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Disclaimer: No profit is intended in the writing of this story. Star Trek:
Voyager and its characters are the property of Paramount and Viacom.

Archiving and downloading is welcome, as long as you credit the writer.
Thanks to Lyrastar, AP Stacey and Michael for their help with some particular
terms, and Meagan for her beta-ing.

Pairing: Torres/Seven.

Rated: NC-17

Status: Complete. Series/Sequel: No.

Summary: The crew of Voyager must learn to cope with the effects of nearly a
decade spent in the hostile Delta Quadrant.

Warning: This story contains angst, violence, coarse language, and homosexual
relationships between women.

Feedback: [email protected]
[email protected]------------



Star Trek - Voyager: The Flux of Mortal Things Part 1
by Odon

If there had been a time before now he could not remember it.

It seemed as if all his life he'd done nothing but cross this desert. The
sun beat down on his naked form, raising salty perspiration that the
scalding winds failed to cool. Around him towered stone ribcages carved by
ancient lava flows, sculptured by the winds over countless centuries into
sterile fingers imploring the sky. Above, as always, circled a small speck,
the shavokh waiting for him to collapse from hunger or fatigue. He ignored
it, as he did the sharp stones cutting into his bare feet, the thirsting
of his parched throat, the stench of ash and sulphur from a volcano that
had erupted miles away. His quest was more important than such trivial
matters, though he could no longer recall what had sent him out here. He
only knew that he was being compelled, driven on in an urgent quest for ...
what? Water? That was logical; water was essential for survival in the
desert. And he could see the oasis shimmering ahead, always out of reach.
He drove himself towards it, digging his feet into the treacherou s slope
of the dune. Was it a mirage?

Again he heard the voice; faint, distant, calling him back, warning of
dangers ahead. The voice was familiar, someone he trusted. Perhaps he would
return once he had drunk his fill, thank his friend for their concern. Give
assurances that he had come to no harm.

Then he could see it clearly - it was no illusion! A slash of cool blue
across the arid plain, crystal-clear water beckoning him. There was a woman
there bathing. Beautiful, exotic, sensuous, her golden skin sparkling radiant
as she cleansed herself. To his eternal joy he recognized her. It was this
woman that he'd been searching for. His aduna!

`Vorik ...'

He ran towards her, stumbling over loose rocks, his imperative driving him
on. He called to her in the ancient tongue of his people, crying out that she
was his, that their minds had been bonded to each other long ago. But then
she was turning on him, rejecting him, snarling as she drove her fist into
his face. He fell back on burning hot stones, screaming in rage and anguish.
She had no right to do this! He hurled himself at her, exalting in the
unfettered release of emotion. They locked in combat, his strength against
hers. She looked different now, her forehead marked by curved ridges, skin a
different hue, lips pulled back over sharp teeth that snarled insults in a
language that was not his own.

`You are Lieutenant Vorik of the USS Voyager. You are an engineer, a
Starfleet officer, a Vulcan.'

The voice was calling again and he fled in panic, knowing only that it shamed
him to be seen like this. He dived into the water but found no relief there,
tossed helplessly by swirling rapids.

`The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your
mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within
you.'

Not a flame but a firestorm, it consumed him totally, made him beg for
release. He thrashed through dunes of burning sand that towered like
mountains. He screamed her name, pleaded for her to come to him, but
there was no answer.

`The water dampens the flame. You are apart from it, watching it. You watch
the flame grow smaller.'

He stumbled into the oasis, grabbing handfuls of water and flinging them on
his body, trying to cool the raging heat. Riven with a terrible despair he
collapsed, opened his mouth to the voice and the water and let it flow inside
him.

Vorik came round in his quarters, lying on the floor, his meditation robes
filthy with sweat and dried semen. The Vulcan felt a deep wave of disgust at
his condition, his lack of control at even the most basic level. He pulled
himself to his feet, staggered to the nearest faucet and drank.

`To feel shame in these circumstances is not logical,' said the voice inside
his mind.

"Yes," he gasped.

`The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your
mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within
you.'

He was apart from the flame, dousing it in his mind. It no longer controlled
him despite its rage and fury. Vorik watched the fire grow ever smaller,
reduced to a point of light until once more, with the suddenness of epiphany,
the sharp clarity of logic was guiding his thoughts. He saw his path clearly,
the single logical option, exquisite in its simplicity. He would find
B'Elanna Torres and mate with her. Eagerly the young Vulcan leapt to his
feet, but the door refused to open for him. He tried the control panel,
unaware that this was the third time in an hour he had done so.

`Commander Torres is no longer on board Voyager. You must regain your mastery
of emotion.'

Vorik screamed through his raw throat, slamming his fists against the
unyielding doors. He hurled his kae out through the ship, searching
frantically amongst the many babbling voices for that unique mindprint.
Alien, beautiful, churning with savage, volatile passions that tempted
him in his darkest thoughts. He could not find it, she was gone forever
and he howled his torment, beating his hands against the doors of his
prison.

A Bolian walking down the corridor outside stopped in shock at that terrible
cry.

Commander Tuvok was standing guard outside Vorik's quarters, a phaser on his
belt. "Can I help you, Crewman Chell?"

Chell muttered an apology and hurried on. Behind the doors came the faint
sound of a man sobbing.

Tuvok was tired, both mentally and physically. He'd been here for many hours,
there were many more still to come. He closed his eyes, focused his thoughts,
reaching out once more to the tortured mind inside.

`The emotions are strong, powerful, overwhelming. But the strength of your
mind is greater. Picture your emotions as a brilliant flame, burning within
you ...'

* * *

The derelict sphere resembled a ball that had escaped from the toy set of a
gigantic child. For almost seventy years it had been in orbit around the
system's outermost planet; in all that time it had been undisturbed.

Everyone knew that with the Borg, death was a relative term. Fear had
overcome the lure of easy technological pickings; fear based on practical
experience and long-told legends dating back thousands of years to when the
Collective first sent its scouts to this region of space.

The interlopers showed no such concern. They too had become legends, albeit
of a more recent kind. Like the Borg in those early years they were
explorers, seeking to improve themselves through contact with other species.
Unlike the Collective they had forsaken conquest and the enhancement of their
bodies by technological means, preferring to better themselves and their
culture through co-operation and self-contemplation. It was a never-ending
struggle, but one they believed enriched them.

Nevertheless they approached the Borg vessel with caution, though with the
expertise that comes with prior experience. Speed and heading were matched
between the tiny flyer and its target. Multiphasic scans checked for dormant
power and life signs, verified structural integrity and the presence of a
breathable atmosphere. Hails containing Borg identification codes drew no
response.

Only the empty eye sockets of drone skeletons witnessed the intrusion, an
alien blue shimmering amongst the inky blackness. There were two of them,
transporting past any security devices still active in the outer hull. Both
women wore grey ribbed jumpsuits and large backpacks, phasers held ready in
their hands.

As soon as her pattern had stabilised, Lieutenant Commander Torres had her
tricorder open and running a scan. "I'm not picking up any lifesigns ... no
active energy signatures, no Borg!" She snapped it shut and switched on her
sims beacon. "Let's go!"

"Wait," said Seven of Nine, intent on her own readings.

Torres shifted her weight from one foot to the other, eyes darting around the
corridor. The light from her beacon flickered over ranked alcoves, cavernous
alien skulls pieced by cybergrafts, savage surgical instruments where limbs
should have been. It reminded her of the temple they'd seen on their shore
leave to Teldar Ves; the stone-carved demons with Borg implants erupting from
every orifice. The war orphans with their sunken cheeks and dead eyes. An
involuntary shiver ran through her body. "Come on, Seven. This place is
giving me the creeps already."

Seven refused to be hurried, scanning and recalibrating until she was sure.
"I am detecting numerous electromagnetic readings at minimal power, but I
cannot pinpoint their location. It's possible there are many systems still
operative."

"Has your proximity transceiver activated?"

"No."

"Then let's get on with it! Kahless, it's freezing in here." Torres strode
off down the passageway, boots ringing on the metal floor grates. Seven ran
after her, grabbing the half-Klingon engineer by the shoulder.

Torres spun round so fast even the normally unflappable Borg was startled.
"WHAT?!"

"I will go first. I'm more familiar with this type of vessel, and my implants
should detect any security devices still active."

Torres' eyes twinkled with amusement. "Trying to protect me, Ensign?"

Seven inclined her head. "It is simply the logical course of action,
B'Elanna."

"Fair enough. Besides, I like looking at your ass move in that tight
jumpsuit."

Seven raised an eyebrow, then decided to favour Torres with one of her more
subtle smiles. Slipping past her, the Borg began sweeping her beacon over the
alcoves. The once efficient order of the vessel had been replaced by chaos.
Overhead panels had burst open to spew out snaking power conduits. Frozen
biofluid from ruptured tubules formed rows of fang-like stalactites. Broken
pieces of carbosilicate, dust particles, loose equipment and fragments of
bone had fallen to the floor over time and become stuck there by layers of
frost.

She stopped in her tracks, examining an alcove opposite. It was occupied by
a tactical drone, Species 893 - Menti Naka, held together by its exoskeleton
cage. The skull had fallen to the ground, exposing the alcove's access node,
which appeared intact. "Try this one."

Torres had the micropower conduit ready, connected to her backpack generator.
Using her gloves to wipe sixty-eight years of accumulated grime from the
access node, she plugged it in. "Powering up."

There was no telltale green flickering light above the alcove, no energy
reading on Seven's tricorder. "Dead."

"Ghuy'cha'," Torres swore. She unplugged the conduit, stamped her feet on the
grating to warm them.

"Your thermal suit should be maintaining your temperature," said Seven as she
moved on down the passageway, checking the access node and interlink conduit
of each alcove. All appeared to have been burnt out by the same massive
electro-kinetic discharge.

"Well it doesn't bloody well feel like it. How do you think Vorik's doing?"

"The Doctor will not discuss his condition with me."

"I heard he rejected the hologram again," said Torres, her words punctuated
by small clouds of condensation.

"Now Tuvok's supposed to be helping Vorik through it. Maybe he's going to
have sex with him!"

"That would be a `logical' course of action."

Torres giggled; an incongruous sound in this frozen necropolis. "It's just
as well I'm here. Vorik would probably try bashing down the door with his
hard-on to get at me. Did I ever tell you what happened last time he went
through the pon farr?"

The Borg stopped again, examining a medical servo-armature that might be
worth salvaging. "No." The implant was covered with some type of fungi.
Biomatter had flourished for a time, feeding on the decaying corpses of
the drones, before dying as the heat leeched out and power to the UV
lights failed.

"Do you have any idea where we are in this thing?" asked Torres, changing
the subject yet again. Her wrist light cast ghoulish shadows on the walls -
serrated cutting blades, alien jaws fallen open in silent screams.

"I do not."

Torres gave a derisive snort. "So much for Borg efficiency. You'd think
they'd know about signs or something. Well, is it viable?"

"The damage is too severe," Seven replied, continuing with her search. "Signs
would be irrelevant. Each drone is interlinked to the sphere's vinculum and
therefore knows its location at all times. However I will be able to orient
myself as soon as we locate any of the major adjuncts or a working access
node. Is the movement of my buttocks pleasing enough for you, B'Elanna?"

"What?! Oh yes, very."

It took them twenty-three minutes to find an alcove that Seven could
use, another five to power it up without damaging the long dormant
neuro-circuitry. The skeleton was removed and Seven stepped inside, closing
her eyes as her interface node clicked into place. She opened her mind to
the sphere.

In 3.08 seconds Seven had identified the obsolete shieldware guarding the
unimatrix and cracked it; she didn't even have to use any of the
cryptographic subroutines RiN-sep had provided. After that came the slow
and tedious procedure of tracking down and relinking thousands of isolated
components. Whole sections were unreachable, others responded with data
streams of pure gibberish. Eventually she was able to locate some working
systems that fit her target list, instructing them to power up and run
self-diagnostic tests. One surprise was that the sphere's sensor grid was
still functioning. She logged the position of the grid's data nodes so
they could be recovered later, then broke her link.

Seven opened her eyes to pitch-darkness, no sign of Torres. The Borg
prioritised her ocular implant and the passageway leapt into view, a glowing
ethereal world without shadows. Devastation had been wreaked on the walls.
Panels were sliced open, conduits and neural-connectors spilling out onto the
floor grates. Data nodes had been wrenched out of their sockets, skeletons
tossed from their alcoves at random. From somewhere ahead Seven could hear
the sounds of more destruction, accompanied by faint Klingon curses.

She tapped her combadge. "Seven to B'Elanna."

No answer. "B'Elanna, respond."

"Yeah Seven, what is it?" Her voice was breathless, coming in short gasps.

"I have finished here. State your location."

"How the hell would I know? Just follow the noise." A loud crash echoed down
the corridor, accompanied by a faint: "Shit!"

Seven let out a deep sigh of exasperation. Stepping out of the alcove, she
picked her way through the litter of shattered bone and metal. The damage was
irrelevant, as the entire sphere would be destroyed in a few hours anyway,
but the Borg couldn't help feeling a surge of anger. This was far more than
was necessary to salvage a few components. It was as if Torres was engaging
in deliberate vandalism, a gratuitous act of vengeance for her dead husband.
Her behaviour had been somewhat erratic over the past few days - lack of
appetite, frequent mood swings. At the time Seven had put it down to nerves
over their upcoming mission.

As she turned the corner into the next adjunct, Seven noticed a small
skeleton lying on the floor, miraculously undamaged. A pre-natal drone, what
was it doing here? The maturation chambers must have opened when the ion
storm struck, the child left to wander the corridors until it died of
starvation.

Instinctively, irrationally, Seven reached down to touch the skeleton, only
to have the bones crumble away in her fingers.

* * *

`Entropic decay. It's a natural law of the universe,' thought Chapman. `All
things must die - people, stars, ships ...'

From where he stood Voyager looked as if it had been cut in half. One side
was illuminated by the system's bloated red sun, the other half vanished into
inky blackness, broken only by the occasional window or running light.

Chapman stepped off Voyager's dorsal spine onto the darkside, waiting till
the magnetic sole had clamped to the hull before shifting his other foot. His
photonic amplifiers cut in, the hull reappearing in granular shades of grey,
the computer adding red and green outlines around danger areas and airlock
ports. He waited until the molecular scanner activated, projecting a head-up
display onto his faceplate, then looked down at his boots. "Starboard side
now. Hull plate TH-0778. I'm picking up some impact craters that weren't
there before. Must have happened when we went into orbit, something fairly
high density. I'm detecting monotanium .. ultra-diamond ... traces of ...
looks like molecular-bonded ceramics."

"Haven't these idiots heard of orbital cascade disaster?" asked Jenny
Delaney, who was keeping an eye on them with the external sensors. "They've
got enough junk floating around this system to build a Borg cube."

"I guess when you're fighting a war you're more interested in making wreckage
than cleaning it up." Chapman began stepping along the hull plate, making
sure that each scan overlapped the previous one by half a metre.

"How are those shields holding?"

"Hull plate TH-0778. Remains of Lieutenant William Chapman, struck by an
abandoned space toaster moving at 20,000 kilometres per hour."

"Hull plate GN-7689," said Soolan. "I'm picking up microfractures."

"What? We replaced that one six months ago!"

"I've got another one here," said Ensign Tabor. "GN-897A."

Chapman turned towards where the others were working, further down the hull
near the warp pylons. He could see the glow of the thermal radiators on their
EVA suits. "What does the log say?"

"GN-7689 has been recycled ... sixty-three times over the past ten years!"

"Looks like replication pattern failure," said Tabor. "This one's got cracks
all the way through to the inner core. Recycled eighteen times, replaced five
years ago after our quantum slipstream tests."

Chapman swore quietly to himself. Black hairlines were materialising on the
hull plate in front of him, the scanner building up an uncompromising image
of what lay beneath. "Looks like we've got them here as well. Computer,
magnify."

Microscopic fissures expanded into vast canyons, smooth metal to a landscape
pockmarked like the surface of Luna. From a distance Voyager always looked
pristine, her seamless blend of form and function often praised by alien
engineers. It was only when viewed through the cold objective gaze of his
scanner that her imperfections were obvious. Stress fractures, molecular
decoupling, the distinctive particle impact craters that only came from
weapons fire. A history of the past decade written across her surface in wear
and tear.

"At this rate we'll never make it back to the Alpha Quadrant," said Jenny.
"You're the structural engineer, Will. How long do you think ... another ten
years before she falls to bits at maximum warp?"

"What this ship needs is a major overhaul at Utopia Planitia. What it gets
is alien shipyards with poor quality control and incompatible systems. And
there's a point of diminishing returns, even with replication technology ..."
Chapman took another step. He was picking up something else, the familiar
deformation pattern from a multiphasic tractor beam. A legacy of their fatal
encounter with the Borg three years ago. "Still, as Seven of Nine would say,
we'll adapt."

"And how was Seven?" Jenny chimed in immediately.

Chapman mentally kicked himself right off the hull.

"You should know Jenny," said Tabor. "Or was that your sister?"

"Or was that you and your sister?" Soolan chimed in, sniggering.

"I don't know what you're talking about," said Jenny, her tone the epitome of
innocence. "But I know Seven went to Will's quarters after she took Harry to
Sickbay last week. Maybe she wanted those broad, handsome shoulders to cry
on."

"I've never seen her cry," muttered Tabor. "The Borg slut."

Tabor's prejudice seemed anachronistic to Chapman. He knew there'd been a
time in human history when women were ostracised for having too many sexual
partners; maybe Bajorans were more traditional in that regard. "What happened
is none of your business," he snapped. "Let's concentrate on the job, shall
we?"

Silence was his only answer, but he could sense their amusement over the comm
channel. Memories of last week's pleasures were never far from the surface,
now they returned once again - the skilled application of Seven's body to his
own. Those sapphire eyes that shone with their own light when she was amused:
`Shall we dance, Lieutenant? I promise I'll not damage you this time.'

She was simply correcting a mistake, Chapman knew, their disastrous first
date was an imperfection that could not be tolerated. He could have refused;
it wasn't Seven's promiscuity that alienated the crew, it was the way she
went from one partner to another without forming any emotional connection,
using them like some kind of holodeck program. But despite his poor record
with women he'd fooled himself that he could get through to her. Or perhaps
he'd been lying to himself, maybe his motives had been more primal, as base
as hers.

But he'd heard her cry.

At night when he was half-asleep, exhausted from their exertions, he had
heard Seven crying. He knew without asking that it was because of what Harry
Kim had said in the messhall. He'd rolled over to comfort her, but in her
tear-soaked eyes there was none of the light he'd seen earlier, instead a
complete absence of emotion; something chilling, inhuman. The face of the
Eater of Souls.

And Chapman knew that she'd shut him off, like all the others.

* * *

khesterex thath! that's what this whole stupid mission's been right from the
start - need a fully-equipped away team and two whole months to explore,
catalog and salvage this borg bowling ball, instead there's two of us and an
eight hour window ... 38 minutes 10 seconds behind schedule already - thank
you miss perfection i am aware of the time ... that borg hasn't changed much
probably fucks by numbers too not that i wouldn't mind finding out, wrestling
that strong body to the ground and forcing her surrender that'd be something
... she smells of warm blood and cool metal, not dead and cold like this
place, like this gagny locking clamp it's frozen solid, try warming it with
the laser-bore ... shit lowest setting dummy! kahless that was close nearly
burnt the whole thing to crisp, a neural energy matrix for god's sake rare
prize indeed ... slowly now, don't want the thermal stress to crack it ...

The clamp broke free with a sharp crack and they lifted the matrix off its
support rod, sliding it carefully inside a large thermoplastic bag. Seven
sprayed the delicate unit with thick white foam that hardened in seconds,
protecting it from shock or cross-contamination. The bag was sealed and
tagged, placed on a pile with the others.

They'd been at it for well over three hours now, working against time and the
restrictions the captain had lain down. Nothing that could have a temporal or
weapons application - which ruled out biogenic cloning vats, multiphasic beam
emitters, or chronoton field conduits. Limited time and space ruled out the
massive regeneration facilities, matter-to-energy converters or the complete
transwarp drive. Much of the biotech had decayed; other items such as shield
generators or nanofactories were now obsolete, replaced by new adaptations.

Torres wiped perspiration from her forehead ridges, then unsealed the
magnetic clasps at the front of her jumpsuit. "I'm going to have Tabor look
at this suit's regulators when I get back. First I'm freezing, now I'm
drowning in sweat." She uncapped her water bottle, raised it to her lips and
shook it - a couple of drops came out. "Argh! Must have drunk ten litres
already."

Seven passed over her own bottle. "One of us will have to beam over to the
flyer and replicate some more water. We're running low on protective foam as
well." She knelt to check the synchronisation of the pattern enhancers. "The
two of us are insufficient for this task."

"I know. Those bastards on the Liaison Daki are probably hoping we'll fall
down a vertical shaft or something."

"You are not Borg," said Seven. "Why should they desire your death as well?"

"I was assimilated four years ago - the Unimatrix Zero thing, remember? I
haven't got a soul any more. Probably think they'd be doing me a favour." She
massaged the scar tissue above her left ear.

"Are you all right?" asked Seven, noticing the gesture.

"Yeah, I've been having some headaches, that's all. I'm fine."

"You should have the Doctor examine you when we return."

"I'm fine, Seven."

"You suffered a high velocity traumatic impact to your skull__"

"I SAID I'M__" Torres grit her teeth, controlling her temper with a visible
effort. "Look, let's get on with it shall we? We're already behind schedule."
She smacked the combadge on her chest. "Torres to Tom Paris. How's our
transporter signal?"

"Annular confinement integrity at 98.7%," answered the flyer's computer. "All
systems are at optimal levels. Anti-contaminant protocols on line."

"Alright, beam them over."

"Do you blame me for Tom's death?" Seven asked quietly, as the stack of
salvaged components dematerialised.

"No," said Torres, regretting having snapped at her. She was too edgy; this
cursed Borg charnel house. "Tom would have risked his life for any of us, you
know that."

Seven didn't reply. Watching her, Torres found herself considering irrelevant
things: the delicate lines of the Borg's neck, the unsubtle curves beneath
her jumpsuit, that scent brushing against the edge of her senses, teasing ...
"Look, Harry can be a petaQ at times."

"Harry is a petaQ all the time," said Seven, tapping her combadge. "Seven to
Tom Paris. Command Delta Three Epsilon."

A dark cylindrical object materialised within the triangle of energy formed
by the pattern enhancers. Over five metres long, its carbonite hull was
pitted from years of micrometeorite impacts and vacuum ablation. `DANGER:
ANTI-MATTER CONTAINMENT HAZARD' had been sprayed over the surface in bright
new paint, in four different languages. Voyager had been running advanced
courses in spatial clearance for several months now. This Tehr-jen class
subspace inversion mine was supposed to have been disarmed by Harry Kim and
used as a training aid, but somehow ended up floating in deep space along
their flight path, a code-activated transponder attached to its hull.

Torres removed an isolinear spanner from her thigh pocket and used it to
disconnect the magnaseals. Together they lifted off the inspection hatch,
exposing gleaming silver and gold components, stamped with lettering and
numerical codes in the R'larri Forbidden Language.

now let's seeeeee what have we got here? sensor grid, reaction drive,
anti-matter confinement chamber, countermeasures pod ... bloody thing's a
spaceship not a spatial mine ... anti-tampering systems deactivated, sensor
grid and propulsion systems deactivated ... pain in the ass, done all this
on the trip here but no harm in being thorough ... morons who populate this
system don't even comprehend the idea of failsafe engineering. harry's got
to be nuts, volunteering to disarm these fucking things, man's got a death
wish ... alright, open detonator housing ...

The detonator housing slid back and Torres inserted the remote activator,
seating it in place with a slight click. The Federation device had been
wrapped in a custom-made sleeve in order to interface with the R'larri
technology. It began to run through a series of compatibility checks,
exchanging data with the mine's processor.

something's wrong, can't access the program for the magnetic interlocks, all
gibberish ... oh bugger! forgot to load the translation protocols how could
i have been so stupid? ... not concentrating that's the problem, can't focus,
those blue eyes framed in silver, that borg's got the same hot looks,
confidence and easy sexuality that tom had ... subsection beta algorithm,
loading arming subroutines and since when have i been interested in women
anyway? yintagh! enough anti-matter here to tear a hole in the fabric of
space and all you can think about is sex ... but dammit it's like she's
radiating pheromones or something__

"You have made an error."

"I can SEE that Seven. I'm fixing it now."

"You're loading the arming subroutines before magnetic integrity has been
confirmed!" exclaimed Seven, disbelief that anyone could be so stupid evident
in her tone and suddenly Torres was furious with this rude, arrogant,
perfection-obsessed Borg whose idea of exploring their humanity was to fuck
half of Voyager! Why she'd even contemplated screwing__

"I have had twenty-three lovers in the past eighteen months," Seven responded
coldly. "That is nowhere near half of Voyager's compliment. How many lovers
have you had in your lifetime, Commander Torres?"

what the ... oh shit did i say that out loud? what the hell's the matter with
me can't think straight, want to hit her, to run or fight or fuck and would
you believe it she's taking out her tricorder, activating the field medical
subroutines and talking to me in that superior condescending tone that always
manages to PISS ME OFF!

"Commander, you have been showing symptoms of fever. I believe it is
affecting your ability to__"

Torres slapped the tricorder out of her hand. It hit the wall and ricocheted
into a vertical transit shaft, falling to the bottom in echoing clangs.

They stared at each other for a long moment, Torres' nostrils flaring as she
sucked in the vessel's stale air, hands trembling from the adrenaline rush.

"Go get the sensor nodes, Ensign."

"Our orders are to stay together."

"I'm giving you another order."

Seven grabbed her backpack and stormed off. Torres stared after her, until
the sound of her boots on the grating had faded.

With the light from Seven's beacon gone, the darkness pressed in a little
closer.

* * *

Over-Scholar Eem-hontu-sa reached up to adjust the ocularscope she usually
wore in the laboratory, before realising it wasn't there. Flustered, she
pretended to scratch her primary crest instead, saying, "Computer, magnify
two thousand please." She'd been working with this Federation technology
for three months now, but it still took some getting used to.

The holographic simulation exploded into her face like a star gone nova,
cells the size of Husii disks shooting past, pursued by enormous black
nanoprobes. The R'larri cybernist flinched as one of the technological
monsters appeared to reach down with its arachnoid legs to assimilate her.
She took a judicious step backwards.

Eem-hontu-sa was tall for her species, almost two metres high with delicate
avian features. She wore a conservative tube skirt and dark green vest, cut
away at the rear to accommodate her vestigial wingstumps. All her clothes
were edged with intricate patterns that resembled decoration, but were
actually the history of her people, spelt out in centuries-old code. Her
bird-like appearance was enhanced by her cybernetic talons, both covered in
fine mesh gloves of tactile fibre. The originals had been severed ten years
ago by an extremist faction of the R'larri Cultural Defence Force.

Eem-hontu-sa whistled through her serrated beak, the universal translator
converting the sound into a human-like clearing of the throat. "If I may
have your attention?"

There were eighty-seven of them crammed into the holodeck, mostly visiting
scientists or cybertechs with a scattering of Voyager personnel. There was a
general shuffling, limbs moved to circulate the blood or signify attention.

"As the Doctor demonstrated most aptly in his simulation, Borg nanotechnology
of previous generations could be successfully excised through a combination
of micro-surgical procedures and neural suppressants," said Eem-hontu-sa. "We
are now going to rerun that simulation using the nanoprobes removed from
Lieutenant Kim. If our host would care to do the honours ..."

"Certainly," said the Doctor. "Computer, run program CMH Seven Two Beta."

To the exuberant strains of Vivaldi's `The Hunt', Borg nanoprobes swarmed
after their prey, pursuing them through a sea of crimson body fluids. With
vampire-like ruthlessness they latched onto blood cells, rewriting their DNA
in mere fractions of a second.

"What is that horrible noise?" whispered Over-Scholar Polorta to Icheb. A
genetic engineer from the minority T'mani species, he was humanoid but with
translucent skin and grey membranous strands in place of facial hair.

"I believe it is the Doctor's latest weapon against the Borg," replied Icheb
with deadpan seriousness. Polorta gave a loud hoot of amusement.

"And now," said Eem-hontu-sa, giving them a disapproving look. "Enter the
defenders."

The antinanites were lean, bullet-shaped robots, propelled by tiny
microscopic engines. They began smashing into the nanoprobes, forcing them
to adapt by generating armour. The antinanites assisted them, adding their
own layers, creating an impenetrable cocoon of armour that sealed the
nanoprobes completely. When the survivors tried to link up the antinanites
altered their signature to match the Borg probes, linked with and assimilated
them, converting them to their cause. It went on like that for several
minutes: attack and defence, each countermeasure turned against itself. A
war carried out in infinitesimal proportions.

"Normally the nanoprobes would have the advantage in these circumstances,"
said Eem-hontu-sa, unconsciously shielding her throat with a claw. "However,
each of the antinanites is generating its own dampening field. This disrupts
the link that the nanoprobes need to work collectively. As the antinanites
are programmed from the outset to operate as individual units, they have the
advantage. But now ..."

Cells were turning black and dying, or mutating into perverse simulacrums,
moving on to infect others. White cells appeared, the body's natural defense
mechanism, but they too were poisoned, others converted.

"Realising they are isolated and near defeat, the nanoprobes create synthetic
pathogens throughout the host body. The host faces death or permanent injury;
immediate radical surgery is often the only viable option."

"Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest," muttered Polorta.

RiN-sep lifted himself off his seat and moved to the front of the holodeck.
He was short and stocky, with a long narrow head that hung down over his
armoured thorax. Unlike the other Menti Naka cybernists he disdained the
protective collars typical of his profession, wrapping his neck in a simple
scarf, dyed red in mourning for those killed in the Blood Death. "Thank you
Over-Scholar, a most telling demonstration. As you no doubt all realise,
this latest adaptation represents a significant change in Borg ideology.
Previously the Collective regarded the destruction they caused as irrelevant,
a mere by-product of their relentless course towards perfection. However,
after their disastrous invasion of fluidic space, and the efforts of our
Federation allies to create a so-called `Borg resistance movement', we are
now seeing more aggressive, militant behaviour patterns."

"For instance, several past attempts to study the Borg at close quarters
were successful because they ignored individuals unless they posed a direct
threat. Now however, the Borg move instantly to isolate and destroy any
trespasser on board their vessels."

* * *

Its edges radiating white heat from her phaser, the panel toppled into the
abyss of the central chamber, a tumbling bright outline, falling in silence
for long seconds before the crash of impact.

Seven of Nine sprayed coolant around the hole, then carefully stepped through
onto the induction rail. A mere fifteen centimetres wide, it was used for
transporting components around the sphere at high speed. Lights from
still-active power units glinted a hundred metres below, like stars in the
infinity of space.

"Seven?"

She took her time answering. "Yes, Commander Torres?"

"B'Elanna."

"I am busy. Do you require assistance?"

"I'm sorry."

Seven made no reply. Apologies were irrelevant.

"Don't be mad at me."

"I am not angry." It was true. The cortical inhibitor was a most efficient
device, the fear of plunging into the depths below abstract, like an
intriguing intellectual puzzle. She moved along the rail like a tightrope
walker, one foot in front of the other, keeping perfect balance.

"You've turned on your inhibitor, haven't you?"

"Yes." When she reached the point above her target the Borg sank into a
crouch, slowly turning away from the chamber, shifting her centre of gravity.
Seizing the rail with both hands she kicked off with her toes, swinging
beneath, capturing the twisted remains of a stanchion between her boots.
Leaning forward, Seven reached out and grabbed a dangling conduit, pulling
herself in.

"Turn it off ... please. I need to talk."

She was in the sensor grid plexus, its walls, roof and floor lined with
nitrium alloy to protect the data nodes. Sometime over the past few years a
support bearing had collapsed and sheared off the access walkway. An entire
wall had gone with it, exposing the plexus to the vast hall behind her.

"Please Seven."

Seven thought about ignoring the request, but she remembered all too well
Kim's sneering face in the messhall. `Do you have a daily prescription, or
do you just switch it on whenever you have the urge?'

Her inhibitor deactivated and emotions came flooding back into her mind:
pain, anger, loneliness, frustration, powerful feelings tearing at the
muscles of her heart. The urge to flee once more into drone-like oblivion
was overwhelming. She'd regarded Torres as a friend; she'd thought they'd
gotten past the petty squabbling that had marked their first years on
Voyager, but it was clear what the Klingon really thought of her ...

"I'm sorry. It's been so long. I miss him."

Severed from the Collective, regarded with suspicion and fear by the others,
it was Tom who'd made the first overtures of friendship towards her. Seven
had been the last one to see him alive.

"Yes, so do I."

There were only five viable data nodes and Seven moved quickly to free them,
using her phaser on narrow beam to cut through the locking clamps. She didn't
bother with bagging and tagging them individually, just shoved the nodes into
her backpack and sprayed foam inside. For years they had been mindlessly
storing information, erasing the old when it became irrelevant. Somehow they
symbolised everything the Collective stood for.

Unbidden, the memory leaped to mind: Icheb quoting Shelby to Ni-par-deski,
the R'larri Over-Leader.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Seven of Nine had always been conscious of the Collective's presence
throughout space. She understood the vastness of their realm like no human
being ever could. But it was only now, in this vessel with its endless rows
of skeletons in their obsolete alcoves, in this system filled with ancient
legends and superstitions, that she had a sense of their presence through
time, centuries of conquest and assimilation, the remorseless acquisition
of biological and technological cannon fodder. Looking out into the central
chamber she could count at least fifty different species, rank upon rank,
like terracotta soldiers guarding the tomb of an ancient Chinese emperor.
How many worlds had been destroyed, cultures wiped from existence, species
scattered throughout the galaxy, prevented from ever reaching their
potential? Probably not even the Borg Queen herself bothered to count them
all. And where was the higher order, the perfection in this monolithical
existence? Did the Queen even know what perfection was any more, where they
were supposed to be going?

With sudden awareness Seven realised that she was seeing not the past but
the future. That one day the universe would be full of the silent, floating
mausoleums of her people. The Borg, believing without question that they
were improving themselves, were in fact slowly and inevitably stagnating,
grinding to an evolutionary halt. The Collective might exist for thousands
of years, might succeed in assimilating Voyager, humanity, the entire galaxy.
But it would all end like this.

It was then that she heard the noise.

For a microsecond Seven told herself it was settling debris, an object she'd
disturbed earlier coming to rest. The sound was faint; without her enhanced
senses she wouldn't have heard it at all.

Someone was moving on the level above.

"Commander Torres, state your location."

There was no response.

"B'Elanna, where are you?"

The vastness of the central chamber made the platform where she'd left Torres
appear microscopic. The Borg switched to her ocular implant, her cortical
processor bleeding in sight from the organic right eye for depth perception
and colour matching. She could see the pattern enhancers, the scattered
tools, the subspace inversion mine ... something was lying behind it. Seven
clicked up the magnification, tried enhancing the image. A crumpled grey
form, lifeless and still.

`Fear is irrelevant,' Seven told herself.

There was only one exit from the plexus, the way she'd come in.

Without hesitation Seven leapt out into the abyss, fingers grasping for the
rail. The implants in her left hand struck the metal with a CLANG!, the sound
reverberating throughout the chamber. Using her great strength she pulled
herself up, hooking over an elbow, then a leg, rolling her body on top of the
induction conduit ...

The intruder was crouched on the rail two metres away, watching her.

Seven's first thought was that she was hallucinating.

"B'Elanna?"

She was completely naked, shivering in the subzero temperature. Her feet
were bloody, the flesh stripped by the frozen metal. Oblivious to the peril
she was in, Torres stared at the Borg, pupils so wide they seemed to fill
her eyes. An irrelevant thought struck Seven; Chakotay's ancient tales of
shapeshifters, people who could take on animal form.

Moving very slowly so as not to startle her, the Borg sat up on the rail.
"B'Elanna, do you understand me?" There was something shiny clasped in
Torres' fist. A combadge, bloody from where the pointed ends were cutting
into the skin. Seven felt her heart skip a beat. She reached across her
chest, pressing fingertips against her own communicator.

"Seven to Tom Paris," she whispered. "Lock onto our comm signals. Emergency
bea__NO!" she shouted as the combadge dropped out of Torres' hand, vanishing
into the depths below.

"Please repeat your transmission."

"Lock onto my combadge. Adjust the annular confinement beam for two persons,
activate the transporter on my signal."

"Understood."

Torres lifted her injured palm to her face, licked the blood. "jIH dok." A
soft growl, quiet as a whisper.

She looked up at Seven, her face expectant, as if waiting for a response.

Seven took a deep breath, stuck her right hand between her teeth and pulled
off her glove, letting it fall away.

Gripping the rail in front of her, she reached out for the Klingon.
"B'Elanna, take my hand."

Torres took hold of Seven's hand in her fingers, raised it to her face,
sniffed the palm. Her lips pulled back over her teeth, a sharp exhalation of
delight.

Seven smiled. "That's it. It's me, Seven. Your friend." She slid her fingers
around Torres' palm, the flesh so hot it seemed to sizzle against her touch.
That made no sense, the Klingon's body temperature should be__

Torres' bloody feet slipped on the rail and she plunged over the side,
yanking Seven after her, falling in less time than it took to realise what
had happened; a sickening crack then incredible pain in her shoulder, the
overwhelming urge to vomit.

She was holding them both by a single hand above the chasm, agony now as
Torres clutched at her useless limb, screaming, the Klingon's cries nowhere
near human, high-pitched like an animal in distress.

Seven's right hand was numb - she couldn't grip with it. She could feel
Torres' bloody palms slipping over her flesh.

She did the only thing possible.

"SEVEN TO PARIS, EMERGENCY BEAM-OUT!"

Then Seven let go of the rail.

* * *

"The artist must have had an amazing eye for detail," said the Doctor.
"Especially considering the circumstances. It's likely the individual
concerned got quite close to the drone." The C/MH stepped closer to the
holoimage, until he appeared dwarfed by the enlarged painting. "Note
the detail in the ocular implant, right down to these lines here, which
I believe represent thermal imagers."

"Brave, whoever they were," said Lieutenant Kim. They'd discovered it during
their shore leave on the Other World (or Teldar Ves, as their R'larri guide
insisted on calling it). He'd claimed it was over fifty thousand years old.
Painted on the rockface in faded pigments amongst the great plain stalkers,
hunters slaying long-extinct beasts, and renderings of ancient Gods was the
figure of a solitary Borg drone, staring back at them over the millennia.

"It's different somehow, the exoskeleton."

"That's because it's not a complete exoskeleton as we know it. It's
clothing."

"What?" Kim leaned in towards the holoimage. The processor in his
biosynthetic arm adjusted the limb's position to keep his balance.

"Look here," said the Doctor. "The line around the neck where the skin meets
the collar. That tactical armour is clipped over the top as well, with these
black seals. It's clearly designed to be removed. I think the undergarment
has a similar function to the dermaplastic biosuit Seven used to wear. It's
designed to regenerate the skin around the exit points for the cybergrafts,
plus some built-in environmental regulation and waste synthesis." His voice
grew excited. "We're looking at what could be a very early stage in the
Borg's evolution!"

"Then how the hell did it get out here?" asked Kim. "They can't have had
transwarp in those days, surely. We're a long way from the origins of Borg
space."

"We don't know anything about the origins of the Borg," the Doctor pointed
out. "Maybe they were exiles, or explorers. A militant group, in search of
the perfect society. Or they could have been sending long-term scouts
throughout the Quadrant, like the Dominion Founders. The early Borg could
have been quite peaceful in that regard. Even assimilation might have been
voluntary, a chance for the individual concerned to become something greater
than they were."

Kim stared at the painting. Despite its differences, the artist had captured
one thing that clearly hadn't changed - that blank drone expression. None of
the excitement or apprehension you might expect from an early explorer, the
joy of discovering and interacting with strange new worlds, cultures and
lifeforms.

"Somehow I doubt it."

"Culhane to the Doctor."

The Doctor's head came up. "Yes Ensign?"

"I have a priority subspace communication from the Tom Paris. Patching
through to you now, sir."

"Seven of Nine to the Doctor. Medical emergency."

The Doctor and Kim were at the comm panel in less than a second.

"I'm here," said the Doctor, his expert eye taking in Seven's pale features,
the distinctive way in which she was cradling her arm. "You've disrupted your
gleno-humeral interface!"

"My injuries are irrelevant," Seven replied curtly. "Over the past few hours
Commander Torres has been acting in an increasingly irrational manner.
According to my scans her neurochemistry has become unstable. I am detecting
unusual brainwave activity and excessive amounts of adrenaline in her
circulatory system. The tricorder readings are being downloaded as we speak."

Kim tensed. "She might have picked up a Borg nanovirus__"

"No! It was the first thing I checked!" snapped Seven, adding a belated,
"Sir."

"That's impossible!" muttered the Doctor, as his diagnostic protocols
analysed the readings. "Seven, you must return to Voyager at once!"

Seven used her left hand to enter the requisite commands, not wasting time
with questions. Only when the course had been laid in and engaged did she
ask, "Why?"

"I believe Commander Torres is suffering from the plak tow."

"Your diagnosis is flawed! The blood fever only affects Vulcans!"

"Look, it's a long story. When Vorik last went through pon farr he briefly
formed a telepathic mating bond with Torres. She started exhibiting the same
symptoms. It's the only explanation for what's happening now."

"But that was seven years ago!" said Kim. "She shouldn't be going through
this again. We made sure there was no contact between them this time!"

The Doctor frowned. "The only answer I can think of is that when the
telepathic bond was made, a subconscious command was implanted. Like the link
a Vulcan child forms with his arranged bride. It's working as a biological
clock; Torres is going through a seven year mating cycle just like a Vulcan
would."

"What are the possible consequences to B'Elanna?" asked Seven.

"I don't know. Vulcans have been known to die during the pon farr. You must
get her back here as soon as possible."

"Our warp core has been removed. At impulse it will take us at least four
hours, perhaps more."

"That may be too late!"

"Then Voyager must come to our assistance."

"That might not be possible," said Kim. "We're stuck between three hostile
battlefleets here. If we go shooting off at maximum warp in an unexpected
direction ..."

"In that case she must be treated. I will use a hormonal suppressor."

"It won't work," said the Doctor. "It's like trying to put out a firestorm
with an airponics sprinkler."

"Then sedation with triptacederine."

"Too risky. She could slip into a coma and die."

"Modified nanoprobes__"

"That won't work either! Look, the problem is that the pon farr is
psychological as well as biological. We've had some success with holographic
partners but even that's uncertain."

Seven and the Doctor glared at each other. They were both perfectionists.
Neither of them was used to being without options. "Then how was it treated
seven years ago?"

"The blood fever is purged in three ways. Intense meditation, ritual combat,
mating with the chosen partner. B'Elanna fought Vorik."

"That would not be advisable for us," was Seven's dry response. "My ability
to throw a right hook has been severely compromised."

"I'll talk to the captain," said Kim. "Maybe if we inform all the factions
that we've got a medical emergency. But they may not believe us, or care."

"Keep me informed. Seven of Nine out," she said, cutting the link before the
Doctor could start harping on about her injured shoulder. Out of sight of her
colleagues, the Borg let her head slump.

"What did the Doctor want?" asked Torres, her voice faint. There was a bed in
the aft compartment, but Seven had tilted back one of the crew seats instead.
The Klingon was wrapped in a thermal blanket, strapped to the seat by thick
safety belts.

"He says you are suffering from the Vulcan blood fever. How much do you
remember?"

"The pon farr?"

"Yes."

"Then I need to see Tom. Where is he?"

Seven stared at her in horror.

"Where's Tom?"

"He is ... on board Voyager. They are coming for us."

Torres' head rolled sideways. Red and green tricorder lights reflected off
the subtle curves of her forehead ridges. "Tell him to hurry."

Seven waited until her breathing had gone shallow before saying, "Computer,
give me a view of the Borg vessel. Maximum magnification."

A circular shadow against the greater darkness of space. This far from the
sun, the sphere was barely visible. "Confirm the remote activator signal."
There was no way to be sure if the commander had finished arming the mine,
not without returning to the vessel. But her instructions had been clear.
After the first successful salvage attempt the Menti Naka and R'larri
governments would soon overcome their superstitions. There would be a
scramble for Borg technology, perhaps sparking another conflict over the
prize.

"Activator signal confirmed," said the computer. "We are thirty seconds from
minimum recommended safe dist__"

Her finger stabbed down on the touchscreen with unnecessary force.

The photosensitive viewscreen went dark as a blinding flash eclipsed even
the radiance of a sun, ripping the Borg sphere to shreds and hurtling the
radioactive fragments across space. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the
explosion appeared to reverse in on itself as every particle of matter for
over a million kilometres tried to push through a tiny hole in subspace.

The flyer began to shudder, its engines screaming in impotent fury as it
was hauled back into the inversion. Clenching her teeth Seven advanced the
impulse drive to maximum, ignoring the structural integrity warnings the
computer was blaring at her.

If the fabric of space was weak in this area, or if there'd been
imperfections in the construction of the mine, the inversion would turn into
ever-widening subspace splinters radiating out from its omega point. Should
one of them touch the flyer she and Torres would, if they were lucky, be
dead before they knew it. If not, they'd be trapped in a subspace limbo for
the rest of eternity.

* * *

The kubii trees had been shedding for the past three days, their kite-like
flowers released to drift over the blast crater in which New LiH-tos nestled,
raining down an incessant stream of pollen. Seven and Torres had given up
trying to brush it off; as a result they, along with everything else, were
now dusted in a carpet of bright yellow. Most of the crowd were using
breathing masks, augmenting them with metal face pieces, hammered into the
distinctive scalloped architecture of Borg implants. For once Seven didn't
stand out, for which she was glad. There'd been problems earlier in the day,
when they'd visited the Menti Naka temple. But here she was anonymous, just
another drone amongst thousands.

They held hands so as not to be separated in the crush, not knowing where
they were going, just letting themselves be drawn along. Traders worked both
sides of the street, their round stalls like an endless line of open clams.
Spectators sat on the hardshell roofs, feet dangling off the edge so it
looked as if all the merchants were specialising in footware. T'mani,
R'larri, and Menti Naka were mixed together in a haphazard fashion, drinking
and talking and hooting with laughter as they watched the parade. It was hard
to believe they'd been slaughtering each other with genocidal intensity a
mere twelve years ago.

Torres was chewing on a jo fruit, juice running down her chin and staining
the front of her shirt. Even as dusk approached it was still quite warm, the
heat generated by the mass of surrounding bodies. She'd taken off her Maquis
jacket and tied the arms around her waist, bobbing behind like a large
leather tail. Seven was dressed as scantily as R'larri law would let her get
away with; a blue T'mani overcloth, slit to expose her leg implants. It was
risky, yet there was a streak of stubbornness - or perhaps arrogance, Seven
readily admitted - that made her refuse to hide her Borg heritage.

"Anyone you know?" shouted Torres, grinning as she pointed back over her
shoulder.

An enormous statue of carved stone was emerging from an alley behind them.
The head of a Borg drone, implants erupting from its mouth, forcing the teeth
apart into a silent scream. It was hauled by Menti Naka priests marching in
lockstep, their eyes fixed ahead in blank stares. Small children scampered
ahead of it, shouting, "Resistance is futile! Resistance is futile!" Seven
felt the crowd pressing against her as they moved out of the path of the
juggernaut. She turned forward again, jumping as she found herself facing a
covey of Borg drones. Cybernetic limbs made of woven jo-stalk were brandished
in her face. "You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!"

Seven shoved past them, her mouth tight, hauling Torres after her. Ahead
the crowd was squeezed together once more as it moved past the bulk of a
six-wheeled armoured vehicle with police markings. A R'larri Under-Commander
was sitting on the turret hatch, one hand draped casually across the riot
gas projector. She wore black body armour sculpted in the shape of a Borg
exoskeleton, a multi-lensed helmet adding to the effect.

Red heavier-than-air smoke rolled along the ground. Above their heads a
holographic image of the Aux raged about retribution for the Blood Death.
R'larri bystanders jeered, hurling jo fruits at the projector until it
fizzed out. Torres tossed the remains of her fruit into a rubbish container,
from which it was retrieved and eaten by one of the street children. Other
Menti Naka orphans clustered around Seven, recognising her as an offworlder,
not realising her implants were real.

"I have no money. Go away."

"Lighten up Seven," said Torres, passing out the few R'larri coins she had
left.

"Your generosity will only increase their persistence."

A child snatched the holocamera hanging off Seven's shoulder. The Borg tried
to grab him but he dropped to the ground and scrambled away between the legs
of the crowd.

"You little Qa'Hom!" shouted Torres. She shoved her way after him, earning
a rain of curses from others in the parade. An annoyed T'mani tried to
clobber her with a wooden Borg cube.

"Let him go, B'Elanna! Damn!" Seven followed in her wake, pushing through to
the side of the street. A rocket arched into the sky and exploded, igniting
kubii flowers in brief falling trails of fire. Lasers wrote political slogans
across the clouds. A holoimage of Ni-par-deski appeared, her primary crest
red with anger, spitting out words like photon torpedoes.

To Seven's surprise, by the time she made it to the sidewalk the thief had
been caught. A large Menti Naka in the robes and red half-mask of a religious
student held the struggling youngster in a single hand. With the other he
plucked the holocamera from the child's grasp and presented it to Torres.

"Thank you," said Torres, her chest heaving from exertion. She took the
Doctor's camera and hung the strap around her neck, turning to Seven as the
Borg eased her way along the sidewalk toward her. "Hey Seven, I'm out of
money. You got a donation for this guy?"

The Menti Naka raised his equine head, smiling as he noticed the approaching
ex-drone. Without changing expression he brought a pistol out from beneath
his robes and shot Torres in the face.

Seven of Nine saw everything in slow motion; Torres smashed forwards, blood
and flesh flying. With a single powerful movement the assassin flung the
street kid aside and turned on Seven, his pistol whining as the gauss
batteries recharged. There wasn't even time to feel fear before he pulled
the trigger again.

It was a T'mani bystander who caught the bullet, stepping from between the
stallshells where he'd been urinating, his organs turning black as he
crumpled like paper. That moment was all Seven needed. In less than a second
she'd closed the distance, crushing her attacker's wrist in her cybernetic
hand. He opened his mouth in a high scream, clawing at the Borg's eyes. Seven
deflected him with a Tanyk Defence and drove a hammer fist at the alien's
vulnerable forelobe, his eyes rolling up as he fell to the ground stunned.

In the edge of her vision the Borg saw a canister tumbling through the air.
Instinctively she threw herself where Torres should be, hitting solid paving
stones instead as the world exploded in plasma fire. A wave of intense heat
washed over her, drifting kubii bursting into flame and scorching her
clothes. She scrambled along the curb, the harsh stone scraping her knees
and elbows through the thin overcloth, angry over her decision to wear such
an inefficient garment. Everyone was screaming now, ululating alien cries as
they fled in all directions. Seven had a brief glimpse of Torres stumbling
ahead of her, hand clutched to the side of her face. Stallshells began
slamming shut, spilling those who'd been sitting on their roofs onto the
street. Seven lost sight of her partner in the chaos.

The armoured car was trying to move down the street, but the massive Borg
head blocked its path. Disrupter fire lit the air, a beam streaking past
Seven's ear. She rolled beneath the foundation of a stallshell, hitting the
combadge on her chest. "Seven to Voyager! Emergency, two to beam up!"

The only answer was a static-garbled chirp. Inches from her face, the
pavement suddenly turned black as an energy beam scorched it.

For a brief, terrifying moment Seven of Nine felt tight bands clamping down
on her muscles, her whole body held rigid in place, staked out for its own
sacrifice. Then her cortical inhibitor activated; it was as if she was
standing apart from herself, that another person was shaking in fear under
the stallshell. Tactical analysis programs went primary, sucking in data
from her enhanced senses and converting it to smooth colourless datastreams
flowing through her mind. There was a surge of incredible power as nanoprobes
superoxygenated her blood. In microseconds she had formulated a plan of
action and carried it out, hurtling away from cover faster than any sprinter,
aiming at a steel gate that was ajar ten metres away.

It was the loading dock of a slaughterhouse, the ground flecked with dried
blood. The walls were tipped in laser fencing, the doors chained shut. Seven
realised too late she'd walked into a trap.

From the street behind her stepped a Menti Naka in a red-half mask. His
eyes were bright with fanatical hatred, ancient robes incongruous with his
ultra-modern disrupter rifle. A lasersight beam flickered towards Seven,
reflecting off the drifting pollen. "TiH-nan guides the hand that will crush
the Eater of Souls."

Torres charged through the steel gate, gauss pistol clasped in her bloody
fist. Without slowing down she emptied it into the assassin, his disrupter
tumbling from lifeless fingers. Seven snatched it up and together they ran
across the courtyard to the loading dock. Seven didn't bother with subtlety;
blasting apart a chain and sending the door flying back on its hinges with
a single powerful kick. She felt her arm seized in a vice-like grip and then
they where charging past long racks hung with bloody carcasses, startled
workers gaping at them in astonishment. An aproned Menti Naka holding a
cutting laser stepped into their way. Torres didn't give him the benefit of
the doubt, smashing him to the ground with her empty pistol and leaping over
the body.

The front door was sealed by monotanium bolts. Seven burned a hole through
the thin walls, ending up in a narrow backstreet.

The street merchants, veterans of years of civil and military strife, were
closing up at the sound of the disturbance, their stallshells crashing shut
like a row of snapping jaws. Fifty metres down the road Menti Naka street
kids were throwing stones at a R'larri armoured car. Seven quickly grabbed
Torres by the shoulder and pulled her back into a doorway. She hit her
combadge again. "Seven of Nine to Voyager. Respond!"

" .. ii ... voy ... car ... ear .. ou."

"Dampening field," muttered Torres, her voice slurred as if drunk. Blood
covered the side of her head and she was swaying on her feet. The eyes were
unfocussed, one pupil larger than the other. Seven reached out a hand to hold
her steady. "Voyager, remodulate your signal! Two to beam up, now!"

"Al ... ive ... ot .. even."

A barely audible scream erupted from the armoured police vehicle. The
children bent over in agony, clutching their ears and soiling themselves.
Seven felt a wave of nausea ripple through her body, then everything sounded
as if through water as her cortical processor stabilised her inner ears.
Torres, who had no such protection, buckled at the knees and vomited onto
the paving stones. The vehicle accelerated down the street towards them,
intakes howling in the pollen-choked air. Menti Naka children desperately
scrambled to get out of the way. One wasn't fast enough, knocked flying into
the gutter and lying still.

"This is Voyager. Your signal is weak but readable."

"TWO TO BEAM UP, NOW!"

And then everything turned to stark black and white as they were pinned under
the lights of the armoured car. It didn't slow down, didn't swerve, the sound
of its turbine rising to a shriek as it drove straight at them. There wasn't
time to run or fire, just the sheer sense of impossibility as they were
suddenly occupying the same space as the hurtling multi-ton vehicle, fading
to non-existence within the embrace of the transporter beam.

* * *

Seven of Nine watched Torres toss and turn against her restraints, her
eyelids twitching in REM sleep.

Reaching down, the Borg brushed aside the hair that had fallen across her
face. The tip of one ear was missing and there was some faint scar tissue
the Doctor had not been able to regenerate. If the assassin had been using
a directed energy weapon, Torres would be dead. The bullet had been stopped
by a remnant of cortical node casing, which the Doctor had thought too
risky to remove four years ago.

Seven could only regard that as ironic. When Torres, Janeway and Tuvok had
completed their mission to aid Unimatrix Zero she'd tried to convince them
to retain some of their more useful Borg implants, citing the advantages
gained in analytical processing and enhanced physiology. All three had
refused even to discuss it. The Federation prejudice against artificial
enhancement was irrational and deep-rooted, dating back to the Eugenics
Wars. In that aspect they were no different from the superstitious aliens
inhabiting this system.

"Voyager to Tom Paris."

Chakotay had appeared on the commscreen, his normally stolid face wrinkled
with concern.

"Captain," said Seven, getting straight to the point. "Torres' neo-cortical
readings are becoming highly erratic. You must proceed to our immediate
assistance."

"That may not be possible, Seven. The Planetur keep bouncing us around
various departments and the R'larri CDF aren't even answering our hails.
The Aux thinks you've been assimilated. He's talking about blasting your
flyer out of this system. You're going to have to change your approach
vector to take you away from the Menti Naka battlefleet."

"Assholes!" cursed Seven, an expression she'd picked up from Lieutenant
Kim - it seemed appropriate. The flyer's warp core had been removed partly
to give more space, but also to satisfy the paranoid requirements of the
Liaison Daki. Now they were refusing to help. "Their petty politics are
irrelevant!"

"It took three weeks of negotiation to allow an impulse-powered flyer and
two personnel through their sectors, let alone a fully-armed starship! Every
politician and over-commander will use this as an opportunity to stick their
oar in."

For a fraction of a second Seven pondered the nature of that obsolete
colloquialism, then dismissed it with irritation. "There is no need to put
Voyager at risk. I will handle the situation."

"How on Earth do you ..." An indefinable expression flickered across
Chakotay's face. "I see."

"I am placing the flyer on autopilot." Seven opened the medkit next to her
and removed a hypospray, loading it with 20 milligrams of inoprovalene.
"Ensure that a constant monitor is kept on our flyer with the long-range
sensors. I will be ... occupied. Seven of Nine out." She pressed the
hypospray against Torres' neck.

"Seven, wait!"

"Sir?" she asked, not bothering to hide her impatience. She hoped Captain
Chakotay would not forbid her action due to some foolish human notion of
propriety or jealousy.

Chakotay studied her for a long moment, then just said: "Good luck."

The commscreen blinked off.

"I have never needed `luck' to copulate," muttered Seven. It took her ten
precious minutes to recalculate the optimum flightline that would take them
around the Menti Naka fleet while still avoiding top-secret military zones,
suspected minefields, and the numerous radioactive debris fields left over
from the war.

By the time she'd finished Torres had revived, dark eyes watching the Borg
over her thermal blanket. Seven studied her for a moment, then pulled the
sling up over her head, wincing as she did so.

"Computer, activate autopilot and autonomous response systems." Seven
unsnapped the fastenings on her boots, sliding them off her feet and placing
them neatly under the console. "Inform me of Level One emergencies only."
She unsealed the front of her jumpsuit, removing it with some difficulty.
"Activate proximity detection. Vessels on intercept vectors and
Objects-In-Course only. Audio cue, loud." The thermo-compression pad was
last, peeling it off her shoulder and dumping it in the recycling chute.

Seven leaned over Torres. The Klingon's eyes moved to her breasts but their
gaze was unsteady, with none of its usual fire.

"Commander Torres, we have a problem."

"What happened to your arm?" croaked Torres. Seven tucked a water bottle
between her thighs and unscrewed the cap.

"That is the problem," the Borg said, raising the bottle to Torres' mouth.
She drank avidly. "I am required to make love to you, in order to save your
life. It is an activity I take great pleasure in."

"However I have damaged my shoulder. While I was able to reduce the
dislocation, it is still sore." Seven took the bottle away. "Klingon
love-making practices are quite vigorous, often involving injury. My
cybernetic body would normally allow me to handle your rather aggressive
sexuality, but I fail to see the need to injure myself any further."

"What the hell are you raving on about?" muttered Torres.

"I have therefore decided to leave you bound to this seat. You will be forced
to serve my needs, on my terms. It amuses me to dominate my lovers."

"What ... what makes you think I want to screw you anyway, you stuck-up
Borg?" A tiny spark of familiar ire.

Seven smirked. In a single deft movement she ripped apart the thermal
blanket, exposing Torres' naked body.

"My first attempts at intimate relations were on the holodeck. A controlled
environment, but I was inexperienced then. Do you know the subject I chose
to lose my virginity with?"

"I've no idea," Torres growled. She felt drowsy, as if recovering from a
heavy dose of sedatives, but it was like there was something else inside her,
forcing its way through the murky haze. A deep sea predator rising to the
surface, drawn by the smell of prey.

Seven leaned over and whispered in her ear. "Chakotay. That was impertinent
of me, don't you think? I knew Captain Janeway was attracted to him; I wanted
to find out what lay behind that attraction. And I did. He was very patient
with me, very ... instructive. Both on the holodeck, and in real life."
Skilled hands began to massage the dusky flesh of the Klingon hybrid,
measuring the sensitive regions, the involuntary responses. "I was unaware
of the presence of the emotional inhibitor at the time, of course. When I was
severed from the Collective the neural pathways were inadvertently cut, but
over the years they had grown back, regenerated. I almost died." The Borg
slid her hands down to the junction of Torres' legs. The ankles were strapped
to the sides of the seat, leaving the thighs parted, vulnerable to her
attentions. "Fortunately I was able to modify the inhibitor's programming. It
serves me well."

"Yeah," said Torres, gritting her teeth. "You can be a drone whenever you
want. Haven't left the holodeck, have you Seven?"

Seven gave a cold smile and dug her fingers into a bruise, eliciting a sharp
gasp of pain. Her other hand was simultaneously stroking the clitoris; it was
larger than on human females, supposedly less sensitive. But the results were
instantaneous: the Klingon's pelvis bucked against the straps, soaking her
hand. "You are very wet, B'Elanna. I have never had a lover as wet as you are
now."

She began to work both hands in conjunction. A low growl erupted from her
captive; nostrils flared, trying to draw in the Borg's scent.

"More," Torres gasped, the plea escaping before she could stop it.

"Pain and pleasure," mused Seven. "I have not yet explored that aspect of my
sexuality." She stopped to lick vaginal fluid off her fingers.

"BiHnuch!" Torres hissed. "Take off these straps and I'll show you some
fucking pain! Let me go, that's an order!"

Seven raised her left eyebrow in the manner she knew would annoy Torres the
most. "Do you intend to have me court martialed, Commander? I would enjoy
telling an inquiry everything we did, how we used our fingers and mouths and
tongues on each other, how you begged me to pleasure you again and again.
And you will beg me, I will make sure of that."

She bent her head, her full lips matching perfectly with the swollen folds
of Torres' vulva. The Borg slipped her tongue into the drenched sex, working
with the expertise that only comes with constant, practical application.
Torres felt an overwhelming pressure building, as if all her pent-up sexual
frustration was being sucked out through her vagina by Seven's greedy,
insatiable mouth. Insane with lust and rage she hurled herself against her
restraints, roaring incomprehensible Klingon curses until she was spent,
collapsing back on the seat, her breath coming in long, shuddering gasps.

Satisfied, Seven reached down and entered a code into the seat's touchpanel.
The safety belts snapped open, sliding off and dropping to the floor.

"Now you're ready B'Elanna," Seven said, her voice thick with a hunger that
surprised even herself. "Now you're ready to fuck me like a Klingon should."

* * *

Harry Kim screamed in agony, slamming his fist into the side of the
turbolift. Scorching fire was crawling up his arm; he knew that if he looked
he would see the flesh turn grey and shrivelled, black lines advancing up his
shoulder to assimilate his entire body. The walls spun around him and there
was just enough time to gasp "Computer halt turbolift!" before the bile rose
in his throat and he threw up all over the floor.

The purging made him feel better, slightly anyway. Trembling fingers pulled a
hypospray from his pocket. With the benefit of long experience Kim activated
it one-handed and pressed it against his neck, muttering, "Fuck this arm and
fuck the Borg and fuck Janeway too!"

His combadge chirped. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?" The hologram's voice
was soft with concern.

"I'm fine Doc. How can this arm hurt so much when it's not even there
anymore?" His right hand gripped the dermaplastic where flesh and bone used
to be.

"Phantom pains. According to the biomonitor your Borg implants are still
inert."

Kim's laugh had a bitter edge. "Well they've got ways of making their
presence known. Ahh, get a detail to clean up turbolift Beta-Three will
you?" There was an acrid taste in his mouth.

"I told you, genetic resequencing will put an end to this. I can clone you an
entire new body."

"It's against Federation law," replied Kim mechanically, staring at the pool
of vomit on the floor.

"I hardly think you're going to turn into Khan Noonien Singh! Is it any more
moral to dope yourself up with kelotane every day?"

"WELL GO TO HELL! IF YOU'D DONE YOUR JOB PROPERLY THIS WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED
IN THE FIRST PLACE!"

A disapproving silence was his only response. Kim knew that his outburst had
been unfair, but he couldn't bring himself to apologise. Tom always used to
say, when talking about the shuttle accident that ruined his career, "Those
whom the Gods wish to kick in the ass with fate they first poke in the eyes
with arrogance." Well he was right there. He was more right than he knew.

"Resume turbolift."

The doors hissed open and he found himself face to face with the Aux himself.
TeS-ket, his head of security, stood behind the warlord as usual, staring at
Kim with cold eyes. "Ahh! Lieutenant Kim. I was looking for you." The Aux's
nasal holes constricted at the smell coming from the turbolift. "You appear
pale. Is there a problem?"

Kim gave a feeble smile. "An old war wound, sir. From our crusade against the
Eater of Souls. It gives me trouble now and again. How can I help you?"

"I have heard disturbing reports from Captain Chakotay," said the Aux,
putting an arm around Kim's shoulders. The lieutenant flinched as the fingers
touched his amputated stump. "It appears that your ... away mission? ... to
the Soul Eaters of the Outer World has gone disastrously wrong. Our Whisper
Grid has detected a large subspace detonation in the area. One of your crew
was seriously injured and the flyer has deviated from the course we agreed
upon." The Aux was leading him down the corridor, just two war veterans
having a friendly discussion. "We offered our assistance naturally, but your
captain has refused our help. Now your team is heading back here, perhaps
with the intention of assimilating your entire crew. They will not respond to
our hails."

"That has nothing to do with the Borg sphere, sir. One of the females on
board the vessel is undergoing her mating cycle."

The Aux stopped in mid stride. "Mating ... cycle?"

Kim gazed innocently at the Aux, knowing his prudish view of reproduction.
"Yes sir. Our Chief Engineer is half-Klingon, a race with voracious sexual
appetites." He leaned his head close. "An old friend of mine, Tom Paris? He
made the mistake of bedding her once, and well, I don't like to go into
details but ... he died."

"I see!" said the Aux in alarm. "Are the rest of us males in any danger?"

"Not at all sir. The Borg Seven of Nine is handling the situation."

"Well if she doesn't survive it won't be any loss," said the Aux. He threw
back his long narrow head and gave a great roar of laughter. TeS-ket joined
in with sycophantic earnest.

As usual Kim's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "No. I guess it won't be,
sir."

* * *

She was an excellent mate, a skilled lover, strong, arrogant, demanding
submission. It was exciting; she responded to the challenge with vigor.
Battles were lost and won over a field of flesh, victories counted in
ecstatic cries and the torrid throes of pleasure. Long moments of truce,
when all they did was listen to the sound of each other's heartbeat. Time
had ceased its linear course; there was only now, these sweaty couplings
and whispered secrets haunted by memories of a sterile technological hell
barren of her lover's presence. Fearful of losing everything she pursued,
tracked her scent across the unfamiliar deserts of an alien world, forced
surrender, demanded tribute and eternal allegiance; a pledge of love
everlasting.

"I cannot feel love." There was fear in Seven's eyes.

Torres held the Borg tightly, realising they were completely alone here, a
tiny bubble drifting in a vast emptiness that contained only blackness,
silence, and death.

TO BE CONTINUED

    

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