"How long will the Shade be out of service?" General Chalb asked.
Admiral Huyil shook his head in disbelief of the situation. "Six months, at least." He held up a hand before they had the chance to protest. "We don't have the facilities to repair a ship of that size. We're going to have to be somewhat... creative."
"We can build a Death Star in that much time," Chalb retorted.
"No," Huyil said. "If we didn't have our forces spread out like they are, then yes, but with the preparations at the front and the problems in the Milky Way, we can't divert that much manpower and equipment."
"We are not fighting this war with engineers."
"General," Huyil said with strained patience, "this is not something that can be overcome through arguing. Six months, minimum. Accept it."
"What we have to accept," Sunhaf said, "is that the Imperial presence in the Milky Way has now been seriously reduced, not to mention the obvious negative image we've suffered as a result. Without more ships-"
"We can't take any more ships off their patrols," Admiral Kormain said before things could go further. "The Outer Rim that's still under our control is already spiraling towards disaster. Smuggling, piracy, organized crime have increased by twenty percent over the last month alone. You pull any more ships off their patrols and we might as well hand the Outer Rim over to the Vong."
"Enough," the Emperor said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Admiral Huyil, how quickly can you get the Shade spaceworthy?" He raised his voice over the protest. "I mean establishing its presence in the Delta Quadrant."
"If you mean traveling under its own power," Huyil thought it over. "A week. But she will be virtually defenseless."
"And that fact will not leave this room, except for the captain. We shall have to hope that a paper tiger will due for now. In the meantime, what word on the Vong base of operations?"
Captain Naomi Wildman drew to attention. "My expert has comprised a list of likely systems, but we have not been able to positively-"
The Emperor interrupted with a flash of anger. "Do we have a target?" he asked, punctuating his words.
Capt. Wildman swallowed. "No, your highness."
The Emperor scowled. "Every day the Vong grow stronger. Every day our people wonder why we aren't acting."
"It's a logistically complicated situation," Kormain said.
"I know that," he snapped. "But the Empire is vulnerable to assault from without and within; we cannot allow this standoff to continue." The assorted admirals and generals were looking at each other with uncertainty. The Emperor didn't sound the same... it was more... impassioned? Perhaps the stress of the situation was too much for a man of his age, but none would ever say the words out loud.
"We have run the simulations, your highness," Chalb said finally. "We can overrun the Vong, but the collateral damage will be high. They've deliberately used our own people as shields. We have to accept that if we launch an attack now, without eliminating their central command, we won't be able to pull our punches."
The Emperor's face seemed to disappear into the depths of his robe. "What are the projections?"
"We attain complete control within ninety hours of the initial assault. We lose 37% of our ships, and sustain damage to 74% of the survivors. We'll lose 60% of our fighters. As for civilians..." Kormain hesitated. "We estimate 29 billion dead."
"That's assuming the Vong don't begin executing them out of spite," Admiral Rhital added.
The silence seemed to stretch on for hours. "Are there any alternatives? Any at all?"
The atmosphere in the room implied that there was, but no one felt inclined to bring it up. "There is one," Chalb said. "It would require a change in policy, however."
"What do you have in mind?"
Chalb took a deep breath. "The Shade is damaged, but the Eclipse and Twilight are only a day away from the front lines."
"You are suggesting deploying the superlasers," the Emperor said.
"The planet Lazeria IV has a population of less than five hundred million," Chalb said. "But it's equipped with a planetary shield that we know the Vong are using. If we destroy that world in one stroke, it might convince them they're overmatched and withdraw."
"Gambling half a billion doesn't sound much better," Sunhaf remarked. "But shock and awe tactics has been shown to be effective on some occasions."
"Even if it doesn't work, your highness," Kormain said, "the system is too dangerous to leave in Vong hands. Its position is too close to our major trade routes; it's a path right into the center of our space."
The Emperor mulled it over. "As much as it pains me," he said finally, "I don't think we have a choice. You have permission to deploy and terminate."
"Your highness," came a sudden voice, edged with desperation, "may I see you in private." Leia Organa Solo, whose presence at such meetings was usually a formality, was visibly anxious.
"You have my decision," the Emperor replied without looking at her. "Dismissed." The assorted leaders, recognizing when a quick exit would be advised, vanished as their holo-projectors extinguished.
"Your excellency," Leia said as she got to her feet, "you can't do this. Not against your own people."
"Sometimes hard decisions have to be made," the Emperor said. He seemed to be much smaller under the weight of the Vong threat. He tried his best, however, to put up a strong front. "Is there anything else you have to say?"
Leia stepped forward. "Yes, one thing." With the kind of speed normally associated with hummingbirds she thrust out her arms and took hold of his head. "Remember," she intoned, bringing her Jedi training to bear.
The Emperor visibly swayed as experiences and thoughts kept safely locked away burst from their vaults and flooded his being. He looked at her crossly. "What was that for?"
"Ben, you can't do this."
He shook his head. "I already answered this point. Did you think this would make any difference?"
"Actually, yes," Leia said. "Ben Sisko wouldn't murder millions in the vain hope of military victory."
"Please Leia," Ben said, "put me back so I can get to work."
"No," she said hotly. "I'm not going to let you hide behind that mask, not about this. You, the real you, would never accept this kind of solution."
His hands were resting on the back of the throne, and he wasn't even looking at her. When he spoke, his voice was low, with the slightest trace of emotion. "Imagine, for a moment," he said slowly, "that when your Jacen and Jaina were still small, still unable to care for themselves, that you were being pursued across the plains of some world by a predator. You can't outrun it, you can't hide, you can't fight it. It's a problem our ancient ancestors faced all the time in long forgotten days."
"Ben-" Leia began.
"What would you do?" he asked.
Leia drew herself up. "Fight. It won't take my children without one."
"But it will nonetheless. Whether you fight or not, the end result is the same. Both your children die."
Leia practically growled Ben's name. "You're not changing the subject."
"What if I told you there was a way to save one of them?" Ben said.
"Fine, I'll play along. How?"
He finally looked up into her eyes. "You drop one." Leia's eyes widened but he couldn't before she could speak. "The predator stops and consumes the one while you bring the other to safety. For one, it's the same as if you had done nothing, and for the other, it's salvation."
"Ben," she rumbled, "that is the single sickest thing I've ever heard in my life!"
"Absolutely. And the only thing even more sickening is the fact that it's the truth. We can't save all, but through our own moral crippling, we can save some." He laughed, but there was no trace of humor to it. "Machiavelli was an armchair amateur compared to me."
"Ben, we don't know-"
"You don't know," he said emphatically, "I do. You never answered my question, you know. You're fortunate, because you don't have to. You have the same luxury that I used to have, the luxury of making the small choices, easily guided by morality. What you don't remember, Leia, is that I have been making these kinds of decisions every day, knowing how I have to decide because, as terrible as a choice might be, it's the best out of all the bad choices there are."
"And that justifies it?" Leia said with contempt.
"I'm not asking for justification," Ben said weakly. "Nor forgiveness." He sighed. "Some things just have to happen, Leia. It's not victory at any price, it's victory at the lowest price. Perhaps when you look back, you will see. But never think that this is easy for me."
Annika’s eyes fluttered, then opened, revealing a concerned blur that was Han Solo. She tried to think of something extremely clever to say to lighten the mood, but despite the treatments she still felt like she’d just tried sumo wrestling a Hutt. “Tell me it’s not as bad as it feels,” she groaned.
“The doc said you’re in his lucky-to-be-alive ward,” Han replied. “Try not to do anything like that again; your kid shouldn’t have to bury both his parents before his quarter-century mark.”
“Your bedside manner is...” She stopped in mid-simile. Her mind felt like it was wrapped in cotton.
Han must have noticed her confusion. “The disease made a lot of headway while you were being treated. They’ve got you pretty juiced up.”
The disease... she’d forgotten. “He’s using extra na-“ She floundered for the word.
“Bashir has been in touch with the Doctor,” Han said. “He’s using an upgraded treatment. It’s supposed to help you gain some more ground.”
“They’re using.... something.... to suppress my Borg 'instincts,' right?”
“Yeah, some gizmo that’ll-“
“Turn it off.”
Han scoffed a little. “I think the two MD’s know what they’re doing.”
“I need my mind clear, Han,” Seven said. “I can’t func... I... this is crap.”
Han drummed his fingers on the side of the bed, then held up his finger as he spoke slowly and seriously. “If you try getting out of bed...”
“I won’t,” she said, and meant it. The injuries and disease had left her so weak she couldn’t have fought off a determined slug. She laid back and relaxed while Han stepped over and spoke to one of the nurses. Eventually Annika felt a curtain part in her mind, allowing her to think clearly. Time, she suddenly remembered, was a factor. “Han, the shifter-“
“I have the fleet tracking the movement of your beacon,” Han said. “Don’t worry, just observing; Leia made sure they understood that they weren’t to actually follow it or they might tip Nom Anor or the Vong off.”
Annika cocked an eyebrow. “Was I talking in my sleep?”
Han gave her a half-amused, half-insulted look. “I saw what you did to it. I’m a scoundrel, not an idiot.”
Annika nodded. “Good to know you’re good for more than flying the ship. But let’s see if you get the blue ribbon: have you accessed Chandrilla appropriation records?”
“Belkadan. One of the Vong’s first targets, and a complete waste of credits. What if there’s more going on with that planet than we’ve realized?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at how much Nom Anor has done to hamper the Empire’s response. Maybe he has somebody in a position to help the Vong in their war effort, either a disgruntled politician or a mole like B’Elanna.”
“Maybe, but we’ve got to focus on the real issue, which is the Vong base of operations. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to fire the first shot and this is going to turn into a full blown war, and personally, I don’t want that squid running the Vong’s sho-“ He froze.
Annika waited. “What?”
“Where’d the nurses go?” he asked, his tone full of suspicion. His hand instinctively reached for his absent blaster as Lando stepped into the room.
Lando hit the button that sealed them off from the rest of Sickbay. “We need to have a talk.”
Quark tapped on the datapad for a few seconds, then slammed it on the bar in frustration. "This is unacceptable," he growled.
"Problem, Quark?" Dr. Bashir asked from his stool as he sipped at an ale.
"Of course there's a problem, or haven't you noticed that the place is empty for the third day in a row?"
"Quark," Bashir said with a laugh, "you just opened ten minutes ago."
"It's ruined," he said, ignoring him. "Calrissian's going to close the bar. He'll probably take me offline permanently."
"Quark," Bashir said diplomatically, "maybe you should hold off judgment until your repairs are finished."
"It won't matter. They're not going to come."
"Quark, look. You have one Dabo table, the bar, and no holosuites in the middle of the day. Give it some time to complete the repairs."
"Do you have any idea how extensive the damage of a rampaging alien and a firefight can be?" Quark shook his head. "It'll take weeks to repair the damage they did."
Bashir finished his glass. "Well maybe your Imperial friends that caused the mess can help you clean it up."
Quark took the glass with a sneer. "Get a stormtrooper to fix the holosuite? All they know is killing and white uniforms."
Bashir nodded, then dropped an Imperial credit on the bar and left. He walked straight into a bald man dressed in Chandrillan fashions. Bashir mumbled an apology but before he could leave the man planted a hand on his shoulder with a grip like a vise. "Look, it was an accident," he said sharply.
"No, it wasn't." He gestured towards a pair of waiting stormtroopers. "Come along, doctor. We have a great deal to discuss."
Bashir struggled, but he couldn't budge. "If this is about Garak, I've already made a deal with the attorney general."
"Rescinded," he replied coldly. He pushed Bashir towards the stormtroopers, who caught him easily. They half dragged him into the nearby corridor while the man straightened his tunic, then followed.
Quark watched him leave, his mouth hanging open in shock. "Oh no," he said under his breath. A Trandoshan walked up to the bar and dropped a stack of credits on it. "Get out of here," he snapped at the arrival, "can't you see we're closed for repairs." The alien growled at him, and Quark scooped up the pile. "Didn't you hear me? Take your money and have a seat - I mean, I mean, get out of here." As the alien left Quark ran out from behind the bar and sealed the entrance. "This is just what I don't need," he groaned.
Han didn’t take his eyes off Lando as he pulled a stool over and took a seat near Annika. The fact that he wasn’t saying anything was all the more infuriating. “Is there anyone on this station you haven’t bought?” Han finally asked.
“Don’t knock it,” Lando remarked evenly. “You know how hard it is to get Bacta out here?”
“Yeah, you’re a regular saint.”
“Look, I don’t need this!” Lando snapped. “It seems every time you step into my life I should hop into an escape pod. You’re thirteen broken mirrors chasing a black cat under some ladders.”
“Isn’t that a painting by Salvador Dali?” Annika mused. A glance realized it hadn’t had the effect she’d hoped. “What do you want, Lando?”
“Just information,” he replied, staring back at Han a few moments longer before turning to Annika. “Was B’Elanna working for the Vong?”
“You work for the Vong,” Han said. “Garak’s hooked up with Nom Anor, in case you’ve forgotten your little role in that.”
Lando didn’t even look at Han as he repeated the question to Annika. “I think so,” she said finally.
“What is she?”
“Why not ask Garak?” Han said.
“Maybe you should leave,” Lando said shortly.
“Gonna have your stormtrooper buddies toss me in a cell?”
“Don’t tempt me. Look, I’ve done a hell of a lot for you, and you’ve turned my life upside-down. Now all I want is some information.”
“It’s not unreasonable,” Annika pointed out.
“That’s how this game works,” Han remarked. “A lot of people being reasonable nearly pulled Luna out of its orbit... and worse.” He didn’t have to bring up Sebastian; he knew her mind would head there on its own.
“Look, I promise you whatever you tell me won’t get back to Garak,” Lando said. “Really, I don’t want to work with him any more, but I need to know what I’m up against if I’m going to try to make a move against him.”
“He’s lying,” Han said. “Bashir’s turning evidence; Lando’s just looking for the most comfort place to land when this comes tumbling down.”
“Yeah, well, not everybody can be lucky enough to land in a luxurious Chandrilla house and a job rubberstamping the Emperor’s death warrants.” Before Han could respond the communicator chimed. “Maybe it’s the Emperor asking about his laundry.”
Han scowled, but got up and walked over to the communicator. Hopefully it was Leia with a report on the shifter. The image was so unlike her he did a double-take.
"Quark?" Han said, annoyed to see who the source of the interruption was. "Beat it."
"I need to talk to Lando," the Ferengi said anxiously, "it's important."
"Just pour some drinks and stay out of our hair." He cut the transmission, but didn't get two steps before the communicator rang for him again. "Lando," he finally snapped, "your hologram wants you."
Lando stepped over and activated the comm. "I said I didn't want to be distur-"
"Dr. Bashir has just been arrested," Quark got out before he could finish.
"Abdul-Majid's not going to get anything-"
"It's not Deniz," Quark interrupted impatiently. "He was taken into custody by Volgo Terraine."
Lando's face fell. When he spoke his voice was devoid of emotion. "I hope to hell you're joking."
"I wish to hell I were," Quark replied. "What do we do?"
"Give me a minute!" Lando snapped.
"What's the problem?" Han asked, smiling just a little.
Lando whirled around; his expression could've melted tungsten. "Go find somewhere else to gloat."
"Looks like things aren't running quite as well as you'd like."
"Boys," Annika said before the confrontation could escalate. "We've got more important concerns. Han, you've got to contact Chandrilla about Belkadan, and every minute you waste is a minute closer towards invasion. And Lando, if you're concerned about Bashir giving you up, turn states evidence and you'll get the same deal he did."
"That's exactly what I'm hoping to avoid," Lando said anxiously.
"Bashir is going to get an Imperial pardon-"
"Bashir's going to be dead in a matter of hours!" Lando shouted. "Didn't you hear? Volgo Terraine has him."
"Would you relax," Han said, the image of Lando’s suffering bringing him out of his funk. "Terraine is one of the Emperor's aides; he's just here to keep Bashir safe."
Lando looked at Han like a Hirogen had jumped out of his mouth and begun tap-dancing in the infirmary. "Don't you have any idea who he is?"
Han shrugged. "Well, I met him once on Earth, and a couple times at the palace."
Lando shook his head with a mixture of frustration and disbelief. "He's an aide all right. Your buddy Terraine is the head of the ISB."
Captain Turah betrayed no emotion as the Eclipse emerged from hyperspace into the Lazeria system. It wasn't a perfect exit from a tactical standpoint, but the orders had been for him and his escort to let the enemy see them coming before delivering the final blow. The division between front-line and rear leadership is the shifting weight between tactical and strategic concerns, and while the idea made sense to him, that didn't mean he liked being the one executing it.
"Execute?" He could have picked a better word.
Since taking command of the Eclipse six years ago Turah had fired the superlaser eight times, of which half were practice tests on uninhabited worlds and moons. His only shots fired in combat were against renegade space stations and a retired Executor-class star destroyer being used as a base of operations for a Black Sun splinter group. But this wasn't some minor target he could fire upon under his own authority, this was something they had experienced only in practice drills. "Battle stations," he ordered as he prepared to exe- to carry out, his orders. "All TIEs launch. Commander?"
His executive officer stepped forward, a datapad in his hand. He held it up crisply and spoke in a sharp voice. "By order of the Military High Command and the wishes of the Emperor, the Star Destroyer Eclipse is ordered and required to fire its primary weapon upon the planet Lazeria IV until it is deemed destroyed. Authorization code check."
"Authorization code check, aye," came the voice of the main gunner.
"Golf, November, Sierra, Hotel, Yankee, Victor, One, Four, Seven, One."
"Aye, sir. Golf, November, Sierra, Hotel, Yankee, Victor, One, Four, Seven, One, confirmed."
"Firing code confirmed," Turah said, his voice slightly dry. "Take us to within two hundred thousand kilometers of target. Lieutenant, when we are within range, prepare a firing solution. Engineering." He stopped. He looked out through the front window. The ship was close enough now that the target appeared several sizes larger than the background stars. In moments it would be within range, and then... His XO looked at him out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing.
"Sir?" came the voice from Engineering.
"Commence primary ignition," he said. The deckplates vibrated slightly as the hypermatter reactor began charging.
"Sir, we have a firing solution."
"Final bearing and shoot on my mark."
Turah was so focused on the moment that he nearly jumped when his XO stepped to his side and started speaking to him. "Something's wrong," he said in a low voice.
Turah gave him a quick glance to convey his anger at the interruption, but it turned out to be just what he needed. He'd been so focused on what he had to do he hadn't seen the obvious: there was no resistance. Their first engagement with their mortal enemy, and not a single ship? "Stand by. Navigation, confirm the system is correct."
"Confirmed, sir," they responded several seconds later.
Capt. Turah took a deep breath through his nose. "Send in a probe," he ordered.
"Sir, we're ordered..." his XO began.
"I want to know there's Vong down there before I vaporize half a billion people!" he exploded. When he turned back, he froze. The obvious silence, save for the emotionless sounds of the equipment, showed he wasn't the only one shocked by this latest turn.
Turah's first thought was that a massive ship was de-cloaking between them and the planet, but as it coalesced into shape, he knew that would have been far more preferable. It was enormous, dwarfing even the mammoth Eclipse, hanging in space as if the last defender of this world, but it had the least comforting visage imaginable. It was a mass of tentacles and claws, an almost haphazardly constructed creature. Its hideous face sported a grinning mouth filled with teeth the size of small cruisers. It hovered before them, almost as if to allow them the chance to contemplate the horror it was about to unleash.
Turah found his voice. "Hold on the superlaser; fire all other weapons." The air before them filled with green turbolaser bolts. The creature ignored them as they passed through its body without a sign of damage. Instead it slowly seemed to drift towards them. "Hold fire," Turah ordered. "It's an illusion. The Vong must be-"
No one on the ship managed to remain upright as a blow from the great creature slapped the ship to one side. Seconds later the weapons began firing again across the ship, but still the creature laughed them off as it brought its limbs around and struck it again, causing the shields to flicker under the strain. Two more blows and the shields collapsed. Its hideous grin never waning, it reached its great claws forward and began tearing at the ship's armor. Escape pods began firing as it managed to make a small hole into the ship. It shrank as it pulled itself through the gap and inside the ship. Those few personnel who had been wearing sealed suits at the time could only gape in horror at the gigantic monster who filled Engineering. It paid no attention to them as it tore its way through the much softer interior walls until it came to the heart of the ship. It drew back a clawed hand and plunged it through the wall of the hypermatter reactor. Immediately the reaction went critical and the explosion tore the ship apart in a fireball visible even to those on the surface of Lazeria IV.
The creature was gone, but even as the glow dissipated from the explosion Vong ships lifted off from the planet. The Imperial crews, having seen enough, followed the better part of valor.