Chapter Eighteen: Desperate Measures

"One who has few must prepare against the enemy.
One who has many makes the enemy prepare against him."- Sun Tzu

An Imperial landspeeder sat parked outside a large dwelling on Vulcan, its driver manning the turret and its occupant, a white-suited stormtrooper, walking purposefully toward the door. He knocked three times.

Ambassador Marek opened the door for the stormtrooper, not knowing what to expect. Although there had been some concern that the Empire would ruthlessly subjugate his people after the surrender, there had been no incidents so far. Apart from quietly guarding the Imperial embassy, the white-suited soldiers had simply not been very visible, so he was more than a bit surprised to find one standing on his doorstep now. "Yes? What is this about?" he asked.

"Ambassador Marek, my name is Flim Turron. I am looking for information on the Stone of Gol."

If the words affected Marek, he didn't show it. "The Stone of Gol? I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't play coy, Marek. I'm talking about the Stone of Gol. The ancient Vulcan psionic weapon discovered a few years ago. It feeds off a man's aggression and anger, and uses it to kill him telepathically. I've been fully briefed."

"I'm afraid you are gravely mistaken. The psionic resonator was destroyed many years ago because it was too dangerous. Its destruction is a matter of public record."

The stormtrooper lowered his voice. "Are you alone?"

"Yes. But what does that-"

"Keep your voice down!" the stormtrooper hissed. My name is not Flim Turron and I'm not an Imperial stormtrooper. I am a Federation officer, my name is Commander Chang, and I am here on behalf of Captain Picard."

The Vulcan was not impressed. "The Great Collaborator, Captain Picard? His face is on Imperial propaganda everywhere. Even if the Stone of Gol still existed, and even if I knew where it was, I certainly wouldn't tell you." Marek closed the door in Chang's face. Chang stood there dumbfounded for a moment, and then rang the door chime again.

Marek quickly opened the door. "Please leave."

"Not without the Stone of Gol. Picard says he knows for a fact that it was never destroyed. He says that a replica was destroyed. He says that the original Stone of Gol is in the hands of a group of extremists. He says they're studying it, and they plan to use it as part of a reunification program with the Romulans. He also says that you are a member of this movement, and that the Stone of Gol is in your possession. Apparently, an investigation was closing in on you when the Empire showed up." Chang replied.

"He is mistaken. There is no extremist movement." Marek closed the door in Chang's face again, and Chang's temper flared. He pounded insistently on the door until it was obvious he would get no response, then he pulled out his blaster rifle and opened fire. The flimsy door of Marek's home was never meant to repel a determined intruder, and it was quickly reduced to smoking rubble. Chang stepped through the hole and into Marek's home.

Marek turned to face him, seemingly unmoved by the violent intrusion. "Obviously, you wish to make this difficult. The people of Vulcan have already suffered enough without being further harassed-"

"Shut up! Shut up with that damned self-righteous Vulcan attitude!" Chang shouted. He pulled off his helmet and showed Marek his mangled face, still missing one eye and still badly scarred from the Borg implants. "Do you have any idea what I've been through, Marek? I dragged myself out of sickbay to come find you! I wouldn't even be standing if the medics didn't pump me full of drugs before sending me on this mission! I have to wear this stormtrooper armour because I'm still not fit to be seen in public! So don't talk to me about your suffering, Marek. I've gone to Hell and back for the Federation! What have you done?"

Marek looked at him impassively. "This display of emotion will accomplish nothing."

"Shut up!" Chang screamed. "There are thousands of ships out there," he said, pointing at the sky, "preparing for battle. After the battle, no matter which side wins, they will be weakened. This will be our only opportunity to strike! Picard from within, and our forces from without. The Stone of Gol ignores shields. It ignores armour. It can kill a man from thousands of kilometres away. Even if he's an Imperial admiral, and maybe even if he's a Sith lord. So I don't have time to dance around with your little games. Where is it?"

"If the Stone of Gol still existed, why would we give it to Picard? He is an Imperial puppet."

"He is a Federation officer!" Chang exploded. He looked at the ambassador with contempt plainly evident on his face. "Worthless politician ... you don't wear the uniform," he snarled, "so you don't know what it means. You don't know what it means to risk your life in defense of your world. But I know what it means, and so does Picard. He never had a choice!"

"We always have a choice, Commander."

"Yes, we do, don't we? Picard chose to accept Kanos' offer because the alternative was to watch Imperial troops turn Earth into a smoking wasteland. But what about you? Your government signed a non-aggression pact with the Empire without even engaging them in battle! You got on your knees and begged for mercy, so you wouldn't have to sacrifice any of your oh-so precious and oh-so superior Vulcan soldiers. While the rest of us were fighting and dying, you chose to cower in your homes. And now you condemn Picard for what he did? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, Marek."

Marek's face remained maddeningly impassive. "Be that as it may, I can't help you. The Stone of Gol was destroyed."

Chang's patience was wearing thin. "The lives of billions may turn on what happens in the next twelve hours, Marek." he said quietly, pulling out his blaster rifle. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you won't give me the Stone of Gol, I will kill you and search your house myself."

That same impassive expression. "You're a starfleet officer. You're bluffing."

Chang raised the rifle, pointed it at Marek's head, and released the safety. "Are you willing to bet your life on that?" he asked quietly. Marek merely stood there staring back at him. His finger tensed on the trigger, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He threw the blaster on the floor in frustration. "Damn it, what the hell are you saving it for?" he screamed. "This thing might give Picard the edge he needs, and you want to keep it. And for what? Your reunification with the Romulans? They're dead! The Empire blasted Romulus and Remus into dust! If you really want to help the Romulans, you'll give me the Stone of Gol now!"

Marek's expression still didn't change. "Even if we assume that the Stone of Gol wasn't destroyed, and even if we assume that I know where it is, why should I believe any of this? Am I supposed to believe you based solely on your word, after you showed up on my doorstep wearing stormtrooper armour and blasted your way into my home?"

Chang walked toward Marek slowly, and purposefully. "You want proof? You want to know what's been happening out there? I've got the memories of Federation officers, Imperial officers, Romulans, and a whole damned pile of others that I don't even want to think about, all stored in my brain thanks to the Borg. Mind-meld with me, and you'll see that I am telling the truth."

Marek contemplated the offer for a moment, and then nodded his head in quiet assent. He gingerly placed his hands on Chang's face, being careful to avoid the scarred areas. He closed his eyes, and Chang felt his thoughts merging with Marek's own. It would have seemed like a violation once, but after having gone through the trauma of Borg assimilation, this wasn't so bad. He found himself reliving all of the events since this nightmare began: stumbling into the midst of a monstrous battle in Imperial space, watching the USS Carolina explode through the hatch of his escape pod, meeting Admiral Kanos and Captain Ruk, and barely surviving the harrowing escape back into the alpha quadrant. In some kind of nightmarish fast-forward, he then found himself remembering the disastrous attempt to capture Ruk's ship, and the agony of Borg assimilation.

Marek gasped in surprise and broke contact at this point, but after taking a few seconds to recover from the shock, he resumed contact and Chang found himself reliving all of the time he spent as a Borg drone, right up to the moment that he was telekinetically smashed against a bulkhead by Jaina. Picard's debriefing followed, and then Marek broke contact again. Chang staggered for a moment, regained his balance, and was surprised to see what appeared to be genuine sympathy on Marek's face.

"Commander, I apologize. I had no idea what you'd gone through." he said quietly. "Picard was right, although I would like to know the name of his source. Nevertheless, the Stone of Gol was not destroyed, and I am part of a group that wishes to achieve the goal of reunification with the Romulans. I also believe that the Vulcan peoples' single-minded pursuit of logic has blinded us to certain truths, and that the Romulan and Vulcan people would be stronger together than apart. I can take you to the Stone of Gol."

"Thank you. What about the rebels?" Chang asked.

"Ah yes, of course. You want to contact the Rebels, to co-ordinate their attack with Picard's attempt to decapitate the Imperial chain of command. It may please you to know that I do have contacts with the Rebels, since many of the surviving Romulan ships joined their forces. But there is no need to contact them, because they're already on their way to the site of the battle. They plan to observe from afar, wait until one side is destroyed, and then attack the victor."

"I suppose that will have to do." Chang agreed. "Now, can you show me the weapon? My pilot is probably getting impatient by now."

"Yes, of course. When you meet Picard again, tell him that I hope he finds it useful."

Chang tried to smile, not realizing what a grotesque expression it was on his scarred face. "Thank you, ambassador. I'll do that."

"Admiral, the current tally is roughly twenty seven hundred ships. We also have a half-dozen Golan Arms battle stations at our disposal, the Emperor just sent a brand-new World Devastator, and roughly ten percent of Ring 2's turbolaser emplacements are operational. For all the good it will do against the Death Star, sir." Captain Daron reported.

"Thank you, Captain. Is that a hint of pessimism I detect in your voice?" Kanos asked.

"I apologize, sir. It's just that I can't see how we can win this one. That World Devastator is nice to have in the long-term, but against the Death Star, it might as well be a child's toy. And the Obliterator's superlaser may be nothing to sneeze at, but it's no Death Star blast."

"Understood, Captain. But don't count us out yet. I just might have another card up my sleeve. And even if I don't, I wouldn't want any of the crew to sense pessimism among the command staff. Our odds may be slim, but they'll be even worse if the crew morale goes down. Do I make myself clear?"

Daron wore an appropriately chastened expression on his face. "Absolutely, sir. As far as the crew is concerned, victory is inevitable."

"Very good, Captain. Dismissed." Kanos replied.

Daron turned smartly on his heels and marched back to the bridge, and Kanos turned back to Jaina and Picard. "So, Jaina, do you expect any trickery from Jacen?" Kanos asked.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm sure he doesn't consider you a threat. The only one he fears is the Emperor, so now that he's been exposed, he will try to destroy the wormhole immediately." she replied.

Kanos thought about that for a moment. "He'll probably wait long enough for his command staff to co-ordinate their battle plan, and then he'll commence a frontal assault. At best, we have a day to prepare."

"So how do you plan to stop him?" Picard asked, genuinely curious. After having seen the Death Star up close, he shared Daron's pessimism. Luckily, his conflicted interests were not causing him any more problems than they did against the Borg. The destruction of the Death Star would represent the destruction of most of the Empire's power in this galaxy, so it served his loyalty both to Earth and to Jaina.

Kanos calmly activated a holographic view of the system. "The first step is to make it more difficult for Jacen to destroy the wormhole, so I have ordered K2 station to fire its maneuvering thrusters and change its position. It will drag the wormhole endpoint to a new location."

"It can move the wormhole?" Jaina asked.

"Yes. After the first ring station was destroyed by the Romulans, this one was constructed in record time. We got it up and running only a week ago, but it is functional. You must remember that a wormhole is just a tunnel connecting two points in space-time. It isn't necessary for the end-points to be fixed in place, so you can move one end of the wormhole through space. With the right equipment, of course."

Picard sat forward, his interest piqued. He glanced out the briefing room's window and saw the ring station in the distance, flickering brightly with the massive energy pulses coursing round and round its circumference. Sure enough, it was moving. "So if Jacen comes out of hyperspace expecting to take a shot at the wormhole ..." Picard began.

"It won't be where he expects it to be, and we'll have jammers running at max power. He won't be able to scan the relocation from long range, and we can keep any advance scouts from transmitting. If we're lucky, we'll be able to destroy any scouts before they can get out of range and warn him. I'm also having the station reorient its axis by ninety degrees. Instead of seeing a ring, he'll just see a flat line. He would have to align the Death Star with the ring's new axis in order to take a shot down the wormhole. This will be our only chance to attack."

"What is our attack plan?" Jaina asked.

"Well, this won't be a typical Death Star battle. Tharde won't be able to sit safely inside his shield and pick off our ships at his leisure this time, because we have a superlaser of our own. A full-power shot from the Obliterator's superlaser should create a small breach in the Death Star's shield, perhaps a dozen kilometres wide." Kanos replied confidently, as if this battle would be a milk run.

"So we can fire through it, and pound the surface." Jaina concluded.

Kanos shook his head. "I'm afraid it won't be that easy. The Death Star's shield array is composed of interlocking segments, projected by redundant generators on the surface. The shield operators will immediately move the segments around to seal up the breach, but they'll open up a few seams."

"And we can fire through the seams?" Picard asked hopefully.

Kanos shook his head again. "Maybe, if we can get a clear line of sight to the surface. But even so, it will take far too long to do enough damage that way, and we won't have a lot of targeting flexibility. Besides, once you get past the surface turrets and utility structures, there is some very heavy armour on that battle station, not to mention ray-shielding over anything important. No, we have to get some ships through those seams so they can attack at low altitude."

"What difference would it make to attack at low altitude?" Jaina asked.

"It will be much harder for their defenses to hit our ships at low altitude." Picard answered. He knew that she had little or no tactical knowledge, and so he wasn't surprised at the question. He also knew that Kanos wanted to answer her question, and took some pleasure in saying it first. "At high altitude, a ship is exposed to the combined fire from dozens, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of turrets. But a planetary body as small as the Death Star has a very short horizon at low altitude- only a few kilometres. This puts a low-altitude ship out of range for all but the turrets in its immediate vicinity."

"And at low altitudes," Kanos interrupted, "the turret gunners run the risk of inadvertently hitting the surface when they miss our ships. They also must traverse much more quickly than they would at long range, and they may not be able to depress their barrels enough to hit fighters and small attack ships. There are a lot of things our ships can do once they break through the shield."

Picard shook his head. "Admiral, with all due respect, isn't that the problem? It sounds like you're saying that our ships should carefully slip through a handful of small seams in the Death Star's shield while thousands of turbolaser turrets are firing up at them. They'll have to maneuver very carefully through the seams because the shield will vapourize them on contact, and each seam will become a killing zone."

"I never said this would be easy, Captain. In fact, that's where you come in. The Borg have been driven to the brink of extinction, so you've lived up to your end of our bargain, but I would like to request your assistance one more time." Kanos replied, still cool as ice. It seemed almost as if he had scripted this briefing in his mind, and was simply playing it out.

"You want me to command the fleet?"

Kanos smiled. "That's my job, Captain. But I'm not fighting some backwater pirate group here- I'm attempting to destroy the most powerful battle station ever built. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm pulling in every asset I can find, and that includes about six hundred Federation starships."

Picard suddenly realized where Kanos was heading. "You want me to command these ships."

Kanos smiled. "Naturally. After we confiscated and upgraded the ships, we sent their crews back to Earth. However, in light of this crisis, we recalled most of those crews and restaffed the ships."

"And they agreed to fight for the Empire?" Picard asked incredulously.

"I've taken some measures to ensure their obedience." Kanos explained, in a tone that did not invite further inquiry. "I also made an offer that Earth's central government couldn't refuse. The return of all confiscated property, including all orbital and deep-space facilities and any starships which survive this battle. Permission to operate indefinitely as an independent, self-governed Imperial territory, with no obligatory ties to Imperial government whatsoever, save for a modest trade tax. And the full protection of the Imperial star fleet against any and all aggressors, as befits a lost colony of humanity."

"Lost colony?"

"You don't know? Our peoples don't just look the same- we are the same. Right down to our DNA. I can't explain it, but perhaps some ancient hyperspace explorer somehow stumbled through a wormhole like the one we found, and ended up on your homeworld. In any case, your people and mine are the same."

"I must admit I'm intrigued," Picard said, suddenly more than a little curious about some of the ancient Atlantis myths, "but it takes more than common genetic ancestry to earn trust. Are you sure Earth's government will agree to this deal?"

"Oh, they've already agreed. They've ordered their crews to overlook our past conflict, and obey my orders in combat against Jacen. The simple reality is that if my forces fall, then they will face Jacen alone. If my forces succeed, then the worst-case scenario is that they continue as they are, and the best-case scenario is that I live up to my word and restore their freedom. As I said, I made them an offer they couldn't refuse."

"I see."

"But even though those men have been instructed to follow my orders, I have my doubts. I think they would much rather follow your orders. So I am placing those ships under your command, and I'm putting you on the fleet flagship, the USS Tanaka."

"With all due respect Admiral, I would prefer the Enterprise."

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Captain. The Enterprise is still awaiting repairs. But the Tanaka is fully functional, it has undergone several armour and shield upgrades, and it incorporates that interesting cloaking device of yours."

"All right, but I would like to have my old crew."

Kanos looked rather uncomfortable, and cleared his throat. "Ah, Captain, I'm not certain we will be able to round up all of your original crew in time. There was an ... incident ... with Commander Riker and a couple of the other bridge officers."

Picard's smile faded. "An incident? What sort of incident?"

"Riker, Data, Worf, and a handful of others murdered several dozen men at one of our landing facilities, stole an assault gunship, and disappeared. Apparently, they were displeased at the provisional government's decision to work peacefully with us, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. Your own Admiral Shimizu has publicly condemned their actions."

"Riker, Data, and Worf? I just can't believe that they would do such a thing ... are you sure?" Picard asked.

"I'm afraid so. You can talk to Admiral Shimizu if you wish to confirm it. As for the rest of your crew, I will see what I can do." Kanos answered.

Picard tried to look pleased. "Thank you, Admiral." He got up and turned to go, but stopped himself in mid-stride. "Admiral ... I was just wondering. Why would the Earth government trust your word about Jacen's intentions? How can you be sure that Jacen won't offer them a similar deal, or better?"

Kanos leaned back in his chair. "I've known Jacen for a long time, Captain. He won't even try to negotiate. And your government knows what kind of man he is- they've seen the evidence. They know about the children."

Picard looked at Kanos, and then at Jaina. "What children?"

"Jacen, we-" Tharde began.

"Disrespectful fool! You will address me as Emperor!" Jacen interrupted, with a wave of his hand. Tharde felt his throat constricting for a split-second, just long enough to remind him that he was no longer in command here.

Tharde massaged his throat, and continued warily. "Emperor, we have plotted a course for K2. But I would like to offer my humble suggestion that we should send advance scouts, to see what Kanos has planned for us. One or two fast ships sent in ahead of the main force should give us an idea of what we can expect."

"Tharde, you incompetent fool. One or two ships would only warn Kanos that the attack is imminent."

"But we have no idea how many ships he has, or where they are, or what traps he might have set-"

"I am your Emperor, and this is the Death Star!" Jacen angrily shouted. "Kanos is nothing! His fleet is nothing! I could kill him with a thought ..." he said, his voice thick with menace, "but I will punish his disobedience by forcing him to watch the destruction of his precious fleet before he dies."

Tharde was intimidated by Jacen, but it was madness to engage an enemy without scouting his forces first. "But your Excellency, it is standard procedure to-"

"Are you questioning my orders, Tharde?" Jacen asked, raising his hand slightly.

"No, your Excel ..." Tharde began, choking for breath. He fell to his knees, feeling sure that his life was about to end. Jacen's eyes bored into his, and he felt a damp coldness that seemed to emanate from those eyes and penetrate his body to its core. His mouth opened in a soundless scream, and he felt terror such as he had never felt before, as if something worse than mere death awaited him. But then, as suddenly as it began, the invisible constriction around his throat disappeared. He sucked in a lungful of fresh air, and struggled up to his feet again. "Your Excellency, " he gasped after a long delay, "I apologize most sincerely. We will enter hyperspace at your command."

"Good." Jacen said, folding his arms and gazing quietly out the window of the Death Star's overbridge. Tharde bowed deeply, and then scurried out the door, still shaking from terror.

The fleet was ready, the officers and men had been briefed, the battle plan had been laid out. Phaser and turbolaser batteries were charged, missiles and torpedoes were armed, and mines were set. Chang had finally returned from his mission, and now it was time to sit and wait.

Picard sat down in the Tanaka's ready room and tried to calm his nerves by reading "The Great Gatsby". Kanos' offer of autonomy for Earth and the return of all Starfleet assets was almost too good to be true- if they could win this battle, they would accomplish what might have been thought impossible: the Federation would rise from its own ashes.

He stood up, walked to the window and looked at the fleet, which seemed to stretch out to infinity. Hundreds of Federation starships maintained formation around the USS Tanaka, and in the distance, Kanos' vast armada dotted the inky blackness of space like so many stars. The sight was at once awe-inspiring in its grandeur, and sobering in the realization that all of this was dwarfed by the planet-destroying behemoth they were about to confront. His sombre reflection was interrupted by the door chime.


The door slid open and Counsellor Troi entered. "Captain, do you need to talk about this battle?"

"I don't think there's any need. Everyone has been fully briefed. I'm aware that there are mixed feelings among the crew, but I know that they'll do their jobs."

"I wasn't talking about military tactics, or motivational techniques. The mood among the crew is apprehensive, but they still trust your judgement."

"Then what were you talking about?"

"I think you already know, Captain. You've been through a lot. We all have. Commander Riker, Worf, and Data are all missing. We all know that they saw something that the Empire didn't want them to see, and everyone's worried about them. And we don't trust Admiral Kanos. Someone is blocking my ability to read him, but I don't need telepathy to know that he can't be trusted. Aren't you worried?"

"Counsellor, I appreciate your concern. And I am concerned about Riker, Worf, and Data. But I can't afford to worry about them right now! The Death Star will arrive within hours! If we destroy it and Kanos lives up to his word, we'll regain most of what we lost. Even if he doesn't live up to his word, the destruction of the Death Star is absolutely imperative if we ever hope to have any chance of overthrowing the Empire. But if we fail, then Jacen will kill Jaina and we'll have no way to stop him! This is neither the time or the place to burden ourselves with any extra concerns."

"Actually Captain, I think it is the time and the place. You have many unresolved issues about the Empire, and I sense very strong emotions whenever you think about this 'Jaina' woman. Are you sure that-"

"Counsellor," Picard said, his tone growing stern, "my feelings about Jaina are my concern, not yours. They are not open for discussion. Is that clear?"

"Captain, I don't mean to pry. But this is hardly an ordinary-"

Lieutenant Portugal's voice interrupted her in mid-sentence. "Captain, the Death Star just dropped out of hyperspace and is closing rapidly. Range: twelve million kilometres."

"Acknowledged." Picard replied. He turned to Troi. "Duty calls, Counsellor." He walked swiftly onto the bridge and to his seat. The viewscreen had switched to a long-range tactical display, showing that the Death Star was headed directly toward the ring station's original location. Jacen was just as arrogant and predictable as Kanos predicted- he approached on a perfect firing line down the ring's original axis, and flew directly into a massive minefield, along with a hundred escorting warships flying in rigid formation.

"The Death Star ran straight into the minefield, sir." Portugal reported.


"None to the Death Star. But the escorts are gone."

"Excellent. Now that the escorts are out of the way, signal the fleet. Intercept course. Full impulse!" Picard ordered. "Engage the cloak."

The helmsman complied, and the USS Tanaka faded into invisibility. Picard's fleet raced toward the Death Star, followed closely by Kanos' armada.

"He arrived earlier than we expected, sir. The ring isn't far enough out of location. They've already detected it, and they're changing course to move into firing position. Massive energy spike behind us, sir." Portugal reported.

"That will be the Obliterator." Picard replied. A fifteen kilometre long buildup of energy surged out of the Obliterator's bow, and hurtled past Picard's strike force on its way to the Death Star.

"Superlaser impact in thirty five seconds, sir. We'll be in weapons range in one minute." The crew watched the superlaser beam streak toward the Death Star, as if it was moving in slow motion. "Impact in twenty seconds ..." the helmsman called out, "fifteen seconds ... ten seconds ... five, four, three, two, one, impact!"

The huge green superlaser blast splashed against the Death Star's shield in a flare of energy that would have engulfed Picard's entire force. It seemed to splinter into millions of smaller bolts, which showered through the shield and onto the surface like water spraying through a screen.

"Report!" Picard ordered.

"Fifteen kilometre wide breach in the shield, sir. They're altering their shield geometry to compensate. Widespread damage on the surface, but only limited penetration of the armour belt." Portugal responded, while the computer calmly reported that the Death Star would be in firing position in two minutes.

"Good. Signal the fleet: fire at will. Repeat, fire at will! First wave, into the shield breach after the fleet bombardment."

Aboard the USS Kirktown, Captain Jellico heard the dreaded order come through. He was ready to die for Earth, but it didn't seem quite right to die for Kanos, no matter what promises he'd made. He knew perfectly well what it meant to be part of the first attack wave, and that he would probably never see the skies of Earth again. But this order came down through what passed for the Federation chain of command now, and he had a sworn duty to uphold.

Kanos fleet launched a withering bombardment of the shield now, in hopes of blasting the seams open. More than half a million turbolaser bolts splashed uselessly against the Death Star shield, creating a spectacular display around the breach.

"Fleet bombardment ineffective, sir. No effect on the shield seams." the helmsman reported.

"Damn." Jellico replied. "All right, it's time. Divert all power to shields!" he ordered, as the stripped-down Galaxy-class ship charged for the breach in the shield. More than a hundred other ships from both fleets flew alongside his vessel, all angling and maneuvering to slide through the seams.

"Sir, we're twenty seconds from shield penetration and there's still no defensive fire."

"Maybe that superlaser did more damage than we thought." Jellico replied hopefully. The Death Star filled the viewscreen now, but there was still no defensive fire. The ship slowed to carefully maneuver through the seams in the shield.

"Penetration in five, four, three ... oh no!" the helmsman exclaimed.

"What are you-" Jellico began, but he didn't have to ask. One hundred thousand turbolaser turrets on the surface had been waiting, and waiting, and suddenly opened fire. The swarm of turbolaser bolts intersected at the seams, and they became a murderous killing zone. The last thing Jellico saw was a wall of green turbolaser fire about to engulf his ship.

Aboard the Tanaka, Picard watched the slaughter in dismay. Federation and Imperial ships alike exploded like a string of firecrackers. "It looks like that superlaser blast didn't do as much damage as we'd hoped." he said quietly.

"First wave destroyed, sir. No damage to the Death Star, but the seams are a bit bigger. Probably due to all those warp cores exploding inside." Lieutenant Portugal reported.

"Damn." Picard whispered, not in response to the report but as a reaction to what he was seeing now on the screen. The Death Star seemed to blink green, and suddenly, hundreds of thousands of turbolaser bolts were hurtling toward the fleet, along with one titanic superlaser blast.

"Evasive action!" he shouted instinctively, even though his cloaked vessel was immune to this attack. The massive salvo swept past the Tanaka and through the fleet.

"Aft viewer!" he ordered. The viewer quickly panned over his fleet, showing the glowing debris of dozens of shattered starships. Kanos' fleet had also taken casualties, and there was nothing but empty space where the massive Obliterator had once been. Hundreds of thousands of turbolaser bolts swarmed out of Kanos' fleet and toward the Death Star, and the murderous exchange of firepower began in earnest.

"Jaina ..." he whispered. He fought back tears of grief, then he gathered his composure. "Transmit to the fleet: all remaining waves, advance through the shield during the next break in bombardment. We will decloak and search for survivors from the Obliterator."

"Captain, shouldn't we be advancing with the fleet?" Portugal asked anxiously. The rest of the bridge crew was looking at Picard with the same expression on their faces.

Picard looked back at them. "You have your orders, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir. Disengaging cloak and changing course." Portugal answered reluctantly. "Initiating sensor sweep for escape pods ... the explosion was too violent. No escape pods- wait ... one pod. Trying to lock on with transporters, but there's some kind of interference. Trying to compensate ..."

Picard's heart skipped a beat. "No! No transporters! Engage the tractor beam and pull her in."

"But it will take too long-"

"No transporters, Lieutenant! That's an order!"

"Aye, sir. Engaging tractor beam." Portugal answered. While the tiny escape pod was being drawn into a shuttle bay, he switched the viewer back to the Death Star where the second assault wave had just been blown to atoms. It was with a heavy sense of guilt that Picard realized he had ignored his fleet while they had been fighting and dying.

"Mister Portugal, engage the cloak as soon as you have the lifepod. Inform the fleet that we're going to try to enter the Death Star and destroy its main reactor from the inside. Continue the attack."

The fleet was doing just that. Even as Jaina's lifepod was being carefully tractored into the Tanaka's shuttle bay, the sheer volume of attackers was finally causing problems for the Death Star's defenses. The seams had been slightly widened by the carnage, and a massive cloud of drifting wreckage fell slowly toward the surface. It obscured the defenders' fields of fire and gave successive attackers a tiny but precious edge as they tried to slip through the seams and break through to the inside of the shield, where they could freely maneuver.

While Picard watched, a dozen huge Imperial transports lumbered through the widening gaps in the shield. Each transport was more than five kilometres long and could barely fit through the seams, but they were loaded with durasteel ingots and shield generators. Each transport acted as a blocker for dozens of small attack craft, surviving just long enough to give the small attack craft their window of opportunity to sneak through the breach and begin evasive maneuvers. Hundreds of small craft were now streaking down to the surface, to attack beneath the murderous cross-fire.

"The Death Star will be in firing position in one minute." the computer reported in its emotionless voice. The Death Star had also seized the ring station with long-range tractor beams, forcibly rotating it into a more convenient orientation.

"We've secured the life pod, sir. The occupant is alive and well." Portugal reported.

"Excellent. Engage the cloak and set course for the Death Star's main reactor. Full impulse!"

The Tanaka shimmered and disappeared, then raced toward the Death Star at breakneck speed. The tactical display seemed to show heavy static partially obscuring the Death Star.

"Lieutenant, try to clear up that interference." Picard ordered.

"Dear sweet Jesus ..." Portugal mumbled.

"What was that, Lieutenant?"

"I'm sorry, Captain. That isn't interference. That's about two hundred thousand fighters."

"Did you say ... two hundred thousand?" Picard asked incredulously. In all his time aboard the Obliterator, he had never once launched fighters- they would have been a waste of time against Borg cubes. The sheer numbers were staggering.

"Yes sir. Some from Kanos' fleet, and some from the Death Star. They're dogfighting inside the shield."

The cloaked Tanaka passed through the breach in the shield, and through the burning wreckage of a wrecked Carrack cruiser. Ships were darting back and forth over the surface of the Death Star now, blasting away at the surface and desperately trying to evade the streams of defensive fire coming back up at them. But the Death Star was thickly, massively armoured, and many of its vital areas had their own protective shield systems. A thousand explosions bloomed on its surface, and he could see how badly its surface had been scarred by the superlaser and the subsequent attack. Flames belched from thousands of damaged and destroyed surface structures, and thousands of glowing craters pockmarked its surface. However, the battle station's sheer bulk was so vast that all of this destruction was still not enough. This is taking far too much time, Picard thought to himself.

"The Death Star will be in firing position in thirty seconds." the computer announced.

"We'll be entering the Death Star in five seconds." Portugal reported, just before an invisible force seized the ship. His fingers danced over the controls, but the ship was held firm.

"Lieutenant! What's happening?"

"Sir, we appear to be caught by the combination of a tractor beam and a repulsor beam. We're held fast. I guess the phase cloak isn't immune to tractor beams!" Portugal responded, with a slightly panicked tone in his voice. "The tractor and repulsor beam are pushing the structural integrity fields to the limit ... the hull can't take this for very long!"

"The Death Star will be in firing position in ten seconds." the computer announced.

Picard gripped his armrests in impotent rage as he watched the carnage on the screen. The fleet had lost a third of its ships, and they had failed utterly. The Death Star was almost in firing position. Jacen had won, and he would soon be free to engage his hyperdrive and escape. The handful of ships that had penetrated the shield could be destroyed at his leisure, and he could wait for his shield to completely regenerate before attacking Kanos again. The next time, without the Obliterator's superlaser at his disposal, Kanos wouldn't have a prayer. Jacen would be unstoppable.

The computer spoke again, in a cold, clinical voice which conveyed none of the importance of its message. "The Death Star is in firing position."

Aboard the Death Star, Tharde listened to the controller calmly make the familiar "commence primary ignition" announcement. The vast weaponry of the Death Star pulsed and surged with energy, and if he concentrated, he could almost feel the power throbbing and surging under his control. He held the firing switch tightly in his hands, and felt the familiar rush of almost sexual release as he pulled the trigger to unleash the massive streams of energy under his control.

Aboard the Crimson Blade, Kanos silently watched the energy beams erupt from the Death Star's dished main weapon and combine into a single beam. The blast disappeared silently into the wormhole as if it had never been, but he knew that it was all too real. It would soon emerge on the other side of the wormhole as a dispersed, diffuse flood of energy, and it would destroy everything in its path. The bridge rocked from another direct hit, but he didn't even notice.

"It will probably wipe out everything on the other side, sir." Daron said quietly.

"I know, Captain. I know. Tell me, has the Death Star released its tractor beams on the ring station?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Contact ring station. Tell them to rotate axis until they're laying flat with respect to the Death Star again."

"Sir, what's the point? The damage is already done. The wormhole has been blasted, a third of our fleet is gone, and Jacen might as well pat himself on the back and leave."

"Maybe, but there's a slim chance that we can get the wormhole back if we can keep our side up and running. I have a feeling that he'll try to take out our ring station as soon as he can recharge his main weapon. We've got a couple of minutes at best, so tell the ring station operators to push the engines to maximum safe output." Kanos answered. He had never been so completely defeated before, and it was a terrifying, uncomfortable feeling. The fact that the enemy had overwhelmingly superior firepower didn't assuage his sense of failure at all. He sighed heavily before giving his next order. "Captain ... signal a general retreat."


"You heard me, Captain. General retreat. We're not going to stop him this way."

"But what about the ships inside the shield?"

"They're on their own, Captain. But we have to move out of range before Jacen wipes out the rest of our fleet."

"Yes, sir. Signalling general retreat." Daron answered reluctantly.

Aboard the Death Star, Jacen basked in the glow of victory. He keyed a command sequence on the armpad of his chair to transmit his voice over an open channel.

"Jaina! Jaina, I know you can hear me. I was always better than you, dear sister. You should never have betrayed me." He waited patiently for her response. He didn't have to wait long.

Jaina's face appeared on his viewscreen. "Spare me your gloating, Jacen. And spare me your outrage. You betrayed us!"

"Still loyal to Anakin, eh sister? What about me? Am I not also your brother? Together, we could have ruled this pathetic little galaxy as brother and sister. Look at them! They are worthless! Puny fools who have no idea what power they could wield, if only they knew how! I can't believe you actually consort with them. I should crush that ridiculous little ship of yours, and you with it."

"Then do it!" she barked back. "I would prefer death to the sound of your droning voice."

Aboard the Tanaka, Picard had quietly retrieved the Stone of Gol while Jaina and Jacen had ranted at one another. He cradled it in his hands, but was struck by the sudden realization that he had no idea what to do with it. He knew how to use it against a man standing in front of him, but a disembodied voice transmitted via subspace radio was another matter entirely. He tapped his communicator. "Mister Laforge, how long will the structural integrity fields hold up?" he whispered.

"Two minutes at most, Captain. And when they give out, we'll be crushed like a tin can, phase-cloak or no phase-cloak." Laforge answered from Main Engineering.

"Acknowledged, Mister Laforge." Picard whispered. Jacen was now ranting about having chased Kanos away, and Portugal switched the viewscreen to show Kanos' fleet. He was horrified to see that it was indeed in full retreat, abandoning all of the ships inside the shield and fleeing at maximum speed.

"-and Kanos has now demonstrated his cowardice for all the galaxy to see!" Jacen boasted. "I could kill him, but I think I would rather see him live with his shame."

Jaina was furious. "This isn't between you and Kanos! It's between you and me!" she shouted.

Jacen began laughing now, a mocking, infuriating laugh that echoed through the ship. "And you've lost, dear sister. I have your ship in my grasp. I have scattered Kanos' fleet, and I've had the satisfaction of watching him run like the coward that he is. I have destroyed the wormhole and cut off your only link to our brother Anakin. And now, dear sister, I will have the pleasure of watching you die."

Chapter 19