Story: The Flux of Mortal Things (chapter 2)

Authors: Odon

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Chapter 2

Title: Part Two

The Flux of Mortal Things - Part Two

Title: The Flux of Mortal Things

Author: Odon

Fandom: Star Trek Voyager

Pairing: Torres/Seven

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.


"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?'

"Very exceptional."

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."

"Ahh testicles."

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.

"What...what happened?"

"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."

"How's Vorik?"

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 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 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, ""
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

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