Title: The Flux of Mortal Things
Fandom: Star Trek Voyager
Rated: NC-17. Drama/Angst/Romance.
Summary: A decade in the Delta Quadrant has taken a heavy toll of both Voyager and its crew. When a crisis arises during a salvage operation on a derelict Borg vessel, Seven and B'Elanna are forced to confront their own attitudes and losses.
Warning: This story contains angst, violence, coarse language, and explicit lesbian sex.
Disclaimer: No profit is intended in the writing of this story. Star Trek Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount (a Viacom company).
Feedback is required for sustenance, so please email me. Archiving is welcome, but please try and contact me first. Thanks to Lyrastar, AP Stacey and Michael for their help with particular terms, and Meagan for her beta work.
THE FLUX OF MORTAL THINGS (Part One)
If there had been a time before now he could not remember it.
It was as if he'd spent his entire life crossing this desert. The sun beat down on his naked form, raising salty perspiration that the scalding winds failed to cool. Around him towered stone ribcages carved by ancient lava flows, sculptured over countless centuries into sterile fingers imploring the sky. Above as always circled a tiny speck, the shavokh waiting for him to collapse from hunger or fatigue. He ignored it, as he did the glass pebbles cutting into his feet, the thirsting of his parched throat, the ash and sulphur stench from a volcanic eruption many miles away. His quest was more important than such trivialities, though he could no longer recall what had sent him out here. He only knew that he was being compelled, driven on in an urgent quest for...what? Water? That was logical; water was essential for survival in the desert. And he could see the oasis shimmering ahead, always out of reach. He drove himself towards it, digging his feet into the treacherous slope of the dune. Was it a mirage?
Again he heard the voice: faint, distant, calling him back, warning of dangers ahead. The voice was familiar, someone he trusted. Perhaps he would return once he had drunk his fill, thank his friend for their concern. Give assurances that he had come to no harm.
Then he could see it clearly - it was no illusion! A slash of cool blue across the arid plain, crystal-clear water beckoning him. There was a woman bathing. Beautiful, exotic, sensuous, her golden skin sparkling radiant as she cleansed herself. To his eternal joy he recognized her. It was this woman that he had been searching for. His aduna!
He ran towards her, slipping on fused glass, his imperative driving him on. He called out in the ancient tongue: she was his for their minds had been joined long ago. But she rejected his claim, lashing out with painful fists, snarling like a beast. Screaming his anguish he fell back on burning glass and sand. She had no right to do this! Once more he hurled himself at her, exalting in the unfettered release of emotion. They locked in combat, his strength against hers. She looked different now, her forehead marked by curved ridges, skin a different hue, lips pulled back over sharp teeth that spat insults in a language that was not his own.
'You are Lieutenant Vorik of the U.S.S. Voyager. You are an engineer, a Starfleet officer, a Vulcan.'
The voice was calling again and he fled in panic, knowing only that it shamed him to be seen like this. He dived into the water but found no relief there, tossed helpless by the swirling rapids.
'The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within you.'
Not a flame but a firestorm, it consumed him totally, made him beg for release. He thrashed through dunes that towered like mountains. He screamed her name, pleaded for her to come to him, but there was no answer.
'The water dampens the flame. You are apart from it, watching it. You watch the flame grow smaller.'
He stumbled into the oasis, grabbing handfuls of water and flinging them on his body, trying to cool the raging heat. Riven with a terrible despair he collapsed, opened his mouth to the voice and the water and let it flow inside.
Vorik came round in his quarters, lying on the floor, his meditation robes filthy with sweat and dried semen. The Vulcan felt a deep wave of disgust at his condition, his lack of control at even the most basic level. He pulled himself to his feet, staggered to the nearest faucet and drank.
'To feel shame in these circumstances is not logical,' said the voice inside his mind.
"Yes," he gasped.
'The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within you.'
He was apart from the flame, dousing it in his mind. It no longer controlled him with its rage and fury. Vorik watched the fire grow ever smaller, reduced to a point of light until once more, with the suddenness of epiphany, the sharp clarity of logic was guiding his thoughts. He saw his path, the single rational option, exquisite in its simplicity. He would find B'Elanna Torres and mate with her. The young Vulcan leapt to his feet but the door refused to open. He tried the control panel, unaware this was the third time in an hour he'd done so.
'Commander Torres is no longer on board Voyager. You must regain your mastery of emotion.'
Vorik screamed through his raw throat, slamming his fists against the unyielding metal. He hurled his kae out through the ship, searching amongst the many babbling voices for that unique mindprint. Alien, beautiful, churning with savage, volatile passions that tempted him in his darkest thoughts. He could not find it, she was gone forever and he howled his torment, beating his hands against the doors of his prison.
A Bolian walking down the corridor stopped in shock at that terrible cry.
Commander Tuvok was standing guard outside Vorik's quarters, a phaser on his belt. "Can I help you, Crewman Chell?"
Chell muttered an apology and hurried on. Behind the doors came the faint sound of a man sobbing.
Tuvok was tired, both mentally and physically. He'd been here for many hours; there were many more to come. He closed his eyes, focused his thoughts, reached out once more to the tortured mind within.
'The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within you...'
The derelict resembled a ball that had escaped from the toy set of a gigantic child. For seven decades it had been in orbit around the system's outermost planet, all that time undisturbed. Everyone knew that with the Borg death was a relative term. Fear had overcome the lure of easy technological pickings. Fear based on practical experience, and legends dating back thousands of years from when the Collective first sent its scouts to this region of space.
The interlopers showed no such concern. They too had become legends, albeit of a more recent kind. Like the Borg in those early years they were explorers, seeking to improve themselves through contact with other species. Unlike the Collective they'd forsaken conquest and the artificial enhancement of their bodies, preferring to better their culture through co-operation and self-contemplation. It was a never-ending struggle, but one they believed enriched them.
Nevertheless they approached the sphere with caution, though with the expertise that comes with experience. Speed and heading were matched between the tiny flyer and its target. Multiphasic scans checked for dormant life signs, verified structural integrity and the presence of a breathable atmosphere. Hails containing Borg identification codes drew no response.
Only the empty eye sockets of drone skeletons witnessed the intrusion, an alien blue shimmer amongst the inky blackness. There were two of them, transporting past any security devices still active in the outer hull. Both women wore grey jumpsuits and backpacks, their phasers held ready.
As soon as her pattern stabilised B'Elanna Torres had the tricorder open and running a scan. "Not picking up any lifesigns...no active energy signatures...no Borg!" She snapped the tricorder shut. "Let's go!"
"Wait," said Seven of Nine, intent on her own readings.
B'Elanna shifted her weight from one foot to the other, eyes darting around the corridor. Her sims beacon flickered over ranked alcoves, cavernous skulls pieced by cybergrafts, baroque instruments where limbs should have been. It reminded her of that Menti Naka temple with its stone-carved demons, implants bursting from every orifice. The war orphans with their sunken cheeks and dead eyes. An involuntary shiver ran through her body. "Come on, Seven. This place is giving me the creeps."
Seven refused to be hurried, scanning and recalibrating until she was certain. "I'm detecting electromagnetic readings at minimal power, but I cannot pinpoint their location. It's possible there are many systems still operative."
"Has your proximity transceiver activated?"
"Then let's get on with it! Kahless, it's freezing in here." B'Elanna strode off down the passageway, boots ringing on the metal floor grates. Seven ran after her, grabbing the Klingon hybrid by the shoulder.
B'Elanna spun round so fast even the normally unflappable Borg was startled. "WHAT?"
"I will go first, Commander. I am more familiar with this type of vessel, and my implants should detect any security devices still active."
B'Elanna's eyes twinkled. "Trying to protect me, Ensign?"
Seven inclined her head. "It is simply the logical course of action."
"Fair enough. Besides, I like looking at your ass move in that tight jumpsuit."
Seven decided to favour her superior with a subtle smile. She brushed past the half-Klingon, sweeping her beacon across the alcoves. Efficiency had given way to chaos. Ruptured panels spewed tangled conduits. Biofluid from leaking tubules had frozen into milky stalactites. Carbosilicate, dust particles, circuitry and bone littered the floor, trapped under layers of frost.
The Borg stopped to examine an alcove. A tactical drone, Species 893 (Menti Naka) held together by its exoskeleton. The skull had toppled from the body, exposing an access node which appeared to be intact. "Try this one."
B'Elanna used her gloves to wipe seventy years of accumulated grime from the node, then hooked it up to the backpack generator.
There was no telltale green flickering above the alcove, no energy reading on Seven's tricorder.
"Ghuy'cha'," B'Elanna swore. She unplugged the micropower conduit, stamping her feet on the grating to warm them.
"Your thermal suit should be maintaining your temperature," said Seven. She moved down the passageway, checking each access node and interlink conduit. All had been burnt out by the same massive electro-kinetic discharge.
"Well it doesn't bloody well feel like it. How do you think Vorik's doing?"
"The Doctor will not discuss his condition with me."
"I heard he rejected the hologram," said B'Elanna, her words punctuated by puffs of condensation. "Now Tuvok's supposed to be helping Vorik through it. Maybe he's going to have sex with him!"
"That would be a 'logical' course of action."
B'Elanna giggled, an incongruous sound in this frozen necropolis. "It's just as well I'm here. Vorik would probably try bashing down the door with his hard-on to get at me. Did I ever tell you what happened last time he went through the pon farr?"
The Borg stopped again, examining a medical servo-armature that might be worth salvaging. "No." The implant was covered with some kind of fungi. Biomatter had flourished for a time, feeding on the decaying flesh before dying as the heat leeched out and power to the UV lights failed.
"Do you have any idea where we are in this thing?" asked B'Elanna, changing the subject yet again. Her wrist light cast ghoulish shadows on the walls - serrated cutting blades, alien jaws fallen open in silent screams.
"I do not."
B'Elanna gave a derisive snort. "So much for Borg efficiency. You'd think they'd know about signs or something. Well, is it viable?"
"The damage is too severe," Seven replied, continuing with her search. "Signs are irrelevant. Each drone is interlinked to the sphere's vinculum and therefore knows its location at all times. However I will be able to orient myself as soon as we locate a major adjunct or working access node. Is the movement of my buttocks pleasing enough?"
"What! Oh yes, yes very."
It took them twenty-three minutes to find an alcove that Seven could use, another five to power it up without harming the long dormant neuro-circuitry. The skeleton was removed and Seven stepped inside, closing her eyes as the interface node clicked into place. She opened her mind to the sphere.
In 3.08 seconds Seven had identified the obsolete shieldware guarding the unimatrix and cracked it - she didn't even have to use the cryptographic subroutines RiN-sep had provided. After that came the tedious procedure of tracking down and relinking thousands of isolated components. Whole sections were unreachable, others responded with datastreams of pure gibberish. Eventually she was able to locate some working systems that fit her target list, instructing them to power up and run self-diagnostics. One surprise was that the sphere's sensor grid was still functioning. She logged the position of the grid's data nodes so they could be recovered later, then broke the link.
Seven opened her eyes to pitch-darkness, no sign of B'Elanna. The Borg prioritised her ocular implant and the passageway leapt into view, a glowing ethereal world without shadows. Someone had wrought devastation on the walls. Panels were sliced open, neural-connectors spilling onto the floor grates. Data nodes had been wrenched from their sockets, skeletons tossed out of alcoves at random. From somewhere ahead the Borg could hear the sounds of more destruction, accompanied by faint Klingon curses.
She tapped her combadge. "Seven to Commander Torres."
No answer. "B'Elanna, respond."
"Yeah Seven, what is it?" Her voice was breathless, coming in short gasps.
"I have finished here. State your location."
"How the hell would I know? Just follow the noise." A loud crash echoed down the corridor, accompanied by a faint: "Shit!"
Seven let out a deep sigh of exasperation. Stepping out of the alcove, she picked her way through the litter of shattered bone and metal. The damage was irrelevant, as the entire sphere would be destroyed in a few hours, but she couldn't help feeling a surge of anger. This was far more than was necessary to salvage a few components. It was as if B'Elanna was engaging in deliberate vandalism, a gratuitous act of revenge for her dead husband. Her behaviour had been somewhat erratic over the past few days - lack of appetite, frequent mood swings. At the time Seven had put it down to nerves over their upcoming mission.
As she turned the corner into the next adjunct, Seven noticed a small skeleton lying on the grates, miraculously undamaged. A pre-natal drone - what was it doing here? The maturation chambers must have opened during the ion storm, the child left to wander the corridors until it died of starvation.
Instinctively, irrationally, Seven reached down to touch the skeleton, only to have the bones crumble away in her fingers.
'Entropic decay. It's a natural law of the universe,' thought Chapman. 'All things must die - people, stars, ships...'
Voyager looked as if it'd been sliced in half. One side illuminated by the bloated red sun, the other vanishing into inky blackness, broken only by the occasional window or running light. Chapman stepped off the dorsal spine onto the darkside, waiting until the magnetic sole had clamped to the hull before shifting his other foot. The photonic amplifiers cut in, Voyager's hull appearing in granular shades, the suit's computer adding red and green outlines around danger areas and airlock ports. The molecular scanner activated, projecting a head-up display onto his faceplate. Chapman looked down at his boots.
"Starboard side now. Hull plate TH-0778. I'm picking up some impact craters that weren't there before. Must have happened when we went into orbit, something high density. I'm detecting monotanium...ultra-diamond...traces of...looks like molecular-bonded ceramics."
"Haven't these idiots heard of orbital cascade disaster?" asked Jenny Delaney, who was keeping an eye on them with the external sensors. "They've got enough junk floating round this system to build a Borg cube."
"I guess when you're fighting a war, you're more interested in making wreckage than cleaning it up." Chapman stepped along the hull plate, making sure that each scan overlapped the previous one by half a metre. "How are those shields holding?"
"Hull plate TH-0778. Remains of Lieutenant William Chapman, struck by an abandoned space toaster moving at 20,000 kilometres per hour."
"Hull plate GN-7689," said Soolan. "I'm picking up microfractures."
"What? We replaced that one six months ago!"
"I've got another one here," said Ensign Tabor. "GN-897A."
Chapman turned to where the others were working, further down the hull near the warp pylons. He could see the glow of the thermal radiators on their EVA suits. "What does the log say?"
"GN-7689 has been recycled...sixty-three times over the past ten years!"
"Looks like replication pattern failure," said Tabor. "This one's got cracks all the way through to the inner core. Recycled eighteen times, replaced five years ago after the quantum slipstream tests."
Chapman swore quietly. Black hairlines were materialising on the hull plate in front of him, the scanner building up an uncompromising image of what lay beneath. "Looks like we've got them here as well. Computer, magnify."
Microscopic fissures expanded into vast canyons, smooth metal to a landscape pockmarked like the surface of Luna. From a distance Voyager looked pristine, her seamless blend of form and function often praised by alien engineers. It was only when viewed through the cold objective gaze of his scanner that her imperfections were obvious. Stress fractures, molecular decoupling, the distinctive particle impact craters that only came from weapons fire. A history of the past decade written across her surface in wear and tear.
"At this rate we'll never make it back to the Alpha Quadrant," said Jenny. "You're the structural engineer, Will. How long do you think - another ten years before she falls to bits at warp?"
"What Voyager needs is a major overhaul at Utopia Planitia. What she gets is alien shipyards with poor quality control and incompatible systems. There's a point of diminishing returns, even with replication technology." Chapman took another step. He was picking up something else, the familiar deformation pattern from a multiphasic tractor beam. A legacy of their fatal encounter with the Borg three years ago. "Still, as Seven of Nine would say, we'll adapt."
"And how was Seven?" Jenny chimed in immediately.
Chapman mentally kicked himself right off the hull.
"You should know Jenny," said Ga'nur Bren. "Or was that your sister?"
"Or was that you AND your sister?" asked Soolan.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Jenny, her tone the epitome of innocence. "But I know Seven went to Will's quarters after she took Harry to Sickbay. Maybe she wanted those broad handsome shoulders to cry on."
"I've never seen her cry," muttered Tabor. "The Borg slut."
Tabor's prejudice seemed anachronistic to Chapman. He knew there'd been a time in human history when women were ostracised for having too many sexual partners. Maybe Bajorans were more traditional in that regard. "What happened is none of your business," he snapped. "Let's concentrate on the job, shall we?"
Silence was his only answer, but he could sense their amusement over the comm channel. Memories of last week's pleasure were never far from the surface, now they returned once again. The skilled application of Seven's body to his own. Her sapphire eyes that shone with their own light when amused: 'Shall we dance, Lieutenant? I promise I'll not damage you this time.'
She was simply correcting a mistake, Chapman knew, their disastrous first date was an imperfection that could not be tolerated. He could have refused: it wasn't the Borg's promiscuity that alienated the crew, it was the way Seven went from one partner to another without forming an emotional connection, using them like some kind of holodeck program. But despite his poor record with women he'd fooled himself that he could get through to her. Or perhaps he'd been lying to himself; maybe his motives had been more primal, as base as hers.
But he'd heard her cry.
At night when he was half-asleep, exhausted from their exertions, he had heard Seven crying. He knew without asking that it was over what Harry Kim had said in the messhall. He'd rolled over to comfort her, but in her tear-soaked eyes there was none of the light he'd seen earlier. Instead there was a complete absence of emotion, something chilling and inhuman. The face of the Eater of Souls.
And Chapman knew that she'd shut him off, like all the others.
khesterex thath! that's what this stupid mission has been right from the start...need a fully-equipped away team and six months to explore, catalog and salvage this borg bowling ball, instead there's two of us and an eight hour window...38 minutes 10 seconds behind schedule already thank you miss perfection i AM aware of the time...that borg hasn't changed much probably fucks by numbers too not that i wouldn't mind finding out, wrestling that strong body to the ground and forcing her surrender that'd be something...she smells of warm blood and cool metal, not dead and cold like this place, like this gagny locking clamp it's frozen solid, try warming it with the laser-bore...lowest setting dummy! kahless that was close nearly burnt the whole thing to crisp, a neural energy matrix a rare prize indeed...slowly now, don't want the thermal stress to crack it...
The clamp broke free with a sharp snap and they lifted the matrix off its support rod, sliding it carefully inside a thermoplastic bag. Seven sprayed the delicate unit with white foam that hardened in seconds, protecting the contents from shock or cross-contamination. The bag was sealed and tagged, placed on a pile with the others.
They'd been at it for well over three hours now, working against time and the restrictions the Captain had lain down. Nothing that could have a temporal or weapons application: which meant no biogenic cloning vats, multiphasic beam emitters or chronoton field conduits. Limited time and space ruled out the massive regeneration facilities, matter-to-energy converters, or the complete transwarp drive. Much of the biotech had decayed; other items such as shield generators or nanofactories were obsolete, replaced by new adaptations.
B'Elanna wiped perspiration from her forehead ridges, then unsealed her jumpsuit. "I'm going to look at my thermal regulators when I get back. First I'm freezing, now I'm drowning in sweat." She uncapped her water bottle, raised it to her lips and shook it. A couple of drops came out. "Argh! Must have drunk ten litres already."
Seven passed over her own bottle. "One of us will have to beam over to the flyer and replicate more water. We're running low on protective foam as well." She knelt to check the synchronisation of the pattern enhancers. "The two of us are insufficient for this task."
"I know. Those bastards on the Liaison Daki are probably hoping we'll break our necks under all this gear."
"You are not Borg," said Seven. "Why should they desire your death as well?"
"I was assimilated four years ago: the Unimatrix Zero thing, remember? I haven't got a soul any more, by their reckoning. Probably think they're doing me a favour." She massaged the scar tissue above her left ear.
"Are you all right?" asked Seven, noticing the gesture.
"Yeah. I've been having some headaches, that's all. I'm fine."
"You should have the Doctor examine you when we return."
"I'm fine, Seven."
"You suffered a high velocity traumatic impact to your skull__"
"I SAID I'M__" B'Elanna grit her teeth, controlling her temper with a visible effort. "Look, let's get on with it shall we? We're already behind schedule." She smacked the combadge on her chest. "B'Elanna to Tom Paris. How's our transporter signal?"
There was a microsecond pause while the flyer's Artificial Sentience Program came on line. "Annular confinement integrity at 98.7%. All systems at optimal levels. Anti-contaminant protocols activated."
"Alright, beam them over."
"Do you blame me for Tom's death?" Seven asked quietly, as the salvaged components dematerialised.
"No," said B'Elanna, regretting having snapped at her. She was far too edgy in this cursed Borg charnel house. "Tom would have risked his life for any of us, you know that."
Seven didn't reply. B'Elanna found herself considering irrelevant things: the delicate lines of the Borg's neck, the unsubtle curves beneath her jumpsuit, that scent brushing against the edge of her senses, teasing... "Look, Harry can be a petaQ at times."
"Harry is a petaQ all the time," said Seven, tapping her combadge. "Seven to Tom Paris. Command Delta Three Epsilon."
A black cylindrical object materialised within the triangle formed by the pattern enhancers. Over five metres long, its carbonite hull was pitted from years of micrometeorite impacts and vacuum ablation. Letters in fresh red paint spelt out DANGER: ANTI-MATTER CONTAINMENT HAZARD in four languages. Voyager had been running advanced courses in spatial clearance for several months now. This subspace inversion mine was supposed to have been disarmed by Harry Kim to use as a training aid, but somehow ended up floating in deep space along their flight path, a code-activated transponder attached to its hull.
B'Elanna took an isolinear spanner from her kit and disconnected the magnaseals. Together they lifted off the inspection hatch, exposing gleaming silver and gold components, stamped with lettering and numerical codes in the R'larri Forbidden Language.
let's seeeeee what have we got here? sensor grid, reaction drive, anti-matter confinement chamber, countermeasures pod...bloody thing's a spaceship not a spatial mine...anti-tampering device deactivated, sensor grid and propulsion systems deactivated...pain in the ass, done all this on the trip here but no harm in being thorough...the morons that populate this system don't even comprehend the idea of failsafe engineering...harry's got to be nuts, volunteering to disarm these fucking things, man's got a death wish...alright, open detonator housing...
The detonator housing slid back with a faint click and B'Elanna inserted the remote activator. The Federation device had been wrapped in a custom-made sleeve so it could interface with R'larri technology. It ran through a series of compatibility checks, exchanging data with the mine's processor.
something's wrong, can't access the program for the magnetic interlocks all gibberish...oh bugger! forgot to load the translation protocols how COULD i have been so dumb? not concentrating that's the problem, can't focus, those blue eyes framed in silver, that borg's got the same hot looks and easy sexuality that tom had...subsection beta algorithm, loading arming subroutines and since when have i been interested in women anyway? yintagh! enough anti-matter here to tear a hole in the fabric of space and all you can think about is sex...but dammit it's like she's radiating pheromones or something__
"You have made an error."
"I can see that Seven. I'm fixing it now."
"You're loading the arming subroutines before magnetic integrity has been confirmed!" exclaimed Seven, disbelief at this stupidity evident in her tone and suddenly B'Elanna was furious with this rude, arrogant, perfection-obsessed Borg whose idea of exploring their humanity was to fuck half of Voyager! Why she'd even contemplated screwing__
"I have had twenty-three lovers in the past eighteen months," Seven replied coldly. "That is nowhere near half of Voyager's compliment. How many lovers have you had in your lifetime, Lieutenant Commander Torres?"
what the...oh shit did i say that out loud? what the hell's the matter with me can't think straight, want to hit her, to run or fight or fuck and would you believe it she's taking out her TRICORDER activating the field medical subroutines and talking in that superior condescending tone that always manages to PISS ME OFF!
"B'Elanna, you have been showing signs of a fever. I believe it is affecting your ability to__"
B'Elanna slapped the tricorder out of her hand. It hit the wall and ricocheted into a vertical shaft, falling to the bottom in echoing clangs.
They stared at each other for a long moment, B'Elanna's nostrils flaring as she sucked in the stale air, hands trembling from the adrenaline rush.
"Go get the sensor nodes, Ensign."
"Our orders are to stay together."
"I'm giving you another order."
Seven grabbed her backpack and stormed off. B'Elanna stared after her, until the sound of her boots on the grating had faded.
With the light from Seven's beacon gone, the darkness pressed in a little closer.
Over-Scholar Eem-hontu-sa reached up to adjust the ocularscope she usually wore in the laboratory, before realising it wasn't there. Flustered, she pretended to scratch her primary crest saying, "Computer, magnify two thousand please." She'd been working with this Federation technology for three months now, but it still took some getting used to.
The holographic simulation exploded into her face like a star gone nova, cells as large as Husii disks shooting past, pursued by enormous black nanoprobes. Eem-hontu-sa flinched as one of the technological monsters reached down with arachnoid legs to assimilate her. She took a judicious step backwards. The R'larri cybernist was tall for her species, almost three metres high with delicate avian features. She wore a conservative tube skirt and dark green vest, cut away at the rear to accommodate her vestigial wingstumps. Each garment was lined with what appeared to be intricate decoration, but was actually the history of her people in centuries-old code. Her bird-like appearance was enhanced by her cybernetic talons, each covered in fine mesh gloves of tactile fibre. The originals had been severed ten years ago by an extremist faction of the R'larri Cultural Defence Force.
Eem-hontu-sa whistled through her serrated beak, the universal translator converting the sound into a human-like clearing of the throat. "If I may have your attention?"
There were over a hundred people crammed into the holodeck, mostly visiting scientists or cybertechs with a scattering of Voyager personnel. There was a general shuffling, limbs moved to circulate the blood or signify attention.
"As the Doctor demonstrated most aptly in his simulation, Borg nanotechnology of previous generations could be excised through a combination of micro-surgery and neural suppressants," said Eem-hontu-sa. "We are now going to rerun that simulation using the nanoprobes removed from Lieutenant Kim. If our host would care to do the honours..."
"Certainly," said the Doctor. "Computer, run program CMH Seven Two Beta."
To the exuberant strains of Vivaldi's 'The Hunt', Borg nanoprobes swarmed after their prey, pursuing them through a sea of crimson body fluids. With vampiric ruthlessness they latched onto blood cells, rewriting their DNA in mere fractions of a second.
"What is that horrible noise?" asked Over-Scholar Polorta. A genetic engineer from the minority T'mani species, he was humanoid with translucent skin and grey membranous strands in place of hair.
"I believe it is the Doctor's latest weapon against the Borg," answered Icheb with deadpan seriousness. Polorta gave a loud hoot of amusement.
"And now," said Eem-hontu-sa, giving him a disapproving look. "Enter the defenders."
The antinanites were lean, bullet-shaped robots propelled by tiny microscopic engines. They began smashing into the nanoprobes, forcing them to adapt by generating armour. The antinanites assisted them, adding their own layers, creating an impenetrable cocoon which sealed the nanoprobes completely. When the survivors tried to co-operate the antinanites altered their signature to match the Borg probes, linked with and assimilated them, converting them to their cause. It went on like that for several minutes: attack and defence, each countermeasure turned against itself. A war in infinitesimal proportions.
"Normally the nanoprobes would have the advantage," said Eem-hontu-sa, unconsciously shielding her throat with a claw. "However each of the antinanites is generating its own dampening field. This disrupts the link the nanoprobes need to work collectively. As the antinanites are programmed to operate as individual units, they have the advantage. But now..."
Cells were turning black and dying, or mutating into perverse simulacrums, moving on to infect others. White cells appeared, the body's natural defense mechanism, but they too were poisoned, others converted.
"Realising they are isolated and near defeat, the nanoprobes create synthetic pathogens throughout the host body. The host faces death or permanent injury. Immediate radical surgery is the only viable option."
"Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest," muttered Polorta.
RiN-sep lifted himself off his seat and waddled to the front of the group. He was short and stocky, with a long narrow head that hung down over his bony thorax. Unlike other Menti Naka cybernists he disdained the usual talisman collar, wrapping his neck in a simple scarf, dyed red in mourning for those killed in the Blood Death. "Thank you Over-Scholar, a most telling demonstration. As I'm sure you all realise, this latest adaptation represents a significant change in Borg ideology. Previously the Collective regarded destruction as irrelevant, a mere by-product of their relentless course towards perfection. But after their disastrous invasion of fluidic space, and the efforts of our Federation allies to create a so-called Borg resistance movement, we are now seeing more aggressive, militant behaviour patterns."
"For instance, several past attempts to study the Borg at close quarters were successful because they ignored individuals until they posed a direct threat. Now the Borg move instantly to isolate and destroy any trespasser on board their vessels."
Radiating white heat from its edges, the panel toppled into the abyss of the central chamber. The tumbling bright outline fell in silence for long seconds before the crash of impact.
Seven of Nine sprayed coolant around the hole, then stepped through it onto the induction rail. A mere ten centimetres wide, the maglev was used to transport components within the plexus dampening field. Lights from still-active power units gleamed a hundred metres below, like stars in the infinity of space.
She took her time answering. "Yes, Commander Torres?"
"I am busy. Do you require assistance?"
Seven made no reply. Apologies were irrelevant.
"Don't be mad at me."
"I am not angry." It was true. The cortical inhibitor was an efficient device, her fear of plunging into the depths below abstract, like an intriguing intellectual puzzle. She moved along the rail like a tightrope walker, one foot in front of the other, keeping perfect balance.
"You've turned on your inhibitor, haven't you?"
"Yes." When she reached the point above her target Seven sank into a crouch, slowly turning away from the chamber, shifting her centre of gravity. Seizing the rail with both hands she kicked off with her toes, swinging beneath, capturing the twisted remains of a stanchion between her boots. Leaning forward, the Borg reached out and grabbed a dangling conduit, pulling herself in.
"Turn it off...please. I need to talk."
She was in the sensor grid plexus, its four surfaces lined with nitrium alloy to protect the data nodes. Some years before a bearing had collapsed and sheared off the access walkway. An entire wall had gone with it, exposing the plexus to the vast chamber behind her.
Seven thought about ignoring the request, but she remembered all too well Harry's sneering face in the messhall. 'Do you have a daily prescription, or do you just switch it on whenever you have the urge?'
Her inhibitor deactivated and emotions came flooding back into her mind: pain, anger, loneliness, frustration, powerful feelings tearing at the muscles of her heart. The urge to flee once more into drone-like oblivion was overwhelming. She'd regarded B'Elanna as a friend, she'd thought they'd gotten past the petty squabbling that marked their first years on Voyager, but it was clear what the Klingon hybrid really thought of her...
"I'm sorry. It's been so long. I miss him."
Severed from the Collective, regarded with suspicion and fear by the others, it was Tom who'd made the first overtures of friendship. Seven had been the last one to see him alive.
"Yes, so do I."
There were only five viable data nodes. Seven moved to free them, using her phaser on narrow beam to cut through the locking clamps. Time was running short so she didn't bother with individual bagging and tagging; she just shoved the nodes into her backpack and sprayed foam inside. For years they'd been mindlessly storing information, erasing the old when it became irrelevant. Somehow they symbolised everything the Collective stood for.
Unbidden, the memory leaped to mind: Icheb quoting Shelley to the Liaison Daki.
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Seven had always been aware of the Collective's presence throughout space. She understood the vastness of their realm like no human ever could. But it was only now, in this vessel with its rows of skeletons in their obsolete alcoves, this system filled with ancient legends and superstitions, that she had a sense of their presence through time. Centuries of conquest and assimilation, the remorseless acquisition of biological and technological cannon fodder. Looking out into the central chamber she could see over fifty different species, rank upon rank, like terracotta soldiers of a long-dead emperor. How many worlds had been destroyed, cultures wiped from existence, species scattered throughout the galaxy, prevented from ever reaching their potential? Probably not even the Borg Queen bothered to count them all. And where was the higher order, the perfection in this monolithical existence? Did the Borg even know what perfection was, where they were supposed to be going?
With sudden awareness Seven realised she was seeing not the past but the future. That one day the universe would be full of the silent floating mausoleums of her people. The Borg, believing without question that they were improving themselves, were slowly and inevitably stagnating, grinding to an evolutionary halt. The Collective might exist for thousands of years, might succeed in assimilating Voyager, humanity, the entire galaxy even. But it would all end like this.
It was then that she heard the noise.
For a microsecond Seven thought it was settling debris, an object she'd disturbed earlier coming to rest. The sound was faint - without her enhanced senses she wouldn't have heard it. Someone was moving on the level above.
"Commander Torres, state your location."
There was no response.
"B'Elanna, where are you?"
The platform where she had left B'Elanna looked microscopic in the vastness of the central chamber. Seven switched to her ocular implant, the cortical processor bleeding in sight from her organic eye for depth perception and colour matching. She could see the pattern enhancers, scattered tools, the subspace inversion mine...something was lying behind it. Seven clicked up the magnification, enhanced the image. A crumpled grey form, lifeless and still.
'Fear is irrelevant,' Seven told herself.
There was only one exit from the plexus, the way she'd come in.
Without hesitation Seven leapt into the abyss, fingers grasping for the rail. The implants in her left hand struck the metal with a CLANG!, the sound reverberating throughout the chamber. Using her great strength she pulled herself up, hooking over an elbow, then a leg, rolling her body on top of the induction conduit...
The intruder was crouched on the rail two metres away, watching her.
Seven's first thought was that she was hallucinating.
B'Elanna was completely naked, shivering in the subzero temperature. Her feet were bloody, the flesh stripped by the frozen metal. Oblivious to the peril she was in, B'Elanna stared at the Borg, pupils so wide they seemed to fill her eyes. An irrelevant thought struck Seven - Chakotay's tales of shapeshifters, people who could take on animal form.
Moving very slowly so as not to startle her, the Borg sat up on the rail. "B'Elanna, do you understand me?"
There was something shiny clasped in B'Elanna's fist. A combadge, bloody from where the pointed ends were cutting into the skin. Seven felt her heart skip a beat. She reached across her chest, pressing fingertips against her own communicator.
"Seven to Tom Paris," she whispered. "Lock onto our comm signals. Emergency bea__NO!" she shouted as the combadge dropped from B'Elanna's hand, vanishing into the depths below.
"Please repeat your transmission."
"Lock onto my combadge. Adjust the annular confinement beam for two persons, activate the transporter on my signal."
B'Elanna lifted her injured palm to her face, licked the blood. "jIH dok." A soft growl, quiet as a whisper.
She looked up at Seven, her face expectant as if waiting for a response.
Seven took a deep breath, then pulled off a glove with her teeth and let it fall. She reached out for B'Elanna, gripping the rail tightly with her other hand.
"B'Elanna, take my hand."
B'Elanna took hold of Seven's hand and sniffed the palm. Her lips pulled back in a sharp exhalation of delight.
The Borg smiled. "That's it. I'm Seven of Nine, your friend." Her touch was so hot it seemed to burn. That made no sense; B'Elanna's body temperature should be__
Her bloody feet slipped on the rail and B'Elanna plunged over the side, yanking Seven after her. A sickening crack then incredible pain in Seven's shoulder and the overwhelming urge to vomit. She was holding them both by a single hand above the chasm, agony now as B'Elanna clutched screaming at her useless limb. Her cries were nowhere near human, high-pitched like an animal in distress.
Seven's right hand was numb - she couldn't grip with it. She could feel B'Elanna's palms slipping over her flesh.
She did the only thing possible.
"SEVEN TO PARIS, EMERGENCY BEAM-OUT!"
Then Seven let go of the rail.
"The artist had an amazing eye for detail," said the Doctor. "Especially considering the circumstances. It's likely the individual concerned got quite near to the drone." The C/MH moved closer to the holographic enlargement. "Note the detail in the ocular implant, right down to these lines here, which I believe represent some kind of thermal imager."
"Brave, whoever they were," said Harry Kim. They'd discovered it during their shore leave on the Other World (or Teldar Ves as their R'larri guide insisted on calling it). He'd claimed the painting was over fifty thousand years old. Daubed on the rock face in faded pigments amongst the great plain stalkers, fiery winged gods and hunters slaying long-extinct beasts was the figure of a solitary Borg drone, staring back at them over the millennia.
"It's different somehow, the exoskeleton."
"That's because it's not a complete exoskeleton as we know it. It's clothing."
"What?" Harry leaned forwards. His biosynthetic arm automatically changed position to keep his balance.
"Look here," said the Doctor. "The line around the neck where the skin meets the collar. That tactical armour is clipped over the top as well, with these black seals. It's clearly designed to be removed. I think the undergarment has a similar function to the dermaplastic biosuit Seven used to wear. It's designed to regenerate the skin around the exit points for the cybergrafts, plus some built-in environmental regulation and waste synthesis." His voice grew excited. "We could be looking at a very early stage in the Borg's evolution!"
"Then how did it get out here?" asked Harry. "They didn't have transwarp in those days, surely. We're a long way from the origins of Borg space."
"We don't know anything about the origins of the Borg," pointed out the Doctor. "Maybe they were exiles, or explorers. A militant group in search of the perfect society. Or perhaps they sent out long-term scouts throughout the Quadrant, like the Dominion Founders. The early Borg could have been quite peaceful in that regard. Assimilation might even have been voluntary, a chance for a person to become part of something greater."
Harry stared at the painting. Despite its differences the artist had captured one thing that clearly hadn't changed - that blank drone expression. None of the excitement or apprehension you might expect from an early explorer, the joy of discovering and interacting with strange new worlds, cultures and lifeforms.
"Somehow I doubt it."
"Culhane to the Doctor."
The Doctor's head came up. "Yes Ensign?"
"I have a priority subspace communication from the Tom Paris. Patching through to you now, sir."
"Seven of Nine to Sickbay. Medical emergency."
The Doctor and Harry were at the comm panel in less than a second.
"I'm here," said the Doctor, his expert eye taking in Seven's pale features, the distinctive way she was cradling her arm. "You've disrupted your gleno-humeral interface!"
"My injuries are irrelevant," Seven replied curtly. "Over the past few hours Commander Torres has been acting in an increasingly irrational manner. According to my scans her neurochemistry has become unstable. I am detecting unusual brainwave activity and excessive amounts of adrenaline in her circulatory system. The tricorder readings are being downloaded as we speak."
Harry tensed. "She might have picked up a Borg nanovirus__"
"No! It was the first thing I checked!" snapped Seven, adding a belated, "Sir."
"That's impossible," muttered the Doctor, as his diagnostic protocols analysed the readings. "Seven, you must return to Voyager at once!"
Seven used her left hand to enter the requisite commands. Only when the course had been laid in and engaged did she ask, "Why?"
"I believe Commander Torres is suffering from the plak tow."
"Your diagnosis is flawed. The blood fever only affects Vulcans."
"It's a long story. When Vorik last went through the pon farr he formed a telepathic mating bond with B'Elanna. She began to exhibit the same symptoms. It is the only explanation for what's happening now."
"But that was seven years ago!" said Harry. "It shouldn't be happening again. We made sure there was no contact between her and Vorik this time!"
The Doctor frowned. "There must be a subconscious command implanted as part of telepathic bond, like the link a Vulcan child forms with his arranged bride. It's working as a biological clock. B'Elanna is going through a seven year mating cycle just like a Vulcan would."
"What are the possible consequences to B'Elanna?" asked Seven.
"I don't know. Vulcans have been known to die during the pon farr. You must get her back here as soon as possible."
"Our warp core has been deactivated. It will take four hours, perhaps more."
"That may be too late."
"Then Voyager must come to our assistance."
"That might not be possible," said Harry. "We're stuck between two hostile battlefleets here. If we go shooting off at maximum warp in an unexpected direction..."
"In that case she must be treated. I will use a hormonal suppressant."
"It won't work," said the Doctor. "It's like trying to put out a firestorm with an airponics sprinkler."
"Then sedation with triptacederine."
"Too risky. She could slip into a coma and die."
"That won't work either! The pon farr is psychological as well as biological. We've had some success with holographic partners but even that's uncertain."
Seven and the Doctor glared at each other. They were both perfectionists. Neither of them was used to being without options. "Then how was it treated seven years ago?"
"The blood fever is purged in three ways. Intense meditation, ritual combat, mating with the chosen partner. B'Elanna fought Vorik."
"That would not be advisable for us," was Seven's dry response. "My ability to throw a right hook has been compromised."
"I'll talk to the captain," said Harry. "Maybe if we inform the factions we've got a medical emergency...but they may not believe us, or care."
"Keep me informed. Seven of Nine out," she said, cutting the link before the Doctor could start harping on about her injured shoulder. Out of sight of her colleagues, the Borg let her head slump.
"What did the Doctor want?" asked B'Elanna, her voice faint. There was a bed in the aft compartment but Seven had tilted back one of the crew seats instead. The half-Klingon was wrapped in a thermal blanket, strapped in by thick safety belts.
"He says you are suffering from the Vulcan blood fever. How much do you remember?"
"The pon farr?"
"Then I need to see Tom. Where is he?"
Seven stared at her in horror.
"He is...on board Voyager. They are coming for us."
B'Elanna's head rolled to one side. Red and green tricorder lights reflected off the subtle curves of her forehead ridges. "Tell him to hurry."
Seven waited until her breathing had gone shallow before saying, "Computer, give me a view of the Borg vessel. Maximum magnification."
A circular shadow against the greater darkness of space. This far from the sun, the sphere was barely visible.
"Confirm the remote activator signal." There was no way to be sure if B'Elanna had finished arming the mine, not without returning to the vessel. But her instructions had been clear. After the first successful salvage the Menti Naka and R'larri would soon overcome their superstitions. There would be a scramble for Borg technology, perhaps sparking another conflict over the prize.
"Activator signal confirmed," announced the AS program. "We are thirty seconds from minimum recommended safe dist__"
Her finger stabbed down on the touchscreen with unnecessary force.
The photosensitive viewscreen went dark as a blinding flash eclipsed the radiance of a sun, ripping the sphere apart and hurtling the radioactive fragments across space. Then suddenly the explosion appeared to reverse itself as every particle of matter in a million kilometres tried to push through a tiny hole in subspace.
The flyer began to shudder, its engines screaming in impotent fury as it was hauled back into the inversion. Clenching her teeth, Seven advanced the impulse drive to maximum, ignoring the structural integrity warnings the computer was blaring at her.
If the fabric of space was weak in this area, or if there'd been imperfections in the construction of the mine, the inversion would turn into ever-widening subspace splinters radiating out from its omega point. Should one of them touch the flyer they would (if they were lucky) be dead before they knew it. If not, they'd be trapped in a subspace limbo for the rest of eternity.
The kubii trees had been shedding for the past three days, their kite-analogue flowers released to drift over the blast crater where New LiH-tos nestled, raining down an incessant stream of pollen. Seven and B'Elanna had given up trying to brush it off, so they along with everyone else was dusted in a carpet of bright yellow. Most of the crowd were using breathing masks, decorated with metal face pieces hammered into the distinctive scalloped architecture of Borg implants. For once Seven didn't stand out, for which she was glad. There'd been problems earlier in the day when they'd visited the Menti Naka temple. But here she was anonymous, just another drone amongst thousands. They held hands so as not to be separated in the crush, not knowing where they were going, just letting themselves be drawn along. Traders worked both sides of the street, their round stalls like an endless line of open clams. Spectators sat on the hardshell roofs, feet dangling off the edge so it looked as if all the merchants were specialising in footware. T'mani, R'larri, and Menti Naka mixed together in a haphazard fashion, drinking and talking and hooting as they watched the parade. It was hard to believe they'd been slaughtering each other with genocidal intensity a mere twelve years ago.
B'Elanna was chewing on a jo fruit, juice running down her chin and staining the front of her shirt. Even as dusk approached it was still quite warm, the heat generated by the mass of surrounding bodies. She'd taken off her Maquis jacket and tied the arms around her waist; it bobbed behind her like a large leather tail. Seven was dressed as scantily as R'larri law would allow - a blue T'mani overcloth, slit to expose her leg implants. It was risky, yet there was a streak of stubbornness (or perhaps arrogance, Seven admitted) that made her refuse to hide her Borg heritage.
"Anyone you know?" shouted B'Elanna, grinning as she pointed back over her shoulder.
An enormous stone monolith on rollers was emerging from a side street. The head of a Borg drone, implants erupting from its mouth, forcing the teeth apart in a silent scream. It was hauled by Menti Naka priests marching in lockstep, their eyes fixed ahead in blank stares. Small children scampered round the juggernaut shouting, "Resistance is futile! Resistance is futile!" Seven turned away, starting as she found herself face-to-face with a group of Borg drones. Cybernetic limbs made of plastic and woven jo-stalk were brandished before her eyes. "You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!"
Seven pushed past them, mouth taut, hauling B'Elanna after her. Together they squeezed by a six-wheeled armoured car with police markings. A R'larri Under-Commander was sitting on the turret hatch, one hand draped across the riot gas disperser. She wore black body armour sculpted in the shape of a Borg exoskeleton, a multi-lensed helmet adding to the effect.
Red heavier-than-air smoke rolled along the ground. A holographic image of the Aux thundered about retribution for the Blood Death. R'larri bystanders jeered, hurling jo fruits at the projector until it fizzed out. B'Elanna tossed the remains of her fruit into a rubbish skip, from which it was retrieved by one of the street orphans. Other children clustered around Seven, recognising her as an offworlder, not realising her implants were real.
"I have no money. Go away."
"Lighten up Seven," said B'Elanna, passing out the few coins she had left.
"Your generosity will only increase their persistence."
A child snatched the holocamera from Seven's shoulder. The Borg tried to grab him but he dropped to the ground, scrambling away between the legs of the crowd.
"You little Qa'Hom!" the half-Klingon cursed, shoving her way after him.
"Let him go, B'Elanna!" Seven followed in her wake, earning a rain of abuse from others in the parade. An annoyed T'mani tried to clobber her with a wooden Borg cube. Rockets streaked into the night sky, igniting kubii flowers in falling trails of fire. Lasers wrote political slogans across the clouds. A holoimage of Ni-par-deskt appeared, her primary crest red with anger, spitting out words like photon torpedoes.
By the time Seven reached the sidewalk the thief had been caught. A huge Menti Naka in the robes and half-mask of a religious student held the struggling youngster in a single hand. With the other he plucked the holocamera from the child's grasp and presented it to B'Elanna.
"Thank you," said B'Elanna, her chest heaving from exertion. She took the Doctor's camera and hung the strap around her neck saying, "Hey Seven, I'm out of money. Have you got a donation for this guy?"
The Menti Naka raised his equine head, smiling as he noticed the approaching ex-drone. Without changing expression he drew a pistol from beneath his robes and shot B'Elanna in the face.
To Seven, everything slowed to eternal microseconds of time. B'Elanna smashed backwards, her blood suspended in tiny droplets in the air. The assassin hurling the child aside as he turned towards her. The whine of his gauss pistol recharging; no time for fear as he pulled the trigger again.
It was a T'mani bystander who caught the bullet. Stepping from between the stallshells where he'd been urinating, his organs turned black as he crumpled like paper. That moment was all Seven needed. In less than a second she'd closed the distance, crushing the assassin's wrist in her cybernetic hand. He opened his mouth in a high scream, clawing at Seven's eyes. She deflected him with a Tanyk Defence and drove a hammer fist at the vulnerable forelobe. His eyes rolled up and he fell to the ground stunned.
In the edge of her vision Seven saw a canister tumbling through the air. She threw herself down where B'Elanna should be, hitting solid pavement instead as the world exploded in plasma fire. A wave of intense heat washed over her, drifting kubii bursting into flame and scorching her clothes. She scrambled along the curb, the harsh stone scraping her knees and elbows through the thin overcloth, angry over her decision to wear such an inefficient garment. Everyone was screaming now, ululating cries as they fled in all directions. Seven had a brief glimpse of B'Elanna stumbling ahead of her, a hand clutched to the side of her face. Stallshells began slamming shut, spilling those on their roofs onto the street. Seven lost sight of her partner in the chaos.
The armoured car was trying to move down the street but the massive Borg head blocked its path. Disrupter fire lit the air, a beam streaking past Seven's ear. She rolled beneath the foundation of a stallshell, hitting the combadge on her chest. "Seven to Voyager! Emergency, two to beam up!"
The only answer was a static-garbled chirp. Inches from her face, the pavement turned black as an energy beam scorched it.
For a brief, terrifying moment Seven felt tight bands clamping down on her muscles, her whole body held rigid in place, staked out for sacrifice. Then her cortical inhibitor activated - it was like she was standing apart from that person shaking in fear beneath the stallshell. Tactical analysis programs went primary, sucking in data from her enhanced senses and converting it to colourless datastreams flowing through her mind. There was a surge of incredible power as nanoprobes superoxygenated her blood. In seconds she'd formed a plan of action and carried it out, hurtling from cover faster than any sprinter, aiming at a steel gate ajar ten metres away.
It was the loading dock of a slaughterhouse, the ground flecked with dried blood. The walls were tipped in laser fencing, the doors chained shut. Seven realised too late that she'd walked into a trap.
From the street behind stepped a half-masked Menti Naka, his eyes bright with hatred, ancient robes incongruous with his ultra-modern disrupter. A lasersight beam flickered towards Seven, reflecting off the drifting pollen. "TiH-nan guides the hand that will crush the Eater of Souls."
B'Elanna charged through the gate, the gauss pistol clasped in her bloody fist. Without slowing she emptied it into the assassin, his disrupter tumbling from lifeless fingers. Seven snatched it up and together they ran across the courtyard to the loading dock. Seven didn't bother with subtlety, blasting apart a chain and sending the door flying back on its hinges with a powerful kick. She felt her arm seized in a vice-like grip and then they where charging past long racks hung with bloody carcasses, workers gaping in astonishment. An aproned Menti Naka with a cutting laser stepped into their path. B'Elanna didn't give him the benefit of the doubt, smashing him to the ground with her empty pistol and leaping over the body.
The front door was sealed by monotanium bolts. Seven adjusted the disrupter and burned a hole in the wall, scrambling through before it had even cooled.
They'd come out in the next street. Nearby merchants, veterans of war and civil strife, were closing up at the sound of the disturbance, their stallshells crashing shut like snapping jaws. Menti Naka street children were throwing stones at a R'larri armoured car. A police flyer screamed overhead, spraying a cloud of inhibitor toxins. Seven pulled B'Elanna into an alcove. She hit her combadge again. "Seven of Nine to Voyager. Respond!"
"Dampening field," muttered B'Elanna, her voice slurred as if drunk. Blood covered the side of her head and she was swaying on her feet. Her eyes were unfocussed, one pupil larger than the other. Seven reached out a hand to hold her steady. "Voyager, remodulate your signal! Two to beam up, now!"
A scream on the thin edge of audibility erupted from the armoured car. The street children bent over in agony, clutching their ears and soiling themselves. Seven felt a wave of nausea ripple through her body, then everything sounded as if through water as her cortical processor stabilised her inner ears. B'Elann
Title: Part Two
Title: The Flux of Mortal Things
Fandom: Star Trek Voyager
Rated: NC-17. Drama/Angst/Romance.
Summary: A decade in the Delta Quadrant has taken a heavy toll of both Voyager and its crew. When a crisis arises during a salvage operation on a derelict Borg vessel, Seven and B'Elanna are forced to confront their own attitudes and losses.
Warning: This story contains angst, violence, coarse language, and explicit lesbian sex.
Disclaimer: No profit is intended in the writing of this story. Star Trek Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount (a Viacom company).
Feedback is required for sustenance, so please email me. Archiving is welcome, but please try and contact me first. Thanks to Lyrastar, AP Stacey and Michael for their help with particular terms, and Meagan for her beta work.
THE FLUX OF MORTAL THINGS (Part Two)
"There were hundreds of them at the university, always demonstrating and making fine speeches about 'Equality Between Species' and 'Living in Mutual Friendship' - so many slogans. They protested against how the T'mani Planetur was profiting from 'The Cycle of Inter-Species Hostility', and the politicians would accuse them of being usserborg, of wanting to assimilate everyone into a vast collective. Maybe they were right." Polorta tipped up his bottle, draining the last few drops. "And they held 'Cross-Cultural Exchange Festivals', which were usually just an excuse for us to get drunk."
Chakotay smiled. "Sounds like a good idea to me." The captain didn't take his eyes off the viewscreen on his ready room desk. It showed a tiny blue triangle, representing the Tom Paris, threading its way through a confusing mosaic of coloured symbols and formless blobs. Even that image was a gross oversimplification. Astrometrics was tracking the course of almost a million objects that might conceivably threaten the flyer, from military patrols to smuggler flights to rogue chunks of debris. Chakotay noted with wry amusement that they hadn't had to order a change of course yet, even though the flyer had been on autopilot for over four hours. Seven of Nine was showing her usual efficiency.
Every few seconds the image would flicker as Voyager's sensors remodulated. Solar flare activity, the Aux had claimed. Menti Naka e-warships were flooding the electromagnetic spectrum, trying to send the flyer off course into a minefield. Fortunately their jamming technology was inferior to Federation inertial navigation systems.
Polorta frowned at the bottle of synthahol in his hand. "This stuff is no good. It doesn't get you drunk!" He placed the empty bottle on its side, muttering, "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest."
"That's why we drink it," said Chakotay, popping the cap on another bottle with his thumb. He slid it across the table toward the T'mani.
"Argh! You Federation lot are worse than the R'larri. No fun at all. Do you think they're all right?"
"I hope so. Those two are very special to me. B'Elanna and I were comrades-in-arms even before Voyager. Seven of Nine is...a former lover. And I kind of took personal responsibility for her from our previous captain."
"I don't know many who would attempt to de-assimilate a drone that's been in the Collective that long. She was an exceptional being, your Captain Janeway."
Chakotay shifted his gaze to the geneticist. ''Was', not 'is'. Why do I keep fooling myself?'
Polorta grinned. "Perhaps not as exceptional as a man who would take an ex-drone to bed with him. I don't know anyone on my planet who's done that!"
"Yes, we once spent two and a half hours working on a single position. She insisted on perfection."
Polorta hooted in amusement and took a hefty swig. Chakotay had long stopped being repulsed by the sight of the liquid moving down the alien's digestive tube. Unlike most elderly T'mani, Polorta's skin was still translucent. Chakotay couldn't help wondering if he'd been doing some gene resequencing on himself.
"Do you know the Borg might be the only corporeal species that can comprehend the vastness of space?" said Polorta. "We scientists claim to do so, but if an individual were to truly grasp such an incredible distance in all three dimensions they would go mad. Like numbers. Half a billion deaths for instance. You can talk about it, make dramatic speeches, conduct computer simulations. But to really understand the destruction of so many individuals, all of them believing they were the most important person in the universe, with all their years of life, goals, lovers, families, friends..."
He raised the synthahol bottle and gulped the entire contents in one go, the empty vessel placed on its side like the others. "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest."
Chakotay stretched back in his seat, his joints cracking. "That's your last one. Guests have a limited replicator allowance, especially after your friend RiN-sep created a thirty piece divan in the messhall."
"It wasn't a divan, it was a Culde set! We used to play the game at Cross-Cultural Exchange Festivals. At least I think it was Culde. We were rather drunk at the time." He stood up and moved to the replicator. "One more. I've never had alcohol that doesn't give you a hangover before. You should share the secret of this gift with my people, Captain!"
"Violation of the Prime Directive."
Chakotay blinked, then realised the universal translator had interpreted the epithet too literally. "Why do you keep saying that?"
"No. 'Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest'."
"We'd say it at drinking parties at the university. They harvest jo fruits in a single night, tens of thousands of them, so the challenge was to get as many bottles as possible lying down by the dawn." A fresh bottle materialised and he brought it back to the table. "Of course, the students often ended up throwing them at the police when they came to break us up." Polorta dropped into the chair again with a solid thud.
"I was at one of those drinking parties when it happened. We'd just gotten started. I remember I was talking to a Menti Naka student called YoR-im. My best friend, except during the annual Husii tournament of course, was Re-welta-dos. He was an Over-Scholar, very unusual for a R'larri male even in that enlightened city. The day before Ni-par-deskt had delivered the ultimatum calling for all Menti Naka to leave the planet. It sounded like the usual propaganda, but we were teasing YoR-im that she'd have to do her course by correspondence, when all the red blood cells in her body exploded." He took another swig from the bottle.
On the viewscreen, the blue triangle moved a fraction closer to Voyager.
"In seconds every Menti Naka in the room was in a death-coma, like a laser-scalpel removing tumors. The bioweapon had been infiltrating them for years, you see. Those students thought that by intermingling they would eliminate specism, that you couldn't harm one without harming the other. But they were proved wrong. Yes, very wrong."
Chakotay said nothing, aware that Polorta wasn't even talking to him now, more to himself.
"With a quarter million corpses lying about there was a great risk of disease, and the R'larri feared that the Aux would retaliate by destroying the city, so we all fled, a great column of us. TiH-nan knows where we were heading, or how we were going to feed ourselves. The greatest minds on the planet acting like Borg drones, doing what everyone else was doing. They were waiting for us on the tollroad." His pale eyes were looking straight through Chakotay, as if he were the one translucent. "They divided us up, T'mani from R'larri, and made us sit on the road while they marched the R'larri out into the jo-stalk fields. It was harvest time you see. The jo fruits were ready to be cut. They use an automated laser; they can do that because every gene-sequenced stalk grows to exactly five and twenty joints. They lined the R'larri in rows, like the jo-stalks, and made each one hold up a leaf as if they were a plant. Then they sliced off their heads with the harvest lasers. Have you ever seen a hundred thousand people decapitated at once, Captain Chakotay?"
"Not that many."
"Ahh yes. But the problem is a R'larri is not a jo-stalk. Not everyone in that field was fortunate enough to be five and twenty joints high, especially the children. You see, the R'larri secondary nervous system is set lower than the main brain, so you can have the top of your head cut off and still be alive, in a fashion. I watched children stumbling about that field, alive yet dead, for five hours until they let us go."
Chakotay wasn't listening. A red triangle was moving on an intercept course towards the Tom Paris. His combadge chirped. "Delaney to the Captain."
"I saw it Jenny. All hands, Red Alert!"
"Of course Re-welta-dos, being a R'larri male, was also shorter than the others. I recognised him from those silly yellow shoes he always wore."
Polorta watched Chakotay rush out the door, alarms blaring as they had twelve years ago as his students died. The T'mani placed the empty bottle on its side, saying, "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest."
Seven had been unprepared for the intensity of the past few hours. She was not used to a partner who could match her on a physical level, one who insisted with equal ferocity on an emotional bonding she was reluctant to give. The Borg knew her decision to leave the inhibitor in place had the aspect of cowardice, but the thought of being emotionally dependent on another individual had always been terrifying to her. The inhibitor had become a crutch to survive the loss of Captain Janeway, then later to avoid the possibility of commitment to one of her lovers.
Her last argument on the subject had taken place in Sickbay, over the unconscious form of Lieutenant Kim. Excessively curious as always, the Doctor had wanted to know why Harry had been struck in the face, though it had no possible relevance to his medical condition. Her revelation of Harry's comments prior to his injury had given the Doctor another excuse to bring up her continuing refusal to have the cortical inhibitor removed.
"You said the procedure is dangerous," she'd shot right back. "I see no long-term benefits, except perhaps for yourself."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"I am not ignorant of your feelings towards me."
The Doctor had spluttered like a faulty plasma injector. "I'm simply trying to assist your development as an individual!"
"I said I was willing to engage in an intimate relationship. You refused." Seven could not stop a hint of pique from entering her voice. She did not like being rejected; it implied some inadequacy on her part.
"I refused to be a field notation in your ongoing research into your own sexuality. 'Experiment no. 12B. Sex with the Sentient Hologram: A Case Study.' No thank you. I'm a doctor, not a petri dish." The C/MH had shut his tricorder with a distinctly annoyed snap. "No sign of concussion, though he'll have a few bruises. But there's far too much kelotane in his system. He's been exceeding his dosage again."
"I have engaged in numerous intimate affairs, both with crewmembers and outsiders. The possession of strong emotions has proven unnecessary and irrelevant, even dangerous."
"Dangerous? That cortical inhibitor is like an unexploded bomb inside your head! You nearly died the first time it activated. It's designed to shut down your primary functions. It's meant to kill you Seven, if you were ever severed from the hive mind long enough to develop your own emotions!"
"Then the inhibitor was flawed. I was able to adapt its effects. It has made me more efficient by serving as a cap on my emotions. Only the more extreme ones are filtered."
"You can't explore love with a safety net! If there's one thing I've taught you over the years, is that life has got to be lived. You've got to take risks, Seven. Do things that frighten you."
Harry had groaned on the table then, providing a welcome distraction.
"There are times I think this entire crew is bent on suicide," the Doctor had muttered, running a thrombic modulator over Harry's forehead. "I've got a captain who's placing us in the firing line of three mutually hostile species, a helmsman trying to live up to the reputation of Mr Paris, Lieutenant Kim here volunteering for mine-clearing duties, and my best friend bringing a whole new definition to the term 'unsafe sex'."
That had been the night she'd seduced Lieutenant Chapman. She'd used the cortical inhibitor then too, in the lonely desolation of the early hours. Seven remembered well the look of rejection on Chapman's face when he'd realised. There'd been a note in her perscom file the next day, a quote from Shakespeare.
They that have power to hurt, and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity;
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
She hadn't known Chapman was the poetic type.
B'Elanna stirred, turning to look at her. Seven saw confusion on her face, no doubt wondering why they were lying naked in each other's arms on the floor.
"How do you feel?" asked Seven.
"We made love."
Seven buried her face in B'Elanna's hair, feeling an urge to drift there forever, to avoid the outside world with its responsibilities and pain. There were matters that had to be attended to, but she didn't want to face them.
Order beckoned via the inhibitor, a return to the passionless simplicity of the Collective.
A sudden memory of those ranks of Borg skeletons put an end to that thought.
"I'm hungry," said B'Elanna.
Seven broke open an emergency pack, passing the bars of concentrate to B'Elanna who wolfed them down. Despite her hunger she stopped halfway through each bar and offered it to Seven, who always took a small bite.
"I'm hungry," said B'Elanna again.
Seven picked up another ration bar but B'Elanna pushed it away, leaning towards her. "Hungry."
"Yes," replied B'Elanna huskily, pressing her lips against Seven's.
"Voyager to Tom Paris!" They both jumped as the signal blared across the cabin, B'Elanna's hands clenching into a painful grip. "We're picking up a R'larri CDF frigate closing on you fast!"
"Vessel approaching, bearing One Nine Zero Mark Three," said the Artificial Sentience Program. "Vessel is locking on with target acquisition sensors. Unimatrix shielding activated."
The flyer lurched as a tractor beam latched on, autonomous safety protocols kicking in the inertial dampers and matching vectors with their captor.
"Thank you for the timely warning," muttered Seven. She kissed B'Elanna hard, then slid into the pilot seat, wincing from her sore body. "Hail them."
The face of a R'larri Over-Commander appeared on the commscreen. "I am Kre-nat-fhensa of the__ WHAT INSULT IS THIS?" she screeched, her crest turning red at the edges.
Seven frowned in puzzlement...then realised she was completely naked.
"I fail to see the point in dressing for someone as unimportant as you," replied Seven. "This is the Federation vessel Tom Paris, registration NCC 74656-C. We are in undisputed space on an authorised flight vector. You will release your tractor beam at once."
"I do not take orders from you, soulless drone!" The R'larri covered her left eye with her fist, a finger sticking out like an ocular implant. "What purpose do you have in this region of space? Are you acting on behalf of the Menti Naka? Answer me now, or must you consult your Collective first?"
"Our mission has been approved by the Liaison Daki. Release this vessel or face the reprimand of your superiors!"
"I shiver with fear," scoffed the Over-Commander. "What will the Daki do, talk me into oblivion? It is all they are good for. I believe you are on a mission of espionage. You will lower your defensive shield so my soldiers can inspect your vessel."
"We have just returned from the derelict sphere orbiting Teldar NiPi," said Seven, "and have salvaged a number of Borg artifacts. If you wish I can beam the artifacts onto your vessel so you can examine them more closely."
The Over-Commander gave a loud squawk and clutched at her throat. The comm link was abruptly severed. A few seconds later the tractor beam followed.
The Borg swiveled in her seat, frowning as she took in the mess littering the flyer. Crumpled thermal blankets, tubes of lubricant, water bottles, a dermal regenerator. B'Elanna sat cross-legged on the floor, devouring the contents of the ration pack.
"Computer, restart engines and open a channel to Voyager." Seven began picking her way through the debris, making for the containment locker where she'd stashed her backpack.
"Chakotay to Tom Paris, is everything all right?"
"Captain, we will be within transporter range in eleven minutes. Beam Commander Torres and myself directly to Sickbay. Lock on a tractor beam and bring in the flyer on automatic. Institute full anti-contamination procedures." Clutching the backpack to her chest, she sat down next to B'Elanna, not bothering with her clothes.
"Is there a problem?"
"Seven of Nine out," said the Borg, grabbing the last ration bar before B'Elanna could get it.
Harry Kim intercepted Chakotay on his way to the turbolift. "What's this about Seven flashing a Third Rank Over-Commander?" he asked, a grin on his face.
An odd thought occurred to the captain, that this was the first genuine smile he'd seen from Harry in a long time. "The R'larri Cultural Defence Force has put in an official complaint. They claim Seven threatened to assimilate one of their vessels. There was something about 'an alien perversion' too, but I didn't want to ask."
"That's our Borg, diplomatic as ever. Speaking of which, the Menti Naka are insisting on their traditional right to bear arms before their enemies. I came up with a compromise. We provide them with replicated firearms that look like the real thing, but don't work."
"Hell no! That's just the excuse the R'larri delegation need to walk out again."
"They say we're leaving them 'emasculated'. I don't think you understand the cultural__"
"No, I don't think you understand. No weapons, Harry!" The turbolift doors opened and Chakotay stepped inside. "Deck Five."
Anger flared in the lieutenant's dark eyes. "I spent three days negotiating with those bastards!"
"No weapons!" said Chakotay as the doors closed.
The lift provided a temporary illusion of sanctuary. Chakotay closed his eyes against the flashing level indicators, trying to focus himself, to let the tension of the past few hours drain away. One thing he hadn't missed from his years in Starfleet was the constant diplomatic maneuvering with hostile alien species. The arguments over trivial matters of protocol, the constant resurfacing of old hatreds, the tendency to regard every concession as a weakness.
'Now there's a real arrogance,' Chakotay thought. That 'We've learned to live together, why can't they?' attitude which Federation ambassadors who'd never had to survive under Cardassian occupation were infamous for.
The turbolift doors slid apart and he strode down the corridor to Sickbay. There was a security officer outside, as per his instructions. Chakotay gave him an abstract nod before entering.
B'Elanna Torres lay unconscious on a biobed. Seven stood beside her, a hand resting on the half-Klingon's shoulder. They were both naked, although Seven lacked her usual immaculate appearance. Chakotay resisted the urge to stare at the bite mark on her cheek, even though he knew the ex-drone was seldom embarrassed when it came to sexual matters.
"All right Seven, what was all that about?"
Seven indicated her backpack which sat in a biostasis field. "It contains Borg data nodes. A site-to-site transport was required to get it pass the inspection teams. I will explain in my report."
"It can wait. What are their injuries, Doctor?"
"Take your pick. Dehydration, bruises, bites, lacerations, strains, sprains, hairline fractures, radial clamp stress__"
"Klingon love-making is rather vigorous," said Seven, glaring at the Doctor.
"I can imagine. Commander Torres has passed out from nervous exhaustion. Seven needs to regenerate for at least twelve hours."
"I am fine. I must remain with B'Elanna until the effects of the pon farr dissipate."
"There's a security officer on the door," Chakotay pointed out. "I don't want a repeat of what happened on Sikari IV."
"That is not necessary, Captain. I merely require the portable regenerator from my alcove."
Chakotay flicked a glance at the Doctor.
"I don't see any problems," said the C/MH.
"All right then. But twelve hours, that's an order. I want you both at peak efficiency tomorrow. We've got another meeting with the Liaison Daki."
The Doctor raised his eyebrows. "I thought they weren't talking to each other."
"Oh they'll come now we've got our hands on Borg technology. They can't risk us passing it along to one of the other species." He stepped forward, placing a hand on B'Elanna's upper arm, his fingers brushing against Seven's.
"How do you feel?"
Chakotay gave a wry smile.
She didn't pull away, even thought it had been a long time since he'd touched the Borg in any fashion. Seeing her like this, love bites marring her perfect features, stirred old memories: of Seven's body beneath his, slim yet incredibly strong; her eyes filled with child-like wonder and newly discovered passions. Eager yet fearful of the pleasures he could provide, shameless and demanding in her own needs. Deep inside Chakotay felt the stirrings of a long-repressed hunger and slammed an iron clamp on his thoughts. The captain and the ensign stepped apart, the usual masks dropping over their faces.
"We were not able to complete our mission," said Seven, annoyed at the implied inefficiency.
"You've brought in a good haul despite everything. Transwarp coils, data nodes, an energy matrix - that should give the scientists something to play with. At least they're willing to put aside their differences. I'm hoping to set up a kind of research exchange. I'd also like to try recruiting some crew for Voyager, maybe half a dozen from each species."
Seven and the Doctor looked surprised. "They'll never see their homeworlds again," said the Borg.
"One way or the other," muttered the Doctor.
"We need to make up our losses," said Chakotay. "And it'll be an important symbol for these people - the three species, joining together for a journey into the unknown. There's bound to be some who are willing. To explore, the spirit of adventure. It's why we joined Starfleet, isn't it?"
"Speak for yourself," said the Doctor snootily. "Some of us had no choice in the matter."
"B'Elanna never cries." Tom had said that the first time he died.
It wasn't exactly true, but a lifetime of loss had indeed drained most of her tears. She could count the passage of her life in funerals like this one, in the spaces where friends and family had once stood. B'Elanna felt no sorrow anyway, just a great emptiness where her heart was supposed to be. She knew that Tom would have taken her heart with him when he died, as a trophy he'd won after long struggle. But if she went to Sto-Vo-Kor instead of Tom's afterlife, she would never find her heart again.
Chakotay was standing before them saying all the expected things. Perhaps he would let her borrow a shuttle, to go search for her heart.
"We've lost not only our captain and one of our best officers, but two good friends as well. We can't bury them, and there's not been much time to mourn. But the one memorial I know would have true meaning to both would be the rest of us getting home safely__"
None of the crew were listening of course, they just stood there with dead eyes as jagged implants of stone forced their teeth apart into silent screams. Rank upon rank in commemoration of an ancient apocalypse. The two women walked between the massive statues, climbing to the summit, the Menti Naka children who'd come to beg fleeing at the sight of the former Borg drone.
The statues ended in a vast atrium, a hundred metres a side, surrounding an open sarcophagus. Offerings from a more recent holocaust were stacked in great piles - thousands of R'larri skulls, many with the cranium sliced off. Flowering vines had sprouted amongst sun-whitened bone, elegant blooms of yellow and red through empty eye sockets and exposed brainpans. Seven studied them with detached curiosity, taking a picture with the Doctor's holocamera.
'Those Klingon poets are right,' thought B'Elanna. 'There is a tranquil beauty in death.'
From between the statues came the Menti Naka priest, his robes flowing around sandaled feet. An armoured collar encircled his neck - a somewhat ineffective talisman against Borg assimilation tubules. He was fat, well fed unlike the scraggly orphans he shooed from his path.
"The body of Queen TiH-nan, a distant ancestor of the current Aux," said the priest to Seven of Nine. He seemed amused by the presence of a demon in this holy place. "She watched over the Menti Naka during our long journey to this Other World."
"She was one of you, an ordinary individual," said Seven. "Yet you worship her as a divinity. Explain."
The priest radiated with the superiority of one who is all-knowing, yet perfectly willing to enlighten the ignorant. "When the guidance and inspiration of a great leader transcends even their death, are they not truly immortal?" He extended his hand towards the open coffin. "You can see for yourself."
B'Elanna approached the sarcophagus with caution. A shrivelled corpse lay inside, its teeth bared in a rictus of death. The Queen's auburn hair had become one with her desiccated flesh, melded into the neck with its four pips and Starfleet uniform. B'Elanna stumbled back in horror, struck out at the smooth metal imprisoning her chest. The clamshell slid back into the biobed, releasing her.
B'Elanna had woken in Sickbay enough times to know instantly where she was, even without the Doctor's artwork painted across the ceiling. The only difference was Seven of Nine's distinctive scent. The Borg lay on the next biobed, a portable regenerator plugged into her spine. B'Elanna found herself wrestling with an urge to curl up next to her.
"Activate Command/Medical Hologram," she whispered.
The Doctor materialised, a tuft of hair sticking up from his head. "Please state the__"
"Keep your voice down!" B'Elanna hissed.
The Doctor looked around, saw only Seven asleep on the biobed. "She's regenerating. She can't hear us." He picked up a tricorder and began to scan the Klingon hybrid's body.
B'Elanna slapped his hand away. "Where are my clothes?"
The Doctor pointed silently at a closet. As B'Elanna dressed he resumed his scan. "Your serotonin levels have returned to normal, but I recommend a few more hours of observation to__"
B'Elanna strode to the door, stopping abruptly when it refused to open.
"It's locked," said the Doctor.
"Computer, override security lock-out on Sickbay doors. Authorisation Torres Gamma Ten."
"And the captain's removed your command access privileges."
Grabbing a laser scalpel, B'Elanna popped open the access panel.
"And there's a security officer outside, with orders to stun you if you open it before 0600 hours tomorrow."
She turned and hurled the panel at the Doctor's head. The hologram winced as it passed through him, shattering to pieces against the wall.
B'Elanna's energy was drained by her brief outburst of temper. She slumped against the doors, sliding down until she was on the floor.
"Stuck in a room with Captain Photon and 'Bonk Me' of Borg," she moaned. "What have I done to deserve this?"
"I'm sorry if our company offends you," said the Doctor in a miffed tone. "The captain wants everyone fresh and alert for tomorrow's meeting of the Liaison Daki, so I advise you get some sleep."
The Doctor was surprised at the question. "He appears to be recovering. Some minor injuries but__"
"What kind of injuries?"
"I can't discuss that."
"Was he in pain?"
"Well I'm sure he__"
"Was he in terrible, agonising pain with lots of gratuitous humiliation thrown in for good measure?"
The Doctor sighed. "You'll be pleased to know he had a grueling experience, and like all Vulcans will suffer horrible nightmares throughout his life."
"Good." She frowned at the Doctor in the dim light of the monitors. "What's wrong with your hair?"
"An addition I made to my program," he said, beaming proudly, "for when I'm activated in the middle of the night shift. It's called a 'bedhead'. Do you like it?"
"Oh Kahless," said B'Elanna, rolling her eyes. "I'm in hell."
"Well it wouldn't be the first time," the Doctor quipped. "Get some sleep...please. Deactivate Command/Medical Hologram."
But B'Elanna didn't move, sitting with her knees hugged to her chest, staring at Seven.
Four years earlier, when she'd been assimilated in Janeway's ill-fated plan to create a Borg resistance movement, there'd been a brief terrifying moment before the neural suppressant kicked in. B'Elanna had felt herself losing to the hive mind, shrunk in a millisecond to a photon falling into a black hole. Yet at that same moment her mind had stretched to encompass thousands of light years, she'd bathed in the song of billions of voices, she'd understood the reasons for Seven's pride and fear and loneliness and her desperate need to connect, and when the suppressor had yanked her back to individuality B'Elanna had cried for the first time since she'd been a child.
She never wanted to experience anything like that ever again. But once more her personality had been ripped away, by the lust of the pon farr. Drowning in someone else's katra. It was like being raped.
"Leave my soul alone," B'Elanna whispered to the sleeping Borg.
Security Chief Ayala added another padd to the growing pile on the table. "Our local representative of the Menti Naka secret police has made several attempts to subvert members of our crew, but he's not finding it easy. His Under-Commander, on the other hand, is a little different. He was quite interested in the, err, recreational possibilities of the holodeck. In exchange I got a peek at this little item."
Chakotay stiffened in his chair. "These are Voyager's shield harmonics."
"For the past eighteen days. And we've been rotating them as a matter of routine. Either the Menti Naka have got advanced scanning technology we don't know about, or TeS-ket has been more successful than we thought."
"I can't believe he's managed to turn one of our people! There must be another explanation."
"There is," said Lieutenant Kim. "They could be tapping into Voyager's computer. They've had months to smuggle the required programs on board and work out how to infiltrate our systems."
"Need I remind you," said Commander Tuvok, "that our main processor is protected by Starfleet shieldware and special security algorithms developed by Seven of Nine."
"There's currently a dozen cryptologists specialising in Borg algorithms on board," said Harry. "Not to mention quite a few cybernists with the skill to adapt nanoprobes for espionage purposes."
"One of the scientists is doing it?" exclaimed the Doctor. He'd changed his appearance for the briefing, giving himself a red-shouldered command uniform bare of insignia. "They're the ones who invited us here in the first place!"
"It is only logical to assume that the secret police have infiltrated the peace faction," said Tuvok.
"Harry, I want a Level One diagnostic of Voyager's systems starting right now," said Chakotay. "Ayala, I want TeS-ket off this ship. I don't care what excuse you make up. I'm getting tired of his games."
"Tell him he's caught a Borg infiltration virus," said Harry, giving his usual replicated smile. "That'll give him a few sleepless nights."
Tuvok remained in his seat while the others left. "Captain, there is a matter of some importance I must discuss."
Chakotay was speed-reading his way through a padd. "Can it wait, Tuvok? The meeting's in five minutes and I'm trying to assimilate as much of this as I can."
The Vulcan shifted in his seat, an involuntary reaction so unusual Chakotay looked up in surprise. "Are you all right?"
"The matter can wait till after the meeting, Captain. I take it that is Seven's mission report?"
"Not quite. It's information we retrieved from the sphere's data nodes. Apparently the sensors were active these past seventy years, gathering data from across this entire system. Movements of battle fleets, defensive grid analysis, decrypted messages. Information of immense strategic and propaganda value to any of the three species. Seven thought this was one item the Liaison Daki shouldn't get hold of." Chakotay frowned as a particular item caught his attention. "At least, not unless we want them to."
Tuvok's expression didn't change, but the reprimand in his voice was clear enough. "You intend to use the information to buy concessions at the peace conference."
"Or as a bit of persuasion. I'm sure the T'mani wouldn't want the Menti Naka to find out who really developed those bioweapons." The item was a decrypted message from the R'larri Cultural Defence Force, a list of T'mani geneticists involved in a joint 'biological harvesting project' twelve years ago. One of the names, Chakotay noticed, was 'Over-Scholar Resen Polorta'.
Tuvok spoke concisely, so there would be no misunderstanding. "That could well constitute a breach of the Prime Directive, and is definitely a violation of Starfleet morality."
"As if that's never happened on this ship. You know Tuvok, for someone who's over a hundred years old you're awfully naive."
Tuvok stiffened. "I fail to see the logic in that answer. What does my so-called 'naivete' have to do with Starfleet's guiding protocol?"
"I've studied the history of Starfleet, the real history, not the glossy version they teach at the Academy. You served with Captain Sulu. He ever tell you about the stunts the great James Kirk got up to?"
"Captain Sulu did not share any confidences with me."
"Well I once shared confidences with a retired admiral by the name of Leonard McCoy. He was Ship's Surgeon on board the Enterprise in Kirk's day. And you wouldn't believe the times Kirk blatantly interfered in a society he didn't approve of. He's a hero now of course, because his methods worked and made the Alpha Quadrant safe for the Federation."
"You can always find a reason not to obey the Prime Directive," replied Tuvok. "The dictates of circumstance, the safety of your crew, the arrogant assumption that you know better than an alien species whose culture and motivations you can only scratch the surface of. Perhaps your experience with the Maquis has made you too cynical in this matter, Captain. I will be noting this conversation in my next datastream report to Starfleet. You can make your decisions regarding the data nodes accordingly."
The Vulcan rose and walked out, the doors hissing shut behind him.
Chakotay rubbed his eyes. It was moments like these he missed someone he could share a confidence with, someone like Kathryn. He'd never established the rapport with Tuvok that ought to exist between captain and first officer. He'd drifted apart from his former Maquis crewmates, thanks to the hierarchical nature of Voyager's command system. His brief liaison with Seven of Nine hadn't come to anything. They'd both taken it as far as it could go, then broken off by mutual agreement.
The captain pulled himself to his feet. Now for the meeting with the Liaison Daki. He wasn't looking forward to it.
"There was the land, on which walked the T'mani, and the sky, through which the R'larri flew, until we descended to the ground, taking up the tools with which to shape the land. For thousands of years R'larri and T'mani shared the world in harmony. Then the Menti Naka came, their arkships burning the sky. With the aid of treacherous members of our race, those content to serve as their drones for whatever petty trappings of power they were given, this gang of thieves, the derelict trash of a justly extinct planet, conquered our peaceful world. Entire cities were ground into mountains of rubble on which they raised idolatrous temples to the stinking corpses of their ancestors. Libraries and museums were burnt so our history could only be taught in secret. Our children were forbidden to speak their language, forced instead to vomit the guttural Menti Naka tongue. Our males were torn from their positions of contentment and service, polluted with alien ideas__"
"They are petty crawling things, Captain Chakotay, whose wings have long since wilted. So useless the Borg did not even want them as drones." The Aux clasped his throat in mockery. "The Menti Naka can evolve into gods, whereas the R'larri worship whatever flies over their head. So what difference does it make if they bow down to us or their Great Roasted Bird?"
Ni-par-deskt spat out an obscenity so obscure the universal translator couldn't decipher it. "The Winged Falayarr of the Sun, you corpse-worshiping eH-ytiII-trIhn! Every day your foul-smelling queen rots in our Falayarr's heat. When she has been scorched to dust then so will your entire parasitic race!"
The exo-linguist switched over, a tinny voice in Chakotay's ear comm. "I think that was 'Spirit Stealers' who devour the essence of the living, leaving them like zombies. Probably another Borg myth."
"Ask this peace-loving race about the half billion Menti Naka cut down by their cowardly bioweapons__" The Aux broke off as the doors slid open and Seven of Nine entered, carrying a Borg transwarp coil.
"Defensive postures, all delegates," said the exo-linguist.
No matter how tense things were in the conference room, it never failed to crank up a notch whenever Seven was present. Tuvok had argued against having the former drone at the negotiations, but Chakotay knew it kept everyone focused. Their hatred and fear of the Borg was the one thing all three species had in common. Besides, she was a living reminder of Voyager's successful resistance against the Collective. If that made the delegates slightly nervous of Voyager too, so much the better. There were some tricks of negotiation they never taught you at Starfleet Academy.
Seven placed the ring-shaped drive unit on the table, then sat down opposite B'Elanna. She tried to catch her eye, but the half-Klingon avoided her gaze.
"As you know by now," said Chakotay, taking advantage of the rare silence to put a word in edgeways, "our away team was able to salvage numerous items of Borg technology from the derelict sphere at Teldar NiPi. This is a component from the transwarp drive. We also retrieved several data nodes, autonomous regeneration sequencers, interlink processors and the central core of a fully adaptive neural-energy matrix. A full list is available from your inspection teams."
Chakotay paused to drink from the glass of water in front of him.
"We were quite lucky, as it turns out. A day later and there wouldn't have been anything left to salvage. It appears that a rogue subspace inversion mine detected the Borg vessel. Fortunately our long-range sensors picked up the approaching object, so our team was able to evacuate in time."
"How very fortunate," said the Aux dryly.
"You blew it up!" screeched Ni-par-deskt. "You didn't want us getting our hands on it!"
"The Aux seems amused rather than upset. Ni-par-deskt isn't as angry as she's making out either; she's probably glad the Borg vessel isn't around any more."
Chakotay felt a twinge of annoyance. Crewman Chirac was supposed to assist the universal translator and interpret alien body language, not extrapolate from it. "Over-Leader, your security personnel inspected the flyer both before and after the mission. The warp core and armaments were removed as per this committee's instructions. All artifacts recovered from the Borg sphere have been cataloged by a team of scientists from all three species."
"But your crew beamed to Voyager before the flyer landed," said Desihret, the T'mani internal security minister and actual (if not official) ruler of the Planetur. "That is a violation of our agreement!"
"Lieutenant Commander Torres and Ensign Seven of Nine required emergency medical care which, I should point out, wouldn't have been necessary if you had all given Voyager permission to pass through your space."
All nine delegates glared at him.
"Your scientists have proposed the establishment of an inter-species research group to study the Borg threat," continued Chakotay. "These artifacts, plus all the information Starfleet has gathered over the years, will give them a major head start."
Ni-par-deskt jumped in then, as he knew she would. "And where will this 'research group' be located? Which region will have the honour of its presence?" The R'larri politician looked ready to debate this issue for the next decade, but Chakotay wasn't going to give her the chance.
"It doesn't have to be located in any one place. Our latest subspace transmission and holographic imaging technology will allow instantaneous communication and practical experimentation between your universities, even those located in the outer system." He saw the look of surprise, quickly masked, from B'Elanna and Seven.
If Tuvok felt any shock at this blatant violation of Starfleet protocol, it didn't show on his face. "What Over-Scholar Eem-hontu-sa and her colleagues are suggesting is merely an extension of the co-operation that already exists between your species. You trade with each other, your officials interact to solve legal and financial issues. You already have joint agricultural, environmental and re-building programs. All necessary because you share the same system."
"We're talking about a common alliance against an outside threat," said Chakotay. "Not out of friendship, I realise that's too much to expect, but of that same necessity. And while we're on the subject, I think it's a good time to start joint defence exercises with your battlefleets."
The suggestion created hoots of disbelief among the various military Over-Commanders.
"We've already had such exercises," said Desihret. "They're called wars."
"Perhaps you will wait until the Collective arrives before working together," said Seven. "Your disharmony will prove your undoing."
"Spoken like a true drone," scoffed the Aux. He placed a fist over his left eye, the little finger pointing out.
"Not sure what that means, but I think it's supposed to be pretty damn insulting," said Chirac.
Chakotay flashed Seven a warning glance which she ignored. "Your petty squabbles are irrelevant! The Borg will come. You will be assimilated unless you form an adequate defence. Adapt to this situation or you will cease to exist as a species."
There was a moment of shocked silence around the table, then the Daki exploded with rage.
"Captain Chakotay, this abomination is to be removed from our presence immediately!" screeched Ni-par-deskt. "I will not continue these discussions otherwise!"
"We will not be insulted like this!" shouted Desihret, pounding the table with his fists. "The Planetur reiterates our demand that this drone be handed over for trial!"
"I second the motion," said the Aux, his mouth twisting into what Chirac didn't have to tell Chakotay was a sneer. "Perhaps we will find common ground after all."
"Supported!" said Ni-par-deskt. "A joint trial by all three species will unite them and achieve the result you seek, Captain Chakotay."
"Just try it, petaQ!" hissed B'Elanna, with a venom that startled the others.
Chakotay's face was impassive, letting their outrage wash over him, dissipating with nothing to hurl against.
"Ensign Seven of Nine, there's a group of R'larri and Menti Naka scientists on Holodeck One trying to puzzle out that neural-energy matrix. Go help them." A subtle reminder there were some people staying focused on the issues wouldn't hurt.
Seven left without another word.
Without thinking B'Elanna stood up to follow the Borg, only to be restrained by Tuvok's hand on her arm. She looked at him in surprise. The Vulcan was staring straight ahead, not meeting her eyes. B'Elanna's face flushed red. Shaking off his grip, she pretended to be engrossed in her padd.
Tuvok exited the turbolift at Deck Nine, in time to witness Chakotay shoving Seven against the bulkhead. "Pull another stunt like that and I'll bust you down to Borg drone! I can do without your superior attitude, both in the conference room and outside it! What we're doing here could save the lives of billions, do you understand that Ensign?"
Seven's face was pale, but she didn't back down. "Perhaps it is you who is arrogant, Captain. You overestimate our ability to influence these people__" She stopped, noticing Tuvok.
Chakotay let go of her, embarrassed over his loss of control. The two stepped apart as if reluctant to be seen together in any fashion.
"We'll talk about this later," muttered Chakotay.
Seven watched him go, her eyes narrowed, then made for the turbolift. Tuvok waited until the turbolift doors had closed before pressing the entry chime.
"I said go away!"
"It is Commander Tuvok. We need to talk."
There was no immediate response. Tuvok was debating whether to use his command access codes when the doors slid open, revealing B'Elanna dressed in a nightgown. Her eyes were red-rimmed through lack of sleep. She checked the corridor, then grunted, "Come in."
B'Elanna's quarters were dark, the only light coming from the meditation lamp he'd given her two years previously. "Where is Miral?"
"I asked Samantha to look after her for a few more days. I'm not exactly myself at the moment." She inclined her head towards the door. "Guess I'm not the only one. I can't remember the last time I heard Chakotay losing his temper. That Borg's got a way of pissing everybody off."
"I had some bad news for the captain earlier," said Tuvok without elaboration.
B'Elanna picked up the Vulcan lamp and stared into its flame.
"What the hell is he playing at, Tuvok? Being asked by a peace faction to provide neutral ground for arms reduction talks is one thing. Now Chakotay wants to forge his own United Federation of Planets. Starfleet Command hasn't authorised this technology transfer, have they?"
"The captain has the authority to interpret the Prime Directive according to his own circumstances. It is not the first time we have chosen to share our technology."
"Like that fiasco with the Hirogen?" She looked up at him, shadows turning her forehead ridges into disapproving furrows. "What do you want, Tuvok? I'm not in the mood for more counseling."
"How do you feel?"
"Well I don't know," said B'Elanna. "Let's see...I made a complete mess of the away mission, nearly killed us both. For the rest of my life I'll have this urge to fuck myself to death every seven years. And I've given our resident hedonist a blueprint into all my sexual fantasies. I mean I did everything with her. Didn't hold back." B'Elanna's hands tightened around the lamp; Tuvok heard a distinct crack as the ceramic broke. "You know, Tom was reluctant to take advantage of me in that state, even though he had a hard-on fit to bust his pants. But that Borg, I'm just another notch on her alcove."
"I believe she was trying to save your life."
"Targshit! I'm going to kill Vorik for this!"
Tuvok said nothing.
Furious over his lack of response, B'Elanna shoved the meditation lamp at him. "Here, you can take this! I've had enough of Vulcans playing around with my head."
"Lieutenant Vorik is dead."
In the lamplight she could only see half his face and a single pupil, dark with emotions he would never express.
"But...the Doctor said he was alright!"
"A false recovery, similar to the one he experienced seven years ago. Earlier today Vorik relapsed into the blood fever. I attempted to...guide his condition but my mental abilities are not as they once were. The responsibility is mine."
The lamp dropped to the ground and shattered, plunging them into darkness.
Tuvok made his way to the light panel, his martial arts training letting him move with confidence in the dark. He adjusted it to half-power, turned to see B'Elanna sitting on the bed, face buried in her hands.
"You should not blame yourself, Commander. Vorik would have been the first to tell you that. He had the greatest respect for you."
"I know," she choked out. "A few months ago he...he knew his time was coming and he asked me...it brought back all those memories, of Tom and Sikari IV. I was furious with him." B'Elanna pulled her hands away, clenching them into fists. "But that's a lie. The truth was I didn't want to risk becoming close to someone again. I've heard the joining is so...intense."
"It is," said Tuvok, so quietly B'Elanna wasn't sure if she'd imagined it.
"So that's another one gone." B'Elanna gave a bitter laugh. "Vorik, Tom, Carey, Bendera, Durst, Hogan, Seska, Jetal, Kaplan, etcetera etcetera. One long line of corpses spread over forty thousand light years. Pointing our way to the Alpha Quadrant." B'Elanna rose to her feet, making a beeline for the replicator. "Synthahol. No cancel that...blood wine. Let's toast our dead comrades!"
"You need to be sober. There is another important matter we must discuss."
B'Elanna picked up the jug of blood wine, took a swig, grimaced in disgust and tipped it into the recycling chute.
"Three years ago I was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition."
"I don't want to hear it, Tuvok. Not now!"
Tuvok continued as if she hadn't spoken. "There is no cure, at least none available in the Delta Quadrant. This morning I informed Captain Chakotay that I no longer felt able to continue as his first officer. You are the logical candidate to fill the position."
"Are you crazy?" B'Elanna blurted out. She squeezed her eyes shut. "Oh shit, I'm sorry."
"Apologies are not necessary."
"So that's why you didn't take the captain's seat when Admiral Paris ordered you to."
Tuvok raised an eyebrow.
"Come on Tuvok, you can't keep something like that a secret."
"My taking command would have created a rift between Maquis and Starfleet personnel. Chakotay's appointment was only logical. But you are correct in that my future deterioration was a factor."
"And now you want two ex-Maquis running the ship? Starfleet's never going to accept that! They've already refused to share the latest weapons technology from the Dominion War."
"There were security issues involved in sending that information thousands of light years into unknown space."
"Yeah right. Look Tuvok, I've got enough problems being a mother to Miral, let alone this crew. I'm as suited to be first officer as Seven is to be a bloody counselor."
"You are the captain's friend, yet independent enough to speak your mind, and the daughter-in-law of Admiral Paris. I suspect you will make a better first officer than your predecessors." The Vulcan turned to leave.
"Haven't you been reading those reports from Chapman?" said B'Elanna angrily. "In a few years it won't make any difference. There won't be a ship for us to command - Voyager's falling apart!"
Tuvok paused at the door. "Like everyone else you insist on confusing the issue. Voyager is merely the means to an end. We will continue our journey in another vessel."
"Like what, a Borg cube?" shouted B'Elanna.
But Tuvok had already left.
"Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,"
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd
had nowhere else to go - till the antique
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur and slow, "...leave...my...soul...alone..."
to cease at last when something other died.
And silence matched the silence under snow.
There was silence among the group. Eem-hontu-sa covered her throat, then tried to conceal the superstitious gesture by massaging her neck muscles. Like the rest of them she was sitting on a piece from the replicated Culde set. The huge multi-coloured cubes were scattered throughout the messhall. RiN-sep had tried to organise a game, but it had died out due to lack of enthusiasm.
"I was only connected to the hive mind for a few hours," stated Tuvok. "But the stanza is appropriate. It was written by Dannie Abse, a poet in Earth's early twentieth century."
"It appears our beliefs are not so separate," said RiN-sep. "Do you remember anything about your assimilation, Under-Commander Torres?"
"No," B'Elanna lied. Their mission to the Borg sphere had been postponed yet again. Seven of Nine was putting the extra time to good use, sitting in a corner in earnest conversation with Will Chapman. Compliments, smiles, non-verbal enticements, jokes about their ill-fated first date - no doubt all pre-rehearsed on the holodeck and timed for effect. B'Elanna watched their interaction with distaste. Even Tom in the early years hadn't been that cold-blooded about acquiring a sexual partner.
She poked at her food, unable to muster the appetite for one of Chell's concoctions. She'd been having problems sleeping recently, tired all the time. Voyager had become permanently short-staffed and double-shifts were a matter of routine. The Doctor had proposed transmitting some Mark One EMHs from the Alpha Quadrant to make up their losses. B'Elanna had a mental image of Jeffries tubes full of bald-headed Doctors, all debating the merits of Verdi and Berlioz as they scrubbed the warp plasma conduits.
"To allow oneself to be assimilated," said a shuddering Eem-hontu-sa. "You risk losing the soul."
"Oh for TiH-nan's sake," scoffed RiN-sep. "You don't believe that superstitious beak-clacking? We're supposed to be scientists."
"She's right though," said Harry. "Losing an arm is nothing. The Doc can fix you up with another. In fact, he wants to give me a whole new body! As a good Starfleet puppy-dog I had to refuse. But my soul, I lost my soul to the Borg Queen. And I don't mean that bitch with half a body either." His dark eyes turned towards B'Elanna, confirming her suspicions. Harry's pupils had shrunk noticeably. "I mean Captain Jane-'We'll-Do-Things-The-Starfleet-Way' of Borg."
"Harry, when did you have your last shot?"
"Piss off! Why don't you tell them the truth about our noble captain, B'Elanna? There was a time when only hot black coffee used to flow through her veins. Not any more."
"Lieutenant Kim, perhaps you should return to your quarters," said Tuvok. A vein was pulsating at the Vulcan's temple.
"Was that an emotional response, Tuvok? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to commit blasphemy." Harry leapt up, grabbed his seat and slammed it down on the table, scattering plates and cutlery. Everyone jumped to their feet, cursing.
"Polorta, what's this?" asked Harry, ignoring the tirade of abuse.
"It's a Culde-nan," answered Polorta, trying to locate his glass under the enormous game piece.
"Wrong. It's a Borg cube. Children on Earth used to sing this nursery rhyme. Ring-a-ring-a-roses, a pocket full of posies. Attischu! Attischu! We all FALL DOWN! What's that from, does anyone know?" He leaned close over B'Elanna. "I'll tell you. A plague that wiped out half of Europe in our Middle Ages. The Black DEATH!"
"Harry, get out of my face before I break yours!"
"Can we change the subject?" asked Eem-hontu-sa plaintively.
"No. So why do the Menti Naka, a race driven from their planet by the Borg five hundred years ago, play a game involving great big cubes, hmm? Bad taste perhaps?"
"You should know about that, Lieutenant Kim." None of them had seen Seven approach. "I will escort you to Sickbay. You appear to have exceeded your daily prescription of kelotane."
"There's no need, Ensign. I'm sure you've got more important things to do, like polishing Janeway's coffin."
"Your efforts to incite an emotional response are futile."
"Yes, but that's 'cause you're cheating." Harry tapped his finger on Seven's ocular implant. "Do you have a daily prescription, or do you just switch it on whenever you have the urge?"
"Harry, settle down and have another drink," urged Polorta. "Tell us the story of the Doctor and his Photonic Cannon."
"Harry, stop acting like a petaQ and go with Seven!"
"Why the hell are you taking her side, B'Elanna? Tom died because of this stuck-up drone! We were always risking our lives for her, because Janeway was in love with this Borg bitch. But I notice she was quick to jump into Chakotay's bed when he became captain."
The entire messhall went dead quiet. Seven's face paled, then her ice-cold mask slammed into place.
Tuvok got to his feet. "Lieutenant Kim__"
B'Elanna stood up quickly. "It's alright, Tuvok. I'll handle this." She gripped Harry by the shoulders, saying, "Harry, we've been friends for years, so please take this in the spirit it's offered," and rammed her forehead into his face.
The next day Seven had come to visit them in the brig. B'Elanna and Harry were sitting on the floor of the cell, playing Culde with sugar cubes.
"I'm sorry," Harry muttered, unable to meet her eyes.
The Borg gave him a cold look, presented a single pink rose to B'Elanna, then walked out without saying a word.
"Seven's champion," mused Harry, as he assimilated a Culde-nan by eating it. "I think she's got you in mind for her next conquest. You better be careful, the two of you alone on the Tom Paris together."
B'Elanna snorted. "In her dreams. You know Harry, I couldn't help noticing. With all those ridge-shaped lumpy bruises on your forehead you look very Klingon."
Icheb was regenerating.
Seven could only stare at the Borg teenager, haunted by those skeletons on the derelict sphere, by the demonic statues around the Menti Naka queen. And now this row of alcoves, a mindless honour guard for their own dead leader.
She lay as if in state, green light from the alcoves washing over transparent aluminum. Biomedical units hung like robotic vultures, ever vigilant, ready to alert the Doctor of any change in the condition of Kathryn Janeway, former captain of the U.S.S. Voyager.
Only the command staff knew it was actually Borg technology keeping Janeway alive. Her body swarmed with millions of nanoprobes, stimulating brain functions, repairing necrosing tissue, trying to hold back the effects of time. It was a futile exercise. Chakotay's hope of finding some miraculous alien technology that could revive her was a ridiculous fantasy. Yet Seven and Tuvok always put off confronting him about shutting down the stasis tube. In the end, they'd been forced to admit, a Vulcan and a Borg could be as irrational as any human.
She took a cloth and began to wipe the status tube, removing handprints left by the crew. With her facial muscles relaxed Janeway seemed much older, her skin sagging against the cheekbones. There was none of the strength that supported the Borg in her first difficult years on Voyager, the smiles or scowls that created such joy, anger or contrition. There'd been a time when Seven imagined she could see her auburn hair stirring, but she no longer indulged in such foolish notions.
A tear shattered on the canopy, flowing in tiny rivulets until it was mechanically wiped up by her hand.
"I love you, Kathryn Janeway."
Seven heard the cargo bay doors slide open. She quickly wiped her eyes before turning round.
"I thought I might find you here."
"There was a time when you didn't require Chakotay's assistance to tell me to 'get lost', B'Elanna."
B'Elanna studied Janeway's dormant figure. She placed a hand on the canopy, removing it to reveal a lone pink carnation.
"It's probably just as well she's gone," said B'Elanna. "Can you imagine this ship ruled by Janeway for the next fifty-odd years? I can just see our children launching a mutiny. Hell, Miral's always practising on me."
"I heard about Vorik."
"Yeah well...I guess I owe you."
"You're welcome," replied Seven in a neutral tone.
B'Elanna's head snapped up. "What do you want, an Oath of Union?"
"That is up to you. I only know that after what happened we have two options. One: go back to disliking each other, as when we first met. The same petty arguments, the same guilt, like those fools on the Liaison Daki. Or two: accept what happened and continue as friends."
"Or three," said B'Elanna dryly. "Become pon farr buddies. Mates for life."
"We must adapt to our circumstances," said the Borg. "Perhaps you think you can avoid pain by not forming another relationship. You will fail."
"Piss off Seven! You and that fucking inhibitor, what would you know?"
"I spoke to the Doctor yesterday. I'm going to have the cortical inhibitor removed."
B'Elanna was speechless for a moment, then said bluntly, "That could kill you."
"Do you think we're alive as we are now?"
"What?" The comment annoyed B'Elanna. Seven had picked up too much metaphysical garbage while mating with Chakotay.
Seven placed both hands on the stasis tube. "Everything changed when our captain was taken from us. We've all been going through the motions. Alive, yet dead, like Captain Janeway here. Or Lieutenant Kim. Or the Borg Collective." Her blue-grey eyes drilled into the half-Klingon. "But I refuse to be a drone any