Chapter Eight: Retribution
"When campaigning, be swift as the wind. In
leisure march, majestic as the forest.
In raiding and plundering, like fire. In standing, firm as the mountains.
As unfathomable as the clouds, move like a thunderbolt."- Sun Tzu
"Captain, something is emerging from the wormhole." Data reported.
"On screen, Mr. Data."
The viewscreen flashed to life, and Picard could hear several of the bridge crew behind him catch their breaths. They watched in silence as a seemingly endless stream of starships came pouring out of the wormhole. First came the wedge-shaped Star Destroyers, followed by transports, frigates, corvettes, heavy cruisers, dreadnaughts, and assorted support craft of every kind. Then came an Executor class command ship with an unmistakable red hue: the Crimson Blade. Picard groaned inwardly as the flood of ships continued. Interdictor cruisers, mobile battle stations, monstrous vessels that dwarfed even the behemoth Crimson Blade, and a variety of other assorted craft poured out of the great wound in the fabric of space-time.
"Captain, I am currently reading three hundred ships. No, I am reading four hundred ships. Six hundred ships ... nine hundred ships ..."
"That's enough, Mr. Data. Have they engaged the fleet?" Picard queried. He knew that Starfleet had managed to scrape together more than one hundred ships, and he knew that they were accompanied by numerous diplomats whose orders were to attempt negotiations in an attempt to stave off hostilities. However, he had the uncomfortable feeling that any attempt at negotiation would be futile.
"Not yet, sir. They are moving toward the fleet at high speed, and they will reach weapons range in less than one minute."
"Thank you, Mr. Data." Picard tapped his communicator. "Mister Laforge, how long before we can get underway?"
"At least another day, Captain. Even with the replacement parts brought by the USS Victoria, we still have a lot of work to do. I can give you half impulse power, but warp drive is still off-line."
"Understood, Mister Laforge." Picard clenched his fists and watched the growing Imperial fleet on his viewscreen with growing frustration. Another crucial confrontation, and the Enterprise would not be there. He could only watch events unfold from afar, for all the good it would do.
The vast Imperial fleet accelerated to high speed and hurtled toward the Federation ships, and the entire scene unfolded exactly as Picard feared it would. The Star Destroyers rushed through the Federation fleet like a stampede, scattering the defenders before them. Picard was reminded of a tidal wave crashing upon a shore.
The silence lent a surreal atmosphere to the battle. Communications from the battle itself were garbled and incomprehensible, so they had nothing but the long-range visual from the probe. The sheer numbers of Imperial warships were so large that it was difficult to see individual Federation vessels within the swirling mass of ships. Explosions and flashes of energy could be seen in the chaos, and Picard strained to see what was happening.
"Captain, I believe one of the Imperial vessels has taken serious damage." Data enlarged one portion of the image, and enhanced it. A massive Star Destroyer was indeed limping away from the battle, venting flames from its ventral armoured surface. The ship suddenly exploded in a brilliant fireball, and cheers went up from the Enterprise bridge.
Data pumped his fist in elation, but the expression on his face quickly grew sour. "Captain, the battle appears to have ended. Sensor-log analysis indicates that the Imperial vessel exploded after being rammed by the last surviving Federation ship."
Picard's spirits sank again. "Magnify, Mister Data."
The viewscreen focused in on the battle scene, as the Imperial fleet began dispersing and moving away. The flaming wreckage of dozens of vessels could be easily seen, most of them obviously the remains of Federation starships.
Data began to recite names when he could identify them. "The Victoria. The Hiryu. The Yamamoto. The Kipling. The McArthur. The Makai. The Hornet. The Bryson. The Manchester ..."
"That's enough, Mister Data. We don't need a full forensic accounting to know what happened." Picard slumped heavily into his chair, and wondered what would be next.
He did not have to wait long for his answer. "Captain, we are receiving an extremely high-powered transmission, on several frequencies. It is being broadcast at more than fifty times the power of our own transceivers."
"On main viewer, Mister Data."
The message started with graphic images of the Romulan attack on the Empire's ring structure, and a sullen voice announcing the death toll. It switched to a vast hall full of floating pods, each carrying a different alien life form. Picard could only guess that it was some sort of congressional hall or similar government structure. The monotonic voice-over became charged with anger, and announced that the Empire was formally declaring war on the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire. Bombastic speeches from various politicians then followed, along with strong rhetoric about the immorality of the Federation and the Romulans. Although unpleasant, none of this was unexpected. However, the most disturbing part was still to follow.
The voice-over returned. "The Empire will use any means necessary to protect the safety of our citizens. However, we do not wish to inflict needless suffering upon the innocent. We will take no hostile actions against any star system or regional government that formally renounces any association or alliance with the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire. We will also extend an offer of amnesty to any Federation star system that renounces its membership, and we extend the same offer to Romulan star systems. Any systems which formally break their ties with the Federation or the Romulan Star Empire will be rewarded with a guarantee of safety." The message then restarted, in what was apparently an endless loop.
Troi spoke in hushed tones. "They're trying to break our alliances."
Riker agreed. "I concur, Captain. They seem to think that they can get our allies to abandon us with threats. They don't seriously think this will work, do they?"
Picard's voice was weak, as if the confidence had been drained from him. "We shall see, Number One."
"Captain, what about Halsey? He conspired with the Romulans to cause this fiasco. We can't allow him to remain in control of the fleet."
Picard sighed. "We don't have enough evidence, Number One. We can't find any direct link between Halsey and the sensor-net maintenance schedules, and we have no evidence of direct communications between Halsey and the Romulans. He can chalk it all up to coincidence, or claim that someone else was responsible."
Riker was adamant. "But Q said that Halsey was responsible. He plunged the Federation into a war! We can't allow him to continue."
"I agree, Number One. But Q is not likely to testify in a Federation court-martial. We'll need to return to Earth, to collect more evidence."
Riker set his expression into a grim mask. "Let's just hope it's still there by the time we get the warp drive on line."
Captain Ruk leaned back from his chair, and smiled. After weeks of non-stop work, the ship's repairs were complete. Although more than a dozen of her weapon emplacements would be useless until they somehow obtained replacement parts, they had cannibalized enough parts from damaged systems to get more than forty turbolasers operational. They also had full shields, and full power to all propulsion systems. Only one question remained: what to do with the Federation prisoners. At that moment, a wookiee security officer dragged Commander Chang into the bridge and hurled him bodily over the railing, to collapse unceremoniously in a heap at Ruk's feet.
Ruk stood up, and looked down at Chang with a mixture of contempt and amusement. "Well, Mister Chang. Are you ready to leave? I tire of your presence."
Chang scrambled to his feet and straightened his tunic. He stood to his full height in an attempt to project confidence, but Ruk towered over him anyway. "Is that an offer of freedom?"
Ruk's eyes gleamed, and for a moment, Chang thought he could feel his throat constricting. The moment passed, and Ruk seemed to calm himself. "No. Your boarding parties killed more than two hundred of my men. I intend to exact payment for your treachery, Commander."
"Then you intend to execute us? Humanitarian conventions for the treatment of war prisoners-"
Ruk interrupted him "I do not intend to kill you, Chang. I intend to use you. When I agreed to help you, I hoped I could be an advisor. I thought I would teach your Federation how to resist the Empire covertly. Instead, you chose to betray me, and your Federation chose to strike against the Empire directly! Fools ... you have played directly into Emperor Solo's hands. He never could have launched another full-scale war without an excuse, but your Federation conveniently gave him an excuse! We recently picked this up from your own subspace relay network."
Chang watched as Ruk replayed the formal Imperial declaration of war. He said nothing for a long time, and then turned to Ruk. His words came out in a flat, resigned monotone. "What do you intend to do?"
"I intend to warn your Federation's enemies about the Empire. You and your men have learned enough to be a valuable resource to any alien race that might ... acquire you." He gestured to the massive wookiee standing at Chang's side, and Chang felt the wookiee's iron grip around his left arm. "Take him." The wookiee growled, and just before Chang lost consciousness, he saw the blurringly fast movement of a hairy, pan-sized fist at the periphery of his vision.
Kanos brooded in his darkened chambers, waiting for news. A chirping sound announced a visitor. "Enter."
Captain Daron stood stiffly at attention in the doorway, framed by the light from the corridor. "Phase One is underway, Admiral."
"Excellent, Captain." He paused for a moment. "They fought very well, didn't they?"
"The Federation ships. They fought well. There were only a hundred of them, against thousands of us. They were outnumbered and outgunned, but they charged ahead. They did not hesitate or flinch, even when taking fearsome losses. They even inflicted losses upon our fleet! How many ships did we lose?"
Captain Daron hesitated. "Fifteen, sir. Including two Star Destroyers."
"Fifteen ships. With such a tremendous disadvantage, I would have expected them to flee, or to be easily routed. Instead, they held their formation, picked targets, and maintained a cohesive plan of attack. When faced with destruction, they chose to ram our vessels rather than abandon their ships. They have more fighting spirit than Imperial Intelligence gives them credit for. Listen to this." He turned to his side, and switched on his audio system. A harsh, discordant sound immediately filled his chambers. Captain Daron immediately put his hands over his ears. The music had a visceral, throbbing beat, and the singer had a strident voice with which he half-sang, and half-screamed.
"What is that?" Daron shouted over the din.
Kanos switched the blaring music off. "Music from their twentieth century. Try feeding it through a translator, and listen to what it's saying. This is a violent, savage society, Captain. Look at their poetry. This was written by a someone named Alfred Tennyson." Daron leaned forward to look at Kanos' datapad. The yellow, glowing words spoke of a civilization that glorified death in combat, despite all of its protestations to the contrary.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
Kanos waited for Daron to absorb the words before speaking. "Centuries later, they think they can conceal their true nature behind a facade of civility. But this is their true essence, Captain. They are capable of hate but they must always blame others for inciting them to rage. They are capable of cruelty but they blame others for making it necessary. They believe that a futile sacrifice in battle leads to everlasting glory after death. Typical warrior psychology."
Daron objected. "Military intelligence says that they are soft. All of the evidence indicates that they have socially conditioned themselves into easy prey over the past century. Besides, you can't judge a society by its art, music, or poetry. You're not trying to emulate Thrawn again, are you?"
Kanos chuckled, and leaned back in his chair. "No, I have no such illusions of grandeur any more. I never did understand how he could possibly read a species by looking at their art. A society can be measured by its history, not its art. However, its art can be used to demonstrate an established characteristic. I have always suspected that this is what Thrawn was really doing. He simply covered up the true source of his intuitions with that art business, to enhance his reputation as a genius. I've been looking through their cultural records, and I find that they have never relinquished their capacity for violence. They have only suppressed it. When pushed, it will return. The music was merely used to drive a point home."
Daron grinned. "Then you are emulating Thrawn."
Kanos allowed himself a smile. "Perhaps, just a little. In the meantime, we need to adjust our tactics. Do not take them lightly, Captain. They have neither the numbers, the power, or the speed to stop us. However, they can make this operation more costly than it needs to be. That will be all for now."
Captain Daron saluted, turned smartly on his heels, and marched back out to the corridor. Kanos watched him leave, then returned to his studies. There was much to do.
A black cloud seemed to hang over the office of the President. Ever since the incendiary declaration of war, a seemingly endless procession of diplomats, advisors, and soldiers had been marching in and out of his office. He looked like he hadn't slept in days, and barely acknowledged Admiral Halsey as he walked into the room.
The president looked up from his desk with an expression of pure exhaustion. His eyes were sunken, his skin drawn. "Ah, yes. Admiral Halsey. Before you speak, I would like to inform you that you cannot expect any help from the Klingons. Our request for assistance has been officially denied. They have released a public statement, indicating their extreme disappointment that we chose to conspire with the Romulans to launch a dishonourable sneak attack upon the Empire. Needless to say, the Cardassian/Dominion Union has also denied our requests for assistance."
Halsey cleared his throat. "I'm not surprised, Mister President. The Klingons were overly aggressive, and took heavy losses in the Dominion war. They are obviously hoping that the Federation and the Romulans will take such heavy losses against the Empire that we will be effectively eliminated from contention in this quadrant, leaving them and the Dominion as the two remaining powers."
"And the Empire."
"True. The Klingons and the Dominion would surely recognize the threat posed by the Empire, unless the Empire has attempted to talk them into alliances or non-aggression treaties. I wouldn't be surprised if Imperial envoys are on Cardassia Prime and Qo'noS right now. But in truth, I didn't come here to discuss the Dominion or the Klingons. I didn't expect the Klingons to be of much help, and I never expected the Dominion to help either."
"If you didn't come here to discuss the Dominion or the Klingons, then why are you here?"
"Mister President, we have scattered reports coming in from the outlying regions. More than one thousand outposts are under attack. There is a predictable pattern to the attacks. A warship appears in orbit over the outpost, fires a few shots to destroy any defensive equipment and inflict random casualties upon the colonists, and then initiates a blockade."
The President buried his head in his hands for a few minutes before speaking. "Send ships to all besieged outposts."
"Sir, with all due respect, that is not strategically wise. They're using their speed to attack outposts from one end of our territory to the other, but all of the targets are small, isolated settlements. It will take months for ships to reach these systems. It's obviously a diversionary series of attacks, designed to spread our forces thin. That's why they allow us to receive distress calls and casualty reports, instead of simply jamming communications. We cannot afford to take the bait! I suggest that we consolidate our forces around strategic targets."
The President stared at Halsey with an incredulous look on his face. "And leave the besieged colonists to die?"
Halsey sighed deeply, and had obviously been expecting this question. "Mister President, I don't like it either. But we don't have any choice. It will be hard enough protecting our strategically important centres without spreading our fleet any thinner than it is. Over the past century, our entire military structure has been organized to defend against attacks from the direction of the Cardassian, Romulan, or Klingon empires. The border regions are heavily scanned and patrolled, but we have very few defensive fleets or installations in our deep territories. We have performed a lot of simulations, and it doesn't look good. These Imperials are unlike any enemy we have faced before. They can use their speed to jump anywhere they want, deep in our territory, without warning. In the final analysis, these small outposts must be considered expendable."
"Admiral, that is your final analysis, not mine. I was not elected to sacrifice millions of Federation citizens upon the altar of military expediency! At the same time, I recognize your criticism about the wisdom of dispersing our forces. We need another alternative, Admiral."
It was only through great effort that Halsey suppressed his contempt for the weak-willed politician sitting before him. "Mister President, with all due respect, my staff has been running strategic simulations around the clock, and there are no other alternatives. If we take the bait, we disperse our forces. If we don't take the bait, we sacrifice millions of Federation citizens. War does not always present us with an easy way out."
The president was infuriatingly calm, and acted as though he hadn't heard anything Halsey was saying. "There must be a way. Your staff will need to redouble their efforts. Report back to me when you have studied the problem further. I will defer any final decision until that time."
Halsey finally lost his patience, and pounded his fist down on the president's desk. "There is no other way! If there were another way, we would have found it by now! If you don't have the courage to make these decisions, perhaps you should step down in favour of someone who can!"
The president leapt to his feet and leaned over his desk until he was inches away from Halsey's face. He spoke quietly, but firmly. "I can make decisions, Halsey. My initial decision was to send ships to all besieged outposts. In spite of your objections, that decision stands. This discussion is over. You will obey the directives of your Commander in Chief, or face dismissal and court-martial. Is that clear?"
Halsey stepped back from the president's desk, and stood ramrod-straight. He fought down his rage and hoarsely mumbled. "Yes, sir. Crystal clear." He turned and marched stiffly out of the president's office. He noticed the Romulan ambassador standing in the hallway outside, waiting for an appointment. He moved close to the ambassador and spoke in hushed tones.
"Any news from Romulus?"
The ambassador's face was ashen. "Nothing. I cannot raise Romulus on subspace at all. I fear something terrible has happened, Halsey. We should never have listened to you."
"Keep your mouth shut, you fool." Halsey growled. "The Empire would have attacked us anyway. It was worth the attempt."
The Romulan's eyes betrayed something Halsey had never before seen in a Romulan: fear. "You say that now, Halsey. Let's see if you still say that when the Empire has scattered your people and mine across the galaxy."
"Commander? Are you all right?"
Chang forced his eyes open and saw a blurry image of a Federation marine crouching over him. His head throbbed, and felt unnaturally heavy. As his eyes began to focus, he saw that he was lying on his back in a huge rectangular room. The room appeared to have no decorations, and no functional areas. The walls were smooth metal, and the ceiling was more than 20 metres tall. Three of the walls were completely bare, but the fourth wall was dominated by an enormous door, more than 15 metres tall and more than 30 metres wide. There was nothing else of interest in the entire room except for a single viewscreen next to the door, and Chang guessed that the room must be some sort of cargo hold. He groaned as the marine helped him up.
"Thank you. Where are we?" Chang mumbled.
"I don't know. They shoved us all in here and locked the door. I think they were waiting for you to regain consciousness."
Chang stumbled to the viewscreen and randomly punched buttons until Ruk's face appeared on the screen. He growled at the screen. "What do you want, Ruk?"
Ruk smiled. "Nothing. I just wanted to see your face while I do ... this." Ruk motioned to someone off-camera, and a loud concussion shook the entire cargo hold. Chang felt a sensation of movement, and then the artificial gravity began to weaken. In moments, he found himself floating in zero-gravity conditions. The cargo hold filled with the sounds of voices, as hundreds of Federation marines began clawing for a grip on the smooth metal walls, and attempting to keep the wounded from crashing into something.
"What have you done?" Chang shouted at the viewscreen, which was now several metres beneath him.
"I have released you. You weren't in a cargo hold. You were in a cargo container, which I just launched from the ship. It is fully sealed, and it has a rudimentary environmental control system that will keep it habitable for several hours. I just gave you a spacecraft, and your freedom. Isn't that what you wanted?" Ruk had turned up the volume on the audio communications system, and it boomed throughout the entire cargo container.
"You can't leave us here to die, Ruk!" Chang screamed in impotent rage.
"You won't die. I took the liberty of putting a distress-call beacon on your container. You can consider your debt of betrayal paid in full, Chang. Goodbye."
"Ruk!" Chang screamed. "Ruk! Answer me!" For more than an hour, he heard nothing but silence. He could only assume that Ruk had jumped into hyperspace and stranded them as he claimed. The temperature in the container was starting to drop noticeably, and Chang wondered how long the oxygen would last. Just as he resigned himself to the eventuality of death by asphyxiation or freezing, he heard a voice coming through the cargo container's audio communications system. The emotionless, chilling voice boomed through the entire container, and the all-too-familiar words put terror into the heart of each and every soldier.
"We are the Borg. Prepare to be assimilated. Your existence, as you know it ... is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt, to service us. Resistance ... is futile."