Chapter Two: Machinations

"All warfare is based on deception."- Sun Tzu

The U.S.S. Carolina tumbled end over end in space, its warp nacelles trailing plasma and flickering debris into the darkness. Flames could be seen burning inside the hull. Inside the bridge, the stench of death and burning flesh permeated the air. Commander Chang sat in his chair, and willed himself to get up and run for an escape pod. But he couldn't move- he screamed silently at himself to get up and run, but his feet seemed to be welded to the deck. He screamed, and railed at the monstrous, implacable starships on his viewscreen. The flames tore through the bridge, and he could feel his body being engulfed in flame. The searing heat ... the pain ...

Chang woke with a start, and reminded himself that he was still alive. The same damn nightmare over and over ... maybe it's my mind's way of telling me I should have stayed on the bridge, he mused grimly. Instead, he was painfuly pulling himself to a sitting position on the hard metallic bed, in a solitary prison cell. And he was wondering what happened to his crew. More than six weeks of waiting, and wondering. I wonder if they want me to die of boredom ...

Suddenly, abruptly, the cell door shot upwards and a man of regal bearing stepped in, flanked by a pair of white-suited soldiers. He reached into his tunic, pulled out a Federation universal translator, and casually threw it on the hard metal floor. It clattered and bounced into the corner of the room, and Chang immediately picked it up.

"Mister Peter Chang, I believe? That's an interesting toy you have there. It took a little while to program it for Basic, but some of your men were kind enough to render assistance." The man was a full head taller than Chang, with black hair that was flecked with white at the temples. He had the bearing of a man accustomed to power and influence, and continued without waiting for a reply. "I am Admiral Kanos, and I would like to extend official greetings from the Empire."

Chang blinked, unsure of what to say. "My crew-"

Kanos cut him off in mid-sentence. "Your crew is alive and well, except for those who were unfortunate enough to perish with your ship, and a small number who were injured during interrogation, before we realized you were not affiliated with the rebels on Kerenos Four. All injured crewmen have been given medical attention, I assure you."

"Injured during interrogation? What right do you have-"

"We have the right granted to us under Imperial law, and you were trespassing in Imperial territory!" Kanos snarled. "In case your memory is deficient, you mysteriously appeared in the midst of a major engagement, and when we tried to render humanitarian aid to your damaged vessel you immediately self-destructed your ship! As far as we were concerned, you were probably a new faction of rebel collaborators." He paused, and his expression darkened. "And as of this moment, we still have no concrete evidence to the contrary."

"Mister, we don't know who you are, who these rebels are, or how we got here. We're just travellers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I want to see my crew now."

"You are hardly in a position to make demands, Mister Chang. But very well, I will take you to them ... after we discuss terms."


"Terms of surrender. Your Federation, to the Empire."

Chang stood dumbfounded. "You can't be serious. We're not even at war!"

Kanos' expression was impassive, but his voice was laden with menace. "Not yet."

"We have no intention of surrendering to anyone, Admiral. And even if we did, I don't have the authority to negotiate anyway."

"Nevertheless, I intend to discuss terms. If not with you, then with the Federation president on Earth. We might also wish to send envoys to the Romulan, Klingon, and Cardassian territories. But I need you, to verify to your leadership that my intentions are genuine."

Chang felt an icy sensation in the pit of his stomach. "How do you know about Earth ... the Klingons-"

Kanos smiled. "Your crew was kind enough to furnish me with an extravagant amount of information once they were properly ... motivated, and our scouting missions through the wormhole have confirmed their reports. It is fortunate that you dropped by when you did, because the wormhole was starting to destabilize and we were forced to use hyperspace tunnelling equipment to stabilize it again. Another week, and it would have collapsed completely."

"And if I refuse?"

Kanos said nothing for an uncomfortably long time, and then said quietly "then I will torture your crewmen to death, one by one, until you agree. I promise you that their deaths will be grisly, and exquisitely painful. If you require a demonstration of my willingness to carry out this threat-"

"No!" Chang blurted out. "I believe you." he sighed heavily, and continued. "I'll come with you to Earth. But I want a guarantee that my crew is safe, I want to see them before I leave, and I expect that they will be released after I fulfill my end of the agreement." Might as well angle for as much as possible, he thought to himself.

Kanos threw his head back and laughed. "Agreement? I like a brave man, Mr. Chang. But there is no agreement. I am dictating terms and you will accept them. But in the interest of humanitarianism, I will agree that no further harm will come to them if you do as you are asked, and I will release you into Federation custody upon the completion of our expedition. The prisoners have been interred on an Imperial base located about fifteen light years from here, and you will be allowed to see them before we leave. But they are prisoners of war, and they will not be released until the Federation surrenders to the Empire."

Sensing that he wasn't going to get anything more, Chang agreed. After changing into a clean uniform, he was herded into a docking bay of vast proportions. A Lambda-class shuttle, looking insignificant in the cavernous docking bay, sat waiting for him. Kanos spoke in an imperious tone. "Commander Chang, I trust that you will not be foolish enough to attempt escape. You will find your restraints to be unbreakable, and your guards to be capable of exercising any force necessary. I trust we understand each other?"

Chang nodded and headed into the shuttle, flanked by a pair of stormtroopers. As the shuttle roared out of the docking bay, Chang caught his breath as he looked out the side windows. The pilot grinned. "Never seen an Executor-class ship up close eh, stranger? They're expensive, but worth it."

Chang said nothing, as he gazed out the window at the gleaming red city-sized behemoth they had just left behind. "What did you say it was called?" he asked.

The pilot was nothing if not talkative. "They told me you're not from around here ... are you from the Corporate Sector or something? Anyway, we just left an Executor-class command ship. It's a battleship, more than seventeen kilometres long, and this one's name is Crimson Blade. They're normally not blood-red like that, but Kanos must have friends in high places, because it couldn't have been cheap to dress up a ship that big. Know what I mean?"

Good, thought Chang. This guy loves the sound of his own voice, so keep him talking ... "What about those other ships?"

"You mean the ships flanking the Blade? They're just regular Star Destroyers, and they're the escort. The rest of the fleet is too far away to see with the naked eye, but it's in formation near the Death Star, over there." He jabbed his finger almost directly upwards, and Chang craned his neck to see. The enormous bulk of the Death Star was clearly visible even at this great distance, and Chang recognized it instantly.

"So they call it the Death Star, eh? Nice name." Chang tried to inject a friendly bantering tone into his voice.

"That's right. I've been in the fleet for eight years, and I never thought I'd get to see them fire that thing off. But when I got transferred to this outfit, I just knew I'd get to see a planet blow sooner or later, and boy, did I ever! Did you see it too?" The pilot grinned his toothy grin again, and Chang felt sick to his stomach. Billions of lives ended, and this snickering pilot thinks it's funny! He tried to calm himself. "Yeah, I saw it ... heh heh" he laughed weakly. "So, how does it work?"

"Do I look like Bevel Lemelisk to you? It's got the biggest superlaser ever built, and it blows the planet up. What's to know?"

"But does it use a nucleonic chain reaction, or a subspace inversion, or does its reactor-"

"Hang on a minute, buddy. We've cleared traffic and we're ready for the jump. Here we go!" The pilot pulled a lever, and Chang watched as the stars blurred into streaks of light and collapsed into a swirling vortex. Obviously not warp drive, he thought to himself. After a couple of minutes, he pushed the lever back, and they abruptly decelerated back into realspace, in orbit over a planet.

"Are we ... there already?" Chang asked hesitantly.

"Of course. It's only fifteen light years, and it's a good space lane. Hell, I could make it from here to Dantooine in less than six hours" the pilot bantered. Chang's mind was racing. Fifteen light-years in less than 2 minutes! It would take more than 3 days at warp 9 ... He stared glumly at the floor. The Federation doesn't even know what's coming. Perhaps if I'd tried to fight instead of abandoning ship. Perhaps if I had self-destructed the ship without evacuating, so they wouldn't have any prisoners to interrogate ...

The shuttle suddenly rocked violently. The pilot swore under his breath, and began frantically operating the controls. "We're under attack! Going to active scans ... I'm picking up a half-dozen corvettes, one light cruiser, and four squadrons of fighters. They're pounding the hell out of that base down there ... they must be trying to rescue the prisoners. Time to get out of here ..." He reached for the lever, but he never made it. Chang heard the sound of an energy weapon being discharged, and the pilot fell to the deck in a crumpled heap. It came from one of the stormtroopers, who coolly targeted and fired upon the other trooper before the stunned man could react. He fell lifeless to the floor, and the gunman coolly stepped over the corpse and unlocked Chang's binders.

Chang tried to keep his composure. "Is this a rescue?"

"Damned right" came the reply. The stormtrooper removed his helmet and spoke quickly. "We're grabbing you, your crew, and about five thousand other prisoners at the base. They just set it up a few weeks ago, and they don't have their shield up and running. This is our only chance to pull this off cleanly. I just hope no one got any distress calls out before we got the jammers going ..." Over the next fifteen minutes, the small group of starships and transports extracted the prisoners, tractored the shuttle into a docking bay, and demolished the base with exacting precision.

After debarking from the shuttle, Chang was quickly escorted to the cruiser's bridge to watch the operation unfold. He stepped onto the bridge to face a reptilian creature, sitting in the command chair. The creature stood, extended a webbed hand in greetings, and croaked "Greetings, Commander Chang of the United Federation of Planets. I am Captain Ruk. Our operation is nearly complete, and you will be able to speak with your crew shortly. The transports are almost away-" He was cut off by a screeching alarm klaxon.

"Super Star Destroyer coming out of hyperspace! It's coming in fast, it's red ... it's the Crimson Blade!" a crewman barked. "I don't know how he knew, but Kanos is here!"

Captain Ruk responded immediately. "Break formation, prepare to jump! The Blade is accompanied by an interdictor cruiser, but it will take at least twenty seconds for their gravity well projectors to fire up. Protect the transports until they can make the jump!" The rebel starships fired their maneuvering thrusters and their engines bloomed to full radiance as they quickly moved to fill the gap between the transports and the Crimson Blade. Vast swarms of starfighters were boiling out of the Crimson Blade and its escorts, and the emptiness of space was quickly filled with the radiant flashes of exploding fighters and dying men.

The rebel ships performed their grim duty, and placed themselves directly in the line of fire. Their turbolasers fired long-range shots at the Crimson Blade, a useless gesture against the larger vessel's powerful shields. To the gunnery crews on the Crimson Blade, it didn't matter whether they scored kills on corvettes or transports, and they did not hesitate to return fire. Their heavy turbolaser batteries quickly targeted the hapless Rebel corvettes, and enormous bursts of green radiant energy filled the empty void between them and their targets. Commander Chang watched in dismay as a coruscating green blast of energy struck a corvette and completely vaporized it. The Crimson Blade's gunners were among the finest in the fleet, and their accuracy was unerring. They fired again, and a second corvette sublimated into a cloud of durasteel vapour. And a third. And a fourth. But by now, both transports had made the jump to hyperspace, and the battered remains of Captain Ruk's force escaped with them.

Chapter Three