Fortunately Kalib's recovery was measured in human rather than stellar time and eventually he left the loving embrace of the soil for the interior of the alliance base. His appetite seemed to return as well as he made up for lost time. Han and Kilana sat with him, but neither ate. It wasn't that Kalib was disgusting when he ate, it was rather because watching him eat was akin to seeing a man roll across a tightrope on a unicycle while holding a piano, it kept your interest.
"After Skywalker and his kid got away the Vong managed to overpower me, knock me out," Kalib explained while he continued his meal. "The Vong kept looking me over, trying to unravel my DNA or something, but they were having a tough go of it. My people are pretty hearty."
"So we've noticed," Han said. "It's a wonder they didn't try to brainwash you; they seemed to try with everyone else."
"Who says they didn't?" Kalib said, drinking half a liter of milk in one go. "But after a few centuries, your demons tend to come out and start straightening out the furniture and all that. There's nothing the Vong showed me I didn't make peace with a long time ago or frankly just don't give a damn about."
"Didn't you try to escape?" Kilana asked. "I'd imagine it'd be very hard to keep you prisoner."
"Escaped a few times," Kalib said. "But, problem is, flapping my arms isn't going to get me off an isolated planet is it? They'd find me and come up with some way to lock me up again, and then the cycle would repeat itself. I would kill for some kfalla sauce with this," he added. "Tastes like rubber-coated ceramic. Anyway, eventually they tried a stasis field, only, like I said, the physiology is pretty hardy, so eventually I could shake it off. I guess the carbon-freeze was their last bet."
"Why not just kill you?" Han asked. Kalib gave him a look, but Han stood his ground. "It's just a question. You have an answer?"
"Killing me is kind of hard," Kalib said. "And the Vong are into the whole genetic thing, kind of like that Species 8472 mob."
"Still-" Han began, but the alert sounded. The three looked at each other as a flurry of activity broke out across the base, then ran for the command center. "What's happening?" he asked. Han had a natural tone of command that had only improved with age. The answer was quick, if not particularly welcome.
"[The Vong have just entered the system.]"
The initial volley of interdictor torpedoes ensured the Imperial fleet would be stuck for four minutes, more than enough time for the Vong gravity ships to move in and extend it indefinitely. The Vong biotechnology operated differently than the Imperial version, and like the new version were invulnerable to DIT's. An Imperial counter-weapon had not been developed because other Vong technology had been a greater priority. Fighting to the edge to escape was the only option, and that didn't look like it would work either, what with the Empire outnumbered three to one.
"Is there anything we can do?" Laudica asked Anakin.
"Let them do their job," Anakin said.
"I'd rather do something more constructive," Laudica replied.
"Yes," Alema added. "I'm not going to just wait for the Vong to destroy us-"
Quiet! Anakin thought so sharply it cut their thoughts off as suddenly as a shout. They can hear you, he thought, indicating the men and women around the bridge. If they see us despair, what do you think will happen to their courage?
Laudica tried to respond in kind, but she lacked the training. She leaned in very close and spoke so quietly Anakin could barely hear it. "We could take our shuttle, make a run for it. With our Jedi reflexes we could make it."
We'll not abandon these people, Anakin thought.
"We won't do any good to anyone dying here," Laudica pointed out.
"We should find some fighters," Alema said. "At least we'd have a way to fight back."
"No fighter is going to take down those coralships," Laudica said. "It would be pointless."
"I would rather die trying," Alema said.
"I'd rather not," Laudica said.
Enough! We stay and wait, that is my decision. Anakin waited as the two grudgingly accepted it, then turned back to the view beyond the window. It didn't fill him with much confidence in his Imperial allies.
Unconcerned with the details of the Jedi debate, Taar examined a holographic representation of the battle occurring outside the window. His initial instructions were being carried out by the groups that made up the fleet. He didn't micromanage them; the captains of these ships were those Taar had felt were capable, so second-guessing their command abilities was counter-productive. He looked for openings to exploit, but with the sheer numeric disadvantage there wasn't anything new. The bridge shook as coralships bombarded them, but Taar's attention stayed focused. He saw the three of them around the shape of the Defiance. It was clean and sterile here... a paper battle for a paper general. He turned and looked out the front of the ship; the Vong coralship was there, bombarding the Defiance's shields enough so they could deploy their insects and tear it apart from the inside. His crew was ready for it, but it was a big ship... lots of places for the bugs to wreak havoc before they were eliminated.
Taar blinked in surprise as the coralship shuddered under sudden impact, then exploded. A ship quickly flew through the debris, in sight for only a moment, but- "Captain, tell me I didn't just see that."
"It's - It looks like the Borg, general," the Defiance's captain said. "They've engaged the Vong."
"Of course they have," Taar said with defeat in his voice. "They want us to themselves. I knew they'd turn on us."
"The Borg are hailing us, sir," the comm officer said.
"Save it," Taar said. "I've heard it enough for a lifetime."
"It's not their standard hail, general. They seem-"
"I gave my order," Taar snapped. "I'm not sure how many of them we can destroy, but I'm not planning on joining their Collective."
The captain hesitated. "General, I think they're here to help."
"Help themselves to us," Taar said. "I think it's pretty clear now who set up this trap." He shook his head. "They'll assimilate us, and use that knowledge to tear down the Empire. Between them and the Vong, they could do it."
"Respectfully, general, the Vong and the Borg are the least likely allies in the universe," the captain said.
"I fought the Borg for years," Taar said with a voice full of rebuke. "I'd put nothing past them."
"Respectfully, sir, I've fought the Vong for years, and they would rather be defeated then partner themselves with the Borg. Besides, those are Vong ships they are destroying."
"It's all part of their plan," Taar said. "They always have an angle, always have some way of lowering your defenses and stealing away your individuality-"
"General," the captain said, "if those were Alliance ships, or the Klingons, or even the Kazon, we'd welcome this as potential salvation."
"But they're not!" Taar shouted. "They're the Borg, and the Borg don't change!" He seemed on the verge of screaming. "They're evil, captain, don't you understand; not that they do evil things but that they are evil itself, evil in physical form! You can't even kill them for good! How can you see salvation in those dead eyes, in those harbingers of doom out there?!" He looked wild-eyed through the window as the cubes joined in the battle against the Vong. "You can't let down your defenses, captain, not for a second. This is it, don't you see? They've been waiting for me, waiting for me to grow old and sentimental, waiting for me to slip up just once so they could finally- No! We're not going to be taken in by this."
"General," Anakin said, stepping forward. "I must tell you-"
"Stay out of this!" Taar said. "This is not your concern."
"General," Anakin continued. "I must tell you that there is no duplicity in the Borg's thoughts."
"You can read their mind?" Taar said incredulously.
"No, but with all those minds thinking as one it's easy to sense their motivation. They're here to help us, general, of that I'm certain."
Taar was about to shout, then froze, and nodded slowly. "You're in this with them too, aren't you. I should have known..."
"General," the captain whispered in his ear, "I suggest we let him try."
"Are you blind, man?! Can't you see-"
"Sir, respectfully," -and it was clear by now that the word had come to mean, in the captain's mouth, as being "you twit"- "your fleet will mutiny if you try to get them to turn against the Borg."
"How can you even think about trusting them?!"
"Because, sir, without them we will fall, and I doubt the Empire will be able to recover. The Borg offer uncertainty, but it is better than the certainty of failure."
While Taar and the captain hashed it out, Anakin returned to the apprentices. "I thought we were staying out of it," Laudica asked.
"Rules are made to be broken," Alema said.
"No, rules are made so that you don't break them unless you don't have any choice," Anakin said.
"I hope you're sure about what you're sensing," Laudica said.
"Yes," Anakin said, but there's was something in the word only someone intimately familiar with him could catch, and she did.
"I stated what I think is the truth," Anakin said. "I just surrounded it with some lies for believability."
"Is there a rule about that too?"
"Yes," Anakin said. "Hopefully I'm right so I can tell you about it.
“Alert all commands,” Taar finally said, “do not fire on the Borg unless fired upon. I hope you are right, Jedi.”
“You have nothing to fear, general,” Anakin said. I hope.
"At this time I had exhausted my supply of equipment and credits," the Oracle continued. "I needed support to continue my research, someone who could see why my work would be so crucial without the risk of betrayal. The only choice was Elim Garak, a small-minded Cardassian, but one who had as much reason as I to hate the Empire because of the destruction of his world. I was able to prove myself to him by supplying him with information gleaned from my growing abilities. Assuring him this would only be the beginning, he gave me the materials I asked for to build more powerful equipment, and again I tried altering the past. And yet, my every path was blocked; not once could I succeed in even the smallest way of preventing the conquest by the Empire. I could find no reason for this, short of interference by some outside force. I suspected Q for a time, but this did not lead anywhere.
"Finally, after consideration, I remembered the existence of the energy field known as the Force. I began to study it, to learn if it was possible this was the cause of interference, and if there would be a way to avoid it. However, something came of my studies I did not expect: the realization that the Force is interlinked with time... and the sudden epiphany that my own abilities were a partial manifestation of that. I realized that this might be the path to finally ridding myself of the Empire."
The Tactical Cube was the result of the Borg's war with Species 8472. It was, by and large, a concession on the part of the Collective. The Borg were not a military power; their ships were designed to grab and assimilate, not to wage war. For every other species in the galaxy this didn't seem much of a distinction, but with Species 8472 they learned there were some threats that, if unchecked, would destroy them. In such instances, brute force was the only solution, and thus the Tactical Cube was conceived. It was a ship of war, and now that war was upon them, the Borg used them. Many had been built when they had fought the Empire decades ago, and their hearty design allowed them to survive adrift more easily then their less robust counterparts. Most of the fleet, then, consisted of these powerful ships.
Saying General Taar loathed the Borg would be unfair, the reason being that left no word to describe how the Vong felt about them. Taar saw them as a pet peeve compared to the Vong. Upon their arrival the Imperials were practically forgotten as the coralships and skippers turned their full attention to their antithesis. One of the standard Cubes slipped into the heat of battle and was quickly bombarded by the Vong forces. It exploded in less than a minute, causing mild panic in Romal. "Oh kriff oh kriff oh kriff oh kriff..."
"Adjusting shield geometry to compensate," the Queen said. "Increasing power to EM fields."
"Yes yes, increase power," Romal muttered in fear. "Adapt. In the name of all that is holy, adapt!"
"We will handle the tactical matters, Romal the Attorney," the Queen said. "You will handle diplomacy."
"Yes yes, fine, just adapt, please!"
"Closing distance to two thousand kilometers," Sebastian said.
"No no, no closing!" The Borg ignored him; they were quite good at that.
"I am.... conflicted upon this tactic," the Queen said. "Your distinctiveness is unique. Its loss would make us less complete."
"Yet that uniqueness can serve us here," Sebastian said.
"The plan is sound..." The Queen was visibly conflicted. "Be efficient."
General Taar continued examining the hologram and the real universe it represented. "They do seem to have the Vong's attention," he admitted. "Alert all commands; we reform our battle lines here, here, and here," he indicated on the hologram. "Then we squeeze."
While coralskippers and assorted fighters exchanged fire, the star destroyers formed a series of walls, leaving the Vong trapped in a crossfire with the Empire on one side and the huge Borg fleet on the other. Turbolasers blasted chunks out of their surface while heavy energy beams cut through the coral armor like a scalpel. The Vong energy weapons were still getting through the Borg defenses, but the damage was minor by comparison. Their insect-filled torpedoes, however, were causing greater difficulty, since they were able to bypass the shields that filled their corridors by digging through surrounding paneling. Commander Imal instructed his troops to use those whenever possible.
Not long after he gave the order the coralship shook under an impact, causing the crew on the bridge to stumble for a moment. As they did, lights appeared in the back of the room; they turned and noted with disgust the arrivals: humanoids, and worse, humanoids who polluted their bodies with machinery. Four Vong quickly moved to slaughter them.
Sebastian stood amongst the Borg drones; their eyes assessed the faces of their opponents, seeking out the one of highest rank. He was quickly spotted, and the Borg moved into action. Vong blows rained down on them, killing them quickly as they moved towards the target. The commander took out his own weapon now, let out a cry, and swung it at Sebastian.
A blue energy blade emerged from the Borg's left wrist, catching the blow as his right reached out and grabbed his target. The two vanished, as did the drones, living and dead. The Vong looked puzzled for a moment, then got back down to the business of the battle.
The Vong commander knocked Sebastian aside and swung his staff wildly to hold the Borg at bay. He would kill anyone who got too close, that much was certain. However, here, in the most abominable enemy the Vong had ever faced, they found their equal. Not in terms of fighting, of course; their technique lacked any combat prowess. No, their true advantage was that, just like the Vong, the Borg feared nothing. They swarmed over him as his staff tore flesh and shattered metal, killing four and severely injuring another six, but the staff was wrenched from him, and the Borg more than made up for their anemic hand-to-hand techniques with brute strength and sheer numbers. "I will tell you nothing!" he cried with a defiant laugh as they strapped him down onto the table. "No pain can break me! Whoever you are, you're wasting your time, haha!"
Sebastian stood over him at the table. "We are the Borg, and you will be assimilated. Your thoughts will now service us." His assimilation tubules punctured the commander's neck. He yanked them free, and the commander began to twitch, then seize.
"I - will not - talk!" he said through his teeth.
"Talk is irrelevant," Sebastian informed him. "Resistance is futile. Your existence, as it has been, is over. From this time forward you will service us."
The Queen observed the battle, both through her senses and through the voices of the Collective. She paused for a few seconds, then hailed the Defiance. The annoyed expression of General Taar greeted her. "What's so damn important?" he demanded.
"The yammosk is not on Mi-noss," the Queen informed him.
"Yes, thanks, we figured that one out a long time ago."
"It has been moved to Barhis III," the Queen said.
Taar eyed her suspiciously. "How do you know that?"
"The knowledge and experience of the Vong -Kor Imal- is part of us now." The remark did not have the expected reaction. Instead Taar looked very angry and the transmission was terminated. The Queen dismissed it as the irrationality of humans and returned to the battle. Soon the Defiance hailed them.
"I don't trust you an inch," Taar said sharply. "Let's be clear on that."
"We are aware of that," the Queen said.
"Why should I listen to you?" he demanded. "Tell me why I should follow the Borg anywhere?"
Romal stepped forward. "Do you think the Borg came to your aid here only to lead you into a second trap?"
"That's not what I asked," Taar shot back. "Why should I even be talking to you after all you've done?"
"Because we are in this with you, general," the Queen said. "If you are destroyed, we will be as well. In any event, you are the leader of the Empire. It is we who will follow you."
"I don't buy it," Taar said. "Besides, you may need us, but we don't need you."
"We lost our first invasion of Earth," the Queen said, "because of the unforeseen. Every scenario showed that victory was assured, and yet we lost. We failed to consider there was some factor outside our calculations that could overcome us. It was our fatal flaw." Taar showed slight confusion at the comment. "You taught that to your students, yes? The question, general, is how certain are you that you can destroy the Vong without us?"
Taar cut the transmission. Romal whistled thoughtfully as he shook his head. "I don't think he liked hearing that," he commented.
"His mood is irrelevant," the Queen said. "It is only how he acts upon the information that matters."
"When this is over," Romal said, "we need to start work on another item called 'customer relations.'"
The first Vong ships hit the rebel hangars, destroying or collapsing them before they could get off the planet. Then there was silence. "What's happening?" Han asked, "why'd they stop firing." He'd been in hundreds of battles and he knew the cessation of fire, a normally welcome sound, was often the precursor to even worse news.
"They've got us trapped," Kalib said. "They're gonna come down and fight face to face... that's their thing, see? They've got us all caged up; they can wipe us out if they lose, so why not have a chance to enjoy the thrill of battle?"
"So we're seeing how many of them we take with us?" Han asked as he pulled out his blaster with a half-shrug. "Not a problem."
"Um, yes, I have a problem," Kilana said. "The cloning tanks are shut down; if they kill me then that's the end."
Han and Kalib looked at her, then each other, then back at her. "You do know that's what death is," Han said, "right?"
"Well... yeah," Kilana said. "But I'm a Vorta... death is something that happens to other people."
"I've always said that," Kalib said with a nod.
"Well if we're going to die, then what's the point?" Kilana asked. "Why bother 'taking them with us?' It won't make any difference for us."
"Look kid," Han said, "this isn't the time. If by some miracle we don't die I'll answer your question, and if I don't, then it won't make any difference, right? I'm not one for philosophy."
"Speaking of philosophy," Kalib said, "anyone have a large object I can beat someone with?"