfully.
"I know, but they leave us little choice." Picard said sorrowfully. "The Empire has declared war on us, and that's the only viable means of fighting back that I can see." He glanced out at the asteroid field beyond. "I don't think Starfleet will see it any differently."
"And the Emperor will never be able to discover any of it," Dax put in. "His technology isn't up to the job, and his PSI abilities don't work against us."
"Yes. I think we've seen the last of the Empire on this side for good; quite possibly the beginning of its downfall." Picard said, still looking at the view beyond the windows. "We may have suffered terribly on this day, but I promise you we'll suffer no more by their hand."
"I'll drink to that." Dax said, reaching under the table and produced a bottle and a tray of glasses and began to hand them around. She glanced at Troi. "This is one conflict I'll be very glad to see in the past."
Troi hesitated for a moment, dropping her eyes to the table before looking up again. "Agreed." She said quietly. "Some things belong in the past."
"Which reminds me," Picard said to Dax. "Your ship forwarded a message from the Rotarran just before you arrived. It seems they have been assigned to operate with the Defiant when she gets back into the war. Lieutenant Commander Worf wants to try out a new tactic he's thought up. Something about using you as bait."
"Figures." Dax said with a grin as she filled her own glass.
"A toast." Picard said. They raised their glasses. "To the future."
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