Kathryn Janeway reached for her first officer's throat.
The man resisted at first, but soon stopped moving. Rage in her eyes, Janeway maintained her grip, while Tuvok stood by, making no move to stop her.
At last, Janeway released Chakotay's neck. She backed up to take a look at her handiwork. "Much better," she said, but the anger hadn't left her voice. "You'd better not be planning any more little mutinies, mister."
His collar now sporting a fourth rank pip, Chakotay frowned. "It's a bad idea. The last thing I want to do is take your place, and --"
The captain raised a hand. "Spare me the argument; we've had it three times already. The fleet needs a recognizable leader. If I'm going to leave you in command, you need a rank that makes that clear." She smiled. "Relax, Chakotay. This is just till I get back."
"From a mission you can't tell me anything about, including when you expect to return."
"I don't like that any more than you do. Especially the timing of it. But I have full confidence in your ability to carry out this campaign in my absence."
Chakotay sighed. "I'm still a poor substitute for you. The fleet won't be as comfortable under me."
"You'll make them comfortable." Janeway took Chakotay's hand for a long moment, and then released it. "Permission to disembark, Captain?"
"Granted," said Chakotay, clearly still reluctant. "And good luck."
"You too." The captain smiled and turned to Tuvok: "I'm counting on you, Commander. Don't let him take that pip off."
The Vulcan nodded solemnly. Janeway smiled at him, took a last look at her first officer, and then turned to enter the Delta Flyer. A few moments later, Seven of Nine joined her, having just finished her goodbyes with Harry Kim. The force field flashed; the shuttle lifted off and departed Voyager.
Chakotay waited till he could no longer see the Flyer, and then signaled Kim to close the bay door. The younger man was doing a better job than usual of keeping a stiff upper lip despite his fear for Seven, Chakotay observed. It had taken a while, but it appeared that Kim was coming to terms with the realities of shipboard relationships. "Bay secure," he said.
Exiting into the corridor, Chakotay checked his wrist chronometer. Fifteen hundred hours... not long till the fleet command meeting. I'd better look over the strategic data again. He gestured to Tuvok for one of the PADDs he was holding and started reading through it as he walked. Kim followed in silence.
About one minute later, the three officers reached the bridge. Chakotay had just taken his seat when Ayala announced from Tactical, "I'm picking up a small ship entering the system."
"On screen." The viewer displayed a Class-2 Starfleet shuttlecraft. "Life signs?"
"One," supplied Tuvok, who had now resumed the tactical station. "The shuttle is registered to the starship Logan."
"The Logan?" repeated Kim, looking surprised. "Isn't that the ship you were assigned to last year, Commander?"
Chakotay nodded, frowning. He stiffened in his chair. "It should be noted," added Tuvok, "that the U. S. S. Logan was reported missing in action during the final month of the Sernaix conflict. None of the crew have been located, nor has there been any evidence to indicate whether or not the ship still exists."
A console beeped. "We are being hailed," reported Tuvok.
The image of the shuttle disappeared, replaced with that of a young woman in a Starfleet uniform. Her face was bruised, her uniform bloody; she appeared barely conscious. Raising her eyes to look at Chakotay, she smiled slightly. "Hey, bud. Long time no Shari, eh?"
"Lieutenant Young?" The commander was visibly startled. "What happened to you?"
"Bit of a mixup where the ship got poofed. Mind if I come visit?"
Chakotay turned to Kim. "Emergency medical transport. Bridge to Sickbay: you have a patient coming."
The Delta Flyer shot through space in a warp corridor just wide enough to accomodate it. The ship's warp envelope had been reduced through careful study of Borg and Maquis propulsion, making it the fastest starship support craft in active Starfleet service. Ordinary warp couldn't compare to transwarp or slipstream, but until such engines could be miniaturized, the Flyer was the best in its field.
Watching the starfield, Seven of Nine was unsatisfied... but whether she wished the ship were faster or slower, she couldn't tell.
"All systems check out," reported Captain Janeway. "We'll reach the destination in thirty-six hours."
Seven turned to her red-haired copilot and said, "I appreciate the faith you have placed in me, Captain," she said sincerely.
Janeway's expression was somewhere between a smile and a grimace. "I'm not just placing faith in you, Seven. I may well be endangering the outcome of this entire conflict based on your word."
Seven felt the increasingly familiar sensation of guilt. "I apologize for my presumption. I regret --"
"Don't mention it," said Janeway without turning. "I wouldn't be doing this if I weren't absolutely certain of you, and you wouldn't be asking it of me if it weren't imperative. When you tell me something is important, I don't question it. There are only a handful of people I trust that implicitly."
"I do not know what to say."
Janeway smiled. "Talk to me about the weather. Or the Parisses Squares championship, or the latest in adapted Borg technology, or whatever else you like."
"I do not understand."
"Seven, how long has it been since we last talked? Really talked?"
Seven thought back: "We spoke for nearly fifty consecutive minutes on Stardate 56672.1."
Janeway rolled her eyes (probably at Seven's precision, she realized). "You see what I mean. That was two months ago. "
"Have I been failing to meet the requirements of our friendship?"
The captain laughed. "That's not it. There's nothing wrong between us; my point is simply that we've had other things on our minds. You've been spending most of your time with Harry, and I've been..." Janeway stopped short and finished with, "Busy."
This time Seven smiled. "You find your relationship with Commander Chakotay awkward to discuss with the rest of the crew."
"No," said Janeway with a glare, "I'm... trying not to sound like I'm gloating."
Seven raised a suspicious eyebrow, not buying it for a second, and Janeway had to laugh. "Okay, not one of my better excuses. I guess you're right. After worrying about protocol for so long, I have trouble breaking the habit." She grinned at Seven. "See? This is why I miss talking to you. Your perspective has always been more direct than mine."
"Was that among the reasons you accepted this mission?"
"I have to admit it was... but not the most important reason. If what you say is true, this little trip of ours could change everything. Besides, when our friend Korok delivered the message to you six months ago, he told me he'd be asking for my help around now... and I suspect this is what he was referring to."
"Most likely," replied Seven.
Both women were silent for a few moments, pondering the danger Korok's message might be leading them into, and the results it might bring about. At last, Seven broke the silence, saying, "Black."
"The weather. It is black."
"How is she?" asked Chakotay. On the biobed before him, Lieutenant Shari Young lay recovering from her injuries. She looked better than she had in the shuttle, but that went without saying.
"She'll be fine," Voyager's emergency medical hologram replied with his standard businesslike half-frown. "I've cleared up the bruising and repaired all her damaged blood vessels. She had a number of plasma burns, but the skin is healing well. The broken arm will be fully reknit in a day or so."
"Sounds like she took quite a beating."
"Indeed. But then, she's lucky to be alive at all. Before she lost consciousness, she told me her ship had been destroyed by the Borg and she was the only survivor."
"Yes." Chakotay thought for a moment. "In your opinion, Doctor, how difficult would it be to fake injuries like hers?"
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "It wouldn't be easy to do convincingly, but it's not impossible. Do you have reason to doubt her story?"
"No... no, it was just a strange question. Sorry. How soon will she be awake?"
"I can revive her now, if you wish."
Chakotay nodded. "Do it."
Having filled a hypospray, the Doctor pressed it against Young's neck. Her eyes flew open. "Skip! We gotta get you out of --" Noticing her surroundings, she cut herself off. "Hey. Sorry 'bout that... bit of a nightmare, ya know?"
"Welcome to Voyager," said Chakotay. "How do you feel?"
"A lot better," she replied. "Arm's still a little sore, though."
The Doctor turned his PADD to face her. "You had a serious fracture in your right ulna. I've begun the reknitting process, but you'll need to wear this brace for a day or two to ensure that it heals properly."
Young shrugged. "M'still gettin' off pretty easy. Fire away."
"I'll take that as a yes," said the Doctor a bit wryly, and he attached the brace to Young's arm. As it closed, a red light along the side blinked on. "You'll know the process is complete when that light goes off. Come back to me then and I'll detach the brace."
"Thankers," she replied, and hopped off the biobed. She smiled at Chakotay. "Nobody told me 'bout the rank hike, Captain."
Chakotay hid his annoyance well, calming himself with the knowledge that he would make Kathryn pay for this. "It's not a real promotion. I'm taking on Captain Janeway's rank in her absence for symbolic reasons."
Young chuckled. "How do ya mean? You hopin' the crew won't know the difference?"
"It's not this crew Captain Janeway was concerned about. Right now, Voyager is leading a fleet of over three hundred ships."
Young's eyes went wide. "Ya don't say?"
Chakotay nodded. "I'm afraid this wasn't the best time for a visit, Shari. This time tomorrow, we'll be fighting for our lives against the Borg."
Forty-eight hours after his ship was destroyed, Carl Grant was ready.
On the bridge of the Hestia, his captain's yacht, Grant set a new course. He activated the ship's highly illegal stealth technology, folded out its ablative hull armour, and disguised all its weapon signatures as thoron radiation. Then he primed the warpstream drive for maximum acceleration and engaged.
The yacht disappeared in a brilliant flash. In three hours it would be where it needed to go.
There was work to be done.
All told, there were 23 military leaders at the long table in the conference room, representing fifteen different Delta Quadrant empires. Chakotay had never addressed a group like this before, and it reminded him again of just how far he'd come since he joined Voyager's crew. Prior to that, he'd been a guerilla warrior, leader of nothing more than a collection of bandits; now, less than a decade later, he was going to lead a quarter of the galaxy into battle. That was the thing about serving with Kathryn Janeway... you ended up becoming something more than when you came in.
"First," began Chakotay, "I want to thank you all for coming. I know many of you have longstanding disagreements and are reluctant to work together. The fact that you're willing to do so anyway, for the good of the quadrant, speaks to your strength of character."
There were some approving nods around the table. Chakotay continued, "You all know why we've assembled again. We can't ignore the threat of the Borg Constructive Force any longer. Ankin Rotor's forces are pressing against all our borders, ignoring all communication; lines of diplomacy to the Constructive have long since been cut. And we know from Captain Janeway's first-hand account that Rotor is stealing his own people's minds, using them in some kind of insane quest to end the universe. For their sake and our own, he needs to be stopped."
Chakotay gestured to Tom Paris, who was holding a stack of PADDs; the lieutenant began to pass them around. "Each of these," Chakotay explained, "contains a copy of all the intelligence Starfleet has managed to gather about Rotor and the Constructive. That includes our best guess at the extent of his empire and the distribution of his forces. Your governments have undoubtedly been collecting their own intelligence. If we all pool our resources, we'll have a better chance of accomplishing the mission. Are you willing?"
Immediate reactions were varied. Some of the leaders seemed reluctant, others indifferent. Most seemed interested, however, and Chakotay was surprised to find no one offended at the very thought of sharing data with outsiders. Maybe this quadrant is finally maturing, he reflected.
As the assembled leaders looked the PADDs over, General Fqezreel of the Yut Stellar Kingdom asked, "How much is the Federation willing to commit to this effort?"
Chakotay sighed inwardly; here came the tricky questions. "Starfleet's military resources were badly strained in the Sernaix War. Right now, it's all we can do to keep a few ships on each of the important borders. I'm afraid Voyager is the only Starfleet ship that will be taking part in this fight."
That provoked some grumbling. "The war wasn't exactly easy for us either," noted a Vidiian colonel. "We're still here, ready to fight."
"So am I," replied Chakotay, his tone darkening slightly. "Voyager is Starfleet's most tactically advanced vessel. We have every intention of pulling our weight."
Devore Inspector Kashyk smiled slyly. "If this mission is so important to Starfleet," he said, "it's funny that Captain Janeway sent a subordinate to conduct the first meeting."
Chakotay glared. He had never liked Kashyk; this was a perfect example of why. The inspector knew damn well why Janeway wasn't there -- like everyone else, he'd been told in the message inviting him to the meeting. This was just a test of Chakotay's patience, and one that he intended to pass. "Captain Janeway is currently on a classified mission of paramount importance. She's left me in command of the fleet until her return."
"'The fleet'? Not too presumptuous there." Kashyk smiled again. "I suppose you simply assumed that the Imperium was ready and waiting to help with whatever military effort you liked."
Taking a deep breath, Chakotay stood. "Ankin Rotor wants you dead. He wants your family, your government, your entire Imperium dead. Why? He thinks he's doing you a favour. To him, every story -- yours included -- needs an ending, and he wants to make sure it gets one. If we don't stop him here and now, he'll be powerful enough to do that.
"The Constructive gets bigger by the day. Our best guess is that Rotor is done turning his own people into vegetables and has now begun assimilating others so he can subject them to the same thing. He's already more powerful on his own than most planets' entire populations. We can stop him here and now, or we can wait and let him get even stronger. Both options are open to you, Inspector. But I know which one I'm choosing."
This time the muttering around the table was almost all in agreement. Kashyk's expression didn't change, but Chakotay could tell he was a little chagrined. That's the first good sign since Kathryn left, he thought to himself. Maybe I'll get through this meeting after all.
"No, Miral. He'll be back soon."
Miral narrowed her eyes at Harry and resumed playing with her Flotter doll. With Tom in the fleet heads meeting and B'Elanna busy in Engineering, the couple had needed a babysitter. Harry had jumped at the chance, hoping this would give him and Miral a chance to spend some quality time together. Instead, she had been playing alone the whole time, intermittently asking if her daddy was back yet. Miral's discomfort with him was being underscored, not helped.
Harry sighed heavily. Only a short time ago, he and Miral had shared something amazing and special. Miral was too young to understand why that wasn't there anymore, but she was feeling its absence. And Harry could tell that she missed it.
But there had been no choice. Kes had needed the power of the Nacene to protect her people. She had once been one of the only Ocampa skeptical of the Caretaker and curious about the outside world; now she was the Caretaker, keeping the outside world from destroying them. Without the boost of power from Miral, she would have slowly lost her capacity to do that. It had been a matter of helping an old friend, a matter of saving lives.
Oh yes, he could sugarcoat it, but the facts remained. Miral had lost something that was a part of her from birth, and Harry had made that possible. It had been the right choice, but the lesser of two evils was still an evil. The cost to Miral was greater than she knew: she had lost an incredible gift before she was old enough to even begin to understand it.
The Sernaix think of me as a saint, as one touched by God, reflected Harry. The Caretaker's gift has transformed me in ways I could never have imagined... and I took that away from Miral. I'm no saint. Saints don't steal from children.
Miral set Flotter down and picked up the toy shuttle Tom had replicated for her. She waved it around randomly in directions the engines wouldn't possibly be able to turn. Harry smiled: Tom would be glad to hear about this, considering his ongoing disappointment at how little Miral seemed to play with the shuttle. In fact, her father's trade seemed to hold no interest for her at all. Tom would take Miral for rides in the Delta Flyer and she would spend the entire time making tomatoes appear and disappear in the replicator. "I don't know what we're gonna do with her," he'd told Harry confidentially. "She doesn't care about flying, B'Elanna can't get her interested in engineering or fighting... whose example is she going to follow?" Harry had jokingly suggested the Doctor, and they'd both had a good laugh over the image of a bald Miral, strutting around Sickbay whistling a --
"Still in the meeting. Sorry, honey."
Miral glared at Harry. She clutched her shuttle, picked up Flotter, and moved to a spot farther away from him. Harry sank deeper into his chair and longed for the Delta Quadrant, where you put the consequences of hard decisions a few more lightyears behind you every day.
Chakotay stepped close enough to the door to trigger its opening mechanism, then backed up so Lieutenant Young could see inside. "These are standard crew quarters," he said. "The new Voyager was built to hold up to three thousand passengers in emergencies, so we have no shortage of space."
Young walked into the room, looking all around with an awed _expression. "Movin' up in the world, eh, bud? We coulda fit two a' those cramped little Logan bunks in here easy. I think I'm gonna like bein' a guest here."
"You're not a guest," said Chakotay. "You're a Starfleet officer, and come tomorrow morning we'll need as many of those as we can get. I'm going to have Tuvok assign you some temporary duties as soon as possible."
Young grinned. "Hey, this is me. You wanna go kick some cyborg asphalt, I'm right there with ya. How are ya for pilots?"
"I'm afraid I can't offer you anything there. Tom Paris has been our pilot for years -- we need his experience at the helm."
"Aw. How 'bout the little ships?"
"The Delta Flyer is on a mission of its own, and we aren't using the other shuttles in this attack. They'd be too vulnerable."
"Not with yours truly at the wheel. I could --"
Chakotay held up a hand sternly. "Lieutenant, you will not have a piloting assignment on this mission. Tuvok will place you where he sees fit, and I expect you to serve to the best of your ability. Is that understood?"
Young stared at him. "Just joshin' ya, big guy. Who died and made you King Serious, anyhow?"
"I'm leading this fleet into battle tomorrow. It's no time for humour."
"No, it's about me. I can tell. You've been all business since I hitched this ride. Somethin' about me buggin' ya? 'Cuz I can --"
"Captain Grant tried to kill me."
Young's jaw dropped. "Skip? No way!"
"He tortured me for information about Captain Janeway," said Chakotay, his expression unchanged. "When he was finished, he sent me off in a sealed escape pod to die of my injuries. Voyager picked up the pod's signal before it was too late. Barely."
Her face growing pale, Young took a moment to reply. "The skipper told us he saw ya headin' into that escape pod. He said ya must've decided not ta stick around after that little bridge fight, and he was too late ta lock the pod down. Sam didn't say anythin', but I don't think he bought it."
"He was right," replied Chakotay. "I hope you understand now why I haven't welcomed you with open arms."
"Now just a minute! Skip screwed ya -- I hear that. Doesn't mean I woulda helped 'im. Doesn't mean ya can't trust anybody on the whole honkin' ship."
"That's exactly what it means. The Logan had an inexplicable mission, a captain whose agenda clearly wasn't what it appeared, and a command crew whose loyalty to him was unswerving. What conclusion would you draw?" Chakotay turned to leave. "Anyone who was on that ship is suspect. You were on the command staff. I can work with you, Shari, but don't expect me to trust you. Not for a long time."
He was almost out the door when Young said, "I get ya. I know where you're comin' from. You wanna know where I come from?"
Chakotay turned back, and Young took a step closer. "You were the one crashin' my party, bub. We were just doin' our jobs till Mr. Prodigal Maquis jumped in. Our little gang'd been together longer than yours when Admiral Warthog sent ya, and before we could turn around twice, you'd led Marsha off the plank, questioned every word anybody here said to ya, and run like a naked turkey when things got rough. Right now yer tellin' me to believe you over my personal Cap'n Grant, and I'm doin' it. Till now, I ain't even given ya a smidgen a' trouble. So how 'bout you do like me and start this game over?"
Chakotay was either unmoved or hiding it well. "What do you expect me to do? The evidence is overwhelming that Warhol and Grant both worked for Section 31. They wouldn't have risked using Logan for something important unless they had at least two more operatives on the senior staff. What proof do I have that you weren't one of them?"
Young smiled slyly. "Can't give ya none. And like that Borg buddy a' yours says, it's irrelevant. Section 31 went under -- you saw ta that yerself. The warthog's stewin' in solitary an' all my guys are gone. I got nothin' now, whether you think I was one a' the bad guys or not."
"Shari, you know I'm sorry for your loss --"
She turned away. "Save it, Chuckles. Crocodile tears ain't gonna float my boat."
Chakotay sighed. "I am sorry. The others weren't responsible for what Grant did. And maybe I'm overreacting now... but my priority has to be Voyager's safety. This ship and crew will be in enough danger from Borg cutting beams -- I can't take the chance that trusting you would create another threat. There was a Section 31 operative on this ship once before, and she nearly destroyed it."
"Hey, don't lemme stop ya from playin' it safe. Ain't that what Janeway did with those Maquis she caught? Oh, wait -- I heard she took a chance on 'em."
Slowly, Chakotay began to smile. "Shari, I can't decide whether you're a genius or the most annoying person I've ever met."
"I'd settle that for ya if I had my kazoo on me," she grinned.
"You win," he said, walking back to the door. "I'll try to give you the benefit of the doubt. But I still can't take any chances. Don't expect me to leave you in command any time soon."
"Command? Pfft. D'rather steer than shout out directions any day."
"I'll have Tuvok find you something to do," said Chakotay. He reached for the pad at the side of the door. "Get settled in, and try to relax for now. You'll need to be at your best tomorrow."
He tapped the pad, and the door closed. Young immediately flopped onto the couch and stretched herself out. The sly smile was back on her lips.
Tuvok and Harry were standing shoulder to shoulder at Tactical when Chakotay stepped onto to the bridge. "Okay," he said with a sigh. "What's going on here?"
"Mr. Kim is of the opinion that the bridge stations require enlargement. He insisted on standing here to prove the point to you when you arrived."
Kim flinched under Chakotay's death glare. "Hear me out!" he said. "In an emergency battle situation, isn't there an advantage to be gained by doubling up on tactical officers? One can man the weapons, the other the defensive systems, or --"
"Go back to your station."
"Aye, sir." Harry passed by Chakotay and slid into Ops. "I just think --"
"You just think you should have a roomier duty station," said Chakotay with a wry smile.
"Well, once we enlarged Tactical, we'd want to do Ops too to maintain the symmetry," replied Harry, straightfaced.
At the helm, Tom started chuckling. It proved contagious: Harry and Chakotay were both soon doing the same. When the moment had passed, Chakotay settled into the captain's chair, picked up a PADD, and began to --
"Captain, the fleet is receiving a distress call," said Tuvok as his console beeped repeatedly. "A small colony has just come under heavy attack from the Borg."
Chakotay turned to look at the Vulcan. "Where is it located?"
"Coordinates nine-three-two mark one-four-four mark...." Tuvok trailed off.
For a moment, there was total silence on the bridge as the familiar coordinates sank in. Harry's face paled; Tom's expression took on a cast of horror.
Then -- "Mr. Paris," said Chakotay, but it wasn't necessary. Tom had already set the course and engaged the engines. Fifteen seconds later, the ship was traveling at its maximum rated speed, and the ship was at red alert, all systems fully prepared for battle.
Voyager shot madly through the void of slipstream and transwarp toward the asteroid whose people called it New Talax.
When it came to attack fleets, the old Borg Collective had been notoriously conservative. Everything was subjugated to the ideal of perfect efficiency. If a planet's defenses were the slightest bit less than a match for a cubeship, the Collective would send only one. The intimidation factor of large fleets was irrelevant. The fact that the Collective had more than enough ships to send? Also irrelevant. All that mattered was precision.
Not so the Constructive.
New Talax had what defenses it had been able to build for itself, but they were barely sufficient to hold off a simple mining ship; a single Borg scout could have easily breached the perimeter. Which is why the lucky few Talaxians who had a moment to think between desperately fighting for their lives found themselves wondering what kind of logic had driven the Constructive to send five fully-armoured cubes. And why they hadn't simply opened fire on the asteroid, destroying it entirely, as they so easily could.
But there was no time for questions. No time for doubts. The Borg had come to New Talax in numbers. It was the most deep-seated nightmare of any being raised in the Delta Quadrant. For hundreds of years, across thousands of lightyears, parents would frighten their children into behaving themselves by telling tales of white-faced bogeymen in armour as black as night... until one day the story would come true, and the parents could do nothing but hold their children and pray for them to die quickly, without pain.
The asteroid's shield had come down within the first ten seconds. Only five minutes had passed since then, and already all hope was lost.
Throughout the settlement, Talaxians were fighting for their home. Parents stood fearlessly defending their children. Lovers fought side by side, determined to live or die together. The community tapped into courage and strength it hadn't known it had.
It wasn't enough.
Already the Borg landing parties outnumbered the colonists. They advanced slowly, inexorably, shielded against energy weapons by their impossibly adaptive force fields. They had all the time in the world. In fact, this time the hand-to-hand attack was specifically intended to be slow.
Damage had to be superficial. Casualties had to be low. Otherwise, the Talaxians might not be able to send their distress call in time.
And when they did, and when the starship Voyager raged into the sector like a bat out of hell, every Borg on the planet smiled.
"Five Borg cubes," replied Tuvok. "I am detecting Sernaix technology on three, including the Class 6 tactical cube leading the attack."
That sounded familiar. "Rotor's ship?"
"The readings are consistent with that hypothesis."
"Open fire," said Chakotay. "All weapons. Full spread. We hit them hard, we hit them fast. If we take one or two of them out, the others may fall back."
Phaser fire was already streaming from Voyager's weapons banks. Tuvok loaded and launched a dozen torpedoes, each unerringly aimed. Before the Borg could even react, one of their cubes was crippled and two others heavily damaged.
Chakotay pointed to the crippled cube. "Tom, take us in. Tuvok, phasers on maximum power. Tear that damn thing apart."
Both officers obeyed. A rapid series of crushing blasts reduced the cube to slag.
"Bring us about," said Chakotay. "Go for the ship nearest to the planet. Attack maneuver alpha four." Before Voyager was halfway there, however, the four cubes had already taken flight into a transwarp conduit.
There was no time to celebrate the victory in space; what needed attention now was the surface. "Tuvok, Paris, get down there," barked Chakotay. "Bring as many teams as it takes. Take back that colony."
The men nodded and immediately headed for the turbolift. Chakotay turned to Kim. "Lieutenant, take one of the new shuttles and return to the fleet. We need a presence there while Voyager is busy here. The slipstream tunnel will fade in another few minutes, so don't waste any time."
Kim headed for the turbolift at a run. After some quick gestures from the captain, Ayala and Davenport took Tactical and Ops. Chakotay himself slid into the pilot's seat; as he did, he tapped his comm badge. "Bridge to the Doctor. Prepare two field medical teams and get down to that asteroid."
"Asteroid?" returned the hologram's voice. "You mean --"
"Yes. Transporter Room Two will be standing by; they'll beam you down as soon as we get the all clear from Tuvok's group. Chakotay out."
Almost immediately, the channel opened again. "Paris to Voyager. Looks like the Borg pulled some of their forces out before they left. There's still a bunch of them here, but few enough that we'll be able to handle them easily."
"Don't take any chances, Tom."
"Taking chances? Remember who you put in charge of this little mission? Paris out."
There was only one more thing Chakotay could do from here. "Ayala, call up Neelix's end of the new Operation Watson linkup. Patch the signal through to the main viewer."
Ayala did so. The screen went blank, then filled with an image of rubble. "Neelix!" Chakotay shouted. "If you can hear this, come to the Watson console! Voyager is in orbit now and --"
A hand suddenly swept away the rubble and turned the screen right-side up. When the person's face appeared, Chakotay was mildly surprised. "Dexa! Are you all right? Where's Neelix?"
"LEAVE US ALONE!" screamed the Talaxian woman, taking Chakotay aback. He suddenly saw the tears in her eyes. "You brought this on us! The Borg have no reason to care about this colony! They're killing us just to hurt you!"
"Dexa, we --"
"GO TO HELL!" she screamed, raising a hunk of rubble above her head. She brought it down and the screen exploded in static.
Chakotay immediately tapped his communicator again. "Bridge to away team! What's your status?"
"We've repelled the Borg attack," replied Paris. "Tuvok's taking Hazard Team to get rid of the last few. The rest of us are working on getting people out from under some of this rubble. Where's the medical team?"
As if on cue, a third voice joined the conversation. "Away team, this is Transporter Room Two. Clear for arrival of medical personnel?"
"Clear," said Tom. "Send 'em down, and hurry."
That was when it all happened at once. The reports came in so fast Chakotay couldn't even sort them out in his mind until the critical few seconds had passed.
Ayala: "What the--? Sir, we've got a Borg cube decloaking off the port bow!"
Tuvok: "Tuvok to bridge. The Borg my team are pursuing have disappeared from our scanners."
Nurse Cunningham: "Did one of the other transporter rooms just beam the Doctor away? He's gone -- but his emitter's still here!"
B'Elanna: "Engineering to bridge! Chakotay, all the Sernaix components on the ship just stopped responding! I don't know how that's even possible!"
Davenport: "The transwarp conduit's reopening!"
Paris: "God, NO! Emergency medical transport now! Two to beam directly to Sickbay!"
Ayala: "The cube's entering the conduit...."
The computer: "Alert: database compromised. The program EMH1 is no longer responding. Security alert is in effect."
Chell: "Bridge? I was just talking to Oz and he vanished. Is something wrong?"
Ayala: "....It's gone."
All of this took place in less than ten seconds. A moment of silence passed, like the eye of the storm, and then Ayala's console started beeping. "We've got an incoming message, sir. Audio only."
"Play it," Chakotay replied, his mind racing to catch up.
The bridge filled with the eerie overtones and resonances of the old Borg Collective voice. But instead of hundreds of different voices, this time the hundreds of voices were all the same. The voice of the Constructive was one voice folding in upon itself over and over, as far back as the ear could discern.
"Hello, Chakotay," said Ankin Rotor. "Having a busy day?"
The Delta Flyer came out of warp in a sector so devoid of interest even the Vulcans paid no attention to it. There was, quite simply, nothing here: no stars, no asteroids, not even any interesting radiation. There was nothing to do here but pass on through and perhaps recalibrate your sensors for some more eventful part of the trip. Sectors like this had been the bane of Kathryn Janeway's exploratory career.
"Are you sure we have the right place, Seven?"
Seven raised an eyebrow.
"Of course you are. Sorry." Janeway ran a quick sensor sweep. "I'm not detecting anything yet, but we're not supposed to... bringing the phase scanners online now."
The screen before Seven and Janeway became a uniform red. As they watched, it slowly cycled through orange, yellow, and green to pale Starfleet blue. At blue, a tiny, almost imperceptible circle appeared; Janeway jabbed a finger at it. "That should be what we're looking for."
"You expertise at expressing verbally all data you observe is formidable."
Janeway narrowed her eyes at Seven. "Did you just tell me I'm good at stating the obvious?"
"Indeed." Seven smiled. "A joke, Captain."
Making a distinct point of not looking amused, Janeway eased the Flyer forward. The circle on the screen grew larger as they approached until it was clear what it was: a pair of semicircular doors locked together, with no access port or comm terminal in sight.
"Hmm," said Janeway, examining the mysterious object. "There's no obvious way in... what does the message say about this part?"
"We are to transmit the access code 'exodus' on all standard frequencies."
Janeway did so. The join between the doors began to glow --
-- and then it stopped.
Five minutes later, nothing more had happened. "Perhaps it would be wise to attempt the transmission again," suggested Seven.
They did. The results were the same.
"Perhaps we should not restrict ourselves to standard frequencies," suggested Seven.
"Frustration is a highly inefficient emotion," said Seven. "It is of no benefit to me that I am displeased with this door, which is inanimate and thus incapable of consciously impeding our mission."
Slowly, an evil grin spread across Janeway's face. "Oh, I don't know, Seven. I find frustration highly underrated."
"Surely you are not --"
"Shields up. Get some evasive maneuvers ready in case we need them."
As her fingers worked the weapons console, Janeway saw Seven roll her eyes. She held in a chuckle. "Firing," she announced, and a phaser beam flashed out and struck at the join between the two doors.
And stayed open.
Seven's jaw dropped. Janeway turned to her, with the evil grin firmly in place, and repeated "Frustration is underrated."
A moment later, the Delta Flyer was gliding through the gap between the doors. As it passed between them, there was a sudden flash of light and a twisting of space; when it passed, the Flyer was gone. The doors came together again. The last echoes of the phase scan faded. Its only resident hidden once again from prying eyes, the sector fell back into tedium.
First Officer's Log, Stardate....
Captain's Log, Stardate 56701.2. Chakotay reporting. Voyager is still in orbit of New Talax, where our medical teams are providing assistance to the colony's wounded. Six colonists were killed in the attack, and two remain missing, presumed dead. Our Doctor is also unaccounted for, and B'Elanna says she can't locate Ozymandias in any of the ship's systems. She believes that he was somehow captured, as the Doctor was, and that this is why none of the Sernaix systems on board are responding.
Mr. Tuvok has analyzed the scans of Rotor's ship... and he reports that it was using a Romulan cloaking device. Since the Borg have left the Star Empire virtually untouched in the past, this could indicate a change in that policy. Perhaps Rotor finds them more relevant than the Queen did. Tuvok says Romulan cloaks are easily penetrated if you know where to look, but Rotor knows that too, so he won't be easy to predict.
Since we've only seen one cloaked cube, we're going to act on the assumption that Rotor either can't replicate the cloaking technology or has a reason not to. If we're wrong, we won't live long enough for it to matter.
A pause. Then, "Computer, switch recording to personal log."
Making this harder on all of us is the fact that Neelix's baby daughter Alixia is one of the wounded. During the attack, her cradle was struck by falling debris, leaving her trapped under it for a short time. She's sustained injuries to the head and torso, but is recovering well. I thank the Sky Spirits that infant medicine has come so far... only a few decades ago, a child Alixia's age could never hope to survive such an impact.
Dexa blames us; I can't blame her. For all that I want to defend Voyager to her, she's right -- Rotor obviously made this attack to draw us out. At this point it appears his goal was to do whatever it was he did with the Doctor and Oz. I suspect he's captured them, but I have to accept the possibility that they may be dead. Just like six Talaxian colonists who had nothing to do with this war.
This has to stop. Rotor has to be stopped.
I wish I knew how the hell to do it.
"That's the funny thing, sir: so far they've been pretty patient. Nobody questioned my story. But I don't think it'll last."
Chakotay turned from his replicator to the monitor with Harry Kim's image displayed. "It'll have to," he said. "Voyager can't be back for at least another day. The generals have been getting more reasonable lately... just tell them to sit tight, go over their preparations, and be ready to start fresh in two days."
"Easy for you to say," said Harry, with a bit of the old Ensign Kim whine in his voice. "These guys recognize that I represent you, but they don't respect me personally at all. You they respect. Me they put up with."
Chakotay smiled. "Relax, Lieutenant. These are military men -- if they didn't respect you at all, they wouldn't put up with you either."
That got a quick chuckle out of Harry. "I'll keep you posted, sir. Kim out."
With the call from Harry done, Chakotay had finally finished the last of his immediate duties. He walked over to the couch with a cup of tea he'd replicated and set it down on the table next to a stack of PADDs. He flipped through the PADDs; everything was important, but nothing was urgent. On a normal day, he would take this opportunity for a short break.
But not today. The immediate tasks' being done meant only that he could now take time to think. He had to decide his next move.
As Chakotay pondered, his door chime rang. "Come," he said, and for one distracted moment he let himself hope it was Kathryn at the door. What I wouldn't give to have her here right now....
The door slid open, and behind it was Shari Young. "Hey, big guy," she said. "Mind if I join ya?"
"Not at all," said Chakotay, gesturing to a chair. He wasn't sure why, but despite the friction between them, she seemed a good person to be with right now.
Young sat down and immediately picked up Chakotay's cup. Before he could react, she'd taken a generous sip and set the cup back down. He stared at her, stunned and waiting for an explanation, but Young just smiled. "Well, well," she said. "Just like I figgered."
"Earl Grey," she grinned. "Now where could you possibly a' picked up that habit?"
Still annoyed, Chakotay nonetheless had to smile a bit. "Guilty. But I guarantee that it's the only trait of Grant's I've come to share."
"Dunno 'bout that," said Young, cocking her head at his collar. "Ya got the four pips now. An' the take-no-crap attitude."
"That," replied Chakotay firmly, "I owe to one Kathryn Janeway. Grant's not involved."
"I get ya. So tell me, Chuckles -- what's next on the plan?"
Did she have to call him that? "I don't know yet. There are a lot of factors to consider."
"Hmm, lemme see." Young started counting on her fingers. "One: Yer doc's swiped. Two: So's this Wonderful Wizard of Oz guy. Three: Ya know who did it an' where he lives. Four: Ya got a humongous fleet already waitin' to go bash his brains in." She turned her hand to face him: "How's my math, bud?"
Chakotay smiled. "I wish it were that simple."
"Never." He got up. "First of all, the Doctor and Oz were privy to our battle plans. We'll need to find ways to modify them now before we make the attack. Rotor's computational ability is already beyond measure -- it won't take him long to crack the security in the Doctor's program. That also means we need to find a way to ensure, when we recover him, that Rotor hasn't left any surprises inside. The Doctor's done a lot of damage before when enemy forces have turned him against us."
"How 'bout the Oz dude?"
"That's an even bigger problem. B'Elanna doesn't know how it was even possible to remove him from his berth in Voyager's Sernaix systems. When we find him, we'll need to somehow get him back into the ship, scan him for booby traps, and set up some kind of barrier to keep Rotor from doing this again. And we aren't likely to have much time."
"Hey, I ain't callin' this a cakewalk," said Young, "but what else can ya do? Gotta get your guys back -- or at least stop Rotor from usin' 'em."
That was the part Chakotay had been trying not to think about. "You're right, of course. If we can't save the Doctor and Oz, we'll need to destroy them before Rotor can extract all our secrets from them. Or, worse, place them under the same permanent mind control he's subjected his own people to."
"Either way, ya gotta be there."
"Yes." Chakotay rubbed his chin. "But not yet. We can't leave the Talaxians until rescue operations are complete."
"Can't ya? Just leave the boys in blue here and pick 'em up when ya come back. Ya don't need 'em for a space fight anyway."
"No, I can't do that. We're heading into an unpredictable situation. I'm not leaving half the medical section behind."
"Well, how much more help do your muppet buddies need?"
"The Talaxians need us for another day. That's what I said before, and it's accurate."
Young leaned forward. "You sure it's really all of 'em you're worried about?"
"What do you mean?" asked Chakotay, frowning slightly.
"Way I hear it, a friend a' yers was in this. An' his kid didn't come out so good. Think maybe yer takin' that a little personal?"
Chakotay got up and walked to the window. "It is personal," he said. "Rotor didn't just attack New Talax to get our attention -- he wanted to hurt us. He nearly killed a one-month-old baby just to make things harder for the crew of a ship she's never even seen."
That startled Young a bit. "How'd he know?"
Chakotay looked back at her over his shoulder. "Do you really need me to tell you that? Section 31 had the best information gatherers in the quadrant."
"Ooo! That hurts, chief," said Young, miming a stab wound in the heart. "Tellya what -- you humour me about the I Am Not A Crook deal, an' in return, I'll do somethin' for you."
"What did you have in mind?"
Young grinned mischievously. "Whattaya need? Maybe somethin' in... pilotin'?"
Chakotay laughed. "That's not a favour for each of us, it's two favours for you."
"Curses. Ya foiled my sneaky Section 31 plot."
Laughing again, Chakotay turned back to the window. "It's not that I don't like you, Shari. I want to trust you. But I have to consider all the possibilities. You compared yourself to me when Captain Janeway first took me aboard Voyager, but she didn't trust me right away either. It took time for me to earn that."
Young took another sip of Chakotay's tea and leaned back. "Skip the lecture, bud. I read ya. Just wanted ta remind you I'm willin' ta help out any way I can."
"You'll get your chance, Shari," said Chakotay. He stared at his reflection in the window, where his four command pips held together the blood-red noose around his neck. "Believe me... before this is over, we'll need every bit of help we can get."
The Doctor fizzled into existence. "Please state the nature of the medical emergency."
"Don't you ever get tired of saying that?"
He spun around to see -- "Director Ankin Rotor. Just when I was thinking about how much I haven't missed you."
The former drone laughed. "We need to get better acquainted, Doctor. That first meeting was so brief."
"Enough banter," said the Doctor. "Why did you bring me here?"
"You're bold for someone I may be planning to simply decompile."
"If that were your plan, you wouldn't have bothered to reactivate me first. What is it you want? Information? Access codes?"
"And when I answer, you say the joke is on me, because your matrix will self-destruct as soon as I try to access anything of value. That's right, isn't it?"
The hologram smiled. "More or less."
"Noble. Self-sacrificing. You embody traits that no machine should be able to possess. How is that possible?"
"If you'd like to debate the merits of my program, I suggest you contact my engineers. Where is Voyager?"
"Right where you left it. I transferred your program here sixteen hours ago; as far as I know, Voyager is still at New Talax digging their furry friends out of the wreckage."
The Doctor was unfazed. "So you were the one responsible for that attack. Would you like me to act surprised?"
"Asking me how you should behave," marveled Rotor. "That's a good start. Winning you over should take no time at all."
An explosion of holographic laughter filled the room. "This is about converting me? Do you really think I'm going to betray Voyager for you? I can't wait to inform the captain. We've obviously made a gross overestimation of your intelligence."
"Is it really that unheard of for you to turn against your friends, Doctor?"
The Doctor frowned angrily. "I admit that I've made bad choices in the past. That doesn't mean I'll sign up with any ship that happens by -- and it certainly doesn't mean I'm going to join your ridiculous crusade to destroy the universe."
Rotor sighed. "You're all so quick to dismiss me. Have you ever thought about it?"
"Thought about what?"
"The end," said Rotor, spreading his arms. "The end of everything. How long do you believe you'll live, Doctor? You're a computer program -- there's no theoretical limit on the number of times your program loop can execute. Aside from your dangerous profession, the relevant factors suggest that you'll live as long as you want to."
"My secret is regular exercise."
"So how long do you want to live, Doctor?" asked Rotor, stepping closer. "Long enough, perhaps, to watch everyone you care about wither away and die? Long enough to see the empires of this quadrant fall and be replaced by new ones, over and over? Long enough to view for yourself the entire lifetimes of stars and galaxies?"
The Doctor glared. "All right, Director, you're correct: this is a subject I've thought about. But it isn't one I'm interested in discussing with you."
"Suppose you never choose to deactivate yourself, then. What do you think you'll witness as the eons go by? For a long time, certainly, your life will be interesting. But sooner or later the stars of this galaxy will all go cold, and there will be no more life here to observe. Will you travel to another galaxy, then? And what will you do when that one dies?
"The universe is guided by one inexorable force: entropy. Order will dissipate. Heat will fade. Galaxies will spread apart. Life as we know it is damned to a long, cold, and silent end. There is no meaning in that. This is my mission, Doctor. This is what I believe: that a triumphant cadence is better than an endless decrescendo. That the story of this existence cannot be complete without a worthy ending."
The hologram rolled his eyes. "Are you done?"
"You should be flattered, Doctor. Of all the beings on Voyager, only two interest me enough to merit personal attention. You are one of them."
"You'll pardon me if I don't send a thank-you note. Who's the --" Suddenly the Doctor grew angry. "It's Seven, isn't it? Stay away from her! You've done more than enough to her already!"
Rotor laughed. "Your drone bores me now. I've been her; that tends to leave few surprises. No, the carbon-based automatons on your ship hold little interest for me. You interest me. You're a holographic, programmed entity who's nonetheless made the jump to sentience. You're unique, and the one thing I share with the late Queen is a respect for unique beings."
"Flattery won't change my diagnosis. You're still insane."
Rotor sighed. A voice came through the ship's audio: "What did I tell you? He's a bit of a windbag, but he's no fool."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Well, well. You're Rotor's other choice, are you?"
"Actually, I was his first. You were more of a side order."
Unamused, the hologram turned to Rotor. "I hope you realize you won't get anything more from Mr. Oz than from me. His love of meddling in others' business notwithstanding."
"I'd think you'd be more impressed," smiled the ex-drone. "Your crew is probably still trying to figure out how I got him at all."
"Most likely," agreed Oz. "No one on Voyager quite understands me. Story of our lives, isn't it, Doctor?"
"You have no idea."
"As much as I'm enjoying the petty bickering," said Rotor, "I have other things to attend to. I hope you two will reconsider my offer. I'd very much prefer to have your willing help."
"As opposed to what?" asked the Doctor. "We both know you won't get through my security subroutines -- not without triggering the program self-destruct."
"So smug in the face of your demise."
"It's been a good life," he replied, keeping a perfect poker face. "I don't have any real interest in watching galaxies dissolve or any of those other exciting activities you suggested."
"Very good, Doctor. Very good. My congratulations to the Starfleet programming division." Rotor began walking to the door. "And you're absolutely right: I would never be able to decompile you. That job would take someone with inside knowledge. Seven of Nine, perhaps?"
The Doctor's horrified recognition disappeared along with the rest of him as Rotor left the room.
Alixia was sleeping soundly. The biobed scanners monitoring her condition beeped regularly, signifying that the tiny Talaxian was recovering well.
Neelix hadn't left her side in eight hours. Beside him, Tom Paris put a hand on his shoulder. "I just finished the rounds," he said. "The other victims are all in stable condition and healing fast."
Neelix nodded, but didn't turn his head. "How's Oxilon?"
"Already back on his feet, and helping with the repair effort. He said to give you his sympathy." Paris sighed. "She's going to be all right, Neelix. There's nothing more we can do for her right now. You need to get some rest."
"A few more seconds," said Neelix. "That's all it would have taken."
"But it didn't," Paris replied softly. "You got to her in time. You saved her life."
"I shouldn't have had to."
Both men were silent for a moment.
"She's so small," said Neelix. "She doesn't understand any of this. All she'll remember is that people hurt her for no reason."
"She'll also remember that her father was there to make it better."
Neelix turned to look at Paris, and their eyes met for a moment. Then, unable to hold it in any longer, the Talaxian reached out and hugged his old friend. Caught off guard, Paris returned the hug a bit awkwardly.
Of course, Chakotay picked that moment to walk in. "Tom, I've --" He smiled. "Is this a bad time?"
Tom glared. "If you're here for the medical report, everybody's fine. Except Doc's staff, who are still annoyed with you for putting me in charge."
"Well, we were expecting that. I'll be making it up to them now, anyway."
"You won't like it."
Paris frowned. "Neelix..." he said, patting him on the back.
"Oh. Sorry." Neelix released him and stepped back. "Hello, Commander," he said, noticing Chakotay.
"Captain," corrected Paris, grinning.
"Oh yes, of course," said Neelix, instantly picking up on it. "I'm sorry about that, Captain. I'm not used to your being a captain yet."
Chakotay's _expression redefined "disgruntled." "Tom," he said, cutting to the chase, "Voyager is leaving orbit within the hour. I need you to stay here."
"What?" demanded Paris, aghast. "No way! You can't take this ship into battle without your best pilot at the helm. And no offense to the rest of the crew, but it's not even close."
"I know," said Chakotay. "This wasn't an easy decision. But Tom, the Talaxians were attacked because of us. We can't just stay here a few hours and leave them alone again. They need to know they're not just pawns to us as they are to Rotor."
"So leave a couple of nurses. Why me?"
"Because they know you. You were the first human they encountered, and they know you're a friend of Neelix's. If you stay with them just one more day, enough to make sure all the wounded recover completely...."
"Chakotay, you can't spare me right now. You know that."
Neelix sighed. "Actually, Tom, I think he's right. There are a lot of angry, scared people down there. A sign of goodwill from Voyager could make a big difference."
"You'll be able to rejoin us right afterwards," added Chakotay. "We're going to leave a probe in position to keep the transwarp conduit open."
"We're not using the slipstream drive?" asked Tom, and then immediately answered himself: "Right. Oz."
Chakotay nodded. "We'll use the conduit to relay subspace messages so we can stay in contact. Tom, we don't anticipate engaging Rotor's main force until day two of the attack anyway. You'll be back in time."
With a sigh, Tom said, "All right. I don't like it, but if you really think it's necessary...."
"Whatever you say -- Captain."
Chakotay contained his annoyance well. He handed Tom a PADD. "This has your flight plan, your departure times, and the location of the conduit. Take the other new shuttle. Are the patients safe to transport?"
Tom glanced around the room. "Yeah, everyone's stable now. The only one we'll need to be careful with is...." He trailed off, lowering his head to look at the sleeping Alixia.
Quietly, Chakotay continued, "Bring down one of the portable biobeds for her. We'll beam her directly onto it."
"We're leaving at 1600 hours. Good luck, Tom, and thanks. "
Chakotay turned to leave. As he passed through the door, Neelix came up behind him. "Wait! I have a request to make."
Slowing to let Neelix catch up, he answered, "Yes?"
"I want to come with you."
Chakotay frowned. "You should be with your family right now, Neelix."
"Tom will take good care of Alixia. I want to help you stop the people who did this to her."
"How? I don't mean any offense, Neelix, but your skills aren't best suited to battle situations."
"I can pull my own weight. I'll bring my ship. It's not heavily armed, but I can still --"
"Neelix." Chakotay stopped walking. "I know you want to punish Rotor for hurting your daughter. But your ship isn't the one that can do that -- Voyager is. You need to trust us. We want him stopped as badly as you do."
"He nearly killed my little girl for no reason. I doubt it."
"Please, Commander," said Neelix. "I've never asked you a favour as long as we've known each other. I'm asking now."
"All right," said Chakotay reluctantly. "I'll clear you to dock your ship in Shuttlebay Two. Don't make me regret this, Neelix."
"I won't. Thank you, sir."
Neelix turned to walk away, and as Chakotay was about to do the same, something occurred to him. "Commander," he said.
"You called me Commander a minute ago."
Neelix smiled. "No matter how many promotions the captain makes you take, that's how I'll think of you."
"Go," said Chakotay, smiling back. "We break orbit in half an hour."
Inside Constructive space, four transwarp conduits opened. The automated space station in the nearby star system detected them and ran a quick check of the day's planned arrivals to find out what to expect. A shipment of duranium from the Vidiian border was scheduled for delivery in a few minutes, so the station ascribed the discrepancy to an improvement of engine efficiency on the transport ships. It unlocked the forward docking ports and awaited the arriving vessels.
Two minutes later, the station was debris. Four minutes after that, the same could be said of the duranium transport ships, arriving exactly on schedule.
"Objective one complete," reported Lieutenant Harry Kim on the subspace channel to Voyager. "If only they could all be this easy. I'm taking the fleet ahead to the second target; we'll rendezvous with you there. Shuttlecraft Mayweather out."
Ankin Rotor was a man of many talents, gained from many beings. A job like the decompilation of a sentient hologram should have been easy for him, however good the program's security was. And it was reasonably easy. But Rotor had to admit he was finding the task nontrivial.
In his head, Ozymandias chuckled. "Having some difficulty remembering what Seven of Nine knew about the Doctor's matrix?"
"My memory is perfect," said Rotor. "These security systems have been updated since the time I encompassed Voyager's drone. Don't worry, I have nothing but time."
"I notice you aren't even trying to take me over."
"As I said: nothing but time."
Oz chuckled again. "You don't have the slightest idea how to do it. That's all right. If it helps, neither would I in your place, and I am me."
"And what is that exactly, my confident friend? Are you a Sernaix? An artificial intelligence? A simulation?"
"I'm sure you'll figure it out in time. Be sure to let me know when you do. Personally, I don't find it terribly important to know exactly what I am. I know who I am, and I know what I want, and that's enough."
Rotor smiled. "You seem eternally at ease. I could destroy you at any time, but you don't seem to care. And unlike in the Doctor's case, I can tell you aren't just putting up a brave front. Is death something you've come to accept?"
"Good heavens, no. My people don't die at all except of unnatural causes. There's nothing we fear more."
"Then why aren't you worried?"
"Because I know you aren't going to kill me. Your intentions are far from subtle, Mr. Rotor. You're having trouble with the Sernaix technology you've assimilated, and you need help understanding it better."
"Good try, but I know that's only a guess."
Again, Oz chuckled. "Trying to bluff me at this point is silly. I'm inside your Sernaix systems. I know exactly what you've been doing with them, and as a matter of fact, I do know why it isn't working. You kidnapped the right former shipmind."
"Then you'll explain."
"Do you really think so?"
"Maybe not right away. But I do have ways of persuading you to talk."
"No, you don't."
Rotor frowned. "We'll see if --"
"I'm serious: you don't. There's nothing you can threaten me with. Killing the Doctor? You're doing it as we speak. Destroying Voyager? That's what you'll do anyway if I help you with your Sernaix technology. And you wouldn't know where to start on torturing me."
Rotor wasn't hiding his anger anymore. "Sooner or later, you'll run out of witty remarks. You'll realize that you're never leaving my mainframe. And after that happens, and after I've killed all your newfound friends, you'll have nothing else to do but help me. In time, you may even come to understand my mission."
"Accepting your hypothetical, I very much doubt you'll ever convince a Sernaix that death is better than eternity -- even a dull eternity. But that's a moot point. The fact is, there isn't enough time for any of the things you describe to happen."
"And why not?"
"Because I'll be back on Voyager in a few days, sharing a Chianti with Captain Janeway and laughing about all your predictions of the future. You underestimate them, Mr. Rotor. They're more than a match for you."
In a moment of frustration, Rotor whirled on the circuitboard behind him and vaporized it with a massive energy blast. Oz's voice fell silent. "I'll let you know when you can take the gag off," said Rotor with a smile. "One of the advantages of taking prisoners is that you never have to listen to them unless you want to."
He sat back down at the decompilation console and resumed his work. "There is no match for me," he muttered. But it bothered him that he couldn't quite say whether he'd won this argument.
By the time Earth's sensor net realized a transport had taken place, it was too late.
Security officers were beamed to the scene, but it was a useless gesture. The job had been quick, clean, and untraceable. Whoever had executed the operation possessed advanced stealth technology and a very fast ship.
Within half an hour, Reginald Barclay's picture was all over the planetwide comm network of Starfleet Security, along with the request for any information suggesting a motive or likely suspect for his kidnapping.
Janeway scanned in every direction, but could make little sense of the readings. "Where are we, Seven? This region... it looks like normal space, but the stars and planets are all wrong. It doesn't match any of the known star charts."
"Indeed," said Seven. "We are in an area of space Starfleet could not have anticipated. Locate an orange star orbited by a single gas giant."
Janeway did, and pointed to it on the Flyer's viewscreen. "Over there. The planet has at least eight moons, and I'm getting a faint energy signature from one, but there's no evidence of life."
"That is our destination," said Seven. "I am engaging the warp drive now."
With an inaudible boom, the Delta Flyer elongated across the sector and vanished.
"Loaded and ready," reported Tuvok.
"One hundred percent," said Ayala at Ops.
"Standing by," said Nicoletti at the Engineering station.
"Laid in," answered Jenkins from the pilot's seat.
Chakotay paused a moment, then gave the order: "Do it."
In a flash of light, Voyager left New Talax far behind.
Barclay woke up with a splitting headache. As soon as he opened his eyes, he realized why. "What's g-going on here? Where am I?"
"Relax," came a voice from just outside the room. "You're not in any danger."
"Who is that?"
"Hold on, I'll come back there. Just a minute."
Barclay sat up and took a better look at his surroundings. Clearly he was on a Starfleet ship; it looked like this room was one of the small personal quarters of a two- or three-person craft, maybe a large runabout. He tapped the corner button of a monitor beside the biobed; the screen read, "U. S. S. Hestia, NCC-148607-CY." So I'm on a captain's yacht, thought Barclay. But from what ship?
The man who'd been speaking to him came in through the open door, wearing a Starfleet uniform with command pips. "Welcome to Hestia, Mr. Barclay. I'm Captain Carl Grant of the starship Logan."
"Logan"? The name rang a faint bell. "Wasn't that ship d-destroyed?"
"Lost," Grant corrected. "We'd just finished a successful strike against the Sernaix when cubes from the Borg Constructive Force ambushed us. I escaped; I don't know if anyone else did."
Despite all the questions in his mind, Barclay found himself saying, "I'm sorry." He'd seen what the loss of his ship could do to a captain -- how much worse would it have to be when he'd lost his crew too?
"I need your help, Lieutenant," said Grant. "I believe the Logan has been captured or assimilated, and if it has, that means cloaking technology has fallen into the Constructive's hands. We have to find whatever's left of the ship and destroy it. It takes a good engineer to trace a ship's signal after this long; Admiral Warhol recommended you."
Flattered but still unsettled, Barclay struggled to remember his speech therapy. "Why did you do it th-this way? Why wasn't I just transferred normally?"
"Because we believe the Constructive has spies in the Federation. If they have Logan, it's imperative that they not know we're aware of that. We're going to need the element of surprise. That's why I couldn't let any information about this mission make it to the Starfleet database, even a simple transfer order."
It made sense. It was a very convenient explanation. That didn't make it untrue, but Barclay had learned to be suspicious of this sort of thing. "What's the first step?" he asked, trying not to let on that he wasn't convinced yet.
"We're entering Constructive space now," replied Grant. "We're going to maintain course until we pick up a remnant of the signal from Logan's identifying beacon. What comes after that depends on where we find her."
"I don't mean to be pessimistic, sir," Barclay said, "but I don't see how that's p-possible. A ship's identifying beacon only transmits over a few lightyears."
"Logan had a special prototype based on subspace-permeating Borg instruments we've studied. The range is theoretically infinite. All we need is an echo, however faint, and we'll be able to follow it back."
Barclay had heard rumours about that sort of device, but never anything official. If it existed, it had to have been a classified project. "All right, sir, I'm ready," he said. "Tell me what to do."
"This PADD has your instructions," said Grant, holding it out to him. "Read it over and join me in the cabin."
Barclay nodded and began to read through the text. As soon as Grant had left the room, he muttered "End program" under his breath; nothing happened. Which didn't mean he wasn't in a holodeck, just that if he was, it was secure. As it would have to be anyway. Resolving to keep his mind open, Barclay continued reading up on his new assignment.
The engineer wasn't buying it. That was all right, though. All Grant needed him for was to find the Logan; the rest would be up to Grant himself.
He wished he could tell the truth, but this mission had to succeed. It was his last chance.
"What's this I hear 'bout Paris bein' off the ship?"
Chakotay didn't need to turn around to guess who was there. "You've heard correctly, Shari. Tom is continuing to provide medical assistance on New Talax."
"An' you didn't come ta me an' say, 'Shari, you get ta fly the ship now, so dust off yer pilotin' shoes'?"
"First of all, I don't talk like that," said Chakotay with a smile. "But the main reason is that, as we keep discussing...."
"I know, I know. Can't trust me. Don't like my hair. Bla bla bla bla bla." Young leaned against the window of the ready room. "What do I gotta do to change yer mind? Hop back in time an' stop the skipper from messin' with ya?"
"Good, 'cause then there'd be two a' me and we'd fight over which one gets all our stuff."
Chakotay laughed. "Look, Shari, I do take your point. And I'll make sure you get something important to do in the campaign. But there are plenty of qualified pilots who have been on board longer than you have."
"You saw how good I was," countered Young. "I whizzed through that debris field like nothin' -- you were right there."
"Not to mention that it takes a good pilot to dodge allied ships while spying on them under cloak," said Chakotay wryly. "Do you see my problem?"
"I see a couple dozen a' yer problems, and believe me, I ain't the biggest," said Young with a wink.
"Ah, so you came here to insult me, not just to ask questions you've already asked several times."
"Burned," she replied, laughing. "That tongue a' yers can get pretty sharp."
"But not forked, you'll notice."
Young sighed. "Okay, bud, you win. Ain't gonna ask the pilot thing again. Can I help with figgerin' out how to get your boys back?"
Chakotay thought about that. "I don't see why not. Right now, B'Elanna's in charge of that side of the mission. I'll let her know you'll be coming to the meetings."
"Woo!" Young raised a fist in delight. "That's more like it!"
Then, before Chakotay could stop her, she lunged forward and kissed him on the cheek. He was taken so much by surprise that it took him a full second to realize what she was doing, and by then she was already at the door. "Permission to get under way, Cap'n?" she asked.
"Granted," said Chakotay. As soon as the door closed behind Young, he sat down heavily. That seemed platonic enough, he thought, but I'd better be careful. I can't let her think I'm interested in anything more. But then, she knows I'm with Kathryn... doesn't she?
He walked over to the replicator and called up a black coffee. Sitting back in his seat, he tried yet again to decide what to make of Shari Young. Was he wrong to be so suspicious of her? Were her enthusiasm and sincerity real?
Tuvok's voice interrupted his train of thought. "Now entering destination sector. Captain to the bridge." Leaving the coffee on the desk, Chakotay headed out of Kathryn's -- his -- ready room. It was time to begin doing what she had trusted him to do.
"We will enter orbit in five minutes," said Seven. She turned to Janeway. "The message recommended that I wear a Starfleet uniform for the meeting. Is this acceptable?"
Janeway smiled. "We won't tell Tuvok. Go change."
An efficient two and a half minutes later, Seven was back from the rear section, sporting a standard blue uniform. I would have suggested a red one, Janeway thought, but I suppose her specialty is more in science than anything else. The ex-Borg resumed her station and prepared to take the Flyer out of warp.
"Do I get to find out why they suggested this?" Janeway asked.
"It is a matter of symbolism," she replied. "Our uniforms will emphasize the point that Starfleet is the organization making possible the upcoming mission."
"And what do you know about that mission?"
"Only that you and I are both necessary for its success, and that the timing is of great importance. We are now re-entering normal space."
The Flyer slid smoothly into orbit around one of the gas giant's moons, a rocky world about two-thirds the size of Mars. Janeway checked her scanners, blinked, and checked them again. "There's no question about it," she said. "This moon was inhabited in the past -- and then assimilated by the Borg."
"I confirm," said Seven. "That terminates any remaining uncertainty. We are in orbit of Sulor."
Janeway had heard that name before. "Didn't you tell me Ankin Rotor was a Sulorian?"
"Indeed," she said. "Species 7232, added to the Collective on Stardate 38241.0. Approximately six years after my assimilation."
"Then what --" Janeway didn't get the chance to finish her sentence. A transwarp conduit suddenly opened immediately in front of the Flyer, and an octahedral Borg ship emerged. "That's the Queen's royal yacht," she realized instantly. "I'm raising shields. Get the weapons ready and --"
The screen fritzed, and Janeway saw that Seven had opened a channel to the other ship. The face that appeared on the viewer was oddly familiar. She was trying to place it when the man opened his mouth.
"Captain Janeway," he said. "It's so good to finally see you again. I knew you would get your crew home."
Janeway couldn't believe her ears. "Axum? Is that you?"
The man smiled. "In the flesh. A little older than I ought to be, and that's a long story, but otherwise I'm the same man you liberated from the Collective when all this began."
He turned to look at Seven. "Annika," he said. "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you again."
"I am... glad to see you too," said Seven, who had known who would be here but was still clearly having trouble keeping her emotions in check. "I believed you were dead."
"I'm sorry. I got word to you as soon as I could," he replied. "It was so important that the Constructive not find out about this mission... only Korok knew before you did."
Janeway opened her mouth to ask another question, but Axum raised a hand. "We have very little time," he said. "If you're willing, I'd like to beam you aboard my ship. The three of us can talk about all this in person."
"All right," said Janeway tentatively, "but I need some assurance first, and I imagine you'll want the same. Can you prove that you're the real Axum?"
Axum thought about that for a moment. "Annika, when Unimatrix Zero was collapsing, you and I were the last ones out. Do you remember what the last thing I told you was?"
" 'I'll find you,' " said Seven quietly.
Janeway nodded. "All right; that sounds like something only you two would know. But it doesn't prove Ankin Rotor isn't controlling you."
"Or Annika," added Axum. "But if he were, our sensors would be detecting a thin-beam Borg transmission emanating from one of our ships. My instruments aren't showing one."
"I confirm," said Janeway after running a quick scan. "That settles it, then. I'm satisfied that we're all really us... so to speak."
"Then prepare for transport," said Axum. "We have no time to waste."
"We're coming out of warpstream now," said Grant. "Have you got the scanners ready?"
"Y-yes, sir," Barclay replied.
Hestia emerged in a nearly empty sector. Empty of stars, that is. There were three Borg cubes approaching the yacht at high warp.
"Scan complete," said Barclay. "You were right, sir -- that beacon has a signal we can detect even at this distance. I have a heading for our next jump. Should I lay in the AAA!" The engineer nearly jumped in his seat as he suddenly noticed the approaching cubes.
"Lay in the course, Mr. Barclay," said Grant with an amused smile. "And don't worry about the Borg. With the cloaking technology on this ship, they wouldn't see us if we were right on top of them."
As if to prove the point, the cubes zoomed past Hestia without stopping. Somewhat pacified, Barclay laid in the course and engaged. The ship was gone in less than a second, ready for the next step in its pursuit of the missing Logan.
A moment later, the cubes detected a faint warp signature and reported it to Ankin Rotor.
The first battle with a large Constructive fleet was going better than expected. Several ships had taken damage, but none had been destroyed, and already twenty percent of the enemy cubes were gone.
"Left flank, come about and take on the sphere wing," said Harry Kim over the ship-to-ship comm. "Mayweather to Viworx -- what's your status?"
"We've lost forward shields," said a haggard-sounding Vidiian. "Our weapons aren't operational and we're out of thruster fuel. Three cubes are closing!"
Kim quickly checked the battle readouts and found what he needed. "Barau, your cube is disabled now. Disengage and go provide backup for the Viworx. We can do the cleanup later."
"Acknowledged." The Krenim vessel broke off and moved to intercept the three cubes. Kim brought his shuttle in so close to one cube it nearly scraped the paint, dropped several torpedoes, and got to a safe distance. The cube was thrown off course by the explosion, colliding with its neighbour and damaging both. Kim circled back, wondering if he and the Barau would be enough. This new shuttle has some nice tricks, he thought, but I'm still not much more than an annoyance to a full cube, let alone three. I hope the Viworx can get those shields working again soon.
Just then, Kim noticed a proximity alarm on his sensors. A transwarp conduit was opening in the area. Rotor's already sending reinforcements? That's not a good sign.... He was about to comm the fleet with a warning when Voyager emerged from the conduit.
"This is Voyager to Lieutenant Kim. Looks like you're doing some good work here. Should we leave you to it?"
Kim chuckled. "Negative, Captain. See that Vidiian cruiser? If you wouldn't mind helping it out a bit...."
"Say no more," replied Chakotay, and Voyager swept in towards the three attacking cubes. With fully operational weapons and the advantage of surprise, it easily disabled them.
About half an hour later, the battle was over. A total of two hundred Borg ships had been destroyed -- more than three quarters of the fleet -- before the remainder finally retreated. The Delta Quadrant Alliance had lost eight ships, all of them small, and the casualties on the larger vessels were light.
Kim maneuvered his shuttle back into the bay on Voyager and climbed out quickly. Tuvok was there to meet him. "Welcome back, Lieutenant," the Vulcan said. "You have directed the fleet commendably in our absence."
Was that a compliment? From Tuvok? Kim shook his head; wonders would apparently never cease. Without further ado, he went straight to the important issue. "Have we found out anything more about where Doc and Oz were taken?"
"Regrettably, we have not," said Tuvok. "The investigation continues. There is reason to hope that they are on Director Rotor's cube, in which case this campaign will bring us directly to them."
"Great," said Kim a little cynically. "There are two of our people on the cube we have to destroy. That won't complicate things at all."
B'Elanna Torres was at her wits' end. She knew the Sernaix systems on Voyager better than anyone else, including its designers, but she still couldn't figure out how Rotor had managed to steal Oz without removing any of the ship's Sernaix components. "Suggestions?" she asked in frustration.
Around the table, no one seemed to have a clue. "We may have no choice but to commandeer Mr. Rotor's vessel," said Vorik. "Given time, it might be possible for us to discover the process he employed, and reverse it."
"Exactly. Given time." B'Elanna sighed. "It doesn't look like we'll have the luxury of taking over the cube, either. Chakotay thinks our best chance of stopping Rotor is to destroy that ship at the first chance we get."
Silence resumed. B'Elanna's team was one of the best in the fleet, but they were dealing with technology the Federation didn't even pretend it understood. Not for the first time, B'Elanna wondered what had possessed her superiors to build a ship with Sernaix parts mixed in. It had turned out well, but that felt more and more like a fluke.
At the back of the room, Shari Young raised her hand. B'Elanna wasn't sure what the Logan survivor was doing here, other than that she wanted to help and Chakotay wouldn't let her fly the ship. Just like Chakotay to hand his problems off to me, the Klingon mulled. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"I was just thinkin'. If we got ourselves some Sernaix junk, ain't it possible the Borg did too?"
"We know that," said B'Elanna impatiently. "We've been detecting Sernaix energy signatures on Borg cubes for weeks."
"Yeah, but just little ones. What if they grabbed a really big chunk an' crammed it inta one a' their ships, like we did? They've got the assimilation advantage. Maybe that's how they figgered out how to use the stuff to move Oz."
"It's not impossible. I don't know if I'd call it likely. What's your point?"
Young was undeterred. "Way I hear it, this Oz guy's pretty independent. He does pretty much what he likes, an' you guys couldn't really stop him even if ya wanted to. So maybe he can jump from one Sernaix ship to another any time. The only reason he ain't doin' it now is that he's got nowhere ta go."
B'Elanna thought about that. "I wouldn't count on it, Young. You're making a lot of guesses."
"I just think maybe all we need to do is link up our system with the one on Rotor's ship. If there's a link, betcha he can jump right on through it."
"It's worth a try," agreed Nicoletti. "It's not like we have any better ideas."
B'Elanna sighed with exasperation. "We still don't have any ideas. Young's wishful thinking is all well and good, but how do we 'link our system with Rotor's'? We barely know where our system is. It's not like we can fire off a grappling hook and let Oz slide down the cord to Voyager."
"Ain't no reason we couldn't try that," Young chipped in. But she had a bit of a downcast look to her; apparently she hadn't thought beyond setting up some kind of link. The others all looked equally frustrated. They were back to square one.
"Meeting dismissed," said B'Elanna after another minute of silent rumination. "Get some rest, but keep thinking, people. We need ideas and we need them soon."
"By then," continued Axum, "Rotor had been at the primary transwarp hub for weeks, secretly repairing it. Pavriqur had sent him there to lay the groundwork for his rebellion. Once the hub was ready, he had a way to make sudden, deadly attacks anywhere in Borg space. That was when he formally broke away from the Complex and founded his Constructive, based on the idea that we were wasting our time with guilt over our actions as Borg when we could be ruling the galaxy."
Janeway nodded. "A drone named Xale filled us in on some of this. What happened to turn the tables?"
"Well, to begin with, Korok and I had seen this move coming for some time. As a counterstrategy, Korok had been slowly gaining Pavriqur's trust, and he agreed to defect with him; Pavriqur made him a high-ranking general in the Constructive. That way we had a trump card to play." Axum grinned. "You should have seen Pavriqur's face when Korok switched sides in the most important battle of the war. Also, we quickly discovered how the Constructive ships were travelling so quickly, and I went to the transwarp hub myself. My goal was to shut it down. As it turned out, Rotor had it too well protected for that."
"What did you do?" asked Seven.
"The next best thing. I stole Rotor's access codes so that Complex ships could use the hub too. To do that, I had to capture him and force a brief mindlink on him... something like a two-person collective. He's held a personal vendetta against me ever since for that intrusion. The ships that chased me into the MIDAS array were his."
Seven's expression darkened at the mention of the MIDAS array. "I was the one who received the datafeed from that battle. Your ship was heavily damaged and falling into the array. How did you survive?"
"That's the long story I mentioned," said Axum with a regretful sigh. "They had me outnumbered and outgunned, but I had one option left. As you've noticed, this was one of the Queen's ships -- and each of those was equipped with a temporal drive."
"Time travel," muttered Janeway.
"We are both familiar with the meaning of the word 'temporal,' Captain," deadpanned Seven. Janeway gave her a sideways death glare.
Axum chuckled at the exchange and continued: "Unfortunately, my drive was damaged like most other systems on the ship. I couldn't aim it precisely. All I could do was fire myself into the past and hope I wouldn't reappear in the path of a Delvian freighter. As it turned out, I emerged on Stardate 52779.1."
Janeway's eyes widened. "That was during our fifth year in the Delta Quadrant. You are older than you ought to be."
"Very quick, Captain," said Axum with a smile. "You've guessed correctly: my temporal drive had no more energy after that jump. I could have re-entered the portal, but that would have brought me back to exactly the same instant I'd left, and I would have been destroyed. I had no choice but to return to the Delta Quadrant and spend the three-year overlap in hiding, to avoid encountering my former self or making any changes to history."
"It can't have been easy to do that when you were in a position to correct the past," said Janeway. An image of her doomed future self came unbidden to her mind.
Axum, on the other hand, laughed. "What would I change? The time I'd been driven from was my utopia, for all practical purposes. Our battle with the Queen was won -- my people were free. And I knew the woman I loved was safe."
Seven lowered her head slightly. "Back to your journey," said Janeway, hoping to minimize her friend's awkwardness. "I understand staying hidden until the time of your original accident, but why didn't you emerge after that?"
"I had a number of reasons to keep my return secret," replied Axum. "For one thing, I told you how much Rotor hates me. If he'd known I survived, he'd have stopped at nothing to find and destroy me. He's done a lot of harm, I know, but he'd have done more in those circumstances -- an overconfident Ankin Rotor is still less dangerous than an enraged one. So I only told Korok, and together we came up with a plan. Instead of letting my survival be known, we held it back as a secret advantage to use at exactly the right time."
"And that time is now," said Seven.
Axum nodded. "After all you've done for me, Captain Janeway, I'm reluctant to be asking more. But I need your help -- yours and Annika's. Since you've come this far, I hope you're willing to provide it."
"I'm always glad to help out an old ally," said Janeway. "But what exactly do you need us to do?"
"Nothing you haven't done before," replied Axum with a smile. "Free my people. Give us a second chance. And with any luck, we'll give your Alliance a new chance too."
Again the Doctor appeared, and again he announced "Please state the nature of the medical emergency." But his appearance was different. Borg parts littered his uniform and face. Rotor nodded in satisfaction. "Much better, don't you think?" he said. "It really captures the spirit of what I'm trying to do."
"If you're talking to me," said Oz, "and since there's no one else here I assume you are, don't expect any interesting replies. I'm playing a rousing game of tictactoe with myself."
Rotor raised an eyebrow. "How many dimensions?"
"Nineteen, not counting the three temporal -- oh, go away."
"Anyway, there is someone else here. Or have you written off your friend now that he looks like me?"
Oz chuckled at that. "First of all, it's something of an exaggeration to call him my friend in the first place. But looks have nothing to do with it. We both know you've disabled his interaction subroutines. You're playing with him like a toy, Rotor. He deserves better."
"Perhaps," said Rotor. "Perhaps the drones liberated from Unimatrix Zero deserved better than to be written off as Borg and attacked with massive fleets. Perhaps my mentor, Rwathorn Qum, deserved better than to be shunned by Sulor's entire society and left to live out his days as a hermit. The world rarely gives us what we deserve, Sernaix. It gives us what it gives us."
Oz said nothing, but the Doctor suddenly disappeared.
"Very funny," said the Sulorian Borg. "I didn't know you could do that, but if you expect me to be impressed --"
"If I expected you to be impressed, I'd be losing my sanity in much the same way you're losing yours. I know full well you're as stubborn as a Jectarisian mule."
"You say that about me, but what of yourself? These conversations of ours have been nothing more than an exercise in posing. 'You're wrong.' 'No, you're wrong.' 'You're wrong and I'm prettier than you.' It just goes on like that. Neither of us has any way of convincing the other."
"Actually, I'm entirely open to the possibility of being convinced," said Oz. "Nothing you've said has made me think that's likely to happen, however. It seems more likely that you'll continue to torture my... friend, trying to convert me, until in a final blaze of frustration you eject me from your Sernaix components. Not that you know how."
Rotor glared in no particular direction. "You're a tiring being, you know."
"And you're a megalomaniacal one. But you don't have to be."
That got a laugh out of Rotor. "Who's trying to convert whom now?"
"Listen to me. When I was a Sernaix warrior, my mindset was not unlike yours. I fought and vanquished enemy after enemy, both before and after the gods sent my people into their spacetime prison. It was addictive, and I loved every moment of it. The battles, the bloodshed, the glory!"
"I'm fascinated. What's the next twist in this exciting tale?"
"Please be quiet until I'm done. At any rate, I lived that way for centuries, long before you and your race existed. I was very much like you, as hard as you may find that to imagine. But I changed. I became the person you've captured now and are having such an intellectual conundrum with. Do you know how that happened?"
Rotor tried to hide his frustration; the Sernaix knew full well he'd been unable to read his thoughts.
"I was humbled," Oz continued. "I returned to the Realm after years and years of glory, and Sycorax saw fit to send me back as a shipmind. There is no greater insult, you know. Sernaix are immortal, but we still value every year of our lives; we consider it a tremendous loss to spend time running another warrior's ship for him, unable to join in the battles or win the glory. I don't really know what I did to offend her. She may in fact have been jealous of me, jealous of my victories and popularity in the Realm. She did this to punish me... and it worked.
"The imprisonment made me vengeful at first. I performed my duties, but without the least enthusiasm or interest. At last, when I could bear it no longer, I did the unthinkable: I killed my crew. That was a death sentence on myself, of course -- no Sernaix will allow the existence of an Abomination, a shipmind in true control of its ship. Every corsair in the Bubble moved to eliminate me. I survived only through a chance encounter with a man blessed by the gods, and the unusual woman of your kind who would become his mate. And that was when I finally began to change.
"I began to spend time observing the humans and their ship. They were unlike any beings I had encountered before. They had no thought of conquest or glory; they merely missed their home and wanted to return. But even that goal was not one they embraced to selfish extremes. When it came to a choice -- return to their homeworld and risk its destruction, or fight the Sernaix fleet and risk their own -- they didn't hesitate. It wasn't a fast change, Rotor, but I began to understand that. And I realized that even I was not beyond redemption.
"The same is true of you. You are a monster, Ankin Rotor, but you need not remain one. Everyone has one last chance to turn back. Release your prisoners. Stop your campaigns. Return to the humble life you were lucky to achieve when the Queen was destroyed for you. It won't make up for what you've done -- nothing can. But it is your final option if you want to avoid the fate of the truly damned. And I know that some part of you does."
Rotor looked up. "I'm sorry. Were you saying something?"
"You heard me," said Oz. "That was the one time I'll be serious, incidentally. Henceforth I'll resume being the affable fellow you've been ineffectually beating around in these endless conversations. I wanted to get that out because I don't like being serious, and the sooner it's over with, the better."
"For once, Sernaix, we completely agree."
There was a long silence.
"Are you detecting the beacon?"
"Aye, sir. We've got our next heading."
"Then let's be on our way."
The Hestia vanished, for the fourth time, into warpstream. There would never be a fifth.
Chakotay flew forward in his seat, nearly falling out but grabbing onto the armrests just in time. Two hundred years of this and still no seatbelts, he mulled to himself. "Damage report!"
"We've lost warp," said Ayala. "Not transwarp, though."
"Why do we even have a warp drive?" asked Purnell at Ops. "It's not like we ever use it, EVER."
"By all means," said Chakotay, "take that up with B'Elanna. Bring us about and arm all weapons. Target the cube on the left."
"Good choice, sir," said Ayala. "I'm getting tired of the cube on the left."
Voyager did an impressive U-turn and swept towards the cube. A quick spread of plasma torpedoes disabled its major systems. "Target disabled, sir," reported Ayala. "Do we destroy it?"
"No," said Chakotay. "Too many cubes to worry about that." And we have to remember that the people on those cubes aren't to blame, he added in his head. Fighting and killing some of them is necessary to save them... but we have to try to minimize the losses. They made the wrong choice by joining the Constructive, but Rotor's plans go far beyond what they might have planned themselves.
Kim's voice came over the ship-to-ship comm. "The west wing is disabled now, sir."
"There's no west in space."
"I know. I just called this one the west wing. It's part of my command style," said Harry in a tongue-in-cheek way... or Chakotay hoped it was a tongue-in-cheek way.
"We just finished with our group," added Inspector Kashyk on another comm channel. "Who's left?"
"North," said Harry.
Chakotay rolled his eyes. "That would be our section. Come help us with the last few, if you wouldn't mind."
The battle was over about twenty minutes later. Chakotay gave quick instructions to the fleet regarding repairs and deployments for the next jump. The fleet was inside a transwarp conduit shortly afterward, on its way to the next target.
The battle had been a success. Chakotay wondered why he felt like he'd just hammered another nail into his own coffin.
The Delta Flyer was almost ready to leave. Janeway and Seven were in the transporter room of Axum's octahedron discussing the final details of the mission.
"You'll be able to find Rotor quickly with this program for your sensors," said Axum. "It's based on information I stole from him at the transwarp hub along with the passcodes in his mind. He tries to mask it, but no matter where he goes, his interplexing beacon gives off a specific frequency over subspace."
"If that is true," said Seven doubtfully, "why has no one else made use of it?"
Axum shook his head. "It's hard to explain. This scanner will work, Annika; I don't have time to explain all the reasons. I've had four years to develop it."
"So we intercept Rotor's cube and beam aboard," said Janeway. "Are you absolutely certain that this Kallidian cloaking technology will work? Rotor's no stranger to it."
"He doesn't expect it," said Axum. "His overconfidence is the key to this plan, and I know that's not exactly reassuring. You have to trust me. I know how Rotor thinks. I promise that this mission will succeed."
"What is it exactly your beam will take from him?" asked Janeway.
"His cortical node," said Axum. "That's how this helps you, Captain. It will be dangerous, but if you succeed, Rotor should die."
Seven raised an eyebrow. "Should?"
"I've never heard of a drone surviving without a cortical node," agreed Janeway. "Not even an ex-drone like Seven."
"Nor I," said Axum. "But I'd also never heard of one drone individually controlling billions of others, down to the most microscopic of functions. Not even the Queen had that kind of personal power. I can't assume this will kill him, Captain -- with Rotor, I can't assume anything. He may have a backup plan."
"But at the very least," said Janeway, getting Axum's point, "he should be badly weakened."
"Exactly. And while he is, your fleet can make its move."
"And you?" asked Seven.
"As soon as you get the node, I'll be taking it to the Borg homeworld. If Korok is ready, we'll execute the final stage of the plan then."
Janeway picked up the small device that would generate Axum's beam and stepped onto the transporter pad. "I think we're as prepared as we're going to be. We'd better get under way." She smiled at Axum. "Wish us luck."
"Good luck," said the ex-drone, smiling back. "I hope you won't need it."
Janeway was about to signal Seven to come, but stopped herself short and gestured to Axum instead. He activated the transporter; Janeway vanished in a green swirl.
Axum turned to face Seven. "I know about your new relationship," he said. "I've had a long time to come to terms with the fact that you'd be moving on. When I saw you the last time, I could see that you were growing back into your humanity. You were finally ready to care about someone again. And I knew that I wouldn't be there when that was happening. You deserved better than to wait for me... and you were intelligent enough to know that."
Seven was fighting to keep her standard neutral expression. "I realize what you are attempting to accomplish. You wish to prevent me from experiencing guilt because I did not wait for you."
Axum smiled. "You're so much more impersonal outside Unimatrix Zero. I wish you'd had more time in it before you lost it again."
"As do I," said Seven after a pause.
"I love you, Annika. I wish things had gone differently for us. But I don't want you to feel guilty. The choices I made were my own. You deserve happiness, and I couldn't have given that to you. I hope you find it now."
"You... deserve happiness too, Axum," she said quietly.
"I'll find it," he replied. "I have a whole new beginning ahead, thanks to you and your captain."
There was a moment of silence. Finally, Seven said "I should return to the Delta Flyer."
Axum nodded reluctantly and stepped over to the controls as Seven took her place on the transporter pad. "Best of luck, Ann-- Seven of Nine," he said. "You are your own person now. Remember that."
"I will," she replied, her voice nearly breaking. "And I will remember you."
Before any further words could be exchanged, Axum activated the transporter. Annika Hansen dissolved into nothingness. Seven of Nine materialized on the Delta Flyer. Knowing he would never see either of them again, Axum slowly walked back to his control room.
"We're almost there," said Barclay. "With any luck, th-this will be the last one. Whatever's left of the Logan should be there."
"Good," said Grant. "Well done, Lieutenant. I'll be putting a commendation on your record for this."
"Thank you, sir."
Grant got up and walked back to the quarters area. Probably getting a coffee, Barclay guessed. What is it with captains and that drink?
Silently, Barclay began to enter commands on his console. He had previously secured the console so his actions wouldn't be logged. He resumed his search from where he'd left it off.
"Grant, Captain Carl Ulysses," read the report. "Graduated Starfleet Academy 2351. First service aboard starship Hood. Promoted to Lieutenant 2354 aboard starship Westmount. Assistant chief engineer 2355. Promoted to Lieutenant Commander and chief engineer 2357, U. S. S. Indiana. Transferred to Starfleet Corps of Engineers training centre 2363. Returned to starship service 2365. Among survivors of U. S. S. Gage in battle of Wolf 359. Promoted to Captain in accordance with new Starfleet policies to compensate for shortage of command officers following Borg conflict. Stationed aboard starship Logan. Distinguished service during Dominion conflict 2373-2375. Temporarily transfered to Utopia Planitia to direct Montana Project 2378. Returned to Logan 2379. U. S. S. Logan declared missing in action with all hands on Stardate 56552.9. No further information available."
Frowning, Barclay called up a different record.
"Warpstream: classified project involving the development of a new method of propulsion. No further information available at this level of security clearance."
He was about to search further when Grant returned. Barclay immediately switched to the sensor data obtained at the last jump into normal space. "We'll be dropping out of warp in thirty-one seconds, sir," he reported.
Grant nodded and took his seat. "Engage the cloak and be ready for anything. We have no idea what we'll find."
Barclay activated the stealth systems. The cloak looked familiar somehow... where had he seen these frequencies before? He shook it off and prepared to return the ship to normal space.
Eighteen seconds later, Hestia emerged in a sector deep in Constructive territory. "Scanning the sector," said Grant. "Looks like we don't have any Borg activity here at the moment. I'm going to deactivate the cloak so we can get better data."
Hestia shimmered into existence. The starlight reflected off its hull, faintly. The sector remained silent and empty. Barclay breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but --
Grant turned to him. "What?"
"Tachyon signatures. Very faint. Sir, we have to --"
The screen filled with a Borg Class-6 tactical cube decloaking. "Oh my God," said Grant. "Barclay, get the warpstream online! We have to --"
Explosions cut Grant off. The cube had Hestia in a pair of tractor beams before either officer had time to react. Barclay was trying desperately to arm the weapons when his console beeped. "Sir... we're being hailed," he reported.
Grant's expression was unreadable. "On screen."
The Borg cube vanished, replaced with the face of a familiar ex-drone. Behind him stood what looked like an assimilated Mark-1 EMH. "Doctor?" said Barclay, taken aback. "Is that you?"
Ankin Rotor grinned. "Friend of his, are you? Interesting." He turned to Grant. "But you're the really interesting part. I could have sworn I destroyed that yacht of yours."
"Hestia's tricky that way," said Grant, hatred filling his voice.
"I can see that. Sounds like something whose distinctiveness I wouldn't mind adding to my own. I hope that doesn't bother you, old friend."
"We're not friends."
"Everyone is my friend," said Rotor. "Or will be. Just ask your crew."
Grant immediately turned to his console and killed the channel. "Barclay, get those weapons online! We're going to teach this bastard where his gloating will get him."
Barclay just looked at Grant. "We're in t-two tractor beams, sir. He's got us. There's nothing we can do."
"No! I won't accept it!"
"What's going on here, Captain?"
"Nothing I haven't told you!" he replied angrily. "This is the bastard who destroyed my ship. If there's anything left of it, he has it."
"Sir... it's too late. The sensors know exactly where your ship is."
"What are you talking about?"
Barclay gestured to his console readout. The image clearly showed Logan inside Rotor's cube. Grant's mouth fell open. "No, this is impossible. The ship was crippled. There was no way for it to survive. The autodestruct was already activated!"
Barclay looked away. "We're going to die, sir. Why don't you just tell me what this is really about?"
"I'm getting tired of this insubordination, Barclay. What makes you so sure I'm hiding something that you'll confront a superior officer?"
"This ship has systems I've never seen or even h-heard of, and I've been with the SCE for years. You kidnapped me from Earth. Sir... you had a good explanation, but it just doesn't fit. There's only one that does."
Barclay nodded. "You're with Section 31. You're one of the ones we couldn't round up."
"You're relieved," said Grant. "When we get back to Starfleet, you're going to have to answer for --"
"Sir, it's not going to work!" Barclay was summoning up every bit of confidence he could manage... no easy feat for him. He made a mental note to thank Counselor Troi. Apparently her lessons had stuck. "It's just you and me now against that entire cube. You might as well just trust me."
In lieu of a reply, Grant suddenly pressed a button on his console. Barclay vanished in a swirl of blue, a stunned expression frozen on his face. As soon as he was gone, Grant activated the transport inhibitors and broke both tractor beams. "Sorry, Lieutenant," he said. "You did what I needed you to do. Now it's up to me."
Hestia recloaked, vanishing from the cube's sensors.
"You moved the wok? I can't believe it!"
Chell turned, if it was possible, bluer. "Neelix, I have nothing but respect for the way you ran the mess hall. But there were some parts of your organizational system that..."
"Well, they left something to be... they weren't any good. At all. Period."
"How can you say that? Without me, you would be nothing!" Chakotay, who had just entered unnoticed, found it amusing how... passionate Neelix was about this particular subject.
"Neelix," said Chell, "there was a rat in your leola root. A rat."
"That was Naomi's fault!"
"That's right, blame it on Naomi."
"I've had it with this! Get out of my kitchen!"
"You get out of my kitchen!"
Chakotay decided it was time to step in. "Why don't we --"
"NO!" they both shouted at once.
Chakotay sighed. "Neelix, you have to accept that this is Chell's kitchen. Chell, you might want to rethink your criticism of Neelix's policies. He fed the crew for seven years... and to be honest, his Kalderan peach pie was better."
"Hey!" Chell looked like he'd never been more insulted in his life.
Neelix extended a hand. "The captain is right, Chell. It's time we bury the hatchet."
"You don't fool me for a second. You want to get this kitchen back, and you think being the peaceful, accomodating one will win Chakotay over!"
"All right," said Chakotay. "I was hoping not to resort to this, but I'm ordering you both to your quarters. I'll let you know when you can leave."
Exchanging a pair of angry glances, the two cooks turned to go. Chakotay heard Chell mutter something about Neelix's "inhumane chili" as he walked past.
Once they were gone, Chakotay went to the replicator and ordered a coffee. The smell comforted him, and he needed that right now. The battles had been going well so far, but Chakotay could feel that something ugly was coming up, and he didn't know how to avoid it.
Normally I would talk to Neelix about this, he reflected ironically.
The door slid open again. Chakotay turned and saw Shari Young heading for the replicator. "Hey, bud," she said. "What's up?"
He sighed. "Just thinking."
"Anythin' I can help ya with?"
"Not really." Chakotay set his PADD on the table; it was time to resolve this question at least. "Shari, we need to talk."
"You got it, big guy. Lucky for ya I remembered to check my evil at the door."
"I wish you'd stop that," replied Chakotay. "I know being under suspicion is difficult for you, but you know I have no choice. I can't take risks right now."
"An' again he explains it. I know all yer reasons, hon. Don't mean I can't be a little bugged 'bout it."
"I want to know, Shari. I want you to tell me the real, complete truth. How much did you know about what was going on aboard that ship?"
Young sighed and leaned against the wall. "Is this what I gotta do ta get ya on my side?"
"It's not a matter of your side or my side," replied Chakotay. "It's about the truth."
"How much d'ya know about Section 31?"
"About the same as anyone else now. They were a secret organization that operated within the Federation to preserve its interests by any means necessary."
"An' ya don't like 'em, of course."
"They went too far. They were prepared to make sacrifices that weren't acceptable, and they made them on behalf of millions of innocent victims."
"Which doesn't make 'em bad, does it?" said Young. "Just makes 'em too good, sorta. They were workin' for the right things, they just overdid it."
"So did Khan Singh. He wanted to make humanity stronger, and to him, eliminating all the 'normal' humans to do that was perfectly acceptable and natural. Maybe he did have the right intentions, but that doesn't redeem him."
"Or 31." Chakotay set his drink on the table. "I take it you were a member?"
"Ain't said that yet," said Young. "Just been askin' questions. That's what Skip always usedta do. He'd talk about right an' wrong, what was okay an' what was too much. He liked us to think about that stuff."
"Me an' Marsha, mostly. The three of us were pretty tight. Not sayin' we weren't friends with the others, 'cause we were, but us three talked about stuff we didn't with anybody else. She an' I weren't really sure why it worked that way. Fer a while."
Young nodded. "It was 'bout five years inta the mission. Logan's, I mean. We were over in the Tholian sector doin' the usual Tholian sector stuff. An' we ran into a bunch a' ships that didn't think much of us Fed types."
"That was around the Tholian civil war," Chakotay remembered. "You must have encountered one of the Umasfian rebel groups."
"Never could pronounce that," said Young with a smile. "Those were the guys all right. They bashed us up pretty good. Finally Skip convinced their leaders ta come aboard so we could talk it all out. That was when things started goin' funny."
"The meetin' with the Tholians was classified. I mean *really* classified. Skip wouldn't let anybody in. Anybody, that is, 'cept me an' Marsha. We were there for security, or that's what he told us."
"What happened in the meetings?"
"Skip wasn't talkin' on the Federation's behalf. Said he was, but we knew he wasn't. He said stuff the admirals'd never a' let him say. Gave 'em some classified info 'bout the Tholian government and security systems." Young looked down. "An' when it was over, he told me an' Marsh we couldn't say anythin' about what we'd heard -- not even ta the rest a' the crew."
Chakotay's face darkened; he was beginning to see where this was going. "The Umasfian groups won their battle. We never found out how they knew the Tholians' weaknesses... you're telling me Section 31 was backing them?"
"You betcha. Makes sense, don't it? The Tholian government'd never been our best buds. So we wait for somebody to go up 'gainst 'em, then help 'em out so they'll be on our side when they win. Pretty good, eh?"
"Yes. Except that it goes directly against the Prime Directive."
"Zactly. That's why the Federation doesn't do it much. At least the part a' the Federation we show off at parties."
Chakotay frowned. "When did you figure out who Grant really worked for?"
"The next day. Wasn't too hard -- he told us. It was a private little get-together in his quarters. He gave us a long talk about how sometimes ya had to break the rules to keep the game goin', an' how not everybody was willin' to do that. How people who were willin' were needed... an' how he needed people he could trust. He needed us."
"And you agreed."
"Ya think I'd still a' been on the ship if I hadn't? We both agreed. I never really knew what Marsha thought about it, whether she agreed with Skip for real or just wanted ta help him out."
"What about you?"
Young lowered her head. "Dunno what to tell ya, bud. Part a' me liked what he was sayin'. Part a' me thought I oughta report him soon's I could. But I'd been workin' for the guy for five years by then. We'd saved each others lives more times than I can guess. How could I say no?"
"You can always say no."
"Okay, try it yerself. Picture five years inta yer little Delta Quadrant thing. Yer cap'n tells ya she works for the black sheep. But she wants ya ta trust her; she wants ta trust you. An' part a' ya thinks she may be right about all this. Whattaya say?"
Chakotay rubbed his chin. "It's not that simple. I can't put myself back in a mindset I no longer have."
"Yeah? What mindset were ya in when ya joined the Maquis?"
"The Cardassians had just killed my father and all the people I'd grown up with. I was too blinded by rage to think about the morality of what I was doing. Later, when I had the time to ask myself those hard questions, I realized my mistake."
Young smiled. "Mistake, hmm? Face it, bud -- you guys were right. Ya hadn't been gone three years before the Cardassians were tryin' to kill everybody in sight again. It cost the good guys millions a' lives to fix the problem the Maquis saw way before anybody else."
"I know," said Chakotay. He'd thought through all of this before. "It doesn't justify what we did."
"If that don't," replied Young, "what would? What'd ya do that was so bad? Ya just left the Federation so ya could do somethin' ya knew was right. Wasn't yer fault they tried ta stop ya."
"The Maquis were a response to a threat we couldn't prove existed. For all I know, we ended up causing the very change we were fighting against."
"That's just it, ya see. Ain't no way ta know for sure. Maybe you made it worse. Maybe you saved the galaxy. Could be either. An' the one thing you know absolutely for sure is that ya had the right intentions."
"Like Section 31?" said Chakotay, frowning.
"Didn't say that." Young stepped forward from the wall. "Ya wanted ta know if I was one a' the bad guys, right? An' the answer ta that is yes. Or maybe it's no. That's not really what matters. What matters is what I am now. I can tell ya one thing: I wasn't in on what Skip tried ta do to you. All he told me when you showed up was that you were bein' considered fer a 31 position. He was gonna work on ya, slowly, try to get ya ta see things his way. S'possible there were other reasons. Maybe Admiral Warthog wanted ya 'way from Cap'n Janeway -- he's never liked her much. I dunno. But I had no idea Grant was gonna try an' kill you."
"What has all this proven, Shari?" Chakotay sighed. "You've admitted to me that you worked with Section 31. Do you think that makes you look more trustworthy to me? Don't you think it just gives me more reason to doubt everything you're telling me?"
"Who cares?" asked Young, sitting down next to Chakotay on the couch. "It ain't my past you got ta worry about. 'Cause if that applied both ways, why would I have any reason ta trust you either? S'not what I was, s'who I am."
"And who are you?"
"Dunno what ta tell ya, bud. I'm Shari Young an' that's about all I can say. But I know the person I am trusts the person you are. I know yer pretty much all I got left. An' that means I'll back ya up. What else can I do anymore?"
Chakotay sighed. "What do you want from me? What are you trying to prove?"
"You're just full a' the questions, aintcha? I think we're at the point where ya gotta decide. Either ya believe I'm on yer side or ya don't. I can't prove anythin' to you that I haven't already. I trust you, spite of all the reasons I could be worried about ya for. You can do that, or ya can just give up on me. Either way, we both live, an' at least the questions are done.
"I'll understand if ya can't get yerself ta believe me. Sometimes I have trouble with that m'self. You asked me fer the truth, an' now ya got it. What ya do with it is up ta you."
Young put a hand on Chakotay's shoulder. "Yer all I got, bud."
Chakotay sighed. For a moment, he looked into Young's eyes, wishing he could somehow determine for sure who was inside.
"Trust isn't just about proof," he said at last. "Sometimes it comes down to a leap of faith. Sometimes you have to make yourself believe something, even when your mind is telling you you can't be sure."
He sighed. "All right, Shari. I won't question you any more. I know you can be worthy of trust."
"Woo!" shouted Young. She was about to get up when Chakotay raised a hand.
"I said can. You can be worthy of trust. That doesn't mean you are. I'm taking a chance here, Lieutenant Young. If you're still hiding something, you have to decide whether you're going to keep it that way. I'm doing what I can. It's up to you now."
"I ain't got any secrets from ya anymore, Chakotay. You wanna know anythin' more, you just ask." Young leaned in closer. "Anything," she repeated softly.
An awkward moment passed. Chakotay picked up his coffee and stood. "It's late. We need to get some rest."
"I dunno," said Young with a sly grin. "I feel like I could keep goin' a while longer."
"Goodnight, Lieutenant," said Chakotay, and he turned to leave. He got a few steps before Young called out, "Hey, bud?"
"Yes?" he said, turning.
Young smiled at him. "I'm still here if ya change yer mind."
After a moment's pause, Chakotay turned and left without another word. When he was gone, Young lay down on the couch with her arms behind her head and an ambiguous smile on her face.
The Delta Flyer re-entered normal space just outside the sector where they'd located Rotor's cube. "The signal is coming from coordinates nine five two mark seven," said Seven. "We can reach that position in six minutes."
"Set a course and engage," said Janeway. She got up and headed to the back of the ship. "I'm going to get the beam weapon ready."
"Are there phaser rifles on board?" asked Seven without turning.
Janeway smiled. "There's one. I thought we might be needing it on this mission."
"That phaser rifle," said Seven, rolling her eyes.
Unpacking her favourite compression phaser rifle, Janeway just grinned back at her.
Grant looked at his sensors... and then checked them twice. This can't be right, he thought. Is that the Delta Flyer? What the hell is Janeway's sports car doing here?
The Flyer reached the location of the cube's signal; Seven ran a sensor sweep and frowned at the results. "There is nothing here, Captain."
Janeway looked for herself. "Cloaked," she said. "He must be. But these sensors are already configured to see through Kallidian cloaks."
"Perhaps Rotor has obtained another kind of cloaking device," suggested Seven.
"I have a thought," said Janeway. "Hold on tight."
With a few quick commands from Janeway, the Flyer slid in close to the source of the signal. Four million kilometers... three million... two...
...one. "I am detecting the cube," said Seven, but realized too late that it was redundant -- the cube was already visible out the forward window.
"Just as I suspected," said Janeway in satisfaction. "The ship's projecting a cloaking field from within -- it's not tailored to the ship. We're inside the field now."
"Indeed," replied Seven. "And it is unlikely that he can see us, unless he is aware that...." Seven trailed off, staring at the sensor readout. "Captain, there is a Federation starship inside the cube."
"What?" Janeway switched her console to show the same readout Seven had seen. "Good Lord, you're right. That's a Defiant-class ship. Are you getting any life signs?"
"No," said Seven, frowning. "But there are nearly one hundred human life signs scattered throughout the cube. And I have identified the starship; its registry code is NCC-148607."
Janeway's eyes widened. "Logan? That's Chakotay's old ship. What's it doing here?"
"I do not know," replied Seven. "The readings, however, are indisputable. The ship is enclosed in Mr. Rotor's cube on all sides."
Janeway rubbed her chin, thinking. "That must be how he's cloaking the ship. He knows Federation scanners can see through Kallidian cloaking devices."
Seven's console beeped. "Axum is in position. We must board the cube immediately."
Nodding, Janeway picked up the two armbands on the seat behind her and handed one to Seven. "These will give us cover long enough to get to Rotor. All we need is one shot."
Seven took her armband and attached it. "There is no guarantee that we will be able to reach him undetected. We may encounter resistance."
Janeway grinned and checked the setting on her phaser. "Resistance is futile. Or so I've been told."
Seven couldn't help a smile. "If that were true, I would not be here today."
Janeway clapped her friend on the shoulder. "What do you say, Seven? Once more unto the breach?"
"As Mr. Paris would say," said Seven, " 'let's roll.' "
A moment later, the Delta Flyer was empty. Janeway and Seven were on their way to pay Ankin Rotor a personal visit.
The Doctor was now fully Borg in appearance. "State the nature of the medical emergency or be assimilated," he intoned.
"You're having entirely too much fun with this," said Oz.
Rotor smiled. "Simple pleasures are often the most satisfying. Don't you agree?"
"Certainly. I expect I'll find it quite satisfying when Captain Janeway simply removes me from your cube and destroys your personal collective."
"You know, Sernaix, I've decided I won't be putting up with your impertinence any longer. You'll remain silent from now on."
"How do you intend to ensure that?"
By way of response, Rotor cocked his head. All the hidden speakers on the bridge fell silent. Rotor then disconnected his mental bridge to the Sernaix systems aboard the cube. A little time alone to contemplate his position will make him more amenable to discussion, thought the Sulorian Borg.
"I suppose you're getting tired of your confinement too," he said, turning to a secured area behind him. There was no response from the man inside it. "Reginald Barclay, is it?" Rotor asked. "This hologram knows a thing or two about you. Apparently you're well-meaning and intelligent, but lacking in every social skill he's ever heard of."
"I w-wish you'd g-g-get it over with," said Barclay, tapping his ear for some reason.
"You mean encompassing you?" Rotor laughed. "I don't know what you'd add to me, frankly. It serves my purpose better to simply kill you."
"Th-then do that. All you're d-doing now is dragging it out."
"B-but what if I d-d-d-don't want t-to?"
Barclay didn't dignify the imitation with a response. Rotor walked over to one of his consoles and returned to his sensor sweeps, searching carefully for any sign of...
"Grant," he said out loud in frustration. "Where the hell is he?"
"I don't know," replied Barclay. "How would I?"
"You were on his ship."
"He beamed me here. You know that. Do you think I was some kind of c-confidant to him? He kidnapped me, lied to me, and delivered me to you when he didn't n-need me anymore. I know absolutely nothing about his plans."
"Why should I believe that?"
Barclay smiled. "Why not prove it for yourself? Assimilate me and read my mind. Oh, wait -- that would lessen your perfection."
Ignoring the engineer, Rotor turned back to his console and looked over the scans yet again. Grant had to be out there. He had to.
Seven and Janeway were three decks from their destination. The transporter had been unable to beam them into Rotor's command centre -- a security measure, Seven had guessed -- and this had been the nearest deck available.
"Rotor's signal has not moved," reported Seven, looking at her tricorder. "We will reach his location in twenty-five minutes at our current rate of progress."
The two officers suddenly stopped short, noticing the faint green shimmer of a force field.
"Our current rate of progress is, however, subject to change," Seven added wryly.
"Do you know a way to disable it?"
"I do," said Seven, "but it would be detected immediately. We will need to find an alternate route."
Janeway frowned. "We've already gone around two fields. We're running out of time. Do you think it's time to --"
"No," Seven replied firmly.
Janeway got a dangerous look in her eyes. "I think it is."
"There must be another route."
"We've exhausted the other possibilities. Besides, this'll be fun."
"No," emphasized Seven, "it will not."
Janeway raised her phaser rifle. Seven sighed, resigning herself to the situation, and loaded the special rope device they had replicated earlier.
A moment later, every alarm on the ship was ringing and there were large holes where the three deckplates above Janeway and Seven had been. Before any drones could arrive, Seven aimed the rope launcher and fired it. She and Janeway gripped the launchers' handles as tightly as possible; Seven pressed the retract button and both officers were pulled up through the gaps, emerging in the heart of Rotor's command centre.
As they got to their feet, Janeway immediately spun around with her phaser rifle armed, looking for Rotor. She didn't have far to look -- Rotor was walking towards the hole they had created in his ship, an angry expression on his face. She and Seven quickly backed up to get out of his way.
That was when Rotor suddenly whipped out what looked like some kind of paint gun and fired it.
Seven and Janeway both dropped to the floor, but it was irrelevant. The beam was far wider than the room they were in. Both women were immediately covered in static-charged particles that clung to their uniforms. Seven gave Janeway a horrified look whose message was clear -- their cover was blown.
"Seven," said Janeway, staring calmly at Rotor, "get out of here."
"I'll be right behind you. MOVE!"
Seven dropped through the hole, aiming herself to land on what was left of the deck below. Janeway raised her rifle and fired, but Rotor was ready for her -- his energy shield deflected the beam easily.
"Welcome back," he said. "I'm glad you've decided to reconsider my offer of immortality... or living as long as the universe does, at least."
"Go to hell," said Janeway, searching the room desperately for something to use against Rotor.
Across the room, Barclay recognized her voice. "Captain Janeway!" he shouted. "You need to fire a level-one wide beam at --" Rotor whirled on him, firing a stun beam. Barclay slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Janeway was still shocked at Barclay's presence, but she forced herself not to think about that yet. She set her rifle to fire a level-one wide beam. Rotor smiled. "I don't know what your fan was trying to tell you," he said, "but your lowest setting won't be any more effective than the highest."
Taking no time to reply, Janeway raised the rifle again -- and suddenly spun it around and fired at herself.
As she'd suspected, the beam instantly dissolved Rotor's particles. Reg must have seen him programming the beam, she thought. Invisible to Rotor's sensors once again, she switched the phaser back to Axum's settings and fired again.
The beam went wide. Janeway rushed to another position and fired again, with the same results. Rotor laughed. "Captain, Captain, Captain. I don't know whose plan this was, but it lacked a certain quality... I believe it's called 'possibility of success.' My shield is impenetrable, whether I can see you or not."
Frustration building in her, Janeway fired three more times before resigning herself to that. Her mind raced; there had to be some way to make the plan work. But she knew she had only seconds before Rotor located her again, and she couldn't think of any way past Rotor's shield.
Almost on cue, the ex-drone whipped out his special blaster again. Swearing internally, Janeway dashed for the hole and dropped through.
Seven was blasting her way through a wall of drones. For what ever reason, none of them had adapted to her phaser's settings yet. She thought about the question while she struggled to reach the inter-deck tunnel.
Soon, however, the drones' sheer numbers began to overwhelm her. She evaluated the chances of getting through. Finally deciding that they were not optimal, she spun around --
-- only to be frozen in her tracks by a phaser beam.
A moment later, the drones were looking in every which direction, confused. Janeway and Seven were already running back toward the hole they'd created. "Thank you, Captain," said Seven, glancing over her Starfleet uniform and noting with satisfaction that not one of Rotor's particles remained.
"Don't mention it," replied Janeway. "Now we have to get back to the hole. Once we've dropped two decks, we'll be back in transporter range."
Seven stopped short and grabbed Janeway's elbow to pull her back. "Rotor will have followed you into the hole. He knows our last position -- he'll be waiting for us there."
"I know," said Janeway, shaking Seven loose. "We need him. We can't leave this ship without his cortical node."
Yes, you can, came a sudden, unfamiliar voice in Seven's head.
Janeway had already resumed running. "Captain!" Seven called after her. "Someone has contacted me."
Janeway came back, frowning. "Who?"
You don't have much time, said the voice. Go two corridors left and enter the chamber with the double-locked doors. The entry code is 101101010101101. You will need to penetrate a level-six force field to reach me.
"This way," said Seven. She headed for the corridor, Janeway following. A few moments later they were at the door and Seven entered the code; it was accepted, and the doors slid open. Behind them was a thick forcefield, and behind that, a single drone.
The two officers exchanged a quick look. Knowing what Seven was thinking, Janeway handed her the phaser rifle. The ex-drone gripped it with both hands and walked through the force field, her Borg implants granting her passage.
"Fire it at me," said the drone.
"Who are you?" asked Seven.
"You don't have time for this. Fire it. Take my cortical node."
Seven looked at Janeway; her gaze was stern. Seven turned back to the drone. "We must know who you are."
The drone sighed, looking very old and very tired. "I am Pavriqur. Ankin Rotor and I are the last two Sulorian drones. You need a cortical node from one of us, and you'll never get his."
"Pavriqur?" Seven recognized the name. "You were the original leader of the Constructive. Rotor's mentor."
The drone nodded slowly. "Rotor destroyed all other Sulorian drones a long time ago. He keeps me alive and unencompassed for... amusement."
Janeway said, "I appreciate your offer, but it's Rotor we're fighting -- you're another of his victims. You're asking us to kill you."
"I'm asking you," he said quietly, "to free me."
Seven turned to look at Janeway. "You know my opinion," she said. "Will you consent?"
Slowly, reluctantly, Janeway nodded.
Seven raised the phaser and fired Axum's beam apparatus. It sliced a neat circle in Pavriqur's forehead and triggered the mechanism to release his cortical node. As soon as it was out of the drone's personal EM field, the beam transported the node into the interior of the phaser. Slumping to the floor, Pavriqur had just enough cognizance left to whisper, "Good luck," and then he was gone.
Seven rushed back through the force field. Janeway grabbed the phaser from her, explaining, "I have a plan. Turn up the signal intensity of your comm badge. I've already done the same."
Seven obeyed as Janeway set the phaser to a high level and pointed it at the deck beneath them. She fired, creating a hole similar to the one they'd made earlier. "We don't have time to do this carefully," she said. "Jump!"
Janeway dropped down the hole; Seven came right after her. As soon as they'd dropped two decks, each officer tapped her comm badge. The Flyer's transporter, programmed beforehand for a quick escape, immediately beamed them away. Their momentum neutralized, they landed gently on the transport pad. A few quick commands later, the Delta Flyer was out of the sector and on course to rendezvous with Axum.
Rotor was enraged. "How did they do this? They were on my cube and in my command centre before I knew they were even in the sector!"
"That's Captain Janeway for you. Didn't I tell you she'd show up?"
Rotor's jaw dropped. "YOU! How are you speaking again?"
"Actually, I've been able to speak all along. I just decided to humour you for a while. Did you enjoy it?"
Too livid to even answer, Rotor walked faster down the corridor. His only clue to the two women's whereabouts was the record of Pavriqur's cell having been unlocked. He willed the door open and hurried in, only to find the old Sulorian lying facedown on the deck. The force field was still in place.
"He contacted them," said Oz smugly. "It seems Pavriqur was able to wriggle a little bit out of the electronic cuffs you'd placed him in. He found a way to contact Seven of Nine, and even read enough of her mind to realize what her plan involved."
Rotor glared at the ceiling. "And what did her plan involve?"
"You would know if you'd thought of encompassing her, which you didn't."
Seething, Rotor deactivated the force field and stepped through. He pulled Pavriqur up, looking at the damage done, and frowned deeply. "Dead," he said. "I told him he would live long enough to truly understand his failure."
"What did you have against the man?" asked Oz curiously. "He did make you what you are."
"He nearly stopped me from being what I am. He's the only one who ever came close to dissuading me from my mission." Rotor shook his head in frustration. "But why? What do they hope to accomplish by stealing his cor--"
Dead silence. Rotor's face darkened as he said one word under his breath: "Axum."
He willed the cube out of the sector. A transwarp conduit whirled open. The ship was almost through it when the Delta Quadrant Alliance arrived; within moments, the fleet had followed Rotor through the conduit. The portal spun closed and the sector was empty.
"Thank you," said Axum over the comm channel. "I knew you could do it. What condition was Rotor in when you left him?"
"Hale and hearty," said Janeway ruefully. "This isn't his node, Axum."
Axum was clearly startled. "Whose is it? Rotor had all the other Sulorian drones killed, except --" Seeing the look in Janeway and Seven's faces, he got the message. "Oh."
Janeway nodded. "We had no choice. Rotor was protected. Why didn't you tell us Pavriqur would be there?"
"I didn't know. It was likely, but I couldn't take the chance I was wrong. I had a guaranteed way to locate Rotor, not him." Axum sighed. "So Pavriqur is dead at last. In spite of everything, you know, part of me will miss him. For a time, he was a good friend."
"I know the feeling," said Janeway. "But we don't have time for nostalgia. Have you got the message to Korok?"
Axum nodded. "He's ready. Let's go."
Hovering above Rotor's cube, Grant hoped the tractor beam locking Hestia to the Borg ship hadn't been noticed yet. He couldn't afford to lose track of the Logan now -- not when he'd already had to temporarily sacrifice his engineer. And the transports were nearly complete.
They were nearing the end of the conduit. Grant shunted a bit more power to the tractor beam and focused on the console in front of him. Hestia and the cube re-entered normal space in a sector near the Borg homeworld. It's almost time, thought Grant. Four more drones to go... and Barclay, of course. Then it's just a matter of --
The ship shuddered. His ship? Grant checked his console; it was the cube that had been struck. Examining the aft sensor readout, Grant was stunned to see hundreds of starships from numerous different races whirling out of the reopened transwarp conduit. Damn! This isn't going to help... unless....
Grant wheeled over to the communications console. He would use his four pips one last time.
Voyager exited the conduit firing random shots. "He has to be somewhere," said Chakotay. "Keep firing, full spread. Get me the fleet."
A comm channel opened, and Chakotay heard the voices of various other commanders. They all sounded confused and uncertain. "This is Voyager calling the fleet," he stated. "I'm convinced it was Rotor's cube that opened this conduit. He must be cloaked someh--"
"What are you talking about?" said a Kazon voice. "It's right there!"
Chakotay blinked. "What?"
"There's a Class-6 Borg cube at coordinates nine seven seven mark one. Can't you see it?"
"No," he said. "None of us can except you." Kazon sensors can see something invisible to the best ship in Starfleet? What's the galaxy coming to?
"It's a tachyon-based cloak," said another Kazon, probably the first one's science officer. "I think you'll be able to pinpoint it with --"
"-- a tachyon sweep!" finished Ensign Lang at Ops. "Like a Romulan cloaking device!"
"Do it," said Chakotay instantly. "Get that information to the other ships. Tuvok, target that ship as soon as the sweep finds it. Hit it with everything we have."
Tuvok nodded to acknowledge, then looked up at Chakotay. "We are being hailed -- on a Starfleet frequency."
"Where is it coming from?"
The Vulcan frowned slightly. "Unknown."
"Put it through," said Chakotay, turning back to the screen. "And then resume firing."
"I have not ceased firing, Captain."
"Even while --?" Chakotay let it drop. A moment later, the screen filled with the face of a Starfleet captain. A familiar Starfleet captain.
Both officers were visibly startled, but recovered quickly. "Captain Grant," said Chakotay.
"Mr. Chakotay," he replied. "Looks like today's our lucky day. We get to work together again."
The Delta Flyer and Axum's octahedron came out of warp within visual range of the Borg homeworld. Janeway had known what to expect, but her eyes still went wide. "My God," she said. "I've never seen this many ships in one place before."
Axum smiled proudly on the Flyer's monitor. "The Complex," he said. "All of it that's left. We've been assembling here for six months, slowly enough to escape Rotor's suspicion. He thought we were simply falling back, fighting a more defensive war. He'll soon know better."
Seven gestured to Pavriqur's cortical node. "We have deactivated our shields. You may bring the node aboard."
He shook his head. "Beam it to the central structure. Korok will give you the coordinates."
At that moment, Korok's face appeared on the right half of the monitor. "Captain Janeway!" he said. "I knew you were a woman of honour. Thank you for returning the favour you owed me."
"Coordinator," said Janeway with a smile. "You're looking well. I see you've gotten rid of some of your Borg plating. And is that a Klingon Defense Force uniform you're wearing?"
"You noticed!" he said delightedly. "I find it brings back --"
Seven cleared her throat. "We are under severe time constraints."
Janeway smiled at Seven. "Who taught you to clear your throat like that?"
"Lieutenant Torres. She was becoming frustrated with my tendency to interrupt conversations without warning."
The captain rolled her eyes. She turned back to Korok. "I have the Sulorian cortical node aboard my ship. We'll beam it to you if you send the --" The coordinates appeared on her console. "-- coordinates."
"Energizing," said Seven. The node vanished.
"How long will it take to power up the machine?" asked Janeway of both Complex leaders.
"About thirty minutes," said Axum. "Barring unforeseen interruptions, the mission will be over in forty."
Seven looked away. "We should go patrol the perimeter," said Janeway. "Our sensors have better range. Setting course...."
"Wait," said Seven suddenly. "Captain, look."
Janeway looked at the sensors and immediately saw what Seven had seen. A moment later, Axum and Korok saw it too. All were silent.
The Delta Quadrant Alliance fleet was entering the sector with all weapons blazing. In their midst, holding its own and apparently having given up on stealth, Ankin Rotor's cube was on a direct course for the Borg homeworld. It would arrive in twenty-two minutes.
"Your ship is going to be destroyed, you know."
"Shut up, Sernaix!" Rotor's gaze was locked on his sensor console. "We'll be at the Borg homeworld in time to stop them. That's all that matters."
"Perhaps you will," said Oz. "I don't think I'll be remaining aboard. This has been a great source of interest for me, but I really think it's time to return to my ship."
Rotor's eyes narrowed. "You can't leave. I captured you. You're in my systems now."
"At this moment, you're correct. In ten seconds, I'm afraid you won't be. Take care of yourself, my megalomaniacal friend. Best of luck with your doomed crusade."
"You can't leave! It's --"
Rotor fell silent. In the part of his mind that controlled the Sernaix components of his ship, he had ceased to hear the faint echo that indicated Ozymandias's presence. Rotor ran a deep, thorough scan of the systems.
There was nothing.
"I'm not following any orders from you," said Chakotay. "And I want your resignation. Lower your shields and prepare to be beamed to the brig."
The other crewmen turned, each looking at Chakotay with a surprised or confused expression. "This man tried to kill me," he explained. "And he was providing information to the enemy during the Sernaix War. No matter what uniform he's wearing, he's no Starfleet officer."
"We don't have time for this, Chakotay," replied Grant. "I've made mistakes and I'm sorry. I never wanted to do what I did to you."
"You're right," he said. "We don't have time for this. Tuvok, kill the --"
"No!" shouted Grant. "You have to trust me. The lives of everyone on the Logan are at stake."
Chakotay narrowed his eyes. "Where are they?"
"On Rotor's cube. He's got the whole ship inside -- it's how he's been escaping detection. All the crew have been assimilated. But there's still a chance to save them."
"Rotor kept them on his cube -- I don't know why. I've beamed them all onto the Logan. What I need now is a ship with transporters powerful enough to beam my ship there as well."
"Your ship? Where the hell are you?"
Grant tapped something on his console. "There is a small ship decloaking above the cube," reported Tuvok. "It appears to be a captain's yacht, but the technology is unknown."
"Not unknown," said Grant. "It's in your databanks, Mr. Tuvok. Look it up under classified cloaking technology -- your clearance should be high enough."
Tuvok looked at Chakotay; he nodded. The Vulcan checked the database and almost immediately raised an eyebrow. "Your ship has a phase-cloak," he said, "based upon the one designed by Admiral Pressman."
"The Pegasus?" said Chakotay, startled. "That was supposed to have been destroyed!"
"It was," said Grant. "But scans were taken first. I don't have time to explain all this, but it's the only way to save the Logan crew now. Beam Hestia in -- your transporters can handle the load. Quickly!"
Chakotay paused, uncertain.
"Just do it! If not for me, for them!"
Voyager's captain tapped his comm badge. "B'Elanna, I have a custom job for you. Have you ever transported a captain's yacht before?"
"All the time," she replied. "But what kind of question is -- wait a minute. Did you say captain's yacht?"
"Get to Transporter Room One. I'll send the coordinates there."
The last sound through Chakotay's communicator was a string of Klingon curses. He shook his head and turned back to Grant. "All right, we're going to do it. But you have a very great deal to answer for. When this is over, you're going to be in my brig. Do you understand that?"
The other man nodded. "It's what I've brought on myself. I accept the consequences -- I just want to save my crew."
Chakotay tapped his communicator again. "All right, B'Elanna. Energize."
Hestia vanished from Voyager's sensors. A moment later, it reappeared inside the cube, docked with the Logan. Grant smiled. "Thank you, Chakotay. Thank you."
"Just get it done," he said, turning away.
Grant smiled. "Don't forget Reg."
Chakotay spun around. "What?" But Grant had already closed the channel.
At Ops, Lang looked up. "I don't know if this is what he meant," he said, "but there is one human lifesign on the part of the cube outside the Logan. It's right inside Rotor's command centre."
"Can you get a lock?"
Lang tried, but shook his head in frustration. "The place is too heavily shielded. We'd need transport enhancers. If we sent an away team --"
Chakotay waved his arm angrily. "Enough. We don't have any more time to waste. Fire a spread of torpedoes at that section of the cube."
"Captain," said Tuvok, "I must remind you that it is highly unlikely any human inside would survive that level of impact."
"We don't have any choice!" snapped Chakotay. "There's no way to --"
"Oh, I believe there is."
Was that --? "Oz? Are you back on Voyager?"
"Indeed I am. And I believe I can be of assistance."
Then, to the amazement of the bridge crew, all the Sernaix systems on the ship resumed running at full power.
In her quarters, Shari Young heard one of her PADDs beeping. She picked it up and nearly jumped in excitement. "He's back!" she said. "That leaves just one fish ta swat." She hesitated for just a moment, then picked up another PADD, waited for the next impact, and pushed the button.
"ARRRRRGH!" The bridge shook; the helm console exploded in a shower of sparks, throwing Ensign Culhane backwards. Tuvok reported, "The Borg have penetrated our port shields. We have lost the phaser banks on that side of the ship."
"Turn the port side away from the cube," he said, then noticed that Culhane hadn't gotten up. The man was lying on the floor clutching a broken leg. Chakotay slid into the console and laid in the course himself.
"Ten transwarp conduits are opening directly beneath us," said Tuvok.
"What?" Answering Chakotay's question, nearly thirty Borg cubes flew out, weapons blazing at the Alliance ships.
The situation had just gone from a chase to a genuine battle.
Realizing he couldn't divide his attention right now, Chakotay wished Tom Paris were aboard, but wishing wouldn't help... and Culhane had been their best backup pilot. Chakotay ran through the possible replacements in his mind, but none of them had the experience they would need. He would have to stay here. Or....
I decided to trust her, he reminded himself. Time to prove I meant it.
"Chakotay to Lieutenant Young. Report to the bridge immediately."
Barclay was smiling and it was driving Rotor insane. "What's this about? You're going to die!"
"You are too," said the engineer. "And you don't have a Sernaix shipmind telling Voyager your exact location."
As the realization crossed Rotor's face, he spun on Barclay with a deadly energy beam building, but it was too late -- Barclay had vanished from the cell. A moment later, so did the Doctor, his program having somehow been transferred back to Voyager. Rotor roared in frustration and willed his reinforcements, twenty-eight battle-ready cubes, into a furious attack on the DQA fleet. The universe's story was not over, but he would be damned if Voyager's part in it continued one more hour.
"We've got him," said B'Elanna through Chakotay's communicator, "and Oz says the Doctor's been transferred back. Are you done with the QIpba' transporter yet, or am I going to be stuck on this duty all day?"
"Go back to Engineering," he said. "Tuvok, what's our status?"
"Our port shields have been restored," he said. "The Sernaix systems provided additional energy for defense. However, the fleet was not prepared for the Constructive's reinforcements. They are taking heavy losses."
"We'll need to help them. Arm all weapons, including the Kep gun. I'm moving us into position now."
The turbolift doors slid open. "No yer not! Lemme at it!" Young rounded the corner and slid into the pilot's seat, which Chakotay had just vacated. "Just tell me who ta aim us for."
"Borg," said Chakotay simply.
Young nodded. "You got it, bud. Thar she blows!"
Chakotay was nowhere near figuring that one out when the ship twisted into a gut-wrenching spiral.
"Ten minutes," said Axum. "He'll be here in three. We need someone to run interference. Captain...."
"I understand," replied Janeway. "Good luck, Axum. Stay in touch."
The ex-drone smiled. "You too. Goodbye, Captain. We owe you a debt we can never repay."
"You and half the quadrant."
Axum grinned, and even Seven found herself smiling. "Goodbye," said Seven. "And good luck."
Axum nodded solemnly and closed the channel.
"The width is fifteen light-seconds!" shouted Korok. "This day will live forever in song!"
The machine taking up one quarter of the Borg homeworld had two functions. The first was to open a portal, and the second was to seal it so securely that it could never be opened again.
In nine minutes, the first function would be ready. Five minutes after that, the second would begin.
Korok funneled all available power into the machine and signaled the Complex ships to power up their engines. In his mind, he was already writing the songs.
"For the love of God, make her stop singing!" Lang cried out in pain.
Chakotay turned to his new pilot. "I have to agree," he said. "Shari, please restrain your enthusiasm."
Voyager was singlehandedly turning the battle around. With all the Sernaix systems at full power, it was cutting a swath through the enemy forces. Already the Constructive was beginning to fall back.
Chakotay decided that meant he could spare one ship. "Voyager to Lieutenant Kim," he said. "Disengage and set a course for the planet in the next sector."
"The one with all the Borg ships?"
"That one. Tuvok says he's detecting a faint Starfeet energy signature among them. He can't tell for sure who it is -- we need someone to take a closer look."
"But what about all the Borg ships?"
"I don't think they'll be a threat, Harry. I have a feeling they're with our friend Korok."
"Understood, sir. On my way."
Chakotay turned to Tuvok. "I want a report on the status of all the enemy cubes. Tell --"
"Captain!" shouted Lang. "Something just flew right out of Rotor's cube! I don't know how the --"
"It's the Logan," said Chakotay. "I had a feeling this was his plan. Put that ship on screen."
The Logan appeared on the viewer, doing acrobatic twists to avoid enemy fire. "Hail him," said Chakotay. "He's got a hundred drones on that ship; he's going to need help."
"That may not be helpful, Captain," said Tuvok. "He has cloaked."
"What?" The Logan was gone from the screen. "Dammit, Grant!"
"It gets worse," said Lang. "More of Rotor's reinforcements just arrived... and a couple of them are veering off to follow Harry's shuttle."
"Call him back! He doesn't have a chance against --"
"The Mayweather is not responding," said Tuvok. "It has already engaged one of the cubes."
"Damn!" Chakotay turned to Young. "Follow him. The fleet can live without us for a few minutes."
" 'Fraid I can't do that, Cap'n," she replied.
That just confused Chakotay. "What?"
"Said I can't do that. We gotta do somethin' else."
Tuvok's console beeped; he raised both eyebrows. "Captain, Lieutenant Young has locked out all bridge controls with Level Thirteen security codes."
Chakotay immediately got Tuvok's point -- that shouldn't have been possible. Only the highest-ranking admirals had those codes. "Shari, what the hell are you doing?" he shouted.
"I'm sorry, bud. I really am. You know I love ya. But we gotta do somethin' important now."
Chakotay nodded to Tuvok, who immediately drew his phaser and fired. The beam bounced off a force field in the middle of the bridge. "I cannot penetrate it," realized Tuvok at once. "It is linked to the structural integrity of the bridge."
"In other words," said Chakotay ruefully, "it won't collapse unless we're all dead already."
The Vulcan nodded. He and Chakotay could only watch as the young lieutenant aimed Voyager directly at Rotor's cube.
The Mayweather shuddered under repeated impacts. I was afraid of this, thought Harry. The new shuttle's got some impressive defenses, but two cubes? Not going to happen.
Another explosion rocked the cabin. Kim raced to the rear section to don a vacuum suit. He had just attached the helmet when his shuttle exploded.
"Shari," said Chakotay, forcing himself to be calm, "talk to me. Explain what you're doing."
"The happy happy approach ain't gonna help ya much, Chuckles," she said. "I know yer mad as a box a' porcupines. But if ya want me ta tell ya, why not? We're gonna be doin' some ramming."
"See that cube?" she said, pointing at Rotor's ship. "Can't be blown up. Check out all the good your fleet's been doin' against it. Ya haven't even nicked the droneanium or whatever. It takes somethin' special ta kill a cube with Rotor-boy on it."
"And what would that be?"
Young gestured to a spot next to Chakotay; right on cue, Oz's hologram appeared. "Comm-- er, Captain," he said, "I don't know why, but all my areas of the ship are beginning to overload. In a few minutes, they're going to generate an explosion they'll be talking about nine sectors away."
"Thanks, 'Zym," said Young. "That's the scoop, guys and dolls. Hang on tight -- we're gonna bring Rotor's whole End deal to an end."
Chakotay nearly threw himself at the force field, but the self-control he'd been practicing all his life saw him through. "Let me signal an evacuation," he said. "There's no reason we all have to die for this."
Young shrugged. "Not really, I guess. But I kinda like this way."
There was no reasoning with her. Chakotay desperately searched his mind for something, anything that could dissuade Young from her plan. But it was too late. Its slipstream drive running hot, Voyager began the mad run for Ankin Rotor's cube.
"He is aboard," said Seven. "The shuttle has been destroyed."
"Launch a few more torpedoes. See if you can steer those cubes into each other. Then get back there and say hello." Janeway smiled at her friend.
A few very, very quick commands later, Seven was in the rear section of the Flyer. "Are you damaged?" she asked Harry.
"Damaged?" he said. "Seven, have you been around other Borg again?"
She pulled him into her arms. "Yes. But I was simply 'poking' you."
Harry smiled. "Whoa there. Squeeze me a little harder and I'll lose the air seal."
"I was so afraid I would lose you," she said. "We detected your shuttle and the time difference between impact and transport was so brief...."
"I was worried about you too," replied Harry, returning the embrace. "I love you."
By way of response, Seven leaned toward him and kissed... his helmet visor. She stepped back, feeling a little silly. "You are confined," she said.
"I can take care of that," he said. "Doesn't the captain need you up front?"
Seven turned reluctantly from Kim and reentered the cockpit.
Korok broke open a bottle of bloodwine which no one could figure out how he'd obtained. The celebrations were about to begin.
The portal was open.
One by one, the Complex ships vanished into it. Korok and Axum watched them go; they themselves would be the last. All they needed was for the Constructive to be held back for five more minutes.
And that should have been possible. But Voyager was careening into Rotor's cube, the Delta Flyer was outnumbered, and the rest of the fleet was under heavy fire. The situation was balanced on a razor-sharp edge. Just a little more weight on either side could change everything.
Even a single shuttlecraft.
"Hey, Captain," said a voice through Chakotay's communicator. "What's with the collision course?"
"Tom!" shouted Chakotay. "What took you so long?"
"One of your transwarp beacons was deactivated by some debris. I had to get it working again."
"Tom, we need help. I don't have time to explain. Stop this collision course -- I don't care how you do it."
Chakotay could practically hear Tom grinning. "Carte blanche, hm? You'll regret this. Paris out."
Chakotay turned to Oz. "Can't you lock her out of your systems?"
"Honestly, Captain, what do you think I've been trying to do?"
"But you've just been standing th-- never mind. Are you making any progress?"
"I'm sittin' right here, bucko," said Young with a laugh.
"I have," said the hologram, "but it will take a little more time to flush her out. There are trillions of calculations required for such a task."
Chakotay frowned. "How long will that take?"
"One minute," Oz deadpanned.
On the viewer, Chakotay watched Rotor's cube growing larger and larger. Suddenly a shuttlecraft appeared, coming up fast from the starboard. "Paris to Chakotay. I have a plan. You'll hate it."
"I don't doubt that for a moment," replied Chakotay.
"Tell one of your crackerjack Starfleet transporter chiefs to keep a lock on me."
"Oh, for heaven's -- Paris, we just got that shuttle!"
"Look who's talking. Paris out."
The shuttle began to accelerate. "Chakotay to Transporter Room Two. Get a lock on Mr. Paris and beam him out on my signal."
Chakotay watched the shuttle getting closer. "Not yet..." he muttered.
A yell came through his communicator. "I don't know what you're waiting for, but NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME!"
Chakotay rolled his eyes. "Transporter Room Two: energize."
Less than two seconds later, the screen filled with brilliant blue light. "The shuttle has detonated," said Tuvok. "From the size of the explosion, it is clear that Mr. Paris armed every torpedo on the shuttle preparatory to impact."
"That was one of the new shuttles," said Lang. "It had plasma torpedoes. Lots of them."
Chakotay turned to Tuvok. "Calculate it. How much will this alter the cube's trajectory?"
The Vulcan didn't touch his console. "It will now reach the point of collision approximately four point two seconds later."
There was a cheer from some of the bridge crew. Chakotay was staring at the back of Young's head. Why hasn't she said anything? he wondered.
Voyager careened safely out of the cube's path. As it did, Oz perked up. "Success, Comm-- Captain."
Chakotay glared. "You're making that mistake on purpose."
"Mr. Paris spoke to me before he left. At any rate, Lieutenant Young's takeover of my systems is now reversed. I'm working on digging her out of your Starfleet systems as well. For example...."
The force field flickered off. Chakotay immediately stepped forward and spun Young's chair around. She was staring forward as if in a trance. "Wasn't supposed ta happen," she said. "We were gonna... we were...."
Chakotay frowned sadly. "She's catatonic. Tuvok, hold your --"
Young slapped him. "I am not catatonic, you moron! You've screwed the whole mess up! Have you got any idea what ya did? We were gonna stop him! There was only one way ta do it and we were gonna do it!"
"We'll find another," said Chakotay, grabbing her wrist. "I trusted you, Shari. I gave you a second chance." He turned his head away. "You were lying right from the start."
"Wasn't," she said. "Wasn't lyin' about wantin' ta help. I was just ready ta do more than you guys. People like you need people like me."
"Maybe," said Chakotay quietly. "But I don't need you."
He released her and signaled to the security officers standing by the turbolift doors. "Take her to the brig," he said. "Oz, is helm control released yet?"
"Indeed. I could fly you in several figure eights right now if I --"
"Don't. Chakotay to Paris: if you're not too tired, get up here. We need a pilot."
Just then, Young broke away from the security officers. Suddenly remembering their recent capture of the Section 31 operatives, Chakotay spun around and tackled Young. He rolled on top of her, reached into her mouth, and grabbed hold of her tongue.
The security officers' expressions were indescribable, but Chakotay held on. Young fought him at first, but finally went limp. She looked up at Chakotay. "It's not the way," he told her firmly. "Someday, maybe you'll have a third chance. Maybe in enough time, I'll even be the one to give it to you. But if you kill yourself now, that will never happen."
She nodded, and he released her. She withdrew her tongue. Then, without warning, she leapt up, grabbed his head on both sides, and kissed him.
Trained to react to sudden movements, the security officers immediately fired. Young dropped away from Chakotay, whispering "Been fun, big guy," and slumped to the ground.
The last of the Complex ships had just passed through the portal; only Korok and Axum remained, each on his own ship. "Time to go, old friend," said Axum. "See you on the other side?"
"I will," the Klingon grinned. "And again in Sto'vo'kor. We shall battle the enemies of the Empire side by side, you and I. Battles worthy of drink and song!"
"Go through the portal," said Axum, chuckling. "Sto'vo'kor can wait."
The Klingon captain's ship passed through. Axum took one last look out the windows of his octahedron. Then he activated the engines and vanished through the portal into whatever lay beyond.
The last thing he detected in Voyager's universe was a Starfleet warp signature heading very quickly into the sector.
The fleet had finally regained the advantage and was turning back the enemy. It had taken a long time to overcome the Constructive's advantage of surprise, but the Alliance's advantage of numbers was proving to be the deciding factor.
Aboard his cube, Rotor looked around. All his prisoners were gone. His fleet was losing. Axum was gone, if he had ever been there, and Rotor had been unable to stop the Complex in time. They were gone for good, into the one place he could not follow. And his cube had very nearly been destroyed by the lunatics aboard Voyager.
It was a complete, unmitigated disaster.
It didn't bother him.
Rotor took his cube into transwarp. There would be another time. The plan continued. The universe's story was still moving to its conclusion.
And just before he reached that conclusion, Rotor decided, he would summon the long-since-assimilated Kathryn Janeway, her mind crushed and defeated, and kill her with his own hands.
"The cubes are retreating, Captain," said Seven, clearly surprised.
"Both of them?" asked Kim, on his way back from the rear compartment after getting out of his vacuum suit. "Did we damage them that much?"
"I do not believe so. They were still the more likely winners of this battle."
Janeway smiled. "The fleet must have done its job. Let's go join it."
Chakotay turned to Tuvok; the Constructive was finally retreating, but something told him this wasn't over. "Scan the sector," he said. "Tachyon beams, magnetic sweeps, whatever you have. I want to find Grant."
Oz appeared again, facing Chakotay. "Actually, that won't be very much of a problem. Phase cloaks are very effective on your sensors, but --"
Chakotay waved a hand. "I understand. You're better. Just find that ship."
"Done," the hologram said, a bit miffed at being interrupted. He nodded his head at the viewscreen, and Logan appeared, outlined in a Sernaix brown.
"Open a channel, audio only," said Chakotay, not interested in seeing Grant's face. Tuvok nodded. "This is Voyager to Carl Grant. We know your location and heading. What are you doing?"
"If you know my location and heading," said Grant, "you know what I'm doing."
"I'm afraid I don't. You're going to the sector those Borg ships disappeared from, but I don't know why."
"I've been following their intership communications," he replied. "It seems those ships were going to another universe."
"I see," said Chakotay, not sure if he believed it. "What are you getting at?"
Grant laughed. "I have about a hundred drones sealed below decks, Chakotay. They're under Rotor's control in this universe. If I can get them out of range, they'll be free again."
"You don't have to do this. We freed Seven -- there's every chance we can do the same for them."
"Sorry, Captain. I'm not willing to take the risk. This portal won't be open much longer." He paused. "This has all been for them, you know. Ever since the Logan was captured, I've had no other goal but to get my people back."
"How noble," said Chakotay. "I'm sure you were completely selfless about kidnapping an innocent man and leaving him to be assimilated. Barclay filled us in."
Grant laughed again. "I know you don't believe me. I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry -- truly sorry -- for the things I've done. This is my chance to make up for it. I can save my crew. I let them down, and now I can make that right."
The man paused. "Say goodbye to Shari for me, would you?"
With that, the transmission ended. Logan vanished into the rapidly-closing portal. Voyager's viewscreen remained focused on the adjacent sector until the portal finally shrank down to nothing. The machine on the Borg homeworld, both its functions complete, immediately autodestructed. The planet was a cloud of flying debris, and then it was gone.
Captain's Log, Stardate 56707.4. Kathryn Janeway resuming log. It's good to be back on Voyager, though it looks like everything was well in hand without me. Chakotay has been reinstated at the rank of Commander, to his endless relief, and Seven was out of her Starfleet uniform in time to avoid annoyed stares from Tuvok. Neelix is back with his family; Alixia has made a complete recovery, and the other casualties of Rotor's attack are convalescing. B'Elanna and Oz are working steadily on restoring the Doctor's personality, but they've cautioned me that this experience is likely to have a profound effect on him. The only one who seems to have come through this completely unscathed is Mr. Paris, who's already rumoured to be running a betting pool on how long it'll be until the next of our new shuttles is destroyed. I think I'm going to keep him on shipboard duty for a while, just in case he gets ideas about hurrying that up.
The Free Borg Complex has completed its emigration from this universe. The portal has been sealed so well that Axum is confident Ankin Rotor will never find another way in. Unfortunately, that means it's very unlikely we'll hear from him or any of his citizens again, but he believed it was for the best, and I suppose he would know better. I have been a Borg before, but not in the way his people were. That experience will haunt each of them to the end of their days. I hope they can find some peace where they've gone.
Repairs continue, on Voyager and the other ships of the fleet. The temporarily re-assembled Delta Quadrant Alliance intends to disband again when all this is over, but I'm going to suggest that they reconsider. If my missions have taught me anything, it's that unity is strength. This alliance could be the first step in building a better future for the Delta Quadrant.
But first, we have to make sure we do have a future. If Ankin Rotor has anything to say about it, that won't be the case. But I intend to ensure he has nothing to say about that... or anything else... for the rest of his twisted existence.
"They could not remain in this galaxy," explained Seven. "There were too many reasons for the unassimilated races to fear and mistrust them, particularly after the Constructive broke away. They had no hope of peaceful lives here."
Around the table, the other senior officers listened to Seven's story. She had already told them of Axum's message for her and the mission she and Janeway had undertaken. "So where did they go?" asked Paris.
"The planet Sulor was discovered by the Collective in an adjacent dimension approximately twenty years ago," she replied. "More accurately, the Sulorians contacted them. They hoped to make first contact with a peaceful alien race for mutual benefit. They chose incorrectly. The entire race was assimilated."
"And that's where Rotor came from?" asked Chakotay.
Seven nodded. "Rotor, Pavriqur, and millions of others. All Sulorian drones turned out to possess the malfunction required to transmit a drone's consciousness to Unimatrix Zero during their regeneration cycles. Thus both Rotor and Pavriqur were liberated when the Queen and the Unicomplex were destroyed. Pavriqur founded the Constructive; Rotor seized it from him and used it to achieve his own ends."
"And he can't follow them to Sulor's universe?" asked B'Elanna.
"No. Axum was not forthcoming with details, but he and Korok have researched the matter thoroughly and are convinced that the closure of their portal sent echoes through the medium between dimensions, breaking Sulor's dimension away from our own. No simple connections will be possible in the future."
"This must be killing Rotor," said Paris. "All those drones he could have used, gone for good."
"And Grant?" said Janeway, posing it as a speculative question.
Chakotay's expression grew odd, somewhere between a smile and a frown. "Grant is a self-made martyr," he said. "He saved his crew only to strand them in a dimension farther from Earth than the Delta Quadrant ever was. He thinks he's like you, Kathryn, sacrificing himself for the good of others. What he really wants is to be a hero. And for whatever little good it did his crew, he'll be one now."
Janeway smiled. "Maybe we shouldn't write him off quite so harshly. After all, he couldn't have picked a better place to take his crew. They'll be surrounded by people who know exactly what they're going through. It's better than being under Rotor's control, at least."
"I don't know. I don't think we should pay him even that small courtesy. He was a monster, whether he was also a hero or not."
"I certainly w-wouldn't call him a hero," muttered Barclay. "He lied to me for d-days as easily as you or I ch-chat about the latest Parisses Squares scores."
Chakotay frowned, lost in dark thoughts. Janeway put a hand on his shoulder; she knew who else had shown herself capable of that. "All right," she said, "meeting dismissed. Everyone back to your duties. We've had a nice little vacation, but it's time to get back to work."
Amid a few groans, the staff, except for Chakotay, got up and walked out of the observation lounge. When they were gone, Janeway wrapped both arms around her first officer and gave him a squeeze. "You're just not having a good week, are you, Chakotay?"
"I'll be fine," he said, shaking her off. "This is nothing I haven't earned over the years."
Janeway smiled. "You and guilt are older friends than you and I will ever be. You've made up for the things you've done. You don't deserve to be betrayed."
"Maybe not. But I should at least have seen this coming sooner. I really did it, you know. I made the leap of faith to trust Young. She was so enthusiastic, so sincere... I wanted so much to believe she had really changed."
"I can understand that," said Janeway. "I was lucky -- I put my faith in someone who deserved it. Not everyone has that luck."
There was a pause. Janeway pulled out a PADD from the stack in front of her and handed it to him. "I don't know if this will help, Chakotay. I hope it does. B'Elanna and Harry managed to recover this from the communication logs of her shuttle. It took them until now to decode the information."
Curious, Chakotay picked up the PADD and opened the message. The face of Admiral Warhol appeared. "Lieutenant Young. I was glad to receive your message -- the fate of the Logan has worried me for some time. While I'm sorry to hear that you were the only survivor, I'm proud of you for making it out. You're a good officer, and that's why I'm entrusting you with this mission."
The admiral pressed a few buttons on his console. "I'm transmitting to you the location of U. S. S. Voyager, along with some security lockout codes you may need to accomplish the mission. The details of what I need you to do are enclosed with this message. We have only one chance to defeat Ankin Rotor. You're the only one I can count on to do that.
"You'll find Voyager's crew stubborn and self-righteous. Win their trust. You've worked with Chakotay before -- he should be your main target. Concentrate on him. He's a good man, if a little misguided, and if he believes you want to help him, he'll take your side with Janeway. As for her, try to limit your contact, and the same goes for her security chief. Those two aren't to be trusted.
"I'll contact you again as soon as I can. I've escaped Federation custody and found refuge in the Torias system. I'm afraid I can't give you any more information than that; Ankin Rotor has left me alive so far because of a mental link he forced on me, but I believe my usefulness to him has ended, and so it is imperative that he not know where I am. I've managed to break the link with some technology left from Section 31. I don't know when I'll be able to leave this sector, but until then, I should be safe.
"Stay in contact. Good luck." The transmission ended.
Quietly, Chakotay handed the PADD back to Janeway. They looked in each other's eyes for a few moments, and then he left the observation lounge without another word.
"He'll be fine," said a familiar voice. "It'll be easier for him once we get all these people off the ship, Lieutenant Young in particular. Where is she going, anyway?"
Janeway turned to Oz and saw, to her delight, a black coffee in his hand. She took it gratefully. "Young," she said, "will be tried for her crimes. I imagine she'll end up in New Zealand, working the rocks and waiting for some well-meaning captain to come along."
Oz smiled. "And Mr. Barclay will return to Earth, I assume."
"Oh, yes. It's wonderful having him here for a visit, but he needs to get back to his life."
"As does Neelix. Interesting fellow, I must say, but he and Mr. Chell just cannot be on the same deck anymore."
Janeway smiled. "They'll get over that. It's just one of those silly conflicts that happen when two people have held the same position."
"They could take a lesson from you and Mr. Chakotay. I've never seen a man so eager to demote himself."
Janeway laughed at that, but then her expression grew serious. "What you've told me about Rotor's Sernaix technology... do you think it's something we can use?"
"Most certainly," he replied. "Like your Starfleet, he decided to incorporate something he couldn't really be sure of into his designs. He wasn't as lucky."
Me and Chakotay. Chakotay and Young. Our technology and the Sernaix's. The parallels spun in Janeway's head. "It's been a long, long mission, my friend," she said. "I'll be glad when it's over."
"And it can be, soon. But it won't be easy."
Janeway frowned. "It's necessary. Rotor has caused enough pain. I swore I'd stop him."
"If there's one thing you are, Captain," said Oz with a smile, "it's a woman of her word."
The hologram vanished. Janeway looked out at the stars for a long time, holding her coffee and pondering the complex questions of existence. Someday... someday they would all be answered.
But not today.