Chapter Fourteen: Whirlwind

"Sun Tzu, who was a native of Ch'i, had secured an audience with King Ho-lü. Ho-lü asked Sun Tzu to demonstrate his famed techniques for conducting the movement of troops, by commanding one hundred and eighty of the king's concubines.
Sun Tzu divided the women into two companies and put the King's two favourite concubines in command. He instructed them all in the use of halberds, and the proper way to respond to marching commands. He explained the orders five times, after which he gave the signal to face right. The women did not move, and laughed at him.
Sun Tzu said 'if instructions are not clear and commands not explicit, it is the commander's fault. But when instructions have been made clear, the fault lies with the officers.' He ordered that the two company commanders, the King's two favourite concubines, be executed immediately.
The king was horrified, and sent an aide to protest. But Sun Tzu declared that he had been placed in command, and as the King's appointed general, he therefore had the right to deal with his army as he saw fit. He repeated his order, and the two concubines were swiftly beheaded.
He then chose two other women to serve as company commanders, and when he gave the order to face right, the women efficiently turned to face right. This time, there was no laughter."
From the biography of Sun Tzu

The pounding footsteps grew closer, and closer. Bereft of weaponry, Riker and his fellow officers could only listen to the massive walkers approach. All manner of war machines were disgorging from the bulky Imperial transports now: huge four-legged heavy walkers, nimble two-legged scout walkers, hovering tanks, lightning-quick speeders, and war droids of various shapes and sizes.

Riker and Data huddled over the escape pod's tiny viewscreen. "What's all that activity in the middle of the landing zone? Are they trying to build something?" Riker queried.

Data checked his sensors and increased the viewscreen magnification. "They appear to be constructing a habitable structure. Most likely a provisional headquarters building. They are also assembling power generation equipment, and a field projector system which is probably a ground-based deflector shield."

Riker checked the pod chronometer. "They don't waste any time, do they? They've been on the ground for less than two hours and they're already putting up a headquarters building, a shield, a power generator ..."

The Imperial troops and war machines flew, hovered, rolled, crawled, and marched outward from their landing site in every direction. From the air, they looked like a flood of scuttling ants, and the transports looked like fat, grey-hued beetles. Lieutenant Cates piloted his runabout toward Riker's escape pod, and tried to appraise the situation. It was difficult to see clearly, because the thick, spattering black rain was creating a flickering light show as it impacted against the runabout's shields. But there was no mistaking this army for a decontamination team- it was clearly an invasion force.

He hurriedly activated his communications system, and attempted to contact Spacedock, since San Francisco HQ no longer existed. "Spacedock, this is Whistler. Spacedock, this is Whistler. Please respond." He waited, but there was no response.

"Spacedock, this is Whistler. I repeat, Spacedock, this is Whistler. Imperial ground forces sited in vicinity of San Francisco are armed and probably hostile, please advise. Spacedock, come in." Again, he waited, but there was still no response. Damn it- they must have taken out Spacedock! He was sure the Imperials had spotted him now- from a distance, he knew his runabout must look like an ellipsoid strobe light, with the way the rain was impacting off its shields. He thumbed his communications controls again.

"Enterprise escape pod, this is Lieutenant Cates, on the runabout Whistler. You've got a lot of hostiles coming your way. Prepare for emergency extraction."

Riker's voice crackled through his communications system in response. "We're glad to see you! You land your bird, and we'll be ready."

Lieutenant Cates smiled, and pushed his runabout into a steep dive. But as he approached, he could see five enemy vehicles that were already within range of the pod. He knew that if he landed, he would be a sitting duck for their heavy weapons. Without contact with Spacedock, he knew he had a decision to make. But he didn't waste time deliberating- he knew immediately that the Imperials were obviously hostile, and that he would have to delay or destroy them if he was to have any chance of rescuing the people in that pod. He calmed his nerves, steeled himself, and banked right. He swooped toward the walkers, gleefully shouted "Tally ho!" into his communicator, and fired his phasers.

All five vehicles were walkers: three lumbering AT-AT's and two small AT-ST's. They seemed to be ignoring his approach, so he opened fire on the smaller scout walkers. His phaser blasts slammed into them, easily punching through their thin skins and blasting through engine components and cockpits. One of the scouts exploded from within, while the other belched flames from its aft quarter and pitched forward to the ground. He let out a cry of triumph, and swung around for another pass. The three AT-AT walkers' heads turned in near-unison, "looking at" Cates' runabout as it streaked back into the sky after the strafing run. The machines evoked an uncannily strong association with elephants, and Cates found himself thinking of them in that manner. He spun around for another pass, but this time, they were firing up at him. Red blaster bolts leapt skyward, and Cates juked his runabout violently to throw off their aim.

He swung around in a broad arc and came into range again, raking the walkers' armour with phaser blasts. But although the blasts created great blooms of radiance where they struck armour, they did little damage. As he pulled away, he knew that it would take far too long to stop them this way, whittling away at their thick armour. He had do something quickly because the flak bursts around his runabout were seriously draining its shields. He banked hard to his left, came in a few metres above the ground, and armed a full-yield micro-torpedo. The walker pilots continued to hurl a relentless barrage of fire at Cates' runabout. Red blaster bolts exploded like flak around his ship, some of them striking the ground and throwing up huge plumes of dirt and smoke.

His fingers danced over the firing controls, and the torpedo shot away from his small craft. He let out a whooping war cry and pulled up into a steep climb, but his luck had run out. The walker gunners finally scored a direct hit, and the cockpit seemed to dissolve into blinding white light. Cates found himself on the floor, with blood obscuring the vision in his right eye, and no vision at all in his left eye. In fact, the left half of his face was completely numb, and he knew he must have suffered severe plasma burns at the very least. Wind howled through the cockpit, indicating that the hull must have been compromised. He struggled to his knees, but when he looked up, he could see a large hole in the side of the ship, and through it, he could see the ground rushing toward him.

Unmindful of its owner's fate, Cates' torpedo raced on. Red blaster bolts pounded the ground beneath it, exploded in mid-air flak bursts around it, and skimmed by it, but none hit it directly. Before the flaming wreckage of Cates' runabout hit the ground, his torpedo reached its target. It slammed squarely into the head of the lead walker with a tremendous explosion, and when the smoke cleared, the walker had been stopped cold. Smoke poured from a wide gash in its wounded head, and twisted, still-glowing tendrils of metal sprouted from the opening. The walker swayed crazily on its four legs for a few moments, staggered forward, and then collapsed to the ground with a bone-rattling crash.

Riker pounded his fist on the escape pod's viewscreen in frustration. He leaned on the console, head hung low for a moment, and then looked up. "Looks like our air support is gone. At least he took out three vehicles before he went. Data, what do we know about these walking vehicles?"

"They appear to be personnel transports. The smaller models are very lightly built, and are apparently designed to serve only as escorts or scouts. The larger models carry a significant number of troops in addition to their command crews, and are very heavily armoured. They did not appear to expect an air attack. Numerous fighter craft began launching from their landing site as soon as Cates' attack began."

"Wonderful." Riker grumbled. The pounding footfalls continued, getting louder by the minute. The remaining two AT-AT walkers, undaunted by the loss of the lead walker and their two scout units, continued to advance.

One of the men, a young ensign whose name escaped Riker for the moment, spoke up. "What are we going to do, sir?"

Riker looked back at him with a pained expression on his face. "We have no weapons, so it looks like we have no choice. We're going to surrender. Again."

Picard stopped to catch his breath, panting heavily and leaning against a corridor wall. Jaina's lithe form seemed to shimmer as she moved into the distance, running at what appeared to be an impossibly fast pace. He blinked, and she was gone. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn she had become a wraith and disappeared. But he knew where she would be going.

He gathered a few more lungfulls of breath into his burning lungs and sprinted to the nearest turbolift. He prayed that it would respond to voice commands, but it didn't. He tried to decipher the console controls, and was relieved when a group of heavily armed stormtroopers hurried into the turbolift with him.

Their sergeant quickly moved to address Picard. His tinny, artificial-sounding voice crackled through speakers in his helmet. "Captain Picard, we have been assigned to protect you."

"You can start by moving this turbolift to grid three five five."

"Sir, that area is extremely dangerous. We have orders to-"

"Sergeant, I hold the rank of Captain on this ship, do I not?"

"Yes, sir. Acting Captain, sir."

Picard straightened his uniform. "Well, regardless of whether I am an acting Captain or a regular Captain, I still outrank you, correct?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then I order you to move this turbolift to grid three five five."

"Sir, that area is open to space. We can't go there, but we can go to the nearest adjacent location."

"Make it so."

The stormtrooper hesitated, then reached out and punched a few buttons on the console. The turbolift began to move. "Sir, that area is contested by the Borg. We have war droids at all access points, but I can't guarantee your safety if you go in there."

Picard gave the stormtrooper a wry smile. "There are no guarantees in war, sergeant. Now, I'll need a weapon."

The sergeant nodded at one of his men, who handed over a black, metallic blaster rifle. "Sir, this is a Blastech E-11 standard Imperial sidearm. It fires high-powered energy bolts, but it can also fire stun bursts by switching the firing mode," he flicked a toggle slide back and forth, "here. It takes standard charge clips," he handed Picard a pack of four rectangular blocks, "that you load into the base, like this." He flipped a cartridge release, ejected the old clip, and slammed a new clip into the base. "Here's the safety," he said, pointing at another toggle switch on the side of the weapon, "the stock folds out for long-range shots, and the scope has light-amplification and infrared imaging. And one last thing," he said, toggling another slider on the side of the gun, "this switches the gun to full auto. But you'll go through a clip pretty fast if you leave that on."

Picard appraised the weapon in his hands. It had none of the smooth, sleek feel of a Federation hand phaser. It was angular. It was cold to the touch. It was designed to kill large numbers of people in as short a time as possible, and from the descriptions he'd heard, it was a plasma weapon, with no coherent frequency that Borg shields could adapt to. Excellent, Picard thought to himself, lengthening the strap and slinging it over his right shoulder. "What is the combat effectiveness of this weapon against Borg drones?"

"They were lethal with one shot. But intel says they've found a way to dissipate part of the bolt. You can still take 'em down with a burst of full auto, or you can use heavy guns, like this one," he said, unslinging a large shoulder-fired weapon and handing it over to Picard. It carries enough punch to blast through a light door or bulkhead."

Picard took the gun, noted that its controls were similar to the E-11, and slung it over his left shoulder with a grunt. The gun was quite heavy- at least 15 kilograms by his estimate. It would slow him down, but he wouldn't need top agility- Borg drones were not known for their speed. The stormtroopers began arraying themselves between him and the turbolift door, so he figured they must be approaching their destination. Not bad for an eight kilometre trip, he thought to himself.

The sergeant watched the display and barked out orders to his men. "Protect the captain. ETA in five seconds." The men braced themselves, aiming their weapons at the door. The door slide open, and every man in the turbolift stiffened with apprehension. But the hallway was empty, well-lit, and quiet. On the surface, it appeared as though they'd arrived nowhere near the contested area. Several of the stormtroopers moved out into the hallway, scanning in every direction for threats.

"The area is secure," the point man reported. Picard was waved into the corridor and he stepped out, blaster rifle ready.

"Are you sure we're in the right place?" Picard asked.

"As near as we can get. Turbolift won't go any farther."

Picard nodded and looked around anxiously, trying to discern traces of combat. He felt a subtle tugging at his mind, and somehow, he suddenly knew which way to go. He turned and began jogging down the corridor to his left, as swiftly as he could with the bulky weaponry he was carrying. With muffled curses, the stormtroopers ran to follow him. He continued for what seemed to be a very long time, and he started seeing strange debris littering the corridor: dismembered Borg arms, legs, and heads. He also saw numerous intact Borg bodies, laying still but with no obvious cause of death.

He quickened his pace, and rounded a bend in the corridor, to see an amazing sight. Alone and without backup of any kind, Jaina was slicing her way through Borg drones, advancing relentlessly forward. The battle was surreally quiet, with none of the usual sounds of blaster fire or explosions. The only sounds were the humming sound of her lightsabre and the clattering of Borg body parts as they hit the deck.

Jaina's lightsabre flashed through the air, a glowing red blade of destruction. So that's what the baton is for- I wonder how it works ... Her speed and agility were amazing- the clumsy, slow-moving Borg drones seemed like immobile signposts compared to her leaping, pirhouetting form. Cyborg arms and heads fell away from their owners as the humming lightsabre blade scythed through Borg bodies, and her fluid movements seemed almost scripted, as if both Jaina and the Borg had been choreographed for this battle. It's almost as if she can see their movements before they happen, he thought to himself.

Their stiff, clumsy movements were almost comical in comparison to her startling agility. Their mission was hopeless- in spite of the three foot long lightsabre that flashed through the air, they had to somehow get close enough to touch her with their hands. It was not an easy task, to touch one who was accustomed to dodging and blocking lightning-quick blaster bolts. One by one, they fell before her, and none of them even came close. She switched to a one-handed grip on her light sabre, and with her free hand, she seemed to wave at a group of drones approaching from her left. While Picard watched in disbelief, the entire group was lifted off the ground, hurled through the air, and slammed against a bulkhead. They lay where they fell, necks snapped like twigs. She continued to slice through her victims, and Picard thought that he caught a glimpse of a smile on her face.

The stormtroopers caught up to him, but did nothing. They appeared to be in awe of her, or perhaps fearful that they might be more of a hindrance than an aid. A drone approached her from behind, but before Picard could shout a warning she calmly spun and sliced the drone's outstretched hands off. The hands clattered to the deck and the drone staggered back, scrabbling at its throat with its severed forearm stumps. It seemed to be choking to death, and it eventually collapsed to the deck in a heap.

"Sergeant, we've got to help her." Picard said.

The sergeant's voice came filtering out of his helmet. "How? The best thing we can do is stay out of her way. I recommend we keep our distance, and follow her."

Reluctantly, Picard agreed, and they followed her as she advanced deeper into the Borg enclave. He knew they must be close to the centre, because the walls were beginning to take on that uniquely Borg look. Black, sculpted Borg technologies adorned the walls, and the atmosphere was becoming stiflingly hot and humid. Jaina continued to advance, but seemed to be finding less and less resistance. Perhaps the Borg have already shot their last bolt- maybe they're running out of drones, Picard thought to himself.

Jaina walked calmly and deliberately forward. The occasional drone rose up to stop her- some fell in glowing pieces while others were telekinetically choked to death, hurled against bulkheads, or torn apart. She had no fear of them- Picard could sense that. And why should she- the Borg can't shield against telekinesis, he thought to himself.

They eventually came to an open room, and Picard knew what to expect inside: the Borg Queen. She stood in the centre of the room, and Jaina stopped at the entrance. A wall of twenty Borg drones blocked her way, but with a wave of her hand they were thrown about the room like toys. Picard looked at the Queen, and thought her expression betrayed an emotion he had never imagined he would ever find in the Borg: fear. Jaina advanced toward her, brandishing her humming lightsabre. She backed away, finally retreating to the far end of the room and finding herself trapped. Jaina, Picard and the stormtroopers quietly surrounded her from all sides, brandishing blaster rifles, assault guns, and in Jaina's case, a lightsabre at her. Some of the stormtroopers began to taunt her, shouting crude phrases like "come and get it, honey!", and worse. Jaina wore an amused expression on her face.

The Queen crouched warily, glancing around at her tormentors. She locked eyes with Picard. "Locutus!" she shouted haughtily. "You are a fool if you think you can stop us!"

Some of the stormtroopers jeered at her, but Picard silenced them with an outstretched hand. He looked at the Borg Queen with a mixture of pity and contempt. "Frankly, you don't look particularly unstoppable right now."

She shot him a venomous look. "You don't really think you can stop us by destroying me, do you? Many have tried to destroy the Borg, Locutus. One by one, they all failed. A thousand civilizations on a thousand worlds, now all Borg. You will fail in turn, even with the help of your new friends. Finding their weakness will only be a matter of time."

Jaina seemed to take offense at that, and casually swung her lightsabre at the Queen. With a flash of light, a loud pop, and the stench of burnt flesh, the Queen's leg fell away. She collapsed to the ground amid hoots of derision and laughter from the stormtroopers. "Aaaggh--" she gasped, more in shock and humiliation than actual fear. She glared at Picard, and a contemptuous smile crept onto her face. "Locutus ... you will come back to the Borg." She looked around at the stormtroopers, and at Jaina. "You will all be Borg."

Picard still didn't entirely understand the Queen, and how she seemed to possess individuality while being part of the whole. But she seemed to be concealing fear behind a wall of contempt, and he couldn't help but pity her. He looked at Jaina to see how she was reacting.

Jaina smiled at him. "Don't feel sorry for her, Jean-Luc. She is Borg. She is your enemy."

Picard suddenly felt reassured. Yes, of course- what was I thinking? She is Borg ... I can't make the same mistake that I did with Hugh. She deserves neither pity or sympathy. He cleared his throat, and turned to the stormtrooper sergeant.

"Kill her." he snarled, not quite believing the callous tone of his own voice. Twelve stormtroopers raised their weapons in unison and began firing, hammering away at her defensive shields with whatever weapons they had available. Some of the energy got through and some splattered uselessly against her defensive shield, but eventually, her defenses collapsed completely. The men moved closer, and blasted away until her body was a smoking ruin.

The head, however, was still alive. Picard pulled the head and spinal attachment out of its socket, and held it in the air. "This is the second time I've held a Borg Queen's head in my hands." he announced. Just as he had before, he snapped the quivering spinal attachment and let the cold, dead skull drop to the deck with a metallic clatter.

Jaina hurried to his side, as if wishing to console him. "You did very well, Jean-Luc. I knew you would be able to face your demons without flinching."

"One by one," he muttered to himself.


"One by one, a thousand other civilizations tried and failed to stop the Borg. Are you sure that we'll be any different?"

Jaina grinned and playfully put her arm around him. "We have you, don't we?"

Picard tried to sound reassured. "Yes, of course." One by one ...

Thousands of light-years away, William Riker was seated in the Imperial field headquarters outside what used to be San Francisco. He was flanked by two heavily armed stormtroopers, in a well-lit room that seemed to be made completely of dull, gray metal. His hands were secured behind his back with a pair of cold, hard binders. The binders, roughly clapped onto his wrists when he was captured, were so tight that they were reducing blood circulation to his hands, and he had been struggling to loosen them for half an hour without success.

"The commander is here! Get up!" One of the stormtroopers brutally jabbed Riker in the ribs with the butt of his blaster rifle, knocking him off the chair and onto the ground. He staggered back to his feet, glaring angrily at the trooper. The man ignored him, standing stiffly at attention while two officers entered the room along with more guards.

The two Imperial officers, one male and one female, greeted him with stern expressions on their faces. The female, a slim, red-haired woman, spoke first. "I am Commander Evleston, and this is General Harn," she gestured at the man, who nodded stiffly. "General Harn is responsible for our land-based operations, and I am responsible for the capture, analysis and refit of your Starfleet vessels and orbital facilities, as well as our transport fleet operations. Would you care to explain why your shuttle fired on our troops?"

Riker held his bruised head high. "Name, William Riker. Rank, Commander. Starfleet registration number-" he was cut off when one of the troopers viciously struck him in the jaw with the butt of his blaster rifle. He staggered, then doubled over when the same trooper hit him again, this time in the stomach. He collapsed to the ground and lay there, bleeding on the floor.

Evleston's voice was much harsher this time. "Don't waste my time with this nonsense, Commander. The Empire does not obey any of your humanitarian conventions for the treatment of prisoners. You will co-operate, or you may find that your fellow prisoners may not survive our hospitality. Do I make myself clear?"

Riker lifted his head painfully, but he was still defiant. "Go to hell," he snarled.

She looked rather exasperated, and gestured to one of the troopers at the door. The trooper left, and returned in less than a minute with another prisoner. It was Lieutenant Barclay, and he was clearly terrified. The trooper swung his blaster rifle and struck Barclay in the back of the knees, eliciting a shriek of pain and forcing him to the ground.

Barclay's eyes were closed tight, and he whispered "please don't kill me" over and over.

Evleston spat contemptuously on Barclay, and looked at Riker. "You call this a soldier? How many of these sniveling cowards do you have?"

Riker was furious. "He is one of my men. Do whatever you want to me, but leave him alone!" he shouted.

Evleston smiled cruelly. "Why would I want to kill you? After all, you are the senior officer of this group, so I need to talk to you. On the other hand, he is expendable."

Riker glared at her, but he knew he had no leverage here. "I can be more co-operative. Let him go ... please." Riker asked quietly.

Evleston shook her head. "No, I'm afraid I can't do that. You see, my policy is to punish defiance. You defied me. Therefore, a price must be paid, and he will pay it." She pointed, first to one of the stormtroopers, and then to Barclay. "Kill him."

Barclay panicked, and started pleading pitifully for his life. "No, please, don't-" there was a bright flash, a puff of thick, grey smoke, and Barclay's words died away to a pathetic gurgle in his throat. His body went limp, and he fell forward onto the floor with a heavy thump. Smoke floated up from a blackened, burned crater wound in his back, and he lay perfectly still. Riker stared at the body in disbelief, wishing he could somehow reverse the events of the past five minutes.

"Barclay ..." he whispered. He could still remember first meeting a hesitant and neurotic Lieutenant Barclay on the Enterprise-D, many years ago. Barclay had grown on him over the years, but Riker had never found time to really get to know him. Now, he would never get the chance.

"I punish defiance swiftly and without reprieve, Commander. Now, you have a choice. You can be co-operative, or you can be defiant. If you choose to be defiant, I will select someone else to pay the price for you. Do you understand?"

Riker stared at Barclay's smoking body and then looked at Evleston with fire in his eyes. Between clenched teeth, he growled "I understand."

Evleston leaned against the wall now, and folded her arms confidently. "Now, let's start again, shall we? Would you care to explain why your shuttle fired on our troops?"

"You landed an invasion force. He was trying to defend us." Riker replied in a monotone.

The Imperial officers exchanged glances, and Commander Evleston spoke again, in a slightly mocking tone of voice. "Invasion force? Who said anything about an invasion force?"

Riker raised his voice. "You landed heavily armed troops when you claimed you would be landing decontamination workers and equipment. Tens of thousands of heavily armed troops constitute an invasion force in my book."

Evleston smiled. "Actually, we wanted to secure the area before landing our decon teams. It's a perfectly normal security measure, to protect our workers from terrorist attacks. Judging by your actions, our concerns were completely justified. Perhaps your memory is faulty, but our logs clearly show that your man fired first. You're lucky I don't declare this a violation of our agreement."

Riker bit off a retort, knowing that there was nothing he could say that would not further aggravate the situation. He kept silent, watching her.

Her green eyes bored into his, and she continued. "I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt ... this time. But this incident proves that we will need a much larger, better-equipped ... security force ... than we had previously anticipated. Because of this incident, I am forced to declare a no-fly zone over this hemisphere, and I am also forced to create a large security buffer zone on the ground so that our workers need not fear more acts of terrorism."

She turned to General Harn. "General, reinforcements and heavy equipment will be arriving within twenty four hours. We will be deploying more fighters, and several Victory class Star Destroyers for low-altitude support." She turned back to Riker. "Please understand ... we need to protect our workers." Riker thought he could see the barest hint of a smile on her smooth face as she turned and walked away.

Admiral Kanos paced back and forth along the observation deck, overseeing one of the Crimson Blade's cavernous cargo bays. The technicians down in the bay were putting the finishing touches on their latest acquisition: an array of 150 transporter units cannibalized from various Federation starships and orbital facilities, all slaved into a central control panel. This transporter technology may be an abomination, but it is a useful abomination, he admitted to himself.

"Initiating primary test sequence," a technician announced. Banks of glowing readouts and displays lit up in sequence, and the transporter pads began thrumming with energy. Shimmering objects seemed to materialize out of nothingness on the transporter pads. They were cargo containers from the Imperial landing site, full of complex equipment. Loud popping sounds were heard from some of the pads, and sparks shot into the air.

Technicians scurried to the transporter pads and inspected the containers, scanning their contents and examining the equipment. One by one, they gave the all-clear signal. All but seven. 143 out of 150 pads were fully operational, but the remaining seven pads had either transported nothing and blown themselves out, or they had hopelessly mutilated the transported material.

One of the techs brought him the operations report. "The array is ninety five percent operational. We will have to run diagnostics on the malfunctioning units. It will take some time, as this alien technology-"

"Just take the malfunctioning units off-line and try to correct the error. Ninety five percent is adequate for now. Inform Lord Jacen that we are ready." Kanos ordered. His aide marched off smartly toward the turbolift, feverishly hoping that Jacen would be in a good mood when he interrupted him.

Luckily for the aide, Jacen was indeed in a good mood. He arrived at the cargo bay shortly, and began ordering the technicians to acquire their targets.

Kanos pondered the morality of their actions, and he could contain himself no longer. He felt that they were crossing a line with this action- the line between wartime actions and criminal conduct. Q's stinging remarks in their last meeting had struck a nerve, even if he hadn't wanted to admit it at the time. Maybe Q was right- maybe I've become so obsessed with victory that it has consumed me. Maybe I've lost any other values I ever had. Then again, maybe not. He turned to Jacen. "Is this really necessary?"

Jacen turned his head slowly toward Kanos, and his eyes glowed faintly with a yellow hue. "Do not question me, Admiral. Once, many years ago, we were friends. But a Sith Lord no longer has need of friends. Do not overstep your bounds."

Kanos wanted to respond, but bit off his reply and said nothing. He looked mournfully at the man he had thought of as a friend, and asked himself how a man could change so much in such a short time.

Eventually, the equipment was ready and Jacen gave the order to proceed. The pads shimmered, and 143 human children appeared in the cargo bay. Their bodies destroyed so that these duplicates could be made ... Kanos grimaced at the thought. None of them were older than one year, and all of them were terrified. Kanos had very few memories of his own parents- his mother had died when he was an infant, and his father had disappeared without a trace when he was a young boy. At least I have a few memories- these children will have no memory of their parents at all, he thought to himself.

Some of the babies began crying, a chorus of wails that spread and quickly filled the cargo bay. They had all been taken while sleeping, with no one around to witness the abduction. Most of their families would not discover the disappearances until morning. They would be frantic with terror, they would search their homes and their neighbourhoods, and over time, they would eventually surrender to their grief. They would mourn their terrible loss for the rest of their lives, and they would have no idea what had become of their precious children.

Some would suspect the Empire of course, but they would have no evidence. The population would be generally well-treated during the change of governments, and planetbound investigators would find that there was no pattern to the abductions. At least, no pattern that they will ever discover, he thought to himself.

While Kanos and Jacen watched from the observation deck, caretaker droids rushed in, bundled up the babies in swaddling cloths, and carried them away. The pads were cleared, and the technicians began acquiring another set of sensor locks.

Kanos stalked out of the cargo bay and headed back to the bridge, but Jacen ignored him. His eyes gleamed with savage delight as he looked down on the transporter array.

"This will be an excellent harvest." he whispered to himself.

Chapter 15