A Fire of Devotion: Part 3 of 4: Sweeter Than Heaven: Chapters Ten & Eleven

Chapter Ten

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it,” Samantha Wildman said to Seven of Nine. “I’m just saying that maybe you should try talking to her yourself before going to the Captain.”

Seven of Nine raised an eyebrow. “The Captain asked me to oversee this year’s annual performance reviews. I do not see why I should give a less than accurate report.”

“Let me try this again,” Sam said. “I know Celes is a bit of a, well, she’s…” Sam struggled to find a nice way to convey her point. It wasn’t that she disliked Crewman Tal Celes. She actually found the young Bajoran quite friendly, despite her shyness; a shyness that had only gotten worse in recent years.
“She is the most error prone officer on board,” Seven said. “Her work in astrometrics always needs to be double-checked.”
“I know that,” Sam said. “Believe me, I know, she did a rotation in the lab before you came on board and… don’t even get me started. My point is though, what exactly can be gained by relieving her of duty? It’s not like she can just hop on the next shuttle back to Bajor. Isn’t there something she might be good at? You could just have the Captain transfer her.”
“Where?” Seven said. “The problem is obviously not her skills, at least not based on what I saw in her academy records. The problem would seem to be that she has failed to adapt to Voyager’s situation.”
“Probably,” Sam said. “Still don’t see what relieving her of duty would do. Again, she doesn’t exactly have any place else to go.”
“Perhaps she could aid Neelix in the kitchen,” Seven said.
Sam didn’t think that was necessarily a bad idea, but she was skeptical it would work. She couldn’t think of a reason not to try it though, and she was about to tell Seven just that when the room’s comm system chirped.
“Janeway to Seven of Nine,” the Captain said.
“Yes, Captain?” Seven said.
“Do you have the reports I requested ready?”
“I do,” Seven said. “Shall I forward them to your ready room?”
“Go ahead and bring them personally,” Janeway said. “And bring Samantha with you. I have something I’d like to discuss with her.”

Had Janeway’s tone not been fairly jovial, Sam might’ve been worried about being summoned to meet with the Captain. With the exceptions of promotions, one on ones with the Captain were rarely about anything good, and Sam had never put in for a promotion her entire career.
“On our way, Captain,” Sam said. The comm closed, and Sam bit her lower lip. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”
“Because you’ve developed something of a fatalistic attitude in recent years?” Seven suggested.
“Honey, remember that conversation we had about tact?”

“We’ll be passing through a class-T cluster in the next couple of days,” Captain Janeway said to Seven and Samantha as the two stood across from her in her ready room, “It’s not important enough to alter course, but I think it’s at least important enough to send out the Delta Flyer to get a full range of scans.”
“I assume that’s why I’m still here, Captain?” Seven said. “You do have my report.”
“A reasonable assumption,” Janeway said, “but an incorrect one.” Janeway stood up, and moved around to the front of her desk, and leaned back, arms crossed. “I’m piloting the Flyer for this mission, and I’m planning on taking a few crew members with me who I think could use some special attention.”
“Oh no,” Sam muttered.
“Samantha,” Janeway said, “you can’t stay on the ship forever. Sooner or later a time’s going to come when you need to leave, be it for good or bad reasons. You weren’t planning on staying on board once we got back to the Alpha Quadrant were you?”
“Well, no, but…”
“So the sooner we deal with this newfound phobia of yours the better,” Janeway said.
“Captain,” Seven said, “while I personally agree that Samantha should not be afraid to go on away missions, especially those that would allow her to continue practicing her field of xenobiology, I’m not sure ordering her to go on a Delta Flyer mission is the wisest course of action.”
Samantha nodded vigorously. Captain Janeway understood why, considering how badly her first and so far only mission in the Flyer had gone. But in the almost year and a half since then, Voyager had come across so many planets with some astonishing alien fauna, the very thing that Ensign Wildman had joined Starfleet to study in the first place, and she had passed on the chance to see every single one of them.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull rank this time, Ensign. You and two other crew members yet to be determined will join me on the Flyer at 1300 hours.”
Sam looked like she wanted to protest, but instead simply nodded. Janeway couldn’t help but notice that her hands were shaking at her sides.
“Permission to speak freely, Captain?” Seven said.
“When have you ever not?” Janeway said, smiling.
“I think this is ill-advised,” Seven said. “If this were a planetary mission I might be willing to assist in encouraging Sam to go along, but the data astrometrics has on the cluster you are ordering her to go into is incomplete. If I can’t dissuade you from following through on this order, at least allow me to go with her.”
“Request denied,” Janeway said to Seven. To Samantha she said, “Sam, this is an order, but I want you to know that if after the mission is over, you still want to be kept off the away mission roster, I’ll honor that. I just feel you’ve let a few bad experiences cloud your judgment. While it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, well more than half our away missions are uneventful, and of the ones that aren’t we know going in the situation will be difficult and we plan accordingly. And I would never send you on one of those kinds of missions under any circumstance. You’re a biologist, not a security officer.”
Sam looked at Seven.

“If you don’t want to go, Sammy, I can talk to Chakotay, maybe convince him to-”
“No, it’s okay, Annie,” Sam said, eyes closed, and visibly nervous. “I’ll do this. I can do this. There aren’t any plasma storms nearby are there?”
“No,” Seven said.

Sam stood at attention, took a deep breath, and looked Janeway in the eye.
“I’ll be ready by 1300 hours, Captain,” she said.
Janeway smiled. “See you then. Dismissed.”

Chakotay wondered to himself how many ways he could tell the Captain that one of the three crew members she’d chosen for the mission was a mistake without outright committing insubordination. He settled instead for saying “Are you sure?” for the third time in almost as many minutes.

“I understand your concerns,” Captain Janeway said. “But if we don’t get Tassoni more integrated into the crew soon he’s going to become a problem.”

“He does his job, but only to the bare minimum. He follows orders, but in the most passive-aggressive fashion possible. He refuses to even try to interact with the rest of the crew, including his former shipmates. If you insist on taking someone from the Equinox with you on this mission, why not one of the others?”

“The others are at least trying, to varying degrees of success. Tassoni acts like we’re going to kick him off the ship any day now so ‘why bother.’ I want to make it clear to him that there can be a place for him on this crew.”
Chakotay shook his head. “And if he doesn’t want to be?”
Janeway sighed, and shrugged. Chakotay figured that she didn’t really have a good answer to that question.
“If I can’t talk you out of this,” he said, “I at least insist you keep a phaser on you, just in case.”
Janeway chuckled. “I appreciate the concern, but Tassoni has shown no inclination towards violence since coming aboard.”

“I know that,” Chakotay said, “but better safe than sorry.”
“We’ll be fine with the phasers that are stocked on the Flyer normally,” Janeway said. “I doubt we’ll need them giving where we’re going but as you say, better safe than sorry.”
Chakotay simply nodded. He didn’t like it, but he had backed his Captain on more questionable decisions than this in the past. If he had truly felt that she was needlessly endangering herself and others, he’d push back. He’d done it before, and despite how ugly that had gotten, they still respected each other after it was over.

“Well,” he said, “have fun.”
“I intend to,” Janeway said.

“I have to admit, Brian,” Marla Gilmore said to Brian Sofin, the two of them sitting in a corner of the mess hall having lunch, “I figured it would bother you that Angelo got to go on an away mission before you did.”
“No, it’s okay,” Sofin said. “It still amazes me sometimes how few people will give me a dirty look anymore. Is less than a year all it really takes to get over someone stealing a key piece of technology from you and leaving you to die?”
“I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that the man who ordered us to do that is dead,” Marla said. “But yeah, I get the feeling. Sometimes when I’m in engineering, it feels like people are treating me like I’ve always been part of the team.” She sipped her tea, glanced at the various other crew members chatting and enjoying their meals, while Neelix stirred something in one of his massive pots.
“Marla? You still with us?” Sofin said.
“Yeah, just thinking. On the one hand, I look at these people and think that they never would’ve done what we did. On the other…”

“They had it a lot easier than us,” Sofin said. “Easy being relative of course. Most of this ship’s senior staff were dead before they even knew what hit them. And we didn’t have to deal with a Cardassian spy or Betazoid serial killer.”
Marla rolled her eyes. “I think I’d take both of those things times two before dealing with the Ankari spirits of good fortune again.”
Sofin shrugged. “Yeah, fair point.”
“Have you talked to Angelo at all? Since Ransom died I mean.”
“Only once. He didn’t say it directly, but I think that he thinks you, me, and James betrayed the Captain; sold him out.”
“You told him that Captain Ransom helped save us, right? That Burke was the one who got the rest of our shipmates killed?”

“I did. So did James.” Sofin finished the last of his food. “I hope getting to go on an away mission again will snap him out of it. He was a good officer back before we started killing those aliens for fuel. Maybe he can be again. I’d certainly feel better about him being in security.”

“How does that work, by the way?” Marla said. “How can he be on the security team if he isn’t allowed to have a phaser yet?”

“You’d have to ask someone else,” Sofin said. “I don’t really get to talk to the security people.”

Captain Janeway flew the Delta Flyer away from Voyager, her three charges situated behind her. She had put Angelo at the tactical station despite the unlikeliness of needing to use the ship’s weapons. Samantha took the seat behind him, refusing the one directly behind Janeway at the helm. She explained that it had been the chair she was in when the Flyer had crashed last year, so Janeway didn’t argue. Tal Celes took that seat instead, monitoring the sensors, and glad to do so as the young Bajoran was convinced that was one of the few things she was good at.

As soon as the Flyer went into warp, Janeway began the mission briefing.
“Once we reach the cluster,” she said, “we’ll drop out of warp and maintain one-quarter impulse on the sweep through the protostars. Celes, you’re going to be running an ongoing sensor analysis. Samantha, you’ll be looking at subspace particle decay for anything new we might learn about star formation. I know that’s not your field, but I can assist you along the way. Mister Tassoni, your job will be to look for signs of life, a long shot in this environment, but it’s something to do.”
“Captain,” Tassoni said, keeping his voice polite, but still rolling his eyes, “I know it’s not my field either, but I do know enough about these types of clusters that if we find any planets at all they’ll be gas giants.”

“They could have moons,” Samantha said.
“Captain, I have to ask again why you insisted on bringing me along. Haven’t my former friends done more to earn this opportunity than I have?”
“Former?” Janeway said. She’d heard of course, on several occasions, that Tassoni was never seen interacting with the other Equinox survivors, but this detail was news to her.

“They don’t appreciate what Captain Ransom did for us, the sacrifices he was willing to make, even his own conscience, to save us. They think they have to apologize for doing what we needed to to survive. I won’t.”
The cabin of the Flyer got uncomfortably quiet. Janeway could see Samantha’s left hand from the helm chair and saw that it was clenching and unclenching. Celes looked like she wished she could melt into the bulkhead and not have to listen to any of this.

“I’m not here to rehash arguments about what Captain Ransom did,” Janeway said. “I’m here to see if you can function as part of a team without being rude to your teammates. I can see we’re off to a bad start, but let’s call this a dry run and start over. Mister Tassoni, your job will be to look for signs of life in the cluster.”
Tassoni narrowed his eyes briefly, but nodded. “Aye, Captain.”

Janeway turned back around to keep an eye on the helm console. Tassoni was right about one thing, there was no point in trying to change his mind. He truly felt that under the circumstances, Ransom did the right thing. She disagreed, but while there would be a time and place to address the larger issues of that incident, it wasn’t now. Not while they all had to live together. A Federation inquiry once they all got back to the Alpha Quadrant would decide ultimately what to do, if anything, with the Equinox survivors. Her job was simply to keep them alive and make sure they did their jobs. So far, at least as far as she was concerned, that was mostly working. Angelo Tassoni though would have to learn to dial back his attitude, and with any luck, this mission would help make that happen.

Samantha found herself about to drift off. She didn’t usually get tired on away missions, but she had failed to get a full night’s rest before she had to leave. Seven of Nine had been very supportive of her, even providing her with a thermos of Sam’s favorite flavor tea before leaving, but no amount of coddling from her wife was going to make this any easier. She was tired and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Which it seemed to almost immediately, as mere seconds after dropping out of warp the Delta Flyer shook. Samantha gripped the edge of the console so hard her hands hurt.
“Engine status?” Captain Janeway said.

“Within parameters,” Tal Celes said.

“Anything on sensors?”

Sam took a deep breath, let go of the edge of the console, and began manipulating the controls. “Uh, nothing. Might’ve just been a hiccup with the impulse drive.”
“Not unheard of,” Janeway said, “but rare. I’m going to take a look at it. In the meantime, I think we’re due for lunch. Celes, head below and see what Neelix packed for us.”

“Aye, Captain,” Celes said. Sam had to admit, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard the young Bajoran sound so confident. She seemed to like it out here. Perhaps, she thought, when we get back she can transfer to a smaller ship. Some people just prefer tighter spaces.

A console near Janeway beeped, and she looked at it.
“Sam, can you identify the source of that spatial fluctuation?”
“What fluc-” Sam’s request for additional information was violently interrupted by the Delta Flyer shaking hard enough to nearly send her to the floor. Not again, not again, she thought. The stars out side became swirls, a sign that the Flyer was spinning wildly, only the inertial dampeners keeping the four people inside from being pinned to the bulkhead.

The Captain, struggling with the controls the whole time, finally managed to get the ship stabilized.
“What the hell was that?” Tassoni said, checking his monitors. “Were we attacked?”
“I don’t know,” Janeway said. “We need to get propulsion back on line first, then we can figure out what hit us.”
“I can’t see anything on sensors,” Sam said.
“Same here,” Celes said. “But whatever hit us tore a section of plating off the outer hull. Ninety percent of our anti-matter has been neutralized. The reaction’s cold. So much for warp drive.”
“Impulse engines are still operational, but they’ve been damaged,” Janeway said. “We won’t be able to go faster than 1/8th impulse. We’ll have to call Voyager to come pick us up. Is the subspace transmitter working?”
“Affirmative,” Tassoni said.
Delta Flyer to Voyager,” Janeway said, “we’ve been hit by an unknown phenomenon and have taken heavy damage. We require assistance.” Janeway hit a button. “Transmit that message continuously on all subspace frequencies,” she said to Samantha.

“I think I know what got us,” Celes said, “A dark matter protocomet.”

“A what?” Sam said, knowing what dark matter and comets were, but having never heard of one of the latter made out of the former.
“I read a paper on those once,” Janeway said. “If I remember right, the theory was anything like that would be attracted to any source of antimatter and neutralize it upon contact. Are you sure that’s what hit us, Celes?”
“Mostly,” Celes said, her more normal shy personality reasserting itself. “I went to the academy with the guy who wrote that paper. I remembered him talking about it, otherwise I would’ve never thought to look. I know it’s not something to normally look for but…”
“But if you’re right, we may have evidence that will make your former classmate very happy,” Janeway said, smiling. “Good thinking.”

Sam smiled herself, despite the situation. While she longed to be back on Voyager with her family, she took some small comfort in finally seeing a crewmate who had fallen behind her peers have the chance to step things up. She also couldn’t help but note that Angelo Tassoni had gotten far more professional once things started to go bad.

Perhaps some good will come out of this mess after all, Sam thought. I just wish I wasn’t here to see it.

“Should we eject our remaining antimatter?” Tassoni said. “If it attracts these protocomets we might get hit again.”

“Not yet,” Janeway said. “We may still have a chance to get the warp drive back on-line.”
“We may not survive another hit,” Celes said. “Ma’am,” she added quickly. If the Captain was offended by her speaking out of turn she gave no sign of it.”
“A few more minutes,” Janeway said.
“Understood,” Celes said. “Also, Captain, if it’s alright, we should bring the damaged hull plating aboard. It’s only ten kilometers away. Impact from a dark matter body might’ve left something valuable on it that could help us detect any further such bodies. If we can get a decent warning if another protocomet approaches…”

“We can dump the antimatter we have left and save the ship,” Janeway said. “Good thinking, Crewman. Do we have transporters?”
“Yes,” Tassoni said. “I’ve already found the plate, and am locking on right now.”

“Good,” Janeway said. “Beam it to the aft section. Celes, come with me. Sam, Angelo, continue repairs.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tassoni said.
“On it, Captain,” Samantha said. Once Celes and Janeway exited the cabin, Sam let out a heavy sigh and rubbed her eyes.
“Figures,” she muttered under her breath.
“What was that, Ensign?” Tassoni said.
“I’m saying it figures. I didn’t want to leave the ship because the last several times I have, something had gone wrong. And what happened to us today?”
“That sounds like an incredible run of bad luck,” Tassoni said, not sounding as sympathetic in tone as the words implied. “Not that I would know, most of my bad days were on a ship.”
“I didn’t mean to-”
“Offend me? No, I know,” Tassoni said. “I’m just trying to say that I understand how you feel.”
“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Samantha said. “Annie told me what a mess the Equinox was when we found you.”
“Annie?” Tassoni said.
“Oh, sorry. I thought you knew that Seven of Nine’s birthname was Annika.”
“No,” Tassoni said. “I knew that she still went by her Borg designation, but I’d figured she just didn’t remember her name.”
“No. For the record though, she only lets me call her that so…”
“Understood,” Tassoni said.

Captain Janeway ran her tricorder over the hull fragment now lying on the floor. Once she was done scanning the entire chunk of metal, she handed it off to Tal Celes.
“Download this into the main computer,” she said, now looking at the debris. “It looks like it was sheared off rather than blown off.”

Celes began working at a console near the back of the room, looking tense.
“Everything alright, Crewman?”
“Fine, Captain. It’s just… I’m sorry I spoke out of turn earlier, about the antimatter.”
“It was a valid point,” Janeway said.
“I guess so,” Celes said.
“You doubt yourself too much, Crewman,” Janeway said.
“I should. And you should too. My work always needs to be double-checked, as I’m sure you’ve been told before. I imagine I’d have been kicked out of astrometrics a long time ago, but I think being married has softened Seven of Nine a little bit.”

“We all make mistakes,” Janeway said. “Even me,” she added, several of the ones she considered her biggest coming to the forefront of her mind, threatening to distract her.

“Every day? Every time you report for your shift? On Voyager, it doesn’t matter because nothing I do is that critical. Seven doesn’t trust me with anything important. The crew is protected from my mistakes there, but out here I could get us killed.”
“The reason we know what hit us is because of you, Celes,” Janeway said, trying to bolster Celes’s spirits without pushing too hard. “You showed evidence of unconventional thinking on your application. That’s why I accepted you to the post when your name came up.”
“I only know what hit us because of something someone else said to me one time,” Celes said.
“So? Trust me, Crewman, my senior staff have pulled ideas that saved our ship out of places much darker than your memory,” Janeway said with a smirk.
Celes chuckled.  “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Captain, but you have to understand. To you, this is just data. To me, it’s a monster with fangs and claws. In my nightmares, I’m chased by algorithms. My brain just wasn’t built to understand this.”

“We could find you another post on Voyager,” Janeway said, though she had to admit to herself that she wasn’t sure where.

“I don’t think there is any place for me there. Not unless you need a waitress in the mess hall.”
“There’s more to duty than the ability to manipulate algorithms. Everybody on Voyager has showed a courage far beyond what I could’ve expected considering the circumstances.”

“I appreciate the thought, Captain. And I’m happy that you want me to do well. But I don’t deserve to be on your ship. I’m not really a part of Voyager. I just live there. If it takes long enough for us to get home, eventually even Naomi, or Icheb, or probably even Angelo Tassoni will outrank me. I accept that.”

Janeway sighed. She wished she had a trained counselor onboard. She was starting to realize that this level of low self-esteem was beyond her ability overcome. She had managed to inspire her crew during tough times, but she couldn’t get this one Bajoran woman to see herself as anything but a failure. That fact broke her heart.

Six hours later, with no reply from Voyager, but also no further impacts, Samantha and the others gathered around to hear Captain Janeway’s report.
“Our scans of the hull fragment were inconclusive,” Janeway said. “We found some displaced positrons, which are consistent with a dark matter impact, but could’ve been caused by something else. If we try to recalibrate our sensors with this little information we could end up with either a bunch of false alarms, or completely fail to catch the protocomet that finishes us off. Though I take the fact that we haven’t been hit by anything else yet as a good sign.” She touched the screen and a map came up. Sam wondered where this was going.
“There’s a gas giant only a few hours from our current position,” Janeway said. “T-class, surrounded by orbital rings, including one that’s radiogenic.”

“We could use those particles to reinitialize our warp core reaction, right?” Celes said. Sam couldn’t help but notice that what confidence she’d gained during the initial crisis had faded away in the interim.
“Exactly,” Janeway said, smiling and nodding at Celes. “With only ten percent of our antimatter left, we’d only be able to make warp two, but that’s a hell of a lot better than our current pace. Everyone clear on the plan?”

Samantha nodded, and saw that everyone else was too.
“All right,” Janeway said. “Let’s do this.”

As the crew took their seats to begin the journey, there was suddenly a brief shudder. Sam thought for a moment that they would need to eject the core after all, but it stopped just as quickly as it had started.
“I doubt that was another protocomet,” Janeway said.
“If it was I-” Sam said, her thought cut off by a noise that seemed to be coming from nowhere, but was getting louder.
“Find the source of that sound,” Janeway said. Sam grabbed a tricorder and opened it, seeing that everyone else except for the Captain had too. They all scanned around them, and when they reached the source, a look of dread appeared on everyone’s face, none more so than Angelo Tassoni, who looked at his tricorder in visible fear.
“Oh no,” he said.

Suddenly, Tassoni vanished in a haze of green light, like some sort of transport beam.
“What the hell?” Samantha yelled.
“That’s impossible!” Celes said.

“Where is he?” Janeway said.
Sam and Celes each bolted to the console nearest to them. Sam frantically tried to find any sign of him; his bio-signature, his comm badge, anything.
“I can’t locate him,” she said, “He’s not out there. Not in space, not in sub-space…”

A brief noise similar to the longer, louder one that had preceded Angelo’s disappearance came and went, and as soon as it ended, Tassoni reappeared right where he’d been sitting, looking exhausted. With a groan, he fell over.

Sam went to him, Celes right next to her scanning him with a tricorder while Sam looked for visible signs of injury, eventually seeing a cut on the back of his neck.

“Inside… me…” Tassoni said. Sam gasped and nearly fell backwards as a creature of some sort could be seen moving around under his skin. Sam felt a tap on her shoulder, and saw Janeway behind her and Celes, motioning for both of them to head to the aft compartment, while she helped Tassoni to his feet.
“Activate the transporter,” Janeway said, though to whom she was too close to panic to be certain. “Try to get a lock on whatever’s inside him.”
Tassoni was panting, sweating, and barely able to stand. Janeway waved Sam over while Celes went to a console and frantically began manipulating the controls.
“Help me get him into the bio-bed,” Janeway said, pressing a button. The bio-bed slid out of the wall, and the two women got the man into it quickly. Janeway took out her own tricorder and began scanning him.
“The tricorder isn’t picking up anything,” Janeway said, sounding worried.
“But I can feel it,” Tassoni said.

“I-I can’t get a lock,” Celes said, sounding equally scared. Sam desperately wanted someone to remain calm in this situation, but was afraid that it would have to be herself. “It’s like something’s there but it’s not there.”

“Oh, it’s there,” Tassoni said.
“Unfortunately,” Janeway said, feeling at Tassoni’s sides with her bare hands, “I have to agree.”

“Maybe we weren’t hit by a protocomet after all,” Sam said. “No comet I ever heard of could do something like this.”
“Think about it,” Janeway said. “Sensors can’t find this thing, transporters can’t lock on to it… Maybe this is some kind of dark matter lifeform.”
“That can’t be right,” Sam said, trying to come up with an alternate explanation in her mind, but failing. Still, it had to be wrong. “Molecules that complex would collapse under their own weight. They could never support life.”

“It’s the best theory we got right now,” Janeway said to Sam. She looked down at Tassoni. “Angelo, where did they take you?”

“I don’t know,” Tassoni said, far more calm than Sam would’ve expected but still visibly in considerable pain. “It was dark, hot, there was breathing all around me. I tried to speak but there wasn’t enough air. I tried to move, but something was pressing down on me.”

“Should we sedate him?” Sam asked.
“If we do that it might lower his immune response,” Janeway said. “I don’t like seeing him like this either, but I don’t want to take that chance. Angelo?”
“I understand, Captain,” Tassoni said. “You should put up a force field around the bio-bed. Just in case this thing breaks out of me.”
Sam couldn’t believe how matter-of-factly the man had described something that could potentially lead to a very painful death, but then she remembered that this was a man who’d lived with the threat of certain death hanging over him for years.
“Celes,” Janeway said, “come with me. Sam, stay with him.”
“Understood,” Sam said. She hoped the Captain had some idea of how to help their colleague. She walked over to the bio-bed, as close as she could get without hitting the force field, and, as silly as it made her feel, tried to engage Angelo Tassoni in small talk.

“I’m setting a course for those rings,” Janeway said as she sat in the pilot’s seat. “Shunt as much power as you can to those impulse engines. Maybe we can get just a little more than 1/8th impulse.”

“We never should’ve left Voyager,” Celes said, sighing sadly as she followed Janeway’s orders. Janeway tried but failed not to smirk, glad that Celes wasn’t looking at her.
Voyager’s not exactly a safe haven either, Crewman. The Vidiians, the Kazon, the Borg, Species 8472, the Malon, I could go on and on.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better, Captain.” Celes said.
“Just trying to put things in perspective. We’ve been chased across this quadrant by things far worse than whatever’s doing this to Angelo.”
“I’ve got you three more percentage points of impulse,” Celes said.
“I’ll take it,” Janeway said. “Good work. Have you considered engineering?”
“What?”
“If you feel that astrometricsisn’t right for you-”
“Captain, is this really the time for this?”

“Perhaps not,” Janeway said. “But unless something changes with Angelo, there’s not much else we can do until we reach those rings.”

“Fair enough, ma’am, but I’d honestly rather not think or talk about my career right now.”
Janeway couldn’t argue that point, so she respectfully stopped talking. The silence for the next few moments was uncomfortable, but Janeway decided it was best to just let Celes do her work.
“Incoming transmission,” Celes said, sounding shocked. Janeway was shocked herself.
“Source?” she said.
“It’s a Starfleet frequency,” Celes said. “Must be Voyager.” The comm system activated, and at first the signal coming through was all static, but as it gradually faded, Janeway sighed heavily as she recognized her own voice, and her own words. Then she noticed something. Certain words were repeating, and not like an echo, but several times for one word, but only twice for another. There didn’t seem to be a pattern in it, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.
“Subspace echo,” Celes said, her voice cracking.
“Maybe not,” Janeway said. “There’s a .005 deviation in the carrier wave. Recognize that number?”
“From our scans of the hull fragment, yes,” Celes said. “But what could that mean?”
“They’re bouncing our own distress signal back to us,” Janeway said. “But modified. They might be trying to communicate. Try to adjust the universal translator for-”
“Captain!” Samantha Wildman yelled. Janeway turned to see Angelo Tassoni, pale, but walking upright. “I don’t know how, but he went right through the force field,” Sam added.

“Angelo,” Janeway said, her hand moving close to a panel where she knew a hand phaser was kept, “what are you doing?”

“I’m not doing anything,” Tassoni said through gritted teeth. “It’s controlling me. I can’t stop it. You’ll have to stop it.”
“How? Janeway said. Tassoni directed his gaze towards the panel that Janeway had her hand near.
“Do it,” he said.
Janeway quickly opened the panel, took out the phaser, and was glad to see it was already on a low stun setting. She fired, hitting Tassoni square in the chest, He yelped, and fell back, but remained conscious.

“It’s in my shoulder,” he said, tearing up, the pain clearly getting to be too much. The alien, whatever it was, ripped through the skin on Tassoni’s neck where the cut they’d seen earlier had been and lept onto a console. It reminded Janeway of a millipede, only much larger, and glowing black and purple. Its tiny legs began manipulating controls on the console, equally purple sparks of energy coming from it as it did so.

“It’s tapping into our systems,” Celes said, panic entering her voice.
“Wait,” Janeway said, “it might be trying to communicate.”
The console’s lights began flickering. Soon, sparks began exploding from the console.
“It’s in our environmental controls,” Celes said. “We’ve got to stop it.”
“Wait,” Janeway said again, but Celes had already found another phaser and fired at the alien, vaporizing it. Janeway knocked the phaser out of her hand.
“What the hell did you do?” she said.
“It was trying to kill us,” Celes said. “I had to. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” Janeway said.
“I heard its thoughts, Captain,” Tassoni said. “When it left me, I could hear what it was thinking. ‘Do not belong.’ That’s what it said.”
“It didn’t belong on the Delta Flyer?” Janeway asked.
“Or it could mean that we don’t belong in this part of space,” Samantha said.
“Prophets forgive me,” Celes said. “What if it was just trying to survive? What did I do?”

“We can discuss this later,” Janeway said. “If it was hostile, it probably has friends who will come after us. We need to get to those rings to-”
The Flyer shook violently, sending nearly everyone toppling to the floor.
“We just lost another section of hull,” Celes said, managing to take a seat at the nearest console.
“How far are we from the gas giant?” Janeway said.
“200,000 kilometers,” Celes said.
“I’m taking the Flyer into the radiogenic ring,” Janeway said. “With any luck they won’t follow.”
“We can’t survive in there for more than a few minutes,” Celes said.
“That should be enough to reinitialize the warp core,” Janeway said.
As she flew the Delta Flyer into the rings, she wondered if this situation was avoidable. The more thought she gave it though, she realized that there was no right answer. The odds were roughly 50/50 that the alien was either trying to communicate and the environmental controls were an accident, or it was trying to kill them and Tal Celes had done the right thing. Regrettably, she doubted she’d ever know.

“Start continuous transport of radiogenic particles directly into the reaction chamber. When it’s approaching critical mass, let me know.” She got up and headed to the back of the cabin to check on Tassoni. “Watch for any sign of pursuit.”
Tassoni sat on the floor, leaned back against the bulkhead, looking exhausted, but also relieved. Janeway imagined that, despite how painful the exit look, having the creature gone was a great relief to him.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Mildly amused by the irony of it all,” Tassoni said. “I survive the Equinox, only to end up nearly getting killed by a creature I didn’t do anything to.”
“This situation isn’t anything like what happened on your old ship,” Janeway said. “You didn’t do anything wrong here. This is on me. I ordered the three of you out here.”

“I know,” Tassoni said.
“They’re in pursuit,” Celes called out from her station, sounding worried. “I’ve got multiple subspace variations, all of them .005, and all of them converging on our positions from the aft.”

“Shit,” Janeway muttered under her breath, quickly moving back to the helm. “How long do we have?”
“Three minutes, twenty seconds,” Celes said.
“We’ll need twice that to reinitialize warp reaction,” Samantha said.
I got them into this, Janeway thought. It’s up to me to give them a chance to get back to Voyager. “Get in the escape pods,” she said.
“Captain?” Samantha said.
“Plot a course away from the planet,” Janeway said. “I’m going to fire a phaser volley and hopefully set off a chain reaction of the radiogenic particles. It might be enough to disable our friends.”

“You’ll be disabled too,” Tassoni said, having recovered enough to take a seat behind Celes.
“Not if I go to full thrusters and keep in front of the shockwave,” Janeway said.
“There’s no guarantee we could get the pods to a safe distance in time, Captain,” Samantha said. “As my wife would say, this is highly inadvisable plan.”
“How would you say it, Sam?” Janeway said, smirking.
“With language that I would never use in front of my daughter, ma’am,” Samantha said.

“She’s right,” Celes said. “About the escape pods I mean, not the language. And Angelo is in no shape to pilot an escape pod. We’re staying.”
“Are you disobeying an order, Crewman?” Janeway said.
“No, Captain,” Celes said. “You didn’t phrase it as an order.”
Under less tense circumstances, Janeway would’ve called Celes out for using semantics to get around what she’d told her to do. Instead, she had to admit she was actually rather proud of Celes finally standing up for herself. I must be getting soft in my old age, she thought.
“You know,” Janeway said dryly, “most of the time, mutineers are trying to kill their Captains, not save them. You’ve made your choice. Hang on tight. Charge phaser banks and divert all available power to thrusters. How close are our pursuers?”

“Sixty-five seconds to intercept,” Celes said.
“Stand by to fire, on my mark,” Janeway said.
“Hey, Celes?” Tassoni said. “You ever consider tactical? You’re doing pretty good at this.”
“Not now,” Celes said, focusing on her console.
“Fire,” Janeway said. Janeway couldn’t see the phaser beams as they were firing from the aft, but the light of the explosion began to fill the edges of the forward view port, even as she pushed the controls as hard as she could, actually grateful that Tom Paris had insisted on more old-fashioned tactile flight controls when he’d designed the Flyer. Having something she could grip rather than simply tap gave her more of a feeling of control, one she needed as the ship shuddered, the shockwave getting closer. A violent shake, much more than what they were already facing, caught her off guard, and she felt her head hit something, and her vision go blurry.

“Captain!” Celes yelled. Samantha moved forward to see if the Captain was alive. She was, but was clearly out of it, breathing, but her eyes closed.
“Auto-pilot is off-line,” Tassoni said. “We’re starting to turn back into the shockwave. The captain must’ve pulled the control when she went down.”
“I don’t know how to fly this thing,” Celes said, starting to panic, though Samantha could only barely make out the words over the noise of the ship shaking.
This is it, she thought. The Delta Flyer’s going to kill me after all. Suddenly, random memories came to her. Skiing with Seven of Nine. Teaching Naomi how to do her hair. Showing Icheb how to work an electron microscope.
“Screw this,” Samanta said. “I’m gonna live.” She got into the pilot’s seat, and looked at the controls. She cursed Tom Paris for having insisted on controls similar to older ships, as her only piloting experience, limited though it was, was on standard issue Starfleet shuttles with touchscreen controls.
Still, she had watched Tom piloting it that week where she had nearly died along with Paris and Tuvok. She hoped it would be enough. She took the controls, and got the Flyer back on course as best she could, nearly overtaxing the inertial dampeners in the process.

Seven of Nine was prepared to offer whatever comfort Samantha needed once she was cleared from sickbay with the others who had been on the Delta Flyer. She did not suspect that she would not need to. Seven entered sickbay, and before she could say a word, Samantha threw her arms around Seven, kissing her hard on the lips before pulling back.
“Oh, Annie, it was, wow. I’ve never felt anything like that before. Was it like that for you?”
“Was, what?”
“Saving people. Getting to be the hero.”
“I don’t under-”
“I brought them home,” Samantha said, smiling, breathing heavily, barely able to stand still. Seven was concerned that she was having some form of attack. “I saved us. I flew the ship. I stabilized it so we wouldn’t get destroyed in the shockwave. I’ve never saved anyone’s life before. It’s so exciting, I can barely even speak.”

“Are you sure about that part?” Seven said, wanting to be happy that Sam was happy, but instead feeling confused.
“I know things didn’t go as smoothly as the Captain planned,” Samantha said, finally slowing down, “but it was worth it. I’m not afraid to leave the ship anymore.”
Seven titled her head. “I was led to believe that phobias were not so easily cured.”
“Cured, no,” The Doctor said, “but what Sam had wasn’t a true phobia. Not in the medical sense of the word anyway.”

Seven felt Samantha’s hands on her behind, squeezing gently.
“You wanna know something else getting to be the hero makes me feel?” Sam said.
“I do not need to be seeing this,” The Doctor said, quickly moving to the other bio-beds to look after the Captain, Tal Celes, and Angelo Tassoni.
“Are any of the holodecks free?” Seven said.
“Let’s find out,” Sam said.

Tal Celes was lying down in her quarters, her sheets pulled over her head. She was late for a shift, but didn’t care. She heard the door open, but didn’t bother to look.
“Go away,” she groaned.
“Not yet,” Captain Janeway’s voice replied.
Celes sat upright so fast she nearly got dizzy. “Captain! I, I didn’t-”
“If you’re going to make excuses for being late to your shift, don’t bother. I told Commander Chakotay to give you a pass. This time. I just wanted to come down and apologize to you in person since I didn’t get the chance in sickbay.”
“Apologize? For what?” Celes said, feeling confused.
“You made a judgment call when that dark matter alien was manipulating the environmental controls. I’m still not certain whether it was hostile or just confused, but that didn’t give me the right to yell at you the way I did. You acted in defense of your crew. That’s something to be proud of, Crewman.”
“I killed something. Whatever it was. I’ve never taken a life before. Not even when I was still on Bajor. My family kept me hidden, and by the time I was old enough for them to finally let me fight, the Occupation was over. How can I live with myself? How do you do it, Captain? You’ve had to kill before, to defend the ship.”
“Yes, yes, I have. You’re probably wondering how I’m able to sleep at night after I’ve done so,” Janeway said, sitting on the edge of Celes’s bed.
“I didn’t mean-”
“It’s a fair question. I just wish I had the answer I think you’re hoping for. Fact is, some nights, I can’t. It gets easier with time, certainly. And how much they hurt us before I hurt them factors into it, I won’t pretend it doesn’t. Killing someone who’s trying to kill you, it feels good, in the moment. But that moment never lasts. That’s a good thing though. If it ever does become easy for you, that’s when you have a problem.” Janeway got up. “Be glad you feel remorseful, Crewman Tal. It means you’re still one of the good guys. Take the day off, but I expect to see you in astrometrics for your regular shift tomorrow.”
“Yes, Captain,” Celes said.

Chapter Eleven

“How was your trip, Doctor?” Seven of Nine said as the Doctor scanned her Borg implants for their twice-monthly check-up.

“It went well,” the Doctor said. “My creator is going to live. That’s the short version. The longer version can wait until I’ve gotten caught up on everything here and have some free-time to speak of again. I was gone for over a month, after all.”
Seven nodded.  “I must admit, the work of the Pathfinder project has been impressive. I imagine the crew will be grateful for the opportunity to speak to the Alpha Quadrant, even if it will only be for brief periods of time.”
“Well,” the Doctor said, finishing his scan and putting his medical tricorder away, “hopefully they can reduce the wait time somehow. Only getting to talk to Starfleet for seventeen hours every thirty-two days doesn’t seem like very much.”
“Compared to the years that marked the distance between previous contacts?”
“Good point. Anyway, everything is perfectly normal. You’re free to go.”
“Thank you,” Seven said. She headed for the exit but stopped. “Actually, Doctor, there is something I need to ask.”

“Oh?” The Doctor said.

“It’s about the dream I had during my last regeneration cycle,” Seven said. The Doctor wondered what this was about. “Lucid dreaming is fairly normal for me, but this, this was different. It felt like I was back in the Borg Collective, except the Collective was a forest, and all the people around me were wearing what I guess would be normal clothes for them.”
“Do you think this is related to what you went through last year, with the vinculum?”
“No, I’m sure of that. I only recognized one person. A woman. She…” Seven looked around as if she was afraid someone would overhear her. “She tried to kiss me. I pushed her off, and she looked hurt. She called me Annika. I think I knew her, but I have no recollection of meeting her.”
“Perhaps it’s just old memories of people that you’d assimilated when you were still a drone,” The Doctor said.

“Perhaps,” Seven said. “Regardless, I remain concerned.”

“Very well,” The Doctor said. “Here. This device will monitor your R.E.M. cycles. If something is wrong, this should catch it.”
“Thank you,” Seven said.

Tom Paris walked onto the bridge for his shift, feeling rested and looking forward to taking the helm.
“You’re late, Ensign,” Captain Janeway said, sounding dour. That stopped Tom in his tracks.
“I am?” Tom said. He was fairly certain he wasn’t. He’d finished his breakfast and had gotten dressed several minutes earlier than usual today, he was certain of it.

“According to the ship’s chronometer,” Tuvok said from the tactical console, “by twenty-two seconds.”
“That’s it? Less than half a minute?” Tom wondered just what was going on. He noticed that Commander Chakotay was looking at him with a severe stoic look on his face. He glanced over to see B’Elanna at the auxiliary engineering station, ignoring him.

“Take your station,” Janeway said.
Tom decided not to argue the point. He’d been a few minutes late before but hadn’t been treated like this on those occasions. And the last time he was seriously late for his shift, that had been under Captain’s orders as part of an operation to expose a traitor.

What the shit is this? he thought as he made his way to the helm. He stopped before sitting down, looking at the seat, and the small box that was sitting in it.
“Um,” he said, “why is there a box on my chair?”

“Open it,” Chakotay said, “that’s an order.”
Tom picked up the box. “It isn’t my birthday yet,” he said, as he lifted the lid. Inside was a black pip.
“Not only late,” Janeway said, having moved up to stand by Tom, “but improperly dressed. That belongs on your collar, Lieutenant.”
Back up to Lieutenant, Tom thought, smiling. Nice. Junior grade, but still. At least Harry doesn’t outrank me anymore. He would’ve preferred to be back to full Lieutenant like he had been before last year’s incident with the water planet, but he wasn’t going to complain.
“You know,” Harry said wryly, “I didn’t see a little box on my chair.”
“You have a chair?” Janeway said jokingly, the rest of the bridge crew giggling in response.

“Congratulations, Tom,” Tom heard B’Elanna say from behind him. He turned around and saw that she had gotten up and moved up to him. She reached up to kiss him, but the sound of a console alarm interrupted them.

“Looks like a distress call,” Harry said.
“Put them through,” Chakotay said.
“I’m getting a carrier wave,” Harry said, “but no message.”
“Origin?” Janeway said.
“An asteroid,” Tuvok said. “Approximately two light-years from here.”
“Yellow alert,” Janeway said. “Set a course.”

“Aye, Captain,” Tom said. So much for celebrating my promotion. Or re-promotion, however you wanna look at it.

A little over an hour later, Voyager was within range to see the asteroid where the signal had come from on the viewscreen. Janeway ordered a visual, and Tom glanced up. The asteroid spun slowly, an artificial structure starting to come into view.
“I am reading multiple structures,” Tuvok said. “It’s a colony of some kind.”
“Mining?” Janeway said.
“Unknown,” Tuvok said.
“Open a channel,” Janeway said. Tom hoped that there was someone there to answer. He’d seen far too many instances where Voyager had been too slow to save someone for his liking.

“This is Captain Janeway of the starship Voyager,” the Captain said once the channel was open. “We received your distress call.”
The image of the structures on the asteroid got large on the viewscreen, and Tom let out a heavy sigh when he saw the damage done to them. Domes like those on some of the Federation’s moon colonies, blown out and burnt. Had there been an atmosphere on the rock, there probably would’ve been smoke pouring out from the wreckage.

“Life signs?” Janeway said.
“None,” Harry said.
“I’m detecting residual weapons signatures,” Tuvok said. “They are consistent with known Borg weaponry.”
“Any sign of a Borg vessel?” Janeway said.
“One,” Tuvok said. “A cube, at the edge of this system.”
“I hope they didn’t see us,” Tom muttered.
“Resume our previous course, Mister Paris. Warp six,” Janeway said.
“Yes ma’am,” Tom said. He took one last look at the wreckage of the asteroid colony before it left the screen. This was not the kind of thing he wanted to see today. He just hoped that those who weren’t assimilated died quickly. Vacuum exposure was not something he’d wish on anyone.

Seven of Nine looked at her alcove, but felt apprehensive about getting into it. She could put it off, she’d gone much longer without regeneration with little to no adverse effects in the past. Those instances were different though. It was either out of love, to spend time with her family, or out of necessity, while the ship was in danger. Now, she was simply nervous about what could possibly be nothing more than a dream more lucid than she was used to.

She glanced over at Icheb, and the other children, who were already deep into their cycles and sighed. She placed the device the Doctor had given her to her neck, and stepped into her alcove, hoping that the Doctor was right.

She wasn’t sure exactly when, but the next thing she knew, she was back in the forest from the previous dream, and a Klingon male was tapping her shoulder to get her attention.

“Welcome back,” he said when Seven turned to look at him.
“Who are-”

“Annika,” she heard a voice now behind her say. It was the woman from before who had tried to kiss her. Seven finally remembered the name of her species, Mysstren, but still had no recollection of the woman herself
Seven sighed. “I’m regenerating. This is only a dream,” she muttered to herself, despite lacking confidence that this was the case.
“No,” the woman said, “I brought you here. This is Unimatrix Zero.” She moved cautiously towards Seven, visibly trying not to startle her.

“What the hell is Unimatrix Zero?” Seven said.
The other woman smiled. “You’ve certainly gotten less formal than the last time I saw you.” She looked down at Seven’s hands. “And more decorative. That ring, what is that?”
Seven held up the hand in question. “It’s my wedding ring. It is a practice that started on Earth, though several cultures have similar-”
“Wedding ring? You’re married now?” The woman frowned. “When you were gone for so long, I- I suppose it was too much to hope that…” She stepped back.
“I think this is my cue to leave,” the Klingon said, walking away.
“Who are you?” Seven said to the woman in front of her.

“Five of Twelve, Secondary Adjunct of Trimatrix 942,” she said, “but when I’m here, my name is Axum.”

“Axum?” Seven said. The name did sound familiar to her now. “I know that name.”
Axum smiled slightly.

“Good,” she said. “It’s starting to come back to you.”
“Is anyone there?” Seven heard a voice in the distance shout. It sounded like a small child. Both Seven and Axum headed towards the source of the sound. They reached a clearing where a small boy was walking around, looking confused, but surprisingly not afraid.

“Hello,” Axum said, kneeling she she could look the little boy in the eyes.
“I think I’m lost,” the boy said.
“I’m Axum,” Axum said. “This is Annika. What’s your name?”

The child didn’t respond right away, and when he did, he seemed to ignore Axum’s question. “Father’s ship started shaking. Men came aboard. They looked like machines. Will you help me find my father?” Seven of Nine found herself impressed with the child’s calm demeanor, remembering how frightened she had been when the Borg had boarded her parent’s ship.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Axum said, standing up. “There are other children here. Would you like to meet them?”

“I just got here too,” Seven said to the boy, who was hesitating. “This environment appears to be safe.”

The boy nodded and started walking in a direction Axum had indicated, she and Seven following close behind.
“He must’ve been recently assimilated,” Seven whispered to Axum. “He must still be in a maturation chamber.”

“Very likely,” Axum said.
“So this isn’t a dream, this place is some kind of virtual construct,” Seven said, starting to piece together what was going on.

Axum nodded. “We come here during our regeneration cycles. We can exist as individuals here, or at least some of us can.”

“So, how long has this been here?” Seven asked.

“Using Human time measurements or Mysstren?”

“Human,” Seven said. “Eight to nine years?”
Axum shook her head. “No, much longer than that. Though, now that you mention it, I’ve been seeing more people here than usual in the past few years. Did something happen to the Borg nine of your years ago?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to determine,” Seven said. “That something occurred I am certain of, but trying to uncover what that was has been frustrating.”

Axum nodded. “Perhaps this mystery event of yours is responsible for spreading the recessive mutation.”
“The what?” Seven said.
“You really don’t remember, do you?” Axum said. “Only one out of approximately every ten million drones has it, though that number may be increasing. Tell me more about this theory of yours.”
“I will,” Seven said. “But first, I want to know why you brought me here. And why now.”

“The Collective has found a way to detect us,” Axum said. “It’s a lengthy procedure, but they’ve managed to identify and deactivate nearly two-hundred of us in the last few months.”
Seven wondered why Axum had waited so long to tell her this, as it seemed like a rather important detail, but she decided that criticizing her would accomplish nothing at this juncture.

“It’s only a matter of time before they find enough of us to isolate the interlink frequency,” Axum continued.

“Why would she even bother?” Seven said.
“She?”
“The Borg Queen,” Seven said, raising an eyebrow.
“Ah, yes,” Axum said. “Sorry, I just don’t tend to think of her as a separate entity.”

“If you’d seen what I’ve seen these past few years…” Seven said.
“Well, it’s pretty simple,” Axum said, “the Borg are attempting to eliminate what they see as a ‘malfunction’ that has been afflicting the Collective and detracting from ‘perfection.’”

“I suppose in her twisted mind it makes sense,” Seven said, “but for a number of drones that small compared to how many she has at her disposal this seems like an incredible waste of resources for minimal gain.”

“You aren’t wrong, but it is happening. However, I believe that once the Borg have the interlink frequency to Unimatrix Zero, we can turn their advantage against them.”

“Clarify,” Seven said, giving Axum a look that Sam had dubbed the ‘pull the other one, it has bells on it’ look.

“We’ve designed a nanovirus-” Axum said. Seven raised a hand to cut her off.
“I doubt that will work,” she said. “You would not the first to attempt to bring down the Collective with a virus. In short, the damage done was negligible. Two cubes were lost, and some recently assimilated children were freed. That’s the entirety of benefits gained from such attacks.”
“If you would let me finish, Annika,” Axum said. “The nanovirus me and some of the others came up with should mask the biosignature of the mutation. We know full well we can’t destroy the Borg, at least not without destroying ourselves in the process. This isn’t about victory. It’s survival.”
Seven nodded. “I apologize for my interruption.”
“Forgiven,” Axum said, smiling. “As for the virus itself, we need someone on the outside to release it into the Collective. We can’t do it ourselves, once we’ve completed our regeneration cycles we have no memory of this place until we return again. You could do it though. You’re free.”
“I wouldn’t be for very long if I were to be re-assimilated in the process,” Seven said.
“I have faith in you Annika,” Axum said. After a few moments of awkward silence, she spoke up again. “So, what’s her name?”

“Who?”
“The woman who stole you away from me,” Axum said.
“Samantha,” Seven said. “My wife’s name is Samantha.”

“Human?”
“Yes. Is that relevant?”
Axum sighed. “No, I suppose not.”

“Some disappointment is natural in situations such as yours,” Seven said. “Just do not allow it to overwhelm you. Whatever it was we had here in Unimatrix Zero, assuming you are telling the truth, is over now, through no fault of your own. It is in both our interests that you do not attempt to rekindle the flame, to borrow a phrase.”

“Harsh, but fair,” Axum said. “Our encampment is just up ahead. If you have time, would you like to say hello to some of your friends? They’ve missed you over the past few years since you were freed.”

“Perhaps another time,” Seven said, not wanting to face a large group of people who would recognize her when she would be unable to return the courtesy. “Once my cycle has ended, I will inform my Captain.”
“Captain?”
“I’m part of a starship crew now. I will need their help if I am to introduce this nanovirus to the Collective. Share everything you have on with me.”
“Of course,” Axum said. She looked down at Seven’s chest. Seven was prepared to admonish her, but Axum looked up.
“Starfleet,” she said, smiling. “You’re on a Federation ship? That’s excellent news. If anyone would have the resources to pull off such a mission it would be them. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize the uniform right away. Science blues. Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“You know the Federation?”
“Of course,” Axum said. “We’ve had Humans and Romulans here for years, ever since the first Borg scout ships reached the Alpha Quadrant. And you met Korok earlier, my Klingon friend.”

Seven felt silly for having asked the question. When she reported on this encounter to Captain Janeway she would leave out this detail. And I won’t tell Sam either.

“Are you all wearing here what you were when you were assimilated?” Seven said.
“Some of us, sure,” Axum said. “That’s how I recognized the uniform, once I bothered to actually look at it that is. When you’re here you can look like anything you…” Axum’s voice drifted off, and she looked up as if something was above Seven’s head. “My cycle is about to end. Talk to your Captain. We can’t do this withou-” Axum vanished.

As soon as she’d awoken from her regeneration cycle, Seven of Nine contacted Captain Janeway, and after giving her a brief summary of what had occurred, convinced the Captain to assemble a meeting of the senior staff. She wished that Janeway had given her enough time to talk to Sam before the meeting, but the Captain had insisted that if what Seven was saying was true, they needed to be briefed as soon as possible.

Once the senior staff was ready, Seven filled them in on everything Axum had told her, only leaving out the detail of their past relationship within Unimatrix Zero, deeming it irrelevant.

“I’m going to go on record as saying this is a bad idea,” Tom said. “We’ve done the infiltrating a Borg ship thing before, and that ended up turning into a rescue mission.”
“No offense intended, Seven,” Harry said, “but how do you know this wasn’t some kind of a dream?”
“I can answer that,” the Doctor said. “Seven was wearing a cortical monitor the whole night. She never reached R.E.M. sleep.”
“So let’s say that Unimatrix Zero is real,” Captain Janeway said. “Do we know exactly how many drones are there?”
“Unknown,” Seven said. “As I said, the number of drones with the mutation is small. Even still, it could number in the thousands.”
Janeway nodded. “Well, we’ve already responded to one distress call this week.”
“I don’t like this,” B’Elanna said. “This is going to sound harsh but are we sure this is worth us putting our asses on the line?”

“I believe it is,” Seven said. “Though we will not need to put all of our asses in danger.”
Tom stifled a laugh. Seven wondered why it continued to amuse him every time he heard Seven utter a crude expletive. She didn’t do it anywhere as often as many of her peers, that was true, but it wasn’t a rare occurrence. “A small group could take a shuttle once, and if, we find a Borg vessel within range.”

“Before we do that,” Janeway said, “I think we need to learn as much about this potential weakness in the Collective as we can. I want to meet Axum. “
“Without an interlink node,” Chakotay said, “how would that be possible?”

“There is a Vulcan technique known as ‘bridging of the minds’ that I believe could allow for such an interaction,” Tuvok said. “I would need to form a mind-meld with both you and Seven of Nine. I would act as a telepathic conduit.“
“Sounds like one heck of a conference call,” Harry said.
“Well, Seven,” Janeway said, “looks like you’ll be turning in early tonight. Everyone, dismissed. Tuvok, do what you need to to prepare.”
“Yes, Captain,” Tuvok said. The senior staff filed out, but Seven remained behind, silently signaling the Captain to remain.
“Was there something else you wanted to tell me, Seven?”

“Yes,” Seven said, feeling awkward. “There is something I did not mention regarding Axum. Since you will be entering Unimatrix Zero, I believe you need to know.”

As Captain Janeway and Chakotay made their way to the cargo bay to meet up with Tuvok and the Doctor, and presumably Seven depending on how long it took to inform Samantha of what was happening, Janeway couldn’t help but wonder how comfortable Sam would be knowing that their liaison to the drones within Unimatrix Zero was Seven’s ex. In fact, she wondered how it felt for Seven to find out that she even had an ex, one that she had completely forgotten about until just last night.

She pushed the thought aside and focused on giving last minute instructions to Chakotay.
“Stay at yellow alert,” she said. “Maintain long-range scans for Borg vessels. Any sign of trouble, you know where to find me.”
“This will be one away mission for the history books,” Chakotay said.
Janeway smirked. “Plenty of Starfleet Officers have found themselves in virtual worlds before, Commander. This isn’t all that different from going into the holodeck, it’s just that it’s going to be in the collective minds of multiple Borg drones instead of… Okay, I see your point.”

“Regardless, I’ll hold down the fort until you get back. By the way, where will the Borg kids be during this?”
“Neelix is keeping them occupied in the mess hall. The twins want to learn how to cook, apparently.”
“That should be interesting,” Chakotay said, laughing. “Those two aren’t even tall enough to reach the stove.”

Before Janeway could respond to that, they reached the door.

“Here’s where I get off,’ Janeway said, patting Chakotay on the shoulder. Chakotay nodded and headed off, going to the bridge. Janeway stepped inside the cargo bay as the Doctor applied a cortical monitor to Tuvok’s neck. Seven of Nine stood patiently next to her alcove.

“Are we ready?” Janeway said.

“We are,” Tuvok said.
“Here,” the Doctor said, attaching another monitor to Janeway’s neck. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Janeway said, moving over to stand next to Seven.

“As your conduit,” Tuvok said, “I will be able to see both of your perceptions. If something goes wrong, I will break the meld.”

“Understood,” Janeway said, having full confidence in her oldest friend. Tuvok placed a hand on the side of Seven’s face, the other on her own. Janeway closed her eyes
“Your minds, to my mind. Your thoughts to my thoughts.”
Tuvok repeated the mantra, and Janeway felt something she couldn’t describe. She opened her eyes and found herself in a forest much like the one Seven had described.
Why a forest? she thought. Why not a city? It occurred to her that with so many drones, each one having a different vision of where they would want to live, that perhaps an unremarkable forest like this was a compromise of some sort.

“Welcome to Unimatrix Zero,” she heard Seven say. She turned and tilted her head.
“Seven? What are you wearing?”
Seven looked puzzled, then looked down.
“It would appear I’m wearing an outfit that Samantha replicated for me on our honeymoon,” Seven said. “I was unaware that I had done that.”
“Isn’t it a little warm for winter gear?” Janeway said.
“Indeed,” Seven said, closing her eyes. The outfit shifted and soon Seven was wearing her standard uniform. “My apologies, Captain.”
“None needed,” Janeway said. “I guess you just had Sam on the brain when we got here. Are you worried that Axum might try something inappropriate with you?”
“I made it clear to her that I am in a committed relationship with someone else now, Captain. Axum will have to accept that, though even if she has difficulty doing so, I sincerely doubt she would endanger everyone here in a vain attempt to regain my affections.”

“I hope you’re right,” Janeway said. “Let’s go find her.”

“We’re close,” the Borg Queen said, holding the recently removed head of one of the defective drones in her hands. She briefly wondered why it was the sight of it fascinated her so much. A deactivated drone was nothing new to her, she had seen literally millions in the millennia she’d been alive. A flash of memory came to her, of some kind of code. Familiar, yet she did not recognize it. Words, human in origin, yet buried in a code far more advanced than anything the Federation had and…
“I can almost hear them,” she said, forgetting about the code, and thinking again about Unimatrix Zero, and the drones who had managed to escape their perfection there. In a way it could be argued that it was a pity that so many drones had had to be disembodied in order to find it, their voices missing from the many that made up the Collective, but the search for perfection had its costs.

“There,” she said, looking at a projection of the data being fed to her by the active drones scanning the bodies of the dead ones. She amplified an image of a signal. “Disrupt the frequency,” she said to the Collective. The drone physically closest to her went to a panel and began manipulating its controls.
“Unable to comply,” the voice of the Collective told her. “Frequency is resistant to attempts to disrupt.”

“They’re using a triaxiliating modulation,” the Queen said. “If we can’t terminate their link, then we will simply have to pay them a visit.”

Seven walked around, looking closely at more and more things and people that were triggering memories for her. She was starting to remember more and more about this place, and the people here, including ones she had called friends. She even remembered more about her relationship with Axum, even though she didn’t want to. She felt empathy for Axum, but things had simply changed too much. Perhaps if Seven had learned about this place before she had began to realize she was attracted to Samantha…

She shook her head as if she could somehow physically make her confused feelings go away. She instead focused her attention behind her now, listening in as Axum spoke to Captain Janeway.

“So you can see why we want to protect this place,” Axum said.
“We’re willing to help you,” Janeway said, “but I’m concerned that we’d only be putting off the inevitable. Even if we succeeded, and you remain hidden for a year, ten years, the Borg would eventually find you again. Have you considered a more permanent solution?”

“It is something we’ve discussed around here,” Axum said. “We do not believe that what I think you’re suggesting is possible. We’ve got a good sanctuary here.”
“But that’s all it is,” Janeway said. “A sanctuary. If you could somehow carry your individualities into the real world, wake up from your regeneration cycles with your memories intact-”

“We’re too spread out,” Axum said. Seven moved over to join them.
“Agreed,” she said. “They would be hopelessly outnumbered.”

“In a straight up fight, absolutely,” Janeway said. “But I’m talking about more subtle means. You could undermine the Borg’s control over you.”
“That’s a very ambitious idea, Captain,” Axum said. “But how would we retain our memories when we leave?”
“That, I don’t know yet,” Janeway said, turning to look at Seven. “We do know a good deal about Borg technology. Maybe we could-”
A distant scream grabbed Seven’s attention and cut Captain Janeway off mid-sentence. Seven ran towards where the scream came from, Janeway and Axum behind her. Soon more screaming and yelling could be heard, as could footsteps. Slow, methodical, footsteps accompanied by the sounds of whirring gears.
“Oh no,” Seven muttered, and when she reached a clearing, her fears were confirmed. Numerous denizens of Unimatrix Zero were running in terror as Borg drones chased them. She saw one man trip over a branch and the drone chasing him caught up, grabbed him, and launched its assimilation tubules into his neck. He cried out in pain briefly, then fell over, and vanished. She looked around and realized that as more of the people here panicked, the harder it became for them to navigate the forest, the trees seeming to shift closer together, more and more branches appearing out of nowhere to trip up the fleeing. Their fears were affecting the landscape. She closed her eyes, and tried to focus on clearing more escape paths, as well as adding more obstacles for the drones the same way she had changed her clothes earlier.

“Why are there so few drones, and why are they only chasing certain people?” Janeway said.
“She hasn’t found all of us,” Axum said, sounding scared. “It could be that she is only sending drones who share a vessel or a unicomplex with the ones she has, and is targeting them.”
“We need weapons,” Janeway said. Seven agreed, and as soon as the thought crossed her mind, suddenly she and the Captain each held a phaser rifle. Seven wondered why that had been so easy, yet altering the forest to aid the others proved so difficult, but that would have to be determined later.

Seven heard rather than saw Janeway running off. She looked to see where the Captain was going, just in time to see Janeway angrily smash the butt of the phaser rifle in the face of a drone standing over a cowering child. Janeway stepped back, levelled the rifle and fired, knocking the drone back. It collided with a tree, a branch catching one of the wires protruding from its face hard enough to pull it out. The drone convulsed, then disappeared.

A drone appeared behind Janeway. Seven opened her mouth to shout a warning, but the drone fell back as the Klingon, Korok, leapt out, bat’leth swinging. He quickly finished off the drone before letting out a loud battle cry and running off to find more drones to fight.

“Who says there’s never a Klingon around when you need one?” Janeway said.

“No one,” Seven said.
“That was rhetorical, Ensign Hansen,” Janeway said, smirking as she helped the child to his feet.

“I think we’ve routed them for now,” Axum said, fear visible in her features as she walked past Seven. “I need to find out who we lost. Excuse me.”

Janeway and Tuvok stepped out of the turbolift on to the bridge. Tuvok immediately took his place at tactical.
“So, how did it go?” Chakotay said. Janeway didn’t say anything. She just gave Chakotay a quick look, then walked to her ready room. Chakotay took the nonverbal cue and followed her.

“I’m guessing it didn’t go well,” he said after the door closed behind him. Janeway sighed as she sat behind her desk.
“We ran into a little bit of trouble,” Janeway said. “The Collective’s found a way to infiltrate Unimatrix Zero. It won’t be long before they learn enough to destroy it from the inside out. I plan to stop them.”
“What have you got in mind?” Chakotay said.
“The people there are vulnerable. They don’t have the ability to take action in the real world. We’re going to give them that ability.”
“How?” Chakotay asked. If he had any doubts about Janeway’s plan, he wasn’t showing them. She hoped that if he did have any alternative ideas he wouldn’t hold them back.

“The Doctor and B’Elanna are working on it,” Janeway said, “and Seven seems to think that she can come up with a way for them to defend themselves within the virtual construct as well.”
“I’d be remiss in my duties as First Officer if I didn’t point out that we’d be violating upwards of half a dozen Starfleet protocols if we do this,” Chakotay said.
“And if the Borg find out we’re involved, we’d be putting Voyager in the middle of a civil war,” Janeway said. “I know. That’s why you’re here. We’ve had our disagreements, and there have been times when I chose to proceed without your support. This can’t be one of those times. If you don’t want to back me on this, than we won’t do it. Simple as that. This plan has both of us behind it, or none of us.”

Chakotay nodded, but it didn’t take more than a second for him to respond. “The way I see it, risking the safety of Voyager is a small price to pay. If we help these people, this could be the turning point in our war with the Borg. And make no mistake, this has been a war ever since they first invaded the Alpha Quadrant. Maybe not a hot war, but they have tried to take Earth. Twice. In my opinion, the Prime Directive doesn’t apply here. We’d be taking actions to defend not just ourselves, but frankly the entire galaxy.”
Janeway smiled. “No pressure though, right?”
Chakotay smiled back. “No pressure.”
“You know, I’m glad we agree. I was about ready to talk myself out of it.”
“That doesn’t seem like you, Kathryn.”

“I’ve been reevaluating things a lot lately. But that’s a conversation for another time.”

“Okay, and?” Samantha said.
Seven of Nine had gone over several scenarios in her mind to prepare for whatever Sam might say when Seven told her about Axum. Apparent disinterest had been on the list, but nearer the bottom than the top.

“I… don’t know what to say to that,” Seven said. “You are taking this better than I expected.”

“Actually,” Sam said, “I’m concerned about you. This must be weird for you. Finding out you have an ex-girlfriend that you don’t remember is bad enough, but from what you’re telling me you didn’t have much time to process that before things went sideways in the Unimatrix.”

“It is… disconcerting,” Seven admitted. She took Sam’s hand in her’s and squeezed it gently, grateful for having someone she could talk openly about this with.

“I hope you didn’t think I would be mad or anything,” Sam said. Seven sighed.
“I did, but if you’re going to say I shouldn’t have, you are absolutely correct. It was illogical of me. I’m sorry.”
“Well,” Sam said, smirking, “just don’t do it again, okay?” She added a wink, and Seven couldn’t help but smile. She looked over at Naomi and Icheb, who were both eating and trying very hard to look like they weren’t listening.

“Okay,” Sam said to the children, “go ahead, ask your questions. I just can’t promise Annie will answer them.”

Seven sighed. She didn’t want to answer any of the questions she felt the kids would ask her, but she also knew that if she didn’t answer at least some of them they would most likely keep pressing her on them until she gave up. Best to avoid any such frustration now.
“Is she pretty?” Naomi asked. Sam covered her mouth to try and hide her laugh.
“I do not believe that is an appropriate question,” Icheb said.
“You were thinking it too,” Naomi said defensively.
“I can assure you, I was not.”
“I suppose I thought so at one point,” Seven said honestly. “As it stands now, I just do not see her the way I assume I did before I was freed from the Collective. I do not look at her any differently than I see anyone else on this that I’m not romantically involved with.”

“How much of your time in Unimatrix Zero do you remember?” Icheb said. “Additionally, would it be possible for myself and the other children to see it ourselves?”
Seven was about to tell Icheb that she absolutely would not allow that, especially not while the Collective was still a threat, but the door chime stopped her before she could say it.
“Who is it?” Sam said.
“It’s Tom,” Tom Paris’ voice said from the other side of the door.
“Come in,” Sam said, looking at Seven as if to ask her if she knew why Tom was coming to their quarters. Seven simply shrugged, her way of saying she didn’t know.
“Hey guys, hope I’m not interrupting anything,” Tom said.
“It’s just a quick dinner,” Sam said. “What brings you here?”
Tom, looking somewhat excited, sat on the edge of the bed since all the chairs were taken, a PADD in his hand. “I was thinking about what you were telling us about Unimatrix Zero after you and the Captain got back,” he said, looking at Seven. “You mentioned that you were basically able to summon weapons with your thoughts.”
“An oversimplification,” Seven said, “but accurate.”
“So, obviously the Unimatrix can respond to the wishes of the people in it. They can manipulate it. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.”
“Where are you going with this?” Seven said.
“Okay, so, we know that creativity isn’t exactly the Borg’s strong suit. They aren’t really ones for outside the box thinking. They’ve nearly conquered the majority of this quadrant using the same techniques over and over again, and why not, since those tactics have worked for them for centuries. Their ships are largely utilitarian in design, with the basic geometric shapes and all that.”
“Your point?” Sam said.
“My point is,” Tom said, “while B’Elanna and the Doc are cooking up their plan to deal with the Borg in the real world, I came up with some ideas we can use to help the people within Unimatrix Zero defend themselves. The Borg won’t see it coming, and will have a harder time adapting since they won’t be responding to real life weapons and tactics. Weapons like these.” He handed his PADD to Seven, who went over the schematics. Her eyes widened at what she saw.
“Where did you-”
“Get the idea? From some of the TV programs B’Elanna found in the ship’s historical database for the replica she built me a few months ago,” Tom was smiling, as if he expected Seven to just go along with this without a second thought.
“This is far too impractical. Such devices would require more resources than-”
“What do resources matter in a virtual reality? You just need to be able to convince the people there that they can operate these things, and they’ll be able to walk all over any Borg attackers.” Tom smiled, a type of smile that Sam referred to as an evil grin. “Literally.”

Seven looked at the specs again. Building even one of these things would be near impossible to do on Voyager. The storage space alone would require more than half the crew to be moved into group quarters. But Tom was right. Unimatrix Zero was not bound by the same physical laws as the real universe. It only looked like a real place because the people there wanted it to be. She remembered how the environment itself had been affected by the panic of the people fleeing from the drones.

“How many designs like this do you have?” Seven said.

Janeway looked at the monitor while The Doctor explained to her, B’Elanna Torres, and a recently arrived Seven of Nine what she was seeing.
“This is the nanovirus Axum and her people designed to prevent the Borg from detecting those with the genetic mutation,” he said. Janeway nodded, while B’Elanna simply looked at it apathetically. Janeway assumed that it was because she didn’t care what it looked like, only that it worked, which was fair enough, but Janeway couldn’t deny her own amazement at the complexity of it.

“I have modified it to nullify their cortical inhibitors instead,” the Doctor continued.    “Once infected, they should retain their memories of Unimatrix Zero after they leave their alcoves.”

“Does that mean they’ll be able to function as individuals?” Janeway said.
“There’s no way to tell,” the Doctor said. “This is highly experimental.”
“How about deploying it?” B’Elanna said.

“If we could find a Borg ship that we could sneak onto,” Janeway said, “we could infect the vinculum.”
“That would only affect the drones on that ship,” B’Elanna said. “And there’s no guarantee that any Borg ship we came across would even have one drone with the mutation, let alone enough to do any damage.”

“The central plexus,” Seven said.
“That’s right,” Janeway said, “You told me about those once. It’s similar to a vinculum, but it connects with the entire Collective.”
“That’s all well and good,” B’Elanna said, “but wouldn’t that thing be the most well-guarded part of the ship? It would be probably be kept as far away from the assimilation chambers as possible just in case any captures got loose.”

“As its name implies,” Seven said, “it would be at the geographic center of any ship.”

“Okay, so we got our how,” Janeway said. “How about our where? Any Borg activity in the area?”

Seven went to a nearby console. “According to data obtained in astrometrics, a vessel dropped out of transwarp 3.6 light-years from here.”
“That seems awfully close,” B’Elanna said. “Are we sure they aren’t looking for us?”
“Unknown,” Seven said, pushing a few more buttons. “I believe I can get us a closer look at what kind of… of… No.”
“Seven?” Janeway said. Seven stepped back from the screen.
“No, that can’t be right,” she said.
“Seven, what’s wrong?”
“That is a class-4 cube. Ablative armor plating on hull, twice as many weapons as the standard cube. But it can’t be, not this far out.”
“Seven, talk to me,” Janeway said. “Why can’t it be?”
“Class-4 cubes exist for one purpose. To defend the core systems if they were ever to be compromised. Drones were never allowed to have that information on hand, it was that vital to the Collective.”
“So, basically the Borg homeworld?” B’Elanna said.
“Homeworlds,” Seven said. “Wherever it is, it’s the system where the Borg originated from, and every solid body in it was converted to hold data. Everything the Collective learns goes there, even the irrelevant data, to be stored. Geopbytes upon geopbytes of information.”

“Yeah,” B’Elanna said, “I can see why one of those being this far away from Borg space would bother you. A single standard cube decimated Starfleet and nearly took over Earth. Twice.”
“And this is a souped up version of one of those,” The Doctor said, echoing Janeway’s thoughts almost to the word.
“The Borg wouldn’t mobilize a ship like this unless they thought they were facing an existential threat,” Janeway said, shaking her head. “And we didn’t see even one of these during their war with Species 8472. We are definitely not going to try our plan with this one. I don’t like having to wait, but we don’t have a choice. I’m not throwing my science vessel up against a ship that the Borg only use when they think shit just got real.

“Prepare the virus anyway, Doctor,” she added. “I want to have it ready the moment a better option presents itself to us. Seven, keep working on how to help the people in Unimatrix Zero defend themselves in the short term. They’re going to need to hold out a little longer. B’Elanna, I want you to help Seven and Tom with their designs. The more plausible we can make them the easier it will be to bring them into existence.”

“Well, we can certainly try,” B’Elanna said.

“Korok has been uniting the Klingons we have here,” Axum said, filling Seven in on what had happened since she and Janeway had returned to Voyager, “and they’re giving bat’leths to anyone who can handle one.” Axum picked up the one that was resting against a tree stump next to her. “Myself included. Takes some getting used to, it’s impressive looking but not terribly practical as melee weapons go. We’ve also got Hirogen hunters moving through the forest targeting drones, but we’re still losing people every hour.”
“Captain Janeway is doing all she can to help,” Seven said. She told Axum about how the Doctor had reworked the virus. She also told her about the Class-4 cube. “Voyager won’t abandon you.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Axum said. “I don’t doubt for a moment that your crew genuinely wants to help, I’m just not entirely confident they can. Maybe if they had more time.”
“If you can convince enough of the people here to focus their thoughts,” Seven said, “you could use the machines Mister Paris suggested-”
“It won’t work,” Axum said, shaking her head. “I know that in theory we can manipulate the environment of this place any way we want since it’s all merely ones and zeros, but if we were capable of creating anything as big as what your friend wants us to, do you think we’d all be living in tents?”
“I had wondered about that,” Seven admitted. “I just felt it would be rude to ask.”

Axum opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted when a human woman, Laura, whom Seven had apparently been friends with years before, ran up to them. “Eleven more drones, headed this way,” she said.
Seven closed her eyes, and within a fraction of a second felt the weight of a phaser rifle in her hands. “I’ll help hold them off. Find someone, anyone, creative and intelligent enough to make one of those machines. We can do this.”

“I can try,” Axum said, “but I can’t promise anything.”
Seven ran off to catch up to some of the others, each holding a weapon native to their own homeworlds, to face the invading drones. Tom had been right about the Collective’s lack of imagination being an advantage to the people in Unimatrix Zero, but she also knew that wouldn’t hold forever. The Borg were capable of developing new techniques and technologies; that ability had atrophied due to centuries of them merely taking such things from other races, but it was not gone completely. The Borg Queen’s attempt to convince Seven of Nine that her removal from the Collective and placement on Voyager had been part of a deliberate, elaborate scheme had certainly been creative. Foolish, but creative.

This situation is inevitably going to get worse, she thought. The only variable is time.

“That’s your plan A?” Tom Paris said, sounding shocked and horrified at what B’Elanna had just suggested. Captain Janeway agreed with him completely, but worked to keep her expression neutral. For now at least.
“It’s the simplest, most direct way, and the one least likely to get everyone killed,” B’Elanna said.
“In addition,” the Doctor added, “using Axum’s nanovirus, whoever we send to the cube would retain their individuality. I don’t like the Lieutenant’s plan either, but the benefit of saving thousands if not millions of people from an eternity as drones seems worth the risk.”
“You of all people are making this a numbers game?” Tom said. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You want us to send people to a Borg ship to be deliberately assimilated? That’s just insane. That is the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas!”
“Lieutenant Paris’ needless exaggeration aside,” Tuvok said, “I’m inclined to agree. While it is true that if the assimilated crew members are recovered soon enough removing their Borg implants would be far easier and more complete than what could be done for Seven of Nine, that is assuming they could be recovered at all. Keep in mind also that the process of assimilation frequently leads to the removal of an arm, an eye, or even both of any given subject.”

“A valid concern,” the Doctor said, “but I can clone organs, and even in the worst case scenario I am more than capable of producing high-end prosthetics-”
“We can’t do this,” Tom said. “Right, Captain?”
“Tom and Tuvok are right,” Janeway said. “This idea could all too easily turn into a suicide mission. I can’t order anyone to undertake such an operation.”
“Captain,” B’Elanna said, “it wouldn’t have to be an order. I’m willing to volunteer. I’m the best engineer on the ship, if anyone could find a way to the central plexus of a Borg ship without tripping any alarms it would be me.”
Tom simply groaned.
“I can’t order anyone to take on such an operation,” Janeway repeated. “Which is why I’ll do it.”

“What?” Chakotay said, not even trying to mask his shock.
“I’ll go, and I’ll go alone,” Janeway said. “I’m not going to risk my entire crew, but I am not going to abandon the people in Unimatrix Zero either. I’ll take a shuttle in close to the cube and try to get their attention so they’ll beam me aboard.”

“If you insist on doing this, Captain,” the Doctor said, “then perhaps we should wait until we can find a smaller ship.”
“There’s nothing close enough,” B’Elanna said. “I’ve checked astrometrics’ data three times. It’s the Class-4 or we end up waiting for weeks if not months. Unimatrix Zero won’t have that long.”

“According to Starfleet Tactical Directive 36,” Tuvok said, “the Captain shall not engage a hostile force without the protection of a security officer.”

“We’ve done a pretty lousy job of holding to that one,” Janeway said with a smirk.

“The probability of success is greater if there are two of us,” Tuvok continued. He stood at attention, his arms behind his back. Janeway knew him well enough to know that arguing with him would only drag things out, and they did not have that kind of time.

“Very well,” she said.

“Make that three of us,” B’Elanna said. “If we’re going to pull this off you’re going to need an engineer in there. I’m going too.”

“Like hell,” Tom said.
“Tom,” B’Elanna said, “don’t start. When you get all possessive like this you start to remind me of Burke.”

Tom looked like he’d been physically slapped when she invoked the name of her ex, and the late first officer of the Equinox. He sighed, and looked ashamed.

“I appreciate that you care, Tom,” B’Elanna said gently placing her hands on Tom’s shoulders. “But remember, I didn’t try to stop you when you went on the mission to rescue Seven last year.”
“I just don’t want to lose you to the Borg,” Tom said, sighing as he spoke.

“You won’t,” Janeway said. “I’m sorry, B’Elanna, I know this is your plan, but we’ve already got two of the senior staff on this mission.”
“No offense intended, Captain, but when has that ever stopped us before?” B’Elanna said.

“Maybe it should have,” Janeway said. “If the late Captain Ransom was right about one thing, it’s that we’ve been relatively lucky out here. That’s not going to hold forever though. I think we all know this. I won’t ask anyone on your team to take your place B’Elanna, but I can’t risk you. You know these engines better than anyone. You and Tom are going to be this ship’s best hope if you have to run.”
B’Elanna looked like she wanted to argue, but instead bit her lip and simply nodded.

“You all have your orders,” Janeway said. “Mister Paris, set a course to intercept the cube. Dismissed.”

Chakotay remained behind as the rest of the senior staff headed onto the bridge.
“You were awfully quiet in there,” Janeway said.
“Remember when I said I didn’t have any objections?”
“Chakotay-”
“At least you won’t be going in alone. If you’d pressed that point I would’ve spoken up.”

“Good thing I let Tuvok and B’Elanna badger me then,” Janeway said.
“Except you won’t take B’Elanna with you,” Chakotay said. “She’s right, with her help you stand a better chance of getting out of there alive.”

“No,” Janeway said. “We’ll need her here if this turns FUBAR. Frankly, I’m hoping that no one on her team volunteers. It’s bad enough I’m risking myself and Tuvok.”
“You could always take a few more security officers with you,” Chakotay said. “Though I imagine you’d argue that having too many people on the team would be just as dangerous as too few.”
“You know me too well,” Janeway said. “Except I was going to say that having too many people would be worse. Just remember, Commander, if the worst comes to pass, your priority is the safety of this ship. This isn’t a damaged sphere we’re going up against. There’s no way we could pull off another mission like the one we did last year to rescue Seven.”
“Understood,” Chakotay said. “Since there’s going to be more than more one person on this trip, will you be taking the Delta Flyer instead of a standard shuttle?”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Janeway said, “but since you mention it, a Starfleet ship with integrated Borg technology aboard? That might be a good lure.”

B’Elanna pinched the bridge of her nose, and tried not to raise her voice.
“When exactly did the two of you become so inseparable?” she said to Vorik and Marla.
“I did not ask her to join me,” Vorik said. “When she learned I’d volunteered, Miss Gilmore insisted.”
“I know what you’re thinking, Lieutenant,” Marla said, “but it’s not anything like that. It’s just that we’ve shown we work well as a team. Surely you’ve seen our staff reviews.”
“Not really,” B’Elanna admitted. “There’s only so much a report can tell you. But yeah, I have noticed that Vorik’s performance had improved, slightly, since the two of you were put on the third shift together. But that doesn’t mean I need to let both of you go on the mission to the Borg ship. And even if I did agree to this, the Captain would just order one of you to stay behind anyway.”

“If that happens, it happens,” Marla said. “I won’t push it. I just want the chance to try. I think if we both go with them, that’s just as good as if you were going by yourself.”
“If it were anyone other than you, Gilmore, I’d think I was being brown-nosed,” B’Elanna said. She rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. “Fine. Report to the shuttle bay. I expect I’ll be seeing one of you back here in an hour or so.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Marla said. She turned to face Vorik. “Ready?”
“I have read our most current data on the interior of the Class-4 cube provided by Ensign Hansen,” Vorik said. “I am confident the away team can reach the central plexus with minimal difficulty, with our assistance.”
The two engineers both headed for the exit. B’Elanna watched them leave, barely noticing Joe Carey moving to stand next to her.
“She’s not lying, you know,” Carey said.
“About what?”
“They aren’t dating. This thing those two seem to have is more Kirk and Spock than Nick and Nora.”
“Nick and Nora? Are they in science division?”
“I’ll explain later,” Carey said.

After managing to rout the invading drones again, Seven had left Unimatrix Zero to be briefed on what had happened while she was there. She had been informed of the Captain’s plan, and thought it was an irrational move, but it was already too late for her to object. She had exited her alcove just in time to be told that the Delta Flyer had already launched with Captain Janeway, Tuvok, Vorik, and Marla Gilmore on board.

She wondered why the Captain had agreed to take them as opposed to B’Elanna Torres, but decided that she could find out later. After getting something to eat, she returned to Unimatrix Zero to fill them in on the overall plan the Captain was implementing.
“Remember, when you leave your alcoves,” she said, “you may be startled. Disoriented. But you will have to behave like drones, or we could all be exposed.”

“Our ships are scattered across the galaxy,” Laura said. “Most of us may be the only drone on board who knows about this place. What can we hope to achieve?”

“Each of us should gather as much tactical data as we can,” Korok said. “Only a fool goes to war without a plan. What type of ship we’re on, its location, armaments.”
“Precisely,” Axum said. “After that, we can coordinate our next moves from here.”
Seven looked off into the distance and saw the massive machine standing by the coast, relieved that at least some of the people here had managed to clear their minds enough to be able to summon such technologies at will. It was a unique situation, being in a place where one’s imagination could be used as a weapon, and the prompting provided by the images taken from Tom Paris’ entertainment programs had sparked those imaginations. Part of her actually felt sorry for the Borg drones that had been crushed under its massive feet or incinerated by its weaponry.

“What are those things called again?” she heard Korok say, almost flinching. She hadn’t realized that the Klingon was now standing next to her.
“Mister Paris used several names interchangeably,” she said. “but the most common one was ‘mecha.’”

“Mecha. Hmm. I’d simply call it a giant robot.”
“That would be inaccurate,” Seven said, “as these machines require sentient operators. A robot would be able to act independently to at least some degree-”
“Don’t ruin this for him, Annika,” Axum said, chuckling. “I think he’s just jealous that he’s not piloting one of them. I have to say, your friend Tom had the right idea. The Borg drones coming in here were astonishingly ill-prepared for this kind of thing.”

“They will adapt,’ Seven said. “Though not immediately, thanks to a combination of factors, not the least of which is the Degradation.”

“Still no idea what’s causing that?” Axum asked.
“None,” Seven said, frustration creeping into her voice. “I’m running out of viable hypotheses. At this point all my research is doing is keeping my wife awake some nights. She is simply too kind to tell me to just put down the PADDs and come to bed.”

“I hope I get to meet her someday,” Axum said. “This Samantha sounds like an amazing person.”
“I believe she is,” Seven said. “Though I am clearly biased in that regard.”

“Axum, Seven,” Laura said, walking up to the two of them. “Something’s not right.”

“What do you mean?” Seven said.
“The incursions have been happening at fairly regular intervals. The number of types of drones varies, but the variation on time between attacks has never been more than a minute and a half in either direction.”
“And?” Axum said.
“And, by my calculations, we’re more than ten minutes overdue for another assault,” Laura said, looking worried.
Axum sighed. “Under ideal circumstances that would be good news. But this, what is that human phrase, something to do with shoes?”

“Waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Seven said, her own concern growing. It was too much to hope for that the Borg Queen had simply given up.

The Doctor found himself glad that he never had to worry about sweat falling into his eyes, or his hands shaking. The nervousness he felt was real enough though as he watched the screen on the auxiliary tactical station on the bridge, standing right behind Commander Chakotay who sat in the Captain’s chair.

Everyone on the bridge watched silently at the image of the Borg Class-4 cube on the screen. They couldn’t see the Delta Flyer from this distance, not even with long-range sensors on full magnification, but they had no choice. Any closer and they risked alerting the cube to their presence.

“They’ve been detected,” Harry said. “The cube is firing on them.”
“Are they inside the cube’s shield radius?” Chakotay said. “Have we detected any transporter activity?”
“Affirmative,” Harry said. “They’re on-”
Tom’s gasp grabbed the Doctor’s attention. “Bastards! The Flyer’s gone! They just blew her up!”
“Easy, Tom,” Chakotay said. “We knew this was a risk. Stay focused, and be ready to get us out of here if we need to.”
The next minute felt exactly like a minute to the Doctor, but he knew enough about sentients to know that it must’ve felt exponentially longer to the rest of the crew. He kept watching, waiting for the signal to change, though he held onto a slim hope that it wouldn’t; that the Captain and the others could get to the central plexus and spread the nanovirus without allowing themselves to assimilated. The fact that he was completely confident that the modified version of the virus would protect them from becoming part of the hivemind did nothing to assuage his concerns.

“Doctor?” Chakotay said.
“No change yet,” the Doctor said. After another minute, an alarm noise went off on the console, but he saw what it meant a fraction of a second before. “Their life signs are destabilizing,” he said.
Chakotay sighed heavily. “Keep following that cube, Tom,” he said, not even trying to hide the fact that he was scared for their crewmates as everyone else. “Just don’t let them see us.”
“Yes, sir,” Tom said.

To Be Concluded in Star Trek Voyager: A Fire of Devotion Part 4: Hotter Than Hell

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