DISCLAIMER: No profit is intended in the writing of this story. Star Trek: Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount and Viacom.
WARNING: This story contains angst, violence, coarse language, and homosexual relationships between women.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Archiving and downloading is welcome, as long as you credit the writer. Thanks to Lyrastar, AP Stacey and Michael for their help with some particular terms, and Meagan for her beta-ing.
The Flux of Mortal Things
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'Elanna, who had no such protection, buckled at the knees and vomited onto the pavement. The armoured car accelerated down the street towards them, intakes howling in the pollen-choked air. Children scrambled to get out of the way. One wasn't fast enough, knocked flying into the gutter and lying still.
"This is Voyager. Your signal is weak but readable."
"TWO TO BEAM UP, NOW!"
And then everything turned stark white as they were pinned under the lights of the armoured car. It didn't slow down, didn't swerve, the sound of its turbine rising to a shriek as it drove straight at them. There wasn't time to run or fire, just the sheer sense of impossibility as they were occupying the same space as the hurtling multi-ton vehicle, fading to non-existence in the embrace of the transporter beam.
Seven watched B'Elanna toss and turn against her restraints, her eyelids twitching in REM sleep.
Reaching down, the Borg brushed aside the hair that had fallen across her face. The tip of an ear was missing and there was faint scar tissue the Doctor hadn't been able to regenerate. If the assassin had been using a directed energy weapon, B'Elanna would be dead. The bullet had been stopped by a remnant of cortical node casing, which the Doctor had thought too risky to remove four years ago.
Seven could only regard that as ironic. After the Unimatrix Zero mission she'd tried to convince B'Elanna, Janeway and Tuvok to retain their more useful Borg implants, citing the advantages gained in analytical processing and enhanced physiology. All three had refused even to discuss it. The Federation prejudice against artificial enhancement was irrational and deep-rooted, dating back to the Eugenics Wars. In that aspect they were no different from the superstitious aliens inhabiting this system.
"Voyager to Tom Paris."
Chakotay had appeared on the commscreen, his normally stolid face wrinkled with concern.
"Captain," said Seven, getting straight to the point. "B'Elanna's neo-cortical readings are highly erratic. You must proceed to our immediate assistance."
"That may not be possible, Seven. The Planetur keep bouncing us around various departments and the R'larri CDF won't answer our hails. The Aux thinks you've been assimilated. He's talking about blasting your flyer out of this system. You're going to have to change your approach vector to take you away from the Menti Naka battlefleet."
"Assholes!" cursed Seven, an expression she'd picked up from Lieutenant Kim - it seemed appropriate. The flyer's warp core had been removed partly to give more space, but also to satisfy the paranoid requirements of the Liaison Daki. Now they were refusing to help. "Their petty politics are irrelevant!"
"It took three weeks of negotiation to allow an impulse-powered flyer and two personnel through their sectors, let alone a fully-armed starship. Every politician and over-commander will use this as an opportunity to stick their oar in."
For a fraction of a second Seven pondered that obscure colloquialism, then dismissed it with irritation. "There is no need to put Voyager at risk. I will handle the situation."
"How on Earth do you..." An indefinable expression flickered across Chakotay's face. "I see."
"I am placing the flyer on autopilot." Seven opened the medkit and removed a hypospray, loading it with 20 milligrams of inoprovalene. "Ensure that a constant monitor is kept on the Tom Paris with long-range sensors. I will be...occupied. Seven of Nine out." She pressed the hypospray against B'Elanna's neck.
"Sir?" she asked, not bothering to hide her impatience. She hoped Captain Chakotay would not forbid her action due to some foolish human notion of propriety or jealousy.
Chakotay studied her for a long moment, then just said: "Good luck."
The commscreen blinked off.
"I have never needed 'luck' to copulate," muttered Seven. It took her ten precious minutes to recalculate the optimum flightline that would take them around the Menti Naka fleet while still avoiding top-secret military zones, suspected minefields, and the numerous radioactive debris fields left over from the war.
By the time she'd finished B'Elanna had revived, her dark eyes watching the Borg over her thermal blanket. Seven pulled the sling up over her head, wincing as she did so.
"Computer, activate autopilot and autonomous response systems." Seven slid off her boots, placing them neatly under the console. "Inform me of Level One emergencies only." She unsealed her jumpsuit, removing it with some difficulty. "Activate proximity detection. Vessels on intercept vectors and Objects-In-Course only. Audio cue, loud." The thermo-compression pad was last, peeling it off her shoulder and dumping it in the recycling chute.
Seven leaned over B'Elanna. The half-Klingon's eyes moved to her breasts but their gaze was unsteady, with none of its usual fire.
"Commander Torres, we have a problem."
"What happened to your arm?" croaked B'Elanna. Seven tucked a water bottle between her thighs and unscrewed the cap.
"That is the problem," said Seven, raising the bottle to B'Elanna's mouth. She drank avidly. "I am required to make love to you, in order to save your life. It is an activity I take great pleasure in."
"However I have damaged my shoulder. While I was able to reduce the dislocation, it is still sore." Seven pulled the bottle away. "Klingon love-making practices are quite vigorous, often involving injury. My cybernetic body would normally allow me to handle your aggressive sexuality, but I fail to see the need to injure myself further."
"What are you raving on about?" muttered B'Elanna.
"I have therefore decided to leave you bound to this seat. You will be forced to serve my needs, on my terms. It amuses me to dominate my lovers."
"What...what makes you think I want to screw you?" A tiny spark of familiar ire.
Seven smirked. In a single deft movement she ripped apart the thermal blanket, exposing B'Elanna's naked body. "My first attempts at intimate relations were on the holodeck. A controlled environment, but I was inexperienced then. Do you know the subject I chose to lose my virginity with?"
"I've no idea," B'Elanna growled. She felt drowsy, as if recovering from a heavy dose of sedatives, but there was something forcing its way through the murky haze. A deep sea predator rising to the surface, drawn by the smell of prey.
Seven leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Chakotay. That was impertinent of me, don't you think? I knew Captain Janeway was attracted to him. I wanted to find out what lay behind that attraction. And I did. He was very patient with me, very...instructive. Both on the holodeck, and in real life." Skilled hands began to massage the dusky flesh of the Klingon hybrid, measuring the sensitive regions, the involuntary responses. "I was unaware of the emotional inhibitor at the time. When I was severed from the Collective the neural pathways had been cut, but over the years they'd regenerated. I almost died." The Borg slid her hands down to the junction of B'Elanna's thighs. The ankles were strapped to the sides of the seat, leaving the legs parted, vulnerable to her attentions. "Fortunately I was able to modify the inhibitor's programming. It serves me well."
"Yeah," said B'Elanna, gritting her teeth. "You can be a drone whenever you want. Haven't left the holodeck, have you Seven?"
Seven gave a cold smile and dug her fingers into a bruise, eliciting a sharp gasp of pain. Her other hand was stroking B'Elanna's clitoris. It was larger than on human females, supposedly less sensitive. But the results were instantaneous: the pelvis bucked against the straps, soaking her hand. "You are very wet, B'Elanna. I have never had a lover as wet as you are now."
She began to work both hands in conjunction. A low growl erupted from her captive. Nostrils flared, trying to draw in the Borg's scent.
"More," gasped B'Elanna, the plea escaping before she could stop it.
"Pain and pleasure," mused Seven. "I have not yet explored that aspect of my sexuality." She stopped to lick vaginal fluid off her fingers.
"BiHnuch!" B'Elanna hissed. "Take off these straps and I'll show you some fucking pain! Let me go, that's an order!"
Seven raised an eyebrow in the manner she knew would annoy B'Elanna the most. "Do you intend to have me court-martialed, Commander? I would enjoy telling an inquiry everything we did, how we used our fingers and lips and tongues on each other, how you begged me to pleasure you again and again. And you will beg me, I will make sure of that."
She bent her head, her full lips matching perfectly the swollen folds of the half-Klingon's vulva. The Borg slipped her tongue into the drenched flesh, working with the expertise of constant practical application. B'Elanna felt an overwhelming pressure building, as if all her pent-up sexual frustration was being sucked out through her sex by Seven's insatiable mouth. Insane with lust and rage she hurled herself against her restraints, roaring incomprehensible curses until she was spent, collapsing back on the seat, her breath coming in long shuddering gasps.
Satisfied, Seven reached down and entered a code into the seat's touchpanel. The safety belts snapped apart, falling to the floor.
"Now you're ready B'Elanna." Seven's voice was thick with a hunger that surprised even herself. "Now you're ready to love me like a Klingon should."
Harry Kim screamed in agony, slamming his fist into the turbolift wall. Scorching fire was crawling up his arm; he knew if he looked he'd see the flesh turn grey and shrivelled, black lines advancing up his shoulder to assimilate his entire body. The walls spun and there was just enough time to gasp "Computer halt turbolift!" before the bile rose in his throat and he threw up all over the floor.
The purging made him feel better, slightly anyway. Trembling fingers pulled a hypospray from his pocket. With the benefit of long experience Harry activated it one-handed and pressed it against his neck muttering, "Fuck this arm and fuck the Borg and fuck Janeway too!"
His combadge chirped. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?" The hologram's voice was soft with concern.
"I'm fine, Doc. How can this arm hurt so much when it's not there anymore?" His right hand gripped the dermaplastic where flesh and bone used to be.
"Phantom pains. According to the biomonitor your Borg implants are still inert."
Harry's laugh had a bitter edge. There was an acrid taste in his mouth. "Well they've got ways of making their presence known. Ahh, get a detail to clean up turbolift Beta-Three will you?"
"I told you, genetic resequencing will put an end to this. I can clone you an entire new body."
"It's against Federation law," replied Harry mechanically, staring at the pool of vomit.
"I hardly think you're going to turn into Khan Noonien Singh! Is it any more moral to dope yourself with kelotane every day?"
"WELL GO TO HELL! IF YOU'D DONE YOUR JOB PROPERLY THIS WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED IN THE FIRST PLACE!"
A disapproving silence was his only response. Harry knew that his outburst had been unfair, but he couldn't bring himself to apologise. Tom always used to say, when talking about the shuttle accident that ruined his career, "Those whom the Gods wish to kick in the ass with fate they first poke in the eyes with arrogance." Well he was right there. He was more right than he knew.
The doors hissed open and he found himself face to face with the Aux himself. TeS-ket stood behind the warlord as usual, staring at Harry with cold eyes. "Ahh! Lieutenant Kim. I was looking for you." The Aux's nasal holes constricted at the smell. "You appear pale. Is there a problem?"
Harry gave a feeble smile. "An old war wound, sir. From Voyager's crusade against the Eater of Souls. It gives me trouble now and again. How can I help you?"
"I have heard disturbing reports from Captain Chakotay," said the Aux, putting an arm around Harry's shoulders. The lieutenant flinched as the fingers touched his amputated stump. "It appears that your...away mission?...to the Soul Eaters of the Outer World has gone disastrously wrong. Our Whisper Grid has detected a large subspace detonation in the area. One of your crew was seriously injured and the flyer has deviated from the course we agreed upon." The Aux was leading him down the corridor, just two war veterans having a friendly discussion. "We offered our assistance naturally, but your captain has refused our help. Now your away team returns, perhaps with the intention of assimilating us all. They will not respond to our hails."
"That has nothing to do with the Borg sphere, sir. One of the females on board the flyer is undergoing her mating cycle."
The Aux stopped in mid stride. "Mating...cycle?"
Harry gazed innocently at the Aux, knowing his prudish view of reproduction. "Yes sir. Our Chief Engineer is half-Klingon, a race with voracious sexual appetites." He leaned close. "An old friend of mine, Tom Paris? He made the mistake of bedding her once, and well, I don't like to go into details but...he died."
"I see!" said the Aux in alarm. "Are the rest of us males in any danger?"
"Not at all sir. The Borg Seven of Nine is handling the situation."
"Well if she doesn't survive it won't be any loss," said the Aux. He threw back his long narrow head and gave a raucous hoot of laughter. TeS-ket joined in with sycophantic earnest.
As usual Harry's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "No. I guess it won't be, sir."
She was an excellent mate, a skilled lover, strong, arrogant, demanding submission. It was exciting, she responded to the challenge with vigor. Battles were lost and won over a field of flesh, victories counted in ecstatic cries and the torrid throes of pleasure. Long moments of truce, when all they did was listen to each other's heartbeat. Time had ceased its linear course; there was only now, these sweaty couplings and whispered secrets haunted by memories of a sterile technological hell barren of her lover's presence. Fearful of losing everything she pursued, tracked her scent across the unfamiliar deserts of an alien world, forced surrender, demanded tribute and eternal allegiance, a pledge of love everlasting.
"I cannot feel love." There was fear in Seven's eyes.
B'Elanna held the Borg tightly, realising they were completely alone, a tiny bubble in a vast emptiness of blackness, silence, and death.
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