STAR WARS Episode 12, The Balancing of the Force, Volume 3 of the Alternate Galaxy Trilogy

Worlds in Collision

“Never tell me the odds.”

~ Han Solo

Six Republic frigates were in position and using their tractor beams to change the trajectory of Teth. The Screech was close at hand, and Demorin was monitoring their progress while work on the broad-saber was proceeding in the ship’s passenger compartment. The Rancor was part of the armada. And from his command ship Ackbar contacted Demorin.

“How certain are you of your calculations? It seems to me that much depends on how close Teth and Tund are when the monks use their weapon to avert the collision.”

“It doesn’t really matter if the two worlds are nine light years or nine light minutes from each other when Teth’s gravity is reversed. The repulsion will begin gradually and then steadily swell. If the monks can’t orient their weapon in time or should somehow fail to detect the approaching planet until it’s quite close, the equations change. Tund might miss the Maw altogether. But then again, the planet’s integrity might not withstand the force of the repulsion coming suddenly from much closer at hand. It might break apart.”

“What if it misses the Maw but doesn’t break apart?”

“There’s one variant of the equation that would put Tund on a collision course with Kessel if the repulsion is initiated when it and Teth are in close proximity,” Demorin tentatively responded. “But Kessel is uninhabited. And if its gravity is reversed, Tund will be pushed toward the Maw.”

“I’d been thinking of this operation like a carefully directed cue ball, but I’m beginning to see it as more like a simple game of chance. The fact it’s being played with planetary bodies doesn’t reassure me. Can you calculate the resultant trajectory of Kessel if it’s displaced?”

“I admittedly cannot account for every outcome. Not even an astrodroid could calculate the odds. But it’s not like we’re at liberty to do nothing.”

“Strange as it sounds to say, I think I will be relieved when the Falcon shows up with Rotta’s armada. I am not certain there’s much they’ll really be able to do at a distance, but Han provided them with the scans taken by the probes. That’s why they needed the direct feed. At least they’ll be able to select specific targets. Their barrage might end up being altogether unproductive, but it could still keep the monks occupied until your wife has her weapon ready.”

“I’m anxious to get the Bothans out of harm’s way,” Demorin agreed, “and not because they are friends of the Jedi. It was exceptionally altruistic for them to volunteer to place their freighter, the Wrendui, between Tund and the Core. And its captain, Seng, had previously helped the Jedi in their campaign against Narik. I am loathe to see such philanthropic people put so precisely in the path of peril.”

“I guess you are not particularly optimistic about the adjustments you made to their shields,” Ackbar suggested.

“The adjustments were based on our scans of the weapon’s emission, just as with the blade of the light-broadsword. But their shield generators aren’t capable of producing the same type of plasma umbrella. Even if they do deflect the burst of Dark Energy, they’ll almost surely overload and explosively so. That’s why I advised them to install ray-shields emitters to compartmentalize the generators from the rest of the ship.”

“Can you provide any progress update on the development Dari’s radiant weapon?”

“It’s getting close to completion. I just wish there was some way to test the thing. I am not at all happy with the idea that only a field assessment in actual operation seems possible. The cost of failure cannot be overstated.”

Awswi was within earshot of their discussion and moved into the back of the cockpit saying, “Master Gwonameeth and I first met Seng when he was heading up a reclamation project in the Geonosian system. He apparently did so well that he advanced to a captaincy. I was very happy when I heard about his promotion. I’m not happy at all about the position in which he has placed himself, although it sounds like precisely the type of thing he’d do. I just hope the Hutt armada is able to keep the monks busy until we’re ready to extract the Wrendui. Do we have any estimate on their arrival?”

“Han signaled just before they made the jump to hyperspace for the return trip. It should be any minute now,” Demorin answered. “Actually it was Leia who sent the message. I have never heard her sound so tense. I’m certain she’s glad to be getting out of Hutt Space. But the Falcon was by far the closest ship to send.”

***

As the Falcon came out of lightspeed at the head of Rotta’s armada as it entered the empty space in the path of Tund’s approach, Leia used the subspace holo-transceiver to contact Rotta on his battle barge.

“We don’t have an exact figure on the range of the telepath’s power. I’d recommend all your ships to stay beyond what would be a lunar orbit around Tund. Since we’ve provided you with all the scans taken by the probes, you should be able to surgically select your targets. The weapon is of course in the city with the strongest shielding. Go figure. It’ll take a sustained bombardment at the very least to defeat its defenses. But we really only need you to keep the monks too busy to fire their weapon at the Core while other arrangements are made.”

“What about the weapon itself?” Rotta asked, using the communication system’s interpreter program to translate. “Could it be used against our assault?”

“As far as we know it’s only been used against stellar objects so far, although we do expect it to be turned on Tund once the planet’s approach is detected,” Han replied, observing that Leia was growing weary of conversing with her nemesis. “Its aim is adjustable. But it’s mounted, so it has a limited field of fire. It’ll be hard for you to direct your ordinance at it without be exactly over it. But your scanners should alert you if it powers up to fire. And you should certainly be warned if there’s a weapons lock on any of your ships. If you simply stay alert I believe you can carry out your part of the operation with impunity.”

Republic Security had been very aware of the Hutt’s capability for ground-based operations, particularly through the use of bounty hunters and other mercenaries. But Commissioner Ackbar was astonished by how swiftly Rotta succeeded in assembling an armada. Supremacy in space wasn’t an aspect of the Hutt’s power that even he had suspected. Tund was very far beyond the boundaries of Hutt Space and still outside even the Kessel Sector.

After ending his communication with the Falcon, Rotta switched to a frequency preferred by his underlings. The bombardment of Tund began almost immediately. From the Falcon’s cockpit Han, Chewie and Leia watched as the first wave of ordinance was released. From their vantage point the ship’s scanners could easily detect the resulting detonations as the missiles and mines accomplished planetfall and slammed into the shields of the city.

The observers were not reassured to see such terrible weapons in the personal armory of a gangster kingpin. If the monks hadn’t represented such overarching danger to the entire galaxy, Leia thought their predicament might’ve even been pitiable. They could do little but weather the storm. Although their shields succeeded in withstanding the initial salvo, the crew of the Falcon knew the reverberations of the thunderous blasts extended all the way down into the bedrock of the besieged planet.

Around and around the attackers circled, unleashing a fiery fury that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Clone Wars. And no Outer Rim world had in fact been subjected to such intense devastation since the glassing of Tatooine. The city’s shields held but the assaulted atmosphere above them boiled. The convection currents caused by the interminable barrage were so distinct they began to interfere with the sensor scans of the attacking craft. The monks were able to rely on their Droideka conveyances to provide them with what they required. Had it not been for that benefit, they would’ve suffocated as all the oxygen was consumed by the conflagrations.

From space the pummeled planet looked like an exercise in extreme imagery. Most of Tund was now a snow globe, all except for the region where the atmosphere itself seemed alight. And the surrounding ice reflected the fire, causing ruinous rainbows to erupt among the fire tornados that swarmed the circumference of the assaulted area. It looked like a scene from hell, except it was steadily becoming more and more difficult for the eye to discern what it was seeing. The air was so disturbed that the folds of fire were doubling back on themselves and occluding any view of what was occurring on the surface, even from the scanners. Perhaps somebody should have realized the danger.

The targeting scanners on Rotta’s battle barge were by far the most advanced of any in his armada. On each successive strafing run the vessels all became more closely grouped together as the tactical officers were forced to increasingly rely on following his lead. And with the activity on the ground obscured by the explosions and their effect on the atmosphere, the weapons lock wasn’t detected as the monks brought their terrible Dark Energy device to bear on the lead ship.

With the will of the telepath set against all Force Wielding opponents, not even Leia sensed what was happening until a split second before the horrible gravity reversing salvo was released at the speed of light.

“Break off!” she screamed into the microphone. “Their weapon is tracking you!”

The bolt struck Rotta’s battle barge just as it was in the midst of releasing the next round of missiles and mines. The pulse of antigravity pushed the ordinance off course and into the cloud of surrounding ships. A cascade reaction occurred as the arsenals of each vessel in the armada exploded successively. In less than a minute the fearsome flotilla had been reduced to debris.

As Leia sat in stunned silence, Han made his report to Commissioner Ackbar.

“We just lost Rotta and his entire armada, sir. The city’s shield still stands and their weapon is still very obviously fully functional. Our primary disruption has been removed. There’s nothing now between the weapon and the Core except the Bothan freighter. Do you want to inform them or would you prefer for me to do it?”

“I will do it,” Awswi unexpectedly answered, privy to their discussion through the field of the Phemera. “Master Gwonameeth and I have known Seng for a quite while.”

“Thank you,” Leia said.

Awswi circumspectly added, “Those within Rotta’s sphere of influence would probably insist he died a hero’s death. But he only wanted to avenge himself on the monks for taking back what was originally theirs. He died the same way he lived, committing avaricious acts of violence that ultimately proved to be useless. Such is the life of the lawless.”

Changing the subject, Han said, “So now we know what really happens when their weapon strikes a ship.”

“No. Now we know what happens when it strikes a ship using artificial gravity,” Leia replied. “We warned Rotta. But although it sounds counterintuitive, his mass apparently becomes almost unmanageable in zero g.”

“I don’t think he phrased it quite that way,” he laughed. Chewie joined him in the jocularity.

Their moment of amusement was however interrupted by C3V2 saying, “Inconsistency. The readings are inconsistent with projected performance.”

Turning to where the droid was stationed in front of the scanner console, Han asked, “What are you talking about?”

C3 highlighted a series of readouts on the screen. Han immediately investigated. When he leaned back and sighed, he looked completely disconsolate to his companions. The intensity of his concentration had momentarily separated him from the field of the Phemera. Chewie had to gently urge him to explain what he’d discovered.

Turning to Leia, he said, “Your warning should’ve reached Rotta in time. The bolt was going faster than lightspeed. That’s why it doesn’t disperse over distance. It’s burrowing into subspace as it goes. The farther it travels, the more it accelerates. We didn’t detect it when it was used on the Tund star because it was only traveling light minutes and it was burrowing through the solar wind, the source of the heliosphere. No one was monitoring it when it crossed interstellar space to strike the Teth star. We’re not going to have nearly as much time to warn Dari of its approach as we thought.”

“Someone nevertheless needs to stay in proximity to Tund and monitor the monks’ activity,” she replied. “We’re now the only ship near the target. We can’t stay in one place and we need to avoid moving in a straight line. We should establish a random flight path while we are doing this so the monks can’t lock their weapon on us. It looks like there might not be enough of a warning for us to get out of the way once it’s fired. Chewie, can you set that up for us?”

Chewbacca grunted in affirmation at the request and quickly set about completing the task. With newfound concern, Han and Leia gazed across the distance at the shadowy snow globe of a world. After Chewie had locked in their new flight path, Han contacted Ackbar and the crew of the Screech to advise them of what had just been discovered. Through the field of the Phemera, he experienced the anxiety of Demorin and his crewmates at their reception of the news.

Returning his attention to the darkling ice world, he said, “It’s so much more dangerous than we originally thought, it’s like the whole damned planet just became a Death Star.”

***

Avalynn and Trimelle stood in the tunnel just outside the opening in the side of the Cache. It had been their honor to escort Tysha and Tani to the teleporter. No one had been certain of just how their translocation would appear to the observers. It had been almost anticlimactic.

Tysha had wondered whether the hole in the Cache’s side would impede the operation they were about to attempt as she and Tani swam to the center. Telepathic contact with Avalynn and Trimelle was restored as they reached the critical location. All four therefore heard the Phemera explain that the crystals incrusting the inside of the Cache formed a repetitive redundancy. What had been done in opening the Cache was not nearly enough to interfere with its operation.

Several waves of alluring light swept through the incrusting crystals as the pair of occupants performed the telepathic programming. And then, they simply vanished during the final flash. No sound accompanied their translocation. They didn’t shimmer or anything. They were just gone.

Avalynn and Trimelle stood there silently for several moments. It had all seemed so surreal. It didn’t seem possible the show was over and Tysha and Tani were now in another galaxy. But when they finally spoke again, they discovered they each had the same strange impression.

“Why do I think they are now linked to each other the way they were to the Phemera?” Tani asked.

“Probably for exactly the same reason I feel that way,” Avalynn answered. “Since they were both permanently linked to the Phemera, they were also linked to each other. Perhaps that bond is able to endure such a journey. Perhaps it’ll even prove important in accomplishing their task.”

“Could we maybe just ask the Phemera about it once we go upstairs?”

“Perhaps. But the Phemera know more than they necessarily impart. That’s a truth we have taken some time to understand. They can behave as capriciously as a Transformed Master.”

“So they have knowledge they’re unwilling to share? They actually withhold information?”

“It might relate more to what we really need to know and what we can actually handle. You don’t teach certain things to a youngling that you teach instead to a padawan. And in a very real way we are all padawans of the Phemera. The master chooses the curriculum, not the student. The Grand Master has told me the Phemera apparently withhold information even from her.”

“But the Force is for knowledge and defense. How can it be the will of the Force to withhold knowledge instead, even from the Grand Master?”

“Why do padawans have to construct their own lightsabers?”

***

Acting as the field commander for the Republic’s endeavor to thwart the threat posed by the B’omarr monks, Commissioner Ackbar had been increasingly concerned ever since learning the bolt from the Dark Energy weapon might arrive much sooner than expected. The frigates all had to be uncomfortably close to Teth in order to combine their tractor beams and alter its trajectory. He had developed a protocol that would hopefully send them all off in separate directions if their target suddenly reversed its gravity. And each crew was carrying out operations without the use of any artificial gravity. But his primary concern was the possibility that the gravity reversal might happen before the trajectory adjustment was complete. If that occurred the frigates might not be able to get close enough to the planet to complete its collision course with Tund. They’d have to find some other way to finish fine tuning the trajectory.

The warning from the Falcon arrived only moments before the burst of Dark Energy. Ackbar had just enough time to order the frigates to disengage. His protocol worked. There weren’t any collisions as the massive vessels were unceremoniously hurled away from the repulsive planet. But the trajectory adjustment had not been completed. They now needed an alternate means of locking Teth into a collision course with Tund.

“According to my calculations it should be possible to use a series of thermal detonations in space to push the planet onto our desired heading,” Demorin said. “It’ll be very tricky, rather like using a turbo laser to cut a diamond. But I think it’ll work.”

“We have the required ordinance,” Ackbar agreed as he examined the schematics Demorin had transmitted to him. “But positioning the charges and timing the detonations will be incredibly critical.”

Although the Screech was farther away from Teth than were the frigates, it too was buffeted by the reversal of the planet’s gravity. Dari came forward to investigate the disturbance while her husband was still discussing the situation with Ackbar. Her query surprised them both, Demorin in particular.

“I almost hate to ask this but are we sure Teth will respond to spatial shockwaves the way it would have before its gravity was reversed? The substances of which it is composed have been radically altered in a way we’ve never encountered before.”

“Maybe we should consider trying to laser a piece of it off into space for analysis. I suppose any portion we blast free from the surface would be repelled away from the rest of the world,” he replied. “It’d be very useful if we could gain some understanding of the process involved and the nature of the altered material.”

Still in communication with them from the Rancor, Ackbar answered, “There is a frigate that didn’t get flung as far as the others. I’ll instruct the captain to move as close as he can and see if he can use his turbo lasers to cut a sample free from the surface.”

As Demorin watched the frigate begin to angle into position, he said to Ackbar, “Something concerns me.”

“Just one thing?” Ackbar jokingly asked. “I wish my list was that short. What is it?”

“Teth wasn’t even on a collision course with Tund yet. Is the telepath capable of reading our intentions even at this distance or did the Force inform him of what we were trying to do?”

“You tell me,” Ackbar answered. “The Force is your purview, not mine.

Fighting the repulsion of the planet, the frigate finally managed to maneuver into position to use one of its turbo lasers and fire at the surface of Teth. The captain wisely selected a point on the horizon, hoping the freed section would then be ejected into space. Leia’s warning came just as the frigate was about to open fire.

“The monks just fired their weapon again. Our calculations indicate the burst is coming your way. Take evasive action.”

“All craft divert emergency power to shields,” Ackbar ordered. “Make certain all your gravity generators are locked down.”

The Force Wielders on the Screech all turned their attention to the incoming salvo, trying to divine its intended target. What they sensed didn’t seem rational and there wasn’t anything they could do about it anyway.

The energy burst streaked between all the frigates and struck the planet, which exploded in response. Its mountainous fragments flew outward, repelling one another. The frigate which had been preparing to fire on Teth was repeatedly struck by shrapnel of astronomical proportions. Its shields were bested by the unstoppable barrage and it was destroyed. The captains of the other craft looked on in helpless horror as the frigate fell before the gargantuan avalanche.

The planet’s destruction was discernible even at the distance of the long-range scanners on the Falcon, as was its cause. Han double-checked the readouts before informing Ackbar of what his sensors had determined.

“That last energy burst was of a different composition. The Dark Energy weapon apparently has another setting and its comparable to the fire power of the Death Stars. Its more dangerous even than we already thought.”

“Demorin, you need to determine if the laser broadsword is capable of deflecting both types of emissions,” Leia added. “We might not be quite as close to having our countermeasure as we had hoped.”

“An examination of a sample of the debris might prove useful in making that determination,” he replied. “It came at a terrible cost, but the telepath just provided us with samples of whatever size we might require. We just need to select a target and tractor it in. Perhaps he inadvertently gave us exactly what we need in order to understand his weapon.”

“I need you to exercise extreme caution in acquiring your samples,” Cyrella interjected over the subspace channel. Make sure you don’t come in contact with the material.”

“You’re thinking about Narik and his accidental exposure to a fragment of the One Crystal,” Leia insightfully said. “We all know how that turned out.”

“That is precisely my concern,” the Grand Master agreed.

***

Looking back over his shoulder to where Spock was seated on the Quantum Quest, Lucas asked, “What course do I set? You did say you thought you knew where we could find Dr. David Marcus, didn’t you?”

“I did, and I know time might be of the essence in finding him. But there is another matter to take care of first. We’re very close to the coordinates where the first Starship Enterprise made its initial contact with the Metrons.”

“Right. You mentioned them before,” Luke replied. “How did that go?”

“The Enterprise was pursuing the Gorn ship that’d destroyed Cestus 3. Both unsuspectingly strayed into space claimed by the Metrons. As a result, both ships were completely disabled.”

The Knights Errant exchanged looks of concern, but Spock supplied them with coordinates before they could express any apprehensions. He then continued his recounting of the event.

“The captains of both vessels were beamed to a planet and informed they would settle their differences in personal combat there. Captain Kirk won by using his wits and then surprised the Metrons by sparing the life of his reptilian opponent. The Metrons then said we might be able to establish diplomatic relations with them in about a thousand years.”

“And how long ago was that encounter?” Odo asked.

“Not quite a century,” Spock replied.

“A bit ahead of schedule then, aren’t we?” the security chief sarcastically asked.

“The situation necessitates our premature attempt at contact,” Spock stoically answered.

Having already determined they were still telepathically linked, Tani Force Spoke to Tysha, asking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Speaking aloud, Tysha replied by asking, “Have we any idea just how long we’ll be delayed by this detour?”

“If the Metrons are willing communicate with us, we should be able to find out in short order whether they will assist us.”

“It sounds as if they might have serious compunctions against killing,” Odo observed. “That makes it sound like, as Admiral Data would say, we’re pursuing an untamed ornithoid.”

“I have no intention of asking them to kill anyone,” Spock mysteriously responded.

“Then this should be a very interesting encounter if, that is, we’re actually able to contact them,” Odo mused.

Once the Quest had reached the specified coordinates, the Knights Errant allocated control of their communications equipment to the seat Spock was occupying. He began broadcasting.

“This is Ambassador Spock of the United Federation of Planets calling the Metrons. Please respond. Our galaxy has been invaded from outside and is also endangered by an anomaly that is currently just beyond its edge. Please respond.”

When no answer was immediately forthcoming, he patiently repeated his hail. Initially there was silence. But just as he was about to broadcast a third time, the Metrons responded.

“Were you not the chief science officer on the space vessel known as Enterprise during our first encounter with your Federation?”

“I am a clone of that individual. I possess his memories.”

“Then you recall we specified the passage of a thousand years before our next contact?”

“If the situation weren’t so desperate I’d never have considered disturbing your solitude, but the perils I mentioned endanger your people as well.”

“You are speaking of the invasion encroaching on the outskirts of the region you refer to as the Alpha Quadrant?”

“You’re already aware of the invasion? Do you also know of the super-massive black hole?”

“The region of space we occupy is not proximate to either of these perils. Over time we may find ourselves needing to contend with one or both of them. But we prefer to remain uninvolved until intercession is necessary. You are here to request an acceleration of our timetable, are you not? And what precisely would you have us do? Would you ask us to destroy your enemies?”

“I wouldn’t presume to request that you kill. But you’ve shown you have the power to render space vessels inoperable. Placing of a no-fly zone could be incredibly effectual in preventing the spread of the enemy’s empire.”

“If the zone is placed between your Federation and the Occupied Cardassian Union it could eventually become counterproductive. If the Cardassians rise up to overthrow the invaders, you would be unable to send them aid. We would first have to remove the barrier, and you would be open to attack again.”

“Perhaps it would be more beneficial to place the zone between the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance. This would prevent the Joracki from uniting with the Breen, and that is our most pressing concern.”

“The zone won’t prevent passage. It’ll nullify the power sources on any ship that crosses it, although the vessel will be carried across by its own inertia. It will therefore have no power even for life support. This is a complication since we are unwilling to kill.”

“We could instruct the Ferengi to patrol their side of the zone and take prisoners of anybody who arrives in their space in such a ship.”

“What would become of the prisoners?”

“They would be turned over to the Federation. We would then debrief them before returning them to the Cardassian Union.”

“Debrief them?”

“The being they worship as a god is actually a cyborg from another galaxy. We can present them with evidence of this. If we can remove the impetus of religion, they might be less willing to help the imposter expand his empire. But what can be done about the super-massive black hole at the galaxy’s edge.”

“The barrier would be of a different design. But it won’t be a permanent solution. Matter will still be drawn toward the gravity well. Over time the black hole might actually absorb the galaxy from its current location. A more long-term resolution will have to be devised.”

“We’re working on a method that could actually nullify the singularity. Will you then put the suggested boundaries in place?”

“We will comply with your request. One of your representatives previously showed mercy to a defeated adversary. We are trusting you to behave in this manner. Do not disappoint us.”

“We have an accord. And you have our profound thanks.”

***

Named according to a linage of starships that’d all been inspired by the original, the Joracki battle cruiser Prinox led the column of cruisers into the Cardassian system. Second in command of the full armada only to Pax Parakal himself, who essentially served as the Vice Admiral of the Fleet, Irlick Canto stood on the bridge of the flagship. Beside him was Commodore Jark Najacor who like the other commodores all exercised control over half a dozen such battle cruisers. The ship’s captain, forced to defer to her pair of superiors, was Pira Karala. She was overseeing her vessel’s operations from the back of the bridge. And she was mortified by what the sensors had revealed.

“Our command posts and airfields have all been totally destroyed,” Najacor summarized. “It hardly seems possible. With your leave, Admiral, I’ll deploy shock troops to search for survivors and try to recover any security recordings of what happened here. I hope you will forgive me for the reminder, but we were instructed not to approach this system.”

“And my request for confirmation went unanswered,” Canto brusquely replied. “Without any such substantiation it’s possible the signal was in fact a ploy designed to prevent reinforcements from arriving. I now suspect it was sent by whomever was responsible for this massacre. Deploy your troops. I want answers.”

Within the hour the trio of high-ranking officers assembled in the cruiser’s conference room to discuss what the shock troops had discovered. Despite all of them being battle-hardened, the aura of tension and confusion was reflected in the countenance of each reptilian face. Since the troops were most immediately under her command, Captain Karala took it upon herself to relate the results of their investigation.

“There were no survivors. This seems extremely unlikely. We think the Cardassians rose up in the aftermath of the attack and slew any soldiers who survived the onslaught from space. And they are now equipped for further insurgency. One of the main armories wasn’t destroyed by the barrage. It had instead been ransacked. But the few security recordings that survived show us a scene that makes no sense.

“The cubical craft that carried out the attack conform to the configuration of those identified as the Borg in the Cardassian Archives. The Borg form a collective, assimilating entire societies. That didn’t happen here. Our soldiers were slaughtered. The Cardassians were untouched. The Federation and the Borg are mortal enemies. And the Borg do not make allies. It therefore does not stand to reason they were acting on behalf of Star Fleet. They would instead assimilate the Federation into their collective rather than act in any way to preserve it.”

“Where are they now? And where is Pax Parakal?” Canto intensely asked.

“A few of the tracking satellites survived,” Karala replied. “We have the approximate course of the cubes as they left. It appears they were in pursuit, perhaps of the Funerary. Unless he led them away, we have no idea of the whereabouts of Pax Parakal. What are you orders, sir?”

“Send the shock troops from all six cruisers to the surface in drop ships. It is imperative that we retake the command center. Have the cruisers themselves remain in orbit. We must prepare for the possible return of the enemy vessels. The Prinox will follow the course set by the enemy vessels. We need to determine what happened to Pax Parakal.”

“I mean no disrespect, sir,” Commodore Najacor prefaced his observation by saying. “But it is my obligation to present alternatives. If a god could not contend with the invaders and do little more than lead them away, maybe it isn’t wise to follow them. I would contend that Cardassia is lost. We’ve no functional foothold on the planet and its people are now prepared to repel us with our own weapons. That being the case, if we are to engage in this pursuit, I’d suggest that all six cruisers be allocated to the mission.”

“I’m not prepared to concede Cardassia. We have fought too hard to take and keep it. Most of what we know about the Federation came from the Cardassian Archives. Its significance as a security asset has already been demonstrated. Once we’ve uploaded all its information, we can obliterate the inhabitants from orbit. If there are no occupied people, perhaps there will be no more efforts to free them. Deploy the shock troops and set a course to pursue the cubes.”

“I’ll see to it at once, Admiral,” Karala replied.

Admiral Canto expressed pleasure at the rapidity of the shock troops’ deployment. Within a matter of minutes, the Prinox had broken orbit and was following the course set by the departing cubes. The helmsman quickly calculated the trajectory as terminating at the Celtris system. The Archives had identified it as a staging area for a possible attempt to confiscate some Federation Protected Space. The Salva system was located on the other side of Bajoran Space. And that is where the other staging area was located. It was all part of a plan to eventually annex the entire Bajoran Sector. Narik knew all about the plans and the pair of staging areas, but it amused him to let the Cardassians think they had any future besides subservience to his Empire.

The proximity alert sounded only moments before the cruiser’s science officer explained the reason, the sensors had detected an approaching shockwave toward which they were warping. Karala instantly ordered a change in course and asked what had caused the phenomenon.

“Subspace scanners can’t locate the Celtris star, sir,” the science officer replied. “It appears to have been destroyed. The cause can’t possibly be natural. Everything else in the system has been obliterate by the shockwave. And I’m not reading any other power sources within a parsec. The enemy ships were ostensibly destroyed, as was whatever they were pursuing.”

“Where are you taking us, Captain?” Canto forcefully asked Karala.

“Our sensors can barely see inside the shockwave, only enough to scan for power sources. We have no idea what’s on the other side in the direction of Salva,” she answered while looking over the science officer’s shoulder. “We’re circling around the expanding shockwave to its other side in order to bring what’s there into range of our scanners.”

“But with the shockwave between us and Cardassia,” Canto pointedly pressed, “will we not be out of contact with the other five ships in our phalanx?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Karala conceded. “But there’s no other way to continue our search.”

“Belay that order, helmsman,” the admiral loudly ordered. “Bring us about and set a course back to Cardassia. I’ll not be out of contact with our only contingent within a parsec.”

“Admiral, sir, we desperately need to determine what has become of Pax Parakal,” Najacor insisted. “Is it not worth the risk? What if he will not be returning to us?”

“I should have you hung for heresy. A god cannot be destroyed.”

“Until minutes ago I wouldn’t said the same thing about a star,” Najacor contended. “Yet it is very obviously what happened. Celtris was not unstable. Someone is responsible. Who can say what limitations such an agency enjoys? The genesis of Pax Parakal is not known to us. What if there are other gods? What if we’ve unknowingly invaded their territory?”

“Why would they disguise their ships as belonging to the Borg? What evidence can you cite of the Federation having its own gods?”

“Pardon me, Admiral,” Karala carefully interjected. “But there actually is a brief reference in the Archives to an encounter between a Federation ship and the ancient Greek god, Apollo. The intercepted excerpt unfortunately gives no indication of the outcome. But Apollo was only one of an entire pantheon of such beings. If Pax Parakal encountered them he might have been utterly outnumbered. In that case there is perhaps no shame in suggesting he won’t return to us.”

“There is no contingency plan in place, sir,” Najacor dynamically continued, emboldened by the support of his subordinate. “I respectfully suggest you seriously consider what you’ll do if he has in fact fallen.”

To Karala it looked like Admiral Canto wanted to kill the commodore. But after several tense seconds, he finally spoke instead.

“And what are the alternatives as you see them?”

“We could attempt to continue the expansion. But this seems to me like the least beneficial course of action. We are barely managing to keep the Cardassians down and our forays against the Federation have not gone well at all. Furthermore, the Cardassians now have new weapons with which to oppose our occupation. We could briefly abandon the expansion, focusing instead on consolidating our control over all the annexed sectors, including the Cardassian Union. But it might be that our best course of action would be instead to withdraw from the Cardassian Union and focus on consolidating our control over the sectors in the spiral arm we already conquered. It might placate the party responsible for destroying the Celtris star. It seems like our occupation of Cardassia pushed them past a tipping point, sir.”

“I am not a god that I should act in the place of Pax Parakal,” Canto contended. “My skill as a strategist helped me ascend to my position, not my ability as an administrator. I do not believe he is gone. He led the mysterious enemy away and is probably still destroying them even as we speak. He’s out of range of our communicators, which is why he did not provide the confirmation I requested. That being the case, we’re operating outside orders. His last communication said to reverse course and not approach Cardassia. But the enemy is no longer there, so I feel justified in trying to retake it. However I’ll have to weigh all our options with regards to further expansion of our empire. I don’t see how we can defeat the Federation without our god and his Banisher.”

Captain Karala was confused by this summation and asked, “What other options are there besides the annexation of Federation Space, sir?”

“The Ferengi Alliance is situated between the Cardassian Union and the Core,” Canto said. “Beyond that is Breen Space. In the last war the Breen allied themselves with the Dominion and against the Federation. The Cardassians became part of that alliance. Perhaps it is possible for history to repeat itself.”

“Our empire has only ever enslaved subjects, Admiral,” Najacor cautiously observed. “Even if the Breen were willing to aid us in annexing the Ferengi Alliance, they’d almost surely demand autonomy. Any attempt to withhold it would probably negate their willingness to help us fight the Federation. Do you propose to enter into some kind of treaty with them?”

“The decision is not mine to make, at least not yet. But you insisted that I give consideration to my choices. And then you failed to suggest what might be the most functional one. If it indeed falls to me to decide the course of the empire, I must be certain not to overlook any possibilities. But if I continue to find your strategies as faulty as your faith, I will remove you from your current position as commodore. I might even opt to remove your head from your body. If I’m indeed the heir apparent of the emperor, you had best begin affording me the consequent respect. I’ll have no more of your impertinent attitude.”

“My apologies, sir.”

***

Warping past the Setlik system the Enterprise and Excelsior left the boundary of Federation Space in the Alpha Quadrant and skirted the Cardassian border on their way to Ferenginar. The Ferengi Alliance began to spread out to starboard as they bypassed the Marva system. No sign of any Breen ships had so far appeared to the sensors of either ship. But Breen Space was still parsecs away and on the other side of Ferengi territory. Without incident they held their course all the way to the system of the Ferengi homeworld. As they dropped out of warp at the edge of the system, a message from the Nagus reached each of the pair of galaxy-class starships.

“Our perimeter sensors near Arcybite have detected a squadron of Breen battle cruisers. It isn’t clear whether they’re going to try to cut across our territory, that of the Lytasian Union or go all the way around in interstellar space. But we are certain their final destination is the Occupied Cardassian Union. And it’s imperative we prevent any contact between the two. We sending you coordinates. Rendezvous with our battle group there. We’ll be able to detect the Breen from that location no matter which way they go. We’ll then need to intercept and destroy them. I would be in favor of simply driving them back, but this isn’t their first attempt. Has Star Fleet approved the use of deadly force in order for you to support our effort?”

“It has,” Admiral Data assured him.

“These coordinates are along their border with the Lytasian Union,” Kato observed aloud as she programmed the received set into her console. “And the frequent flyer miles just continue to accrue.”

Half a dozen Ferengi warships were waiting at the coordinates the Nagus had sent. Having never been in this part of the galaxy before despite all the many manifestations of her symbiont, Shanella was transfixed by her sensor readout screen before Alexander even ordered the initial sweep. After being instructed to do so, Jake transferred the welcoming communiqué to the main viewing screen. The image of the Grand Nagus appeared.

“Hello, Nog. I never thought I’d get to see you so often when you joined Star Fleet. I’m glad circumstances have brought us together again, even though the situation is hardly ideal.”

Before Nog could reply, Alexander asked, “Have you been able to learn anything about the movements of the enemy vessels?”

“They are making an end-run around the regions claimed by us and by the Lytasian Union. I don’t think they actually intended to engage anybody in combat. Won’t they be surprised?”

“Do we know the strength of the enemy’s forces?” Alexander pressed.

“That’s the bad news. There are a dozen of them. They outnumber us.”

“You’d think we’d be used to that,” Alexander mused aloud. “It was that way last time, too.”

“Captain, we’re being scanned. They’ve seen us,” Shanella announced. “Two of the column have broken off and look to be making a run for the Cardassian border. The rest are coming our way, apparently running interference. Admiral Data, sir, are you also reading this?”

“Yes,” he replied on VOX as the Breen ships disappeared from their screens. “At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I think I miss the good old days before everybody had cloaking devices.”

***

“This is going to be harder than we thought,” Demorin complained to Ackbar over subspace radio. “Our tractor beam pushes the fragments away. It repulses them. We had to scavenge our teleporter to get parts for the broadsword and that might be the only way to complete a capture.”

“I hope you won’t be too upset about this, since they haven’t yet been approved for general use, but I had transporters installed on all the Republic frigates,” Ackbar replied. “They were just too useful in transferring supplies.”

“You mean munitions and such?” Demorin asked. But before Ackbar could answer, he said, “This is a conversation for another time. I’m sure there’s far more room for the required research on one of your frigates anyway. My entire passenger compartment has become dedicated to the assembly of the plasma broadsword.”

“Due to the expanding debris field I’ve pulled all my ships back from around all that is left of Teth, but I’ll have one of them move in and complete the capture. You can disengage. I suppose they’ll need to suspend the specimen with ray shields. It’ll repulse all normal matter. Could prove to be a real challenge to study.”

Demorin backed the Screech away from the spreading remains of the pulverized planet and watched through long-range scanners as a frigate approached the confusion of rock from the far side. His sensors registered the use of the teleportation beam it then used to bring the specimen aboard. The Force alerted him to the fact something was horribly wrong, but it was too late.

From within the bowels of the frigate came an explosion that appeared to be thermonuclear in nature. It totally obliterated the ship and the nearby chunks of what used to be Teth. Even the Screech was rocked by the explosion, as distant as it was. Demorin had to react quickly to avoid the domino effect that was wrought on the rest of the planetary expansion. The trajectories were changed as the shockwave swept through the melee, sending some of the avalanche directly at his ship.

Relying on the insight of the Enhanced, Ackbar asked, “What the hell just happened?”

“It was a reaction to the ray shielding,” Demorin replied after consulting the Force. “The ray shields caused the sample to compress into something approximating critical mass. Perhaps we should’ve anticipated such a reaction.”

“Wait a minute,” Ackbar coughed, gathering his thoughts. “If that’s true, then what’ll happen if Dari succeeds in deflecting the Dark Energy weapon’s emission back upon its source?”

“It’ll turn the entire planet of Tund into an enormous thermonuclear weapon. Any attempt to use ray shields could set it off.”

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