Before the Storm

The Empire discovers the Federation and hatches a plan for control- can the Federation resist?

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2. The Other Side

Admiral Beniga had been selected to head through the wormhole, his previous encounter which such a phenomenon, and his considerable experience making him the preferred choice (to the chagrin of Zogo and Lang, who were both eager for the chance to head through the wormhole). His Star Destroyer, the Raven, was being prepared, her TIE squadrons being refuelled, her engines readied, everything being checked over before the potentially rough passage through the wormhole. Priority was being given to the hyperdrive, weaponry and shields; one never knew what to expect on the other side of such a vast journey, and it made sense to be ready.Seated on the Bridge of his ship, Beniga listened to status reports and occasionally cast his approving eye over the reports of his officers. He refrained from getting directly involved, for in truth there was little he could do at this stage except annoy those who were doing their jobs, as well as undermine their confidence.

In little over an hour, Beniga and the crew of the Raven would make history by heading into the unknown.

"I have to admit to be feeling nervous sir." Said Commander Gregari. Young, said to be roguishly good looking, with wavy blonde hair, Gregari was arrogant, brash, and known to come down harsh on anything that deviated from procedure. That said, he had a keen grasp of tactical situations and his unique mode of driving people often brought out the very best in them. Beniga felt if he lost his arrogance and impetuous attitude, Gregari would make a fine captain one day. The alternative was that he'd get himself killed, either by an angry junior officer, or because he underestimated his opposition in battle. Right now Gregari stood just to Beniga's left, doing his best to look impressive even with nothing to do.

"Understandable Commander, given our mission. It's always a nervous experience, being the first into the unknown. Still, it's also one to look forward to. Who knows what we will find?"

"Doubtless it will raise our standing in the Empire. Imagine it, we will be heroes for recovering our lost fighters, and granted legendary status for finding what we will find!"

Mentally Beniga shook his head. Still an hour before we leave and already he's jumping the gun. Anything was possible with the unknown, which included the possibility of finding nothing at all.

The next hour drifted by quickly, the crew busy with their preparations. By the time of departure, Beniga noted proudly that his crew had everything at near 100% efficiency, all systems fully ready to face what awaited them.

"Put us through to Grand Moff Tarkin." Ordered Beniga.

A small holographic representation of the Grand Moff materialised on the small station in front of Beniga; even as a hologram, Tarkin still managed to maintain a look of authority.

"Are your preparations complete Admiral?" came the amplified voice.

"Yes sir, they are. Requesting permission to proceed through the wormhole."

For a moment the hologram hesitated. Beniga could only guess to why- it was possible that the wormhole really was a destructive force and would tear the Star Destroyer apart upon entry.

"Permission granted Admiral. Remember, bring our fighters back, carry out a brief recon of the area, and return."

"Understood. Beniga out."

Taking a breath to steel himself, Beniga exhaled slowly.

"Navigation, take us into the wormhole."

"Aye sir."

Nerves trembled as the ship approached the mouth of the aperture. It was a swirling mass of blues and greens, reds and oranges, all mixing and fusing together. The sight seemed to swell to take up the entire field of view as the Raven sped toward it.

As the ship passed into the wormhole, the Bridge crew (and anyone with the fortune to be at a window) were left amazed, open-mouthed. Their passage was lined by visible eddies and currents, rings of energy and ran over the Raven as the ship moved.  The currents weren't placid either, the ship shuddered and rocked with each new wave of energy, enough for everyone to hold onto their consoles or chairs. Beniga ordered the ship's sensors on full record, to get every detail of this remarkable phenomenon. Then he settled back, enjoying this remarkable ride.

               

"What's their condition?"

Bashir turned around, a little startled by his captain's sudden arrival. He gestured to four bio-beds, each with one of the pilots of the small fighters laying on it. Above their heads, a monitor displayed constantly updating readouts of their status.

"Stable, and getting stronger all the time. The damage to their systems wasn't as great as I feared. I think their flight suits gave them protection from most the energy discharge that they went through."

Sisko prowled around the bio-beds, his eyes examining each patient.

"Can you wake them?" He asked.

Bashir frowned in thought for a moment.

"I could, though to do so now would leave them disorientated and most likely agitated, given their location. A few hours more rest, and I'd deem it safe."

Sisko calmly accepted Bashir's diagnosis. If the doctor said they needed more time, then they needed more time.

"Sir, has Starfleet been in touch yet?" Bashir's boyish curiosity had prompted him to ask, eager to know the state of play.

"I was in contact with them only a hour ago. They're sending a fleet of about fifty starships to our location, and have ordered that all non-emergency traffic in the sector by Federation ships is to be halted. A general request has gone out to all civilian ships, asking that they avoid the area. Starfleet has also been in touch with their counterparts amongst the other main powers, keeping them informed of developments."

Bashir silently digested the news, thanking the Captain for the update, then returned to his patients, adjusting readouts every now and then. A few minutes later, he found himself dealing with one of Quark's disgruntled customers; something about 'promises not kept', and a subsequent scuffle.

               

With a few hours to wait for both the arrival of the fleet and the full recovery of Bashir's patients, Sisko found himself yet again playing the waiting game. He strolled through the habitat ring to his quarters, choosing to get some relaxation before things (in all likelihood) when hay-wire. Flopping onto the couch, Sisko stretched, yawned, and realised that between the Borg and the wormhole's bizarre behaviour, he was feeling exhausted.

No sooner had he stretched out over the couch than his comm-badge bleeped.  Stifling a groan, he activated the communicator.

"Sisko here, go ahead."

"Ben." Came Jadzia's voice, more high-pitched than normal. "I think you should up to Ops, and fast."

Sisko sat up.

"What's happened Old Man?"

"A ship has come through the wormhole. A big ship."

Sisko was out the door before Jadzia had finished her sentence.

"On my way."

               

Jadzia hadn't been wrong when she judged the ship to be big. Running his eyes over it, the first word that popped into Sisko's head was 'juggernaut'. According to one or two brief scans by Dax, the ship was roughly a mile long, whilst it had a wedge-shaped appearance, hull a light grey.

Sensibly, Dax hadn't ran any detailed scans- some perceived this an aggressive, invasive act, others even opened fire because of it.

"Report, have they made any attempts to communicate, or to scan us?" Asked the Captain.

"Negative." Came Major Kira's voice as she walked around Dax's station to join Sisko in the centre of Ops. "They've not made any moves so far."

"Have we been scanned?"

"No, so far they've ran a broad-ranged scan of the whole area, but no more than that."

Again, sensible tactics on the part of whoever was in command of the alien ship.  They were as much in the dark as Sisko and his crew were, and didn't want to risk provocation of an unknown quantity.

"Sir, some of the hull readings match those of the fighter craft we recovered. It wouldn't surprise me if this is their mother ship, for lack of a better term." Said O'Brien, seated at the Operations station.

"Any attempts made to communicate?"

"None."

"Hmmm…. Well, sooner or later, they'll detect their fighters and know that we have their people. They'll probably want answers as well, I know I would. Lets open a channel, let them know who we are." An anticipatory smile emerged on Sisko's face; though he suspected the crew of the unknown ship to be human, there was still much that was strange, much to learn.  O'Brien dutifully opened communications, and nodded to Sisko that the channel was active.

"This Captain Benjamin Sisko of the Federation station Deep Space Nine to unidentified vessel. Please identify yourselves."

               

The Bridge of the Raven was quiet, save for the background hum of consoles and conduits. Upon entry to this new location, sensors had picked up the fighters- as well as a large space station of some kind. Gregari had wanted to run a detailed scan, but Beniga didn't want to risk provoking the occupants of the station. Who knew what kind of weaponry they had?

Now the station had sent a message. A voice message, and the computer was insisting it was a human voice.

"How should I respond sir?" Asked a nervous communications officer.

"A good question. How do you think we should answer Gregari?" Asked Beniga with a smile on his lips.

The commander scratched his chin thoughtfully.

"We shouldn't give too much away. We should proceed with diplomacy, rather than firepower, after all, we don't know what that station is capable of."

Beniga nodded with approval, inwardly pleased that the commander was capable of learning.

"Correct Commander. They have our people, in effect our fighter pilots are at their mercy. We shall appeal to their good graces. Communications, run their message through the translator, then open a channel, voice only."

A few seconds later, the communications officer reported that translation was complete, and that a channel was open.

This is it, contact, with a race across the void.

"This is Admiral Beniga, of the Galactic Empire. We have come in search of a small group of fighters that disappeared into a wormhole. We followed them through, and have emerged here. Our sensors have located our fighters onboard your station. We can only hope you have our pilots too."

Silence, as Captain Sisko no doubt considered his reply. Gregari looked visibly tense, and Beniga felt his stomach tighten, ever so slightly.

"Yes, we have your pilots. They were injured from their passage through the wormhole, and we're treating them. They'll be conscious in a few hours."

The typical fear that a commander felt for his troops sunk away, allowing Beniga to relax an inch. His worries were further relieved by the evident compassion of his pilots holders, who had supplied medical treatment without question.

"On behalf of the Empire, I offer my thanks for your kind treatment of our people.  Would I be permitted to come aboard your station to see them?"

Another pause. Again it was likely that Sisko was thinking the request over.

"We have no objection to that."

The knot in the Admiral's stomach gave way further. He would have sighed from relief, except that would have given away his feelings to this Sisko character.

"Thank you Captain. We'll be sending over a shuttle shortly."

"Acknowledged, Deep Space Nine out."

Allowing himself that sigh, Beniga rose from his command seat, intent on leaving the Bridge. He was stopped by a piercing look from Gregari.

"Is there something wrong Commander?" Asked Beniga, unable to keep a slight smile from his lips. He knew what Gregari was about to say.

"Sir, is it wise that you go? We don't know anything about these people."

The Admiral chuckled. His suspicions were correct.

"Don't worry Commander, I'll be taking security personnel with me. If anything happens, then storm the station and take our people back, but I don't believe anything will happen. You're in command."

With that, Beniga left the Bridge, deep in thought.

As he made his way via lifts and corridors to the Raven's carnivorous hanger (where a pair of stormtroopers were en-route to) he had a few moments to privately think about things.

Humans! Humans in an unknown part of the galaxy, perhaps even a new galaxy.  A totally alien technology of unknown capabilities. A people apparently capable of great compassion (after all, they'd provided aid to completely unknown fighter pilots). What other surprises awaited on the station?

               

Upon entry to the hanger, the troopers joined Beniga, and together boarded the shuttle. Slowly and gracefully, the shuttle flew from the underbelly of the

Star Destroyer, making it's way to a landing pad on the station. Touching down gently, the wings folded upwards, and then someone on the station lowered the pad, a panel sealing it from the vacuum of space.  By now Beniga was nervous, but masked his feelings with the years of Imperial experience and his considerable spirit. He allowed the troopers to step off the shuttle first, assuming flanking positions as Beniga followed.

A red, round hatch rolled open in front of them, followed by another behind it.  Behind the second hatch, stood a tall, dark-skinned man, with a distinct lack of hair, save for a small beard. A red-haired woman, with a matching uniform (very much different from the man's black uniform with grey shoulder line; the only splash of colour, a red neck line with four gold pips) stood next to him on his left, and a second man, pale- skinned and smaller of build, with blue in place of red, stood slightly behind the first two, to the right.

Keeping calm, Beniga walked through the hatches, his troopers following behind him.

"I'm Captain Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space Nine." Said the bald man. "This is Major Kira, of the Bajoran militia, and Doctor Julian Bashir, the man who's been looking after your people." Sisko gestured to his officers.

"Firstly, may I thank you Doctor, on behalf of the Empire, for your treatment of my people. Secondly, may I extend greetings to you Captain, on behalf of the Empire, and of myself, Admiral Beniga." He thrust out a hand, which Sisko shook cordially.

"Now that the formal greeting is out of the way, I trust you'd like to see your people?" Asked Sisko softly.

"Yes Captain."

Sisko gestured to his Doctor.

"Lead the way Doctor."

As Beniga stepped fully from the hatch, he noticed two more officers, dressed as Sisko, except with gold for the neck line. Both had some sort of tool holstered to their sides… realisation hit him, they were carrying weapons.

Security forces? Mused Beniga to himself. No wonder they weren't unperturbed by the stormtroopers.

Doctor Bashir led the party down a fairly long, non-descript corridor, marked by various doors. Occasionally another officer, either in Sisko's uniform, or one similar to Kira's would walk by, as would people in more relaxed clothing, most likely civilians.

A larger door waited at the end of one of the corridors, which opened into a much wider, and much busier area. A variety of characters, some human, some definitely not human, were moving in and out of shops and establishments, as officers bustled past.  Some were consulting displays of some kind, others were enjoying a beverage at a very busy bar, manned by a short man with a very large cranium and enormous ears, who appeared to be muttering to himself.

At the far end of one side of the walkway, the doctor led them all into a medical bay. Equipment hummed, and a couple of nurses moved from location to location to monitor readouts and check on patients.

"I had your people moved to their own ward, if you'll follow me." Asked Bashir quietly.

Dutifully trailing the doctor, Beniga entered the ward with Captain Sisko behind him, gesturing for his stormtroopers to hang back. Sisko's security guards did the same.

"At present their systems are still recovering from the energy discharge they experienced. They could be awakened now, but they'd be groggy and disorientated. I'd rather give them about another three hours before attempting to awaken them." Bashir checked the readouts as he spoke.

"How would you feel about moving them Doctor?" Asked Beniga.

Bashir hesitated for a moment.

"I'd reluctant to suggest moving them as yet, though they can be moved, as long as the proper precautions are taken."

Beniga turned to Sisko, his next question forming on his lips before he'd even thought it.

"Captain, I'd like to move my men to my ship. They'll be more comfortable if they awaken in familiar surroundings."

Sisko looked at Bashir, who nodded.

"As my chief medical officer has no objections, neither do I."

"I'll see to the arrangements immediately." Said Bashir, leaving the room.

Next followed an awkward silence. Beniga was bursting with questions, and the look in Sisko's eyes was plain to see; the captain was as eager to know more about the situation as he was.

"Once again Captain I extend my thanks for your care of my people. Now, I have to admit, I'd like to learn more about yours." Beniga circled the bio-beds, deciding there was little to gain from masking an understandable curiosity.

Sisko simply nodded.

"There's much I'd like to know as well. There are conference facilities onboard this station that are at your disposal, as well as computer records of our history and culture."

Slowly Beniga walked from the ward, and out into the walkway, watching the various aliens walk past on their business.

"I confess that I am at a loss as to where to begin. There are several topics that are competing for attention, namely, the discovery of humans in what could be another galaxy, the wormhole, what this federation is… it's the greatest find in Imperial history!"

"I must admit, of all the things I expected to come out that wormhole, a ship full of humans wasn't one of them."

"Captain, I need to return to my ship. I have to consult my superiors, arrange a diplomatic envoy. I have no doubt that the Empire will wish to learn more about your Federation, and to establish relations as soon as is convenient."

"Of course. How long do you think you'll be?" Asked Sisko.

"A matter of days certainly." Replied the Admiral, as he and his troopers, accompanied by Sisko, began the journey back to the hanger bay. "Why do you ask?"

Beniga's eyes were caught momentarily by a pair of blue-skinned aliens with stalks sticking out of their foreheads, but returned his attention back to Sisko when the other man spoke.

"I'll need to arrange for a diplomatic team of our own, given the bureaucracy I sometimes have to deal with, that might take a few days as well." Sisko cracked a smile.  "Oh, and those blue-skinned aliens, Andorians. One of the founding member races of the Federation."

"This Federation seems to be a diverse mix, not unlike the Old Republic." For a moment a touch of wistfulness crept into Beniga's voice, before he remembered his loyalties. "I shall look forward to returning here, to learn more of your society."

"We'll eagerly await your arrival. I'm sure we'll have much to discuss. At the moment, I'm not sure where to start." Sisko gestured at the hatch; it seemed the walk to the shuttle had been shorter than the walk earlier. One of the tricks of a distracted mind, mused Beniga, stepping through the airlock with his Stormtroopers. He turned, saying a brief farewell to Captain Sisko, noting his fighter pilots were already aboard, and proceeded to board the shuttle himself.

The shuttle blasted upwards, then swam gracefully through space to its home.

               

"This is big Ben. Every major government in the Alpha Quadrant is whipped up about the wormhole's behaviour. The Romulans are convinced we're testing a new weapon of some kind, and the Klingons think so too- the Klingons want to know why we haven't used it on the Romulans yet." Admiral Ross broke into a wry smile, trying (and failing) to mask the stress of dozens of diplomatic messages that were flying around. Up till then, Sisko had been pacing his desk, but decided to stop boring a hole in his floor, and sat down.

"I have to say Admiral, I'm concerned at Starfleet's decision to pull the fleet away.  We were told fifty ships would be heading to reinforce our position. All I count are twenty-five."

Ross stifled a sigh. Evidently he had expected this.

"Starfleet feels that the station's already formidable defences, along with twenty- five ships, is enough to handle anything the Klingons or Romulans might try. The rest of those ships are being redeployed along the Federation/Klingon border, on the section closest to Bajor. Command fleets that if anything happens, it will be the Klingons who start it. But enough of the politics of the Alpha Quadrant, what of this new ship? I got around to reading your report about an hour ago. Fascinating stuff."

"We didn't take too many scans, but it's one thousand six hundred metres long, for a start, and has a great many ports, possibly weapons ports. How powerful those weapons are, we don't know. It has two visible hanger bays, one small, one large.  Massive engines of unknown power. Its design suggests a warship, what with a narrow forward profile." Sisko avoided rubbing his nose in front of the Admiral. He'd been over the report half a dozen times in the past hour, satisfying the whim of one Admiral after another.

On the monitor, Ross leaned back, digesting the information as though it were brand new to him.

"Needless to say Ben, it's important that on their next visit, we learn more about them. How fast are their ships? How powerful is their weaponry? We also need to learn more about them as a people. This Empire that they serve, is it benign, a potential ally, or should we try to blow the wormhole to pieces the moment they leave?"

"Good questions Admiral. I'll endeavour to have a few answers for you when Beniga and his team return." Said Sisko.

"Good. Oh, before I go, there's one last thing to mention, something important.  The closest ambassador is over a week away; a mission to Tholian space to iron out a proper peace treaty. She'll be en-route as soon as her business is concluded, but until then we're sending someone else, someone experienced with first contact and diplomatic procedure…" Ross hesitated, clueing Sisko in to the notion that he wouldn't like what was coming. "Captain Picard will be with you in roughly twenty-seven hours. He's been briefed and has read your report." Up until then, Ross had been business-like, now his expression softened.

"Ben, I know that Deep Space Nine is your frontier, and that you've handled more first contacts in the past five years than many officers handle in twenty; we're honestly not trying to wrench away your authority on this one. DS9 is still your station and your command. However, it's felt that Picard's considerable experience will be invaluable on this one. I know you have your history with him, but I also know you're a fine Captain who'll keep that under wraps. Well, gotta go, Ross out."

Before Sisko could mount a reply, the monitor switched over to the Federation crescent, leaving the captain with mixed feels of anger, insecurity

and humiliation. Ross had been right, it was his station and he had already made contact.

Leaving his office, Sisko circled Ops like a tiger on the hunt, until he caught the eye of Dax, who had been busying herself with readouts on the wormhole. His gaze betrayed the pent up… frustration he was feeling, and he moved quickly to the turbolift.  He didn't feel like talking at that moment, but that didn't stop Dax from darting into the lift with him, even though she could see Sisko's emotions boiling away.

"Promenade." Grated Sisko. With a jolt the lift came to life.  For a moment, the pair travelled in silence. However, that didn't last long.

"Let me guess, conversation after conversation with the brass taking it's toll?"  Asked Dax pleasantly. Sisko simply glowered.

"Hmm, ok, guess number two, we're not getting any more ships to support us?"

"That's a small worry." Growled Sisko. "This is much more personal, if you ask me."

"Well, you entered your office looking reasonably perky. Well, as perky as one can be with juggernauts coming and going. You left your office with a face like thunder.  Did Ross give you a pay cut or something?" Somehow, despite the mood radiating from Sisko, Dax managed to maintain a twinkle in her eyes.

The lift halted at the Promenade, saving Sisko from an immediate reply. He had wanted to argue his points to Admiral Ross, but the good Admiral had made sure to cut communications quickly. In a flash old wounds and new ones had opened; he wanted to vent, but not at his friend.

Dax maintained her usual pristine appearance and calm walk, hands clasped behind her back, as she walked beside Sisko. Her silence was more maddening than if she was asking questions.

Sticking to Sisko like glue, Dax followed him from one end of the Promenade to the other, in and out of the various shops. It was evident that she was not going to go away until Sisko explained his sudden mood change.

"All right old man, lets take a seat at Quarks." He snapped, leading them to Quark's establishment. It was evening by the station's clocks, and the bar was only just starting to fill up. Sisko easily grabbed a table and parked himself into a chair.

"Ok Dax, it would seem that Command doesn't consider me experienced enough to handle this situation. Rather than have me fill in till the ambassador arrives, they're sending a more 'seasoned' captain. It totally undermines my authority here, no matter what the Admiralty says!"  Dax frowned in thought, then leaned in.

"Who are they sending?"

Leaning away, Sisko closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.

"Captain Picard." He muttered, rubbing harder.

"I see." Replied Dax after a moment. "Well, he does have arguably more experience than anyone else in the fleet."

"Dammit, I made the initial contact fine! Why doesn't command trust me to handle things now?" Frustration spilled the words from Sisko as he grabbled to understand the situation.

"I don't think it's a matter of trust. Starfleet trusts you enough to handle a new first contact every other day. To walk the minefield of Bajoran politics and Gowron's new invasion policies. I guess they simply think for this, they want someone with greater experience. That's all. Now." Dax leaned in, softening her voice. "Are you sure this isn't so much to do with that fact that there's another captain coming in, rather that it's this particular captain?"

There were times when Sisko wanted to hate Dax. She had a nose for being shrewd.

"I know what you're getting at old man, and that's not an issue anymore. As bad as it was, what I went through, for Picard, it must have been… indescribable." Sisko lowered his voice to match Dax's.

"Even now Benjamin, these feelings can linger. In your brain, your mind, you know Picard isn't to blame, but in your heart, the heart that loved Jennifer, are you sure there's not a part that refuses to let go of all that old passion?" Now Dax's eyes were dark pools of compassion and friendship, but Sisko couldn't bring himself to admit what she was getting at. It was preposterous. Picard wasn't to blame for the death of his wife, or any of the lives lost at Wolf 359. He had been a slave in his own body, forced to commit acts that would have eaten at his very soul.

No, Sisko wasn't angry with Picard.

Before he could reply, Sisko was interrupted by Quark, the short, eccentrically dressed owner of the bar.

"A private Starfleet chat in a public place? Captain, Commander, you know this place isn't ideal for high level security talk."

"More than ideal for high level criminal talk though." Said Dax haughtily.

"What do you want Quark?" Asked Sisko irritably.

Brushing over Sisko's mood, Quark pulled out his padd.

"Drinks anyone? You are taking up table space, so I assume you're going to be paying for something?"

"No thanks Quark." Replied Sisko. He stood, and left with Dax, leaving behind a both mildly disgruntled and mildly happy Ferengi.

               

Twenty-four hours of non-stop debriefings and analysis was becoming tiresome, to say the least. All Beniga wanted to do was to get some sleep, before even his considerable patience was tested.

On the bright side, there was one last meeting, with Grand Moff Tarkin and Lord Vader. Well, if one could call that a bright side…

The doors of the meeting chamber opened, allowing the hollow-cheeked Grand Moff, and the masked Vader entry. Neither spoke as they took seats at the opposite end of the table.

"Admiral Beniga, you must be tired, so we will keep this brief. Firstly, well done on the retrieval of our pilots. Secondly, in your own words, a brief overview of what you discovered." Tarkin clasped his hands and waited for a reply.

Sucking in a breath, Beniga considered where to begin. Although his visit to Deep Space Nine had been short, there had been much to see.

"Well sir, upon arrival to this new location, we detected a large station, a little over the length of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Erring on the side of caution, I did not order any invasive scans of the station, in case the occupants reacted badly and proved more advanced than ourselves. On our second trip, I expect we can take more detailed scans. There is a command structure in place that does not appear to be too dissimilar to our own, though the station is under the joint jurisdiction of a race called the Bajorans, and a government calling itself the United Federation of Planets. A great many different alien life-forms were aboard the station, though as visitors or residents, I don't know. It appears to be a civilian outpost with a military garrison stationed there. Perhaps the most remarkable information is the fact that many of the officers working for an organisation called Starfleet- who I surmise to be the space-faring wing the Federation- were human. At least, they matched our appearance exactly. At this moment, I cannot offer explanation as to how humans are present on the other side of the wormhole, or why." Beniga stopped, having explained as much as he could.

"Very good Admiral. Now, go and get some sleep. Seven hours worth, no less.  We'll need you to be sharp upon your return visit." Said Tarkin formally.

"Very good sir."

"Dismissed."

Beniga rose and swiftly left; though not afraid of Vader per se, there was always a cold feeling in his stomach when near the Sith lord.

Once the door had closed, Tarkin stood and walked slowly from one end of the room to the other, deep in thought. There was much to consider, and little time to consider it all.

"Quite a discovery." Tarkin summed up his thoughts with that simple sentence.  Vader remained silent.  Turning, Tarkin faced his friend.

"Tell me, has the Force given you any insights into this situation? Any clues as to what we're dealing with?"

"I cannot sense them from this distance. I would have to travel through the wormhole and meet them."

"Mmm. Well, at the moment, I don't want to risk one of the Empire's most important officials. Admiral Beniga will be more than competent to look after

the diplomats and carry out recon." Tarkin paused, mulling over the information they needed.

"The foremost thing we need to know is if they're hostile. We also need to establish what their capabilities are. We need someone trained in the Force, yet someone who can be inconspicuous. Not meaning you offence my friend, but you don't exactly fit into a crowd unnoticed."

Vader made a sound that could have been a snort of amusement, but the mask clouded what the noise really was. Tarkin shook off the notion of Vader expressing amusement; he knew his friend too well.

"I know just the person. Mara Jade. She is trained in the Force, and eager to prove herself." Hummed Vader.

"Not too eager I hope. This is a high-risk mission, that needs control and quiet skill, not reckless enthusiasm."

"She is a wielder of the Force. She will have control." Growled Vader. Sitting down in Beniga's vacated chair, Tarkin fell deep into thought. He wanted to see this new galaxy, this human civilisation in a new frontier. One of the prices of rising through the ranks seemed too often to be that for all the power he wielded, the 'hands on' aspect of Imperial service was lost. His officers were shielding him from danger, or potential danger. It was gratifying in some ways, to be considered to be that important, but frustrating in others, as he was denied the chance to embrace new experiences, such as the wormhole.

On the other side of the table, Vader was all too aware of his friend's thoughts.  He didn't have the problem of being shielded, for few would dare to assume a Sith lord needed protecting. Besides, he could easily handle what came his way. How would it feel to be so regarded, yet so tied down at the same time?

"Well, we had best return to our command locations. I expect we'll have to welcome the ambassadors and politicians when they arrive. It's a shame Lord Vader, that the Emperor doesn't allow you to dispose of some of those snakes."

Tarkin flashed a small, evil smile.

"Indeed."

               

Time was passing slowly as ships arrived with personnel and equipment for the Death Star, and the diplomats were briefed. Tarkin and Beniga led the briefings, neither of them thrilled with their duty, whilst Vader maintained a quiet presence, a symbol of the Emperor, warning against betrayal.

Assembling a diplomatic team had proven to be quite a challenge, given the Empire's complete control over the galaxy, there hadn't been a need for diplomacy for over twenty years. Senators and high ranking military officers were making up the core of the team so far, along with the silent, solitary Mara Jade.

Ever since her arrival, the Force had been pulsing with her embryonic powers, her sense of anger. She was nowhere near Vader in terms of her abilities, or her feelings (yet), but she was getting stronger all the time. For now though, her ability to slip into a crowd (and out again) was vital.

A fresh surge of anger washed through Vader. He, the Emperor's right hand man, had been passed up for this assignment, with it instead going to an upstart! He was angry with his own anger, with his powers, for they were so strong now that he couldn't wield the Force with the subtlety of the past.

For longer than he could remember, Vader had been ruled by his hate. It was his fuel for the fire, the reason he could do what he did. People feared him before they even met him; the mere mention of his name could make grown men tremble. Many simply obeyed him without question, falling over themselves to be of service.

The price for that kind of obedience was high. No one wanted to be near Vader.  No one wanted to talk to him or to be his friend. All the people he had known when he was young, were gone. Some had died at his hand.

Only one person truly understood him- Emperor Palpatine was his anchor to reason, to stability. Palpatine had showed him how to unlock the true power of the Force, and how to use that power, to control it. Grateful for that, Vader was devoted to his master.

Jade's eyes met Vader's face, and for a moment the Force exposed his turbulent feelings, before he reigned them in again. Jade shuddered, the heat of Vader's anger too much for her to contemplate.

Tarkin rejoined the Sith Lord, the lines on his face more etched than usual; clearly the duty of briefing ambassadors was a straining one.

"If I never see another diplomat or attaché again, it will be too soon. Still, everything has been explained to them. Perhaps now we can all get some

rest before the trip."

One by one, the members of the team were shuffling out of the room and to the hanger bay, where they would be transported over to the Star Destroyer Raven. Shuttles were zipping around the Star Destroyer and her support ships like frenzied bees, the Nebulon-B Frigates Emperor's Hand and Relic also being prepped for departure. Tarkin observed the activity from a window a few minutes later, deep in thought about the Federation.

The key things to determine were their potential as enemies, and their potential as citizens of the Empire. The Empire did not want or need to find a hornet's nest of advanced, aggressive aliens that would seek to undermine them, so it was important to establish the capabilities of the Federation. If it proved that the Federation was a danger, or potential danger, then Tarkin had two schools of thought. Number one, they could collapse the wormhole.

However, that would prove difficult. It's matrix was extremely powerful, perhaps strong enough to handle a Death Star blast.

Option two was to invade the Federation. To take over their worlds and destroy their infrastructure. The threat would be neutralised, and the Empire would have a foothold in a new galaxy.

Another worry was of the Rebellion. So far the band of misfits hadn't seriously threatened the Empire, but there was the possibility of them learning of this Federation and exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Silently, Lord Vader took his place at Tarkin's side, as ever unreadable in terms of what he was thinking.

"Tell me my friend, does the Force offer any insights as to what we will find?"  Asked Tarkin quietly.

"Even for the Force, the distance is too great to offer any insights."

Typically a short reply from the Sith Lord.

"You are concerned of the Rebellion." Rumbled Vader.

Tarkin frowned slightly. Vader was a friend of sorts, and a highly respected (or feared, as the case may be) servant of the Empire, but that didn't mean Tarkin had to like having him poke around in his head.

"I thought it was poor form to scan the mind of a comrade." Snapped Tarkin.

"Forgive me, but the thought was the most recent in your mind."

"Hmm… well, it's true, at any rate. So far the Rebels have caused no great harm, save for one or two random attacks on planetary garrisons and some smaller vessels.  Still, imagine the consequences of them finding the wormhole and gaining fresh allies from a new galaxy, where we might not be able to touch them. Not that it matters. Soon a deployment of Star Destroyers, Lancer Frigates and Carrack Cruisers will be here to defend this sector. Now…" Tarkin faced Vader. "… the Emperor still wants us to continue with the testing of this battle station. A planet of habitable mass is being out- fitted with a planetary shield grid, for us to test the primary weapon again. As soon as the diplomatic team has departed, we are to be on our way."

"We will do as the Emperor wishes."

"Indeed we shall."

               

The Raven came about, facing the wormhole, flanked by Emperor's Hand and Relic. Beniga reflected for a brief moment that he might not see home again, if this mission went badly, but pushed away the thought. Whatever happened happened, and he could not change that.

Gregari seemed to be buzzing with energy, moving from station to station, issuing a stream of orders over the comm. Link. To be young again… Beniga again stopped himself from dwelling on things. He had a mission to focus on, perhaps the most important mission anyone had ever be asked to do.

"All hands report ready, the Frigates are also reporting ready." Announced Communications.

"Excellent. Helm, move us into the wormhole, one half sublight."

On Beniga's order, the ships once again headed across the universe.

               

With the main diplomatic team still over a day away, the Enterprise-E took up it's mooring at Deep Space Nine's Upper Pylon Three, swan-like and sweeping in appearance, gracefully sliding into port. A moment later, the crew of the station were given a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, as the Defiant de-cloaked, and also docked. Jadzia rushed from Ops to the Defiant, keen to see Worf, as Sisko, Chief O'Brien, Major Kira and Security Chief Odo made their way to Upper Pylon Three, to welcome Captain Picard.

The walk was a long one, at least it felt long. Professionally, Sisko was cool and calm, even if on a personal level, he felt slighted by Command. The trick was to not let Picard or his crew know how he felt about it all, especially Picard.

The greetings, upon taking place, proceeded amicably enough, with O'Brien sharing jokes with the Enterprise's other disembarkers, Lt. Commander Data and

Chief Engineer La Forge. Afterward, the Enterprise officers were shown the conference rooms that they would be using to hold talks with the Imperial officials, and then Major Kira and Odo whisked them away for a tour of the station. Sisko, grateful for Kira's tour idea (that she'd suggested earlier in

the day), retired to his quarters, determined to get a few hours rest before the Imperials arrived and the station became a circus.

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