Chapter Sixteen: Wolves upon Prey

"When your weapons are dulled and ardour damped,
your strength exhausted and your treasure spent,
neighbouring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act."- Sun Tzu.

Sweat beaded up on General Harn's forehead as he tried to explain himself to Jacen. "My Lord, the Earthers' droid appeared to be a high performance battle droid. It eliminated the entire squad, as well as both sentries. They used the squad's weapons to fight their way to the hangar and ... urgh ..." An invisible force seized his throat and squeezed tight around his windpipe.

"You knew they had a combat droid. Your men should have been better prepared. I grow tired of your mistakes, General." Jacen glared at Harn, whose face was now a pallid shade of blue. He was enraged at the thought that the Earthers might try to contact his sister or disrupt the Borg sterilization job that was already sapping the strength of his forces and wasting precious time. With the subtlest of mental manipulations, he squeezed tighter and tighter around the Harn's throat until the life force ebbed away. Jacen turned back toward Kanos, allowing Harn's lifeless body to fall limply to the deck plating behind him.

Kanos spoke quietly. "We were unable to track the ship. They could be anywhere in the galaxy by now."

"Then find them, Admiral. You will find them, and this time, you will kill them!" Jacen hissed. He whirled on his heels and stalked away, leaving Harn's cooling body behind him.

Kanos waited until Jacen was out of sight. With the infant Sith trainees to occupy his attention and millions of living beings aboard the Crimson Blade, Kanos doubted that Jacen would be watching him. And what if he is? I suppose I'll have to take that chance. He gestured to Captain Daron, who hurried over.


"Captain, have we got any leads on the whereabouts of that ship?"

"No sir. We've been unable to detect them so far." Daron grimaced, watching a pair of security officers dragging Harn's dead body away.

Kanos frowned in concentration, seemingly unaffected by the sight. "They'll be detected if they go anywhere near a Federation system, and they have no remaining allies in this quadrant ..."

"So there's no way to find them."

"Perhaps. But Evleston is working on a special long-range sensor sweep, in case they've stayed close to the system. If she can't find them, then our only hope is that they'll try to contact Picard."

"I hope it doesn't come to that. How would they even find him? They can't possibly know his location."

"No, but I'm sure they'll be able to find him. In the meantime, contact Evleston and obtain a status update."

"Yes, sir. Will that be all, sir?"

"There's one more thing. I need you to prep a message drone. Send it to the Obliterator the next time she checks in. I'll compose the message." Message drones were unwieldy and inconvenient, but without a functioning Holo-Net in this galaxy, it was the best way to send a message over such a long distance. It also had the advantage of being far more secure than any transmission.

"Yes, sir." Daron smartly saluted and marched off.

Kanos settled into the captain's chair and activated the recorder. He smiled at the recorder's eye and began to speak. "Lady Jaina, this is Admiral Kanos. Several Federation prisoners have hijacked a gunship and escaped into hyperspace. They are all former crew members of the USS Enterprise, and they may attempt to contact Picard." He paused for a few moments. "Also, I would like to report that Lord Jacen's Sith training project is proceeding rapidly." He switched off the recorder and breathed a barely perceptible sigh of relief. One way or another, he would find out whether she already knew about this project.

Aboard the stolen gunship, Riker watched the small control panel viewscreen. For the last thirty minutes, while Data struggled to interpret the navigation system and locate information on Picard's whereabouts, the crew had been watching broadcasts from Earth.

On the viewscreen, a beautiful and very lightly clad woman was seated in some sort of gleaming blue hovership, while a narrator extolled the virtues of the small personal craft. "... assembled to precise specifications by the Sorosuub team, the XP five hundred is the fastest luxury landspeeder in its class. Fuel economy, handling and reliability are all what you've come to expect from Sorosuub, the most trusted name in landspeeders. A cockpit airflow control field and multi-zoned adaptive noise-cancellation technology allows you to hold quiet conversations even while you're approaching the speed of sound, and you can relax in the rich, luxurious Corellian leather interior. Best of all, with the Sorosuub Flex-Lease option and twenty year warranty, you can feel comfortable about your XP five hundred even when you're not in the driver's seat." The woman on the viewscreen brushed her hair out of her face, smiled at the camera, and accelerated rapidly into the sunset in the small craft, to the sounds of stirring music. The viewscreen faded to black and switched to some sort of racing event, in which a horrible crash was being repeatedly replayed in slow-motion.

Riker spoke to no one in particular. "Data, this is incredible. They've taken over all of the cultural and news broadcast frequencies for this nonsense. And what are those short thirty second programs they keep overlaying on top of their broadcasts?"

"The entertainment programming may be for the benefit of their troops, but I cannot determine the purpose of the short programs. Although one would expect the Empire to broadcast propaganda about its own superiority, it instead appears to be broadcasting curious stylized descriptions of its consumer goods." Data replied.

The still-defiant prisoner spoke up. "Commercials, you tin-plated idiot. They're called commercials! Don't you have commercials in your galaxy?"

Data cocked his head to the side. "Commercials ... ah! Advertisements. A type of programming dating back to the Earth's twentieth century capitalist societies. Short video programs ranging in length from fifteen seconds to one minute. Interspersed throughout entertainment broadcasts, so that viewers could not see the entertainment programming without also seeing the advertisements. Advertisements served the dual purpose of generating desire and steering individuals toward one particular vendor in a competitive market. They were often based on psychological conditioning techniques such as positive reinforcement, such as the use of the female in the program we just saw. Her revealing clothing was intended to attract the attention of male viewers."

"She had my attention ..." one of the ensigns whispered. A few of the men chuckled.

Data continued. "This type of programming is no longer relevant in the Federation. It was determined long ago that nationalized manufacturing is far more efficient because it eliminates the need for competition and wasteful duplication of goods and services. It was also determined that it was wasteful to artificially generate desire for products, because increased demand causes increased production, thus wasting resources that could be more productively employed elsewhere. By matching production accurately to demand, we have eliminated the need for market competition and the attendant need for advertisements."

Riker nodded his head in agreement. "Yes, it's amazing that societies like the Empire can survive. They spend all of their time and effort convincing you to buy things you don't need, and then competing with each other to see who can sell these things to you! I can't imagine a more inefficient way to run a society."

The prisoner had a dumbfounded look on his face. "You don't actually believe that, do you? You're actually happy in your little socialist paradise? What about freedom of choice? What's wrong with you people?"

Riker looked down at the captured pilot with a look of contempt. "In your case, freedom of choice seems to mean freedom to behave irresponsibly. Freedom to be cruel to others. Freedom to waste resources, and oppress the weak. We have freedom in the Federation, just not your kind of freedom."

The pilot sneered up at him. "Freedom to play by the rules of your wonderful, controlled, idyllic, happy-faced society until I pray for my own death? No thanks. I prefer real freedom."

Riker returned his sneer. "Well, then it looks like we have something in common. You don't think much of my Federation, and I don't think too highly of your Empire."

The pilot, still tied in place, shifted his weight and tried to lean against the wall of the cramped cabin. "Sure, whatever. But we won ... and you lost."

Riker pointed his blaster rifle directly at the man's face. "Well, we're armed and you're not. So this conversation is over. Keep your mouth shut or you'll be taking a long nap, courtesy of a stun blast."

The prisoner glared but didn't say anything.

Riker decided he'd wasted enough time with the prisoner, and he turned to look over Data's shoulder. "Data, are you making any progress?"

"I am afraid I have yet to find any information on the whereabouts of Captain Picard."

"Any technological information?" Riker asked.

"Apart from specifications and operating procedures, nothing. This may be the manner in which Imperial starship computers are typically programmed, or it may be a defensive measure against the possibility of Borg assimilation."

"They can't assimilate what the computer doesn't know."

"Precisely. However, as I stated previously, the computer does contain specifications and operating procedures. As a result, I have determined how to operate the navigation system. I have also located the specifications for this craft. It is an Imperial assault gunship, which is apparently an upgrade from a class of ship known as the Skipray Blastboat. It is heavily armoured and it has shields, a hyperdrive, and an array of forward-firing energy pulse weapons including a light turbolaser and ion cannons. It can also carry up to eighteen missiles. Those missiles can be tipped with anything from biological or chemical weapons to high yield nuclear warheads."

"Not bad. What kind of warheads are loaded right now?"

Data's expression was glum. "The missile racks are empty. Either they had not yet loaded the missiles at the time of our escape, or they were not required for this ship's scheduled mission."

"Wonderful. Keep looking for information on the Captain's whereabouts."

"Commander, I feel I must inform you of the possibility that Captain Picard's whereabouts are not stored in this ship's computer system. We may have no way of ..." the gunship suddenly began to vibrate strongly, and Data immediately checked his sensors. "We are caught in a tractor beam. A starship appeared without warning, directly astern." He rapidly powered up the ship's systems.

"Damn! Get us out of here!" Riker ordered.

"Sir, we cannot engage our hyperdrive while in the tractor beam."

"Well, what type of ship are we dealing with?"

"It's not an Imperial vessel ... " Data paused and rechecked the sensors. "It is the USS Tanaka, Commander. That would explain how they were able to appear so close to us without detection. They must have approached while cloaked, and then moved into tractor beam range before decloaking."

Riker's mind raced while Data threw the gunship into a violent evasive maneuver. How could they have gotten here so quickly? he asked himself. They must have found a way to install a hyperdrive into a Federation starship! The sobering realization was tempered by the fact that the ship's crew couldn't possibly be up to speed on Federation starships yet, even with help from collaborators. Perhaps that would give him an edge.

"Commander, a second ship has dropped out of hyperspace, approximately ten thousand kilometres away. It is an Imperial interdictor cruiser."

"Backup, in case we get away from the Tanaka ..." Riker grumbled.

A woman's voice came from the instrument panel. "This is Captain Evleston of the Tanaka. It was very rude of you to steal that ship, Riker. It's Imperial property! Surrender now, and I won't have to destroy you."

Great, Riker thought. She's been promoted to Captain. He tried to think of a witty reply, but came up empty. The tractor beam continued to reel the gunship in toward the Tanaka, like a fish on a hook.

"Data, can you break free of the tractor beam?"

"I will make the attempt, but escape is unlikely." Data replied. The engines whined and the ship shook, but it was still pulled inexorably toward the former Federation starship.

Riker desperately wracked his mind for ideas. "Data, give me a tactical analysis."

"This vessel does not carry sufficient firepower to penetrate the Tanaka's shields."

Riker's jaw set, a grim line of frustration. "Damn it ... there's got to be a way out of this ..." His brow furrowed in concentration. "Data, do you have the Starfleet remote access code database in your memory banks?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would that include the USS Tanaka?"

"Yes, but the Imperials may have changed the code."

"Not if they don't know it exists. It can't hurt to try." The Tanaka was looming large in the cockpit canopy now, its running lights blinking bright in Riker's eyes. There was some sort of ungainly box-like object welded to the back of its primary hull. It looked like a huge thruster pack, and he guessed that it must be the source of the Tanaka's newfound hyperdrive capabilities. The thought crossed his mind that if he could somehow steal the modified Tanaka, it would be a formidable weapon. A Sovereign-class starship with a phase-cloak and a hyperdrive ...

"I can attempt to use the access code, but this ship's computer is not very compatible with Federation systems. I can only send an extremely simple command. What command shall I send?"

Riker didn't have to think for very long to decide. "Put the tactical systems into a level one diagnostic cycle. That should shut down their shields and weapons for a while."

Data turned back to the instrument panel. The gunship was directly underneath the Tanaka now, and Evleston's voice came through the console again. "Lower your shields, disarm your weapons, and prepare to be boarded. Don't force us to fire on your ship."

The tone in Evleston's voice was growing more strident, and Riker knew she wouldn't wait too much longer before opening fire. Once the gunship's shields were down they could be transported out, boarded by force, or hauled into the Tanaka's shuttle bay after having their weapons disabled. This has to work!

Aboard the Tanaka, Captain Evleston leaned forward in the Captain's chair. The recapture of the escapees would be a nice feather in her cap, coming hot on the heels of the hyperspace tug project. It was awkward to attach the bulky tugs to the captured ships' hulls, and it was even more awkward to make everything work properly. But the complex arrangement did eventually work, albeit slowly. The modified ships would be easily outrun in hyperspace by the slowest Imperial freighters, but they were still much faster than before. And the successful operation had won her a promotion to Captain.

"Sir, they are hailing us." the communications officer announced.

She felt more than a little bit of disappointment at the news, hoping he wouldn't surrender so she could conduct her first live-fire exercise in her new ship. But that would have to wait for another day. She turned to the communications officer. "Let's hear it."

The officer manipulated the controls, but no sounds were heard. "Sir, they sent some kind of short burst binary transmission!"

The tactical officer sounded an alarm with a somewhat panicked tone in his voice. "Sir, the shields are dropping!"

"What?" she exclaimed. "Raise them!"

"It's not responding ... there's some kind of override!"

Aboard the gunship, a smile spread across Riker's face. "All right. Let's shut off that tractor beam."

Data put his knowledge of space combat maneuvering to good use now. A stream of green energy blasts erupted from the nose of the small gunship and toward the Tanaka's ventral tractor beam emitter, punching through the unshielded components and reducing them to slag. Once free of the tractor beam, the Skipray blastboat lurched forward, spitting ion cannon fire into the Tanaka's primary hull and saucer section as it moved. It accelerated past the front of the Tanaka's saucer section, climbed into an upward loop, and then spun on its axis to bring its guns to bear on the Tanaka's bridge. Its ion cannons spoke, pummeling the bridge mercilessly.

Aboard the Tanaka, Captain Evleston reeled from the attack. "Return fire!" she shouted. But the tactical systems were still disabled, and the ion cannon fire was playing havoc with the Tanaka's bridge systems. Consoles exploded all over the bridge, and the grim realization dawned on her that she would never be able to command the ship from here. "Bridge control is out! Backup bridge, take over!" she screamed into her comlink.

The Tanaka's inexperienced crew simply didn't have the experience or knowledge to deal with such widespread system failures, and they seemed to be taking forever to take control of the ship. The Tanaka spun out of control, and Evleston cursed in frustration as she watched the diminutive gunship darting around, disabling critical systems with a surgeon's precision. Of course, she thought to herself, they know all of this ship's weaknesses.

The distant interdictor cruiser reacted to the Tanaka's predicament quickly, its engines blooming to full radiance. It accelerated rapidly toward the stricken Tanaka and its tiny attacker.

"Data, the other ship's coming right at us! I'd suggest a strategic retreat."

"I concur, Commander" Data replied calmly, as he spun the gunship around on its axis and pushed its engines to full power. However, the interdictor continued to gain ground on them, growing larger and larger in the aft viewer.

"Data, I don't suppose you have override access codes for Imperial starships in that positronic brain of yours, do you?" Riker quipped.

"I am afraid not, Commander. Furthermore, I am detecting several small craft launching from the Tanaka's shuttle bays."


"No, sir. According to this ship's threat identification system, they are single-seat starfighters. TIE Defender class. The fighters are closing rapidly, and I estimate that they will overtake us in less than one minute. The interdictor will overtake us in less than five minutes. At this point, I calculate that the probability of a successful escape is approximately one in eight million, seven hundred-"

"That's all right, Data. I don't need to know the odds." He tried to think of a way out, an escape route, a tactic that might allow them to somehow escape this snare. But no ideas were forthcoming, and their pursuers continued to gain on them.

Data chose this moment to deliver more bad news. "Commander, another starship has appeared out of hyperspace, directly ahead of us."

Riker groaned. "Boxed in. Wonderful."

The new arrival was over a kilometre in length, much larger than either the Tanaka or the interdictor. They were trapped now between the interdictor, its fighters, and a heavily armed capital ship. Data threw the gunship into a downward spiral to escape the multiple threats, and the warship's nose seemed to erupt in light as its heavy guns opened fire. Riker instinctively flinched, in expectation of the tremendous impact that would most likely breach the shields, disintegrate the hull, and end his life.

But the impact never happened. He glanced at the aft viewscreen, and saw the interdictor cruiser, still rushing forward. But gouts of flame belched from a gaping breach in the ship's armour, just ahead of one of its gravity well projectors. Another salvo of heavy turbolaser blasts slammed into the nose of the dagger-shaped ship, hitting home with a devastating impact. The ship's nose was blown apart, transformed from a dagger-point into a maze of flaming, cauliflowered wreckage which looked for all the world as if it had been crushed by some giant mallet. The battered vessel fired a few weak shots in return, then abruptly engaged its hyperdrive and disappeared.

"What happened?" Riker asked quietly.

"Commander, the newly arrived starship attacked and heavily damaged the interdictor. The interdictor is disengaging. The Tanaka has regained navigational control, and it is also withdrawing." Data replied.

Riker couldn't believe his good fortune. He stared at the starship, slowly realizing that it was the same vessel upon which Commander Chang had returned to Earth. He noted that the ship was in weapons range but the tactical display didn't show any weapons locks. "Hail them, Data."

"Hailing, sir. They are responding."

A reptilian creature's face appeared on the small viewscreen. "Greetings, Commander Riker. This is Captain Ruk, at your service."

Aboard the Obliterator, a junior officer marched briskly across the command deck until he stood face to face with Captain Picard. "We've completed our long range scans of the Borg array, sir." he announced.

"Excellent." Picard replied. "Jump to these co-ordinates" he said, indicating a spot near the outer fringes of the array. He glanced over at Jaina, who had been sullen and withdrawn ever since he had assaulted her. She sat in her chair, eyes devoid of expression, talking to no one. The sight knifed into Picard's heart- an overwhelming sense of guilt washed over him anew, and he resolved to do whatever he could to redeem himself.

"Course plotted, Captain. Ready to jump."

Picard straightened his uniform. "Engage."

The Obliterator hurled itself into hyperspace, and in an instant, dropped out of hyperspace within range of the Borg array. The vast array stretched across space like a great spider's web. Countless huge, interconnected structures were arrayed together in an intricate latticework, stitched together in a maze of metal. It was at once overwhelmingly massive, yet curiously delicate and empty. Thousands of cubes swept back and forth through its structure, pausing in their rounds to examine the new arrival.

A familiar chorus of voices sounded through the bridge audio system. "We are the Borg. Prepare to be assimilated. Your existence, as you know it, is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness-"

Picard had heard this speech before. He made a cut-off motion with his hand, and the voice was silenced. "Fire superlaser. Ten percent power." he ordered.

Picard felt the familiar vibration in the deckplates beneath his feet again, as colossal energies surged within the Obliterator's city-sized bulk. A massive stream of destructive energy hurtled out of the great ship's bow and raced toward a point at the fringe of the array, and Picard watched impassively as it impacted into its target with a blinding flash. The shockwave exploded outwards and obliterated ships and structures for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, creating a sphere of destruction in which nothing but white-hot superheated metal fragments and vapour remained.

Picard wasted no time admiring the view. "Lock in preset course. Engage."

The Obliterator rotated downward slightly, its engines flared brightly, and it leapt into hyperspace. Picard watched the stars elongate and dissolve into the now-familiar swirling vortex of hyperspace. He breathed a sigh of relief- everything had gone exactly as expected. He felt that he knew the Borg well enough to plan such attacks, but in every game there was always the possibility that someone had changed the rules. This time, the rules remained as he had remembered them. For now... he reminded himself.

A tactical officer presented a report. "We destroyed approximately four percent of the structure, Captain."

"Excellent. Continue on course." The Obliterator's flight plan had been carefully planned en route to the array. It would follow a huge, looping course that would bring it back in one hour, without ever having to expose the ship to the possibility of attack.

"Yes, sir." the young man replied. Picard nodded, and he stood stiffly at attention for a few seconds. "Sir, if I may be so bold, how many more attacks are you planning?"

"As many as are necessary, lieutenant." Picard replied.

"Sir, at this rate, it will take many attacks ..."

"I'm aware of that, lieutenant. But it will work. The Death Star would be inappropriate. It can't maneuver quickly enough for this sort of hit and run attack, and this structure can't be destroyed by a single shot, not even from the Death Star's superlaser. It's not solid enough- the shot would simply blow a hole through the array. Besides, the Death Star can't be pulled away from its mission."

The officer looked acutely uncomfortable. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

Picard looked at the young man in front of him, and reflected that he lieutenant would probably show more deference to any other Imperial captain. The thought galled him for a moment, before he asked himself why he would want to be regarded like other Imperial captains. The question disturbed him for a moment, but it suddenly seemed inconsequential and he let it pass. "Permission granted," he replied. He wasn't particularly interested in conversation, but he quite literally had nothing else to do for the next hour.

"Sir, that's all well and good for the Death Star, but what about the risk to us? We're out here alone, with no support fleet, against that giant 'array', or whatever you call it ..."

"We can quickly get in, fire the superlaser at long range, and then get out. The risk is minimal."

"But if we had a larger force ..."

"More ships wouldn't help. Our superlaser has more firepower than a fleet of Star Destroyers, and much more range. More ships would only be more targets for the Borg." Picard replied.

"I see. But the next time we hit them, won't they be waiting for us?"

"Oh, I'm sure they will. But I know them, lieutenant. I know what they can do, and what they can't. They can't detect our approach vector, and we can take our shot from tens of millions of kilometres away. They can't cast a net that wide."

"I see."

Picard reviewed the reports again, and decided that it was time to put the next phase of his operation into action. "Lieutenant, are we ready to broadcast our next attack run?"

"Yes, sir. With the support relays we've got in the area, half the quadrant should pick this up. Coverage will be a little patchy, but it should work."

"Excellent. You are dismissed." Picard replied. The young man saluted smartly and marched off, and Picard pondered his current course of action. He wasn't entirely sure of what would happen after this broadcast, but he felt secure in his conviction that a public demonstration of Imperial strength and Borg weakness would have a positive effect. He glanced at Jaina again, hoping for some sign of approval. She gave none, and he looked away. He wondered what his former shipmates might think if they saw him now and the thought disturbed him for a moment, but the moment passed almost immediately. It was curious- almost as if thoughts of his old shipmates and former allegiances grew more fleeting by the day.

Tens of thousands of light years away, Captain Ruk laid it out for Riker and his men. "You'll never be able to reach him. Jaina is on that ship, and all communications are being monitored. The instant you show up, they will jam your communications and destroy your ship. It would be a useless gesture."

"Well, how else are we going to get him out?" Riker asked.

"You won't, Commander." Ruk replied evenly. He paused, let his words sink in. "If your Captain was taken onto the Obliterator as you say, then he is beyond help. If they don't need him, he's dead. If they do need him, then Jaina has probably turned him already."


"Turned, Mister Riker. It's something I know she can do, with a bit of effort." He leaned over and put his hand on Riker's shoulder, as if to console him. "Why don't you pour your glass of water on your pants?"

"Are you talking about some sort of brainwashing?" Riker asked, while calmly pouring his glass of water on his own pants. The cold water seemed to shock him into awareness. He jumped out of his seat in alarm, staring wide-eyed at Captain Ruk. "How did you do that?"

Ruk's reptilian visage crinkled in a rough approximation of a smile. "It's an old Jedi mind trick, Commander. And Jaina is far, far stronger than I am. I told you, if he's still alive, then Jaina has probably twisted his mind to her uses. The Dark Side is insidious. Subversive. Cunning. Even if you were to find him, you might discover that he doesn't want to come back with you."

"Captain Ruk, with all due respect, it sounds to me like an even better reason to go after him."

"Your loyalty is commendable, Commander. But it simply isn't an option. Have you ever seen an Eclipse-class ship?"

"Yes, I have. During the last battle, just before we surrendered. That ship destroyed the Earth's moon."

"A ship like that can take on an entire fleet, and win. Do you think you can board such a vessel with that little stolen gunship?"

"I don't need to board it. I only need to get within transmission range, so I can send him a message."

"Your message will never reach him. It will have to pass through the hands of numerous Imperial officers before it ever reaches his ears, and that won't happen. And once you've sent your message, you will be destroyed. You won't be able to escape; an Eclipse class ship can generate its own interdiction field."

Riker paused, thinking it over. He looked at his men, and he knew that they had already accepted the hopelessness of the situation. He took in a deep breath, exhaled slowly and turned back to Ruk. "I suppose you have a better idea?"

"Yes." Ruk replied. "Join us. We heard about your escape, and we can use men with your skills. Your droid is known to have extensive files on Federation industrial facilities, population distributions, starship designs ..."

"Why would you want that? The Federation has already surrendered to the Empire. Our resources are useless to you."

"I want that information because those have now become Imperial industrial facilities. Imperial population distributions. Imperial starship designs. They will use whatever they can, slowly reshaping your society to fit their needs. They will add your ships to their fleet, altering them as necessary. They will use your Federation as a beach head to build a power base in your galaxy. They will combine your people, resources, and industries with their technology and military power to create a self-sufficient sector government, complete with its own military-industrial complex." Ruk explained.

"You've tapped into their plans?"

"I don't need to. It's what they always do."

"All right, so how do you plan to stop them?"

"The oldest methods, Commander Riker. Guerilla warfare. Work in secret. Marshall your forces quietly. Fight Imperial propaganda with pirate broadcasts. And most importantly, build up a spy network."

"And what about Captain Picard?"

"That's where the spy network comes in. We do have covert operatives on the Crimson Blade and the Obliterator, but they've all gone to ground and it will take a long time to re-establish contact. I'm afraid there's nothing we can do for a while, Commander. If the Empire is victorious over the Borg, then they will start to consolidate their territory. They will try to make it seem as if everything is fine, to give your people the impression that your surrender to the Empire wasn't really that bad. Trade will be opened up, civilian traffic will increase, and we will have time to quietly build our spy network and our military strength."

"What if the Empire loses?"

"You don't need to worry about that, Commander. It won't happen."

"But how do you know-"

"I told you, it won't happen." A long silence followed. "I imagine this is all a bit much for you to handle right now. I have some ship's business to attend to, so I'll leave you to discuss this with your men." He walked out of the room, and the heavy blast door closed behind him.

Riker turned off his universal translator, and motioned for a close-in conference. "Let's hope they can't understand English." he whispered. "Did you see how quickly he broke off the conversation when I asked about the Borg winning the war?"

"Perhaps he finds the possibility emotionally disturbing." Data offered.

"Or perhaps he hopes for a Borg victory." Worf suggested. "It is not uncommon for a warrior's hatred for his enemy to overwhelm his sense of logic."

"Why would anyone want a Borg victory? I hate to say this, but I would rather live as a human being in a dictatorship than a half-man, half-machine in the Collective. I don't want to think about what the Borg would be like after assimilating the Empire's forces."

Worf's eyes narrowed, as he suddenly understood Ruk's motives. "Commander. I believe I understand Ruk's plan. If the Empire starts to lose the war, they will undoubtedly retreat to their own territory. The logical course of action would be for them to destroy the wormhole as they leave. If the Borg assimilate a large number of Imperial ships and men, they will have to leave them behind as well."

Riker understood quickly. "And we'll be stuck with the Borg, who will be more dangerous than ever. Ruk will have weakened the Empire. They'll lose ships and men, maybe even the Death Star, and they'll have gained nothing in return."

"But Ruk and his entire crew would be trapped here with us." Data objected.

Worf's face betrayed a mixture of anger and grudging respect. "Sacrificing himself to strike a blow against the enemy. A glorious fate for a warrior."

Riker's shoulders slumped. "And if our galaxy gets overrun by Borg, well ... you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?" He looked like the last vestiges of hope had been drained from him.

Data sounded an objection. "Sir, we do not know for certain that Captain Ruk actually desires this outcome. The fact that it would serve his long term goals does not, in itself, prove that he wants it to happen. I believe we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is sincere in his desire to help us."

Riker looked unconvinced. "Still, the fact that he's hedged his bets doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. I think we have to go along, for now. But we have to be careful."

The men nodded their heads in agreement, and settled down to wait. Some of them looked through the windows, watching the blue-white vortex of hyperspace outside. They didn't know how long Ruk was going to take, and started talking amongst themselves. It wasn't long before they began to debate how the hyperdrive might function. Theories about quantum slipstream, transient wormholes, and even the possibility of heretofore undiscovered subspace domains were all bandied about, and Data was attempting to access the conference room's computer terminal when the ship abruptly dropped back into realspace. All eyes went to the windows.

Riker stared at the view. He could see hundreds of starships, in all shapes and sizes: Federation starships of every class, Cardassian and Jem'Hadar warships, Romulan warbirds, and several other designs he didn't recognize. He let out a long, slow whistle, and tried to count the ships he could see. He knew Data could probably do a better job, but for some reason he wanted to do it himself.

Ruk eventually returned, walking confidently through the door. "So, Commander. Will you join us?"

Riker stood up. "Yes. We're in."

Chapter 17