First Dazat’ugal’s footsteps rang out, heavy and loud, and still the two Vorta stood in the command centre did not react as he arrived. The doors slid shut behind him but the arguing continued as if he was not there.
This suited him fine. His duty was not urgent, nor did he need their approval. He knew his place, his role to play.
‘…and now the Cardassians are rallying to the Federation.’ Rovuth’s voice was softer, but Dazat’ugal knew that meant he was only more agitated. ‘We were assured they would stand by us as allies upon our arrival.’
His counterpart shook her head, eyes flashing. ‘Need I remind you that times have changed? Our assurances are greatly out of date. That they lost sight of the Founders’ vision with them parted from the quadrant so long speaks of their weakness, but we knew that.’ Nemes was not like Rovuth; she was sharper, more fervent. Dazat’ugal did not need to have an opinion of either of the two ranking Vorta in the fleet, but he knew which he respected more.
‘But the Breen stand by us?’ Rovuth’s lip curled. ‘They are mercenaries and raiders. They have no grand plan and no loyalty. We are here, as you say, to serve the Founders’ vision. Not be wielded as a blunt implement to further local petty bickers.’
‘If they are to be believed, they remained at our side when none did,’ Nemes pointed out. ‘When the Cardassians would have let the Founders die -’
‘As you say, if they are to be believed.’
Bickering of the Vorta was not uncommon. It did not concern Dazat’ugal in itself; they, like he, would obey the Founders’ will when the time came. But they lacked his clarity, expected, as they were, to dabble in matters beyond warfare. At times, they benefited from a reminder of their place, so now he let his rifle slide down for the butt to crack against the deck of the flagship’s bridge.
‘Their words have been vouched for by the Founders. Do not forget that.’
The two Vorta snapped around as if stung, and Rovuth’s expression at once shifted for the supercilious gaze of one looking to back-pedal. ‘Of course, First,’ he hissed, hands clasping. ‘But it is on us to navigate this new century. Everything has changed in the blink of an eye.’
‘We have not arrived at the expected battlefield,’ Dazat’ugal rumbled in impassive agreement. ‘Instead, we find ourselves the vanguard of the Founders’ vengeance.’ Even as Rovuth looked like he might try to explain himself more, the Jem’Hadar hefted his rifle and stepped forward. ‘The Founder arrives. Remember yourself.’
Had the Founder been alone, he would have been happy to let Rovuth be caught mid-doubt and suffer the consequences. But Dazat’ugal advanced for the doors to slide open behind him, and through stepped not only the smooth-faced Founder – one the ones who had boarded the fleet in the Gamma Quadrant in 2374 – but the hulking, masked, rasping figure of a Breen Thot.
The air in the flagship’s command centre had matched the quiet conniving of the Vorta before. Lights were dim, the consoles humming and fluttering with reports flooding in from their forces scattered across the Deneb Sector. It had been a place to lurk and scheme and watch, far behind the front lines, where the two intermediaries did not have to risk their hides.
Now as the pair stepped in, lights flooded to life underfoot, and Dazat’ugal straightened and stepped to one side, a silent herald as the Founder brought with them illumination. Clarity.
‘What is our condition?’ the Founder asked at once, eyes falling on the two Vorta. ‘I know the strike force at Leonis has engaged the enemy.’
Rovuth clasped his hands together as he bowed. Dazat’ugal thought he bowed even deeper than Nemes, so much more desperate to prove himself. ‘The local Starfleet task group’s efforts to retake Leonis have failed, Founder. They are weak and unprepared.’
Next to the Founder, the masked Breen blatted something in its own tongue.
The Founder watched the Thot, then inclined their head and returned their gaze to the Vorta. ‘Our comrade is correct. We should be concerned not about the local defences, but this new fleet arriving in the sector.’
‘The Fourth Fleet,’ Rovuth offered eagerly. ‘But merely a smattering of ships -’
‘Considerably more powerful than the local defences,’ Nemes interjected. ‘Some of Starfleet’s most advanced vessels. Scouts have been directed to conduct long-range scans so we can assess their tactical developments in these past twenty-five years.’ Her eyes landed on the Breen. ‘Unless, Thot, you have sophisticated analysis yourself of these modern Starfleet systems?’
Dazat’ugal straightened. It did not do to give a Vorta approval, but he respected Nemes’s reliance on and trust in the Dominion above all else. If the Founders vouched for the Breen’s military intelligence, he would use it, but he would be much more at ease if the information had been gathered and analysed by his own ships.
The Breen turned sharply to the Vorta, but it was the Founder who spoke. ‘Our brethren are gathering the information we need of these advances in Starfleet technology. They have been among the solids for decades, deep within their ranks. Scan for their movements and understand their units, but they will have no secrets from us.’
‘Of course.’ Nemes bowed again.
‘Founder – I trust the Founders of this century know that we would welcome them if they wished to stand at the vanguard of our ships,’ Rovuth pressed obsequiously. ‘Their experience, their knowledge, would be invaluable and inspiring to the troops…’
But one look from the Founder made the Vorta fall abruptly silent. ‘We have been welcomed and shepherded by our brethren of this century. But we are only one part of their vision. Do not presume that your needs go beyond their great plans.’
‘Of course,’ Rovuth sputtered. ‘I did not intend to suggest -’
‘Had we arrived when and where we intended, we could have stopped a great travesty from befalling our people,’ the Founder pressed, taking a step forward. ‘After this failure, our place now is to pressure the Federation. Make them bleed, drain their resources, so our brethren’s great work can bring them truly low.’
In the silence that followed, Dazat’ugal could not repress a hint of satisfaction at the fear he saw in Rovuth’s eyes, at the Vorta’s laboured breathing. It was almost disappointing that Nemes stepped up beside her counterpart, eyes locked on the deck by the Founder’s feet.
‘We live to serve,’ she insisted. ‘All I ask, Founder, is if we are to expect intelligence reports from the front – from the Founders who travelled with us, or the Founders we have discovered in this century.’
The Founder’s eyes landed on her, and after a moment, they inclined their head. ‘Yes,’ they said simply. ‘My brethren have left the command group and proceeded to the Deneb Sector. They will infiltrate the enemy, sabotage and send back vital intelligence. Doubtless they will share these duties with the great undertaking of our modern brethren already underway.’
‘Thank you,’ Nemes said softly. ‘With this knowledge, we shall enforce your will on this chaotic galaxy.’
‘Not only my will. Our orders are dated, ancient. We join the will of the Alpha Quadrant Link now. They have saved us from the atrocity the Federation unleashed upon our people. We live to bring unspeakable vengeance on them in return.’ The Founder turned, looking to the Thot, then back to the Vorta. ‘Starfleet have nevertheless sent more forces than anticipated, much quicker. Thot, I ask you to brief my advisors on the movements of your strike forces. We must be tightly-coordinated to not lose our advantage.’
Neither Vorta nor the Jem’Hadar would openly protest at the implication the Breen would be so heavily influencing the next stage of the Lost Fleet’s strategy. But the Founder stepped away after making the request, clearly here to surrender this detailed planning to their subordinates and allies.
Allies upon which, Dazat’ugal thought resentfully, they were so disproportionately reliant with the lost twenty-five years. He would have much preferred it if the Founders of this century, who had discovered them so quickly and explained how much had changed, how truly iniquitous the Federation were, had remained to assume command. But they had their own plans to execute, and if that made him and their operations in the Deneb Sector but one arrow in the quiver of the Alpha Quadrant Link, then so be it.
He would serve, however much he yearned to be the tip of the spear. And however much he yearned to not rely so much on the Breen.
‘Your will is ours to obey, Founder,’ Rovuth was calling as the Founder departed.
The moment the doors shut, the Breen began to blat in its accursed language, but at once Nemes straightened, hands clasped together, and cut him off. ‘Of course, Thot, your experience gathered from these border raids and skirmishes will be useful in assessing the new technologies and tactics of this new Starfleet. I welcome your input on our current strategies. After all, we have the bulk of the forces, and our strike forces are already committed across the sector. I have in mind already certain fronts where your reinforcements might be found useful?’
Deliberate words of a politician, Dazat’ugal thought, making the Lost Fleet’s dominance here plain. Now the Jem’Hadar stepped forward, standing beside Nemes and looking to the main strategic display in the middle of the command centre. ‘All I need, Thot,’ he rumbled, ‘is to know how many of my ships it will take to kill them now.’
A simple tactic. A simple strategy. The Founders, both those who had travelled to the twenty-fifth century with him and those of the Alpha Quadrant Link they had found in this new, darkened frontier, would concern themselves with subterfuge and sabotage, plan to bring this Federation down from the outside.
Here, in this room, he would remind them all – Vorta and Thot, Dominion and Breen – that in this plan they served one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the Federation bleed.