Chapter Twenty: Closing the Circle

Captain Picard ran to keep up with the medical team as they rushed to sickbay. "Doctor, how long?" he asked.

"We'll do the best we can." Crusher mumbled absent-mindedly. She was completely absorbed in her patient's situation, and Picard's question had barely registered.

"Beverly!" he said loudly, to get her attention. "How long has she been pregnant?"

"It's hard to be precise ..." she began, clearly still concentrating on her patient, "but it's very early. Maybe a month, maybe less. She probably didn't even know yet." she answered tersely, as they reached sickbay. As soon as she entered, she began barking orders to her staff, which was already preparing to operate.

Picard followed her into sickbay and watched from a distance as her team jumped into action. Maybe a month, maybe less ... he thought to himself. "That sounds just about right." he whispered, so quietly that none could hear.


Daron presented a datapad to Admiral Kanos. "Admiral, the evacuation of the Death Star is proceeding on schedule. Approximately seventy percent of the nonessential personnel are already out, and the rest are in the process of boarding transports and lifeboats."

"Good. With any luck, we'll be able to repopulate the station once they get everything under control. Report status of Death Star main reactor."

"Half the control systems are inoperative, sir. They kept it from cooking off by throttling back to minimum idling power, but there's still too much damage. It could go at any time. The station has minimal propulsion and a handful of working defense grids but that's it."

"What about hyperdrive?"

"It's shot. At best, it will take weeks to get it running again. They're not even working on it, because the reactor and defensive systems have priority."

"Of course. So we're down to a thousand ships, a dead ring station, and a Death Star that's so badly damaged that it's more of a target than a threat."

"We've also got the World Devastator, and a hundred or so Fed ships, sir."

"Oh yes, I almost forgot about that. But I still don't like it. That planet smasher won't be useful until it chews through a good sized planetoid, and we don't have time to wait. The Fed ships might come in handy, but I have doubts about their loyalty. We're pretty damned vulnerable, and we've made more than our share of enemies."

"Yes, sir. But the situation isn't that bad. The locations of major threat forces are known, and there are none close enough to threaten us. We should be able to get the Death Star situation under control before anyone can get here."

"Before anyone we know of can get here" Kanos corrected him. "Increase fighter patrol density around the Death Star. What about the wormhole?"

"I'm afraid we can write it off, sir. Ring station reports that it's gone unstable. The other end lost its anchor so it's flailing around wildly in spacetime, and this end is already starting to contract. The whole thing is shrinking and it will eventually disappear."

"Wonderful. So what happens if we go in there?"

"Sir, we might get crushed or torn apart if it closes on us before we can reach the other end. We would have to leave the Death Star behind because the wormhole is already too small. And since the other end is moving around in spacetime, we could end up anywhere. The wrong galaxy, a billion years too early or too late, the middle of a black hole cluster or a quasar ..."

"Thank you, Captain. I get the picture. So, we're stranded here."

"They're still working on it, sir."

"But there's no way of telling how long it might take to re-establish a connection, or whether they can do it at all. No, Captain, we shouldn't raise false hopes."

"Are you going to address the men, sir?"

Kanos sighed heavily. "Yes. They have the right to know."

"So ... what's the plan for the future, sir?"

Kanos thought about that for a moment. "We stay with the original plan. We were about to fortify our beach head and assimilate Federation assets, and that's still the best course of action. We need to build a base of power in this galaxy from which to operate. Contact Jaina. I take it you've been keeping an eye on her, and her ship is still intact?"

"Yes, sir. The Tanaka stayed well out of range the whole time."

"Good. While we're waiting for her to contact us, we still have her brother to deal with. We may have Jacen bottled up on his yacht, but we should be careful not to underestimate him."

"Shall we destroy the yacht, sir?"

"No. We've got to make sure he's in there. Use assault shuttles to board the yacht, and have them send camera droids inside. As soon as they get verification that he's on board, pull them back and then destroy the ship."

"Yes, sir." Daron replied, before walking away to execute the orders..

Kanos settled down to compose his address to the troops, but he couldn't escape an uncomfortable sense of foreboding. His forces were extremely vulnerable right now, and he couldn't help but feel that someone would show up to take advantage.


Aboard the Tanaka, Picard had returned to the bridge. The bodies had been cleared away, new officers had taken the places of the dead, and Geordi was delivering the bad news. "Captain, we've tried everything in the book. We just can't break through the command lockout. We have no helm control, no weapon control, no shield control, no transporters, no sensors ... we don't even have any external communications."

Picard grimaced. "That is unacceptable, Mister Laforge. Have you tried shutting down the computer and restarting it?"

"Yes, sir. However, the command lockout extends to maintenance functions. We can't restart the computer."

"There's too much automation on the new ships." Picard grumbled. "This wouldn't have been a problem on the Stargazer. We would have gone to manual override from Main Engineering."

"Unfortunately sir, we don't have that option."

"What options do we have?" Picard asked irritably.

"Well sir, we could simply wait. You said that Imperial officers have root access, so Kanos figures out something is wrong, he'll probably try to override our control systems remotely. He can break the lockout for us."

"I'm afraid that won't be good enough, Mister Laforge. The situation is worse than you realize. If we don't have helm control, we have less than ten minutes to break the command lockout. We can't assume that Kanos will try to contact us before then."

"Ten minutes, sir? Why the time limit?"

"Because in ten minutes, we're going to fly into that wormhole."

"Sir? But why-"

"We knocked out the transport's engines and left it coasting through space. Then we matched speeds with it, before Jacen boarded the ship and locked out the computer."

"Oh my God ... since the transport was still coasting toward the wormhole ..." Geordi began.

"We're also coasting toward the wormhole. And without helm control, we can't change course or slow down."

"But the wormhole is destabilizing!"

"Exactly, Mister Laforge." Picard said in measured tones which belied the gravity of the situation. "You now have nine and a half minutes. Dismissed!"

"Yes, sir." Laforge saluted and immediately sprinted out of the room, tapping his communicator and barking instructions down to Main Engineering as he ran.

Picard tapped his communicator. "Captain Picard to sickbay. Doctor, how is your patient?" he asked.

"She should be dead, Captain. We've detected some kind of psionic energy in her body. It's keeping her and the baby alive, but I don't know where it's coming from or how long it's going to last. We've got to remove the fetus and put it in stasis until we can find a suitable surrogate mother."

"So they're both alive?"

"For now, Captain."


"Jacen's not on the ship." Captain Daron reported glumly.

"Are you sure?"

"The camera droids couldn't find anything, so we sent stormtroopers in there. They searched the ship from bow to stern and came up empty. Nobody but the pilot."

Kanos' jaw set. "Damn." he said quietly. "So we've lost him."

"Maybe he was killed in the attack, sir."

"I don't think so, Captain. If he was killed, then who gave the pilot the access codes? That yacht has more booby traps and security measures than a class one design facility."

"So he must have given out the codes, and then he must have left on a different ship."

"Exactly."

"One of the transports?"

"Presumably. But there are thousands of transports, and no way to figure out which one he's on. We could try interrogating the pilot, but he might not know. Unless ..." Kanos paused as if struck by a revelation.

"Sir?"

"Didn't you say that the Tanaka pursued and disabled one of the transports?"

"Yes sir." Daron replied with a gleam in his eye. He turned to one of the communications officers. "Contact Jaina immediately."

Before the officer could send the transmission, one of the sensor operators sounded an alarm. "Unidentified ships dropping out of hyperspace at the edge of the interdiction field!"

Kanos sat bolt upright. "I knew we were too vulnerable." he growled. "Battle stations! Protect the Death Star at all costs!"

The remnants of the Imperial fleet immediately moved to block the attackers, and the fighters swiftly raced toward them like a swarm of angry insects. However, the Federation ships separated themselves from the rest of the fleet and began moving away.

"The federation ships are ignoring the order, Admiral."

"I'm shocked." Kanos said sarcastically. "One warning, Captain. Give them one warning."


Aboard Admiral Ruk's cruiser, Commander Riker stood at one of the weapons control stations. "We got here ahead of the Romulans, sir. I don't think we gave them enough of a head start. We're also a little off course. The Death Star is at roughly three ten degrees mark thirty five."

"We're not off course." Ruk replied. "I held a conference with the subgroup commanders and we revised the plan while we were waiting to time the jump."

"What were these ... revisions?" Riker asked warily.

"Commander, Kanos has been evacuating the Death Star because it is dangerously unstable. There are thousands of transports and lifeboats massing directly ahead of us. All full of soldiers and techs who are crucial to his war effort." He flipped on his transmitter. "This is Admiral Ruk to the fleet. ll fighters stay in formation until the Romulans arrive. All capital ships are to target the transports and lifeboats."

Riker wore a look of confusion. "Transports and lifeboats? Is this your idea of a diversion?"

"Who said anything about a diversion? We're destroying them." Ruk replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "The Romulans will undoubtedly drop out of warp heading straight for the Death Star, so they can support the other half of this attack when they arrive. In the meantime, we will commence the destruction of the transports and lifeboats."

Riker's expression hardened. "Why wasn't I told about this?"

"You had the conn while I was in conference with the others. This revision was drawn up at the last minute when we realized he was evacuating the Death Star, so we didn't have time to tell you. For what it's worth, I apologize."

"Those transports- are they armed?"

"That's the best part. They're emergency evacuation transports. They have shields, but no weapons or hyperdrives. They'll be easy pickings."

"So they're helpless. Admiral, you're talking about killing millions of defenseless human beings!" Riker protested heatedly.

"No, I'm talking about eliminating part of the enemy's infrastructure." Ruk growled. "Defenseless or not, they're legitimate strategic targets. By attacking them, we guarantee positive results for this battle even if we fail to destroy the Death Star. They represent maximum damage for minimum risk. Standard military doctrine, Riker."

"Maybe in your military, but not mine. This goes against all recognized humanitarian conventions of war. Human beings haven't been this savage since our twentieth century!" Riker insisted adamantly.

"Don't be ridiculous, Riker. The Empire doesn't observe these conventions of yours. Why should we? Why should anyone?"

"Because otherwise, we're no better than they are. We should be capturing them, not slaughtering them."

"And I would love to capture them, but we don't have the time or resources." Ruk replied, clearly wearying of the discussion. "We've got to hit them hard and then get out while we're still able. And speaking of time, we'll be in range soon. We don't have time to debate this." Ruk replied.

"So we should debate it after you murder millions of unarmed people? What are you going to do, destroy those transports and then ask everyone if they thought it was a good idea? And what do you think the Federation ships in this fleet will do? Do you think they'll fire on unarmed transports, just because you order them to?"

Ruk was obviously irritated. "Maybe I was wrong about you being a good rebel, Riker. You still don't get it, do you? We're guerilla fighters! We have no industrial base, and precious few resources. Victories will be difficult enough to come by without worrying about your delicate sense of ethics. If the other Federation officers are smart, they'll follow orders. And if you can't deal with that, you can consider yourself relieved of duty right now!"

Riker stared at him, then raised his head and stood ramrod-straight. "I won't be an accomplice to this crime, Admiral. You'll have to find yourself another commander." He swiveled on his heels and stalked off the bridge.

Ruk stared after him in disbelief for a few seconds and then shrugged his shoulders. He swiveled his chair to face one of the other officers. "Pollus, you're the new first officer. Target the big ones first." he ordered.


On the bridge of the Crimson Blade, Daron reported on the status of the transports. "Our transports aren't fast enough to get away, sir. They haven't got a chance. Shall we move the fleet to intercept?"

"No. Intel says Ruk's gathered a lot of Romulan ships, and I don't see any. This is obviously a diversionary attack, designed to draw us away from the Death Star. I want the fleet right here when the Romulans arrive."

"Yes, sir." Daron said, and at that very moment, as if on cue, a hundred Romulan warbirds dropped out of warp. "You were right, sir. Romulan capships dead ahead." he reported. "They're coming in hard, and Ruk's fighters are breaking formation and heading straight for the hole."

"How many fighters do we have?"

"Including the Death Star squadrons, about forty thousand total."

"More than enough, especially with half of his forces engaging the transports. Bring our fighters in to tighten up over the hole." Kanos ordered. "We don't want to let so much as one enemy fighter get by us. And move us closer to the Death Star. The Crimson Blade will block the hole, and the rest of our capships will throw up defensive fire."

"Aye, sir. So we hang the transports out to dry?"

"I don't see that we have a lot of choice, but I've got an idea. Who's taken charge of the Fed fleet?"

"They seem to be getting their marching orders from some guy named Captain Sisko, sir."

"Never heard of him."

"Me neither, sir. He's ignoring our hails. Shall I send the remote destruct sequence?"

"No, not yet. We could use their help." Kanos said, flipping on his transmitter. "This is Admiral Kanos to Federation fleet. You are ordered to defend the transports. Acknowledge."

Aboard the USS Defiant, Sisko sat in silence. The rest of the crew wore expectant looks on their faces, wondering if their captain would respond, but he merely stroked his chin and brooded.

Kanos transmitted again. "This is Admiral Kanos to Federation fleet. Those transports are unarmed evacuation vessels. They carry millions of people, some of whom are civilians. We have our hands full here, so it's up to you. Their lives are in your hands! Acknowledge!"

On the bridge of the Defiant, Kira broke the tense silence. "I could handle attacking the Death Star. Anything to get rid of that monstrosity. But now we're being asked to help Kanos defend it!"

"Not quite, Major. We're being asked to defend helpless transports." Sisko responded.

"He could defend them himself. He's got more than enough firepower." O'Brien interjected.

"He's got enough firepower to destroy these attackers in battle, but that won't be enough. He has to throw up a watertight defense over that hole in the Death Star, and that won't be easy. Besides, the Romulans are coming in fresh, and his ships have suffered serious damage."

"We're not responsible for his priorities." Kira objected.

"That Death Star represents the bulk of his military-industrial base, Major. He doesn't have any choice. But we do." Sisko replied slowly.

"You're not thinking like a resistance fighter." Kira retorted. "If we extend aid to the enemy, even unarmed transports and lifeboats-" Kira began.

"We'll be fulfilling our oath as Starfleet officers." Sisko interrupted.

"Sir, you can't be serious!" Kira retorted with a look of astonishment on her face.

Sisko was about to reply when O'Brien interrupted them both. "Sir, I'm receiving multiple distress calls from the transports."

"On audio, Chief."

O'Brien complied, and the sounds of battle could soon be heard. Scraps of tactical reports mixed with alarm klaxons, desperate calls for help, and screams of agony and death. The bridge crew sat in silence, listening to the carnage.

"One of the big transports just went up, Captain."

"How many people on board, Chief?"

"Maybe a hundred thousand, sir."

Sisko fumed and wrestled with his emotions, then he came to what historians would someday refer to as a pivotal decision. "Damn it, I'm not going to sit here while millions of defenseless people die. Battle stations!"

"I can't believe we're letting Kanos manipulate us." Kira muttered under her breath.

"I heard that, Major! But it doesn't matter whether we're being manipulated or not. If we sacrifice our principles, then we don't deserve to wear this uniform. Chief, inform the other ships, we're going in!"

The Defiant's engines flared to full brilliance, and it peeled off toward Ruk's fleet. One by one, the other ships followed the Defiant's lead, charging directly toward Ruk's forces.


"The Fed ships are engaging the rebels!" Daron reported. "I don't believe it!"

"I do." Kanos replied with a smile. "I've come to realize something about these Starfleet types. All that nonsense about human rights, humanitarian principles, and conventions of war ... they actually believe it!"

"Well, either way, they're hitting the rebels pretty hard, and the rebels have turned their fire from the transports to the Fed ships." he studied the tactical displays. "Part of the rebel fleet is made up of Fed ships. They're refusing to fire on their comrades ... they're pulling out of formation ... they've turned against Ruk's fleet! This is working out beautifully!" he exclaimed excitedly.

"I wish I could say I planned that." Kanos said with a smile.

"The Fed ships are still outnumbered, sir. They can't win."

"They don't have to, Captain. They just have to last long enough for us to destroy these fighters and get rid of those Romulans." As if to punctuate Kanos' words, a Romulan warbird rammed the Crimson Blade's shields about five kilometres ahead of the bridge. The bridge windows momentarily darkened to dim the bright but silent flash, and the two men knew they would feel the distant vibrations in the deckplates soon.

"We're hit amidship, sir!" one of the tactical officers reported. "Shields impacted but still holding."

Kanos noticed an increasing volume of fire being directed at the Romulan warbirds. "Tell those damned gunners to concentrate on the fighters!" he ordered angrily.

"Sir, we just lost another Star Destroyer. If we don't throw up enough volume of fire at them, the Romulans-" Daron began.

Kanos interrupted him in mid-sentence. "The Romulan capships are a diversion. They can't fly into the superstructure, but the fighters can! Stay the course, Captain. And tell me when the last fighter has been destroyed."


Aboard the Tanaka, Captain Picard had no way of knowing that a battle was raging behind his ship. The main viewer was blank, and with no external communications, he was effectively deaf and dumb. His primary concern was the ship's safety, and that was very much in doubt. He tapped his communicator. "Mister Laforge, are you making any progress?"

"Not really, sir. We've only come up with one idea, and you're not gonna like it. We could physically dismantle the computer modules one at a time. The system can only reroute to redundant modules for so long, and then it'll crash. When we reassemble everything, it should come up to defaults."

"How long will this take?"

"That's the part you won't like sir. About thirty hours."

"We have five minutes, Mister Laforge. Not thirty hours."

"I know, sir. I'm sorry. I wish there was some other way."

"So do I, Mister Laforge. Picard out." he said solemnly, tapping his communicator. "Computer, how many escape pods do we have?"

The computer responded immediately. "There are zero remaining escape pods."

"That's impossible. Run a level two diagnostic on the pod status sensors."

The computer beeped. "Diagnostic cycles can only be initiated by authorized command personnel."

"Damned lockout." Picard grumbled. "Give me a visual on one of the escape pod hatchways."

The computer beeped again. "Internal visual sensor control is restricted to authorized command personnel."

"All right, give me an external visual on one of the escape pods."

The computer beeped yet again. "External visual sensor control is restricted to authorized command personnel."

Picard suppressed an urge to shout profanities at the machine, and tapped his communicator. "Mister Laforge, the computer reports that we have no escape pods. Can you verify this from main engineering?"

"I don't need to, Captain. All of the lifepods were used when the fleet was captured by the Empire. I thought you knew about that."

"Damn." Picard whispered to himself. He tapped his communicator. "I know now, Mister Laforge. So we can't abandon ship. Do we have any shuttles?"

"Just an Imperial shuttle in bay two. The one that belonged to that black-robed psychopath. But it's not very big, and it could be booby trapped for all we know."

"Thank you, mister Laforge. Keep working on that lockout. Picard out." he said, tapping his communicator. He turned to Commander Chang. The man's injuries were mostly repaired, and it was no longer quite so difficult to look directly at him. "Commander, I need you to take a security team and check out Jacen's shuttle for booby traps."

Chang snapped to attention. "Yes, sir."

Chang marched into the turbolift, and Picard tried to settle into the captain's chair. However, he was startled by the sudden appearance of Jaina in front of him. She seemed to be immaterial, floating above the ground and suffused with an ethereal glow.

"You must save our son, Jean-Luc."

Picard looked around the bridge, and it was obvious no one else could see or hear her. "Jaina ..." he whispered tentatively, wondering if he was losing his mind.

"It's me, Jean-Luc. I've come to say goodbye, and ask you to take my son away from here." she answered.

"Goodbye?" he whispered, and he realized. She's dying! "Peters, take the conn. I'll be in sickbay." he barked, and he ran to the turbolift.

Her ghost appeared in the turbolift with him. "There's nothing you can do. I have to go now."

"No," Picard protested. "not yet!"

"I have to go, Jean-Luc. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am, about everything ..."

"Jaina ..." he whispered in hushed tones, as if he were afraid someone were listening. "I love you."

"No, Jean-Luc. You don't. I made you think you loved me, so I could get what I wanted. I manipulated you, Jean-Luc." she said with a mournful expression on her face.

"But why?" he asked, feeling betrayed and yet still somehow smitten with her.

"I wanted your DNA, not your love. I'm so sorry, Jean-Luc. Please forgive me. Please save our son. He is the key. He is the key to everything. I have to go now, Jean-Luc. Farewell." she looked away from him, and faded away.

"Jaina! Jaina, come back!" he pleaded, but she was gone. The turbolift doors opened, and he raced to sickbay. He burst through the doors to see Doctor Crusher trying to resuscitate her.

"Doctor," he began.

"I'm busy, Captain." she answered, not even bothering to look up.

"Doctor, she's gone. Let her go."

"I don't tell you how to do your job, Captain. Don't tell me how to do mine!" she snapped, still not looking at him.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, and then he thought better of it. He collared one of her assistants. "The baby. What happened to the baby?"

"The fetus is alive and in stasis, Captain." she said, pointing at a small stasis chamber in the next room.

He looked at the stasis chamber. The fetus inside wasn't yet recognizable as human, but it was alive. My son! He seized the assistant by the arm. "Nurse, the Doctor is too busy to help me, but I need someone to transfer the fetus into a portable stasis chamber. Immediately."


Ruk gripped his armrests to steady himself, as another quantum torpedo exploded against his forward shields.

"Forward deflector shields are almost gone. A couple more hits, and we'll lose 'em." one of the shield operators reported.

"Helm, bring us around. Try to protect our forward quarter." Ruk ordered. "And somebody get rid of those damned fast attack ships. Especially the one with this Captain Sisko on it."

"Sir, they're in too close to the hull."

"And we sent all our fighters into the Death Star, so we have no cover." Ruk growled, as another blast rocked the bridge. "I should have known something like this would happen. Ever since that lunatic Chang tried to capture my ship." He gestured at one of the communications officers. "Get me the Jem'Hadar."

"Jem'Hadar fleet commander on audio, sir."

"This is Ruk. We need tactical support against the Federation ships. They're becoming a serious impediment to this mission, and they must be eliminated."

The smooth, cloying voice of a V'orta came back over the audio channel. "Of course, Admiral. It will be a pleasure to help destroy the last vestige of Starfleet."

Ruk shut off the transmission with a smile. "Excellent. And now that the Federation ships have turned against us, we should hunt down Commander Riker and his friends. They should be-" he was cut off by a series of alarms.

"The main computer is down, sir." Pollus reported. "The turret gunners are switching to independent targeting control."

"We haven't suffered any other damage. How did they take out the computer?" Ruk wondered aloud.

"Unknown, sir." At that moment, a series of explosions rocked the ship, triggering more alarms. "All of the shield generators are down, sir! Even the backups!"

"All of them at once? How could they take out all of the shield generators at the same ..." Ruk began, and then he realized. "Sabotage. It's Riker!"

"Are you sure, sir?"

"I'm sure. Security alert! I want him shot on sight!" Ruk raged.

"Too late, sir. Somebody just blasted his way out of docking bay three."

Ruk looked to his left, and saw an Imperial assault gunship accelerating rapidly away from his ship. Scattered turbolaser blasts tracked the ship, but with limited accuracy.

"Sorry, sir. Targeting accuracy isn't too good without the main computer. We lost him."

"And he's left us defenseless. I'll make him pay for this," he growled, but he knew he had more pressing matters to deal with. "Helm, get us out of here. The fleet will have to make do without us."


Picard walked into shuttle bay two, carrying a portable stasis chamber. He saw that Chang was waiting for him. "I left Peters in command. Have you checked it out?" he asked, pointing at Jacen's shuttle.

"She's clean, sir. Carrying a full load of fuel and a rack full of missiles, too."

"Good." Picard answered, activating the manual override to open the shuttle bay door. He showed Chang the stasis chamber. "We can't evacuate the entire ship, but I want you to take this stasis chamber onto that shuttle and get out of here." He paused, and then added, "This child is crucial to the future of humanity." although he wasn't entirely sure why.

"Sir, you're the only man on board who was trained on Imperial control systems. I barely know how to operate-"

"Commander, I'm the Captain of this ship. My place is on the bridge. Now get on board. That's an order!"

"Yes, sir." Chang answered reluctantly. The two men boarded the shuttle, and Picard gingerly belted the stasis chamber in place. He moved over to the control panel and slid into the command chair, his fingers flying easily over the controls.

"I'm punching in the co-ordinates to send you to Earth. It's all on automatic pilot. All you have to do is push this button, and the ship will start up an automatic sequence, closing all exterior hatches, checking all systems, and then flying to its destination." Picard explained. He started to get up. "Once you get there-"

Something crashed into the back of his head, and he slumped back down into the chair.

"Sorry, Captain. But if this stasis chamber is as important as you say, then this shuttle had better have a qualified pilot." Chang said to Picard's unconscious body. "You can court martial me later, if I survive." Chang said, punching the button.

The shuttle's engines whined and the startup sequence began. Chang rolled out of the hatch as it closed, falling onto the hard metal deck. He lay on his side and watched the Imperial shuttle glide out of the shuttle bay, its wings gracefully extending and its engines flaring. It flew a short distance away from the ship and then abruptly accelerated away into hyperspace, disappearing in the blink of an eye.

He got up and ran to the nearest turbolift. "Helm, this is Chang. How much time do we have?"

"Two minutes, Commander."

"I'll be there in thirty seconds."

Thirty seconds later, he charged onto the bridge. "What's our situation?"

"Still no control, sir. One and a half minutes to go."

"I don't suppose Mister Laforge found a way around that command lockout yet."

"No, sir. But we're still getting hails from the Crimson Blade. They want to know why we're not responding."

"Come on, Kanos! Figure it out!" he hissed at the blank viewscreen.


Daron was pleased to deliver good news. "The rebel attack is falling apart, Admiral. The last attacking fighter has been destroyed, and the Romulan capships are withdrawing."

Kanos smiled broadly. "Excellent." He thumbed his communicator console. "Cruiser groups one and two, regroup and attack the rebels at the transport staging area. All Death Star fighter squadrons are to provide support." He turned to Daron with a broad grin. "It looks like we pulled this one out, Captain."

"I hope so, sir. But we have a problem."

Kanos' smile faded. "What problem?" he asked, warily.

"Jaina's ship, sir. She's still not responding to hails, and they're headed straight for the wormhole."

Kanos pointed at one of the communications officers. "You! Send a remote query immediately. Has the Imperial command override been used?"

"Yes, sir. Authorized by Jacen Solo, sir."

Kanos threw his datapad to the ground in disgust. "I knew it! That bastard must have somehow killed Jaina and taken her ship. Send the remote destruct code!"

"Sending the code, sir."

Kanos watched the tactical display, waiting for the Tanaka to wink out of existence. But to his surprise and dismay, nothing happened. The Tanaka continued to cruise toward the wormhole at an inexplicably sedate pace, as if the remote destruct code had never been sent. He groaned inwardly. "Of course. Jacen's access overrides mine. All right, let's try it the old fashioned way. Captain, do we have any fighters close enough to take 'em out before they go in the wormhole?"

"No, sir. They'll be gone in about ten seconds, sir."

Kanos didn't bother replying. Instead, he watched the tactical display with an impassive expression on his face. The Tanaka and the transport both cruised slowly into the wormhole, and disappeared before his eyes.

"Damn that Jacen. What's the chance he'll make it home, Captain?"

"According to Ring Station, zero. He'll either be destroyed or thrown millions of light years out of location."

"Well, that's a small comfort, I suppose." Kanos slumped heavily into his chair, holding his head in his hands. "But that slime killed Jaina. All those years of protecting the Imperial family, and I was fighting a pack of Romulans while Jacen killed Jaina and took her ship, right under my nose."

"I ... apologize, sir." Daron said tentatively. "We should have tracked the Tanaka more closely, maybe realized that something was wrong."

"I don't blame you, Captain." Kanos said with a heavy sigh. "If you must cast blame, look at Sith arrogance. Jacen had a transport, and Jaina had a warship. She could have destroyed him easily, but she must have allowed him to board her ship. Probably thought she could kill him in one of those damned lightsabre duels." He stood up and walked toward the bridge windows, looking at the bright flashes of the distant battle.

"Um, the news isn't all bad, Admiral. The battle goes well." Daron reported. "Ruk disappeared, and the rebel ships aren't doing too well without his leadership. Now that our ships are reinforcing the Fed ships, we've got 'em on the run. Shall we pursue?"

"No, Captain. Let them go."

"Sir?"

"Let them go, Captain. Our number one priority is defending our position. Now, as for the Federation fleet ..." his voice trailed off, and his expression became contemplative.

"They certainly came in handy, sir. Shall I send the remote override? We could use every ship we can get our hands on."

Kanos waited an uncomfortably long time before answering. "No. If Jaina's gone, then I'm in charge. That means I'll do things my way. No more Jedi, no more Sith lords, no more holy wars and vendettas. Just ordinary human beings like you and me, trying to build an empire. It's time to set an example."

"I thought that was the plan. To use them as an example."

"We're not going to set that kind of example, Captain. I'm going to honour the deal."

"We're giving up control?" Daron asked incredulously. "But we've made all the preparations! And what about Earth? We have millions of troops down there, and the Earthers are easy prey! They've got no militias, no standing armies, no privately owned weapons. We can take the whole planet-"

"No, Captain. My Empire will be known as one that honours its agreements. In time, the people of Earth will come to see us as a valuable ally, especially now that they've sided with us in battle. They've made themselves a lot of enemies today. They need us, and with the manufacturing facilities on the Death Star and that World Devastator, we can rebuild faster than they can. Besides, I won't turn Earth into a battlefield."

"Why not?" Daron asked stubbornly.

"Earth is the birthplace of humanity, Captain. Call me a sentimentalist. And if I'm the supreme leader of the Empire now, then my whims are law."

"But Admiral, Coruscant is the birthplace of humanity. These Earthers are probably the descendants of refugees from our galaxy."

Kanos arched an eyebrow. "Are you sure, Captain? When we first arrived, I did some research into Federation records. They've got enough physical evidence to convince me that they evolved here. On Earth."

"What are you saying?" Daron asked warily.

"Once you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains must be the truth, correct? We're genetically identical. They can't be our descendants. So that means we must be their descendants. After all, the origins of our civilization are so ancient that they've passed into myth. There are no records. No physical evidence."

"But sir, how could that possibly happen? You told me that as recently as five hundred years ago, the Earthers didn't even have computers! How could they have colonized Coruscant hundreds of thousands of years ago?"

"How the hell should I know? All I know is that it must have happened somehow, and that's good enough for me. There will be no battles on Earth. The people of Earth will join us of their own volition, all in good time, because it will be the smart thing to do. And now, contact the head of Earth's provisional government. It's time we negotiated with our distant cousins, in good faith. It's time we came home."

Epilogue



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