Chapter Five: The Test Begins

"Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him."- Sun Tzu

Commander Chang staggered into the smoke-filled bridge, pushing his way past damage-control teams. An acrid, foul-smelling gas was leaking into the room from a gaping hole in one of the bulkheads, and he could only hope that the fumes weren't toxic to human physiology. He lost his footing on the slippery deck and flailed out at a handrail, but fell heavily to the floor. He looked down, and saw with horror that his hands had plunged into the steaming intestines of a dead body. Recoiling with disgust, he dragged himself to his feet and attempted to wipe the bloody entrails from his hands. The stench of death was overpowering. The familiar sights and sounds of war, he thought. It's hard to believe the Klingons find this sort of thing exhilarating. He saw Captain Ruk on the other side of the bridge and shouted over the din. "Captain, how bad is the damage?"

Captain Ruk did not acknowledge him for a few moments, as he attempted to co-ordinate damage-control efforts. Eventually, he passed Chang and stopped long enough to speak. "We will survive, Commander. That is enough, and it is more than I can say for our escorts, both of which were destroyed. Now if you will excuse me-"

"Yes, I was told about your first officer's sacrifice. I'm very sorry to hear of the tragedy."

Ruk bowed his head momentarily. "Thank you, Commander. And now, I have matters I must attend to." He turned to walk away, but Chang moved slightly to stand in his path. "Captain, I need more information if I'm going to warn the Federation. Your first officer used his hyperdrive even though we were pulled out of warp- er, hyperspace, by an interdiction field. I thought that it was impossible to engage hyperdrive in an interdiction field."

Ruk grumbled to himself for a moment, and then reluctantly stopped to glare balefully at Chang. Chang, knowing the importance of gathering as much information as possible, stood his ground. When Ruk finally spoke, he spoke slowly, as if speaking to a small child. "We were pulled out of hyperspace by an interdiction field. But the interdictor cruisers can't project their gravity beams in all directions at once, and they had no idea what our approach vector would be. They had a lot of space to cover, so the fields weren't very strong and we overshot the interdiction field perimeter by a large margin before we slowed down to normal sublight speed.

"But still-"

Ruk cut off his objection. "We have better sublight acceleration than the interdictor cruisers, and we also had the benefit of starting out with a lot of initial velocity, while they did not. They were oriented away from the wormhole, so they had to rotate one hundred eighty degrees and then accelerate, essentially from a dead stop. We simply outran them, until the fields were weak enough to engage hyperdrive. It's risky to make a hyperjump even in the outer fringes of an interdiction field, but that's irrelevant if you plan to crash into another vessel. B'Rom fought bravely, and made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our survival. And now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do." With an air of impatience, he began to walk away.

"I see" Chang nodded, while silently adding this last piece of information to his growing mental catalogue of Imperial technology strengths and weaknesses. He felt that he was starting to get a basic grasp of the tactical strengths and weaknesses of hyperdrive, but he was still curious about many aspects of their technology, particularly the technology they had used to stabilize the wormhole. The trip back through the wormhole was accompanied with none of the sickening physical discomfort of the first trip- perhaps their technology protected them from the distortions, or perhaps the wormhole's stabilization eliminated the problem. If only we knew more about how their propulsion technology works!

He chased after Captain Ruk, who seemed to be ignoring him. But with only a few minutes left until they re-entered the Alpha Quadrant, every piece of information was precious. "Captain, I need to know more about your technology, and I need to know now. First, I need information on-"

With a blinding speed that Chang never expected, Captain Ruk's right arm flashed toward Chang's neck. Before Chang could react, powerful reptilian fingers were closing around his throat, blocking the flow of oxygen to his brain. He struggled to pull Ruk's fingers away from his throat, but the alien creature's strength was staggering. Ruk hoisted Chang up into the air like a rag doll, and Chang began to see black spots clouding his vision.

"You stand amid the bodies of my crew, Chang! Have you no respect?" Ruk roared. "How dare you interfere with my duties in your search for information? Don't lie to me, Commander. I see through it. I see through you! You don't expect us to survive, so you interfere at this crucial time to gather enough information for a burst transmission! You have even placed your men so that they can seize control of our communications gear on your orders! I know your plans ... do you take me for a fool?"

With this final taunt, Chang felt himself being hurled through the air. When he slammed into the bulkhead, he heard the impact rather than feeling it. His body seemed to go numb, and he collapsed to the floor in a heap. Moments later, the pain began to flow, as if slowly released from a floodgate. It started as a trickle, and slowly increased to a torrential flood. He rolled over in agony, and clutched at the area of his lower back which had borne the brunt of the impact. As he lay there, panting and groaning, Ruk continued to berate him. He could barely hear the tirade over his own miasma of pain and his jumbled thoughts. How did he know? Have they been tracking us? But Ruk wasn't finished thundering at him.

" ... so if we die trying to help you, then we die! But don't dare presume to give me orders on my ship! Arrogant mammal ... your lack of respect sickens me. Is this what we can expect of your Federation?"

Chang could not muster a reply, and simply lay on the floor. When he finally struggled to his feet, he spied Ruk halfway across the bridge, talking to his helmsman. He fought back an impulse to attack Ruk, knowing that he was no match for the powerful alien. Instead, he slowly moved towards Ruk and decided that it would be best to smooth relations rather than alienate a potentially crucial ally. With his voice still hoarse, he managed to wheeze out a few words. "Captain, whatever I do, I do to protect my homeworld ... I meant no disrespect ... The safety of my people ..."

"Human, you may ask for information. But the next time you demand anything, I will crush you with my bare hands. We have already sacrificed much to help you- perhaps too much." Without waiting for a reply, Ruk turned and stalked toward his captain's chair. He began to bark orders at his crewmen. "We are approaching the wormhole terminus. Raise shields and prepare to engage hyperdrive evasion pattern as soon as we drop to sublight!"

Chang gripped the handrail and waited. Too soon, the wormhole's flickering colours reverted back into the familiar star-speckled blackness of normal space. He groaned inwardly as hundreds of enormous warships immediately became visible. But just as the enemy vessels began to hurl their devastating barrages of turbolaser fire at Ruk's ship, the stars before him elongated into streaks of light and the ship passed into hyperspace. Ten seconds later, the ship dropped into realspace, executed a sharp turn to starboard, and jumped into hyperspace again. Several more abrupt, short hyperspace jumps followed of varying lengths, and then the vessel cut its engines and began to drift. Interesting evasion technique, he thought to himself.

"Kanos' ships aren't likely to find us now. We're lucky they didn't have an interdiction field up and running- they must not be able to communicate with the other side of the wormhole." Ruk said to no one in particular. He turned to his helmsman. "Lay in a course for the Federation homeworld, as soon as you have achieved a fix on our location." Chang waited patiently as Ruk's crewmen scurried about the spacious bridge. The task of reprogramming the navi-computers for an entirely new galaxy was daunting but not impossible, and Chang was surprised at how little time passed before he heard a crewman announce that the navi-computer had successfully identified their position and plotted a course to Earth.

Captain Ruk smiled and cocked his head slightly. "Engage."

The stars elongated into brilliant streaks of light, and Captain Ruk's badly damaged starship leapt into hyperspace. Chang sat back against the wall and slowly slumped to the floor. His back still ached, and he would need to talk to the doctor. But he had succeeded- the glow of accomplishment almost compensated for the pain of Ruk's attack. We're going to get home ... I never thought we would make it. He smiled inwardly and walked haltingly, painfully toward the rear of the ship, to speak to his crew. A passing crewman stopped long enough to give a few words of advice.

"Earther, you need to learn some diplomacy skills."

The USS Enterprise pulled itself free of Earth Spacedock, and began to cruise away from Earth. Captain Picard settled back in his chair, eager to be away from the bonds of Earth's government bureaucracy and free to roam the vast reaches of interstellar space. No longer did Picard derive any pleasure whatsoever from revisiting Starfleet Headquarters. The Dominion War had helped the hawks climb in power and status: callous, hard-bitten veterans who tallied up body-counts like abstract scores in some sort of game, and who were all too enthusiastic to send more young men and women into the killing fields. Picard couldn't wait to leave them behind. "Helmsman, set course one fifteen mark three five, warp six."

The helmsman turned around slowly, and smiled an all-too-familiar self-satisfied grin at Picard. "Of course, Mon Capitaine. But some interesting things are about to happen right here- are you sure you don't want to stay a while?"

Picard felt his blood pressure skyrocket and he growled his reply from between clenched teeth. "What do you want now, Q?"

Abruptly, the Enterprise's real helmsman reappeared in a flash of light, and Q vanished. Picard impatiently drummed his fingers on his armrest, waiting for Q's inevitable theatrics. He didn't have to wait long. With another of his trademark flashes of light, Q appeared in full Arabian garb, sitting with crossed legs upon a floating Persian rug. "Oh, Mon Capitaine! Is that any way to greet an old friend? Whenever we meet, it's always the same! 'What do you want now, Q? What is this all about, Q? Why are you here, Q?' Why don't you ever ask how I'm doing? Or whether I'm truly happy with my existence?"

Picard was never particularly fond of Q, and he certainly wasn't growing fonder. "I don't have time for this, Q. Either say what you have to say, or get off my bridge!"

"Oh so prickly, Mon Capitaine! You should really learn to relax- maybe if you weren't so tense, you would still have your hair!"

Picard's anger was rising now. "Q, get-"

Q disappeared again, and reappeared on the Enterprise's main viewscreen. This time, he was wearing an unfamiliar military uniform, and appeared to be standing on the bridge of an alien spacecraft. His voice boomed out from the Enterprise's bridge audio system. "You spend entirely too much time in that ready-room of yours, Picard. Can you seriously be meditating and reading Shakespeare all that time? Or are you fantasizing about that woman you found in the Briar Patch? I wonder what you really do behind that closed door, Captain." A lascivious smile spread across Q's face.

Picard felt the hot rush of blood flowing into his face, and he was furious at Q for publicly mocking him in front of his crew again. Doesn't a godlike being have better things to do than torment me? "Main viewer off!" he barked. Q looked mildly offended as his image winked from view, but he reappeared almost instantly. This time, he came striding out of the turbolift in the uniform of a Starfleet admiral.

In an imperious tone, Q boomed out in a stentorian voice: "The good citizens of Earth are about to face another test, Captain. And this time, you will not personally serve as humanity's proxy defender. Humanity will stand or fall based on the actions of Starfleet Command. A time of great darkness is coming, Captain. I personally expect you to fail this latest test- the arrogance of the human race is truly astounding, and it will bring you down this time. But then again, you have surprised the continuum before." He leaned closer to Picard, and whispered in his ear: "I'm going to bend the rules and give you a hint: at the most critical juncture, you may find that the most obvious action is the wrong one." And with another flash of light, he was gone.

"Q!" Picard bellowed. "I am tired of your games! Get back here and ... tell ..." his words trailed into silence, as he and every other officer on the bridge stared at the viewscreen. With no warning, a huge starship had suddenly appeared on his viewscreen, and it was heading directly toward the Enterprise.

Picard's mind was racing. Do they have a cloaking device? How could they just appear without tripping the early warning systems? But even as his mind began racing with questions, he began issuing orders instinctively. "Yellow alert! Raise shields!" The alarm klaxon sounded as his crew leapt into action. With Q's warning still ringing in his ears, Picard wanted to tread cautiously. This alien spacecraft had made no overtly aggressive moves, but he knew full well that starships did not normally travel under cloak without sinister intent. "Data, report!"

"Captain, the alien vessel's subspace signature does not match any starship type in the database. Its technology is completely alien to us. It is approximately twelve hundred metres long and eight times our mass, with dozens of separate weapon emplacements. We are scanning traces of neutronium and several unknown elements in the hull, but it is difficult to obtain accurate scan data because they appear to be operating some kind of sensor-jamming field. Their hull shows signs of severe damage, with numerous large breaches. I am detecting several large plasma leaks, and more than half of their weapon emplacements appear to be inoperative. Their shields are raised, and their weapons systems are armed."

Picard stood arrow-straight, and stared intently at the behemoth on the viewscreen. "Thank you, Mr. Data. Arm phasers but do not lock on target. Let's not provoke them- this is a standard first contact situation." he said cautiously.

"Hailing, sir. They are responding."

"Put it on main viewer."

A man in a Federation uniform immediately appeared on the viewscreen. "Captain Picard, this is Commander Chang of the USS Carolina."

Data turned in his seat. "Captain, the USS Carolina disappeared over six weeks ago, following a battle with Jem'Hadar warships. The ship and its crew were presumed lost in action."

Picard straightened his uniform and turned back toward the main viewscreen with a quizzical expression on his face. "Commander, I have just been told that you're dead. May I presume that my information is in error?"

The man on the viewscreen smiled weakly. "Yes, Captain. I'm alive, and so are many of my crew. But Captain Trent was killed in action, and the Carolina was destroyed by hostile forces. We chased a Jem'Hadar battlecruiser through a wormhole and found ourselves in another galaxy, halfway across the universe. We found ourselves in the middle of a major battle, and were caught in the crossfire. The Carolina was destroyed, and we were captured. As you can see, we escaped and found ourselves an alternate ride home."

Picard allowed himself the luxury of a smile. "I see. Your new accomodations are interesting, to say the least. Do you think your benefactors would be willing to lower their shields and disarm their weapons? We take a dim view of heavily armed starships cruising about within firing range of Earth."

Chang looked embarrassed. "Our hosts are ... shall we say, somewhat guarded. They insisted on dropping into realspace with shields raised and weapons armed, but I may be able to convince them to relax a little bit. Let me see what I can do."

"Do your best, Commander. If your hosts would like to choose a representative, we can beam you down to Earth for a full diplomatic welcoming committee."

"I'll see what I can do about the shields, but Captain, my hosts don't have transporters and are unwilling to undergo the transportation process. I've explained it to them, and they appear to have some sort of religious or philosophical objection to the concept."

"I see. Are they in possession of a shuttlecraft? Perhaps they would be amenable to visiting Earth the old-fashioned way."

"Apparently, they would rather not leave their ship. My new hosts are ... difficult to deal with, Captain. Perhaps it would be best if I simply transport to Starfleet Headquarters with some of my command crew. I have extremely important information, Captain. Information which is vital to the survival of the Federation."

After six hours of intense briefings, Chang had briefed Starfleet Command on what he knew.

"Commander, are you absolutely sure that there is no possibility of diplomatic resolution?" Admiral Keyes was one of the few "doves" left in Starfleet Command. His voice had been increasingly ignored during the Dominion War, when the hawks had effectively taken control.

"Yes. Hundreds of my crewmen were tortured to death while in captivity, and I witnessed the destruction of an entire planet with my own eyes. I don't think that there is any possibility of negotiation with such an enemy."

"Then you feel we should attack the wormhole and close it."

"Yes, sir."

"And you are comfortable with the fact that this will put the Federation in the position of being the aggressor in this war? I remind you that this Empire hasn't taken any aggressive actions in Federation territory yet, despite more than six weeks of lead time."

Chang was incredulous. "No aggressive actions? Captain Trent is dead. Our ship was destroyed. Hundreds of crewmen were tortured to death! How can you-"

"I remind you that all of those events occurred in their territory, where you were unwelcome invaders. I appreciate your feelings, but those events do not constitute acts of war against the Federation."

"Admiral Keyes! With all due respect-" Chang began to protest, but was cut off by the President.

"Gentlemen, I appreciate Commander Chang's concerns, and I agree that based on the information at our disposal, this Empire should be considered an extreme threat. However, I do not feel that we should adopt the position of drawing first blood. That would run counter to the entire philosophy of the Federation. Moreover, our allies and enemies in the Alpha Quadrant will perceive us in an entirely different light if we attack an enemy who has thus far taken no direct action against us. This is a serious quandary, gentlemen. I will not unilaterally start a war."

Admiral James "Bull" Halsey, a barrel-chested, grizzled old war veteran, chose this moment to stand. Even the President stopped to hear what he had to say, for Halsey was a man of no small repute among the military. He claimed to be a direct descendant of another Admiral Halsey, who served with distinction in the American Navy hundreds of years ago during the 20th century's so-called Second World War. Like his predecessor, he was blunt, gruff, and aggressive. And like his predecessor, he was ill-suited to peace time and well suited to warfare. Keyes resented Halsey's growing prominence in Starfleet Command but grudgingly acknowledged his brilliant military successes.

"Mr. President, I have an alternate plan."

Captain Ruk was startled by the shimmering humanoid form that suddenly appeared on his bridge. "Chang?"

"Yes, Ruk. I'm back."

"Something which looks like Chang is standing on this bridge, but you aren't Chang. You're a clone."

"More of that religious nonsense, eh Ruk?" Chang's demeanor of subservient humility had evaporated now that he was in the presence of Starfleet Command.

"You can call it nonsense if you wish. But my perception of time, space, and life extends beyond yours. You are but the latest in a long line of transporter clones created from the corpse of the original Commander Chang. The original Commander Chang has been dead for years."

Chang was growing irritable, and he didn't like the air of confidence and finality in Ruk's voice. "Enough philosophical discussions, Ruk. The Empire is coming, and we intend to stop them. We need your ship."

"My ship? For what?"

"As you can imagine, we're not confident that we can destroy the Imperial installations on both sides of the wormhole, to shut it down. Instead, we theorize that a cascaded combination of inverse graviton and chroniton particles may set up a first, second, and possibly third-order harmonic oscillations in some of the subspace strata of the wormhole. A carefully calibrated pulse emission may create these harmonics. We've determined that the subspace distortions caused by a hyperspace jump will amplify the pulse and modulate-"

Ruk cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Spare me this nonsensical technobabble, Chang. How does my ship fit in to your long-winded plan?"

"The device will only work in conjunction with a hyperdrive unit. It might take years to study your hyperdrive technology and adapt it to your ships, and we don't have the time. We need to close that wormhole now, before Kanos can send thousands of ships through. We will install a special device aboard your ship, after hollowing out some of the aft section. We will jump to the wormhole, and activate the device at its end-point. The pulse should set up the subspace harmonic, and destabilize the wormhole." Chang suppressed a smile. This plan would solve all of the Federation's problems in one fell swoop, without having to pull hundreds of ships off the front line. In spite of his gruff demeanor and wildly aggressive style, Admiral Halsey could still come up with beautifully crafted schemes.

Ruk locked eyes with him, and for a moment, Chang had the distinct feeling that something was probing at his mind. Ruk closed his eyes, and when they opened, they were full of rage. "Your thoughts betray you, human. You forgot to mention that you aren't sure this will work, so you want to use our ship to keep the Empire from determining who launched the attack! You also forgot to mention that this special device of yours will release this energy pulse by exploding like a bomb, and taking our ship with it! Do you take me for a fool? You lied about the Federation's size and strength. You lied about wanting to help us. You want to destroy our vessel and close the wormhole to rid your precious Federation of a potential threat, don't you? You may think that your actions are justified to save a few hundred worlds, but I am trying to save an entire galaxy! You sicken me, Chang. Your deceptions never end."

Chang tried to suppress his shock. Damn it- is Ruk telepathic? "Captain, I assure you that this is not the case at all."

"Silence!" Ruk thundered. "Get off my bridge now, or I will kill you where you stand."

Chang sighed heavily, and tapped his comm-badge. "Chang to Earth Spacedock ... " he paused for a few moments, " ... Blitzkrieg."

Dozens of Federation marines suddenly materialized aboard the bridge, with weapons pointed at key personnel. Chang pulled out a hidden hand phaser and pointed it directly at Ruk's head. Too late, Ruk reached out again with the Force. He reached deep enough into Chang's mind to know that more than two thousand Federation marines had boarded his ship in various places, and were attempting to seize control of his vessel. He could faintly hear the sounds of combat as the Federation troops ran into stiff resistance.

"Mammalian filth! This vessel is more than one hundred years old- it has survived more than fifty fleet engagements, and I value it far more highly than I do your life!" Captain Ruk was enraged, and he seemed to be trying to burn a hole through Chang with his glare.

"I'm not impressed by your blustering, Ruk. I don't enjoy having to do this, but you leave me no choice. The safety of the Federation is the only thing that matters to me."

"On the contrary, Earther. You do enjoy doing this. But your efforts are doomed to failure." Ruk closed his eyes, and visualized the helmsman's control panel. As Chang and the others watched in amusement, Ruk seemed to enter a meditative state. Chang began to speak, with contempt dripping from his voice. "You can pray to your gods if you like, but they won't help you now."

Suddenly, switches began to move of their own accord on the control panel. The ship began to move, and Chang looked back at the control panel in shock. "What the hell? The controls are moving!"

He dived toward the control panel, but it was too late. The hyperdrive lever moved as if guided by an invisible hand, and the serene backdrop of stars shifted and transformed into the swirling vortex of hyperspace before his eyes. Shaking with rage, he pointed his phaser at Ruk again. "Enough tricks, Ruk! I am taking control of this- urrghh" his voice trailed off into nothingness, and his phaser clattered to the ground as an invisible noose seemed to tighten around his throat.

Ruk smiled with satisfaction as the brash young Federation officer collapsed to the deck. He could feel the life draining out of the human, but he felt no remorse. Chang was dead already- he just didn't know it. At that moment, the bridge erupted into pandemonium. Eight wookiees burst into the bridge with guns blazing, and the Federation troopers, still moving to assist their commander, were caught off guard. Ruk hit the deck as one of the wookiees brought up a heavy Blastech riot gun, and sprayed the room with automatic fire. Fifteen Federation marines died in the first onslaught, their charred bodies falling gracelessly to the ground like puppets whose strings had been cut.

The others tried to return fire, but were quickly overwhelmed by the combination of reckless wookiees and the bridge crew themselves, who unholstered their weapons the instant the Federation soldiers turned to face the wookiee threat. Blaster bolts sizzled through the air. Where they found flesh, they transformed healthy tissue into burned, smoking ash. Phaser bolts arced through the smoke in return, but the outcome was inevitable. Into the midst of the fray leapt Ruk, who had drawn a light sabre and was slashing through the Federation ranks like a man possessed. Rage filled him, and he could feel the power of the Dark Side beckoning. He sliced a man in half, then turned to deflect a phaser beam. He could feel the anger rising in him, and he could feel the desire to kill. He wanted to rend their bodies, to tear them apart and scatter their remains across the galaxy. But he fought back, and regained control over his emotions long enough to stop his headlong rush.

"Cease fire!" he roared. Only four Federation marines remained, using the sensor console for cover. He looked back at the command deck, where Chang lay unconscious, but alive. He addresssed the surviving marines in an imperious tone. "You cannot win. I never told Chang about the Balmorran SD-10 war droids on board. War droids don't show up on lifeform scans, gentlemen. Your boarding parties are outnumbered and outgunned. Your mission is doomed to failure. If you wish to live, surrender now."

Chapter Six