Chapter Six: Aftermath

"When capable, feign incapacity. When active, inactivity"- Sun Tzu

Captain Picard paced restlessly in his ready room. His mysterious orders were maddening, and in his view, quite an injustice. He had amassed an outstanding record of performance in first-contact situations, and he had allowed himself the luxury of assuming that he would be part of the diplomatic welcoming committee for Commander Chang's new acquaintances. First contacts were always an exhilarating time- the chance to encounter a new species, a new civilization, an alien culture ... it was the sort of thing that he lived for.

But instead, he was immediately ordered to proceed to an unexplored star system deep in Federation territory. Two weeks at maximum cruising speed, even for the Enterprise-E's advanced new engines. After two days, he had heard nothing from Starfleet Command despite repeated requests for information. So he had nothing to do, but pace in his ready room. Pace, wait, and wonder how the critical first contact was going. He was about to get his answer.

"Captain, we are receiving a priority one transmission from Starfleet Command."

"I'll take it here," Picard ordered. I had better get some answers ...

Admiral Halsey and Admiral Keyes appeared on his viewscreen. Halsey spoke first. "Captain Picard, I believe it is time you were briefed on the situation. Two days ago, an alien spacecraft appeared in orbit around Earth as you know. We have ascertained that this spacecraft was a rebel ship, fleeing from a totalitarian government regime in another galaxy. This galaxy is connected to our own galaxy by a wormhole which was inadvertently discovered by the USS Carolina during a combat mission. The totalitarian regime in control of this galaxy destroyed the USS Carolina, and tortured many of its crew to death. Based on our intelligence reports, this very same regime is now preparing a massive attack upon Earth, as a precursor to a war of conquest. They intend to conquer the Federation, and use us as a beach head in the Alpha Quadrant."

Picard took a few moments to digest this news, and when he finally recovered from the shock, he quickly spoke his mind. "Admiral, you can't be serious. In two days, you feel you can ascertain the nature of an alien government whose representatives you have yet to meet? This is a first contact situation! We should be sending diplomatic envoys, learning about their culture, their history-"

Halsey looked shocked. "Captain, perhaps you didn't hear me. They destroyed the USS Carolina, and tortured hundreds of its crewmen to death!"

Picard adopted his best stentorian tone. "There may have been extenuating circumstances, Admiral! We cannot jump to conclusions until we have more evidence! More work is necessary before we decide that an alien government is truly hostile!"

Halsey smiled. "Jean-Luc, you haven't changed a bit. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised ... perhaps if you had been involved in the first contact incident, that alien ship might still be here."

Picard's brow creased with concern. "Admiral, am I to take that to mean that it is no longer in orbit around Earth?"

Halsey fidgeted slightly. "I'm afraid so, Captain. Our intelligence reports indicate that the Empire is planning to attack Earth in two weeks with roughly fifty starships. Each of these starships is twice the size of the one you encountered, and armed proportionately. They use an incredibly advanced form of propulsion technology. Your two-week trip would take one of their vessels less than one hour. They call it hyperdrive, and we discovered that it creates highly unusual distortions in the space-time continuum which could be theoretically used to destabilize the wormhole. We decided to seize the rebels' ship-"

"You did what?" Picard couldn't believe his ears. He had always known Halsey to be wildly aggressive- his nickname was "Bull", and for good reason. During the Dominion War, he had masterminded Operation Tanaka, in which he recklessly attacked a vastly superior fleet with only 150 vessels. It looked like it would be an utter disaster for the Federation, but during the inevitable rout and counterattack, he led the Jem'Hadar forces on a wild goose chase for more than six hours, across a distance of more than a light-year. Throughout the duration of the pursuit, his ships fired hundreds of aft torpedoes which almost invariably missed their pursuers. Little did the Jem'Hadar know that the torpedoes were in fact long-range probes, equipped with mini-warheads. While the Jem'Hadar chased Halsey across the sector, hundreds of long-range low-yield torpedoes were streaking toward more than 30 unarmed, virtually defenseless antimatter refueling facilities behind enemy lines. By the time the Jem'Hadar realized their mistake, it was too late. They had lost more than 150,000 tons of antimatter fuel, along with dozens of tankers and antimatter production stations, and even an entire shipyard. By the time the costs were talllied up, Halsey's little stunt had given the Federation a crucial strategic victory over the Dominion.

However, when starry-eyed Starfleet recruiters waxed poetic over the brilliant Admiral "Bull" Halsey and Operation Tanaka, they invariably forgot one small detail: the loss of more than 40,000 Starfleet crew members' lives. The men and women who sat behind desks and crunched numbers at Starfleet Headquarters found this to be an acceptable trade-off for an important logistical advantage, but no man of conscience would casually shrug off the deaths of 40,000 men and women as "acceptable losses". In Picard's opinion, men like Halsey couldn't feel true pain at the deaths of the men and women under their command- instead, they only feel regret at the loss of strategically and tactically useful personnel. By Halsey's way of thinking, those men and women were numbers on a balance sheet, and if the numbers on the other side were larger than the numbers on your side, then you patted yourself on the back for a well-earned victory. This sort of stark logic was the stuff of war, but it made Picard's blood run cold. Picard had never liked Halsey and probably never would, but at this particular time, in this particular place, Halsey had the skill, the nerve, and, although Picard found the thought distasteful, the ruthlessness to win.

Halsey, for his part, thought of Picard as a bombastic political influence-peddler who was content to sermonize while others had to dirty their hands with the unfortunate necessities of war. It was all too easy for someone like Picard to make his eloquent speeches about principles and conscience. But while Picard sermonized, Halsey knew that real soldiers were out on the front lines, putting their lives on the line to protect humanity. What good would speeches and sermons be if humanity was reduced to the status of Dominion slaves? Halsey had nothing but contempt for men like Picard, but he had to admit that Picard's diplomatic skills had proven critically useful for forestalling or preventing hostilities in the past. "Captain, if I may be allowed to continue?"

Captain Picard pursed his lips, set them into a frown, and nodded his head.

"Good. Now, as I was saying, we decided to seize their ship because it was our best chance of stopping an invasion. It could reach the wormhole in hours, while it would have taken weeks to deploy a fleet. Weeks which we did not have. It had the hyperdrive technology, which we needed to make our plan work. And we thought that we could take the ship easily. Instead, the aliens successfully defeated our boarding parties and disappeared. We waited for two days, in the hope that our boarding parties would eventually be able to take control of the ship and return it here. But after two days, we have declared our boarding parties missing in action, and the operation a failure."

"Admiral, this is a disaster of unprecedented proportions! I can't believe the President permitted this nonsense- this goes against everything the Federation stands for! If we conducted all of our first contact operations this way, we-"

"We would never have given the Dominion a foothold on our territory! We will not make that mistake again, Captain. This time, we hoped to deal with a deadly threat before it was too late. Our fatal mistake lay in underestimating the defensive capabilities of the alien spacecraft."

"Admiral, with all due respect, did you even consider negotiating before undertaking this aggressive action?"

Admiral Keyes finally spoke. "Some of us did." Admiral Halsey shot him a venomous look, but Keyes ignored it and continued. "While Halsey was preparing his attack, I gave the order to send you to your current destination. We have named it the Gate System, for obvious reasons. I'm sorry I couldn't explain myself earlier, but the President wasn't willing to divulge information until we knew the fate of Halsey's operation. He now agrees that we have no choice but to attempt to open diplomatic negotiations as per normal Federation policy." He raised his eyebrow and made an almost imperceptible gesture in Halsey's direction. Halsey noticed the gesture and fumed, but said nothing.

Keyes continued. "Your mission is to make contact with the Imperials, and attempt to open negotiations. Ascertain if they really are planning an invasion of the quadrant, and attempt to forestall any such invasion in favour of diplomatic actions. This may be an extremely dangerous mission, Captain. But your ship is the fastest in the fleet, so you can get there before anyone else. We are sending a full diplomatic team on the USS Arclight, but they're four days behind you. Stall them, or better yet, convince them to talk. I trust that you will perform admirably, Jean-Luc. I am sending you all of the intel data and linguistic databases at our disposal. You will have ample time to examine this information on your way to the Gate System. Godspeed, Captain."

Captain Picard smiled. "Thank you, Admiral Keyes. Hopefully, we can conduct ourselves like a civilized society from this point forward." The not-so-subtle dig was not lost on Admiral Halsey, whose face turned an angry red shade. Before Halsey could speak, Picard cut off the transmission and sat back in his chair. He smiled to himself, and started examining Keyes' intelligence data. Looks like I'll be in charge of a first contact operation after all.

The briefings had been conducted. The ship had been prepared. All was in a state of readiness, and now Picard could only wait, and re-read the intel files for the third time. His research had left him hungry for more information, but cautious at the enormous violence and power that this "Empire" was clearly capable of wielding. He was particularly interested in this mysterious energy field they called "The Force". Was it unique to their galaxy, or an invalid superstitious belief? Or was it related somehow, to the powers of the Traveller, or the ancient Vulcan psionic weapon he encountered many years earlier? Could it be that these aliens had somehow learned how to harness the mysterious "energy of life" that the Traveller mentioned? These questions, and a hundred more like them, fascinated Picard but he knew they would have to wait. If Starfleet Intelligence was correct, his primary concern would be the protection of the Federation against a hostile and lethal enemy, not the accumulation of academic knowledge. Still, he felt something of a schoolboy's excitement as they approached the system. A massive gravitational distortion and subspace sensor jamming field was obscuring their readings, but as they dropped out of warp, they were able to obtain reliable data. And more importantly, they were able to obtain clear visual information. For the first time in years, Picard was awed.

Directly ahead of the Enterprise floated a gigantic ring-like structure. Its sheer scale dwarfed anything Picard had previously seen, short of the Dyson Sphere. It was so large that a moon could fit through it, and although it looked fragile, almost wisp-like, Picard suspected that the ring was much thicker than it appeared. An incredible profusion of light and colour flowed around the ring, creating what appeared to be a rapidly spinning pinwheel in space. The lights seemed to flicker and modulate, in an almost hypnotic pattern, and Picard couldn't help but stare at the strangely beautiful sight. The idea that someone could create such a structure in less than 2 months was staggering, and his knowledge of the necessary industrial capability was such that he knew with confidence that the Federation couldn't hope to build such a structure even over a period of many years. Near the centre of the ring, a small group of starships were barely visible, approaching the Enterprise at high speed.

"Captain, the ring structure is incredibly massive, and is approximately twelve hundred kilometres in diameter. The ring is at least one kilometre thick at all points on its circumference. I am reading several million life forms in the ring, which appears to have only minimal armament and shielding. The ring structure appears to be designed to stabilize the wormhole and make it safe even for very large starships to traverse. There appears to be a stream of highly energetic matter moving around the ring's circumference, at such speed that it is making approximately seventy nine point five revolutions per second. There are waves of gravimetric, subspace, and even chronometric distortions emanating from the ring structure, and interacting with the wormhole."

Picard stared at the ring for a few more moments, digesting the information. But he had more pressing concerns than his fascination with this engineering marvel. "Data, what about the approaching fleet? Can you tell me anything about them?"

"I have very little substantive information, Captain. The fleet consists of over two hundred vessels, most of which appear to be the Star Destroyers mentioned prominently in the intelligence files. At sixteen hundred metres in length and approximately fifteen times our mass, they seem to match the descriptions in Commander Chang's report. They are arranged in a defensive formation around a massive red vessel, approximately seventeen point six kilometres long and several thousand times our mass. There is an extremely high probability that this vessel is the Crimson Blade, which Commander Chang described as the flagship of Admiral Kanos. There are also several vessels which appear to function solely as jamming vessels. They are projecting extremely high-energy subspace and gravimetric distortions over a very large region of interplanetary space in this system, thus making it difficult to obtain accurate sensor readings. They are approaching at high sublight speed, Captain. They will be within range of our weapons in two minutes."

"Hail them." Repeated hails were sent, but the vessels continued to approach. There were no reponses to the hails, and no indication that the aliens were anything but hostile. The tension level on the bridge began to rise, as every officer felt the pressure of the primeval fight-or-flee response. Picard had felt this kind of trepidation before. No matter how many times one entered a completely foreign situation, it was never possible to truly eliminate the instinctive feeling of fear.

Data chose this moment to speak. "Captain, they are almost within weapons range. Their shields are up, and their weapons are armed. I strongly recommend that we raise our shields."

"Recommendation noted, Data." Picard stood resolutely, and watched the ships approach.

Riker was having great difficulty controlling his emotions. "Captain, I agree with Data. They are clearly aggressive, and they are refusing to answer our hails! We must raise our shields and arm our weapons!"

"I don't think so, Number One. We cannot afford to provoke them." Picard could feel Riker's eyes boring into the back of his neck, but the stakes were far too high to play the role of space cowboy. In spite of the enormous risk to his vessel, Picard refused to take any action that might potentially result in a serious threat to the billions of lives at stake. His years of experience had given him certain instincts, and one of those instincts told him now that an enemy with such vast resources and technology would not pointlessly destroy a lone starship that posed no threat. The Enterprise's lack of shielding was his way of saying that he wanted to communicate, and the intel files on Kanos suggested that he was too thoughtful to simply fire upon a defenseless ship. The monstrous fleet continued to approach.

Abruptly, just as the fleet approached point-blank weapons range, the ships began to break formation. They spread outwards in a starburst pattern and split into smaller combat groups which flanked the Enterprise and surrounded it. As they peeled away from the massive command ship at their centre, the blood-red dagger-shaped behemoth continued to approach, until its enormous bulk was positioned directly in front of the Enterprise. David and Goliath, Picard thought to himself. Riker was almost beside himself with frustration. "Captain-"

"You have your orders, Number One. Hold your ground. We will take no actions that might antagonize the alien ships- they clearly have us at a disadvantage, and I want to assure them that we are no threat." The ships were now surrounding the Enterprise, and Picard didn't want to think about the sheer number of weapons that must now be targeted on his ship. But they did not fire. The Enterprise and the fleet floated in space for two long minutes, before the mysterious aliens broke the silence.

"Captain, they are hailing us."

"Put it on screen, ensign." Picard tried not to let his great relief show. His confidence in his own judgement had seriously wavered during the long delay, but the hail was vindication for his decision. Someday, he knew, he might make a mistake and cost his crew their lives. Or worse yet, he might cost billions of Federation citizens their lives. But if all went well, today would not be that day.

Admiral Kanos immediately appeared on the Enterprise bridge main viewer. "Greetings, Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise. I apologize for the long delay in communication."

"Greetings. I take it that you are Admiral Kanos of the Crimson Blade?"

Kanos raised an eyebrow but did not appear particularly surprised. "It appears we already know about each other, Captain. I presume that all of your intelligence reports come from the Federation officers we captured, and their new rebel friends?"

"And your intelligence reports come from a harsh interrogation of those same captured Federation officers, correct?"

Kanos grimaced. "Correct, Captain. You have to understand that we thought they were invaders or rebel sympathizers, and responded appropriately. In fact, we were initially convinced that the entire Federation was merely another Rebel support enclave until we did some more research on your organization."

"I see. But I hope you can understand our continued skepticism, particularly when you have hundreds of heavily armed warships operating in our territory. Perhaps if you were to remove those ships from our territory so that we may discuss possible trade negotiations without threat of violence ..."

Kanos' expression grew darker. "Those ships are here to protect our installation, Captain. I'm sure you appreciate that one would want to maintain a strong defensive posture around such a structure, particularly when it is still not complete. Are you suggesting that I leave millions of civilian employees of Sienar Fleet Systems defenseless? There are men, women, and children aboard the installation who are Imperial citizens. As such, I have a duty to ensure their safety. The fleet stays."

Picard was displeased but hardly surprised by that response. "Of course, I understand. But surely a much smaller fleet of ships would still be more than adequate to protect this installation. Furthermore, I give you my personal guarantee that this installation will not be attacked if you demonstrate a willingness to negotiate. If it is territory, resources, or trade that you want, I'm sure we can come to a mutual understanding without the need for posturing or violence. If you have researched my history, then you know that I do not make promises lightly."

Kanos looked like he was about to speak, but instead, he muted the audio on his end and conferred with a robed, shadowy figure standing in the background. Picard could not tell whether Kanos was conferring with an advisor, or superior. "Counsellor?"

Counsellor Troi's brow was creased with concentration. "Captain, Kanos is in full command of his fleet. The other man is neither his superior or his subordinate. I don't understand the exact nature of their hierarchal relationship, but they appear to be conferring as equals. The other man ... he is evil, Captain. There is a darkness about him which I cannot penetrate- each time I try, the effort leaves me ... drained. It .. hurts, Captain. Kanos seems human, like you or me. But that other man ... there is something about him which is more than human, and which is less than human at the same time. Almost as if he is engaged in a symbiotic relationship with another being."

"Like a Trill?"

Troi looked like she was starting to wilt in her chair, almost as if something were dragging her down. "No ... whatever he is joined with ... it has ... neither a distinct ... personality ... or ... or ... presence." Her brow furrowed further, and she appeared to be in almost physical pain. "He ... has great power, Captain. This must be that Force we were warned about. That man ... must be ... a Sith Lord. I can't ..." Troi's words trailed off as she lapsed into unconsciousness. A medic rushed forward to examine her, but she did not appear to be in serious trouble. Her breathing appeared to be steady, and Picard turned his attention back to the matter at hand. A Sith Lord! If the intel data is correct, they're telepathic. He may be able to read my thoughts, and he might have even disabled Troi! I must tread carefully ...

Kanos appeared to be have finished conferring with his mysterious advisor, who stepped back into the shadows. Picard was sure he could see a pair of deep-set eyes from beneath the mysterious figure's hood, and he had the uneasy feeling that he was being examined. His instinctive sense of violation was tempered by a guilty realization that he had casually employed Troi's services in precisely this manner for years, without once giving it a second thought. Kanos stepped forward, and motioned to one of his crewmen to restore audio.

"Captain, I don't like diplomats. I don't like politicians. But I appreciate a brave man, and your refusal to raise your shields marks you as either brave or foolish. My research into your service record leads me to believe the former, and I have discussed this matter with my colleague. We have decided that as a show of good faith, and as a gesture of goodwill to offset the unfortunate incident involving the interrogation of your men, I will withdraw to Imperial territory along with most of the defense fleet. I will leave five star destroyers here, as a light defense force. Should you foolishly decide to attack this installation, you will find that five Star Destroyers are a more formidable force than you may expect. In any case, an attack upon this installation would be considered an act of war, and we would respond in kind. In the meantime, I will wait on the other side of the wormhole for one week, to provide enough time for your diplomatic envoys to arrive aboard your slow, primitive warp-driven vessels."

Picard bristled at Kanos' gratuitous rhetoric, but this was no time for posturing. "Your gesture is very much appreciated, Admiral. I promise you that you will not be sorry. With any luck, we may be ushering in a new era of co-operation between our peoples."

Kanos bowed slightly, and smiled briefly before his image faded from view. The great fleet began to break formation, and they performed a complex ballet of movement until they were all arranged in their layered formation again, around Kanos' behemoth vessel. With a brilliant flare of their sublight engines, the vast assemblage of warships accelerated toward the wormhole. They hurtled through the vast man-made ring, entered the wormhole, and disappeared. Nothing remained of the imposing fleet but five forlorn star destroyers and a trail of ionized gas.

Picard's reverie was not to last long. Data had been examining some anomalous sensor readings and he had just come to a conclusion. "Captain, we may have a problem."

"Yes, Data?"

"Captain, I am detecting a group of sensor ghosts approaching our position at high warp."

"Sensor ghosts?" Picard sensed something seriously wrong.

"Yes sir. The readings are somewhat anomalous, consisting mostly of low-order subspace harmonics. The energy signature is consistent with Romulan Warbirds, sir. The sensor ghosts appear and then disappear, and it was only after repeated sensor echoes that I was able to determine their velocity. They are approaching at approximately warp nine point nine."

Picard was taken aback. "Nine point nine? But that's well above the known maximum speed of a Romulan warbird."

"That is correct, sir. Clearly, our intelligence data is obsolete. However, it may appear that their high velocity is overcoming the ability of their cloaking devices to shield their emissions. That would explain our ability to track them, Captain. They will arrive in less than four hours. Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, I estimate that there are roughly forty vessels."

Forty Romulan Warbirds! Picard knew that there was only one reason the Romulans could be sending such a large force so deep into Federation territory. They knew about the Gate System, and they were coming to destroy the alien wormhole stabilizer. They had tried this insanity once before, when they attempted to obliterate the Founders' homeworld. They failed, and Picard had no doubt they would fail again. The energy readings from those warships were high enough to make Picard seriously question the viability of a direct assault, even with the 8 to 1 numerical advantage the Romulans enjoyed. However, the Imperials were not expecting an attack, and they might be incapable of detecting cloaked ships. The Romulans had to be stopped here, or they might start a full-scale war.

"Helm, lay in an intercept course. I intend to stop this lunacy before it starts."

Two hours later, the Enterprise was standing toe-to-toe with a Romulan warbird. Picard's fists were clenched, and he was vociferously arguing with the Romulan mission commander. It was pointless, of course. It was virtually impossible to have a reasoned discussion with a Romulan- they treated every conversation like some sort of chess game.

"We are on the verge of opening diplomatic negotiations with an alien race! They are under Starfleet protection, and you have no right to be conducting operations in Federation territory! This is a blatant violation of the Neutral Zone treaty!"

As usual, the Romulan on his viewscreen was unimpressed by his vehemence, and spoke in the same infuriatingly measured tones that he had heard from every other Romulan captain he had ever encountered. "Captain Picard, we are merely acting to protect the Romulan Empire from a potentially deadly threat. We've seen the files- haven't you? The last time we encountered a dangerous enemy like this, it turned out to be a disaster. Our only concern is for the safety and well-being of all our peoples. That alien installation must be destroyed, or we may be facing another war! Can't you see this, Picard?"

Picard's eyes opened wide with surprise at the Romulan's arrogance. "Well, I hope you will forgive me if I am skeptical of your judgement! You helped bring about the Dominion disaster, by attempting to eradicate their homeworld!"

"Captain, surely you can't be so naïve as to believe that the Dominion would have entertained the notion of diplomatic negotiations had we not launched our attack. Our only mistake was in not successfully eradicating them from the universe." That same smug smile spread across the Romulan's face again. Captain Picard was not a violent man by nature, but Romulans were maddening enough to make him think of becoming one.

Picard decided that it was time to end this pointless debate. "I don't have time to debate this. You are in violation of the treaty stipulations, and I am hereby ordering you to stand down, and return to Romulan territory."

"And if we refuse?"

"Then I will take whatever actions are necessary, to protect the lives of several million sentient beings who have been entrusted to my protection. We stand at the precipice, either of a new age of intergalactic relations, or of a new age of death and destruction. I would prefer the former, and I will take whatever actions are necessary to stop you."

For the first time, the Romulan's placid face changed expression, as he laughed out loud. "Captain, surely you must be joking! One Federation starship against forty Romulan warbirds? Do you value the lives of your crew so little, Picard?"

"If the cause is just, we are all prepared to give our lives in defense of our beliefs. You have ten seconds to power down your weapons and reverse course."

"Captain, surely-"

"Eight seconds!"


"Six seconds!"

"You leave me no choice, Captain. I will not-"

"Two seconds!"

The time interval passed. Picard knew that the Romulans would never back down, particularly with such a strong tactical advantage in their favour. But if he were to leave, and allow the Romulans an unimpeded path to attack the alien installation ... there was only one choice.

"Target the lead warbird with phasers and quantum torpedoes. Maximum yield." Picard ordered quietly. His weapons officer grimly followed orders.

The Romulan still couldn't believe his ears. "Captain, you will be destroyed! I am giving you a chance-"


Chapter Seven

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