Chapter Thirteen: The Hunter

"He who intimidates his neighbours does so by inflicting injury upon them."- Sun Tzu

William Riker stared out the window of his escape pod as it approached Earth. He thought about how he and his crew had been unceremoniously forced to eject in their own escape pods after Imperial troops took control of the Enterprise and the rest of the Federation fleet, and the memory left a bitter, acid taste in his mouth. He kept analyzing and re-analyzing the sequence of events leading up to their surrender, wondering whether there was anything he could have done differently. There was no telling what this Empire would be capable of doing now.

A cold-sounding voice broke through his haze of self-recrimination. "This is Admiral Kanos of the Imperial starship Crimson Blade, addressing the crew of the USS Talisman. Your ship has just self-destructed, heavily damaging one of our vessels. You were specifically instructed not to set any silent self-destruct codes or commit any other malicious acts of sabotage before abandoning your ship. You will now be punished."

Riker scrambled to focus the escape pod's tiny viewscreen aft, on the fleet of Imperial starships and their captured Federation prizes. The Crimson Blade suddenly leapt foward, accelerating at seemingly impossible rates until it seemed to disappear. By the time he was able to shift the viewscreen forward, the Crimson Blade was already in a low orbit around Earth. He felt his knees go weak beneath him as a series of energy blasts flowed from the side of the massive vessel like a green, luminescent rain. They poured down at a point somewhere around the European continent, producing a brilliant flash of light. He collapsed to the floor and clasped his head in his hands, listening to the gasps and cries of his fellow crewmembers.

"That ... was a warning. We are not intent upon murdering your species- we only desire peaceful coexistence. In the spirit of that intent, we bombarded a point just off the coast of the land mass that you call Europe, rather than destroying another of your cities. Civilian casualties were minimal. However, the crew of the USS Talisman must still be punished, so we will destroy her escape pods."

Riker clenched his fists and stared at the tiny escape pods and Imperial fighters on his viewscreen, as if he could somehow force the Imperial fighters off their attack vectors by sheer force of will. The fighters wasted no time, each picking an escape pod and flying directly toward it, guns blazing. The victims could do nothing but scream with pain and fear as their escape pods were punctured and then destroyed, and Riker could do nothing but watch them die. He noted with disgust that they weren't specifically targeting the Talisman's escape pods at all, but simply destroying pods at random.

Kanos began to address the survivors. "Amnesty will be granted for any other acts of sabotage provided that they are reported immediately, before any damage is done. Conduct yourselves honourably, and there will be no need for further escalation of violence. I trust that I have made myself clear."

Riker glared at his viewscreen and softly growled "Crystal clear, Admiral."

Data, having disabled his emotion chip during the battle to avoid distraction, seemed more curious than angry. "Commander, I still do not understand the actions of the Imperial admiral."

Riker was about to berate Data for not appreciating the gravity of the situation, but stopped himself. Data was, after all, always trying to learn more about human behaviour, even after gaining the emotions he had sought for so long. "How so?"

"He lost numerous vessels in extended combat with our fleet, before using the threat of planetary destruction to force our surrender. I do not understand why he would expose his fleet to damage when he could have simply conducted his demonstration immediately. Why did he not drop out of hyperspace in orbit, instead of giving us such a long time to attack him? Why did not he fire his superlaser immediately, or co-ordinate the approach of his fleet and the Death Star to coincide?"

Riker thought about this for a moment. "Data, when I was a young cadet, I got into a fight with a senior. I underestimated him- he was smaller than me but he was as tough as a Gorn! At one point in the fight he had knocked me on my back, and when I got up, he carelessly left himself open. I took my best shot-" he said, making a roundhouse swinging motion in the air, "and connected, right in the jaw. His head snapped right, and when he turned his face back to me, he was smiling. Smiling! He let me hit him. He wanted me to know that he could take my best shot."

"I see. What happened after that?"

Riker grinned. "Let's just say that I managed to bloody his nose, but that's it. He gave me a pretty good beating, as I recall. It seems that he wasn't even human- he just looked human. His musculature and bone structure were much denser and stronger than mine, as I discovered during the fight."

Data's face brightened. "Ah! Essentially, you are saying that Kanos deliberately exposed himself to our attack, to demonstrate his resilience."

"Simple psychological warfare tactic. My only problem is that I don't understand why he would go to all the trouble. Psychological warfare is something you use when victory is in doubt, and they had more than enough firepower to ensure victory."

Data analyzed this question for almost half a second before responding. "Perhaps victory was in doubt. You and I are defining victory as the military conquest of Earth. Perhaps Kanos defines victory differently. The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu defined the art of war to include not only battles and conquest, but also the successful assimilation of the conquered population."

Riker leaned forward, his interest piqued. "Hmmm. Maybe Kanos was trying to make an impression. Maybe he wants to make sure that the people of Earth are too afraid to form an organized underground resistance after he takes control. That would explain why he held back this time. He knows that if he overdoes it, we might resist regardless."

Data looked thoughtful. "There is another possibility, Commander: a secondary motive. Kanos did not demonstrate his strategic weapons and tactics until after the Enterprise left Spacedock, and became visible to their sensors."

Riker looked incredulous. "So he specifically wanted to impress us?"

Data looked directly into Riker's eyes. "I do not believe that is the case. I believe he may have been trying to influence Captain Picard."

Aboard the Obliterator, Captain Picard was starting to feel better about his surreal conversation with Jaina. He had always hated the Borg. He had always wanted revenge against the Borg. Was there any shame in admitting the truth to himself, or to her? The Federation's moral strictures were so constraining- one could never admit to hate, or to a desire for revenge. Such emotions had to be cloaked beneath a veneer of civility, given ridiculous euphemisms and code names. Hate and prejudice are immoral, but "recognition of societal distinctions" is perfectly acceptable. Revenge is "beneath" evolved Federation sensibilities, but one can always take "pre-emptive action against an established threat." With Jaina, there was no need for such deceptions. She knew precisely how he felt, and accepted it without judgement.

Somehow, his years with the Federation seemed like a hazy memory already, mere hours after leaving the Enterprise. Whenever he tried to think about Earth or the Federation, his thoughts became clouded. But when he thought about the Borg, his memories and plans suddenly came into perfect focus. When he thought about Jaina, he felt invigorated and alive. He cursed himself. This is ridiculous! I feel like a lovesick schoolboy, over a woman I don't even know! He was still wrestling with his feelings when the bridge suddenly came alive with activity.

"One hundred Borg cubes incoming!" an officer shouted. A cacophany of bridge chatter erupted. Officers to his left and right started barking orders, taking instructions, relaying messages. Picard strained to hear what was happening, and could only hear snippets of dialogue: "one hundred and forty Defender squadrons deployed ... charge turret ... generators fifteen and thirty four down ... shunt from four ... unit eight to redline ... in range in fifteen seconds ... "

This was happening much faster than the previous attack. The Borg were definitely focusing entirely on the Obliterator now, remaining in transwarp until the last possible moment, accepting the sudden shock of being forcibly ripped back to sublight speeds by the interdictors. Picard strained to listen to the communications chatter of the Borg, using parts of his cybernetically altered brain that he had fastidiously avoided using for years, and he could hear them calling his name, over and over: "Locutus."

He heard the name they had chosen for him, and he understood: They know I'm here.

"In range," a weapons officer stated calmly. Without waiting for Picard's orders, the fleet opened fire on the attackers, and the Obliterator joined them. Picard shook off his confusion and began assisting them with co-ordinate data. The first cube absorbed a tremendous barrage of fire and exploded almost immediately, but they kept coming, in the most determined attack that Picard had ever seen. They came closer than they had in the previous battle- too close. Picard lost count of the shield-draining blasts that he saw striking the Obliterator's shields, and could only hope that the shields would hold.

Dozens of Borg cubes were blown apart, but they kept coming. Eventually, one cube managed to survive long enough to actually ram the Obliterator at high speed, exploding with a brilliant flash and sending shockwaves reverberating through the ship. Shield generators overloaded, force fields collapsed, and explosions ripped through the ship's internal structure but the ship's gunners continued to fire away. Picard could hear someone shouting something about angling overlap fields to compensate for a failure, but he was entirely too involved to listen very carefully.

He picked apart cube after cube with the precision of a surgeon, focusing all of his concentration on the task. Tactical controllers began counting down the attackers: "forty three cubes remaining ... forty one cubes remaining ..." A cube exploded very close to the Obliterator, and it launched a sphere which slammed into the bridge shields with a rippling explosion. He heard raised voices from the shield control stations, and the tension was starting to have an adverse effect on him. His stomach felt like it was twisted in knots, and sweat began to pour down his brow. The strain of simultaneously dealing with real-world sensory input and Borg implant data was starting to wear him down.

"Thirty six cubes remaining ..." A carefully timed superlaser shot blew more than two dozen cubes to oblivion, along with four Star Destroyers. Two cubes approached the Obliterator from its aft quarter, attempting to slip between gaps in its fire coverage zones by flying directly toward one of its starboard engine banks. He tried to instruct the gunners to target the cubes, but his jaw clenched in frustration when he saw that they could not bring their heaviest guns to bear. Damned design oversight if I ever saw one ... Picard was beginning to panic, until he heard Borg drones reporting that the relativistic ion storm blasting out of the engine cones had overwhelmed their shields and was about to destroy their ship. They won't be trying that again, he thought to himself.

"Six cubes remaining ..." Picard relaxed. The battle was almost won now, but he knew that the cost had been high. Dozens of Star Destroyers were destroyed or crippled, including at least four ships by his own order. Jaina won't be pleased ... he watched the last remnants of the Borg attack being blown to pieces as the Imperial fleet closed in around them. The burning muscles in his stomach finally began to unwind.

Jaina had remained silent through the entire battle, merely standing in the corner and watching. Now, she walked to Picard's side. "You destroyed four of our own ships, Jean-Luc."

He suddenly felt a terrifying confusion of emotions washing over him. He was painfully aware that he had just sacrificed more than one hundred thousand lives in battle, but he was desperate to please her, terrified of her displeasure, and yet somehow indignant that she was questioning his decisions. "Jaina ... I had no choice. The Borg ships were too close to-"

"Shhhh ..." she abruptly silenced him by placing her fingers on his lips. "Don't worry, Jean-Luc. I approve. You made a sound choice- the ships were an acceptable loss. I just wanted to see if you were sure of yourself." She smiled at him, and gently ran her finger along his cheek as she walked away.

Picard felt immensely relieved, watching her from behind as she moved to one of the damage control stations. He struggled to collect his thoughts, but he suddenly froze in his tracks and gasped with shock. A whispered word invaded his brain: "Locutus".

Riker stepped out of the escape pod along with a small group of accompanying officers, to survey the devastation around the desolate wasteland that was once known as San Francisco. A cold, harsh rain had begun to fall, thick with ash. Huge, bloated black raindrops splashed down in the dirt, creating oozing pools of a viscous black liquid.

The wind began to howl around them, driving the pelting rain into their faces. "Mister Data, what are you picking up?" he shouted over the wind.

"I am currently reading very high concentrations of particulate matter in the atmosphere, reaching up into the cloud layer. The particulate debris is consistent with the effects of an orbital bombardment, and we should expect this fallout to continue for an extended period of time. Radiation levels are significantly elevated above normal background levels." He ran a few more checks. "Commander, I think we need to return to the escape pod immediately. This rain contains toxic and radioactive materials in high concentrations."

"Understood." Riker and the others hurried back into the escape pod and waited for rescuers to arrive. "Open a channel to Starfleet head-" he stopped himself in mid-sentence, remembering that Starfleet headquarters no longer existed. "Open a channel to Spacedock."

Admiral Shimizu's face quickly appeared on the escape pod's viewscreen. "Commander Riker, there are shuttles en route to many escape pod drop locations, including yours." She chose not to say anything about her attempt to stop the Enterprise from leaving Spacedock, or her apparent ties with Halsey. Just as well, Riker thought to himself. She'll have to answer for her association with Halsey eventually.

"Thank you, Admiral. The Imperials promised decontamination and environmental cleanup assistance. From what I can tell down here, this area's weather control net was destroyed along with the city, and unless we have some spare ships, we're going to need all the help we can get. Have they shown any indication that they intend to keep their word?"

"Yes, they are sending transport ships. But there is a problem."

"What problem?"

"Perhaps you should look up and see for yourself. They should be breaking through the cloud cover any moment."

Already? Riker thought of turning the escape pod's sensor system back on, but decided he would rather see this for himself. He opened the pod door and looked out into the pelting, poisonous rain. Sure enough, a group of perhaps one hundred large transport vessels had broken through the cloud cover, plummeting toward the ground in a steep descent vector. "Here come the transports!" he shouted. But the group of transports was not alone. Another large group of transports broke through the cloud cover. It was followed by another. And another. And another.

Damn! He sealed the pod door and turned back to his crewmates with an anguished look on his face. "Mister Data, reactivate the sensors. I need to know how many ships are approaching."

After powering the sensor system back up, Data could clearly see what was happening. "Commander, I am detecting more than eight hundred ships, with thousands more on the way. It is highly doubtful that this is a simple decontamination team." Riker could only nod his agreement in silence. The two of them, man and machine, watched the seemingly endless procession of transport ships on the sensor displays.

When the first group began to set down, they magnified the viewscreen to inspect the vessel. It was a blocky, ungainly vessel out of which a huge ramp was now unfolding. Riker increased the magnification again, hoping to see decontamination workers coming down the ramp. But the strange mechanized objects that marched out of the transport looked like anything but decontamination workers. Even from this great distance, he could feel a barely perceptible tremor in the ground that sounded like the thudding footsteps of prehistoric monstrosities.

"Mister Data, can you identify those ... robots?"

"Very curious, Commander. They are not robots. They are vehicles of some sort, but they are apparently designed to resemble large mammals such as dinosaurs or elephants. They are more than twenty metres tall, and very heavily armoured. They are also very heavily armed, and I am detecting large numbers of people inside each vehicle. My assessment is that these vehicles are armoured personnel transports."

Riker's jaw set. "An invasion force."

"Jaina, you must listen to me. The Borg are here, on this ship!" Picard spoke in a rushed flood of words, as if he could give her a sense of urgency if he simply spoke quickly enough.

Jaina seemed to undergo a transformation in front of his eyes, as the seductive smile vanished from her face and she changed from temptress to cold-eyed commander. "Are you sure? Why haven't we detected any intruder alerts? Other ships have successfully detected and repelled incursions."

"I don't know. This ship is much more highly automated than your other vessels- there are large sections of the ship with very few personnel. I ... I heard someone reporting a shield breach during the battle. Perhaps they transported during the breach- perhaps they have some kind of stealth technology that I haven't seen before. It doesn't matter- the point is that they are here. I tell you Jaina, I can hear them!"

Jaina's eyes seemed to bore into his, then she stepped back. Her seductive smile returned. "I believe you, Jean-Luc. You have done well." She closed her eyes, seeming to drift into a trance for a moment. When she opened her eyes, they were hardened with resolve. She marched to a communications station and opened an internal channel. "Intruder alert in grid three five five. Intruder alert in grid three five five. Repeat, Borg intruders in grid three five five. Maximum security alert. Isolate grid three five five. Deploy war droids to all access points."

Picard opened his mouth to speak, but Jaina wasn't finished giving orders. She moved to one of the tactical stations. "Drop shields adjacent to grid three five five. What is that ship's name?" she pointed at one of the Star Destroyers cruising alongside the Obliterator.

"That ship is the Eviscerator Three, sir." the tactical officer quickly responded.

"Eviscerator Three, this is Jaina. You are to open fire on our starboard side. Twenty four heavy turbolaser shots, on the following co-ordinates." She began punching in co-ordinates.

A confused voice cracked through the communications system. "Please confirm, Lady Jaina. We are to fire upon your ship?"

"Yes, you are to fire on us. Now."

As Picard watched in fascination, the Eviscerator Three maneuvered to get a clear shot at the desired co-ordinates, and then fired an eight-shot heavy turbolaser salvo down onto the Obliterator's unshielded hull, more than eight kilometres away from where Picard was standing. The blasts punched through the ship's thick armour, sending reverberations through the ship for kilometres in every direction. Deck plating and machinery boiled away, but it was too far away for Picard to see any distinct details. A second salvo pounded into the Obliterator's hull, followed by a third, each blast gouging deeper into the great vessel. Where a partially assimilated section of the ship had been, there was now a gaping crater, spewing superheated metal vapour and glowing debris into space.

Jaina reviewed the damage reports, and calmly opened a channel. "Well done, Eviscerator Three. Jaina out."

"Jaina!" Picard hissed. "You didn't kill them all- I still hear them!"

She stared at him for a moment, and then entered one of her trances. When she opened her eyes, she startled everyone by suddenly whirling on her heels and marching down the hall. In a clear, high voice she announced, "I will eliminate the survivors personally." Horrified, Picard ran after her.

Chapter 14