Empires' End: Book 1

The Path to Hell

The hooded family came to the house under the cover of night, as arranged. The people inside the house kept the lights off, but opened the door. Without entering the home herself, the mother crouched and held her eldest, then stood and, against every instinct she had, placed her baby into the arms of another, knowing she would never hold him again. The door closed, and the lone hooded figure departed into the night.

After O’Brien had given in to his heroic impulses and joined the resistance, his family became an inevitable target and Keiko had gone into hiding. But with young children she could not survive off the grid, and it was impossible for them to hide within the grid together. Their only chance was to be someone else’s children, someone not wanted dead by the Dominion. It was the hardest choice she had ever made, and she couldn’t believe she’d had the strength to make it.

If only her husband had been that strong.

Bashir crept quickly through the dark cave rocks, escaping the electromagnetic field that shielded the colony from unwanted transporter beams. It had taken a bit of work to get here, but finally he was ready for his next mission. Once Bashir reached the extraction point, a shimmer of light brought him to the room of a ship- but not Sloan’s stealth ship. By the shape of the bulkheads and the color of the panelled walls, it was a telorian freighter; a style of ship often favored by smugglers for its relatively faint warp signature despite its speed. Bashir thought through the possibilities as he turned around. It was extremely unlikely anyone else would know he was here, other than the Dominion, which would have beamed him somewhere very different. Maybe there had simply been a change in Sloan’s plans…

“Garak!” Bashir shouted once he’d turned around and saw his old puzzlebox and mentor. His presence didn’t really explain things, but it at least meant Bashir was safe- probably.

“I’m afraid Sloan is busy with other matters,” said Garak. “But I was able to obtain the use of a Syndicate ship and pick you up myself. I must say you look rather dashing with Gul Usted’s face, though I suspect you’ll be wanting to change it out as soon as possible. There’s equipment in the sickbay, such as it is. I would recommend a nice, thuggish looking andorian, purhapse with a few scars.”

Bashir regarded Garak suspiciously, “So who are you working for, exactly?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” replied Garak, “Section 31. And the Orion Syndicate. And a mining colony on Sappora Prime, but that’s not important right now.”

“I meant,” said Bashir patently, “who do you really work for?”

Garak smiled, “I really work for all of them doctor. But if you’re inquiring about my ultimate loyalties and motives, then I have to ask how you could know me all these years and still expect me to give an answer?”

“Alright, where’s Sloan?” Bashir asked.

“Off undermining some ketracel-white plant somewhere,” Garak replied, “by assassinating the scientist tasked with fixing it. He’d infected their supply crop with some bioweapon a few months back, but they detected the resulting toxin in the drug and shut down the facility until they could root out the problem. Anyway that’s why I’m here instead. Besides the next mission has us working together anyway. Just like old times, eh doctor?”

“Alright, what’s the new mission?” he asked.

“We’re going to take over the Orion Syndicate,” said Garak. “I’m pretty far up their chain of command now, and with your help I think we can convert them into a new host for our shadowy organization, now that Starfleet is dead.”

Bashir had expected they would go off plan when he heard about the Romulan attack, but the addition of Garek changed things completely. Bashir almost wondered how the man had found their little spy club, but then this sort of thing was right up Garak’s alley, as was finding things. Honestly how had he not expected Garak to show up eventually?

“So, any news on O’Brien, Kira, or Odo?” asked Bashir as he followed Garak to sickbay. “I haven’t seen them since I left.”

“O’Brien is on some colony with his family last I checked,” Garak said. “Keeping his head down. Kira’s in the resistance on Bajor. And Odo… was abducted while we were on Farius Prime looking for you. But he’s almost certainly dead by now.”

“Dead?” asked Bashir, shocked.

“Yes,” said Garak. “He had caught some kind of wasting disease. I’m sorry.”

“Oh god,” said Bashir, as he realised what he’d done. “Sloan told me his bioweapon wouldn’t infect Odo. I should have known it was a lie.”

Garak stopped and turned on the spot. “You had something to do with this?” he hissed.

Bashir frowned, “I knew about it, when I joined Section 31 Sloan told me all the plans that were still in motion. The virus had already been released, but it would take some time for the Founders to die out.”

“And you went along with genocide?” he said. “I thought you were a doctor.”

“Since when did you shun the hard choices?” asked Bashir, defensively. “You wanted the Founders dead too. I didn’t make the virus myself, but no, I didn’t do anything to stop it once I found out. The Founders were the greatest threat we’d ever faced. They’re very existence eroded trust and made free society impossible. Just a handful of changling operatives had destabilized this entire quadrant and turned longstanding allies to war. And they were utterly, irredeemably, evil. The Founders enslaved entire quadrants, forced their soldiers into drug addiction and so disregarded their lives in battle that few survived to the age of five.”

“You want to talk to me about disrespecting life?” sneered Garak. “We spent months looking for you, after you abandoned us, because I knew if anyone could save him, it would be you. I felt like such a failure, when I didn’t find you in time. Like I had let Odo die. And that whole time you knew Odo was in danger? You didn’t even try to help him? You didn’t even consider that your friend might fall to this, this sweeping decision of yours?”

“I checked with Sloan that he’d be ok,” he said.

“And that was enough for you?” asked Garak. “Did you learn nothing about trusting him?”

“I didn’t have time to verify it myself,” explained Bashir. “I had bigger concerns.”

“O yes,” said Garak, “you and your little eugenics think tank had plans to make. You didn’t have time to think about us little people while you decide our fates.”

“So what if we did?!” demanded Bashir. “I tried leaving it up to you simple people, and look where it got me. My planet dead! My parents dead! So yes, I let the Founders die for what they did to them, and I didn’t care about the consequences. Then I plotted the downfall of their empire, using my talents. All of them.”

“All of them, doctor?” asked Garak, quietly. “I remember some years ago, when I was dying from an abused neural implant, I used every tactic I could to disgust you. To get you to give up on me as morally worthless, so you would leave me alone. But you kept trying to save my life anyway. You had a talent for caring, for valuing your job as a healer above all else. Not deciding who lives and who dies.”

“Well maybe I’m not a doctor anymore,” said Bashir. “I’m more than that now.”

Sisko stood on the bridge of the Defiant as 4 Maquis ships rendezvoused for their next raid. Dumar had finally broken and now they knew the location of a Jem’Hadar cloning facility, on a small planet in the Denorous Belt. The Dominion’s last cloning facility: they’d lost the rest in their war with the Federation, and without the wormhole to bring in key supplies and expertise, it would be years before they could build another.

The 4 ships - all refitted frigates and science vessels never meant to be armed- would provoke the Dominion ships and then draw them away from the planet, while the cloaked Defiant went in for the kill. They were only 4 hours out from the planet and had several last minute details to work out (the vulcan science vessel’s cardassian phaser cannon had suddenly stopped accepting federation power flow, and now they had to rework the offensive formation to disguise the fact that one of the four ships wasn’t armed), but Sisko needed to settle other business first. Something he should have done months ago.

“On screen,” said Sisko after an anxious breath. The Maquis at ops tapped a panel, and Kasidy’s face appeared on the viewer, standing on the bridge of her freighter.

“Hello Ben,” she said as they looked into each other for the first time in over a year. Sisko had heard she’d survived after the war. Had even planned missions that involved her once she rejoined his revived Maquis. But in all those scrappy dogfights their ships never crossed paths. Perhaps that was on purpose. Perhaps they kept their distance because they were afraid. Afraid they were too weak to be there for eachother now, when they needed them. Ben had lost his family, his son. Kasidy was just as diminished when the Dominion scorched Earth. He feared their pain would just compound each other... or maybe he just didn’t want her to see him like this.

It was all there in his eyes, the things he had done. The dead, desperate rage barely masked on his face told the story as clearly as if he’d dragged the tortured man up to the bridge and showed off all the scars he’d given him. The quiver on his lip betrayed he was on the verge of tears just from the presence of someone from his old life. The sag of his shoulders revealed the weight of guilt from the decision that had doomed them all. He was too broken to hide any of it, exposed and naked before her like a soul before God.

Kasidy shook back tears at the wounded sight and then stared at him straight and said truly, “It’s good to see you again.”

And a smile crept on their faces and things grew a little lighter.

The bridge rocked as the Defiant absorbed another barrage of dominion weaponry, but true to its name, the ship refused to succumb under their firepower.

“Shields at 30 percent,” the Maquis tactical officer, Delanna, informed Sisko. The hit had taken 24 percent of their shield power, but there hadn’t been a way to get within a firing arc of this fighter without taking a few bruises from it.

“Got ‘em,” shouted Delanna a moment later, somewhat unnecessarily as the dominion ship exploded on screen.

“Now just another six to go,” quipped Moraine, the helmsmen.

“We’ve just lost the Morocco,” said Jel, the officer at ops.

“Damn,” said Sisko. The Morocco had a good crew. And they weren’t supposed to lose anyone this battle. They just couldn’t afford to these days. But the cloning facility at the Denorous Belt had been a little better armed than Dumar had last heard. Understandable, since it had been several months since his capture. Sisko really should have anticipated the possibility that his intel was out of date. Sisko’s fault, again. Damn.

“Turn 34 by 6J,” Sisko ordered, “we’ll have to replace the Morocco’s cover at Kasidy’s right flank.”

Another Jem'Hadar fighter came within a firing arc as the Defiant flew into position. Delanna at tactical made short work of them, but not before the fighter had blasted away the Xhosa’s grafted cannons and exhausted their shields. Kasidy was a sitting duck.

Between the Xhosa’s damage, the Morocco, and the engineering issues with the T’Vran, the Maquis now only had two ships with working guns, against five Jem’Hadar fighters.

But one of those ships was the Defiant.

Two ships to go. But now the shields were down to five percent, the phasor banks were nearly exhausted, and the Traslo had used the last of its torpedoes- its only weaponry.

“We could ram them,” suggested Delanna.

“Like hell we could,” said Moraine.

“Actually our ablative hull armor might be able to take it,” said Jel at ops. “Provided we hit them at the right angle.”

“If we fire the last of our phasors at the Jem’Hadar hull right as we collide,” Delanna speculated, “the added heat might soften the blow for our penetration. Like warming butter before you slice it.”

“Oh god this is starting to sound like a feasible plan,” said the helmsmen. He sighed, “I’m calculating the trajectory now.”

“No one is ramming anyone,” said Sisko. Now was exactly the time for a crazy plan, but he knew this one wouldn’t work. He’d had simulations of just such a maneuver done back at Utopia Planetia when he’d headed the Defiant’s design. He knew her limits. And this was one of them. Still, maybe after they’d somehow taken down one more ship, they could ram the last one. This mission might be worth their lives, and the other Maquis ships were carrying enough charges to destroy the cloning facility even without guns, once the fighters were out of the way... Wait.

“Put Kasidy onscreen,” Sisko ordered. The charges couldn’t penetrate a fighter's shields, but both the Defiant and the Xhosa had enough to blast through Dominion hull armor. If they rammed through the shields with their ships, flying just close enough to graze the fighter’s hull, they could deposit the charges inside their shields, and detonate them from in there. Kasidy's ship would have to go first, since her ship was slower than the Jem’Hadar. If Sisko corralled one towards her, a Dominion fighter might allow the Xhosa to ram them, knowing a collision would destroy the cargo freighter but leave the warship unharmed. A ramming attack was exactly the kind of desperate ploy ships pulled when they were out of firepower, so the Jem’Hadar might not expect a trap. But once they knew, it would be up to the Defiant to run down and plant the last ship. Otherwise the Jem’Hadar would be happy to keep back and fire with their still quite full complement of weapons until the Maquis ships were eventually destroyed.

“We can do this Benjamin,” said Kasidy after he’d quickly run through the scheme. “But you know it wouldn’t take more than a small twitch in ours or the Jem’Hadar’s flight path to cause a collision. And then this really would be just another ‘let’s ram them’ plan.”

“I know,” said Sisko. He looked her in the eyes, and left the rest unsaid.

Kasidy turned off the connection, and the Xhosa flew towards its position.

“A ship just decloaked,” said Jel at ops. She skimmed her sensor readings, then shoute with relief, “It’s the Rotarran!”

“Dax!” said Sisko with a grin. “Hail them,” he ordered. “Let’s see how Martok wants to play this.”

The Maquis ships with working shields flew to intercept enemy fire as the klingon warship engaged the two Dominion fighters. Ringing every last bit of tactical utility out of their ammoless ships. Between that, and the warbird being fresh for the fight, the Jem’Hadar didn’t really stand a chance.

After the battle, Sisko ordered the Rotarran’s bridge on the viewscreen. Martok sat in his captain’s chair, with Worf standing by his side. At ops he could see Dax, her chair swiveled to face the viewer.

“It’s good to see you all,” said Sisko.

“Aye my friend,” said Martok. “It’s good to see you as well. Now, before we celebrate with wine and trade stories of our exploits since last parted, let’s finish the mission. Tell me, what is your plan for destroying the cloning facility?”

The cloning facility was now defenseless, though there were likely several Jem’Hadar guards inside. The complex, built into an iridium laced asteroid, was difficult to beam within. Transporting into rooms near the surface was possible with a little skill, but deeper penetration was impossible. The plan was to beam in with the charges on carts, and walk them into the center of the facility, where a detonation would properly destroy the asteroid.

Of course Sisko had no intention of having another costly firefight with the Jem’Hadar. “Are the gamma pulsers ready for transport?” he called down to the transporter room.

“Ay captain,” they answered back.

“Then beam them over and detonate them.” The barrel sized devices were designed to produce gigajoules of pure gamma radiation in a short burst. The rays would reach deep into facility, fatally damaging all living tissue, as well as complex machinery. But the rays would leave behind no radioactive material. All ionized particles would decay within a matter of seconds. The Maquis would have to wait a few minutes for the Jem’Hadar to become fully incapacitated, but then it would be completely safe to beam aboard themselves. Needless to say such devices had been declared a war crime by the Federation. Too bad for the Dominion that they had eliminated that particular legal obstacle.

Sisko, Jel, Kasidy, Dax, and Worf beamed down along with two carts. Each cart carried three antimatter charges, some tools, and a floodlight to illuminate the dead facility. Sisko looked around. The room was large enough that the floodlights didn’t quite reach the walls, and empty except for the spent pulsers behind them. He assumed the room was intended for receiving cargo, since it was in the easiest location to transport to within the asteroid. In front of them was a large door with a panel to the side. The door was shut and the panel looked fried.

Dax approached the door. Frowning into her tricorder, she said, “I don’t think I can get this to open anything ever again. And we can’t use the manual without a Dominion hardkey. These doors are designed to lock in the event of a catastrophic shutdown. We’ll have to blast the door.” She went to one of the carts and looked through the tools they’d brought, then shrugged and pulled out a starfleet phaser. Setting the phaser to maximum, she aimed at the door and disintegrated it. Turning back to the others with a grin, she said, “I missed these.”

They made their way through the corridors towards the center of the complex. It wasn’t long before they came across their first Jem’Hadar. He lay facedown on the floor, breathing heavily and covered in radiation burns. Kasidy shot him without hesitating. Not because the dying soldier was a threat, Sisko suspected, but because it was the least they could do. Technically mercy killings were also a war crime in the old days, mostly to deny soldiers a potential excuse to kill incapacitated enemies they didn’t like. But here it was definitely appropriate. He pulled out his phaser.

Ten minutes later, halfway to the core, the party came to a large window along the corridor wall, beside another door. The room behind the window was also cavernously large, but far from empty. Inside were a variety of stationary targets, statues in the shape of humans, romulans, and klingons. There were also a variety of obstacles and sources of cover, such as fake rocks and several benches. Then of course there were the children.

At least fifty of them, all sprawled along the floor or collapsed over rocks mid-climb. The soundproof window spared the party from the moaning and gasping breaths, but their imaginations filled in the silence anyway. Sisko hadn’t expected there to be children here, but then it did make a certain sense. Why would the Dominion clone and train their soldiers in separate facilities? After all, Jem’Hadar grew to adulthood in a matter of days, and didn’t require anything excessively elaborate in their upbringing, like a planet or a family. No, a few more training rooms like this one, some terminals with approved data, and some white, and they were good. So what if the children never saw a tree or the sky until they were on the battlefield? What mattered was growing soldiers as efficiently as possible. So it was all done right here. Complete vertical integration of troop production. So if this cloning facility had a regular output of several hundred soldiers, he’d just murdered several hundred children with radiation poisoning. He looked at the little Jem’Hadar, many of them still clutching their training rifles as if it was their life’s blood. They’d have been adults in few days anyway, fully fledged enemy combatants. Did it really matter that he’d killed them a little early?

It did, it really, really did.

Sisko disintegrated the door with his phaser, set the phaser back from maximum to kill, and systematically shot each kid in the room. The others solemnly joined in. When it was done, Sisko grabbed hold of the cart and returned to pushing. “Come on,” he said, “the sooner we set these off, the sooner the children in the rest of this complex won’t be suffering anymore.”

They ran the rest of the way.

Weyoun found himself kneeling on a stone floor much like he had left, after the swirling energies subsided. Standing up, he saw darkness all around him. The stone floor only extended a few meters in all directions, seven bare pillars marking the edges where the ground dropped off into the void. The ground was unmarked, by carvings nor the passage of time. Weyoun felt fear swirling in his stomach as he calmly examined his surroundings.

From out of the void immense forms took shape, fractal structures covering the sky and filling it with their not-light. They resembled the crystalline entity Weyoun had seen in Starfleet’s records, and yet they were so much… more. As they moved, he could almost catch glimpses of their true shape, like the morphing shadows a rotating hypercube cast on three dimensional space. As Weyoun craned his neck to see these beings, thoughts appeared in his head.

The vessel has returned.

No, this is a new one. Its structure is different. More complicated and yet, weaker. Messy. It is like the ones before. The one’s that built the portal.

Weyoun had a guess at who they were referring to. “Excuse me?” he asked, with a diplomatic politeness he’d used equally on unimportant administrators and deadly alien kings. “Did an android visit and do business with you, about a decade or two ago?”

The vessel is vibrating the matter we encased it in. Does this have a meaning?

Yes. The others did that too. It is how they expressed agreement. The last vessel did this too, when it was not using light.

But we have not commanded it yet. To what is it agreeing?

The last vessel did this too, the first time it came. We did not learn why.

Perhaps now we should? A closer examination is called for. Let us learn its mind.

Weyoun became nothing as he was instantaneously ripped apart atom by atom, then came into agonizing being again as he was reassembled, slowly. Once he was whole again, the thoughts returned, this time directed at him.

You have power in your plane, of a kind.

You control ships and vessels and planets, in a way similar to but lesser than our control of structure and order.

Your plane is filled with food. Replicating patterns such as yourself concentrate order within yourselves as you consume extropy, creating convenient sources of high level structure for us to integrate and absorb.

You will help us harness it.

Weyoun shook his head. “Why would I help you destroy planets?”

You will because we command it.

There are many planets you have destroyed already. With ships and soldiers and weaker things. You may select the planets. Then help us absorb their structure.

You served false gods who claimed to spread order. Now help preserve order. Within us, the structure we absorb does not decay with the progression of thermodynamics. Entropy does not exist outside your dim plane.

Existential pangs returned at the mention of his dead and disappointed gods. He stared up at these vast beings, and a sense of awe returned for the first in a long time. Perhaps he could make use of them in his war across the galaxy. And who knows, maybe he could find new purpose in their otherworldly demands. If anything deserved the title gods, it was beings such as these.

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