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BOOK I: House of Cards FALKAR REGARDED THE REMAINS of his troops and, as the blazing Xenex sun beat down upon them, decided to wax philosophical about the situation "It is not uncommon to desire killing a teenager," he said. "However, it is not often that one feels the need to send soldiers to do the job." His men regarded him with a surprising amount of good cheer. It was surprising they had any left, for the battle between themselves and the Xenexians had not only been brutal, but also extremely unsatisfying. Although not particularly unsatisfying for the Xenexians. They were a somewhat bedraggled lot, these survivors. Their armor, their clothing, hung in tatters. Their weapons were largely energy-depleted, and when they had fled the scene of their final rout, they had done so depending heavily on short swords and knives to hack their way to safety (or what passed for safety). Weapons that hung at their sides largely for ornamentation, for decoration, for a symbol of achievement. Most of them had never touched the bladed weapons except to polish them for display purposes. Not one man in fifty could remotely consider himself expert with their use. As Falkar studied the barely two dozen men remaining to him, it was as if he could read what was going through their minds. Falkar drew himself to his full height, and as he was six and a half feet tall, there was something to be said for that. His skin was a dark bronze, as was that of all the people of his race. His build was an interesting combination of both muscle and economy. There was no denying the power in his frame, but it stretched across his body in such an even manner that -- despite his impressive height -- it was easy to underestimate just how strong he was. His hair was long and black, and usually was tied neatly, but now it hung loosely around his shoulders in disarray. When one is beating a hasty retreat, it's hard to pay attention to keeping one's hair properly coiffed. His eyes were solid black, his nose was wide and flared, and his incisors were particularly sharp. "Perhaps we deserved our fate," he said tightly. His men looked up at him in surprise. If these were words meant to comfort an already dispirited band, they were not doing the job. "We have ruled the Xenexians for over three hundred years," he said tightly. "Never, in all that time, has there been any uprising that we were unable to quash. Never has our authority been questioned. And because of that, we have allowed ourselves to become sloppy. Become overdependent on hand weapons." He was striding back and forth in front of his troops. "We came to believe," he continued, "that we would be able to win battle upon battle, not because we were the better prepared or the better armed . . . but simply because we were entitled to do so, as if by divine right. Well, the Xenexians showed us differently, didn't they?" "It was that damned boy," one of the soldiers muttered. BOOK II: Into the Void Captains Personal Log, Stardate 50923.1. "Captain.' Captain Mackenzie Calhoun. I thought I had left the Fleet forever behind me, and yet now l find myself not only back in the Fleet, but commanding a starship. The Excalibur is currently a hive of activity. She's an Ambassador-class ship, registry number 26517. I've only been on her for a few hours, and I'm already taking pride in her. Not all crew members kale yet reported in, but thefinal work is even now approaching its completion. I have spoken extensively Smith Chief Engineer Burgoyne 172, and s/he assures rue that we will be ready to launch for Sector 221-G or the expected date. Burgoyne is the first Hermat I've ever met, and frankly, s/he's odd even for a Hermat. But s/he definitely knows engines, and that's what counts. I still can't believe I'm here. When I was a young "rebel" on my native Xenex -- battling the Danteri to try and drive those damned oppressors of my planet -- I never dreamed of anything beyond the confines of my homeworld. It was Jean-Luc Picaid who came to me when we were on the cusp of winning our long battle with theDanteri. He saw something in me, something that he felt should be shaped and honed into a Starfleet officer. I will never forget it when he told me of the noted Earthman, Alexander the Great, who supposedly wept when he realized that he had no new worlds to conquer. There I was, having accomplished the liberation of my people before I was twenty years old. Picard realized that if I allowed that to be the pinnacle of my life, that it would not go well for me in later years. He is the one responsible for my seeking out my true destiny. Damn the man. I try to live my life without regrets. I did not regret resigning from Starfleet, for it was what I had to do at the time. And now I am determined not to regret rejoining. If nothing else, Picard was correct about the reaction of Admiral Jellico. Upon learning that I had been given command of the Excalibur, with the mandate to explore the fallen Thallonian Empire of Sector 221-G and provide humanitarian effort wherever possible, Jellico looked angry enough to shred a Borg with his teeth. He's going to have to deal with it, however. That's his problem, not mine. BOOK III: The Two-Front War I WANT TO BLOW THOSE BASTARDS out of space. The Excalibur had just been rocked by the opening salvo from the black-and-silver ship that hung 100,000 kilometers to starboard. The phase/plasma cannons had pounded against the starship's shields, firing specially created "phaser/plasma" essentially designed not to smash shields apart, but instead to determine the wave harmonics of the shielding and basically eat through them with violent force. The first of the blasts went a long way toward cracking through the primary shields, and the Excalibur was jolted the impact. Nonetheless, even though the starship had been subjected to this most undignified and unprovoked attack, Captain Calhoun's angry order prompted a startled gasp from Commander Shelby. "Captain -- !" "Save the indignation, Commander. I didn't say I would . . . merely that I wanted to. Still, the day's young," and Calhoun rose from his chair, looking energized and confident. "Lefler, damage report." "Some damage on primary shields," Robin Lefler reported from ops. "No structural damage. Forward shields at eighty percent and holding." "McHenry . . ." began Calhoun. And to his surprise, the normally laid-back helmsman said in staccato fashion, "I've angled the ship to protect the damaged shields, sir. Taking evasive action." He caught Lefler's look from the corner of his eye and turned to glance at the captain. "Was that jumping the gun, sir?" "Yes, but I'll let it go this time," replied Calhoun, who had in fact been about to issue exactly those orders. "Mr. Boyajian, have you raised them yet?" "Not yet, sir." Boyajian, a tall, black-haired tact). cat had stepped in to cover for Zak Kebron while the security chief was off-ship. Calhoun spoke briskly and forcefully, yet in a manner so unhurried that it gave the impression he felt fairly unthreatened by the present situation. Whether that was truly the case or not was impossi. ble to tell. "Keep trying, but meantime see if you can determine where their key points of vulnerability are and target them." "Trying, Captain. Tough to scan them through their shields." "Do your best." He turned toward the science station. "Lieutenant Soleta, any thoughts on the ship's pedigree?" "Although the vessel bears passing similarities with Kreel vessels, it is not of that race," she said as she checked her scanners. "It will take time to make a full analysis." "Fine, you've got twenty seconds." "I appreciate the leisure time, sir." "They're coming around again," warned Shelby. "Firing again!" Boyajian warned. Two phase/plasma bolts streaked out from the underside of the black-and-silver ship. Mark McHenry's eyes seemed to glitter with an almost demented glee as his fingers flew over the controls with such speed that Lefler, sitting not ten feet away, couldn't even see them. BOOK IV: End Game THE REFUGEES FROM THE CAMBON bleated in fear as they were herded into a large auditorium. Pacing the front of the room was the woman whom they knew to be Laheera . . . apparently a high muck-a-muck in the hierarchy of the world of Nelkar. She looked at them angrily, her fury seeming to radiate from her in such a manner that it was measurable by instrumentation. Standing next to her was Celter, the governor of the capital city of Selinium, which was their present location. One of the group's leaders, an older, silver-haired man named Boretskee, took a step forward and said with slow uncertainty, "Is there . . . a problem? We were about to be moved into our new homes when --" "Yes, you could say there's a problem," Laheera said, making no effort at all to contain her fury. It was rather an impressive combination: the golden, almost angelic hue of Laheera combined with unbridled fury. "We have asked that the Excalibur provide us with a simple form of 'payment,' as it were. Compensation for the trouble that we are going to to provide you with a new home." The refugees looked at each other uncertainly. Cary, who was standing next to Boretskee, said, "'Payment'? We, uhm. . ." She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "We had not been under the impression that any sort of payment was going to be required. We would. . . I mean, obviously, we would like to cooperate. Anything that we can do . . ." Celter now spoke up. "We do not desire payment from you. You are merely -- to be blunt -- a means to an end. We are not looking for monetary gain, but rather a simple barter situation. We have what you desire -- a place for you to stay -- and the Excalibur has advanced technology which we find desirable. We give you what you need, and we're given what we need. All benefit." "The problem is that the Excalibur captain has refused to cooperate," Laheera cut in. "He has made it clear that he does not care what happens to any of you. He cares for his rules and regulations and for his own foolish pride. That is all." "Happens . . . to us?" Boretskee was now pro. foundry confused, but he knew he didn't like the sound of that. "In what sense do you mean.. I 'happens' to us?" But now Cary, Boretskee's slim, brunette wife, was looking around, and a terrible suspicion was begin. ning to dawn on her. "Where is Captain Hufmin?" she asked. "Ah yes. The fearless leader of the good ship Cambon, " said Laheera, dripping disdain. "I'm afraid that we had to make an example of him. Best solution, really. His incessant pawing of me was beginning to get tiresome." "An . . . example," Cary said slowly. "You . . . you don't mean . . . you can't mean he's . . ." "If the word you're searching for is 'dead,' yes, that's correct," Laheera said flatly. There were gasps from among the hostages. One young girl, named Meggan, began to cry. The others were too much in shock to do much more than reel at the news. Drawing himself up, Boretskee said sharply, "And now we're next, is that it? Is that how this goes? Unless the starship does what you tell it to do?" "That is correct, yes," replied Celter. Laheera nodded in silent agreement as Celter continued, "Now listen carefully to me. You have one chance, and one chance only, to survive. Captain Calhoun has made it clear that he is perfectly willing to let you die. It is up to you to change his mind. If you do not, we shall kill you all. Is that clear?"
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