Empires' End: Book 1

Ties That Bind

Miles O’Brien looked over his shoulder after hearing a young man, Jeremy something, groan in frustration. The new recruit was trying to fix a broken phaser rifle, a stolen cardassian model with a jerry-rigged federation power cell duct taped to the side. O’Brien dropped his own work, walked over and crouched beside him. “Mind if I take a look at that soldier?”

Jeremy looked up, nodded, and gently handed it over. O’Brien spent a moment studying it, then handed it back. “Looks like a faulty ODN relay. You did a good job routing the power cell through the tripolymer circuitry, but the relay couldn’t take the higher amplitude of the Federation current and burnt out.”

The rebel looked away in shame. “So I broke it. I don’t know when I’ll get a replacement part while we’re in these caves. And we’re short on guns as it is. I’m just a liability now.”

Miles put his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ve some experience with integrating Starfleet tech into Cardassian systems. Just bypass the relay and set the power cell to a three point eight charge cycle. That should do the relay’s job well enough to get a coherent beam.”

The farmhand turned soldier and field mechanic followed his advice and got a satisfying hum for his effort when he turned it on. He grinned. “Thanks. I guess that’s why everyone around here calls you the chief. Like the head engineer on a starship.”

O’Brien grunted and smiled, “Young man, I was the head engineer on a starship.” He then went back to his work, leaving the earthbound man in quiet awe.

The raid was a failure. Bad recon, or maybe just bad luck. There were supposed to be fourteen soldiers stationed at this command post, with only three guards on duty during the night shift. O’Brien and the rebels would take them out, sneak in and hogtie the sleeping cardassians, and use the facility to beam them to the next warship scheduled for a layover in this system. When they got there, there were indeed just 3 guards outside. But once the rebels crept inside, instead of eleven sleeping officers they found over forty soldiers tucked inside playing dom-jot on a makeshift table. And even drunk off kanar, forty phaser blasts eventually hit their marks.

O’Brien ordered retreat immediately, then leapt beside a corridor and turned to lay down some cover fire while his troops ran. He tossed in a homemade smoke bomb and ran for the door himself, but a random shot got him in the shoulder and he fell to the floor. The last thing he saw was the but of a phaser rifle slamming into his face.

“Wake up!” yelled someone as a blinding light burst into O’Brien’s face. Miles was restrained in a metal chair, facing a shadowy figure behind the floodlight.

Another figure came in to join the first. “So, this is the human captured in that little incident in Shantar Provence? Poor bastard walked right into a full garrison on their off hours.”

“That’s what I’m told,” said the first voice gruffly. “Process him.”

The second figure walked into the light, and O’Brien got a wozy impression of his face. The cardassian picked up something metal from the table and opened up O’Brien’s jaw with it.

“That’s funny,” he said, “I think we’ve already processed him before. His back molar is already missing. Here,” the interrogator swabbed the back of O’Brien’s throat with a biosynth chip, then got up and handed it over to the administrator. “Run that DNA through our records. Let’s see who our little would-be terrorist is.” The administrator walked behind a nearby console and plugged in the chip, the interrogator followed him and leaned over his shoulder to see the results.

The first cardassian spoke up once he’d read enough. “Miles Edward O’Brien. Former soldier in the Federation’s military. You killed quite a lot of us in the war. I guess you couldn’t help trying to kill some more.” He turned to the interrogator, “Get what you can out of him. The rebels are hardly a threat, but it’s as good an excuse as any to get some payback.” He looked into O’Brien’s eyes, “I suspect he’ll let you inflict a lot of pain before he gives in.”

O’Brien crawled into the corner of his cell, grateful just to be somewhere he knew was safe from the shocks. The faint buzz of the forcefield snapping on and the retreating footsteps told him the cardassian who had thrown him back in here was gone. O’Brien rested for a few sweet moments, then got back to work. He crept to a panel on the wall he had already broken and pried it loose again. Out of the crevice he pulled the tool he had been building out of the simple wiring within the walls. After a few hours of tinkering, he realized today was the day: it was nearly finished. An hour later and his device was ready, but was he?

O’Brien knew he would only get one shot at this, and would need his strength, such as he could muster here. He didn’t want to spend another second in this hell, but life had beaten patience into him long ago. Miles finished and returned the tool, replaced the panel, and drifted off to sleep.

The morning greeted him with shouts and a bowl of gruel haphazardly slid across the floor, like usual. O’Brien leaned over to take it, sat up, and tipped the bowl so gravity slowly slid the grey slop into his open mouth. Prisoners didn’t merit spoons. Finished, he looked into his captor’s eyes with grim determination, waiting for the next part of the day.

“I wonder if you’ll talk today?” pondered the interrogator. He looked to the guards to ready their phasors and turned off the forcefield again. “You’re dead the moment you do, of course. We’ve no reason to keep you around past your usefulness. But then, is this really worth continuing? Day after day of shocks and beatings? I suppose I’d cling to life too, but at some point dignity has to be satisfied.” He motioned with his hand and O’Brien walked out of his cell. “At some point you’ll have to let this end.”

The interrogator then looked to two of the guards and they grabbed and pinned O’Brien to the wall. O’Brien tensed himself at this unexpected turn. Normally he was taken straight to the torture room.

“I’m curious what keeps you going,” said the interrogator, as he walked into O’Brien’s cell. “Is it some stubborn refusal to give up, some perverted need to go on living even when life gives you nothing…or”- Fear stabbed O’Brien as the cardassian leaned beside his hiding panel, and cooled into icy despair as he opened the panel and found his patchwork tool- “is it simply the delusion that the longer you hold on, the more likely you can escape.” The cardassian looked over the tool for a moment, admiring it’s ingenuity, and then casually broke it in two.

“I watched you build this, you know,” the man said as he left the cell and approached O’Brien. “Every night as you huddled over your broken wires, thinking you were alone. Did you really think there were no cameras recording you? Or that no one was watching them? Could you really be so uncomprehending of your predicament? You are my prisoner, Miles. Nothing can change that.” The interrogator looked at the broken pieces and sighed. “Still I have to give you some credit,” he said, charitably. “It’s a masterful work of craftsmanship, really. Not many men can pull apart a power conduit and in its place make a forcefield disrupter, let alone one that doubles as a primitive laser. Of course you realize it could only have gotten a few shots off before overloading.”

“That was the idea,” muttered O’Brien. “Would’ve blown down the outer wall after shooting a guard or two on my way there.”

The interrogator's eyes lit up, “So it triples as a bomb precisely because of its limitations. Fascinating.” He then called to his men and at least seven soldiers marched out of the main corridor into the crowded cell room. “But tell me,” he said, “how would one man who can barely walk fight his way past a garrison of guards with a gun that only shoots twice?”

“Wasn’t counting on that much security,” muttered O’Brien. He looked up, “Do you lot really have nothing better to do than watch prisoners while they sleep and send ten soldiers to guard one man?”

The cardassian smiled, “I’m very devoted to my subjects. And the excess troops were just for last night, when I knew you’d be trying your escape now that your toy was finished. Only you never came out.” He leaned in close and looked deep into Mile’s eyes, “Could it be that deep down you understood the futility of the gesture? That no matter what gismo your fevered mind cobbled together, nothing could save you from your fate?”

The interrogator motioned and the guards pinning him started dragging him off toward the torture chamber. “You have only choice left to you human,” the cardassian said as he led the way, “when to finally die.”

O’Brien sat alone in his cell. In his hands was another tool, scraped together from the insides of the same broken panel. His captors hadn’t even bothered to fix it. They knew it didn’t matter. This tool was much less fancy than before, just a shard of glass with a sharp edge. Not much use in a fight, it was too small to be a knife. But it would let him escape, in a sense. He had only one choice left, like the cardassian said, but he would be damned if he would sell out his friends in the resistance. He wouldn’t die by giving them what they wanted, but he couldn’t go on anymore. Not if there was no hope of escape. It wasn’t a matter of being strong enough, there was simply no reason to continue an existence that consisted solely of torture. It wasn’t the first time he’d made this decision, but perhaps it was the only time the decision was sane.

He would never see Molly or Keiko again, or little Kirayoshi. He had abandoned them when he left for war, again. He never could stop himself from being a soldier, no matter how much he played the engineer. Well, soldiers died.

Miles closed his eyes, steadied the glass over his wrists, and sang softly, “The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you will find him…”

But midway through his song the sound of explosions shook through the walls. O’Brien stilled his blade and quit his song. After another unseen bombardment the lights went out, and in their place came the brilliant blue shimmer of a transporter beam. O’Brien found himself on the transporter pad of a cardassian ship, staring at the farm boy from the resistance, now manning his old station.

O’Brien was too overwhelmed to speak. He wiped the tears from his eyes as the young man came over and helped him to his feet. “Jeremy,” O’Brien finally whispered as he leaned on the rebel’s shoulders, unable to find the words to thank him, or express the profound hope rising in his chest after an unspeakable night.

The soldier grinned and said simply, “You didn’t think we’d leave our Chief behind, did ya?”

Rejel strode into a crowded mess hall with the fate of worlds on her mind. They’d just lost their last cloning facility to rebels. Unless she could get the robots into production, a lengthy war with the Romulans could end with them outnumbered and out of reinforcements. She would have to divert more resources to the project.

And she still didn’t understand what had so empowered the Romulan fleet. Their numbers and maneuverability far outstretched original estimates. Rejel worried that there might be further surprises waiting for them.

Like a Vorta with a mountain of bizarre food covering her table. Never able to resist her curiosity, Rejel approached the Vorta’s table and greeted her, “Hi, I’m Rejel, the new leader of Cardassia, you’re one of the new Vorta identities right? I didn’t think I would get a chance to speak with any of you, since I thought all of you had been assigned administration positions out along the new territories...”

The Vorta quickly swallowed a piece of fruit she had been sampling and nodded vigorously. “Silani One, at your service. Um, yeah pretty much of all of us had, but my assignment was on Vulcan so…” She shrugged helplessly, then startled and offered Rejel a chair.

Rejel took it absentmindedly and sat down. “I hadn’t thought about that. The new Vorta on Andoria are probably in for a shaky first day on the job too. So were you on Vulcan at the time or-”

“I was on a ship headed there. Didn’t get very far before the news broke, and we just came back to Cardassia to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. I beamed down here and have kind of just been dead weight until they can find a new job for me.” Silani looked down at all the food on her table and quickly added. “Not that i’ve just been sitting here wasting all you replicator power for the past few weeks. This is just an... experiment.”

“Yes I was wondering about that,” said Rejel as she spotted a plait of terran lasagna and reached for it. She looked questioningly at Silani, who nodded that she could have it. “Most of this stuff isn’t even programmed into the mess’s replicators. Also I thought Vorta had an impoverished palate.”

“Yes well,” explained Silani, “I looked through some databases and added a few dishes from across the quadrant. I needed a more diverse sample set then just Cardassian fair.”

“So what were you testing?” asked Rejel.

“Well,” Silani looked around conspiratorially, then leaned in to Rejel and stuck her tongue out. When Rejel only showed confusion, Silani explained. “I grafted Kressari taste buds onto my tongue, that’s why it looks kind of greenish along the top now. I was trying to improve my sense of taste.”

“Did it work?” asked Rejel, intrigued.

“Well, yes and no,” said Silani. “It definitely increased the range of my senses, but the Founder’s genetic tampering didn’t just cover our physiology, our neural wiring was reworked as well. My brain just isn’t built to process these stimuli, so I had to adapt other areas of my brain to interpret flavor, as kind of their part time job.” Silani picked up a boiled cardassian Tasper egg and spooned a bite into her mouth, frowned a bit while mulling over the sensations, then swallowed it. “For example,” she said, “that tasted like a dark yellowish green.” She looked down at the rotten egg again, “Despite really looking more brownish grey. Why do you like these again?”

Rejel smiled, “We don’t, really. I’m quite certain half of cardassia are masochists.”

Silani laughed at that, then frowned and looked serious, “Still, I wouldn’t judge your people so harshly. There’s depth, and history in your culture. The vorta don’t even have a culture. We’re just, cogs.”

Rejel shook her head, “Now that can’t really be true. Every people has a culture-”

“But we’re not a people,” Silani cut in, “just a collection of separated individuals. Since I’ve been activated I’ve only physically spoken to another vorta less than 50 times, and in each case it was purely business, not much more than the sterile updates I read every day. Even the Jem'hadar spend time together in their barracks, trading stories of valiant Firsts that achieved narrow victories or lived past 5 years. But on every ship there's just one vorta, alone. The only thing binding us together is devotion to the Founders.”

“Well,” pondered Rejel as she grabbed a Bajoran tart for the road and stood up, “maybe you should change that. Apparently there are going to be several vorta stuck here for the remainder of this war. Maybe you should seek them out.”

“I might at that,” said Silani. She picked up a single serpent worm from a bowl of gagh and cautiously nibbled it’s lifeless replicated corpse, then made a face, “At the very least it would go better than my dabbles in culinary neurology.” Without getting up, she leaned upward and shook Rejel’s hand, “It was very pleasant speaking with you, Rejel. I hope to do so again sometime.”

Rejel walked back to the war room, munching on her tart, and wondered if she’d just made a friend- and whether befriending that strange vorta could result in anything but trouble.

Picard had been in this cell for hours, after Romulan security had caught him trying to sneak aboard a freighter. He had a few ideas how to escape, but he decided the prudent thing for now was to wait, let them show their hand first. There were numerous ways Picard could be of use to his captors, so the question was, what did they want from him, and could he exploit that?

“Captain Picard,” said a romulan as he strolled in front of his cell.

“Praetor Vreenak,” said Picard once he recognized him. Though he did not recognize the unmasked hatred in his eyes. This would be an uphill battle.

Vreenak smiled, “It’s good to see your keeping up with local politics. It would have been distressing to learn someone ignorant had been so recklessly meddling with them.”

“Oh I’m keenly aware of the situation Praetor,” said Picard. “Enough to be puzzled by my imprisonment. It seems to me that I should have been allowed to leave.”

Vreenak raised an eyebrow, and his voice, “You assassinated a Romulan Senator, conspired to bring war down upon us, then tried to sneak aboard one of our ships, and you think I should just let you go?”

Picard gave him a hard look, “Vreenak, like it or not you are at war with the most powerful force in the alpha quadrant. A force whose armies surround you on all sides. If I were you I would be thinking very hard right now about finding allies.”

Vreenak sneered, “And what is a broken old man without his fleet or his ship supposed to do for me?”

“The very thing I was on my way to do, before you arrested me: ignite a rebellion within the Federation,” said Picard, launching into a speech. “If I can distract the Dominion’s occupation forces with an armed uprising, they’ll be in a much less imposing position as they face down your armies. Pairing your fleets with a ground rebellion was, after all, how you captured Vulcan. And it’s the only way you’ll avoid spending soldiers on the ground. What was it you were trying to achieve Preator? A costless war?”

Vreenak chuckled, “Very convincing, old man. Almost enough for me to forget you’re the reason I’m in this war so early. But you don’t get to pull the same trick twice. An armed rebellion in the former Federation worlds is exactly what I’m aiming for, but I don’t need you to help me get it. They’re fighting all on their own. All they needed was to see the rise of Vulcan, and now every planet from Mars to Betazed is in a full scale riot. And as we speak Kressari intermediaries are smuggling our weapons into their hands.” He smiled coldly, “You’re people do make excellent cannon fodder.

“Now,” continued Vreenak, “I suppose you could probably help them organize better. You’re one of the last few members of starfleet left alive, you’ve experience with command and tactics, and I’m sure you have many connections left within the former Federation.” He dragged his next words reluctantly through a pit of bile, “And let it never be said that I waste potential assets. Even if that asset killed someone very dear to my heart.”

It took a moment to understand, but once he did, Picard wished that moment had lasted longer. Picard looked away, realizing fully what he had done. That the man he had chosen to kill was a person, with people who cared about him. Not just some chess piece on a board. How could he have forgotten that? Picard looked up, “You and Mayvar were together? I’m so sorry. I can’t begin…”

Vreenak looked sick, “save your groveling. The last thing I need is the sympathies of a killer. And it’s certainly not why I’m here. I would have had you thrown you into some dark hole for the rest of your life without even looking at you first, if I didn’t want to waste an asset.”

“So you will let me join the rebellion,” said Picard.

“No,” Vreenak decreed, “I have a different use for you.”

Vreenak walked away for a moment and came back with a chair. Slowly, he set it down and sat down comfortably. Then he looked back at the wayward captain, “Are you aware that we recently acquired Andoria?”

Picard nodded.

“I’m afraid it wasn’t quite taken without cost, several ground troops were killed in the incursion. But it was necessary for the war effort to take it now, instead of wait for more organized rebellion and my... other plans for dealing with ground forces. Vulcan’s shipyards are already being refitted to produce our positronic ships. But Vulcan’s resources are insufficient on their own to maintain the needed production levels. We need Andoria’s mines to provide the necessary minerals and dilithium. Unfortunately, the Andorian minors have been decidedly less than cooperative. They sabotaged the equipment during the rebellion, and they’ve been refusing to work, even under threat of imprisonment. I could start using more extreme measures to convince them to work, but I’m hoping you can provide a better option.”

“Me?” asked Picard, wary of where this was going.

“You’re an accomplished diplomat after all,” said Vreenak, condescendingly. “And something of a celebrity in the former Federation. Savior from the Borg and all that. You could lend a certain legitimacy to our forces. Convince the people that our best interests are their best interests.”

“You want me to spew Romulan propaganda?” said Picard.

“I want you to tell the truth,” said Vreenak. “The more ships we can turn out, the more worlds we can free from the Dominion.”

“Occupation under Romulan guard is hardly the same as being as free,” countered Picard.

Vreenak shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he said. “But the longer we are at war with the Dominion, the greater your chance to throw us both off your shoulders.” He smiled at the irony of it, “You have to help us, no matter how much you despise us, simply because doing so gives you the greatest chance to betray us later. Even if the chance of victory is impossibly slim,” he sneered, “it’s all you have left.”

Picard didn’t have anything to say to that. It was the same logic he had used on Spock, the same sacrifices he had demanded of the Vulcan people. He couldn’t refuse it for himself. But this made him sicker than assassination plots. This was the last inch of him, the last thread of self respect. To do this was to be among the mosted hated dregs humanity had ever sunk to. To do this was to be a collaborator.

News had spread across Bajor that an Orb had been liberated. Secretly, it traveled from province to province, carried by the right hand of the Emissary, a hero of the resistance twice over. With skills she had learned in the underground, she kept the artifact safe from Dominion hands, even as they sent waves of troops to recover it. The Keeper of the Orb offered its wisdom to all those she could reach, and to the rest offered hope through her growing legend. Rumors even began that the Prophets had granted her divine power, and that through her they healed the sick and injured. Most likely these were exaggerations from tails of her sharing raided medical supplies, but the story stuck. Wherever the Keeper walked the blessings of the Prophets followed, and soon all of Bajor was singing Kira’s name as a rallying cry of rebellion.

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