A Fire of Devotion: Part 4 of 4: Hotter Than Hell: Prologue and Chapter One

Prologue

A solitary Borg drone floats in space. The last surviving drone of a destroyed cube. The last cube destroyed in a war that the Collective forgot even happened, that everyone forgot happened. Through its still functioning visual receptor it sees the dead ship, the one that destroyed its cube before being crippled itself, possibly the only ship of the enemy left in this universe after all the others were destroyed.

The drone holds out hope for a rescue, for a return to the collective, to the many voices speaking as one. It holds out for as long as it can, but no cube, no sphere, no diamond comes. Soon its grip on sanity leaves it, and in the silent vacuum of deep space it mouths the word of the enemy, the word the Borg drones who were massacred and disassembled for spare parts heard over and over again at the height of battle.
    Delete.

Delete.

Delete.

Chapter One

Captain Janeway went through the motions of being a Borg drone, every moment tense with the possibility that the Collective would realize that while she and her team could hear them, the Borg did not control them. Very carefully she took note of every detail of the level they were on, fortunate that she and the others had not been separated.

Tom was right, this was a horrible plan, she thought. Fortune favors the bold, but you’ve got to know the difference between ‘bold’ and ‘moron.’

She pushed aside her doubts, and walked down the corridor, mimicking the movements of the drones around her. She passed Marla Gilmore, who worked on a console, her expression flat. Janeway nodded at her subtly. Gilmore nodded back in acknowledgment. Both women glanced around. There were other drones, closer than Janeway would’ve liked, but hopefully not close enough to hear her whisper.
“Have you seen Vorik or Tuvok?”

“Vorik is at the other end of this corridor working on a subjunction,” Gilmore whispered back. “I haven’t seen Tuvok.”

“Hopefully he’s already en route to the central plexus,” Janeway whispered. Gilmore opened her mouth to reply but the sound of metal footsteps on a metal floor stopped her. A pair of drones walked past. Once they were gone, Janeway looked around to make sure no one could see her tap Gilmore on the shoulder.
“We need to go,” she said. “Now.”
“One moment, Captain,” Gilmore said. “I just need one more second to- ah, there we go.”

An alarm sounded in the distance.
“What did you just do?”
“They were going to find out we weren’t properly assimilated sooner rather than later, so I found a way to create false positives. I do feel bad for the random drones on the lower levels whose day I just ruined though.”
“Good work,” Janeway said. “How long does that buy us?”
“An hour at most,” Gilmore said, standing up and heading towards the central plexus right away. Janeway simply followed her, silently relieved that Gilmore felt guilt for what she had just done. It was all too easy to forget that Borg drones weren’t just victimizers but victims as well. She wouldn’t judge Marla though.

I’ve lost count of how many drones I’ve killed or ordered killed in combat, Janeway thought. If I stopped to think about it… Best that I don’t.

“Time?” Chakotay said, wondering if it was good or bad that he wasn’t worried about the away team. Or at least not yet. They’re on a Borg supercube for spirit’s sake, he thought. Shouldn’t I be at least a little nervous?
“Seventeen minutes,” Tom said. “We should’ve heard something by now.”
“Maybe not,” Chakotay said. “It’s a big ship and the away team is going to be on foot, and having to maintain cover. Let’s not panic just yet.”
“Their higher brain functions are stable again,” The Doctor said.
“The cube is changing course,” Harry said. “New heading, 121 mark 6.”
“Tom?” Chakotay said.
“Already matching course and speed,” Tom said.

“Let’s just hope they don’t go into transwarp,” Harry said.
Chakotay did wonder why that hadn’t happened yet. In fact, he still found it a mystery as to why a Class-4 cube would be outside Borg space at all, let alone this far away. He realized he wanted to know that almost as much as he wanted to rescue the people in Unimatrix Zero.

“Do your best to keep up,” Chakotay said to Tom. “Seven’s still in Unimatrix Zero right now. If the virus is released, they’ll be the first to know, so once she comes out again we’ll know for sure.”

“Tell your hunters to patrol the northeastern perimeter,” Korok said to a Hirogen as they re-entered the main camp. “More drones were spotted there.”

Seven and Axum watched them pass by before returning to their own conversation.
“Any theories as to why the gap between the most recent attack and the last was so long?” Axum said.
“None,” Seven said. “Were we dealing with anyone other than the Borg I would assume it was an attempt to lull us into a false sense of security.”
“Not very Borg-like at all,” Axum said, “I agree. I imagine if that were the case we’d still be waiting on the next incursion.”
“The last incursion was worse than any of the others,” Seven said. “We may need to train more people how to conjure working mechs with their minds.” She shook her head. “No matter how many times I say it, no matter how many times I see it working…”
“It’s weird, yeah,” Axum said. “Still no reports coming in from anyone remembering this place when they exit their regeneration cycle?”

“Afraid not. The away team should be on the cube by now,” Seven said. “Something must’ve gone wrong.”
“Or maybe they just haven’t reached the central plexus yet, or the virus won’t spread as quickly as we thought.”
“If the latter is the case,” Seven said, “that only means the Collective will have more time to adapt to and resist it.”
“Give it a little more time, Annika,” Axum said, putting a hand on Seven’s shoulder. Seven reflexively flinched and took a step back. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to… I was just trying to be supportive.”
Seven nodded. “I’ll take you at your word and apologize for my reaction. However, I do ask that you refrain from doing it again.”

“Understood,” Axum said sadly.

“The central plexus is through here,” Tuvok said to Janeway and Gilmore when they reached him. Janeway gave the signal to wait a moment before moving. She heard footsteps, hoping it would turn out to be Vorik. She allowed herself a very un-Borg like sigh of relief when she saw that it was.
“I apologize for the delay, Captain,” Vorik said.
“No need, Ensign,” Janeway said. “Once we’re inside, we release the virus, and make contact with Voyager. We’ll also need to sabotage as many of the cube’s systems as we can to give them a chance of getting us out of here.”
“Already working on it,” Gilmore said. “Vorik, could you take that other console over there?”
Vorik simply nodded and went to work.
“Alright, Tuvok,” Janeway said. “Let’s do this. There are shield generators there and there, but as drones we should be able to just walk right through.” Janeway let out a small chuckle. “You know, over the years, we’ve had enemies board the ship who could just walk through our force fields. It’ll be nice to be on the giving end of that for a change.”

The two walked through the force field, Janeway feeling a slight tingling sensation as she did so. As she and Tuvok rounded a corner, they stopped suddenly. A lone drone was at the central plexus. Luckily, it hadn’t seen them, its back was turned as it operated a console.
One drone guarding it, and not even watching the entrance? Janeway thought. Suppose the Borg just assumed nobody would ever get this far.

“I will attempt to deactivate him,” Tuvok said quietly, moving as silently as the metal on his feet would allow on the metal floor. The drone either didn’t hear or didn’t perceive Tuvok as a threat until the Vulcan yanked out wires leading into the drone’s skull. He shuddered violently but made very little noise as he fell over, Tuvok catching him before he could hit the ground.

Janeway made a move to the console and immediately began manipulating the controls.
“Damn,” she said after a minute’s work. “I can’t access the plexus without shutting down the power grid in this section. That’s bound to draw some attention.”

“I will check in on Ensign Vorik and Crewman Gilmore’s progress,” Tuvok said. “Perhaps they can find another solution.”

“Do it,” Janeway said, feeling tense. This was already taking longer than she’d hoped. Of course, even succeeding in releasing the virus and giving Unimatrix Zero the chance to hide from the collective permanently was no guarantee that the four of them would make it out alive.

Why do I take on these suicidal missions all the time? She thought. I never thought of myself as someone with a death wish, but…

Something wasn’t right, the Borg Queen knew that much, and it was not simply the Unimatrix Zero problem. The fact was, she was aware that the focus on that issue had caused her to miss something. Such a distraction should not have been possible, not for the Collective.

Were embarrassment something the collective could feel, it would be feeling it right now.
“Janeway and the others. I can’t hear them,” the Queen said. “We assimilated them but I can’t hear them. How is this possible?”

She reached her mind into the cube that Captain Janeway had attacked, trying to see the four Starfleet officers that had been taken for the Collective. She looked in the alcoves where the drones they were supposed to be had been assigned. They were not there.

She struggled to keep the expression on her organic face neutral, even though it was not necessary. The drones around here wouldn’t notice. And her concern over the situation was reaching them regardless. So many things had gone wrong. Too many. The existence of Unimatrix Zero, the second failure to assimilate Earth, several cubes and spheres lost over the past few years… and there was something else wasn’t there? Vague memories of the Borg suffering a devastating defeat at the hands of…

The thought exited her consciousness almost as quickly as it came. She redirected her efforts to find Janeway. The tactical cube was the same size as a standard cube, but with less open space due to the additional armor and weaponry. There would be few places to hide, and she had access to thousands of eyes. Each eye or pair of eyes belonged to the drones who would find the Starfleet officers and stop whatever it was they were planning, and learn how they’d managed to remain free of the voice of the Collective.

While she did that, she increased the number of drones to enter Unimatrix Zero once more. She did not know precisely how she was losing so many in there, but eventually, she would overwhelm them. The reality that she was fast approaching the point where the resources expended in finding and shutting down Unimatrix Zero would exceed the effects its existence would have on the Collective managed to elude her.

The virus of the Borg’s enemy was working faster than even its creators had believed it would by this point in time. The Borg Collective was running out of time, and it didn’t even know it.

Seven of Nine wondered if she should be worried. Though no one within Unimatrix Zero wanted to admit it, the reality was the Borg should’ve adapted to the techniques and weapons Axum and the others were using to fight back by now. Despite this, the Borg seemed to be using the same tactics as always, the only change being larger numbers of drones. It wasn’t an entirely foolish tactic, as more drones to push back against meant that everyone had to work harder and be more vigilant, but if the Collective kept up this pace, the amount of drones lost finding and disabling this Unimatrix would end up not being worth the cost. While she had no desire to return to the Collective, she had to admit a certain amount of pity. This was not the kind of efficiency that she had been used to; had even briefly wanted to go back to when the Voyager crew had separated her from the Collective.

She said as much to Axum who nodded.
“Yeah,” she said in response. “This degradation you’ve been telling me about must be getting worse at a far faster rate than you thought. Perhaps some event triggered it, caused it to accelerate?”
“A possibility,” Seven said. “Or whomever is responsible for it intended it to be this way and we have simply been the beneficiaries of fortunate timing.”
“You’re that certain that there is an outside force at work here?”
“Yes.”
“I kind of hope you’re wrong, Seven,” Axum said, shaking her head. “I mean, who’s to say that any entity or entities powerful enough to destroy the Borg from within will stop with the Borg?”

Seven had not considered that possibility, and she very much wished that that had remained the case. She was unable to suppress a shiver at this thought.

“Hmm,” Korok said, the Klingon having been so quiet for the past hour that Seven had managed to forget he was there. “A force capable of destroying the Borg is itself not that terrifying. A force that can destroy the Borg, but is patient enough to let it play out over years, on the other hand, that is a thing could give Kahless himself nightmares.”

Seven had no response to that. She looked around at the camp. People were visibly tired, but full of determination. Everyone was helping each other. She really hoped the plan that the Captain had set in motion would come to fruition. These people deserved their freedom, even if it would be a more limited kind than that she had now. Her mind drifted to thoughts of Samantha, Naomi, and Icheb. It had been nearly a full ship’s day since she’d seen them, but she dare not leave now, not before there was a sign, any sign, that Janeway and the others had succeeded.

What is taking them so long? she thought.

“Bingo,” Marla Gilmore said. Janeway and Tuvok went to her to ask her what she meant, but Vorik spoke up before they could say it.
“We have bypassed the access codes,” Vorik said. “We can access the central plexus directly.” A loud hissing noise, that of the way to the plexus opening, happened immediately after he said the words, as if to emphasize the point.
“Good work,” Janeway said, heading towards the opening. “Let’s deploy the virus and then see about getting the hell out of here.”
Without warning, the unmistakable sound of alarm klaxons filled the corridor.
“It would appear the Collective has figured out we are not drones,” Tuvok said.
“Everyone inside the plexus,” Janeway shouted. “Seal the entry way behind us.”
“Yes ma’am,” Gilmore said.

All four people quickly made their way in, the heavy door making a painfully loud noise as it closed. Gilmore and Vorik immediately went to the nearest console. Janeway allowed herself a brief moment to be impressed with how well the two worked together before returning her focus to her mission.
“I may not get to go home,” she muttered, “but at least I’ll give the Borg a black-eye on the way out.”
“Captain,” she heard a voice say. It was definitely not one of her people.
The Borg Queen, she thought. So that what she sounds like. She looked at the faces of her crewmates and could tell that they heard the Queen’s voice as well.

“You don’t really think you can win, do you? Whatever it is you think you can do, even if the cube you are on is destroyed, we will adapt. We are many. We are Borg. We cannot be-”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Janeway said. “I’ve heard the spiel before. It would carry more weight if you hadn’t failed to assimilate my homeworld twice. Oh, and of course when you needed my help to beat back Species 8472.“

“Conservation of resources,” the Queen said. “Species 8472 would’ve fallen eventually, regardless. Accepting your assistance was merely the result of a cost-benefit analysis.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Janeway said, rolling her eyes. “Oh, and let’s not forget the whole ‘you planted Seven on Voyager’ line you tried to pull a few years ago. The mighty Borg collective, reduced to using the ‘I meant to do that’ excuse, like a cat falling off the back of a couch.”
“Enough!” the Borg Queen’s voice shouted, but Janeway kept going as she if she hadn’t heard.
“I mean, did you actually think that would work? Did you expect Seven of Nine to believe that the confluence of events that led to her being part of the crew was all part of a grand plan? I’m not surprised she didn’t go for it. Deception is clearly not something you’re well practiced at.”
“You cannot hide in the central plexus forever, Janeway,” the Borg Queen said. “You will eventually need-”
“And another thing,” Janeway said, noticing that Gilmore was trying very hard to stifle a laugh, “Back when Starfleet first encountered you all those years ago, your drones would disintegrate after being killed. I’ve noticed they don’t do that anymore. Just leaving your technology lying around for anyone to find? Sloppy.”
The Borg Queen was silent. It took Janeway a moment to realize that she hadn’t been rendered speechless, she had simply given up and cut off contact.
“A number of drones are attempting to burn their way through the doors to the plexus,” Vorik said, looking at another console.
“Sounds like you pissed her off, Captain,” Gilmore said.
“That I did,” Janeway said. “And the fact that it worked just goes to show how far the Borg have fallen.”

Tom Paris checked the chronometer again. Two and a half hours. That’s how overdue the away team was to report back in. He was nervous, afraid for his crewmates but he had to admit that he was glad B’Elanna had not gone with them.

“Vital signs are still good,” the Doctor said. “Stress levels are a bit elevated but that’s to be expected.”

“I wish there was some way we could pull them out now,” Tom said. “I don’t like how long this is taking.”
“I don’t either,” Chakotay said, “but we stick to the mission, no matter what.”
Tom wished he had Chakotay’s confidence. Or at least his appearance of confidence, he thought. Probably more worried about them than I am.

“And, done,” Gilmore said. “Virus deployed.”
“It appears to already be moving rapidly through the Collective, Captain,” Vorik said.

“Good work people,” Janeway said. Now comes the fun part, she thought sardonically, wondering just how they were going to get out of the central plexus and back to Voyager. Or even if it were possible.

“Unfortunately,” Tuvok said, giving voice to Janeway’s concerns, “we are unable to contact Voyager given our current location, and leaving the central plexus would open us to attack by this cube’s drones.”
“Yes,” Janeway said, “but we’re at the heart of this cube. That gives us an advantage. Marla, can you access the cube’s weapons systems from here? Or their shields?”
“I was just about to try,” Gilmore said, “but they’ve already started blocking access to the cube’s systems from in here. They can’t hide it from us, every bit of data has to pass through here to get to the drones, but I can’t do anything with it.”

“Not entirely accurate,” Vorik said, pointing to a green dot on a screen that to Janeway looked indistinguishable to all the other green dots. “In order to maintain control of the drones, the Queen cannot close off this channel. We cannot block it, nor can we redirect it, but we can add to it.”
“But what can- Oh,” Gilmore said. “Of course. We flood the stream with junk data. The drones will be distracted trying to separate the random bits from the Queen’s commands.” Marla manipulated a few controls on the console, then sighed. “The bad news is, we’d need a minimum of a hundred zetabytes worth of useless information to even have a chance for this to work. Where are we going to get that much garbage data?”

“Hang on,” Janeway said, finally recognizing something in the jumble of code she was seeing. “That data stream right there, it seems to be going someplace other than all the others.”
Marla and Vorik quickly got to work on the console. Vorik spoke first.
“That information is being directed towards a cluster of drones from this very cube that have been sent into Unimatrix Zero. Apparently one drone on this vessel has the mutation.”

Janeway exhaled sharply.
“Okay, I have an idea,” she said.

I often hear my crewmates joke about writing their memoirs, Seven of Nine thought as she looked at the blinking light coming from the eyepiece of the drone in front of her. Mine would likely be dismissed as exaggeration. I’m seeing it and even I’m not sure I can believe it. There was no doubt in her mind though. The drone that was attacking her was unaware that its lights were sending her a message in an antiquated human form of communication called Morse Code. Captain Janeway had talked about it during a conversation years ago about how she had managed to contact an away team she’d been separated from on a mission during her time as a Lieutenant. If you had told me then that I would find that knowledge useful, I would’ve been very skeptical.

After dispatching the drone, she returned to the camp to tell Axum what she had learned, finding her talking to Korok at the camp’s center. The two were discussing what several people had told them, about coming out of regeneration cycles on whatever ship they were on and still remembering Unimatrix Zero. This confirmed the first part of the message Seven had received.

“The virus has been deployed,” Seven said to Axum and Korok, “but Captain Janeway and her team are still trapped on the cube. They weren’t able to give me all the details given the limitations of the method they communicated with me by, but there is a drone on that ship that has the mutation. We need to find out who it is so we can use them to contact the Captain directly.”
“I assume,” Axum said, “that she has a plan?”
“I think it’s safe to assume that, yes,” Seven said.

Axum took a deep breath and looked around at the hundreds of people, gearing up for the inevitable next drone incursion. “This could take awhile,” she said, sounding reluctant.
“As my wife sometimes says,” Seven said, “nothing worth doing is easy.”
“I hope I’m the drone on that cube,” Korok said, grinning. “A Class-4 cube would be a worthy prize for our resistance.”
“I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” Axum said.
“In the meantime, I need to report to my crew,” Seven said. “I will be back shortly.” Seven closed her eyes, and focused on waking up. She felt the shift from the virtual world back to reality, and stepped forward, only for her legs to feel stiff and not want to cooperate. “Ow,” she said, realizing that she had been inside Unimatrix Zero far longer than was healthy for her. She heard the sounds of metal scraping on metal and looked up to see Samantha, the chair she had gotten out of having made the sound when it had shoved back.
“Annie,” she said, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Seven said. “Just need to walk it off. Let’s get to the bridge. I need to brief Commander Chakotay on the situation. Just, walk with me so I don’t get a leg cramp and fall over.”
“Of course,” Sam said, putting an arm around Seven’s shoulder, the two of them walking as quickly as Seven dared towards the exit. “How long were you waiting there for me?”
“I promise I only fell asleep once,” Samantha said.
Seven chuckled. “I love you.”

“Seven?” Chakotay said when he saw her and Ensign Wildman enter the bridge together, Seven favoring one leg while Samantha held her up. “Are you alright?”
Chakotay saw the Doctor make a move towards them, medical tricorder already in hand.
“I am already better than I was when I came out of Unimatrix Zero,” Seven said. “I stayed in too long, and my legs paid the price for it I’m afraid. But that’s not our priority.”
“I’m sorry I forgot to check in on you,” the Doctor said as he scanned Seven of Nine. “I was so focused on the away team-”
“Apologize later,” Seven said, turning to Chakotay. “Several drones have reported that they retained their memories of Unimatrix Zero after their regeneration cycles ended. I also received a message from the Captain in a rather unorthodox fashion.”
“Unorthodox?” The Doctor said.
“Why didn’t she contact us?” Tom Paris said.
Chakotay thought the answer was obvious, but decided not to give Tom any grief over it. They were all under stress right now. “The central plexus?”
“Correct,” Seven said. “I do not know the exact circumstances, but the away team is trapped in the central plexus of that cube. Axum and the others are working on a way to reach them, but for now at least they are secure.”
“That’s the downside to an impregnable position,” Harry said. “The enemy can’t get in, but you can’t get out.”

“At least they’re alive,” Chakotay said, “and got the virus deployed.”
“So what do we do now?” Tom said.
“Not much we can do,” Chakotay said. “The only reason we even have any hope of getting our people is that cube hasn’t gone into transwarp yet.”
“I’m starting to wonder if it even can,” Harry said. “I’ve gone over its trajectory, using data from the astrometrics lab, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. There’s nothing that I can see the Borg finding of value in that direction for years at even high warp.”
“I imagine we have no intention of tracking them for that long,” Tom said, “even if we could.”

“Let’s hope it won’t come to that,” Chakotay said. “Seven, soon as you can stand comfortably again get back in. Once you have any new information, use your comm badge and stay by your alcove.”
“Yes, sir,” Seven said. With help from Samantha, and with the Doctor following them, Seven headed for the turbolift. Chakotay walked over to Harry’s console.

“Since we probably can’t get answers, I’ll settle for theories,” he said. “Why do you think the cube can’t go to transwarp?”
“Like I said, it doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere in particular.” Harry copied the data he was looking at to one of the screens behind him. “Admittedly I’m not an expert, but based on what Seven’s told us over the years, this doesn’t resemble any kind of Borg patrol pattern either. It’s like when I was a kid and sometimes my uncle would take me out for a drive in his hovercar. He’d tell me to pick a direction, and we’d keep going until we hit something interesting. Or until we reached a coastline, whichever came first.”
“Something tells me the Borg don’t take their top of the line defense ships out for a spin,” Chakotay said.
“Maybe the Degradation has something to do with it,” Harry said.

Chakotay actually laughed. It was the first time he’d done so since the mission had started.
“Yeah,” he said. “That would explain a lot actually. Never thought I’d live to see the day when the Borg were downgraded from existential threat to a nuisance.”
“I’d say they’re still a bit more than a nuisance,” Tom said. “But yeah, seeing a Borg ship these days just doesn’t fill me with dread the way merely thinking about one did just, what, four years ago?”

Seven of Nine reentered Unimatrix Zero to an incongruous site. Much of the forest that had represented the place was either smashed or burned, yet around her the people she was seeing looked not just determined but downright optimistic. In the short time she’d been away, the tide must’ve turned severely.
She found Axum, Korok, Lauren, and some of the others standing around a bonfire, laughing.
“Annika!” Axum yelled when she saw her, waving her over to join them.
“Poor girl,” Korok said, “you missed the fun part. The last incursion of drones was an utter disaster. They didn’t get a single one of us, and on top of all that many vanished before we even got to fight them. The virus is clearly working, the Collective is no longer able to find us. We’ve won!”
“Any word on who we have on the Class-4?” Seven asked. As much as she would’ve liked to savour this victory against the Borg, she did still have her crewmates to worry about.

“That would be I,” an alien Seven hadn’t seen in the camp before said. “Quorzom is the name by which I go.”
Seven was actually surprised to see a member of crystalline species she only knew as Species 12 in Unimatrix Zero, but she managed to avoid allowing the surprise to overwhelm her.
“Turns out our shiny friend here,” Korok said, “has been with us all along. He-”
“It,” Quorzum said, sounding offended.
“Sorry. It,” Korok continued. “was the first one here. The first drone with the mutation. Turns out it has just been hiding this whole time. I’d call it a coward, but after what I saw it to do a dozen invading drones with just its hands I’d rather not make it mad. To die in battle with a talking rock is not how I wish to enter Stovokor.”

“That is an expected reaction,” Quorzum said. “Since a return to isolation is what I wish, I will simply tell you that I contacted your fellow bipeds on the Class-4 cube. How matters little though I told your fellows there,” it added, pointing dismissively at Axum and Korok, who simply rolled their eyes. “If you insist on needless details they have them to share. I’m told it is indelicate to leave without saying a trite phrase, so farewell.” Quorzum turned around on legs Seven couldn’t see and strolled away faster than its size would imply it was capable of.

“That was… what just happened?”
“Let it go,” Axum said. “I’ve met antisocial beings before but Species 12 has raised it to an art form.”
“So,” Seven said, wanting to get back on point with the mission, “what does the Captain have in mind?”

“How fast can Voyager upload over a hundred zetabytes of non-valuable information to the cube?” Axum said.
“Speed isn’t an issue for Starfleet computers,” Seven said. “Getting that information onto the cube would be the difficult part. But what would the purpose be for such a thing?”
“To make it easier for your engineers on the ship to take control of key systems from inside the central plexus,” Axum said. “It’s really their only chance to get out of there alive. I know it would be easier and less dangerous to consider them acceptable losses, but the fight against the Borg already has enough martyrs in my opinion.”
“No argument there,” Seven said, nodding. “I’ll speak to the senior staff aboard Voyager. Perhaps we can come with up with a plan to get our people off that cube. What else did Quorzom tell you? What else did Captain Janeway say?”

Chakotay sighed. The report Seven gave him and the rest of the remaining senior staff aboard did not seem promising. Gathering up the amount of data needed wouldn’t be easy, as there was not that much data in Voyager’s computer core that the Borg would probably consider useless. At least not as far as he could tell. And even if there was, delivering it to the cube would be next to impossible. With shields and weapons still fully operational, they couldn’t hope to last more than a few seconds against a Class-4 cube.
“Oh, that’s easy,” B’Elanna Torres said, much to Chakotay’s surprise. “One of Starfleet’s abandoned plans to destroy the Borg after Wolf 359 involved a plan similar to this. It was deemed impossible after testing and, well they were right. The basic idea was the same. Overwhelm the Collective’ group mind with useless bits of junk data and all that.”
“No way that could work with the whole Collective,” Harry said. “Not when the Borg use whole planets like computer cores.”
“Well, yeah,” B’Elanna said. “But that’s my point. We’re not trying to destroy the Collective. We’re trying to inconvenience a single cube. That’ll be much easier.”
“Depends on your definition of easy,” Tom said. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but how would we get it on the cube in the first place? Our best piece of bait was used getting the away team there in the first place.”

Seven of Nine appeared to be staring out the viewport of the briefing room at the streaks of light going past as the ship continued its steady course at warp, waiting for the need to either adjust course or run away, depending on what if anything the cube they were following did next.
“Seven?” Chakotay said, wondering why she seemed so distracted.
“Fluidic space,” she said.
“Come again?” Harry said.
“I believe I can generate a signal from our deflector dish to fool the cube’s sensors into thinking a portal into fluidic space has opened,” Seven said. “Fear that Species 8472 may be attempting another invasion would have to get their attention.”

‘Is that even possible?” Tom said. Seven almost looked insulted.
“Lieutenant, during my first day aboard this vessel I was able to modify the deflector dish to open a genuine rift. Faking one would require considerably less effort.”

“Okay,” Tom said, “you got me there.”

“Let’s say we do this,” Chakotay said. “How does that help our people on the cube? How do we get them the junk data?”
“We don’t need to get it to them directly,” B’Elanna said. “Just get it on the cube. And I have an idea there too. We don’t have enough data stored on this ship to do the deed, I’m sure we were all thinking that.”
“I wasn’t,” Tom said.
Harry raised his hand, and Chakotay nodded. “The thought had occurred to me. What did you have in mind, B’Elanna?”
“Load what junk data, or at least what the Borg would consider junk data, onto a device that, once linked up to a Borg data node, will start copying itself exponentially, like water spilling out of a glass if you pour too much into it. That replicated data will need to go somewhere, and the computers on that cube will have all the free space it could need and then some.”
“Get on that,” Chakotay said. “Seven, B’Elanna, this is your project. Time is of the essence so I’ll trust you to do what needs to be done. Spare me the details, just let me know when we can implement the plan.”
“Yes, sir,” Seven said.
“On it,” B’Elanna said, her and Seven not waiting to be dismissed before leaving the briefing room. Chakotay simply nodded towards everyone else. They took the cue, and left the room to return to their stations on the bridge.
Chakotay muttered a quiet prayer to his gods that this would work, and that Kathryn, Tuvok, and the others would make it home safe and sound.

Captain Janeway thought something she never imagined could be possible while sitting in the heart of a Borg cube, surrounded on all sides by drones trying to burn their way to either kill them or assimilate them fully this time.
I am so bored.
“I wish I had your Vulcan patience,” Janeway heard Marla Gilmore say to Vorik, suggesting that she was thinking the same thing the Captain was.

“Meditation would help,” Vorik said. “However, pausing to do so would be inadvisable given our current situation.”
“We could go in shifts,” Tuvok said. “One at a time, so as to minimize the risk of being caught off guard.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Janeway said. “Though really a nice hot cup of tea would be enough for me right now.”
“I’d settle for a good book,” Gilmore said. “Or even a bad one that I could poke fun-”

A beeping noise from the console nearest Gilmore caught her attention. She and Vorik both lept to their feet from their sitting positions to see what was going on.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Gilmore said.
“Fascinating,” Vorik said.
“What is it?” Janeway asked, no longer bored.
“Junk data is clogging up the metaphorical pipes,” Gilmore said. “And it’s replicating itself, making it harder for the Collective to purge it. I actually recognize some of this stuff. Earth music, 20th century mostly.”

Janeway snorted. “Must be Tom Paris’ music collection.”
“How was the Voyager crew able to transmit that data to the cube?” Tuvok asked.
Gilmore and Vorik manipulated the controls some more, stopped, looked at each other, and back at the monitor before looking at each other again.
“The information appears to be accurate,” Vorik said.
“I know,” Gilmore said, “but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Marla?” Janeway said.
“According to this information,” Vorik said, “the data was retrieved from a damaged Starfleet issue probe that was found near the site of a suspected incursion by Species 8472.”

“Huh,” was all Janeway could say to that. She tried to think of something to say, but after almost a minute finally gave up.
“Okay, this should make things a little easier,” Gilmore said. “And there go the shields. Still can’t communicate with Voyager from in here, but hopefully they’ll get the hint.”
“We should take the weapons off-line first,” Vorik said.
“Oh, right. Silly me,” Gilmore said. “Should’ve done that first.”

“It would appear that our timing is fortuitous,” Tuvok said, pointing to a spot on a nearby bulkhead that was glowing slightly. “Given the amount of time it has taken their efforts to penetrate the central plexus thus far, it is highly likely that by the time they make an opening large enough for a drone to get through, we will already-”
“We’re going to need to get out of here,” Gilmore yelled. “Even with the shields down, Voyager won’t be able to get a lock on us in here.”

“Can you direct the drones somewhere else?” Janeway said.
“I’m trying,” Gilmore said, hitting the console as she spoke and with audible frustration in her voice. “but whatever they cooked up on Voyager worked too well. I can’t do anything to the drones, just to the ship itself.”
“Perhaps,” Vorik said, “if we cause overloads in key places, at least some of the drones will need to vacate the area in order to deal with them.”
“It would have to be somewhere where there aren’t enough drones to deal with it already, so the overload would need to be somewhere close- Oh.”
“Are you-” Vorik said.
“Yes,” Gilmore said.
“That would be incredibly risky given our proximity to-”
“It’s our best option, Vorik.”
“What is our best option?” Janeway said.
“Create an overload in the transwarp drive,” Gilmore said. “The drones would make that top priority no matter what, and the Queen couldn’t stop them, not with the signals all clogged up. We get away no matter what, and if the drones fail, we get an added bonus of a blown up cube.”
“Sounds like a win-win to me, Marla,” Janeway said. “Do it.”

“Sir,” Harry said, “the Borg’s engines are going critical!”
“Transporter room one, can you get a lock on the away team?” Chakotay said, suddenly worried.
“I’m trying, sir,” Todd Mulcahey said. “I can’t get through the additional shielding around the central… wait, two lifesigns, no, wait, got ‘em!”
After a few almost unbearable seconds of silence, he heard Captain Janeway’s voice over the open comm.
“We’re back, now get us the hell out of here.”
“Initiating the ‘get the hell out of here’ maneuver,” Tom said.
“Any sign of pursuit?” Chakotay said.
“None,” Harry said. “The cube is at full stop. I imagine they’re a little busy trying to keep from exploding.”
“It’s what I would be doing,” B’Elanna said from the auxiliary engineering console on the bridge.
“Good work, people,” Chakotay said, smiling.

Seven of Nine took a good long look around at Unimatrix Zero. Already things were wildly different. The people had started making full buildings rather than a camp. A decent size city was rapidly, or at least rapidly when compared to reality, taking shape. The clash of styles made it look less than aesthetically pleasing, but that was irrelevant.

She took in a deep breath, amazed at how real the air smelled here, even though the only actual air she was taking in was the recycled air on board Voyager. She wondered how different the place would look next time she was here, seeing as that was going to be a fair amount of time.
“I hear you’re looking for me?” Axum said, smiling, now wearing a uniform of her own. Seven didn’t recognize it, but assumed it was that of Axum’s own people. “You like it? The military back home wore these. I was never in it myself, but I’ve become something of a soldier lately, that’s for sure. Korok’s busy planning a takeover of the ship he’s on. Might take awhile since he’s the only drone on it with the mutation, but it’s a sphere so his chances are only slightly impossible.”
Seven chuckled at that.
“Tell him I wish him luck,” she said.
Axum frowned. “You’ll be able to tell him yourself the next time he… Oh. You’re not coming back?” Axum looked as though she had been physically wounded.
“I’m not leaving forever,” Seven said, sounding considerably more defensive than she’d intended. “I simply have other matters to attend to. Duties aboard Voyager. Plus, these past few days, I’ve been neglecting my family. They’ve all been very understanding and supportive, but their understanding has unfortunately done little to assuage my guilt.”
“I can understand that,” Axum said. “Guilt seems to be something most sentient races have in common. Do you have any idea on when you’ll be back?”
“I do not know,” Seven admitted.
Axum did not appear to like the answer, but she didn’t say anything in response, merely nodding.
“I wish you well,” Seven continued. “The fight to save this place is over, but your resistance movement against the Borg has only started. Focus your energy on that, and not on missing me.”
Axum stepped forward. “Maybe, before you go I could get one last-”
“No,” Seven said, certain what the next word was going to be, and had that word been ‘hug’ she might’ve complied. “I do not wish for things to be awkward between us. I love Samantha. What you and I had ended when I was severed from the Collective. It is not your fault, there is nothing you could’ve done. Our lives simply went in different directions.”
“Not unlike your wife and her former husband,” Axum said. “In a way I guess it is comforting to know that this was just happenstance, and had things gone just a little differently we’d still be together.”
Seven didn’t believe Axum meant that, but she did believe that Axum was lying to herself, not to anyone else.
“Your Captain,” Axum said, clearly desperate to change the subject. “How are she and the others doing?”
“The majority of their implants were safe to remove,” Seven said. “Others will require more effort down the lines, and Tuvok will need time to adjust to his new eye and Marla Gilmore to her new hand, but otherwise the away team fared better than they had hoped. Captain Janeway and Ensign Vorik have already returned to duty, albeit reduced duty.”

“Good. Good,” Axum said. “Well, perhaps the next time I see you the others and I will have many great tales of victory against the Borg to regale you with. Who knows, perhaps either you or I will have answers regarding the Degradation.”

“That would be welcome news,” Seven said. “Farewell, Axum.”

“Goodbye, Annika,” Axum said. At that, Seven closed her eyes, focused her thoughts, and opened them again to see Icheb, the other Borg children, and Naomi gathered around a makeshift table where they were all playing a game of kadis-kot.

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