Chapter Eleven: Turnabout

"In battle, use normal force to engage. Use extraordinary force to win."- Sun Tzu

"Commence primary ignition."

The order, given so many times in the last few weeks, was given again. Millions of soldiers, technicians, and officers paused in their rounds and waited for the inevitable, familiar vibrations to resonate through the deckplates of the vast battle station. Deep within the Death Star's hypermatter reactor, a turbulent vortex of energy began building to a crescendo, and Grand Moff Tharde smiled as a subordinate pressed the firing trigger into his hand. It was perhaps an overly melodramatic gesture- this firing switch. It would have been just as effective to simply order an underling to press a button. But he lusted for the feeling of power- the sensation of godlike omnipotence and invincibility that came with watching helpless planets explode into dust at the mere touch of his finger.

With a mere touch ... Tharde caressed the trigger almost sensuously, as if holding a lover's hand. The Death Star was the closest thing to a lover he had ever known. In union with it, he became a god. He was the Destroyer of Worlds. He was the Bringer of Justice- the blood-soaked Angel of Death. But without the firing switch in his hand, he was a mere mortal. An unimportant underling of the Emperor, relegated to the unenviable role of taking orders from Admiral Kanos. Me- a Grand Moff, taking orders from a mere Admiral! The thought had been enough to drive him to thoughts of disobeying the Emperor and eliminating Kanos to seize power for himself, but no matter how many times the idea occured to him it was quickly banished, as if it were ripped from his mind by force. So he stood trembling in the Death Star's control room, holding the firing switch in his hand, waiting for the order, and listening to the dispassionate voice of the controllers. "Stand by."

Aboard the Tanaka, Admiral Halsey knew that it was time. Time to sacrifice himself to save humanity. He may have disobeyed his own government, and murdered his own president, but History would remember him as the man who saved Earth. With the calm, satisfied tone of a man who had found his destiny, he gave the order. "Helmsman, set a course for the Death Star. Maximum warp. Prepare to drop out of warp and de-phase when we enter the reactor chamber." The Empire will rue the day ...

"Admiral, we cannot form a stable warp field in this distortion field, and the field strength jumped three times when the Death Star appeared. At our best possible sublight speed, we would need ... Sir, we are picking up a massive energy surge from behind us. The Eclipse Star Destroyer is firing its superlaser!"

"What?" Halsey sat frozen in horror as the viewscreen switched to the massive Eclipse Star Destroyer in the centre of the Imperial fleet. A fifteen kilometre long buildup of energy culminated in a focused stream that erupted from the bow of the ungainly behemoth, and lanced toward his home. This was no low-powered ship killer beam. It was a full power blast, designed to vapourize entire continents in an instant. Several unfortunate starships from both sides were caught in the path of the beam and blown to dust, but the beam would not be stopped. Halsey clenched his fists, and in an instant, realized that his dreams of finding a place in history were doomed to failure. I never thought the Eclipse would fire with their own fleet surrounding them ... what a fool I've been! He slumped in his seat, knowing that there was nothing he could do. A blast that powerful would kill everyone on the Earth, and Halsey would be reviled as the man who led humanity to its darkest hour.

However, fickle Fate was about give Halsey another chance. Lieutenant Portugal turned to face Halsey with a look of relief on his face. "Admiral, the superlaser is not aimed at Earth. It will hit the Moon!" Sure enough, the superlaser beam was headed for the diminutive moon rather than the green planet known as Earth. It struck the moon with titanic violence, drilling through its bulk with a blinding flash and tearing it to pieces. Where the moon once wended its path through space, a cloud of mountain-sized asteroids now drifted away. Where millions of people once made their home, nothing survived.

However, Kanos wasn't finished with his demonstration. On cue, fifty Star Destroyers hyperjumped from deep interstellar space into the system, but from a direction opposite to Kanos' own approach vector. In an unusual variation upon the Thrawn Pincer, they dropped into realspace not in position to attack the Federation fleet, but millions of kilometres away, in orbit around Earth. They were on the opposite side of the planet and out of interdiction range, and they promptly loosed a devastating barrage of heavy turbolaser blasts at San Francisco. These shots were not carefully calibrated precision shots, intended to frighten or harass. These shots were unfocused, full powered, Base Delta Zero blasts, designed to reduce the entire area to a molten lake. The lethal salvoes slammed into the ground, melting and vapourizing countless tons of dirt, metal, and building materials. The men, women, and children of San Francisco barely had time to scream in agony before their bodies were obliterated by the firestorm and shockwaves. Stunned ground controllers slowly recovered from their surprise and a few sporadic phaser shots leapt up from the surface, but the Star Destroyers were already leaving. One by one, they disappeared into hyperspace and left the carnage behind.

A calm, dispassionate voice could be heard through the ship's communication system. It was Kanos, broadcasting on all frequencies. "Federation vessels. I salute you! You have fought bravely, and you have shown that you can defend yourselves. But you cannot defend your civilians, as we have just demonstrated. As you may have already detected, the Death Star is fully charged and ready to fire at a moment's notice. Our next demonstration will not kill some of your people- it will kill all of them. You have sixty seconds to stand down, lower your shields, and disarm your weapons. Do not presume to test our resolve."

Halsey decided that they only had one chance. He thumbed his communicator and opened a channel to the fleet. "The Eclipse will require eight minutes to recharge its superlaser. All ships attack the Eclipse. We will attack the Death Star." He thumbed his communicator off, expecting the fleet to launch a withering attack. But they seemed to be hesitant, and unbenownst to Halsey, the Enterprise had finally managed to burn through Admiral Shimizu's jamming signals.

"All Federation vessels! This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Admiral Halsey is gambling with the lives of billions of Federation citizens! I address every starship captain- do you want the deaths of billions on your conscience? Stand down, and do not further provoke the Imperials! I am transmitting records which show that Admiral Halsey acted in criminal defiance of Starfleet regulations and the direct orders of the President. He is not fit to command this fleet, and he should be placed under arrest!"

Halsey's face was mottled with fury and he half-snarled, half-barked into his communicator. "Commander Riker of the Enterprise, I order you to relieve Captain Picard of command for insubordination! All Federation ships, attack the Eclipse. Now!" His rage only increased when none of the ships on his viewscreen dared attack. "Insubordinate fools! We have only one chance, and they are squandering it! Lieutenant Portugal, I think we need to show them how it's done. Set course for the Death Star."

The silence was deafening, and no one moved. Halsey raised his voice a notch. "Lieutenant, I gave you an order."

Lietuenant Portugal turned in his chair with a pained look in his eyes. "Admiral, I cannot obey that order."

"What? You cannot obey?"

"I cannot obey, sir. I cannot take an action that may result in the destruction of Earth."

Halsey jumped to his feet. "Lieutenant, I am placing you under arrest for insubordination!" he shouted. He gestured to a pair of security officers, but before they could move, they stopped at a voice from the back of the bridge.

"Stand your ground, gentlemen." It was Captain Ramsey, who had stepped aside for Halsey when he came aboard. "Picard's evidence looks genuine." He stepped forward, and looked at the seething Halsey with a mixture of respect and pity. "Admiral, it has been an honour to serve with you. But I'm afraid I must place you under arrest and relieve you of command."

Halsey's expression changed from anger to slow realization. "Captain ... you don't understand. This is our only chance to save Earth!" His voice took on a desperate tone. "We will never get another chance. We can stop them, don't you see? I can stop them! They would enslave us all- do you want your children to be slaves?"

"I want my children to live, Admiral. I'm willing to take my chances at the negotiation table." He gestured to the waiting security officers. "Gentlemen, take Admiral Halsey to the brig." One of the security officers stepped toward Halsey but in a blindingly quick move that surprised everyone on the bridge, Halsey punched him in the solar plexus, pulled the phaser from his holster, and spun around to point it at Captain Ramsey.

"Captain, you don't have the authority to relieve me of command. Take this ship into the Death Star."

Ten phaser pistols were already aimed at Halsey, and Ramsey spoke very softly. "Sir, if you fire that weapon, you will be cut down where you stand. Killing me won't accomplish anything, and you know perfectly well that we can't possibly attack and destroy the Death Star faster than its commander can push a button. Please, don't make this any more difficult than it already is."

Halsey looked around him. The crew looked back at him, some with apprehension and some with sympathy, but they were all clearly behind their Captain. He weighed his options for what seemed an eternity, but was in reality only a few seconds. Then, he slowly lowered his phaser, finally dropping it to the floor where it clattered loudly. It was the only sound that could be heard on the deathly silent bridge. His arms hung limply at his sides, and he spoke in a hoarse, pained voice. "Captain ... you have the bridge." He offered no resistance as two security officers escorted him to the turbolift.

Ramsey opened a channel. "This is Captain Ramsey of the USS Tanaka. I have relieved Admiral Halsey of duty. Standing down."

Meanwhile, Kanos has been observing the proceedings with interest. The Federation fleet had largely surrendered, and boarding operations were already beginning. The Enterprise was still approaching, and he decided that he wanted this "Halsey" character as a trophy. "Captain Daron, has the Tanaka de-cloaked yet?"

"They appear to be de-cloaking now."

"Good. I was growing weary of listening to communications from an invisible ship which doesn't even show up on half our sensor systems. I suppose we'll never find out whether your tractor beam/repulsor beam shear force idea would have worked, will we? Maybe we'll run some tests after we capture that ship. I'm sure the techs will look forward to examining it. In the meantime, tell Tharde that he can resume his attacks on the Borg as soon as we've secured the Federation ships. I'm sure he is growing impatient to destroy something. He's probably stroking that firing switch of his right now." Kanos chuckled softly and leaned back in his chair, waiting for Captain Picard to surrender himself.

In less than an hour, Picard strode onto the bridge of the Crimson Blade, flanked by a pair of stormtroopers. Admiral Kanos imperiously motioned to the stormtroopers to remove Picard's binders and leave them alone, and they obeyed. Picard was still rubbing his wrists to restore blood circulation when Kanos extended his hand. "Greetings, Captain Picard. We meet at last."

"I am ... pleased to meet you, Admiral. I hope we can sit down and resolve our differences diplomatically." Picard responded. He turned slightly to look at the hooded figure standing in the shadows behind Kanos, and asked "May I presume that you are an advisor?"

A thin, almost whispered voice came from the shrouded figure. "My name ... is Jacen. I speak for the Emperor."

Picard opened his mouth to speak, but found that he had forgotten what he wanted to say. An instinct in the back of his brain urged him not to speak any more to the mysterious cloaked man, and he felt the stirrings of some primordial fear in him, as if the seemingly harmless man before him were some sort of monster from the fairy tales his mother had told him as a child. He stepped back gingerly, and turned back to Kanos.

"Admiral, I am eager to discuss a diplomatic resolution to this conflict."

Kanos responded confidently. "Captain, I hesitate to state the obvious, but there is no need for a diplomatic resolution. We are victorious. We can invade your world and enslave your citizenry at will."

Picard carefully modulated his voice to strike just the right balance between strength and obsequiousness. "Admiral, you have seen the evidence. Halsey acted without the formal authorization of the Federation government. He alone bears responsibility for his actions, not the rest of humanity."

Kanos' expression was grim. "Captain, let me say how pleased I was to learn that you were not responsible for the attack on our wormhole facility. I had considered the attack a personal betrayal, and I was glad to learn that I had not misjudged you. But wars are strange things. They take on a life of their own. Warring populations both seek revenge for their respective losses, heedless of the fact that it would only cause more losses. Politicians become demagogues, inflaming hatred and selling young soldiers on the idea of glorious immortality through death in battle. I'm sure you know all about this, Captain. Once a war has started, it serves no master apart from itself. And it cannot be easily stopped, until the victor has extracted his pound of flesh from the vanquished. Our leaders would be satisfied if Earth is conquered and its people enslaved. Anything less, and I may not be able to satisfy them."

Picard paused briefly, and spoke even more smoothly than before. "Admiral, it sounds like you need a prize to bring back to your government. A token, if you will, to prove that you have been victorious in your war. I submit that you already have that token. You have destroyed our moon, and San Francisco, where our headquarters was located. As a result, most of the Federation government is already dead. Our fleet has surrendered, you have secured non-aggression pacts with many of the Federation's planets, and you have Admiral Halsey in custody. That is a victory by any stretch of the imagination. I beg you to reconsider your plans to occupy Earth, and end this destructive conflict."

Kanos smiled. "You are mostly correct, Captain. By many definitions, victory has already been achieved. But I may as well be blunt. There is no reason for us to stop, apart from impractical scruples or sentimentality. We have come this far, and you and I both know that you cannot stop us, or even impede us. But you have distinguished yourself as a man of honour, and I want to give you a chance to personally make reparations to the Empire on behalf of your people.

Picard stared at Kanos for a long time, weighing the possibility that he would be imprisoned, taken to Imperial space, forced through some sort of show trial and then executed ... or worse. But he had contemplated worse personal sacrifices for the sake of humanity in his time, and he would be prepared for this, no matter how painful, humiliating, or unjust. He straightened, held his head high, and gave his answer. "Admiral, if you truly need a trophy to take back to your leaders, then I am willing to be that trophy."

Kanos looked at him quizzically for a few moments, and then threw his head back and laughed. He continued chortling for what seemed to Picard to be a rather excessive period of time, before finally calming himself. "Captain Picard, I think you have misjudged me. You thought I was going to haul you back to Coruscant in chains, didn't you?"

Picard was taken aback, and answered cautiously. "I was under that impression."

Kanos stood up, and began walking toward the panoramic bridge windows. He motioned for Picard to follow. As the two men walked past the huge windows and took in the view of the Imperial and Federation ships scattered through space outside, Kanos made his offer. "Captain, with all due respect, your imprisonment and execution would hardly satisfy the more bloodthirsty elements of my government. No, we could imprison and execute a thousand Federation officers without changing things. I want you to know that I respect your abilities, so I am making you an offer. A most generous one, in fact, and one that involves your services rather than your blood. In return for those services, I am willing to ensure that the people of Earth will be well treated. They will not be enslaved, nor will the Earth itself be plundered for its resources. In fact, we will even help with the environmental clean-up around what used to be San Francisco, and we will remove some rather large pieces of your moon that are due to impact on your planet's surface. Does that sound like an acceptable offer to you?"

Picard became even more suspicious. Kanos appeared to be giving away the farm, and asking nothing in return but the services of one Federation captain. What's his game? "Admiral Kanos, what kind of services are you looking for?"

Kanos smiled again. He continued walking, until they were looking out toward the starboard front quarter of the Crimson Blade. In the distance, they could see the massive Eclipse class ship, surrounded with mile-long Star Destroyers that looked positively miniscule in comparison. Kanos made a grandiose gesture toward the city-sized vessel. "Captain, that ship over there is an Eclipse class Star Destroyer. It carries the strongest shields of any Imperial starship. It carries thousands of turbolaser turrets and the superlaser which we demonstrated for you. It is designed to take on entire fleets, and win. Your friend Halsey was wasting his breath by ordering his ships to attack it, and it is a credit to your officer corps that none of those ships followed his foolish commands."

"All very impressive, Kanos. But you haven't told me anything I didn't already know."

"Captain, don't be so impatient. I am showing you this vessel because I have an offer to make."

"And that offer is?"

"I would like you to be the captain of that ship."

Chapter 12