The cavern is long and dark. Inside it are sounds -- the sound of a whisper never spoken, the sound of a promise never made, the sound of a tree falling unheard. The only sights are darkness and shadows of deeper darkness.
A very old man stands in the darkness. His breath is the loudest sound he hears. The stillness is terrifying, and it is what he wants.
Now from the deepest of the shadows comes a small voice. It is a voice devoid of passion or warmth, a voice colder than space. And it is the voice of a child.
"Every story," the child says, "has an ending."
"Yes," says the old man.
"A story without an ending is without purpose. It is confused, aimless, mad. A story must end. This story must end."
"Yes," says the old man.
"This story will end."
The old man is silent.
"I will end it."
The old man holds out his dagger and gives it to the child. "Then begin," he says.
There is one moment of silence, and then the child casts the dagger deep into the old man's chest. Its twin blades penetrate the two parallel chambers of his heart, cutting off the flow of purple that preserves his life. He sinks to the ground, blinded by the pain.
The child turns away. He walks steadily out of the cave along the path he has been taught, knowing it will lead him to the next step in what he must do. It will lead him to the outside, to Sulor.
As the last spark of his life dies away, the old man does something he has not done in thirty-nine years.
* * *
A deal with the devil, thought Kathryn Janeway. How long it's been.
As her senior staff took their seats one by one, she thought about how they would react to the decision she had made. This wasn't going to be easy. She could only hope they'd take it well. They would follow her orders -- of that she had no doubt. But she wanted their willing support if she could possibly get it.
Captain Janeway glanced around the table at her crew. Paris and Kim were trading witty banter, as usual; Torres was giving them her standard oh you two are incorrigible look. Seven and Chakotay were debating something about the duty roster. The Doctor seemed more or less content. Tuvok... even she couldn't tell exactly what went on in Tuvok's mind. She didn't doubt, however, that her telepathic friend was already aware what kind of meeting this would be, and how concerned the captain was.
She couldn't help smiling at that thought, but only for a moment. It was time to be serious and professional. It was time to drop the bomb. "Gentlemen," she began, "we have a major problem. This new Voyager is an amazing feat of technology, but it doesn't have nearly the power we would need to take on a Sernaix fleet -- and it's the most advanced ship Starfleet has. The Federation will not survive the Sernaix War without powerful allies."
Chakotay spoke up. "We've already allied ourselves with the most powerful Delta Quadrant races, and Starfleet is receiving military assistance from the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and Ferengi. Even the Dominion may have joined the war effort by now. Who else did you have in mind, Captain?"
"We need help on a level above any of the empires you've mentioned. What we need is an ally whose technology is far beyond our own and whose forces are numerous enough to provide real resistance."
"Oh my God," whispered Paris, his face going pale.
Captain Janeway nodded; there was no need for further buildup. "I believe our best hope of survival is to expand the Alliance to include the Borg Constructive Force."
Chakotay and Tuvok darkened visibly. Seven remained impassive, as did Lieutenant Kim, but Torres and Paris were both clearly upset. They have a right to feel this way, Janeway reminded herself. They're all survivors of Borg conflict -- they know how narrowly we've pulled through sometimes. I need to help them see past that.
"Believe me," she began, "I don't like the Borg any more than you do. What we have to remember is that these people aren't drones anymore. From what we know about the Constructive, they're simply individuals who happen to possess Borg technology. They must see the Sernaix as a threat, just as we do."
"And you think they'll be willing to work with us?" asked Chakotay, stroking his chin.
"Yes. We know more about the Sernaix than they do, so we have something they want. That'll give us a basis for an alliance."
"When an inferior species has something the Borg want," said Seven, "they take it."
"But they're not Borg anymore, Seven," the captain replied, adding a slight motherly twist to her tone. "They're free to make their own decisions, to choose their own paths."
Seven was glaring now. "When I became an individual, the path I chose was to return to the Borg. I saw no appeal in humanity -- and I might never have if I had not been forced to stay on Voyager. The members of the Constructive are alone, unrestrained, and in full command of Borg vessels. We must not assume they will act differently from the Collective."
"Our previous encounter with the Constructive cannot be considered a positive sign," added Tuvok.
"You're both raising good points, but I'm afraid there's no choice. The Borg are our best hope for victory in this war."
"Captain, we can't trust them!" protested B'Elanna. "The last time we worked with the Borg, they were planning all along to stab us in the back! I may not know what these new ones are like, but I know what they came from. They have all the honour of a drunken Pakled as far as I'm concerned."
"We don't need them to be honourable," the Captain answered. "All we need them to do is recognize a common threat and help us defeat it. I'm not saying the Constructive is something we should be comfortable with, but it is the lesser of two evils."
"I have to agree with the captain on this," said Kim. "We've been lucky to survive as long as we have against the Sernaix. It'll take a lot more than what we've got to beat them."
Captain Janeway nodded. "With any luck, we won't be working with the Constructive for very long. All we need to do is force the Sernaix back. Sooner or later, they'll have to retreat to the Realm."
"So let me get this straight," said Paris. His sharp, sarcastic tone got everyone's attention. "After years of constant attacks, the Borg are finally leaving us alone -- and now we're going to approach them?"
She couldn't disagree. "That's right, Mr. Paris. But --"
"No. No 'but.' That's what we're doing. We're going to take this ship, the one thing we have that can handle the Sernaix, and offer it to the Borg to hang on their wall. We're going to ask them if they'd like a perfect chance to grab our technology and kill the people who've hurt them the most. Are we going to say please?"
"Calm down, Lieutenant."
Paris jumped to his feet. "The hell I will! This is exactly what the Borg want! This ship has Sernaix technology on it -- you don't think they'll want to add its distinctiveness to their own? Voyager can handle one cube now, maybe two. What we can't handle is the whole damn Borg fleet coming out of transwarp right on top of us because we've told them where we're going to be!"
Torres grabbed her husband's arm. "Tom --"
He shook her off. "Captain, I watched the Borg kill friends of mine. I was there when they used us to fight their fight with Species 8472 and then threw us out. I took you to the Unicomplex to save Seven after you got her captured. I watched while you let them turn you and the woman I love into zombies! God, have you not learned anything at all?"
Enough was enough. "Mr. Paris -- sit down. You've made your point."
"But you're still going to do it." Paris shook his head in disgust, then looked her in the eye. "All right, Captain. You do that. And you find somebody else to drive you there."
Without waiting to be dismissed, he walked out of the room.
Torres sighed. "I'll talk to him."
"I think we're well past that," said Captain Janeway, still fuming. "Now, if there are no further objections...."
She looked around the table; no one else seemed about to rant.
"All right. Chakotay, notify the crew. Tuvok, brief your people on what we know about the Constructive and make sure they're ready. Seven, you worked the most directly with Xale -- help Tuvok. B'Elanna, you and Harry run diagnostics and personal checks on all our offensive and defensive systems." She paused. "If Mr. Paris's fears are realized, I want us to be prepared. Dismissed."
TIME INDEX 9432798-231-2. DETECTED IN GRID 4782 BY CUBE J12: UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS VESSEL. VOYAGER-CLASS. CLASSIFICATION NCC-74656-A. DENOTED ALIEN VESSEL 8E7CA. CREW COMPLEMENT 261. RELEVANT TECHNOLOGY. APPROACHING CUBE J12 AT 597.2 THOUSAND KILOMETERS PER SECOND. WEAPONS OPERATIONAL, UNARMED. ACTION: NOT REQUIRED.
TIME INDEX 9432798-231-9. RECEIVED IN GRID 4782 BY CUBE J12: AUDIO TRANSMISSION. SOURCE: ALIEN VESSEL 8E7CA. DURATION 33.2 SECONDS. TRIVIAL ENCRYPTION PROCEDURES. INTENDED RECIPIENT: BCF CITIZEN 0. TRANSMISSION REDIRECTED. FURTHER ACTION TO BE DETERMINED.
TIME INDEX 9432798-232-4. ALIEN VESSEL 8E7CA NO LONGER IN GRID 4782. METHOD: TRANSWARP/SLIPSTREAM PROPULSION. DATABANKS UPDATED. ACTION: NOT REQUIRED.
TIME INDEX 9432798-237-1. DETECTED IN GRID 4782 BY CUBE J12: BCF VESSEL. CLASS 6. CODE 000. RECOGNIZED AS BCF VESSEL 0 [FLAGSHIP]. CREW COMPLEMENT 1503. APPROACHING CUBE J12 AT 2.16 KILOMETERS PER SECOND. ACTION:
ERROR. DIAGNOSTIC IN PRO
ERROR. 9812312 F CREATE SOURCE 9823 FILE 213 IS VALIDATED X. 29 DFW ACTION 1242 Z ASSIMILATE 69237IEWR.
ERROR. ERROR. ERR
BCF CUBE J12 ENCOMPASSED. REVISED TOTAL: 35 VESSELS / 29127 DRONES. OBJECTIVE 9.21% COMPLETE.
"The Borg's subspace transmission speed is unrivaled, Captain. Your message will reach this Ankin Rotor in a matter of moments."
Janeway smiled -- her protege still took a little pride in Borg technology. She turned to Tuvok. "If and when we get a response, patch it through to my ready room. I'll be there if you need me."
As Janeway left the bridge, Chakotay slid easily into her chair; their routine was long past the need for vocal cues. He began to look over the readouts on the armrest console. The bridge was quiet for about thirty seconds.
"So," said Harry from his Ops console, "what do you think is going to happen?"
Chakotay replied, "My guess? We'll meet Rotor, hammer out a deal, and spend the next six months being nervous. But winning the war."
"It is illogical to assume that Borg forces will be sufficient to repel the Sernaix invasion," countered Tuvok.
"If they aren't, I doubt any physical force will be. We'll need to approach this threat in a completely different way if it comes down to that."
Harry coughed. "Actually, guys, I was talking about Tom."
"Mr. Paris' statements were tantamount to a resignation," Tuvok replied. "However, if he withdraws them, it is still possible that Captain Janeway will overlook the incident."
"You heard him, Tuvok. He's serious."
"Then we must regretfully accept the loss of his piloting skills."
"Let's not write Tom off just yet," said Chakotay. "He's not good at taking bad news -- it's one of his weaknesses -- but I doubt he'll still be willing to throw his career away for this after he's had time to cool down."
"Even if he does so," Tuvok reminded them, "Captain Janeway may choose to relieve Mr. Paris or exercise another form of punishment. He has breached protocol and questioned her authority."
"Come on, Tuvok," said Harry. "After all she and Tom have been through, don't you think the captain will be more forgiving than that?"
"Perhaps," replied the Vulcan simply. Then: "We are receiving a subspace signal on an interplexing frequency. Source: Constructive space."
"Rotor," said Chakotay. "Patch it through. Bridge to Captain Janeway: looks like your letter was read."
Kathryn Janeway shouldn't have needed to find her helmsman. But now that she did, there was no need to use the ship's locator. She knew where he would be.
Voyager's captain stepped into the familiar French environs of Sandrine's bar, coughing at its authentic odors. With a quick glance around the room, she spotted a man playing pool alone at one of the back tables. She walked up to the table and stood to one side, watching Tom Paris sink one ball after another with frighteningly accurate aim. Nothing focuses his skills like strong emotion, she thought. I can beat him easily when he's having a good day. Right now, I wouldn't stand a chance.
The last ball fell into its side pocket and the cue ball vanished, as did the fifteen pocketed balls. Moments later, they reappeared in pre-break formation. Tom bent to take the first shot of the new game. As he lined up his cue, he turned to Janeway and asked, "Tried the port? Sandrine just opened a 2359 Fonseca she'd been keeping in the back. Good year."
"I'll pass." Janeway held out a PADD. "Ten minutes ago, we received a hail from the Constructive. Ankin Rotor has agreed to my proposal. The arrangements we've worked out are all here."
Tom took the PADD, skimmed the contents, and then set it down and resumed his game. "Looks solid enough," he said. "You shouldn't have much trouble with security."
"I take it you haven't changed your mind."
"I'm sorry, Captain -- I really am. But this is one hell I won't follow you into. Not again."
"You realize that this will mean the end of your career, and probably jail time."
Tom nodded sadly as the cue ball rebounded. "Yeah. I know."
"Tom... why are you doing this? Why now?"
"You mean if I was going to quit, why didn't I do it the last time we played Tweak The Borg?" Tom stood up and looked at Janeway. "Because it was just me. When it was just my life I was putting on the line, I was okay with that. If I died, it would be for the people I cared about." Tom turned back to the game. "It's not like that anymore. It's not just me."
"Miral is in danger already just by being aboard this ship," Janeway reminded him.
"And I accepted that -- before we decided to invite in an even bigger danger. I want to be with my family, Captain, but not if it's going to get them killed." Tom took his shot; one ball fell on the upstroke and another on the ricochet. "I know I can't change your mind about this, so I'm not even going to try. I wish -- I really wish I could come with you. I'd still die for this ship and this crew. But my daughter is going to live a long, happy life, and her parents are going to be with her all the way. That's something I won't threaten, not like this."
Tom took another shot. The cue ball flew on a zigzag trajectory, striking four balls in sequence and sinking them perfectly. But as it slowed, the ball deflected off several bumpers and then the 8-ball -- which fell with a thud into the corner pocket.
"You lose," said Janeway quietly.
Tom straightened up and laid down his cue. He sat down in one of the chairs along the wall. Janeway followed him, but stayed standing.
"Mr. Paris," she asked, "how long have we known each other?"
"Eight years, six months today." When Janeway raised an eyebrow, he explained: "When you're yanked to the other side of the galaxy, you tend to remember the date."
"All right. In that time, how often have your piloting skills saved all our lives?"
"Once or twice," said Tom with a smile.
Janeway nodded. "Without question, you're the best pilot I've ever served with. And you're more than that. This crew trusts you, depends on you more than you may realize. You're their friend in a way that I can't be. Tom, if you leave now, this ship's survival chances will plummet."
Tom shook his head. "They're too low to plummet. Voyager has already got Sernaix to fight. Adding the Borg is nothing short of suicide."
"No, Tom. It could be suicide, but it could also be our only hope for survival. I can't prove it one way or the other; all I can do is weigh the options I have, choose one, and hope against the odds that I've chosen right. That's a captain's job." She paused for a moment. "Eight and a half years are a long time to watch me do that job. Doesn't the fact that we're still alive suggest that I'm pretty good at it?"
"You're a brilliant captain," replied Tom. "I've never suggested otherwise. Serving under you has changed my life."
"Then I'm asking you to trust me this one more time. I believe I can ally us with the Constructive. If I'm right, this war -- the greatest risk to your daughter's life -- may finally turn around. I won't lie to you: there is serious danger. But I can get us through it. I will get us through it. And I can't do that without you."
"Captain, I don't --"
"Do you trust me, Tom?"
"Yes," he answered without hesitation.
"Then trust me to get us through this. To do what needs to be done. I'm putting us at risk, but trying to wage this war alone is a greater risk. I need to do this." Janeway put out a hand. "Will you help me, Lieutenant?"
For a long moment, Paris looked deeply torn. Then, at last, he stood up, took the offered hand, and shook it.
"Good, Mr. Paris," said Janeway. "Good. Thank you."
"No problem," he replied, but with an edge of doubt still in his voice.
Janeway turned to leave; she took two steps and then turned back. "By the way, Tom...."
Her expression suddenly became cold as stone. "What you did in that meeting was indefensible. I'll let it go this once. But if you ever, ever pull a stunt like that again, dramatic exits won't be the only ones you'll make. Are we clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Tom quickly.
Without further words, Janeway left the holodeck. Tom glanced at the pool table, which had self-reset again, and then sighed and ended the program. It was time to get to work.
Sector 9382D was much like any other sector. That it hadn't been claimed by any major empire was surprising until one looked at its sister sectors: 9832A, dominated by a binary black hole, and 9833D, so permeated with radiation that nothing alive had existed there in 500 centuries. These landmarks made Sector 9382D a strategically useless area -- and a perfect neutral meeting spot.
Voyager's fleet arrived first. Ships from Delta Quadrant races flanked it on all sides as it slipstreamed into Sector 9382D, weapons at the ready.
A few minutes later, the Borg arrived. There was only one vessel -- a Class 6 tactical cube that Ankin Rotor had chosen for his flagship.
Despite fear from all non-cyborg parties involved, no one fired. Captain Janeway agreed to beam to Rotor's cube to begin the first round of negotiations. Morale began to improve as the realization of Borg power and its helpfulness to the war sank in. The Borg/DQA Counter-Sernaix Pact was off to a smooth start.
Undetectable on conventional frequencies, a thin-beam transmission from the cube targeted Voyager's cargo bay.
Seven of Nine's regeneration cycle was complete. She stepped out of her alcove, energized and rejuvenated. Without waiting, she headed to one of her consoles and began to look over her work for the coming shift. She pressed the button to scroll through the notes she'd made last time.
Then she froze.
For a long, long moment, Seven hung as if suspended in time. Her eyes were motionless, her breath absent. The notes on her PADD scrolled faster and faster as her outstretched finger held the button down.
Then, suddenly, she fell to the floor and gasped for breath. Slowly, she pulled herself back up to a standing position. Her expression was panicked, but became gradually less so. At last, fully recovered, she let go of the console she'd been bracing herself against and stood at full height again.
One by one, Seven flexed her muscles and stretched out her limbs as if using them for the first time. She took deep, steady breaths, seeming to savour the crisp Starfleet taste of Voyager's air. Her mouth took on a dangerous grin. Then, resuming her standard air of efficiency, she headed out the cargo bay door.
The PADD lay on the deck where it had fallen.
Four points of blue light flashed out in the middle of the Borg corridor. Each divided into smaller ones that began to spread out vertically, making the surrounding air shimmer. Amid the glow, atoms and molecules began to swirl, meticulously arranged by the most precise tractor-beam technology known. At last the glow faded, and all that remained were four Starfleet officers with Type-2 Concussion Rifles and intimidating glares. In front of them were six humanoids with Borg technology placed seemingly at random on their bodies.
One of the guards gestured to the other three, and they took up positions at the sides of the corridor. The first tapped his comm badge. "Munro to Voyager. We're ready down here."
"Acknowledged," came Tuvok's voice over the ship's comm. "Stand by."
Again the blue lights appeared, four this time, and congealed into humanoid form. A moment later, Captain Kathryn Janeway was standing in the corridor with Tuvok and two other aliens at her back.
"Captain," said the lead Borg. "At long last we meet in person."
Janeway nodded. "Director Ankin Rotor, I presume."
"Yes. These are a few of my chief advisors; they assist me with making Constructive policy."
The captain gestured to the three men with her. "This is Kryshkan of the Devore Imperium, Pelias of the New Vidiian Commonwealth, and my tactical officer, Tuvok of Vulcan."
"And four armed security personnel."
"Sorry for the formality," said Janeway with a slight smile. "You understand."
"Yes." Rotor paused to think for a moment. "Captain, I propose that we resolve our trust issue by meeting alone. I'll dismiss my aides, and you can send your guards back. In case you feel uncomfortable, I suggest that you also keep a weapon with you."
Janeway narrowed her gaze. "A generous offer. Are you sure you trust me?"
"The Constructive is anxious to prove itself a friend of galactic peace," said Rotor. "We will make whatever concessions will help."
"All right," said Janeway. "Tuvok --"
"Understood." Tuvok turned to the guards. "Mr. Munro, we are returning to Voyager, but keep your team on standby in case you are needed again."
Munro obviously wasn't happy about it, but he gave the other guards the order and handed his rifle to the captain. Tuvok contacted the ship; a few moments later, all but Janeway had vanished. She nodded to Rotor with an Okay, your turn look.
Rotor didn't move or open his mouth, but the five people beside him immediately turned around and began walking away. They moved in rhythm at precisely the same speed. As their footsteps receded, Rotor gestured to Janeway to follow him. The captain and the director walked together into the heart of the Borg cube.
"The information you requested, Commander." Seven handed Chakotay a PADD; he scrolled through it.
"Looks okay. Thanks, Seven."
Seven nodded and walked off the bridge. Chakotay thought for a moment, puzzled for a reason he wasn't sure of. Something had seemed... off in that last exchange, but what? It nagged at him enough that he decided to follow her. "Tom," he said, "take the bridge. I'll be right back."
As Chakotay walked to the turbolift, Tom slid out of his helm console and settled uneasily into the command chair. His gaze remained fixed on the Borg cubeship that dominated Voyager's viewscreen.
"May I offer you a drink?"
Janeway looked surprised to hear that. Clearly she still thought of the Constructive's citizens as Borg drones. "Coffee, if you have it," she said.
Ankin Rotor issued a mental command to the nearest foodport, choosing the ingredients carefully. The port microbeamed a cup of coffee onto the table in front of Janeway. "Efficient," the captain commented admiringly, and she picked up the drink.
(Rotor was proceeding down the corridor to Holodeck Two. "Seven?" came a voice from behind him. He turned and replied, "Is there something further, Commander?")
As Janeway took a sip of her coffee, Rotor admired her ability to hold back an emotional response for the sake of diplomacy. He wouldn't have seen even her slight shift in expression if he hadn't been looking for it. "Is it acceptable, Captain?" he asked.
Janeway smiled and said "Delicious."
Interesting, thought Rotor. I can work this into an advantage. He simulated, as best he could, the human gesture of slapping one's forehead. "I'm terribly sorry, Captain. I forgot that you prefer your coffee black. One moment."
Janeway's cup shimmered briefly and the colour of the contents darkened. Startled, she took another sip; this time the coffee was black.
("I'm just wondering if you're all right," said the first officer. "Have I given you cause for concern?" Rotor asked. "It's not quite like that..." he replied; "just a feeling I had. I thought I should ask you.")
"Honesty is very important to me," said Rotor. "I understand why you might wish to keep negative opinions to yourself in these circumstances, to avoid 'making waves' over something like a drink, but that's not how I do things. If you have any concerns, however small, please let me address them."
Janeway set down the coffee mug. "All right -- I'll take that offer. What concerns me is your openness. Why the hospitality, the good manners?"
"I wish to leave a good impression, Captain. The Constructive needs to become a valuable galactic citizen; how can it do so if its director won't accommodate guests?"
("I'm fine, Commander," Rotor said. "However, if you are concerned for my safety, I will report to sickbay at the end of my shift.")
"That isn't quite what I meant," said Janeway with a frown. "You know the position we're in. Frankly, the DQA needs your help more than you need ours -- I was expecting a difficult negotiation. But you're not taking advantage of that. Why?"
"There!" Rotor smiled. "The honesty I so admire. Captain, I know the kind of people you've been working with so far. They're small-minded warlords with more ammunition than intelligence, good at taking orders but frustrating to deal with. I never intend to be such a leader. I ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt and believe that I only want to make this process smooth for all of us."
"Sorry," said Janeway. "It's a little early to be giving you the benefit of anything. However... I must admit you seem sincere."
"You have difficulty trusting me. I don't blame you. You hurt the Borg a great deal, but they hurt you as well."
"Close, but no. It's not what the Borg have done to me -- it's what they've done to my people. The suffering you inflicted on the worlds of the Federation is incalculable."
Rotor allowed some anger to seep out. "Captain Janeway, you might as well be judging us on our appearance alone. We are not responsible for what we did as Borg."
("No... no, that's all right, Seven. I'm sure it was just my imagination." "No apology is necessary. I appreciate your... concern for me.")
"I apologize," said Janeway, but her expression didn't change.
"The galaxy refuses to accept that we are no longer Borg drones," continued Rotor. "Even though we were fighting the Collective well before it was destroyed. If we can't win your trust by fighting one scourge, we'll do it by fighting another."
(There was something between Commander Chakotay and this Seven of Nine, wasn't there? Rotor ran a deeper scan of the cortical node's data. Hmm... they had engaged in a brief but serious romantic relationship, and were now close friends. A little more care might be needed with....)
"Our power is your only chance to defeat them. Your faith is our only chance to end the persecution and fear. Together, we will reunite humanoid and cyborg and usher in a new era of peace. Think of it, Captain. Peace in our time. How many generations of beings can say that?"
Janeway gave Rotor a suspicious glance. "No need to convince me, Director. This alliance is necessary, whether it's desirable or not."
(Chakotay was thinking, apparently still unsure what to make of the situation, but at last he contented himself with saying, "You know that you can come to me if you need to talk about something." "Of course," said Rotor, attempting a slight smile.)
"Then it's settled," Rotor smiled. "We'll begin making the arrangements tomorrow morning."
"I'll be permitted to bring the representatives of the other races, of course."
"Good. Then we're in agreement." Janeway rose; Rotor extended his hand and the captain shook it.
(The smile had been well timed -- it had seemed to put the first officer a little at ease. He gave a small nod and returned to the turbolift. Rotor proceeded to Astrometrics to begin the new shift.)
"To new beginnings," said Rotor.
Janeway nodded and started to leave. A few steps from the door, she turned back to Rotor. "One question," she said.
The captain narrowed her eyes. "If this alliance is so important to you, if it's your people's best chance of recognition... why didn't you approach me?"
Clever, thought Rotor. He lowered his head for a moment. "I couldn't risk it, Captain. Certain parties are determined to destroy us. It was possible that you were among them."
Janeway didn't look convinced, but she asked nothing further, and left. A moment later, Rotor heard the soft whoosh of Voyager's transporter.
("Paris to Seven," came a voice through Rotor's communicator. "The captain's back on board. I think she wanted to meet with you about something?" "That's right," replied Rotor. "Thank you for reminding me.")
29,130 former Borg drones smiled with him.
Personal log, Lt. Tom Paris recording.
Voyager has been in Sector 9382D for five days now. The
negotiations seem to be going well - Captain Janeway and the other
fleet commanders have been aboard the cube for about 20 hours in
And I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe I'm just
being paranoid, but 'my spidey sense is tingling' for lack of a
better way of putting it. I can't shake the feeling that this new
Borg Constructive is just laying in wait. That they want something
and just like the first time the Captain tried this they'll turn on
us as soon as they have what they want.
The same damned cliche saying keeps running through my mind.
'Those that do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.'
God, I hope I'm wrong.
* * *
Rotor was working in the cargo bay when Lieutenant Kim entered.
The Borg turned to him, saw the expression on his face, and realized
this would have to be handled carefully. He conducted a quick
deep-scan of the cortical node to refresh himself on this individual
and Seven's relationship with him.
"I require concentration, Harry," he said, choosing his words carefully. "If there is something we need to discuss, perhaps we should wait until later."
"I think we should talk now," replied Kim. Rotor saw the anger on his face.
("Not that I object to the Director's organizational scheme in principle," said Rgorin, "but I feel that Krenim ships would be better placed closer to our territory. Without transwarp drives --")
"Have I upset you in some way?"
"Seven, you've been avoiding me for the past five days!"
Had he? Rotor ran a quick sum; he'd spent a total of 6.23 hours with Kim in that time. He said so.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Don't try to play some kind of numbers game with me. You know full well what I'm talking about. For five days now you've only been with me on duty or with the other officers -- whenever we're alone, you make some excuse to leave. I sent you messages asking if something was wrong. You never even answered!"
(Janeway said, "I may be able to help you with that. I've been talking with Mr. Rotor about the possibility of fitting some of your ships with transwarp drives. According to the data we have....")
Perhaps taking the time to check Seven's messages wouldn't have been inefficient after all. Ah well, easily dodged. "I apologize, Harry, but I did not receive your messages."
"You what? Let me see that." Kim picked up one of Seven's PADDs and clicked a few buttons.
(As Janeway spoke, Rotor sent his cube a mental signal that activated a precise quantum beam. The beam quickly located the messages from Kim in Voyager's database and wiped them.)
Harry started and set down the PADD. "Looks like I owe you an apology, Seven. The messages didn't arrive -- I can't even find them in storage. There must be something wrong with the system in my quarters."
"Acceptable," said Rotor without looking up.
Harry narrowed his eyes. "But you're still avoiding the issue. Have I done something wrong? Are you upset with me?"
(Rgorin narrowed his eyes. "We need to increase home defense now, not after the Sernaix attack. There's no time for this.")
There was no time for this. Rotor opted for a simple end to the conversation. "Harry, if you do not realize what you've done, I have no wish to explain it to you. Until you realize, I would prefer that you leave me alone."
The anger drained out of Harry's face, replaced with confused sadness. "Seven... what have I...."
"Please allow me to complete my work."
Disheartened and disbelieving, Harry left the room. Rotor turned back to Seven's PADDs and pulled out the one he'd hidden underneath. It was displaying the message READY FOR UPLOAD.
("We'll be strengthening your defense with some of our own forces," replied Rotor. "Captain, would you mind explaining the distribution we've prepared? I need a moment." Janeway nodded and Rotor stepped out of the room.)
A medical tool in his hand and a holographic mirror in front of him, Rotor carefully removed a circular patch of skin from Seven's forehead. A few commands from his tricorder activated the "open access port" subroutine of the cortical node underneath. Rotor took a piece of optilinear cable, connected one end to the PADD, and slowly raised the other end to his forehead.
(Rotor held onto a wall and braced himself. All over his cube and the others he'd encompassed, the few drones that were active shut down.)
Rotor plugged the cable into his cortical node and --
(-- spasmed violently as an incredible flow of data surged into him. He collapsed to --)
-- the floor. With each second that passed, two thousand kiloquads --
(-- of data poured into his database and memory banks. The knowledge! The --)
-- information! It was astonishing... and now it was done. Rotor disconnected the cable, picked himself up, and reattached the dermal patch to his forehead.
(Rotor picked himself up and returned to the meeting room.)
He looked around the cargo bay. Now there was nothing he didn't know about it. Each item, each molecule's entire history was his to know and use.
(Rotor looked at Janeway. Now there was nothing he didn't know about her. Each habit, each strategy... he could read everything she'd ever recorded in her logs. He could predict her, even impersonate her perfectly if he needed to.)
Rotor finished removing all evidence of his activities and pondered his next move. Seven of Nine had been of good use to him, but there would now be difficulties. The conference was nearly over -- Voyager would be several sectors away by tomorrow, and Seven's remaining Borg infrastructure was too weak to maintain the link at that distance.
Her usefulness was over. From this moment, Seven of Nine was relevant only as a security risk.
Chakotay swung hard with his right arm. Momentarily shaken, his opponent fell back, but quickly recovered and moved back in close. Chakotay swung again, this time with a smooth left-right combination; the opponent fell again and returned. This continued for nearly ten minutes, with Chakotay delivering punch after punch and his opponent always returning for more punishment.
Gradually, the first officer began to tire; each blow was weaker than the last and sweat began to pour from his forehead. Finally he took a moment to catch his breath. Over his gasps, he heard someone entering the room and turned to face him.
"Getting old, son," said Boothby with a smile.
"I know," replied Chakotay ruefully. "It used to take half an hour of this to tire me out."
"I was talking about me, but I guess you're right too. Not easy, is it?" Boothby took a seat on the bench.
Chakotay left the punching bag and came over to join him. "No," he said. "Don't get me wrong -- middle age is a phase of life like any other, and I look forward to it. But I'll miss the energy."
"Don't we all."
There was a moment of silence. Finally Chakotay said, "Boothby, may I ask your advice on something?"
"Long as it's not how best to carve your initials into my oak tree."
Chakotay grinned. "I only have one anyway. No, what's bothering me is the way things on Voyager have been going. Captain Janeway made something of a... controversial decision recently."
"Back to her old ways, is she?" asked Boothby with a knowing smile.
"Something like that. And it's been getting to the crew. Tom nearly resigned over it, and Seven seems to be retreating into her professional shell."
"That's not the problem," said the old man. "What really worries you is what it's doing to you. The crew's counting on you to keep your cool right now, and Kathryn counts on you to support her. You're wondering how well you're doing at either of those things."
Chakotay sighed; hologram or not, Boothby could be frustratingly insightful. "I can't claim to agree with what she's doing," he said. "I wish I could, but I can't. And it feels dishonest to act like I do."
"They know, son. They've served with you long enough -- they can guess how you feel. What's important is to do your job the best you can now. Don't be her -- be yourself. They'll have faith in you if you do."
Chakotay mulled for a moment; finally he stood up. "I'd better be going. Thanks for the advice, Boothby."
"End program." The gym dissolved around Chakotay, quickly fading to nothing. The holographic screen creating his boxing outfit vanished, revealing his uniform underneath.
Chakotay checked his wrist chronometer: 1344 hours. He waited....
"Please state the nature of the medical emergency," came a voice. In the center of the room, Voyager's chief medical officer shimmered into existence. He took in Chakotay's tuckered-out appearance with a frown. "Boxing? Again? Commander, how many times do I have to talk to you about this?"
"Not now," said the first officer. "I've asked you here because I may need your help. Listen...."
Repairing a faulty plasma coil, thought Rotor. This Seven of Nine's duties are tedious. So many of them could easily be automated.
A red light at the end of the coil began to flash, signaling a potentially dangerous overload in progress.
An idea took hold in his mind. Rotor smiled at the efficiency of it.
"This is Kathryn Janeway to all starship commanders of the DQA," said the captain. "Please activate your viewscreens on frequency epsilon two three."
They did. Janeway watched as small monitors activated all around the command centre of Rotor's cube. Each bore the face of a captain, one human (Chakotay, of course) and the others alien.
Janeway raised her PADD. "On this Stardate 56493.5, the Delta Quadrant Alliance and the Borg Constructive Force do hereby agree to unite and consolidate their forces until such time as the fleets of the race known as the Sernaix are destroyed or rendered unable to continue their unprovoked aggression."
Chief Inspector Kashyk, who had been pressing the buttons of a Devore recording device with a long keypad, handed it to Janeway. The captain carefully typed in her personal passcode, officially signing the document. The device was then passed to Maj Haron, Director Rotor, Captain Fedrek Lem, and General Tarat, each of whom signed.
"We are now allies," said Ankin Rotor.
"We are now allies," echoed Janeway, hiding her skepticism well.
From the monitors, there was applause -- some louder than others. Captain Janeway couldn't help but notice that the bridge of her own ship was the quietest of all.
Tom Paris rang twice at Harry's door. There was no answer.
"Computer, locate Harry Kim."
"Lieutenant Kim is in his quarters."
"Are you sure?"
"Never mind." Tom keyed in the access code for the door. If Harry was there and not answering, there might be something wrong.
The door slid open and Tom stepped in. Sure enough, his hypothesis was confirmed. Harry Kim was leaning against the wall looking very upset indeed. Well, that fit Tom's mood well enough. He came over to Harry and leaned on the wall next to him.
For a few minutes, there was silence.
"Long week," said Tom finally.
"You know it," said Harry.
"Looking pretty beat up, buddy."
"Just frustrated. She's constantly on my case... and the Borg are so damned contradictory. Why do I even bother?"
Tom rolled his eyes. "Don't get me started." Then it hit him -- "Wait, you said 'I.'"
"Are we talking about the same thing?" asked Harry, confused.
"I meant what Captain Janeway's up to. You know, the Constructive."
"Ah. I meant Seven."
"Right." Then it hit him -- "There's something wrong with you and Seven?"
"Apparently," said Harry in a very tired tone. "She says I've done something to offend her and she won't say what it is."
"Been there," replied Tom ruefully. Harry raised an eyebrow. "Not lately, of course. B'Elanna is a wonderful person and she never asks anything unreasonable of me. Nope."
Harry chuckled. "Naturally."
"If this were a twentieth-century sitcom or some such," commented Tom, "one of us would say 'Women' here and the other would agree."
"But this isn't the twentieth century, and we know it would be wrong of us to generalize like that."
Harry turned to Tom. "What's a sitcom?"
Before he could answer, a desperate voice came over his communicator. "Mr. Paris! Seven's been injured -- she's in critical condition! I need you down here NOW!"
Tom and Harry exchanged a horrified look. Then, as one, they raced out the door.
The unit called Seven of Nine was now irrelevant, so Rotor deactivated his link to her. The maneuver had succeeded. For a minimal energy cost, Rotor had obtained Voyager's entire database and the personal knowledge of Janeway that only her close friend could have possessed. The emotional cost to Janeway would be enormous, of course, but Rotor couldn't have allowed someone with such deep connections to the Borg to remain on Voyager.
As he talked with Janeway, patiently waiting for her to receive the news, Rotor read through more of the files he'd captured. This crew had an interesting history. Some parts of that history might inspire him, give him new ideas for how to complete his mission.
Anyone could kill one man, end one story. Many could kill a nation, a race, a world. But only one could destroy a universe.
This treaty was the first step. In time, the second would reveal itself.