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The other captains returned to their ships. Murphy joined Annabeth on the bridge of the Pershing. Then, the agonizing wait began.

Annabeth and Daredevil sat in their chairs while Murphy slowly paced back and forth across the bridge. Phil kept the helm perfectly level. As the pilot of the flagship, the other battlestarships were relying on him to keep them all in formation. Katie stood at Tactical ready to arm defensive systems and weapons at a moment's notice. Adamson kept the sensor array constantly scanning, He knew it was up to him to detect the enemy fleets as soon as they were within range. Katan was a few decks below. His sickbay was ready to receive any and all casualties. Scharr and T'les stood down in engineering next to the pulsing warp core. They knew it would be their critical responsibility to keep power and damage control going even under the most hellish conditions.

Finally after two hours, Adamson's console chirped to life. Everyone looked over with bated breath to her the news.

"Admiral," Adamson said looking up from his console. "Incoming warp signatures at 273 Mark 115. Fifty-four Cardassian State Galor class cruisers."

"Dead ahead," Murphy said glancing over at Annabeth.

"Right where we expected them to be," she replied softly.

Murphy walked to the center of the bridge. "Onscreen," he ordered.

Out in space, the bridge crew watched dozens of white flashes emerge from warp just on the other side of the Military Demarcation Line. The sheer size of the Cardassian fleet made them all draw in a deep breath. The manta ray shaped vessels with their bright yellow hulls stood silhouetted against the blackness. They were arranged in textbook combat formation, ready for action.

"The lead ship is hailing, Sir," Katie said from Tactical.

"Let's see what they have to say," Murphy replied. "Open a channel."

The viewscreen changed to the image of a very confident looking Cardassian State legate. The bright, gilded sash across his armor glistened next to his giant badge of office. He seemed completely at east as he rested against the back of his chair. Murphy instantly recognized him from the intelligence packet provided by Admiral Yoshizaki.

"I am Legate Nessatt Resked, Commander of the People's Navy of the Cardassian State," the man said with the demeanor of one who already felt they won the game.

"And I am Admiral Peter Murphy of Federation Task Force: Marne," Murphy replied trying to portray an equal level of self-assurance. "Legate Resked, your fleet is welcome to remain on your side of the MDL. However, if you so much as blink in the wrong direction of Celdis Prime, I will order my ships to open fire."

Resked burst out laughing.

"Enough games, Admiral," he replied. "We both know that you are now on our side of the MDL and you are alone. Only because I have respect for your suicidal level of bravery, I'll give your task force one final chance to depart the Celdis System without turning you all to radioactive ash."

"There are over three thousand innocent people down on that planet," Murphy said keeping his cool. "I'm not going to let you hurt them. It's that simple."

"Those people are no longer the Federation's concern." Resked spit back on him. "Even if you could actually protect them, they are criminals and traitors who betrayed the principles of the Cardassian State by fleeing our community without permission."

"To betray your principles would mean that your country actually had principles," Murphy said. "They came to us begging for safety and freedom, and that's exactly what I'm going to give them."

Resked's face twisted into a scowl and he cocked his head to the side.

"I was going to authorize my men to take the survivors of your doomed expedition as prisoners," he said, "but since you choose to insult us, every single man and woman in your fleet will be dead by the time the sun sets on Celdis Prime."

Murphy grinned right back at the legate's face.

"I faced a Borg cube on my home planet's front doorstep back in '73," Murphy said crossing his arms. "If you think the fifty rusted-out pieces of Dominion War surplus garbage you have in front of me makes me sweat, you're wrong."

"Well then Admiral," Resked said. "I guess I will have to try a little harder to be intimidating." The Cardassian nodded to someone off screen.

Instantly, the alarms on both Katie's and Adamson's consoles went haywire. Directly above Resked's fleet, forty Romulan D'Deridex warbirds dropped their cloaking shields and shimmered into the visible. Instantly, the forward weapons arrays of the Romulan-Cardassian fleet charged to life. The combined green and yellow glow was so bright it blotted out the stars behind them.

"Sir!" Adamson shouted. "They've armed all offensive systems and raised shields."

The hearts of everyone on the Pershing's bridge nearly pounded out of their chests. Their entire forward field of view was completely filled from horizon to horizon with warships. Each one had their weapons trained directly at them.

"One last chance, Admiral!" Resked shouted. "Your deaths would be pointless. The Republic won't fight for this planet. Neither will the Klingons. Do you think the Federation actually cares what you do here? Your own government sent you to this rock to die just to assuage their own guilt at abandoning the galaxy!"

He leaned forward and moderated his hostile tone.

"As a sign of the Cardassian State's mercy, if you surrender now I'll even let you rescue the Red Cross workers before you leave. The Federation never cared about Cardassian lives before. Why bother to start now?

However, if you refuse, we will destroy you. All those lives will be lost for nothing. The choice is yours."

Every pair of eyes on the bridge turned to Murphy. The admiral briefly looked down to compose himself. His eyes caught the glint of the comm badge on his chest. Murphy's mind suddenly flashed back to the court room on Cardassia Prime three months before. He remembered the pain and shame on Tigranian's face when he told the captain that he would never get to wear the symbol of Starfleet again. He also remembered the look of defeat as Tigranian pulled it off for the last time. At last he understood what his old friend must have gone through in that moment…

"I'm waiting for an answer, Admiral!" Resked shouted through the viewscreen. "My patience won't last forever."

Murphy looked back up. He gripped the hem of his uniform jacket and pulled it tight. Then, he cleared his throat and turned to Tactical.

"Lieutenant Lexington," he said trying to keep his voice steady. "Open a channel to the task force…"

Annabeth and Daredevil looked up at Murphy in disbelief. It seemed as if he was about to bow to all of the legate's demands. Resked grinned from ear to ear and dropped back into his seat.

"Channel open, Sir…" Katie struggled to get the words out.

"All ships, this is Freedom 6. Respond in sequence," Murphy called out.

"Blackjack 6," Annabeth said from behind him. "Standing By."

"Victory 6: standing by," Quan answered.

"Motherland 6: standing by," Tarn said.

"Ice-Ax 6: standing by," Zhe'vasda replied.

"Lone Star 6: standing by," Soloth said.

After a final pause, the admiral looked straight into Resked's eyes and threw his shoulders back.

"Red Alert!" Murphy commanded. "All hands to battle stations!"

TO BE CONTINUED


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