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The Hunt

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Jon Antilles had seen a few Dauntless class

 

battle-cruisers before. This one somehow looked different. He knew the

 

difference was all in his head, but this ship was the most beautiful

 

ship he had ever seen. He had requested the shuttle-pilot to make an

 

elaborate approach so that he could get a full view of his new

 

command.

 

The PEACEMAKER was a typical dauntless class ship, a flattened

 

brick shape nearly two kilometres long, seven hundred metres wide, and

 

five hundred metres deep. The edges were all rounded though, and she

 

was thinner at the sides and in front than in the middle, with a

 

rounded leading edge, and squared off tail end, where a number of

 

solar-fusion powered ion engines glowed dimly. The shape, thick in the

 

middle and tapering towards the extremities allowed the hull-mounted

 

weapons emplacements the maximum field of fire. All turbolasers

 

forward of the middle could track a target directly ahead, and all

 

turbolasers behind the middle could track targets behind the ship

 

unless the target had flown virtually inside the huge ion drive

 

engines. The tapering design also allowed all weapons whether dorsal

 

or ventral to track to the sides, giving the ship immense firepower in

 

all directions.

 

The Dauntless class was designed to counter the Mark II

 

version of the Imperial Star Destroyer, and despite only seeing

 

service towards the end of the war to win back the galaxy, it had made

 

a significant contribution. Antilles regarded the Dauntless class as a

 

major feat of engineering, and had no doubt that it was a better ship

 

than the ISD2 it was meant to oppose. While slightly longer, the

 

dauntless was less massive than the ISD2. The big difference that

 

Antilles appreciated was the fact that the Dauntless had it's own

 

manufacturing and repair facilities integrated into the ship, and it

 

was almost entirely self-sufficient.

 

Whereas the ISD2 required occasional dockyard overhauls, and

 

could only operate for limited periods without resupply (four years as

 

a maximum), the Dauntless required almost no maintenance. The

 

battle-cruiser was designed to operate for many years without resupply

 

or re-fitting of any nature, and would only require shipyard

 

facilities for the severest of battle damage. The difference in design

 

was no doubt a testimony of the faith the New Republic had in it's

 

crews, as opposed to the lack thereof on the side of the empire. The

 

additional maintenance facilities, manufacturing facilities and

 

laboratories required for this independence manifested itself in the

 

fact that the battle-cruiser had a much smaller starfighter and

 

ground-force contingent than it's imperial counterpart. The Dauntless

 

only carried two squadrons of starfighters, along with a few missile

 

gunboats, and the usual shuttles, and four thousand soldiers organised

 

into eight five hundred man regiments, about half of what an ISD

 

carried.

 

The Republic soldiers were also equipped with much less

 

equipment than their imperial counterparts, with hardly any reliance

 

being placed on heavy armour such as AT-AT's, AT-ST's and

 

battle-tanks. The Republic forces relied heavily on their superior

 

starfighters, which were also modified for atmospheric combat, and

 

also carried two wings of ground-effects fighters, designed

 

specifically for sub-orbital and atmospheric combat. The New Republic

 

philosophy regarding starfighters required the small spaceships to

 

have inter-stellar and atmospheric capability, life-support systems

 

and shielding. Imperial philosophy could not allow a person as low on

 

the command scale as a TIE fighter pilot to have the independence of

 

inter-stellar capability in his starfighter.

 

Antilles settled back in his seat as the shuttle vectored in

 

below the battle-cruiser, and lined itself up with the entrance to the

 

hangars concealed in the dorsal superstructure of the ship. Their was

 

a slight bump as the cruiser's tractor beams took control of the

 

shuttle, and guided it into the hangar. Antilles stepped out of the

 

shuttle, to be received by his full complement of officers, and a

 

company of troopers at attention. The chameleon fatigues of the

 

troopers were a uniform shipboard grey, and their blaster-carbines

 

were chameleoned to a deep black. The Republic military uniform was

 

much less ostentatious than imperial uniforms, and their soldiers also

 

did not use the highly computerised battle-suits which were designed

 

as much for intimidation of the citizenry as for practical battle use.

 

"Welcome aboard, sir. I am your first officer, Commander

 

Nerak."

 

Nerak then introduced some the other officers present. Chief

 

Engineer Mtlala was in charge of the engine rooms and maintenance and

 

manufacturing. Chief Gunnery Officer Silen was in charge of all

 

weapons batteries and gunnery co-ordination. The CAG was a Commander

 

by the name of Marcus. Also present was General Denel. Denel was a

 

short wiry man, his face was sharp featured, with a slightly hooked

 

nose. The one anachronism was that he had very friendly brown eyes.

 

His diminutive size would have disqualified him from imperial service,

 

and judging by his eyes, he did not have the psychological profile of

 

a stormtrooper either. The men exchanged salutes as the new captain

 

was introduced all round.

 

"Captain, Sergeant McNally here will show you to your

 

quarters." Nerak offered as the introductions were completed.

 

"Thank you. Number one, can you assemble all command staff in

 

the captain's ward room in fifteen minutes."

 

"Yes, Sir."

 

The sergeant stepped forward, "If you'll follow me sir."

 

Antilles followed the sergeant to the bank of turbo-lifts at

 

the far end of the hangar, one of the soldiers had retrieved his bags,

 

and was tagging along behind with the bags on a small repulsor lift.

 

Antilles knew exactly where the captain's quarters were located, as he

 

did everything on this ship. One did not become captain of any ship

 

unless you knew it inside out, and Antilles may have been young for a

 

captain, but he had spent at least a decade in this navy getting

 

there, and had served on many ships, of various classes. When the

 

promotion to captaincy had come through a few weeks ago, he had

 

expected to be given a small cruiser or frigate, and had been shocked

 

to discover that he had been assigned to one of the handful of brand

 

new Dauntless battle-cruisers. When his orders had come through, he

 

had understood why.

 

The captain's quarters were located at the centre of the

 

cruiser, fourteen decks below the main bridge, which was located

 

dorsally in the waist of the battle-cruiser. Immediately forward of

 

his quarters was the battle bridge, which could be used as an

 

alternate bridge, if the main bridge was damaged or inoperable. The

 

captain's quarters and the battle bridge were surrounded by many

 

crucial departments, including the maintenance and construction

 

centres, the more critical holds, and the residences for the ships

 

crew. This comprised in total of ten decks, each split into numerous

 

airtight compartments. At battle-stations the compartments would be

 

sealed off from one another, each airtight bulkhead designed so that

 

it would be completely self-contained, with a certain amount of

 

supplies to take care of medical, maintenance and food needs during

 

extended battles.

 

The ship comprised of some thirty decks, with the outermost

 

decks dedicated to weapons systems, training and recreational

 

facilities, and other non-essential ship services, like laundry, and

 

so on. Most of what would have been the ten ventral decks were in fact

 

launch bays, landing bays, hangars, and further maintenance and

 

repairs faciltities. The entire aft third of the ship was dedicated to

 

engine power production, the huge solar-fusion reactors, the immense

 

ion drives, and of course the hyperdrive motivators. Access to all

 

these compartments were generally via turbo-lift, but many service

 

shafts and hatchways also riddled the ship, although these were almost

 

entirely the domain of droids and technicians.

 

The outer-hull was made of twenty metre thick neutronium

 

reinforced ultra dense steel. The hull-plates were also embedded with

 

nodules of neutronium, whose function it was to shatter any objects

 

penetrating the hull, or to reflect and or dissipate any energies

 

penetrating the hull. The hundreds of turbolaser and ion cannon

 

batteries were mounted in this hull, and could only be accessed

 

through networks of curved shafts which offered no direct line into

 

the ship itself. The outermost deck on all sides was not used for any

 

purpose, other than to gain access to these shafts, and was itself

 

separated from the rest of the ship by the fifteen metre thick

 

neutronium-steel inner-hull, and broken up into numerous airtight

 

compartments, so that hull breaches would have to penetrate both

 

hulls, and would usually only breach one deserted compartment. Each

 

deck was also separated from the decks above or below by four metre

 

thick neutronium-steel, and separated into several compartments with

 

two metre or four metre thick neutronium-steel bulkheads.

 

Each deck furthermore had it's own gravity generators and

 

inertial dampers, which was built into the deck steel. The outer and

 

inner hulls also had gravity generators built into them, and these

 

projected out beyond the regenerative shields, to defend firstly

 

against the use of hyperspace weapons, and secondly to prevent the

 

accidental materialisation of another ship inside the hull during

 

tight fleet manoeuvres. This arrangements allowed individual decks and

 

compartments to manage their own gravity strength, and also if

 

necessary to change the directions for 'up' and 'down'. It was not

 

uncommon for crewers to have their rooms at a lower gravity than the

 

rest of the ship, which used one standard galactic gravity. There were

 

also of course crew members belonging to species which preferred

 

higher than standard gravities.

 

 

 

Antilles had the soldiers leave his belongings in the centre

 

of his lounge area, and ordered the droids in the room to unpack. He

 

left his quarters, and walked down the hallway to the captain's ward

 

room. His officers had their own ward room, and their were various

 

mess halls distributed through the ship for the use of the crew. The

 

captain's ward was usually only used for official dinners when guests

 

were being entertained, or if there were many guests, then the

 

officer's ward room was used. Under normal circumstances, either ward

 

room doubled as a conference centre, with the captain's being the

 

smaller and more private, and the captain normally dined in his room

 

or in the officer's ward.

 

Antilles had served as an officer once on a captured Imperial

 

Star Destroyer, and was amazed at the difference between the two

 

vessels. Studying blueprints and designs was one thing, actually being

 

aboard the ship was another. Where the ISD had been all stark metal

 

and steel-grey bulkheads, with straight lines and right angled

 

corners, the PEACEMAKER's passageways were curved, corners had been

 

softened, the hull-metal was concealed with soft-lighting and pleasing

 

colours. The hallways were lined with view-screens depicting scenes of

 

natural beauty. The view-screens also doubled as status displays and

 

tactical displays in battle, allowed shipboard communication between

 

compartments, and could reveal locations of boarders in hidden

 

passageways and accessways as detected by the ship's computers.

 

The captain's ward was a comfortable room, with a large round

 

table, lounge chairs and a real bar. The wall's were lined with huge

 

view-screens. One of the view-screens provided a spectacular view of

 

dawn marching across the planet below, other's showed various views

 

beyond the hull. An uninformed observer would have sworn they were in

 

fact looking out into space, when in fact they were separated from

 

vacuum by several decks, and hundreds of metres of neutroium-steel

 

hull plating.

 

Antilles took the captain's chair, those officers who had

 

already arrived seated themselves at positions around the central

 

table. The chief engineer was the last to arrive.

 

"Ship status, number one?"

 

"All crewers are aboard and supplies have been stowed. The

 

ship is fully stocked, and at full readiness."

 

"CAG?"

 

"All fighters, shuttles and gunboats fully operational. We

 

have the capability to repair any of them, and even to build new ones

 

from spare or manufactured parts if necessary. We have a forty percent

 

surplus of pilots."

 

"General?"

 

"Two regiments, full strength, four ground-effects fighters

 

each, and more equipment than we need to defend Coruscant if we have

 

to, even ready-to-assemble planetary shield generators." He smiled.

 

"Chief?" Antilles had saved the chief for last, as much of

 

their fate would be in his hands. Antilles had no doubt that he knew

 

something of their orders or what lie ahead of them already.

 

"All my departments are in perfect shape. I have checked out

 

the additional manufacturing equipment, and all is to my

 

satisfaction."

 

"Additional manufacturing equipment?" The CAG asked.

 

"I will explain." Antilles answered, before the chief could,

 

"Our orders are a little different to the usual this time. You have

 

been told that we are going on an extended patrol through the worlds

 

closest to imperial space, and that we may also be required to explore

 

many unutilised systems in those sectors for possible secret imperial

 

activity."

 

"I take it that we will not be doing that, then?" The first

 

officer asked, eyebrows raised.

 

"No, our orders are much more interesting."

 

Antilles explained the nature of their orders.

 

 

 

 

 

It was a subdued bridge that co-ordinated the ship's jump to

 

the fleet assembly point. The officers were all caught up in their own

 

thoughts. Antilles had given them an opportunity to back out, and they

 

would have until the arrival at the assembly point to decide. The

 

moment the ship jumped, Antilles knew the time had come to relay the

 

orders to the crew. In hyperspace there was no way for the orders to

 

leak out, and the assembly point was in a region of space controlled

 

by the New Republic Navy. A transport would be on hand to remove any

 

crew or officers that backed out. He sat in the command chair, and

 

activated the relevant control on the data padd built into the chair.

 

A chime rang through the ship.

 

"Hear this. Hear this. This is Captain Antilles speaking. Some

 

of you may be aware of the modifications which the ship has undergone,

 

the reduction of the starfighter component from four squadrons to two,

 

and the conversion of those hangars into additional maintenance and

 

construction facilities. These changes have been brought about so that

 

we may be better equipped to complete the task for which we have been

 

assigned. Because that task is beyond the normal duty requirements of

 

this crew, it will be done on a purely voluntary basis, and any crew

 

members who do not wish to volunteer will be transferred off this ship

 

at our next stop."

 

Antilles went on to explain the mission profile, and what

 

ramifications it might have for the crew.

 

 

 

Two days later, the PEACEMAKER arrived at the assembly point.

 

They were the last ship to arrive. The holographic tactical display in

 

front of the command chair lit up, and the view-screens arranged

 

around the bridge changed to reflect the space surrounding the

 

battle-cruiser. Naturally, any ships being displayed were magnified

 

hundreds of times, if not thousands, since even a two kilometre long

 

ship didn't look like much from a distance of fifteen thousand

 

kilometres or more.

 

"Holy Bantha!" Nerak exclaimed, "This must be the richest

 

fleet I have ever seen assembled since Endor."

 

Arranged around them were no less than four Liberator class

 

cruisers, each accompanied by two CC-9600 frigates. There was also one

 

of the few CC-7700 frigates the New Republic had, based on the same

 

technology used to create the feared Interdictor cruiser, which could

 

trap entire fleets in it's artificial gravity wells. The Liberators

 

were reputed to be the most technologically advanced ship in the

 

galaxy. It was essentially a starfighter carrier and troop transport,

 

but could outgun any ship in it's size class, and possibly even go toe

 

to toe with an Imperial Star Destroyer Mark 1. It didn't quite have

 

the firepower of the ISD1, but it had shields which were at least as

 

powerful, and it could regenerate those shields faster than any other

 

ship in the galaxy. Each Liberator could usually carry six squadrons

 

of fighters, and three regiments of troops, but due to the mission

 

profile, Antilles knew they had been modified to carry only four

 

squadrons of fighters each, and two lightly equipped troop regiments.

 

The CC-9600 frigates were the New Republics' replacement of

 

the Nebulon-B, and it had a similar design base to the Dauntless

 

class, except that it was much smaller, and had the class point five

 

hyperdrive motivators, which made it the fastest ship of it's class,

 

if not the fastest capital ship class in the galaxy. The Liberators

 

and Dauntless were equipped with class one hyperdrive motivators. The

 

CC-9600 frigate could almost rival the Liberators for firepower, but

 

carried no starfighters or troop regiments. It too had impressive

 

shielding. The combination of a Liberator plus frigate should be able

 

to stand up to an ISD1, and the Liberator with two frigates, as this

 

fleet was configured, would totally overpower an ISD1.

 

The problem was, Antilles knew, that they were hunting a few

 

rogue ISD2's and probably whatever support ships they had taken

 

along.. And any more than two ISD2's would be a match even for the

 

fleet assembled here.

 

"Commander Nerak, my compliments to all the captains, and

 

request them all to attend a meeting in the officer's ward onboard

 

PEACEMAKER in two hours. Anybody who has not handed in his or her

 

chits to you with the next hour will be considered to have

 

volunteered."

 

"Sir, I know the demands of our mission, but these ships are

 

the newest ships in the fleet, our resources are spread very thinly

 

and the demand for ships like this throughout the navy is enormous."

 

"Yes, the mission is very important, and no doubt there are

 

important people backing the mission. These are the only ships capable

 

of surviving the mission demands, and if more could be spared, I am

 

sure the Navy would have found a way to spare them. I understand the

 

Bilbringi shipywards have been working on nothing else for nearly ten

 

months, and probably half those ships have just finished their

 

shakedown cruises, making this their first mission."

 

Virtually the entire Republic navy consisted of vessels

 

modified from their peacetime purposes, such as freighters,

 

transports, passenger liners, or warships which dated back to the Old

 

Republic and merely modified with newer computers, weapons, engines

 

and so on, like bulk cruisers, dreadnoughts and assault frigates. The

 

warships here were all purpose-built military vessels, incorporating

 

all the lessons learnt in more than half a century of continuous

 

warfare since the clone wars.

 

"Sir, another ship has arrived, it is a military courier, and

 

it has the correct recognition codes. Requesting landing permission."

 

"Granted."

 

'Damn.' Antilles thought, 'don't tell me our orders have been

 

changed again.'

 

 

 

 

 

A few minutes later, a trooper arrived at the entrance to the

 

bridge. The guards on duty opened the hatch, and allowed the trooper

 

to escort his charges onto the bridge. Antilles was busy going through

 

the ship's manifest, and glanced up to see who the late arrivals were.

 

He paused, unable to hide his surprise, then remembered his manners

 

and leapt to his feet.

 

"Welcome aboard, Jedi." He said respectfully.

 

The simple black tunics worn by the three visitors did not

 

make them Jedi, neither did the almost unobtrusive glint of the

 

deactivated light-sabres at their sides. It was the aura of power that

 

surrounded each of the three, despite their best attempts to project

 

calm and peace. Jedi were unmistakable, even when in disguise, as the

 

renowned Master Skywalker had found during the Rebellion.

 

"Thank you, Captain Antilles." One of the Jedi spoke.

 

"What can I do for you?" Antilles had his orders, but nobody

 

in the New Republic, and few even in the empire, questioned a Jedi's

 

right to be interested in whatever took his fancy. Jedi were a law

 

unto themselves, and held in high regard by the public. They were

 

priests, lawmakers, judge and jury to any who cared to make use of

 

their services. Although Jedi knights held no official position in the

 

military, the New Republic treated them with the respect and honour

 

given to members of their order in an age long gone, although they

 

made no demands for such a position.

 

"I am the Jedi knight Treb Dacron. These are my students,

 

Lerato and Jared. We would like to accompany you on your mission." The

 

Jedi stated simply.

 

"I take it you know what the mission entails?" Antilles asked.

 

"Oh yes. Master Skywalker has taken a great interest in the

 

preparations for this mission, and in fact, it was members of our

 

order who first discovered the information that led to the drawing up

 

of this mission."

 

That didn't surprise Antilles one bit. There were few things

 

in the galaxy that didn't find their way across Master Skywalker's

 

desk, and apparently few things that happened in the New Republic that

 

didn't have his hand in it somewhere.

 

"Your presence would be most welcome. We have accommodation on

 

all the ships in the fleet, including this one, is it your wish to be

 

accommodated here or on any of the other ships?"

 

"We will stay together, on this ship."

 

"I am pleased. Quarters will be assigned to you. The captain's

 

are having a meeting in a few minutes, you are of course welcome to

 

attend."

 

"Thank you. We shall."

 

They followed the trooper off the bridge, the trooper already

 

chatting to the quartermaster via his comm-link about arranging

 

accommodation for the three.

 

"I have a bad feeling about this mission all of a sudden."

 

Nerak commented, "When the Jedi take an interest, you just know the

 

dung is about to hit the exhaust. I bet you half the crew quits in the

 

next ten minutes."

 

Antilles just smiled, as if Nerak had made a joke, but

 

couldn't help mentally agreeing with him. As it was, only twenty men

 

quit, and most of them were men who were planning to leave the force

 

soon anyway to get married or start their families. Whoever had put

 

together the crews for this mission had done a good job on the psyche

 

evaluations, and the ships were overstaffed in any case because there

 

would be no chance for replacements once the mission was underway.

 

 

 

There were no major developments in the captains conference.

 

The Jedi didn't say a word, and Antilles suspected they were there for

 

the same reason he was. Ostensibly the meeting was to agree on

 

strategies and command structures, but in reality was so that Antilles

 

could see the calibre of the men for himself. As senior captain, he

 

would be in charge of the fleet, although technically he was not an

 

admiral. If any of the men were surprised at the Jedi's presence, they

 

gave no indication. Antilles had no doubt that they would keep the

 

Jedi's presence quiet for as long as possible, in order to reduce the

 

amount of men quitting before there was no turning back.

 

The captains eventually departed, the crewers who had quit the

 

mission were transferred to a transport which was here especially for

 

that purpose, and preparations were made for the jump. This was no

 

ordinary jump. They were going to jump to the next galaxy. A four year

 

jump. The New Republic had discovered that at least three ISD2s, and

 

their support ships including an unknown number of ISD1s, had left for

 

this galaxy more than a year earlier, and furious preparations had

 

been made to follow. The fleet assembled was fast enough to reach the

 

next galaxy only months behind the imperials, and while they were all

 

that could be spared, it would have to do. The reasoning behind the

 

mission was multi-fold. Firstly to prevent the imperials taking over

 

the whole galaxy and using it as an untouchable resource base,

 

secondly to scout the galaxy for any possible threats to galactic

 

peace, and to destroy it if possible. Thirdly, they were to destroy

 

any imperial presence in the galaxy, especially if there was a risk

 

that the imperial technology would fall into alien hands. There was

 

much in the way of imperial technology that the New Republic would

 

rather never see again.

 

Two modified Bulk Transports had left a few months earlier,

 

and should arrive at the rendezvous point outside the galaxy a few

 

days before the military vessels did. They carried enough supplies to

 

establish a planet-side base, as well as mining equipment to replenish

 

stores that could not be transmutated by the replicators. The

 

replicators on the ships could replicate much of what they needed in

 

terms of spare parts, but the parts had to be manufactured out of

 

something, and did require certain trace minerals as source materials

 

for the construction.

 

The problem was, how to overcome the barrier of four years in

 

hyperspace. It was feared that the crews' efficiency as a combat force

 

would be seriously impaired after four years of doing nothing except

 

playing with simulations. The answer was simple. The ships would make

 

the jumps completely on automatic. The entire crew of each ship would

 

stand down for the four years, and let the droids run things while the

 

ships were in hyperspace. But, the crew wouldn't just stand down, they

 

would be carbon frozen for the entire duration of the journey. To

 

anyone who was carbon frozen, there would be no apparent loss of time,

 

and they would be perfectly preserved, until the droids woke them up

 

again. While it was not unknown for criminals and severely ill

 

patients to be carbon frozen for short periods of time, it was a new

 

concept to freeze soldiers who were going on an extended mission.

 

"So this is what happened to my maintenance bay." The CAG

 

said. The officers had opened the sealed maintenance bay, the loss of

 

which had contributed to the loss of two squadrons of starfighters.

 

The cavernous space had once comprised half of the starfighter

 

servicing and repair capability of the battle-cruiser. The remaining

 

starfighter maintenance bay now saw to the needs of all the remaining

 

ships which operated out of the battle-cruiser.

 

In front of them, rows and rows of kiosks stretched away,

 

stacked on top of each other all the way to the ceiling. Their were

 

more than enough kiosks for the entire crew, and then some. Roaming

 

through the facility were dozens of medical droids, running

 

diagnostics checks on the equipment.

 

"We will be handling all excess crewers from the frigates as

 

well, as they don't have enough space for their entire crews."

 

Antilles explained.

 

 

 

 

 

Three hours after jumping to hyperspace, all preparations were

 

finally complete on the battle-cruiser. There was no way of knowing

 

how the other ships were doing, in hyperspace, you were all alone. The

 

entire ship's complement had been assembled in the freeze-room, as it

 

had quickly become known. Antilles felt a bit strange to be standing

 

around only in his briefs in a room full of twenty thousand or more

 

virtually naked men and women. Already hundreds of crewers had been

 

carbon frozen, and no problems reported by the droids. The remaining

 

crewers were all taking up their positions, and being frozen as soon

 

as they gave the verbal command.

 

"Computer, any stragglers?"

 

"No, Captain, all crew-members accounted for. The rest of the

 

ship is deserted."

 

The three Jedi walked past Antilles, making their way to the

 

kiosks assigned to them. Antilles was surprised to notice their hard,

 

lean, muscular physiques. The Jedi's physical conditions were at a

 

peak comparable to the best of his soldiers. Antilles knew that Jedi

 

were often involved in combat and espionage missions, but still felt

 

it a bit strange that ostensibly peaceful beings who relied on their

 

mental faculties had such physiques. He vaguely remembered an old

 

saying about a healthy body leading to a strong mind, no doubt it had

 

some truth. The female Jedi especially looked good in her briefs, and

 

he turned away before he embarrassed himself.

 

Minutes later, it was only Antilles and his officers left.

 

They were shivering in the room, cold air swirling around their feet

 

from the thousands of freezes that had occurred in the last few

 

minutes. Nerak was the last to be frozen, muttering something under

 

his breath. Antilles stepped back into his kiosk.

 

"Ready!" he announced.

 

Something cold touched him, and he opened his mouth to gasp in

 

shock.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ship was deathly quiet, and in total darkness. There was

 

no sign of movement anywhere on the ship. It's darkened hallways were

 

in a state of near-perfect vacuum. It had been in this state for close

 

on to four years now. Above the hangars with it's silent rows of sleek

 

starfighters, was a storage room, containing rows and rows of silent

 

figures, even blacker than the darkness surrounding them. Somewhere in

 

the room, something stirred. It was a droid. All over the ship, droids

 

started coming to life after years of in-animation. Lights came on,

 

air was pumped into the deserted corridors and rooms. Maintenance

 

droids started rushing about, cleaning condensation from the walls,

 

checking circuitry and power conduits, ensuring that the ship would be

 

in perfect working order once the crew arrived. The medical droids in

 

the freezer room were going from one blackened figure to another,

 

checking readouts on the control panels of the kiosks. It would soon

 

be time to wake up the crew.

 

 

 

Antilles was still trying to gasp, when suddenly he was

 

pitched forward onto the deck, his body craving for air. He sucked in

 

gasp after gasp of air, curling his body into a ball to protect

 

himself from the cold. He felt like he was being pricked by millions

 

of pins and needles as blood circulated through tissue for the first

 

time in years. He tried to look around him, but the bright light hurt

 

his eyes.

 

"Your eyes will adjust, Captain." He heard a mechanical voice

 

above him.

 

"Cold!" He managed to squeeze the word out.

 

"The temperature in the room is 30% above ideal human room

 

temperature. Your body will adjust soon."

 

Antilles scowled at the droid. He reached up, and the droid

 

helped him to his feet. He didn't dare open his eyes yet, the light

 

was too bright, and pain shot through into his brain every time he

 

tried. He squinted one eye open, and started towards the exit. Around

 

him, he could here the moans and groans and swearing of his crew as

 

they were revived. He looked behind him, and saw the female Jedi,

 

Leanne, following him. She was walking upright, her eyes closed, as if

 

it was the most normal thing in the world. She even smiled at him as

 

she passed him, despite her eyes being closed. Antilles silently

 

cursed her, and made an attempt to straighten himself as well, as he

 

walked past his suffering crew. He had only one thing on his mind, to

 

get back to his quarters and climb into a hot bath.

 

 

 

Two hours later, still suffering slightly from the

 

after-effects of his revival, he made his way to the officers

 

gymnasium. He had established that the ship was still in hyperspace,

 

and that they would be returning to normal space in three days. The

 

ship was in excellent condition, the droids having taken care of all

 

minor maintenance. The few things which required human intervention or

 

supervision were being taken care of, or would be taken care of as

 

soon as the ship returned to normal space.

 

Antilles found many of his officers working out in the gym, as

 

well as the three Jedi. He got to work himself, nothing like exercise

 

to get the body back in shape. An hour or two of callisthenics would

 

do him the world of good. The gym was very well equipped, with

 

exercise equipment designed for many different gravitational

 

environments, and sections of the gym could be adjusted to accommodate

 

higher or lower gee's, as the user required. The deck plates in the

 

gym were colour coded for different g-forces, and he was careful to

 

stick to the light-green of standard galactic. Antilles noticed the

 

deck-plates where the Jedi were training was the darker green of a

 

1.5g environment. Some of the fighter pilots were doing gymnastics in

 

the pale blue of microgravity.

 

Once he had finished his exercise routine, Antilles headed

 

towards the bridge. He did not care to use the turbo-lifts unless

 

necessary, so walked to the nearest drop-shaft, stepped into the

 

microgravity environment, and boosted himself up to the control deck.

 

He stepped carefully onto the control deck, and once more in a normal

 

environment, walked towards the bridge. A slap on the hatchway control

 

caused the hatch to snap open, the computer having already recognised

 

him as he approached the door. Nerak was on watch at the moment, and

 

he snapped to attention.

 

"Captain on deck!"

 

"At ease, Mr Nerak."

 

Antilles sat down in his chair, and invited Nerak to report on

 

the ship's status.

 

"Nothing to report sir, thirty people in sick-bay after being

 

revived, nothing serious, they should all be out in a few more hours.

 

The stores naturally have hardly been touched, and the ship is still

 

fully stocked, for all intents and purposes. Chief Mtlala has also

 

expressed satisfaction that all is well in manufacturing, and he

 

should be able to manufacture nearly anything we want."

 

"Very well. I will be in my quarters if you need anything."

 

He entered his name into the watch cycle and left the bridge.

 

There were enough officers to take over watches that it was not

 

necessary for him to do so, but he preferred standing at least one

 

four hour watch in a day.

 

 

 

 

 

The three days passed easily enough. The crew was kept busy by

 

one battle simulation after another, and the officers worked through

 

their astrogation techniques. Antilles required everybody to do a

 

refresher course in hyperspace navigation, even though the computer

 

was usually trusted in this regard. However, they would trust nothing,

 

until they had established a baseline for hyperspce navigation in this

 

galaxy.

 

Antilles reviewed the technique of navigation used. In their

 

home galaxy, there were well established baselines, but here they

 

would have to establish new ones. They had made the jump relative to

 

co-ordinates in their home galaxy, and hopefully those co-ordinates

 

would bring them to a rendezvous with the transports which had left a

 

few months before them. Given the distance being jumped, Antilles

 

would not be surprised if they struggled to find the transports.

 

Hyperspace jumps were calculated as follows: the galaxy would

 

have a pre-defined galactic plane, determined by three carefully

 

selected stars, as far apart from each other as possible. Co-ordinates

 

in the galaxy was given as the distance from the theoretically

 

calculated galactic core in light years, the angle above or below the

 

galactic plane in radians, and the angle laterally as measured from

 

the line between the galactic core and a pre-determined star. The

 

computer would require the starting position, the end position of the

 

jump, and would plot a mathematical course through hyperspace to avoid

 

distortions caused by large mass shadows intruding into hyperspace.

 

These calculations would take into account galactic rotation and

 

stellar drift. Given a target like an orbit over a particular planet,

 

the computer would calculate the duration of the jump and predict

 

where the planet would be at the end of that time taking into account

 

what was known about the planet's orbit, and the drift of it's parent

 

star relative to the galactic plane. All positions (of stars, planets,

 

black holes, and any other major celestial bodies) were mapped into

 

the computer, and it would keep track of all their relative motions so

 

that jumps could be calculated to within an accuracy of a few

 

kilometres over thousands of light years.

 

In-system jumps were based on a co-ordinate system with the

 

star as the origin, it's equator as the plane, and the centre of the

 

galaxy plotted along that plane as the zero axis. The poles of the

 

star would be the normal to the plane, naturally.

 

The well travelled regions of their home galaxy had been

 

mapped to such a degree of accuracy over the last few thousand years

 

that jumps could be calculated to take a ship clear across the galaxy

 

(a jump of more than one month) directly into orbit of a known planet.

 

Antilles took such accuracy for granted, although the Alderaan

 

incident had given people something to think about. For months after

 

the destruction of the planet ships had been arriving within orbital

 

distances of where the planet was predicted to be, and many had been

 

severely damaged when unexpectedly arriving in an asteroid field.

 

The problem with gravity wells derived from the fact that when

 

the ship made the jump to hyperspace, the momentary break in the

 

continuum allowed the gravity well to intrude into hyperspace,

 

compounding the difficulty of calculating the jump, unless the

 

fluctuations of the gravitational field was known down to the most

 

minute detail. Huge masses, stars, black holes and so forth, caused

 

slight distortions to hyperspace, and encountering such a small

 

distortion while the ship was in hyperspace could throw it very

 

slightly off course, and over a distance of thousands of light years a

 

minor error in the course could be disastrous. The difficulty posed by

 

interdictor cruisers was that the field was not uniform, and for a

 

jump to be calculated, you would have to be aware of every fluctuation

 

in the field between your ship and the edge of the field, otherwise

 

you would have no idea where you would jump to. In the heat of a

 

battle, such minute mapping was not possible, even if the Interdictor

 

cruiser did not vary it's field strength over time.

 

The first problem Antilles and his fleet would come across was

 

that this far from their home galaxy, the co-ordinate system used to

 

navigate hyperspace would be rendered useless. A difference of one

 

millionth of a radian would represent thousands of light years. Their

 

first task would be to establish a galactic plane for the new galaxy,

 

calculate it's theoretical core for purposes of having an origin on

 

the grid, and then start defining star positions, drift of those

 

stars, and then also entering in information about the planet's

 

orbiting those stars, and define those orbits as accurately as

 

possible. Since they would only be in the galaxy for a year or two at

 

the worst even if they were unsuccessful, the charts did not need to

 

be all that accurate, as stars would not be expected to drift

 

significantly in that time.

 

Hyperspace jumps would still incorporate a fair degree of risk

 

even then, since they could not hope to map every single black hole,

 

disruptions to the continuum, or significant interstellar bodies. They

 

would have to plot as many stars as they could, and only bother with

 

the significant planets.

 

 

 

 

 

"Preparing to disengage hyperdrive motivators."

 

"Acknowledged."

 

"Three . two . one . now!"

 

There was an almost imperceptible change in the nature of the

 

ships background noise, as the motivators disengaged, and the ion

 

engines came on-line.

 

The view-screens around the bridge changed to reflect the

 

space around the fleet. One by one, all the ships joined the fleet,

 

and in seconds, Antilles could tell that all his ships had made it.

 

There was no sign of the transports. Filling one viewscreen, was the

 

spiral galaxy that was their target. It was still eighty thousand

 

light years away, about a six-week jump.

 

"Sub-space beacon detected, it's very weak."

 

"Location."

 

"Thirty two light years, beacon code corresponds to

 

transports."

 

"Raise them on sub-space, minimum power level."

 

The communications officer turned back to his console. He

 

adjusted the power levels to the minimum required for communication

 

over thirty five light years, just to be safe, and hailed the

 

transports. A few seconds of chatter between the computers resulted in

 

the knowledge that the transports thought they were at the exact same

 

co-ordinates as the military vessels. This far from the home galaxy,

 

the difference in position between the two groups of ships was

 

imperceptible, down to many decimal places. Thirty two light years off

 

error over a distance of several tens of million light years was quite

 

impressive, Antilles thought, but highlighted their problems

 

perfectly.

 

"Sensors?"

 

"There is so little activity out here, we can scan for light

 

years in all directions. Not a trace of dust even."

 

"Navigation. Instruct computers to use an alternate

 

co-ordinate system, fleet at origin, transports and target galaxy as

 

galactic plane, transports at zero radians, and program a thirty light

 

year jump on those co-ordinates."

 

"Yes sir."

 

The atrogation officers worked furiously for a few seconds,

 

then indicated their readiness. Even if there was a mass shadow out

 

here somewhere, the course deviation over thirty light years would be

 

insignificant. Three jumps and a few minutes later they were within a

 

few thousand kilometres of the transports.

 

"Navigation. Calculate another sequence of jumps for the whole

 

fleet. Take us to within thirty thousand light years of the galaxy, no

 

more than five thousand light years per jump."

 

 

 

Over the next several days the fleet crept closer to the

 

galaxy, stopping for a few hours at a time to allow the computers to

 

track changes in the map of the galaxy they were already starting to

 

build up. The fleet also used this time to shake down their

 

starfighters, sending them on several patrols to ensure that

 

everything was still in good working order. Once they were within

 

thirty thousand light years, navigation defined a new co-ordinate

 

system based on the destination galaxy. Antilles was aware that the

 

co-ordinate system was subject to change if they discovered that one

 

of the co-ordinate stars had blown up in the last thirty thousand

 

years, and also as measurements of galactic drift became more

 

accurate. However, they already had a good idea of the dynamics of the

 

galaxy, having studied fifty thousand years of changes in the galaxy

 

as they approached it from eighty thousand light years away. It was

 

simple computing to predict the next thirty thousand years of galactic

 

drift. However, from now on, they would reduce their approach rate to

 

jumps of two thousand light years, then one thousand or less, as

 

stellar density gradually increased.

 

The next task was to find a base from which to operate, in a

 

star system that was unlikely to be visited by any star faring

 

species. This was difficult. Not all star-faring species required

 

humanoid norm systems, but avoiding humanoid norm systems was the only

 

place they had to start. Antilles selected a number of prospective

 

stars close to the galactic core, since these worlds would have a

 

richer abundance of good mining ores. They were all chosen for their

 

variance from humanoid standard requirments.

 

Three weeks later, after some investigation, Antilles settles

 

on a star with spectral properties well off galactic standard, and no

 

planets with surface temperatures close to humanoid comfort levels.

 

The planet he selected had an average surface temperature varying from

 

two hundred degrees centigrade to minus fifty degrees depending on

 

it's orbital position and orientation. It had no atmosphere.

 

Starfighter patrols through likely star systems nearby had turned up

 

nothing for a hundred light years in any direction. As far as they

 

knew, the galaxy was deserted. The x-wing and a-wing patrols expanded

 

their search to stars of varying spectral types, but for the next few

 

weeks as the fleet settled in and expanded the base detected nothing

 

of note.

 

The frigates were patrolling further and further out, adding

 

detail to the galactic map being constructed in the computers. They

 

could not hope to search every star system, but gradually built up a

 

detailed map stretching out for three hundred light years in all

 

directions, with only sketchy information for the rest of the galaxy.

 

The base itself was constructed several kilometres below the

 

planet surface, with turbo-lifts to the surface, and an area was

 

cleared to allow shuttles and small craft easy landings. The area

 

chosen was rich in minerals, and mining droids were distributed to

 

many points around the base, collecting valuable ores for use in

 

manufacturing and replication. A huge hydroponics station was also

 

constructed and plants transplanted from the ships stores to grow the

 

nutrients required to supplement the navy diet. Much of the

 

manufacturing equipment was relocated to the base, and the

 

manufacturing facilities expanded to include more than what could be

 

constructed aboard ship.

 

 

 

"Any suggestions for how to go about this?" Antilles asked his

 

assembled captains.

 

"It would obviously take decades to explore the galaxy to any

 

reasonable amount of depth," one captain answered, "and even then, if

 

they're hiding, it would be impossible to find them."

 

"The only thing we can do," Antilles said, "is to establish

 

contact with any sentient beings we find in this galaxy. If they're

 

friendly, they might inform us if they are ever contacted by the

 

Imperials."

 

"What if they're not friendly?"

 

"We will have to take our chances. We don't want to antagonise

 

anybody, and if we are attacked, we will retreat. We just have to hope

 

that they are not capable of tracking us in hyperspace, or following

 

us here."

 

"It's impossible to track a ship in hyperspace." Somebody

 

said. "It is purely a mathematical realm."

 

"Yes, and if it was possible at all, then Palpatine would have

 

found a way." Somebody else laughed. Of course, Palpatine had found a

 

way. The Imperials favourite tactic was to attach tracking devices on

 

ships, which were of course only as good as the sensor net at your

 

disposal for tracking the device, provided the ship's external

 

maintenance droids or periodic surveillance sweeps didn't detect them.

 

"Be that as it may," Antilles brought the meeting back to

 

order, "we will exercise extreme caution, and no ship will directly

 

return to base, whatever the circumstances, unless they are sure they

 

have not been followed. Now, are there any strong objections to

 

establishing contact with beings in this galaxy?"

 

No answer, not even from the Jedi.

 

"Now, we will despatch task forces consisting of one liberator

 

plus two frigates to each quadrant. The PEACEMAKER will remain here,

 

and all information gathered is to be returned here only by direct

 

ship-to-ship directional beams, so no sub-space broadcasts. All data

 

will be co-ordinated through PEACEMAKER, and all ships will have their

 

clocks and maps synchronised with our computers, so that we are all on

 

the same galactic baselines and co-ordinate systems. Understood?"

 

There was a chorus of acknowledgements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Stardate 2379.2, Captain's log. We have been diverted from

 

our primary mission by Starfleet HQ to investigate a distress call

 

which originated in the Bengu sector. There have been no

 

communications from the system since, and all attempts to establish

 

communication with the colony there has failed. The system is sixteen

 

light years away, and at our present course and speed we will arrive

 

there within two days."

 

Picard put down his padd. This was all he needed. There had

 

been peace in this sector for years. The Bengu system was less than

 

fifty light years from the Federation - Romulan border, but the

 

Romulans had not been heard from in years, which was not unusual. He

 

left his quarters and made his way to the bridge. When he got there,

 

Riker and Troi were huddled over the communications console replaying

 

the recording forwarded to them by Starfleet. He joined them.

 

"A huge alien vessel has entered orbit. We did not track them

 

coming in, and the ship bears no resemblance to any those of any

 

previously encountered species. We suspect we have a First Contact

 

situation. I am transmitting a recording of our sensor data for the

 

last hour with this message, and will update our logs periodically, as

 

the situation develops."

 

The colonist who had made the recording was surprised at the

 

sudden appearance of the ship, but did not appear particularly

 

concerned, and was following standard procedure so far.

 

"Now comes the interesting bit." Riker said, for Picard's

 

benefit.

 

A large greying human appeared on the view-screen, the picture

 

noticeably poorer than usual, no doubt due to the deterioration of the

 

recording in it's many travels to get to the Enterprise, if not due to

 

the fact that civilian communications equipment was not quite up to

 

Starfleet standards.

 

"I am captain Marko Golan of the Imperial Star Destroyer

 

RUTHLESS, and I am claiming this world in the name of the Galactic

 

Empire. I will be despatching a number of shuttles to the surface, and

 

you will hand over command to my soldiers, and honour any requests

 

they may make of you. Please prepare a manifest of the minerals and

 

foods you have in your stores, so that we may facilitate the loading

 

of our shuttles. Failure to comply will result in immediate

 

destruction."

 

"This colony is a member of the United Federation of Planets,

 

and are under the protection ."

 

The room in which the colonist was standing rocked, nearly

 

throwing him to the ground. In the background screams could be heard.

 

"As I said," Golan smiled thinly, "failure to comply will

 

result in your immediate destruction. I will not warn you again."

 

On the view-screen, the human Captain turned slightly as

 

somebody spoke to him. When he turned back to the view-screen, the

 

thin smile had widened noticeably.

 

"I have been informed that you are attempting to establish

 

communications with somebody on a sub-space frequency. Well, you have

 

been warned."

 

The image immediately became much more grainy, then faded away

 

almost completely, there was a momentary attempt to override the

 

jamming, then the image cut off altogether.

 

"That was all." Riker said, "except for the recording of their

 

sensor data which they also managed to transmit before contact was

 

established."

 

"What does it show." Picard asked.

 

On the view-screen, a grainy picture of a spaceship appeared.

 

"This is the best we have been able to do with their recordings. The

 

recordings registered nothing out of the norm, until a few seconds

 

before communication was established, when this ship appeared

 

literally out of nowhere, in a stationary orbit directly above the

 

colony headquarters. The ship's shields were raised immediately it

 

appeared, preventing a decent scan, but energy readings were enormous,

 

and distributed throughout the ship. There is a 62% probability they

 

indicate independently powered weapons systems. Life-sign readings

 

were off the scale, which could mean anything, either the ship had

 

tens of thousands of crew members or the energies detected were

 

disguising the life-signs."

 

"How big is it?" Picard asked.

 

"About one point six kilometres long, several hundred metres

 

wide and tall at the beam. It's got several huge impulse engines,

 

which means that it couldn't be using a cloaking device as the

 

emissions would have been detected even by the civilian tracking

 

systems. It's means of arrival indicate an alternate drive mechanism,

 

that is very fast and either undetectable or naturally cloaked."

 

"Do we have anything on the explosion?"

 

"Yes, see here, there was a spike on the energy readings close

 

to the nose of the destroyer, as it called itself. The location of the

 

spike is consistent with one of the smaller weapons mountings. A

 

fraction of a second later the colony headquarters was rocked by an

 

explosion. The indications from the last of their log before the

 

signal was jammed indicate that the explosion took place four hundred

 

metres from the headquarters building, which would have put it in the

 

middle of the city. The devastation must have been tremendous. Bengu

 

has got a fairly decent sized population.

 

"The time lag from the spike to the explosion indicates a

 

particle based weapons system, with a delivery speed between 0.8c and

 

0.99c. Any beam weapons we are familiar with would not have resulted

 

in an explosion per se."

 

"Not missiles or torpedoes?" Picard asked.

 

"It's possible, but unlikely, a missile or torpedo at that

 

speed would have detonated in the atmosphere. The analysis of the

 

explosion indicates a release of kinetic energy due to a small

 

quantity of mass colliding with the planet surface at high velocities.

 

Sensor data from Bengu also shows a heat wave following the explosion

 

that is much higher than could be attributed to the explosion alone,

 

so the particles were probably highly energised as well."

 

"One of the smaller weapons emplacements you say?" Picard

 

asked. "How many were you able to distinguish?"

 

"About three major weapons emplacements on the side facing us,

 

as well as close to two hundred smaller ones, of varying strengths."

 

"Just on the side facing the sensors? That is impressive."

 

"There is more." Riker said, "Look here, below the ship, the

 

shape of the superstructure indicates some sort of huge hangar area,

 

and you can see a number of smaller shapes detaching itself from the

 

main ship, although the sensor data is poor. Logic implies that they

 

employ the tactic of a carrier vessel with numerous smaller fighter

 

craft, much like the aircraft carriers employed by twentieth and

 

twenty first century navies."

 

Picard considered what this meant militarily. Smaller craft

 

were discounted in most known military cultures because of the

 

tremendous logistics problems they implied. Transporters relieved the

 

burden of ship to planet transport, so shuttles were only required for

 

transportation at ranges too long for a transporter. A shuttle or

 

runabout had a limited warp range, and at the warp speeds such a small

 

ship could hope to attain the crew would be subjected to days and

 

weeks of confinement in a small space when on interstellar missions.

 

Also, such small ships had limited computing power, which reduced

 

their warp combat ability, not to mention that the smaller torpedoes

 

they were armed with were not equipped with warp sustainer fields, and

 

neither could they generate the containment field required to use

 

phasers in a warp field or at faster than light speeds.

 

The small impulse engines shuttles were equipped with were

 

also not believed to be capable of the type of manoeuvrability

 

required to avoid high-powered phaser beams, although they would be

 

difficult to target with conventional torpedoes. For a military

 

culture to rely on small one man craft implied that they believed

 

their craft's manoeuvrability to be sufficient defence, or their

 

weapons powerful enough to justify the strategy, and they could afford

 

the logistics of developing inter-stellar capable ships capable of

 

providing logistical support to the smaller ships. Federation shuttles

 

were capable of defending themselves against similar ships, but had no

 

hope of surviving a conflict against any capital ship employed by any

 

of the major species the Federation regularly encountered.

 

"I will be in my quarters. Call me when we are approaching

 

Bengu." Picard left the bridge to consider his options.

 

 

 

 

 

Bengu was a dead planet. The major city settled by the

 

colonists had been flattened, and few buildings were left standing.

 

Bodies were strewn all over the place, the city was a mass of craters.

 

There were large imprints all over the place, as if some large

 

creature had marched through the city, destroying everything in it's

 

path. By the depth of the imprint and it's design, it implied some

 

sort of mobile armoured vehicle, designed to negotiate rough terrain

 

at speed. The cities warehouses were empty. Whoever this Marko Golan

 

was, he had needed supplies and taken them. Picard had no need to

 

search through Federation records. If there were any unknown species

 

out there so close to human norm as to be virtually indistinguishable

 

from humans, the federation definitely did not know about it. Also, if

 

there were any knowledge in federation records pertaining to such a

 

ship or such designs he would eat his starfleet badge.

 

Of course, they could guess and theorise about the ship. The

 

design was obviously military, the drive mechanism employed some means

 

of displacement without negotiating real space or sub-space, as

 

sub-space receivers would surely have detected the ship.

 

"Transporter room, prepare for mass burials." He ordered.

 

Security teams were going around tagging the bodies.

 

"Ready." From the transporter room.

 

"Proceed."

 

All around the away team, bodies winked out of existence, as

 

the transporter beams locked onto the tags, and dissipated the atoms

 

into space. It was the only option available to the away team, there

 

were thousands of bodies. A grim-faced security officer approached

 

Picard.

 

"I have retrieved the backup of the colonists' logs, it was

 

hidden in the wreckage of the council building."

 

Picard nodded. He tapped his communicator's activator.

 

"Beam us up. We are done here." He stated.

 

 

 

 

 

On the enterprise, they could analyse the colonists logs. The

 

battle had been one sided. A brief orbital bombardment had destroyed

 

any defensive installations the colonists had, not that they had many

 

to begin with. The city had then been strafed by low-flying craft of

 

an unfamiliar design, before heavily armoured troops had assaulted the

 

city. The troops were supported by two-legged armoured vehicles, no

 

doubt the vehicles which had left the tracks all over the city. Few

 

civilians had access to weapons like phasers, and those who did had

 

only weak hand-held devices. The troops had killed everyone regardless

 

of whether they resisted or not, including women and children.

 

"What do we do now?" Riker asked.

 

"Compile everything we have and send it on to Starfleet,

 

priority one. We will commence a search of all surrounding star

 

systems. Advise starfleet to increase security at all colonies

 

throughout this sector until we have tracked down these humans." He

 

almost added 'and destroyed them', but that was not the way Starfleet

 

operated. Picard thought maybe this time an exception would be made.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

 

 

 

There were only two men in the meeting. Section 31 tended not

 

to have too many committee meetings. The two men had known each other

 

for years, and their power extended deep into all matters regarding

 

Federation security. They were Admirals Sutton and Woodward.

 

"You got my breifing on Bengu?" Sutton asked.

 

"Yes Alex. It looks like we have got somebody new on our

 

hands. Who is the man on the spot?"

 

"Picard."

 

"Shit. That man always crops up in the worst places at the

 

worst times. Will he play along this time?"

 

"I'm sure he will." Sutton said. He was Section 31's man in

 

charge of matters pertaining to starfleet. Woodward was in charge of

 

discovering new technologies, whether alien or human, that could be a

 

threat to starfleet's dominance in the federation, or could possibly

 

be used by starfleet to maintain dominance in the federation. Sutton

 

continued, "Picard's report betrayed a high level of anger, and

 

curiosity about the alien ship's design. He also found it intriguing

 

that the ship was apparently crewed by humans, although their language

 

structure is totally alien. The translators apparently had no problem

 

translating the language though."

 

"Then he is keen to track down these men?"

 

"Yes. If they are men. They aren't any of ours, are they, you

 

have no new toys that you are testing Edward?"

 

"Alex! If I did, I wouldn't use them in this way, maybe on the

 

Cardassians or the Dominion, or the Romulans, but certainly not on

 

federation citizens."

 

"Just checking. Now, Picard is keen to hunt these pirates

 

down, and I say we let him loose, but I am sure that you wouldn't mind

 

getting your hands on that ship, just to see how it ticks. The trick

 

is to convince Picard to capture either that ship or some of it's

 

crew."

 

"Alex, this time I think we can be honest with our captain

 

Picard. This could after all be a grave threat to the federation,

 

especially so close to the Romulan border."

 

"Yes, I will allow Picard to continue his hunt. The problem

 

is, what do we do about other colonies in the area. Our fleets are

 

spread thin as it is, we don't dare turn our backs on the cardassians

 

or the Ferengi, and those fleets are close enough to Bajor to counter

 

any moves by the Dominion. The problem is the Romulans. We don't dare

 

withdraw any ships from the Romulan border, and if we use the Klingons

 

to defend the colonies then we risk any captured technology falling

 

into Klingon hands. Can we risk putting Klingon ships on our border

 

with the Romulans?"

 

"Is the technology on those ships worth risking it?" Admiral

 

Woodward wanted to know.

 

"They got there ship into orbit directly over that colony

 

without being detected, albeit by civilian sensors." Sutton reminded

 

him.

 

"Yes, that alone is very intriguing. That type of surprise

 

element we don't dare lose to the Klingons, even if they are our

 

allies for now. I would agree to Klingons defending the Romulan

 

border. While it may cause a diplomatic nightmare, the two hate each

 

other more than either of them hate us. I will convince the President

 

of that. You may withdraw as many ships as you need from the border to

 

assist Picard, but don't leave the border completely undefended. If

 

Picard proves to be a problem, can you handle him?"

 

"Don't worry about Picard, I will leave him in charge for now,

 

at least he is efficient even if he lives too closely to the Prime

 

Directive. If necessary, I will have someone pull rank on him."

 

The two shook hands.

 

 

 

 

 

"Captain? It's Will."

 

"Enter."

 

The door opened, and Riker walked in.

 

"Orders, from Starfleet." Riker handed him a padd.

 

Picard read through the orders, he raised his eyebrows once or

 

twice.

 

"Drink, Will?"

 

"Yes, Romulan ale."

 

"At least Starfleet isn't taking this lying down. They have

 

ten Klingon Bird of Preys heading towards the Romulan border, and have

 

pulled eight starships off patrol duty on the Neutral Zone. We are to

 

set up a search pattern of all stars working outwards from Bengu. If

 

possible we are to capture the raiders alive, or their ship intact."

 

Picard said, reading through the orders again.

 

"Section 31?"

 

"Yes, I can smell their hand in these orders. Can't say I

 

blame them, the raiders used tactics and weaponry totally outside of

 

our experience, and that ship was unlike any other we have

 

encountered. While I can understand the effort going into hunting them

 

down, this bit about capturing them alive was surely unnecessary.

 

Either they think we are cowboys going to shoot up the enemy, or

 

somebody would really like a look at that ship."

 

"Not to mention,' Riker added, "that it would have been more

 

prudent to allow the Klingons to help us in the search than to put

 

them on the Romulan border, unless somebody doesn't want the Klingons

 

to get their hands on that ship."

 

"Yes, the Klingons have been our allies for more than seventy

 

years, and while things haven't always been smooth, they are now full

 

members of the federation."

 

"All of which doesn't help us in finding that ship." Riker

 

added.

 

"Somehow I don't think we will find that ship quite so easily

 

by searching through star systems here. With only nine ships, and

 

thousands of star systems to search, it will be a useless exercise."

 

"What else can we do?" Riker asked.

 

"Indeed, number one, what else?" Picard said in frustration.

 

They had reviewed possible drive mechanisms, how the ship got

 

into orbit without being noticed, cloaking mechanisms, ran the sensor

 

data through their computers hundreds of times using different

 

scenarios. They had come up with nothing. Either the civilian

 

recordings were not good enough, or the drive mechanism used was

 

beyond the ability of the sensors to detect. It was obvious that it

 

had been a supply raid, but most of the supplies could have been

 

obtained through trade or negotiation. The destruction of the colony

 

had been wanton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antilles could feel the frustration building up in him. He had

 

four task forces slowly and painfully working their way outwards

 

through the galaxy, exploring all remotely humanoid standard stars,

 

ignoring stars with unlikely spectral classes. With three capital

 

ships, 48 hyperspace capable starfighters and an assortment of

 

gunboats and assault shuttles per task force they could explore

 

hundreds of stars per hour. Even an x-wing's sensors were good enough

 

to detect signs of technology at interplanetary distances, while a

 

Liberator's sensors could detect signs of technology as far as two or

 

three light years away depending on conditions. The frigates were used

 

to ferry the information back and forth, so that sub-space silence

 

could be maintained. They were unlikely to find the imperials this

 

way, but the idea was to find sentient star faring beings, and

 

establish contact, as well as to build up a hyperspace map with a

 

reasonable degree of accuracy.

 

They had been doing this for two months now, and had achieved

 

very little. The further they explored, the more ground they had to

 

cover, and after expanding through a thousand light years, the sheer

 

volume of space to explore was bogging the exploration down, and they

 

had discovered very little so far. Three species had been located with

 

interstellar capabilities, which had perked up interest levels in the

 

mission for short periods of time. Two of the species had turned them

 

away with open hostility, although no shots had been fired. The third

 

species was probably the most technologically advanced they had

 

discovered, but hadn't even bothered to communicate, and had attacked

 

the frigate used in the contact negotiations without provocation.

 

Fortunately the frigate had escaped without damage from the

 

cube-shaped vessel by jumping to a pre-calculated rendezvous point.

 

The cube had apparently been unable to follow, or had not bothered.

 

Since then, nothing. The first two species apparently only had

 

limited inter-stellar capability, and controlled small spheres of the

 

galaxy, no more than four or five worlds. About the cube ship little

 

was known, and it had been the only one of it's type encountered.

 

There was no sign of a trans-galactic capable species so far, which

 

hinted that technology levels in this galaxy may not be that high.

 

Antilles took nothing for granted though. The stardrive of all the

 

ships they had encountered made use of space-time distortion effects,

 

which twisted real space and motivated the ship in that fashion. The

 

power requirements had to be enormous, and undoubtedly would have to

 

be maintained for the full duration of the journey.

 

A hyperspace jump also required enormous power levels, but

 

once the ship had made the jump, the energy required by the motivators

 

was minimal, although the motivators could only retain stability at

 

certain speeds. These stable 'frequencies' were referred to as class

 

point five, class one and class two. There was a theory which Antilles

 

only barely understood which gave the speed through hyperspace as a

 

relationship between the mass of the ship, the wave co-efficient of

 

the hyperdrive motivator, and the energy levels required. There were

 

only three known stable speeds which could be achieved, and hyperdrive

 

motivators were calibrated according to the size of the vessel in

 

which they were fitted and the energy capabilities of that ship.

 

Antilles, as a history student, had also come across the

 

theory that technology levels in the galaxy was unbalanced, due to the

 

ease with which new worlds and new resources could be reached. The

 

only driving factor for technological progress in the galaxy was

 

conflict, and so while weapons of destruction and related technologies

 

were commonplace, other technologies stagnated. In the 25000 years of

 

known galactic history, much had been discovered in lieu of

 

technology, but mostly due to the slow and inevitable accumulation of

 

research, rather than any major driving force to overcome logistical

 

problems. The theory had specifically blamed this on the early

 

discovery of hyperspace drives and technologies like anti-gravity

 

fields and repulsor lifts, which had made interstellar expansion too

 

easy.

 

"Sir, a frigate has returned."

 

"Initiate communications."

 

All sensory data from the frigate was uploaded to the

 

PEACEMAKER, and added to their growing store of data on this galaxy.

 

Once the maps were updated, they were downloaded to the incoming

 

frigate along with all mapping data accumulated by the other task

 

forces. There was now a new blip on the galactic map, a fourth species

 

had been discovered. Apparently an x-wing attached to this group had

 

discovered signs of metal alloys on a planet. The alloys could not

 

possibly be naturally occurring, and the x-wing had jumped out of the

 

system hopefully before it had been detected itself.

 

"Order base command to take over map co-ordination

 

responsibilities. The frigate will remain here for defensive purposes.

 

Prepare a jump to those co-ordinates."

 

The co-ordinates were nearly a thousand light years away, and

 

would involve a ten hour jump. The accuracy of the mapping within this

 

region allowed them the confidence to make it in one jump. The

 

battle-cruiser re-appeared in normal space about a light year out of

 

the system, and launched two wings of x-wing fighters. They also used

 

the opportunity to scan the system, establishing exact positions of

 

all objects in the system, and confirmed the accuracy of the original

 

x-wing scan. The fleet then jump to within five diameters of the

 

target planet, close enough to scan the planet in detail, far enough

 

hopefully to not be perceived as an immediate threat.

 

"Commence planetary scan."

 

On the tactical display, a holographic image of the planet

 

started forming, the information supplemented by the x-wings scanners

 

as they curved around the far side of the planet. At this range the

 

sensors could penetrate to a depth of several kilometres. On the

 

hologram, the image was semi-transparent, and even geological

 

formations could be distinguished, with major mineral deposits

 

highlighted. On the surface of the hologram, cities and other

 

settlements were highlighted, along with cultivated regions. Life-sign

 

readings indicated a population of several million beings with a

 

humanoid type base-line, but with significant deviations from human

 

normal.

 

"We are detecting sub-space transmissions, decoding."

 

One of the view-screens changed to show a human looking male.

 

The computer translated.

 

"This system is a member of the Romulan Star Empire, identify

 

yourself and your business here."

 

On closer inspection, Antilles could see the man had starkly

 

angled eyebrows, and pointed ears. There was just a vague greenish

 

tinge to an otherwise healthy looking human complexion. Dark curly

 

hair looked otherwise human.

 

"I am Captain Antilles, commander of this ship, a scout vessel

 

of the New Republic. We are looking for a group of outcasts from our

 

society, and will not remain long."

 

"There are none of your people here, and if there are any

 

within the jurisdiction of our Empire, then they are dead or

 

imprisoned. If you have no other business here, leave now or be

 

destroyed. You are in direct violation of the peace treaty between our

 

peoples. You have already stretched our patience by allowing Klingon

 

vessels to patrol our borders."

 

On the display to one side, Antilles noticed four ships taking

 

off from a spaceport.

 

"We will continue our search elsewhere. However, we would like

 

to make arrangements for you to contact us should these outcasts ever

 

contact you or cause any disturbance in your society."

 

"Any humans attempting to invade our society will be

 

destroyed."

 

The Romulan terminated the transmision.

 

"Romulan vessels opening fire on x-wings."

 

"Jump to rendezvous point. Execute."

 

The fleet jumped, and a minute later, re-appeared about a

 

light year outside the system. Long-range sensors showed the Romulan

 

vessels sweeping outwards from the planet in a wide arc, possibly

 

searching for them.

 

"Romulan vessels have changed course, they have detected us,

 

and are moving to intercept. ETA ninety minutes."

 

"Recover x-wings." Antilles ordered.

 

"Friendly lot," Nerak commented, "their weapons were

 

especially powerful, but the x-wings evaded their fire easily enough."

 

"Every species we've encountered so far in this galaxy has

 

been hostile. What did we discover about their weapons systems?"

 

Antilles asked.

 

"Their ships were quite large for planetary based vessels, on

 

the order of three hundred metres to seven hundred metres long, but

 

with only a few weapons mounts. We detected about ten missile launch

 

tubes, three banks of some type of beam weapon projector, and one

 

turret that looked suspiciously like a plasma discharge weapon, not

 

altogether unlike our turbolasers. Also, they used some type of

 

cloaking technology, but we easily tracked them on their drive

 

emissions. They also uncloaked several seconds before firing their

 

weapons."

 

"And now, are they cloaked?" Antilles looked at the display,

 

showing the four vessels arrowing towards them.

 

"Yes, but we can still detect them based on the distortion

 

effects of their stardrive, although their are apparently no drive

 

emissions associated with it."

 

"Do you think they can handle the Imperials should they run

 

into one another?"

 

Nerak shrugged, "They seem pretty confident. Who knows. The

 

weapons on those vessels don't appear to have the type of firepower to

 

destroy a vessel the size of an ISD, but with judicious use of that

 

stardrive they could make a difficult target."

 

It was Antilles turn to shrug, "Before we invented hyperdrive,

 

we had similar drive mechanisms, no doubt the histories will have

 

references to weapons which can counter it. Force knows, the Empire

 

had no problem subduing anyone they cared to, regardless of their

 

drive mechanisms."

 

"All x-wings recovered sir." the CAG reported.

 

Antilles glanced at the display, where the Romulan vessels had

 

covered about a quarter of the way towards the Republic vessels.

 

"Jump."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Romulan ambassador was not a happy woman.

 

"Mr President, as if it isn't enough that you have Klingon

 

warships supplementing your forces on the border, this latest flagrant

 

disregard for our peace treaties has tested our patience severely."

 

"My dear, I am afraid I don't know what you're talking about."

 

"Lies. One of your new warships used a cloaking mechanism to

 

attempt to penetrate our Far Colonies, but fled when they were

 

discovered by our patrols. They tried to make some excuse about

 

searching for outcasts from the federation. This will not be tolerated

 

Mr President. Further violations of the treaties will have disastrous

 

consequences, for you."

 

The Romulan female turned and marched out of the President's

 

office.

 

"Sutton." The president turned to Admiral Alex Sutton, "Give

 

me some good news."

 

"Sir, there have been no traces found of the alien vessel

 

which destroyed the Bengu colony three weeks ago. Perhaps it is time

 

to call off the search. That will allow us to normalise the situation

 

at the Neutral Zone."

 

"Public opinion will not stand for that. Calling off the

 

search will be an admission of starfleet incompetence. Public opinion

 

is a fickle thing, and many senators are questioning the powers of

 

Starfleet. If you don't produce results, it could be disastrous for

 

the future of starfleet."

 

"Perhaps Picard needs to be replaced.." Sutton suggested.

 

"No! Picard is respected. If nothing is turned up in the next

 

week, then the search will have to be called off. We don't need a war

 

with the Romulans right now, and we will have to pull the Klingons off

 

the border soon if we want to avoid one. Now, what do you make of this

 

business about the Romulan Far Colonies."

 

"We have never managed to circumnavigate the Romulan Empire,

 

and don't know how far their Empire extends. Our explorations have

 

shown that the Romulans control at least as many sectors of the galaxy

 

as do the Federation. Where our colonising drives have been halted by

 

treaties with other species in most directions except Rimwards, it is

 

known that the Romulans have no such treaties limiting colonisation of

 

the galaxy."

 

Sutton indicated a chart of the galaxy on one wall.

 

"This is the region we control," he indicated with his hands,

 

"Here are the Romulans, and below them, the Klingons, with the

 

Romulan-Klingon border along here. Our colonisation drives have

 

obviously been halted in that direction. The Klingons are expanding

 

away from us in this direction, and are apparently unopposed, although

 

it is resulting in a lengthening of the Klingon-Romulan border. Each

 

is trying to out-expand the other, which has heightened tensions

 

between the two considerably. On the other side of federation space,

 

we are hemmed in by the Cardassians and the Ferengi and various

 

smaller groupings. The only paths of expansion left to us are

 

Rimwards, and through a narrow gap here in the direction of the Core,

 

which will result in an extension of the Neutral Zone. Even the

 

Bajoran wormhole has led to a dead end, unless we are prepared to go

 

to war with the Dominion.

 

"It is known to us that the Romulans are expanding in this

 

direction to cut us off from the core, although at the moment their

 

primary aim is to out-expand the Klingons, and probably cut them off

 

from the core as well. One day, one way or another, if we hope to

 

expand much more, we will have to take on the Romulans." Sutton

 

finished.

 

"The Far Colonies?" The president insisted.

 

"We suspect lies over here," Sutton indicated a region about

 

fourteen thousand light years from federation space, and much closer

 

to the galactic core.

 

"We are sure the Romulan Empire extends that far?" The

 

president enquired.

 

"Not sure, but an educated guess. The Romulans have been

 

expanding virtually unopposed for more than a hundred years now, while

 

we have been dabbling in politics and other niceties."

 

"You are skating close to the edge, Alex." The President

 

smiled, "I know your sentiments, but we are not war mongering

 

butchers. Perhaps one day it will come back to haunt us, but it is a

 

big galaxy, and there is no reason why people can't live in peace. You

 

were saying, the Romulans expanding virtually unopposed?"

 

"Yes, Mr President. However, we do have some suspicion of

 

opposition to Romulan expansion. In the last few years Romulan ships

 

have been seen to be employing rapidly regenerating shields, frequency

 

modifiers on the shields and phase variance devices on their beam

 

weapons. These we suspect are as a direct result of encounters with

 

the Borg."

 

"Ah. Why have I not heard this before."

 

"It is only conjecture, Mr President. However, given the

 

location of all verified Borg sightings, including the first encounter

 

by the Enterprise over here a few years ago," Sutton indicated a point

 

not all that far from the Romulan Far Colonies, "it is possible that

 

the major Borg influenced regions lie in the quadrant of the galaxy on

 

the far side of the Romulan Empire." Sutton smiled, as if it was the

 

greatest joke that their most implacable enemies were the Federation's

 

best defence against the Borg.

 

"Now why would they believe it was one of our ships?"

 

"Remember the Bengu visuals. The alien captain appeared to be

 

human." Sutton reminded him.

 

"So there is another group of humans out there, apparently.

 

She also referred to 'outcasts from the federation'."

 

"If she had her facts correct. Possibly these humans are

 

descendants of some lost or unrecorded colony ships. Lord knows there

 

were many that left Earth shortly after the Eugenics wars a few

 

hundred years ago, and not all have been accounted for, but somehow I

 

doubt it. Their language constructs were totally unrelated to ours,

 

and the translators had a difficult time verifying the translation as

 

accurate."

 

"Okay. We cannot keep searching for ever, but here's what we

 

will do. In one week, if nothing turns up, call off the search. We

 

will request the Klingons to provide defensive patrols of all colonies

 

in those regions, but our ships will remain close to the Neutral Zone.

 

The Enterprise's duty roster will be cleared of everything, except the

 

search for these unknown humans. Picard is to be given a free hand to

 

turn up whatever he can."

 

"Are you sure that is wise Mr President?"

 

"Are you questioning my orders, Admiral Sutton?"

 

"No, sir. I will see that it is carried out." Sutton relented.

 

"Make it so!" the President waved him out.

 

 

 

Sutton made his way back to his office. He had two visitors

 

waiting for him. Woodward, who was responsible for federation

 

security, and Garth Elim, the public liaison. Sutton explained the

 

situation to them.

 

"I can use the situation to demand greater powers for

 

Starfleet," Elim suggested. "We can twist the reporting to indicate

 

that there is little starfleet can do given the fact our hands are

 

tied by so many compromises and treaties. We could probably sway

 

public opinion towards greater powers for starfleet."

 

"Yes," Sutton agreed. "That will help. If we can organise some

 

positive results that are timed nicely after an increase in public

 

support then starfleet could benefit immensely."

 

"If necessary I can manufacture some results," Woodward

 

smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the conference room aboard the Enterprise, all senior

 

officers had been gathered. The order cancelling the search had just

 

come through, leaving the Enterprise to conduct the search on their

 

own. They had been given wide-ranging powers in that regard, and all

 

other responsibilities had been removed.

 

"We have searched two hundred and twenty nine stars in an eighteen

 

light year radius from Bengu, and we are getting nowhere," Picard

 

started, "with only the enterprise left, we have no hope of catching

 

those raiders."

 

"Giving up is not an option," Riker stated flatly.

 

"I don't intend to," Picard affirmed. "We need to try

 

a different strategy."

 

"What do you suggest?" Riker asked.

 

"We know that those raiders were not federation members, and

 

that ship was of a totally alien design. We have no records of any

 

explorer vessel encountering humans who were not of Earth stock, and

 

exploration vessels have penetrated several thousand light years into

 

the galaxy, beyond federation space. Unless some previously

 

undiscovered and unmentioned race has intruded into those regions of

 

the galaxy recently, that ship has to have come from thousands of

 

light years away. To make such a journey they must be several years

 

away from home if they are using any stardrive technology we are aware

 

of.

 

The likely scenario is that they raided Bengu to replenish

 

their diminished supplies, and are either now returning whence they

 

came, or setting up a base somewhere from which to operate in this

 

area. If they are returning to their home, our search is fruitless, as

 

we may never find them. If however, they are setting up a base

 

somewhere, we have a hope of finding them, if we can deduce where that

 

base might be."

 

"That is a big assumption," Riker said, "with a lot of 'ifs'.

 

Can we be sure they aren't renegades working for the Romulans or

 

somebody. That attack was suspiciously close to Romulan space."

 

"I doubt it. That ship's design was like nothing that we have

 

seen before. It could just be coincidence that Bengu was hit. There is

 

no proof, not even a suspicion, of Romulan involvement. In fact, it

 

appears they may have come across our friends themselves, although it

 

is unknown whether any of their planets were actually attacked.

 

Apparently, the invaders 'ran away' on being attacked by four

 

warbirds."

 

"If you can believe anything a Romulan says."

 

"So, going by my scenario, what should our strategy be?"

 

Picard put the question to the assembled group.

 

"Their base cannot be anywhere too close to federation space,

 

the risk of detection by a passing ship is too great. If I were them,

 

I would be located somewhere out here." One officer suggested,

 

indicating the vast tract of stars leading towards the core. "They

 

cannot have come from the Rim, otherwise they would have had to cross

 

the entire federation to get here. Bengu is the richest planet within

 

fifty light years from the Neutral Zone, and it is only three hundred

 

light years from the edge of federation space."

 

"Yes," Riker agreed. "They could have slipped in through this

 

gap here, and followed this route to Bengu. But they must have good

 

cloaking technology, because anyone who lights up a warp core close to

 

the Neutral Zone will be detected by one of our listening posts, and

 

there are dozens of posts spread throughout this sector."

 

"No," Picard shook his head, "Their stardrive may not be warp

 

based, which leaves gaps they could have slipped through, but not big

 

ones, and there is no way they could know where all those listening

 

posts are. That information is classified, even to us."

 

"Even so, their base has to be somewhere out there." Riker

 

insisted.

 

"What if their ship is their base? It is certainly big

 

enough." Somebody suggested.

 

"No, assuming they are years from home, even a ship of that

 

size cannot be a permanent base for so long." Picard answered.

 

"To locate Bengu," one of the security officers suggested,

 

"they must have done a lot of scouting. Perhaps there are unexplained

 

sightings that we could follow up. Maybe the listening posts did pick

 

up their trail, but didn't recognise it for what it was. We could get

 

recordings of sensor data from colonies and outposts in let's say a

 

fifty light year radius, and run them through our computers. Maybe we

 

can pick up something in retrospect that would have been discounted at

 

the time."

 

"Excellent idea, lieutenant. Commander, see to it."

 

"Yes sir."

 

Over the next few days, as records were being reviewed, small

 

discounted anomalies were surfacing. A number of the better defended

 

systems had spotted impulse type signatures for short periods of time

 

at extreme ranges for detecting such drives, which later disappeared

 

and were discounted. The enemy had obviously scouted these systems

 

from long range, and whatever stardrive mechanism they were using was

 

undetectable by the well-worn methods for detecting warp drives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antilles was somewhat encouraged by the information gleaned

 

from the Romulans. Their conversation had hinted at other humans, and

 

treaties with other humans. That could only be a reference to

 

imperials. As a result, Antilles had ordered a second task force into

 

the area. The two task forces were working their way around Romulan

 

space, scanning systems at long range, and careful not to actually

 

enter any star systems where Romulan activity was detected. He did not

 

know if the Romulans were able to detect their X-wings or A-wings, as

 

they never approached closer than half a light year to any star

 

system, and kept their ion-drives at low power, with most systems

 

shutdown. He hoped the risk of being caught in deep-space with all

 

systems shutdown was low enough to be justified. Any fighter actually

 

spotted would have to do a quick jump to safety if approached.

 

Once they had mapped Romulan space, they would then work their

 

way outwards looking for signs of the humans the Romulans had

 

mentioned.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob Lightfoot bit off a chunk of ration bar. He was three

 

hours into a four patrol, and besides hunger, he was also beginning to

 

feel the odd cramp. He shifted slightly in his seat, and stretched as

 

much as the restraints would allow him. His R2 unit chirped, and a

 

message flowed across his translator unit. They would be dropping out

 

of hyperspace in ten seconds. Another system to scan. Jacob had been

 

through this many times in the last three months. He ran his eyes over

 

his displays. If anything was worthy of attention, his R2 unit would

 

have popped it onto his HUD, but he liked to check anyway.

 

The three-second indicator lit up, and shortened

 

progressively. As it hit zero, the ship dropped out of hyperspace.

 

Jacob wasted no time in pulling back the power lever. In a by-gone age

 

the lever had actually caused the hyperspace drop, these days it was

 

the pilot's confirmation to the ship to shunt power away from the

 

hyperdrive motivator, into the other ships' systems. His sensor board

 

came to life, and Jacob could see one star dead ahead that was much

 

brighter than it's neighbours. The R2 unit was already plotting their

 

next jump, as the sensors 'listened' to the system ahead of them. The

 

system was deserted, no signs of technology, although there were at

 

least two habitable planets in the system.

 

"R2, don't jump yet, I'm going to take a closer look. Jump as

 

close as we can to the outermost planet, one planetary diameter if

 

possible."

 

The starfield shifted slightly, the short jump registering

 

only as a momentary lurch of the ship. R2-B3 hadn't even bothered to

 

shift additional power to the hyperdrive motivator, and no

 

manipulation of the power lever was necessary. The star ahead was

 

significantly brighter. There was still no signs of technology. Jacob

 

allowed the orbit around the planet to swing him into view of the rest

 

of the system. No indicators on his sensor board. He opened his mouth

 

to order the jump to the next system, when his board lit up.

 

There was a ship in orbit around the second planet. It was a

 

big one, about the size of a frigate, with significant energy

 

readings. Jacob glanced over his display. His own ion engines were

 

still shut down, and life-support was running at low power, just

 

enough to keep the air clean and the cabin temperature in a reasonable

 

range. The inertial dampers and gravity generators were shut down

 

along with the engines. He was as quiet as he could be, and in a ship

 

as small as an X-wing, hopefully undetectable at this range.

 

As he watched, the ships energy readings lowered

 

significantly, and it moved closer to the planet, just skimming above

 

it's atmosphere. Jacob watched closely, trying to determine what the

 

ship was up to. Seconds later he got his answer. The R2 unit chirped,

 

on his sensor board he saw there was an incoming starship, it's

 

distortion field having been detected by the passive sensors. The

 

first one was hiding, apparently undetectable unless it engaged it's

 

stardrive. This was going to be interesting.

 

"R2, you recording this?"

 

The R2 unit snorted derisively. Of course it was recording.

 

Jacob couldn't help smiling. The R2 units were renowned for their

 

obstreperous nature, which was most likely why they were not issued

 

with speech generators.

 

The first alien vessel was almost invisible now, if he had not

 

spotted it earlier, he would have most likely not even known it was

 

there. The second vessel disengaged it's warp drive only a few

 

planetary diameters short of the planet. It engaged an ion drive, and

 

manoeuvred itself into a stationary orbit. From his vantage point,

 

Jacob could see the first vessel doing a powered orbit, skimming the

 

atmosphere. In seconds it would be in line of sight of the second

 

vessel, which seemed oblivious to it's presence.

 

Suddenly his sensor board went crazy, energy readings going

 

off the scale before the R2 unit could adjust it's sensitivity. The

 

first ship had fired it's beam weapons, scoring direct hits on the

 

second vessel, a number of torpedoes were streaking towards the

 

stricken ship. The missiles smashed into the ship, rocking it visibly

 

to his sensors even at this distance. The stricken vessel finally

 

opened fire on it's attacker, which was now curving up away from the

 

planet and still accelerating at about five gees. Not bad for such a

 

big ship with so small an ion drive, Jacob thought. Another burst of

 

the beam weapons sliced into the damaged ship, blowing away large

 

sections of it's hull. A second volley of torpedoes blew the ship

 

apart. The attacker decelerated, it's course bringing it close to the

 

wreckage, making sure that the ship was destroyed, no doubt. The

 

attacking ship engaged it's stardrive, and streaked out of the system,

 

clearing the system in a matter of seconds.

 

Jacob estimated its speed as close to 9000 times the speed of

 

light, or about one light year per hour. Not bad, but hardly

 

trans-galactic. He was able to track the space-time distortion for

 

about twenty minutes, out to a third of a light-year. He checked his

 

timer. He was more than an hour overdue, and the Freedom Fighter would

 

not wait much longer for him.

 

"R2, take us home."

 

The droid beeped, and the starfield twisted into meaningless

 

static as they sped back to their mother ship. Besides being late, he

 

had not finished his reconnaissance patrol. He didn't think the

 

captain would mind too much. In fact, she would be pretty pleased, he

 

was sure.

 

As soon as the X-wing arrived at the rendezvous point, he

 

ordered the R2 unit to transmit everything it had recorded to the

 

Freedom Fighter via laser beam communications. Laser was directional,

 

and the low powered laser would not be detected for more than a few

 

hundred thousand kilometres. Sub-space was off-limits this close to

 

possible enemy space. He had barely transmitted the recording of his

 

patrol when he got priority one clearance to land. He was ushered

 

straight to the CAG's office. The Cag didn't say a word, just ushered

 

him into the nearby turbolift and straight up to the captain's ward

 

room. The captain and her senior staff were already gathered there,

 

and were playing his recordings on the holo display.

 

"Lieutenant Lightfoot. That was very good thinking. The data

 

you accumulated might prove to be invaluable. The Freedom's Friend has

 

already left to take this information back to the Peacemaker. Captain

 

Antilles would have wanted to see it immediately. Now tell us in your

 

own words your impressions of what happened here."

 

 

 

Antilles, Nerak and Marcus gathered in the conference room.

 

The Jedi, who had virtually lived in the gymnasiums and simulators for

 

the last few months, had somehow got wind of the meeting, and made a

 

rare appearance.

 

"What do you make of this?" Antilles asked.

 

"We have been mapping the limits of Romulan influence, and I

 

think we have found it." Commander Marcus, the Peacemaker's CAG,

 

answered. "The destroyed ship matches the Romulan signatures we have

 

observed up to now. The attacking ship was of a not too dissimilar

 

design, but obviously not Romulan. It was expecting the Romulan ship,

 

and did a sarlacc on them. The weapons capabilities seem fairly evenly

 

matched, but the Romulans were caught by surpise. The X-wing

 

recordings did pick up a sub-space call from the Romulan vessel, no

 

doubt a distress call, and the alien vessel didn't hang around to find

 

out. Neither did the X-wing, thank goodness. If any reinforcements had

 

come along, they would have been loaded for ragnor, and even a

 

womp-rat might not have found a hidey hole in that system."

 

"I agree." Nerak said. "It seems that the Romulans are at war

 

with somebody in this sector. Maybe the humans they were referring to.

 

Could that alien vessel have been a human ship? Do you think there are

 

humans in this galaxy?"

 

"I am not so sure," Antilles answered, "they mentioned having

 

treaties with humans, which indicates a possible cessation of

 

hostilities. This doesn't look like a cessation of hostilities, so I

 

would doubt if that ship was a human vessel. Maybe they are at war

 

with someone else."

 

"Then why have a battle over an empty planet," The Jedi knight

 

spoke up for the first time, "According to the sensor data, that

 

planet had no significant mineral deposits that could be discerned,

 

and it was uninhabited. I suspect the battle may have been more due to

 

territorial rights than part of an actual war."

 

"It was a pretty vicious battle." Nerak commented.

 

"Yes, but no strategic victory was gained by either side that

 

can be easily ascertained. What was the alien vessel defending? Why

 

lay a trap for the Romulan vessel in a deserted system? It can only be

 

a fight over territorial rights. The alien ship was trying to prevent

 

the Romulans from establishing a presence in this sector."

 

 

 

 

 

The president of the United Federation of Planets was not

 

having a good month. It was the second time he had to face an enraged

 

Romulan ambassador.

 

"We demand you sever your ties with the Klingons." She stated.

 

"What basis do you have for your demands," the president said,

 

"the Klingons are members of this federation."

 

"Is it this federation's policy to murder women and children,

 

to arbitrarily destroy defenceless colonists?"

 

The president's eyebrows raised considerably, the Bengu

 

incident still fresh in his mind.

 

"You have lost a colony?" He asked.

 

"The Klingons mercilessly destroyed one of our starships. It

 

was loaded with colonists. Do you support them in this?"

 

"I don't know all the facts, so I will reserve judgement.

 

Maybe you can tell me where this incident occurred, and how you know

 

the Klingons were behind it."

 

"The distress call we received positively identified the

 

attacking warship as Klingon. The recovered wreckage had battle damage

 

consistent with Klingon weaponry. My government has not informed me of

 

the location of the incident yet, but has demanded that you sever all

 

ties with the Klingons."

 

"I am afraid I will need more information. We will have to

 

know the location of this battle. Then we will have to send an

 

inspection team out to ascertain the facts of the matter. Also, I

 

didn't realise Romulan starships were defenceless. It was destroyed by

 

one Klingon vessel you say?"

 

"I can see you are not prepared to heed our warnings. Your

 

allience with the Klingons will cost you severely one day."

 

The Romulan ambassador stormed out of the room. The president

 

was getting used to seeing the back of her, and was beginning to enjoy

 

this particular perspective of the Romulan woman. He tapped his

 

communicator. "Get me the Klingon ambassador."

 

 

 

"You say you don't know where this occurred?" The Klingon

 

ambassador rumbled.

 

"You don't know the name of the ship? Not even the class of

 

ship? A serial number perhaps?"

 

The president shook his head to indicate a negative response

 

to all the questions.

 

"Then I am afraid I cannot help you. Perhaps the Romulan ship

 

suffered some other malady and they wish to blame it on the Klingons,

 

as usual" The ambassador continued, "The Romulans blame us for all

 

their misfortunes."

 

"Mr Ambassador, possibly one of your captains acted a bit

 

hastily ..." The president started.

 

"Are you questioning Klingon discipline?" The ambassador

 

bristled.

 

"No, but ..."

 

"I can assure you, Klingon captains are very carefully

 

screened. We will not do anything that violates our agreements with

 

the federation."

 

"Thank you Mr Ambassador. I will pass that sentiment onto the

 

Romulan ambassador."

 

The huge Klingon nodded. The president was glad to see the

 

back of him too. The president called in his next visitor. "Admiral

 

Sutton."

 

Sutton was not at all surprised by the morning's events, and

 

even looked vaguely pleased about it.

 

"This just bears out my last briefing to you Mr President. No

 

doubt, the Klingons and Romulans had a bit of disagreement over a

 

strategically placed M class planet somewhere out here." He indicated

 

the far side of known Romulan and Klingon space on the galactic map.

 

"The Klingons are being blocked from expanding core-wards by the

 

Romulans, but must have taken a strategic planet, or at least

 

prevented the Romulans from taking it. It is known that they have been

 

fighting a cold war for the last few decades, and I am sure this is

 

not the first ship either has lost, nor is it likely to be the last.

 

The Klingons are depending on their mutual defence treaties with us to

 

prevent the Romulans engaging in an all-out war on them, and of course

 

they also need our economic support to finance the cost of their

 

expansion drives.

 

"We need the Klingons to prevent the Romulans going to war

 

with us of course, that is the whole point of our alliance." Sutton

 

finished.

 

"No." The president answered, raising his voice for the first

 

time that day. "Our alliance with the Klingons is based on mutual

 

understanding and the common goal of a striving for peace in this

 

galaxy. The federation cannot afford to go to war with Klingons, since

 

they will not stop until we have destroyed them utterly, and our

 

entire basis of existence precludes us from engaging in such genocide.

 

Anything else is a mockery of what the Federation believes in, and

 

what Starfleet stands for."

 

"You can save that drivel for the public, Mr President, and

 

for die-hards like Picard who believe it. The truth is that Starfleet

 

exists because as long as we have the biggest axe, no-one will mess

 

with us. If you were to get off you high horse occasionally then maybe

 

we can build up Starfleet to the point where we don't need the

 

Klingons or anyone else."

 

"Admiral Sutton. Another word, and you will be retired to New

 

Zealand for reasons of ill-health."

 

The two men stared at each for a long moment. The Admiral

 

eventually looked away.

 

"Sir. I apologise. Maybe we both should study the underlying

 

reasons for the drawing up of the Prime Directives."

 

"See that you do that. I know I shall." The president waved

 

him out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two Liberators and their supporting frigates lay in deep

 

space, three light years from the nearest star-system. Steady beams of

 

invisible laser light joined the fleet into one network as all their

 

databases were continuously updated with information being brought in

 

by X-wings and A-wings returning from patrols. A flash of

 

pseudo-motion heralded the arrival of the Peacemaker. Another

 

invisible beam joined the Peacemaker into the network, and the ships

 

exchanged the latest copies of their respective databases.

 

On the bridge tactical display, the galactic map updated to

 

display the recently discovered colonies of the species that were

 

engaged in the war with the Romulans. Antilles indicated a world which

 

had a significantly higher than usual population, most likely a

 

capital for this sector. Three A-wings had done a long range passive

 

sensor scan of the system, mapping it as closely as possible without

 

doing an active sensor focus, and two were remaining on station

 

outside the system.

 

"My compliments to the captains of these task forces, they may

 

continue their reconnaissance missions for now."

 

Nerak nodded, and a tech tapped instructions into the computer

 

terminal besides him. Seconds later the Peacemaker jumped again. An

 

hour later, they had covered the more than one hundred light years to

 

the alien system, stopping long enough just outside the system to

 

launch another wing of A-wings, and to receive the latest data from

 

the nearby monitoring A-wing.

 

The Peacemaker and it's company of four A-wings then jumped to

 

within fifteen light-seconds of the alien capital, the A-wings

 

overshooting by fifteen light-seconds, so that they could monitor the

 

far side of the planet as well. Sub-space silence was not required for

 

this mission, and the A-wings established a coded sub-space data-link

 

with the Peacemaker the instant they returned to normal space.

 

Antilles had no wish to be surprised.

 

"Alien vessel, identify yourself. Immediately."

 

The inhabitants had spotted the ships immediately on arrival,

 

and wasted no time in establishing contact, or the computer was not

 

mincing words in it's translation. Antilles noticed that they had at

 

least nine warships in orbit similar to the one observed attacking the

 

Romulan vessel. There were a further six on the fringes of the system

 

according to the A-wings from the Freedom Fighter.

 

"I am Captain Antilles, commander of the New Republic Starship

 

Peacemaker."

 

"What is your business here?" The humanoid figure on the

 

screen bore no resemblance to the Romulan viewed earlier, and the

 

life-sign readings obtained from the planet below were even further

 

from human base-line. The humanoid had dark skin, a large ridged

 

forehead, and heavy eyebrows and a thickened brow ridge shielded his

 

eyes.

 

"I am conducting a search for a group of outcasts from our

 

society, who I believe may be hiding in this sector of the galaxy."

 

"There are no humans in this sector of the galaxy."

 

Somebody from off-screen captured the attention of the

 

humanoid figure, and he cut the audio for a few seconds while

 

conversing with the person off-screen.

 

Jedi Dacron stepped forward, and Antilles likewise cut the

 

audio on his transmission. "They have encountered the imperials, or at

 

least have encountered humans with some relationship to us."

 

Antilles nodded. The alien was turning back towards the view

 

screen. He activated the audio control again.

 

"You will surrender your vessel pending charges of piracy to

 

which you may be an accessory. Comply or be destroyed."

 

This was getting interesting. Piracy was just the kind of

 

thing Antilles was looking for.

 

"I will not surrender my vessel. However, I am prepared to

 

answer to any questions you may level against us. We have committed no

 

crimes in this sector, and are in fact hunting for criminals who have

 

committed such acts against us."

 

The alien appeared to consider for a second.

 

"You may beam down to the co-ordinates we will supply you. If

 

you or your ship attempt any form of aggression, you will be

 

destroyed."

 

"I am afraid I would rather not leave my ship. I would however

 

welcome any delegation you wish to send here." Antilles replied.

 

"What guarantees do you offer for the safety of the

 

delegation."

 

Antilles smiled. This was going better than he had expected.

 

"I will accede to an exchange of hostages. I will send a group of my

 

men over on a shuttle, and your delegation can return on the same

 

shuttle. Be aware that we are quite capable of matching any form of

 

aggression on your part. I am as concerned for the safety of my men,

 

as you are for yours."

 

"And naturally you won't want to lower your shields to allow

 

transporter use." The alien grimaced. Antilles supposed it was meant

 

as a smile. It wasn't pretty. "I give you my word your men will be

 

treated as honourably as you treat ours, and a Klingon does not give

 

his word lightly. Send your shuttle to these co-ordinates."

 

A list of figures followed, which the computer interpreted as

 

a longitude - latitude reference relative to the poles of the planet

 

below. Antilles confirmed the co-ordinates and the understanding of

 

the reference system used. Now all he had to do was find a few

 

volunteers to get onboard the shuttle. Strangely, but almost

 

unsurprisingly, it was one of the Jedi who volunteered. Nerak also

 

volunteered, but Antilles turned him down in favour of the wiry

 

General Denel and a few of his soldiers. They would go unarmed, but

 

with battle-helmets, which were programmed to record everything that

 

happened in the vicinity of the wearer, and transmit it back to the

 

Peacemaker via an encoded sub-space frequency.

 

He had no idea what the Klingon had meant by transporters, but

 

if it was what he suspected, he wouldn't have agreed to the request

 

anyway. Besides lowering his shields, he had no intention of risking

 

the loss of his soul through having his body de-atomised.

 

Antilles watched the shuttle approach the Klingon planet. Nerak

 

confirmed that they were getting solid life-sign readings from all the

 

occupants. The language nuances and undertones in the Klingon speech

 

were not unlike that of Wookie and Noghri cultures. Both species were

 

warrior-types and highly aggressive. Such species required stringent

 

honour-codes to be upheld, no doubt an inherent survival mechanism to

 

prevent the species from killing themselves off. Antilles hoped the

 

same applied to the Klingons. If they were anything like the Wookies

 

or Noghri back home, then the Romulans were having a tough time in

 

this war, for such societies were not to be taken lightly.

 

"The shuttle is returning. There are five Klingons on-board."

 

Nerak informed him.

 

"Organise a welcoming committee in landing bay two."

 

Nerak raised his eyebrows.

 

"A friendly one." Antilles stated. "Nothing too ostentatious,

 

the kind of thing you'd do for a visiting ship's captain."

 

Nerak started giving orders into his comm-link.

 

"You have the conn, Commander Nerak. I will go meet our

 

guests."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Antilles stepped into a nearby turbo-lift, and made his way to

 

the landing bay. A Wookie colonel was assembling a company of forty

 

soldiers into two rows. The soldiers were wearing their ceremonial

 

dress uniforms. Antilles nodded his satisfaction. New Republic

 

ceremonial dress was plain by most standards, for the uniform was

 

still fully functional. The chameleon fibre could change colour at

 

will, and worked to mask the infra-red and ultra-violet signature of

 

the wearer. The technology had proved most useful in engagements with

 

stormtroopers over the years, as the suits helped the wearer blend in

 

with the environment and confused the targeting systems of imperial

 

helmets.

 

The hangar was a flurry of activity, as the droids completed

 

the more urgent maintenance on the starfighters stored in the bay, and

 

retreated to their storage rooms, leaving a quieter and neater landing

 

bay as they departed. Beyond the atmospheric force field, the shuttle

 

came into view against the backdrop of the battle-cruisers lower hull.

 

It seemed to ripple slightly as the tractor beams nullified the ship's

 

defensive shields in that region by matching the shield frequency, and

 

guided the shuttle into the bay. Antilles heard the familiar crackle

 

as the ship passed through the force fields that contained the

 

atmosphere, a slight breeze of displaced air could also be felt.

 

The shuttle came to rest, and the hatch dropped down, forming

 

a ramp for the occupants to descend. A huge Klingon marched down the

 

ramp. He was at least half a head taller than Antilles. The rest of

 

the Klingon delegation appeared to be closer to human normal in size.

 

All of them wore an impressive array of weapons, including broadswords

 

slung across their backs. So much for sending an unarmed group. Still,

 

considering that none of them appeared to be wearing any energy

 

weapons maybe they considered themselves to be unarmed.

 

"An impressive ship you have here, Captain." The leading

 

Klingon announced. Antilles heard the translation via a comm-link worn

 

in his ear. The ship's computer did the translation. "I am Admiral

 

Zorn."

 

"Pleased to meet you Admiral. Please follow me." Antilles led

 

the way across the landing bay. He noticed the Klingons were all

 

wearing an earpiece, probably a translator device of some sort.

 

The Klingons made no bones about looking over everything in

 

the hangar, including the lines of soldiers and the starfighters

 

behind them. Zorn almost missed his step at the sight of the Wookie at

 

the head of the column. The colonel was easily nine feet tall. They

 

were not gawking, Antilles noticed, merely assessing the

 

battle-readiness of his ship. He hoped they were not disappointed. He

 

ordered the turbo-lift to take them to the captain's ward room, where

 

a medical droid unobtrusively scanned the Klingons as they entered the

 

room. No doubt drawing on its knowledge of tens of thousands of

 

humanoid species back home, it instructed the kitchen droids on the

 

dietary requirements of the aliens.

 

"Refreshments." Antilles indicated, "I hope it is to your

 

liking."

 

He sat down in his chair, and indicated to the Klingons to

 

take seats as well. Millenia of experience in such matters indicated

 

that negotiations always proceeded better on a full stomach, provided

 

you were not the main course. A group of waiter droids approached the

 

conference table, and started laying out dishes replicated from their

 

nutrient tanks in the few seconds since the medical droid had informed

 

them of the Klingon dietary requirements.

 

"Smells good." The Klingon commander indicated. He unashamedly

 

waved some sort of scanning device over the food, nodded at the

 

results, and took a bite of something blue. The taste obviously

 

appealed to him, and he washed it down with a sip from a glass filled

 

with green liquid, which smelt of alcohol. The other Klingons also

 

started eating. Antilles also enjoyed a small meal while the Klingons

 

proceeded to clear the table. Zorn burped loudly, signalling the end

 

of the meal. A chorus of burps from the other Klingons followed.

 

Antilles inclined his head at their politeness. He had grown up

 

surrounded by people from a myriad of cultures, and very few things

 

surprised him.

 

"I can sense you are a civilised man, Captain Antilles." Zorn

 

began. "However, we have serious business to discuss. We have allies,

 

humans like yourself apparently, who have recently had one of their

 

colonies utterly destroyed by a ship not too dissimilar from your own.

 

The drive signatures, hull metals, and that way you have of just

 

'appearing out of nowhere' indicate a similar technological base. I

 

suspect these murderers of women and children are related to you." He

 

looked expectantly at Antilles, waiting for a response.

 

This was the breakthrough Antilles was looking for. He

 

wondered how many people had died to achieve this result. The Klingon

 

had said one ship though. But one ship could lead them to the others.

 

Antilles answered carefully, this Zorn was a sharp character, for all

 

his brusqueness.

 

"My people have been fighting a war for decades against those

 

whom I think you are referring to. We recently won the war, and it

 

came to our attention that a number of our enemies have escaped to

 

this region of the galaxy, where they hope to establish a base of

 

operations from which to resume their fight. They are completely

 

ruthless, and it is well within their capabilities to destroy the

 

colony as you described. My mission here is to find them and destroy

 

them. I wish no hostilities to any natives of this region of the

 

galaxy, but cannot return until my mission has been completed. If you

 

will inform us as to the location of the destroyed colony, we will

 

resume our hunt."

 

"It is not that easy. The colony was located in a sensitive

 

area, and the destruction has caused a rising of tensions between us,

 

the United Federation of Planets, and the Romulans. Were you to

 

attempt to enter that region of space, you might trigger a three way

 

inter-stellar war. That is something we would like to avoid."

 

"I can understand that, but why would our presence trigger a

 

war." Antilles asked.

 

"In the first place, many humans in the federation suspect

 

Romulan or Klingon involvement in the atrocity. The Romulans probably

 

think the whole situation has been contrived to provide the federation

 

for an excuse to escalate tensions in the area, so that they have to

 

divert valuable warships to the area to counter federation activity.

 

We Klingons of course are taking full advantage of the situation by

 

accelerating our colonising efforts, and expanding our influence into

 

areas the Romulans would like to keep away from us." He laughed, as if

 

the entire situation was a big joke, for his benefit.

 

"If we can assist our human neighbours in finding the

 

murderers, it will strengthen our ties with them significantly, and

 

put the Romulans at a serious disadvantage. The importance of that far

 

outweighs the meagre advantage we have at the moment while the

 

Romulans rush to protect their borders against the federation.

 

Besides, to placate the federation we have had to divert eight much

 

needed warships so far to defend their colonies."

 

"I have no wish to become involved in local politics."

 

Antilles stated.

 

"Ah, but don't you see. You don't have to become involved. We

 

will make arrangements for you to meet the right people, and then you

 

do what you came to do."

 

"The right people?"

 

"Yes. The right people. You will have to be very careful in

 

Federation space. Your fellow humans are a conniving lot, and many of

 

them would like to get their hands on your ship to investigate this

 

cloaking stardrive you use. Also, it will take a lot of convincing to

 

allow them to trust you."

 

"You trust us, apparently."

 

"We have perspective out here," The Klingon grimaced. A smile.

 

"The humans are very upset about the loss of their colony. The sight

 

of dead woman and children does that to one. No doubt we would feel

 

the same if it were one of our colonies." His looked as if he was far

 

away for a moment. Probably he had seen such devastation in Klingon

 

colonies. "It is a very emotional time for them."

 

"And why wouldn't you want to get a look at our stardrive?"

 

The Klingon roared. Antilles realised after a second he was

 

laughing. "If we captured your ship, and started using your

 

stardrives, more than just suspicion would come our way. We would be

 

forced to share the technology, and we might be hard pressed to

 

explain how we came by it. Either way, it won't help find your

 

enemies, and any advantage we gain will be negated by the business of

 

war if the Romulans and Federation turn on us, as they will have to.

 

"Our only fear is that the technology might fall into

 

federation hands. They need us as allies almost as much as we need

 

them. They do hold the balance of power at the moment, and with such

 

technology they would not need us any longer. Even if we were to ally

 

ourselves with our mortal enemies the Romulans, we would be hard

 

pressed to defeat them, and then would have to face the Romulans after

 

that. That is why we must see that you meet the right people, so that

 

war can be averted."

 

"The people you refer to, they are humans?"

 

"Yes, of course, but humans who do not believe in aggression

 

as an answer to everything. Honourable humans, even if I say so

 

myself. There are few enough even in their Starfleet."

 

Antilles considered. He did not want to become involved in

 

local politics, and his orders were also to see that no technology

 

fell into potentially dangerous hands. He would have to play along

 

with the Klingons for now. He also would not like to be the cause for

 

a major war in this galaxy. The decades long conflict between Alliance

 

and Empire had already resulted in loss of lives even this far from

 

their home galaxy, and he hoped to avert further tragedy.

 

"I will co-operate with you." He offered his hand to Admiral

 

Zorn. The Klingon looked at the hand for a second.

 

"Some things never change." The Admiral pumped his hand

 

vigorously, and roared all the time.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picard rushed to the bridge. The call had been particularly

 

urgent. The turbo-lift doors had barely snapped open when Riker

 

started talking.

 

"Distress call. Colony one three seven, seventy light years

 

out of Bajor. The MO matches Bengu."

 

"How soon can we get there?"

 

"Four days at Warp 8.5."

 

"Make it so!"

 

There was a distinct change in the timbre of the background

 

noise as power was diverted into the warp core. Riker had expected the

 

order, and the ship had been ready to go the instant he gave the

 

order. They were accelerating through Warp 4 in less than a second,

 

and a minute later were doing Warp 7. There was a distinct humming

 

noise as the power requirements of the warp climbed exponentially. The

 

ship broke through warp 8 another minute later. Warp 8.5 could be

 

maintained for four days without seriously compromising warp core

 

integrity, and higher warp factors could only be maintained for

 

shorter periods of time. The ships maximum velocity of warp 9.9 could

 

only be maintained for a few hours at a time, to a theoretical maximum

 

of twelve hours.

 

In the meanwhile Riker had called up the data package they had

 

received from Starfleet. He brought Picard up to date on the

 

situation. The eight Klingon Birds of Prey assigned to colony defence

 

were scattered through the colonies closest to Bengu. Colony 137 was

 

halfway across Federation space, and not all that far from the

 

Cardassian space. First the Romulans, now the Cardassians. Things were

 

going to get very interesting.

 

"Can we expect any assistance from DS9?" Picard asked.

 

"The Defiant has already been despatched, under the command of

 

Lt Commander Worf. Starfleet has also informed us that the Klingons

 

are sending another eight starships to assist in our search. The

 

Gallant and the Stalwart have also been despatched."

 

"Relay a message to the Klingons, have four of the warbirds go

 

directly to colony one-three-seven, assign the rest to the defence of

 

the surrounding colonies. I suppose the Defiant will be the first to

 

arrive at one three seven, what are the ETA's of the other ships."

 

"The Defiant should beat us by twenty hours, the Gallant will

 

arrive within a few hours of our arrival, the Stalwart a day later,

 

and the Klingons shortly after that. Starfleet has also withdrawn four

 

ships from the Ferengi and Cardassian sectors to nearby colonies, and

 

Earth Defence has been reduced from ten ships to seven ships. The

 

three extra ships have been despatched to the Bengu area in case of

 

further attacks in that area. Starfleet has cancelled all leave, every

 

ship which does not require essential maintenance is being put into

 

service, and preparations are being made to mobilise the reserves.

 

Starfleet has also recommended all ships to make arrangements for the

 

disembarkation of civilians."

 

"What do we know about one three seven?" Picard asked.

 

"Population about two million, all human. No significant

 

mineral deposits, but a fertile farming planet. It is the major

 

supplier of food and replicator nutrient base in that sector. Ninety

 

five percent of the population is contained within an area three

 

hundred kilometres around the capital in a fertile river valley."

 

Picard didn't ask about planetary defences. Federation worlds

 

were peaceful civilian installations, and colonies as large as 137

 

might have a lightly armed police force, but certainly no military

 

capable of withstanding an invasion force. Also, given that the colony

 

was more than seventy light years from the any front-line, it would be

 

nearly impossible for an invading fleet to have slipped through all

 

that space undetected. The only defence colonies such as 137 had was

 

the knowledge that there were always starships within three or four

 

days journey. An attack on worlds such as Bengu and 137 should have

 

been impossible, as incoming warp drives would have been detected by

 

the network of 'listening posts' spread through federation space.

 

Civilian installations closer to the frontlines, especially

 

the Cardassian and Romulan borders would have orbital weapons

 

platforms, which would be a deterrent to all but the most determined

 

fleet attacks, and they would also have starships within a few hours

 

travel at worst. Many even served as a regional base of operations,

 

and might even have an armed space station as support. Planet based

 

weapons were discounted in favour of orbital platforms because of the

 

limiting factors imposed by having to fire out of an atmospheric

 

environment.

 

"Call me as soon as we hear from the Defiant." Picard said.

 

There was nothing more for him to do on the bridge. The

 

Defiant would reach 137 in three days, and there was nothing they

 

could do until then. Picard thought about Bengu and it's tens of

 

thousands of dead. 137 had a population of two million people. He shut

 

out the thought of all those people as he made his way to his

 

quarters. Starfleet was preparing for war, and right they should. That

 

ass Admiral Sutton was probably wringing his hands in joy at the

 

prospect, he thought, with disgust. He could just imagine all the old

 

war horses being brought out and dusted off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Bridge to Picard. Captain to the bridge."

 

Picard glanced at the clock, the Defiant could not have made

 

it to 137 yet. He swung his feet off the bed.

 

"On my way."

 

He beat Riker to the bridge, the first officer also obviously

 

having had his sleep interrupted.

 

"What is it?" he asked.

 

The communications officer answered. "Priority one flash,

 

coded to all ship commanders." She stepped aside so that he could make

 

use of the console. Riker and the other officers stood back at a

 

discreet distance. Picard bent over the console. Once the computer had

 

positively identified him, it decoded the signal. He sat down.

 

Heavily.

 

"Two more colonies have broken off communications after brief

 

distress calls, both way over towards the Rim side of federation

 

space. Task forces have been despatched to both colonies to

 

investigate. Starfleet is now on a war footing. Earth Defence has been

 

increased to twenty starships, and all non-essential missions have

 

been cancelled. Vessels on research, transport, supply, and diplomatic

 

assignments have all been recalled, unless the mission was an

 

emergency. All starships are to exercise wartime procedures with

 

immediate effect.

 

"Number one, see that the civilians start packing. All

 

non-military families will be dropped off at the first available

 

opportunity. Have the ship's computer override replicator programming.

 

Only military rations are to be served from now on. See that all ship

 

functions are trimmed to ensure that the ship can reach maximum

 

independence from resupply and restocking efforts. Prepare to have

 

non-essential cargoes transmutated into their base elements with

 

immediate effect, and have a team of technicians start manufacturing

 

additional photon torpedoes."

 

"Yes, sir." Riker answered, grimfaced. The industrial

 

replicators used for ship maintenance would be busy for days, firstly

 

breaking down the cargoes to their base elements or minerals, then

 

using that stock to manufacture the parts needed to assemble

 

additional photon torpedoes. Wartime regulations required a minimum

 

stock level of five hundred torpedoes, and with the current cargoes

 

transmutated, the Enterprise could probably build up a supply of close

 

to a thousand torpedoes depending on the volume of the necessary

 

minerals and elements they could extract out of the broken down

 

cargoes.

 

"All communications equipment from now on will be used only

 

for military purposes, and all ship to ship messages will be coded.

 

Hand-phasers are to be fully charged, and any dereliction of duties

 

will be severely punished. This ship is at now at war." Picard

 

finished.

 

"How long before Defiant reaches 137?" He asked.

 

"Two hours, fourteen minutes. Sir." Data answered.

 

Picard took his seat. He had no intention of going back to

 

sleep now. He unfolded his padd and called up the files relating to

 

wartime procedures. He knew too well the content of these folders, and

 

had hoped never to have to implement them again. But he had seen for

 

himself the devastation and wanton destruction at Bengu. There was

 

obviously a new player in this quadrant, and they wanted to play

 

hardball, as his one-time friend Cisko would have said. Well, Picard

 

could play hardball as well.

 

"Sir. Defiant would have reached 137 by now," Data interrupted

 

him. "We are well within direct sub-space range for ship to ship

 

communications, and are now eighteen hours away from 137."

 

"Thank you Mr Data. See if you can raise the Defiant."

 

Seconds later the grim face of Worf appeared on the

 

view-screen. The Klingon looked more grim than usual as well.

 

"Captain Picard." He started, "I am honoured to have the

 

opportunity to speak with you again. I wish the circumstances could

 

have been better. We have only just arrived. I will transmit all scans

 

directly to you as we take them." He nodded to somebody off picture.

 

"Receiving scanner data." Communications confirmed.

 

On the screen, the planet that had been home to colony 137

 

appeared. The planet looked quite normal at first. Then Picard noticed

 

the readings on the side of the screen.

 

"Commander Worf," he asked, "is that correct, the area in

 

which the colony is located. It is being covered by a shield extending

 

for five hundred kilometres in all directions, and the shield is above

 

the atmosphere?"

 

"Yes. It appears that whoever has taken the colony has

 

installed shielding equipment that has generated a shield which

 

projects above the atmosphere, and covers the entire region which has

 

been colonised. The shield is exceptionally strong and dense enough

 

even to prevent us from scanning through to the planetary surface. The

 

shield is interfering even with passive electromagnetic radiation,

 

these are the best pictures our telescopes have been able to obtain."

 

On the view-screen, a grainy video played, showing the fertile

 

network of river valleys in which the colony was based. Clusters of

 

buildings could clearly be seen, the villages through which the

 

farming community was distributed. A number of symbols were

 

superimposed on the video. Picard recognised symbols denoting weapons

 

emplacements on all the highest points overlooking the valley and

 

surrounding areas. All ground approaches to the valleys were also

 

covered by weapons placements.

 

"The weapons emplacements were recognised due to the higher

 

energy readings from those areas, as well as the fact that they are

 

all protected by ground-based shields. The major shield is ample

 

defence against orbital bombardment, and shielded weapons points

 

heavily defend all ground approaches. It is logical to assume that the

 

ground-based weapons are capable of anti-air fire as well. The only

 

way to take back the colony will be through a ground assault, and the

 

casualties will be severe. Whoever this enemy is, they know what they

 

are doing, and have been very busy for the last three days.

 

"I am compiling all this information into a report, and will shortly

 

transmit the report to Starfleet command. Do you have any further

 

suggestions?"

 

"None. We are due to arrive within the next eighteen hours. The

 

Stalwart and the Gallant are close behind. Do you have any other

 

duties?"

 

"The station DS9 is capable of defending itself for now. We will

 

remain here and observe what we can. Our observations will be

 

forwarded to you as we get them."

 

"Thank you, commander."

 

Picard and the recently returned Riker pored over the incoming

 

sensory information. Data joined them at Picard's request. Between the

 

three of them they were able to construct a detailed map of the

 

colony, the defensive points the unknown enemy had established, and

 

were attempting to find a weak point in the extensive defences. Data

 

suggested that the Defiant attempt to enter the atmosphere at a

 

distant point, then fly in under the shield. Alternately, they could

 

fire at the shield to attempt to determine the strength of the shield.

 

Picard relayed these suggestions to Worf, but requested him to wait

 

until the Enterprise was on the scene to provide assistance if

 

necessary.

 

By the time the Enterprise arrived in the system, news had

 

come through of yet more small undefended colonies having lost

 

contact. The enemy was apparently conducting attacks on colonies that

 

were small, concentrated in one place on the planet, and with no

 

starship support in close attendance. It was obvious that they had

 

good scouting information, were able to travel to any point in

 

federation space without being detected, and were giving themselves an

 

opportunity to establish planetary defences. The fact that they knew

 

where there were concentrations of federation starships was not

 

unusual, as anyone with reasonable tracking equipment could identify

 

the distortion fields of warp ships at ranges of one light year or

 

more, and their enemy had obviously been observing them for more than

 

a few weeks. The Bengu incident was now six weeks old.

 

In total, the enemy had taken control of seven colonies, in

 

widely disparate parts of federation space. With Starfleet committed

 

to defending their borders against at least three significant enemy

 

forces, including the Romulans, they couldn't spare enough ships to

 

defend every single colony in the federation. At least two of the

 

colonies were major suppliers of nutrients, and one was an especially

 

rich mining community. The colonies were not crucial to starfleet

 

needs, but over a period of time their loss would be noticed.

 

 

 

 

 

Picard was the senior captain on the scene, notwithstanding

 

the powers he had been given to search for the alien invaders, and all

 

decision were deferred to him. Whoever the aliens on the surface were,

 

they had not responded to any of the varied means of communication

 

attempted. Now, everyone watched anxiously as a computer controlled

 

shuttle descended into the atmosphere well away from the shielded

 

area. The shuttle dropped a few sub-space transmitters along it's

 

flight path, so that a communications path could be maintained even

 

were it to go under the shield. As the shuttle approached the edge of

 

the shield, its sensors could determine that the shield did indeed

 

curve down into the atmosphere, but that it's density was not very

 

high in this region. The shuttle approached the weaker shield wall

 

very slowly. It shuddered as it collided with the shield, then just as

 

it appeared to be able to squeeze through, it was violently rocked as

 

it collided with a stronger point in the shield. The shuttle literally

 

bounced backwards off the shield.

 

"A smaller vessel might penetrate that shield, and a man on

 

foot definitely will." Data announced.

 

"Recall the shuttle, send a two man runabout." Picard ordered.

 

The runabout followed the same path the shuttle had used, and

 

slowly approached the shield wall. The shield points rocked the

 

runabout a bit, then it squeezed through into unshielded space.

 

Apparently the shield was not a continuous barrier, like federation

 

shields, but a projected barrier. The signal from the runabout was

 

still strong. Picard ordered it in further. The runabout cautiously

 

approached the vicinity of the colony, flying around it in ever

 

smaller circles, although the colony was still below it's horizon. The

 

runabout eventually came within line of sight of the hills surrounding

 

the colony. Picard and his crew were intently watching the pictures

 

being transmitted by the runabout, when the picture shuddered and

 

turned to static.

 

"They shot it down." Data said unnecessarily.

 

"Did you get it on the sensors?" Picard asked.

 

"On screen."

 

The static cleared from the forward view-screen, to be

 

replaced by an aerial shot of the shuttle. A number of blue flashes

 

streaked across the screen, from two separate hills close to the

 

colony. The shuttle was rocked visibly, and before it could take

 

evasive action, detonated in a violent explosion. The falling wreckage

 

attracted a few more shots as it fell to the ground.

 

"Weapon type? Power output?"

 

"Pulsed lasers, more powerful than any lasers we have seen

 

before, enhanced by energised particles."

 

"But those laser rocked the shuttle, and there was a

 

perceptible time lag as they traversed the screen, that's not how a

 

laser behaves?"

 

"The lasers were invisible," Data added, "What we saw was the

 

effect of the energised particle weapon. The runabouts shields report

 

being hit by a powerful beam of monochromatic light which caused

 

significant shield degradation, and a few hundredths of a second

 

later, the energised particles impacted. The runabout did not have an

 

opportunity to take evasive action. The weapons were also observed to

 

have a very high rate of fire, about three pulses per second for each

 

weapon. The runabout was hit by ten pulses out of twelve fired at it,

 

at a range of eighteen kilometres, with an accuracy of eighty three

 

point three percent."

 

"Send in another runabout, this time with a cloaking

 

mechanism, and have it fly in an evasive pattern." Picard ordered.

 

The cloaked runabout penetrated to eleven kilometres before

 

being detected, and was shot down at a range of nine point five

 

kilometres, despite employing evasive manoeuvres which would have

 

crushed any crew members despite the limited inertial dampening a

 

runabout could provide. The runabout was hit with fifty one percent

 

accuracy. The means of detection was unknown, but Data was not

 

surprised. In atmospheric conditions a cloaked vessel could be

 

detected by it's drive emissions, the motion of air around it, even

 

it's mass shadow assuming the aliens had sensitive enough mass

 

detectors. The runabout had not engaged it's active sensors, which

 

would have given it away anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

"Sir, the four Klingon Birds of Prey have arrived."

 

The Gallant and Stalwart had arrived in the meanwhile, and had

 

observed the tests being conducted. The next test was to determine the

 

planetary shield's strength through a combined firing of torpedoes and

 

phasers.

 

"My compliments to their captains'," Picard replied, "request

 

them to co-ordinate their weapons firing with ours to see if we can

 

knock this shield down."

 

"Sir, they have agreed to the test, and have also transmitted

 

a coded message, for your personal attention. The computer cannot

 

decode the message, apparently only you will be able to, with the

 

assistance of Captain Zorn."

 

Picard raised his eyebrows. "On-screen."

 

Zorn insisted on giving the release codes only once Picard had

 

assured him that the message was safely on his personal padd, and that

 

nobody except himself would be able to read it. Once the message was

 

decoded, Picard glanced up at Zorn. The Klingon's face was impassive.

 

Picard re-read the message, slowly.

 

"Mr Data, directional beam communications with Captain Zorn's

 

ship. Make sure nobody can intercept the beam, manoeuvre if you have

 

to."

 

Data acknowledged. If he was surprised or interested, he gave

 

no indication. Zorn's face flickered on the view-screen as the

 

sub-space link was severed, and the directional beam engaged. Picard

 

glanced questioningly at Data.

 

"Only captain Zorn's ship can intercept the beam. Nobody else

 

can listen in."

 

"Clear the bridge. Riker, Data and Troi, you stay."

 

A few of the crew looked questioningly at him, but left the

 

bridge. On the view-screen, Captain Zorn nodded his approval.

 

"You know the contents of this message?" Picard asked.

 

"I believe so." Zorn confirmed.

 

"How many in the federation could know?"

 

"Only yourself, we hope."

 

"You hope?"

 

The Klingon grimaced, "Federation Intelligence has many ears,

 

but we are reasonably sure they have no knowledge of this."

 

Picard returned the smile, "I will meet your uncle at the

 

co-ordinates specified."

 

He signalled to Data, and the conversation was ended. Picard

 

handed the padd to Riker, who read it aloud for the benefit of Troi.

 

Data had glanced at the padd in the process, and no doubt read the

 

message. The Klingons thought they had a lead on the alien humans, and

 

had apparently established contact with some of them. Admiral Zorn

 

wished for Picard to meet them as well.

 

"Counsellor? What did you make of Zorn?"

 

"He was sincere. I felt no hint of subversion in him. If this

 

is a trap, then he at least is an innocent participant."

 

"I agree with your assessment. Recall the bridge crew. We will

 

finish our assessment of the alien defences."

 

 

 

If the captain's of the Stalwart or the Gallant had realised

 

what had happened on the Enterprise in the last few minutes, they gave

 

no sign. Picard arranged for the ships to hold their fire at first. He

 

fired a single low power phaser blast directly at the planetary

 

shield. When he observed no appreciable effect, he gradually increased

 

power, until the phaser was at maximum power. He had no intention of

 

firing a full barrage at the planet without first proving the

 

capability of the shield to withstand such punishment. There were two

 

million colonists below, if they were still alive, and he did not want

 

to accidentally kill anyone. He tried the same with photon torpedoes.

 

All to no effect.

 

Eventually, the entire fleet of four federation starships and

 

four Klingon starships unleashed their combined firepower on the

 

shield below. When the barrage ceased, Picard glanced questioningly at

 

Data.

 

"I have located the shield generator. It is the huge structure

 

here," he indicated a building on the map of the colony, "and it is

 

fed by a bank of reactors here," he indicated a row of nearby

 

buildings. "The shield depreciated measurably under the sustained

 

fire, but regenerated immediately once the firing stopped. The rate of

 

degeneration indicated that the shield would be reduced to zero in

 

eight days and twelve hours. It is more likely though that the

 

reactors or shield generator would fail before this time has elapsed,

 

but it would be difficult to predict exactly when. If the shield were

 

to collapse unexpectedly, the colony might suffer immense damage

 

before we could cease firing.

 

"We would exhaust or torpedo supplies, and run our phaser

 

banks dry well before significant degradation occurred however. It may

 

also be possible to fire at an unprotected part of the planet,

 

preferably a major fault line. The resultant seismic shock waves could

 

possibly destroy either the reactors or the shield generator, but

 

would also cause immense damage to the rest of the colony."

 

"Compile all data and transmit it to starfleet command.

 

Initiate a captain's conference on screen."

 

Very shortly, all seven captain's of the other vessels were on

 

screen, the four Klingon's, Worf, and the captains of the starships

 

Stalwart and the Gallant.

 

"Most likely this planet was chosen as a source of nutrients

 

for the aliens. That implies that they must return here sometime.

 

Stalwart and Gallant, along with two of the Klingon vessels will

 

remain here and blockade the planet. The Enterprise and the remaining

 

two Klingon vessels will conduct a scouting mission through the

 

neighbouring systems. Commander Worf, I take it you will return to

 

DS9?"

 

"No. The Defiant has been cleared to assist in the tracking

 

down of the invaders. We are at your disposal."

 

"Very well, you will accompany us on the scouting mission. Any

 

questions, anyone?"

 

There were none. The Enterprise engaged it's warp drive, and

 

streaked out of the system. The Defiant and two Klingon vessels

 

followed. Behind them, the four remaining ships took up station. The

 

Stalwart remained in position directly above the colony, while the

 

Gallant took up station on the far side of the planet. One of the

 

Klingon vessels landed on a moon of a remote planet in the system, and

 

the second took up station well outside the system, in interstellar

 

space, where it lay silently, listening to the stars.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four hours later, in a nearby star system, the Enterprise

 

disengaged it's warp engines. The Klingon vessels and the Defiant took

 

up station nearby. Once again, Picard ordered a captain's conference,

 

low-powered directional beam only.

 

"Captain Zorn. We will continue on to the rendezvous point

 

shortly. I wish your two ships to remain in close formation to the

 

Enterprise, so that we may disguise the Defiant, which will shortly

 

activate a cloaking mechanism.

 

"Commander Worf, I would like you to remain cloaked from now

 

on. You are not to do anything which may betray your presence, no

 

matter what you observe, unless the Enterprise comes under a direct

 

sustained attack which we cannot deal with ourselves, is that clear?"

 

"It is clear. But I do not understand."

 

"You will understand soon enough. Captain Zorn, are you in

 

agreement with this tactic? It will not compromise our position?"

 

"I am in agreement with the tactic. This mission is a risk to

 

myself as well, as I am only acting on instructions received from a

 

third party. I have not had direct contact with my uncle. You may not

 

know this, although I suppose it will be revealed soon, but my uncle

 

has been in command of Klingon expansion on the far side of the

 

Klingon territories, in direct opposition to Romulan expansion in that

 

area. The sub-space message my uncle sent to me was passed through

 

channels my uncle believes to be secure from eavesdropping by

 

Federation Intelligence, across a distance of some nine thousand light

 

years."

 

"Nine thousand light years?" Picard was incredulous, "I had no

 

idea Klingon influence extended so far."

 

"And neither do the rest of the Federation. This expansion has

 

been necessary to avoid being surrounded by the Romulans."

 

"I understand much of the politics of the last seventy years

 

now," Picard stated, "The Klingon empire could not afford a war with

 

the federation AND continue expanding to counter the Romulans."

 

"Exactly, but it has gone further than that now, the fates of

 

the Klingon and Human empires are tied. In the last seventy years,

 

many Klingon have grown to respect humans, as have many humans come to

 

respect Klingon. Trade and mutual defence agreements have expanded to

 

the point where there is even much intermarrying between Klingon and

 

Human, and a war between us would see many influential families on

 

both sides being torn apart.

 

"The continued support of the federation, whether actively or

 

subliminally, is essential to our survival in the face of Romulan

 

expansion, not to mention the Borg and many other enemies whom we may

 

yet encounter, such as these strange humans who now seek to destroy

 

us."

 

"I see your point. I now also understand the actions of your

 

uncle. Let us proceed to the rendezvous point. Worf, you may activate

 

the cloaking shield." Picard finished.

 

The Defiant wrinkled into nothingness. The Enterprise warped

 

out of the system, the two Klingon ships completing a triangle in

 

formation with the Enterprise. At the heart of the triangle, the

 

Defiant sped along, invisible to any observers.

 

It was known that there were 'listening posts' scattered throughout

 

federation space, which tracked all warp drives, constantly on the

 

look out for invaders. These listening posts could track a warp drive

 

at a range of several light years. While their exact positions were a

 

carefully guarded secret, they could not hope to cover the entire

 

sphere of federation space. No enemy of the federation was able to

 

sneak through the gaps if they did not know where the gaps were. The

 

sensitivity of these devices were not known, although undoubtedly they

 

listened to sub-space transmissions as well, and could possibly track

 

impulse emissions as well, or scan for hull metals. The rendezvous

 

point the Enterprise was heading for was outside federation space, and

 

hopefully beyond the range of these tracking devices.

 

Four days later, the Enterprise led the formation into a star

 

system that had probably only ever warranted minor inspection. Any

 

planets this system had at one time sported had either been swallowed

 

up by the huge star, or captured and added to the collection of moons

 

orbiting the one huge gas-giant. A quick scan of the system by the

 

Enterprise yielded nothing. A second longer scan of the system

 

revealed strange metallic readings from one of the moons. Data

 

conducted an active sensor focus on the moon, and identified the

 

metals as Klingon hull metal. Seconds later, the Klingon warship

 

separated itself from the moon, and vectored towards the formation of

 

three ships that had entered the system.

 

A quick exchange between Zorn and the new ship resulted in a

 

sub-space coded message being transmitted on a frequency that couldn't

 

hope to transverse more than five or six light years. A few minutes

 

later, the Enterprise detected four Klingon ships coming in at high

 

warp speeds. The Klingons were obviously not taking any chances on

 

this meeting. Picard was beginning to wonder just how many warships

 

the Klingons had and had managed to keep secret from the federation.

 

He was glad that he had the Defiant for support. Zorn had apparently

 

made no attempt to reveal the presence of the Defiant.

 

An hour later the Klingon ships had arrived, after conducting a sweep

 

around the system. They obviously wanted no witnesses to what would

 

happen next. What happened next took Picard's breath away. Less than

 

fifty thousand kilometres away a huge ship flashed into existence.

 

There had been no warning of it's arrival. Six more huge ships flashed

 

into existence, at points designed to surround the Enterprise on all

 

sides in space. Two of the six ships were at least fourteen hundred

 

metres long, not as big as the first one, which was an almighty two

 

thousand metres long. The four remaining ships were closer to the size

 

of the Enterprise itself, at about six hundred metres long. All of

 

them fairly bristled with weaponry, ranging from about 150 weapons

 

emplacements on the small ships to in excess of four hundred huge

 

weapons on the largest vessel, and several hundred smaller weapons

 

points.

 

Weaving in and out of these huge ships were several tiny one-man

 

craft, barely registering on the Enterprises systems when they cut

 

their impulse engines. Further out, they could detect drive emissions

 

of close to a hundred tiny one-man craft. Once these craft cut their

 

engines as well, they were all but undetectable. If the Enterprise had

 

not been looking for them with a sensor sweep, they would have

 

remained undetectable, small as they were.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antilles had been frustrated at the delays. The Klingons used

 

an arcane communications system which took two full days to transmit a

 

message over only a few thousand light years. The Peacemaker could

 

almost have jumped there and back in the same time. The only thing

 

which had kept his patience in check was the understanding of the

 

sensitive political situation in the area. They had then had to wait

 

an extra twelve days for the Klingon warships to get in touch with

 

their federation contacts and bring their federation contact to a

 

meeting place in deep space.

 

Antilles had used this time to send the two Liberator cruisers

 

Freedom Fighter and Deliverance ahead. Between them, they had close to

 

a hundred star fighters (four squadrons each), and they had spent ten

 

days patrolling the area. The fast starfighters could survey dozens of

 

stars each in one four hour patrol, and in the ten days the Liberators

 

had managed to map out a sphere of space that extended well into

 

Federation, Cardassian and Romulan territories, several hundred light

 

years away. There was still no trace of the imperials though, despite

 

Admiral Zorn's news of the attacks on federation colony worlds.

 

When the Federation ship had finally arrived with it's two

 

escorts, the Klingons had first made sure the area was 'clean', then

 

given them the go-ahead to jump into the system. Antilles was taking

 

no chances, and ordered the two Liberators and their frigate escorts

 

to prevent any escape attempt by the Federation ship. On the

 

holographic display, the results of the sensor focus on the Federation

 

ship revealed an elegant vessel. It's design hardly appeared to be

 

that of a warship, with it's over-exposed engines, and only a handful

 

of weapons emplacements. Otherwise it appeared similar to the Klingon

 

vessels, with their warp drives, phased beam weapons, and torpedo

 

launch tubes.

 

The Federation vessel did have a nice modular design though.

 

He imagined the disc section could be detached, as could the engine

 

modules. This would allow quick engine replacements, as new ones could

 

just be tagged on in place of the old ones, or a new disc section

 

added to the central column, which he had been informed was the

 

command module. Maybe the design philosophy was not that bad after

 

all. Antilles couldn't imagine how an engine replacement would be done

 

on one of his ships. The entire hull would have to be carved away.

 

Admiral Zorn stood at his left, and the other Klingons who

 

made up Zorn's staff stood behind his command chair. He felt slightly

 

uncomfortable with all these aliens of dubious friendliness around

 

him. He glanced at Jedi Dacron on his right, who nodded reassuringly.

 

The Jedi had agreed with his assessment of the honour system of the

 

Klingons. He tried to think of them as a bunch of wookies, and that

 

made him feel somewhat better.

 

"Open a channel to the Federation vessel. Make sure it's two

 

dimensional, the same coding as the Klingons use."

 

"View-screen three." The signals officer answered.

 

The first human face that Antilles had seen in months besides

 

that of his men appeared. He didn't count the four years in carbon

 

freeze. The man was bald, and obviously getting on in years, a bit old

 

for a captain, Antilles thought. There were few captains that old in

 

the New Republic navy, men and women of that age usually went into

 

business for themselves if they hadn't made admiral of a small fleet

 

yet.

 

"Greetings, I am captain Antilles of the New Republic Ship

 

Peacemaker." He introduced himself.

 

"Picard." The old man stated. He waited for Antilles to

 

continue.

 

"My mission to this region of the galaxy is to find a group of

 

renegades, and destroy them if possible. Admiral Zorn here has

 

suggested the men whom I seek may be the same ones who attacked your

 

Federation. I am greatly aggrieved at the loss of life Admiral Zorn

 

has reported. Even were these men not the ones I seek, I would be

 

happy to assist you in your hunt for them."

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the Jedi nod

 

approvingly.

 

"Perhaps you could tell me about these renegades you seek?"

 

Picard pushed.

 

Antilles could see that this Picard was not keen to give out

 

information, and after all he was the one who was looking for help in

 

finding the imperials. Picard was probably eager to get back to the

 

defence of his people. If Antilles were not so certain that they

 

sought the same enemy he would have been loathe to continue the

 

discussion.

 

"The renegades I seek are the remnants of an empire crushed in

 

a decades long war fought by my people. Our fear is that they intend

 

using this region as a launch pad for the continuation of their

 

tyranny, and perhaps even as a future launch-pad for attacks against

 

us. We suspect they have the knowledge, if not perhaps the resources,

 

to build weapons of immense destruction, weapons my people would not

 

rather see used ever again. I will transmit pictures of their ship

 

types to you, with a description of the weapons capability."

 

He glanced at the signals officer, who indicated his

 

readiness.

 

"This first picture is that of an Imperial Star Destroyer Mark

 

1, it has six large turbolaser batteries, sixty medium sized

 

turbolaser batteries, and a similar number of medium powered ion

 

cannons, as well as one hundred and fifty point-defence laser cannons.

 

It carries six squadrons of tie fighters, several missile gunboats and

 

assault shuttles, and over nine thousand heavily armed ground assault

 

troops with mobile artillery, armoured and shielded all-terrain

 

vehicles and various equipment to subdue planetary populations and to

 

establish planet-side bases. The renegades have between five and eight

 

of these star destroyers according to our information."

 

On the screen, the bald federation officer had paled visibly.

 

Antilles continued.

 

"This ship looks nearly identical, but is in fact very

 

slightly larger. It is an Imperial Star Destroyer Mark 2, which has at

 

least double the firepower of the mark 1, and also carries six

 

squadrons of tie fighters, and the same number of troops. We believe

 

the renegades have two, possibly three of this class of ship."

 

The federation starship captain had sat back in his chair. He

 

waved for Antilles to continue.

 

"On the screen now is a ship called a dreadnought. It used to

 

be the flagship of the Old Republic navy, but is now several decades

 

old. It carries no troops or fighters, and serves merely as a support

 

vessel to the Star Destroyers, they have about twenty five medium

 

strength turbolaser batteries and moderately powered shields. The

 

renegades would have between five and eight of these as well."

 

"Can you tell me what strategies they would have employed,"

 

Picard asked, "in terms of establishing a base of operations firstly,

 

and then how would they go about subduing a planetary population or

 

defending any planets they have taken? Also, how fast are these ships,

 

and what is their operating range?"

 

Good questions all, Antilles had to admit. Maybe this old man

 

was not too bad an ally to have.

 

"We suspect they would have arrived in this sector of the

 

galaxy between four and six months ago. Their first goal would have

 

been to scout for a deserted region of the galaxy in which to

 

establish their mining and manufacturing centre. They would have been

 

short of supplies after their trip here, so it is not unlikely that

 

they would have raided for the necessary supplies.

 

"Their strategy for planetary take-over would be orbital bombardment,

 

followed by ground assault with heavy armour and troops. They would

 

most likely execute anyone who showed any signs of resistance.

 

Planetary defence would consist of installing a network of planetary

 

shields to prevent orbital bombardment, the installation of the

 

necessary fusion reactors to power the shields, and the placement of

 

hardened defence points on all high ground areas surrounding their

 

garrisons. A garrison of a few hundred stormtroopers could hold a city

 

or two against orbital invasion, unless you were prepared to take

 

heavy losses in recovering the planet.

 

"Each star destroyer can operate independently for two to four years

 

depending on operational requirements. Hyperdrive speeds vary from

 

sixty light years per hour to two hundred and fifty light years per

 

hour depending on the ship class. Most ships average one hundred and

 

twenty seven light years per hour."

 

Admiral Zorn swore loudly besides Antilles. The federation captain

 

glanced to one side. Immediately Jedi Dacron tensed, concentrating

 

hard.

 

'They have a telepath on board.' Antilles heard in his head. He

 

glanced sharply at the Jedi, who was standing still, his eyes closed.

 

'I have blocked her attempts to read your mind.'

 

"Captain Picard, please ask your telepath to stop trying to read my

 

mind. While I understand your position, I am not prepared to accede to

 

such an invasion, especially uninvited." Antilles warned.

 

Picard waved to somebody off-screen. Alongside Antilles the Jedi

 

relaxed.

 

"At such speeds," Picard asked, as if nothing had happened, "you

 

could have crossed the entire galaxy in less than two months. Why did

 

you take so long to get here? If these renegades got here in less than

 

a few months, why would they be low on supplies if they can operate

 

for years at a time?"

 

Antilles sighed. This had been inevitable. "The journey here took a

 

little more than four years. We come from another galaxy."

 

There was a long hesitation.

 

"These renegades you described, the ships and weapons you

 

describe, match our invaders perfectly. I am certain that we are

 

fighting the same people." Picard stated. "Commander Worf, you may

 

reveal yourself."

 

In the centre of the triangular formation formed by the

 

Enterprise and it's two Klingon escorts, another Federation starship

 

appeared. It was much smaller than the Enterprise, but had several

 

more weapons emplacements. Antilles smiled thinly. Nestled between the

 

other ships it would have been difficult to detect, cloaked or not,

 

unless its commander had done something stupid, like light up an ion

 

drive.

 

"Perhaps you will be prepared to join us for a meal, and to

 

discuss strategies?" Antilles asked. "I will send a shuttle over, and

 

Admiral Zorn will vouch for your safety."

 

The huge Klingon nodded his agreement.

 

"These people's religion forbids them from using

 

transporters." He said to Picard, and roared loudly. He slapped the

 

Jedi on the back, a blow that would have felled an ordinary man, or at

 

least caused him to stagger. The Jedi didn't budge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picard, Riker, Troi, Worf and Data were in a shuttle heading

 

towards the alien battleship. The size of the battleship was becoming

 

more apparent as they got closer, and they could make out more detail.

 

From a distance the hull had looked smooth to the naked eye. Now, as

 

they approached, they could see it was pockmarked with weapons

 

blisters, and turrets. Between the blisters, tiny shapes could be seen

 

scurrying around. Picard squinted his eyes, but before he could make

 

out what they were, Data informed him.

 

"Robots. They have dozens of robots continuously combing the

 

hulls, doing minor repairs, or just simple hull inspections. Most

 

likely those robots would be extremely useful in battles, repairing

 

minor hull damage as it occurs."

 

Picard looked around the shuttle again. The shuttle-pilot was

 

a huge creature, halfway between a bear and an ape, its long arms

 

snaking over the controls with skill and grace. He had no doubt those

 

arms were as powerful as they were graceful. Except for the odd long

 

hair shed by the pilot, the cockpit area was spartan and utilitarian,

 

like federation shuttles, but the rest of the interior of the shuttle

 

was tastefully decorated in light colours, and the seats were soft and

 

comfortable. It gave the impression of being more a millionaire's

 

private yacht than a military vessel.

 

The shuttle slipped into a landing bay, and came to rest with

 

a distant thud. A hatch hissed open quietly, forming a ramp down to

 

the deck. Picard led the group out of the shuttle, into a huge room.

 

The ceiling was easily thirty metres or more away, the room stretching

 

away for more than a hundred metres before them. The distant walls

 

were lined with sleek looking one-man craft reminiscent of the old

 

atmospheric fighters of the twenty first century. The group of humans

 

looked small and insignificant in the warehouse sized landing bay.

 

Picard noticed several robotic figures scurrying between the fighters.

 

A huge gantry arm swung over one fighter, and raised the fighter into

 

the air with some sort of force field, it placed the fighter onto a

 

lift, which raised the fighter to a different level, probably another

 

maintenance area or a launch bay.

 

A tall young man, barely into his thirties apparently, stepped

 

forward and held out his hand. Picard took it. The young man led the

 

federation officers past the shuttle they had exited. A double row of

 

soldiers stood at attention, as if on parade. The young captain led

 

Picard's group past them with barely an acknowledgement of the

 

soldiers. Picard was not one for ceremony either, but glanced over the

 

soldiers anyway. They were wearing a simple grey and black uniform,

 

with a utility belt to which various devices were attached. They wore

 

helmets which looked a bit thicker than necessary, but otherwise

 

normal. The soldiers all held an ugly black rifle type weapon, and

 

wore a small sidearm on their hip as well.

 

Once out of the bustle of the huge landing bay, Picard noticed

 

once again the luxury surrounding them. Carpeted hallways,

 

view-screens lining the walls, soft lighting, various decorations

 

displayed along the passageways. Unfamiliar aliens and robots of all

 

shapes and descriptions were going about their business in the

 

hallway. Antilles led them though this without a glance. Picard

 

noticed that the crew was mostly human, but several crew-members were

 

of species he had never seen before.

 

Antilles led them into a large turbo-lift. There was hardly

 

any sensation of movement, and seconds later they doors snapped open.

 

They stepped out into what appeared to be a large conference room. In

 

one corner a heavily jowled alien was playing what looked like

 

holographic chess with a Klingon. Seated around the large conference

 

table were a number of humans, Klingons, and yet more unidentified

 

alien species. The table was covered with a variety of multi-coloured

 

dishes, which seemed to be dispensed by more of the ubiquitous robots.

 

Here was a society of almost unlimited wealth and opulence

 

apparently, walking the line between decadence and militaristic

 

efficiency. He recalled what Antilles had said about decades of war,

 

that they were from another galaxy, and also the total integration of

 

human and alien around him. These people obviously had a history much

 

longer than the federation, had expanded through and settled their

 

entire galaxy, had had lots of time to develop their religion and

 

culture, and had fought wars that raged across an entire galaxy for

 

decades.

 

Around him could be heard the sounds of several distinct alien

 

languages, underlain by soft ambient music with no particular cultural

 

overtones, but rather a general combination of several distinctly

 

different sounds. Antilles showed them to chairs around the conference

 

table.

 

"You know Admiral Zorn, I take it. This is the Jedi Knight

 

Treb Dacron, my first officer, Commander Nerak, General Denel, and our

 

chief of special forces, Colonel Khabarakh, Captain Sulman of the

 

cruiser Freedom Fighter, and Captain Seleb Seyud of the cruiser

 

Deliverance. Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Picard of the Federation

 

Starship Enterprise."

 

"Delighted." Picard said, nodding to the assembly of aliens

 

and human. He looked anything but delighted.

 

"My first officer, Commander Wil Riker, Counsellor Deanna

 

Troi, my navigator, Mr Data, and Commander Worf of the Defiant."

 

"Please, be seated." Antilles said. "I am afraid to say that

 

my impatience has got the better of my manners, and I am inclined to

 

begin discussing how we may be of assistance to each other sooner

 

rather than later. The droids will see to your refreshment needs, but

 

if you don't mind, I would like to begin our discussion right away."

 

"I quite agree," Picard said.

 

 

 

 

 

Later, the table had been cleared, the view-screens around the

 

conference room were fully occupied with tactical displays, and the

 

conference table itself was the dais for a large holographic display

 

of federation space. Every minute or two, some part of the hologram

 

would flicker, as returning fighters added to the data store,

 

resulting in an update of the displays. Picard had also eventually

 

agreed to provide a data link to the Enterprise's computers, to

 

complete the picture of what was happening in federation space. Nine

 

of the close to two hundred federation worlds were highlighted in

 

green to denote imperial attacks. Blue blips indicated the presence of

 

observed federation starships, and red blips indicated the disposition

 

of Republic forces.

 

The red blips flashed with disconcerting speed from one system

 

to another, as the Republic fighters jumped around gathering

 

information. The hundred or more tiny ships were capable of travelling

 

from one system to another in a matter of minutes, hardly ever

 

disappearing for more than two minutes before popping up in another

 

system. Without warp drives, and given that they were using minimal

 

impulse power, and that the fighters were so tiny, Picard knew that

 

only the more sensitive military sensor nets would detect them, and

 

even then they could jump away before any real response could be

 

initiated.

 

"Our priority," Picard was saying, "is to rescue our

 

colonists, and prevent further attacks on federation worlds."

 

Antilles responded. "Given the slow rate at which the

 

imperials are taking systems, and the nature of the systems they are

 

taking, we can make the following deductions. They are taking control

 

of worlds which they hope to use as a resource base, and choosing them

 

on their capability to defend the worlds. They are looking for small

 

concentrated populations, which are easy to control. The fact that

 

they are taking roughly one system a week implies that their

 

manufacturing base is only able to build one shield generator with

 

it's accompanying reactors per week.

 

"They are obviously not prepared to take planets which will

 

require the deployment of multiple shield generators, nor do they want

 

a direct confrontation with your fleet at this stage. That is most

 

likely because they are still short on supplies, and would not be able

 

to repair any ships that suffered serious damage. Their most serious

 

handicap is the lack of an orbital shipyard.

 

"Your navy's best strategy would be to blockade any world the

 

imperials have taken, forcing them to break the blockade if they want

 

the supplies. The next step is to find their manufacturing centre, and

 

destroy it, which will prevent them from manufacturing further shield

 

generators. They don't have enough resources to defend a planet

 

without shield generators, and won't take a planet they can't afford

 

to hold."

 

"Why do they need our worlds in the first place?" Riker asked.

 

"Ready made resources, readily available labour in the form of

 

your colonists, not to mention a future source of recruits in your

 

colonists, as well as whatever manufacturing facilities your colonists

 

had available." Antilles answered.

 

"Why our colonies? Why not Klingon or Romulan colonies? Or the

 

Cardassians?"

 

Antilles glanced around the table somewhat sheepishly.

 

"The imperials are particularly xenophobic. They are very

 

pro-human, and would not lower themselves to deal with non-humans

 

unless they need them for slave labour. When the imperials took brief

 

control of the galaxy, humans were granted automatic citizenship, and

 

non-humans were reduced to little more than slave labour at the best."

 

"Do they think our colonists will enlist with them?" Riker

 

asked incredulously.

 

"Maybe. More likely they will rely on psychological

 

manipulation. I don't know about your society, but where I come from

 

there are many humans who would conform pretty easily to that type of

 

conditioning. Xenophobia, cruelty, ruthlessness and militaristic power

 

are things which appeal to people who suffer from fear, hatred, anger,

 

frustration and many more of the baser human instincts. It is also

 

easy to use non-human species as a focus for these fears."

 

"Yes, it is a problem even in our society," Picard said, "and

 

certainly there are people who would exploit such power given the

 

opportunity. That is also why you cannot enter federation space. There

 

are those who would merely see you as another threat, or at best,

 

something to be exploited. The best thing you can do for us Captain

 

Antilles is to find and destroy the Imperials' manufacturing

 

facilities."

 

"I am quite prepared to risk an attack by your compatriots if

 

it means destroying the imperials. Not to mention, that I am under

 

specific orders to see that imperial technology does not fall into

 

foreign hands." Antilles stated.

 

"I understand the importance of your orders, but if you were

 

to fire on any federation vessel, I would be forced to defend that

 

vessel." Picard declared.

 

"Let us hope that it does not come to that. However, it will

 

be next to impossible to find the imperial manufacturing facility. The

 

sheer volume of space out there that needs to be searched is against

 

us. What I would like to do is have the opportunity to place a

 

tracking device on one of their ships. The most likely way I can do

 

that is to engage them in battle, over one of your colonies."

 

"I think I can arrange that." Picard said. "It will be risky,

 

for myself and the Klingons, since it may be construed that we were

 

conspiring with the enemy. But I think it can be done."

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

 

 

 

Four days later, the Enterprise and the Defiant led four

 

Klingon Birds of Prey into the system that was home to colony 137. The

 

Gallant and the Stalwart were still on blockade duty, supported by two

 

Klingon ships. Picard explained that they had followed up some clues

 

to attempt to locate the alien's operational base, but the clues had

 

proved to be a wild goose chase. Gallant reported no attempts to break

 

the blockade, but brought Picard up to date on other incidents.

 

Twice in other blockaded systems, the alien vessels had

 

arrived unexpectedly, but had fled the systems without attempting to

 

break the blockades. No damage to ships of either side had been

 

reported. They were known to have scouted several systems, but seemed

 

reluctant to engage the federation ships defending those systems.

 

Public outcries were reaching critical mass, and starfleet was under

 

enormous pressure to attempt to retake the captured colonies. There

 

were rumours of commando teams being trained for this task.

 

The strain on starfleet's resources was also tremendous, many

 

systems were suffering due to starfleet being unable to supply them

 

with food, medical supplies, industrial equipment, farming equipment

 

and many other necessities. The disadvantage of not having a fully

 

independent merchant marine was beginning to tell, with the few

 

independent operators unable to cope with the increased demands for

 

their services.

 

Picard released the Stalwart from it's blockade duty, but

 

Gallant insisted on staying. With the Defiant and six Klingon warships

 

in attendance, the blockade force was over-strength compared to other

 

systems. Picard was forced to release three of the Klingon ships to

 

other duties. The Defiant took up position on the far side of the

 

planet, and cloaked itself. The three Klingon ships took up position

 

in distributed parts of the system, hiding behind or on planets. The

 

Enterprise and the Stalwart remained on station above the shielded

 

imperial stronghold, and settled down to wait.

 

Two days later they received reports of yet another system

 

having been taken over by the imperials. This time two of the wedge

 

shaped ships had suddenly appeared in the system, surprising the

 

defending federation starship Courageous. The Courageous had taken

 

several broadsides in three seconds before getting off a shot. It had

 

ceased transmitting without any indication of what the result of it's

 

shot had been. The colony below had not had a chance to transmit

 

anything, their weak transmitters unable to break through the heavy

 

jamming. The Reliant was despatched to the system, but would only

 

arrive in another day and a half. As a result of the surprise tactics

 

being used, the federation warships were on permanent battle-stations,

 

and were required to keep their shields up and fully charged all the

 

time.

 

There were many nervous fingers on controls, and no doubt

 

several false alarms. Not knowing where or when the imperial ships

 

would appear was working on everyone's nerves. The Enterprise was

 

doing better than most ships, with Data on continuous duty, and

 

unlikely to be distracted by a shadow or unexpected meteor.

 

The first attempt to break a blockade occurred in one of the

 

Rim mining colonies. There were three ships on duty, including one

 

Klingon Bird of Prey. A large wedge shaped ship had appeared and

 

opened fire on all three ships, taking the Klingon and one Federation

 

ship on it's starboard side, and the second federation ship on it's

 

port side. The ships had exchanged fire for nearly thirty seconds,

 

then the wedge shape had abruptly disappeared, just as it's starboard

 

shield appeared to be failing. The federation ship on the port beam of

 

the star destroyer had taken light damage, the two ships on the

 

starboard beam having come off much lighter, their shields still

 

holding. The damaged federation ship had suffered a hull breaches, and

 

was forced to limp to a nearby starbase at warp 4, a journey of some

 

two weeks. Somewhere along the way it would break off contact, and

 

never be heard from again. In a review of the battle recordings, it

 

appeared that a number of shuttle type ships had materialised on the

 

far side of the planet, and slipped under the planetary shield during

 

the battle.

 

The Klingon and Federation ships split up, with the federation

 

ship taking up station at the far side of the planet. It was a

 

mistake. Barely an hour later, two huge alien battleships had

 

materialised, bracketing the lone Klingon Bird of Prey. They blew the

 

Klingon ship to dust, and fled to hyperspace, along with the

 

ostensibly fully loaded shuttles, before the federation ship could

 

enter the fray. The orders were passed around to keep the warp cores

 

on standby, and to make full use of warp speed in any battle

 

situations, regardless of the dangers or loss of weapon effectiveness.

 

Picard seethed. He hated being in the position of having to

 

respond to the enemy. With their hyperspace drive capabilities, the

 

imperials could dictate when and where they fought, and there was

 

little he could do about it. Another day crept by.

 

The imperials made their next blockade run on a captured

 

farming colony defended by four federation starships. Two of the ships

 

were in blockade position at each pole of the planet, with the other

 

two hiding in the system. Two wedge-shaped alien battleships bracketed

 

the federation ship over the colony, pinning it under their combined

 

broadsides. It was hit by nearly two hundred turbolaser blasts before

 

escaping to warp without it's shields, severe internal damage to its

 

optical systems from the concussions, but no hull breaches. A shipyard

 

repair was not necessary at this time, but it would be a day or two

 

before the optical circuitry could be replaced. The three remaining

 

federation ships came streaking in at more than warp 4 in the confines

 

of the solar system, and all launched a brace of photon torpedoes at

 

one of the destroyers. The torpedoes slipped through the cordon of

 

turbolaser fire, and dropped out of warp scant kilometres from the

 

destroyer, manoeuvring crazily to intercept the destroyer, which was

 

turning away at close to fifteen gees. The nine torpedoes slammed into

 

the destroyer's shields before the point defence laser-cannons could

 

track them. The destroyer's shields was designed to withstand several

 

broadsides of more than a hundred turbolasers, not to mention ion

 

cannons and starfighter laser cannons and fusion tipped proton

 

torpedoes, but the photon torpedoes detonated virtually

 

simultaneously, overloading half of the starboard shield generators,

 

and knocking the shield down. Huge chunks of neutronium reinforced

 

metallic alloys were ripped out of the hull, to a depth of several

 

metres in some places, but didn't penetrate the hull. The hull glowed

 

red where the torpedoes had struck, radiating energy.

 

The three ships curved away from the two destroyers, easily able to

 

dodge the imperial weapons as long as they stayed at warp. A number of

 

shuttles could be seen descending to the planet below. The federation

 

ships curved around tightly in an attempt to cut off the shuttles.

 

They fired a second brace of torpedoes, which streaked after the

 

shuttles. The torpedoes suddenly slammed into a wall of energy. The

 

shuttles were already below the planetary shield. The three starships

 

flashed through the gap between the shields, which was being peppered

 

by several torpedoes fired from the two destroyers. One of the three

 

starships was rocked severely by a fusion warhead detonating in it's

 

path, but managed to keep going. The remaining proton torpedoes

 

harmlessly detonated their fusion warheads against the shield below.

 

The two destroyers vanished before the federation ships could make

 

another run at them.

 

The starship which had been rocked by the fusion explosion had

 

suffered minor damage to some of it's optical circuits, and one

 

inertial damping field generator had blown. It would be fully

 

operational within two hours. In hyperspace, the star destroyer's

 

captain seethed. Half of his starboard turbolasers were down, and

 

while most of them would be operational within a few days and the

 

shield generators replaced, the hull damage would require dockyard

 

facilities, which were not available at this time.

 

Picard was elated at this development. A blockade run on a

 

farming world implied they needed food, which meant 137 might be next.

 

He sent a sub-space transmission to the federation warships defending

 

the other farming colony requesting them to target and destroy the

 

shuttles if the imperials made an attempt to collect them.

 

An hour later, Picard was anxiously waiting to see what the

 

imperials would do about collecting their shuttles. The two undamaged

 

federation ships were patrolling the area around the planet at Warp 2,

 

while the two lightly damaged ships were conducting hasty repairs on

 

the outskirts of the system. The tactic used by the imperials caused

 

Picard to kick himself. He of all federation captains should have been

 

aware of the enemy's scouting ability. Four star destroyers suddenly

 

appeared, two of them besides each of the two damaged federation

 

vessels, and opened fire on them at point blank range. Outnumbered two

 

to one, and caught by surprise, they didn't stand a chance. The

 

patrolling vessels did the only thing they could. They split up and

 

raced towards the defence of their compatriots. Behind them, the

 

imperial shuttles climbed out of the atmosphere and disappeared into

 

hyperspace. The four imperial destroyers followed without engaging the

 

incoming federation vessels. The two federation ships they had

 

attacked were little more than orbital debris. No doubt they had a

 

gunboat or starfighter loitering with all systems shut down, watching

 

the system, and it had spotted the two federation ships making

 

repairs.

 

Another flash circulated through starfleet. Damaged ships and

 

single ships were to be considered as at high risk, as the imperials

 

were now known to have ruthlessly targeted at least three damaged

 

ships, and were using the tactic of isolating and outgunning the

 

federation ships.

 

Picard swore in frustration, why couldn't the imperials had

 

chosen this system. He briefly contemplated trying to lay a trap by

 

pretending to be damaged, then discarded the idea. Federation blockade

 

tactics now had changed to counter the imperial's observed strategies.

 

Picard kept the Enterprise and the Gallant patrolling at low warp

 

speeds, the Defiant lay quietly on the far side of the planet, hidden

 

by their cloaking device. The warp-speed patrols were heavy on fuel,

 

but was tactically necessary. The three remaining Klingon warships

 

were all shutdown and distributed throughout the system, but ready to

 

engage warp at a moment's notice. A sensor sweep of the system could

 

only detect two of the Klingon vessels, and then only because they

 

knew exactly where to look. The Defiant was totally invisible, and

 

Picard avoided doing a sensor focus of the area the Defiant was

 

lurking in, he didn't want to give the game away.

 

Picard had also ordered regular and systematic sensor sweeps

 

around the edge of the star system out to a radius of half a light

 

year, in case the imperials tried to scout the system. Antilles had

 

told him the imperial starfighters did not have hyperdrive capability,

 

and the smallest vessels that did were of the gunboat or shuttle

 

variety, which he was confident of detecting even at those ranges,

 

with a concerted sensor search. Still, a sphere of half a light year's

 

radius was a lot of vacuum to cover.

 

Four star destroyers blinked into existence less than one

 

hundred thousand kilometres away. Data had the ship accelerating at

 

warp 4 before Picard could shout a warning. The Gallant was not quite

 

as lucky. Their human helmsman reacted a few hundredths of a second

 

slower than Data, and the ship flew headlong into a barrage of

 

turbolaser fire laid across it's patrol path. A number of fusion

 

explosions also indicated the destroyers had fired several proton

 

torpedoes as they arrived. The Stalwart accelerated clear of the

 

devastation still more or less intact though. Riker reported its

 

shields were down to less than ten percent, but already being

 

recharged. It was not known what other damage it had incurred, if any.

 

"Commander Worf reports two enemy shuttles destroyed, one

 

damaged, on the far side of the planet. Five shuttles made it under

 

the planetary shield." Some good news, Picard thought.

 

He brought the Enterprise around in a hyperbolic curve at Warp

 

5, only Data's presence at the helm giving him the confidence to

 

manoeuvre like this in battle-conditions within the confines of a star

 

system. The Enterprise launched five torpedoes at the nearest

 

destroyer, and banked away from the incoming turbolaser fire, Data

 

managing to avoid the blasts easily. Four of the torpedoes impacted on

 

the destroyer, which rolled as the torpedoes hit, spreading the load

 

across it's dorsal and port shields. The three Klingon ships were

 

streaking in to the battle now as well.

 

As the Enterprise pulled clear, the Gallant came in along a

 

different vector, and fired another four torpedoes towards one of the

 

destroyers. Two of the torpedoes hit, the other two streaked past

 

within a few hundred metres of the huge ship, which was manoeuvring at

 

close to twelve gees. The Defiant appeared briefly, and fired five

 

torpedoes at nearly point blank range to another destroyer. They never

 

reached their target. The four destroyers had all disappeared. A

 

number of fusion explosions marked their parting shot in the direction

 

of the Defiant. Seconds later the Defiant appeared, it's shield down

 

to eighty percent, but otherwise unscathed.

 

The entire engagement had lasted less than twenty seconds.

 

"Five shuttles made it to the surface. Prepare to blockade

 

those shuttles. No matter what, I don't want them getting off that

 

planet." Picard ordered.

 

Five ships took up patrolling orbits around the planet, the

 

three Klingons miffed at not having had a chance to get a shot in. The

 

Gallant reported minor damage, a few bruises and broken limbs, but

 

nothing serious. The Defiant engaged its cloaking device again, and

 

took up position directly above the shield, to watch for the shuttles.

 

Picard transmitted a report to starfleet, and used the report to

 

disguise a second signal on another frequency. The tactics the

 

imperials were using would give them very little time to do what he

 

had in mind.

 

On the Defiant, Worf prepped a signal. He watched the colony

 

area carefully. On the telescopic electromagnetic sensors he could see

 

the five shuttles being loaded by a number of small figures. A single

 

keystroke would send the signal. As soon as the loading stopped he

 

prepared to give the signal. The shuttles lifted from the ground,

 

using some unknown drive mechanism, probably anti-gravity. Worf

 

pressed the key.

 

On the Enterprise, a warning light flashed on Picard's padd.

 

"Get ready, here they come." He said.

 

The words were barely out of his mouth when the imperials made

 

their move. The planetary shields dropped, and a number of

 

ground-based laser-cannons opened fire on the area where the Defiant

 

lurked directly above the shields. At first Worf thought they were

 

firing at him, but the fire was spread out, they were just clearing a

 

path for the shuttles, and feared that the cloaked vessel was in that

 

area.

 

"Deactivate cloaking field," Worf ordered, "Target the

 

shuttles, fire at will."

 

He barely finished the order when the Defiant was rocked

 

severely, throwing everyone around, some of the bridge crew ending up

 

on the deck. The ground fire was tracking towards the Defiant, but

 

surely could not generate that much of a punch?

 

"Engage warp." Worf calmly ordered.

 

The Defiant streaked away, leaving two destroyers in high

 

orbit firing at empty space. The remaining blockade ships were warping

 

around the planet, and launched a number of torpedoes at the

 

destroyers. The first of the torpedoes barely detonated when the

 

destroyers leapt away. The remaining torpedoes arced towards the small

 

vessel still in high orbit, three of them detonating against it's

 

shields before it too disappeared into hyperspace. Picard hoped it

 

hadn't sustained too much damage. The remaining torpedoes were forced

 

to self-destruct.

 

"Commander Worf, report."

 

"All the shuttles escaped, we managed to damage two, but they

 

got away. Our shields were knocked down, and we took a few hits on the

 

hull. A number of crew were slightly injured, but otherwise the ship

 

is undamaged."

 

 

 

 

 

A few minutes later, the frigate Freedom's Friend arrived at the star

 

system where the republic fleet lay waiting. It's ventral shields had

 

been knocked down, and it had suffered some minor hull damage, but the

 

droids were already working on the hull, and soon there would be no

 

trace of any battle damage.

 

"Our mission was successful, we tagged one of the destroyers." The

 

frigate reported.

 

Antilles slapped his palms together. Finally. He settled back to wait

 

for the tracking device to make it's report. The tracking device was a

 

simple mechanism. It was too small to do much in the way of real

 

tracking, and essentially it was just a powerful sub-space transmitter

 

that broadcast a pulse at random intervals on a random frequency while

 

in normal space. The duration of the pulse was mere microseconds, and

 

any counter-intelligence sweeps would only detect it while it was

 

actually transmitting, if the sweep happened to be listening to the

 

random frequency at the time of transmission.

 

Antilles computers ran a matching program with the same random seed,

 

so that it could predict exactly when the device would pulse, and at

 

what frequency. By simple triangulation they could pinpoint the

 

location of the tracking device. Antilles had no wish to blow what may

 

be his only chance to track down the imperial manufacturing plant, and

 

he observed the results of the tracking device for three days, trying

 

to get a pattern for the destroyer's movements. In the meanwhile, a

 

third Liberator cruiser, its escorts, and the CC-7700 frigate joined

 

the Republic fleet. The fourth Liberator and its two frigates remained

 

at the Republic base close to the centre of the galaxy as a defence

 

force.

 

The tagged destroyer participated in two more raids on federation

 

worlds, during which one more destroyer was damaged according to the

 

Klingon reports and three more shuttles destroyed. Two federation

 

vessels were lost to surprise attacks by superior forces, and three

 

Klingon vessels were severely damaged, but were escorted to safe areas

 

by other Klingon vessels. Antilles knew these attacks were hurting the

 

imperials more than the Federation. The Imperials had a limited number

 

of ships, but even with two of the six or seven ISD1's damaged, they

 

were still a formidable force. He had not yet seen them use the

 

Dreadnoughts he suspected they had, nor the ISD2's he knew they had.

 

Possibly the dreadnoughts were too slow for these types of

 

engagements, but he was sure they would come into play one way or

 

another.

 

Antilles could see that the imperials were using the attacks to

 

analyse federation warp strafing tactics. He was sure they were

 

planning something, but he had no idea what, and no way to warn Picard

 

anyway. Antilles was pretty sure that he had identified the flight

 

pattern of the tagged destroyer, and had identified two systems to

 

which the destroyer regularly returned. Both were within one thousand

 

light years of federation space, and he suspected they were staging

 

points for the raids, not the actual base itself. Admiral Zorn agreed

 

with him, but was eager to get Antilles to scout the systems. Antilles

 

refused to tip his hand. They needed to wait a bit longer.

 

 

 

 

 

On the third day, the big attack came. The tagged destroyer had laid

 

up for several hours in one of the staging areas, then disappeared. It

 

reappeared on Antilles status display at the same time that

 

battle-reports started coming in from the relays organised by the

 

Klingons. Four star destroyers, and close to a dozen missile gunboats

 

jumped into a system completely unexpectedly, the system chosen being

 

one that didn't conform to the profile of the previously attacked

 

systems. It had a significantly larger population at several million

 

humans, and was defended by five starships, two of them Klingons.

 

The imperials launched their first volley of torpedoes before

 

the defenders could respond. One of the Klingon ships was destroyed

 

nearly immediately, hit by several proton torpedoes, and finished off

 

by a turbolaser broadside when it's warp drive was disengaged. The

 

remaining four ships conducted several warp strafing runs on the

 

destroyers, attempting to concentrate on the destroyers one at a time,

 

easily evading the incoming turbolaser and proton torpedo barrages.

 

Antilles listened to the attack via the Klingon relays.

 

"Come around to vector one four point two, warp three, target

 

the ship designated wedge 1."

 

"Warp in on my mark . now!"

 

"Watch out for starfighters at green three."

 

"Break off, break off."

 

"How many hits?"

 

"Three hits on their port shields, they are down to forty

 

percent."

 

"More fighters at red five, attack along vector one six point

 

nine . now!"

 

"Fire four!"

 

"Hit, hit, five hits that time, but they rolled and took it on

 

their dorsal shields, now down to twenty percent, their port shields

 

now fifty percent and climbing."

 

"The other wedges are screening wedge 1 from us, come around

 

to vector four three point two six, watch for missile gunboats at blue

 

four."

 

The destroyers manoeuvred to repeatedly present a different

 

face to the attacking ships, spreading the load across their seven

 

independent shields. The warp-strafing vessels found it difficult to

 

target one destroyer and knock it's shields down as the four

 

destroyers assumed formations that protected their weaker shields and

 

presented the stronger shields. Several squadrons of TIEs and the

 

gunboats were also shielding the destroyers, attempting to set up

 

ambushes by coasting along with their engines shut down. This forced

 

the federation ships to select their attacking vectors carefully,

 

giving the imperials ample time between attack runs to change

 

formation or recharge their shields.

 

"Target starfighters at two ten by nine fifteen, torpedo

 

spread. Launch at warp two then bank right. Set torpedoes for

 

proximity detonation, max yield."

 

"Fire .. fire .. fire."

 

"Report?"

 

"Two fighters destroyed, they are spread over too much area,

 

and are highly manoeuvrable. Some of them evaded at ten or twelve

 

gees, and they are doing point three cee."

 

"Okay, save torpedoes for the wedges, set phasers to high

 

dispersion and target starfighters, next run at warp three, target

 

wedge 2 along vector seven fifteen by three twenty five."

 

The small ships proved difficult to target with phasers,

 

especially at warp speeds, but the federation ships didn't dare

 

disengage warp for too long for fear of being ambushed by a ship

 

coming in via hyperspace. The small one-man fighters were easily

 

destroyed by the phasers, when they got caught by a lucky shot, but

 

there were just too many of them spread through too much space.

 

Eventually a missile barrage fired at point-blank range from a

 

group of lurking missile gunboats surprised one of the federation

 

ships. One of its warp nacelles was blown clean off, and the ship

 

detonated seconds later. The three remaining defenders continued the

 

attack on the destroyers, but several attack runs later had done

 

little or no damage, despite reducing one wedge's shields to lower

 

than ten percent. But the wedge jumped out of the system, and was

 

replaced by a fresh ship with fully charged shields. Multiple proton

 

torpedo hits destroyed another federation ship when it wandered into a

 

squadron of tiny starfighters with their engines shut down. Seconds

 

later, the second Klingon vessel was outguessed, when it made one too

 

many turns to starboard after a strafing run, and collected two full

 

broadsides and a few proton torpedoes from two additional destroyers

 

which had jumped into the system for just such an opportunity.

 

The last federation vessel beat a hasty retreat. There were

 

now six star destroyers in the system, and more than nine squadrons of

 

TIE fighters and two dozen missile-gunboats. None of the destroyers

 

appeared to be significantly damaged, they had learnt exactly how to

 

counter the photon torpedoes by presenting fresh shields from

 

different angles all the time, and recharging their shields between

 

attack runs while the TIEs screened them, preventing the federation

 

ships from attacking faster than their shields could recharge.

 

Thirteen starfighters and two gunboats had been destroyed. It appeared

 

that the imperials had won their first major engagement, but Antilles

 

knew their losses were almost irreplaceable. More TIEs might be

 

manufactured, but the pilots couldn't be replaced.

 

The destroyers callously blasted two of the four cities below

 

them, the turbolaser barrage being followed by the detonation of

 

several fusion warheads over the cities. The two cities remaining were

 

strafed by the TIE's, then taken over by stormtrooper regiments.

 

Another colony world had fallen to the imperials, with four starships

 

being destroyed in the process, as well as more than a million dead

 

civilians.

 

"I demand you attack these staging areas now." Admiral Zorn

 

raged, "or allow me to transmit the co-ordinates to my ships!"

 

"Most of their ships are above the federation colony."

 

Antilles reasoned, "We may surprise one or two at their staging area,

 

or even destroy some supplies, but then they will know we are here,

 

and we will still not have located their manufacturing base. Besides,

 

you don't have any ships within fifteen hundred light years of their

 

staging areas, it will take you weeks to get there, and your stardrive

 

will be detected several minutes before you arrive."

 

"But you must do something, you can't just sit here and let

 

more people be slaughtered."

 

"Captain Antilles," Jedi Dacron interrupted, "You are

 

tactically correct, but the Admiral is right. We must act. We can't

 

allow more of this slaughter." Antilles noticed the Jedi was

 

significantly paler.

 

"Jedi Dacron? Are you alright?"

 

"Yes, I am alright, it is just the . brutality . of the

 

imperials. The loss of life was tremendous."

 

Antilles paced his bridge, concentration evident on his face.

 

"Nerak. Order the Emancipator and its two frigates to remain here, all

 

other ships to come with us. Calculate hyper-jump to within two light

 

years of the federation colony, three A-wings to jump to within point

 

three of a light year, and relay scouting data back to the fleet.

 

Generals Denel, Aburakh and Corlacca to prepare for ground assault."

 

Nerak barked out orders, and a minute later the fleet was in

 

hyperspace. Once he was satisfied that things were proceeding

 

satisfactorily, he turned back to Antilles.

 

"Sir? We are going to attack the imperials above a federation

 

world? They will just run away!"

 

"The Federation will take four days to get another starship to

 

that colony, we can get there in an hour. If the imperials retreat,

 

they leave half their troops behind on that planet, and it will be a

 

day or two before they can get their planetary shields installed.

 

Either way we force them to fight."

 

"If they stay, we will be seriously outgunned. While the

 

Peacemaker can possibly take on two star destroyers, the Liberator

 

cruisers and their frigates will be hard pressed against the remaining

 

four."

 

"Yes, but they have just fought an extended engagement. Our

 

X-wings and A-wings are fresh, they are busy at this moment recovering

 

and refuelling their TIEs and their gunboats. It is unlikely they will

 

stay and fight, they cannot risk the damage, however if they do, they

 

will be at a serious disadvantage without fighter cover."

 

Nerak didn't look convinced. Zorn had been following the

 

conversation closely.

 

"You are prepared to risk damage to your fleet?" He asked.

 

"Surely you are at the same disadvantage regarding the lack of a

 

shipyard?"

 

"Yes, but our ships are better able to conduct repairs without

 

the aid of a shipyard. Our warships were designed to be independent

 

and self-reliant, theirs were not. Also, any damage we do to them they

 

will find immensely difficult to recover from, whereas it might be

 

enough to serve the purpose of most of our mission goals, even were we

 

to be destroyed."

 

 

 

The huge battle-cruiser, the two cruisers and four frigates

 

dropped out of hyperspace two light years short of the federation

 

colony. Immediately the ships launched all their starfighter

 

squadrons, seven squadrons of X-wings, two squadrons of A-wings, and

 

one squadron of B-wings altogether. By the time the last squadrons

 

were being launched, sensor data from the scouting A-wings was

 

arriving. Noghri pilots piloted all the three A-wings chosen by

 

Captain Sulman, the Mon Calamari who commanded the Freedom Fighter,

 

the Noghri being particularly adept at stealth and scouting.

 

Antilles, Zorn and Nerak surveyed the holographic display of

 

the federation system. All six destroyers were on station in the

 

system, and still in orbit of the colony world. No doubt there were

 

patrolling ships, but these were undetectable at the moment, probably

 

running silent. At two light years out, Antilles doubted they could

 

pick up the ion emissions as the fleet manoeuvred for the next jump at

 

low ion power levels. More likely they were looking for warp drive

 

signatures. Antilles gave his orders, identifying jump targets for all

 

the ships, careful not to target the star destroyer with the tracking

 

device on its hull.

 

Minutes later, the Republic fleet jumped. The two light-years

 

were covered in fractionally less than sixty seconds. The Freedom

 

Fighter and Deliverance and their four frigates were all targeted on

 

one star destroyer. The combined task force jumped into a position

 

ventral to the star destroyer, allowing them all to concentrate their

 

dorsal broadsides on the hangar area of the destroyer. The two

 

Liberator cruisers fired two broadsides in four seconds, the frigates

 

managing three in the same time period, before the destroyer started

 

returning ragged fire, not all its weapons being crewed yet. The

 

destroyer rolled, attempting to bring its dorsal guns to bear, and

 

protect it's fast failing ventral shields. A full squadron of B-wings

 

were ready for this, and pounced. They ripped away the last of the

 

ventral shields with a volley of ion cannon fire, and launched several

 

proton torpedoes at the exposed hull. The fusion tipped torpedoes

 

ripped away huge chucks of the super-dense hull, not even the

 

neutronium reinforcements able to withstand the fury of a several

 

megaton shaped-charge fusion explosion.

 

Huge sections of the destroyer's outer hull was totally blown

 

away, several torpedoes penetrating to the inner hull and beyond,

 

totally obliterating the hangars, launch bays and maintenance bays,

 

even exposing several decks above that to vacuum, despite the several

 

metres of hull separating each deck. The neutronium nodules embedded

 

in the hull were designed to dissipate shock waves, but were

 

overwhelmed by the ferocity of the multiple hits. Circuits and

 

conduits all over the huge ship were ripped from their reinforced

 

mountings, the inertial dampening system overloaded and blew all its

 

power generators, and systems throughout the destroyer went down.

 

Internal explosions rocked the city-sized vessel, all its

 

shields failing as power was lost. The attacking Liberator cruisers

 

poured more turbolaser fire into the nearly incandescent mass of

 

steel, huge chunks of it blowing apart. The city-sized imperial star

 

destroyer had been turned into a flaming wreck in no more than nine or

 

ten seconds, it's entire crew of more than thirty thousand killed.

 

Meanwhile, the Peacemaker had launched a similar attack on

 

another destroyer, three squadrons of X-wings in support, peppering

 

the huge ship with proton torpedoes as the battle-cruiser sought to

 

smash down the destroyers shields, firing broadside of upwards of one

 

hundred turbolaser cannons, and an equal number of ion canons. The

 

remaining squadrons of X-wings and A-wings were sweeping through the

 

system, searching for gunboats, shuttles, or stray TIEs.

 

 

 

Jacob Lightfoot calmly pulled his control stick to one side.

 

The six gee manoeuvre was enough to upset the aim of the laser-cannon

 

gunner in the missile gunboat. He reversed the manoeuvre, tracking

 

back towards his prey. The targeting box on his display computer

 

flashed briefly, and he triggered his fire button. The X-wing bucked

 

slightly as it fired a synchronised burst from it's four

 

laser-cannons. He rolled the X-wing in another high gee manoeuvre, an

 

orange explosion several kilometres ahead of him informing of the

 

results of his attack. His main display cleared, and his R2 unit

 

flashed a wire diagram of the missile gunboat, the damaged areas

 

highlighted in red. The main display reverted back to targeting mode,

 

and he prepared a to make a second pass. It wasn't necessary, the

 

gunboat vanished into hyperspace.

 

The entire engagement had lasted no more than twenty seconds,

 

and two destroyers were incandescent wrecks. The remaining four

 

destroyers were powering away from the planet, making no attempt to

 

launch their fighters. The Republic starfighters screamed after them,

 

the Freedom Fighter in support, but the imperials weren't interested.

 

The four star destroyers would have been only slightly outmatched by

 

the Republic force of three capital ships and four frigates, but made

 

no attempt to take them on, vanishing into hyperspace within seconds

 

of each other.

 

On the Peacemaker, a display, the one that tracked the tagged

 

destroyer, died down. It would come back to life the moment the

 

destroyer returned to normal space. In the fringes of the system, the

 

X-wings were mopping up the few imperial ships deployed as watchdogs,

 

although some of the gunboats escaped to hyperspace as well.

 

Altogether, the Republic fleet had lost one B-wing, and four X-Wings,

 

with no damage to any other ships. The imperials had not had an

 

opportunity to knock down their shields.

 

"Scan the surface for imperial activity, reconfigure weapons

 

for orbital bombardment, send in two x-wing squadrons for aerial

 

reconnaissance, prepare to launch landing barges. Freedom Fighter and

 

Deliverance to prepare for possible counter-attack by imperial star

 

destroyers. Even squadrons land and refuel, odd squadrons to defensive

 

postures. Navigation to prepare an escape jump and distribute

 

co-ordinates to all ships in battle code four, directional beam only."

 

Around Antilles, the bridge was a hive of activity as gunnery

 

officers relayed orders, the CAG supervised his squadrons, and Nerak

 

relayed orders to the supporting cruisers and frigates. On the

 

Peacemaker, the huge turbolasers and smaller laser-cannons were being

 

hastily reconfigured for penetrating and targeting through an

 

atmosphere, the energy levels adjusted and plasma ejection chambers

 

re-calibrated. Antilles did not want to destroy cities, he merely

 

wanted to provide tactical support to his ground forces.

 

"Four AT-AT's detected, one of them in what looks like a large

 

residential area, the others are in open areas."

 

"Target the three exposed AT-ATs, turbolaser batteries, full

 

tactical power, fire."

 

"All three targets destroyed."

 

"CAG, X-wings to strafe the fourth one, inform them of

 

civilian presence, have them target the leg-joints. It is only

 

necessary to disable it, they are not to attempt to destroy it. If its

 

power core goes, the devastation will be immense.

 

"General," Antilles spoke into the comm-link with the landing

 

barges, "landing force status."

 

"Barge one, two minutes to planetfall, barge two, three

 

minutes out. Two wings of ground effect speeders in attendance."

 

Antilles asked no more questions. The general had subtly

 

informed him earlier that ground forces did not like to be

 

micro-managed by their naval counterparts. Instead, he had two of the

 

view-screens re-tasked to display the progress of the ground forces.

 

 

 

Ben Covell's unit was one of the first to hit the ground. He

 

sprinted down the ramp and made straight for a nearby wall, throwing

 

himself to the ground in the cover of the wall. A glance around him

 

showed that his fellow soldiers chameleon battle-suits had adjusted to

 

the pale colours of the buildings around them. His own had adjusted as

 

well. He snapped down his anti-glare visor, as violet and red beams

 

danced around the barge as it cleared the area ahead before lifting

 

off to drop another unit elsewhere.

 

In his earpiece, he heard the lieutenant ordering them

 

forward. On his visors HUD he saw a number of white beetle-like

 

figures highlighted as they charged around a corner. He fired several

 

bursts in their direction, and crouch-ran to a better firing position.

 

His battle-suit also served to disguise his infra-red and ultra-violet

 

signatures, partially masking him from the imperial's targeting

 

computers. A blaster bolt slammed into the wall ahead of him,

 

showering him with chips of plaster. None penetrated his suit,

 

although he knew the bruises would be there for him to display later.

 

He fired several more shots towards them. He was gratified to see one

 

or two drop, although he couldn't be sure whether it was from his own

 

fire, or that of his fellow troopers.

 

The stormtroopers retreated back down the street they had

 

come, and he charged towards the corner, accompanied by several

 

troopers of his unit. They were barely visible in their camouflage

 

outfits. Before they got to the corner, a speeder roared overhead,

 

peppering the street ahead with blaster fire. Covell threw himself to

 

the ground, rolling and firing as he rounded the corner. The street

 

was pockmarked from the speeders strafing, several stormtroopers lying

 

unmoving on the ground. The Republic forces advanced, with close air

 

support from the overhead speeders ensuring that the imperials didn't

 

hold them back.

 

Covell's unit reached another intersection and stopped, while

 

the soldiers quickly snapped fresh charges into their blaster rifles.

 

Covell glanced around the corner. The damaged AT-AT was directly

 

ahead. He threw himself backwards as a powerful blast smashed into the

 

corner where he had been standing. The lieutenant waved two men

 

forward. They each carried a shoulder mounted force-gun. It fired a

 

rocket-propelled projectile with a shaped-charge explosive warhead.

 

The two men readied their weapons, and nodded. Four soldiers sprinted

 

across the intersection, firing as they ran. Several high powered

 

blaster-bolts tracked them, ripping up concrete from the street where

 

it impacted. Three of the soldiers made it to the far side. The

 

force-gun wielders used the momentary distraction to step into the

 

street and fire two rockets at the AT-AT each. Covell grabbed one of

 

them and pulled him back into cover, the other was smashed backwards

 

by a blaster bolt from the AT-AT as the blaster fire tracked back

 

towards them.

 

Covell glanced around the corner, the AT-AT was a flaming mess. He

 

charged on towards it, firing just in case there were stormtroopers

 

taking cover behind it. There were none.

 

"Hold fire, hold fire." The lieutenant was screaming. The city

 

had fallen to the republic forces.

 

Covell glanced around. Smoke was rising from several

 

buildings. In the distance he saw a wing of X-wings tearing towards

 

the dark-blue sky, while another landing barge was coming in below

 

them. Medical droids were already racing around the scene, attending

 

to wounded soldiers, and a number of injured or unarmed stormtroopers

 

were being rounded up by security droids.

 

A civilian cautiously approached Covell's unit. "Federation

 

Commandos?" He asked.

 

The language was meaningless babble to Covell. He had no

 

translator unit, and waved the civilian towards a nearby droid. It

 

felt like he hadn't taken a breath in ages.

 

 

 

"What is the colony status?" Antilles asked of Nerak. The

 

first officer's comm-link was buzzing with in-coming reports, and the

 

view-screens were filled with ground troopers making their reports to

 

their controllers.

 

"The two cities bombarded by the imperials are unapproachable

 

due to atmospheric turbulence and high temperatures. Radiation levels

 

indicate that there won't be any survivors. A number of medical and

 

construction droids are being reconfigured for the environment and

 

will be despatched soon. We have control of the remaining cities. Two

 

thousand stormtrooper dead have been found so far, and eight hundred

 

stormtroopers have been taken prisoner. Our own losses are two hundred

 

and fifteen dead, six hundred seriously wounded. They are being

 

ferried to our medical bays, and have fifteen medical droids in

 

attendance.

 

"We are in the process of setting up field hospitals in the

 

surviving cities, and have deployed twenty medical droids to the

 

surface. They are being assisted by civilian medics from the local

 

population. We have also recovered two partially assembled planetary

 

shield generators and their nuclear fusion power cores."

 

"Any warp trails coming in?" Antilles asked. He knew he would

 

have been informed of any, but asked the question anyway.

 

"The civilians have been in contact with their starfleet on a

 

low-powered sub-space transmitter, and apparently there are ships

 

heading this way now. The closest one is the ship that escaped the

 

destroyers during the imperial's first attack. It should be visible on

 

our scanners any minute."

 

"Have any of our resources have been in direct contact with

 

starfleet?" Antilles asked.

 

"Not yet, but we can set up a relay via their civilian

 

equipment, or contact them via the Klingon frequencies we are familiar

 

with."

 

"The civilians have accepted our aid easily enough," Nerak

 

added, "but their fleet people seem a bit more cautious."

 

"We won't initiate contact yet. Have the soldiers round up all

 

Imperial and Republic equipment. Load everything and everybody onto

 

the barges and get them back on board. I want to be ready to jump out

 

before that starship gets here. Whatever cannot be salvaged is to be

 

destroyed beyond recognition. Have the Deliverance and Freedom Fighter

 

scan the imperial wreckage in orbit for any equipment that can be

 

salvaged. I don't want so much as a single chip to fall into

 

federation hands. They are to tractor all loose equipment into their

 

holds, and destroy everything that has to remain behind, even if they

 

dump it into that star out there."

 

The frigates proceeded to tow the star destroyers' wreckage

 

towards the nearby star, and tracked it all the way in. All small

 

loose bits and pieces were painstakingly tractored together and hauled

 

aboard the cruisers. Despite Antilles orders, the republic crews were

 

still hard at work when the federation ship entered the system forty

 

minutes later. Antilles allowed the initial sub-space contact, but

 

insisted the rest of the conversation take place on directional beam

 

communications only.

 

"I speak on behalf of all starfleet when I thank you for your

 

assistance in the recovery of this colony, captain Antilles," the

 

federation commander was saying, "but I must insist that you stay. My

 

superiors will want to establish the full record of what has

 

transpired here, and what your status will be in Federation space."

 

"I am afraid I have compromised my mission enough already. The

 

imperials we hunt now know of our existence, and will be cautious of

 

our interference."

 

The federation commander professed to understand, but

 

obviously would have liked to enforce his wishes. Minutes later, the

 

republic fleet was ready to leave the system. Antilles ordered a last

 

sweep of the system and the surrounding interstellar void in case the

 

imperials were spying on the happenings here before jumping out. He

 

didn't expect the imperials back, they were probably licking their

 

wounds and considering a new strategy. He had no doubt that the

 

resulting imperial strategy would include a major punitive strike on a

 

carefully selected federation world, and wondered if he had done the

 

federation any favours.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

"Captain, everyone is in place."

 

"Thank you, Mr Riker. You may commence the attack."

 

On the surface, Wil Riker was in charge of a team of fifty

 

humans and Klingons, all that could be spared from the ships above,

 

which were on a 24-hour battle alert. They were distributed in a large

 

perimeter around the Imperial defended area, about twenty kilometres

 

away. This was the maximum safe range of the new weapon Picard had

 

come up with. Geordi had managed to manufacture a mortar tube from an

 

obsolete 22nd century design, and a number of modified photon torpedo

 

warheads. The Enterprise's sensory equipment had managed to calculate

 

the exact distances and trajectories for the ground crews, and this

 

information had been transmitted to the ground crews.

 

They had been able to march through the lightly shielded

 

side-wall of the shield without any ill-effect whatsoever. Picard had

 

also detached several runabouts, which the security team had used to

 

explore the outer perimeter of the Imperial controlled area. They were

 

careful to stay below the horizon from the Imperial laser-cannons.

 

It appeared that the Imperials did not have any flight capable

 

equipment, nor did they patrol the colony that far out. Twice a

 

runabout, which had wandered within twenty kilometres of a defended

 

area, had been shot at. Picard determined that the Imperials were

 

satisfied with their surveillance equipment, and thus made no further

 

effort to patrol the area. They had thus been able to safely deploy

 

the fifty-man assault team at ranges of twenty kilometres or more.

 

"Fire!" Riker ordered.

 

The ten men nearby all triggered their launch tubes. The

 

warheads were lobbed in a high trajectory at the Imperial held hills

 

near the colony. Two warheads were targeted at each hill. The warheads

 

were set to low yield, so that they would not entirely flatten the

 

hills, which were uncomfortably close to the farming villages which

 

made up the colony. Riker had them fire three volleys, so that a total

 

of six torpedo warheads were lobbed at each Imperial strongpoint, the

 

Enterprise tracked the warheads trajectory, and transmitted new launch

 

angles between each volley to correct for any deviation. The runabouts

 

also launched several of the small torpedoes they carried, despite

 

being below the horizon to the Imperials, since the Enterprise was

 

providing targeting information.

 

The strongpoints were shielded, but three of the five points

 

targeted were destroyed outright anyway. The remaining two survived

 

due to high winds around the peaks they were located on deflecting the

 

warheads. Riker had all ten of the launch tubes target these peaks,

 

and two more volleys saw these strongpoints destroyed as well. Riker

 

jumped aboard a nearby runabout, and two Klingons squeezed in behind

 

him. Another three ensigns had boarded a second runabout. Altogether

 

eight runabouts had been gleaned from the blockading fleet, and they

 

all sped towards their assigned targets. There was no defensive fire.

 

The shield generator was smack in the middle of the colony,

 

and because of the surrounding hills only a high trajectory at long

 

range would have knocked it down. The risk to the colonists should the

 

lobbed warheads or torpedoes deviate even by a fraction was enormous,

 

and Picard had not been prepared to risk targeting it from such long

 

range. Riker brought the runabout to a hover over a hill overlooking

 

the main settlement area, the shield generator was less than eight

 

kilometres away. He launched two torpedoes at the building housing the

 

shield generator, but the building itself was shielded, and the

 

shields held.

 

A number of violet bolts impacted explosively on the hillside

 

nearby. The Imperials were still capable of fighting back. Riker

 

wrenched the runabout around, and ducked behind the hill momentarily,

 

then sped in towards the settlement skimming the surface. A volley of

 

laser-cannon fire blew apart a rocky outcropping as he flashed past

 

it. He flashed past a group of buildings on the city limits, and fired

 

the runabout phasers at the building in which the laser-cannon was

 

placed. The building was disguised for a second as the phasers reacted

 

with some sort of shield in an impressive display of pyrotechnics,

 

momentarily penetrated the shield, and causing large chunks of the

 

building's outer wall to disappear.

 

Riker ducked down a passage between two large buildings, and

 

exited the passage closer to the shield generator, firing two more

 

torpedoes at it. Nearby, a runabout burst into an orange ball of

 

flame, and another smashed into the ground amid a volley of violet

 

fire. The remaining runabouts also launched their torpedoes at the

 

shield generator housing.

 

 

 

"The shield is down!" On the Enterprise.

 

"Fire on designated targets." Picard ordered.

 

The Enterprise's phasers had been set to a much lower than

 

usual power setting. They should still have enough power to burn

 

through the atmosphere, but Picard didn't want to risk civilian

 

casualties from collateral damage. The other ships were patrolling

 

against the possibility of another blockade run.

 

On the ground, the distributed settlements of the colony were

 

highlighted by a dozens of flickering beams lancing down from orbit.

 

The phasers flashed from one target to another, where the scanners had

 

picked out strong points in the Imperial defensive networks. These

 

strong-points were mostly shielded, and Picard had no option but to

 

fire on them. The scanners also picked up two large mobile armoured

 

vehicles, but a concentrate burst of phaser fire from orbit smashed

 

them to the ground. More phaser fire from the orbiting ships put paid

 

to smaller fast moving armoured vehicles.

 

Riker landed the runabout, and jumped out with a Klingon

 

soldier in close attendance. They were armed with phaser-rifles, and

 

immediately charged towards the damaged shield generator. Nearby, four

 

more ensigns were beamed down from the Enterprise, all similarly

 

armed. The ensigns ran towards Riker's position, but were struck down

 

by a volley of blaster bolts before they reached cover. A succession

 

of red beams lanced down from the Enterprise in the area where the

 

blaster bolts had come from. The beams were accompanied by a series of

 

thuderous explosions as the atmosphere imploded into the vacuum carved

 

out by the phasers. Two of the ensigns got up and raced to join Riker

 

where he was taking cover. One of them clutched an arm, another had a

 

slight limp. All over the settlement, other groups of security

 

officers were being beamed down.

 

Riker's small group advanced, occasionally coming under fire,

 

but were well supported by spotting information provided from the

 

Enterprise. They eventually made it to the shield generator, a thirty

 

metre tall structure with a huge parabolic dish mounted on top. The

 

structure was pockmarked with several blackened holes, and the dish

 

itself was hanging at a skewed angle. Calls were coming in from other

 

assaulting groups as well.

 

"Barracks secured. Scan for booby-traps, we lost two men to

 

hidden explosives."

 

"Power generators in sight."

 

"Communications centre in sight, enemy barricaded inside."

 

"Five prisoners taken, objective in sight."

 

The federation had recovered colony 137.

 

The Imperial force on 137 had totalled five hundred men, and

 

less than one hundred were captured alive, most of them wounded. The

 

four hundred dead Imperials had mostly been manning the bunkers in the

 

hills defending the colony, or had been crewing the destroyed armoured

 

vehicles and other shielded points. Picard had had no option except to

 

fire on them. The Federation dead numbered only forty seven, and six

 

destroyed runabouts. Many more were severely injured or burnt, but

 

would recover soon.

 

Picard noted with regret that several dozen civilians had also

 

been killed in the crossfire, many of them in the vicinity of the

 

shield generator. The energy that had been needed to knock down the

 

building's own shield had been such that the damage had spread for

 

several hundred metres outwards through the settlement.

 

The captured Imperials were being beamed up to the Enterprise.

 

Religious considerations were the last of Picard's concerns at the

 

moment. He had been unable to use the transporters effectively during

 

the battle, since it was difficult to tell stormtroopers apart from

 

civilians, and he was reluctant to beam his own people directly into a

 

position where they would be under fire. The transporters had also

 

been tasked to beam his forces down, rather than suspected enemies up.

 

He was reluctant also to beam the enemy soldiers up in battle either,

 

as he would have been beaming fully armed personnel onboard the

 

Enterprise, and he couldn't risk any difficulties in subduing them in

 

the sensitive transporter room while he still had men on the ground.

 

A number of technical teams were ordered to the surface, to

 

see what they could discover about the alien technology. They were to

 

be disappointed. The stormtroopers had taken pains to sabotage their

 

equipment, melting ciruitry, deleting software, and overloading power

 

packs. The few shield generator's circuits that had survived the

 

photon torpedo attacks had been destroyed by a number of thermal

 

explosives distributed throughout the building, as had the

 

communications equipment. There was not much left of the various

 

armoured vehicles, which had been targeted by phaser fire from orbit.

 

A number of the Imperials had been wearing armoured battle-suits, but

 

these had been sabotaged as well. Either the troopers had jury-rigged

 

their equipment for self-destruction, or the Imperial equipment had

 

been deliberately designed to prevent capture. Even the suits removed

 

from wounded or dead soldiers had been discovered to have

 

self-destructed critical circuits or deleted the programmable chips.

 

 

 

Throughout the federation, plans were under way to retake the

 

eight colonies still under Imperial control. On five of the colonies,

 

direct assaults were attempted with modified runabouts supporting

 

large teams of commandos. Two of the assaults were successful, and

 

three were repelled. All of them suffered heavy losses.

 

Five Imperial held planets remained, the Imperials were very

 

well entrenched, and had obviously been informed via their own

 

communications network as to Federation tactics. They had stepped up

 

their patrols, and also established numerous additional shielded

 

strong-points on high ground. While it was obvious that not all of

 

these defensive positions could be manned, it was difficult to tell

 

which were. In another assault the Imperials had made use of several

 

dummy gunnery posts, and had allowed the federation forces to advance

 

into a trap. Unable to achieve the primary objective of disabling the

 

planetary shields, they were unable to use transporters to escape, and

 

several hundred Federation commandos were decimated.

 

The defending Imperials had also been prepared for torpedo and

 

mortar attacks from below the horizon, and many laser-cannons were

 

computer controlled to track and destroy incoming ballistic warheads

 

and torpedoes.

 

The first of these five colonies was only taken back after a

 

two day assault by nearly five thousand rarely used ground troops. The

 

assault had resulted in over twelve hundred federation dead before the

 

shield generator had eventually been destroyed. Many more would have

 

died if not for the excellent medical support available to starfleet

 

personnel. It transpired that a mere two hundred and fifty Imperial

 

troopers had defended the world. They had made extensive use of booby

 

traps, dummy installations, and cloaked bunkers that had only been

 

detected when they opened fire on nearby federation troops.

 

Despite their losses, morale in the Federation camp was

 

climbing. For the first time they were on the offensive, and were

 

gaining ground on the Imperials. The invasion seemed to have been

 

halted in it's tracks, and even pushed back a bit. Most resources were

 

still dedicated to defense of Federation worlds, and only a few ships

 

could be spared for other duties. Picard had been recalled to Earth,

 

and had left the Gallant and one of the Klingon ships patrolling the

 

one-three-seven system. The Defiant and two Klingon ships were free to

 

resume their search for the origin of the Invaders. Picard had ordered

 

them to rendezvous with Antilles New Republic fleet. The Enterprise

 

was speeding to earth, where Picard was to discuss what he had learnt

 

with other senior officers in the hope of devising a strategy to

 

retake the remaining four colonies, and to find and destroy the

 

Imperial fleet.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

 

 

 

 

R2-B3 surveyed his domain. The x-wing which was his

 

responsibility had been stripped down and reassembled. All checksums

 

were within tolerable levels, and the x-wings computer concurred. The

 

small ship was in excellent condition. R2 flashed a request on the

 

internal radio frequency, and was informed that the x-wing would

 

remain on standby level 3 for another 1.924 hours. Level 1 would have

 

meant that the ship's pilot had to be strapped in ready to launch and

 

the ship be secured on a launch rail. Level 2 would require the pilot

 

to be at least within the hangar, and the ship on a launch rail. At

 

level 3, the ship could be launched within 45 seconds, provided the

 

pilot made it to the ship in that time.

 

R2 flashed a second request, and was informed that his pilot

 

was in recreation room 23C. The droid ran another checksum on the

 

x-wing, compared the results to that of the x-wing's on-board

 

computer. Satisfied with the status of its primary responsibility, it

 

set off to establish the status of it's second responsibility. It

 

waited patiently at the turbolift doors for its turn. Droids were low

 

on the priority list of the turbolift, unless they had specific orders

 

or reason to be using one. It took the astromech droid 38.5 seconds to

 

make it's way to the lounge. The lounge had thirty three occupants.

 

R2-B5 did a quick scan of the room, and 0.19 seconds later located

 

life-sign readings which corresponded to that of Jacob Lightfoot with

 

a 98.4% correlation. A vid-scan of the human thus located confirmed

 

the human as being Jacob Lightfoot.

 

A request made of a nearby waiter droid revealed that

 

Lightfoot had consumed three glasses of a mild alcoholic substance,

 

and had finished the last one fourteen minutes ago. R2-B5 instructed

 

the droid to serve Lightfoot only non-alcoholic liquids should he

 

request another, and to lace it with a detoxifier to nullify the

 

effects of the alcohol. R2-B5 made his way towards the pilot.

 

Lightfoot spotted him and asked if their status had changed in any

 

way. R2 beeped negatively.

 

"Our next patrol still in two hours?" Lightfoot asked. R2

 

beeped positively.

 

"The ship been serviced?"

 

R2 snorted derisively. Of course the ship had been serviced.

 

Humans always had to ask the obvious. What did Lightfoot think he had

 

been doing all this time.

 

"Have you been serviced?" Lightfoot teased.

 

R2 didn't dignify that one with an answer.

 

The dome-headed droid settled down and waited patiently while

 

the pilots continued their game. He remained hooked into the ship's

 

computer net, monitoring ready levels, and conversing with other

 

droids. They compared maintenance schedules on their respective ships

 

and complained about their pilots. R2 droids were particularly

 

fastiduous, and many were inwardly convinced that they would make

 

better pilots than their 'wet' counterparts, although outwardly they

 

proclaimed the skill of their own pilot, and thus justified having to

 

play second fiddle to a mere 'wet'. Another favourite conversation

 

topic amongst droids were tactical habits and manoeuvres employed by

 

the pilots, and measures taken by the droids to improve on this or

 

counter it when necessary. R2 was always looking for new

 

battle-tactics to employ in the simulations he ran with his pilot.

 

Each time any pilot came up with a new manouevre it was a hot

 

conversation topic amongst the R2 droids, who soon disseminated this

 

information through to the other pilots via simulations and mock

 

battles.

 

R2 noticed with interest that the Dauntless's main computer's

 

excitement level had raised significantly. He soon deduced that this

 

was due to a particular display which had been dormant for several

 

hours now and had suddenly lit up again. It was a homing beacon's

 

tracking signal. There was a flurry of activity amongst other

 

computers related to various bridge operations. R2 didn't have

 

clearance to monitor or decipher their communications, but was aware

 

of the sudden increase in traffic on all the circuits linking them.

 

Another signal interrupted his observations. A recall signal had been

 

sent out to all fighters. His own x-wing had been dropped from level 3

 

to level 4, and requests for updated status reports were being

 

transmitted to all ships in the maintenance bays. He submitted his

 

own, indicating the readiness of his x-wing. Satisfied that all had

 

been taken care of, he turned his attention to the pilots. The flurry

 

of computer activity had gone unnoticed, which was not surprising

 

since all this had happened in only a few hundredths of a second.

 

He beeped a notification to Lightfoot. All around him, other

 

drods were communicating with their pilots. R2 watched as Lightfoot

 

glanced at his padd for a translation. Lightfoot nodded to him, and

 

they made their way towards the lounge exit, along with several other

 

pilots. There was to be a briefing immediately. Around them, the air

 

was buzzing with the hope that the Imperial base had finally been

 

located.

 

 

 

 

 

Antilles didn't bother attending the pilot briefings. That was

 

the CAG's job. He allowed the Klingon delegation to transmit a coded

 

message, which would ultimately be delivered to the Federation captain

 

Picard, in whom they all seemed to have such a lot of faith.

 

"Sir, three warp tracks incoming, ETA three hours. We have

 

established preliminary contact. It is the Defiant and two Klingon

 

warbirds."

 

"We don't have three hours, tell them to stop, we will pick

 

them up on the way."

 

"Yes, Sir."

 

Minutes later the entire fleet jumped. They dropped out of

 

hyperspace less than a minute later, and allowed the three small

 

Federation ships to dock in the main hangar bay. The ships were not

 

much larger than shuttles, so it was not a tight squeeze at all.

 

Antilles invited the captains to the bridge. They were led by Worf,

 

the Klingon who served in starfleet as the commander of the gunboat

 

sized Defiant.

 

"You have located the Imperial base of operations?" Worf asked

 

without preamble.

 

"Yes," Antilles nodded towards the strategic holographic

 

display, "Our homing beacon was finally tracked to this system here."

 

He indicated a nondescript star system several thousand light years

 

outside of Federation explored space. The system was well away from

 

other systems frequented by the tagged Star Destroyer.

 

"The likelihood of any ship making an extended stay in such an

 

out of the way system indicates high probability that this is the

 

enemy base we have been looking for."

 

"You are launching your attack now?" A Klingon officer asked.

 

"Yes? I take it you wish to observe."

 

"We will do more than observe." Worf stated simply.

 

Antilles shrugged. He did not have much faith in the ability

 

of the alien gunboats to survive a full-scale fleet battle, but it was

 

not his place to nursemaid anyone. And they were involved one way or

 

another.

 

"Very well, but you will be under my command. I cannot afford

 

to allow you to jeopardise my fleet."

 

Worf bristled at the unintended slight, but held his peace, he

 

was technically a guest anyway.

 

"I will co-operate. You will not regret our assistance."

 

The discussion moved on to more pertinent topics. Antilles and

 

his officers discussed what they were likely to find at the Imperial

 

base, and worked out possible permutations and dispersals for their

 

forces. The Klingons listened closely, but did not know enough of

 

Imperial methodology to contribute much to the discussion, except with

 

regards to the capabilities of their own various ships and weapons and

 

possible uses they could have in the coming battle.

 

The Jump would last a calculated eighteen hours. The overall

 

plan was standard New Republic doctrine. The Jump was taking them to a

 

point in deep-space several light-years short of the targeted system,

 

which would first be scouted by sensor-stealthed A-wings. Very little

 

sleep would be had by anyone in this time, and most pilots were making

 

full use of the simulators despite orders to sleep and rest as much as

 

possible. To R2-B3's disgust Jacob Lightfoot was personally assisting

 

in yet another maintenance strip-down of their X-wing. He watched

 

carefully, lest the clumsy human make a stupid mistake. It was a

 

common problem, R2 knew, the 'wets' always thought they could do a

 

better job, and it was the bane of astromech droids that they had to

 

put up with the fiddlings of their pilots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Solar System was a hive of activity. This in itself was not

 

unusual. It was easily the most densely populated star system under

 

direct human control, being the home of the human race. There were the

 

colonies on the moons of Jupiter, the mining operations in the

 

asteroid belts. The shipyards of Mars - where the Enterprise herself

 

had been born - and dozens of laboratories, space stations, outposts,

 

smallholdings and communications stations scattered over nearly every

 

single rock of reasonable size in the entire system. Not to mention

 

Earth itself and the Lunar cities. Several dozen ships of all makes

 

and sizes were going about their various business activities. Buzzing

 

throughout all this were a number of frigate sized ships which

 

starfleet used to police and regulate interplanetary traffic.

 

In the midst of all this activity, and aloof from it, were a

 

full twenty capital starships, including several galaxy class

 

starships. It was rare indeed to see so many of the majestic

 

federation starships assembled in one place, and Picard's only

 

memories of such times were all bad. So many ships in one place

 

traditionally had meant trouble. In Picard's time, that trouble had

 

come in the form of Borg, in the form of Cardassians, and the

 

conflicts with the Dominion. Looking at his viewscreen, which had

 

enlarged computer enhanced representations of all these ships

 

distributed throughout the system only filled him with a sense of

 

foreboding.

 

He dismissed the negative thoughts, and concentrated on his

 

upcoming meeting with the Federation President and the starfleet

 

admirals. They wanted to hear first-hand his account of his meetings

 

with Antilles, and what he knew about the invading Imperial forces.

 

 

 

"So, Captain Picard, you say that all this trouble is

 

supposedly being caused by a single task force of this Galactic

 

Empire?"

 

"Yes, according to captain Antilles, they are after resources

 

mainly, since there journey here from their home galaxy would have

 

drained their ships supplies."

 

"Do you believe that they are from another galaxy?"

 

"I have witnessed the size and speed of their ships firsthand.

 

There is no doubt that they can traverse the galaxy in days or weeks.

 

Also, the sheer size of their vessels indicate an immense resource

 

base, in both materials and people. Despite our explorations having

 

been limited to this one quadrant, it is impossible for us to have

 

co-existed in the same galaxy with such an Empire and not noticed it

 

before. Or them us."

 

"This Antilles. He is on our side?"

 

Picard hesitated. "He is on our side in so far as hunting down

 

and destroying the Imperials are concerned. Beyond that, he didn't

 

seem to care much either way, although it is obvious that he does not

 

consider us an enemy. I have no doubt that were it in his interest to

 

attack us, he would."

 

"Do you have any further suggestions as to strategies to

 

employ against the Imperials, given what we now know of them?"

 

"I am afraid not. The best we can do for now is to squeeze

 

them with regards resources. Without our colonies, they will have to

 

develop their own colonies, mining and manufacturing facilities, and

 

it appears they don't have either the time or the resources to do it

 

on their own."

 

 

 

The meeting continued for longer than Picard would have liked. When a

 

recess was eventually called, he was relieved. Riker was waiting for

 

him at the door. Picard took the padd Riker offered and glanced at the

 

message. Antilles had located the Imperial base, and had launched his

 

attack. The message was two hours old, which meant the Republic fleet

 

was well on it's way in hyperspace. The message indicated that the

 

actual attack would take place in another sixteen hours.

 

Picard waved one of the admirals over and passed on the news.

 

A wave of hope and relief swept through the gathering as the news was

 

passed around. Perhaps the end was truly in sight. The meeting which

 

had broken on an inconclusive note now dispersed with a greater level

 

of determination. Knowing that the Imperial support structures were

 

now under risk of being destroyed lent hope to the plans for the

 

retaking of the last four Imperial held worlds.

 

 

 

 

 

The room was in darkness, the only light coming from a dimmed status

 

display on a nearby desk. The sleeper turned restlessly, then sat up,

 

as if a noise had been heard. The head tilted slightly to one side as

 

if listening. An arm reached for the communications panel at the head

 

of the bed.

 

"Picard to bridge. Status?"

 

The officer currently on watch responded almost immediately.

 

"The ship is secured Sir. Mr Riker is on the way to bridge."

 

"Why? Is there something wrong."

 

A slight hesitation.

 

"I wasn't sure whether to wake you yet, Sir. Mr Riker had left

 

orders that you were not to be disturbed unnecessarily. But there are

 

unconfirmed reports coming through of an Imperial attack on Proxima

 

Centauri."

 

"I'm on my way up." Picard closed the channel.

 

Like many captains before him in many navies in many

 

universes, Picard had an uncanny sense of kinship with the vessel and

 

the men in his command. He would not have been able to say what had

 

woken him up, or what change in the ship's sound or atmosphere had

 

alerted him, but something had spoken to him, alerted him that there

 

was something happening, drawn him to his bridge. Picard quickly

 

donned a nearby overall, kept handy for just such moments. All thought

 

of sleep forgotten, he was out the door before he was properly

 

dressed.

 

Riker and the night-duty officer were bent over the

 

communications consoles. Data was at the helm. Even though he did not

 

require sleep, the sentient android had also somehow found his way to

 

the bridge. Picard joined his first officer at the comm-console.

 

"There are two separate reports coming in about attacks at

 

Alpha Centauri." Riker informed him.

 

"I thought you said Proxima Centauri." Picard accused the

 

second officer.

 

"Yes, three reports came in from Proxima, two starships were

 

destroyed by several destroyers in a surprise attack. Reports from

 

Proxima city confirmed three destroyers and at least two dozen

 

fighter-type craft in the system before the communications relays were

 

silenced. These have just come in."

 

Both systems were only a handful of light years away, heavily

 

populated and heavily defended. That they were attacked nearly

 

simultaneously suggested that the Imperials were seriously on the

 

move.

 

"Centauri have requested reinforcements," Riker continued,

 

"But Sol is the nearest system and the fastest ships here will take at

 

least an hour to get there."

 

"Have any been dispatched."

 

"Three light cruisers. Starfleet HQ is reluctant to reduce the

 

Earth defense."

 

Picard nodded. It was a token gesture, but they couldn't

 

afford to ignore the pleas for help, neither could they realistically

 

weaken Sol defense. The Sol system was too heavily populated even for

 

twenty GCS's to adequately cover. One of the comm-console operators

 

bent sharply forward, listening intently, catching Picard's attention.

 

"Sirius defense has reported that they are engaging the enemy.

 

Two destroyers plus fighters."

 

"That's eight light years away. They are attacking three

 

systems simultaneously! All of them close by." Riker exclaimed

 

incredulously. "How many ships do they have?"

 

"We know two have been destroyed. That leaves at least four

 

destroyers, possibly as many as seven or eight." Picard answered.

 

"Antilles also indicated that they may have lesser ships, frigates,

 

cruisers, dreadnoughts and so on, but we haven't seen any yet." He did

 

not mention Antilles fears that there were possibly two or three

 

larger destroyers at large as well. Imperial II Star Destroyers he had

 

called them.

 

"They must have committed all their forces to these attacks."

 

Riker speculated.

 

"The reports mention a total of five destroyers so far." The

 

signals officer noted.

 

"Starfleet response?" Picard asked.

 

"The Excelsior and Atlantis have been ordered to Sirius along

 

with a task force of four light cruisers." Another signals officer

 

informed Picard.

 

Two of the galaxy class starships plus several smaller ships.

 

Picard wasn't surpirsed. Sirius had extensive shipyards plus mining

 

and manufacturing facilities to support them. After Earth and Mars, it

 

was also an important ship-building system.

 

"Number one, bring the ship to battle-stations." Picard

 

ordered.

 

Riker raised his eyebrows, but gave the orders.

 

"You think we're next?" He asked Picard when he returned.

 

"Yes, all the attacks are close by, we are the only base able

 

to provide reinforcements. They are drawing off ships from here."

 

"Even if they have nine destroyers, there are still eighteen

 

galaxy class ships plus support here. And they have already committed

 

most if not all their resources in these attacks." Riker commented.

 

"I doubt they'll do more than destroy communications relays -

 

after requests for reinforcements have been sent - and maybe a bit of

 

bombardment. Remember how fast those destroyers are. Most likely it is

 

the same ships jumping from one system to another and focussing their

 

forces against the local defenders. Once they've done enough damage,

 

they jump to the next system. I will stake my reputation that we are

 

on their list."

 

"Even so. You think they will take on Earth Defense?" Riker

 

asked.

 

"Yes. Once they have drawn off a few more ships, I expect they

 

will bring their full force to bear on us here." Picard turned to the

 

signals officer. "Can you get Admiral Petrov on the comm. Tell him not

 

to send any more reinforcements to other systems, and to prepare for

 

an imminent Imperial attack."

 

The signals officer bent to his task, but several minutes

 

later indicated his frustration to Picard. He hadn't been able to get

 

past the Admiral's aides, but the message back had been that Starfleet

 

had no choice but to respond to the attacks. They were satisfied that

 

Earth was adequately defended. The only consoling factor was that a

 

stand-by alert had been sent to all ships in-system. The aide had

 

indicated that other captains in the system had drawn the same

 

conclusions as Picard, and brought their ships to battle-stations. It

 

was better than nothing, Picard supposed.

 

Two more nearby star systems were subjected to raids. All of

 

them were of the older colonies, heavily populated, and settled during

 

the first expansion drives into space in the early days of

 

interstellar travel. These worlds were the core worlds of the

 

Federation, Earth's staunchest allies, and Starfleet couldn't ignore

 

their pleas. Three more galaxy class ships and smaller cruisers were

 

dispatched to attacked systems, and other ships to systems likely to

 

be attacked if the pattern persisted. Earth defense was now down to

 

thirteen starships, still supported by fifteen smaller ships, and

 

three of the new defiant class frigates.

 

The thirteen ships spread out through the system. Four of them

 

took up station in Earth orbit, two more in Lunar orbit. Three ships

 

took up defensive positions near the Mars shipyards. Another GCS

 

patrolled the outer Solar System, where literally dozens of stations

 

were located on moons or in orbit around the gas giants or on Pluto.

 

The Enterprise and the remaining two starships patrolled the mid

 

ranges of the Sol System, covering the colonies on Jupiters moons, as

 

well as the asteroid mining belts. The dozen or more cruisers and

 

frigates were spread thinly through the system, covering many of the

 

more sensitive installations. Picard still felt that they were too

 

exposed. There were hundreds of stations through the system, from the

 

mining facilities on Mercury to the large populations on the Jovian

 

moons that were virtually undefended.

 

Still reports were coming in from nearby systems. Proxima city

 

had come back on line. They reported all orbital installations

 

destroyed, two cities on the surface had been obliterated, and there

 

was no sign of the four ships which had been defending the colonies.

 

The death toll on the surface was estimated in the tens of millions.

 

The Imperials had made no attempt to land, but had destroyed all

 

space-port facilities as well. There was nothing more Earth Defense

 

could do. Their forces were spread too thinly, but at least they could

 

prevent the Imperials from holding any more strategic positions.

 

Picard knew that it would take them decades to recover from the losses

 

suffered in these attacks. In a war of attrition, their only hope of

 

defeating the Imperials lay in Antilles destroying their manufacturing

 

and supply bases, which were way out of Federation reach.

 

Picard glanced at a readout on his command chair's display. It

 

had been nearly fifteen minutes since the last attack on any system.

 

For the Imperials it was now or never. The task forces dispatched from

 

Earth was well on their way to their destinations, but in a few hours

 

would start returning. Against all his hopes, his fears were realised

 

when he saw the signals officer snap to attention.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

 

 

"There are two destroyers bombarding the mining bases on

 

mercury." The bases were long-deserted, the crews taken to safety, but

 

the destruction would be felt.

 

"The Solar observatory has been destroyed."

 

"The Mercury orbital depot has been destroyed."

 

"The out-system sub-space relays have been destroyed."

 

Reports were coming in from all over the Solar system of

 

deserted bases, stations, laboratories, orbital way-stations, relays

 

and mines being destroyed. Picard remained silent. His jaw clenched.

 

"Why aren't we doing something?" A sensor operator demanded.

 

"And leave which station undefended? That's exactly what

 

they're trying to make us do." Riker barked. "Maintain discipline. We

 

will hold our position. There are people down below depending on us!"

 

On the view-screen the system status display showed one of the

 

GCS's defending Mars streak away at warp-speed. It flashed past the

 

position of a destroyer which was systematically destroying the

 

satellites orbiting Venus. It didn't bother with phasers - fired from

 

warp they were too weak - but launched a full brace of eight torpedoes

 

at the destroyer. The Imperial ship must have been waiting for just

 

such an attack, and was already accelerated at nearly 1400 gees

 

(14km/s/s) perpendicular to the line of attack. The torpedoes warped

 

past only two kilometres behind it, unable to match the manoeuvre

 

with only a sustainer field motivating them. The torpedoes dropped out

 

of warp, executed a sharp turn, and accelerated at close to 3000g

 

(30km/s/s) after the destroyer which was already several hundred

 

thousand kilometres away. They had no hope of a positive intercept,

 

the Destroyers guns would have enough time to track and destroy them.

 

At the Mars shipyards, the two remaining GCS's had both come

 

under attack, each exchanging fire with a destroyer, while a third

 

destroyer dropped neatly out of hyperspace beyond the shipyards, and

 

fired several devastating broadsides into the huge frameworks. The

 

energy readings from this ship was nearly sixty percent higher than

 

any destroyer observed so far. The Imperials had brought their heavy

 

artillery along. The GCS which had broken station was streaking back

 

to it's cover position, but the destroyers broke off their attack

 

before it arrived, leaving a severely damaged shipyard behind.

 

"Sir!" An ensign called. Picard touched his command controls,

 

echoing the ensigns display on his chair's padd.

 

There was a large concentration of ships at a point two

 

light-years out, in deep-space. The Imperials staging point, several

 

minutes away at maximum warp, there was no point in attacking it. It

 

was difficult to estimate the number of ships, but the fluctuations in

 

the readings clearly showed that ships were continually jumping to and

 

from this point, responding to the movement of Federation ships

 

in-system. The Imperials were calmly deploying their ships through

 

hyperspace to any weak point observed in the Federation defences, and

 

retreating when attacked, making no attempt to directly engage the

 

federation forces. Slowly but surely, the damage to outlying parts of

 

the System was accumulating.

 

"Hold station." Picard ordered quietly. The battle hadn't come

 

their way yet.

 

Three Imperial ships, smaller than the star destroyers,

 

dreadnoughts according to Antilles descriptions, jumped to the far

 

side of the Moon. They fired several broadsides at the deserted

 

landscape below them. On his display Picard also noticed several

 

fusion detonations on the surface.

 

"What are they up to?" Riker asked.

 

The ships in earth orbit were firing at the dreadnoughts, but

 

at a range of two light seconds or more, the dreadnoughts were easily

 

able to evade phaser fire, and to track and destroy incoming

 

torpedoes. The two starships defending the Lunar base were unable to

 

bring their weapons to bear, with the mass of the Moon between them

 

and the Imperials.

 

The answer to Rikers question came several seconds later.

 

"Lunar city reporting damage from seismic shock-waves. They

 

won't survive if the quakes continue much longer."

 

One of the starships in Lunar orbit went to low warp,

 

streaking around the moon, and firing torpedoes at the three attacking

 

ships. The ships exchanged fire for several seconds at a point-blank

 

range of only a few thousand kilometres. Even at low-warp the GCS was

 

unable to avoid the incoming fire at this range, and took the full

 

force of several ionised weapons on its shields. The dreadnoughts

 

themselves were close to losing their shields, despite continual

 

rolling and crossing in front of each other to draw fire. After a few

 

more seconds they flickered out of existence. Meanwhile, the remaining

 

GCS over Lunar City had been attacked by no less than three Star

 

Destroyers. A fourth destroyer, of the mark II variety, ignored the

 

battle, and calmly fired several heavy broadsides onto the undefended

 

city below. The GCS ignored its three attackers, and fired all its

 

weapons at the ISD2. Under fire from three ships itself, it was forced

 

to warp away before significantly reducing the Imperial's shields.

 

Both GCS's assigned to Lunar defense came warping back in a

 

strafing run, but the four destroyers in Lunar orbit ignored them, all

 

four firing on the huge space dock in Lunar orbit. The two federation

 

ships came around for a second run, but the four destroyers jumped

 

away, one of them leaving several chunks of hull metal behind, but

 

showing no other significant sign of damage. The Lunar space-dock was

 

an incandescent wreck.

 

The Imperials kept up their attacks. They would draw the

 

defenders towards one point, then attack whichever point had been left

 

undefended. The power of their weaponry was such that only one or two

 

broadsides did tremendous damage to the mostly unshielded Federation

 

facilities. Their ships never stayed in one place long enough to take

 

significant fire. Picard knew that the Federation would have to change

 

their tactics.

 

"Make to Starfleet, 'Request permission to leave station.'" He

 

ordered.

 

"Permission Denied. Maintain Jovian Defense." Came the

 

response. With Data at the Helm the Enterprise was the ship rated best

 

able to defend the colonies in the Jovian planetary system.

 

"Our sub-space receivers have been disrupted by enemy

 

jamming." Picard told the surprised technician. "Request Missouri to

 

take over our position. Request Nippon and Vaslav to follow our

 

example. Mr Data, you are cleared for warp manoeuvring. We will

 

commence full torpedo strafing of any and all Imperial incursions.

 

Have all torpedo launch tubes slaved to helm control. Phasers are

 

free, Mr Riker."

 

The orders were met by a chorus of 'Yes sirs'. Picard was no

 

longer prepared to sit back and take the beating, and neither was his

 

crew. The Enterprise shot clear across the system in fifteen seconds

 

to where the Imperials were launching an attack on Pluto in it's

 

orbital position on the far side of Sol, he cut the warp velocity to

 

warp 3, bringing the ship onto a near collision course with a

 

Destroyer. All forward tubes fired on the vector, launching eight

 

torpedoes before Data was forced to break the vector or collide with a

 

full broadside of incoming turbolaser fire. The Enterprise shot away

 

at warp 5, made a hairpin turn at warp 2, came in on another vector at

 

Warp 4 bearing down on the same Destroyer and launched another brace

 

of torpedoes. The Destroyer was accelerating at all of 1800g

 

(18km/s/s), an incredible feat of acceleration given that unlike

 

federation ships it's mass was not shunted away into sub-space, but it

 

was standing still by comparison to the warping Enterprise.

 

Under most conditions, warp fly-bys against 'relatively'

 

stationary targets were an exercise in frustration and wastefulness.

 

The technique required the torpedo's sustainer field to discharge just

 

short and ahead of the target, so that the torpedo could accelerate

 

under impulse power and make the intercept. If the torpedo collided

 

with the target at warp velocities it would result in the collapsing

 

of the warp sustainer field against the enemy shields and the futile

 

destruction of the torpedo. A torpedo which dropped out of warp too

 

soon would still be too far from the target, and could be shot down or

 

avoided, while a torpedo that overshot the target before dropping out

 

of warp would be too far beyond the target to hope to accelerate back

 

and intercept the target.

 

To overcome this it was necessary to slow down to less than

 

warp 1, otherwise the sheer velocity of warp would work against the

 

torpedo. Conventional tactics required the warping vessel to

 

momentarily drop out of warp close to the enemy, before launching the

 

torpedoes, then warp away before taking too many hits yourself. With

 

Data at the helm the Enterprise had the luxury of not having to drop

 

out of warp altogether.

 

The Imperials were forced to cut short their attack, since

 

they had no opportunity to fire back, and could not afford to take too

 

many hits for fear of suffering damage or shield loss. Twice more

 

Picard repeated this tactic, strafing the Imperials wherever they

 

launched an attack. With Data at the Helm, they could accelerate and

 

cut clear across to any point in the Solar System in less than 20

 

seconds. One or two other galaxy class starships started employing

 

similar tactics, though with human pilots at the helm they kept their

 

maximum speed to warp 5, and tended to drop out of warp when engaging

 

the enemy to allow for greater torpedo accuracy.

 

[sidenote to Trekkies: Warp 7 ~ 767c ~ three minutes across

 

the solar system; Warp 9.99 ~ 7912c ~ 20 seconds across the solar

 

system; Enterprise max speed is only about 3500c (warp 9.9?) so I am

 

being generous]

 

Soon the battle deteriorated into half a dozen starships

 

tearing from one side of the Solar System to another at high warp

 

vectors, attacking Imperial ships wherever they appeared. Ultimately,

 

the exercise was futile. The Imperials could attack any point at will,

 

get off a few broadsides causing varying amounts of damage, then Jump

 

away from the harrying Federation ships. The damage toll was still

 

climbing, but at a very slow rate, and neither side was getting

 

anywhere. The Imperials started dropping mines wherever they Jumped

 

to, but the federation ships cleared the minefields with phasers fired

 

at wide angle dispersion rates. Picard knew that in a sustained battle

 

two things would begin to tell on the Federation ships. They would

 

start running out of torpedoes, and the warp cores would start losing

 

integrity from being continually powered up and down from warp 1 to

 

warp 7 every few seconds (there was no time to get as high as warp 9

 

before having to decelerate). But the Imperials didn't know that, and

 

he could only hope that the nature of the battle was wearing on their

 

ships as well.

 

Then it was all over. The Imperials disappeared altogether.

 

Several minutes went by without an attack. Long range sensor scans

 

found no trace of energy sources or high-density alloys (hull metals)

 

anywhere close to the Solar System. Around them, the Solar System was

 

a shambles. Lunar city, which had been home to several million people,

 

was a smoking lava filled ruin. The incandescent ruin which had been

 

Lunar Orbital Dock had crashed into the Mare Imbrium. The Mars

 

shipyards were for all intents and purposes destroyed. Hundreds of

 

mining installations and other small facilities all over the system

 

were devastated. Hundreds of years of Human development had been

 

shattered in little more than an hour. It would take five years to a

 

decade to rebuild.

 

Picard couldn't even begin to comprehend the number of people

 

killed. While Earth itself had not come under attack, two billion

 

people were scattered through the rest of the Solar system. Of these,

 

he had no doubt that there would be close to a hundred million dead,

 

if not more. A number of smaller ships, frigates, cruisers, and so on,

 

were damaged and a handful had been destroyed. The defensive fleet as

 

a whole though was largely unscathed. No doubt questions would be

 

asked regarding Starfleet's ability to hold off the Imperials. He knew

 

that he himself had flagrantly disregarded orders, but his tactics had

 

been proven right in the final analysis. Not that it was any

 

consolation to the dead.

 

Picard didn't even want to think about what they would find in

 

the Old Colonies. These systems were the hard core of the Federation

 

of Planets, and they had all come under severe attack leading up to

 

the assault on Earth. Despite having successfully defended their home,

 

there were many grim faces on the Enterprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antilles surveyed his bridge. He was feeling a bit overcrowded. The

 

Klingons were clustered around a holographic display he had designated

 

for their observations. A droid manned the display, and made

 

adjustments according to their orders. Behind his chair were the Jedi.

 

Two federation ensigns designated by Worf were also on the bridge,

 

ostensibly to act as liaison between the Republic and federation

 

forces but no doubt to spy on Republic and Imperial tactics. Antilles

 

was sure that the hand-held devices they consulted continually were

 

recording mechanisms of some kind. The inertial dampening fields had

 

been retuned slightly to interfere with their recorders, and the last

 

'service' of many of the bridge consoles and computers had included

 

the distribution of sensor-dampening fields.

 

He had quietly integrated two or three espionage droids into

 

the bridge crew to spy on them as well, and a number of stormtroopers

 

had been posted near more sensitive displays and consoles ostensibly

 

to 'repel boarders' if required.

 

He shoved all these things out of his mind. The fleet would

 

arrive at the last nav point in a few more seconds. He heard the CAG

 

order the A-wing pilots to stand by for launch. A reading on his

 

personal display started a countdown. Antilles tried to relax and

 

convince himself that all possibilities had been accounted for. A

 

change in the subliminal vibration of the deck told him that the Jump

 

was over. All around the deck, displays came to life, holo-displays

 

started building up images of the surrounding star systems. The CAG's

 

personal status display indicated several launches as the scouts were

 

dispatched. On Antilles own ship status display, he saw the halo

 

indicating shields light up as the deflector and ray shields were

 

powered up. In seconds, the ship was battle-ready.

 

"No encroachments." A look-out called from his scanner

 

console.

 

"Confirmed." A second look-out called.

 

Several 'Ayes' sounded as various crewers completed their

 

multiple rendundant checks.

 

On his own display, Antilles noted that a freshly launched

 

squadron of x-wings had formed up in flanking positions. Several more

 

sensor-stealthed A-wings disappeared into hyperspace, the fast

 

starfighters being the preferred scouts in these situations.

 

The strategic display was fast filling in details of nearby

 

star-systems as the scanners rotated through them, then augmenting the

 

information as A-wings arrived in those systems. Soon the expanding

 

cloud of A-wings would reach the system designated Imperial Prime.

 

"Hull alloys detected in Imperial Prime."

 

On Antilles display a map of Imperial Prime took shape.

 

Several planets were marked with the bright green of high-tech alloys

 

which were a give-away of unnatural substances. Nerak glanced at him,

 

but he waved for the scouting to continue. Several more nearby systems

 

were scouted before Antilles gave his first order.

 

"Fleet Jump to nav point Beta-five."

 

Seconds later the fleet jumped to the point thus referenced.

 

The Jump brought them to a point in deep-space within three

 

light-years of Imperial Prime. The CAG was bringing more A-wings into

 

the outskirts of the system, creating an array of sensors around the

 

system which greatly augmented the scanning and detection abilities of

 

the fleet.

 

"Several mining operations underway in the system," a look-out

 

reported, "major orbital activity in Prime IV, which is a galactic

 

standard planet. There is also extensive activity on the surface and

 

immediately below the surface of Prime IV. Energy readings are

 

consistent with manufacturing and mineral refinement facilities.

 

Orbital readings indicate a grade 1 shipyard, and something else." The

 

look-out hesitated, drawing a glance from Antilles. "It's a Golan II

 

orbital platform."

 

"That's impossible." Nerak exclaimed. "Check your readings."

 

"This station concurs." Another look-out called.

 

Nerak opened his mouth as if to say something, but was cut off

 

by Antilles.

 

"No fleet activity?"

 

"No, Sir. There is no sign of any ships other than a few

 

shuttles."

 

"Tell Restrainer to stand by. Launch all fighters, keep the

 

federation ships onboard till we get there. It may be a trap, but

 

we're going in. Fleet Jump, Norulak dispersal pattern, with variation,

 

stay away from the Golan II until we've sterilised the rest of the

 

system."

 

Throughout the small fleet, ships made the quick calculation

 

to their designated targets, then Jumped as one. The Peacemaker itself

 

jumped to the outer edge of the system, arriving just in time to watch

 

the battle begin. The three Liberator cruisers and six frigates

 

dispersed throughout the system, destroying everything in sight. No

 

ships approached the massive Golan II platform yet. In the meanwhile,

 

Peacemaker tractor launched the Defiant and the two Klingon ships,

 

which joined in the sterilisation process. On Prime IV the Imperials

 

had raised the planetary shields. They must have had at least five

 

shield projectors spread across their area of operations, as nearly a

 

third of a hemisphere was covered by the shields. Several squadrons of

 

Ties joined the Golan II station in orbit.

 

"We have detected a transmission in Imperial battle code. It

 

was routed through an out-system booster relay."

 

"They're calling in their fleet. As far as we know their fleet

 

isn't anywhere within fifty light years, which gives us at least a

 

half hour."

 

"Dispatch a fighter to destroy the relay. Order all ships to

 

rendesvous here as soon as their designated targets are destroyed."

 

Minutes later, the only Imperial facilities left were those on

 

Prime IV. Antilles was reluctant to take the fleet into range of the

 

Golan II station. Even though they outgunned the huge station, they

 

would not be able to take it down without sustaining significant

 

damage. Maybe there was a use for the Federation ships after all, he

 

mused.

 

"Order the Defiant and the two Klingon warbirds to engage the

 

Golan platform at warp velocities." He told the CAG, "make sure they

 

all target the same point on the platform's defensive grid.

 

Co-ordinate the attack with a follow-up run on the same point with a

 

squadron of B-wings. The X-wings and A-wings can run cover to keep the

 

Ties off their backs. We will execute a jump-attack on the same flank

 

on their second run."

 

The CAG acknowledged the order and started co-ordinating his

 

forces. He had a full squadron of B-Wings execute an attack run on the

 

station, forcing the TIEs to make a run on the B-wings. The moment the

 

TIE's were committed, the CAG sent his X-wings and A-wings into their

 

flanks. The TIE's were forced to break formation and take on the

 

X-Wings and A-Wings in a dogfight. Just before the B-Wings came within

 

firing range of the Golan, the Defiant and the warbirds flashed past

 

at warp, launching several torpedoes into the platform's flank. The

 

photon torpedoes served to severely deplete the platform's shields,

 

with the B-wing's run almost knocking them out. The Golan fired

 

several futile broadsides at the Federation ships, which warped out of

 

range, and the B-Wings escaped with minimal losses.

 

The B-Wings came around in a repeat of the maneuvre, with

 

several X-wings in support now that most of the TIEs had been cleared

 

away. The A-Wings flew cover for the attack run, and the Defiant and

 

the two Klingons once again pre-empted the fighters run with a volley

 

of torpedoes. This time the hard pressed platform's shields flickered

 

wildly under the bombardment. The Peacemaker flashed into the space

 

vacated by the fighters, and fired a full broadside into the nearly

 

unshielded platforms flank. The Golan brought it's guns back around to

 

bear on the battle-cruiser, allowing the fighters to escape one more

 

time. The huge space station exchanged planet-battering energies with

 

the battle-cruiser, but with already weakened shields one section

 

after another fell into darkness as the damage took it's toll.

 

The huge battle-cruiser fired a full volley of fusion warhead

 

tipped missiles into the now undefended flank, and accelerated away as

 

the huge station was ripped apart by the internal detonations. The

 

battle-cruiser left the remains of the station in it's ionised wake as

 

it moved in closer to the planet below. The three carriers and their

 

frigates Jumped into position to provide fire support during the

 

bombardment. The ships first concentrated their fire on the makeshift

 

orbital shipyard, then turned their guns on the planet below.

 

Prime IV was defended by huge planetary shields over large

 

areas of one hemisphere, but there was no planetary population to

 

consider, no resources that Antilles needed to capture on this planet,

 

no facilities he needed or wanted. His only goal was to destroy

 

everything on the planet.

 

On the Defiant Worf watched dispassionately as the four huge

 

Republic ships and the Frigates concentrated their fire on an

 

undefended area of the planet. In seconds they had blasted a hole

 

through several kilometres of crust into the mantle of the planet.

 

Seismic shockwaves that were visible from orbit expanded outwards from

 

the targeted site, which was surrounded by a slowly expanding ring of

 

magma. The atmosphere in the targeted area boiled into space, pushed

 

outwards by magma bursts which rose several kilometres above the

 

surface. Still the ships kept up their bombardment, pumping energy

 

into the mantle of the planet. Hundreds of quakes were picked up on

 

the sensors of the orbiting ships, working up to a crescendo of

 

violence which resulted in the entire continent below splitting apart

 

in hundred mile long volcanic eruptions.

 

From orbit it looked like a red-orange cancer was spreading

 

over the surface of the planet, with huge cracks radiating in all

 

directions. A number of planetary shield generators were knocked out

 

by the seismic shock-waves, allowing the bombarding ships to shift

 

their fire ever closer to the main Imperial positions. One by one the

 

last of the shield generators were knocked out. The chances that

 

anything still lived on the surface were remote, but the Republic

 

warships kept up their bombardment until it seemed the entire planet

 

was one molten mess. The atmosphere had long since exploded into

 

space.

 

 

 

 

 

The Restrainer was maintaining an artificial gravity well

 

outside the Imperial Prime system, on the likely vector of any

 

incoming ships from the direction of Federation space. The gravity

 

well extended for several million kilometres, simulating an artificial

 

star system. The Republic fleet surrounded the gravity well in a three

 

dimansional pincer formation, ready to pounce on any Imperial ships

 

thus trapped. Antilles organised a private holo-conference in his

 

ward room with his captains. The Federation and Klingon personnel were

 

not invited.

 

"Where do you think all their ships were?"

 

"How did they get a Golan II station out here?"

 

"How did they manage to assemble nearly an entire shipyard

 

facility?"

 

These were the questions being debated in the meeting. It

 

seemed that republic intelligence had seriously underestimated the

 

size of the Imperial task force, or the amount of resources they had

 

had at their disposal. It was quite possible that the Golan could have

 

been brought over on a Leviathan transport. The five mile long

 

freighters were quite capable of transporting such huge stations. But

 

then where was the Leviathan? Had the Imperials disassembled it for

 

materials? What else had the Leviathan brought along? Antilles

 

speculated that the Imperials could possibly have a second base, but

 

doubted it. Such a huge task force would surely have caused more of a

 

resource drain than Republic spies had picked up. He had a bad

 

feeling, and he could see the Jedi were troubled too.

 

The Mon Calamari, Captain Sulman also believed that the

 

Imperials could have a second base, but the Sullustan captain Seleb

 

Seyud was doubtful. The argument continued for several hours. They

 

were reluctant to commit to searching for another Imperial base, since

 

it might turn out to be a wild goose chase. Hanging over their heads

 

was the thought that home was more than four years away, and although

 

they had subjectively only experienced a few months in this galaxy,

 

they had missed out more than five years of whatever was transpiring

 

at home.

 

The consensus seemed to be that having destroyed two ISD's,

 

and an extensive resupply centre, they may have done enough to cripple

 

Imperial efforts in this galaxy. A full day had passed since the

 

destruction of the Imperial base, and many were beginning to doubt

 

that any Imperial ships would return. Possibly they knew that the base

 

was destroyed, and suspected that they would be returning to a trap.

 

Antilles believed different.

 

"No, the fact that there were no capital ships on defense here

 

implies that they must be participating in a big raid in Federation

 

territory. That's more than eighteen hours away, so we will give them

 

another half a day. If no ships return we will resume our hunt for

 

another three months." There was a collective groan from around the

 

room. This far from Federation space there was no way to find out what

 

was happening. Antilles just hoped that the Federation could handle

 

it. He was not prepared to play nurse-maid for them. If they couldn't

 

handle a full-scale Imperial raid, tough.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 

 

 

 

"Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge!"

 

Antilles walked out onto the bridge, he had been taking a nap

 

in the small captain's room attached to the bridge.

 

"Status." He asked, as he sat in his command seat.

 

On the holo-display in front of him he saw an Imperial

 

dreadnought caught in the Restrainer's gravity well. Even as he

 

watched, it was joined by two carrack cruisers and another

 

dreadnought.

 

"Open fire, move into containment position. CAG?"

 

"We had six squadrons in position, the rest were on stand-by

 

and are launching now."

 

"Guns?"

 

"The enemy was surprised by the gravity-well, they are

 

obviously not at battle-stations, no significant return fire from them

 

yet."

 

On the holo display, one of the dreadnoughts was being hard

 

pressed by two Liberator carrier-cruisers, and the Peacemaker itself

 

was targeting the second dreadnought. The fighters were concentrating

 

fire on the smaller ships for now. The Peacemaker's firepower was too

 

much for the old dreadnought, which had first seen service more than

 

forty years ago. It's shields caved in on the third dorsal broadside

 

(most of the Dauntless battle-cruisers guns came to bear at this

 

position), but as the fourth broadside ripped into it's hull a Victory

 

Star Destroyer flashed in nearby.

 

"Come around to vector three-twenty by seven-forty, engage the

 

VSD."

 

The first dreadnought was careening out of control, and one of

 

the Liberators turned it's guns on the ship damaged by the Peacemaker.

 

The other two Liberators were also coming around to take on the VSD.

 

They were forced to come around again as an ISD flickered in right in

 

the middle of the battle, barely three thousand kilometers away. The

 

two Liberators split into a left-hook right-hook manoeuvre, so they

 

could fire full broadsides at the ISD, while staying out of the ISD's

 

devastating dorsal cone of fire. Individually they were no match for

 

an ISD, but they had superb shielding, and working together they

 

should be able to take it down. Antilles turned his attention back to

 

the VSD. It was banking sharply, attempting to draw them into the

 

ISD's dorsal cone of fire. Antilles ordered the Peacemaker to break

 

off the attack, and joined in on the punch-up with the ISD. The VSD

 

would have to wait.

 

A second ISD flashed in, and a third, accompanied by two more

 

dreadnoughts and several Lancers.

 

"Stay on this target." Antilles ordered his fleet, the ISD's

 

shields were nearly down.

 

"I've got him," the CAG called, as three of the ISD's shields

 

caved in nearly simultaneously.

 

The Imperials had formed an attack group with the two fresh

 

ISD's at the centre, flanked by the VSD on one side and the Lancers on

 

the other. They were beginning to launch TIEs at a prodigious rate.

 

"Designate ISD Averam, fighters to disable Averam, then clear

 

out the TIEs, capital ships concentrate fire on ISD designated

 

Bortras."

 

The Republic fleet closed in on the Imperials from all sides,

 

the six Frigates joining in. Behind the Peacemaker, the ISD Averam was

 

rocked by several proton torpedoes fired at point-blank range by the

 

Republic fighters.

 

The CAG brought his B-Wings in on an attack vector on the

 

second ISD, designated Bortras. Two squadrons of TIEs screamed in to

 

defend the ISD, and the B-Wings broke away, allowing a squadron of

 

A-Wings to come storming past in a slash attack as the TIEs followed

 

the B-Wings. With the ISD thus exposed, the X-wings went in, firing

 

volley after volley of proton torpedoes at point-blank range. The

 

distracted ISD tried to turn to avoid the incoming X-Wings, and failed

 

to avoid a full broadside from the Peacemaker. The Imperial captain

 

quickly re-assessed his priorities, and ignoring the X-wings, resumed

 

formation. The TIEs were returning, to clear the X-Wings from the ISD,

 

and the X-Wings allowed themselves to be chased away, as the B-Wings

 

made a run on the other ISD.

 

Antilles felt the deck vibrate as the massive shield

 

generators absorbed the punishing turbolaser blasts of the two ISD's.

 

The three Federation ships were concentrating their fire on the

 

smaller Imperial frigates, keeping them out of the battle. They were

 

using the manoeuvrability to good advantage, and were taking a heavy

 

toll on the small capital ships.

 

"Shield generators at 85% efficiency. Shields recharging

 

through 95%"

 

Another broadside rocked the huge ship. But the Peacemaker was

 

giving as much as it got and more. Antilles knew that he had one of

 

the ISD's down to twenty percent shield coverage, and the other at

 

forty percent. The battle between the starfighters had shifted towards

 

the edge of the huge gravity well. A few more minutes and the ISD's

 

would be at his mercy.

 

Another two wedge shapes flashed into the gravity well. Two

 

more ISD's Antilles thought, then corrected himself, one of them was

 

an ISD2. That changed things considerably.

 

"Our shields are down." The Freedom Fighter reported. "We are

 

taking damage."

 

"Withdraw along vector seven-thirteen by nine-forty five.

 

Deliverance and Emancipator cover their retreat."

 

"ISD designated Chandrila has shields down. ISD designated

 

Bortras is withdrawing."

 

"Concentrate fire on ISD Chandrila, fighters to target

 

Bortras."

 

A hard vibration thrummed through the Dauntless class

 

battle-cruiser as the ISD2 opened fire.

 

"Shield generators at 70%, Shields momentarily down to 80%,

 

and recharging slowly."

 

On the display, several orange explosions rocked the

 

Chandrila, and the Bortras was nearly obscured by a cloud of

 

starfighters, most of them TIEs. Drastically outnumbered, the Republic

 

starfighters were forced to withdraw.

 

"Come around to Vector twelve-fifteen by two-forty. All ships

 

target the ISD2, designate target Daltar, designate the next ISD

 

Endor." Another ISD flashed in, the fifth ISD to join the battle so

 

far. One ISD had been reduced to junk, two more were severely damaged

 

and racing for the edge of the gravity well under the cover of several

 

squadrons of TIEs, but now there two fresh ISD1s and an ISD2.

 

"Designate last ISD Filve." Antilles called.

 

The Peacemaker was firing on the ISD2, Daltar, and was soon

 

joined by the Deliverance and Emancipator. Several hard vibrations

 

coursed through the ship as a volley of heavy turbolaser fire hit the

 

shields.

 

"Vector eleven-forty seven by ten-twenty. Shield report."

 

Antilles ordered.

 

"Generators at forty percent, shields at sixty two percent.

 

Daltar's shields at 84%, generator status unavailable."

 

"CAG?"

 

"I am beginning to lose fighters, we are now outnumbered two

 

to one, and the Imperials are still launching more."

 

On the tactical display, Antilles noticed the two ISD's

 

designated Endor and Filve angling towards the Restrainer. That left

 

target Daltar alone with the VSD and various frigates. The three

 

Republic capital ships were all firing on the Daltar, even the lightly

 

armed CC-9600 Frigates were firing at the ISD2. The race was on as to

 

who would lose shields first. The Peacemaker's generators were nearly

 

all blown, but the Daltar was significantly outgunned by the New

 

Republic capital ships.

 

Antilles noticed that the Federation ships had destroyed

 

several frigates, and were heading towards the ISD's to cover the

 

Restrainer.

 

"Defiant, we need you here. Target the Daltar."

 

The three Federation ships swung away, and streaked towards

 

the huge wedge shape which was the ISD2 designated Daltar. They fired

 

several torpedoes then banked away. The Daltar ignored them, taking

 

the torpedoes in the flank.

 

"Restrainer reports that she is taking hits from the ISDs."

 

"Keep firing on Daltar. Restrainer to hold position for now.

 

CAG, order the fighters to withdraw."

 

Apparently the Imperial starfighters were just as eager to

 

leave the battle, and several were picked up by the two damaged ISD1s

 

hovering at the edge of the gravity well as the Republic fighters

 

broke away.

 

The defiant and the two Klingons dropped out of warp. The ISD2

 

ignored the three small frigate sized ships, concentrating fire on the

 

Peacemaker. Antilles knew it was a mistake, the Federation ships

 

packed considerable punch when they weren't at warp, although their

 

shields were not very powerful.

 

"Shield failure imminent." Nerak called.

 

Antilles didn't bother asking 'ours or theirs'. "Reverse

 

vector, keep firing."

 

The next volley from the ISD2 designated Daltar missed as the

 

Peacemaker changed vector. A second volley was much closer as the

 

enemy gunners tracked the ship on its new vector. The deck rocked

 

under his feet, and a thunderous clang sounded throughout the ship as

 

it took a direct hit on the hull. Several more clangs sounded, and

 

there was a scream of escaping air from somewhere before the breach

 

was contained. In the noise, Antilles missed the elated shouts as the

 

Daltar's shields failed as well, but he saw the orange fireballs on

 

the computer enhanced holographic display. The ISD2 took several

 

turbolaser hits as well as a number of photon torpedo hits.

 

"Restrainer request permission to Jump out. They report

 

imminent shield failure."

 

"Granted."

 

On the holo display, the grey haze defining the artificial

 

gravity well snapped out of existence. The Daltar and the Restrainer

 

vanished into hyperspace nearly simultaneously. The Imperial ship must

 

have been waiting for an opportunity to escape. Antilles was amazed

 

the ISD2 was still able to manage the jump considering the damage it

 

had taken in the last few seconds of the battle. The remaining two

 

ISDs might have made a match of it against the damaged Dauntless

 

battle-cruiser, which was supported by only two Liberators both of

 

which had taken severe beatings on their shields. But a volley of

 

photon torpedoes from the Defiant convinced them it wasn't worth it.

 

They followed the other ships into hyperspace, recovering the last of

 

the Imperial star-fighters while keeping up a steady stream of

 

turbolaser fire in the general direction of the Federation ships,

 

keeping them at warp and reducing the effectiveness of their fire.

 

Suddenly the only ships left were the Republic ships.

 

"Recover the Defiant and the Klingons. Calculate Jump to the

 

rendezvous point. Damage report."

 

"All shield generators blown. Hull breached in two places,

 

decks 1a and 1b are open to vacuum. Hull damaged but not breached in

 

several places. Turbolaser batteries D1 through D6 are out of

 

commission."

 

"Repair status."

 

"Four hours to fifty percent shield generator replacements.

 

Turbolaser batteries D1 through D4 should be repaired within two

 

hours. D5 and D6 will need extensive overhauls, several days worth at

 

best. The hull breaches will require external maintenance, and the

 

ship will have to stand-to for three or four days."

 

"Very well, we will leave that for now. The Liberators?"

 

"Last reports from Freedom Fighter indicated four hull

 

breaches, 79% weapons capability, and various non-critical damage to

 

other systems. The Emancipator and Deliverance have lost a few shield

 

generators, and have some hull-scarring, but are otherwise undamaged."

 

"All fighters recovered," called the CAG.

 

"Jump to rendezvous point."

 

 

 

 

 

Two days later the republic fleet arrived back in federation space.

 

Most of the ships still carried scars on their hulls as testimony to

 

the battles they had fought. For the first time they learnt of the

 

raids on the Federation core worlds, and were able to compare notes.

 

Only one ISD2 had participated in the Earth raid as far as Federation

 

records showed, and Antilles knew that it was now seriously damaged.

 

One ISD had been destroyed, and two were now badly damaged, although

 

two ISD's and the VSD had escaped undamaged.

 

Two dreadnoughts had also been destroyed, and another two had

 

been observed making a getaway while the Republic fleet had

 

concentrated on the Star Destroyers. The Imperials had also suffered

 

heavy losses amongst their standard TIEs, although the TIE defenders

 

of course had mostly escaped. Several frigates had been destroyed or

 

badly damaged by the Federation ships in the battle.

 

"As far as we know, there are two undamaged ISD's and one

 

undamaged VSD out there, along with two undamaged dreadnoughts, and a

 

handful of frigates and light cruisers. The ISD2 is not a

 

consideration, they don't have the shipyard facilities to fix it."

 

"Then you feel our mission has been accomplished?"

 

"Yes. The Imperials don't have the resource base to be a

 

threat to anybody in this galaxy now. It is likely that they will now

 

return to our galaxy. Even if they don't, it will be impossible to

 

find them, so a search will be futile."

 

There were nods of agreement all round.

 

"What about the Imperial regiments holding out on the

 

Federation worlds?" Nerak asked.

 

"They are under near continuous attack or harassment by the

 

Federation forces. They will not be able to hold out much longer."

 

"Perhaps once the news of their fleet's near destruction

 

reaches them they will reconsider."

 

"We cannot allow the planetary shield generators to fall into

 

enemy hands either."

 

"Why not? If it will prevent further damage to their worlds by

 

the Imperials."

 

"Our orders are specifically to avoid Imperial technology of

 

any kind from falling into enemy hands."

 

"If the Imperials surrender to the Federation, or if some of

 

their ships are captured, it would result in the Federation acquiring

 

full knowledge of our star-drive technology and possibly

 

battle-tactics."

 

"Yes, but the Imperials are unlikely to surrender. It is more

 

likely that their ships may be destroyed or severely damaged. But I

 

doubt they will risk damage to their ships without the facilities for

 

overhaul."

 

The argument raged on, between those keen to declare their

 

mission over, and those reluctant to return without having

 

accomplished total destruction of the enemy. In the end, Antilles

 

deferred the decision. The ships would return to their secret base

 

near the galactic core, where all battle-damage would be fully

 

repaired. By the time that was accomplished, they would re-assess the

 

status of the Imperial task force's bid to invade or destroy the

 

Federation, and come to a final decision. The Deliverance, which had

 

sustained the least damage, along with four Frigates, was tasked with

 

observing the fate of the remaining Imperial controlled colonies.

 

Should the colonies fall, the Deliverance was to ensure the

 

destruction of the shield generators, at all costs.

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THE HUNT

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

 

 

The sheer emptiness between the stars is a difficult thing for humans

 

and many other mortals to grasp. The Universe is essentially just

 

empty space. If an entire star system could be reduced to the size of

 

a mote of dust, then the nearest star system would still be several

 

meters away. Imagine an average sized room, in the middle of this room

 

is a single dust-mote. There are no other dust-motes in the room. That

 

is how insignificant a star system is compared to the space around it.

 

The psychology of most mortals were such that they only considered

 

these dust-motes to be important, and therefore they ignore the vast

 

stretches of emptiness between the stars.

 

Brendan Leith had been fully aware of this when searching for

 

an ideal location for his primary base. His super-corporation was well

 

versed in the business of having hidden bases, even entire shipyards.

 

His father had built the corporation by winning several exclusive

 

contracts with Palpatine, including the shipping contract which had

 

supplied the resources for both Death Stars. The corporation had not

 

always taken payment in credits, but had often taken payment in the

 

form of Star Destroyers, planetary mining rights, ship-building deals

 

and various co-operative ventures in the Empire. They had been

 

Palpatine's logical choice of contractor to build his own secret

 

retreats.

 

On the passing of his father the corporation's assets had been

 

divided between Leith and his three brothers. Leith had swapped his

 

assets for these ships, and set off to carve his own empire.

 

Drawing on his company's vast experience, Leith had chosen for

 

his primary base a rogue planet. It was a scarred and burnt husk

 

several times larger than a galactic standard planet which had been

 

stripped of it's atmosphere and much of its surface layers of rock

 

when it's parent star had gone supernova millenia ago. Now it drifted

 

through the vast emptiness between the stars. A few minor adjustments

 

in it's course through interstellar space had ensured that the planet

 

would remain on a course through a relatively empty region of space,

 

with no stars within several light years in any direction.

 

It's size meant it had a higher than standard gravity, but all

 

surface installations had been fitted with gravity dampening devices.

 

The lack of an atmosphere was irrelevant to the hordes of gigantic

 

robo-miners unleashed on it's blackened surface. In orbit around the

 

huge rogue planet were three Golan Arms Mark II weapons platforms, a

 

fully functional shipyard, a matter transmutation facility, three

 

Leviathan freighters - one of which was nothing but a fully

 

self-contained manufacturing facility, and several former Imperial

 

battleships, now the property of Leith's corporation. Several million

 

kilometers away was a network of sensor dampening pods, which

 

effectively reduced the sub-space signature of the base to nothing.

 

The shipyard currently looked like a huge spiders web with an

 

Imperator Mark II Star destroyer trapped in it's strands. The ISD2 was

 

undergoing major repairs. Nearby, two badly damaged ISD1s waited for

 

the shipyards' pleasure. The shipyard itself was surrounded by what at

 

this distance appeared to be breadcrumbs, but which Leith knew to be

 

huge chunks of hull-metals and other alloys which the shipyard droids

 

used as raw materials in the manufacturing process. Floating nearby

 

was the unfinished hull of yet another Star Destroyer. It's crew was

 

still undergoing training on the planetside facilities - where Leith

 

had tens of thousands of people living in hastily built facilities.

 

There had been no shortage of volunteers from amongst the populations

 

of the planets owned by the Leith Corporation. A share of the spoils

 

which would result from the conquest of a new galaxy had been a huge

 

motivating factor.

 

Brendan Leith himself was observing the activity at the

 

shipyard from the bridge of his flagship, the Executor-class Super

 

Star Destroyer Assassin. Leith was not an altogether unhappy man. He

 

had known the New republic would send a task force to hunt him down.

 

He had not known how large or small this task force would be, and

 

therefore had decided not to risk direct confrontation with it. The

 

loss of his secondary base, three star destroyers and several frigates

 

was unfortunate, but it did not worry him too much. The Star Destroyer

 

captain that had allowed the tracking device to be placed on his ship

 

had been executed, and the tracking device destroyed. The remaining

 

ships had spent considerable time scouring their hulls to ensure that

 

none of them had been thus tagged.

 

He still had seven Mark I Star Destroyers left, three

 

Victory-class Star destroyers, two Mark II Star Destroyers, an

 

Interdictor Destroyer, as well as his own flagship and various

 

dreadnoughts, frigates and cruisers. The puny Federation had served as

 

an ideal honey-trap for the Republic task force. Now that he knew what

 

he was up against, he could implement his master plan. First, he

 

wanted to set a trap for the Republic forces and destroy them. Then he

 

would have to neutralize the Federation's allies, the Klingons. They

 

had committed much of their forces to the defense of the Federation,

 

and their own worlds were largely undefended. Then he could resume the

 

task of creating his Empire from the ashes of the Federation.

 

His ground forces on the Federation worlds were hard pressed

 

but safe for the moment. He needed those Federation worlds, they were

 

his only source of food for now, and he had a huge population to feed.

 

They were already on short rations, but the repairs to his ships would

 

take another two days, then it would be time to relieve the forces on

 

those worlds and replenish the diminishing food supplies.

 

 

 

 

 

One hundred and fifty five light years from Sol was a star designated

 

LTT646, with a G8 spectrum, and a luminosity of 0.47. It's second

 

planet was an M-class planet with a gravitational force just slightly

 

less than that of Earth, and an average equatorial temperature of 22

 

degrees on the celsius scale. All in all it was an ideal planet for

 

terraforming, and in the last three hundred years large tracts of the

 

planet had been dedicated to farming. Once it had been a major

 

supplier of nutrient base to the over-populated 'core worlds', but

 

over the last few years it's importance had declined as other worlds

 

much closer to Sol had started competing in the nutrient base

 

industry. After all, at warp 7, which was uncomfortably fast for

 

non-military ships, it was still more than two months away from the

 

Federation 'core worlds.'

 

The two Federation starships orbiting this world had taken

 

nearly a month to reach this planet after it's distress call. The

 

planet was still in the hands of the heavily entrenched Imperial

 

invaders who had repelled three attempts to retake the planet. A force

 

of three Galaxy starships were on their way to the planet, carrying

 

several thousand freshly-trained troops with which they hoped to

 

finally retake the planet. The starships were due to arrive in another

 

ten days.

 

Captain Brandei of the ISD2 Bellicose was in charge of this

 

mission, and had several ships under his command. He observed the

 

patrolling pattern of the two starships on his tactical display. The

 

signals were provided by a gunboat lying two light years short of the

 

system. A nod from Brandei initiated the attack. One of the ISDs in

 

his force, the ISD Aggressor, jumped into the system, but to a point

 

several light-hours from the patrolling Federation ships. The

 

federation ships took several seconds to react. Then one of them

 

streaked towards the Bellicose, which appeared to just be sitting

 

there waiting for the attack. The Federation ship was accelerating at

 

an incredible rate, already going at several hundred times the speed

 

of light, but still half a system away from the Aggressor, when it met

 

with disaster.

 

The disaster was in the form of several Solar Fusion

 

detonations directly in it's path. The Aggressor had attached

 

hyperdrive motivators to a number of mines. The hyperdrive motivator's

 

cut-out was linked directly into the mine's detonator, which would

 

guarantee detonation as soon as the hyperdrive cut-out was employed.

 

The mines were then launched directly into the path of the incoming

 

vessel. The solar fusion explosions themselves might not have been

 

enough to destroy the alien starship, but the stress on the warp

 

bubble had breached the power-core of the vessel, causing an even more

 

spectacular explosion than the fusion warheads had.

 

The second starship was destroyed using the same method

 

without a single shot being fired. At a range measured only in

 

light-hours the mines could be deployed with less than a thousandth of

 

a second warning to the target vessel. The weapon would be nearly

 

useless against a ship not using a warp drive, since it's shields

 

would comfortably deal with such explosions, but a warp bubble could

 

not.

 

The Aggressor moved in towards the planet, and launched

 

several shuttles. The ground-forces lowered the planetary shield, and

 

the business of restocking the ISD's holds with food began in earnest.

 

In deep-space just outside the system, a New Republic frigate was also

 

keeping watch. It transmitted a coded signal on a tight beam and

 

waited for a response.

 

The Aggressor's shuttles made several trips to the surface.

 

They were stocking up as much nutrient base as they could, and were

 

also replacing the exhausted ground troops with fresh troops. An

 

additional shield generator was also off-loaded, and the area of

 

control expanded to encompass more territory than before. The planet

 

had been defended by only five hundred troops, this was now increased

 

to a thousand. A few surprises for the Federation were also installed

 

on the surface, including planetary based ion-cannons and LNR

 

Turbolaser cannons. Both were more than capable of targeting orbiting

 

ships up to a range of several light-seconds, and the LNR planet-based

 

turbolaser cannon had enough fire-power to destroy a ship the size of

 

an Imperator class Star Destroyer. It's power requirements were

 

immense, and additional power plants were off-loaded to cater

 

especially for it's needs. All this time the crew on the Aggressor

 

remained at battle-stations, fully expecting an attack from the

 

Republic forces, in fact, banking on it.

 

Several hours went by, but no attack came. It's duties

 

fulfilled, the Aggressor jumped out of the system, leaving the planet

 

behind it even better defended than it had been up to now. Brandei

 

ordered the Aggressor to return to base with the supplies, and the

 

Bellicose led the small task force on to the next world.

 

The next world had four Federation ships defending it. Brandei

 

ordered two ISDs, the Privateer and the Acquisitor, to sterilise the

 

system. The Privateer played the role of bait, jumping to the

 

outskirts of the system to draw the Federation ships towards it. Once

 

again, they caught the federation ships with the same tactic, and

 

destroyed one ship without firing a single shot. The remaining three

 

immediately disengaged their warp drives, but remained on station in

 

defensive positions.

 

The Privateer made a micro-jump to within a few million km of

 

the three Federation ships and moved to engage them. The three ships

 

accelerated to diverging attack positions attaining speeds of several

 

hundred kilometers per second in short order. As the ships came to

 

within speeds of less than one light-second of each other they started

 

trading energies.

 

"Medium turbolaser batteries are weapons free, heavy

 

turbolasers hold fire till my mark. Laser cannons to track and destroy

 

any torpedoes. Do not launch any fighters just yet."

 

A red beam lanced out from one of the ships, but failed to

 

penetrate the shields. Neither did it make any significant impact on

 

the shield strength. Several bolts of green energised plasma were

 

tracking both targets, the ISD was making for a point between two of

 

the ships, splitting it's fire between the two. Several bolts smashed

 

into the side of one of the ships, and it canted badly to one side.

 

"Bring us round, full dorsal broadside on target A."

 

The six heavy turbolaser batteries fired as one at the damaged

 

ship, which was rocked by several internal explosions, before

 

detonating in an impressive display.

 

The two remaining ships fired several torpedoes, which blew

 

two of the starboard shield generators, but caused no other damage.

 

One of them was trailing a stream of fiery plasma from an exposed

 

engine. A second heavy broadside blew the ship apart. The third ship

 

streaked away using the strange distortion drive mechanism, and the

 

Privateer hyper-launched several thermonuclear warheads into it's

 

path. The vessel was dodging unpredictably, though, and whether

 

through design or chance managed to evade several thermonuclear

 

explosions.

 

The Acquisitor was observing from the outskirts of the system,

 

and it too hyper-launched several warheads into the general escape

 

path of the Federation vessel. The warheads were group launched in a

 

pattern taking into account a small margin of error, so that when they

 

detonated, they caused a volume of destruction through several million

 

cubic kilometers directly ahead of the vessel. The vessel passed by

 

the edge of one group of detonations, appeared to pass unscathed

 

through a second set of detonations, then it's power core violently

 

detonated as it smashed into the third group of thermonuclear

 

explosions.

 

The system was clear of Federation vessels. The two star

 

destroyers proceeded to take up orbits over the planet, and launched

 

several shuttles to start loading up food supplies from their base

 

planetside. The two destroyers took up positions such that they were

 

alongside each other, but inverted so that each covered the other's

 

exposed ventral areas, and reversed so that each covered the other's

 

relatively undefended rear. Again, they remained on battle-stations

 

for the entire loading operation, ready for any incursion by the New

 

Republic task force. Several light-years away, Brandei and the other

 

ships lay quiet, ready to spring the trap. They were not to be

 

disappointed.

 

In the system, the two Destroyers were suddenly flanked by

 

three of the Republic Navy's much vaunted Liberator cruisers, with

 

several starfighters in close attendance. The 'surprise' was not total

 

though, the gunner's on the ISD's were primed for just such an attack,

 

and immediately opened fire, causing one of the Liberators to take

 

several hits just before they got their deflector shields up. The

 

Liberators were joined seconds later by a number of Frigates. The two

 

ISD's held their ground, it would be several minutes before either of

 

them would start losing shielding, despite the ferocity of the energy

 

exchange.

 

Five squadrons of TIE's came screaming in from planetside,

 

where they had been hiding below the planetary shield, drawing the

 

Republic starfighters away from the main battle. Nearby, a Republic

 

variant of the Imperial Interdictor cruiser jumped into the system,

 

and started powering up it's generators.

 

The Republic forces were still withholding their heavy weapon,

 

the dauntless cruiser, but Brandei decide to play one of his hands as

 

well. He signalled his remaining two ISD's into the fray, with orders

 

to avoid the Republic's Interdictor variant, and to concentrate on the

 

Liberators. They Jumped, but from two light years out, it would take

 

them nearly sixty seconds to arrive.

 

In the close quarters of planetary orbit, neither side was

 

prepared to give way, and the ships basically stood there like boxers

 

trading blows. There was no time or space for fancy maneuvres, until

 

the two fresh ISD's tipped the scales in the Imperial's favour. The

 

already damaged Liberator was now trapped by it's own Interdictor

 

cruiser, and it raced for the edge of the simulated gravity field, the

 

Privateer and the Aggressor in pursuit, while the two fresh ISD's

 

moved to cut off the remaining two Liberators. Brandei knew that the

 

Dauntless would have to join the battle now, or recall it's ships. The

 

time had come for him to join the fray. He ordered his own ship to

 

Jump into the battle, as well as the Oppressor. Hopefully they could

 

trap the entire Republic force.

 

Several seconds ticked by as the Bellicose crawled across the

 

two light years to the battle. Anything could happen in the

 

intervening sixty seconds, and Brandei hoped he had timed his jump

 

correctly. He had targeted the RN Restrainor as it's Jump point, but

 

was expecting to be pulled out of hyperspace as his ship hit the

 

simulated gravity well. A slight shudder, and the display in front of

 

him was suddenly filled with the spectacle of the immense energies of

 

battle.

 

"Weapons free. Target their interdictor, full broadsides."

 

The deck under his feet thrummed, as several hundred meters

 

away the inertial dampers battled with several gigatons of recoil as

 

the highly energised blaster gas was expelled at near light-speed in

 

volley after volley of green incandescence. The ISD2's heavy weaponry

 

was such that only two broadsides and four seconds later the republic

 

ship's shields were smashed down. The simulated gravity well snapped

 

out of existence as the Republic ship shut down it's generators in

 

anticipation of escaping to hyperspace, but a third broadside rocked

 

the ship, knocking it violently off course. Most of the bolts

 

comprising the fourth broadside missed as a result, but the fifth and

 

sixth broadside slammed home, and the republic ship careened out of

 

control, almost completely obscured by flaming atmospheric gases

 

boiling out of countless breaches in it's hull.

 

Brandei in the meanwhile glanced over his status display. The

 

damaged Liberator had been reduced to a flaming wreck by the Privateer

 

and the Aggressor, while the other two ISD's had trapped the remaining

 

two Liberators between the planet below and the beckoning blackness of

 

deep-space. One of the Liberators was on a collision course with an

 

ISD, and Brandei was mesmerised as the two ships closed the distance

 

between them at a devastating speed, exchanging fire all the time. On

 

his display, a grey haze was taking shape as his own Interdictor was

 

powering up it's shields. At the last moment, the Liberator changed

 

course, and flickered into hyperspace. The second Liberator was also

 

racing for deep-space, pouring fire at the ISD in pursuit, but it had

 

been too close to the planet, and Brandei could see that the

 

interdiction field would win the race. He nodded in approval.

 

Just then, the Dauntless cruiser flashed into the system, it

 

too must have jumped in from several light-years away, and was now

 

caught not in it's own ships restraining field, but that of the

 

Imperial's.

 

"Target the new ship. Recall Privateer and Aggressor. Order

 

them to target the Republic battle-cruiser. Inform the Oppressor that

 

if this ship gets away I will have the entire crew docked ten percent

 

of their victory spoils."

 

On the tactical display in front of him, he now had two ISD's

 

pounding on the trapped Liberator, which was now well clear of the

 

planet below, but still racing for the edge of the simulated gravity

 

well. There were now nine squadrons of TIE's against only five

 

squadrons of Republic fighters, with more TIEs being launched at every

 

opportunity. Between the four ISD's and the Bellicose, they had thirty

 

squadrons of fighters in total, and were still launching more at every

 

opportunity.

 

The two ISD's had the enemy cruiser directly ahead of them,

 

while it could only bring a fraction of it's guns to bear on it's

 

current vector, as it angled for the edge of the interdiction field.

 

The Oppressor was moving as fast as it could after the enemy cruiser,

 

trying to keep it within the coverage area of the simulated gravity

 

well, but with most of it's energy going into maintaining the field,

 

it couldn't hope to keep up with the huge cruiser. The Bellicose

 

itself was well away from this race, although it too was chasing the

 

enemy battle-cruiser. Behind this race, Brandei noticed

 

dispassionately as the second Liberator exploded in a spectacular

 

fireworks display. It had lost the race for the edge of the gravity

 

well.

 

Ahead of the Bellicose, the Dauntless battle-cruiser was

 

within seconds of escaping the interdiction zone. Brandei swore in

 

frustration, it had taken several hits from the two pursuing ISD's,

 

but it still had more than 50% shield coverage. Several hundred

 

thousand kilometers directly ahead of the battle-cruiser, a new ship

 

flickered into the system, well outside the interdiction zone. It was

 

eight kilometers long, jet-black, and the comparatively tiny enemy

 

battle-cruiser was in it's direct dorsal cone of fire.

 

On his tactical display, Brandei clearly saw the blue oval

 

representing the enemy's shields buckle and disappear as it took a

 

direct hit from several hundred heavy turbolaser blasts. The ship

 

itself was nearly stopped in it's tracks by the force of the attack,

 

although their inertial damping would undoubtedly protect the crew

 

from the several thousand gee forces of the impact. A second broadside

 

blew huge chunks of the ship into space, exposing several decks to

 

vacuum. The Assassin held it's fire, as enemy ship drifted powerless

 

under it's guns. The pursuing ISD's held their fire too, drawing close

 

to the drifting and flaming vessel, scanning it for signs that it

 

still maintained some integrity.

 

That battle out of his hands, Brandei glanced at his

 

holo-status display. The enemy starfighters had been reduced to

 

effectively less than one squadron, though undoubtedly some of them

 

had escaped the interdiction field. Their was no sign of the enemy

 

Frigates, and of course the one damaged Liberator had escaped. He had

 

no idea what the total strength of the remaining Republic forces were,

 

but smiled cruelly, knowing that this battle would have been a telling

 

blow to them.

 

 

 

 

 

On the bridge of the Peacemaker, Antilles didn't bother calling for a

 

damage report. Just about every single critical system was out of

 

commission, all the bridge displays were dark, and only the emergency

 

lights seemed to be operating. He knew without a doubt that most of

 

the decks were opened to vacuum, with only a few decks having

 

maintained integrity.

 

"Prepare for boarders, destroy all ship-records, erase the

 

computers memory banks."

 

He had no way of knowing whether the communications channels

 

still worked, or if his orders were getting through to anyone. There

 

was loud bang, followed by a screeching noise. He identified it

 

immediately, the Imperials were running their assault transports

 

directly into the hull-breaches, and entering the ship through these

 

openings rather than the more obvious hangars.

 

He waited patiently for the fighting to reach the bridge. He

 

had no illusions as to the ability of his forces to repel the

 

imperials. Many of them would have been killed outright in the damage

 

sustained by the initial bombardment. Who would have thought the

 

imperials had an entire Super Star Destroyer stashed away. Nearby, he

 

heard the unmistakable sound of the containment-field of a light-sabre

 

being ignited.

 

"There are Imperials on-board, but they are behind the main

 

fighting front-line." The Jedi said behind him. "They are using droids

 

as front-line troops for the assault."

 

The bridge crew took up defensive positions, and waited for

 

the fighting to reach their position. Their was no thought of

 

surrender, it was unlikely the Imperials would take prisoners. The

 

hatchway leading onto the bridge glowed red for a second, then burst

 

inwards. Antilles opened fire on the open hatchway, but was dismayed

 

by the sight of several canisters being launched into the room by the

 

droids beyond the hatchway. He charged the hatchway, firing as he ran,

 

but the nerve gas overcame him before he got halfway there.

 

 

 

 

 

Sector governor Brandei glanced over his ship's manifest. They were

 

fully stocked, and he knew that the warehouses on the planet below

 

were also filled to the brim. In the last four weeks there had been no

 

sign of Republic interference as the campaign of taking over the

 

Federation was resumed in earnest.

 

They had systematically destroyed every shipyard, maintenance

 

facility, spaceport, and resupply center to be found throughout

 

Federation, cardassian, ferengi, Romulan and Klingon space, and while

 

many of those nation's ships were still roaming around, their planets

 

were now fair game for any raid, and several dozen planets now had

 

permanent Imperial occupation forces.

 

Many planets had eagerly pledged their allegiance to Emperor

 

Leith. A few planets had proven difficult, but after one or two had

 

been reduced to stone-age civilisations, the others had quickly

 

acceded. Without adequate planetary defences, they were at the mercy

 

of the Imperial forces, and with thousands of worlds to choose from,

 

resistance on any one planet could be stamped out harshly. Very

 

harshly, as the Bajorans had discovered. What was left of these

 

nation's navies would either surrender their ships, or they would just

 

run out of food, fuel, and other resources over time. Two Klingon

 

worlds had been reduced to slag for re-supplying these outlawed

 

starships, and that lesson had also sunken in nicely. A new Empire had

 

been born.

 

Already, new education systems were being introduced on all

 

these worlds, and Brendan Leith was being hailed as the hero who had

 

brought peace to the multiplicity of factions in the strife torn

 

Federation. There was already no shortage of new recruits for the

 

ships being built at the Leith shipyards. In a few generations, nobody

 

would remember a time before the Empire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BEGINNING

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

---------------

 

Michael January

 

---------------

 

 

 

Hand me my lightsabre ... It's the one that says "Bad Mother Fucker"

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