Chapter Seventeen: Confrontations

"Weigh the situation, then move"- Sun Tzu.

Borg Collective status update: 18 standard time periods elapsed since destruction of unicomplex.

Cumulative losses to Imperial forces: 745 planets, 12 trillion drones, primary unicomplex, 29000 ships. Species 3387, Species 1242, Species 6211, and 35 other species have now allied themselves with Imperial forces and launched attacks on Borg planets since destruction of Unicomplex.

Assimilation attempts ineffective. Imperial starships programmed to self-destruct to avoid assimilation. Assimilation totals: 3 heavily damaged Imperial starships, 2450 personnel. Limited useful information extracted from Imperial computer systems. Limited useful information extracted from Imperial personnel. Strategic projection: 97% probability that assimilation efforts will be insufficient to prevent destruction of Borg Collective.

Conclusion: diplomatic negotiations required, to delay destruction of Borg Collective.

Captain Picard felt a deep sense of satisfaction, watching the seemingly endless stream of tiny pods racing away from the fleet. They were modified hyperspace pods, originally designed to spread probe droids across the galaxy in search of Rebel hiding places. But these pods carried high yield warheads rather than probe droids, and they were programmed to collide into a planet at maximum velocity rather than gently touching down on its surface. The swarm of missiles, each too small and much too fast to detect or intercept, were like a rain of death upon anything in their path.

Millions of the pods had been launched ever since he had come up with the idea, and they had been manufactured in a variety of places: captured Federation manufacturing facilities, Imperial manufacturing facilities on the other side of the wormhole, and manufacturing facilities aboard the Death Star and Obliterator themselves.

Indeed, manufacturing resources were being stretched to the limit throughout the Federation, and the vast resources of the Empire on the other side of the wormhole were also being brought to bear. Every Borg planet was being targeted by thousands of pods, with devastating effect. There were too many pods to stop, too much firepower to survive. Planet after planet was being laid waste, their surfaces reduced to radioactive rubble.

It had occured to him to wonder how anyone would be able to stop the Empire once it destroyed the Borg. There was a certain genteel civility to the way war had been traditionally practiced in the Alpha Quadrant. Even when given the opportunity, races had rarely attempted to murder the population of an entire planet. Such acts were usually limited to remote outposts and colonies, or military ships and stations. But the Empire was different- the Empire considered the annihilation of an entire planetary population as their first option. It seemed to be their preferred option, and their weapons technology was apparently optimized for the task, more so than any weapons he had seen before. Such methods were barbaric and morally repugnant, and yet, he had to acknowledge their ruthless effectiveness.

He continued to watch the pods racing away from the fleet, each one jumping into hyperspace and heading off for its destination. They were mindless instruments of destruction, programmed only to reach their targets and then explode in a tremendous blast of light and heat. If their targets had been anything but Borg, he might have felt remorse. But try as he might, he could not summon any sympathy for the Borg. Their lives had ended when they were assimilated. The destruction of their bodies was a release rather than a punishment. Of all the millions of men and women in the fleet, he was the only one who truly understood that.

"Captain, we have a Borg ship approaching!" one of the sensor operators announced.

"Just one?" Picard asked, incredulous.

"Yes, sir. Cubical, scout class. I'm not picking up any other ships."

"Damned peculiar." Picard muttered to himself. He tried to silence his thoughts, to reach out and listen for the Borg chorus. But he heard nothing but the faint background whispers that permeated this region of space.

"It's dropping to sublight, Captain. I'm picking up two life forms in the ship. Weapons range in ten seconds!"

Picard quieted his mind and tried to listen again. His eyes snapped open. "Hold your fire! Inform the fleet, hold your fire! I'm not sure I believe this, but I think they want to negotiate."

All eyes on the bridge turned to him now, and he could tell that more than one of the men under his command was now suspecting him of having lost his mind. He heard running footsteps coming from behind him, and he knew that Jaina was approaching. As always, she somehow knew that something important was happening.


"Jaina, the Borg want to negotiate. They've sent an envoy." Picard explained, noticing with a flicker of joy that she was addressing him by his first name again. She had mostly kept to herself lately, spending a lot of time in her quarters. Her mood was mercurial, shifting unpredictably from calm to anger and back again with no obvious reason. For now, she seemed to be in good spirits.

"I thought you told me that they don't negotiate, Jean-Luc."

"They don't. I've never heard of it happening. But that's what I'm picking up. There are only two life forms on that ship. Probably the Queen and a drone to operate the ship. I think they want us to drop our shields so they can beam onto the bridge."

"You're not seriously thinking of doing that, are you?"

"Jaina, I believe they actually want to negotiate."

She locked eyes with his for a moment. It could have been seconds, or minutes, or hours for all Picard knew- he seemed to lose track of time. Her expression softened, and there might have even been a hint of a smile on her face. "If you believe them, Jean-Luc. I trust your judgement." she said.

He nodded at the shield operators, who looked profoundly unhappy but obeyed the order. The bridge shields dropped for an instant, which was all the Borg needed. Two humanoids shimmered into existence on the bridge, directly in front of Picard and Jaina. They were roughly five metres away, and the bridge crew immediately scattered to give them both a wide berth. Dozens of stormtroopers aimed their blaster rifles on the intruders, who appeared unperturbed by the commotion.

The Queen took in a quick glance around the bridge and then turned to Picard. "Locutus."

"What do you want?" Picard asked with a snarl. The sight of the Queen, standing right there in front of him, instantly brought up a wave of revulsion and hatred in him.

"To negotiate." she said. Her tone was soft, cloying, and deferential.

"Why? The Borg don't negotiate." Picard barked back.

"The Borg are capable of any action which we deem necessary, Locutus."

"And why should I believe you? Why are you doing this?"

The Queen's tone became more strident, betraying anger and annoyance. "Don't play games with me, Locutus! You know why we are here. You are trying to destroy the Collective. There is a remote possibility that you will succeed. We are here to negotiate."

Picard's tone grew harsh. "I would say the possibility is far from remote. I've destroyed trillions of drones, and I'm not done yet. While you've been standing here talking to me, thousands of hyperspace pods have been launched toward your territory. Give me one good reason to stop launching those pods." Picard answered confidently.

Anger flared in the Queen's expression. She looked like she was ready to scream, but she seemed to fight her emotions down. "Be that as it may, Locutus ..." she said quietly, "but you are taking casualties of your own. According to our estimates, more than a million soldiers have died on your side."

Picard was unmoved. "They were soldiers. They knew the risks."

The Queen continued. "I offer you a cease fire, and a mutual non-aggression pact. If you agree not to attack or invade the Delta Quadrant, we will agree not to attack or invade the remaining three quadrants."

Jaina stepped purposefully toward the Queen. "We can take the other three quadrants without your help. Why should we negotiate with you, for something we can take by force?"

"To save billions of lives." the Queen replied, ignoring Jaina and addressing Picard. "The Empire may not care about that, but you know about the importance of saving lives, don't you, Locutus?"

Jaina's mood, until now calm and controlled, suddenly exploded into rage. "YOU WILL ADDRESS ME WHEN I SPEAK TO YOU!" she thundered. In a flash, almost faster than the eye could follow, her lightsabre seemed to leap out of its holster as if possessed of a life of its own. It flew into her hand, the humming blade already extending to its full length. In a single, fluid motion, she lunged toward the Queen and swung the cutting beam through the Queen's midsection, neatly separating her torso from her waist and legs. The drone made a move toward her, but was lifted off his feet by an invisible force and thrown against a bulkhead. He slammed into the bulkhead with a loud crack that announced the breaking of bones, and lay still.

The Queen was still alive, despite having been sliced in two. Her wounded torso, flopping on the deck like a fish out of water, flailed its arms in an attempt to draw itself to a sitting position. "Fools!" she growled. "If we will be destroyed, then I promise you, we will take you with us! If we can't stop you from destroying our worlds, we will send every remaining ship into the Alpha Quadrant, with instructions to bombard or assimilate every inhabited planet they encounter. You can't destroy every ship before it reaches its target! If you won't negotiate, you'll have the lives of billions on your conscience!"

Picard was horrified. He moved close to Jaina, and whispered into her ear. "Jaina, she may have a point. If we negotiate-"

Jaina, still enraged, turned her merciless glare on him. He wilted immediately, feeling almost as if he was being physically assaulted by the malice in her eyes. "There will be no negotiation!" she shouted. She turned back to the Queen's torso, laying on the deck. "We will obliterate your worlds. We will hunt down your ships and destroy them. Your aura of invincibility has been broken. You are under attack from every direction. Your precious Collective will die. You will die."

The Queen seemed to retain all of her haughtiness in spite of having been split in two. She pushed herself up to a standing position. "And if you can't stop all of our ships before they reach the Alpha Quadrant, billions of your people will die. Don't you care?"

Jaina's expression became a sneer. "No. I don't." She raised her hand, and the Queen's eyes bulged. Her torso bucked and flailed on the deck, and her head seemed to elongate. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out. Her expression became distorted, the flailing became more and more violent, and then, with a sickening crunch, the top of her skull was torn off to expose the soft brain within. Jaina calmly walked up to the body, casually slicing off both arms one at a time with her lightsabre. Then, she pushed the lightsabre into the exposed brain cavity, boiling and burning the brain away slowly. Picard tried to tear his eyes away from the nauseating scene, but found that he could not.

Picard, and many of the other bridge crew, simply stood and watched the macabre spectacle until Jaina had mutilated the Queen's body to her satisfaction. She turned back to Picard. "They are desperate, Jean-Luc. This proves it."

"But Jaina ..."

"They're just trying to buy time. We have them, Jean-Luc. They are doomed. The worst case scenario is that they destroy a few worlds in retaliation before we destroy them all. It's an acceptable price to pay, to eliminate them once and for all."

"Acceptable price!" Picard spluttered. "But-"

"Jean-Luc, Jean-Luc ..." Jaina admonished. "Do you know how many billions lost their lives in the war to liberate our galaxy? You would be saving more lives than you sacrifice, Jean-Luc. The Borg identified humanity as a target. They would have eventually assimilated every human being in the galaxy. A few billion lives is an acceptable price to eliminate that threat. Simple mathematics."

Yes, of course ... Picard thought to himself. It all made perfect sense now. Things always made sense after Jaina explained them.

One of the stormtroopers turned a scanner on the drone which had been thrown against the bulkhead, and then backed away in consternation. "It's still alive!" he reported. Jaina began walking toward the drone, while she tried to decide upon a particularly creative and nasty way of killing it.

Picard watched in disinterested fashion, until he suddenly noticed something familiar about the drone. He did a double-take, staring at its face. Dim memories nagged at him, and just as Jaina pulled her lightsabre out of its holster, he managed to snatch a fragment of those memories. Suddenly, he knew what he was looking at.

"Jaina, don't kill it! The drone ... it's a human being. It's too heavily damaged to be a threat- I think we should remove its implants and question him. He might have a lot of useful knowledge."

Jaina held up, and then sheathed her lightsabre. She turned to Picard. "Interesting idea, Jean-Luc. Let me know what he has to say."

A pair of worker droids picked up the fallen drone and carried it off to the medbay. Picard watched them leave, cradling his secret in his mind. He thought the drone had looked familiar when he had first boarded the ship, but he hadn't been able to put a name to the face until now. It was the same man who had accompanied a lone Rebel cruiser to Earth. The same man who had been reported missing in action after a failed attempt to capture that cruiser. He could remember his name now: it was Chang. Commander Chang.

Riker crouched in the thick forest, his senses alert for sounds in the night. This was his first ground mission for the allied rebel forces, attempting to infiltrate a captured Federation supply depot. The depot was hardly a stronghold- it only stored raw foodstock for replicator systems. But it had also acted as a subspace communications relay station, and it had apparently been jury-rigged by the Empire to serve a similar purpose in their organization. Their mission was to download a copy of its communications log.

Like all of their actions, this was to be a tiny operation, undertaken in covert fashion at great risk. In fact, the risk was great enough that Ruk had removed Data from the mission roster for fear that he would be destroyed. Riker hadn't been pleased, but he knew that he might very well have given the same order if he were in command.

The mission commander, a man named Lieutenant Rawna, crouched to his right and peered through a set of macrobinoculars. "Okay Riker, we've got a pretty good view from here. Your people built this thing, so have a look and tell me the best way to get in." he whispered.

"A transporter." Riker answered snappily.

Rawna did not look amused. "We're not using those things, Riker. You know that. Besides, aren't you the one who said they had some kind of interference field?"

"Inhibitor field. Sorry, Lieutenant. I was just trying to lighten the mood." Riker took his own set of macrobinoculars out, and turned on the night-vision system. He poked his head through the bushes, looking down at the depot from the ridge they were on. "I can see the main entrance, but the doors are sealed and they've got guards posted."

"I count four stormies, eight bikes, and a landspeeder. What's the door made of?" Rawna asked.

"Nothing heavy. It's a metastable ceramic, laminated in sheet tritanium. Superconducting rods inside the door are hooked up to the building's central cooling system. It will stop hand phasers .. er, blasters easily, but it's not physically tough, so you can destroy it with heavy explosives or large projectiles." Riker answered.

"Good. Any other defenses?"

"Sometimes we built these storage depots with computer controlled phaser emitters guarding the main entrance." Riker answered. "But I don't know if this facility was important enough for something like that. Replicator supplies weren't that valuable." He swept his view from one end of the compound to the other. "The easiest way to get in is to go through the ventilation system, from the back ..." he said, sweeping his view from one end of the compound to the other," and they won't have a phaser emit- ... what the hell are those things? They're guarding the back!"

The other man shifted his view to the other entrances. "Let me see ... aw, damn. A pair of SD-10's."


"SD-10's. War droids. They've got self-healing armour and shields for defense, and they're armed with heavy blaster cannons. Those things'll wipe out our entire team easily, including our speeder. I think I'd rather take my chances going through the front door. Okay people, time to crack some heads."

"Wait! They're probably still using the original security system. I'm not picking up any active scanning signals, so it's probably on passive mode." He rummaged through his pack, and pulled out a small object. "I've got a Federation tricorder here, and I can set it up to fool the system into thinking that it's an intruder."

"So if we drop this thing in the forest, far from the compound, and set it to go off on a timer ..."

"Some of them will go to investigate. Cuts down the odds."

"Not bad, Riker. That might buy us a little time, before they can get reinforcements over here from the main base. Okay people, let's saddle up."

"We're pulling him out of the tank, sir." the medical droid explained. Picard still didn't understand how this "bacta" liquid worked, but he gathered that it was some sort of bio-engineered substance that could repair damaged tissues. After the massive and invasive surgery required to remove most of the Borg implants from Chang's body, a lengthy stay in the bacta tank had been necessary to keep him alive. He waited until Chang was brought out of the tank, and laid on the bed. His right arm was missing, but the medics had assured him that they could fashion a cybernetic limb that would be indistinguishable from the original.

Picard waited until they were alone, and then he leaned over the bed. "Welcome back to the land of the living." he said quietly. "No one but me knows who you are. If you are asked, your name is Flim Turron and you're an Imperial stormtrooper. Your service number is RP four two five one."

Chang stirred weakly in bed. "Captain ... the Borg ... the Borg ..."

"Yes, I know. You were assimilated. If anyone can understand what you've been through, it's me."

"No, you don't understand ..." he struggled for breath. "The Borg aren't ... aren't ... a threat."

Picard thought Chang must be delirious. "Are you all right?"

Chang closed his eyes and gathered his strength. "They're beaten, Captain. They've got nothing left in the tank and they've got the tactical creativity of spinach. They're used to things going a certain way. They're supposed to attack, their victims are supposed to be abandoned by their allies, and then they can take their time wearing down their victims' defenses. It can take years, sometimes decades, just to assimilate one well-defended planet. Look at Earth. They've been trying to assimilate Earth for almost a decade. They're not worried about rushing it because they've got all the time in the world, and they'll get us sooner or later."

He closed his eyes again, and breathed deeply to regain his strength again. "But now, they're on the defensive. They don't know what to do when they don't have a huge advantage. They were attacked by some creatures from another dimension a while ago- they called 'em Species 8472. We never heard about it, but they lost a lot of their forces. They were in no shape for another war, especially not a war against the Empire."

"So you're saying that we will win?"

Chang smiled weakly. "I'm saying that you've already won. They're desperate- that's why they want to negotiate. The Queen brought me along because she hoped you'd recognize me. I guess she thought that a familiar face might make you more sympathetic."

He rested for a few more seconds and then continued. "Even if the Empire pulls out today, the Borg are still doomed. There are a few very powerful species in this quadrant which have held off the Borg for thousands of years. Species like the Voth, and the Hirogen. They smell blood now, and they've gone on the offensive. The Borg aren't the real threat any more, Captain. The Empire is the real threat."

Picard lowered his voice. "What do you mean?"

"The Borg assimilated a handful of Imperial officers and men. I know some of what they knew. Unfortunately, that wasn't much. But I gather that they plan to take over the entire Alpha Quadrant."

"Commander, I'm aware of their aggressive tendencies. But I made a deal with them, to leave Earth out of their plans."

Chang arched an eyebrow. "You don't seriously think they'll keep their word, do you?"

"Jaina assured me herself, and I spoke to Riker recently. The situation has changed since you were assimilated."

"Captain ... I've heard their thoughts. I find this hard to believe."

Picard relented. "All right, let's suppose for a minute that you're right. What about these other species you talked about? If the Borg is no longer a threat, are these other species powerful enough to challenge the Empire?"

"I don't know, but they're isolationists by nature. I wouldn't count on their involvement- they only came out now because they saw a chance to get rid of the Borg without getting their hands too dirty."

Picard drifted into a haze, staring off into space. "It shouldn't matter. Jaina ... Jaina wouldn't betray me." he muttered.

"What are you talking about?" Chang asked.

Picard pulled himself out of his trance. "What? Oh, nothing. Well, I see your point. But I've been in command of an Imperial ship for weeks now. I've learned a lot about their capabilities. Their procedures. If there was ever a problem, I could-"

"Do what? Take over this ship? One man against more than a million? They would kill you."

"Well then, perhaps I should try to arrange for some sort of escape route, in case the unthinkable happens." Picard mused.

"That's what I was thinking. And I don't find it unthinkable at all." Chang replied. He had wanted to meet the Great Captain Picard face to face for years, but he had to admit to himself that he was not impressed by what he saw. Picard seemed to be incredibly naive, and he wondered what sort of gullible fool could believe so wholeheartedly in the Empire's sincerity. If he didn't know better, he would think the man was under some form of mind control.

"Commander, what ever happened to the Rebel ship that brought you here? Perhaps we could secretly contact them ..." Picard ventured.

Chang's face fell. "Oh, that. Um, Captain, the Rebels gave me to the Borg. They marooned me in a cargo container in Borg space, with a signal beacon on it to attract attention. They may know about how to fight the Empire, but they're not interested in helping us. They just want to hurt the Empire, and they don't care who they have to sacrifice in the process."

"Commander, it has often been said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Besides, you did antagonize them." Picard reminded him. "If you're right, and the Empire intends to turn on us, then I think it is imperative that we contact someone who knows how to run a resistance movement against the Empire. I'm the only one on this ship who knows who you are. I believe I can get you off this ship. Once free, you must try to contact the rebels."

"Captain, you've got to be joking. The last time I saw Captain Ruk, he marooned me in a cargo container and rang the lunch bell for the Borg!"

"I'm not joking. And this is an order, not a request. Find those rebels, Commander."

Deep in a thick forest, somewhere on an insignificant planet, a tricorder nestled in the bushes suddenly began actively scanning everything in its vicinity. The scanning signals were picked up by the security system in the nearby supply depot, and alarms began blaring all over the compound.

Riker heard the alarm, and put down his macrobinoculars. He turned to Rawna. "I modified the tricorder to send out a lot of random noise. It'll blind their local sensors until they can shut it down, so they won't be able to find us." he whispered.

"Good." Rawna whispered back.

The four sentries at the door stood rooted in position and for a moment, it seemed as if there would be no response to the alarm. However, in less than thirty seconds, the doors opened and four men came running out. They mounted the speeder bikes and flew off into the forest at high speed, looking for the intruders. Riker watched them leave, and noted that one of the big war droids was lumbering off to follow them.

"Great! One of the droids is moving off. We'll give 'em all a minute or so, before they find that tricorder." Rawna whispered. He waited, and then motioned to his men. Four snipers took up position and aimed carefully at the stormtroopers, hoping to kill them all with synchronized fire so they could quietly enter the building. But before they could line up their shots, one of the stormtroopers decided to sweep the forest with infrared, and he picked up the intruders. The stormtroopers immediately took cover and began firing into the jungle, at the rebel position.

"Damn it! Son of a gundar ..." Rawna swore. "Get in!" The men piled into the landspeeder and he fired up its engines. He pushed the throttle to half power, and the speeder lurched forward. It crashed through the dense underbrush, and exploded into the wide clearing in front of the compound. Its streaked across the clearing, overloaded with twelve occupants who fired wildly at the defending stormtroopers.

Two of the stormtroopers went down, but three rebels were hit. Their shrieks of pain could be heard clearly over the whine of the speeder's engines, and Rawna pushed the throttle to full power. One of the surviving stormtroopers leapt onto their heavy speeder and fired a shot from its turret cannon, missing Rawna's speeder by ten metres. The second shot struck the speeder amidships, killing three more men and sending the speeder careening out of control. Rawna held a white-knuckled grip on the controls, piloting the wounded speeder directly into the double-doors at the front of the compound.

The doors shattered from the impact, and the speeder skidded to an ugly stop in the hallway within, wedged sideways and completely immobilized. Its surviving five occupants scrambled out, but not before Rawna set a self-destruct timer on the speeder. The group followed Riker's lead as he ran down the hallway and dove for cover, split-seconds before the speeder exploded.

The entire front door area was blown apart by the blast, which instantly killed the two surviving sentries and choked the hallway with smoke and wreckage. Riker tried to peer around the crippled speeder wedged in the hall, to see if any reinforcements were arriving.

"No time for sightseeing, Riker. Where's the comm station?"

"Underground. We've got to take a turbolift."

"All right then, let's go!" The surviving members of Rawna's little team sprinted for the turbolift doors.

"Jacen, why are you doing this?" Jaina asked the shimmering holographic image of her brother. She had simmered over the warning hidden in Kanos' message for more than three weeks, and she finally decided to confront him directly. The Borg Queen's pathetic display was enough to convince her that the Borg were no longer a concern, and she could afford to turn her attention to her brother.

Jacen looked unperturbed. "Doing what?"

"You know what I'm talking about! Training Sith!"

"I don't know what you're talking about. Where ever did you get such an idea?"

"That is none of your concern. Tell me the truth- are you training Sith?"

"Of course not, sister. You know perfectly well that Anakin warned us not to raise an army of Sith, because it would never work."

Jaina seemed to wilt a little bit. "Yes, I remember. Well, I suppose it might have only been a rumour."

"Next time, dear sister, be careful what rumours you listen to." Jacen replied, and then he faded from view.

Jaina stood frozen in place, lost in thought. She knew his brother was lying to her. She could see it in his eyes, his mannerisms, and his expression. She knew now that not only was he trying to raise a Sith army, but he didn't want her to know about it. She thought about her options for a moment, and then decided to go to the bridge. Picard was there, directing fleet actions against the Borg.

"Jean-Luc, we have to go to Kerenos Station Two." she ordered.

"Of course. But why?" Picard asked.

"My brother has gone mad. We have to stop him."

"But the Borg-"

"They are of no consequence." she interrupted. She turned back to the helmsman. "Set course for K2, and engage hyperdrive."

Admiral Kanos leaned on his desk and rubbed his temples. More than three weeks had passed since the Federation prisoners had escaped, and it appeared as if they had simply vanished. On a more positive note, Jacen had transferred to the Death Star along with his secret group of infant trainees. Kanos had breathed a sigh of relief when Jacen had left- although he didn't like to admit it, he was beginning to feel more than a little fearful of the man he had once called a friend.

Captain Daron entered. "We've arrived at K2, Admiral." They had yet to find a more imaginative name for the Federation side of the wormhole, so they were still using the Kerenos One and Kerenos Two designations for the Imperial and Federation sides of the wormhole, respectively.

"Excellent. Now that the Earth situation is under control, we can concentrate on consolidating our gains."

Daron cleared his throat. "Sir, what about those Federation escapees? I know there's only a handful of them, but Jacen ordered us to find them."

"Well, do you have any news?"

"No, sir. Not since Evleston was ambushed by that rebel ship."

"Ah, yes. The rebel ship. Who could have predicted that, eh? It must be the same rebel ship that we chased through the wormhole." Kanos mused.

"Intel said the captain's name was Ruk. Reptilian species from Arajka, one of Skywalker's Jedi students. I thought they were all dead, but I guess some of them got away."

Kanos smiled. "Reptilian, eh? Maybe we'll get lucky and he'll eat them."

Daron chuckled. "Somehow, I doubt we'll be that lucky. Do you think we should just write them off, sir?"

"I already have. We are only talking about a handful of men, and it's simply not worth it. I would have called it off a long time ago if not for Jacen's orders, but there's only so much we can do. We really need to focus our attention on more important matters."

"Like the Borg?"

"Actually, that situation should be resolved soon. You know, that Captain Picard is more clever than I gave him credit for. He's been very successful running the campaign against the Borg. Broadcasting the destruction of that big Borg complex was a stroke of genius- did you know that more than fifty of the local governments in that area have launched their own attacks on the Borg in the last three weeks? They smell blood."

Daron arched an eyebrow. "There are still a lot of Borg out there, Admiral."

"Yes, there are. But they've been slowly expanding in piecemeal fashion for thousands of years. Did you know that even after a hundred thousand years of expansion, they still only have a few thousand star systems in one small corner of one quadrant of this galaxy? There really should be a lot more of them."

Daron seemed shocked. "I had no idea they'd been around for so long. Why do you think there are so few of them?"

"My guess is that the Federation has got them pegged wrong. They're actually not expansionists by nature. They think of their society as some sort of perfect little jewel. They're always polishing it, improving it, and occasionally, they find another piece which they think might make it better."

"Lucky for us. If they'd been aggressive expansionists, they would have taken most of this galaxy by now."

"Maybe. But it's a bit late for that now, isn't it?" He was interrupted by an incoming message. It was encrypted for his eyes only, and he had to dismiss Daron from the room to read it. Daron waited patiently outside the door for five minutes, until Kanos emerged with a sour expression on his face.

"Captain, I'm afraid I was right. We have a problem. A very serious problem."

Daron knew that Kanos was not given to exaggeration. "What is it?"

"Jacen has betrayed the Emperor. Jaina has confirmed our suspicions- Emperor Solo never sanctioned this Sith training school. That's why no one but command staff were allowed to know about it. She tells me that Jacen has gone mad. He intends to shut down the wormhole and create his own Empire, right here."

"But he's on the Death Star ..." Daron sputtered.

"Yes, I know. From there, he can shrug off any attack, destroy any fleet or planet."

"If he were to fire a superlaser blast through the wormhole ..."

"To be honest, I'm not sure what would happen." Kanos answered. "But I doubt it would be good. If the beam spreads in there, it would wipe out the ring at K1, and any reinforcements massing on that side."

"Now we know the real reason he went to the Death Star." Daron said quietly.

Kanos expression was one of grim fatalism. "I'm afraid so. Our duty to the Emperor is clear. We will have to quietly gather as many of our forces as we can, before Jacen realizes that he's been exposed. We can also ask for reinforcements from K1, now that we know Jacen is moving against the Emperor. With any luck, he won't be able to gather any forces to his flag apart from what he already has: the Death Star."

Daron was very quiet for a long time. "You're talking about a civil war. And we'd be on the side with no Death Star."

"Yes. But Jacen is starting this war, not us. We have to tell the others. Quietly, before Jacen makes his move."

Riker worked feverishly to hack into the communications computer, which had been heavily reprogrammed. But he knew a few backdoor routes, and was confident that he would be able to secure the data. He had erected forcefields all over the depot as soon as he'd gotten into the computer system, but he could hear a heavy pounding sound overhead, and he knew that the Imperials had just blasted through the last of them. He didn't have much time.

Rawna didn't bother looking over Riker's shoulder. He manned a heavy tripod-mounted E-Web that the Imperials had conveniently left for them, and his men all covered the turbolift door. It was their only escape route and the Imperials' only possible entry route. This has become a one-way mission, Rawna reflected ruefully. He had no illusions about escaping from this underground tomb, but if Riker could get the communications log before they were overrun, they would be able to upload it to the Federation science ship that was hiding behind this planet's moon. I just hope it's worth dying for, he thought to himself.

The turbolift didn't move because Riker had disabled it, but Rawna had no doubt that brave but misguided stormtroopers would soon be rappelling down the turbolift shaft. Sure enough, he heard a thump from the turbolift, announcing the fact that someone had just jumped onto its roof and was in the process of opening the hatch. His nerves tensed, and he abandoned the E-Web in favour of his blaster rifle so he could stand right outside the turbolift door and mow down the first intruder. A white-suited stormtrooper jumped down through the hatch, but before he had even hit the floor, Rawna hit him with a three-shot burst in the chest. The poor man landed and staggered, before Rawna loosed another burst directly into his helmet at point-blank range. The white helmet exploded in a grisly shower of blood, bone fragments, and brain matter, and the body crashed to the floor.

Two more men jumped down into the turbolift, with similar results. Rawna was starting to feel invincible, as if he could hold them off indefinitely. But the next intruder through the turbolift ceiling was no stormtrooper. A tiny, fist-sized metallic ball dropped into the turbolift, and was clattering around on its floor. A thermal detonator! He turned and ran for his life, as did the rest of his team. The device exploded with a deafening roar, burning his back and sending him sprawling to the deck. He struggled to his feet, and tried to get to the E-Web. But before he could grip its handle, the ruined turbolift filled up with stormtroopers who began pouring fire into the room.

He squeezed off a long burst into the turbolift and killed half of the stormtroopers within, but at this angle, he didn't have a direct line of sight to its corners. Some of the stormtroopers could take cover in those corners, but the sheer volume of suppression fire from the E-Web kept them from poking their heads out into the open. However, they still had more thermal detonators, and they quickly lobbed more than a half-dozen of them out into the room. They clattered noisily on the floor, and one of them bounced directly toward Rawna's E-Web. He had just enough time for his life to flash before his eyes, before his universe dissolved into white light.

Riker had just started the upload to the USS Hargrove, when the explosives went off. He felt a wave of heat, and the numbing impact of flesh and bone against bulkhead as he was thrown against a wall. As he lay on the deck, he could feel a burning sensation in his abdomen, as if someone had jammed a white-hot knife into his stomach. He raised his bloodied head with a heavy effort to look around the room, and he could see that everyone was dead but the stormtroopers, who were now pouring into the room. He tried to drag himself to the nearest weapon, but a metallic boot stepped on his wrist. Its owner ground its serrated heel into Riker's outstretched hand, tearing flesh and eliciting a grunt of pain.

The white helmet bent close to Riker's lacerated face, and a tinny voice came out. "Rebel scum."

Riker gritted his teeth in pain. "There's something you don't know, soldier." he said.

The stormtrooper took his boot off Riker's hand and folded his arms confidently. "Oh yeah? And what's that?"

"I turned off the transport inhibitor field." Riker said with a smile. He felt the familiar tingling sensation, and the USS Hargrove's transporter beamed him away. He found himself laying on the Hargrove's transporter pad, bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds and suffering from severe burns. The transporter chief said something about a medical emergency, just before he lost consciousness.

When he awoke, he was in the Hargrove's sickbay, and Data was hovering over him.

"Errrmm ... how long was I out?" he whispered.

"You were unconscious for approximately two hours, thirteen minutes, and forty three seconds, Commander."

"Ohhh ..." he groaned, sitting up and rubbing his head. "What a disaster. The whole team was killed."

"Yes, Commander. But the mission was not a failure. You successfully uploaded the communications log." Data explained.

"Was it worth getting a dozen men killed?" Riker asked wearily.

Data handed Riker a datapad. "Just before you uploaded the log, a large burst of messages came through. They were heavily encrypted and we were unable to decode them, but something very important seems to be happening. Admiral Kanos just sent a captain's-level encrypted message to every Imperial starship captain in the galaxy."

"What?" Riker examined the datapad. "Thousands of ships, all being sent a top-level message at the same time?"

"Yes. And we noticed something else. Shortly after Kanos' message, another top-level encrypted message was sent out. But this message was sent from the Death Star, also to every ship in the galaxy. Again, we were unable to decode the message. But most of the Imperial ships sent reply messages back to Kanos, while a small percentage sent reply messages back to the Death Star. It is doubtful that we will be able to decode the messages, but even without knowing their contents, we can determine that their transmission pattern is indicative of a major event."

Riker sat up and tried to clear his head. "Like what?"

"While you were unconscious, we rejoined Captain Ruk's fleet. He says there have been reports of anomalous ship movements- Imperial vessels everywhere are abandoning their missions and jumping to hyperspace in the general direction of the wormhole."

Riker's eyes opened wide. "You were right, Data. The mission was not a waste. Something big is happening. Something really big."

Chapter 18