Gul Rejel sat in the war room, listening to more bad news. The war was dragging on, and they’d now lost dozens of worlds to the romulans. A vorta administrator pointed at some maps detailing the romulan fleets. “As you can see,” he said. “They’ve gotten Vulcan’s shipyards running. If we don’t strike now, we’ll never retake it.”
A legate seated across from Rejel disagreed, “A siege would take weeks now to get through their defences. Vulcan is a strategic planet, but it’s not worth the resources necessary to take it with half the weight of the Romulan Empire defending it. You lost Vulcan, the best thing now is to not lose the war.”
Rejel turned to the legate, “What do you propose?”
The cardassian smiled, “Like I said, the Romulans have half their fleet centered around Vulcan and its nearby worlds now. So why not take Romulus? It’s still heavily defended, but less so then it will ever be again. Take Vulcan, and you’ve recovered from the original failure. Take Romulus, and that failure becomes a victory. Vulcan will fall soon enough without an empire to defend it, and then all the Alpha Quadrant will finally be part of the Dominion, and under Cardassian leadership.”
Rejel nodded. She turned to the Vorta, “I approve. Let’s begin plans for the immediate invasion of Romulus.”
Picard sat at the head of a conference table. The entire room was sculpted from solid jade, made by Andorian artisans millennia ago, as part of some dictator’s palace long before it became the capital of the world-spanning democracy that had joined the Federation. Now it was home to dictators once more. The Romulan governor was not in the room with him, but Picard’s position at the head of the table was enough to show that he represented her. Before him sat seven Andorians, former politicians, businessmen, union leaders, and resistance fighters he’d had pulled from the mines. He knew four of them personally, the rest by reputation. If anyone on the planet had the clout to speak for the Andorian people, it was them. If he could strike a deal with them, the other workers would go along with them.
Every one of the leaders’ eyes burned with betrayal. This was going to be difficult.
“I have been given leave to offer several boons,” started Picard, “if your people would increase cooperation with the mining supervisors. On the table are increased rations, sick leave-”
“We’re not going to help the romulan war machine just because they agree to stop starving us and working our sick and injured to death,” said Ra’Check, the former owner of the western continent's keltop fields, who once supplied the Enterprise with emergency grains to aid a failing colony world. “Our farms were running at post-scarcity production levels. You’re only rationing the food as a means of control.”
“I don’t know what you expect from us,” said Je’Tal, who’d run the doctor’s union, and had once settled a dispute that may have closed several orbital hospitals for the first time in a hundred years, if not for her, “But we are not going to sell this occupation to the masses for you. We at least aren’t collaborators.”
Picard looked at both of them gravely, and tried to convey compassion. “I’m afraid the rations exist because the farms dropped in productivity when the Romulans diverted most of their workforce towards the mines. Now, I’m confident I can get the Romulans to return those workers to the fields, if I can guarantee that they’ll see an equivalent increase in productivity from the remaining miners. And for that I’ll need your help.”
“So it’s work harder or starve to death from mismanaged resources,” replied Ra’Check. “That’s not an offer. That’s a threat.”
“Why are you working with these people Jean-Luc?” asked Me’Vak, the former Prime Minister of Andoria, and before that an accomplished diplomat who Picard had once ferried across a minefield to arbitrate a peace agreement. “You’re no mouthpiece.”
“Because we need them,” said Picard. He turned to Je’Tal, who, according to the Tal Shiar, had joined the resistance during the Dominion occupation, “How was your resistance under the Dominion? Did you have any hope of success?”
“It’s not like the Romulans are any better,” she replied.
“No,” agreed Picard, “But they are another force to play against the Dominion. A force with warships, unlike our defeated Federation. Warships these mines are supplying the materials for.”
“So that’s what you're doing?” asked Me’Vak. “Playing the Romulans and Dominion off each other. Are you sure it’s not the Romulans who are playing you?”
Picard smiled wearily. “Can’t it be both?” he asked.
“No,” cut in Ra’Check. “It really can’t.” He got up to leave. “Now if you excuse me,” he said, quickly glancing at Je’Tal, “I have more important things to take care of.” The other andorians got up to follow him. On her way out, Me’Vak gave Picard a concerned look.
Alone in the conference hall, Picard pondered his failure. He hadn’t expected much to be accomplished in the first meeting, but he had expected it to last more than ten minutes. They’d only made a token gesture of listening, probably because they’d had no intention of dealing with a collaborator.
Or maybe... because some of them were in a hurry. There had been no irony in Ra’Check’s voice when he said he’d had more important things to do today. He truly meant it. Picard doubted he’d been talking about mining then. He’d glanced at Je’Tal before leaving. Picard pulled up their records. They worked in separate processing facilities, but had been spotted together multiple times within the capitol. An affair? No, Je’Tal’s spouse was female, and her intelligence report listed her orientation as homosexual and homoromantic. An affair with Ra’Check was highly unlikely. The Tal Shiar was convinced she’d ceased participating in the resistance in the months following the Romulan takeover, but the Tal Shiar had seen better days. And why would she stop just because of a change in leadership? So assuming she was still fighting, and that Ra’Chek had been meeting with her because they worked in the rebellion together, then it seemed likely they had something planned for tonight. Something they needed to get back to, but couldn’t raise suspicion over by refusing Picard’s invitation to a meeting.
But then why risk leaving so abruptly? Something very time sensitive then. He scanned his records of the day’s plans. There was a large shipment outbound for Vulcan today. A carrier ship would be landing at the Velnon docking fields in a few hours. Picard checked the train records: both Je’Tal and Ra’Check had just boarded trains that would carry them from the capitol to their respective processing facilities, but would first make stopovers in Velnon.
Picard stopped himself, his hypothesis was dancing on smoke at this point. He should at least check if … Hmm, for reaching Ra’Check’s workplace, his train choice actually looked like the optimum route, but for Je’Tal, it would have been much quicker to board a different train. Still so much conjecture, but Picard had to admit his hunch was starting to reach a level of likelihood where he should at least make some low cost move to prevent it, if possible.
That is, assuming he actually wanted to prevent it.
Vulcan’s shipyards needed the material in this shipment. He had to ensure that Romulus stayed in the fight against the Dominion, at least for now. And then there was the chance that the rebels’ sabotage would be a bomb. A lot of lives could be lost if that was the case… No, now he was just rationalizing. He had no idea what the rebels had planned. But still, either way, it went against his plans. He’d have to put a stop to it.
But that didn’t mean throwing Je’Tal and Ra’Check under the bus. He sent an order to the Romulan police in Velnon, had them intercept the andorians at the train station and bring them in for questioning. He said he suspected them of smuggling food. They’d only get a slap on the wrist for that. Assuming they played it cool, and didn’t have anything incriminating with them. And that was unlikely, since they hadn’t had anything when they went through the palace scanners, and they hadn’t had the time to go anywhere from here but straight to the train station. They would probably be alright.
At least, that’s what Picard told himself.
Garak stood in a bright room covered in black market medical equipment. Next to him sat Bashir in his Andorian guise, staring into a desk terminal. In the center of the room lay a stasis pod, with a dead vorta inside.
With the resources of the Syndicate under their influence, Garak and Bashir had learned many things about the two empires now clashing. One pattern in particular had earned their interest, an irregularity in shipping and assignments within the Dominion that suggested a massive construction project. The Dominion were apparently working on a new secret weapon, but they had no idea what it was. They had, however, determined which scientists were working on it, and tracked one down. They’d then sent a Syndicate cell to capture him, but the mission had been botched. The vorta was allowed a chance to activate his suicide implant before being incapacitated. Luckily, the operatives involved had had the good sense to shove the dead vorta into a stasis pod when they got him back to their ship.
So now Garak and Bashir had to figure out how to get something useful from a perfectly preserved corpse.
“The neural pathways are still mostly intact,” said Bashir, as he studied his scans. “The tissue is necrotic from the implant’s toxin, but the stasis process preserved the orientation of the nerve axons.”
“So if you reversed the necrosis, he’s still have his memories intact,” said Garak.
“Well yes, but reviving dead cells is easier said than done,” said Bashir. “They’re a mess of intricate broken molecular machinery. It’d be like repairing a microscopic starship with a pair of tweezers. And then repeating that feat several trillion times, for every cell in his brain.”
“Well can you replace them then?” suggested Garak, “use the existing neural paths as a the basis of a mold to lay down new cells.”
Bashir shook his head, “What, fill his brain with gel, wash out the neurons once it dries, then fill it with live neurons like plastic?”
“Well something less crude than that but, yes essentially,” said Garak. He held out his palms apologetically. “I only know the very basics of neural surgery, so you’ll have forgive my naivete. I don’t really know what’s possible, especially when someone as accomplished as you has the knife.”
A smile twitched across Bashir’s blue face. “I appreciate your confidence Garak,” he said, “But even I can’t bring people back from the dead.”
“Although,” he said, staring into his brain schematics, “maybe I can speak with them.”
“Pardon?” asked Garak.
“We fill his head with preserving gel just like you said,” explained Bashir. “But we use a nonconductive material. Then we insert a series of electrodes into his brain. The dead neurons will still conduct electricity, and may even still act as functional logic gates. His brain can’t produce electrical pulses on its own, but we might be able to probe it for responses. Send cascades of electricity down old thought patterns and see what emerges. If we’re very, very lucky, we might even trigger speech.”
Garak looked into the good doctor’s eyes, hoping to see some grim resignation to the ghastly course he’d just proposed. But they sparkled with the same light they’d always had. He was enjoying this. A challenge he could sink his teeth into.
“Well,” said Garak. “That sounds like a fascinating plan. It truly is a constant delight seeing what ghoulish idea will pop out of your brain next.”
“Well if this works,” said Bashir, “you can feel free to do the same thing to my head when I’m gone. And then you can pick my brain all you want.”
“You’d do that,” said Garak, concerned.
“Sure,” replied Bashir, “it’s certainly what I deserve.”
Garak sighed. So Bashir did still have some idea of the lines they were crossing. Garak had alway ridiculed and tested that Federation softness in his friend’s heart, but the truth was, he would hate to see the world swallow it completely. The last thing this cosmos needed was two Garaks.
The old spy walked over to the stasis pod and looked into the face of the corpse inside. “If you had known what we were going to do to you,” he said to the vorta. “I suspect you would have taken the torture.”
The dead man’s eyes fluttered under his eyelids. “Captured,” he said. “Secrets, protect.” No sound escaped his lips as he spoke, but probes along his throat recorded any subvocalizations, and the terminal played them as audio in real time.
Bashir and Garak were exploring the vorta’s working memory. The last thoughts he’d had before committing suicide. They’d made much progress, but ultimately they weren’t after his last thoughts, they were after his secrets.
Bashir looked at his brain scans, looked to which regions the currents had passed through. There were three bundles of light that looked promising, within the hippocampus, where long term declarative memories were stored, among other things. Bashir activated the closest electrode to one of the regions, and sent a rapid pulse of electricity, in a pattern he hoped would trigger recall, from what he knew of vorta neurology. The pulses danced through intricate circuits through the region, cascading into the frontal lobe. Bashir sent another pulse, designed to trigger speech, and on his map the circuits of light linked together, sending a fading current out of the brain and towards the vocal cords, and new thoughts came through the synthesized subvocals.
“Protect, state, duty, Founders,” said the dead man.
It was a macabre game of word association, but it was working. He tried again with another cluster.
“Secrets, assignment, ‘droids,” was the response.
Bashir tried regions that had lit up from the “secrets” cluster, and eventually got to the “droids” one. He triggered it.
“Android, positronic, armor, factory.”
They spent a few more hours working with the gelled brain, then they put the vorta back in storage, and set about researching what they’d learned. It would take a lot of record searching and investigations to confirm, but it looked like the Dominion was building robots. Maybe to replace the Jem’Hadar troops they were losing so steadily to the rebels. It was hard to tell at this stage, but this development looked vitally important. Bashir and Garak looked at each other. They both knew it was time to hit the field once more.
Praetor Vreenak stood in the romulan war room with his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the charts displayed on the viewscreen covering the wall. Between him and the viewscreen sat various military advisors and scientists around a slim table, each working at personal consoles as they directed the forces around Romulus. It reminded him somewhat of the bridge to a starship, with him as its captain.
“Report on the status of the Dominion fleet,” he commanded one of his advisors.
“The nearest ship is a lightyear out,” replied the officer, “but slowing down to rondeview with the bulk of the Dominion forces. The entire fleet should be here within 43 minutes.”
It had taken the Dominion ships three weeks and 24 separate engagements to penetrate this far into romulan space, but they were finally here, the heart of the Romulan Empire. And at 217 warships, they still had over half the forces they’d committed to this campaign. Vreenak was impressed.
He was also worried. Most of Vreenak’s ships were still spread out along the captured ex-Federation planets. When it had been clear that the Dominion had cut their losses along that front and sent their ships towards Romulus itself, Vreenak had kept his forces largely where they were. The battles within romulan space had slowed the Dominion fleet enough for a few needed reinforcements to get here in time, but most of the ships were better spent continuing the conquest of Dominion holdings. Vreenak had captured seventeen more ex-Federation star systems while the Dominion ships had made their way here, but at quite a cost: they only had 74 positronic ships guarding Romulus for this battle, making them outnumbered almost three to one on their own homeworld.
Vreenak had hoped he wouldn’t have to do this. He had hoped the fleets along romulan space would have reduced the Dominion forces just a little more. But it was clear that as things currently stood, they would lose this battle. Even with their superior maneuverability, the positronic ships could not defeat a force three times their size. And Vreenak could not allow the Dominion to conquer Romulus. Without the heart of its government and culture, the Empire would surely collapse. And there was always the chance that the Dominion would do to the Romulan capital what they had done to the Federation’s, and then 38 billion romulan citizens would be dead. No, Vreenak could not allow Romulus to fall. But to save Romulus, he would have to break his promise of a costless war.
“Is the reserve fleet ready?” asked Vreenak.
“Yes, sir Praetor,” replied an admiral.
Everyone looked to Vreenak as he gave the order. They had all known this was coming.
“Deploy them,” commanded their Praetor.
Even months into this war, the romulan fleet had not been fully retrofitted with positronic brains. The rush to enter the war had left them somewhat unprepared, and the focus had been on producing new ships, which could take better advantage of the lack of a crew. So there were still almost a hundred romulan warships undeployed around Romulus, each with a small complement of crew that had been on standby- just in case they were needed, but with assurances that it would likely never come to that. Assurances that had been utterly unjustified.
Vreenak smiled mirthlessly as the field commanders giddily reported in that their ships were heading into position, their voices full of bravado and pride. They were so excited for a taste of war you’d think they were klingon. But no, they were just loyal romulan soldiers, ready to give their lives for the Empire. He’d tried so hard to protect these men and women, with robots and manipulated resistance fighters, but now they were going to protect him. A wall of blood between their Praetor and the alien horde.
And Vreenak would have to let them become that wall.
Rejel slumped into a nearby chair as she heard the news.
“They had another fleet?” she asked the vorta administrator.
“Apparently,” he said, “they de-cloaked just as our ships entered the system.”
She stared at the strategic display beside the table, updated as reports came in with new red dot’s they’d never anticipated, and dwindling greens. And of course entire worlds across ex-Federation space sacrificed to this disaster. This could cost her people the Alpha Quadrant.
“Have they retreated?” she asked.
The vorta nodded, “Our warships prepared to leave almost the moment the ships decloaked. Of course by that point retreat was… costly. Only a third of our forces made it out of the system, and they still have to traverse lightyears of enemy territory- territory that we greatly weakened as we broke through, but still speckled with enough ships to further reduce our fleet if the Romulans choose to engage.”
The vorta scowled, looking at the display, “It may have been better in the long run to simply to deal as much damage as they could in defeat. But I suppose the cardassians commanders felt the lives of their soldiers were worth preserving. And once they were leaving the Jem’Hadar were best spent following them. You’ll have to have a talk with those Guls if they make it back. I know the chain of command can get somewhat murky in the heat of combat, but-”
“They made the right decision,” said Rejel curtly. She’d be damned if she let this underling punish her commanders for trying to salvage a few lives from this trap. As far as she was concerned, anyone who made it home was a hero.
“The Dominion doesn’t waste its citizens on petty vengeance,” she said. “Not the Dominion that inspired Cardassia to join with it and unite this war torn galaxy. The Romulans have automated ships. They’d rebuild any forces they lost in a month, while we would lose irreplaceable soldiers.”
Even the Jem’Hadar were precious now, after rebels had destroyed the last Jem’Hadar cloning facility. And since they were still cut off from the equipment and expertise of the Gamma Quadrant, it could take them years to construct another.
“Forgive me,” said the vorta. “I’m still not used to dealing with finite troops.”
Gul Vissad tapped his fingers against her armrest restlessly. She commanded one of the finest warships in the quadrant, yet while her brothers and sisters were out there dying to Romulan robots, she was stuck guarding some backwater dead ex-Federation colony. Her superiors must be fools.She understood it was important to investigate their missing head Dominion administrator, but a small scout ship could have done this. The vorta was almost certainly dead, what would he care if his rescuers were in something less than a flagship?
“Gul Vissad,” said her science officer over the comms, “I’m picking up a feint buildup of neutrinos within the rocks.”
This was interesting. In the months they’d been stationed here, the ruins hadn’t made so much as a peep. Her science team had set up every sensor known to Cardassian and Dominion science, probed the site with every particle possible in space and subspace, even chipped away bits of rock for remote study. Nothing they did betrayed these ruins as anything more than carved stone. Vissad had even suspected that’s all they were, that the energy beam that captured Weyoun had been caused by a cloaked ship that had long since gone. But now, finally, the ruins were doing something.
“The build up is spiking,” said her science officer. “I think it’s- wha-.”
“What’s going on Mayvon?” Gul Vissad demanded. “Hello?”
“Mam, I’m getting energy distortions all over the planet,” said the navigation officer, reading the ship’s sensors. “One of them’s at the ruins. I’m reading… I don’t know what I’m reading.”
“Get me a visual of nearest distortion,” commanded Vissad.
On the viewscreen was an image of the planet’s surface, somewhere over the south continent. Over a forest of desiccated trees, a massive ring of purple light hovered. Out of the ring a tangle of glowing white crystal grew in a branching pattern, reaching towards the center. Within seconds, the crystal branches met at the center, and fused in a structure that looked for all the world like it had started in the center and branched outward, rather than forming inward like she had seen. The ring of light vanished, and the crystal thing just hung there, over the forest, in defiance of gravity.
“How big?” Vissad asked, unsure of the scale of the forest below.
“About 900 meters in diameter, if you take the closest fitting sphere,” replied the navigation officer. God that was three times their size. Bigger even than a d’deridex Romulan warbird. And if it was indeed the creature mentioned in their reports of this world, far more deadly. This was a planet eater.
“Twenty four mam,” said the officer, “all floating half a kilometer above the planet’s surface.”
“Put the ruins on screen,” said Vissad.
“Hello Gul Vissad,” cut in Myvon over the comms, before the navigation officer put it on. “I um, I have Weyoun here for you.”
Weyoun shimmered into being with a smile on his face. Stepping off the transporter pad, he regarded Vissad with a measured look, then his eyes sparkled with recognition.
“Gul Vissad,” he said warmly, “I want to thank you and your crew for waiting here so faithfully for my return. I assure you that your loyalty will not go unrewarded. Now may we take this conversation to your bridge, there is a lot for us to do.”
Vissad had never met Weyoun before; she wondered if he had studied the names and faces of every Gul in the cardassian military. Or maybe just the important ones. But how had he returned? And why were the crystalline entities still hanging around the planet, unmoving? Weyoun had much to explain. Too bad it wasn’t her place to demand answers.
When they returned to the bridge, Weyoun strolled to one of the officers and ordered them to send out a short range subspace signal with a harmonic frequency of 21 gigahurtz. The officer obeyed, without even looking at Vissad for confirmation. Vissad felt a touch of pride in the young officer; she had taught him well. A look would have seemed disloyal, and the officer knew that if Vissad had wanted him to refuse Weyoun’s orders, she would have told him to cancel them.
Though she almost wondered if she should have canceled the orders. She had no idea what the signal was for, and with 24 planet eating abominations below them, she was nervous about lighting any beacons right now.
“Weyoun, I wouldn’t want to overstep my bounds,” she said, “but if you could-”
“Ease your worries about the Entities on the planet below?” Weyoun offered in a concerned tone.
“Yes I should have done that already, I apologize.”
He turned to the rest of the bridge crew and declared with joyous confidence, “You have nothing to fear from crystalline entities. I have been in contact with them for the last month, and they have agreed to join the Dominion.”
Now everyone did look to Vissad.
Cardassia had been forced to ally themselves with many creatures these past few years. Clones, shapeshifting monsters, even bajorans for a time. All in the name of becoming stronger. But this… this was madness. Of course it wasn’t her place to decide what was too far. It wasn’t Weyoun’s either. Cardassia had a leader, and Rejel would decide when to abandon the Dominion. For now, Vissad would listen to the chattering vorta.
“I’ve just had you send a simple message to the Entities,” Weyoun continued, “to let them know I’m aboard. They’ll follow for now, until I have more detailed orders for them. On that note,” the vorta said, walking over to Vissad and speaking softly directly to her, “any updates you could give me on the state of the Dominion would be greatly appreciated. Obviously I did not have access to many intelligence reports during my… sabbatical.”
Gul Vissad took him into her ready room and gave him a quick summary of the Romulan war, the automated warships, the lost planets and rebellions in occupied territory, the destruction of the Jem’Hadar cloning facilities, and the current retreat of the Dominion invasion fleet.
“Oh deer,” said Weyoun when she’d finished. “Things have not gone at all well in my absence.” He stared off into space for a moment, then looked at her.
“Well Vissad,” he said, “I have decided how to reward you for waiting here so patiently: I hereby order you to rendezvous with the retreating fleet. And together with them, and the Entities I’ve brought with me, I shall give you a glorious victory.”
And with that he headed back to the bridge. He ordered the comm officer to send a message to the retreating fleet, using his authorization code, telling them to change course and meet him at the Galdeva sector, along the former Romulan-Federation border. Then he had another message sent to Cardassia High Command, informing them that he had returned, and was taking charge of the invasion of Romulus. The vorta then pulled a data rod out of his shirt pocket and walked to the bridge engineering officer and handed it to him.
“This rod,” he said, “contains the specifications for a modification to our deflector array. Please upload the data into our computer, and then assign an engineering team to performing the modifications. When we’re closer to the Dominion fleet I’ll send the specs to them as well.”
Weyoun clasped his hands together and turned to Gul Vissad.
“Don’t look so worried Gul,” he said, smiling, “I’m going to fix everything.”
Vreenak stood at a podium inside the conference hall of a warbird, hands held in a romulan salute, as he paid honor to the citizens who had given their lives for the Romulan Star Empire. With him were several senators, admirals, captains from the battle, and of course, families of the departed. It was a somewhat rushed affair; the invasion had been less than a day ago. The repelled Dominion warfleet had only just left romulan space, traveling as fast as their ships could carry them. But it was romulan tradition to have military funerals quickly, so that families could still see the wreckage of enemy ships, and know their loved ones had not died in vain. In keeping with this custom, their ship’s position ensured that the massive window behind the Praetor’s podium held a view of a broken Keldon class cardassian cruiser; one which had been destroyed by the Krichala, a fallen D’deridex warbird whose crew had left behind the most family here today.
Only seven warships had been lost. Along with several casualties in the surviving ships, there had been 437 deaths in total. 437 sacrifices he just couldn’t find a way around. 437 broken promises.
Still, the mood of the ceremony couldn’t help a certain celebratory feel. This had been a huge victory for the Romulan Star Empire, perhaps the decisive victory of this war, which would ensure Romulus’s place in history as the ruler of the Alpha Quadrant.
After the ceremony, Vreenak marched through the hallways of the warbird towards his temporary office, while he waited for the ship to return to orbit around Romulus, where he could beam back to the capitol. At sublight speeds, it would take a few hours from their current position at the edge of the solar system where the battle had been fought. While he walked, a rushed aid came up and handed him a datapad. The pad detailed a set of scans taken by a border probe along the former romulan Neutral Zone. It showed an unexpected detour in the Dominion fleet. It showed the fleet joining with gigantic alien things not yet identified. It showed the fleet turning around and heading this way once more.
The invasion wasn’t over.
It had taken several hours to identify the Entities flying with the Dominion. Ultimately an obscure intelligence report of a catastrophe befalling several ex-Federation colonies matched the sensor readings. Vreenak immediately called for the evacuation of Romulus. He doubted more than a tenth of the population could leave the planet before the invaders reached here again, but it was better than nothing. Of course, the evacuation should be unnecessary. The report included the precise sonic frequency Starfleet had used to destroy the last Crystal they’d encountered, and every one of the romulan warships had now been calibrated to deploy said weapon. However, Vreenak suspected the Dominion had some way to counter this defence, if they were assaulting them with these creatures. But who knows? Maybe the Dominion were just desperate, and were gambling on the hope that Romulus lacked this critical intel.
Vreenak stood on the bridge of a small civilian science vessel, along with several other Senators. Key members of the Romulan government were also scattered within the evacuating civilian fleet, along with high ranking scientists, teachers, engineers, artists, and historians to preserve Romulan culture and knowledge. If the worst should happen, the Romulan Star Empire would not die with its capital.
The Praetor felt like a coward for leaving with the civilians instead of staying with the military to fight for his planet. But the fact was he was no soldier. His strength was strategy, not tactics; the admirals would be fine in this battle without him. And there wasn’t any safe place in the system for him to stay to observe the battle. Not with planet killers on the way.
He looked down at the planet before as his ship departed, and hoped his armies would be able to save the 34 billion citizens below who would not be able to leave in time.
Gul Vissad sat in her chair, in command of the Dominion flagship, with Weyoun standing by her side. They were moments from entering the star system of the Romulan capital. Her ship was at the head of the fleet, along with twenty three others. In front of each ship flew a Crystalline Entity, buffered against sonic attacks by a stabilizing field emitted by the ship’s deflector dishes. Behind were waves of Jem’Hadar and cardassian warships ready to attack any enemy forces that attacked a field ship, and ready to take a field ship’s place should one fall. As long as the field ships held, the Entities would be indestructible, acting as a massive barricade for the ships behind them- and more importantly, acting as juggernauts unstoppably flying to consume the planet. As long as a single Entity reached Romulus, it would be begin draining all ordered complexity its biosphere, leaving behind nothing but ash and dessicated shells of bitrious matter. And it would not take its time, like it had on the colony worlds.
The Gul clenched her jaw, and prepared herself for what she would have to do. It’s not like they hadn’t destroyed a planet before, for the Dominion. The former Federation capitol had been exterminated as well. And that had been a premeditated execution of a planet already under their control. This was just a casualty of war. The only way they could defeat an enemy they had already failed to conquer conventionally.
So why did this feel so wrong? Was it because she was working with monsters? Helping them feed and allying herself against life itself. Or maybe it was just because she had to kill the world herself this time, instead of hearing about it days later like with Earth. That was probably all this was, a reluctance to get her hands dirty. Well she was a Gul in the cardassian military; she would have to get over it.
Vissad looked to Weyoun. The vorta stared reverently at the apocalyptic Entity on their viewscreen, oblivious to her. Maybe she felt uneasy because she knew this wouldn’t be the last planet. Maybe she knew that this would be Weyoun’s prefered policy now, in order to feed the crystals. Maybe she knew that it wasn’t the Entities working for them, but the other way around. The Dominion had become an army of death, helping monsters devour the galaxy and leaving ash in their wake. And Cardassia could not be a part of that.
But that was politics. Whether Cardassia stayed with the Dominion and the crystals was something for others to decide, in the future. For now, the enemy was before her, a key obstacle between her people and the Alpha Quadrant. And Vissad would do her duty as a soldier of Cardassia.
The armies met at the edge of the star system. Positronic warbirds and Romulan citizens against engineered supersoldiers and cardassians hiding behind unstoppable crystal weapons. Diving towards Romulus, it would take 83 minutes for the invaders to reach the planet. The Romulan fleet had that long to destroy each of the 24 Crystalline Entities.
The crystals proved impervious to conventional attack, and with the Dominion ships buffering them, they were immune to sonic weapons. The Romulans quickly began flying around the crystals to target the buffering ships at their back, but this tactic forced them into positions vulnerable to the Dominion ships at the wings. The maneuverable positronic ships still managed to take out several buffer ships despite this disadvantage, and with impeccable coordination destroyed the unprotected crystals with sonic bombardment before new buffer ships could replace them. However by the time the invaders were seven minutes from Romulus, seven Entities remained, and most of the Romulan fleet was destroyed.
At this point it was clear that Romulus could not be saved. The Crystals would reach the planet. Meanwhile, every ship capable of flight had already left, stranding the 34 billion that couldn’t be evacuated without multiple trips or reinforcements. The engaged fleet still had 23 manned ships, and 14 of the remaining positronic vessels were refits, still capable of life support. So the call was made. Those 37 ships turned back towards the planet, while the rest of the fleet held back any Dominion fighters that may follow.
The returning ships did not enter orbit. Their flyby lasted barely seconds. On automatic, their transporters beamed Romulan lifesigns into their cabins. No parameters were set, the computers beamed anyone, whoever happened to be closest. Each ship took on hundreds, filling every room, every hallway, every maintenance duct. The overtaxed life support systems had to release chemicals to induce medical comas, so the survivors wouldn’t need so much oxygen. This left the manned vessels without active personnel, but their computers had been ordered to follow the positronic ships, and they would know where to go.
Of course this act meant the soldiers wouldn’t have the last man stand that their heroic spirits demanded, but ultimately this gesture seemed to have more substance. It didn’t matter that the few extra thousand saved was insignificant compared to the teeming billions they’d abandoned. What mattered was they’d rescued someone. Just a few more lives snatched from the gaping monstrosities set upon them.
Kali didn’t understand why Mother were crying, but he knew he should be frightened. Mother never cried. She’d always said tears were unbecoming of a Romulan citizen, had always told him to have more pride than that. So Kali knew that if his mother was crying, it had to be over something big.
They were huddled in the basement. They’d been there for a while. It was dark and cold, but they had a padd with them. It was showing a very pretty crystal in the sky, hovering over Nalthrack. Kali could tell it was Nalthrack because he recognized the central spire of one of the buildings from his books. It was the capital city of the northern continent. He’d never been to Nalthrack, but Mother had told him that if he was very good, he’d get to go to university there one day.
On the padd, the sky was getting very cloudy. And then the buildings started to crumble, like they’d been made of dry sand. Then the picture went away, and said “Lost Signal.” Kali looked to Mother, and she hugged him tighter. She told him everything was going to be alright. She told him that she loved him, and that they were going to see Father very soon. Kali thought this was strange, because he didn’t have a Father. He knew this because he’d learned in school that children were supposed to have Fathers, so he’d asked Mother where his was, and she’d told him that he’d lost his in an accident. Accidents were when you did something bad and didn’t want to say you were sorry.
Suddenly Kali felt something tugging at him, and he hurt all over. Then the ceiling above them collapsed and they were covered under a mountain of dust and the weight was crushing them but Kali couldn’t tell because he was in pain he was in so much pain. He tried to scream but dust filled his mouth and it hurt so much everywhere.
The boy’s cells fizzed apart as entropy ran wild through collapsing macromolecules. The complexity of his pattern was feasted upon, sucked up like juice from a fleshy rind. And then all that was left under the dust, was more dust.
Rejel stared at the triumphant vorta through her office viewscreen with unmasked loathing on her face. His ship was now three days from Cardassia, where he planned to return as a conquering hero, and lay out the details for his new Dominion-Entity alliance.
“So you’re going to keep working with those things,” accused Rejel.
“Of course,” said Weyoun. “We’ll have to bring more through to replace those we’ve lost, but then we can begin sweeping through this quadrant.”
“What, one planet wasn’t enough?” asked Rejel with a sneer.
Weyoun looked at her, concerned. “You seem upset,” he said. “I assure you the Dominion won’t cause any more destruction than necessary. Once everyone sees that it’s either join us or face annihilation, the other worlds will fall in line. If anything, our new allies will stop this war, and save lives, not end them.”
“Save lives? You just murdered billions!” shouted Rejel.
Weyoun waved that off, “Billions of enemies of the state. Surely a cardassian understands the need for that from time to time. I’m sure you didn’t get this worked up over Earth.”
“Earth didn’t happen under my watch,” Rejel said. “This did. I can’t believe I let Cardassia become a part of this.”
Weyoun became stern, “Understand one thing Rejel. You didn’t ‘let’ anything. You are a servant of the Dominion. Nothing more.”
“I am more than that,” said Rejel. “I am the leader of Cardassia. And I cannot stand by while you plan to bring more of these horrors into the Alpha Quadrant. Don’t forget I’ve been to Omicron Theta. I’ve seen their aftermath.” Rejel shuddered. “I can’t let that empty wasteland become a common sight in the galaxy.”
Rejel stood up from her chair, looked into the desk’s viewscreen, and declared, “Cardassia hereby succeeds from the Dominion.”
Weyoun shook his head, “You poor naive child, I should have known this position was too much for you.”
The transmission ended.
Rejel was sure Weyoun would move against her soon. This was bad. She had no plan, nothing prepared, and she had just informed Weyoun that she was his enemy the second she’d become one. She didn’t know what to do.
Well, Rejel had some ideas. With her authorisation still for the moment intact, she ordered an immediate site to site transporter beam into a bunker she knew was manned almost exclusively by cardassian soldiers.
She beamed into a small room with two soldiers, a Gul and a Glinn. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I’m afraid things are about to get complicated.” She turned to the Gul and asked, “Are you and your men ready to follow my orders above all others?”
The two cardassians looked at eachother, then turned to her. The Gul said, “You are the leader of Cardassia. There’s no one above you, as far as I’m concerned. Though I suppose I should never say that with a vorta or jem’hadar nearby.”
Rejel smiled. “Speaking of that,” she said, “how many jem’hadar are in this bunker?”
“Four,” said the Gul.
“Good,” said Rejel. “I’m going to need you to kill them, and turn on this bunker’s shields.”
“Are we turning against the Dominion?” asked the Gul.
Rejel nodded. “I’m also going to need to access your communication network. Hopefully I still have my authorisations to send messages on the primary broadcast.”
Rejel’s face appeared on every viewscreen in Cardassia.
“Citizens of Cardassia,” she began, keeping her voice steady. “A few hours ago the Dominion committed an atrocity unbecoming of an ally of Cardassia. Under the leadership of Weyoun, our warfleet joined with Crystalline Entities, extradimensional creatures that drain all life from planets. Weyoun fed Romulus to these monsters, killing billions of the civilians we had sought to rule.
“And he plans to do it again. He plans to bring more Entities into our universe, and assault more planets with them. That is what the Dominion is now: not conquerors, but slaughterers. Well my brave citizens, that is not Cardassia. We do not kill civilians when we don’t have to. We do not lead monsters to our enemies. We fight them ourselves.
“So I have formally withdrawn Cardassia from the Dominion. And together, my citizens, we shall take this quadrant away from them. The Dominion has already lost their Jem’Hadar cloning facilities, and most of their warships have been destroyed fighting the Romulans. They have turned to these crystals out of desperation. Out of weakness.
“But we,” finished Rejel, “are not weak. We are the true rulers of this quadrant. So rise up Cardassia. Remove these Jem’Hadar soldiers still walking unwelcome on our soil. Cut down the last of their ships, and take our place in history.”
The bunker didn’t last long under Dominion bombardment. Once the shields were down, the Jem’Hadar beamed in. The cardassians didn’t last long after that. Rejel eventually found herself in a room full of dead men and women, with three Dominion thugs pointing weapons in her face. A transporter’s shimmer later, and Rejel stood in a detention cell, with Weyoun staring at her from behind a forcefield.
“Well,” said the vorta with a jovial grin. “I think that may have been the shortest lived rebellion on record. I think you’ve earned yourself a footnote in a Dominion history book for that little display.”
He turned to a nearby aid. “Schedule her execution for tomorrow,” he said disdainfully. “Make it public, of course,” he added.
Weyoun watched as the cardassian artisans finished their work. They stood in the middle of a forest, in a clearing he’d had prepared with Dominion disruptor fire. Before him was a stone floor, with rings of concentric pillars, all carved identically to the ruins on Omicron Theta.
Once the work was complete, the artisans walked out of the replica, carrying their tools with them. A vorta overseer approached Weyoun, “The last markings are in place,” he said. “Exactly to your specifications.”
“Excellent,” he congratulated the subordinate.
“If I may pry sir,” braved the overseer, “I’ve been told that this structure is supposed to bring in more of the crystals, to bring back those we lost at Romulus.”
“Not replace,” corrected Weyoun. “Bring back. You cannot kill an Entity, only shatter it’s presence in this universe. And now I am going to reassert that presence.”
“Ah,” said the overseer. “But what I don’t understand is, how can mere carvings do this?”
“They can’t of course,” replied Weyoun. He waved to the artisans’ work, “This is all just scratched stone.”
Weyoun nodded to a vorta technician behind him, and the technician walked into the center of the replica ruins, carrying a glowing device. The vorta placed it on the floor, and then returned, handing Weyoun a controler. He pressed it, and there was a flash of blinding purple light, and sounds as if the world was shattering. Then the light and sounds were gone, and everything looked the same, except the device was gone. Weyoun took out an omnisensor, and began scanning the stone, nodding.
“But now,” said Weyoun, turning to the overseer, “the markings are in a place where patterns mean everything. Now this structure is a gateway.”
Weyoun walked past the pillars and into the center of the markings. “And I,” he said, “am the key.”
Once he reached the center, space seemed to ripple, and above them, a light ripped across the sky in a ring, and crystals grew out of it, forming into one of the creatures that devoured Romulus.
Weyoun returned from the structure, and called to the technician. The technician looked to a datapad, and told him, “Our satellites report that seventeen Entities have appeared over Cardassia.”
“Excellent,” said Weyoun. “we have our full complement again.”
Rejel sat in her cell with her head in her hands. An hour. Her attempted revolution had lasted an hour. How could she have failed so completely?
How could she have expected anything more? She was a scientist, not a leader. She’d had no idea what she was getting into. Rejel counted her mistakes, and the weight of their numbers crushed her. She shouldn’t have told Weyoun her decision, obviously. She should have given herself some time, come up with a plan. Picked a more heavily fortified bunker. Used a less traceable signal to broadcast her speech. Looked before she lept even a little. But of course she hadn’t. She’d been too brash, too naive, too inexperienced. And now she’d be executed in the morning. So this is what happens when puppets try to fight back? A quick cut of the strings and they collapse like so much ineffectual wood.
Suddenly the lights went out. Rejel heard shouting echoing through the corridors. One of the two Jem’Hadar soldiers guarding her cell motioned to the other and he walked down the room to check the hallway. A flash of green light and he was down. The soldier by her cell sidestepped from his potentially known position started firing blindly into the corridor entrance. Rejel heard a scream from up ahead, then three figures stormed into the corridor, shots firing. Another of the figures fell, along with the Jem’Hadar. One of the figures approached Rejel, and reached a hand through the depowered cell.
It was Silani.“Mind if we join your rebellion?” asked the vorta.