Chapter Seven: First Blood

"Soldiers gain strength from rage"- Sun Tzu

For a moment seemingly frozen in time, the USS Enterprise floated motionless in space, before a vastly superior force of 40 Romulan warbirds. In an instant, the false tranquility dissolved into an explosion of violence. The Enterprise leapt forward into the midst of the Romulan formation, spitting phaser blasts and quantum torpedoes from every available launcher and array.

The lead warbird took the brunt of the attack. In a few impossibly chaotic seconds, her frame shuddered with more than 20 quantum torpedo detonations and an almost continuous stream of phaser blasts. Aboard her bridge, Admiral Feh'rok screamed as he pulled a piece of shrapnel out of his leg, and struggled agonizingly to his feet. He was stunned by the ferocity of Picard's attack, and he was dismayed to see that more than half his bridge crew lay dead or dying. He never seriously expected Picard to attack, and his mistake had left his ship crippled and unable to defend itself. A blaring alarm announced the imminent failure of the damping field around the ship's quantum singularity power source, and he knew that he was doomed. With venom in his eyes, he turned to his political officer.

"You assured me that Picard would never fire on us! You said he was a diplomat, not a warrior! I should kill you where you stand, you incompetent fool!" Feh'rok snarled.

The Tal Shiar political officer was never able to voice a reply. With a titanic blast, the warbird's quantum singularity converted itself to pure energy and blew the ship apart, transforming its multi-million ton bulk into a rapidly expanding cloud of superheated debris. Even without direct orders from Admiral Feh'rok, the commanders of the other Romulan warbirds hastily attempted to fire upon the Enterprise as it twisted and turned through their formation. But as impossible as it seemed, the Enterprise was not only surviving, but it was dealing severe damage to the Romulan fleet. It is a maxim of space combat that a numerically superior force can sometimes "get in its own way" when dealing with a single, determined foe, and Picard was pushing this advantage to the hilt. The Romulans had difficulty bringing their phasers to bear on the Enterprise as it wound its way through the tight formation, and because of their reluctance to hit their own vessels, they were relying exclusively upon auto-homing photon torpedoes.

Aboard one of the remaining warbirds, Commander Pa'rehk barked orders and tried to conceal his disbelief from his junior officers. To his dismay, he saw another warbird explode in a brilliant fireball of superheated metal and plasma. Picard had obviously expected the Romulans not to take him seriously. Pa'rehk has to reluctantly concede to himself that Picard's attack was suicidal, but brilliantly effective. By immediately striking at the Admiral's ship, he took advantage of the fleet's confusion and their disbelief, as well as Admiral Feh'rok's foolish decision to array his ships in a tight, impressive-looking formation. Idiot ... toying with psychological warfare when he should have been worrying about tactics and strategy... he thought to himself.

"Status report!" Pa'rehk shouted.

"Our shields are down to twenty percent, sir. We took heavy damage when the Admiral's ship exploded, and the Federation vessel is systematically attacking the ships which were closest to the blast."

Of course, Pa'rehk thought to himself. Exactly what I would have done. But still, he couldn't understand it. The Enterprise should surely have succumbed by now to the overwhelming firepower of the fleet in spite of the unwieldy formation and its initial success. He glared at the seemingly indestructible Federation vessel wending its way through his fleet, and he saw an incredible sight. An entire spread of Romulan photon torpedoes struck the streaking Enterprise squarely in its primary hull, and ... nothing happened. For a few seconds that seemed to last an eternity, he tried to digest this baffling sight. When he finally realized what was happening, he was furious. Both at himself, and at his weapons officer.

"Get us out of formation! The Enterprise is so close that our torpedoes are failing to arm before they strike her! Inform the fleet!" he roared.

His communications officer pounded his console in frustration. "Communications are being jammed, sir!"

Obviously, Pa'rehk thought to himself. Picard is no fool ... his pre-emptive strike destroyed our command ship, and he intends to compound the confusion. The other commanders will have to figure this out on their own. He could see the formation breaking up as the ships tried to put some distance between each other, but not quickly enough. Another warbird exploded before his eyes, heavily damaging two other ships. One of those ships spun crazily out of control and crashed into another vessel, exploding upon impact. Pa'rehk could not believe the carnage that Picard was inflicting upon his fleet, and decided to take extreme measures.

"Disengage the torpedo safeties and disregard friendly-fire protocols! Fire at will, all weapons!"

As his ship's weapons opened fire without regard for friendly casualties, he could see several other ships taking the same action. At last, the Enterprise began to take serious damage. As torpedo after torpedo slammed into her from all directions, the ship began to slow. However, the withering attack didn't seem to dampen the resolve of her crew. A seemingly endless stream of phaser blasts and quantum torpedoes continued to spray out of the wounded vessel, and Pa'rehk cringed as he saw two more Romulan vessels explode. He knew that the decision to disregard friendly-fire protocols would lead to even more Romulan casualties which he would have to explain to his superiors, but the alternative was to continue allowing Picard free reign to attack his fleet. That, he thought to himself, is no alternative.

No warship, no matter how valiant her crew, could survive the combined hammering for long. As the Enterprise's shields buckled and failed, her return fire became more sporadic. Eventually, the great ship lost the ability to fight. Her weapons fell silent, and flames could be seen burning inside great breaches in her hull. Pa'rehk exulted in each torpedo explosion, each phaser hit. For years he had dreamed of bringing the great Captain Picard to heel, and now, that victory was within his grasp. The jamming stopped, and the crippled Federation vessel began venting plasma from its starboard warp nacelle. In moments, the ship was drifting powerless through space.

Aboard the Enterprise, Picard reeled from another direct hit. He knew he would never defeat the Romulan fleet, of course. But he had hoped to bloody their noses enough to dissuade them from attacking the Imperial facility. With his weapons gone and his ship crippled, he had done all he could. Now, he could only hope that they would be reluctant to attack the Imperials after taking such heavy losses.

"We have lost main power, Captain. They are moving in for the kill." Amidst the flames and chaos of the Enterprise's badly damaged bridge, Worf sounded surprisingly calm, almost serene. For as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of dying a glorious death in battle. As the warbirds approached, he smiled. To die in battle against the Romulans would have been glorious. But to die after fighting a suicidal battle against overwhelming odds ... to have single-handedly destroyed eight Romulan warbirds ... it was a battle for the ages. He felt a sense of being complete, that he had never known before, and he prepared himself for a glorious entry into Sto-vo-kor.

Every surviving officer tensed now, waiting for the killing blow, or for the telltale sound of transporters as they were boarded. But it never came. Instead, there were gasps of relief and shock as the Romulan fleet cloaked and disappeared. Worf was furious. "Romulan dogs ... finish it!" he growled at the viewscreen. Picard turned to look at his weapons officer, whose face was now mottled with rage.


Worf seemed to shake himself out of a trance, and looked sheepishly around the bridge. "Captain, I ... I expected them to destroy us, sir. Their withdrawal was ... unanticipated."

Picard smiled. "It appears that you have been cheated out of a glorious warrior's death today, Worf. However, the rest of us are quite thankful to still be alive. Perhaps another day." In spite of the harrowing near-death experience, many of the bridge crew found enough dark humour in the situation to chuckle.

Riker let the moment linger, and then delivered his grim news. "Damage control reports are coming in, Captain. We're not going anywhere for a while. Damage to the antimatter containment pods forced us to jettison more than a third of our fuel supply, and damage to the antimatter transport and injection system forced us to shut down the warp core and the torpedo launchers. Two of the impulse reactor vessels have stress fractures and had to be taken off-line as well, and we have gas venting from the primary deuterium tank. The starboard warp nacelle has taken heavy damage, and structural integrity fields are barely holding it together. The main computer is operating at only fifty percent capacity, and long-range sensors are down. Communications are totally inoperative."

Picard scowled. "Number One, please tell me that something is still working around here."

"Well ... most of the phaser arrays are still functional, so we could fire phasers if we had any power available to feed them."

Picard's face set into a grim mask of frustration. "That won't do us much good. Is that all?"

"Umm ... the turbolifts still work." A few more chuckles could be heard around the bridge.

Picard smiled briefly, and then his scowl returned. "Launch a long-range probe toward the Gate system, Number One. I assume we can still launch probes?"

"Yes, sir. Mr. Data, launch a long range probe toward the Gate system." Riker turned to Picard again. "Captain, with long range communications down, we won't be able to communicate with it ..."

"I'm hoping that mister Laforge will outdo himself and get our communications system back on-line in time for us to find out what those Romulans are up to. If we're lucky, we might also be able to warn Starfleet Headquarters. We failed to dissuade them from their mission, Number One."

"Sir? How do you know that?"

"They left us here, alive. They could have finished us, but they chose not to. The only way for them to make up for such a disastrous encounter in the eyes of their superiors would be to capture the Enterprise and bring it back to Romulus. Destroying us would only heighten the humiliation of their losses."

"Yes, but they didn't attempt to capture the Enterprise."

"Exactly. Which means that they intend to carry out the rest of their mission without wasting time capturing our ship. They can't attack the Imperials with our damaged vessel in tow, and they can't afford to leave one of their ships here. They're obviously hoping that they can carry out their mission and then pick us up on the way back to Romulus."

Riker cursed to himself. Of course- I should have thought of that, he thought. "But Captain, if you're right, then we need to get this ship back up and running before they get back. If we assume that they will take two hours to get to Gate, two hours to attack the Imperial facilities on both sides of the wormhole, and two hours to get back here, then we have six hours before they return. If we can't get underway by then..."

"We'll be captured and carried back to Romulus like hunting trophies. I know, Number One. But don't worry, I have no intention of allowing that to happen. If the Imperials fail to stop them, and if we can't get the ship underway before they get back ..."

"Yes, Captain?"

Picard's expression was grim, and his next words were spoken very quietly. "Then we'll have to destroy the Enterprise, Number One."

Total silence descended over the bridge, as every crewman let Picard's words sink in. When Riker finally spoke, he tried to force an optimistic smile onto his face, fooling no one. "Understood, Captain. I think I'd better go down to Main Engineering and see if I can lend a hand."

Two hours later, at the Gate system, a group of Sienar Fleet Systems technicians were playing Sabacc in the main control centre of the vast ring-shaped structure that served as gateway and stabilizer for the wormhole. Sabacc games can often last far into the night, and this one had accumulated a substantial pot. Amidst the clamour and accusations of cheating, no one noticed a group of anomalous spatial distortions on the CGT display. If they had, perhaps they would have informed the Star Destroyers in the defense fleet. Or perhaps not ... small spatial distortions were not normally considered cause for alarm. As long as the ring's monstrous energy pulses continued their endless circular rotation, the technicians were confident that all was well.

However, unbenownst to the technicians aboard the ring, or the crews of the five Star Destroyers in the system, a group of cloaked Romulan Warbirds was taking up pre-arranged positions. Thanks to intelligence data that they had obtained through unknown, and mysterious channels, they knew enough to take up position directly beneath each ship, so that their weapons were trained upon the bulbous protrusion that was clearly identified as a Star Destroyer's primary reactor. Each Star Destroyer cruised through space with six or more attackers poised beneath it, and its crew had no knowledge of their peril.

"Are their shields still down?" Pa'rehk queried.

"Yes, sir. They appear to be in a stand-down mode, and do not detect our presence."

"Excellent. Prepare to disengage cloak and fire all available weapons."

With precise timing, more than thirty Romulan warbirds de-cloaked and began firing almost simultaneously. If anyone aboard the five Star Destroyers noticed the ships de-cloaking, they reacted far too slowly to save themselves. In less than five seconds, each Star Destroyer was hammered by more than 300 photon torpedoes, and countless phaser blasts. Every one of them was precisely targeted upon the heavily armoured sphere that contained its power generator, and without shields, the hapless ships were doomed. The armour around their power reactors was never intended to substitute for shielding, and the concentrated attack quickly penetrated the thick durasteel plating. Five brilliant explosions lit the starry sky, as the ring's small defense fleet met a fiery end. Without firing a single shot, the defense fleet was gone.

Aboard the Imperial ring, sabacc cards fluttered through the air as their owners, having completely forgotten the game, rushed to their stations. Each man knew without asking, that the defense fleet had been destroyed by a hostile force. With their meagre defense fleet was gone and with no operational shielding, they had no choice but to defend themselves with their incomplete weapons. A steady stream of tiny message pods began flying into the wormhole, and sporadic bursts of turbolaser fire began to lance out from isolated spots around the ring's perimeter.

However, the defensive action was too little, too late. The Romulan fleet formed up and commenced a withering attack upon the ring structure, targeting any point which their sensors showed to be a power transfer node. The defensive turrets quickly fell silent, bereft of power. The lightly armoured ring was never intended to survive a direct attack in this manner, not without its shielding system operational. A massive fireworks display erupted into being all over the perimeter of the ring, as power transfer conduits ruptured and generators exploded. The massive, near-lightspeed particle-beam pulses that coursed through the ring now spelled its doom, as they broke free and shattered their restraints.

The liberated energy vapourized billions of tons of metal in an instant, and along with it, millions of civilian men, women, and children. Their deaths were almost instantaneous, and their suffering was brief. However, in a vast and unimaginably distant palace, Emperor Solo stiffened as he felt their life energies ebb away. He had been waiting for this moment, trancelike, for hours. Now that it had come, he found himself torn between conflicting emotions. A pang of remorse flickered through his mind, but he suppressed it through the same iron force of will through which he believed he held himself at the precipice of evil without falling. Their sacrifice will not have been in vain, he thought to himself. Their deaths will serve a greater purpose. He gestured toward a control panel on the far side of the room, and the holographic image of Admiral Kanos floated up in front of him.

"Admiral, the time has come. Prepare your fleet, and be sure to collect every message pod. Transmit the data to me."

The holographic image of Admiral Kanos bowed deeply. "Yes, my Lord. It will be as you command." Emperor Solo gestured again, and the image of Admiral Kanos faded away. Everything is happening as I have foreseen, he thought to himself.

Captain Picard's communicator crackled to life. "We have restored intra-ship and long-range communications, Captain." Geordi had performed another miracle, as Picard had hoped he would.

"Well done, Mr. Laforge. All right now. Mr. Data, let's see if we can contact that probe."

Within moments, the probe relayed its images of destruction to the bridge of the Enterprise. Picard sat back in his chair, horrified. When he finally spoke, the words came out in a whisper. "The Romulans killed millions, and we helped them. I convinced Admiral Kanos to withdraw most of his fleet ..." his voice began to crack, and faded into silence.

The brittle silence on the bridge lasted for several long minutes, as each man and woman contemplated the meaning of this event. When Picard spoke, it was in a low, resigned tone.

"Mr. Data, contact Starfleet Headquarters."

"Yes, sir." Data was surprised to get an almost immediate response. "Sir, they must have been expecting our communication. Admiral Halsey is answering."

"Put it on the main viewer, Mr. Data."

"Captain Picard, what the devil is going on out there?"

"Admiral, we successfully negotiated with the Imperial fleet to withdraw most of their forces to the other side of the wormhole. However, we encountered a fleet of Romulan warbirds trespassing in Federation territory, with the intent of attacking the Imperial forces. We engaged them in battle and inflicted casualties, but we were unable to stop them from proceeding to the Gate system. Long-range sensor probes have revealed that they successfully attacked the Imperial facility and destroyed it completely."

Counsellor Troi, who had finally returned to active duty, sharply drew her breath, but Picard did not notice. Admiral Halsey immediately began speaking. "Captain, did you sustain damage?"

"Yes, Admiral. We are adrift but we are repairing our damage. We hope to be underway before the Romulans return. This is a dark day in the affairs of the Federation, Admiral. I hope we can piece together what happened, and determine how the Romulans got through our sensor net."

Admiral Halsey looked hesitant. "Yes ... yes, of course. An investigation will begin immediately. In the meantime, reinforcements are en route as we speak, but will not arrive for several days. Until then, good luck, Captain." His image faded from the viewscreen.

Counsellor Troi spoke in hushed tones. "Captain, Admiral Halsey was lying. He knew about the Romulans."

Picard felt his world imploding around him. "What? Are you sure?"

"I'm sure." Troi said with an air of finality.

Picard had a flash of insight. "Mr. Data, see if you can access the sensor logs of the Romulan neutral zone sensor-net stations. See if you can locate any anomalies."

"Yes, sir. Accessing." Data analyzed the data for a few moments, and stopped. "Captain. the rotating maintenance schedules of the neutral zone sensor-net stations coincided in such a manner that several adjacent stations went through a periodic maintenance shutdown at the same time."

Picard's heart sank, and even as he asked the next question, he knew what the answer would be. "Mr. Data, when was this ... coincidental ... shutdown?"

Data replied in his characteristically even tone. "The shutdowns coincided in such a manner that a small gap opened for approximately twelve hours, at the approximate time that I estimate the Romulans entered the neutral zone. This gap would only have been a few million kilometres wide, but it would have been easily large enough for the Romulan fleet to enter."

With a brilliant flare of light, the all-too-familiar face of Q suddenly appeared on the bridge, as a disembodied, ghostly apparition. "Well done, Captain. You did the best you could, and you should be proud. But I told you that you would not serve as humanity's proxy defender this time, and that humanity would stand or fall based on the actions of Starfleet Command. Didn't you listen?"

Picard's anger with Q had reached its boiling point, and it simmered as he gritted his reply out from between clenched teeth. "Q, please tell me that this is all one of your illusions."

"Oh, this is no illusion, Captain. The renowned Admiral Halsey appears to have opened the chicken coop door just long enough to let the fox in, hasn't he? You didn't really think that Halsey would just sit idly by while the Federation attempted a diplomatic solution, do you? He saw the Empire as a threat, and he attempted to deal with that threat, any way he could. Your mistake was in behaving as usual, and using your diplomatic charm to talk Kanos back to his home territory. I told you not to take the most obvious route, didn't I?"

Q's words hit Picard like a physical blow. Self-recrimination and doubt swirled in his mind, as he attempted to make sense of the situation. "So what happens now, Q?"

Q smiled. "Well, you don't have to worry about being captured and carted back to Romulus. Your little Romulan friends won't be coming back."

"Are you saying they will be destroyed?"

"Of course they will be destroyed, Captain! Do you have any idea what awaits them on the other side of that wormhole? Trust me, the next thing to come out of that wormhole will most definitely not be a Romulan starship. You had better tell Mr. Laforge to hurry. If I were you, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near this place in a few days."

"So you're saying that the Empire will attack?"

Q looked irritated and gestured in Worf's direction. "I would have expected these questions from micro-brain over there, but not from you!" Worf growled and moved toward Q, but stopped at a gesture from Picard.

Q continued speaking. "Of course they will attack! There's nothing like an unprovoked sneak attack to start a war, is there? A sneak attack boosts propaganda campaigns, eliminates political opposition ... try looking in your history books, Picard. Someone named Franklin Roosevelt used this trick very successfully a few centuries ago. I believe they called it World War Two, correct?" Q snickered to himself. "World wars ... you humans have always had a knack for exaggerating the importance of your insignificant little skirmishes, haven't you?"

Picard shuddered inwardly, as the enormity of the disaster finally became clear. "Wait a minute. You're not just saying that the Empire will seek revenge for this attack ... you're saying that they expected this attack, aren't you?"

A broad smile spread across Q's face. "Oops! I may have said too much, Picard. Let's just say that the Federation has grown complacent, and overconfident. Your social structure is depressingly conformist and uncreative, and your enemies are pathetic. The Empire will shake humanity out of its doldrums, and under their rule, some of you will achieve the greatness that lies in humanity's future. They will introduce humanity to what they call the Force, Picard. Someday, you will learn what an important evolutionary step this will be. Those who survive will be stronger for it."

Picard looked unimpressed. "Evolution is a destructive process, Q. The strong survive and the weak are destroyed. Humanity evolves now through education and experience, not ruthless Darwinian selection."

Q smiled. "Exactly, Picard. You still don't understand, do you? That is exactly what is wrong with the Federation! The human race needs this test of fire, to continue the process of evolution that the Federation has so rudely interrupted. I assure you Picard, humanity will persevere and thrive under the Empire. They will show you things you cannot imagine, and some gifted members of humanity will eventually achieve greatness, through their children and their children's children. But this ridiculous, stifling, dehumanizing system of government you call the Federation ... its end draws near, Captain."

Q's disembodied head vanished, and he reappeared moments later in his usual form, complete with a Starfleet uniform. "The Federation deserves to be destroyed, Picard. Despite all of our gentle encouragements, no one in the entire Federation has shown the ability to break free of your stunted mindset of technological determinism. The Empire will show you the real meaning of power, Captain Picard."

Picard stepped close to Q, and spoke in a low, aggressive tone. "If you think that we won't defend ourselves-"

Q's voice became contemptuous, as he interrupted Picard in mid-sentence. "How many times do I have to explain this to you, Picard? True power doesn't flow from ridiculous toys with names like warp core, fusion reactor, or plasma conduit. True power flows from the mind." He leaned close to Picard, and whispered in his ear. "Embrace this change. It's for the best."

With a wink and a flash of light, Q was gone again, leaving Picard and the rest of the crew alone with their thoughts.

Somewhere beyond three-dimensional space and time, the Romulans were hurtling through the wormhole to meet Kanos' waiting fleet. They had hoped to capture prisoners for interrogation, but the ring's self-immolation was so utterly destructive that there was nothing left to capture, or even to analyze. They collected some pieces of flotsam and jetsam for materials analysis, but scientific concerns were secondary to their primary mission. Their primary mission was to seal this wormhole, and Pa'rehk would waste no time now. Unlike the late Admiral Feh'rok, Pa'rehk prided himself on expediency rather than flair.

He knew that what they had accomplished back in the Alpha Quadrant had been far too easy. The element of surprise had been overwhelming and total. The ring was unfinished, and the ships were unshielded. Neither was prepared for battle. However, countless tiny pods had been fired into the wormhole by the doomed ring crew, and he had no doubt that they were message pods, designed to warn the enemy. What they faced now would be a far more difficult task. The ring on the other side of the wormhole had to be destroyed also, and their cloaking technology would be the only thing standing between success in their mission, and instant destruction.

Abruptly, the twisting kaleidoscopic display before him shimmered into blackness, and he found himself looking into a viewscreen that seemed to be clogged with starships. Thousands of them, in every imaginable size and shape, framing the image of the horrifying weapon of mass destruction which he had been briefed about, and which this entire mission was designed to stop. They call it the Death Star, he thought to himself. The sight was daunting, but he knew that their mission priority was to protect the Romulan Empire by sealing the wormhole. His fleet, and his life, were expendable in favour of the greater goal. All he had to do was maneuver his ships into position and attack the ring structure's critical weak points, and his mission would be a success, regardless of whether his fleet was torn apart by the horde of enemy warships afterwards.

Under communications silence, his fleet moved silently away from the wormhole. However, one of his officers sounded a note of concern. "Sir, we have a problem. The ring structure on this side of the wormhole is very heavily armoured and shielded. We will not be able to penetrate its defenses. Also, we are monitoring the weapon emplacements on those enemy warships. They appear to be tracking us."

Pa'rehk shot to his feet, with a look of disbelief on his face. "That's impossible. They can't detect cloaked ships!"

The junior officer re-checked his tactical display. "Yes sir, but those weapons are definitely aimed at us."

With an almost plaintive tone in his voice, Pa'rehk hoped beyond hope that this was a mere fluke. "It may be a coincidence. Change course to three degrees, mark six."

"Yes, sir. Changing course." The ship changed direction slightly, and dozens of monstrous gun turrets rotated to follow it. With a hint of panic in his voice, the junior officer reported quickly. "The enemy weapons are still tracking us, sir."

Damn, Pa'rehk thought to himself. That can only mean ...

He never had a chance to complete the thought. Aboard the Crimson Blade, Admiral Kanos growled out a one-word command: "Fire."

As one, hundreds of heavy turbolaser cannons opened fire upon the cloaked and unshielded Romulan warbirds. A vast fusillade of massive, luminous blasts of energy lanced out toward the defenseless intruders, like a green-tinted hail. The hail of fire struck home in moments, and countless gigatons of particle energy shredded duranium and tritanium plating like paper. Each ship flared up like a tiny star, scattering its particles across the cosmos. Where Pa'rehk had stood on his bridge commanding his fleet moments before, a cloud of slowly cooling radioactive gas now dissipated into the blackness of space.

Admiral Kanos turned to his captain and smiled. "It appears that the Emperor was correct, as usual. Transmit all sensor logs and holo-images to the Emperor, as well as all data retrieved from the ring message pods."

Over the next few hours, news of the outrage quickly spread across the galaxy. With no formal declaration of war, marauding starships from an alien race had attacked and murdered millions of Imperial civilians without provocation. Those same starships had even attempted an invasion of the Empire itself, but were destroyed by Admiral Kanos' famed armada.

Worse yet, there were rumours that even more dangerous foes lay in wait on the other side of that wormhole, ready to attack, with mysterious names like "Klingon" and "Borg". Some rumours even suggested that the aliens had somehow created the wormhole itself, and it was only sheer luck that the Empire managed to seize control of it in time to stop a major invasion. There were even those who claimed to have access to classified data, showing that the enemy could open new wormholes at will, anywhere in the galaxy. All of this fell into the Emperor's grand plan, of course. A carefully placed information leak was invariably ten times more credible on the street than an official government statement, and a hundred times more corrosive.

The brutal holo-images of death and destruction, replayed again and again on every available channel, silenced what had been a strong voice of opposition to the military, and the Emperor. The crew of the ring had been carefully hand-picked to represent a broad cross-section of the galaxy, with representatives from nearly every major race. The outrage was therefore almost universal. Political agitators who had been demanding the decommissioning of the Death Star and much of the star fleet now performed a miraculous about-face and joined the chorus of criticism, asking why Imperial defenses were allowed to diminish as far as they had. Supporters of the military infrastructure, steadily decreasing in number with the perceived onset of galactic peace, now found themselves being hailed as visionaries.

Most importantly of all, over the next two days, public resistance to continued military spending and conscription evaporated. Small increases were even approved in some sectors, and in marathon emergency sessions, the Imperial Senate voted overwhelmingly in favour of a formal declaration of war. They also voted to recommission the long-dormant World Devastators and Galaxy Gun, and to give the Admiralty a free hand to crush the invaders with whatever means were deemed necessary.

Tens of thousands of light years away from the Core systems, Admiral Kanos watched the political developments proceed, exactly as he had known they would. The preparations were now complete, and reinforcements were flooding in from all sectors.

When the long-awaited message finally came from the Emperor, it was a short, succinct message with only one word: "Begin."

Chapter Eight