Chapter Three: Plans and Portents

"Agitate the enemy to learn his patterns."- Sun Tzu

A small group of starships drifted in a desolate region of interstellar space. A pair of bulky 5 kilometre long transports formed the bulk of the group, and they were accompanied by a 1.2 kilometre long light cruiser and a pair of badly damaged corvettes. Worker-bots flittered about from place to place upon their scarred hulls, patching the ships' numerous wounds. Aboard the cruiser, Captain Ruk contemplated his future. It was all so hard to accept sometimes- after a thousand generations of peace, Emperor Palpatine had plunged the galaxy into civil war and caused the deaths of billions. After he was finally destroyed and his Empire driven to surrender, many hoped that Skywalker and his New Jedi would usher in another thousand generations of peace. But it was not to be.

"Mr. Chang, these are dark times for our people. We are ruled with an iron fist by Emperor Anakin Solo, son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. It was not always like this- Anakin Solo was originally elected a Senator, like his predecessor Palpatine. He proved to be a good leader, and successfully maintained order over his territory even as regional flare-ups plagued the other regions. But when his beloved and elderly parents were both murdered while attempting to negotiate a peace treaty between two warring systems, Anakin became enraged. He blamed the non-interventionist policies of the New Republic for their deaths, and many in the Senate agreed with him. With their help, he instituted a massive rearmament program, ostensibly to restore the credibility of the central government and crack down on criminals, terrorists, and local warlords who had gotten out of hand."

"But he went farther than that, right?" Chang was starting to expect the worst at every turn. The stories he was hearing- Death Stars obliterating planets, millions of planets, millions of starships, billions of deaths, Galaxy Guns, World Devastators, Suncrushers ... he would have been inclined to think it was all the ravings of a madman, except that he had seen a Death Star in action with his own eyes. The level of carnage and devastation in this galaxy's history was unmatched by anything in his experience.

"Correct. He decided that a weak central government would eventually lead to total anarchy, and he used hundreds of localized conflicts to justify his claims. Some local territories refused to accept his harsh policing requirements and a few openly defied him. That was all the excuse he needed to declare martial law. He began brutal crackdowns on rebellious systems, claiming that they were responsible for heinous criminal acts and that this gave him the right to take whatever action he felt necessary." Ruk's scales rippled slowly as he said the words. Chang wondered what the rippling might mean in Ruk's society. He guessed it meant sadness, but he had no idea what the reptilian creature might be thinking. Its slimy, scaled appearance still disgusted him, but he forced his revulsion aside.

"Captain, I sympathize with your plight, but why are you interested in me and my crew? And as long as we're on the subject, where is my crew?" Chang couldn't help but wonder what was happening back home, and whether he and his ship had been written off for dead. For all he knew, the Empire was already wreaking death and destruction in the Alpha Quadrant.

"Still suspicious, eh Commander? Well, I can't say I blame you. Your crew is being rescued as we speak. My commandos are storming the prison complex now- you see, we didn't have time to invade the complex and free the prisoners back there, so we simply tractored the prison complex buildings into the cargo holds of our transports and escaped. The Empire's pre-fabricated outposts can be useful sometimes- they're modular, easy to drop, and easy to pick up. Come, let me show you." A viewscreen flickered to life at Ruk's console, showing a group of buildings which looked rather incongruous in a vast cylindrical cargo hold. It was surrounded by what appeared to be a swarm of ants, but Chang knew that they were men, and that some of them were dying. Flashes of green and red blaster energy could be seen clearly even on the small viewscreen, and it was clear that the Imperial prison guards were determined to fight to the last man.

Without turning from the viewscreen, Chang quietly said "Captain, you still haven't explained why you are interested in my crew, or why you were willing to risk the lives of your crew to rescue us."

Captain Ruk sat back in his chair and his shoulders slumped. "The reason is simple, Commander. You are our last hope."

Chang couldn't believe his ears. "Captain, surely you must be joking. What makes you think I can help you? I don't even have a ship!"

"No, but there have been a lot of high-level Imperial troop and ship movements related to your presence. I have taken that to mean that they consider you a threat, and that I should consider you a possible ally. Am I mistaken?"

"Maybe. We should talk, Captain. After I see my crew."

It was many days before Chang sorted through the survivors of the crew. 500 left, from a crew that originally numbered 1500. He shuddered to think of the fact that they told him more than 300 crewmembers had "disappeared" during interrogation, and that their guards had begun executing prisoners when they knew they had no hope of escape or victory. After surreptitiously learning as much as they could about their new galaxy and their new hosts, his technical staff was finally ready for a briefing.

"Commander, we've developed a pretty good picture of what we're dealing with. This civilization is distinctly unlike our own. Their ships contain almost no creature comforts, and are designed for pure war. As far as we can tell, they don't even carry any scientific crew at all! The cultural differences are interesting, but nowhere near as interesting as the genetic profiles. There is a disturbingly strong similarity between the DNA of their dominant race and human DNA. Further testing is necessary. In fact, they might even be identical! We have no idea how-"

"Spare me the anthropology and biology, Lieutenant. I'm interested in their weapons. What can you tell me about them?"

Lieutenant Portugal cleared his throat and began speaking slowly, with the air of a man delivering news of a death in the family. "Their propulsion system is amazing, sir. I'm still not sure exactly how it works, but depending on the route, they appear to be capable of covering a hundred thousand light years in as little as a day. They call it hyperdrive, and it seems to involve some sort of transition to tachyonic state, or possibly a transition into a subspace domain we haven't discovered yet. I don't have enough information to know for sure, but the speed is incredible. I can't even begin to calculate the amount of power it must take to hold a ship together at such speeds, never mind ships as big as these."

Commander Chang thought about the latest Federation projections on power requirements for transwarp speeds and above, and grimaced. "Yes, Lieutenant. I was aboard one of their shuttles- I noticed the speed. But if we can't outrace them, maybe we can outmaneuver them. Have you learned anything more?"

"Yes, sir. They are almost totally sensor-blind while in hyperspace; they can only detect large masses directly ahead of them, probably due to the tremendous speed. They travel as much as two hundred times faster than subspace sensor packets, so they can't really see very much ahead of themselves, and we won't be able to see them coming. This means that they have limited control while in hyperspace, so they have to calculate a safe path before they jump. This requires complex navigational data which would ordinarily require time-consuming scouting operations, but the Empire seems to have already acquired as much navigational data as the Federation has."

"What? How could they possibly get so much navigational data so quickly? The life pods don't carry full navigational data." Chang felt his blood pressure rise, and wondered how much work the Empire had already done in Federation space.

"We don't know, sir. Our hosts also have this data, apparently from whatever intel source they had inside the Empire's command structure. I wasn't able to determine where the Empire got the data from, but I got a look at the files and they appear to have originated from the Federation. There's no way they got it from the wreckage of the Carolina- the primary destruct reduced the ship to stray atoms. But some of the files refer to an information broker named Quark. Possibly a code name, or possibly someone in Federation space that they've co-opted."

"Quark? I know that name ... I'll be damned if I can remember where I've heard it before, though. Well, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that they have the technology and the information they need to move about Federation territory at will. This is not what I wanted to hear, Lieutenant. I hope you have some encouraging news about their weapons."

"Sir, we have made some inquiries into the weapons, but the gunnery crews we talked to aren't very knowledgeable about the physics. They're technicians, not scientists. However, I can tell you that it's some kind of high-energy particle pulse weapon. I can't give you precise specs, but I'd guess maybe ten isotons per shot. Roughly two seconds to recharge, although the crew admits their systems aren't running at optimum."

"That's not bad but we can handle it. If the ship can only fire a ten-isoton shot every two seconds-"

Lieutenant Portugal grimaced. "Ah, I'm afraid you don't understand the situation, sir. Those figures are for one gun. This ship has sixty of these guns, all capable of targeting and firing independently. This ship is small by their standards, but it's still almost twice the size of a Federation Sovereign-class ship, and it's got guns all over the place. It's also got a half-dozen heavy guns which are good for at least a thousand isotons per shot. The big ones even sport their own redundant backup power sources, in case the ship should lose main power. This decentralized design approach applies to their entire shipbuilding philosophy- they use hundreds of decentralized computer systems and androids rather than a single all-encompassing computer system, and they have separate shield generator and projector systems for various parts of the ship."

"Wonderful. So it's armed to the teeth and designed to fight until it's almost totally destroyed. Would you say it's like a Borg ship in this regard?"

"Not quite, sir. It still has a central reactor system, without which they cannot replenish their shields or maneuver. This reactor can be attacked and destroyed by an aggressor, provided he can penetrate their shields. I wasn't able to learn much about their shields, but they seem to use separate particle-shield and energy-shield systems. That's obviously different from what we use, but it may be similar to Borg shield technology. Borg drones carry energy-shields but not particle-shields."

"Do you have any idea how much pounding their shields can take?"

"No, sir. But since they are designed to withstand extended combat with enemy starships which carry similar or superior armament ..."

"I get your point, Lieutenant. So they can move around our territory at will and their ships are extremely powerful. I sincerely hope you have some good news to tell me, because right now it really doesn't look good."

"I've learned some encouraging things about their sublight propulsion technology, sir. Their sublight acceleration is good but their maneuverability is low. This particular ship has fairly well-distributed armament, but I've learned that the Empire's ships carry all of their heavy weapons on the dorsal side of the ship, so that less than ten percent of their firepower can be directed to their ventral side. Also, they have trouble targeting ships which are extremely close to them, due to a problem with overlapping fields of fire. So a small, maneuverable vessel like the Defiant might be able to maneuver close to an Imperial ship's ventral hull surface without taking too many hits."

"That's the good news? Well, I guess it's better than nothing. What about that Death Star?"

"You saw as much as I did, Commander. It blew a planet apart pretty easily, and some preliminary calculations have revealed that at a minimum, you'd need at least three hundred trillion quantum torpedoes to pull that off. At our current rates of production, it would take us, oh, a few million years to build that many. I don't know where they get all their resources from. They must have thousands of planets ... maybe millions."

"Lieutenant, I don't like what I'm hearing. Your job is to find a weakness, and help me exploit it. And my job is to somehow get us home, so we can warn Starfleet. You have your assignment- find me that weakness. I'll go speak to our hosts."

Admiral Kanos sat in his command chair, swiveling slowly from side to side. His visage was wizened with age, but his eyes still gleamed with unseen and unknowable machinations. "Any word, Captain?"

"No, sir. Those ships could be anywhere by now." Captain Daron was fidgeting visibly.

"I'm not surprised, Captain. They pulled off their little operation quite competently- if we had appeared one minute later, we never would have seen them at all."

"Admiral, if I may speak freely-"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Admiral, if you suspected that some surviving rebels might try to attack our outpost, why did we delay our arrival? Why didn't we target the transports or the light cruiser? We could have destroyed them all, sir." Captain Daron delivered the words with the pained look of a man who was afraid his outburst would cost him dearly. But he was not a man to keep his feelings to himself, and Kanos valued this quality in a man. Mindless obedience was ego-building but virtually useless in a subordinate.

"We didn't target the transports or the light cruiser because I didn't want our new Federation friends killed. They may yet be of some use to us, Captain. But I think that we damaged them badly enough to force them into hiding for a while. I suspect that they are not totally incommunicado- they undoubtedly have a method of contacting other resistance cells ..." His voice trailed off into silence, and he gazed out into space quietly for a long time. Captain Daron stood stiffly at his side, trying to decide if he should break the silence or await the Admiral's convenience. Eventually, Kanos spoke again.

"Captain, the legendary Grand Admiral Thrawn once said that one should examine all obstacles carefully, for with a little patience, they can be turned into levers. Did you ever hear that?"

"No, sir. But it sounds like something he would have said. Admiral, I'm afraid I don't understand where you're going with this-"

"Captain, have the strategy planning team on Vestrun lay out plans for an assault upon the Federation homeworld, using one Executor-class command ship, fifty standard Star Destroyers, and one hundred heavy troop transports."

"Only one command ship and fifty Star Destroyers, sir? If we're going after their homeworld, why stop at fifty? We could even use the Death Star. The tunnel's stabilized, and they've enlarged it enough to squeeze the Death Star through."

"I have my reasons, Captain. One Executor-class command ship and fifty Star Destroyers." Kanos was in one of his scheming moods again, and he generally volunteered very little information when he was in such a mood. Captain Daron had learned that Kanos' schemes usually worked even if they seemed like insanity at the time, but he wasn't about to stop asking questions or pointing out problems as he saw them.

"Very well, sir. However, I am obliged to point out that our intelligence sources are close to locating a mole in the Vestrun command structure. We are certain that the location of the Federation prisoners was leaked from there. Any plans drawn up at Vestrun may quickly become rebel knowledge, sir."

"I know, Captain. I know."

Chapter Four