"The ship is attempting communication, My Lord," Captain
Melkar said quietly.
"Respond," Vader ordered. "Visual and audio."
The image that appeared on the viewscreen was not what Melkar expected. A Human, or at least he looked Human; somewhere in his sixties at a guess. The man wore a curious-looking uniform, an almost skin-tight thing of black and grey. There was nothing in the way of rank decoration besides some pips on the collar. The rest of the visible crew were a mixed bunch - a younger officer to the Captains right, a woman seated to his left. She gazed out into the scene before her intently, presumably gazing at an image of himself and Lord Vader. After a long moment she turned away and put her head in her hands, slumping forward in the seat slightly.
The figure in the background was an alien of some kind - of course, Melkar thought to himself. The rebels were almost uniformly race traitors. Another alien sat in one of the two front seats, a peculiar humanoid being with pale golden skin. Melkar had never seen anything like the pair.
"This is Captain-"
"Picard," Vader said. "Of the Federation Starship Enterprise, lost and far from home."
"Indeed." The bald man nodded. "And you are..."
"Lord Darth Vader. Representative of the Emperor Palpatine."
"I regret our trespass in this area," Picard said. "If it was in my power to avoid our presence I would have done so; it was not. Our only wish is to leave peacefully."
"And we wish to aid you in that task, Captain," Vader rasped. "But there are technicalities to be dealt with. The Emperor wishes you to accompany me to Coruscant to settle this matter."
Picard hesitated. "I wish we could." He replied finally. "But are working on a way to return home, and this work requires our presence in this area for the next day or so to conduct some tests. We dont know a great deal about the process which deposited us here; a delay might make us miss our only chance."
"Captain Picard, violation of our laws is not a trivial matter. The wishes of the Emperor are not to be cast aside for the convenience of anybody."
"I'm afraid I must decline," Picard said in response.
"One way or another, you will return with us." Vader stated it as a fact. "We will take your ship by force if required."
"Lord Vader, I urge you to reconsider. We have no wish to engage in combat with anybody, but we are capable of defending ourselves."
Vader summoned the Force, feeling the dark power course through him. He reached out to take the man by the throat in a demonstration that would show him just what he was up against. Vader could feel the life energy of tens of thousands in the fleet around him; he pushed past them, searching for the life energy of the man named Picard. Searching... searching...
Vader was as unsettled as he had ever felt. He could sense absolutely nothing from the sleek white ship, not any trace of life, not even the inanimate patterns of the ship itself. It was as if they were not there.
The Force was created by life; it permeated everything in the galaxy, binding it all together in a pattern that was his to twist.
Everything in the galaxy... in this galaxy. Vader was shocked to his very core; was it possible that the Force simply did not exist where these people came from? That they didn't contribute to it, might simply stand apart from it?
"Abomination..." he hissed in something close to pure hatred. With a gesture he terminated the communications link. "Deploy the fleet to attack position. Launch the first wave of TIE fighters. Prepare to commence a full attack."
"What was that about?" Picard asked. He looked at Troi,
who was desperately trying to compose herself.
"I'm sorry, Captain," she said shakily after a moment. "His mind was like... like nothing actually." She laughed hollowly. "Evil. Pure, absolute evil. Its like he's half a man, a personality with every positive character trait removed. It was a most distressing feeling."
"What are his intentions?" Picard asked gently.
"Oh, he'll capture us if he can, destroy us if he must. Trust me Captain, you do not want to be captured by him. Destroy the ship before that."
"And at the end... he said 'abomination'?"
"Strange." Troi frowned. "He was expectant, triumphant even. He expected you to acquiesce, there and then. Expected to make you acquiesce. But he couldn't, and that angered him terribly. On a personal level he's almost desperate to destroy us now. But I think he'll still try to capture us for his Emperor."
"The fleet is launching small craft," Data reported. "Hundreds of them are heading for us."
"Analysis." Picard ordered Worf.
"Small, one-person craft of several varieties. Armed with smaller versions of the plasma laser cannon and various types of warheads. Ion drive propulsion."
"More ancient technology," Riker said. "But they do have numbers on their side. He pointed the viewscreen where thousands of the craft were now heading for them.
"We have less than half an hour until our gateway home reopens," Picard said. "If we let them chase us off now, we'll miss it. By the time the next window comes around we could be facing a dozen fleets like this - and I don't like the idea of these people gaining a possible way to reach the alpha quadrant. It would be the Dominion all over again, this time on Earth's own doorstep."
"We can't hope to beat them in a straight fight," Riker said quietly. "Not all of them."
"No," Picard said, weighing his words, letting the tension build on the bridge. "So lets not fight straight then, shall we?"
The tension broke as the bridge crew smiled as one. Well, Picard thought, morale is an important part of any Captain's job.
"Load all torpedo bays and arm phasers." Picard looked at the image on the screen, wondering without showing it just where to start. Delaying tactics, that was it. Keep them guessing. "Set course five three mark four five, one quarter impulse. Engage."
The ship glided through space, arcing up and to starboard to edge her past the huge pack of fighters. They turned to intercept, but the speed of the Enterprise and the angles Picard had set worked against them; barely a hundred got into turbo laser range. A barrage of green fire lanced out at the Enterprise.
"We are taking fire. Slight damage to lower shields," Worf said.
"Return the compliment Mister Worf. You are free to engage any target which fires on us."
"Aye, sir." Picard didn't need to turn to know that the Klingon was smiling.
Vader watched as half a dozen orange threads swept through
the cloud of TIE fighters, leaving trails of explosions in their wake;
dozens of tiny fireballs were erupting within the squadrons.
"Order the fighters to fall back and re-group," He snapped. "Deploy the fleet to envelop the enemy vessel and launch a full bombardment. While we are keeping them occupied, equip all TIE bombers and gunboats with heavy rockets and launch them for a saturation attack."
"Sixty five fighters destroyed," Worf reported after a
couple of minutes. "The remainder are falling back."
"Come to bearing three two five mark six, maintain one quarter impulse," Picard ordered. "Tactical plot on viewer."
"The enemy fleet is shifting its deployment." Worf said as the graphic appeared. "They are attempting to flank us."
"Let's show them what theyre up against," Picard said. "A big demonstration now might make them back off." Somehow he doubted it. "Target... those ships." He pointed to a cluster of eleven Star Destroyers. "Intercept course, full impulse. Ready a full volley of photon and quantum torpedoes, targeted on their main reactors."
The Enterprise turned and accelerated smoothly, bearing down on the group. Turbo laser bolts began to pour out of the Star Destroyers, tracking around as targeting computers matched their trajectory to the target; within moments the Enterprise was bracketed and hundreds of bolts began to hammer her shields.
"Reading a slight degradation of the forward shields," Worf announced.
"Steady as she goes." Picard watched the group of ships grow larger and larger on the screen. "Just a few more seconds..."
"Forward shields down to ninety two percent," Worf reported. "Range two thousand kilometres. One thousand."
"Fire," Picard snapped.
To the Imperials watching, it seemed as if the turbo laser batteries had done their job, as if the Enterprise had exploded in a brilliant flash of red and white. The impression lasted barely half a second.
The torpedo turret on the underside of the saucer spat nine quantum torpedoes out in under two seconds; targeted on the centre ship. Each of the two forward secondary tubes fired a cluster of twelve at another. The two tertiary torpedo tubes below the deflector dish launched another dozen photon torpedoes each, targeted on the remaining eight ships. The photons blasted against the Star Destroyer's shields, sending the huge vessels careening out of control.
With the quantums it was a different matter.
Three reactor cores were blown apart in rapid succession. The ships seemed to almost bulge outwards for a moment, as if fighting against incomprehensible pressure. Then the hulls ruptured into millions of pieces, exploding outwards with horrifying suddenness.
The Enterprise cruised through the edge of the detonations, her shields shunting the fragments of metal and bodies away.
Picard watched the ballet of destruction with silent anger.
them, he raged. Damn them for putting me in this position, for making
me do this to them.
"Hail Vader's ship," he snapped to Data, not wanting to overload Worf right now. "Maybe we can stop this madness." Data silently called up access to the communications system on his panel and sent the hail. There was no response.
"Six more groups of Star Destroyers are moving to box us in," Worf said. Picard examined the tactical display.
"Two one five mark six five," he said absently. "Take us through between those two groups. Use phasers to disable their weapons as we go."
"No response to our hail sir," Data said.
"This is insane," Riker said in frustration. "Even if they can beat us down with sheer numbers, can't they see what it's going to cost them? Can't they realise that it's just not worth it?"
"I don't think were dealing with a very reasonable group of people," Troi said. She was clearly having a tough time dealing with the emotional intensity both on and off the bridge. "Vader is absolutely determined, and the Captain's of these ships are too scared and too proud to do anything but follow orders."
The ship rocked again, briefly, as turbo laser bolts hammered home. "We're through," Worf said after a moment.
"They've pushed us further from the anomaly," Riker cautioned.
"I know," Picard nodded. "But we can't afford to sit in the middle of that fleet while we wait for our chance. We need the manoeuvring room."
"Reading a large number of fighter craft being launched," Data reported. "Over five thousand are now on an intercept vector."
Picard watched the huge constellation of dots on the tactical display, now so crowded as to be all but useless. The fighters heading for the Enterprise were so spread out that the only way to evade them was to head directly in the opposite direction - straight away from the anomaly.
"Phasers," He ordered. "Mister Worf, destroy as many as you can."
"Fifty Star Destroyers closing on our flanks," Data reported. "They are firing." The ship rocked as thousands of turbo laser bolts slammed home.
"Moderate damage to our lateral shields."
"Belay that phaser order," Picard snapped. "Come about, keep us out of range of the fighters. Target both Star Destroyer groups, attack pattern epsilon five."
The Enterprise twisted around at full impulse, her structure groaning under the strain even through the boosted structural integrity fields the Sovereign class carried. Phasers and photon torpedoes bracketed her attackers, chopping into several of the Imperial vessels. The remaining ships began to salvo off their missiles.
"Multiple inbound missiles," Data reported.
Picard grimaced. He had no idea what kind of warheads these things carried; to outrun them would mean being forced further from the anomaly, to do anything else would take him within range of the fighters.
"Better the fighters," he muttered to himself. "Set course one one five mark two four. Switch targeting systems back to the fighters, take out as many as possible."
The Enterprise heeled around again, soaring in towards the edge of the huge cloud of craft. Phasers leapt out, snaking their way through the dense pack of fighters. Explosions blossomed throughout the armada.
Not enough, Picard thought. Not nearly enough.
"Multiple missile launches by the fighters," Data reported calmly. "I am reading over ten thousand inbound... twenty thousand..."
"Warp speed," Picard snapped. "Best evasion vector."
"There's too many of them!" Lieutenant Mayers said, strain evident in his voice. "I can't find a clear path through them to go to warp."
"Worf, continual full torpedo spreads - proximity blast, maximum yield. Get as many as you can."
All eight of the ship's tubes began spewing torpedoes at the missiles gliding in towards them. Explosions began detonating directly ahead of the incoming weapons, each blast carving a hole in the attack. Picard watched as thousand upon thousands of the missiles were consumed by the constant machine gun-like fire. Watched as thousands more homed relentlessly onwards.
"Impact, ten seconds," Data said.
"The shields, Mister Worf," Picard said.
Worf fired a final salvo, then re-routed every bit of power he could to the shields. More destruction blossomed among the incoming warheads. The Enterprise had done quite well; of twenty four thousand heavy rockets launched towards her, no less than twenty two thousand had been destroyed by a combination of phaser and torpedo fire plus the chain-reaction explosions of their own warheads. Of the remainder, over eighteen hundred tracked straight and true and struck the Enterprises forward shields over a twenty five second period.
The ship vanished behind a colossal wall of energy; every person aboard not strapped in was hurled to the floor as the Inertial Dampers struggled to match the un-predicted forces.
On the bridge, Data had barely hit the floor before he was rolling up and into his seat again. He patched through to helm control and sent the ship into an evasion pattern that would take her directly away from the mass of fighters now falling behind them.
Riker was the next up. He grimaced, then spat a tooth out onto the deck before turning to help Picard. Worf staggered back to the tactical station. "Forward shields are at five percent, partial coverage," he said....
"Divert auxiliary power to the forward shields," Picard ordered unsteadily as he almost fell into his chair. "Course at your discretion Mister Worf. Keep us away from them for the moment. Number one, see to a damage report."
Riker busied himself at his panel. "Apart from the shield damage we have some minor breaches of the hull on decks seven, eight, twenty two and twenty three. The aft photon launchers are off line and the primary sensor array is operating at twenty percent capacity."
"Get Geordi to work on those photons," Picard said. "We're going to need them. Mister Worf, tactical analysis of our situation?"
"Shields are back up to fifty percent. We can still fight," Worf said simply. Picard eyed him, hoping that wasnt Klingon pride talking.
"What are the fighters doing?" he asked.
"Most are heading back towards various fleet units," Data reported. "I suspect they may need to reload."
"Then now's the time. Mister Mayers, take us in to the nearest of those big battleships. Mister Worf, I want a full torpedo spread and maximum phasers."
The Enterprise hurled itself toward the four behemoths, rocketing through the Imperial fleet. Turbo laser bolts began to pour into the ship as the escorting Star Destroyer screen opened up with everything they had.
"Maintain course," Picard ordered. "Target the ships power systems and engines and stand by for a full spread."
"Ready," Worf declared.
"Wait..." Picard watched as the ship grew and grew in the viewscreen, in awe of its sheer scale. What wonders these people could accomplish, he thought to himself, if they used this power for creation rather than destruction. Turbo laser fire began to pour up from the ship, dwarfing the barrage of its escorts. Picard could feel the ship shuddering beneath him as she fought against the hail of fire.
"Shield generator number five is failing!" Worf announced. "Forward shields coverage is wavering!"
"Wait..." Picard almost whispered it. Turbo laser bolts began to find the holes in the shields and slam into the ships ablative armour matrix. "Now!"
A salvo of quantum torpedoes slammed into the Super Star Destroyers shields, followed by another, then another. Then the Enterprise was past, and her aft shields were between them and the Imperial ship again. The torpedoes exploded against the ships hull, blasting gaping holes through its armour.
"Phasers, maximum strike!"
Beams lashed out, carving the hull of the great ship open. Air and equipment and people spewed out into the vacuum.
"Aft quantums, fire," Picard ordered. Another two salvos of quantum torpedoes slammed into the enemy ship, adding to the devastation.
"Their ship has sustained heavy damage," Data said. "She is loosing power, but auxiliary generators are kicking in. She is still combat capable."
"Aft shields are holding at seventy percent," Worf said.
"Find us a clear spot," Picard said. "Fire at your discretion; destroy anything that comes near us. Data, how long until the anomaly reopens?"
"Three minutes, ten seconds," Data replied. Phasers and torpedoes began to flash outwards at the nearest Star Destroyers, smashing through their shields and carving the hulls below open.
Has it really been only twenty five minutes since the battle started, Picard thought wonderingly. How incredible. He tapped the intercom panel. "Picard to LaForge."
"LaForge here, sir."
"Contingency plans, Mister LaForge. As we discussed. Get yourself to the bridge."
"Aye aye sir."
Vader watched the sleek vessel hurtle away, cutting up
Star Destroyers on all sides as it went. The battle had already been a
disaster; thirty of the fleet's best Star Destroyers were gone, fifty wrecked,
dozens more damaged. Battlequeen, one of the most advanced Super
Star Destroyers in the entire Imperial Navy, was struggling to contain
horrendous damage. The bridge of his own ship was hushed, his officers
beyond shock and close to terror at the carnage they were seeing.
It is of no matter, the Dark Lord thought to himself. When the ship is captured the Imperial Navy will be instantly obsolete. A thousand ships like this is all the Empire will ever need.
And the crew... the existence of humans who were not part of the Force terrified Vader, would terrify any master of its secrets. The Emperor would give anything to learn more of these people; next to them the loss of Coruscant's defence fleet was of little consequence.
All would be forgiven, when they were captured.
"Sir, we're getting some odd sensor readings," Captain Melkar announced. "Some form of energy cloud... we can't understand it," he added lamely.
"Show me," Vader snapped. A hazy glowing swirl of light appeared on a nearby screen.
"We're reading odd gravity distortions," Melkar said. "But its not a black hole."
"Spatial anomaly..." Vader murmured. "So, Picard lied about how long he would be here."
"Hold our own position. Have every ship and fighter in the fleet head for this location, Captain. The enemy ship will attempt to reach it - they must be prevented at any cost. Any cost at all."
"One minute, thirty seconds," Data reported. "The anomaly
is beginning to resonate."
"Stand by to make a run for it," Picard said. "Mister Worf, anything that gets in our way-"
"Understood, sir," Worf said.
"Captain, the Imperial fleet is re-deploying," Data said suddenly. "Almost every ship is crowding around the anomaly, capital ships and fighters."
"Trying to block our path," Riker said. "At least we know they believe us about how we got here now."
"How very comforting, Number One." Picard managed a smile. He checked the time on a nearby console. "Well, we have no choice. Lieutenant Mayers, take us in."
"They are heading right for the main body of the fleet,"
Melkar said incredulously.
"Sixty seconds to resonance," Data reported.
Picard relaxed in his seat; all he had to do now was time this right. Whether it actually worked was up to the ship and spirit of the people working her. The thought gave him a smile; that, at least, was something this particular Empire would never match.
"Incoming," Data reported.
"All weapons firing," Worf replied. Explosions tore through space all around the ship.
"Fifty seconds to resonance."
The Enterprise charged into the very heart of the fleet, cloaked in a storm of turbo laser bolts so intense that their combined energy was actually beginning to confuse the Imperial targeting systems. Nevertheless, the volume of fire was more than sufficient to ensure hits.
"Fighters closing on all sides," Worf said. "Within range."
"Fire antimatter spread," Picard replied.
From dozens of points around the ship's saucer section, small antimatter charges began to leap outwards. Relatively harmless to any properly shielded vessel, the system was intended to confuse the sensor and tracking systems of enemy vessels by spreading large amounts of radiation around the battle area. Against unshielded craft the charges would have a rather more impressive effect, but of course nobody would dream of fielding combat-capable craft without shields.
Nobody in the alpha quadrant, anyway, Picard thought as fighters began to explode. He watched as the ship's weapons added to the carnage, chopping up Star Destroyers. A salvo of photon torpedoes tracked unerringly into an already-damaged section of the monster battleship they had crippled earlier; the vessel split in two as explosions began to leapfrog over its hull, joining together to form a chain reaction that began to consume both halves of the ship.
"Thirty seconds," Data said.
"Forward shields buckling," Worf anounced. "Reinforcing from the battery backup system, but they will not last long."
"Keep us on course," Picard said calmly.
The Enterprise carved her way through the heart of the Imperial fleet, heading unerringly for the slowly swelling anomaly in an oasis of calm at the centre. She burst through the final perimeter of Star Destroyers, heading inwards...only to begin to slow.
"We're caught in a set of low power tractor beams," Data said.
"All power except the aft shields to the impulse engines," Picard said.
"More tractor beams are locking. A hundred... a hundred and fifty... two hundred..."
"Aft shields collapsing," Worf reported. The ship began to shudder violently as turbo laser bolts impacted on the ablative armour, now free to impart their entire energy. "The ablative armour is suffering serious damage."
Picard turned to LaForge, who was monitoring engineering from his bridge station. "Can we break free?"
"I don't think so sir."
"How long until the anomaly opens? "
"Eighteen seconds sir," Data replied.
Picard nodded and began to count in his head. He activated his chair's computer interface and brought up the set of commands he had planned there several hours ago.
"Ablative armour has failed. Structural Integrity Field is near to catastrophic failure."
"Ten seconds until the anomaly opens. "
"Computer; proceed," Picard ordered.
Vader watched as the enemy vessel was snared by hundreds
of tractor beams; it struggled against them, turbo laser bolts spattering
that peculiar shield of theirs. After a few seconds the glowing bubble
wavered and collapsed; the ship began to visibly shake under the assault.
"Soon..." Vader said to himself. And then the most peculiar thing happened; the enemy ship snapped in two.
Vader stared, shocked, as the whole forward section snapped clean off from the main body. For a moment he thought the ship had suffered some kind of battle damage from the turbo laser strikes, but there was no explosion.
The tractor beams were fastened securely - to the section of the ship closest to them, the main hull of the ship. Freed for a moment of their restraint, the forward section rocketed forwards into the very heart of the swirling cloud. The instant before it reached it, there was a bright flash - then nothing. The cloud was gone, along with the ship.
Without the main impulse engines to fight the tractor beams,
the engineering section rocketed backwards almost as quickly as the saucer
section had moved forwards. Five hundred tractor beams fought for dominance,
with the result that the hull sailed more or less towards the heaviest
concentration of ships, based around the two remaining Super Star Destroyers.
The hull was deserted, of course - of Humans, at any rate. Had anybody been on board, they would have heard a single female voice, familiar to anybody who had served on a Starship.
"Ten seconds to self destruct. Five... four... three... two... one..."
Vader watched with a horrible realisation as his distant fleet crowded around the enemy ship. He started to say something, to give orders. It was already too late.
The Enterprise-E's warp core breached. Simultaneously,
a series of photon charges which LaForge had placed around the antimatter
containment pods detonated.
Starships based far from Earth had little chance to top up their fuel tanks; Starbases were too far apart on those distant borders. As a result, most self destruct sequences tended to be rather less than the maximum possible. But the Enterprise had spent all its time lately at Earth, home to the largest antimatter production facility in the entire Federation. Her tanks were practically full.
Eighteen thousand tons of antimatter blasted out of the containment pods and reacted with an equal amount of matter. The resulting explosion was equal to approximately eight hundred thousand gigatons of chemical explosives.
A flash brighter than a sun enveloped the Imperial fleet. It lasted barely a second or two; when it faded Vader's flagship was alone in space apart from a huge ball of rapidly expanding plasma.
"Go to hyperdrive," he said as the wall of energy swept towards them.
The navigator needed no urging; he had been keeping the navicomp fully ready for that order for the last twenty minutes. His hand descended on a control, and the Super Star Destroyer leapt to Hyperspace an instant before destruction could touch it.
The saucer section of the Enterprise-E emerged into
a familiar starscape. The bridge crew stared at the scene on the viewscreen
for a long moment, then turned to Picard. For a moment, there was total
Riker finally broke it. He raised his hands and began to clap. After barely a moment, everybody else on the bridge joined in. Picard stood slowly, turning to sweep his gaze across his officers.
For themselves as much as me, he thought to himself. More, if the universe were but fair.
After the applause died down, Picard turned to Worf. The Klingon was standing straight and tall, pride blazing from every fibre of his being. Picard wondered idly if one Klingon opera could possibly be enough for his tactical officer. Probably not, he decided.
"Mister Worf, please open a channel to Starfleet command. I think we have a story for them."
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