"Sir, the station's shields are holding!"
"Impossible. Federation shields have always proven useless against our weapons...."
Ah, battle and its surprises.
Damar's claim about the shields was unexpected, yes, but somehow the Vorta's response was a charming satisfaction. How good it felt to see the elegant "ally" confused.
In the cramped command area of this smelly Jem Hadar ship, Gul Dukat deliberately didn't look at the Vorta representative. So many complications -- having to fly this breed of ship instead of a Cardassian fighter, crewed by the rocky, dim-witted Jem Hadar soldiers. The only familiar face, the only Cardassian face, was that of Damar, now manning the helm.
And having this Vorta individual on his flagship, guiding the touchy alliance between the Cardassians and the race calling themselves the Dominion from halfway across the galaxy...little of this arrangement settled well in a man's stomach. This was a bittersweet situation, to have a Vorta on each Jem Hadar ship. At least they didn't insist upon also having a Vorta on each Cardassian ship. That would've been almost impossible to shove down the throats of Cardassian Guls.
He watched as asteroid-sized cauliflowers of flame and energy bounced from the shields of station Terok Nor as ships fired over and over. There was something satisfying about that, about the invading Jem Hadar vanguard finally feeling the sting of repellent force, giving Gul Dukat a surge of pleasure even as his own weapon fire sheeted ineffectually out into open space.
And seeing the Vorta's chiseled face and pale-jewel eyes crimped in confusion, seeing the self-greatened political officer of the Dominion set back a pace, was worth the momentary loss.
Dukat raised his chin -- a childish but effective maneuver and gloated in the wake of the setback.
"I've found it wise," he began, "never to underestimate the Federation's technical skills or Captain Sisko's resourcefulness." Having blithely thus dismissed the Vorta, he turned to Damar. "Bring us around for another pass."
What a majestic sight -- the chunky Cardassian architecture of Terok Nor, a clawed, leggy metal knot hanging in space, called Deep Space Nine by those who had occupied it for the past few years...the United Federation of Planets.
Soon the station would be Terok Nor once again, and there would be Cardassians running the powerful weapons, turning those arrays on Federation ships. That would be a good moment. Dukat had spent many years claiming that such a moment would come, and now it was imminent.
Yet, for just an instant, the order to open fire had come hard from his lips. Over these years he had formed a strange kind of relationship with many of these people, these enemies, upon whom now he would unleash the power of a spaceborne armada.
Destructive energy burbled across the station's shields, and the shields held. The Federation had made some kind of adjustment. He had always appreciated the Federation for its ability to come awake and be aggressive, and now he. had been given the little quirky gift of pointing out to the Vorta that the Federation could be tricky enough for good defense too.
At Dukat's order, an entire flank of the attacking armada had swung around for a second pass against the carefully directed returning fire from the station's upper phaser arrays. In his mind, Dukat could see Captain Benjamin Sisko and his crew working in the Operations center, doing nothing arbitrary, targeting every shot, for they knew they were alone out here. Other than their single battleship, the Defiant, now clearly visible beyond the station, there was no other support here.
Although that was a good signal that the Federation was spreading its defenses too thinly, Dukat knew it also let Ben Sisko concentrate on only two fronts -- the ship and the station. That made the maneuvers here simpler, and Sisko was good at punches in tight quarters. The Defiant was right over there, setting up the mine field that, when complete, would protect the mouth of the wormhole which was the only portal for Dominion reinforcements. The wormhole had to be kept open, for the Dominion's sake, yet for Dukat there was something nauseating about needing the Dominion in order to take back Terok Nor. He longed for ways to set himself and all Cardassians apart from the Dominion, their musclebound Jem Hadar pawns, and their silky Vorta mouthpieces.
All around them Jem Hadar ships wheeled in a majestic dance and were obliterated into shimmering blooms against the crisp blackness of space and the encrusted metal body of the station itself. Still more got through and continued attacking the station, and another flank went after the Defiant. The station took a hammering on those enhanced shields, but instead of defending itself, the station's weapon arrays fired upon the Dominion ships going after the Defiant. The station was giving the Defiant's crew cover, time to finish that mine field.
A dangerous portent -- Sisko apparently thought that, between the station and the mine field, the station was the more expendable. Arguable, but still strange....
Who was on the Defiant? Sisko himself? No, he would stay with the station. Several of his officers -- Dax or Worf or Major Kira -- could take command of the ship, but Sisko would think himself more effective in running the station's defense grid and keeping track of all incoming attackers.
"Are you disappointed, Gul Dukat?" the Vorta asked him with that musically sickening voice.
Dukat's neck almost snapped off as he cut short a glance. He used the Vorta's name like a slapping hand. "Why should I be, Weyoun?"
"Perhaps this will be too easy. We will take the station today. Now that you've accepted the superiority of the Dominion, Cardassia will have what it could not possess on its own. Others too are seeing the great light of the Founders' wisdom...the Romulans, the Tholians, the Miradorn, and now even the Bajorans have accepted the inevitable and made treaties with us."
With a bitter smile, Dukat shook his head. "Do you actually believe the Bajorans wish to be our allies? No, no...and they're not afraid of us, either. Not those brats who fought me unremittingly during the Cardassian occupation of the planet. No, you misunderstand."
"Your instincts tell you differently?" Weyoun asked. "The Bajoran treaty is some kind of trick?"
"Not a trick...a message."
"From Benjamin Sisko. He is their emissary with the beings who live in the wormhole. The Bajorans would listen to him. I'm sure he was the one who convinced them to make a treaty with the Dominion, just as I'm sure the treaty is a shield, not a bond. That agreement is a message from him to me. It means to tell me that he is already beginning to maneuver events."
Weyoun's intelligent eyes flickered with concern, then changed. "You read too much into things."
"Do I?" Dukat handed back. "Then I must be foolish to notice that Starfleet has not defended the station with a flank of ships. All we have here is the Defiant, which is doing a job over there, and the station taking the blows and defending itself. I must be overly cautious to appreciate the station's enhanced firepower and shields. No, there is some reason for this...perhaps they're sacrificing the station for some reason. Something else is at work here....We would be imprudent to think else."
Around them, on every screen, Dominion ships speared toward the station. Several, at least eight, were instantly obliterated, lighting space with fireballs of primary detonation, then a second plume as the ships weapons or fuel ignited. Battle in space was a glossy thing. In a line with Dukat's flagship were the Cardassian flanks, which he had deliberately held back, allowing the Jem Hadar to take the brunt of the initial wave of defensive fire. Briefly, Dukat relished the foolishness of the ironheaded Jem Hadar and the arrogance of the Vorta, who had thought the vanguard was an honor and that Dukat was doing them a nice gesture by letting them go first.
The station's effort to defend itself and the Defiant was costing many Dominion ships, but anyone looking could see that the Dominion and Cardassian wings simply outnumbered the defenders and would overrun them eventually. Dukat also didn't care how many Dominion ships were sacrificed. They were hardly his comrades. Jem Hadar soldiers were manufactured minions who served somebody else. Their loss was no loss. Station weapons were now cutting into the Cardassian flanks too, but that was the cost of any enterprise, and the brunt had already been swallowed by Jem Hadar.
"Once again, your old control zone of Bajor will be yours, Dukat," the Vorta representative began. "You should be proud. You're returning in triumph."
"That may be or may not be," Dukat interrupted, tired of Weyoun's prancing. "Sisko is effectively blocking the wormhole, or he will have done so if the Defiant completes that mine field. Dominion reinforcements will be blocked from entering the Alpha Quadrant."
"His mine field will not be effective," Weyoun insisted. "We will simply detonate them."
Dukat looked at him -- not just a glance. "We may detonate them until the planets fade around us. Do you see that monitor?"
"No, the next one. That is a hardware configuration sensor. It's analyzing the mechanical construction of those mines. Do you see this small mechanism on each mine? This demarkation? That is a replicator housing. If we detonate a mine, those around it will replicate the mine until the field is complete again. We will waste time, waste energy, waste weapons -- so at least for a time there will be no reinforcements. You see, we are not fighting peasants. We'll be dealt many more surprises before this is finished."
As cryptic as his words may have been, Dukat enjoyed lathering Weyoun with the sheer experience of a fighting past. Weyoun moved away -- another benefit to a slight upper hand. Dukat deliberately moved in the other direction, to the other side of the helm where Damar was working. He lowered his voice and looked at the helm, hoping Weyoun would think he and the other Cardassian were discussing angle of approach.
"It's very important, Damar, that we take the station, not destroy it."
"The Dominion may have other preferences," Damar grumbled as his fingers nervously pecked at the helm.
"Weyoun and a handful of Jem Hadar stooges won't be enough to countermand my wishes about Terok Nor. We Cardassians are the ones who understand this sector and how best to control it. I want the station, Damar. It's important to me."
Damar looked at him. "You mean, it's important for you to take back the station you lost."
"It's important for me to be seen taking it back. Seen by the Bajorans, seen by the Federation and their new allies, the accursed Klingons...yes, that's what I mean. What do you think -- is the Defiant finished laying the mines yet? Are they trying to decoy us?"
"They're not finished yet. If they finish the minefield and trigger the replication process, the wormhole will be useless."
"By all means, then," Dukat said halfheartedly, "we should stop them. Break off from the main flank and bear down upon the Defiant. Fire at will. And watch out for surprises."
A little vulturish light flickered in Damar's eyes. Steering the ship was gratifying enough under these crowded and challenging conditions, swinging and surging in and out of the station's claws, under hostile fire the whole time, while also avoiding an outright crash with any of the other dozens of ships, but to have a specific target was charming. Then the maneuver became a great game in which life itself and power were the prizes.
"Get them -- " Weyoun appeared again at his side, watching the Defiant on one of the screens. "Get them quickly, Dukat! They're finishing the minefield -- "
"Fire!" Dukat shouted, as much to break off Weyoun's chatter as to strike at the Federation ship.
Damar steered the ship, leading two other Jem Hadar vessels, in an attack strafe toward Defiant. The Federation ship had no choice but to veer away from its job of laying mines, driven by unremitting shots.
"Drive them away from the station, Damar!" Dukat called, then ordered the two other ships to break formation and bend around the Defiant to cut off any escape. To their left, the two other ships vied for the forward position, both edging ahead of the flagship.
"I want the lead!" Damar said as he leaned slightly.
"Then take it," Dukat blithely suggested.
But before Damar could gain speed and pass the other two vessels, space began to change in front of them. At the same level as the Defiant, just now passing that ship, space wobbled and shed like skin, revealing a Klingon bird-of-prey, acid green against the night, streaking directly toward them.
Weyoun's sylphlike manner dropped like a stone and he gasped.
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