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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 2
by Odon

"There were hundreds of them at the university, always demonstrating and
making fine speeches about `Equality Between Species' and `Living in Mutual
Friendship' - so many slogans. They protested against how the T'mani
Planetur was profiting from `The Cycle of Inter-Species Hostility', and the
politicians would accuse them of being usserborg, of wanting to assimilate
everyone into a vast collective. Maybe they were right." Polorta tipped up
his bottle, draining the last few drops. "And they held `Cross-Cultural
Exchange Festivals', which were usually just an excuse for us all to get
drunk."

Chakotay smiled. "Sounds like a good idea to me." The captain didn't take
his eyes off the viewscreen on his ready room desk. It showed a tiny blue
triangle, representing the Tom Paris, threading its way through a confusing
mosaic of coloured symbols and formless blobs. Even that image was a gross
oversimplification. Astrometrics was tracking the course of over half a
million objects that might conceivably threaten the flyer, from military
patrols to smuggler flights to rogue chunks of debris. Chakotay noted with
wry amusement that they hadn't had to order a change of course yet, even
though the flyer had been on autopilot for over four hours. Seven of Nine
was showing her usual efficiency.

Every few seconds the image would flicker as Voyager's sensors remodulated.
Solar flare activity, the Aux had claimed. Menti Naka e-warships were
flooding the electromagnetic spectrum, trying to send the flyer off course
into a minefield. Fortunately their jamming technology was inferior to
Federation inertial navigation systems.

Polorta frowned at the bottle of synthahol in his hand. "This stuff is no
good. It doesn't get you drunk!" He placed the empty bottle on its side,
muttering, "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest."

"That's why we drink it," said Chakotay, popping the cap on another bottle
with his thumb. He slid it across the table toward the T'mani.

"Argh! You Federation types are worse than the R'larri. No fun at all. Do you
think they're all right?"

"I hope so. Those two are very special to me. B'Elanna and I were
comrades-in-arms even before Voyager. Seven of Nine is ... a former lover.
And I kind of took personal responsibility for her from our previous
captain."

"I don't know many who would attempt to de-assimilate a drone that's been
in the Collective that long. She was an exceptional woman, your Captain
Janeway."

Chakotay shifted his gaze to the geneticist. ``Was', not `is'. Hell, why do
I keep fooling myself?'

"Very exceptional."

Polorta grinned. "Perhaps not as exceptional as a man who would take an
ex-drone to bed with him. I don't know anyone on my planet who's done THAT!"

"Yes, we once spent two and a half hours working on a single position. She
insisted on perfection."

Polorta hooted in amusement and took a hefty swig. Chakotay had long stopped
being repulsed by the sight of the liquid moving down the alien's digestive
tube. Unlike most elderly T'mani, Polorta's skin was still reasonably
translucent. Chakotay couldn't help wondering if he'd been doing some gene
resequencing on himself.

"Do you know that the Borg are probably the only corporeal species that can
comprehend ... really grasp the vastness of space?" said Polorta. "We
scientists claim to do so of course, but if an individual were to realise
such an incredible distance in all three dimensions they would go mad. Like
numbers. Half a billion deaths for instance. You can talk about it, make
dramatic speeches about it, conduct computer simulations. But to really
understand the destruction of so many individuals, all of whom thought they
were the most important person in the universe, with all their years of life,
their goals, lovers, families, friends ... " Polorta raised the synthahol
bottle and gulped the entire contents down, not taking the bottle from his
lips until it was completely drained. The empty vessel was placed on its side
like the others. "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest."

Chakotay stretched back in his seat, his joints cracking. "That's your last
one. Guests have only got so many replicator rations you know. I had to cut
them down when one of your Menti Naka friends tried replicating a thirty
piece divan in the messhall."

"It was not! It was a Culde set. We used to play it at Cross-Cultural
Exchange Festivals. At least I think it was Culde. We were rather drunk at
the time." He stood up and moved to the replicator. "One more. I've never
had any alcohol that doesn't give you a hangover before. You should share
the secret of this gift with our people, captain!"

"Violation of the Prime Directive."

"Ahh testicles."

Chakotay blinked in surprise, before he realised that the universal
translator had simply translated Polorta's epithet too literally. "Why do
you keep saying that?"

"Testicles?"

"No. `Fallen like the jo-stalk in the harvest.'"

"We'd say it at drinking parties at the university. They harvest jo fruits
in a single night, millions of them, so the challenge was to get as many
bottles as you can lying down by the dawn." A fresh bottle materialised and
he brought it back to the table. "Of course, the students often ended up
throwing them at the T'mani police when they came to break us up." Polorta
dropped into the chair again with a solid thud.

"It was at one of those drinking parties that it happened. We'd just gotten
started. I remember I was talking to a Menti Naka student by the name of
YoR-im. My best friend, except during the annual Husii tournament of course,
was Re-welta-dos. He was an Over-Scholar there; very unusual for a R'larri
male even in that enlightened city. The day before, Ni-par-deski had
delivered the ultimatum calling for all Menti Naka to leave the planet. It
sounded like the usual propaganda, but we were teasing YoR-im that she'd have
to do her course by correspondence, when all the red blood cells in her body
exploded." He took another swig from the bottle.

On the viewscreen, the blue triangle moved a fraction closer to Voyager.

"In seconds every Menti Naka in the room was in the death-coma, like a
laser-scalpel removing tumors. The bioweapon had been infiltrating them for
years, you see. Those students thought that by mingling with each other they
would eliminate specism, that you couldn't harm one without harming the
other. But they were proved wrong. Yes, very wrong."

Chakotay said nothing, aware that Polorta wasn't even talking to him now,
more to himself.

"With a quarter million corpses lying about there was a great risk of
disease, and the R'larri feared that the Aux would retaliate by destroying
the city, so we all fled, a great column of us. TiH-nan only knows where we
were heading, or how we were going to feed ourselves. The greatest minds on
the planet acting like Borg drones, doing what everyone else was doing. They
were waiting for us on the tollroad." His pale eyes were looking straight
through Chakotay, as if he were the one translucent. "They divided us up,
T'mani from R'larri, and made us sit on the road while they marched the
R'larri out into the jo-stalk fields. It was harvest time you see. The jo
fruits were ready to be cut. They use an automated laser you know, they can
do that because every stalk grows to exactly five and twenty joints. They
lined the R'larri in rows, like the jo-stalks, and made each one hold up a
jo leaf as if they were a plant. Then they sliced off their heads with the
harvest lasers. Have you ever seen a hundred thousand people decapitated at
once, Captain Chakotay?"

"Not that many."

"Ahh yes. But the problem is a R'larri is not a jo-stalk. Not everyone in
that field was fortunate enough to be five and twenty joints high, especially
the children. You see, the R'larri secondary nervous system is set lower than
the main brain, so you can have the top of your head cut off and still be
alive, in a fashion. I watched children stumbling around that field, alive
yet dead, for five hours until they let us go."

Chakotay wasn't listening. A red triangle representing a R'larri warship was
moving on an intercept course towards the Tom Paris. His combadge chirped.
"Delaney to the Captain!"

"I saw it Jenny. All hands, Red Alert!"

"Of course Re-welta-dos, being a R'larri male, was also shorter than the
others. I recognised him from those silly yellow shoes he always wore."

Polorta watched Chakotay rush out the door, as the alarms sounded as they
had twelve years ago as his students died. The T'mani placed the empty bottle
on its side next to the others, saying, "Fallen like the jo-stalk in the
harvest."

* * *

Seven of Nine had been unprepared for the intensity of the past few hours.
She was not used to a partner who could match her on a physical level, one
who insisted with equal ferocity on an emotional bonding she was reluctant
to give. The Borg knew her decision to leave the inhibitor in place had the
aspect of cowardice, but the thought of being emotionally dependent on
another individual had always been terrifying to her. The inhibitor had
become a crutch to survive the loss of Captain Janeway, then later to avoid
the possibility of commitment to one of her lovers.

Her last argument on the subject had taken place in Sickbay, over the
unconscious form of Lieutenant Kim. Excessively curious as always, the Doctor
had wanted to know why Kim had been struck in the face, though it could have
no possible relevance to his medical condition. Her revelation of the
lieutenant's comments prior to his injury had given the Doctor another excuse
to bring up her continuing refusal to have the cortical inhibitor removed.

"You said the procedure is dangerous," she'd shot right back. "I see no
long-term benefits, except perhaps for yourself."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"I am not ignorant of your feelings towards me."

The Doctor had spluttered like a faulty plasma injector. "I'm simply trying
to assist your development as an individual!"

"I said I was willing to engage in an intimate relationship with you. You
refused." Seven could not stop a hint of pique from entering her voice. She
did not like being rejected; it implied some inadequacy on her part.

"I refused to be another field notation in your ongoing research into your
own sexuality. `Experiment no. 12B. Sex with the Sentient Hologram - A Case
Study.' No thank you. I'm a doctor, not a petri dish." The Doctor had shut
his tricorder with a distinctly annoyed snap. "No sign of concussion, though
he'll have a few bruises. But there's far too much kelotane in his system.
He's been exceeding his dosage again."

"I have engaged in numerous intimate affairs, both with Voyager crewmembers
and outsiders. The possession of strong emotions has proven unnecessary and
irrelevant, even dangerous."

"Dangerous! That cortical inhibitor is like an unexploded bomb inside your
head! You nearly died the first time it activated. It is designed to SHUT
DOWN your primary functions. It's meant to kill you Seven, if you were ever
severed from the hive mind long enough to develop your own emotions!"

"Then the inhibitor was flawed. I was able to adapt its effects. It has made
me more efficient by serving as a cap on my emotions. Only the more extreme
ones are filtered."

"You can't explore love with a safety net! If there's one thing I've taught
you over the years, is that life has got to be lived. You've got to take
risks, Seven. Do things that frighten you."

Kim had groaned on the table then, providing a welcome distraction.

"There's times I think this entire crew is bent on committing suicide," the
Doctor had muttered, running a thrombic modulator over Kim's forehead. "I've
got a captain who insists on placing Voyager in the firing line of three
mutually hostile species, a chief conn officer trying to live up to the
reputation of Mr Paris, Lieutenant Kim here volunteering for mine-clearing
duties, and my best friend bringing a whole new definition to the term
`unsafe sex'."

That had been the same night she'd seduced Lieutenant Chapman. She'd used
the cortical inhibitor then too, in the lonely desolation of the early hours.
Seven remembered well the look of rejection on Chapman's face when he'd
realised. There'd been a note in her perscom file the next day, a quote from
Shakespeare.

They that have power to hurt, and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity;
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

She hadn't known Chapman was the poetic type.

Torres stirred, turning to look at her. Seven saw confusion on her face, as
if she was wondering why they were lying naked in each other's arms on the
floor.

"How do you feel?" asked Seven.

"What ... what happened?"

"We made love."

" ... love?"

Seven buried her face in Torres' hair, feeling an urge to drift there
forever, to avoid the outside world with all its responsibilities and pain.
There were things that had to be attended to, but she did not want to face
them. Order beckoned via the inhibitor, a return to the passionless
simplicity of the Collective.

A sudden memory of those ranks of Borg skeletons put an end to that thought.

"I'm hungry," said Torres.

Seven broke open an emergency ration pack, passing the bars of concentrate
to the Klingon who wolfed them down. Despite her hunger she stopped halfway
through each bar and offered it to Seven, who always took a small bite.

"I'm hungry," said Torres again.

Seven picked up another ration bar but Torres pushed it away, leaned towards
her. "Hungry."

"No."

"Yes," replied Torres huskily, pressing her lips against Seven's.

"Voyager to Tom Paris!" The two women tensed as the signal blared across
the cabin, Torres' hands clenching into a painful grip. "We're picking up a
R'larri CDF frigate closing on you fast!"

"Vessel approaching, bearing One Nine Zero Mark Three," said the computer.
"Vessel is locking on with target acquisition sensors. Unimatrix shielding
activated."

The flyer lurched as a tractor beam latched onto the hull and the inertial
dampers kicked in, the autonomous safety protocols dropping them out of
impulse to all stop.

"Thank you for the timely warning," muttered Seven. She kissed Torres hard
on the mouth, jumped to her feet and slid into the pilot seat, wincing from
her sore body. "Hail them."

The face of a R'larri Over-Commander appeared on the commscreen. "I am
Over-Co__ WHAT INSULT IS THIS?" she screeched, her primary crest turning red
at the edges.

Seven frowned in puzzlement ... then realised she was completely naked.

"I fail to see the point in dressing for someone as unimportant as you,"
Seven replied. "This is the Federation vessel Tom Paris, registration NCC
74656-C. We are in undisputed space on an authorised flight vector. You will
release your tractor beam at once!"

"I do not take orders from you, soulless drone!" The R'larri covered her
left eye with her fist, a finger sticking out like an ocular implant. "What
purpose do you have in this region of space? Are you acting on behalf of the
Menti Naka? Answer me now, or must you consult your Collective first?"

"Our mission has been approved by all members of the Liaison Daki. Release
this vessel or face the reprimand of your superiors!"

"I shiver with fear," scoffed the Over-Commander. "What will the Daki do,
talk me into oblivion? It is all they are good for. I believe you are on a
mission of espionage. You will lower your defensive shield so that we may
inspect your vessel."

"We have just returned from the derelict Borg sphere orbiting Teldar NiPi,"
said Seven, taking pleasure from the way the R'larri suddenly turned pale.
"We have salvaged numerous Borg artifacts. If you wish I can beam the
artifacts on board your vessel so that you may examine them more closely."

The Over-Commander gave a loud squawk and clutched at her throat. The comm
link was abruptly severed. A few seconds later the tractor beam followed.

"Asshole."

The Borg swiveled her seat round, frowning as she took in the mess littering
the flyer. Crumpled thermal blankets, the contents of several first aid kits
(mainly tubes of lubricant), discarded water bottles. Torres sat cross-legged
on the floor, devouring the contents of the ration pack.

"Computer, restart engines, open a channel to Voyager." Seven got to her feet
and began picking her way through the mess, making for the containment locker
where she'd stashed her backpack.

"Chakotay to Tom Paris, is everything all right?"

"Captain, we will be within transporter range in eleven minutes. Beam
Commander Torres and myself directly to Sickbay. Lock on a tractor beam and
bring the flyer in on automatic. Institute full anti-contaminant procedures."
Clutching the backpack to her chest, she sat down next to Torres, not
bothering with her clothes.

"Is there a problem?"

"Seven of Nine out," said the Borg, grabbing the last ration bar before
Torres could get at it.

* * *

Lieutenant Kim intercepted Chakotay on his way to the turbolift. "What's this
about Seven flashing a Third Rank Over-Commander?" he asked, a grin on his
face.

An odd thought occurred to the captain, that this was the first genuine smile
he'd seen Kim give in a long time. "The R'larri Cultural Defence Force has
just put in an official complaint. They claim Seven threatened to assimilate
one of their vessels. There was something about `an alien perversion' too,
but I didn't want to ask."

"That's our Borg, diplomatic as ever. Speaking of which, the Menti Naka are
insisting on their traditional right to bear arms in front of their enemies.
I came up with compromise. We provide them with replicated firearms that look
like the real thing, but don't work."

"Hell no! That's just the excuse the R'larri delegation need to walk out
again."

"They say we're leaving them `emasculated'. I don't think you understand the
cultural__"

"No, I don't think you understand. No weapons, Harry!" The turbolift doors
opened in front of them and Chakotay stepped inside. "Deck Five."

Anger flared in the lieutenant's dark eyes. "I spent three days negotiating
with those bastards!"

"No weapons!" said Chakotay as the doors closed.

The lift provided a temporary illusion of sanctuary. Chakotay closed his eyes
against the flashing level indicators, trying to focus himself, to let the
tension of the past few hours drain away. If there was one thing he hadn't
missed from his years in Starfleet it was the constant diplomatic maneuvering
with hostile alien species. The arguments over trivial matters of protocol
and status, the constant resurfacing of old hatreds, the tendency to regard
every concession as a weakness to be exploited for their own benefit.

`Now there's a real arrogance,' Chakotay thought. That `We've learned to live
together, why can't they?' attitude which Federation ambassadors who'd never
had to survive under Cardassian occupation were infamous for.

The turbolift doors slid open and he strode down the corridor to Sickbay.
There was a security officer outside, as per his instructions. Chakotay gave
him an abstract nod before entering.

B'Elanna Torres lay unconscious on a biobed. Seven of Nine stood beside her,
a hand resting on the Klingon's shoulder. They were both naked, though for
once Seven lacked her usual immaculate appearance. Chakotay resisted the urge
to stare at the bite mark on her cheek, even though he knew the former drone
was seldom embarrassed when it came to sexual matters.

"All right Seven, what was all that about?"

Seven nodded at her backpack which was sitting in a biostasis field,
protective foam leaking out of its ventilation holes. "It contains Borg data
nodes. A site-to-site transport was required to get it pass the inspection
teams. I will explain in my report."

"It can wait. What are their injuries, Doctor?"

"Take your pick. Dehydration, bruises, bites, lacerations, strains, sprains,
hairline fractures, bi-radial clamp stress__"

"Klingon love-making is rather vigorous," interrupted Seven, glaring at the
Doctor.

"I can imagine. Commander Torres has passed out from nervous exhaustion.
Seven needs to regenerate for at least twelve hours."

"I'm fine. I must remain with B'Elanna until the effects of the pon farr
dissipate."

"There's a security officer on the door," Chakotay pointed out. "I don't want
a repeat of what happened on Sikari IV."

"That is not necessary, Captain. I require the portable regenerator from my
alcove."

Chakotay flicked a glance at the Doctor.

"I don't see any problems," said the C/MH.

"All right then. But twelve hours, that's an order. I want you both at peak
efficiency tomorrow. We've got another meeting with the Liaison Daki."

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. "I thought they were no longer talking to
each other."

"Oh they'll come. They know we've got Borg technology from the sphere. They
can't risk us passing it along to one of the other species." He stepped
forward, placing his hand on Torres' upper arm, his fingers brushing against
Seven's.

"How do you feel?"

"Sore."

Chakotay gave a wry smile.

She didn't pull away, even thought it had been a long time since he'd touched
Seven in any fashion. Seeing her like this, love bites marring her perfect
features, stirred old memories: of Seven's body beneath his, slim yet
incredibly strong; her eyes filled with child-like wonder and newly
discovered passions. Eager yet fearful of the pleasures he could provide,
shameless and demanding in her own needs. Deep inside himself Chakotay felt
the stirrings of a long-repressed hunger and he slammed a iron clamp on his
thoughts. The captain and the ensign stepped apart, the usual masks dropping
over their faces.

"We were not able to complete our mission," said Seven, annoyed at the
implied inefficiency.

"You've brought in a good haul despite everything. Transwarp coils, data
nodes, an energy matrix - that should give the scientists something to play
with. At least they're willing to put aside their differences. I'm hoping to
set up some kind of research exchange. I'd also like to try recruiting some
more crew for Voyager, half a dozen from each species."

Seven and the Doctor looked surprised. "They'll never see their homeworlds
again," said the Borg.

"One way or the other," Doc muttered.

"We need to make up our losses," said Chakotay. "And it'll be an important
symbol for these people - the three species, joining together for a journey
into the unknown. There's bound to be some who are willing. To explore, the
spirit of adventure. It's why we joined Starfleet, isn't it?"

"Speak for yourself," said the Doctor snootily. "Some of us had no choice in
the matter."

* * *

`B'Elanna never cries'. Tom had said that the first time he died.

Not exactly true, but a lifetime of loss had indeed drained much of her
tears. She could count the passage of her life in funerals like this, in the
empty spaces where friends and family had once stood. Torres felt no sorrow
anyway, just a great emptiness where her heart was supposed to be. She knew
that Tom would have taken her heart with him when he died, as a trophy he
had won after long struggle. But if she went to Sto-Vo-Kor instead of Tom's
afterlife, it meant that she would never find her heart again.

Chakotay was standing in front of them, saying all the expected things.
Perhaps he would let her borrow a shuttle, to go search for her heart.

"We've lost not only our captain and one of our best officers, but two good
friends as well. We can't bury them, and there's not been much time to mourn
them. But the one memorial which I know would have true meaning to both of
them would be for the rest of us to get home safely__"

None of the crew were listening of course; they just stood there with dead
eyes as jagged implants of stone forced their teeth apart into mute screams.
Rank upon rank, a memorial to an ancient apocalypse. She and Seven walked
between them, climbing to the summit, the Menti Naka children who'd come to
beg fleeing at the sight of the former Borg drone.

The statues ended in a vast atrium, several hundred metres on each side. In
the centre lay an open sarcophagus. Offerings to a more recent holocaust were
stacked in great piles around it; thousands of R'larri skulls, many with the
top half sliced off. Flowering vines had grown up through the curves of white
bone, sprouting elegant blooms of yellow, red, and ultramarine through empty
eye sockets and exposed brainpans. Seven studied them with detached
curiosity, taking a picture with the Doctor's holocamera.

`They're beautiful,' Torres thought. `Those Klingon poets are right, there
can be a tranquil beauty in death.'

From between the statues opposite came the Menti Naka priest, his robes
flowing around sandaled feet. An armoured collar surrounded his neck as a
talisman against Borg assimilation tubules. He was fat, well fed, unlike
the scraggly orphans he shooed from his path.

"The body of Queen TiH-nan, a distant ancestor of the current Aux," the
priest said to Seven of Nine. He seemed amused rather than shocked by the
presence of a living demon in this holy place. "She watched over the Menti
Naka during our long journey to this Other World."

"She was one of you, an ordinary individual," said Seven. "Yet you worship
her as a Goddess. Explain."

The priest radiated with the superiority of someone who knows all, yet is
perfectly willing to take the time to enlighten the ignorant. "There are
times when a person, through their great achievements and the way they
inspire others, transcends mortality, becoming a divine being to those who
come after." He extended his hand towards the stone coffin. "You can see
for yourself."

Torres approached the sarcophagus cautiously. A shrivelled corpse lay inside,
teeth bared in a rictus of death. The Queen's auburn hair had become one with
her desiccated flesh, melded into the neck with its four pips and Starfleet
uniform. Torres stumbled back in horror, struck out at the smooth metal that
imprisoned her chest. The clamshell slid back into the biobed, releasing her.

Torres had woken up in Sickbay enough times to know instantly where she was.
The only difference was Seven's distinctive scent all over her body. The
Borg lay on the next biobed, a portable regenerator plugged into her spinal
implant. Staring at the sleeping ex-drone, Torres found herself wrestling
with an urge to curl up next to her.

"Activate Command/Medical Hologram," she whispered.

The Doctor materialised, a tuft of hair sticking up from the side of his
head. "Please state the__"

"Keep your voice down!" Torres hissed.

The Doctor looked around, saw only Seven asleep on the biobed. "She's
regenerating. She can't hear us." He picked up a medical probe and began to
run it over Torres' body.

Torres slapped his hand away. "Where are my clothes?"

Annoyed, the Doctor pointed silently at a closet. As Torres dressed he
resumed his scan. "Your serotonin levels appear to have returned to normal,
but I recommend a few more hours of observation to__"

Torres strode to the door, stopping abruptly when it refused to open.

"It's locked," said the Doctor.

"Computer, override security lock-out on Sickbay doors. Authorisation Torres
Gamma Ten."

"And the captain's removed your command access privileges."

Grabbing a laser scalpel, Torres popped open the door access panel.

"And there's a security officer outside the door, with orders to stun you if
you open it before 0600 hours tomorrow."

She turned and hurled the panel at the Doctor's head. The hologram winced as
it passed through him, shattering to pieces against the opposite wall.

Torres' energy seemed to be drained by her brief outburst of temper. She
slumped against the doors, sliding down until she was sitting on the floor.

"Stuck in here with Captain Photon and `Bonk Me' of Borg," she moaned. "What
have I done to deserve this?"

"I'm sorry our company offends you," said the Doctor in a miffed tone. "The
captain wants everyone fresh and alert for tomorrow's meeting of the Liaison
Daki, so I advise you get some slee__"

"How's Vorik?"

The Doctor was surprised at the question. "He's recovering. Some minor
injuries but he'll be__"

"What kind of injuries?"

"I can't discuss that."

"Was he in pain?"

"Well I'm sure he__"

"Was he in terrible, agonising pain with lots of gratuitous humiliation
thrown in for good measure?"

The Doctor sighed. "You will be pleased to know that he had a grueling
experience, and like all Vulcans will suffer horrible nightmares throughout
his life."

"Good." She frowned at the Doctor in the dim light of the monitors. "What's
wrong with your hair?"

"An addition I made to my program for when I'm activated in the middle of the
night shift," said the Doctor, beaming proudly. "It's called a `bedhead'. Do
you like it?"

"Oh Kahless," Torres moaned. "I'm in hell."

"Well it wouldn't be the first time," the Doctor quipped. "Get some sleep ...
please. Deactivate Command/Medical Hologram."

But Torres didn't move, sitting with her knees hugged to her chest, staring
at Seven of Nine.

Four years earlier, when she'd been assimilated as part of Janeway's
ill-fated plan to create a Borg resistance movement, there'd been a brief,
terrifying moment before the neural suppressant kicked in. Torres had felt
herself losing to the hive mind; shrunk in a millisecond to the size of a
photon falling into a black hole. Yet at that same moment her mind had
stretched to encompass tens of thousands of light years, she'd bathed in
the song of billions of voices, she'd understood the reasons for Seven's
pride and fear and loneliness and her desperate need to connect; and when
the suppressor had yanked Torres back to individuality she'd cried for the
first time since she'd been a child.

She had never wanted to experience anything like that again, ever. But once
more her personality had been ripped away, this time by the lust of the pon
farr. Drowning in someone else's katra. It was like being raped.

"Leave my soul alone," Torres whispered to the sleeping Borg.

* * *

Security Chief Ayala added another padd to the growing pile in front of
Chakotay. "Our local representative of the Menti Naka secret police has made
several attempts to subvert members of our crew, but he's not finding it
easy. His Under-Commander, on the other hand, is a little different. He was
quite interested in the, er, recreational possibilities of the holodeck. In
exchange I got a peek at this little item."

Chakotay stiffened in his chair. "These are Voyager's shield harmonics."

"For the past eighteen days. And we've been rotating them as a matter of
routine. Either the Menti Naka have got advanced scanning technology we don't
know about, or TeS-ket has been more successful than we thought."

"I can't believe they've managed to turn one of our crew! There must be
another explanation."

"There is," said Lieutenant Kim. "They could be tapping directly into our
computers. They've had months to smuggle the required programs on board and
work out how to infiltrate our systems."

"Need I remind you," said Commander Tuvok, "that our main processor is
protected by both Starfleet shieldware programs and special security
algorithms developed by Seven of Nine."

"There's currently half a dozen cryptologists specialising in Borg algorithms
on board this ship," Kim pointed out. "Not to mention quite a few cybertechs
with the skill to adapt nanoprobes for espionage purposes."

"One of the scientists is doing it?" exclaimed the Doctor. He'd changed his
appearance for the staff meeting, giving himself a red-shouldered command
uniform, bare of insignia. "They're the ones who invited us here in the first
place!"

"It is only logical to assume that the secret police have infiltrated the
peace faction," said Tuvok.

"Harry, I want a Level One diagnostic of Voyager's systems starting right
now," said Chakotay. "Ayala, I want TeS-ket off this ship; I don't care what
excuse you make up. I'm getting tired of his games."

"Tell him we think he's caught a Borg infiltration virus," said Kim, giving
his usual replicated smile as he got to his feet. "That'll give him a few
sleepless nights."

Tuvok remained in his seat while the others left. "Captain, there is a matter
of some importance I must discuss."

Chakotay was speed-reading his way through a padd. "Can it wait, Tuvok? The
meeting's in five minutes and I'm trying to assimilate as much as this as I
can."

The Vulcan shifted in his seat, an involuntary reaction so unusual that
Chakotay looked up in surprise. "Are you all right?"

"The matter can wait till after the meeting, Captain. I take it that is
Seven's away mission report?"

"Not quite. It's a digest of the information we retrieved from the sphere's
sensor nodes. Apparently those sensors have been active for the past
sixty-eight years, gathering data from across this entire system. Movements
of battle fleets, defensive grid analysis, decrypted messages between
governments. Information of immense tactical and propaganda value to any one
of the three species. Seven thought this was one item the Liaison Daki
shouldn't get hold of." Chakotay frowned as one particular item caught his
attention. "At least, not unless we want them to."

Tuvok's expression didn't change, but the reprimand in his voice was clear
enough. "You intend to use the information to buy concessions at the peace
conference."

"Or a little bit of persuasion. I'm sure the T'mani wouldn't want the Menti
Naka to find out who really developed those bioweapons." The item was a
decrypted message from the R'larri Cultural Defence Force, a list of T'mani
geneticists involved in a joint `biological harvesting project' twelve years
ago. One of the names, Chakotay noticed, was `Over-Scholar Polorta'.

Tuvok spoke deliberately and concisely, so there would be no
misunderstanding. "That could well constitute a breach of the Prime
Directive, and is definitely a violation of Starfleet morality."

"As if that's never happened on this ship. You know Tuvok, for someone who's
over a hundred years old you're awfully naive."

Tuvok stiffened. "I fail to see the logic in that answer. What does my
so-called `naivete' have to do with Starfleet's guiding protocol?"

"I've studied the history of Starfleet, the real history, not just the glossy
version they teach you at the Academy. You served with Captain Sulu. He ever
tell you about some of the stunts the great James Kirk got up to?"

"Captain Sulu did not share any confidences with me."

"Well I once shared confidences with a retired admiral by the name of Leonard
McCoy. He was Ship's Surgeon on board the Enterprise in Kirk's day. And you
wouldn't believe the times Kirk blatantly interfered in the culture of a
species he didn't approve of. He's a hero now of course, because his methods
worked and made the Alpha Quadrant safe for the Federation."

"You can always find a reason not to obey the Prime Directive," replied
Tuvok. "The ship, the safety of a crewmember, the arrogant assumption that
you know better than an alien species whose culture and motivations you can
only scratch the surface of. Perhaps your experience with the Maquis has
made you too cynical in this matter. I will be noting this conversation in
my next datastream report to Starfleet. You can make your decisions regarding
the data nodes accordingly, Captain."

The Vulcan rose and walked out, the doors hissing shut behind him.

Chakotay rubbed his eyes. It was moments like this that he missed someone he
could share a confidence with, someone like Kathryn. He had never established
the close rapport with Tuvok that ought to exist between captain and first
officer. He'd drifted apart from Torres and the other Maquis over the years,
due to the hierarchical nature of Voyager's command system. His brief liaison
with Seven of Nine hadn't come to anything. They'd both taken it as far as it
could go, then broken off by mutual agreement.

The captain pulled himself to his feet. Now for the meeting with the Liaison
Daki. He wasn't looking forward to it.

* * *

"There was the land, on which walked the T'mani, and the sky, through which
the R'larri flew, until we descended to the ground, taking up the tools with
which to shape the land. For thousands of years R'larri and T'mani shared the
planet in harmony. Then the Menti Naka came, their arkships burning the sky.
With the aid of treacherous members of our race, those content to serve as
their drones in exchange for whatever petty trappings of power they were
given, this gang of thieves, the derelict trash of a justly extinct planet,
conquered our peaceful world. Whole cities were ground into mountains of
rubble on which they raised idolatrous temples to the reeking corpses of
their ancestors. Our libraries and museums were burnt, so our history could
only be taught in secret. Our children were forbidden to speak the R'larri
language, forced instead to vomit out the guttural Menti Naka tongue. Our
males were torn from their positions of contentment and service, polluted
with alien ideas__"

"They are petty crawling things, Captain Chakotay, whose wings have long
since wilted. So useless the Borg did not even want them as drones." The Aux
clasped his hand over his throat in mockery. "Menti Naka can evolve into
Gods, whereas the R'larri worship whatever flies over their heads. So what
difference does it make if they bow down to us or their Great Roasted Bird?"

Ni-par-deski spat out an obscenity so obscure the universal translator could
not decipher it. "Eh-ytiII-trIhn! The Winged Falayarr of the Sun, you
corpse-worshipping excretion! Every day your foul-smelling queen rots in our
Falayarr's heat. When she has been turned to dust then so will your entire
parasitic race!"

The exo-linguist switched over, a tinny voice in Chakotay's ear comm. "I
think that was `Spirit Stealers' who devour the essence of the living,
leaving them like zombies. Probably another Borg myth."

"Ask this peace-loving race about the half a billion Menti Naka cut down by
their cowardly bioweapons__" The Aux broke off as the doors slid open and
Seven of Nine walked through, carrying a Borg transwarp coil.

"Defensive postures, all delegates," said the exo-linguist.

No matter how tense things were in the conference room, it never failed to
crank up a notch whenever Seven was present. Tuvok had argued against having
the former drone at the negotiations, but Chakotay knew it kept everyone
focused. Their hatred and fear of the Borg was the one thing all three
species had in common. Besides, she was a living reminder of Voyager's
successful resistance against the Collective. If that also made the delegates
somewhat nervous of Voyager, so much the better. There were some tricks of
negotiation they never taught you at Starfleet Academy.

Seven placed the ring-shaped drive unit on the table, then sat down opposite
Torres. She tried to catch her eye, but the Klingon avoided her gaze.

"As you should all know by now," said Chakotay, taking advantage of the
rare silence to put a word in edgeways, "our away team was able to salvage
numerous items of Borg technology from the derelict vessel at Teldar NiPi.
This is a component from the transwarp drive. We were also able to retrieve
several data nodes, autonomous regeneration sequencers, interlink processors
and the central core of a fully adaptive neural-energy matrix. A full list
is available from your inspection teams."

Chakotay paused to drink from the glass of water in front of him.

"We were quite lucky, as it turns out. A day later and there wouldn't have
been anything left to salvage. It appears that a rogue subspace inversion
mine detected the Borg sphere. Fortunately our long-range sensors picked up
the approaching object and our team was able to evacuate in time."

"How very fortunate," said the Aux dryly.

"You blew it up!" screeched Ni-par-deski. "You didn't want us getting our
hands on it!"

"The Aux seems amused rather than upset. Ni-par-deski isn't as angry as she's
making out either, she's probably glad the Borg vessel isn't around any
more."

Chakotay felt a twinge of annoyance. Crewman Chirac was supposed to assist
the universal translator and interpret alien body language, not extrapolate
from it. "Over-Leader, your own security people inspected the flyer before
and after the away mission. The warp core and armaments were removed as per
this committee's instructions. All artifacts recovered from the Borg sphere
have been cataloged by a team of scientists from all three species."

"But your crew beamed to Voyager before the flyer landed," said Desihret, the
T'mani internal security minister and actual (if not official) ruler of the
Planetur. "That is a violation of our agreement!"

"Lieutenant Commander Torres and Ensign Seven of Nine required emergency
medical treatment which, I should point out, would not have been necessary if
you had all given Voyager permission to pass through your space."

All nine delegates glared at him.

"Your scientists have proposed the establishment of an inter-species research
group to study the Borg threat," continued Chakotay. "These artifacts, plus
all the information and experience the Federation has gathered on the Borg
over the years, will give them a major head start."

Ni-par-deski jumped in then, as he knew she would. "And where will this
`research group' be located? Which region will have the honour of its
presence?" The R'larri politician looked ready to debate this issue for the
next decade, but Chakotay wasn't going to give her the chance.

"It doesn't have to be located in any one place. Our latest subspace
transmission and holographic imaging technology will allow instantaneous
communication and practical experimentation between your universities, even
those located in the outer system." He saw the look of surprise, quickly
masked, from Torres and Seven.

If Tuvok felt any shock at this blatant violation of Starfleet protocol, it
didn't show on his face. "What Over-Scholar Eem-hontu-sa and her colleagues
are suggesting is merely an extension of the co-operation that already exists
between your species. You trade with each other, your officials interact to
solve legal and law enforcement problems. You already have joint
agricultural, environmental and re-building programs. All necessary because
you share the same system."

"What we're talking about is forming a common alliance against an outside
threat," said Chakotay. "Not out of friendship, I realise that's too much to
expect at this time, but that same necessity. And while we're on the subject,
I also think it's a good time to start arranging joint defence exercises with
your battlefleets."

The suggestion created hoots of disbelief among the various military
Over-Commanders.

"We've already had such exercises," said Desihret. "They're called wars."

"Perhaps you will wait until the Collective arrives before deciding to
co-operate," Seven butted in. "Your disharmony will prove your undoing."

"Spoken like a true drone," scoffed the Aux. He placed a fist over his left
eye, an opposable thumb sticking out towards her.

"I'm not sure what that fist thing means, but I think it's supposed to be
pretty damn insulting," said Chirac. Chakotay flashed Seven a warning glance
which she ignored. "Your petty squabbles are irrelevant! The Borg will come.
You will be assimilated unless you form an adequate defence. Adapt to this
situation or you will cease to exist as a species."

There was a moment of shocked silence around the table, then the Daki
exploded with rage.

"Captain Chakotay, I insist this abomination be removed from our presence
immediately!" screeched Ni-par-deski. "I will not continue these discussions
otherwise!"

"We will not be insulted like this!" shouted Desihret, pounding the table
with his fists. "The Planetur reiterates once more its demand that this drone
be handed over to us for trial!"

"I second the motion," said the Aux, his mouth twisting into what Chirac
didn't have to tell Chakotay was a sneer. "Perhaps we will find common ground
after all."

"Supported!" said Ni-par-deski. "A joint trial by all three species will
unite them and achieve the result you seek, Captain Chakotay."

"Just try it, petaQ!" hissed Torres, with a venom that startled the others.

Chakotay's face was impassive, letting their outrage wash over him,
dissipating with nothing to hurl against.

"Ensign Seven of Nine, there's a group of R'larri and Menti Naka scientists
on Holodeck One trying to puzzle out that neural-energy matrix. Go help
them." A subtle reminder that there were some people staying focused on the
issues wouldn't hurt.

Seven left without another word.

Without thinking, Torres began to stand up to follow the Borg, only to be
restrained by Tuvok's gentle hand on her shoulder. She looked at him in
surprise. He was staring straight ahead, not meeting her eyes. Torres
realised what she'd been about to do; her face flushed red with anger.
Shaking off the Vulcan's hand, she pretended to be engrossed in her padd.

* * *

Tuvok exited the turbolift at Deck Nine, in time to witness Chakotay shoving
Seven up against the wall. "Pull another stunt like that again and I'll bust
you down to Borg drone! I can do without your superior attitude, both in the
conference room and outside it! What we do here could save the lives of
billions, do you understand that, Ensign?"

Seven's face was pale, but she didn't back down. "Perhaps it is you who is
arrogant. You overestimate our ability to influence these people__" She
stopped, noticing Tuvok.

Chakotay let go of her, embarrassed over his loss of control. The two stepped
apart, as if reluctant to be seen together in any fashion.

"We'll talk about this later," muttered Chakotay, turning and walking away.
Seven watched him go, her mouth tight, then made for the turbolift.

Tuvok waited until the turbolift doors had closed before pressing the entry
chime.

"I said go away!"

"It is Commander Tuvok. We need to talk."

There was no immediate response. Tuvok was debating whether to use his
command access codes when the doors slid open, revealing Torres dressed in a
blue nightgown. Her eyes were red-rimmed through lack of sleep. She checked
the corridor, then grunted, "Come in."

Torres' quarters were dark, the only light coming from the meditation lamp
he'd given her two years previously. "Where is Miral?"

"I asked Samantha to look after her for a few more days. I'm not exactly
myself at the moment." She inclined her head towards the door. "Guess I'm not
the only one. I can't remember the last time I heard Chakotay losing his
temper. That Borg's got a way of pissing everybody off."

"I had some bad news for the captain earlier," said Tuvok, without
elaboration.

Torres picked up the Vulcan lamp and stared into its flame.

"What the hell is he playing at, Tuvok? Being asked by a peace faction to
provide neutral ground for arms reduction talks is one thing. Now Chakotay
seems to want to forge his own United Federation of Planets. Starfleet
Command hasn't authorised this technology transfer, have they?"

"Need I remind you, the captain has the authority under General Orders to
interpret the Prime Directive according to his own circumstances. It is not
the first time we have chosen to share our technology."

"Like that fiasco with the Hirogen?" She looked up at him, cast shadows
turning her forehead ridges into disapproving furrows. "What do you want,
Tuvok? I'm not in the mood for more counseling."

"How do you feel?"

"Well I don't know," said Torres. "Let's see ... I made a complete mess of
the away mission, nearly killed me and Seven. For the rest of my life I'll
have this incredible urge to fuck myself to death every seven years. And
I've given our resident hedonist a blueprint into all my sexual fantasies.
I mean hell, I did everything with her. Didn't hold back." Torres' hands
tightened around the lamp; the Vulcan heard a distinct crack as the ceramic
broke. "You know, Tom was reluctant to take advantage of me in that state,
even though he had a hard-on fit to bust his pants. But that Borg, I'm just
another notch on her alcove."

"I believe she was trying to save your life."

"Targshit! I'm going to kill Vorik for this!"

Tuvok said nothing.

Furious over his lack of response, Torres shoved the meditation lamp at him.
"Here, you can take this! I've had enough of Vulcans playing around with my
head."

"Lieutenant Vorik is dead."

In the lamplight she could only see half his face and a single pupil, dark
with emotions he would never express.

"But ... the Doctor said he was alright!"

"A false recovery, similar to the one he experienced seven years ago.
Earlier today Vorik relapsed into the blood fever. I attempted to ... guide
his condition but my mental abilities are not as they once were. The
responsibility is mine."

The lamp dropped to the ground and shattered, plunging them into darkness.

Tuvok made his way to the light panel, his martial arts training enabling him
to move with confidence in the dark. He adjusted it to half-power, turned to
see Torres sitting on the bed, her face buried in her hands.

"You should not blame yourself, Commander. Vorik would have been the first to
tell you that. He had the greatest respect for you."

"I know," she choked out. "A few months ago he ... he knew his time was
coming and he asked me ... it brought back all those memories, of Tom and
Sikari IV. I was furious with him." Torres pulled her hands away, clenching
them into fists. "But that's a lie. The truth was I didn't want to risk
becoming close to someone again. I'd heard the joining is so . . intense."

"It is," said Tuvok, so quietly that Torres wasn't sure if she'd imagined it.

"So that's another one of us gone." The Klingon gave a bitter laugh. "Vorik,
Tom, Joe Carey, Bendera, Durst, Hogan, Seska, Jetal, Kaplan, on and on and
on. One long line of corpses spread over forty thousand light years. Pointing
our way to the Alpha Quadrant." She rose to her feet, made a beeline for the
replicator. "Synthahol. No forget that ... blood wine. Let's toast our dead
comrades."

"You need to be sober. There is another important matter we must discuss."

Torres picked up the jug of blood wine, took a swig, grimaced in disgust and
tipped it into the recycling chute.

"Three years ago I was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition."

"I don't want to hear it, Tuvok. Not now!"

Tuvok continued as if she hadn't spoken. "There is no cure, at least none
available in the Delta Quadrant. This morning I informed Captain Chakotay
that I no longer felt able to continue as his first officer. You are the
logical candidate to fill the position."

"Are you crazy?!" Torres blurted. She squeezed her eyes shut, realising what
she'd just said. "Oh shit, I'm sorry."

"Apologies are not necessary."

"So that's why you didn't take the captain's seat when Admiral Paris ordered
you to."

Tuvok raised an eyebrow.

"Come on Tuvok, you can't keep something like that a secret."

"My taking command would have created a rift between the Maquis and Starfleet
personnel. Chakotay's appointment was only logical. But you are correct in
that my future deterioration was a factor."

"And now you want TWO ex-Maquis running the ship? Starfleet's never going to
accept that! They've already refused to share the latest weapons technology
from the Dominion War."

"There were security issues involved with sending that information thousands
of light years into unknown space."

"Yeah right. Look Tuvok, I've got enough problems being a mother to Miral,
let alone this crew. I'm about as suited to be first officer as Seven is to
be a bloody counselor."

"You are the captain's friend, yet independent enough to speak your mind, and
the daughter-in-law of Admiral Paris. I suspect you will make a better first
officer than your predecessors." The Vulcan turned to leave.

"Haven't you been reading those reports from Chapman?" said Torres angrily.
"In a few years it won't make any difference. There won't be a ship for us to
command - Voyager's falling apart!"

Tuvok paused at the door. "Like everyone else you insist on confusing the
issue. Voyager is merely the means to an end. We will continue our journey in
another vessel."

"Like what, a Borg sphere?!" Torres shouted.

But Tuvok had already left.

* * *

"Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,"
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd
had nowhere else to go - till the antique
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur and slow, " .. leave .. my .. soul .. alone .. "
to cease at last when something other died.
And silence matched the silence under snow.

There was silence among the group. Eem-hontu-sa covered her throat, then
tried to conceal the superstitious gesture by massaging her neck muscles.
Like the rest of them she was sitting on a piece from the replicated Culde
set. The huge multi-coloured cubes were scattered throughout the messhall.
RiN-sep had tried to organise a game, but it had died out due to lack of
enthusiasm.

"I was only connected to the hive mind for a few hours," stated Tuvok. "But
the stanza is appropriate. It was written by Dannie Abse, a poet in Earth's
early twentieth century."

"It appears our beliefs are not that separate after all," said RiN-sep. "Do
you remember anything about your assimilation, Under-Commander Torres?"

"No," Torres lied. She poked at her food, unable to muster the appetite for
one of Chell's concoctions. She'd been having problems sleeping for the past
few days, tired all the time. Over the years Voyager had become permanently
short-staffed; double-shifts were now a matter of routine. The Doctor had
proposed transmitting some Mark One EMHs from the Alpha Quadrant to make up
their losses. Torres had a mental image of Jeffries tubes full of bald-headed
Doctors, all arguing the merits of Verdi and Berlioz as they scrubbed the
warp plasma conduits.

Their mission to the derelict Borg sphere had been postponed yet again while
Chakotay dealt with the R'larri delegation walking out of the conference.
Seven of Nine was putting the extra time to good use, sitting in the corner
in earnest conversation with Will Chapman. Compliments, smiles, non-verbal
enticements, jokes about their ill-fated first date - no doubt all
pre-rehearsed on the holodeck and timed for effect. Torres watched their
interaction with distaste. Even Tom in the early years hadn't been that
cold-blooded about acquiring a sexual partner.

"To deliberately allow oneself to be assimilated," said Eem-hontu-sa,
shuddering. "You risk losing the soul."

"Oh for TiH-nan's sake," scoffed RiN-sep. "You don't believe in that
superstitious beak-clacking? We're supposed to be scientists."

"She's right though," said Kim. "Losing an arm is nothing. The Doc can fix
you up with another one. Hell, he even wants to fix me up with a whole new
body! As a good Starfleet puppy-dog I had to refuse. But my soul, I lost
my soul to the Borg Queen. And I don't mean that bitch with half a body
either." His dark eyes turned towards Torres, confirming her suspicions.
Kim's pupils had shrunk noticeably. "I mean Captain Kathryn
Jane-`We'll-Do-Things-The-Starfleet-Way' of Borg."

"Harry, when did you have your last shot?"

"Piss off! Why don't you tell them the truth about our noble captain,
B'Elanna? There was a time when only hot black coffee used to flow through
her veins. Not any more."

"Lieutenant Kim. Perhaps you should return to your quarters," said Tuvok. A
vein had started pulsating at the Vulcan's temple.

"Was that an emotional response, Tuvok? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to commit
blasphemy." Kim leapt up, grabbed his seat and slammed it down on the table,
scattering plates and cutlery. Everyone jumped to their feet, cursing.

"Polorta, what's this?" asked Kim, ignoring the tirade of abuse.

"It's a Culde-nan," answered Polorta, trying to locate his glass under the
enormous game piece.

"Wrong. It's a Borg cube. Children on Earth, they used to sing this nursery
rhyme. Ring-a-ring-a-roses, a pocket full of posies. Attischu! Attischu! We
all FALL DOWN! What's that from, does anyone know?" He leaned close over
Torres. "I'll tell you. A plague that wiped out a third of Europe in our
fourteenth century. The Black DEATH!"

"Harry, get out of my face before I break yours!"

"Can we change the subject please?" asked Eem-hontu-sa plaintively.

"No. So why do the Menti Naka, a race driven from their planet by the Borg
five hundred years ago, happen to play a game involving great big cubes, hmm?
Bad taste, perhaps?"

"You should know about that, Lieutenant Kim." None of them had seen Seven
approach. "I will escort you to Sickbay. You appear to have exceeded your
daily prescription of kelotane."

"There's no need, Ensign. I'm sure you've got more important things to do,
like polishing Janeway's coffin."

"Your efforts to incite an emotional response from me are futile."

"Yes, but that's `cause you're cheating." Kim's finger tapped against the
side of Seven's head; she pushed it away. "Do you have a daily prescription,
or do you just switch it on whenever you have the urge?"

"Harry, settle down and have another drink," urged Polorta. "Tell us the
story of the Doctor and his Photonic Cannon."

"Harry, stop acting like a petaQ and go with Seven!"

"Why the hell are you taking HER side, B'Elanna? Tom died because of this
stuck-up drone! We were always risking our lives for HER, because Janeway
was secretly in love with this Borg bitch. But I notice she was quick to
jump into Chakotay's bed when he became captain."

There was dead silence in the messhall; everyone had stopped talking. For a
brief moment Seven's face went completely white, before her ice-cold mask
slammed into place.

Tuvok got to his feet. "Lieutenant Kim__"

"It's alright Tuvok," Torres stood up quickly. "I'll handle this." She
gripped Kim by the shoulders, saying, "Harry, we've been friends for years,
so please take this in the spirit it's offered," and promptly rammed her
forehead into his face.

The next day Seven had come to visit them in the brig. Torres and Kim were
sitting on the floor of the cell, playing Culde with sugar cubes.

"I'm sorry," Kim muttered, unable to meet her eyes.

The Borg gave him a cold look, presented a single rose of dark pink to
Torres, and then walked out without saying a word.

"Seven's champion," mused Kim, as he assimilated a Culde-nan by eating it.
"I think she's got you in mind for her next conquest. You better be careful,
the two of you alone on the Tom Paris together."

Torres snorted. "In her dreams. You know Harry, I couldn't help noticing.
With all those ridge-shaped lumpy bruises on your forehead you look very ...
Klingon."

* * *

Icheb was regenerating.

He stood in his alcove, unconscious of her presence. Seven could only stare
at the Borg teenager, haunted by the memory of those innumerable skeletons
on the Borg sphere, of the demonic statues surrounding the Menti Naka queen.
And now on Voyager, this row of alcoves used by herself and her surrogate
son, a mindless honour guard for their own dead leader.

She lay as if in state, the alcoves throwing green flickers onto the surface
of her stasis tube. Biomedical nodes clung like robotic parasites, ever
vigilant, ready to alert the Doctor immediately of any change in the
condition of Kathryn Janeway, former captain of the USS Voyager.

Seven of course knew, as only a few of the senior officers did, that it was
actually Borg technology that was keeping Janeway alive. Her body swarmed
with millions of nanoprobes, repairing necrosing tissue, stimulating brain
functions, trying to hold back the effects of time. It was an exercise in
futility. She knew it, as did Commander Tuvok. They realised that Chakotay's
hope of encountering some miraculous alien technology that would revive her
was a ridiculous fantasy. Yet they always put off confronting the captain
about shutting down the stasis tube. In the end, they'd been forced to admit,
a Vulcan and a Borg could be as irrational and emotionally driven as any
human.

Seven took a cloth and carefully wiped down the transparent aluminum canopy,
removing prints left by Voyager crewmembers pressing their hands against it.
With her facial muscles relaxed Janeway seemed much older, skin sagging
against the cheekbones. There was none of that strength which had supported
the Borg in her first difficult years on Voyager, the smiles or scowls that
had created such deep joy, anger, or contrition. There was a time when Seven
imagined she could see her auburn hair stirring, but she no longer indulged
in such foolish notions.

A tear shattered on the canopy, flowing in tiny rivulets until it was
mechanically wiped up by her hand.

"I love you, Kathryn Janeway."

Seven heard the doors slide open behind her. She quickly wiped her eyes
before turning round. "I thought I might find you here."

"There was a time when you didn't require the captain's assistance to tell me
to `get lost', B'Elanna."

Torres looked down at Janeway's dormant figure, placed her hand on the stasis
tube. When she removed it there was a lone pink carnation lying on the
surface.

"It's probably just as well she's gone," said Torres. "Can you imagine this
ship ruled by Janeway for the next seventy-odd years? I can just see our
children launching a mutiny. Hell, Miral's always practising on me."

"I heard about Vorik."

"Yeah well ... I guess I owe you."

"You're welcome," replied Seven in a neutral tone.

Torres' head snapped up. "What do you want, an Oath of Union?!"

"That is up to you. I only know that after what happened we have three
options. One, go back to disliking each other, as when we first met. Going
over the same petty arguments, the same guilt, like those fools on the
Liaison Daki. Two, accept what happened and continue as friends ..."

"Or Three," said Torres dryly. "Become pon farr buddies. Mates for life."

"We must adapt to our circumstances," said the Borg. "Perhaps you think you
can avoid pain by not forming another relationship. You will fail."

"Piss off Seven! You and that fucking inhibitor, what would you know?"

"I spoke to the Doctor yesterday. I am going to have the cortical inhibitor
removed."

Torres was speechless for a moment, then said bluntly, "That could kill you."

"Do you think we're alive as we are now?"

"What?" The comment annoyed Torres. It sounded like some of that metaphysical
garbage Chakotay was always pushing.

Seven placed both hands on the stasis tube. "Everything changed when our
captain was taken from us. We have all just been going through the motions.
Alive, yet dead, like Captain Janeway here. Or Lieutenant Kim. Or the Borg
Collective." Her blue-grey eyes drilled into the Klingon. "But I refuse to
be a drone any more."

"Is that why Chakotay's willing to go so far to help those idiots? He's
trying to give the crew a sense of purpose."

"Yes. He knows we must move on from this."

There was a long pause.

"I don't know, Seven. Right now, all I want to do is take you back to my
quarters ... and sleep for a week."

"And when we wake up we shall make love. But more gently this time."

"Well that's a relief. I doubt I can muster that performance again. Well, not
for another seven years at any rate."

Seven stepped over to her alcove and detached the portable regenerator.
Slinging it over her shoulder, the Borg reached out to her friend.

"B'Elanna, take my hand."

"Gladly."

THE END

    

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